Sunday, December 16, 2007

Derashah: Vayyetze 5768: The Selfless Mikdash

The Derashah:

The story of the site of the Beit haMikdash
Thousands of years ago, they say, two brothers lived on either side of a hill. One brother had a wife and many children, the other brother lived alone. Each brother brought home an excellent harvest. The brother with the large family said to himself, “My brother lives alone, he should at least have wealth,” and so he decided to secretly bring his brother grain, in the middle of the night. The brother who lived alone said to himself, “My brother has to support an entire family,” and decided to secretly bring him grain, in the middle of the night. The two were surprised to meet each other in the middle. They embraced, and Gd declared that on the spot of their selflessness, the Beis haMikdash would be built.
Of course, there’s also a second version of that story, in which the brother with the large family said to himself, “My brother has no one to support, he doesn’t need all that grain.” The brother who lived alone said to himself, “My brother has a huge family, his kids can work for him; I need the grain more.” And so each set out for the other side, to steal the other’s grain for himself. The two met in the middle and fought, and Gd declared that on that spot, the Kenesset would be built.

The flaws of the story
But all kidding aside, the story of the brothers is obviously not consistent with Torah.
The Torah tells us how the spot of the Beis haMikdash was selected - it was the spot at which Avraham offered his son, Yitzchak, as a gift to Gd! According to the midrash, this was also the spot at which Yaakov declared, in this morning’s parshah, that he would give Gd 1/10 of everything Gd would provide him! Apparently, this spot was selected for the relationship between Man and Gd, not for the relationship between people!
And, of course, from a historical perspective, the story seems to have started as an Arab legend about Al-Aqsa, not a Jewish story about the Beis haMikdash.

The point that resonates: Selflessness
We know this - and yet the story resonates with us. We like it, we tell it to our children. Not because we are suckers for a good story, but because the story captures the central element of both the Akeidah of Yitzchak, and Yaakov’s offer to Gd. The Akeidah, and Yaakov’s vow, sound like they are about Man and Gd, but they are really about selflessness.
Avraham is so driven to give that he will tear down his life’s work and offer it up on the altar.
Yitzchak is so driven to give that he will give up his life on that altar.
Yaakov is so driven to give that in a moment of bleak poverty and hopelessness he is willing to pledge away the wealth that will come to him in the future.
On that site of selflessness, we can have a Beis haMikdash - a place where we will selflessly bring our Korbanot, and a place where Gd will selflessly overlook our sins and forgive us.

A track record of selfishness
The problem, though, is that as much as the message of selflessness resonates with us, our historical reality has been one of selfishness.
Yosef’s brothers worried about what they would get for themselves, and so they sold Yosef into slavery.
The Jews in the desert worried about what they would get for themselves, and rebelled against Moshe.
וישמן ישורון ויבעט, even when we have been wealthy we have kicked at Gd and demanded whatever we could get.
The gemara (Bava Metzia 30b) says לא נחרבה ירושלים אלא...מפני שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין, Yerushalayim was destroyed as a punishment for the fact that people demanded their due under the law, and refused to forgive their rights.
When we want to know who lost Yerushalayim, when we look at the Annapolis negotiations and see a government prepared to split this city, we should realize that we lost Yerushalayim, whenever we were selfish.

What we can do - the Religious Zionist imperative
There is much we can do for the sake of Yerushalayim.
There are letters to write. Gd-willing I’ll be sending out an email this week listing addresses of powerful people who should hear from us that Yerushalayim should not be on the table.
We should discuss Yerushalayim, learn about Yerushalayim, and - most important - we should make sure that our children understand its importance, because even after this round is over, Yerushalayim will come up again. Four years ago Yossi Beilin tried to put Yerushalayim on the table with the Geneva Accords, and within four years from now someone else will try again, and we need to be ready, our children need to be ready.
But more than that, Religious Zionism teaches that we must eliminate the selfishness. If Religious Zionism simply means “I want Israel because I believe in the religious teachings about its past,” if Religious Zionism means I have a birthright in Israel because the Bible says so, then Religious Zionism is empty and should be discarded. Religious Zionism must also mean a commitment to the basic narrative of merit and sin, of believing that a birthright is only a start, and our righteousness is what earns us the city and the land. And so we must commit ourselves to following the model of Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akeidah, and Yaakov in this morning’s parshah, and giving of ourselves.
Opportunities abound. Whether it means:
coming into the house and first asking how your spouse is, making sure your spouse is all right before launching into your own tale of woe-
or it means joining in some community volunteering effort-
or it means giving of your time to your children-
or it means giving tzedakah-
we must commit to selflessness.
Five weeks ago, on Parshas Noach, I spoke about the need for צדקה ומשפט, righteousness and justice. Both of those begin with our commitment to overlook our own rights, and instead work on behalf of the rights of others.

Tefillas haDerech
At the start of our parshah, Yaakov was promised Divine protection; he saw angels descending a ladder, coming to watch over him during his trip to Charan.
In the middle of our parshah, those angels came to Yaakov and made sure he would not be cheated by his father-in-law, Lavan.
At the end of our parshah, as Yaakov returned to Israel, he again encountered angels; he watched the departure of those who had protected him outside Israel, and the arrival of his Israeli protectors.
We invoke those angels whenever we go on a trip; we say Tfilas haDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer, and we recite the psukim of Yaakov’s arrival at Machanaim and his encounter with those angels. We ask for that protection for ourselves.

Religious Zionism teaches us not only that the past of Yerushalayim is in our hands, but that the future of Yerushalayim is in our hands. We will write our letters. We will learn about Yerushalayim. We will speak to our children about Yerushalayim. And we will give of ourselves. Yaakov was willing to give of himself, and therefore he was protected. We are promised that if we are willing to give, we will receive the same.

Further thoughts:
1. Should we be bothered by the fact that the opening story is taught to our children in day school as though it were Torah miSinai?
2. At what point are we selflessly foregoing our rights, and at what point are we simply being patsies?
3. When we say Tefilas haDerech we talk about the angels from Yaakov's return to Israel, rather than his return to Israel?

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