Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Loving and Forgiving G-d

"I think that is what a loving and forgiving God would want . . .”

This sentiment (and variations thereof), often expressed by people who clearly do not believe in G-d let alone adhere to His ways, has been popping up of late in the comment sections of a couple of blogs that I frequent. 
Everyone has an idea about what G-d would want or not want based upon some inner yardstick by which they measure right and wrong themselves. “I think G-d wouldn’t mind if I…” is a refrain I hear more and more. It doesn’t matter that G-d, in His Word has condemned their choices. Does it really matter what we think G-d would want?

Regarding what behaviors we think G-d surely must approve or disapprove, the G-d of the Bible says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says Hashem. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

His is not some god of a person’s own invention as they “think that he ought to be", standing on the sidelines like a cheerleader, rubber stamping “brave, independent” choices, but a real G-d, whose “wants" are clearly stated in the Torah and have nothing to do with popular vote, cultural changes or societal norms. (It used to be that when people created a god which suited their ideas, it was called idol manufacturing.) What if G-d, who frankly doesn’t care what we think that He should do, declared in no uncertain terms that all of the things mankind thinks about Him are complete rubbish?

“...Man drinks iniquity like water!” (Job 15:16)

“...The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no G-d,' they are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; there is no one who does good. G-d has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there is anyone who understands, who seeks after G-d. Every one of them has turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Have the workers of wickedness no knowledge, who eat up My people as though they ate bread, and have not called upon G-d?" (Psalm 53:1-4)

"For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." (Isaiah 64:6)

To know the true G-d is to understand what He has stated regarding using tools of wickedness to achieve some “higher” purpose. Light and darkness are incompatible with each other. Lies, profanity, immorality, a continual double life are not loving acts, and never are the way to achieve living a life of good moral character. Practicing these tools of immorality cannot ever bring about honor. Gasoline can never be used to put out a fire. “I think that a loving and forgiving gasoline would want to quench the flames.” A person who thinks this is in danger of burning down their home and taking lives in the process.

G-d has stated what He thinks, loves, forgives. He has also stated what He hates and will not forgive. Do people even know that G-d says that He won’t forgive certain things? Do people know what those things are?

It is a symptom of what is wrong with our society: Everyone believes that in just their own circumstance, previously unchanging and immutable laws (those principles which allow business and personal relationships to function without collapsing) such as honesty and the ability to trust in another’s word, may be temporarily laid aside because the situation is deemed necessary.
The truth is that G-d is both loving and forgiving, to the repentant. His word is filled with longing entreaties to his beloved bride Israel to return to Him and repent of her deeds, as He desires to pardon her. However, He also states categorically that she must submit to His will and that her return and forgiveness will be predicated upon forsaking the sin which she committed when she strayed from His commandments.

Repentance must include confession that her actions were wrong. No justification for her wrongdoing is ever laid at the door of G-d. He did not fail her, she failed him.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Abounding in Lovingkindness and Truth

A rabbi once found himself in the presence of a sanctimonious individual who was decked out grandly in all the rabbinic garb and trappings of a self-styled saint.  Perceiving that this was all mere window-dressing, while the man behind it all was somewhat base, the rabbi said:

"In the Biblical verse which lists the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, we find the word 'truth'.  This is somewhat surprising, for truth characterizes the Attribute of Strict Justice, middah ha-din, rather than the Attribute of Mercy, middah ha-rachamim.  Indeed, if G-d were to judge us by the strict criterion of uncompromising truth, demanding of us an absolute degree of truth in the performance of His commands, who could possibly survive such a test?"

"Fortunately, though," the rabbi continued, ""the attribute of truth is sometimes itself an attribute of mercy.  Let us suppose the Almighty sees a man who passes himself off as a saint , flaunting the cloak of a sage, and garments of purest white.  One might expect the Almighty to judge such a man according to the exacting standards demanded of righteousness.  In fact, though, He judges him only according to the measure of truth - according to such a man's truthful measure - for He sees what goes on inside His heart, and knows in fact that he is nothing more than a simple, base fellow."

"And this answers our question as to what 'truth' is doing in a list of merciful attributes.  For what greater demonstration of mercy and lovingkindess could there be, than the fact that G-d judges such a man according to his true measure?"  

