Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Fw: Your friend has shared a StamfordAdvocate link with you

How very kind of Harold, a former president of CAS to say all these nice things.

From: Rivka Walk <rivkawalk@gmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, June 22, 2017 11:14 AM
To: Dave
Subject: Your friend has shared a StamfordAdvocate link with you
Rabbi Walk will be missed

This message was sent via stamfordadvocate.com.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

The rebellion of Korach is always a disheartening story, in so many ways. How could anyone question the authority of Moshe? He ascended Mt Sinai and brought down the Tablets from God; he spoke directly to the Almighty. We still revere him, and consider him our mentor, rabbeinu. Well, familiarity breeds contempt. The closer we are physically to an individual; the harder it is to show the requisite reverence, note bene his own sister and brother back in chapter 12. It was easy for Korach and cohorts to be jealous of the living, breathing Moshe. There are two Green Monsters in this world. That marvelous structure on Landsdowne Street in the heart of Boston and every true Red Sox fan, and that demon, jealousy, seething in the breast of humanity, which can destroy us all. However, this year I'm less interested in exploring the rebellion than I am in trying to understand the resolution of the situation, namely the test of the ketoret, or incense.

First, I'd like to make a few observations about the ketoret. As you'd assume there are many reasons given for the existence of this mitzvah. The most of obvious is practical. Let's be honest, the Temple was a holy slaughter house, and the smells could get overwhelming. The eleven spices in the ketoret made a fragrance so sweet and overpowering that it could whiffed as far away as Jericho, about 15 miles downwind. But practicality barely begins the discussion of the incense.

The incense and its altar are clearly different than the other items in the Mishkan. All of the furnishings of the Mishkan are listed in parshat Teruma, except the incense altar. That's described five chapters later, seemingly, after everything else has been built. Also its placement is described with its construction information as 'in front of the dividing curtain, which is upon the Ark of Testimony, in front of the ark cover, which is upon the testimony, where I will arrange to meet with you (Exodus 30:6).' The incense is clearly an aid in the communication with God, a connector.

And finally, the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, points out that the burning of the incense is inextricably bound to the lighting of the Menorah, 'every morning when he sets the lamps in order, he shall make it go up in smoke. And when Aaron kindles the lights in the afternoon, he shall make it go up in smoke (verses 7-8).' The Talmud (Yoma 14b) tells us that the incense was burnt after setting up (hatavah) the first five lights of the Menorah, indicating that the burning of the incense together with the setup and lighting of the Menorah were one kiyum, one mitzvah act. One might have thought that the incense smoke blocks or clouds the vision of the Divine Presence, to shield us from its intensity (as some commentaries have asserted), but the Rav is explaining that this pillar of swirling smoke really helps give the community clarity concerning the presence of God. Just as the Menorah flames aid our  vision, so, too, does this cloud. Normally, people think 'smoke gets in your eyes' signifying that 'a lovely flame dies' because 'my love has flown away (thank you, Jerome Kern).' However, this pillar of incense draws our attention heavenward, reminding us of God's presence.

This brings us to the story. Many commentaries explain that the essential mitzvah of our Torah reading is tzitzit or mezuzah, because of the juxtaposition of those mitzvoth and our story. But, in reality, the pertinent mitzvah must be ketoret, because that is embedded in the narrative twice. First it is the test used to determine the true cohen or representative of the community in the Divine service. Why this act and not an offering or lighting the Menorah? Now, I can assert confidently that the reason is that the role of the cohen is to connect us to God, to make God's presence manifest in the community. No act in the Mishkan, and later Holy Temple, accomplished this more powerfully than the creation of the pillar of smoke. The eleven spices represent the constituents of the community (I believe, that number stands for the eleven tribes without Levi, who joins by actuating the column of smoke), and the smoky pillar is our lifeline to heaven and God.

