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

Audio and Essays Parashat B’midbar and Shavuot

New Echoes of Eden Project:
A Leap of Love


Of Levites Cohanim and Firstborn

Parshat Bamidbar / Flags

Parshat Bamidbar / More Than Just A Name

Parshat Bamidbar / The Negative Side Of Holiness

Parshat Bamidbar / What We Borrowed From The Angels

Parshat Bamidbar / Lost in the Desert

Parshat Bamidbar / Counting and Uplifting


The Theory of Conservation of Holiness

An Un-necessary Book

A Divine Encampment

The Danger of Holiness

The Twenty Eighth of Iyar

The Desert

The Nation of Israel

Reliving Revelation

The Omer - Linking Pesach 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

Audio and Essays Parashat B’chukotai

New Echoes of Eden Project:

Parashat B’chukotai 5776 Irreplaceable Theology


Eliyahu's Missing "Vav"

Why Two Rebukes?

Bechukotai-Rebuke – (not) Keeping Shabbat and Shmitta

Parshat Bechukotai / Mikveh Yisroel Yom Haatzmaut

Parshat Bechukotai / To Walk Upright Yom Haatzmaut

Parshat Bechukotai / Walking with God

Parshat Bechukotai / An Awakening from Below
Shemitah Shabbat and Exile

Shemitah Shabbat and Exile (long version)

Coming Home

There is no place Like Home (Bhukotai)

You CAN get Satisfaction

Standing Tall

The Great Rebuke