Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Power of Vav

The Yalkhut Shimoni on Parshas Pekuday describes that when the work of the Mishkan was finally completed, Moshe gathered Benay Yisrael to make an accounting of all the money raised and spent on the Meleches Hamishkan. He opened the books counting all of the credits and debits while the entire Kelal Yisrael surrounded him. He went through the books and 1775 Shekel was not accounted for which at current prices would be $918,893.36. Moshe got very distressed and nervous because he said that now of all of Benay Yisrael would say that Moshe was skimming off the top and pocketing the money myself. Then Hashem showed him the ווים לעמודים the hooks, caps, and inlaid hoops that held together the pillars of the Mishkan. The ווים לעמודים were valued at exactly 1775 Shekel. Moshe at first did not notice them since they are hidden behind the curtains.

What message is the Medrash transmitting? The Power of Vav. The ווים לעמודים are the clasps that hold the Mishkan together. They are named after the letter Vav which means “and” and is often called the וו החיבור, it holds words together. Hashem by showing Moshe the ווים לעמודים was transmitting that the most important aspect of the Mishkan was the “and” the fact that we cannot only work as individuals but as an interconnected whole.

We see that this power of Vav was embedded into the very framework of the creation of the world. Adam and Chavah were created on the sixth day of creation the Gematria of the Vav because it is humanity that joins everything together. Furthermore, after Cain killed Abel, the Torah tells us that Hashem made an אות, a mark of Cain. The Medrash interprets this אות literally as a letter which was taken from Hashems name and placed on Cain’s forehead. The Tikkunei Zohar asks which letter was it? The answer that is given is the letter Vav was written on Cain’s head. Rav Meir Shapiro the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin explains this. Cain asked השומר אחי אנכי “am I my brother’s keeper?”. His ethos was the ethos of the individual. Every person is his own world and only watches out for himself. Hashem attached the Vav from his name to Cain’s to teach him that you are your brother’s keeper. You have to care for others besides yourself. You are “and”. We are all interconnected.

The Rema in Shulchan Aruch Yorah Deah 373 records a Hidur in Kesivas Sefer Torah that every column of the Torah should start with the letter Vav. Why? Because the most important Kelal in Judaism is to create a community that transcends itself and stands for something that is not only us but includes others as well, this is “and”. Sometimes the ווים לעמודים are hidden and taken for granted but we have to highlight them and shine a spotlight on them.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Shabbat and the Shul

Twice in the last two parshiot the Torah (Shemot 31:13 and 35:2-3) enjoins us to keep the Shabbat. In each of these instances Rashi notes the proximity between the commandment to keep the Shabbat and to build the Mishkan as a lesson that the building of the Mishkan does not supersede the laws of resting on the Shabbat. In fact, the template for the laws of Shabbat is based on its juxtaposition to the Mishkan. The Gemara in Shabbat (97b) derives the 39 categories of forbidden work on Shabbat from the work that was done in the construction of  the Mishkan. Why is there this apparent fixation in connecting the work of the Mishkan to the Shabbat? Furthermore, why does the Shabbat override the work of the Mishkan and not vice verse? 

Nehama Leibowitz cites the classic book, The Sabbath by Professor A.J. Heschel to answer these questions. Heschel notes that Man is bent on conquering space and increasing the number of things under his control. This is the first commandment G-d gives to Man in the very first chapter of Bereishit, "Fill the Land and Conquer It." Similarly, The Rav in Lonely Man of Faith observed that this is the goal of Adam I, Technological Man. However, in his desire to collect things, man can become enslaved to these very things. It is for this reason that G-d in the culmination to the creation of the world did not make a Holy Space but a Holy Time. The Sabbath is the first thing described by the Torah as being Holy. 

This is radically different from other religious world-views which focus on holiness in space, a Mountain or Temple for G-d. Judaism focuses on holiness in Time. The Sabbath, our palace in Time, is created first and overrides any holy space. In fact, the creation of a Holy Space, first the Mishkan and then the Beit Hamikdash, seems to be only a concession to the needs of Man. Only after Benay Yisrael sinned with the Golden Calf did Moshe command them to build a Holy Space for G-d, the Mishkan. Even then, Moshe emphasizes again and again that this Holy Space is superseded by the even holier palace in Time, the Shabbat.

