Torah for the Times

Friday, May 11, 2012 - 19 Iyar, 5772

Torah Reading: Emor (Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23)
Candle Lighting Time: 7:44 PM
Shabbat Ends: 8:51 PM


A Puzzling Midrash

This week’s parsha discusses some of the laws concerning animal offerings in the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple.

In introducing these laws the Torah states:

“When an ox, a sheep or a goat is born, it shall remain with its mother for seven days. Then from the eighth day onwards it will be accepted as a fire offering to G‑d.”

The Midrash is known for its inimitable style of couching profound lessons in riddles and enigmatic language. Indeed, there is a collection of Midrashic material that has been labeled “Midrash peliah”, The Puzzling Midrash, precisely because it emphasizes this approach.

There is one such Midrashic source that comments cryptically on the foregoing verse that challenges us to search for an underlying message that will help us decipher the riddle and solve the puzzle:

Commenting on the opening words of the verse: “When an ox, a sheep or a goat is born…,” the Midrash asks rhetorically: “Is a newborn animal called an ox? When it is born isn’t it a calf?! However, from this we can derive the Resurrection of the Dead.”

What connection does the Resurrection of the Dead—a fundamental belief of Judaism that in the Messianic Age, the dead will come back to life—with the usage of the word “ox” for a newborn animal?

Diverse Creation of Animals and Humans

One approach to solving this riddle is based on the statement of the Talmud (Bava Kamma 65b) that, indeed, even a newborn animal can be characterized as an ox.

The rationale for this assertion is that an animal is born with virtually all of its faculties complete. And although an animal might have to undergo some physical changes as it matures, an animal is fundamentally the same on the day it is born as it is throughout its life. An animal does not have to perfect itself to become a better animal. Animals were not given challenges and are essentially as perfect and accomplished on day one as they are when they are physically mature.

In other words, whatever potential an animal has on the day it is born is the potential it has throughout its life.

When G‑d created animals He thus created them in one stage. Their bodies were created simultaneously with their souls. Whatever expression of G‑dly energy is needed to keep them alive remains constant throughout their life.

Human beings are markedly different.

When G‑d created Adam, He first created his body. Only afterwards did G‑d blow a soul of life into his nostrils. Why were these two components of human life not created at the same time as G‑d did with animals?

The answer is, as mentioned above, that an animal does not need to grow spiritually. It was not created for that purpose. Thus its soul is limited to giving the animal life, starting with the moment of birth.

A human being, however, needs to constantly grow and reach greater heights of spiritual consciousness. A human being is said to be constantly climbing a mountain. For him or her not to climb higher not only defeats the purpose of being placed on the mountain, it risks his or her falling downward and descending spiritually. To facilitate that growth, G‑d allows our soul to enter in incremental stages commensurate with our need to climb the ladder of growth. The older we get, the more difficult the challenges. We are also provided with additional boosts to our soul’s potential in order to meet our additional needs.

When a child is born, the dominant force is the animal soul that is responsible for its physical existence. The G‑dly soul enters at the time of the Bris (circumcision) for a boy and when a girl is named, soon after birth. The G‑dly soul, however, does not fully manifest itself within the child until a girl’s Bas Mitzvah at the age of twelve and a boy’s Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen.

And that is not the end of the process. Marriage, with its new challenges, is met with a commensurate surge of spiritual energy to deal with these new challenges. Indeed, every one of life’s milestones is met with parallel increases in our soul’s energy.

On the day that he or she is born, a human being is untested. Thus, King Solomon states: “The day one dies is better than the day of birth.” On the surface this statement has been understood to mean that on the day one is born it is impossible to predict how this individual will turn out. Only when one is ready to leave this world can we determine what he or she has accomplished.

There is a deeper way of understanding King Solomon’s statement. Our spiritual potential actually increases as we age and mature. On the day we leave this world we’ve reached the zenith of our spiritual potential; we are in possession of the most potent soul-forces on that die, infinitely more than on the day we are born.

The Catch

There is a catch to all of this.

As much as our soul continues to exert greater influence over our bodies and animal souls as we age, there may be all sorts of obstacles that stand in the way of our bodies feeling the effects of the ever increasing flow of spiritual energy. The degree to which one can feel spiritual is in direct proportion to the degree that one possesses a refined body. What is frustrating for the soul is that, despite its valiant efforts to make its presence known, the body—and the pampered animal soul—may pose stiff resistance to the soul’s efforts. The divide between body and soul may actually widen as one gets older.

This is why Judaism provides us with a two-pronged approach to our development. Some of the things we do as Jews, such as Torah study, observance of the Mitzvos and prayer, are geared to elicit more of the soul’s light. And some aspects of Jewish observance are specifically directed towards refining our bodies and taming our animal soul so that we are more receptive to these soul energies.

Counting is Refining

In fact, during the present period, between the Festivals of Passover and Shavuos, we are commanded by the Torah, in this week’s parsha, to count the days and weeks. The Mitzvah is known as Sefirat HaOMer, counting the Omer. The Hebrew word for counting—Sefirah—also has the connotation of generating light. This practice is intended to refine ourselves in preparation for the Holiday of Shavuos, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai when G‑d’s unprecedented revelation gave our souls their greatest surge ever.

To be receptive to this revelation—reintroduced into the world every year at this time—we need to refine our character traits. Counting the days is the process through which we accomplish that goal.

The Union of Body and Soul Perfected

Our ability to fully appreciate the soul’s presence in our physical lives will become complete in the Messianic Age, specifically after the Resurrection of the Dead. At that time, the body will have become so pure and refined that its union with the soul will be unimpeded. At that time, we will have reached the pinnacle of our spiritual development and the refinement of our bodies, so that the synthesis of body and soul will be complete.

We can now understand the enigmatic words of the Midrash that connects the Torah calling a newborn animal an ox with the Resurrection of the Dead. Both events contrast the stark difference between the soul of animals and that of people with reference to the relationship of their bodies to their souls.

The Midrash, by stating that an animal is an ox the day it is born, is attempting to highlight the most salient difference between the animal and the human being. An animal is more or less perfected the minute it is born. It already has its soul and body in perfect animalistic harmony. No matter how long the animal will live that balance will remain constant. An animal, the day it is born, has reached the peak of its relationship with its own soul.

The human being, by contrast, is never referred to as a complete human being on the day of his or her birth. On the contrary, on the eighth day, the child must be circumcised as a means to enable its soul to make its first appearance and entrance into the body. And from that point onward, the person must constantly strive to refine the body and “circumcise the foreskin of the heart” as a way of enabling the soul and body to truly be one.

This process, as stated, does not end until such time when our bodies will have been totally refined and are therefore in total harmony with the soul. This will occur in the Messianic Age; specifically, when the souls of the deceased will return to their bodies.

What is considered perfection for the animal on the day of its birth, simply by dint of its creation rather than by its own effort, will become the reality for humans on the day of the Resurrection, by virtue of our efforts throughout our lives in this period of exile.

Moshiach Matters
Wrote the Chafetz Chaim: "We must prepare ourselves with all our might for the coming of the righteous Moshiach, each person according to his that we merit the complete and true redemption and so that we are able to greet Moshiach joyfully. And whoever doesn't listen to these words, it's his responsibility, and in the future he will be judged, G‑d forbid, for then it will be made clear, known and publicized concerning each person, who prepared himself for his [Moshiach's] coming and how he prepared himself, with Torah learning and good deeds, and who did not prepare himself. (Kol Kitvei HaChafetz Chaim HaShalem 3:50)
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