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Terumah – The Significance of the Accacia Wood

Parshat Terumah opens with the command to B’nei Yisrael to dedicate materials for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  The items required for the Mishkan include many things that are not readily available in a desert. 

Shemot 25:3-7

וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת׃ וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים׃ וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאׇדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׁטִּֽים׃ שֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּאֹ֑ר בְּשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים׃ אַבְנֵי־שֹׁ֕הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפֹ֖ד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן׃

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins,aOthers “rams’ skins dyed red.” dolphinbOr “dugong”; meaning of Hebrew taḥash uncertain. skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;

Many explanations are offered for how B’nei Yisrael acquired the dolphin skins, yarns, oils and metals for this task.  There is a beautiful idea developed in the Midrashic literature explaining one of these items:  The acacia wood (atzei shitim) used to form the planks of the Mishkan. 

Twice in our parsha Rashi cites a Midrash which asks how B’nei Yisrael acquired acacia wood in the desert.

Rashi on Shemot 25:5

ועצי שטים. וּמֵאַיִן הָיוּ לָהֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר? פֵּרֵשׁ רַבִּי תַּנְחוּמָא: יַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ צָפָה בְּרוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁעֲתִידִין יִשְׂרָאֵל לִבְנוֹת מִשְׁכָּן בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהֵבִיא אֲרָזִים לְמִצְרַיִם וּנְטָעָם, וְצִוָּה לְבָנָיו לִטְּלָם עִמָּהֶם כְּשֶׁיֵּצְאוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם: ועצי שטים

 AND SHITTIM WOOD — But from where did they get this in the wilderness? Rabbi Tanchuma explained it thus: Our father Jacob foresaw by the gift of the Holy Spirit that Israel would once build a Tabernacle in the wilderness: he therefore brought cedars to Egypt and planted them there, and bade his children take these with them when they would leave Egypt (Midrash Tanchuma, Terumah 9; cf. Bereishit Rabbah 94 and Rashi on Exodus 26:15).

The Midrash answers that when Yaakov came down to Egypt to reunite with Yosef, he saw through prophecy that his descendants would one day build a Mishkan in the desert.  Yaakov brought trees with him and planted them in Egypt so the wood required for its construction would be ready for his descendants when they needed it.  According to this tradition, B’nei Yisrael had trees in the desert thanks to the foresight of Yaakov avinu

The discussion does not end here, however.   The Torah tells us in Breishit 46:1 that on his way down to Egypt Yaakov stopped in Be’er Sheva to offer sacrifices to Hashem. 

וַיִּסַּ֤ע יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְכׇל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וַיָּבֹ֖א בְּאֵ֣רָה שָּׁ֑בַע וַיִּזְבַּ֣ח זְבָחִ֔ים לֵאלֹקי אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק׃

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) explains that in addition to offering sacrifices, Yaakov had another reason for stopping in Be’er Sheva.  Earlier in Sefer Breishit, Avraham had planted an eshel in Be’er Sheva (Breishit 21:33). 

וַיִּטַּ֥ע אֶ֖שֶׁל בִּבְאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיִּ֨קְרָא־שָׁ֔ם בְּשֵׁ֥ם ה’ קֵ֥ל עוֹלָֽם׃ [

Abraham] planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheba, and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.

 The meaning of the word eshel is unclear, and many possibilities are offered by the mefarshim.  Rashi records two possibilies:  either it means an orchard of fruit trees with which to feed his guests, or it means an inn to host travelers. 

אשל. רַב וּשְׁמוּאֵל, חַד אֲמַר פַּרְדֵּס לְהָבִיא מִמֶּנוּ פֵּרוֹת לָאוֹרְחִים בַּסְּעוּדָה, וְחַד אֲמַר פֻּנְדָּק לְאַכְסַנְיָא וּבוֹ כָּל מִינֵי פֵּרוֹת. וּמָצִינוּ לְשׁוֹן נְטִיעָה בְּאֹהָלִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְיִטַּע אָהֳלֵי אַפַּדְנוֹ (דניאל י”א): אשל [AND ABRAHAM PLANTED AN] אשל —

Rab and Samuel differ as to what this was. One said it was an orchard from which to supply fruit for the guests at their meal. The other said it was an inn for lodging in which were all kinds of fruit (Sotah 10a). And we can speak of planting an inn for we find the expression planting used of tents,

 The Rashbam maintains that Avraham’s eshel was an orchard of trees where Avraham would go to pray.  

