HALF & HALF
Rabbi David Walk
There is very fine fellow with whom I had the privilege of working with a few years ago named Rabbi Aryeh ben David. Aryeh is an outstanding Jewish educator. The past few years he has developed an organization named Ayekah, which is the question God asked Adam when he was hiding in the Garden of Eden, and it means 'Where are you?' Aryeh has turned this Biblical question into an existential challenge. Everyone must decide where he/she really stands on the important issues of life. Aryeh's major thrust recently has been to urge people to consider seriously their personal connection to Jewish liturgy and Torah ideas. About two weeks ago Aryeh sent out an email about those divrei Torah or short Torah thoughts which are popularly presented in synagogues around the world, especially on Friday nights. Unlike the longer sermons on a Shabbat morning, these short presentations make a point in about five to seven minutes. Aryeh complained that he can't take them anymore. He's been hearing them for thirty years, and fewer than one per cent of them have made any impact whatsoever. What's wrong with these short presentations? Aryeh maintains that the speakers tend to display their own intellectual virtuosity rather than powerfully try to impact the audience. Aryeh described how recently a member of his shul gave a dvar Torah. He quoted Rashi, the Midrash, Rambam, and a few contemporary thinkers. When it was over, he was tempted to go up to him and say, "Such a good dvar Torah in shul today, too bad you weren't there." Aryeh observed that the speaker himself wasn't there. Rashi and the commentators were there, but the speaker was totally absent. Aryeh maintains that to move others we must let others know what moved us. If we are aloof and personally uninvolved, why do we expect to make any impression on others?
Aryeh's point is very powerful and very important. We pray to a personal God in the first person, but don't make any effort to personalize the prayers. So the experience remains cold and impersonal. In the fifth century BCE the Sages began writing the prayers which have become our sidur or prayerbook. I believe very strongly that they did this to guide us, but not to constrict us. We can always add our own thoughts and even ourselves into this process. Just as the later Sages themselves did. The second century CE scholars didn't feel that they were showing disrespect to their predecessors by using their own words, and neither should we. But Aryeh's point is even greater. This concept must be extended to Torah study and mitzvah performance. We must be able to see how we are influenced by these activities. There may be no 'I' in team but there should be an 'I' in every mitzvah.
My regular readers will not be surprised to hear me maintain that this idea can be found in the special reading for this Shabbat. Parshat Shekalim describes the annual obligation to give a half shekel coin (machazit hashekel) to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. These coins were used for the census and the money bought the communal offerings. These verses demand that everyone give the exact same kind of coin. The rich don't increase; the poor don't diminish. But there's a problem. The idiom used for counting the Jews is ki tisa et rosham or when you raise up their heads. In what way is the counting of every Jew in the exact same way an elevation of the person being counted? Many authorities have said that this raising of the spiritual level of the participant is achieved through the performance of the mitzvah. Doing mitzvot brings us to a higher plateau of life and existence. That's fine, but the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, Rav Yehuda Amital OB"M, offered a new and meaningful interpretation.
Rav Amital suggested that this mitzvah is incongruous with our world view. How can we be exalting the individual if the Torah demands that the act be exactly the same? We believe that God is never redundant, not in Biblical verses and not in the human race. Every human is unique. A person who becomes a number in the midst of other numbers, loses his individuality; he loses what it is that makes him special, what gives meaning to his life. So how can we count Jews in this assembly line way? Rav Amital offers a beautiful solution to this conundrum. The answer is found in the half. The well known reason for giving half coins is that we only become whole when we join with others. Rav Amital posits a new idea that half of what we are is a shared reality held in common with the masses. But half of us is unique. We are raised or become exalted by that half which is intimately mine and is not shared with the community of humankind. I believe that this wonderful idea can be generalized to all mitzvot, to prayer and even to Torah study. A successful religious experience combines the half which is traditional and has been passed down through the ages and the half which is my personal thoughts, feelings and contribution to the endeavor. We have to balance what we've received with what we donate to the Torah enterprise. Everyone must put themselves and their own conscious being into every spiritual act, otherwise it becomes generic and can't raise my head or exalt my soul.
My friend and colleague, Aryeh, is becoming my mentor, because too often my prayers and mitzvot aren't imbued with my essence. I do them by rote. Then I hear Aryeh's plaintiff plea to take my mitzvah and put myself into it. Aryeh also wants to know why we study the weekly Torah reading. Is it to make us smart? Then there are other disciplines which could accomplish as much. However, if its purpose is to make us better or closer to God, then we must do more. We must discover its message and nuance for me. There must be some subjectivity. As Aryeh said, 'At the end of the day, I don't only want to know what the parsha says, but what the parsha says - to you!'