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. 

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.