Friday, April 3, 2020

The Fire Should Not Be Extinguished

Parshat Tzav

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Parshas Tzav continues the instructions of the sacrificial order that began the book of Vayikra, describing how a korban olah (completely burnt offering) is to be left on the Mizbeach overnight, to burn through the night. 

אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה 

"Thus, there shall be a constant fire kept burning on the altar, without being extinguished.” 

Rashi notes that the fire on the Mizbeach is used to light the fire of the Menorah – both fires are described as being “Tamid” – meaning constant. So, in essence, we are talking about two of the vessels of the Mishkan, each serving a very different purpose, whose mission is to have fire on it at all times. 

There is a notable difference, however, between the fires of the Menorah and the Mizbeach. The Menorah’s fire is oil candles, which means that by definition the candles will go out and will be relit daily. If you’ve ever tried filling an oil candle while it was lit, you know the chances of your new oil putting out the flame is actually high. The candle is MEANT to go out, then be refilled and relit. The connection between the Menorah and the Mizbeach is that the fire used to light the Menorah is supposed to come from the Mizbeach. 

The fire on the Mizbeach is meant to be there always - even on Shabbos, even when people are Tamei and can’t bring Korbanos. (Yerushalmi Yoma 4:6). (Obviously it would have to be put out for travel when the Mizbeach was portable – see Bamidbar 4:13-14, though see the Torah Temimah on Vayikra 6:6 note 45, in which he records a debate in the Yerushalmi quoted above as to whether there was a small fire covered by a small vessel – which God would maintain during travel). 

Two forever fires – one goes out and is revitalized daily, one is there always, no matter what. 

One illuminates a room, one is the source for how service of God is in fact accomplished all the time, always available for anyone who is ready, for good reasons (to bring an Olah, Shlamim, Todah), or for bad (to bring a Chatas or Asham) to demonstrate one’s readiness to submit to the Almighty, either in thanks or in confession while seeking atonement for a wrongdoing. 

As for this latter fire, Alshikh describes its constant readiness in the following way: “From this [constant flame] you can see that spirituality and holiness stands by itself.” 

“Even if the wood is all burned out, and there hasn’t been a chance to put more wood on the fire, it will still not extinguish. And from this you will understand the holiness of this fire, and that it is [more] a spiritual fire [than a physical one], and the holiness of all of the service of the Mizbeach. In this way you’ll understand what is before you, and you’ll rush to do the service, which is the goal of all of this.” 

In the Mishkan, only the kohanim saw the Menorah. And yet the Menorah was considered to be a light of the people – who were instructed in Tetzaveh (and other places) to all contribute to the oil. All of the people were able to see the fire on the Mizbeach, and at the very least could see the smoke from the fire from wherever they may have been. 

Each fire represents our options today as the Jewish people, in particular at this time when our shuls are closed. The Menorah is like a private fire – we have to light our own fire day in and day out. We have to continue to pray – even as we add more things to pray for and think about. We pray for those we know who are ill, and for those we don’t know who are also ill. We pray for our community, our communities, for our state, for the country, for the world. We may gather in a a Zoom “minyan,” but we are still praying alone, and we can pray even and especially after the camera is turned off. 

The fire of the Mizbeach is the fire that is seen by all of the Jewish people, and it is a constant no matter what else is going on. Even when the Mishkan is closed down because of “Tumah,” even when the Mizbeach is largely unused because of Shabbos – the fire remains. 

For us, we have to imagine that our shul still unites us as a community, even when it is closed all week long. People are doing a tremendous amount of Chesed for others, and it is incredible to see. And we must also remember that the fire of our service of God must be maintained even when we’re not using the Mizbeach – the place where serving God takes place. 

As difficult as life is now, we have our homes, we have food, we have the ability to communicate with everyone we need to be in touch with, and we have the ability to tap into resources we never paid much attention to because we also have our Internet access. Now, more than ever, rabbis and teachers are recording – in audio, in video – everything they say. Torah is even more accessible now than ever before. The big challenge is what to click on to listen to or to watch! 

Let us do our part to see that in our own experience we should see that the fire of the Mizbeach is never extinguished. In this and many other merits, may we soon see our efforts rewarded with the end of the virus and a stronger than ever return to the service of the Almighty with the rekindling of the lights in our shul and the fire in our hearts as our community builds upon what we are accomplishing while in isolation.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Soul Improvement is Up to Us

Parshat Vayikra

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

The Book of Vayikra begins with much instruction regarding the sacrificial order, going into detail about which offerings are brought, and how, and for what reasons.

The fifth chapter of the book begins as follows: “[This is the law] if a person sins [in any of the following ways]: If he is bound by an oath [to give evidence in court], where he was a witness who saw or knew [something], and he does not testify, he must bear his guilt.” 

We are familiar with the idea that a witness must share what he knows in court. Spoliation of evidence, obfuscation and perjury are considered immoral in any case where “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is needed.

The question is, in the Torah’s announcement, how far reaching does this evidence sharing have to go? Should a person be a snitch? Is the Torah mandating tattling? Or is this only in a specific setting – a court room, when the witness is under the equivalent of an oath and must give the information for the court to know how to decide?

