Friday, June 1, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha

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Nasso - Selfish Kedusha and Selfless Kedusha
After the organizing of the camp  with the mishkan at its center – the focus on parshat Bamidbar - this parasha focuses on what it means to be outside the mishkan, to be in the camp, and to continue to orient oneself to God’s presence. This is clearly the concern of the section devoted to the sending out the ritually impure from the camp and it is also the theme of the section dealing with the case of the sotah, the suspected wife. Here we see how discord between husband and wife and the suspicion of infidelity creates a status of tumah, impurity, which then – somewhat ironically – needs to be brought into the Temple.  There it will be resolved, purity will be reestablished, and husband and wife can return to the camp and once again live their lives with the proper orientation towards God’s presence.

The section of nazir continues this theme. It is a possible solution of how to connect to God and a life of kedusha outside of the mishkan. The solution of the nazir is to attempt to recreate the mishkan in the camp, at least for him or herself personally. Like the Kohen Gadol, he or she does not come into contact with the dead, even with his or her closest relatives. He or she not only refrains from intoxicating drink, as do Kohanim, but does not even eat and grapes or mixture of grape products, and – unlike the Kohanim – allows his or her hair to grow wild. These last two extensions ensure that he or she will be cut off from outside society, so that s/he can live in a protected mikdash-reality while outside themikdash.

However, this form of kedusha is not the ideal. First, it is a kedusha of denial, or rejection.  It is not a kedusha that taps into the most creative part of our tzelem E-lohim and seeks to give it expression.  But beyond that, what makes this kedusha so problematic, is that it is a kedusha that is self-serving and self- indulgent. It is all about one’s own spiritual growth and reflects no sense of responsibility to the larger society or to bringing that kedusha into the real world.  This may be why the nazir brings achatat, a sin-offering. The Gemara and rishonim debate whether one should infer from this that the nazir is a sinner, or whether the nazir iskadosh (and the sin is that s/he terminated the nezirut). In fact, he or she is both. The nazir is kadosh, but it is a type of a kedusha that is somewhat sinful, because it is a kedusha that is completely self-serving.
Thus, the nazir’s pursuit of kedusha is not only more restrictive than that of the Kohanim, but, more significantly, lacks the dimension of service that the Kohanim embody. Even the Kohen Gadol, who does not exit the Temple when a relative dies, is present in the Temple so that he can serve the people by doing the avodah and by representing them to God. Kohanim are our representatives in the Beit HaMikdash; the nazirrepresents only himself. It is for this reason that when Amos condemns the people, he distinguishes between the nazir and the navi, the prophet: “and you have made the nazirs drink wine, and you have commanded the prophets – ‘do not prophesy!’"(Amos 2:12).  The nazir is only pure, but does not serve the people.  The worst that can happen to him is that he can be corrupted.  The navi, in contrast, serves a greater function – to admonish and direct the people, so that when one opposes the navi, it is not by corrupting him, but by silencing him and preventing him from doing his duty and his role.

The problematic nature of the nazir is most highlighted in the prohibition of contact with the dead. Coming in contact with the dead, on the one hand transmits the highest form of tumah. At the same time, a person so ritually defiled, and even a corpse itself, is allowed in the camp of the Levites, the closest camp to the mikdash. Dealing with the dead is both a very physical, this-worldly experience, and is the most profound encounter with death and one’s mortality. Hence it is in strong contrast to a pursuit of kedusha and its focus on the spiritual, non-physical realm and in opposition to the immortality of God, the source of all life. On the other hand, dealing with the dead is one of the most profound mitzvot. It is achesed shel emet, a true selfless kindness, and the helping of the ill, the dying, and those who are dead is one of the most significant and weighty mitzvot that one can perform. The two cases of dealing with the dead in the Torah are exactly in the performance of such mitzvot – Moshe’s carrying of the bones of Yosef, and the people who were impure and could not bring the korban pesach, and who became impure because, as Chazal tell us, they had been burying the bodies of Nadav and Aviyhu.

Thus, the nazir’s removing himself from the contact with the dead is the removing of himself from the most basic act of engagement with this world, with people, and with their most human needs and concerns. Chazal could not accept this complete divorcing of oneself from the world, and hence stated that even the Kohen Gadol and even the nazirmust become impure for a met mitzvah, a corpse whom no one is burying. When there is no one else, then no one can forswear his obligation to respond to this profound human need.
It is for this reason that there exists a special category called nezirut Shimshon. This category serves to explain how Shimshon could have been a nazir and nevertheless regularly come in contact with the dead.  Chazal teach that this is a special type of nezirut, known as nezirut Shimshon,and while the other restrictions apply, such a nazir is allowed to become impure to the dead. On the face of it, it is hard to understand why coming in contact with the dead should be allowed to be as an exception.  Why should there not be other options of subdividing the prohibitions? Given the above, however, the explanation is obvious: Shimshon’s nezirut was tied into his leadership of Bnei Yisrael.  As the angel told Shimshon's mother:  “because a nazir to God the child will be from the womb, and he will begin to bring salvation to Israel from the Philistines.” (Shoftim 13:5) A nezirut of Shimshon is a nezirut of being a leader. It is not a self-serving religious pursuit, but a religious leadership. And to lead the people, one needs to be come in contact with the dead, one needs to get one’s hands dirty in the physical world, in the suffering, the losses, and sometimes the wars of the people. One cannot remain completely pure in such circumstances, but this is undoubtedly the highest calling.
This kedusha of the nezirut of Shimshon is thus like the kedusha of the Kohen, a kedusha of kehuna, literally, of service. It is a kedusha of being present in the mikdash, but of serving the people even in when one is in the mikdash. It is a service of bringing the kedusha of the mikdash to the outside world.  It is a kedusha that calls on a person to focus his or her activities outside the mikdash.  Let us remember that even Kohanim only served in the Temple one week out of every twenty-four, and that much of their role was to spread Torah throughout all of Israel: “they will teach Your laws to Jacob and Your teachings to Israel” (Devarim 33:10). 

When we are absent from the mikdash the answer is not to embrace the self-serving kedusha of the nazir.  It is to learn how to be kohanimoutside of the mikdash.  It is to learn how to find in our own lives a sanctity of service. The section of the nazir is fittingly followed by the section of birkhat Kohanim, of the priestly blessing. If our impulse is towards a kedusha of the nazir, we must learn how to transition from that to the kedusha of the Kohen.  In the end, we will be holy not because we have devoted our lives to bring holiness to ourselves, but because we have devoted our lives to bring holiness, to bring God’s blessing, to all of the Jewish people. 
Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week students wrapped up their learning and professional classes, as they head off into the final week of yeshiva next week, where will be devoted to chazara and the taking of finals.

We had two special guests this week.  First, on Wednesday, we welcomed Rabbi Chaim Ovadia, rabbi of the Avenue U shul in Brooklyn, to deliver our final yahrtzeit shiur for the year.  This year our lectures were devoted to non-Lithuanian Achronim, and Rabbi Ovadia spoke on Rav Yaakov Chaim Sofer, author of the Kaf HaChayim (what might be called the Sephardi Mishna Brurah), whose yahrtzeit (or "neshama") was a week ago last Wednesday.  Rabbi Ovadia focused on the areas where the Kaf HaChayim addresses women's participation in various rituals - tikkun chatzot, saying berakhot on time-bound mitzvot, wearing tzitzit and the like.   In a number of places the Kaf HaChayim was quite progressive and even actively promoting women's participation (such as tikkun chatzot and the saying of berakhot), whereas in other places he was not so (such as wearing a talit).  Rabbi Ovadia's conclusion was that the rulings did not reflect a particular attitude towards women's participation, but rather the profound impact of kabbalah on the psakim of the Kaf HaChayim, so that when there was a positive Kabbalistic value for women to participate (for example, that it would tap into the feminine nature of the Divine), he would encourage it, and when there was not, he would not be interested in greater inclusion. 

The lecture led to fascinating discussions about the impact of larger society on psak, and more to the point, the impact of Kabbalah on Sephardic psak and the reasons why it would have such an influence.  It was a truly stimulating and horizon expanding lecture!  A special thank you to Rabbi Marc Angel and the Institute for Ideas and Ideals for connecting us with Rabbi Ovadia and helping make this lecture take place.

On Thursday we welcomed, for the second time this year, Rabbi Chaim Rapoport.  Rabbi Rapoport was visiting the States for various scholar-in-residence appearances, and made a special point of visiting YCT to connect with the students and to give some shiurim.  Rabbi Rapoport engaged students in a machshava discussion around the question of halakhot that are challenging to relate to.  Starting with Yom Tov Sheni in particular, but broadening the discussion to other areas, Rabbi Rapoport and the students explored what it means to find new meaning in certain practices when the old meanings no longer speak to us.   In short, a move away from apologetics and towards transvaluing.   The upshot was, that if we believe that halakha as we have it is an expression of God's will, then we can and must explore anew, in every generation, how this adds religious meaning to our lives, even if that meaning is different than what it was in the past.

After this thought provoking discussion, Rabbi Rapoport gave a shiur to students on mezuzah, looking at the legal-conceptual framing of the obligation, moving on to the debate in the Rishonim about whether we should mezuzah functioning as a type of protection (Tosafot), or whether this is a perversion of the idea of mezuzah (Rambam), and ending with an inspection of practical questions and cases that arise in the laws of mezuzah and different types of home and room configurations. 

All in all a week of great learning, great guests and great shiurim!

And, finally, a big Mazal Tov to Shuli Boxer Rieser, Rabbi Weiss' Executive Assistant, and her husband Ari, on the birth of a baby girl Thursday morning.  She'tizku li'gadlah li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'maasim tovim!