Sunday, March 13, 2011

PARASHAT METZORA: 2011/5771:THREE LESSONS OF ADVERSITY


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT METZORA:  2011/5771


THREE LESSONS  OF ADVERSITY


And the one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare unto the priest saying: ‘It seems to me as if there were a plague [ka-nega nir’ah li] in the house.’  And the priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes in to see the plague, that all that is in the house be not made unclean… And the priest shall come again on the seventh day and shall look; And, behold if the plagues is spread in the walls of the house than the priest shall command that they shall remove the stones in which the plague is and cast them into an unclean place outside the city.  (Lev 14:  35-40)

 The context of these verses was the public health function of the priest in ancient Israel.  He was trained in the diagnosis of lesions on people’s skin and plague in the walls of their houses.  If he were convinced that what he observed was a possible contamination, he was empowered to quarantine the affected person or place and, ultimately declare the possible contamination an actual outbreak. People thus diagnosed would be required to withdraw from their regular contacts and to isolate themselves to prevent the spread of the infection.  If signs of the infection appeared in the walls of the house, everything would be removed from that house, and if the diagnosis was confirmed the affected parts of the wall would be broken down, removed and the interior re-plastered.  Our text spells out this procedure.

The boldfaced Hebrew words in the text are problematic. What does the phrase ka-nega [like a plague] mean? Either it was or it was not a plague. The sages teach three lessons in answering this question.

I

Obviously, a confirmed diagnosis of a contagious infection in the walls of one’s home was calamitous.
It caused great inconvenience and substantial loss.  The sages viewed the disaster as the awful consequence of the homeowner’s transgressions.  Playing on the similarity of the Hebrew words metzora  [infectious disease, usually translated as leprosy] and the phrase motzi shem ra [one who spreads malicious gossip], they commonly rationalized infectious physical disease with the infectious disease of gossip and slander.  After all, Miriam had suffered a leprous outbreak following her slanderous comments about Moses’ treatment of his wife.  However, this was not the only rationalization of the outbreak:

A Barayta teaches:  Plagues are the consequence of tzarut ha-ayin [a begrudging attitude, (literally: a narrowed eye)], for it is written:” And the one to whom the house belongs shall come and declare unto the priest saying: ‘It seems to me as if there were a plague in the house.’   A teacher in the school of Rabbi Yishma’el taught:  When a person insisted on  his exclusive rights [to enjoy whatever was] in his house because he did not wish to lend his household articles to others and declared that he did not have [what they sought to borrow], The Holy One blessed be He makes public his false denial  by compelling him to remove all the contents of his home. (B.T. Arakhin, 16a).

In this homily the sages again base themselves upon a word play.   The word metzora [infectious disease, leprosy] resonates with the phrase tzarut ha-ayin.  The word and the phrase not only have a similar ring, but both contain the Hebrew letters tzadi, vav and resh [tzora], but also end with the letter ayin.

 The point of this homily is that the plague in the home is a consequence of the plague of having a begrudging attitude.   The niggardly individual is ultimately exposed for what he truly is, and gets what he deserves for his self-serving dishonesty. 

According to this interpretation, disaster has a positive ethical and social purpose. It teaches important moral lessons to the community and may succeed in altering unacceptable behavior and ugly character traits.Similarly, an infected home can uncover an infectious character and teach the community a vital moral lesson about generosity and miserliness. In this sense, the outbreak only appeared to be a plague [ka-nega nir’ah]. This is the first lesson.


II


The midrash on the verse: “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I give the plague to your home …” (Lev. 14:34) addresses God’s peculiar choice of words.  Both the inheritance of the land of Israel and plague in the walls of one’s house are called a divine gift.  How can a house plagued with infection possibly be considered a divine gift? 

The procedure for purification involved the destruction of at least part of the walls of the house and substantial costly renovations—hardly gifts from God.  Accordingly, the sages wrote in the Midrash:

It was a good tiding for Israel that plagues would come upon their homes, because the Amorites had hidden treasures of gold in the walls of their houses during all the forty years that Israel was in the wilderness, and because of the plagues, the Israelites broke down their houses and discovered the hidden treasures. (Sifra and Vayikra Rabbah on Lev.14: 34).

Explaining this Midrash, the Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the boldfaced phrase of our text, nir’ah li, [appears to me] is found only once more in the Torah, in the phrase:  The Lord appeared to me [nir’ah li] from afar. He was making the point that what appears at first glance to be calamitous turns out to be a blessing from God in the long run. 

The sages meant to convey an important teaching in this midrash.  As Bradley Artson has written, every disaster is an opportunity waiting to be discovered.  The calamity of the loss of a substantial portion of a part of one’s home might just be the beginning of much better things to come.  Our lives are punctuated by setbacks, disappointments and sadness.  We can either choose to bemoan our misfortune, assume the role of helpless victims of a malevolent fate and surrender to hopelessness and depression, or see the setbacks as opportunities for personal growth and transformation. Substantial financial losses can be experienced as paralyzing calamities, but can also be powerful motivators for achieving fresh success.  The loss of loved ones is always painful, but our bitter experience can make us better people.  The way we cared for them during their illness gave expression to our enormous potential for loving, and revealed to us personal strengths of which we were not previously aware.   Our own experience of pain can make us sensitive to the suffering of others and more empathic in our interpersonal relationships.  Only a person who has known great pain can truly connect with another who is in pain.  The most effective therapists are those whom Carl Jung has called wounded healers. The Israelites discovered hidden jewels in broken walls. We can find hidden jewels of character buried deeply within ourselves. This is the second lesson of our text.


III

The Talmud instructs us to bless God for the bad things that happen just as we must for tokens of Divine benevolence.  The blessing for calamity is the resigned expression of faith:  Blessed is the true Judge.  The blessing for good things is:  Blessed be the One who is good and does good things.  How is it possible to be grateful for bad things that befall us?  It is precisely because what at first sight seems bad [ka-nega nir’ah li], is really a gift in the   long view of God. 

The following is a rabbinic illustration of this concept: A farmer has toiled an entire year.  He has prepared the soil, planted the seeds, protected the seedlings from frost and insect infestation, removed weeds and done everything to produce a bumper crop. An entire year’s income is dependant on the success of his harvest.  But disaster strikes.  The nearby river overflows and washes his crop away.  The event is catastrophic.  All has been lost.  However, the floodwaters have washed rich river soil onto his field, insuring an even more abundant yield in the following years.  Should he recite the blessing for bad things now or the blessing for the good things that will eventually follow?  The sages require that the loss be acknowledged as a current evil event.  That is the authentically human reaction, but they also remind us that what now seems bad to us is actually good from the point of view of God. This is the implication of the two phrases,  ka-nega nir’ah li and “The Lord appeared to me [nir’ah li] from afar”.

PARASHAT SHEMINI-PARAH: 2011/5771 CONDEMNING FROM AFAR


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT SHEMINI-PARAH:  2011/5771


CONDEMNING FROM AFAR

Among the various topics addressed in the Torah reading of this Shabbat is a catalogue of non-kosher birds. These forbidden birds are listed in Leviticus, Chapter 11:13-14:

They shall be an abomination unto you from among the fowls; they shall not be eaten; they are an abomination; the eagle, the ossifrage, the osprey, the da’ah and the kite after its kind.
The word da'ah is deliberately not translated. This is because a parallel passage in Parashat Re'eh (Deuteronomy, 14:12) reproduces the list almost exactly - but with one strange variation. In the parallel passage, the da'ah bird of Leviticus is called the ra'ah.
This variant reading puzzled the sages:

Why is the da'ah of Leviticus called a ra'ah in Deuteronomy? Rabbi Avahu declared, "The ra'ah is the da'ah bird. Why, then, was its name rendered ra'ah [seeing]? This is because the ra'ah is a bird that can see from a great distance. It sits in Babylon and is able to behold the rotting carcasses [neveilah] of the Land of Israel." (B.T. Chullin 63b)


Rabbi Avahu's insight goes beyond a simple explanation of an inconsistency in the Torah’s lists of prohibited birds. Nor does he content himself with the observation that the bird was nicknamed for its unique farsightedness. His insight is also compelling on a metaphorical level. Only a very strange bird looks for ugliness and putrefaction thousands of miles away, when there is an abundance of ugliness and putrefaction close at hand.

According to Rabbi Avahu, this putrefaction-fixated bird is prohibited to Jews because it is exclusively focused on the ugliness of the Land of Israel, while overlooking the far greater ugliness of its native land.

Babylon was not without its seamier side. The sages lived there and knew its ugly side from painful personal experience. Its oppression, perversion of justice and indifference to the vulnerable and the poor were well known. However, it was astonishing that the Babylonians could ignore their own neveilot and be conscious only of the neveilah in the Land of Israel.
There is no shortage of neveilot in Iraq as Babylon is now known.    But notwithstanding its corruption and the terror that continues to murder innocents in markets, mosques and funeral processions, its religious and political leaders stand in Babylon and criticize the neveilot of Israel—and hurl scud missiles at its citizens
Iran is even worse. Its President announces the utter destruction of the Jewish state and is developing a nuclear missile to accomplish his holocaust. In his view, the neveilot of Israel justify his evil response. But what of his own neveilot, the murder and torture of his critics, the detention of the opposition, and the export of terror throughout the Middle East?  He personifies the repulsive ra’ah bird of this generation.
It is easy to gloat about all the other ra’ah birds of the Middle East.  They have persistently focused on the purported neveilot of Israel and have introduced resolution upon resolution condemning Israel in the General Assembly, the Commission of Human Rights and the Security Council, but now the ra’ah birds are stripped naked.  Their neveilot are on every television screen every day as their own populations revolt against their excesses and the putrefying carcasses of their moribund political system,
However, we cannot really gloat, for, in a sense to some extent we are all ra’ah birds.  We far too easily overlook our own shortcomings and far too quick to criticize the shortcomings of others.  In the laws of purity, on which the Torah will focus in the coming weeks, we learn that the priests diagnose impurity and, if appropriate, declare the individual impure.  The Hebrew priestly declaration is : tamei, tamei  yikra [he shall declare, “impure, impure!”].   But the Hebrew can also mean:  Tamei [the impure one] will declare the other person tamei [impure].  Before we condemn the ra’ah birds of others we should cleanse ourselves of impurity.










PARASHAT TAZRI’A—PARASHAT HA-CHODESH: 2011/5771 THE UNFEELING HEARTS OF THE WISE


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT TAZRI’A—PARASHAT HA-CHODESH:  2011/5771


THE UNFEELING HEARTS OF THE WISE

And the Lord spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt saying:  This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. (Ex.12 1-2)

These verses introduce the special reading for Parashat ha-Chodesh, one of the four special readings that precede Passover.  This particular reading is chosen as Passover approaches because it contains the instructions to the Israelites for the celebration of the very first Passover—Pesach Mitzra’im. 

Our text is at the center of a fascinating Talmudic tale that relates to the extraordinarily gifted disciples of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: 

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five [special] disciples—Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Chananya, Rabbi Yossi the Priest, Rabbi Shim’om ben Netan’el, and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh.  He used to say if all the wise men of Israel were placed in one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos in the other, he would outweigh them all.  Abba Sha’ul said [differently] in his name: if all the wise men of Israel were placed in one scale of the balance, and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were also with them, were Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh in the second scale, he would outweigh them all.  (Avot 2: 10, 12).

His teacher described Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as a stream that grew stronger and stronger.  This description was a metaphor for his brilliant and apparently inexhaustible interpretive creativity.

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh once took a vacation by the Hot Springs of Deimsit.  His wife so enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of this famed spa that she persuaded her husband not to return to the Yeshiva. Besides, she argued, since he was greater than his colleagues, their need for him was more urgent than his need for them. If they really wanted to learn with him, let them move to Deimsit.  Accordingly, they remained in Deimsit for many, many long months.  When Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh finally did return to the Yeshiva in Kerem B’Yavne, he was called upon to read the Torah text of this special Shabbat.  To the amazement of his colleagues he totally misread the passage.  Instead of saying Ha-chodesh ha-zeh lakhem [this month shall be unto you], he said Ha-cheresh hayah libam [Did their hearts become deaf?].  (Kohelet Rabbah 7; Avot D’Rabbi Natan 14).

If a very young child had made the same error, his dyslexia might have been forgiven.  The Hebrew letter daled of the word Ha-chodesh resembles the letter resh of the word Ha-cheresh.  The letter zayin of the word ha-zeh somewhat resembles the yud of hayah.  The letter khaf of lakhem is not too unlike the bet of libam.   

However, these simple transpositions are utterly inexplicable when a great scholar of the distinction of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh makes the error.  Even if he had been away from his Torah studies for a lengthy period, he could not possibly have forgotten the Hebrew alphabet.  What message was he conveying to his colleagues?

Clearly, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh’s misreading of our text was deliberate.  He meant to apprise his colleagues of the negative effects of a long absence from Torah study. When one is not engaged in sacred discourse, one’s heart becomes numb-- cheresh hayah libam.  The ultimate purpose of Torah study is to enhance sensitivity and to open hearts.  While study is largely a cognitive activity, its purpose is not simple mental acuity.  If it is effective, it will help produce a mindful, sensitive individual, whose heart is open to God and God’s creatures.  The materialism associated with the resort atmosphere of the Hot Springs of Deimsit had oriented the great Rabbi Elazar be Arakh away from the spirit of Torah.  His intellectual prowess may have remained, but he had suffered a painful change of heart-- cheresh hayah libo. He who had valued a good heart above all other virtues (Avot 2:13) had neglected his own.

What was Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh feeling? What was it that made him aware of his change of heart? What was the spiritual change he was experiencing? The change was subtle, and was also implied in his misreading of our text.

My teacher and friend, Rabbi Ya’akov Duschinsky of blessed memory, noted that the three transposed letters were not random. The Hebrew letters resh, yud and bet form the word reev—conflict. Closed hearts produce conflict.  The cause of the blockage is often an overabundance of ego. Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh had permitted his wife to inflate his ego. People with very large egos leave little place in their hearts for others. Self-love becomes selfish love and precludes empathy with others. Because one does not understand where the other person is coming from, one misinterprets his or her motives, becomes paranoid and too easily goes into attack mode.  Positive criticism is mistaken for assault on one’s ego; one becomes defensive and an argument ensues.

People with too much ego also leave no space in their hearts for God, and soon find devotion more and more tedious, soon becoming conflicted about their real relationship with the Divine.

Ultimately, inflated egos are fragile egos. The greater one’s ego is, the more insecure one tends to be—and insecure people are characteristically defensive and conflictual. Perhaps Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh felt insecure about his Torah skills because of his very long absence from the Yeshiva and the challenging, growth producing engagement with his gifted colleagues. Was this why he had lately begun to conflict with his formerly close friends?  Had they grown spiritually whereas he had declined? Perhaps he had himself begun to notice subtle changes in his previously intimate relationship with God.

This awareness and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh’s very public affirmation of his flaws testify to his greatness. They also reflect the goal to which students of Torah should aspire. Intellectual prowess and theoretical halakhic expertise are worth little if they do not open hearts to God and other human beings. It is little wonder that Torah masters who demonstrate these characteristics are so often involved in reev. Ha-cheresh hayah libam?






PARASHAT TAV-ZAKHOR-PURIM: 2011/5771:PURIM: THE CELEBRATION OF ABSURDITY


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT TAV-ZAKHOR-PURIM:  2011/5771


PURIM: THE CELEBRATION OF ABSURDITY




Purim is one of the most light-hearted periods of the Jewish year, the only occasion on which we are encouraged to befuddle our thinking processes by imbibing alcohol to excess. However, its noisy, playful celebration notwithstanding, Purim’s message is of breathtaking profundity.

Our sages were aware of this profundity in their comment that Purim raises the perplexing problem of the eclipse of God [hester Panim] at critical times in Jewish history. Our mystics were certainly aware of its special significance when they called the holiest day of the year, Yom ha- Kippurim [the Day of Atonement], Yom ke-Purim [a day like Purim]. Our ancient wise men must have noted something extraordinary about Purim when they commented, eschatologically, that Jews would, in future times, celebrate Purim even though other festivals might no longer be observed.

On the face of it, the importance accorded to Purim is difficult to understand. Ours is a rational faith, and Purim reflects the predominance of the irrational.  Consider the Purim story: One day a proud and beautiful Persian woman is Queen; the next day she is beheaded—apparently for refusing to parade her beauty in public. A humble, modest, unknown Jewish girl is under the tutelage of her uncle, a man of uncompromising religious zeal and piety. Paradoxically, by parading her beauty, she becomes the wife of the Emperor— who a gentile to boot. The Jews of the realm receive recognition for their economic and social contributions to the body politic. Suddenly, for no sound reason, this most productive segment of the population is singled out for total annihilation. Mordechai sits in sackcloth and ashes, awaiting his hanging and the extermination of his people, but the Emperor suffers a night of sleeplessness, the Queen throws a party, and the situation is reversed. Marked for extinction, the Jewish people again rise to greatness. Paradox follows upon paradox, absurdity chases absurdity in the Purim narrative. A single phrase—ve-nahafoch hu(it was topsy-turvy)—is its most appropriate characterization.
It is perhaps for this very reason that Purim is the most "Jewish" of all our holidays. The phrase ve-nahafoch hu can fairly be applied to every collective petition of our daily amidah prayer. What other people is there, driven from its homeland, its dispersion growing increasingly greater over a period of two thousand years, which could absurdly declare thrice daily: "Praised art thou, 0 Lord, who [now] gathers together   the scattered ones of His people Israel?" Could another rational community, facing almost perpetual injustice on account of its faith, daily proclaim: "Praised art thou, Lord, who loves justice and righteousness?" Is there another people, which, confronted by two millennia of success by its arrogant oppressors, could daily declare: "Praised art thou O Lord, who smashes [our] enemies and humbles [our] arrogant oppressors?" For two thousand years the Temple lay in ruins and the holy places of Jerusalem continued to be desecrated. Yet with characteristic, absurd faith we thrice daily pro­claimed: "Praised art thou, 0 Lord, who is [now] rebuilding Jerusalem."

Paradox and absurdity characterize our theology as well as our liturgy. We believe in the principle of free will. This implies that we should accept the consequences of our conscious actions--reward for meritorious deeds and punishment for deliberate transgressions. Notwithstanding, almost absurdly, we believe that, on Yom Kippur, sincere penitence reverses the effects of deliberate transgression and nullifies their consequences. No wonder Yom ha-Kippurim has been compared to Purim!


Paradox in liturgy and theology parallel paradox in Jewish history. No other nation returned to its homeland after two thousand years of exile. Ve-nahafoch hu. No other people, subjected to unparalleled genocide, could arise, phoenix like, from ashes of the crematoria and estab­lish a new commonwealth. Ve-nahafoch hu. Never did our people suffer hester Panim more than during the holocaust. Never was there a greater reason for a crisis of faith than then. Ve-nahafoch hu. In the new State of Israel, old centers of Torah were transplanted, and new centers established to meet the new situation. Torah flourishes once again.


Purim personifies our people's history and its hopes. This is why, whatever is decreed for the distant, eschatological future, we shall always celebrate this festival.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

PARASHAT VA-YIKRA 5771/2011: IN PRAISE OF BLEMISHED LEADERS


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT VA-YIKRA:  2011/5771

IN PRAISE OF BLEMISHED LEADERS

If the Prince [asher nasi] should sin and inadvertently do against one of the mitzvot of the Lord his God, which should not be done, and be guilty… he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a male without blemish. (Lev. 4:23-24).

The sages were puzzled by the use of the word asher in our text.  The more usual Hebrew word for “if” is im.  Because of this unusual use of words, the Talmud records the following comment:

What does the word asher convey?  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai declared: ‘Happy [ashrei] is the generation whose prince brings a sacrifice for his inadvertent offense.’ “ (Horayot 10b).

 These comments are puzzling.  Would it not have been better for the generation whose leader had never sinned?  That would have been a real blessing.  Several answers to this question have been offered.  Rabbi Menachem David of Amshinov, a great Chasidic teacher, suggests that only a flawed leader is capable of empathizing with the weaknesses of those for whom he is responsible.  Furthermore, a person who is humble enough to ask for forgiveness will forgive others more easily than one who is self-righteous. 

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin provides an even more profound answer to the question in his commentary Oznayim La-Torah.  The inadvertent transgression for which a sin offering was required was the unintentional transgression of a prohibition.  Infractions of this kind always involve actually doing something. In contradistinction, while comatose, one could not possibly be guilty of breaking negative commands.  Conversely, infractions of positive commands necessarily involve the crime of omission, of not doing something.  For example, a person guilty of an infraction of the command to sit in the Sukkah is guilty precisely because he has not sat in the Sukkah.

 Accordingly, the offence of which the Prince is guilty is the action that he has risked taking on behalf of his people.  The more energetic he is, the more he is motivated to serve his constituents, the more initiative he shows in exercising his leadership, the more likely it is that he will inadvertently make mistakes.  On the other hand, there are leaders who are unwilling to risk failure and are guilty of doing too little.  The less one does, the less one is likely to fail.  Therefore, Rabbi Sorotzkin argues, a generation whose leader is active and energetic on its behalf is blessed, even though he may sometimes make unintentional mistakes.  This is the intent of the talmudic comment.

 But Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai may have been teaching an entirely different lesson.  Who was the Prince to whom the text alludes?  Was he the leader of one of the twelve tribes or the person charged with the governance of the entire nation?  Commentators, among them Ibn Ezra, believed that the text was relating to a leader of one of the tribes.  In a lengthy exposition, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman argues convincingly that the plain meaning of the text is that the Prince in question is the leader of the nation as a whole.  Basing himself on the talmudic exposition on the phrase in our text “the Lord his God” Rabbi Hoffman asks who is that person who is responsible to no authority other than that of God?  Clearly, he answers, it is the King, who under certain circumstances was granted extrajudicial discretion and authority.  In those situations he needed not consult the Sanhedrin nor follow normal judicial procedures.  Precisely because of his enormous power, the King might be tempted to exercise such power frivolously.  Lord Acton was correct.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

 Jewish history is littered with the activity of corrupt kings.  King David engineered the death of a rival in love.  Solomon was guilty of the infraction of multiplying wives and horses.  Ahab stole a poor man’s vineyard.  The list goes on. 

Happy is the generation, therefore, whose leader does not abuse his power, but is contrite and confesses even inadvertent infractions.  The act of bringing a sacrifice made his contrition a public event and was a public declaration of his awareness that he was responsible to God for his failure.

 The contemporary world is embroiled in revolution against absolute rulers who have abused their power for decades.  They have never expressed regret for exploiting their people, imprisoning dissenters and torturing and killing protestors.  Currently such a despot, Moammar Kaddafi, is slaughtering his own people.  The media describe mass protests in North Africa and the Middle East.  They address ongoing killing, imprisonment, censorship and repression in those countries where protest is forcibly stifled.

An illustrative map of the region is often published to indicate the hotspots.  Remarkably, the only country not mentioned in the context of the current reaction to repression and corruption is Israel, so small that it is barely discernable in the printed maps.  Of course there is corruption in the Jewish state, but happy the generation whose leaders are made responsible for their infractions.  In Israel alone has a former President been found guilty of sexual assault and a former Prime Minister of financial wrongdoing.

There is an additional message in our text.  Every family is a micropolis.  Every parent is a leader.  Happy the families whose leaders are humble enough to own their errors of judgment and put them right.  Every community is a micropolis.  Happy the community whose leaders are motivated by service rather than by ego needs, and are ready to own and correct their errors.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

THE INSCRUTABLE DIVINE CALCULS: PARASHAT PIKUDEI-SHEKALIM 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT PIKUDEI-SHEKALIM:  2011/5771

THE INSCRUTABLE DIVINE CALCULUS


And it came to pass in the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month that the sanctuary was raised up. And Moses raised up the sanctuary. (Ex. 40:17)

Parashat Pikudei culminates the lengthy description of the design and construction of the portable sanctuary and its appurtenances. Three major project participants, individual and collective, are mentioned in the four and a half parashiyot devoted to this project: anonymous contributors [nedivei lev]; the creative and managerial team [chakhmei lev]; and project leader [Moshe Rabbeinu].

The grand vision of Moses inspired this very important project.  In Midrash ha-Gadol our sages compare the building of the sanctuary to the creation of the world—and actually suggest that it was the greater of the two enterprises. Indeed, the Torah devotes only one short chapter to God’s creation of the world but no fewer than fourteen to the fashioning of the sanctuary, its furnishings and the robes of its priests. God’s vision was a home for His creatures. Moses’ vision was a home for God, the finite focus of the infinite Presence.

But visions, however grand, are only abstract concepts. The transformation of concepts into concrete form is the responsibility of architects and artisans. The more gifted the designer, the greater is the probability that the blueprint will faithfully reflect the vision. Bezalel was an architect of the extraordinary talent required for this task. Oholiav and his team of managers and artisans took the project to its final stage by transforming Bezalel’s blueprint into an inspiring sacred structure.

The Torah names the leading chakhmei lev. But of the myriad nedivei lev only the major donors are identified. The precious stones contributed by the princes alone merit special mention. Significantly, this does not diminish the importance of the small contributions. The omission of their names is not a reflection of their insignificance, but merely a function of limited document space.

The Jewish attitude to the relative importance of “little people” is articulated in a remarkable midrash:

Nine people entered the Garden of Eden while still alive  : Enoch; Elijah; Eliezer, Abraham’s servant; Jethro; Eved Melekh, the Ethiopian; Hiram, King of Tyre; Ya’avetz, the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince; Serach, the daughter of Asher; and Batya the daughter of Pharaoh. There are some who say that they removed Hiram from the list and replaced him with Rabbi Yehoshuah ben Levi.” (Yalkut Shimoni on Gen. 5:23-24, no. 42).

Ari Barbalan insightfully points out that the people on the list have two things in common. They are all peripheral characters, mentioned briefly and in passing, and are helpers of the main protagonists. Only the larger than life Elijah seems   out of place on this list. In the biblical narrative he is anything but peripheral. He is the main character in the Ahab-Jezebel drama.   Ahab was arguably the most successful of all the kings of ancient Israel. He expanded the national borders and forged important alliances. Yet Scripture makes him peripheral to Elijah. So why is Elijah lumped together with fundamentally peripheral figures? The Elijah who is included in the list is Elijah as he is depicted in rabbinic literature. He appears at crucial moments in Jewish history when his help is needed and then disappears just as suddenly as he appears. He is present to assist at every circumcision [brit] and is the invisible guest at every Passover Seder table, helping celebrate the redemption from Egyptian slavery. (Ta’anit 20b; Chagiga 15b; Berakhot 3a; Bava Metzi’a 85b, 114b; Sanhedrin 98a).

Now to the other characters on the list: Pharaoh’s daughter helps save Moses. Eved Melekh rescues the Prophet Jeremiah from the pit in which he is confined for preaching his unpopular message. Hiram supplies the wood for Solomon’s Temple. Because he is an unrepentant idolater, some considered him unworthy of being spared the experience of death. Jethro, formerly counselor to the wicked Pharaoh, is briefly his son-in-law Moses’ counselor. Eliezer assists in finding a wife for Isaac.

Paradoxically, Abraham and Isaac are not spared the agony of death, but their servant is--on account of just one act. Joseph is not on the list of immortals, but the humble woman who located his remains is. Jeremiah, one of the three so-called Major Prophets, is excluded, but his foreign, dark skinned rescuer is included. Moses, the central figure in the Torah does not escape death, but his pagan father-in-law does.  Biblical giants are omitted, and sinners are included. What is the message of this seemingly absurd midrash?

Barbalan suggests that the sages are teaching that the periphery is sometimes more important than the core. In the eyes of God, the small contributions of relatively minor and even flawed people are sometimes more important to God than the massive contributions of the renowned heroes of the human spirit. The contributions of the nedivei lev, the anonymous, unsung masses, were, in the last analysis, no less important than those of the chakhmei lev.

People of modest means and limited skill sets often despair of participating meaningfully in important and significant projects. The midrash comes to remind them of the centrality of peripheral roles. Helpers are often held in higher esteem by God than are their leaders.

The nedivei lev are honored in the Torah alongside the better known, illustrious chakhmei lev. The dwelling for the divine Presence was not the accomplishment of Moses, the architects, managers and artisans alone. Without the “little people” the holy sanctuary would not have been built. In the inscrutable divine calculus, small, caring gestures often merit great reward.