Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Parashat Bamidbar - Onward, Jewish Soldiers!


Thomas Mann's novel "The Magic Mountain" describes a seven-year stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. The book is, among other things, a discourse on the nature of Time, and of the way Time itself mutates in the perspective of each of us - and as our perspective mutates moment by moment, the effect this flow of the unstable Self has on the nature of Time. Hans Castorp, the central figure, comes to the sanatorium atop a mountain and, through his observations, we are gradually introduced to the life of a patient. Castorp's first week on the rest cure is described in intense detail, down to the specifics of hours and minutes... Of moments. This description takes up so much of the book that it is disconcerting to notice, after having completed it, how many pages were devoted to a single week - versus how many years subsequently rushed by in a mere few hundred pages.

In commenting on Sefer Bamidbar - the Book of Numbers - Don Isaac Abravanel notes the structure of the Torah, and we see a parallel in the way the Torah, as a narrative, deals with its own concept of Time.

According to the Abarbanel (/ Abravanel - how did he get two names that sound like mispronunciations of each other?) , the general structure of the Torah is:

Sefer Bereshit (Genesis) - Gives the ancestry of 'Am Israel - our own forebears, starting from the moment of the Creation. The world was created for the sake of Torah, after all.

Sefer Shemot (Exodus) - Introduces the fundamental Jewish notion of Exile & Redemption - and of Torah and the Mishkan.

Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) - The notion of Sanctity, as exemplified in the Mishkan, and the concept of Halacha as Sacred Normative Behavior.

Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers) - "Leading the People" - the journeys, the wanderings in the desert, Opposition and Delay - forty years in the wilderness.

Finally, as we shall see BS"D when we arrive at Sefer Devarim, don Isaac views the final book of Torah as perhaps an amalgam of Moshe's handiwork, spliced in with G-d's. It may be that G-d gave the words, while Moshe put them in their final order. Or maybe Moshe wrote a draft, then showed it to G-d and obtained final approval.

Using Don Isaac Abravanel's template as a jumping-off point, we can also view the first four books as:

Bereshit - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph

Shemot - Moshe

Vayikra - Aharon and Klal Israel - Israel as a unified body

Bamidbar - each individual Jew

In this reading, the last Book - Sefer Devarim - becomes our own attempt to discourse with G-d.
We should note that our parasha is very specific as to the setting. The place, and more especially the time of the events is stated precisely: (1:1) "And G-d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of assembly, on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their coming our of the land of Mizraim, saying:" The Rashbam, in his pragmatic fashion, says that the reason for the specificity of the date is that it establishes a cut-off for age of eligibility for military service. For that is what this parasha is about, at least superficially - it is about setting up a military draft.

G-d commands Moshe to take a census. This harks back to Parashat Ki Tisa. There, when G-d commands that a census be taken, Moshe is instructed to take a half-shekel from every able-bodied man. Chazal ascribe this same practice to the census taken in this week's parasha; notably, Rashi, on verse 2, darshans (explains / elucidates / "teitscht ois") the word "legulgelotam" - "by their skulls" (i.e. "head count") and says: By means of a shekel for each head.

In Ki Tisa, G-d commands Moshe to use shekalim for counting the people of Israel. There, the language appears broad enough that we can accept it as a general rule, to be applied here as well. At the same time, the shekel is not mentioned here. Rather, Moshe is commanded to count up the people, with the specific intent of singling out those destined for a military mission. (It is poignant to be writing this the day after Memorial Day, after watching two hours of programs about men who volunteered for military missions during WWII when they knew they faced almost certain death, but fought for the privilege of placing themselves in harm's way for the Cause. Often, these missions were to rescue POWs. Does the entire project of Being Human get any more horrendous and pathetic than when people are at war...?)

This parasha seems to be addressing Each Individual Jew. While the half-shekel of Ki Tisa was an equalizer - G-d specifically commands that the rich shall not give more, nor the poor less - this week's census focuses on the differences between individuals. The Mei HaShiloach addresses the array of the tribes and their banners around the Mishkan and says that each captain of each Degel (banner) knew the exact location of each person in the ranks within his Shevet (Tribe) and knew instantly if a person was out of their accustomed place.

[Two Chassidim are arguing about whose Rebbe is greater. One says: "My Rebbe remembers exactly where he was standing at Har Sinai!" The other Chassid departs in silence. Next day, they meet again. The first Chassid says: "So what do you have to say?" The second says: "I asked my Rebbe. He says you are right. Your Rebbe should remember where he was standing at Har Sinai, because my Rebbe stepped on his foot!]

