Monday, March 24, 2014

Parshat Shemini: Limits for All -- March 21, 2014

This week’s Parsha begins with the following words of VaYikra/Leviticus, chapter 9:

“1 And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel; 2 and Moshe said unto Aaron: 'Take a bull-calf for a sin-offering, and a ram for a burnt-offering, without blemish, and offer them before the LORD. 3 And unto the children of Israel thou shalt speak, saying: Take ye a he-goat for a sin-offering; and a calf and a lamb, both of the first year, without blemish, for a burnt-offering; 4 and an ox and a ram for peace-offerings, to sacrifice before the LORD; and a meal-offering mingled with oil; for to-day the LORD appears unto you.' 5 And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the LORD. 6 And Moses said: 'This is the thing which the LORD commanded that ye should do; that the glory of the LORD may appear unto you.' “

In these words we recount the consecration of the MISHKAN, the Tabernacle, which has just been completed. It was understandably a time of joy and celebration. The Kohanim are invested with their designated role, everyone is involved in the festivities and there are meaningful parts for all to play.

As we have read, Moshe instructs all, as he is empowered to do by dint of his position. The Kohanim now have their office and their portfolio to exercise. The B’nai Yisrael are also part of the celebration along with their elders. This is a shared climactic moment for all who have done so much to get to this point. So do we witness another round of the unmitigated joy we associate with our celebration of Purim earlier this week? You know – the holiday that includes in its narrative drinking to no limit, excesses of gold and silver and jewels and observed today by excesses in their own right!

Actually, not at all! There is a marked solemnity here. Why, we might ask? According to Sforno, there was no need for a MISHKAN when the SHECHINA, the PURE light and presence of G-d was continually accompanying the B’nai Yisrael on their journeys. However, as a result of the Egel HaZahav, it was subsequently necessary for a more tangible and visible presence of G-d due to the inherent weakness and basic human reality of the nation. So while there was great jubilation and a notable transition at this point of historical significance, we are also reminded that the MISHKAN was actually a diminished representation of the presence of G-d – not to say that G-d was any less present for this was not the case. But rather what Sforno and others are suggesting here is that while relating to and being part of the reality of the MISHKAN was joyful, it was tinged with sadness and perhaps disappointment in not having discerned the ongoing presence of G-d in G-d’s most basic and infinite SHECHINA form, but rather only through the vehicle of something tangible, the MISHKAN – though it was clearly a more suitable substitute than the EGEL HAZAHAV of earlier.

So what is the lesson here? Simply, G-d is infinite and without limits; and mortals are finite and limited. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke about this inner struggle of limits in his comments on last week’s Parsha regarding Moshe at this juncture. He teaches us as follows:

“After the sin of the golden calf, Moses had—at G d’s command—instructed the Israelites to build a sanctuary, which would be, in effect, a permanent symbolic home of G d in the midst of the people. By now the work is complete, and all that remains is for Moses to induct his brother, Aaron, and his sons into office. He robes Aaron with the special garments of the high priest, anoints him with oil, and performs the various sacrifices appropriate to the occasion. Over the word vayishchat, “and he slaughtered [the sacrificial ram],” there is a shalshelet … [a particularly elongated trop which only appears four times in the Torah] indicat[ing] there was an internal struggle in Moses’ mind. But what was it? There is not the slightest sign in the text that suggests that he was undergoing a crisis. “Yet a moment’s thought makes it clear what Moses’ inner turmoil was about. Until now, he had led the Jewish people. Aaron, his older brother, had assisted him, accompanying him on his missions to Pharaoh, acting as his spokesman, aide and second-in-command. Now, however, Aaron was about to undertake a new leadership role in his own right. No longer would he be a shadow of Moses. He would do what Moses himself could not. He would preside over the daily offerings in the Tabernacle. He would mediate the avodah, the Israelites’ sacred service to G d. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, he would perform the service that would secure atonement for the people from its sins. No longer in Moses’ shadow, Aaron was about to become the one kind of leader Moses was not destined to be: a high priest… “He is about to induct his brother into an office he himself will never hold. Things might have been otherwise—but life is not lived in the world of “might have been.” He surely feels joy for his brother, but he cannot altogether avoid a sense of loss. Perhaps he already senses what he will later discover: that though Moses was the prophet and liberator, Aaron will have a privilege Moses will be denied—namely, seeing his children and their descendants inherit his role. The son of a priest is a priest. The son of a prophet is rarely a prophet.”

G-d, in G-d’s infinite wisdom has created each of us with both a simultaneous capacity for great heights and also limits that will mitigate the degree to which we actually achieve our goals in life. Moshe recognized this according to Rashi, who states that THE ELDERS are mentioned here in the context of being told by Moshe that Aaron, not him, will hereon instruct them in matters of religious significance and worship practice. Moshe is probably feeling both his responsibility as G-d’s chosen spokesperson here but is also aware that he is enabling the recognition of a leadership role he and his children will never hold. This notion of accepting limits within the context of leadership is clearly a novel one; not shared by others in the ancient world in which absolute power was the general model. It is still a challenge for many in our world today.

Shortly after this account with its many instructions and ritual practices and participation of all, we read about a most unfortunate incident. Chapter Ten of VaYikra begins as follows:

“1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: 'This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.' And Aaron held his peace.”

As we recall, after the Egel HaZahav, immediately there is a “correction” by providing a concrete representation of the presence of G-d due to the inability of the B’nai Yisrael to relate to G-d’s infinite and limitless nature. Now, after establishment of the complex and highly elevated ceremonies and sacrifices associated with the sanctification of the MISHKAN and the office of the KOHANIM, look what happens. Aaron’s sons offer an ASH ZARAH that was NOT commanded by G-d. They go beyond their limits and there are dire consequences as a result. Why? Many suggest that this was unfair as they were just trying to join in the festivities and exercise their office as Kohanim in glorifying G-d. What could possibly be wrong with that? The problem is that the words “And G-d commanded them” are missing – they took this initiative on their own, not observing instructive limits.

While some may like to think of this as creativity, let us understand that not observing limits is not the same thing. WE ARE NOT NOR CAN WE BE NOR DO WE KNOW HOW TO BE LIMITLESS…. Only G-d as The Creator of All can and is!

It is poignant to note that it is after this narrative that there are specific limits placed on Kohanim regarding their participation in various daily involvements and on all of B’nai Yisrael as well…. Namely known as the laws of Kashrut.

As we move through the Torah we see this constant pattern of permission granted – excesses and not observing limits – setting of more limits. There is an important lesson and message here for all of us. Let us take note of recent years and various statements in our community about the dangers of some of the observances and celebrations that are associated with Purim. The very name of the annual carnival that was held in Israel for so many years is ADLOYADAH, taken from the actual text and the words that indicate that the drinking was so plentiful, until the point of no knowledge (of what????). NOW, our Rabbis make sure that people are sober for the reading of the Megillah that we are all OBLIGATED to hear, NOW our Jewish community is realizing that excessive drinking to the point of not knowing what is going on – ADLOYADAH – is not, nor has it ever been either the intention of our Purim celebrations for community nor in the best interest of its individuals.

Human beings are such that we want to extend beyond our capacity. Our laws of Torah set limits so that we reach our capacity in an appropriate manner but do not extend beyond our proper human and mortal abilities. Moshe Rabbeinu had come to represent too much to the B’nai Yisrael who then create an idol in his absence. We are then instructed to build the MISHKAN and Moshe formally hands over the office of religious and ceremonial leadership to Aaron and his sons. Aaron’s sons abuse that office after which G-d once again commands Moshe to provide additional instructions for both the Kohanim and the B’nai Yisrael. And as we celebrate the completion of the Mishkan in reading this week’s Parsha, let us remember that with each granted permission comes limits for all!

Shabbat Shalom!

No comments:

Post a Comment