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!

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