Understanding and finding meaning in Judaism
It was during this week’s parshah, Shemini, that I first felt I had started to get a grasp of what Judaism is really all about (though I am still far from confident), what makes it distinctive from other faiths and philosophies, and why it not only obligates but also motivates me.
I have Rabbi Sacks in particular to thank for this, whose clear, concise and accessible writing subsequently helped unlock meaning in my exploration of other great Jewish thinkers from across the ages.
Parshat Shemini describes both the pinnacle and nadir of the Jewish life journey in five consecutive verses:
Leviticus 9:22: Aaron, the newly inaugurated High Priest, replete in his holy uniform, with his brother Moshe standing proudly by his side, emerges from the newly constructed Tabernacle – a portable home for G-d created in the Wilderness by the Children of Israel according to Hashem’s precise instructions, the forerunner of the Temple later to be built as a permanent home for the Divine on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem – and blesses the people.
Leviticus 9:23-24: What greater impact could one person generate than Aaron as his blessing brings down G-d’s glory from heaven to earth for the first time, a fire going out from this Divine Immanence to consume the people’s offerings on the altar, thereby atoning for their sins.
Leviticus 10:1-2: What greater tragedy could one person experience, a moment later, as Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, in a spontaneous act of devotion, offer incense that the Lord hadn’t commanded, and a fire goes out from the same Divine Immanence and consumes Aaron’s children as well – they die.
How to make sense of – what can one even call it – this tragic contradiction? This unnerving dissonance?
As I have written in an earlier blog post, I now understand this entire episode and the way it combines life and death, giving and receiving, euphoria and sacrifice, as symptomatic of the many manifestations in Torah of what I have come to see as the essence and purpose of Judaism:
“The fusion and ultimately the unification of apparent opposites toward a final revelation of underlying unity, ‘ein od milvado’,‘on that day Hashem will be One, and His Name will be One’: heaven with earth, physicality with spirituality, rationalism with mysticism, transcendence with immanence, finite with infinite….. etc”
But before reaching this place, I needed help with something that had remained an obstacle to me on my Jewish journey to that point: reconciling the overarching cosmology of Judaism, as per the enigmatic, evocative and inspirational analogies of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), with the real-life everyday lived experience of Judaism as a set of all-pervasive sometimes seemingly petty rules combined with a never-ending schedule of repetitive prayer and the relentless study of subject matters sometimes bearing seemingly limited practical relevance to the modern world.
What linked the one to the other? Until I had an answer to this question, I could not practice my Judaism with any level of satisfaction or self-confidence…
This is where Rabbi Sacks comes in.
Synthesizing the tragedy outlined above, Rabbi Sacks in a few brief paragraphs offers the most insightful, incisive description of the Jewish prerogative I have encountered to date.
I share it here at some length in case it helps anyone find clarity, meaning, value and closeness to Hashem in their Judaism just as it helped me:
“Nadav and Avihu died because they offered unauthorized, literally “strange,” fire, meaning “that which was not commanded.”
To understand the significance of this, we must go back to first principles and remind ourselves of the meaning of kadosh, “holy”, and thus of the Tabernacle as the home of the holy.
The holy is that segment of time and space God has reserved for His Presence.
Creation involves concealment. The word olam, “universe”, is semantically linked to the word ne’elam, “hidden”.
To give humankind some of His own creative powers – the use of language to think, communicate, understand, imagine alternative futures and choose between them – God must do more than create Homo sapiens.
He must efface Himself (what the Kabbalists called tzimtzum) to create space for human action..
.. But there is a limit. To efface Himself entirely would be equivalent to abandoning the world, deserting His own children. That, God may not and will not do.
How then does God leave a trace of His Presence on Earth?
The biblical answer is not philosophical. A philosophical answer .. would be one that applies universally – i.e., at all times, in all places..
..Jewish thought is counter-philosophical. It insists that truths are embodied precisely in particular times and places.
There are holy times (the seventh day, seventh month, seventh year, and the end of seven septennial cycles, the jubilee).
There are holy people (the Children of Israel as a whole; within them, the Levi’im, and within them the Kohanim).
And there is holy space (eventually, Israel; within that, Jerusalem; within that the Temple; in the desert, they were the Mishkan, the Holy, and the Holy of Holies).
The holy is that point of time and space in which the Presence of God is encountered by tzimtzum – self-renunciation – on the part of mankind.
Just as God makes space for man by an act of self-limitation, so man makes space for God by an act of self-limitation.
The holy is where God is experienced as absolute Presence. Not accidentally but essentially, this can only take place through the total renunciation of human will and initiative.
That is not because God does not value human will and initiative. To the contrary: God has empowered mankind to use them to become His “partners in the work of creation.”
However, to be true to God’s purposes, there must be times and places at which humanity experiences the reality of the Divine. Those times and places require absolute obedience.
The most fundamental mistake – the mistake of Nadav and Avihu – is to take the powers that belong to man’s encounter with the world, and apply them to man’s encounter with the Divine.
Had Nadav and Avihu used their own initiative to fight evil and injustice they would have been heroes.
Because they used their own initiative in the arena of the holy, they erred. They asserted their own presence in the absolute Presence of God. That is a contradiction in terms. That is why they died.”
(see for the full piece, https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/shemini/fire-holy-and-unholy/)
Now it all made sense.
Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people because it reveals to us the activities we can perform – mitzvot (holy actions), prayer, study – that can create more space on earth for Hashem, and with Him, His blessings.
But whereas for the Children of Israel in the wilderness it took months of hard work, and the donation of copious amounts of precious metals and luxuriant fabrics, today we ordinary Jews can take 5 minutes to put on tefillin, or even just a few seconds to light Shabbos candles or give a few coins of tzedaka (charity). More of Hashem’s glory comes down to earth because of the Torah-mandated actions that we Jews do, with all the funny parochial quirks they entail, and with it – again, through us, the Jewish people – come His blessings.
Our ‘chosen-ness’, the cause by contrast of so much misplaced pride (we were given this responsibility in the merit of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs, despite our many sins, individual and collective, as outlined throughout Tenakh in microscopic detail), and on the other of so much misplaced hatred and envy, is that this role, of bringing blessing into the world, has been given to us, the Jewish people. This is not to say that Jews are ‘better’ than non-Jews – we are not. This is not to say that non-Jews cannot experience blessing – they can. This is not to say that non-Jews cannot obtain earthly and heavenly reward for their action – they do. Rather, it is to say, that the flow of blessing, and the amount of blessing that it is possible for humanity in total to experience at any given moment, is dependent on our cumulative actions as the Jewish people. This is what I understand to be the meaning in Torah of Hashem’s final blessing to Avraham Avinu: “And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, because you hearkened to My voice.”
In fact, it is an illustration of Hashem’s manifest grace and humility that He has made it possible that we as Jewish people can bring blessing into the world through every dimension of our mundane human existence, as it says in Proverbs, to ‘know Him in all your ways’: what we eat, how we structure family life, how we dress, how we treat other people, the way we use our time, the way we do business, the way we use our money, and so forth. (These are laid out throughout Torah, but they are crystallized in the ‘holiness code’ of Leviticus which follows from the aforementioned passages, starting with the laws of kosher foods in the latter parts of Parshat Shemini).
With this in mind, we may come to a better understanding of the depths of the tragedy caused by our exile from our Land and the destruction of our Temple. We can understand why Berlin or New York can never be our new Jerusalem.
Rather, our quest to resettle Eretz Yisrael in contemporary times, and our ultimate aspiration to rebuild the Temple on Mount Moriah in the days of Moshiach, is motivated not by a striving for colonial dominance (note to the BDS crowd) or national self-glorification (without any implication of moral equivalence, note to the current Israeli government), but precisely the reverse – the opportunity to renounce our individual and collective egos through the myriad additional mitzvot that can only be performed in our Land and at our Temple.
Thus, according to the great sage, the Chafetz Chaim (Concise Book of Mitzvot), it is possible to perform only 271 of the 613 total mitzvot while Israel is in exile and the Temple remains destroyed. 26 additional mitzvot can be performed in the Land which we now have the privilege to perform as we resettle it. This gives a total of 297 and leaves 316 mitzvot – the majority – dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple, i.e. 316 extra ways of bringing blessings down from heaven to earth for the benefit of humanity as a whole. (This, by the way, is why Judaism cannot be interpreted to be anything other than zionist, with a small ‘z’.)
This is why the Prophet says “ten men of all the languages of the nations shall take hold of the skirt of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’.” It is because, at such time, near or, G-d forbid, far, that humanity as a whole comes to realize how much of their wellbeing depends on the Torah-observance of the Jews, then humanity as a whole would take responsibility to make sure the Jews performed more mitzvot, more prayer, more study. More than that, humanity as a whole would gather to help us in our mission to resettle the Land and rebuild the Temple – just as Hiram did for the first Temple, and just as Cyrus and Darius did for the second Temple.
But note well – just as the Children of Israel in the wilderness brought the Divine glory down from heaven to earth only by following Hashem’s precise instructions in building the Tabernacle, so we Jews today can only bring Hashem’s blessings into the world by following His precise instructions in the way we perform all the Torah-specified activities: we must continue ‘hearkening to His voice’ in matters of the holy, even if we are otherwise hi-tech entrepreneurs, bioscientists or agricultural engineers saving countless lives with our innovations and technologies.
And further note well – it is not only ritual matters that bring Hashem’s glory and blessings into the world, it is also the way we deal with other people. We cannot bring blessing into the world by performing ritual mitzvot in ways that contravene our Torah-mandated social obligations: not if it involves following the majority for evil; not if it involves accepting a bribe; not if it involves oppressing a stranger; not if it involves standing by when the donkey of our enemy is fallen or lost; not if it involves hating our brother in our heart; not if it involves abstinence from rebuking our fellow and bearing a sin on his account; not if it involves taking revenge or bearing a grudge against our people; and certainly not if involves failure to love our fellow as ourself.