Thursday, March 21, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: I Didn't Ask for Sacrifices

Almost the entire Book of Leviticus is devoted to details of the sacrificial and priestly rituals.  In our Thursday night class studying the Haftarah for the coming week, we are seeing that sometimes the connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah really serves in a way to undermine or soften the message of the Torah portion. While this coming Shabbat we read a special Haftarah for the Shabbat before Passover, the normal Haftarah for this portion comes from the book of Jeremiah, and it seems to blatantly contradict not only the Parasha but the Torah as a whole.

Jeremiah 7:22 says :”when I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering or sacrifice.” How can this be? Isn’t this entire Parasha, almost all of Leviticus and much of both Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy concerned with the laws of sacrifices?

Abarbanel resolves the seeming contradiction by reading the Haftarah text quite literally. When I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt I did not command any sacrifices; the command to sacrifice only came after the sin of the Golden Calf. God had originally intended for the people of Israel to serve God only via moral and ethical behavior, but he learned through trial and error that human beings need a framework and rituals. Since God had not provided one, the people devised their own, and it did not work out so well.

Ritual, then, is not something we do for God but rather something God provides for us. I am often asked if God really cares about this or that ritual. My answer is, that I don’t know the mind of God, but every mitzvah we observe is an opportunity to draw closer to God.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: The Golden Path

We start reading the book of Leviticus, VaYikra, this week. It is sometimes a struggle to find meaning in this book which is, as the name Leviticus implies, all about the sacrificial rituals which the Levites performed in the ancient Jerusalem Temple. These rituals haven't been performed for almost 2000 years and most Jews that I know don't really yearn to see them restored.

On the surface, then, the concerns of this week’s Parasha seem very far removed from ours. But even in the context of the details of the sacrifices we can find meaning.
In Lev. 2:11 we read:  "No meal offering, which you shall bring to the Lord, shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven, nor any honey, in any offering of the Lord made by fire."

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of offerings made in the ancient Temple were grain and meal offerings, not animal sacrifices. Among them was the daily meal offering which was similar to a "laffa," a large pocket-less pita which is quite popular in Israel these days and is also sometimes known as an Iraqi pita. The original matzah was also similar to laffa and some Sephardic communities still eat this soft matzah. The Torah here is specifying that such an offering cannot be combined either with yeast or with honey.

Rabbi Mordechai Ha-Kohen in his commentary Al Ha-Torah writes "Yeast and honey are symbolic of extremes. Yeast is the epitome of sourness and honey is the epitome of sweetness. This teaches us that we should always go on the “golden path”, rather than tending to extremes." Even in seemingly irrelevant details of ancient rituals, we can still find ethical meaning. Our service of God should be balanced, avoiding fanaticism in any direction.

In a world which loves to see things as either/or, Judaism generally encourages us to opt for both/and. Universalism or particularism? Both. Justice or mercy? Both. Ritual or social action? Both. Such an important lesson to be learned from a seemingly insignificant matter of ritual detail.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

D'var Torah for Shabbat Across America

There is a Latin phrase from Pliny the Elder with which you may be familiar -- in vino veritas, in wine there is truth. There is actually a similar phrase in the Talmud, Tractate Eruviin 65a, nichnas yayin, yatza sod -- when wine comes in, the secret goes out.

The Sfat Emet, a great hasidic teacher at the turn of the 20th century, taught that this is precisely why we have wine on Shabbat.

Huh? The Sfat Emet says that spirituality is actually secret, hidden. It is internal -- you can’t see it or measure it, but it’s there in the soul of every Jew, and it comes out on Shabbat -- with the help of a little bit of wine.

Shabbat rest is not just ceasing from our labors. The Sfat Emet wrote -- “of course every Jew sets aside his labor on Shabbat. But it’s important that not working on Shabbat not be experienced as a burden -- rather, he should be waiting in anticipation all week for Shabbat, which is where his real life is.”

It’s an interesting thought. Many of us make a distinction between our spiritual practices and “the real world.” We have our spirituality -- whether that is Shabbat, or kashrut, or prayer, or maybe something from another tradition such as yoga -- so that we can go out into the real world better-equipped to face its challenges. But the Sfat Emet says that Shabbat is the real world because it is the day we devote solely to spirituality -- and we can’t do that if our main worry is about what we’re missing out on while observing Shabbat. We don’t rest on Shabbat so that we can have strength for the other six days. We work on the other sixth days so that we can enjoy Shabbat.

The fastest growing group in American society today is those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I think what that means is people who have a sense of the holy or the spiritual or the mystical but don’t want to get caught up in lots of rules. And I suspect that the Sfat Emet would have found a lot in common with these folks. Of course, as an Orthodox, Chasidic rabbi he takes it for granted that a Jew is going to follow all the rules. But if you only follow the rules, you haven’t really experienced Shabbat.

Perhaps we can learn from the Sfat Emet too. Instead of merely worrying about what we should ask people not to do on Shabbat, we ought to remind people what they should do as well. So on this Shabbat, I want to invite you to enjoy yourselves and to connect with your secret, inner, spiritual self. Shabbat Shalom.