Monday, August 17, 2009

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - June 26, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Although I officially "signed off" for the summer in my last email, I wanted to take this final opportunity to share with you my remarks from the semikha ceremony this last Sunday. It was a wonderful and uplifting event, as we gave semikha to eleven mature, thoughtful, and learned young men, who are heading off to be rabbis of communities, rabbis on campus, and rabbis in our schools. They join their forty-four colleagues in the field, so that now, at the end of our ninth year, we have fifty-five rabbis in the field, teaching and spreading Torah, guiding and sustaining communities, and supporting and inspiring individuals. Each of you should derive strength and inspiration from the work that these amazing young men are doing, and from the part that you have had in supporting them and making it happen.

Here, then, are my remarks from the ceremony. I want to again wish everyone an enjoyable and relaxing summer.

All the best,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

Remarks delivered at YCT Chag HaSemikha, 5769

My dear students,
Maurice, Ben, Kenny, Daniel, Steven, Ben, Drew, Michael, Benji, Devin, and Eric,

Today, as you become rabbis, you set out on your path as religious leaders for the Jewish people. What is the nature of this religious leadership?

The Torah, in yesterday's parsha, presents a form of leadership in the persons of Caleb and Yehoshua. Men with courage to believe in the promise of God, despite the odds, and to defiantly stand up to those who would lead them to disaster. Men who had "ruach acheret emo vayimaleh acharay," "a different spirit in them, men who followed after God." This, however, is not religious leadership, but political and lay leadership - to plan military strategies, to lead the people into battle, not to impart Torah, not to give religious guidance. As rabbis, you must work with your lay leadership, you must help them shape their leadership with a "ruach acheret" with Torah values, so they can see more than what is before their eyes, so that they are not led astray, so that they can see with a greater vision. But theirs is not a religious leadership. Their path is not your path.

The Torah also recently described the path of the nazir. The nazir divorces himself from society, forswears wine, and lets his hair grow long, so that he can focus on his religious growth and connection to God. This is not the path of religious leadership. This is a path of self-serving religious growth, one that takes no responsibility for other people or for society. Even when the nazir serves the people, he does so in spite of his nezirut, not because of it. His deepest desire is to seclude himself, to free himself from such responsibility, so that he can focus on his own religiosity, on his own holiness. Do not be seduced by the life of the nazir. His is not a path of leadership. His path is not your path.

True religious leadership is to be found not in the model of Yehoshua and Calev, not in the example of the nazir. No. True religious leadership is to be found in the Kohen. His very name bespeaks his role. L'khahein - to serve. His is a life of service. Of service to God - L'khahein l'Hashem - and whose service of God consists of his service to the Jewish people. The Talmud questions whether the Kohanim serve God or serve the people. The truth is, the two are one - they serve God by serving the people.

The Kohanim spent much time in the Temple, it is true, but they did not do so for their own selfish religiosity. The Kohanim's charge was to sustain a holy space for the people, a place where God's presence could always be encountered, and to assist the people in their striving to connect to God in that holy space. Moreover, the majority of their time was spent outside the Temple. The Kohanim were spread throughout the Land of Israel, bringing the holiness of the Temple and of the Torah to the people, "teaching God's laws to Jacob and God's Torah to Israel."

Indeed, immediately after the Mishkan was sanctified, and the Kohanim were dedicated to their service, we read, "and Moshe and Aharon entered into the Tent of Meeting and they came out and they blessed the people, and the Glory of God appeared to the entire people." This is the true role of the Kohanim. To come out of the Temple and to bring the Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of God and of the Torah, to all the people.

My dear students, this is your path. Create a sanctuary, a holy place, for people to go to encounter God. Be it the synagogue or the classroom, create and sustain a space where people can be inspired and edified, protected and supported. But do not rest there. Leave the security of this space, and go out and bring Torah, bring kedusha to the people. Seek out all people, those who are close, and those who are distant, and, perhaps hardest of all, those who were close but have become distant. Spread God's Torah and God's blessing throughout the Jewish people.

Like the Kohanim, be prepared to be with people even for the messy parts of their life. When they sin, and they come to you bearing their regret and their chatat, their sin-offering, help them find their way back to a life of holiness. When they have illness, when they have their own form of physical or psychological tzaraas, affliction, comfort them, console them, help them identify and name their problem, so that they can find healing and become whole. Like the Kohanim, there is tremendous power in your actions and in your words. Always use them to heal, to elevate, and to inspire.

Know that to serve God by serving the people requires being honest with your responsibility to God and God's Torah. Never compromise your integrity or that of the Torah that you represent. Remember the famous statement of R. Yisrael Salanter, that a rabbi who fails to challenge his congregation is not worthy of being called a rabbi. But when you must challenge, do so with love and with grace. Remember the conclusion of that statement, that a rabbi of whom people are afraid, is not worthy of being called a man.

Know, also, that to serve the people you must not neglect your own, personal serving of God. Never lose sight of your own religious growth, of your need to nurture your soul. You will serve God's people best when you yourself remain deeply connected to God and to Torah.

The Kohanim spent five years focused on their own growth so that they could prepare to serve the people fully. You have spent the last four years learning Torah, growing in your avodat Hashem, and gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to become religious leaders. You have not just learned how to act like rabbis, how to play the role of a rabbi, but, like the Kohanim, you have become transformed and sanctified in the process. As rabbis, you will become an embodiment of Torah and an embodiment of kedusha. To say this of a human being would be almost an act of sacrilege, but it finds its justification in a life of service, a life of kehunah.

Eric, Devin, Benji, Michael, Drew, Ben, Steven, Daniel, Kenny, Ben, and Maurice,
My dear students,

You are a class of eleven that among you has four Kohanim. But, in fact, today you all become Kohanim, as you now dedicate yourself to a life of kedusha that comes through kehunah, a life of holiness that is found through service. Although not a Kohen myself, allow me to give you the Birkat Kohanim the blessing of the Kohanim, a blessing that I know you will - each in his own distinct and unique way - bring to the entire Jewish people.

Yevarekhekha Hashem vi'yishmerekha. Ya'er Hashem panav eylekha viy'khunekha. Yisa Hashem panav eylekha vi'yaseim likha shalom.

May God always shine God's countenance upon you and may you only go from strength to strength.

Mazel Tov!

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - June 19, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters,

The school year draws to a close this week, as students finished reviewing their Shabbat learning, and began taking their final tests, and we all prepared for our semikha ceremony this coming Sunday.

We are very excited about our upcoming semikha ceremony, where we will be ordaining 11 new rabbis:

Maurice Appelbaum
Benjamin Berger
Kenneth Birnbaum
Steven Exler
Daniel Braune Friedman
Benjamin Greenberg
Drew Kaplan
Michael Katzman
Benjamin Shiller
Devin Villarreal
Eric Zaff

I would like to invite any of you who are in the area to attend our semikha ceremony, which will take place at 10:30am at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, 125 East 85th Street (between Park and Lexington).

We should all take pride in this wonderful new group of YCT musmachim, in the hard work that they have put in for the last four years, in their dedication to Klal Yisrael, and for the wonderful work that they will be doing in the larger Jewish community, in harbatzat Torah, halakhic and spiritual guidance, pastoral counseling, and religious leadership. Kol HaKavod and Mazel Tov to this wonderful group of individuals and soon-to-be rabbis.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

In addition to the final push of chazara and test-taking, we had the opportunity for some special simchas, sichot, and events. On Monday, we hosted a sheva berakhot for our student, Mordechai Harris, and his wife, Nisa (Davidovics) Harris, of Teaneck, who were married on Sunday. We enjoyed the lovely weather, and had lunch on the porch, with singing, music and divrei Torah.

Prior to the sheva berakhot, Josh Frankel shared briefly with students some of his experiences on his recent trip with other rabbinical and Protestant seminary students to Israel to engage Israelis and Palestinians, run under the auspices of the Auburn Seminary (see 9/News/New_York.html). We hope to hear more from him and from Jeremy Baruch, who participated in the program together with him, when we resume in Elul.

Both Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Blanchard gave sichot this week as final reflections before the summer break. Rabbi Blanchard asked students to reflect on what religious lessons they learned from the halakhot of Shabbat that they could apply more broadly towards other areas of life. Answers were thoughtful and varied, ranging from the importance of kavvana, intent, and how intentionality can transform the meaning and significance of an act, to the significance of borer, the prohibited act of selecting, from which we can learn that when we encounter complex situations in our lives, ones which are mixtures of good and bad, we have to determine how to take the ochel, the food, from the psolet, the contaminant, and not the reverse. The take-away from such experiences - whether good or bad - is in our hands.

