Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

I would like to share with you a (slightly emended) piece that I wrote on Yom Kippur and the Temple Service which was published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, on Sept 28, 2008. 
Cleansing the Temple, Cleansing our World

"For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord." (Lev. 16:30)
This verse appears at the end of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, when we leave all of our this-worldly pursuits behind, even food and drink, a day that is totally devoted to God, and a day we are promised atonement for our sins. The reading describes in great detail the service of the High Priest in the Temple on this day - the sacrifices, the ablutions, the burning of the incense, the sending of the scapegoat to the desert. Teshuvah, or repentance, is not mentioned as part of the service of the day.  According to the verses, it is the sacrificial rites that cleanse the Temple and achieve atonement for the people.  

But what is the significance of Yom Kippur when the Temple and these rituals are absent? The Rabbis of the Talmud, in their affirmation of the timeless relevance of the Torah after the destruction of the Temple, declared that in the absence of sacrifices, the day itself achieves atonement provided that it is accompanied by teshuvah (Bavli, Yoma 85b).  The "he" of the verse who atones for us is no longer the High Priest offering the sacrifices, but God Himself, who provides atonement on this day to those who undertake the process of teshuvah.  After the Temple, it is teshuvah which takes the place of the sacrificial rites of the day.

For the last two thousand years, the dominant theme of Yom Kippur has thus been teshuvah - the work of improving our behavior and transforming our character. And yet, the Torah reading remains Chapter 16 of Leviticus. Rather than hearing moral or religious exhortation - undeniably the theme of the haftarot of the day - we are treated to the minute details of the rites of the sacrifices. These Temple-based rites, while seemingly irrelevant to our contemporary concerns, can teach serious corrective lessons regarding sin and repentance.

It is widely believed that just as sin affects the spiritual well-being of the soul, so to the teshuvah is a process devoted wholly to the repairing of the soul. This is only partly true. The sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur tell another story. "And he [the High Priest] shall make an atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation" (Lev. 16: 33). It is first and foremost the Temple that must be cleansed, and only afterwards is the atonement of the people achieved.

The Torah assumes a basic metaphysical reality - sin pollutes. When the Children of Israel have sinned, the Temple itself becomes impure. This understanding of sin holds for us even today. When we sin, we hurt not only ourselves, we pollute our environment as well. If we have not respected our parents or our spouse, if we have betrayed a trust, or hurt others physically or emotionally, then our sin has damaged others and injured our relationships. If we have not honored Shabbat or the holidays properly, then the sanctity that these times hold for us has been diminished. The process of teshuvah requires that we recognize that improving ourselves is insufficient; we must also cleanse the reality that we have polluted.

An understanding of teshuvah that is limited to the self minimizes the work that needs to be done to set things right. This can have an insidious effect not only on us as individuals, but on our behavior as a community as well. Often, an abusive teacher or someone who has betrayed the public trust states that he has repented and asks for forgiveness and reacceptance. If we understand repentance to be limited to self-improvement and repairing one's relationship with God, then such claims may have traction. But if we understand what the work of teshuvah truly entails, we will rightfully demand that such people first demonstrate how they have worked to restore the lives, the trust, and the relationships that they have broken.

While Yom Kippur is a day that we devote fully to God and leave our this-worldly concerns behind, our process of teshuvah, like the cleansing of the Temple, can only be accomplished through a focus on this-world realities, a cleansing of our relationships and the realities around us that we have created.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

The Gemara Hullin (101a-b), which we covered in the daf yomi just three days ago, compares the relative severity of the prohibition against a ritually pure (tahor) person who eats the meat of a sacrifice that has become impure (tamei) and the prohibition against a tamei person eating the meat of a tahor sacrifice.  The first prohibition - where the sacrificial meat has already been defiled - is a simple negative prohibition, whereas the second one is a negative prohibition that is punishable by divine excision (karet).  It would seem obvious, then, that the second prohibition is much more severe.  Not necessarily so, says the Gemara.  The first prohibition represents a state of affairs that cannot be changed - the meat cannot be made ritually pure.   The second one, however, represents a state of affairs that can be changed - the person can become pure by going into a mikveh.  Therefore, the second prohibition is less permanent, and therefore can be considered less severe.

This technical discussion hits on a key point of teshuva and Yom Kippur.  [Interestingly enough, Yom Kippur is discussed immediately afterwards in the Gemara.]  The difference between food - consumable, inanimate objects - and people is that inanimate objects are static and fixed, they cannot be change themselves; their status is permanent.  People, on the other hand, are dynamic, with new thoughts, passions, and feelings every day, and with the ability to transform themselves.  Their status is never fixed; even if impure they can become pure.

