This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Behar (5771)
This week’s Torah portion contains 24 commandments. One of them is not to hurt and cheat people in business another is not to hurt or belittle people by speaking.
These two commandments both deal with the power of speech which is one of the main differences between man and animal. Indeed, the Hebrew word for Animals is ‘Chai’ (living) while Man is called “M’daber” (speaking)! Even more; man is created in the image of G-d to use this power of speech as the Creator uses His: to benefit others and to create good (not destroy).
So cheating and harming others though selfish and callous speech is the ultimate perversion of man.
Also we are now approaching the Holiday of “La’g (the 33rd day) of the Omer”; the date of the passing away of one of the greatest and most holy figures in Judaism; Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai the author of the mystical book ‘The Zohar’. Every year on this day over a half million Jews visit his burial place in the northern village of Meron to rejoice and pray.
Also, this week’s Torah portion is called BeHar’ ‘on the mountain’ … in this case Mount Sinai.
Chassidic teachings tell us that everything, especially every detail of Judaism, is meaningfully connected. What could be the meaningful connection between these three: not causing harm though speech, Lag B’Omer and Behar?
To understand this here are two stories about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
About 1600 years ago lived a great, holy Torah scholar in Israel by the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben (son of) Levi.
He was such an unusually gifted and holy person that he regularly had visits by Elijah the Prophet who would answer his questions and teach him secrets of Torah. (Elijah lived some 800 years earlier but, instead of dying, ascended alive to heaven in a fiery chariot (Kings 2:2:11) and often made, and still makes, visits to this world.)
The Talmud relates that this Rabbi Yehoshua had a burning question to ask the Moshiach (a.k.a. Messiah) so Elijah actually arranged a meeting between them! The Moshiach was sitting at the gates of Rome as a leprous beggar changing his bandages one by one and waiting for G-d’s orders to reveal himself and go change the world. Rabbi Yehoshua approached and asked his life’s question; “When are you coming?!”
The Moshiach’s answer was, ‘Today if you listen to G-d’s voice’. Needless to say, we are still waiting. (Sanhedrin 98b)
A perhaps even more amazing story is the following: (Talmud Ketuvot, 77b)
When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was very old and realized his days were numbered G-d ordered the angel of death to visit him and give him anything he wanted.
The angel did as told, appeared to him and announced that he could have one wish.
Immediately Rabbi Yehoshua responded that he would like to see his place in Heaven before he died. Now, this is a very strange request seeing that most humans have no way of relating to the spiritual reality of ‘heaven’. But Rabbi Yehoshua Ha Levi was totally different. To him heaven was as real, or more real, than earth. Why exactly he made such a request is also not so clear but it seems that he actually believed that he didn’t deserved to go to heaven and seeing his place there would calm his mind in his last moments on earth.
Anyway, the Angel agreed and but before they began the journey Rabbi Yehoshua had a request; that the angel should temporarily give him his knife (often inaccurately pictured as a scythe) so he couldn’t frighten him on the way. The angel, probably wanting to get the job over, complied and they set out on their way.
Now the story really gets strange.
The Talmud relates that the Angel of Death led the Rabbi to a ‘wall’ that surrounds heaven and lifted him up so he could peek over it and get a look at his place so he could get back to his work of killing people.
But suddenly Rabbi Yehoshua pulled a ‘fast one’! Taking the ‘Grim Reaper’ totally by surprise he suddenly jumped over the wall into heaven …… WITH the knife! The angel managed to grab hold of a corner of Rabbi Yehoshua’s garment to pull him back but to no avail….. the old Rabbi took an oath that he would not return!
It could have remained that way for ever had not G-d personally intervened and announced that if the Rabbi ever had ever in his life made a vow and had it annulled then this vow too could be annulled… but if not …. He would stay in heaven … alive! And the angel of death would be unable to kill him!
[Which, in fact, is what happened! Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s vow was upheld and he is listed along with Elijah the Prophet and several others (Moshiach is another one) that physically entered heaven and never tasted death.]
But now the angel had another problem… without his knife not only could he not kill Rabbi Yehoshua …. he couldn’t kill anyone!!
He pleaded for it back but the Rabbi refused. Until finally a heavenly voice requested that he do a favor, let the world get back to normal and return the knife. Rabbi Yehoshua complied and that is why people die today!
Now is the main part of the story.
Rabbi Yehoshua, now in heaven, had not yet taken his rightful place so Elijah the Prophet jumped in there and announced “Make place for Ben Levi. Make place for Ben Levi!” The Rabbi finally approached his ‘place in heaven’ and sees none other than the holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (who had passed away previously) sitting on 13 golden cushions as his neighbor, hesitating to ‘make place’ as Elijah is announcing.
Rather when Rabbi Shimon saw his prospective neighbor he immediately gave him a one-question, entrance exam:
“Was there a rainbow in your days?”
[The meaning of this ‘rainbow’ question is as follows. In the days of Noah, because the people were sinners G-d destroyed all flesh with a flood. But afterward G-d swore that no matter how evil the coming generations He would never do it again and He put a sign in the heavens as a reminder; the rainbow (Gen. 9:11-15).
But the rainbow is only necessary when there isn’t a totally righteous person in the generation. If there is even one such person then his merit will protect the world and a rainbow is not necessary. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was such a person; in his lifetime there was never seen a rainbow.
Now he was asking Rabbi Yehoshua if he also made the grade.]
Rabbi Yehoshua answered that in fact there was. “If so!” declared Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, “you can’t come here!”
(The Talmud tells us that in fact there was no rainbow in Rabbi Yehoshua’s day but he was so humble he didn’t want to brag.)
From these stories we see the incredible holiness of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi; that he controlled the angel of death and that Elijah actually appeared to him at will.
But we also see that Rebbi Shimon ben Yochai was totally unimpressed by all this. His only criterion was …. If the rainbow was seen: namely if Rabbi Yehoshua could protect his generation!
From this we learn that the ultimate measure of man is how many people he truly benefits according to the standards of the Torah.
That is why Rabbi Yehoshua (who, in fact, was as holy as Rebbe Shimon) was only concerned with “When is Moshiach coming?.” In other words, his only burning question in life was … when will there be an end to human suffering!
This answers our questions.
Harmful speech is the result of ignoring the messages of Lag B’Omer and of BeHar.
The message of Lag B’Omer is to be like Rebbe Shimon bar Yochi and be concerned ONLY with benefiting mankind. So is the message of ‘BeHar’ Sinai. Mount Sinai was the lowest of mountains to show that the real purpose of the Torah is to humble us, make us less selfish and give us G-dly power to do what G-d did there: come ‘down’ and benefit the world.
One who has such an attitude; namely that G-d helps those who ‘comes down’ to help others, will never foster the selfish, negative attitude that causes us to harm and belittle others.
This is the meaningful message ; just as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was only concerned with the arrival of Moshiach and bringing him a moment sooner for the good of all mankind. So too we should do everything possible toward this goal.
Then we will see that this physical world is even HIGHER than the highest heavens.
Here in this physical world (not in heaven) will be built the Third Holy Temple and here will be the Raising of the Dead. Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Yehoshua, Elijah the Prophet and eventually all the dead will leave heaven and ‘come down’ into physical bodies.
It depends on us to learn the secrets of the Zohar as they are explained in Chassidut Chabad (see your local Chabad House for details) and do all we can; just one more good deed, word or even positive thought, can bring……
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