Mar 20 2015

The Call to Moshe

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algebra-relevantThe Book of VaYikra, Leviticus, begins with an unusual phrase that seems redundant: “And He called to Moshe, and G-d spoke to him from the tent of meeting, to say.” Why does G-d first call to Moshe before speaking to him?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l explains that this phrasing emphasizes the Torah’s statement that it is, in its entirety, Divine Revelation, transmitted to Moshe “as one man speaks to his friend” [Exodus 33:11]. Unlike the other prophets, who experienced dreamlike visions which they then recorded in their own words, Moshe spoke with G-d like we speak with people standing around a corner (or on a telephone), unseen but clearly heard. As Rav Hirsch says, it was a revelation to Moses, not a revelation in Moses.

This is, of course, a crucial message. It changes our understanding of the Five Books “of Moses” entirely. But still the question arises: why here? Why now? If we have heard this message previously, and its restatement is not more explicit, why is it important to place it here, at the beginning of the third book?

I would suggest that there is a second message here: that we need to be paying special attention now.

VaYikra was called “Leviticus” in Latin because it concerns itself with the sacrifices offered in the Temple, as well as many things pertaining to the Kohanim, the Priests, and the other members of the tribe of Levi. Sacrifices, voluntary offerings, incense, Tzara’as (the spiritual ailment discussed in Parshas Metzorah and elsewhere) — all of them are found here. And because there is no Temple standing now, because we are not all united in our land, and because we are not on the spiritual level necessary to experience Tzara’as, almost none of the aforementioned laws are applicable today. It has been said, though I have not seen this myself, that the Reader’s Digest Bible simply omits Leviticus!

Needless to say, we must take a different approach.

Simply because a law is not applicable today, that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant, or has nothing to teach us. The Torah is teaching us to elevate ourselves, to become more Holy, to emulate the Divine. In these cases it may not be obvious to us what lessons we are to learn, as we cannot put them “to practical use” or witness the Kohanim doing so. But if simply skimming the surface will leave us uninspired and unmoved, the answer is not to look away, but to look deeper.

Mar 13 2015

The Right Way to Build

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keepcalm-keepshabbat2In this week’s reading, Moshe gathers the entire nation to instruct them in the building of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. He says, “these are the things which G-d has Commanded, for you to do them.” [Ex. 35:1] And then he immediately talks about not doing work, on the Sabbath, before talking about the gifts and the building of the Sanctuary. What’s going on here? Why the “detour” into the Sabbath before talking about the work?

The message is obvious: even building the Sanctuary doesn’t override the Sabbath. This same idea is encapsulated later on in the verse, “You shall keep My Sabbaths, and revere My Sanctuary; I am HaShem” [Lev. 19:30].

Imagine that we were there at the time. Imagine that we were being told to build a Sanctuary for G-d, a global center for the Divine Presence. What could possibly be more important? The Sanctuary welcomed the Divine Presence, encouraged the new Jewish nation, and spread the knowledge of G-d around the world. If it took two weeks to do the work, why stop in middle, when it was after all a holy endeavor? Isn’t it obvious that building this key institution should take priority over the Sabbath?

But it didn’t. Because whatever our opinions, the Divine calculation was different. And the Torah requires that we follow G-d’s Rules even when we, with our own limited capacities, feel differently.

First, keep the Sabbath. Then you can build a Sanctuary, and know it will stand the test of time.

Feb 27 2015

The Purim Menorah

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Here we are, at the Shabbos preceding Purim, and what are we going to read about? Lighting the Menorah! Of course, the Torah reading concerns the lighting of the original Menorah by Aharon and his descendants in the Tabernacle and Temple, but it’s still somewhat disconcerting when Torah thoughts about “lighting the Menorah” are published at Purim — except that turning things upside down is in the spirit of Purim, after all.

Achashveirosh-HighPriest-Megilas-LesterChanukah and Purim are the two Rabbinic holidays on the Jewish calendar. What they share in common is that the rabbis perceived, in both of them, an existential threat to the Jewish people. The Greeks prohibited Torah study, circumcision, Sabbath rest and other Jewish observances, while Haman simply plotted to kill us all.

