Friday, March 30, 2012

Parshat T'zav - פרשת צו

"צו את אהרן ואת בניו לאמר זאת תורת העלה היא העלה על מוקדה על המזבח כל הלילה עד הבקר ואש המזבח תוקד בו - Command Aharon and his sons saying: This is the law of the elevation-offering: It is the elevation offering that stays on the flame, on the altar, all the night until the morning, and the fire of the altar should be kept aflame on it." (ויקרא ו:ב)

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi points out that the tersely worded: "Command Aharon," implies that there should be a certain urgency and zeal to get on with the task at hand. He goes on to explain that though this particular mitzvah incurs a "Chesron Kis" a loss of money, (the offering was to be burned rather than eaten by the Kohanim) it should be performed with the same joy as a mitzvah that is enjoyable.

This seems rather sensible. But the person being commanded here is no less than Aharon, the first Kohel HaGadol. The person being told to regard this mitzva is one of the holiest people Am Yisrael ever had; surely he knew all too well the importance of serving Hashem with real joy? There has to be an added level of meaning that we don't understand straight away.

If we pay close attention, we also note that Rashi says that this is applicable not only then but "ולדורות - And for all the generations". What does this mean exactly?

The answer can be found in the Lekach Tov, which cites Pirkei Avot, "ואל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך - Do not believe in yourself till the day of your death." (ב:ה) The meaning of this teaching is that one should realise the root of everything in this world, and be careful not to accredit himself with anything, but rather make a point of acknowledging Hashem's role as the orchestrator of all that goes on in this world.

Beyond that, every Jew is human, and every single one of us is continually struggling with our Yetzer Hara. No matter how high we have risen, we all have the basic inclination to relax and say, "I deserve it!" There will always be a challenge, and it is imoportant to realise that one has never reached his final destination in this life - we can never stop and relax; that is something reserved for the next world. We only have a limited amount of time in this world, and for that reason alone, we should make every mitzvah count.

We must remember that the Rabbis and great people spoken about in the Torah were not demi-gods like those found in other religions, but were flesh and blood like us. They had their only battles, and were made great by winning over their wills. They were not created great; they forged themselves into true servants of Hashem by battling their evil inclination.

Aharon was a human being too, and we must realise that in his generation (and as Rashi points out, in all generations,) those who were pious had just as much responsibility as the common people to be careful to fulfill Hashem's word. Even one who has climbed the ladder to greatness must not believe that they have "achieved it all" - not even on one's dying day must on relent from the pursuit of self-betterment and mitzvot.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Parshat Vayikra - פרשת ויקרא

"ונפש כי תקריב קרבן מנחה ליהוה סלת, יהיה קרבנו; ויצק עליה שמן, ונתן עליה לבנה - When a man will bring a meal-offering to Hashem, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon."
(ויקרא ב:א)

In Rashi's commentary on the verse above, we read that "It doesn't say 'Nefesh' [literally meaning "a soul"] with the other voluntary offerings, but only [in this instance] with the Mincha offering. Who is it that gives the Mincha? A poor person. So Hashem says, 'I will consider it on his behalf as if he offered his own soul.'"

Rashi makes a profound point here, namely that the Hebrew word for soul is employed here for a specific reason. Whereas it would normally use Adam (man) to refer to a person, here the word Nefesh (soul) is used to show that the sacrifice of a poor person is considered to be of the highest value in Hashem's eyes; so much so that he considers an offering of this kind to be as if the giver had given of their very soul, whatever that may mean. Now, we can certainly understand why the word "Nefesh/soul" is employed here, but it still seems a little odd. What bothered Rashi so much that he had to explain this usage?

To answer, I'd like to refer to a point made by Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah. He explains that the opening words of the pasuk "When a soul will bring" can be read in more than one way. We can either read this phrase literally as "when a soul brings a mincha offering," or we can interpret these words to mean "when a soul is brought as a mincha offering." In the offerings that are described preceding this one, the blood of a slaughtered animal, it's very lifeblood, was a part of the sacrifice. This blood made up the "soul" of the offering that was given to Hashem.

The word Mincha, when used in it's regular sense, can be taken to mean a gift, a present. This seems at odds with the Mincha offering itself, for in actuality it was only a very simple thing, consisting of nothing more than wheat flour, oil, frankincense and sometimes some water added — hardly a fancy five course meal. Despite this, because the person deprived himself so that he could to give something, despite his circumstances, Hashem finds this seemingly meagre gift to be a real source of pleasure.

As such, whereas the soul of an animal is the essence of those previous offerings, compared to this offering that consists of but a few ingredients, none of which are expensive or require the (costly) slaughter of an animal, this offering is still regarded highly by Hashem. Perhaps this is because, in Rav Hirsch's words, or at least in the words of his translator, "the Nefesh is not the Korban, but the Makriv," meaning that the soul of this offering is not found in the offering, but in the one who comes to offer it.

Isaac Levy, the man who translated Rav Hirsch's commentary from German to English, points out something intriguing in the English version of the Rav Hirsch's edition of the Torah. He explain there that in the section detailing the sin offerings, the name of Hashem used above, the name that is associated with absolute justice (as opposed to another name of God which refers to mercy) is not referred to even once. It's absence serves to teach us that each and every time we sin, Hashem mercifully temporarily suspends true justice.

Rav David Feinstein makes a similar observation on the second pasuk of the parsha. There we read the words, "אדם כי-יקריב מכם קרבן לה, When a man shall bring from you an offering to Hashem." Rav Feinstein notes that one word, מכם, from you, seems to be superfluous. The reason it is written, he says, is so as to indicate that when one brings an offering to the slaughter, he should realise that truly the one who should be slaughtered is none other than himself. Hashem grants us a chance at repenting, but it is only through His mercy that we are permitted to survive so much as a second after sinning. The word מכם teaches that when one brings such an offering, he must have the conviction that he should really have brought the offering literally from himself, and not from some animal "surrogate".

Even though we no longer have a Bet Hamikdash, we can still learn a valuable lesson in regret. When we wrong a human we often go out of our way to apologise to and placate them. But when it comes to lapses in our spiritual obligations it seems that all too often we shrug and say, "Oh well." We might also pause to think about the number of times we upset other people carelessly. Even if that person forgives us quickly, we should be careful to think about how to rectify the source of our mistakes. If we understand the message taught here, and adopt a genuine and serious attitude towards correcting our mistakes, hopefully we can do our best to avoid lapses in the future.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Parshiot Vayakhel & Pekudei - פרשיות ויקהל ופקודי

In a similar manner to last week's Parsha, Ki Tisa, a lot happens in this week’s Torah reading. In both last week's and the first of this week's two 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, March 09, 2012

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 Ten Commandments, and of how Moshe's face become "radiant" 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 Ten Commandments? Surely a sign is something that is at least 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, March 02, 2012

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 examining 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!