Sunday, April 13, 2008

Parshat Acharei Mos 2

There is a movie called “Sliding Doors” which shows how differently things could have turned out if the doors on a tube in London had closed a few seconds later. The movie simultaneously shows what the woman’s life could have been like had she arrived home a few minutes earlier, and what happened when she arrived on time. We find a similar concept in the beginning of the Torah reading, which details the order of service in the Temple on Yom Kippur. Two identical goats are taken; they must be the same age, the same size, the same colour, and have the same value. Yet we are given a glimpse of the two totally different outcomes that can happen. One of the goats is offered as a sacrifice on the altar, and is the only sacrifice to have its blood brought into the holy area of the Heichal, the other goat is sent out into the desert, and is pushed off a cliff, being smashed to pieces before it reaches the bottom. The imagery and contrast is striking.

Similarly, two seemingly identical people can end up with such totally different fates, based on which decisions they make in life. Not only two people, but as in “Sliding Doors”, a single person can have two radically different options in life. Sometimes a single decision can change a person’s life from one extreme to the other. This is the message for all those who were in the Temple courtyard on Yom Kippur to witness the service. They could see the importance of repentance, because the stakes were so high; on the one hand entering into the holiest place and a relationship with G-d, and on the other being cast out of the Temple into a barren desert to die.

Yet the way in which this decision is made by the Kohen Gadol seems as random as in the movie, when everything hinges on when the doors on the tube close. The Kohen Gadol reaches into a box with two lots in it, and snatches out two pieces of wood, one saying “To G-d”, the other “To Azazel”. How are we to exercise our free choice, if the decision between eternal life and death hinge on the luck of the draw?

Had the Kohen Gadolbeen the one to decide which of the goats was for G-d, and which for Azazel, we would never have seen that both of these goats had the potential to become holy or the opposite. We would have said that it had already been predetermined that the one on the right would be sacrificed on the altar. However, now that the decision is made through the casting of lots, it appears to us as though G-d has made the decision. Each of the goats had the same abilities and potential. Since animals do not have free choice, they are unable to choose for themselves what their outcome will be. Because G-d chooses through the lottery, He gives us the analogy that we must exercise our free choice to maximise our potential. By seeing what happens to the two goats, we see that there are extreme consequences for our actions.

Parshat Acharei Mos

There is an inherent contradiction in the way that G-d relates to the world. We describe Him in the “Thirteen attributes” and elsewhere as a G-d of mercy and forgiveness. After the sin of the Golden Calf G-d explained to Moshe the concept and process of repentance and revoking any harsh decree. Yet at the same time we state that G-d is just and truthful, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous. Surely these two attributes are in conflict - if G-d is prepared to forgive and overlook punishment, how is that meting out justice or being fair. On the other hand, if G-d were not merciful, the world would stand no chance of survival. From the very creation of mankind we have gone against the Divine will and only survived instant death because of His forgiveness and acceptance of repentance.

Atonement and forgiveness are central to this week’s Torah reading, dealing primarily with the laws and service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Miraculously, through confessing our sins and by slaughtering some sacrifices, we are given a blank slate to begin again. Whatever happened to Divine justice - does each sin not need to be punished before atonement can be given?

The answer is that from our perspective, bound by the constraints of time, we cannot conceive of justice which is also forgiveness. G-d, however, is beyond any temporal constraints and perceives all of history as one instant. By introducing the dimension of time we can reconcile the apparent contradiction. Something which appears wrong in the present, can actually turn out to be the catalyst or preparation for the future. If a person resolves to repent and channel their energies back to serving G-d, then all those late nights spent watching television could turn out to be a preparation for all the late nights spent performing Mitzvoth. The mental arithmetic involved in keeping track of the football scores may be the same skills needed to fully grasp a page of Torah. Conversely, instead of punishing a sin severely at the moment it took place, that same justice can be meted out a little at a time, through several minor hardships in order to give that person another chance to make amends.

This is also shown in Judaism’s focus on process, the journey through time, rather than on results, which are momentary. The Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot are counted not as an end in and of themselves but showing us the importance of the process of spiritual growth. Each day only has meaning in relation to the days that came before it and those that follow.
All of this is encapsulated in a single word in this week’s Torah reading. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) casts lots over two identical goats. One is offered as a sacrifice to G-d, its blood sprinkled opposite the Holy of Holies, while the other symbolically bears all of the sins of the Jewish nation and is lead out into the desert where it is sent over the edge of a cliff and dies. The Torah states “Aaron shall press both his hands on the live goat’s head, and he shall confess on it all the Israelite's sins, rebellious acts and inadvertent misdeeds. When he has thus placed them on the goat’s head he shall send it to the desert with an Ish Iti.” (Vayikra 16; 20-21). Ish Iti is translated (based on Rashi’s commentary) as “a specially prepared man”, but means literally “a man of the moment”. The sending of the goat comes to remind us of the concept of forgiveness and the importance of time. It is taken away by a man who is related in the text to a single moment in time. If we were to look only at the moment, we would have no possibility of repentance or pleading for repentance. We would be as the goat, thrown of the cliff to certain death. Only because of the future are we able to turn to G-d and ask Him to give us one more chance.

This is also the metaphor of the desert. The barren desolate wilderness is not only devoid of life, but is also a place where time stands still. The Halacha discusses the case of one who is lost in the desert and loses track of which day of the week it is, thereby not knowing when to observe Shabbat. This is because time is meaningless when confronted with an unending horizon of nothingness. Similarly the fledgling Jewish nation had to spend forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt. The total journey should have only taken three days, but time had to stand still in order to rid them of their Egyptian slave mentality.

By sending the goat into this desert at the hand of a “man of the moment” we show our commitment to a real and meaningful future, and accept the importance of process over time rather than the results of an instant.

Acharei Mos Summary

After the death of Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, G-d commands Moshe about the Yom Kippur service that Aharon will have to perform. He shall take one bull as an atonement offering for himself, his wife and all the Cohanim. The Cohen Gadol (High Priest) shall cast lots over two identical goats, one of which is offered as an atonement for the entire Jewish nation, the other symbolically bearing all the sins of the nation is sent into the desert to die by falling over the edge of a cliff. The Cohen Gadol shall enter the Holy of Holies and offer incense there. After slaughtering the bull and the goat, he shall sprinkle their bloods opposite the outer curtain of the Holy of Holies. He shall also place some of the blood on the incense altar. All of these things are performed once a year, on the tenth of Tishrei.
G-d commands the Jews not to sacrifice any animals outside of the Temple or Tabernacle. They are forbidden from sacrificing to any idols or occult spiritual powers.

G-d commands the Jews not to eat the blood from an animal. Additionally, when anyone slaughters any wild animal or bird they must spill some of the blood on the ground and cover it with earth. We may not eat any animal which dies of natural causes. Furthermore, if someone does eat from it, they become ritually impure (a law which only has significance in Temple times).

The Torah lists twenty incestuous or otherwise forbidden sexual relationships and instructs us to remain holy, and not defile ourselves with any of them. Furthermore, the land of Israel itself will not tolerate any of these perversions, and will vomit out any nation which engages in them.

Parshat Metzorah

In a case of Tzora’at of a house, the owner of the house must come to the Kohen and say “It appears to me as if there is something like a plague in the house” (Vayikra 14; 35). Rashi explains that he must not state definitively that it is Tzora’at even if he is learned and can recognise the discoloration for what it is, because that is the perogative of the Kohen. Furthermore, the Torah tells the Kohen to instruct the owner of the house to empty it of all its contents before he enters to look at the discoloration. This is so that if the discoloration is Tzora’at the contents of the house will not become Tamei. This clearly indicates that the declaration of the Kohen actually renders the house Tamei, and makes the discoloration into Tzora’at. He is not simply diagnosing, but actually creating Tzora’at.

To further highlight the Kohen’s role in defining Tzora’at, the Mishna (Negaim chap. 3, mishna 2) states that there are certain people who the Kohen should refuse to see if they have a discoloration on their skin which they think may be Tzora’at. For example, the Kohenmust not inspect a bride or groom before their wedding, but wait until after the first week of marriage in order that they should not have to spend the first week of their married life dwelling apart. In other words, despite all outward appearances to the contrary, a person does not become a Metzora until the Kohen has verbally declared him to be one.

Why should G-d choose to create a Tumah (impurity) that is contingent upon another person’s declaration? Does this not make a mockery of the whole thing? Will a Metzora not always seek a “second opinion”?

Following on from last week’s d'var Torah, we can explain the reason for the disease being dependent upon the words of the Kohen. We said (based upon the Talmud and other sources) that the main cause of Tzora’at is not physical, but rather as a result of a person speaking lashon hara (slander) about others. Tzora’at is a physical symptom of a spiritual disorder. Therefore it is appropriate that part of the disease should be dependent on the words of another.

Lashon Hara is usually not spoken maliciously, but rather because people simply do not pay attention to what the are saying. They don't realise the damage they can cause, and if they are rebuked by others their response is often “It is only words”, or in the words of the children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. This is a fallacy - words and names can do tremendous damage to others. Only when a possible Metzorah is dependent upon the words that the Kohen says does he or she realise the true importance of what they say, and how far reaching and damaging their speech can be. A person can lose his or her house, or be sent into isolation outside the city limits based on a few simple words. This alone should give them pause for thought, and cause them to think carefully before they speak.

The Talmud (Arachin 16b) states :
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose ben Zimra, what is the meaning of the verse “What can He give you, and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?” (Tehillim 120; 2). G-d said to the tongue “All the limbs are upright, and you are lying horizontally. All the limbs are external, and you are internal, and not only that, but I have surrounded you with two walls, one of bone (teeth) and one of flesh (lips)”. What can He give you and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue?.
Despite the fact that it is caged in, many people are still unable to control their tongue. To make matters worse, most of the time we gain no benefit from the lashon hara which we speak, and yet we persist:

Reish Lakish said what is the meaning of the verse “If the snake bites because it was not charmed, then what advantage is gained by the one who uses his tongue?” (Ecclesiastes X; 11). At some point in the future all the animals will gather together, come to the snake and say “The lion kills in order to eat, the wolf tears others apart in order to eat, but you - what benefit do you gain?” The snake will reply “Tell me - what benefit is gained by the one who uses his tongue (to speak lashon hara)?

How much damage can we cause without any gain from not paying attention to what we say? And how fortunate were the generations who were able to realise the importance of what they said by having Tzora’at as a reminder, and opportunity to make amends?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Metzorah summary

Metzora is a continuation of the previous portion, Tazriah. It begins with the purification process for a Metzora (one who is afflicted with tzora'as). Once the discoloration has healed from his or her skin, the Metzora undergoes a ritual purification which involves bringing a sacrifice and immersing in a Mikva. After seven days he or she may finally return to his house. The Torah also makes provisions for one who cannot afford the full sacrifice, and prescribes a smaller offering for them to bring.#
The Torah describes a form of tzora'at which is a discoloration on the walls of a house. Such a house must be quarantined. If after seven days the discoloration has spread, then the affected stones must be removed. If the mark returns, the house must be demolished. During this whole process the house is tamei (ritually impure), and anyone entering into it also becomes tamei.
The Torah describes a type of male genital discharge called Zav. This renders him, or anything that he sits or lies on, tamei. Any person or utensil that he touches also becomes tamei. Once the discharge has ceased, he must count seven clean days. On the eighth day he immerses in a Mikva to purify himself, and brings a purification sacrifice.

When a man has a seminal discharge, or a woman discharges semen after intercourse, he or she becomes tamei. They must immerse in a Mikva and become tahor (ritually pure) after nightfall.

When a woman menstruates she becomes tamei, and also renders anything which she sits or lies on tamei. She must wait seven days, immerse herself in a Mikva, thus becoming tahor at nightfall. If a man has intercourse with her before she has become tahor, he also becomes tamei and makes anything he sits or lies on tamei.

If a woman has a discharge when it is not time for her menstrual period, she must count seven clean days without any discharge before she can become tahor. During this time she also renders anything which she sits or lies on tamei. On the eighth day she must immerse in a Mikva to become pure, and then brings a sacrifice.