Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Parashat Bamidbar 5776 A Leap of Love

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Bamidbar 5776
A Leap of Love

All new beginnings are charged with hope; the beginning of a new book of the Torah is no exception. As the book of Bamidbar opens, there is hope that the journey upon which the Jews embarked as they left Egypt would finally bring them to the Promised Land. The book of Vayikra did not document any movement toward their destination: Throughout the entire book, the nation seemed rooted to one spot; their location remained unchanged. Now, we begin again. The journey resumes.

From this perspective, though, the name of the book  - “Bamidbar” – ‘in the desert’ - is ominous. The desert is a foreboding, even frightening place; might not the name itself give us reason to suspect that the events this book describes will be less than successful? Those of us who know how the book ends are aware that there is progress, and a great deal of movement: At the book’s conclusion, we are poised at the cusp of the Promised Land, yet the trip is far longer and more difficult than we had anticipated. The path is circuitous, and the people stumble and fall many times along the way. The Land of Israel, while much closer, remains out of reach.

Is there something about the desert itself that makes this so? The desert is mentioned many times in the early books of the Torah, in many different contexts, but time and again, the desert imparts a sense of fear, dread and danger. The desert is not a forgiving environment; the basic resources required for human existence are severely limited. Certainly in antiquity the desert was associated - if not synonymous with - death. An en masse journey through the desert would have been considered an absurdity. Perhaps the name of the book is a foreshadowing, a premonition that this endeavor will not work out well.

Why, then, did God choose this route? Moshe explained the plan and purpose of the journey through the desert:

Remember the entire path along which God your Lord led you these forty years in the desert. He sent hardships to test (or uplift) you, to determine what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not…But your heart may then grow haughty, and you may forget God your Lord, the One who brought you out of the slave house that was Egypt. It was He who led you through the great, terrifying desert, where there were snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst. When there was no water, it was He who provided you water from a solid rock. In the desert He fed you Manna, which was something that your ancestors never knew. He may have been sending hardships to test you, but it was so He would eventually do [all the more] good for you.  [When you later have prosperity, be careful that you not] say to yourself, 'It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.' You must remember that it is God your Lord who gives you the power to become prosperous. He does this so as to keep the covenant and the oath that He made with your fathers, even as [He is keeping it] today. (Dvarim 8:2-18)

The difficulties of the desert are not whitewashed, but a rationale is provided: The trek through the desert is a necessary stage of development, designed to put the people’s commitment to the test, and, as a result, to uplift them, to make them stronger and help them create a new type of relationship with God, a relationship based on trust.

The prophet describes the desert experience in the most romantic terms:

Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus said the Almighty: I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Yirmiyahu 2:2)

The Midrash[1] apparently picks up on this theme and explains the deeper significance of the opening verse of the book of Bamidbar:

God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Communion Tent on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the Exodus, saying: (Bamidbar 1:1)

While this verse seems prosaic, it should strike us as somewhat unusual in that it provides the precise date of an event – the month, the day of the month, and the year. Precise dates such as these were totally absent in the book of Vayikra; in fact, no such markers were provided in the Torah as far back as the middle of the book of Shmot. The Midrash takes note of this very this particular form, and draws a parallel with the laws of writing a ketubah: Marriage contracts, more than any other type of document, must specify the place and precise date on which they are written. Thus, the opening sentences of the book of Bamidbar, according to the Midrash, are an expression of the blossoming relationship between God and the Jewish People. This relationship is precious to God; He values it, and by writing a “ketubah” He expresses the seriousness of the relationship. This “ketubah” honors the Children of Israel, by proclaiming that this is no passing infatuation. The “groom,” God Himself, aware as He is of the “bride’s” lineage, cognizant that she is the descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, creates an eternal bond of commitment.

This formalization of their mutual commitment comes on the heels of a whirlwind romance: The Exodus is described as eloping to the desert. The groom, a knight in shining armor, swooped in to save the damsel in distress, who had been enslaved and abused. Would the bride take the enormous leap – of faith, but more importantly, of love, and follow her rescuer out into the unknown, to a place with no resources and no other options? Yes, she responds: I will follow you to the ends of the earth, even to the foreboding desert. God responds; he writes a formal ketubah between Himself and His loving bride, the People of Israel.

Mystical tradition[2] teaches that in the future, when all other merit is exhausted, it will be this “leap of love” that God will recall. Our willingness to follow Him through the desert is the foundation stone of our relationship, and it is what compels God to forgive our lapses and to maintain our special relationship throughout history.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 1:5.
[2] Tomer Devorah, chapter 1.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat B’midbar and Shavuot

Monday, May 23, 2016

Parashat B’chukotai 5776 Irreplaceable Theology

Echoes of Eden
   Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat B’chukotai 5776
Irreplaceable Theology

As the book of Vayikra moves towards its finale, several outstanding issues are clarified. A retrospective overview shows us that although it began as a book focused on Temple and ritual, it gradually turned to a discussion of other, more general types of holiness, emphasizing kosher food, “kosher” sexual relationships and, finally, other types of interpersonal relationships. The message seems clear: Ritual and Temple service are not replacements for decency. In order to create a holy society, we must concern ourselves both with the ritual and the interpersonal spheres. These two spheres must work in tandem, in harmony, if we are to create and sustain the society that it is our mandate to create.
Despite our superficial impressions, then, Vayikra – “Leviticus” – has a few surprises: The discussion of the holidays in Parashat Emor was not what we might have expected: We might have anticipated that the aspect given most attention in the context of Vayikra would be the sacrifices associated with each festival – but, as we have seen, this is not the case. Instead, the focus is the aspect of holiness, coupled with emphasis of the agricultural identity of each holiday. The transition from this aspect of the holidays to a discussion of shmittah and Yovel becomes far more natural when considered in this light: The structure and flow of the book teaches us that any discussion of holiness must necessarily include the Land of Israel. Just as the holidays are points of holiness in one dimension, the Land of Israel is a point of holiness in another.
Very subtly, then, the focus of Vayikra shifts to the Land of Israel – which is only natural, being that the Israelites were about to leave Mount Sinai and march to their homeland. Very soon, they would inherit the land - and as soon as the message of our ownership began to sink in, we were quickly reminded that God is the true owner; the laws of shmittah and Yovel force us to remember that our ownership is conditional. We are therefore commanded to relinquish our claims to the land one year out of every seven, to share God’s gifts with one and all, and to return the land to its ancestral custodians every 50 years. Slowly the message will sink in: Our ownership is limited. The land ultimately belongs to God, and, as a result, the land is holy. Parashat B’chukotai then goes on to teach us that if we are underserving of this holy land, we will be expelled; such are the consequences of holiness.
Chapter 26 ends in what seems like a grand finale:
I will therefore remember the covenant with their ancestors … These are the decrees, laws and codes that God set between Himself and the Israelites at Mount Sinai through the hand of Moses. (Vayikra 26:45-46)
And yet, despite the seeming finality, another chapter is tacked on, a chapter that seems anti-climactic, even “disappointing”. It contains discussions of vows, dedications and donations to the Temple… in short, details that somehow take the wind out of our sails after the resounding final notes at the end of the previous chapter. But then, among the details, one law catches our eye:
If [the endowment] is an animal that can be offered as a sacrifice to God, then anything donated to God [automatically] becomes consecrated. One may neither exchange it nor offer a substitute for it, whether it be a better [animal] for a worse one, or a worse [animal] for a better one. If he replaces one animal with another, both [the original animal] and its replacement shall be consecrated. (27:9-10)
These verses outline what may be regarded as a strange ‘theory of conservation of holiness:’ Once an object is dedicated to God, it cannot be replaced or “swapped out;” holiness, it seems, “sticks” to it – permanently. Any attempt to replace the consecrated object will only cause an additional object to be consecrated as well; more holiness can enter the world, but the original holiness can never disappear.
The section that immediately follows discusses ancestral property (27:16). Seen in context, we begin to realize that this chapter is far from a random compilation of commandments: The laws enumerated in Chapter 27, the seemingly “anti-climactic” chapter that follows what we first thought was the closing chord of the book, reflect a deeper theological message: In the course of time, the Jewish People might sin, and thereby forfeit the privilege of living in the Promised Land – but the People, and the Land, once consecrated, are holy forever. They cannot be replaced. God will eventually allow us to return to the Land.
The final section of the book of Vayikra focuses on the power of vows: Words, even human words, are imbued with power, perhaps beyond what we might have imagined. This power is reflection of the Divine Image: The power of speech defines us and sets us apart from the rest of creation, but it comes with tremendous responsibility. God’s speech creates reality, and human speech is its reflection. God keeps His vows, even though we may violate our part of the agreement, and we must do the same. The laws in this final chapter, then, contain an uplifting message: Once something is dedicated for holiness, it cannot be replaced. Even when we have sinned, God will honor His vow; He will return us to our land. Moreover, despite the claims made by newer religions, the Jewish People will never be exchanged for any other “chosen people.” “Replacement theology” is expressly rejected in the final verses of Vayikra. The people who stood at Sinai, despite their having subsequently strayed from a life of holiness, remain dedicated to God, and retain their holiness forever. With this message made clear, Vayikra can come to its completion, and now that we understand the message contained in the seemingly dry, anticlimactic laws of Chapter 27, the final verses of Vayikra are theologically breathtaking:
No distinction may be made between better and worse animals, and no substitutions may be made. If a substitution is made, then both [the original animal] and its replacement shall be consecrated and not redeemable. These are the commandments that God gave Moses for the Israelites at Mount Sinai. (Vayikra 27:33,34)
Vayikra, the “book of holiness,” ends with a clear message: The holiness of the Land of Israel, and the holiness of the Jewish People, are eternal.
For more in depth study see:

 Echoes of Eden

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat B’chukotai

Monday, May 16, 2016

Parashat B’har 5776 Seasons in the Sun

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Bhar 5776
Seasons in the Sun

Shabbat is a day of rest. The Torah teaches us that just as people need to rest one day in seven, so, too, the land of Israel, which is sensitive in more ways than we might have imagined, must rest for one year in seven. This sabbatical year, known as shmittah, is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, a super-Shabbat or double Shabbat. Moreover, at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years, we are commanded to observe the Jubilee (Yovel), in a sense pressing a reset button, reverting all land in Eretz Yisrael back to its ancestral ownership.

You shall count seven sabbatical years, that is, seven times seven years. The period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall thus be 49 years. Then, on the 10th day of the seventh month, you shall make a proclamation with the ram's horn. This proclamation with the ram's horn is to be made on Yom Kippur. (Vayikra 25:8-9)

This seems somewhat awkward: Why is Yom Kippur designated as the day to begin the Jubilee Year? Logic would dictate that Rosh Hashanah, the day that begins the new year, should also mark the beginning of the Jubilee Year. Why does the Torah command us to delay the ceremony until Yom Kippur? As we shall see, two factors are at play, and understanding them will solve our dilemma.

Yom Kippur is generally considered the holiest day of the year. Aside from the prohibition of work, which is a standard feature of every Shabbat and festival, there is an additional prohibition of food and drink. Perhaps this is why the Torah calls Yom Kippur Shabbat Shabbaton (Vayikra 23:32), making it sound very much like a double Shabbat; on this day, we rest from work and rest from food.  Another double Shabbat is the holiday of Shavuot. Seven weeks, beginning on Passover, are counted, and the fiftieth day is declared a festival. As opposed to the usual cycle of six days followed by Shabbat, or even six years followed by shmittah, Shavuot is based upon seven times seven; once again, Shavuot could be considered a Shabbat Shabbaton.  

The Jubilee Year (Yovel, in Hebrew) is a macro-version of these smaller cycles Shabbat, Shavuot, and shmittah. In the weekly cycle, we count seven days; in the shmittah cycle, seven years. In the yearly cycle of holidays, we count seven weeks from Passover, and on the fiftieth day we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. On this day, the Torah was given to the nation that had been waiting expectantly from the moment of the Exodus until the Revelation at Sinai. Unfortunately, this is not the day we actually received the Torah. Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the Tablets from God and bring them down to earth, but the people below became fidgety, and made a Golden Calf. They were not ready to receive what God had given; the precious Tablets of Stone were destroyed.

Moshe ascended once again, interceded on behalf of the people and begged God to forgive them, and eventually received the second Tablets - on Yom Kippur, the day that would forever be associated with forgiveness. The root of this forgiveness lies in our being willing and able to receive the Torah on that day. In a sense, then, Yom Kippur is a spiritual reset button, cancelling debts we have incurred through sin throughout the year, just as the Yovel resets ownership and cancels monetary debts, cleaning the slate and allowing us to begin again as a society. This parallel is the first factor that explains the connection between Yovel and Yom Kippur.

To understand the second factor, we must appreciate the inner workings of the Jewish calendar. Our calendar is complicated: While the months are dictated by the new moon, the days begin and end with the rising and setting of the sun. While the date of the holidays are dependent on the appearance and disappearance of the moon, Shabbat is dependent on the setting of the sun at the end of the sixth day.

Shabbat was established directly by God; every seventh day since Creation has been, and always will be, Shabbat. No human input is involved. The holidays, on the other hand, have been subcontracted to man: The Jewish court decides when the new moon has appeared and, as a result, when the holidays begin. In a sense, we may say that the lunar cycle is a metaphor or an expression of our relationship with God: The moons light is a reflection of the sun; it has no luminescence of its own. Thus, the power of the Jewish court to determine when the holidays will be celebrated is a reflection, as it were, of Gods mastery of time, space and matter. Our mandate is given to us by God. The sun, the source of light and sustenance, represents God; the Jewish People is represented by the moon, as we reflect and imitate Gods creative and sustaining powers. (Of course, this is only a metaphor; the sun has no power of its own, and should never be an object of worship.)

So much for days and months; years are more complicated. Jewish holidays are comprised of both an historical and an agricultural component, and are therefore connected to particular seasons. For this reason, the calendar must be adjusted: The lunar months must maintain fidelity to the seasons of the solar year. And so, the Jewish calendar is comprised of solar days, lunar months, and solar years (with periodic corrections to compensate for the differences between them).

Then end of 12 lunar months will inevitably be ten days shorter than the solar year. Therefore, while Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the new calendric year, it is, in fact, ten days short in terms of the completion of the solar year. Thus, the calendar is adjusted every few years by the addition of an extra month, so the holidays remain in their proper seasons.

This unique system was the basis for a fascinating teaching of The Vilna Gaon (found in his commentary to Sifra Detzniuta chapter 2) that has far-reaching religious ramifications: The differential between the solar and lunar systems explains the efficacy of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the Ten Days of Repentance. These ten days are the gap between the solar and lunar years, but in more than pure mathematical terms. Have we ever stopped to consider why it is that increased acts of kindness and more stringent observance during these ten days are effective in tipping the balance for the year that has just ended? If, in fact, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a new year, would it not make far more sense to attempt to influence the balance sheet before the years books are closed? How can acts performed on or after Rosh Hashanah impact the previous year? The Vilna Gaon explains that these ten days are, in fact, the last ten days of the previous solar year. The lunar year ends ten days earlier, and is marked by Rosh Hashanah, but the next ten days are a sort of calendric ex territoria; they are the point at which two systems overlap, and are therefore most efficacious for stock-taking, reevaluation, repentance –“reset.

Similarly, the Chatam Sofer (in his commentary on Vayikra 25:9) records an insight he learned from his teacher, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, that involves this ten-day overlap: Due to the discrepancy between the lunar and solar years, the Jubilee year begins on Yom Kippur ten days after Rosh Hashanah. The New Year is, indeed, celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, but the fiftieth year of the cycle, dictated by the agricultural calendar and thus by the sun, does not begin until ten days later, bringing us to Yom Kippur.

While we may wonder at the mathematical symmetry with which our calendar reconciles two systems and creates a unified Jewish calendar, we must not overlook the deeper philosophical message: The reconciliation of the lunar and solar cycles, which represent the Children of Israel and God, respectively, is imbedded in the Jewish life cycle. On Yom Kippur, full reconciliation is achieved both in the mathematical sense and in the spiritual sense. On this day, we accept the Torah the second Tablets, given to us despite our sins. On this day, in the Jubilee Year, we return the land to its proper owner. On this day, as our lunar months once again align with our solar years, we reconcile the sun with the moon, symbolic of the People of Israel redoubling their efforts towards reconciliation with God.

For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden