Friday, March 30, 2012

A "Great" Shabbos


The shabbos before Pesach is known as shabbos hagadol, or the 'great' shabbos.

What is so "great" about this shabbos ?

It is said that shabbos is actually above time and that the world was created for the short duration of six days. On shabbos, all creation is recharged, getting it set for another week. Shabbos, however, is outside of this calculation and exists in a sublime, timeless nature. Thusly, shabbos has the unique double distinction of being both the culmination of the preceding week and the foundation of the following week.

Since shabbos serves as the flashpoint of recreation, it must follow that everything which is needed for that week will also be created on shabbos.

Now we understand what is so "great" about shabbos haGadol – on shabbos hagadol the act of recreation is greater than other times since it needs to also include the incredible holiday of Pesach.

The first night of Pesach is known as 'leil shimurim' a night that we are watched over. On that night the level of Hashgacha pratis or personal divine guidance and care is at its highest point of the year. On that night Hashem personally 'passed over' each one of our houses in dealing destruction upon the Egyptians – He even struck down any Egyptians who may have been hiding in our very own homes ! Divine involvement on such an intense, personal level, is sure to leave a mark in time – as it did on seder night.

So this shabbos, as we sing testimony to Hashem's (re)creation of the world and palpably feel the rejuvenation of all that surrounds us – know that this shabbos is truly greater than others, it is the shabbos where the divine presence descends into our world in greater force than any other time during the year. And since seder night is a full week away, we have this extra hasgacha for a full eight days. That's pretty great!

With Hashem's guiding hand ever closer, we must ask ourselves, what are we going to do with such an amazing opportunity ?

Hatzlacha !

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Offering Worth Offering


"... אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לד' ..." [ויקרא א:ב]

"…when a man from amongst you brings an offering to Hashem …"[Vayikra 1:2]

The Medrash Rabba [2:7] quoted in Rashi [ad loc.] points out that this is an allusion to the famous offering of Adam Harishon.

What was the famous offering of Adam and how is it connected to the idea of sacrificial offerings ?

The Gemara (avodah zara 8a) tells us that after Adam and Chava sinned they experienced sunset. Adam was startled and declared – "woe is me, because of my sin I have brought darkness to the world. Perhaps this is the inevitable death that Hashem decreed as a result of my sin." And they both sat and cried all night long. When the sun rose the next morning, Adam concluded that the period of darkness was part of the 'natural' order of things and did not represent any divine punishment for his misdeeds. He immediately took an ox that was created by Hashem and offered him as a sacrifice.

(Sacrifice is a poor translation of the term korban – we shall stick to korban)

There is a world of difference between a korban and a scapegoat. The latter is something that you offer up in the hope that its elimination will foster enough goodwill that any grievance will be forgotten. A korban, however, is fundamentally different. A korban is given in recognition of its intrinsic value and with the understanding that a certain amount of loss in necessitated by the circumstances. In short, the more something means to you – the less fitting it is for a scapegoat and the more fitting it is for a korban.

Now we understand why all of our korbanos should echo Adam's. Adam demonstrated an incredible attachment and responsibility for all of creation. He did this by crying all night long at the darkness and destruction that he believed were inflicted upon the world and its occupants at his expense. He clearly valued, and felt a strong stewardship over, creation. This is also evident by the timing of his korban. If Adam's korban was a scapegoat, designed to appease Hashem and rescind the darkness – he would have brought it when the darkness first fell, at night! By offering the ox with the first rays of light, Adam's actions proclaim loudly, "Hashem, I rejoice to find that you did not destroy the world because of me, let me make an offering of praise to your name!" It is this feeling of responsibility for the world and its inhabitants that we aim to echo any time we bring a korban.

In today's impoverished times we are without a temple and without the ability to ofer physical korbanos. Yet, we have the ability to offer prayers. Let our teffilos (which replace the korbanos as a temporary substitute) resonate with the same devotion and intensity as Adam's. And may we see the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days, amen.

Hatzalcha !!

Friday, March 16, 2012

But, Does it Count ?!?

אלה פקודי... משכן העדות אשר פוקד על פי משה עבודת הלויים ביד איתמר בן-אהרון הכהן
[שמות לח:כא]

“This is the accounting of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle that bears witness, that was counted by order of Moses, the work of the Levites as supervised by Itamar the son of Aaron the priest.” (Shemos 38:21)

Moshe instructed the people to count. What was it they were supposed to count, and why?

Sometimes, we count in order to determine the total number of items in our possession, such as when we count out money in our pockets to see if we can purchase a certain item. Sometimes, we count that which is important to us, even if we already know how many there are supposed to be, such as trophies won. At other times, “counting” doesn’t refer to numbers, but worth, as in, “Does spelling count?” In the Torah portion this week, all of these facets of counting seem to be important in the Tabernacle.

As an expression of our national desire to serve G-d, the Tabernacle was the result of a building campaign that was incredibly wide in scope. The verses relate that anyone whose “… heart had been filled with a giving spirit” [Exodus 25:2 & 35:5] gave whatever they could. Those who did not donate items, donated services. There is even the suggestion that the talent for working the materials into the Tabernacle was not an inborn trait of those craftspeople who performed this task, but rather a G-d given ability that was bestowed upon those who were worthy of it, commensurate to their inner dedication [Exodus 36:25].

So when the Torah summarizes all this effort with the phrase, “These are the accountings of the Tabernacle …”, it is actually coming to regard all these definitions. The individual contributions to the Tabernacle are worth counting and that the effort itself was worthy of being counted.

In his commentary on the Torah, the Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar b. Morocco 1696, d. Jerusalem 1743) contrasts the beginning of the accounting with other beginnings in the Torah. Whenever the Torah begins a quote with the letter “vav”, meaning “and”, the intention is to highlight the connection that this topic has with the previous topic. Whenever the “vav” is missing, the intention is an emphasis in the disconnection between the two topics. For example, the beginning of parshas Mishpatim (which deals with many laws of interpersonal damages) begins with the phrase “And these are the laws that you (Moses) shall place before them”[Exodus 21:1] to underscore the connection with the previous segment which tells of the revelation at Sinai. This is intended to teach us that all the laws were given at Sinai and not just the Ten Commandments.

Why, then, does the verse begin the description of the accounting without the connector? To emphasize the disconnection. Not only that the accounting is disconnected from the specific topic that immediately precedes it, but rather that it is disconnected from all previous topics.

The Ohr HaChaim’s observation leads us to the Torah’s valuable lesson – there are some things that are worth counting. And there are some that aren’t quite in the same category, hence the isolation of the verses of accounting. The "grade a" goods are not meant to associate with all other topics. You wouldn't count the amount of twenties in your wallet on the same tally as the number of plastic cups you have left in the drawer. To emphasize this lesson the Torah lists the accountings of the Tabernacle as a dedicated endeavor. A unified, nation-wide outpouring of concretized desire to serve the Creator, is something that is worth counting. It is something so worthy of being counted that it rates exclusive billing.

When we take mental stock of our days, when we budget out our resources, we are also performing an accounting. We list priorities and goals, and try to match them up with time and the ability to accomplish them. How much time do we spend on ourselves? How much do we spend on others? Are we making time for spiritual enrichment? Do we value and budget in our obligations to the Creator? To our fellow man?

In light of this lesson, we can ask ourselves, are we counting what counts?

What’s the count up to?

Hatzlacha !

Friday, March 09, 2012

Don't Worry Be Calf-ey


In Parshas Ki Sisa we read of one of the greatest tragedies to ever occur to the Jewish people, the sin of the golden calf. Miscalculating the fortieth day when Moshe was supposed to return from his sojourn in the heavens, the people grow restless when they believe that Moshe is not coming. Seizing upon this opportunity, Satan creates a scene of heavenly confusion and tells the people mockingly, "your leader has died." In response to this, some of the Egyptian hangers-on that trailed the Jewish camp (known as the erev rav or rabble) demand from Aharon a new leadership figure. After Aharon attempts, unsuccessfully, to stall for Moshe's return, the rabble succeeds in having two of the Egyptian sorcerers (formerly of Pharaoh's court – see Tanchuma ch. 19 – quoted in Ohr Hachaim Shemos 32:20) craft a golden idol and parade it before the people. The main body of calf worshippers were also of the rabble, they were killed by the Levi'im (see Shemos 32:26-28).

In light of the above information, what part did the mainstream Jewish community play in the sin of the calf ? Why is it considered so heinous a transgression ? What did they do ?

The Torah goes to great emphasis to point out that Moshe was a regular human being, born of a mortal father and mother and in no way supernatural. It should have been obvious to the Jews that Moshe wasn't going to live forever, and so when he died, Hashem would have his replacement all lined up. The people misunderstood the function of a Jewish leader. They should have gone to Aharon or Yehoshua or any one of the prominent people in the camp. Instead, they sought to replicate the divine aura that emanated from Moshe. True, only the rabble truly worshipped the calf and danced in idolatrous ecstasy at the feast in its honor. But the rest of the Jewish camp enabled this to occur because they allowed themselves to be lulled into despair at Moshe's passing.

Since Moshe's passing was inevitable, the people should have realized that the same G-d who brought them to Har Sinai would also continue to take care of them. People do silly and crazy things out of despair, the lesson of the golden calf is that this kind of despair has no place in the heart of a believing Jew. And if it does worm its way in there – the results can be catastrophic.

Don't despair, Hashem's got your back. Always.

Haztlacha !

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Just Our Luck


It would seem that an entire holiday based on random luck is a little ridiculous. As a matter of fact – the whole message of the intricate, hidden plots and sub plots of royal intrigue in ancient Persia teach us that there is no such thing as luck! So why then is our holy holiday of Purim called "Lottery Day"?!

To understand this perplexing conundrum let us examine the other time in the calendar when we rely on a lottery. On the (other) holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we take two identical sheep and sacrifice them in a ritual fashion. One of them we offer as a korban olah, or ascension offering, so called because it is the highest kind of korban which rises straight to Hashem. The second sheep, we carry out of the city to a remote desert cliff where we fling it off to be ripped to bloody shreds in an apparent offering to the demons that inhabit such a treacherous and fearsome locale.

It would seem that there is no greater contrast than these two offerings which seem to represent the farthest two points on the avodah spectrum. To be "worthy" of being the korban olah on Yom Kippur should seemingly have taken a year if not a lifetime of preparation and to deserve being tossed off into the barren cliffs of Azazel would indicate a comparable time spent in total moral decay. Yet, the Torah teaches us that these two animals must not only be identical in every way but are also chosen by lots, at random! What are we meant to understand from this?!

That even within the blind, random luck, Hashem's guiding hand is always there. If we thought that the lottery of the sheep was fixed and that G-d always insured that the deserving sheep got his fate then we may mistake the world for being one in which G-d is both the director and the behind-the-scenes manager, but that luck was still possible. By taking two identical sheep we declare that even within the randomness of luck Hashem's guiding hand is never off the wheel.

And that's the message of Purim. There is such a thing as random chance. There is luck. But, as with everything else, Hashem has that under control as well. And why? Because of His incredible boundless love for us, his children.

Gosh, we should consider ourselves pretty lucky!

Happy Purim!

Thursday, March 01, 2012

To Honor The King


Parshas Terumah is where the Torah tells us about the mishkan (tabernacle) and all the keillim (holy vessels) used therein. Parshas Tetzaveh is where we are instructed in the intricacies of the clothing worn by the kohanim and the methods of their induction into service. There is one exception, however. All the way at the end of Parshas Tetzaveh, after we have long finished discussing the keillim used in the mishkan, does the Torah teach us about the inner, mizbeach hazahav (golden altar). The mizbeach hazahav was used for the most sublime of the temple services the offering of the ketores (incense).

Why does the Torah discuss the mizbeach hazahav out of place?

The Seforno contends with this difficulty and his answer offers us an incredible insight into the service of the Creator.

Much of the avodah within the mishkan was dedicated towards one goal – establishing a dwelling place for the shechina down here amongst the physical world. This was done by dedicating ourselves to a very detailed service and by building an incredibly intricate edifice for the purpose. The ketores, however, was not brought to establish the mishkan as a fitting resting place for the shechina. It was brought in honor and recognition of that fact. The shechina would have dwelled in the mishkan without the ketores, but we would have been lacking in our honor to Hashem if we didn't offer it.

This leads us to an incredible analysis. Every day we serve Hashem in countless ways. We bring Him into our life by thanking and praising Him for all that He has done for us and by demonstrating kindnesses that are in His image and under His direction. We even toil to understand His holy word that He gave us at Sinai. To complete the picture, however, we need to honor His holy presence as well. We do this by adding a dimension of beauty to our service.

A nicer esrog or a fancy meggilah case is not just adding a touch of class to our mitzvos, its actually a recognition of the fact that by doing those mitzvos, we are bringing the shechina into our lives, and according the divine presence its due honor. Next time we perform a mitzvah, let us endeavor to do it with an extra flourish, not just to show how much we love the mitzvah, but also to display our boundless love for Hashem, whom we honor by its performance. And in the merit of our little ketores-like observances, may we merit to see the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash speedily in our days, where we will once again offer the real ketores and it will rise as a pleasing fragrance before Hashem. Amen.

Hatzlacha !!