All About Human Honor and the Holidays
The venerable rabbi was hurrying down the street. He was late for his lecture and over 100 students were waiting to hear his words of wisdom. Suddenly, Rabbi Lesser noticed the brightly colored object lying in the gutter. "This looks like it once was a handsome garment, although it is now faded and smelly," the rabbi thought to himself. "Hey, wait a minute! It has an identifying sign - the owner's initials printed on the sleeve."
The rabbi immediately thought of the Mitzvah of returning a lost object to its rightful owner. He had been brought up on that concept since he first started learning Talmud at age 9.
The next thing that came to his mind was the sight of venerable old Rabbi Lesser parading through the streets carrying this smelly rag! If to do so would embarrass him to such an extent that he would not have picked it up even had it belonged to himself, the rabbi is not required by Jewish law to bring embarrassment upon himself in order to return the lost object.
Although the Torah teaches us not to actively seek honor from others, a person is still required to preserve his self-respect. For example, the Sages compare someone who eats in the market place (i.e. while walking down the street) to a dog. This shows a lack of self-respect and honor!
The theme of this week's Parsha is "honor" in the positive sense:
(1) Honor of the Priesthood
(2) Honor of the Offerings
(3) Honor of the Holidays
The Sages teach in Ethics of the Fathers: "One who runs away from honor will find honor chasing after him. One who chases after honor will find honor running away from him."
The story goes that a man came to his rabbi and asked: "Why isn't the honor running after me, since I run away from it so much?" He replied, "It seems you are looking over your shoulder too often to see where the honor is!"
Question: What is the difference if one runs after honor or runs away from it - in any case he doesn't have honor?
Answer: One can only run a limited time. After one's death, the honor catches up. All of a sudden everyone finds out all the kind deeds that were done quietly and modestly. (Compare this to secular heroes who are often exposed negatively after their death.)
HONOR OF PRIESTHOOD
God chose the descendents of Aaron to be the priests in the Temple, and we must honor them. The Jewish people honor the Kohen by calling him up to the Torah first, leading the "Grace After Meals," and other similar honors.
The Kohen himself shows respect for the priesthood in 3 areas:
(1) A Kohen may have no contact with the dead. Even being under the same roof as a dead body is forbidden. Judaism is very anti-death (as opposed to the pagans who didn't understand death and needed religion to explain it). We see death as the result of Adam's sin, and only the body dies. the soul, however lives forever. In the future, God will resurrect the soul into the body for those who merit this.
A Kohen may attend the funeral of a close relative (father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, son, daughter, wife). The High Priest, who represents the nation in the Temple and must constantly be ready for action, may not even attend the funeral of a relative (although according to one opinion he may escort the funeral procession from a distance).
An exceptional case is when a Kohen finds a dead body in the street and there is no one around who can bury him. In such a situation the Kohen himself (and even the High Priest on his way to Jerusalem for the Yom Kippur service!) must bury the body. The rationale being that this "image of God" is rotting in the street - constituting a desecration of God's name!
Analogy: There are two identical twins. One becomes a king, the other a thief. The thief is caught and hanged by the side of the road. All of the passersby exclaim "the king is hanging!" So too, it is a desecration of God to have a dead human body lying around unburied.
(2) Forbidden Marriages: The Kohen must respect his own specialness by not marrying certain women. A regular Kohen may not marry a divorcee, or a woman who had undergone certain forbidden relationships. The High Priest may marry only a virgin not older than age 12 1/2, who never fantasized about other men.
If a Kohen engaged in a forbidden marriage, the consequent sons lose their status of Kohen and the daughters are "challalot," forbidden to marry a Kohen.
(3) Physical Blemish: Such a Kohen is disqualified for actual Temple service, but still retains priesthood as far as rights and obligations go. He may even eat offerings with all the other Kohanim. (see next section)
SERVING GOD IN THE PRIME OF LIFE
The Torah excludes a Kohen with a blemish from Temple service. It also disqualifies an animal with a blemish from becoming an offering, in order to preserve the "honor of the offerings."
This is not negative toward disabled people, who may excel in other areas. The concept is "honor," and something is more honorable when it is complete and whole. We could understand that a soldier missing an arm or leg would not serve in the honor guard for the Queen of England.
We also find that the obligation to appear in Jerusalem before God (3 times a year on the pilgrimage holidays) only involves healthy, adult males. Of course, the Torah does not exclude others from coming, and on Passover everyone must come to partake of the Passover offering and also once every 7 years when the entire nation gathers around the king to hear him read the Torah.
Rabbi Hirsch explains that the idea is to stress that the ideal time for serving God is in the prime of health and life! It is worth much more at that time than later in life.
A NON-JEWISH OFFERING
(1) A non-Jew may build his own altar and sacrifice to God (even an animal with a minor blemish).
2) A non-Jew who wishes to bring an offering to the Holy Temple (as did the Roman Caesars and many others), must bring an animal without a blemish.
Our sages point out that although the Kohanim were those who performed the service, the Holy temple was designated to be a source of connection to the Almighty and blessing for all the nations of the world. In fact, on the holiday of Sukkot, the Kohanim offer 70 bulls, representing the 70 nations of the world. The Talmud states that had the nations been aware of how much they benefited from the Holy Temple, they would have stationed a U.N. contingency force to protect it from destruction.
The Talmud tells the story of a troublemaker named Bar Kamtza, who told the Caesar that the Jews were rebelling. His proof was that they wouldn't sacrifice Caesar's offering (which Bar Kamtza conveniently caused to have a blemish). As if to say , the Holy Temple and the opportunities it offered was meant only for them.
It is important point to know that Judaism is the most liberal religion - the only religion to promise heaven to non-members! We discourage conversion to Judaism by informing the non-Jew that living a moral life and keeping the "7 Universal Laws of Noah" will get him into Heaven without conversion.
THE HOLIDAYS OF THE YEAR
The Hebrew word for holiday is "Mo'ed," which literally means "meeting place." We meet the Almighty on these special days - as if we were invited to dine at His table!
(1) Shabbat: The starting point of all holidays is Shabbat, the reminder of creation and God's control of nature and history. The day is "Holy to God," meaning that we hand over the control of the world to the Creator and refrain from any act which demonstrates human ownership of the world.
The Torah says to keep Shabbat "in all your dwelling places." Shabbat forges the relationship between the Jewish home and the Creator, but not directly related to the nation as a whole as are the other holidays.
(2) Passover: Beginning in spring when nature renews itself, the Jewish people renew their commitment to dedicate themselves to God. All of the symbolism of the Passover Seder makes the story come alive, and we eat matzah for 7 days (8 days outside of Israel) to permeate ourselves with the idea of Matzah - symbolizing both slavery (the poor bread that we ate in Egypt) and freedom (the rush of our redemption before the dough could rise).
(3) The Omer: Starting on the second day of Passover (representing physical freedom), we count each of the 49 days until Shavuot (representing spiritual freedom). The Omer offering was made of barley, an animal fodder that represents the physical domain. On Shavuot we offer 2 leavened breads of wheat (human food), symbolizing full freedom.
The Kabbalists explain that sometimes we experience an "awakening from above" - where the Almighty awakens a person without any effort on his part. For example, when the Jewish people left Egypt they were told that "God will fight for you!"
But then comes the "awakening from below" where we must make the effort. This is the eternal struggle of mankind! Think of the "Baal Teshuva" (newly religious) who, after his initial inspiration must make great efforts to incorporate a Torah lifestyle.
In the days of Moses, the people elevated themselves for 49 days with tremendous spiritual growth, until they were ready to receive the Torah. We try to replicate this same process every year by counting 49 days - 7 full weeks - of the Omer. (Heard from Rabbi Boruch Horowitz)
(4) Shavuot: The Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. This is spiritual freedom: "I am not a slave to my desires, nor to technology, but rather I direct all those resources to fulfill the will of God.
(5) Rosh Hashana: The first day of the 7th month is "a day of trumpeting." (Jewish months are counted from the month of Nissan when we left Egypt.) The Shofar proclaims the "battle cry" of the day, a time of self-evaluation when we are summoned to draw close to the Creator as He descends to judge His world.
(6) Yom Kippur: This high holiday occurs "on the 10th day of the 7th month." Only if you started from the first month and experienced the Exodus from Egypt, then counted the Omer until the spiritual freedom of Shavuot, and then prepared for Rosh Hashana with a proper self-evaluation and spent the "Ten Days of Teshuva" designing a plan for future spiritual growth, now on the 10th day of the 7th month can you fully experience Yom Kippur!
Question: Why does the verse (Leviticus 23:32) mention the 9th day of the month, which is the day before Yom Kippur?
Answer: The Sages explain that "He who eats on the day before is considered as if he fasted 2 days!"
Question: How can eating be considered as if one was fasting?
Answer: If one really comprehends the awesome meaning and importance of Yom Kippur, how can one possibly eat the day before? The mental anguish of forcing yourself to eat because it is a Mitzvah, even though you really want to cry all day for your shortcomings, is compared to fasting! (heard from the Rebbe of Klauzenberg)
(7) Sukkot: We rejoice at the fact that our transgressions were forgiven on Yom Kippur, and we can start again with a fresh slate. And we leave our warm homes for the temporary Sukkah to remind ourselves that life is ultimately temporary!
The Torah says: "On the first day take the 4 species." The Sages say this is the first day of the accounting of the sins, since the 4 days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot are very busy, we literally have no time to sin until then.
The 4 species symbolize the parts of the body that lead us to transgress. The etrog (citron) is in the shape of a heart. The lulav (palm branch) is like the spinal cord (i.e. the nervous system, the source of our actions). The leaf of the myrtle branch resembles the eyes, and the leaf of the willow branch, the mouth. Control your mouth, eyes, heart and actions and dedicate them to God!
Another interpretation is that the 4 species represent 4 types of Jews. The etrog has a good smell and taste - representing the person with good deeds and Torah knowledge. The palm bears dates that have a good taste but little smell, and the myrtle has a beautiful smell with no taste - representing the person with good deeds and little knowledge, or much knowledge and few deeds. The willow has no taste and no smell (i.e. no Torah knowledge and no good deeds).
On Sukkot, all 4 types are taken together and we wave them in all 4 directions to come to the Almighty all together.
By the way, the etrog is next to the willow, and after absorbing the good smell of the etrog, now even the willow has a good smell. When we reach out to fellow Jews and have them join us in discovering the beauty of our Jewish heritage, God will answer our prayers and grant us a good peaceful year!