Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

(Editor's note: This blog post was originally given as a speech last Friday night at the Hillel house. If you were there, don't waste your time. It's probably not worth reading again. If you were not, enjoy. Also, the grammar isn't perfect. And I'm ok with that.)

So, yesterday we were privileged to hear two Torah portions in one service: Acharei Mot…and Kedoshim. Both are obviously wonderful in their own right, and to say one is better or more interesting than the other would be doing a disservice everyone. With that in mind, I will focus exclusively on the latter one. Kedoshim.

Parshat Kedoshim starts with one of my favorite Torah “catch phrases” of all time. And yes…there are some great catch phrases in those 5 books. “Daber el kol adat bnei yisrael v’amarta aleihem…Kedoshim tihiyu, ki kadosh…ani Hashem Elokeichem”. Leviticus 19:2, the second verse in the Parsha, states, “You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God am holy”. So…great. We are commanded to be HOLY because God, the Being we so adoringly refer to as “The Name”, is holy. I don’t know what you guys think, but THAT…is pretty darn vague. What does it mean to be holy in this Godly sense?

When I have an issue with something, I always go to the same place. The Torah. Luckily for me, I was already there. The next two verses read, and I quote “Ish Imo v’aviv Tira’u, v’et Shabbtotai tishmoru, ani hashem elokeichem…al tifnu el ha’elilim, etc. ” To translate: “you shall each revere your mother and father and keep my Sabbaths…I am the LORD, your God…do not turn to idols…etc.” We get a list of laws. This, apparently, is how one becomes holy in the Godly sense. If we follow these laws, then we become holy. Case closed. Sounds easy enough. Only one problem: we’ve heard these, or variations of these, before. In fact, we’ve heard them quite prominently. These laws are part of the TOP TEN. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS! Moses screamed them in front of everyone. There were trumpets and shofars blowing…thunder and lightning…the whole deal! They were written on stone tablets, “B’etzbah elohim” with the divine finger of God! There is obviously a lesson to be learned. What can we learn from this, the most obvious of parallels, between the laws here in Kedoshim to the Ten Commandments.

Just so you all know, I was not the first person to realize the similarities. A whole bunch of commentators have written about, some even going as far as finding all ten in some form or another. I don’t buy it, but it’s still pretty cool stuff.

So, as I mentioned earlier, when I have a problem, I read the Torah. What is the connection? Why do we need to repeat these laws that we have clearly already heard before? This is where things start to get interesting. Immediately following these basic laws, these commandments that we have heard and come to keep and love so dutifully, we get…(pause for effect)…an OBSCURE law about sacrifices, known as “Pigul”. I’m gonna paraphrase this one for convenience…but it’s in there if you don’t trust me. When you slaughter a Korban Shelamim, the “Shelamim” offering, you gotta eat it in 2 days: the day you slaughter it and the next. If you don’t, and you eat it on the next day…BAM rejected. God no longer wants it. Oh and not only is this a tremendous waste of your livestock and money…you get Karet. Excommunicated. You didn’t finish eating on time, so God doesn’t want you…OR your korban. Hmm…seems a bit steep. And, for our purposes…pretty confusing. How can this law possibly be placed next to the most basic and important laws of our existence? What’s going on here?

Well, let’s look a little bit closer at the sacrifice we are dealing with here, the Shelamim sacrifice. According to the bottom of the Artscroll Bible, my source for any and all imporant Torah insight, the Shelamim was brought voluntarily by someone who was moved to express his love for God…or who just wanted to get closer to Him. A man would travel to Jerusalem, buy a cow, or a sheep and sacrifice it to the Lord. The fats would get burned on the Altar. The priest will get a little to feast on, and the man who, as we just learn, just wanted to praise the Lord would eat the rest. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen a cow, or a sheep before. But that…is a lot of meat. Believe me, I know. We had “lamb day” back when I spent a year in Israel. Some nutty Israeli came with a small lamb and slaughtered it in front of an adoring American crowd. I, of course, had a barbershop to run and couldn’t make it, but I do know that that little sucker fed a whole lot of hungry Yeshiva students. Like…everyone. But back to the point…why does this guy get punished for not being gluttonous? I mean…excommunication?! To make matters worse, Chazal, our sages of old, take this a step further: if a man even THINKS about eating it after the second day the sacrifice is rejected. What sense does that make??

The answer to these questions could not be found plainly in the text. I had to look deeper, and I did, with the help of “Rabbi” Menachem Leibtag…famous for being the only man who’s class I have never walked out on. He teaches, through his website (, that…OF COURSE it’s impossible to finish the meat. For one man to finish an entire cow or sheep in 2 days is impossible. But that was the intention. In essence, God, in his ultimate wisdom, intended to “force” this guy to share. And, presumably, not with his family. Most ancient Jews did not live in Jerusalem. A man who wanted to bring this Shelamim sacrifice would have to trek all the way to the Temple in the capital city. His family wasn’t with him. In fact, he probably didn’t know anyone there. And that…was exactly the point. He is being forced to share with people he doesn’t know, with people he has never met before. And if he is not willing to do that, if he even thinks about being selfish…God no longer wants his Korban. In fact, God no longer wants this person at all: “v’nichrita ha nefesh ha’hi”, “and he is cut off from his people”.

Now that we solved the mystery of Pigul, let’s try to work backward to our earlier questions. To remind you, I was wondering aloud what someone has to do to be holy…and why the Torah felt it was necessary to repeat laws for us that were already quite well known.

The parallels of those verses, of revering your mother and father and not turning to idols, to the 10 commandments are quite obvious. But almost just as striking, to me at least, is the way in which the words here CONTRAST those that were announced at Har Sinai. There, in front of the whole congregation of Israel, and I’m starting with the 3rd commandment for convenience, we have (3) don’t have images of “heavenly” beings, (4) Remember the Sabbath and (5) Honor your father and mother. Here, we have, “Ish Imo v’aviv tira’u, v’et Shabbtotai tishmoru…” "…Mother and father fear…Shabbat we keep." Upon closer review, the words are not exactly the same. In fact, it’s almost…the reverse. It REFLECTS what Bnei Yisrael, the ancient Israelites, were told earlier. Even the wording is reversed. There, in the Ten Commandments (See Exodus 20:2-14 for all ten), it is written “honor your father and mother.” We have a verb, an action: to honor. Whom do we honor? Our father and mother. The progression is: verb…father…mother. Here, in our portion, Kedoshim: mother…father…then the verb, to fear. There it says, “remember the Shabbat” verb…and then noun. Here it says, “Shabbat Tishmoru”…the Sabbath…you should keep. Here, the noun comes before the verb.

I don’t know about you guys, but when it comes to the written word of the Torah, as related from the LORD to Moshe, it is hard for me to accept word choice as coincidence. Perhaps, God’s choice of words is a not-so-subtle reminder to all of us. In order for us to be Holy, in order for us to be Holy like GOD, we must be able to reflect on ourselves, and really objectively decide what kind of person we are, and whether or not THAT person is a good one. What is the best way to measure this? What is the best way to reach this ultimate self-awareness and acceptance? What immediately follows the “reflective” commandments? Pigul. That obscure sacrifice law, the quintessential point of which is that God is DESPISED by the idea of having someone in HIS community that won’t seek out his fellow man to break-bread, to have a beer with, to share in his sacrifice. Because if you don’t, if you’re NOT someone who looks to SHARE with his fellow man, it doesn’t matter how many Shabbats we keep, or how Kosher our food is, or what job we have…or what money we can spend…God does not want us. If YOU don’t, no…if I DON’T look out for my fellow man, how can I look at myself in the mirror and HONESTLY reflect on myself favorably.

And THAT I believe is the message the Torah is trying to teach us in placing the seemingly repetitive commandments about parents and Shabbat next to the seemingly random law of Pigul, and the Korban Shelmamim.

As I look back and reflect on my four years here, at Maryland, a lot has changed. The people have changed. My ideas about life have changed, and I am sure many of yours have also. I have not always made the right decisions, or done what was right. I, personally, have not always been holy. I can’t imagine any of you have either. But through the ups and downs, being able to look at myself in the mirror is something I have always striven for. And I recommend you do the same. It doesn’t really matter who does what to you, or who says what about you…or what anyone thinks about you. Because at the end of the day, when you’re in your pajamas brushing your teeth, you have only yourself in the mirror. Not me. Not even God.

Just you…staring right back at you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A mirror will reflect all things perfectly, whether they are beautiful or ugly; it never refuses to show a thing, nor does it retain a thing after it is gone. The mind should be as open as this.

Lin Ching-hsi.