Friday, May 30, 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 Nasso

The book of Bamidbar begins with the organizing of the Israelite camp with the mishkan at its center. In this parasha, the Torah now turns to what it means to be outside the mishkan, to be in the camp, and to continue to orient oneself to God's presence. This emerges, I believe, from the section relating to sotah, the wife suspected of adultery. This section addresses how discord between husband and wife, and the suspicion of infidelity, creates a status of tumah, impurity. This situation, this tumah, is paradoxically brought to the Temple to be resolved, so that purity can be reestablished, and that husband and wife can return to the camp and once again live their lives with the proper orientation towards God's presence.

The parasha 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 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 the mikdash.

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 is why I would argue the nazir brings a chatat, a sin-offering. The Gemara and rishonim debate whether one should infer from this that the nazir is a sinner, or whether the nazir is kadosh (and the sin is that s/he terminated the nezirut). I would argue that he or she is both. The nazir is kadosh, but it is a type of a kedusha that is somewhat sinful, because it is completely self-serving.

Thus, the nazir's pursuit of kedusha is not only more restrictive than that of the Kohanim, but - more to the point- 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 shluchei didan, our representatives in the Beit HaMikdash; the nazir represents only himself. It is for this reason that when Amos condemns the people, he distinguishes between the nazir and the navi: "and you have made the nazirs drink wine, and you have commanded the prophets - 'do not prophesy!' (Amos 2:12) - the nazir can only be corrupted, while the navi serves a greater function - to admonish and direct the people, so that when one opposes the navi, it is 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 a chesed 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 nazir must 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. To explain how Shimshon could have been a nazir and nevertheless regularly come in contact with the dead, Chazal stated that there exists a type of nezirut known as nezirut Shimshon which allows one to become tamei li'met, impure to the dead. On the face of it, this is a very bizarre phenomenon, since the prohibitions of the nazir are always bundled together and there is no clear explanation why coming in contact with the dead should be allowed to be an exception. Given the above, however, the explanation is obvious: Shimshon's nezirut was tied into his leadership of Bnei Yisrael: "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 shofet, being a leader. It is not a self-serving religious pursuit, but a religious leadership. And to lead the people, one needs to be mtamei li'metim, 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 also of serving the people even when one is in the mikdash. It is a kedusha of bringing the kedusha of the mikdash to the outside world and of the focusing much of one's activities outside the mikdash (Kohanim only served 1 week out of 24 in the mikdash) - "they will teach Your laws to Jacob and Your teachings to Israel." And hence the parasha of the nazir is immediately followed by the parasha of birkhat Kohanim, of the priestly blessing. For it is the role of the Kohanim to connect to God, but ultimately to bring God's blessing to the Jewish people.

Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom!
                                                                      Reprinted from 2011

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva

Chodesh Tov! This week was the last week of our Spring zman and our 2013-2014 academic year. The final week saw students working hard on their chazara and their final tests and projects. Students in the first-year Modern Orthodoxy class heard the last round of final presentations from their fellow students, covering the topics of Hair Covering - Sources, Halakha and Facts on the Ground; New Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Torah she'b'al Peh; Tfillah in Modern Orthodox Synagogues: Visions and Realities, and Tfillah in Modern Orthodox High Schools: Successes and Failures. First- and second-year students also completed their final Gemara projects and third- and fourth-year students wrapped up the year finishing their tests on Hilkhot Aveilut and reviewed their highly detailed Siddur Kiddushin tests from last quarter.

Tuesday night, erev Yom Yerushalayim, all students, rebbeim, faculty and staff, celebrated a year-end barbeque at the home of Miriam Schacter. It was a lovely opportunity for chevraschaft, relaxing and connecting, and a beautiful way to end out the year. The evening ended with singing of Israeli songs, and we continued to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim the following day in Yeshiva with an uplifting tefillah chagigit.

Of course, the highlight of the week was the semikha ceremony of this year's musmakhim, Daniel Millner and Haggai Resnikoff, which took place on Thursday night. Rabbi Jeff Fox (YCT 2004), of the first (actually, pre-first) class of YCT, was the master of ceremonies, and we honored that evening not only our current musmakhim, but also the entire first graduating class, who now celebrates their tenth year in the rabbinate. Last night we also awarded our first honorary semikha to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of B'nai David-Judea in Los Angeles, and President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship. In his accepting of honorary semikha, Rabbi Kanefsky joked that his congregants in L.A. were quite confused, as half of them assumed that he was already a YCT musmakh, and the other half wanted to know how he had been their rabbi so long without having had semikha!

But, of course, the stars of the evening were our two new musmakhim, Rabbi Daniel Millner and Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, who now join the ranks of their fellow YCT musmakhim and bring our numbers to a total of 87, with 83 of them still serving in
avodat ha'kodesh, an amazing retention rate of 95%!  And this coming year we will be admitting our largest number of new students ever, so as of next year we will have 44 students enrolled in YCT, our largest student body ever!  To Dan and Haggai, we say, mazal tov! May Hashem continue to grant you the strength to serve Klal Yisrael, to grow in your avodat Hashem, and to continue to teach, lead, and inspire. Mazal tov!

Below I share my words from last night to Daniel and Haggai:

Dan and Haggai, my dear students,

In just a few days we will be celebrating Chag HaShavuot and commemorating the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Such a day should, logically, be fully devoted to the study of Torah and yet, we find in the Talmud that this is the one yom tov that we demand lakhem, that it be "for you". It is on this yom tov that we are required to express our joy not only in the spiritual dimension, but in the physical realm, through eating and drinking, as well. Why? Says the Gemara in Pesachim 68b: For it is the day of the giving of the Torah.

What is the meaning of this quizzical statement?  First, that the Torah is not meant to reject the world, but to embrace it. Unfortunately, this is not a message we have been good at conveying. Many believe that to lead a Torah life means to lead a life of denial, and have been taught a Torah that is experienced only as a burden.  People are looking for a different Torah, one that creates life of meaning, a life of purpose. They are looking for a Torah that can translate into their day to day existence, and imbue it with joy and with depth, with community and with connection.

But the message here is deeper. For the Torah, on this day, was taken from out of the heavens and given to the earth. It was taken from the heavenly angels who wished to be its sole proprietors, who fought to keep it in heaven, to protect it from being sullied by mere humans.The Torah, however, was meant to be given; it finds its purpose and fulfillment in this messy engagement with human beings, with their shortcomings, with their questions, and with their challenges.

There are those who even today would like to protect the Torah. To keep it locked up in the Beit Midrash, to be its sole proprietors, to control the degree and manner of engagement. This cannot be our way. We must trust the Torah enough to set it free, to let it breathe, to interact with the world and to be challenged by the world.

Not long ago I lost a dear friend, Rivka Haut, z"l, a woman who was my conscience in so many ways. Rivka attended my daf yomi, and would never fail to challenge me when we encountered a morally problematic passage in the Talmud. I remember one day when I was attempting to defend or explain away a certain passage. She said to me, "It is not your job to defend the Talmud. The Talmud says what it says. It is your job to take responsibility for how it is taught, if it is taught as unquestionable, God-given truth, or if it is taught with an acknowledgment of its problems and challenges." 

This is what it means to take the Torah out of heaven and bring it to the earth. This is the Torah that we must teach and represent. We must be leaders who can hear the cries of the daughters of Tzelafchad, למה יגרע, or of those who could not bring the Korban Pesach, למה נגרע, "why should we be excluded," "why should we be marginalized,"  and rather than seeking to protect the Torah and to silence them for their impertinence, we must be able to respond עמדו ואשמע מה יצוה ה' לכם - let me go back, let me go back and see, let me see how this can be a commandment that is lakhem, that is true to you, that hears your challenges.

Daniel and Haggai, you have spent the last four years at the foot of Mt. Sinai, learning and absorbing the Torah of your rebbeim, growing in your own understanding of Torah, and preparing to become our religious leaders and teachers. It is now time to travel forth, to leave Har Sinai and to bring the Torah into the larger world. We, your teachers and rebbeim, could not be prouder of you at this moment. We know that you will teach a Torah of depth and meaning, and we know that you will teach a Torah of honesty and engagement. It will be a Torah that will be lakhem, true to you and true to your communities. And as such it will become a Torat chayim, a Torah that gives life because it is true to life.

Alu vi'hatzlichu!  Mazal Tov!