Of Open-Book Enigmas and Whispered Secrets

Tetzaveh 5775-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah:Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Make a  Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate. It shall be of patterned brocade, like the ephod.  Make it out of gold; sky blue, dark purple and crimson wool and twirled linen. … Set it with four rows of mounted gemstones.

-Shemos 28:15,17

… And the gemstones shall be upon the names of the 12 sons of Israel, one for each of the 12 stones. Each one’s name shall be engraved as on a signet ring to correspond to the 12 tribes.

-Shemos 28:21

Thus, Ahron will carry the names of the sons of Israel in the Choshen Mishpat over his heart when he comes into the sanctified site; it shall be a constant remembrance before HaShem.  Place the Urim and Thumim in the Choshen Mishpat and they shall be over Ahron’s heart when he comes before HaShem. Ahron will bear the just-decision instrument for the children of Israel upon his heart, before HaShem, perpetually.

-Shemos 28:29,30

This [the Urim and Thumim refers to a] writ bearing the explicit Name, which he [Moshe] would place within the folds of the Choshen, through which it would illuminate words on the gemstones (מֵאִיר) and perfect (ומתמם) those words. [i.e., the Urim and Thumim lit up letters forming words, and those words like an incontrovertible halachah/mishpat, were dependable. (Yoma 73b)] … Because of that Name-bearing-writ, the Choshen  was called “justice,” as it is said: “and he shall seek the just-decision of the Urim before HaShem on his behalf” (BeMidbar. 27:21).

–Rashi ibid

Conventional wisdom understands the power of the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat-justice breastplate as some kind of a sanctified Ouija Board, chalilah-Heaven forefend.  The questions would be put to it and it would, miraculously, “predict” future events.  According to this understanding the destiny of K’lal Yisrael–the Nation of Israel, is fungible.  As an entity existing entirely in the “now”, any number of alternative histories and futures are possible.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom fails to convey the deeper meaning.  Not only does it give the wrong impression the mechanism of the Urim and Thumim, the Choshen Mishpat and the “battery” that powered it but it misconstrues K’lal Yisrael as a temporal entity rather than as the eternal being that it actually is.  Transcendent of time, K’lal Yisrael is not subject to alternative histories.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that the “power cell” that activated the mechanism of the Choshen Mishpat was the very heart of Ahron the Kohen Gadol-the High Priest, not merely the writ bearing the explicit Divine Name. His explanation for how it functioned follows the pasuk and midrashic excerpts:

HaShem’s wrath blazed against Moshe, and He said, “Is not Ahron the Levi your brother? I know that he knows how to speak; moreover, observe, he is setting out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.

-Shemos 4:14

… Your suspicions about your brother, that he would resent you for your eminence as My spokesman, are unfounded. On the contrary, he will be happy for you. Rabi Shimon bar Yosee taught: “the heart of he who rejoiced in his brother’s eminence will wear the Urim and Thumim as it is written: ‘ … and they shall be over Ahron’s heart’”

-Midrash Rabbah Shemos 3:17

The opposite of love it is not hatred.  Very often, hatred is the same deep, passionate emotion as love, inverted.  As William Congreve wrote “”Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” The true antithesis of love is envy.

Love seeks to give to others and grows more tender and warmer with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the loved one(s).  In stark contrast; envy seeks to take away what others have and grows more venal and bitter with the success, happiness and fulfillment of the envied one(s).  Ahron’s heart was devoid of pettiness and was aflame with the love of Israel.  As there is no greater success imaginable for human being than to be HaShem’s spokesman and agent,  his heart had withstood the definitive litmus test determining if one is a giver or a taker in the crucible of the most extreme potential for envy; sibling rivalry.  Exulting in his younger brother success, he proved his heart to be utterly empty of envy and brimming with ahavas Yisrael-the love of Israel.

Unrequited love is the exception to the rule.  The default setting for love, as it is for all human emotions, is reciprocity.  Shlomo the king put it best when he wrote “as the face that is replicated in the reflecting pool, so is ones man’s heart to another”(Mishlei 27:19).  This axiom is borne out by the mutual and reciprocal of love that existed between Ahron and the people of Israel. When Ahron the Kohen Gadol died …  “The whole congregation saw that Ahron had expired, and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days. “ (BeMidbar 20:29) All of the people loved him intensely.

As Rashi, citing Chazal, says:  [both] the men and the women [loved him], for Ahron had pursued peace; he promoted love between disputing parties and between man and wife.(Avos d’Rabi Nassan 12:4).  Loving all the people and realizing that their own success and fulfillment depended upon their loving one another, the greatest gift that Ahron could bestow upon them was to eliminate the pettiness, envy and disputes and that drove them apart.  Loving them, he gave them the ultimate gift of love for each other.

It is in the nature of those in love to share secrets with one another.  In some instances this is because only those who love us will continue to accept us and not be too harshly judgmental when they discover our darkest secrets.  But, more often, it is our noblest secrets, our loftiest and dreamiest ambitions that we only feel comfortable sharing with those whom we love and who love us.  Those things about us that are closest to the core of our beings can only be revealed within the framework of love.

As a great twentieth century Torah sage explained; this may be because the supreme expression of love is, itself, a secret. Chazal interpreted the pasuk “It is the glory of Elokim to conceal a thing; but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” (Mishlei 25:2) to mean that matters pertaining to the Genesis narrative-hishavus haOlamos, are shrouded in mystery and must remain hidden away. G-d brought the cosmos into being as an expression of His love.  As human beings are b’Tzelem Elokim– in the image of the Divine , tznius-top-secretiveness is apropos for the supreme expression of interpersonal love in that it is the closest that human beings, the  Tzelem Elokim, will ever come to emulating Elokim’s act of creation.

As we stand in the present moment, our most ancient past, lost in the mists of time, and our concealed and our unknowable futures, are secrets. Just as those in love share their most intimate secrets with one another, so too K’lal Yisrael bared her secrets to the human heart that most loved her. It was the loving heart of Ahron, the Kohen Gadol, that served as the “power cell” that activated the Urim and Thumim to illuminate the letters of the gemstones embedded in the settings of the Choshen Mishpat. The Choshen was not handicapping probabilities or predicting the future.  The letters that glowed and grew salient on the Choshen’s gemstones sounded the silent, soundless whisperings of eternal, transcendent, beloved K’lal Yisrael revealing her secrets to and through the loving heart of Ahron.

Sisrei Torah-the secrets of the Torah, are very much in vogue today. Everyone wants to learn, Kabbalah. Lamdanim-Talmudic theoreticians, have long known that even within nigleh-the more revealed, less mystical component of the Torah, there are hidden secrets; gems waiting to be unearthed. What many fail to realize is that a kabbalistic text and, in a larger sense, any Torah text, is an encoded message.  Merely setting one’s eyes upon the text and reading, or even intermittent and halfhearted attempts at deciphering, will no more force the Torah to yield any of her secrets than will with futile efforts of a third party who had intercepted love letters trying to grasp the hints and cryptic terms of endearment that these missives contain.

The Lubliner Kohen maintains that what is true for all interpersonal relationships informed by love and, writ large, what is true for K’lal Yisrael, is equally true for TorasYisrael. The Torah must be wooed and pursued. Sisrei Torah are not for weekend-warriors —  semi-committed dabblers who can take the Torah or leave it. Those who ardently love the Torah are loved by the Torah in return.  As Shlomo the king taught: “Does not Wisdom call out … ’I love them that love me, and those that seek me earnestly shall find me.’”(Mishlei 8:1,17) One’s heart must be ablaze with the love of Torah.  Torah must become a passion, an obsession and an infatuation, only then will the Torah reveal her innermost secrets.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzaddik inyan 198 

Bringing Friends Back Together

BeyondBT has done it again.

I came home to find a lovely message with a voice from the past. My dear old friend Y and I first met at Machon Meir in Yerushalayim in the early 80s, when I was the madrich for the English speaking students. We lost touch over the years, and then, in the mid-90s he found me not far from his home in Vancouver. The last time we saw each other was at Yaarah and my wedding, shortly before we left Vancouver. He knew I had been teaching in Brookline, but then lost the trail.

Then, a friend of his sent him a thread from BeyondBT. Usually he has no patience to read through 60 or 70 comments. This time, for some reason, he did so. There, at the bottom of the comments, was a comment I had left about Toronto. A little clicking and tracking, and he found me! ;-) A quick call to Santa Fe, and I came home to a message that had me grinning. We spent two hours on the phone catching up, and I have my friend back! Big smiles here.

Thanks BeyondBT!



How Would You Answer an Acquaintance’s “Why Bad Things Happen?” Questions?

By Charnie

This is the text of an email I received before Chanukah, shortly before I’d be leaving the office Erev Shabbos. For some reason, I didn’t feel it could be put off till the following week, so I rushed out an answer. This morning I received a response. The emails follow, and I sure hope I’ve handled this properly. What we say to another Yid can have a lasting impression. I’ve never met this woman (at least in adulthood), as we “met” several years ago via a Jewish genealogy discussion group, discovered we grew up in the same neighborhood, have mutual friends, went to the same schools, etc. I knew she wasn’t frum, but I shared my understanding of the topics.

How would you have handled it?

From: —–@aol.com
To: Charnie@…….
Subject: Sadly…
Date: Fri., Dec. 15, 2006 12:45 PM

…I do not think that Israel will survive into the century; in fact, I’m wondering if it will last another decade. I have spent a great deal of time considering this and I suspect there’s no hope. Clearly, we’re the sacrificial lamb to oil.

On the other hand, I do think that the Jewish people will survive, at least a “spark” of us. Perhaps this is our curse, to wander continuously through time and place.

As for the Satmars and the other anti-Zionists… well, they are unspeakable. I’ve heard Rabbis who’ve said that the Shoah happened because a single Jew ate a single piece of pork. Do you really think that G-d would punish millions for that?

All of these questions make me doubt the existence of G-d. Surely a loving G-d would not have permitted these things to have happened over the millennia, and to continue to happen.

Here is my response:

From: Charie@———-
To: ——@aol.com
Sent: Fri, 15 Dec 2006 1:16 PM
Subject: Re: Sadly…
Dear —-,

You’ve appropriately used “sadly” as a subject line. None of the points you bring up could in any way induce one to smile.
However, I strongly disagree with you on all points. Israel will survive, as it always has, because we have the best “general” possible, the hand of G-d. Although throughout the millennium the land of Israel has been occupied by others, Jews have always resided there. And as we light the first Chanukah light tonight, we can recall that the Greeks who sought to take us away from our Judaism are no longer in existence. Neither are the Egyptians who enslaved us – the people of modern day Egypt are Arabs, not the advanced culture of biblical times. Nor are the Romans around, they who destroyed the Beis Hamikdash (second Temple) in Jerusalem. And the same is true of each and every people who have ever tried to destroy the Jewish people. In fact, that is why it is believed that the oldest nations on earth are the Jews and the Chinese, because the latter have never sought to do any harm to us. In our own times, Germany is not now what it was 60 years ago. And the same will be true of Iran, which is not the nation of Persia in which Esther and Mordechai defeated Haman from killing all the Jews because Mordechai refused to bow down to him (this being the story of Purim).

Insofar as where was G-d during the Holocaust… that is one of the most frequently asked questions, with just cause. However, the Holocaust did not prove to be the end of us, instead, we have rebounded to heights that no one could have imagined even 50 years ago. Today, more people then ever have Jewish educations. The land of Israel is thriving. This is a very involved subject, one that can be barely touched upon in an email. My husband is very good at explaining these philosophical issues, and if you’d care to join us any Saturday for lunch (the only time I’m up to having guests), please feel free to let me know a few days before, and we’d be delighted to have you as our guest! In the meantime, I’ve attached a few links you might find interesting which touch upon these subjects:

Before I became aware of what being Jewish really meant, I was obsessed with the Holocaust as being the “main event” in Jewish history – one in which my father’s family perished. However, we are not a people of death, we are a people of life. Only through understanding Judaism can we come to accept that it is beyond our comprehension to understand everything that happens. Imagine a first grader sitting in a college level mathematics class. Could they understand what’s going on? Of course not, we wouldn’t question that. As little children we frequently didn’t understand (or agree) with everything our parents said to do or not do. But as we matured, we could grasp the logic of their intent. We are like those same children in our relationship to G-d.

Wishing you a Happy Chanukah!

Here is her response back:

From: —–@aol.com
To: Charnie@…….
Sent: : Sun, Dec. 17, 2006 12:28 AM
Subject: Re: more Sadly

Dear Charnie,
Let me start by saying that I thought that you were very sweet to take so much time, to make such an effort to respond to my letter. It is clear that you’ve given my letter quite a bit of thought and gone to great lengths to address my points and to try to assist my understanding.

I did not state, however, that I do not expect the Jewish people to survive into the future, because I do think that we’ll survive, at least some “spark” of us, and I said that explicitly in my letter.

I also think, however, that it is our curse to wander, never having a homeland. And, yes, “sadly,” I do not expect the State of Israel to survive; I’ll be surprised if it lasts another decade. Again, yes, I do realize that earlier civilizations that had attempted to vanquish us as a people have long since been obliterated so, perhaps, this was their punishment. Yet we Jews seem doomed to wander, looking for a place to put down roots.

At the same time, I think that you’re being a bit patronizing, however well-intended you are, by assuming that I am ignorant of all things Jewish. Certainly, I know what Purim is; I attended the Jewish Center’s Hebrew school from Sunday school in kindergarten straight through the high school. Anyway, I think that it is safe to assume that most Jews, especially New York Jews, know the highlights of the Jewish year.

I do disagree with your statement that the land of Israel is thriving.

And I have read, at times, the explications of the learned rabbinim, as to the Shoah and other horrific slaughters. Sorry, I just don’t buy them. To me, these scholarly tracts smack of sophistry and rationalization.

Unlike you, I never saw the Shoah as the be-all and end-all of apocalyptic events regarding the Jews. I view the Shoah as a part of a continuum that goes back to Moses and Esther, continues through the Romans at the time of the early Christians, and on to the auto-da-fe, the pogroms, right through to today’s Muslim hatred. The world, in general, always has hated the Jews; the Jews, in response, have spent millennia seeking safe havens. Mankind, in general, always has had evil among us but this is the first time in history that one evil person can have the power to destroy millions of human beings with a single press of a button that unleashes a nuclear bomb. This is the first moment when evil and technology meet and I am afraid that this union is apocalyptic indeed.

Still, I will say again that I think that you are very sweet to care this much, and to make such an effort on my behalf.

Happy Hanukkah to you and your family.