Thursday, March 27, 2008

Shmini - Don't Fear The Shor

Toward the start of Parshat Shmini (9:7) we're told that Moshe instructed Aharon to approach the mizbeach. As Aharon is about to offer sacrifices, these words of Moshe seem unneeded, he was obviously going to the mizbeach.

Chazal provide the following broader context: It is time for the inauguration of the mizbeach. Moshe tells Aharon what to do, and then Aharon doesn't move, therefore Moshe says "go close to the altar." Torat Kohanim explains further, telling us what held Aharon back. Aharon saw the image of an ox in place of the mizbeach. He remembered his mistake, his skeleton in his closet, and therefore he feared approaching the mizbeach. Moshe understood Aharon's ambivelance and said, "Don’t fear the Shor, approach the mizbeach."

Yalkut Yosef cites Vayikra Raba which states that Aharon wanted to bear the burden of the cheit ha'eigel rather than the Jewish People having to sin and bear it. Hashem's response was, "You will be Kohein Gadol, because of your love and selflessness in putting the people first." Similarly, Moshe told Aharon here, "The eigel represents specifically (davka) why you were chosen, because you put the people first. That’s why you should approach the mizbeach."

These ideas, and how they were presented by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, sparked an association for me regarding Moshe Rabeinu. The Kli Yakar suggests that Moshe broke the luchot due to his great love for the Jewish People. He did what he did not out of anger but the opposite.He wanted to be "in trouble" together with Am Yisrael, rather than being a "goody goody" set apart from them. I heard this Kli Yakar presented by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and his powerful follow up comment was: "Imagine the Ahavat Yisrael that the Kli Yakar must have had, to think of this p'shat."

It's clear that Moshe and Aharon had a great deal of love for the Jewish People. They put others first, rather than covering for themselves. May we be blessed to follow in the examples of sacrifice and love set by our greatest leaders.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Moshe Cohen - A Shmini Thought

What was Moshe's title? The Midrash Rabbah on Shemini wonders if Moshe, besides being "Rabeinu" may have also been a Kohein Gadol. Rav Berachia said, "Throughout the forty years spent by Israel in the wilderness Moshe did not refrain from ministering as a Kohein Gadol. This is the meaning of what's written, 'Moshe and Aharon among his priests' (Tehillim 99:6)."

Rav Berachia further deduces this in the name of Rabi Shimon from the pasuk in Divrei HaYamim I, Chapter 13 where it states that Aharon and his sons were separated to be holy to offer and minister before G-d and to bless in His name forever. Regarding Moshe it states, "But as for Moshe the man of G-d, his sons are named among the tribe of Levi." This is understood contextually to mean that while his sons would only be Levi'im, Moshe himself was a Kohein Gadol, like Aharon.

Rav Elazar Ben Yossi says unequivocally that Moshe served in a white robe (ie. as Kohein Gadol) for the seven days of Miluim (dedication of the Temple). However, Rav Tanchum taught in the name of Rav Yudan that Moshe and Aharon both served during those seven days but only when Aharon served did the Shechina rest with the Temple.

Rav Shmuel Bar Nachman goes back to Shemot to tell an amazing tale. "All the seven days of the burning bush, the Holy one Blessed Be He was trying to persuade Moshe to go on His mission to Egypt. This is as it's written (Shemot 4:10) "Also from yesterday, also from the day before, also since You have spoken to Your servant , which makes six days.(yesterday and the day before yesterday implies 3 days, and the appearance of the word GAM/also 3 times brings the total to 6). On the seventh day Moshe said to Hashem: "…send by the hand of whom You will send." "Hashem at this point asserts that one day Moshe must repay for these days.

When did he pay it back? Rav Berachia answered in the name of R. Levi and in the name of R. Chelbo. R. Levi said that for the first seven days of Adar Moshe prayed to enter Eretz Yisrael and on the seventh G-d said, 'You will not cross over this Yarden.' R. Chelbo said: All seven days of consecration Moshe ministered in the office of Kohen Gadol, and he imagined it was his. On the seventh day He said to him: ' It doesn't belong to you, but to your brother Aharon.' This is as it's written: 'And it was on the eighth day that Moshe called Aharon and his sons and the Zekainim of Israel, and He said to Aharon…'"

My original thought in initiating this weekly parsha post was to combine my diary keeping inclination with my desire to be in touch with others, in addition to sharing thoughts about the parshiot, which I love doing. Sometimes, I fear that the personal growth - diary aspect has falls away. I wrote this piece on the parsha, basically transcribing a Midrash which I liked. But now my real work starts. What’s the meaning of this Midrash? Why did it grab me? What can be learned from this idea of Moshe being a Kohein Gadol.

You often know people for certain things while overlooking some of their other aspects. Perhaps this Midrash serves to remind us to look beyond a person's most known talent. A young Jeff Korbman told me that he hated being pigeon holed as "the funny guy." Sure, they may be funny or stand out in some other specific way, but what is there about the people we know, that we may not know, that they deserve recognition for - besides the number one answer? There's a lot to be gained by finding out who the person behind the title is.

Several examples of the phenomenon of people being known for just one thing come to mind. Al Gore, Bill Buckner, and the guy they used to show on Wide World of Sports when they said the agony of defeat" are all examples of people that will be remembered as one thing (falling short big time) despite their long lists of outstanding accomplishments over many years. On a plane more similar to this midrash, perhaps all of us have had the experience of knowing someone for a long time in one context only to discover another piece of who they are. This is particularly true of our parents, who we tend to see exclusively as our parents.

A father of a friend of mine is a gym teacher. My old friend was shocked one day when he saw what his father was like while he worked - the way he blew a whistle and a gym packed with kids froze in place. Similarly, someone I know was always somewhat embarrassed of his father the community rabbi, until one day he learned that his father was "the go to man" who quietly helped everyone with their problems. This idea is well illustrated in the movie Mother in which a son finally discovers his mother as a writer, a talent he never knew she possessed.

I find the medrash of great interest in a practical way. This Shabbos at Kiddush you can now impress your acquaintances with talk about Moshe being a Kohein Gadol. I also think there's a lesson here. No-one is just one thing. What would the world be like if we saw each other broadly and didn't suss someone up at hello? Learning about the histories and facets of those around us can be a small step for personal perspective and a giant step toward the redemption of mankind.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


We're told that the asham - guilt offering, and the chataat - sin offering, are offered in the same area as the olah - heavenly ascendant offering. Why is this the way that the place is described? G-d has neither cowardly nor deceptive motives and is much more than capable of saying things straight. So why doesn't the line in the Torah simply read - "Slaughter the chatat and the asham, on the northern corner of the mizbeach," rather than describing their locations in relation to the olah?

The Kli Yakar explains that the reason why these korbanot are all offered in the same spot is to avoid embarrassment. Someone who brought a korban for a mistake he made (asham, chatat) would probably be experiencing discomfort, even turmoil. The last thing a person needs at this difficult time is to have others seeing him in the sin section and gossiping about him ("look who's bringing a chatat…you'll never believe… I thought he was frum…")

By putting the olah - which is an optional offering that isn't necessarily brought due to sin - and the chatat, and asham together in the same space, the Torah is decreasing the obviousness of why someone is there, thus allowing an individual to remain clean in the eyes of his peers. The Torah phrases it the way it does to make it clear that these karbanot are placed where they are in order to be sensitive to the needs of the one who brings a korban and to protect him from the insensitivity of others. Phil Chernofsky points out in connection with this idea that one reason for why we daven Shmoneh Esrei quietly is so that no-one hears the confessions and private wounds of his friend.

How sensitive to people's feelings G-d is and wishes for us to be!


Holy Salt

The medrash says that when G-d separated the waters above the sky and the oceanic waters the lower waters were upset. They were jealous of the heavenly waters. So G-d, hearing their gripe, gave them something special. This is why salt is put on sacrifices, which rise to heaven.

Why didn't G-d simply command water itself to be put on every sacrifice? Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky's insightful answer is this: Salt is what's left when water evaporates. Even the lower water is holy because it rises to heaven. G-d is pointing out though, that what remains of water- the salt - after some goes up, is also holy.

Salt is used on holy korbanot - sacrifices - special acts of drawing closer to G-d as a reminder that what might seem exclusively earthly has holiness in it and can be directed heavenward as well. The take home point here is that there are parts of our life that are clearly the "going up to heaven" pieces. But the parts that seem left behind are holy as well. It's up t us to treat what seem to be side points and subtexts, the residue of the holy, as holy too.

May we be so blessed.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

You've Got A Friend In You - Pekudei

"All the work of the Mishkan was completed, and Bnei Yisroel did
according to all that Hashem had commanded Moshe, so they did"
Shmot - 39:32

The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh explains that while different parts of the Mishkan's construction were carried out by specific individuals, the Torah is here making clear that the final product is credited to The Jewish People as a single entity.The Ohr HaChayim suggests that in this concept rests the true meaning of "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha".
Given that no individual can perform every mitzvah, as some are mitzvot apply only to kohanim, some for men, some for women, etc, we reach completion only through others and we are instructed to love our fellows because they complete us.
The Ohr HaChayim states in his commentary on this pasuk something that sounds new-agey - that, in fact, your friend is you, not a separate entity, but an actual part of you. It is via the recognition and acceptance of the reality of our connectedness to one another that we each can achieve the rectification of our 248 limbs and 365 sinews which is the purpose of the mitzvot, as the Ohr HaChayim sees it .
The Chasam Sofer applies this idea of how we complete each other to the story of the man who asked Hillel to explain the whole Torah in one statement. Hillel chose "VeAhavta LeReacha Kamocha" as the essence of Torah because one can only fulfill the Torah in its entirety by being part of the communal entity to whom the Torah was given. You can only be a part of the whole thing if you embrace the individuals who are the other pieces of the collective.
May we each be blessed by G-d to fulfill our pieces of the puzzle and to assist each other in reaching completion.