Friday, February 10, 2012

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 Yitro 

After crossing the Red Sea, seeing the drowning of the Egyptians, experiencing the first hardships of the desert, and receiving the quail and the manna from God, the Children of Israel have finally arrived at their first destination, Mt. Sinai.  While the Land of Israel still awaits, their initial demand to leave Egypt was to worship God, and that worship takes place here, in the desert, at the foot of Har Sinai:   "When you take this people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain." (Shemot 3:12). 

The Giving of the Torah at Har Sinai was an event of giluy Shekina, of theophany, of a direct revelation of the Divine.  God - speaking metaphorically- descended from heaven and came down to earth:  "For on the third day, God will descend - in the sight of the entire people - onto Har Sinai" (19:11).   Of course, some distance between the Divine and the human, between the transcendent and the physical, remained.  As the Gemara in Sukkah puts it: "The Shekina never descended to earth lower than 10 handbreadths" (Sukkah 5a).   The gap between the Divine and the human could never be fully bridged, direct encounter was not possible, but this was the closest it would ever get.    The revelation of the Divine on Har Sinai was an event never to be repeated.  The people would never encounter God again as they had on that day.

This, then, would seem to be the worship that they were heading towards: an intense encounter with the Divine, followed -as we read at the end of Parshat Mishpatim - with the offering of sacrifices.  But was this really the point?  If it were all about the Divine-human encounter, then why did it take the form of the declaration of the Ten Commandments?   In fact, in God's preparing Moshe for this event, the theophany is not the focus, mitzvot are: "Now, if you will listen well to My voice and observe all My commandments, then shall be to Me a treasured nation... And the entire people responded as one, and they said, 'Everything that God has said we will do.'" (19:5, 8).   The primary purpose of coming to Har Sinai is not to encounter God, but to receive the Torah.  The theophany was necessary so that "the people may listen when I speak to you (Moshe), and so that they will have faith in you forever." (19:9).  God revealed Godself so that we would know that it was God who had issued the commandments, that we would feel their binding force, that we would know that we were obligated and act on that knowledge.  It was so that we would be and know that we were mitzuveh, commanded.

Perhaps it is something more than that.   To just do the mitzvot is not the entire goal.  The Ten Commandments starts with a theological declaration: "I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt from the house of bondage." (20:2).   The mitzvot flow from that first statement, and flow in a particular way.   God is not described here as the God who created Heaven and Earth.  Such a God can command, and we will be bound, but there will be no intimate connection.  To the degree that there would be any relationship, it would be on of monarch and subject.  In such a case, our observance of the mitzvot will be framed as obligation and nothing more - we do as we have been told.

Not so regarding the God who took us out of Egypt.   Having been redeemed by God, we entered into a special relationship with God, we became God's people.   When this God commands us, we are bound not only because we are commanded, but also because of our relationship, and it is the performance of the mitzvot that express and sustain that relationship.

When a husband does the dishes or takes out the garbage, even unasked, he is doing this not because he is obligated or commanded, but because such actions are an expression of his relationship to his wife, and such acts nurture and sustain the relationship. 

We observe the mitzvot because we were commanded, but not just because we were commanded.  We also observe them because they connect us to God.  The mitzvot are empty when there is no connection, but neither are they just means to an end.  The goal is not the connection, and we do not keep the mitzvot in order that we may have a relationship with God.  Rather, the mitzvot - the way we live every moment of our lives - is the essence of the relationship itself. 

There is a problem if we overly focus on the experiential dimension - the emotional, psychological or religious intensity that such connection can bring.   If this is our focus, we will always be trying to recapture the same feeling as the "first time," and it will reduce our relationship to that feeling, that experience.  And is this truly what the relationship is about?  This feeling?  Isn't about how we act, how we live our lives?  A hyper-focus on the experiential can make us lose sight of the totality of the relationship.  It can pervert it, narrowing its meaning; it can turn the emotional or religious experience into a thing of ultimate meaning, into idolatry.

