Friday, March 13, 2009

Parshat Ki Tisa - פרשת כי תשא

This week's Parsha deals with a wide array of subjects. We read of Am Yisrael's first-ever census, the incense to be used in the Bet Hamikdash and the giving of the first set of luchot to Moshe Rabbeinu - and all that's just in the first Aliyah! We also learn of the subsequent incident of the egel hazahav, the giving of the second set of luchot, and of how Moshe's face become "radiant" (well, that's how Artscroll renders the word, "קרן,") as a result of becoming so close to Hashem. And there's much, much more!

But all these things are very specific things, and are not immediately relevant to us. There is one passage in this week's Sidra that stands out as being obviously applicable to us - the introduction of Shabbat, which also appears in the first Aliyah.

Regarding the Shabbat it says, "ואתה דבר אל-בני ישראל לאמר אך את-שבתתי תשמרו כי אות היא ביני ובניכם לדורותיכם לדעת כי אני ה' מקדשכם - Now you, speak to Bnei Yisrael saying, 'However, you must observe My Shabbatot, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem, Who makes you holy.'"(פרק לא:יג)

It says that Shabbat was given as an אות, a sign. But wasn't Shabbat given openly, in the Aseret HaDibrot? A sign is something that is slightly concealed, something with a private aspect to it, as it says quite clearly, "a sign between Me and you." In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, isn't it very obvious when we Jews keep Shabbat? Any goy passing me on the street can pick out 'the Jew,' all dressed up while the rest of England takes a day off. What's indeed is hidden about Shabbat? What is the אות?

Rabbeinu Bachye raises exactly this question. He answers by refering to the Gemara in Beitzah where R' Shimon Bar Yochai says that all the commandments were given openly, but Shabbat is given in a hidden manner, as is clear from the pasuk quoted above. R' Bachye's take on this statement is that Shabbat was given to our souls, which are hidden within the body.

It is absolutely essential to understand the implications of this. I have often heard it said how "sensible" and "reasonable" it is to take one day a week off work. I hear Jews say how good it is that Shabbat affords us time that we may spend with our families. But if we are honest with ourselves, these are not the reasons why we should keep the Shabbat - we keep it because we have been instructed to by Hashem. It is a mitzvah, and therefore we must do it. On the few occasions I have spoken to non-Jews about Shabbat, they have voiced their opinion that it seems "a good idea."

So when it says that Shabbat is an אות, we have to understand that we keep Shabbat because we have agreed to. This is something private between us and Hashem that no other nation will every fathom. We don't need logical reasons as to why we should do mitzvot other than "Hashem commanded us to, therefore we will."

(Of course, I'm not advocating a laissez-faire attitude towards Torah and faith in Hashem; we have to learn about our religion. It is imperative do our best to understand the nature of our relationship with Hashem, but once we have made that leap of faith and are concentrating on the mitzvot themselves, we cannot "pick and mix" our religion based on what seems reasonable to us.)

If Shabbat seemed unreasonable to us, would we still keep it? Unfortunately, for many this proves to be a very real question that challenges them weekly. It is important to remember that reasonable or not, this is our task and we must do it. Shabbat certainly has it's benefits, but we must never forget the reason why we keep it. As R' Bachye says, Shabbat was given to our souls. Or put another way - not to our heads. We don't keep the Torah's laws because they seem rational to our puny intellects, or convenient to us - we keep them because we have to do mitzvot lishma. We do mitzvot for their own sake.


Lastly, there's an interesting point I would like to make about the physical phenomenon that occurs to Moshe Rabbeinu in the last Aliyah. The mention of light and sound in literature is very common; it is a way of bringing the text to life and adds something to the text. I'm sure litererarians could spend long hours indulging us with the deep meaning of what this kind of imagery does to a poem or a novel, but I believe that many times, they serve no more purpose than a firework show; the writer wishes to emphasise something or draw our attention and bright lights and booming sound fit the bill perfectly. Obviously there are writers who are more sensitive to the finer qualities of these things, but when something is written in the Torah, it is because we can learn from it and that there's probably a lot more going on than meets the eyer. So when Hashem sees fit to tell us in the Torah that Moshe Rabbeinu returned from his 40-day long meeting with Him, it is probably not to tell us that Moshe was now so spiritually elevated that his face was shining. While that does work on a straight-out פשט level, there must be more to it to make it worthy of being included in the Torah.

If we refer back to Parshat Vayera in Sefer B'reishit, we read the Akeidah and of how it says there, concerning Avraham Avinu, "וישלח את ידו - and he threw his hand." The Netivot Shalom explains that Avraham's hand "knew" that this task was not meant to be completed; that it was not Hashem's will for Yitzchak to actually be slaughtered, and as such, Avraham had to act against his own body, which he had succesfully trained to become aligned to Hashem's will. Therefore when it came to having to slaughter his son, the only way that Avraham could elicit any movement from his hand was by force and throwing it forward.

A few sidrot ago in Parshat Yitro, we learn of the thunder and lighting that accompanied the giving of the Torah. Chazal teach us that this was no mere light show - all of Hashem's natural glory was involved and participated in this majestic moment. Similarly here, Moshe, having been exposed to Hashem for a prolonged period had become spiritually refined and the body which normally masks the inner essence, not only started to stop containing it, but it started to reveal it. This is reminiscent of the state in which man existed before the sin of Adam HaRishon. R' Akiva Tatz points out that the word for light - אור, is the very similar to the word for skin - עור. In Gan Eden, the skin would expose the inner light - the elevated spirituality of man that caused the angels to mistakenly believe that Adam HaRishon was another god. After the sin, the same skin started to coneal our inate spirituality. (Rabbi Tatz points out that the English word "hide" means both skin and to cover - rather apt.)

My point is that Moshe had not only returned from his experience spiritually refreshed but that his body had also started to return to its original form, too. His body had once again started to reveal the inner spark of G-dliness that lies within every one of us. Here, his face had returned to unity with his soul and a holy bright light started to emanate from it. This wasn't a mere reflection of the kedusha from the time he spent with Hashem, it was coming from within him!

Wishing you a שבת שלום!

(This week's דברי תורה is in the זכות of a couple who are to be married in the coming week. I know the חתן a little bit, and think that he's great! May they be זוכים to build a בית נאמן בישראל.)

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