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Why We Study Torah

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

 Shavuos Day One

I’d like to begin by reading to you from an article from Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news source:
“Reports of the Talmud being a national classic in South Korea have been floating around for several years, but it’s now official: The country’s ambassador to Israel, Ma Young-Sam, told the “Culture Today” TV show that Talmud study is now a mandatory part of the country’s school curriculum. 
In addition, it is said, almost every home in South Korea boasts a Korean version of the Talmud, and mothers commonly teach it to their children, who call it the “Light of Knowledge.”
Why? “We were very curious about the high academic achievements of the Jews,” Young-Sam explained, according to a Ynet report. “Jews have a high percentage of Nobel laureates in all fields – literature, science and economics. This is a remarkable achievement. We tried to understand: What is the secret of the Jewish people? How are they, more than other people, able to reach those impressive accomplishments? Why are Jews so intelligent? The conclusion we arrived at is that one of your secrets is that you study the Talmud… We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. This is what stands behind the rationale of introducing Talmud study to our school curriculum.”
“I, for example, have two sets of the Talmud,” the ambassador said. “The one my wife bought me, and the second was a gift from my mother.”
I’m glad my mother’s here today to hear this, I could really use a second set of Talmud…
I think this article really touches upon the confusion surrounding the studying of Torah. The confusion exists both outside of the Jewish community and within it. I remember not that long ago discussing with some fellow students at Hopkins how although I am studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College, 85% of the people studying there and not going to become rabbis. This usually followed with a blank stare and a polite smile. Why would anyone spend their day studying Torah; be it Chumash, Mishna, Medrash or Talmud if they have no interest in becoming a rabbi? It makes no sense!
And, it is not only people beyond our community that struggle with this. We all do. We read every morning in the morning prayers that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah is k’neged kulam, the most significant mitzvah of all. And yet, when we think of personal growth, of spiritual development, study of Torah usually doesn’t make the cut. Typically, when people discuss growth, they think of prayer, of giving more tzedakah, of Shabbat. Torah study doesn’t strike us as a form of growth.
So let’s try to understand, why is Torah study put on such a pedestal?
I grew up being taught what is known as the ‘instruction manual’ explanation. Now being a stereotypical male made anything that had to do with manuals not very appealing. The other day we bought a new wireless printer and I simply could not figure out how to get the printer to work so I finally pulled out the instruction manual. I looked up to see Hindy standing over me with a camera, taking a picture of, and I quote, “the first time I ever saw you with an instruction manual.”
So what exactly is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study? It goes something like this. You buy a new phone and it comes with an instruction manual. Do you read it? Yes, no, depends. Let’s say you buy a new car. Do you read the manual? Most of us only open it up if the car is broken. But let’s say I give you a brand new airplane! Would you read the manual before taking it for a test drive? You sure betcha! There are people’s lives at stake here, not to mention my own! Flying an airplane is a huge responsibility. There is no way that I would fly an airplane without reading a manual, and probably a lot more than one! I would read every book I could get my hands on before taking the plane up in the air.
Well, goes the ‘instruction manual explanation’, if we read instruction manuals when lives are at stake, wouldn’t our whole life, from beginning to end, be included in that? How do we know how to live our lives? How do we know how to use our precious lives in a spiritual way? How should we eat? How should we interact with people? How do we interact with G-d?! How do we know how to do all these things?
