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The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is a central aspect of Judaism, if not all religious beliefs. It is an invocation or act that deliberately seeks out and interfaces with the divine.

Although prayer does appear obliquely or sporadically in the Torah, it is not the predominant mode of worship in the Torah or the ancient world the Torah appeared in, an era where animal sacrifice was a near cultural universal. Our sages went out of their way to teach that prayer doesn’t just appear in the Torah; prayer stands in as a direct replacement or substitute for the lapsed sacrifices of long ago.

Our prayers are replete with requests to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. However, authorities are divided on whether the future we yearn for heralds a restoration or replacement of animal sacrifice. While that remains speculative until we find out, it is probably fair to say that it is hard for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around animal sacrifice.

Today’s near cultural universal is that animal sacrifice is alien and weird, perhaps even disgusting and nasty. Most people don’t want to watch an animal get slaughtered; any arcane mysticism is hard to imagine over the blood and gore.

That leaves prayer in a bit of a void; prayer is a stand-in or substitute for animal sacrifice, and yet an animal sacrifice is hard to relate to in almost every conceivable way, so far removed as it is from our primary experience. Moreover, the Torah has long sections devoted to the different categories and kinds of sacrifice and their details and nuances; sacrifice is clearly the primary mode of worship in the Torah’s conception, so prayer seems second-rate.

Either way, prayer is hard to understand. If prayer and sacrifice aren’t connected, why bother with something the Torah doesn’t validate as having much significance? And if prayer is connected to sacrifice, what element of sacrifice do we even relate to?

The Torah opens the section on sacrifices by outlining a scenario where someone wants to bring an offering:

‘אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַהֹ – When one of you presents an offering for God… (1:2)

Although not readily obvious in translation, the Torah utilizes highly unusual language here. Rather than present the sensible scenario where one of you wants to bring an offering, it literally translates to when someone offers an offering of you, which is to say, literally of yourselves – אָדָם מִכֶּם כִּי־יַקְרִיב / אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

The Baal HaTanya notes that this reading suggests that at the earliest juncture, the Torah already indicates that as much it’s going to talk about animal offerings, it’s not about the animal at all; it’s about the part of yourself you’re willing to offer, and prayer would operate in much the same way – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the conventional notion of sacrifice isn’t really reflected in the Hebrew term – קרְבָּן. We think of sacrifice as giving something up when the Hebrew word actually means something more like drawing closer – קרב. You interact with the divine not with what you give up but by drawing close with what you have; in offering the material to God, you transform the material into the sacred.

God doesn’t need our stuff and can’t receive it in any tangible way; the Malbim teaches that all a person can ever offer is themselves, which mirrors precisely what the Torah calls for here – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם. The Sfas Emes explains that the notion articulated here is that sacrifice and prayer are about aligning ourselves and resources to God’s broader plan; prayer isn’t secondary to sacrifice; it is the same.

While the form of seeking out the divine may have changed over time depending on the zeitgeist, the substance has remained constant. At the root of all mysticism is a desire to connect with the divine transcendence, and our sages have long identified the inner world of the heart as the battlefield of spirituality – עבודה שבלב. So we can read the Yom Kippur atonement ritual that seems odd to modern sensibilities, yet it maintains relevance to our prayers because the substance transcends the form of the performative aspect; that God forgives humans who want to make amends, goats and string or not.

It’s not the form of how it appears so much as it’s about the substance of how it is – אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.

As Moshe said to his audience, our Creator is always close, quite different from other gods they might have heard of who can only be invoked with specific rituals – כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱלֹקים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה’ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּכל־קרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.

The Izhbitzer suggests that our subconscious hearts and minds hope and pray all the time. When you whisper “Please, God,” hope for the best, or wish that things turn out okay, those unspoken but very real thoughts are prayers that bring tangible wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, from which things can and will eventually grow – קָרוֹב ה’ לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.

As the Kotzker said, where can we find God? Wherever we let Him in.

Sacrifice, like prayer, was always about the inner world of the spirit, about opening your heart and yourself to the universe.

And prayer, like sacrifice, can’t change God; but it can change you.

Sensitivity to All Creatures

3 minute read
Straightforward

From the dawn of humanity, people have utilized animals for all kinds of purposes, from farming and hunting to clothing, food, labor, transport, and domestication as pets. Inasmuch as the Torah permits these uses, the Torah categorically prohibits human mistreatment of animals, with a comprehensive list of laws designed to minimize animal suffering resulting from human interaction.

