Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Parshas Haazinu and Rosh Hashana: A Song and Holiday of the Future

Haazinu is one of the Torah's songs. And yet it's different from what we think of as a song.

Consider the Shirat Al HaYam, the song after the splitting of the sea, or the song that King David sings in an alternate haftorah for the Parsha (if it wasn't read between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) in gratitude to G-d for His salvation. Haazinu is quite different. In two ways.

Rosh Hashana is different from all other Yomim Tovim, holidays, in the same two ways that Haazinu is different from the Torah's other songs.

Yom Tov means, literally, a good day. And that's what holidays generally are. They are days on which we celebrate G-d's goodness, His past miracles and what they mean for our lives and our religion.

Rosh Hashana is rather less celebratory. It has its holiday aspect, but it is also a time of judgment when Sifrei Chayim U'Meitim, the books of life and death are open, and when our fate for the year is determined. It is a time of feasting and celebrating, but also of atonement and repentance.

And there is some discussion as to how much Rosh Hashana should tilt toward happiness or sadness.

Haazinu may be a song, but it too shares that ambiguous duality. Its poetry is offset by the grimness of its prophecies. Like Rosh Hashana, it ends with an ultimate salvation, but not before fear, trepidation and difficulty.

Rosh Hashana and Haazinu are not unambiguously happy. Instead they are both mixed. Why is that?

The second unique aspect of Rosh Hashana is that it is about the future. Jewish holidays generally look to the past for meaning. Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt, Shavuos reflects the giving of the Torah, Succos, the sheltering protection of G-d after the exodus, Purim and Chanukah also commemorate historical salvations.

Rosh Hashana (like Yom Kippur) however is a holiday of the future. We may look back at our deeds, but we are really looking forward to the year to come. We look to the future.

Haazinu likewise looks to the future. Most songs celebrate a salvation that already took place. However Haazinu looks forward to the challenges and difficulties of a time yet to come. Its salvation, like that of Rosh Hashana, takes place in the future.

And that explains their ambiguity.

It is easy to have a clear view of the past. Most of our holidays and fasts are unambiguous, either celebrating a miracle or mourning a tragedy. Rosh Hashana contains a little bit of both because the future is uncertain and unresolved. And even when, as Haazinu, it can be foretold, there is both tragedy and triumph in an unexperienced future that has not yet been resolved by our selective memories into either an unambivalent celebration or mourning.

The future contains both tragedy and triumph, home and despair, pain and joy. We don't quite know the outcome. But we know that we will have to live through it.

It is with this trepidation that we face the future. This is the power of Rosh Hashana and Haazinu.

We often look to the past. But it is the future that resolves our lives and our history. And to live out that future, we turn to G-d. The past can be known, but it is the unknowns of the future that remind us of our limitation. The future is the essence of mortality. It goes on. It is often beyond our control.

And though we can wholeheartedly celebrate or mourn the past, we turn to the future with hope and dread. We turn to the Author of the future asking Him for a better year and a better song.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Parshas Devarim - Fearlessness Through Faith

Fearlessness through faith is the theme of Devarim.

G-d and Moshe repeatedly tell the Jews not to fear. Indeed the conclusion of Devarim declares, "Do not fear them, for it is the Lord G-d that fights for you."

Why are the Jews repeatedly being told not to fear?

Devarim begins with the failed journey from Mount Sinai to Israel. That journey is aborted by the fear of the conquest. The Jews turn on Moshe and on G-d. And they are exiled to wander in the desert for 40 years. Now the Jews are once again told to advance and conquer, without fear.

Why is this generation more fit for the task than the one that left Egypt?

The Parsha uses two very similar phrases. First, at Har Sinai, "You have dwelled long enough in the mountain, turn and journey..." (Devarim 1:6) Then, after wandering in the desert, "You have spent enough time circling this mountain, turn around..." (Devarim 2:3) That second mountain is Har Seir.

The contrast could not be greater between Mount Sinai, the mountain of G-d, and Mount Seir, the essence of Edom and exile.

After a little time of dwelling at Har Sinai, of living in comfort, the Jews no longer had the determination and the fearlessness to conquer Eretz Yisrael. They had been dwelling in the ultimate place of faith, they had seen the miracles of the Ten Commandments, and yet they lacked faith when it came to an arduous challenge.