ויטע אשל – פרדס היה להתפלל שם. ויטע אשל,

 an orchard. The presence of such an orchard should encourage people to pray to G’d there.

In the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, R. Nehemiah is cited as saying that the word eshel is related to the Hebrew word for ask (sha’al).  According to this understanding Avraham would say to his guests, “Ask for whatever you would like and I will give it to you.”  Finally, the Radak comments that the word eshel is an acronym for the words ochel, shtia, leviah – food drink and escort.  Avraham taught the residents of Be’er Sheva that to properly welcome guests into their city they must provide these three things. 

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 94:4) offers the following:

וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָׁבַע (בראשית מו, א), לְהֵיכָן הָלַךְ, אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן שֶׁהָלַךְ לָקֹץ אֲרָזִים שֶׁנָּטַע אַבְרָהָם זְקֵנוֹ בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע,

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Be’er Sheba – Whither had he gone?  Said R. Nahman: He went to cut down the trees which his grandfather Abraham had planted in Be’er Sheba.

Whatever, the exact meaning of the word Eshel is, it is clear that the Midrash wants to connect the trees prepared by Yaakov for the construction of the Mishkan with the eshel planted by Avraham.  Not only does this create a powerful historical connection between the generation of the desert and their ancestor Avraham.  It emphasizes that the same values stressed by Avraham – hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) by providing them with food, shelter and company – are integral to the Mishkan as well.  In the eyes of our sages, a Mishkan in which Hashem dwells among the Jewish people is possible only if it is built with a commitment to the values and lessons instilled by Avraham avinu.  Though we no longer have a physical Mishkan, this is an important lesson for us to take to heart as participate in, and build our own community.  We must combine our service bein adam la-Makom (between us and Hashem) with a passion and commitment to service bein adam le-chavero (between our fellow human).   

After Colleyville — Finding Our Yitro Moment

This week we Parshat Yitro.  At the beginning of the parsha we encounter the character of Yitro.  The parsha opens (Shemot 18:1)

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אלקים לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא ה’ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם

Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Zevachim 116a which asks:

מה שמועה שמע ובא ונתגייר

What tiding did he hear that he came and converted?

The Gemara gives three suggestions, of which Rashi mentions two of them.  The opinion Rashi doesn’t not quote is that of R. Elazar haModa’I who maintains that Yitro heard of the giving of the Torah.  This position raises all sorts of questions because the Torah tells us of Yitro’s coming prior to its telling of the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  The other two positions are

  • R. Yehoshua – he heard about the war with Amalek (which immediately precedes the story of Yitro)
  • R. Eliezer – he heard of the splitting of the Sea

I heard a beautiful idea from Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz about these two opinions brought in Rashi.  Rabbi Leibowitz quotes from the Sefer Be’er Yosef, written by R. Yosef Salant (1885-1981).  R. Salant questions the basis for R. Yehoshua’s opinion that Yitro was inspired to join the Jewish people because of the war against Amalek.  This is the war in which Amalek almost defeated the B’nei Yisrael.  Yehoshua and his army were successful in battle only when Moshe’s hands were raised up toward the heavens.  Moshe enlisted Aharon and Chur to help him.  As we read last week (Shemot 17:11-12)

וְהָיָ֗ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרִ֥ים מֹשֶׁ֛ה יָד֖וֹ וְגָבַ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר יָנִ֛יחַ יָד֖וֹ וְגָבַ֥ר עֲמָלֵֽק׃ וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

Rabbi Salant asks – it is clear that the splitting of the sea was a much greater miracle than the victory over Amalek.  Why then would R. Yehoshua think that the victory over Amalek would draw Yitro to Hashem and the Jewish people?  Rabbi Salant answers that Yitro’s joining with B’nei Yisrael was not just in order to fulfill Yitro’s person quest for religious truth and spirituality.  It also sent an important message to B’nei Yisrael.

After the splitting of the sea, it would have been very easy and make perfect sense for anyone to want to align themselves with B’nei Yisrael.  They were seemingly invincible.  However, even though they defeated Amalek, their weakness and vulnerability had been exposed.  It brings to mind the 2007 NFL season (apologies to the Raven fans if it is still painful to be talking about NFL playoffs) in which the Patriots lost their bid for a perfect season in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.  A crucial piece to the Giants’ victory is the fact that they had played the Patriots in the final game of the regular season.  The Patriots won that game by 3 points after having fallen behind by 12 points in the third quarter.  Although the Patriots were heavily favored to win the Super Bowl rematch against the Giants, they were no longer seen as invincible by the Giants.  And so the Giants beat them thanks in large part to David Tyree’s Helmet Catch.

Rabbi Salant explains that the war against Amalek could have been like the regular season game between the Patriots and Giants for B’nei Yisrael.   They must have felt deflated, knowing that that their enemies might be able to defeat them.  And this, he explains, is why R. Yehoshua holds that Yitro came after that battle.  Yitro’s arrival inspired B’nei Yisrael and reminded them that they were part of something truly remarkable.  Yitro’s arrival gave them an extra shot of confidence when they needed it most.

We are coming off a week where our vulnerabilities have been exposed.  It was a complete shock to conclude Shabbos last week and learn of the attack against Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX.  We have all been inspired by the heroic actions of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and relieved at the outcome.  But even from far away in Baltimore, we are scarred by what happened in Texas and are reminded of the vulnerabilities that we face in the light of anti-Semitism.  I’m sure you’ve all been reading the same articles I have highlighting the unfortunate reality of the need for training against terrorist attacks on our shuls and Jewish institutions.   We cannot feel totally safe in the very places that are supposed to be the most safe.  And so we enter into this Shabbos in need of our own Yitro.  We need that added boost of confidence to assure us that despite the vulnerabilities that have been exposed there is something deeply meaningful and inspirational in our Judaism.  We are not blind to the threats against us, but we remain committed and steadfast in our observance and our determination to come together as a community in times of celebration, times of mourning and moments of uncertainty.

I don’t need to say that this message is even more complicated for us as the current surge of COVID prevents us from gathering together in person.  So as we enter into Shabbat, let us all find our Yitro moment – something that will allow us to see beyond the fear and weaknesses that have been exposed to fully embrace and celebrate our commitment to yidishkeit and our pride to be a part of the Jewish people.

Lechem Mishneh

Parshat Beshalach establishes what unfortunately becomes a familiar pattern.  After experiencing the miracle of kriyat yam suf (the splitting of the Sea) we immediately read that they went for three days without water.  After arriving in Marah, they find water but it is too bitter to drink.  And for the first time we read of B’nei Yisrael’s complaints (Shemot 15:24):

וַיִּלֹּ֧נוּ הָעָ֛ם עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹ֖ר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּֽה׃

And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?”

Hashem provides Moshe with a piece of wood which he throws into the water and the water becomes sweet.  A few verses later, the people complain again (16:1-3):

וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵֽאֵילִ֔ם וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ כׇּל־עֲדַ֤ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־סִ֔ין אֲשֶׁ֥ר בֵּין־אֵילִ֖ם וּבֵ֣ין סִינָ֑י בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֨ה עָשָׂ֥ר יוֹם֙ לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֔י לְצֵאתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (וילינו) [וַיִּלּ֜וֹנוּ] כׇּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל עַל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃ וַיֹּאמְר֨וּ אֲלֵהֶ֜ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְהֹוָה֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֙נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאׇכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּֽי־הוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כׇּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּרָעָֽב׃ 

Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.   The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Hashem responds by providing B’nei Yisrael quail and the מן (Mannah).  The Man comes with the special instructions that on Friday they were to collect a double portion for Shabbat since collecting Man on Shabbat is forbidden.  As we read (16:22-23) 

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֗י לָֽקְט֥וּ לֶ֙חֶם֙ מִשְׁנֶ֔ה שְׁנֵ֥י הָעֹ֖מֶר לָאֶחָ֑ד וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ כׇּל־נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיַּגִּ֖ידוּ לְמֹשֶֽׁה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם ה֚וּא אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּ֣ר ה שַׁבָּת֧וֹן שַׁבַּת־קֹ֛דֶשׁ לַֽה מָחָ֑ר אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאפ֞וּ אֵפ֗וּ וְאֵ֤ת אֲשֶֽׁר־תְּבַשְּׁלוּ֙ בַּשֵּׁ֔לוּ וְאֵת֙ כׇּל־הָ֣עֹדֵ֔ף הַנִּ֧יחוּ לָכֶ֛ם לְמִשְׁמֶ֖רֶת עַד־הַבֹּֽקֶר׃

On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD. Bake what you would bake and boil what you would boil; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.”

The double portion of Man that was collected on Friday in the desert serves as the basis for Lechem Mishneh (two loaves of bread) at each of the Shabbat meals.  I want to take this opportunity to review a few of the halachot associated with this requirement.

Nature of the requirement

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 274:1) writes:

בוצע על שתי ככרות [שלימות] שאוחז שתיהן בידו ובוצע התחתונה:

Every person is obligated to break bread on two [whole] loaves. One holds them both in his hands and breaks the bottom one.

A number of posekim including the Aruch haShulchan (OH 274) Taz (OH 678) and Chatam Sofer (OH 46) hold that the requirement for lechem mishneh is de-oraita (Biblical) in nature based on the seeming redundancy in the pasuk

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֗י לָֽקְט֥וּ לֶ֙חֶם֙ מִשְׁנֶ֔ה שְׁנֵ֥י הָעֹ֖מֶר לָאֶחָ֑ד

On the sixth day they gathered double the amount of food, two omers for each

Others feel, including the Magen Avraham (254) feel that it is only a Rabbinic requirement.

Do you have to eat both loaves?

The key source addressing this issue is the Gemara Shabbat 117b:

אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּא: בְּשַׁבָּת חַיָּיב אָדָם לִבְצוֹעַ עַל שְׁתֵּי כִכָּרוֹת, דִּכְתִיב: ״לֶחֶם מִשְׁנֶה״.

אָמַר רַב אָשֵׁי: חֲזֵינָא לֵיהּ לְרַב כָּהֲנָא דְּנָקֵט תַּרְתֵּי וּבָצַע חֲדָא. אָמַר: ״לָקְטוּ״ כְּתִיב. רַבִּי זֵירָא הֲוָה בָּצַע אַכּוּלַּהּ שֵׁירוּתֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רָבִינָא לְרַב אָשֵׁי: וְהָא מִיחְזֵי כְּרַעַבְתָנוּתָא? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כֵּיוָן דְּכׇל יוֹמָא לָא עָבֵיד, וְהָאִידָּנָא הוּא דְּקָעָבֵיד — לָא מִיחְזֵי כְּרַעַבְתָנוּתָא.

Rabbi Abba said: On Shabbat a person is obligated to break bread in his meal over two loaves of bread, as it is written: “And it happened on the sixth day, they collected double the bread, two omer for each one” (Exodus 16:22).

Rav Ashi said: I saw that Rav Kahana took two loaves in his hand and broke one, not both at once. He said in explanation that it is written: “They collected double the bread,” meaning that one collects and holds two loaves together, but need not break both. Rabbi Zeira would break off a piece that would suffice for his entire meal. Ravina said to Rav Ashi: Doesn’t that appear like gluttony? Rav Ashi said to him: Since on every other day he does not do this and now he is doing so, it does not appear like gluttony.

One camp of commentators understands that the requirement is simply to have two loaves at the meal, but there is only a requirement to eat one of them.  Proof of this is that verse cited above states that B’nei Yisrael gathered a double portion.  Further proof for this position is that in the desert they would have only eaten one loaf (or portion of Man) at each meal.  Taking this to the logical conclusion there are those who hold that there is no requirement for lechem mishneh at Seudah Shlishit since there is no Shabbat meal remaining for which to save any food.

Others hold that both loaves of bread must be consumed at the meal.  They understand the Gemara to have reported that Rabbi Zeira would cut every loaf in front of him.

An interesting application of this debate is whether frozen Challah may be used as the second loaf of lechem Mishneh.  Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Shemirat Shabbat Ke-hilchatah rule that frozen challah can be used since they feel the requirement is for there to be two loaves present at the meal, but only one of them has to be eaten.  R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach feels that the bread used for lechem mishneh should be at the very least be ready to eat in case someone wants it.

Cover the Challah

We are familiar with the custom of covering the Challah prior to saying the bracha over it.  The most popular explanation for this is that it is to avoid “embarrassing” the challah.  Since we normally say the bracha over bread at the beginning of the meal, we are sensitive to the fact that we begin the Shabbat meal by saying kiddush over wine.  A related explanation is that covering the halahca allows us to depart from the normal order of brachot, but not that we are really concerned about the “feelings” of the bread.

Another explanation brings us back to the original source for lechem mishneh – the Man.  The Torah records (Shemot 16:14):

וַתַּ֖עַל שִׁכְבַ֣ת הַטָּ֑ל וְהִנֵּ֞ה עַל־פְּנֵ֤י הַמִּדְבָּר֙ דַּ֣ק מְחֻסְפָּ֔ס דַּ֥ק כַּכְּפֹ֖ר עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

In other words, the Man was enveloped by dew above and below.  We place the Challah on a special plate or cutting board and cover it from above to remind us of the way in which the Man was covered in the desert. 

Other Explanations

There are many other explanations offered for why we have the requirement of lechem mishneh.  Some point to the idea that on Shabbat we have a נשמה יתרה (extra soul).  They explain that because we have an extra soul, we have a need for more than usual.

Others say that the lechem mishneh represents the extra blessings we receive from Hashem on Shabbat. 

The Israeli journalist and Torah personality Sivan Rahav Meir points to a pasuk at the end of the Torah’s description of the Man in our parsha (16:29)

רְא֗וּ כִּֽי־ה֮ נָתַ֣ן לָכֶ֣ם הַשַּׁבָּת֒ עַל־כֵּ֠ן ה֣וּא נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶ֛ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁ֖י לֶ֣חֶם יוֹמָ֑יִם שְׁב֣וּ ׀ אִ֣ישׁ תַּחְתָּ֗יו אַל־יֵ֥צֵא אִ֛ישׁ מִמְּקֹמ֖וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי׃

See that the LORD has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.

She riffs on the explanation of the Sforno and says that we should “take a good look….In the wilderness, the Jewish people merited to experience the blessing inherent in Shabbat first-hand…However, there is the immediate danger that they will ignore the blessing, so Moses instructs them to take a special look and internalize the nature of this gift.”

This message is especially relevant for us this week as we are again not able to gather together in Shul.  Despite the frustration, I hope that we will all take the opportunity to reflect on the blessing of Shabbat in our lives. 

Bo — With our Children and With Our Elders

Parshat Bo contains the final three makkot (plagues) and the Exodus from Egypt.   I’d like to focus on a rather curious exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh found at the beginning of the parsha.  The parsha opens with Hashem’s instruction to Moshe and Aharon to go to Pharaoh and inform that the next plague will be that of ארבה (locusts).  After delivering the message, Moshe and Aharon leave Pharaoh and we learn of the conversation that took place between Pharaoh and his advisors (Shemot 10:7):

וַיֹּאמְרוּ֩ עַבְדֵ֨י פַרְעֹ֜ה אֵלָ֗יו עַד־מָתַי֙ יִהְיֶ֨ה זֶ֥ה לָ֙נוּ֙ לְמוֹקֵ֔שׁ שַׁלַּח֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְיַֽעַבְד֖וּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלקֵיהֶ֑ם הֲטֶ֣רֶם תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֥י אָבְדָ֖ה מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the LORD their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?”

In response, Moshe and Aharon are ushered back to the palace and Pharaoh agrees to let them go worship Hashem.  But he then asks (Shemot 10:8) מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים — Who are the ones to go?”

Moshe answers (Shemot 10:9):

בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יה’ לָֽנוּ׃

“We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the LORD’s festival.”

At which point Pharaoh has (another) change of heart and responds (verse 11):

לֹ֣א כֵ֗ן לְכֽוּ־נָ֤א הַגְּבָרִים֙ וְעִבְד֣וּ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ אַתֶּ֣ם מְבַקְשִׁ֑ים וַיְגָ֣רֶשׁ אֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֥י פַרְעֹֽה׃

No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence.

It seems rather odd that Pharaoh, after seemingly conceding to Hashem, now reasserts himself by stipulating the conditions under which B’nei Yisrael can go.  The Midrash Rabbah (13:5) suggests that Pharaoh still doesn’t get.  He thinks that all that Moshe is really, sincerely asking to go and worship Hashem for three days after which the nation will return and resume being slaves to Pharaoh and Egypt.  He is concerned that if the entire nation goes, they might not come back.  Pharaoh therefore insists that the women children remain behind as collateral to ensure that B’nei Yisrael will come back (See Chizkuni on Shemot 10:11).

A second explanation for Pharaoh’s refusal to let the women and children go is brought by Rashi

ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם. כְּתַרְגּוּמוֹ. וּמִ”אַ שָׁמַעְתִּי, כּוֹכָב אֶחָד יֵשׁ שֶׁשְּׁמוֹ רָעָה, אָמַר לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה, רוֹאֶה אֲנִי בָּאִצְטַגְנִינוּת שֶׁלִּי אוֹתוֹ כוֹכָב עוֹלֶה לִקְרַאתְכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא סִימַן דָּם וַהֲרִיגָה; וּכְשֶׁחָטְאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּעֵגֶל וּבִקֵּשׁ הַקָּבָּ”ה לְהָרְגָם, אָמַר מֹשֶׁה בִּתְפִלָּתוֹ, לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר “בְּרָעָה” הוֹצִיאָם (שמות ל”ב), זוֹ הִיא שֶׁאָמַר לָהֶם, רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם; מִיָּד וַיִּנָּחֶם ה’ עַל הָרָעָה וְהָפַךְ אֶת הַדָּם לְדַם מִילָה, שֶׁמָּל יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹתָם, וְזֶהוּ שֶׁנֶּ’ “הַיּוֹם גַּלּוֹתִי אֶת חֶרְפַּת מִצְרַיִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם” (יהושע ה’), שֶׁהָיוּ אוֹמְרִים לָכֶם, דָּם אָנוּ רוֹאִין עֲלֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר:

