June 3, 2004
In Praise of Lambs
Parshat Behalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
What do Cal Ripken Jr. and Aaron (the high priest) have in common?
Not much -- except in the mind of a Jew who has passion for Torah and sports. So here goes!
Aaron receives the commandment to light the menorah everyday. The Torah states: "Aaron did so; he lit the lamps, just as God commanded" (Numbers, 8:3).
The classic biblical commentator Rashi wonders why this verse is necessary. The working assumption is that Aaron -- the model spiritual persona follows God's orders. Thus Rashi comments: This verse (was necessary to indicate) Aaron's virtue -- that he did not change.
Rashi's comments are troubling on several accounts. It seems counterintuitive to praise Aaron for not altering a basic ritual. Further, is this the best praise with which to adorn Aaron -- the older brother who reveled in the ascendancy of his younger brother Moses, the great pursuer of peace beloved by all of the Jewish people, the man who was willing to sacrifice his spiritual destiny for the sake of the Jewish people?
It would almost seem that for all the extraordinary work Aaron accomplished in his lifetime -- the ultimate praise flows from something fairly ordinary. Perhaps that is precisely the point
A famous midrash poses a fascinating question. What is the most significant verse of the Torah? Many would opt for the Shema -- the raison d'être of the believing Jew. The socially minded might select "Love thy neighbor as thyself," a creed that succinctly captures the Jewish motif of kindness. Indeed, the Sages present both suggestions.
In a whirlwind, the sage Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi suggests the verse "and the one lamb you shall bring in the morning and the second lamb shall be brought in the afternoon" (Numbers 28) -- a verse that relates the imperative of twice-daily offerings in the Sanctuary. The Midrash concludes -- after a rabbinic vote -- Ben Pazi's verse emerged triumphant.
A verse extolling the praise of the daily morning and afternoon lambs trumps the Shema and love thy neighbor? What is going on here?
In a world that extols the grand gesture, Judaism elevates the sublime. In a society that disdains routine, Judaism demands it. Judaism is not a religion that features an annual worldwide Yom Kippur conference at a synagogue near you. Nor is it even a weekly religion. Judaism is a "daily" -- daily prayer, daily study and daily Shema all form the normative core of traditional Jewish life.
The deep meaning of this Midrash is now revealed. Of course, we must believe in the Shema and truly we have to love our neighbor. But the lamb in the morning and afternoon, the obligation of the daily offering, a routine never to be departed from, serves as a paradigm for the commitment to a daily encounter with God -- for the goal of Torah is to create a sensitivity to the constant presence of the Almighty, wherever, whenever, period.
Routine, however, is not to be confused with rote. Inspired consistency is the name of the game. Perhaps this was the greatest achievement of Aaron, the model spiritual personality. While he was the master of the grand gesture, he never ignored the sublime significance of daily service. Further, as Rashi stated, he never changed -- i.e., he summoned the same inspiration in year 30 as he did in year one.
Hence, Cal and Aaron. Even the neophyte sports fan recognizes that the only mark in modern sports history not imperiled is Ripken's remarkable streak of 2,632 consecutive games played spanning from May 30, 1982 to Sept. 19, 1998. Consider the fact that the closest competitor today has logged in about 550 games and you begin to fathom the magnitude of the accomplishment.
Move over, Cal! About six years ago, 70,000 Jews crowded Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum to celebrate the conclusion of the Talmud, a feat accomplished by covering one page of Talmud everyday for 2,711 days (without an offseason). I was fortunate to be one of the attendees. It changed my life and the life of several of my congregants. The march of the relentless pages of Talmud has both haunted and challenged us -- but most certainly has inspired us. In March 2005 more than 100,000 are expected to fill New York and New Jersey arenas along with several thousand for a local Los Angeles celebration.
Not to oversimplify: The tension of daily inspirational living dare not be ignored; nor does lack of inspiration obviate Judaism's absolute commitment to routine. Nevertheless, as modern Jews we need not seek the grand gesture or the right moment to begin our spiritual quest: The time is now and tomorrow and its morrow. Let the games (or the lambs) begin!
Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.