Mar 22 2018

It’s OK That We Don’t Know

In this week’s reading, Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, says something truly profound. He says: “I don’t know.” He says this in other places, for example about certain species that were unknown to him. But I don’t remember him saying this in a case similar to this one.

The Torah describes Moshe sanctifying Aharon and his sons, and the Tabernacle and all the utensils and holy objects used within it. And then the Torah says, “and he sprinkled from [the Anointing Oil] on the Altar seven times.” [8:11] And Rashi comments, “I don’t know where [Moshe] was commanded concerning these sprinklings.”

Rashi was an incredibly prolific teacher. His commentaries span the entirety of Torah and Tanach (the Bible), and almost all of the Talmud. He explains concisely and clearly things which we would otherwise never understand. And he could have simply omitted comment here. He could have presented a theory. But no… he didn’t know, and he wanted us to know that he didn’t know.

The Ramban, Nachmanides, has an extensive commentary about a possible source for the sprinkling, but then finds a contradiction to his idea. And rather than leaving it out, he describes his idea and why there’s a possible contradiction to it.

They are both telling us that it’s perfectly acceptable to not have all the answers. Their objective was not their own honor, to be seen as experts in their field, but simply to arrive at the truth. Rashi tells us, don’t be disheartened if you can’t understand or find the source for this sprinkling, because I can’t either. And that’s okay, let’s keep learning.

In the Chapters of the Fathers [2:16] Rebbe Tarfon says, “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate from it.” No one will ever understand all of Torah; we continue growing, we continue learning, all the while recognizing that we don’t know, and may never know, a great deal more than we do. That’s not a defect, it means that we have an endless opportunity for continued growth in our understanding! Rashi himself recognized and shared with us that he did not know, saw nothing wrong with that, and continued to grow in his learning. And we would do very well to follow his model!

Mar 16 2018

You’re Not All That

This week’s reading, Vayikra, beginning the Book of Leviticus, teaches several lessons which all follow a single theme.

The reading discusses sacrifices, including those for inadvertent sins. But not just for the “common folk,” for you and me, but rather for the High Priest, for the King, and even for the Sanhedrin, the High Rabbinic Court.

The Torah says, “If the Anointed Priest shall sin, to the guilt of the people…” [4:3] We must ask, why is the High Priest’s mistake “to the guilt of the people?” Are they to blame?

Rabbi Dovid Feinstein explains, indeed they are. We all influence each other, and we are all responsible for each other. If our leaders are not everything they should be, it is because we are not everything we should be, either. For the High Priest to negligently sin, he must be in an environment where people are not treating the Commandments with the seriousness that they deserve. When someone else sins, we cannot merely point the finger of blame at him. Rather, we must ask, what have we done wrong, that he was capable of sinning?

And then the Torah discusses a sin committed by the king. In that case, the Torah says “When the Prince shall sin, and do one of the Commandments of HaShem your G-d which shall not be done, in error…” [4:22]

Not if, but when! Yes, we are all human, but is it guaranteed to happen? Concerning the Sanhedrin and High Priest, the Torah says “if.” Why, regarding the king, does it say “when?”

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, explains from the Medrash that Asher, when, is from the word Ashrei, to be happy. “Happy is the generation whose Prince is careful to bring atonement for his errors — all the more so, that he regrets his deliberate errors.”

We are all human, we all make mistakes. Happy is the generation whose leaders have the humility to recognize their errors, and act to correct them.

What is the common theme running between these two lessons? The need for humility. The need to look within ourselves, recognize our flaws, and work to correct them. We are not “all that.” We must care about the honor of others, rather than our own, because we know our own flaws.

And we find this same lesson at the very beginning of the reading, when Moshe is Commanded to write the word “Vayikra,” to indicate that G-d called to him.

Without the final letter, the word would read Vayikar, which implies an off-hand encounter. That was the language used when G-d spoke to Bila’am, the non-Jewish prophet who went to curse the Jews. Obviously, there is far greater honor in being summoned to a meeting with a great person, rather than coincidentally meeting him or her in a hallway. Moshe did not want to honor himself by saying that G-d had summoned him in such a prestigious way. So he wrote the final letter, an Aleph, smaller than the other letters around it.

Moshe exemplified humility, as expressed in that small letter. And the Medrash says that God took the extra ink which Moshe had left over, and with that ink created the rays of light that beamed from Moshe’s face. Precisely because he did not honor himself and acted with humility, Moshe was honored.

That is what this reading is telling us. We must see our own flaws and failings, and recognize that we are not “all that.” We must work to correct ourselves, and be humble even in positions of leadership, rather than taking credit for our successes. It is the person who does that, who acts in that way, whom G-d Himself will honor.

Mar 08 2018

Doing it Right

Dedicated in honor of the wedding of Zvi Menken to Devorah Krycer on March 11, 24 Adar.

“Like all that G-d Commanded Moshe, so the Children of Israel did all of the work. And Moshe saw all the labor, and behold, they had done it; in accordance with what G-d had Commanded, so they did, and Moshe blessed them.” [39:42-43]

This appears to be repetitive. Why must it go back and say that “in accordance with what G-d had Commanded, so they did?” We already know that they “did all of the work” “like all that G-d Commanded Moshe!”

The Chasam Sofer explains: “labor,” or melacha in Hebrew, refers to what they actually did with their hands, while “work,” or avoda, refers to the effort, the motivation in their heart, even without action. Avoda can also be translated as “service,” which makes this dichotomy easier to understand. In the Shema, we read that we are to “love the L-rd your G-d and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” [Deut. 11:13] Our Sages ask [Talmud Ta’anis 2a]: “What is the ‘service’ that is in the heart? This refers to prayer.”

The verse says, “Like all that G-d commanded Moshe, so the Children of Israel did all of the work.” They did it as HaShem wanted it: they “put their hearts into it.” They did the work with a full heart.

How did Moshe know this? How could he tell that they gave of themselves with a full heart? The verse tells us: “And Moshe saw all the labor, and behold, they had done it, in accordance with what G-d had commanded…” He saw that the work had been done completely and to perfection, without any omissions or defects. From this, he recognized that they obviously were totally dedicated to the work, with purest intent, as HaShem desired.

Had they lacked this purity of heart, they would not have merited such success, to produce perfection. Only with total dedication could the result be that “in accordance with all that HaShem Commanded, so they did.” And for this, Moshe blessed them.

If a person’s motivation is to produce something perfect for G-d, then he or she will be concentrating entirely upon the product. But if, on the other hand, a person also has an individual agenda, for self-glorification, fame or reward, then this can lead down the path of destruction. All of a sudden, I’m not looking for perfection — I’m looking to be better than everyone else. Perfection is where everything fits together. But in order to be superior, bigger, greater, then my product cannot be identical to someone else’s, and cannot mesh with his.

The result cannot be perfect. The result will fall apart.

When we work for a cause greater than ourselves, that is when we can see success. It is what benefits G-d and others, rather than what serves our own needs and wants, that merits the best result.

Feb 15 2018

Building the Tabernacle

This piece is dedicated in memory of my father in law, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Rosenfeld z”l, who, besides so many other accomplishments, was instrumental in helping the work of Project Genesis through his classes and answers to students. Please remember HaRav Azriel Yitzchak ben HaRav Avraham Zvi z”l in your learning.

Our Torah portion, Terumah, talks about building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert — the precursor of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. At first glance, you might wonder what the connection is between this portion and the last one.

As we discussed, last week’s reading discussed Mishpatim, judgments, laws necessary to create a moral and just society. Those are “baseline requirements,” things that apply to everyone, and the Torah certainly isn’t done speaking about those types of laws. Building the Tabernacle was totally different. No one was required to participate, not even a “suggested donation.” “You will take my donations from anyone whose heart moves him to do so” [Ex. 25:2].

Why does the Torah intertwine these laws? Last week we mentioned that the Torah speaks briefly of building the Mizbeyach, the Altar, immediately between the Ten Commandments and the Mishpatim, the judgments, to show us that the place of judgment, the location of the High Court, should be next to that Altar. The lesson we learned is they are intimately connected, that following judgments is as important to G-d as our prayers.

Placing the donations for the Tabernacle after the judgments takes matters a step further. Rabbi Shamshon Rephael Hirsch explains that building a Jewish society with justice and humaneness is a prerequisite, before we can build something as holy as the Tabernacle. It is the foundation, without which the gifts to the Tabernacle are no Mitzvah at all.

This is true in the most literal sense. If a person steals a Lulav, the palm frond taken on Sukkos, then it’s no Mitzvah to use it. It is pasul, unfit — just as a frond whose tip is cut off or whose top leaf is split open.

And as we see, the Torah takes exactly the same precise and demanding approach to both types of laws. For example, even though one cannot take and use a stolen Shofar, the ram’s horn blown at the New Year, in that case one who does so has, in the end, performed the Commandment. Why is this different? Because in the case of the Shofar, the Mitzvah is to hear its sound. Since theft does not apply to listening to a sound, one cannot say that the person didn’t do the Mitzvah. But with a Lulav, the Mitzvah is taking and waving it, which one cannot do with stolen property!

Needless to say, taking stolen funds and giving them to charity is, similarly, no Mitzvah at all. What Rabbi Hirsch is telling us is that this is true in a much larger sense, as well — if we want to build a Holy Tabernacle, even within ourselves, even within our own homes, the first obligation is to strive for honesty, upright conduct and justice, in every area of life.

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