Friday, February 22, 2013

The Kohen's Breastplate and the Art Scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

One of my favorite movies (if not my all-time favorite) is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The scene in the Art Institute of Chicago ranks as one of my favorites. The music ("Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” performed by the Dream Academy), the art work, the teens- it all works for me. According to the film’s editor, the museum scène was panned by preview audiences. It was the scene that they liked the least. But in those early screenings, the museum scene was placed after the parade scene. Nothing can beat the parade scene- it needs to be the highlight- and last thing- that the teens do on that day. Once the museum scne was put in the right spot of the movie- audiences loved it.
The character in the movie Cameron zeros in on one painting during that scene: A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by George Seurat. That’s where I learned what pointillism is. Cameron stares at the painting and the camera zooms in closer and closer until you no longer see a park scene or even the little girl but just a series of dots on the canvas. I always understood Cameron’s fascination with that painting was due to the fact that at that moment, his life did not make all that much sense to him- kind of like a work of pointillist work when viewed from close up. Only from a distance can you see the full beauty, and then it begins to make sense.
I believe that a similar idea is conveyed through the operation of the Choshen, the breastplate, worn by the Kohen Gadol. We are told that all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were represented on the breastplate. A question could be posed to God and the letters of the answer might light up on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. However the answer was not that simple. For the letters would not appear as fully formed words. It was up to the Kohen to make sense of the jumble and put the words together in the correct fashion. Without Divine intervention this was almost an impossible feat. But the Ramban writes that the Kohen gadol was granted Divine assistance so that he’d be able to read the answer correctly.
Oftentimes in life we experience something but can’t make sense of it. We don’t really know what we are supposed to learn from the situation. The breastplate of the Kohen gadol teaches us that in such a situation we should turn to God to help us sort things out.
It emerges that we pray to Hashem for two things: we pray that things will occur the way we hope for them to. And if/when they do not, we ask Hashem to help us make sense of what happened. In this way, every situation we encounter in life, is an opportunity for self awareness and a deeper connection to Hashem.

Friday, February 15, 2013

"Blessing Is Never Created Out Of Nothingness"

Parshat Teruma is the first of four parshiyot focused on the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In describing the Shulchan, the table that held the 12 loaves of bread, we are informed that it is made of wood and covered in gold. We are also told to make “a gold crown all around” (25:24). Commentators try to understand the purpose of this crown. Rashi explains that the crown on the Shulchan is a “symbol of the crown of royalty.” A table is representative of wealth and greatness, attributes which are appropriate for a king. We therefore adorn the table with images of royalty. (think of the expression “a table fit for a king”). The Ramban quotes Rashi and then adds his own insight. He writes that the Sod, the deeper message, of the Shulchan is that “from the time that the world came into being, God’s blessing is never created out of nothingness”. Rather, blessing always comes as an extension of something that already exists. As an example, Ramban points to the story in Kings II where the prophet Elisha provides in a miraculous fashion an abundance of olive oil for a poor widow, but only after the widow gave Elisha a small bottle of actual olive oil, to which the miraculous blessing could attach itself.

I am reminded of two lessons based on this Ramban. The first is the partnership that must exist between human endeavor and Divine assistance. Success is in God’s hands, but Hashem cannot give us the blessing of success unless we have made the necessary preparations through our own efforts. The Shulchan reminds us that God provides for our material needs, but inorder for blessing to be bestowed upon us from Above, we need to roll up our sleeves and build a table down here.

The second lesson I am reminded of from the words, “blessing is never created out of nothingness”, is that we need to realize the blessings that are all around us, all the time. There may be moments in which we need something, there may be moments in which we feel sad or scared or lonely. In those moments we beseech God and seek his blessings. But just because we need something does not mean we have nothing, it does not mean that there is nothing good in our lives. The lesson of the crown on the Shulchan is that we must never view ourselves as bereft of blessing. We must appreciate the good in our lives- and only then is it possible for Hashem to add to that blessing and provideall that we need and all that we want.

There were three vessels in the Mishkan that were adorned with a golden crown: The ark, the golden altar and the table. The ark was a purely spiritual item, the spot through which God spoke to Moshe. The golden altar was used to burn incense, a physical substance that wafted up to heaven. It represents the connection between Heaven and Earth. The Shulchan was used for bread- a purely physical role. The crown on these three vessels teaches us that all three vessels can and must be used to appreciate the Source of all our blessings and in enhancing our connection with Hashem.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Even The Jewish Slave Must Maintain His Self-Esteem

I’d like to share with you an idea that I read in a collection of shiurim from Rabbi Zvi Dov Kanatopsky.

