Friday, February 26, 2016

The 13 Divine Attributes and Footprints in the Sand

Parshat Ki Tisa tells the story of the sin of the Golden Calf. In its aftermath Moshe pleads for forgiveness on behalf of the People and Hashem finally agrees. In so doing Hashem also teaches Moshe the 13 Midot Harachmaim, 13 attributes of God’s Mercy. We invoke this list of attributes at poignant moments of prayer- such as during Selichot, on the High Holidays and as the Torah is being taken out of the Ark on Yom Tov. Many are bothered by the seeming magical efficacy of this phrase and wonder how we can expect forgiveness from God just by saying something. 

The key to understanding the power of the 13 Midot HaRachamim is alluded to in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 17)
The Lord passed in front of him and called...” (Shemot 34:6).  Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the verse not been written, it would have been impossible to say [such a thing] – this teaches that the Almighty wrapped Himself as a sheli’ach tzibur [leader of the public prayer service] and showed Moshe the prayer service.  He said to him, “Any time Israel sins, let them perform this service before Me and I shall forgive them."

Saying the words does not suffice. We must commit to emulating God in ways depicted by the 13 Midot Harachamim. Just as God is merciful compassionate and patient with us, so too must we be merciful compassionate and patient with others. In so doing we can become worthy of forgiveness.
What about the first two attributes on the list: “Hashem, Hashem”? How can we possibly emulate these attributes?! These words seem to refer to God’s Essence, not His actions.

Rashi helps us understand
Lord, Lord: This is God's Attribute of Compassion. [It is repeated,] once for before the person sins, and once for after he sins and repents.

Our perception of and relationship to God is in constant flux. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes we feel very close to Hashem, and sometimes He may feel distant. This can be due to things that we have done (before sin, after sin), or as a result of things that we perceive as God’s actions (in times of success, during times of challenge). The way that we perform these attributes of God is by recognizing that although our opinion of God may be constantly changing, Hashem’s love and care and concern for us is constant.

This reminds me of the story of the man who one night had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with Hashem. Scenes from his life flashed across the sky and he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him and the other to Hashem.

 When the last scene of his life had flashed before him, he recalled that at the lowest and saddest times of his life there was only one set of footprints. Dismayed, he asked, "Hashem, you said that once I decided to follow you, you'd walk with me all the way. I don't understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me."

Hashem replied, "My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you saw only one set of was then that I carried you."

Such an understanding of “Hashem Hashem” in the 13 Midot Harachamim will enrich our appreciation of God in our lives and help us understand an attitude to which we must aspire.

Friday, February 19, 2016

In Honor of the 30th Anniversary of Ferris Bueller's Day Off

The Kohen's Breastplate 

and the Art Scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off

(The following was originally posted 3 years ago)
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 12, 2016

Torah Is Everything- And That's Half the Story

In Parshat Terumah we learn about the Aron that housed the Luchot. The measurements of the Aron are all “broken”:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height.

יוְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי 
אָרְכּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי קֹמָתוֹ:

The Baal HaTurim notes that the half measurements teach us the lesson that one who wants to become great in Torah learning must “break themselves.” Humility is not just a nice attribute to have alongside wisdom; it is a sin qua non (and prerequisite) for one aspiring to be a Talmid Chacham.

I believe that this idea brought down by the Baal Haturim teaches us something else. Talmud Torah is referred to as “Kneged Kulam” equal to all other Mitzvot. And yet Torah study cannot, and must not, exist within a vacuum. Ideally, Torah is learned with the intent of teaching those lessons to others; or at the very least of applying those lessons in our own lives. Or of publishing one's ideas in order to be studied by others. 

That is why there are so many philosophies that incorporate Torah alongside another value: Torah V’Avodah, Torah U’Maddah, 
Torah im Derech Eretz. These arenot just a 19th or 20th century catch phrases; the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot express a similar sentiment in many Mishnayot:

1:2: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of Gd, and deeds of kindness”

2:2: Beautiful is the study of Torah with the way of the world, for the toil of them both causes sin to be forgotten. Ultimately, all Torah study that is not accompanied with work is destined to cease and to cause sin.

3:10 One whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

There was never an ideal in Jewish tradition of the ivory tower, of studying Torah exclusively. Just like the Aron by itself is measured in half’s, Torah study must be combined with other values and endeavors in order to optimize its effect on oneself and one’s environment.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Holy People - Not Caricatures!

Earlier this week (22nd of Shevat) was the yahrtzeit of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. The Kotzker is quoted with a sharp insight on this week’s Parsha:
וְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי
And you shall be holy people to Me

Said the Kotzker: God wants us to be holy people, not holy angels! The Kotzker’s point is that God desires the service of human beings precisely because we are flawed and inconsistent. It is due to humans’ ability to do evil (unlike angels that have no free will) that makes our good decisions so beloved by God. Let us further explore what this pasuk can teach us about being holy people.
The entire pasuk states:

And you shall be holy people to Me, and flesh torn in the field you shall not eat; you shall throw it to the dog[s].

לוְאַנְשֵׁי קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיוּן לִי וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ:

As described in a number of places in the Torah kedusha, holiness, is linked to observing the laws of kashrut. Kedusha is often demonstrated by refraining from partaking in forbidden pleasures; in this case- un-slaughtered meat.

I think there may be another avenue of holiness alluded to here in Rashi’s comment on why this unkosher meat is given to the dogs:

למדך הכתוב שאין הקב"ה מקפח שכר כל בריה, שנאמר (שמות יא ז) ולכל בני ישראל לא יחרץ כלב לשונו, אמר הקב"ה תנו לו שכרו:
If so, why does the Torah say “to the dogs” ? Because the Holy One, blessed is He, does not withhold the reward of any creature, as it is said: “But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue” (Exod. 11:7). Said the Holy One, blessed is He, “Give it its reward.” -[From Mechilta]

When the Jews left Egypt, the dogs did their part by remaining quiet. The Midrash utilizes that episode as the source to teach an important lesson: We need to give credit where credit is due. This applies in the other direction too. We need to place blame where blame is due. No one is a caricature. No one is completely wicked, and no one is completely righteous, without any shortcomings. We should praise the good in people, while rejecting any misdeeds that are perpetrated, no matter who's doing them.

As the Kotzker said, what makes us holy is by being human: rejecting caricatures, embracing nuance and understanding that each of us is on a journey whereby we constantly strive to maximize our positive impact, while minimizing our negative impact. This is the path of Kedusha. This is what makes us worthy of the moniker “Anshei Kodesh.”