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. 


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pesach - Fear and Faith

The most obvious question to ask about Pesach, the remembrance of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is why was it even necessary? Its origins go back to the Brit Bein Habetarim, the Covenant of Parts, which G-d forges with Avraham. And yet the same forefather who pleaded with G-d urgently for the sake of the people of Sodom never utters a single plea on behalf of his descendants. Why is that?

The covenant is preceded by a unique event. G-d tells Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. And then we are told, VeHeemin, Avraham had faith in G-d and G-d considered it as a righteous merit. Religiously habituated readers may wonder what is so extraordinary that believing what G-d tells you should be considered righteousness. And yet, if we look back at the story of Avraham, it is the first time that faith is mentioned.

Indeed it is the first mention of Emunah, faith, in the history of mankind.

There were righteous men before Avraham. And yet they are not associated with faith. Noah does what he is told. He is a righteous man. But we are not told that he had faith in G-d.

The covenant that leads to slavery is preceded by the extraordinary invention of faith. Noah believes that G-d will punish the world. Avraham however believes that G-d will grant him an impossible blessing. The righteous men before Avraham may have feared G-d, but he had alone had faith.

As the familiar story of Moshe and Pharaoh unfolds, we see a similar duality. Righteous Egyptians, whether it is the midwives who refrain from killing Jewish children at Pharaoh's command or the servants of Pharaoh who feared G-d and send their cattle and servants into the house ahead of the hail, are described as fearing G-d. Pharaoh's test is also to learn to fear G-d.

However when it comes to the Jews, Moshe is concerned with their Emunah, faith. He questions G-d whether the Jews will believe him. G-d provides him with signs for that purpose. And when he arrives, the nation believes (Exodus 4:31). The climax of the redemption comes again when we are told that the nation believed in G-d and Moshe his servant after the Egyptians are drowned in the sea. 

The Egyptians are expected to fear G-d. But the Jews are expected to have faith in Him. It is enough for the Egyptians to stop the evil that they are doing and fear G-d. But more is being asked of the Jews. In Egypt they are powerless. They have little control over their bodies and their lives. Instead they are asked to believe in the impossible that in a hitherto unprecedented intervention, G-d will liberate them from their bondage in Egypt. And though their faith is often shaky, they do believe.

Faith is a test. It has true meaning only when it is a test.

Avraham brought faith into the world as an individual. His Jewish descendants were to bring it into the world as a nation. Human faith is imperfect. Avraham asked for a sign resulting in the covenant. He and Sarah both seemed doubtful that she would give birth to Yitzchak at such a late age. The faith of the Jews wavered with Pharaoh's threats and punishments. And yet this was its purpose.

For ages the world had been based on the threat of force. Adam and Chava sinned and were punished. The flood wiped out the world. The Tower of Babel was disrupted. But mankind did not improve. Like Pharaoh, fear proved too insufficient to prevent evil from being done.

Pesach changed the equation. Fear was no longer the purpose of the exercise. Instead of punishing Pharaoh as an end, G-d did so as a means to show that faith was stronger than fear. The world was no longer a place where evil thrived until G-d punished it, it was a world in which the faith of the righteous would ultimately prevail over mere fear of punishment. The world had a positive force that was oriented not toward the past or the present, but that looked toward the future.

History was no longer a series of failures and punishments. It had gained a redemptive purpose.

The suffering of the Jews in Egyptian slavery was not a punishment. It was covenant. Like Avraham's tests, its purpose was redemption, not only of the people, but of the idea of faith in G-d. It was meant to show that the world faced more than a choice between fear or lack of fear of punishment. But that through faith, human beings could take on spiritual powers that would enable them to transform the world.

Fear put people before the choice of sin or don't sin. And human beings, being what they are, will sin. Faith however takes us beyond the choice of resisting a particular temptation or weakness. Instead it asks us to believe in the transformative power of G-d. It shifts the focus from the negative to the positive. From resisting our flaws to manifestly proclaiming the power of G-d and following His will.

The redemption from Egypt was a larger shift in human affairs. It was the beginning of a journey that would transform the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Parshas Metzora - The Inclusive Pariah

Parshas Metzora begins with the purification of the Metzora, the sufferer from the spiritual disease known as Tzaras. The Metzora's partner in the purification ritual is the Kohen and though the two men seem far apart, one a pariah who must shout his uncleanliness to the world, and the other, a priest who is obligated to maintain a high level of purity, the rituals have a similarity to them.

