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Parashat Terumah 5775 — 02/18/2015

Parashat Terumah 5775 — 02/18/2015

And you shall make … a covering of tachash skins on the outside. (26:14)

The Torah nowhere explicitly identifies the tachash.  R. Steinsaltz, in a note to the Koren edition of the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 102b) cites opinions that the tachash was a narwhal, a marine mammal with a single tusk growing from its mouth (hence perhaps the medieval identification with the unicorn), or possibly a giraffe.  In the former case the tachash would be a non-kosher animal, as are all cetaceans – they don’t have hooves, let alone split ones, nor do they ruminate.  The giraffe, on the other hand, is a kosher animal (see

This modern question on the identity of the tachash reflects a dispute that goes back to Talmudic times.  Rav Kook inquires how the Rabbis could even entertain the idea that the tachash could be a non-kosher species – after all, it is used for the outer, most visible covering of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) that was to be the focus of Israelite worship until the Temple was built many centuries later.  How can something impure be the “face,” so to speak, of the focal point of purity and holiness in the world.

Rav Kook answers:

The difference between pure and impure is similar to the difference between good and evil.  These distinctions are true and valid, and it is necessary for our moral development to recognize and emulate good, while abhorring evil and corruption.  However, these distinctions are really only by way of comparison.  Good and evil are in fact relative terms.  On a very fundamental level we recognize – at least intellectually – that everything has some ultimate purpose and value.  Nothing can exist, nothing was created, which is absolute evil.  Everything must relate, on some level, to the underlying good of the universe.  (Gold from the Land of Israel)

This is a rather astounding statement, but one rooted solidly in Rabbinic thought.  Zeh le’umat zeh asah Elokim – Gd created both this (good) and that (evil) (Kohelet 7:14).  Gd created both good and evil in the world right from the start – otherwise there would have been no need for, and no possibility of, a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There would have been no sin, and there would have been no repentance either.  Apparently Gd felt that having the latter was sufficient justification for permitting the possibility of the former.

There are other instances in Torah where impurity is “recruited” into the service of the holy.  Two examples:  One of the spices in the incense was galbanum, which by itself is foul-smelling.  It is compared to the sinners in Israel, whom one might have thought should be excluded from the Temple service, and especially from the incense service, which was deemed to be the holiest of the rituals in the Temple.  However, if the galbanum is left out, or even if its proportion is slightly reduced (it is one of the 4 spices with the largest proportion in the mixture – about 19%), the mixture is invalid.

A second example is the lulav-bundle.  The four species represent four types of Jews: the etrog, which has both taste and smell, represents those with Torah learning and good deeds.  The Lulav which has taste (the dates, which grow on a palm tree) but no smell, represents those with Torah learning, but not many good deeds.  The myrtle has smell but no taste, and represents those who do good deeds, but are not particularly learned.  The willow, which has neither taste nor smell, represents those Jews with neither.  What is that last group doing here?:  Apparently for Israel to be whole, everyone must be included.  Thus, on Yom Kippur eve, at the beginning of the holiest day of the year, we declare “it is permitted to pray with sinners.”  On the day when we become most like angels, we also must acknowledge that there is another side to us that must be recognized and dealt with, and not excluded or shunned or swept under the rug.

In the case of the different members of our society, we can see clearly that people seem to be spread along a continuum from saint to the opposite.  Most of us lie somewhere in between.  King Solomon tells us that nobody is so wholly righteous that he never sins (Kohelet 7:20), so there is an admixture of galbanum in each one of us.  “Righteous” and “wicked,” like Good and Evil, are relative terms.

One way to define Good and Evil is in terms of distance or estrangement from Gd.  The closer we are to Gd, the more goodness permeates our lives, because our consciousness is anchored in Gd’s infinity, and everything else is just small surface ripples that hardly stir that anchorage.  If this is the case, then it would seem that goodness would be maximized if there were no possibility of estrangement from Gd.  The only fly in that ointment is that the only way Creation can have no possibility of estrangement from Gd is if there is no Creation at all.  For Creation is finite, completely different from Gd.  That is why our esoteric tradition tells us that Gd had to “contract” himself as it were in order to leave space for the finite to exist, without being totally overwhelmed by Gd’s Pure Existence.  It is this “contraction” of Gd and His radiating finite values into the “space” that He has left that is the primary estrangement that lies at the basis of the existence of individuality, and the possibility that we, as individuals, will follow our own desires and our own will, rather than Gd’s Will.  The existence of Good and Evil is inherent in the nature of Creation itself.

Is this a good thing?  If this were the end of the story, it wouldn’t be good at all.  It would be like the universe were constantly expanding, the galaxies forever receding from one another, until all that is left is some tenuous wisps of disorganized matter.  Fortunately, there is a countervailing force.  Gd not only contracts Himself to make space for the finite, He also allows the finite to grow and return to embrace its own underlying, infinite nature.  As human beings we experience this as t’shuvah, literally “return.”

The Sages say something amazing about t’shuvah.  They tell us that “where the ba’al t’shuvah [one who returns to Gd] stands, the perfectly righteous person cannot stand.”  This is counterintuitive.  Why should falling into sin and impurity, and then returning to the right path give you something more than someone who has never sinned to begin with?  I think the answer is the same as the answer to the question why Gd created the universe to begin with.  By falling from our infinite state into a finite state, and then growing back to infinite stature and reuniting with Gd, we have not merely come back to our starting point.  Now we have the infinity that we started with integrated with all the finite values through which we have passed, and which have become a part of us.  This reintegration creates a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.  We have helped Gd to create a bigger infinity (look up Georg Cantor to learn more about bigger and smaller infinities), and thereby fulfilled the purpose of Creation.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 19: The First Pesach

In the early part of Genesis, we come upon the story of Lot in Sodom.  The angels come to Sodom to destroy it, Lot invites them in and feeds them matzot!  Rashi comments that “it was Pesach.”  How could it be Pesach?  There was yet no Yitzchak, no Ya’akov, no tribes, no Egyptian slavery, no plagues and no Exodus yet, and wouldn’t be for centuries!  And, as R. Sacks points out, Lot was no prophet – he didn’t know that Sodom was about to be destroyed with him in it!  R. Sacks offers an original explanation of this cryptic Rashi.

The text goes on to say that when the people of Sodom found out that Lot had broken local ordinances by harboring guests they came and demanded that he deliver them up to be sodomized.  When he objected, they pointed out that as an alien he had no business telling them what was proper behavior.  In other words, even though Lot felt that he was assimilated (he had married a local woman and two of his daughters had married local men), the people of the land apparently looked at him very differently.

In the same way, in Egypt the people had spread into all corners of Egyptian society, they had Yosef to look up to as the ultimate Jew who made good in the bigger society, they owned property, they had jobs – if you’d have asked them they’d have said they were Egyptians first and Israelites second.  The new Pharaoh who “knew not Yosef” quickly disabused them of this notion.  The same thing happened in Spain, in Europe in the mid-20th century, etc.  Whenever we get too comfortable among the host populations in which we reside, something happens, often economic dislocation of some sort, that stirs up the locals against us, and we’re forced to endure another Exodus.  What happened to Lot was like the first Pesach, hundreds of years before the actual first Pesach.

I think the message for the Jewish community in North America is clear.