The census of Bamidbar is more complex than the first census. Two words repeat in the text in describing the actions of this census. They are forms of the Hebrew words "Se'o" and "paqad". In verse 2, G-d commands Moshe: "Se'u 'et-rosh kol 'adat bnei israel..." The verb SE'U is in the plural form, meaning Aharon, who is included in the next verse. It means "lift up" and the command translates, "Lift up the head of all the congregation of bnei Israel..." In the next verse, the command finishes with "... tifqedu 'otam leziva'otam, 'ata ve Aharon." "... you [plural] count them according to their hosts, you and Aharon." The word PQD is complex and profound, awash in meanings. In Chumash it appears variously as: Remember, Visit, Count, Punish, Redeem, Command... The list goes on.

When we analyze these two words - SE'O and PQD - according to the principle of First occurrences, an interesting juxtaposition emerges. It appears that SE'O is in the human realm, while PQD is in the divine.

The first occurrence of the shoresh SE'O is in Bereshit 4:7, G-d admonishes Cain after rejecting his offering: "Ha-lo 'im teitev SE'IT?..." "Is it not true that if you do well, it shall be uplifted?" - Or, probably, "Isn't it the case that, if you improve yourself, then your offerings will be accepted?" We all know the outcome of that scene.

And PQD. Where does that first occur?

Bereshit 21:1 - "Ve HaShem PAQAD 'et Sarah..." As far as I can tell, the verb does not occur again until the end of Bereshit - Parashat Vayechi, 50:24, when Joseph is about to die "... ve'elokim PAQOD YIFQOD 'etchem..." "... G-d will surely remember you..." And will take you up out of this land to the Land promised to Abraham, Yitzhak, and Ya'akov... Then, Yoseph makes his brothers swear an oath, and the oath reads: "PAQOD YIFQOD Elokim 'etchem veha'alitem 'et-'atzmotai mizeh." "G-d will surely remember you, and you will bear up my bones from here."

We have seen that the oath is, in fact, passed down. It is probably the only remnant that ties Israel to its past - and future - when we were enslaved in Mizraim. The proof that we remembered is in Shemot 4:31, "And the people believed, and they heard 'ki FAQAD HaShem et Bnei Israel...' that G-d PQD Bnei Israel..." And so we bowed our heads and prostrated ourselves.... Although to what, we knew not.

And now, in Parashat Bamidbar, we believe that we know.

How wrong we are! But it will take forty years for us to begin to learn. G-d offers us the opportunity to combine human volition - SE'O - with Divine Providence - PQD. We end up not being up to the task on G-d's preferred timetable.

But G-d's delays are not G-d's denials. The message of Bamidbar - of the entire book - is the balance between Klal Israel and the individual Jew: balancing our individual destinies with the eternal arc of the destiny of the Jewish people. For the generations that perished in the Midbar, this may seem a bitter lesson - a PQD. For those who choose to view themselves as part of the overall destiny of 'Am Israel, it is no longer purely bitter. "Ha-lo 'im teiteiv SE'EIT?" Is it not in each of our power, individually, to better the situation?

Yours for a better world.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Parashat Bechuqotai - The Little Torah

In non-leap years, this parasha is read together with the preceding one - Behar. Together, these parshiyot are referred to by Chazal as "the Little Torah". Behar opens at 25:1 with: "And G-d spoke to Moshe ON MOUNT SINAI...", while this week's parasha ends, at 27:34 (also the end of Sefer Vayikra - the Book of Leviticus) with: "These are the mitzvot that G-d commanded Moshe to Bnei Israel ON MOUNT SINAI." Thus, the words "behar sinai" - "on Mt. Sinai" bracket the content of these two parshiyot. This is a literary device we have seen elsewhere in the text of Torah - most notably, perhaps, in the long night of Ya'akov's exile, where the two decades-plus he spends in Haran are bracketed by a sunset and a sunrise. As in that instance, the literary device serves to draw our attention to the portion of text that is set apart by its end-stops.

Nechama Leibovitz breaks the Little Torah down into chapter and section topics, more or less as follows:


* and the Land shall keep a sabbath
* and it shall be a year of Yovel (the Jubilee)
* and you shall declare FREEDOM
* and you shall return every owner's possessions
* you shall not wrong one another
* if your brother becomes poor with you


* the Blessings
* cumulative effect of the Many who practice Torah together
* the Tochachah - "And I will bring the Land to desolation"
* they will confess their sins / iniquity
* and yet... [G-d's ultimate comfort to 'Am Israel - not to each of us individually, but insofar as we adhere to the People of Israel, as we constantly maintain a Jewish identity.]

