Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


Acharei Mot details the special avodah, sacrificial rites, that the High Priest would perform on Yom Kippur to effect atonement for the Jewish People.  However, as the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu already noted, the Torah only introduces the connection to Yom Kippur at the very end of the lengthy description of this special avodah.  The framing of the avodah is not what must be done to achieve atonement on Yom Kippur but rather what must be done when Aaron wants to enter the inner sanctum:

And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they came near the Lord, and died. 
Speak to Aaron your brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place inside the veil before the covering, which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I will appear in the cloud upon the covering. Thus shall Aaron come into the holy place: with a young bull for a sin offering, and a ram for a burnt offering.  (Vayikra 16:1-3)
Thus, says the Vilna Gaon, this is a rite that the High Priest - or, according to the Gaon, specifically Aharon, could do at any time that he would want to enter the Holy of Holies, as well as regular rite once a year on Yom Kippur.   If Aharon wants to draw near, and not die - as his sons had - then he can do this, but only if a very precise ritual is followed.  Understood this way, the parsha is underscoring the dangers of unbridled religious passion, of approaching God without due care and caution, and is giving a very structured way that one - the High Priest - can channel his desire for intense, intimate connection.
This approach, however, makes the avodah a tool for the High Priest's realization of his religious yearnings, but does not address larger communal issues.  This is certainly not the simple sense of the Torah, which mandates communal sacrifices for this avodah and which declares that this avodah will cleanse the Mikdash and atone for the People.    It seems, rather, that while the emphasis of the avodah is not on Yom Kippur, it is also not on the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies.  Yes, he must enter it, but that is a means, not an ends.  What is the ends?  The Torah tells us in the climactic verses declared after the High Priest exits the inner sanctum:
And he shall make an atonement, vi'kiper, for the holy place,  from the uncleanness of the people of Israel, and from their transgressions in all their sins; and so shall he do for the Tent of Meeting, that remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.  And there shall be no man in the Tent of Meeting when he goes in to make an atonement, li'khaper, in the holy place, until he comes out, and have made an atonement for himself, and for his household, and for all the congregation of Israel.  (Vayikra 16:16-17).
The goal is not the entering itself, not the religious experience for its own right.  Neither is the goal primarily for bringing atonement and forgiveness for the Children of Israel - this occurs, but is secondary.  Rather, the goal is atoning for the Sanctuary.  Well, not atoning exactly, for what atonement does the Sanctuary need.  The term used here is kaper.  Now, this term is usually translated as "to achieve atonement," but in fact it more precisely means cleansing, not atoning.  The goal of the avodah is to cleanse the Sanctuary from the defilement that it has endured as a result of the sins of Israel.  For sins, according to the Torah, create a type of tumah.  Sin defiles, both the person who performs it, and the person's surroundings.  And how much more so does it defile the Sanctuary, the place of the Presence of God.   
Thus, to cleanse the Sanctuary, and to cleanse the People, this avodah must be performed.    And the central sacrifices of this avodah are chataot, generally translated as "sin-offerings," but more accurately translated as "cleansing sacrifices."  [This is why certain tamei people, such as a woman who has given childbirth, must bring a chatat.  Not because she has sinned, but because the chatat achieves a cleansing of tumah.  See Sotah 15a.]   The focus is not on the sin itself, but on its impact, on its defilement, and the sin-offerings, or rather, the cleansing-offerings, restore the world to as it was before, restore the person to how she was before this sin had affected her, and to restore God's Sanctuary to how it was before, so that God's Presence could continue to dwell among the People.
Now, it is worth asking how this cleansing is achieved, or can be effective.  Isn't tumah the antithesis of the Sanctuary?   The whole halakhic significance of tumah is that it prevents engagement with things that are holy - eating sacrifices and entering the Temple.  And because tumah is the antithesis of kedusha,  one of the primary responsibilities of the Kohanim and certainly, following parashat Korach, the Leviim, was to protect the Mikdash from tumah (see Bamidbar 18).  And when, in the opening of Bamidbar, the camps are set up around the Mishkan, the Torah commands the People to send outside of the camp all those who are tamei (Bamidbar 5:1-4), and emphasizes the need to keep tumah away from the Divine presence (verse 3, and see also Bamidbar 35:34): "And they shall not impurify their camps which I dwell in their midst."
Why, then, does the tumah not drive God's Presence out of the Sanctuary?  The question is sharpened further when we realize that of all the invalidities that can occur to sacrifices, tumah is the one problem that can most be tolerated.  The Talmud (Menachot 25a) teaches that the tzitz that the High Priest wore on his forehead allowed sacrifices that were tamei to be acceptable after the fact.  And, as we know regarding the korban Pesach, if most of the community is tamei a fixed-time obligatory sacrifice may be brought despite the tumah: tumah hutra bi'tzibbur.  Why is it that of all problems, specifically tumah, the very antithesis of kedusha, is what can at times be tolerated?
The answer, I believe, relates to the very nature of the Temple, of God choosing to make God's Presence dwell among the People of Israel.   One the one hand, tumah is the antithesis of kedusha, and having a Mikdash in our midst creates a heavy demand that we do everything in our ability to keep tumah at bay.  The problem is, that because we are not God, because we are human, tumah is an inevitable part of our lives.  This is certainly true terms of the ritual tumah that has been the focus of Vayikra  - animals die, people die, women give birth to children, women menstruate, men have seminal emissions - such tumah is encountered every day.   But perhaps more significantly, it is also true about the tumah that is a result of sin.  To be human is to sin.  No matter how valiant our attempts otherwise, to be human is to produce tumah.   
So if tumah and sin are an inevitable consequence of our human existence, how can God continue to dwell among us?  The answer to this is that God has allowed it to be so.  We must do all we can to keep tumah at bay, but even when we don't, God continues to dwell among us.   This is what is both acknowledged and addressed by the Yom Kippur avodah.  God has given us this day not only to allow us to be forgiven and to start fresh, but also to cleanse the Temple and to allow God Godself to continue to dwell among us.  And hence, this verse of cleansing the Temple ends with an acknowledgement of the inevitability of tumah:
"And so he shall do to the Tent of Meeting that dwells in their midst, in the midst of their impurity."
Of all the verses that speak about God dwelling (shakhen) among the Children of Israel, this is the only verse that states not that as a result tumah must be kept at a distance, but rather that as a result, despite our best efforts, tumah will always be present to some degree.  And this acknowledgement comes exactly in the section of the Torah that speaks to how it can be tolerated - because God has agreed to tolerate it, God has accepted our humanity, and, to make the tumah manageable, God has given us a rite to cleanse the Temple and start over each year.
This, then, is why of all things tumah can be overridden.  Tumah is the one invalidity of sacrifices that is both the prime invalidity, but also the inevitable one.  It is the invalidity that God has agreed to tolerate, because it is part of being human, and thus the necessary cost of the Divine dwelling among human beings - "which dwells among them,  in the midst of their impurity."  When the tumah is communal and inescapable, it can be bracketed and pushed aside - tumah hutra bi'tzibbur.  And even when the tumah occurs at a local, individual level, and may have been escapable, once  the korban is offered, the korban will be accepted.  We are not allowed to offer such a korban - we must avoid tumah, but if we do offer it, God is prepared to tolerate tumah once it is a done deed.
Of course, we cannot allow this Divine tolerance to undermine our awareness of God's presence.  If tumah becomes too much of the norm, then the place will no longer be one of kedusha.  This is why it is the tzitz that allows the tumah to be tolerated.  The tzitz, with the words kodesh la'Hashem, Holy to God, worn on the forehead of the Kohen Gadol, tamid, continually, is a symbol of the continual consciousness of the Divine Presence.  If in  the presence of tumah the consciousness of the Divine Presence remains firm, then the tumah will be tolerated.   
And thus the avodah of Yom Kippur. It is exactly the Kohen Gadol who can effect the necessary cleansing.  The Kohen Gadol, who symbolizes the constant awareness of God's Presence, does the avodah rites without wearing the tzitz, because such a reminder is not necessary.  The Kohen Gadol enters into the Holy of Holies, is not only reminded of God, but directly in contact with the Divine Presence.   It is this connection to God, achieved through constant mindfulness and awareness, which reaches its apex on Yom Kippur.  It is this connection to God that allows tumah not to undermine God's presence, but to be tolerated and cleansed.  "With this Aharon may enter the holy place," he may concretize the connection to God, so that the Temple and the People may be cleansed.
Tumah in its essence it is the very thing that distances us from God, but if we work to keep God in the forefront of our consciousness, to have kodesh la'Hashem inscribed on our forehead, then this tumah will be tolerated, and God will be close to us despite our tumah. God, Who dwells among with them, despite their impurity.
Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva


The big news of the week is that we publicly announced the Jim Joseph grant! This major $3,000,000 grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, to be given over 5 years, is a testament to our demonstrated success and an affirmation in our vision of the rabbinate and our proven ability to actualize it.  This is a major boost for the yeshiva, not only in terms of the funding that it provides, but also in terms of the broader communal acknowledgement and affirmation that it attests to. Because this grant is a matching grant, it also means that any dollar donated to the yeshiva will be doubled, and we hope and trust that it will encourage further support from foundations and individual donors.  Please let everyone know about this tremendous honor and encourage them to continue to support YCT and all its endeavors.

