Vayikra: Holiness – Jewish Style!

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Escalator to Heaven
17 Mar 2010

No book of the Torah requires greater effort to discover nuggets of contemporary relevance than Vayikra. And no book yields greater gold. Let the mining begin!

Two paradigm korbanos (sacrifices), Olah and Shelamim highlight our parsha. They differ fundamentally, Olah claiming the stricter feel. Consider that:

So which is a more Jewish korban?

The question may seem strange. Aren’t all sacrifices ipso facto, only Jewish? Surprisingly the answer is no – for Yishayahu teaches that beisi beis tefilla yikarei l’chol ha’amim (2), i.e. mishkan/beit hamikdash was open to all nations for proper Divine worship [assuming they mailed their sacrifices to the proper address]. Yet, even as Gentiles were welcome in the beis hamikdash, they were to bring only one type of sacrifice. Given the choice between Olah and Shelamim, it would stand to reason, they bring the lighter one, the Shelamim.

Herein lies the unexpected.

Rambam, based on gemara(3), records that gentiles were forbidden to sacrifice Shelamim, and were only to bring Olah. V’nahapoch hu! Is it not surprising that the most heilege (holy) of sacrifices should be accessible to all, while the most mundane, accessible, and popular of sacrifices, Shelamim should remain off limits for the Gentile?

Let us veer to the beautiful 800 year old Friday night custom of reciting the ballad, Eishes Chayil (4). In this paean of praise to the Jewish woman, a troubling line reads “She seeks wool and linen and combines them willingly in her palm.”

Wool and linen – together!? Doesn’t it seem strange that we extol our woman of valor for producing Sha’atnez?

Sha’atnez, one of the classical chukim (apparently irrational laws) of the Torah possesses a particularly troubling paradoxical nature. Sha’atnez seemingly teaches that the synthesis of wool and linen, creates something very destructive. Yet, the Kohen Gadol, Judaism’s model spiritual persona, while serving in the Beit Hamikdash, the model spiritual abode, was mandated to wear Priestly vestments that are required to contain the forbidden mixture.

In a remarkable insight, Rav Hirsch (1808-1888), teaches that pure physical existence requires two things: self-preservation and perpetuation. Linen, emerging from the plant kingdom, is a paradigm of the purely material. Wool however, emerging from the animal world, represents the notion of nefesh, the spark of spirituality. (5) Sha’atnez reflects the collision of two antithetical worlds, its prohibition, a necessary separation between the physical and spiritual. A garment possessing Sha’atnez blurs this distinction and violates the physical/spiritual Mason Dixon line. Sha’atnez thus serves as a reminder for us to ennoble our neshamos above our mundane physical desires.

Hopefully, the careful reader might be upset by now. Does this sound Jewish – or Puritanical? Are the spiritual & physical exclusionary realms, separated by so wide a chasm for never the twain to meet? Consider the Shema. Twice a day, we prod ourselves to serve God bechol levavcha, with “all our hearts”. Chazal understand hearts as inclinations. Love God with your good (yetzer tov) and evil (yetzer hara) inclinations – an apparent oxymoron?

Nothing less than the essential tour de force of Judaism is at stake here. We do not serve G-d with our spiritual nature and squelch our physical desires. (6) Admittedly, that might be easier, more convenient and at times necessary in one’s spiritual development. The ultimate goal however is to consecrate very aspect of our existence. To paraphrase the Kotzker, we must let God in everywhere; we must strive “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower”. In short, we must create holy harmony in all our worlds. (7)

Therefore, the Kohen Gadol the spiritual paradigm of the Jewish people, must wear sha’atnez, for he is obligated to harmonize the dissonance of both worlds(8). On our holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the High Priest may not serve unless he is married, for even then he may not secede from the physical world.

Who is the High Priest(ess) of the Jewish home – the one who teaches our Jewish children that that beautiful holistic harmony between all things spiritual and physical? Indeed it is that holy synthesis of wool and linen, the harnessing of passions, talents and creative urges in the collective service to the Almighty that is the ultimate praise of the eishes chayil.

We return to our holy Shelamim. An Olah speaks of a completely separated realm (kulo kalil kulo l’Hashem). Only the Jew can bring Shelamim, which requires eating and partaking of the consecrated meat – simultaneously imbibing and infusing sanctity. Armed with the power of Torah, he is ready and able to consecrate the material – ready to create a holistic holiness in God’s beautiful world.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. The zivchei shalme tzibbur was brought on Shavuos but was not eaten taken on the characteristics of an Olah.

2. Yeshayahu, 56:7

3. Rambam, Maaseh Hakorbanos, 2:3 based on Menachos 73b

4. Eishet Chayil (Proverbs 31:10-31) is customarily recited before kiddush on Friday night. The explanations of why we recite these verses specifically on Friday night vary with the interpretation given for the meaning of the text. Breishit Rabbah, describes the Jewish people as the marriage partner of the Shabbat. We therefore welcome Shabbat with the recitation of these verses. Midrash Mishlei and the Gra explains that Eishet Chayil refers to the Torah. Since the Torah was given on Shabbat and Torah study is a central feature of Shabbat, it appropriate to recite the praises of the Torah. Zohar interprets Eishet Chayil as a reference to our relationship with G-d. Eishet Chayil can therefore also be seen as a way to welcome the Shechina into our homes on Shabbat. According to the Metzudos, Shlomo Hamelech wrote Eishes Chayil in honor of his pious mother. Thus, it is a tribute to the Jewish mother.

5. In the absence of the Torah, the Talmud declares, many noble traits would be discerned by observing animal behavior. The cat is modest and the ant industrious, while the penguin is exceedingly loyal (my addition).

6. Consider this amazing story in the gemara that highlights this point. Post destruction of the Temple, the Sages prayed to God for the capture of the Yetzer Hara.

They prayed for mercy, and he was handed over to them. God said to them: “Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down”. They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. (for all of procreation had ceased even amongst the animals). Thereupon, the Rabbis said: “What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down.”

7. Is it not remarkable that the Hebrew word for sin, cheit, can also refer to spiritual immersion? Is it happenstance that verb form of cheit often refers to an arrow that has missed its mark? Hardly, for sin is the misuse of one’s innate G-dly passion, an arrow that has missed its mark!

8. This also explains why any Jew may wear tzitzis made of Sha’atnez – for the essence of Torah is this notion of fusion symbolized by the tzitzis which represent the totality of Torah

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.