Thursday, February 28, 2008

VaYakheil - All Called

Name your favorite parsha. I bet you didn’t say Vayakheil. I submit that Vayakheil falls under many people’s radar. It is viewed it as a recapping of what came before and little more. Speakers feels challenged on this Shabbos. Some will present talks this week in which they sneakily quote from previous sections.

One of my favorite topics, the tension between individual and group, is a prominent theme in Parshat Vayakheil. Let’s take a look.

Rav Elimelech Bar Shaul cites the Medrash that quotes two seemingly contradictory psukim. On the one hand we're told in reference to the stars - "HaMOTZTI B'MISPAR TZVAOM, L’KULAM BESHEIM YIKRA - He brings out their host by number. He calls them all by AME." (Yishayahu 40:26). On the other hand is the following pasuk -“LeKULAM SHEIMOT YIKRA - He calls them all by their NAMES." (Tehillim 147: 4). The Medrash explains that 2 scenarios are referred to here. One is that G-d calls all of the heavenly hosts as one cohesive unit. At other times He calls each individually by its own name.

The Medrash applies this duality to man, turning to Parshat Vayakhel for a proof text - "See Hashem has called Betzalel by name” (Shmot 35:30). It is a key concept in life that we are all chosen with specific potential to fulfill. There is also an aspect of our identity as part of a community. These two roles create constant tension because while one encourages us to develop our unique character, the other obliges us to subordinate ourselves to the needs of the community. We struggle regularly to discern when we are divinely called BSHEIM - individually, and when we are called BESHEIMOT- communally.

It is not by accident that this Medrash uses the metaphor of stars to represent the Jewish People. This is one of two images conjured by G-d in telling Avraham of his descendants. The other is the image of sand. It is relevant to the topic of individual versus communal potentials to ask why 2 similes were given to represent one idea.

The answer lies in the subtle difference between sand and stars. When you look stars you see a large uncountable number. But you can point to each one and identify it as a lone star. Grains of sand however, all blend into one entity. This represents the dual nature of every Jew as an individual and as part of a nation.

Another Medrash on our parsha states that Hashem pointed to Betzalel's name in a book which listed every person in the world who ever was or will be born. From within all those names Hashem chose that of Betzalel and told Moshe that he was the chosen one. Why? Rabbi Neal Turk suggests that the message was that just like Betzalel had his specific purpose for which he was chosen, so too every person that was or ever will be born has their unique calling as well.

Rav Moshe Feinstein notices the fact that Betzalel's talents were spotlighted within a context of service of G-d. Similarly we should all realize our calling and harness our abilities for the
service of G-d. This is perhaps the true meaning of the Gemora, which states that
2 comedians merited Olam HaBA (eternal reward) because of their craft. The reward
was not simply for making people laugh, but for their understanding what their unique
talents were and using them solely for the sake of heaven.

May we all be so blessed.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tissa 'Tudes

Ki Tissa and Depression

According to Rabbi Abraham Twerski not only does depression exist in the Jewish community, but there is a higher rate of depression among Jews than among other people. The Torah writes that we are held accountable for not serving G-d in happiness, implying that it is our responsibility to address depression. The incident of the golden calf (cheit ha’eigel) in parshat Ki Tisa sheds light on the issue of depression.
There is a general principle that our negative force (the yetzer hara) propositions us in small increments. This is because if temptation courted us with too big a lure we would surely decline the offer. The yetzer hara’s goal is to bring us down from level one hundred to level zero. Since this can’t be accomplished in one try the yetzer hara seeks to lower us subtly, one small step at a time (See Shabbos 105b). The sin of the golden calf followed on the heels of the Revelation at Sinai. How is it that the Jewish People descended from receiving the Torah right down to the depths of idolatry? This seems to be a major exception to the prevailing course of events.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that the people despaired because they believed that Moshe had died when he seemed to be late according to their calculations. The rule of being vulnerable to the yetzer hara only in regard to small infractions applies to people who are emotionally balanced, but depression opens a person to the possibility of being knocked totally off kilter. Thus, the holy people who’d received the Torah fell swiftly into idol worship. This was possible because they were depressed and in that state all bets are off.Left unattended depression pulls people down from any height.
At the time of the giving of the Torah the Jews were spiritual princes. Then despair got them. The hidden lesson of the golden calf is the imperative of facing the powerful negative force of depression.

