Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mizrachi Pesach Shayni!

Michael Naftali Unterberg 

I work in the coolest school in the world! Where else do the kids decide to make a Pesach Shayni seder, with freshly made lamb, matza and romaine lettuce?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dinner and a Show - Parshat Achrei Mot

We may find the particular mitzvah strange, but that also applies to the whole series of mitzvot. The whole realm of ritual sacrifice that plays such a large role in Sefer VaYikra is alien to us. This week in chapter 17 we find:

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 Speak unto Aaron, and unto his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded, saying: 3 What man soever there be of the house of Israel, that killeth an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or that killeth it without the camp, 4 and hath not brought it unto the door of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering unto the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people. 5 To the end that the children of Israel may bring their sacrifices, which they sacrifice in the open field, even that they may bring them unto the LORD, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest, and sacrifice them for sacrifices of peace-offerings unto the LORD.

Essentially, all meat that was eaten by Israel in the desert had to be prepared in the mishkan. (Tabernacle) This rule no longer applied after Yehoshua brought them into Israel, as the distances were prohibitive. People could then kill and prepare an animal for non-ritual purposes. The only restriction then was that any ritual sacrifice had to be performed at what eventually became the Temple in Jerusalem. What was the purpose of this temporary rule for the generation of the desert? Presumably, it will not even be applied in the future Temple. Why do we even need to know about it? What does it teach us about sacrifices in general?

I recently attended a couple of events where people reacted negatively to the entire idea of animal sacrifice. The first a book reading, where the author was presenting his perspectives on Jewish History. He discussed the major changes in Jewish practice since the fall of the Temple. In passing, he remarked that he assumes no rational person expects the primitive cultic ritual of animal sacrifice to ever return to Jewish life. This drew chuckles and nods of assent from most of the crowd. Needless to say, I did not sympathize with the sentiment.

More recently, I attended the screening of a documentary about tensions in the Samaritan community. The few remaining Samaritans living in Israel still offer their version of the Paschal sacrifice. When the film showed the preparation and execution of this ritual, the audience cringed. This time, watching the butchering of the carcasses, I cringed right along with them.

To be perfectly honest, we find the idea of animal sacrifice disturbing. It feels primitive. How do we wrap our minds around the idea that we pray to return to an area of ritual that we instinctively feel is better left behind? (rumors to the contrary, there is no position in normative Orthodox Jewish philosophy that says we will not bring back animal sacrifices, at least for a time, during the messianic era)

But why does it seem strange to us? In a supermarket age, the process of turning living animals into dinner is completely hidden from us. We pick up our meat in neatly wrapped packages, bearing little resemblance to the creature they once were. Farmers have a much more intimate perspective, as did our very recent ancestors. Have we made the process more moral and civilized? As a matter of fact, writers from Upton Sinclair to Jonathan Safran Foer have argued that modern industrialized meat production is less so. This negative assessment relates to the treatment of the animals, the workers, and the safety of the meat. Although we feel more civilized than our forebears, this is hardly the case. We have improved the aesthetics of meat consumption, rather than the ethics, by hiding its crueler and bloodier aspects. The thin cellophane veneer that covers our purchases in the store shelves, also supports an illusion  of modern superiority.

We have, in fact, changed little. Except for vegetarians, we generally consider meat meals to be more fancy and celebratory. We love to invite friends and family to a barbecue, which is generally a festive bonding experience. Essentially, that is what sacrifices are. When Jews feel the need to express something in their relationship to God, or when He invites us to come and meet with Him, we head to Yerushalayim for a barbecue. Usually, parts are burned, and parts are eaten by cohanim and the sacrifice bringer. It is a way of taking one of today's common social meal experiences, and adding a religious element. If it lacks the emotional distance of the supermarket shelf, perhaps so much the better.

The mitzva in our parsha describes the unique situation in the desert. Since the tribes lived in such close proximity to the mishkan, it seems wrong to have a cook out and not share the experience with Hashem. If we're in the neighborhood, we should really do lunch together. In this way, this particular rule, for that particular generation, at that particular time, shows us one of the underlying themes of all sacrifices. Essentially, the Beit HaMikdash is the original Jerusalem grill, raising the religious level of the culinary experience.

Perhaps there is also an inherent acknowledgment that God has given us a special dispensation in allowing us to kill and eat His creatures, and so we must approach for permission and to give thanks. This less than optimal assessment of meat eating has been expressed by
Rav Kook, and re-articulated by Rav Aviner. Minimally, we may want to approach the future return of the Beit HaMikdash and its sacrifices with a bit less sqeamishness and a bit more understanding.

Ancient Religion:Bible Archaeology:horned altar,high place altar,Beersheba

אני יהודי

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Voices of Nadav and Avihu

While it is somewhat tempting to offer an analogy to express that horror that the deaths of Nadav and Avihu must have elicited, I will refrain from doing so. Imagining a contemporary example is just to awful to put into words. After all of the work that went into the creation of the mishkan, on that thrilling 8th day of dedication, at the hight of the pomp drama, tragedy strikes. It must have been emotional whiplash. Maddeningly, the text does not say what they did wrong. Why not? And what did they do wrong.
Also striking is Moshe's one sided conversation with his brother Aharon. For some reason, the words, “Vayidom Aharon – and Aaron was silent”, sticks out in our collective memory. Here is the entire text of the story from Vayikra 10:

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace. 4 And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said unto them: 'Draw near, carry your brethren from before the sanctuary out of the camp.' 5 So they drew near, and carried them in their tunics out of the camp, as Moses had said. 6 And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons: 'Let not the hair of your heads go loose, neither rend your clothes, that ye die not, and that He be not wroth with all the congregation; but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the LORD hath kindled. 7 And ye shall not go out from the door of the tent of meeting, lest ye die; for the anointing oil of the LORD is upon you.' And they did according to the word of Moses. 
Let's start with Aharon's response. Perhaps the reading that I'd like to propose leans more towards derash than pshat, but I think it expresses an important element of the story. Perhaps “ Vayidom Aharon” means more than that Aharon was silent. The part of his identity that was the individual Aharon was silenced, so that the Cohen Gadol of Am Yisrael could function in his post. Moshe neither comforted him nor told him not to mourn. All he reminded Aharon was that those in close proximity to God must sanctify Him. So the father of two dead men was silent, in order for the Cohen Gadol to so his duty. This type of professional detachment from the self is common in many jobs. My student, Yehudit Goldberg, compared it to a surgeon or a soldier.

There are many suggested explanations for the particular sin of Nadav and Avihu, but perhaps the common denominator for all of them is that they did the reverse. They were so excited to be able to enter the Holy Precincts, that they could not help themselves from an extra, informal visit “off the clock”. This is utterly unacceptable. The idea that humans can enter into close proximity with the Divine is absurd, and can only be symbolically performed by functionaries playing a role in a sanctified location. The duly appointed and anointed Cohanim can bring the ketoret, but Nadav and Avihu can't. This is also a commonplace aspect of professionals, as doctors, pilots and, bankers and government officials wear uniforms and play roles in their place of work. To paraphrase Steve Martin, you will deposit your money in First Federal Trust, but not in Bob's bank.

Th only exception is Moshe, who functioned quite comfortably in bringing the korbanot until the Cohanim are set to work. Moshe really was the individual who could stand comfortably in the Presence. But his essence was complete objectivity, and to a certain extent his individuality was in a constant state of supression. The standard reading the story of Aharon and Miriam's complaint behind Moshe's back as their lack of understanding this. They don't see why he can't have a normal family life. Of course, in order to always be accessible to communication with God, Moshe no longer had the normal existence of an individual. Seeing their uncle as a role model instead of their father was the tragic error of Nadav and Avihu.

There is, of course, a limit to professional role playing that does not exist for Moshe. This explains the exchange a bit later in the story. It reads:
16 And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Eleazar and with Ithamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying: 17 'Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD? 18 Behold, the blood of it was not brought into the sanctuary within; ye should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.' 19 And Aaron spoke unto Moses: 'Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the LORD, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the LORD? 20 And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight.

Moshe does not understand why the three active Cohanim to not completely fulfill their role. They explain that although they are not abdicating their roles and responsibilities to mourn, ultimately their performance will be limited by the psychological reality that they just lost their sons and brothers. This creates a disconnect that will not allow them eat a chatat with the requisite peace of mind. Moshe is not silenced by this response, he is satisfied by the psychological reality as explained to him.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Yizkor Drasha: Pesach 5770

It is a jarring juxtaposition to have Yizkor during a chag. Chagim, of course, are devoted to simcha, while yikor is at least tinged with sadness. Why is it that we bring up memories of the departed on chagim?

I would like to suggest an answer based on another strange Jewish event. It is the odd ritual of Pesach Sheini, which is described in Bamidbar chapter 9.

4 And Moses spoke unto the children of Israel, that they should keep the passover. 5 And they kept the passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so did the children of Israel. 6 But there were certain men, who were unclean by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day. 7 And those men said unto him: 'We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of the LORD in its appointed season among the children of Israel?' 8 And Moses said unto them: 'Stay ye, that I may hear what the LORD will command concerning you.' {P}
9 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 10 'Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If any man of you or of your generations shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the LORD; 11 in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs; 12 they shall leave none of it unto the morning, nor break a bone thereof; according to all the statute of the passover they shall keep it. 13 But the man that is clean, and is not on a journey, and forbeareth to keep the passover, that soul shall be cut off from his people; because he brought not the offering of the LORD in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin. 14 And if a stranger shall sojourn among you, and will keep the passover unto the LORD: according to the statute of the passover, and according to the ordinance thereof, so shall he do; ye shall have one statute, both for the stranger, and for him that is born in the land.'”

Two questions:
  1. Why this strange request? There must have been people who could not participate in rituals on Sukkot or Shavuot. Why did lack of participation in the Pascal sacrifice seem so unacceptable, as opposed to other rituals?
  2. How is the solution meaningful? After all, we might feel bad for those members of the community who missed Pesach, but one would assume that nothing could be done. Pesach commemorates events on a certain date, and if you miss then you miss it. Even Moshe cannot think of a solution. Why does God's answer make any sense?
Rav Mordechai Breuer suggests that the Paschal lamb is not a commemorative mitzva. It is a self contained ritual that we happen to observe on the anniversary of its original observance. What is it's purpose? As servants of the King, we are invited to eat at His table. In a sense, while all of the sacrificial practices express a facet of our relationship with God, (thanks, repentance, etc.) the korban Pesach is the expression of the relationship itself. It is the proto-korban, a meta-korban, the ur-korban.

That explains the request. They had not missed a particular mitzva among many. What they had missed was an essential mitzva that symbolizes the place of the Jews as servants of the King. In fact, they are not quoted as saying, “We missed the korban Pesach”, rather they said, “We missed the korban Hashem – the offering of the Lord.” This choice of words is evidence that supports Rav Breuer's suggestion. It also explains the solution, since the date of observance of this ritual is of secondary importance.

But then why was Moshe so hesitant? Why didn't he simply tell them to go ahead and offer the korban when ever they wanted? Rav Breuer also points out that there is another strange aspect of this mitzva. It is the only korban that is both a korban tzibbur, (communal) and a korban yachid (individual). Every other korban is either brought by the cohanim on behalf of the people, or brought by individual people. But the korban Hashem is brought by individuals to the communal event of being invited to the King's banquet. The whole is made of the parts, and each part is as precious as the whole.

This idea, that the corpus of kenesset Yisrael is made of individuals of infinite value is also expressed in the rules that none of the korban should be left over, and no bones can be broken. The family unit must come together in order to finish the whole unbroken meal. The family is a primary unit of kenesset Yisrael. When we sit at the banquet, we can't help but notice the empty chairs of those from the family who we remember having been with us before.

In a sense, it is less jarring to have yizkor on a chag, than it is to have a chag without our loved ones. It is an inevitable consequence of our awareness of the infinite value of every human life, and our sense of loss and longing for the individuality of those who we love and are now missing. The idea of committing to give charity in their name is the attempt to have ripples and echoes of their existence on earth still matter and have consequence in the real world.

Although I presented these ideas somewhat differently, due to the different needs of writing vs. public speaking, these are the basic ideas. It is not lost on me as I post this on Yom Hashoa, that this has grave implications for our memory of the six million. Our lives must continue to be a denial of posthumous victories for the Nazis, and ensure a great victorious future for Am Yisrael. We, who brought the idea of ethical monotheism into the world, along with the idea of the infinite value of every individual life created in the image of God, must become the great light for the nations. That is the mission that we must struggle toward.