Thursday, April 10, 2014

Parashat Aharei-Mot: Elevate Your Life

Jon Levenson writes in Sinai and Zion that the mitzvot in the Torah aim to foster a loving and personal relationship between God and the Israelites, as each mitzvah provides a means by which an individual Israelite can acknowledge the divine presence inherent in every human act.  Levenson writes:

“...the canonical Pentateuch has made laws into personal commandments, and it has made the secular into a matter of the greatest sacral concern.  The Mosaic Torah is thus anything but a stern and impersonal taskmaster.  It is a means of communion with a loving and personal God.   The energy and spiritual power of Torah flows in no small measure from its insistence on holding these two dimensions, the outer and the inner, the legal and the affective, in a tight unity, refusing to sacrifice the one on the altar of the other” (Jon D. Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, 50).

Levenson’s notion that all mitzvot in the Torah aim to strengthen the relationship between God and the Israelites is epitomized in Parashat Aharei-Mot, which, among other things, famously outlines a list of prohibited relationships for the Israelite people.   Prior to outlining the prohibited relations, the Torah curiously states that, “And the doings of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelt, you shall not do, and after the doings of the land of Canaan, into which I bring you, you shall not do, neither shall you walk in their practices” (Vayikra 18:3).   Our rabbinic commentaries asked why the Torah specifically states that the Israelites should not follow the ways of the Egyptians and Canaanites, and the answers of our rabbis captures the essence of what it means to commune the outer and the inner, and encourage each Jew to elevate his or her life.

In an early midrash halakhah, the Sifra argues that God’s command is a purely practical one for the Israelites, specifically mentioning those nations whose practices are most deplorable in God’s eyes, and therefore must be avoided at all costs. The midrash states:

“Whence that the conduct of no other nation was more abominable than that of the Egyptians?  It is stated, “after the doings of the land of Egypt you shall not do…”  Whence that the location where Israel dwelt was the most depraved of all?  It is stated, “in which you dwelt…”  Whence that no nation was more corrupt than the Canaanites?  It is stated, “after the doings of Canaan..you shall not do.”  And whence that the locations and conquered by Israel were the most depraved?  It is stated, “into which I bring you”” (Sifra 131).

This midrash implies that God wants to emphasize the heights to which he wants the Israelites to climb by specifically calling out those peoples whose actions degrade holiness.   Because the Canaanites and Egyptians represented the antithesis of God’s vision for the Israelites, the Torah-text makes that perspective crystal clear by specifically naming those two peoples.

Looking at this verse from God’s perspective, the Be’er Yitzhak argues that God did not take the Israelites out of Egypt so that they might emulate the Egyptians, nor is God taking the Israelites to inherit the land of Canaan so that they might emulate the Canaanites, and this verse attempts to clearly distinguish between whose identity will reign supreme in God’s eyes.   The commentary states:

“The reason for mentioning Egypt and Canaan is simple: If you imitate the Egyptians--then why did I take you out of Egypt?   And if you behavior like the Canaanites--why should expel them before you?  It was on condition that you will not do so that I took you out of Egypt and that I shall expel the Canaanites” (Be’er Yitzhak on Vayikra 18:3).

In this commentary, the Be’er Yitzhak appears to argue that God’s in this parasha simply reflects what God wanted for the Israelites all along, a clear, distinct adherence to God’s Torah.   By following these prohibitions, the Israelites will take one huge step towards making their lives distinct from all others.

Finally, taking a personal approach that can serve as a guide for our everyday lives, the Sefat Emet argues that because the actions of the Egyptians and Canaanites were of a superficial nature, God wants the Israelites to pursue holiness by way of pursuing actions that reflect the inner meaning of all human actions.  He writes:

“...the intent is that in all in our deeds we not do things as they are done in Egypt and Canaan.  Every deed has an inner and an outer side; the [inner] root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created in God’s glory. This innermost point has been given to Israel.  That is the meaning of [the verse]: “Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven.”  That is why the deeds of the other nations are referred to as “statutes,” as in “you shall not follow their statutes.”  They have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things, and cleave to mere externals” (Sefat Emet on Vayikra 18:3, 180).

In this final commentary, not following the ways of Egypt and Canaan is a command that does not exclusively apply to the prohibitions mentioned in our parasha, but rather encompasses an overarching vision for how the Israelites should live their lives.   If we choose to pursue holiness, then we must perform actions that actualize the inherent potentail of all human behaviors.   

Jewish tradition does not seek to elevate discrete aspects of our lives; Jewish tradition seeks to elevate our entire lives, epitomized by the way our commentaries approach even a nuanced introductory comment prior to the prohibitions outlined in this week’s parasha.   When we elevate our lives, every decision we make reflects the outer and inner meaning of all things.   As we go off on break for Pesah, think about what it would mean for each of us to elevate our Judaism, for distinguishing each act of the day enables us to bring God a little bit closer to our lives, and reshape a world that reflects God’s vision for humanity.

Shabbat Shalom, v’Hag Kasher V’Sameah!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Pesah 2014: Learning Never Stops

The Schechter School of Long Island is proud to distribute Pesah 2014: Learning Never Stops, a free supplement that can be used at your sedarim this Pesah.   The material in this supplement examines the section of the Haggadah where it states that even the wisest among us are obligated to tell the Pesah story.  The supplement contains traditional and modern commentaries for children, teenagers, and adults about how this text challenges each of us to see Talmud Torah as a lifelong obligation for the entire Jewish Community.    We deliberately chose a section of the Haggadah that typically does not receive much attention in other modern commentaries, and hope that this material will provide a new take on a fascinating section of the seder.
Wishing you and your families a Hag Kasher V'Sameah.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Parashat Metzora: Eradicating Emotional Contagions

Daniel Goleman argues that while they we may not be able to view them under a microscope, “emotional contagions" have the ability to affect our minds and bodies.   In Social Intelligence, Goleman urges us to look at emotions as similar to viruses, ones that can spread to others for both good and ill:

“The fact that we can trigger any emotion at all in someone else--or they in us--testifies to the powerful mechanism by which one person’s feelings spread to another.  Such contagions are the central transaction in the emotional economy, they give-and-take of feeling that accompanies every human encounter we have, no matter what the ostensible business at hand may be” (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, 16).

Goleman’s definition of an emotional contagion is a fitting concept to think about in relation to Parashat Metzora, which outlines the procedure for dealing with one afflicted with tza’raat.  Beginning with early rabbinic texts, the Metzora is presumed to have committed some kind of interpersonal sin, with the Talmud listing seven possible crimes ranging from murder to envy (BT Arachin 16a), and with Rashi asserting that Miriam is afflicted with tza’raat in Parashat Ki Tetze because she spoke slander about Moses (Rashi on Devarim 24:8-9), a clear stance by our tradition that interpersonal sins have physical consequences for the sinner’s body.

When I first learned these commentaries, I found them utterly simplistic, choosing to write an inspiring sermon about what we believe to be true as opposed to reading the parasha contextually to figure out what is actually true.   However, commentaries I only recently learned about this parasha helped me this view interpretation of tza’raat in a new way, and how this week’s parasha may be one of the most powerful lessons we can teach our children about how they ought to treat one another.  In his medieval commentary, the Ramban expands upon the rabbinic notion that tza’raat only occurs in the land of Israel by arguing that the affliction of tza’raat is more spiritual than physical in-nature, and that the disease only occurs in one tainted by a disconnect from God.  The Ramban states:

“This is a completely unnatural phenomenon that does not occur under ordinary circumstances.  The same is true of an “eruptive plague” in the house.  When the Jews are at one with the Lord, His spirit it always upon them, keeping their bodies, clothes, and homes in good appearance.  When one of them happens to sin, however, an ugliness appears in the flesh, his clothes, or his house, to show that God has departed from him” (Ramban on Vayikra 13:47).

When the Ramban makes the statement that if a person is afflicted with tza’raat, then the person must somehow be spiritually connected from God, the Ramban is making an explicit connection between how sins of the mind can affect the physical status of the body.   Literally, if a person is spiritually disconnected from God, then the entire community will be aware of this disconnect through the presence of tza’raat.

Drawing a connection between the meaning of tza’raat and the sins Jewish tradition associates with tza’raat, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno argues that the sins Jewish tradition associates with tza’raat are not merely an affront to one’s fellow human beings, but are an affront to God, as well.   He writes:

“the principal sins for which a person is afflicted nega tza’raat, are bad-mouthing people people and haughtiness, both of which are perceived by the sages as direct trespass against God’s holiness.   Even though badmouthing is generally perpetuated in secret, not affording the victim a chance to defend himself against the accusation and character assassination, the prophet Isaiah 29:15 views it as the perpetrators saying: “who sees us, who takes note of us?”  The prophet considers the “secrecy” as worse than the sin itself, as it suggests that God is unable to see it, and therefore represents a gross insult directed at God” (Seforno on Vayikra 14:12).

