Words for the Next Generation Parshat Emor

When the rabbis divided the Torah into its 54 parshiyot, they generally arranged for each portion to begin with a unique or otherwise significant word that would in some way summarize major themes of the entire section. Such is the case for most of the portions we have studied in Leviticus — until we come to this week’s portion, Emor, which means “say.”

Say? How many times is that word used in the Torah? What is unique about that word — what could the Rabbis have been thinking?

When we look at the whole first verse of the portion, however, we see something curious: The word occurs three times in this first sentence: “And Adonai said to Moses: Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them.” It occurs once in the third person, twice in the second person, once in past tense, once in the imperative and once in the future. It would appear, then, that one of the reasons the rabbis began the portion with emor, “say,” was to emphasize that this was a portion about speaking.

But what kind of speech? Rashi suggests that the second use of say is a direct address that Moses is to make to Aaron’s sons, and the third is an instruction that Aaron’s sons are to speak to the next generation. This is a profound statement. It suggests that whatever the parents are told cannot rest with them, but must be carried on to their children, who will, by implication, carry the instruction forward to their children.

It may remind us of the ad for the Patek Philippe watch: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe;
you merely look after it for the next generation.” Rashi as the inspiration for a watch ad — who knew?

What is the Torah that is given to the priests to pass on to their children? That the kohanim must stay away from the dead lest they defile themselves; they may not shave the corners of their beards or make gashes in their flesh (traditionally taken, perhaps mistakenly, to rule out tattoos). They may not marry prostitutes, divorcees, or widows — only women who are virgins. Any of them with a physical defect (mum, in Hebrew) may not officiate over sacrifices in the Tabernacle, though he may eat of those sacrifices like other priests. The daughter of a priest married to a layman may not eat of these sacrifices unless she is widowed or divorced and childless. The offerings — like the offerer — must be without blemish. An animal may not be sacrificed until it has spent seven days with its mother and may not be offered on the same day as its mother. Sacrifices must be eaten on the same day they are slaughtered, lest they become spoiled.

The restrictions about disfigured priests are unsettling to modern sensibilities: If a priest’s disfigurement was seen to distract the offerer from his or her sacrifice, one could argue that there was a lesson to be learned about perceiving the image of God in any physical characteristic. The redeeming element in this passage is that the disfigured priest was not barred from the Temple precincts, but could walk about and take his share of the sacrifices for his own sustenance. He would therefore be noticed by the worshippers, who would have an opportunity to reflect on the lesson that one needed to look past the physical disability to the priestly soul, and the human soul, that lay within.

Have the kohanim followed this Emor instruction to pass these teachings on to the following generations? The laws dealing with sacrifices, of course, have become moot with the Temple destroyed, though by reading the Torah portion every year it appears we are all keeping the teaching alive. But children of kohanim who follow traditional understandings of the Torah will to this day refuse to enter a graveyard or marry a widow or a divorcee, in both cases at significant detriment to their own well-being.

The Reform movement, however, stated early on that these teachings were not to be passed on to subsequent generations, holding that preserving the sense of one’s own ties to the priesthood as a kohen or a Levite was not appropriate to a movement that did not want the Temple rebuilt and felt that the class distinctions imposed by the Tabernacle in the wilderness did not befit modern egalitarian sensibilities. Neither marriage nor graveyard restrictions have been observed by Reform Jews, nor have the instructions for trimming the corners of one’s beard. The Reform movement has been neutral about tattoos, generally frowning on them for cultural rather than for religious reasons. Even cremation, which is the extreme example of harming one’s flesh, has become more and more accepted in the Reform community.

There has, I believe, been a loss in this stance. One could argue that maintaining the distinctions of kohen, Levite and Israelite (“ordinary” Jews) could have contributed to a fuller sense of one’s own identity, tying one to generations of men and their sons and daughters who followed the prescriptions of Emor. When my family searched for a kohen to preside over a pidyon habit, a ceremony for “redemption of a firstborn girl,” none of the kohanim in our acquaintance wanted to acknowledge their priestly status by officiating — even at an “egalitarian” rite — for a firstborn daughter!

There are other aspects to this portion that do have a bearing on Reform — and all other — Jews. Chapter 23 contains the laws “God’s festival celebrations,” which the people are “enjoined to observe.” This verse, though, can also be read, “The set times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim, are holy convocations; they are My set times” — in other words, once you proclaim them, I shall observe them as well.” This verse too is preceded by a form of emor: “You shall say to them [the Israelities].” There is one Patek Philippe for the kohanim, but another, equally precious one — for all the people of Israel — that can be observed by the generations through time since it is not dependent upon a physical structure like the Temple. Included in this list are Shabbat, Pesach, the Omer period of bringing sheaves preceding Shavuot (and speaking of bringing sheaves, one should not reap the corners of one’s field — as one should not cut the corners of one’s beard — but leave them for the poor), Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement, Sukkot and the eighth day after Sukkot (what came to be called Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah). The order of holidays begins in the spring with the first month, which we call Nisan.

Finally, the Israelites are instructed to bring pure olive oil, beaten, for a light to be kept burning eternally. Here is a command originally intended for the Tabernacle, throughout the priestly generations, which has transcended that limited place and been observed as an ornament in the synagogue — throughout the generations. Like a fine watch that keeps time eternally, the ner tamid has kept burning eternally, keeping light kindled for all who wish to hear the eternal word of God.

