Friday, April 27, 2012

Parshiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim פרשיות אחרי-מות וקדושים

This D’var Torah was written in memory of the father of a friend of mine: גרשון בן אברהם. May our learning serve as a merit for his soul.

“And he shall take the two goats, and set them before Hashem at the door of the tent of meeting - וְלָקַח אֶת שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם וְהֶעֱמִיד אֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.” (ויקרא ט"ז:ז)

In this first of this week’s two parsha readings, Acharei Mot, the procedure of the two goats is described. It is from this passage that the phrase scapegoat – שעיר לאזעזל – comes. In fact, it may be said that the poor scapegoat gets a bad rap, and the concept is one that I intend to explore in this D’var Torah.

The bare essentials as related in the text are as follows: two goats shall be taken by Aharon, the High Priest. One shall be selected to be used as a sin-offering in the temple, whereas the other shall symbolically be made to bear the people’s sins and then be sent to wander in the desert. The fates of the two goats are vastly different: one is used in a holy manner, for holy purposes, but the other suffers the indignity of being cast out away from civilisation into the wilderness.

In order to better understand this, we may refer to another intriguing incident that occurs in the bible. In chapter 18 of Kings I, a fascinating story is related. There, Elijah is faced with a split people. Unfortunately, not all the Jews were faithful to their religion and many were adherents of a god called Ba’al. It is told that Elijah challenged Ahab, the king of this sect. He invited the priests of Baal to a contest, proposing that he and they should each build an altar and lay a burnt offering thereon, and that the God who should send down fire from heaven to consume the offering should be accepted as the true God. After various unsuccessful attempts to get a favorable answer had been made by the prophets of Baal, while they were ridiculed with subtle irony by Elijah, Hashem sent fire from heaven to consume his offering. Subsequently, Hashem was recognized by Israel, and the priests of Baal were slain near the Kishon brook.

The Midrash Tanchuma relates an interesting detail on this story that is relevant to the two goats in our parsha. It is said that the cow brought by the idol-worshipers of Ba’al was reluctant to be allowed to be used in this manner.

Elijah had told the Baal worshipers, ‘Go find twin cows, from one mother, who grew up in the same barn. Cast lots, one for God and one for Baal. Then choose whichever one you want.’ Upon doing that, the cow that was left to be Elijah’s came with him right away. But the other, the one that was allocated to the Baal worshipers, wouldn’t move. Even when all 900 (!) prophets tried to push it toward the altar, it wouldn’t budge! Finally, Elijah said to the cow, ‘Go with them.’

Right in front of all those people—the prophets and everyone else—the cow answered, ‘My friend and I come from the same womb. We grew up eating the same fodder, in the same barn. He was chosen to be to be in God’s portion. God’s Name will be sanctified through him. Why was I chosen to be Baal’s and to anger my Creator?!’

Elijah responded, ‘Go with them and don’t give them an excuse to avoid my challenge. Just as God’s Name will be sanctified through my cow, so will it be sanctified through you.’ The cow was not mollified. ‘This is the advice you give?! I’m not budging from here unless you hand me over to them!’ And so Elijah did.

If we return to the story of the two goats, we may know understand the role of the scapegoat better. Although it apparently drew the ‘short straw’, it is important to note that by taking part in this ceremony, it allowed God’s name to be sanctified. I think that there’s an important lesson for all of us here. Sometimes things don’t go our way. We don’t understand why circumstances are as they are. From time to time unfortunate events occur. But when we look at the big picture, everything falls into place. It may not be readily understandable to us how our pain is good in any way, but we may trust in God that there is a bigger plan.

Sourced from: Ma’ayanei HaTorah, which in turn refers to: חוט של חסד מבעל שבט-מוסר
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Parshiot Tazria and Metzora פרשיות תזריע ומצורע

"וראה הכהן את־הנגע בעור־הבשר ושער בנגע הפך לבן ומראה הנגע עמק מעור בשרו נגע צרעת הוא וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו - And the Kohen shall see the affliction on the skin of his flesh: If hair in the affliction has changed to white, and the affliction's appearance is deeper than the skin of the flesh - it is a Tzara'at affliction; the Kohen shall see it and contaminate him." (יג:ג)

Following the creation of the State of Israel, Jews around the world, and those in Israel specifically, we have reason to believe that the Ge'ulah - the end of the 2,000 year exile - is truly around the corner. We finally have (at least part of) historic Eretz Yisrael back in our hands; Hebrew, the only language in the world to have been successful revived, is the spoken language of the Israeli people, and Jewish culture is flourishing here in the Holy Land. But there are some effects of this two-millennium-long exile that we have to shake off, like the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jews around the world have very real trouble in understanding their prayer.

A friend of mine made a comment to a Rabbi a few years ago, a comment that I perceived as somewhat radical. He suggested that we should pray in the way that Quakers do - that each person should speak to Hashem as he wants, without needing to turn to the fixed texts of the Siddur. In that way, argued my friend, our prayers would be more personal and more relevant. I can't remember the answer that the Rabbi gave, but I do tender an answer of my own now.

In this week's Parsha, we read of the condition called Tzara'at - an affliction that affected those who were spiritually ill. Upon discovering that a person was suffering from this ailment, certain conditions were imposed. For example, they would have to go through a quarantine process, amongst other things. However, all prohibitions and procedures would only start after the sufferer was diagnosed by a Kohen. The Kohen would essentially fulfill the role of "spiritual doctor" and inform the "patient" of the required course of action.

There are many complicated halachot pertaining to Tzara'at, but surely one of the most interesting comes from the words "וראהו הכהן וטמא אתו," which roughly translates as "And the Kohen shall see it and contaminate him." These words are troubling - how can it be that the Kohen would render a person spiritually impure? Obviously a straightforward reading of the text does not suffice, and thankfully Rashi explains this to mean, "יאמר לו 'טמא אתה' - he shall say to him, 'You are impure'", meaning that the Kohen would declare the man to be impure. (As opposed to actually making that person impure by himself.) The problem is that this reading of the text leads to an inner contradiction - why are the words "טמא אתו" used - they are causative and imply that the Kohen makes the sufferer Tamei?

The resolution to this problem is hinted to by Rashi. He states that the Kohen must declare the sufferer to be ill with Tzara'at. We can take this to mean that from the moment the Kohen pronounces a man a "מצורע" (the technical name for one who suffers with צרעת). It is important to note that no matter how evident it is that someone is suffering from this condition, none of the procedures are followed until a Kohen declares the sufferer to be a Metzora. This is even the case when an expert declares a man as having Tzara'at - it is only halachicly regarded as Tzara'at once it has been pronounced as such by a Kohen, even if that Kohen is so unlearned as to practically be a boor.

There are many lessons one can learn from this, but the one I pick out is that the words of the Kohen have tremendous power here, for they effect the condition of Tzara'at. So important are the Kohen's words that we treat someone who is clearly suffering with Tzara'at as spiritually pure monents before the Kohen declares his diagnosis, even if it is abundantly obvious prior to his statement that he will only confim what is readily apparent.

In Parshat Kedoshim we read the famous phrase, "קדושים תהיו - You shall be holy." These words epitomise the Judaic belief that mortal humans can rise to tremendous spiritual heights, and that we are not "eternally damned" as Christians believe. These words imply the Jewish concept that everything in this world is to be used in our mission to attain closeness with Hashem. We believe that when we eat food, we eat it so that we may have gain the sustenance required to perform our task in this world. In a similar manner, we believe that we have been given the blessing of speech for a specific reason - for spiritual use. For this reason we thank Hashem for the food we eat, for the aromas we smell and the when we see sights of natural beauty, amongst other things. This concept is known as "elevating the mundane," of realising that everything in this world was created not out of coincidence, but by a supreme Creator. We learn that Hashem created the world with "עשר מאמרות - ten sayings," something we attest to when we say the Bracha, "שהכל נהיה בדברו - that everything was created by his word."

As Jews we try to emulate Hashem. To this end, we must understand the importance of everything that given to us by God. We can maybe now understand the reason why the correction of the mistake made by one who is not careful with their speech is only initiated once a Kohen speaks and declares their condition - we have to appreciate the true value of each and every gift Hashem gives us. The question my friend posed all those years ago was a good one, but if he had known the meaning of this verse, he would never have been led to ask it. There's tremendously deep meaning contained within the words of the prayers set out for us by Chazal, and even if we don't understand their words, we are still commanded to say them.

We might think why this is, but if we understand the parallel of the Kohen who does not know the laws of Tzara'at, we know that even if one does not understand the words, their merely being spoken still calls significant spiritual forces into action. Of course it is important to understand that which one is saying, but even if one doesn't, we must be aware of the tremendous latent power in prayer. The Pasuk is worded "וטמא אתו," for it is only once the Kohen has spoken that the Tzara'at can come into force, even if the Kohen has no understanding of what actually constitutes Tzara'at. Such is the power of speech.

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pesach and Parshat Shmini - פסח ופרשת שמיני

Seeing as Shabbat occurs immediately after Pesach ends here in Israel, I have two short (and hopefully sweet) divrei Torah here this time. Hope you like and share them!

Pesach is the time when the Jews in Egypt went through the one of, if not the greatest redemption in history. But while accounting for each of the mitzvot in his seminal work "Mishna Torah", the Rambam does not stress the exodus itself very much at all. Intriguingly, the Rambam writes extensively of the miracles, mentioning them over and over making the point that we have a mitzvah to talk of the "ניסים" and the "נפלאות", but deliberately avoids referring to the context in which these miracles occured. Only once does the Rambam makes a cursive, brief reference to the exodus itself. He doesn't say that the mitzvah is to speak about the exodus, but it is to speak of the miracle and wonder of the exodus! What on earth is this about?

It is tempting to understand miracles as a temporary suspension of nature's "rules", an instance in which G-d suberts the normal guidelines He has institued and instructs things to act differently. As a child I learned of the ten plagues, and how the first plague was that the water of the Nile turned to blood, along with all the rest of the water in Egypt. It is said that during the plague, water when taken by an Egyptian would be blood but when taken by a Jew, would be clean water, and I had learned that Egyptians tried buying cups of water off Jews, only to find that the water was blood and undrinkable. Up until now, my understanding of this phenomenon was that as a cup of water was picked up by an Egyptian, it would turn a misty red colour and transform into blood.

That understanding makes sense of the miracle, but it is extremely limited and masks the true wonder of what actually happened. For the miracle was not that the water was first water and then it was blood after; rather that it was blood and water at the same time; that a Jew and an Egyptian were able to look at the Nile at the same time and one see a normal river and the other behold nothing but blood.

Later on, when Am Yisrael wage battle against the Amoraim, Yehoshua petitions Hashem to halt the sun so that the battle would be finished before the end of the day. For a long time, my understanding of the ensuing miracle was that the sun stopped and the world experienced an overly-long day. This is not so; the true miracle was that while the sun stopped for Am Yisrael, it continued for the rest of the world - a miracle that not only defied the laws of nature but also something so completely unexplainable that it defied the laws of logic too.

So we return to the story of the exodus. It is replete with miracles, whereby the natural laws that we observe every day were quite literally broken at Hashem's will. During the plague of darkness, there was a miracle that righteous Jews were able to see clearly at the same time as it was utter darkness for the Egyptians, and during the plague of the hailstones, there was a miracle that ice and fire were able to exist next to one another.

In the Haftarah read on Parshat HaGadol, we read about the sun soothing those deserving of heaven and burning those who are destined for hell. It is written in the Yalkut Lekach Tov that those who hearken to Hashem's word and those who turn away from Him are treated in very different ways. Only, they are treated in exactly the same way - through the sun. The same sun that provides light and a "healing" for the righteous will simultaneously be as hot and fiery as an oven for evildoers. It is imperative that we understand that the difference between good and bad can seem so slight, and yet the consequences of our decisions can be so harshly different. In a manner similar to that of the plague of the blood, we see how Hashem turns the natural world to His will - something that is completely in order.

--Parshat Shmini--
"ואת אלה תשקצו מן העוף לא יאכלו שקץ הם את הנשר ואת הפרס ואת העזניה. - And these shall you abominate from among the birds, they may not be eaten, they are an abomination: the nesher, the peres, the ozniah." (11:13)

The list of forbidden birds is headed by the Nesher, the eagle. The eagle is considered the undisputed king of the birds, and yet it is specifically listed here as being not kosher, for it lacks every one of the four signs required for an animal to be rendered kosher. The dove on the other hand, possibly the easiest prey in the entire bird kingdom, fulfils all the requirements. How is that doves were among allowed to be brought as an offering in the Temple, but eagles and other such birds were not?

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin tenders the following answer. He says that there are four animals engraved on Hashem's throne; a man, a bull, a lion and an eagle. Each of these four creations is a king in some way.

Man is designated the king of Creation, and indeed the king of all creations. The bull is the king of all domesticated animals, the lion is the king of all wild animals and the eagle is the king of all birds. These four animals are kings and exalted above all other creations. Above them all sits Hashem, who presides over all of His creations.

The dove, is to be offered up in sanctification of Hashem's name, and become a "satisfying aroma" for Hashem. The dove cannot possibly be associated with Hashem's throne of glory. Instead, it merits a different, perhaps greater, merit.

There is a listen to be learned here, I believe. The eagle takes its place towards the very pinnacle of the bird food chain and is considered amongst the very highest level of creatures. The dove, however, is consistently preyed-upon and is one of the lowest creatures of all. The eagle soars high above other birds and preys upon them as it sees fit, while the dove is easy fodder for many creatures. Despite the eagle's high status in the natural world, though, the Torah makes an example out of the eagle as something that is clearly not suitable to be eaten. The dove however fulfills all the requirements to be a kosher animal. The eagle might well be the natural king of the birds, and deserving of a place on the throne of glory, but it remains non-kosher nevertheless. The dove on the other hand, despite being an "easy target" has the value of being one of the few creatures listed to be sacrificed to Hashem. Everything in this world has its function. The dove and the eagle each have their strengths. Maybe we can learn to see strength and glory in humility from the dove.

Wishing you a חג שמח ושבת שלום!