Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tzav: Attaining Spiritual Purity, Both Within and Without

Tzav

            This Parsha/Torah Reading continues, in the style of Leviticus, describing the rituals which accompanied the offering of sacrifices. In particular, those bringing offerings to the mishkan/portable shrine were themselves required to be in a state of holiness. How did a person become holy? By immersing oneself in a mikvah/ritual bath, a person could achieve bodily holiness, but how were they to purify their thoughts and feelings? This dilemma remains today, in a world where millions struggle to earn a living, and Godliness goes begging.  
           
Jewish literature abounds in tales of idealistic young yeshiva bochrim, scholars, who strove to keep themselves free of the world’s taint. Back in 18th-Century Poland, one such tyro visited the Nashelsker Rebbe’s study on a cold winter’s day. As the rebbe gazed out of his second-story window at the stable next door, the scholar described his life of self-imposed sacrifice—a trifle boastfully:
           
“I wear white garments every day,” the young man said, “to symbolize the physical purity I strive to attain.”
           
As the rebbe watched, a balagoola-wagon-driver led his weary horse into the corral, took off the heavy wagon-harness, and set him free to rest, canter, and eat.
           
“I drink only fresh, pure, cold water,” the scholar continued, “no intoxicating drinks of any kind.”
           
Using a heavy ax, the stable boy cracked the ice covering the water-trough. The tired, thirsty horse went over to the trough, and drank deeply of the freezing, ice-filled water.

“I wear nails protruding within my shoes,” said the scholar, “to cause me pain and keep me humble—and, every morning, I strip down and mortify my flesh by rolling in the snow.”

The horse pranced around the corral, tossing its head, and then rolled happily on its back in the snow.

As the young man rambled on, describing his life of poverty, self-imposed suffering, and scholarship, the Nashelsker raised his hand and silenced him.

“Come over here, Yingele, Young Man,” the rebbe said, putting his arm around the scholar’s bony shoulders, “and look down there, in the corral. There you see a beast which, like you, wears only white. Like you, he drinks only cold water; like you, he has nails in his shoes—and I just saw him rolling in the snow. So tell me, young man—in what ways can you claim to be superior to a horse?”

God looks within all of us, and laughs to scorn those of us who fool ourselves, pretending to a life of holiness, only through outward signs. As we are celebrating Purim this week—tthe Festival of Unmasking, revealing our True Selves to both God and to one another—ask yourself:

What personas do I wear in public—the devoted employee, the obedient child, the attentive spouse, the good Jew? Further: ask yourself, how can I make these guises real and honest? How can I better myself as an ethical Jew, a true mensch, within, and lose the outward show?