Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Va'Etchanan

Why Do We Fast?

Why do we fast? The general understanding is that it acts as a spur for teshuvah, repentance. This explanation works for the fast days examined in the Talmudic tractate of Ta'anit - fasting during times of drought, locust, and the like - but what about the fast days that commemorate tragic historical events? Even though, at first blush, these would not seem to be about repentance, Rambam makes the connection:

There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, to stir the hearts and to open the pathways of repentance. This will serve as a reminder of our wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which is similar to our present conduct and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve [our conduct], as Scripture [Vayikra, 26:40] states: "And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors."

According to Rambam, then, we carry the burden of our ancestors' sins because we continue in their sinful ways. Fast days such as Tisha B'Av are meant to remind us that we have also sinned, and perhaps more pointedly, that the current broken state of affairs exists as a result of our continuation of their sinful ways.

This is quite a heavy burden to bear, and if truth be told, it is often hard for me to connect my own sins and my own need to repent to these tragic historical events. In fact, almost no mention is made of the issue of repentance through all of tractate Ta'anit, and even the issue of sin plays a much smaller role than we might imagine. If not repentance, what is the purpose of fasting?

One simple answer is that fasting is a way of giving concrete, external expression to our inner state of misery or, alternatively, of fostering such a state if it is lacking. If we feel the tragic losses of the past we will want to give expression to that feeling, and if we don't, we need to work harder to do so. Like many mitzvot, fasting both reflects and helps to create our religious reality.

Seen from this perspective, it is perhaps easier to relate to the fasting of Tisha B'Av, for we can all understand the importance of feeling the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. Still, given our current reality - a powerful State of Israel and a Jerusalem that is larger and more prosperous than it has been at any point in history - it is often hard to feel this sense of tragedy and loss even with fasting. It is probably for this reason that we often turn to the Holocaust in our afternoon programming on Tisha B'Av. For many people the idea of a Temple is too abstract - for some even conflictual - to truly feel loss for its absence.

Perhaps, as Rabbi David Silber taught at this year's Tisha B'Av learning at Drisha, this is part of the reason we say Kinot. It helps us identify what we have lost, what we are mourning for. The speech together with the ritual of fasting make real our loss and our suffering. Once we know what we are looking for, it is not hard to find what we have lost: The attacks on our brothers and sisters in France remind us that we, as a people, are still the target of hateful, murderous anti-Semitism. The growing BDS movement, the spread of a virulent anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Jewish culture on college campuses, and the looming possibility of a nuclear Iran remind us that we cannot take our physical security and prosperity for granted. Even our spiritual center, the Torah and all it stands for, is at risk of being burned by the fires of religious extremism.

Our fasting brings these messages home and transforms these thoughts into concrete reality. But there is more to fasting than this. A close reading of the mishnayot in Ta'anit shows that more intense fasting is not done in times of drought due to the lack of rain per se. If after many fasts it still has not rained, a more intense series of fasts is enacted, not because "rain has not fallen" but because the people "have not been answered." There is a play on words here. The "ta'anit" is in response to the fact that "lo na'anu," they have not been answered. The two words derive from the same Hebrew root. The message is clear: we fast so that we will be answered. Indeed, the liturgy for these fasts, perhaps some of our very earliest liturgy, is all about a cry to be answered: "Aneinu, aneinu," "answer us, O Lord, answer us."

In fasting and in prayer, what we are primarily looking for is connection. Why, God, do you seem to be ignoring us? What has happened to our relationship? It is this distance from God that we read about in this week's parasha. In Parashat Va'Etchanan, in the passage that we read on Tisha B'Av, the Torah relates how our sins will eventually drive us from the land. It tells of the loss of land and nationhood, and of all these symbolize. To be exiled from God's land is to be existentially distanced from God. What response will bring us back? Not repentance per se, but our seeking out God, our desire to draw close once again:

But if from there you shall seek the Lord thy God, you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in tribulation, and all these things are come upon you, even in the latter days, if you turn, v'shavta, to the Lord your God, and shall be obedient unto His voice (Devarim, 4:29-30).

Repentance certainly is necessary; we must be obedient to God's voice, for how else can we expect to merit the relationship? However, it does not start with repentance but with seeking, with seeking and with returning, v'shavta, the original meaning of the word teshuvah.

And so it is with fasting. The people who are suffering from a drought do not need to find ways to feel the tragedy of the ruined crops. They need to realize that God is not answering them and give expression to this and call out to God. They have to say, "God, look how miserable we are. We feel your distance. Please draw close. Please answer us."

Tisha B'Av is a time when we work to realize and give expression to our sense of misery over God's distance. We remember a time when God's presence was felt daily on a national level. We remember that, certainly in times of hardship but also in times of prosperity, God's presence can be and needs to be felt more in our lives.

Ultimately, Tisha B'Av gives way to the 15th of Av, which will occur this Erev Shabbat. The last mishna in Taanit relates that there never were more joyous days in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur. According to some scholars, the significance of the 15th of Av lies in its position as a counterbalance to the 9th of Av. The 15th of Av was the date when many families who returned to land of Israel for the rebuilding of the Second Temple donated wood for the altar, distinguishing themselves in their dedication and self-sacrifice for the Temple. And Yom Kippur is the day when the High Priest enters into the innermost chamber of the Temple and the Temple is cleansed so that God may continue to dwell among the people. These two days are the opposite of the fast days. They celebrate God's closeness to the people. They celebrate how, through actions both practical and ritual, we have sought out God and how this has brought God into our lives on a national and personal level.

As we prepare to move from the 15th of Av to the month of Elul, a month devoted to drawing close to God, let us all work, each in his or her own way, to do all we can to bring God into our lives and to help realize God's presence in the Jewish people, in Israel, and in the Temple which is our Torah.

 Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Devarim

When Does the Oral Torah Begin?
What happens when we repeat a story or lesson in our own words? Does it improve with the retelling, or does it worsen? Is the message lost, or is it made more relevant? What is the point of retelling? Why not repeat things verbatim? Parashat Devarim opens with an epic retelling: a speech that took Moshe Rabbeinu more than a month to deliver. He retells three books of the Torah -Shemot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar - using his own words, not those of God.

The Midrash makes special note of the person doing this retelling (Devarim Rabbah 1:1). It is Moshe, the very man who said of himself, "lo ish devarim anokhi," "I am not a man of words," who now expounds on the entire Torah, opening with "elah ha'devarim," "These are the words" (Shemot, 4:10). Why is a man who is not an "ish devarim" relating the entire book of Devarim? We might just as well ask why Moshe was chosen to be God's spokesperson. Why not pick an ish devarim?

The simple answer is this: A person of words might contaminate God's message with his own words or ideas. Moshe, being challenged in speech, was certain to communicate God's word without embellishment or change. By the same token, a person such as Moshe is most suited to tell over the Torah in his own words. With Moshe Rabbeinu - with his humility, his desire to act only as a vessel for the Divine, his reluctance to love the sound of his own voice, and his general lack interested in asserting himself and his ideas - the message was sure to remain pure. God's words would be communicated through Moshe's. Hence, Moshe's words became part of the Torah itself, which became, in essence, God's own words.

Yet something did change in the retelling. The Gemara tells us, for example, that even if the literary juxtaposition of two mitzvot is not significant in the rest of the Torah, it is in Sefer Devarim (Berakhot 21a). Why is this so? The Shita Mikubetzet (ad. loc.) explains that, with Moshe now reordering previously given mitzvot, the reordering itself communicates a particular message. When we retell a story, it is shaped by choices we make in the organization of material, the order in which we put things, what we choose to emphasize, and even what we choose to omit. All of these become part of the message.

Thus, we find that an enormous percentage of Torah she'b'al Peh, the Oral Law, focuses on the verses - on the wording of the mitzvot - in Sefer Devarim. The Oral Law emerges naturally from Devarim because Devarim is already part of Oral Law. It is the engagement of a human being - Moshe - with the Divine Word of the Torah. As the Sefat Emet states:

וזהו עיקר משנה תורה שהוא בחי' התקשרות תורה שבע"פ לתורה שבכתב כי מרע"ה היה בחי' תורה שבכתב ובאי הארץ הי' בחינת תורה שבע"פ לכן משנה תורה כולל משניהם שהוא שער המחברם     

This is the essence of Mishne Torah, the interconnection of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu was in the category of the Written Torah, and those about to enter into the land were in the category of the Oral Torah. Thus, the Mishne Torah contains both of these; it is the passageway connecting them.

To retell the Torah was to take it out of the context of those who left Egypt and bring it into the context of those who were about to enter into the land. It took the Torah away from Mount Sinai and out of the wilderness and brought it into society, into the daily lives of the people. Moshe's retelling of the Torah was true to God's word, but it was also a reframing of God's word. It was the beginning of the Oral Torah, the religious enterprise of engaging God's word with integrity while using our own, in each generation and for each generation.

The act of translating is another form of retelling. We are told at the beginning of our parasha that "Moshe began to expound this Torah" (1:5). Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, comments on this: "He explained it to them in seventy languages." When we translate, there is the risk of things getting lost or changed. But there is also opportunity. Translations allow a message to reach the widest possible audience. In fact, echoing Moshe's seventy-language translation, we find that many rabbis allowed the Torah scroll itself to be written in any language (Megillah 8b). People have been translating the Torah into the vernacular for millennia, and with every translation, the Torah becomes more accessible and more widespread.

However, translation can do more. It not only disseminates the Torah, it can also provide a fuller, truer realization of its meaning and its essence. When something is written in a person's native tongue, it becomes intelligible to him or her. When words are relayed in a way that person can relate to and understand, metaphorically, in one's own language, they become not only comprehensible, but meaningful. Such words can resonate and enter into our mind, our heart, and our soul.

The Sefat Emet uses the metaphor of clothing in discussing the translation of the Torah. Language, he says, is a type of outer garment to the meaning, the essence, of what is being conveyed, which is itself beyond language. Hebrew is one of these garments. On the one hand, clothing conceals; it covers our naked bodies. But clothing can also reveal; we wear different clothes for different occasions or moods, revealing different parts of ourselves. With every garment we put on we give a distinct expression of who we are.

The same is true for the Torah. When the Torah is translated into other languages, its meaning can be expanded, more fully actualized and revealed. To again quote the Sefat Emet:

שכפי התרחבות הארת התורה במלבושים החיוצנים יותר שמתקרב הכל להפנימיות

"For to the degree that the light of the Torah has spread into other external garments, the more everything gets closer to the inner essence."

Retelling the Torah is critical to reaching people, and it is critical to the Torah's fullest realization. In fact, sections from the retelling in Sefer Devarim form the essence of our daily religious lives. The two paragraphs of Shema - shema and v'haya im shamoa - are both from Devarim (6:4-9, 11:13-21). These verses make up the Shema prayer, they are written on the mezuzah scroll, and they are two of the four chapters that constitute the tefillin scrolls. These are some of the most central components of our religious observance.

Our daily affirmations of faith in words, on our homes, and on our bodies are all from Moshe's retelling. His translation revealed a part of the Torah's essence, and it has entered into our homes and our hearts.To retell the Torah and to translate it into our own words is to partner with God, making the Torah that is written into a Torah that is spoken and heard, a Torah that is lived.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Matot-Masei 

After forty years of wandering through the wilderness, the Children of Israel arrive at the Plains of Moab. The Promised Land is so close they can almost taste it, and most of Parashat Masei is devoted to what awaits them on the other side of the Jordan. Yet with all this looking forward, Masei 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 forty-eight verses listing the places they travelled to in the wilderness (Bamidbar, 33:1-49). What is the point? Why look back now?

To begin answering these questions, let's consider for a moment what it would mean if the list of stops was not included. The message would have been clear: All those years wandering in the desert were a black hole; they had no value. It was a period of wandering without direction or destination, of marking time until the older generation died out. All those years could have been covered by a single verse that read: "Thirty-eight years later..."

To some degree this is the case; had there been events of any broad significance during those intervening years they would certainly have been recorded for posterity. But that does not mean that these 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, watching one's children grow up, dealing with hardship and struggle, growing intellectually and spirituality, and celebrating successes and grappling with failures. The people would have no doubt invested these events with due weight at the time of their occurrence, but now that they are ready to enter the land of Canaan, how will they think of the past decades? Will they be a big blur? Will the people feel that the time was wasted and best forgotten? Or will they pause to remember and reflect on those years, to identify the important moments, seeing them as milestones, markers of important stages in their personal journeys?

This is what Moshe is reminding them to do. He reminds them to step back, remember what occurred, and recall 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. Many of us 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 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. We may not always be able to articulate exactly what value there was in arriving at certain stops along the way, but this was true for the Israelites as well. The Torah simply names most of the places, giving no indication of their significance. This is partly because their import was personal rather than national, and as such, it differed from person to person. But it is also because their significance may not have been fully understood or easily articulated, yet they were significant.

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, 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 happen. Writing in a diary or putting pictures in an album and supplying a caption - for the younger generation, read: blogging or uploading a photo from your iPhone to your Facebook timeline - are ways to save those moments for the future, but these activities also 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 mental 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, asserting 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; 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. In 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!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas has much to say about zealotry and peace, and the messages certainly remain worthy of examination today. Consider the following situation: A religious zealot witnesses a person flagrantly violating religious standards of behavior and, acting in the name of God, picks up the nearest available weapon and violently slays the sinner. If this happened today - and it does - we would be outraged and call for the 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 the Gemara recognizes that such actions were praised after the fact in the Torah, it states that halakha, as a normative system, would never give prior warrant to such violence. Rather, 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 this act of zealotry may have been praiseworthy after the fact and in this unique set of circumstances, the blessing for eternity, the guiding principle for life, must be one of peace, not violence. One must hold strong to zeal for truth and for God, but to realize it in the real world - the world of human beings and imperfection - one must work 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 Pinchas goes on to become the embodiment of peace. In Sefer Yehoshua, when the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe return to the Transjordan and build a large altar, the Israelites make preparations to wage war against them, believing that they have abandoned God. Pinchas, however, leads a delegation that brokers a peace and averts war (Yehoshua, 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 and Eliyahu. The Midrash states that "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 will be no rain, and after three years of famine, in a great public demonstration, he 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 (Melakhim 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 (Melakhim 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 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 (Malakhi, 3:22-23).

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

In the end, the Sages debate how much Eliyahu's final mission of peace will differ from his earlier mission of truth and zealotry. We find the following discussion in the Mishnah regarding those whose personal status prevented them from marrying within the Jewish people:

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 halakha [given] to Moshe 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 made possible as a 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 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 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. He was given God's covenant of peace and was able to realize true religious leadership in his own lifetime, leadership that brought unflinching devotion to God and truth to serving the people, leadership that actualized this truth in ways of peace.

Shabbat Shalom!