Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

Vital Clear Communication (Vayikra)

It is still not enough for language to have clarity and content… it must also have a goal and an imperative. Otherwise from language we descend to chatter, from chatter to babble and from babble to confusion. -Rene Daumal

There is a great biblical mystery, that for thousands of years Rabbinic commentators have been unable to agree as to its solution. It has to do with the sudden, Divinely-enacted execution of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, brother of Moses.

To recap, at the consecration ceremony for the Tabernacle, Nadav and Avihu, of their own initiative, decide to offer what the Torah describes as a “strange” fire. The response is instant and fatal. The verse is short and cryptic: “And a fire came from God and consumed them and they died in front of God.”

The commentators have a spectrum of opinions as to why they were killed. It ranges from them having been drunk, to choosing not to marry, to wishing Aaron and Moses dead already so they can take charge, to the arrogance of bringing an offering nobody commanded.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 1:7 brings a simple yet chilling opinion. He says they were killed because they misunderstood the instructions. God instructs: “And the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar.” Nadav and Avihu interpreted that they should bring fire from outside. They didn’t think or bother to ask Moses for clarification (perhaps out of arrogance). That mistake proved fatal.

Based on this Rabbeinu Bechaye elaborates on the Talmudic dictum of being punctiliously careful with the words we say and especially when repeating the words of our sages. If Nadav and Avihu, whom after Moses there was nobody of their stature, could make such a grave error of misunderstanding with such dire consequences, how much more so must we, simple mortals, be careful in the clear transmission of information? He further warns that whoever changes or alters holy words, even one letter or the order of the words, is changing the very intention of God and will be cast off.

Hence, the Talmudic practice of the Rabbis repeating what they heard from their own teachers verbatim and getting into major debates if there were even minute differences in their traditions.

May we bear messages worth transmitting and may we do so clearly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the participants and organizers of the Jerusalem Marathon. It was a special treat to join runners, joggers, walkers and strollers from all over the country and the world in this amazing event.

Real Direct Prophecy

 Real Direct Prophecy

 A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol. -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are some things that are difficult to believe until experienced, and many times the only alternative we have is faith. One such thing is the concept of prophecy and especially the prophecy that we are told Moses experienced. The concept of God speaking directly to a human being or sharing certain images and visions with them might seem strange. Could it have been a function of their imagination? There are countless cases of people with mental illness who believed that God spoke to them. What makes these perturbed people different from our prophets?

Maimonides, amongst other Jewish sages and philosophers, provides various answers as to the validity and divinity of our prophetic tradition as well as to the uniqueness of the communication and interaction that God had with Moses.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 1:1 explains that the actual biblical wording highlights the fact that the prophecy of Moses was a real, clear direct communication from God:

“God’s call is described as an act that was an integral part of His speaking with Moses and in fact defined the manner in which the speaking was done. The word to be communicated to Moses was prefaced by a call to Moses.”

“This formulation of the text was apparently intended to make it clear that when God spoke with Moses it was indeed the word of God addressed to Moses by God Himself. The intention probably was to forestall those deliberate misrepresentations which so delight in changing the Divine Revelation to Moses into something emanating from with Moses himself, thus equating the Revelation with the delusion of so-called manic ecstasy arising from within the man himself. But this is not true.”  

“The word of the speaker cannot in any manner be interpreted as a product also of the mind of him who hears the speech. So, too, the word of God to Moses came purely and solely from God. It did not come from within Moses. It came to Moses from without, calling him away, as it were, from his own thought processes so that he might listen attentively to what God wished to say to him. Thus, the fact that the call from God came directly before God’s words to Moses refutes the notion that these words were preceded by some process taking place within Moses himself. It characterizes God alone as the speaker and Moses merely as the listener. The word of God to Moses was in no manner a phenomenon initiated or evoked by Moses, not even a development Moses could have surmised in advance; it came to Moses as a historic event from without.”

The transmission of the divine will of God to Moses is something that is beyond our ability to comprehend or understand. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because our mental and spiritual faculties are so meager, does not in any way invalidate the historicity of our tradition. Only the feeble-minded dismiss or ridicule what they don’t understand.

What Moses heard and recorded for all of posterity was indeed the voice of God. It was not something he imagined. It was not something he or anyone else made up. It is the will of God as instructed to Moses and transmitted in an unbreakable chain of over one hundred generations. It’s the real thing.

May we appreciate what that means and take advantage of it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all of our friends and family who helped make the wedding of our children such an incredible event.

Of Humans and Angels

 A man does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint.  -Albert Schweitzer

helping hand with the sky background

In Hebrew, the word for “angel” can be more literally understood as “messenger.” The Sfat Emet explores in 5636 (1876) and 5637 (1877) both the similarities and differences that humans have with angels.

Angels are divine messengers in that they are constantly on a mission for God. Humans are also messengers of God and have their divinely ordained missions; though we often are not aware what that mission may be, and if we are aware of the mission, do not necessarily fulfill it.

Angels have no choice but to fulfill their missions and the successful completion of their tasks does not change them in anyway.

Humans however, who do complete their tasks are in a sense rectified, made more whole, more complete, when they accomplish a divinely ordained job. There are missions that an individual and only that individual is uniquely suited to fulfill – and if he does not – the world remains diminished as a result. It can take a lifetime for a person to find that mission – or he may be able to do it every single day of his life.

