Of Israel and Belgium, in Health and Illness…Tzav – Shabbos Hagadol
Lying at home in bed, tossing and turning all day and night, shivering from cold and burning up in fever, is one of my least favorite things to do. But at least it’s at home, a home filled with the voices of those you love, in the room and bed you are most familiar with. Lying sick in some other country, in a strange bed, with no one around, is one of my even less favorite things to do. And when that country is my most beloved of countries, a country I love to walk and roam, a country in which every bit and parcel I delight, it is even worse. Yet that is how I spent last week.
On a Partners Detroit trip to Israel, with a group of twenty amazing dads, some I knew well, and some I was just getting to meet, I fell ill to a virus. Some microscopic jumble of malevolent DNA had entered my body and wreaked havoc on it for the greater part of a week. So while my friends, new and old, were exploring the Old City of Jerusalem, praying at my beloved Kosel, hiking the Zavitan riverbed, visiting wineries of the Golan Heights, and exploring the organizations of kindness Israel is so well known for, I was lying on my back, in an unfamiliar bed, without a human voice around.
It was a strange and difficult experience. Trips to Israel usually invigorate me, I find myself needing very little sleep. I’m always up for a midnight trip to the Kosel, or a long late-night talk on the shores of the Kinneret. And while I’m usually not one accused of being low-energy, on trips I seem to find a spare battery pack, and I’m bursting with energy, running up and down the bus, talking to people, sharing ideas on the mike, dancing and singing at the slightest provocation. But on this trip, even when I was not alone in my room lying in bed, even when I rejoined the rest of the dads on the trip, I was about as energetic as a cactus. My energy was sapped, I spent the majority of the trips in the back row of the bus, no one really wanted to be near me for fear of catching whatever I had, and I didn’t have the strength to hold a conversation for longer than a few minutes.
Throughout my illness, I constantly wondered why Ha-shem wanted me to come halfway around the world, to His hometown, just to be relatively useless? More on that later…
I finally got back to 95% on Sunday evening, and by that time, the trip was over. But I wasn’t going home. On my way back from Israel, I would be flying through Belgium, and I had a quick two day Belgian adventure planned with my brother. My brother and I had a lot of great travel experiences together when we were both single, but life as adults is demanding, and we rarely get to see each other, so this was something we’d both been looking forward to for a long time. And thank G-d, it was all we had hoped it would be.
We spent time in three cities, Brussels, Bruges, and Antwerp. Each had their own unique flavor. Brussels is the cosmopolitan capital of Belgium, but is also the de facto capital of the European Union and NATO, so it is quite a multicultural city. Upon exiting the train station, we headed to the Great Synagogue of Europe, which is quite an impressive structure, but it was unimpressively closed, so all we saw was the structure.
From there we walked to the Grand Place, also known as the Grote Market in Dutch, an incredible square surrounded by building that would each be remarkable on its own, but together create a jaw-dropping sight. Most of the buildings were built in the 1500’s and 1600’s, but have undergone a lot of restorative work, both after the French bombarded and burnt most of the square in 1695, and more recently as well to keep them at their peak beauty.
There are three main buildings that dominate the square; the Town Hall with its 315 foot-tall spire, the Gothic Revival styled King’s House, and the House of the Dukes of Brabant which is actually seven houses combined under one magnificent façade. Flanking those buildings on all sides are impressive guild houses built by the powerful guilds, the worker’s unions of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. These include the Houses of the Cartwrights, the Bakers, the Greasers, the Carpenters, the Boatmen, the Haberdashers, and so on. All the buildings have ornate statues and lavish gold gilding along their facades and tops, which create a dazzling display as the sun graces them with its rays.
From Brussels, we took a train to Bruges, a quaint town built on the banks of canals that was once one of the world’s most important commercial centers. Often called “the Venice of the North,” it was spared from the ravages of war throughout the centuries and has almost all its medieval architecture intact, making it one of the best-preserved cities in the world. Building from the late 1600s are the new kids on the block. We took a beautiful canal boat tour, gliding under bridges not much higher than our heads while we looked at the fascinating architectural gems all over the city. Besides the canals, there are two main squares in Bruges, Market Place and the Burg, each flanked with their own beautiful buildings. The Belfry of Bruges is a massive 272 foot clock tower that dominates Market Place, and visibly leans to the left, while the City Hall in the nearby Burg has dozens of impressive statues on its façade of various people that were part of the city’s history.
