Friday, March 12, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Parshat Vayekhel-Pikudei opens with the second story of the Mishkan. After having been commanded by God in the building of the Mishkan in Terumah-TiZaveh, Moshe now, in turn, commands the people to build the Mishkan. They follow his command with enthusiasm, give large donations, and build the Mishkan. The parasha, and the Book of Shemot, end with the Glory of God dwelling the Mishkan, that is, with the fulfillment of the opening verse in Terumah - "And you shall build for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst."

This parasha is not, however, a simple duplication of the earlier parashot, and there are two striking differences in the sequence of the commands and their execution. VaYakhel opens with the command of Shabbat, and then turns to the command of the Mishkan. In contrast, when originally commanded, the command of Shabbat had followed that of the Mishkan (Shemot 31:12ff). The other difference is the order of the construction. Whereas God had first commanded the building of the Ark (Shemot 25:10ff), here the command of the structure - the Tent - comes first (Shemot 35:11) and its execution comes first (Shemot 36:8ff). Rashi famously notes this change with the following story:

Moshe commanded Betzalel to first make the vessels and then the Tent.
Betzalel said to him: the practice of the world is to first make the house and then to put the vessels in it. Is this perhaps what you heard from God? [text following Berliner ed.]
Moshe said to him: You were in the shade of God (b'tzel El)! For certainly this is what God has commanded me! (Rashi, Shemot 38:22. See Berakoht 55a).

Within the context of this Midrash, we can ask - if this is true, why was Moshe originally confused? And at a pshat level, we can ask, what is the meaning of these differences of order between our parsha and the previous ones?

Regarding Shabbat and the Mishkan, regardless of order, the meaning of the juxtaposition is clear - not only that Shabbat is the other locus of kedusha, a kedusha of time and not of space, but also - as Hazal understand - that the kedusha of Shabbat is inviolable, and that even the building the Mishkan cannot supersede the Shabbat. While the building of the Mishkan is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it is the process of bringing God's presence to dwell among the people, it cannot override the regular, stable, foundational kedusha of Shabbat. The religious passion for achieving the intense connection to God is a powerful and laudable trait, but it cannot supersede the day-to-day serving of God.

The building of the Mishkan, then, must give way to the regular weekly kedusha of Shabbat. But the order of this juxtaposition also matters. The question still remains - are we to have a religion, an approach to God, that focuses on the passionate, intense experience of connection, or are we to have a religion and a connection that focuses on the day-to-day? Does our approach begin with Mishkan, but Shabbat serves as the ultimate constraint - our religious passion, our intensity, is the core, but it cannot override Shabbat? Or does our approach start with Shabbat, that our day-to-day kedusha is the core, but recognizes that we must seek out those opportunities of intense connection to build on that stable foundation? Our parsha weighs in favor of Shabbat. Our religious life is a life of Shabbat, not a life of Mishkan. It is founded on the kedusha of the day-to-day, not the kedusha of once-in-a-lifetime; it is founded on halakha, not on spirituality. Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it beautifully:

Resting religion on Halakha assigns it to the prosaic aspects of life, and therein lies its great strength. Only a religion addressed to life's prose... is worthy of the name. This is not to demean the poetic moments, the rare occasions when a man breaks away from the routine, the experience of rising above the self spiritually and emotionally, the deeds performed fervently. It is quite possible that such moments mark the zenith of a human life. Nonetheless, the fundamental and enduring elements of human existence are in life's prose, not its poetry. Moliere's M. Jourdain discovered at the age of forty that he had unwittingly been speaking prose all his life. No one ever claimed to have been talking unwittingly in poetry.... The religion of halakhic practice is the religion of life itself.
(Yeshayahu Leibowitz, "Religious Praxis," in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State, p. 13).

What happened between the previous parasha and ours? The sin of the Golden Calf. The Golden Calf was religious passion and fervor gone awry. For it is so difficult, so impossible, to sustain the fervor, to sustain the experience of Har Sinai. And when that cannot be sustained, and when the people can only focus on it as the true religious experience, then they will find false gods towards which to direct their passion. If they do not have a Mishkan to build, they will build a Golden Calf, all in search of reclaiming the intensity of the religious experience.

This is why the second time around the Torah was given quietly, without the thunder and lightning, without the unsurpassable, unattainable, direct connection with the Divine. Moshe receives the second tablets and comes down from the mountain so quickly and so quietly that you would almost not realize that it had happened (it did, in last week's parasha - Shemot 34:28-29). The people had to reorient themselves to a new Torah, to the second tablets, to a Torah of God's presence in the quiet, not in the thunder and lightning:

And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (Kings I 19:11-12).

It is the religion of the still small voice that is the message of Parashat VaYakhel.

The focus on the day-to-day does not mean we should not seek out those moments of intense connection, that we should not cultivate our religious enthusiasm, that we should not answer the call to build the Mishkan passion when the call goes out, but we must first build our foundation. Shabbat must precede the Mishkan. And the Tent must precede the Ark. This was Betzalel' s message to Moshe - while we should strive for the Ark, for the most intense place of God's presence, it cannot come first, we cannot fix our focus on it. For if we do, we will never build the house, we will never lay the necessary foundation that allows us to achieve these experiences in a meaningful, disciplined way, there will be no house in which to bring the vessels. The practice of the world is first you build your house, then you bring in the vessels.

This is something that Moshe lost sight of. Being directly in the presence of God, he was blinded by the light, blinded by the intensity of the experience. It was only Betzalel, who was out of the direct light, who was in the shade of God, that understood that you need to first lay the foundation. Most of our life is lived in the shade, warmed and enlightened by God's indirect light, not set afire by it, but also not blinded by it. This is the kedusha of Shabbat, this is the kedusha of our religious life, this is the stable kedusha upon which we can also build the Mishkan and find those moments when we can also transcend the day-to-day and connect to God with passion and intensity, with the kedusha of Shabbat and the kedusha of the Mishkan.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week I gave another shiur on the korban pesach - not on bringing it on Har HaBayit without a Beit HaMikdash, but on a practice to bring a pseudo-korban pesach outside of the environs of the Beit HaMikdash and Jerusalem. There is good evidence that such a practice existed. The Tosefta in Ohalot (3:9) tells of a burial that took place in Beit Dagan on erev Pesach. The men, who had not become tamei, then went and ate their korban pesach in the evening. Now, it is not clear when this recorded event took place - maybe it happened when the Beit HaMikdash was still standing. However, Beit Dagan is near Tel Aviv, about 35 miles from Jerusalem, so it would seem impossible that these men got to Jerusalem on the same day to arrive before the beginning of Yom Tov at nightfall. Similarly, another Tosefta (Ohalot 18:18) states that R. Pinchas ben Yair reported regarding the halakhic status of Ashkelon, that its inhabitants would go the mikveh in the day and eat their korban pesach that night. Now, Ashkelon is a good 50 miles from Jerusalem, and it would be impossible that these people got to Jerusalem by evening time. It is clear from these two sources that Jews were eating a pseudo-korban pesach outside of Jerusalem, and were even undergoing an act of taharah, of ritual purification, to prepare for this event. It further seems reasonable to assume that this was taking place after the chorban, the time when R. Pinchas ben Yair lived (late 2nd Century), for when there was a Beit HaMikdash there would be no need for such a pseudo-korban.
Now, if this truly was a post-Temple pseudo-korban, would they really have called it a pesach, a Pascal lamb? Wouldn't this have made it seem like they were eating sacrifices outside the Temple? This was exactly the concern of the majority of Hazal, and they expressed their opposition to this ritual, when enacted with such a degree of verisimilitude. The mishna in Beitzah (2:7) records that Rabban Gamliel (immediately post-Destruction, end of 1st century - beginning of 2nd) allowed people to make a gedi mekulas, a roasted goat, for Pesach, while the Sages prohibited it. What was this gedi mekulas? The Tosefta records that it was a kid goat that had been roasted entirely, just like the korban pesach, and that was prepared on the first night of Pesach. However, if any part of it had been prepared differently - even if just one piece had been cooked rather than roasted - or if it had been prepared on a different night, it would be permissible. What we have then, is a seemingly popular practice to create a pseudo-korban pesach, which some of the rabbis allowed fully (or perhaps even supported), while others insisted that some small difference be present, so it would not look exactly like the korban pesach itself.

The Tosefta ends with a fascinating historical fact:

Rabbi Yossi said: Todos a man of Rome accustomed the people of Rome to take lambs on the eves of Passover and they made them mekulasim. They said to him: He was very close to feeding them sacrifices outside the Temple, because the people called them "Pascal lambs."

Here we see that that this practice spread outside of the Land of Israel, and that in some communities - for the Jews of Rome - it had become a widespread practice. We also see that these goats were actually called pesach, and that this explains the events recorded in the Toseftas of Ohalot, of people outside of Jerusalem eating a "pesach." Finally, we see the rabbinic objection to this practice - not that it was completely objectionable, but that it could not be so similar to the actual korban pesach so that it would be confused with the korban itself - nireh k'okhel kodshim ba'chutz, appearing like eating sacrifices outside the Temple.

Now, we find another story with Rabban Gamliel and the korban pesach. The Mishna in Pesachim (7:2) states that one cannot roast the korban pesach on a metal spit or grate, because then it would be roasted by the heated metal and not directly by the fire. The mishna then records the statement of Rabbi Zaddok: "A story with Rabban Gamliel who said to Tevi his slave, 'Go out and roast for us the Pascal lamb on the grate.'"

On the face of it, this is a dissenting opinion that allows the korban pesach to be roasted on a metal grate. However, there is a serious problem here, as the Rabban Gamliel who had a slave name Tevi, was the same Rabban Gamliel mentioned above, the Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh who lived after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. So, what was this korban pesach he was preparing? Reshash (R. Shmuel Shtrashon of Vilna), printed in the back of the Gemara) hits upon the answer, connecting this story of Rabban Gamliel with Rabban Gamliel's own stated position regarding the gedi mekulas:

In my humble opinion it appears that this event occurred after the destruction of the Temple. And because we find that he is of the opinion in the Mishna that one can make a gedi mekulas on the eves of Passover, and Rashi explains that it is as a remembrance for the Temple, therefore because of its dearness he would call it a Pascal lamb. ... For Rabban Gamliel because he wanted to show that it was only a remembrance and people should not think that he is eating sacrifices outside the time, he commanded to do it differently and to roast it on the grate...

That is to say, that Rabban Gamliel himself did the practice of gedi mekulas and went so far as to call it a pesach. However, even he accepted that something needed to be done to distinguish it from the actual korban pesach, so he commanded Tevi his slave to mike a minor change in its preparation - one that would have invalidated it had it been a real korban pesach, but one that was subtle and not to noticeable - he had him roast it on a metal grate.

It is possible that this also connects to the famous saying of Rabban Gamliel in the Hagaddah, quoted from the Mishna Pesachim (10:5) that one who does not say pesach, matzah, and marror does not fulfill one's obligation. Now, in the hagaddah we say, "The pesach that our forbearers used to eat...". But the text in the mishna is "The pesach is on account of...". Is it not possible that Rabban Gamliel had a gedi mekulas at his seder, called it a pesach, and when he got up to this section of the seder, said: "This pesach is on account of..."? This ritual would have taken the place of the korban pesach, and had a role - perhaps a central role -at the seder night.

This pseudo-Pesach, with or without small changes to mark its non-korban status, was practiced in the generations immediately following the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. This is completely understandable. The major ritual of Pesach in the time of the Beit HaMikdash was not matzah or the telling of the Exodus, it was the eating of the korban pesach. The very name of the Yom Tov itself - in the Torah known only as chag haMatzot - was named after the korban pesach. The transition away from this mitzvah as the mitzvah of the Yom Tov and of the seder did not happen overnight. People - and even some of the Rabbis - did not want to give it up so quickly. So, in the absence of bringing a true korban pesach, the ritual of a pseudo-pesach was born.

In the following generations, when the memory of the actual korban pesach in the Beit HaMikdash began to fade, this ritual continued but became somewhat attenuated. We no longer find people calling goats pesach, but we do find the practice to eat roasted meat on Pesach: " A place that has the custom to eat roasted meat on Passover eve may do so. A place that has the custom not to eat, may not eat" (Mishna Pesachim 4:4). It seems that the custom referred to here was not just to allow roasted meat on the seder night, but a specific custom to make sure to eat roasted meat in memory of the korban pesach. This perhaps explains the Mishna's text of the mah nishtana: "For on all other nights we eat meat that is roasted, double-boiled, or boiled, but on this night, only roasted." (Mishna Pesachim 10:4). While many have assumed that this text is from the period before the churban, the Temple's destruction, it is explicit in the previous mishna (10:3), that the rituals being described here are from a post-churban period. It seems, rather, that this text of the mah nishtana reflects the practice, even after the churban, to eat roasted meat - and only roasted meat - on the seder night.