Another example of the literary device of bracketing is the section within the parshiyot - the Tochachah / Rebuke, which begins at 26:16, opens with the words "Af ani..." Meaning "Also I" or "Then will I also". This section is brought to a close by words of conciliation. At 26:44, after having poured out a dollop of prospective wrath, G-d states: "Ve'Af gam zot, behiyotam be'eretz oiveyhem..." "But notwithstanding all this, while they are in the land of their enemies..." The word "'Af" [aleph, peh] brackets the Tochachah, on the one hand raising it yet higher above the "Little Torah" which is, itself, singled out within the text. The other effect of this bracketing is to sequester the wrath of G-d, in effect to offer us a means of protection. The double use of the word "'Af" builds a wall - or perhaps a pair of gates, showing us both the way in to G-d's wrath, but also holding out the promise that we will ultimately exit.

And of course, to ice the matzoh, as it were, the Hebrew word "'Af" (same spelling) also means "Wrath". There are no coincidences in Torah.

In the Spain of the Inquisition, many of the great Jewish commentators were driven to focus on the seeming lack of spirituality in these two parshiyot. It's almost exclusively about mundane matters of agrarian husbandry and social welfare. Matters, one might argue, where we do not require divine law to instruct us. Nechama Leibovitz quotes the Albo, the Arama, and the Abarbanel - all mediaeval Spanish Hachamim - as asking why the Little Torah speaks about the physical and says virtually nothing about the spiritual benefits of observance.

This was presumably prompted by the attacks of the Catholic Church who rushed to point out that the Jewish G-d really is only focusing on mundane matters, and that the Jewish religion - ergo - only deals with base and profane issues, and can not rise to the sacred or the holy.

Two hundred and fifty years earlier, the RamBaN made a radical observation on exactly this point. His observation dovetails nicely with the notion expressed, for example, in the Chassidic writings, of the definition of the mitzvah to Believe In G-d. The RamBaN writes that immortality and eternal companionship with G-d is the natural and permanent state of the soul. Almost as if to say that it is truly only in this world that the soul can forget itself, that the soul finds itself in a garment which is itself prone to suffering. The Torah comes, not to teach us to forget this world, but to show us how to thrive while we are here, for this is the critical schooling the soul must receive. There is a deep debate in Judaism as to whether, similar to most elementary schools in this country, the soul is able to repeat coursework in subjects it flunked. Without going too far afield, it is quite clear that there is a profound historical Jewish belief in reincarnation. Like the idea of Mashiach, 'Olam HaBa and the Third Beit Ha Miqdash, reincarnation is an idea not found in the written Torah. Also like these other concepts, it is hinted at in the later writings - NaCh - but the working-out of the notion in a Jewish way, and as a concept that is seen as indigenous to Judaism, was left to the Rabbis. For some reason I do not fully understand, the notion of reincarnation is much more current among Sefardim than Ashkenazim. The Sefardic Yom Kippur machzor, for example, among the list of "Al Cheit - " ["For the sins committed...'] makes two references to reincarnation. "For sins I have committed whether in this incarnation or in other incarnations", and "For sins for which the punishment is to be reincarnated as a lower life form..." That's pretty specific.

I am confused by this, because Ashkenazim - at least those who are somewhat influenced by Chassidus - embrace other borderline-magical notions, such as Mashiach. Tune in around Rosh HaShana for a more wide-ranging discussion of notions of Mashiach and Reincarnation, as they apply to Teshuvah and the Yomim Noraim.

For now, let us return to the notion that, as far as our soul's outer garment is concerned, this world is all we have. Thus, when the Torah - the "Little Torah" - focuses our attention on the here and the now, on doing right by one another for the good of the perpetual existence of Jewish society, it is saying perhaps the most profound thing that a human can grasp. There is no human frame of reference for 'Olam HaBa, which is why the Torah does not speak about it. When it became an emotional need for a huge segment of the population, the Rabbis permitted it - indeed, some seem to have embraced it, although we do not know at this remove whether Rabbi Akiva's support for Bar Kochba was political, or whether Rabbi Akiva himself believed in the notion of Mashiach as a quasi-super hero sent from Shamayim. As with much that has become mainstream for us Jews today, it is often difficult to tease out contemporaneous facts of the time before the Mishna from the revisionism of two intervening millennia.

One thing, though, is certain, and is emphasized in this week's parsha. There is a concept that lies at the heart of our lives as Jews that says: "kol Israel 'arevim ze el ze." "All Israel are guarantors for one another." Those of us who are learning Masechet Shabbat in the Daf Yomi cycle have already seen instances of acts that are prohibited for one person to do alone, but become permitted when they are done in a group. This is because the Rabbis assume that, in a group, people will remind one another of what is the proper Halacha, and transgressions will be avoided. In other words: Chazal have great faith in the human propensity to Do The Right Thing. People fundamentally want to be good. They merely need to be reminded, not because we are fundamentally bad, but because we are fundamentally weak. Some call this Yetzer HaRa, some call it loss of focus. The effect of ten Jewish families coming together to make a minyan on shabbat, to make a small community within a community by having all family members together in Shul, observing shabbat as one, is greater than the effect of one hundred Jewish families, each observing shabbat alone in its own home.