We overnighted in a hotel that started its life in the 1500s as a palace of the Burgundian nobility, and after a late start the next morning headed to Antwerp, the former diamond capital of the world, and home to a lively Jewish community. There are about 12,000 Chassidic Jews in Antwerp, making it one of the only cities in continental Europe where you can see Jews proudly walking the streets, or riding their bicycles, in a distinctly Jewish garb.
Antwerp has one of the most incredible train stations in the world, a soaring massive structure of stone and glass that takes rail travel from the mundane to the glorious.
Like almost every European city, Antwerp has a large beautiful open square, with gorgeous buildings and café’s lining the sides. But we found even more interesting the Plantin-Moretus Museum, found in the sprawling house and print shop of two influential families that dominated the book printing world for hundreds of years, including the printing of many Jewish works, from beautiful illuminated Haggadahs to Torah’s and many commentaries. Our world is run by the word more than the deed, and it was the written word coming off the printing presses and printshop rooms we visited that influenced Catholic, Calvinist, and Jewish learning for centuries. The Plantin-Moretus company also printed many of the formative medical textbooks, botanist guides to plants around the world, and ethical works aimed at teaching society to be more civilized.
But Antwerp was a very important stop for my brother and myself for another reason. For the first day and a half we couldn’t find any kosher food, and we knew that in Antwerp we would find multiple kosher restaurants. Belgians love their food, and they proudly tout a few major dishes. Most famous of all is the Belgian waffle. In all three cities that we visited, one cannot walk through any tourist area without passing a waffle shop every hundred meters or less. The waffles are large and rich, and they are piled high with toppings, from strawberries and cream, to bananas and cream, thick chocolate, caramel and cream, butter and chocolate and endless other delightful varieties. They are usually sold for €2, but look and smell so heavenly that I would have gladly paid €12! Of course, all the shops we passed were not kosher, so we kept holding out for Antwerp, where we’d finally get a proper kosher Belgian waffle.
Another Belgian specialty is their chocolate. For every waffle shop there were probably three chocolate shops. If you were allergic to chocolate stores, you’d basically need to stay out of Belgium, because they are EVERYWHERE! Windows piled high with every type of truffle imagine, specialty shapes, and chocolate dipped cookies, it’s enough to make a chocoholic go literally mad. But again, none of the chocolates were kosher, so we waited on Antwerp to finally sample these Belgian delights. There are of course the twice fried Belgian fries, and the thick Belgian stews as well. Antwerp, Antwerp, here we come!
However, when we got to Antwerp, much to our dismay, we could find none of it! Not a single proper Belgian waffle in the whole city! (There was one kosher store that sold waffles, but the man behind the counter immediately told us that these were not the real Belgian waffles, and indeed he was right. It looked and tasted like a waffle taken out of a package, microwaved, and then topped with a weak soft-serve ice cream.) As far as Belgian chocolate, also not much. We did find one pre-packaged Belgian-made kosher truffle package, but on a scale of 1-10, I’d give them a 3 at most. The vast majority of the kosher chocolate we saw in Belgium was made in Israel or New York.
As far as other Belgian foods? There was a kosher Chinese restaurant, and a Mediterranean one, as well as an Israeli shwarma joint, and some pizza shops, but nothing specializing in Belgian cuisine! The most famous kosher restaurant in Antwerp, Hoffy’s, was a celebration of Jewish foods, most frequented by gentiles with a hankering for Jewish cuisine. I don’t need to go halfway around the world for gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, schnitzel, cholent, potato kugel, and kishke! We did eat there, and very much enjoyed interacting with one of the four Hoffman brothers who run the restaurant, but he openly told us that there was no Belgian cuisine on the menu! It was fascinating to see so many non-Jews excited to have gefilte fish, and indeed some travel from over 100 kilometers away just to dine at Hoffy’s, but for us, it was like having our Shabbos dinner on a Wednesday night!
So here we were in Belgium, surrounded by the sights and smells of all this amazing food, and not able to eat a morsel of it!
But here is the interesting thing; when you are deprived of something you become much more aware of who you are, and what you’re doing on this planet. When you’re sick while on a trip abroad, so close yet so far from all the amazingness of Israel, you recognize how much you value the power and majesty of the Holy Land. You crave the time you spend in quiet contemplation at the Kotel, you so much ache to be part of all the learning and kindness being done all around you. You yearn to rejoin the people on your trip, to talk to them, learn with them, experience the joys of Israel with them.
When you are surrounded by delicious food, but unable to eat it, you become much more aware of the fact that you are a Jew, and have a special cuisine called Kosher that sets you apart from the rest of humanity. It is a visceral reminder that we have not just a special diet, but also a special mission in this world. Every waffle and chocolate store that beckons you, but doesn’t get you, is also a sign saying, “You are different, you are special, you have a different set of goals and priorities than the millions of tourists eating great €2 Belgian waffles!”
Next week, we start Pesach, the holiday where we become hyper aware of all the things we can’t do. We can’t eat bread, or cookies, cereal, cinnamon buns, doughnuts, challah, or pasta. The whole house is scrubbed clean, the dishes are different, the matzah is a harsh bread, and it is ubiquitous for all eight days of Pesach. But when our entire norm is upended, we are forced to reflect, and the question every child asks becomes real for us as adults too, “Why is this night different from all the nights? On all the nights of the year we eat whatever we want, but tonight we eat only this flat, dry, matzah?”
Matzah is called Lechem Oni, which has two connotations, it is the Bread of Affliction, but it is also the “Bread on which we Declare (Onim) Many Things. (Tractate Pesachim 115B)” It is this departure from the norm that is a visceral reminder of who we are, and where we come from as a people. It is a reminder of how at this time of the year our people burst out of their national constraints and a time in which each year we need to visualize ourselves bursting out of our personal constraints. And for eight days, every time we see a doughnut or cookie that we know we can’t have, we are once again reminded of how we are different, how on Pesach we celebrate a nation not only leaving slavery but more importantly entering into a unique relationship with G-d as His chosen people, with a singular job of bringing more of His G-dly light into the world.
It is when we strip away the normal that we realize that we are not normal. It is when we are forced to come to terms with all that we cannot do or have, that we realize so acutely what we need to do and have. It is on Pesach, when there is so much we can’t have, that we realize all that we do have, and all that we want to have in our lives. And that recognition is where the freedom of Pesach really starts.
This Shabbos (the one directly preceding Pesach) is called Shabbos Hagadol, the Big Shabbos. There are many different reasons for this title, including the fact that the Rabbi usually delivers a BIG pre-holiday sermon on this Shabbos.
However, the primary reason given is that back in Egypt it was on this day that all the Jews selected sheep for their Pesach offerings. When the Egyptians queried the Jews about this sudden strange behavior (on one day thousands of Jews selected sheep and tied them to the bedposts) the Jews explained that they were going to offer these sheep, which the Egyptians worshipped as gods, as sacrifices. This would be the equivalent of Jews preparing stacks of Korans for burning in the middle of Islamabad, yet miraculously no Jews were hurt. This BIG miracle is what gave Shabbos Hagadol its name. Let’s see if we can find some connection between Shabbos Hagadol and this week’s Parsha, Parshat Tzav.
This Parsha follows the previous Parsha in dealing with the Temple offerings. Let’s focus on one offering discussed in this Parsha, the Thanksgiving Offering. If a person survives a very dangerous experiences, such as severe illness or perilous travel, they are required to bring a special offering called a todah, an offering that is quite unique.
There are two general levels of holiness to offerings. The higher level called kodshei kodashim can only be eaten by Kohanim in the confines of the temple. The lower level, called Kodshim Kalim, can be eaten by almost any Jew in the whole city of Jerusalem. The higher level offerings are generally allowed to be eaten for just one day and one night while the lower level offerings may be eaten for two days and one night. The todah is an anomaly. It is from the lower level, which means that we should be allowed to eat it for two days and one night, but it can only be eaten for one day and night like the higher level offerings. Additionally, the person bringing the todah brings 40 loaves of bread (ten each of four different kinds of bread). Four are given to the Kohen, and the rest are returned to him to eat in that one day and night period. Why is the todah different from all the other sacrifices in its class (yep, I’m in that “why is this different from all the rest…” mode)?
The Sages tell us that the whole purpose of this offering is to give thanks to G-d for His salvation and to praise His name. Therefore, the more people partaking in this offering the better. How sad it would be for a person to celebrate his salvation by himself. Gratitude and joy are feelings that are intensified when they are shared. (This is why we invite so many people to join our simchas such as weddings and bar mitzvahs!) Therefore, the Torah tells you to bring a full animal and 40 loaves of bread, but only gives you a day and night to eat it. This ensures that you will invite others to partake of your thanksgiving meal, making it a big event with many guests, and the name of G-d is glorified even more!