And that’s where the Torah comes in. G-d not only created us but He gave us an instruction manual as well. It’s called the Torah. It teaches us how to live. It teaches us how to relate and interact with our spouse, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, our enemies, G-d, and last but certainly not least, it teaches us how to relate to ourselves. That is the instruction manual explanation of Torah study. Of course Torah study is important – because without it we wouldn’t know what to do and how to live.
But the truth is Torah study is much, much deeper than that. Last night we had approximately 70 people stay up the entire night studying Torah. We took a little break for some ice cream, another break a little while later for a BBQ, but overall from 10:30 last night until 5 AM we were studying Torah. Earlier in the week I was discussing with some people when was the last time that they stayed up all night. Some said they stayed up all night to study for exams or finals. Others, in the corporate world, stayed up all night working on major projects that were due to be presented the next day. And I thought to myself that the people who stayed up last night didn’t really fit those categories. They weren’t staying up because of a deadline, they weren’t trying to finish anything; they were just studying Torah. But then it dawned upon me that there is one more situation that people stay up all night for. And no, it’s not staying up all night with a newborn baby. I am talking about deciding to stay up; a situation where that is what you truly want to do. It’s a circumstance that I hope you once experienced in your life. Maybe you were in high school, maybe you were in college, and maybe it was at a later time in your life, and you met someone that you were crazy about. You fell in love with an individual who you just could not bear to part from. And even after you said good night, you would call each other and talk and talk and talk until the birds were chirping and the sun started to break through the sky.
That’s what we were doing last night. There were no deadlines; there were no tests or exams the next day. It was the talk of lovers who couldn’t bear hanging up the phone and parting their ways; just one more word, one more story. And that’s what Torah study is all about. Torah study is a dialogue. We open a Chumash, a Talmud, Maimonides, whatever, and we have G-d speaking to us from the pages. And we, in return, ask questions, we attempt to clarify, and gain a deeper understanding. King David, whose grandmother is the hero of Shavuot, writes in Tehillim, mah ahavti Toratecha kol hayom hi sichati. How I love Your Torah,” says King David, “I speak in Torah all day.” That’s what Torah study is – it’s love. It’s the only forum that we have for a dialogue between us and G-d. Yes, chesed is important, yes prayer is important, but Torah study is where G-d talks to us and we talk back. It’s the dialogue of lovers; it is the most profound way for us to connect to G-d. And that’s why we stayed up all night. We didn’t want to go to sleep. We wanted to hear from G-d and we wanted to talk to Him.
That’s Torah study. And it’s so much deeper and more beautiful than an instruction manual. The Torah is a love letter from G-d. And when we study Torah, we’re writing back. We’re engaging in the most mind-blowing conversation known to mankind; a dialogue of love between the Creator of the Universe and His beloved people.
So what we are celebrating today on Shavuot is not a book that makes us smart. Who knows, maybe Talmud study does make you smarter, maybe it doesn’t. We are not only celebrating the fact that G-d gave us an instruction manual to life. But what we are celebrating the relationship that exists between G-d and His People. We are celebrating a relationship of love. And on this day, on Shavuot, when the dialogue began, is the anniversary of the loving relationship between us and G-d. It’s a time to renew our vows, it’s a time to recommit ourselves to G-d and to His Torah, and it’s a time to celebrate our relationship and to live up to the beautiful statement that King David said, mah ahavti Torahtecha, kol hayom his sichati, that we should live a life where the Torah truly becomes beloved to us and that it’s precious words never leave our lips.


