Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Unique Shabbat

Parshat Pinchas describes the sacrifices offered on special days. Concerning the special Mussaf korban on Shabbat, the Torah tells us:
Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato
The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. 

The Medrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same, and if I miss bringing the sacrifice this week then I’ll just bring it next week. The verse comes to teach us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there is no make up. 

As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. We may seem to do the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. 

Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression today in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite each Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (miss Shacharit, say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the "make-up" possibility that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: sometimes referred to as teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to popular belief, there are some things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. 

This is especially relevant with the moments of our life. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to "make up the time".) We can’t go back in time. (we have yet to discover the flux capacter or generate 1.21 jigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  With the help of the lessons of Korban Mussaf – Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato- let us better appreciate those things in life that cannot be replicated.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Challenge of Changing Course

Remember when you were a child, and you were involved in something that was wrong or detrimental? It was pretty easy for someone to tell you to change course. You might not have listened to that person (usually an adult authority figure.) But the message was clear and the changes needed were made explicit. But then we grow up. As adults we are expected to be responsible for our own actions. Telling an adult that s/he is doing something wrong is generally frowned upon as infringing on others. People don’t want to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong. And most adults are not interested in hearing about our faults or shortcomings. We are all too often defensive, and it often sounds like the person offering advice is doing so in a smug and condescending manner (whether that is the case or not). The result is that many adults continue down the road of bad choices and bad behavior as if compelled to do so.

This is how I understand the story of Bilam, as described at the beginning of our Parsha. King Balak seeks Bilam’s help in cursing the Jewish people. Bilam agrees to do so. The Torah makes clear that God thinks this is ill advised for Bilam to do. And God makes this clear to Bilam, but it is done in a way that maintains Bilam’s free will, which creates some ambiguity and resistance on Bilam’s part. The first way that God hints at His critique of Bilam’s behavior is by asking a rhetorical question:
God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?"

טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיֹּאמֶר מִי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה עִמָּךְ:
God knows all, so why is He asking this question? It seems to be God’s way of alerting a person to his/her bad decision while providing them with the space to make amends.  I can think of two instances in Bereishit where we find this technique. First in the aftermath of the sin of Adam and Eve:
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you?"

טוַיִּקְרָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָאָדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶּכָּה:
10And he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid."

יוַיֹּאמֶר אֶת קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן וָאִירָא כִּי עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי וָאֵחָבֵא:
11And He said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

יאוַיֹּאמֶר מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה הֲמִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכָל מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ:
(Adam squanders this opportunity by blaming everything on Eve)
A similar technique is utilized by God in the aftermath of Hevel’s murder at the hands of Kayin:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

טוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי:
Again, God is asking Kayin a question, even though He knows the answer. Here, too, God’s question is an opportunity for the person to change course, fix the situation, repent.
God asking humans these types of questions is like when a friend tries to warn you about something by saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Or when a spouse says, “Are you sure you want to wear that? / have that second piece of cake?”

Even when God gets angry at Bilam for ignoring his “questioning” He does not force Bilam to change course:
God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

כבוַיִּחַר אַף אֱלֹהִים כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ לְשָׂטָן לוֹ וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל אֲתֹנוֹ וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ:
Yet even now, not only does Bilam ignore the warning signs- he does not even see them (the donkey sees what Bilam cannot/ will not.)
Bilam is blinded by his bad choices (see 24:3, and Rashi there: Bilam has vision problems). As a result, Bilam gets trapped:
The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.

כווַיּוֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲמֹד בְּמָקוֹם צָר אֲשֶׁר אֵין דֶּרֶךְ לִנְטוֹת יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול:
The story of Bilam is a cautionary tale of the challenges that adults face in changing course. Who will tell us that we need to change? Who are we willing to listen to? How will we get the message? Let us learn from Bilam’s mistakes, and realize that even though it may seem as if our decisions have caused our options to become limited, it is never too late to change course in some way.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Being Something Vs Doing Something: A Response to Korach

Parshat Korach opens with a complaint that Korach and his crew raise against Moshe and Aharon. Rashi quotes the Midrash as to how the complaint was formulated for public consumption: Korach asked Moshe if a completely blue tallit requires a string of blue on one of the tzitzit. Moshe answered yes. The Midrash goes on with a second challenge: Korach asked whether a room full of Sifrei Torah required a mezuzah, which contains a small parchment with a few lines from the Torah. Here again Moshe answered in the affirmative. Korach jumped on Moshe’s answers and declared that they make no sense, and Moshe must have made up these laws.

There are many different interpretations as to what exactly Korach’s challenge and problem were. I would like to focus on Moshe’s response. I think that the Halachot that Moshe quoted speak to the difference between “being something” and “doing something”. A completely blue tallit and a room full of Torahs represents “being something”. They are impressive visuals, yet they may have come about without any effort on my part. By requiring us to nonetheless place a blue string on the tallit/ a mezuzah on the door, the Torah is reminding us of the importance of “doing something.” That action may seem less impressive and less significant. But the fact that it comes about through our own initiative and effort, and done purely in the service of Hashem- make such actions meaningful and powerful.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Being Apart of Vs Apart From: No Easy Answers from the Nazir

In Parshat Naso we learn about the laws of the Nazir, a person who accepts upon himself extra restrictions relating to grapes/ wine, haircuts and contact with the dead. The Torah introduces this section with the phrase: “Ish Ki Yafli Lindor Neder” There is a difference of opinion among commentators as to how to understand the word Yafli. Rashi understands it to mean, “to separate.” The Nazir separates himself from certain permissible activities as an extreme response to the Sotah episode. The Ibn Ezra understands Yafli to be related to the word pele, which means wonder. The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is commending the Nazir for his asceticism, though he was never commanded to undertake such an endeavor.

From the dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra we can see the underpinnings of the dispute between Rambam and Ramban as to the status of the Nazir: did he do something good or something sinful? Ramban feels that the Nazir did something good, and he must bring a sin offering at the end of his Nazir-period because he is ending a period of heightened spirituality. This seems to jive with the opinion of the Ibn Ezra. The Rambam understands that what the Nazir did is less than ideal. We are not supposed to prohibit things on ourselves that the Torah did not prohibit. The Nazir felt that out of necessity, due to the times in which s/he lived and the things that s/he saw, that a vow of Nazirut was the appropriate response.

I think these approaches should give us food for thought in terms of how we must respond to the challenges that surround us in modern society. Do we circle the wagons and make even permissible ideas and practices off limits as a radical response to the permissiveness and moral relativism of general society? Or do we stay the course, fully engaged in society while attempting to be role models, based on the Torah?

There is no easy, across the board answer- but the Nazir- and how that status is viewed by our tradition, makes us aware of the dilemma and begins a critical conversation for 21st century Orthodox Jews.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Davening Early AND Early To Davening – in Honor of Shavuot

There is a widespread custom on Shavuot to learn all night of the first night of the holiday. Some suggest that the Ibn Ezra is alluding to this custom in his commentary on Parshat Yitro. When the Jews are told to prepare for receiving the Torah (Shemot 19:11), Ibn Ezra suggests that this preparation may refer to staying up all night before Matan Torah:
והיו נכונים אולי לא יישן אדם בהם בלילה, שישמעו קול ה' בבקר, כדרך כהן גדול ביום הכיפורים:

The Magen Avraham (OC 494) suggests that the custom to stay up all night serves as a “Tikkun”, repair/ repentance, for the Midrashic story that the Jews slept late the morning of Matan Torah and God had to wake the people up in order to receive the Torah (an idea worthy of its own blog post).  Hence we call All Night Learning on Shavuot – Tikkun.
איתא בזוהר שחסידים הראשונים היו נעורים כל הלילה ועוסקים בתור' וכבר נהגו רוב הלומדים לעשות כן ואפשר לתת טעם ע"פ פשוטו לפי שישראל היו ישנים כל הלילה והוצרך הקב"ה להעיר אותם כדאיתא במדרש לכן אנו צריכים לתקן זה

If the point of the Midrash is to point out the Jews’ lack of excitement and anticipation of receiving the Torah- then the appropriate Tikkun is to stay up all night studying Torah and anticipating our re-acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot morning.

But perhaps there is another point that the Midrash is making: Had God not woken the Jews up, then they may have not been on time for Matan Torah.
Some people are always on time. And some people are chronically late: for business meetings, social engagements - and shul.

I was recently at a meeting with a group of fellow pulpit Rabbis. One of the topics that came up was attendance at shul- and how people are showing up to shul Shabbat morning later and later. There are a number of reasons why people may come late: from childcare coverage to attention deficit challenges to underlying issues with organized religion and God. Without judging any particular person and any particular circumstance I would ask: If you had an important job interview with a boss, or a potential business venture meeting, would you do your best to get to the appointment on time? Every Shabbat morning we have an appointment with Hashem, The Boss of bosses- showing up on time is a way of demonstrating that we care about that appointment.

This Shabbat we begin Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. One of the lessons we learn from the census is that the count is precise because every person is precious. Time is also a precious commodity. To demonstrate that something is important to us we should strive to be precise and on time with our appointments, especially our appointment with prayer in shul.