But there's another appearance of ketorot in our story. God seems to have had enough of these whining Jews and announces that they shall be consumed, destroyed. A plague breaks out among the Jews in the camp, 14,700 die. Moshe jumps to action: Moses said to Aaron, 'Take the censer and put fire from the altar top into it and put incense. Then take it quickly to the congregation and atone for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, and the plague has begun (Numbers 17:11).' Why is the incense the atonement? Why is the agent of death for the 250 claimants to the role of Aharon, the instrument of salvation during the plague? Yes, the incense can cause death when mishandled, both here and the story of Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), but the true role of the incense is to heal and atone. We see this on Yom Kippur when the Cohen Gadol brings incense into the Holy of Holies, and this atonement aspect is mentioned with the instructions to build the gold altar for the incense offering (Exodus 30:10). The Midrash continues this theme to say that the incense brings atonement both in this world and the World to Come (Tanchuma, Tetzaveh 16).

But, again, I ask why? Why is this substance such a powerful vehicle for atonement? I already mentioned the unifying power of the ketoret, but the Kli Yakar adds another dimension. That great 17th century rav explains that this pleasant smelling smoke rising towards heaven 'hints to the soul, which is the most refined of the fine (dak, like the ketoret ingredients), which requires atonement to rise back to its place of origin (Exodus 30:1). The rising smoke reminds us of our own yearning to rise heavenward. What could be clearer?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


                Do the clothes make the man?  Or woman, for that matter?  I've never felt that way, and that may explain why I'm sartorially challenged. But the Torah, seems to make a case for the importance of clothing a few times.  For example, in the long descriptions of the priestly garments, but that could be explained away as a necessity of office, quite common in the premodern world (and still true in some countries).  There are other halachic qualifications for clothing, like the prohibition of wearing fabric which has linen woven with wool, or the ban on cross gender dressing.  Again, those laws are about philosophic separation of certain biological categories.  However, this week's Torah reading makes a daring fashion statement.  The mitzvah of tzitzit is a big deal, and gets tremendous coverage in our Sages and tradition.   It's hard to avoid the importance of this precept since we read about it every evening and morning.  So, let's take a fresh look at this critical concept.

                First of all we can't hide from the famous idea that the mitzvah of tzitzit hints at the entire corpus of 613 mitzvot.  Even though I believe that this principle is contrived, gematria of tzitzit is 600, plus 8 strings hang down and there are 5 knots.  C'mon on, that's just forced!  And the tradition of 5 knots isn't from the Torah anyway.  Nevertheless, the fact that our Sages make a point of it, means that they saw something crucial in the wearing of tzitzit.  Perhaps, because these strings can remind us of our mitzvah obligations, like tying a string to our finger reminds us to buy bread at the supermarket (or not, but it can't hurt).

                However, I think that there's something deeper going on.  Let's begin with the word begged.  This Hebrew word for clothing is related to the word for traitor.  Remember the short confessional prayer begins:  ashamnu, bagadnu.  That doesn't mean we are guilty; we have worn clothing.  It means that we acted treacherously.  A boged is a traitor.  We call clothing begged, because they conceal; they don't reveal.  From the beginning of the fashion industry, namely Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the intent is to hide.    When clothing reveals reality we call it levush (or promiscuous), but that's a discussion for another time (the curious can check out Psalm 93).

                So, let's look at our command: Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel (Numbers 15:38).  We begin with an article of clothing, whose job is to cover and conceal our body.  Then we turn our attention to the very edge of the garment.  From there we're off the clothing itself and discussing the tzitz or tassel, which is normally an ornament or decoration, not a necessary part of the whole.  Finally, even the fringe has an added, extraneous part, the single blue dyed thread.  The precept is drawing our attention further and further afield.  Rav Shimon Klein wrote:  In the Midrash, the thread of blue invites the imagination to sail beyond the sea, to the blue of the sky and to the Throne of Glory. It is as if the thread of blue comes from a different world and not from the districts surrounding man (http://etzion.org.il/en/occurrence-space-study-section-dealing-tzitzit).  This mitzva pulls us from the mundane towards the ethereal.  It hints at a superiority of the holy over the profane.  And specifically, it influences our eyes (verse 39) which are focused on this transition.  Why?

