Friday, May 27, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family:
Click here: Parshat Bamidbar

Parshat Bechukotai - A Relationship Strained, but Not Broken

In anticipation of our upcoming Semikha Ceremony a week from Sunday, for the Semikha Class of 2011, I present the following Thought on the Parsha, adapted from my 2009 Semikha Ceremony Address.

In parashat Bamidbar, the Torah tells us just how to construct a community that has God and Torah at its center. God's command, "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst" (Shemot 25:8) - is now given true shape as the Children of Israel depart from the Mount Sinai and begin to move and settle as a camp, as a community. The Sanctuary, God's presence, lives in the center of the camp, and the tribes are arranged, each with its distinct position, each with its banner, around the Sanctuary.

What we learn, first of all, is that even when we depart Mount Sinai, when we engage in the wide range of activities that is our encounter with the world, we must  always remain oriented towards God and God's presence in our midst.    Whether encamped or marching, whether our lives are stable or in transition,  we must always strive to direct our actions towards serving God.  We must realize that to describe where we are in life, where we are encamped, is to describe where we are in relationship to the goals of kedusha and in relationship to God.   But we also learn that to have God in our midst, we do not need to ever enter the Temple, it is the orientation that is critical.  Some people will seek to enter the Temple on a regular basis, others may only enter in once a year, or perhaps never, but each one of these people can have God in his or her midst. 

We further learn that to be one people is not to be a homogenous mass; that unity is not to be confused with uniformity.  True unity, creating a bonded, cohesive community, comes from respecting differences - "each person on his banner," each tribe with its own uniqueness, its own distinctiveness preserved.  Some are on the left, some on the right, some North, some South.  What held them together was a shared commitment to respect each other's boundaries, to value their distinctive banners, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God's presence in their midst.

The final lesson is one of accessibility.  True, a small number of impure people were temporarily excluded from the Sanctuary during their period of impurity, and the Levites comprised the innermost ring around the Sanctuary. Nevertheless, any person had the ability to enter the Levite camp and to even enter the Sanctuary itself.  All the people participated in the making of the Sanctuary and all the people had access to it and a part in it. 

Not only was the Sanctuary accessible, but the leadership was as well.  Moses' tent was no longer outside of the camp, but in the very center of it, open to all who would come.  Only in such a camp, where every individual understood that he and she counted, that they had a right to engage and a right to be heard, could those who were impure say to Moshe, "Why should we be excluded from bringing God's sacrifice in its appointed time?" (Bamidbar 9:7).  Only in such a camp could the daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe and say, "Why should our father's name be excluded from his family, because he has no son?  Give us a portion together with the brothers of our father!"  (Bamidbar 27:4).  Only in such a camp could inclusion be assumed, and could exclusion be rightfully seen as a profound affront.   And only in a camp led by a true leader such as Moshe would the response be not condemnation and silencing, but a humble bringing of these just concerns before God. 

This is the model of a camp with God at its center.  This must be our model of a Jewish community.   To build such a community we need a laity that embraces these values.  To build such a community we need leaders who embody these values. 

A leadership that embodies these values is an accessible leadership.  It is a leadership that believes in unity through diversity, not through sameness.  It is a leadership that is committed to ensuring that all are included, that no one is rejected or left outside the camp.

Sadly, there are those in positions of rabbinic leadership today who do not share this vision.  There are those who believe that the only Jews who count are those who act within a narrow definition, a definition that is getting narrower each day. Such is a leadership that is fearful of diversity, that believes that unity can come only if all Jews act and believe in exactly the same way - their way. 

The leadership that should be our standard is of a different sort. It is a leadership spreads God's Torah and its teachings in a way that teaches  respect for all Jews.  It is a leadership that teaches that even Jews who never enter the Sanctuary can have God in their midst, can orient their lives in the camp towards God in ways that are less obvious and less ritualistic.   It is a leadership that values and respects difference and diversity, and believes that we are enriched by it.  In a world where small-mindedness and intolerance is rife, in a world where Jewish identity and shared values are elusive concepts, it is no small matter for a community to embrace this alternate vision.  And to ask a leader, a rabbi, to help shape and create such a community may seem like asking the impossible.  But in the striving to achieve this vision, we will do much to transform the Jewish community and our respect for one another.