Vessels, while inanimate, represent a certain dynamism due to their use a versatility, and thus represent a middle category.  Some vessels - wooden and metal ones - can become pure by immersion in a mikveh.  However, what allows this is their partaking in the dynamic world of human activity, and they are thus purified as a result of a human action - being placed in the mikveh.  Other vessels - pottery - cannot become pure.  Such a vessel is at once both less versatile and more static, and also is made of inferior material.  Such a vessel cannot be transformed - it is too rigid, and lacks the inner strength and quality to effect - or to allow for -such transformation. 

The key, then, to becoming pure, to ridding oneself of ritual impurity or of sin, is the ability to transform, to free ourselves from past actions and to reassert, or redefine, our inner direction and our true self.   A sin, even a light one, can be very weighty if it becomes a permanent part of a person.  On the other hand, even a very severe sin need not be seen as so weighty if it does not become part of his or her identity.  If the person does not let him or herself be an object, be fixed, rigid, and only impacted by outside forces, but rather insists on his or her personhood, the ability to define his or her own path, to change and to remake oneself, then even a weighty sin can become a light one.   Such a person, a person with strong character, can free him or herself of his sin, can immerse in a mikveh, and can undergo a transformation that will allow him or her to become a new person.

What is this mikveh?  Rabbi Akiva answers this in the last mishna in the last chapter of Yoma, the tractate devoted to Yom Kippur:

אמר רבי עקיבא אשריכם ישראל לפני מי אתם מיטהרין מי מטהר אתכם אביכם שבשמים שנאמר וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם ואומר מקוה ישראל ה' מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקדוש ברוך הוא מטהר את ישראל

R. Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel! Who is it before whom you become pure? And Who is it that makes you clean? Your Father Who is in Heaven, as it is said: “And I will sprinkle purifying water upon you and ye shall be clean.” (Ezek. 36:25). And it further says: “The hope (mikvei) [read here as “immersion pool” (mikveh)] of Israel, the Lord.” (Jer. 17:13). Just as an immersion pool renders the impure pure, so does the Holy One, Blessed be God, render Israel pure.
(Mishna Yoma 8:9)

We are blessed with the ability to transform ourselves internally through the process of teshuva and then, on one day of the year, bring ourselves in front of God, a become pure through immersing ourselves the mikveh which is the presence of God and the day of Yom Kippur:

 כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' תִּטְהָרוּ
“For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (Lev. 16:30)

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Sunday - Tzom Gedaliah - began with a Yom Iyyun on the Akeida, taught by YCT rebbeim and teachers, and hosted and co-sponsored by Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.   There was a large turnout, as people came to hear an all-star lineup of shiurim and speakers.  The shiurim, the audio recordings of which are available on the web,  were Akeida and Martyrdom in the Middle Ages, by Rabbi Dov Linzer;  Akeida and Parent-Child Relationships, by Dr. Michelle Friedman; Akeida, Iyyov and Theological Paralysis by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz; and Akeida Themes in Biblical Literature by Rabbi Nati Helfgot.  Rabbi Avi Weiss concluded the morning with inspiring words of machshava for the Yamim Noraim.  We want to thank Rinat Yisrael, its esteemed rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Adler, and the co-chair of the adult education  program, David Jacobowitz, for their hosting of the program and their hard work that made this program such a success!

As a bookend to that powerful day, tonight, Thursday, we will host an end of zman Leil Iyyun on Teshuva, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, which is open to the community and will take place in our beit midrash from 7:00 PM - 11:00 PM.   Please join us if you are able!

Learning continued full throttle during this last week of Elul Zman.  In my shiur, students gave chaburot, seminars,on such diverse topics as the halakhic status of slaves as land or chattel, the mitzvah not to free one's slaves and the religious/theological challenges that that represents, the limits put on redeeming captives out of concerns for the present and future well-being of the community, and those who can and cannot write sifrei Torah, mezuzot, and tefillin

On Wednesday, all the students, rebbeim and staff participated in an atzeret Tfillah for Gilad Shalit and the missing IDF soldiers.  This service was broadcast live from the tent of the Shalit family in Jerusalem, and was co-sponsored by over 80 schools including YCT.  For more information, see here.

We want to wish a big Mazel Tov to Rabbi Menashe and Donna East on the birth of a baby boy last Friday night, Shabbat Shuva.  The bris will be - G-d willing - this Yom Kippur.   She'tizku li'gadlo li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'sim tovim u'lihakniso bivrito shel Avraham Avinu bizmano.

And another big Mazel Tov to Rabbi Andy Kastner and Leslie Cohen-Kastner on the birth of a baby girl this Thursday morning!  Mazel Tov to you and your families.  She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim.