Thursday, March 31, 2005

Parashat Shmini - Choosing to be Chosen


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Last week, Parashat Tzav, was the inaguration of the Mishkan, of Aharon and his sons as the Kohanim, and of the vessels and fittings of the Mishkan, all of which were anointed and thus set apart for use in the Avodah - the holy service. The concept of Sanctification arises from the notion of Setting Apart. The Hebrew word Kodesh comes from a root meaning, Cut off from, Set apart from. Something is Sanctified by virtue of its being reserved for a specific use, and of thus being unavailable for other uses.

The fundamental vehicle by which we sanctify ourselves - and through which we are able to transform the world - is Halachah. It is Halachah that Sets Us Apart. All our halachic acts must be Lishmah - for their own sake. Yet, it is when we imbue all o0ur Halachic acts with the knowledge that we thereby transform the world for the glory of G-d and the good of all beings, and that we realize our ultimate human goal. Sefer Vayikra is a Halachic book, and in last week's Parasha the detailing of Halachah continued. This week, it will reach an apotheosis. Ultimately, there is only one source for our Jewish identity. Whether we identify ourselves as "Black Hat", "Frum", "Modern Orthodox", Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Communist, Yiddishist, Ethical Humanist, Atheist, Bagels-and-Sunday Times, ACLU, Secular Zionist, Secular Anti-Zionist, Secular Don't-Give-A-Damn... in short, any Jewish identity we care to articulate ultimately derives its legitimacy from the Halachah.

Jews are Jews because of Torah and Mitzvot. Anything and everything else that we identify as "Jewish" is either derived directly from Torah and Mitzvot, or is a cultural accretion that has taken root over time and is now identified as Jewish. Among the former are non-religious Jews' notions of social justice, the giving of charity, Zionism, and emphasis on education. Among the latter are bagels and lox, black Borsalino hats, wigs, and Kapotes and Spodeks.

Sidebar: I am not an authority on the Jewish calendar - a notoriously complex and highly detailed subject - but I believe we have just experienced yet another example of G-d's immense love for Israel. We are all well aware of the second day of Yom Tov that is routinely observed outside of the land of Israel. If I am not mistaken, the only holiday that ever gets observed for three consecutive days is Purim. This year - 5765 - happens to be a highly unusual year, as Jewish years go. We all know that Jewish holidays never come on time. Every year we either say, Wow, look how late Rosh HaShana is this year! or, Holy cow! Pesach is so early this year! In this current year, we have a statistical Outlier Event. One unusual outcome is that the first Seder falls on a Saturday night. Other oddities include: no Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach; no reading of Parashat Vayelech. I encourage those who are interested to view the attached link, which was provided by one of the long-time supporters of this TorahBlog.

But Gevalt! Of all the extra goodies to give to 'Am Yisrael, this year Purim is observed for three days! Friday, Shabbat, Sunday - Purim Meshulash - because in Yerushalaim, Shushan Purim is not observed on Shabbat, because gifts can not be given. The Shalach Manot are distributed, and the Shushan Purim seudah held on Sunday.

To emphasize the bizarre aspects of life that are brought out around Purim time, here's a couple of recent news items: US Marine Corps General James Mattis, in a public address in San Diego, said of the US involvement in Afghanistan that it was "fun to shoot them". A Marine Corps spokesman, in an apology for the General's comments, said that they reflected "the harsh realities of war." As of this writing, we are not aware that the Corps has responded to the request from the Council on American-Islamic Relations that the General be disciplined...

Germany legalized prostitution over two years ago. A recent report says that an out-of-work female German schoolteacher has had her unemployment benefits terminated because she refused to accept the full-time employment she was offered in a local bawdy house. As we go to press, it is not clear whether she has appealed this decision...

Our favorite: A Virginia man convicted of murder has so far managed to escape the threat of execution. Daryl Atkins originally tested at an IQ level of 59, which under Viriginia law made him not competent to be executed for his crime. Meanwhile, Atkins has had intense ongoing consultation with the team of lawyers who have taken his case as far as the Supreme Court. As a result of this intellectual stimulation, Atkins' IQ has risen and recently tested at 74. This is strong testimony to the power of Nurture. It also puts Atkins over the top - the State's cutoff for a legal definition of Retarded is an IQ of 70. A new jury will be impanelled to determine whether, now that he is no longer retarded, Atkins may be executed for the crime he committed back in the days when he was retarded...

Ah, Purim! Meshuggineh velt!

Why take this detour into the calendar? First, to point out the beauty of three days of Purim! Thank G-d for gifts such as these!

Second: recall Rashi's comment on the opening of Bereshit. The Torah is a book of laws, he says. As such, it should open with the first law given to 'Am Yisrael. And what is that law? "HaChodesh hazeh..." "this month..." the establishment of dates and times. In a sense, the observance of the calendar is the key to all other observance. Without knowledge of times and dates, we would lose track of Shabbat, of Yom Tov. Without this, we would not know the proper order of Korbanot - which is the basis of Davening and so much of our ritual observance. If we don't know when Shabbat comes, we don't know when to put on Tefillin. If we don't know when Pesach falls, we don't know when to destroy our Chametz. Don't know when to blow shofar for Rosh HaShanah, don't know when to fast for Kippur. And so on.

This week's parasha opens by specifying the date: "It was on the eighth day..." Chazal tell us this was Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the day on which the Mishkan was actually set up, the day on which the Shechinah is to appear, the day on which the Avodah of the Mishkan is performed for the first time. Chazal see this as a time fraught with danger, and the commentaries highlight this by the opening word of the Parashah - "Veyhi..." "And it was." As is pointed out, this is the word that often opens a tale of grave danger, such as the Megillah. Also, this is a time of actualization, when Halachah moves from the theoretical to the practical. In preparing for the Mishkan, G-d tells Moshe "Tetzaveh..." "You will command..." When the Mishkan is actually standing, G-d tells Moshe "Tzav!" "Command!" Now we must not make mistakes. This is not a dress rehearsal.

With the Mishkan in place, we enter the world of Halachah. We have the ability to observe Halachah in the abstract - such as refraining from work on Shabbat - and to engage in Halachah in its purest form: ritual practice, which are activities carried out only LiShmah - for their own sake, and not for any human purpose. The message is that all Halachic observance must be, at its base, LiShmah.

Aharon's response to the death of his sons is a pinnacle of Halachic observance perhaps second only to Abraham's determination to slaughter his own son. Let us give reverence and honor to Aharon, who was able to adhere to the Halachah at this worst possible moment of his life - for Abraham had direct instruction from G-d; Abraham was bent on carrying out the will of G-d, in the terms and conditions laid down by G-d; Abraham held the knife himself and prepared to carry out G-d's direct order - and, after all, Abraham was rewarded by being given his son. There are those who say that Abraham, through Ruach HaKodesh - Divine Inspiration - that Isaac would not die. (Abraham instructs the two men who accompany him and Isaac to remain behind with the asses. "We will go and worship and we will return to you," Abraham says. Chazal take this as Divenely inspired prophesy that they would both return from Moriah.)

The last words G-d speaks to Abraham are immediately before the Akeidah. "Take please your son... and sacrifice him on one of the mountains that I shall tell you..." Abraham receives further Divine communication dduring the Akeidah, but it is from Angels of G-d. Why does G-d terminate the dialogue? I would suggest one interporetation, which is that Abraham gets it. Abraham has attained the highest level, has entered into an immediate relationship with G-d. Abraham can go no higher than this. And what we see of Abraham next is: he transacts a complex real estate deal, buries his wife, marries off his son, and then goes off into retirement. We see him in his declining years as a happy retired CEO. He remarries, has more children, and fades pleasantly into the glow of the setting sun, while the narrative moves on to the next generation.

But beneath the surface, Abraham seethes with the energy of his encounter with G-d. He has been transformed as no one before him. The Vilna Gaon knew all of Torah, all of Shas (Gemara) well before he became bar mitzvah. At an early age, he mastered all of rabinnic literature and became one of the most knowledgeable Torah scholars of all time. It is said that, late in his life, he had already learned all of Torah, rabinnics, kaballah, and could learn no more from the words of the rabbis and scholars. Then, we are told, he spent his days and nights in study - the Vina Gaon slept two hours a day, and studied Torah 22 hours a day - that his sole text was a Sefer Torah. We can only imagine the amazing insights that must have flowered forth in his mind as he read the words of Torah over and over again!

This, then, is the image of Abraham. The quiet old man in whom lives at every moment the complete and intimate knowledge of G-d. The man who, having once experienced G-d face to face, is transformed forever. Kierkegaard, in his "Fear and Trembling", uses Abraham as the paradigm of what he calls the Knight of Faith - an unremarkable-appearing person, indeed, even somewhat dull, who nonetheless has a constant flame burning within nurtured by the constant presence of G-d.

But what of Aharon? For Aharon also watched his sons die - but in this case, they actually die. And, unlike Abraham, Aharon is not given the opportunity to prepare. Aharon is not given the ability to know in advance, nor is he given a way out. And after the death of his children - who die fro no sin, but from their love of G-d - Aharon, the text tells us, is silent.

The Hebrew language lives in verbs. The text - at chapter 10, verse 3 - states "VaYidom Aharon." In English we read this: "And Aharon was silent." Subject, stative verb, adjective. In Hebrew, the structure is: Subject, active verb. Aharon is actively silencing himself. We are given no insight into Aharon's feelings. Rather, we see Aharon acting in complete faith in Halachah - his action completely Lishmah as he carries out his prescribed role as Kohen, even under this dreadful circumstance.

There is midrash and other discussion as to the "sin" of Nadav and Abihu, and the fact that the text immediately brings prohibitions against drinking wine leads commentators to state that they died because they were drunk when they came bfore the altar. The simple fact, though, is they died through zeal. In their zeal to fulfill the command of bringing offerings, they brought more. In bringing to excess, they stood too close to the flame at the moment the offerings were consumed.

