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Friday, May 28, 2010

Sheddng Light on the Levites

Last week's parsha ends with the נשיאים, n'siim (the princes or leaders) of each of the twelve tribes bringing a daily sacrifice as their contribution to the dedication of the tabernacle.

Just to review--there are actually thirteen tribes when we include the tribe of Levi. We ended up with an 'extra' tribe when Yaakov effectively makes Yosef into two tribes by giving each of his sons (Efraim and Menashe) a portion in his inheritance.

In any event, all of the n'siim bring their dedication sacrifice except for Aharon who was the nasi of the tribe of Levi. Rashi brings a midrash here at the beginning of the parsha which indicates that Aharon was crestfallen to not be included in the lineup of his fellow n'siim but God comforts him by telling him that he has the mitzva of lighting the menorah which is even greater than what the other n'siim did. The Ramban expounds on that midrash and tells us that it is an allusion to a time in the future when the Hashmonaim, who were priests (descendants of Aharon from the tribe of Levi, of course) will rededicate the Temple through the miracle of lighting the menorah for eight days, as we remember on Hanukah.

However, it occurs to me that something else may also be at play here. Just after the first verses in the parsha deal with the lighting of the menorah, Moshe is commanded to prepare the Levites for their service in the tabernacle.

The process for the preparation was to entirely shave the bodies of the Levites, to prepare a sacrifice to bring with them and then it says:

במדבר פרק ח (ט) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהִקְהַלְתָּ אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
(י) וְהִקְרַבְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק וְסָמְכוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְדֵיהֶם עַל הַלְוִיִּם:
(יא) וְהֵנִיף אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תְּנוּפָה לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת יְקֹוָק:

Bamidbar Chapter 8 (9) And you shall bring forth the Levites before the Tent of Meeting (a.ka. the Tabernacle or the Mishkan) and you shall gather together all of the congregation of the children of Israel. (10) And you shall bring close the Levites before God and the children of Israel will lean their hands upon the Levites (11) and Aharon will wave the Levites (in a) waving before God from the children of Israel and they will be to do the service of God.

What is happening here is really nothing less than the Levites being offered up as a kind of live sacrifice to God; i.e. the process they are going through (having other lean their hands upon them, being waved not to mention the fact that the verse says literally they are 'being offered').

So in fact it would seem the main reason that the Levites do not offer a sacrifice of dedication to the Tabernacle is that they themselves are the sacrifice-their service in the Temple is an ongoing sacrifice/dedication to the Tabernacle and to God. 

The interlude about the menorah, then could be understood more simply than the Ramban's expansion on the midrash. It just means that the lighting of the menorah is a unique and integral part of the service which is the Levites' offering. 

Why the emphasis on the menorah? Perhaps more than any other aspect of the service, the lighting of the menorah illustrates the notion of the light of the Torah being brought into this world but I will have to leave that for another posting. 

Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Learning, Inspiration, Genius in a Post Shavuot World

I was most privileged to make the acquaintance of one Nava when I brought in a Pitum Haktoret piece I did for framing into her shop a few days ago. She made a great impression on me in many ways but especially when she said that while she has been involved in framing for decades, even now she feels that her 'talent' in framing is not from her at all but rather just a sense she has from somewhere or something outside of her.

I pointed out that this sense has been noticed in many cultures including ancient ones and, in fact, including our own Jewish one. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (which admittedly I haven't read), has a great TED talk about this same idea.

This notion is alluded to in a midrash apropos of Shavuot which, of course, has just passed. The midrash states:

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת כי תשא פרשה מא

אמר ר' אבהו כל מ' יום שעשה משה למעלה היה למד תורה ושוכח, א"ל רבון העולם יש לי מ' יום ואיני יודע דבר, מה עשה הקב"ה משהשלים מ' יום נתן לו הקב"ה את התורה מתנה שנאמר ויתן אל משה

Shmot Rabbah (ed. Vilna) Parshat Ki Tissa 41

Rabbi Avahu said: Throughout the entire forty days which Moshe spent above, he would learn Torah and then forget [what he learned]! He said to God, "Sovereign of the Universe! I have forty days and I don't know a thing! What did the Holy One Blessed Be He do? As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days, the Holy One Blessed Be He gave him the Torah [as a] gift. As it says, (Shmot 31:18) and He gave to Moshe.

The full verse there says: And He gave to Moshe, when he finished speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, two tablets of testament, tablets of stone written with the finger of God.

While the plain understanding of the verse is simply that God handed over the tablets that He wrote, the midrash picks up on the word ויתן vayiten (and He gave). The verse could have stated that Moshe took the tablets or that Moshe brought the tablets or some such. The fact that it says that God gave the tablets implies that it was only by God giving them could Moshe 'receive' or comprehend them. 

The 'giving' here implies that God simply implanted the knowledge of the Torah in Moshe's brain a la The Matrix, meaning that Moshe, in the end, received the entire Torah not through intellectual struggle and mastery but through Divine Grace in some way.

One obvious question is: If God had to give the Torah in this manner to Moshe, why didn't He just do it on the first day? Why shlep the whole process out for forty days? 

There is a hint, I believe, in the words of the midrash: As soon as [Moshe] completed the forty days. This implies that Moshe had to do his part by showing up for forty days. For many reasons, Moshe was the one whom God wished to bring the Torah from the heavens and down to mankind. The Torah was/is the culmination of Divine Wisdom, something which is arguably beyond mortal comprehension. In short, no person could really bring it from the heavens to the earth by his or her abilities alone. Divine help was clearly needed.

But in order to deserve that help, in order to be able to receive that which the Divine is offering, Moshe had to be there, to make the effort, to show up. 

So it is with all learning. We need to understand that while creativity and learning are things which are granted to us by the Divine, we need to make the effort to receive that gift. 

May we all learn to show up!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Not Exactly the Parsha, but....

I just posted a new video: My new, improved version of the History of Halacha. Check it out and let me know what you think  Special thanks to my son, Shmaya, for the videography and effects and all that good stuff.

Shabbat shalom!