                The answer, I believe can be discerned if we just read the preceding material carefully.  Let's go back to chapter 10.  Moshe is pleading with his father in law, Chovav (aka Yitro) to stay with the Jews as they travel the desert.  Moshe tells him that he will be their 'eyes' (10:31).  This can mean that he will guide them, because he understands the dangers of the desert.  That section also introduces the most telling word in this week's parsha.  Verse 33 says that when the Jews set out without Yitro they spent three days scouting (latur) a place for rest.  That term latur appears in our parsha as the instruction to the 12 men who were going to Israel and is repeated seven times.  It usually means to scout but has been translated as search, spy, explore reconnoiter, investigate, and travel.  In modern Hebrew it means tour, just like it sounds.  Misrad HaTayarut is the Ministry of Tourism.

                Now let's go back to the section of tzitzit.  We're told:  This will be your fringe. You will see it and remember all the Lord's commands and do them. Then you won't go exploring the lusts of your own heart or your eyes (15:39).  And, of course, you guessed it, the 'exploring' in the verse is taturu.  When we look and inspect the world around us it must be through the prism of the blue fringe on our garment.  Otherwise, many false assumptions and conclusions can be arrived at.  We don't have to stray from God and the mitzvot, because the mitzvot themselves open horizons far broader than any found in normal earthly exploration.  It's sort of like Dorothy said, 'If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard.'  You can find amazing things without leaving your garment or environment.

                The section of tzitzit ends with the reminder that, 'I am the Lord your God, who took you out from the land of Egypt (verse 41).  Mitzrayim (Hebrew for Egypt) means the land of narrow straights.   By taking us out from the land of constriction, God granted us infinite possibilities.  Ten of the twelve scouts thought they were still bound by the norms of nature and history.  The mitzva of tzitzit is to remind us that there are no limits to Jewish destiny.  The Torah doesn't limit, it opens limitless possibilities. We just need to constantly remind ourselves of that reality by tying a string to our clothing.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


                The narrative in the book of Bamidbar takes a dramatic turn in the middle of this week's Torah reading.  The first two and a half readings of Bamidbar are pretty humdrum stuff.  We've got a lot of counting, and then less than exciting mitzvoth, like the nazirite and Pesach Sheini.  Actually, in the first ten chapters, about a third of the book, the only spiritually inspiring material, for me, is the Priestly Blessing.  That changes big time in this week's reading.  Starting with chapter eleven, we've got a very melodramatic chronicle of bitter complaining.  But it also includes mass deaths, sibling rivalry and passionate histrionics on the part of Yehoshua.  What changed?  And where do we see the dramatic turning point?

                At the end of chapter 10, Moshe asks, actually begs, his father in law to stay with the Jews in their journey into the desert, because after almost a year in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, they are finally about to travel.  Moshe tells his trusted mentor, 'We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel (Numbers 10:29).'  He's saying, in effect, 'C'mon, Dad, it's gonna be great!'  Chovav, alias Yitro, demurs.  He chose well.  Things deteriorate quickly.  Before we point out the exact spot where the abrupt change takes place. I think that we must ask:  How could Moshe get it so wrong?  I think that there are two reasonable approaches.  First, Moshe truly believed that the Jews had learned to trust God.  The aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf and the Jews' devotion in the building of the Mishkan led Moshe to believe that the nation was ready to face adversity with faith.  Rav Soloveitchik posits that Moshe wasn't so gullible, but he was presenting an eschatological vision.  He was informing his father in law that there would be a great end of time for the Jews and it was worthwhile to make this long-term commitment to Jewish destiny.  Plus, by the way, Yitro knew where the water was to be found.  Either way, the good times were soon to be a thing of the past.

                This brings us to the great divide.  Before this grand departure from Mt. Sinai, in many ways as impressive as leaving Egypt, the Torah proclaims two magnificent verses:  And when the ark travelled, Moshe said: 'Arise O God, and disperse Your enemies and those that hate You shall flee from before You.' And when it came to rest he would say: 'Return Hashem, the myriads of the thousands of Yisrael (Ibid. 35-36).'  These two verses (va-yehi binsoa ha-aron and u'venucho yomar), are well known to synagogue regulars, for they are recited when we remove and return the Torah to the sacred ark.  From this point on, things deteriorate fast.  But don't blame these verses.  They aren't part of the story.

                These two verses are set off from the rest of the story by two upside down letters nun.  These two sentinels appear like brackets, warning us that there's a break in the action.  Many authorities explain that these two verses really belong elsewhere in the Torah, but were placed here to separate the differing parts of the tale.  But the Talmud presents a different rationale:  Rebbi said: The markers indicate that this section is considered an independent volume. As in the verse, 'She hewed seven pillars' (Mishlei 9:1) - this refers to the seven books of the Torah. Who does this follow? It follows Rebbi who held that Bamidbar is three books (Shabbat 115b-116a).

                I've written about this amazing idea before.  I explained that all of history can be explained by these two verses, because humanity is always either on the move or settling down.  But this year I saw an idea by Rav Yair Kahn of Yeshivat har Etzion that I found truly worthy of retelling.  The book of Bamidbar, up until this point, has been about establishing the camp and the rules of the march. Many of these rules will apply to the community when they reach Israel. So far all has gone according to schedule.  But when the cloud ascends above the Tent of the Covenant, and they travel a mere three days, it all goes awry.  The nation starts to complain and that whining won't stop until God decides that this generation can't enter the Promised Land.  Rav Kahn notes the 'machaneh begins to malfunction.'  He holds that our narrative is unraveling.  So, we have two books of Numbers.  One is ideal, and describes the establishment of a stable Torah society.  The streets are straight and clean; people behave with consideration and empathy.  But then they move.

                It only takes three days for everything to go haywire.  I think that the people didn't truly understand the message of the two verses.  The people got used to an organized society, where the services were efficient.  It's not like that when you travel.  The delivery of food and water was less certain.  Packing and making camp were daily hardships.  Soon, after 3 days, some people snapped, and then others joined the chorus of whining.  Even Moshe lost his cool, and asked God to replace him.  The two verses were trying to teach them that travel is different from settled life, but they didn't get it, or accept it, until they hit the road.  And the road hit back.

                Rav Kahn wants to know why we bother presenting the picture of an efficient community.  Historically, that version never happened, and therefore it seems to have no significance. However, the Torah is not a history book. From the Torah's perspective, the ideal journey contains a truth that transcends the events, and does exist, even though it has yet to take place.  It is this belief which is the source of our undying faith that a time will come when this ideal community will become reality.  May we experience it soon.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


All of our Biblical chagim or holidays have both an historical and an agricultural component.  As I recently wrote the agricultural significance of these holidays is lost on us city slickers.  We Jews haven't been famous for our farming for quite awhile, at least in the Diaspora.  Thank God, our connection to the soil has been reestablished in the modern State of Israel.  But even there the Start-up Nation is replacing the Kibbutz Kountry.  We're also losing our agricultural connection to the season's.  When I was growing up you could tell the season by the produce department in the local super market.  No more!  Today we have fruits shipped from hemisphere to hemisphere.  So that we have luscious summer fruits all year round.  Bearing all this in mind, it's important to understand the agricultural connection to Shavuot, because the Torah never mentions the amazing historical event of Shavuot.  The farming allusion is all we have, therefore it behooves us to understand it.

When you read the two major sources of the holiday of Shavuot, it's remarkable that no historical reason is even hinted at.  In Leviticus we read:  You shall count until the day after the seventh week, namely, the fiftieth day, on which you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.  From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two loaves made from two tenths of an ephah (about a bushel); they shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23:16-17), and in Deuteronomy:  You shall count seven weeks for yourself; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing crop of barley, you shall begin to count seven weeks. And then you shall perform the Festival of Weeks to the Lord, your God, the donation you can afford to give, according to how the Lord, your God, shall bless you (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).  Not a word about, perhaps, the greatest event in human history, the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the only mass prophetic event ever.

Without a mention of revelation, the Torah defines Shavuot in two ways.  First it is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Pesach.  No other date is given.  Secondly, it is very connected to grain production.  We start to count the Omer from the first cutting of Israel's winter harvest, namely, barley, and then the actual celebration takes place when we begin reaping the wheat harvest.  Because we begin gathering the main life sustaining crop, we are told to be generous to those who need.  Back in Leviticus we are also reminded of the laws for the poor while reaping, leket, gleanings; shichacha, forgotten sheaves; and peah, corners.

The dating of the festival based upon Pesach is relatively easy to explain.  The significance of Shavuot can only be understood in the context of Pesach.  Receiving the Torah at Sinai was the purpose of the exodus, and many rabbis count it as the fourth step in the redemption process of Pesach, and is connected to the fourth language of redemption (Exodus 6:5-6).  This term is v'lakachti, meaning I took you as My people.  The celebrations are connected because they are only meaningful when seen as a combined event.  The receiving of the Torah on Shavuot gives meaning to the exodus on Pesach.

But what about the agricultural stuff?  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OBM helped to explain this when he described the difference between the katzir term used with Shavuot and the word asif describing Sukkot.  He wrote:  What is the difference between katzir and asif? Katzir is the first point in the agricultural process at which some sort of usable item emerges from the field. At this stage, the grain has developed to a point where it can begin its humanly controlled processes. However, it is still far from being a finished product. At the time of harvest, much potential has yet to be realized before the time of ingathering (The Challenges of Accepting the Torah, delivered Shavuot 1997).

Pesach is basically the time of planting; the results are not yet in our hands.  It's up to God whether there will be produce.  Sukkot is the end of the process.  It's time to take stock.  But Shavuot is the beginning of the hard work.  The first wheat grain is ripening.  Wheat becomes bread.  The process of taking the raw kernels and turning them into finished bread for the table is the epitome of human endeavor and technology.  The later technologies of textiles, mechanized transportation and electronics built on that original experience.  It's no coincidence that the first eleven melachot or prohibited acts of work on Shabbat are the process of producing bread from wheat.  Making bread is the paradigm of human creative activity.

Now we can apply this back to the Shavuot experience.  The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai was an act of love and kindness and largesse.  However, in a greater sense, it was a challenge to the human spirit.  God gave us a written Law, which we must obey.  But that's not the real challenge.  The real test is to develop the Oral Law, to adapt God's law to the lives we live.  The Torah is an eternal document; it will never be replaced or become obsolete.  However, it must be continually adapted and recalibrated for every age.  We must use this written Torah and the Oral Law to understand how to deal with new breakthroughs in medicine and technology.

The epiphany at Sinai is the gift that keeps on giving.  Every year we must recommit to the challenge.  It's easy to say, 'I accept the prohibition of murder.'  It's not so easy to define when life ends, so that a heart donation can be a life-giving gift and not an act of killing the donor.  Every year we stand, again, at the foot of the mountain, and vow to discover anew how the Torah guides our lives.  No one said it would be easy.  Chag Sameach!!   


Monday, May 22, 2017

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


Throughout history most of us have been farmers.  At the time of the American Revolution ninety-seven percent of Americans were farmers of some sort.  Today, less than two per cent of workers in the States are farmers.  The biggest change took place during World War I, when mechanization took the place of all those going into the army or producing the material of war.  Over the past few decades we've seen a similar change in Israel, from tillers of soil to producers of high tech.  But it's clear that the history of technology began with the development of agriculture. There's an Israeli historian/anthropologist, named Yuval Harari who has suggested in a book, entitled Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that humanity has suffered from this development.  Grain based diets allowed the great growth of populations and empires, but at the cost of personal freedom and periodic disasters of drought and famine.  Be that as it may, the history of humanity has unfolded together with the saga of food production.  So, it should come as no shock that Jewish law and tradition has a lot to say about agriculture.  Starting with Adam and Eve and continuing through the 39 prohibited activities of Shabbat, producing bread through the sweat of the brow is a major concern.  This symbiosis of Torah and agriculture reaches its apex this week, with the laws of shmitta or sabbatical years. 

There's a famous debate about the reason behind this rule that no farming infrastructure should be improved every seventh year.  Probably the most famous and reasonable position is that of Maimonides, who wrote that this year of fallow allows the fields to recover their fertility.  It allows the recovery of nutrients to make the fields even more productive.  The spiritual side of this practical position is that the farmer, too, can recharge batteries by Torah study and spiritual growth during this year of agricultural hiatus.  This extends the famous metaphor of humans as trees of the field.  Our work, rest and growth is firmly tied to the fields of our beloved homeland.  Remember, Maimonides quite often explains mitzvot not only in rational terms, but also practical terms.  He is teaching for both the times of exile and the, sadly, rare periods of normalcy, when Jews live in Israel.  

As powerful as this approach may be, there are many rabbis who attack it fiercely.  The arguments against this position are both physical and sacred.  Practically, they argue, this isn't the best way to give the fields rest.  Specifically, the Kli Yakar avers that the best system of fallow is a rotation of fields and crops based on three year cycles.  Okay, if you say so.  What does a city boy like me know?  Then these dissenters, point out that, if the purpose of the mitzva was increased output, then the punishment should be crop failure and famine.  However, that's not what the verses say.  The Torah calls for exile from our home land as the proper punishment.  It seems that the major issue of this precept is spiritual in nature.  It has to with the holy bond between the Jews and the Holy Land under the aegis of God. 

There may be an elegant compromise to this debate, based on a fascinating point raised by the Ohr Hachaim.  He raises the question:  How come this mitzva is communicated with the double introduction of both v'amarta (and He said) and v'dibarta (and He spoke)?  The holy rabbi explains that amira is a soft and encouraging language, while dibur is a more demanding and intimidating expression.  Is shmitta a soft, embracing mitzva or a harsh, difficult command?  He answers that there are both aspects to this mitzva.  For the well to do farmer, this is a harsh command.  He gives up a lot during the year of fallow, he is addressed with dibur.  On the other hand, the poor and the landless benefit greatly from the hefker (ownerless) status of the fields.  They can freely enter the fields of anyone and collect produce for the personal use of their families.  For the indigent, shmitta is a major economic boon; they are addressed with a gentle amira. 

Let's utilize this linguistic twist noticed by the Ohr Hachaim to help resolve the earlier argument.  According to Maimonides, shmitta  is a boon and opportunity for the farmer to replenish the nutrients of the fields and to recharge internal batteries as well. Judaism was the first civilization to recognize the benefits of rest for the body and soul.  Shmitta is shabbat for the land, as our weekly shabbat works  for us.  However, the majority of commentaries see this as a more difficult test of our faith in God as the true source of our sustenance and prosperity.  This test can sometimes be harsh and difficult.  It takes tremendous faith to resist the temptation of cheating a little and working the fields a bit, just a little trimming here and a bit of irrigating there.  The lessons of shmitta are lessons of faith, not agribusiness doctrine. 

Look, I don't know if the world is better or worse off, because of the intense cultivation of grains.  Personally, though, my opinion is that the lessons learned through the agricultural revolution of thousands of years ago have given humanity the tools of organization and innovation to account for much of what we call progress.  But I don't believe this debate much affects the Torah and its laws.  Through the Torah, God instructs us how to best make a moral society in common with our conditions. The Rav often said that the Torah is an evolutionary document, not a revolutionary one. 

So, shmitta doesn't teach about the benefits of grain as opposed to gathering berries and hunting prey.  But the Torah does inform us how to best relate to our Maker and our fellow human.  Shmita teaches great reverence and faith in God and great concern and consideration  for each other.