Project Genesis

Debts, Shemitah, and Jubilee

Question: What does it mean exactly that the debts and land are given back after 49 years ?

Answer: Debts are actually canceled every seven years, at the end of the Sabbatical year (“shemitah“)—see Deuteronomy 15:2. At that time, the Jewish court will no longer force the borrower to pay back the debt; yet, he still has a moral obligation to pay when he can. If the lender has already tried to collect the debt, by turning the debt over to the Jewish court for collection before that time (“prosbul“), he is also allowed to collect it afterwards.

Every 50th year is the Jubilee (“yovel“). At that time, everyone’s ancestral lands that had been sold go back to the original owners (as per Leviticus 25:10). Of course, anyone buying land knew about this. In truth, they were actually leasing the land until the Jubilee, rather than really buying it.

The result was that a family had a guarantee of a permanent place in the land of Israel; even economic disaster could only be temporary.

These days, we don’t have knowledge of which land is whose ancestral lands; we wouldn’t know to whom to return it. In any event, this law is not in effect until most of Israel lives in its land again.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Extent of Honoring a Parent

Filed under: Parenting

Question: Rabbi, I need your help. I am 18 years of age and my parents are divorced. My father constantly abuses me verbally by telling me that I’m a bad son, I’ll go to hell, and be unsuccessful in life. Nevertheless, I always respect him. Currently, I am living with my mother and that bothers him even more. Things are so bad that I suffer from clinical depression due to the situation. Should I still see him, even though he attacks me so cruelly? What course of action should I take?

Answer: As great as the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents is, a person is not required to expose himself to intense suffering for them, and surely not to the serious risk of illness (mental or physical).

Maimonides (Mishnah Torah, Laws of Mamrim, chapter 6, paragraph 10) states: “Someone whose father or mother has gone mad should [nevertheless] strive to deal with them according to their wishes until [God sees fit to] bestow mercy upon them. If [however] it’s impossible for him to remain because of their extreme condition, leave them and go away, appointing others to take care of them [i.e., ensuring that their financial needs are met].

Maimonides also writes (ibid paragraph 7): “And how great is the requirement to fear [one’s parents]? Even if one is wearing fine garments and sitting [in honor] at the head of a community gathering, and his father or mother comes and tears his clothes and hits him on the head and spits into his face, do not embarrass them, but rather remain silent and feel the proper fear of the King of kings Who commanded you thus.

It seems clear to me that one must silently endure such treatment only if it unavoidably and unexpectedly “follows” a person, but that one needn’t consciously put oneself into such a situation. (more…)

Relating to G-d by Relating to Man

Question: I have a question regarding the concept of unconditional love. For example, how can it be that Hashem (G-d) really loves the righteous and the wicked the same? Or is it that Hashem loves the righteous more and unconditional love means the concept of Hashem waiting for us to improve our ways (do Teshuva) equally. And what about the wicked person that never changes? 

Answer: Hi! Thank you for your really interesting question. Many years ago I heard a wonderful principle from Rabbi Chaim Mintz shlit”a, the Mashgiach (spiritual guidance counselor) at the Yeshiva of Staten Island. He said the following idea: The most important thing in our lives is our relationship with G-d. But G-d is non-physical, and not at all visible to our senses, so it’s very hard for us to grasp that relationship or value it properly. Therefore, G-d in his wisdom gave us many types of relationships between human beings, things we can understand, experience, and appreciate. And each of those relationships can help us also grasp a parallel relationship with G-d.

That’s what we mean when we say that G-d is our king, or our master, our husband (as in Song of Songs), or even our neighbor (that’s how the word shekhina, his “Presence”, translates), so to speak.

And one of the most important of these connections is that G-d is our father, and we are his child.

Don’t think that these connections are “imitations” of our human relationships. They are more real; these are our eternal ways of relating to G-d. But the parallel human relationships help us to feel them and deal with them. G-d is infinite, and there are infinite aspects to his love. These are some of the ways we can understand it.

Now these relationships are different from each other in many ways. One way is that some of them are more dependent on our good behavior, augmented by it, and (so to speak) weakened when we do things to harm the relationship.

But the relationship of father to son is not like that. It is a “blood” relationship, so to speak – I have to overuse that phrase here! – and we will always be his children, even if we are disobedient. He will always be our father and care for us, though (and may this not have to happen) sometimes he will need to do it with “tough love”.

The truth is that all of our relationships with G-d are unbreakable. In the end he will guide us to build each of them to the maximum extent possible.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

The Great Principle of “Love Your Neighbor”

Question: I have read that “Treat your neighbor as yourself” is how one Rabbi summed up the Torah. Is that a common theme of the torah?

Answer: The verse states. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva expounded, “This is a great principle of Torah.”

It has two meanings. One is referring to your human neighbor, that we should love each other as ourselves and take care to treat them in every way as we’d want to be treated, both in a positive and negative sense.

Rashi (Medieval commentator) adds that it also refers to G-d. We must love our neighbor in this world – G-d – as our self.

According to this, one covers both the man to man and man to G-d requirements.
—Rabbi Meir Goldberg

Understanding “Love Your Neighbor”

Question: I have to write an essay on a few of the famous quotes in Leviticus. I am having a particularly troubling time on chapter 19, verse 18 and understanding the meaning of the different commentaries by Rashi and Rambam and one other of my choice of any prominent rabbi. If you could please help me understand the meanings of the commentary by those rabbi’s on the verse “Love your neighbour like you love yourself” that would be great!

Question: “Don’t take revenge or bear a grudge against your fellow Jew, and love your fellow as yourself, I am Hashem.” Rashi explains revenge: I asked you to borrow an ax, and you said no. When you ask me later to borrow something, I say no back. A grudge: When you ask me later, I say yes, but I add, “Not like you did!” Neither of these is an act of love, of bringing closeness between our people. If you love someone, especially if it’s “like yourself”, you can act lovingly toward the other even if he doesn’t always reciprocate. Loving like yourself doesn’t mean, as much as you love yourself – that doesn’t make any sense (Ramban). It means, as a part of yourself. Love is a recognition that I am connected to the other, and that what happens to him matters to me. (There’s an old saying: A mother is only as happy as the most unhappy of her children.) This is what Rabbi Akiva adds is a fundamental principle of the Torah; Jews are all connected.

The Ramban adds that included in this is a lack of jealousy. I want all the best for him, not: But of course, as long as I have a little bit more. Parents aren’t jealous of their children’s accomplishments. Their children are part of them, their successes are the parents’ successes too. We have to feel that way about our fellow Jew, because he’s part of us.

Best wishes,

Michoel Reach

Laws of Money and Clothing

Question: In what way are money and clothes kosher? what are the laws concerning money and clothes?

Answer: You are asking a very good question, about a topic that many people don’t know.

The Torah forbids us to wear clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen. This is called ‘Shatnez’ and is mentioned a couple of times in the Torah. All other mixtures of materials are permitted, but clothing should always be checked for shatnez (there are many ‘shatnez laboratories’ across the globe). Sometimes even a pure wool garment is found to have linen thread holding the buttons on, or the shoulder padding may be linen, etc.

Kosher money is a less specific term. There are laws about money, e.g. the prohibition in lending with interest, and giving 10 percent of earnings to charity. Often, though, people refer to non-kosher money when it was earned in dodgy, or unethical ways.

Rabbi David Sedley

The Spiritual Dimension of Work

Question: I work with undergraduate students who are in the process of finding their first professional job after graduating college. One often unarticulated, but clearly present,  issue for them is what one might call the spiritual dimension of work e.g. what it  is all about besides a paycheck. Can you point me in the direction of any good books or sources on Jewish perceptions of the meaning of work or the spiritual value of work? Thank you.

Answer: The Torah and the Talmud, with their commentaries, discuss the spiritual value of work in many places. Here are just a few:

Tractate Avot 1:10 says, “Love work..” The Commentary of the Tosfos Yom Tov points out that it says it’s the work that you should love and not the money. Even if you are independently wealthy you should still seek out a profession as the Talmud says in Ketubot 59b, “Inactivity leads to idiocy.” As human beings we must keep ourselves fulfilled, for otherwise our minds will atrophy.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Prayer Book, writes that this Avot 1:10 is counseling us to preserve our personal independence. When we are dependent we may do things that coincide with the views of those who support us and have more power than us. Work allows us to live by our own principles. This is based on the verse from Psalms 128:2,”When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you.” One is best off eating the labor of their own hands. In the Grace After Meals we say, “Please G-d, let us not be in need of the presents from flesh and blood.” We want our sustenance to be a direct result of our relationship with the Almighty (See below). Similarly, in Proverbs 15:27 King Solomon writes, “One who hates gifts shall live.” Also see the Talmud in Berachot 8a on the verse from Psalms 128:2 above. (more…)

Elijah and Passover

Filed under: Passover

Question: Would you explain the tradition of the empty chair for Elijah at the Passover table?

Answer: The most common tradition is to have a cup for Elijah the Prophet at the table that is usually filled with wine near the end of the Seder. I’ve never seen anyone designate a seat for Elijah, but I have seen the tradition cited in a book of customs called “Minhag Yisrael Torah”. There is a common tradition to designate a seat for Elijah at a circumcision.

There are many reasons given for the cup of Elijah at the Passover table. Many people say that it’s because Elijah visits everyone’s Passover Seder. Now, I have never personally seen Elijah come, nor have I heard of anyone who has. In fact, I’m told that some people shake the table to spill the wine in Elijah’s cup a bit (as a joke, I’m sure) to make it appear as if Elijah came and sipped the wine a bit. I would expect Elijah the Prophet to clean up if he made a mess! This rumor that he visits is actually brought in the same book of customs cited above, but it is understood in a spiritual sense – in terms that I, unfortunately, barely understand.

Here’s a simpler explanation cited for the custom: At this point in the Seder we pour a new cup of wine to carry out, at least symbolically, our announcement at the opening of the Hagadah, “All those who are in need, come and eat!” The new cup is prepared for a guest who would come. At this time when we recount the redemption of the Jews from Egypt in the Hagadah we also express our hope for the future redemption with the coming of the Messiah. The tradition is that Elijah the Prophet will be the one to announce the coming of Messiah. In fact, there’s a tradition that Messiah will come in the month in which Passover occurs – “Nissan” on the Jewish calendar. The cup is called “Elijah’s Cup” to express our hope that our guest will be Elijah himself coming to inform us of Messiah’s coming and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This theme of the future redemption rings throughout the Hagadah, and is stated explicitly at the beginning and the end in the words “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

All the Best,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

Four Questions and the Youngest Child

Filed under: Passover

Question: Why does the youngest child always ask the 4 questions on Passover?

Answer: Our Rabbis tell us that the reason that it is the youngest who asks the four questions, is so that he/she will remain an active participant in the Seder, for after all – the main idea of this Seder is “Hagada” -  to tell over the story of our heritage to future generations. Indeed, many of the activities done at the Seder, both traditional, and of new traditions, are designed to keep the little ones involved. The Afikomen (eating of the last Matzah), the opportunity given to each child to exhibit his /her projects from school (and to see where all our tuition money goes!) and another activity I have seen as of late, the plastic set of plagues that help re-enact the story. Yes, the Seder is geared around the children, so that we may “Pass” “OVER” our story and heritage to them.

But this is by no means the end of the story. Our rabbis pose the question, what if there are no children present to ask the question. Well then, they say – the adults say it. And even with children present, it need not be only the youngest one reciting, rather everyone gets a turn, with the youngest going first for a change. In my house, we have a United nations session, as the questions are chanted in Hebrew, English, French, Yiddish, and Russian. Because no matter where they are located, all Jews need hear the message.

And what if one has the unfortunate situation where he / she is alone for the Seder. Surely he/she is not going to sleep. There is no one present to answer the question! Nonetheless, it is written that the questions must be asked and answered, even if the questioner and asker are the same person.

The message of the “Hagadah” aka, “the book of telling” is clear: our responsibility is to give over the message to our young ones, to each other, and to ourselves. Perhaps on a deeper level, the idea of the youngest one represents the fact that it is the youth among us who are still willing to hear the new messages imparted to them, while adults are entrenched in their ways, and are often too jaded to make any change. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that we must all find the youth inside of us, the experiences we shared as children, and the fond memories we have of the holiday.

It is no coincidence that in this era of rabid assimilation, the vast majority still attend some form of Seder celebration. Passover, more than any other holiday, carries with it the most traditions and rituals, ones that can be passed down from parent to child. We remember Bubby’s Matzah balls, and how Zaidy stole the Afikomen. The burning of the Chametz (leavened bread), and the fight over who opened the door for Elijah. These are the types of rituals that stick within us, they are “the youngest child within us” and they resonate within us even today. Because without concrete rituals and memories, without a framework by which to transmit our heritage, then all we are left with are “cardiac Jews”, Jews at heart. Our century has proven time and again, that it is not enough to be a Jew at heart. We need to look to the youngest, both externally and internally and make the spark of our nation come alive.

Rabbi Mark Nenner

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