Like the Levi, the Metzora's hair is shaved off. Like the Kohen's ritual with blood, oil is placed on his ear, thumb and foot. The very ritual requires an encounter between the Kohen, who is required to maintain ritual purity, and the Metzora, who is the embodiment of ritual impurity, and the former subjects the latter to a ritual similar to that undergone by the original Kohanim.

The Kohen and the Metzora are both set apart from the community. Both are displaced from the conventional life of the community. The Kohen's role reserves him for a higher function. The Metzora has fallen through the cracks at the bottom. It's easy to see them as people who should never meet.

And yet it is the Kohen, who must maintain purity to serve G-d, who welcomes back the Metzora.

The rituals of the Kohen are not so different in some ways from that of the most disgraced and lowest individual among the Jewish people. Like the Metzora, the Kohen has to struggle to rise and atone. Holiness is a challenge for him as it was for the Metzora and as it is for any Jew. The purification ritual ends the Metzora's period of disgrace by honoring him with a meal offering with oil. It concludes with the Kohen anointing the Metzora with oil.

The Metzora has made the journey from uncleanliness to being the central figure in a divine service conducted by a Kohen. The Kohen is meant as a role model for the Metzora. And this would not be possible if the Kohen insisted on having nothing to do with the Metzora.

Just as the ritual is a lesson to the Metzora, that repentance can allow him to rise to being anointed by a priest of G-d, it is also a lesson to the Kohen that it is the role of Jewish leaders to reach out even to the most "unclean".

The Metzora is shown that in repentance he can have a shadow of the glory of the Kohen. While the Kohen is reminded that he may not be too different from the Metzora. Both rise in the service of G-d.

And both can fall.

The Metzora suffered his punishment for shattering the harmony of the community with his malicious behavior. The Kohen is called on to repair that harmony by returning him to it. Purification allows objects to be restored to homes, houses to be occupied and people to rejoin their communities.

Purification heals the fabric of the community.

The rule of Tumah Hutra Be'Tzibbur states that even when the entire congregation is impure, the Korban Pesach is still brought because "impurity is permitted in a congregation". When everyone is impure, it is more important to still maintain unity in the service of G-d. Under those conditions, even impurity becomes permissible.

Likewise even the Kohen Gadol is expected to bury a Met Mitzvah, an unknown corpse whom no else is available to bury. Though Kohanim have very strict requirements of purity, they are expected to transgress them when it comes to restoring a lost person to the community, even when he is no longer among the living.

The entire story of the Metzora would seem to be a narrative of exclusion. A pariah is driven out of the community. Forced to avoid people. Humiliated and disgraced. And yet the true lesson is the exact opposite of that. It is not a story of exclusion, but inclusion. It is the Metzora who attempted to exclude others from the community through slander. And it is the Kohen who restores him to it while showing him an example of inclusiveness and healing.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Parshas Tazria - Paradox of Faith

Parshas Tazria dedicates much of its time to a discussion of the Metzora, widely but inaccurately translated as leper, who suffers from Tzaras. One of the more peculiar laws of this spiritual affliction is that someone who has been quarantined as a Metzora is deemed to be getting worse if healthy flesh emerges, but pure if his entire body turns white.

A similar paradox is that of the Red Cow whose sprinkling purifies one who came in contact with a corpse, yet renders the sprinkler impure. This is considered a Hok, a law whose reasoning utterly eludes us, as it did King Shlomo, who reportedly aspired to understand it, but failed to do so.

Why does a man become 'impure' when he appears to be recovering and 'pure' when his whole body seems afflicted? Why does the act of rendering an impure man, pure, make a pure man, impure?

The nature of purity and impurity remains beyond our understanding. The paradox calls to mind a more familiar one, why do good people suffer while bad people prosper?

The old "Tzaddik ve'ra lo, ve'rasha ve'tov lo" (a righteous man suffers and a wicked man prospers) is every bit as difficult to understand as the Metzora or the Para Aduma, the Red Cow. And yet we think that we understand it better because we can grasp the subject matter. We may accept that we do not understand the spiritual mysteries of purity and impurity, but we assume that we do understand good and evil, and can judge the ways of G-d in this regard.

And yet in all of these areas, we are only seeing part of a cycle. And that cycle is only a part of G-d's plan.