Throughout our history, offerings have been associated with human tragedy. The first offering is Cain's followed immediately by Abel's offering, which leads to murder. Noach's offerings serve to remind G-d that humans are innately wicked, and G-d's promise never to destroy the world again comes more as a resigned acceptance that G-d's own creation is incorrigible, than as an act of mercy or benevolence on the part of the Creator. It is Abraham who is able to transform the act of sacrifice, and through whom sacrifice leads not to death, but to life - though at what psychic and spiritual cost for Yitzchak?

Let us now praise Aharon, the Man of Halachah.

Aharon does not get to work through his feelings in anticipation of the loss of his sons. Nor does he get to retire, as Abraham does. Rather, he remains in his state of readiness right to the moment of his death, when G-d instructs him to remove his garments and hand them down to Elazar.

Moshe, who is originally supposed to be both the political and the spritual leader of Israel, loses the Kahunah. Why? One answer is: the job of the Kohen is to be perpetually in a state of preparedness. The Kohen is the intermediary for the people. Not a person who stands in any unique relationship to G-d, but a person who stands in a unique relationship to his own humanness, and thus provides all Israel with a tool for accomplishing holy tasks: a Kli shel Mitzvah - a vessel for mitzvot.

Moshe, when G-d called him at the bush, was not ready. Rather, he tried to put off the task he was being asked to take on. I am not the man, he said. They will not listen to me, he said. Finally, Send someone else, he said... to which G-d replied: Here is Aharon, your brother. Aharon, the one who stands ready. Halachah is only worth living by if it is worth living by at every moment. It only works at all if it works always. Aharon is the pinnacle of acceptance of Halachah.

If we are a Chosen People, it is not for our pleasure and enjoyment, not for our ease and comfort that we are chosen. Rather - like Abraham, like Aharon - we are Chosen for a task. Being Chosen is a burden. And we acknowledge this in our prayers. "Baruch HaShem yom yom - ya'amos lanu..." Blessed is G-d day by day. G-d places burdens on us... Our burden is Torah. Aharon, by his actions - by silencing himself, even in the face of the greatest of personal tragedies - demonstrates the burden of Chosenness. For Aharon is a Chosen within the Chosen within the Chosen. He is father of the Kohanim, the first Kohen and the first Kohen Gadol. How much more burden can one person accept?

If our Judaism is to be more than bagels and lox, or more than Rosh HaShanah and Kippur, or more than celebrating our children's bar and bat mitzvahs, then we need to accept our own burden. Halachah is G-d's secret language, and by accepting Halachic practice LiShmah - for its own sake - we are given the ap to our own forms of Chosenness - how we are chosen as a people, as a group, and as individuals. It is an ultimate form of self-disvocery, because it places us in both a personal context, and a cosmic one. There is no other thing like it on earth, no other religion that has the ability to contain all aspects of human existence the way Judaism does, no other approach to G-d that enables humans to maintain the quality and level of constant relationship that Torah does. And all we need to do is to be ready. To be constantly ready.

Let us now praise Aharon, the man who lived his life in the shadow of Halachah. The man who lived, and died, in constant readiness. This is Chosenness at its pinnacle. As unattainable as it may seem to us, it is what we must all strive for. For we are Chosen, and our burden is to strive at every moment to make this world perfect.

Part II - Drunk in the Mishkan

As of this writing, the news has come across the wire that Terri Schiavo has died. This entire saga has certainly been a human tragedy, and we can not even begin to imagine the level of compassion required to identify what Terri, her husband, and their respective family members have gone through. Also, let us not dwell on the right or wrong of introducing - or removing - a feeding tube.

Let us look, rather, at the job of the Kohen, a person whose job is to serve as a guarantor of the communication between Klal Israel and G-d. A person who, like it or not - or even when he watches his sons die - is required to adhere to his task.

Is it not fair to say that elected officials have an obligation to uphold the Constitution of the United States? In the aftermath of Terri Schiavo's passing, Florida Governor Jeb Bush was quoted as saying that the prayers of her parents and their family and supporters have not been in vain. I am not aware that holding elected office in the US qualifies anyone to Pasken on questions of the efficacy of prayer.

Senator Frist, himself a medical doctor, went to the extent of offering a diagnosis from the Senate floor. Dr. / Senator Frist is a cardiologist - we are not aware that he has done a quick sub-specialty training course in neurology to qualify him to offer a diagnosis on Mrs. Schiavo's condition, nor did he examine her in person, but viewed a videotape that was reported to have been heavily edited. We are not certain which oath Dr. /Sen. Frist violated more egregiously. Medical ethics preclude licensed physicians from offering diagnoses based on no data. Should Dr. Frist lose his license to practice medicine? We are guessing that the legal, and medical-ethical answer should probably be Yes. Should he be booted out of the Senate? Well, only the voters can do that. But are we the only ones who find it highly troubling that a medical doctor is offering a diagnosis in an area that is not his expertise, based on a brief videotape clip, and doing it from the well of the Senate?

Bottom line: this is not about the sanctity of Terri Schiavo's life. If the Moral Majority / Conservartive Republicans / Right-To-Lifers... whatevers... if they really are concerned about human life, they do not have to rally to the side of a woman who has probably been dead for the past fifteen years by every meaningful definition. Do not misunderstand: we have nothing but compassion for the suffering of those involved, and we can only be thankful that we are not faced with the same situation in our own lives. Lo aleinu.

But the Sanctity of Human Life can also be protected by sending shipments of food and medicine to Africa. By improving the education in inner city schools in America so children do not grow up to be perpetrators - or victims - of murder. The Sanctity of Human Life is every bit as fundamental to the eight million people who die each year of poverty-related conditions as it was to the tragedy of Terri Schiavo. Where is the mobilization for Africa? Oh, I forgot: The Senate, the President, the Governor of Florida - these people are focused on controlling the lives of Americans, of perverting the Constitution to impose a religious agenda on a country whose whole raison d'etre is the right of each individual to make those very difficult decisions guided by their own moral and religious principles.

I guess that's more important than saving the lives of a few million black children.

Yours for a better world.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Purim Part II - Attention, WalMart Shoppers!

What is Purim truly about, if not survival? And how do we adapt and survive? Often, through the process of Denial. Sometimes Denial is healthy - the only way to survive impossible times. Sometimes, though, Denial gets control of us, and our whole lives become Purim: the time of opposites. The time when the world gets turned upside-down, inside-out. When day is night, white is black. Evil is Good.

The mitzvot of Purim are societal mitzvot: giving gifts to the poor, sending portions of food to our friends and neighbors, eating a festive communal meal, reading the Megillah in public. "Publicizing the Miracle" is the same as on Chanukah, the other holiday where we celebrate the slaughter of thousands of people. On Purim we celebrate slaughtering Goyim. In the case of Chanukah, we also slaughtered substantial numbers of Jews. The links between the holidays center around two common themes: the Jews slaughtered their enemies, and we got back the Beit HaMikdash. In the case of Chanukah, we get back the BHM immediately - it is the outcome of the holiday. In the case of Purim, the Gemara tells us that Darius, the son of Esther and Achashverosh, sent the Jews back to rebuild the BHM.

As we wrote last time, the Mishna relates that Mordechai officiated in the rebuilt BHM. The Mishna explicitly states that Mordechai (known at the rebuilt BHM as Petachyah - "G-d opens / reveals") was given responsibility for the birds because he knew all seventy languages. The obvious - and generally asked - question is: but Mordechai was a member of the Sanhedrin, so he had to know seventy languages, so why point it out explicitly? Chazal do not throw their words around like a drunken stockbroker handing out hundred-dollar bills. If the Mishna felt the need to state that Mordechai spoke seventy languages, it was either to praise him, or to condemn him.

The Megillah itself states that not all the Jews were in favor of Mordechai's position as Viceroy. Those rabbis who spent their time in learning Torah were dismayed that Mordechai was coming too close to the government, and that his duties would take away from his Torah study. Was he given the vital role in the BHM in recognition of his having saved the Jews - thus enabling the BHM to be rebuilt - and the Mishna thus points out: well, at least we can say of Mordechai that he speaks seventy languages, even if he neglects his Torah study.

Or had the Jews so quickly forgotten Torah that, by the time we returned to rebuild the BHM, there was no one left who qualified to be a member of the Sanhedrin? That it was only Mordechai who had kept the entire tradition, who had maintained his knowledge of seventy languages and his identity as a Jew?

Historically, the emperors of Persia - maybe Xerxes / Achashverosh, maybe not - did not "prevent" the Jews from building the BHM. They permitted the Jews to live under their own system. They required taxes (tribute) but also told the Jews they should feel free to raise additional monies and undertake the construction of the BHM. Our revisionist history - including Rashi, the Gemara and the Jewish Encyclopedia - tells us that the wicked Achashverosh halted the rebuilding of the BHM. The historical reality appears to be more that, faced with the prospect of a massive financial undertaking and a huge long-term construction project, the Jews of Palestine under Persian rule simply said, "I have better things to do." The secular world has always held its appeal for us. The Yiddish phrase Gut bei yenem - "Good by others" - is supposed to mean "That's all right for THEM, but not for us." All too often, though, its sense has come back to haunt us: the feeling among Jews that it is good with the Others.

What is the political message of Purim? The Torah we learn in the Beit Midrash often seems to conflict with reality on the ground. In a famous Midrash, Esther instructs Mordechai to tell all the Jews to fast for her. Mordechai objects that it is forbidden to fast, since it is Pesach. Esther's response is: If there are no more Jews, there will be no more Pesach! Interestingly, the word chosen by the Megillah is: (4:17) "vaya'avor Mordechai..." - "And Mordechai transgressed, and did all that Esther commanded." The Hebrew word means, To cross over, and is explicitly used in the meaning of Sin ('Aveirah - from the same root - the English word "transgress" means, similarly, "To cross over") What could Mordechai's sin be? Violating the mitzvah of eating the Matzot and drinking the four cups on Pesach sounds like a good candidate. And the notion of Sin is embedded in this concept. It is a Mitzvah to Violate shabbat - or Yom Tov - to save a life. The mitzvah is articulated in explicit language: "Violate the sabbath", not merely "do not observe".

When does it become a Mitzvah to do an 'Aveirah?

When, for example, does it become a mitzvah for Esther, who according to the Midrash is married to Mordechai, to also marry Achashverosh? And if her son Dariush is actually the benevolent ruler who returned us to the Land and to the BHM, do we know for a fact that Achashverosh was his father? After all, it appears that he spent half of each year drunk. In any event, Dariush would be Jewish - a fact that Achashverosh may not have picked up on, since he had issued a decree that all Males should be in charge throughout the kingdom. Perhaps Mordechai and Esther thought it best not to rock that boat too. After all, we know who's really in charge...

The most politically telling aspect of the story is the degree to which Achashverosh operates in a cloud of Plausibile Deniability ("PD"). When Haman comes to ask for permission to kill the Jews, he does not explicitly name the people, and Achashverosh does not ask. Haman merely says, "There is a Certain People..." and Achashverosh hands over the ring. Achashverosh, saimilarly, makes a grand gesture and tells Haman to take back the money - a form of bargaining familiar from the story of Abraham and the Cave of Machpelah. Achashverosh, acdcording to Near Eastern custom, actually ended up with the money, but first he had to go through a ritual of publicly declining it.

The high point of this strategy of PD comes at the Moment of Truth when Achashverosh - like Claude Raines in the movie Casablanca telling Humphrey Bogart, "I am shocked, shocked to find gambling in this establishment!" - in total (?!) innocence asks Esther, "Mi hu ze, ve ezeh hu?" Who on earth could possibly have been responsible for the order to slay the Jews? We all know the answer: Achashverosh - it's YOU! But Esther plays him perfectly. It is a moment reminiscent of the lead-up to the Akeidah, where G-d tells Abraham: Your son. Your only one. The one you love. Yitzhak. Here, Esther likewise creates tension: A man, wicked, an enemy - Haman! We all know the outcome.

But what is our outcome? What is the outcome for Jews in the comfort of upper-middle-class suburban / urban America today?

Achashverosh was able to survive and prosper as King, because he kept telling stories. And he told them so often, he came to believe them. Finally, there was no Achashverosh, but only the Story and an endless litaly of Plausible Deniability.

What Stories do we tell ourselves? How do we bring PD into our own lives to shiled us from our role as Jews? This Purim, can we let our masks down for a moment and look at ourselves as we are, without our stories? Without our Plausible Deniability?

What is the legacy of PD in our time? Remember Ronald Regan? "Oliver who?" The man who never heard of Colonel Oliver North blithely led a coup d'etat and, when the facts came to light, sailed through on a Teflon coating of PD. In the story of the Exodus, it is Pharaoh who hardens his heart, who repeatedly retrenches and refuses to let the Hebrews go, even after repeated promises. It is not until Pharaoh has established this pattern that G-d steps in and makes it impossible for Pharaoh to relent. The Ramban says that Pharaoh had made himself so wicked that he was not capable of doing Teshuvah. In a very real sense, G-d does not make things happen, we do. G-d only steps in once we have a clearly established Derech. Once it is clear where we are heading, then G-d comes and helps us on our way. In a sense, though, this only happens to the rare individual who is capable of being completely focused on the goal. Like Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart so purposefully that finally G-d stepped in to ensure that it would always be thus. Like Ronald Regan, perhaps? Who claimed frequently not to know what was being done in his name, and who ended up with Alzheimer's?

WalMart, in agreeing to its recent settlement in a court case involving abusing undocumented aliens (the term "slave labor" springs to mind) stated that they relied on their contractors. They are "shocked" to find that such illegal activities are going on in their own company. Next time you line up with that case of toilet paper and the industrial-sized jar of peanut butter, you might sneak a peek at the dark-skinned woman silently mopping the floor in aisle 16 and hum somthing appropriate. Perhaps "Go down, Moses"? or "We shall overcome"?

Closer (?) to home, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had no idea that officials of his ministry were issuing written "approvals" for illegal Jewish settlements so they could obtain civic services like electricity and water. And military protection. No doubt, the rest of the government were equally amazed when this came to light. No doubt, within the upper reaches of government, someone has promised to Get Right On That.

Like the Story we tell ourselves as Jews. Instead of focusing on Halachah, on Ma'asim Tovim - good acts - and on aggressively bringing social justice into the world, we tell ourselves the Story of Exile. We are Jews, we live in Exile. They did it to us. This is what it means to be a Jew. Galut, Exile, has become our Promised Land. Disaffectedness, the ability to justify our own intolerance of other people, this is our Mantra. We refuse to bring Torah and G-d into the world, but rather use them as a refuge.

In Buddhism, one of the fundamental acts is Seeking Refuge. I always had an intellectual and emotional problem with this, until it was explaned that people constantly seek refuge. Many seek refuge in drugs or alcohol, some in being workaholics, or in self-destructive behavior around their marriage or family life. For Jews, the Way Out has been to seek Refuge in the Torah - usually in our own interpretation of Torah: after all, we don't really want to be told how to behave! - to lock ourselves away and feel superior to the rest of the world.

Oy vey! Where would we be without Exile!

Without Exile, we would have to face the political realities of the Palestinians, both as a people, and as a national movement. Without Exile, we would have to roll up our sleeves and head into the inner cities of New York, Detroit, Chicago, Trenton, Los Angeles, and reach out to people who suffer from inferior education. We would have to cross over the streets and avenues dividing our neighborhood from the next one over and extend the hand of common humanity to our Goyish neighbors - Christians, Moslems, even - G-d forbid! - other Jews whose practice is different from our own!

We would have to Make A Difference.

Without Exile, we would have to camp out on the steps of the White House until the US intervened in Rwanda. Without Exile, we of all people, who in our innermost soul know what it means to be destroyed (Esther 3:13: "... to destroy, to kill, to exterminate all the Jews, from young to old, children and women...") would have to act to bring healing to the African continent which is so ravaged by war, by injustice, by AIDS, by malaria. We would have to do something to address the fact that eight million people die each year from poverty, in one form or another. We would have to raise our voices and protest, at the very least, whenever there is social injustice in the world. Whenever a government - including our own - is acting irrationally, unjustly. When a government is imprisoning people without Due Process. When Congress mobilizes to overturn the entire fabric of the American system of government, creating a Constitutional crisis in order to imprison a brain-dead woman. When governments, or businesses, or our friends and relatives, put money before morality. Put power before identity. If we weren't fixated on telling ourselves the Story of the Exile of the Jewish People ("... how they hate us... they'll never let us live...") why then, we would actually have to Stand Up And Do Something. To change the world.

Thank G-d, we don't have to change the world. Because if you think the Story of Exile is a whopper, you should see the even better story we have made up to convince ourselves that it's OK not to get involved. The Story of Mashiach. Mashiach, who will come one day and Make Everything All Right. And what do we have to do to bring Mashiach? I would have thought that Bringing Mashiach is hard work. That it would entail spending every waking hour doing everything possible to try to make the world as perfect as it can be, all the while struggling to keep mitzvot, to make peace between people, to learn Torah, and to project a positive outlook and a love for G-d and for humanity.

Now I find out that I have it all wrong. Let's face it: it is our actions, not our words, that demonstrate our belief system. It appears that Bringing Mashiach is very much based on Keeping To Ourselves and being grateful that Disasters befall others and not us. Building up our own enclaves, rather than trying to expand our borders to include others. For, if we do not remove our own walls when we have the opportunity, they will surely be torn down by others, and at the worst possible time.

The Rabbis of the Mishna call it Bringing the Torah Into the World. The Dalai Lama (if you prefer) calls it Enlightened Self-Interested Altruism. Pastor Martin Niemoeller, the German War Hero-turned church leader- turned anti-Nazi activist-turned Dachau prisoner, famously said: First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I didn't stand up for the Communists. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I didn't stand up for the Jews. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was not a Catholic, so I did not stand up for them. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to stand up for me.

Surely, charity begins at home. But if it ends there, then it isn't really charity.

Did Mordechai have to sin to ensure the survival of the Jewish people? But is not that sin itself a mitzvah? What are we waiting for? Can't you hear the fires on all sides? If Purim is nothing else, it is a call to social activism, to reaching out to all Jews to affirm who we are. And thence, to reach out to all humanity. We can only be a Light to the Nations if we acknowledge that there are other nations. Oh, and one other thing: For the light to go on, we have to turn the switch. We have to Stand Up For Something.

Or, we can huddle in the dark, shivering in the uncertain cold and drawing close around us the threadbare Stories. The Story of Exile - They hate us... they won't let us... it's not worth it... they're all evil anyway... The Story of Mashiach - It's not up to me... I'm doing the best I can... One day things will be better, you'll see... And we can blame every wrong thing in the world on someone or something else. We can remain angry with the whole world. Including all the other Jews, our families and ourselves. There seems to be a lot of it going around... Oy vey! No wonder we need to get drunk!

Keep the masks in place, my friends, because what's underneath is not pretty.

yours for a better world...

it's up to each of us

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Story of Purim - Part I: Clothes Make The Slave

“It is only superficial people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” -- Oscar Wilde

Purim – the holiday that unites opposites. Where forces in conflict are bound together, even as they struggle to tear apart from one another like two powerful magnets forced together with their matching poles touching.

They cast the “Pur” before Haman. Yet, the holiday is not called “Chag HaPur”, but “Chag Purim”. The Festival of “Lots”. Not one die, but a pair of dice.

A dice player is trying to make his number. Which die will win for him? Whichever number he must match, each die can be “correct”, in that each one will turn up a part of that number. Yet the “correct”-ness of each die depends absolutely on the other die coming up with the complementary number. And if it does not? Then which die is the “wrong” one? When the dice fail, which one do we blame? The dice player throws both, so it is not possible to blame loss on either, just as it is not possible to thank either die when he wins. Rather, if the dice are in harmoney, the player wins. If they are not in harmony, there will be a loss.

Every Shesh-Besh player knows the pattern of numbers which come up more, or less, frequently. There is only one way to make a two (1+1), only one way to make a twelve (6+6). But there are two ways to make eleven (5+6, 6+5) and two ways to make three (2+1, 1+2). There are three ways to make ten (5+5, 6+4, 4+6) and three ways to make four (2+2, 3+1, 1+3)… and so on… Still, there are always more ways to lose than to win. The odds are always against the player, and in favor of “the house”.

How do people behave in casinos? With the recent popularity of televised poker matches, we have seen behaviors that seem to be common to large groups of gamblers.

Professional gamblers, like other professional games-players, have superstitions that focus on clothing. There are champion poker players who wear the same shirt / tie / hat / jacket / piece of jewelry / shoes… etc… throughout a tournament, to keep up their streak.

As to the amateurs, what do the casinos offer them to keep them happy? Alcohol.

Is this stretching the point – Purim as a turn at the gaming tables? Purim is a day where we dress up, drink, and are commanded to lose our orientation. By the way, if you have ever visited a casino, there are two things conspicuously absent: clocks and windows. You have no way of knowing where you are.

The Gemara teaches that there are three reasons we do not say Hallel on Purim. One: It took place outside of Eretz Yisrael; two: we read the Megillah, which is itself a form of praise to G-d; three: We remain in Galut – Exile – even after our victory. If we analyze the holidays of Chanukah and Purim, we appear to have chosen the only two times in our history when the Nations failed to wipe us out. Our “victory” consists in not having been wiped from the face of the earth. As it says in Tehillim, “We were like birds trapped in the hunter’s snare. The snare broke and we escaped. Our salvation is with G-d…” If we are going to base our hope for continued existence on the chance that a hunter’s trap may not hold… and yet, so precarious is all human existence.

In order to comprehend the story of the Megillah, we must know the story of Yosef. In order to appreciate the story of Yosef, we must understand the story of Yaakov. No one ever said this was going to be easy!

First, let’s get some of the easier details out of the way.

Who is Achashverosh? It is generally accepted that he is the historical Xerxes (486-465 BCE) the son of Cyrus, Emperor of Persia, etc. Rashi states that Achashverosh is not a hereditary king. The Zohar picks up on this and compares the Pharaoh of the Exodus to Achashverosh, saying that this Pharaoh was, likewise, not of royal blood. The Zohar says that the Pharaoh took the throne after his military victory, similar to Achashverosh who, the Zohar says, was so wealthy that he bought the kingship. One clear similarity is that both were politically paranoid, and permitted the Jews to be used as bait. Other similarities include their constantly referring decisions to their advisors. Rashi tosses out a fascinating – and obvious – clue in his comment on chapter 1, verse 8: “… for thus had the King established on all the great ones of his household…” “…all the great ones of the household…” says Rashi, “Sar ha’ofim, sar hatabachim, sar hamashkim…” the chief baker, the chief cook/butcher, the chief wine steward…” sound familiar? These are the identical Hebrew words the Torah uses in the Yosef narrative, his companions in prison, and Potiphar himself, commander of the prison.

While we are certain that Cyrus was father of Xerxes, Xerxes was not like his father in many ways. Also, assuming Rashi's tradition to be historically accurate, Xerxes may have been a bastard or second-born son, someone not in line for the throne, but who ascended nonetheless after financial and plitical machinations. Foremost for our purposes is the fact that he appears to have interrupted the work on the Beit HaMikdash which his father had put into motion. It seems that the cessation of work on the BHM corresponds to the incident recorded in Ezra 4:6, where a mysterious anonymous message is sent to Xerxes / Achashverosh bringing an evil report about the Jews, whereupon the King suspends the work on the BHM. This may be the seed of the Purim story.

Philo, writing about Yosef’s dreams, takes a detour to tell us that Xerxes was mad. He changed the earth, Philo tells us, building a bridge across the Hellespont, digging artificial lakes on high mountains. Then, says Philo, Xerxes went off the deep end and started shooting arrows at the Sun.

There is an argument in the Gemara as to whether Achashverosh was a Clever King, or a Stupid King. Philo’s story could be cast to support either view. Consistent with the Pairing of Opposites that Purim represents, it would be an interesting exercise to analyze the entire text, first from one perspective, then from the other. But we have other Hamentaschen to fry…

Clothes Make the Man, the Woman, the King, the Queen – Yaakov, to Yosef, to Esther

What is the first reaction recorded in the Torah to the unforeseen descent from the original perfect relationship between humans and G-d? The fall of Adam and Eve? G-d makes them clothing, then sends them out of Eden. If you have a perfect relationship with G-d, you don’t need clothing. (By the way, the serpent is described as being “’arum” – translated with the meaning “cunning". The Hebrew word means “naked”. The root carries the meaning of Transparent. Similarly, the word for "serpent" - "nachash" - is related to the word for brass, "nechoshet" - also meaning Brignt, Shining, Clear, and bearing a parallel meaning of Prophesy; it is the same word used by Yosef when he cautions his brothers that "a man such as I should certainly be able to divine".)

This is clear from the text. After they eat the fruit, Adam hears the voice of G-d, who is strolling in the Garden. How does Adam hear G-d’s voice? Is G-d so enjoying the day that G-d is humming a favorite little ditty? One reason is to show the simple intimacy Adam and Eve and G-d enjoyed. It is possible to catch a hint, a faint flavor of this intimacy in a traditional Orthodox Shtiebel, where everyone is davening with fervor – on one hand, a group of people throwing their spiritual focus together to worship in one voice, at the same time, the total isolation of the individual locked in passionate conversation with G-d.

Upon hearing G-d’s voice, Adam hides. And G-d calls out, “Ayeka?” – “Where are you?” Spelled the same as “Eicha…” the opening word of the Book of Lamentations. And so, Chazal tell us, the seeds of Purim are present at the Creation. Adam says, I was naked. G-d asks: Who told you that you were naked? “Ha-min ha’etz…achalta?” Did you eat from the tree? And Chazal read the word “Ha-min” with different vocalization: “Haman.” Who told you that you were naked? (Or: Who told you that you were like the Serpent?) Haman.

Let’s go forward in time.

How is it that Cham sees the nakedness of his father, Noach? Noach is in his own tent – he has drunk wine. Wine is the revealer of secrets. Chazal tell us, “Nichnas yayin, yotze sod.” – “In goes the wine, out comes Truth.” Noach is naked in his tent. In his tent – not out in public – Noach tries to enter into his direct relationship with G-d. Like Moshe, who speaks with G-d face to face in the Tent, Noach tries to enter into this intimate relationship of innate perfection. For recall, the Torah tells us that Noach was “a perfect man in his generations.” Noach, in his nakedness, returns to state of Adam in Gan Eden. What happens? Along comes Cham and announces his father’s nakedness to the world (his brothers). What is for Noach a spiritual communion is… we don’t know what the reaction of his sons is. Do they think their father is out of control? What is this, in their eyes? Lewdness? Pathetic? Disgusting? People don’t understand what Noach is doing, and we don’t understand either Noach, or his sons’ reaction.

The action of the Purim story actually begins at the outset of Chapter 2 of the Megillah, and ends at the end of Chapter 7. Chapter 2 starts, “After these things, when the King’s anger had cooled,” and chapter 7 ends, “… and the King’s anger cooled.” The same expression is used in Hebrew: “Chamat haMelech…” the King’s “Cham”-ness. (Spelled the same as Noach’s son’s name.) The word “cham” means heat, glow, warmth, and by extension, anger. It also can mean “red” or “spicy”. It is perhaps pushing too hard to link it to alcohol – the image of redness evokes Esau – but it is clear that, at the beginning of chapter 2, the King is emerging from a party that lasted six months… he must have had one heck of a hangover! It is easy to imagine him shaking his head, rubbing his eyes, and asking, “Was I there? Did I have a good time?” “Well,” his advisors tell him, “There is one little trifle, Sire. You had Queen Vashti executed.” Hmmm, thinks the King. Let me try to get my brain around that one…

(All right: the text does not state that Vashti is executed, merely that she is sent away and banned forever from the King's presence. This begs the question of why Esther defied the King's rule and went unbidden to the throne room, but Vashti chose not to. A fascinating subject, but not ours at this time.)

Noach is seeking the relationship that should be his by virtue of his spiritual perfection. But it’s too late. The ability to enter into the direct relationship with G-d is lost from the world, and you can not recapture it by merely taking off your clothing. The world intrudes. The world doesn’t get it. Cham looks at a naked old man and finds it worthy of note. Finds that he must bring the rest of the world in to see.(Noach, Cham, Shem and Japhet at this point constitute half the population of the world.)

What is Yaakov’s story? He creates his own destiny, as do many other figures in Torah. Torah – and traditional Rabbinical Judaism – have embedded within them two concepts that (again, in the spirit of Purim) are really two sides of the same concept. Take a deep breath – you may not like this. These are concepts that surface from time to time, and then are hidden. These are concepts that are nearly explicit in the text of Torah – and yet remain hidden from sight. Concepts that Chazal tell us are surely part of the makeup of G-d’s world. And yet, so many Jews reject them as superstition, as Idol Worship, as anti-Torah.


Karma, and Reincarnation.

Why is Buddhism so attractive to so many Jews in the West? In many ways, Buddhism is Judaism without Halacha. Non-religious Jews in the West often identify themselves quite strongly as being Jewish, and their Jewishness is based in an intellectual and emotive connection to the life that was originally created through Torah – a sort of Torah-based Ethical Humanism. This is Jewishness without Torah, Judaism without G-d. Judaism without Judaism. It is based on Being a Good Person and contains an element of noblesse oblige – that, as Jews, we need to hold ourselves to higher moral standards and Give Back To Society. This is Judaism without Halacha – Torah as a Very Good Book that helped create a Moral Ethical People who Contribute to Society.

People are so afraid of the idea of a total relationship with G-d. Do you notice that Jews don’t talk about G-d? And when we do, we generally feel so uncomfortable that we quickly change the subject. We don’t want to feel like Jesus Freaks – Chas veShalom!

Since we need control over our own environment, people place themselves above Halacha and above religious observance. Which is essentially placing oneself above G-d.

Don’t get me wrong: the Torah insists that we behave with absolute morality at all times. But why not keep Shabbat as well? They are not mutually exclusive. And, even though I wear a yarmulke and Tzitzit, I am not judging you. If you feel judged, it is because you are judging yourself. At most, I am providing the mirror.

“Hester astir panai” says G-d. “I will surely hide my face.” Chazal re-read this statement with different vowels. “Hester Esther panai.” Look at that: Eicha, Haman and Esther, all in the Torah. And what is the duplication of “Hester astir…”? Chazal tell us it is G-d saying: “You are hiding? I am hiding.”

G-d is not hiding G-d’s face from us – we have withdrawn, and G-d is accommodating us. G-d is giving us what we want.


The word Karma means “action”, and the concept of Karma is no different from Newton’s basic principle of Action / Reaction. And there is no human action, no matter how small, that does not throw off a reaction. And the reactions accumulate, so that if we hew to a specific path, it ultimately catapults us in the direction we have taken. Think of Pharaoh, who hardened his heart against us for so long, until suddenly G-d stepped in, and Pharaoh could no longer NOT harden his heart.

Think of G-d and Avram at the Brit Bein HaBetarim – the “Covenant between the pieces”. G-d tells Abram that his descendants will be “Afflicted” – the Hebrew word comes from the root “’oneh” – Ayin, Nun, Heh – “in a land not their own”. G-d does not specify where this will take place. The next thing that occurs is Sarai takes Hagar to task – Hagar the Egyptian – and “afflicts” her, using the same word. Hagar is cast out to die in the desert, and the cycle is set in motion: G-d ordains that some other people shall “’oneh” the Hebrews; Sara is “’oneh” an Egyptian, and our entire experience in Egypt is characterized by that one Hebrew word. The basic phrase of the Passover Haggadah is: “Ha lach ‘anyah” – “This is the bread of Affliction / Poverty…” Same word again.

As to reincarnation, it is expounded upon explicitly by the AriZal, for example. And, in the Sephardic Yom Kippur liturgy, among the litany of “Al Chet” – “For the sins…” are: “For the sins we committed in this incarnation, or in other incarnations,” and “And for the sins for which we deserve to be reincarnated as an inanimate object, or as a life-form incapable of motion, or a life-form incapable of speech, or a life-form capable of speech…” I’m not making any of this up.

By the way: there is a compelling inner logic to the concept of Karma / Reincarnation – and they are truly two sides of the same coin. If you will, Karma is the Revealed aspect, Reincarnation is the Hidden aspect. If you practice sitting silent meditation consistently over time, your mind will come to the realization and experience and acceptance of the notion of multiple lives on its own. If Torah is Revealed Truth, Buddhism is Discovered Truth. Funny how they both arrive at the same conclusions.

But don’t be fooled by superficial similarities. Not to denigrate Buddhism – many of you know that I have practiced Buddhist meditation for many years, and that I was blessed to be taught by one of the outstanding Buddhist teachers of our time, Diane Shainberg – Zichronah leVrachah – for the last years of her life. There are profound truths in Buddhism, and its practice has brought me manifold blessings. But I am a Jew. We must take from all that is true, and we must certainly acknowledge Truth wherever it is found. But let us not fall into the anti-intellectual trap of stating publicly that All Religions Are The Same. They are not.

All human behavior is motivated by certain – and few – key fundamentals. All people are alike in that we share the same handful of motivations, of innate aspects of our makeup. And, as our fundamental internal needs are generally in conflict, we seek outlets and mechanisms for resolution of our inner conflicts.

It is these inner conflicts that are truly the same, no matter where human beings are found. And each society has different accepted modes of behavior associated with these inner needs and drives.

Among the inner conflicting needs are, for example: The need for absolute certainty, paired with the need for variety. People crave stable love relationships – but not boring ones. Go figure. But how people work out these dilemmas in culturally determined modes of behavior, of which religion is one. And one’s G-d is a Defining Factor, just as is one’s language, ethnicity, skin color, clan, village, and totem animal. We do not all worship the same god. What we do have in common is that we all seek to address the same inner conflicts.

Truly, there is no more radical political statement than to announce adherence to one’s own god.

If you recall the Mike Tyson / Evander Holyfield bout. Holyfield won a hard-fought – and well-deserved – decision. After the match, reporters were shoving microphones in Holyfield’s face and asking him to comment on the fight. Holyfield was off on a tear – for something like half an hour he ranted, with a passionate gleam in his eye and triumph in his voice, that his victory had proven that Jesus was stronger than Allah. “My god defeated his god!” Holyfield shouted again and again, “Jesus is stronger than Allah! My god is stronger than his god!”

Make no mistake: It is in worshiping our own gods that we retain our identity.

And speaking of retaining one’s identity… I bet you thought we’d never get back to the story of Purim.

OK, so let’s finish up our little detour through Sefer Bereshit – the Book of Genesis.

Yaakov’s mother tells him to steal his brother’s garment and, with the help of the skin of a slaughtered goat, he fools his father into believing he is Esau. Yaakov then receives the bad news: his brother wants to kill him. So he high-tails it out of town. To bring it full circle: the Midrash states that the garment Yaakov stole from Esau was the same garment G-d had provided to Adam when he was expelled from the Garden – that Nimrod had owned, that Esau slew Nimrod to recapture, that Yaakov took because it was actually intended for him, but the act of theft must nonetheless be punished.

At the border, when he is about to leave the Land of Canaan, he meets up with G-d. G-d promises Yaakov that G-d will be with him, and will return him to this earth – strikingly, G-d uses the word “adamah” – earth – rather than “aretz” – “land’. And indeed, Yaakov only returns to the earth of Canaan, for he does not return until after his death, when Yosef brings his body back for burial.

Yaakov, in a widely misconstrued passage, says “If you will be with me, and if you will give me clothing to wear and food to eat, and you will return me safely to my father’s house, then you will be my god…” This is often taken as Yaakov, a Chutzpaniak, bargaining with G-d. I believe it is rather a desperate plea, on a par with the anguish expressed by Cain. Yaakov identifies the two fundamental human needs – food and clothing – that are the instruments of his exile. He stole his brother’s clothing, and he prepared a false meal (goats, not venison) for his father in order to steal the blessing of the firstborn. Now, in his recognition and remorse, he realizes that he will be cursed by these very things all his days, and he begs G-d to overturn the decree. But the Torah definitely believes in eternal justice – you might not like it if I use the word Karma, but, as they say in the Neighborhood: What goes around, comes around. And Yaakov remains cursed by these two things, a curse that is not worked out until, perhaps, the holiday of Purim.


How can it be that Yosef’s brothers do not recognize him when they stand before him in Egypt? The obvious answer is: because he is not wearing his coat. Yaakov took a special garment and, by its use, singled out Yosef. Ah, Yaakov! You learned nothing from your own ordeal!

Yosef’s brothers hate him, because of the garment – just as Yaakov’s brother hated him because of a stolen garment. And Yosef’s garment is, in effect, stolen, for it is a mantle of primogeniture – and Yosef is the first son, but of the last mother, for Yaakov’s three other wives have all had children before her.

Yosef’s brothers take the coat, slaughter a goat, and bring the garment to Yaakov. “Recognize this!” they demand of their father.

And Yaakov’s curse continues, because there is famine – so he is, in fact, cursed by both clothing and food – and Yaakov’s sons end up in Egypt, in exile, as does Yaakov himself, who returned once to his father’s house, as he had begged of G-d, but now loses that connection forever, only to be brought back after death.

Yosef, meanwhile, is in Potiphar’s house in Egypt, where his mistress tears off his garment, which results in his being thrown into prison where he almost dies. Finally, on a chance encounter between the chief baker, the chief butcher and the chief wine steward (whom Rashi drags into the Megillah), Yosef – in a scene reminiscent of Esther being prepared in the harem – is bathed, is shaved (the Egyptians shaved the entire body, including pubic hair, arms and legs, and eyebrows – Yosef ends up looking like a pre-pubescent girl, a scene that very closely parallels Esther’s preparations to be brought to Achashverosh) and… is dressed in new clothing. Then he is brought before Pharaoh, who brings him into his inner circle, gives him special jewelry – actually a golden collar which appears to be on a leash – and renames him Tzafnat-Paneach, a woman’s name which may mean “Beautiful Secret Concubine”.

If you need further proof that Yosef is viewed as a woman, the text uses the expression “Yifat toar” – “beautiful of form” to describe Yosef. This same expression is also used of Rachel, Yosef’s mother, of Vashti, and of Esther. Rashi tells us that Poti-phera, Yosef’s father-in-law, desired Yosef, but when Pharaoh took him, Poti-phera realized that he would never have Yosef for his own and castrated himself in despair.

To finish up: Yosef’s brothers do not recognize him, because he is not wearing his coat. When he finally reveals himself, he sends them back to get their father. Before sending them along, he gives each of them a new suit of clothing, but to Binyamin, his full brother, he gives five outfits. Some people never learn… (Sidebar: the transformation of Yehudah into the leader of the family, and then the leader of Israel, is through his relationship with Tamar. Tamar sets him up and teaches him the moral lesson by means of a goat and Yehuda’s own garment. There they are again: Yaakov’s family can’t escape the destiny of the goat and the coat…)

In chapter 4, Mordechai finally engages Esther’s cooperation by showing up at the King’s Gate dressed in sackcloth – the text tells us this is specifically prohibited. Esther quickly sends word to him to stop, and he replies that he will not change his garments until she intercedes to save their people. Esther sends him a change of clothing, but he rejects them. Finally, Esther girds herself, both figuratively and literally. At the beginning of chapter 5, she puts on her royal garments and risks death by appearing unbidden in the royal courtyard. But Achashverosh is pleased to see her.

That night, Achashverosh can’t sleep. When he commands that the Book Of Chronicles be read to him, he is reminded that Mordechai saved his life. His response is to ask Haman how such a man should be honored.

Haman, thinking the King means Haman himself, suggests that such a man should be dressed in the King’s own garments and paraded through the streets on the King’s own horse and loud cries be made before him – a parallel to Yosef in Pharaoh’s chariot being paraded triumphantly through the streets of Egypt. And so Mordechai is taken from his place in the King’s Gate and dressed in the King’s garments and paraded about.

Finally, in chapter 8, starting at verse 15, we see Mordechai dressed in royal attire – the components of which are the same as those Achashverosh showed off at the beginning of chapter 1 – now, dressed as the Viceroy, Mordechai is literally “in-vest-ed” with the power to change events. Mordechai, by the way, is of the tribe of Binyamin. Moreover, a direct descendant of the family of King Shaul. By slaying Haman – the descendant of King Agag – Mordechai has redeemed the House of Shaul; by striding out into the open wearing the five garments of the Cohen Gadol, so the gemara states, Mordechai has closed the circle on the five garments given by Yosef to his brother Binyamin.

And, to repeat, the King, whose story opens and closes with the expression “his heatedness (in Hebrew, “Cham”) abated” is put at ease, now that everyone is finally properly dressed – Esther is clad in the garments of the Queen, having definitively replaced Vashti; Mordechai is dressed as the Viceroy, having replaced haman; and Achashverosh still wears the crown.

It is a beautiful closure, a neat package. “G-d’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.”

Except that Achashverosh is still king. Like Yosef, who becomes the second most powerful man in Egypt, Esther’s and Mordechai’s power emanates from Achashverosh. When he needs to travel to Canaan to bury his father, Yosef discovers the immense gulf between his own power and that wielded by Pharaoh. We are reminded that Yosef was brought down as a slave. For all his power, the traces of slavery cling to him.

But Pharaoh can not consolidate his power without Yosef. They need each other, just as each die needs the other to make the number. Achashverosh needs Esther and Mordechai every bit as much as they need him. It is an uncomfortable symbiosis between predator and bait. Like our dice player at the beginning of this tale, Mordechai may make his number over and over again. Ultimately, though, the House always wins.

The oltimate reason that the Megillah is included in the canon may be because, as the Gemara tells us, King Cyrus, the son of Achashverosh and Esther, permitted the Jews to return to Yerushalaim and complete the construction of the Beit HaMikdash. And Mordechai, the Mishna tells us, returns and officiates in the rebuilt BHM under the name Petachyah - "G-d opens / reveals". Mordechai is put in charge of the bird sacrifices, a particularly difficult job. The mishna says it is because he speaks all seventy languages. The question that arises is: but we know Mordechai spoke seventy languages, because he was from the Sanhedrin. Is it possible that, as the gemara in Yoma makes clear, the level of knowledge had deteriorated? The Kohen Gadol was kept awake on the eve of Yom Kippur by being read to. Among the texts were the book of Daniel - a text primarily written in Aramaic - the implication being that the Kohen Gadol could not be expected to be of such erudition to understand Hebrew. He was taught to mouthe the prayers, even if he did not understand what he was saying. This is the representative of the Jewish People.

Similarly, it may be that Mordechai was the one remaining member of the Sanhedrin who actually had the original knowledge.

If nothing else, Mordechai emerges from the Palace clad as Kohen Gadol, but acting as the viceroy of the Persian empire. He will repartiate these garments to their homeland and return them to their intended use.

Until the next turning of the wheel...

yours for a better world

simchat purim!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Parashat Vayikra - The Torah Again


The opening of this Parasha - which begins Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus - is very odd. It opens with the phrase, "And he called to Moshe...". Then, after the pause, which is clearly marked by the cantillation in the middle of the verse, it resumes, "and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:" There are several odd variant readings available.

First, we recognize that this verse comes immediately on the heels of the final verses of Sefer Shemot, which ends with the statement: "For the cloud of G-d is on the Mishkan by day, and fire will be by night thereon, before the eyes of all Beit Israel in all their journeys." Then immediately: "And [he / it] called to Moshe" - pause - "and G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting." A continuous reading might seem to state it is the Cloud of G-d that is speaking, rather than G-d's self: that the Cloud somehow calls out to Moshe, whereupon G-d turns and addresses him.

If you think this reading is forced and excessively whimsical, consider the question arising from G-d's language in Parashat Ki Tissa. At Shemot 33:14, after much haranguing on the part of Moshe, G-d relents and says, "My face will go and give you rest." This is interpreted as G-d relenting from G-d's decision of a moment before to abandon the People to Moshe's sole guidance. Still, it is a distinctive difference from the definitive statements G-d made when we were in Mizraim, statements we read each year at the Passover Seder: "Ani velo mal'ach" - I, and not an angel. "Ani, velo shaliach" - I, and not a messenger. "Ani - Hashem." - I, G-d. (or: I am G-d).

"Panai" - my face - the word G-d uses in Ki Tissa, is not equivalent to the definitive "anochi" or "ani" - two forms of the word for "I". More: G-d then goes on to accede to Moshe's request at 33:18, "Show me please your glory." G-d grants Moshe's request, but cautions that Moshe shall only see G-d's "back", or perhaps "wake" - the after-effect of G-d's passing, like the wind behind a hurtling train, the wake in the water after a mighty ship passes. "For no human can see my face and live."

So: The Face of G-d will accompany us on our journeys; Moshe will see the Back of G-d - or perhaps only what remains after G-d has passed by - because seeing G-d's Face means death. And, to top it all off, G-d tells Moshe at 33:19 - "and I will give rest to whom I choose; and I shall be merciful to whom I choose." This appears to be a slightly different statement from the promise exacted by Moshe, when G-d said "My face will go with you and give you rest" - the text uses the same word in both places. It appears that G-d is becoming fragmented. Like the stone tablets that Moshe has shattered, now G-d, too, must be pieced back together again, for what has shattered is not merely two pieces of stone, but the very relationship between G-d and Israel. And, through it, between G-d and humanity. Between G-d and all Creation.

And so Sefer Vayikra opens with a tentative reaching-out. Now that the Mishkan has finally been set up, the Mishkan whose task it is to bring mercy, to atone for the sins of Israel, past, present and future. Now, G-d only permits a small part of G-d's outward manifestation to reach out. Perhaps it really is the Cloud that calls out, that first gets Moshe's attention. And, once it recognizes that Moshe is listening - that he is the same reliable Moshe; that, despite the shattering of the Luchot and the carving of a new set, this time written by Moshe's own hand, the fundamental relationship iks still intact - that Moshe is still "'Eved ne'eman" - the Faithful Servant - now, with a sigh of relief, G-d resumes the dialogue.

It is not for nothing that Moshe has not been able to enter the Tent, that all contact with G-d has been cut off.

On a parallel level: the story of creating and establishing the Mishkan is seen as a re-telling of Creation. And, indeed, the Mishkan is finally set up with the same word - "vaychal Moshe" as the word used to put closure to G-d's first act of Creation in Sefer Bereshit: "vayechullu hashamayim veha'aretz" - and it was completed. And, if the Mishkan is Creation, then at the end of the Ma'aseh - the Act of Creation - comes Shabbat, and so G-d and Moshe and all Israel spend a time in forced rest, symbolized at least partly by Moshe's inability to "use" the Tent, which is, in certain measure, Moshe's own particular "work".

One finally point: the title of this Parashah, and of the entire Sefer, is "Vayikra". This word means "And he called." It also means "And he read." Let us remember the first Midrash, which says that G-d looked into Torah and created the World. Let us recall the four fundamental acts of Creation: And G-d SAID ("Let there be light"), And G-d SAW ("... The Light, that it was good"), And G-d SEPARATED ("... Between the Light and the Darkness") And G-d CALLED / READ ALOUD ("... To the Light 'Day', and to the Darkness, [G-d] CALLED / READ ALOUD 'Night'")

Following the metaphor from the Midrash, G-d is going down the checklist, reading from the Torah, as it were, even as G-d goes through the step-by-step process of Creation. The act of Reading Aloud is the capstone of the creative process. In it, G-d actualizes and concretizes the elements created through the first three steps, those of Speech, Regarding, and Differentiating.

Speech in itself is the mere first notion of thought, equivalent perhaps to the notion of Chochmah - Wisdom / Flash of Insight - as used in the concept of ChaBaD.

Seeing - the act of Beholding - is G-d's equivalent of Binah - Understanding - the process by which the flash of inspiration becomes clad with the flesh of Thought, where vision becomes concept and the process of turning inspiration into reality begins.

Separation, the act of differentiating, is the ultimate mystery and miracle of existence. Why do the same agglomeration of molecules turn, in one configuration, into you, in another into me? Why do the same mass of quarks and nuons jumble up to become an ape, a human, a rock, a rocket? The ultimate mystery and wondrous miracle of G-d's universe is Differentiation. It is, perhaps, the crux of Creation. In our paradigm, if we make Differentiation correspond to Da'at (from the ChaBaD parallel) we see this as the final step, the step whereby the flash of inspiration is finally and firmly concretized. It is a neat package.

Why, then, the fourth step?

The fourth step is Torah. The message which, when read aloud into our ears - as Moshe does immediately before we receive it at Sinai - begins to penetrate our being and brings us into contact with G-d. Perhaps our senses, our intellect, our egos, our very natures limit us. Perhaps we can not fathom all of G-d. It may be that we can only glimpse a little bit of G-d. The knot of the tefillin at the back of G-d's head, as the Midrash says. Or may be even nothing more than the wind created by G-d's passing.

Yet, the Torah gives us the ability to dwell in G-d's wake. As we launch into Sefer Vayikra, it is as though the Torah is being given afresh. We are about to receive an enormous laundry list of laws - rules and regulations - and does Rashi tell us, at the very beginning of Bereshit, that this is actually the purpose of Torah - to serve as a book of Laws?

Perhaps now we are ready.


Yours for a better world.

Shabbat shalom

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Parashat Pequdei - In the Presence of the L-rd


Pequdei - the word comes from the Hebrew root PQD - peh, kuf, daled - and has a long history. We see it, for instance, in Bereshit 21:1, the Torah reading for Rosh HaShana - "And G-d remembered / visited Sarah..." In this week's parashah, it is used in the sense of "reckoning" - an accounting, for the parashah begins: "These are the reckonings of the Mishkan," and goes on to enumerate the articles and components that make up the Mishkan. The Parashah will end, and with it the Book of Shemot, with the erecting of the Mishkan and with Moshe installing the articles of Avodah. Finally, the glory of G-d will descend in a cloud, and no one will be able to enter or approach. All will be in place, Bnei Israel will have their dwelling place for G-d, who will fulfill the promise and dwell in the emptiness in our midst.

What is the meaning of the word Mishkan? How many layers of meaning does this word bear, and what is the significance lent to this word by the text itself?

It is a basic principle of Torah exegesis that, in order to assess the meaning of a word in context, it is necessary to view that word in its first occurrence, for contexts accrete, and words such as Mishkan carry layers of nuance. In the case of Mishkan, in fact, the word carries many generations of meaning.

Look at the several appearances of the word ShChN, all of them, in sequence, leading up to the erecting of the Mishkan.

Bereshit 3:24 - The first appearance of the root ShChN: "And [G-d] banished Adam, and [G-d] 'yashken' stationed at the east of the Garden the cherubim and the flame of the sword..." The first and eternal Exile.

9:27 - Noach, speaking for the only time on record: "May G-d extend Yaphet, and 'yishkon' - he will dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan will be a slave unto them." the curse that continues to this day, the eternal strife between the descendants of Shem and the children of Canaan.

14:13 "A fugitive fled and came and told Avram the Ivri, who 'shochen' dwelt in elonei mamre..." Which is the place of circumcision.

16:12 - ".. And he shall 'yishkon' dwell in the face of all his brothers." the blessing of Ishmael, who shall live in constant opposition to his own peoples; yet who is also blessed, and who shall be great, for twelve tribes shall come from him.

25:18 - "'Vayishkenu' and they dwelt from Haviliah to Shur..." The geographical spread of the descendants of Ishmael.

26:2 "G-d appeared to [Yitzhak] and said'Do not go down to Egypt - 'shchon' dwell in the Land..."

35:22 - "And it was 'bishchon' when Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah..." The Supplanter Supplanted! Yaakov inherits the blessing / covenant of Dwelling; even at the most difficult of times, he and his family are part of the Abrahamic destiny.

49:13 - "Zevulun 'yishchon' shall dwell by the shore of the oceans..." The blessing of Israel upon his twelve sons before he dies.

What do these passages have in common? They all relate to the family of Abraham - to descendants who carry a blessing. Note that there is no occurrence of the ShChN associated with Esav, for example. The first occurrence relating to Abraham is at the place - Elonei Mamre - where Abram is circumcised. It is in relation to the capture of Lot - who likewise does not rate a mention of the ShChN root; rather, we are told that Avram 'yashav' in Canaan, and Lot 'yashav' in the cities of the plain.

The ShChN root definitely combines, through these occurrences, into a thematic thread that binds the concepts of Exile and the strife between Israel and Canaan. Indeed, the later history of the Tribes reveals (Judges 1:30) that Zvulun, the only son of Yaakov to be directly given the word ShChN, fails to drive the Canaanites out of their portion in the Land. As a result, the Canaanites overpower them, and Zvulun end up paying tribute to Canaan - the curse of Noach comes full circle!

It is shocking and bizarre to realize that Noach is silent the entire time he is on the page; that the only words we hear from his mouth are the cursing of Canaan, followed by a roundabout blessing on his other sons, which reinforces and reiterates the curse. Noach blesses only G-d; he asks a blessing upon Yaphet, and asks once again that Canaan be cursed by being a slave to his uncles, Shem and Yaphet. Yaphet is to dwell in the tents of Shem. Clearly, it is Shem who comes out on top.

But a blessing, or a curse, is only a condition. In every generation, in everyone's life, all these elements must be worked out, must be applied consciously. The Blessing of Noach - of G-d and of Torah, for that matter - are there for us to take. But it is not enough to contemplate the blueprint of the Mishkan, not enough to fabricate the components. We must team together and, acting as a unified people, assemble and erect the structure. Then we must put it into use. And we must use it every day. Each day the lamps must be lit - the ner tamid, the 'eternal flame', is not a flame that burns non-stop; rather, the Torah tells us that Aharon must clean the menorah and re-kindle the lamp each day; tamid, Rashi explains, means 'constant' in the sense of each day no matter what else happens, the lamp must be cleaned, refilled and re-lit. Thus, even Eternity only exists by our involvement. The Zohar states that the world remains in existence only for the sake of young children learning words of Torah.

Now watch:

When the ShChN root first appears, G-d stations the kruvim at the entrance to the Garden to keep us out. The Mei HaShiloah - the Izbotzer Rebbe - tells us: when we first entered the Midbar, the entire wilderness was the place where we encountered G-d. After the Mishkan was finally erected, the only place we could encounter G-d was in the designated are, within the Kodesh, facing the Aron HaEdut - the Ark of the Testimony. And let us recall what part of the Mishkan, what part of this whole vast structure makes it possible for us to communicate with G-d: in Parashat Terumah, Shemot 25:17-22, G-d describes the Aron to Moshe, explains exactly how it is to be structured. "You shall make two kruvim of gold," G-d commands, "... make one keruv... at one end and one keruv ... at the other end." And verse 22: (my own free translation) "And I will make my appointments [meetings] with you there and I will speak with you from above the kapporet from between the two kruvim that are on top of the Ark of the Testimony..." The kruvim stand before the gate. The gate is either a passageway into Exile, or a way to redemption from Exile. Everything in the world of space, time and motion exists in dual aspects. Torah is the way to discernment. It is we who must decide.

* * * * *

I am troubled by the notion of Canaan being eternally cursed. As a modern American urban Jew with a solid liberal upbringing, the notion of irredeemability sticks in my craw. I do not always make excuses or apologies for Chazal, nor am I comfortable with much of what I continue to study and learn and absorb. But I have made a life commitment to Yiddishkeit. For me, that means meeting our tradition on its own terms and struggling with the meanings that arise.

What is the nature of Amalek? For these parshiyot - Vayakhel / Pequdei - are read right before Purim. And Purim is the apotheosis of the war between Torah and Amalek. Chazal tell us that the nature of Amalek, and why G-d must have war with Amalek throughout the generations, is that the hatred of Amalek for Israel is beyond the bounds of human hatred. Amalek is so bent on destroying the Jewish People that he will go to any length to achieve his goal. Specifically, Chazal tell us that Amalek's hatred of Israel is so great, his thirst for destruction so insatiable, that he will willingly destroy himself in order to kill us. It is chilling to contemplate words two thousand years old side by side with today's headlines.

I wish I could offer a solution. Alas, the Torah recognizes that there are human beings who are not capable of teshuvah - repentance. Those who remain in that state continue to call down upon themselves the curse of Noach. There is a certain sense in which all of us, even the most pacifist and the most compassionate, must heed G-d's call to Yitzhak: Shchon ba'aretz - remain in the Land. At our core, there must be a constant dwelling steadfastness.

yours for a better world

shabbat shalom

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Parashat Vayakhel - The Consequences of Creation


"And all the congregation of Bnei Israel departed from before Moshe."
(Shemot 35:20)

The Mishkan is viewed as a re-enactment of the original Creation of the World -- a making concrete, and in human terms, of the ultimate First and Only Making. The Rabbis of the gemara have laid this out clearly, and there are markers in the text that make it explicit.

But remember: our whole approach to Torah is to understanding this text through its own eyes -- through the approach I call The Consequences of Creation. We see in Parashat Bereshit that, almost right off the bat, the world of time, space and motion starts behaving differently from the way it is intended to behave. The ultimate culprit in this all is, of course, humans. ("We have met the enemy, and it is us...") And, for those who require a more traditional rabbinic source for my flights of Sinaitic fancy, remember what Rashi says on Bereshit 1:11: G-d commands the earth to bring forth 'etz pri -- literally "tree of fruit", which Rashi says means the tree itself is to taste of the fruit. In the next verse, though, the earth actually brings forth "trees bearing fruit", which is not in accordance with G-d's explicit demand. Rashi links the disobedience of the trees to the curse of Adam and Eve -- they sinned through a tree...? -- my question is: if the command is "Let the earth bring forth..." Then why do we say it is the trees that are cursed? Should it not rather be the earth itself?

One of the primary consequences of the act of creation is that the physical created Thing is going to be different from the envisioned image, the plan of the Thing. One might argue that, in G-d's perfect creation, there is nothing that differs from G-d's concept -- which is what makes G-d's creation different, and perfect by definition.

I would argue that G-d's creation is "Perfect" in the Platonic sense: in that this universe contains everything that can possibly exist. And, of course, disobedience and error also exist as part of the perfect universe. We know from Chazal that "G-d and G-d's Torah are one". But there are many other currents running through the rabbinic literature -- not to mention the text of Torah itself, that seem to imply there might be the occasional disconnect between what G-d had in mind, and the actual outcome. This will not be the first time I have gotten myself in trouble for approaching Torah as a fascinating narrative in which G-d is the central character.

The test of Perfection, then, may be how closely the actual Mishkan corresponds to the plan of the Mishkan enunciated in Terumah and Tetzaveh.

What happens in this week's parasha?

Our focus is the making of the physical components of the Mishkan. Yet, the parasha opens with the laws of Shabbat. Recall that, according to Rashi, the laws of Shabbat are given to us at the Waters of Meribah, immediately after we leave Mizraim. That is, we are given Shabbat and its commandments before we receive the Torah. Is Shabbat somehow a precondition for Torah? Is the message that, as the gemara states, keeping Shabbat is equivalent to keeping all the other Mizvot of Torah? In a halachic sense, we are told repeatedly that Shabbat is of paramount importance. In a homiletical sense, we are being told that, yes, for those who despair of being able to keep all the mitzvot, Shabbat is a good stand-in. Shabbat gives sanctity to the other days. And if we strive only to keep Shabbat properly, the Kedushah -- sanctity -- that we create for that one day will necessarily spill over into the rest of our lives.

The mishna in Pirkei Avot admonishes: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor. Why? One reason is that we are influenced by those around us. So too, Shabbat influences the rest of our time, even if we do not plan it that way. How many Ba'alei teshuvah -- Jews who return to religion -- start out by keeping Shabbat? It is the gateway to all practice. It is probably safe to say that far more Jews come to religious observance through Shabbat observance than through all other roads. Because when we keep Shabbat, we enwrap ourselves in G-d's Torah. We sense it viscerally, as though enfolding ourselves in a vast and comforting tallit.

And then the work of making the Mishkan begins.

First, Moshe gives a quick encapsulated run-down of the objects to be made. He introduces this by addressing "Every wise-hearted one among you..." At the beginning of Parashat Terumah, G-d instructs Moshe to address "... Each one whose heart moves him / her to generosity..." The word yidvennu comes from a root meaning To be generous. But it also means To be noble. Thus, it may also mean, All persons whose heart ennobles them... What is significant is that Moshe has received this phrase from G-d, but we have no record that he spoke to the people about it until this week's Parasha -- Vayakhel. And how does Moshe phrase G-d's command?

In chapter 35, verse 10, Moshe says: "Every one among you who is wise of heart..." In other words: "If you know what is good for you..."! Through the following verses, Moshe gives a brief list of the components of the Mishkan and its furnishings. And then, the text tells us, "And all the congregation of Bnei Israel departed from before Moshe." (verse 21). The following verse states "And there came every man whose heart lifted him..." The Hebrew word nesa'o is the same word used in the previous Parasha - Ki Tissa - and has already garnered a web of multiple meanings, both explicit and implicit: count up, forgive sin, put to the test - all of them emanating from the core sense of "to elevate". This is followed in the next phrase of the verse with the expression "and all whose spirit made him generous [or: ennobled him]..."

Finally, in verse 22 we are told that the men and the women came, all together, as though undifferentiated, and the word nediv - generous / noble - appears again. And now we are told what it is they bring: all manner of gold jewelry. In short: exactly what they were to be commanded in Parashat Terumah, but what was interrupted by the episode of the Golden Calf.

And did they actually have any gold jewelry left? For did they not all come rushing to bring their gold to Aharon when he tried to stall them by asking for their gold? -- The Midrash says that Aharon specifically asked the men to bring the gold jewelry from their own wives and children in order to make the Golden Calf. Aharon reasoned that no one would want to give up their gold, especially the women, and so he would be able to stall until Moshe returned the following day. Alas, says the midrash, the people were so bent on evil that they came rushing to bring Aharon all their gold.

So where does the gold in this week's parasha come from? The answer lies in Ki Tisa, Shemot 32:2, 3. Aharon asks explicitly that the people remove the gold rings from their ears, and in verse 3 they do, and all the gold earrings are cast into the heap from which the calf is fashioned. This week, in 35:22, the text explicitly enumerates several kinds of gold jewelry EXCEPT for earrings.

Perhaps Moshe's use of the term "wise-hearted", as opposed to G-d's own term "generous-hearted" (or "noble-hearted", if you like) reveals a profound carefulness appropriate to a man who is both a spiritual and a political leader, a shepherd who must learn quickly if he is to maintain his flock.

The two meanings of the Hebrew word nediv coalesce in an ultimate scene both terrifying and tragic, and ennobling and spiritually transcendent. The oldest son of Aharon is Nadav, whose name comes from the same root, and whose excess of zealous generosity, his generosity of heart doom him. Nadav, together with his brother Abihu, will die by being consumed by G-d's fire when, out of a welling-up of spiritual zeal, they bring extra offerings to the altar. Moshe, who has already gotten used to tempering G-d's anger and G-d's lapses of self-control, changes G-d's verbiage to protect the people.

Do not bring out of generosity, says Moshe, even if that is the word G-d uses. Rather, bring wisely. Be not like the one who loved not wisely, but too well, for that way lies tragedy. Moshe already took G-d's Torah and destroyed it once, then re-wrote it so that humans could use it as a book to live by. Now Moshe is taking the essence of G-d's command - a sense we must all have of noblesse oblige, that we who have Torah do, in fact, bear a greater responsibility towards the world by virtue of that very gift - and framing a Halachah around the concept. That our noble sentiments, emanating from the spiritual loftiness of Torah, must express themselves in generosity towards the world. But that it must all be kept within proper bounds. The tragedy of Nadav and Abihu will show clearly the terrible consequences of acting from unmitigated generosity, from generosity which is not also informed by wisdom and temperance. In Torah there is certainly a concept of Too Much Of A Good Thing.

Which is perhaps the answer to the question: Why did the people all go away from Moshe? Moshe admonishes them about the laws of Shabbat; then he lists the items that Bnei Israel are to provide for the Mishkan. Then he pauses -- Be Wise, he says, Don't act without thinking. Think through the consequences of your actions, then take action. Measure twice, cut once.

Moshe then lists the items to be manufactured, and when he is done, the people all leave his presence.

Why did we need to withdraw? What were we thinking about in the time between leaving Moshe, and the very next verse, where we brought golden jewelry to offer for the creation of the Mishkan?

Did it occur to us that we had thrown our earrings into a molten mass, from which arose the sin of Avodah Zarah - Idol Worship? That the very ears that Heard the Word of G-d at Sinai now were the instruments of our falling from the spiritual heights we were on the brink of attaining?

We had just called out with one voice - "We shall do, and we shall hear!" Yet we gave up our earrings, the symbol of our Hearing, to the worship of idols. And Doing precedes Hearing. We had already determined to worship idols before we took the action of casting our earrings into the fire to be melted down. This time around, we seem to have learned a lesson. We took a moment to think it over, as Moshe advised.

And then, within this framework, within the Halachah enunciated by Moshe, we are able to in fact return to the original sense of G-d's command - for even though Moshe specifically does NOT use the word nediv, the word G-d commands him to us in Parashat Terumah, yet when we return, it is with gifts and with Generosity of Heart.

In this sense, Halachah IS wisdom, for it enables us to perform G-d's command, even when we are unaware of it.

And so we are able to construct the Mishkan. The re-enactment of the Creation.

In 35:30, 31, Moshe announces to the people that Bezalel ben Uri will be the master craftsman who will create the Mishkan. Verse 31 contains the textual markers that prove the Mishkan is actually a restatement of the Act of Creation.

In the Book of Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 19-20, we are given the Bible's view of the inner workings, the essential nature of G-d's act of Creation. Freely translating:

19: "G-d with WISDOM founded Earth, established heaven with UNDERSTANDING." 20: "With G-d's KNOWLEDGE the depths were cleft and the heavens ooze dew."

The highlighted words in the translation are, in Hebrew: chokhmah (wisdom), binah (understanding), and da'at (knowledge). These words are linked in a concept known by their acronym: ChaBaD, which also became the name of the brand of Hassidut associated with the Lubavitchers. Their link to the concept, and their legitimate claim to its use, comes from their spiritual descent from Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) himself a descendant of the Maharal of Prague (1525-1609 - one of the great figures of European Jewry and most probably NOT the creator or keeper of the Golem, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel notwithstanding...). Rabbi Zalman is known variously as the Ba'al HaTanya, the Alter Rebbe, or the First Lubavitcher Rebbe (at the time, he presumably did not think of himself as first of a line. But who knows...?)

In an extremely brief synopsis: Chochmah "wisdom" is the flash of understanding, the sudden insight that opens a door in the mind. Binah "understanding" is the process whereby we analyze our insight and so come to understand it fully. Da'at "knowledge" is the process whereby our full intellectual comprehension of the concept becomes internalized, becomes embedded within our soul and thus becomes a part of our total makeup. Where intellect and emotion fuse to give birth to a higher, more powerful aspect of total immersion in the concept. We might say that, at the first stage of chochmah , we are witnessing a flash of lightning. After the final stage of da'at, we dwell within the lightning and the lightning dwells in us.

In our Parasha, in Shemot 35:30, 31, Moshe introduces Bezalal to the people with the same words:

verse 31: "And [G-d] filled him with the spirit of G-d; with WISDOM, with UNDERSTANDING, and with KNOWLEDGE, and with all work."

This is definitional: the "Spirit of G-d" is this triad of wisdom/understanding/knowledge. And these are the inner mechanism of the Act of Creation.

And so the work of manufacturing the Mishkan and its components and furnishings comes to a close. Moshe introduced us to this arduous task by admonishing us to be guided by wisdom, rather than fervor. And, wisely, we withdrew to contemplate our next act. We appear to have learned a powerful lesson from our experience of the Golden Calf - that religious sentiment alone is not sufficient for a relationship with G-. That, in fact, religious sentiment itself is not religion. Moshe brings us, if not The Answer, a guidepost. Halachah. Moshe enunciates a basic halachic principle, but it must then be worked out in the details of observance.

Only once we have contemplated the requirements of halacha can we begin to engage with G-d. Halacha is G-d's spoken language. So many of us recite prayers whose meanings we do not fully comprehend. Halacha is very much like that: we are bidden to behave in certain ways in order to fulfill G-d's will. We are not like those spiritual seekers who believe that spiritual yearnings and feelings are sufficient to guide us. We have seen where that leads, and human history is none the better for it. But neither are we like those who believe that rigid and unquestioning adherence to behavioral rules is an obligation. We have also seen where that leads.

The Jewish way, the Torah way, is to explore Torah, explore mitzvot. Is to explore human life through the vehicle of Halacha - with Torah study being the single highest halachic value. It is not to discount the need for morality - chas veshalom! But those who say they do not need Halacha because they are already leading a moral life miss the point entirely. The ultimate purpose of Halacha is to enable us to enter into a dialogue with G-d. Living a moral life is a Torah imperative. But so is keeping kosher.

The reflective and inner transformative process of ChaBaD - of wisdom, understanding and knowledge - is described as working on all levels, both human and Divine. It is as if to say G-d, too, planned out Creation. I:indeed, Creation is anything but random. The very first Midrash describes G-d's Act of Creation as the work of a contractor building a house from a blueprint. "G-d looked into Torah" the Midrash says, "and created the world."

Gevalt! So, even G-d plans first, then acts?

If you think your feelings are telling you the right thing, perhaps - before you act, before you jump to conclusions - it is time to withdraw and ponder.