Appropriate for the pre-Pesach week, Yoreh Deah students learned the laws of hagalat kelim this week, with special attention to kashering for Pesach.  

On Wednesday, students were treated to Rabbi Weiss' Shabbat HaGadol talk during our normal sicha slot. The week ended on Wednesday night with a special Night Seder for students and open  to the larger community.  Rabbi David Silber, author of the recently published hagaddah Go Forth and Learn, delivered the keynote lecture, on the topic of Pesach in Sedom with Lot and the Angels.  Rabbi Silber showed how in the story of Lot, Sedom was Mitzrayim, and Lot's hesitancy to leave Sedom, and when he left his hesitancy to go to the mountain, is echoed in Israel's reluctance to leave Egypt and, even once they have left, their reluctance to enter into the Holy Land.  Even if it means living in an oppressive Sedom or Egypt, people crave the life that is dictated to them -we remember the fish that we ate for naught! - and recoil from a life of true freedom, a life which requires taking responsibility and making choices.     R. Silber's talk was followed by open Beit Midrash learning, as well as a class by Mishael Zion (YCT 2011), co-author of the hagaddah, A Night To Remember, on how to be an effective seder leader, and a class by Rav Steven Exler on the history and halakha of selling chametz.  These lectures can be downloaded from our website, here.

The night ended with a beautiful tisch lead by our own Avram Mlotek (YCT 2015), who led us all in Yiddish Pesach songs.  It was a wonderful evening of learning and chevrehshaft, and a great way to enter into the chag.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


This week in the daf yomi, we have been learning the very rich section in Menachot that deals with the laws of tefillin and mezuzah.    A particular theme of interest, especially in the context of the korban Pesach, is that of the mezuzah as an object that protects the house.   This idea is never stated in the Torah.  To the contrary, the Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of mezuzah with that of tefillin and of constant Torah study.  The message is clear - have reminders of God all around you,  think of God and God's mitzvot, and learn Torah at all times - when you go to sleep and when you rise, when you sit in your house and when you go on a journey.

