Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Parashat Hachodesh: On Renewal

This week, in addition to the regular parsha, we read the last of the 4 special parshiyyot before Passover, Parashat HaHodesh, which deals with instructions given to the Israelites in Egypt concerning their preparations for departure and for the first Passover sacrifice. The parsha begins HaHodesh hazeh lachem rosh hodeshim--this month (i.e. the month of Nissan) is to be the first of months for you. This statement is traditionally understood as the very first mitzvah (commandment) given to the nation of Israel. It is the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon each month and keeping a particularly Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar, with all its sacred holidays based on the determination of the new moons.

Why is the mitzvah of the lunar calendar the very first mitzvah given to the nation? The Hasidic author of Netivot Shalom points out that the moon is a symbol of eternal change and renewal. Just when the moon reaches its tiniest point, to the point of almost complete darkness, there is suddenly the tiniest glimpse of a new light, the start of a new moon that will eventually be whole and bright. So, too, each person is capable of such renewal, of such hithadshut, of moving out of the darkest of states into light.

Such renewal is not just a hope, but also a hiyuv, an obligation, a commandment. In the Haggadah we say, bekhol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim--in every generation a person is obligated to imagine that he himself has left Egypt. Every person is commanded to undergo that kind of radical spiritual transformation, to view himself as changing, becoming someone entirely new, moving out of darkness and into light.

Sometimes there is really not that much that has changed in us from one month to the next. But we are commanded to sanctify time, to go out and see the new moon and announce its arrival. We are commanded, in other words, to see, to note, to feel the novelty of time, of each new month as it comes, not to let time slip idly by, but to stop and take note of it, to relish it, to feel its preciousness, its sanctity, its uniqueness. Shehecheyanu vekiyamanu vehigiyanu lazeman hazeh--thank you God for sustaining us to reach this particular special moment in time.

In the morning prayers, we say that God is mehadesh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh breishit, that He “renews each day the work of creation,” referring to the daily gift of new sun-light each morning. The sun is God’s job, a sign of His daily renewal of creation, but the moon is our territory. The midrash says that for two thousand odd years before the exodus from Egypt, God Himself would sanctify and announce each new moon, but that once the people of Israel came along, He passed this occupation on to them. Keeping track of the moon is the human version of God’s daily hithadshut, our attempt to participate in the constant renewal of the universe and of ourselves.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Parashat Shemini: On Brotherly Love

Moshe the leader and Aaron the High Priest, two brothers, are in charge of the dedication of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. After 7 days of preparation and practice, they reach the eighth day, the day on which the first, opening, purifying sacrifices are to be brought, and God is to appear to the nation in the Mishkan. It is a remarkable day, full of excitement, tragedy and pathos, and also full of brotherly concern and care. It is these brotherly interactions that I want to follow through the story.

First, after Aaron performs all the prescribed rites and sacrifices, he comes out to bless the people. Presumably, at this point, God is supposed to appear to show His approval. Instead the next verse tells us that Moshe and Aaron both came out and blessed the people, and only then did God’s Glory appear (Leviticus 9:22-23). Rashi plays out the following scenario: Aaron, seeing that God has not appeared after his performance, calls to Moshe in embarrassment, and Moshe -- acting quickly to avoid further embarrassing Aaron -- prays to God for mercy, and then appears, together with Aaron, in front of the people, and this time God’s Glory does appear.

Next, Aaron’s eldest two sons, after bringing forward an unwanted offering of incense, are consumed by divine fire. Obviously, they have done something wrong. Aaron, in addition to being grief stricken, must have felt some shame, some sense of divine reprobation. Moshe’s response to Aaron seems to be intended precisely to counter such feelings, to give him some small amount of pride: “Oh, that’s what God told me would happen: That He would be sanctified through those closest to Him.” I thought it would be either me or you, says Moshe, according to Rashi, that God would take one of us as a sacrifice at the dedication of the Mishkan. But no, it appears that actually your children are even greater and more desirable to God than we are. Many use Moshe’s statement to unpack the meaning of these deaths, but I think his words are concerned less with the event itself and more with his brother’s reaction to the event; Moshe’s words are an expression not of truth, but of brotherly concern.

Not all is smooth sailing between Moshe and Aaron, however, as we see in the next and final interaction of the day. Moshe, as the leader, is concerned that the dedication of the Mishkan continue smoothly despite this tragedy. When he finds out that Aaron and his sons have not eaten the sacrificial meat despite his instructions, he lashes out at them in anger. Aaron responds: “On such a day, when such things have happened to me, would it really be pleasing in God’s eyes if I partook of the sacrifices?” Aaron reminds Moshe of the human, emotional element. Moshe, though easily angered, is also extremely humble and quick to note that he is wrong. The verse says simply: “And Moshe heard and it was pleasing in his eyes (10:20).” The midrash elaborates, saying that Moshe sent out the following proclamation throughout the camp: “I made a mistake, and Aaron taught me the correct law.” Moshe publicly defers to Aaron, raising and supporting Aaron’s stature in the public eye.

Support, comfort, and an openness to criticism – these are the marks of the Moshe/Aaron relationship, of the Moshe/Aaron team. This is a new type of sibling relationship for the Torah, a far cry from that of Cain and Abel, Yaakov and Esav, or Yosef and his brothers. Those others did not merit the building of the Mishkan and the descent of God’s Presence to dwell on earth. Perhaps it was precisely this new type of sibling relationship that God was waiting for. When the Torah describes that special day long ago when God came to dwell on earth, what it describes is not just sacrifices, but also human relations, human relations of the most supportive, sensitive loving sort. It is this love, this kindness which brings God to dwell on earth, which defines His Presence here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shabbat Zachor and Purim: On Knowledge and Humility

The juxtaposition between Shabbat Zachor and Purim strikes me as strange. At first glance, the connection is clear: Parashat Zachor (the extra Torah reading on the Shabbat before Purim) deals with the command to remember and to completely annihilate the nation of Amalek, and on Purim, we celebrate our victory over the evil Haman the Aggagite, descendant of the Amalekites.

But upon reflection, it seems that Zachor and Purim don’t really fit together. Zachor is a serious matter; it bids us to have moral clarity concerning the evil in the world and to take an extremist position of zero-tolerance – complete annihilation – of such evil. Purim, on the other hand, is a light carnival holiday, full of laughter and irony. On Purim we are not exactly sure who we are and what is right or wrong; we put on costumes, pretending to be both evil and good characters and we are told to drink ad delo yada, “until one does not know” the difference between the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai.

Perhaps the light nature of Purim provides an essential counter-balance to the seriousness of Zachor. Yes, you are called as a Jew to take seriously your task to eradicate evil and pursue good in the world, but don’t be overzealous about it. Take the time to laugh at yourself and your convictions. Even in the very midst of our assertions of clarity concerning good and evil we pause to say that, in some ways, we humans are really all drunkards, our perception imperfect, unable to perfectly distinguish between those who should be cursed and those who should be blessed.

This dichotomy between moral clarity and an appreciation of our limited ability to discern good and evil is epitomized in the Megillah by two characters, Mordecai and Achashverosh. Mordecai stands for moral clarity and certainty. Indeed, the word yada, to know, is used multiple times with reference to him. He knows of Bigtan and Teresh’s treachery; how he knows we never find out, but he knows; he is a knower. And he knows of Haman’s plans; chapter 4 begins U’Mordecai yada et kol asher na’asah. “And Mordecai knew all that had been done.” Mordecai approaches Esther with this moral clarity and tells her what needs to be done. He knows, without any question, what is right and what is wrong.

Achashverosh, on the other hand, seems to have neither knowledge nor convictions. He is often portrayed as a simpleton for precisely this reason; he is equally open to the evil Haman and to the righteous Mordecai, offering them each in turn the use of his signet ring. He does not judge; he does not make distinctions. He is like a drunkard, like the drunkard that we are meant to be at the Purim feast. He muddles through life, waking up anxious at night with a sense that there is something he should be doing, but he is not quite sure what it is.

To be like Achashverosh most of the year would be wrong. We are meant, like Mordecai, to take seriously our task to know things in the world, to remember what is right and what is evil and to act on such convictions. But such moral certainty is also dangerous in a human; it is a kind of hubris. On Purim, on the cusp of making a statement of great moral certainty in Parashat Zachor, we are reminded not take ourselves too seriously, to temper our convictions with humility, a sense of the limits of the human capability to really know.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Parashat Vayikra

We have reached the book of Leviticus, the third and middle book—the heart— of the Torah. The Tabernacle has been constructed, and now God informs the people how to go about bringing sacrifices, korbanot, within this Tabernacle.

The offerings acceptable to God come in many forms, the Torah assures us. There is not one single type of prescribed korban, but many -- the olah, the minhah,and the shelamim, and there is not one single appropriate ingredient to be brought, but many – cattle, sheep, birds and grain.

Different people bring different gifts with them to the Tabernacle, to the Torah, to Judaism, to the world. God wants them all, and they are all a means of coming close to Him. With one exception. The rabbis emphasize that a gift brought from stolen goods is not acceptable. Rashi, following the midrash, learns this lesson from the word Adam, which literally means “any person,” but which also has the resonance of the First Adam of the world. Just as Adam #1 did not bring a stolen offering to God since everything in the world belonged to him, so too, should we not bring a stolen item as a korban.

So goes the rabbinic logic. Strange, though. Why learn this lesson from the first Adam? What is the midrash really teaching us about the nature of korbanot? When you want to give a gift to God – to make some offering or contribution to the Tabernacle or to the world -- be like the First Adam. Think of yourself as the only one in the world. Feel as if the whole world depends on your particular contribution. If you don’t bring it, no one else will.

Because that is the truth. If you don’t bring yourself – if instead you somehow bring someone else’s offering, try to play someone else’s part, to copy their way of being in the world – then no one else will bring what you have to offer. The world will simply be lacking your special contribution. Maybe you think that doesn’t matter. But no, the midrash says. Imagine that you are the First Adam, alone in the world, and you will know how much your offering matters.

When a student cheats on an exam, copying someone else’s thoughts, what is most sad is not the damage to the one whose work has been copied, but the damage to the cheater himself, the sense he has of himself as someone who has nothing to contribute, nothing of his own to bring as an offering.

The first line of the sacrificial instructions reads: Adam ki yakriv mikem, literally, “A person, when he brings forward an offering from among you.” The word mikem, “from among you,” is strangely placed after the verb “to bring forward” instead of after the noun “a person.” The classic Hasidic reading of this verse sees the word mikem as referring to the type of offering to be brought – bring something mikem, “from you,” from yourselves, from your very essence. Bring your own special type of offering – whether it be bird or song or dance or word – bring it forward to God’s House and to the world to share. Because if you don’t, no one else will.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Parashat Pekudei-Shekalim: How To Be A "Nasi"

The nesi’im, the chieftains, considered themselves above the people. According to the midrash, they heard the call for material donations for the construction of the Tabernacle, and thought they would wait until the ordinary people had stopped giving and then step in, with great fanfare, to complete the missing materials. As it turned out, the people gave an overwhelming amount, more than could even be used, so that the nesi’im were left with almost no role to play. They ended up making the small, last minute contribution of the breastplate stones. It is for this reason, says the midrash, that the word nesi’im is missing a letter in this section of the Torah, spelled without its usual yod.

The nesi’im did not understand what makes a person great, what makes a person a true nasi, literally a person who is “lifted up” or “elevated.” In this case, the ordinary people of Israel were nesi’im; the Torah calls those who contributed to the Mishkan ish asher nesa’o libo, “one whose heart has lifted him up.” What elevated them was that they were not interested in individual glory but in participating, making their little contribution to the joint project of the Mishkan. The Torah says they came anashim al nashim, “men on top of women,” all in a jumble, not as individuals, but together, running to be part of the group.

The construction of the Mishkan involved many different skills – weaving, metal-work, carpentry and other fine craftsmanship, and as such it was a model of a communal project that requires each person to play his part. In the end, the Torah attributes the work not to Bezalel, the architect, or even to the craftsmen, but rather to the community as a whole – “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle . . . The Israelites did so” (39:32).

So it is with the whole Torah. The Torah was not given to Avraham, or, as Nehama Leibowitz puts it, to Robinson out on an island. It was given to the entire nation, and only the entire nation can together fulfill it. There is no one individual who can do all the mitzvot; some are only for women, some only for priests or Levites or non-priests or Levites, or those who live in the land of Israel. Only together, as a nation, can the Torah be fulfilled.

This is what Moshe said to Pharaoh back in Egypt. Pharaoh said if you’re going to worship God for a few days, just take a few men. But no, Moshe said: We will go with our young and our old. We will all go. This is a religion that requires every one to play a part.

This week, in addition to reading about the end of the construction of the Mishkan, we also read the first of the 4 special readings before Passover, called Parashat Shekalim. It too delivers the same message of interdependence and community. In it we read about the counting of the people, which was done through the contribution of half-shekels each. Why a half-shekel and not a whole shekel? For counting purposes, it would have been simpler to have a 1:1 correspondence of shekels and people. But no. The message is that none of us stands on her own, a complete entity, able to make a complete contribution on our own. We are all halves, incomplete without another, only whole when we come together.

In describing this half-shekel count, the Torah uses the phrase ki tisa et rosh, which literally means “when you raise or elevate heads.” It is not by raising ourselves above others that we are truly elevated, as the nesi’im thought; on the contrary, elevation happens by making ourselves a part of each other, forming ourselves into corresponding halves that work together in the building of the Mishkan and the world.