The Punishment Fits the Crime?

The major event in the Torah portion is the sin of the Golden calf. In that case, it is a bit easier to understand why a death sentence was brought upon the worshipers. After all, people have just received the 10 Commandments, and their entire identity was predicated upon true monotheism. To then, 40 days later, start running around worshiping a golden calf and proclaiming, "These are the gods who brought you out of Egypt," is certainly a terrible terrible sin. What caused the people to do it?

I believe it is hinted at in the way the people phrased their request to Aaron to make a God for them. They needed it, they explained, because, "We do not know what has happened to this man, Moses." The key word in that sentence is "Man".

Moses was certainly a man, so why emphasize his humanity? The answer is because they knew that, although Moses was as human as anyone else, he was not just a man. He was a man of God. They had seen him ascend Mount Sinai when God spoke, they saw him in Egypt being God's agent. This was no ordinary man. He had in him an abundance of an element that is crucial to human fulfillment and purpose: Holiness.

By erasing Moses's holiness, the people demonstrated a rejection of the Torah's holiness, and perhaps even of God's. They sought to bring religion down into the physical world, rather than elevate the physical world towards heaven. Moses was a man, a great one, but a man in this world. If he can't be with us, we want something else physical, in this world. Why did the people not turn to Aaron to lead them if Moses was now missing? Because Aaron oozed holiness, and the people were not interested. They wanted something physical that they could control, a golden god would do just fine.

Holiness is the key ingredient in our lives, or it should be. I remember, as a child, asking a theoretical question. Can a person steal religion? What if a person observes the Sabbath perfectly, but claims they do so not because of God, but because they like it. Do they get credit for this Mitzvah? A friend suggested that one can, indeed, be guilty of theft in so doing. The Talmud tells us that a person should fulfill the Commandments for the sake of heaven. If given the choice between fulfilling the Mitzvah not for the sake of heaven, or not doing it at all, one should do the Mitzvah, because it will help them eventually grow to fulfilling Commandments for the sake of heaven.

In other words, the only value of keeping the religion without God in it is the hope that by continually doing so, God will become part of the picture. On its own, it has no value. I believe this is hinted at in one of the rules of the daily prayer service. The central prayer, the Silent Devotion, contains a series of 19 blessings. The first three are considered a group, and can not be separated. For example, if one omitted a crucial phrase in the third blessing and remembered it later in the prayer, they cannot just go back to that third blessing. They must go back to the beginning of the prayer, since the first three cannot be separated. What are those first three?

The first blessing is about the heritage of the Jewish people, describing our relationship with God, and his relationship with the patriarchs. The second blessing deals with our faith in God, how He sustains all life, heals the sick, revives the dead, brings us rain and sustenance. The third blessing describes God's Holiness. It would seem that the first two are sufficient, since they outline our belief in the Jewish people being chosen, and our faith in God running the world.

And, yet, it is not enough. Even if you believe perfectly, and practice perfectly, but do not have a sense of Holiness, your life is deeply lacking. So much so, that it may not even be worth living. If religion is just a higher form of mundane, and does not touch the mysteries of heaven, our life is simply a biological fact. With no deeper spiritual meaning, we are as dead people, having no lasting influence.

This is why the Priests must wash their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary. It is because of Holiness, it is because they will be in the presence of the Lord. A person's hands represent the deeds they do in their life. Their feet represent the places they travel through during their existence. Both of these must be sanctified before coming into the Tabernacle. By doing so, the Priests recognize the Holiness of the presence of God in His house.

To not wash hands and feet implies erasing the sense of Holiness from the Tabernacle. It becomes another job, to make sure that the religious services are properly delivered, and nothing more than that. It is going beyond "Moses, the man," is saying "this building, the Tabernacle." A life without Holiness is a life bereft of meaning. The Talmud says that there are two sins that ignorant people die from: 1. They call the Ark (where the Torah is kept) a "chest." 2. They call a synagogue a "community center." In other words, by erasing Holiness from religion, life loses its meaning.

It is forbidden to touch the Torah scroll with one's bare hands. The Talmud states that whoever "holds the Torah while naked (meaning that their hands are not covered), will be buried naked." The Talmud asks how this can be? The answer given is that the person, while not physically naked, will be buried without reward for this deed of touching the Torah -- presumably to honor the Torah by tightening or supporting it. They will be "naked from that Mitzvah." What does this mean?

It means that the person who does so, who grabs the Torah with their bare hands, fails to show respect to the Holiness of the Torah scroll. Now it would've been sufficient for the Talmud to say that they will not get reward for having honored the Torah by touching it and fixing it. Why go to the funeral and state, "they will be buried without this Mitzvah?" Because a life without Holiness is akin to death. Even when a person observes a technically perfect religion, if they do not honor the Holiness and strive for it, the religion is simply a mundane mode of living. It is only physical, and the physical perishes in the end.

A Jew washes their hands in the morning, first thing after awakening. Why so? One explanation is because a person might have scratched themselves during the night and got in their hands dirty. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and they say. Another explanation is because the person was one sixtieth dead during the night. Sleep is considered 1/60 of death, and death is impurity. Thus, we purify our hands in the morning when we return to life and have our full soul reinstated in our bodies.

To me, this goes beyond just cleanliness. By washing our hands in the morning, we are embracing Holiness for the entire day. We are dedicating the day to the pursuit of heaven, just as the Priests prepare themselves to enter the Tabernacle by washing. The Talmud says that a person who fails to wash their hands in the morning will be fearful the entire day long. Fearful of what? Well, as King David says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me." When we are dedicated to Holiness, our souls sense God's presence and protection. Without it, we are afraid of what the physical world might bring.

To truly live, a person must seek out and strive for the mystery of Holiness in everything they do. In the words of a song I once wrote, "I would take a piece of heaven, and with my piece of heaven, I would transform the world."