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Freedom in Submission

            In last week's parasha, we read about the disease of tzara'at  and how one can recover from this  state.  The laws of the metzora appear as part of a group of laws that involve the kohanim, since  they are the ones responsible for the purification and the recovery process of  the metzora, afflicted one, at least in regard to his entering the vicinity of the Mishkan or Temple.

           What we learn essentially from this situation is that the Torah relates to tzara'at as a spiritual disease,  meaning a disease whose outcome (and presumably its  cause as well) affects the world of the Mishkan  and the encounter with G-d.

My intention is to point out that since the Torah treats the disease with priest and sacrifices, it is to be understood within the context of the Temple, the world of  serving  G-d  and Divine Providence.   Thus, the verse in Devarim emphasizes:  "In cases  of a skin affliction, be careful to do exactly  as the Levitical priests instruct you. Take care to do as  I have commanded them" (Devarim 24:8).

Indeed,  the  priest  has two roles  vis-a-vis  the metzora:  First  he has to diagnose the disease,  whether this is really tzara'at, and second, he has to atone  for and purify the metzora.  However, despite the connection between this disease and  the  laws of the priests, we are still surprised  to find  it  textually in the place that it appears.   The direct continuation of Sh'mini should be the parasha  of Acharei  Mot (beginining in Leviticus 16): "Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aharon who died when they drew too close to the presence of  the L-rd" (Vayikra   16:1).

             Surprisingly, separating these two events (the eighth day and  the  command about the Day of Atonement  which  came "After  the  death of the two sons of Aharon"),  we  read about different ordinances (forbidden foods, the tum'a of a  woman  after childbirth; nidda, zav and zava, of which the  most  unusual is the commandments about the metzora. We could  say that the text is highlighting the different states that causes one to become ritually impure and thus unable to enter the Mishkan (the animals that we are forbidden to eat are intrinsically tied with ritual  impurity. However, we see at once that a special status is  given to the disease of tzara'at, for which the  text goes on at especially great length.

             It seems to me  that there  is a special significance to tzara'at, which  will enable  us  to  understand why its commandment  (and the other ritual impurities) are found separating the eighth day and the commandment for the Day of Atonement.  In  order  to understand the significance  of  this disease, we will turn to two different sources where  the disease  appears  in  Tanakh, two cases  where  the  text emphasizes  in an explicit way that tzara'at comes  as  a punishment from God.

1.  Miriam's tzara'at (Bamidbar 12: 1-15).

              Before the spies were sent by Moshe to tour the land of  Canaan,  the  Torah tells us an amazing  story  about Miriam and Aharon:

              "Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married, for he had  married  a Cushite  woman!  They said, 'Has the L-rd spoken only through  Moshe?  Has  He not  spoken  through  us  as well?'  ...  Hashem came down in a  pillar  of  cloud, stopped  at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, 'Aharon and Miriam!'  The two of them came  forward, and  He said, 'Hear these My words:

               When a prophet of Hashem arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted  throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth,  plainly and  not  in  riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Hashem.   How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moshe!'  Still incensed with  them, G-d  departed.  As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white tzara'at!"

                Let's focus on the exact words said by Miriam and Aharon: "Has the Lord spoken only  through Moshe?  Has He not spoken through us as well?  ...."In other  words,  the  criticism that  is  heaped  on  Moshe actually  stems from his unusual spiritual  position  and perhaps  even from his leadership position. 
                This  matter is  further  clarified by G-d's reaction which emphasizes the  singularity  of Moshe's prophecy: "Not  so  with  My servant  Moshe;  he is trusted throughout  My  household. With  him  I  speak mouth to mouth, plainly  and  not  in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Hashem."   As  a punishment for her words, Miriam is turned into a metzora as  white as snow: "As the cloud withdrew from the  Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white tzara'at!"

2.  Uzia's tzara'at (Divrei Hayamim 2 26:16-21):

        "When he was strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly and he trespassed against his G-d by entering the Temple of Hashem to offer incense on  the incense  altar.  The priest Azaria, with eighty  other brave priests of Hashem, followed him in and, confronting King Uzia, said to him, "It  is  not  for you, Uzia, to offer incense to Hashem, but for the priests,  the sons of Aharon, who have been consecrated to offer incense.