As it relates to food, from field to table, there is a vast corpus of rules that governs everything we put into our mouths and everything we don’t; and one of the defining features of observant Judaism is the laws of kosher, in particular, the rules concerning how we obtain edible meat.

R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook suggests that, among other reasons, the Torah’s laws of kosher meat consistently demonstrate an underlying principle that humans ought to respect the life and well-being of all non-human creatures.

Consider that kosher slaughter, the most obviously exploitative use of animal life, is heavily regulated; the Torah requires the blade to be razor-sharp for a smooth cut and must be concealed from the animal throughout, among many other laws that prevent unnecessary animal distress. The Midrash rhetorically asks what possible difference it could make to God whether an animal dies by a cut in the front of its neck or the back; it concludes that it doesn’t make a difference to God so much as it makes a difference to the human, since a front cut is more humane, and refines the humans who observe this law.

The laws of kosher aren’t just about how we treat the animal until it dies, but afterward as well. There is a little known law to conceal the blood that is spilled, almost a mini-burial ceremony:

וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת-דָּמוֹ, וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר – Pour out the blood, and cover it with dust. (17:13)

In the Torah’s conception, blood is the vehicle for the essence and soul of identity, personality, and vitality, warranting sensitive handling and treatment; it follows that it is disrespectful and inappropriate to consume blood:

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – Eat only the meat; do not consume the blood… (9:4)

When we talk about the blood draining from someone’s face, or the lifeblood of an organization, we’re using the same kind of imagery as the Torah, where blood is the seat and symbol of life and vitality, which may help us understand why blood is a central element of all the sacrificial rituals:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם: כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר – For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones because of the life. (17:11)

The Torah unambiguously permits humans to consume a carnivorous diet, but as Nechama Leibowitz points out, the Torah only reluctantly allows humans to eat meat after the Flood story. As much as humans are the apex predator on Earth, God’s compassion goes far beyond humans – וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם / טוֹב ה’ לַכֹּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו.

The distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, purity and defilement, the sacred and the profane, is essential in Judaism. Beyond Judaism, navigating regulations is part of living and working in a civilized society. The laws of kosher elevate the simple act of eating into a reminder and religious ritual to exercise self-control over our most basic, primal instincts, even the ones to hunt and gather food.

While animals do not possess sentience to understand the notion that life is a sacred thing, humans are not like other animals, and the Torah gives us laws to remind us that there is a difference. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah’s boundaries should instill sensitivity and reverence for life. Our abilities, choices, rights, strength, and power are not trump cards; just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

You don’t need to become a vegan; you can still enjoy your steak and ribs. But you should recognize the Torah’s concern for all creatures and not just humans, because the two are linked; someone who is cruel to animals will be cruel to people.

In a largely positive trend, our host cultures have woken up to animal cruelty in recent decades, but we have a proud tradition that is millennia older; the Torah instituted the first systematic legislation prohibiting animal cruelty and mandating humane treatment long ago.

Judaism is in constant dialogue with its surroundings, and we may have to get more familiar with our environment to navigate it properly. On the one end, the Torah’s laws don’t explicitly regulate intensive factory farming, but it’s a product of modern business practices that raises many animal welfare issues, and the relevant parties should be receptive to calibrating how they can do better. On the other end, the tradition of kosher slaughter is in jeopardy in an increasing number of jurisdictions, labeled as backward and cruel; there are some important organizations working tirelessly to protect our tradition that deserve your support.

The Torah has regulated human interaction with animals for thousands of years; the laws of kosher teach us compassion and sensitivity to other creatures.

We should be proud of our heritage.

Right Thing; Wrong Time

4 minute read
Straightforward

Few people want to do the wrong thing. Most people want to do the right thing, and usually, it pays off. Sometimes, even when we know the right thing to do, we’re afraid to follow through.

But once in a while, even doing the right thing backfires spectacularly.

After an eventful year for the Jewish People, with the Exodus, Red Sea, Sinai, and Golden Calf debacle all in quick succession, the Mishkan was finally ready, and the people could settle down and catch their breath.

The new spiritual infrastructure embodied by the Mishkan was an exciting cause for celebration; the people hadn’t had a way to thank their Creator for keeping them through Egypt and ultimately saving them – arguably the thought process behind the excitement for the Golden Calf. The Creator had established a medium through which their worship was welcome; the celebration was genuine, and Ahron’s family felt it too. And so, after they had followed Moshe’s commanded rituals, Ahron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, wanted to make a token offering of their own, expressing their gratitude and respect on this momentous occasion. The Midrash imagines their joy at seeing a Heavenly fire descend, and suggests that they wanted to join God’s act of life and love with one of their own.

But joy turned to ashes, and celebration turned to tragedy:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה – Nadav and Avihu took pans of fire, in which they placed the spices, and presented it before God; this alien fire which they were not commanded. A great fire emerged and consumed them before God. (10:1,2)

The Torah has no trouble describing people doing something bad or wrong; it conspicuously avoids suggesting that Nadav and Avihu did anything explicitly wrong. Our sages suggest different things that might associate them with wrongdoing, but we are left with the impression that this wasn’t wrong so much as it was inappropriate or misguided. Their image is still very much that they were great men who died a beautiful death before God; failed heroes, and not wayward sinners –וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that this story is a caution that our power of initiative might be welcome in the world of action, but we must taper it in the world of spirituality. The world of spirituality is about subduing our ego in honor of God, not asserting it.

The Torah repeatedly affirms where laws come from – אֲנִי ה אֱלֹקיכֶם. Rashi notes that this statement is an echo of Sinai – אָנֹכִי ה אֱלֹקיךָ – suggesting a direct link from Sinai to the laws; if we accept God as sovereign, these are the laws of the kingdom, and Sinai is interwoven in the fabric of every mitzvah we uphold.

The Sfas Emes understands this as an affirmation of the nature of the Torah, that there is an invisible and intangible component beyond the obvious things we can directly apprehend. The social, inter-personal mitzvos build and develop a cohesive society whether performed intentionally as mitzvos or not; that’s just how they work. Acts of charity will inherently bring brotherhood, goodwill, and positivity into the world, regardless of your awareness of a mitzvah called tzedaka.

The power of initiative works in the world of relationships because people are interactive – we can learn and understand how to get along better. But once we step out of the realm of feedback and interactivity, it is deeply presumptuous to continue asserting the power of initiative.

The Ohr HaChaim sharply observes that their initiative to do the right thing at the wrong time got them killed. This story unequivocally conveys the terrifying yet essential lesson that doing the right thing or having noble intentions is not enough; the context must necessarily inform our behavior.

No action exists in a vacuum. The right thing to do depends entirely on the context; circumstances, timing, and relevant values are necessary to determine the rightness of an action. If you’re doing the right thing but the timing creates problems, it wasn’t actually the right thing to do at that time. Doing the right thing without an awareness of context and timing very quickly becomes the wrong thing – אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה.

This reflects a school of thought in philosophy called consequentialism, which teaches that the only way to determine whether something was morally correct or not is the consequences of that action. The Torah pays respect to these great men, but the outcome was that they died.

And our lives are like that in many ways.

If a young man wants to buy flowers for his wife, he should probably remember the red rose bouquet she chose for their wedding because they are her favorite. If he buys her a beautiful arrangement of white tulips for her birthday, we understand that he probably hasn’t done the right thing. While he meant well and has done something genuinely and objectively nice, the context determines that red roses would have been the way to go.

Many variables go into something working out well, but what that means, then, is that the right person at the wrong time, or the right deal at the wrong time, or the right job at the wrong time, are actually all the wrong thing, and we would do well to let go of them and make our peace. More than a simple misfire, bad context or timing reveals a fundamental incompatibility and misalignment.

There is no shortage of positive outlets for your enthusiasm and initiative, no shortage of good causes to contribute to and volunteer for.

But when it comes to using your initiative, it is imperative to be in tune with the context of your physical and spiritual environment because, as the famous proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

During the Jewish People’s time in the desert, God gave a variety of commands.

We expect God to give commands, it comes with the territory, that’s what God does, it makes sense. They’d only just left Egypt and stood at Sinai; there was a new religion with new procedures and protocols to implement. And after all, there’s no way to know what God wants unless God says so!

What God says, we expect the audience to do, which the Torah dutifully records – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן. 

But what we might not expect is that the Torah reports with meticulous regularity, each and every time, not just that people obey, but that people carry out their task as per God’s command – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. The Torah uses this phrase tens, if not hundreds of times!

If you think about it, apart from the repetitiveness, it’s almost entirely redundant. It’s not at all obvious what doing something per God’s command adds, because, in almost every example, there is literally no other conceivable way to do the thing.

When God says to light the Menora, there is only one way to light a Menora. When God says to take a census of how many people there are, the only way to fulfill the command is to count people. When God says to bring a Korban Pesach, or how to do the Yom Kippur service, or any of the Mishkan-related workflows, or to go to war with Midian, or to execute somebody, there isn’t any other way to do any of those things! And yet each time, the Torah doesn’t say people followed their instructions; it says that the people followed their instructions faithfully as per God’s command – ‘וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. 

Each time people follow instructions, why does the Torah add that they followed the instructions per God’s command?

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us that they did it; it’s telling us how they did it.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that even when there truly is only one way to do something, there is still a right and wrong way. When the Torah adds that people followed instructions faithfully – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה – it’s not saying that they did just like they were told; it means that people follow instructions just like when they were told, capturing the snapshot of sentiment or feeling of a particular moment.

When you do anything, even if there’s no other way, you can still do it with energy, focus, and joy; or not – a right way and a wrong way, even when there’s only one way. 

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

Rashi quotes the Sifri that Ahron lit the Menora every day, precisely the way Moshe told him for the rest of his life, and never changed or deviated in any way – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה; the Sifri suggests that our everyday approach to Torah should similarly be with freshness and excitement – וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notes that as much as the comment is about Ahron not changing how he performed his duties, it’s equally a comment about how his duties didn’t change him. Some people let privilege and honor get to their heads – but not Ahron.

The Sfas Emes notes that lighting the Menora wasn’t a particularly prestigious ceremony in that any Kohen could kindle the lights. Still, Ahron took it seriously enough that he insisted on doing it himself every day for the rest of his life – every day, he did it like the moment he received the command.

The Ishbitza notes that the highest praise for Ahron is that he retained that initial desire, that things never got stale or boring for him. He kept challenging himself to find something new and exciting, so he lit the Menora his last time with the same enthusiasm as the first.

The Shem mi’Shmuel notes that the word for training, which means practice repetitions, is cognate to the word for inauguration, the first time you do something – חינוך / חנוכה. This suggests that training is not simply a repeat of past performance but the repetition of newness, with each repetition inviting an opportunity to introduce a fresh aspect or dimension.

Attitude and mentality are everything; the mental and emotional components heavily influence the substance of any interaction. Prayer and sacrifice require proper intent to have any substance to them; there is a vast difference between giving someone a hand because you care and giving someone a hand out of pity.

A Torah scroll is quite clearly and obviously a religious article, and yet it has no inherent sanctity from its perfect script and spelling. A Torah scroll is kosher and sacred exclusively if they were written with the express intent of imbuing the words and scroll with sanctity; which is to say that its utility and value as a holy object are solely determined by the mentality of the scribe.

The Mishkan had plenty of unique artifacts like the Menora, but it had some pretty ordinary implements that everyone owns; a shirt, a hat, a cup, and a spoon. What designated these as sacred and distinct is the intention with which they were crafted.

This is a universal truth in all walks of life, from Judaism to art to cooking. A great cook will say their secret ingredient is love; a great artist or sage will say their secret technique is heart and soul. 

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Mastery is typically boring. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is probably less special than your first.

It’s normal.

The more we experience something, the more our enthusiasm and attention typically wane. Predictability and comfort put an end to fresh euphoria; when we know what to expect, our excitement wears off, and boredom sets in. That’s why we need to keep things fresh if we’re focused on a long-term project or goal; cruise control is a killer.

It’s something often seen with young athletes or scholars who lose their way – they think they’ve made it and stop putting in the work that would take them to the elite tier. The seasoned pros always comment on how essential it is for youngsters to maintain their concentration and focus to stay on track; to be fully present in each moment and devote their full and undivided attention so things don’t get boring.

In all walks of life, the highest form of mastery is in valuing each repetition and finding the novelty and excitement in it.

It’s not redundant for the Torah to say each time that people did the right thing in the right way for the right reason. It is ubiquitous because it reflects a truism of life, a constant reminder that is universally true.

The way you do things matters.