It certainly sounds like this is a rule for the courtroom. But the opening word, which was lost in the translation, is rather suggestive. The Torah says “And if a Nefesh sins” (Nefesh was translated above as ‘person’). The Midrash Aggadah quotes a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs) 19:2: “It is also not good that a soul be without knowledge,” and then asks why our verse introduces the sinner as a “Nefesh?”

The answer is that sinning is attached to the soul. Just as the fulfillment of a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, a sin leads to another sin. The Midrash shares a long tale attached to the second half of that verse in Mishlei, and then it brings a second interpretation, about how in the world to come God asks the soul why it sinned. And the soul says, “It wasn’t me. It was the body! From when I left the body have I sinned?” So God turns to the body and asks it why it sinned. And the body says, “Look at me – lifeless! I can’t do anything without my soul! Have I sinned since the soul left me? Clearly it’s the soul that sins.”

Without much of a choice, God judges them together.

To me, this Midrash is showing that there is what to be said about the soul being the definition of the person. We really need to rein in our souls to make sure we know what it is accountable for, and in what manner it truly serves our best interests.

This week, with the Coronavirus forcing us to reformulate how we create community and how we serve God (hopefully for only a short time), adding chapters of Tehillim to a daily regimen of Tefillah turned out to be rather inspirational. It is amazing to see how words written 2800 years ago can be so profoundly relevant to what is going on today.

Different than what I normally do, I’ll just be sharing snippets of some of the chapters I read this week, all of which demonstrate a fundamental belief that God is running the show, and a fundamental faith that it’s how much I put into my soul that determines how much my soul walks away with, and how much it grows in positive ways.

So let us remember that the snitching and tattling are just one form of tainting the soul. (Though we must tell the truth in a courtroom!) Our goal in life is to enhance others’ lives as we get closer and closer to our soul’s real purpose.

The following translations are taken from Chabad Library 

Tehillim 17 - 6 I called to You because You shall answer me, O God. Bend Your ear to me; hearken to my saying. 7 Distinguish Your kind acts to save, with Your right hand, those who take refuge [in You] from those who rise up [against them]. 8 Guard me as the apple of the eye; in the shadow of Your wings You shall hide me. 9 Because of the wicked who have robbed me; my mortal enemies who encompass me. 10 [With] their fat, they closed themselves up; their mouths spoke with haughtiness… 14 Of those who die by Your hand, O Lord, of those who die of old age, whose share is in life, and whose belly You will fill with Your hidden treasure, who have children in plenty and leave their abundance to their babes.15 I will see Your face with righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your image upon the awakening.

Tehillim 25 - 8 The Lord is good and upright; therefore, He leads sinners on the road…10 All the Lord's ways are kindness and truth for those who keep His covenant and His testimonies…14 The secret of the Lord is with those who fear Him, and His covenant is to let them know [it].15 My eyes are always to God for He will take my feet out of the net…17 The troubles of my heart have increased; deliver me from my straits.18 See my affliction and my toil, and forgive all my sins. 19 See my enemies for they have increased, and they hate me with unjust hatred. 20 Guard my soul and save me; let me not be shamed for I have taken refuge in You. 21 Sincerity and uprightness shall guard me, for I have hoped for You. 22 O God, redeem Israel from all its troubles 

Tehillim 28 - 1 Of David. To You, O Lord, I call. My Rock, do not be deaf to me, lest You be silent to me, and I will be likened to those who descend into the Pit. 2 Hearken to the voice of my supplications when I cry out to You, when I lift my hands towards Your Holy Sanctuary… 5 For they do not understand the works of the Lord or the deeds of His hands. He shall break them down and not build them up. 6 Blessed is the Lord, for He has heard the voice of my supplication. 7 The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him and I was helped; my heart rejoiced and I will thank Him with my song… 9 Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.

Tehillim 31 - 1 To the conductor, a song of David. 2 I took refuge in You, O Lord; let me not be shamed forever; rescue me with Your righteousness. 3 Incline Your ear to me, quickly rescue me; be a rock of strength to me, a stronghold to save me. 4 For You are my Rock and my Stronghold, and for Your name's sake, You shall lead me and guide me. 5 You shall free me from this net which they have hidden for me, for You are my stronghold. 6 In Your hand I entrust my spirit; You have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth... 8 I will exult and rejoice in Your kindness, for You have seen my affliction; You have known the troubles of my soul. 9 And you did not deliver me into the hands of an enemy; You have placed my feet in a broad place. 10 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye is dimmed from anger, my soul and my belly. 11 For my life is spent in grief and my years in sighing; my strength has failed because of my iniquity, and my bones have decayed… 15 But I trusted in You, O Lord; I said, "You are my God." 16 My times are in Your hands; rescue me from the hands of my enemies and from my pursuers. 17 Cause Your countenance to shine upon Your servant; save me with Your kindness… 22 Blessed is the Lord for He has been wondrously kind to me in a besieged city. 23 But I said in my haste, "I have been cut off from before Your eyes," but You heard the voice of my supplications when I cried out to You. 24 Love the Lord, all His pious ones. The Lord guards those who believe [in Him] and He pays with a bowstring him who works with haughtiness. 25 Strengthen yourselves, and He will give your heart courage, all who hope to the Lord.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


Around two months ago, I delivered a sermon that touched upon this subject peripherally. Now, with COVID-19 being on everyone's mind, and having changed much of of our social interactions - hopefully only for the time being - this is a new and expanded take on that subject.

