Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I'll Get Smaller"

When Audi Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War, was asked what prompted him to take on so many acts of bravery in the face of death, he is reputed to have answered, "I was young. I never imagined I could die."
No wonder then that those targeted to be drafted or recruited for the army are the young, between 18 and 26. Its not that they are wiser at that age than those older. Its simply that they may be more willing to express courage in battle, since they feel a sense of invincibility.

Its interesting to contrast the make-up of a nation's fighting force with the make-up of the spiritual army of the People of Israel, in this context, the Levites. This week, in the Parsha of Bamidbar, we are told that the Leveyim, Levites, were to replace the First-born as the designees of G-d to work in the Temple and assist the Kohanim, the Priests in the service. The Torah tells us that their were three Levitic families. Each was assigned a different task. What they had in common was that, unlike the army dedicated to a nation's physical struggles, where soldiers were recruited at the age of twenty, the Levites served from the age of thirty and then only til they reached the age of fifty.

Rashi, in his commentary on the requirement that the Levites be thirty, as first told to us with reference to the recruits from the family of Kehat, explains that
the Levitic family of Kehat had to carry the holy components of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them in the wilderness, on their shoulders. They had to be strong. Strength maximizes for a person once they reach thirty.

While far be it from me to challenge Rashi's rationale, I do find it difficult as a total explanation as to why the Levites could not serve until they were thirty. What about the other two Levitic families. They used wagons to transport the items for which they were responsible. Why were they unable to serve until reaching thirty? And moreover the requirement to be thirty did not only apply in the wilderness and with the Mishkan. It was the rule in the permanent Temple , the one erected once the Israelites settled in the Land. Then the Levites had no longer the responsibilty to carry. Why was the limitation that under thirty was excluded from service still in force.

And still further, the Rama in the Shulcah Aruch, the code of Jewish Law, tells us that a chazan for the High Holidays should not be less than thirty years of age. The commentaries there explain, since our prayers are in place of the Temple service and the Levites, who represent us, could not do the worship if under thirty, so too a Cantor representing the community in prayer should be at least that age. Problem is, if the only reason the Levites were ruled out if less than thirty is because of a lack of physical strength, what has that got to do with a Cantor leading a community in prayer?

In keeping with the context of this blog, that is, looking at the Torah through the window of our self, I want to share a story that helps me understand the Torah's age requirement. I once heard Rabbi Eliezer Kaminetzky, the now retired Rav in Highland Park, NJ, tell of his interview weekend for the post of rabbi of his synagogue.
Then a young man, he noticed that while everyone seemed impressed with him, there was one old-timer who appeared to have his doubts. Rabbi Kaminetzky approached him at the close of Shabbat and told him, "I see you have some reservations about me for your Rav. Perhaps it is because you feel I am too young and a bit too sure of myself." He went on,"While I respect your concerns, let me tell you this. My father owned a Jewish book store in which he sold all types of ritual objects. Once a man came in to the store and was looking at the array of havdalah candles. He came over to my father and said ' I really like this one. But its a bit bigger than I wanted'. To which my father replied,'Don't worry. It will get smaller'." The Rabbi went on to tell the old man,"Me too, you don't need to worry about my smugness. You can give me the position.For sure I will get smaller."

Life has a way of humbling us. We start out so confident of our talents so sure of our beliefs, brimming with self assuredness. The older we get, the less sure we become, the less confident, the more introspective. Life knocks us off our pedestal.The challenges and yes, the failures teach us how little we know, how little we really are.

It is for this reason the Levites may well have been told they cannot serve in the Temple before the age of thirty. Until thirty most of us are still too large to have the humility necessary to stand before G-d. We have not yet had the failures and disappointments sufficient to show us who we really are. Like the High Holidays chazan, we need to get smaller before we are worthy to enter the sacred spaces representing the community. We need to know that we do not know. We need to have the self-doubts that make truth possible for us. We need to have the inner uncertainty that leaves room for the spiritual to find presence within us.

Often times I will have a conversation with the young. Now, myself a man mature of years, I stand in wonder before the cockyness and self assuredness I experience in them. They have no doubt about the correctness of their positions. They carry little doubt about their calling. At times I feel like the old-timer in Rabbi Kaminetzky's story in dealing with them. And then I remember, this is the way its supposed to be. They are young. I too was once like them. With time, like with me, life will teach them. They will become smaller.

And for you and me who, like the havdala candle, have burned down some in traversing through life, its good to know that our journey has made us smaller. The problem for most of us is not that we are not big enough for the tasks we most need to do, but rather we are not small enough!

Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

  1. Ah, Israel, you have so beautifully captured the truth once again this week.It is so true that it is not until we have lived some, that we can put that idealism and lack of humility into perspective, where we find that "life has humbled us"- as you wrote. Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom