Friday, February 25, 2011

VAYAKHEL: Golden Rings/Golden Calves

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

There are times when it is painstaking to hear certain sections of the Torah which are repetitive. Endless detail. No minutiae are spared in the retelling. Parshat Vayakhel is one of those times.

Way back in Parshat Mishpatim Moses ascends Mt. Sinai. And for two whole parshas Hashem is teaching Moses all the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and its various holy accoutrements (Parshat Terumah), and of the holy garments to be worn by the priests while serving in the Mishkan (Parshat Titzaveh). And then, following a short break in Parshat Ki Tissa, over another two whole parshas (Vayakhel and Pikudei), the entire instruction manual of the Mishkan, its holy vessels, and of the garments of the priesthood is repeated all over again as Moses is now teaching it to the people, recounting all he had learned while atop the mountain.

The forty days he ascended the mountain correspond to the six weeks/parshas which span the narrative! And the two extra days symbolize the two ascents! Of course, the fulcrum for the two accounts is the Golden Calf narrative. We are taught that G*d always provides the cure/therapy (teruphah) before the sickness (machalah). G*d seemingly realizes that the people are in great need for a visceral, experiential taste of spirituality. A dispassionate embrace of an intellectualized cerebral appreciation of the ethical monotheistic ideal would have to await a future sojourn to the yeshivas of Lithuania.

Meanwhile, the people needed more. Hence the Golden Calf. So G*d is instructing Moses in the minutiae of the Golden Vessels so that their spiritual needs may yet be met. To journey from a land and a consciousness of towering god/statues, pyramids, gold-suffused spiritual iconography to a "mere" stark contemplation of the Infinite One was too much to ask. It was stress inducing. And G*d knew it. But Shabbat is the centerpiece, the calm and tranquil eye in the storm of life's middle.

Before unveiling the blueprints for the physical structure of the Tabernacle, we are given the blueprint for the spiritual garment of the soul, namely the Sabbath.The absurd finitude of the Golden Calf is contrasted with the ultimate infinitude of the Sabbath. And the Sabbath itself by definition is a deja vu experience for the soul, much as the narratives surrounding it in the Torah powerfully suggest a certain ring of familiarity regarding the construction of the physical Tabernacle. How so?

In Genesis, in the Creation of theWorld, the realm of the infinite was given an abode in the realm of the finite. Heschel teaches that the Sabbath is a Palace in Time, much as the Tabernacle was a Palace in Space. Indeed the word for "world" in Hebrew (olam), also means "infinite." The notion of "the world" suggests infinity in terms of space, much as the idea of "forever" connotes infinity in terms of time, each sharing a common quality of endlessness. The soul, an aspect of G*d which was exiled from the infinite realm of the upper world to the finite realm of this world, once again gets to taste the spiritual bliss of the Infinite One.

And once again, through the construction of the Mishkan, the material qualities of this world are likewise infused with the spiritual essence of heaven. This is the deepest meaning of the neshama yeterah, the extra soul that we receive on the Sabbath. The Sod Yesharim (Rabbeinu Gershom Chanoch Chenech of Radzin/ son of the Holy Izbeca) explains that just as Moses gathered ("vayakhel") the people as one nefesh (body and/or soul) a second time with regard to teaching the Sabbath, so too is the body infused with a second soul on the Sabbath. Resting on the Sabbath draws down an extra aspect of Divine Light into the world.

Just as the Golden Calf episode functions as the fulcrum between the narratives of the construction of the Tabernacle in all their painstaking detail, so too, in Parshat Chayei Sarah (Gen 24:22) the placing of the Golden Ring (haNezem haZahav) functions as the fulcrum in the painstaking retelling by Rebecca of her encounter with Eliezer, Abraham's servant. A seeming precursor to our own parsha of this week, not a single twist is left out of the retelling. But why? What is the connection?

First is the idea of kindness, that through the kindness that we show one another we may bring redemption to the world. The other idea linking the two narratives is embodied by the very bracelets themselves. When Eliezer placed the Golden Ring on Rebecca, for all time would Jewish women, her descendants, wear that ring. And never take it off.

When Aaron was forced into making the Golden Calf he approached the men and the women for their gold rings and bracelets, with which to make the idol. Many men gave. But all the women refused! As the first post- Sinaitic refuseniks in history, the women were rewarded with their own holiday- Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon, symbolized by the shape of the Ring which they refused to give up. And today our holy women refuse to give up the Sabbath. They are its guardians, who envelop the home with the sanctity of the Shechinah, the Indwelling Presence of the Heavenly Abode.

Jewish women gather together in the home each Friday towards evening, in homes all around the world, together kindling the fires, the holy flames that burned on Sinai, thus subduing, replacing, the other, opposite fires, the fires that burn in Gehennom. Even the fires of gehennom abate on Shabbat. And yet the light of Shabbat endures.

Our mothers, the Jewish women who embody the qualities ofkindness and mercy (chesed verachamim), also embody the peace and serenity of the Sabbath. Therefore, we are known as "rachmanim b'nai rachmanin-merciful ones, the children of merciful ones (our mothers)." Just as Shabbat brings peace to the soul, kindness brings peace between people. Shabbat is the recharging mechanism for our souls, helping us to bring peace and kindness into the world. It has a heavenly taste, being that it is a joyful gathering of light, peace and love, the hallmarks of the heavenly realm.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000-2011 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l. And in the merit of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther Bat Baruch, z"l.

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me, and was born on the first day chol hamoed Sukkos, which is also the yahrzeit of both Rebbe Nachman and the Vilna Gaon.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

The parsha is an amazing crystal ball, so to speak- actually a prism, by which to understand world events. The Torah speaks to our inner human drama. But it also speaks both symbolically and metaphorically to the drama of world events - our outer human drama. The Torah is both timeless and topical at the same time.

The Arab world's most populous country, Egypt, is undergoing a revolution. The world anxiously hopes that this "people's revolution" will finally bring the Arab world into the liberal progressive world of responsible democratic self governance, with respect for the rights of all minorities to live in peace and justice equal to that of the majority. But recent attacks on journalists have threatened to pull back the curtain a little to enable the world a glimpse of Egypt's dark side.

An examination of the word for Paro (Pharaoh) is quite fascinating. The Torah could have merely used the common term for king, which is melekh. But it doesn't. It uses the word Paro, a word which also connects to the episode of the Golden Calf which is a central feature of this week's parsha. It also relates to the narrative of the Bitter Waters, the ordeal of the sota, which features later in the Book of Numbers, chapter 5, in parshat Naso.

In the Golden Calf episode, Moses descends the mountain in a fit of pique, angrily demanding of his brother Aaron how he could have allowed the people to make for themselves an idol, a Golden Calf. And the Torah describes (EX 32:25) Moses as saying that Aaron let the people loose, or wild (pharua/phraoh). In other words, he was forced by the unruly and wild, untamed mob to violate one of the central commandments of the decalogue, experienced in the recent theophany, expressed in stone, that Thou Shalt have No Other gods Before Me.

And back to Naso, the narrative of the Bitter Waters, or alternately, the Jealous Husband, in NUM 5:18, the priest instructs the woman accused by her husband of infidelity to let loose the hair of her head. The word for "let loose" is Pharah (uFarah et rosh haIsha).

How do all these cognate forms of PhaRO (Fey, Resh, Ayin) relate to each other? What thread connects their inner meanings? How do we create any sense of unity to weave together these seemingly disparate narratives?

Jealousy. The jealous husband suspects his wife of disloyalty in the marriage. G*d suspects (with evidence) the Israelite nation of disloyalty to their mutual covenant forged via the Exodus and Sinai. And G*d accuses Pharaoh of stealing the services of Israel, and even their hearts, when they serve Pharaoh instead of the One True G*d in their physical labors, and yearn to return to the comforts of a structured routine and secure life in Egypt, instead of having the proper emunah, the faith in G*d, to follow Him in returning to their land, Eretz Yisrael.

And lack of self discipline. The unruly mob surrounding Aaron is loose, figuratively speaking. The sota's hair is untied, loosened, undisciplined, symbolizing her alleged lack of moral discipline in the marriage. And Pharaoh, the supreme ruler of the world's super power du jour, himself lacks the mental discipline to realize that G*d, and not he himself, is the authentic Deity. Arrogating to himself a supremely Divine status, he cuts himself loose from G*d's mercy and grace.

On the level of mussar for personal growth, it is important to understand the message which speaks to us here in the text. A lack of moral self discipline, a loose sense of moral boundaries, augurs ill for the attainment of one's deepest spiritual longings. Self mastery leads to Divine Grace. You cannot master your outer world unless you first master your inner world.

Lastly, it is fascinating to understand that the same root word, PhaRA, connects both the idea of a mob and an autocratic ruler (Pharaoh). When people act like a wild, unruly mob, they require the firm hand of autocratic suppression to maintain social order and security. And when people have the moral self discipline to resist the mob mentality, to rather assert their individual sense of moral boundaries, are they then deserving of a new type of rule - enlightened self rule. For as they master themselves, so shall their master be.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000-2011 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l. And in the merit of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther Bat Baruch, z"l.

