Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Black Hat

Since Sukkot I have been learning morning seder at the Mir Yeshiva.
In order to not stand out I had to change my style of dress. Formerly I might have worn khaki colored slacks and a blue shirt with a kippa seruga (knitted). Currently each day I dress wearing a white shirt and black slacks and with a black velvet yarmulke. I am not one who likes to conform. More to my nature would be that if everyone wore black I would wear grey. But as I have grown older I feel less need to assert my anti-establishment sentiments. And while the black and white dress would not be me, I wear it out of respect for the Yeshiva and the men I learn with. I had become so 'yeshiveshe' that I even took my haircut with the Yeshiva barbers.

But I had remained resistant to one change, donning the black felt hat. I had given up black hats more than 30 years ago, some years after I left Yeshiva. To put on a black hat felt like surrender. I hesitated to give up the last vestige of my independent self and accept the black hat and with it the label of hareidi, which I don't feel I am. For several months I wrestled with what is the right thing for me to do. I davened Mincha each day in the Beit Midrash with 400 others all in black hats while I remained the lone hold-out in my black. albeit velvet, kipa.

The struggle with the black hat was not so much about conforming to the norms of the Yeshiva but rather about surrendering the spontaneity that I experience when I can express myself in a style that feels true to me. I will confess something here. Since I came to Mir and with it changed my dress, I noticed that while my learning grew in quality and quantity, my davening got weaker. I used to have daily conversations with G-d that all of a sudden disappeared from my routine. Under the influence of the Yeshiva I became so focused on doing what is right that I lost some of the joy in Divine service, 'avodat Hashem'. I know its important to be 'good' and that the Yeshiva environment encouraged, but how about being 'happy' and in love with G-d. Isn't that just as important. As I became 'frumer' I seemed to lose the joy. Fear of G-d dominated over love of G-d.

Would wearing the black hat be the final straw. Yes I would look and feel hareidi. But 'hareid' in ivrit means fearful. Do I want to be 'hareid', so much protected from doing wrong that I lose the 'joie de vivre'.

Ah, but then I saw the parsha of this week, that of T'zaveh. In it the Torah details the clothes to be worn by both the Kohain Gadol, the High Priest, and the regular kohanim. One article of clothing intrigued me. The Torah requires the Kohain Gadol to wear a 'm'eel' a long beautiful robe. The Torah describes the robe in detail. As part of its design it is to contain bells. Why bells? The Torah tells us that the bells were on the robe so that "his sound will be heard when he goes into the Holy and when he leaves so that he will not die".

The Medrash tells us that the bells were on his robe to teach us an important lesson in 'derech eretz', proper conduct. When one enters a place, even his/her, home, s/he should always knock, and let anyone present in the home know s/he is enterring lest s/he enter and take the other by surprise and cause them upset. The Kohain Gadol was told to make himself heard as he entered, even G-d's place, so as to teach us that we always need to announce our coming.

Okay, that's a powerful directive. But that only explains why the Kohain Gadol's sound should be heard on entering the Holy. Why does the Torah say that his sound needs to be heard both on his entering and his leaving? Why does he need to make noise when he exits the Holy too?

I reflected on this in the context of my dilemma with the black hat.
The Kohain Gadol was called by G-d to do specific tasks in the Bait Hamikdash, the Temple. His work was clearly defined. He had no room for self-expression in his service. He did precisely as the ritual in tradition required. Not only his service as circumscribed. Even his dress allowed no choice of his own. The clothes, while beautiful, were in accord with the Torah mandate. The Kohain Gadol had no room to express his personal style or taste. In that context we might wonder if the 'self' of the Kohain Gadol my not get lost in the process. I mean, he had to conform entirely to dictums from without. There was no room on the surface for self-expression. Would he feel like me in the Mir, and his fear of Hashem be so dominant that it compromised his love of Hashem?

It is to this issue that the Torah speaks when it calls on him to put bells on his robe. The Torah tells us that the bells were so 'his voice' will be heard when he enter and when he leaves. The noise of the robe is 'his' sound in the Holy. The Torah wants to make clear that while so much of the ritual and dress is determined from without, the Kohain Gadol must not lose himself. He must find a way to bring his uniqueness, his self into the service in the Holy. And what's more, even on his way out, as impressive and over-powering as the sacredness of the Holy may be, the Kohain Gadol must make himself heard, that he should remain true to the uniqueness of his individual soul and personal gifts.

With that thought in mind I decided yes, I could wear the black hat.
Wearing it would be respectful of the world of the Yeshiva I learn in. Would I lose my self and my uniqueness in the process? Not if I take the lesson from the Kohain Gadol and its imperative. True, on the outside I conform. But I must be insistent that my voice be heard, even while wearing the black hat. Conformity to ritual and custom provides only the shell, a shell that may protect one from danger if one relied entirely on one's self for direction.

Indeed it helps to belong to a group. But that does not free one from the responsibility to be true to one's genuine self in service to Hashem. On the contrary, the trappings to which one conforms make it safe to make one's voice heard and know it is in the service of the Divine! No, It makes is mandatory to make one's unique self heard in avodat Hashem.

Wearing the black hat, conforming to the group, does not free me from self-expression. The Kohain Gadol, in the designated clothes and doing the prescribed service was mandated to make 'his' noise.
I may look indistinguishable from everyone else in the Mir but that only makes it more imperative for me to be me!

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Little Things

This week we begin a series of parshiyot, Torah portions, focused on the Mishkan, the sanctuary built by the Israelites in the wilderness to house the spirit of the Divine. The Torah details the components of the Mishkan, the materials of which they were to be made, and their exact design. The two alters for sacrifices, the ark to contain the Tablets of the Law etc. are all enumerated and detailed.

The various furnishings of the Sanctuary are all used in keeping with the Mishkan's purpose, to offer devotion to Hashem. That is all except one! The one component of the Mishkan which seems out of place is the 'shulchan', the table of gold, used to place upon it the shew bread, the lechem hapanim'. Why, we might wonder, is their a need for a table in the sanctuary? A table seems to reflect earthy needs. This is the house of G-d, devoted to the spiritual.

Many of our great Torah commentaries have responded to explain the place of this surprising feature in the Mishkan. In keeping with the focus of this blog, The Torah and the Self, which is to personalize the Torah content so as to extract a message germane to us where we are today I would like to share the following possibility.

The Kohanim, the priests, were charged with the loftiest of missions.They we mandated to be the conduits between Israel and G-d and offer the rites in the Temple. Little doubt they saw their work as essential and gave it priority over other aspects of their lives.
They were Israel's ambassadors to Hashem. What greater task could there be?

It was the Kohanim who actually were in the company of the Golden Table, not the ordinary Israelite. The shulchan was in the inner part of the Mishkan, a place non-priests could not go. For me, the message of the Table was meant as a vital reminder for the Kohanim.
In its presence, the shulchan said "Though you Kohanim, have the holiest of jobs, do not let yourself forget who you serve! See this table and remember, you are here to bring the needs of the ordinary Jew and his ordinary worries, over parnasa, income (represented by the table) etc. before G-d. Never let the holiness of your mission cause you to lord over those who sent you. You must empathize with the common Jew though his life is so mediocre in comparison to yours and give priority to his needs, earthy as they may be."

Each morning of late I am picked up by a special bus taking men to the Mir Yeshiva to learn. The bus originates in a different 'shchuna', neighborhood, than mine, one much more hareidi.
By the time it gets to me it is near full. When I climb on-board their are maybe two or three seats still available. Yet invariably their is a hat or a sefer on the seat, usually belonging to the person in the adjacent seat. Also in most cases unless I stand by the unoccupied seat and ask for place to be made for me no effort is made to clear room. I ask myself why? Could be the person in the adjacent seat doesn't paid me no mind, was too busy learning to notice me. Could be he didn't feel an urgency since I am not really a like him. I don't have on a black hat, I am older, and I live in a mixed neighborhood. But in any case the person who fails to extend himself without being asked misses on a hesed of 'hachnasat orchim', hospitality, a great mitzvah. And he feels he did no wrong.

How does that happen? How does a devout man, one who learns Torah all day, forget the Jew in front of him in need of a seat on the bus? The question should not be such a surprise. We make similar errors all the time. In our resolve to do the 'big' thing we deem important, we ride over the 'little' things that lay in front of us.
We become so busy with our goals, worthy as they may be, that we push and shove and trod over everything in our path.

The Kohain in doing his holy work was daily confronted with the 'shulchan', the Golden Table to remind him that his work, important as it is, only has meaning in the context of his relationship to the People and their needs. If he loses sight of that his holiness becomes a selfish endeavour, and he misses the whole point of his service.

Would that we never lose sight of the purpose behind all the important work we do, and that we be forever mindful that the things that seem to get in the way may be the things we need to give our attention and respect.

Shabbat Shalom