Building on the foundation of diversity and respect, we will create welcoming and accessible communities - communities that build bridges rather than walls, communities that reach out to those who are marginalized and those who have been excluded.   It will be a community that believes that any Jew-  regardless of denomination, background, observance, sexual orientation, color of their skin, whether sighted or blind, mobile or wheelchair bound,  neurotypical or with special needs - that any and every Jew has a fundamental right to be included, to find his or her place in our camp.  It will be a community that is exquisitely attuned to the verbalized and non-verbalized cry of "why should be excluded?!"  and that will tear down any obstacle and create any accommodation, to ensure that every one is present, that everyone is valued.

And it is a community whose leadership is accessible, humble, and responsive.  At a time when rabbinic leadership is, as a whole, becoming more authoritarian and unbending, the leadership that we most desperately need is one that has pride for the Torah and the tradition that it represents, but that is also humble and accessible, one that seeks participation and collaboration.  What is needed is  leaders who can admit their mistakes, and who can learn from them.  And such leaders, in the end, are loved and respected all the more.

It is this type of camp, this type of community, and the leadership that is required to create it that will truly fulfill God's command: "They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst."

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

The sixth chapter of Menachot, Rebbe Yishmael, which is devoted to the topic of the bringing of the omer.   In the middle of all the halakhic discussions of this chapter, a fascinating story is told about how, one time, they needed to bring the omer from wheat that grew far away from Jerusalem:

Our Rabbis taught: When the Kings of the Hasmonean house fought one another, Hyrcanus was outside and Aristobulus within [the city wall]. Each day [those that were within] used to let down [to the other party] dinars in a basket, and haul up [in return] animals for the daily offerings. An old man there [on the inside], who was learned in Greek wisdom, spoke with them [on the outside] in Greek wisdom, saying. 'As long as they carry on the Temple service they will never be delivered into your hands'.
On the morrow they let down dinars in a basket and hauled up a pig. When it reached halfway up the wall, it stuck its claws into the wall, and the land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs. At that time they declared, 'Cursed be the man who rears pigs and cursed be the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom!'
It was concerning this time [of siege] that we learned: "It once happened that the omer was brought from Gagot Zerifin..."  For when the time for the omer arrived they did not know from where to take it [since the local wheat had been destroyed in the siege].  They made a proclamation [for anyone with knowledge to come forward], whereupon a deaf-mute came forward and pointed with one hand to the roof and with the other to a cone-shaped hut. Then Mordecai said, 'Is there anywhere a place by name Gagot [roof] Zerifin [hut] or Zerifin Gagot?' Thereupon they searched and found the place...
Menachot 64b
This story, as seen from its ending, is used to illustrate the episode mentioned in the Mishna  that once the barley for the omer had to be brought from a distant place.  However, it is a story worth analyzing on its own terms.
We may first note the parallel between the person inside Jerusalem who uses secret signs ("Greek Wisdom") to communicate with those outside the city, with the result that rather than getting the necessary sacrifice from outside, the most invalid animal - a pig - is delivered into the city. The story ends with the mirror image of this.  A person inside the city uses gestures to communicate with those inside how and where they can go outside Jerusalem to bring the necessary sacrifice into the Temple.   While "Greek Wisdom" - apparently some form of secret communication - was forbidden as a result of this story, we see that it is not the use of signals and secret communication per se which is the problem.  The question is how it is used - to get a sacrifice or to send in a pig.  Perhaps the problem with 'Greek Wisdom,' is that it was understood to be a language suffused with Hellenistic culture and values.  We would be foolish to believe that our thoughts and ideas are not shaped by the language we use (for anyone who does not believe this, please read George Orwell's 1984).  The use of the secret 'Greek Wisdom,' and by those who were steeped in it, led to the substituting of the pig for the sheep.
This then turns us to the other fascinating part of this story, and that is the pig.  It is by far the most graphic and memorable element of the story.  Now, this story is also related in Josephus, but there the pig is completely absent:
And when after that victory many went over to Hyrcanus as deserters, Aristobulus was left desolate, and fled to Jerusalem...
While the priests and Aristobulus were besieged, it happened that the feast called the Passover was come, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; but those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen without would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmas for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices, but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given, and to be guilty of impiety towards God, by not furnishing those that wanted them with sacrifices.
And when the priests found they had been cheated, and that the agreements they had made were violated, they prayed to God that he would avenge them on their countrymen. Nor did he delay that their punishment, but sent a strong and vehement storm of wind, that destroyed the fruits of the whole country, till a modius of wheat was then bought for eleven drachmas.
Antiquities XIV:2
Here we see that the event took place just before the omer, on erev Pesach, and we see how the grain was destroyed in the aftermath.  This explains why they needed, in the Gemara's version, to bring the omer from far away from Jerusalem. 
What is most striking, however, is that the pig is completely absent in this version of the story.  If we assume that the account in Josephus, coming closer to the actual events, is the more accurate one, how are we to understand how the pig got into the story?
It seems, first of all, that the pig symbolizes Hellenism.  We have already noted above how the pig being sent into Jerusalem was the result of the use of "Greek Wisdom."  This connection of the pig to Greek culture can be found in the Book of Maccabees, where Antiochus demands that the Jews sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods:
And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.
I Maccabees 1:44-48  (See also Josephus, Antiquities, 12:5)
The pig, then, is not just a symbol of Hellenism, but - in the context of it as a possible sacrifice in the Temple - is symbolic of Antiochus' desecration of the Temple, and his attempt to replace Judaism with Hellenism.  It is now obvious why the pig appears in the story in the Talmud.  Greek Wisdom, with its rootedness in Hellenistic culture, is being used to bring a pig into the Temple - to repeat the desecration of Antiochus.
But there is an even deeper point being made.  For who is using this Greek Wisdom?   Who is laying siege to Jerusalem and  trying to bring down the walls of Jerusalem?  Not the Greeks, not the Babylonians, not the Romans, but Jews.  Jews led by one Hasmonean brother are laying siege to Jerusalem to attack another Hasmonean brother.  The same family which led the revolt against Antiochus just two generations ago, has now, in its quest for power, become like the enemy they conquered.  Jews are now laying siege to Jerusalem.  Is it any wonder, then, that these Jews are using Greek Wisdom?  That these Jews are now trying to bring a pig into the Temple?  Are now reenacting the greatest sacrilege of their defeated enemy.  Is it any wonder that "the Land of Israel was shaken over a distance of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs"?
Perhaps the symbolism goes even further.  The pig is the only non-kosher animal that has split hooves.  This made it, in the eyes of the Rabbis, a symbol of someone who acts kosher/righteous on the outside, but is really treif /corrupt on the inside.  And in particular, they used the symbol of the pig to refer to Esav and Rome:
למה הוא מושלה בחזיר, אלא מה חזיר הזה בשעה שהוא רובץ הוא מפשיט את טלפיו כלומר שאני טהור כך מלכות הזאת הרשעה גוזלת וחומסת נראת כאלו מצעת את הבימה
Why is Esav compared to a pig?  For what is the case with a pig - when it lies down it stretches out its hooves, as if to say, "Look!  I am pure!".  So it is the case with this evil kingdom (Rome).  It robs and it steals and it makes it look like it is erecting the platform [establishing a system of justice].
Breishit Rabbah 65:1 (quoted by Rashi, Breishit 26:34).
It is these hooves - the appearance of being kosher - that the pig strikes into the wall.  The pig is saying, "I am kosher!  Let me come in!"  Who is this pig, if not the Hasmonean brother, who, in his desire for power, is attacking his fellow Jew and laying siege to Jerusalem?  He is saying - "I am kosher!  I am the righteous Jewish king!  Let me in!"  But of course, he is nothing more than the pig, and with him will come all of the Greek and Hellenistic culture and worship that is so abhorrent, that is as treif as the pig.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that the problem lay only with Hyrcanus.  We are dealing at a time in Jewish history where all the Hasmonean kings had been influenced by Hellenistic values, and it was hard to find a righteous one among them.  Beyond the values and culture, this infighting ultimately led to the loss of political autonomy and the control of Israel by Rome.  The war between Aristobulus and Hyrcanus ended not with Hyrcanus seizing the Temple, but with the brothers turning to Rome, and with Pompey capturing Jerusalem, slaughtering the defenders of the Temple, and entering into the Holy of Holies.  The pig - Rome - had succeeded in breaching the walls and entering the Temple. And it was clear who has to blame.  As Josephus relates, in his closing this period in the Hasmonean story:
Now the occasions of this misery which came upon Jerusalem were Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, by raising a sedition one against the other; for now we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans, and were deprived of that country which we had gained by our arms from the Syrians, and were compelled to restore it to the Syrians. Moreover, the Romans exacted of us, in a little time, above ten thousand talents; and the royal authority, which was a dignity formerly bestowed on those that were high priests, by the right of their family, became the property of private men.
Antiquities XIV, chapter 4, section 5
Once the pig had stuck its hooves into the walls of Jerusalem, it was only time before it would enter, and the walls would fall.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Our last week of the zman and of the year!  It was a week of intense chazara and test-taking, for all years - Beit Midrash students, Hilkhot Shabbat students, and Yoreh Deah students.  We had our last Night Seder on Monday night, with a big turnout and strong, intense learning. Also on Monday, we had the wonderful opportunity to have Rabbi Zushe Blech, widely considered one of the world's leading experts in modern Kosher food production and technology, author of "Kosher Food Production," and head of kashrut at Earth Kosher, visit the yeshiva and discuss practical challenges in giving local hashgachot and in industrial kashrut and hechsheirim.   Rabbi Blech was also - in the ancient past - my high school rebbe, and it was a real treat for me to have him at the yeshiva, now for a second time in the last 2 years.

