Friday, May 13, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Click here: Parshat Behar

Behar - A Society Based on Kedusha

How can kedusha be created outside of the Temple?  This is, in many ways, the concern of the second half of the book of Vayikra, and is in particular the concern of parshat Behar.   The goal of the Mikdash was not for God to "dwell" in the Temple, but for God to dwell among us: v'asu li mikdash, vi'shakhanti bi'tokham, "You shall make for me a Temple and I will dwell in their - the people's - midst." (Shemot 25:8).   So while the first half of Vayikra focuses on the rites of the Temple and how to maintain and protect its sanctity, the second half of Vayikra is devoted to how to bring that sanctity out into the camp, into the midst of the people. 

The Torah lays out this goal in the opening of parshat Kedoshim, declaring that it is the responsibility of each individual to strive for kedusha, for holiness.  "Holy shall you be, because holy am I, the Lord your God who makes you holy"  (Vayikra 19:2).  The goal of becoming holy, of not circumscribing holiness to the Temple and the Kohanim, is mandated for each individual.  This is step one.  But this still falls short.  Holiness cannot just be the responsibility of each individual.  It must also be the responsibility of the society at large.   If the society at large is devoted to achieving this goal, then not only will individuals be supported because their efforts are shared by others, but also the very institutions and structuring of society will reflect and reinforce these goals.  

The Torah begins this structuring of the larger society with the moadim at the end of last week's parsha, Emor.  The Children of Israel are commanded to declare the holidays, the holy days, in their proper time: "These are the fixed times of God that you shall proclaim as sacred occasions, mikraei kodesh, there are my fixed celebratory times." (Vayikra 23:2).  The first step in structuring society around kedusha is to structure the calendar around these foci of kedusha.  The basic rhythms of daily life are then synchronized with, and in reference to, the holy days.  That is why Shabbat is included in the list of moadim, although it is no affected by the way the calendar is set up, is not a holy day that "you shall proclaim."  While independent of the seasonal calendar, the foundation of Shabbat is the central component to our bringing kedusha into our week and our structure of time.  "From the first of the week, we must already begin to prepare for Shabbat" (Beitzah 16a). 

To this foundation are added the seasonal festivals, bringing kedusha into the natural seasons of the year, and orienting the all agricultural  labors - the primary engagement of the people - towards God and God's holidays.  What is particularly noteworthy about the description of the moadim in Emor is that the Torah emphasizes their observance outside the Temple, and not the sacrifices that are brought for them in the Temple (this is the emphasis of the  description in parshat Pinchas).   The point is obvious - while these holidays are commemorated in the Temple, your responsibility is to draw on the Temple experience but bring these holy days into the camp, into the very fabric of society.  Sometimes this will pull you back into the Temple - when you (collectively) bring the first of the barley or grain harvest to the Temple.   And when, at the end of the year, you gather in all of your produce,  you will celebrate God's bounty in the camp - taking the lulav and esrog, and sitting in the sukkah for seven days, rejoicing before God.   

Because all of our labor exists within the larger context of kedusha and of recognizing God's gift to us, we will naturally share our bounty - God's bounty - with those who are less fortunate than we: "And when you harvest the harvesting of your land, you shall not reap the corners of the field, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest.  To the poor and the stranger you shall leave them, I am the Lord your God." (Vayikra 23:22).  Kedusha, then, brings a God-consciousness to our activities, and this awareness finds its expression both in our relationship to God - giving of thanks and praying for the future - and in our relationship to our fellow human being. 

Parshat Behar, then, is the culmination and apex of what it means to structure a society around kedusha.  The deeply-held institutions of contemporary society - free exercise of one's property, private ownership in perpetuity, free-range capitalism, the ability to charge interest on a loan, the leaving of "charity" to personal choice - all of these are profoundly challenged in parshat Behar, in a society where God is at the center.   The key paradigm shift that the Torah is telling us that we must make is that the world and everything in it does not ultimately belong to us, it belongs to God: "And the land you shall not sell in perpetuity, for Mine  is the land, and you are dwellers and residents with Me (in My land)" (Vayikra 25:23). 

Once we are able to make this paradigm shift, to have God at the center, then the remainder of the parsha follows.  If we do not own the land, but are given use of it by God, then we must always ask what is the proper and accepted use.  We will need to periodically stop using the land to remind ourselves that it is not truly ours - so we will have a Sabbatical year, a "Sabbath of the land," but more significantly, "a Sabbath to God." (25:2).   We will not only stop working the land, but we also will allow all to eat from its produce, in effect relinquishing our very ownership, and thereby acknowledging that such ownership is really an illusion.   And on Sabbath of Sabbaths of the Jubilee year, we will not only suspend our ownership, but truly reverse it, restoring the land to its original owners and the people to their freedom.

The deep structuring of society by the principles of the Sabbatical year will reorient our relationship to property in other realms as well.  Thus, when it comes to lending money, we will understand that money, like the land, is given to us by God, and that we must use it not as we see fit, but in ways that are proper.  We will have an obligation to lend to the poor, and to do so without charging interest  (25:35-38).   Once the concept of complete ownership has been challenged, we will understand that even when we purchase a slave - an inescapable reality in ancient times - such a "purchase" can never mean true ownership, for if we cannot own land, how much less so can we own another human being.  And, finally, we will acknowledge our responsibility to use our own funds to help restore the original owners to their inheritance, because our goal will be not to maximize our profit, but to make our residence on the land according to God's will, and to use our wealth that God has given us, in ways that help us serve God maximally.

The Torah's focus throughout is that of laying the foundation of kedusha.  The societally beneficial practices are what naturally follows, but they are not the starting point.  It is for this reason that the Torah does not refer to the Sabbatical year in this parsha as Shmitta.  That is the word used in Shemot (23:11) and Devarim (15:1-3), whose meaning is "to let go."  The focus there is the societal benefit per se, it is the giving of the produce of the land to the poor and the releasing of debts.  In Behar such benefits are a mere consequence of the deeper reality of the Shabbat of the years.  Once the concept of Shabbat is introduced not only into the calendar of days, but also into the calendar of years, once the concept of Shabbat is introduced into the deep structure of society, the entire orientation towards property, land, and ownership will shift.  Once kedusha is taken out of the Temple and brought into the camp, once kedusha becomes the framing concept of our lives, then our society will be transformed, our entire lives will be transformed.

It is necessary not to lose sight of the importance of the foundation of kedusha, even at times when the practical implementations are beyond our reach.  It may not be feasible at all times to fully follow the demands of the Sabbatical Year.  Already in the early Talmudic period, Hillel developed the pruzbol as a workaround to allow people, who otherwise would never have loaned to the poor, to collect their loans even after the Sabbatical year had transpired.  And the rabbis, perhaps implicitly understanding that the Torah's call for not loaning with interest was less feasible, and less meaningful, in a commercial context, developed the workaround known as a heter iska, turning a commercial loan into an investment.    And in modern times, Rav Kook developed the heter mechira, the selling of the entire Land of Israel to a non-Jew, as a workaround to allow the land to be worked, and real societal needs to be addressed, during the Shmita year.

Once we have all these workarounds, it is easy to lose sight of the principle of kedusha.  We may easily come to see these laws as burdens, to see the goal as to how to avoid them, and to maintain our non-­kedusha orientation towards money, property, and land.  Rav Kook was very sensitive to this concern.  He stated explicitly in his introduction to his work on the heter mechira, VeShavta Ha'aretz, that he insisted on affirming the kedusha of the land, and using the sale as a technical solution, and rejected those who would solve the practical problems by denying the kedusha of the land.  This, said Rav Kook, would make us lose sight of the core value of kedusha and kedushat ha'aretz.  A practical solution may be needed at times but we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of the principle.
Our challenge today remains how to both address practical realities, and at the same time work to structure our society around the principles of kedusha.  If we focus our efforts on this reorientation, on bringing kedusha into the camp, then we can strive to one day actually living in a society which is defined by kedusha, not just in principle, but in practice.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

