Letters Oct. 2020
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: The argument of Catholicism is that the Church precedes—both chronologically and in precedence—the New Testament, and constitutes a living tradition going back to the Apostles of Jesus, eyewitnesses of his life, ministry, death and Resurrection, and whom themselves were inspired by the Holy Spirit. I am not saying this is what I believe. But the point is that Catholicism rejects the Sola Sciptura approach of Protestantism, and its conception is of a divinely instituted, living tradition, guarantor of the truth of the Gospel accounts, of the correct interpretation of all the Scriptures, complete fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, and Divinely guided and protected from doctrinal error. As much as Israel sees itself as a Living Tradition and People, the Church does too. Both accuse the other of doctoring scriptural texts and adopting polemical positions for historical reasons. Both seem self-authenticating to those looking from a distance. I am totally lost and confused now. Quoting Bible verses doesn't impress me, as anyone can put a spin on anything. Liberals question the historicity of not only Gospels but the Torah. How does one evaluate competing historical claims?
Rabbi: Truth/history is validated only with mass witnesses, which exists only at Revelation at Sinai. Jews—by tribe, family and numbers—were transmitted unanimously and identically by all Jews. Those Jews exiting Egypt arrived at Sinai and witnessed revelation, they totaled 2 million Jews (Num. 1:46 numbers males over 20 years of age at 603,550. Add males younger than 20 plus all females to arrive at 2 million who witnessed Revelation at Sinai). But no masses witnessed Jesus’ miracles or the divine claims made about him. We accept Caesar existed for this reason but reject Jesus’ resurrection or miracles. We accept the 10 Egyptian Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea but reject divine claims surrounding Mohammed. The date of the claim is also irrelevant; earlier-claimed events don’t make them more real, nor do written documentations of such claims. Many are duped by books, thinking what’s in books must be truth.
Reader: An explanation (Hebrew) is needed of Rashi on Parsha Noach 7:7: “Noach only entered the ark due to being pushed inside by the force of the waters” (“mipnei mei haMabul”). Most people would read this Rashi as follows: “Even Noach had a low level of faith in God; he doubted the flood would come” (he entered the ark not due to God’s promise of the Flood, but only to save himself from drowning). How can Rashi be saying that Noah was a man of low faith? We know that he was a tzaddik, and he spent 120 years building the Ark!
Rabbi: Rabbi Israel Chait addressed this question this week: “The Rabbis dispute: One Rabbi said, ‘Had Noach lived in Abraham's generation, he would have been even greater.’ (He was influenced externally, not internally. The latter indicating true independent perfection) The other Rabbi said, ‘Had Noach lived in Abraham’s generation, he would be considered as nothing.’ But both views agree Noach was not on a level like Abraham. Thus, Rashi suggesting that he was of little faith is commensurate with his lower level.”
Purpose of Mitzvah
Reader: Rambam writes that his sefer Ahavah includes the mitzvot that are constant which cultivate love of God. Yet he also writes that love is based on knowledge (presumably of other mitzvot as well). So how do those mitzvot (in sefer Ahavah) cultivate love of God more than others?
Rabbi: Performance is not the essence of any mitzvah. Rather, the purpose of mitzvah is the “understanding” of their philosophy, how they perfect us, and in the appreciation of their beautiful halachic structures as Talmud highlights. Meaning, we benefit only when our primary faculty of our soul benefits, and a soul exists only in the world of wisdom, of intellect. Thus, a mitzvah benefits man when he understands the mitzvah.
Sefer Ahava contains these mitzvahs: Shema, Prayer, Priestly Blessings, Tefillin, Mezuzah, the Torah Scroll, Tzitzis , Blessings and Circumcision.
The first 6 focus on the very concepts, they are texts: Shema Prayer, Priestly Blessing, Tefillin, Mezuzah and the Torah Scroll. Tzitzis reminds one of all the 613, a focus on the mitzvos as a whole system. With Blessings, one addresses God before each mitzvah to recall the Creator regularly, as we recite blessings throughout the day. And with Circumcision one subdues instinctual drives to be free to love God.
All these mitzvahs generate a love of God more than other mitzvahs, since one focusses on either texts, the Torah system, God, or he subdues his passions to enable all the above.
But waving the lulav, returning a lost item, not speaking lashon hara, etc. have a focus on something other than God. They target a proper aim, but do not love of God per se. So, all mitzvahs do offer wisdom that increase our love of God. But not all mitzvahs have “love of God” as their primary objective. Some mitzvahs targets a harmonious society, our emotions, or the joy of a holiday.
Reader: What does the torah say about overcoming fears? I have some anxiety in my life at the moment, a relationship has come to an end and I’ve started a new job in construction where I've discovered I have a bit of a fear of heights and I need to push past it. I was wondering if anyone knows some wisdom that could help me? Thank you so much.
