Thursday, March 10, 2011

Knowing Our Place

When I was a boy I davened in a synagogue each Shabbat with some 300 grown men. While all the regulars wore similar taleisim, white with black stripes, their was one noticeable difference amongst a select few of the men. Nearly everyone, including my father, recited the prayers with their talis on their shoulders. A few however, davened with their talis over their head. It was clear to me that these men were different from the rest. They were the learned of the community, talmidai chachamim, even if not officially in the rabbinate. I said to myself "when I grow up I want to be one of the special ones, the talmidai chachamim. I too want to be worthy of davening with my talis over my head."

The years have past. I no longer am that boy of eight. I am a man mature and beginning to age. I look around me in the shule wherever I daven and I see in many cases more than half the men daven with the talis over their head. What's changed? Have so many become learned? I don't think that's the change. I see men who don't fully observe Shabbat, yet they daven with the talis over their head. I see boys not yet married, with only a minimum of Jewish education davening with a talis over their head. It seems wearing the talis over the head has become the right of everyone. It symbolizes nothing more than that the person doing it wants to show he is serious in prayer. I wonder what the boy of eight can observe in today's synagogue, that might inspire him to want to excel and become worthy.

This week we begin the third book of the Torah, Vayikra. Much of the early parshiyot deal with the laws of sacrifices in the Mishkan.
As we enter the subject the Torah reads "'Adam',(a man) who decides he wishes to bring a sacrifice to Hashem...." Its worth noting that the Torah refers to the one who wants to bring the sacrifice not in the common term for man, 'ish', nor in the gender neutral term the Torah uses through most of the parsha 'nefesh', a soul. Here at the outset the Torah when the text refers to a man it uses the term 'adam', a term of distinction, typically reserved for a person of character.

A number of our sages have commented on this. In particular they point out the oddity that here we are talking of bringing a sacrifice, most commonly in response to seeking forgiveness for committing a sin, and yet we use the noble term 'adam' to refer to the one bringing it. They wonder about the incongruity. In a situation in which one sinned it would seem 'ish' or 'nefesh' would be more appropriate.

Yet it seems to me not a problem at all. The context in which the Torah is using the term 'adam' to refer to man is with regards to the 'korban olah', the sacrifice that was a voluntary offering, totally consumed on the alter. That sacrifice is not typically brought for a sin. It is the ultimate gift offering in which no part is reserved for the person who brought it.

But if that's the context in which the Torah chooses the term 'adam' to refer to man, we might ask, what is the Torah trying then to teach us calling the one who brings it 'adam'?

In light of the self-story I wrote about to open this blog, I think we might understand the Torah to be telling us something profoundly relevant. I suggest the Torah is telling us that if you are going to bring the 'olah', the offering entirely voluntary and a total gift to G-d, you had better be an 'adam'. Only a person of spiritual character has business making a public display of bringing an 'olah' to the Temple. Bringing an offering was very much a public event. The person mired in mediocrity should not assume a public posture of spiritual excellence, as exemplified in bringing an 'olah', no matter how much he wants for the religious experience. An 'olah' belongs to an 'adam'.The Torah is teaching first become an 'adam', a man of character, then you can bring the 'olah'. To do otherwise, no matter how sincere in the moment, smacks of pomposity, and is inappropriate.

The Torah teaches us that while we may all want the most intense religious experience, we need to know our place. Everyone, as the Torah refers to in the term 'nefesh', needs to bring a sin offering. Only an 'adam' should consider himself worthy to publicly bring the 'olah'.

We live in a time where even persons who are on the level of 'nefesh' (like me) want to express their public Judaism as if they are an 'adam'. They want to 'max out' on the Jewish experience. They argue, why not experience the intensity of form that was once reserved for those who achieved a spiritual excellence. It is to them that the Torah is speaking in telling us that you have to earn the right to express yourself as devout in public. Otherwise public expressions of religiosity, that go beyond the halachic mandate, are bordering on pomposity and actually are antithetical to the humility true faith requires.

Talis over the head and other public displays of religiosity, formerly reserved for those devout, should remain in their domain.
We who are mediocre in our Jewish lifestyle have no business pretending, especially in the public arena. That is not to say we should not aspire to reach the level of the one's for whom taking on practices of devotion is rightful. On the contrary, they should motivate us to be worthy of joining their ranks and engaging ourselves in the practices reserved for the 'adam'.

Shabbat Shalom

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