Good and Religious

It is a debate that goes back to the time of Plato. I have personally been discussing this issue for much of my life, particularly in my conversations with colleagues in the field of psychotherapy. It can even be argued that this debate has its origin in one of the two Torah portions we read this week, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Plato made the question the theme of one of his lesser known dialogues, Euthyphro. The question has to do with the relationship between religious definitions of right and wrong and the ethical concepts of good and evil. It has become known as Euthyphro’s dilemma, and this is how it goes: Is a thing good because God says it is good, or does God say it is good because it is good.

Underlying this dilemma is the issue of whether the realm of ethics exists independently from religion. My discussions with fellow psychotherapists are occasioned by encounters they have had with patients who are religiously devout but who are “just not good people,” as well as with those who are ethically exemplary but not religiously observant. These therapists ask: Can a person be a good person even if he is not religiously observant? Or, alternatively, can a person be religiously observant and yet not be a good person?

Since my colleagues generally are aware that I am an Orthodox rabbi, they frequently pose these questions to me, sometimes calmly and sometimes in the heat of emotion. I have developed an approach to responding to these questions. It is based upon a passage in the Torah portion of Kedoshim.

Study the text for this week’s Torah reading as carefully as you can and you will find nary a hint of this issue. However, if you consult the commentary of the early medieval Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Ramban or Nachmanides, you will discover that he confronts this issue head on. I should mention that most Torah scholars will concede that, after Rashi, Ramban is the most authoritative traditional commentator on the Pentateuch.

The biblical verses read: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Ramban is troubled by this concept of holiness. What does it mean to be holy? What would constitute holy behavior? How is a person to know what the standards are for holiness or its contrary, unholiness? He rejects Rashi’s definition of holiness as strict separation from specific sins, particularly those of a sexual nature.

This is how he resolves his quandary: “The answer lies in the fact that the Torah has very clearly admonished us not to be promiscuous and to refrain from forbidden foods. But at the same it permits marital relations and the consumption of meat and wine. It is therefore quite conceivable that a person will act improperly with his own wife, gluttonously consume quantities of meat or become intoxicated with wine. He may utter vulgar obscenities, piously claiming that such language is not explicitly outlawed by the Torah. Such a person can be a naval b’reshut hatorah, a knave with the Torah’s permission.”

People can conform to the strictest rules regarding forbidden foods and still be gluttons and drunkards. They can be absolutely faithful husbands and yet be foul-mouthed and coarse in their interaction with their wives. They can remain within the Torah’s parameters and yet be bad people.

Clearly, for Ramban, there are ethical standards which are distinct from sins. We are expected to be “good” people, yet conforming to the letter of the law will not guarantee that we are “good.” Therefore, the Torah asks that we be “holy.” For him holiness is a category which includes a very wide range of behaviors that are neither explicitly prescribed nor prohibited by the Torah. Ramban insists that
the Torah deliberately refrains from tediously anticipating every conceivable human ethical or moral challenge. The Torah just says, “Be holy.”

For Ramban, “holiness” is not synonymous with “saintliness.” Rather, it is the expectation that we be neat and clean, courteous and polite, considerate and fair, modest and moderate. We are holy to the extent that we excel in the realms of ethics and morality.

Barely a week ago, the Jewish people lost a leader who exemplified this definition of holiness by his personal example and for whom holiness was a major theme of his prolific writings. His name was Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, may his memory be a blessing. He was the dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, but his influence was felt far beyond the walls of that prestigious institution. He tackled the question posed by Euthyphro and by the colleagues who regularly engage me in discussions on this subject. His teachings, partly based upon the words of Ramban in this week’s Torah portion, support my assertion that it is indeed quite possible to be scrupulously observant of Jewish ritual and yet not be a “good” person. In Ramban’s terms such a person is observant but not “holy.” And I agree with Rabbi Lichtenstein when he states that the converse also obtains. Many are neglectful of ritual observance yet do live up to the noblest ethical standards.

The titles of two of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s essays reflect his concern with the relationship between religion
and ethical behavior. An early essay is entitled “Does Jewish Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha?” It is included in a volume edited by Marvin Fox, “Modern Jewish Ethics.” A more recent essay is to be found in Rabbi Lichtenstein’s book “By His Light” and is entitled “Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship Between Religion and Morality.”

Readers of these columns surely know by now that I have a strong affinity with the thought of Ramban. I frequently base my own themes upon his teachings, sometimes quoting him directly and sometimes
expanding upon his ideas. I did not know Rabbi Lichtenstein personally, but I was delighted to learn from some of his closest disciples that he too held Ramban in special esteem.

Ramban’s lesson should be a goal for all of us. Yes, we must live up to the letter of the law and observe every aspect of Torah to the best of our ability. But we must be especially cautious that in our dedication to obedience to the letter of the law we not lose sight of its spirit of “holiness.” We must never be the kind of person who lays claim to being Torah observant but is a knave in his ethical and moral life. We must avoid being a naval b’reshut hatorah.

Making a Difference

The haftarah reading for this week’s parshah is about four lepers who were rejected from the Israelite city that they lived in. During this biblical time, there was a war between a nearby Aramean army camp and the city. The city was under siege and was running out of food. The four lepers were also suffering from the famine. They knew they were going to die just sitting outside of their city, so they ventured out to find somewhere that would accept them.

They soon came upon the army camp that had attacked their city. They were very confused, but happy. The camp was completely empty; that is, the people were gone. Everything else was still there. So the four lepers started eating and taking gold and jewels. Then they felt guilty, because their home city was in famine when they were feasting. The lepers said to one another, “We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! … Let us go and inform the king’s palace.”

This reminds me of the famous quote from Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman and philosopher. He once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

So deep down inside, the lepers realized they could not stay silent and do nothing. They knew it was right to help their home city, and they went and told the people of their city about the news. Now everybody heard the news and went to gather food and valuables to bring home.

It doesn’t say it in the haftarah, but I assume that the king of the city allowed the lepers back in. The very people who had been rejected by the community were now the ones who saved the community. Without the risk they took in venturing out during wartime in search of food, the lepers would not have discovered the abandoned camp of their enemy. If they hadn’t decided to share their discovery with the very people who had shunned them, those people would have died of starvation.

We should all think of this reading when we see a homeless person on the street or someone who looks left out or even rejected from a community. Put yourself in his or her shoes. Wouldn’t you want recognition from someone else?

We should help such a person. We should share what we have to help others, whether it be money or just saying “hi” or “good morning” or “good afternoon.” But we should also appreciate that such people have the potential to offer something to us as well. We are all responsible for each other and the welfare of the community.

Two years ago, my brother, Daniel, made Quiet Shul Bags to entertain children during Shabbat services. The children, he showed, are also part of our community, and we need them to want to come to services and to feel included. This is why I chose to make more Quiet Shul Bags this past year.

I’ve learned that every person can make a difference to help the community.

Kosher Laws Connect the Generations

This Shabbat, we read Parshat Shemini. In this parshah, Moses speaks to Aaron and the Israelite
people, saying, “These are the animals that you may eat.” The Torah indicates the specifications for land animals, fish, birds and swarming things. In addition to the subject of kashrut discussed in this parshah, I find the topic of pure and impure very interesting.

There is not much in the text itself about kashrut, but the laws that are mentioned leave many doors open for commentary and interpretation. My family feels that kashrut is an important part of Jewish life, especially during Passover. I feel that keeping kosher connects me more to G-d. I am very glad I have my wonderful bubbie to teach me how to connect kashrut to our daily lives.

According to the Torah, in order for us to be able to consume land animals, the animals have to have cleft hooves and chew their cud. That is why pigs and camels are not kosher —they do not chew their cud. As for fish, those with fins and scales are permissible and pure, such as tuna, salmon, halibut, cod and flounder. Shrimp, lobster, crab and any type of mollusk are examples of impure seafood.

There are no specific guidelines for kosher birds. The Torah states many types of birds we cannot eat. The birds inadequate for eating are eagles, vultures of any kind, kites, every type of falcon, ravens, hawks and herons, ostriches, seagulls, little, great and white owls, pelicans, bustards, storks, hoopoes and bats.

For the most part, insects are not to be eaten, but there are a few exceptions, such as certain kinds of locusts, crickets and grasshoppers. The text also says not to eat lizards, crocodiles, geckos and chameleons.

When G-d gave the people guidelines, God wanted to make the Jewish people different and prevent their assimilation into the other nations and people surrounding them in Canaan. Kashrut is important to my family and me because of how it makes us feel part of the Jewish people. Kashrut informs our feelings about treating animals with kindness, a concept known as tzaar baalei chaim. By observing the laws, I view myself as a link in the chain of my people, so many of whom have kept these practices. This parshah reminds me of the importance of these traditions.

A Diet of Holiness

The second half of Parshat Shemini begins with a discussion of the offerings that Aaron and his remaining two sons are to eat — including the goat for a sin-offering. When Moses hears that the goat already has been burned on the altar rather than eaten by Aaron and his sons within the holy space of the Mishkan, Moses becomes angry.

And Aaron, who had remained silent after Nadav and Abihu were consumed with fire, shows his anger to Moses: “They brought their sin offering, and these things happened to me!” This and the next sentence — “Had I eaten the sin offering, would that have been good in the eyes of God?” — suggest that Aaron is frustrated that he had done all the proper things, and his sons were killed anyway.

Moses certainly seems insensitive to his brother’s pain here, but he once again makes clear that he sees his primary responsibility as making sure the people obey God, no matter what else is happening in their lives. Earlier, in the Book of Exodus, God grants Moses a glimpse of God’s announcing the Holy One’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which Moses was to use to remind God when the Holy One lapsed into anger. Perhaps God needs to return the favor here and remind Moses!

As part of their consecration ritual, described in Parshat Tzav and in the first half of Shemini, Aaaron and his sons partake of bread and meat at the door of the Tent of Meeting as they sit for seven days absorbing the holiness of the food and of the precincts of the Tabernacle. What follows now can be understood as a way to consecrate the people by outlining the kinds of foods that they are to eat, which, like those consumed by Aaron and his sons, will imbue them with holiness as well.

The connection is underscored by the indication that one of the priestly offerings, the shlamim, the “whole offering,” may also be eaten by the lay offerer as part of a regular meal, which elevates the act of eating into a holy act akin to bringing an offering. Jews may not eat anything that
cannot be offered to God.

