Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

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As we read Parashat Masei, our hearts and prayers go out to our brothers and sisters in Israel, persevering through the daily challenges and travails that they face as they journey forward in the face of adversity.

After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the Children of Israel arrive at the Plains of Moab. The Promised Land is so close that they can almost taste it, and most of the parasha is devoted to what awaits them when they cross the Jordan. Yet, with all this looking forward, our parasha opens with a significant look backward: “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went forth out of the land of Egypt…” followed by 48 verses listing all the places they travelled to in the wilderness (Bamidbar 33:1-49). What’s the point of all of this, and why look back now?

To begin to answer these questions, let’s consider for a minute what it would have meant not to have included the list of stops. The message would have been clear: All those years wandering in the desert were a black hole. The intervening years were of no value. It was a period of wandering without direction or destination, just marking time until the previous generation died out. It would be like saying that all those years could be covered by a verse that read: “Thirty-eight years later…”

Now to some degree this is indeed the case. Had there been any events worth remembering for posterity during those intervening years they would have been recorded. But that does not mean that those years were meaningless. There were certainly moments of profound significance for the individuals involved: growing up, falling in love, getting married, the birth of a son or daughter, seeing one’s children grow up, dealing with hardship and struggle, growing intellectually and spirituality, celebrating successes, and grappling with failures.

The people would have no doubt invested these events with due weight and significance at the time of their occurrence. But now that they are ready to enter into the land of Canaan, how will they think of the past decades? Will they all be a big blur? Will the people feel that the time was all wasted, best forgotten? Or will they pause to remember and reflect on those years, to identify the important moments, to see them as milestones, markers of important stages in their personal journeys?

This is what Moshe is reminding them to do. To step back, remember what occurred, to name those places where they have been. For naming those places turns events into milestones, and wandering into a journey. This is true in our lives as well. For many of us, we have vivid memories of the early years of our lives, stories from when we were growing up, getting married, getting our first job, having our first child. And then, somewhere around our early thirties, things start to become a blur. The decades fly by. If we were to tell our story, it would sound much like the story of the Exodus – profound, transformative moments at the beginning and then “thirty-eight years later…”

The Torah is telling us that there is a way to change this narrative. If we take the time to mark our milestones, the blur will come into focus. We can shape the narrative of our lives. We can determine if we will see our life as a wandering or as a journey.

Now we may not always be able to articulate exactly what value there was in arriving at certain way stations, but this is true of the Israelites’ journeys as well. The Torah just names most of the places, without identifying what was significant about them. This is partly because their import was personal, not national, and as such differed from person to person. But this is also because their significance may not have been understood or easily articulated. And yet they were significant nonetheless.

In reflecting, we may feel that sometimes we were moving backward, not forward. So it was with the Israelites. Some of their stops took them backward, towards Egypt. And yet they were stops in the journey nonetheless. By naming these stops we make a statement. We assert that they do have meaning, even if we do not understand what that meaning is. By naming them, we assert that our going back was part of our path of eventually going forward. By naming them, we make them part of our story, part of our journey. When does this naming take place? When these events are occurring, or only after, when we step back and look at the trajectory of our lives?  In our parasha, the latter seems to be the case. The verse tells us that “Moshe wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of God,” indicating that this writing down occurred only at the end of the forty years in the wilderness (33:2). Orah Hayyim, however, disagrees and sees this verse as saying that the journeys were written down as they occurred. There is no question that we are better off if we are able to take note of the special moments in our lives when they are happening. Writing in a diary or taking pictures, putting them in an album, and affixing a caption to them – for the younger generation, read: blogging or uploading a photo from your iPhone to your Google timeline – are ways not only to be able to look back at those moments and remember them in the future, but also to assign weight and significance to them in the present. These are ways to tell our story as we are living it.

But we are not always able to do this. When life seems purposeless, we might ask ourselves: Why bother noting these moments at all? If our personal or professional life is in shambles, if we are in physical or psychic pain, or if we are just wandering purposelessly or aimlessly, we will not see ourselves on a journey; we will see ourselves as lost. This, perhaps, was also the experience of the children of Israel. For thirty-eight years they wandered from place to place with no clear destination and with no ability to direct their own movements. God told them when to move, and God told them when to stay. They were powerless, at the mercy of forces beyond their control.

