Friday, May 16, 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 Bechukotai

The following is based on the dvar Torah that I shared with Rabbi David Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel, this last Wednesday, at a meeting between him and the rebbeim and students of YCT during his recent trip to New York.

A Living Relationship

There is a bizarre verse in this week's parasha. The Torah enumerates all the blessings that will be bestowed on the people if they follow in God's commandments and observe God's laws: the rains will come in their appointed season, the land will bring forth its fruit, there will be peace in the land, and the people will be fruitful and will multiply. And then comes the climax of all these blessings:

"I will place my Tabernacle (mishkani) in your midst, and My soul will not abhor you." (Vayikra 26:11)

What are we to make of this anti-climactic climax?  Of course God will not abhor us! We are living a full religious life, and are worthy of all these blessings.  Why should this blessing - if that's what it is - be necessary?

The answer is to be found in the first half of the verse. Once God has put God's Tabernacle in our midst, things may change, and not necessarily for the better. As long as we are lacking a mishkan, a physical embodiment of God's presence, a concrete and institutionalized structure of kedusha, then we will know that we are lacking. We will understand that we have not yet achieved our full religious potential, that we must continue to strive, continue to reach. We will live our lives driven by the mandate of kedoshim ti'hiyu, you shall become holy, to strive to be holy, to more actualize the divine within ourselves while knowing that we will never reach our ultimate goal.

Once God's mishkan is in our midst, however, we may likely think that we have arrived. If God dwells among us, then there is no striving left do. We are fully holy, and we have the mishkan to prove it. And with this attitude comes great danger. For if we are already holy, then we will never stop to take stock of ourselves and of our actions. We will never ask if there is more that we can be doing, or if we are doing everything properly, or if we are being properly responsive to the world around us. We will become religiously complacent and self-satisfied.  

If we go down this path, not only will we hurt ourselves, we will hurt others as well. We will come to believe that we are the only ones with the truth. Our sole mission will be to protect the truth, to protect our mishkanim - our concretized embodiments of God's presence - against defilement, against impurity, against outsiders. We will divide the world into insiders and outsiders, and those outsiders will be seen, at best, as people of no consequence, and at worst, as dangers, as threats, and even as evil.

And it does not end there. For the institutionalization of God's presence can also lead to great corruption, as we know happened with the sons of Eli (I Shmuel 2), and as we know today happens when religion institutions gain power of people's lives.

God's placing of God's mishkan in our midst, then, is a two-edged sword, a blessing that also entails a very real risk. And now we understand why the verse continues, "And my soul will not abhor you." This is not a consequence of what has preceded, but rather a second blessing. You will be blessed that even with the mishkan in your midst, you will not become complacent, sanctimonious and corrupt. You will not become a people who is abhorrent to God, who has at once both abandoned the path of true kedusha, and at the same time is so self-righteously satisfied with their own religiosity. You will succeed at having God's mishkan and at the same time remain true to God's Torah.

How will this be achieved? The answer is to found in the following verse:

"And I will walk (vi'hithalakhti) in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be my people." (Vayikra 26:12). 

God will walk, move about, among us. We will experience God's presence as a moving presence, one that is constantly urging us to move, to respond, to not stay still and just dig in our roots. When God is moving, you will know that God is near, but you will never know exactly where God is. There is uncertainty, and that keeps you striving, that keeps you looking in, taking stock of yourself, of where you are, and looking out, seeking that connection, seeking God's presence.  

In fact, this word, hithalekh, to move about, occurs multiple times in Breishit in the context of humans and their relationship to God. The first occurrence is in the story of Gan Eden, when Adam and Eve hear the sound of God moving about, mit'haleikh, in the Garden. That sense of an imminent encounter with God forces them to hide out of shame - they look at themselves honestly, knowing that it will soon be God who will be looking at them.

Perhaps more to the point are all the instances where to become righteous is defined by walking before God.  Consider: "And Hanokh walked before, hit'haleikh, God" (Breishit 5:22); "Before God did Noah walk" (Breishit 6:9); "God appeared to Avram and said to him: Walk before Me and be perfect" (Breishit 17:1).  And, finally, "And he (Yaakov) blessed Yosef and said to him: The Lord before Whom my fathers have walked..." (Breishit 48:15). 

If we see God, and God's presence in our midst, as static, then our religiosity will be static.  If, however, we see God as moving in our midst, then we too will be seeking God out, seeking out opportunities to grow, to reach God, to understand what it is that we must do in the world. It will be a relationship that is dynamic, a relationship that is alive. And hence the verse that begins with "I will walk in your midst," concludes with: "and I will be your God and you will be my people."

This vision - I said to the Chief Rabbi - is one that we both share. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah strives to bring to Orthodoxy a vibrant, dynamic religiosity. It understands that an Orthodoxy with its various mishkanim, institutionalized embodiments, and which itself has become so heavily institutionalized, often leads to stasis, to complacency, and to religious self-satisfaction. That only by reintroducing the mandate to be mithalekh, to move, to grow, to respond to the outside world and all its contemporary challenges, can we hope to maintain a true relationship with God. Only such a religious vision will allow us to connect to all those who have become alienated, who have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that they have no place in our mishkan, that they are threats, that they are not worthy and not wanted. Only such a religious vision will bring life and growth to those who are committed to Torah and mitzvoth, but for whom religion has become just the forms, just about preserving and protecting, not about moving and growing.

Similarly - I continued - you, Rabbi Lau, understand how the Rabbinate in Israel in recent years has also become an institution that has lost touch with the Israeli people, that has become complacent and static. And you, Rabbi Lau, as you have shared with us now, and as you have shared with me in the past, are committed to changing this, to bringing new life into the Rabbinate. You seek to make it into an institution that moves, that changes, that looks honestly inward and sees what must be changed, and that looks outward, and sees what must be done to bring the light of Torah to the entire Israeli people and to the larger Jewish world. It is my blessing to you - I concluded - that you have God's help to continue on this path and to continue to have hatzlacha in all that you do, so that we may all be blessed to see fulfilled in our days the blessing, "and I will be  your God and you will be my people."

An earlier meeting in December in Israel with the Chief Rabbi

                                                    Shabbat Shalom!

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

We are getting close to wrapping up the year here at YCT. This week students continued learning Gemara and Halakha, in the latter case finishing the final sugyot in Hilkhot Aveilut. We had the pleasure of welcoming David Lowenfeld to the yeshiva on Thursday, where he delivered a shiur on the Elisha-Eliyahu story of II Kings 2, reflecting on the experience of losing a parent after a protracted illness and finding echoes to this experience of holding on, letting go, transition and carrying on, in this powerful story in Tanakh. Also this week, we began the year-end student presentations for the Modern Orthodoxy class, with one student presenting on The Challenge of Biblical Criticism and the other on Rav Yoel Bin Nun's Non-Formalist Approach to Psak Halakha.

At the beginning of the week, on Monday, I, Rabbi Lopatin, and a number of the rebbeim were out of the yeshiva at the annual IRF convention. It was a great few days of sharing, learning Torah, connecting and giving support to each other, and grappling with some of the most challenging issues facing our communities. It was great seeing so many of our musmakhim there, and great to have had the chance to schmooze and catch up.

Perhaps the most exciting event of the week, however, was on Wednesday when the rebbeim and talmidim of YCT had an opportunity to meet and talk with Rabbi David Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel, who was here for the week in NY. After Rabbi Lopatin opened with words of blessing, Rabbi Lau spoke to the Talmidim of what it means to be future rabbis for Klal Yisrael. After which, all of us - rebbeim, students, and Rabbi Lau - were profoundly moved by the words of Abe Schacter-Gampel (YCT 2007), grandson of Rav Herschel Schacter, a"h. Rav Schacter, a"h, was the rabbi who not only was present at the liberation of Buchenwald, but dedicated himself in the ensuing months to restoring belief in the young Yisrael Lau, Rabbi David Lau's father and former chief rabbi, and in the hundreds of others in the camp who survived the Holocaust.  

"Our families share a long history," Abe began. "It was my zaidy, a chaplain of the U.S. Third Army, which liberated Buchenwald. There in Buchenwald, my zaidy met your father, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was a young boy, only 7 years old. My zaidy took your father, your tatie, your abba, by the hand, and together made the rounds of the barracks of the camp -- as my Zaidy -- announced the liberation to the Jews, "Shalom Aleichem Yidn, Ihr Zint Fray," "Shalom Aleichem, Jews, you are free!"...

"After the Holocaust, your father, Rabbi Lau, was instrumental in creating religious culture in the land of Israel of which you are now its steward. And my zaidy, also attempted to create a religious Jewish life, a Modern Orthodox life, in America of which I am a beneficiary.
"We, students at YCT, will measure our worth -- creating and inspiring the Jewish future -- in the shadow of the terrible events of the Holocaust and also inspired by the vibrant Jewish communities of America and Israel."

Rabbi Lau was moved by the remarks, and responded with true warmth and emotion. Afterwards, a brief question and answer period followed, and the meeting ended with a dvar Torah of my own on the parasha which I share, below.