Friday, April 11, 2014

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Acharei-Mot

God Who dwells in the Midst of our Impurities

Acharei-Mot details the special avodah, sacrificial rites, that the High Priest would perform on Yom Kippur to affect atonement for the Jewish People. However, as the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu already noted, the Torah only introduces the connection to Yom Kippur at the very end of the lengthy description of this special avodah. The framing of the avodah is not what must be done to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur but rather what must be done when Aaron wants to enter the inner sanctum:

Speak to Aaron your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place inside the veil before the covering, which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I will appear in the cloud upon the covering. (Vayikra 16:2)

Thus, says the Vilna Gaon, this is a rite that the High Priest - or, according to the Gaon, specifically Aharon, could do at any time that he would want to enter the Holy of Holies, and not die as his sons had, provided a precise ritual is followed. Understood this way, the parasha is underscoring the dangers of unbridled religious passion, of approaching God without due care and caution, and is giving a very structured way that one - the High Priest - can channel his desire for intense, intimate connection.

This approach, however, makes the avodah a tool for the High Priest's realization of his religious yearnings, but does not address larger communal issues. This is certainly not the simple sense of the Torah, which mandates communal sacrifices for this avodah and which declares that this avodah will cleanse the Mikdash and atone for the People. It seems, rather, that while the emphasis of the avodah is not on Yom Kippur, it is also not on the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies. Yes, he must enter it, but that is a means, not an ends. What is the end goal?  The Torah tells us in the climactic verses declared after the High Priest exits the inner sanctum:

And he shall make atonement, vi'kiper, for the holy place, from the uncleanness of the people of Israel, and from their transgressions in all their sins; and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make atonement, li'khaper, in the holy place, until he comes out, having made atonement, vi'khiper, for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.
(Vayikra 16:16-17)

The goal is not the entering itself, not the religious experience for its own right.  Neither is the goal primarily for bringing atonement and forgiveness for the Children of Israel. The goal is atoning for the Sanctuary. Well, not atoning exactly, for what atonement does the Sanctuary need?  The term used here is kaper, a term which more precisely means cleansing, not atoning. The Sanctuary must be cleansed from the defilement that it has endured as a result of the sins of Israel. 

Sins, according to the Torah, create a type of tumah. Sin defiles, both the person who performs it, and the person's surroundings. And how much more so does it defile the Sanctuary, the place of the Presence of God?

Thus, to cleanse the Sanctuary, and to cleanse the people, this avodah must be performed. The central sacrifices of this avodah are chataot, generally translated as "sin-offerings," but more accurately translated as "cleansing sacrifices." [This is why certain tamei people, such as a woman who has given childbirth, must bring a chatat. Not because she has sinned, but because the chatat achieves a cleansing of tumah. See Sotah 15a.]

The focus is not on the sin itself, but on its impact, on its defilement, and the sin-offerings, or rather, the cleansing-offerings, restore the world to as it was before, restore the person to how she was before this sin had affected her, and to restore God's Sanctuary to how it was before, so that God's Presence could continue to dwell among the People.

Now, it is worth asking how this cleansing is achieved, or can be effective. Isn't tumah the antithesis of the Sanctuary? Why, then, does the tumah not drive God's Presence out of the Sanctuary?  The question is sharpened further when we realize that of all the invalidities that can occur to sacrifices, tumah is the one problem that can most be tolerated. The Talmud (Menachot 25a) teaches that the tzitz that the High Priest wore on his forehead allowed sacrifices that were tamei to be acceptable after the fact. And, a fixed-time sacrifice may be brought despite tumah: tumah hutra bi'tzibbur. Why is it that of all problems, tumah is the very thing which must be driven from the Temple, also the very thing which can be tolerated?

