Friday, June 10, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


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A Thought on the Parsha - Travelling with the Aron
Semikha Remarks - Rabbi Dov Linzer - June 5, 2011


My Dear Students -  Aaron, Josh, Avi, Ben, Dan, Seth, Eytan, Mishael,

Today you begin a new chapter -  a new parsha - in your lives, as you leave rabbinical school, as you cease being rabbinical students, and as you become rabbis.   The Torah as well, in this coming week's sidra, introduces a new parsha.  ויהי בנסוע הארון ויאמר משה, "And it was when the ark moved forth, and Moshe declared" - this tiny section, these two verses, are - according to the Gemara Shabbat, a book in its own right, so that what comes after it is an entirely different parsha, a different book, of the Torah.  In what way is this so?

Until this moment, in the Torah's narrative, time has been held in suspension.  The Children of Israel had received the Torah, but they had not yet brought the Torah into their lives.  That had organized a camp around the Mishkan, but they had yet to leave Mount Sinai.  Now, it is relatively easy to construct a perfect system, with Torah and mitzvot, with God in the center, as long as one is in the desert.  The true challenge is how does one leave Har Sinai, how does one move forward with the aron, how does one take the Torah and make one's way towards the Promised Land?

When we transition from a secure and familiar reality, when the camp shifts from a stable square to a shaky line, we become vulnerable, we can become fragmented, we can lose our way.  In the new book, the one that begins after the aron moves, problems abound: ויהי העם כמתעוננים.  The people complain, they grumble.  Things are not as familiar, not as comfortable.  Some will use the opportunity to leave altogether - כתינוק הבורח מבית הספר.   Others will want to go back to an imagined past, when everything was - at least in their minds - perfect and predictable - זכרנו את הדגה אשר נאכל במצרים חינם- oh, how wonderful things were back in Egypt!  So this new parsha has its dangers.  But to stay in the previous parsha, to stay encamped at Mount Sinai, is to keep the Torah in the desert, to never enter the Promised Land.

There are times when we are where we need to be, when we should stop moving, when we should build and strengthen our camp.  על פי ה' יחנו.  For many centuries we had indeed been in the Promised Land, encamped around the Temple.   But when change came, when the Temple was destroyed, we were ready to move forward.  על פי ה' יסעו- we were able to reinvent ourselves, and to shift our focus from Temple to Torah.  Since then, we have been encamped in another stable reality - in a pre-Modernity, galut Judaism.   When change came this time, when our reality was shaken - were we ready to move forward?  When Modernity and the haskalah presented compelling alternate views of the world, when they posited epistemological assumptions and value-systems that were at odds with those of tradition - did we rise to the challenge or did we build our walls higher?   When the Holocaust destroyed a third of our people and raised the most profound questions about God as a God of history - did we begin to think theologically or did we once again say that halakha will answer all religious questions?  When post-modernism raised questions about any and all truth-claims, and when feminism raised profound questions about power, equality, and morality - did we also struggle with these, or did we continue to live in an imagined, romantic past?

For many the response at this time was obvious.  Judaism had lost all relevance, all claims to truth, all claims to morality.  The answer was to leave - כתינוק הבורח מבית הספר.   And for many others, the only solution was to pretend as if nothing had happened.  To shift from the nice stable reality that they had become accustomed to over all these years, was unthinkable.  The solution was to remain firmly encamped in the desert.  Only a few understood that we had entered a new parsha, that we needed to move, but that we had to discover how to move - על פי ה' יסעו- how to move forward with the aron at the center.  While this new parsha will undoubtedly mean struggles, challenges, and risks, the alternative is unthinkable - to remain encamped in the desert, to relegate ourselves to irrelevance.

My dear students - Mishael, Eytan, Seth, Dan, Ben, Avi, Josh, and Aaron, you are entering a new parsha in your lives.  You are leaving the familiar structure of the yeshiva, and throwing yourselves into the larger challenges of the world, of Klal Yisrael, and of rabbinic leadership.  You have no illusions that we can keep the Torah in the desert.  Each one of you is keenly aware of the challenges that confront us. You know that, on the one hand, you must strengthen the camp as much as possible, you must establish it on a foundation that is foursquare and firm.  You know that you must teach Torah in ways that are profound and meaningful, that you must give halakhic guidance that is sensitive to the individual and true to halakha, that you must run minyanim, visit the sick, be present at semachot and at times of loss and suffering, that you must be wise pastoral counselors and inspiring religious leaders. 

But you also know that to do just this is to keep the Torah from moving forward.  You know that to truly face the challenges of today, you must be prepared to take on questions of the relevance of Torah Judaism, questions of faith and Biblical criticism, questions of God and the Holocaust, questions of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, questions of the morality of halakha.  You know that perhaps the most pressing question today is not how to get to the Promised Land, but what and where is the Promised Land?  Not in the geographic sense, but in the spiritual, religious sense.  What is the purpose of being Jewish?  What does God want from us?  What is our role in the world?  You know that to not address these questions is another type of תינוק הבורח, another way of running away from the demands of the Torah, a Torah that must be brought into our world.  You know that this is your responsibility, as you know become our rabbis, our religious leaders.  You are the ones that will, that must, lead our people forward, to grapple with these challenges openly and honestly, to find their way out of the desert. 

Aaron, Josh, Avi, Ben, Dan, Seth, Eytan, Mishael  - You have spent your  years at Chovevei Torah preparing yourselves to enter this new parsha.  You have learned a Torah that was not meant to stay in the desert encamped around Har Sinai, but that was meant to be lived in the world in all its complexity.  You have learned rabbinic skills and you have learned leadership skills that have put the staves on the aron.  You are now ready to take the aron, to take this Torah, and to confront these challenges, to lead the people through the desert.  Your task will not be easy, but you are prepared for it.  You are our leaders and you will bring the Torah, you will bring the Jewish People, into the Promised Land.

עלו והצליחו!  מזל טוב!

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