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Parashat Bamidbar 5775 — 05/20/2015

Parashat Bamidbar 5775 — 05/20/2015

Our sense of holiness and closeness to Gd is not constant; there are times when we experience a heightened spiritual awareness.  These moments reflect a transient holiness – kedushat sha’ah. …

The book of Bamidbar opens with the words:

Gd spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert in the Communion Test (1:1)

The terms “Sinai Desert” and “Communion Tent” (Ohel Mo’ed) are motifs repeated throughout Bamidbar.  They call our attention to the special kedushat sha’ah of that generation.

Unlike Jerusalem’s permanent holiness, the holiness of Mount Sinai was temporary, lasting only for the duration of the Revelation of the Torah at Sinai. …

One should not think that kedushat sha’ah is on a lower level than permanent holiness.  On the contrary, it is precisely because of its loftiness that this holiness cannot last forever.  The deficiency is not in it, but in we who experience it.  We are unable to maintain this level of holiness on a continual basis.  (Sapphire from the Land of Israel)

The word kedushah, holiness, comes from the root k-d-sh which means separated out, especially consecrated (usually for some sacred purpose).  The Mishkan was a holy place – located in the center of the Israelite encampment, it belonged to all the tribes and to no one tribe, although the tribe of Levi was designated to serve there.  The tribe of Levi was a holy part of the nation, set aside to serve Gd, just as Israel as a whole is a “kingdom of kohanim and a holy people,” set aside from the rest of humanity to provide spiritual leadership by precept, and especially by example.  Shabbat is a holy time, set aside from the rest of the week so that we can refocus on the inner, spiritual content of our lives and infuse that into the mundane activities of the other 6 days.

The Holy seems to be at the center in all these cases, at least according to Rabbinic thought.  Shabbat is the central point of the week – we can say Havdalah until Tuesday if we forgot, because Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are related to the Shabbat that has passed.  Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, on the other hand, relate to the next Shabbat.  The tribe of Levi and the Mishkan were in the center of the Israelite encampment.  And in Rabbinic thought, the nation of Israel is central to Gd’s plan of bringing the universe into harmony on the basis of Torah values.

The ultimate source of holiness is of course Gd, Who is the center of all existence.  As we have discussed on many occasions, existence has a layered structure, with grosser, material structures on the surface, and more abstract structures deeper inside.  Gd is at the center of the entire system; according to our tradition, Gd as it were withdraws to the center and then radiates outward to create all the layers we have been discussing.  Those layers of creation serve to “hide” Gd as it were.  Creation appears to work by itself, at least when we perceive with our ordinary senses.  While we may acknowledge Gd as the Creator, we sometimes don’t get that Gd is the Sustainer and the Developer of all the forms and phenomena of creation as well.  Gd’s Light is hidden behind a crust of materiality, just like the crust of the earth hides the incredible energy and dynamism of its core.

There are times of course when Gd’s Light breaks through the obscuring crust of materiality.  The Revelation at Sinai and the Splitting of the Sea were two such moments of clarity, on both the individual and communal levels.  Just as in the case of an earthquake or the eruption of a volcano, where a break in the crust gives us a vision of the underlying structure, so in cases of revelation (be it at Mt. Sinai or in the heart of an individual) the crust of materiality gives way and we get a more direct perception of the inner essence at the heart of creation.

As Rav Kook explains, these moments of intense holiness are difficult, if not impossible for us to sustain.  Moshe Rabbeinu is told No man can see My Face and live.  Gd’s Light is so intense it can destroy us, as happened to Nadav and Avihu, unless it is approached properly.  The problem is not in the holiness, it is in the receptacle of that holiness – us!

I think there are a couple of ways that we can get beyond the “crust” and have an experience of the “core.”  One is to thin out the crust.  Another is to leave the crust as it is, but make it clearer.  As I have mentioned, I was for many years the caregiver for a remarkable lady who suffered from chronic-progressive MS.  I saw that as her condition worsened, her spirit seemed to get brighter and brighter.  This was especially apparent in the last few months of her life, as she was saying goodbye to her body and focusing more and more on her soul – when her awareness was characterized by Hamlet’s “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!”  Anything material was of no interest at all to her – I no longer consulted her on any of her business.  But her face was simply radiant, transfigured, and when she smiled she lit up the universe.

The trouble with this first method is that A person cannot see My Face and live.  If we want to convert temporary kedushah into permanent kedushah – that is, a kedushah that is lived within the boundaries of the personality, then we need to adopt the second approach.  This involves progressively clarifying our material nature so that it doesn’t block and occlude the light within us.  How do we do this?  Our Tradition gives us a roadmap: study of Torah, performance of the mitzvot, and refinement of our character to emulate Gd.  Study of Torah allows us to put our minds in tune with Gd’s Mind as it is revealed to us in the Torah.  Gd’s mitzvot allow us to use our physical faculties as well in such a way that our individual wills become attuned to Gd’s Will.  As a result of this, we will find ourselves behaving in a kinder, more sensitive and compassionate way.  We learn to put others above ourselves; we serve others and in so doing we serve Gd.  And the more we serve Gd, the more we love Gd and become connected to Gd.  We learn to see Gd in “every grain of sand.”  It is as if we take the material mud of our physical existence and refine it into pure, clear glass.

As members of the Jewish people we have been given the great privilege of drawing close to Gd and serving him, in whatever specific capacity He has assigned us.  The reward is that we have the opportunity to experience Gd’s effulgence close up and personal.  The responsibility that comes along with the privilege is that we need to work on making full use of the opportunity we’ve been given, and then to share it with all of creation.

A joyous Shavuot to all!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 1

R. Meir says, One who is occupied with Torah for its own sake merits many things; moreover, such a person is sufficient reason for the continued existence of creation.

There are several interesting points in the language of this Mishnah.  (Actually, the “Mishnayot” of the 6th Chapter of Pirke Avot are not part of the corpus of the Mishnah at all.  They are Baraitot, “outside” teachings from the Mishnaic period that generally expand upon and/or explain the Mishnah, and sometimes provide alternate readings or alternate opinions to the Mishnah.  The 6th chapter was added to Pirke Avot as it corresponds to the 6th and final week between the end of the week of Pesach and Shavuot.  Since Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, this chapter deals with Torah study and is called Perek Kinyan Torah – the chapter of acquisition of Torah.)

First, it doesn’t say one who studies Torah or one who learns Torah.  Rather it discusses one who is “occupied” with Torah.  The verb used also has the connotation of “one who makes Torah his business, or his primary focus in life.”  Now, one can certainly make the intellectual study of Torah a primary focus in life, but I don’t really believe that is what R. Meir is talking about.  Torah is not just a book, or a collection of books, nor even, in its broadest sense, all of Rabbinical literature and Jewish lore and law.  Torah itself says that it is the blueprint of creation – the knowledge which Gd consulted in order to create.  When we occupy ourselves with Torah, I think it means putting our individual mind in tune with the cosmic intelligence behind the entire creation.  Certainly we do this, at least in part, through intellectual analysis of Torah (in its broadest sense), but the whole of a Torah lifestyle, the positive mitzvot and the prohibitions, the techniques of character development, prayer and meditation – all of these things are “occupying ourselves with Torah.”

When we occupy ourselves with Torah for its own sake, it means that we completely subsume our individual ego to Torah.  To the extent that we can put aside, or better, put out of mind completely, our individual wants and desires, to that extent we can fill our mind with Torah.  When our awareness is completely aligned with Torah, then we, as parts of creation, become the means by which creation knows about itself.  The individual awareness returns to the pure Awareness from which the creation arose.  This completion of the cycle of creation is a sufficient reason for the creation to exist!