Friday, February 25, 2011

Parshat Vayakhel - פרשת ויקהל

In a similar manner to last week's Parsha, Ki Tisa, there is a lot happening in this week’s Torah reading. In both Parshiot, however, there are brief references to Shabbat. Almost right at the beginning of this week's reading, it is written:

“ששת ימים תעשה מלאכה וביום השביעי יהיה לכם קדש שבת שבתון לה' כל-העושה בו מלאכה יומת. – These are the things that Hashem commanded, to do them: On six days, work may be done, but the seventh shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for Hashem; whoever does work on it shall be put to death.” (שמות ל'ה, ב-ג)

The language used here for the work of the weekdays is, “תעשה - te’aseh,” which means, “may be done” or “shall be done.” This seems odd; one would expect the word תעשה to be vowelized so as to read "Ta’aseh," which means “you shall do.” After all, it is talking about the work that one does to the week. Who else would do the work but the worker, the person this pasuk is aimed at. What is meant by this word?

I believe that it’s the Ba’al HaTurim who answers this question by explaining that the rest of this week’s Parsha deals with the building of the Mishkan. But first, it was essential to set out the rules for Shabbat, so that nobody would be confused and think that the building of the Mishkan should continue on Shabbat. Even for something as uniquely holy and important as the Mishkan, Shabbat comes first. And if that’s the case, kal v’chomer that we should not worry about mundane matters on Shabbat!

So the Ba’al HaTurim answers our question by explaining that for one who rests completely on Shabbat, and keeps his mind off his weekly tasks, his work “shall be done.” That is to say, he shall be more passively involved in his week’s work, and he shall not have to work so hard. (As opposed to the language of Ta’aseh, which is somewhat forceful and specific to the person.)

Another aspect I read on the mentioning of the Shabbat prior to the Torah’s description of the Mishkan derives from a D’var Torah I read last year from a facebook group called Inspiring Weekly Torah. (Go add yourself!) The D’var Torah I received states, “Shabbos and the Tabernacle both represent different types of Kedushah - sanctity. The Tabernacle represents Kedushat Makom – the sanctity of a certain space, while Shabbos typifies the notion of Kedushat Zman – the sanctity of a specified time.”

I would like to develop this point a bit. We all understand how Eretz Yisrael is considered holy. And we all know that within Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem is considered holy, and within Jerusalem we consider Har Habayit, upon which the Bet Hamikdash stood, holier still. Within the Bet Hamikdash we had the Kodesh HaK’dashim, and within that space, we had one focal point of Kedushah between the K’ruvim’s wings. All this is in the space dimension. What about time?

Just as there are specific places that have Kedushah ascribed to them, so too there are certain times at which we may pray for example. (Any religious man will tell you how he has had to rush to minyan at times!) It is important that timing and location are recognised as both vitally important in the service of Hashem. Ultimately, when it comes to serving Hashem, we have to make sure that we settle ourselves down and take the time out (à la Shabbat) to connect with the Creator, and it is also vitally important that we ensure that our surroundings are conducive to prayer, that we are located in a place of Kedushah.

Friday, February 18, 2011

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, Shabbat remains one of the many mitzvot we are charged with observing. Shabbat certainly has its benefits, but we must not confuse rationality with obligation. In an age of reason, where all must be explained and where Godly people are regarded as a joke for their "archaic beliefs", 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.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Parshat T'tzaveh - פרשת תצוה

"ואתה תצוה את בני ישראל ויקחו אליך שמן זית זך כתית למאור להעלות נר תמיד - Now you shall command Bnei Yisrael that they shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually." (שמות כז:כא)

Rashi writes in his commentary on this Pasuk that the word כתית, crushed, means that the olives should be crushed so that the resulting oil may be used for the Menorah. He then explains that after this oil had been crushed and the first drop removed, the remaining oil would be unfit for this purpose and would be utilised for another task in the Mishkan; namely for use in the מנחות, the meal offerings.

HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu, author of Kometz Hamincha, writes that if the two oils were of the same quality, of the same colour and essentially of the same stock, why should the second batch be proscribed from use in the Menorah? After all, if the only difference is that the first round of oil was produced by crushing and pressing and the second was made by being ground up, what was really so different about them that they would be assigned different roles?

Rav Ehrentreu answers by examing the functions of the tools in which these oil were to be used. He explains that if we stop to think what the Menorah represents, we may understand why this halacha exists. The light of the Menorah, so we learn, is meant to symbolise the Torah. The Torah is described as being a light in the darkness, dispelling ignorance and a lack of knowledge. The Menorah is the instrument that makes use of the oil we talk about above. The oil itself is described as being pure by necessity. That the oil should be pure seems obvious enough - would you expect all the tools and objects used in God's house to be anything less than of the very highest quality? The reason why the word pure is mentioned will be put in perspective later on. For the moment, we can make do with the basic explanation that just as the Torah is utterly pure, so too must the oil used for the lighting of the Menorah be pure.

The second halacha we learn in the verse above is that the oil is to be crushed. This, as Rashi elaborates, is pertaining to the oil used for the Menorah. Once that very first drop of oil had been extracted though, the oil processing continues. The crushed olives are then ground up so as to get every last bit of juice out of them. Rashi points out that for the first batch of oil, the oil destined for use in the Menorah, there may be no "שמרים" (sediments), in this batch, it is an inevitability that there will be sediments in the oil. In pointing us to the difference between the step of merely crushing the olives and then totally grinding them, Rashi hints to us how we are supposed to "acquire" Torah. Whereas kings may leave their kindgom as an inheritance for their children and while the rich may leave behind a large portion for their descendents, Torah is not something that can simply be acquired through inheritance. Each and every person has to make the effort to learn and to take his own portion, we learn.

Chazal, the sages of Israel, found a hint to this in the verse where the making of the Aron Hakodesh is described. There the word "ועשו", meaning "and you," is used. The usage of this word is not without significance; with all the other tools in the Bet Hamikdash, the word "ועשית", which also means "and you," is used. The difference is that when detailing the Aron Hakodesh, the ark that was to house the Torah within it, the plural version of the word was selected for usage. The reason for this subtle discrepancy, Chazal tender, is because each and every Jew has to take part in the Mitzvah of learning Torah. Other mitzvot are geared towards certain parts of the population, but in this mitzvah, everyone must work.

As such, it makes perfect sense to refer to the Shulchan, the table upon which the meal offerings were issued. Here the more normative form is used, as it says "ועשית שולחן", and you (singluar) shall make the table (שמות כה:כג). Just as a kingdom and wealth may be passed on, so too may physical possessions. Not every person has the need to work to acquire physical objects in his life. The meal offerings upon which were offered, though, were something that were designed to help bring us closer to Hashem. Now if we may make a contrast with the pure oil that was to be used for the Menorah, we can understand why the oil here had to be ground. Whereas there the oil had to be of the finest quality as it was representative of the total purity of Torah, here it was not just acceptable but even part of the process that it should include sediment. The toil by which this oil was produced resulted in part of the olive being left behind in the oil. For us to acquire that purest of things, the Torah, we learn that we have to invest ourselves. So, now we may understand why it is that the two kinds of oil were produced from the same stock, and yet one was banned from use in the other's role - the way they were each manufactured has a deep significance for us.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 04, 2011

Parshat Terumah - פרשת תרומה

"וְעָשׂוּ אֲרוֹן, עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים: אַמָּתַיִם וָחֵצִי אָרְכּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי רָחְבּוֹ, וְאַמָּה וָחֵצִי, קֹמָתוֹ - They shall make an Ark of acacia wood, two and a half Amot in its length, and an Amah and a half in its width, and an Amah and a half in its height."
(שמות כה:י)

The verse above dsecribes the measurements of one of the boxes* of the Aron HaKodesh, the holy ark that would later house the two tablets upon which the ten commandments were inscribed. As we continue reading this week's Parsha , we read of the other holy artefacts that were also contained in the Mishkan, the sanctuary where the people of Israel would pray and come to make offerings to Hashem.

To this end, the first of the two altars used are detailed here; the one for the ritual slaughter of animals. (The other was employed for the incense offerings.) So too we learn of the Shulchan, the table upon which special "show bread" was displayed, the Menorah which perpetually lit up the sanctuary and various other decorative features such as the curtains, lace hangings and the gate. But first comes the desciption of the blueprints for the Aron Hakodesh. This might seem obvious in one way, but I contend that this is not so obvious: instead of describing this house of worship, let us imagine that we were describing our own houses. How would we first set out our plans for a house that we would like to build? We certainly wouldn't start with the oven, or a big fireplace. Even if it were a dream house, neither would we start with a swimming pool! No, we would first decribe the outer appearance, setting out the dimensions of the entire house, then we would gradually get more specific, mentioning how many rooms, what each room is. Only then would we describe the contents of the house. But here we start with the description for the building of the Aron Hakodesh. Why would the contents of the house be built while the house is not yet standing?

Rav Bachya, points out here that the Torah's importance is reflected in the name of the thing that contained it; the name of the Aron Hakodesh, written ארון הקודש in Hebrew, derives from אורה, light, for the Torah is the real source of light of the world.

Ramban explains that if we were to follow simple logic, the Aron Hakodesh would not have been built first. As it happens, so it proved to be; the Aron was not built before the house that contained it. But this raises another question - why would the order of the desciptions here differ from the order in which the holy artefacts were eventually constructed? I find Ramban's answer to be beautiful in its simplicity, yet highly significant. He responds to this question by highlighting what is really the issue here. When one builds a house, what is really important? In our cases, it is so that we may be afforded shelter from the elements and from other inconveniences. Plush furnishings, for all their worth, are not the most important thing in the house - we are! So too here, we only have a need to build a house for Hashem because there is something we are storing within it. In this passage, Moshe was not speaking so much as an architect as much as a leader and teacher. He chose to first speak about the Aron, even though when it came to it, the Aron would be built later, because the Torah was the reason for the building, and not vice versa.

In my studies in university, I have learned of the classic definition of a nation by Benedict Anderson. He describes a nation as an "imagined community," a people who would otherwise hardly know each other but are part of the communal unit that we call a nation because they believe themselves to be bound together by shared ties. Whilst this may be correct in many instances, Rav Saadia Gaon disagrees somewhat. He claims that Israel is only a nation by virtue of the Torah. Without the Torah, there would be no such thing as the Jewish nation. This is the real issue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

* There were three boxes layered within one another.