Feb 25 2016

On His Terms


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


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.

Feb 05 2016

Ready for the Super Bowl


Quarterback SackWhen I saw the headline for the article on Torah.org, “Murder and the Super Bowl,” I knew I had to have a look. The article is by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner, whom I’ve known for many years, long before he became Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, CA. And with such a timely headline (yes, even I know we are approaching Super Bowl Sunday), how could I not?

I thought he was going to discuss the violence of football. It’s a very rough sport, one which trains players to be physically aggressive. I’m not sure why we are surprised when we find that this violence sometimes spills outside of the stadium.

But that wasn’t his point at all.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) tells us that just the first word of this week’s reading contains a profound lesson. It begins: “And these are the judgments which you shall place before them.” [Ex. 21:1] Why “and”? These are the judgments! All we need is “eileh” rather than “v’eileh.”

But Rashi explains that “v’eileh” means that what follows is an addition to what came previously. In this case, we just read about the Revelation at Sinai, receiving the Torah and some of its laws. Specifically, last week’s reading concludes that one must not cut the stones of the Altar with metal tools, and to have a ramp rather than steps up to the Altar, so as not to inadvertently reveal beneath a Kohen’s robes.

Those laws are “chukim,” laws provided by G-d that are not immediately logical or well understood. The “mishpatim,” judgements, that we read this week are civil laws — the foundations of civilization. Without rules of interpersonal conduct, one has anarchy. If the Torah had not provided us these rules, then like every other nation, we would have had to create them.

But based upon this, Rabbi Ciner adds a fascinating point: that the laws created by nations are simply a “consensus of what they want according to the time, place and situation that they find themselves.” “They” must be taken to mean the ruler and the ruling class, but the point is sound. The rules made are colored by circumstance.

He gives a perfect example: what was “entertainment” in ancient Rome? Gladiator fights! A gladiator was not a soldier, he was a performer. It was the ultimate reality show, as the gladiator faced dangerous animals, convicted criminals, and other gladiators — knowing that only one would emerge alive. The “noble” gladiator murdered others for the delight of the audience. And that is what we call ancient Roman “civilization” — a society that celebrated barbarism, calling murderous fights to the death a form of entertainment.

The Romans, of course, were the ones who conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from their land. According to the ways of the world, the Jews should have been assimilated into Roman society. Instead, it is the ancient Roman civilization that is gone, and the Jews who are still here. Even more, the idea of murder for entertainment is anathema to the Western world. Why? Where did they get the idea that murder is evil? Where did they get the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil at all?

Good Shabbos!

Jan 28 2016

And Yisro Heard


Listen-to-Your-CustomerIn this week’s reading, we are told that “Yisro heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Israel his nation, for HaShem had taken Israel from Egypt” [18:1].

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) asks: what did Yisro hear? He answers, “the parting of the Reed Sea, and the war with Amalek.”

These two events were, to say the least, public knowledge. The Medrash says that at the moment that the sea parted for the Jews, every body of water, even every glass of water, also parted. This happened so that everyone would know about the miracle done for the Jews at that moment. So, yes, Yisro heard, and saw. He was sitting in his living room about to have his tea, and it split before his eyes. But this also happened for every other Midyanite, and every other person. So why does the Torah say that Yisro heard? Everyone heard!

We learn from Yisro the essence of “hearing.” A “shomea,” one who hears, does not merely have a functioning inner ear. Yisro, the “Kohen Midyan”, the priest of the Midyanites, dropped everything to go join the Nation of Israel. Why? Because he alone really heard the message. G-d sent the message to every person on earth — but Yisro heard.

While computers are doing a better and better job of automating this task, it is still important that we save our work frequently. Anyone with computer experience has experienced the unique frustration of spending an hour or more at the keyboard working on an important task, and then having the computer freeze up or power off without the opportunity to save one’s work. Whatever we do not commit to the computer’s memory, we lose.

We ourselves are not all that different. We often claim to “hear” something that goes “in one ear and out the other.” G-d sends us messages. He enters the data. But it is our responsibility to process and save that data. When something happens, when we receive a message, we can only say we have truly “heard” if we remember, understand, and learn from the experience. In the Torah, “hearing” means “Sh’ma Yisroel” [Hear, Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One], and “Naaseh V’Nishma” [We will do, and we will hear…].

Did we get the message?

[Based upon a class by Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l of Jerusalem.]

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