Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pinehas 5771: A Break from Leining, Yet a still Torah-Filled Shabbat

While sparing a long story, this Shabbat ended up being a week off from my regular summer Torah reading in Highland Park, NJ. Yet fate seemed to wish to ensure that I wouldn't be to Torah deprived this week, and so I gave a d'var torah at Kehilat Hadar and taught at Seudah Shlisheet at Shaare Zedek. I hope that you'll enjoy both teachings, and that more importantly, the ideas and texts will challenge you (maybe to challenge me) and help you to face some of the same issues that influenced me as I read this week's parasha.

-At Hadar I spoke about the tension between personal and collective responsibility in our Jewish observance. I recognize that not all Jews share my myth of halakhah, obligation (hiyyuv) and observance, and that it is easy in modern times to feel empowered to chart one's own religious journey without a focus on community. I looked to biblical precedents, especially in Pinehas, of the tension between being responsible for only ones actions or how they influence others, and concluded that we must take our journeys in a communal context, considerate of how they affect others, and hopefully in a way which will healthily challenge those around us to greater heights of meaning and empowerment.

-At Shaare Tzedek, I taught midrashim from the 9-11th century Palestinian collection Bamidbar Rabbah which helped me respond to and reflect upon the some of the events of the past week, including the senseless murder of 8-year old Leiby Kletsky and a fire which engulfed the Krhillath Jeshurun (KJ) Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Just as these rabbinic commentaries were almost certainly responding to real events and needs at the time they were written, I hope they will help us to reflect upon happenings in our own day which trouble us and seem to defy explanation.

Shavua Tov and thank you for joining in my journey!


“Where Do We Go From Here? We Are The Keepers of Our Brothers” –Safam

כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה- All of Israel is responsible for one another.”[1] We are taught so often as Jews that we have a collective obligation to one another. So much of Judaism is focused on community and the importance of coming together, reaching out and even bringing others in as part of our observance. Yet modern philosophies often stress the value of personal freedom and autonomy, of being responsible for oneself only in relationship to God. How do balance these two tendencies which often claw at us with equal strength?

This might seem like a recent conflict of ideas, but the Torah itself, and especially this week’s parasha of Pinehas present both of these approaches to our responsibility and culpability for the actions of others. The prescriptive potions of the Torah present conflicting commands and promises of whether God holds us responsible for the actions of others:

We read as part of the Aseret Hadibrot, the ten utterances or commandments found in Chapter 20 of Exodus and Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy: פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי, visiting the sins of parents upon children unto the third and fourth generations for those who detest me#[2]; yet later in the book of Deuteronomy, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we are instructed: לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת: אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.# Parents should not die for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents; each should die for his or her own sin. These distinctions could be explained homiletically through midrash or critically through the proposal of different authors, but I think that the Torah wishes for us to struggle over collective responsibility vs. personal autonomy.

Perhaps the most famous example of the struggle over taking responsibility for one’s actions in the Torah comes at the beginning of Genesis. God challenges Cain after killing his brother Abel, אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ, where is your brother Abel?[3] Cain answers, השומר אחי אנכי, Am I my brother’s keeper?[4] While Cain should certainly be responsible for his own actions, his exclamation continues to ask us just how much we should be responsible for the actions of others.

This dynamic is seen in two episodes in our parasha. Slipped into the census which occupies almost half of the parasha is the statement [5]ובני קרח לא מתו, and the children of Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses in the parasha a few weeks ago, did not die. The rabbis offer a number of explanations for this surprising occurrence; the book of Psalms notes that the sons of Korah were singers in the Temple in Jerusalem; the eleventh century French commentator Rashi proposes that the children of Korah repented; yet I think it is most noteworthy that contrary to what we might expect, compared to many other stories in the Torah and Tanakh, even Korah’s immediate family was not held responsible for his actions, and were given the opportunity to repent and change their ways.

Later on in the Parasha, five daughters of a man named Tzelophehad from the tribe of Menashe approach Moshe and asked for an inheritance, since their father had died and they had no brothers. Yet it is telling how the daughters go about approaching Moshe: אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-יְהוָה, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח: כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ.[6] Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the assembly who rebelled against God in the assembly of Korah; he died for his own sin and left no sons.

Why did these women to mention their father’s sin and its exact nature? Why should it matter whether Tzelophehad was among Korah’s assembly or died for his own, separate actions? Rashi tries to explain the significance of Tzelophehad dying for his own sin -- he connects the man’s death to an earlier account of a man who was stoned for chopping wood on Shabbat – he died for his own sin only, thus he did not lead others astray, and made decisions which did not negatively impact the community[7].

Interestingly, Moses’s answer to the daughters of Tzelophehad does not even acknowledge their concern about their father’s sin; instead, he unequivocally grants them an inheritance. They are not punished for their father’s actions, but awarded their rightful inheritance on their own merit. But even if these women, considered particularly righteous for their wish to inherit in the land of Israel, were judged on their own merit, the mention of their father’s actions is a reminder that they, and we do, not live in a bubble, but our actions towards God and others, especially in the realm of mitzvot, are so often tied to those around us.

I believe that these struggles within the laws and narratives of the Torah text regarding personal and collective responsibility have much to say about our Judaism and life today. We have many different conceptions of halakhah, obligation, observance and how to practice. It is often easy to see ourselves on individual journeys towards how to express our relationships with God and our Jewish observance, and as personally responsible for only our own actions. But even when we feel empowered, we must remember that we have an obligation to our communities and other Jews beyond them; to share our passion and knowledge, to nurture, to educate and to create caring communities, so that those around us have the tools to take ownership of their actions like the sons of Korah and Daughters of Tzelophehad.

[1] Sifra Behukkotai 7:5

[2] Exodus 20:5/Deuteronomy 5:9

[3] Genesis 4:7

[4] Genesis 4:8

[5] Numbers 26:11

[6] Numbers 27:3

[7] Rashi ad. loc.


Seudah Shlisheet @Shaare Zedek

1) Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2: A True Leader Must Understand The Uniqueness of Each Human Life

“ Moshe said: May God, master of the spirits of all creatures, appoint a person (leader) over the community. Who shall go out before them and return before them, who will send them out and bring them back, so that the community of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:16-17).”

A halakhah is taught: if one sees a large population of people, s/he says: Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, discerner of secrets. – For just as their faces are not the same, so their opinions and needs are not the same, rather each has a unique personality and perspective of his or her own. And thus it is written (Job 28:25), “to give a weight to the wind,” (homiletically, spirit), to the spirit of each and every person – you should know that it is thus that Moshe was requesting at the time of his death.

Moshe said before God: Master of the Universe! The thoughts of each and every person are clearly known before You , and the thoughts of each of Your children are not the same as another; please, appoint a leader for the, who is capable of being patient with each person according to his or her own needs, as it it is written, “May God, master of the spirits of all creatures, appoint a person (leader),” – it does not say master of the spirit, but rather of the spirits. Thus it is written: (Isaiah 45:11), “Ask Me about the things to come regarding my children, and command Me about the work of my hands.”

To what metaphor can this be compared?

To a king who married a woman and had a friend; Each time the king got angry at his wife, the friend would help them to reconcile. When the friend came close to his death, he requested from the king: please, turn your thoughts to your wife. The king turned to the friend and said: If you are commanding me regarding my wife, command my wife to be careful about my honor!

Thus conceivably, it is as if God said to Moshe: Since you command me to ‘appoint them a leader,’ command them that they should be meticulous regarding My honor.

Therefore it is written, “Command the children of Israel and say to them regarding my daily meal offerings” (Numbers 28:2).

וידבר משה אל ה' יפקוד ה' וגו'
הלכה: אם ראה הרבה אוכלוסין של בני אדם, אומר: בא"י אלהינו מלך העולם חכם הרזים, כשם שאין פרצופותיהן דומין זה לזה, כך אין דעתן שוין זה לזה, אלא כל אחד ואחד יש לו דעה בפני עצמו.
וכן הוא אומר (איוב כח): לעשות לרוח משקל, לרוחות של כל בריה ובריה, תדע לך שהוא כן, שכן משה מבקש מן הקב"ה בשעת מיתה.

אמר לפניו: ריבונו של עולם! גלוי וידוע לפניך דעתן של כל אחד ואחד, ואין דעתן של בניך דומין זה לזה, וכשאני מסתלק מהן, בבקשה ממך מנה עליהם מנהיג, שיהא סובלם לאחד ואחד לפי דעתו, שנאמר: יפקד ה', הרוח אינו אומר, אלאהרוחות זה שאמר הכתוב: (ישעיה מה): האותיות שאלוני על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני.