In the daf last week, the Gemara (Menachot 53) addressed the prohibition to make menachot out of chametz.  Menachot, grain sacrifices, are usually made as matzah, unleavened bread.  There are some, notably the shetei ha'lechem, the two loaves that are brought on Shavuot, which are chametz.  Nevertheless, such chametz offerings are never burned on the altar, and the Torah explicitly prohibits this: "For all leaven and all honey you shall not offer up as a burnt offering to God" (Vayikra 3:11).
What is the special problem with chametz on the altar?   There are two major approaches to this question.
One approach sees chametz as representing death and decay.  This is a theme that plays out in a lot of literature around Pesach, and here it is adopted by, among others, Jacob Milgrom in his commentary:
... Fermentation is equivalent to decay and corruption and for this reason is prohibited on the altar...
"Leaven in the dough" is a common rabbinic metaphor for man's evil propensities (e.g., B. Ber. 17a).  The New Testament (sic.) mentions "the leaven of malice and wickedness" (1 Cor 5:8)... This view is shared by the ancients: "Leaven itself comes from corruption and corrupts the dough with which it is mixed ... and in general, fermentation seems to be a kind of putrefaction" (Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109)...  [These sources] undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation, deterioration, and death and, hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, Anchor Bible Series, pp. 188-190
The association with decay and death also connects to the theme of corruption, haughtiness, and evil.  Yeast and fermenting of dough causes change, it causes rising (a "puffing up" of self), and it makes simple food into an indulgence.  These are all evil things, and must be destroyed on Pesach and kept off the altar at all times.
In contrast to the above approach is that of Rambam.  Rambam in the Guide (III:46), understands that this prohibition - like many others related to the Temple - was to keep away pagan practices:
The idolaters did not offer any other bread but leavened, and chose sweet things for their sacrifices, which they seasoned with honey.... Our Law therefore forbade us to offer leaven or honey...
Why exactly leaven is singled out to be prohibited is not spelled out by Rambam.   It seems, however, that leaven may have played a specific role in fertility rituals.  Because leaven represents fermenting and change, it can also represent fecundity.  True there is decay and death, but this is part of the natural cycle, and with this decay and death comes new life.  The earth lays "dead" all winter, and then in the spring and summer, the seeds that were planted in the fall, and have decayed and died, now rise out of the ground and bring new life.  [This is also why in the brakha of mechayeh ha'meitim the resurrection of the dead is compared to the rain bringing life to the seeds, causing grain to rise out of the ground.]
And, while we are talking about fertility, let us not forget that leaven causes the bread to puff up, like a pregnant woman.  These are all powerful images, and it would seem that leaven would have played an important role in pagan fertility rituals.  
Thus, the Torah would specifically be prohibiting leaven - of all products used in pagan sacrifices - because it represented the very powerful and alluring fertility rituals of those cults.  This explains why the prohibition is coupled in the Torah with the mention of the first fruits:
No meal offering, which you shall bring to the Lord, shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire.  As for the sacrifice of the first fruits, you shall offer them to the Lord; but they shall not be burned on the altar for a sweet savor. (Vayikra 2:11-12)
We are dealing with a concern about how to ensure agricultural success in the following year - and what better way to relate to these concerns than through the bringing of a flour sacrifice - a mincha.  However, to bring this as a type of fertility symbol, as leaven, is absolutely forbidden.  What will you do during the spring, to pray for the success of the crops and to give your thanks to God?  You will bring a "sacrifice of first fruits, bikkurim" which - as Rashi points out - refers both to the shetei ha'lechem and the bikkurim themselves.  These are brought during Shavuot time exactly for this reason, but they do not get placed on the altar.  They are brought into the Temple, but never on the altar itself.
This balance between chametz and matzah is exactly the progression - that we are in the midst of now - from Pesach to Shavuot.    At the very beginning of spring, the omer sacrifice of the new grain is brought as matzah, as the fertility of the Earth has yet to express itself, and only the barely has ripened.  However, once we are in the middle of the spring, and the fertility is in full flower, the wheat has ripened and the first fruits are emerging, now is the time to bring the sacrifice of the shetei ha'lechem, the chametz sacrifice, and the bikkurim - sacrifices that represents this fertility, and that are both a thanks to God for what God has provided and a prayer for future blessings of the land.
In closing, it should be noted that there is one other prohibition which the Torah links to bikkurim, and which Rambam, and with further clarification, Sforno, relates to concerns about pagan practices.  That prohibition is the prohibition of cooking a kid goat in its mother's milk:
 The first of the first fruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.  (Shemot 23:19)
What is this about?  Says Rambam:
Meat boiled in milk is undoubtedly gross food, and makes overfull; but I think that most probably it is also prohibited because it is somehow connected with idolatry, forming perhaps part of the service, or being used on some festival of the heathen. I find a support for this view in the circumstance that the Law mentions the prohibition twice after the commandment given concerning the festivals "Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord God" (Exod. xxiii. 17, and xxxiv. 73), as if to say, "When you come before me on your festivals, do not seethe your food in the manner as the heathen used to do."
Guide for the Perplexed, III:48 (Friedlander ed.).
And the connection not just to the pilgrimage festivals, but to the bikkurim, is explained by Sforno:
"Do not cook a kid goat in its mother's milk" - do not do anything like these activities in order to increase the crops, as the idol worshipers believe, but rather - "the first of the first fruits of your land you shall bring..." as the verse states: "And the first of all of the first fruits, and the donation-offering of all [you shall give to the priests]... to cause a blessing to rest in your house (Ezek. 44:30).  (Sforno on Shemot 23:19)
Just as the fermenting power of chametz evokes fecundity, change and growth, the newly born kid goat, and its mother's milk evoke birth, life-giving, and nurturing.  The problem, the Torah is saying, is that to cook them together in some fertility ritual, or in a way that echoes such a ritual, both pulls a person into these pagan practices, and - as Ramban emphasizes - replaces ritual for morality.   The same ritual whose goal was to increase fertility and fecundity did so at the expense of desensitizing the person to the very life of the animals themselves, through taking these powerful symbols of life, and using them to create food, using the very life-giving milk to turn the kid goat into a dish of meat.
While meat cooked with milk, given this symbolism, is inherently bad, this is not true about chametz.  Chametz is how we live our lives the other 11 and 1/2 months of the year.   Chametz is fertility, not austerity, and if one learns the lessons of matzah then one can live with chametz and make it part of serving God.   We do bring our leaven into the Temple.  As the first mishna in our chapter in Menachot states, there are some menachot that must come as chametz.  The point is not to overly indulge.  To bring these on the altar would be to evoke all the fertility rituals and the inappropriate behaviors that accompanied them.   The fecundity of chametz must be given limits, but within those limits, it too becomes a mitzvah.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, the third and fourth year students wrapped up their learning of Yoreh Deah, and covered the area of bishul nakhri, the prohibition relating to kosher food cooked by a non-Jew.  This prohibition can be very wide-ranging, as it can apply to almost any food.  However, the Gemara already introduces two serious limitations in terms of the type of food - only food that cannot be eaten raw and only food that is "fit for a king's table" - and another limitation in terms of the way it was prepared - if a Jew participated in any (significant) way, it is not a problem.   We explored in shiur both the reasons for and the history of this prohibition, and how in practical terms it is interpreted and applied at the industrial kashrut level, and for travelers to foreign countries.

