Friday, March 25, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


The Mishkan, after many many months devoted to its construction, and after many many parshiyot devoted to its narrative, is - in parashat Shmini - finally dedicated and becomes operational.   On the eighth and final day of inauguration, Moshe introduces the final series of sacrifices to the Children of Israel, with the declaration that, if they do these final inauguration sacrifices then "the Glory of the Lord will appear to you." (Vayikra 9:6).  And, when the ritual is completed, we are told that, in fact, "the Glory of God appeared to the People.  And a fire went forth from before God and it consumed on the altar the olah, the burnt offering,and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces." (Vayikra 9:23-24).

Amidst this direct manifestation of God's presence, and the rejoicing of the People, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, bring their own sacrifice, an offering of incense which was "a foreign fire, one that God had not commanded them." (Vayikra 10:1).  This time, again, a "fire went forth from before God,"  however it does not consume the sacrifices, but those who brought it: "and it consumed them, and they died before the Lord."  (Vayikra 10:2).

While the midrash suggests a number of reasons why they were punished, it seems that the simple explanation is what the text itself states - that they drew near with a sacrifice that they had not been commanded to bring.  The issue is not violation of God's command per se or its converse, doing a non-commanded religious act, it is rather the much more specific concern of how one draws close to God.  This can be understood as a natural result of the metaphysical reality of God's presence.  The Torah describes God as a "consuming fire."  God is the life-force of the universe;  God is infinite power.  When approached correctly, this brings forth fire that will consume the sacrifices and bring good to the world.  When approach incorrectly, or in unregulated ways, this brings forth fire that will destroy people, and bring tragedy to the world.  Hence, we find that wherever and whenever the aron, the ark that housed the tablets, is handled incorrectly, that tragedy immediately ensues.  Thus, we read in this week's haftorah, that when Uzah makes an innocent mistake and grabs unto the aron to prevent it from falling, is immediately stricken dead by God (Shmuel II, 6:7).  Such is the power of God's presence, and of the aaron which is the location of the presence, that if handled incorrectly, can cause death.

This approach, while true to the text, still does not provide a satisfying religious explanation.  We might react as King David did and be "angered that God had broken forth against Uzah," (Shmuel II,6:8), and we might try to understand how the punishment makes sense on a religious or moral level. 

I believe that the deeper meaning of what happened Nadav and Avihu is the need to strike the proper and delicate balance between religious fervor and passion and between regulation and limits.  Clearly, Nadav and Avihu were so moved by the manifestation of God's presence, that they felt a powerful religious need to draw close to it, to bring their own sacrifice of incense.  They acted on their fervor without reflecting or pausing to assess if what they were doing was proper.  Religious passion can be a powerful good, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  When people act on their unregulated religious passions, they will tend to feel that their religious actions are self-justifying.  If this is how my religious passion propels me to act, then it is a religious act, it is good.  If this gets me closer to God - in my mind - then it is good.   This "ends justify the means," and "if it feels right it is right," is very antithetical to a classical Jewish approach.  And, we only have to look at the world around us and the atrocities that are perpetrated in the name of religion to recognize that unbridled religious passion can be very bad indeed, it can even be evil.  The horrific, immoral and cowardly bombing that occurred this week near the Eged bus station in Israel is just the most recent example of the despicable acts can be justified by unregulated religious passion.

What, then, is the proper balance between passion and rules and regulations?  According to the Torah, it is to first follow the rules, to first ensure that one's actions are according to what "God has commanded."  When the people did what "God had commanded" the fire consumed the sacrifices.  When Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that "God had not commanded," the fire consumer them.  Once the rules are being followed, then one can bring all of his or her passions to the experience: "And the people saw and rejoiced and fell on their faces."   The mistake is to first focus on the passion.  When one does  this, the rules are violated, and the act is no longer a religious act, but a dangerous one, one that can bring destruction.

It is for this reason - this need to focus on the rules first - that immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu the Torah commands against serving God while intoxicated.  For many, becoming intoxicated is an important means to a state of religious ecstasy.  However, for the Torah it puts passion and experience above rules and responsibility.  Approaching God while intoxicated will bring death.  Rather, the Kohanim's prime responsibility is to not blur the boundaries, but to set them.  They must be sober so they can  "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually pure and the impure." (Vayikra 10:10).    The Kohanim - from the actions of Levi to defend God's honor at Har Sinai, to Pinchas' acting zealously for God, to Eliyahu jealously defending God's honor, to Matityahu's revolt against the Seleucids and the Hellenizers - were very good at religious passion.  God, however, had to bridle this in and redirect them, and made their first and primary responsibility to guard the Mishkan, to keep the impure out, and to set the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable.

And thus, the end of the parasha devotes itself to the detailed differentiation between the pure (i.e., kosher) and impure (i.e., non-kosher) animals, and ends by underscoring that setting of boundaries and making proper distinctions is the responsibility of not just the Kohanim, but of everyone.  "And to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the one which may not be eaten." (Vayikra 11:47).

Our challenge today is that we have learned this lesson perhaps too well.  We have so focused our religious experience on the rules and regulations, on halakha and all of its details, that we have completely lost touch with any sense of religious passion.  If there is no religious passion, then our religious life becomes just a life of observance, it becomes lifeless, antiseptic and anemic.    Part of the reason that this is so is because we have not - as a rule - prioritized this as a religious value in the home, in the synagogue, or in the schools.   But there is another challenge, and that is that we do not experience God as directly as people had in the past.  When one could experience God's presence, when a fire could come down from the heavens, it was easier not just to believe, but to experience God, to have a sense of connecting with God.  This was a central part of the function of the Mishkan - to create a tangible sense of God's presence.  Because we are less connected to nature and our natural, physical state, and because we rationally and philosophically shy away from thinking of or experiencing God's presence as something felt in this world, we are much less equipped to have such a felt religious experience.   And so we live a life of halakha, but often not a life of passion.  How often have we had a religious experience of "and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces"?   Not often, I would guess.

If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the passionless religious experience that is guided by law, halakha, and regulation.  This ultimately produces right actions and good in the world.  In contrast, as we know too well, a religious experience which is driven by passion can, with all its attractiveness, lead to terrible atrocities.   But we shouldn't have to pick.  We have been so good at establishing the rule of law, the rule of halakha, that we can stand to reintroduce a little religious passion into our lives.  In our relationship with God, we have truly been married a long time, but I am not ready to continue living like the old married couple who are so familiar with each other's ways, that they live their lives quietly and peacefully, with the reassuring regularity that comes after so many years.  I want there to still be some spark in the relationship.  I want to get excited, and I want us as a people to get excited, to get passionate, to have a drive to serve God and to bring God into the world.   Let us know that we must always continue to ensure that the rules are primary, but let us work together to be able to truly connect to God and to "rejoice and fall on our faces."

[For those interested in more sources on the balance between religious passion and boundaries - and specifically between religious passion and a felt, physical sense of God - I have created a source sheet on this topic, with a fascinating side-by-side of Rav Kook and Yishayahu Leibowitz, which is available on my daf website under Resources.]

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


Two weeks ago, we explored the topic of efshar li'sochto, and saw that when a meat and milk are cooked together, they may remain forbidden even after they are separated.  This depends on whether we understand the prohibition of meat and milk to be based on the fact that they were cooked together, which does not change even after they are separated, or based on the fact that there is a mixture of tastes, which would be negated once they are separated.

Now, these above reasons are relevant to basar bi'chalav, and this is the only application of this concept in the Gemara.  Interestingly, however, some Rishonim, as well as the Shulkhan Arukh, extend this prinicple to other prohibitions.  According to Shulkhan Arukh (YD 106:1, in contrast to 32:9) that if - for example, a potato absorbed pork taste, and then it was placed in a pot of stew and continued to cook so that now there is no pork taste left in the potato or the soup, nevertheless, the potato remains forbidden (although the soup is permissible).  What is the reason that the potato remains forbidden, if there is no longer any forbidden taste?  It is the principle of efshar li'sochto assur

This principle, now, no longer is unique to basar bi'chalav, but applies to all forbidden mixtures and is understood to mean that once a food becomes forbidden it cannot become permissible again. Why should this be so?  It has to do with the idea of status of objects and what I call the "stickiness factor."  There might be a certain criterion for an object to attain a status.  However, once that status obtains, it will not automatically be lost even if the criterion are no longer satisfied.   A good analogy might be that of employment.   A person will not be hired until they meet certain criteria.  However, once this person is an employee, he or she will not automatically be fired as soon as they fall short of those criteria.   