Do We Have A Fear of Death?

 It is not our place to play God and to decide who or what is at fault for anything. At any time in the year, when someone gets ill or passes away, we easily, quickly, and often ascribe these realities to God. “It’s Hashem’s plan.” “It’s in God’s hands.” “It is Hashem’s will.” “We don’t understand the ways of Hashem.” “I trust in Hashem: He knows what is best.” “Baruch Dayan Ha’emes.”

Maybe if someone commits a deliberate act of murder, we have a much easier time blaming the murderer. But when there isn't a known motive, we might even say the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time!

We cry on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when we read the words of U’nesaneh Tokef – “Mi yichyeh u’mi yamus” (Who will live and who will die?) as we hope we are granted another year. We also acknowledge that these things are decided at that time. At the same time we hope our Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah can reverse a negative decree. We are also aware that we could do the most heinous or reprehensible things in God’s eyes that may turn our positive judgment negative. We KNOW this.

And yet, is it always clear that death is a punishment? The Rabbis ascribe many sins to Nadav and Avihu, whose deaths we will read of in Parshat Shmini (this year, the Shabbos after Pesach). And yet when they died, Moshe told Aharon “This is what God said – ‘with My holy ones I will be sanctified.’” Which suggests that Nadav and Avihu were holy, without sin. If Moshe says so, it seems their deaths are not a punishment, but they are God’s will, because He wanted their souls back. Somehow, He was sanctified in their lives ending. I take this to mean that dying is not always a punishment. In fact, I much prefer to think that anyone’s death is because God wanted the person’s soul back, much more than I like to think that the person died on account of sins or regrettable behavior. I much prefer to think that it’s a person’s time for reasons I don’t understand than for reasons that I can very clearly understand.

This is not to say that we aren’t careful, and that we don’t make deliberate decisions and choices as to what activities we engage in, what foods we consume, where we travel, who is driving, as well as the relative safety of anything we undertake. But there is an element of risk in just about every aspect of life, from getting out of bed (ask anyone who has fallen and broken something doing that) to walking to the bathroom (ask anyone who has tripped, and had serious injuries) to getting in a car, to walking or biking on a road where cars speed, to stepping up into a building (tripping), to climbing or walking down stairs (tripping and falling), to going into any doctor appointment (infection from others), to eating at any restaurant (food poisoning), to stepping into an airport (tripping, infection), to getting on a plane (infection, crashing, terrorism), to going on a cruise (all of the above), etc.

And so I ask, “Is it really in our hands?” We all know very well that we could do everything right. We can do all the proper research, we can be the most careful driver, we can avoid venturing into unsafe spaces, we can eat right, we can exercise, we can follow all recommendations, we can do all the right treatments, take the correct medications, and yet… outcomes might not be what we had hoped. We know this too is true. (Of course, in many or even most cases things work out well. But is anything a guarantee?)

We acknowledge God’s role in life and death every single day, several times a day, in the second bracha of Shmoneh Esrei. We acknowledge God in our daily prayers for having returned our souls to us (Modeh Ani). We recognize that our souls are pure (if we can only merit to keep them that way) and that one day God will take our souls. As long as He gives me a soul, I acknowledge His role in being the Master of Souls (Elokai Neshama). We note that we will speak of God’s praises for our lives which are in His hands, and for our souls which are entrusted to Him, and for the miracles we experience every day (Modim). We also are most grateful for the fact that our bodies function the way they do, when everything is working properly, while recognizing what could happen if things did not work so mechanically (Bracha of Asher Yatzer) And of course we always say that we entrust our spirit to God both when we sleep and are awake, and that our body stays with our soul, I have nothing to fear for Hashem is with me. (Adon Olam).

We all want to live, because we know this world. It is familiar to us. We love life, we love our families, we love our friends. And yet, in the back of our minds, we all know one day each of our lives will end. So a few question we are faced with include:
  • How do we live our lives? 
  • Are we indeed enhancing those relationships? 
  • Do we give each other chizuk for how to live life once we are gone (not that that should be a sole focus or an oft-recurring conversation)? 
  • Are we ignoring our eventual reality in hopes that everyone will figure out how to cope with our passing and eventual (permanent) absence? 
  • Are we aiming up, trying to get as close to God in this world
  • Or are we only waiting until we die to make that effort of getting close to God - a job we'll leave for our neshama to work out on its own? 
  • Why do we put so much stock in yarzeits and giving an Aliyah to a neshama? 
  • Do we not have faith in the effort the person made in life to get as close to God as possible, such that the kaddish, the yarzeit, the Aliyah for the neshama are really backups? 
  • Or do we feel we need to help that neshama as much as possible, because the person’s effort in life was focused on things other than God? 

