Friday, February 23, 2007

A House of Love and Prayer

Everybody knows what a mitzvah is. A mitzvah is one of the 613 biblical commandments of the Torah, the prohibitions and obligations incumbent upon every Jew. Right? Not really.

It is inaccurate to describe mitzvot as being “incumbent upon every Jew.” Some mitzvot are only for Kohanim, some are for Levites, some are only for farmers, a few are just for women, etc., etc. It is impossible for any one Jew to do all 613 mitzvot. As Hillary wisely said, it takes a village.

But beyond that, there are mitzvot that are not incumbent upon anyone at all. The first mitzvah of our parsha is an example of this rare kind of mitzvah.

G-d spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the Israelites and they shall take for me a portion (terumah). Take my portion from everyone whose heart compels him to give. This is the portion that they shall take from them: Gold, silver, copper, sky-blue [wool], purple [wool]…
They shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.

Shemot 25:1-4,8
There is a mitzvah here to collect funds for the construction of the Mishkan-sanctuary, the Tabernacle. But who is obligated to give? “Anyone whose heart compels him…” Technically, no one has to give a dime.

In the words of the Brisker Rov (Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, 1886-1959):

The communal collection on behalf of the Mishkan was a mitzvah and an obligation, as the verse states, “Speak to the Jews and they shall take for me a portion…” This is the language of a command and a positive mitzvah. However, the essential quality of this mitzvah is that it is communal obligation and not an individual obligation. It is just like the mitzvah of building the Mishkan – the obligation [to build] is on the community and not the individual, as is made clear by Maimonides in his Sefer HaMitzvot.

How strange! We know that Judaism is a religion of commandments, and that includes contributions to worthy causes. When it comes to covering the cost of the daily sacrifices offered in the Mishkan, the Torah institutes a mandatory half-Shekel tax. When it comes to supporting the Kohanim, the Levites and the poor, the Torah obligates the Jewish farmer to tithe his produce. But when it comes to this most important of mitzvot, the building of the sanctuary itself, we leave that to the goodness of people’s hearts? Why?

The question runs deeper. The Talmud teaches that following orders is greater than volunteering (Kiddushin 31a). This surprising perspective is based on the idea that the more difficult the task, the more meaningful and rewarding the outcome. Volunteering is special, but it is a natural tendency in good people. More extraordinary is following orders – because orders turn people off. Overcoming that mental obstacle and doing the deed without the help of the natural excitement and drive that comes with being a volunteer makes for an even greater act. This is the advantage of mandatory mitzvot (cf. Tosefot Tuch, ad loc.).

In light of this concept, our question is strengthened. Why is the mitzvah of our parsha different? Why were the Jews deprived of a mitzvah-command to participate in the construction of the Mishkan?

The answer is that G-d wants the Mishkan built by people who go beyond the call of duty. The compelling words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) can help us understand why.

One who truly loves the Creator will not consciously limit their observance to the well-known obligations incumbent upon every Jew. Rather, what happens to him is what happens to a boy who loves his father. If his father just hints that he likes something, the son will strive to do the thing as much as he can. Even if his father said it only once and in a half-sentence, that’s sufficient for the son to understand his father’s preferences… he doesn’t need an explicit command or to be told again. We see this happening all the time between lovers and friends, husbands and wives, and fathers and sons…
Don’t say, “I wasn’t commanded [to do] more, it’s enough for me to do what I’ve been told.”

The Path of the Just, chap. 18
While commanded mitzvot can be performed lovingly, pure expressions of love they are not. Fulfilling obligations lays the foundation of human responsibility and reverence, and that ranks higher on the pecking order of mitzvot, but going beyond the letter of the law is the litmus test of love. This is why the collection of funds and materials for the Mishkan could not be mandatory. Donations had to be given freely, for obedience alone fails to compel G-d to descend from His heavenly abode and rest His Shechinah in a terrestrial sanctuary. He has to see love.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Resetting the Moral Compass

Parshat Mishpatim comes as a bit of a surprise. It covers many issues of civil law, from property damage and criminal negligence to theft and assault, and it legislates the appropriate restitution for each case. The question is why the Torah expends its precious parchment and ink on such utilitarian matters.

