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Parshiyot Matot-Masei 5776 — 08/06/2016

Parshiyot Matot-Masei 5776 — 08/06/2016

This week Eretz Yisrael and the diasport get back in sync.  Next week is Parashat Devarim/Shabbat Chazon which is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.  It happens that this year next Shabbat falls on Tisha B’Av.  Since we do not express mourning publicly on Shabbat, the fast is postponed until Saturday evening (you have to begin the fast at sunset, before Shabbat is actually over) and ends Sunday night.

Matot: Bamidbar 30:2 – 32:42

Mas’ei: Bamidbar 33:1 – 34:29

Parashat Matot begins with the laws of vows. As we have discussed in previous years, by making a vow – that is, by merely saying that something is prohibited to us (or obligatory on us), we create a reality in which there is a new, personal prohibition, fundamentally equivalent to eating bacon. The one major difference between a prohibition created by a vow and a prohibition in the Torah is that one can have a vow annulled. If I forbid grapes to myself, I can have the vow annulled (by one sage or a panel of 3 laymen) and be permitted to eat grapes again. Nobody can permit me to eat bacon (except to save my life if there is no other choice – and in that case the prohibition is overridden due to the circumstances, not annulled).

What is the source of this power to consecrate [e.g. an animal for sacrifice in the Temple]? From where does one get the ability to invest something with sanctity and change its essential nature?

If one were to knock on the table and announce, “From now on, this table shall no longer be made of wood; it shall be made entirely of gold,” the rest of the people in the room would laugh at him, and rightfully so. What does it matter that he said it is gold? By contrast, if that same person says, “From now on, this table is sacred,” this statement has an immediate effect; the table objectively becomes a sacred object, and one must treat it differently. …

Generally, an object derives sanctity from its relation to the sacred. There is the inherently sacred, the essentially sacred, and a sacred object is that which relates to the sacred in some way. … Nevertheless, this does not explain the source of man’s ability to bestow sanctity upon anything in the world simply by pronouncing that it is sacred.

R. Steinsaltz goes on to say that this power to create or expand sanctity extends to various areas: space (we can create sacred spaces, build synagogues, etc), time (we begin Shabbat and holidays early, expanding sacred time). We can even create greater sanctity in the people of Israel by accepting converts, “bringing them under the wings of the Shechinah.” Non-Jews can also create sanctity, because they are also created in Gd’s image and have a spark of sanctity in them. And he concludes by pointing out that even though there is no Temple in our days, and therefore we cannot consecrate anything either for the Altar or for the Temple’s upkeep, we still can sanctify our time, our money, our selves to Gd, by donating them to causes or activities that increase the level of sanctity in the world.

To me, the most significant point in this discussion is that we can create sanctity because we are created in the image of Gd, Who is the source of all sanctity in the cosmos. I think I would take this one step further. The sanctity we are capable of creating is proportional to the degree that we have forged a connection with Gd. Why is this?

The human being was created by Gd with a body and a soul. The body is our connection to the material world. Our senses receive impulses from the material world and transmit them to the soul, the perceiver who lives in the body. The soul then instructs the limbs to perform actions on the objects in the material world. The soul is our connection to Gd, an individualized extension of Gd, so to speak. The coupling of the body and soul thus forms a link between the physical world and the world of the spirit.

Gd’s purpose in creating this link, our Sages tell us, is so that sanctity, Gdliness, can be infused into the material world. The world of the spirit is a world of perfect integration – all parts function harmoniously together to make a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts. The material world is not like this, as we see all around us, especially where human beings are active. Our purpose as human beings is to correct the flaws in the world by using our intelligence – our Gd-given intelligence – to integrate whatever pieces of the world come to our hands.

Now of course, we can only apply intelligence to any action only to the degree which we possess intelligence. We all experience that when our minds are clear, we are able to organize things better, we are able to see the connectedness of things. On the other hand, when we’re sick or haven’t slept well, everything we try seems to go wrong. We may think we’re making an improvement, but in fact we’re just making things worse. Life seems like a Rubik’s Cube, where you fix one aspect and another goes out of whack.

Clarity of mind, I think, is another way of saying connection to the infinite. Clarity of mind is an expanded state of awareness, a state where our perspectives are broader and more all-inclusive. On this basis we are able to act on our expanded perceptions in a decisive manner, to bring about the integrated vision we have. The infinite is infinitely clear and infinitely integrated. It is the ultimate Unity, without any parts. When our minds comprehend this, when it becomes infused into the nature of the mind, then our actions display this characteristic of integration in whatever we do. For our actions come from our thoughts. When our thoughts come from the infinite value deep inside us and make their way to the surface without any obstruction or perversion, they can be expressed by the body as actions that increase sanctity.

If we want to do our job to bring sanctity into the world, we need to increase our contact with the source of sanctity. Prayer, meditation, mitzvot – all are designed to keep our awareness on Gd, the Source of all sanctity. This is the way to create a world that reflects the pure sanctity of Gd in everyday life.

Chazak! Chazak! v’NitChazeik!

Haftarah: Yirmiyah 2:4-28; 3:4 (most Ashkenazim); 4:1-2 (Sephardim and Chasidei Chabad)

This is the second of the “Three [Haftarot] of Affliciton.” Next week we switch to Yeshayahu (Isaiah) on Shabbat Chazon, named after the first words of the Haftarah. Since next Shabbat is actually Tisha B’Av, the fast is postponed to Sunday. Today’s haftarah is the haftarah of Mas’ei.

What did your forefathers find in Me that is wrong, that they distanced themselves from Me and went after nothingness, and have turned into nothingness? (2:5)

Here the prophet compares (contrasts) Gd to nothingness, complete annihilation. Gd is infinite, and Gd creates the finite cosmos from within His own nature. Of course, compared to the infinite, the finite is nothing. The finite has one big advantage though – since we ourselves are finite, we can comprehend it. Since Gd is bigger than we can ever be, we cannot comprehend Gd fully. Therefore we have a tendency to focus on the finite and forget about Gd, no matter how obvious Gd makes His presence known to us. The problem with this approach is that the finite world is full of problems and incompleteness and inconsistency. And it is not self-sufficient. Just as a wave on the ocean is not self-sufficient, but has to remain connected to the infinite bulk of the ocean to survive, so each of us as individuals, and certainly the Jewish people as a society, need to remain connected to our source in order to survive and thrive. In fact, our ultimate goal as human beings is to so identify our individuality with the Divine, that we truly see the Divine as the only reality and all of creation as nothing other than an expression of Divinity. Then we turn nothingness into something real!