Thursday, June 26, 2008

Table Talk for Korach: Many, Many Mitzvot

Last week during the drashah/question and answer session, someone asked me how we know that there are exactly 613 commandments. I answered that I thought that it was an oral tradition that had become accepted over time. The source of the number 613 comes from the Gemara in Makkot 23b which states,
Rabbi Simlai taught: 613 commandments were told to Moshe (at Sinai); 365 correspond to the days of the year, and 248 correspond to the limbs of the human body.
The gemara then gives a proof for the number 613, from the famous verse: תורה צוה לנו משה -- "Moshe commanded the Torah to us." But the Gematria of Torah is only 611? (400+6+200+5) The gemara explains that while Moshe transmitted 611, we heard an additional two commandments from God Himself at Sinai.
In any case, the number of commandments, at least to me, seems less important than the message of the gemara relating the commandments both to the human body and the days of the year. Very often we view the commandments as burdensome; as obligations and responsibilities we must fulfill. So we find ways to do our duty in the most minimalistic way possible.
But by connecting the number of commandments with the human body and the days of the year, the gemara communicates the notion that commandments are, first and foremost, opportunities. Each day of the year can be infused with meaning. Every limb in the body has a purpose, and can achieve sanctity and holiness.
That's what Moshe tried to teach the Jewish people. It isn't the quantity or the number necessarily, that's as important as the quality of performance, and the connection with God that observance brings. If we find the meaning and connection, the numbers will come too.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Table Talk for Shelach 5768 - The Right to Wear the Uniform

I'm on a Steven Ambrose kick; after just finishing Citizen Soldiers, I picked up Band of Brothers, (yes, the one they made an HBO miniseries about) and just finished the first chapter. The book, which follows the journey of E Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne from Normandy in 1944 to Germany and the end of World War II.
The first chapter describes the grueling nature of the training facing the troops who volunteered for the Airborne division -- far more intense and difficult than regular A
rmy training. Yet, men pushed themselves harder and farther than they thought possible for the right to put the Airborne wings on their lapel and dress like a paratrooper. One soldier said, "We were all ready to trade our lives for the right to wear these accoutrements of the Airborne."
Shelach concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzit, the fringes on the corners of our four-cornered garments. (You might recognize this
section as the third chapter of the Shema that we recite morning and night each day.) While we already know about the commandment to wear tzitzit, the section itself seems puzzling. We wear the tzitzit to "remember all the commandments of God and do them." (15:39) Yet, commentators wonder how the fringes of a garment remind us to perform mitzvot. Furthermore, the section concludes by mentioning the Exodus from Egypt: "I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt...". (verse 41). That's nice, and certainly interesting. But how does it relate to tzitzit?
I was thinking about tzitzit in light of the Airborne uniforms of the E company. What we wear and how we dress speak loudly about our identity; who we are, with whom we identity, and even how we behave.
Think of wearing tzitzit not an obligation or commandment, but a privilege. Wh
at if we saw putting those fringes of our garments not as a burden, but a mark of accomplishment and exclusivity? If we did, then putting on those tzitzit would instill in us both a sense of pride and also a sense of obligation -- the requirement to live up to the expectations of the uniform.
Now we can understand why God mentions yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus) in the section of tzitzit. God brought us out of Egypt to become His people. And if we're going to dress in His uniforms, we better act like His soldiers, and purport ourselves in the proper fashion - by observing the laws of His Torah.

The mitzvah of tzitzit is what we call a mitzvah kiyyumit -- a mitzvah of fulfillment. Torah law does not require anyone to wear tzitzit. If one wears a four-cornered garment, then it must have those fringes. The decision to wear that four-cornered garment is entirely voluntary. (Common custom today mandates the wearing of a tallit-kattan during the daytime though.) It's almost as if God tells us, "You don't have to wear my uniform. But if you're going to put on the uniform, then wear those fringes with pride, and act like one of my soldiers, "So that you will remember and do all of My commandments." (verse 40).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Table Talk for Beha'alotecha 5768

Life is full of second chances. If I didn't watch the game live, I can always watch it on my Tivo. If I "forgot" to pay my taxes, sooner or later the IRS will grant me an amnesty period to correct any oversight I might have made. Second chances give us the opportunity to make amends for errors or oversights we might have made.
Beha'alotecha gives us the Torah's most prominent second chance: Pesach Sheini. Those people who were tamei (ritually impure) during the offering of the korban Pesach approach Moshe with a problem. They missed out and want to offer the sacrifice. לָמָּה נִגָּרַע, לְבִלְתִּי הַקְרִיב אֶת-קָרְבַּן ה' בְּמֹעֲדוֹ -- "why should we be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its proper time." (9:7) Moshe, repeats their request to God who answers in the affirmative, telling Moshe about the law of Pesach Sheini (the second Pesach). Essentially, God gives them a second chance, commanding pretty much anyone who did not bring the korban Pesach at the proper time to be sure to bring the offering the second time around a month later.
I can think of only one other case in Jewish law that deals with second chances. The gemara in Berachos teaches us that if a person forgot to recite a given Amidah or was prevented from doing so, he may "make up" that prayer at the next opportunity. Essentially, if I forget or cannot recite Shacharit on a given morning, I can (and must) recite two shemoneh esreh prayers at Minchah time; the first counts as Minchah, and the second counts as the Shacharit I missed that morning.
Yet, these examples have always left me wondering: why are these the only two prominent cases of second chances in Jewish law? If I forgot to eat matzoh at the Seder, or shake a lulav, or light Chanukah candles at the proper time, halachah offers no mechanism for me to make up those mitzvot. Why not? What's unique about the korban Pesach and prayer that demanded that we all get a second chance?
To my mind though, second chances have an even greater cost. If you can always do things over, that ability to repeat robs the event or activity of its meaning and import the first time around. Why bother trying very hard on my golf shot if I can just take a mulligan? Why make the effort to light candles on time if I can just do it next week? From this perspective, having a second chance isn't always the greatest blessing.
I most cases, you have to get it right the first time. Because there won't be a second chance.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Table Talk for Naso 5768 - Mesirat Nefesh

We normally interpret the term mesirat nefesh, literally meaning “giving of life-force” to refer to someone willing to make significant sacrifice for the sake of God, Judaism or the Jewish people. This sacrifice can refer to great economic sacrifice, or even putting oneself in physical danger for the sake of a powerful cause.

But we that Rashi utilizes this term in our parshah in an entirely different context that might surprise us. Describing the consecration of the mishkan we find at the end of the parshah, the Torah begins the section by telling us, וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת-הַמִּשְׁכָּן – “and it was on the day that Moshe completed the erection of the mishkan..” (7:1) Rashi and others immediately wonder: did Moshe alone build the mishkan? After all, Betzalel, Oholiav and numerous craftsmen, artisans and other workers invested their time, effort and energy to construct God’s home in the desert. Why then does the Torah specifically attribute the construction of the mishkan to Moshe?

Rashi explains: לפי שמסר נפשו עליו – because he “gave of his life” for the sake of the mishkan. In contemporary American term we would say that he was “moser nefesh.” In what way did Moshe sacrifice? Rashi elaborates: “to ensure the form of each and every item the way that God had shown him, to instruct the craftsmen, and he did not err in even one creation.” In essence, Rashi defines Moshe’s mesirat nefesh as an incredible attention to detail; an insistence on perfection in the construction of the mishkan and a tireless devotion to that cause.

At first glance, Rashi’s explanation does not corresponding to our normal definition of mesirat nefesh. Does attention to detail and meticulousness necessarily imply self-sacrifice? Or must we redefine mesirat nefesh in a new and different way?