The only permitted animals are those that have a hoof completely split in two and that chew the cud. No reasons are given for the requirement of these characteristics; they seem intended in the Torah text merely as a useful device to characterize permitted and forbidden animals. One can speculate of course that an animal whose lowest extremity, the hoof, is as Rashi describes it, “divided above and below,” reminds us that God is also above and below and created everything that exists in both realms. We may also speculate that chewing the cud causes these ruminants to digest their food thoroughly, not gulping it down but seemingly to ruminate upon it, as we are urged to do when we eat, being conscious that the food is a gift of God.

While the animal, so far as we know, cannot reach to that spiritual level, its physical nature and habits of eating imitate what we as humans are to do. Just as the characteristics of the permitted animals may be understood to bring us “close” to God, so we are to keep our distance from the forbidden animals and refrain from touching them. The most well-known treif animal is the pig, which is stereotyped as a creature who roots around in the mud and trash, not an activity to which holy individuals should aspire.

If these animals are so distasteful, why did God create them? The text makes it clear that they are forbidden only to the people of Israel, and it is important to recall that God instructed Noah to bring both clean and unclean animals aboard the ark. God created all creatures for a purpose — and indeed before the Flood, humans were not to eat animals at all. God seemed to have permitted humans to eat meat reluctantly, hedging that permission with prohibitions against eating their blood and the thigh-vein, which require a special kind of slaughter (later believed to be more humane than other methods), as well as including a large number of animals in the prohibited list.

The people of Israel may eat fish, but permitted fish, like animals, are mentioned by their distinguishing characteristics, in this case fins and scales. In searching for a lesson in these characteristics, it has often
been said that the forbidden fish — shellfish, primarily — are creatures of prey and “bottom feeders,” another indication that because God wants us to avoid certain kinds of behaviors, we should avoid eating creatures whose habits would strengthen those behaviors. The role of eating as an assist to holy action was an aspect of dietary restrictions to which the founders of the Reform Movement paid insufficient attention. The renewal of interest in the dietary laws in our own time has done much to cure this early myopia.

Yet, in the climate of environmental concern in which we now live, other issues have arisen that our
parshah does not treat. “Plain and simple,” Paul Greenberg, a Pew fellow in marine conservation, argued in The New York Times, “it makes sense that, for a wild fish to be acceptable, its populations must be well researched and robustly monitored, with catch limits clearly defined and peripheral damage to the environment accurately assessed. … We might also consider whether a swift death and a minimum of suffering be granted to our seafood, just as Scripture demands we grant other animals.”

Our Torah portion abandons distinguishing characteristics in the case of birds. A list is provided of
prohibited birds, though the exact identification of their Hebrew names is not universally agreed upon. Most of the prohibited flying creatures are birds of prey, consistent with the kind of fish that fall into the
forbidden category. In the ”JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus,” Baruch Levine divides the permitted birds into four categories: Columbiformes (pigeons and doves); Galliformes (hens and quail); Anseriformes (domestic geese and ducks); and Passerines (the house sparrow). The portion then prohibits the various categories of sheretz, crawling creatures — another association of low-living creatures with undesirability in terms of diet.

How different the diet of ordinary Jews sitting at their consecrated tables is to the diet of the priests sitting at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting during their consecration! Aaron and his sons eat bread and meat; there are many more rules for us. The sense is that Aaron and his sons were so imbued with holiness already that it was enough to mention just those two foods; for us the process of rising to holiness is very much more complicated. But with the disappearance of the Tent of Meeting and the destruction of the Temple, the path to holiness runs through the creatures of heaven, earth and sea that God set aside as food for us.

Imagine That!

There was a time when I would only go out of my way to listen to speakers who were older and more experienced than I. Recently, however, I have changed my preferences and have begun to seek out speakers, rabbis and teachers who are young and relatively inexperienced. I find their ideas fresh and often very much on the mark. After all, they are in much better touch with our fast-changing world than I am.

This year, during a recent visit to Israel, I sat in on a series of lectures that were designed to prepare the audience for the upcoming Passover holiday. The speaker, a brilliant young rabbi, focused upon the Seder nigh, and particularly upon the text of the Haggadah. He spent most of his opening lecture elaborating upon what he considered the most difficult task with which we are all confronted on the first night of Passover.

The task is described in the following famous passage: “In each and every generation, a person must see himself as if he personally left Egypt. As it is written, ‘And you shall explain to your son on that day that it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” The requirement is explicit in the biblical text: The Lord did it for me, when I went free from Egypt.

The young rabbi candidly confessed to his audience that he had never been able to fulfill this requirement. Indeed, he didn’t think it was possible, certainly not for most of us, to envision ourselves as if we personally had experienced slavery and redemption. “This,” he insisted, “is the most difficult task we are faced with on the Seder night.”

(The task continues every day of the year, including at the end of Passover, which celebrates the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.)

When I first heard the young rabbi’s assertion, I found it to be quite provocative. I wanted to protest but maintained my silence in respect for him. I attributed his conviction to his relative immaturity. I have never found this obligation difficult. Personally, I have found it quite easy to imagine myself as a slave and to personally exult in the emotional experiences of redemption and freedom.

I usually forget the content of most lectures that I hear almost as soon as I leave the lecture hall. This time, however, I could not rid my mind of the young rabbi’s statement. I began to question my own inner certainty. Had it really been so easy for me all these years to envision myself as one of those who had experienced both slavery and the Exodus?

