Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - June 12, 2009

Happenings at the Yeshiva

The year is drawing to a close, as students wrapped up their final week of chazara, review, prior to their hilkhot Shabbat test next week. Rabbi Howard Jachter of TABC and author of "Gray Matter," a wonderful series on practical halakhic topics, visited the yeshiva on Monday, and gave a guest shiur on the topic of "Practical Eruvin for the Community Rabbonim." He addressed both practical issues - such as the importance of inspection on foot as opposed to by car; erecting and inspecting the eruv in an inconspicuous way; and good relationships with public officials and the utility company (since so many eruvs use the power lines) - as well as halakhic issues - in particular the challenging situations of a highway that cuts through the eruv, and a karpaf, a large area that is not habitable, such as an overgrown forest or the like, that is present within the eruv. His shiur was very well received, and he had the opportunity to engage a number of his past students from TABC who are now semikha students at YCT.

An important communal chinukh issue he addressed was the position of R. Elazar Meir Teitz who built an eruv in Elizabeth, NJ, but intentionally invalidated it on one (pre-designated) Shabbat a year, so that the community would not forget about the prohibition of carrying and so that they would know to always check for the eruv. Some rabbonim are against this policy, as they are afraid people will not realize that it is down, and will inadvertently carry. I, personally, am in favor of this policy, as it is possible to implement in a way that even were someone to carry on that one Shabbat it would only be a rabbinic violation. In my mind, the benefit of educating the community in the laws of carrying and eruvin far outweighs the concerns of a possible inadvertent transgression of a rabbinic prohibition by an individual. That Shabbat could also be dedicated to shiurim and learning around the laws of eruvin and carrying. We need to make sure that we remember that there are 39 melakhot, and not 38!

Torah from the Beit Midrash

After Rabbi Jachter's shiur, I gave a year-end sicha to the students, on the parsha of the nazir. There is a well-known debate in the gemara, which continues through the rishonim, as to whether asceticism is a good or bad thing. Is the nazir a sinner because he denied himself wine, or is he holy, because he separated himself from such physical indulgence? This debate - and the pull towards asceticism - is to be expected in a religious tradition, and is influenced by the degree to which one sees the world through the lens of a body/soul dualism, that is, whether the path to kedusha and spirituality is achieved by denial of the body. Rambam, as is well known, rejects this approach, and in the fourth chapter of Shmoneh Prakim, his ethical treatise written as an introduction to Pirkei Avot, espouses the principle of moderation and rejects such extremism. He quotes the Yerushalmi- "Is it not enough what the Torah has forbidden that you must go and forbid even more upon yourself?"

Now, many people stop here, reject asceticism, and with it the entire phenomenon of the nazir. However, this is a major mistake, for it ignores the issue of the religious striving of the nazir. While the nazir might value asceticism, what is at the core of his identity is a desire to strive to do more religiously, to serve God maximally. The nazir is a religious maximalist, and asks himself "what does it mean to do more?" Once one is living a fully halakhic life, then what? How does one serve God maximally? The nazir believes that if the Torah prohibits so many things, then to do more is to prohibit more upon himself. Rambam, quoting the Yerushalmi, rejects this - that is not what God wants. Moderation is the key. But then the question still remains. How does one do more? One cannot be a maximalist in one's moderation!

Rambam himself provides an answer to this question. Immediately after establishing the principle of moderation in the fourth chapter of Shmoneh Prakim, he begins his fifth chapter by stating that a person must direct all of his energies to one goal, and that is - to intellectually apprehend God. For Rambam, the ultimate religious goal is the intellectual understanding of God, and it is in this area that a person must invest all of his or her energies, and excel to his or her maximum potential.

It is true that many people may disagree with Rambam as to what the ultimate goal of the Torah or religious life is. As Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik once put it - in the Middle Ages a new halakha was being written - the halakha of the dialectic of the Tosafots, and it needed a new agadata to go with it. What is the purpose of it all? For some, like Rambam, the answer was philosophy or theology. For others, the answer was kabbalah. In the modern era, other answers have been given. A religious philosophy of Torah lishma developed, as articulated in R. Chaim Volozhon's "Nefesh HaChaim", and as further described in Rav Soloveitchik's "Halakhic Man," where the ultimate purpose of everything is the study of Torah. For others - particularly in the non-Orthodox camps - it is tikkun olam, making the world a more just place. For yet others, it is scrupulousness in the performance of mitzvot, or the teaching Torah, or doing chesed. But regardless of what answer one finds to this question, the most important and necessary step is to be asking this question. To realize that one needs to strive in one's avodat Hashem, to ask him or herself - what is the purpose of my Judaism, how can I serve God or Klal Yisrael maximally? What would it mean to do more, to do the most?

If one is able to find an answer for him or herself, then one's entire life changes. One is motivated and passionate - "strengthen yourself like a lion to serve the Creator." (opening of Shulkhan Arukh) Rather than the days and years being a random collection of happenings, every day, every moment, is filled with meaning. If one is driven by a vision, then even when one is not directly pursuing this vision, this goal, everything is meaningful because all activities directly or indirectly serve to its realization. "In all your paths you shall know God" (Prov. 3:6). And then - magically - one is no longer overwhelmed by all the details and distractions in one's life, because one's focus allows these annoyances to be put in their proper place: Rebbe Nechunya ben HaKaneh says: 'Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of the government and the yoke of earning a living is removed from him." (Avot 3:6), Or, as Rambam puts it: "Any person from the entire world whose spirit motivates him and whose intellect instructs him to separate himself to stand before God to serve God, to know God, and who walks upright as God has created him, and who has cast off the yoke of the many distractions that the masses seek out - this person is sanctified with the highest degree of sanctity and God will be his lot for eternity. (Rambam, end of Laws of Shmita and Yovel) One is not freed from these responsibilities and daily details, but all of a sudden they stop becoming a yoke, and they get taken care of without becoming the center of one's concerns. And this vision and passion then fills every part of one's life, and even the small moments of one's day.

This, then, is the message of the nazir that we all must learn. Not his answer, but his question. Yes, I am keeping halakha, but now what? What is the aggada? What is it all about? How do I do more? How do I serve God maximally? Partly what has stifled Modern Orthodoxy is that it - and we - have failed to answer, and often even to ask, this question. While embracing a wide range of pursuits, and respecting many different possible answers to this question, Modern Orthodoxy has failed to cultivate a single response to this question, which would, anyway, be too exclusionary and limiting, or even to cultivate an ethos that we must be asking ourselves this question, individually and communally. We are good at the halakha, but we have failed at the aggada. We must ask this question, and find the answer that is right for us, so that we can begin not only to do what is minimally required of us, but to serve God fully, to live our lives passionately and maximally.

A Thought on the Parsha

All of which brings us to this week's parsha. B'ha'alotkha is rich with many stories of the challenges, adventures, and misadventures of Bnei Yisrael's travelling from Har Sinai and moving towards the Land of Israel. What is visually the most striking is the parsha of "va'yehi binsoa ha'aron," "and it was when the Ark travelled," which occurs in the middle of the parsha, and is set off by inverted Hebrew-nuns. As is stated in Shabbat 116a, in the name of Rebbe, this division indicates that the parsha of "Vayehi" is a sefer in its own right, and it divides the Torah into 7 books (Breishit, Shemot, Vayikra, Bamidbar pre-vayehi, Vayehi, Bamidbar post-vayehi, and Dvarim). What is the significance of dividing the Bamidbar into these two halves?

I believe that this parsha signals a key transition point. From the middle of Shemot onwards, Bnei Yisrael have been at the foot of Har Sinai, receiving the Torah, building the mishkan, receiving the commands regarding the sacrifices, and setting up the camp. They are now, finally, prepared to move forward. The key question that is introduced at the beginning of Bamidbar, is how will they move forward from Har Sinai. Will they be able to leave Har Sinai and to keep the mishkan in the center, and to continue to orient themselves towards God's presence?

