We are pleased to share Max Schneeweiss-Cole’s dvar Torah on Parashat Achrei Mot from his recent bar mitzvah at Bonai Shalom.
by Max Schneeweiss-Cole
Keva and Kavanah
How do we prepare for anything of importance in our life? For example, how would we prepare for a soccer game? For me, I can’t just walk out on the field and have no clue of what I am doing. First I must prepare physically and mentally. Physically, I put on my gear. Also, I need to be physically trained; I need to be in shape. Running, jumping, kicking the ball are all examples of how to be physically prepared. Mentally, I need a specific mindset, my awareness of the game needs to be sharp, precise and on target. It is clear that one type of preparation without the other does not work. We actually need both mental and physical preparation for success in anything important in our life.
As a soccer player, how do I get the internal mindset? I need to have the right knowledge of the game. I need to develop a love for the game. My heart should be aligned with my mind. For me, the mental preparation to be the best goalie I can be and the intention to help my team in a game is like the Jewish concept of Kavanah.
Kavanah is the Hebrew word for having the intention, or inner connection to what we are doing. To do this, we need focus and preparation. When I go out to be the goalie I do not want to let my team down. I want to stop all the shots from the other team.
To be good at stopping the goals, one needs training. One needs to prepare externally so that your body moves how it is supposed to. Without training, a goalie could not stop the difficult goals. This training is part of the preparation, it is equivalent to the Hebrew word Kevah.
The partner of kavanah is kevah, which is the fixed and external parts, like the rules of the game and the way my body moves. Preparation that is tied to a passion or intention is what any serious goalie needs. Most things that we do with kevah, the external preparations, and kavanah, the internal intention will have a good outcome. How can we have one without the other?
For my Bar Mitzvah I had to prepare both physically and mentally to be able to read Torah, to lead parts of the service and to write this dvar Torah. In my parshah, Acharei Mot, we read about the rules for Aaron, the High Priest, when he entered the Holy of Holies to get rid of his sins and the sins of the Israelites.
There are many details in the way Aaron physically prepares to enter this holy place. These preparations are external; they are the kevah. Aaron had to put on linen clothing, the fire had to be built in a specific way. He had to sacrifice the bull for atonement of his sins and to sprinkle the bull’s blood on the altar facing the direction toward God sprinkling 7 times. All these details were God’s directions and they had to be followed specifically or else Aaron would die like his children had. Aaron’s sons died for lighting an unauthorized ‘strange fire’ or aish zara.
God also had specific instructions on how to atone for the sins of the Israelites. Aaron had to place a lot for the two goats. One of the goats was to be for God and the other for Azazel. God’s goat later got sacrificed, while the goat marked for Azazel was taken to the wilderness and set free by a designated man. This goat carried all the Israelites’ sins.
What is the internal aspect, the kavanah, of all these detailed preparations? Why did Aaron have to put on linen clothing, why not leather? I have an idea as to why. Sacrificing a bull or goat while wearing his kin’s skin doesn’t really go together, it is like wearing the sins while trying to get rid of them.
What about the goat for Azazel? Don’t you think that it is wrong for a goat to carry sins that he didn’t even do? We live in a world of personal responsibility. Aren’t we accountable for our own wrongdoings? So, what is the meaning of all this? Where is the internal meaning, the kavanah in all of these rituals?
The Kavanah comes from your inner-self. You are accountable for your own sins. God probably chose a goat because the goat doesn’t know any better and it doesn’t affect him either, he is just going by his instincts. The goat was an object for the Israelites to look deeper into themselves and repent.
This parasha is telling us that as long as we really do repent for our sins, then we might be forgiven. If you are not repenting from your inner-self, then it is like blah, or wasted time and wasted words. So as for Azazel’s goat, God’s intention was to let us know that we can be free of our sins if we repent and really mean it.
The special rituals and sacrifices in this parasha were the external kevah. The genuine repentant feelings of the High Priest, and of the people of Israel, were the internal kavanah. Both kevah and kavanah need each other to co-exist in a balance.
In my Haftarah, Malachi emphasizes that God does not care about the offerings from the sacrifices unless the Israelites fear God and truly repent for their sins. So, God wanted a repentance that came from the Israelites hearts, a repentance done with Kavanah.
Malachi explains that the Israelites are defrauding God, but that if they turn to God, then God will turn to them: “Shuvu Ely veashuva Aleichem.” Malachi also explains that the Israelites question “what have we gained by keeping God’s charge and walking in his path?” I can tell you something about that. If it were not for God, we would still be slaves in Egypt.
Today is the famous Shabbat Hagadol. SHABAT HAGADOL, The grand Sabbath! Why is this Sabbath so grand? Rashi, the famous Torah commentator, explains that people make this the longest Shabbat of the year because people used to remain in their synagogues learning about the rules for preparing for Pesach.
We all prepare for things of importance in our lives. Some of us only do the external kevah at times without showing intention. Some of us might only have the passion, the kavanah, for things without taking the time for external preparation and all of the details. However, for this grand Sabbath we all learn to prepare physically / externally and spiritually / internally since it is immediately before Passover.
We need to prepare for Pesach; we need to do the kevah, which is all of the cleaning-out of the bread. We also celebrate with kavanah, with our inner self, the miracles that happened in the Passover, and the cleaning that happens inside of us, where the hametz is not just bread, but our puffed up pride. Ultimately we celebrate freedom from both the external and internal puffiness.
In my parshah, Aaron receives instructions for Yom Kippur. God tells Aaron that the sacrifices for his sins, and the sins of Israel, will be replaced by a Day of Atonement. It is interesting that on this Shabbat Hagadol we continue to prepare for Pesach – the celebration of freedom while we read about Yom Kippor – the day of repentance. Freedom is important because we have and we want free will. This free will gives us the choice of how to prepare, and it gives us options to put our passion into things. On the other hand, my parshah says that we need a day to repent, and we need to participate in this.
So, on this Shabbat Hagadol, on my Bar-Mitzvah day, how can I connect all these different ideas: Kevah, Kavanah, Pesach, Yom Kippor? Oy vey, is this getting very Jewish! Passover celebrates freedom, but I think Yom Kippor implies that freedom it is limited. We need these limitations, and we also need to repent when we break them.
The limitations are like the kevah, they are at many times external people or rules telling us how to behave. Our free will to choose how we will live, and our ability to think or feel guilty for our wrong-doings is like our Kavanah. So in a way, freedom and repentance need each other to co-exist, just like Keva and Kavanah.
As a bar mitzvah, I have learned to prepare both internally and externally, in other words to feel the Kavanah and to do the Kevah, for what I do in my life. And I hope to use what I have learned for the future. I hope you all understood that Aaron’s preparation in today’s Parasha needed to be accompanied by the true feeling of repentance that comes from Kavanah.
Yasher koach, Max! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.