The answer relates to the very nature of the Temple, of God choosing to make God's Presence dwell among the People of Israel. On the one hand, tumah is the antithesis of kedusha, and having a Mikdash in our midst creates a heavy demand that we do everything in our ability to keep tumah at bay. But because we are not God, because we are human, tumah is an inevitable part of our lives. This is certainly true terms of the ritual tumah that has been the focus of Vayikra - animals die, people die, women give birth to children, women menstruate, men have seminal emissions - such tumah is encountered every day. But perhaps more significantly, it is also true about the tumah that is a result of sin. To be human is to sin. No matter how valiant our attempts otherwise, to be human is to produce tumah.

So if tumah and sin are an inevitable consequence of our human existence, how can God continue to dwell among us? The answer to this is that God wishes it to be so. When, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God accedes to Moshe's request that God continue to dwell among them, God agreed to accept the reality of human sin and to dwell among us regardless. We, on our part, must do all we can to keep tumah away, but even when we do not, God continues to dwell among us. This is what is both acknowledged and addressed by the Yom Kippur avodah. God has given us this day not only to allow us to be forgiven and to start fresh. And hence, this verse of cleansing the Temple ends with an acknowledgement of the inevitability of tumah:

And so he shall do to the Tent of Meeting that dwells in their midst, in the midst of their impurity.

Of all the verses that speak about God dwelling (shakhen) among the Children of Israel, this is the only verse that emphasizes not that tumah must be kept at a distance, but rather that despite our best efforts, tumah will always be present to some degree. And this acknowledgement comes exactly in the section of the Torah that speaks to how it can be tolerated - because God has agreed to tolerate it, God has accepted our humanity, and, to make the tumah manageable, God has given us a rite to cleanse the Temple and start over each year.

Of course, we cannot allow this Divine tolerance to undermine our awareness of God's presence. If tumah becomes too much of the norm, then the place will no longer be one of kedusha.This is why it is the tzitz that allows the tumah to be tolerated. The tzitz, with the words kodesh la'Hashem, Holy to God, worn on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, tamid, continually, is a symbol of the continual consciousness of the Divine Presence. If in the presence of tumah the consciousness of the Divine Presence remains firm, then the tumah will be tolerated.

This is why it is only the Kohen Gadol who can affect the necessary cleansing. The Kohen Gadol, who symbolizes the constant awareness of God's Presence, does the rites of the Yom Kippur avodah without wearing the tzitz, because such a reminder is not necessary. The Kohen Gadol enters into the Holy of Holies, is not only reminded of God, but directly in contact with the Divine Presence. It is this connection to God, achieved through constant mindfulness and awareness, which reaches its apex on Yom Kippur. It is this connection to God that allows tumah not to undermine God's presence, but to be tolerated and cleansed. "With this Aharon may enter the holy place," he may concretize the connection to God, so that the Temple and the People may be cleansed.

Tumah in its essence it is the very thing that distances us from God, but if we work to keep God in the forefront of our consciousness, to have kodesh la'Hashem inscribed on our forehead, then this tumah will be tolerated, and God will be close to us despite our tumah. God, Who dwells among them, despite their impurity.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher vi ’Sameiach!
Reprinted from 2013  

A Thought on Pesach

I would like  to share the following thought for Pesach in memory of Rivka Haut, z"l, who passed away a little over a week ago.  Rivka was, as a recent obituary put it, a fearless warrior, a warrior for the cause for justice for agunot and for creating a space for women within the Orthodox community. She was also a dear friend of mine, who was a regular attender of my daf yomi shiur. She always engaged the daf, and forced all of us to engage the daf, with honesty, sensitivity, and a moral sensibility. Whenever I would prepare the daf and encounter a passage that was difficult in some way - certain statements about non-Jews, the am ha'aretz, women, or the like - I knew that she would not let me gloss over it and that we would have to grapple with it together in shiur the next day. What I most distinctly remember is one day when I was struggling with a text of this sort, she said to me: "You don't have to defend the Gemara. My issue is not with the Gemara or the Rabbis. My issue is with how this text is taught today. How in the yeshivot it is taught without being problematized. We have to take responsibility for the text - how we learn it, how we teach it, and how we tell it over."

This powerful point - taking responsibility for our text, our story - is at the core of the mitzvah of recounting the Exodus on the seder night.  The focus on speech and telling a story is central to the idea of freedom.The very word "Pesach" is interpreted homiletically as peh-sach - a mouth that speaks. For when Bnei Yisrael were slaves, all they could do is cry out - va'yizaku. It was only when they prepared to be free that they could imagine what it would mean to tell their story: "And it will be when your child asks you tomorrow, what is this service to you?  And you shall say, it is a Pesach to God, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel...".

This is what it means to be free. A slave can only focus on the present, not on his past, and certainly not on his future. He is not in control of his life, his story. There is no meaningful narrative of where he came from and where he is going. A free person, however, can make choices about his future, can look into his past to learn its lessons, and can shape a story with an arc: a beginning, a middle, and hoped-for ending. How we tell this story about ourselves is crucial. We can construct many possible narratives about our past, and thus about our present and our future. This story we tell will shape the choices that we make and the life that we live. To be free is to choose how we tell our story.

It is for this reason that the haggadah's account of the Exodus is not the chapters in Exodus that tell the facts of what happened.  Rather, it is the verses in Devarim, Arami oved avi, the recitation of the person who brings his first fruit, that form the basis of the Haggadah narrative. Why is that?  It is because this recitation is not the story itself. It is the retelling of the story that is made by this person who has just toiled the year in his farm and is now bringing the fruits of that labor in thanks to God. This is how he looks back at the past national history, at God's hand in history, and how he situates himself within that story. This is the model for the seder night. To retell, or more accurately, to re-retell, the story. To decide what points to highlight, what points to skip over, what lessons to learn, how to shape and understand what happened, how to understand our past, and how to understand ourselves. The task for the seder night is nothing less than to take responsibility for the text. To choose how we will tell the story.

Thus, the form used for the telling of the story is not just the recitation of the verses.  It is doresh, to expound on those verses. And to do so in a very particular way.  To use the form of rabbinic exegesis. To anchor ourselves in the text, and then to begin to interpret, explain, and apply. In short, it is the very mode of Torah she'b'al peh. And hence, I believe, the curious inclusion of the debates over how many miracles actually occurred.  Rabbi Eliezer says 40, Rabbi Akiva says 50.  What's the point? The point is - to model the multiple voices that are part of Torah she'b'al peh. To recognize that there is not just one narrative, there are many. Everyone can be rooted in the same text, and you each person will tell the story that is unique to him or her. And all of these voices are part of the haggadah.

To me, the challenge that we face today is not what story we are telling, but whether we are telling any story at all. I think that most of us who live a life of observance are excellent at doing what halakha demands of us, but how often do we ask - What have I learned from the past?  Where am I going?  What is the purpose of all of this?  What do I - as a Jew, as one who cares about the Jewish community, who wants to serve God - what do I do with my life? 

Most of us are living under the rule of Torah she'bikhtav. We do what we are told.  We are good servants, good slaves. We are now no longer slaves to Pharaoh. We are avdei Hashem, servants and slaves to God. But are we also free? The path to be both servants of God and yet also free is through Torah she'b'al peh. Ayn li'kha ben chorin ela mi she'asak ba'Torah. No one is free save the person who toils in Torah. It is through Torah she'b'al peh, bringing the fullness of ourselves in encounter with the text, with the tradition, that we will tell the story of who we are and of where we are going. We will have taken responsibility for the text. Vi'kol ha'marbeh li'saper harei zeh mi'shubach.

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

I hope you all are well and I am sure that you are well into the craziness of preparing for Pesach.  Here at YCT, we spent the week working to prepare for it in the spiritual sense as well as in the physical sense. The week was spent learning the first few daf of Pesachim on the topic of biyur and bitul, and hearing special shiurim - on the mitzvah of matzah, on the halakhot of Pesach, and on aggadata from mesekhet Pesachim.  The last afternoon seder of the week, on Wednesday, ended with a special dinner of students and rebbeim (pizza! - one last chametz blast).  Students went around the table, each one sharing an insight or thought on the haggadah and leyl haseder. It was a wonderful experience of sharing with one another and learning from one another and a beautiful way to close out the zman.

The zman actually did not end there, as there was a special Leyl Iyyun on Korban Pesach that night. Students and guests heard 3 shiurim on Korban Pesach - Korban Pesach in Tanakh, by Rabbi Nati Helfgot; Korban Pesach in the Aftermath of the Destruction of the Temple, by Rabbi Evan Hoffman (special guest speaker); and Korban Pesach Nowadays, by myself. The shiurim were all recorded and you can watch them here: The source sheets, together with the full audio of my shiur (unfortunately the video cuts out halfway), can be found on the Livestream site under "Event Details".  

And... stay tuned for a description of our intense week on "Medical Ethics - Beginning of Life" - in a future YCT newsletter.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Metzora

Parashat Metzorah continues to detail the laws of tumah, impurity, that can occur to people and that would require them to maintain their distance from the Mishkan. The parasha  opens with the case of the metzorah, the person afflicted with the skin disease of tzara'at, and how he is to become pure: "This shall be the law of the metzorah, the skin-diseased person, on the day of his becoming pure..." (Vayikra 14:2).  The Torah wraps up the discussion of tzara'at, and then turns its attention to other people who are impure - the zav, literally the "flow," a man with an unusual penile emission; a man who had a seminal emission; the niddah, the woman who has menstruated; and the zavah, the woman who has had an irregular flow of blood.

The common denominator of all of these tumaot is that they are the result of a state occurring to a person; they are not contracted from the outside. Whether the state is a skin disease, or some type of flow, it is something that is sourced in the person him or herself.  The Gemara refers to these people as those who have tumah yotzei mei'gufo, the tumah emerges from their bodies. The tumah here is of less severity than the tumah of touching a corpse. Kohanim are prohibited from contracting corpse-impurity and the purification from this impurity requires not just a mikveh, but the ashes of the Red Heifer. Nevertheless, although less severe in terms of its intensity, the tumah of this week's parasha is more severe in one important area: it directly defines the status of the person, and demands that such a person not enter into to the Levite camp, or after the wilderness period, the Temple Mount.  A person with corpse-impurity, by contrast, can go up onto the Temple Mount.

What is the reason behind this greater severity? When tumah comes from the outside, even if it is very intense, it does not define the identity of the person to whom it transferred.  A person who touched a corpse is just that - a person who touched a corpse.  We do not have a proper noun for such a person - he is only described in terms of what he has done.  In contrast, this week's parasha is filled with a cast of characters: the Metzorah, the Zav, the Niddah, the Zavah. These people are defined by their status, since their status reflects their physical state of being - their flows, their skin, and so on. They themselves are the source of tumah, and this becomes their identity. Hence, they must keep even more distant from the Temple, where the primary concern is not just to keep tamei things out of its environs, but more specifically tamei people. 

The difference between identity and essential character on the one hand, and traits, behaviors, and what the Greek philosophers would call "accidental characteristics" on the other hand is one of great importance. We know that a key educational and parenting principle is to focus on the behavior, not the person. "I know you are a good person, but what you did was wrong.  The action was bad." is a healthy parenting technique. "Bad, bad, bad!" yelled with a finger pointing to the child, is not. One reinforces the person's sense of herself as a good person, and calls on her to live up to that true, inner self.  The other leads the child to see herself as bad, and to live up to, or rather down to, that identity.

While we know this principle when it comes to parenting, we often forget it when it comes to how we relate to those who are different than we. I still remember that until my children were about 10 years old and learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school and how our country had discriminated against blacks, they were blissfully unaware that people were categorized as black people and white people.  If asked how our South African babysitter was different than we, they would have - and did! - respond that while we had light brown skin, she had dark brown skin. What a wonderful age of innocence!  But it makes us wonder, why do we use skin color to categorize people, to define identity?  We don't use eye color to do so.  

We so often take a trait and decide to identify it with a person's very identity, very self.  This can help us organize our reality, but it can also lead to blatant and subtle forms of generalization and discrimination. My children have special needs, but that doesn't define them. I do not want them to go through life as "he is Apserger's" or even "he is autistic." I want no one - and most of all not them - to forget that first a foremost they are special, unique, wonderful people, people who are so much more than any particular condition they may have.  As my wife, Devorah Zlochower, and I wrote in an article on this topic, "Most importantly, speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls they are. Our children are poets, artists, philosophers and psychologists; their emotional and spiritual lives are deep and intense ones."  When people meet one of my sons, they need to see Kasriel or Netanel; if all they can see is "special needs" then they are not seeing them at all.  

When we realize how easy it is for us to take a trait and turn it into an identity, and we then turn back to this week's parasha, we will discover that we have done the same to the people described therein. It is true that the Torah gives a proper name to the one with tzara'at - he is a metzorah, but that case is the exception, and the name is ironically only given when he is in the process of leaving that state. However such labeling is clearly not the case when it comes to the other people mentioned in the parasha. The man with an irregular flow is ha-zav, which could be translated as "the Flow-er," or "the Emitter."  However, almost all translations do not take this approach, and understand that the word zav is not meant here as a name, but as a descriptor, and translate it as "the man who has a flow." 

This insistence to describe, rather than label, is even clearer in the other cases. The man with the seminal emission is not, as he is in Rabbinic literature, a ba'al keri, an ejaculant, he is rather one asher teizei mimenu shikhvat zera, "who has experienced a seminal emission" (Vayikra 15:16).   The woman who menstruates is not a niddah, a flow-er or a menstruant.  She is only called this in Rabbinic literature.  In the Torah, however, she is a woman who is bi'nidattah, "experiencing her flow." (15:20). The woman with an irregular flow is not a zavah, as she is in Rabbinic literature, she is rather a woman who is "in her flow" (15:26, 28). 

All of these people are described, not named. They are not disabledpeople, they are people with disabilities. This makes all the difference.

Because the tumah occurs to them directly, they own their tumah more, and they are more distanced from the Mikdash. And yet, the fullness of their identity does not have to be and should not be reduced to this status. This status may not even be a bad one: it is a natural occurrence, and in the case of the menstrual flow and the seminal emission, it is part of the human capacity to create new life. But who wants to be reduced to any status, even a neutral one?  

As humans it is easier for us to assign labels and categorize. It helps us organize our reality more easily. This is why the Rabbis have given names to all of them, have given us this colorful cast of characters. They had halakha to discuss, and it would have been unwieldy to constantly be referring to "the man who has a flow," or "the woman who is in the midst of her menstruation," rather than just simply as "the zav, " or "the niddah."  And it is easier to conceptualize halakhic categories and rules in reference to people who are named, categorized, and assigned a particular identity. 

This might be somewhat necessary in legal texts, but it is dangerous at the human level. When dealing with people, labeling is reductionist and it dehumanizing. The Torah's careful use of descriptors rather than labels reminds us that we should think of these individuals as people, people with special conditions, people with disabilities, but not disabled people. These are states of being; they are not who the person is. 

When we recognize the humanity and the irreducible nature of the person, we allow them to transcend any state or limitation.  All these people can become tahor because we refuse to box them in and define them by these states. We recognize their humanity, their essence, their innate purity, and this allows them to undergo the process of taharah, of purification, that will allow them to regain this state of being.  By never losing sight of the unique and irreducible tzelem E-lohim of the other, by refusing to reduce a person to certain states, characteristics, conditions or generalizations, we help protect that tzelem E-lohim and bring all of us one step closer to entering the Mikdash, and to living in a world in which we experience the Godliness of each individual.

Shabbat shalom!

edited from 2012