Monday, March 28, 2016

Parashat Shmini 5776 Fixing a Broken World

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Shmini 5776
Fixing a Broken World

With the completion of the Mishkan, there was much excitement and anticipation in the Israelite camp. On the day the Mishkan was to become operational, Moshe assured Aharon that the Glory of God would be revealed:

God will reveal Himself to you today.'... God's glory will be revealed to you.'…. (Vayikra 9:4,6)

The sign would be unmistakable, and it would confirm that forgiveness had been achieved for the sin of the golden calf, and that the relationship with God had been repaired.

But first, the preliminaries: Aharon is commanded to bring a calf as a sin offering. Presumably, the symbolism of this offering was clear to every member of the nation: The very symbol of their sin would now be used to reach out to God. The people, on the other hand, are commanded to bring a different offering, in atonement for an older sin, to close a dormant account or pay an old debt, as it were: namely, the sale of Yosef. They are instructed to bring a goat, the animal whose blood the brothers used to mislead their father: They had dipped Yosef’s coat of many colors in the blood of a goat and showed it to Yaakov, leaving him to draw the tragic conclusion that his beloved son was dead.

The sale of Yosef and the golden calf were the major sins of the Jewish collective, two enormous stains on the fabric of peoplehood and on the covenant between God and the Israel. On this very special day, the day of the consecration of the Mishkan, the people were promised a chance to expunge these horrible stains. There was hope that by the end of the day all would be set right, all the wounds caused by sin would be healed. Tragically, that is not what transpired: As the day wore on, despite the great promise of that unique moment, more sorrow and more disappointment were added to their burden of guilt.

The day began well: The offerings commanded by God were brought to the Altar. With great precision, Aharon, aided by his sons, performed the tasks God had commanded. (9:9, 12, 13,18-20) Then, Aharon blessed the people.

Aharon lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. He then descended from [the Altar where he] had prepared the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offerings. (9:22)

As readers, we might think that all is well, that everything is in order but there is something missing. Moshe had assured them that God would respond to these offerings, to the service as a whole, by revealing His Glory. Thus, the nation stood in breathless anticipation of some sort of revelation, some unmistakable sign that they had been forgiven. Instead, there was only silence.

Moshe, acutely aware of the awkward silence, of the lack of response, sprang into action:

Moshe and Aharon went into the Communion Tent, and when they came out, they blessed the people. God's Glory was then revealed to all the people. Fire came forth from before God and consumed the burnt offering and the choice parts on the Altar. When the people saw this, they raised their voices in praise and threw themselves on their faces. (9:23,24)

The service performed by Aharon and his sons had failed to generate the anticipated response; only when they were joined by Moshe did the Glory of God, the unmistakable sign of Gods proximity and intimacy of which Moshe had spoken, appear.

The people do not seem aware of anything untoward; when the fire descends from the heavens and consumes the offerings that had been laid on the Altar, they break into spontaneous song. Their world, they believe, has been fixed; they are aware that they have witnessed a miracle, that they have turned a corner, and believe that the sins that had hovered over them were now a thing of the past.

Two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, did not share the peoples feeling of elation. They were not at peace; something gnawed at them. They, like Moshe, knew that something was amiss. They had been involved in the service from the outset, and could not help but notice the lack of Divine response, the deafening silence that was broken only when Moshe stepped in. They sensed their fathers humiliation, felt the weight of sin bearing down upon them, and resolved to push the envelope, to grab the bull by the horns by bringing an offering of their own design. Intuiting that what is needed is an offering that involves the sense of smell, the most ethereal and uncorrupted of the human senses, they enter the inner sanctum with incense, and set it alight with a fire of their own. And, lo and behold, the response they sought comes immediately: The heavenly fire, the physical manifestation of Gods Glory that previously had descended only when Moshe intervened, burst forth. This time, though, the fire did not consume the offering; it consumed those who had brought the offering - Nadav and Avihu. They had succeeded in bringing about a direct response from God, but the response was too intense. Their experiment was a success, but it cost them their lives.