Do we fear death? I suppose some people do.

We might fear someone else’s death, because we will miss that person. If a spouse, we might prefer to be the one to pass first, because the pain of living on without the person is so unbearable. If that’s the case, it’s not death that is feared, but the unknown which is feared. But for the person who dies, life ends. There is no pain. There is no suffering. It is simply a move on to another world.

Can we argue that death is an unknown? What do we say when a person passes away? Alav HaShalom. Aleha HaShalom. We refer to a person as in a state of eternal rest, and peace. We talk about the soul as being bound in the bond of eternal life. We ask of the person to be a “Melitz yosher” (an advocate for us with the Almighty). We assume the person has the ability to forgive us for any wrongdoings we may have done to the person in life and after passing. We talk about where the soul goes – on or under the wings of the Divine, resting in Gan Eden. We certainly sound like we know what we’re talking about. 

So here we are, facing an unprecedented scare for people of all ages – most notably people with underlying health conditions and people identified as senior citizens (even if one feels very healthy, energetic, young, etc). [Though it sounds like even these criteria are changing.] Certainly we want everyone to live, to get through this, and to be well. I personally go the route of optimism, and run from fear-mongering. Every statistic I see notes that this illness, while getting much media coverage and though certainly quite contagious, is not as deadly (statistically speaking) as the yearly flu season seems to be. Many are asymptomatic and don't present illness! And many who are exposed don't catch the virus. To get accurate numbers of any statistics we'd have to know exactly how many were infected. Because the more who were infected and got over it (unknowingly) lowers the mortality rate significantly. 

And yet, what if God's plans for some people is not what we want? What if some will not survive? Are we going to point fingers at people? Will we blame people for not doing their part? Are we going to play God in saying that it was not God’s will – if only so and so hadn’t…? Who’s to say? Why do some people not get infected, while others get no symptoms, others some symptoms, others a bad case – all of whom get through it – and others die? Is it in fact the case that anyone over 70 who tests positive for COVID-19 passes away? It is not.

Mi yichyeh u’mi yamus? God has many tools available. Sometimes He uses illness. (heart disease, cancer, flu, pneumonia, diabetes, alzheimer's). Sometimes He uses the hand of Man (medical errors, car accidents, other accidents, depression -> suicide). Sometimes He uses an agent (the Malach HaMuvess, etc).

Do we live in fear with all of these possibilities? No? Then we shouldn't live in fear now.

If in the end we'll say the kinds of things outlined in the opening paragraph, then we truly believe God runs the world. If we play blame games and point fingers at people, I would argue that we don't believe God runs the show. 

In most cases when someone passes away, we humans who remain behind, feel it was too early, too soon, the person had more to live for, more to look forward to, more to do. He shouldn't have passed that way. Oy how she suffered. It wasn't a life. It was too sudden. We didn't have a chance to say goodbye. Or to tell her how much we loved her.

These are emotions, feelings of regret over our own failings! They certainly have nothing to do with the account we typically put in God's hands.

צדיק באמונתו יחיה - the righteous live in their faith.

I heard a story that was told on NPR this week of a non-Jew who has owned a restaurant his entire adult life. It is a family business. While they are not able to serve customers in the way they normally do, they are providing take out, and serving as a source of strength in their community. The son in his 50s was asked about his 80+ year old father who has given his life to this business: Isn't he worried about the virus? Doesn't he know it can kill him if he gets it?

The answer? My father has given his life to this place, and to the role he plays in our community. We are people of faith. If it is his time, and the virus is meant to get him, he is prepared for that possibility. He understands that as being God's will. But he is serving God in not abandoning the people who need him at this time.

I am not suggesting that people ought to congregate and rely on the Almighty's protection. Of course we must take necessary precautions. Rabbi Soloveitchik distinguished between the person of faith and the person of destiny - the former accepting what God throws at him as God's will, the latter rising to the occasion and seeking to impact and possibly change the course of what seems to be a challenging or difficult trajectory of activity. Clearly Rabbi Soloveitchik favors the latter person, while understanding that the person of faith is out there as well. (My father likes to quote this.)

If a person gets sick, the person can say "It's God's will." Or the person can say, "I'll seek medical attention." (Even though medical advice might often be, 'let it run its course and you should be fine.') In most out-of-the-ordinary cases I would certainly advocate seeking medical attention!

The point is that as a retrospect, the person who believes in God accepts the ultimate outcomes as having come from the Almighty.

Let us remember Whose world we inhabit and from Whom the gift we call life comes. When we put ourselves in His hands and accept that ultimately He is in charge, we can live in peace and at peace with whatever will be.

During the months of Elul and Tishrei we add Tehillim 27 to our daily regimen of prayer, which includes the words

9Do not hide Your presence from me; do not turn Your servant away with anger. You were my help; do not forsake me and do not abandon me, O God of my salvation.טאַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ | מִמֶּנִּי֘ אַל־תַּט בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֜עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹקי יִשְׁעִֽי:
10For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord gathers me in.יכִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽ֜ה' יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי:
11Instruct me, O Lord, in Your way, and lead me in the straight path because of those who lie in wait for me.יאה֚וֹרֵ֥נִי ה' דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֖נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֜מַ֗עַן שֽׁוֹרְרָֽי:

May COVID-19 be contained so normal life may resume. May we live to embrace that day that "the Lord gathers me in" because He is the One constant I can rely on after everything else is gone.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Shabbos Twice in a Row

Parshat VAYAKHEL - Fekudei

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In the frenzy of last weekend, with many shuls deciding to shut their doors, many of us were faced with the prospect of experiencing Shabbos in a way we had not before. Going to shul was off the table – so what do you do? 

Friday night I prayed outside. I took my time. I danced a little during L’cha Dodi (which I never do in shul), and I made sure not to go back inside until the last word of Yigdal. Friday nights are different each week in our home. Without the walk home from shul, however, we were able to begin much earlier than usual. We were relaxed in a way that is sometimes more necessary to manufacture. Zemiros (songs) around the table were much more lively than usual. 

Without my regular Shabbos morning responsibilities, I tried to sleep in, but alas, that internal clock could not embrace reality and I was up before 7am. So after a coffee and chat with an earlier riser, I woke up my boys “for davening” at 9:30am. My pre-bar-mitzvah boy led “Pesukei D’Zimrah,” my bar-mitzvah son led “Shacharis,” I “leined” the Parsha, Parshat Parah and Haftorah from a Tikkun, and my pre-bar-mitzvah son led “Mussaf.” Of course we skipped all the parts that require a minyan. But our “minyan” took 1.5 hours – we experienced a regular davening minus kaddish, kedusha, and chazaras haShatz. And it was a really special experience. (My daughters were invited, but they chose to do things their own way.) 

I share this because in the event that shuls remain closed, I hope others will take the inspiration and initiative to pray with family in a manner that Orthodox shuls don’t typically make available due to the mechitza and our rules surrounding age and minyan. And while I am certainly not looking to change things, when forced to change my comfort zone, this connection with family was an excellent substitute for what has become a weekly routine. 

The other reason for sharing this different Shabbos is because Shabbos is mentioned in the Torah in the parsha we missed (Ki Sisa – end of Chapter 31) and in our Parsha of Vayakhel (beginning of chapter 35). But what a difference between the two depictions! In Ki Sisa, the people are urged to keep Shabbos while being warned of the dire consequences to those who desecrate the Shabbos. 

In Vayakhel, while there is a mention of the same consequence, the focus of most readers is on the last verse in the segment, avoiding the kindling of fire. 

And so I’d like to take a homiletical leap off the page to suggest that this is a reflection of our experience these weeks, especially if shuls do remain closed this coming Shabbos as well. 

The first week we needed to remember what makes Shabbos holy and special. There was even a concern that anyone who might not follow the rules of this past Shabbos could be putting others in danger and at risk. While I am not suggesting that those who did not follow the rules should have been put to death, but the feeling behind the closures was one of “death hangs in the balance.” How else could we justify closing down our needed opportunities to gather in Tefillah as we do every week? 

The second week, as we are more used to the isolation and the need to follow the rules to prevent a virus from spreading, we find ourselves faced with a different calculation – how can we avoid the spreading of a metaphorical fire? 

And I think that more than anything, two things have emerged from these unique Shabbos experiences. One, we discover how important our community is and how important our communal institutions are. We miss not having it so central to our lives. Two, we discover how holiness and a sense of purpose are each for us to determine and create for ourselves. 

Shabbos could have been sad, drab, boring. But we took the chance and made it special and memorable. What will you now do should we be faced with an isolated Shabbos again? 

Hopefully we’ll all embrace the opportunity to raise it up a notch and make things extraordinary.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

How Moshe Rabbenu Dealt With Challenge

This is the sermon I prepared but did not deliver as our shul made the difficult decision to close a few hours before Shabbos. I did not edit it to reflect on our eventual reality. 

Shabbos - Ki Sisa/Parah

Rabbi Avi Billet

This is a strange time for the world, and of course for the Jewish people. 

As I noted last week, with the cancellation of many events, and now with the cancellation of sports seasons (for the time being), the stock market tanking, and everyone shutting down to – if not self quarantine, then to minimize interactions with people – one wonders when this will end. 

 Is this the new normal? Or will we return to the way things were? 

Schools are closing, shuls are closing, people in Israel are canceling their trips abroad to avoid having to undergo 14-day quarantines (which is why Rabbi Grunstein will likely be cancelling for March 28) 

Thursday and Friday were the most difficult day I’ve ever experienced as a rabbi. Phone calls, text messages, emails, whatsapp. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is sure that what they propose is the right thing. 

And to each person I said, “OK. You’re in my shoes. What do you do?” Then the answers are not as simple. We consulted with members of our shul who are doctors and have their nose to the ground on what’s going on. We heeded their advice. We are not serving food. We are spreading people around. And we are encouraging all the sanitizing etc that we can. 

We want people to be safe. But we also don’t assume that everyone is infected. Such an attitude is what is tearing people apart and destroying a certain manner of whatever we call a social construct. We’ve encouraged those who are uncomfortable to stay home. Before the Coronavirus came around, everyone was aware that living in the world carries risk in every activity we undertake. We usually ignore the risk because we want to live our lives. This current “risk,” however, has caused many people to fear on a much higher level than other risks. And that is totally understandable. 

A friend of mine who is a doctor told me that he was involved in an online discussion regarding one of the schools – in which he said all the doctors said “No need to close the school” and all the non-doctor parents said “WE HAVE TO CLOSE THE SCHOOL.” 

Will the level-headed thinking-doctors prevail in that case? Or will the much louder fear-induced people prevail? I don’t know. Though by Friday, especially after the OU sent out their recommendations, it sounded like every school was gearing up for a shut down. 

These are difficult decisions. And no matter what you decide people are going to disagree, and in some cases disagree very strongly or loudly. Each of us has the opportunity to control how we are going to react. And sometimes we react with our emotions, and sometimes we react with our minds. And sometimes we react with our hearts. 

There is a story about Rabbi Aryeh Levine – it’s in the Book “A Tzaddik in Our Time.” There was a young man with tuberculosis who needed a place to sleep. Rabbi Aryeh Levine brought him into his own house, even though he had little kids in the house. His rebbetzin slept in the kitchen, while Reb Aryeh put the young man very close to his own bed, so he could be available to tend to this man’s needs. 

How many people would do that – especially in a time when tuberculosis was one of the most deadly diseases known to man. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tuberculosis (TB) was the leading cause of death in the United States, and one of the most feared diseases in the world. 

We have to pray for ourselves, for our community, for the world. And we have to remember that we put our trust in the Ribbono Shel Olam. We do our part, which includes upping our hygiene, paying more careful attention to when we get ill, and it might also include isolation, and the rest is up to Him. 

It is certainly not a disease, but the tale of the Golden Calf is an incredibly timely example of how leadership was faced with a tremendous challenge – perhaps we can even call it a crisis. 

Moshe Rabbenu’s life has reached a point we cannot contemplate – he’s been having a chavrusa with the Almighty for close to 6 weeks. He hasn’t consumed any food during this time. He’s in a space – emotionally, spiritually, perhaps even physically – that we can’t relate to in any way. 

And then the bubble bursts and he is brought down to reality. And reality is that there is something terrible going on at the bottom of the mountain. Something which has God contemplating the deaths of millions of people. Something for which Moshe needs to intervene, then take action, then put an end to the crisis. 

Many of you know the story. But here it is. 

Moshe is going to come down the mountain, with Luchos in hand, he’s going to witness that which God told him is going on, people dancing and reveling in front of a Golden Calf, he’s going to throw down the Luchos, shattering them into pieces, he is going to destroy the Eigel, chastise his brother Aharon, and then shout out, מי לה' אלי! Whoever is for God, come and join me! 

And then he’s essentially going to preside over the killing of 3,000 people – the worst of the bunch, the worst perpetrators of the idolatrous deed. And through that he is going to save the millions that God has threatened to destroy. 

Will that get rid of the problem? Unfortunately not. Judaism has changed forever. We will always have the golden calf hiding in the shadows. The Kohen Gadol couldn’t walk into the Holy of Holies wearing gold, because it’s a reminder of the Golden Calf. 

The Parah Adumah, of which we read this morning, is supposed to be an atonement for the Golden Calf – as Rashi put it – just as we tell the maid to clean up her child’s mess, let the mother cow come in and atone for the sin of the calf. 

Were it a one time deal, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah would have only been for a single time in history. But we still have a mitzvah to read it, which means that its purpose is still relevant, even so many thousands of years later. 

Why Moshe had to have those 3,000 people executed is a difficult question. Ramban simply paints it as a “Hora’as Sha’ah” which came from God, though the final number were people who were found guilty based on the evidence of what is called עדים והתראה. There were witnesses who had issued a warning, and these people worshipped the calf anyway. 

I won’t pretend to know or understand the ways of God. There was clearly a gezeirah min hashamayim, and there are many people who have died in a short time in China, Italy, Iran, and around the world. 

What did the world do? I don’t know. What could we be doing differently or better? I don’t know. 

Medical experts are weighing in, and efforts are being made to stem the transmission of a virus – it has been sequenced, we know what it is, what it looks like, mostly how it is transmitted, but there is still much uncertainty. 

How long will it last? How many people need to die? Is this the beginning of the end of the world as we know it? I don’t think so. I am on the optimistic side of things and believe that we will make our way through this, and see a light at the end of the tunnel soon. 

On the other hand, what if this has created a new normal? What if, like the Golden Calf, it will always be lurking in the background? What does it mean for humanity? 

Two things changed in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. Moshe was forced to remove his tent from being among the people. And when Moshe came down the mountain with the second set of tablets, his face is described as קרן עור פניו. His face was luminous. He was required to put a mask on his face because people could not look at him. 

Moshe would communicate with God, he’d transmit God’s word to the people, and then he’d put on the mask. When he communed with God again, he’d take the mask off. He’d share God’s message with the people. And then he’d put the mask on again for one-on-one contact with the people. 

The point is not to cover Moshe’s face when he is communicating with the people in a public fashion. Then his face can be luminous. And maybe the people can’t look at him anyway. But it’s when he needs to communicate with people face to face, one on one, that he has to wear this mask. 

I could imagine that for Moshe, during the period he wore this mask, that he experienced much isolation. His tent had been taken outside the camp. He could not live among the people. And what did he do during that time? He spoke to people, the few who came out to him. He spent a lot of time by himself. He thought about his role, the job he had done so far, the job he still had to do. He contemplated the future. For himself, and for his people. 

In our case today, we have been forced by things beyond our control to mask ourselves, to hide ourselves, to not get too close to one another. It’s obviously very different than the circumstances surrounding Moshe’s experiences, but there are a lot of similarities. 

Perhaps there’s an element of blessing in considering isolation or quarantining. We can give ourselves time to think. To ask ourselves important questions about what is important to us? What do we want to achieve in our remaining years? What are our relationships like? Can they be improved upon? How can we actualize those improvements, those shifts in thinking and practice? 

Putting on our own masks can be the greatest blessing – a time of serious contemplation. Who knows? Maybe even the creation of a new sense of purpose! Hashem should bless us all to be well. This Machala should end its spread around the globe. Everyone should have a refuah shleimah. And Im Yirtzeh Hashem, life should soon resume to the normalcy we all currently pine for. 

I want to conclude with a letter that was forwarded to me. It gave me chizuk, and I hope it gives you chizuk too. It was written by Rabbi Aron Moss of Sydney, Australia 

This coronavirus thing has really thrown me. I feel like I've lost all sense of certainty. No one knows what will happen next. How do we stay sane when we don't know what's lurking around the corner? 
It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our illusion of certainty. We never had it to begin with. This could be majorly unsettling, or amazingly liberating.   
This tiny virus of 125 nanometres* has sent the entire world into chaos. All of our plans are up in the air, markets are going crazy, entire countries shutting down, and we have no clue what the future holds. 
 But that is always the case. We never know what the future holds. We only think we do, and keep getting surprised when things don't pan out the way we expected. Now the mask is off. We have to admit our vulnerability. 
What will happen next? We don't know. Our experts don't know. Our leaders don't know. Only G-d knows. And that is the point. Only G-d knows. 
Close your eyes and feel the uncertainty, make peace with it, let yourself be taken by it. Embrace your cluelessness. Because in all the confusion there is one thing you know for sure. You are in G-d's hands. 
Keep calm. Panic and fear are also contagious. Take every precaution as advised by health authorities. Wash your hands well. And every time you do, remember whose hands you are in. 
Good Shabbos 
Rabbi Moss 
May we be blessed with health. May we soon see a time when our fears can be put to rest, and life can resume as it did before.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Chur - And How to Become a Legend

Parshat Ki Seesaw

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Who was Chur? According to Divrei Hayamim I 2:18-20, he was the son of Kalev and Efrat. Efrat is often identified as another name of Miriam (the sister of Moshe and Aharon) (see Sotah 11b).

Chur is also identified as the grandfather of Betzalel, the chief architect and engineer of the Mishkan.

On his own rights and merits, he appears twice in the Torah – in both cases along with his Uncle Aharon. The first time is in Shemot 17 when the two of them accompany Moshe to the hilltop overlooking the battle with Amalek, to hold Moshe’s arms up to serve as inspiration to those fighting in the trenches. His second appearance is in Shemot 24:14 as Moshe is ascending the mountain for 40 days, when he leave Aharon and Chur in charge – “whoever has a matter requiring attention” should consult with Aharon and Chur.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 69b) utilizes the hints we have as to Kalev’s age and figures out that since Betzalel was an “Ish” (a man) when he was tasked with overseeing and making the items for the Mishkan, therefore at least 13 years old, and since Kalev was 40 at the time of the Exodus, it must be that Kalev father Chur, and Chur fathered Uri, and Uri fathered Betzalel – all at age 8, respectively.

In his commentary on Parshat Vayeshev, Haktav V’hakabbalah notes that a similar series of information leads us to understand that Yehuda’s children (Er and Onan) married Tamar at very young ages, and that Peretz fathered a child at a young age. His explanation? “Their birthing was different, and thus their punishments were different.”

Unless we take the ages given to us as not being literal (not a stance I prefer), we are forced to accept that the fathering of children was taking place at a much younger age than we certainly view as normal, or even that we view as possible. It is certainly arguable that in a different time and under divinely-ordered realities, the world those who descended to and left Egypt lived in did not reflect our norms. The survival of the Jewish people in Egypt was dependent on certain miracles – premature availability to father a child perhaps being one of them (see Daat Zekenim on Bereshit 38:1).

In our passage, Targum Yonatan says that “Aharon saw that Chur had been killed” (32:5), quoting Vayikra Rabba, Rashi says “Aharon saw a number of things [that day],… he saw his nephew Chur, who had been rebuking the people, was killed.”

Different commentaries try to raise Chur even higher than just his family “yichus.” Ibn Ezra mentions (but rejects) a suggestion that Chur giving up his life shows he is holier than Aharon. Rabbi Judah ben Eliezer (Riv”a) notes that Chur is mentioned in the context of his grandson being introduced to us in order for us to see how holy he was, as he gave up his life to defend a challenge against God.

The verse from Eichah 2:20 – the lament over “If a Kohen and prophet can be killed in the temple” – has some commentaries identifying the murdered prophet as Chur.

What do we take from this?

More than anything, Chur’s life is shrouded in mystery. We know very little about him (just as an example, the “Otzar Ishei HaTanach” only has 5 entries on him). The little we know about him amounts to two elements of his family connections (his parents – one of whom was Kalev and one of whom may have been Miriam, and that his grandson was Betzalel), that he was a prophet, and that he may have died in protest to the rabble looking to replace Moshe in an effort that started off troubling and ended with a Golden Calf.

Isn’t that the story of most people? Isn’t it the case that the way we are remembered is through our family and through just a few stories that people know about us?

Chur is a legend because of the story surrounding his sacrifice for God and his stance against what he saw as a downward spiral towards idolatry.

What stances do we take? What stories will people tell about us? Do we stand for God and His people? Do we live a life of honor and dignity? Do we give ourselves the opportunity, like Chur, to become legends?

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Tzitz Reflects a Reminder of God to All

Parshat Tetzaveh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the garments of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was the “Tzitz” – a plate of gold worn on the forehead, inscribed with the words “Kodesh LaShem” (Holy to God). In describing its placement on his forehead, the Torah says “It shall be on Aharon’s forehead, and thus Aharon shall lift away the crookedness of the holy things that the children of Israel dedicate to the Sanctuary, with reference to all their holy gifts. It shall be on his forehead at all times, to express their good will for them before the Presence of God.” (28:38 – translation from Hirsch Chumash)

How could it be on his forehead at all times? As the Pesikta notes, wouldn’t he enter a bathhouse or a bathroom? Rather, it means that he should not get distracted from knowing it is there while he is wearing it. (Pesikta extracts from this a reminder of the importance of having in mind tefillin that a person is wearing.)

Rashi suggests that the Tzitz functions in this role of bringing atonement “all the time,” even when it is not being worn by the Kohen Gadol. &&&&&& “It is impossible to say that it should always be on his forehead, for it is only on him during the Temple service. Rather ‘always’ means it will ‘always appease on their behalf,’ even when not on his forehead, and even when he is not doing the service.” Rashi also offers an explanation of a second interpretation, “that when it is on his head, he should be constantly touching it, to remind himself that it is on him.” (Artscroll translation)

Other commentaries focus more on how the Tzitz serves to bear the responsibility of sin, or as Rabbi Ramson Raphael Hirsch puts it, to remove sin.

“The Kohen Gadol represents the whole Service of the Sanctuary, and the inscription on his forehead proclaims the Name of God, which expresses the whole essence of the one God, in His absolutely free personal being. The Sanctuary is consecrated to Him, and all the sacred things of the Sanctuary are directed to Him.

“Hence the Tzitz is designed to nullify any defect or impurity these sacred things might suffer in respect to their unswerving direction to the one God. The positive proclamation ‘Holy to God’ can nullify serious errors… If not for the tzitz, the sacred things could not escape this error…”

Haktav V’hakabbalah notes that the Tzitz is meant to inform the thought process of the Kohen Gadol, that his eyes and heart should always be contemplating the greatness of the holiness of God’s Name that he bears on his head, much in the manner that all of us are supposed to carry “these words that I command you today on your hearts” (from the Shema), which is a reference to awareness and mindfulness.

The Talmud in Zevachim (88b) notes that the clothes of the kohanim atone for the stubbornness and brazenness of Israel. While more details appear in the Talmud about each specific vestment, there is what to be said about the only garment that carried God’s name serving in such a capacity.

It is relatively easy to see that the Israelites in the desert were stubborn (stiff-necked) and brazen (often complaining). These character traits were definitive of the Jewish people in God’s eyes, and has come to haunt us in some ways, while serving as a key to our survival through the millennia in other ways.

How do these traits work for us today? It depends how they are used. When our stubbornness and brazenness help us take stances for what it truly means to honor God and His Torah, and to live by the precepts which have defined our people, then we are doing well. If these traits cause us to think we are better than other people, whether fellow Jews or those who are not Jewish, then we have fallen pray to arrogance and bigotry, which are the most un-Godlike behaviors.

All of humanity are God’s children. The Kohen Gadol’s forehead plate was meant to be a reminder to everyone who encountered him that “holiness is for God” and any activity you undertake which is done in the name of holiness better well be a true reflection of what God has instructed or even demanded.

Killing in God’s name, destroying others’ lives in God’s name, disagreeing with others and claiming to represent God are actually all the most un-Godlike activities, and are all terrible desecrations of God’s name. It only comes from arrogance and from believing that “only I truly represent God and everyone else is an impostor.”

The prophet Micha told us “walk humbly with God” and not to ever think we are His emissary to do anything other than to represent Him with the utmost humility.