Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - June 5, 2009

Here at the yeshiva, we started the week with our participation in the Israel Day Parade. It was a beautiful Spring day, and, while not everyone was able to be there, the rebbeim, talmidim, wives, children and friends marched as a group down 5th Avenue, from 54th Street until 81st Street. It was a powerful way to demonstrate our firm and unwavering support of Israel, and when we passed by some particularly nasty and vicious anti-demonstrators from Neturei Karta and hateful anti-Semitic groups, we burst out into "Am Yisrael Chai" and had the crowds singing with us. It was a wonderful afternoon, and we were also blessed to have had some of our musmachim join us. It was also particularly meaningful to me, as my son, Kasriel, participated in the march and took great joy in handing out candy to the bystanders, waving the Israeli flag, and dancing and singing along with us.

On Monday, we had another opportunity to connect to Israel, and to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of modern-day Tel Aviv, as we hosted a group of 18 Tel Avivians from the Beth Tfillah Yisraeli. Beth Tfillah Yisraeli is a chiloni prayer community, founded 5 years ago in Tel Aviv. They are part of a new burgeoning phenomenon in Israel of the growth of chiloni spirituality, a desire of non-dati Israelis to reconnect to the tradition, without the specific demands of halakha - in tfillah, song, and learning . There has been a good deal written about this in the press - both of these tfillah-oriented groups, which include also "Niggun HaLev" from Emek Yizrael, who visited us earlier this year, and the phenomenon of chiloni batei midrash. (see some of the articles in the Jerusalem Post: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellitecid=12042139835 20&pagename=JPost% 2FJPArticle%2F and http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite? cid=1243346488407&pagename=JPost% 2FJPArticle%2F). It was a pleasure to hear them talk about their spiritual connection to the tfillot, how the incorporate both traditional tfillot with modern Israeli poetry and song, how they have a kabbalat Shabbat by the Tel Aviv shore as the sun drops under the horizon, with at times over 600 Jews participating, and how they are using their spiritual creativity to create their own siddurim, including a very impressive one for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, entitled "Et Li'Spod v'Et Li'Rkod," complete with a havdalah service to enable the challenging transition between these two days.

Also this week we honored one of our students, Aaron Finkelstein, who won this year's Herbert Lieberman Community Service Award, at a lunchtime awards ceremony. In addition to his past Uri L'TZedek work, Aaron hopes to bring social justice causes to the Upper West Side community with the goal of broadening that community's engagement with the non-Orthodox world, not just as recipients of its work, but as partners and participants in its social justice endeavors. It was also a great pleasure to welcome Rabbi Haskel Lookstein as our guest speaker for the event. Rabbi Lookstein began his remarks by praising YCT and the profound impact that it has had on the Jewish community, and what a blessing it and its musmachim have been for Klal Yisrael and Orthodoxy. It is wonderful to know that we have such a friend and proponent as R. Lookstein, who fully understands the rightness of all that we at YCT are doing and fully supports our musmachim and our leadership.

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In our learning this week, students are wrapping up their year of learning hilkhot Shabbat, and are engaged in a full-scale review of the melakhot and their practical applications.

One interesting discussion that arose was regarding the melakha of tochen, grinding. Tochen is a melakha that in its classic form (the "av") is the crushing of a kernel of grain into a powder, i.e., flour, and is thus a truly transformative act. The Yerushalmi applies this to pressing garlic, also a real transformation of the original object. However, the Bavli extends it - Biblically - to the chopping up or mincing of a beet (Shabbat 74b). This bothers many Rishonim, who question why this is considered a melakha, since nothing transformative has occurred, and they conclude that this is referring only to cases when it is chopped up finely, which can be considered somewhat transformative. Now, this can lead to a great deal of limitations - can one, then, not cut up vegetables for a salad? And because it is assumed that activities such as this must be permitted, Rishonim limit the prohibition to only cases when it is cut up very finely (dak dak). Alternatively, Rashba borrows a qualification from the category of borer, selecting, and states that if the chopping is done immediately before the meal, then it is derekh akhila, a normal part of the eating process, and is permitted (Teshuvot haRashba 4:75). (This allowance of the Rashba is somewhat debated, and hence poskim recommend to try not to cut the vegetable into super-fine pieces, even if cutting before the meal, see 321:12, with Mishne Brurah no. 45).

Now, all poskim agree that one can still not grind spices, for example, peppercorns, even immediately before the meal. Why is this different? The Pri Megadim argues that spices are not food per se, and hence the allowance of derekh akhila does not apply - this is not the way of eating the thing, but of preparing it. To me, this distinction is overly-formalistic, for when one chops an onion to make egg salad, it is also preparing the food and not the process of eating it per se. Also, according to this explanation, one could crush a grain into flour, if it were being done immediately before the meal.

I would argue that the difference is obvious. The entire allowance of "before the meal" was introduced once tochen was extended to cutting things up into small pieces. Once tochen had this broad scope, it was recognized that it could not be applied to all such cases, as then it would prohibit chopping up vegetables before the meal, something that was obviously permitted. Thus, it was recognized (by the Rashba) that the allowance of "before the meal" must apply. But this allowance was only for the act of cutting into small pieces, it was never applied to crushing and actual transforming. Said in halakhic terms, it applies to the tolada of chopping and mincing, not to the av of crushing (See Rambam Shabbat 8:15). Said in conceptual terms, one can apply derekh akhila to the act of chopping and mincing, which are not so transformative, anyway, but cannot apply it to the act of crushing (grain, garlic, pepper, and the like) which is inherently transformative, and thus always a melakha regardless of context.

This whole case illustrates the interesting interplay of halakha, interpretation, and real-world application. So you can chop up your onion for egg salad before the meal, but you will have to leave your freshly ground black pepper to your meals during the week or at those fancy restaurants.

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Finally, a thought about the parsha. After the organizing of the camp in Bamidbar, with the mishkan at its center, our parsha, Nasso, focuses on what it means to be outside the mishkan, in the camp, and to attempt to continue to orient oneself to the mishkan and to God's presence in the midst of the camp. This is clearly the concern of the parsha of sending out the tmaiim, ritually impure, from the camp, each one to a different degree, based on the impurity, and it is also, in my mind, the theme of the parsha of sotah. This latter parsha addresses how discord between husband and wife and the suspicion of infidelity creates a status of tumah, which then - paradoxically - needs to be brought into the Temple to be resolved, so that purity can reestablished, and that husband and wife can return to the camp and once again live their lives with the proper orientation towards God's presence.

The parsha of nazir continues this theme. It is a possible solution of how to connect to God and a life of kedusha outside of the mishkan. The solution of the nazir is to attempt to recreate the mishkan in the camp, at least for him or herself personally. Like the Kohen Gadol, he or she does not come into contact with the dead, even with his or her closest relatives. He or she not only restrains from intoxicating drink, as do Kohanim, but does not even eat and grapes or mixture of grape products, and - unlike the Kohanim - allows his or her hair to grow wild. These last two extensions ensure that he or she will be cut off from outside society, so that s/he can live in a protected mikdash-reality while outside the mikdash.

However, this form of kedusha is not the ideal. This is a kedusha that is self-serving and self- indulgent. It is all about one's own spiritual growth and reflects no sense of responsibility to the larger society or to bringing that kedusha into the real world. This is why, I would argue, the nazir brings a chatat, a sin-offering. The Gemara and rishonim debate whether one should infer from this that the nazir is a sinner, or whether the nazir is kadosh (and the sin is that s/he terminated the nezirut). I would argue that he or she is both. The nazir is kadosh, but it is a type of a kedusha that is somewhat sinful, because it is completely self-serving.

Thus, the nazir's pursuit of kedusha is not only more restrictive than that of the Kohanim, but - more to the point- lacks the dimension of service that the Kohanim embody. Even the Kohen Gadol, who does not exist the Temple when a relative dies, is present in the Temple so that he can serve the people by doing the avodah and by representing them to God. Kohanim are shluchei didan, our representatives in the Beit HaMikdash; the nazir represents only himself. It is for this reason that when Amos condemns the people, he distinguishes between the nazir and the navi: "and you have made the nazirs drink wine, and you have commanded the prophets - 'do not prophesy!' (Amos 2:12) - the nazir can only be corrupted, while the navi serves a greater function - to admonish and direct the people, so that when one opposes the navi, it is by silencing him and preventing him from doing his duty and his role.

The problematic nature of the nazir is most highlighted in the prohibition of contact with the dead. Coming in contact with the dead, on the one hand transmits the highest form of tumah. At the same time, a person so ritually defiled, and even a corpse itself, is allowed in the camp of the Levites, the closest camp to the mikdash. Dealing with the dead is both a very physical, and this-worldly experience, and is the most profound encounter with death and one's mortality, and hence it is in strong contrast to a pursuit of kedusha and its focus on the spiritual, non-physical realm and in opposition to the immortality of God, the source of all life. On the other hand, dealing with the dead is one of the most profound mitzvot. It is a chesed shel emet, a true selfless kindness, and the helping of the ill, the dying, and those who are dead is one of the most significant and weighty mitzvot that one can perform. The two cases of dealing with the dead in the Torah are exactly in the performance of such mitzvot - Moshe's carrying of the bones of Yosef, and the people who were impure and could not bring the korban pesach, and who became impure because, as Chazal tell us, they had been burying the bodies of Nadav and Aviyhu.

Thus, the Nazir's removing himself from the contact with the dead is the removing of himself from the most basic act of engagement with this world, with people, and with their most human needs and concerns. Chazal could not accept this complete divorcing of oneself from the world, and hence stated that even the Kohen Gadol and even the Nazir must become impure for a met mitzvah, a corpse whom no one is burying. When there is no one else, then no one can forswear his obligation to respond to this profound human need.

It is for this reason that there exists a special category called nezirut Shimshon. To explain how Shimshon could have been a nazir and nevertheless regularly come in contact with the dead, Chazal stated that there exists a type of nezirut known as nezirut Shimshon which allows one to become tamei li'met, impure to the dead. On the face of it, this is a very bizarre phenomenon, since the prohibitions of the nazir are always bundled together and there is no clear explanation why coming in contact with the dead should be allowed to be an exception. Given the above, however, the explanation is obvious: Shimshon's nezirut was tied into his leadership of Bnei Yisrael: "because a nazir to God the child will be from the womb, and he will begin to bring salvation to Israel from the Philistines." (Shoftim 13:5) A nezirut of Shimshon is a nezirut of being a shofet, being a leader. It is not a self-serving religious pursuit, but a religious leadership. And to lead the people, one needs to be mtamei li'metim, one needs to get one's hands dirty in the physical world, in the suffering, the losses, and sometimes the wars of the people. One cannot remain completely pure in such circumstances, but this is undoubtedly the highest calling.

This kedusha of the nezirut of Shimshon is thus like the kedusha of the Kohen, a kedusha of kehuna, literally, of service. It is a kedusha of being present in the mikdash, but of serving the people even in when one is in the mikdash. It is a kedusha of bringing the kedusha of the mikdash to the outside world and of the focusing much of one's activities outside the mikdash (Kohanim only served 1 week out of 24 in the mikdash) - "they will teach Your laws to Jacob and Your teachings to Israel." And hence the parsha of the nazir is immediately followed by the parsha of birkhat Kohanim, of the priestly blessing. For it is the role of the Kohanim to connect to God, but ultimately to bring God's blessing to the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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