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Parashat Emor 5775 — 05/06/2015

Parashat Emor 5775 — 05/06/2015

When you come to the Land that I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, you must bring an omer of your first reaping … The kohen shall perform this wave-offering on the day after the Sabbath. (Lev 23:10-11)

We assume that every word in Torah is precisely chosen – after all, it’s the blueprint of creation.  Yet in our verses the word Sabbath seems purposely ambiguous.  The verses are discussing the omer offering of barley that is offered after Pesach, and permits the consumption of the new grain crop.  One meaning of Sabbath could be the regular, weekly Sabbath day.  However the holidays are often called Sabbath as well, as they are also days of rest.  So, in the case of our verses, the omer offering could be offered on the 2nd day of Pesach, or it might be offered on the Sunday following Pesach.  (This year Pesach was on Shabbat, so there was, fortuitiously, no confusion.)  The Oral Tradition resolves this ambiguity in favor of the latter alternative, but a heterodox group, the Boethusians, insisted that Sabbath was to be interpreted literally as the weekly Sabbath day.  The implication of the dispute is that the actual day of Shavuot was in dispute, as it comes 7 weeks after the omer offering (“counting the omer“).

Rav Kook analyzes the dispute:

The Talmud in Menachot 65a records that the Boethusians disagreed with another accepted halachah.  The Sages  taught that the daily Temple offering must be purchased with public funds.  The Boethusians – many of whom were wealthy – argued that any individual was allowed to cover the cost for the daily offering. …

These three controversies – regarding the authority of the Oral Law, whether the word Sabbath mentioned with regard to the Omer is Passover, and whether the daily offering must be paid for using public funds – are all connected to one fundamental question: what is the nature of the Jewish people?  Is the nation merely the combined contribution of each individual Jew?  Or are the Jewish people as a whole a national collective with its own special holiness?

Rav Kook goes on to explain the two sides.  In the case of the daily offerings, the Rabbis hold that the people of Israel is a collective, and the daily offerings are made on behalf of that collective.  The Boethusians, on the other hand, consider the people of Israel as a collection of individuals, any one of whom can pay for the offering on behalf of his “partners.”  In the other two cases we find a conflict between the literal, written text favored by the Boethusians, vs the more fluid Oral Law the Rabbis used to interpret the written text.  Does Sabbath always literally mean Sabbath, or can words have multiple meanings and nuances in different contexts?

Now there is a difference between the Sabbath and the Festivals.  The Sabbath comes every seventh day – it is, as it were, built into the structure of the universe, Gd-given.  In the Sabbath prayers, we say Blessed are You, Gd, Who sanctifies the Sabbath.  The Festivals, on the other hand, are dependent on the sighting of the New Moon and the sanctification of the new month.  These are human inputs.  Human beings have to actually see the New Moon, come to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, testify and be examined by the judges there, and then the court proclaims the New Moon.  Thus, on the Festivals we say, Blessed are You, Gd, who sanctifies Israel and the Festivals (or the New Moon).  Gd sanctifies the nation, and the nation sanctifies the festival or the new moon.

The same relationship obtains between the Written and Oral Torah.  The Written Torah was given directly by Gd.  It is immutable, “written in stone.”  It is, in a sense, external to us, like the laws of physics.  The Oral Torah, on the other hand, although it is in its basis is also Gd-given, it also has a very significant human component.  First of all, it is oral – it has to be passed down from teacher to student, one mind and heart to another.  Even now, when out of necessity the Rabbinic literature has been reduced to writing (the English expression captures well the sense of loss), it still has to be taught.  I have been studying Talmud on my own for the past 20 years or so, but I haven’t learned a fraction of what I might have had I had the opportunity to study with a teacher in the traditional manner.  Furthermore, since the Oral Torah is oral and not fixed, like the written Torah, our human input can develop and shape it to correspond to changed circumstances.

Now to return to Rav Kook’s analysis.  We know how the three controversies we have been discussing turned out – there are no Boethusians today.  The idea that Israel is just the sum total of all the Jews on the planet did not stand the test of time.  And in fact, we see that Jews everywhere are judged (or misjudged) as integral members of a group.  We are not Jewish-Americans like African-Americans or Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans, where “American” is the noun and the ethnicity is the adjective.  Rather we are American Jews – Jew is the noun, and American is the adjective.  DNA analysis has shown that Jews in America are more genetically similar to Jews in Yemen than either are to members of their host culture.

But the significance of this resolution goes deeper than that I think.  We know that complex systems can have what are called emergent properties – properties that could not be predicted on the basis of the behavior of individual components of the system.  The most obvious example is our own awareness – it is somehow the product of the interaction of the billions of neurons in our brain and the rest of our nervous system, yet it could hardly be predicted from a study of the behavior of a single neuron, or even small groups of neurons.  In the same way, the Jewish people’s gift for bringing holiness into the world emerges out of the collective behavior of the entire people – it is not something that one could predict by watching individual Jews.  We recognize this fact when we sometimes move heaven and earth to get a minyan together so someone can say kaddish, or just so we can reach a higher level with our prayers.  When we invite the group to say Birkat haMazon after a meal, there is a special hierarchy of invitations (zimmun) that gets more elaborate as the group gets larger, in recognition of the greater level of holiness that can emerge from the larger group.

The Oral Law, developed by the nation of Israel, tells us that the “Sabbath” of our verse is actually the Festival of Pesach, sanctified by the nation of Israel.  On that day we offer the omer, brought to the Temple by the nation of Israel as a whole, to bring it closer to Gd.  May we merit to reconstitute our nation as a holy vessel to bring Gd’s Holiness into the world, and may we see the Temple rebuilt speedily in our times.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 1

Ben Zoma says:

Who is wise?  One who learns from all people. …

Who is mighty?  One who conquers his inclination [towards physicality]. …

Who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion. …

Who is honored?  One who honors everyone. …

This is one of my all-time favorite Rabbinic sayings, because it absolutely takes all of the world’s “common wisdom” and stands it on its head.  Who is wise?  One would think that to gain wisdom, one should go to a wise man who will teach him, and of course there is nothing at all wrong with that course of action.  But one can learn a lot simply by keeping his eyes and ears, and his mind, open.  It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that nothing is random, nothing is a coincidence.  Everything that happens to us has a lesson for us, whether it is to guide us on our path going forward, or to cause us to reflect on past actions, and change them as need be.  We can gain considerable wisdom simply by “listening to our messages.”

Who is rich?  Our Mishnah tells us it has nothing at all to do with what we have.  Acquiring things may be as much of an addicition as shooting heroin.  We will never find satisfaction in the world of boundaries.  In fact, we understand from our tradition that whatever we have was given to us by Gd, for the specific purpose of allowing us to complete our unique part of Gd’s plan for His creation.  Trying to have what someone else has (Thou shalt not covet) bespeaks a lack of faith in Gd’s good governance of His creation.  Your neighbor has what he has because that’s what he needs to do his job.  You have what you have so that you can do your job.  What is the problem with that?  You have a harder job?  Maybe it’s because you’re stronger!  And according to the effort you put into it, so will be your reward – joy in this world and the bliss of the world to come.

The other two parts of the Mishnah are “left as an exercise for the reader.”  Hint – look at the verses used as proof-texts in the Mishnah (which I didn’t reproduce here).