Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Rav Moshe Weinberger - The Last Question - Parshas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5778

Below, please find this adaptation of Rav Weinberger's drasha from this past Shabbos, parshas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5778.  Enjoy!

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Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Acharei Mos-Kedoshim 5778
The Last Question

In parshas Kedoshim, the Torah introduces the multitude of mitzvos with the commandment, “You shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2). One would expect these mitzvos to relate to purity and impurity or the service in the Beis HaMikdash. Those, one would think, would be the key to holiness. But instead, it is followed mostly by prohibitions and commandments relating to interpersonal life. Why is this? How are these related to becoming holy? We must also understand how the teachings from our parshios relate to this coming week of sefirah, the week of Hodהוד, which means “splendor,” but can also mean “Jew – יהודי.” 

I read once about a non-Jewish politician who was elected to represent an area including parts of Hassidic Brooklyn. In order to understand his constituency better, he visited Crown Heights during the “holiday season” of Tishrei. He reported that he appreciated Rosh HaShanh. Non-Jews also have a concept of a new year and resolutions. He also felt that he understood Yom Kippur, as sin and atonement are important concepts in his religion as well. He said that he could even relate to Sukkos, which he felt was about connecting to nature. But the holiday he could not comprehend was Simchas Torah.

He asked a chossid there why Jews dance with the Torah scroll on Simchas Torah. Is it not a book of commandments and prohibitions – a rule book? After all, if a non-Jewish person danced with a driver’s education book or even a  copy of the Constitution, he would be seen as insane. Why would Jewish people celebrate the restrictions their religion places on their lives?

The chossid said that he would strengthen the politician’s question. He pointed out that before he eats dinner at night, he must first know that the species of animal he is eating a kosher. Even if it is, he must know that it was slaughtered properly. If it was, the animal had to have been examined to ensure it lacked any condition which would render it a tereifah. Then, it must be soaked, salted, and washed over a period of an hour and a half. Even if the animal could pass through this gauntlet of requirements, after that, one must still ensure that the vessels with which ones cooks the meat are kosher and were immersed in a mikvah. If so, one must confirm that the other ingredients with which the animal were cooked are kosher and that there is no mixture of dairy and meat products. But before one takes a bite, he must first make a blessing before eating, and when he is done, he must say a blessing after eating, thanking G-d for the food.

Bewildered at this litany of requirements, the politician pointed out that he could eat whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants, as long as he does not harm anyone else or engage in cruelty to animals. He does not have to think about anything or anyone else before doing what he wants in life. Why, then, do Jewish people actually dance and celebrate these restrictions that seem to hem them in?

Hashem is One

The answer to the politician’s question lies in a passuk we say every day – “Shma Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad.” First of all, “Hear, oh Israel” – the answer can only truly be understood by a Jew. It lies in our belief in Hashem’s oneness. On a simple level, this passuk simply means that there is only one G-d. But that is only the beginning. One of the deepest concepts in the seforim hakedoshim is recognition of G-d’s unity, that G-d is everything – there is nothing besides Him.

While this is a subject of great debate, Rema (Orach Chaim 156) and the majority of poskim maintain that non-Jews do not violate the seven mitzvos of the children of Noach if they believe in Hashem along with other gods or powers (shituf). They do not have an inherent connection to the concept of the unity of G-d. The reality is that for most people, the only thing they believe in besides G-d is themselves. They live with a duality in which there is G-d and there is me. Each side has its own priorities.

While this realization may be aspirational to one extent or another, for a Jew who believes that “G-d is one,” there is no separation between what G-d wants and what an individual wants. Because of this great bond with our Father above, we rejoice in His expression of His will to us through the Torah. That is why we celebrate on Simchas Torah. For the non-Jew who believes in “G-d and …,” Hashem’s will is an obstacle to fulfilling his own will. He is grateful G-d does not get involved in what he eats for dinner. For a Jew who believes G-d is everything, Hashem’s will is his own will. He sings and dances with joy, knowing that he is so close to G-d that He is with him even in his most mundane meals and activities. Every word, thought, and action in his life is significant because it is in the presence of G-d.

The Difference

It once happened on a hot summer day in July 1866 that the fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rav Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash zy”a, was sitting and learning in a shaded trellis in the garden adjacent to his home. His two sons, five-year-old Sholom DovBer, who would become the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab zy”a, and six-year-old Zalman Aharon, who would become the tzaddik known as the Raza zy”a, were playing nearby. The two of them, little Sholom DovBer and Zalman Aharon, were having a debate regarding the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew.

At the end of the debate, the boys agreed that the difference was that a Jew learns and davens and a non-Jew does not learn or daven. Their sister told the Rebbe Maharash about the debate, and the Rebbe called the boys over. He then asked them what differentiates a Jew and a non-Jew when the Jew is not learning or davening. They could not answer the question. So he asked them to call Ivan the coachman, who was not Jewish, to come to the Rebbe.

Ivan, who had grown up among Jewish people, spoke Yiddish perfectly. When he arrived, the Rebbe Rashab asked him, “Did you eat today?” “Yes.” “Did you eat well?” “Thank G-d, Yes.” “And why do you eat?,” the Rebbe asked. “So that I may live.” “And why do you want to live?” “To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat at the end of the day,” replied Ivan. “Thank you,” the Rebbe said, “you may go.”

The Rebbe then asked the boys to summon Bentzion, a Jewish servant in the Rebbe’s home, to join them in the trellis. Bentzion was a very simple Jew and could barely read Hebrew and mispronounced almost every word. The Rebbe asked Bentzion, “Did you eat today?” “Yes,” Bentzion replied. “Did you eat well?” Bentzion answered, “What does ‘well’ mean? Baruch Hashem, I am full.” The Rebbe then asked him, “And why do you eat?” “So that I may live.” “But,” the Rebbe asked, “why do you want to live?” Bentzion paused for a moment, a tear fell from his eye, he sighed, and then answered, “To be a Jew and do what G-d wants.” The Rebbe thanked Bentzion for coming.

Both Jews and non-Jews must eat, drink, sleep, and work. But the only thing which differentiates us is how we answer the last question – “Why do you want to live?” Ivan and the politician can answer, with a clean conscience, that they live for themselves. But if we live with “Hashem Echad,” we must ask ourselves the last question. And when we do, we must not be satisfied until we can answer that we want to live so that we can serve Hashem and give him a little nachas.

That is why Hashem gives us so many detailed mitzvos after telling us “You shall be holy.” The key to holiness is inviting Hashem into our daily, mundane lives. That is what truly differentiates us from everyone else in the world. That is the Hod, the beauty and the splendor, of being a Jew – the privilege of bowing our heads humbly to our Creator. We experience joy at the opportunity to say “asher kidshanu b’mitzvosav,” that Hashem has sanctified us with his mitzvos. The word for sanctified shares the same root word as the word kiddushin – marriage. Hashem betroths us and connects to us through each and every one of the mitzvos. May we all merit the inner-strength and bravery necessary to ask ourselves why we want to eat, sleep, drink, and work – why we want to live. 

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