Friday, March 16, 2012

Words to the Graduating Musmakhim, YCT Dinner, March 11, 2012

Aaron, Gabe, Mordechai, Ari, Simon, Dani, Mikey, and Josh, my dear students,

Vi'asu li Mikdash, And you shall make for Me a Sanctuary, and vi'shamru Benei Yisrael et haShabbat, And the Children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat. Shabbat and Mikdash - these two sources of kedusha are the focus of the latter half of the book of Shemot.   It is by keeping Shabbat and building the Mishkan that we bring holiness into our lives.

But the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of Mikdash are of a different sort. Shabbat - as Rav Soloveitchik explains - is the bringing of God into our lives, come o Bride, come o Bride. We welcome Shabbat into our homes, we bring Shabbat into our week. To enter the Mikdash, in contrast, is to enter into God's place, to leaving our home, to make aliyah li'regel, to go up to the Temple Mount and enter into sanctified space.

Of these two, the kedusha of Shabbat is primary. It was commanded first, and it takes precedence over the building of the Mishkan.   The foundational kedusha is the kedusha that we bring into our lives, it is the kedusha that we bring to how we wake up in the morning, how we speak to our spouse or our children, how we are at work, how we pray, how we learn, how we live. It is the structure and details of halakha, it is the Torah values that imbue our lives. It is the kedusha that is the very fabric of our existence.

And yet. And yet this kedusha is not enough. For this kedusha does not answer the deeper questions - what is the purpose of all of this? Why observe? Towards what end? For this, we must strive to transcend the day to day, li'Shikno tidrishu, we must seek out God's presence, God's purpose; we must seek out God. For this we need the kedusha of the Mikdash, a kedusha of purpose and direction, a kedusha of vision.

As a people we have excelled in the kedusha of Shabbat, in bringing God into our homes. This is the foundation of what you have learned during your years in the yeshiva - Halakha, Gemara, pastoral counseling, and lifecycle events. You have immersed yourselves in this study, you have worked hard these last four years, and you have emerged eminently prepared as soon-to-be rabbis. You will shine in your roles, bringing holiness and connectedness, practice and meaning into people's daily lives, into their days, their months, their years.
At this we excel. But what we as a people have largely forgotten is the other kedusha, the kedusha of the Mikdash, the kedusha of purpose.

For so long we have been asking ourselves questions of "what" and "how" that we have forgotten to ask the question of "why?" And if we fail to ask "why" then even our "what" will suffer. Our observance will become empty and rote. It will become self-referential and lose its moorings in the real world.   It will become an observance that can advise receiving organs, but not donating them; it will become an observance that will put eight-day-old infants' lives at risk to uphold a non-essential practice; it will become an observance that valorizes the marginalization of women, of gays, of non-Jews, rather than to denounce and deplore it. It will become an observance that risks losing all claim to the concept of kedusha.

We must re-embrace the centrality of Mikdash, the striving towards a higher purpose. We must ask ourselves the hard questions: towards what are striving, towards what are we reaching? Does the Torah have anything to say to about our larger engagement with the world, and if so, what?   Where should we be headed as a people? Where should we be headed as members of the human race?

My dear talmidim - this is what brought you to YCT. Anchored in observance, in Torah, in the holiness of every day, you were nevertheless driven by a passion and a vision. A passion to serve Klal Yisrael, and a vision, unique to each one of you, a vision of how we must strive, a vision of where we need to go.

You will be our religious leaders, you will be our teachers of Torah and halakha, you will be our rabbis. Bring to us, your future students, your future communities, the dual message of Shabbat and Mikdash. Vi'Shamru Benei Yisrael et haShabbat, teach us the foundational kedusha, the eternal covenant. Teach us the holiness and warmth that comes from a kedusha that is part of each day, part of each week. But teach us also the passion and the fire that transcends the day to day. Vi'assu li Mikdash, teach us how to live a life of purpose, a life of striving, liShikhno tidrishu, to seek out God, u'vatah shama, so that we may not only bring God into our lives, but also bring our lives that much closer to God.

Mazel Tov!

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 Vayakhel-Pikudei  

See also, "Words to the Graduating Musmakhim" for the text of Rabbi Linzer's speech at our annual dinner, and for another thought on this week's parsha.

