Thursday, April 14, 2005

Parashat Metzora' - Word Perfect


The Gemara in Sanhedrin states that there has never been a case of Tzara'at of houses andthere never will be. This is quoted famously and frequently, although, as with so much else we find in the Gemara, there are also contradictory opinions. According, then, to The One Who Says there never has been and never will be, what is the purpose of stating in the Torah - in our Parashah, chapter 14, starting from verse 33 - the various laws pertaining to the affliction we generally translate as Leprosy of Houses?

The purpose, states the Gemara, is so that we can study it in detail and learn its laws.

If you find that position just a tad too cute, consider this:

Starting from verse 33, translating freely: "And G-d spoke to Moshe and to Aharon to say: When you [plural] shall come to the Land of Canaan which I am giving to you [plural] as a possession, and I have placed the affliction of TZARA'AT ['leprosy'] on a house of the land of your [plural] possession..." What is consistent with the position in the Gemara is not the verses of tzara'at, but the verse which introduces them. For, Moshe and Aharon do not, in fact, enter the Land. If we accept the position in Sanhedrin - which is contradicted, for example, in other places in the Gemara (Chacham Scroll quotes the Gemara in Yoma, as well as the Rambam) - then we should extend back to the introduction, for it is surely true that neither Moshe nor Aharon entered the Land. And why do we study the laws of the Offerings and Sacrifices of the Beit HaMikdash?

In a sense, the study of the Korbanot - the offerings of the Beit HaMikdash - is every bit as meaningful today as thje actual bringing of the Korbanot in the days when the temple stood. In another sense, of course, it is far more important to study the laws and rituals. By so doing, we enter into the spiritual essence of the act. At its best, the theoretical study of acts no longer tangible is the vestibule of the direct spiritual connection between humanity and G-d, it transcends the dead body of the goat or sheep, and goes straight to the spiritual content of the offering, the soul of the one bringing the offering - symbolically transferred to the animal in the act of Smicha - leaning one's weight on the animal right before it is slaughtered.

In fact, we believe this, in one sense, of the whole of Torah. It is a letter waiting to be opened. It is a message in a foreign language, awaiting the translator. Imagine having grown to the age of bar /bat mitzvah, living in the world, going through daily life, and never knowing your own name. Then, at your bat / bar mitzvah, your parents stand before you, your rabbi by their side, and recite the blessing "Blessed that you have released me from the punishment for this [child]". Imagine if, at that moment, instead of being given a tallit, a siddur, a kiddush cup - imagine if your parents turned to you and, for the first time in your life, told you your name.

Suddenly, you are both like everyone else, and completely unlike everyone else. In a flash, you re-experience your entire life, and now it all has a vast, profound layer of meaning that never existed before.

In Chasiddus, the concept of Belief in G-d is viewed on two levels. One level is organic: no living human can fail to know the source of all human life. But it is only when we are old enough, and our parents and the educators and the wise people of our community teach us the name of G-d, the history of G-d with us, the nature and attributes (for some, at least) of G-d: only when we put a name to what we already know do we recognize G-d as being actually G-d. There are boundaries and definitions, and they exist simultaneously.

In sefer Bereshit, G-d Divided between light and darkness... and G-d "called to the light, 'Day'! Called to the dark, 'Night!'"

A name is not sufficient. Each thing that exists must have boundaries, and to be human is to be self-aware, to know and explore and seek to encounter those very boundaries. The limits of our selves help to define who we are. And finally, to be hman means to not accept those boundaries as being fixed, but to strive throughout our lives to transcend them.

And so we go through our lives trying to put meaning to everything, to create the boundaries that make reality the diverse basket it is. Trying to put meaning to Torah. We often take a dogmatic stand, but as we are doing for the sake of Torah, we call it lishmah.

The story is told of Rav Chaim Brisker, the Rov of Brisk, Lithuania. He satwith his students one day and asked - "Why is a cup like this [cupping his palm and turning it upward] and not like that? [cupping his palm and turning it downward]?" The answer seemed obvious to all: "Because if it were like that [palms turned facing down] everything would fall out!"

No, said Rav Chaim. The reason is, because if it were like that, you couldn't get anything into it in the first place!

Rav Chaim is saying, it would not be a cup, by mere definition. On another level, Rav Chaim is saying, until we loosen up our minds and are able to think around the constructs that are part of our innate programming, we will never perceive the world as it is.

Now, return to the verses from this week's Parasha. Why did G-d tell Moshe and Aharon they would enter the Land? Did G-d lie to them? To those for whom Mashiach is the answer, the posuk clearly (?!) tells us that Moshe and Aharon will certainly live in the Land, after the Ressurection of the Dead. Which means that then, after the Geulah, we will be able to experience Tzara'at of houses?

The Torah speaks human words, it speaks to us in human language. Which means that, at least on one very profound level, we must misunderstand the text - how can the innefible thoughts of G-d be expressed in mere human language? Whatever program you are using to download Torah, you do not speak the Language of G-d - you will never be 'Word Perfect'!

Perhaps we might take a lesson from this week's Parashah, coupled with the insight of the Gemara. What if none of this ever happened? What if Torah never said, like Yogi Berra, half the things Torah said? Rav Chaim Brisker was teaching something very profound.

He was saying to his Talmidim: You define a cup as something this shape, and something that holds a liquid. I define a cup as something which is shaped in such a way that it can receive liquid. For only after the liquid has been put into the cup do we worry about it spilling if the cup is upset.

So often, many of us define Torah as something that has value and merit in itself - an intrinsic worth, transcendant and eternal. But we are lost in what the Kabbalists call the Exile of Language. We think that ,because we read the words of the text, we understand what the Torah means. To pretend we understand Torah - this is not Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake. Rather , this is Torah for ourselves. When we explain Torah, we place ourselves at the center of the universe. You think you are like cups full of wine. But there's the same wine in every cup. This is Torah? For this you need to sit in Yeshivah twelve hours a day? To all have the same answer to questions? To have the same pshat?

Rebbe Nachman used to say: let your interpretations of the text be creative; seek new ways of understanding the text. Only: don't change the halachah!

Rav Chaim Brisker was saying: Torah is a filter through which we come to G-d. Through which we see the world. If we allow it to lead us, it enables us to interact with G-d. If we take it to heart with our small, literalist minds, we may chase our own tails in endless circles of intellectual and religious fervor, but we are not getting any closer to G-d.

When the mind is closed by our knee-jerk, reactive and constricted definitions of Torah, it's no longer lishmah.

The wine can't possibly spill out of the cups. It couldn't be poured into them in the first place.

yours for a better world.


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