Friday, April 16, 2010

First Things Last: Tazria - Published in Be'er Shavua

As high school runs its final laps for seniors they relish being the most experienced students in school. These young men and women have grown profoundly through four intense years of a dual curriculum and represent the end product of a yeshiva high school career. Still, it seems like seconds ago they were ninth graders and that position was not without it’s charm and innocence. In September, as college freshmen our seniors will again have the chance to see things from an original perspective, one that will grow and then again be gone in four years. It has ben my privilege to be part of the educational experience of this year's seniors. The following thoughts are dedicated to the Frisch graduating class of 2010.

According to Rashi the juxtaposition of the end of Shmini and the start of Tazria conveys the idea that just as in creation animals preceded people, so too in regard to laws of purity and impurity animals come first followed by people. There is a similar Rashi regarding Yaakov meeting Eisav and organizing his family (Vayishlach 33:2). This is the concept of acharon acharon chaviv. Antechambers precede grand ballrooms, this world precedes the next one (Avot 4:21) and Shabbos follows the week. (it’s not just a day of rest, but the best day of the week, created following all the other days). The best comes last.

On the other hand, first is best. First born gets honor and privilege. The first of the month (which we just celebrated) and the first of the year are days of prestige. The first aliyah of Torah reading is presented with honor to a Kohein .

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin addresses the issue of first versus last. He explains that when one thing precedes another and the first is a means and the second the end, then the last is clearly more important. Shabbat is more important than the days that precede it because the rest of the week is preparation for Shabbat. And this serves as a metaphor. In the words of Chazal: “He who works diligently before Shabbat will eat on Shabbat.” In a similar vein Rav Zevin cites the medrash on Breishit that tells us that when we live up to our potential mankind is told by G-d that everything was created for us and that's why we were created last.

On the other hand G-d reminds us when we stray, "even the gnat was created before you". While it may be true that last is best, as Rashi alludes to at the start of Shmini, this is only the case if what comes last elevates and transcends what came before it. But when last misses its spiritual calling, then it's first come first served, and whoever was physically created first is more esteemed, and last is last on the totem pole.

What really matters is how you use your position. Being first gives you a chance to thrive in a new place and in a fresh way. Being last allows you to build on what has come before. In our life we all are neither exclusively first nor last. In our lives we all have a first grade and a last, a first job and a last, a first love and a last. Each comes with its own advantage. On the one hand Chazal say that the education of a young person is comparable to writing on clean paper, which is better than writing on erased paper (Avot 4:25). Conversely, we are told that there is no one who is wiser than an experienced person (Mili De’Avot 10b).

May our high school seniors and all of us be blessed with the best elements of both being first and being last.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

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