Of course, they immediately fail this challenge, and as soon as they move forward, right at "Vayehi", they begin to complain for meat. They have lost their center, their focus. It is instructive to compare this complaint, and these murmurings for food, to the complaint and murmurings for food that occurred prior to the giving of the Torah in Shemot 16:2. There, the people were not punished by God, and God granted them the manna. Here, the people were stricken by God, and many were killed. Now, on the one hand, the difference is simple. Earlier, they had no food at all, and they asked for bread - the bare necessities - and were given it. Here, they have the manna, and what they ask for is an indulgence and a luxury. This is borne out in the Torah's emphasis of hatavu ta'avah, they lusted a lust, and in the description of the eating of the quail. But I believe that another difference is also at play, and that has to do with the question of unity. In Shemot, it is the nation asking for the sake of the nation - "And the entire congregation of Israel complained, 'For you have taken us into this Wilderness to kill this entire congregation in famine." Whereas here there is complete self-absorption and self-centeredness - the rabble begin it, it is not coming from the nation as a whole, it is about desire - not necessity- which focuses on the individual's cravings, and there is no mention of the nation's interests or concern for its well-being.

What has happened is the difference of moving towards Har Sinai or away from it. When the people were moving towards Har Sinai they were brought together - externally, by the fear of Pharaoh's pursuing armies and by the shared need of survival (the necessity of bread), and internally, by the shared vision to follow God, to follow Moshe, to become free, and to arrive at Har Sinai. And at Har Sinai this unity was fully realized - "And the people encamped" - "as one person, with one heart." Now, however, begins the move away from Har Sinai. Now that they are not moving towards the vision, but have achieved it, and have received the mitzvot, and must move forward with the vision. Now, Pharaoh's armies are no longer pursuing them, and their most basic needs are taken care of. It is now that they are at the greatest risk. What will hold them together? There is no external pressure, and without the goal of arriving at Har Sinai, it is unclear that they, left to their own devices, will be able to sustain the vision that will unify them.

This vulnerability when they move is true in a practical sense as well. For when the camp breaks, and spreads out to travel, they are the most vulnerable and can be picked off by the enemy. Amalek attacked the stragglers, and it was the role of the tribe of Dan was to gather all those who were left behind. The trumpets are needed to gather the people before the move, and to coordinate the move - to be the external structure that holds them together as they move forward.

It is because of this vulnerability, that we find the unexpected mention of 'enemies' in the "Vayehi" parsha. "Arise, God, and let Your enemies scatter from before You." For when they are moving forward, they are most vulnerable, and they must pray that their enemies scatter. And when they settle, and re-erect the mishkan in the center of the camp, they are more secure, more able to establish our center, more able to sustain their unity. Shuva Hashem ri'vevot alfei yisrael, "Return, God, to the myriads and thousands of Israel," bring all the myriads of Israel together with You in the center.

With a settled, focused, concerted effort we can re-establish our shared vision, our center, and our unity. But when we are moving and things are in flux, then we risk losing our center and losing our vision. With a shared vision, no hardship is too great. Without a vision, then every tiny problem becomes a hardship. We focus on our own cravings, and we even seek out new ones. We spread out, we fight, we bicker, and we suffer.

Bamidbar is, in fact, broken into two halves. Before they moved from Har Sinai and after they left Har Sinai. Would they be able to leave Har Sinai and keep the mishkan in their center? Would they continue to sustain a shared vision or would they be a tinok haboreyach mibeit hasefer, an child running out of school, casting the vision and the mission behind as quickly as possible?

We know how Bnei Yisrael fared and how they failed, until they reached the end of their wanderings, and arrived, in the book of Dvarim, the next sefer, to a place where they could once again have a shared vision, the entry into the land of Canaan.

How, we must ask ourselves, do we fare in this regard? At times when our home life and communal life is stable, let us work to erect a mishkan in our midst, to articulate a shared vision, and work to build it together. And when we are in times of transition, and the most vulnerable, let us work to sustain our vision and our unity of purpose, so that no hardship is too great, so we can free ourselves from nonsense, meaningless cravings, and pernicious and destructive squabbles, so that when we settle again, our unity will be established, our vision sustained, and God will be in our midst.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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