Students in the first and second year continued their studies of Hilkhot Shabbat.   They, together with the third and fourth-year students will soon be moving into full-force review prior to their taking of the semester final in the last week of yeshiva.

This week, also, was Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'Atzmaut.    On Yom HaZikaron, Yisrael Klitsner, a student who is an Israeli citizen and served in the army, spoke on a personal level about the meaning of Yom HaZikaron for him, showed a moving short clip with powerful images of funerals and sacrifices of the members of the IDF.  He then read to the yeshiva the words of a number of powerful songs that speak to the sacrifice on those serving in the army.  Particularly moving was the "Ballad of the Medic," which was played for the whole yeshiva, as we read and sang along.  

Throughout the day of Yom HaZikaron, we had a yahrtzeit candle burning in memorial of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel and its people, and students took turns guarding the flame, and learning by the table which was draped with an Israeli flag and had the memorial candle in its center.  We ended our commemoration with the E-l maleh for the souls that had been lost, and with the singing of HaTikvah, underscoring the dream and reality for which they had given their lives.

On the following day, Yom Ha'Atzmaut, we began with a celebratory Shacharit, with Hallel and dancing.  This was followed by a terrific program arranged by Josh Frankel (YCT 2011).  It began with the learning of sources relating to the sanctity of Israel bi'chavruta.  Then, rather than culminating with a shiur, the rebbeim - myself, Rabbi Katz, Rabbi Love, and Rabbi Weiss - got up and one by one shared with the students something of their own relationship to the land and State of Israel.  How they understand the nature of its sanctity, whether they see the establishment of the State in messianic terms, what about it do they find most inspiring and meaningful, and what is its ultimate religious significance?  Because they were personal and from the heart, the presentations were powerful and resonated deeply with the students.

After this learning and presentations, students had an Israeli lunch (falafel!), and sang Israeli songs.  The day's activities culminated with a series of moderated discussions around the State of Israel and all of its complexities and challenges.  It was a wonderful day of chevrehshaft that was both intellectually and emotionally uplifting!
 Rabbi Polotchek
Finally, on Wednesday, we had the opportunity to have Rabbi Meshulam Polotchek of Williamsburg, a world renowned expert on the Pri Megadim, speak to the yeshiva about the life and scholarship of the Pri Migadim in commemoration of the Pri Migadim's 219th yahrtzeit, which will be this Shabbat.   This was the second yahrtzeit lecture we had this year, and is part of an ongoing series of yahrtzeit lectures of gedolei HaTorah