There is another type of mission that is more common, with clearer guidance and instructions. It requires no soul-searching to uncover. In fact, its details have been written in black and white for thousands of years and have been passed down lovingly for generation upon generation, from father to son, teacher to student. It is the Torah. It is God’s instruction manual to us how to live a moral, meaningful life full of joy and accomplishment and contains the very secrets of eternal life. That is a mission that is open to all.

However, whether it is the communal mission or the personal individual mission, there is an angelic component in all of us ready to see it through.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Fremd family and the Jewish community of Paysandu. Out of tragedy and sorrow we have seen incredible strength and unity. May we all be consoled.

The Guilt Offering

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayikra-the-guilt-offering/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Vayikra

The Guilt Offering

guilt

Guilt upon the conscience, like rust upon iron, both defiles and consumes it, gnawing and creeping into it, as that does which at last eats out the very heart and substance of the metal. -Bishop Robert South

In Temple times, there were a number of different sacrifices that one could bring. There was the sin-offering, meant as a direct expiation for particular sins. There was the thanksgiving-offering, which as the name implies was offered when we were particularly grateful for something in our lives. There were also the celebratory sacrifices meant to be shared with friends and family on joyous occasions.

One unusual sacrifice was the guilt-offering, which in essence was a very public, physical admission of guilt for a particular failing from a list of sins. We no longer have the sacrifices, but we still have the possibility, requirement and necessity to admit our guilt. In Hebrew, the term is “Vidui”. In English, the closest translation is “confession.” In Jewish law, the first requirement is to admit guilt to ourselves. Thereafter, Vidui is a regular fixture in our prayers to God. The Rabbis conveniently gave us an alphabetical menu of possible sins that are said daily. On Yom Kippur we have a much more extensive and detailed list of transgressions we confess to and request forgiveness for. Admission of guilt does not necessarily bestow forgiveness, but it is a necessary first step to any possible amends and healing.

While we don’t have the Christian tradition of the confessional, there is probably something healthy in admitting our failings to another trusted and understanding soul. The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 4:12 states that no one should be embarrassed to confess their sins, as even the High Priest himself is instructed to publicly bring his own guilt-offering. If that most holy man is capable of sinning and has the obligation to confess and repent, despite the shame, so too the rest of us mortals must have the courage to face our darker side and bring it to the light, in intelligent, healing and productive ways.

May we thereby dispel the demons of guilt that may haunt us and remove that weight from our shoulders, that cancer from our souls.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my friend, the Archbishop of Montevideo, Daniel Sturla, on his recent appointment as Cardinal.

 

 

Selfless Self-prayer

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/vayikra-selfless-self-prayer/

Netziv Leviticus: Vayikra

Selfless Self-prayer

“Let everyone try and find that as a result of daily prayer he adds something new to his life, something with which nothing can be compared.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Jewish liturgy is often written in the plural form. We should have others in mind in our prayers. Therefore, one might develop feelings of guilt if one were to pray for oneself. How selfish would that be?

The Book of Leviticus presents us with a variety of sacrifices that are brought in the Tabernacle and were subsequently offered in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The Netziv on Leviticus 1:2 explains, as do most Rabbinic commentators, that prayer is a substitute for the sacrifices that were offered. However, he adds, that just as the penitent brings his own sacrifice, so it is with prayer. It is always most effective and appropriate when the person seeking divine assistance prays for himself.

However, there are sacrifices that the spiritual leadership brings on behalf of the people. According to the Netziv, this parallels the ability of a person who doesn’t know how to pray to ask the community leadership to pray on his behalf.

We should develop our prayer abilities, and for those of us feeling deficient in that area – find someone who can help us in that department.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the beginning of the Uruguayan school and work year. Feel free to join us at the synagogue for community prayer.

To Betty and Wolf Gruenberg on their wonderful hosting. May all their prayers be answered.

Carnivorous God

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/carnivorous-god/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Vayikra

Carnivorous God

“The key to faith is what we are willing to sacrifice to obtain it.” -Elder Cloward

A significant portion of the Torah concerns itself with sacrifices, specifically animal sacrifices. There are chapters and chapters that go on about what type of animal should be offered on the altar, for what circumstances and with what accompanying service.

In our day and age the concept of animal sacrifice seems primitive and barbaric, yet it occupied a central part of Jewish practice for thousands of years. What was so vital about offering unblemished, productive animals in the prime of their lives to an apparently ravenous God?

Ibn Ezra (Leviticus 1:1) accentuates the importance further by noting that in Leviticus the animal sacrifices are mentioned before any other commandments. He explains that the sacrifices are what “keeps” God amongst us. He recalls a statement of the sages that when the daily Temple sacrifices stopped because of the siege of the city, God “left” the Temple and Jerusalem.

Perhaps it is the offering of something significant. Perhaps it is the offering of a living, breathing being. Perhaps the trauma of the death of an innocent animal should do something to us, to make us realize the seriousness of our encounter with God.

Later, in the Prophets, God states that He doesn’t “need” these sacrifices, that the mechanical offering of these beasts without any underlying feeling of remorse, repentance or closeness to God is murder.

How do we get a better understanding of “sacrifice” in our times and what mechanical offerings are we better off not doing?

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish community of Uruguay, their sacrifice on behalf of their brothers. To the shlichim in Montevideo and their self-sacrifice. To Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and his inspiring visit to the community of Uruguay.