Friday, May 25, 2007

Holy Conformity!

Our world is plagued by terrible outbreak of cheating. Students, politicians, executives and athletes have all been caught fudging their numbers. Even our parsha is in on the action.

The official number for Naso is 176 verses. It’s a terrific number – a Torah record and the dread of every Bar Mitzvah boy through the ages. But it is a number that needs an audit. Truth be told, Naso has only 121 verses. It claims 176 by repeating five verses eleven times! How did Naso get away with that? Here’s the story:

When the dedication ceremonies were over and the Mishkan opened for business, the first to bring offerings were the leaders of the twelve tribes. On successive days, the prince of each tribe arrived with a medley of voluntary offerings. Interestingly, they all chose to bring identical offerings. Instead of simply stating that the princes all brought the same offerings, the Torah reiterates the list of offerings for each prince.

The one to bring his offering on the first day was Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah. His offering was as follows: One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels both filled with wheat flour kneaded with olive oil for a meal offering. One gold incense bowl… One young bull, one ram…
On the second day, Nethanel son of Tzuar, prince of Issachar, brought his offering. The offering that he brought was one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels… One gold incense bowl… One young bull, one ram…
On the third day, it was the prince of Zevulun’s descendants, Eliav son of Chelon. His offering was one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels…
On the fourth day…

Bamidbar 7:12-30

Why is the Torah doing this? Think of the added expense in parchment and ink, not to mention the additional hours of scribe labor. Besides, the Torah has a long established tradition of being terse and concise. Why, when it comes to these offerings, does the Torah deem it necessary to write the same thing over and over again when all we need is one little verse to tell us that they all brought the same thing? (The Steipler Gaon once commented that the Torah must be a divine document with mystical secrets. No human author would waste his time writing like this!)

The sages taught: “Even though their offerings were identical, they all had great things [in mind] and each [prince] had his own intent…”

Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 13:14

The Midrash tells us that despite the fact that the princes all brought the same offerings, each prince had a different kavanah – an intent that was unique, personal and relevant to the history and mission of their tribe. The Midrash recounts the thoughts of each prince at great length; twelve interpretations of the same offerings, each with different meanings, references and symbolisms.

Intent is no less an ingredient than flour or cattle. Each offering was a personal expression of the prince who brought it and, in the mind of the prince and in the eyes of G-d, was perfectly unique. The Torah had to write out the offerings of each prince separately, for although it may appear as if they were all doing the same thing, in fact, no two offerings were alike. Each offering warrants it own verse no less than if the prince had presented a different animal altogether.

It turns out that the repetitive verses of our parsha actually have something very important to say about Jewish practice and mitzvah observance. To the human observer, religious Jews are a group of people who perform rituals like a bunch of automatons. But the truth is, my mitzvot have little in common with the mitzvot of the next guy. Whether it is prayer, Shabbat or even eating Matzah, no two mitzvot are ever the same. Not because the external act is different, but because the intent is different. While a mitzvah done mindlessly is still a mitzvah, intent elevates and personalizes the act.

This idea runs against convention thinking, especially among teens. In our society, when someone wants to express his or her individuality, it often involves acting out counter-culturally. Tattoos, body piercing, hair dying and radical clothes are some of the ways to be different today. For those of us who are a little more “mature” it might be a yellow corvette or a cosmetic makeover. But our parsha tells us not to fear conformity. Conforming to social norms does not make you boring; it forces your individuality to express itself in the realm of thought. And that makes you far more different than a new hairstyle ever will.

Earlier in our parsha we find the fascinating mitzvah of the Nazirite vow. A man or a woman can take a special vow that forbids wine, haircuts and contact with the dead. This combination of abstinence seems to generate an elevated state of spirituality. “As long as he is a Nazirite, he is holy to G-d” (Bamidbar 6:8). The problem is that when this period ends, a sin-offering is brought. “This is the law of what the Nazirite must do when the term of his Nazirite vow is complete… and one unblemished yearling female sheep for a sin-offering…” (6:14). If becoming a Nazirite is a “holy” thing to do, why must a sin-offering be brought? Where’s the sin?

The commentator’s have different answers to this question. Some suggest that being a Nazir is so great, ending it is a sin (Nachmanidies) while others (R. Solomon Astruc) believe that this guy must have sinned big time - why else would he suddenly take an oath to abstain from wine?! However, the second half of our parsha would suggest a simpler explanation. As holy as he is, the sin of the Nazir is his failure to conform.

What the Torah would really like to see is a holy conformity. Not a conformity that surrenders individuality, but a conformity that writes new verses that match the old. When we find a way to express our private kavanah within the system of mitzvot shared by all Jews, that is when we discover true holiness and the path of the princes of Israel.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bamidbar and Shavuot: Becoming a Chariot

The book of Bamidbar starts this week. Now that the Jews have freedom, Torah and a Mishkan, the only thing left to do is to make Aliyah. It turns out that that last step is a lot easier said than done.

Getting from Sinai to Jerusalem is a bit of an ordeal. Due to some unfortunate “mistakes,” it will take the Jews 40 years to get to Israel and another 440 will pass before King Solomon builds the First Temple. (For those of us with time management issues, it is helpful to know that things often take a lot longer than people expect.) But all of this is in the future. Right now, we stand at the beginning of the book and all systems are go. The sky is clear and the Jews are preparing to march.

Moving millions of men, women and children across a desert is a logistical nightmare. Just one year earlier they were making bricks and now the Jews had to organize in a way that would challenge a trained army. Complicating matters further, each of the thirteen tribes needed to keep its members in formation. But the Jews were no ordinary people and this was no ordinary hike. There would be no chaos. In the center of their camp stood the Mishkan and it held two tablets and the Glory of G-d.

Getting to Israel is one thing; bringing G-d to Israel is quite another. The journey ahead is not simply a matter of traveling from point A to point B. With the completion of the Mishkan, the Shechina entered the camp and the Jewish Nation became the escort of G-d – a responsibility and a privilege that until now had been the exclusive domain of the administering angels. Strange as it sounds, G-d does have a divine entourage in Heaven. Here’s an eyewitness account.

I was among the captives on the river Chebar when the heavens opened and I saw visions of angels…
I saw, and behold a stormy wind came from the north, a great cloud and a flashing fire… From its midst was the form of four Chayah-angels, their appearance was that of a human form. Each one had four faces and every one had four wings. Their feet were straight, the soles of their feet were like those of a calf’s foot, and they shined like a vision of polished copper… The form of the Chayah-angels had the appearance of burning coals of fire…
The form above the heads of the Chayah-angels was that of a firmament, looking like a fearsome ice spread out above their heads… And above the firmament that was over their heads, like a vision of a sapphire, was the form of a throne…
Then the spirit lifted me up and I heard behind me the sound of a great noise, “Blessed is the glory of G-d in His place.”

Yechezkel the Prophet described his vision in the first chapter of his book, but human language and the mortal mind fail when they attempt to image G-d’s divine “chariot.” (Paintings are even worse!) It’s just too removed from physical reality.

In contrast, our parsha tells us exactly how it looked when the Jews traversed the Sinai Peninsula 3300 years ago. Spread out across the desert flats like divisions of a massive army, twelve tribes stand in formation around the Levite camp. Banners snap in the wind. Trumpets. Clouds of Glory. And in the center of it all, a majestic palace – the Mishkan – shines in the sun. These are images we can well imagine. At that point in history, the Jews were no less divine and no less the chariot of G-d than all the fiery, multi-winged angels of Yechezkel’s vision.

The Jews of the desert and the angels of heaven make for a fascinating contrast. In fact, the two match each other quite neatly.

In the same way that G-d created the four directions of physical space, He also surrounded His heavenly throne with four angels… And G-d organized the flag-bearing [Israelites on earth into four divisions] to match them.

Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 2:10

How do people get the job of angels? Why are the Jews escorting the Shechina? Because the Shechina is in the Mishkan.

…Moshe completed the work [of constructing the Mishkan]. The cloud then covered the Tabernacle and the Mishkan was filled with the Glory of G-d.

Shemot 40:33-34

But questions remain. Why did the Shechina descend to earth? Why would G-d abandon the celestial angels for a tent of wood, gold and animal skins? What is so special about the Mishkan? The answer is not hard to figure out; it sits quietly in a box in the Holy of Holies. The answer is the Tablets of the Law. It is the presence of the Torah that imbues the Mishkan with sanctity and transforms it into the ideal sanctuary for G-d. This should help us better appreciate the words of the Ramban (1194-1270):

Now the Mishkan in the desert was bordered just as Mt. Sinai [was bordered] when G-d’s Glory was there (cf. Shemot 19:12). G-d commands, “Any unauthorized person who enters [the Mishkan] shall die” (Bamidbar 18:7) just as He said earlier [regarding Sinai], “…he shall be stoned” (Shemot 19:13). G-d commands, “They will not come and see the sacred [furniture] being packed and die [as a result]” (Bamidbar 4:20) just as He warned earlier [regarding Sinai], “…they must not cross the boundary in order to see the Divine, because this will cause many to die” (Shemot 19:21). G-d commands, “Let [the Levites] be entrusted with guarding the sanctuary and guarding the altar” (Bamidbar 18:5) just as G-d said earlier[regarding Sinai], “The Kohanim, who come near to G-d, must also sanctify themselves… the Kohanim and the people must not violate the boundary…” (Shemot 19:22,24).

Ramban, Introduction to Bamidbar

Simply put, all the rules and regulations of Sinai are present in the Mishkan. Why? Because the very Divine Presence that was manifest at Sinai has now transferred over to the Mishkan. It’s not hard to understand. Where the Torah goes, G-d goes.

This is why we read the first chapter of Yechezkel on the morning of Shavuot. Now that the Torah is in our hands and the Shechina rests in our community, we need some on-the-job training from the pros. The angels may have had the job first, but now G-d is our responsibility.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Who's Boss?

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of Shemittah, the obligation to let the land lay fallow on the seventh year of the Israeli agricultural cycle. There is an obvious parallel here to the weekly Shabbat and the Torah isn’t very subtle about it. Take a look at this:

When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Shabbat for G-d. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a Shabbat of Shabbats for the land. It is G-d’s Shabbat. Do not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards… It will be a Sabbatical year for the land. You may eat [the produce] of the Shabbat of the land…

Vayikra 25:2-5

The Torah is trying to make a point here. Shemittah is Shabbat wrought large. Beyond the idea of taking some time off every seven days or seven years, there are some other, less obvious parallels. Taken together, these commonalities will guide us to a sharper understanding of both Shabbat and the Shemittah year.

Shemittah is introduced as a “Shabbat for G-d.” In the Ten Commandments, the Torah uses the exact same language to describe the weekly Shabbat:

Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is Shabbat for G-d your Lord.

Shemot 20:10

What does it mean when we say a “Shabbat for G-d”? Certainly, G-d does not need to take time off to rest, nor does G-d have a need for us to rest. G-d needs nothing. Humans require rest, but that would not explain why Shabbat and Shemittah are called Shabbatot “for G-d.”

Another parallel. In this week’s parsha, the Torah explicitly addresses the very question about Shemittah that you were afraid to ask:

You might ask, “What will we eat in the seventh year? We have not planted nor have we harvested crops!” I will direct my blessing to you in the sixth year and the land will produce enough crops for three years.

Vayikra 25:20-21

G-d promises a miracle. In the year before Shemittah, the produce will be so plentiful it will last for three years!

After the Exodus, when the Jews trekked across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel, they survived by eating the miraculous Manna. Every day Manna would fall from the sky and the Jews would go out into desert to collect it. But on Shabbat, the Jews were not permitted to work and the Manna did not fall. What did they eat?

When Friday came, what they gathered [turned out to be] a double portion of food… [Moshe] said to them, “This is what G-d has said, ‘Tomorrow is a day of rest, G-d’s holy Shabbat. Bake what you want to bake and cook what you want to cook [today]. Whatever you have left over, put aside carefully until morning.’”

