Monday, May 12, 2008

The Prophetic Nature of Minhag

I have posted before on Rav Kook's concept of minhag. He holds that God endowed our national soul with a prophetic uniqueness. Its acceptance of practices is a type of prophecy. This national n'vuah-spirit is something that has real consequences. Here I simply want to quote a passage from the Talmud (מנחות לב:א) which supports this view:

"Rav holds that minhag prevails: If Eliyahu were to come and tell us that we may use a soft shoe for the chalitzah process, we would listen. If he were to tell us that we may not use a sandal [as is the custom and halachah today], we would not heed him."

Clearly, this passage tells us that in the future, when Eliyahu the prophet comes to clarify all confusing or complicated issues in Jewish law, he will not be contradicting any practices that have become universal to all Jews, and it seems that Rav Kook's concept of national n'vuah-spirit explains this.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Education for Individuality

"Once a week, we had a Current Events period. Each child was supposed to clip an item from a newspaper, absorb its contents, and reveal them to the class. This practice allegedly overcame a variety of evils: standing in front of his fellows encouraged good posture and gave a child poise; delivering a short talk made him word-conscious; learning his current event strengthened his memory; being singled out made him more than ever anxious to return to the Group." - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

"Why was Avraham referred to as "עברי"? For the entire world was on one side, and he was on the other." - Midrash, ב"ר מב ח.

A peculiarity is noted at the beginning of this week's portion. The first verse states, ויאמר ה' אל משה אמר אל הכהנים בני אהרון ואמרת אליהם לנפש לא יטמא בעמיו. "God said to Moshe: Speak to the priests, sons of Aharon, and tell them that they shall not become impure through contact with the dead." Rashi wonders, why the redundancy? It would have been enough to tell Moshe to tell the kohanim about impurity. Why first command him to "speak to the priests"?

To answer this question, Rashi quotes the Talmud (Yevamos 114a): Both אמור and ואמרת are used in order to warn the adults regarding the children. Though minors are not technically included in the many positive and negative commandments of the Torah, grown-ups are forbidden to give them forbidden food, or make them commit sins. Indeed, this is a source for the concept of חינוך, preparation or education, through which parents prepare their children for their adult lives as committed Jews. We teach our children and train them in observance of the commands, so that by the time they reach bar- and bat-mitzvah, they will be motivated and intimately familiar with their duties.

Why is it that the Torah places the hint for the idea of חינוך here, embedded in the laws of the priesthood, of all places? Rabbi Yakov Weinberg provides a fascinating insight into this. Rabbi Frand explains with an allegory: Imagine a town where the children play baseball in a vacant lot next to the cemetery. When the inevitable home-run is hit over the wall of the cemetery, one of the children will have to run in and retrieve the ball. A kohen father must tell his son, "when you play baseball, you must be certain to never go after the ball if it goes into the cemetery." The child asks why, and is told, "no matter what the other children do, you are a kohen, and you are not allowed to enter a grave-yard. The fact that everyone else does it is does not mean that you may. You are different."

The situation of the young kohen and his father reveals a critical message of Jewish education: be your individual self! We must impress upon ourselves and our children that God made us unique, and this uniqueness is not something to squelch, but something to treasure and nurture.

How often do we find ourselves judging our level of commitment to Torah learning or שמירת המצוות by those around us? How easy it is to fall into that trap! We may tell ourselves, "well, I learn more than my neighbor", or "I don't speak as much lashon hara as my friends", but that is not how we should measure our strengths or weaknesses. We may say, "my son is about as studious motivated as his friends", but this is not the attitude that will lead us to raise children in greatness. To quote Rav Zushia, "God will not ask my why I was not a towering Moshe Rabbeinu; he will ask me why I wasn't the best Rav Zushia."

When we internalize this message, the peer pressure that is so damaging to people of all ages will have less sway. It will remove excuses for mediocrity and allow us and our children to emerge as great individuals, instead of average Joes.

This is also the key to the fight against assimilation. Avraham's greatness was not that he was good "for his time" (as was the case with Noach), but because he grew with no thought to where his journey took him, as long as it was towards truth. And so, he ended up on the opposite side from the rest of the world, and began our "nation of priests".

Too often, as evident from Scout's experience in her Maycomb school (in To Kill a Mockingbird), our educational institutions attempt to manufacture children who see the value that the anonymity of "blending in" provides. Judaism rejects this doctrine resoundingly, encouraging individual expression and creativity. Within the bounds of halacha, this brings about a nation of constant youth and vigor, able to confront all issues it is faced with, as a strong group of cherished individuals.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Memorial Day

ת נ צ ב ה

Woe to the nations of the world, who have no atonement. For Yeshayahu wrote that, instead of the copper will be gold, instead of iron -- silver, in place of wood is copper. All property destroyed by the nations will be replaced and forgiven. However, the saintly Jews who were murdered throughout our two-thousand year horror, what can replace them? Concerning this, Yoel wrote, "I will forgive them, but for the blood they spilled I can never forgive..." (Rosh Hashana 23a)

Israel is not a widow -- our God lives, and demonstrates His power through our miraculous return to Zion after two millenia of destruction. He will not forget the horrors of our past, and he will not forgive the murder of our innocent. God will not forget, and neither will we.

May the days of our mourning turn to days of exhuberance, with the completion of the universal redemption.