Thursday, March 23, 2017

Vayakhel-Pekudei: A Symbolic Connection

This week’s parsha, in continuing the theme of previous parshiot, recounts the steps and actions toward the building of the Mishkan. Among the vessels described is the Kiyor – the washing basin from which the Kohanim would purify their hands and feet before starting their service in the Beit Hamikdash.

In previous instances, when mentioning the Kiyor, the Torah does not tell us of the source of the material with which it was made, until now. The Torah says: “He [Betzalel] made the Kiyor of copper and its pedestal of copper, with the mirrors of the woman who congregated at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Shemot 38:8). Rashi, sourcing himself in the Midrash Tanchuma, explains the significance of this information: “The daughters of Israel had in their possession copper mirrors which they would look into when they would beautify themselves…When their husbands would be exhausted by the racking labor they would go and bring them food and drink…they would entice their husbands to desire and would conceive with them and give birth there.”

Rashi continues that Moshe initially rejected the offering from the women because they were made for the “evil inclination,” but G-d demands that the offering be accepted for “these are dearest to Me of all, for through them, the woman established many legions of offspring in Egypt.”

Like we have seen many times before, there is always something very deep behind the back-and-forths between Moshe Rabbeinu and G-d; there is a lesson to be gleaned and a philosophy to be expressed. So too here, it is worthwhile to delve a bit into the dynamics at play.

What was Moshe’s initial thought process that caused him to reject the offering of mirrors from the women? And what about G-d’s response explains why He not only commanded for them to be accepted, but even says that they are the most precious to Him?

When one takes a closer look at the original source of Rashi, the Midrash Tanchuma (Pikudei:9), we are struck with the intensity with which Moshe refused to accept the mirrors. The Midrash uses the word (זעף (ס״א נזף, which can be translated as “rage.” Seemingly, Moshe’s refusal to accept the mirrors was not out of personal preference. Rather, Moshe’s reaction suggests his rejection was based on the perception of an inherent incongruence between the mirrors and the Mishkan. What is the problem with including the mirrors in the Mishkan? What could cause such a visceral response?

I would like to propose that when the woman brought the mirrors, Moshe’s reaction was directed towards the idea of taking objects that are used to facilitate human procreation and “mixing” them with the most holy of structures that man has created, with the holiest of purposes: to house G-d Himself in this finite world. If we were to think about this deeply, we would understand that in a sense, the act of procreation is the most basic testament to man’s limited nature. The clearest delineation between man and G-d is G-d’s נצחיות – immortality. For if man were a God, he would not need self-preservation to ensure the future of his name. The need to procreate is a byproduct of man’s mortality. Moshe found the coupling of these things (i.e. the concepts of the Mishkan and the mirrors) to be incongruent. He rejected the inclusion of the mirrors because he saw them as a symbol of the finitudes of man.

Hakadosh Baruch Hu response to Moshe is: Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than all the other vessels, for through them the woman established offspring for the nation in Egypt.

As previously stated, the women used the mirrors to entice their husbands to have relations. Despite the burden of slavery and the atrocities foisted upon the nation, the woman did this because they did not lose hope in the future redemption that G-d had promised them. The women’s faith, shown through the mirrors, were not representative of man’s limitations, but rather were symbols of the deeply felt faith in G-d’s providence, even in the darkest of times. The mirrors were transformed into a mark of humanity rising up into a bond with the Divine. When man connects to G-d, he surpasses his limitations and connects to the Infinite. This is perfectly congruent with the concept of the Mishkan and so came G-d’s demand to accept the offering.

Perhaps this is why of all things, the mirrors were converted into the washing basin for the Kohanim. The Kiyor was used to purify the Kohanim, who would serve as the emissaries between the people and G-d in a personal connection of devotion, thus coupling Man and G-d in a special union. The Kiyor would forever serve as a symbol and reminder of G-d’s desire to connect with man in this world, and of the nation’s undying faith in His promises.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Parshat Ki Tisa: The Humble Servant

This week’s parsha tells of the difficult episode of the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets, while his student Yehoshua waits at the bottom. Moshe comes down, and Yehoshua tells him, “The sound of battle is in the camp.” Moshe responds, “It is not the sounds of shouting of might nor the sound of shouting of weakness; a distressing sound do I hear!” (Shemot 32:17-18).

The Ramban comments that Moshe was a master of all wisdoms, including the wisdom of sounds, thus he could easily discern what type of sound it was. In light of this, Moshe knew exactly what he was hearing. If so, why did Moshe speak in such vague terms? Why didn’t Moshe state what really was going on? The Ramban explains that although Moshe did in fact know what the noise was, in his great humility, he did not want to speak badly about the people in saying they were worshipping the Golden Calf.

Although not speaking negatively about others may be a great virtue, what makes it a showing of great humility? Wouldn’t that be more accurately described as practicing the virtue of silence, or the strength of “holding back”? Moreover, in this instance, doesn’t Moshe have a valid reason to speak badly about them? Didn’t the nation just receive the Torah from G-d Himself – and yet is already transgressing Hashem's laws? Seemingly there is more than enough justification to criticize them. What connection is there between the trait of humility and refraining from correctly criticizing the Nation?

From the actions of Moshe we can learn a tremendous lesson; that even though one may be correct in his disapproval of another, he must still keep quiet. A person doesn't need to be right if it will come along with being disrespectful or derogatory. What is the is point of being right, if it will bring about nothing positive and further risk adding fuel to the fire? If Moshe had said something derogatory at this point, no one would have blamed him; on the contrary, he was more than justified! But, out of humility, he instead chose to be silent about the transgression, not to draw attention to it, for the sake of Klal Yisrael. I heard personally from the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechiel Yitzchak Perr shlit”a a line that serves as a beautiful sum-up of this lesson. He said: “Life is not about being right, it is about being a good loser.” Remaining silent, and being the “loser,” can often be the greatest victory.

However, this ability to remain silent and to hold back the innate need show that we are right, can only come if one has worked on his humility. Through humility, one comes to the realization that only G-d runs the world, and therefore he can accept that not everything will go his way. (Actually, when things don't go our way, it's the biggest proof that it’s G-d who runs the world!) He has no need to to “come out on top” or “get the last word in.” This was the “great humility” of Moshe who was עניו מכל אדם. He was able to hold back, and from this great act of humility came great kindness as well.

The Gemara in Nedarim (38a) says that when Hashem commanded Moshe to carve the second tablets, G-d intended only to give it to Moshe and his offspring. As it says, “Carve for yourself (לך), two tablets of stone like the first ones.” The Gemara learns from “לך” that it means: to you [Moshe], and not to Klal Yisrael. But, the Gemara continues, Moshe had a טובת עין; he looked at Klal Yisrael favorably and gave the Torah to them as well. From this Gemara we get further insight into the greatness of Moshe. He could have kept the whole Torah for himself and his children, but because he saw goodness in everyone, he chose to share it with them. Moshe was a true servant of G-d in every way.

The meaning of being an עבד ה׳ (a servant of G-d) is to make His will our will, and His desires our desires (Avot 2:4); we should want to sanctify His name among the world and bring more honor to His kingdom. Moshe understood that ultimately it was Hashem's will for the entire Nation to receive the Torah, and therefore, being the greatest servant, he gave it to them. Through his humility, the self abnegation and complete ביטול of his רצונות in the face of G-d’s Will, Moshe was able to come to a true alignment with G-d's ultimate desire. Because it is through relinquishing our image of the way the world “shouldbe, and accepting G-d’s complete dominion, that we are then able to truly discern the will of Providence.

This explains why Moshe didn’t speak derogatorily about the nation when they served the golden calf. He intuited that it was the ultimate will of Hashem to give the Torah to the Jews. Knowing this, how could he speak badly about the nation that is so beloved to Hashem? The humility of Moshe combined with his ayin tova allowed him to act, not based on his natural emotional response to the situation, but in light of a bigger picture. A picture that would bring the most honor to his Master.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Parshat Tetzaveh - G-d’s Ambassadors

This week’s parsha comes off the heels of last week’s recounting of the building of the Mishkan, and features the making of the Bigdei Kehuna – the Priestly Vestments. The Torah goes to great lengths to explain in detail the processing of each vestment, for they shall serve “for glory and for splendor” (Shemot 28:2). No changes in the garments are allowed. They are set aside specially for Aharon and his offspring.

For years I have pondered the following question: we find many passages in the Torah where most, if not all the laws are only applicable to Kohanim. Some aspects are not only inapplicable to a זר (non-Kohen), but are even prohibited to them. In light of this, why did Hashem include these laws in the Torah for all of Klal Yisrael? Why didn’t He instead just give these laws separately to the Kohanim? Or perhaps G-d could have decreed a special mitzvah for only a Kohen to study these particular sections. Yet all Jews are required to delve into the intricacies of these laws. Why is it that those of us who are not Kohanim have no less of a commandment to study these parshiot than do the Kohanim?

The Gemara in Nedarim (35b) features an intriguing discussion based on the following difficulty: if one makes an oath that he will not derive any benefit from a specific Kohen, can that same Kohen offer a Korban on behalf of the oath-maker? Meaning, is having the Kohen bring a sacrifice for him considered “benefitting” from this particular Kohen? To resolve the difficulty the Gemara asks a fascinating question. What are Kohanim – i.e. on whose behalf do they act? Are they שלוחי דידן – the people's emissaries, or שלוחי דשמיא – emissaries of Heaven. If a Kohen is the people’s emissary, then it is considered as if he is bringing benefit to the one who made the oath. However, if the Kohen is Heaven's emissary, then the act of bringing the sacrifice is not considered as being done for the benefit of the owner of the animal. Rather, it is for Hashem, and therefore not a violation of the original oath. In conclusion, the Gemara resolves that a Kohen is an emissary of Heaven.

The question of the Gemara is fascinating, because it goes straight to the core and essence of the definition of a Kohen. The Kohen is, in a sense, a physical representation of the concept of G-d’s holiness in this world. Just As G-d is holy and pure, so too a Kohen is commanded to remain holy and pure his entire life. He is charged with the obligation to not become defiled from impurity and to devote his life to service in the Beit Hamikdash. This is the purpose of the Kohen; to be an emissary of Hashem to the Jewish people.
We can now understand why the rest of the people are expected to learn laws which only seem applicable to Kohanim. For although the Kohanim are a separate, distinct group within the nation, their main purpose is to be a physical representation of holiness to the people. We are meant to learn and observe their ways and to apply what we see to our own lives. Therefore, we have no less of an obligation to understand the principles that guide the Kohen towards a life of holiness.

Furthermore, the concept of being an emissary of G-d is not exclusive to Kohanim; it can be actualized by the rest of the nation as well. G-d has designated us as His עם הנבחר – the Chosen people – and we too are representatives and ambassadors for Him in this world. We are all charged with being aware of the obligation to retain our purity and holiness. This is the underlying idea behind making a קידוש השם, where our very actions bring honor to His name, because they are a reflection of G-d Himself. It is a great responsibility, one which we should take seriously and merit to be able to do properly.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Parshat Terumah - To Dwell Among Us

In this week’s parsha, God commands the nation to “make me a sanctuary – so that I may dwell among them” (Shemot 25:8). The people are inspired and contribute to the cause.

The Psikta recounts an amazing occurrence. When the decree came down to Moshe for the nation to build a sanctuary, Moshe shook and exclaimed, “How can man make a house for G-d?!” And God answered, “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to man’s capabilities.” From this the Chofetz Chaim concludes, that G-d does not unfairly critique man for his shortcomings, rather He asks only that we try, to the best of our abilities.

I would like to focus on the intriguing back-and-forth between Hakadosh Baruch Hu and Moshe. Firstly, why is Moshe “shaken”? What is so shocking about Hashem’s request to build a Mishkan? If one were to answer that the reason for Moshe’s great astonishment was that he found it so difficult to fathom the concept of G-d manifesting Himself in this world, then we can still ask: why he so shocked now? Didn't the Shechina previously come down at Har Sinai (19:20)? Furthermore, we can ask: what did Hashem respond to Moshe that resolved his question? And finally, what can we glean from G-d’s response?

I would like to suggest that Moshe's shock was rooted in a deep and fundamental question of the essence of G-d. The Greek and Roman philosophers wrestled with a question: if G-d is so holy and lofty, how can He be concerned with the “lowly” ways of man? Man is inherently physically limited, debased with desires and selfish needs. Aristotle's concept of G-d, “The Prime Mover,” was that of an unfeeling, removed Power that was involved in deep Self-contemplation, something totally disconnected from the base thoughts of man.

The overarching question of the time was: How can G-d, who is יושב במרום, and dwells in the supernal realms, be “concerned” with the ways of man? Different philosophers of the era arrived at two separate and distinct responses: either that G-d is in fact so holy that He is removed from the lowly activities of man, or that the gods were made in the image of man, and were just as debased, selfish and petty as man as well.

Obviously, Judaism has a wholly different understanding of the essence of G-d. This understanding is from G-d Himself. And we can see this totally divergent idea from the Psikta quoted above. In responding to Moshe G-d says: “Not according to My capabilities do I ask, rather according to man’s capabilities.” G-d was in essence telling Moshe that not only does He not ask more from what man is capable of, and not only is He interested in our actions, but He desires to dwell among us too! This is, I believe, the depth and beauty of G-d’s call to man “Make me a sanctuary.”

This idea can perhaps elucidate for us another issue once raised by a student of mine. Human civilizations have for millennia been engaged in building centers of worship, altars, and great monuments to their idols. Some archeological digs have even unearthed ruins that have had a similar floor plan to the Mishkan. The student was bothered by this, wondering what makes the endeavor of the Jewish people so unique? Perhaps the Jews in the desert were just like any other developing nomadic tribe that felt a bond through building a communal altar to worship, similar to Stonehenge in England, or the Ziggurats in Mesopotamia and other similar feats of architecture. What made the Mishkan, and by proxy the Jewish people, any different?

I heard from the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yechiel Perr Shlit”a the following idea: The history of mankind is rife with man’s desire to reach out to G-d, as evidenced through the buildings, monuments and altars that they made. However, the Mishkan marked the first time that G-d reached out to man with “Make me a sanctuary.” This made the Mishkan a different structure entirely, at its core; for while the building is coming from man’s actions, it is due to G-d’s directive. The call to build G-d a sanctuary infuses its every vessel with sanctity. Now it becomes elevated to a G-dly level. So while it may look the same as other “sanctuaries”, and it may have been built similarly, its essence was not anything of this world.

This is an important lesson for us, as we should know and strengthen this idea that G-d is not only interested in our lives, but wishes to “dwell” within them. As Alshich states:
ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם: בכל אחד ואחד
G-d desires to dwell within each of us.

We would be wise to open the door to let Him in.

Shabbat Shalom

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