Who Are You?

Ki Tissa"They exchanged their honor for that of a cow eating grass". This is how Dovid HaMelech describes the Cheit HaEigel. It would seem more appropriate to say that they exchanged HIS honor. Why does Dovid write "Vayamiru Et Kevodam?"
The RALBAG suggests that G-d's honor IS being referred to, but out of respect it is referenced euphemistically. That having been said, Rav Nissan Alpert suggests a different approach which expands upon this reference to THEIR HONOR EXCHANGED. The Jewish People at the time of the Cheit HaEigel were known as the Dor Deah. They were highly knowledgeable, very intelligent people. And the Cheit HaEiegel's construction was the subject of intense debate. The one's in favor of making the Eigel wanted to use it as a metaphor of the true nature of man,representing the fact that man is essentially an animal. They said that Moshe had lifted them up from their physical nature , but in his absence it was time to return to being what they really were - no different than a cow, eating to live and living to eat. Those who opposed the constructing the eigel felt strongly that man is primarily spiritual in nature. Thus, it was wrong to suggest the cow as an appropriate symbol of the essence of man.
There are various levels of impurity. The lowest is a dead human being. The reason why the human corpse ranks even lower than the carcass of an animal is that a man's only real value rests in his soul. A dead cow can be utilized in many ways, but a dead man's work is done. The Para Aduma comes to purify the lowest form of impurity, acquired through contact with a dead human being. Acceptance of these laws is reflective of an understanding that man's essence is his soul. And this is why Chazal tell us that the Para Aduma is kapara for the Cheit HaEigel, the biggest mistake the Jewish People ever made.
It's much easier to write this than it is to do it: I hope and pray that G-d helps me and all of us to realize - in the most painless way possible - that our essence is our souls. If we forget this and make mistakes - and we will, because that's what people do - at least after the fact we should acknowledge our true nature and return to G-d. This is the path to atonement and salvation, may it come speedily in our days.

Friday, February 15, 2008

2 For Tetzaveh

Tetzaveh: Olive Oil

“You, [Moses], must command the Israelites
to bring you clear illuminating oil,
made from hand crushed olives,
to keep the lamp constantly burning.”
(Shmot 27:20)

“G-d had called you green olive tree,
fair, with beautiful fruit”

(Yirmiyahu 11:16) The midrash relates three explanations for the symbolism of the olive and its oil.
1. The olive produces its oil as a result of being ground and crushed. Similarly, the Jewish People do teshuva as a result of being persecuted.
2. Just as oil doesn’t mix with other liquids, so too Jews do not mingle with non-Jews, as we are commanded, “do not intermarry.”
3. Whatever liquid oil is mixed with it always rises to the top. So too when we follow G-d we stand in first place.The Shemen HaTov by Rabbi Bernard Weinberger explains that the midrash can be applied to three types of Jews.
1. There are those who have no connection with their religion and only when they feel the hatred of the nations do they return to their roots and unite with their fellow Jews.
2. Then there are people who are distant from Torah, however they are opposed to assimilation, and remain uncompromising regarding one thing – intermarriage.
3. There are those who stay immersed in Torah and separate from the ways of the nations of the world, unsatisfied with waiting for wake up calls, or settling only for not intermarrying. These people rise up and provide hope of an Israel separate and exalted.

Man Makes The Clothing

I was in Kindergarten, sitting on the floor Indian Style, listening to short, dark Israeli Rocheil tell the story of a poor man in shabby clothes who goes to a fancy dinner party and is thrown out as soon as they see his appearance. I vividly recall Rocheil describing how weeks later after having found a job and saved cash the man returns well groomed and finely dressed. He’s presented with a great meal. He proceeds to pour the soup, meat, potatoes, etc. all over his head and body. He explains that as he was not given the food when sloppily groomed, and the only difference now was in that department, he figured the food was for the clothes. So he gave it to them.
I’d like to try to balance the equation with the following true anecdote from the book MASTERPLAN by Rabbi Aryeh Carmel. There was a London woman who married a man with an African heritage. He inherited the kingdom and they moved back to his country where he ruled as the new king. His wife took to the role but it pained her to find that the town’s women were depressed and listless. She presented them with colorful clothing made from fabric that was aesthetically alive. In a very short span of time the women came to life and were full of a newfound energy.
There is truth to both sides of clothing. On the one hand clothing cannot make the man. Ultimately it is up to a man to make himself, and the fanciest of suits can’t do the job for him. On the other hand there is a place in life for uniforms that are appropriate for people in specific contexts.
The Ibn Ezra comments on the words “Lekavod U’Letifaret” that “they can be glorified by them BECAUSE no one else in Israel wears clothing like this”. He’s fine tuning the point that how we dress is important. If everyone dresses like a Kohein then what is special might be lost.
How we dress is one of those personal things that include multiple messages that we may not think about as much as we should. Our clothing can lift us up or pull us down. Our clothing can pull others in or push them away. Our clothing can state that we feel like an image of G-d, or that we feel that we are something else.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Trumah - Three Things

According to Shimon HaTzadik the world stands on Torah, Avoda, and Gemilut Chasadim. Rav Noach Weinberg (may he have a refuah sheleimah) explains that the reality that we are meant to live in depends on the internalization of three concepts. First we must know that there is a Creator with a Plan and Purpose for us, this is achieved via Torah. Then we must pursue closeness with Him, as that is the essence of life - Avodah. Finally, out of our acceptance of Torah and Avoda should flow an understanding that all people were created by one G-d and that we must care for all of G-d's creations - Gemilut Chasadim.

Early in Parshat Trumah we find the words "They shall make me a Mikdash, and I will dwell in THEM". G-d will not dwell in IT, but in US. The Gemorah explains that Hashem is called HaMakom because He is the Place of the world rather than the world being his place. In other words, we mistakenly reference G-d as another thing in this world, like tables, chairs and people. G-d is above and beyond this world.

The Mishkan's major vessels serve as reminders of reality. The Menorah represents Torah. The Mizbe'ach represents Avoda. And the Shulchan represents Gemilut Chasadim (as a table symbolizes the primary vehicle through which we provide for others). The symbols of the Mishkan are the reality through which veshachanti betocham is achieved.

Rabbi Tuvia Charner (z"l) felt that these pillars can be understood broadly. Torah means education, Avodah means work, and Gemilut Chasadim means community. There's a story in Masechet Taanit that tells of a rabbi who was poor. He beseeched G-d and a golden leg fell from heaven. In a dream his wife envisioned a world to come in which all righteous people sat at a table with three golden legs while the table she sat at with her husband had only two legs. She insisted that he return the gold to heaven so that their future reward would remain whole.

Usually tables have four legs, and if they’re missing one they move down to three. The Gemorah in using the number three is conveying the fact that their eternal world would be so severely damaged as to become unstable. The minimal amount of legs needed to hold a table is three. Two legs make for a shaky table. This is why in this tale the table starts with three instead of four legs.

The image of three legs in that story can be carried over to explain the fact that the rabbis chose three things upon which the world rests. They could have broken it down to four or five or ten. But the point is that these three values are so essential to the balance of the world that if one were taken away, the world would falter. Different people favor different pillars. There are Torah people, Tefilah people, and Chesed people. But the ideal and stable individual like the ideal and stable world rests on a balance of three pillars. May we be so blessed.