Friday, April 22, 2005

Acharei Mot - The Wicked Child


Chazal often draw the analogy between Chametz and the Yetzer HaRa' - the Evil Inclination that draws us away from G-d. This is why we have to obliterate it at Pesach - so that we can be fully open to the Matzot / Mitzvot (identical spelling in Hebrew).

What does Chametz do? It makes the dough rise. It makes a loaf of bread, in essence, bigger than itself. Makes the dough spill over its own borders and expand. And in expanding, it becomes transformed into something else.

One way of viewing the Chametz is, that it is the common human desire to do more, to add. The human penchat for getting carried away with things, swept along in the grip of the emotions of the moment.

Like Nadav and Avihu, for whom this Parasha is named, although they do not really play a role in it.

But G-d addresses Moshe after the death of the sons of Aharon and, in this Parashah, gives the laws of Kippur. One thing we must notice is the high degree of ritualization of the 'Avodah - the Service - of Kippur. And this is reinforced in chapter 17, starting at verse 3, which states that it is not permitted to bring sacrificial offerings anywhere but in front of the Mishkan, in its designated place.

The "sin" of Nadav and Avihu was that by bringing their own spontaneous offering, they actually separated themselves from 'Am Israel - in many contexts, the gravest sin of all. Equally, those who bring offerings outside of the Camp, away from the Mishkan, are separating themselves from Torah and from the People of Torah. There is a delicate balance to be struck: between carrying out all the requirements of the law, and not adding to the requirements of the law. Another way of looking at this is to state that Kavanah ("spiritual feeling, intention, focus") does not replace Halachah.

Chapter 16, verse 3: "With this [Hebrew: "zot"] Aharon shall cometo the Mishkan..." The Midrash says: "zot" refers to a long list of mitzvot, including: Shabbat, Brit Milah, Ma'aser and Terumah, animal sacrifices, and more. "With this" - as it were, bearing the mitzvot before him, "shall Aharon enter the Mishkan." And it is "zot" - this litany of mitzvot - that protects Aharon, rather than the garments he wears, rather than the 'Avodah he performs once inside.

It is the mitzvot themselves. Not their simulacrum, not the Kavana empty of the act. Nor should it be the act, devoid of kavana. Although the Torah, and the Rabbis, clearly require the act to be carried out, even if the one performing the act does not "feel" it. This leads to derision from people who ask why we bother observing mitzvot like tefilin, tzitzit, certain aspects of kashrut, ("in those days, before antibiotics and refrigeration, it was dangerous to eat shellfish..."], and for that matter, shabbat and yom tov. For many Jews, even Yom HaKippurim.

The other side of the coin is that a society can only be maintained if people do act according to expectation, even if they don't always feel like it.

It is a mitzvah to have fair and uniform weights and measures for purposes of trade. It is a mitzvah to help poor people to reestablish themselves as self-sufficient, contributing members of society. It is a mitzvah to protect people - all people, Jew and non-Jew alike - from persecution.

On the most fundamental level, we do not trade mitzvot like greenhouse gas emission permits. G-d expects us to keep shabbat. G-d expects us to keep kosher. G-d expects us to wave the lulav, to not wear shatnez, to sit in a sukkah, to fast on Kippur. G-d also - and equally - expects us to come to the aid of the poor, the needy, the sick, the downtrodden. And we must keep shabbat, not for ourselves, but for all of Klal Israel - the community of Israel. And we likewise keep the mitzvot of social justice for the sake of Klal Israel. The Torah does not instruct us to pick and choose. For there is no separating them.

In many respects, the entire seder night is about the Rasha' - the Wicked Child. What makes this Child wicked? The questions of the Wise Child and of the Wicked, it has often been remarked, are nearly identical. Indeed, they are more identical than is often recognized. For the Wise Child asks "What is this Holy Service ["Avodah"] which our G-d has commanded us?" The Wicked Child asks "What is this sacred service to you?" Thus, the Wicked Child actually acknowledges that the actions surrounding Pesach constitute a form of Worship. What is missing is that the Wicked Child does not go the extra step of identifying with this Holy Service. To the contrary, the Wicked Child asks: "What is this Sacred Worship to you? The question is really, "What do you get out of it?"

That is the question of the rasha' - the Wicked Person. It was the question, famously, of Elisha Ben Abuya, who saw a man performing mitzvot, yet dying tragically; and he also saw a man neglecting the same mitvot, yet he lived a long and prosperous life. What good is this religion, asked Elisha, if a man can not calculate and be sure of receiving reqard commensurate with the extra effort he puts into observance?

This is not, as many people seem to believe, the question of an Apikoros. This is the classic definition of a Rasha' - a Wicked Man. He knows the truth, but he rejects it because it does not give him what he wants.

On Pesach w are brought to reflect on this. Often, we may be tempted to give free rein to our spiritual feelings. Torah has given us a context for everything. The free exercise of spiritual emotions is fundamentally not a Jewish value. Rather, the value is placed on behaving the way we are expected. Of living halachically. When we live within the halachah, we attain a level, style and degree of freedom that is unlike anything else we can experience. When we make it up as we go along, we may be "getting in touch spiritually", but we may not be getting in touch Jewishly.

In this week's Parasha, we read of the observance of Yom Kippur. "Ve'initem et nafshotechem..." "And you shall afflict your souls..." The word "'initem" is the same root as the 'oni of the phrase "Lechem 'oni" - Matzah. In a sense, the Torah is telling us, We have become so full of ourselves, the only remedy is a purge. "'Initem" "Clean out the chametz, clean the room, make it spotless. Empty yourself of all preconceptions. Do teshuvah until you have brought yourself down to the state of pure flour mixed only with fire and water.

The Wicked Child absolutely recognizes that the seder is an 'Avodah - a holy service. His question is not "What does this mean to you? Rather, his question is, "What's in it for you?" When this attitude arises in the community, perhaps the only remedy is Stern Measures. Our spiritual / halachic year is bracketed by two instances of "Affliction." We share our spiritual simplicity, our spritual poverty with others on the nights of seder. But can we sustain them? For those of us who are merely human, G-d gave us a reminder at mid-year: Kippur.

The Haggadah states that we are all required to both "View" ourselves, and also to "Show" ourselves as if we personally had been redeemed from Mitzraim.

We Show ourselves by following Halachah. We View ourselves by imbuing our acts with kavannah. They are inseparable and interdependent.

Let us wish one another a shabbat shalom, a Chag Kasher VeSameach. La shanah haba' biYerushalaim (click on the title to get link to an article on why we say this formula at the end of the seder.)

Let it be your will, our G-d and G-d of our ancestors, that we always remain as simple as the matzah, that we recognize that this 'Avodah is for us, even when we do recognize all its aspects. Nonetheless, they pertain to us, they belong to us. We are blessed to be able to carry out the mitzvot. They are what makes us who we are.

Yours for a better world...


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