Feb 2 2012

Ellul Reflections

We are currently in the Hebrew month of Ellul leading up to the High Holiday season of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Now is the time to reflect on our private and communal lives, to evaluate the past year and to chart a better course for the future. The third day of the month of Ellul happens to be the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Israel during the period of the British Mandate. His memory serves as an instructive and inspirational message to frame this season and set priorities, especially for our communal lives.

When Rabbi Kook moved to Israel from Latvia in 1904 he encountered Jewish communities in conflict with each other: traditionalists verses secularists, rightists verses leftists, Ashkenazim verses Sepharadim, and the list goes on. Rabbi Kook devoted much of his rabbinic leadership to serving as a bridge between adversarial worlds.

In this spirit, Rabbi Kook invited some of the leading traditionalist rabbis to join him on a visit to the agricultural settlements of the secularist Zionist pioneers. Rabbi Kook’s motive was to help the other rabbis appreciate the self-sacrificing idealism of the young Zionists and to inspire the pioneers with the nobility of the message of the Torah.

The rabbinic delegation arrived one evening to the agricultural settlement of Poriya, near Tiberias, just as the workers were sitting down to eat. Since the food was not kosher the rabbis waited outside the dining room for the meal to end. When the rabbis heard the pioneers begin to sing, Rabbi Kook convinced his colleagues to join the young men and women of the settlement. Upon entering Rabbi Kook raised his hand and silence fell upon the room. He then passionately implored, “The time has come to end the state of estrangement between us. Dear brothers and sisters, come close. The time has come for the uniting of the hearts of the Old Settlement with those of the New Settlement. We have come to you, but please take a step towards us …”

At this point Rabbi Kook urged all present to join a dance. As the pioneers and the rabbis began to dance together in circles Rabbi Kook stealthily left the room. He approached the guard of the settlement and exchanged clothes with him. As the enthusiastic dancing was continuing, Rabbi Kook returned, dressed as a pioneer guard, complete with kafiye Arab headdress and rifle in hand. Upon noticing Rabbi Kook’s entrance, the dancing and singing ceased in curious amazement at the strange sight. Rabbi Kook addressed the crowd with words emerging from the depths of his heart, “The Chassidim teach that the greatness of dancing lies in the necessity to jump a little off the floor. We then can view the world from a different angle, from a fresh perspective. Let us join in dance. Let us see a renewed world. A world without “old” and “new,” without hatred and hostility, a world where rabbis can where the clothes of pioneering guards and where pioneer guards are capable of wearing the clothes of rabbis.” The dancing of the rabbis and Zionist pioneers continued till dawn when Rabbi Kook collapsed muttering, “Blessed be God who has brought me to this moment…”

Let’s lift our feet off the floor and gain a refreshed and continually renewed perspective that will preserve and further nurture a cohesive community- the hidden secret of our peoples’ survival.



Apr 5 2011

Parshat Metzora: Opportunity and Responsibility

Parshat Metzora

Opportunity and Responsibility

Rabbi Joel Zeff

Our Torah portion is concerned with a particularly difficult area of Jewish law: “tzara’at,”   an impossible to translate term.  The Torah describes this as a phenomenon whereby blotches or dots appear on the skin, clothing, or the walls of the home, rendering the afflicted item ritually impure.  Let’s examine one especially instructive verse from this week’s parsha.

“When you come to the Land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession and I will place an affliction of tzara’at on a house in the land of your possession… “ (Leviticus 14:34).

Ramban comments on the phrase “I will place”:

This alludes to the fact that the hand of God does this and that this is not at all natural, as I have already explained.

Ramban sees the Torah here as emphasizing the supernatural basis of this phenomenon which should not be confused with any sort of natural disease. This, of course, undermines the occasional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy.” He concludes his observation by noting that he has explained this notion elsewhere. Indeed, in last week’s parsha of Tazria,  Ramban comments:

This matter is not at all natural and it only exists in the world… when Israel is whole with the Lord and the spirit of God dwells upon them to support their bodies, clothes, and homes with the best possible appearance. When a Jew fails through sin and transgression there comes into being a kind of pollution on their flesh, clothing, or homes, in order to demonstrate that the Lord has departed from him.

With these fascinating and thought-provoking words, Ramban is suggesting that wholeness with God causes a spiritual “aura” resulting in a visible radiance of aesthetic quality. The various types of tzara’at are a function of the removal of this aura. Indeed, they serve as a wake-up call to repair and restore the integrity of our relationship with God.

Rambam (=Maimonides, not to be confused with Ramban= Nachmanides,quoted above) in his great law code, Mishne Torah, states that these “afflictions” do not appear on houses outside of the Land of Israel. This, again, is based upon our verse above which seems to condition the house being “in the land of your possession.” (No, not even in Brooklyn.)  According to Rambam, this phenomenon does affect people and clothing outside the Land.  Why should only homes in the Holy Land be vulnerable while people and garments were universally affected?

Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, in his work “Iturei Torah,” explains that tzara’at on the flesh reflects sins committed by the body, while tzara’at on clothing is a function of sins committed with one’s possessions.  Sins committed by society as a whole, with respect to its collective moral caliber, are expressed as an affliction on houses. This specificity accentuates the notion that tzara’rat serves to guide us to repent and even directs us to the particular realm in which we need to restore wholeness with God. We can, as individuals, correct our personal sins we committed with our own hands and possessions. But the sins represented by affliction of homes are representative of sinful behavior of society, and with respect to the nature of that society, as a whole. Only in Eretz Yisrael does the Jewish nation have the possibility of sovereignty and thus the ability to fashion an entire social fabric based on the values and laws of our constitution, the Torah. If so, tzara’at on houses is not relevant in the lands of the diaspora, where Jews are not sovereign and thus do not bear on their shoulders, as Jews, responsibility for the imperfections of those societies.

This notion is a powerful reminder of the special opportunity, and responsibility, represented by the rebirth of the Jewish Nation embodied in the State of Israel. Zionism, from our perspective, is nothing less than the opportunity to actualize the very raison d’etre of the Jewish people, the forming of a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.  Our parsha reminds us that this opportunity is inseparable from the weighty responsibility for the imperfections of the society we are creating. Let us rise to the occasion and may the good Lord grant our prayers we utter each Shabbat when we say, “Our Father in heaven, bless the State of Israel… and send your light and truth to its leaders, officials, and advisors, and guide them with good counsel…” and let us say, “Amen!”