Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ki Tavo -- The Value --nay the necessity! -- of Joy

There are two mentions of the altar of unhewn stones in our Torah, one this week’s parashah, and one in Exodus prefaced with an “if.”

In parshat Ki Tavo:
There, too, you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God. And on these stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly. (Deut. 27:5-8)
Earlier in Sefer Shemot (Exodus), we read:
Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you. And if you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your tool upon them you have profaned them. (Exodus 20:21-22)
Rashi explains, “the purpose of the altar is to lengthen the human lifespan, while implements of iron (i.e. weapons) shorten it. It is therefore inappropriate for the executor to be raised upon the preserver.” Rashi is telling us that the altar, whose purpose is to affect reconciliation and peace, unity and harmony, was to be constructed of whole stones, untarnished by implements of violence or weapons of war. Accordingly, King Solomon would direct the construction of the First Temple from stones cut at the quarry so that no iron implements were used – or even heard – on the Temple Mount:
When the House was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built. (I Kings 6:7)
The altar is, of course, the place sacrifices are offered to God. But our passage from Ki Tavo connects the altar with more than sacrifices: it is a place for rejoicing in our covenant with God.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 109a), R. Yehudah b. Beteira taught:
When the Temple stood, joy was derived through eating meat [of the sacrifices]as it says, And you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 27:7]. Now that the Temple is no longer standing, joy is derived through wine alone, as it says, wine gladdens the heart of man [Psalm 104:15].
Joy was an integral part of the sacrificial rite, and even after the Temple was destroyed, joy was still to be an integral part of Jewish religious ritual. Perhaps the unhewn stones of the altar also hint at an unhewn heart: one that should not be excessively tempered by social constraints of decorum and formality that stifle the joy we might feel and express in our religious ceremonies and worship. We have perfected the art of sitting quietly and politely. Have we lost the art of joy?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught: Dancing, singing (music), movement, and exercise of the body uplift the spirit and make possible a feeling of happiness. One should understand that simply the recognition of being Jewish is an amazing fact and a source of joy and happiness. And if one says out loud the phrase, “Praised is God who created us for His glory and distinguished us from those who were not given the Torah,” it has the potential to bring great joy.

Perhaps this explains the difference between the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages quoted above. The Exodus passage instructs the people to immediately make an altar of dirt, and if they should make a stone altar at some later time, it should be made of unhewn stone. The newly freed slaves are not yet ready to celebrate God with a whole (unhewn) heart. The passage in Deuteronomy reflects the time when that stone altar was about to become reality. The Israelite are entering the Land of Israel and celebrating the first fruits – they are ready for genuine, unbridled joy. Are we? Is it time to rediscover, cultivate, and nurture the experience and expression of joy?

May your week be filled with joy and your shabbat an expression of that joy.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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