Friday, February 18, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

How exactly can a finite human being, rooted in her physicality, connect to an infinite, non-physical God?  This question is one that the Torah grapples with throughout the second half of the book of Shemot.  As we have been exploring in our recent parasha discussions, God commands for the building of a physical Mishkan to house the Glory of God enveloped in the cloud.   Neither of these are representations of God Godself.  The Mishkan delimits a place, a space, for the Divine presence to inhabit, and the Glory of God is a created thing which represents God's presence, but not God Godself.  In such a physical space, and with such a felt physical Presence, a through the profoundly physical act of the offering of sacrifices,  finite people were able to connect to an infinite God.

This is the means that the Torah provided, but it is easy to blur the line between it and between creating an actual physical representation of God, between identifying God with the physical, between the making of idols.  It is exactly this line which is crossed as soon as Moshe leaves the people on their own, and tarries in his return from Har Sinai.  The people make a Golden Calf, and call out:  "This is your gods, Israel, who have brought you up from the Land of Egypt." (Shemot 32:4).  

Now, when it comes to idolatry, the Torah recognizes two types.  There is the idolatry of worshipping other gods.  This is the idolatry that is prohibited in the second of the Ten Commandments.  "You shall not have any other gods before Me.  You shall not make for yourself an engraved image... You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them because I am the Lord your God, a jealous God..." (Shemot  20:3-5).   The focus here is the worship of other gods, and the imagery of God as a jealous God evokes the husband who is jealous because of his wife's actual or suspected adultery (see Bamidbar 5:14).  It is a violation of the fidelity of the God-Israel relationship, it is a "whoring after other gods." (Devarim 31:16).  

There is, however, another type of idolatry.  Not the worship of other gods, but the corrupting of the idea of God, the worship of an image as a representation of the true God.  It is this idolatry that the Torah warns against immediately after the Ten Commandments and the Revelation at Sinai: " And the Lord said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the people of Israel, You have seen that I have talked with you from Heaven. You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.  (Shemot 20:19-20).   God is saying, in effect, "Because you saw that I talked to you from heaven, you may think that you actually saw something, that you saw Me.  You may attempt to represent me with images of gold and silver.  Know that this is forbidden.  I remained in Heaven; I never came down;  I am not of this world and cannot be represented in a physical fashion."    This meaning is made explicit in Devarim, when the Torah retells the event of the Revelation: " Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day when the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire;. Lest you corrupt, and make you an engraved image, the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female." (Devarim 4:15-16).  The key word here is tashchitun, to corrupt, not to worship the wrong god, but to worship the right God corruptly, to corrupt the very idea of God Godself.

When it comes to the Golden Calf, the commentators debate which form of idolatry took place.  Did the people believe the Calf to be a different god, as is perhaps indicated by the use of the plural ("your gods, who have brought you up..."), evoking the constellation of pagan gods, or did they create the Calf as a physical representation of God, as a more immediate way to connect to and worship God?  Psychologically, it seems hard to believe that after everything they had just experienced, that the People would so quickly backslide into their earlier pagan beliefs, but perhaps this is just evidence of how hard it is and how much work is necessary to change a person's deeply ingrained practices and beliefs.   So while the psychological argument is debatable, the textual evidence is, I believe, quite clear.   " The Lord said to Moshe: Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted; They have strayed quickly from the path which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf..." (Shemot 31:7-8).  The key word, here again, is shecheit, corrupted.  They have not abandoned Me; they have not whored after other gods; they have corrupted - corrupted the worship of God and the idea of God.  They have strayed from the path that they were commanded, they have violated the rules, and left narrow path that allows only certain forms of worship, but that have not violated the faith, they have not believed in or worshiped other gods.

The Golden Calf, then, was the People's need to go one step further than the Mishkan.  It was the need for an actual physical representation of God.  They lapsed into this because of Moshe's absence.  What is the causal relationship between these two events?   First, it is possible that as long as Moshe was present, the people did not need a physical representation of God because Moshe served that purpose.   A religious leader, especially if he is a charismatic one (or, in Moshe's unique case, has the opportunity to speak to God directly), can often come to represent God in the mind of those he leads.  Although there is no actual confusion of the leader with God (one hopes), having a person who represents religious authority, who (ideally) embodies the teachings of the religion, can satisfy in the mind of the worshipper the need for a more concrete representation of God Godself.   Secondly, it is possible that because people are naturally drawn to the need to connect to something physical, that if no one is around to keep a vigilant watch, and if they are not able to do so themselves, then they will naturally slide into the use of the physical to represent the Divine.