It is thus that immediately after receiving the Torah and experiencing the theophany that the Children of Israel are not commanded to build the Tabernacle.  That structure is a structure which will be - as Ramban describes it - a portable Mount Sinai; it is a structure that will allow us to recapture, even if only slightly, the Sinaitic encounter.  But the command for that structure will come later.   The first response to the Divine-human encounter is not to recreate it, but to avoid its potential pitfalls:

God said to Moshe, so shall you say to the Children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heaven.   You shall not make [representations of] Me.  Gods of gold and gods of silver you shall not make for yourselves. (20:19-20).

Do not focus on recapturing that encounter, God is saying.  Do not try to overly concretize that experience.  If you do, it will become an idol.  In you attempt to capture this ephemeral thing, you will turn Me into something lesser than who I am.   We will continue to have encounters, You and I, says God, but they will not be like the first time.   And these encounters will not require a specific place or a specific structure: "... In every place where I will call My name, I will come to you and bless you" (20:22). 

Yes, God is saying, our relationship is of critical importance, and it must and will continue, but in ways that transcend this location, this experience.  It must be a relationship that is the very warp and woof of your life.  And thus, parshat Yitro is not followed by parshat Terumah, the parsha of the Mishkan, but by parshat Mishpatim, the parsha of the laws.   This is how our relationship with God is lived. 

Tellingly, parshat Mishpatim ends with the Children of Israel entering into a brit, a covenant with God, that is the commitment to these laws.  To do the laws with no relationship to God reduces them to hollow observance.  One is doing one's obligation, but no more, and the context of brit is completely forgotten.  But to pursue the relationship at its experiential level with disregard for the laws is to misunderstand the very nature of the relationship.  Our relationship with God means nothing, or at least very little, when it does not translate into action.  Only when we follow Yitro with Mishpatim, do we live a life in which our relationship with God becomes real, where our actions are its very expression and its sustenance.  And only when we Yitro precedes Mishpatim do we live a life in which our observance is no longer mechanical, but is part of a brit, part of a true, enduring and covenantal relationship.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, third and fourth year students finished studying hilkhot Niddah, focusing on the sensitive and highly important topic of the halakhot that surround the wedding night.  They also heard a presentation from Dr. David Ribner, an eminent couples sex therapist in Israel, and co-author with Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld of the new "The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy".  Dr. Ribner talked about how a rabbi can help in preparing a bride and groom for their sexual life as a married couple, and also the critical role played by one's family of origin and the messages that one receives growing up.  This talk was followed, on the next day, by a presentation by Dr. Batsheva Marcus, director of the  Center for Female Sexuality.  Dr. Marcus discussed the types of sexual problems that couples - newly married or married for many years - may experience and the role that a rabbi can play in making sure that these issues are surfaced and that the couple gets the help that they need.   All in all, a powerful week on a very sensitive topic.

We also had the pleasure of welcoming Rabbi Yair Kahn, a longtime rav in Gush Etzion and a former chavruta of mine, to the yeshiva on Tuesday.  Rav Yair gave a shiur on the topic of Birkat HaMazon, and its emphasis on the Land of Israel and the agricultural produce of Israel.  The shiur was a wonderful lead-on to Tu BiShvat the following day, when students arrange a special Tu BiShvat seder in the afternoon. 

It was a very full week, and it is wonderful to be back.

My Recent Trip to England

Last week I had the pleasure of spending Shabbat in the Golders Green neighborhood in London.   I had the opportunity to speak in several places and received a very warm reception from the entire community. 

A big yasher koach and todah raba to our student Dr. Benjamin Elton, a native of Manchester and an active lay leader turned rabbinical student, who coordinated my trip. 

On the day of my arrival, UK's major Jewish newspaper published a wonderful article about YCT and how we are attracting excellent students from England.  Here is an excerpt:

We talk to the head of a yeshivah at the cutting edge of modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Dov Linzer, who is visiting the UK this week.
It is not uncommon for yeshivah heads to come here in search of potential students. But Rabbi Dov Linzer, who will be speaking at several United Synagogues over the weekend on his first trip to the UK, is different. His yeshivah, Chovevei Torah, is based in New York, not in Israel. And it is not just modern Orthodox, but "open modern Orthodox", modelled on the ideals of its founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale in the Bronx. 

To read the entire article, click here

A brief summary of the trip:

On Thursday afternoon I gave a shiur to the Kinloss Community Kollel on the topic of shaving on Chol HaMoed.  It was a classic lomdus shiur, analyzing the different opinions in the rishonim and poskim through a conceptual lens.

On Friday night, at the Hendon Synagogue, I gave a brief sermon related to the parsha, discussing two different types of belief: philosophical belief (belief that) and faith (belief in), and the relationship between faith and commandedness.

I spent Shabbat morning with Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski, Rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue.  Following davening I spoke on the topic of "Is Foie Gras Kosher: The Dialectic of Ethics and Halakha."   The talk was enthusiastically received, and the conversation continued through the Kiddush (no foi gras served!) that followed.

Shabbat ended with a talk between mincha and ma'ariv at the Alei Tzion Synagogue on the topic of "Science and Halakha: Sympathies and Strategies."    

Motzei Shabbat, England was blanketed with 4-5 inches of snow.   Although such a snow is a bit of a rarity in England, it didn't deter a huge turnout to my final shiur, "Mechitza: Marginalization or Membership", which took place at Cambridge University.  I was impressed with the knowledge, thoughtfulness, and seriousness of the Cambridge students and it is no surprise that YCT has been blessed with so many star students who have come from Cambridge!

It was a wonderful few days in England, and I look forward to my next opportunity to return, to teach Torah, and to connect to all the wonderful people there.  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

