Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pesach: Both Beautiful and Ugly

The Midrash explains the verse, "I am black but comely" (Song of Songs 1:5) in the following fashion:

 "I am black in my own actions; but I am comely in the deeds of my forefathers."

The Poor Palace Dweller

A visitor once came to a city and beheld a peculiar sight:  an elegant residence in the finest part of the city, but in terrible disrepair. The grounds were overrun with weeds, and the trees were barely alive. Many of the windows were cracked and broken, stuffed with rags to keep out the cold and the wind.

Curious, he turned to a local resident, who explained to him that the beautiful house belonged to an indigent fellow who had inherited the home from wealthy ancestors. The current owner, however, lacked the funds to properly maintain the house.

"Were you to meet him," he continued, "you would see a thin man wearing an expensive suit - a suit that his father had bought for him for his wedding - and with rags on his feet."

The Israelites in Egypt

This was the state of the Israelites in Egypt. The Jewish people said: "I am black but comely." I have two contradictory qualities, I am both ugly and beautiful. I am blessed with some very good traits, but I also have some very bad ones. The reason for this situation: the good traits are those which I inherited from my lofty ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The bad ones, on the other hand, are my own negative traits, the result of my spiritual poverty.

(Adapted from Mishlei Yaakov, pp. 319-320)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Vayikra: The Original Contract

I did not speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)

How could the prophet Jeremiah say such a thing, when the book of Leviticus is filled with the laws of korbanot and Temple offerings?

The Sneaky Contractor

Jacob decided to build a new home, and found a contractor who was willing to take on the project. Jacob and the contractor drew up a basic contract which set down the cost and schedule for building the house.

Jacob then completed a detailed document of many pages, specifying the exact type of materials to be used for constructing the house  –  the size and quality of windows and doors, the style and color of ceramic floor tiles, measurements and type of wood for the kitchen cabinets, and so on.

The contractor began collecting all of the materials needed for building the house, until everything was ready to start the actual construction.

But then he had a devious thought – did he need to actually build the house? After all, the contract only detailed everything that went into the house – and that he had already provided!

The contractor approached Jacob and said: “Here, I have fulfilled everything in the contract. You have here all of your drywall, doors, windows, tiles, cabinets, and so on. If you want, you can now go ahead and put together your house.”

“You scoundrel!” cried Jacob. “You may have produced all the materials mentioned in the specifications document. But what about the basic contract which you signed, where you promised to build a house?”

The Basic Contract from Egypt

When the Jewish people were still in Egypt, God commanded Moses in a general fashion: “When you take the people from Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain” (Exod. 3). Afterwards, when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, God provided a Torah with a detailed description of each aspect of this service.

If a person performs all of the particulars of this service of God, but his intention is only for his own benefit – such a person has fulfilled the detailed contact from Sinai, but has ignored the overall command that God told Moses in Egypt, “You shall serve God.” He is like the contractor who only took into account the specifications document, and ignored the original contract.

This is precisely the intent of the prophet - don't be content with a superficial observance of the rituals of serving God:
“I did not speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them: Obey Me, so that I am your God and you are My people.”
(Adapted from Mishlei Yaakov, pp. 189-190)