Friday, March 22, 2013

Impurity is much easier to achieve than Holiness

In Parshat Tzav we learn that if meat comes into contact with something tamei (ritually impure) then that sacrificial meat becomes impure and is rendered unfit and must be burned (7:19). Similarly, pure sacrificial meat that comes into contact with a vessel renders that vessel holy, and the vessel can no longer be used for mundane purposes (6:20). Rabbi Shenur Zalman of Liadi (The Baal HaTanya) notes that in both cases, the impure and the holy has an impact on other items. However he refers us to Rashi on 6:20 that explains that concerning the holy meat, there must actually be a transfer of flavor by means of heat in order for the vessel to be rendered holy.

From here we see the difference between holy and impure. When it comes to the impure, mere contact has a negative effect on others. However when it comes to holiness, it does not rub off and positively affect others so easily. Transfer of holiness requires more effort, it requires heat and drive. Bad habits and traits rub off much more easily and are transferable by osmosis. The same is not true of good habits and traits. Those we have to work harder to gain. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

More Wisdom from Ferris Bueller

The third book of the Torah begins with the word Vayikra. The word is written with a small letter aleph. The word Vayikra means that “Hashem called to Moshe.” Without an aleph at the end it is also a meaningful word, Vayikar, which would mean that “Hashem happened upon Moshe.” Rashi explains that whereas G-d happens upon wicked prophets such as Bilaam, He lovingly seeks and calls out to righteous prophets such as Moshe. There are many interpretations as to why the letter aleph is written small. For example the Baal Haturim explains that the small letter is meant to highlight Moshe’s humility.
 I think that the difference between the words Vayikra and Vayikar, affords us the opportunity to note the difference that exists between “having a calling” (Vayikra) and “letting things happen to you.” (Vayikar) We all have a calling in life and we hope to hear that calling and live it. But as Ferris Bueller so eloquently put it: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
If we are not listening carefully we can end up not only missing our calling, but allowing life to just happen to us, instead of making things happen.

Perhaps this is the lesson of the little aleph. It’s a fine line between Vayikar and Vayikra, and we must be vigilant to pay attention and ask for help from the One Above in order to be successful in finding and fulfilling our calling.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shabbat and Mishkan: Forest and Trees

God’s command to Moshe to build the Mishkan and its vessels can be found in the Parshiyot of Teruma, Tetzaveh and Ki Tisa. Finally in Parshat Vayakhel, we read how Moshe conveys these commandments to the Jewish People. In both Hashem’s command to Moshe as well as Moshe’s command to the people there is mention of the importance of Shabbat.  One way to understand the relationship between the construction of the Mishkan and Shabbat is that building the Mishkan cannot be done on Shabbat.  Rav Soloveitchik (quoted by Rabbi Harold Kanatopsky) noted that mention of Shabbat is in very different points of the narrative. In God’s command to Moshe, Shabbat is the very last thing mentioned, after Hashem had described all of the work necessary to build the Mishkan. (Mention of Shabbat is found in Parshat Ki Tisa 31:13). When Moshe conveys these plans to the Jewish People, Shabbat is mentioned at the very beginning, before any specifics concerning the Mishkan project are explained.
Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the difference can be attributed to the monumental event that occurs in between the command to Moshe and the command to the people: The sin of the golden calf. Prior to that sin, the emphasis was on the building project at hand. There was an assumption that people understood and appreciated the theological and philosophical underpinnings that explain the need for and reason behind the Mishkan. Shabbat is a good symbol that summarizes the key points: the existence of one God, and that Hashem is both the God of creation and the God of History. Although God cannot be seen, He is everywhere and it is up to human beings to work in order to sense God’s presence in all that we do and wherever we are.  These philosophical truths were taken for granted, and therefore Shabbat is only mentioned at the very end of the command to Moshe- as a mere reminder.
The sin of the golden calf showed that no theological principle can be taken for granted. The people had sinned in a fundamental way;  a manner that would have been unconscionable and unimaginable  had their faith and commitment been firm. Moshe understands this, and before he mentions any details about the building project, he makes sure that everyone understands what this is all about. Moshe reminds the people of Shabbat and all that Shabbat symbolizes and means. Only then can he go into the specifics of Project Mishkan.
Moshe’s lesson to us is critically important in our generation. All too often we focus on the minutia to the detriment of our understanding the big picture. Halacha teaches us the meaning of every small act, but we also need an understanding and appreciation for what it all is supposed to mean and what it all can mean to each of us. We must learn the intricate laws of the 39 Melachot. And we also need to appreciate the spiritual meaning and importance of Shabbat. We must learn all that there is to learn about Pesach cleaning and Pesach Kashrut and Pesach Seder. And we must learn more about what Pesach should mean to us; what are the life lessons we are to glean from Pesach and from being Jewish, for that matter. We will be more proud and excited about the details of our tradition and observance, if we take the time to understand and appreciate the big picture of what our Jewish identity is all about 

Friday, March 1, 2013

What Was Aharon Thinking?

The question that jumps out at me as I read through the episode of the Golden Calf once again in Parshat Ki Tisa is: What was Aharon thinking/ trying to accomplish? According to the text the nation comes to Aharon for help and it appears that it is only through Aharon’s facilitating that the Golden Calf is created. Such behavior does not fit with our understanding of who Aharon was: older brother of Moshe, the first Kohen Gadol, a man committed to both God and his fellow human being. Was he trying to stall until Moshe got back? Was Aharon attempting to divert the nation’s attention? In his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses the various approaches offered by Midrash and Rabbinic sources, but concludes his piece on the following note:

“When all is said and done, the issue of Aharon’s involvement in chet ha’egel is one of those cases where the questions are better than the answers.” Being that we may never arrive at a completely satisfying answer, I’d like to share with you an idea that came to me this year as I was learning the Parsha.

I believe that the key to my approach is found in a word mentioned early on in the Jews’ plans: Vayikahel (32:1): the nation approached Aharon. The word is related to the word kehilla, which means a community. It may imply that the nation gathered in front of Aharon in a spirit of unity and cooperation. Granted, thye gathered for the wrong reasons in this case. It is fair to assume that Aaron had serious reservations about what was being asked of him. However, being a man who loved peace and always tried to foster peace between people, Aharon was enamored by the cohesiveness of the people at that moment.

Of course the Golden Calf was wrong and the Jewish People are punished (whether Aharon is ever punished for his role is a matter of dispute and depends on one’s understanding of what exactly transpired). But the lesson of the importance of community was one that remains true, even if learned under the dubious circumstances of the Chet Ha’Egel.            

Perhaps Aharon said to himself- "I’d rather not be involved in the golden calf.” He may have said, “I don’t have much of a choice, so let me try to mitigate the guilt of the people.”  But perhaps he also said, “with such a degree of cooperation and unity- it can't end up all bad." And one could argue that Aharon was right- because although the Egel was a mistake, it led to the 13 Midot Harachamim and the Second Luchot, and perhaps even the notion of a Mishkan/ Beit Hamikdash (depending on which commentary you hold like). If the foundation is one of unity and cooperation, then even mistakes can be utilized for some good outcome.