Shemot 16:22-23

On the sixth year of the Shimittah cycle G-d provided extra food for the seventh year and on the sixth day of the weekly cycle G-d provided extra food for the Shabbat day. G-d does everything on His end, even performing miracles, in order to make it possible for us to rest when Shabbat arrives. Why is resting on Shabbat so important? Why is G-d bending over backwards just so we can take some time off?

The last point the Torah makes about Shemittah is this:

You may eat [the produce] of the Shabbat of the land; it is for you, your male and female slaves, your employees and the residents who live with you. Your domestic and wild animals that are in the land shall [also] have all the crops for consumption.

Vayikra 25:6-7

Rashi paraphrases G-d’s intent:

Even though I have not allowed you [to work the land], it is not consumption or pleasure that I am proscribing. Rather, [it is just this:] Do not act like an owner. Everyone should have equal rights [in the land], you, your employee and your resident.

“Do not act like an owner.” This is the core idea of Shemittah. It may not surprise you to learn that Shabbat is no different. Here are the immortal words of R. Yisroel Meir Kagen (the “Chofetz Chaim,” 1838-1933):

The Torah states: “Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy. You can work during the six weekdays and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is Shabbat for G-d your Lord… This is because it was during the six weekdays that G-d made the heaven, the sea and all that is in them…” (Shemot 20:8-11).
The Torah is telling us here that Shabbat provides the basis for faith in Creationism. Since G-d created everything, He is the Master of all and we are His servants. We are therefore obligated to do His will and to serve Him with all our bodies, souls and wealth – for all is His.

Introduction to Mishnah Berurah, vol. IV

On Shabbat we recognize that we exist and we survive in this world by the grace of G-d the Creator. If we can get that down once every seven days, it will elevate everything we do, say and think all week long. This is why G-d is willing to make miracles to enable the observance of Shabbat and Shimittah.

Now we can understand what the Torah meant when it called both the seventh day and the seventh year a “Shabbat for G-d.” Those are the only times the Jew doesn’t act like an owner!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Do You Count?

It doesn’t happen very often, but there’s a mitzvah in this week’s parsha that we are currently engaged in: it’s the mitzvah to count all the days from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai (cf. Vayikra 23:15-16). This mitzvah is called Sefirat HaOmer. It sounds simple enough, but let’s take a deeper look.

What is the idea of counting days? The “Chinuch” (Barcelona, 13th cent.) weighs in on this basic question.
The concept, simply stated, is this: The raison d’etre of the Jews is the Torah… This is why the Jews were redeemed from Egypt – in order to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai and fulfill [its mitzvot]…
We were commanded to count from the second day of Passover until the day of the giving of the Torah as an expression of intense longing for this exalted day. We are “like a slave pining for the shade” (cf. Job 7:2), who continuously counts [the days] until the time of his desire arrives and he is freed, for counting demonstrates that a person’s only hope and sole desire is to get to that point in time.
According to the Chinuch, the counting accomplishes two things. First, it links Passover with Shavuot, underscoring the fact that the purpose of the Exodus was to bring us to Sinai. Second, counting the days is an expression of longing for Shavuot when we will receive the Torah. A compelling interpretation, no doubt, but far from the only one.

Others view the counting of the Omer as delineating a period of personal growth. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chaim vol. 3 pg. 44) quotes the anonymous (17th century?) Kabbalistic work, Chemdas Yamim:
During these days every single Jew should clear some time from their daily routine and set a time for studying [Torah] wisdom and Mussar (Jewish ethics) and [internalizing the] fear of Heaven.
The idea here is that every year on the anniversary of the revelation at Sinai there is a replay. Every year on Shavuot, G-d once again offers the Torah to the Jewish people and presents us with an opportunity to forge a deeper connection with Judaism. Accordingly, the period of Sefirat HaOmer leading up to Shavuot is a time to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah. Rabbi Ahron Kotler goes so far as to relate the 49 days of the Omer with the 48 prerequisites for acquiring Torah (cf. Ethics of our Fathers chap. 6). The 49th day is in its own category as a day of sanctity (cf. Mishnas Reb Ahron vol. 3, pg. 13). But there is more.

The mitzvah is to count each day for seven weeks. Seven weeks is 7x7 and this has profound significance in Kabbalistic thought. Each week is said to correspond with one of the seven lower “Sefirot.” Sefirot are ethereal “pipes” through which G-d relates to His universe. Unless you happen to be an overage rock star living in L.A., you might not have heard of the Sefirot. A few, albeit vague, words of explanation are in order.

Sefirot exist to create some “distance” between G-d and His universe – a kabbalistic enigma called Tzimtzum that we will most definitely not get into here. (Suffice it to say that it’s not what it sounds like.) As the infinite light of G-d’s goodness flows down towards our world, the Sefirot break it down into a spectrum of seven basic characteristics: Chesed (kindness), Gevurah (strength), Tiferet (beauty), Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut (nobility). (I freely admit my inability to translate some of these Kabbalistic terms in meaningful ways.) Each Sefirah is further broken down into seven mini-Sefirot of its own, so that’s 7x7. The Kabbalists teach that each of the 49 days of Sefirat HaOmer corresponds to a particular divine attribute. Esoteric as all this sounds, it can be found in any Siddur. (C.f. pg. 286 in the Artscroll, untranslated. Apparently, I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what these words mean!)

The masters of Mussar, especially those who were immersed in Kabbalah, saw the days of Sefirat HaOmer as a time for refining our own moral and spiritual character. Human beings were designed in G-d’s image and that means we have the potential to emulate divine attributes. The Jew who lives a life of imitatio Deo is able to receive, understand and observe Torah with far greater ease than a self-indulgent good-for-nothing. The counting of Sefirat HaOmer thus serves as a daily reminder to refine our character in preparation for the great opportunity that is Shavuot. The more beautiful, kind, strong, noble, etc. we are, the more successful we will be when the day of Sinai arrives.

While the Chinuch saw Sefirat HaOmer as a way to forge a link and build anticipation from Passover to Shavuot, the masters of Mussar and Kabbalah viewed each day of the count as a call to personal growth. While not mutually exclusive, they are certainly different perspectives.

Like most other mitzvot, a blessing is recited immediately prior to fulfilling the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. Every day before you count, you first say this blessing:
Blessed is the Lord, our G-d, king of the world, who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us concerning Sefirat HaOmer.
However, there is a very old and very basic debate about what happens if a person forgets to count one day. The “Halachot Gedolot” (9th cent.) rules that a person who misses a day can no longer recite the blessing on this mitzvah. R. Hai Gaon (969-1038) and Rabbenu Yonah (d. 1264) disagree. They believe that missing a day has no effect and the forgetful Jew continues to count the remaining days with a blessing (Tur O.C. 489:8).

The rational of the Halachot Gedolot is not hard to figure out. He considers the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer to be one giant mitzvah with 49 component parts. The mitzvah is to count all the days from Passover to Shavuot, so if you miss a day, it’s game over. (To continue reciting the blessing would be tantamount to taking G-d’s name in vain.) Those who disagree with the Halachot Gedolot are of the opinion that there are really 49 little mitzvot here. Each day is its own mitzvah, so missing one day has no effect on the next. The counting therefore continues with the requisite introductory blessing.

This debate has never been resolved (cf. Mishnah Berurah 489:38; however, the Beit Yosef O.C. 489:8 brands the Halachot Gedolot as “baffling and improbable”). It follows that a person who missed a day is obligated to continue counting the following days, but without a beracha in deference to the opinion of the Halachot Gedolot (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 489:8).

It would seem that this Halachic debate is rooted in the more fundamental question of why we are counting. The Halachot Gedolot believes that Sefirat HaOmer is one big mitzvah because he agrees with the Chinuch that the purpose Sefirat HaOmer is to link Pesach to Shavuot and build momentum to Sinai. Miss a day and the chain is broken; it is simply no longer possible to fulfill the mitzvah. However, those who view each day’s count as an independent mitzvah have a different perspective. According to them, Sefirat HaOmer is about preparing for Shavuot and every day is a new opportunity for growth. Missing today does not detract from tomorrow.

This is why the Halachic debate was never resolved – both perspectives are equally true!