Both of them, however, began in the same place: with a repudiation of the Jewish G-d.

Megillas Esther does not begin with Haman’s elevation as chief advisor to the king, but with the huge feast made by King Achashverosh for all his subjects. Why did the king make this feast? Because, by his (mis-)calculation, seventy years had elapsed, and the Jewish exile had not ended.

He and his advisers knew the Jewish prophets had predicted exile. But they also knew that the prophets had said that this exile would last only seventy years, after which time the Jews would be permitted to return to their land. His feast was a celebration of the “fact” that the Jewish prophets had been proven wrong. This is why he dressed himself in the raiment of the High Priest, and used vessels from the Holy Temple to serve his guests. Only once it was clear to him that the G-d of the Jews had (ch”v) abandoned them, could he contemplate their annihilation.

The Greeks were the same, but they just approach the “Jewish problem” from the other side — divorce the Jews from their G-d, they said, and there will be no more Jews.

Both the Greeks and the Persians were right: the survival of the Jewish nation depends upon our attachment to G-d, both physically and spiritually. During the period leading up to Chanukah, faithful Jews were able to overcome all obstacles and reestablish the Torah’s preeminence over the Jewish nation. On Purim, the Jews rededicated themselves to G-d and Torah, and G-d saved them from danger. In both cases — whether the danger facing us is physical or spiritual — rededicating ourselves to G-d and Torah is what will guide us through.

Feb 13 2015

The Wise Men of Chelm

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wise-men-of-chelmDid you know that the city of Chelm truly had wise men? Or that the stories of “The Wise Men of Chelm” were old fables, deliberately cast upon the Rabbis of Chelm to belittle its Sages?

This week’s Torah reading comprises a long list of Commandments. Immediately after receiving the Torah, it is logical that G-d would immediately tell Moshe to record several of the most critical laws. Yet almost exclusively, these laws are interpersonal in nature; the laws in this week’s reading primarily regulate how we interact with others, rather than with G-d.

The instructions discussed are introduced as “Mishpatim,” judgments. Our Sages explain that “judgments” are laws necessary for civil society — if they were not given to us by G-d, we would need to create our own laws (as governments do around the world) to prevent anarchy. But this, they explain, is the point: they were given by G-d. Not only are they as important as any other Commandment, they are primary to our relationship with our Creator.

In a famous story from the Talmud, Hillel is approached by a prospective convert who insists upon being taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel recognized that despite the ridiculous nature of the request, the questioner was motivated by a sincere desire to understand what Judaism was all about. And so Hillel told him: “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another. All the rest is commentary — go and learn!”

Hillel was not minimizing the Torah; he was encapsulating its wisdom. The Torah wants a person to be as sensitive towards the feelings of others as he or she is to his or her own. Even a servant has to be treated with dignity, and fed, clothed, and given living quarters like a member of the family.

How often have you heard that when people focus “too much” upon the rituals of Judaism, that they lose touch with its interpersonal requirements? Experience proves the opposite: that those who are truly expert at learning and understanding Jewish law are also giants of interpersonal conduct.

Here, then, is the connection to the stories told to misportray and deprecate the Rabbis of Chelm — there are actually places called Chelm in both Poland and Lithuania, and it is the latter city that featured a school which focused not only upon development of Torah knowledge, but upon Mussar, Jewish ethics and self-improvement. Even more than most, the school was devoted not merely to informing, but changing the student.

The school of Chelm, led by Rav Simcha Zissel Broyde, existed during a period when many were downplaying the treasures of Jewish wisdom. This is what led to stories designed to portray the great Rabbis of that city as fools — and the equally invalid idea that Jewish ritual somehow distracts from our obligations to each other. When we discard these misconceptions and embrace Jewish wisdom, we will find it changes not only how we pray and even how we tie our shoes, but how we regard and interact with those around us.

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