Even if showing up on time every week is not something we can commit to right now on an ongoing basis, let us consider utilizing the first day of Shavuot to demonstrate that this is a value that we hope to increasingly instill into our lives. While some of us will daven early on Shavuot morning, I invite the rest of us to come early (or at least on time) to shul in honor of Shavuot.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Shavuot at the Kotel 1967: Mt. Moriah and Mt. Sinai

“Mt. Sinai and Mt. Moriah”

Shavuot 1967: Grand Reopening of the Kotel for Jewish Prayer – a week after the end of the 6 Day War. The NY Times covered the event with a special report in its June 14, 1967 issue.
The Times was not aware of just how appropriate it was for Shavuot to be celebrated in connection with the Kotel and Temple Mount. For Har Sinai (central to the Shavuot story) and Har Hamoriah (location of Temple Mount) are the two mountains most central to Jewish history and Jewish identity.

Our Rabbis teach us just how interconnected the two locations are.
Har Sinai is the model/ inspiration for the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah:

1.      Chazal teach us that the fire that constantly burned on the Mizbeach on Har Hamoriah had originally been lit from the fire that burned during Matan Torah on Har Sinai.

2.      Vayikra Rabba: the sprinkling of blood that Moshe does at Har Sinai- marks the origins of sprinkling blood, so important in the temple Service on Har Hamoriah

3.      Ramban’s opinion is that the purpose of the Mishkan is to be a mobile Sinai unit- to have an ongoing Revelation, similar to what occurred at Har Sinai- as the Jews make their way to Israel, and ultimately on Har Hamoriah in the Beit Hamikdash.

It emerges that the relationship between Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah is symbiotic and synergistic. Each Mountain teaches us lessons that are informed and enhanced by the other.
It was the personal sacrifice, the lonely road of submission to God and the countercultural beliefs demonstrated by Avraham at the Akeida on Har Hamoriah that set the paradigm for Bnai Yisrael. Avraham’s declaration of Hineni at Har HaMoriah inspired the nation’s declaration of Na’aseh V’Nishma (ie we submit to God even if we don’t understand) at Har Sinai.
And it was the commitment to Jewish unity and national identity exhibited by Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai that was crucial for the nation to develop as they prepared to live a normal yet noble life in Eretz Yisrael, with their spiritual focal point being the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah.
From Har Hamoriah we learn the value of Personal Identity, Diversity and Blazing our own trail. From Har Sinai we learn national Identity, Unity. and appreciating the value of community and tradition.    These lessons must reside within one person, one spot, as the Midrash Tanchuma teaches us:

“Sinai Meheichan Bah? MeHar Hamoriah Nitlash K’Challah Me’Isa.
Har Sinai and Har Hamoriah come from the same location.  Har Hamoriah informs the Har Sinai experience which then influences the Beit Hamikdash on Har Hamoriah. There is a tension with which we live as we navigate between Har Hamoriah (personal identity) and Har Sinai (collective responsibility). And yet these two great mountains of Jewish history encourage us to understand how together they form a rich tapestry, critical to Jewish life. 

As we prepare to celebrate both Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot, let us recommit ourselves to the lessons of Mt Moriah and Mt. Sinai.


Friday, May 27, 2016

It's Not Only What You Say, But What You Mean

In Parshat Behar (25:30) we find the phenomenon of Keri Uketiv, a word that is written one way and read a different way. The verse in English reads:

But if it is not redeemed by the end of a complete year, then that house which is in the city that has a wall, shall remain permanently [the property] of the one who purchased it throughout his generations. It will not leave [his possession] in the Jubilee. לוְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר לוֹ (כתיב אשר לא)חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ לְדֹרֹתָיו לֹא יֵצֵא בַּיֹּבֵל:

The word Lo in the phrase Asher Lo Choma is written with the letter Aleph. Therefore according to the text it means “A city that is not walled.” However the tradition is that the word is read as if it was spelled with a vav instead of an Aleph and therefore actually means “a city with a wall.” The Talmud in Arachin (32a) explains that the Keri Uktiv phenomenon here teaches us that the determination as to whether a city is considered walled or unwalled depends on its status at the time of Joshua’s conquering of the Land of Israel. Our pasuk teaches us that if the city was walled at the time of Joshua it is to be considered walled for this law, even if it currently has no wall surrounding it.
Keri Uktiv is a phenomenon that occurs with some frequency in the Prophets, but is rare to find in the Chumash

Another unique aspect to this Keri Uketiv is that the two words are homonyms, they are pronounced exactly the same: “Lo”. And yet they mean completely opposite things.  The Halacha is that the person who is reading the Torah should have in mind “Lo” with a Vav even though he reads “Lo” with an aleph.
Perhaps there is an additional lesson we can learn from this unique Keri Uketiv. We can say the exact same words and they can mean completely different things depending on our tone and the circumstances. For example if I tell someone while playing softball “nice job!” it means one thing if the person just made a great play while something else completely if he just dropped the ball.

We must be careful not only with what we say, but how we say it and how the words will be perceived and taken by the listener.