Thursday, August 6, 2009

Shelach - June 19, 2009

Ramban raises an important and central question regarding the mission of the spies and their report. Why were they punished, he asks, if all they did was report accurately on what they saw? Ramban focuses on the word efes, "however," and what that signified of their lack of faith in God. I would like to suggest that the key is a different word, not one that they used, but one that they failed to use, tova, "good". Moshe instructed them to search out the land, in particular to assess the military strength of the inhabitants, and the best tactics for invading and conquering the land. God had promised to give them the land, but it was their responsibility to wage the war as strategically and intelligently as possible. However, there is a troubling phrase in Moshe's instructions: "And what of the land, is it good or bad?" This is not a question of description and facts, but calls for an evaluative assessment, and one that seems to be unrelated to questions of military strategy. Is this land that God has promised us good or not? That is quite an astounding question, given that God had explicitly told Moshe earlier that God would bring them to a good land, one flowing in milk and honey (Ex. 3:8). As a result, a number of commentators explain that this was really also a question of a military assessment, and not meant as one of overall judgment. Be that as it may, when the spies came back, they accurately reported that the land was flowing with milk and honey (Num. 13:27), but they failed to say that it was "good." They refused to give it their approval and to affirm God's promise.

This was the crux of Calev and Yehoshua's response, "the land that we have passed through to spy out is exceedingly good." The spies saw their mission to evaluate whether the endeavor was worth it. They used their findings to determine if the land - and the enterprise - was a good one or not. Calev and Yehoshua, on the other hand, came in committed to the goodness of the land and the rightness of the enterprise, and their mission - as they properly understood it - was only to determine how to make this enterprise succeed. If one is not a priori committed to an enterprise, if one does not believe that the land is good, then every problem looms large, every challenge becomes an obstacle. However, if there is a fundamental belief in God's promise and in the goodness of the land, then whatever the problems and whatever the challenges, they can be met and dealt with - "We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!"

The Gemara (Berakhot 8a; Yevamot 63b) tells us that when a man got married in Israel, they would ask him "matza or motzei" - "found or find?" Matza, as the verse states, "matza isha matza tov" -" a man who has found a woman, has found goodness," or motzei, as the verse states, "u'motzei ani mar mimavet et ha'isha" - "and I find more bitter than death, the woman." On the face of it, this was a roundabout way of asking the man if his wife was a good match for him or not (bracketing the harsh nature of the second verse). However, a wonderful explanation I once heard is that the question was not about his wife, but about him. Is he a matza or a motzei, one who has found, or one who is always finding? Is he the type of a person that once he finds something, he has found it, he recognizes what he has found as a metziah and he is happy about it? Or is he a motzei, one who even after he has something is still in the process of finding and of looking, of assessing if the thing that he has is good enough, what are its problems, and if there is perhaps something better waiting to be found? If he is a motzei, then he will never be happy, there will always be some imperfection, something that needs to be better, and a constant dissatisfaction with the present and a desire to find the next thing - no matter how good his wife or his lot is, he will be bitter. If, however, he is a matza, then he will recognize the gift of what he has, that God has given him a metziah, as a find, and whatever problems arise, they will be addressed and taken care of, but will not impinge on the basic happiness and recognition of the goodness of what he has - matzah isha matzah tov.

Had the spies recognized, as Calev and Yehoshua did, that the land was a gift from God, that the land was good - had they been fundamentally committed to the enterprise - then the challenges would not have become obstacles. If we are able to embrace this attribute of matza, to see the blessings in our lives, to see the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, to see our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends, as metziot, and gifts from God, to see them as tova, as good, then whatever bumps we encounter and problems we face, we will be able to address them and deal with them. They will not loom large, they will not undermine us, for we will know that matza isha matza tov - it is good, and it will be good. "For surely we can do it."