According to Seforno, because slander and gossip are actions usually performed without the knowledge of the one being wrong, our tradition argues that the person is sinning against God himself, for these sins assume that when no person is looking, no one is aware that the gossip and slander are taking place.   In this sense, tza’raat is brought to make the sinner aware that just because certain sins can be done in private does not mean that those sins do not have public consequences.

Finally, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg wrote in his modern anthology Itturei Torah that tza’raat is ultimately brought to serve a spiritual purpose, and the attempts to marginalize and isolate the Metzora serves the purpose of teaching that person the consequences of divine disobedience.  Greenberg writes:

“The Metzora comes to realize that it is not his body that must be healed and corrected, but rather his behavior.  in spite of the fact that it is his body that is stricken, his humiliated position is due to spiritual circumstances.  He is unclean and contaminates everything that comes in contact with him.   He must be isolated from society, since he is socially destructive.  He is given time to think about his failings and repent” (Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, Itturei Torah, Intro to Parashat Metzora).

Greenberg’s choice to say that the Metzora is “socially destructive” reflects our Jewish tradition’s perspective that the social destruction brought by the Metzora requires that he or she be punished socially.   If an individual Jew seeks to make life impossible for their fellow human beings, the plague of tza’raat intends to provide a measure-for-measure consequence for that decision.

Unfortunately, it is far too easy for us to dismiss the ordinary ways human beings degrade one another as simply the less-flattering aspects of how we interact with another.   In response to this unfortunate assumption, Jewish tradition implores us to see the deeper significance of all ordinary human interactions, and use the Metzora as an archetype of what can happen when human beings spread emotional contagions by even the most subtle ways of mistreatment, whether that includes gossip, bullying, or social exclusion.   This Shabbat, take time as a family to think about how we can see even these small acts are matters of cosmic importance; if we succeed in doing this, we will truly accept the timeless lessons we can learn from our parasha.  

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Parashat Tazria: The Leadership Diagnosis

Ronald Heifetz’s writes in Leadership Without Easy Answers that leaders play an essential role in our society by helping people organize themselves and see how the needs of any given individual fit into a larger set of goals and expectations for the greater group.  He writes:

“It should be obvious from reflecting on our daily lives that authority relationships are enormously productive.  The human capacity for generating complex systems of authority is essential to our extraordinary adaptability and creativity as social creatures.  Without our innate abilities to organize ourselves to solve problems, much of what we call civilization likely would not exist” (Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 69).

For Heifetz, a leader’s authority is valuable because it allows them to take a leading role in solving problems going from the specific to the general and diagnosing what can individual or community needs to do to get back on track.  This model of authority and leadership is reflected in this week’s parasha, where the role of kohanim is one that provides order and structure to a disorganized situation.   

Parashat Tazria devotes itself to the procedure for diagnosing and curing tza’raat, a mysterious biblical skin disease that the Torah intimately connects to the laws of the purity and impurity that play such a prominent role in Sefer Vayikra, as a whole.   The instructions for diagnosing tza’raat are the following (emphasis mine):

“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.  The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body…” (Vayikra 13:2-3).

In theory, while tza’raat was common enough that any Israelite could know it when they saw it, the Torah and our commentators make clear that only a kohen can pronounce that a person is afflicted with tza’raat.   The Hizkuni states that, “If the affection is diagnosed by a non-priestly expert, he must still bring the man to a kohen, even one who is an idiot, and tell him what to say” (Hizkuni on Vayikra 13:2), implying that the kohen has a unique role that must be utilized in this process.  Taking a different approach, Isaac Abravanel writes that while, “It was preferable to report to Aaron, if possible, since he was the outstanding expert,” in truth “the expertise of the priests in general is not in the disease by in the rules of uncleanness” (Abravanel on Vayikra 13:2).   In each case, our commentators argue that the kohanim play an essential role in the tza’raat process, based on some kind of expertise.

Below, two Hasidic commentaries take different approaches to what kind of expertise made the kohanim the person to whom a person must go to see if the skin ailment qualified as tza’raat.   Taking a practical approach, the Meshekh Hokhmah of Rabbi Meir Simha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk argues that because tza’raat is a spiritual disease, rather than a physical one, someone with spiritual knowledge is necessary to diagnose the ailment.   He writes:

““He shall be brought to the priest”: ...it may be that we are dealing with an infectious disease...and treating it may be fraught with danger.  The doctor therefore needs special Divine protection to be immune to it.   This is why the Torah assigned this task to the sons of Aaron, who have a special status and enjoy particular Divine protection” (Meshekh Hokhmah on Vayikra 13:2?)

This commentary takes the perspective that while any Israelite could theoretically diagnose tza’raat, it was only the kohanim whose special status made them immune to the infections brought from tza’raat.   Furthermore, the Meshekh Hokhmah’s commentary adds a new layer of significance to what it means to be a kohen, as this commentary asserts that the kohanim do not merely serve a spiritual function, but that the kohanim are endowed with a special kind of divine protection by virtue of their position.

Taking an educational approach, the Noam Elimelekh of Rabbi Eliemelkh of Lizhensk asserts that while any Israelite could theoretically identify tza’raat, the kohanim must diagnose the ailment because only they can perform the educational function of speaking to the Israelite about why he or she became afflicted, and what he or she must do to change their soul in order to change their body.    The Noam Elimelekh states:

“When the priest sees this he should pronounce the person impure”: The tzaddik will demonstrate and explain the great damage you have caused through all this and will teach you the ways of true regret and repentance, so that you can correct the bad attributes and the evil that is within you” (Noam Elimelekh on Vayikra 13:3).

While the Meshekh Hokhmah argues that the added significance of kohanim is divine in-nature, the Noam Elimelkeh argues that the added significance is educational in-nature, for the kohanim are tasked with working to help the individual Israelite realize why he or she was afflicted with tza’raat, and what path that person needs to take in order to eradicate the ailment, while cleansing his or her soul in the process.

No matter the reason why the kohanim were the individuals to whom individuals with tza’raat must go for diagnosis, the reality is that each of the reasons brought by our commentators share a common sense that the kohanim possess the leadership capacity by virtue of their position to bring order to a disordered situation.   While we thankfully do not need to diagnose tza’raat today, our parasha provides us a model for helping our children understanding what it means into a leadership, for a real leader is one who see the whole picture and help individuals and communities simplify complex problems, and get on the pathway to a brighter future.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Parashat Shemini: The Face of Danger

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, two of the most important scholars of leadership in the world, argue that a true leader must be willing to confront the face of danger.  In fact, the Heifetz and Linsky argue that leaders who cannot face danger are destined to fail.   They write:

“The hard truth is that it is not possible to experience the reward and joy of leadership without experiencing the pain as well.  The painful part of the reality is what holds so many people back...the dangers of leadership will come from many people and places, and take many forms, not only from known adversaries, but also from the betrayal of close associates and the ambivalence of trusted authorities” (Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, 227).

While it may seem cold to assume that leaders must accept hard choices and succeed, or avoid hard choices and fail, the reality is that this choice confronts all of us from time-to-time, and is reflected in a painful object-lesson from Parashat Shemini, where the dedication of the mishkan is tarnished by the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu.  Commentators struggled for generations over why the two sons were killed, and a common answer reflects our tradition insistence that Nadav and Abihu died so that the Israelites might learn the harsh lessons of what it means to be a leader of God’s people.

The midrashic tradition about the Nadav and Abihu holds that the two brothers died because they were intoxicated while entering the mishkan.   Rashi cites this midrashic tradition as one of of two possible interpretations for the passage, “A fire came forth from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Vayikra 10:2):

“A fire came forth”—” R. Eliezer says: The sons of Aaron did not die but for the fact that they rendered a decision in the presence of their teacher Moses (i.e. they did not consult Moses).  R. Yishmael says: Intoxicated by wine, they entered the Sanctuary. You can know for after their death, [the Torah] warned the remaining [Kohanim] that they should not enter the Sanctuary intoxicated by wine.  This can be compared to a king who had a household member, etc., as stated in Vayikra Rabbah [12:1]”  (Rashi on Vayikra 10:2).

This commentary takes the stance that Nadav and Abihu died because they were drunk in the mishkan because of the passage that immediately follows it, where God tells Aaron and his sons that, “You are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you got into the mishkan, or you will die” (Vayikra 10:9).   Because this verse is juxtaposed to the passage where Nadav and Abihu died in the mishkan by bringing a “strange fire,” our rabbis assume that mitzvah follows the tragic event of our parasha.

The argument that Nadav and Abihu’s death was due to intoxication is reflected in both our traditional and modern sources.   First, Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav asserts that this episode teaches us that there are two ways one can use wine, one which sanctifies the world, and one which causes humanity to descend into the lower realms.   He states:

“Through dancing, where he drinks wine that gladdens, which is the source of strength (gevura) in the understanding (bina) which proceeds downward into the feet, that is, where he dances – through that he drives out the externals from there. This is the excitement of dance, and it is "a sacrifice made by fire, sweet savor onto the Lord" (Bamidbar 28:8). But one who dances with the excitement of the their impulses, this is called the sin of Nadav and Avihu, about which it is written: "And they offered strange fire" (Vayikra 10:1)...Excitement in holiness is called wine that gladdens, through which the firstborns are sweetened. And a strange fire is called wine that intoxicates, the excitement of the impulses. There there is, God forbid, room for the externals to take hold, which He did not command” (Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan, 41).

In this passage, Rebbe Nahman argues that wine is a universal symbol of joy in Jewish tradition, and festive occasions are heightened by including wine.   However, Nadav and Abihu used alcohol in a way that heightened their most fragile inhibitions, leading them to behave in a manner completely at odds with the example the priestly class should set for the Israelites.   As such, our parasha includes this tragic story to explain the Jewish ideal one must pursue, and how Nadav and Abihu violated it.

Taking a modern, critical approach that embraces a similar theme, Professor James Kugel argues that the context of dedicating the mishkan in Parashat Shemini reveals why Nadav and Abihu’s intoxication would be so problematic, not just for themselves, but the entire Israelite nation.   Kugel writes:

“Drunkenness might indeed cause a person to fail to…”distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the unclean and the clean.”  If so, this certainly was a grave error.  After all, distinguishing between the holy and the ordinary is precisely what being a priest was all about, as Moses had intended to say in citing God’s words “Through those who are near Me I will be kept holy, and [thus] by all the people I will be honored.”  It was a hard lesson to have to learn on the sanctuary’s first day, but one that would forever echo in the ears of the temple staff” (James Kugel, How to Read the Bible, Then and Now, 290).

According to Kugel, the job of the priest is to distinguish between holy and ordinary things so that the priest might properly perform the ritual sacrifices brought by the Israelites to serve God.  As such, if the future leaders of the priesthood are willing to put themselves in an inebriated state in precisely the place where they will need to perform those duties, God had no choice but to punish them.   In this sense, Kugel’s commentary reflects the responsibility of a leader to be an embodiment of a certain set of values to an entire nation.

Each time I read these commentators, I walk away a little sadder, but also little wiser, because I am reminded about how Nadav and Abihu’s death, however tragic, might have been God’s way of sending a message that the leaders of the Israelites must carry themselves with honor or dignity, with no second alternative.   Today, we want our students to be leaders and learn how to exercise leadership, but unless we teach how we them how to embrace tough choices, they will metaphorically like Nadav and Abihu, unable to take the leadership mantle.   We may embrace the challenging message, so that we might teach our children to be leaders who overcome the face of danger.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Parashat Tzav: A Community of Individuals

In a world where each of us has the ability to pursue religious paths that fit our unique desires and personalities, Judaism, or any religion, can seem like it never takes the needs of the individual into account.   However, Parashat Tzav, provides us a window into how Jewish tradition creates universal standards tailored to the needs of individual Jews. 

Biblical scholars devote considerable energy towards understanding the symbolic meaning of God commanding the Israelites to create a portable shrine, in particular asking how it is possible that God, whose presence fills the universe, somehow can have his presence “limited” to a single shrine such as the mishkan.  Rejecting the premise of the question, Baruch Levine writes that the miskhan provides an opportunity for a person to feel an imminent connection to a God who is everywhere:

“In the biblical conception of God, His presence filled the entire universe and could not be contained in any earthly temple.   Yet God’s presence in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple in Jerusalem was not thought to contradict the fact of his omnipresence.   Rather, His nearness to the human community was regarded as evidence of His concern for those who called upon Him” (Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 48).

