Friday, March 21, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shmini

The Danger of Unbridled Religious Passion
The Mishkan, after many months devoted to its construction, and after many 
parshiyot devoted to its narrative, is - in parashat Shmini - finally dedicated and becomes operational.  On the eighth and final day of inauguration, Moshe introduces the final series of sacrifices to the Children of Israel, with the declaration that, if they do these final inauguration sacrifices then "the Glory of the Lord will appear to you." (Vayikra 9:6).  And, when the ritual is completed, we are told that, in fact, "the Glory of God appeared to the People.  And a fire went forth from before God and it consumed on the altar the 
olah, the burnt offering,and the fats, and the entire nation saw and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces." (Vayikra 9:23-24).

Amidst this direct manifestation of God's presence, and the rejoicing of the People, Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, bring their own sacrifice, an offering of incense which was "a foreign fire, one that God had not commanded them." (Vayikra 10:1). This time, again, a "fire went forth from before God," however it does not consume the sacrifices, but those who brought it: "and it consumed them, and they died before the Lord."  (Vayikra 10:2).

While the midrash suggests a number of reasons why they were punished, it seems that the simple explanation is what the text itself states - that they drew near with a sacrifice that they had not been commanded to bring. The issue is not violation of God's command per se or its converse, doing a non-commanded religious act, it is rather the much more specific concern of how one draws close to God. This can be understood as a natural result of the metaphysical reality of God's presence. The Torah describes God as a "consuming fire." God is the life-force of the universe; God is infinite power.  When approached correctly, this brings forth fire that will consume the sacrifices and bring good to the world. When approach incorrectly, or in unregulated ways, this brings forth fire that will destroy people, and bring tragedy to the world.  Hence, we find that wherever and whenever the aron, the ark that housed the tablets, is handled incorrectly, that tragedy immediately ensues. Thus, we read that when Uzah makes an innocent mistake and grabs unto the aron to prevent it from falling, is immediately stricken dead by God (Shmuel II, 6:7). Such is the power of God's presence, and of the aron which is the location of the presence, that if handled incorrectly, can cause death.

This approach, while true to the text, still does not provide a satisfying religious explanation.  We might react as King David did and be "angered that God had broken forth against Uzah," (Shmuel II,6:8), and we might try to understand how the punishment makes sense on a religious or moral level. 

I believe that the deeper meaning of what happened to Nadav and Avihu is the need to strike the proper and delicate balance between religious fervor and passion and between regulation and limits. Clearly, Nadav and Avihu were so moved by the manifestation of God's presence, that they felt a powerful religious need to draw close to it, to bring their own sacrifice of incense. They acted on their fervor without reflecting or pausing to assess if what they were doing was proper. Religious passion can be a powerful good, but it can also be extremely dangerous. When people act on their unregulated religious passions, they will tend to feel that their religious actions are self-justifying. If this is how my religious passion propels me to act, then it is a religious act, it is good. If this gets me closer to God - in my mind - then it is good. This "ends justify the means," and "if it feels right it is right," is very antithetical to a classical Jewish approach.  And, we only have to look at the world around us and the atrocities that are perpetrated in the name of religion to recognize that unbridled religious passion can be very bad indeed, it can even be evil. 

What, then, is the proper balance between passion and rules and regulations?  According to the Torah, it is to first follow the rules, to first ensure that one's actions are according to what "God has commanded."  When the people did what God had commanded the fire consumed the sacrifices. When Nadav and Avihu brought an offering that "God had not commanded," the fire consumed them. Once the rules are being followed, then one can bring all of his or her passions to the experience: "And the people saw and rejoiced and fell on their faces."  The mistake is to first focus on the passion.  When one does this, the rules are violated, and the act is no longer a religious act, but a dangerous one, one that can bring destruction.

It is for this reason - this need to focus on the rules first - that immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu the Torah commands against serving God while intoxicated. For many, becoming intoxicated is an important means to a state of religious ecstasy. However, for the Torah it puts passion and experience above rules and responsibility. Approaching God while intoxicated will bring death. Rather, the Kohanim's prime responsibility is to not blur the boundaries, but to set them. They must be sober so they can "distinguish between the holy and the profane, and between the ritually pure and the impure." (Vayikra 10:10). The Kohanim - from the actions of Levi to defend God's honor at Har Sinai, to Pinchas' acting zealously for God, to Eliyahu jealously defending God's honor, to Matityahu's revolt against the Seleucids and the Hellenizers - were very good at religious passion.  God, however, had to bridle this in and redirect them, and made their first and primary responsibility to guard the Mishkan, to keep the impure out, and to set the boundaries between what is and is not acceptable.

And thus, the end of the parasha devotes itself to the detailed differentiation between the pure (i.e., kosher) and impure (i.e., non-kosher) animals, and ends by underscoring that setting of boundaries and making proper distinctions is the responsibility of not just the Kohanim, but of everyone. "And to distinguish between the impure and the pure, and between the animal that may be eaten and the one which may not be eaten." (Vayikra 11:47).

Our challenge today is that we have learned this lesson perhaps too well.  We have so focused our religious experience on the rules and regulations, on halakha and all of its details, that we have completely lost touch with any sense of religious passion. If there is no religious passion, then our religious life becomes just a life of observance, it becomes lifeless, antiseptic and anemic. Part of the reason that this is so is because we have not - as a rule - prioritized this as a religious value in the home, in the synagogue, or in the schools. But there is another challenge, and that is that we do not experience God as directly as people had in the past. When one could experience God's presence, when a fire could come down from the heavens, it was easier not just to believe, but to experience God, to have a sense of connecting with God. This was a central part of the function of the Mishkan - to create a tangible sense of God's presence. Because we are less connected to nature and our natural, physical state, and because we rationally and philosophically shy away from thinking of or experiencing God's presence as something felt in this world, we are much less equipped to have such a felt religious experience.  And so we live a life of halakha, but often not a life of passion. How often have we had a religious experience of "and they rejoiced and they fell on their faces"? Not often, I would guess.

If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the passionless religious experience that is guided by law, halakha, and regulation. This ultimately produces right actions and good in the world. In contrast, as we know too well, a religious experience which is driven by passion can, with all its attractiveness, lead to terrible atrocities.  But we shouldn't have to pick. We have been so good at establishing the rule of law, the rule of halakha, that we can stand to reintroduce a little religious passion into our lives.  In our relationship with God, we have truly been married a long time, but I am not ready to continue living like the old married couple who are so familiar with each other's ways, that they live their lives quietly and peacefully, with the reassuring regularity that comes after so many years. I want there to still be some spark in the relationship. I want to get excited, and I want us as a people to get excited, to get passionate, to have a drive to serve God and to bring God into the world. Let us know that we must always continue to ensure that the rules are primary, but let us work together to be able to truly connect to God and to "rejoice and fall on our faces."

Shabbat Shalom!  

reprinted from 2013  

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

linzer 2Things are in full swing here at the yeshiva as we prepare for our annual dinner this Sunday, honoring our visionary and founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss. I want to thank each of you for your ongoing support of the yeshiva throughout the years, and I look forward to seeing so many of you at the dinner.

This weekend we will also be having our Alumni Shabbaton over Shabbat and our annual Alumni Conference on Monday. The dinner and the weekend, and the work that each one of our musmachim does every day, is a true tribute to Rabbi Weiss and all that he has given to us and to Klal Yisrael.

In addition to the excitement of the dinner, this week also was full of fun as the simchat Purim spilled over from last Sunday.  On Monday, Shushan Purim, I ran after mincha what I entitled: "Chopped: the Purim Edition." "Chopped" is a show of the Food Network where four chefs compete in three rounds - appetizer, main course, and desert.  In each round, they have a basket with mystery ingredients, and they have 30 minutes to make a course using all three ingredients, and are judged on taste, presentation and creativity.  Each round, the panel of judges decides which dish, and which contestant, gets "chopped", so that by the end only one is left standing.  

In the Purim Edition, I prepared baskets containing three different mystery seforim, and the student contestants had 5 minutes to prepare a dvar Torah using all three seforim. The first would be an appetizer, spicy dvar Torah, then a sermon, then a short, sweet dvar Torah.  Each dvar Torah would have to be delivered in 3 minutes or less to a panel of student judges. The event was great fun. In the first round, the baskets contained: Mishna Zeraim, Gemara Beitzah-Chagigah-Moed Katan, and Chumash VaYikra. In the second round, the baskets contained: Sefer Yishayahu, Breishit Rabbah, and Rambam Sefer Zmanim. Sadly we ran out of time before round 3. The pressure to find appropriate sources and weave them together into a meaningful and inspiring dvar Torah in 5 minutes was intense, and student contestants really outdid themselves. I personally could not believe how high quality the divrei Torah were, and how they genuinely and meaningfully drew on the sources they were given.  

The student-judges got into the fun, inhabiting the persona of some of the judges of the actual show,  and the entire student body was rapt with excitement. Afterwards, many students commented to me on not only how enjoyable the event was, but also on what a good challenge and learning experience it was, and asked for an opportunity to do it more often. Definitely food for thought...

And then on Tuesday, we had our belated Purim Chagiga with Purim shpiels from many of the students, as well as from myself. The students good naturedly poked fun not only at the rebbeim and the staff, but also at one another, and some of the skits were truly hilarious (especially those with spot-on impersonations of distinctive characters here at the yeshiva). It was such a wonderful feeling of a loving community and family - a true simchat Purim.

In more serious pursuits, third- and fourth-year students wrapped up Hilkhot Kiddushin this week, with shiurim on Sheva Brakhot and  Ketuvah, as well as lectures on Onah and Family Planning, and with special presentations from two guests. Rabbi Dani Segal from Israel, who has been running highly successful pre-wedding retreats for dati and chiloni couples, who spoke on how to prepare couples for the wedding, regardless of their background, in a way that is both deeply based in Torah but also draws from contemporary fields, particularly in the area of communication. Later in the week, Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, author of The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy, spoke via Skype on the reality of Orthodox singles, their struggles with their sexual lives, and how to best give religious guidance that is not just about halakha, and that can be of help to them even when they may violate halakha. Students were so moved by the wisdom, sensitivity, and insight of both presentations, and they formed the perfect culmination to our weeks of learning about these intense and profound topics.  

We had another special guest last week at YCT, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal of SAR High School.  Rabbi Harcsztark spoke about his decision to allow some girls to wear tfillin during Shacharit with a women's tfillah in school. It was a wonderful presentation: calm, balanced, thoughtful, talking about how he weighs such decisions and the questions on halakha, values of the institution, the school community itself and the broader community, and how so often it is about not promoting a particular practice, but inclusion, diversity and tolerance. He spoke about the issue of rabbinic authority and psak, and mentioned that he had consulted with great halakhic authorities, but did not bring that into the conversation as the halakhic decision was, in the end, both his right and his responsibility.  He also modeled how to deal with some of the nonsense of the blogosphere in a positive way - recognizing how misguided it all is and how it should strengthen one's resolve about the rightness of a different approach towards Klal Yisrael. It was great for students to hear from and to learn from his mature, thoughtful leadership.

Truly an intense week all around. Again, Mazal Tov to Rabbi Weiss, Toby, and the whole family on being honored this Sunday. I hope to see so many of you there!