This practice of eating roasted meat to keep the experience of the korban pesach alive finds a startling expression in a text of the Hagaddah from the Cairo Geniza. In that text we find the following brakhot, after the second cup of wine is drunk:

Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who takes bread from the land.
Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has commanded our forefathers to eat matzah, bitter herbs, and fire-roasted meat, to remember His acts of might. Blessed are You, Who remembers the covenant.

What is clearly reflected here is a practice to eat roasted meat, and to incorporate it with the mitzvah of matzah, to have a real koraich - the eating of matzah together with marror and roasted meat.

Now, in the time of the Talmud, Hazal took extra steps to make sure that people would not confuse the meat eaten during the seder night with that of the pesach, declaring that it was forbidden to say "this meat is for Pesach," and that one should not lift the meat when talking about the Pesach (Pesachim 53a, 116b). In Ashkenaz these concerns dominated, and the practice is to not eat any roasted meat on the seder night, in keeping with the places mentioned in Mishna Pesachim (4:4) "where the custom is not to eat roasted meat" (see Shulkhan Arukh, OH 473, and Mishne Brurah). However, many Sefardic communities still have the practice to eat roasted meat - even roasted goat or lamb - on the seder night, still keeping alive the memory of the eating of the korban pesach. I was even told by one of my students of a Moroccan practice to buy a lamb a few days before Pesach, and to have it in the house until erev Pesach, and then to slaughter it and roast eat and eat it on the seder night, all in keeping with the reading this week from Parashat HaChodesh - "On the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man ... a lamb for a house." (Shemot 12:3). Some practices take a long, long time to fade.

Two important themes emerge from the above discussion. The first is the question about where we go after the churban. Do we continue to hearken back (or forward) to a time of bringing korbanot, or do we come to grips with our current reality and recognize that we live in a world without korbanot. This, of course, is the theme we raised last week regarding the bringing of an actual korban pesach nowadays, with both sides having strong proponents in Hazal and in the poskim.
The other theme is the tension between a deeply felt religious impulse coming from the people and rabbinic concerns of propriety (nireh k'okhel kodshim ba'chutz). To a degree, this is the story of many minhagim, where the practices may have challenged certain rabbinic sensibilities, but were not opposed out of respect for the people's religious impulse. In this case, that dialectic played out in an interesting way - it initially gave great latitude to this pseudo-ritual, respecting the practice of places that adopted the ritual, and at most demanding that some small marker of difference be present. In the end, more demands were raised, and while some communities (Ashkenaz) weighed fully in favor of the rabbinic concerns, others (particularly certain Sephardic communities) gave fuller expression to the minhag, and to the religious sensibility of the people. This dialectic remains with us today and continues to play itself out in many areas in our religious, halakhic life.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, first and second year students learned sugyot dealing with the korban pesach and hametz. Third and fourth year students began their learning of Hilkhot Aveilut, starting with kriah and aninut, the period before burial. They will be learning the topics of kevurah, hesped and nichum aveilim up through the Pesach break, and then learn the topics of shiva, shloshim, the 12 months for parents until the end of our zman at the end of May.

On Monday, our musmach Rabbi Adam Scheier brought a small contingent of community members from his synagogue, Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. Our Montreal guests spent the morning learning Pesach topics in the Beit Midrash, first with Rabbi Weiss and then with Rabbi Yamin Levy. They shared a nice lunch with the yeshiva, and had an opportunity to talk to the students and the rebbeim. During the lunch, Shmuly Yanklowitz, a fourth-year student, made a siyyum on the entire Tanakh in memory of his grandfather Mitchell Janowski z"l. Shmuly gave a short shiur on the book of Micha, and shared some memories of his grandfather from his youth. As Shmuly is the major force behind Uri L'Tzedek, he made sure to order the lunch from Mr. Bagel, an establishment which had just received Uri L'Tzedek's Tav certification.

And in other Tav news, on Wednesday the Tav HaYosher celebrated its expansion nationwide and reaching 30 restraints now under its auspices. The event was held a Café 76 (under the Tav, of course!), with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin as guest speaker. It was an amazing program, with a nice turnout from the community and the press.

As is our custom, we hold 2-3 yahrtzeit shiurim each year for Gedolim from the previous generations. On Wednesday, Rabbi Love gave this year's first yahrtzeit shiur, in memory of Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, z"l, who passed away 15 years ago, on 20 Adar 5755 (1995). Rabbi Love spoke of his tremendous middot, and of his legendary Torah brilliance, sensitive and creative psak, and strong focus in psak on relevant real-world issues, such as technology, science, and medicine. Chaval al d'avdin vilo misthakhin.