Lisa Septimus, Yoetzet Halacha

By Lisa Septimus

My oldest daughter was on her middle school debate team. Every time she was assigned a new topic, she would feel the pressure to come up with three arguments for her side. When she was assigned to argue against legislating restrictions on violent video games, she faced a crisis; she had two strong arguments but was struggling to find a third. But she refused to settle on just two arguments. She was convinced that without a third point her argument felt flat, unconvincing, not fully explored.

In this week’s parashah, parashat Balak, we read about Bilaam’s three attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael, which landed us three blessings instead. The number three repeats frequently in the parashah. Three times that Balak sends messengers to Bilaam, three times the donkey strays from the path, three times Bilaam uses the names Yaakov and Yisrael in his curse-turned-blessing, and, of course, three blessings of Bilaam.

The number three is often important because it constitutes a chazakah, a pattern or tendency with legal significance throughout Jewish law — capital, civil, and ritual. As Rabbi Tamir Granot notes, Bilaam’s three failed attempts form a positive chazakah for the Jewish People.

But in Bilaam’s case, the three blessings represent more than a chazakah. If the number of blessings were meant simply to establish a pattern, then Bilaam could have recited each from the same location. The Torah emphasizes that Bilaam chose a different location for each, a different vantage point, a different angle from which to observe Bnei Yisrael. The Torah thus communicates that to maximize accuracy, we need more than a chazakah; we need a multidimensional perspective.

A woman may call and tell me about a stain that she saw during her shevah neki’im, the seven clean days a woman must count before going to the mikvah to purify herself after becoming a niddah. On the surface, the question may seem straightforward. If the woman chooses not to give more details, the simple answer is what she might receive. But then there are the times that additional information sneaks in: “I have a very short cycle so I’m always at the mikvah,” or “I guess there goes another month I can forget about getting pregnant.” Sometimes critical relationship information sneaks in: “It’s just that my husband gets so angry if I am in niddah more than 12 days,” or “It’s OK, I don’t mind being in niddah; my husband and I haven’t been together in months.”

Nishmat trains all yoatzot in the basic background of medical and mental-health issues so that we can recognize the issues we are hearing, understand how and when it can affect psak, and factor it in when answering the question and consulting with a rav. But we also learn when to refer to professionals and to which professionals we should refer.

Like my daughter’s well-prepared debate arguments, people are not flat; they are multi-dimensional. The same is true of their halachic questions. Looking at the medical and emotional state of a person is vital when answering a halachic question. That is why at this year’s annual Yoetzet Halacha Wine and Wisdom program on July 31, I will be joining with a medical professional, obstetrics and gynecology expert Dr. Elana Kastner, and a mental-health professional, marriage and family therapist Mrs. Elisheva Liss.

We will address some of the medical, halachic, and emotional issues that women encounter throughout multiple life stages, from dating to retirement. Whether you just began searching for your soulmate, just got married, or just married off a grandchild, the discussion will resonate. If we want to understand ourselves, we must observe ourselves from different angles. Our faith, our health, and our relationships must intersect for us to grow and flourish. The more angles we bring to our self-understanding, the better we will guide the professionals to whom we turn for guidance.

Lisa Septimus is the yoetzet halacha of the Five Towns and Great Neck. She is the director of special programs and a limudei kodesh instructor at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School. Her husband is Rabbi Yehuda Septimus of Young Israel of North Woodmere. They are the proud parents of four children. For more information, visit 5townsyoetzet.com/events.

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