Also this week, as part of our wrap-up, students met with their rebbeim for their yearend evaluation and review.  Fourth-year students had exit interviews with myself and Dr. Michelle Friedman, giving them an opportunity to reflect back on their four years at YCT, and to begin to think towards the future, when they leave and become rabbis.  At the end of the week, students also filled out evaluations for their classes and for the yeshiva's overall curriculum, which will give the staff valuable input regarding the individual shiurim, professional classes, and larger issues.

And I had the opportunity to once again - it is now becoming a tradition! - cook a goodbye lunch for the 4th year students, our soon-to-be musmachim.  We had a wonderful lunch of steak, schnitzel, rice and mushrooms, and asparagus.  It was a great opportunity to connect and bond before they all fly the coop to become rabbis in their various communities.

A huge MAZEL TOV to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz (YCT 2010) and Shoshana Stein on their wedding this last Sunday.  Shmuly and Shoshana were married at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, with Rabbi Avi Weiss as the mesader kiddushin, and Rabbi Benjy Samuels of Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, MA as the mesader ha-ketuvah.   The wedding was tremendously powerful and uplifting.  YCT students and musmachim were there in abundance, as were many of Shmuly's rabbinic and social justice colleagues and friends.   Shmuly spoke beautifully at his tisch.  There chuppah was filled with dancing at every stage, and before the breaking of the glass, Ruth Messinger spoke about the broken aspects of our world, those truly starving and suffering, that we must always strive to improve.  Rabbi Weiss and Shmuly's and Shoshana's parents shared final words of blessing, and the rest of the afternoon was filled with dancing and celebrating.  It was wonderful to be a part of, and we wish the two of them many, many happy years together - shetizku livnot bayit ne'eman bi'Yisrael.

And another huge MAZEL TOV to Mordechai (Class of 2012) and Nisa Harris on the birth of a beautiful baby girl, weighing in at 6 lbs 12 ounces!  She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim.