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Warning: Scary Things are Coming! Parshas Tzav

Yesterday was Purim. I was very meticulous in fulfilling the obligation of drinking until “one does not know the difference between Blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman!” Ergo, I was unable to stay up most of Thursday night writing a well-researched Shabbos email as I normally try to do. However, I just want to share a few observations with you in lieu of my regular piece.

Profusely pessimistic prognosticators proliferate easily throughout our community, and indeed our nation. The system is not working they say, everything is broken, and getting broken-er by the day. There are no jobs, the economy is secretly much worse than it appears, China is eating us up slowly, World War III is inching ever closer, our infrastructure is crumbling, Michigan State will lose to Middle Tennessee, ISIS has nuclear weapons, and alien invasions are imminent.

In the Jewish community, there are plenty of prophets of doom as well. Judaism means less and less to the young, Judaism is losing relevance, more people are assimilating, technology is eroding our ability and desire to remain passionately Jewish, Judaism isn’t compatible with the digital age, and alien invasions are imminent.

Although I love the doom and gloom as much as the next guy; when it comes to our Jewish community, I refuse to believe the negative hype. I just see too many good things going on to believe that we are on the highway to oblivion.

Last Shabbos, Partners Detroit had their annual Shabbaton at the Eagle Crest Marriott in Ypsilanti. Over 200 people came out, from all ages, and religious backgrounds, and together enjoyed the 25 Hours of Bliss (my favorite name for Shabbos). We had amazing gourmet Shabbos meals, joyful prayer services, fascinating lectures from internationally renowned speakers, hours of schmoozing and relaxing, all capped by a moving musical Havdalah.

During the Torah reading, we deviated from the standard Misheberach style, where people pledge money to charity in honor of the extra blessing (the Misheberach is a blessing that people get after being called to the Torah). Last week, the Misheberachs were awarded to people, not for money, but for making a commitment to step up their Jewish game. How beautiful were the commitments that rolled in!

One person committed to having his family go technology-free on Friday nights, so that they can really feel Shabbos in their home. One person committed to starting his day off every morning with the Modeh Ani prayer, ensuring that every day he gets out on the right side of the bed! Another person committed to making blessings on his food so that he recognizes the myriad blessings that G-d showers him with on a daily basis. Yet another person committed himself to working harder to support our Jewish schools to make sure our next generation gets the absolute best Jewish education possible! These are not the echoes of doom and gloom, these are beautiful buds bursting forth on the tree of our people!

This Purim was yet another testament to the great things our people can expect in the future. On Wednesday night, after the Megilla reading, I had the honor of joining a bris meal that went past midnight. The bris had been performed earlier that day, but because it was the Fast of Esther, the meal was pushed off until after the Megilla reading. Sitting at one long table were about fifty people, the majority of whom were members of the Yeshiva Beth Yehuda Kollel. These extraordinary people, from the brightest and most talented people I know, dedicate their lives to the pursuit of Torah study. Instead of getting the great jobs people of their talents could easily get, they spend their entire day studying the Word of G-d! It’s like people who decide to spend their lives in research instead of business, only their field of study is Torah, G-d’s prescription for the perfect world.

I cannot spend enough time with the people of the Kollel. They all exude joy and kindness, love and passion, holiness and sanctity. I literally feel myself becoming better just by being around them. And how were they spending their Purim night? Sitting around a table laden with food and drink, sharing inspiring ideas, singing, dancing, and giving blessings to the father of the newly Brissed child that the young boy who just entered the covenant of our people should grow up to be an amazing Torah scholar (like his father!) who dedicates his life to G-d and His people! Good things are coming down the road my friends, good things are coming!

From there, my next stop was Yeshiva Gedola, a local Yeshiva that is one of the great beacons of spiritual light in our city. The Yeshiva had a special meal set up for Purim night, but it only started at 1:30am; until then, the boys of the Yeshiva were sitting and learning! As I walked into room after room, they were all filled with young boys and men sitting and studying the Wisdom of Our People!

Purim day, of course, is probably the best day to see where our people are headed. It may have been pouring rain non-stop for most of the day, but that didn’t stop the entire community from spending the day delivering Mishloach Manot gift baskets. If you asked me how many gift baskets do I think exchanged hands in a two mile radius of my home, I would estimate the number to be over 70,000! Adults give to their friends, every child gives to their friends, it’s simply a day of giving, giving, giving! And that is just the food gifts, how about the money?

Money flows on Purim like wine, people give with such insane generosity, that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. In the same two mile radius of my home, I would say that close to $1,000,000 was given away, and not just by one or two big players. Everyone opens their hearts and pocketbooks on Purim, everyone gives, and almost everyone gives more than their financial advisors would recommend. It is simply a day to be giving, a day filled with love for our fellow!

Of course the day continues with massive meals, groups of families sharing in the Purim feast together. After that, there is more singing and dancing, more joy, more hugs, more love. In the Megilla, the Jewish people were susceptible to a genocidal decree because they were splintered and divisive. When Achashverosh voiced his concerns about trying to defeat the Jewish people, citing all those before him who had failed, Haman told him that as long as the Jews were united, G-d would never let them be defeated, but Achashverosh need not worry, because the Jews of the time were divided, filled with infighting. When Esther hatches her plan to overthrow Haman, it starts with these words (Esther 4:16), “Go gather all the Jews!” Our success is in our unity, and nothing builds it better than a Purim!

What I see all around me is a community on the rise. I see Jews making Judaism more meaningful in their lives, I see Jews taking on more commitments to G-d and their community, I see people dedicating their lives to G-dly pursuit, and I see a community building more love, more giving, more sanctity, and more greatness for our glorious future. Alien invasions may be imminent, but barring them, G-d Willing, everything is going to be just fine!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Tzav, we continue the theme started last week in discussing various services done and offerings brought in the Temple. We learn about one offering that seems a bit strange, the todah (the thanksgiving offering). This offering was brought after a person emerged safely from a perilous situation, such as a serious illness or a hazardous journey. The question begs to be asked: does G-d really need our praise or a ‘thank you’ card?

G-d, the source of everything, certainly doesn’t need our praise. But we need to be people who give praise and gratitude. We need to recognize where the good in our lives comes from, and express it with our actions. In a world where G-d is so hidden, it is incumbent on us to recognize that the fortuitous events in our life are not the product of happenstance, but gifts from Above. The todah offering was a vehicle for showing that recognition.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837, Hungary- Poland), one of the greatest Torah minds of the last millennia, expands this idea further. He says that not only was the todah a way to express appreciation for the role G-d plays in someone’s life, it also paves the way for more kindness from Above. When a person shows heartfelt gratitude to someone else, it compels that person to continue doing whatever they did, as they know how much it means to the recipient. On the other hand, when someone shows no appreciation for the good others do for them, the giver is likely to refrain from giving again. No one enjoys giving when it isn’t appreciated. Rabbi Akiva Eiger supports this idea with a verse in Psalms, “One who slaughters a thanksgiving sacrifice honors Me, and I will prepare the way; I will show him the salvation of G-d.” (Psalms 50:23) When someone shows proper gratitude to G-d, He responds by showing us even more kindness.

There is a story that illustrates this point beautifully. A wealthy American individual, who we will call Mr. Stern, went to Israel on a philanthropic mission. Over the course of the week in Israel, he visited many of the institutions that he previously supported, and never left without writing a fresh check. In the evenings, he set up shop in his apartment in Jerusalem. For a few hours each evening people, would stream into the apartment with requests for families, orphans, people stricken by illness, and a variety of other causes.

As he was about to leave for the airport on his last day, he asked his assistant if they could go to the Western Wall so that he could pray at our holiest site one last time before heading back to the US. They got to Western Wall well past midnight, and the plaza was almost empty. But upon approaching the Wall, Mr. Stern couldn’t help but notice a Hasidic man crying tearfully at the wall, totally absorbed in a conversation that seemed to stretch up to the heavens.

After hearing this man crying for five minutes, Mr. Stern approached him and asked him if there was anything he could do to help. The man thanked him, said he was not in need of anything, and returned to his prayers. But Mr. Stern couldn’t bear seeing this man crying his heart out, and after another few minutes, approached him again, explaining that he had just helped many people, and would be happy to help him, whatever the situation. Again, he was rebuffed. Finally, Mr. Stern said, “I accept that you don’t need my help, but can you share with me why you’re in so much pain? It hurts to see a fellow Jew crying so much.”

The man explained, “I’m not crying out of pain, I’m crying tears of joy! I just married off my tenth and last child, and I just wanted to express my appreciation to G-d for everything He did for me!”

This man was bringing a modern todah. May we all merit to have much to be thankful for, and may we bring our own todahs!

Parsha Summary

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. 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. 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 Kohen had improper thought while bringing it (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.

Quote of the Week: To be a successful businessman, you must have remarkable talents. And if you have such taletns, why waste them on business? – Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

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: When you’ve seen one shopping center you’ve seen a mall.

Have a Restful Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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