משל למה הדבר דומה?
למלך, שנשא אשה והיה לו שושבין, בכל זמן שהמלך כועס על אשתו, השושבין מפייס ומתרצה המלך לאשתו. בא השושבין למות, התחיל מבקש מן המלך, בבקשה ממך, תן דעתך על אשתך! אמר לו המלך: אם אתה מצוני על אשתי, צוה את אשתי עלי, שתהא זהירה בכבודי!
כביכול, כך אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: על שאתה מצווני עליהם: יפקד ה', צוה אותם שיהיו זריזין בכבודי!
מה כתיב?
במדבר כח) צו את בני ישראל את קרבני לחמי תחלה הסדיר להן הקורבנות:

2) Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 21:25: Regular and Special Sacred Time As A Space for Community and Healing

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

“On the Eighth Day it shall be an Assembly for you (Num 29:35). What does “for you indicate?”

God said to them: The Festivals should be pleasant for you.

A certain idol worshipper came to Rabbi Akiba, and said to him: Why do you observe these Festivals? Did the Holy one Blessed be God not say to you, “I detest your New Moons and Festivals (Isaiah 1:14).

Rabbi Akiva answered: If God had said, I detest My New Moons and Festivals, then I would agree with you, but the text stated “your New Moons and Festivals’ because of the festivals proclaimed by Jeroboam, as it is written “Jeroboam made a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the festival that was celebrated in Judah. He offered sacrifices on the altar which he had fashioned in Beit El in the month which he had chosen of his own volition, and he went up to offer incense on the altar (I Kings 12:32-33).”

But the appointed times and new months listed in our parasha will never be cancelled. Why is this the case? Because they belong to God, as it is written (Leviticus 23:2), “These are the Festivals of God,” and (ibid. 23:44) Moses communicated God’s Festivals to the people of Israel.”

Thus, the Festivals will not be cancelled in the time to come, as it is written, (Psalms 111:8) “They are upheld now and forever (when) practiced with truth and uprightness.”

תהיה לכם
מהו תהיה לכם?
אמר להם: המועדים נאים לכם.
שאל עובד כוכבים אחד את ר"ע, אמר ליה:
למה אתם עושים מועדות לא כך אמר לכם הקדוש ברוך הוא (ישעיה א): חדשיכם ומועדיכם שנאה נפשי?
אמר לו ר"ע: אילו אמר חדשי ומועדי שנאה נפשי, היית אומר, לא אמר אלא חדשיכם ומועדיכם, בשביל אותן מועדות שעשה ירבעם, שנאמר (מ"א יב): ויעש ירבעם חג בחדש הח' בט"ו יום לחדש כחג אשר ביהודה (שם) ויעל על המזבח אשר עשה בבית אל בחדש אשר בדא מלבו ויעש חג לבני ישראל ויעל על המזבח להקטיר, אבל המועדות האלו, אינן בטלים לעולם, ולא החדשים.
שהן להקדוש ברוך הוא, שנאמר (ויקרא כג): אלה מועדי ה'.
וכן (שם) אלה הם מועדי.
וכן (שם) וידבר משה את מועדי ה'.
ולכך, אין עתידים ליבטל, ועליהם נאמר (תהלים קיא): סמוכים לעד לעולם עשויים באמת וישר.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Spirtuality of A Mapik Hei הרוחניות של 'מפיק הא'

A dot inside of a Hei is not called a דגש but rather a מפיק, literally “one which brings out,” and is found at the end of a word (though a similar undotted ה can occur in the midst of words such as התמהמהנו). This reflects the proper pronunciation of a מפיק, the expulsion of of a breath from one’s mouth without an accompanying vowel or consonant. On the most basic, fundamental level, the proper annunciation of a מפיק is essential to ensure that the correct meaning of a word is articulated, and not confused with a similar word lacking a מפיק.
Yet when pronounced in a ritual context, whether reciting a biblical or liturgical text, the proper articulation of the מפיק can lead to unparalleled depths of meaning and feeling. Not only do we attempt to use all of our intellect and intention when reciting sacred words, but the proper expression of the מפיק allows us to use the simplest and most basic, natural breath to praise God. This is true of any pronunciation of the מפיק in a sacred context, but is especially appropriate since the מפיק appears quite commonly in names of God, such as י-ה. The feeling which can be achieved by expressing a מפיק (without even going beyond these standard, established rules of Hebrew grammar) can be seen in the words of Psalms 150:6 which itself contains 2 מפיקים. The psalmist exclaims, “כֹּל הַנְּשָׁמָה, תְּהַלֵּל יָהּ הַלְלוּ-יָהּ” Let the entire soul praise You, Halleluyah (may God be praised). The word נשמה, translated as soul, is etymologically related to the word נשימה, meaning breath, so it thus flows that we should attempt to express our feelings to God with our entire breath, through that most basic expulsion of breath which is the מפיק.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

God is Kadosh - How do we become Kadosh? K'doshim 5771

Columbia/Barnard Hillel Seudah Shlisheet – K’doshim 5771

This week’s parasha of Kedoshim is filled with details of a variety of mitzvot – 51, in fact, according to the count of the Sefer Hahinukh, a medieval Spanish work which enumerates all of the commandments according to the parasha. The verses seem to jump from topic to topic almost at random at a first glance - from bein adam l’haveiro (those between humans and their fellows) and bein adam lamakom (between us and God), and from positive and negative, addressing quite a gamut of topics. This miscellany makes it extremely interesting and important to turn to and examine the opening ‘topic sentence’ which begins Kedoshim.

וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire community of the children of Israel and say to them – you shall be k’doshim for I am Kadosh. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

The word Kadosh is usually translated as holy, but we should step back and consider what it means in this context. Is it a general statement, or is it connected directly to the commandments which follow? Is one Kadosh simply because he or she performs (or does not do) certain actions, or is it a more general mindset. I would like to examine a few medieval and modern commentators to explore just how deep this simple and essential phrase can be.

The eleventh century French commentator Rashi, basing himself on the fifth century Palestinian midrash Vayikra Rabbah, states quite clearly קדושים תהיו- פרושים תהיו – “You shall be holy-- you shall be separate,” and explains that this means to be separate from the sins and impurities outlined in the Torah. For Rashi, being Kadosh is directly linked to the performance and fulfillment of mitzvot, and seems to be an objective appellation. Interestingly, Rashi’s comment does not seem to directly address the meaning of God being Kadosh.

Ramban, thirteenth century commentator and mystic from Spain and the Land of Israel, begins by citing Rashi’s statement of kadosh being separate, but takes it further. He writes that just as God is distinct and separate, so too must we be deliberate in our actions and be separate. He takes issue with Rashi’s evaluation of one’s kadosh status – Ramban cleverly notes that one can keep kosher and be a glutton; a man could observe the letter of the Torah and be irresponsible in taking many wives – those who are clever will find a way to be נבל ברשות התורה, naughty within the guidelines of the Torah. Thus, the command to be kadosh and even the more specific mitzvoth are only outlines – one must continually strive and struggle to find the proper path and person has to do in his or her own way.

In his usual deep and poetic manner, twentieth century European and American Jewish thinker activist and JTS professor Abraham Joshua Heschel gave his own definition of holiness in an essay entitled “An Analysis of Piety.” He seems to begin where Ramban picks up, and beautifully explains how being kadosh is a mindset attainable by all who strive to live a Godly life, independent of their background or intellectual ability. Without citing our parasha directly, heschel engages directly with the question posed by our parasha – how can one become holy in the same way as God?

The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and nearness of God. Everywhere and at all times he lives as in His sight, whether he remains always heedful of His proximity or not. He feels embraced by God’s mercy as by a vast encircling space. Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm, but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire. The momentous reality of God stands there as peace, power, and endless tranquility, as an inexhaustible source of help, as boundless compassion, as an open gate awaiting prayer. It sometimes happens that the life of a pious man becomes so involved in God that his heart overflows as though it were a cup in the hand of God. This presence of God is not like the proximity of a mountain or the vicinity of an ocean, the view of which one may relinquish by closing the eyes or removing from the place. Rather is this convergence with God unavoidable, inescapable; like air in space it is always being breathed in, even though one is not at all times aware of continuous respiration.

To dwell upon those things that are stepping-stones on the path to the holy, to be preoccupied with the great and wondrous vision of His presence, does not necessarily mean an avoidance of the common ways of life, or involve losing sight of worldly beauty or profane values. Piety’s love of the Creator does not exclude love of the creation, but it does involve a specific approach to all values. Between man and world stands God. He is before all things, and all values are looked at through Him. [1]

As I prepare to graduate – but maybe not quite fully ‘separate myself’ from this community, I hope we can all consider how we will find our own paths towards being k’doshim as both individual and a community. How do we relate to others, friends, visitors, newcomers and strangers? How do we balance between different obligations? The words and ideas of Torah are wonderful beginnings and guidelines, but we should also consider the views of Ramban and Heschel, that these are not only ends to themselves but means to greater exploration and growth as Jews, as humans, and as God’s creations.

The word k’doshim is notably in the plural, and is a reminder that the journey towards greater awareness and holiness may be a personal one at times, but is never solitary. I would like to thank each of you as individuals and a community for being such a part of my life for the past four years. I hope that we continue to strive for greater heights of respect and holiness in the years to come.

Shabbat Shalom and Todah Rabbah.

[1]Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. p. 310