SHMINI

FRIDAY, April 13th

After Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu die, Moshe attempts to comfort Aharon saying “This is what Hashem meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” In response, the Torah says that Aharon was silent (vayidom).  What is the significance of Aharon’s silence?  Some commentators, such as the Ramban, claim that Aharon’s silence shows us that he was comforted by Moshe’s words. Understanding that his sons’ death was a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, helped him not to grieve their loss.  Many commentators, however, such as Rashbam and Rabbeinu Bachya connect Aharon’s silence to God’s instructions to the prophet Yechezkel not to outwardly mourn his wife’s death, saying “moan silently” (hei’aneik dom) (Yechezkeil Ch. 24).  In Yechezkel, the context makes clear that his silence comes not from being comforted, but from restraining the outward expression of his feelings.  Here, too, then, Aharon’s silence may reflect not that he was comforted by Moshe’s words, but that he chose to restrain the full expression of his feeling.

If we read Aharon’s silence as Ramban did, then Moshe’s effort to comfort him was successful and praiseworthy.  However, Rabbeinu Bachya and Rashbam’s read seems to accord better with the way we would expect a parent to react after the death of their child.  A human being is not so easily consoled for the loss of their children.  In keeping with this, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar instructs us in Pirkei Avot (4:18) “do not console your friend when their dead lies before them.”  This is in fact the rule for how we speak to those who are in mourning. Traditionally we do not offer expressions of consolation to mourners before their relative has been buried.  Even after the burial, during Shiva, one shouldn’t open conversation with mourners, but wait for them to initiate, in order to avoid inadvertently causing more anguish with an inappropriate remark or premature attempt at consolation.  Thus, Moshe’s attempt to comfort Aharon, however well-intentioned, was misplaced and premature, and Aharon’s silence reflected not consolation but self-restraint or at best, resignation.

Often the best and most appropriate response to someone else’s grief is not to try and say something that will minimize the other’s grief.  The desire to utter words of consolation often stems from our own personal discomfort with their grief.  One of my spiritual mentors, the great Canadian clown teacher, Sue Morrison, once told me that before putting my arm around a weeping person to comfort them, I should ask myself “am I doing this because it’s what they need or am I doing it to make myself feel better?”  I try to ask myself this question every time I pay a shiva call or visit with someone who is going through a crisis of some kind. Before I speak or act, I try to ask myself whether my impulse to do something is primarily about making myself feel better, or whether I am responding a real need on their part.

We are currently in second week of the Omer, corresponding to the attribute of Gevurah, or restraint.  Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for another person is restrain our own impulse to say something or interfere.  May we all recognize those moments that call for intervention on our part as well as the moments that call for our restraint.

PESACH SECOND DAYS

THURSDAY, April 5th

When God took B’nei Israel out of Egypt, He didn’t lead us straight to the land of Israel (or even straight to Sinai) though we could have arrived there in a matter of days that way.  Rather, He took us by way of the Sea of Reeds.  In this way, when the Egyptians pursued us, He was able to perform the miracle of parting the sea for us, and closing it behind us, making clear to one and all that the departure from Egypt was final and irrevocable.  That sometime later, some of the people seem to have forgotten this, and talked of returning to Egypt only serves to highlight the necessity of making a clear and dramatic break with all that had come before.  Had not a sea stood between B’nei Israel and Egypt it might have only been a matter of days or weeks until the people tired of wandering in the desert drifted back to the familiar lives they had led there.

I didn’t grow up observant, and one of the biggest challenges for me, when I started becoming religious as an adult, was the idea that I’d have to give up non-kosher foods.  While I felt there was no particular food I could live without, it was very hard for me to say no to friends and family when they invited me over for food or invited me out to eat.  I had always loved traveling, and exploring the local cuisine when I did so, and didn’t like the idea of visiting some strange country with a suitcase full of tuna fish and crackers.  But this was only hard as long as I was not yet fully committed to an Orthodox life.  As long as I was ambivalent about my level of observance, then each new invitation I had to exercise my willpower all over again to decide not to eat that food.  Then one day, something shifted.  I realized it simply wasn’t an option for me to ever stop keeping kosher.  Suddenly it wasn’t hard to sit and have a salad or a drink while my friends ate other foods.  It didn’t seem as ridiculous to bring my own food with me when I traveled.  Sure, it still made me sad sometimes not to be able to join fully in social lives of my less observant family and friends.  Sure, it would be nice to be able to visit a country and explore an unfamiliar food culture.  But knowing that it’s simply not an option, I can let it go.  It doesn’t require any tremendous exertion of will to restrain myself, because in my own mind and soul, I know these experiences are simply not options.

It is as if the walls of the sea had closed between me and my own personal Egypt. Each of us has issues we are struggling to be free from—bad habits, unhealthy relationships, whatever it is.  As long as the behaviors and habits we are familiar with, which are no longer serving us, are present and available to us, we have to exert tremendous self-restraint to avoid sliding back into them, an effort which can be impossible to keep up all the time.  If, however, we put a sea between us and that which is enslaving us, then freedom becomes so much easier to achieve.  We can do this with an internal sea, deciding or realizing that our old, familiar behavior is simply no longer an option, or with an external one (refusing to keep a problem food in the house, for instance).

The more we can create structural barriers to help us, and the less we rely on simple will power, the more successful we will be in freeing ourselves, with God’s help from negative habits and patterns of behavior.

Chag Sameach!

PARSHAT TZAV – SHABBAT HaGADOL

FRIDAY, March 23th

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat HaGadol, (“The Great Shabbat”) in reference to the phrase at the conclusion of the special Haftarah for this day, from the end of the book of Malakhi, envisioning “the Great and Awesome day of Hashem.” This Haftarah, envisioning the ultimate, messianic redemption, reminds us that the experience of redemption is not just some long past event, but something that is still to come.  The custom of leaving a place for the Prophet Eliyahu at the Seder, recalls Malakhi’s promise in the haftarah that God will send Eliyahu to us ahead of the coming of the Mashiach.  On Pesach, we reenact our first experience of redemption as a people, and we look forward to the ultimate redemption.

However, this final redemption is not something we are to merely await passively.  In God’s name, Malakhi adjures us “Turn back to me, and I will turn to you.”  God is warning us, that the coming of Moshiach, depends on us.  When we do our part, and return to God, He will return to us. This Pesach, as we give thanks for that first miraculous redemption from slavery, and we pray for the hastening of the final redemption, let’s remember that we have a part to play in bringing this redemption about.  When we return to God by committing ourselves to observing His Torah, and treating our fellow human beings, created in His image, with love and dignity, then and only then, can we expect that He will send His Moshiach.

If there are obstacles to prevent us from doing our part and serving Hashem with a whole heart—work commitments, habits and addictions, economic or health struggles, or simple old fashioned fear and doubt, let us pray this Pesach that He liberate us from those limitations, just as He liberated us from the enslavement in Egypt, so that we may return to Him, and He in turn, will turn towards us.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

PARSHAT VAYIKRA – SHABBAT HaCHODESH

FRIDAY, March 16th

“Giving up the Goat”

This week, as we begin reading the book of Vayikra, we move from the excitement and creativity of building the Mishkan, to the day-to-day nitty-gritty details of offering sacrifices.  For many people today, living, as most of us do, far removed from a culture of raising and slaughtering farm animals, much less sacrificing them to God, it can be difficult to understand the meaning and importance of the sacrifices.  Many people feel the modes of connecting with God that we use today–prayer, meditation, study–are spiritually and morally superior to offering animal sacrifices.  If you feel that way, you’re in good company.  No less an authority than the Rambam (Maimonides) was inclined to agree with you, seeing the sacrificial system as a concession to the human need for a tangible means of connecting with God.  Others, such as the Ramban (Nachmanides), famously disagree, and argue that the Mishkan, and the sacrifices, were something intrinsically valuable, and desired by God.

Whichever side of this debate we sympathize with, we are left with the question of what we can learn from studying the sacrifices, living as we do without a temple, and without the opportunity to offer animal sacrifices, even if we wanted to.

One thing to note about the sacrifices is their size. In economic terms, giving up a goat is no small matter.  A one-year old male goat can weigh 100 lbs. or more, enough meat for literally hundreds of meals.  Making that kind of a gift is something even a relatively wealthy person would probably feel the impact of.  Moreover, the Torah requires that someone making an offering press their hands down on the animal before it is sacrificed, bringing them into physical contact with the animal.  Thus offering a gift to God, whether in atonement for a sin, out of gratitude for blessings we have received, or simply as an expression of piety is not something to be kept at arm’s length.  Someone offering an animal sacrifice would literally feel the impact of their gift in their own body.

With the loss of temple and its sacrifices, we may have moved towards a more sophisticated mode of worship through prayer and meditation, but in doing so it has become easier for us to let ourselves off the hook.  Prayer doesn’t force me to give up anything in the way sacrifice does.

When we pray, it’s all to easy to simply recite the words without actually feeling their impact on our heart and soul. How would our prayers be different if instead, we put the full weight of our intention behind every word, just as we would put our full physical weight onto an animal before offering it in the temple?

If our observance is to be more than just going through the motions, we ought to feel its impact, both in ways that feel good, and in ways that might not be so comfortable.  May we be blessed to feel the joy of real sacrifice, to feel the impact of the mitzvot we perform, and to be changed for the better by the experience.