Torak Portion: Acharei-Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1-20:27
The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit
By Rabbi YY Jacobson
Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.
– Mary C. Crowley
God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.
– Jacques Deval
“Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal (1),” the Torah instructs us in the portion of Kedoshim.
How could an intelligent person believe that a piece of metal is god? We could perhaps appreciate how ancient pagan societies attributed divine qualities to powerful, transcendent forces of nature, like the Zodiac signs, the sun, the moon, various galaxies, the wind, fire, water, etc. But why would a thoughtful human being believe god could be fashioned out of cast metal?
Even if we can explain how in the ancient, pagan world such an idea could be entertained seriously, how does this commandment in Torah -a timeless blueprint for human life – apply to our lives today?
I once encountered a beautiful interpretation to these words (2), which is profoundly relevant to the human psyche in all times. What this biblical verse – “Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal” — is telling us is not to construct a god of a lifestyle and a weltanschauung that has become like “cast metal;” one that is cast and solidified in a fixed mold.
A natural human tendency is to worship that which we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, patterns, attitudes, routines and inclinations simply because we have accustomed ourselves to them and they are part of our lives. People love that which does not surprise them; we want to enjoy a god that suits our philosophical and emotional paradigms and comfort zones. We tend to embrace the fixed, unchangeable and permanent molten god.
Comes the Torah and says: Do not turn your pre-established mold into your god. Do not turn your habits, natural patterns of thought, fears, inclinations or addictions into a deity. Life is about challenge, growth and mystery. Never say, “This is the way I am; this is the way I do things, I cannot change.” Never think, “This is the world view I am comfortable with; any other way must be wrong.” Rather, you ought to muster the courage to challenge every instinct, temptation and convention; question every dogma, including dogmas that speak in the name of open mindedness, and are embraced simply because you fall back on that which you have been taught again and again. Let your life not become enslaved to a particular pattern just because it has been that way for many years or decades. G-d, the real G-d, is not defined by any conventions; let your soul, too, not be confined by any external conventions. Experience the freedom of your creator.
Judaism never articulated who G-d is and what G-d looks like. What it did teach us is what G-d does NOT look like: G-d ought never to be defined by any image we attribute to Him, hewn by the instruments of our conscious or subconscious needs and aspirations. In Jewish philosophy, never mind in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought, we never speak of what G-d is; only of what He is not: G-d is not an extension of my being or imagination (3).
The common Yiddish term for G-d used by some of the greatest Jewish mystics, thinkers and holy men is “Oybershter,” which means “higher.” Not Creator, not Master, not All-Powerful, etc, but “higher.” What this term represents is this idea: I do not know what He is; all I know is that whatever my definition of truth and reality, whatever my definition for G-d — he is “higher” than that. All I know is that I do not know (4).
Thus, to be open to the G-d of the Hebrew Bible means to be open to never ending mystery, infinite grandeur, limitless sublimity and possibility; it is the profound readiness at every moment of life to open ourselves to transcendence. And what was transcendent yesterday — can become a form of exile today. Transcendence itself must also be transcendent, for it too can become a trap, albeit a subtle and spiritual trap.
And that which remains of your ambitions and desires after you have faced all of your fears and challenged all of your defenses, that is where your will meets G-d’s will (5). At that point of complete humility and sincerity, you become truly one with yourself, one with the inner core of reality.
In the words of the Zohar (6), “No thought, no idea, can grasp Him; yet He can be grasped with the pure desire of the heart.”
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1) Leviticus 19:4.
2) Mei Hasheluach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, Parshas Kedoshim, p. 118. The author was a brilliant and creative 19th century Chassidic thinker and master, and is known as the Rebbe of Ishbitz. He passed away in 1854.
3) This is a common theme in the writings of Maimonidies in his “Guide to the Perplexed.” See at length Likkutei Torah Parshas Pekudei and references noted there.
4) Sichas Shabbas Parshas Toldos 5751 (1991).
5) See at length Mei Hasheluach ibid.
6) See Zohar Vol. 3 p. 289b. Hemshech 5666 p. 57.
Registration now open! April early bird special.
We are proud to offer our 2nd year of CGI Brooklyn day camp. CGI is a summer camp dedicated to enriching the lives of children from diverse Jewish backgrounds and affiliations througha stimulating camping experience.
CGI located in prospect Heights, Brooklyn is part of the largest and fastest growing network of day camps, enjoying a reputation as a pioneer in Jewish camping with innovative ideas and creative activities, to both provide enjoyment and inspire children to try new and exciting things!
To learn more or to register, please visit us at CGIbrooklyn.com
Scholarships available. please contact our office for more info.
Weekly Shabbat afternoon Torah session
Our annual initiative for those long summer Shabbat afternoons has been suggested. In light of the beautiful custom throughout the ages of studying Tractate Avot / “Ethics of the Fathers” which contains timeless wisdom. It is a collection of ethics, honesty, and advice. But at its very beginning it tells us that even this part of Jewish life came from Sinai. All of that is part of Judaism.
Beginning from Passover and lasting the duration of the summer months, we will be hosting “Ethics in the Garden” study session, starting this Saturday, April 25 at the beautiful botanic garden of Peter Gordenstein and Alax Novack located at 277 Park Pl (bet Vanderbilt/Park Pl.) 5:00pm Light refreshments served.
in the event of inclement weather, session will be suspended to following week.
- Saturday, April 25
- 277 Park Pl.
Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day
By Rabbi YY Jacobson
Today, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, who perished in the Holocaust.
We remember them all. We remember each and every Jew beaten, tortured, hung, shot, burned and gassed during the six darkest years of our history.
It’s hard to sense the sheer scale of the destruction. On Sept. 11, 2001, history was changed by a terrorist attack in which 3,000 people died. During the Holocaust, on average, 3,000 Jews were killed every day of every week for five-and-a-half years. And the killing didn’t stop with just Jews: the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, gypsies and gays were murdered because they were different.
The Holocaust was exceptional in the scientific precision with which it was carried out. It was unprecedented in the sheer scale on which it was conceived. But what made it different from other mass murders was that it served no interest. At the height of the slaughter, the Nazis diverted trains from the Russian front to transport victims to the extermination camps. As Emil Fackenheim once put it, the Holocaust was evil for evil’s sake.
Today we remember…
The Hebrew vernacular — the language of the Jewish people – gives us three distinct and paradoxical names for a cemetery: 1) Beit Hakvarot, meaning a home for burial. 2) Bait Olam, meaning a home of eternity; and 3) Beit Hachaim, which means a home for the living.
Why the need for three diverse names for a cemetery, for that inexplicable place signifying, in George Harrison’s words, that “All things must pass, none of life’s strings can last”? What is the significance behind the three conflicting names conferred by Jewish tradition on a cemetery?
Death and Life: Three Perspectives
These three titles – a home for burial, for eternity and for the living — represent three ways in which we can interpret death. These three interpretations are symptoms of three ways in which we can interpret life. The way we define life, is the way we define death.
If we define life as an exclusively physical experience, an opportunity to maintain, nurture and gratify our material and physical selves; if life is merely about tending to the appetites of our bodies, then death – that unfathomable moment when the body turns lifeless – constitutes the tragic cessation of life. The cemetery, then, is a home for burial. A life has, sadly, reached its final chapter.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” Yogi Berra taught us. But in the cemetery, “it’s over.”
But there is another possible perspective on the meaning of life: Seeing life as a spiritual experience, in addition to a physical one. If life is also about nurturing and nourishing our souls, our spiritual identity, our inner spark of G-d, then death, as irrevocable as it is, is not the absolute interruption of life.
Tragic and horrendously painful? Absolutely yes. The end of one’s existence? Absolutely not. Because a soul never dies. It continues to live, love and feel in another dimension, on a spiritual plane, one that cannot be grasped through our senses of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling or tasting. Yet, the soul, a fragment of the Divine, is not subjected to death, only to travel from one realm of experience to another.
In this perception of life and death, a cemetery is a home of eternity. The body is interred, but the soul remains eternal.
Yet there is something even greater we can achieve. If we, those left behind, use the passion and the values of our loved ones who are not here with us, to inspire and affect our daily lives and behavior, then the cemetery becomes a “home for the living.” By inspiring and touching the daily lives and choices of their children, students, friends, relatives and communities, they are in some very real sense still alive. Their own dreams and ideals continue to exist, in a very tangible way, in the earthly lives of the people touched by their love and goodness.
Three Ways of Remembering
What is Yizkor? What does it mean to remember?
To begin with, of course, it is about remembering our loves ones who have been taken from us.
But how will we choose to remember them? Will we give them once again a heartfelt goodbye, expressing how much we miss them and how the void is still so palpable? Will we pay tribute to a soul eternally lodged in heaven, linking ourselves to the Divine aspect of our loved ones which never dies? Or will we, in some small but genuine way, bring our loves ones back to life, by sustaining their dreams and commitments in our own physical and earthly daily lives?
Of course, it is not a choice of eitheror. All three are appropriate and authentic. Each has its own place in the majestic and tragic pathways of the human heart.
Remembering the Six Million
This, then, might be the question we, the Jewish people living in 2009, must answer to ourselves and our children:
Will we allow Auschwitz and Treblinka to remain homes of burial? Or will we lovingly embrace not only the deaths but also the lives, the dreams and the passions of the six million?
Will we merely create beautiful and heart wrenching memorials and museums for dead Jews, or will we bring them back to life through our own? Will we publish documentaries about a world that was and has been reduced to ashes, or will we recreate their majestic and sacred world in our own?
Only you and I, those who are fortunate to still possess the gift of physical life, can and will decide whetherthe Ground Zeroes in our long and bloody history will remain a home of burial and eternity, or will become a home for the living. Will we have the courage to put a living smile on the faces of our ancestors on high, who sacrificed so much to ensure that the people of Israel would survive and thrive?
Close your eyes and you might hear the whispering voices of six million souls:
“Give your children and yourself the gift of Jewish life, of Jewish tradition, of deep and vibrant Judaism. Share with them the gift of Torah, the gift of loving kindness, the gift of Shabbat, the gift of Mikvah, Kashrut, Mezuzah, Tzedakah (charity). Give your sweet daughters the gift of Shabbat candles and grant your precious sons, the gift of daily Tefilin. Fill your homes with books of Torah and holiness.
“Bestow upon your children the infinite richness of a Jewish education. That way, in their daily lives, we will continue to live.”
No, this will never bring us comfort for the unfathomable tragedy. But it will deprive Adolf Hitler from claiming victory.
Join the Jewish student club and faculty members at Brooklyn Techincal High School for our monthly lecture.
Thursday, April 2nd @ 2:45pm on the 6th floor.
Shmurah Matzah handout and Lunch sponsored by Mr. Eliezer Abromski & NCYS.