But after wandering for forty years in the desert, of being flush against Har Seir, the mountain of the ultimate enemy, of living in exile, they did have the faith to conquer and prevail.

Devarim begins with a curious phrase. Hoyil Moshe Be'er et Hatorah Hazot. Moshe began to expound the Torah.

We would expect the recitation of the Ten Commandments to follow. But that comes later. Or at least some laws. Instead Moshe discusses the departure from Sinai and the journey to Israel.

You have dwelled long enough in the mountain, turn and journey..."

How can the Torah begin where it seemingly ends? But the Torah truly begins when you put it into practice. When you measure it against the world, as the Jews did, and either succeed or are found wanting. Tests of faith determine whether our learning is meaningful or rote.

Moshe's recitation of the Torah begins with the first test of the Jewish people. After learning and living in peace, they lacked the faith to be fearless. It was only after they endured the exile, that they had the faith to overcome the fear. Only then could they truly believe that G-d would fight for them.

When you grapple with Edom, you can truly believe that G-d can help you overcome.

Fearlessness requires experience with fear. Faith requires tests.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Paradox in the Parsha - The Paradoxes of Chukas and Judaism

Parshas Chukas contains two of the most baffling questions in the Torah. One spiritual and the other logical.

The most famous of these is the spiritual question and it concerns the Para Adumah, the Red Cow.

The purification process of the Red Cow lifts tumaa, impurity, off a man who had come in contact with a corpse, but the Kohen who purifies him becomes impure. How can a thing which purifies also cause impurity?

This is a question considered utterly baffling and deemed a decree which cannot be understood.

The other question is the logical one. Why is Moshe punished in this Parsha and prevented from entering the Land of Israel? What was the nature of his offense?

Both questions are really the same question.

Moshe, like the Kohen, had labored on behalf of the Jews. They entered the land, he did not. Like the Kohen, he instead became "impure". Indeed G-d's indictment charges that Moshe had failed to make G-d holy in the eyes of the Jews. Lehakdisheni Leyenei Yisrael.

It's the same paradox. And it's the paradox at the heart of Judaism. At the heart of any serious religious inquiry.

We see yet a third clearer example of the paradox in the parsha.

G-d punishes the Jews with poisonous serpents. Their cure is to look at an image of a serpent. How does the same thing that cures also heal? Because it isn't the snake that cures or kills, it's G-d.

The central paradox of religion is to understand that the good things come from G-d, as do the bad things. This is what we grapple with in the face of death. Jews praise the justice of G-d and His ways upon hearing that a death has taken place. G-d gives. G-d takes away.

The process of the Red Cow, like the snake, can both purify and cause impurity. But there is no paradox. It isn't the ashes and water of the cow that causes purity or impurity. Only G-d can take a pure thing out of an impure thing. (Iyov 14:4) The Kohen, like Moshe, is there to fulfill that function. But the power to do so can only belong to G-d.

We dwell often on the exact moment of Moshe's error. Was he wrong to hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Was his error that he became angry at the Jews?

But we don't contemplate what led up to it.

Why did the Jews lack water? While Miriam's death was the specific cause, throughout their journey through the desert, G-d at times chose to subject the Jews to lack of water. Why?

When we look back at the various rebellions of the Jews in their journey through the desert, a common pattern emerges. These rebellions were rarely directly aimed at G-d. Instead the Jews accepted what G-d gave them, but blamed Moshe when there were difficulties.

The good things came from G-d. But the bad things were Moshe's fault.

That's a natural human fallacy. People often credit G-d for the good things but blame people for the bad ones. Or we credit ourselves for the good things, but blame G-d for the bad ones.

The great challenge of faith is to understand that both come from G-d.

"I kill, and I make alive; I have wounded, and I heal" (Devarim 32:39)

The Jews had seen more than enough miracles to believe in G-d. What they had to grasp was that everything comes from G-d. And it was Moshe's job to teach them this in a variety of ways climaxing with the recitation of blessings and curses.

It was important for them to understand that water could be brought both by striking a rock and speaking to it.

