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.