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Parashat Shemini 5776 — 04/02/2016

Parashat Shemini 5776 — 04/02/2016

Vayikra 9:1-11:47

Who has given us the Torah of Truth and implanted within us eternal life. (liturgy)

I want the truth! / You can’t handle the truth! (A Few Good Men)

Truth is that which is eternal. (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)

After the death of Nadav and Avihu, during the rituals of the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the Torah veers off into its first delineation of the laws of kashrut – which animals may be eaten and which ones may not. (The second list is in Deuteronomy, parashat Re’eh.) Throughout the ages, various explanations have been given, physiological, psychological, “spiritual.” None of them is wholly satisfactory, and R. Steinsaltz takes issue with the whole project:

Some have claimed that eating non-kosher animals is physically harmful, and from time to time claims arise regarding the danger of eating pork. It is true that pigs’ meat is sometimes infected with worms, which can cause one who consumes the meat without sufficiently cooking it to contract a parasitic disease called trichinosis. But if that were the reason for the prohibition, instead of prohibiting pork, the Torah could have given much better advice – that one must cook the meat thoroughly before eating it. …

Generally, attempting to justify mitzvot by protraying them as intended for physical or even spiritual benefit ultimately proves futile. This does not mean that such a justification is necessarily unfounded, nor does it mean that one should argue the reverse … What it means is that this type of justification can never be the central consideration. It is better simply to rely on Gd and not attempt to give explanations.

Note that there is a related issue that is debated in the Talmud. R. Shimon [bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar] “expounds the meanings of mitzvot.” There is a practical consequence to this. For example, the Torah tells us that if one takes a pledge from a poor debtor (e.g. his coat) then one must return it by nightfall, as it doubles as his blanket. Torah also tells us that we may not take a pledge from a widow. R. Shimon states that we may take a pledge from a wealthy widow – the reason Torah tells us not to take pledges from widows is because most widows are poor. The Rabbbis disagree, arguing that even a wealthy widow is weighed down by the burden of her loss, and in any event, it is not up to us to say why the Torah forbade taking a pledge from a widow, other than to try and understand the mitzvah better, but in any event we are bound to obey, even if we feel the reason is inapplicable.

King Solomon made a similar mistake, in a case where the reason for a mitzvah is actually stated explicitly in Torah: A king of Israel is commanded not to take too many wives, “lest they turn his heart astray” from Gd. Solomon reasoned that as the wisest of men he would be immune to the blandishments of his women. Unfortunately this was not the case, and shortly after his death the kingdom split in two, with disastrous long-term consequences for the Jewish people.

Finally, there is the case of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the teachers of the great R. Meir. He saw a young boy obey his father by climbing a tree, shooing away the mother bird, and collecting the eggs. He then fell to his death. Now for both the mitzvot of honoring (and obeying) one’s parents, and of shooing away the mother bird before taking the eggs, we are promised long life – and here this poor kid gets killed! He concluded “there is no justice and there is no Judge” and became an apostate. He is known to posterity simply as Acher, “the other.”

What is the upshot of all this? I believe that to answer this question we need to understand the nature of Torah and the nature of truth. According to our tradition, the Torah is the blueprint of creation. Gd looked in the Torah and created the world. Gd, Who is infinite, used the Torah as a “planning document” to create the world. The Torah itself, then, must be transcendental to time and space, the arena in which the world exists. In Shabbat 55a we read “the seal of the Holy One, Blessed is He, is truth.” This is simply because Gd is unchanging – He is beyond the realm of change and activity. Something which is changing cannot be truth – it can be, at best, partially or temporarily true. In the same way, if we look at Torah from a superficial point of view, we will never understand it. At best, we will grasp pieces of it, but a piece of the truth contains the negation of whatever is outside that piece. Thus, R. Steinsaltz advises that we simply rely on Gd, Who contains the whole Truth, and not rely on our own limited intellects, as did King Solomon and Acher.

In fact, our limited minds can never comprehend the infinite intellectually. The intellect is that feature of our personality that makes distinctions – the Hebrew word for intellect is binah, from the same root as bein / “between.” In order to comprehend the infinite, we need to transcend the intellect, to leave behind the boundaries and distinctions in which the intellect thrives. The intellect is there to allow us to live and thrive in the world of boundaries, but integrating those boundaries into a whole structure requires allowing the mind to go beyond the confines of intellectual inquiry, and to experience the infinite directly. (Perhaps this is the whole point of Zen Koans – like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” You can’t figure it out, you have to get beyond it, look at it from an entirely different perspective. And no, I don’t know the answer to that one, if there is an answer.)

If we want to grasp the Truth, it can only be grasped directly, on its own level. Anything less than that is, in reality, nothing. R. Steinsaltz closes his discussion with these trenchant words from the Kotzker Rebbe:

A Gd Who can be understood by anyone is not worth serving.

Haftarah: II Samuel 6:1-7:17

The Sephardic and Chabad communities read only through 6:19. I think they leave out the most interesting parts.

Our Haftarah is connected to the parashah in two obvious ways. First, it tells the story of King David’s transporting the Ark to Jerusalem, where it would eventually reside in the Temple his son, King Solomon, would build. Second, it records the death of Uzzah when he reached out to try to steady the Ark (as it appeared to be falling). This corresponds with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, when they tried to come close to Gd in an unauthorized manner.

At the end of chapter 6 we find King David dancing with abandon as the Ark enters Jerusalem. His wife, Michal, the daughter of King Saul, berates him for such undignified behavior. David replies that had it been possible he would have been even wilder and more ecstatic. The text records that Michal had no child until the day of her death, which our Sages interpret that she died in childbirth. There is also a Midrash that after this incident she began wearing t’fillin every day; I’m not sure what the connection is. In any event, we see another approach to connecting with Gd – ecstasy. The root of the word ecstasy is to stand outside oneself. One becomes so lost in the experience that all relative considerations fall by the wayside – body, mind, intellect – all are transcended. We can only connect to Gd on Gd’s level, not on the level of our finite individuality.

Parashat Parah

For the Maftir we read the beginning of Parashat Chukat, which details the rite of the Parah Adumah / Red Heifer. This ritual is the only method of purifying oneself from the impurity imparted by contact with a corpse. And this purification is a prerequisite for offering and eating the Pesach offering, hence the position of this special Shabbat in the leadup to Pesach. The Haftarah (from Yechezkel) speaks of the Redemption, when Gd will “sprinkle pure water” on Israel to purify it from all its contamination, and replace our hearts of stone with a heart of flesh.

The ritual of the Red Heifer is the quintessential Chok of the Torah – a set of mitzvot that are completely incomprehensible on the level of the intellect. Indeed, ritual purity (taharah) and impurity (tumah) are qualities that are completely invisible to the naked eye – they exist purely on the spiritual level. Perhaps if our vision were more refined we could see that someone was tahor or tamei, but I have never seen a claim that anyone could (not that I’m so steeped in Rabbinic literature that this is evidence that such a claim does not exist). It is like a Zen Koan – you can’t make sense of it on an intellectual level. You simply have to transcend the intellect and surrender to Gd.