It is similar with halakhic statuses.  Take, for example, the status of being a "food."  Does something have to be edible to a human to be a food, or is it enough that it is edible to a dog?  The answer is - it matters when.  According to some Rishonim, for food to be able to become tamei, impure, as food, it needs to have originally be fit for human consumption.  Once it is defined as food, however, it will remain defined as food even if it becomes inedible for humans.  Only when it becomes completely inedible - even to a dog- and loses even the tiniest shred of "foodness," will it stop being food and not be able to become tamei.  (See Rambam and Ra'avad, Tumat Okhlin, 2:15).

The same is true here.  To become forbidden, an object has to have absorbed enough from the forbidden food that there is some trace of its taste.  However, once forbidden, it will remain forbidden even after the forbidden food is no longer tastable.   This is the principle of efshar li'sochto applied to other forbidden foods.  It recognizes that some halakhic realities are not "states" which change when the reality changes, but "statuses" which continue to adhere - the stickiness factor! - even when circumstances change.

No, will the status ever go away?  Do we have a circumstance by this food mixture that parallels that of "not being edible even by a dog"?  It seems that we do.   When - to take our example - the potato not only has so little pork in it that the pork cannot be tasted, but it has absolutely no pork in it anymore, when there is not even a shred of the original offensive food, then the forbidden status disappears.  This is no longer a case of efshar li'sochto, but one of efshar li'hafrido - the two items are completely separated.   In this case, the Shulkhan Arukh rules that the originally permissible item returns to its original state of permissibility (YD 105:7).

We have, in the last two discussions, seen the concept of efshar li'sochto and efshar li'hafrido applied to basar bi'chalav and to other forbidden mixtures.  We will continue this discussion next week in a parallel manner, looking at the principle of chatikha atzma na'asit neveilah - the piece of meat itself becomes a carcass (forbidden food) - as it applies both to basar BiChalav and other forbidden mixtures.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


Monday was Shushan Purim, and in keeping with our tradition when Purim falls on a Sunday, we had a special Shushan Purim seudah for the whole yeshiva followed by a series of Purim shpeils.  This year there was great participation by the students, with over a dozen shpeils, all of them extremely funny and some totally hilarious.   There were also two presentations from the staff and rebbeim.  Jennifer Geretz did a takeoff of Dr. Seuss' Sam I Am  with a series of truly amazing artwork following the plot and drawings of the book.  I did a shpeil as well, departing from my normal "reworking" of songs from famous musicals (Open Orthodoxy on the Roof, Rabbi Poppins, My Fair Mikveh Lady), and instead doing a series of skits based on Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail.  The whole day was one of great chevrehshaft, and a wonderful opportunity to poke fun and also show our love, affection and respect for the yeshiva, its students, the rebbeim and the staff.

Students continued in their learning of Shabbat, now focusing on the issue of recooking and reheating, and their learning of Kashrut, now focusing on the topic of nat bar nat, of two-degrees-removed taste, and of davar charif, sharp foods which can transfer taste without heat. 

As mentioned above, we stopped our learning on Wednesday to say tehillim for all those injured in the Eged bus station bombing.  One of the themes of my Thought on the Parsha, below, is that of ahavah mikalkelet et hashura, that "love oversteps proper boundaries," and can sometimes make us act in ways that violate accepted norms, or are even inherently wrong.  The ongoing terrorism in the world in general and in Israel in particular, fueled as it is by hatred and religious passion, reminds us the it is equally if not more true that hasinah mikalkelet et hashura, that hatred destroys any sense of boundaries.  Let us all continue to pray and work to see a civilized world in which the sense of boundaries, of halakha, of civilization and civilized and ethical behavior, govern our actions and ensure that our passions remain within the proper boundaries.

Finally, a big Mazal Tov goes out to Rabbi Drew (YCT '09) and Rachel Kaplan on the birth of a baby girl, Lillian Rose (Shoshana Raizel).