Rabbi Weiss spoke about the trait of humility as an honest recognition of one's abilities, coupled with a recognition that these talents are a gift from God. As such, we have an obligation to use them to the best of our ability, and to serve God and Klal Yisrael, as best as we possibly can, but each one of us in his or her unique and individual way. Thus, we should all take pride in the wide-ranging and varied leadership that our students and musmachim are brining to the Jewish community, each one utilizing his distinctive talents to the benefit of Klal Yisrael. He ended by encouraging the students to seek out opportunities for using their talents in such ways in their many activities over the summer.

Rav Nati also spoke this Wednesday, on the topic of "The Halakhic Date of Shavuot," a special shiur in memory of his father, Shlomo David ben Moshe, and Dina Rachel Helfgot, z"l. May his father's neshama have an aliyah.

It has been a wonderful year at Chovevei this year, with the entire yeshiva learning hilkhot Shabbat together. Students applied themselves to their learning with hatmada and seriousness, and there was great growth in learning and a strong kol Torah in the yeshiva throughout the year. They have also excelled in their activities outside the yeshiva, from teaching shiurim in shuls, to Torah classes at the Skirball Center, to teaching chatanim and kallot, to chaplaincy work, to social justice work, and to Israel advocacy. We eagerly look forward to seeing our fourth year students become rabbis this Sunday, and to welcoming back all the younger years, together with next year's students, this coming Elul. They should go from strength to strength!

A Thought on the Parsha

In closing, I would like to share a short thought on the parasha that I gave at Mordechai and Nisa's sheva berakhot.

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."

Until Elul

This will be my last email until we resume this coming Elul. I hope all of you have a wonderful, enjoyable, and (if possible) relaxing Summer.

Shabbat Shalom and a wonderful Summer to each one of you. It has been wonderful staying in touch this way, and I look forward to continuing it next year, starting in Elul.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov Linzer

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

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: 20&pagename=JPost% 2FJPArticle%2F and 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.


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.


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

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - May 28, 2009

Dear Friends and Supporters of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,

It was a short week at the yeshiva this week, bookended as it was by Memorial Day at one end, and Shavuot at the other. Our students have been preparing for Shavuot, learning topics that relate to the halakhot and the meaning of the chag, and preparing their own shiurim that they will be delivering in their local communities.

Students are also continuing to learn hilkhot Shabbat, and during these last few days have been focusing on issues around tending to the sick on Shabbat. The Talmud clearly forbids a whole host of refuot, medical ministrations, for people who are sick, but not seriously so (what is termed in the literature as michush b'alma, discomfort, and in contrast to choleh kol haguf, someone who is laid up due to his or her illness). The Mishna, which records these prohibitions, does not explain why this is forbidden, and, in fact, it is hard to understand why the Sages would prohibit otherwise permissible activity, especially if it could alleviate suffering on Shabbat, a day of ta'anug, pleasure. The Gemara explains that this prohibition is to prevent the grinding of herbal and chemical ingredients that would be done by apothecaries, and even by non-professionals, in the preparation of such medications. Some scholars have argued that this reason in the Talmud Bavli may not have been the original basis of the prohibition, as we find the issue of healing on Shabbat to be a major concern in the Gospels, where Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees (the forerunners of the Rabbis) for healing on the Sabbath day by the laying of hands. The people are told by the leader of a synagogue, "There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." The fact that the laying of hands was included in this prohibition, and that it is seen as "work", indicates that the problem, as reflected here, was not seen as a concern for grinding, but rather that healing in itself was seen as a form of work (either because it was a professional activity, or because it effected change, i.e., healing). The Bavli does not see it this way, but, as stated above, understands it as a safeguard against the violation of a melakha, grinding.

There are significant ramifications to this framing of the prohibition. For example, there is serious halakhic debate as to whether the prohibition extends to forms of healing that have no association with medicines or salves, for example, therapeutic massage. There are some who have questioned why the prohibition applies at all these days, given that none of us grind our own medicines, so the safeguard is unnecessary. This suggestion is strongly rejected, on the basis of the principle that rabbinic edicts remain in effect even when the (ostensible) reason no longer is seen to apply. Nevertheless, because the underlying purpose is seen as less relevant, many poskim are prepared to find more leniencies when these questions arise - either by limiting what is considered to be prohibited forms of refuah, or by narrowing the category of michush b'alma, and categorizing many cases as choleh kol haguf. Obviously, the value of an enjoyable Shabbat coupled with the concern for discomfort and suffering, play a significant role here. Finally, turning to the issue of Yom Tov, a number of poskim argue that there is no prohibition of refuah on Yom Tov because grinding foods is permitted, as are other forms of food preparation, and thus there is no need for a safeguard against grinding (one should note that there are some limitations to when grinding is permitted, depending on what could have or should have been done before Yom Tov, as well as other considerations). In all these cases one, of course, needs to ask his or her rav or posek for a psak when relevant, but it is important to be aware of the issues and how the framing plays a role in the scope and application of this prohibition.


I would finally like to share with you a Torah thought that I published last week in the AJWS publication Chag va'Chesed.

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

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva - May 22, 2009

This week there was a simcha at the yeshiva, as our third year student, Dan Levitt, was married to Naomi Firstman of Riverdale on Sunday. We celebrated their sheva b'rakhot at the yeshiva on Tuesday, and Betzalel Kosofsky - a man with developmental disabilities and who does some office work for the yeshiva - who happens to be a cousin of Daniel's - delivered a beautiful d'var Torah for the couple. It was a very touching moment to see him deliver this d'var Torah, and he even made a cake for dessert for the couple.

There was also a scare and some excitement the other night (Wednesday) when four people were arrested in a failed attempt to plant bombs in two synagogues in Riverdale. The arrest actually occurred directly under my window, and I saw the descending of the SWAT teams and the apprehending of these would-be terrorists. We should take a minute to reflect on this event, and what lessons we should draw from it. First, we must respond with hakarat hatov - to God, to the police, and to the undercover agent who risked his life infiltrating this group. We should pay a particular hakarat hatov to the United States government, and its firm commitment to protecting all of its citizens, and in particular in defending its citizens against hate crimes. We need only look at various countries around the world to recognize that this should not be taken for granted, and that in other countries Jews are much more vulnerable to such attacks, where police are sometimes less than vigilant in such cases, and in some countries are even sometimes complicit in acts of anti-Semitism. Secondly, this is a reminder that we cannot allow ourselves to believe that there is no anti-Semitism in the United States. There remain those who hate us and are bent on destroying us. At the same time, we should not be overly anxious, and we need to remain calm and to recognize that we are well protected, and that life goes on. Appropriate caution and vigilance is what is called for, not extremist responses. Let us offer a prayer of thanksgiving, a tfillat hodaya, for this yeshua and a prayer of request, a bakasha, that if and when such heinous acts are attempted again, they are foiled as this one was foiled.


This year the yeshiva has been focused on the learning of the laws of Shabbat and, more recently, the laws of Yom Tov. As Yom Tov is arriving, I should mention the very relevant issue of lowering the gas flame. What is the halakha if one has a high flame and wants to cook on a low flame? It would seem that this should be totally permitted, because it is Yom Tov, and is being done for the sake of eating. However, based on the gemara in Beitzah 22a, a number of Rishonim understand that extinguishing a flame is always considered to be work (melakha) done for the sake of food, but external to it (makhshirei okhel nefesh), since it is only removing something unwanted (the fire) and not directly producing or improving the food. Now, even if that were the case, one is allowed to do such work if it could not be done the day before, but - again based on one interpretation of this gemara - there are those who argue that this law is not to be officially promulgated (see Shulkhan Arukh 514:1 for these issues). So, according to this, one cannot lower the flame even to cook. This is the way the Shmirat Shabbat rules (13:10), and insists that another, lower flame be lit (from an existing fire), rather than lowering the existing flame. Rav Moshe Feinstein (OH 1:115) in a short responsum dismisses this and states simply that this is directly for the sake of food and is permitted. I act this way without hesitation, since both (a) even according to those who rule that some extinguishing is external to food preparation, this case is clearly directly for the sake of food and (b) there is serious debate whether we are not allowed to promulgate the rule regarding work for the sake of food but external to it.

So - this brings us to the next question of what to do with a large flame on Yom Tov that was used for cooking, but which one does not want to remain on high due to safety concerns. What I will do is lower the flame to cook something that uses a low flame, and then leave it on low. Sometimes it will just blow out (and then I will turn off the gas), and even if not, it will be much less of a safety issue (and I can just cover it with a blech if necessary).

I should also mention the issues around electricity. Electric stove tops are more complicated, because we consider the red-hot element to be fire, thus one is always running into the problem of creating new fire. This is also a problem of going from an element that is on, but not yet red hot, and raising it until it becomes red hot. Also, even if it is red hot, sometimes when the temperature is raised, an outer ring turns red hot, and this would be considered creating a new fire for this outer ring. There is no question that for Yom Tov, you are better off with a gas stove.


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