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Posted By The Stash

This parasha contains a lengthy list of the key commandments associated with Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the three Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Its introductory verse is very interesting: “These are the appointed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as holy times of meeting, these are My appointed times.” A most confusing verse! Why is the phrase ‘appointed times’ repeated? Surely if G-d has indicated that a time is ‘holy’, then it is—why repeat that fact and add unnecessary words? We could also ask why the last phrase of the verse is needed. It seems to be more logical to end the verse with human transmission and acceptance of G-d’s holy times as indeed being holy.

The Torah contains three similar lists of the festival observances. The Rabbinic commentators explained that this list, the first of the three, to teach that the Torah counts months from Nisan, the month of Passover, when we became a nation. Rabbi Hirsch sees our verse as a separate unit, distinct from the rest of the enumeration of the holy day cycle. He argues that the right to dispose of one’s time as one wishes is the benchmark of freedom, and in Egypt lack of this right to dispose of our time right to the end….”marked us as subordinate.” In our verse, G-d now demands some of our free time—the days of the Festivals. Does this mean, asks Hirsch, that we are G-d’s slaves now, and we have merely exchanged a human master for a Divine one?

Certainly not, argues Hirsch, basing his proof on the strange order of the verse cited above. G-d’s chosen times only become part of “official Jewish holy time” when the Israelites agree to proclaim and observe them. This, states Hirsch, is what elevates the relationship between G-d and Israel above that of Master and Slave. We can chose to NOT proclaim the times that G-d marks as holy; they are only “My appointed times” after Israel has approved them and agreed that these will be meeting times of love and renewal between the Divine and G-d’s people who chose to be chosen.

The holy days thus mark a true meeting ground between us and G-d. Unless we take note of them by blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, fasting on Yom Kippur, eating in the sukka, or participating in a Seder, we will not know it is a holy day. Our tradition teaches that Shabbat will endure forever, built-in so to speak to the world, for it was part of the process of creation. But the appointed times of G-d will only exist if we continue to take cognizance of their existence. Jewish continuity is a partnership between G-d, who waits to see if we are ready to accept the opportunities offered us, and an often confused Jewish people, who are not sure if they want to take advantage of the benefits of “Divine time” in a busy world. Hopefully they will realize that if free people have the power to dispose of time as they wish, they must choose wisely. Freedom can be more burdensome than slavery unless we choose carefully.

Posted By The Stash

This week I watched my student teacher begin a unit on migration. He asked students to offer reasons for migrating and many of the answers were predictable: to find a better life away from persecution, for better economic opportunities, and because others in your community were leaving. The class soon realized that local migration patterns also took place for similar reasons; they were very aware of the fact that certain neighborhoods were more desirable and people often worked hard to migrate to a “better neighborhood.” Then one student commented, “lots of Orthodox Jews like to live in certain neighborhoods—in fact, I know people who moved away from their neighborhood because their street got too religious.”

Of course this observation has a sociological/religious basis: Orthodox communities cluster around synagogues by necessity because they cannot drive on Shabbat and Chagim, and wish to live within a comfortable walking distance. But, there is another element here, that of increased Canadian Jewish intra-ethnic “tribalism,” that is most troubling. We see that all the time in Eretz Yisrael—the latest annual outbreak being, as Rabbi Slifkin reminds us this week in his Rationalist Judaism blog, during Yom HaZikaron, when the Chareidim do nothing to commemorate the heroes of the Israel Defense Forces who secure their peaceful existence and access to holy sites. It may well be that the malaise is spreading.

This is not, despite what the Chareidim say, the true path of holiness. Parashat Kedoshim, which discusses holiness, famously begins: ”You shall be holy, because I, the L-rd am holy. A person must fear his mother and father, and observe my Sabbaths, I am the L-rd your G-d. Do not turn to idols, and do not make molten images for yourselves, I am the L-rd your G-d.” The Magen Avraham powerfully comments, “Each of these verses speaks of a separate category of Jews, and yet each ends with the same words. How can this be? G-d is saying: “You shall be holy”—and this is directed to those in Israel who are truly holy people and make themselves as holy as the law permits. For this group—truly “I am the L-rd your G-d.” But there are other Jews who are not at this level of holiness. But they do observe the mitzvoth, respect their ancestors, and keep the Sabbath—for them too, “I am the L-rd your G-d. And then there are the Jews who don’t keep Shabbat or many other mitzvoth, but they do not worship idols and still know who they are—for them too “I am the L-rd your G-d.”

Here one of the greatest legal commentators in Jewish history underscores a powerful truth: as long as a Jew recalls they are a Jew, even if they are not observant, “I am the L-rd your G-d,” and they are included among our people. One hopes that this inclusive interpretation will yet find favour in our community. We need to remember what unites us rather than divides us. Our enemies both past and present are far too anxious to simply group us together—we need not help them. Let us celebrate and cultivate Jewish diversity and stifle triumphant tribalism whatever its source.

Posted By The Stash

In honour of Yom Ha’atzmaut I am reprinting here Rabbi Sacks’ speech given at Yom Ha’atzmaut 8 years ago. His words—unfortunately in some ways—still ring true today.

Posted By The Stash

Once again we come to “the list”—not the usual ones found on various “top 10” sites—but to the list of kosher species. What is that list doing here, in the middle of the Book of Vayikra, a book which has spent the bulk of the previous chapters discussing the minutiae of how the Tabernacle services and offerings were orchestrated?

Consider a possible many-layered answer to this question. First, Vayikra is also known as Torat Cohanim—the Book of the Priests, who at this point in history were the family of Aaron. But this was not G-d’s original plan. Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborn male of each family was to be consecrated to the service of G-d, just as firstborn animals were. This underscored that every tribe was equally chosen by G-d for holiness. Indeed, this is the theme of the Book of Vayikra: how is holiness demonstrated in the everyday world? The theme already began in the Book of Shmot’s elaborate narrative of the building of the Tabernacle, which demonstrated all Israelites, male and female, could become holier through contributing to the completion of the Tabernacle’s carefully laid out divine architectural plan. As Nechama Leibowitz observed, the plan’s language parallels that of the Creation — the Tabernacle represents an effort to bring the holiness of Heaven down to Earth.

But how to maintain it? Originally, as we have seen, by selecting a widely representative group of men to minister in the Tabernacle. When their failure forced the selection of Aaron’s family, G-d wished nonetheless to underscore the holiness of all Israelites. For the Torah, separateness is one form of holiness. We end Shabbat with havdalah, a service that separates and differentiates the holy from the mundane. The same Hebrew root is found in the Torah’s summary of the purpose of the kosher laws: “to differentiate between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten.” Later in Vayikra, we will read about the essence of holiness: “I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the other nations. You shall therefore separate between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean fowl and the clean; and ye shall not make your souls detestable by beast, or by fowl, or by anything …which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.”

In this context, the kashrut laws become an element of differentiation, not only of the Israelites from society, but of the holy from the profane. The very randomness of these laws reinforces the importance of following them. This has made them unpopular; after all, don’t we want to socialize with whoever we want, wherever we want? This explains why kashrut observance was a marker of acculturation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries of North American Jewish history. But as we increasingly accommodate many other diets, some Jews are realizing that there is great sociological benefit in adhering to a diet that celebrates Jewish individuality, uniqueness, and peoplehood. Celebrating difference may be tribal, but so is ethnic survival!




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