B’MIDBAR (Numbers, 1:1-4:20)/SHAVUOS — “Can Familiarity Breed CONTENT?”

SHAVUOS

Next Tuesday night is the beginning of the Holiday of Shavuos.  Shavuos commemorates the day, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, when G-d gave us the Torah.

For more on Shavuos click here or here.

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“Can Familiarity Breed CONTENT?”

A fellow came up to me in Shul recently and asked, “Why is it so hard to pray with feeling?”

Our prayers were composed by some of the greatest Sages of Israel.  They were written with tremendous depth and compassion.  They make reference to the greatness of G-d and all He has done, and continues to do for us.

We read of the stirring recitation of G-d’s praises by the angels in Heaven:   “…they all open their mouths with holiness and purity, in song and hymn – and bless, praise, glorify, revere, sanctify, and declare the kingship of the Name of G-d, the great, mighty, and awesome king, holy is He.”    (Morning Service)

The angels in Heaven are filled with awe and reverence as they praise their Creator.  Why aren’t we?

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The Israelites in the desert had the Tabernacle, a portable Temple, in the middle of the camp.  Every time they traveled, the Tabernacle was disassembled, packed up, and carried to the next destination.  Immediately upon arrival, they reassembled the Tabernacle.

The Kohathites, one of the families of the Levites, were in charge of transporting the most sacred vessels and furniture of the Tabernacle.  Relatives of Moses and Aaron, (Kohath, son of Levi, was their grandfather) the Kohathites were a respected and honored Levitical family.  They were highly qualified and deserving of this great honor.  Yet, they had to be careful. The Kohathites carried the Temple vessels, but only after they were placed, by Priests, into protective coverings.  They were prohibited, on pain of death, from touching, or even looking at, the sacred objects of the Temple:

G-d spoke to Aaron and Moses, saying, “Don’t let the tribe of the Kohathite families be cut off from among the Levites.  This is what you should do for them so that they will live and not die; when they approach the Holy of Holies, Aaron and his sons will come and assign each man to his work and his burden.  But they shall not come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.”  (Numbers, 4:17-20) 

Why were the Kohathites prohibited from touching and seeing the vessels?

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The problem, I suspect, is that familiarity breeds contempt.  The Levites were regular visitors to the Temple.  They sang praises to G-d in His Temple.  As lofty and awe-inspiring as that experience was, it was possible to get used to it and to become complacent.  Therefore, they were not permitted to take liberties with the sanctity of the Temple.  As the Altar was covered, they were required to look away.  (One could almost say, you don’t watch a king getting dressed; you shouldn’t watch the king’s property “getting dressed” either.)

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I studied at a Yeshiva in Israel for six years.  Then I left Israel, not to return for twenty years.  Ten years ago, I went back.

It was awesome!  I went to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem to pray.  As soon as I opened the Book of Psalms, I was totally overcome with emotion.  Here I was, in the burial place of our Matriarch Rachel, who cried to G-d on behalf of her children.  I cried like a baby.  An hour later, I was in Hebron, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the other Matriarchs.  More of the same.  I was reciting the Afternoon Service — “… G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob…”  Again, more waterworks!

I went to the Kotel.  The Western Wall, the sole remnant of a magnificent Temple of G-d that the Romans destroyed two thousand years ago; a Temple that we pray every day to see rebuilt.  A Temple over which our People have shed millions of tears for thousands of years.

As Jewish Law requires, I tore my shirt the same way a mourner does at the funeral of a loved one.  I stood there at the ruins of our Temple in my torn shirt looking like a mourner.  But you know what?  Deep down, I didn’t FEEL like a mourner!

I couldn’t understand it.  At the Tombs of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs I was overcome with emotion.  Why was the site of our destroyed Temple different?

I’m a religious Jew.  I pray every day for the Messiah to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt.  I fast every Tisha B’Av, and join my People in mourning for the Temple.   Why did I not feel the same, deep emotions that I felt at those other places?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory.

In Temple times there were many restrictions pertaining to entering the Temple.  If someone had come in contact with the dead, he couldn’t enter the Temple.  After experiencing flows of various bodily fluids, men and women were not permitted to enter the Temple.  If you touched a dead mouse, you couldn’t enter the Temple.  If you came in close contact with some of the people I just mentioned, you couldn’t enter the Temple.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons that the Torah lists so many types of ritual defilement was in order to keep people out of the Temple!  Going to the Temple was an activity that took a great deal of preparation.  G-d didn’t want the Temple to ever seem commonplace.  That’s why He made it so hard to get in!

Several years ago, I discovered a website that allows you to see a live (or almost live – 60 seconds old) picture of the Western Wall.  I have gone to that website on Tisha B’Av and watched the throngs of mourners at the site of our Temple.  I have visited the website on Friday afternoons and observed the Kotel when it is already Shabbos in Jerusalem.  I even have a picture that I took of my son at the Kotel in Jerusalem while I was sitting in front of my computer in Monsey, New York!

I wonder – could it be that the reason I found it so hard to emotionally attach myself to the Kotel when I was there live is because I had been there so often on the Internet?

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A teacher of mine once went to visit a Torah Scribe in his store.  There was a table that had several Torah scrolls on it.  To my teacher’s surprise, the Scribe was sitting on the table.  When he pointed out to the Scribe that it isn’t appropriate to sit on a table with Torahs on it, he jumped up, shocked by his own actions.  Even a Torah Scribe, a person who sanctifies parchment by writing the Name of G-d on it, could become complacent.  In spite of his holy work, or, in a sense, BECAUSE of his holy work, it is possible to become comfortable.  Too comfortable.

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I know many of the prayers by heart.  It is sometimes very easy to pray.  Too easy.

Could it be that familiarity breeds contempt?  Is it possible that we would be better off not praying so often, G-d forbid?  Would it be preferable that we pray three times a year, rather than three times a day?!

Clearly, that isn’t the solution.  G-d wants us to do Mitzvahs every day.  Every moment of our lives is supposed to be spent in devotion to G-d.  So what do we do?!  How do we escape from them every-day-ness of serving G-d every day?

When we wake up every morning to the “same old same-old,” it is very easy to get into a rut.  We brush the same teeth, put on the same (but hopefully clean!) clothes, say “good morning” to the same people, get into the same car to go to the same shul to say the same prayers and go to the same job to work with the same people…

The solution is NOT to change what we are doing.  The solution is to change HOW WE LOOK AT what we are doing.  If we would stop and really analyze the blessings we have, we would find it much easier to be enthusiastic.

Yes, I live in the same house I’ve lived in for the past fifteen years.  How boring.  But what if I were to lose my home?  How difficult would life be if I didn’t have my home?  THANK YOU, G-D, FOR THIS WONDERFUL HOME!

Yes, I have the same job I’ve had for the last ten years.  How boring.  Oh, remember that guy in my department who was laid off, and just lost his house to bankruptcy?  THANK YOU G-D, FOR THIS WONDERFUL JOB!

Yes, I have the same sore feet I’ve had for years.  What a pain!  Oh, I can still walk… THANK YOU, G-D, FOR THESE WONDERFUL FEET!

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The Talmud tells us of the “Chassidim Harishonim – the Early Pious Ones” who spent an hour in quiet meditation preparing for prayer.  Can you imagine what a prayer would be like if we actually stopped to focus upon what we want to talk to G-d about?

Our prayers are full of lofty and meaningful expressions of devotion.  If we would but take the time to think about how much we owe to our Creator, and read the words from the prayer book with concentration, we would find ourselves soaring to new heights.  We would find that yes, these are the same words that I said yesterday.  But I am not the same person I was yesterday.

Things are only the same if we allow them to remain the same.  Every day presents new challenges and new opportunities for growth.

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The Kohathites had to guard themselves from taking sacred things for granted.  So do we.  We need to step back and look at the world that G-d renews daily.  If we do, we will always find something new for which to thank Him.

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By the way, I’ve stopped going to that Kotel website.  (Did you notice that I didn’t provide the link? :-))  I look forward to the thrill of witnessing the restored and rebuilt Temple.  Soon.  That will REALLY be a new experience.  I know that my eyes will flow with tears of inspiration when that happens.

Meanwhile, I’m working on incorporating those same tears into my daily prayers! 

Have a great Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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From the Archives

“Can Familiarity Breed CONTENT?” (2010)

A fellow came up to me in Shul recently and asked, “Why is it so hard to pray with feeling?”

… I studied at a Yeshiva in Israel for six years.  Then I left Israel, not to return for twenty years.  Ten  years ago, I went back…

I went to the Kotel.  The Western Wall, the sole remnant of a magnificent Temple of G-d that the Romans destroyed two thousand years ago; a Temple that we pray every day to see rebuilt.  A Temple over which our People have shed millions of tears for thousands of years.

As Jewish Law requires, I tore my shirt the same way a mourner does at the funeral of a loved one.  I stood there at the ruins of our Temple in my torn shirt looking like a mourner.  But you know what?  Deep down, I didn’t FEEL like a mourner!

I couldn’t understand it.  At the Tombs of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs I was overcome with emotion.  Why was the site of our destroyed Temple different?

I’m a religious Jew.  I pray every day for the Messiah to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt.  I fast every Tisha B’Av, and join my People in mourning for the Temple.   Why did I not feel the same, deep emotions that I felt at those other places?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory…

Read more.

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“How do I Love Thee?  Let me Count the DAYS” (2009)

… Picture a wealthy man sitting in his treasure house counting his money.  How many times does he need to count?  He already knows, from the first count, how much he has.  Why does he continue?

Because he loves his money!!  Every gold and silver coin jingles as it drops back into the money bag.  He is so caught up with his love of money that he just sits there counting it, again and again and again.

That’s how much G-d loves you.  He adores you, His precious and beloved child!  Therefore He counts us, again and again and again.

We, too, have been counting…

Read more.

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“Hair Today — Gone Tomorrow!” (2004)

… Reuters listed the story in its “Oddity” category, citing a “ritual ban” by “an ultraorthodox sage.”  … The New York Times, that bastion of Jewish anti-semitism, examined the human-interest and business ramifications of the ban.  NewsRadio WCBS described a “demonstration” in Brooklyn.

Everything I read or heard in the media seemed to suggest a fringe (pun intended!) fanatic group of religious fundamentalists reacting with intolerance toward the beliefs and practices of others.  Chat rooms all over the web abounded with obnoxious off-color comments and jokes.

What’s going on?  The issue revolves around a temple in India where pilgrims offer their hair to a Hindu deity.  This hair is then sold as a fund-raiser for the temple.  Apparently, some of this hair has found its way into the wigs worn by religious Jewish women.  Rabbinic leaders have declared these wigs unusable, due to having been used for idolatrous practices.

The media are going to town, describing Jewish women in a frenzy, lost without their precious wigs.  The news reporters especially enjoy telling us about group “wig burnings.”  Can’t you just envision the mob scene, as wide-eyed “ultraorthodox fanatics” launch the offensive hairpieces onto the raging pyre? …

Read more.

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“Humility vs. Self-Esteem” (2003)

Life is filled with contradictions.  We are told to be humble.  Then the Torah tells us how great we are…

Read more.

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“Legacy Building” (2002)

I’ll never forget that night…February 14, 1979.  It was the evening when I first met the young lady who would eventually become my bride…

Rabbi Kagan, the leader of world Jewry, was, at the time, quite old. He asked the young man if he was a Kohain. The young man replied that he was not. “Why not?” asked the sage. “Because my father’s not a Kohain.” “Why not?” “Because HIS father wasn’t a Kohain.”

Once the youth was sufficiently confused by the interrogation, the Chofetz Chaim explained his point…

Read more.

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“Marching Orders” (2001)

… After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, they began to celebrate in their usual sadistic fashion…The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice.  “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.

Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “Yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the shin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”…

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 7:04 am  Comments (3)  

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Rabbi Seplowitz;

    Thank you.

    If you please, I would like to copy & POST as well as show this to a few acquaintances (about 10 + or -). Would you please allow me to do so?

    Thank you.

    Howard

  2. Hi, Howard. nice to hear from you. I hope all is well with you & yours.

    Yes, feel free to post it. Please make sure to copy it in its entirety, including copyright information.

    Please send my & Sheera’s regards to your entire family.
    — Rabbi Seplowitz

  3. Thank you for an incite-full lesson. Following this logic, we have the dilemma of trying to regard Eretz Israel itself as a Holy land. Just being there, praying there, etc., I would vouch that most of us do not feel the holiness of the land. Perhaps that contributed to our expulsion.
    Good Shabbos and Yom Tov,
    Howard V


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