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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Shemini/Parshas Parah 5774 "Inanimate Meaning"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then, it is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5)

In the Fall 2003 edition of Spirit Magazine[1], the feature article was authored by Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, a noted lecturer and rebbe from Long Island, NY. The article was entitled, “What are we davening (praying) for?” and was written as a reflection on the devastating tragedies of September 11th, 2001.

Rabbi Rabinowitz wrote that as everyone was reeling from the horrible events, he was invited by various groups to speak and provide insight into what had transpired. But he himself did not know what to say. At a complete loss, he contacted his rebbe, the legendary Rabbi Moshe Shapiro shlita in Yerushalayim and asked if he could join him for Shabbos. Rabbi Shapiro agreed. Before and after Shabbos the two spent numerous hours in deep philosophical discussion.

At one point Rabbi Shapiro asked Rabbi Rabinowitz if he thought people had changed because of the tragedy. Rabbi Rabinowitz replied that people indeed seemed more patient and tolerant of each other. They seemed more compassionate and generous and there was a refreshing sense of unity.

Rabbi Shapiro then asked Rabbi Rabinowitz if he felt people were praying differently and what he thought people were praying for. Rabbi Rabinowitz stuttered, “I guess for world peace, and for an end to the pain.”

Rabbi Shapiro replied, “Perhaps. But I am afraid that people are praying that things return back to the way they were. They want the world to return to the level of equilibrium and calm that existed before the attacks. They want to return to what was familiar, and what was comfortable. They are uncomfortable with the wellspring of unfamiliar emotions…They may even be praying that the whole thing should be one bad dream that never happened.

“That type of prayer is a big mistake! The Holy One guides the world in a very specific manner. Through the events of history G-d takes us from here to there. There is a beginning and a purpose for it all and G-d is guiding us there. The whole world is structured this way.

“The word shomayim (heaven) contains the word ”shom- there”. The word eretz (earth) – according to the Radak- is comprised of two words, “ani ratz- I run”. The world is a place of running and moving. But it’s not enough just to run. One can run in place and go nowhere. We must run in this world with a purpose, there must be ‘shom’ – a destination. If there is shom then the running has meaning. If there is no shom then we are running without direction.

“The Creator is sending us a message that we have to move away from what was to a new place where he wants us to be. G-d has a plan; He has a purpose for us. We must accept that life will no longer be what it was. “Mir darfen zich tzushtelen tzu ratzon haBorei- We must connect to what G-d wants of us!”

“I think people are afraid of the future and are fearful of the unknown, and, therefore, they are not praying to go forward but to return to what is familiar.”

In the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l, the Mirrer Mashgiach, discusses the reality of the world for one who lacks faith and belief in G-d. A faithless person believes that the forces of entropy take their natural course and set the world on a random path, which can best be described as a stroke of luck.[2]

Faith in G-d is the only concept that can give life direction (כוון) and purpose תכלית)). Without faith life lacks those vital qualities and one will be compelled to search for meaning and purpose in other areas in order to quell his yearning spirit. That is why people develop hobbies, including becoming passionate sports fans or developing ardent ties with political parties. These ideas and concepts become their complete focus and sometimes consume them completely. It is their replacement for their natural need to connect with something greater than themselves.

The challenge develops when the world stops appreciating one’s interests and no longer cares for his contribution. When this happens the person is left with a painful void in his heart; his existence may feel empty and overbearing. He may come to a bitter realization that he is coasting though a purposeless life. Often people resort to alcohol and drugs to numb the unbearable horrible pain that they feel. They may feel that if they have no worthy focus in their lives it is easier to just remove all focus altogether.

Our generation is particularly challenged with numbness. We set our lives on cruise control and continue to drive down life’s highway without hitting the breaks to search for meaning and insight.

The absolutely most painful realization of all is when one begins to think his life has no meaning; “A walking shadow…Signifying nothing.”

Secularists claim that one must counter that inner void and numbness with any means possible. In the words of famous American singer Frank Sinatra: “I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayers, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels.” We believe however, that the void stems from an inner calling, the soul within pining for meaning and connection with its eternal roots.

“It was on the eighth day”[3]. The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was complete and the seven days of “practice” were over; it was time for the Service in the Mishkan to officially commence. The gemara[4] relates that the day of the coronation of the Mishkan was as joyous before G-d as the day of the creation of the world. It was to be a day of unparalleled grandeur and significance.

In a sense, it was Aharon’s big day. When the celestial fire consumed the offerings that Aharon offered on the Altar, Aharon was vindicated as everyone saw that he was forgiven for initiating the sin of the golden calf. “A fire went forth from before G-d and consumed upon the Altar…the people saw and sang glad song and fell upon their faces”[5].

Just as the joy of the inauguration reached its crescendo however, tragedy struck. Aharon’s two oldest sons, two of the most elite leaders of the nation, performed an unauthorized service and were instantly killed. “The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, and they put fire in them, and placed incense upon it; and they brought before G-d an alien fire than He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G-d and it consumed them, and they died before G-d”[6].

The death of Nadav and Avihu, especially at such an unpropitious time, was a catastrophic tragedy. Suddenly the intense joy was transformed into shock, mourning, and grief. One can only imagine how personally devastating the loss was to Aharon. Yet, the verse relates his incredibly controlled reaction, “וידם אהרן – Aharon was silent”[7].

By nature, man has a penchant to find meaning and significance in all that occurs. We have a sense of security when we feel that we have a logical perspective of the mechanics and occurrences of the world around us. Thus, when something happens that defies logic and rationale, it shakes us to the core, and fills us with anxiety, apprehension, and angst.

The extent of true belief in G-d is achieved when one is comfortable with the notion that we do not, and cannot, comprehend the Divine Plans. One who possesses real faith is secure with the knowledge that ultimately there is a Master who controls everything and only acts out of justice and goodness. The man of faith – even with tears falling from his eyes and reeling from the magnitude of painful events that occurred – is able to maintain a sense of internal security and peace of mind. He may be deeply pained and full of questions; however, he takes solace in knowing that there are indeed answers though he may not be privy to them.

In describing Aharon’s reaction of silence the Torah uses the word “vayidom” and not the more common word “vayishtok” because the word ‘vayidom’ is similar to the word ‘domem- inanimate’. The Sages say, “עשה עצמו כדומם- Aharon made himself like an inanimate object.” A stone cannot comprehend anything that occurs in front of it because it lacks the mental capacity for understanding. Aharon realized that he was unable to grasp the depth of the precision of the Divine Justice meted out here. He recognized that, in relation to the celestial, he was analogous to an inanimate, lifeless, and clueless pebble. Aharon was able to submit to that existential understanding despite his incredible personal pain because of his unwavering faith in G-d.

The prophet[8] speaks of the challenges of the end of time. Just prior to the Messianic era everything will be perplexing and enigmatic. The Divine Plan will be obscure and faith will be severely tested. But, “ המשכיל בעת ההיא ידום - One who is wise, at that time he will be silent.” In the face of adversity and dubious events the man of faith adopts the attitude of Aharon, as an inanimate object who cannot grasp what is beyond it.

Most people live with an attitude of blame and pointing fingers at others. The American mentality is that as soon as something goes awry we ask whose fault it was[9]. In reality, this is a defense mechanism protecting us from our fear of facing the true meaning behind events and the ramifications it should have on our lives.

Because our faith is so flimsy, when a tragedy occurs, Heaven forbid, our faith can be shaken. The root of the crises of faith stems from the fact that our faith was too fragile to begin with because it was built on false presuppositions and ideologies. In a sense, we sugarcoat our faith and tailor it to fit with our own agenda; “That could never happen to me! G-d would never challenge me in that manner!” Because of that attitude, when tragedy strikes, Heaven forbid, it catches us off guard and our faith is immediately challenged.

It behooves us to build our faith with proper understanding before we are faced with the inevitable challenges that arise in life. “עשה עצמו כדומם” was Aharon’s attitude about life generally. That was why when tragedy struck his intense sorrow and grief did not shake his faith.

The Jewish philosophy of purity and holiness does not entail abstinence and cessation[10]. In fact, Judaism espouses the belief that holiness is ubiquitous and can be generated wherever and whenever one strives to do so. One also becomes holy, not despite his pitfalls, setbacks, and errors, but because of them. The future must be built on one’s past and present, on one’s accomplishments and failures.

In the words of Rabbi Shapiro: “The Holy One guides the world in a very specific manner. Through the events of history G-d is taking us from here to there. There is a beginning as well as a purpose for it all and G-d is guiding us there.”

The holidays of Purim and Pesach are predicated on this idea. The pains that we suffered at the behest of Pharaoh and Haman were the keys to the national spiritual growth that occurred when we were saved from their evil clutches.

The Jews who lived through Haman’s rise and fall at the time of the Purim miracle did not pray that things revert to how they were before Haman came on the scene. They realized that it was only through that difficult encounter that the great story of Purim, with all of its positive spiritual ramifications, could occur. The same held true at the time of the exodus from Egypt.

The reading of the Red Heifer - Parshas Para - which discusses the process of purity is strategically read between the great holidays of Purim and Pesach. This reminds us that purity emanates from one who takes their past into the future and strives to grow from it all. The past and the present are the roots of the future!

Rabbi Kokis concluded his lecture with the following story:

I knew a simple yet holy Jew, a ba’al teshuva[11], who went rowing out on a lake with his son one summer’s day. While they were out on the water the boat capsized and the man helplessly watched his son drown.

Despite his anguish the man was somehow able to come to terms with the harsh decree with love. He was a generally happy person who lived without complaints. About fifteen years ago I went to visit him. He was lying in bed dying from the cancer that was ravaging his body. During our conversation he smiled and said, “I always wondered why my son was taken from me in such a tragic manner. Now I am going to find out!”

“Aharon was silent”

Mir darfen zich tzushtelen tzu ratzon haBorei

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[1] “Spirit: Exploring family issues and developmental disabilities” is published quarterly by Yedei Chessed, an affiliate of Bikur Cholim of Monsey.

[2] The following thoughts are based on a lecture given by Rabbi BenZion Kokis, Mashgiach of the Bais Medrash of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, to the members of the Yeshiva’s Kollel during the week of parshas Shemini 5765

[3] Vayikra 9:1

[4] Megilla 11a

[5] Vayikra 9:24

[6] Vayikra 10:1-2

[7] Vayikra 10:3

[8] Amos 5:13

[9] “Did you sue?”

[10] These concluding thoughts are my addition

[11] one who became religious later in life

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