From that day on, a major element of the Yom Kippur service reflects the sacrifice of Nadav and Avihu: On the Day of Atonement, as we recall our individual and communal sins as well as the sins committed by our forefathers, we also recall the unmistakable sign of forgiveness and intimacy witnessed by the people on the day the Mishkan was consecrated: The Glory of God, the heavenly fire, descending upon the Mishkan. Each year, a descendant of Aharon is commanded to bring an offering of  incense into the Holy of Holies, beseeching God through the use of our sense of smell to forgive us, once again, as he forgave Aharon and the Israelites for the golden calf (16:12-13). Apparently, Nadav and Avihus intuition was far more accurate than we might have guessed: The world still needs a fixing, and the first step towards perfecting the world begins from a place of purity and innocence, when we use the sense of smell to reach out to God.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Monday, March 21, 2016

Torah for Purim

Torah for Purim
Rabbi Ari Kahn

Intrigue in Shushan
(Appeared in Jerusalem Post March 18th 2016)

Vashti and Esther; Feminism and Post-Feminism

Drinking, Purim and Yom Kippur

Amalek Zaycher Zecher or Zachor

Cross-dressing for Purim

The Story of Esther Hidden and Revealed

Esther as a Precedent

The story of Esther hidden and revealed (analysis of the story based on the Rav, and the Zohar)

Esther From Purim to Yom Kippurim; An ancient postmodern perspective on Esther

Remembering and Understanding the war against Amalek

Ad Dlo Yada - Drinking on Purim

Kimu Vekiblu (Matan)

Purim/yom kipurim

The joy of Adar

Amalek a Question of Race? (Updated)

Parshat Ki Tisa - Purim 5769 Mar Dror: The Kohen Gadol and Purim/Yom Kippurim

The Heroism of Esther

The Book of Esther - A Multifaceted Book

PURIM / A Tale of Two Megilot

Purim and the Masks We Wear

Friday, March 18, 2016

Intrigue in Shushan

Intrigue in Shushan
Rabbi Ari Kahn[1]
Purim is a raucous holiday. With gifts and costumes and perhaps a little wine, it is a day (or, in Israel, what seems like an entire week) of celebration and happiness. What is the source of this festive atmosphere? Our automatic assumption is that an answer may be found in Megillat Esther, The Book of Esther that tells the story of this unique celebration and is read on Purim. And yet, the story told in the Megillah is a complex one, and, in fact, gives only a partial answer to our question. At the very least, we must admit that as far as the heroine of the tale is concerned, the story’s ending was not necessarily “happily ever after” on a personal level. More generally, the Megillah describes turbulent times, rife with existential danger, reversals of fortune, and dramatic changes of status; the complications are magnified when we read the text through the eyes of traditional rabbinic commentary.

Ahashverosh is introduced as a king who loves to party. We know very little about him from the text, other than the fact that he seems to be a gracious host, attentive and caring - that is, to everyone but his wife. We are provided with important background information about this Persian monarch by rabbinic tradition: Ahashverosh was a usurper to the throne. The real royalty was his wife Vashti.[2]
When Ahashverosh overthrew the king, the foremost symbol of his conquest was Vashti, whom he wished to display for all to see, like all of his other possessions and conquests. Thus, the order to parade Vashti before the officers and ministers of his court was no mere drunken whim; the very fact that he could order her to appear was proof of his power and authority. Although some 20th and 21st century writers have described Vashti as a feminist heroine, it would be best to avoid reading modern values into ancient sources, which may lead to an anachronistic reading of the story. It seems likely that the struggle between Vashti and Ahashverosh was not a battle between sexes as much as between classes, namely between the new ruling class and the old regime that had been ousted by force.

Vashti’s refusal to comply puts Ahashverosh in an untenable position; in fact, all the other nouveau lords and ministers understood the problem immediately: Vashti’s defiance threatened them as much as it did the king, for all of them had taken the estates and wives of the former aristocracy. They feared all the conquered women would follow Vashti’s cue, and a wide-scale rebellion would result. They urged Ahashverosh to nip the uprising in the bud, forcing him to choose between losing his trophy wife and losing his throne.
Theirs was not a loving relationship: Vashti detested the former stable boy[3]  who had risen to power through violence and ruthlessness, nor did she have any illusions about her husband’s priorities or methods. She made a conscious choice in favor of her own dignity by refusing to be put on display, choosing death over a life of subjugation and humiliation.

With Vashti gone, however, Ahashverosh was faced with a new problem: He was in desperate need of the stamp of legitimacy and nobility Vashti had provided. His most important trophy was gone, and he needed a new queen.
An empire-wide search was initiated, capped off by a bizarre and sordid contest: The winner would become queen and the losers would join the royal harem, the “stable” of the king’s mistresses. Ironically, but not surprisingly, Esther, the Jewish girl who had no desire to be queen, was chosen. Her disinterest, her lack of desire to win, her “standoffish” attitude, is precisely what reminded Ahashverosh of his not-so-dearly departed, aristocratic wife Vashti. Esther was the perfect Vashti replacement.
Things begin to move along smoothly for Ahashverosh: He subcontracts most decisions to his diabolical, megalomaniacal, anti-Semitic chief-of-staff, Haman. And as diabolical, megalomaniacal anti-Semites are wont to do, Haman conceives a plan to make the world Judenrein.

The pieces begin to come together; the gears begin to mesh. Esther, who has been perceived up to this point as passive, distant, even docile, reveals a completely different side of her personality, displaying leadership, spunk and brilliance. On the one hand she requests that the Jews fast and pray for her. On the other hand, she sets in motion a plan to divide and conquer, pitting the megalomaniacal Haman against her insecure, paranoid husband. She invites both men to a private party. The ever-suspicious Ahashverosh cannot sleep; he knows something is awry, but is racked with doubt. Is Haman plotting against him, or is it Esther? Are they perhaps in cahoots? Will he be forced, once again, to choose between two things he values – his wife and his closest advisor – in order to remain on the throne? Perhaps he should have both threats eliminated, have both Haman and Esther killed, despite the messy and inconvenient aftershocks? This is not, after all, the first plot to assassinate him. It had happened before, when, of all people, a Jew named Mordechai had saved his life.
Unable to sleep, in search of insight or precedent, he reads through old protocols, when his train of thought is interrupted by a commotion outside: Haman has come to the palace, uninvited, in hopes of convincing the king to have Mordechai executed. Ahashverosh, focused on solidifying his power, is keen to publicly reward Mordechai for his loyalty, as a means of staving off insurgency. For his part, Haman is completely focused on himself. Oozing megalomania, he can think of no one more worthy of the king’s largesse than himself, and suggests that the unnamed object of Ahashverosh’s favor be dressed in the king’s clothes and paraded through the city on the king’s horse by a member of court.

This is clearly not the wisest thing to suggest to an insecure ruler who is hyper-sensitive to the trappings of royalty. Ahashverosh’s suspicions about Haman are compounded by Haman’s own greedy grab at the spotlight. It is surely no coincidence that Ahashverosh, himself an erstwhile stable boy, commands Haman himself to lead the royal mount through the streets of Shushan: This is a demeaning job for a person of such high station, a clear demotion in the eyes of the king, and perhaps also a silent warning to his upwardly mobile advisor to tread carefully: The path between the palace and the stables can be a two way street.

One party follows another. On the second night, Esther levels accusations at Haman in language she knows will resonate in Ahashverosh’s tortured mind: Haman has been insubordinate, and has attempted to manipulate Ahashverosh into a self-destructive policy that would eliminate the king’s most loyal subjects and bring about widespread unrest in the kingdom. Soon Haman is led to the very gallows he had prepared for Mordechai, while Mordechai, and with him all the Jews of the kingdom, rise to unprecedented positions of respect and influence.

What is it that we celebrate, then, in the frivolity of Purim? An unbiased reading of the story leaves us nonplussed, because it seems no more than the story of a man who kills his wife on the advice of his best friend and then kills his best friend on the advice of his wife. For Jews, though, the story cannot be read without a very particular bias: For us, Purim is a joyous day. The Megillah is a microcosm of a very particular view of Jewish history, fraught with assimilation and heroism, existential danger and Divine intervention, and above all, Jewish survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Book of Esther celebrates our collective happy ending; it celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival, celebrated each year with food and drink and the exchange of gifts and good will. It celebrates the fact that the real and true King, the only King, the Master of the Universe, has stepped in to rescue us from annihilation throughout history, and it gives us hope that He will never abandon us, even in times of great darkness and danger. L’chaim!

[1] This article appeared in the “In Jerusalem” section of the Jerusalem Post March 18th 2016 page 12
[2] Talmud Bavli Megilah 10b
[3] Talmud Bavli Megilah 12b 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Parashat Vayikra 5776 - Obedience

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayikra

The world of sacrificial offerings is a new, different and foreign world. As readers, we get lost in the strangeness of the entire subject, and do not pause to think about what we have read, to understand and internalize. The basic premise of sacrifice creates a world of responsibility, in which the individual bears responsibility not only for conscious behavior, for deliberate action - as is the case in the “normal” world - but also for accidental transgressions, for what happens when we lose focus, act absentmindedly or allow ourselves to be led astray by shallow thinking. In this strange parallel universe, even unintended outcomes become the individual’s responsibility, and must be atoned for.

This being so, we tend not to look for a system, for a method in the litany of offerings that comprise the bulk of the book of Vayikra. Have we ever attempted to discern common threads among the various types of sin offerings, or to create categories that would enlighten or inform? Is there something to be learned from the type of animal each sin offering involves? Which offerings are of large animals, and which of small animals? What obligations can be met by sacrificing fowl, and which by grain? Which offerings are comprised of male animals and which of females? Which transgressions are clustered together, and why? What can we learn from the implications of these groupings?

Leaving the micro analysis for a moment and turning to the macro, to the broad mechanics of Temple service, we are able to discern the objective of offerings in general: The Hebrew word for all ritual offerings is “korban,” a derivative form of the root krv– to come near, to approach. Sacrificial offerings afford the individual who has become estranged from God the means to return, to rebuild intimacy.

This objective is described time and time again in the verses of Vayikra as “a pleasant smell for God.” The commentaries are quick to note that this is, at best, an anthropomorphism: God has neither a nose nor a sense of smell, nor does He sit in heaven waiting to be placated by the smell of an earthly BBQ. One of our greatest commentaries, Rashi, explained this concept in a very different way, based on comments found in the Sifri, an ancient Midrash: Sacrificial offerings are not some type of magical divination, voodoo or “hocus pocus;” rather, the key to the korban’s efficacy is obedience.

Nichoach: [This word implies]Nahat ruah, pleasure of spirit, for I spoke and you fulfilled My will. (Rashi, Vayikra 1:9)

Man has sinned by neglecting, ignoring, or forgetting the word of God, but God allows man to correct this mistake by giving us a second chance to obey His command, thus making reconciliation possible. By bringing the precise offering in the precise fashion prescribed, in adherence to the Word of God - even when it bears no intrinsic logic - man is allowed to make amends. Rashi seems to be implying that the main consideration, the element in which God “takes delight,” is not the “pleasing smell” but rather that the Divine spirit is uplifted by man’s adherence to God’s command. The earlier failure to obey is healed by this new opportunity. Thus, the offering itself is almost irrelevant; it bears no intrinsic meaning, other than as an opportunity to exhibit submission to God’s Will and adherence to God’s command. The procedure is the offering; the precise attention to the details is what transforms the sinner and heals the rupture in the relationship.

In his commentary to Psalm 40:7, Rashi is even more emphatic:

You did not desire slaughter or meal-offerings; … You did not request burnt-offerings and sin-offerings. (Tehillim 40:7)

“Slaughter or meal-offerings:” [This refers to] the day the Torah was given, as it states (Shmot 19): “If you listen to the voice of God.” Similarly, [God] said (Yermiyahu 7:22), ‘For I did not speak to your fathers, nor did I command them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt-offerings or sacrifices;’ I wanted to bring you close, and I had no need to burden you with daily or holiday (offerings). The only pleasure I derived was that I commanded and you adhered to My request, which is a small gesture. (Rashi, Tehillim 40:7)

The verse from the prophecy of Yirmiyahu cited by Rashi is a small part of an entire chapter that laments the behavior of the Jewish community. The Temple had become a place that did not celebrate mans adherence to the will of God. Quite the opposite: The chapter tells the tale of a city, of an entire society, in which strangers were oppressed, the weak and disenfranchised exploited, and justice trampled. Stealing, murder, adultery, and false witness had become the norm; decency was nowhere to be found. In that society, people deluded themselves into thinking that the Temple service would excuse their behavior. They believed that they could bribe God with offerings and save themselves through the merit of their sacrifices. Yirmiyahu attempted to open their eyes, to dispel their illusions by describing the gruesome fate that awaited their generation, and the Temple they had misused.

Sacrificial offerings are not magic; they are, however, a means through which man may come closer to God. They do not take the place of decent behavior, nor are they generally a remedy for deliberate transgressions. Sacrificial offerings bring about rapprochement only in conjunction with general adherence to the word of God. There is no magic involved. Unlike primitive cultures who believed they could force Gods hand or sway God from meting out punishment, Jewish sacrifice is a method of re-attuning an estranged individual to the Voice of God. This is the source of pleasure, the nachat ruach that God draws from the offering: A person who has become estranged, has taken the relationship for granted and become negligent in the service of God, now seeks a way back to intimacy. The precise adherence to the korbans rituals reaffirms the human desire to adhere to Gods commandments. Sacrifices brought in this spirit are a step toward perfecting the world, not a fig leaf for moral decay.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

 Echoes of Eden