I believe that both of these two reasons are true, and we must be aware that these dangers persist even in our day.  People who are religiously yearning, who are looking for a means of connection, may tend to focus on their religious leader, their rabbi, as a substitute, and to raise their rabbi to a God-like status.   While rabbis deserve respect and at times even reverence - and this is a value often needs strengthening - they do not warrant slavish worship.  Such worship of a human being is a form of idolatry, a disaster for the rabbi who can forget his own fallibility and need for humility, a disaster for the congregant, who can shut down his or her critical facilities, and not think for themselves in religious and life matters, and it is a disaster for the religion and for our relationship to God. 

Even when people do not idolize their religious leaders - and , indeed, it is often more, not less, respect that is needed - there is still a strong draw to find something in our world to serve as a means of connection.  The ideal response to this need would be to find ways to connect other than through our physical nature.   It is for this reason that I believe that Moshe, after the sin of the Golden Calf, made the bizarre, and - seemingly - highly inappropriate request of God, "I beg you, if I have found favor in Your eyes, show me Your way" (Shemot 33:13).  And even after being rebuffed, he is relentless, "And he said, I beg You, show me Your Glory"  (Shemot 33:18).  Given God's burning anger against the People, how could Moshe think that such a request would be granted?  And yet, miraculously, God grants his request: "And the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." (Shemot 33:19).   Why was this request made now, and why was it granted?

The answer, I believe, is obvious.  The People needed something more than a Mishkan, but less than a Calf.  They needed something that, unlike the Mishkan, was directly God, but yet was not an idol.  They needed to understand God, to know God's way, to see - to understand - God's Glory, and not just to see the cloud that surrounded it.  To replace the physical seeing with the intellectual understanding.  And this God understands, and God agrees to.   I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  "And God said, You cannot see my face; for no man shall see me and live." (Shemot 33:20).  According to Rambam, this means - You cannot understand Me directly, even the use of human language, like the use of physicality, is too limited, to human, to describe or understand Me.  But you can "see My back," you can understand how I act in the world, what are My attributes, what are My ways.    God then provides us an alternative to connecting through the physical, and that is connecting through the intellect, through striving to understand God and God's ways.

How do we achieve such understanding of God?  How do we connect through our minds, and not through our bodies? The answer depends on the person.  For Rambam, the answer was the use of the rational mind and the study of philosophy and theology.  For the kabbalists, the answer was the use of the mystical mind, the study of kabbalah, and the achievement of mystical states.  For many today, the answer is through the study of Torah - God's "mind," as it were - and Halakha - God's way for us to act in the world. 

The study of Torah and Halakha is, I believe is the most traditional and most realizable path, but even it has its potential pitfalls.  For many people study Torah and halakha as an intellectual pursuit alone, not as the use of the intellectual in the pursuit of knowing God.   This can be seen from the lack of interest in studying the agadata, the sections of the Talmud that are less intellectually challenging but that are the essence of Hazal's understanding of God, Humanity, and Creation.  It can also be seen among those who have no interest in anything outside of the Talmud - whether it is Tanakh, Jewish thought, or other pursuits that can heighten a person's awareness of God and God's will.  When Rambam, in his Book of Mitzvot, describes the mitzvah to love God (Positive Mitzvah 5), he states that one achieves love of God through the study of Torah.  But when he describes this mitzvah in Mishneh Torah, he states that love of God is achieved through understanding the natural world, not God's revelation, but God's creation (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 2:2).   How many of us try to connect to God in this way? 

Indeed, when God reveals Godself to Moshe, God does this through naming the Divine attributes.  How many of us, of those who study Torah, devote any of our time to pondering these attributes, to thinking about God directly?   It is perhaps for this reason that Moshe, after the sin of the Calf, broke the Tablets when he descended from the mountain.  He saw that the people could be led astray by anything that was too much of this world.  Even stone tablets that contained the word of God could become an object of worship, a type of an idol.  Even the study of Torah and Halakha, if it is only meaningful in itself, and not as a way of understanding God and connecting to God, can be a type of an idol.  Let us strive to find ways that we can truly connect to God, and that we can study and embody Torah and Halakha as part of our pursuit to know God and to serve God.  Let us strive to seek out God in many ways, to bring a  wide range of pursuits - rational, mystical, aesthetic, artistic, scientific - in the study of God's revelation and God's creation - to the service of knowing of God and of connecting to God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

