Friday, July 25, 2008

In the Mood for Tisha B'Av?

Sunday was the seventeenth of Taamuz and next Shabbat is the first of Av. Which means one thing: Tisha B’Av is approaching. On Tisha B’Av, Jerusalem was lost and the Temple was destroyed. It is the day we were exiled from our homeland and the day the Diaspora began. It is the saddest day of the year and we need to start preparing for it now.

Of all the Jewish days on the calendar, Tisha B’Av is the most difficult to observe. Nobody has trouble relating to the festive holidays. All year we look forward to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. Everybody loves Chanukah and Purim. Even when it comes to Yom Kippur, as hard as it may be for us to face the challenge of personal growth, we still manage to experience the holiness of the day by giving repentance our best shot. Tisha B’Av, however, is another story. On Tisha B’Av you can’t satisfy yourself by going through the motions. There are no motions. There are only tears. Either you have them or you don’t.

On Tisha B’Av there is no Shofar to blow, no Seder to lead, and no Menorah to light. It does not call for any external action at all. What it calls for is emotion. Fasting and mourning are simultaneously the means to inspire somber reflection and the natural reaction to the burning issues of the day. Tisha B’Av demands consciousness of our national history, empathy for our national pain, and sharing our national aspirations. Tisha B’Av is aimed directly at our hearts, and that is why it is such a challenge.

There is a popular misconception that observing Tisha B’Av is only for Jews who are passionate about Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such mistaken thinking is the result of an ignorance of how mitzvot operate. Jewish identity is by no means a required prerequisite for the observance of Tisha B’Av. Quite the opposite. The observance of Tisha B’Av itself generates Jewish identity.

It is not expected that people will naturally feel joy on the holidays or grief on Tisha B’Av. If it came to us naturally, there would be no mitzvah. Our job is to make the effort to inspire these feelings within. By focusing on the tragedies of our history, by empathizing with the suffering of our people, and by recognizing that Divine intervention is our only hope, we connect with our past, we unite with our people, and we awaken our souls. That is the mitzvah of Tisha B’Av.

The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. A breakdown of community is something G-d does not tolerate. So He left. After functioning as a sanctuary for G-d’s Presence for 420 years, the Temple became no more than an empty building.

Having been destroyed spiritually, it was only a matter of time before it was destroyed physically. It stands to reason that as long as hatred exists among Jews, the Divine Presence will not return to Jerusalem.

But it is not the mere eradication of hate that we are after. Love is our goal. How can we uproot the evil of hate, replace it with love, and put an end to our exile? Tisha B’Av is the answer.

It is very easy to talk about love, unity, and identity, but how do you know if it is real? We convince ourselves that we have fulfilled the mitzvah of loving our fellow Jews, but have we? The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we share the joys of our brothers and sisters? Do we feel their pain? Do we feel for the nation as a whole? Such feelings do not materialize by themselves; they need to be cultivated and developed. It is for this reason that we have Tisha B’Av. On Tisha B’Av we move beyond self-centeredness into other-centeredness. We deepen our relationship with our fellow Jews by allowing the suppressed love and concern within our souls to break through to the surface.

Today we have been over-saturated with tragedy and our hearts have hardened. We have lost our sensitivity and we have forgotten how to cry. Tisha B’Av restores our hearts back to the warm, empathetic Jewish heart that it was designed to be. By mourning the tragedies of our history right down to the present day, we teach our hearts to feel again. The sadness of Tisha B’Av is not a depression that breaks you; it is a compassionate sadness that fixes and heals.

On Tisha B'Av, we mourn our distance from G-d, we cleanse any residue of hate from our hearts, and we forge a more meaningful relationship with our people, our land, and our G-d. Every Jew needs Tisha B’Av. But in order the have a successful Tisha B’Av, one cannot wait until the ninth of Av. Preparations must begin weeks in advance.

The inner work of Tisha B’Av is too important and too difficult for just one day. The mourning period therefore begins three weeks earlier on the seventeenth of Tammuz. The mourning starts on a low level, easily accessible to all. Slowly, as we enter the month of Av, the mourning intensifies until the climax is reached on the fast of Tisha B’Av.

There are no shortcuts. It is difficult to experience a meaningful Tisha B’Av if the earlier stages are skipped. But if one prepares properly during the “Three Weeks,” learning the lessons of our painful history, observing the mourning practices of the period and slowly increasing consciousness of the sad state of the Jewish world, then Tisha B’Av will be what it was meant to be. A day on which the core of our Jewish identity is revealed in all of its beauty. There is no other day like it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Free at Fifty

The study of p’shat, the straightforward meaning of the Torah text, is a pursuit which can supply a lifetime of study, wisdom and inspiration. However, Torah study is not limited to this approach. P’shat is only one of the Torah’s multiple universes. Sometimes, the façade of p’shat cracks and the Torah’s deeper dimensions come to the fore.

This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of Shmitah, the Sabbatical year.

When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a Shabbat to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbatical Shabbat for the land.

Vayikra 25:2-3

The Torah continues with Yovel, the Jubilee year.

You shall count seven sabbatical years, that is, seven times seven years. The period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall thus be forty-nine years. You shall make a proclamation with the ram’s horn... You shall sanctify the fiftieth year declaring emancipation of [Hebrew] slaves for the land and all who live in it. This is your jubilee year, when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family.

Ibid 25:8-9,10

After counting seven Shmitah periods, we arrive at Yovel, the fiftieth and final year of the cycle. Jews who sold themselves into slavery to escape poverty or were sold as slaves to pay off debts incurred by stealing are released and return home. Similarly, hereditary fields that had been sold during the course of the past fifty years return to their original owners on Yovel. Everything returns to its default position. It’s as if someone hit the reset button.

It is virtually impossible to study these mitzvot without bringing to mind a mitzvah from last week’s parsha.

You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the [Passover] holiday… until the day after the seventh week, when there will be [a total of] fifty days… This very day shall be celebrated as a sacred holiday…

Ibid 23:15-16,21

This is the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, a mitzvah to count the days from the Exodus on Passover to the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot fifty days later. (This Shabbat is the twenty-seventh day of the Omer.)

The Omer count follows the exact same pattern as the Yovel cycle! In both we are instructed to count sets of seven days/years seven times. And then, the following day/year, the fiftieth, is sanctified. Moreover, just as a ram’s horn was blown on Yovel, the fiftieth year, a ram’s horn was also blown at Sinai on Shavuot, the fiftieth day. “There was the sound of a ram’s horn, increasing in volume to a great degree…” (Shemot 19:19). What are we to make of all this? Do these cycles share a deeper commonality?

This isn’t going to be easy.

In the Yovel cycle, Jewish slaves are freed on the fifty year. We count the years leading up to their freedom. This is quite the opposite from the Omer cycle where the counting begins after the Jews gain their freedom from enslavement in Egypt. It would seem that the two sanctified fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, have nothing in common.

P’shat isn’t providing answers, so we turn to the Mishnah for assistance.

The only person who is free is the one who toils in the study of Torah.

Ethics of the Fathers 6:2

The Torah sets us free. This explains everything! Shavuot is the day we got the Torah at Sinai and we became free, just like Yovel!

Great. But free from what? Didn’t we leave Egypt fifty days earlier?

The Torah is throwing a wrench into our understanding of Jewish history. Maybe we didn’t gain total freedom at the Exodus. Maybe we were still enslaved to something for forty-nine more days until we were truly emancipated on Shavuot. But what could that something be?

The answer is right before our eyes, but we would prefer not to face it. With the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot we were freed from self-enslavement. For as long as Torah is lacking, as long as objective truth and mitzvot are missing from the world, man is destined to be the slave of his own negative drives. Without the system of Judaism to elevate us, in the absence of the service the God, we are left with nothing more than the service of the self.

It turns out that the two fifties, Yovel and Shavuot, are identical. What happens on Yovel? The Jewish slave, a man who is the sole cause of his own slavery, is set free. A hereditary field, which was sold by the owner himself, returns to where it belongs. This is the very same power of Shavuot. The Torah frees man from his self-imposed slavery and returns him to his true self.

On Pesach we gained physical freedom, but we were still slaves. By counting the days of the Omer we recognize that we need more than an Exodus, we need a deeper kind of freedom. A freedom that can only be found fifty days later on a hill called Sinai.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Purim Afterthoughts, Part II

For the first time, I have made extensive use of Hebrew in this post. Don't worry, I don't intend to make a habit of it. My apologies to all readers who feel left out, but Hebrew makes it is easier to keep things brief and I'm pressed for time. Special thanks to my father, Rabbi Noam Gordon of Jerusalem, for encouraging me to put my Purim thoughts in writing. There is much here that is neither new nor mine, but I believe there is enough that warrents a post. To fully appreciate this post, I recommend reading part-one first.

Right before Amalek attacks, we read:
וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה. עַל-רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת-יְהוָה לֵאמֹר, הֲיֵשׁ יְהוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ, אִם-אָיִן. וַיָּבֹא עֲמָלֵק
Amalek is not a tribe; it is a way of thinking. It is the force in the universe that refuses to recognize the Hand of God and the Chosenness of Israel. After the Exodus the Jews were hot and untouchable, but then they doubted God's presence. It was this doubt that introduces an Amalek who smashes the aura of reverence and cools things down. Ever since, Hashem's Throne and Name are damaged, and so they will remain until the day that Amalek is annihilated.

That day is tomorrow. Moshe told Yehoshua, בחר לנו אנשים וצא הלחם בעמלק מחר. King David overtook Amalek, ויכם דוד מהנשף ועד הערב למחרתם. And Esther told Achashveirosh, ינתן גם מחר ליהודים. Why is it always tomorrow? Because the destruction of Amalek is not merely the physical destruction of an evil race. It is the destruction of our own lack of clarity about who is the One running the show. And that can only come when we get to the end of the story and can go back and read it again from the beginning. Tomorrow.

Chanukah is in the past. רבת את רבם, דנת את דינם, נקמת את נקמתם (Al Ha'Nissim for Chanukah). But the Megillah is today. הרב את רבינו, הדן את דנינו, הנוקם את נקמתינו (Asher Heini). Purim is happening now because in every generation Amalek rises up to destroy us. מלחמה ליהוה בעמלק מדור דור - בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו. This is why we say in Shoshanas Yaakov that the Megillah is a source of hope in every generation: "ותקותם בכל דור ודור" (R. Dovid Cohen, "ימי פורים"). The Megillah gives us hope because we are always in the middle of it!

We live in the Megillah today and Purim is tomorrow. For the destruction of Amalek only comes after Amalek is already gone.
והיה בהניח יהוה אלוהיך לך מכל איביך מסביב... תמחה את זכר עמלק
"זכר עמלק" - the residue of Amalek. This זכר can be erased only when Amalek and all of his cohorts are gone - בהניח יהוה אלוהיך לך מכל איביך - because to erase the זכר of Amalek we need מנוחה. We need מנוחה to reread the story slowly and see Hashem's Hand guiding things from the get go. We need מנוחה to recognize the רפואה before the מכה. This is why והיה בהניח must happen first.

When we are in the midst of things, we are בדרך. And Amalek always gets us on the דרך. When we are on the road, attempting to navigate through the darkness of our story, we suffer from the anxiety of frightening events and Hashem's apparent absence. We lack מנוחה, and עמלק & ספק (same gematria) enter our lives. אשר קרך בדרך. Our job is to destroy this זכר of Amalek, and that can be done only with the מנוחה that comes after Amalek is gone. That is why Purim is celebrated not on the 13th when we killed Amalek, but on the 14th when we had מנוחה. As the פסוק states, "ונוח בארבעה עשר בו". Purim is always on the morrow.

And now we come to Yerushalayim. Even when Yerushalayimites read the Megillah at night they are not fasting. Yerushalayim has that extra clarity. And Yerushalayim, Hashem's throne, always celebrates Purim tomorrow. On the fifteenth, when יום טוב is supposed to be.

This is why פורים משולש is celebrated on Sunday. The day after. Shabbos requires none of the מצות היום of Purim, for the מנוחה of Shabbos itself destroys Amalek (Zohar, עי' שפת אמת). With the help of the מנוחה and clarity of Shabbos, Purim is pushed beyond Purim into an ordinary day of the year, the 16th, bringing the tomorrow we are all waiting for ever closer into our world.

Purim Afterthoughts

With Haman hanged and my hangover behind me, I'm going to try to put some Purim thoughts on paper (um, whatever). I've got to keep this short; a Focus deadline is fast approaching and I'm pressed for time. So wish me luck. V'Hameivin Yavin.

There are two Megillahs.

One Megillah is a story of exile; a story of attempted annihilation; a story of God's absence; a story of hopelessness. It is a frightening read. It is read at night, while we fast. Obviously, this Megillah has no seudah associated with it.

There is another Megillah. This Megillah is a story of redemption, a story of a refuah set up in advance of a makkah, a story where the Hand of God is as clear as day. It is a delight to read. It is read in the daytime and it generates a mitzvah to party - hard. This second Megillah is created by the first Megillah. Once we get to the end of the story, we are impelled to read it again from the beginning. And the second time around it's a very different story.

The Talmud teaches: "Anyone who says things in the name of the one who first said them brings redemption to the world." (Sorry, I forgot who said that.) The source for this idea is Esther. She reported an assassination attempt in the name of Mordechai and this, says the Talmud, brought redemption to the world.

Did it, really? By all appearances, all her report accomplished was to get Mordechai a free ride on a horse. Redemption came through Esther's influence with the king. The entire episode of Mordechai's foiling the assassination and his subsequent reward could be deleted from the Megillah with no ill effect. The scene of Haman leading Mordechai through the streets is gratifying, but it is certainly not necessary for redemption. Why does the Talmud think otherwise?

When Haman returns home and tells his wife what happened, she responds by saying that if Mordechai is indeed of Jewish desent, then Haman is finished. Prophetic words; indeed, within a few short hours, her husband was dead. But how did she know? Yes, he had a bad day, but he was still the most powerful man in the empire and he was on his way to a private party with the king and the queen. Zeresh had no way of knowing that Esther was Jewish! She should have told her husband to take a hot shower, get over it and cheer up. How did she know that Haman was doomed?

Zeresh was a smart lady. She knew it was no mere coincidence that just as Haman is about to ask the king for permission to kill Mordechai, the king is reminded that Mordechai saved his life. Instead of hanging Mordechai, Haman is dressing him in the king's clothes and leading him through the streets on the king's horse?! This can mean only one thing. The God of Israel has arrived. And when the God of Israel shows up, it's game over.

By reporting the assassination attempt in the name of Mordechai, Esther created the avenue through which God arrives on the scene. The Talmud is only affirming what Zeresh saw. It is God's arrival that guarantees redemption; not Esther's political shenanigans.

Zeresh's insight echoes Mordechai's sharp response to Esther just a few days earlier: "Revach v'hatzalah ya'amod la'Yehudim mimakom acher." We don't need you, Esther. If you do nothing, the Jews will be saved some other way. God will show up in due time. The only question is if you will play a role.

Zeresh and Mordechai think alike. We don't need Esther.