The paradoxes of purity and impurity remind us that some of G-d's ways are inexplicable to us because we lack the perspective to understand them. This is no less true of human life, a subject on which we have no perspective, yet think we do, than of the Red Cow and the Metzora, on which we are willing to concede that we have no perspective.

Knowing what G-d wants from us is not the same thing as knowing what He wants to do and why. This is a mistake that we often risk making in our view of the world. We are ready to accept that purity and impurity is a mystical subject that we cannot grasp, but we are convinced that we know what our lives and the lives of our neighbors ought to be like. And yet our lack of perspective means that the larger world cannot help but be a paradox to us no matter how we might strive to understand it.

Life and death, suffering and joy, are as much paradoxes as the means of making the pure into the impure and the impure into the pure. We can never truly understand them. All we can do is accept them.

Tzaras mimics an illness, but it is not a disease. It is a spiritual affliction. It crosses from an area that we think we understand to an area that we do not. Likewise the Red Cow and its ashes come into play with death, a subject we think we know, but that we are quickly forced to confess is a mystery.

The paradox takes us from a subject that we think we know and then defies our understanding of it.

Faith begins with learning to accept the limitations of our understanding. The paradox is a sign post warning us that the road ahead requires faith. Disease and death often serve as such sign posts. Purity and impurity are tightly wrapped around the functions of life, from birth to illness to death. They remind us that though we experience the world and live in it, there is a limit to our understanding of it. We cannot truly understanding the meaning of our lives. We can only have faith that G-d's plan will help give meaning and dignity to our birth, our suffering and our joys, and our death.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Parshas Shemini - The Hour and the Generation

Parshas Shemini begins with the words Vayehi Beyom HaShemini. We learn that the opening Vayehi, And It Was, portends a mixture of tragedy and joy. As in Vayehi Yaakov, that saw Yaakov reunited and living with his son Yosef but in exile and as a prelude to slavery.

Shemini begins with the final dedication of the Mishkan, on the eight day after seven days of Moshe Rabbeinu performing the Avodah, bringing the Korbanot, Aaron steps into his role as Kohen Gadol, brings the Korbanot and as both brothers leave the Ohel Moed at the conclusions, they are privileged to see the Shekihna appear. A heavenly fire consumes the Korbanot. But Vayhei, though there is celebration there is also tragedy.

Two of Aaron's sons bring an alien fire and are killed by fire from heaven. Moshe tells Aaron that with this event the word of G-d, Bekrovai Ekodesh, has been fulfilled. Moshe warns his brother and the remaining sons not to leave, not to mourn and to eat of the Mincha. Aaron and his sons do all this and eat of the Mincha but the Seir brought for Rosh Chodesh, they burn entirely and Moshe demands an explanation.

Aaron's answer however is enigmatic, indicating that he had acted properly and seems to fully satisfy his brother. Yet is short on detail. The two most common explanations are that either the animal became posul or that only Kodshei Shaa like the Mincha were to be eaten, while Onenim, but not Kodshei Dorot. Yet this too leaves something out.

It's notable that the Pasuk appears to be engaging in a virtual pun, as Aaron and his two remaining sons, NaNotrim, are told to eat the Mincha, HaNotrot. Both Aaron's surviving sons and the Mincha seems to be described with the same term. But obviously it's not mere wordplay, there is a message and a point to it.

The Mincha that they are to eat is the remaining Mincha that had not been burnt, just as the two surviving sons, were the remaining sons who had not been burnt. Moshe describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, not as punishment but as glorification, much like a Korban. Like the Mincha, part had been burnt and part remained for Aaron. When Moshe warns them about leaving with the oil on them, as there is oil on the Mincha, the implication is that they too will die. This is what is done with a Korban that becomes Posul, to be burnt outside. So if they leave, they too will be burned outside and what has been a Mincha will become an entirely Posul Korban, which could altogether invalidate the entire Miluim.

Aaron and his sons eat the Mincha and the Korbanot which are Kodshei Shaa. Even though the sons are regular Kohanim and Onenim. But they are Onenim over the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and Nadav and Avihu were themselves a Kodshei Shaa Korban, so to speak, a one time event. Both those deaths and the special status of Elazar and Yithamar were unique events, Shaa. By contrast the Seir of Rosh Chodesh was a Kodshei Dorot and as far as the Dorot were to be concerned, Kohanim Onenim could not consume Kodshim. The holiness of the hour had been gained at great cost, like the reunion of Yosef and Yaakov, a terrible price had been paid. But it was a temporary price. The achievement that had been gained however was one for generations.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Parshas Shemini - Purity and Access

Parshas Shemini begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and the death of Aharon's two sons for offering Aish Zar, an alien fire, which G-d had not commanded.

The obvious question is why did Aharon survive his role in the Golden Calf, which was idol worship, while his sons died for merely taking the initiative in making a change to the Divine service?

And why does G-d's response focus on "holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean" and then shift to an extended list of kosher and non-kosher animals, described as unclean, and then purity and impurity, before finally returning to the death of his sons six chapters later?

Impurity and uncleanliness exist as part of the cycle of life. A non-kosher animal is only bad if you eat it. Impurity is only bad if it taints something pure which then goes on to taint something holy.

Impurity in a human being can be removed, in part through the procedures laid out in the Torah. It becomes a severe sin however when impurity taints holy objects in the House of G-d. Chanukah was a severe crisis because the Bait Hamikdash had been thoroughly desecrated. At the lowest points in Jewish history, Jews not only worshiped idols, but brought them into the Temple.

The Golden Calf could be destroyed. And after repentance, the Jews could return to G-d and even be honored by having G-d dwell among them in the Mishkan constructed with their own hands. Aharon could preside as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, despite his role in it. Because G-d does forgive and cleanse human beings of their sin. If He did not, we could not exist.

The severest sin is one that prevents this from happening by tainting the holy with the impure. Perverting the religion of G-d is worse than idolatry because it does not give people any place to return to. Idol worships can return to G-d. But when the Temple is tainted or the religion is tainted, the process of returning becomes more difficult because there is 'nowhere' to return to.

Idolatry creates "alternatives" to G-d. Tainting the worship of G-d however obscures His presence.

Offering an "alien fire" seems like a minor offense, but it leads to innovating alien religious practices, hijacking the worship of G-d and replacing it with a manmade religion that culminates in idolatry. The offense of Aharon's sons seems minor, out of context, but we should view it in the context of the decline of the Jews into idolatry once in Israel. Purity is a mandate, but also a metaphor.

The worship of G-d must be what He commanded. When the highest figures in a religion pervert it, then ordinary people find themselves cut off from G-d. Aharon's sons made a mistake, but like Uzzah, the seemingly minor act revealed a more dangerous error in thinking about G-d.

The Kohanim, the priests, are holy because they follow the commands of G-d. Their exclusive role however allows them to pervert and exploit their position, as indeed would happen later on. Purity, both physical and intellectual, is demanded of the priesthood because their special position allows them to either bring the people to G-d or to cut off the people from the worship of G-d.

Above all else, the details of the service, like the Kosher status of animals or the purity of people, matters because G-d commanded it. Its core holiness is defined by the source of that holiness, G-d. It is G-d who defines what is pure and impure. When those who are meant to help the people transmit and understand the word of G-d, mangle it instead, they render it impure.

The culmination of G-d's instruction to Aharon after the death of his sons is, "that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes." (Vayikra 10:11) Service is the implementation of G-d's word. The fundamental role of those who serve G-d closest must be purity of service and teaching. Respect for G-d is not just an abstract idea, but an understanding. Touching the ark or bringing an alien fire shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what G-d is and disqualifies one to be in a position of religious authority.

Closeness to G-d requires greater purity because it is those who are close to Him who help define his presence for the people and help purify them. In this area, a taint that is hard to detect can be more severe than a grievous sin. A pig is deemed more un-Kosher than animals that lack any of the signs of the Kosher animal, because its hooves deceive one into thinking that it is a Kosher animal.

A Kohen who invents his own service is less obviously doing wrong than one who makes an idol. And yet this is also what makes it a worse sin. One does not see impurity. It is more subtle than the difference between Kosher and non-Kosher animals. And yet it is worse sin to desecrate the holy with impurity than to eat non-Kosher food.

It is the role of the Kohen and of religious leaders to mark these distinctions. When the Kohen corrupts the process, then he endangers the connection between G-d and the people.

When G-d mentions the death of Aharon's sons again, in Vayikra 16, it is at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service, the Day of Atonement. It is easier for people to atone and repent when they have role models and religious leaders to guide them. The ultimate purpose is closeness to G-d. And the Kohanim must remain pure in order to make G-d accessible to the people so that they may be cleansed.