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Parashat Metzora 5774 — 04/02/2014

Parashat Metzora 5774 — 04/02/2014

And if he is poor and his means are insufficient… (Vayikra 14:21)

There are those who learn Torah and pray, and they say to themselves that although they do neither one as they should, they have friends or neighbors who do not measure up even to their standard.

   These people forget that in terms of understanding, they are rich, while their friends or neighbors are poor. And the Torah says that if a person is poor and cannot afford more, he is permitted to bring as an offering two turtledoves or two young pigeons; but a wealthy man who brings a poor man’s offering does not fulfill his obligation.  Such is the barometer also regarding fulfillment of the mitzvos of the Torah. Talmidei chachamim must fulfill the mitzvos with exceptional care [and should not compare themselves to others]. (Chafetz Chaim)

Poverty befits the Jews like a red strap on a white horse. (Chagigah 9b)

When I was in fifth grade our class was quite bright, but also somewhat (actually very) unruly.  One of the attempts at discipline that Mr. Friedlander made was to have us write “I must not talk in class” manifold times.  A few of us made a game out of this exercise, taking very small scraps of paper and trying to squeeze as many repetitions as we could into as small as space as we could.  Of course, as our writing got denser and denser, the scrap of paper asymptotically approached a state of being totally covered in ink.  Even at that tender age I could see that there was a profound connection between nothingness and infinity – it seemed that infinite information was somehow equivalent to no information at all.  (Some of my students later confirmed this observation when they told me that I deluged them with so much information it was impossible to retain any of it!)

Now in reality, the relationship between the infinite and nothingness is somewhat similar to the conundrum we faced with Mr. Friedlander.  Consider the 9th plague, the plague of darkness.  The Midrash tells us that the darkness was in fact not dark at all.  In fact, Gd actually removed the shield that protects the finite world from His light, thereby blinding the Egyptians, much they way that the bright sunlight can blind us when we first go out into it.  Only in this case it is not a physical light we’re talking about, but rather the purely spiritual effulgence that Gd radiates into the world, sustaining and nurturing it.  It’s just that normally, to protect us, He radiates this light in a way or with a lowered intensity, so that it doesn’t blow out our circuits.  In Egypt, Gd carefully calibrated His radiance so that the Egyptians were overwhelmed to the point that nobody could move from their place, but the Jews had light in all their abodes.  To the Egyptians, the infinite light overwhelmed their finite senses, leaving them with nothing.

We can also consider this from a Kabbalistic perspective.  In order for Gd to create a finite universe, He first had to contract himself (tzimtzum) in order to “leave space” for the finite to exist (unlike the Egyptians’ situation).  Of course this “contraction” is just in a manner of speaking – Gd is always infinite and unchanging.  It is just a word we use so that we can attempt to get our heads around the concept of the finite’s somehow emerging from the infinite.  But clearly, next  to the infinite, the finite is nothing at all.  The infinite as it were projects itself into nothingness, filling it up with its own nature.

Now let’s see if we can connect these ideas to our opening quotes.  First, when Torah talks about wealth and poverty, it often is referring to spiritual wealth or poverty, as the Chafetz Chaim points out.  Thus the “poor” man, who is distant from Gd and whose awareness is mired in materialism, is not expected to serve Gd as “perfectly” as someone who is “rich” with spiritual values.  On the level of offerings, someone who is not materially rich offers a “lesser” minchah (flour) offering, while someone who is materially wealthy must offer an animal.  I put the word “lesser” in quotes because it is not at all clear that Gd considers the minchah to be a lesser offering – since it represents a greater sacrifice for the poor man, it is in fact valued more highly by Gd.  The person who makes $30,000 a year and donates $100 has given more in Gd’s eyes than the person who makes $30,000,000 a year and gives $100,000 or even $250,000.  If the rich man attempts to give the poor man’s portion, it is not accepted.

This disparity is seen on the spiritual level as well, in the story of the offerings of Cain and Abel.  Cain gave “of his produce” – whatever came to hand.  Abel, on the other hand, gave “of the finest of his flocks.”  Gd accepted Abel’s offering, but did not accept Cain’s.

It is our job as human beings, and especially as members of the Jewish people, to become rich spiritually.  Our path as Jews is through the mitzvot of our Torah that Gd has commanded us.  This spiritual wealth allows us to provide a larger and larger conduit for Gd’s blessings to flow into the world.  Now we might worry that just like our little scraps of paper being filled up with ink, our poor, finite selves might get nullified in flow of infinity that we are now more capable of withstanding.  But here is the difference between a human being and a piece of paper.  A human being is potentially infinite.  When we contact the infinite, which is to say, when we become spiritually richer, our own capacity to absorb Gd’s light expands, commensurate with the input of that light.  There is more information, to be sure – in fact, there is infinite knowledge and intelligence pouring down upon us.  But the “pressure” of that inflow simultaneously pushes out our boundaries, as it were, and instead of having infinity being compressed into a finite space, we have infinity playing in an infinite field, with no compression or loss at all!  It would give Mr. Friedlander nachas fun kinder.

Shemoneh Esrei

Answer us Hashem, answer us on our day of fasting, for we are in great distress.

Don’t consider our wickedness and do not hide Your Face from us, and do not ignore our plea.

Please be near to our cries, please comfort us with your lovingkindness,

Before we call out to You answer us, as it is said:

And it will be before they call out I will answer, even while they are speaking I will hear.

For You, Hashem, answer in times of distress, You redeem and save in all times of distress and woe.

The Aneinu (“Answer us”) prayer is said during Minchah of fast days, as the first line indicates.  We not only ask Gd to answer our prayers, we ask Him to answer them before we even express them.  What are we thinking – Gd can read our minds?!?  Of course, that is exactly the case.  Gd knows what we need much better than we do ourselves.  Our Sages tell us that before Gd creates the disease, He creates the cure.  It may be, of course, that the distress we are feeling is part of the cure.  When we perform some action that is not in accord with Gd’s Will, the universe reacts in a negative way, and we feel that reaction as some level of discomfort.  But the discomfort is also a kind of behavior-modification therapy; when we ask Gd to relieve our discomfort, it can never be at the expense of the needed course correction.  Perhaps what we’re really saying here is that before we call out to Gd, we ourselves know what is going on in our distress, and we know what we have to do to correct the situation.  Now we just have to go ahead and do it!

Next week is Shabbat haGadol, the “great Shabbat” before Pesach.  It marks the end of this year’s reading of Borchi Nafshi on Shabbat afternoons, and, conveniently, it marks the end of this little series on Shemoneh Esrei.  Gd willing, after Pesach we’ll return to Pirke Avot, as that is the Shabbat afternoon reading for the period between Pesach and Rosh haShanah.