Rabbi: Living properly, one should, be confident in God’s unlimited abilities to help in literally any situation. Of course this is predicated upon one having the correct idea of God, so one prays to the “real” God, and not a fantasy (fantasies cannot answer our prayers). Torah offers real examples of people like Jacob, David, Moses and others whom God helped when in dire need. These examples should instill in you trust in God. Desperation or fear disable our proper functioning; we must be on guard not to cave to them. So, learn who God is according to Torah, focus on God’s abilities, and this should mitigate your fears to the point that you can take intelligent steps to plan ahead.
Thoughts of Sin
Reader: I always love your emphasis on Judaism being the only true religion revealed by God: it is the absolute truth. If only all peoples would recognize this. My question: Is the thought or memory of past sin wrong? Since memories right or wrong [sinful] cannot be erased, is it against the torah to remember the past sin in a positive way but not repeat that sin? An incident between me and my friend who is a a Christian, even though he stopped eating pork, and never eats it now nor does have the desire to do so due to the biblical prohibition, always argues with me that its taste was very good and he cannot erase its taste from his mind. To which I replied: “Thoughts could lead to sinning or eating swines flesh again,” he said that would never happen. But his question to me was if speaking fondly about the taste of pork or the memory of eating pork is wrong or not according to Judaism as long as one does not repeat the sin? Thank you.
Rabbi: Rashi on Leviticus 20:26 addresses your question below:
AND I HAVE SEPARATED YOU FROM THE PEOPLES THAT YOU SHOULD BE MINE — If you hold yourselves apart from them then you will be Mine, but if not, you belong to (become subject to) Nebuchadnezzar and others like him. Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah said, “Whence do we know that one should not say, "My soul loathes swine’s flesh”, or, “I have no desire to wear clothes which are a mixture of wool and linen”, but one should say, "I would, indeed, like them, but what can I do since my Father in heaven has imposed these decrees upon me”? Because Scripture states: “I have separated you from the peoples to be for Me", which your separation from them (from their doings) should be for My sake — that one should keep aloof from sin and take upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven (Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 12 23).
The principle is not to deny what is true, and if pork is delicious to someone, denying it is a violation of reality. Judaism embraces reality, as God designed it this way for good reason. So one should admit to his desire, but follow the command in action. The thought is not sinful, as one cannot change what naturally smells pleasant. Thought of sin is not rendered as a sin. Kiddushin 39b: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not render a bad thought as an action." However, if one has thoughts of murder and slander, here the thought indicates a distortion in one’s values, and although not a sin, such thoughts should not be tolerated. Unlike enjoying pork which isn’t under our control, values can and must be corrected. One must explore his values and emotions, and perfect himself, removing himself from the ego and competitive drives that generate such aggressive thoughts.
Seeking Money to Learn Torah
Reader: Can one get paid to learn in Kollel according to Rambam?
Rabbi: On Pirkei Avos 4:5 Rambam opposes taking money to support one's learning. Rabbi Israel Chait elucidated this in his lectures on Pirkei Avos (www.mesora.org/avos1.pdf pg 153). Rabbi Chait wrote:
A profession is performed for ulterior movies, whereas Torah cannot be engaged for any other purpose. The great sages considered it a travesty to engage Torah for financial means and not for the sake of study itself. And when Torah is studied without compensation, it creates a sanctification of God; there is no ulterior motive in this case. Despite their abject poverty, many sages engaged their lives in Torah study. Maimonides teaches that profanation of God’s name operates on both the societal and the individual level. The societal level includes two forms: 1. It creates the impression that there can exist a Torah benefactor, and 2. It gives the idea that Torah is a “profession” where one can earn money like other professions. On the individual level, the story of Rabbi Tarfon depicts how he forfeited the appreciation of Torah purely for itself [he used his Torah reputation to save his life]. Rabbi Tarfon benefitted from his fame as a scholar. This plagued him all his remaining years. Rav Yonasan teaches how careful he was not to render Torah into a commodity [he didn’t use his Torah reputation to gain necessary food]. Although Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was within his rights to make his offer [to finance Torah scholars], Rav Yonasan refused to use his status as a Torah scholar to earn anything. This would have destroyed him. King Solomon wrote, “Better is he that is of lowly status and works as a servant than he who acts too important [to work] and lacks bread” (Prov. 12:9). There is a certain type of ego that expresses itself in the inability to work: “It’s too low a job for me.” Maimonides’ point in relating these stories teaches that the rabbis never felt work was degrading. These rabbis were authors of our Oral Law, yet they accepted menial labor that others would look down upon.
I will add that Yissachar and Zevulun had this arrangement: Zevulun worked and provided for Yissachar who sat and learned. One should not seek compensation but should work, as Rambam discusses. But one Rabbi ruled that one can seek support for his basic needs so he can learn and teach.
Where are Souls Prior to Life?
Reader: Are all human beings SPIRITS before they were born? What does the Bible teach?
Rabbi: I don’t know of a verse in the Bible where God talks about a soul before it is in man. The Bible says, “God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). God created souls from nothingness, just as He created the universe from nothingness. Nothing demands us to say that a soul was “with God” prior to the soul being in man.