Beha'alotecha - June 12, 2009

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

Naso - June 5, 2009

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

Shavuot - May 28, 2009

The holiday of Shavuot is generally assumed to commemorate the giving of the Torah, which occurred on the 6th of Sivan. In the Torah, however, Shavuot is only described as an agricultural holiday and occurs not on any particular calendrical date, but at the culmination of seven weeks from the beginning of the harvest season that occurs on the second day of Pesach. Shavuot is chag hakatzir, the holiday of harvest, and is closely linked with Sukkot, chag ha'asif, the holiday of the ingathering of the crops. These are the two holidays on which the Torah commands us to be joyous - v'samachta lifnei Hashem, "and you shall be joyous before God" (Deut. 16:11) and v'smachta bi'chagekha, "and you shall be joyous on your festivals" (Deut. 16:14), respectively.

A year of agricultural bounty naturally evokes a sense of joy over one's accomplishment, security, and success. The Torah insists, however, that this joy not be focused merely on oneself, as such could lead to self-satisfaction and arrogance. Rather, the joy is to be directed to God (Deut. 16:11), recognizing that it is only with God's assistance that we have achieved this success.

However, thanksgiving to God is not the only, nor even the primary, theme of this Festival of the Harvest. As exemplified vividly in the book of Ruth, it was during this time of year that the entire Israelite nation, individually and collectively, provided for the poor who had no land of their own and no crops to harvest. In accordance with the Torah's mitzvot, which appear immediately in the context of the holiday of Shavuot (Lev. 23:22), landed farmers left an uncut corner of the field, together with whatever was dropped and forgotten during the harvest, for the poor to reap and glean for themselves.

These two themes - thanksgiving to God and support of the poor - are interconnected, and the Torah states so explicitly, "You shall rejoice before God, you, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst" (Deut. 16:11). If we recognize our material success as coming from God, then we will understand that religious responsibilities attach to that wealth. Just as God is described as caring for the poor and orphan, just as God's compassion extends to all of God's creatures, so too, as beneficiaries of God's beneficence, we must use our means to similarly care for those who are poor and downtrodden.

This framing emphasizes the Jewish value of chesed, the magnanimous act of helping others. There is, however, a more important theme at play here, and that is the value of tzeddek, of doing what is just and right towards other members of society. In commanding us to leave the gleanings for the poor, the Torah concludes, "and you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt." (Deut 16:12). As slaves, we learned what it meant to be strangers, to be marginalized and vulnerable people in society. As free people, we must create a society that is based on tzeddek, on the equal protection of all of its members: "Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who is dwelling among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). Now that we have been redeemed and have gone from slave to free person, from stranger to citizen, we must make sure to not follow in the ways of our past oppressors. This is a basic responsibility of being a citizen: to take responsibility for all of the members of society, its citizens and its strangers, its strong and its weak.

As an expression of tzeddek, this obligation relates to how we structure our society, and thus taking care of the poor, while often performed individually, has always been recognized as a communal responsibility. The mishna tractate of Peah is devoted to the agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and it is here where we are introduced to the rabbinic institution of the soup kitchen (tamchoi), for the town's visiting poor and the charity box (kanon), for the town's local poor. These rabbinic institutions were thus modeled after the communal, agricultural gifts of Shavuot, and, I believe, these communal gifts later served as a model for the Hebrew Free Loan Societies which began as local, communal institutions.

As a communal obligation, it is understandable that priority is given to the community's own poor (as is highlighted by Ruth's astonishment that Boaz has recognized her, given that she "is a foreigner"), but our responsibilities extend to the larger world as well. Halakha specifically mandates a responsibility to the non-Jewish poor, under the rubric of darkhei shalom, ways of peace. While often interpreted as a form of enlightened self-interest, it is more properly understood as a fundamental, religious obligation and as responsibility of reciprocity - what it means to be citizens not only of the Jewish community, but of the world (see, for example, Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 10:12)

In these times of economic downturn and hardship, it may be hard to feel the joy of bounty that is normally associated with Shavuot. However, this is also a time to be even more acutely aware of the needs of those in our community who have lost their jobs and their homes and who are struggling to put food on their tables and clothes on their backs. Those of us who have suffered economically, but who are still supporting ourselves and our families, need, firstly, to be thankful to God for our relative success, for our ongoing ability to provide for ourselves and our families, and to recognize the obligations of chesed that attend such success, however relative it may be. As members of the Jewish community and as members of the world community, we must live up to the demands of tzeddek to do everything in our power to ensure that all members of our various communities - religious, local, and global - are protected and cared for, are given the dignity that they deserve and are empowered, so that they can take their rightful place as full, participating members of our community.


May you all have a chag of Torah learning and growth, a chag of appreciating all the goodness that God has given us - the material goodness together with the spiritual goodness that we have received in God's giving of the Torah. And let it be a chag where we are able to share these gifts with others and with our communities.

Chag Sameiyach,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

Bamidbar - May 22, 2009

Allow me to share a brief thought on the parsha, one that I gave at the sheva b'rakhot in the yeshiva and that is also relevant to Shavuot and chag matan Torateinu.

This week, when we move from sefer Vayikra to sefer Bamidbar, we are finally moving away from Har Sinai, where Bnei Yisrael have been for almost a year. From the middle of Shemot through the end of Vayikra, they have been encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, having received the Torah, mitzvot and the laws, and then all the laws of the Kohanim, through Kedoshim and Behar Bichukotai. It is only because we lose sight of this that the opening of Behar takes us by surprise. "What does Shmitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?" Rashi asks. The answer is obvious - because they are still there, and the parsha is reminding us of that, as it draws to wrap up their experience at Har Sinai.

Now, this experience at the foot of Har Sinai can be likened to the period of the chuppah and the sheva b'rakhot. The moment of the giving of the Torah was the moment of marriage (nissuim). The intimacy, intensity, and immediacy of the connection and self-revelation that occurred between God and Bnei Yisrael is like the coming together of chatan and kallah, the consummation of the betrothal (kiddushin). In addition to the intensity of the love , the brit is actualized and the full obligations of the relationship are accepted -the mitzvot and the laws - with the sefer habrit being, in essence, the ketuvah, with all its reciprocal obligations.

Now, however, as we move to Bamidbar, it is time to move away from the chuppah, and to move on with our lives. The question will be - how has our life changed and how will we move forward? The Torah tells us that when we camp elsewhere, the encampment must always be with the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the center. Even when we break camp and move forward, the Mishkan must move in the center. As the Torah says in Terumah - "and I will dwell in your midst". Even when we depart Har Sinai, when we are distant from the immediacy of the Shekhina, we must always encamp around the Mishkan - we must orient our lives towards God and God's presence. And when we move - it is in the context of our relationship to God - "by the command of God they encamped, and by the command of God they moved." Thus, no matter how geographically distant we are, we will not lose our way if we continue to orient ourselves to God - "around the Mishkan they shall encamp." The way I read it, the remainder of Bamidbar is the working out of this challenge - can Bnei Yisrael depart from Har Sinai, and continue to keep God in their midst, continue to orient themselves towards God's presence? We know this is not trivial - it can be a real challenge.

This is also the challenge as a couple moves from the chuppah and the sheva b'rakhot and begins to move forward and continue with their life. Sometimes one of the couple will need to travel geographically, or will need to involve him or herself in career, education, or other demands or pursuits. This is a necessary part of life. We must move from Har Sinai. But if we have worked on the relationship, and continue to work on the relationship, then wherever and whenever one travels, the other will always be their center, and all that we pursue will be with the other in mind. William Donne put it best in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;

And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Let us constantly work on our relationship with our spouse, and our relationship with God, so that when we leave the chuppah and when leave the experience of matan Torah, and that wherever and however far we doth roam, that the other will be our center, so that we will make our circle just and end where we had begun.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Dov Linzer