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me, and was born on the first day chol hamoed Sukkos, which is also the yahrzeit of both Rebbe Nachman and the Vilna Gaon.


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

The clothes we wear say so much about who we are as people. Are we meticulous, neat, slovenly or pretentious? Does what we wear on the outside reveal much about who we are on the inside?

Do we wear cotton, linen or polyester? or perhaps fig leaves? Or maybe a simple tunic?

And when we receive gifts, do we repackage them and pass them along to others? Or do we see the practice of regifting as a grave faux pas? This week's parsha gives us some guidance.

As graphologists can discern one's character by the art of handwriting analysis, so too can a trained observer understand people by the clothes they wear. This won't work for teens. They are too busy showing how superficial it is to judge by externals. And how right they are.

And little children obviously are different as well. They usually don't dress themselves. They are held captive by the whims of their parents. Children's clothes often reflect the subconscious choices of the parent and the image the parent wants to project to the world, concerned as parents are with the need to cultivate and imbue the child with a certain set of values.

Similarly, in this week's parsha, Titzaveh, Hashem is giving instructions as to how the kohanim are to dress when on duty in their role as caretakers ofthe Holy Tabernacle. We, as kohanim ourselves, being that we are "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation- a mamlechet kohanim vegoy qadosh," are G*d's children, keviyachol- as it were, prey to a certain Divine sartorial whimsy. But whimsy is perhaps the wrong word, in that it suggests a lack of purpose or intention.

Every garment serves a symbolic service or function. The text (Ex 28:2) sets the overall tone and standard for this sacred apparel. Above all, the verse says, the garments for Aaron and his sons should be both dignified and beautiful, "le'chavod u'le'tifaret." And to the degree that the priests are exemplars and role models of the sacred, we are meant to look to them for direction concerning all holy things. Being that G*d is a dressing (addressing!) us today, as our Divine parent, we should ask what subconscious desires is He projecting on to us, as it were, by the clothes He chooses for us, Aaronides all, in the broadest sense?

As much as external clothing is said to reveal internal character, then G*d is showing us that we are beautiful inside. And G*d is also showing us that we are dignified inside. After all, we are made in G*d's image. So we see that how G*d, our true parent, is asking us to dress ourselves, is a reflection of the way that G*d sees Himself. It is not only a statement that we are making about ourselves. It is even more a statement that we are making about G*d! Whatever era or locale in which we live, the guiding Torah rules in fashion are the twin ideals of both beauty and dignity. Tzniut - Jewish dress of modest sensibility, can reflect both.

One of the most fascinating of the sacred vestments worn by the High Priest is the robe. On the hem of the robe could be found pomegranates made of colored wool alternating with gold bells. Pomegranates symbolically contain within them exactly 613 seeds (yes, I have counted), equal to the number of mitzvot in the Torah.

One thing we learn from this is that plain folk imbued with good deeds, though lacking in material wealth, are as precious to G*d, as gold and wealth are precious to people. Moreover, the Torah and the multitude of mitzvot found within is G*d's special gift to us- a means of connecting to the Source. So too, when we encounter another person, one made in the Divine image, we should look out for, be aware of, and show sensitivity to his special gifts, talents and concerns. We do violence to that person's sense of self and well-being by ignoring his individuality and his uniqueness. We acknowledge each person as a unique gift. How revolutionary among religions. What a Divine gift!

As every heart is a sacred Temple, we must knock before we enter. We may steal a glance, but we may never steal a heart. We must ask permission before taking. Knock first. Or ring the doorbell. History's first doorbell is recorded in marvelous detail by the text, as a prerequisite to a Divine encounter. "And Aaron shall wear this robe when he prepares the Divine service. The sound of the bells shall be heard when he enters the sanctuary and when he goes out, so that he not die (Ex 28:35)." So perhaps then, this hints that the "goodly fruit" of the Garden of Eden may also have been the pomegranate, being that both warnings contain similar contraindications.

Now I can see why one should announce one's coming, but why one's going? In the same way that one defines the borders of a neighbor's sense of privacy by announcing one's entering, so too one is defining the borders by announcing one's leaving. The nature of sacred space (maqom qadosh) is defined by its notion of differentiation, much as the mundane is much noted for its quality of sameness.

Moreover, can't G*d see our coming and going? Why would the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) have to announce himself? If we are instructed to show deference and honor to G*d, who is a being devoid of corporeal form, in a reversal of the classic formulaical achat kamah ve-kamah -"how much more so," certainly mere mortals who lack incorporeality and yet carry a Divine spark within, are deserving of a modicum of respect and honor afforded by dint of their special provenance. As we give honor and deference to G*d, isn't it fitting that we show respect to His creation? This is the secret meaning of the pomegranate. How revolutionary among religions. What a Divine gift!

Lastly, what is the significance of the various colors of these woolen pomegranates? They are made of three colors: crimson, sky blue and burgundy red. These colors symbolize the various times of day- dawn (crimson), daytime (sky blue) and sunset (burgundy), the changing colors of the sky as the sun (the gold bell) moves across the heavens.

What this is saying to us is that G*d is near to us any time of day- whether at dawn, daytime or sunset. Whether in our youth, our midlife, or our dotage. The deepest meaning is that unlike a human king such as Ahasueros, the king of Persia in the upcoming Purim saga, who on a whim could take your life for seeking him without an appointment, G*d will grant us an audience at any time! Any time of day or night is the right time to call out to G*d for help.

To speak to G*d directly, unlike Ahasueros, Esther would not have to fast. To call out to G*d for help we do not risk death. Just the opposite! The deepest meaning of our parsha is that G*d is our true king, and as sons and daughters of Divine royalty we are worthy to wear garments of blue today- not Hareidi black, much as the High Priest and Mordecai wore blue in their day. The secular Israeli boy and girl scouts of today intrinsically know this and as the flag of Israel has deep blue, so too are their uniforms a manifestation of a symbolic expression of Divine color-sense.

And similarly, as we are all descended from "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation," we should all know that we are all worthy to wear garments of blue, for blue is the color of the sky, the color of the heavens, the color of the thread of the tallit. May our insides, then, be as heavenly as our outsides. And may we all reflect G*d's (blue or red or crimson) Divine Light wherever we go.
Shabbat Shalom.

© 2000 - 2011 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l,
and my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther bat Baruch, z"l.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

Is G*d's holy presence reserved solely for Israel? Or may others who recognize G*d's Oneness and Uniqueness also maintain a connection to Him? Is the manifestation of G*d's Presence, the Shekhina, an exclusive club, or does G*d's love extend to all the righteous among the nations of the world? The answer is subtlely revealed depending on how we read the text.

EXODUS 25:8 says "v'asu li miqdash veShachanti betocham." Chazal, the sages of blessed memory teach that it means, "and they will make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them." Well it can also be read differently, with very different implications. Instead of reading asu in the third person plural, we can also read it in the second person plural imperative. Thus it can also be read as "and you (plural) will make for me a sanctuary and I shall dwell among them." If the you is plural, i.e., referring to the B'nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, then the verse can only make sense if the word "them" refers to some other group. But to whom?

Whereas the first reading implies "them" to be the Children of Israel, the second reading implies another recipient of G*d's Indwelling Presence: the Righteous Among the Nations, the Tzadikei Umos HaOlam. This second reading allows us to celebrate a universalistic interpretation of G*d's mission vis a vis the chosen nation of Israel. The sanctuary, eventually to become the Beis HaMiqdash, is to serve as a locus and focus of holiness both for Israel and the world at small (it was once large in the imagination, but no longer/and Israel was once small in the imagination, but no longer).

The Temple offerings served to bring atonement not only to Israel but for all the world as well. This concept is pointedly evidenced by the seventy bullocks offered at the Festival of Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles. Each of the atonement offerings corresponded to each of the proverbial seventy nations of the world, the Shivim Umos HaOlam. It has even been said that had the Romans known how our Holy Temple was for their benefit, they would have never destroyed it. But indeed the concept of a transnational deity was entirely foreign to their way of thinking.

Therefore, when we read about the construction of the mishkan, the holy tabernacle, we should be inspired to reflect upon how revolutionary was the Jewish idea, that the G*d of Israel transcends all borders, all nations, all races and creeds. As the G*d of Israel made His home among Israel, so that His word and message could be spread among all the earth, so too would His Temple, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, one day be a House of Prayer for all the nations - "Ki beisi Beis Tefillah, yikarei lechol he'amim."

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000-2011 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen ben Meir Yisrael Hakohen Melman, z"l. And in the merit of my beloved mother, Esther Melman, obm, Esther Bat Baruch, z"l.

I was raised in the musar tradition of silence and meditative thoughtfulness, as were my father and grandfather before me, and was born on the first day chol hamoed Sukkos, which is also the yahrzeit of both Rebbe Nachman and the Vilna Gaon.

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua
(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)
Dedications are available.

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

What mind is it?

"Great minds discuss ideas;
average minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people."
-Eleanor Roosevelt


"If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix..... If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal..........." Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

- anonymous
"Perhaps the greatest force in the entire universe is compounded interest."

- Albert Einstein
When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!