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Parashat Shemini 5774 — 03/19/2014

Parashat Shemini 5774 — 03/19/2014

And it was on the eigth day that Moshe called Aharon and his sons and the elders of Israel (9:1).

[Elders, z’kenim, means the wise and righteous men of Israel]… R. Berechyah and R. Chelbo and Ellu Bira’ah and R. Elazar said in the name of R. Chaninah: In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will be at the center of a dance circle for the righteous … and they will dance before Him with vigor and show Him [to one another] as if pointing with a finger… [Midrash Rabbah, 11:9, Artscroll translation]

Chafetz Chaim expounds the lesson of the circle as a guide to our actions in this world. In the World to Come, all will stand equidistant from the Divine Presence, just as the points on the perimeter of a circle are equidistant from the center. However, to merit a position in this exalted company, one’s point of reference must be the center of the circle. No matter what a person’s field of endeavor, whether sacred or mundane, his actions must be guided by the distance at which they place him from the Holy One, Blessed is He, Who resides at the center of the circle. One might spend his days in menial labor, but if his actions are performed for the sake of Heaven, and he conducts himself in all things in accordance with Gd’s command, he too will be included in the circle of the World to Come, as near to the Divine Presence as the greatest Torah scholar. [Artscroll commentary ad loc]

In his 1884 book Flatland, Edwin Abbott describes a 2-dimensional world populated by regular polygons of various numbers of sides – lines, equilateral triangles, squares, etc.  The more sides one had, the higher his social class.  The highest class of all were the circles.  A circle is the limit of n-sided regular polygons as n goes to infinity, and was held by the Flatlanders to be the most perfect, Gdly form.

In Kabbalistic thought, Gd emanates the universe in a series of 10 sephirot.  There are ample Hebrew possibilities for the etymology of this word (e.g. safar = to count, sappir = sapphire), but it is also possible that the word comes from the Greek root underlying our word sphere, which is of course a 3-dimensional “circle.”  We are probably most familiar with the arrangement of the sephirot in the “Tree of Life,” but there are texts which show the sephirot as a series of concentric circles.  I’m certain that this is not an either-or proposition; we are dealing with a level of reality which cannot be pinned down to one single description, much like the quantum mechanical description of physics, where multiple possibilities coexist at all times.  Nevertheless, description of concentric circles (or spheres), presumably with Gd in the middle, has an appeal to it that I’d like to explore.

As we have often discussed, creation is structured in layers.  And just like an onion, the deeper layers are contained within the more surface layers.  In physics, this is called the “Correspondance Principle,” and states that the quantum mechanical description of a system must be the same as the classical description for macroscopic systems.  In other words, we don’t expect classical mechanics to work for atoms, but we certainly do expect it to work for baseballs and the like.  Thus, the deeper theory has to give rise to the more superficial theory, if we restrict its applicability in a suitable way.  If, at some point, we are able to develop a unified theory of all the forces of nature, then all the various forms and phenomena will simply be restrictions of this most fundamental level of creation to various regimes of size and energy.

Similarly, in the spiritual realm, there are many layers.  Our tradition speaks about 7 heavens, and 7 different kinds of angels that inhabit them, and all this is visualized as a series of concentric spheres.  The “Unified Field” at the center of these spheres is of course Gd.  For after all, where do these “spheres” come from?  They are emanated by Gd from within Himself.  Now Gd is infinite, and here we are putting Him at the point in the center of this sequence of concentric spheres – how does that work?  According to our esoteric tradition, in order for Gd to “leave room” for creation, He had to “contract Himself.”  From that contracted state, Gd radiated out His supernal light, which diffracted into all the forms and phenomena of creation.  Perhaps then, this can be visualized as infinity contracting itself into a point, and from that point expanding in ever-growing circles/spheres that become progressively more manifest and opaque.

This outward expansion is but half the story however.  As creation expands and ramifies, it can support more and more complex structures, eventually culminating in the human body.  The human body appears to be unique among earthly creatures in being able to support a fully self-referent consciousness – that is, a level of awareness that can know itself.  As our awareness expands it goes from an infantile, self-centered egoism to a fully mature, fully expanded consciousness that can comprehend our infinite nature.  This process of maturation is, in some way, actually the reverse of the outward, expanding process of creation – instead of moving outward, “away” from the center point, we move inwards, “towards” the center point.

I have put “towards” and “away” in quotes, because they imply that we can be at a distance from Gd, who has “contracted” Himself in the act of creation.  The reason for the quotes is that “contraction” and “movement” are just a manner of speaking when it comes to Gd.  Gd is always infinite and all-encompassing; to say He contracts Himself is to speak from our perspective, not His.  The movement out and back, estrangement and reunification, exile and redemption, is something we experience as finite creatures who exist in space and time.  From Gd’s perspective there is only the infinite, pulsating within itself.  Perhaps on the ultimate level this pulsation is the “breath of life.”  It is our duty to thank Gd that He breathed it into us.

Shemoneh Esrei

For the miracles and for the salvation and for the might and for the saving and for the wars, which you did for our fathers in those days at this season:

(on Chanukah): In the days of Mattatiyahu ben Yochanan the Hasmonean Kohen Gadol and his sons, when there arose the wicked Greek kingdom on Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to transgress the statutes of Your Will.  And You in Your great mercy, stood by them in their hour of trouble, fought their fight, judged their judgment and avenged their wrongs.  You delivered the mighty iinto the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, t he impure into thte hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands  of the righteous, the willful sinners into the hands of those whose concern is Your Torah.  And You made Yourself a great and holy Name in Your world.  And for Your people Israel you performed a great salvation and rescue, as [clear as] this very day.  Afterwards, Your children came to the Sanctuary of Your Temple, cleansed Your Sanctuary, purified Your holy place, and lit lights in Your sacred courtyards, and established these eight days of Chanukah, to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

Chanukah has become one of the premier Jewish holidays in our culture, because of its proximity to the winter holiday of the majority culture (although this year it was as early as it ever gets and coincided with Thanksgiving instead, a phenomenon that will not recur for some 75,000 years).  In Israel, which has had (and continues to need!) miraculous deliverance from its enemies, Chanukah is celebrated with great gusto and delicious fried jelly donuts (sufganiot).  However, Chanukah is a Rabbinic institution, and is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.  By contrast Purim, which is also a Rabbinic holiday, has an entire Biblical book (Megillat Esther) and an entire Talmudic tractate (Megillah) devoted to it.  The laws of Chanukah are tucked away in the middle of tractate Shabbat, and the Book of Maccabbees was never accepted into the Jewish canon, and is known to us from the Christian Apocrypha.  It is my suspicion, by the way, that the Christian winter holiday is on the 25th of December based on Chunkah’s date of 25th Kislev.  Since early Christianity was a Jewish sect, a familiar date would be a useful mnemonic.  (I’m writing this, incidentally, on December 24th.)

All this is quite ironic, because Chanukah, while it certainly has its aspects of military victory over a great superpower (Yehudah Maccabbee’s guerilla campaign is studied today at West Point) and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, was primarily a civil war pitting traditionalist, “Chareidi” Jews against an assimilated, secularist majority.  The Syrian-Greeks (King Antiochus prersumably had his capital in Antioch, currently in Turkey as Antakya, but a major Greek metropolis in antiquity) didn’t want to kill Jews, just Judaism.  Western, scientific culture, which is to a large extent derived from the Greeks, is based on objectivity and deduction.  Traditional Jewish culture is based on Revelation and is substantially more subjective in its approach (although the Rabbis of the Talmud were very keen observers of the natural world and were not at all loath to decide matters of fact objectively through observation – and the number of Jewish scientists in the list of Nobel laureates is vastly out of proportion to our numbers).  In the words of R. Jonathon Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, Greece is focused on beauty, Jews are  focused on holiness.

Because of all this, the Rabbis seem a bit of two minds about Chanukah.  They certainly didn’t want it to degenerate into simply a celebration of a military victory – rather they wanted to make sure the focus stayed on the spiritual renewal that followed the military victory.  Hence the focus is on the miracle of the oil and the light.  In fact, even the military victory is totally attributed to Gd’s hand in our Al haNisim prayer.

In our own secular society, where we seem to be obsessively focused on the material as opposed to the spiritual, and often try to make our Judaism fit our own conceptions of right and wrong, rather than trying to attune our thoughts and actions with Gd’s Will, the lessons of Chanukah are particularly apt.  When Mattitiyahu called out “Whoever is for Gd follow me,” how many of us would have responded to the call?  When we see those who are more observant, do we label them fanatics?  Do we judge our religion based on what the secular society tells us is right and wrong, or do we judge secular society by what Judaism tells us is right and wrong?  Are we Jewish Americans or American Jews?  Discuss amongst yourselves.

Shabbat Parah

Shabbat Parah is the third of the “four parshiyyot,” and comes between Shabbat Zachor (right before Purim) and Shabbat haChodesh (right before or on Rosh Chodesh Nissan).  We read as the maftir the beginning of Parashat Chukat,  the laws of the Parah Adumah (Red Cow), whence the name, Parashat Parah.  The laws of the Parah Adumah deal with the restoration of ritual purity when one has become tamei (ritually impure) from a corpse.  Ramban points out that Torah nowhere commands us to purify ourselves from corpse tumah or any other kind of tumah for that matter, but it forbids us to enter the Temple or to consume sacrifical meat while tamei.  Since we are commanded to show up at the Temple three times a year on the three pilgrimage festivals, and especially for Pesach, when we are also commanded to partake in the Paschal lamb, it follows that there is an implied commandment to purify ourselves, at least for those occasions.  laws of the Parah Adumah are complex and paradoxical – they purify the person who is impure, while rendering the pure person who is doing the purifying impure (though with a lesser degree of impurity, and one which can be removed through simple immersion in a mikveh).  They are the quintessential chok, decree of Gd whose reason and ultimate purpose are way beyond our ken.

Now that Purim is behind us, Pesach is not far away.  Since in the days when the Temple stood, may it be speedily rebuilt, we would be concerned with becoming ritually pure so we could participate in the Pesach offering, we read Parashat Parah.  It takes a full week to become purified from corpse tumah, and we have but three weeks to go!