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.


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