The daf yomi this week, in two places, addresses the issue of personal versus collective responsibility.  In Zevachim (97b), the Gemara asks why a Kohen cannot eat the meat of a sacrifice that has absorbed the juices of an invalid sacrifice.  While it is prohibited to eat an invalid sacrifice, i.e., the absorbed juices, shouldn't the mitzvah of eating the kosher sacrifice override, based on the principle of aseh dokhe lo ta'aseh, a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one?  To this question Rava responds: "A positive mitzvah does not override a negative one in the Temple."   This statement begs for an explanation, although none is given in the Gemara.  Why should the mitzvot relating to the Temple be different?  Shouldn't there perhaps be even a greater obligation to do the mitzvot of the Temple than other mitzvot?

The answer emerges, I believe, from a clearer understanding of what it means to have a mitzvah in connection with the sacrifices.  There is a mitzvah, say, to bring the twice-daily 'olah, burnt offering.  Who, exactly, is obligated to bring it?  All the Kohanim?  All the Kohanim working that day?   Certainly it is not an obligation on any specific Kohen.  It is most accurate to say that it is not that a person is commanded, but that the thing must be done.  The burnt offering must be brought daily, and this is a collective responsibility of the Kohanim.  This framing can be seen in the way Rambam phrases some of these mitzvot in the opening of his Laws of Sacrifices: "The Process of the Chatat" (mitzvah 3);  "The Process of the Asham" (mitzvah 6);  "The Process of the Shlamim" (mitzvah 10); and so on.  Thus, even when he gets to our case, the eating of sacrifices, and focuses on the Kohanim's act, to wit: "That the Kohanim should eat the meat of the Most Holy Sacrifices in the Temple" (mitzvah 7), it stands to reason that this is not a personal mitzvah, but a collective obligation on the Kohanim to ensure that the sacrifice be eaten. 

This idea of a collective, non-personal obligation can be found in a very common mitzvah today, and that is praying in a minyan.  According to most poskim, this is not a personal obligation - note how many observant people do not pray in a minyan!  It is true that there is great value to pray in a minyan, and people are strongly encouraged to do so, and one can be assured that his or her prayers will be accepted when they pray in a minyan, but it is not a strict personal obligation to do so.    Does that mean that a community need not have a regular minyan?  No, while it is not a personal obligation, there is a demand that a regular minyan take place, and it is the community's responsibility to ensure that this happens.

If this is then the way to frame the mitzvot in the Temple, that the Kohanim have a collective responsibility to ensure that the sacrifices are brought and that the meat is eaten, we can understand Rava's statement that this mitzvah does not override a negative prohibition.  Normally the principle of aseh doche lo ta'aseh applies when I have a personal obligation.  Because I must do this act, I am allowed to do it even in the face of certain obstacles.  For example, if I have a linen garment, and, according to halakha, the only way I can do the mitzvah of techelet in my tzitzit strands is by using wool strands, then my obligation to put on the tzitzit allows me - compels me - to do it even in face of this obstacle, this prohibition.   But if it is not my mitzvah - if it is a collective responsibility, then there is nothing that mandates that I, personally, do it.  Because I am not acting under personal obligation, I have no mandate and no license to transgress the negative mitzvah.  Thus, it is better that the meat not be eaten, and that no one violate the negative commandment, then that an individual Kohen eats the meat and violates the prohibition without license.

[It should be noted, of course, that the times when we apply the principle of aseh dokhe lo ta'aseh are very rare, and are first and foremost limited to cases where it is only a simple negative prohibition, without the more severe punishments and without accompanying positive mitzvot, and it is only when there is no other way to do the positive mitzvah, and it is only when the negative mitzvah is transgressed at the moment of fulfilling the positive mitzvah.  In short, please do not try this at home without consulting your local posek.]

Of course, this idea can be abused.  The problem with collective responsibility is that no one feels personally responsible and thus the job never gets done.   This problem is expressed in the pithy phrase of the Gemara: "A pot watched by committee doesn't get hot enough but doesn't get cold."    This is also why in some communities it can be hard to get a minyan.  Everyone assumes that some else will be there.  It is critical that individuals take their degree of responsibility even for communal responsibilities, but often such communal goals can only be achieved by assigning one person with the personal responsibility to make sure that everyone participates so that the job gets done.

While communal responsibilities can lead to a shirking of responsibility, the message of the Gemara Zevachim is that we have to be sensitive to cases when something is not for us, specifically, to do.  There are times when we need to step back, to allow others to do it, especially if our doing it would mean a violation or a shirking of another responsibility.  This balance emerges from the Gemara in Kiddushin (32a) that discusses whether honoring one's father or mother should take precedence over another mitzvah.  Issi ben Yehuda states that it depends on whether the other mitzvah can be done by someone else.  If it cannot, then you need to attend to this mitzvah.  However, if it can, then step back and let someone else do it, and you do your mitzvah of honoring your parents.    To do this other mitzvah would be to shirk your responsibility to your parents.  This other mitzvah is not yours personally to do, so let someone else do it.

Such is the case with communal, distributed responsibilities.  However, the opposite is the case with personal responsibilities, or by communal responsibilities that no one else is able to do.  Consider a case of someone needing a bone marrow transplant, and a certain person is the only potential donor.  Or someone needing surgery, and only one doctor can perform it.  While these are cases of communal responsibilities, they transform into personal responsibilities when no one else is available.  Such is the case that is discussed in today's daf, Zevachim 100a.  The Gemara quotes a braitta (Semachot, ch. 4) in the name of R. Akiva regarding a corpse that no one is attending to - what is called a met mitzvah.   In such a case, says R. Akiva, if no one is attending to it, and you can attend to it, the obligation to bury this corpse becomes yours, and you must do it despite any obstacles.  Even if you are a Kohen Gadol, and a nazir  - both of whom are not allowed to become tamei, ritually impure, even to their relatives - and you are going to bring your korban Pesach - which you won't be able to do if you become tamei, even in this case, if there is no one else to attend to this met mitzvah, you must become tamei and bury this body.   

Such is the weight of what has become your personal obligation - when it is not just to do a mitzvah, but to ensure that this societal need is addressed, that this person is buried properly - such is its weight that it can override so many obstacles.  Even when something has become your responsibility de facto, not because it started as yours but because others are neglecting their responsibility, even in such a case, you must recognize that it is now for you alone to do this important task, and that you must make sure that it gets done at all costs.

This was the example that my wife's grandfather, Leo Hack z"l, who passed away this last Friday, set with his life. He saw the metei mitzvah in the Jewish community that no one was caring about, that no one was attending to, and he understood that although no one chose or elected him for the task, it had become his responsibility to ensure that all these people were given a proper Jewish burial.  Let us all strive to learn from this model, to find those areas of our life where we see a problem that no one is taking care of, that de facto has become our responsibility, and do everything in our power to make sure that we take on this task, that we do what we can to fix the problem, that we leave this world a better place than we found it.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This Sunday we celebrated two simchot bat.  Seth (YCT 2006) and Jamie Braunstein celebrated the birth of their baby girl, Meira Lital, age 1 week, at 10:00 AM and Simon (year 3) and Sivan Livson celebrated the birth of their daughter, Carmel Yehudit, at 1:00 PM.  Many of the YCT chevre were present, and were able to share in the joy and celebration.    She'tizku li'gadlan li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim. 
On a personal and sad note, my wife's grandfather, Mr. Leo Hack, passed away last Friday at the age of 94 years after having many years of Alzheimer's disease.   The funeral was this past Sunday, and the death notice was published in the New York Times.  Leo Hack z"l lived a long and highly productive life dedicated to serving the Jewish community.  He was the first Orthodox Jew to work for the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, and during his time there ensured that all events were kosher and that the Federation was closed on Shabbat.  He devoted decades to working for Riverside Memorial Chapel in Miami making it a place that Orthodox Jews could receive a respectful and halakhic service and burial, and over his time in Miami he made certain that no Jew died, no matter how poor, without a Jewish funeral and burial.  May his memory be for a blessing and inspiration to us all.

At the yeshiva itself, students continued to learn hilkhot Shabbat and hilkhot Kashrut.   Third- and fourth year students had a week of intensive professional training as well.  On Wednesday and Thursday, they immersed themselves in training sessions on Community Organizing, led by Meir Lakein and Jeannie Appleman.  Students learned how to use personal narrative as a way of leading, and how to develop and articulate their personal and professional missions.  And earlier that week, on Tuesday, all third- and fourth-year students had a special seminar in the afternoon where they reported on their 10-12 weeks of Pastoral Field Work.  The seminar was also attended by Dr. Michelle Friedman, Rabbi Shimon Hirschhorn, Ms. Anna Kirshblum, Ms. Miriam Schachter, and myself, and the reports and discussion displayed such insight, sensitivity, and connectedness that it was a true bracha to be present and to participate.    All present felt a profound sense of pride that these will be the rabbis that we will be sending into the Jewish community.