          Get out of the Sanctuary for you have trespassed; there will be no glory in it for you from G-d."  Uzia, holding thecenser to burn incense, got angry;  but as he got angry with the priests, tzara'at broke out on his forehead in front of the priests in the House of Hashem beside the incense altar.  When the chief priest Azaria and all the other priests looked at him, his forehead was afflicted with  tzara'at,  so they rushed him out of there; he too made haste to get out, for Hashem had afflicted him."

           In this story, King Uzia attempts to offer up the incense in the House of G-d, a task assigned only to the priests.   G-d punishes him and the plague of tzara'at begins to spread on his forehead (he remains a  metzora until the end of his life).  The two stories have a similar literary structure. The  tzara'at attacks Miriam when she is standing in  the Tent,  after the Divine Presence withdraws.  The tzara'at of  Uzia attacks him in the House of G-d.  In both cases, the text describes two stages:  First  there  is  the appearance of the disease, and then the onlookers see it.
            The consequences of the disease are also the same in both cases.  There is a separation from the place of  the Divine Presence and from society.  About Uzia we read: "He lived  in isolated quarters as a metzora, for he was  cut off from the House of the L-rd" (Chronicles II 26:21).   And about Miriam we read: "So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days" (Bamidbar 12:15).
              If we carefully examine the common ground shared by the sins of these two personalities, we will come to the conclusion that both of them challenge religious authority.   We already mentioned with regard  to  Miriam that  the  text emphasizes that the spiritual status of Moshe is subjected to criticism (aside  from  Miriam's words, the matter is highlighted by G-d's reaction). 

              We find  a  similar emphasis in the text by King Uzia with regard to the  priests.  Uzia is not  motivated by a religious awakening or religious emotion, he is seeking to acquire total social  authority.   Aside from  the political power that is in his possession, Uzia also wants the religious authority held by the priests (or the prophets).  The text emphasizes this when it contrasts Uzia to the priests that follow him: "He trespassed against his G-d by entering the Temple of Hashem to offer incense on the incense altar.  

                The priest Azaria, with eighty other brave priests of the Lord, followed him in." They  even carry out a conversation that defines the role of  each  of  them: "It is not for you, Uzia, to offer incense to Hashem, but for the priests, sons of Aharon who have been consecrated to offer incense.  Get out of the Sanctuary for you have trespassed; there will be no glory in it for you from G-d."

             When the punishment is brought upon Uzia, the  text emphasizes the priests standing next to him: "But  as  he got  angry  with the priests, tzara'at broke out  on  his forehead  in  front  of  the priests  ..."  The tension between the two authorities comes to a head when Uzia  is expelled from the House of G-d by the priests.

               Miriam   questions  the  prophecy  and   religious authority  of  Moshe  and becomes a metzora.   Uzia  also questions  the  special religious  status  given  to  the priests and becomes a metzora.

               If  this is indeed the reason for tzara'at in  the Torah, we can then understand why the role   of purification from the disease falls on the shoulders of the priests - not only are the priests responsible for the Mishkan (the direct consequence to the metzora is expulsion from the House of G-d), but also because, in this way,  the  metzora will be taught to accept  higher religious  authority than his own.  
               He must  come  before the  priest who will examine the disease which has spread on  his  body, and the priest will decide what his religious status is to be.  The priest controls the whole process of healing from ritual impurity.

               In  this context we should consider another story about tzara'at that occurs in Melakhim.   After Elisha succeeds in curing the tzara'at of Na'aman, commander of the army of  the king of Aram, Na'aman wishes to give Elisha a present; however, Elisha refuses: "As  Hashem lives whom I serve, I will not accept anything" (Melakhim II 5:16).

               After  Na'aman  leaves  Elisha,  Gechazi,  Elisha's attendant, decides to run after Na'aman and take presents from him: "Gechazi the attendant of Elisha the  man  of G-d, thought: My master has let that Aramean Na'aman off without accepting what he brought!  As Hashem lives I will  run after him and get something from him."   So Gechazi hurried after Na'aman and took presents from him.
               When  Elisha  understood what Gechazi his attendant had done,  he punished him: "Surely the tzara'at of  Na'aman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever."  And as  [Gechazi]  left his presence, he was snow-white  with tzara'at" (Melakhim II 5:27).

                In the story before us it also seems that the theme of [challenging] religious authority (this time regarding a  prophet) is at the center.  Na'aman, the commander in chief  of Aram's army at first doubts  the  ability of Elisha,  prophet of G-d, after he tells him to bathe in the Jordan  River: "But Na'aman was angered and walked away.  "I thought," he said, "he would surely come out to me and would stand and invoke G-d by name, and would wave his  hand toward the spot, and cure the affected  part."

                However, after he is cured, Na'aman is taught a lesson, "Now  I  know  that there is no G-d in  the  whole  world except in  Israel!" Through his tzara'at Na'aman  learns that  G-d is the true G-d and that Elisha is His  prophet (indeed  it  seems that at the beginning Na'aman  reasons that  the power is in Elisha's hands and therefore Elisha teaches him, by not accepting a gift for himself, that this is not so.

                In contrast to Na'aman, Gechazi questions his master's decision and decides on his own to take  the presents from Na'aman.   Gechazi's questioning the prophet's words is further highlighted when you  compare the following conversations:

Elisha  -  "As  Hashem lives, WHOM I SERVE,  I  will  not accept anything."

Gechazi - "As Hashem lives, I WILL RUN AFTER HIM and  get something from him."

               Elisha  swears in God's name that he will not  take anything  from Na'aman (and therefore the  verb  "whom  I serve" is appropriate because it shows passivity [God  is active]).  In comparison, Gechazi swears in  God's  name, that  he  will take something from Na'aman (and therefore the words "I will run after him" appear which express  an extra effort and activity).

               Because Gechazi questions Elisha's authority and does not accept his teacher's decision,  Gechazi  is "rewarded" with tzara'at.  At the same time that Na'aman, commander in chief of Aram's army, learns the lesson  [of Divine authority] and is cured of tzara'at, Gechazi,  the attendant  to a prophet of G-d, fails, and therefore the tzara'at of Na'aman infects Gechazi and his offspring forever.

               Now we will return to the problem that we brought up in the beginning, about the place for the commandments of the metzora in this week's parasha.  In last week's shiur we dealt with Nadav and Avihu's sin, and we showed  that the purpose of the eighth day is Divine Revelation before all of the nation of Israel, as it occurred at Mt. Sinai. Nadav and Avihu sinned in their attempt to offer up  the incense  offering  and veil the Divine Revelation  before the  eyes  of  Israel.  

                Now the opposite problem  occurs.  Not priestly elitism (as was expressed by the actions  of Nadav and Avihu), but the questioning of the special position accorded to the priests.   Now  arises   the possibility that the nation might think that there is  no special significance to the priests who  work in the Mishkan, since G-d has appeared to the entire nation  and not to a specific group.

                 In  order to balance this situation, the Torah teaches us, right after the death of Aharon's  sons the extra strictures that the Mishkan  demands  from  its appointees (purity), and especially  emphasizes tzara'at, which comes as a punishment for  the questioning  of  the  status of G-d's  special  servants, whether  a  prophet  (as with Miriam and  Gechazi)  or  a priest (like Uzia).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Obedience not Sacrifice

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them (Leviticus 10:1)

From the very wording of the text we can infer that the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, behaved themselves arrogantly.  The text is careful to highlight and emphasize the filial relationship to Aaron, the High Priest, and although they were b'nei Aharon, sons of Aaron, they did not consult with their father before acting.  Or perhaps, because they were sons of Aaron they may have felt no obligation to solicit advice from anyone else.

They had forgotten that they were merely individual members of the nation, and yet they failed to seek advice from the leaders of the nation.  Instead they chose to rely exclusively upon their own reasoning and acted solely upon their own initiative.  It is strongly implied that they did not even consult with each other!

The entire nation was about to experience the privilege of witnessing a revelation of G-d's closeness, and Nadab and Abihu decided to make a separate offering all their own.  But our Sages are careful to point out that the priests were called to completely identify with the nation and had no standing in their own right.  The whole purpose and essence of the priest is to stand in the midst of the people which accounts for their standing before G-d.  And so, in their very drawing near, Nadab and Abihu were at fault.  Their offering was illegal in every respect.

The Torah stresses that Nadab and Abihu each used his own firepan.  In other words, our Sages understand that Nadab and Abihu did not bring their offering in vessels of the Sanctuary, but in their own vessels - without self-renunciation.  As for the ketoret, the incense itself, it is the only offering that is offered as the community's obligatory offering each day and as the High Priest's obligatory offering on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Our Sages understand that the ketoret represents a person who is completely absorbed in bringing satisfaction to G-d and represents the ideal of His requirements.  But if it is offered as an expression of one's own choice, it would entail great arrogance.  The Torah stresses above all that what Nadab and Abihu offered was something which G-d had not commanded them to make: asher lo tziva otam, that which He had not commanded them.  Even if the details of the offering had not been forbidden, just the mere fact that G-d had not commanded that which they brought would have sufficed to make it forbidden.

There is no place in our service to G-d for subjective arbitrariness, for doing what is right in our own eyes.  Even free-will offerings must comply with prescribed forms.  As we have learned, the main purpose of the offerings is to draw near to G-d, to seek closeness to Him, and this closeness is attained through obedience to G-d.  The pagan, through his offering, seeks to make his god subservient to his will, while we, through our offering, place ourselves in the service of G-d and accept upon ourselves His yoke which is easy, and His burden, which is light i.e. the yoke of obedience to Him and His will.

Through the offerings, we adopt the Divine imperative as a guiding light.  Do not offerings of our own design and our own devising work to undermine the very truth of what the offering is intended to represent?  Do not such offerings only glorify our own caprice rather than obedience to G-d?  The deaths of Nadab and Abihu serve as a clear warning to future generations, barring arbitrariness and all personal caprice from the confines of the Sanctuary, whose entire purpose is to be a Sanctuary for the Word of G-d to which obedience is expected.  In short, the priest's duty and function is not to introduce innovations in the Service, but to carry out G-d's commands.

We live in an age where innovation is king and is revered more than anything else.  We obsess and wring our hands about our "relevance."  And to remain relevant we are forced to innovate and reinvent ourselves every few years, because we have no idea of what to do in a world that places a higher value on style than substance and on experience than the truth.  After all, without innovation and seeker friendliness, how do we function in a world that refuses to tolerate a worldview that makes exclusive claims on personal allegiance, obedience, and faithfulness?

The answer today: innovate.  In other words, lighten the load.  But not in the way Y'shua taught.  Although He invited the weary and heavy laden to take up His yoke, His yoke involved much more than most were (and still are) willing to bear.  No, we must innovate.  Why?   Because we believe, really believe, that our weakness lies in the fact that our routines are too old, the music too dull, the programs too scant, the parking lots too empty, and that most of the problems are simply a matter of style and comfort. 

As I heard one minister put it years ago: G-d rests too inconsequentially upon us.  His Word, if taught at all, is insufficient.  The riches of the Messiah are entirely searchable.  We claim that G-d is the center of our worship and yet, if that is true, we can't help but wonder why there is so much that is unauthorized, superfluous, and counterproductive to true worship orbiting this center.

What do we need to rediscover, or rather Who?

How about G-d in His grace, truth, and awesome, holy presence?  How about the G-d who struck down and consumed those well-meaning innovators, Nadab and Abihu, on the first day of their service in the sanctuary?    How about the G-d Who can whet our lost appetites for the truth once again?  Innovative programs, no matter how radical, change overnight and will change, and change again.  How about the G-d Who can change human nature? 

How about dispensing with the cocktail party-atmosphere that serves up pleasantries while avoiding unpleasantness and starting with a humble return to the G-d Who demands that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices on His altar, Who demands that we stop conforming to the patterns of this world and start being transformed by the renewing our minds so that we can discern His perfect will for ourselves and for those who are dead while they live?

Of course, it's difficult to miss the irony of just how innovative that would be today.