From here, we can make a direct connection to Shabbos Hagadol. This is the day we celebrate the Jew’s first experience with the Pesach offering, and lo and behold, the two offerings share some very similar characteristics. The Pesach offering is also in the category of the lower level of offerings but it can only be eaten from nightfall of Pesach until midnight of the seder night (approx. 6 hours total, to eat an entire sheep! Oh, how I miss the days of yore!) Additionally there is a mitzvah to count together a group of family and friends to make the Pesach offering together. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim estimates that there was no Pesach offering that had less than ten people partaking in it!
The Pesach offering is very similar to the Thanksgiving offering, on a conceptual level as well, because the Pesach offering is a way of expressing our thanks to G-d for the salvation we experienced as a nation! We were in a situation that was far more dangerous than a single person’s illness or travels; we were facing national identicide (that’s a term I made up, it means our entire nation almost lost its identity and would have been swallowed up by the greater Egyptian culture, as the identities of so many other nations have been lost over the years)!
Therefore, when we thank G-d for taking us out, we make sure to do it in a public fashion, at a seder with all of our family and as many guests as possible because, as we said above, gratitude and joy are feelings that intensify the more they are shared! So this year, when we sit at our seder, let’s take a moment to step back from the hustle and bustle to simply thank G-d for delivering us from the Egyptians, and giving us a unique national identity, one that is fused with the Torah, the guidebook that has led us through the Ages. (Maimonides actually includes this thanksgiving and praise of G-d as one of the things one must do to fulfill the obligations of the seder night!) May we merit seeing Mashiach right now, so that this year we can bring a real Pesach offering in a rebuilt Jerusalem!
Parshat Tzav continues with the listing of the Temple services/sacrifices begun in last week’s parsha. The first mitzvah mentioned is the removal of the ash from the Altar which was done daily before the offering of the first sacrifices of the day were sacrificed. The Torah mentions that the Kohen doing this job wears different vestments in order not to dirty his regular vestment, as Rashi explains “The clothing worn while cooking a dish for one’s master are not the same ones worn while serving him his cup of wine.” (This is one of the ideas behind why people have a custom to put on a jacket before entering the synagogue to pray. Our direct service of G-d should be something special for which we dress up. If you have to wear a jacket to get into your country club, you should certainly wear one while standing before G-d!)
The Torah then mentions the three pyres on the altar, one of which burned perpetually, 24/7, 365. When the Jews would travel in the desert a vessel was placed over it, but it kept on burning underneath the vessel, and when the Tabernacle was set up, they would take off the vessel and the fire was waiting for them. After this, the laws of the meal offerings are detailed, with an emphasis on a special meal offering brought by Kohanim on the inaugural day of their service and by the Kohen Gadol every day.
Then the Torah discusses some details of the sin offering and the guilt offering, with a short paragraph in the middle that teaches us the laws of Koshering (rendering usable) utensils that are not acceptable for some reason (e.g. a meat knife that was dipped in a boiling cheese fondue). Following this are the laws of some of the gifts given to the Kohen from the sacrifices, and the laws of the Thanksgiving offering (see above for more detail).
Next is a law called piggul which is interesting in that it refers to a sacrifice that is invalidated even though every action was performed properly, because the thoughts the Kohen had while bringing it were bad ones (this reinforces the idea that sacrifices are not just physical acts but mind-body experiences).
The Torah then prohibits the eating of sacrifices while one is contaminated, or eating sacrificial parts that have been contaminated even though one is pure. It also enumerates certain fats which we are forbidden to eat and the prohibition of drinking (or tasting in our food) the blood of an animal. After that, there is a description of the order in which parts of sacrifices are brought up on the Altar, and which portions among them are given to the Kohen.
Finally, the Torah describes the consecration of the Kohanim for service. For seven days, Moshe dressed them in their vestments and offered sacrifices before them. This helped prepare them for the eight day, when the inauguration of the Tebaernacle took place and they began their service in the temple. This is also a great lesson, as it indicates that service of G-d is not something we can expect to be able to just “jump right in to.” It connects the human and the divine, and requires preparation, sincerity, humility, and an earnest building process. That’s all folks!
Quote of the Week: Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak, courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. ~ A. Gambiner
Random Fact of the Week: Roughly 12% of all workers in the US have at some point worked for McDonalds.
Funny Line of the Week: An optimist is someone who falls off the Empire State Building, and after 50 floors says, “So far so good!”
Have a Spotless Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham