Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Shabbat Drashah…and Controversy Part 2 – The Dvar Torah

(Continued from this post)

What’s the difference between watching a sporting event at home and watching it live at the stadium? In many ways, it’s better to watch at home. You don’t have to deal with the parking, the trip, the crowds, or the eight-dollar beverages. You don’t have to wait in line to go to the bathroom. And, at the end of the day, it’s the same game, no matter where you’re watching from, isn’t it?
Actually, it’s not.
Anyone who has ever attended a really good game immediately knows that there’s nothing like being there, during the event, watching it live. Sure, it feels great when you watch the slugger on your favorite team hit a game winning homer from your living room. But there’s nothing like being there and watching it live. There’s a passion and an excitement that doesn’t transmit through the television.
What’s the primary difference between the two experiences? The crowd.
When you’re at the game, you’re sharing an experience with thousands of other fans, who are just as excited as you about the hit, or the goal or the touchdown. You find yourself high-fiving the guy sitting in the row behind you, even though you have no idea who he is. That shared experience carries a power and energy that simply doesn’t exist in the privacy of our own homes - the larger the crowd, the better. The same game is just better – more fun, more exciting - when it’s played before a sellout crowd. A movie is funnier, or more exciting, or more dramatic when you’re watching it in a packed theater than when you’re sitting at home watching it on your iPad.
That’s the nature of the human experience: The larger the setting and the more people we share it with, the deeper, more enriching the experience will be.
What’s true for sporting and cultural events applies equally to communal life as well. This past Purim night, our community gathered together for an incredible Purim party. It was really impressive: somehow, the organizers managed to build a real Shtetl, with real booths and stalls. The program was lovely and meal tasty. But those elements didn’t make the program great. What made it great was the fact that so many couples came, participated, and had a great time. Those same booths and that same meal wouldn’t have been nearly as good had only twenty couples attended. But with almost two hundred people, it was an event that we’ll talk about until next year.
This principle – the notion that the community makes the experience – can explain a strange episode that read about in Parashat Shemini.

The opening section of Shemini describes the initiation of Aharon and his sons as Kohanim and the different sacrifices and rituals offered in the process. Moshe makes the ritual a very public event, witnessed by the entire nation. Moreover, Moshe makes them an exciting promise.
וַיִּקְחוּ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-פְּנֵי, אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וַיִּקְרְבוּ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, וַיַּעַמְדוּ, לִפְנֵי ה'. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה' תַּעֲשׂוּ--וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם, כְּבוֹד ה'  - ויקרא ט:ה-ו
And they brought that which Moses commanded before the tent of meeting; and all the congregation drew near and stood before the Lord. 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.'
Moshe promised them that when the whole thing was over they would see and experience the glory of God. One can imagine their excitement and anticipation. After months of donations, collections, craftsmanship, work and a lot of waiting, the people would finally see the fruit of their labors. More importantly, they would once again experience the very real presence of God that had avoided them since the tragic sin of the Golden Calf. They would know, once and for all, that they had been forgiven and redeemed.
At first, everything goes off without a hitch. Aharon and his sons offer the sacrifices as instructed. And, when Aharon concludes the Avodah he even blesses the nation.
But nothing happens. At least at first, no glory of God appears.
וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת-יָדָו אֶל-הָעָם, וַיְבָרְכֵם; וַיֵּרֶד, מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה--וְהַשְּׁלָמִים. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶל-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וַיֵּצְאוּ, וַיְבָרְכוּ אֶת-הָעָם; וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד-ה', אֶל-כָּל-הָעָם.  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי ה', וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים; וַיַּרְא כָּל-הָעָם וַיָּרֹנּוּ, וַיִּפְּלוּ עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם.  - ויקרא ט:כב-כד
And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people, and blessed them; and he came down from offering the sin-offering, and the burnt-offering, and the peace-offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and came out, and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared unto all the people. And there came forth fire from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces.
After Aharon blesses the nation, he enters the Mishkan with Moshe. Sometime later they both emerge, and they both bless the nation again. Only then does the heavenly fire consume the sacrifices representing the glory of God, giving the people the redemption they had so long yearned for.
What happened? Why doesn’t the fire appear after Aharon blesses the people? Why does it only appear when he reemerges with Moshe and they bless the nation a second time?
Commentators offer a number of possible answers to address this question. I would like to suggest an answer based on Rashi’s explanation of the two different blessings given to the nation on that fateful day.
According to Rashi, when Aharon turns for the first time to bless the nation, he blesses them with ברכת כהנים – יברכך...יאר...ישא - “The blessing of the priests: May the Lord bless you…May he Shine his light [upon you]…May He lift his countenance [to you]…” Yet, when Moshe and Aharon emerge to bless the nation a second time, they offer an entirely different blessing:
אמרו ויהי נועם ה' אלוהינו עלינו (תהילים צ יז), יהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידיכם.
They said, ‘And let the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; [establish You also upon us the work of our hands; yea, the work of our hands establish You it.’] – ‘let it be [the will of God] that He should cause the Shechinah to dwell upon the works of your hands.”
Only after this blessing does the divine fire descend from the heavens and the glory of God appears before the nation.
What’s the difference between the two brachot? Why did God’s presence not appear after Aharon’s first brachah, but only after he and Moshe offered the second blessing?
I believe that the difference is that in the first blessing, the nation is entirely passive. We stand at attention and receive the blessing without any act on our part. Aharon (or his sons) bless us, and all we have to do is stand there to receive it.
The second blessing, on the other hand, tells a very different story. In this blessing the Shechinah appears not because we are passive – to the contrary! Shechinah – the glory of God – appears specifically due to the “work of our hands”. With this blessing we recognize that only when we make an effort can we expect to experience the glory of God. It doesn’t happen on its own. Rather, through the work of our hands we have the power to bring the Shechinah into the world.

***

Several weeks ago at the membership meeting for the Beit Knesset, a member brought up the issue of the lack of energy and passion during the Tefillah. He asked – and received permission – to form a committee to come up with a formula to improve the tefillah in our shul; to make it more inspiring, passionate and meaningful. He threw out a few ideas, like choosing chazzanim wisely, adding more Carlebach (or less), more dancing, etc.
Yet, while I completely agree with the sentiment and applaud the effort to improve the davening which I agree can seem at times stale and uninspiring, I’m not sure that there’s a particular formula that you can apply that will improve the situation. It’s not a recipe to which you can add a dance here, a niggun there, and expect the davening to improve. This is something that’s dependent upon all of us. The spirit of the Tefillah will only get better if we as a community want the davening to improve and only if we’re willing to work on ourselves to make it better. This means each of us focusing a bit more on the tefillah personally, but it means something else as well.
I’d like to raise an issue that’s been concerning me for some time now. You can, of course, disagree with me, as it’s my opinion. But, as I’m not the rabbi, the worst thing that can happen is that I won’t be asked to speak again, so here goes.
Oftentimes, sitting in my seat at shul during Kabbalat Shabbat, I find myself surrounded by wonderful people, reading alonei Shabbat. They’re not disturbing anyone in a real sense, but it’s demoralizing. Tefillah – and of course Tefillah B’tzibbur – is a communal exercise. It requires – and demands – that the community pray together, not just in the technical sense of proximity and presence, but in the real sense of coming together to praise God, united, as a single Kehillah. So, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to get “into” Tefillah, and the energy and passion of our shul is low when many people would rather sit and read the paper instead of praying.
This isn’t a personal criticism of any individual. I like Alonei Shabbat as much as anyone, and they can be incredibly distracting, even enticing during tefillah. It is for this reason that I sent a request to the Vaad (Board) of the shul asking that we consider distributing the Alonei Shabbat not before tefillah, but instead once tefillah has concluded. I would like to encourage our shul to take this very small step, which I believe could have a significant positive impact on our communal prayer.
If we want the Shechinah to dwell among us, it will only come from the “work of our hands.”
יהי רצון – Let it be the will of God - שתשרה שכינה במעשה ידינו - that You cause the Shechinah to dwell in our midst through the work of our hands.
Shabbat Shalom.

***

Having concluded my remarks, I returned to my seat, receiving a few “yashar koachs” on the way, ready to start Ma’ariv. It’s at that point that the controversy began.

(To be continued)