Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat 22nd Nissan 5776, 30th April 2016
In today’s parsha, Aharon the High Priest is instructed how to prepare for the most dramatic and most dangerous day of the year – Yom Kippur – when he will step into the Holy of Holies and hopefully succeed in atoning for himself and his family, the Levites, and then the whole nation. This is, in fact, the Torah reading on the morning of Yom Kippur. A list of illicit (incestuous) relationships that appears later in the parsha is the reading for the afternoon service of Yom Kippur.
This juxtaposition has, naturally, evoked commentaries and interpretations for thousands of years. Today we will link the two subjects to one another, to the progression of the book of Vayikra and to Pesach.
The opening words of the parsha connect us to an event we read about a few weeks ago, in which two of Aharon’s sons enter the tabernacle uninvited, do whatever they do and are burnt to a crisp. We can read this as a peace offering from God to Aharon: yes, your sons died in the tabernacle but now I will show you how to enter the Holy of Holies and LIVE.
To recap Vayikra to date: after a list of the sacrifices, what each entails and how they should be offered and eaten, we sidetracked into which animals are clean and which are not. So now we know not only which animals to sacrifice, but which others we are permitted to eat.
We had a foray into the world of pure and impure, tsara’at – leprosy – that can afflict the body, clothing and the physical buildings in which we live, and the bodily emissions that make us impure. Now we revert to holiness, and not just any holiness, but the highest level of purity and sacredness an Israelite can attain: the purification preceding entry into the holiest of places on the holiest day of the year.
After you have reached the pinnacle, the peak, the acme, the apex, the zenith of closeness to God. What is next?
What’s next is a list of illicit relationships. Why?
According to Rabbi David Stav, we can understand this connection if we read the final warnings that appear after the list of forbidden relationships. If you do not abide by these laws, the land will VOMIT you out, as it did to the Canaanite nations that lived here before you. Don’t follow in their path. Being a holy people requires close attention to purity, especially in the basic family unit.
As Rabbi Stav sees it, the Torah is setting down a new approach in which family comes first. We have to be close-knit and we have to maintain the family cell, which will ultimately strengthen the nation.
We find evidence of the centrality of family in the instructions for Pesach. Remember, in Egypt the Israelites were told to take one lamb per family. And for the future, they were told – four different times – that they had to retell the story of their exodus to their children every year. No fireworks, no big parades, no grandiose spectacles – just a family meal in which everyone can relive the exodus and in so doing, become closer to one another and to our people. As Rabbi Stav puts it, A healthy nation is founded upon small, solid social units, headed by small and stable family units.
The question of what constitutes that family unit: one adult or two, one of each gender or two of the same gender – is definitely important, but has become today more of a media circus problem. The ultimate question is whether these family units can generate a solid, strong sense of personal safety and national identity with which a person can go out into the world on his/her own, and at the same time serve as a good citizen in the ancient Greek sense of one who serves his people and community.
Over Pesach I was told of the following conversation between a father and his 23 year old son, who refused to go to the army or to university and, despite all the dire predictions that he would not land a good job, makes much more than his father – in computers. The father asked his son: What are you working towards? What’s your goal? To which he replied, I want to be happy.
The father was nonplussed. When he grew up (and he’s not even 50 yet) no kid would give that answer. You wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor, or an Egged driver (back in the 50s and 60s). Or you wanted to make a million dollars. Happiness was a spin-off from doing something that gave you satisfaction and perhaps gave others some benefit.
But to have happiness, plain, undefined and undefinable happiness as your goal, cut off from everything else – is something new. And it’s possible today because the father and his generation never experienced the depths of want and deprivation that his father’s generation had. The kid had everything he wanted. So he wants happiness. And it’s not an isolated case. On the one hand, this is proof that the family has provided enough security to allow the kid to believe that he can find such a creature as abstract happiness. On the other, it is symptomatic of an unraveling of connections between people and a weakening of the sense of commitment to others.
If this weren’t a shul, or if this were not Shabbat, I bet at least some of the people sitting here would be checking their smartphones and messages while I’m talking. Who knows, maybe I would too, if I could.
The point is that much of our life style has gone virtual. People remove themselves from physical groups and sign onto virtual groups that send messages, plan actions, and praise or vilify people at the drop of a word. They forget what it means to talk to people face to face, even if they are across the table from one another! It also puts us at a remove from real problems and suffering, and makes it easier for us to plug into our phones and walk away. Caring for others requires being with others. Caring for tradition means living it.
I don’t see a solution. I can say: whatever goes around comes around. If fashions from 30 years ago can come back into style (which is why I save all my old clothes), communication fashions may at some point revert to face-to-face encounters. Not very likely. Perhaps we are missing the main point: all or most of the matter goes back to the home and values espoused there. As Rabbi Stav says, small stable family units are the basis of a sound nation. We’ve survived until now – we won’t let a virtual world undermine us!