In this passage, Levine argues that the mishkan is more important for the Israelites than for God, because the mishkan provides an opportunity for the Israelites to experience God’s presence in a personal way through the act of sacrifice, an idea we we still reflected in three different commentaries on a verse from Parashat Tzav.

Our parasha openings with God instruct Moses about how he should tell Aaron and his sons to perform the Torat Ha-Olah, or the law of the burnt-offering.   Each of commentaries attempts to understand what we can learn from this verse about the relationship between the individual and the community.  First, Rashi argues that the opening our parasha reminds us that sacrifices are eternal mitzvot, ones whose meanings do not change even in a time when the sacrifices themselves are not performed.  He writes:

“The expression צַו always denotes urging [to promptly and meticulously fulfill a particular commandment] for the present and also for future generations. Rabbi Simeon taught: Scripture especially needs to urge [people to fulfill commandments,] where monetary loss is involved” (Rashi on Vayikra 6:2).

Rashi’s commentary reveals two things about our parasha.  First, as previously stated, Rashi wants to know why a particular word is used for “command,” with Rashi arguing that this word is only used to show that sacrifices are eternal obligations.  However, this commentary also reveals that because sacrifices involve a person giving up a material possession, a person must receive a command that acknowledges the significance of giving up something for God in this context.   

Second, taking a practical approach, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno argues that our parasha proceeds from the general to the specific, first outlining what kind of sacrifices must be offered, and only then describing the specific kind of offerings that would be made by specific kinds of people.  He writes:

“...after the Torah had informed us about most of the sacrifices and how they were to be offered, the Torah now refers to the specific “Torah” pertaining to each of these voluntary burnt offerings.  We pointed out already that different people who feel the need to offer this sacrifice are motivated by quite different considerations.  The variety of sacrificial offerings provided for by the Torah corresponds to the variety of human personalities and the considerations motivating their actions” (Seforno, Vayikra 6:2-4).

In this commentary, Seforno asserts that just as specific sacrifices are described in the Torah, a book of teaching, each sacrifice contains it’s own “Torah,” it’s own specific way of performing the ritual.   Furthermore, since different individuals will make sacrifices for different reasons, the Torah must tailor it’s instructions to why a person might make a particular offering at a particular moment.

Finally, the Teshu’ot Hen, the commentary of Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, writes that teaching the “Torah” of this offering attempts to remind the Israelites of the inevitable spiritual ups and downs they will experience in their lives, and how making the offering reminds the Israelites that they can always make a spiritual comeback.  He writes:

“So we come to the meaning of “Command Aaron and his sons.  God is telling Moses to remind them that sometime “command,” or alien worship, will happen to them, meaning that they will forget God.  They need to realize that this is only the teaching of the rising-offering; it is there for the purpose of raising up people, to arouse thoughts of return in their hearts concerning the deeds of their hands.  When this course of events becomes known to them, their hearts will boil with great wonder, leading them to mend their ways.  “This is the teaching of the rising-offering” means that the descent was for the sake of ascent.  “The priests lips must guard the awareness” (Mal. 2:7) that this is a way of stretching out one’s arm to awaken people to return” (Teshu’ot Hen on Vayikra 6:1-2).   

In this final commentary, we see the Torah's approach to how and when we should make certain offerings.  Just as a our spiritual life will go up and down based on the attention we pay to it, so too must the offering in the mishkan reflect the spiritual journeys taken by each of us over time.

On the one hand, each of us wants to believe that we are unique, that our children are unique, and that few religious standards are a one-size fits all proposition.   While this undoubtedly true, the reality is that Judaism seeks to teach us how our needs and obligations can be same, yet not at all the same, at the same time and that the strength of Judaism is the way in which we are allowed to be unique while pursuing similar goals using similar rituals, a series of rituals meant for all of us.  May we embrace this tension between universalism and particularism, and a find an individual approach to embracing the communal obligations of our tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Parashat Vayikra: A Life of Full Engagement

Shortly after my daughter was born, I faced a challenge that is quite common for first-time parents: a lack of energy. Between working full-time, commuting to-and-from New York City, and experiencing all the normal sleep-deprived nights with a baby in need of loving attention, I was pretty exhausted (to be clear, it was even more grueling for my wife). One sleepless night, I came across a book on Amazon.com entitled The Power of Full Engagement, a book that transforms the way we think about work-life balance by arguing that the key to balancing one’s life is to learn how to maintain consistent focus throughout the day.  The authors write:

“To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focused and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest. Full engagement begins with feeling eager to get to work in the morning, equally happy to return home in the evening and capable of setting clear boundaries between the two. It means being able to immerse yourself in the mission you are on, whether that is grappling with a creative challenge at work, managing a group of people on a project, spending time with loved ones or simply having fun. Full engagement implies a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives” (Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, The Power of Full Engagement).

