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Parashat Tzav 5780
by Meir Sendor
I’m not serving as a community rabbi any more, but sometimes, for some reason, people still ask my advice. Lately, a number of people have asked me the same question: what is the meaning of this terrible global coronavirus crisis we are going through? Among some rabbis, unfortunately, it’s a favorite pastime to spout off the most inane and foolish pronouncements on the reason for a crisis. In the current case, one such leader asserted it’s a punishment for sexual deviance, others proclaimed it’s because women are not dressing modestly enough. These so-called rabbis, who pretend to know the Mind of God, and reduce God’s Mind to such nonsense, are an embarrassment to the profession.
So what’s the real reason for the coronavirus pandemic?
In Tehillim it says:
תהלים פרק סב
(יב) אחת דבר אלהים שתים זו שמעתי כי עז לאלהים:
God speaks once, twice I hear it, for power belongs to God.
In the Gemara Sanhedrin (34a) the Rabbis explain this verse:
דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא: וכפטיש יפצץ סלע, מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות – אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים.
The yeshivah of Rabbi Yishmael teaches: it’s like a hammer that smashes a rock – just as the hammer scatters many sparks, so, too, one [Torah] verse issues in many reasons.
The point is that we are talking about God here, God’s speech, so to speak. God is Infinite, so we should not presume that God’s communication is limited the way human speech is limited to singular ideas and a narrow range of meaning. When God speaks every communication is infinitely meaningful. God is communicating with us endlessly, in endless dimensions, in every situation, at every moment – if we have the wisdom, sensitivity and breadth of mind and heart to listen.
The current pandemic doesn’t have one meaning or one lesson to teach. It is shaking the lives of every person on this planet, and is teaching lessons upon lessons to every person, every community, every nation, every culture in myriad ways. It’s uncanny the way it’s pointing out all the many weak points in our character and the character of communities and nations and cultures, lessons galore for everyone, individually tailored.
Certainly the Chinese have a lot to learn here about hygiene and ethical behavior and menu choices. Governments that are deceiving their citizens and not protecting them adequately are seeing their nations devastated and destabilized by the epidemic. Governments that have had warnings from experts for years to be prepared for widespread epidemics and failed to take precautions and stockpile equipment, including our own here in Israel and in the United States, have a lot to learn.
Hedonistic youth flouting healthcare rules with an attitude of arrogance and entitlement and invulnerability are finding themselves learning hard lessons. Religious communities flouting healthcare rules with an attitude of spiritual arrogance and spiritual entitlement are finding themselves learning very hard lessons, and this is particularly perverse. Where we would expect a truly religious person in the time of a world crisis to step up with compassion and responsibility and be helpful, some groups and individuals in the haredi communities in Israel and other countries have been harming rather than helping, behaving with reckless arrogance in intentionally resisting medical advice, some even with violence, endangering the lives of everyone around them, endangering the lives of medical personnel and law enforcement who are trying to help them, and only starting to wake up and panic when they find themselves sickening and dying in far larger numbers than the general population. They have violated some of the most serious Torah prohibitions and put themselves into the sinful category of rodfim, those who threaten the lives of others. They profane the Torah they pretend to defend. In the Gemara Yuma (72b) it says:
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: מאי דכתיב וזאת התורה אשר שם משה, זכה – נעשית לו סם חיים, לא זכה – נעשית לו סם מיתה.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: what is the meaning of “this is the Torah that Moshe set before the Children of Israel.” If one is worthy, it becomes for him a drug of life; not worthy, it becomes for him a drug of death.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is punning on the word שם as סם, “set” as “drug.” The Torah interpreted and practiced properly is life-supporting medicine, interpreted and practiced improperly is deadly poison. In a similar vein, the prophet Hoshea says:
הושע פרק יד
(י) מי חכם ויבן אלה נבון וידעם כי ישרים דרכי יקוק וצדקים ילכו בם ופשעים יכשלו בם:
Who is wise and understands this, understanding and can let them know: for the ways of HaShem are straight – the righteous shall walk in them, the arrogant sinners shall stumble in them.
There are lessons here for the entire haredi culture, that their narrow approach to Torah, their self-centered tribalism, and their rigid mindset of willful ignorance needs fundamental rethinking. This would take a tremendous effort of honest self-reflection and Tshuvah to reevaluate their entire approach to Torah life — I wish them well. And there are lessons for each one of us, about the real priorities in life, about self-discipline, about true compassion and responsibility and helpfulness, about really caring about others, endless lessons to learn.
If I had to come up with one general lesson we can learn, that relates to this time we are in, the run-up to Pesach, it would be the importance of flexibility.
Based on the Megillat Ta’anit, the Gemara Menachot (65a) and Gemara Ta’anit (17b), the prayer custom of the two weeks before Pesach is to omit the penitential prayer section of the daily prayer service, and to prohibit eulogies. According to these sources, these weeks are a season of celebration for the victory of the Perushim over the Tzedukim in the late Second Temple period. The Tzedukim, called Sadducees in English, were a Jewish group who took a rigid, literalist approach to Torah. They rejected the dynamic interpretive approach of the Oral Torah, in touch with the real world, the approach practiced by the Perushim that came to be recorded in the Talmud and its vast, disciplined and creative commentary tradition. The narrow literalism of the Tzedukim undermined the flexible, living truth of Torah. Jews today are descendants of the Perushim, whose flexible, disciplined yet adaptive approach to Torah tradition has allowed us to survive destruction and exile and enabled our modern return to our homeland with a still vibrant Torah tradition intact. Yet at stake once again in our time is the flexible, disciplined, realistic, living truth of Torah, God’s Torah, versus rigid literalism.
Flexibility is a Talmudic principle of halakhah. In the Gemara Menachot (99a-b) it says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת מנחות דף צט עמוד א ב
אמר ריש לקיש: פעמים שביטולה של תורה זהו יסודה, דכתיב: אשר שברת – אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: יישר כחך ששברת.
Resh Lakish says: sometimes the nullification of Torah is its very foundation.
His prooftext is in context of the sin of the golden calf. When Moshe descends Mount Sinai after the Revelation of Torah, with the two Tablets of the Covenant in his hands, he finds the Israelites in the midst of idolatrous worship and smashes the tablets – and God commends him for it. Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk explains that Moshe realized that in their frame of mind, the Israelites would have turned the very tablets, written by the Hand of God, into an object of idolatrous worship, even though the prohibition of idolatry is inscribed on the tablets themselves (Meshekh Hokhmah, Ki Tissa, Ex. 32:19). Resh Lakish would certainly endorse cancelling minyanim and large group study in yeshivot at this time when such activities, virtuous in normal times, now endanger many lives. Sometimes the nullification of Torah is the fulfillment of Torah.
Our parashah also gives us a symbol of flexibility. The end of the parashah discusses the investiture ceremony that sanctifies Aharon and his sons as Kohanim to serve in the Mishkan. During this seven day ceremony, Aharon and his sons are passive, since they are not sanctified until the ceremony is complete. Instead, Moshe does all the work of offering the sacrifices on their behalf – he’s Kohen for a week. In the Gemara Ta’anit (11b) an odd question is asked, but one that turns out to be profound: what was Moshe wearing when he served in the Mishkan during the seven days of investiture? This isn’t a reporter for a fashion magazine asking, this is the Gemara. The context is that in the Mishkan every detail was important. Special articles of clothing were made for the Kohanim, and their service was void without that clothing. Yet when Moshe steps in to serve, the Torah doesn’t mention what clothing he wore. So the Gemara answers that Moshe wore a “white tunic.” Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev gives a profound explanation (Kedushat Levi, Likkutim, 120):
כי הנה לכל צדיק וצדיק יש בחינה מיוחדת שעובד בה את הבורא יתברך. אברהם, היה לו מדה הנוטה קצת למראה לבן. יצחק, במדה שמראה אדומה. יעקב, במדה שמראה ירוקה. ולמשה, מדה אחרת. ולאהרן, מדה אחרת. ולכל צדיק וצדיק מדה מיוחד לעבוד בהם הבורא ברוך הוא. אך כאשר הצדיקים מסתכלים על האי”ן ואז הם בטלים במציאות מחמת גודל האור של האי”ן ואז הם באחדות גמור ונמצא על בחינה הזאת כל אחד יכול לעבוד את הבורא יתברך שמו בכל המדריגות שבכל הצדיקים
Each and every Tzaddik has a unique character trait through which he serves the Creator, blessed be He. Avraham had the quality [of love]. Yitzhak, the quality of [judgment]. Yaakov, the quality of [harmony.] Moshe had another quality, and Aharon a different quality… But when Tzaddikim envision the principle of divine nullification, and they efface their individual existence in the face of the light of the divine nullification, then they are in complete unity, and from this trait each one can serve the Creator, blessed be He, on all the levels of all the Tzaddikim.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak interprets the simple white tunic of Moshe as a symbol of modest self-effacement in the principle of divine nothingness. This principle is actually the highest revelation of God, in kabbalistic terms the Sefirah Keter, called “nothingness” from our perspective, since the revelation of the divine light, the divine consciousness of the Infinite is so overwhelming that our minds cannot grasp it, and we come up with nothing. The truly spiritual person, the Tzaddik, effaces him or herself in that principle, dissolving their self-centeredness and individuated personality into pure human being, fully flexible and able to actualize all human spiritual qualities. In this way Moshe was able to take on the qualities of his brother Aharon and serve as a Kohen for the investiture ceremony. The basis of real spiritual flexibility is sincere humility.
Rabbi Yaakov Leiner understands this flexibility as an essential Torah principle for all of us, not just Tzaddikim:
Sometimes it happens that a person gets stuck in one mindset and opinion and is not able to move from it. This was the essence of the exile in Egypt, that they became comfortable in the fact that they were slaves and it appeared to them that they are always slaves and this is the meaning of “that He brought you out from the house of slavery.” Indeed, HaShem, blessed be He, does not want a person to subordinate himself to one mindset and be obstinate in it and not move from it. This is what HaShem, blessed be He, wants: that a person be ready at every moment to follow His Will. (Beit Yaakov, vol. 1, Lekh Lekha sec. 14, p. 53).
Rabbi Leiner is explaining that Pesach commemorates our release from the “house” of slavery, not just the physical slavery of Egypt, but the encompassing mindset of slavery, of being stuck and subordinating ourselves to one rigid approach to Torah and to life. The core message of Pesach, and of Torah itself, what God really wants from us, is flexibility of mind and spirit – being able to change and adjust to changing circumstances, maintaining divine principles and knowing how to apply them with divinely-guided wisdom. In this way we follow the path of the living Torah, the Torah of life, the Will of God, wherever He takes us. This is freedom.
Flexibility is at the very heart of Pesach itself. In preparing for Pesach we overturn our homes, especially our kitchens, and on Pesach we radically change our diet and our routines. On the original Pesach night in Egypt the Israelites also radically changed their lives, and huddled in small groups in quarantine, prohibited by God from leaving their houses as an epidemic, the plague of the first born, raged outside. The blood on their doorposts signified, among other things, that they really understood and took seriously that this was a life-and-death struggle. Our Pesach sedarim this year will be a real re-enactment of that first Pesach. From the flexibility that Pesach teaches us comes the freedom for which it stands.
The global crisis we are in has many lessons to teach us, including the lesson of being flexible to learn many lessons. May HaShem bring healing to all those who are ill, protection to those who are healthy, and wise flexibility to us all to make the adjustments we need to make in our lives to follow the directives of healthcare professionals and work together, in love and friendship and peace, to be one human family following God’s true Will.