In the midst of my extended preoccupation with the young rabbi’s assertion, a long-forgotten memory suddenly surfaced in my mind. I was taken back in time to another lecture I had heard just before Passover many years ago. This time, the speaker was not a young rabbi at all. Rather, he was an old and revered Chassidic rebbe, a survivor of the Holocaust who had spent years in Auschwitz and had witnessed the vicious murder of his wife and children with his own eyes.

That old rebbe was Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, may his memory be blessed, known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, after the small town in the Balkans where he had served prior to World War II.

In that lecture, Rabbi Halberstam recounted his own puzzlement over a lecture he had heard a very long ago from one of his mentors. I no longer remember the name of that mentor, but Rabbi Halberstam was careful to identify him in detail because of the strange and almost unbelievable experience that he reported.

The mentor said that he had no difficulty at all imagining himself to have been in slavery in Egypt and to have been redeemed. In fact, this mentor reported that he could clearly remember the experience. He could recall in great detail the burdensome work he had to perform, the dirty hovel in which he was forced to live, and the sighs and groans of his companions. He could even still see, in his mind’s eye, the cruel face of his tormentors as they sadistically whipped him for not producing his daily quota of bricks.

The Klausenberger Rebbe confessed that when he first heard his mentor make those claims, he had difficulty believing them. He thought that his mentor had made such a claim just for the effect it would have upon his listeners. He stressed that sometimes it is justified for a speaker to resort to hyperbole to make his point more dramatic and more graphic.

But then the rebbe continued to say that after many years, he had come to realize that his mentor was telling the absolute truth. “It took the experiences I had during the horrible years of the Holocaust,” he exclaimed, “for me to realize why my mentor was able to recall his experiences in ancient Egypt’s tyranny.”

The rebbe then went on to elaborate upon two psychological processes that are necessary to invoke. He used two Hebrew and Yiddish terms respectively: koach hadimyon (the power of imagination) and mitleid (empathy).

The lesson that the old rebbe related to me and to the dozens of other eager listeners that evening so long ago was that we are often restricted by our own tendencies to rely upon our reason, rationality and intellectuality. We underplay the powers that we have to fantasize, to imagine, to dream freely. In a sense, we are slaves to reason and need to learn to allow ourselves to go beyond reason and to give our imaginations free rein. Only then can we “see ourselves as if we had personally endured slavery.” Only by cultivating our imagery can we ourselves experience the emotions of freedom and liberty.

We are all required to imagine ourselves as if we are the other person. If the other person is poor, the mitzvah of charity demands that we ourselves feel his poverty. If he is ill, we must literally suffer along with him. This is empathy, and to be empathic, one must rely upon a well-developed imagination.

Imagination and empathy are not words that one often hears in rabbinic sermons, but they are the words that the Klausenberger Rebbe used that evening. And, as he concluded in his remarks, he learned about those words through the bitter suffering that he endured when he was enslaved in Auschwitz, and he appreciated redemption when he himself was finally freed from his personal bondage.

The young rabbi who started my thinking about this topic just a few weeks ago had, through his good fortune, never really experienced anything remotely resembling slavery. Naturally, he was thus deprived from the ability to really appreciate freedom.

After a few days, I approached the young rabbi and shared with him the words that I had heard decades ago, before this young rabbi was even born. I told him what the Klausenberger Rebbe had said about empathy and imagination. The young rabbi responded politely and with gratitude, but with a gentle smile got in the last word: “But the Klausenberger Rebbe didn’t say that learning to imagine and to empathize were easy.”

I had to admit that the young rabbi was correct. Creative imagination and compassionate empathy are not easily attained. Achieving them may indeed be the hardest task of the holiday of Passover.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

The Exodus Mind Pesach

There is one line in the Haggadah that captures the entire essence of what the Seder and Pesach are all about: “B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah mimitzrayim” — in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally came out of Egypt.

It’s a very powerful line, but what does it mean practically? If there is an obligation, a mitzvah, to feel as if the Exodus actually happened to us in our lives, what is its purpose and how is it practiced?

Don’t mistakenly think this is an isolated call for what I call “the Exodus mind.” Throughout the Torah, and in so many of our blessings, like the Kiddush for example, we recall and rededicate ourselves to “the
Exodus from Egypt.” The most striking example is our daily prayer services. The core blessings of both Shacharit and Maariv are clear references and recallings of the Exodus story and of God’s grace and power during that unique moment in history.

Not only that, but the ultimate blessing, just before entering into the holiness of the Shemoneh Esrei is Ga’al Yisrael — we bless God for being “He Who redeemed Israel.” It is actually the Exodus blessing. The Seder’s requirement that we have the Exodus mind every day is deeply entrenched in every Jewish thing we do.

Eastern traditions have a concept called “beginner’s mind.” It is one of the key practices to help a person
be mindful and meditative. It is the concept of trying to experience everything as if it were special and new. Every time you taste a strawberry, try to taste it like it was your first (and last) time. In some ways that is true, because you will never have that moment or that strawberry again.

Beginner’s mind is an attempt to experience life free from bias, prejudice and, worst of all, from the attitude of “ho hum, just another strawberry like the one before it.” Beginner’s mind can be applied to all situations, including how we interact with our parents, children and our spouses to dealing with pain and experiencing joy.

When the Haggadah commands us to feel as if we were personally redeemed from Egypt, in fact to
re-experience it every day of our lives, it is the Jewish version of beginner’s mind. The most dangerous spiritual stagnation occurs when we look at a new day and think (or don’t even bother to think), “Ho hum, just another day like the one before it.” Every day, we are supposed to live as if today we were freed by God from enslavement. We begin and end our day with this meditation: “God redeemed me from slavery today. He performed great miracles for me and even split the sea on my behalf. Now I must guide myself toward Mt. Sinai and the Holy Land, avoiding golden calves and a bevy of other traps and challenges.”

What if that was the way we felt every day? If we had Exodus mind, we would serve Hashem, deeply grateful for the gift he gave us of this day. If we had Exodus mind, we would be kind and merciful to others, remembering that we had just been so hopeless and vulnerable ourselves. If we had Exodus mind, we wouldn’t take anything for granted.

Whenever Jews were exiled as we were spread throughout the world, usually against our will, we became successful and ascended to prominence exceedingly rapidly. This is probably because of our dedication to the concept of Exodus mind. What can be achieved when a person sees the world with the creative eyes of a redeemed and free man is pretty much limitless.

Perhaps the evils of anti-Semitism and our repeated exiles throughout history have to do with this concept as well. After all, the Haggadah also says, “In every generation they will rise up and try to annihilate you, but God will save you from their hands.” It is a promise that God will keep
the story of the Exodus fresh and
applicable in every generation.

Let’s not depend on external reminders. Let’s join together with our families and community this
Pesach and internalize our own Exodus narratives through the observance of Passover 5775, and please God let the only redemption in our time be the coming of Moshiach Tzidkainu and peace on earth speedily in our days.

Unlikely Holiness: Pancakes, Trash and the Priest’s Big Toe Parshat Tzav

This week’s portion continues the outline of the korbanot, the “sacrifices” begun last week in Parshat Vayikra. Its title, Tzav, is an imperative meaning “command,” and while the previous portion was addressed to the person bringing the offering, this week’s parshah is addressed to the priest assisting with the offering. The priest is God’s agent making sure that the “layperson’s” offering is presented in the way God desires.

So much does this portion address the priest that no sooner has God described the proper manner of presenting the olah, the “burnt offering,”  than the Holy One describes how the priest is to be clothed. In a parallel passage in Exodus, the garments are described in the same language as the furnishings in the Tabernacle, as though the priest himself were part of them. But our passage goes further. While the lay offerer placed his or her hands on the animal’s head, suggesting a desire that the offerer himself
or herself might be accepted as the offering, the descriptions of the garments of the priest suggest that the priest is part of the offering, offering up himself each time he assists a “layperson” to do so. That’s an impressive display of altruism — and of psychological resilience.

The priest is instructed to dress in linen as he lifts up the ashes that the altar-fire has “eaten” of the burnt-offering (Leviticus 6:3). While the word “eaten,” tochal, is an idiom for “consumed,” the language is appropriate for rites in which eating the sacrifice — by the priest or the offerer — is an important feature. The fire is a representation of God’s Presence (note the Burning Bush, Exodus 3:2-6), and the fire is “fed” (we use the same idiom) by the offering. In that way, God, as well as the priest and the offerer, partake of the offering. And no sooner has the flame had its fill then the “leftovers” — the ashes — are carried out by the priest (Leviticus 6:3-4). The priests carry out the trash? Yes, for the “trash” — the ashes left over by the fire — contain the remnants of kedushah, the holiness of the original offering, and so carrying out the trash is a noble task. Would that we could see our trash duties in that light!

Our passage then describes the “meal offering,” minchah, literally, that which is “placed” on the altar. Some of it is sent into the invisible realm of God, like the olah, but the remainder is eaten by Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 6:7-16). This offering is made of choice flour and oil and baked on a griddle. They are to be made without leaven, like matzah and all other Passover food. Perhaps the priest was to remember as he made his minchah offering that were we not redeemed from Egypt, we would not have been able to build the Tabernacle or serve God in this very physical, material way.

More somber offerings follow: the “sin offering,” chatat, and the “guilt offering,” asham. The most precious parts are offered to God ó the blood, sprinkled around the altar, and the “fat,” chelev, that surrounds the inner organs. We call blood “juice,” and beef au jus is a delicacy — but in kosher practice, the blood is drained out of the meat before it is cooked; we may not expand our own lives by imbibing the “life-blood” of the animal whose life we have taken.

Next the varieties of the shlamim offering are detailed: the “thank-offering,” todah, and the “free-will offering,” neder or nedavah. That a physical offering accompanies verbal expressions of thanksgiving or oath-taking demonstrates the importance of connecting the power of the Almighty with the modest events in our own lives.

The portion ends with the ceremony of consecrating Aaron and his sons. The priest is again treated as part of the furnishings in the Tabernacle when, after Moses has dressed Aaron in his priestly garments and washed him, Moses “anoints the Tabernacle.”

After he slaughters a bull for a chatat, seemingly to atone for Aaron’s sins before his consecration, Moses takes some of the blood and puts it on the horns, the extremities, of the altar. Shortly thereafter he sprinkles blood on the extremities of Aaron and his sons — their right ear, right thumbs, and right big toes — as though their bodies were extensions of the altar (Leviticus 8:22-24). They are then to sit at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting for seven days, eating the meat and bread provided to them. It is as though the extraordinary kedushah of the entrance to the tent is to seep into them during the week they remain there, emerging on the eighth day. The symbolism is rich: The door of the tent recalls Abraham who sat in the door of his own tent and saw the Presence of God; the seven days recall the seven days of Creation, as though Aaron and his sons were being recreated during this period into living tabernacles.

This year, Parshat Tzav coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Shabbat” immediately preceding Passover. It takes its name from Malachi 3:23, “Behold, I am sending you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great (gadol) and awesome day of Adonai,” reflecting the status of Pesach as not only
commemorating the redemption in Egypt, but also foretelling the final redemption in the messianic time. “Messiah” is the Hebrew moshiach, “the anointed one” — as Aaron and his sons were anointed. A debate arises in the rabbinic period as to whether the messiah will be from the Davidic line of kings or from the priests, and the reading of this haftarah is a reminder that traditionally, Jews have looked to the messiah to restore the Temple and its rites. Reform Judaism has rejected this aspect of messianism, looking instead toward a messianic age of universal peace and justice. Can the Tabernacle serve as a symbol of ideal worship — where God is perceived in the door of the tent and those in charge of worship prepare grand fare to celebrate the Presence of God in our midst? In early Reform Judaism, the priests were a symbol of the calling of the whole Jewish people, charged with bringing the nations to the service of God. The imperative of tzav can serve to reawaken that calling in each of us, as we at this season look toward the redemptive possibilities of the great and awesome day of God.

The Victorious Victim Parshat Vayikra

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebI always experience a sense of excitement when I begin a new book. I am convinced that most avid readers feel the same way. This Shabbat gives us an opportunity to experience that excitement as we begin a new book, the Book of Leviticus, with Parshat Vayikra.

Leviticus has historically had mixed reviews. On the one hand, our tradition reveres this book, calling it torat kohanim —  the Torah, or “teachings,” of the priests. The dominant theme of Leviticus is the role of the priests within the various rituals connected to worship in the Holy Temple and their role in various rituals associated with purity and holiness.

So special a place does Leviticus have in our tradition that there was once a time when schoolchildren began their study of the Bible with this very holy book.

In more recent times, however, Leviticus has become a victim of negative criticism. I remember participating in a protest against a publisher who planned an anthology of inspiring biblical texts but deliberately omitted Leviticus from the table of contents. He felt that most of the book was irrelevant and outdated. Only instead of using the term “outdated,” he called it “primitive.” Those of us who protested his omission adduced many passages in Leviticus that were not only relevant, but of great import to contemporary
society, but to no avail. I realized how futile our protest was when he asserted that the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” couldn’t have been part of the original text of Leviticus and was instead inserted centuries after the book was first written.

Of course, the source of this publisher’s bias traced back to the early school of biblical criticism, which assigned the author of Leviticus the title “P,” standing for “Priestly Code.” These critics maintain that the entire Book of Leviticus was written much later than the rest of the Bible. As a believing Jew, I disassociate myself entirely from this school and
its theories.

It was at one of the public lectures of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik that I heard him say that we have a standard by which to assess the sanctity and importance of those matters that we consider holy: “The more virulent the opposition to one of our beliefs, the more sacred and important we can consider that belief to be.” He offered two examples of this phenomenon. One was the book we begin to read this Shabbat, which some so-called Bible scholars consider inferior to other books of the Bible. This antagonism, argued Rabbi Soloveitchik, is in and of itself sufficient to convince us that Leviticus is especially important. As a second example, he pointed to the State of Israel, which already in his time —  40 or so years ago —  faced extreme hostility in the international arena. This very hostility, he insisted, demonstrates the State of Israel’s essential importance.

Viewing the entire Book of Leviticus as a victim of misunderstanding and defamation provides an opportunity for us to consider the very relevant lessons the book may actually have for the nature of victimhood. As I hope to demonstrate, our tradition has many lessons to teach us about the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, between the pursuer and the one he pursues.

Many of those lessons are rooted not only in the Book of Leviticus, but in this week’s Torah portion. But first, let’s look at a verse from another biblical book that has had its share of detractors over the centuries, the Book of Ecclesiastes: “What is occurring now occurred long since and what is to occur occurred long since. And God seeks the pursued.”

In this verse, King Solomon, the author of the book, maintains that history is cyclical. Today’s events and future events have their precedents in the past. One aspect of this repetitive narrative is consistent and predictable: God seeks the pursued. God is on the side of history’s victims, and ultimately it is they who will prevail. Here is how the Midrash expands upon this concept: “Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Yosef, ‘God always seeks the pursued. You will find that when one righteous person pursues another righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When a villain pursues a righteous person, God sides with the pursued. When one villain pursues another villain, God sides with the pursued. Even when a righteous person pursues a villain, God sides with the pursued. In every case, God sides with the pursued” (Vayikra Rabbah 27:5).

This Midrashic passage continues to offer examples throughout history of this principle: Abel was pursued by Cain, and God chose Abel. Noah was pursued by his society, and God favored Noah. Abraham was pursued by Nimrod, Isaac by the Philistines, Jacob by Esau, Joseph by his brothers, Moses by Pharaoh, David by Saul, Saul by the Philistines. In each and every instance, God favored the pursued and eventually vanquished the pursuer. So too, the Midrash assures us, although the people of Israel have been pursued by enemy nations throughout their history, God will seek the pursued. He will favor the victim.

The Talmud takes this theme one step further, recommending that we consciously strive to be among the pursued and not join the pursuers” “Rabbi Abahu preached that one should always include himself among the pursued, and never among the pursuers, for, after all, no species of fowl is more pursued than pigeons and turtle doves, and yet these are the only species of fowl that are fit for the altar” (Bava Kama 93a).

Maimonides includes Rabbi Abahu’s advice in his description of the proper demeanor of the Torah scholar, the talmid chacham: “His guiding principle should be to include himself among the pursued but not among the pursuers. He should be one of those who forgives insult but never insults others” (Hilchot De’ot 5:13).

Do not be misled. Joining the pursued does not mean that one should be a pushover, a nebbish. The Torah encourages us to stand up for ourselves and defend ourselves vigorously when necessary. Rather, joining the pursued means that we do not always need to win, that we give others credit and allow them the limelight. We join the pursued when we are careful not to trample others competitively in order to get ahead, but we work collaboratively with them. Those are the qualities that are blessed by the God who seeks the pursued.

The 19th century commentator and rabbinic authority Rabbi Jacob of Lyssa offers a brief insight into the verse of our focus in this column, “God seeks the pursued.” He points out that in a certain sense we are all pursued. Every human being is pursued by his or her passions, moral failings and selfish egos. Part of man’s existential condition is that he is pursued by evil urges. God seeks the pursued, offering succor to all those who valiantly struggle to overcome their internal temptations and strive to live an ethical and moral life.

As individuals, as a people, and as human beings, we often are fated to be victims. Still, our sages see in this week’s Torah portion the lesson that we can be victorious victims.

Sanctifying Time and Space, Shabbat and the Building of the Mishkan Parshat Vayakhel-Pekude

At the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, Moses convokes the entire community and reiterates the commandment on Shabbat observance: “These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do. On six days work may be done, but on the
seventh day you have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.”

Then Moses instructs them regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle or portable sanctuary, which would accompany them through the wilderness and which presaged the building of the Temple. The creation of the world and the building of the Mishkan are parallel activities. Through them we see how time and space are both the locus of potential sanctification.

In “The Sabbath,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. … Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn;
a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.”

The sanctification of time makes Judaism portable and turns us away from an overemphasis on the building of edifices that honor the builders more than the Creator of
the Universe. However, our parshah describes the building of the Mishkan as a divinely ordained project that requires craftspeople of great skill and a project supervisor, Bezalel, who is endowed with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” The work follows an architectural blueprint provided by God. So inspiring is the project that the community volunteers to provide more resources than are required and Moses has to instruct them to stop making donations. The people are inspired by the building of sacred space, which is meant to draw them to the Presence of the Divine.

In Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer we read, “In 10 sayings the world was created … and in three it was finalized. And these are they: skill, ability and knowledge, as it is stated, ‘The Eternal with skill founded the earth, by ability established the heavens, by His knowledge the depths were split asunder’ (Proverbs 3:19-20). With the same three, the Mishkan was made, as it states [about Bezalel], ‘I have filled him with the spirit of God, in skill, ability and knowledge’ (Exodus 31:3). With the same three qualities the Temple was built; ‘His mother was from Naftali, his father from Tyre, and he was filled with skill, ability and knowledge’ (I Kings 7:14).”

Creating the world and building the Mishkan require the same skills. Time and space are both available as venues for the human-divine encounter. Shabbat is the culmination of the creation of the world. It is the time to step back from work and appreciate the beauty of creation and our small but important place within the overall scheme. The Mishkan is an invitation for God to dwell among us. Shabbat focuses our attention on God’s creation and our role as its stewards and as instruments for human dignity. These roles are
reflected in the two reasons given for the observance of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments: Shabbat is both a memorial to creation and a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.

The world is constructed by God as a gift to humankind. The Mishkan is a gift to God built through generous contributions and skilled labor to welcome the Divine Presence. Both Shabbat and the Mishkan are manifestations of institutional religion.

In “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus,” Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg suggests: “We began with the counter-realities of Shabbat and [the] Mishkan, of a condition in which fire, medium of the Mishkan achievement, may not be kindled on Shabbat. Perhaps we may now say that these two modalities represent two ways of living time. Fire represents the urgency of productive time, lived for its objective creations, for the forms of self-knowledge that devolve from the inner heat. The work of the Mishkan, then, stands as testimony to the creative power of the people, to the many ways, the 39 ways, of relating to the world and transforming it, in which fire is essential. This work is, at base, a manifestation not of the kinds of objects in space that are created, but of a way of using time: purposeful, productive, often ruthless.”

As against this modality, there is Shabbat: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” Shabbat is virtually defined as non-fire: that is, as time not used, unproductive, the shadow opposite of the making of the Mishkan.

God is invited into our lives through Shabbat and God is invited into the world through the creative work of humankind. All of the skill, ability, and knowledge that were required for building the Mishkan are what we must bring to our workaday world. As the Mishkan and the world each had a divine plan, we should strive to create lives that reflect our desire to participate in a divine plan. This requires the sanctification of both time and space. The path to sanctification, is derived from Torah study, which connects the human and the divine, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary as we re-create the world for six days and celebrate it on Shabbat.