Our Humanity- Our Judaism

“Man was made in God’s image long before the covenant of Abraham and the Israelites. To be a Jew is the Jewish way of being human. It is not a justification for others to be less human”

Rabbi-Lord Jonathan Sacks

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Shkalim page 21: Mistakes

This tractate winds up with the most interesting conundrum. What happens if the paroches (the curtain in holy Temple which separates the holy of holies from the hall with the menorah, lechem hapanim and gold altar) becomes impure due to coming into contact with something impure. This is an eye opener. How can this happen in the most holy temple? There is tremendous care by a host of workers, priests, assistants in keeping the people, animals, and utensils free of impure contamination (tumah). Anyone who goes to see the archeological digs around the temple sees many mikvaos. We know there are several mikvoas in the temple complex. We know people took great pains to stay pure to bring sacrifices. So how does this happen. How can the curtain become impure? How can a person who had touched a sheretez or nevilah or some spritz of a dead animal come into contact with the curtain?

The SD would like to propose why it happens is not that important. The issue is that it can happen. The central lesson is that MISTAKES can happen. Anyone or any environment can is susceptible to error. Random things happen that we have no control over.

The Talmud is recognizing that no one is perfect. The most controlled environment in the world is still subject to imperfection. What is important is how we deal with mistakes. That is the beauty of the Talmud. The next tractate is Yoma- Yom Kippur or the day we deal with our mistakes.

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Matza is ubiquitous. Even non-Jews know about Passover and Matza. Recently my wife’s healthy food influencer who is the most secular person around, eating chazer treif with high fiber exhorted her listeners to eat Matza-on Passover. But in a rabbinic sing song exhortation sher reminded her listeners “only the two nights are required”.

Why is Matza such a symbol of Judaism? Matza resolves our spiritual/physical tension.

Matza breaks our mental gaps or divides about the world. Most people see the world as a conflict or tension: good -bad or more relevant “sacred-profane.” We see the world and our actions as falling into one of these distinctions. We see our spiritual actions as prayer, charity, chesed. Our physical needs- eating, bathing sleeping even procreating we mistakenly believe do not have a spiritual dimension. However, we don’t realize that in Jewish thought and the Torah even EATING is a spiritual undertaking.

Eating Matza breaks the mistaken spiritual/physical distinctions. By saying that Gd commanded us to eat Matza and then eating by eating Matza we dissolve the physical-spiritual conflict into one dimension. By eating Matza with the understanding that this act signifies are belief in Gd, his dominion and most importantly his charge for us to improve ourselves by helping others around us; by spreading the message of monothesim-love thy neighbor (all who need come sit, eat and be satisfied)

Matza is a step in breaking down the artificial divisions we have in our lives.

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Haftorah Vayikra

The parsha of Vayikra introduces the various sacrifices in the Torah. The prophet reading is Isiaiah chapter 43-44. The prophet rebukes the people by saying your “small” animals mean nothing in light of your sins. However, it is not clear (at least to the SD ) which sins Isaiah is referring to. The commentary in the chumash the SD uses says it refers to idol worship which is referenced later in chapter 44. The language is interesting. In 43 the haftorah starts with “yazarti”-“I fashioned” the people to praise me. But in 44 verse 9, the prophet says “yatzar” the people formed idol images. It seems like the prophet is saying, Hashem created us and yet we did not show gratitude but rather created or form alternate gds or idols.

What is all this have to do with the sacrifices? Sacrifices should be about gratitude. Showing gratitutde by bringing a sacrifice without acting gratefully all day makes no sense. This is particularly hard for the SD. In some ways it is easy to pray, drop or drop a few coins in a box. The hard work being grateful all the time. In recognizing, that even when the ship is sinking, or things are going against you, Hashem is there and not to run to worship other idols or ideals.

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Pesachim 115 and 116: Substance over Form

On page 115 there is a story about a great Talmudic rabbi Abaye as a little boy. The story says that Abaye as a little boy asked at the seder on passover night why the grown ups were removing the table before the meal. The adult responded, you have now exempted us from reciting the Ma Nishtana and we can continue.

