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Shemini 5777 - Orthodoxy, Happy Socks, and Individual Expression

2017-04-23 06:04:06 PM


  1. In 1908 Rav Kook wrote a letter to a friend who was captivated by the liberal anarchist political ideology of his time and who had solicited Rav Kook’s opinion about it.[1] Rav Kook responded by discussing the concept found in Chazal, that in the future, bodily mitzvos will be annulled and there will no longer be an obligation to observe all the mitzvos, at least not in the way we know them today. Rav Kook acknowledged that such a belief exists in Judaism, in that at some point in the evolution of man’s perfection, he will no longer be bound be restrictive laws and halachos, because he will have perfected himself so much so as to make mitvah performance redundant.


  1. However, he remarked, the most tragic error that could be made by any political movement is to believe that that glorious future has already arrived, when in reality it has not. Many times in history great leaders may have thought that man had already achieved his apex, only to be proven that we have a long way to go until we reach that sublime period of world peace and the cessation of all evil. This was Rav Kook’s way of explaining why political anarchy was a terrible mistake, born from a liberal desire to see the eradication of all evil in our time. Ridding ourselves of governmental restrictions can only work in a utopian society, and we’re quite far from that point.


  1. If you’ll recall from Shabbos HaGadol, we had remarked that this is one way of understanding the question of the wicked son at the Seder: “מה העבודה הזאת לכם” (“Why are you doing this service?”), on a deeper level, means: Why is it necessary for you to do mitzvos anymore? I can understand when you were a primitive slave class in need of guiding principles, but now we have evolved so much as a people and a civilization, it should no longer be necessary for us to have to observe mitzvos, since perfection can be attained without them.


  1. Rav Kook then remarks that great Jewish leaders have also made this mistake. This was the mistake of Hellenized Jews in the times of the Greeks and Romans, who felt that mitzvah observance was no longer necessary. It was also the mistake of the Sabbateans who followed Shabbetai Tzvi and committed all forms of sin. But we also find this pattern in the Torah. This was, ultimately, the sin of Nadav and Avihu, and why they felt at liberty to bring a “foreign fire” before Hashem.


  1. Nadav and Avihu believed that they had reached such a high level of connection and perfection that it wasn’t necessary for them to wait to be commanded, and that they could spontaneously bring whatever was in their hearts, because of their perfected states of holiness. This is what our Sages (Sifra Shemini 24) mean when they say that they were “מורה הלכה בפני רבם”. That is, they took the liberty of transcending the protocols that were put in place by their teachers.


  1. The Zohar (Shemini 37b) uses a slightly different language to describe this sin. It states that they were “דחקו שעתא”, literally, “pushing the moment” by taking the law into their own hands instead of going through proper channels of authority. The Zohar also states that their crime was offering incense at the wrong time (“דלא הוה שעתא כדקא יאות”), because the incense is only supposed to be offered in the morning and in the afternoon, and they offered it at the wrong time. From the Zohar’s standpoint, the effort was a virtuous one, but the timing was all wrong. This is an allusion to Rav Kook’s depiction of their mistake: to act as if we are living in utopia when that time has not yet arrived.


  1. Some commentaries offer that part of the wrongness of the timing was that this was the very first day of the Kohanim’s service in the Mishkan. If there was ever a day when exact protocol had to be observed, it was at the beginning. This was the time for HKB”H to demonstrate His coming down into the world through His mitzvos. That’s why, at the climax of the inaugural process it states (9:24), “ותצא אש מלפני ד'” – the fire emanated only from Hashem. Specifically at this juncture, it was vital that Hashem’s commandments be fulfilled. Granted, there’s a time for Bnei Yisrael to offer their self-initiated service, but on this day, the day of dedication, exact protocol had to be followed.[2]


  1. This is especially so because they were the Kohanim, the priests who are charged with carrying out Hashem’s specifications in front of the nation. This is why their clothing was uniform and why so many sacrificial laws were in place, to demonstrate that in order for man to reach Hashem, he needed to abide by Hashem’s specified laws, not by man’s extemporaneous innovations.


  1. A constant tension exists within religious man, whether to be an innovator or to be an obedient servant. This tension was described by Rav Soloveitchik in his essay, “Lonely Man of Faith,” where he describes the two Adam’s of creation: one, from chapter one of Genesis, which he calls Adam I, and is descriptive of “majestic man,” the man who utilizes his G-d-like and creative faculties to master the world around him. The other, from chapter two, is Adam II, and is descriptive of “covenantal man,” who surrenders himself to the will of G-d. It is man’s responsibility to synthesize his two personas in his service of HKB”H in this life. The error of Nadav and Avihu was to exercise “majestic man” at a time when “covenantal man” was supposed to be the only persona present. Had their timing been different, however, then it’s altogether possible that their service would not only have been accepted, but even desired by Hashem, since Hashem loves man’s majesty and creativity as a part of his service.


  1. I noticed over Yom Tov, especially while duchening, that many kohanim were wearing “happy socks,” that is, very colorful and unique sock designs. In discussing this with my family, we all agreed that part of the reason for this new phenomenon, especially in the very conservative yeshiva world, is that despite the uniformity of dress, despite the “bigdei kehunah (priestly garments),” if you will, of the Orthodox Jewish man, there is a need for creativity and individual expression. We put out a brief survey on Survey Monkey. The results show that people both like the extra color in their wardrobe, and see these socks as a way of expressing their individuality. In asking people why they wear happy socks, we had some interesting answers (One Kohen wrote: “Since I am a Kohan socks must be taken to a higher level!” Another person wrote: “Just to remind me not to take myself too seriously.” My personal favorite was the respondent who wrote: “They match my happy underwear!”)


  1. We’re witness in society today that mankind is pushing for more and more autonomy in the way we live our lives. One of the reasons people are turning away from religion in dramatic numbers is because by its very definition, religion defines a mode of worship that requires some level of uniformity among its adherents. And while it may be that society’s notion of personal autonomy has run amok, that doesn’t mean that we should dispose of autonomy altogether. Within every human being lies the ambition and desire to be an individual and to express oneself as such. We need very much to keep this in mind, especially in an Orthodox community, when we often expect or demand of our community to conform to one set of values, behaviors or mode of dress. There needs to remain some arena of personal choice and expression. Of course, happy socks is really just a symbol of that, but it should cue us in to the need for the individual’s needs of expression on much bigger things.


  1. For example, there’s an expectation that if you’re involved in advanced Torah study and you’re a male, you’ll obviously be learning Gemara either exclusively or for most of your day. But what about those individuals who’d like to focus on Midrash, or Nach, or Machshava? Should they be discouraged from these divergences or should they be allowed their “happy socks” of learning? Or, we all know that the traditional chesed and charity organizations revolve around helping other Jews who are less fortunate. But should there not be an outlet for those who’d like to focus on more universal causes, like helping the blind, or feeding the homeless downtown, and the like? What about expressing one’s Judaism through art, theater, and music? All of these represent unconventional outlets of religious expression, but should they be shunned or celebrated? Isn’t that what those who are wearing happy socks are expressing, a desire to be different, if only in a bit of a defiant, yet private and unassuming way?


  1. I think you already know the answer. In order for us to continue making Judaism relevant for our children and grandchildren in this ever-changing world where personal autonomy is the new Golden Calf, we need to find larger happy socks for our children. Let’s allow those around us to be creative within the four cubits of halakha and to experiment and explore new ways of expressing our love of Judaism.


  1. Admittedly, perhaps the synagogue is the last place for those innovations to take place. Like Nadav and Avihu’s Holy of Holies, the shul is a place for tradition and convention to prevail. But there are so many outlets outside the sanctuary where innovation is possible. I believe not only is this possible but it is indeed necessary if our Yiddishkeit will continue for our children and grandchildren.


  1. May we all discover new ways of making Torah Judaism relevant and meaningful to ourselves and our children. May our happy socks of Judaism bring us to the redemption, bb”a.

[1] אגרות הראי"ה א' עמ' קעג.

[2] See Rashbam commentary to 10:1.

Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780