The first Mitzvah discussed in Parshat Mishpatim is that of the Eved Ivri, a Jew who “sells” himself into “slavery.” (I use quotation marks because, as I learned with my Chumash class this week, the situation is more like this Eved Ivri signs a long term employment contract, without an exit clause.) The Torah states that if this Eved Ivri entered into service “B’Gapo” then he leaves “B’Gapo”. This is the only place in Tanach that this word “Gapo” is used. Rashi accepts the interpretation of Targum Onkelos that “B’Gapo” means alone. In other words, if the Eved Ivri came into the situation unmarried then the expectation is that he leaves unmarried as well. (He cannot marry a Jewish woman while an Eved Ivri- because husbands must be able to support their families.) Rashi suggests that the word “Gapo” is related to word “Kenaf” which means clothing. If the Eved Ivri enters service which just the coat on his back, ie alone, then he leaves that way. The other support to Rashi’s interpretation is contextual: the next verse discusses what happens should the Eved Ivri enter into service with a wife and family.
Rabbi Kanatposky suggests that “B’Gapo” cannot merely mean “alone, without family”; for the prefix of the letter “bet” means “with”. There is something that the Eved Ivri takes with him into service that cannot, must not be taken away.  Basing himself on the similarity to the word “Guf” (body), Rabbi Kanatopsky suggests that here “B’Gapo” means human dignity and self-worth. Even as he enters a period of service, every person is entitled to human dignity- and the Torah demands that this self-worth be protected throughout the Eved Ivri’s stay in his master’s house. This can explain a number of the specifics of the rules of a Jewish slave: that he is allowed to bring his family with him, that according to the Talmud he cannot be mistreated and must be treated well. It may also explain why the eved Ivri leaves behind his non-Jewish wife and children if he gained them while a slave. For these family members would be constant reminders of his degraded status as an Eved Ivri, and the goal of Jewish servitude is to raise a person up, not to bring him down to a permanent state of low self esteem.
This is an incredibly important lesson for us today. The Torah wants us to appreciate the value of each of us- and of ourselves. It is only then that we can stand proudly as servants- of Hashem, a status that we all hope to achieve. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

When We Call Out To God- It's Always A Local Call

Parshat Yitro contains within it the story of the Revelation at Sinai. Prior to that experience, Hashem speaks to the Jewish Peopole about His expectations: I took you out of Egypt in order for you to become My treasured People, assigned with a unique role and special task in My world. If you choose to accept and fulfill these expectations then I will consider you to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (19:4-6) Hashem does not speak directly to the people, but rather through Moshe. This is a common role for Jewish prophets: they serve as God’s spokesmen. For not everyone deserves / can handle hearing the voice of God, as we read about once Hashem begins talking to Bnei Yisrael at Mt. Sinai. When the people hear God’s proposal, they immediately respond in the affirmative and say “Naaseh- we’re in!” We would have expected the people to speak directly to God. After all, that is one of the nice things about Judaism: we believe that everyone has the ability to speak directly to Hashem.

A joke: President Carter is invited to the Vatican to meet with the pope. On the Pope’s desk are three phones: a black phone, a red phone and a white phone. Carter asks the Pope: what’s with the three phones? The pope explains: the black phone is for calls inside Vatican City, the red phone is for calls to foreign leaders and the white phone is a direct line to God. Carter is impressed and asks if he can use the white phone to seek guidance from God in his quest for Middle East peace. The pope agrees but tells Carter that he has to pay the charges associated with such a call- $25,000. Carter feels it’s worth the price, pays the money and uses the phone.
The next month Carter is invited to Israel by Menachem Begin. Here too Carter notices three phones: black, red and white. This time the president doesn't ask for an explanation. Rather, he immediately asks Begin if he can use the white phone for a quick talk to God. When Begin agrees, Carter has his Secret Service pull out a wad of hundred dollar bills to pay the charge. Begin stops him in his tracks and tells Carter the fee is 25 cents. Carter asks: but at the Vatican, the pope charged me $25,000. To which Begin responds: Mr. President, from Jerusalem the call to God is a local one.

Prophecy is when God speaks to man- that only occurs to a person who is worthy of prophecy and nowadays not at all. Prayer is when Man talks to God, and that is available to anyone at any time, so long as they approach the endeavor with Kavanah.

Which makes the next part of this story so difficult to understand: Moshe conveys the People’s response to God, instead of God simply hearing what the people said (19:8) Why does Moshe convey our words to Hashem in this instance?

I have considered some possible answers to this question, but this week I invite you to study and think about the issue and come up with your own answers. From the question we are reminded of the fact that for us Jews- talking to God is always a local call- we just need to pick up the phone