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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Parshat Shemini’

Parshat Shemini

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

More than 1500 people died on the Titanic. As a result of the tragedy, out of date conventions and procedures were changed, navigational mistakes were identified and corrected, and the threat of ice was taken seriously—even in the era of modern ships. Walter Lord, in his seminal book on the disaster, A Night to Remember (1955), wrote: “Never again would men fling a ship into an ice field, heedless of warnings, putting their whole trust in a few thousand tons of steel and rivets. From then on Atlantic liners took ice messages seriously, steered clear, or slowed down. Nobody believed in the ‘unsinkable ship.’ Nor would icebergs any longer prowl the seas unintended. After the Titanic sank, the American and British governments established the International Ice Patrol, and today Coast Guard cutters shepherd errant icebergs that drift toward the steamer lanes. The winter lane itself was shifted further south, as an extra precaution” (p.87).

One of the great tragedies of the disaster is that so many little things went wrong and conspired against the great ship. Had any of these things not happened the voyage might have turned out differently. Lord captures this sentiment with the following prose that seems almost poetic in nature. “What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the ice messages on Sunday…if ice conditions had been normal…if the night had been rough or moonlit…if she had seen the berg 15 seconds sooner—or 15 seconds later…if she had hit the ice any other way…if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher…if the Californian had only come. Had any one of the ‘ifs’ turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy” (p.145).

One of the most striking examples of a small thing that might have changed history is the case of the lookouts’ missing binoculars. To help navigate the Titanic through dangerous waters two lookouts were stationed high up in the crow’s nest toward the front of the ship. In the days prior to radar, the lookouts’ job was to scan the ocean, identify any dangerous objects and alert the bridge to avoid them. To help the lookouts execute their duty, binoculars were procured for their use. However, the Titanic’s lookouts had no binoculars. They were locked up and nobody could find the key.

Due to a personnel change shortly before she sailed, David Blaire, who was the Titanic’s original second officer, was transferred off the ship. Among Blaire’s responsibilities was the safeguarding of the binoculars for the crow’s nest. In his hurry to leave the ship he apparently locked them up without telling anybody where they were, and left the ship with the key to the locker. As a result the lookouts scanned the dark ocean on the night of April 14 without the benefit of binoculars. The surviving lookout, Frederick Fleet, testified in the U.S. inquiry that he believed had he been using binoculars he would have spotted the iceberg somewhat earlier, leaving enough time for the Titanic to have evaded the iceberg. Alas, another small detail that might have given the Titanic the few more seconds it so desperately needed to escape its doom.

Although leaders must think about the big picture, they ignore details at their own peril. The Torah at the end of this week’s parsha makes this point abundantly clear. Regarding the laws regulating the criteria of kosher animals, the Torah states (11:47): “That it must be distinguished between the pure and impure and between the animals that can be eaten and those that cannot be eaten.” Rashi explains, based on Midrash Halacha, that the Torah in this pasuk does not come to exhort us to differentiate between kosher and non-kosher animals. That requirement had already been made abundantly clear. Rather, the Torah is underscoring the importance of differentiating between an animal that has been slaughtered properly and one that has not been slaughtered properly. The difference between them is negligible. If even slightly more than half of the animal’s parts which require cutting have been cut, then the animal becomes edible. If, however, only half (or less) has been cut, then the animal remains forever assur to eat. This sespite the fact that the difference between these two cases is barely noticeable.

The great Chassidic master Reb Bunum of Peshischa teaches that this pasuk warns humankind that the difference between good and evil, holy and profane, and purity and impurity is often the smallest amount. A person must bear this message in mind at all times. A story is told in the name of various great rabbis, of the student who was offered the opportunity to become a shochet. Upon receiving the invitation the student turned to his rabbi and related to him that he is afraid to accept such an awesome responsibility. After all, many people will rely on his actions and the slightest error on his part might cause them all to eat non-kosher food. The rabbi responded by asking his student rhetorically—“Who should I recommend for the position, someone who is not afraid? Someone who thinks he is ready for the job?”

From Structure To Continuity To Spontaneity

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Parshat Shemini tells the tragic story of how the great inauguration of the Tabernacle, a day about which the Sages said that God rejoiced as much as he had at the creation of the universe, was overshadowed by the death of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu:

Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which [God] had not instructed them [to offer]. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Many explanations were given by the Sages and later commentators as to what Nadav and Avihu’s sin actually was. But the simplest answer, given by the Torah itself here and elsewhere (Numbers 3:4, 26:61), is that they acted on their own initiative. They did what they had not been commanded. They acted spontaneously, perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm in the mood of the moment, offering “unauthorized fire.” Evidently it is dangerous to act spontaneously in matters of the spirit.

But is it? Moses acted spontaneously in far more fraught circumstances when he shattered the tablets of stone on seeing the Israelites cavorting around the Golden Calf. The tablets – hewn and engraved by God himself – were perhaps the holiest objects there have ever been. Yet Moses was not punished for his act. The Sages said that though he acted of his own accord without first consulting God, God assented to his act. Rashi refers to this moment in his very last comment on the Torah, whose last verse (Deuteronomy 34:12) speaks about “all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel”:

This refers to when Moses took the liberty of shattering the tablets before their eyes, as it is said: “I shattered them before your eyes.” The Holy One, Blessed be He consented to his opinion, for it is said, “which you shattered … More power to you for shattering them!”

Why then was spontaneity wrong for Nadav and Avihu, yet right for Moshe Rabbeinu? The answer is that Nadav and Avihu were kohanim, priests. Moses was a navi, a prophet. These are two different forms of religious leadership. They involve different tasks and different sensibilities, indeed different approaches to time itself.

The kohen serves God in a way that never changes over time (except, of course, when the Temple was destroyed and its service, presided over by the kohanim, came to an end). The prophet serves God in a way that is constantly changing over time. When people are at ease the prophet warns of forthcoming catastrophe. When they suffer catastrophe and are in the depths of despair, the prophet brings consolation and hope.

The words said by the kohen are always the same. The priestly blessing uses the same words today as it did in the days of Moses and Aaron. But the words used by a prophet are never the same. “No two prophets use the same style” (Sanhedrin 89a). So for a prophet, spontaneity is of the essence. But for the kohen engaged in Divine service, it is completely out of place.

Why the difference? After all, the priest and the prophet were serving the same God. The Torah uses a kind of device we have only recently reinvented in a somewhat different form. Stereophonic sound – sound coming from two different speakers – was developed in the 1930s to give the impression of audible perspective. In the 1950s 3D film was developed to do for sight what stereo had done for sound. From the work of Pierre Broca in the 1860s to today, using MRI and PET scans, neuroscientists have striven to understand how our bicameral brain allows us to respond more intelligently to our environment than would otherwise have been possible. Twin perspectives are needed fully to experience reality.

The twin perspectives of the priest and prophet correspond to the twin perspectives on creation represented, respectively, by Genesis 1:1-2:3 (spoken in the priestly voice, with an emphasis on order, structure, divisions and boundaries), and Genesis 2:4-3:24 (spoken in the prophetic voice, with an emphasis on the nuances and dynamics of interpersonal relationships).

Now let us consider one other area in which there was an ongoing argument between structure and spontaneity, namely tefillah (specifically the Amidah). We know that after the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Gamliel and his court at Yavneh established a standard text for the weekday Amidah, comprising 18 (later 19) blessings in a precise order (Mishnah Berachot 4:3).

Not everyone, however, agreed. Rabbi Joshua held that individuals could say an abridged form of the Amidah. According to some interpretations, Rabbi Eliezer was opposed to a fixed text altogether and held that one should, each day, say something new (Yerushalmi Berachot 4).

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/from-structure-to-continuity-to-spontaneity/2012/04/18/

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