Friday, March 19, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Parshat Vayikra introduces us into the world of korbanot. The institution of sacrifices is a very difficult concept for many today. How do we understand why God would want or need sacrifices? And even if they are for us, as a way to connect to God, the acts involved in bringing sacrifices - slaughtering, sprinkling the blood, burning of the fats - seem much too bloody, gory, and smelly to constitute an elevated religious experience. [This is not even to address the question of whether it is proper to take an animal's life for this purpose - a questionable critique when voiced by people who are not vegetarians. If one could understand sacrifices as a meaningful religious experience, then use for religious ends would certainly be as legitimate as use to satisfy our physical cravings.]

Rambam, like many moderns, was also bothered by the institution of sacrifices, and stated that God had only commanded them as a concession to human weakness. In his Guide to the Perplexed (III:32), he states that God commanded them as a way of weaning the people away from idolatry. The people of that time would not have been able to worship God just by prayer, and could only conceive of sacrifices as a true form of worship, since that was how all of the pagan gods were worshiped. Thus, God moved them away from idolatry, and commanded that they redirect their worship - with sacrifices - to God.

Ramban rejects Rambam's position, and demonstrates that sacrifices were a form of worshiping God even absent a context of idolatrous worship. Indeed, Kayin and Hevel offered sacrifices, as did Noah, and they were all acceptable and pleasing to God. In addition, it would be religiously offensive to suggest that the entire institution of sacrifices was not God's true will:


His [Rambam's] statements are preposterous. They "heal the great hurt superficially" and render "the table of the Lord disgusting" by limiting its use to placate the wicked and the foolish. But the Torah states that they are "... a sweet savor"...
(Commentary to Vayikra 1:9)

What then are their purpose? While Ramban indicates that their true meaning can only be understood based on Kabbalah, he gives a rational explanation as well. Focusing on the
chatat, the sin offering, Ramban states that when a person sins he owes his life to God. The way to atone for this is to bring a surrogate - an animal. The person will identify with the animal and through the process of slaughtering the animal, sprinkling its blood, and offering up its innards, the person will see him or herself as if he or she underwent this same process. The person will take to heart how he or she has sinned against God, owes God his or her own life, and recognizes God's mercy, that God has accepted this as a substitute. This will be a catalyst for teshuva, and thus the means of achieving atonement.

Ramban's explanation is limited, however. It focuses on one sacrifice - the
chatat - and on a negative emotional experience - the sense of death and destruction of life. Our parsha, in contrast, opens with the olah, the burnt offering, which is offered freely, not based on sin. And the words used suggest a more positive resonance. The sacrifice will be li'rzono, for his favor. And he shall be makriv, bring his sacrifice close. Indeed, the very word sacrifice, korban, comes from the word karev, which means to bring forward. It is the bringing forward of the animal to God, but also the bringing forward of oneself to God, the drawing close with God.

Let us also not forget that Vayikra follows Shemot, follows the construction of the Mishkan. The purpose of the Mishkan was
veshakhanti bi'tokham, "and I - God - will dwell in their midst." Shemot ended with this being fulfilled, with the Glory of God filling the Mishkan. The book of Vayikra, then, is what one does in the Mishkan, how one connects to this Presence of God. The sacrifices are clearly more than just a form of atonement. They are a primary form of connecting - they are the avoda, the act of worship of God.

How, then, are we to understand how such a bloody process can be an appropriate worship of God? The first step is to realize that we are far removed from a real connection to the natural, physical world. Not too long ago, when our great-grandparents wanted a chicken dinner, they would not go to the supermarket and buy a packaged chicken that had no smell and was immaculately clean. They would take a live chicken to the back yard, slaughter it, pluck it, gut it, clean it, and then cook it. Sacrifices were no more bloody or unusual then their everyday experiences.

Still, what were their purpose? It seems clear that sacrifices - animals, but also grain (remember that the first sacrifice in the world was that of Kayin's - "the fruit of the ground") - were the primary forms of wealth in those days. Not only were they valuable property, they were also the product of one's own labor. People had a deep, personal connection to the flock that they had tended, and the crops that they had raised. By offering them to God, they were giving God the labor of their hands. They were recognizing that their wealth, and their labor, was in fact God's gift. They were also, in this process, forging a deep connection to God. For what is a greater way to connect with someone that to give that thing which is most dear, most valued by you to that other? This is the meaning of the
olah, the sacrifice that was fully burnt, and that was a free-will offering. It is the giving over of oneself fully, the giving back to God that which is God's, the forging of a deep connection with God.

We, today, do not have sacrifices. But have we really successfully replaced them with prayer? Are we able to recreate this experience of giving over of that which is most important to us in the service of God? Are we able to act in way that we recognize that the fruit of our labor is really God's, to give to God in a way that we give that which is most dear, and in so doing, forge a deep connection with God?

We need to ask ourselves what it is that is most dear to us. For many it is our time - the most precious commodity in today's world. How much of our time do we dedicate to serving God? To prayer, to learning, to doing mitzvot? And it is not just time that is important, it is our effort and our work. When we work at something - be it growing crops, or working at computers, or providing legal advice or medical service - we feel invested and connected. If we do not have sacrifices to give to God, let us find ways to give our labor to God. To invest our energies in learning Torah, in working at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter, in providing medical services to those in need, in helping build a shul, in providing hospitality for Shabbat, in volunteering at the
chevra kadisha.

Let us all work to find ways that we can offer up that labor of our hands to God, so that we may draw close, so that we can bring ourselves to God.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Dov Linzer

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

Turning our attention from the korban pesach to the current practice of the seder, we looked this week at the other eating that is a mitzvah d'oraitta, a biblical mitzvah, on the seder night - matzah. While we rule that this is a mitzvah d'oraitta, this is far from clear as far as the simple sense of the verses are concerned. It is interesting to see how Hazal interpreted the verses to come to this conclusion.

Regarding matzah, the verses talk of two mitzvot: (a) to eat matzah and marror with the korban pesach (Shemot 12:8) and (b) to eat matzah for all seven days (Shemot 12:8; 13:7). The independence of these two mitzvot from one another can be seen by the fact that the pesach sheni, the make-up pesach sacrifice brough a month later, was to be eaten with matzah and marror (Bamidbar 9:11) even though one can eat chametz and has no other mitzvah to eat matzah at that time. There is one set of verses that implicitly connects these two mitzvot:



You shall therefore sacrifice the Passover to the Lord your God, of the flock and the herd... You shall eat no chametz with it; seven days shall you eat matzah with it, the bread of affliction; for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste...
(Devarim 16:2-3)


In these verses the seven days of eating matzah is connected to the eating on matzah together with the korban pesach - "seven days you shall eat matzah with it," i.e., with the korban pesach. Another way of reading this verse is not a connecting of the seven days of matzah to the first night, but a collapsing of those seven days into the eating of the first night. The Mekhilta of Rabban Shimon ben Yochai (12:18) picks up on this, and uses these words - "on it" to teach that the mitzvah of matzah applies only on the first night. However, those words also imply that matzah is eaten only together with the korban pesach. The Mekhilta in the end strikes a balance between the verses - the verse "on it" teaches that the mitzvah is the first night, and the verse "seven days you shall eat matzah" teaches that it is an independent mitzvah that night, not connected to the korban pesach.


Thus, matzah is established as a mitzvah independent of the korban pesach. However, a middle position is possible - that matzah can be eaten separately from the korban pesach but only when there is a Beit HaMikdash, so it is connected in a virtual way to the korban pesach. The Mekhilta suggests and in the end rejects this, quoting a snippet of a verse: "'In the evening you shall eat matzah' (Shemot 12:18) - the verse has established it as an independent obligation." This is clearly not the simple sense of the verse. The verse states "On the fourteenth of the month in the evening you shall eat matzah until the twenty-first of the month in the evening." However, but focusing a few words in the middle, Hazal established the independent identity of the mitzvah of matzah.


It is worth noting that there were those who disagreed, and who were of the opinion that matzah exists as a mitzvah only together with the korban pesach. The Gemara (Pesachim 120a) quotes the opinion of Rav Acha bar Yaakov that matzah nowadays is only a rabbinic mitzvah, since there is no korban pesach. Similarly, the Tosefta (Pesachim 2:22), views matzah and marror only as part of the korban pesach, and quotes R. Shimon who exempts women from all of them, since - according to him - women are exempt from the korban pesach. [The Gemara (Pesachim 91b) reinterprets this statement in line with its position that matzah is an independent mitzvah.]


The Tosefta ends by stating that matzah, marror, and the korban pesach can be done separate of one another. This does not mean that they are independent mitzvot. Rather, this is the middle position rejected by the Mekhilta. At the time of the Temple, when there is a korban pesach, the mitzvah of matzah can be done even if one is not eating the korban pesach since at least it is "on it," and connected in some virtual way to the korban. This position is also that of a braitta, which states that when a man is uncircumcised, although he cannot eat the korban pesach, he still eats matzah and marror. The inclusion of marror (which no one suggests is an independent mitzvah) and the need to derive from a verse that one still eats matzah and marror, make it clear that these mitzvot exists only in connection with the korban pesach, and are not fully independent mitzvot.


Now, together with establishing the mitzvah of matzah as an independent mitzvah of the seder night, also came the transforming of the mitzvah of the seven days of eating matzah. This mitzvah, mentioned several times in the Torah, was understood by Hazal to be an option, not an obligation. Indeed, if there were a general obligation to eat matzah all seven days, there would be little need to have a separate mitzvah to eat it that night. Thus, in the Gemara (Pesachim 120a), the gemara quotes a braitta which first establishes that there is no mitzvah to eat matzah all seven days (based on the fact that one verse only states six days, not seven days, of eating), and then goes on to establish that there is a mitzvah to eat it on the seder night. We have thus fully collapsed the seven day mitzvah into a mitzvah of the first night.


This collapsing of the mitzvah of matzah into the first night is nothing less than the transformation of Chag haMatzot into Chag haPesach. The Torah clearly recognizes two periods, "Pesach" - the 14th of Nissan, the time of the brining of the korban pesach (Bamidbar 33:3, and see Tosafot Rosh Hashana (13a), s.v. di'akrivu), and "Chag HaMatzot" - the seven day period from the 15th of Nissan through the 21st of Nissan (Shemot 23:13; 34:10. And see Vayikra 23:5-6 which juxtaposes the two). Now, according to the simple sense of the verses, Pesach is celebrated by the bringing of the korban pesach, and Chag HaMatzot is celebrated by eating matzot all seven days. This exactly parallels Chag HaSukkot, which is celebrated by sitting in a sukkah all seven days. Chag HaMatzot, thus, should have significance independant of the seder night.  But by focusing the mitzvah of matzah of the first night, we have  eating of matzah for the duration of Pesach into an extension of the real mitzvah, the eating of matzah on the seder night [and thus, in a way, fulfilled the verse "seven days you shall eat on it matzot."]. We have made the focus of the chag to be the seder night, and have transformed Chag haMatzot into Pesach.


In this way, also, the korban pesach has been replaced by the mitzvah of matzah. Thus, whereas in the Torah the mitzvot of the night centered around the korban pesach, for us, the mitzvot of the night - and in particular, the other mitzvah d'oraitta of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim, the telling of the story of the Exodus - center around the matzah.  Take the statement of Rabban Gamliel in the mishna (Pesachim 116b) that one who does not say "pesach, matzah, and marror," that is - who does not connect the story to the mitzvot of pesach, matzah, and marror - does not fulfill his or her obligation. This puts all the mitzvot on equal footing, and implicitly highlights the korban pesach, to which matzah and marror are attached. However, today, when we say this and explain the significance of these foods, we do not lift up or even point to the shank bone, lest one suspect we are bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple (Pesachim 116b). The focus of the hagaddah and the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim, then, naturally shifts to mitzvah of matzah.


The hagaddah's connection to, and even dependency on, the mitzvah of matzah is expressed halakhically as well. The Gemara (Pesachim 116b) states that the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim is dependent on the mitzvah of matzah. If matzah is biblical, so is the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim, and if matzah is rabbinic, then there is only a rabbinic mitzvah to say the hagaddah. This is learned from the verse "because of this" (Shemot 13:8) - ba'avor zeh - "'this'," says Rava, "means because of matzah and marror." What is noticeably absent is the mention of the korban pesach. The mitzvah of the hagaddah survives because we have connected it to the mitzvah of matzah and not to the mitzvah of the korban pesach. In other words, because matzah has taken the place of the korban pesach. This is made clear in the passage in the hagaddah (from the Mekhilta):

Perhaps from Rosh Chodesh? The verse teaches, "on that day." If "on that day," (Shemot 13:8) perhaps from the day before? The verse teaches, "because of this." "Because of this" I only said at a time when matzah and marror are present before you.


Why would I have said "the day before"? Because it was the day of the bringing of the korban pesach. And, indeed, one of the passages of the mitzvah of sippur yitziyat mitzrayim is explicitly connected to the bringing of the korban pesach (Shemot 12:25-27). Nevertheless, we learn from this verse that the mitzvah of the hagaddah is linked to the matzah, and thus still is applicable today. Matzah is the focus, not the korban pesach.


This focus on matzah, and the connection of the hagaddah to it, is made complete by the statement of Shmuel:


Shmuel said: "'Bread of affliction'" (Devarim 15:3) - bread that one says over it many things." We taught similarly: ""Bread of affliction' - bread that one says over it many things. Another interpretation: 'Bread of affliction' - it is written 'poor person' - what is the manner of a poor person? With a broken piece. Here too with a broken piece."
(Pesachim 115b)


The matzah is the bread that we say many things over - it is the focal point of the hagaddah. It is for this reason that we begin the hagaddah with "ha lachma anya" - this is the bread of affliction, this is the bread over which the hagaddah will be said. [Notice also the end of that passage - yasei vi'yifasch, let him come and eat/celebrate the Pesach - implicitly identifying the matzah with the korban pesach.]  And thus, at yachatz, we break the matzah right before magid, so this bread over which we say the hagaddah will also be lechem ani, a poor person's bread, a broken piece of bread.


In the absence of the korban pesach, the mitzvah of matzah moved to the forefront. It was understood to be an independent mitzvah, and took the place of the korban pesach as the centerpiece of the seder. The entire hagaddah now revolves around the matzah, the lechem oni/lechem ani. In the absence of the korban pesach, rather than shifting our attention to the seven days of Chag HaMatzot, we have continued to focus on our attention of the seder night, and Chag HaMatzot has been transformed into Chag haPesach.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week was relatively uneventful at the yeshiva, as the first- and second-year students continued learning korban pesach topics, as well as the regular Baba Kama learning. Third- and fourth-year students have now begun their second week of learning hilkhot Aveilut, and have been studying the topics of hesped, burial, and nichum aveilim, as well as doing special topics in kevurah - cremation, exhumation, and the like. They will be beginning to study the halakhot of the practices of aveilut after Pesach.

We began our Medical Ethics curriculum this last Monday, with a shiur that I gave on the topic of Abortion. Next week, students will be hearing a
shiur from Rabbi Helfgot on the topic of Infertility. After Pesach, we will focus on end-of-life issues, with shiurim and visiting experts and rabbonim.

In our Lifecycles class, we are wrapping up topics related to marriage, and on Thursday we covered the topic of birth control. Dr. Valerie Altmann visited the yeshiva and gave a wonderful presentation on the modes of birth control, and this was followed later in the day by a
shiur that I gave on the halakhic allowances for the use of birth control.

We will be ending our zman this coming Tuesday with a late-night pre-Pesach mishmar on Tuesday night, with many available
shiurim on Pesach and the seder. It promises to be a strong night of learning for the whole yeshiva, and a great way to enter into the chag.