Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Parashat Yitro 5778 A Holy Detour

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Yitro 5778
A Holy Detour

Six weeks after leaving Egypt, the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai.  In retrospect, this destination seems obvious. But how obvious was it to those who made the trip? Did they know there was a planned stop along their route to the Land of Israel? Did they fully understand the purpose of this stop?

We may say that the Exodus had two inter-related purposes. The first was to bring hundreds of years of slavery and suffering to an end. The second was to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland, to the land promised to their forefathers.

From the outset, these two objectives were intertwined in the vision and communication which Avraham had received, and which forged a covenant between him, his descendants, and God (Bereishit 15:13-21). The covenant stated that after years of hardship, the Land of Israel would be ours. However, the stop-over at Mount Sinai was mentioned only generations later, to Moshe:

“… And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.” (Shmot 3:12)

The nature of this lay-over at Sinai was never explained; we cannot help but wonder if the Jews even knew that it was on their itinerary.

During the various exchanges with Pharaoh, Moshe spoke of serving God and of celebrating a festival in the desert, but readers of the text might be tempted to think that this was a mere pretext, aimed at convincing Pharaoh to grant the Jews a three-day furlough. Moshe argued that it would be impossible for the Jews to worship God in Egypt; in fact, that is precisely what they did, in the final scene before the Exodus: On Passover Eve, the Israelites sacrificed to God and celebrated the first Jewish festival – in Egypt. Was it really necessary to go out into the desert to commune with God? Alternatively, couldn’t the emancipated slaves have proceeded directly to their final destination, and received the Torah there? Was there some intrinsic reason to visit Mount Sinai?

Moshe was familiar with the place. He had experienced a personal revelation there; it was the place where he had received his “marching orders” – and more: It was a place where he had witnessed something wondrous, something that was beyond the laws of nature. He had been informed that this particular place is “holy ground” (Shmot 3:5).

The Jews, too, would experience a revelation there. They, too, would receive their “marching orders,” and they, too, would become familiar with holiness, specifically at Mount Sinai.

While we cannot imagine Judaism without law, the stop at Sinai was far more than merely the location where the law was handed down to us. The choice of venue for the Revelation of the Law was very specific; the holiness of Sinai was an integral element of the Law they would receive, because this was not merely a set of laws that aimed at regulating society’s proper functioning. If the Jewish people had illusions that they would be a nation like every other nation, that belief was dispelled as soon as they received their instructions for the preparation to receive the Law.

Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Shmot 19:5,6)

Something new would become the center of this new community: Holiness, the relationship to holiness, the awareness of the holy. The preparations to receive the Torah centered on holiness, because the nation had to become holy in order to achieve the awareness of holiness. They would become not just a nation, but a holy nation, a kingdom of kohanim.

The commandants they subsequently received were not exclusively concerned with serving God in the classic sense of ritual, prayer, or sacrifice. It is true that some of the Ten Commandments centered on service of God, including belief in one God, and a prohibition against idolatry. But becoming holy included emulating God by observing the Shabbat. It included unexpected things, such as honoring one’s parents. And it included laws that deal with creating a just society. In a radical departure from other belief systems, the Law they would receive at Sinai described murder, theft, and coveting others’ possessions as transgressions not only against one’s fellow man, but as transgressions that concern God. The Torah proscribes these acts because we are holy - just as holy as the potential victims of these sins - and because the God who has designated us as priests demands this standard of behavior.

The experience of slavery made us sensitive to the plight of the weak and disenfranchised. As former slaves, the Jews might have anticipated that the laws they would receive would be designed to promote a long-term educational plan of sensitivity to others, particularly the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, weaker members of society. But the stop at Sinai did much more than that: It introduced the consciousness of holiness to the entire community. This unique consciousness imparts a completely new, radical approach to human society. The Torah was given to us at Sinai, at a place of holiness, and not anywhere else, in order to teach us that treating one another with decency is part of serving God. That is the how and the why of being a nation of kohanim, a holy nation. 

The key to Judaism, then, is not secular humanism. Quite the opposite: Judaism, in a nutshell, is a commitment to holiness. This includes seeing the holiness in others, and dedicating ourselves to respecting the holiness of others. It includes dedication to creating and sustaining a vibrant, holy society. This is the concept that had to be internalized before we entered the Land of Israel, so that we could live as a holy People in a holy Land.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018

For more essays and lectures on Parashat Yitro:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Audio and Essays Parashat Yitro

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Tu B'Shvat – A Blessed Day, A Day of Blessing



Tu B'Shvat – A Blessed Day, A Day of Blessing

Tu B'Shvat – A Blessed Day, A Day of Blessing

Tu B'Shvat – A Blessed Day, A Day of Blessing
Rabbi Ari Kahn
(Appeared in The Jerusalem Post “In Jerusalem” Friday January 26th, 2018, page 8)

As Tu B'Shvat approaches and we search classical Jewish sources for the roots and meaning of this much-loved (though minor) holiday, one particular Talmudic parable stands out:  

When they were taking leave of one another, (Rav Nahman) said (to Rabbi Yitzhak): 'Master, give me a blessing.' (Rabbi Yitzhak) said to him:' I will tell you a parable... A man was walking through a desert; he was hungry, tired, and thirsty. And he found a tree whose fruits were sweet and whose shade was pleasant, and a stream of water flowed beneath it. He ate from the fruits of the tree, drank from the water in the stream, and sat in the shade of the tree. And when the time came to take his leave, he said: 'Tree, tree, with what blessing shall I bless you? If I say, May your fruits be sweet - your fruits are (already) sweet. [If I bless you] that your shade should be pleasant - your shade is already pleasant; that a stream of water should flow beneath you -  a stream of water already flows beneath you. Rather, [I will bless you]: May it be God’s will that all saplings which they plant from you, be like you.' (Talmud Bavli Taanit 5b-6a)

As is always the case with Talmudic parables, this lovely vignette encapsulates much larger, more important Jewish concepts. In this case, as in the case of Tu B'Shvat itself, the story goes far beyond wishing the trees a happy, successful new year.

Tu B'Shvat falls precisely in the middle of winter, and is the date that serves as the cutoff point for many agricultural laws: Torah-mandated tithes and other laws consider Tu B'Shvat the first day of a new agricultural cycle. While in the early Middle Ages, Jewish poets composed special piyyutim to honor the day, there is no record of celebration of any kind until modern times. In fact, the Mishna describes Tu B'Shvat as the "new year for the (fruits) of the trees" much as the American tax system would refer to the tax year, or an academic system might refer to the school year. This rather dry, technical approach remained unchanged until the publication of Hemdat Yamim in 1731, a book of unknown authorship that was published and publicized by Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Algazi.

From the moment it was published, Hemdat Yamim was both highly influential, and highly controversial. Its impact stems solely from its content, an explanation of the laws and related kabalistic ideas of the holidays that comprise the Jewish calendar; readers were enthralled and uplifted by the insights, and felt that the anonymous author had given them a deeper insight into the festivals. On the other hand, Hemdat Yamim proved to be quite controversial: Rabbis and scholars have long accused the book of having been influenced by ideas of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi and his followers.

Be that as it may, many of the kabalistic concepts in Hemdat Yamim are attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, "The Ariz"al." When it comes to Tu B'Shvat, the Hemdat Yamim explicitly states that the Seder Tu B'Shvat is his own invention, and not a teaching of the Ariz"al - and this is the (perhaps spurious) origin of the Tu B'Shvat celebration that has become popular in many homes and communities around the Jewish world.

Long before the printing of the Hemdat Yamim, Rabbi Yissachar ibn Susan (born 1510) wrote in Tikun Yissachar (Second Edition, published in 1579) that it was a custom of the “Ashkenazim” to eat fruit on Tu B'Shvat. Rabbi Yissachar, who lived in Israel at that time, was most likely referring to the Ashkenazi community in Israel, most probably in Tzefat. The custom he refers to is specific to fruits, with no Kabbalistic rite or seder, and the Tikun Yissachar is cited in the influential and authoritative halachic work, Magen Avraham (131:16). Here, most probably, is the source for the widespread custom of eating fruit on Tu B'Shvat -but not of the seder mandated by the anonymous author of Hemdat Yamim.

Let's take a step back from questions of authorship and the source of the ideas, and consider the rationale offered by the Hemdat Yamim for the Tu B'Shvat seder: At its basic level, the idea is to express thanks and appreciation. The method of conveying this very basic Jewish concept of hakarat ha'tov is through the instrument of reciting – and understanding –blessings, or brachot.  To illustrate the centrality of the brachah in Jewish Thought, Hemdat Yamim cites a teaching found in the Jerusalem Talmud:

Rabbi Yosi son of R Bun said, it is prohibited to live in a city which does not have a vegetable garden. Rabbi Hizkia, (in the name of) Rabbi Kohen said in the name of Rav: A person is destined to be judged and will have to account for anything his eye saw that he did not eat. Rabbi Elazar was careful (stringent) regarding this teaching, and saved up coins (with which to purchase) and eat each type of produce once a year. (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12)

The purpose of the newly created Tu B'Shvat seder, which formalized the types of fruit and wine to be used at the Tu B'Shvat seder and the proper sequence of their consumption, was to bring more blessing into the world. Participants at the seder are meant to partake of the bountiful produce God has given us, and to recite a blessing expressing appreciation and thanks. At this very basic level, the Hemdat Yamim and the Tikun Yissachar are in full agreement: The point of eating the fruit (and the wine) is to make the brachot.

The centrality of brachot and the concept of hakarat ha'tov they express are central to Jewish thought, as may be seen in other Talmudic passages:  

Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa said: Anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he stole from God and the community of Israel... (Talmud Bavli Brachot 35b)

Rashi explains:
“Stole from God" – His blessing.

The focus is on the blessing, not the purloined produce; God does not miss the fruit that was eaten without permission, without the blessing that would allow its consumption. What has been lost is the blessing itself; the world has been deprived of brachah - which we sorely need. When we recite a blessing, we connect with God and, at the same time, we cultivate and develop the trait of appreciation, of hakarat ha'tov. Additionally, The Ariz"al and his followers point out, mankind's very first sin in the Garden of Eden was eating a fruit without permission – and presumably, without a brachah. On Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for trees and their fruits, we have the opportunity to remedy this failing, even though, as the Jerusalem Talmud taught, throughout the year, it is a meritorious act to search the markets for new fruits in order to recite a brachah and express our thanks to God for the wonderful world He has provided for us.

This brings us full circle, to the Talmudic parable with which we began. Here, too, the lesson is one of hakarat ha'tov, of expressing appreciation, and of the human capacity to articulate our appreciation in the form of a blessing. The very act of blessing is like a tree whose saplings give more and more fruit and shade: The more blessing we bring into the world, the more blessed the world will be.