One of the most compelling reasons for the prohibition against driving on shabbat, for example, is to ensure that all Jews live, not merely within walking distance of the place of worship, but - by coincidental, though clearly intended effect - within walking distance of one another. Jews are city dwellers, of necessity. A group of fifty homes clustered around a shul is a town. Many who have lived in the kind of environment find it stultifying. There are many Jews who are a trifle too eager to point out to us when we might be in danger of transgressing a commandment of Torah. When the commandment is a prohibition against me serving cheeseburgers on shabbat to a house full of neighbors, I am fully in support of it. But when the "prohibition" is that my wife can not drive a car, or my daughters can not learn Torah or put on Tefillin, than I too have a problem.

The "Little Torah" focuses on the Here and Now. That, in itself, is a tremendous amount to deal with. Do you also require that we speak of the Hereafter? But the Torah says: our Garment of humanity can not comprehend the Hereafter; while our inner Soul - see RamBaN - knows nothing else. There is an inherent conflict in being human, not to speak of being Jewish.

Being Jewish is a constant struggle. If we approach it honestly, it is a constant struggle within our own heart and mind and soul to understand and to come to terms with the inner meaning of Torah, to live as consistently as we can by the requirements of Halacha, to contribute as fully as we can to our own immediate community, and to the world at large. To acknowledge the inherent inconsistencies - call them contradictions if you like; call them the hypocrisy that is innate to being human - that are part of our lives at any moment. By contrast, rejecting Halacha or Torah notions, merely because we are uncomfortable with them, not only damages Torah and Judaism - it damages the Jewish community; it damages ourselves.

No one ever said it was going to be easy.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Parashat Behar - Back To The Present

Two amazing concepts are presented to us in the first two psukim of this week's parasha: in the first pasuk, we are told that G-d spoke to Moshe "on Mt. Sinai" - whence the title of the parasha "BeHar" - "On the Mountain". In the second verse, G-d delivers the message of the ay: the seventh year as a "sabbatical year" - the commandmant of shmittah - the obligation to let the Land rest every seventh year. But the more interesting aspect of this verse is that it is couched in the continuous present tense. The Hebrew uses the verb "noten" "I give".

Now, as the first verse tells us explicitly that G-d spoke to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, it appears that this section harks back to the moment of the giving of Torah; that it is a flashback, not a part of the present narrative. If so, why is G-d using this continuous-present voice? I would expect the text to use, either the definitive perfect form -- "natati", or the direct future "'eten". Instead, G-d tells us that G-d is constantly in the process of giving us the Land. As with the Creation of Light and Darkness memorialized in the Shabbat prayers, as in the ongoig blessings of sustenance that we daily acknowledge, G-d gives us the Land at every moment. But the couping of this ongoing generosity with a set of requirements appears to place a new moral perspective on our ownership of the Land of Israel. There are rules, G-d has expectations of us. The implication is clear: if we fail to live up to G-d's expectations, we could lose the Land. Note especially that this interpretation is only made possible by the text's use of the present tense. If G-d said "natati", denoting a completed action, it would be much more difficult to force this interpretation.

This reading is further supported by the reminder that this is all being told to Moshe on Mt. Sinai. It is an almost Brechtian breaking-out of the continuous present narrative to draw us back to the storyteller. It is like turning the footlights down in the middle of the second act and bringing up the house lights, just to remind the audience that we are in a theater, that the people on the stage are actors. That none of this is happening, not really happening.

Oh, but it is! And it continues to tie together. Rashi points out that, just as we feared the momentary absence of food and water upon being brought out of Mizraim, so too we fear the loss of our sources of food in the shmitta year. In Bereshit 41:34, when Yosef is advising Pharaoh in preparation for the lean years to come, the text uses the word "ve'chimesh" - usually translated as "and [Pharaoh shall] prepare." How does he prepare? By doubling the usual tax of one-tenth on all the produce of the land of Egypt. By "chimesh", by taking one-fifth in each of the Fat Years, Pharaoh is well stocked to withstand the rigors of the seven Lean Years.

Similarly, Rashi states that G-d promised there would be three years' abundance in the final year before shmitta: one year's worth to eat now, one to save to plant the following year, and one to eat while awaiting the harvest the year after.

Then, as though that were not enough, in verse 10, we are given the commandment of the Yovel year - the Jubilee. This is a societal re-set, profoundly similar to letting the Land lie fallow for a year, and profound in its spiritual implications. IN this fiftieth year, even the slave with a hole bored in hie ear goes out free. Houses that had been pledged to secure loans a generation ago revert to the familes that held them. As the Shabbat is a day of rest from human creative work - as the shmitta is a year of rest for the Land, wherein the Land itself is restored - so the Yovel restores society, gently correcting imbalances that have crept in over the intervening decades.

The Torah is mildly socialist - not anti-wealth. This is a largely pro-business document, but with the angle that all business must serve the common good, in addition to enriching its owners. Rav Kook saw, in this economic rebalancing, a spiritual re-equilibrating, a re-calibrating of our spiritual relationship to the Land.

It can all be summed up in one word, from 25:14 - "lo tonu..." "do not vex / oppress." And though the principle is an economic one, the Rabbis immediately extended it to apply to social situations where people are able to take advantage of one another with words. In the same vein, we are prohibited from asking prices of a shopkeeper if we know we have no intention of buying anything. We are not permitted to pose difficult questions to those we know do not have the learning, or the intellectual capacity to formulate answers.

"lo' tonu..." do not vex one another. Also, do not vex ourselves. For we oftenforget to apply mitzvot to ourselves, we forget that we are also entitled to the comfort and happinss that come along with observance of Torah.

By the way: this week is Pesach Sheni. Originally designed for those who were traveling, and thus not available for the communal Paschal sacrifice, the day is observed by some with a min-seder, where matzot are eaten, wine is drunk. Some read all, or part of the Haggaddah. This year, in particular, it is interesting to see the way G-d prepares time for us, lays out our days and - as the Torah lays out the decades of our generations, the years of our crop cycles, the observances of our annual seasons, the days of the week - so too G-d provides the time for the Sacred to enter our lives.

This year we had two Adars, and now we have two Pesachs. An extra month to prepare for the seders, a second chance a month afterwards. Leaving Egypt is the defining moment in our history as a people. More even than receiving Torah on Sinai - the Rabbis are clear on the fact that it was only leaving Egypt that enabled us to be prepared to receive Torah. Torah could only be given in the wilderness. And Egypt was our home. For two hundred years, we prospered there. This week's parasha reminds us several times of our historical origin. And, lest we forget, it ends by reminding us that we are slaves to G-d. It is, after all, a small thing to give up our possessions in the fiftieth year. We never owned them in the first place.

In chapter 25, verse 10, the Torah tells us "Proclaim Freedom in the Land." The text uses the word "dror" meaning Liberty, Freedom. This is its only appearance in the Torah, and it is significant.

G-d freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. But we were the slaves of slaves. Now we are free. G-d can not free those who are in any measure not free, when they are themselves free people, in thrall to people who are free. The freedom in a free society must come from within, and it is the responsibility of each of us to foster it..

Pesach, the holiday that marks our Freedom, is the only holiday given twice by the Torah. We have two opportunities to observe this holiday. This year, let us take on ourselves the beautiful custom of Pesach Sheni. Even if all we do is take four sips of wine, eat a half a matzoh, we can cherish the moment we became who we are as a people. We can re-live the passing from affliction to freedom, and we can proclaim liberty in the land.

Yours for a better world.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Parashat Emor - A Life of Service


Gd commands Moshe to speak to Aharon and to his sons - the Kohanim - for the laws laid down in the first section of this Parasha relate specifically to them and their Avodah - the service of the Mishkan and, later, of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet, at the end of chapter 21 (21:24) the text tells us "Moshe spoke to Aharon and to his sons and to all of Bnei Israel".

Many people argue with Halacha because they do not see an explicit statement in the text of Torah. The rabbis take the thrice-repeated injunction against cooking a kid in its mother's milk, for example, to be a prohibition (1) against cooking meat with dairy; (2) against eating meat and dairy cooked together; and (3) against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of meat and dairy, including selling it to a non-Jew or feeding it to a dog. The argument against this reasoning is: if G-d wanted us not to eat any mixture of meat and dairy, G-d would have told us explicitly.

Given the fact that the Torah speaks in language - and that languge, any language, is notoriously imprecise - this is practically identical to the argument brought against Rav Kook's position that Torah holds vegetarianism to be an ultimate towards which we must strive: If G-d had not intended humans to eat animals, G-d would not have made animals out of meat.

In this parasha, and not for the first time, Moshe is creating rabbinic Judaism, even as he receives laws from G-d and transmits them to their intended recipients.

Why does Moshe announce the Kohanic laws to all Bnei Israel, even though G-d explicitly states that he is to transmit them to Aharon and his sons? Rashi tells us that the rest of the nation - all of us collectively - are responsible for the Kohanim maintaining their practice. Indeed, it isn't easy being a Kohen. The job of the Kohen is to be in a constant state of preparedness; to be perfect physically - thus, not all qualify, regardless of Kevanah or disposition - and to be perpetually at the service of the people. The Kohen is explicitly NOT a holy conduit, in the model of a Catholic priest, for example. There is nothing intrinsic about the kahuna that places the Kohen in a closer or more direct relationship to G-d than the average Jew. Rather, there is a requirement placed on all Kohanim who qualify that they be perpetually ready to stand in for any Israelite in all ritual requirements: the bringing of sacrifices and offerings, and seeking atonement before G-d. After decades of service, the Kohanim retire. It is fascinating to contemplate what the personality of such a person must be, to have devoted oneself wholeheartedly night and day to being ready to stand in the presence of G-d on behalf of one's nation. The parallel of seeing-eye dogs springs to mind - creatures who by training, if not by disposition, are brought to an incredible level of obedience, caring and service. I had a blind friend once who told his dog to sit, then he and I left for a Saturday night out in the jazz clubs of New York. When we returned to his grandparents' apartment, some six hours later, the dog was still on the same spot in the center of the living room floor. Imagine a human being, having that same level of devotion, yet having it advisedly, conscious at each moment of the life he is living, of the task he must at every instant be prepared to take on.

This is a life of service. And this is a paradigm for the service that all Israel must be prepared to perform, in that we have the responsibility of Torah. It imposes on us a sort of noblesse oblige, that by virtue of being the possessors of this immense gift, we are also obligated to teach the world holiness by the very example of our lives.

Why, at the beginning of the parasha, does G-d lay so much emphasis on the Kohanim not coming in contact with the dead? The Mei HaShiloach, who has a sharp perception for the effects of Anger, says that the response of a person before a corpse is one of anger. He does not elaborate too much, but we certainly can all relate to the core of fear and anger we experience when reflecting on our own mortality. Thus, even the death of a stranger can give rise to these powerful emotions. In order to truly serve in their function as Kohanim, as intermediaries for the offerings and atonements of Bnei Israel, the Kohanim must be free of anger. When one is angry with G-d, it is difficult to bring an offering with proper kevanah. Indeed, as the Mei HaShiloach points out, anger is perhaps the single most destructive human emotion, capable of destroying in an instant what it has taken a lifetime to build.

And yet, this is an all too human situation: for we all experience death, the death of others - strangers, friends, loved ones - the death of our own selves. And we experience the fear and rejection and pre-reactive terror of death at times throughout our lives. Shakespeare tells us that cowards die many times before their deaths. But, while the valiant may never taste of death until their time, there is no human being who does not contemplate death repeatedly throughout her or his lifetime. And no one is born without fear. People who appear fearless are possessed of certain behaviors, and action is always better than paralysis. Ultimately, though, the purpose of all human religion is to enable us to confront our fear of death.

Judaism, unlike many other religions, confronts death by affirming life. The Jewish concept of an Afterlife is at best a vague one, and is a later addition, not explicit in the written text of Torah. I am sure I'll catch a beating from the Mashiach crowd, but the notions of Resurrection of the Dead, Rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, and the Coming of the Mashiach are potentially very dangerous, in that they allow us to be distracted from the Here And Now. Torah focuses us on this life, and life is a process. If we view our purpose as Jews to work to bring Mashiach, then we engage fully in the day-to-day and moment-to-moment process of holiness. This is our commandment as a people: to be a nation of priests and a holy people.

If, instead, we wait for Mashiach, wait for G-d to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, wait for the Resurrection, then we are not behaving as Jews. We are sitting back and waiting for G-d to do all the work for us. Our parasha - chapter 23, verse 3 - tells us: "For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day it is 'shabbat shabbaton' a holy day of being called..." The language is curious and suggestive - "... mikra'-qodesh ..." with the word "mikra'" often being translated as "convocation", being called together. Indeed, the unity of Israel is seen as critical to the task and destiny of Israel. It is not enough for us to refrain from work. As Rabbi Riskin is so fond of saying: "Shabbos is not a noun, it's a verb. You have to learn how to Shabbos!" And let us remember that Shabbat is also a verb that extends throughout the other six days of the week. It is our obligation to see to it that the work of the other six days is done, is completed, and is carried out in such a way that the rest of the nations will stand in awe of our achievement, of our attitude, of our bearing, of the profound effect we have on the world. Then, once we have perfected ourselves and our six days, Shabbat is so sacred and so critically defines G-d's presence in the world that even an animal to be brought for an offering to G-d may not be slaughtered until it is eight days old - until it has lived through at least one shabbat.

As the Kohanim to Am Israel, so Am Israel to the world. The task is a burden, and we must stand in a constant state of preparedness, for in a sense, we minister to G-d on behalf of all humanity. It is through overcoming our emoitonal impulses that we aspire to the life of Torah. We do not deny our human emotions, our drives and desires; but we recognize them, love them and ourselves and one another for all that is human, then seek to understand them through the wisdom of Torah and the teachings of the Rabbis. Whether you agree with each "man de'omer" or not, it is undeniable that many thousands of the most intelligent people in history have spent every moment of their lives over the last three thousand years contemplating every aspect of human existence. How blessed are we to be the inheritors of this!

And it is our task to serve as the Kohanim for the world. It is through sanctifying the world each day, each moment, that we engage in the work of bringing Mashiach. It is through transmitting Torah to our children and to generations unborn that we ensure Resurrection - the resurrection of what it means in every generation to be a Jew - it is through making of our homes a Bayit Ne'eman beIsrael - a beautiful house within Israel - that we constantly engage in the building of the eternal Beit HaMikdash.

No one ever said being Chosen was going to be easy.

Yours for a better world.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Parashat Kedoshim - A Recipe for Holiness


This year, parashat Acharei Mot and parashat Kedoshim are read separately - in non-leap years they are combined as a double parasha. The juxtaposition of the two is instructive, for Acharei Mot contains a list of prohibitions and ends with a general admonition not to follow any of the "abominable practices" of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. This is preparatory to us taking possession of the Land, which is supposed to occur immanently - we do not read parashat Shelach Lecha for another seven weeks; as far as we are concerned, we are heading straight for the Promised Land.

Parashat Kedoshim, on the other hand, opens with positive commandments. And again, it is a broad general command set in opposition to the closing command of Acharei Mot: (chapter 19 verse 2) '... speak to the congregation of bnei Israel and say to them: 'You shall be holy because I am holy...'" The closing appellation can be read two different ways: "because I, HaShem your G-d, am holy," or: "Because I am holy: HaShem your G-d." Reading the text again, I prefer the second reading. It has a more legalistic ring to it, appropriate to the text in question. Significantly, this locution - I am HaShem your G-d; or simply, I am HaShem - repeats innumerable times throughout the parasha as a coda to mitzvah after mitzvah. The message is clear: we are to emulate G-d. Unlike other humans, who are created "beTzelem Elokim" - in the image of G-d - we are commanded to go one step farther and to actually copy G-d's behavior.

This is like the argument regarding the belief in G-d. According to Rambam, for example, there is a positive commandment to believe in G-d. Note that not all Poskim agree that such a mitzvah exists; but or those who do, the argument often follows the Chassidish approach: We can not say we do not KNOW G-d. All creatures are creations of G-d; therefore, all of us have an innate awareness of G-d, of G-d's existence, of G-d's nature. The specific mitzvah is to articulate and acknowledge the existence of G-d, the nature of G-d. My own reading is that we are comparable to people who have lived their entire lives without knowing our own names. We "know" who we are; we have senses, we clearly perceive the boundaries of our selves. But it is not until we are told our names that we know, in the full human sense, Who We Are. In this same way, we come to know G-d, through Torah and mitzvot.

Another way of looking at this phenomenon: we have just come through the week of Peasch, the time when we celebrate our national origin. When we were in Mizraim, we identified ourselves as an undifferentiated mass of the downtrodden. In a moment - and all change happens in an instant - we go from being The Oppressed to being a nation: a collection of tribes, each with its own name, its own group identity, each with its own specific role to play in the future of Am Israel. And, within our groups, we can now identify as individuals. The confrontation we will soon witness between Korach and Moshe grows from this notion: that the individual is no less precious in the eyes of G-d than the Nation.

And so it is through identifying ourselves that we heighten our awareness. The mishna in Pirkei Avot states that humans are blessed because we were created in the image of G-d - but that we are immeasurably more blessed because of the love and kindness which moved G-d to make it known to us that we are created in G-d's image.

Torah gives us the opportunity to take this Uniqueness - the uniqueness of being human - and build a second level of Uniqueness on top of it.

I am often confronted by people - good people, for the most part, who genuinely strive to live moral lives - who tell me, "I don't need religion to be a better person." And all I can say is: you haven't permitted Torah into your life. This week's parasha tells us, through the repeated exhortation "I am G-d", that the very reason we behave morally, the very reason we do what is just and what is right for society and our fellow humans, is because G-d has commanded us. Indeed, lest we should think there is some Higher Morality from which Torah is merely selecting a list of "Best Practices", we are reminded that it is G-d who is instructing us to behave this way. This puts morality into the realm of Halacha, thereby adding a vast new dimension to all our actions.

To select only one - and perhaps the most obvious - of the litany in this parasha, we are told (19:17,18) not to bear a grudge, nor to seek revenge; we are instructed to rebuke our fellow, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Why does rebuke link naturally to self-love?

Why does rebuke remove the need for revenge or bearing a grudge?

Intriguingly, why does the AriZa'l's siddur, used by ChaBaD and some other Chasiddic groups, introduce tyhe morning prayer with the kavannah: Here am I now preparing to accept upon myself the positive commandment "HYou shall love your neighbor as yourself"? How does that enter into the notion of tefillah, of prayer?

Do we not always seek to justify our own behavior? When others are angry, we become disgusted and mutter that they are being unreasonable. When we are angry, there is a good reason. It's because of the iunjustice done to us by someone else. This time, it's real injustice! We don't deserve this treatment!

Ah, but if we could only see into our own hearts, we would then truly understand all human behavior. And there is a true sense in which "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" - to understand all is to forgive all. Yet, if we truly care about ourselves, we will, in our quieter reflective moments, look within and admonish ourselves. We regret behavior that does not live up to the standards we set ourselves, and we acknowledge that we erred in permitting our emotions to dominate our behavior. We resolve to try to be aware of this, and not to permit it to happen again, not quite the same way. This process is known as Teshuvah - Repentance - and is halachically made up of three steps: Acknowledgement, Confession, Acceptance for future acts. And, while the standard formula for Teshuvah requires Inner Acknowledgement; Oral Confession (viddui be peh); and an acceptance to take future responsibility not to repeat the act, there are opinions that seem, at least, to indicate that G-d accepts as full Teshuvah even a silent inner acknowledgement of one's own wrongdoing.

Still, in a societal context, this does not suffice. In the period leading up to Yom Kippur, we are required to seek out the people with whom we have interacted during the course of the year and to obtain their forgiveness for wrongs we have committed against them. Note that we are not required to ASK their forgiveness, but to OBTAIN it. The basic halacha requires us to ask three times, if they refuse to grant forgiveness, and then to go before Bet Din. Only after going through this process are we permitted to step into the synagogue on Kippur itself and address G-d.

Rabbi Cohen - z'l - of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, used to say: Every Yom Kippur, people walk into shul like it's nothing. They think HaKadosh Baruch Hu is a softie. Try going to someone you hate, someone you've b een angry at all year and asking that person to forgive you for the aggravation you caused them. Try facing your own family - your spouse, your parents, your chuildren - and begging them to forgive you for every time you were unreasonable, every time you lost your temper, every time you acted selfishly. Try talking to other people and see how difficult that is. Then come and tell me how easy it is to stand before G-d and klop Al Chait...

But if we can learn to rebuke one another as gently as we rebuke ourselves, then we will truly be working to make the world a better place.

In tehilim it says that the Prophet came to rebuke David "kebo el Batsheva..." "when he [David] came in to Batsheva..." David was deserving of rebuke, for he had wrought terrible things for the mere purpose of slaking his sexual desire. Yet the Hebrew text suggests an alternate reading. Rabbi Israel Reisman reads it: not "when David came in to Batsheva..." but "AS David came in to Batsheva..." In order for the rebuke to take its effect, the Prophet approached David with deep love, the same way David had approached the woman of his longings. And in the spirit of love, of the intimate spiritual embrace between Prophet and King, the message was truly conveyed to David's heart that he had done wrong, that he needed desperately to do Teshuva. The result is one of the most powereful and beautiful spiritual poems ever written.

Why do we introduce the morning prayer, according to the Ari, with the aknowledgement of the mitzvah ve'ahavta et re'echa camocha ? - And you shall love your fellow as yourself?

Could it be that, when we see the whole world as though through our own hearts, we make the world a better place? How many of us adore our own children, hang on their every word, forgive their every transgression, yet snap instantly into impatience when the neighbor's children appear in our front yard? Other people behave unreasonably, while we act decisively. Other people make unrealistic demands on us, while we do nothing but go out of our way for others. Other people disrespect us, while all we ever do is try to do things for them. I won't ask whether this sounds familiar.

But it is a basic truth of the world that, to the extent we are able to place ourselves in other people's situation - and place others in our own hearts - that is the one true path to making the world a better place. The Ari knew this, and his insistence on accepting the mitzvah of loving one's fellow as a precondition for tefillah is fascinating. After all, how can we expect G-d to accept us, if we refuse to accept one another? And, as this week's parasha makes explicit, we accept one another, not merely because it is The Right Thing To Do, but because G-d expects it of us.

To the adage of Change the world one person at a time, let us add the corollary: One's own self first.

Yours for a better world.