As a new father, the paradigm shift described in this passage changed my life, forcing me to think about how I use and conserve energy, and what I would need to do to ensure that all the important people in my life receive my complete attention.   We will see that a similar idea is expressed in our rabbis’ understanding of this week’s parasha, where offering sacrifices is seen as an opportunity to share our full engagement with God.

Parashat Vayikra opens the third book of the Torah with a simple verse, “Any man, if he bring an offering of you to the Lord” (Vayikra 1:2).  Taking a practical approach, Rabbi Meir Lebush ben Yehiel Michel Misser, also known as the Malbim, ask why this verse opens with the words “Any man, if,” as opposed to “If any man,” as the latter option is far more common in the biblical text.  In response, the Malbim argues that verses in the Torah focusing on personal obligation choose to place the subject of the sentence prior to an introductory word such as “If”:

“It is significant that throughout Vayikra and Bamidbar, in all the ritual commandments the subjects always precedes the conjunction “if,” whereas in Parashat Mishpatim and Sefer Devarim, where the social laws are laid down, “if” precedes the subject.   Thus, “If an ox gore a man or a woman” (Shemot 21:28)...Indeed, a more emphatic tone seems appropriate where a personal obligation is concerned, dealing with the fulfillment or the contravention of a Divine Commandment.  Hence, the sentence opens with a subject” (Malbim on Vayikra 1:2).

According to the Malbim, because every individual is obligated to bring a sacrifice to atone for their sins before God, the Torah wants to make clear that this mitzvah is a personal command directed to the individual, as opposed to a broad principle directed towards the community.   While the Malbim’s approach provides an interesting insight into how the Torah uses different grammatical structures for different kinds of mitzvot, his commentary does not offer us an explanation as to what we might learn about sacrifices themselves from the verse’s grammatical structure.  Below are two commentaries that offer potential answers to this question, each of which argues that the above verse is structured in way to promote our full engagement with God.

First, in a commentary focusing on the context of this mitzvah, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno of Italy argues that proper intent is the essential quality of any ritual sacrifice.   He writes:

“If he bring an offering to you,” i.e. from your very selves, with a confession and with due submission, in the spirit of the Psalmist’s “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (51:19), for the foolish who offer sacrifices without proper humility will find no acceptance (Seforno on Vayikra 1:2).   

In this commentary, we learn that offering a sacrifice is meaningless unless it is accompanied with a particular mindset, and a sacrifice with personal disengagement is tantamount to giving no sacrifice at all. Taking Seforno’s idea one step further, Isaac Abravanel argues that the sacrifice must be accompanied by a holistic desire for change on the part of the one bringing the sacrifice:

“If any man of you bring any offering to the Lord,” i.e. of themselves, and if it “be accepted before the Lord”--if he submits all his being and will before the Lord.  The Torah thus alludes to the obligations to present oneself with all one’s power and mental force, intellect and desire to serve God and cleave to Him (Isaac Abravanel on Vayikra 1:2).

Rather than assuming that sacrifice is simply a mimetic ritual where performance is all that matters, Abravanel argues that a sin offering is only complete when a person’s whole being is bound up in the performance of the sacrifice.   If a person understands what piece of themselves they are giving by making the sacrifice, only then will their offering be accepted by God.   In each case, these commentaries argue that full engagement with God is the most important requirement of a sacrifice, because a person who gives their entire self to the sacrifice demonstrates what the ritual act means to them.

In all likelihood, none of our children will ever offer the kind of sacrifices described in Parashat Vayikra. However, our rabbis saw the opening of our parasha as an opportunity to remind all generations of the Jewish people that full engagement is the only true pathway to divine connection.  Whether in the classroom, the workplace, or at home with our family, people respond when we give our full selves to what we are doing.   When we succeed in doing this, we are no longer giving a “sacrifice”; we are sharing a piece of ourselves to strengthen the most important connections in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom!