Thursday, March 29, 2007

Why is this Kosher Different?

If you’ve walked into the kosher section in Molly Stones or Albertsons recently then you know that “Kosher for Passover” is a whole new ballgame. It’s not just a matter of raising standards for the holiday. On Monday night the laws of Kashrut will change.

Foods that were perfectly kosher all year round will suddenly become non-kosher when Passover begins. For all eight days of the holiday, the consumption of “Chometz” is strictly forbidden. Chometz is leavened dough, so bread, crackers, cookies, doughnuts, cereal, pretzels, etc., are all removed from the Jewish diet.

Beyond the familiar restrictions on eating, there is another law about Chometz that is virtually without parallel. A Jew may not even possess Chometz on Passover. With the exception of an idol, there is no other biblical restriction on Jewish ownership. You can keep a pet pig, but not Chometz on Passover. Why not? For the answer to this basic question about Chometz we must first understand a thing or two about Matzah.

On the first night of Passover, at the same time that Chometz is forbidden, it becomes a mitzvah to eat “Matzah.” What is Matzah? Flour and water – the exact same ingredients as Chometz! If Chometz and Matzah have the same ingredients, what is the difference between the two?

The difference is time. Chometz is dough that has been given time to rise; Matzah is dough that was baked before it had the chance to rise. This is the only distinction between the two items, but this little distinction makes all the difference in the world. Chometz is a sin and Matzah is a mitzvah.

What is the meaning of this? Why is the Torah making such a big deal differentiating between two virtually identical things? And what does any of this have to do with the Exodus from Egypt?

In the Haggadah we read the following:

Why are we eating this Matzah? Because the dough of our ancestors did not have a chance to rise before the King of Kings, the Holy One (may He be blessed), revealed Himself to them and redeemed them. The Torah states: “They baked the dough that they had brought out of Egypt into Matzah cakes, since it had not risen. They had been driven from Egypt and they could not delay…” (Shemot 12:39)
This explains where the idea of Matzah comes from and what it commemorates, but it does not suffice to answer our question. It’s sad that the Jews were rushed out of Egypt and didn’t have a chance to bake some proper bread or cake for the trip, but how much significance does this really have? Why does Matzah become an eternal mitzvah? Why does Chometz become taboo? We cannot know the mind of G-d, but there has got to be some point here that we can comprehend.

What is the difference between a freeman and a slave? What does a freeman have that a slave does not? The answer, in a word, is time. A freeman owns his time; a slave does not. A slave cannot choose how to spend his time, for his time does not belong to him – it belongs to his master. When a slave gains freedom then the question of how to spend his life becomes his own responsibility.

The ultimate crime of the freeman, or the freed slave, is to waste the precious time that G-d has granted them on this earth. Wasted time transforms Matzah into Chometz and Mitzvah into Sin. Time allows latent bacteria to fester in dough. It leavens and ferments, eating away at the starch and sugars, and punching holes in the dough with its carbon dioxide byproduct. It might taste great, but when you think about it, it’s disgusting. The dough is rotting! This is exactly what happens to the slave who does not put his newly acquired freedom to productive use.

A Jew has no right to squander or misuse time. Why did G-d take us out of Egypt? Why did He free the Jewish slaves? So they could smoke marijuana and sleep on a beach? Watch movies and play video games? Drink martinis and shoot pool? Sit around and let the dough rise? No. G-d took the Jews out of Egypt in order to bring them to Sinai and give them Torah and Mitzvot. To waste time, to waste a Jewish life – for this we were never granted freedom. Our freedom, the ownership of our time, is sanctified and limited to the sphere of Torah.

On Passover, not only don’t we eat Chometz; we don’t even possess it. Freedom is not ours to waste.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Burning Man

Animal sacrifice has been out of fashion for so long, people just don’t get it anymore. What is the sense of destroying a perfectly good animal? If G-d wants us to send Him gifts, wouldn’t a live pet be preferable to a cremated one?

Of course, we’ll never really understand what’s going on here. But that’s to be expected.

“Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.” Mark Twain was trying to be cynical; little did he realize the faith and humility contained in his words. Indeed, man should have no expectation of fathoming the divine wisdom expressed by the Torah. When people delude themselves into thinking that they understand Torah – that is cause for concern!

However, awareness of this principle has not prevented biblical commentators from suggesting lessons that can be learned from the mitzvah of animal sacrifice. Although no one explanation can account for all the different types of offerings and the host of legal minutia found in our parsha, heated disputes have raged for centuries. Most famous is the debate between the Rambam (Maimonides, 1135-1204) and the Ramban (R. Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270).

The explanation of the Rambam is based on the fact that many ancient societies considered certain animals sacred or worshiped them as deities. Thinking that the natural forces of the world operated autonomously, people believed animals were symbols or incarnations of these divine forces. For example, from the very beginning of Egyptian history, a bull was worshipped, probably as a fertility god of grain and cattle (cf. Wikipedia, Apis). By commanding us to offer these very same animals as sacrifices before the One G-d, the Torah intends to undermine these pagan beliefs.
It is with the act [of killing these animals,] considered by pagans to be the ultimate sin, that we approach G-d… With this act wrongheaded beliefs are remedied, for [pagan beliefs] are diseases of the soul and they are cured by doing the exact opposite [of what they dictate].
Guide for the Perplexed 3:46
To our ears the Rambam sounds reasonable enough, but his contemporary the Ramban considered it a sacrilege.
This is nonsense! …[Shall we] transform the altar of G-d into a disgusting thing whose whole purpose is to refute the ideologies of the foolish and the wicked?!
After raising several other objections, the Ramban presents his own theory. It is both compelling and harsh.
It would be appropriate for one who has sinned before G-d with his body and soul to have his blood spilt and his body burnt. But the Creator, in His kindness, accepts a stand-in. By the blood of a sacrifice coming in place of the [sinner’s] blood and its soul coming in place of the [sinner’s] soul, atonement is achieved…
Ramban, Commentary to Vayikra 1:9
G-d grants life. By ignoring G-d’s authority and transgressing His commands, a sinner forfeits the right to exist. Strict justice would have him burnt on the altar, but G-d accepts an animal in his place. This is the idea of sacrifices according to the Ramban. Although it is very different from the Rambam’s theory, there is a common denominator.

If pagans view the forces of nature as independent gods then sinners are pagans too – they see themselves as gods. A sinner is a person who considers himself an independent arbiter of right and wrong, and free to follow his passions – a denial of the kingship of G-d. To sin is to replace the worship of G-d with the worship of the self.

The Torah mandates that all objects of worship, from the old-fashioned gods of the pagans to the modern-day American idol of Man himself, surrender before the One G-d, the Command-in-Chief of the universe. All pretenders to the throne, anything or anyone who poses as an independent operator, must be offered up on the altar of the King of Israel. While the Ramban vehemently rejects the Rambam’s position, in the final analysis, the two interpretations converge. Animal sacrifice hammers home the basic principle of monotheism – the uncontested monarchy of G-d.

This should help us understand a well-known but mysterious teaching. Prayer replaces the sacrifices, as the verse states, “Our lips shall pay for the (lacking) cows” (Hosea 14:3).
R. Yaakov ben Asher (1268-1340)
This is not mere poetry. The Talmud tells us that the original rabbinic enactment of three daily prayers was modeled after the daily Temple offerings (cf. Berachot 26b). The question is, what does prayer have in common with animal sacrifice? How can we claim that prayer replaces it?

The answer is that praying for our needs is not just an effective way to inspire divine compassion; it reminds the petitioner who’s boss. Turning to G-d for health, money, justice, security, rain, success, peace, for all our personal and national needs, internalizes an awareness that G-d is the one and only master of every force in the world – including the force of man himself.

Prayer is no simple matter. People think that they can basically solve their own problems, but maybe a little prayer wouldn’t hurt. This is not prayer at all.

To pray is to recognize that without divine assistance man can accomplish nothing. To pray is to surrender autonomy. To pray is to cremate the deity of the ego on the altar of the One G-d.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Short Term Rental for G-d?

It is certainly a great blessing to study Torah as a child, but there is a down side.

Familiarity is blinding, and sometimes we are oblivious to the most obvious of problems. Fortunately, some people who study Torah all their lives still manage to look at it anew every day. While the question might not have occurred to most of us, the building of the Mishkan in the desert is an anomaly that has long disturbed Biblical commentators.

The Ralbag (1288-1344) asked the question directly:

It would have been appropriate for the mitzvah [of building a sanctuary] to go into effect [when the Jews arrive] at the place that G-d has chosen (i.e., Jerusalem), and not at some random location [in the desert]…
The Torah makes this point in parshat Re’eh, “Now you have not yet come to the resting place and hereditary land that G-d your Lord is giving you. But you shall cross the Jordan… and there will be a site that G-d will choose as the place for His Name to rest there” (Devarim 12:9-11).
Why build a Mishkan in the desert? What’s the rush? Can’t G-d wait until we get to Jerusalem and build the real thing on the Temple Mount? Is a portable, collapsible sanctuary really appropriate for the King of Kings?

R. Yaakov Kaminetzky (d. 1986) asks a related question. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 20b) tells us that upon entry into the land of Israel, the Jews have three responsibilities: To appoint a king, to destroy Amalek and to build a Temple. The Temple is the last item on the list. So why is G-d commanding them to build a Mishkan now?

Last week we mentioned the great chronology debate: What came first – the command to build the Mishkan or the Sin of the Golden Calf? Despite the fact the mitzvah of the Mishkan is the exclusive topic for over two whole parshiot before the Golden Calf appears, Rashi maintains that the Calf was first. This comes as a bit of a surprise; Rashi has a long established career of sticking to the “P’shat,” the straightforward meaning of the text. Why would he change around the order for no apparent reason?

R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1525) served as chief rabbi of the Ottoman Empire and authored a voluminous supercommentary on Rashi known simply as the “Mizrachi.” He posits a compelling justification for Rashi’s unexpected position.

It is impossible to say that G-d’s command to Moshe to build a Mishkan predated the Golden Calf [as the order of the parshiot would indicate]... If that were true, how would Moshe know if G-d still wanted the Jews to build a Mishkan [after the sin]? … Maybe G-d only agreed to grant them a second set of Tablets… for the purpose of maintaining Judaism. After they converted [at Sinai] and accepted the yoke of Torah and mitzvot G-d could not reject them. Even if the Jews did revert to [pagan] behavior, they would have the same status as Jews who “convert” to Christianity, i.e. they remain completely Jewish as the Talmud states. But to [go so far as to] build the Mishkan [for G-d] to dwell among them – an extra expression of love – that not!
…How could Moshe infer from the fact that G-d pardoned the Jews on Yom Kippur [and spared them from destruction] that the Mishkan project was still on? We must therefore say that G-d first commanded Moshe to construct a Mishkan only after the Sin of the Golden Calf…
The Mizrachi’s answer is so good, those who disagree with Rashi now have some explaining to do. The Ramban, for example, takes the position that the original mitzvah to build a Mishkan predated the Calf – as the text itself would indicate (Ramban to Shemot 35:1). How did Moshe know that G-d was still interested in a sanctuary after the sin? The answer is that if not for the Golden Calf, the Mishkan makes no sense at all.

When G-d first told Moshe about the Mishkan, Moshe was confused. Build a sanctuary out here in the desert? Why? But after the Golden Calf, Moshe understood. Under normal conditions a Mishkan would not be necessary, to say the least. Inappropriate or even disrespectful might be a more accurate description. However, aware that a Golden Calf was in the cards, G-d arranged for a Mishkan. It’s function? To let the people know that G-d loves them even after they sin.

“The Mishkan of Testimony” (Shemot 38:21) – A testimony to the Israelites that G-d had pardoned them for the Sin of the Golden Calf. After all, now His Shechinah was resting in their midst!

Rashi to 38:21

After the Golden Calf, G-d throws propriety to the wind and just moves right in. Forget Jerusalem, says G-d. I want to be with you today.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Building on Golden Ash

After choosing His people at the Exodus and marrying them at Sinai, G-d is ready to move in. The Jews were planning a magnificent terrestrial palace for their king right in the center of the community, but this week the construction schedule is postponed indefinitely. No, it’s not bad weather or a union strike. In Ki Tisa, the Jews build a Golden Calf.

It’s a long, sad story. In the aftermath of this sin, the Tablets are smashed, a brother against brother purge leaves thousands dead, and the nation is nearly annihilated by a plague of G-d’s wrath. In the end, with the help of Moshe’s prayers, G-d forgives. He grants the nation a second set of Tablets and He agrees to return to dwell amongst His people. After an eighty-day hiatus, the construction of the Mishkan moves forward.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but there is an important Midrashic teaching that must not be forgotten. Although the mitzvah to build the Mishkan was commanded before the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan functions as an atonement for it. “Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of the calf” (Midrash Tanchuma 8). In this view, the Mishkan is not merely a sanctuary for G-d, but it is the medium which enables G-d’s presence to return after the Golden Calf fiasco.

Rashi (cf. 31:18, 33:11) takes things one-step further. Evoking the principle that Torah events are not necessarily organized in chronological order, Rashi is of the opinion that the mitzvah to build a Mishkan was actually first presented after the Golden Calf – apparently in reaction to the sin. (The question of which came first, the calf or the Mishkan, is an old debate recorded in many Midrashim.)

“Let the gold of the Mishkan come and atone for the gold of the calf.” This is a fascinating concept. The idea is that a mitzvah to donate gold in the service of G-d will rectify the donating of gold for sin. This might explain why donations for the Mishkan were not mandatory (cf. Shemot 25:2). Only a voluntary donation for a holy purpose could function to counterbalance the voluntary donations for the idolatrous calf. There was, however, one mandatory collection for the Mishkan and it appears at the beginning of this week’s parsha. It’s the collection of a silver half Shekel. This mitzvah is presented in a most mysterious way, as if the half Shekel somehow provides divine protection and atonement. Let’s read the verses carefully.
G-d said to Moshe saying, “When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, every man shall give G-d an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them. Everyone included in the census must give a half Shekel… The rich may not give more and the poor may not give less…
You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan. It will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before G-d to atone for your souls.
Shemot 30:11-13,15-16
This is the first time we have a mitzvah to count the Jews. It works like this: Instead of counting the people directly, a half Shekel coin is taken from each person – the rich can’t give more and the poor can’t give less – and then the coins are counted.

What is the meaning of this mitzvah? Since when do the minutia of good government become Biblical commands? What are we atoning for? And what is this business about a plague? There is something else going on here and Rashi tells us what it is:

These verses teach us that [the Jews] were commanded to take this census when the collection for the Mishkan began after the sin of the Golden Calf. This is because a plague had started, as the verse states, “Then G-d struck the people with a plague because they had made the calf…” (Shemot 32:35).
The analogy is to a flock of sheep, beloved by its owner, which is hit by a plague. When it is over, the owner makes a request of his shepherd. “Please count my sheep and learn how many are left.” This [request] reveals his love.

It’s not about the number. G-d does not need us to tell Him how many Jews there are. What G-d wants is for us to understand that He loves every single Jew – even after the sin of the Golden Calf.

What do we do with all the money? Well, the verse tells us to use it for the Mishkan. “You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan” (ibid). But the Talmud (Megillah 29b) is more specific. The Talmud tells us that these half Shekel coins were melted down and forged into the silver bases which supported the Mishkan’s walls (cf. Shemot 26:19).

The census after the Golden Calf, which served to express G-d’s love for every Jew, forms the foundation of the Mishkan, a sanctuary designed for G-d’s presence in the midst of a nation burdened by sin. This is because it is our awareness of G-d’s infinite love that drives repentance and transforms the nation into a vessel for the Shechinah. The Torah means exactly what it says:
You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Israelites and give it for the work of the Mishkan. It will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before G-d to atone for your souls.
Could we come up with a better foundation for G-d’s house?

Friday, March 2, 2007

Late Night with Amalek

This week, in addition to parshat Tetzaveh we also read the “parsha” of Amalek. It may just be a few verses, but this additional reading is actually the most important Torah reading of the year. Unlike the weekly reading of the parsha, reminding ourselves what Amalek did is a fulfillment of a Biblical mitzvah.

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road when you left Egypt. They encountered you on the road and cut down those lagging to your rear; you were tired and exhausted. They did not fear G-d.

Shemot 25:17-18

Remembering the unprovoked violence of the Amalekite tribe is not the only mitzvah here. There is another mitzvah, a mitzvah for the future. Here is the final verse:

When G-d gives you peace from all the enemies around you in the land that G-d your Lord is giving you to occupy as a heritage, you must obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. You must not forget.

This second mitzvah to destroy Amalek is, unfortunately, non-operational. Ever since the Assyrian Empire took up the policy of deporting populations, societies have intermarried and it is impossible to identify a purebred Amalekite. However, the Talmud seems to say that it is still possible to perform this mitzvah. Rav rules that the parsha of Amalek must be read on the Shabbat before Purim so that we do the remembering before we do the obliterating (Talmud, Megillah 30a). In other words, we first remember what Amalek did on Shabbat Zachor and then we destroy Amalek on Purim. The Halacha is in agreement with Rav.

Destroy Amalek on Purim? How do we do that? Presumably, the Talmud is not simply referring to the custom to make noise when Haman’s name is mentioned!

In order to understand the Talmud’s meaning, we need to understand that “Amalek” is more than just another anti-Semitic tribe. Amalek is the root of evil in the universe. The mitzvot to remember and ultimately destroy Amalek are mitzvot to remember that evil exists and to battle it. This is the national Jewish mission of “Tikkun Olam,” fixing the world. But fixing the world starts at home.

Victory against the Amalek “out there” is not currently possible. We will only raise the “Mission Accomplished” banner when Mashiach arrives. But every person has a little “Amalek” within and that is what we must destroy on Purim. How does Purim function to destroy the element of evil in man? To answer that question, we must first get a sharper definition of the evil that is Amalek.

What did Amalek do? They attacked the Jews after the Exodus. Although the Amalekites had no reason to fear the Jews and the attack was certainly unprovoked, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a random act of violence. Amalek had a motive. They wished to shatter the aura of the brand new Chosen Nation.

Nothing is sacred in the world of Amalek. An Amalekite is a rationalist and an atheist, a cynical, late night stand-up comic. He is never impressed and he is never awed. On the contrary, Amalek sees it as their job to tear down anything and anyone that others might respect. After the Exodus, with its manifest miracles and the destruction of the Egyptian Empire, the world trembled. G-d and the Jews were revered and untouchable. So Amalek set out to prove they were not impressed. They did not fear G-d – and nobody else had to either.
The nations were afraid to fight you [until] this one started up and paved the way for others. The analogy is to a boiling pool [that is too hot] for anyone to enter. Some moron shows up and cannonballs into it. Even though he gets burned, he cools it off for everyone else.
Rashi ad loc.
This is the evil of Amalek – G-d and the Jews were hot and Amalek cooled them off. How does Amalek do it? He’s got an explanation for everything. Volcanic activity turned the Nile red, an eclipse turned the sky dark and low tide split the sea. There’s nothing to be afraid of, says Amalek. There is no G-d.

What do we do on Purim? We read Megillat Esther. There are no miracles in this story. G-d’s name isn’t even mentioned once. But we read the Megillah and we recognize the Hand of G-d pulling all the strings. Amalek is the voice that denies G-d when He is manifest; Purim is the voice that recognizes G-d when He is invisible. It is as Rav said: On Purim we destroy Amalek.