Freedom for What?
And they came to Marah, and they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter... And the people murmured against Moshe and Aharon saying, 'What shall we drink?'" (Shemot 15:23-24). Parashat Beshalach is the parasha of the apex of the Exodus, as it relates the Splitting of the Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, and the Song on the Sea. It is also the parasha of the murmurings: "And the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael murmured against Moshe and Aharon in the Wilderness. And they said to them: "Who would give that we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to our fill, that you have taken us to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation in starvation" (Shemot 16:2-3). "And the people fought with Moshe and they said, 'Give us water to drink'..." (Shemot 17:3). "And they called the name of the place Trial and Quarrel, because Bnei Yisrael had fought with and tested God saying, "Is God in our midst, or not?" (Shemot 17:7). How is it that the climax of the Exodus could be followed so precipitously with the grumblings and murmurings that were to accompany them for 40 years throughout the Wilderness?
Much has been said and can be said about this in regards to the outgrowing of a slave mentality and the quality of a faith that comes too easily. There is, however, another factor here as well, one that goes to the very core of the Exodus and of the purpose of freedom. What were they heading towards? What was the purpose ofyitziat Mitzrayim and how had this purpose been framed to the people?
Both God and Moshe had emphasized that the people would be freed from the bondage of Egypt and be able to enter into a land "flowing with milk and honey" as a free people (cf. Shemot 3:8, 3:17). This material promise of freedom was of course thrown back in Moshe's face when it did not immediately materialize: "Even to a land flowing of milk and honey you have not brought us, nor given us an inheritance of a field and vineyard!" (Bamidbar 15:13). The promise for a physically better life was met with immediate disappointment, and when water and food were lacking, murmuring and complaining ensued. Why not go back to the fleshpots of Egypt rather than endure the hardships of the desert?
The true purpose of yitziat Mitzrayim was, of course, quite different. "When you take the People out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain" (Shemot 3:12). While to the people this must have sounded like a ruse to win Pharaoh's agreement to let them out, it was, in fact, the ultimate purpose of the Exodus: to stand at Har Sinai and accept and be commanded by the mitzvot, not just to become physically free, but to transform from slaves of Pharaoh to servants of God. "They are my servants, whom I have taken out of the Land of Egypt" (Vayikra 25:42). Thus, as we have seen "and I will be for them as a God" is the climax of "and I will redeem them... and take them for me as a People" (Shemot 6:7). This is distilled in the concise statement of the Hagaddah, "Originally we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now God has drawn us close to God's service."
The question of the purpose of freedom, and the definition of liberty, was clearly articulated by Isaiah Berlin in his article "Two Concepts of Liberty," where he describes two types of liberty: negative liberty and positive liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from constraint, whereas positive liberty is having the power and resources to act to fulfill one's own potential, and often requires a level of education, self-discipline, and certain underlying values. Negative liberty is leaving Egypt, positive liberty is standing at Har Sinai. Ain likha ben chorin ela mi she'osek baTorah, "No one is as free as the one who devotes himself to the study of Torah."
Bnei Yisrael, as an enslaved people, had to first be motivated by the physical freedom and the promise of a better life, but - once hardship was encountered and murmurings ensued, they had to be trained in the second type of freedom. They had to learn to see beyond material privation to something of greater consequence. "There God gave them rule and law and there God tested them" (Shemot 15:25). There - as the Rabbis said - God began to introduce them to law, discipline, and Torah, and gave them "some of the laws of the Torah that they should begin to practice - Shabbat, the red calf, and civil laws" (Rashi quoting Mekhilta). "And God said to them: If you surely listen to the voice of Hashem your God, and do what is right in God's eyes, and listen to God's commandments, and observe God's edicts, then all of the afflictions that I have placed upon Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am God your healer." While still needing to be motivated by the promise of physical protection, the people are being introduced and trained in the accepting of a life of discipline and meaning, a life of mitzvot and of purpose. And even the giving of the man, the most basic sustenance, was followed by, "that I may test them, if they will walk in My law, or no" (Shemot 16:4).
This idea is nicely stated by Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution (which is a must-read for these parashot):
For the wilderness wasn't only a world of austerity, it was a world of laws...The Israelites had been Pharaoh's slaves; in the wilderness they became God's servants... and once they agree to God's rule, He and Moses, His deputy, force them to be free. This, according to Rousseau, was Moses' greatest achievement; he transformed a herd of "wretched fugitives" who lacked both virtue and courage, into a "free people." He didn't do this merely by breaking their chains but also by organizing them into a "political society" and giving them laws. He brought them what is currently called "positive freedom," that is, not so much (not at all!) a way of life free from regulation but rather a way of life to whose regulation they could, and did, agree... The Israelite slaves could become free only insofar as they accepted the discipline of freedom, to obligation to live up to a common standard and to take responsibility for their own actions... hence the Sinai covenant" (pp. 52-53).
Two hundred years ago the Jewish People experienced another Exodus - they were freed from the ghetto and welcomed into the larger, secular world. For some, this freedom was a negative liberty, and with it came a rejection of all constraints - the physical and economic constraints (not to mention the oppression) of the ghetto, and the constraints of a life of Torah and mitzvot as well. For others, this freedom was only dangerous, because it allowed for such a complete rejection of constraints, and they attempted - and still attempt - to move back into a world that existed before this freedom, a world that is fully constrained. Others, including today's Modern Orthodox Jews, willingly embraced this new freedom, willingly left the Egypt of old, while still holding fast to the positive freedom of a life of Torah and mitzvot, the true freedom that comes from the commands and demands of the Torah.
What has been missing, however, even for this last group, and for today's Modern Orthodox Jews, is a new vision of the Promised Land. For with this new Exodus, a new vision that gives purpose and meaning to this freedom, a vision that shapes for us how we can embrace this freedom to bring us to a place of higher and ultimate meaning, that explains for us our purpose in life in a way that fully incorporates our new reality - such a vision, at least outside of Israel, is sorely lacking. What, we must ask ourselves, is the purpose of this new freedom? Where are we marching towards? What is our Promised Land?
It is because of this lack that we - in the Modern Orthodox camp - often struggle for an animating religious ethos, and a real sense of purpose. We have spent too many years wandering aimlessly in the Wilderness. Our challenge, then, is not just to accept this new freedom, not just to recognize it as something that has value - to affirm that we can learn from the larger world - but to incorporate it into our religious vision, to give it purpose, to make it part of our vision and part of our life, so that we can lead ourselves into the Promised Land.