Some people wonder why God's Name does not appear in the Megillah, but Reb Shlomo Charlebach didn't understand the question. Why should God's Name be in the Megillah? God is the one telling us the story!

With Reb Shlomo's insight, we gain a new appreciation for the words of the sages. "Anyone who says things in the name of the one who first said them brings redemption to the world." We need to remember that God was the one who first said the Megillah. He spoke when Vashti was killed and Esther was chosen, He spoke when Mordechai overheard Bigson & Seresh, and He spoke when Achashveirosh couldn't sleep that night. God wrote and directed this story. We should cite Him as the source of redemption, not Esther.

If Zeresh recognized this truth, so should we. And when we do, we create an avenue that brings God, and redemption, into the world.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Passing Ring

Not more than a two hours ago in the holiest city in the world, in a house of Torah study on the eve of the happiest month something happened... Please ask yourself what happened.. to whom and why and what you will do about it... will you sit tonight fork and knife in hand over a thick steak.. perhaps watch a movie or read... will your life go on with nothing more than a shrug?

I sure hope not.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Piggyback Ride, Anyone?

An unusual design feature in the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) set me thinking. It's hard to describe without a photo, but considering that the Torah prefers things that way (see our post on parshat Terumah), we'll stick to verbal descriptions. I couldn't find a decent online image for it anyhow.

Both literally and figuratively, the "Choshen" was the centerpiece of the Kohen Gadol's outfit. An extravagant breastplate with the names of the twelve tribes etched onto its twelve precious stones, the Choshen was bound to the Kohen Gadol's chest with golden and woolen cords.
Aaron will thus carry the names of the Children of Israel on the Choshen of Judgment upon his heart when he comes into the sanctuary. It shall be a constant remembrance before God."
Shemot 28:29
Interestingly, the Torah describes how the Choshen was attached to the Kohen's body even before it tells us what the Choshen is. Moreover, the Torah spends more verses describing this method of attachment than it spends describing the Choshen itself! The Torah is emphasizing a seemingly insignificant detail; we would do well to take a closer look.

The Choshen was attached to the body by means of the "Eiphod." While certain elements of the Eiphod's design are a mystery, the points relevant to our discussion are quite clear. (That is, despite certain textual ambiguities, both Rashi and the Rambam are in agreement as to the Torah's meaning. We can speak with confidence.)

The Eiphod was sort of an apron worn backwards which tied on above the waist with a built-in belt. In the back, two straps went up from the belt, extending over the Kohen's shoulders, and at the shoulder, each of these straps had golden setting for a sardonyx stone. Like the stones of the Choshen, these stones had the names of all twelve tribes etched into them - six tribes on one stone and six on the other.
Place the two stones on the two shoulder straps of the Eiphod as remembrance stones for the Children of Israel. Aaron shall carry their names on his two shoulders before God as a remembrance.
Shemot 28:12

Right beneath the two stones, two golden cords descended from the shoulder straps and looped through rings at the top two corners of the square Choshen. This held the Choshen securely from the top, but that alone would not prevent the Chosen from swinging away from the body when the Kohen leaned forward. For that, there were another two rings on the bottom two corners of the Choshen, through which two woolen cords were drawn and tied down to the Eiphod.

Here is the interesting point in the design. We might have expected those bottom two cords to attach directly to the belt of the Eiphod beneath them. But this is not the case. The Torah tells us to draw the two cords around to the Kohen's back and tie them to rings at the bottom of the shoulder straps (28:27-28). It seems that the entire Choshen, all four corners of it, must be supported exclusively by the Eiphod's shoulder straps. Strange, is it not?

In order to understand this design feature, we must first understand the meaning of the Choshen itself.

The story of the Choshen begins in a much darker era, at a time when no one dared dream of a Mishkan. Newborn babes lie dead at the floor of the Nile, Jewish slaves pick cotton in the Egyptian fields, and God is meeting with Moshe at a bush in the desert. God tells Moshe to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews, but Moshe has concerns. He is worried about his speech defect, and he is worried how this mission will affect his relationship with his older brother. Moshe suggests that God send Aaron instead.

God got angry at Moshe. "I am well aware that Aaron your brother, the Levite, is a good speaker. He is setting out to greet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart!"

Shemot 4:14

This is the majesty of Aaron. Transcending the sibling rivalry endemic to the book of Bereishit, he is happy for his younger brother's success. A heart of this caliber deserves a little jewelry.
Rabbi Milai said, "In reward for [Aaron's] seeing [Moshe] and rejoicing in his heart, Aaron merited that the Choshen of Judgment would be on his heart."

Talmud, Shabbat 139a

It seems that the placement of the twelve tribes on the Kohen Gadol's heart is a symbol of his selfless, brotherly love for the entire nation. But what is the secret of the Choshen of Judgment? What will stop people from judging others negatively? How can we ensure that all twelve tribes are held securely against our hearts? What will prevent personal agendas from getting in the way of love for the nation? The answer is obvious: Strap the nation on your shoulders!

If we place all twelve tribes on our shoulders, if we step up to the plate and take responsibility for the Jewish People, if we lift up the names of the Children of Israel and carry them proudly, then we can be sure that the Choshen of Judgment will never sway from our hearts. Such was the message of the holy garments of the Kohen Gadol.

What do your clothes say?

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Holy Essentials

The flow of the Torah’s thinking in the beginning of this week’s parsha is a bit mysterious. First we are introduced to the chief architect of the Mishkan, the talented Betzalel. The Torah reiterates every component of the Mishkan and instructs Betzalel and his team to put their creative artistry into the creation of each piece. Surprisingly, this is immediately followed by the mitzvah of Shabbat:

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy…The Israelites shall thus keep the Shabbat, making it a day of rest for all generations, as an eternal covenant.

Shemot 31:13,16

What does Shabbat have to do with the Mishkan?

This juxtaposition of the Mishkan with Shabbat is not at all coincidental. When the Torah prohibits “work” on Shabbat (31:14,15) it is speaking of exactly the same type of work that was just referred to in the construction of the Mishkan a few verses earlier (Talmud Shabbat 49b). There are two points here. Firstly, the construction of the Mishkan itself must be halted on Shabbat (Rashi to 31:13). Second, the Torah is defining for us the forbidden labors of Shabbat. There were thirty-nine different actions needed to construct the Mishkan and these are the categories of work that we are to rest from on the day of Shabbat (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2).

If we are to understand what Shabbat is about, we need to take a closer look at these thirty-nine labors. They seem to divide neatly into three sets. The first set contains all the actions necessary to produce the natural plant dyes for the Mishkan. It starts from the very beginning: plowing, planting, harvesting, etc. The second set contains all the actions necessary to produce the woven and leather curtains of the Mishkan. This set includes two different processes: the process of creating woolen textiles, and the process of curing hides. In the final set, we have the acts of construction itself: building, transporting materials, hammering, etc. Stated differently, these thirty-nine actions are about the production of food, clothing, and shelter – the essential acts of human survival! This is what we are being told not do on the Shabbat.

What is the significance of the fact that the work that we are to refrain from on the Shabbat is the same as the acts of Mishkan construction? And what is the significance of the fact that these just happen to be the things that people need to do to survive? What is the underlying message here?

The Mishkan is more than just a home for the Divine Presence on Earth; it provides a model for man. If God’s Presence can rest in a building, it must certainly be able to enter the heart of a Jew. As the Malbim (1809-1879) writes, “We should all build a personal sanctuary for the Divine Presence within the halls of our hearts” (commentary to Shemot 25:8). In other words, the Mishkan represents the potential of man. It follows that the construction of the Mishkan symbolizes the spiritual construction of the human self.

Of course, the primary tools a Jew utilizes in the construction of his personal Mishkan are mitzvot. However, we do not build with mitzvot alone. Look at the Mishkan: none of the processes of Mishkan construction are mitzvot – they are just simple acts like plowing and planting. And it is specifically these simple, voluntary acts that cannot be done on Shabbat. In fact, if one of these acts would happen to be a biblical obligation, there would no prohibition to do it on Shabbat! This surprising Halacha is derived from a verse near the end of our parsha:

You may work during the six weekdays, but on the seventh day you must stop. You must stop plowing and reaping.

Shemot 34:21

Why are the examples of plowing and reaping given here? In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yishmael explains our verse with the help of some classical Midrashic-style exegesis:

Rabbi Yishmael said, “Just like plowing is [always] voluntary, so too is the reaping voluntary. This excludes the reaping of the Omer [grain].”

Shevi’it 1:4

Our verse is not just giving examples; it is qualifying the Shabbat prohibition against working. All thirty-nine forbidden labors are only forbidden if they are like plowing – i.e. a perfectly voluntary act. (There is no such thing as an obligation to plow.) If one of the labors should happen to be a mitzvah – like the mitzvah to reap grain for the Omer offering – then it would not be included in the prohibition. (Careful here, this does not give license to drive to Shul or call your mother on Shabbat! It is only an act that the Torah explicitly specifies as an obligation that is permitted – and reaping the Omer is the sole example. Sorry.)

The Torah is underscoring what we already know – it is only “simple,” non-mitzvah acts that are forbidden on Shabbat. But, of course, the thirty-nine labors are not simple at all – they are the acts of Mishkan construction and the work we need to do to survive. The message is clear. Our Mishkan must be built with our non-mitzvah behavior! The Shechina enters man only when all of man’s actions, even the most basic and necessary, are beautiful and holy. If we conduct our “mundane” weekday activities with honesty, decency, and integrity, using the Torah as our guide, we transform ourselves into a sanctuary, a living Mishkan for God.

This is all very nice. However, on Shabbat we do not engage in construction, not the construction of the Mishkan nor the construction of the self. Why not? Because on Shabbat our work is complete and we are complete. Our Mishkan is standing and the Shechina has arrived. Shabbat is not the time to build; Shabbat is the time to celebrate the Shabbat day, appreciate the gift of life and welcome the presence of the Shechina.

But keep My Shabbats. It is a sign between Me and you for all generations, to make you realize that I, God, am making you holy.