That G-d acts in a variety of ways, doing things that to our limited understanding may appear good or bad, but that there is a larger completeness behind all this that is wholly and entirely good.

This was what Moshe had failed to convey to them. The more suffering they experienced, the more they turned on Moshe, blaming him, as Korach's rebellion did, for their own misdeeds.

It was Moshe's fault that they did not have water or the food that they liked. It was his fault that they had to wander in the desert.

G-d blames Moshe for failing to "sanctify" to literally make Him holy in the eyes of the Jews.

How can G-d, the source of all holiness, be made holy? Through our greater recognition of G-d.

Impurity is distance from G-d. Holiness is closeness to G-d.

The entire process of the Red Cow is summoned into being by contact with death. Impurity is linked to birth and death. We see the two as being contradictory. Life and death. But birth contains the seeds of death. And death is the gateway to a great new birth. Both come from G-d.

Death causes despair. It reminds us of mortality. By recognizing that the same G-d who kills also creates life, that the two are a cycle which ends with eternal life, we are lifted above it.

We become holier through our larger sense of the unity of Creation. And by recognizing the greatness of G-d, we "sanctify" Him through that greater awareness.

The Kohen takes the impure man through the process of that recognition. Impurity is a symptom of flawed faith. Purification forces the impure man or woman to confront death and life in various forms, to come face to face with the great paradox of religion, and recognize the oneness of G-d.

There is only one G-d. The same G-d that gives life, takes life, grants water, denies it, causes the various natural phenomena that lead to impurity and offers the pathway to purity.

The impure may not approach G-d. They are forbidden from entering the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash because it is impossible to become close to G-d if you don't truly believe that He is the Author of everything. There is an aspect of heresy and blasphemy in even doing so.

The paradox of the Red Cow is the central paradox of religion. Its resolution is emotionally difficult. It requires that we accept that our difficulties come from the same source as our blessings.

Moshe was not able to guide the Jews to this realization. The failure to understand this would come to lead them to sin and to exile. They would become distant from G-d. The path to return to G-d begins with the realization that everything comes from G-d. That G-d is the totality of existence.

When we come to terms with this paradox, we are healed.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Ascending Aspirations of Chanukah and Purim

The Parsha most closely associated with Purim is Terumah and the one most associated with Chanukah is Behaloscha.

The names of both Parshas refer to the ways in which we ascend when we aspire and contribute.

Terumah comes from Rom. The portion that is separated is raised up as a contribution to G-d. Behaloscha likewise refers to an ascending, whether it is that of the priest rising to light the menorah or the light of the oil flame which, Rashi tells us, must be lit until the flame rises on its own.

The Terumah is collected from Ish Asher Idvenu Libo, the man whose heart is moved to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan. The flame of the menorah too is only properly lit when it rises on its own. The temples of G-d are best built with offerings that are freely and joyfully given.

The list of the offerings appear linear in value. Gold, silver and copper. This runs from the most precious to the less precious. The pattern continues with various fabrics dyed in colors. Turquoise, purple and red. Purple was the color of Roman royalty because of its great value. Red was used by the Redcoats because the wealth implied in red dye demonstrated power. Yet the most precious dye listed is turquoise which represents heaven. Only on the ark does the turquoise dyed cloth appear on the outside rather than under the hides. This listing then goes on to wood, the least precious of these.

But then it lists spices, oil and the precious stones used for the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Are these truly less valuable than wood? In pure material worth, they are more precious. But what these items, the Shoham stones, the oil, spices, incense and precious stones have in common, is that they were donated by the leaders of the tribes.

In Parshas Vayakhel, Nesiim is spelled defectively because, we are told, the tribal leaders waited to give. They intended to see what would be missing from the donations and fill it in. And so their donations mattered less for the delay. It is not the mere material worth of the item that makes it precious, but the enthusiasm and love of the donor.

In Behaloscha, Rashi inquires why the previous parsha which lists the offerings of the nesiim is linked to the menorah lighting. The answer is that Aaron felt bad that all the tribal leaders had provided lavish offerings, with which they had compensated for their previous tardiness, but he had been left out. And thus G-d told him, Shelecha Gedolah Miselachem, yours is greater than theirs.

Aaron's act of kindling the menorah, of lighting the flame so that it rose, was greater than their offerings. Furthermore his descendants, the Maccabees, would redeem the temple in Chanukah by fighting for its liberation against a corrupted leadership that had collaborated with the Syrian-Greek tyrant. It was not mere wealth that mattered, but the flame and enthusiasm of passion.

In Terumah, material donations are needed to create the items of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. But the actual dwelling place for G-d, is not built out of mere material, but out of our love and enthusiasm.

Purim likewise represents a material struggle against a material evil. The name of G-d is not even mentioned in Megilat Esther. But outside the picture were the small number of Jews who had returned from exile and were struggling to build the temple. The drama in the court of the king was ultimately about that rebuilding of the temple.

It is in Chanukah that the rebuilt temple is defiled and menaced. The war is not physical anymore, but more deeply spiritual. It culminates in the lighting of the menorah and the miracle of the oil. But the memorah that is lit, according to some opinions, is not the solid gold one of the temple. The menorah of the temple had been defiled. Instead a menorah of wood was temporarily used. Though it was made of the lowest material on the list, it served the highest purpose.

Material matters cannot and should not be disregarded. But neither are they all that matters. Material progress must culminate in spiritual achievement. The material becomes meaningless when it can no longer act as a metaphor and a vehicle for the spiritual. A wooden menorah that is kindled for G-d is better than a defiled golden menorah.

The gifts of the tribal leaders, precious as they were, mattered less than the humble wood donated immediately as an outpouring of devotion, and as the sacrifices of Aaron and his descendants.

Both Purim and Chanukah are holidays of the exile. Purim is a holiday of the day. Its primary mitzvahs are performed in the daylight hours. Its materialism is simple. G-d is hidden in the megillah. Its holiness comes in the challenge of finding G-d in prosperity, in celebration, in feasting and drinking, in the seeming triumph and the happy ending. Chanukah is a holiday of the night. Its most significant celebration is in the evening. Its physical victory is extremely fleeting. Its spiritual victory is the one that matters. In the darkness, light is all the more visible and even when G-d is absent, we can more clearly see Him. And thus it is Chanukah, not Purim, which has the most obvious miracle.

But the significance of both lies in the power of our aspirations to raise us up to G-d.

Mordechai's speech to Esther, answering her seemingly sensible objection and call to delay with warnings that salvation would come from elsewhere and her father's house would perish if she did not take action, seems irrational. And yet that is the significance of both Chanukah and Purim.

G-d will eventually always save us. He does not need us to act. Nor does He need us to build Him a home. Or to light a lamp for Him. The significance of such actions is not that they help Him, it is that in doing so we save ourselves by elevating ourselves.

In exile, G-d often appears distant. By reaching toward Him, we transcend ourselves.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Parshas Vayelech - The Secret Treasure of the Universe

Parshas Vayelech contains one of the grimmest moments in the Torah.

Sefer Devarim has seen some dreadful curses, but no moment in the Torah is quite as deflating as G-d's declaration that the Jews would sin and that G-d would forsake and hide from them, and then when the Jews would realize that they had done wrong and say, Ki Ein Elohai Bekirbi, Because G-d is not among us, Motzuni Haraot Haeleh, these things have come upon us. (Devarim 31:17).

And instead of welcoming back his people, G-d responds with, "And I will surely hide my face on that day."

That's the opposite message of the Shabbos Shuva drashos of so many Rabbis delivered on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It's far away from all the assurances that G-d is only waiting for us to return, to take the first step and be welcomed and forgiven.

It seems hopeless.

To understand it though, let's take a step back. Parshas Vayelech is foremost about the Torah. The Torah rarely discusses itself. It exists foremost in an oral mode. Only occasionally in Devarim do we hear mentions of the process by which the Torah that we know came to us.

Why is the Torah necessary? Why do we even need it at all?

Devarim marks the twilight of the life of Moshe. G-d's greatest prophet is attempting to transmit his experience of revelation to us. He is doing that because future generations will experience diminishing levels of revelation. Those Jews who lived in Moshe's time would feel, in the future, as if G-d had hidden his face from them.

What is the origin of the Torah? There is a mass revelation at Mount Sinai. The Jews experience G-d speaking directly to them. And then G-d withdraws.

What is the Torah? The Torah is the result of Ein Elohai Bekirbi.

If there is total and open revelation, then there is no need for recording and codifying the revelation. Even in Moshe's time, it was possible to ask him a question about Halacha, as the daughters of Tzelafchad did, and Moshe would then forward the question to G-d and get an answer.

But without that degree of revelation, the Torah becomes necessary.

We tend to assume that G-d's reply of Anochi Haster Aster, I will surely hide, is a worsening of the condition. But this is not an impenetrable hiding. One example is Megillat Esther in which G-d is "hidden". But not so hidden that we cannot figure it out. Instead we are meant to seek G-d and find Him. Where do we seek G-d out? We cannot climb up Sinai, as Moshe did, after the tablets were broken. G-d is hidden in the Torah. The Torah is our treasure map to finding G-d.

By finding G-d, we atone for having pushed Him away. G-d is not distancing himself from the Jewish people. While they insist Ein Elohai Bekirbi, G-d is actually hiding among them through His word.

When they recognize that He is absent, He draws nearer to them and hides close to them in the Torah.

The song of Haazinu, like the rest of the Torah, is the encoded revelation of G-d. It is where we can find Him. It gives us the path of repentance and revelation for returning to G-d.

We describe the Torah as an Etz Chaim, a Tree of Life. The first tree of life in the Torah though is the one in the Garden of Eden. It's a mysterious entity. All we know about it is that G-d says that if man eats from it he will live forever, and he is driven out to avoid that from happening, and the Garden is then guarded by an angel with a sword.

But the Tree of Life was restored to man through the Torah. While Adam was prevented from eating of it, man today may eat of it and live forever. It is not a mere physical immortality. It is spiritual immortality. The Torah made the Jewish people immortal to the extent that they, not merely eat of it as Adam might have, but to those that grasp it (Mishlei 3:18) and make the commitment to it.

G-d, paradise and immortality, the original things that man lost, are still available to him, encoded in the Word of G-d. The secret treasure of the universe is there waiting for us. All we have to do is look.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tisha B'av - An Uncomfortable Fast for Comfortable Jews

At its most basic level, Tisha B'av is meant to make us uncomfortable.

We are forced to sit on the floor, to hear a recitation of atrocities, to fast, to be plunged into depths of sorrow and to be served from normal social intercourse.

Is the purpose of this merely mourning?

Let's consider for a moment the sequel to Tisha B'av. It's Purim. Some 70 years after all the atrocities that we read, the Jews are living comfortably, they're feasting and partying with Ahasverosh. Only a tiny minority have come back from exile to rebuild Israel.

When the next crisis arrives, it catches them by surprise. Within 70 years they've gone from the horrors of Eicha to the comforts that we read at the beginning of Megilat Esther. And this phenomenon did not happen overnight. The horrors of Eicha gave way to a comfortable status quo. Most Jews forgot about Israel. They moved on with their new lives in a new empire.

We read the Eicha accounts at a distance. The Jews in Sushan would have known people who actually endured it. They would have had stories from parents and grandparents who experienced it.

How could they become so apathetic? Easy. It's been around the same amount of time since the Holocaust. Like us, they grew up hearing stories about it, but it became distant to them.

Their new way of life seemed like it would never change. Just as the way of life of the Jews in Jerusalem, the ones who did not heed Yirmiyahu's warnings, had seemed before the churban.

Tisha B'av makes us uncomfortable to challenge us, to take us out of our safe space and ask us to question the way that we live our lives. The most pernicious problems are those which become an accepted status quo. Rather than being a thing that we bemoan, we no longer even see them.

That was the state of affairs in Bayit Rishon. It had become the state of affairs once again in Sushan. It's what happens to Jews time after time as they settle down and bad habits become the way things are. And no one thinks twice about them.

In the past, prophets made us uncomfortable. Today we have to settle for their words. And we have to make ourselves uncomfortable. That is what Tisha B'av does. In the absence of Yirmiyahu to warn us and to make us uncomfortable, we have to read his words and step out of our comfort zone. We have to question our status quo. We have to wonder what we aren't seeing and aren't paying attention to.

That process doesn't stop on Tisha B'av. We must always be willing to do so even when we aren't sitting on the floor or going without food. We must always question the status quo we live in.

Comfort is the essence of the status quo. When we are comfortable then we assume that everything is good. When we are comfortable, we are asleep. We fall into a false innocence in which we are no longer aware that we are doing anything wrong because everything is pleasant and comfortable. We listen to those false neviim who reassure us that everything is good and everything is okay.

Everyone sins. Everyone makes mistakes. But when we are uncomfortable with our sins, then we can repent. When we are comfortable, then we no longer think of them as sins. When we become comfortable with sins and with wrongness, then we can no longer repent. And when we can't repent, then we can't change. We doom ourselves to destruction when we become comfortable. When Jeshurun grows fat, when we have lingered too long in the land, then the status quo takes over.

The temples were not destroyed until some form of bad behavior had become a status quo, not a sin that people felt uncomfortable with, and could be persuaded to repent from, but a way of life that was no longer questioned. And so Hashem made us uncomfortable. Eicha is the story of that discomfort.

The discomfort is horrifying. But it was also an intervention. Hashem's anger was motivated ultimately by love. If you do not love someone, then you might feel bad when you see them engaging in self-destructive behavior, but you don't feel anger. It's when there is a relationship there that the anger comes. Even the destruction of the temples and the exiles of the Jews were acts of love.

They were a last ditch effort to make us uncomfortable enough to break a corrosive status quo that was destroying us.

Tisha B'av is a much smaller commemoration of that discomfort. It asks us to be uncomfortable in order that we might change. It is a reminder that Hashem loves us and wants us to change. That the discomforts, large and small, that we experience as individuals and as a people, are Hashem's attempts to change us into the people we ought to be, our best selves.

Change requires discomfort. To accept the status quo is to lose the ability to become our best selves. The discomfort of Tisha B'av is a goad for change. It is a challenge to become the Jews we ought to be. And when that happens, the redemption of Israel can finally come. That redemption requires that we become uncomfortable. That we challenge our own personal status quo. That we change.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Parshas Acharei Mot - Sin and Duty

Parshas Acharei Mot begins with G-d telling Moshe to tell Aaron after the death of his sons not to just walk into the adobe of G-d and then moves on to a discussion of the Yom Kippur service.

What is the relationship between these two things, the death of Aaron's sons and Yom Kippur?

Earlier, Aaron's sons had committed a sin. They had died. This seems like the natural order of things. A grievous enough sin leads to death. But instead G-d informs Moshe and Aaron of Yom Kippur, and beyond it, of the larger idea that G-d forgives sins. And that this is a major function of the Kohen.

The priesthood is not meant for personal aggrandizement. The Kohen should not simply feel free to make himself at home in G-d's house. Or to take arrogantly take on privileges as if he were entitled to them. He is there to represent the people before G-d. And this is the function of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. He asks G-d for forgiveness for their sins.

At the root of the death of Aaron's two sons was a misunderstanding about their place and their function. They were not members of a privileged royal family. But nor was their death a reminder that people were doomed to sin and die. Because Aaron's sons had forgotten their function, the Jews had a lesson in that sin could kill, but that G-d could and would forgive it as well.

By telling Aaron about Yom Kippur, G-d was explaining the proper nature of religious leadership to both him and to the Jews. Jewish religious leaders are not meant to aggrandize their own power, but to deepen the connection between the people and G-d. The Kohen must be humble. He must first ask for his own forgiveness. And he must remember that he is there to ask for forgiveness for the people.

In the House of G-d, Yom Kippur was an opportunity to rebuild the relationship with the Jewish people from the top down by reminding those at the top that they have a responsibility to those at the bottom. Religious leaders must go into the Holy of Holies to bring the people closer to G-d. Not for their own sake. But for the sake of bringing G-d to the people and the people to G-d.

When that is the case, then sin can be forgiven and the relationship restored. Without that, death can follow sin. By taking on the responsibility for the people, the Kohen Gadol could save their lives, as Aaron would do during the plague, and he could ask for mercy and forgiveness for them.