Parshat Vayakhel-Pikudei - Too Much of a Good Thing

The people, having thrown themselves with religious fervor into the making of the Golden Calf, are given a chance to redeem themselves in the building of the Mishkan.   When it came to the Golden Calf, the men and not the women gave of their jewelry.  When it came to the Mishkan, this time women gave, and men did as well: "And they came, both men and women... and brought broaches, and earrings, and rings, and bracelets, all jewels of gold..." (35:2). The Torah even emphasizes the giving of the men - "... and every man who offered an offering of gold to the Lord."  - perhaps to underscore how, in this giving, they cancelled out their earlier giving to the making of the Calf.

The giving of gold to the building of the Mishkan, the enthusiastic participation in its activities and construction, serves as a tikkun for the sin of the Golden Calf.  It is thus not surprising that the people give so enthusiastically, being propelled by a desire to make right what they had wronged, to fix what they had broken.   In fact, the people gave so much, that they had to be told to stop:  " And all the wise men... spoke to Moses saying: The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the Lord commanded to make.  And Moses gave commandment, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying, Let neither man nor woman do any more work for the offering of the sanctuary. So the people were restrained from bringing." (36:5-6).

Understood this way, it was the giving that was the serving of God.  The stopping of this giving is only mentioned to emphasize how much was given, how great was their service to God.  The Sefat Emet, however, turns this on its head:

The righteous people and the wise men saw that the contributions were more than what was appropriate, and they were concerned that it would no longer be done with true intent, for the sake of Heaven... For when one finishes all of his actions (i.e., realizes all of his ambitions), it can lead to pride.  But when one stops in the middle, because of his awareness of God, this is the true tikkun of his actions.

According to the Sefat Emet, the true service to God came not in the doing, but in the stopping.   When we are giving, building, producing, we might be intending to serve God, we might in fact be serving God.  But we can also get carried away.  It can wind up being all about us.  How great we are, how religious we are, because we give so much of our time and of our money.  Because we learn Torah for so many hours each day.  Because we daven such a long shmoneh esrei.  The more we do, the more we give expression to ourselves, our personalities, our ambitions.   The more we do, the more we put of ourselves into the world, and this sometimes leaves no place for God.

The tikkun of the giving of gold to the Calf was not the giving of gold to the Mishkan.  The same person who one day could give to the making of an idol and the next day to God, is perhaps a person of great religious passion, but of no strong religious conviction.   As long as he can give, as long as he can build, it doesn't matter to whom or to what.  Maybe tomorrow he will find another cause, another god, another temple, and throw himself into that with equal abandon.   No.  The tikkun does not come from the giving.  The tikkun comes from the stopping.  It is in this stopping that they demonstrate that it is not about them, not about their self-expression or sense of religious fulfillment.  It is about God. 

This explains why the parsha of the building of the Mishkan opens with the mitzvah of Shabbat, in the reverse order of how it was commanded.   Shabbat is about stopping.  "Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day you shall rest."  Even if our work during the week is holy work.  Even if we are using our talents to serve God - to heal the sick, to feed the poor, to build religious institutions - all of this must stop when Shabbat arrives.  Even the building of a place for God's presence on this Earth, even the Mishkan, must stop for the sake of Shabbat.  Without Shabbat, one could build a Mishkan, but there is no ensuring that it will be a mishkan to God.   It could just as easily become a mishkan to oneself, to one's ability, to one's generosity, to one's religiosity.   It is preceding the building of the Mishkan with Shabbat that is the corrective for the sin of the Calf.   It is in our stopping, that we serve God.  It is in our stopping that we are able to properly frame our doing.

It is in this way that we take after God.  God created the world in six days.  For what purpose?  For the sake of mankind.  But so long as God was creating, there was no space for mankind.  Adam and Eve were commanded on the sixth day to "fill the earth and subdue it," but no subduing would begin until God pulled back.   What was required was a tremendous act of tzimtzum, of God withdrawing Godself so that humans could come onto the stage, so that there would be space for us.  This tzimtzum occurred at the moment God stopped creating; it occurred with Shabbat.

We give expression to human creativity immediately after Shabbat concludes.  On Saturday night we make havdallah over a fire, a fire representing the first fire created by the first human beings.  But this creative act, the first human invention that served as the foundation for human society, occurred after Shabbat, after God withdrew.  Only then could we begin to do, to act, to create.

God created a world for us, but we could only be present once God stopped creating.   We, in parallel, create in this world, and we may do so to serve God.  And yet there may be no space for God in this creating.  When God rested on Shabbat, God made space for us.   When we rest on Shabbat, we make a space for God.  When we stop, God enters.

The building of the Mishkan did not stop just for Shabbat.  It also stopped when the work was done.   " Va'yekhal Moshe, so Moses completed the work." (40:33).  The same term, va'yekhal, to complete,  is used for the completion of the Mishkan, and for God completing the creation of the world: "va'yekhulu hashamayim vi'ha'aretz, and the work of the Heavens and Earth was completed".  God completed the world, and when God stopped, mankind emerged.  Moshe completed the Mishkan, and it was only when he stopped, that God entered: "Then a cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle." (40:34)

[It is also worth noting that the same term, ve'yekhulu, is used for the response of the people to Moshe's call to cease the donations: va'yekhalei ha'am mei'havi, "and the nation ceased to bring" (36:6).  It is the ceasing of Shabbat, the ceasing of va'yekhulu, that allowed the Mishkan to emerge.]

This stopping may be harder for men then for women.  Speaking personally, I can say that men can often have a hard time listening, pulling back to make space for the other.  When we hear of a problem, we want to immediately try to fix it.   We want to bring ourselves into the equation.   It is perhaps for this reason that the men needed the tikkun.  The men had to learn that it was not all about doing, it was also about stopping.

This is critically important for us as parents and as spouses.  To support, we must make space.  When our rabbinical students learn pastoral counseling, the most fundamental lesson is how to be a good listener.  When a rabbi hears of someone's struggles, when he pays a shiva call to someone who has just experienced a loss, he could easily think that he will help by sharing experiences that he had that are similar.  But of course, that will just make it about him.  No, the way one can be there for the other person is by making space for the other person.  It is by active listening.  It is by doing through removing oneself.

It is easy to forget this message.  It is easy to think that as long as we are doing for God, it is about God.  It can be very hard to pull back for God.  I remember that when I was young, a righteous individual I knew, who was then 90 years old, told me that because of his health he had to eat on Yom Kippur.   He was devastated.  His entire life he had fasted religiously on Yom Kippur, and now, at the age of 90, he was supposed to eat?!  It was unimaginable.  He wouldn't do it.  But then his doctor told him something which changed his mind.  "Your entire life you have fasted for God.  Now you must eat for God."

We must always pull back to make space for others.  And in all our activities, perhaps especially in our religious ones, we must make space for God.  We must make sure that we are not building a temple to ourselves.  It is only in our stopping, in our pulling back, that we can truly build a temple to God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

The week started with our annual YCT Dinner, and it was a huge success!  We had close to 400 attendees and raised over $500,000.  The event itself was elegant and ran flawlessly.  We also were treated to a fabulous video produced by Yitz Brilliant, that truly capture the essence and the energy of YCT.   Thank you to Naomi Smook, and the entire office staff for making this dinner such a huge success.  And a thank you to Rav Steven Exler (YCT 09) for stepping up at the last minute, when our emcee got sick.  Thank you Rav Steven for the wonderful job, done with such poise and grace!

At the yeshiva, we continued learning halakhot of siddur kidushin.  This week we focused on the ownership of the ring, the giving of the ring, and the language of the declaration when the ring is given.   We also had a special class where we looked at the nature of the institution of kiddushin itself, and saw its evolution from a more ownership-kinyan model to a more partnership­-kiddushin model.  An audio recording of a lecture I gave on this topic can be found on our website, or by clicking here.

In our Lifecycles class, third- and fourth-year students heard two classes on infertility and adoption, one halakhic, given by Rabbi Yaakov Love, and the other medical and pastoral, presented by Dr. Sara Barris.  We will continue until our Pesach break to explore topics related to marriage and fertility in the afternoons as we work through the halakhic issues of kiddushin, ketuvah, and nissuim in the morning sedarim.

In our Educators Program, the five students who have been interning at local Jewish High Schools - SAR and Heschel - began this week a three-week intensive internship.  They will be full-time at these schools until the Pesach break, taking on a serious teaching role in the classroom and immersing themselves in the school and the teaching experience.   This will serve as the perfect capstone to what has been a powerful and intense first year of this program.

Finally, a Mazal Tov to Marina and Aaron (YCT 2012) Braun on the baby naming of their new baby girl.  Leora Avigail was named on Sunday morning at a lovely ceremony and breakfast, and it was wonderful to have so many of Aaron's fellow students there.   She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!