Exodus 31:13

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures

In this week's parsha, God commands us to build Him a home, a sanctuary called the Mishkan. What a strange mitzvah! Why on earth does God need a home? Are the desert nights getting cold? The whole idea of a house for God is ridiculous. As the Midrash says, “When God said, 'Build a sanctuary for Me,' Moshe countered, 'But the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain You! (I Kings 8:27)'” (Bamidbar Rabba 12:3).

Rabbi Chaim Volozhner (1749-1821) explains what it’s all about:

God is saying the following: "Let no one make the mistake of thinking that My intent in the construction of the sanctuary is about the physical building itself. Not at all. Rather, you should know that the sole objective of the Mishkan and its furniture is to indicate to you to learn from it and model yourselves after it. Your own behavior should be as wonderful as the Mishkan and its furniture, completely holy and worthy of the Divine Presence." This is the meaning of the verse, "They shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them..." (Shemot 25:8).

Nefesh HaChaim 1:4

The Mishkan is merely a model. When a Jew experienced the power of the Shechina’s presence in the Mishkan, he said to himself, “If God can enter this building, He must certainly be able to enter me.” God is prepared to rest His divine presence within us, but we must first develop ourselves into living sanctuaries. If we build it, He will come.

It would serve us well to take a closer look at how the Mishkan was constructed. If we are to model our own inner sanctuaries after the Mishkan, we obviously need to study the blueprints. Unfortunately, there are none. The Torah provides no diagrams, no illustrations, not even a sketch. The entire Mishkan is described only in words. Many words.

The parsha describes the Mishkan and its furniture in mind-numbing detail. From materials and dimensions to artistic flourishes and color, virtually every aspect of the design is mandated. Intricate tapestries woven with yarn blended from three kinds of wool and one kind of linen; decorative cups, spheres and flowers; cherubs with their wings just so; plated beams and crossbars; silver sockets; golden hooks, the list goes on and on. The parsha is ninety-six verses long (not bad, as parshiot go), but without question, one picture would have saved our people many tons of ink and parchment through the years. As the old adage says, a picture is worth a thousand words. Today, architects and designers use drawings to communicate their ideas. Why does the Torah insist on using words when a simple sketch would do?

You can’t be serious, you say. God speaks; He doesn’t use PowerPoint! However, the truth is, God did use images to communicate the Mishkan’s design. The Torah says as much quite explicitly:

You shall set up the Mishkan in the proper manner, as you were shown on the mountain [of Sinai]…

Shemot 26:30; cf. 25:9,40; 27:8

Now, if God showed Moshe a model of the Mishkan up on Sinai, why wasn’t that image incorporated into the Torah? If that question doesn’t trouble you, this one will: Why bother with all the words at all? After all, when it came down to it, it was the images in Moshe’s head that guided construction, not the Torah’s words.

“It was on the day that Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan…” – Betzalel and Oheliav and all the artisans made the Mishkan (cf. Shemot 36:1), and the Torah credits Moshe?! It is because he devoted himself to observe the forms of every item the way he was shown on Mt. [Sinai], in order to instruct those who constructed it. He didn’t make a mistake on any form.

Rashi to Bamidbar 7:1; Tanchuma 13

If the final arbiter of the Mishkan’s design was not the verses of the Torah, but the image that God showed Moshe on Sinai, why does the Torah even attempt to spell it all out? We have the perfect precedent in the mitzvah of Tefillin. When it comes to Tefillin, the Torah gives us just a few vague words. “Bind it as a sign on your hand and let them be totafot between your eyes” (Devarim 6:8; cf. Shemot 13:9). “Totafot”? What is it made of? What should it look like? The Torah does not say; it relies on the image God showed Moshe on Mt. Sinai, and to this very day, there is no debate about what Tefillin are. Why didn’t the Torah treat the Mishkan the same way? God could have simply said “Build Me a sanctuary” and relied on Moshe to relay the details. Why all the words? Before we can answer this question, we need to take a brief detour.

Everybody knows there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. Sounds like a lot, but the Gaon of Vilna (R. Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) argues that this popular Talmudic tradition is actually an understatement. Are we to believe that from Bereishit all the way to parshat Bo there are no more than three mitzvot? Some parshiot have none at all. Have they nothing to say?

The Vilna Gaon teaches that every single word of the Torah is actually its own mitzvah. 613 may be the number of primary mitzvot, but each one branches out into many, many more, covering every aspect of life. On some level, all of human behavior can potentially become “mitzvah.” The formula is simple: Whatever you do, if you do it right, you fulfill God’s will. A sensitive reading of the Torah teaches us how.

When the Mishkan’s parts were complete and it was time to put it all together, the Torah stresses how each component was put in place “as God commanded Moshe.” In fact, the Torah repeats that description every step of the way:

“It was in the first month of the second year on the first of the month that the Mishkan was erected. Moshe erected the Mishkan… as G-d had commanded Moshe.
“He brought the Ark into the Mishkan… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He put the Table in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Menorah in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe.
“He placed the Gold Altar in the Tent of Meeting… as God had commanded Moshe…”

Shemot 40:17-32

And so on. The Torah is not just being verbose; it is making a critical point. Every single act in the construction of the Mishkan was its own mitzvah. God didn’t just hand them a diagram and say, “Build this.” That would be only one mitzvah. Instead, God spelled out every stage of construction as an independent command, making each act an independent fulfillment of God’s will. Only with a constant stream of mitzvot can God’s sanctuary be built.

People are no different. If we want God’s presence to rest within us, we need to create a space where God can be comfortable. This is the mission of the Jew: to sanctify the mundane, to elevate all of life into mitzvah, and ultimately become a living, breathing Mishkan.

Yes, God does desire a house on earth - a house of flesh and blood.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Gift of Yitro

Last week, the Jews crossed the Red Sea. This week, they come to Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments. But before we get to Sinai, the storyline is interrupted. Our parsha begins with the visit of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who reunites Moshe with his family and suggests that the Jews set up a judicial system to alleviate Moshe’s workload. It is only after Yitro returns home to Midian that the parsha turns to the national preparations for the revelation at Sinai and then finally climaxes with the Ten Commandments.

The Yitro interlude is odd on several levels. First of all, we are in the middle of telling the Exodus story here – why allow visiting relatives to interrupt? (The Torah is not religious about keeping things chronological; this story could have easily been saved for later.) Moreover, why do we need a Midianite to come up with the idea of hiring judges? The Jews are a smart people; they couldn’t think of this one on their own? And if this really is such a good idea, why didn’t God tell them to do it? Lastly, why is this most important parsha named for Yitro? Is this merely coincidental? Or does it allude to something deeper?

It seems that, somehow, Sinai needed Yitro. Yitro must have contributed something that made the Ten Commandments possible, something that could not have come from anyone else besides him. Now we need to figure out what that thing was.

When Yitro arrives, he sees crowds of Jews standing in line all day waiting to receive guidance from Moshe. Yitro recognizes the inefficiency of this system and he offers Moshe some constructive criticism.

“What you are doing is not good! You are going to wear yourself out, along with the people that are with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it alone.
“Now listen to me. I will give you advice, and God will be with you. You must be God’s representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. Clarify the decrees and laws [for the people]. Show them the path they must take and the things they must do.
“But you must [also] seek out from among all the people competent, God-fearing men – men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them [over the people] as leaders… Let them administer justice for the people…”

Shemot 18:17-22

It seems simple enough. Moshe and the Jews like the idea (Devarim 1:12-14), God concurs (Shemot 17:23-24) and it’s a done deal. But this concept of judges is actually a lot more radical, and a lot more dangerous, than we imagine.

[Moshe said to the people,] “Your personal interests decided this matter for you. You should have said, ‘Our master Moshe, from whom is it preferable to learn? From you or from your student? Isn’t it [better to learn] from you, since you suffered for it?’ But I know what you were thinking. You said to yourselves, ‘Now that they’ll be appointing many judges over us, if [a judge] doesn’t favor us, we’ll give him a gift and he will favor us.’”

Sifrei 14; Rashi to Devarim 1:14

Taking the law out of Moshe’s hands creates a weakness in the system. While Moshe’s integrity is unassailable and the authenticity of his rulings is unquestioned, the same cannot be said for every judge. To ask Moshe to delegate was something no Jew would ever dare to do. It took Moshe’s father-in-law, an outsider whose reverence for Moshe did not approach those who witnessed the Exodus, to suggest the hiring of judges. The Jews went along with it; but even that was cause for rebuke.

Let’s turn now to the Ten Commandments. From a safe distance of three millennia, it is easy for us to romanticize the Revelation at Sinai. What could be more beautiful than experiencing God? However, for the Jews who were there, there was nothing romantic about it. It was terrifying and traumatic, and they begged Moshe to make it stop.

“Today we have seen that when God speaks to man, he can still survive. Now, why should we die? Why should this great fire consume us? If we hear the voice of God our Lord anymore, we will die!”

Devarim 5:21-22

The Jews desperately wanted the revelation to stop, but they were also interested in what God had to say. They came up with a plan and presented it to Moshe.

“You approach and listen to all God our Lord says. You can then tell us whatever God our Lord tells you, and when we hear it, we will do it.”

Ibid 5:24

It seems that the Jews would have heard more directly from God, but it was too much for them to take. Frightened that they would die, the Jews interrupted the transmission and asked that instead Moshe serve as their ambassador. God was not upset by this proposal; on the contrary, He seconds the plan in this communication to Moshe.

“I have heard what this nation has said to you. They have spoken well. If only their hearts would always remain this way, where they are in such awe of Me…
“Go tell them to return to their tents. You, however, must remain here with Me and I will tell you all the mitzvot, decrees and laws that you shall teach them…”

Ibid 5:25-28

The idea was a good one; in fact, it was exactly what God had intended. God wanted the Torah to be transmitted orally through Moshe, for that was to be the primary method of Torah transmission for all time. But this could not happen by divine decree; the Jews had to come up with this idea on their own.

To God’s mind, this was a primary purpose of the revelation. The Jews needed to feel the heat and experience for themselves why Torah requires humans – prophets, sages and rabbis – to serve as intermediaries. But the Jews would never have dared tell God to delegate – if not for Yitro.

Yitro introduced the radical idea that Judaism is not just about faith in God; it is about faith in man. In order for Torah and its justice system to function, trusting humans is necessary. Indeed, this is a central tenant of Judaism. Trust Jews. Our religion depends on it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Invasion of the Mind Snatcher

Everyone knows the story. Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably saw the movie. Devastating plagues, death of the first born, Jews are rushed out, etc. However, there is one question about the Exodus that few dare to ask. Did the Jews really deserve to be saved?

The Midrash is not afraid to raise this uncomfortable question and its conclusion is… no. The Jews did not deserve freedom. (Or, at least, they did not deserve the miracles necessary to get them out.) In as much as God wanted to punish their oppressors, the Jews were stuck in Egypt until they earned the right to an Exodus. In other words, the Jews were in desperate need of a few good mitzvot.

R. Masyah ben Charash said, “The verse states, ‘I (God) passed over you, and I saw you, and behold, your time was a time of loving’ (Yechezkel 16:8). The time has come for the [fulfillment of the] oath I made to Avraham to redeem his children, but they have no mitzvot to perform to be [worthy] of being redeemed! This is the meaning of the verse, ‘…and you were naked and bare’ (ibid 16:7). [You were] naked of mitzvot. [God] therefore gave them two mitzvot: the blood of the Paschal lamb (Shemot 12:7) and the blood of circumcision (Shemot 12:48)…
Mechilta Bo 5; Rashi 12:6

The Midrash is saying that the Jews got the mitzvot of the Paschal lamb and Brit Milah before they left Egypt because they needed these mitzvot in order to get out. The concept is a compelling one, but it raises two questions. First of all, what’s the deal with all the blood? And second, what is it about these mitzvot that makes the Jews worthy of freedom?

It would take a great Kabbalist to divine the full answer to our questions, but personally, I am satisfied with a very simple observation. These two mitzvot are hard. Bloody hard.

The difficulty of circumcision is self-evident, but the Paschal lamb was no picnic either. Lambs were sacred to the Egyptians. To kill one and eat it was to commit a sacrilege – and no one knew this better than Moshe himself.

After plague number four, when Egypt was attacked by hordes of wild animals, Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aaron to the palace.

“Go!” he said. “[You have permission] to sacrifice to your God here in [our] land.”
“That would not be proper,” replied Moshe. “What we will sacrifice to God our Lord is sacred to the Egyptians. Could we sacrifice the sacred animal of the Egyptians before their very eyes and not have them stone us? What we must do is make a three day journey into the desert…”

Moshe rejected the possibility of slaughtering sheep in Egypt; it was just too dangerous. But God commands the Jews to do just that!

Circumcision and slaughtering a lamb are two things that the Jews would never think of doing on their own – and that is why they are the perfect mitzvot for earning freedom. By choosing to do these mitzvot, the Jewish ex-slaves flexed their spiritual muscles, exercised their free will, and demonstrated their ability to rise above self-interest. It was this self-sacrifice for mitzvot, this allegorical blood, which made the Jews worthy of the Exodus and primed them for the covenant at Sinai.

In contrast with the heroic Jews, we have Pharaoh. Once the powerful king of the Egyptian Empire, the Pharaoh of Bo is a pathetic figure. In our parsha, we actually watch the man fade away into nothingness. Due to a series of unnatural disasters, his country is ruined and his approval rating hits rock bottom. But the situation is more frightening than that. Not only has Pharaoh lost control of his country, he has also lost control of his mind.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made his heart stubborn…”


Pharaoh may have wanted to let the Jews free, but God forced him to say no. God invaded Pharaoh’s mind and seized control of his decision making process. In effect, Pharaoh is dead. What remains is nothing more than a puppet of God.

The Egyptians fared no better. Right before the Exodus, God told the Jews to “borrow” valuables from the Egyptians.

God said to Moshe, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request from his fellow and each woman from her fellow gold and silver articles…

It’s fine to ask, but why would any Egyptian in their right mind give stuff to the escaping slaves? The answer is that they were not in their right minds.

God made the Egyptians like the [Jewish] people, and they granted their request. [The Jews] thus drained Egypt [of its wealth].

The Mind Snatcher strikes again! Just like He did to Pharaoh, God invades the minds of the Egyptians and makes them do something they really, really don’t want to do.

What is going on here? Is this God’s idea of a practical joke? Actually, right from the start, the parsha promised us an entertaining show.

God said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn… so you can tell your children and your grandchildren how I made a laughingstock out of Egypt…”

God’s mind control games may be funny (in a slapstick kind of way), but God is quite serious here. The extraordinary power and wealth of ancient Egypt corrupted Pharaoh and his people. They allowed self-interest - the drive for cheap labor and a strong economy - to overrun basic morality. They abused their power and trampled on the human rights of the Jews. They became evil.

The Egyptians had their fun for a time, but one day, the God of Justice arrives. He devastates Egypt with ten plagues, and relieves the Egyptians of their slaves and their valuables. And then God takes away the most valuable thing of all – free will.

God is telling us something here. Our decision making process, our innate moral compass, our unique ability to choose, in short, our bloody humanness, is a divine gift. Treasure it, nurture it, exercise it and strengthen it with mitzvot. Because if you don’t, you may very well lose it.