Mar 18 2016

Humble Enough to Err — and Admit It

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4095-fallen-king-chessThis week’s reading begins the third book of the Torah, VaYikra, or Leviticus. The word VaYikra means “called,” as in G-d Calling to Moshe.

Looking at the text, we find that the aleph, the letter at the end of VaYikra, is written in small text. Rashi says that there is a key difference between the word VaYikra and the word VaYikar. They are not simply cognates of each other. The former implies closeness, dearness, importance, the way the ministering angels “call” to each other. The latter is a casual, distant encounter, expressed when HaShem spoke to Bila’am who wanted to curse the Jews.

The Ba’al HaTurim explains that Moshe deliberately chose to write the aleph small, because he did not want to glorify himself and say that HaShem would speak with him like the angels call one another.

Later in our reading, we learn that this level of humility is required of every leader. The Torah tells us what a Jewish King should do if he sins. But actually it does not say “if he sins” — it says “when he sins” [4:22]. It is taken for granted that a leader is nonetheless a mere mortal like everyone else, and he is going to make mistakes.

And to that, Rashi comments that the word for when, Asher, is related to the word happy, Ashrei — as in, happy is the generation whose leader is willing to admit error!

No human being, not even Moshe, was perfect. The Torah tells us when he erred, rather than glossing over his mistakes. The Torah did not want to demean Moshe — it praises him as “more humble than any man” [Num. 12:3]. Rather, the Torah wants us to know that no one is perfect, and the Torah does not expect us to be perfect. We are humans, and “to err is human.”

What the Torah expects us to do is to look over our actions, determine our mistakes even after we have made them, regret them, and learn from them. We are not given the capability to be perfect — what we are given is the capability to grow. Part of growth is learning from our mistakes, and looking forward to doing better tomorrow.

Mar 11 2016

All In This Together

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mountain-climbers-reaching-summitThis week, Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, our program director, shared with me a collection of Torah thoughts and concepts from Rav Avraham Elimelech Biderman of Bnei Brak, Israel. In a few short paragraphs Rav Biderman tied together our reading (Pikudei, the last portion in Sh’mos, the Book of Exodus), the Hebrew month of Adar, the holiday of Purim (the 14th of Adar, which this year begins on the eve of Thursday, March 24), and the fact that this week we conclude the reading of a book of the Torah — which means that in synagogue, after the final words of the portion are read, the assembled say “chazak, chazak, v’nischazeik” — “be strong and be strengthened.”

The Chasidic masters would often find lessons in the words of the Torah outside their plain meaning. In our reading we learn that among the many things that the craftsmaster, Bezalel ben Uri, did in building the Tabernacle, “he coated the heads of the pillars [with silver], and bound them to the structure” [Ex. 38:28]. Rebbe Yisrael Taub of Modzhitz noted that the word coating, v’tzipah, is a cognate of the word for awaiting or looking forward to something, metzapeh. He said that there is an allusion here to G-d “waiting hopefully” for each Jewish person to “head” in His direction, to make the first steps towards Him.

Each of us must make a start, as it says earlier: “And now, if you truly listen to My voice and keep My covenant” [Ex. 19:5], and Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains, “if you accept this upon yourselves now, it will be good for you from now on, because all beginnings are difficult.” The first step is the hardest. And G-d is waiting for us to take that first step.

Every Jewish person is included in this; no one can imagine that somehow G-d does not care about him or her. Because as Rav Yitzchak Meir Alter (the Chiddushei HaRim) said, the name of the month of Adar is the acronym of Aluf Dal Rash” — the “Aluf,” the great leader, rests His Divine Presence [even] upon the simple and lesser people, the “Dalim v’Rashim.” This is what we see in the Purim Megillah, that the King’s servants pointed out to the evil Haman that Mordechai the Jew was not bowing to him. Mordechai is referred to repeatedly as Mordechai the Jew, rather than Mordechai the righteous or Mordechai the leader. The most important thing about Mordechai was the simple fact that he was a Jew, regardless of whether he was great or lowly.

The month of Adar, Rav Biderman explains, is the time in which we remember that we must fight the people of Haman, the nation of Amalek. Amalek came and fought the stragglers among the Jews as they first crossed the Sinai desert, when no one else would dare attack them. And the entire Jewish people was told to turn around and fight them, to eliminate the hatred represented by Amalek, because every Jew is important, and every Jew is responsible for every other — including the stragglers.

This brings us to the fact that this is the closing of the book of Exodus, when we declare “be strong and be strengthened.” This happens during Adar for this is an ongoing battle. The Jews set upon by Amalek were those losing hope, and we must never lose hope, and must unite to oppose Amalek. If a person strengthens him or herself again and again, then G-d will strengthen and assist, and the person will be strengthened. We have to take the first step, and we have to keep trying, and we must look to and depend upon G-d to help lift us higher. Because if we strengthen ourselves, if we take that first step, then G-d will strengthen us!

Feb 25 2016

On His Terms

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In this week’s reading, G-d instructs Moses to make the anointing oil, describing its composition. He tells Moshe to anoint the holy items and vessels, and the Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests) of future generations. (Kings from the House of David were also anointed with this oil.) And then He gives an instruction to all the Children of Israel, prohibiting anointing anyone else with the oil, or making a replica of it [Ex. 30:25-32].

What is wrong with anointing with or re-creating this oil? Perhaps a person feels motivated to do so to serve G-d — how could that be wrong?

One of the underlying messages of the oil was that the King and High Priest were in a special role. It was important that they feel a distinct obligation, to lead people closer to G-d. If everyone did the same, their feeling of distinct obligation would be lost.

And there is a broader lesson as well: the Torah is laying out guidelines and instructing us about what is helpful for our spiritual growth. We may feel that something enhances our spirituality, where in reality the opposite is true. We may think that we will be more holy if we anoint ourselves with the oil — the Torah says that on the contrary, such a person cuts himself off from G-d.

This is similar to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon who offered a “strange fire” that, according to many, they had not been instructed to bring [Lev. 10:1]. They thought making their own decision would bring them closer, but they were punished for doing so.

Our connection to G-d has to be “on his terms.” We must learn to find spirituality in what the Torah tells us, even when we imagine another route might lead us higher. He knows what is best for us!

Feb 19 2016

Crushed to Shine

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crush-shineThere is an interesting interruption at the beginning of this week’s reading. Last week we learned about the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and this week we learn about the garments worn by the Kohanim, the Priests, when they served within it.

Yet the Torah portion begins by talking about the Ner Tamid, the lamp which was to burn continually — specifically describing the preparation of the oil — and this seems to be out of place. It would seem to make more sense to describe the construction of the Tabernacle, the garments to be worn, and only then describe the services to be conducted. The Kli Yakar cites the Abarbanel, who says that really this belongs in Parshas Emor, where this Commandment is said along with the Lechem HaPanim, the show-bread offering.

Why is the Torah “jumping the gun,” so to speak, to talk about lighting the lamp now [Ex. 27:20-21] — especially as it will say it again?

The Chasidic Masters use this verse as a parable speaking to each individual. This places the passage into context, preceding the description of the priestly raiments. Their regal dress could lead a Kohen to regard and carry himself with honor — especially the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, who wore unique and very expensive garments.

On the contrary, they say. The priestly raiments were not about the Kohen himself, but about the service he was called upon to do. It was about Whom he was serving. The verse says “Kasis L’Maor” — crushed for lighting. A person must view himself as “crushed,” as lowly and unimportant. However, says the Chashvah L’Tovah, this does not mean a person should be depressed and have no desire to produce. On the contrary: the point of feeling crushed and down is L’Maor — in order to light! A person should feel grateful to G-d for all his or her positive traits, rather than proud or haughty, and be moved to use them productively.

And, like the Kohen, using our gifts productively means in the Divine Service. “Because the lamp [of G-d] is a Commandment, and Torah is the light” [Proverbs 6:23]. It says in our verse, “l’haalos ner tamid” — to bring up a constant light. We must constantly light the fire of Torah within ourselves. This way we will not feel down even in the dark of night.

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