Thursday, March 29, 2007

Pesah and Matsah and Maror - But Why?

One peculiar feature of the Haggada stands out year after year:

Rabban Gamliel used to say: Anyone who fails to mention three things on the night of Passover has not fulfilled his obligation. And what are they? The Paschal Sacrifice, Matsa and Maror.

The simplest interpretation of Rabban Gamliel's statement is that he is referring to the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus on the first night of Passover. Rabban Gamliel informs us that, unless the mitsvot of the Paschal offering, Matsa and Maror are discussed, one has not discharged one's obligation to speak about the Exodus. It is imperative that we identify the purpose of each one of these rituals on the Seder night.

This, however, poses an obvious problem. The mitsvot we are doing on the Seder night are not a part of the story! If Rabban Gamliel had insisted that anyone who forgets to mention the Ten Plagues has not done justice to the Exodus narrative, we would understand why. If he had ruled that anyone who fails to draw attention to the harshness of Pharaoh's oppression or the swiftness of the redemption had not captured the essence of the dramatic tale, we would accept it.

But explaining the commandments that we are about to perform on the night of Pesah - though important - is not a component of telling the story. Why should skipping that part of the Haggada invalidate our discussion of God's deliverance of His people from bondage?

Fascinatingly, this difficulty is not limited to the statement of Rabban Gamliel. There are several noteworthy instances in which the Haggada appears to value the discussion of the mitsvot of Passover more than the discussion of the Exodus itself. For example, consider the Haggada's instructions on how to respond to the query of the Wise Son:

You shall tell him the Laws of Passover, that we do not have dessert after the Paschal offering.

What happened to the story of the Exodus? Why are we entering into a conversation about the rules and regulations of Pesah, when it seems we should be focused on gaining insight into the most fundamental event in our nation's history?

(Another memorable example is the discussion of the Rabbis in Bene Brak, which revolves around a practical halachic issue only tangentially related to Pesah).

I believe that the answer to this basic problem is surprisingly simple. It is contained in the language of the Torah itself:

When your son asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the testimonies, the statutes and the ordinances that Hashem our God commanded you?' And you shall say to your son, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. And Hashem placed signs and wonders - great and terrible - in Egypt, against Pharaoh and his entire household before our eyes. And we He took out from there...And Hashem commanded us to do all of these statutes, to fear Hashem our God; for our benefit all of our days...

A close examination of the Bible reveals that the mitsvah to retell the story of the Exodus is always mentioned in conjunction with the performance of the commandments of the Torah. A parent is typically portrayed as justifying his commitment to the halachic system based upon the historical experience of oppression and redemption in Egypt.

This indicates that the function of discussing the Exodus on Passover is not to entertain the family with historical trivia or midrashic tales. The Seder is not meant to transport us into the ancient past so that we can reminisce about a bygone era. Rather, the objective of Passover night is to draw from history so as to shed light on the reasons for our current observance of Judaism.

This is precisely the message Rabban Gamliel is sending us. Our exploration of the Exodus must revolve around deepening our sense of commitment as Jews in the here-and-now. Otherwise, the dramatic narrative is reduced to an historical relic. The ultimate goal of Pesah is to revitalize our dedication to God each year through the performance of the mitsvot of the holiday. In order for this to happen, we must delve into the historical genesis of these commandments and reflect upon their relevance to the experience of our ancestors in Egypt.

The offering of the Paschal Lamb represented the Jews' rejection of the idolatrous worldview of the Egyptians, who worshipped the sheep as a god. The consumption of unleavened bread was a demonstration of our forefathers' rejection of the materialistic value system of Egypt. The Egyptian culture revolved around bread, the staple food of the wealthy man who lived luxuriously. Slaves, on the other hand, were sustained by unleavened products that were easier and less time-consuming to prepare. Through eating the "bread of affliction", our ancestors expressed their desire to live a life of service to God rather than a life of self-indulgence. Although free, they still saw themselves as dedicated to a purpose nobler than that of sensual gratification.

However, when all is said and done, this historical background must serve as a springboard for us to understand the significance of the mitsvot for our families today. What modern forms of idolatry must we liberate ourselves from in this day and age? What are the symptoms of our own attachment to the decadence of Western culture and its deification of pleasure, wealth and power? What steps can we take to root it out?

If we walk away from the Seder table with beautiful new explanations of the Haggada text but without a better sense of why the Paschal Lamb, Matsah and Maror are relevant to our lives, then we have not fulfilled the mitsvah of discussing the Exodus. The experience has entertained us but has not tranformed us.

This is why the more advanced a child is, the more we divert our attention from the story and spend time analyzing the Laws of Passover in depth. A wise youngster who is capable of appreciating the beauty of the mitsvot and their purpose will discover that the concepts, values and ideals expressed in the Exodus narrative manifest themselves in the mitsvot that we perform on Passover and all year round. The themes of the story are not vague philosophical notions about God or platitudes about freedom; rather, they are profound, highly practical ideas that are translated into rigorous halachic form and "lived" in realtime. A child who is the beneficiary of such a sophisticated Seder will have a qualitatively different experience of Pesah observance and of Jewish life in general.

The upshot of this analysis of the Haggada is that the ultimate aim of the Seder is the enrichment of our observance of Judaism. We cannot allow the annual retelling of our ancestors dramatic Exodus to be reduced to an historical study. Our goal should be to utilize the Haggada as a means of enhancing our family's appreciation of the eternal significance of the mitsvot of Pesah.

In an upcoming post, I hope to discuss additional aspects of Pesah observance and their deeper meaning.

Guide to the Laws of Passover

This is a duplicate of the latest post on my other blog, "Ask The Rabbi".

"My yearly guide to the Essential Laws of Passover is now available online in PDF format. You can download a copy by clicking here.

If you are interested in receiving a version of the guide that includes extensive Hebrew footnotes and sources, please email me and I will gladly forward you a copy."

P.S. Keep checking back here. B'ezrat Hashem, there will be a new Pesah-related post on Vesom Sechel by the end of today.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trickle-Down Spirituality

One of the most perplexing problems we encounter when studying the Book of Exodus is the style of presentation of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Four parashot are dedicated to the construction of the Tabernacle - Terumah, Tetsaveh, Vayaqhel and Pequde. The first two deal with Hashem's instructions regarding the design of the Mishkan, its vessels and the Priestly vestments. The second pair discuss the fulfillment of these commandments by the Children of Israel.

Because of their common theme, we might expect these two "sets" of parashot to appear consecutively in the Torah. Instead, the thematic flow of the parashot is "interrupted" after Parashat Tetsaveh by the dramatic narratives in Parashat Ki Tissa. Why does the Torah structure its presentation of the Mishkan in such an unusual manner?

Our difficulty is complicated even further by the traditional view - accepted by Rashi and Seforno, among others - that the entire concept of the Mishkan was not actually introduced to Moshe until after the sin of the Golden Calf, i.e., after Parashat Ki Tissa. Logically, then, it would have made sense for the Torah to have placed all four of the relevant Parashot after Ki Tissa, rather than starting the discussion of the Mishkan with Terumah and Tetsaveh only to be sidetracked by the story of the Calf.

I believe that a "bird's eye" view of the structure of the past five Parashot, beginning with the end of Mishpatim, can offer us a compelling explanation for why the discussion of the Mishkan is divided up the way it is. Near the end of Parashat Mishpatim, a rather bizarre incident occurs that is only briefly described in the text:

"And Moses and Aaron went up; Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the Elders of Israel. And they saw the God of Israel; and beneath His feet was like the work of sapphire stone and like the essence of the heavens in purity. Yet against the nobles of Israel He did not strike; and they beheld God, and ate and drank."

The Rambam, in the Moreh Nevuchim, explains the deeper significance of this vision:

But the Nobles of the Children of Israel were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under His feet.," etc., and not merely, "And they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal - a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except for Nadav and Avihu who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the Congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition.

In the Rambam's view, as a result of the revelation at Sinai, the elders overestimated their closeness to God and wound up reaching distorted conclusions about His nature. They attempted to translate Divinity into concrete terms, into a form they could relate to even in the midst of eating and drinking. The possibility that the Revelation might lead to this kind of mistake was anticipated by God from the outset. Immediately after the event, He told Moshe:

"...So shall you say to the Children of Israel - 'You have seen that I spoke to you from the fire. Do not make anything with Me; gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make."

This concept was emphasized by Moshe when he recounted the experience at Sinai to the generation that was preparing to enter the land:

"You heard the sound of a voice, but you saw no picture - only a voice. Lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a graven image..."

Returning to the vision of the Elders at the end of Parashat Mishpatim, we must ask ourselves a simple question: Is it mere coincidence that, a couple of Parashot later, we read:

"Get up and make us gods that will go before us...And they got up in the morning, and they sacrificed burnt offerings and peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they got up to engage in revelry."

The sin of the Golden Calf includes the same basic elements we observed in the vision of the elders. The Jews felt the need to create a tangible representation of God's presence, and they celebrated their newfound "intimacy" with God in a similar manner: through eating, drinking and partying.

Taking a step back and looking at the progression the Torah displays to us, we notice a fascinating pattern in the text. The spiritual high point of Revelation and the solemnization of the covenant is punctuated by the distorted vision of the Elders. Immediately after the transgression, Moshe is summoned to Mount Sinai as a sign of reconciliation and the Laws of the Mishkan are presented.

Moshe's period of separation on the Mountain - the high point of his prophetic experience - is similarly interrupted by the incident with the Golden Calf. The situation is resolved through the return of Moshe to Mount Sinai for a second stint of forty days and forty nights. After rapproachment is achieved, the Mishkan is finally constructed.

By tying both the vision of the Elders and the idolatrous worship of the nation to the Mishkan, the Torah intimates that there is a conceptual connection between the mistake of the leaders and the grave error of the people. The relatively minor metaphysical distortion in the Elder's conception of God predisposed them - and the people of Israel, who depended upon them for spiritual guidance - to fall into the disastrous trap of outright idol worship.

The desire to make God something tangible, present in a subtle form in the minds of the wise elders, developed into a full blown, irrepressible obsession among the people. The primitive impulse to "see God" derived from the Israelites' attachment to the realm of the physical in general; hence the association between idolatrous tendencies and "eating and drinking" - the indulgement in pleasures of the body - in both cases.

The Rambam hints to these issues himself in his subsequent remarks about the vision of the Elders:

If such was the case with them, how much more it is incumbent upon us who are inferior, and on those who are below us, to persevere in perfecting our knowledge of the elements, and in rightly understanding the preliminaries that purify the mind from the defilement of error...The Nobles of the Children of Israel, besides erring in their perception were, through this cause, also misled in their actions; for in consequence of their confused perception, they gave way to bodily cravings....

We can now appreciate that the monumental sin of the Golden Calf was, in reality, a direct result of the intellectual immodesty and spiritual imperfection of the Elders. In the end, the seemingly minor errors of the leaders exterted a major influence on the perspective of the Jews and brought them quite literally to the brink of destruction.

What is the connection between these sinful thoughts and actions and the eventual construction of the Tabernacle? The Mishkan, according to many commentators, is designed to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. A simple consideration of its significance reveals how it accomplishes this objective. The Mishkan serves as a concrete reflection of God's presence among the Jewish people, while categorically forbidding any representation of Hashem Himself. It satisfies the human need for concreteness but disallows the attribution of physicality to the Creator proper. In this sense, it functions as a compromise between the emotional attraction to idolatry on the one hand and fidelity to the Jewish concept of God on the other.

By linking the respective mistakes of the Elders and the Nation to the Mishkan, the Torah shows us exactly how the institution of the Sanctuary helped to address the psychological need for a tangible representation of the Divine Presence. After the sin of the Elders, the Laws of the Mishkan were detailed. Just as their mistake existed only in the realm of the intellectual, so to did its "remedy", the Tabernacle, come into existence intellectually, in the form of commandments and instructions.

However, the sin of the Golden Calf took place in the realm of action - the Jews carried the philosophical error of the Elders to its ultimate conclusion, and physically engaged in idolatry. As such, it is followed up with the actual construction of the Mishkan; that is, the concrete implementation of its abstract laws and guidelines, the realization of its design in the material world.

Of course, the more general lesson here cannot be overlooked. Ideas and concepts are much more powerful than we tend to assume. An incorrect notion is not a harmless triviality; it can be a dangerous thing. The way we think about God, the world and ourselves can have the effect of tainting or even derailing our personal, communal and religious development. Wrongheaded teachers and leaders pose an especially serious threat, because the influence they exert on their followers is extraordinarily potent and can lead to destructive consequences of major proportions.

Sadly, we need not look too far to find contemporary examples of such phenomena in both Jewish and non-Jewish contexts.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Article on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

Back in September, I posted an extensive piece on the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy and their important role in our High Holiday liturgy. However, I have two good reasons for assuming that very few people read the original article, namely:

1) At that time, my blog was relatively new and the readership has grown a great deal since then, and

2) The article itself was lengthy, detailed and somewhat complex.

Because the September post deals with the structure of Parashat Ki Tissa - and, in my opinion, presents a helpful way of approaching many difficult aspects of that Parasha - I thought that this would be an ideal time to give it a special "plug".

Feedback on the original post will be much appreciated.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Of Children

"And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.
And he said:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that
His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable."

From The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
(This passage never fails to bring tears to my eyes, and to remind me of the sacred responsibility that is parenthood.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Mystery of The Red Heifer

This week, in addition to Parashat Ki Tissa, we also read "Parashat Parah", the section in the Book of Numbers that describes the ritual of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah). This ritual involved the slaughter of a Red Heifer outside of the Temple, and the subsequent reduction of its flesh and entrails to ashes. The ashes of the heifer were then combined with several other ingredients, including cedar wood, a branch of hyssop and a scarlet string. A person who came into contact with a dead body - whether at a funeral or otherwise - had to be sprinkled with this formula on the third and seventh days of his impurity before immersing in a mikveh, or ritual bath. Only then could such an individual regain admission to the Tabernacle or Holy Temple.

Interestingly, the Torah opens its presentation of the Red Heifer with the phrase "zoht huqat Hatorah" ("this is the statute of the Torah"). The Rabbis explain that the Red Heifer is the quintessential "hoq", or mysterious commandment, whose rationale is hidden from us. Indeed, it embodies a classic paradox; although the ashes of the Heifer serve to purify a person who has contracted impurity from the dead, they render anyone else who handles them impure! So they have contradictory effects, purifying and defiling simultaneously. Because of this and other unusual features of the process, the Red Heifer ritual is perhaps the most enigmatic commandment in the entire Torah. In fact, the Rabbis tell us that King Solomon grasped the reason behind every one of the 613 mitsvot, except for the Parah Adumah.

There is one fundamental questions that we can ask about the Parasha of the Red Heifer: Why did the Torah see fit to establish this particular institution as the epitome of a "hoq"? Why did Hashem choose to make this commandment - a purification ritual - so very mysterious and counterintuitive?

In order to gain a deeper insight into the significance of the Red Heifer, let us consider the fascinating comments of Rashi, who draws from a Midrash cited by Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan. In essence, Rashi interprets the ritual of the Red Heifer as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Along these lines, he proceeds to identify several fascinating parallels between the Heifer and the Calf. For example, the Torah states:

"Take for yourselves a perfectly red cow, that has no blemish..."

Rashi comments:

"Take for yourselves", from your own (communal) funds. Just as you gave of your golden rings for the [Golden] Calf, so too shall you provide its atonement.

"A red cow", this is analogous to a maidservant's son who soiled the king's palace. They said, 'let his mother come and clean the dirt.' Similarly, let the [red] Cow come and atone for the Calf.

"Red." As the verse says, 'if you have become red like crimson,' because sin is called red.

"A perfectly red cow"
. To symbolize Israel, who were first perfect but then became defective. Let the cow come and atone for them.

Rashi then goes on to explain numerous other details of the Parah Adumah ritual in the same spirit (see his comments on Numbers 19:22 at length).

Overall, Rashi makes a convincing case for positing the existence of a symbolic relationship between the sin of the Golden Calf and the preparation of the Red Heifer. Be that as it may, there is a major problem with this equation. After all, the Red Heifer is not a sacrifice, and is not presented as a vehicle of atonement at all! The Red Heifer is never associated with any transgression - its ashes are used to purify individuals from contact with a corpse, not from the defilement of sin.

Moreover, people usually encounter the dead in the context of a mitsvah, such as while present at a funeral or burial service. Such attendance is meritorious and should not require them to seek expiation or forgiveness afterward. Yet, despite their innocence, these individuals - because of their contact with a corpse - must now be purified through the ashes of the Red Heifer. It seems clear that this process of removing defilement has nothing to do with the comission of any crime. Why, then, does Rashi accept the view that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is meant to atone for the sin of idolatry?

I believe that the link between the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer provides us with a profound insight into human psychology and religious impulses in general. It is part of human nature to have a fear of death, a sense of vulnerability in the face of one's own mortality. Indeed, this anxiety is the basic nucleus from which most religious doctrine and behavior emerge. It is the fear of death and its mystery that propelled primitive man toward two objectives: The creation of elaborate theologies and detailed descriptions of the afterlife that removed it from the frightening category of the "unknown", and the development of complex rituals to ward off the forces of death and destruction that threatened him.

We can see the influence of the fear of death in all religions, ancient and modern. In Egypt in particular, superstition and ritual were almost exclusively concerned with reflection on and preparation for the afterlife. Involvement with the spirits of the dead, construction of huge tombs in which provisions for eternal life would be stored, and sacred literature that expounded upon the experiences of the deceased were the lifeblood of Egyptian religion.

This focus upon death is by no means absent from more modern religions, however. The New Testament abounds with discussions of eternal life, and the quintessential Christian symbol is a man dying, bruised and bloodied, on a cross. The Quran is similarly very detailed in its description of the rewards and punishments that await people in the hereafter.

Not so the Holy Torah. In absolute contradistinction to all other faiths, the Torah does not speak a word about the Afterlife. It provides us with no simplistic solutions to the mysteries posed by life and death. As the Rambam comments in several places, the human mind cannot grasp the concept of purely spiritual existence, and therefore is incapable of imagining what life in the Next World might be like. Anything we say about it, as comforting as it may seem, is either metaphoric or simply incorrect. For this very reason - because life after death is and will always be a mystery that transcends and defies human comprehension - the Torah refuses to offer us platitudes that might sate our curiosity, and requires us instead to make an honest admission of our ignorance in these areas.

The Torah similarly rejects the notion that religious activity should serve as a panacea for our anxieties about the fragility of life. Service of God and preoccupation with death do not mix. Our Kohanim are generally not permitted contact with the dead, and, unlike Catholic Churches that are typically situated directly over the graves of saints, our synagogues are never built even in remote proximity to tombs. Our motivation to study Torah and observe mitsvot is tied to a love of God and His wisdom as we experience it in this world, and should have nothing whatsoever to do with concerns about our fate in the World to Come. Unlike idolatrous religions, our Torah derives its appeal from life, not death.

When a human being is confronted with death, when he comes into contact with a corpse, there is an inevitable psychological impact. His own vulnerability and mortality are thrown into sharp relief. One very natural response is to seek solace in religion, either in the form of simplistic answers and reassurances, or in the form of rituals that offer him a sense of protection and security.

The Torah denies him both of these, condemning them as a reflection of the same primitive impulses that lead most people to idolatry. He is therefore not permitted to offer a sacrifice or even to enter the Temple until he has observed a period of seven days' separation. And during this time he must submit to the bizarre ritual of the Red Heifer - the ultimate acknowledgment of our helplessness in the face of the inexplicable mysteries of death and the hereafter.

We can now understand the relationship that obtains between the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf. An encounter with death has a tendency to make a person susceptible to idolatry, to the search for comforting metaphysical platitudes or magical protective rituals. This feeling of vulnerability and the urgency associated with it were precisely what led the Jewish people to construct and worship the Golden Calf - it provided them with reassurance, however imaginary and meaningless, and assuaged their fears. This incident is the ultimate proof to the kinds of spiritual danger into which this emotional frailty can lead us.

From this perspective, we can also appreciate the famous paradox of the Parah Adumah - namely, the fact that it purifies the defiled while defiling the pure. For someone who has already opened up the Pandora's Box of dealing with the issues and anxieties related to death - he has attended a funeral, lost a relative, or otherwise been faced with loss of life - participation in the ritual of the Red Heifer is a vital therapeutic process. It helps restore a person's humility, honesty and rationality as he struggles with the powerful emotions that have welled up inside him.

By contrast, one who has not had occasion to come into contact with a corpse should not voluntarily divert his mental energy to these complex emotional and existential problems. Such preoccupation can generate confusion, depression and angst, resulting in a waste of valuable time and resources. It would be the equivalent of orchestrating a crisis in order to try and resolve it.

Thus, much like psychoanalytic therapy, the Red Heifer's ashes should be pursued by those who need them, but should be avoided by those who don't. A psychologically healthy person who undergoes psychoanalytic therapy can wind up causing damage to himself by uncovering aspects of his personality he is not prepared to handle. These discoveries may seriously upset his emotional balance and drain his mental energy. Similarly, a "healthy" person who gets involved with the ashes of the Parah Adumah runs the risk of creating problems for himself where none existed before, leaving him "defiled" rather than purified from his experience with them. Hence, they purify the impure, while contaminating those who were pure to begin with!

The Torah, which is a profound system of knowledge and wisdom, demands intellectual honesty and humility from mankind. It does not permit us to indulge in wanton fantasies of immortality and eternal life that are nothing more than the products of our own imaginations. It wishes for us to recognize the reality of our finiteness and to acknowledge that our time here is brief and fleeting. It insists that we accept the inscrutable mysteries of life and death as just that - inscrutable. And, above all, it encourages us to live life nobly and meaningfully in the here-and-now, rather than focusing on what awaits us afterwards.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim Festivities

My son Netanel (as a spider) and I (as a Sultan) enjoying some Purim fun!

Friday, March 02, 2007

What is Tanach?

I had originally planned to post a great deal of material on Purim. Unfortunately, the exigencies of practical life over the past two weeks prevented that from happening. Be that as it may, I'd like to offer a few basic thoughts about the nature of Tanach in lieu of a more extensive presentation on the themes of Purim in particular.

It is well known that "Tanach" is not a monolithic entity. Its contents varied over time and were reconsidered and adjusted at several points in Rabbinic history. The Talmud tells us, for example, that the Rabbis debated whether or not to keep the books of Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes in the canon. They also argued about the precise status of some of the canonical books, such as the Book of Esther.

Many find this phenomenon troubling. After all, if a text is holy and presumed to be divinely inspired, why should it be excluded from Tanach? And if the holiness of the work itself is what is being questioned, how can logical argumentation in the Talmud serve to establish it? Jewish law cannot "rule" on an empirical fact, such as whether divine guidance played a role in the composition of a particular book!

We can sharpen our question further by asking what difference it makes whether a book is included or excluded from the canon. For example, did the Rabbis who maintained that the Book of Esther was not part of Tanach believe that reading Esther was a waste of time? Did the Rabbis that advocated removing Ecclesiastes or Ezekiel from the canon hold that studying these books would not be meaningful, or that their content was inaccurate or false? It is hard to accept such a conclusion, especially since, in the case of the Book of Esther, even those who held it was not part of the canon still agreed that it was a mitsvah to read it on Purim.

Study of the nature of Tanach leads us to another interesting problem. The Mishna in Masechet Megillah discusses the guidelines that must be observed in the preparation of Torah Scrolls, Megillot and books of the Prophets and Writings (Nach). All of these texts must be written on kosher parchment with kosher ink, etc. The difficulty is as follows: We know that there is a mitsvah to write a Torah scroll. Similarly, Megillot must be written in order to be used for the mitsvah of reading the Megillah on Purim. Therefore, it makes sense that there are halachic principles that dictate the mechanics of composing these texts.

However, there is no mitsvah at all to read most of the books of Tanach, at least not publicly. Being that there is no commandment to read from these volumes, and therefore no mitsvah to write them, how can there be halachic guidelines as to their preparation?

Indeed, the Rabbis themselves seemed ambivalent about the value of Tanach. Several statements of Chazal declare that the entirety of the Bible was given at Sinai, implying that its importance is on par with that of the Torah itself. Other statements suggest that the Prophets and Writings will be eliminated in the Messianic era, and that only the Torah and the Book of Esther will remain (this view is in fact codified by Maimonides at the end of Hilchot Megillah). How can we reconcile these contradictory perspectives on the Bible?

In order to resolve these difficulties, we must address the most basic question of all: Why does Tanach exist in the first place? We can understand the need for Torat Moshe, which provides us with a theological framework and a system of commandments to abide by. But what purpose is served by additional holy books?

I would suggest that the ultimate goal of all Jewish learning is the proper comprehension of Torah, i.e., the Five Books of Moses. It is the Torah of Moshe that includes, explicitly or implicitly, all of the ideas that comprise God's prophetic message to the people of Israel. However, bringing out the latent content of the Torah is no simple matter. In fact, its true meaning can be obscured by a variety of factors, such as the intellectual ability of its students, the influence of current cultural trends, etc. It is precisely to form a "bridge" between the comprehension of a given generation of Jews and the ideational content of the Torah that the Nach comes into existence. The books of the Prophets and Writings revolve around themes that are present in the Torah in some form but were deemed by the Baalei Hamesorah to require a "fleshing out", a separate "academic course" dedicated to them in their own right.

Examples of this kind of phenomenon abound in secular culture. Despite the bold proclamation that "all men are created equal", our country tolerated slavery and discrimination against women for hundreds of years. Many tracts were written detailing the incongruence and hypocrisy inherent in this state of affairs, until it was finally comprehended by the common man and a shift in cultural attitudes ensued. Nowadays, most of those important texts have become obsolete historical relics. They are no longer studied in depth because their message has already been internalized by the average person, who perceives their truths naturally in the simple words "all men are created equal".

Similarly, the Torah teaches the ideal of a wise life of prudence and justice. This is implicit in the Torah's narratives and commandments, and, in the proper cultural context, this overarching principle would be obvious to its readers. Nevertheless, King Solomon saw fit to author two books - Ecclesiastes and Proverbs - in which he expounded upon these themes at length. He understood that a separate "curriculum" was necessary for these ideas alone, and that such a study had to be completed in order for the average person to grasp the true import of the Torah's lessons.

Thus, the concept of Tanach is not a differentiation between meaningful/inspired books and meaningless or secular ones. Rather, a book is "inducted" into Tanach when the Baale Mesora determine that, if the Torah is to be understood properly, this additional book must have a separate course of study dedicated to it as well.

In this sense, becoming a book of Tanach is more a function of the laws of Torah Study than of a particular book's intrinsic value. A divinely inspired book may not demand a separate activity of learning and analysis just by virtue of its holiness. In some cases, it may be excluded from Tanach because the Rabbis think it will interfere with the correct understanding of Torah in their generation. Similarly, a non-inspired book like Proverbs may still be seen as an indispensible "course" in the Talmud Torah curriculum, despite its lack of "holiness".

The fact that these texts demand a process of learning in their own right is reflected in the halachic principle that they must be committed to writing in the same fashion as a Torah Scroll. They become an additional component of the Written Torah; therefore, although there is no specific commandment to write them, when they are written it must be done in a manner that demonstrates their special status.

What, then, is the status of a holy book that is rejected from Tanach? I would argue that, rather than robbing it of importance or significance, this merely relegates its contents to the status of Oral Torah, of useful commentary that may shed light on the meaning of other books in the canon. The Book of Esther is an excellent example of this. It is dedicated to a theme that is repeated numerous times in Tanach - the struggle with Amaleq. If it had not been officially accepted as part of the canon, it would have remained a very important, divinely inspired addendum to the presentations of this theme elsewhere in the Bible. It would have been read and studied, not as a course in its own right, but as a source of clarification and elucidation of the concept of Amaleq that is mentioned in the Torah and in the Book of Samuel. And, of course, it would have remained the central focus of the Purim celebration!

This also clarifies how the Rabbis could debate the inclusion or exclusion of particular works from Tanach. They were not engaged in arguments about the value of those texts, or their status vis a vis divine inspiration. What concerned the Sages was whether those books were necessary "courses" in the Torah curriculum of their generation. In some cases, the analysis revolved around whether involvement in certain texts would prevent people from attaining true knowledge of the Torah and its commandments. Whatever the case might have been, the Rabbis never questioned the accuracy or validity of any of the holy books in their possession. The issues they grappled with were halachic, not theological or empirical.

This approach is supported by the Rambam who, in his Laws of Torah Study, emphasizes that the Prophets and Writings are considered parts of the Written Torah. It is noteworthy that he establishes this classification in the context of the laws of learning Torah - and, specifically, while dealing with the correct Torah study schedule. This suggests that the distinction between Written and Oral Torah has more to do with the proper allocation of study time than with the intrinsic importance of the subject matter assigned to each category. Only texts that generate their own, independent obligation of Torah study are granted membership in the canon of Tanach. Other books, however profound and beautiful, are to be utilized as interpretive tools in the process of exploration of Biblical literature.

This is why the Rabbis can simultaneously claim that the entire Tanach was given at Sinai, and then state that all of the Prophets and Writings, save Esther, will one day be obsolete. The thematic principles of Tanach are all rooted in the Torah itself, they derive from Sinai. However, our need for separate courses of study to elucidate and deepen our grasp of these principles - that is, the fact that we cannot access them directly through study and interpretation of the Five Books of Moses - is a function of our spiritual weakness at this point in history. In Messianic times, the level of Torah study will be such that no other "Books" will be necessary - we will have Torat Moshe alone, and all other writings will serve as commentary.

In summary, aside from the Torah, the composition of Tanach is not divinely established, and inclusion or exclusion from Tanach is not a reflection of the truth or importance of any particular book. The structure of Torah literature - what attains the status of Written Torah and what does not - is purely a function of the educational needs of each generation, as determined by the Masters of the Torah Tradition. This determination impacts the process, order and format of Torah study, but not necessarily its scope.