G-d bestowed man with a moral compass and human societies have long demonstrated their ability to establish ethical codes of law. The Torah doesn’t have to get into the nitty-gritty of dollars and cents. All G-d has to do is tell us to create a just legal system; He can leave the details to us.

In fact, this is exactly the way it is for the rest of humanity – one of the seven Noahide laws is to establish courts of justice (cf. Maimonides, Laws of Kings 9:14). Societies are obligated to use their collective moral intelligence to compose a legal code and a court system. Gentile courts need not consult with the Torah (cf. Teshuvot HaRama 10) for G-d has confidence in man to know what is just and what is not. So why, when it comes to the Jews, does the Torah deem it necessary to dictate the letter of the law? Does G-d not have faith in His Chosen People? Is our moral compass any less accurate than that of the North Koreans or Singaporeans?

Moreover, while the rules laid down in Mishpatim do contain several unique elements, they don’t strike us as necessarily “more just” than alternative options. Compensation for the unexpected violence of a docile animal is set at 50% of the damage (Shemot 21:35), but would 75% or 25% be unjust? The same kind of question can be asked about virtually every law in the parsha. Another example: In addition to the obvious obligation to return a stolen item, the Torah slaps on a punitive fine of 100% the value of the item (Shemot 22:3). (The thief is exempt from this fine if he turns himself in, cf. Shemot ad loc; Talmud, Baba Kamma 14b.) This makes sense, but would a 50% or 200% fine be unjust? What about a jail term or community service? These options and many others also seem fair; certainly a gentile court is well within its rights to establish the laws of damages and theft as they deem fit. In the face of a host of valid and just options, why does the Torah restrict us to one particular ruling?

Our parsha begins with an “and.” “And these are the laws” (Shemot 21:1). Why the “and”? Rashi quotes the Midrash:
“And these” connects [our parsha] to the previous [teachings] (i.e., the Ten Commandments). Just as those were from Sinai, so too these are from Sinai.
The Sefas Emes (R. Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905) asks the obvious question. All 613 mitzvot of the Torah are from Sinai! Why does the Torah need to stress the divine source of Mishpatim? The Sefas Emes answers the question with a quote from his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim (first Rebbe of Ger, 1799-1866).
The essential point that G-d wants us to understand is this: Despite the fact that the laws of Mishpatim are understood by the mind of man, they exist only because they are the will of G-d… Even the logic and the comprehension of man is the result of G-d’s will.
This, says the Sefas Emes, is why we need the “and.” It is the very logic of civil law and the recognized imperative for justice that requires us to emphasize the divine source of Mishpatim. We must never forget that it was G-d who gave us these laws. More than that, it was G-d who gave us minds that can understand them.

The Sefas Emes and the Chiddushei HaRim were central figures of 19th century Chassidism. However, this perspective is not uniquely Chassidic, it’s just plain Jewish. In fact, Reb Yerucham Levovitz (1874-1936) and the Alter of Kelm (R. Simcha Zissel Ziv, 1824-1898), proponents of the non-Chassidic Lithuanian school of Mussar of the same era, understood Mishpatim in the very same way. And they took the idea one-step further.

Like his contemporary the Sefas Emes, Reb Yerucham was intrigued by the Midrash that underscores the divine source of Jewish civil law. In explanation, he quotes a radical teaching of his rebbe, the Alter of Kelm.
Take, for example, the mitzvah of honoring parents. People commonly think that this mitzvah was given because parents exist… Actually, the exact opposite is true. The reason why people have a father and a mother is because the Torah wanted to command us to honor parents…
It sounds wild, but there’s really nothing original here. We know that the Torah predated Genesis (Talmud, Shabbat 88b) and the very first Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 1:1) tells us that “G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.” This means that every physical reality, from human reproduction through two parents to civil law, morality and logic has its source in the blueprint of creation, the Torah. If it’s out there, it’s because it’s in the Book.

When G-d created man, He built a moral compass into his genetic code. What did G-d use as the guide for the code’s design? Parshat Mishpatim.

Mishpatim is pure unadulterated justice. Filtered through the static of the human mind, our sense of justice loses its exactitude and multiple options appear equally just. In the courts of the world, no two legal systems match. But Mishpatim remains the eternal, unchanging bedrock of justice, the divine blueprint of human morality – and G-d gave it to the Jews.

He relates His words to Yaacov, His statutes and judgments to Israel. He did not do so for any other nation; He did not make Mishpatim known to them – Halleluyah!

Psalms 147

Friday, February 9, 2007

Prophet for a Day?

Prophecy is not equal opportunity. Even in the Era of Prophecy, G-d only spoke to spiritual giants (with the rare exception made for emergency divine intervention). One thing is certain. The average Joe never heard G-d’s voice.

It’s not a question of worthiness – the prophetic experience would kill the unprepared human. Blast the soul right out of the poor fellow, no less. The Revelation at Sinai, however, broke the rules of the game.

At Sinai, every Jew heard G-d’s voice (Shemot 20:19). It was a sublime and exhilarating experience but it was also unimaginably terrifying. It was too much to take and the Jews begged for it to end.

All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn and the mountain smoking. The people trembled when they saw it, keeping their distance. They said to Moshe, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But let G-d not speak to us [anymore], for if He does, we will die.

Shemot 20:15-16

Bringing every Jew into G-d’s classroom was a great idea, but it kills the students. G-d had compassion on the people and He cut the lesson short. The rest of the Torah would be taught to Moshe alone and he would get the job of teaching it to the Jews. Like many things in life, prophecy is best left to the professionals.

How many commandments did the Jews hear before the mike was turned off? Only the first two.

“Moshe commanded us the Torah as an inheritance” (Deut. 33:4). The Gematria, the numerical value, of the word “Torah” is 611. “I am G-d” (Shemot 20:2) and “You shall not have [other gods]” (Shemot 20:3) were heard from the mouth of the Almighty.

Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a

In other words, of the 613 biblical mitzvot, only 611 were taught by Moshe. The first two commandments, the mitzvah of faith, “I am G-d,” and the prohibition against polytheism and idolatry, “You shall not have other gods,” were taught to us not by Moshe, but by G-d Himself. The nation heard these first two commandments firsthand at Sinai. The remaining 611 mitzvot, “Torah,” were heard not from G-d, but from Moshe, as per the nation’s request.

G-d knew that novices can’t become prophets at moment’s notice. G-d knew that the nation couldn’t tolerate prophecy. So why did He speak to the nation only to have them beg Him to stop? Why does He freak out the Jews with the first two commandments when He could just tell them to Moshe like the other 611?

The answer is that the Moshe idea had to come from the Jews themselves.
They said to Moshe, “You speak to us, and we will listen. But let G-d not speak to us [anymore], for if He does, we will die.
The Jews needed to experience their inability to receive the Torah from G-d. Only then could they appreciate the critical role that Moshe had to play. Going through this process, the Jews realized for the first time what an incredible prophet they had for a leader.

In fact, the stated purpose of the revelation at Sinai was to establish Moshe's position as the Jewish prophet par excellence.

G-d said to Moshe, “… the nation will hear when I speak to you and they will then believe in you forever.”

Shemot 19:9

This is all fine and good, but we haven’t really answered our original question. If you’re not a licensed prophet, you can’t hear G-d’s voice and live. How did the entire nation survive prophecy, even if it was just for the first two commandments?

Maimonides has a fascinating answer to this question. He posits that hearing the first two commandments doesn’t really qualify as prophecy at all.

For these two principles, I mean the existence of the deity (I am G-d) and His being one (you shall not have other gods), are knowable by human speculation alone. Now with regard to everything that can be known by demonstration, the status of the prophet and everyone else who knows it is equal; there is no superiority of one over the other…
As for the other commandments, they belong to the class of generally accepted opinions and those adopted in virtue of tradition, not to the class of the intellecta.

The Guide of the Perplexed 2:33

In other words, the definition of prophecy is information or insight provided by G-d. If you can figure it out yourself, it isn't prophecy – even if you hear G-d say it! The first two commandments fall in this category. The converse is also true. An unprovable piece of information is prophecy when it is heard from G-d – even if you already believed it to be true.

This is not linguistic acrobatics; Maimonides is making a statement here of profound import.

Most of us can only hear what we already know. We pride ourselves on our rationality and we reside comfortably within self-imposed walls of empirical evidence and human logic. This is wonderful, of course, and it’s especially useful if you happen to be a scientist or a computer programmer, but it’s a narrow view of the universe and reality. Certainly, a prophet it does not make. The prophetic talent is the ability to hear and accept divine ideas and concepts that transcend the human intellect.

The Prophets of Old are not the only ones who require this talent; the Torah student of today needs it too. To study the eternal words of Torah is to be a mini prophet, striving to understand the Torah’s mitzvot and message and straining to hear the voice of the living G-d. To succeed, we need the humility to admit that man does not know all.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Lonely Faith of Man

A belated Beshalach post, by Benjy Ginsberg

I am always a little taken aback at our ancestors' short-term memory. It was only three days after the most miraculous moment in our nation's history, the Splitting of the Sea, before they forgot the notion of divine assistance and began complaining about the lack of food. And it’s always about food. First, there was no water, then they wanted bread, then they complained because there was no meat, and to wash it all down, another complaint for water. It’s a veritable four-course meal of kvetching.

It’s also a slippery slope. When they first complained for water, Moshe warns them not to forget the miracles that just happened, and G-d himself tested the people. By the time they get around to their next complaint for water, the Jewish people have sunk pretty low. Now, they are the ones testing G-d! How did things unravel so quickly?

Before the events in this week's Parsha, the Jewish people handled their tests with remarkable consistency. Aside from the episode where their workload was increased, there were no complaints or lapses in belief. But it’s not really that difficult to believe in G-d when your enemies are getting ten plagues. In fact, witnessing the plagues required no work or show of belief on the part of the Jews. The first active display of faith was sacrificing the Paschal lamb and applying its blood to the doorpost. By that time, they were scared stiff of the consequences of disobeying G-d. No, the first real test of faith for the Jewish people began after they left Egypt:

Pharaoh was approaching and the B’nei Yisrael lifted their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were chasing after them; and they were very afraid, and the B’nei Yisrael cried out to G-d. (Shemos 14: 10)

Surrounded by the sea on one side and a furious Egyptian army on the other, the Jews turn to G-d to help them. G-d’s answer, though is very puzzling:

Why are you crying out to me? Go tell the B’nei Yisrael to move onward. (ibid 14: 15)

What’s wrong with beseeching G-d? Isn’t prayer a big component of dealing with crises? Why is Hashem insisting that the Jews abandon their praying?

The answer, as Rashi explains, is that Hashem was not rejecting this instance of prayer, he was just explaining that prayer was not necessary. G-d was trying to show the Jewish people the power of their own faith. The abundant faith that the Jewish people had displayed throughout all their difficult ordeals was powerful enough to split the sea. The only option, then, was to move forward, because the splitting of the sea was a foregone conclusion.

Having faith in the worthiness of your own faith is a difficult task to undertake. Actually, faith by itself is hard enough, especially for a nation that had been enslaved for over 200 years. Even with an incredible spiritual boost of seeing the Splitting of the Sea, the Jews don’t believe that they are worthy to keep receiving Divine protection. They are still convinced that they will die in the desert, that they are unworthy of the miracles that they had just witnessed.

On a simple level, that is the difference between Emunah, or belief in G-d, and Bitachon, or faith that G-d’s plan is all for the best. The Jews had an abundance of belief. They witnessed all of the miracles from the Ten Plagues to the Splitting of the Sea to the Manna falling from the sky. They knew with spectacular clarity that G-d is real and has the ability to do anything. They had a hard time, however, integrating the concept of Bitachon, that G-d’s plan centered on a miraculous exodus, that they were indeed worthy of Divine salvation.

Chazal famously compare two ideas to the "difficulty" of splitting the sea: finding one's spouse (Sanhedrin 22a), and earning a livelihood (Pesachim 118a). These two endeavors are essential to human existence, but are always accompanied by obstacles. It is easy to become discouraged, to lose faith in the Divine plan. Knowing something can happen is one thing, believing it will happen is another. That was the challenge for our ancestors at the Red Sea, and that remains a challenge for us today.