This lesson still resonates with us today. It is ironic that A.J Heschel who so eloquently argued for G-d's Palace in Time as overriding any Holy Space is associated with the Conservative movement which did the opposite as it abrogated various areas of Shabbat in favor of the centrality of the Synagogue. Ismar Schorsch, the previous chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, noted that the big mistake of the Conservative movement was when it ruled half a century ago to allow Jews to drive to Shul on Shabbat. His reason was not because of the blatant disregard of Halakha that this ruling entailed but rather because the Conservative movement "“gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”

It is interesting to examine what he is saying in light of A.J. Heschel's elegant rhetoric. By allowing the Holy Space, the Synagogue, to supersede the Holy Time, the Shabbat, the Conservative movement ultimately failed to create "Shabbos communities", holy spaces where Jews can live and socialize together in close proximity to each other. Today, we talk often about various Orthodox Jewish communities where everyone lives within a 2-mile radius of an Orthodox shul which they can walk to on Shabbat. These people not only meet in shul but socialize together by eating at each other's houses, inviting each other's children for play dates etc. as they all live in the same neighborhood. We rarely discuss similar Conservative or Reformed Jewish communities because people tend to live within a 20 mile radius of each other and therefore have little interaction except in the Synagogue.

Another point made by Heschel which is especially relevant today is his message about Man's desire to use technology or "things" to conquer the world and the need to desist from it one day a week, on the Shabbat. In many discussions that I have had with my students and my colleagues in Jewish education this theme comes up again and again.

Technology such as computers and cell phones were created by Man to make our lives easier. We often can communicate messages more efficiently with a text than with a phone conversation. We can reach a much wider audience on a blog, Facebook account, or Twitter feed than we could ever hope to reach through face-to-face discussions. However, how many of us feel that instead of controlling these technologies, these technologies control us? If the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before we go to sleep is check our smartphone then the technology is controlling us. Shabbat is our special gift from G-d, our Palace in Time, when we take a step back and regain control over our own lives by giving up on our drive to use technology to control our world.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Chiddush of the Second Set of Luchot

What was the difference between the first set of Luchot that were carved by G-d and the second set of Luchot that were carved by Moshe?

Rav Saadiah Gaon suggests that the second Luchot were heavier than the first. This seems very strange and in fact the Ibn Ezra strenuously objects to this idea. However, the Neztiv in Haamek Davar explains Rav Saadiah Gaon based on a Midrash.

The Midrash says that Moshe was upset after breaking the Luchot. G-d tries to cheer Moshe up by saying that the first Luchot only had upon them the 10 commandments while the second Luchot have on them the Halachot, Midrash, and Agadot. The Midrash explains elsewhere that at Sinai Moshe was given over the entire Mikra, Mishna, Talmud and even that which the distinguished student will say in front of his Rebbe. How could Moshe be given novel concepts in Torah that were not even thought up yet and how could this be written down on the Luchot?

The Netziv explains that when the Jews were given the first set of Luchot they were given the whole Torah on a silver platter. G-d gave them Torah together with explanations of the pesukim from Moshe Rabbenu. They were not given the ability to make up Chidushim, novel ideas based on their personal Limud Torah. This could only be done using the 13 rules for Drashot from the Torah and using the Socratic method found in the Gemara. These rules and methodologies were not contained in the first Luchot. Rather, the oral law was only lists of Halachot passed down from Moshe. When the Jews faced new situations they could only discover what to do by comparing these new situations to older situations contained in the Torah.

With the second Luchot every student was given the ability to develop novel chidushim in Halacha based on the 13 rules of Torah Drashot and the questioning style of the Talmud. This opened up whole new doors of learning for every student. Torah went from being a rote transmission of facts to being a joint quest between the Torah student and G-d with the goal of developing new ideas from the Torah. This is why Moshe had to carve the second set of Luchot. The Halachot derived using the Talmudic rules transmitted with these Luchot were a partnership between Man and G-d just like these Luchot were written by Man based on the word of G-d.

The reason for this new method of learning contained within the second set of Luchot was the sin of the Egel. The Chet Ha-egel laid the foundation for the later sin of the spies and the later sins that would ultimately lead the Jews into exile spreading Jewry throughout the diaspora. In galus, a stale transmission of facts was not enough. Torah had to become a dynamic living document around which the people could devote their energies during the long exile. The Talmud hermeneutics or Pilpul Shel Torah kept the Jews together as a nation and transmitted the teachings of Torah to future generations. Because the second set of Luchot contained the potential for all of this added learning they were heavier than the first. The first Luchot written with the hand of G-d had greater Kedushah, but the second Luchot contained the greater ability for Chidushay Torah. It is this ability to develop novel Torah concepts that makes Torah learning fresh and vibrant to this very day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Consistency and Constancy, a Lesson from Cal Ripken and the Karban Tamid

There is a famous Yerushalmi (Nedarim, Chapter 9) which asks what is the most important verse in the Torah. Rabbi Akiva answers, ואהבת לרעך כמוך, "Love your neighbor as yourself". Ben Azzai responds with זה ספר תולדות אדם, "This is the book of the generations of man".

The Ein Yaakov in his introduction to his book quotes a variant Midrash. In this version, Ben Zoma says that שמע ישראל ה' אלוקינו ה' אחד, "Listen Israel, the Lord our God, is one", is even more significant. Ben Nanas quotes "Love your neighbor as yourself", quoted above in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Shimon Ben Pazi quotes a verse from this week's Parsha, Parshat Tetzaveh את הכבש האחד תעשה בבוקר ואת הכבש השני תעשה בין הערבעים, "You shall offer one lamb in the morning (as a sacrifice) and one lamb in the afternoon" (Shemot Chapter 29, Verse 39) as the most important verse in the Torah.

My Rebbe, Rav Yehudah Parnes asked the obvious question on this. Most of these verses make sense. If one would take a poll amongst any group of thinking Jews asking them the most important verse in the Torah, Shema Yisrael, the basic tenet of our faith in God, Ve'ahavta, to love our fellow human being as ourself, and even Toldos HaAdam, the supremacy of man, would be chosen by many respondents. By why the Karban Tamid, the sacrifice brought twice daily, once in the morning and a second time every afternoon?

Rav Parnes answered by referencing Cal Ripken who had recently broken the long standing record held by Lou Gehrig for consecutive games played in Major League Baseball. Why is this record so celebrated in the annals of sports? Because it shows consistency, תמידיות. The mida of consistency, to choose a mitzvah and do it on a always is so important that Shimon Ben Pazi considers it to be more fundamental to our religion than belief in one God or love of one's fellow man. It is the reason why we celebrate those who learn the Daf Yomi, one page of Gemara a day, every day, or those who always daven with a minyan.

In fact, Parshat Tetzaveh is filled with this mida. The Parsha starts with the Menorah which was lit Tamid, consistently, and ends with the Ketoret, the incense, which also burned Tamid. Rashi on the first verse in Tetzaveh points out that there are two types of consistency. The Menorah burned every night. Even though it would extinguish by morning and not burn again until the following night, it was considered to be Tamid. This consistency is to do something on a consistent basis, to set a schedule and then keep to it. The Menorah burned every night.

There is another type of Tamid which Rashi associates with the Lechem Hapanim which is even more difficult to accomplish. This is constancy. The showbread was on the table throughout the week. Even when it was removed every Friday, it was immediately replaced by new bread. There are some mitzvot which one should seek to accomplish constantly, belief in God and love of one's neighbor comes to mind. (Going back to the Major League Baseball record book, Cal Ripken actually accomplished both since he not only holds the record for consecutive games played at 2,632 but also for consecutive innings at 8,243, over 904 games.)

My goal with this new blog is to exercise the discipline possible to achieve this mida of consistency. I hope to publish a Dvar Torah every week either on the Parshat Hashavua or on the Haftorah. I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback as that is what can truly make this an interactive learning experience.