Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tetzaveh 5770-2010

"The Central Role of the Golden Altar and the Incense"

The order of the Torah's instructions regarding the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the vestments for the priests that are found in parashiot Terumah and Tetzaveh is rather perplexing.

In parashat Terumah, Moses receives the instructions of how to build all the furnishings for the Tabernacle with the exception of one item. Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the lighting of the Menorah and continues with an exceedingly precise description of the priestly garments–the four lay vestments and the four special vestments for the High Priest. This then is followed by the inauguration ritual in which the priests are consecrated into the service of the priesthood. Only after all this, in the final chapter of parashat Tetzaveh, chapter 30, do we find the instructions for building the Golden Altar.

Exodus 30:1 reads: "V'ah'see'tah miz'bay'ahch mik'tar k'toh'ret, ah'tzay shee'teem ta'ah'seh oh'toh," You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke, of acacia wood shall you make it. The Torah then describes the dimensions of the Golden Altar. Its length and width are one cubit, its height, two cubits. The acacia wood structure shall be covered with gold, and the top of the altar shall have four horns. There shall also be two rings on the sides of the altar to enable the altar to be transported from place to place on gold-covered staves.

The Torah instructs that the Golden Altar be placed inside the Tabernacle, in the less sanctified area known as "holy," together with the Menorah and the Table of Showbread. Every morning and afternoon the priests were to burn incense on the Golden Altar. Consequently, the Golden Altar was also known as Mizbach ha'Ketoret, the incense altar, and Mizbach ha'P'neemee, the inner altar.

The commentators wonder why the Torah separates the Golden Altar from all the other furnishings in the Tabernacle by describing it at the end of parashat Tetzaveh. The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) suggests that it was positioned alone because of the the ketoret, the incense that was brought on the Golden Altar, which represents judgement. After all, Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, died before G-d when they brought ketoret utilizing a strange fire.

There are those who say that while the Tabernacle brought G-d's presence into the People of Israel, the altar and the incense were to serve as a means of sheltering the nation from any potential danger now that G-d was so close to them.

The Tzror Hamor (Torah Commentary by Rabbi Abraham Sabba, 1440-1510, Spain, Portugal and North Africa) suggests that, aside from the Ark itself, the Golden Altar was the most special vessel in the entire Tabernacle. This was because the altar achieves atonement for sinners, brings prosperity and happiness to the people and drives away anger from Israel. Therefore, as a sign of respect, it is the last furnishing mentioned. (The sages of the Midrash were wont to say, that the last is the most beloved, Bereishit Rabba 75:11).

The Siftei Cohen (Mystical commentary on the Pentateuch by R' Mordechai HaKohen of Safed, 16th century) suggests that the altar is recorded last as a sign of distinction because the foremost of all the offerings is the ketoret, the incense. It is brought early in the morning, before all other sacrifices and in the evening, after the others have been completed. Its value is considered to be equal to all the other offerings that are brought.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) maintains that all the other vessels of the Tabernacle were created in order to attract G-d's presence to the Tabernacle. The Golden Altar, however, is intended to provide honor and dignity for G-d once He arrives, so that He would accept with mercy the offerings of all His people, both morning and evening.

The Chidah (Rabbi Chaim David Joseph Azulai, 1724-1806, great religious scholar in Israel and Europe) in Nachal Kedumim, suggests that the reason that the Golden Altar is mentioned last is because its consecration takes place together with the ketoret, the incense, in the late afternoon. Since it is the last vessel to be consecrated, it is mentioned last.

The Ohr HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R'Chaim ben Attar, 1696-1743) maintains that all the original vessels of the Tabernacle were eventually transferred to the permanent Temple that Solomon built, with the exception of the Golden Altar. The new Golden Altar manufactured by Solomon, was made entirely of gold without the acacia wood.

The Vilna Gaon (R' Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797, considered the greatest Torah scholar in many centuries; acknowledged leader of non-Chassidic Jewry of Eastern Europe) suggests that all the other vessels of the Tabernacle received their meaning only when the Al-mighty's presence dwelt in the Tabernacle. The Golden Altar, however, had an innate holiness, even before the presence of G-d descended upon the Tabernacle.

The Pri Tzedek (Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin, 1823-1900)states that the altar is special due to the golden crown around the periphery of the Golden Altar that recalls the crown of the priesthood. Another reason for its special status, is due to the power attributed to the Golden Altar and the incense to stop the Angel of Death (Deuteronomy 17:13).

Like other commentators, Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Israel's most acclaimed religious writers) suggests that the altar is last because of the importance of the ketoret, the incense. Offering a novel reason, however, KiTov says that human beings enjoy both faculties of taste and smell. But, humans are never satisfied until they actually taste the food. In distinction, G-d is satisfied with smell alone.

Of the various ingredients that are found in the composition of the ketoret is one foul-smelling spice known as chelbanah. But, when mixed together with the other spices, the incense mix becomes sweet-smelling. It is the ketoret, together with the Golden Altar, that has the ability to achieve atonement for the sinners of Israel who come out of the purification ritual smelling like a rose. The altar and the incense are therefore critically important since they possess the ability to transform sinful Jews into forgiven Jews, foul-smelling Jews into pleasant-smelling Jews.

The Golden Altar is, in effect, the greatest gift that G-d has given His people. But, it does not come easily. First we need to build a Tabernacle and its furnishings, and to clothe the priests in their beautiful vestments. With this majestic welcome, G-d enters into our Tabernacle, and, hence, into our midst. Once the Al-mighty arrives, it is the sweet savor of the ketoret, the incense, that penetrates the hearts and souls of the Jewish people causing them to repent and achieve forgiveness.

May you be blessed.

Please note: Since Purim is observed this year on Saturday night, and Sunday, February 27-28, and the Fast of Esther cannot be observed on Shabbat, it will be observed on the previous Thursday, February 25, from dawn to nightfall.

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor. It is the second of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim. On this Shabbat, a thematic Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, about remembering Amalek. Most authorities consider it a positive commandment for both men and women to hear this particular Torah reading.

The festival of Purim marks the celebration of the great salvation of the Jews of the Persian empire from the hands of the evil Haman in the year 520-519 BCE. It is celebrated this year on Saturday night and Sunday, February 27-28, 2010. For more information Click Here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Terumah 5770-2010

"Earning a Meaningful Living" --

Parashat Terumah is the first of the five concluding parashiot of the book of Exodus that describe the building of the Tabernacle, the portable Temple that the Jews used for worship in the wilderness. Both the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the vestments of the priests are filled with much symbolic meaning that we have discussed at length in previous analyses of the parasha.

The Shulchan, the Table of Showbread, was the only furnishing located inside the Tabernacle itself, upon which food, in limited quantity, was permitted. The Lechem Ha'panim--(showbread) were eaten by the priests every Shabbat when the previous week's breads were exchanged for fresh breads. In contrast, the Earthen Altar, which was outside the Tabernacle, served as a place of sacrifice, and the abundant meat offerings that were brought upon the altar were often eaten by the priests and, at times, by the individuals who brought the offerings.

The fact that the Table of Showbread is inside the Tabernacle itself reflects its special holiness, not only of the food that was placed on the Table, but also the holiness of the actual Table itself.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) explains at length the many symbolic meanings that are reflected in the Table and its ancillary utensils.

The Bible states in Exodus 25:23, "V'ah'see'tah shulchan ah'tzei shee'teem, ah'mah'tah'yim or'ko, v'amah rach'bo, v'amah va'chay'tzee ko'mah'to," You shall make a Table of acacia wood, two cubits in length, a cubit in width and a cubit and a half in height. The Torah then states that the wood of the Table must be covered with pure gold and fitted with a golden crown around its perimeter. Rings of acacia wood covered with gold must be built into the Table structure for the placement of staves, again made of wood covered with gold, by which the Table is transported. Special utensils shall be prepared for the Table including spoons and shelving rods. Finally, in Exodus 25:30 we are told, "V'nah'tah'tah ahl ha'shulchan leh'chem pa'neem l'fah'nay tamid," You shall place on the Table, showbread, to be before me at all times.

Rabbi Hirsch notes that the Table was made principally of wood that comes from a living tree that has the possibility of blossoming, representing ever-freshness and progressive development. Although the wooden parts of the Table were covered with gold, representing firmness and strength, the gold was not conspicuous and the essence of the Table's character was basically wood.

The Table, says Rabbi Hirsch, represents "the development of the material aspect of the national life of the Jewish people." How one earns a living, how one puts bread on the table, is of great importance to G-d in His concern for the character of the people. That is why a Zer zahav, a solid gold crown, was attached to the periphery of the Table. The way a Jew earns a living, must be based on pure gold, reflecting a solid and sterling foundation.

The crown is intended to keep away anything unrefined and unholy from the activities and purposes of earning a living. Quite a challenge we must admit. After all, the material side of life is physical and seductive, and presents a great danger of lack of purity and holiness. The golden crown is an essential part of the Table, to ensure sanctity in all material endeavors.

No matter how much one prays, or worships, and or how many ritual acts one performs, the true test of a sincere religious person takes place not in the synagogue, but in the marketplace. The rabbis declare (Shabbat 31a), that the question that the soul of the deceased is first asked upon arriving in the world to come is, "Nah'sah'tah v'nah'tah'tah beh'emunah?" Were you honest in business? The Table of Showbread, thus, represents perhaps the most important ingredient in a Jew's spiritual life. Spirituality, of course, is expected to be found in Temples and houses of worship. It is outside the synagogue, outside the house of worship, and outside the Temple, where one's true spirituality is displayed.

The bread that is placed on this Table, is called Lechem ha'paneem, bread with a face. According to the rabbinic description, these breads were similar to "u" shaped matzahs. Six of the breads were piled one on top of the other on one side of the Table, the other six piled on the other side of the Table. The lower breads supported the upper breads. Rabbi Hirsch says that this mutual support is only possible if all selfishness is put aside, and one's self is given up for the interest of the other. When looking for a comfortable standard of living, every person "acquires and holds as much for others as for himself, grants as much, or nearly as much, of the abundance of his table to his neighbor, as to his own table."

As a further sign of the brotherliness represented by the Table, each loaf of bread was made of two esronim of flour, representing a double portion, enough for two people to eat. Similarly, the stacks of bread were laid out side-by-side in pairs.

It is rather odd, indeed unsettling, that most people today, myself included, identify themselves primarily through their jobs, through how they earn a living. "I'm a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker." Few people instinctively respond, "I am a father, a mother, a child, a parent, a husband, or a wife." It is as if being able to fill out someone's tax return is somehow more important than being an effective parent or loving spouse! The Tabernacle and the Table of Showbread put the experience of earning a living into its proper perspective.

Not only do our prayers and our worship need to be sanctified. Our work, our labor and our means of earning a living need to be sanctified as well. That is what is reflected in the message of the Shulchan, the Table of Showbread.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mishpatim 5770-2010

"The Blessing of Health"

Toward the end of this week's parasha, parashat Mishpatim, G-d promises Moses that He is sending an angel before the Jewish people to protect them as they travel to the Promised Land. The Al-mighty assures Moses that the people will arrive safely in the land and eventually conquer Canaan and its inhabitants.

G-d then instructs Moses to caution the people to listen to G-d's emissary, which will result in their enemies' defeat. In a moving prophetic statement found in Exodus 23:25, G-d promises: "Va'ah'vah'd'tem ayt Hashem Eh'lo'kay'chem, oo'vay'rach et lahch'm'chah v'et may'meh'chah, va'ha'see'ro'tee mah'chah'lah mee'kir'beh'chah," You shall worship the Lord your G-d, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst.

In the very next verse, G-d promises that no woman will miscarry or experience infertility. The Al-mighty concludes with a grand assurance (Exodus 23:26): "Et mis'par ya'meh'chah ah'mah'lay," I will fulfill the number of your days.

As a Beginners Rabbi for the almost 35 years at Lincoln Square Synagogue, I've had the good fortune of "ministering" to a wonderful congregation. Although the weekly congregation is rather small, usually between 30-40 people, the cumulative number of attendees over the years probably exceeds 6,000 or 7,000 individuals.

"Beginners" are supposed to "graduate" the service after attending for a reasonable amount of time. I occasionally have to ask reluctant attendees to leave the service after a year and half, or after they've heard my jokes three or four times.

While some former Beginners remain on the Upper West Side, many more move away and become involved in their new communities. Some, however, always see me as their "rabbi," and I, not infrequently, find myself fulfilling life-cycle duties for them. For the first, 20-25 years, it was almost always s'machot–weddings, children's births, Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs. There was the occasional death of a young person, which was always bitter. But I really enjoyed a surfeit of s'machot, joyous occasions. As I aged and the congregants did as well, funerals became more frequent, and by now I've had my fair share.

On occasion, I find myself at funerals that are held in old Jewish cemeteries. If I have time, I amble about the grounds and examine the tombstones. I often notice that individuals who passed away in the early 20th century were frequently quite young. Sometimes those tombstones are shaped in the form of a tree stump, symbolizing a life cut short in its prime.

When my maternal grandparents passed away in the late 1940s and early 1950s each at age 72, it was considered a ripe old age. Now, a person who passes away before age 80 is considered on the young side. In the early part of the 20th century, life expectancy was about 40. Now life expectancy in the United States is rapidly approaching 80 and beyond.

Unfortunately, we often fail to acknowledge those additional years as a gift from G-d. We simply attribute the added years to better nutrition, vastly improved medical care and more sophisticated sanitation.

The advances of medical science over the past century have been rapid and remarkable. One of the primary reasons that more people suffer from cancer today is because medicine has virtually eliminated many diseases, like tuberculosis, small pox, polio, malaria, and dysentery that previously claimed the lives of large numbers of young people. We read about new medical tests in the pipeline that will enable physicians to diagnose and treat maladies at their earliest stages, before they become life-threatening. The tragedy of AIDS has resulted in radically new developments in biochemical research that have actually made it possible to treat diseases that were previously untreatable. To me, at least, it all seems to be a fulfillment of G-d's promise to remove illness from our midst and to fill the number of our days–-whether deserved or not!

In a previous parasha message (Beshalach 5767-2007) I recalled the story of my parents moving from the Bronx to northern Flatbush in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, after a few years, the neighborhood changed, but my then elderly parents were reluctant to start packing again. It was only after a burglar broke in through the fire escape and stole a small television set that they agreed to relocate to Boro Park.

For my father, moving to Boro Park was like moving back to his shtetl of Biale, Poland. He was ecstatic. One day, when I came to visit, he was not his normal cheerful self. When I asked him why, he exclaimed in feigned anger: "Oh, would I like to get my hands on that thief!" I asked him to explain, after all it was only an old, small and inexpensive black and white television. He answered with a big smile: "I'd like to get my hands on that thief and give him a big ‘Yasher Koach'– a big Thank You, because had it not been for him, we would have never moved to Boro Park!!"

We often fail to recognize the wonders of the Al-mighty. Advances in medicine and sanitation have eliminated many illnesses that would regularly kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, across the globe. How is it that we don't seek out G-d and say to Him, "I'd like to give You a big ‘Yasher Koach.'

Perhaps, the best way to thank G-d is by fulfilling the implied message of that very verse, "Et mis'par y'meh'chah ah'mah'lay," in which G-d promises to lengthen our days. To us the message of the verse must mean that not only will we benefit from G-d's gift to lengthen our days, but that we will strive to utilize our days to their fullest by walking in G-d's path and harkening to His life-affirming mitzvot.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat is also Parashat Shekalim. It is the first of four special Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim, on which an additional thematic Torah portion is read. This week's supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the army of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Yitro 5770-2010

"The Arrival of Jethro" --

In this week's parasha, parashat Yitro, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, arrives at the camp of the People of Israel, located by the Mountain of G-d.

The Torah, in Exodus 18:5, tells us, "Va'yah'vo Yitro cho'tayn Moshe oo'vanav v'eesh'to el Moshe, el ha'mid'bar ah'sher hoo choneh shahm, Har ha'Elokim," Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to Moses with his [Moses'] sons and wife, to the wilderness, where he [Moses] was encamped, by the Mountain of G-d. Announcing to Moses that he had arrived, Jethro informs him that he has brought Moses' wife and their two sons to be with him.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) questions why the Bible finds it necessary to specify the obvious fact that they were in the wilderness? Citing the Midrash Mechilta, Rashi explains that the location is emphasized in order to praise Jethro. Prior to his arrival, Jethro was living in a place of great honor and distinction (he was once the religious leader of Midian), and yet his heart moved him to go out to the wilderness, to a place of desolation, to hear the words of the Torah.

It is hard to imagine that a person of such stature and esteem would abandon everything in order to pursue his attraction to Torah. In some way, it recalls the story that I recently heard of the late Reggie White, one of America's most decorated players in NFL history. During his professional football career he was famous not only for his outstanding play, but also for his Christian ministry. An ordained Evangelical Minister, he was nicknamed the "Minister of Defense."

After retiring twice, first in 1998 and then in 2001, he began studying Torah in the original Hebrew. In December of 2004, at age 43, he suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia. Two years after his death, he was elected to the pro football Hall of Fame.

While White never renounced his Christianity, he clearly told all who would listen that no Christian could properly understand the Bible without studying Torah intensively. Whether White would have eventually converted to Judaism had he lived is not known, but his attraction to Torah, like Jethro, was indisputable. He was willing to endure the controversy and ridicule that his statements elicited, because his belief in Torah was unshakable. (Link to Reggie White)

At the height of his career, Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, lived like a king, surrounded by great riches and glory. But his heart told him that the idolatrous pagan beliefs of Midian were mistaken. Forsaking his palace and leaving behind his wealth and glory, he arrived in the wilderness, a barren and empty desert, devoid of everything, seeking to convert, and eager to hear the message of Torah. He paid no attention to his gilded past and to all the good that he had in life. He no longer saw himself as a Priest of Midian, instead he identified himself simply as the father-in-law of Moses. It was that identity that meant the most to him.

Why did Jethro come to the wilderness, to the Mountain of G-d? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) suggests that Jethro had heard from Moses about the special spiritual qualities of this location (after Moses' encounter with the burning bush) and was determined to be influenced by that spirit, in the hope that it would further enhance his own spirituality.

There is no question that for those with no Torah background, the journey to Torah is not an easy one. It is a process that frequently means abandoning one's past, even though it may have been rich and meaningful. It may mean separating from one's family and friends and adopting strange religious rituals and a lifestyle that is perceived by others as odd. It often means moving out of "palaces," and living in more modest dwellings, in order to embrace the word of G-d.

The Talmud, in Berakhot 34b, states that, "In the place where penitents stand, even the most righteous cannot stand." The sacrifices that are made by the Baalei Teshuva (and converts to Judaism as well) are hard to imagine. Their commitment and devotion to Jewish life often puts those who are born into religious life to shame.

This devotion and commitment perhaps explains why the verse concerning Jethro's arrival in the wilderness concludes with the words, "where he [Moses] was encamped by the Mountain of G-d." The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839 Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry) suggests that Moses himself was a "place" where the Divine presence rested. Wherever Moses was, that location became, in effect, the Mountain of G-d. It is for this reason the rabbinic dictum found in the Talmud Taanit 21b states, "It is the man who sanctifies the place, rather than the place that sanctifies the man." It could very well be that Jethro himself added to the sanctity of that place, as well, by his commitment and his earnest embrace of Torah and the word of G-d.

While the commitment of Jethro and those like him, cannot but leave us inspired, it must also leave us with questions about ourselves. If we were asked to forsake our comfortable lives in order to embrace the word of G-d, would we measure up to Jethro?

May you be blessed.

Special note:

To hear one of the most meaningful presentations on the issue of Baalei Teshuva and their newly-found devotion to Jewish life, I urge you listen to Hilly Gross’ address at the 10th Anniversary of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. It may be accessed here.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here