On page 116 the same story occurs, this time with a slave of a rabbi known as Daru. He asks a question about the oddness of the night and again, the rabbi says, you have exempted us from Ma Nishtana.

The Talmud recognizes that substance wins over form. In Judaism we tend to do things in a repetitive manner. We pray the same thing every day, our sabbath prayers are the same, our grace after meals is the same. Things are done with great regularity at set times and at set places. This has the potential to lead to a “check the box” experience. It could lead to mindless observance and formulaic acts.

The Rabbis are sensitive that a “seder” (order) and written Hagadda which is forumulaic and very scripted could lead to hollow evening. We are therefore reminded that the script is not important, rather the meaning, the lessons and the experience is primary. Our seder should be “ordered” with energy, off script discussions and exploration off the pages.

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Vaykhal and Spirit of Gd within US

The parsha Vaykhal begins with telling us about keeping shabbos despite the work on the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Torah then goes on to explain the work done . The Torah then says the work was done by “Bezalal” who was filled with the spirit of Hashem in knowledge and understanding.

The Ishbitzer makes a startling statement. He claims the artisans were working above their level of skill and consciousness. That it was Hashem himself who was guiding their work and skills. They were conduits for his work who guided their skill and created the Miskan through them.

The thought is obvious. Hashem rules the world. He allows the perception that we are creating, or building or constructing our lives. But Hashem is behind all our labors. Without his will nothing is accomplished . It is hard to swallow that according to Ishbitz nothing is done without the will or Hashem. It is hard for modern or post modern man to accept this.

As a final thought, maybe that is why we are told to keep shabbos and refrain from working. Shabbos is reminder that we can get engrossed in our goals, work or aspirations , but ultimately we are bounded or commanded to stop and refrain and keep the shabbos in accordance with will of Gd. It is a manifestation of his will and guidance over us. The shabbos is a reminder that our destiny and product of our work is all in the hands and will of Hashem.

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Pesachim 88: Most Under Appreciated Daf: Part 1

Pesachim page-88 is gem. It is packed with thought provoking ideas. It will take at least two and maybe three days to unravel. The daf starts with a story When Ula comes to a town in Babylonia known as Pumpedesia. He is given a basket of rich dates. He asks how much is this and they tell him that you get three baskets of these dates for one zuz.

Ula exclaims, for such cheap and abundant food you people do not learn enough Torah. Clearly a slight and a jab. That night after Ula eats the dates and then he gets sick. He retracts the slight and says basically, considering you guys eat such dangerous food, its amazing you can learn Torah.

The first lesson is pretty obvious: Don’t judge people. Don’t think you understand them or their predicaments. Don’t think that given what they have, they should do more, give more; or conform to your opinions or values.

The second lesson is a little more nuanced: The rich dates are delicious and cheap. To really appreciate something one must know it, understand, know how to handle it and to keep balance and perspective in life. Not everything is a blanket blessing. It is only a blessing if used or consumed properly. One can be too rich or have too much and fail miserably if the blessings are not used properly. We must learn that when given things, how to properly use them. Ula is telling us that the people of Pumpedesia known how to balance their lives. They know how to balance the blessings of abundance and the mission of learning Torah. To those bestowed with blessing comes the obligation to use the blessings responsibly and in the will of Hashem.

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Pesachim 80: Fear of Missing Out-FOMO

Page 80 continues this esoteric discussion about bringing the Pesach offering when a majority of the people of Israel are in a state of Tumah (impurity) which is allowed. The question arises what if the situation is a 50-50 meaning half are not tuma and half are tumah. One suggestion is to make one of the pure people impure by touching a dead creepy crawler (sheretz), thereby breaking the even deadlock and making the majority impure so the sacrifice can be brought. As explained, when the majority of people of Israel are in a state of impurity, it can be brought. The second opinion is, why not just send someone far away, thereby breaking the tie that way.

Rav Nachman gives a snarky, but insightful answer. Who is pulling up their tent pegs and leaving Jerusalem. Interestingly, he does not slight the first option of making someone impure. He thinks it is worse to leave, rather than become impure.

Why? The SD would like to give an answer. FOMO. Who wants to leave Jerusalem in the spring. Who wants to leave the great masses of people who gathered from all over Israel and maybe all over the known world to celebrate. It is a social scene. Even in the ancient world, the Rabbis realized how powerful the need to socialize can be. Given the bizarre times (the Unprecedent) we live in: no one can see a smile, no one can shake hands; hug; eat together. We are all literally starving to be together. We are all experiencing some FOMO. The lesson from page 80 is that we need to start socializing, we need to start recoginzing we are social creatures who crave each other.

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Heaven and How to Get There: Whose Perspective

This week the SD was listening to a continuing legal education on trial tactics in personal injury cases. The SD tries to avoid bringing in the day job, but this was too illuminating. The lecturer started by paying homage to a giant in the field of trial advocacy who had passed away recently. He described this gentlemen as a great trial lawyer, a great advocate for his clients and finally stated: “Henry I’m sure your up in Heaven trying cases right now”

At first, the SD thought “how moronic was that statement.” Who is tripping on a banana peel in heaven? Who is getting hit by a car in heaven? Justice in heaven is absolute and does not need a trial lawyer’s advocacy to persuade a jury.

But then the SD thought again. Recently the SD read a book by Michael Lerner (editor of Tikkun Magazine). While his politics might be difficult for many people, he makes a good point about our Jewish experience. Essentially he posits that each person brings the weight of history into his consciousness. All the pain, the cruelty, the viciousness, the violence of the past history or what he witnessed seeped into his soul or psyche. The job of a Jew is to eradicate these negative traits. Our job is to root them out of our lives and exchange them for kindness, compassion, love, charity etc. So the challenge for each Jew is too find the negative traits that are baked into him and root them out and exchange them. Therefore, each person’s challenge or life work in improvement is very different.

As Torah Jews, maybe we use halacha, hashkafa, Jewish values as a template to lead us to compassion or character improvment. But we cannot escape our own life experiences, memories, or influences which strain or distort the Torah template or at least influence the template of the Torah. This is why some Jews post Torah learning is the highest level of service; others think acts of kindness, others think Shabbos observance. In the end, our world view is colored by our baked in traits and therefore influence our service to Hashem.

Getting back to Heaven. We each have a different conception of what goes on in Heaven. Even within the framework of Torah structures we have different paths to heaven. Maybe, the work is not worrying about heaven, but worrying about the work we need to do on earth.

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Bo: Materialism Israel v. Egypt

Sometimes you can go a whole week of reading the parsha on the bus, the train, waitingin line… and somehow you miss the gem.

In Chapter 10 in the plague of darkness, Pharoah calls Moses and says, you and your people and their children can go, but the sheep and cattle they stay. The word is “yozug” which is funny and rashi tells you: stay in place. The Ramban gives an incite into Pharoahs thinking. According to Ramban Pharoah knows that Jews have big herds. It represents their material weatlth. Pharoah thinks they will not leave their herds and not come back. Once they are back all will be ok. He thinks they are tethered to Egypt by their wealth.

Moses answer beautifully: We will take in even yours to offer. And our cattle we will take and not leave a hoof in order to serve gd as we dont know what service gd come to us there.

What is Moses saying: You think we have this stuff just to pad our balance. Our material is all subject to the whims of Hashem. We have it to serve him. Moses dispels Pharoah’s understanding of material values. To Pharoah it herds are totally physical. To Moses and Israel material items are used in the service in god.

As I said, it did not come to me until I was sitting at the beautiful shabbos table, with silver kiddush cups, beautiful challah covers, great food. It is great to have and enjoy, but it is done in the context of service.

So next time you pull your Aston Martin out of the garage, remember, it is all in the service of Gd.

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