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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Shmini

Cash and Clarity

Rabbi Stewart WeissNissan 23 5780
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Our Sedra begins as the Mishkan is inaugurated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. After an elaborate seven-day ceremony - presided over by Moshe, the first Kohen Gadol - Moshe's brother Ahron and his sons are consecrated, and from then on only their lineage will be permitted to administer the korbanot. Ahron brings three offerings - a Chatat, Olah and Shlamim (more on these later) - and then he blesses the people with the supreme bracha, the 3-part Birkat Kohanim:

May Hashem bless you and safeguard you; May Hashem shine his countenance upon you and favor you; May Hashem turn His attention towards you and bestow upon you Peace.

Rashi and others remark that the first segment of the bracha contains two parts. First there is a blessing for wealth and sustenance, and then - connecting to the word "V'Yishm'recha" - there is an additional blessing that your wealth should be safeguarded and protected, for what good is wealth if it is taken away from you?

Yet there are other commentators who put a different spin on the word, "V'Yishm'recha." They translate, "and YOU should be protected (from your wealth)." In other words, while wealth is indeed a blessing that can be used to enhance your own life and accomplish great things for others as well, cash comes with a caveat. Wealth can be corruptive, it can make a person arrogant and pompous. Rather than bring us closer to Hashem - who controls the flow of Parnasa in this world - it can draw us away from G-d by making us think we are invulnerable and completely self-reliant.

Because no one in this world is a prophet - emphasis on NO One - nobody knows why this Corona virus has gripped the planet in its grasp. But certainly one result of the plague is to illustrate to us the boundaries of wealth. Money does not guarantee that we will not get sick. And even if we remain healthy, G-d willing, what exactly can we spend our money on?! We aren't travelling; we aren't going to fancy hotels or public entertainment. We're basically not even driving, so what difference does it make what kind of car we own? Both the newly-unemployed and the independently wealthy must contract their lives alike, and stay close to home - literally. Food, a roof over our heads, a computer and a telephone - these are the essentials shared by us all.

Maybe, just maybe, this crisis can give us a perspective on the limits of largesse and the greater value of things other than our bank accounts.

This coming week, we will commemorate - in our homes rather than in public - the terrible events of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoa. Once, when our family was in a bit of a financial crisis, my late, great cousin Ahron Schrift took me aside and spoke to me. Ahron had survived the war, and encountered terrible trials until he was finally liberated and came to Israel. "Shmuel," he said to me, "I learned very well back what wealth means. On the train to the camps, we had not had anything to drink for almost three days. I saw people take out diamonds they had hidden on themselves, and try to trade them for a bit of water, reaching out the window of the train to Poles who were walking along the tracks. Sometimes they got the water; other times the Poles took the diamonds and then spilled the water out on the ground."

As we said earlier, Ahron Kohen Gadol brought 3 offerings - the Chatat, the Olah and the Shlamim. I suggest that these korbanot three symbolize the cycle of our lives during any crisis. First, there is the Chatat, the sin-offering. It represents the sins we do, which are essentially the root cause of why suffering comes upon us, certainly as a nation. The Olah, the offering which is completely burnt, from which nothing at all remains, represents the loss we suffer as a result of our sins. But ultimately comes the Shlamim, the Peace-offering, when we come to terms and reconcile with Hashem. We make our peace with one another, the crisis passes and we are showered with Bracha from above.

At some point - G-d only knows when! - this epidemic will be over. Hopefully, we will not only emerge from it in good health, but we will also have gained a valuable lesson in what is really valuable - and what is not.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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