At such times in our lives, it may still be possible to gain some control, if not by changing our circumstances then at least by changing how we frame, relate to, and react to these circumstances. If we can “write down our journeys” at these moments we will have accomplished a great deal. But sometimes this is an unrealistic expectation. Sometimes we might have to suffer through this period of wandering. At these times what we can do is persevere. Persevere so that when we come out on the other side, when our thirty-eight years in the wilderness finally comes to an end, we can at least reflect and assess. At this juncture it will be critical to name those way stations and to be able to assert that there was value and meaning to the places we have been, that they are part of how we got to where we are even if a full understanding of their purpose and necessity still eludes us.

This connects to another ambiguity in the text. The verse states that Moshe wrote down their journeys according to the word of God. What was according to the word of God – their journeys or the writing down? Ibn Ezra says the former, whereas Ramban says the latter. This is often the very ambiguity that we struggle with. Sometimes we can embrace the belief that our current journey is directed by God. At those moments we will be able to mark our journey as we are living it. At other times, however, this belief will be very distant from us, and we will only be able to feel connected to a larger system of meaning when we have emerged on the other side, and are able to look back and reflect.

If we can at least record our milestones at the end of the journey, then we will have come a long way. Our hardships and struggles will become life lessons and periods of growth. And we will have made these periods into our own personal Torah. As Sefat Emet comments, it is in the writing down of these events that we declare them to be of lasting value, that we transform all of these dangerous, difficult journeys into an integral part of God’s Torah.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

The Vessel or What’s Inside of It?

A story is told that when Rav Soloveitchik’s wife Tonya, z״l, was hospitalized due to an illness, he and Haym had the run of the house. Following the technical laws of kashrut, they proceeded to eat cold milkhig food on fleishig dishes. When Tonya returned from the hospital, she was apoplectic. The Rav explained that he was doing nothing more than following the halakha of the Shulkhan Arukh, to which Tonya replied: “You and your Shulkhan Arukh are going to treif up my kitchen!”

This story gets to the heart of what keeping separate dishes
is all about. Most classically, it is treated as a concern that any flavor that might have seeped into the walls of the dish will transfer to the food currently in it – if there is no heat to transfer the taste, it shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively, however, it may be about maintaining a strict division, of keeping like with like, of keeping the status and identity of things well defined – milkhig food gets milkhig dishes, fleishig food gets fleishig dishes. This latter approach is often thought of as one that more reflects the understanding of the laity, one that does not reflect the true halakhic concerns. The matter, however, is not so simple.

When the people come back from the war against the Midianites in this week’s parasha, they bring with them the booty of war, including vessels and clothing. Elazar instructs them in what must be done with these items:

Everything that goes through fire, you shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean: nevertheless it shall be purified with the sprinkling water; and all that does not go through fire you shall make go through the water (Bamidbar 31:23).

The simple sense of these verses is that this is a purification process, since the people have just come in contact with dead bodies, and this is presumably the meaning of the “sprinkling water,” that is, they must be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer. This is certainly true regarding the purification of clothes mentioned in the following verse. However, this would not explain why the vessels in this verse must also be passed through fire or water. Rather than conclude that the Torah is introducing a new purification process, the Rabbis understand that a different issue is at play.

These cooking vessels, say the Rabbis, must not only be purified due to contact with the dead but purged of the non-kosher tastes that they have absorbed. Thus, vessels used directly over the fire, such as a spit, must be purified or kashered, as we would say, by putting it over a fire, and similarly vessels used with boiling water, such as a pot, must be kashered with boiling water. This is the principle of ki’bolo kakh polto, just as it absorbed the taste, so it expels it.

But maybe not. Maybe this whole process is not primarily about removing problematic absorbed taste. Maybe it is about changing the identity of the vessel, taking a treif vessel and redefining it, through this ritual, as a kosher one.

What is the evidence for this? First, this verse appears in the context of ritual purification, which is all about effecting a change of status. Second, note that the Rabbis also learn from this verse that there is a mitzvah to immerse even brand new vessels purchased from non-Jews, the mitzvah of tevilat keilim. This is most easily understood as a ritual to change the status of the vessel – from a non-Jewish vessel to a Jewish one. The juxtaposition in the verse of this requirement to kashering one suggests that the two are serving a similar function – change of status. Reflecting and reinforcing this is the Mishna in Avoda Zara (75b) which deals with kashering and toveling vessels all in the same discussion. Taken together, it seems like we are dealing with issues of status and not necessarily absorbed taste.

Other halakhot and Talmudic discussions support this approach. When we kasher a vessel, we only look at its primary use – on the fire, with boiling water, etc. – and not at all the ways it might have absorbed the taste of food. After we do the kashering we have the custom of immersing the vessel in cold water, akin to a purification process (and what is done with a chatat, see Vayikra 6:21). Perhaps more significant is the fact that the requirement to kasher these dishes from Midian may not fit the general rules of absorbed taste, either because the taste would have already been spoiled, lifgam (Pesachim 44b), or as the 13th century Rav Aharon HaLevi (Ra’ah) points out, because there would not be enough of it to be considered the true taste of the original food (Chezkat HaBayit on Torat HaBayit 4:1, 11a).

If this isn’t about the taste of the absorbed food, what is it about? Ra’ah states, in the name of his teacher Ramban, that the prohibition to use vessels that were used with non-kosher food is because of what they are. Don’t use treif vessels. Whatever is in their walls doesn’t matter, if they were used to cook treif food, they are treif. In this way, kashering vessels is a form of purifying them, of changing their status and transforming them.

So who was right? Was it the Rav or was it Tonya? Is it the vessel, or is it what is in it? The truth is that both of these approaches exist within halakha, and an ongoing dialectical tension exists between them.

And so it should be. For while Rebbe Yehudah haNasi famously teaches, “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is inside it,” the reality is that we are always looking at the vessel, and this is not necessarily a bad thing (Pirkei Avot 4:20). We need to organize our reality. We need to assign labels, to categorize, to understand where one thing stands in relation to others. And the way a thing or a person appears, the identity they project, helps us do this in an efficient and effective way. There is a reason doctors go around wearing white coats and stethoscopes. It is true that this might lead to us dismissing someone who is not wearing that white coat or to giving too much weight to one who is, even if she is not such an expert, but it is better than the alternative – not having any idea who is who and how to navigate our way.

Tonya was right. Eating cold cheese off of a fleishig plate might be halakhically permissible. But blurring the boundaries and mixing categories is also a sure way to treif up the kitchen.

This approach is also central to the halakhic system, or any legal system for that matter. Halakha mostly operates with formalistic categories. Certain concrete, objective, quantifiable criteria are assessed, and that dictates what category something is in and what halakhot obtain. What halakha doesn’t do, except in rare cases, is look at the full context, the circumstances relevant to an individual or thing, and apply one law to the whole as a category rather than apply a different law for each facet of the case. This is the principle of lo plug – we don’t make distinctions. It would be highly inefficient, if not impossible, to have a legal system that operated on principles and not on formal categories. Looking at the vessel is absolutely necessary.

But if Tonya was right, so was Rebbe Yehudah haNassi. For a system that only looks at status and identity, that places labels on people and things and makes decisions on that basis, will lead to cases of error and injustice, to marginalization and exclusion. The woman in the white coat may not be a doctor, and even if she is, she may not know what she is talking about. If we are able, we need to stretch ourselves and go past the quick, easy categorization and its conclusions. We need to do our research, find out what truly is contained in the vessel.

Similarly with halakha. While a non-formalist approach undermines the halakhic system, an overly formalist approach can be blind to real people and real human suffering. There are times that we have to push ourselves and find ways to look at not just the category, but the real live person that is in it. There are ways that halakha accommodates this – concepts such as sha’at ha’dechak, an exigency where exceptions can be made, or times when we don’t say lo plug, where situations are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. And then there are times when, like the laws of kosher vessels, the two exist in an ongoing dialectic relationship, where the particular circumstances and context can influence how the formal categories are defined.

In the end, we must find a way to keep our kitchens kosher, and we must find a way to know and care what each and every vessel contains.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

There has been much talk this past week about vengeance. In this regard, it is instructive to explore what our parasha says about zealotry – which is a close cousin to vengeance – and peace. Consider the following: A religious zealot witnesses a person who is flagrantly violating religious standards of behavior and, acting in the name of God, picks up the nearest available weapon and violently slays this sinner. If this happened today – and it does – we would be outraged and call for this act to be condemned. The Torah, however, praises it.

“Pinchas… has turned My anger away from the people of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore, say, Behold I give him My covenant of peace… a covenant for eternal priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 25:13).

Is religious zealotry, then, an ideal to be emulated? While recognizing that such actions were praised after the fact in the Torah, the Gemara states that halakha, as a normative system, would never give prior warrant to such violence, and that, from a halakhic point of view, Pinchas was actually a “pursuer” who could have been killed to prevent him from taking Zimri’s life (Sanhedrin 82a). License can never be given to violence, even if it is motivated by religious zealotry.

One can detect a similar concern in the blessing that God gives to Pinchas: “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace.” While after the fact and in this unique set of circumstances, this act of zealotry was praiseworthy, the blessing for eternity, the guiding principle for life, must be one not of violence but of peace.

One must hold strong to this zeal for truth and for God, but to realize it in the real world – the world of human beings and imperfection – one must actualize it in ways of peace. God's seal is truth (Shabbat 55a), and truth is absolute and unbending. But even God's name is erased for the sake of peace (Shabbat 116b). For the Torah of truth to be a Torah for life, one needs to be guided by the principle of peace

When Torah and truth run up against error and sin, the response need not be violence; the response can be understanding and compromise.

Thus, we find that, later in life, Pinchas becomes the embodiment of peace. In the book of Joshua, when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe return to the Transjordan and build a large altar, the Israelites prepare to wage war against them, believing that they have abandoned God. Pinchas, however, is sent to lead a delegation, and he brokers a peace and averts war (Joshua 22). He has moved beyond his zealous uncompromising youth, to become an elder statesman who pursues diplomacy, compromise, and peace. Significantly, the Talmud records the opinion of Rav Ashi that Pinchas did not even become a kohen until he brokered this peace (Zevachim 101b). His “covenant of priesthood” could only be realized when he realized his “covenant of peace.”

It is instructive in this regard to contrast Pinchas with Eliyahu. The midrash states "Pinchas is Eliyahu," and indeed, both of them were “zealous for God.” In response to the rampant idolatry in the Land of Israel, Eliyahu decrees that there be no rain in the land and after three years of famine, in a great public demonstration, slays the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al by the edge of the sword. He runs to hide in a cave, and there God appears to him:

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, What are you doing here, Eliyahu?

And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. 

And God said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice
(Kings I, 19: 9-13).

Eliyahu has indeed been “zealous for the Lord,” and as a result, many have died by sword and by famine. God, however, has a lesson to teach him – God is not about violence, but about the small, still voice, the voice that will speak to a person’s heart, the voice that will bring about peace. Eliyahu, however, cannot comprehend this message:

… And, behold, there came a voice to him, and said, What are you doing here, Eliyahu?

And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And the Lord said to him, Go, return on your way … and Elisha … shall you anoint to be prophet in your place (Kings I, 19: 14-16).            

Eliyahu is so committed to his absolute sense of truth that he cannot understand that the time for zealotry has passed, and that for the people to reconcile with God, a small voice, the voice of peace, is needed. If he cannot understand this, then he can no longer lead the people, and Elisha the prophet must take his place.

Pinchas is Eliyahu, but he develops and matures. Eliyahu, on the other hand, is Pinchas but only the younger Pinchas. Eliyahu is taken heavenward in a whirlwind; he is not a person of this world. His zealotry for truth and for God could not be reconciled with the frailties of human beings. He is never to become the older Pinchas. At least not in this world. But Eliyahu will become the ultimate emissary of peace in the future world:

Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse (Malachi 3:22-23).

He will be the one to bring about peace to save the world for the harsh judgment that God, in His attribute of truth, would demand.

In the end, the Sages debate how much Eliyahu’s final mission of peace will in fact trump his earlier mission of truth and zealotry. Regarding those whose personal status had prevented them from marrying within the Jewish people, we find the following discussion in the mishnah:

R. Yehoshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher [heard it] from his teacher, as a halakhah [given] to Moses from Sinai, that Eliyahu will not come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near, but to push away those brought near by force and to bring near those pushed away by force…

R.Yehudah says: To bring near, but not to push away…

The Sages say neither to push away nor to bring near, but to make peace in the world, for it is said, “Behold I send to you Eliyahu the prophet, etc., and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mishna Eduyot 8:7).

According to R. Yehoshua, even in the future, Eliyahu will not compromise truth one iota. Peace will only be a possible byproduct of truth. Eliyahu’s mission will be to rectify falsehood, to ensure that a person’s status is true to reality. R. Yehudah, however, believes that, in the end, truth will serve the interests of peace, and that it will be called on only to bring close those who have been distanced. The Sages, however, reject both of these positions and believe that for Eliyahu these two principles will never be able to be reconciled. Eliyahu will only be able to devote himself to peace by allowing the work of truth to be done by others.

Eliyahu was not of this world, but Pinchas was of this world. He was given God’s covenant of peace, and was able to realize in his own lifetime true religious leadership, a leadership that brings an unflinching devotion to God and to truth in one’s service to the people, and a leadership that actualizes this truth in ways of peace.

Shabbat shalom!