Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Vessel for the Fire of Love and Excitement

Proud Mother!
Pesach is such a beautiful season of power and intensity. I have literally watched how the dry looking tree branches have woken up, opening new lush green leaves in just a couple of days. During Pesach, our love and passion awaken together with the unfolding of nature. This is why it is a minhag (custom) to read Shir HaShirim – Song of Songs on Pesach, as it describes the love between Hashem and His people. 

During this time of so much amazing light unfolding in nature, and in the world, we count the “Omer” – a particular measure of barley.[1] The period of counting the Omer became a time of semi-mourning because our vessels don’t quite measure up. The light of the time period between Pesach and Shavuot – the most glorious anticipation of Divine revelation – the month of Ziv – “radiance,”[2] has been darkened by the mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva. They and we lack the proper vessels to contain all of the light and love.[3] Sefirat HaOmer (counting the Omer) teaches us how to encase our love and desire within the proper outer measure. This is also the lesson to learn from the “strange fire” that Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, sacrificed out of love and passion in this week’s parasha, which we read right after Pesach. Their light breaks through the boundary, missing proper vessels, in their lack of respect for their elders. 

I have designed this week’s meditation to help connect our holy intention – “light” with the proper outer Halachic boundary – “vessel.”

With Blessings of the Torah and the Land
Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

Don't miss Rebbetzin's haftorah commentary: The Dance of David: Haftorat Parashat Shemini

Parasha Meditation Shemini
Vayikra 9:1-11:47
“The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, placed within it fire and put incense upon it. And they [thus] offered a strange fire before Hashem, one that He did not command of them. And a fire came forth from before Hashem and devoured them and they died before Hashem.”[4]

Their Fire of Love and Excitement
What was so terribly wrong with the act of Aharon’s sons that they had to pay for it with their lives? After all, they were holy men, and very close to Hashem.[5] They didn’t have in mind to sin at all. On the contrary, when they saw the new fire which descended from heaven to consume the burnt offering, they desired to add their own fire out of the excitement of their love for the holy.[6] This is learned from the word וַיִּקְחוּ – vayikru – “They took,” which denotes happiness.[7]

Acting upon Spontaneous Feeling without Consulting the Lawgivers
The problem was that they did something they were not commanded to do, as it states in the Torah verse quoted above: “They offered a strange fire before Hashem, one that He did not command of them…” They took the initiative on their own, to do what they thought was right, without first checking with the established authority of their father and uncle, Aharon and Moshe. While some might interpret this as a good thing, it is evident that G*d did not! This way of acting is considered taking Divine service lightly.[8]

Halacha – the Vessel for our Love
Today, in our generation of “love” rather than “fear,” we all too often experience the desire to act spontaneously, expressing our personal love and excitement, without first making sure that our actions are in accordance with accepted halacha (Jewish law). Yes, it is important not to become halachic robots, discussing hairsplitting differences of exactly how many grams of matzah we need to eat at the Seder night within a particular amount of minutes, without any feeling of love and excitement for the mitzvah of eating matzah. On the other hand, we cannot just follow our heart by lighting the Shabbat candles overflowing with deep intentional devotion five minutes after sunset. While we must strive to emulate the passion of Aharon’s sons, we mustn’t forget that the lives of Aharon’s sons were taken in order to teach the importance of balancing inner personal intention with correct outer action. The measurements of halacha are the vessels to contain our light of love and excitement. Without the proper vessels, this light becomes a strange fire!

Sit down in a relaxed, comfortable position and close your eyes.

1. Raise your right hand in front of your face and take a complete inhalation and exhalation. Close your left nostril with your middle and ring fingers, and inhale slowly through your right nostril. Now, closing your right nostril with your thumb, exhale through your left nostril.

2. Now, while closing your left nostril again with your middle and ring fingers, breathe in all the air you can through your right nostril on a count of 4.

3. Close your right nostril with your thumb, placing your index finger on the ridge of your nose. Hold your breath for a count of 2, then slowly open your left nostril by removing your middle and ring fingers, and breathe out slowly to a count of 8.

4. Now breathe into your left nostril to a count of 4. This time, close the left nostril with your middle and ring fingers, with the index finger on the ridge of your nose, and hold your breath for a count of 2. Then breathe out from your right nostril to a count of 8. Repeat this cycle up to five times. You may pause this recording while you do this.

5. Put your hand down now and breathe naturally. Allow your mind to scan your consciousness for a mitzvah you particularly connect with. It could be a special part of a Jewish holiday service, or a mitzvah between people such as guarding our tongue or visiting the sick.

6. Dwell in your mind’s eye on one mitzvah you personally feel a great passion for – a mitzvah you really enjoy.

7. Now imagine doing this mitzvah not only with your ultimate love and excitement, but also with precision and attention to detail. Note the correct timing and amounts of the action, in addition to the particular words needed to be pronounced correctly.

8. Resolve to study up on the details of your favorite mitzvah and/or consult a rabbinic authority for fine-tuning your chosen mitzvah.

Rashi teaches us that the death of Aharon’s sons took place by two threads of fire entering into their nostrils and extracting their souls from their bodies.[9] The nostrils connect our body with our soul. Actually, soul in Hebrew – neshamah – shares the same root with the Hebrew word for “breathing” – neshimah. This is because when Hashem originally imbued the first human being with a soul, “He breathed a living soul into his nostrils.”[10] By slowing our breath and breathing in a measured way, we can fine-tune our connection between body and soul – between action and intention.

[1] Barley in Hebrew is שעורה from the Hebrew root שעור that means measure.
[2] I Melachim 6:1.
[3] The main building of vessels take place by showing proper respect, which was what the students of Rabbi Akiva lacked.
[4] Vayikra 10:1-2.
[5] “I will be sanctified through those who are close to me” (Ibid. 3).
[6] Yalkut Shimoni, Vayikra, 10, Allusion 525.
[7] Note the same word is also used to mean “marriage,” the epitome of love and excitement.
[8] Rabbi Moshe David Valle, top student of the Ramchal, commentary to Vayikra (Avodat HaKodesh).
[9] Rashi, Vayikra 10:5.
[10] Bereishit 2:7.

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