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Shmiras HaLashon #25

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 21, 2013

We have discussed in the past that there are times that sharing negative information may be allowed for a constructive purpose. Even then, it is forbidden to actually believe the information. One may only act cautiously based on the information. There are instances where it is permitted to believe the information which we will discuss in the coming days. Aside from those circumstances it is always forbidden to believe lashon hara even if it seems like the information is true. For example, a situation where it is spoken in the presence of the subject and he is silent. It is possible that the subject decided it wasn’t worth responding. It is also forbidden to believe lashon hara even if the information was heard from more than one source.

As challenging as this is one must strive to learn how not accept what they see/ hear as fact.. We all know if instances where we have jumped to conclusions based on something we have seen/ heard only to find out we misunderstood the situation.

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Learning to Disagree

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 20, 2013


Ok, I have to ask a favor from all of you – if at any point in your life you want to do something big, and I mean big, you know, something that will grab headlines – whether it’s discovering the cure for the common cold, or you plan on getting arrested for doing something. Do me and every pulpit rabbi in the country a favor – make sure it happens on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thursday latest! There is nothing worse than writing a sermon earlier in the week, only to read a headline you just can’t ignore on Friday morning!

This Friday morning in Israel there was a mass protest against the Women of the Wall. The Women of the Wall are a group of women who would like to conduct services at the Western Wall, at the Kotel. This group has attempted to have services there in the past, which at the time was illegal. Recently, the Jerusalem District Court ruled in their favor, and it is now legal for them to come pray at the Kotel, wearing talis and tefilin and conducting services. This Friday, this group was greeted by thousands of Orthodox women protesting their arrival at the Kotel.

I don’t plan on discussing the details of this dispute. There have been many wonderful and intelligent articles written on the matter and I don’t feel like I have anything to add. If you are so curious and would like to read one local opinion on the matter, Rabbi Wohlberg delivered a very powerful sermon on the topic of the Women of the Wall a short while ago and you can find it on the Beth Tfilloh web-site.

What I would like to discuss is how, in a more general sense, do we respond to those that we do not agree with. What is our approach to arguments and divisions that exist within the Jewish community? We read in this week’s Torah portion about the twelve tribes and how they each had their own colors and flags. We will always have different viewpoints. The question is how we deal with differing views. I believe that there are two approaches that can be taken.

The first approach is to truly understand the other. Now you may tell me I do attempt to understand the other side, I just don’t get it. They’re crazy, they’re fanatics or they’re evil or… How do we attempt to understand the other? Let me ask you a question – how many liberals in this room listen to Rush Limbaugh or read the Wall Street Journal? How many conservatives listen to NPR or read the New York Times?

The Mishna in Avos states, “Don’t judge your friend until you stand in his/her place.” This is not limited to understanding their life story, or their background. What this Mishna means is that we must really understand their position. Do yourself a favor – if you are a conservative start reading the Times. If you are a liberal, start reading the Journal. If you listen to talk radio – stop! It’s just a big waste of time… We have to learn how to really understand the other side. Not by formulating our own opinions by reading comments on news sites. Explore, investigate, understand and then come to a conclusion. Before we understand why people are so emotionally invested in women davening by the wall in a minyan, and why people are so opposed to it, how can we possibly have an opinion on the matter? A rabbi of mine in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, used to always tell us, “You think you’re a Zionist? You’re not a Zionist until you read all the literature of Rabbi Yoel of Satmar, the greatest anti-Zionist. After you’ve digested his works then you can call yourself a Zionist!”

Understand the other side. Do it for yourself – do it so you will have a greater understanding of your own position. But more importantly, the more we understand where people are coming from, the more we understand why they maintain their point of view, the less emotional the conflict will be. If we can appreciate that those who we oppose, or see things differently than, have a legitimate basis for their view, it’s only that we disagree as to what value is more important, or how much to emphasize a certain value, the more we can see eye to eye.

That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that as Orthodox Jews it is very challenging to be open to other people’s point of view. If being Orthodox means that one accepts the thirteen principles of faith and lives their life by the Jewish Code of Law, then a pluralistic philosophy, which by definition means that every opinion is equally right, is very hard to live by. At the most, as an Orthodox Jew, I attempt to live my life by what I call ‘Pluro-doxy’, pluralistic Orthodoxy, the ability to see more than one view as correct, but in the parameters of what it means to be Orthodox. It’s not a philosophy that sits so well with the way much of society thinks, but if one believes in G-d and a G-d that communicates with humankind then there are objective rights and wrongs.

So where do we go from here? How do we, as people who embrace a perspective of objective right and wrong, we who do not embrace pluralism, promote peace and togetherness?
I believe that it’s us who believe in the Torah are not only capable of embracing others regardless of their belief, but we are by far the most capable.

The other day, I bumped into a rabbi from another denomination of Judaism. I told him who I am and he said, “Oh, you’re to the right.” And I was taken aback. Now I wasn’t insulted, I’ve been called worse things in my life – but I was taken aback by this man’s way of looking at the world. Imagine if I were African American and I would introduce myself and he would say, “Oh, you’re black.” How would that sound? It would sound racist! Saying hello to someone and the first thing that comes out of your mouth is “Oh, you’re to the right” is what I would like to call ‘denominationalist.’ If racism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on race then denominationalism is defined as discrimination or prejudice based on denomination.

We need to start a new movement. We, who believe in the Divine word of the Torah, we who accept what the Torah says that all people are created in the image of G-d, must start a new movement. There is an idea of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d that was the fuel behind the civil rights movement, and while it wasn’t verbalized it was also the same principal behind the movement for equal treatment of women. We, as believing Jews, believe that everyone, regardless of race and gender are worthy of respect.

Our sages take this idea of tzelem Elokim and show us its incredible implications. The term is mentioned only once in the Torah but our Sages teach us that it is alluded to in a place where you would least expect it. In Israel during the times of the Temple, capital punishment was the rule of the land. The Torah tells us that if someone is hung their body must be removed and buried by the end of the day. Why? Ki b’tzelem Elokim asah es haadam, because humankind was made in G-d’s image! We are talking about a man who was sentenced to death by a Jewish court! It’s not easy to be sentenced to death by a Jewish court. The crime had to be witnessed by two witnesses and not only that but the individual had to be warned before committing the crime. He had to be told that if he commits this sin he will be killed. This person went ahead and committed the sin. Clearly this is not a man that we would see eye to eye with. And yet, we are told, treat him with respect – he was created in the image of G-d. Every man, every women, of every race, and of every philosophy, whether we agree with their worldview or think it is absolutely wrong, is deserving of dignity. That’s the implications of tzelem Elokim, of being created in the image of G-d.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin. Well I dream of a day when Jews won’t judge each other by the philosophies that we live by. We are all guilty. This factionalism exists on both sides of the fence. And it’s up to us, we who sincerely believe that we are all created by G-d, in His image, to break that terrible cycle.

You know, I’m very excited for davening to end today. I know you don’t hear that from a rabbi too often… I’m excited because there’s a Kiddush hall rental that will be taking place while we have our Kiddush. The people renting the hall are of the opinion that it is appropriate to have a mechitzah down the middle of the room during a Kiddush. So on their side of the room there will be a mechitzah separating the men and women. Personally, I am of the opinion that that’s unnecessary. Many men in this group will be dressed in Chassidic garb; a fur hat, a long coat. And many of the men of our shul will be wearing khaki pants, maybe even a tie. These people identify with a Chassidic world-view and we identify with a Modern orthodox view… I can’t wait! I can’t wait for us all to be in the same room; them doing their thing, us doing our thing. No stones will be thrown, no one will yell at one another. And that’s really great. But the truth is, we could do better than that. We can be more than just be tolerant. We have to understand; why do they dress a certain way, why do they live a certain lifestyle? But more importantly let’s not let the thin partition stand between us. Let’s not allow our modes of dress stand between us. Let’s not allow our interpretation of the law, or even our deeply held convictions and beliefs stand between us. Because all of us, every single one of us were created in the image of G-d.

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Shmiras HaLashon #24

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 20, 2013

There are other instances where listening to lashon hara may not only be allowed but it may be a mitzvah. One example is a situation where one knows that if they allow the individual to say lashon hara they could immediately follow up the gossip with a defense of the individual spoken of.

* In such a case it is the right thing to do to listen to the individual say lashon hara. Another example is if one understands that by allowing an individual to vent, one knows that they can listen and then ensure that the speaker of lashon hara will cease to share the story with others. In such a case it is also a mitzvah since by listening one is ultimately increasing peace. In either case, one is forbidden to believe the lashon hara as fact.

* One can use this tool to retroactively fix lashon hara that was mistakenly listened to. Meaning, if one slips and listens to lashon hara they could erase the sin by trying to find any way possible to excuse the individual being spoken of by suggesting alternate understandings of what happened or arguing on the facts.

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Shmiras HaLashon #23

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 19, 2013

Although we discussed earlier that listening to lashon hara is forbidden, the Chafeitz Chaim qualifies that principle. It is only forbidden to join others who are speaking lashon hara. If however one joins a conversation and in mid-conversation the topic changes to lashon hara, one has a few options before them. Ideally, one should get up and leave or cover one’s ears. The Chafeitz Chaim acknowledges that this is not always so simple to do; whether due to practical concerns or because leaving will make one to be the object of scorn. In such a case, one must follow three rules. 1) Do not accept anything that is being spoken as fact. 2) Do not enjoy the conversation. 3) Do not encourage the speaker, whether verbally or through body language, to continue speaking.

Tip of the Week #3

As this last law so clearly demonstrates, one of the challenges of lashon hara is being true to oneself and not being swept up by peer pressure. Everyone else may be participating in lashon hara and to stay out of it requires a great deal of self knowledge, self control and self confidence. This week’s tip is to not lose sight of the fact that situations where other people are speaking lashon hara are incredible opportunities to work on building one’s strength of character. Don’t look at such a situation as an obstacle course to get around transgressing these cumbersome laws, but rather a great opportunity to build one’s self.

Public Service Announcement

Two weeks ago, I encouraged you, the readers of this blog me to abstain from speaking/listening to lashon hara one hour a day as a team effort. I will be designating hours in the next two weeks. If you haven’t signed up – it’s not too late!

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Shmiras HaLashon #26

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 17, 2013

If one hears negative information about someone else that was shared in a casual fashion AND there is no way to interpret the information in a positive light AND the one sharing the information knows this information from first-hand knowledge, it is permitted to believe him/her. Even in situations where it is permitted to believe the information, it is still forbidden to share the information with others.

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Shmiras HaLashon #16

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 13, 2013

We will begin to discuss when it is permitted to speak negatively about others. The underlying principal is that if the discussion is for a constructive purpose it is permitted. The first question one has to ask themselves before having a ‘constructive conversation’ (as opposed to lashon hara) is, is the information I am about to share 100% accurate? There is a mitzvah to judge others favorably which means that an ambiguous situation which could be interpreted in more than one way, must be interpreted in a favorable fashion. If a person saw or heard something that can be interpreted in a positive way or a negative one and decides to interpret the situation in a negative fashion and shares this information with others – even if it is done for a constructive purpose, it is still forbidden.

What exactly constitutes a constructive purpose and what other conditions must be met will be discussed in later posts.

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Shmiras HaLashon #22

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 12, 2013

The Chafeitz Chaim next deals with the proper steps one must take to repent from speaking lashon hara. Typically, a sin that is between an individual and G-d, one must only ask G-d for forgiveness, and a sin between an individual and another, one must ask G-d and the individual forgiveness. The Chafeitz Chaim states that lashon hara is no exception. Since an individual was harmed in some way through lashon hara (whether it was a financial loss or a diminished stature in the eyes of those who believed the lashon hara) forgiveness must be sought from the one who was spoken of. However, there are others who argue that in a situation where the one spoken of is unaware that lashon hara was spoken of him/her, since more harm than good will come out of informing them, one can therefore forego asking them forgiveness.

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Shmiras HaLashon #21

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 12, 2013

If one is interested in going into business/dating an individual, or really any interaction where complete knowledge of the other party is necessary, it is permitted to ask people what they know about the individual. Since it is being done for a constructive purpose and not for the sake of sharing gossip, it is permitted.

However, one should make sure to inform the one asked as to why you need this information. (You need not tell them the exact details but they must know that this is for a constructive purpose and it is not gossip.) This is because if the one who is sharing the information does not realize that it is permitted they are violating the prohibition of lashon hara by sharing this information, since from their limited perspective there is no positive purpose in sharing this information.

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Shmiras HaLashon #20

By: Rabbi Motzen | May 9, 2013

We learned previously that even when we witness someone transgress a prohibition it is forbidden to share this information with others unless the person is acting deliberately in spite of constant warnings. That being said, there is an exception to this rule. It’s an exception that necessitates real intellectual honesty. The Chafeitz Chaim teaches us that a person’s intent in speaking negatively about others makes a big difference. Sharing information for the sake of gossiping or slandering is forbidden. However, if one uses an individual who displays a certain negative characteristic, as an example to teach one’s student, child, or anyone they can influence, the Chafeitz Chaim states that this is permitted. This type of negative speech does not fall under the category of lashon hara. Again, intellectual honesty is required and one has to make sure that they
are using this individual as an example with the right intent.

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