Parashat Lekh-Lekha – Struggling with the Divine Ideal

וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל

Parashat Lekh-Lekha is a seminal moment in Sefer Bereishit, and in the Torah as a whole, marking a narrowing of ‘א’s focus from a more universal approach to a much more particular one. Previously, ‘א was dealing with all of mankind, now he’s working with just one man and his family. The previous attempts to let humanity make something of itself had failed dramatically, always ending in punishment and exile. The punishment for mankind’s first failure was only relieved when ‘א concluded that mankind would not be able to merit the removal of the punishment on their own (Bereishit 8:21). Now ‘א has decided to do something new, to start over with an individual. The question this immediately obligates is why this particular individual. Of all the nations and all the people born since the flood (Bereishit 10, 11:10-26), why this particular individual? Why Avraham (then known as Avram)? Numerous answers have been given to this question throughout history, their great number resulting from the lack of any clear information in the text about it. Avraham’s story begins at the beginning of the twelfth chapter of Bereishit, the beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, when ‘א simply begins to speak to Avraham, commanding him to leave his home and to go to the land of Canaan. Before this we only hear about Avraham as a member of his father’s house, as a character in Terah’s story. Due to this sudden command, most understandings of why Avraham was chosen build off the rich story and character that develop around Avraham in the ensuing chapters. However, Avraham presumably chosen due to being unique in some way, due to something special about him, and by looking at the details of his life in Terah’s house, we should be able to determine what this unique characteristic is, and in doing so determine something about what made Avraham right to be the new start of ‘א’s great project.

The story of the Tower of Bavel in the eleventh chapter of Bereishit is followed by a listing of the line of Shem, son of Noah, culminating in the household of Terah.

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah begot Avram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. 28 And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Avram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Avram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Yiscah. 30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 And Terah took Avram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Avram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.

There are numerous things that this depiction tells us about Avraham. We know from here that he was the son of Terah, that he left Ur Kasdim, that he was married, etc. However, none of these things are unique to him. Minimally, they are all shared by his brother, Nahor. What makes Avraham unique is one single characteristic: his wife, Sarai, is barren. The uniqueness of this situation is something that becomes even clearer when looked at in the broader context of the not just the genealogy of Shem at the end of Bereishit 11, but all of the genealogical tables that form the structure of the first 11 chapters of Bereishit, and of Sefer Bereishit as a whole[1].

The genealogical tables of Sefer Bereishit all share a basic structure, such as that which can be seen in the beginning of the line of Shem in Bereishit 11.

10 These are the generations of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old, and begot Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he begot Arpachshad five hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. 12 And Arpachshad lived five and thirty years, and begot Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he begot Shelah four hundred and three years, and begot sons and daughters.

The genealogical tables are structured such that they introduce a person by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. Then their primary successor is reintroduced by way of how old they were when they gave birth to their primary successor, and then it says how many years they lived after that and that they had other sons and daughters. With a few exceptions, this pattern repeats throughout the genealogical tables from Adam (Bereishit 5:1) through Terah (Bereishit 11:26). Then Avraham is introduced and the whole process seems to come to a screeching halt. There could not be a clearer message that Avraham represents a break with everything that came before him. Avraham is unique, he is something new, not because of something he has, but because of what he lacks.

Assuming that the lack of a child, particularly through his wife Sarai, is what makes Avraham unique and creates a common theme and background unifying many, if not all, of the events of Avraham’s life. Avraham twice travels to a kingdom where Sarai is threatened with a life married to the king. While this would be bad enough on its own, against the backdrop of Avraham’s childlessness, it takes on the added significance of a tangible threat to the woman who is supposed to give birth to the descendants that ‘א promised Avraham. Avraham’s nephew Lot serves as a surrogate child[2] filling this gap until Avraham is promised descendants of his own[3], surfacing and disappearing from the story, but always in the role of a potential inheritor. Then Avraham is visited by three messengers, and one of them tells them him that Sarai will give birth in one years time, a much more concrete promise than ever before. This is immediately followed by Avraham being told that ‘א is going to destroy Sedom and Gamorah, and it is up to him to decide if the fact that he does not need Lot as an heir will be a factor in whether or not he argues with ‘א to save Sedom. Avraham’s final narrative is Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac. Avraham is commanded by ‘א to sacrifice the son he had finally received. An impossible task for any father, this test is heightened by the way it constitutes a rejection of everything Avraham had longed for all these years. These are just a few of the events of Avraham’s life that work off his being childless, a theme that is heightened dramatically by the counterpoint of ‘א’s promise.

Avraham’s story opens with ‘א promising that He will make Avraham a great nation (12:2). Then upon his arrival in the land of Canaan, Avraham is promised that his descendants will inherit the land (12:7). After Avraham and Lot part ways, ‘א again promises Avraham that his descendants will inherit the land(13:14-17). In Bereishit 15:4 Avraham is promised that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky. These promises and others highlight the constant tension of Avraham’s journeys, which start with the promise of giving birth to a nation (12:2) and finally ends when his son is married off (Bereishit 24) and when he gives birth to sons and daughters (Bereishit 25). Interwoven with these promises are tests that threaten the likelihood of these promises actually coming to fruition.

Avram is chosen because he feels a lack, a sense that things are not the way they ought to be[4]. Avraham’s journeys transform this into an extended experience of the tension between the reality of his daily life and the divine ideal of ‘א’s promise. It is this tension that brought Avraham to struggle with ‘א on numerous occasions. He challenged ‘א on the grounds that the only inheritor he had was the servant running his household (15:2), in clear contradiction to ‘א’s promise. Avraham was someone who was bothered by the disconnect between the way things are and they way they ought to be. This is further manifest when Avraham prays for Sedom, unable to comprehend how the “Judge of All Earth” could do such injustice (18:25). It is this inclination to struggle that made Avraham the right choice for the start of ‘א’s new project. Being in a relationship with ‘א means living with a constant awareness of the tension between ‘א’s ideal and the living reality, and struggling with that. However, being religious does not mean to give up on either half of this tension, but to embrace it in its entirety. This tension motivates us to try and do something to alleviate it, something to help reality along until it matches with the ideal. It should motivate us to “keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Bereishit 18:19). To be religious is to be bothered, to struggle, to be dissatisfied with the imperfect nature of ‘א’s world. ‘א promised the forefathers children and yet their wives were barren, because ‘א wants the righteous to struggle with the fact that this world does not match up to what it could be[5]. The essence of faith is to remain dedicated to the divine ideal even when it seems like the real world remains stubbornly unchanged by our attempts at godliness[6].

[1] This is discussed by R’ Menachem Leibtag here. His arguments are not entirely compelling, but there is much he says that is undoubtedly correct.

[2] The idea that Lot would serve in place of Avraham’s children is raised in Bereishit Rabbah 41:5.

[3] Lot’s presence, which is almost painfully obvious when they are leaving Ur Kasdim (11:31) and Haran(12:4-5), is suddenly and mysteriously absent when they journey to Egypt (12:10), reappearing only after the threat to Sarai in Egypt.

[4] This is expressed by a famous midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1) that depicts Avraham first discovering ‘א as a person who happens upon a burning city and is struck by the fact that the city must have a master who should be saving it and, when they voice this concern, the master (‘א) appears.

[5] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 64a.

[6] Mishna Avot, 2:16

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Parashat Noah – What We Do And Why We Do It

וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת

Parashat Noach contains two main stories, the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Bavel. Neither of these stories depict man in a particularly positive light, with the only hero, Noah, declared righteous at the beginning of his story and passed out drunk and indecent at the end. However there is something unique about the story of the Tower of Bavel that sets it apart from not only the story of the Flood, but also the preceding stories of the first religious and moral transgressions. The Tower of Bavel is unique in that it depicts ‘א as relating to the people in an almost adversarial manner. ‘א scatters them across the land (Bereishit 11:8, 9), the exact thing they had been trying to avoid happening (11:4). The people begin each step of their construction with the phrase, “Come, let us” (11:3, 4), and ‘א turns this around on them when he decides to mix up their languages, saying, “Come, let us go down, and there confound their language” (11:7). Perhaps the strongest indicator is ‘א’s statement where He seems concerned about what the people might do next. “And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, with one language for all of them, and this is what they begin to do; And now nothing will be beyond their reach that they intend to do” (11:6). This verse is jarring not only because ‘א sounds like someone worried about what the people on the other side might do next, but also because unity and cooperation are generally thought of as causes for celebration, not destruction. By contrast, ‘א reacts to the first religious and moral sins like a disappointed parent, first giving the transgressor a chance to repent, and only then punishing them after they attempt to shirk the responsibility for their actions (3:8-19; 4:9-15), and by the generation of the Flood ‘א just seems saddened and regretful (6:6). ‘א’s adversarial tone by the Tower of Bavel stands out against the background of the preceding narratives. The reason for this tone can be found in nature of the sin of the Tower of Bavel, however, the nature of this sin is not at all clear from the text, and requires delving into the historical context of the ancient city of Bavel[1].

To this day if a person goes to the spot where Bavel once stood they will see the ruins of the great tower that once stood there. This tower was a place of pagan worship, dedicated to the god Marduwas, and it was renown throughout the region as the “The House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” At the temple atop the tower the priests would “meet” the gods, in line with meaning of the Aramaic name for the city, “Gate of the Gods[2].” This was the grandest of such towers, but they were not an uncommon phenomenon in the ancient near east. Many kings had built, or restored, such towers, and often their dedications claimed that they “reached the heavens” (as 11:4) and “made a name” for the king, even earning the king a place among the gods. While building a tower for pagan worship would be problematic in its own right, the idea of a person becoming a god is a direct attack on the basic idea of monotheism, that ‘א is God, and no other.

The sin of the Tower of Bavel is a function of a group of people working together not just for the sake of Idolatry, but in order to challenge ‘א’s very nature as uniquely divine. Thus the adversarial tone in the story is not a function of ‘א setting himself against the people, but of the people setting themselves against ‘א. If then had not said, “Come, let us” build a tower against ‘א, then He would not have said, “Come, let us” destroy the tower. If they had not tried to gather together at the Tower, they would not have required scattering. And if they had not been gathered against ‘א, then their unity would not have been a reason for destruction, but a reason for celebration.

The narrative of the Tower of Bavel is a story of the crushing of ancient idolatry, but it is also more than that. The Tower of Bavel story, in its lack of clarity, challenges the reader to consider not just what the people were doing, but also why they were doing it. The fact that the people were unified is meaningless in the face of their larger intentions. Unity is not its own justification, as it can just as easily be used to build as to destroy. In the Tower of Bavel narrative, the Torah challenges us to examine not only our actions but also why we are doing them, as even the best actions can be made meaningless, or worse, by the wrong intentions. When we do anything in our daily lives, we are meant to ask, are we just doing this to make a name for ourselves, or does it serve some greater, divine, purpose?

[1] For an excellent discussion of some of the differing views of the Rishonim regarding the nature of the sin, as well as how they fit with the historical background of the text, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet, from which much of the information in the next paragraph was culled.

[2] It is noteworthy that the only place in Tanakh where a similar phrase occurs is in Bereishit 28:17, when Yaakov exclaims, “and this is the Gate of Heaven,” after having a vision of ‘א in a dream. This is just one of a variety of parallels between the two passages, a greater discussion of which can be found in R’ Yitzchak Etshalom’s lecture “Archaeology in Tanach.”

Parashat Bereishit – Dualities of Creation, Dualities of Man

בְּצֶלֶם אֱ׳לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ

Sefer Bereishit starts out by depicting ‘א’s creation of existence, a depiction that has come under attack from a number of perspectives. Perhaps the most well known attack is the way it does not at all match the current scientific models for the origin of the universe. The religious responses to this have been threefold, either reinterpreting the text to fit with modern science, asserting that the Torah is essentially a religious document and does not intend a scientific description of Creation, or just ignoring the issue entirely. Slightly less well known, though far from unheard of, is the attack from the school of Biblical Criticism referred to as the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis is based off of the idea that the Torah is composed of texts derived from different, and often contradictory or redundant, source texts. A prime example of where critics see multiple sources is the first two chapters of Sefer Bereishit, which are split into Bereishit 1:1-2:3 and Bereishit 2:4-3:24. They point out a number of contradictions found in these two pericopes, such as where the creation of Man falls out in the order of creation, and how long the whole process takes. In the first chapter of Bereishit, Man is created on the sixth day, after all of the plants and animals and the rest of the natural world (1:26-30). In the second chapter, Man comes first and is in fact a precondition for the existence of plant and animals; they only exist due to Man (2:5, 18-20). In contrast to the measured, seven day process of the first chapter, the second chapter depicts creation as occurring in a day. “These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven” (Bereishit 2:4). Based on these, and other, contradictions they see the two passages as having originated as two separate creation stories. This approach is applied quite liberally throughout the rest of Tanakh[1]. Starting with R’ Mordechai Breuer[2], religious scholars[3] have actually embraced this method of finding different voices in the text of the Torah, without giving up on the idea that the Torah was revealed to Moshe by ‘א. Being a prophetic text, the Torah is understood to deal with divine truths too complex to necessarily be written down without being somewhat contradictory. Similarly, the Torah also depicts the nature of Man as being complex, and thus subject to self-contradiction. Walt Whitman depicted human nature as similarly complex[4].

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) [Song of Myself, 51]

These contradictions are particularly manifest in the two versions of the Creation of Man found at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit, and a careful analysis of them points toward the Biblical view of Man’s nature.

The first chapter of Sefer Bereishit is characterized primarily by being incredibly ordered. Everything goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, and He sees that it is good. Each of the creations of the first three days sets up for the creation that occurs three days after it, the light (Day 1) setting up for the cosmos (Day 4), the water and skies (Day 2) setting up for the fish and the birds (Day 5), and the land and the plants (Day 3) setting up for the animals and for Man (Day 6). Everything is set up so that it will run naturally forever. The celestial bodies will govern the seasons forever, and all the plants and animals can continue their species. One of these orderly creations is Man. However, Man is something of an anomaly in this ordered process, as the only creature that is created in the image of ‘א, the Creator. Thus man is both Creature and Creator. Specifically, the Image of God is manifest as Man being a dominating force[5] in the world, as explicated by the blessing Man receives from ‘א, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth” (Bereishit 1:28). Man is given the ability to be in charge of every living thing, and to consume all plant-life (1:29).

In contrast, the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as existing to serve a purpose, rather than other things existing to serve Man’s purposes. Man’s creation fills a specific need, “and there was no a man to work the ground” (2:5), and then Man is given a corresponding assignment, “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to keep it” (2:15). Man exists to serve a purpose. This stands in direct contradiction to the first chapter, but it would be a mistake to assume the two chapters only contradict. In many ways the second chapter builds on the first. The first chapter depicts Man as part of the orderly process of Creation, and the second chapter goes out of its way to hammer home the fact that Man is essentially just like every other living thing. When Man is created from the earth the Torah says, “And Adam became a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה)” (Bereishit 2:7). Then when ‘א creates the animals they are each referred to as a living creature (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה) (Bereishit 2:19). Moreover, the possibility is entertained that the proper helper for Man might be one of the animals (2:18-20). Where in chapter 1 Man and the animals are differentiated by Man’s being created in the Image of ‘א, in the second chapter they seem to be part of essentially the same category. However, as the second chapter progresses Man is differentiated from the animals in a manner separate from their shared nature as creatures. In contrast to the animals, it is stated regarding Man, “And the Lord God commanded the man” (2:16). Man’s uniqueness is not a function of his innate nature, but of his being commanded. This builds on the way the second chapter of Bereishit depicts Man as created  for a specific purpose.

The two creation stories depict two different understandings of the nature of Man. The first chapter sees Man as somehow dominant and superior to the other creations. He can use all of them to serve his purposes. The second chapter sees Man as inherently equal to the other creatures, and intended to serve a purpose, to care for those creations, and to follow ‘א’s command. These understandings are very different, and they certainly contradict, but they do not have to be at odds with one another. The two approaches play off each other and integrate very interestingly. Perhaps it is the unique ability of Man, as per Chapter 1, that makes incumbent upon him unique responsibility, as per chapter 2. Chapter 1 sees Man as having a unique power over nature; Chapter 2 ask what Man is going to do with that power to serve ‘א and the world. And even if in their essence the two understandings of Man are at odds, they can be applied practically in very similar ways. As a creature, Man should feel solidarity with all life, and therefore should be careful not to abuse it. As a creator, Man has a responsibility to be benevolent and care for those less fortunate. We are complex beings, and to paint us with a simple brush is to ignore what makes us great and obscures all that we have to give.

[1] For a discussion of some of the problematic aspects of the Documentary Hypothesis, from a literary perspective, see here.

[2] He based this approach, among other things, on the midrash that says that the two names of ‘א, Elohim and YVHV, correspond to Divine Justice and Divine Compassion. The first chapter of Bereishit uses exclusively the name Elohim, while the second uses YHVH.

[3] While I don’t agree with everything he says, here or elsewhere, an excellent depiction of this method by R’ Menachem Leibtag can be found here.

[4] These internal tensions of Man are also discussed by, among others, the Hermeneutic Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, by R’ Joseph Soloveitchik in “The Lonely Man of Faith,” and by myself in my devar torah for Parashat Re’eh 5774.

[5] This also fits with the Ancient Near Eastern context of the phrase, “Image of God.” Outside of the Torah, this phrase is only applied to kings. The Torah applies it to all men, declaring them all equal. For more on this, see R’ Shai Held’s devar torah on Bereishit 5775.

Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.

Yom Kippur 5775 – Cleansing The Mishkan, Cleansing Our Lives

לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְ׳הוָה תִּטְהָרוּ

The sixteenth chapter of Sefer Vayikra describes the details[1] of the Kohen HaGadol’s ritual service in the Mishkan/Mikdash for Yom HaKippurim. The Kohen HaGadol goes back and forth, changing out of various sets of clothing, slaughtering certain animals, and using those animals’ blood to purify the Mikdash/Mishkan. The purpose of all of these rites is explicitly described in Vayikra 16:32-34.

32 And the priest, who shall be anointed and who shall be consecrated to be priest in his father’s stead, shall perform the cleansing (כפר), and shall put on the linen garments, the holy garments. 33 And he shall cleanse (כפר) the most holy place, and he shall cleanse (כפר) the tent of meeting and the altar; and he shall cleanse (כפר) the priests and all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse (כפר) the children of Israel of all their sins once a year.’ And he did as the LORD commanded Moses.

The purpose of the rituals of Yom Kippur is to cleanse the Nation of Israel and the Mikdash from the Impurity that their sins have caused. While it seems intuitive that Bnei Yisrael would need to be cleansed from their sins, it seems rather arbitrary and strange that the Mikdash and the Altar therein would need to be cleansed from the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael. How are the two connected? Answering this question requires delving into the cultural and historical context of Israel’s Impurity laws in general[2], and the Yom HaKippurim rituals in specific, which reveals the incredible power and importance they attribute to the actions of Bnei Yisrael.

The entering of the Kohen HaGadol to the holy of holies on Yom HaKippurim is closely paralleled by the entrance of the King of Babylonia to the Temple of Marduk on the fifth day of Akitu, accompanied by the high priest[3]. However, as with other such parallels, what is striking is not the large amount of similarities but the differences between the two sets of rituals. The most important difference in these specific rituals is who the rituals are focused on. Once inside the temple, the King would declare, “I have not sinned, O Lord of the universe, and I have not neglected your heavenly might.” The focus is entirely on the King and things he might have done. In stark contrast, the rites of Yom Kippur focus on the people themselves. “And he shall cleanse the priests and all the people of the assembly. And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, to cleanse the children of Israel of all their sins once a year” (Vayikra 16:33b-34a). Where the only person really valued by the Babylonian ritual is the King, the Yom HaKippurim service makes it clear that every member of Bnei Yisrael is important, and thus each and every Israelite must be purified.

Above and beyond the specific rituals of Yom HaKippurim, there are important contrasts between the whole system of Impurity Laws as found in the Torah and those from the surrounding cultures[4]. The various cultures of the Ancient Near East were full of such impurity laws, and they all shared a common purpose of fighting the demonic. In their mythologies, the gods were in constant struggle with demons, who drew their power from Impurity. Therefore any source of impurity, whether a corpse or a body emission or loose hairs and fingernails, aided the demons in their fight against the gods. It was for this reason that impure people were not allowed access to the temple, popularly thought of as the living space of the god, for fear that they would cause impurity therein and make the god of that temple vulnerable to the demons. In a case of a large build-up of Impurity in a temple, the god of that temple could even be driven away, forced out of their own abode. The yearly purification-rituals were intended to cleanse the temple of any impurities that might have developed anyway, and thus strengthen the god.

The Israelite conception of Impurity deviates strongly from this. Instead of focusing on the demonic, the Torah’s purity laws express the great tension between Life and Death, with Impurity resulting from events and processes associated with Death[5]. The most obvious example of this is Tsara’at, which, in addition to being a debilitating disease, causes the afflicted to resemble a corpse. Hence, when Miriam is afflicted with Tsara’at,  Aharon pleads, “Let her not be like a corpse” (Bamidbar 12:12). The Torah sees impurity not as empowering some mythological demonic force, but as an expression of the profound tension between Life and Death. Thus when someone or something is impure and cannot enter the Mikdash, this is a function of sensitivity to the great value of Life.

The laws of Tumah and Taharah, Impurity and Purity, are part of the Torah’s larger emphasis on Life, as seen in the command to the nation to “Choose Life” (Devarim 30:19). Throughout Sefer Devarim there is a profound emphasis placed on the value of Life and on Life as a goal of keeping the Torah. It is due to this emphasis that deliberate transgressions of the Torah create impurity that can be cleansed only by the rituals of Yom HaKippurim[6]. Intentional violations of the covenant between Bnei Yisrael and ‘א create impurity that affects the Mishkan so dramatically that it has to have a special ceremony to remove it, rather than being removed by normal atonement processes.

Where the various cultures of the Ancient Near East saw their gods as threatened by demons, the Torah says that ‘א’s presence is impinged upon by Death, and Man’s hand it it. When we break away from the Torah, we break away from a life-affirming covenant with ‘א, and we push away the presence of the Living God. It is reminiscent of an aphorism of the Kotzker Rebbe. “Where is God? Wherever you let him in.” The Yom HaKippurim rites in the Mikdash reaffirm ‘א’s desire to live amongst His People Israel. However they also make it clear that ‘א has made His being present dependent upon us. We no longer have the Bet HaMikdash, or the Mishkan, but the same is true in our own lives. When we affirm ‘א’s Torah, and when we embrace Life, we invite ‘א into our lives. But when we break away from the Torah we push Him away. Yom HaKippurim is a time when ‘א re-enters our lives, expecting us to have done our part to invite him back in. Throughout the liturgy of Yom HaKippurim, ‘א forgives us even before we do Teshuvah[7]. He returns to us, it is up to us to empty ourselves of the things we have done wrong, and to return to Him.

[1] A step-by-step, in depth, detailing of the ritual is recorded in the mishnayot of Masekhet Yoma.

[2] For those uncomfortable taking such an approach to understanding the mitsvot, I would point out that Rambam applied this approach rather liberally in Moreh Nevukhim, and I would add that archaeology has shown Rambam to be rather correct in doing so.

[3] A little bit on this parallel can be found in this less than excellent Ha’Aretz article. For a  more comprehensive  discussion with far better analysis, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[4] For more, see J. Milgrom, “The Rationale for Biblical Impurity.” Additionally, see the introduction to J. Milgrom’s commentary on Sefer Vayikra.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Jewish Study Bible, Vayikra 16:1-34n.

[7] R’ Amnon Bazak.