Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen (1723-1811)

Rabbi Yishma'el haCohen was born in the city of Modena, Italy, in 1723. He was considered the most important rabbi (poseq) of his generation in Italy.  He was also a very beloved rabbi by all his congregants. Despite his great intellect, he used to speak to his congregants in a simple language and at their level of understanding.
Rabbi Yishma'el served as the rabbi of Modena for more than 30 years, but practically speaking he was the main rabbinic referent  of Italy during his lifetime. He wrote thousands of Teshubot (Rabbinic Responsa) answering to Halakhic questions sent by Italian Jews from all the corners of the country.   He was highly praised by all his contemporary colleagues, among them the famous rabbi Hayim Yosef David Azulai, the Hida.
The times of rabbi Yishma'el, were the times of the first reformers in Europe.  Many "enlightened" Jews were proposing radical changes in Judaism, to reform the Tora to modern times and remove from Judaism its national dimension. Rabbi Yishma'el stood at the vanguard on the battle against reform, safeguarding traditional Judaism against the new waves of assimilation.
He wrote many religious poems (pizmonim, baqashot), some of them were sung every shabbat in his Synagogue. 

He also wrote:
Sefat emet: a collection of his speeches on the Parasha of the week.
Shebah Pesah. A book that explains the Hagada of Pesah and the laws of the holiday.
His most famous book is zera' emet.  This is a collection of hundreds of Responsa on many different Halakhic subjects. It is also very important because it is one of the first books to address questions that arose in modern times which required a respected  Halakhic authority to set new legal precedents. 
The name of the book, zera' emet ("True descendants") requires some explanation. Rabbi Yishma'el did not have children. And although, as he mentioned in his book, he loved and care for every one of his students as if they were his own children, he considered this book his true legacy for posterity.  In the introduction of zera' emet he quotes the beautiful analogy our Rabbis wrote to express the "immortality" acquired by a Torah Scholar who writes a relevant book. They said that when the readers read the words of a Torah scholar who passed away, "his lips move in his grave", (siftotav dobebot baqaber), in other words, the act of reading revives the words of the Torah scholar, bringing  his legacy and memory back to life.
Rabbi Yishma'el passed away in Modena, 1811

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Elokai Netsor, praying for our good behavior

אלקי, נצור לשוני מרע
As we explained last week, the 'amida technically ends with the nineteenth and last blessing: sim shalom (see our explanation of
sim shalom here). But before we finish the 'amida we recite the "Elo-hay, netsor..."
This prayer is different from every other prayer.  First, because while every berakha in the 'amida is written plural, "Elo-hay, netsor..." is written in the first person of the singular. This is because "Elo-hay, netsor..." was not part of the original 'amida but, as the Gemara explains, it was a "personal" prayer composed by Mor bareh deRabina (approx. 500 ACE), which ever since, has been adopted by all the Jewish people to end the 'amida.
Then, the content of this berakha is also very particular.  In this prayer Mor bareh deRabina asked: "HaShem, save my tongue from evil, and my lips from falsehood". Knowing how challenging is keeping our mouth under control, Mor bar Rabina asked for God's assistance to prevent him from speaking evil (leshon hara) and deception. Negative words, gossip, lies, curses, are considered by the rabbis the main source of most conflicts between man and man.
Next, this beautiful prayer says: "May I behave with humbleness and patience" and "May I keep my composure and calm". Now, we are asking haShem's help for something very special. How to react in moments of tension. For example, when someone offends or aggravates me, on the personal, social realm we are supposed to act with restraint, humbleness and patience (this principle does not apply in a political realm, or when someone hurts me physically, etc.), which is not very easy.... So we ask HaShem for His help to grant us patience. 
Do you why this prayer is so unique?
In the 'amida, we ask God to grant us the things we need: wisdom, health, livelihood, etc. In this prayer, however, we request something completely different. We ask God's help to refining our character and improving our behavior. We request God to help us and inspire us to do good, and to assist us, preventing us from doing evil.
Our behavior (saying or not saying leshon hara',  reacting or not reacting angrily in moments of tension, etc.) depends on us. We are endowed with freedom of choice to make moral choices. When saying this prayer, therefore, we must remember, that we are not asking God to control our lives and take charge of our actions and decisions. That is our responsibility! We ask for His help and His inspiration, to reach the best of our potential and behave with utmost integrity.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Balaq, Bil'am and the mind of the donkey

This week's Parasha is really unusual. We are not watching the same movie as last week: the happenings of the Jewish people in the dessert. The Tora's camera is now focusing elsewhere. Specifically, behind enemy lines. We are privy to look into the dialogues, plans and doings of those who wish to destroy us.  How do they prepare themselves to confront Israel? Three chapters of the Tora are dedicated to grant us a detailed look into the enemy's perspective. A a unique case in the whole Torah.

Although this Parasah is named after the King of Mo-ab, Balaq, the main protagonist of this Parasha is a very mysterious individual named Bil'am (Balaam).  Who is Bil'am? According to our rabbis Bil'am was granted nebu-a, i.e., God talked to him, as He did to Moshe Rabbenu. But we should not think that Bil'am was similar in any way to Moshe.

The fact that God talked to Moshe made him realize how small and limited he was. He had questions, many questions, about God's justice, for example, the fact that the righteous suffers, etc.  But after his "encounter" with God, all his questions disappeared. Not because now he understood these matters, but because the Presence of God allowed him to realize his human condition and his insuperable limitations. Now he understand why he does not (and cannot) understand. Why grasp God's motives is beyond a human's capacities.  This is why, after experiencing the revelation of God Moshe became more humble, the most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Bil'am, on the other hand, was also privy to a close encounter with God.  The same overwhelming epiphany experienced by Moshe Rabbenu. But Bil'am's reaction was exactly the opposite of Moshe's. Bil'am thought that since God had spoken to him, he must be a very special and unique individual.  The most important man on the face of the planet.   

Bil'am is the most arrogant character of the Hebrew Bible. He refers to himself in the third person (only Pharaoh did the same), he claims that he is God's spokesman (not even Pharaoh claimed this) because God speaks thru his mouth. He claimed to have the power to kill a whole nation, Israel, with his curse. And at one point he pronounces the most arrogant statement ever written in the Tora, yode'a da'at 'elion, "[I'm Bil'am], the one who knows the mind of the Almighty" . The same spiritual experience, God's revelation, affected Bil'am and Moshe Rabbenu in two completely, opposite ways.

As to Bil'am outrageous claims abut his "supernatural" abilities, our Rabbis pointed out to the episode of Bil'am with his donkey. When Bil'am was traveling to encounter Balaq, his donkey saw an angel and suddenly stopped.  Bil'am punished the donkey and threatened to kill him with his sword. God opened the mouth of the donkey and rebuked Bil'am back.

Our rabbis explained:

Bil'am proud himself that God spoke thru his mouth. Here, Bil'am sees that even a donkey, which was never considered a very intelligent animals, could also speak if only HaShem so wants.

Bil'am asserted that he could eliminate the whole nation of Israel with his magic curses, but to kill his donkey, he need to resort to the sword? 

Finally, Bil'am claimed that he understands the Mind of God, however, he failed to understand the mind of his donkey.