Nevertheless, given that the mezuzah is placed on the door frame, it was perhaps inevitable that it would be associated with magical powers of protection.  Such certainly seems to have been the case with the blood of the pesach sacrifice brought in Mitzrayim:
And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, in which they shall eat it... For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when the Lord sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you  (Shemot 12:7, 23)
Analytically, we can of course draw many distinctions between the two cases.  The blood was that of a sacrifice; there is no suggestion that it had magical powers per se, and it is God who sees the blood, not the blood which operates on its own power.  Nevertheless, the reality of a wrapped parchment, probably placed in a casing, on the door frame of one's house, combined with the parallels to the blood of the pesach, could easily suggest to the religious imagination of the masses that this mezuzah functioned like a kemiyah, an amulet, and through its "power" the house was protected.  Thus, we find people who as soon as something bad happens in their house, will have their mezuzot checked.  And, similarly, we find practices going back hundreds of  years to write the names of angels on the backside of the mezuzah - a type of practice associated with charms and kemiyas.
This approach to mezuzah is alluded to in the gemara Menachot (33b)The Gemara gives two explanations to Rava's statement that the mezuzah needs to be placed in the outermost tefach of the doorframe.  One explanation is psychological/religious: so that a person encounters the mezuzah as soon as she steps into the doorframe.  The other explanation, however, is more magical/metaphysical: "So that it will guard it [the house]" (Rashi - "[The mezuzah will guard] the entire house [starting from the very beginning of the doorframe] from demons").   This second explanation, however, seems to point to the understanding of the mezuzah as a kemiyah, an amulet which magically protects the house.  
Not surprisingly, Rambam comes out strongly against this type of approach to the mitzvah of mezuzah:
... אבל אלו שכותבין מבפנים שמות המלאכים או שמות קדושים או פסוק או חותמות הרי הן בכלל מי שאין להם חלק לעולם הבא, שאלו הטפשים לא די להם שבטלו המצוה אלא שעשו מצוה גדולה שהיא יחוד השם של הקב"ה ואהבתו ועבודתו כאילו הוא קמיע של הניית עצמן כמו שעלה על לבם הסכל שזהו דבר המהנה בהבלי העולם.
... But those who write inside [the mezuzah] the names of angels or holy names or a verse or seals, such people are in the category of those who have no portion in the World to Come.  For these idiots, it is not enough for them that they have [through these actions] negated a positive mitzvah [by invalidating the mezuzah], but they have turned an important mitzvah - viz., the unification of God's name and the love of God and the worship of God - and made it like it were a kemiyah, a magical amulet, whose function is to serve their personal needs, as they tend to think in their foolish thoughts that this [mezuzah] is a thing that affords them benefit in meaningless worldly things.
Rambam, Laws of Mezuzah 5:4
Thus, when Rambam explains the religious significance of mezuzah, he focuses on the first explanation given in our Gemara, the psychological/religious one:
וחייב אדם להזהר במזוזה מפני שהיא חובת הכל תמיד, וכל זמן שיכנס ויצא יפגע ביחוד השם שמו של הקדוש ב"ה ויזכור אהבתו ויעור משנתו ושגיותיו בהבלי הזמן, וידע שאין דבר העומד לעולם ולעולמי עולמים אלא ידיעת צור העולם ומיד הוא חוזר לדעתו והולך בדרכי מישרים, אמרו חכמים הראשונים כל מי שיש לו תפילין בראשו ובזרועו וציצית בבגדו ומזוזה בפתחו מוחזק הוא שלא יחטא שהרי יש לו מזכירין רבים והן הם המלאכים שמצילין אותו מלחטוא שנאמר חונה מלאך יי' סביב ליראיו ויחלצם,
A person must show great care in [the observance of the mitzvah of] mezuzah, because it is an obligation which is constantly incumbent upon everyone.
[Through its observance,] whenever a person enters or leaves [the house], he will encounter the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and remember his love for Him. Thus, he will awake from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time, and recognize that there is nothing which lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world. This will motivate him to regain full awareness and follow the paths of the upright.
Whoever wears tefillin on his head and arm, wears tzitzit on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his entrance, can be assured that he will not sin, because he has many reminders.  And these reminders are the true angels who will prevent him from sinning, as [Psalms 34:8] states: "The angel of God camps around those who fear Him and protects them."
Laws of Mezuzah 6:13
Notice, also, how Rambam has taken the "angels" that people want to invoke with the believed kemiyah-like powers of the mezuzah, and turned them into the concrete mitzvot that serve as reminders to do God's will and not to sin.  If anything protects a person, Rambam would say, it is not some magical power of the mezuzah, but the psychological/religious impact that it has on a person's psyche.
Rambam thus has reworked the idea of "angels" and the protection-powers of the mezuzah.  But he was not the first to do so.  I believe that this approach is already present in the Gemara.  For right after the Gemara mentions - in one word! - "that the mezuzah will protect the house" the Gemara continues thusly:
R. Hanina said, Come and see how the character of the Holy One, blessed be He, differs from that [of men] of flesh and blood. When it comes to flesh and blood, the king dwells within, and his servants keep guard on him from without; but with the Holy One, blessed be He, it is not so, for it is His servants that dwell within and He keeps guard over them from without; as it is said, "The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand." (Ps. 121:6)
What R. Hanina is saying could not be clearer:  It is not the mezuzah which protects through some magical powers, but it is God who protects.  And it is not the house which is magically protected, but the person who does the mitzvot.  The focus on God as the One who affords protection is repeated three times in quick succession: "He keeps guard... The Lord is thy keeper; the Lord is thy shade."  The mezuzah, which is on the right hand of the one who enters the house, does not protect the house.  It is rather God who protects the right hand of the one who does the mitzvot.
I believe that this type of reworking is not uncommon in the Gemara.  Certainly, there were Jewish religious practices that existed outside the Rabbinic sphere of influence, and archeology and ancient texts attest to the extensive use of and belief in magical amulets at the time of Chazal.  It only stands to reason that the amulet function of mezuzot that Rambam so derides was already an extensive phenomenon at the time of Chazal.  So how did Chazal deal with this?  Our Gemara is the answer - first and foremost, by ignoring it.  Chazal deal with mezuzah through a halakhic lens, not through a magical/metaphysical lens.  The best way to rob superstitions of their power is to ignore them.  The other way that Chazal neutralized this approach was by subtly reworking it.  In one word they allude to this power - "so that it protects the house," and then immediately (re-)frame this as God's protection of the people (who keep the mitzvah).
In a similar way, I believe, Chazal dealt with popular, non-halakhic taboo and superstitious attitudes around niddah.  First, they ignored them, and looked at niddah only through a halakhic lens.  And then, in one or two subtle passages, they allude to these attitudes and neutralize and rework them.  I hope to explore this topic in a later discussion.