Friday, March 30, 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 Tzav
 
Tzav - Pulling Back the Curtain
The book of Vayikra began with a detailed listing of the different sacrifices that a person could bring, and the laws that pertain to them.  Somewhat surprisingly, then, the Torah seems to repeat itself in this week's parsha, listing once again all of the sacrifices and how they are to be brought.   What is the point of this repetition?

The first verses of each parsha provide the answer.  The opening verse of Vayikra commands Moshe to speak to the Children of Israel; the opening verse of Tzav commands him to speak to the KohanimVayikra details the laws pertaining to the person who is bringing the sacrifice; Tzav details the laws pertaining to the Kohanim who are executing the sacrificial service.   From the perspective of the one bringing the sacrifice, the first concern is what may be brought.  Thus, Vayikra opens with a detailing of these requirements.  From the perspective of the Kohanim, in contrast, the first concern is how the sacrificial service must be executed - making sure that the offerings on the altar are completely burnt, determining who may eat from which portions of the sacrifices, and similar details.  In each case, it is the same sacrifice, the difference is one of perspective.

It is thus interesting to note that at the very beginning of our parsha, the Torah deviates from the focus on sacrifices per se.  After stating in one verse how the burnt offering is to be burnt, the Torah spells out in great detail the ritual of the terumat ha'deshen, a ritual removing of ashes from the altar that a Kohen performs each morning.  In addition to this daily ritual removal, he must also do a more serious removal of the ashes when needed, changing into non-priestly, inexpensive clothes, and taking the ashes outside the camp.  This is, in essence, almost a type of janitorial work, or "garbage removal", and certainly not something that is likely to be perceived as a very lofty task.  What is the importance of telling us of this task, and doing so here, at the very beginning of the parsha?

What the Torah is doing is pulling the curtain back, and letting us see what goes on behind the scenes.   In the beginning of Vayikra, when the person comes to the Temple to bring his or her sacrifice, all he or she sees is a clean and ordered space, with the Kohanim functioning efficiently, in a coordinated manner, with the visitors being treated respectfully, and being attended to in a proper and timely fashion.  In short, everything is functioning just as it should be.  His or her only concern is the sacrifice that he or she is bringing.  

But this beautiful setting, this efficiently run organization, does not happen by itself.  An enormous amount of effort behind the scenes is required to make everything look perfect, look simple.  For the Temple to be as it should be, the ashes have to be taken out every morning, the floors have to be washed, the utensils have to be cleaned and put back into their proper places, the fire has to be tended, the supplies have to be available, the Kohanim have to be organized and coordinated.   As the law of entropy teaches us, disorder is the natural state of affairs, and maintaining order requires constant work, constant attention.  From the perspective of the one bringing the sacrifice, all of this work is invisible.  From the perspective of the Kohanim, it is one of the top priorities.  If the ashes aren't removed, if the fire isn't tended, the Temple will not be able to open for business tomorrow morning.

It is so easy for us - as consumers, as recipients of other people's efforts or services - to be completely blind to all of this effort, to think it is simple, to take it for granted.   How often is it that we have gone to a conference, and not even thought twice about the fact that everything was exactly as it should be?   Not only do we take this as a given, but if it were not the case, we would be irate.  "How come my room isn't ready for me?!", "I can't believe that they didn't take care of my special request for lunch!"  - Sadly, these are not uncommon remarks heard at such events.   What is so easily forgotten is the thousands of details and the hundreds of man-hours that are required to get everything perfectly in place, to make it all look easy and simple.

This "blindness" is not limited to conferences, of course.    In our interactions with our spouses, how often do we just look at the finished product, and get upset when something is not exactly as it should be, completely taking for granted all the effort that took place behind the scenes?   Are we fully cognizant of how much effort it takes to keep a house in order - to "remove the ashes", to take out the garbage, to vacuum, to do the wash, to put everything in its place, to keep the house stocked with groceries, to have the meals ready at the right time, to have the table set, to have the dishes done, to have the bills paid, to interact with the children's teachers, to handle planning for camp, or extra-curricular activities?   Do we see all of this?  Or do we just get upset when one thing isn't exactly as it should be?   When something was forgotten, or when something was done not to our liking?

And this also occurs with those who are the Kohanim of today: our rabbis and our teachers.  How often is it that people will come home from shul, complaining about some detail of the rabbi's sermon, or some small thing that was not the way it ideally should be?  Do we remember, at these times, the hundreds of hours, the enormous effort, that is required to keep the shul running, the hours that the rabbi puts in every day to teach, to be there for people in the hospital, to counsel, to work with bar- and bat-mitzvah children, to be there at every shiva house, to be there at every bris

And when it comes to those who have taken upon themselves the most holy task of educating our children - in Torah and in secular studies - do we ever stop to appreciate the hours upon hours that our child's teacher puts in countless nights - grading tests, preparing lessons, writing thoughtful feedback on exams and essays, writing assessments, writing letters of recommendation?   Or do we take all of that for granted - or worse, not even see it at all?  When we go to parent-teacher conferences, we want to hear about how wonderfully our children are doing.  And we might also come with concerns, or with a long list of complaints.  But do we ever take out time to thank these tireless individuals, not only for the teaching that they do in the class - what is visible to all - but for the endless effort that they put in behind the scenes so that everything will be just perfect, just so?

It is because this work, although so critical, is so easily overlooked, that it requires extra encouragement.  "Command, tzav, the Children of Israel - tzav means nothing other than urging - for now and for all future generations." (Rashi, VaYikra 6:1).   Those that are doing the tireless work behind the scenes need encouragement.  The work is hard, it can be never-ending, it can be very inglorious - a virtual taking out of the garbage in weekday clothes - but it is critically necessary.  It is what brings kedusha.  There is a reason that we sometimes lose our best rabbis, our best teachers.  When all of this effort - the necessary effort to make everything else function - goes unacknowledged, without encouragement, without the tzav, then we should not be surprised if the fire on the altar no longer burns as strong or as brightly.

This is the message of parshat Tzav.   If we can extract ourselves from our Vayikra-perspective, if we can put ourselves for a moment in the perspective of Tzav, the perspective of the Kohanim, we will see that the first concern is not what animal to bring, not even how the animal is to be brought.  No, our first concern - if we are the Kohanim - is to make sure that the ashes our removed, that all the work is done throughout the night, so that everything will be perfect in the morning.  So that everything will flow so easily, will function so perfectly, that it will all seem so simple, that it can be taken for granted.  The Kohanim's work is to make it so that it can be taken for granted.  Our work is to make sure that we never take it for granted.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week was the final one before our Pesach break.  Students in the upper years started the week with presentations on the real-world conversion cases that they had been assigned.  They presented their cases, taking into account both on the halakhic and policy considerations, and Rabbi Love and I - together with their fellow students - gave them critical feedback.  The process of presenting to their peers, hearing the feedback, and discussing the cases together as a group was a tremendous learning experience for all involved, bringing the theory into (virtual) practice.

For the remainder of the week these students continued learning the halakhot of siddur kiddushin, focusing on the role of and the criteria for the witnesses of the kiddushin.  When we return, we will spend one more week on this topic, looking at the halakhot around chuppah, ketuvah, and sheva brakhot.

First- and second-year students spent the week learning the sugyot in Arvei Pesachim on the content and structure of the seder.  Keeping with the Pesach theme, Rabbi Love gave a shiur to students on Wednesday on kashering the kitchen for Pesach, and Rabbi Weiss delivered his Shabbat HaGadol sermon to the students on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, we had the opportunity to welcome Serge Etele, religious leader of the Beth Yeshouron community of Cameroon, in central Africa, whose trip to the US has been sponsored by the Kulanu organization.   The Beth Yeshouron community 1998 when its leaders turned away from Christianity. Increasingly observant and deeply committed to Jewish rituals and practice, the 50-member community has made amazing progress, educating themselves through the Internet by downloading Jewish liturgies and prayers, and studying Judaism, Hebrew, and Torah on Jewish websites.  Serge presented on the history of this community, and ended his presentation by playing on his guitar, sharing with the students  the African-Jewish music developed by this community.  Students left fascinated and inspired by this wonderful presentation.

The week ended with a pre-Pesach night seder.  Students and rebbeim learned till late at night both in chavruta, and in shiurim on Pesach-related topics.  Rav Nati gave a shiur on the Four Cups and Motzi Matzah, Rabbi Katz gave a shiur on the Minchat Chinukh's analysis of the mitzvah of sippur yitziat mitzrayim, and I gave a shiur on the development on the haggadah, the transition after the churban to a night without the korban pesach, and the transformation of the rituals of the seder night.  The first part of the shiur was based on an article that I wrote a few years earlier on the topic of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and Commemorating the Temple.  The article appeared in Millin Havivin, and it  can be found here.

Finally, a big Mazal Tov to Marisa and Eytan Yammer (YCT '11), on the birth of a baby boy, and the bris which took place just yesterday at Eytan's shul in Birmingham, AL.    Mazal Tov to the newborn, Hiyah Yitzhak Yammer, and to Eytan and Marisa - shetizku li'gadlo li'Torah, li'chuppah, u'li'ma'asim tovim!