Friday, March 27, 2015

Tzav 5775, March 2015; All Mankind and Karbanos

Twice daily, the High Priest himself was to offer a sacrifice known as the Minchas Chavitin.  This was a true mincha-type sacrifice of flour and oil and spices, burnt entirely on the alter and never eaten by him or any other kohen.
G-d gives us gifts big and small. She looks like
she fully appreciates the gift of the berries she
picked, doesn't she?
Abarbanel, quoting Sanhedrin, teaches that this is to remind us to always improve others before considering reproving ourselves, for before the Kohen Gadol could consider offering sacrifices to atone for the people, he first had to atone for his own sins. In addition, he says, the high priest brought the same form of sacrifice as a poor man, brought it himself as a sinner, and was atoning for the sin of the Golden Calf bit by bit through these small daily sacrifices.

The next discussion of korbanos is that of the Shalmay Todah. This is the thanksgiving offering given by a Jew who had been rescued from certain forms of danger (imprisonment, illness, sea or desert travel; today we say the birkas hagomel for this purpose). The Shlamim sacrifice otherwise is one that could be brought even by a non-Jew who wishes to bring a gift before G-d for any reason. It was shared among many people (it was a whole animal and 40 loaves of bread), so as to publicize the gratitude and the appreciation of the bringer to a maximum number of people. In this way, many people could regularly be reminded in very physical terms of the good G-d does for us daily.

Kohen Gadol or poor sinner, Jew or non-Jew, all came to bring similar gifts before G-d in the Mishkan and then the Beis haMikdash. Daily they had such a physical connection with G-d in mind. At this time as we approach Pesach, we can turn our thoughts towards karbanos but also towards the daily good G-d does for us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Vayikra 5775, March 2015; Humility

At the beginning of this week's parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu who has travelled directly to Shamayim and sat at the foot of G-d's own throne (figuratively speaking), arrives at the newly constructed Mishkan, and stops there. He will not enter until explicitly invited to (Vayikra Rabbah, Targum Yonatan), no matter that he has already been to Shamayim and back and is regularly visited by G-d in the Ohel Moed. Without explicit permission, he is sure he is not allowed to enter.
It's probably easy to be humble when you're being used as a
When G-d calls to him, he uses the language used by the angels themselves (Yeshayahu 6:3), the gentle "vayikra." Moshe remained so humble at the situation though that on writing the Torah in print, he insisted that the alef in "vayikra" not be written in full size so that it shouldn't be thought he was being directly compared to a heavenly being. He could not re-conjugate the word as it came directly from G-d but could not bring himself to write it in the normal fashion, and so it was written with the small letter (Baal HaTurim).

What are the animals that can be brought as sacrifices? Doves and domesticated beasts, never animals of the forest. A domesticated animal which has been used in idol worship or has been used inappropriately can never be used. For while obviously the beast cannot itself experience haughtiness or pride, the point of bringing a sacrifice is for us to elevate ourselves, and that cannot be done with an animal which has been the focus of what would in us discourage humility.
No, they weren't about to be schechted. We were selecting the
one with the best fleece for the day's use ;)
Bringing a korban (sacrifice) itself would encourage thoughts of humility and mortality. Performing the semicha and vidui as appropriate were of course self-humbling exercises. Seeing the animals parts burned, blood sprinkled on the mizbeyach, seeing the demeanor of the kohen, one could only be driven to teshuva and humility. Seeing others bringing their korbanot likewise would remind everyone that they were on equal footing, for men and women, rich and poor, Jews and non-Jews could bring a korban (non-Jews could bring a korban olah, even if they were idol worshippers)(Midrash HaGadol). And korbanos were brought for good and bad, for teshuva and thanksgiving, for truly despicable deeds and for the sin of inappropriate thoughts.

Olah sacrifices themselves could be brought for not having successfully performed a positive commandment (for something as simple, say, as not having been able to buy a proper esrog or for not having been able to put on tefillin one day); for having broken a negative commandment (the modern equivalent often suggested is thoughtlessly turning on a light or otherwise breaking the laws of the Sabbath by mistake); or they could be brought for the transgression of sinful thoughts (Midrash Tanchuma).  For as Rambam says, "Sinful thoughts only enter a heart which is devoid of wisdom."  Not only what we do but what and how we think are the realm of Torah.  That idea alone can only invite humility on reflection, for we are in control of our thoughts even if we are not fully in control of our mood in some cases. Imagine if we today were liable for korbanos for such transgressions. How careful would we be with our thoughts, our actions, our speech? When we pray and when we perform positive mitzvahs, we should bear this in mind, for those are our modern ways of performing korbanos. We can enrich our daily actions by reminding ourselves we are expiating sin by being conscious of sinful thoughts, doing teshuva, and throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into the performance of our mitzvahs. This is an idea which invokes humility in me in truth.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Vayakhel/Pekudei 5775 (Shabbos Parah), March 2015; Justice and Judgement

This week I am writing about a subject I am very vocal and passionate about personally: justice and judgement within the Jewish community, by individuals and by the common consent of communal practice and discourse.

At the end of sefer Bereishis, there came a culminating lesson of the entire Torah to that point related to achdus, perfect brotherhood and love. Likewise, we now end sefer Shemos with a cumulative lesson. This time though in these last parshiyos of the sefer it relates to a new concept, that of when and how we pass judgement on the actions of others and when we leave judgement off the table to simply continue to show achdus. (Note: we are reading two separate parshiyos, but these are in fact read together almost every year of the calendar cycle with only a few years in which the two are separated)
Not Jewish judgement just a silly 5 year old

At the end of last week's parsha, the tribe of Levi joined Moshe in forming Batei Din, courts, to judge the people following the sin of the Golden Calf. Whoever was found guilty of having been warned clearly not to worship the idol AND had been later observed doing so by two kosher witnesses who would stand before the court was liable to the death penalty by the court (Midrash haGadol, Zohar). G-d thereafter sent a plague which served as justice killing those who were not liable to the human courts but who were liable for their sins before the Heavenly Court (Yoma, Midrash haGadol).

Now at the beginning of this week's reading, Moshe instructs the Jews on the laws of Shabbos observance. He warned them that anyone who violated the laws of the 39 melachos of Shabbos after being halachically warned and who did so in the presence of two kosher witnesses was liable again for capital punishment, and that anyone who had performed melachah on Shabbos but who could not be convicted before Beis Din for want of warning or witnesses or both would be judged and punished through Divine Retribution (Mechilta D'Roshvei).

We then finish parshas Pekudei reading about the glory of the Mishkan, the Shechinah which rested within, and the visible power G-d had over all of his creation, particularly visible to the Jews at every moment when they could see the Mishkan, the Cloud of Glory, the Cloud of Fire. There could be no questioning at that time whether G-d had the ability to see into every heart and judge accordingly.

Yet today, we do not let judgment rest within Beis Din and the Heavenly Court. We judge others constantly within our own hearts and minds, and within communities. We even approach legislators of the civil government and support legislating what we feel is political sentiment supported by Torah because we pass judgement on others' behavior rather than supposing that the halachic court and Heavenly Tribunal will do so. I am not going to take a stand on specific political issues here because I feel this isn't my personal venue to do so (though all who know me personally already probably can infer areas I have in mind here and are welcome to discuss them with me privately).

But I will simply remind us all that G-d is perfect in his love and perfect in his judgement. We have just learned the Heavenly Attributes we invoke at our holidays to this day begging for mercy on ourselves. We will in fact say these words at the upcoming Passover holiday. Yet how can we beg for mercy on ourselves if we judge others outside of what the Jewish law allows?

If an individual is guilty of a halachic violation, they can be judged by a Beis Din. If an individual is actually "guilty" in action but cannot be judged by a Beis Din because they have not been appropriately warned or two kosher witnesses cannot be produced to testify about their sin, that individual cannot be judged by other Jews in this world. It is fully incumbent on us in that case to trust in Divine Wisdom, and to trust that the Heavenly Court will fully reward or punish the individual in this world and the world to come, exactly as the individual deserves.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Parshas Ki Sisa 5775, March 2015, Leadership

Moshe was told by G-d that Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur was to be the builder of the Mishkan, with Ahaliav of the tribe of Dan as his assistant. As Betzalel was only a youth who had just reached the age of bar mitzvah Moshe felt unsure that he could possibly take on a task of such import and detail. Hash-m corrected Moshe, though that not only was Betzalel fit for the job, it had been his responsibility designated at the creation of the physical world. Midrash Lekat Tov says in fact that "No leader is ever given charge of a community unless he was previously designated by Hash-m."
Megillas Esther read at Purim this week. Esther had leadership thrust upon her to her own surprise!

Yet still we are human and being given the task of leadership does not by any means guarantee that an individual will fulfill his task faithfully or even that he will show any competency at it. We know from the time that G-d designated Moshe as the leader of the Jewish people, he pleaded to be allowed to have his older brother Aharon take on that role rather than himself. Now we see Moshe ascend to Shamayim to receive teachings from G-d and to return with the luchos and Aharon is given the task of leading the Jewish people; and while he is an incredible tzaddik in his own way, he still is not up to the task of preventing the creation and worshipping of the golden calf.  At the same time in this week's parsha we are told that Yehoshua ben Nun, Moshe's own designated successor, "would not depart from the tent [of learning]." Yehoshua had indeed been chosen by G-d to lead the Jews both as a general and as a teacher, and he would prove to have nothing but success in those roles. Was Yehoshua a greater tzaddik than Aharon, was he somehow more close to G-d? Certainly not. But we see that there is nothing we can fully understand of G-d's ways, and that our task is simply to do our own personal best to fulfill the roles thrust upon us or presenting themselves to us.
We do our personal best in the roles G-d grants us within the community.
To prove the point we can look at this week's haftarah. The rasha King Achav confronts the prophet Eliyahu. Unquestionably, Achav is king and Eliyahu is navi. Yet Eliyahu strives with all his being to serve Hash-m at all times and to lead the Jews towards G-d and Torah. Achav has been given the kingship yet turns entirely from G-d. It is his own choice and his own doing, and of course eventually it proves his own undoing. He could have accomplished many great works had he been a true king with fear of Heaven, but his yetzer hara had far more strength than he did, and he is remembered only for his evil deeds and decrees.

Being granted a position of leadership at any level within the Jewish community is both an honor and a responsibility. The honor comes directly from G-d. The only one who can decide what one's legacy as a leader will be though is the individual him or herself. The blueprint, as clear as that shown to Betzalel, is the Torah.