 I have heard a Midrashic explanation: There is a certain star the name of which is רעה “Evil”. Pharaoh said to them, “By my astrological art I see that star rising towards you in the wilderness whither you wish to proceed. It is an emblem of blood and slaughter”. Consequently, when Israel sinned by worshipping the calf and the Holy One, blessed be He, intended to slay them, Moses said in his prayer, (Exodus 32:12) “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak and say, He brought them forth together with רעה (i. e. under the influence of the star רעה); this is, indeed, what he (Pharaoh) has already said, “See, the ‘רעה’ is before you”. At once, “the Lord bethought Himself concerning ‘רעה’”, and He changed the blood of which this star was an emblem to the blood of the circumcision because indeed Joshua had them circumcised. This is the meaning of what is said, (Joshua 5:9). “This day have I rolled from off you the reproach of the Egyptians”, for they said to you. “We see blood impending over you in the wilderness. (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 1:392; cf. also Rashi on Joshua 5:9.

In other words, Pharaoh was able to see that the generation that left Egypt would die in the desert (in Rashi’s telling, they would be deserving of death because of the sin of the Golden Calf).   Pharaoh thus says to Moshe, “there is no point in your leaving Egypt only to die in the desert.”  As the Ba’al ha-Turim explains, in this understanding, Moshe’s response to Pharaoh is very technical:

והשיבו משה, בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך כי לא נגזרה גזירה לא על פחות מבן ך’ ולא על יתר מבן ס’:

Moshe responded, “With our young and with our old we will go!” because the decree that they would die in the desert did not apply to those below the age of twenty nor above the age of sixty.

A final explanation of the debate between Pharaoh and Moshe is not about the technicalities of who will leave at this moment, but is about conflicting views on religion and community.  In this understanding, Pharaoh’s assertion

לֹא כֵן לְכוּ נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים

No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD, since that is what you want.”

Reflects Pharaoh’s understanding of religion and the world in which he lives.  The Rashbam comments:

לעבוד את ה’ אתם מבקשים פני. וא”כ טף ונשים למה?

You are asking me to worship Hashem.  If that is the case, what need is there for women and children [to participate]. 

Rashi similarly comments:

וְאֵין דֶּרֶךְ הַטַּף לִזְבֹּחַ

It is not the custom for little children to offer sacrifice.

In Pharaoh’s mind, only the “members of society” have access to God and religious worship.  The other members of the community will only hold them back, slow them down and create more problems.  There is no point in them even beginning the journey.

Moshe emphatically rejects this approach.  The entire community must be involved.  As Rav Hirsch beautifully writes:

בנערנו ובזקננו נלך – we have not intermediary, no priests, no representative before our God.  If we are to go, we must all go; the tiniest baby in the cradle, the last sheep of our possessions.  Each and all are integral parts of our community…When God calls us, He wants to see us with every member of our family and with all our possessions, about Him. 

Moshe explains to Pharaoh “we are in this for the long haul and we are all in it together.”

I find this exchange between Pharaoh and Moshe to be extremely relevant as we once again find ourselves preparing for Shabbos in which our shul will be closed.  COVID does not allow us to safely daven indoors; the weather does not allow for safe or comfortable davening outside.  It is specifically on a week that we cannot gather in person that we must take Moshe’s message to heart.  Every member of the community is vital.  Because we care deeply about everyone, we are willing to make short term sacrifices to ensure the long-term health and safety of our loved Netivot family.

I want to encourage everyone to please make an extra effort to reach out to members of the shul and wish them a Good Shabbos.  Check in on them.  I desperately hope that we will be able to safely and comfortably return to shul real soon.  In the meantime, I wish everyone a Shabbat Shalom.

Va’era – O The Humanity

(Written in 2016)

Good Shabbos.  As many of you know, my family and I spent winter break with my father and sister at Disney World.  It was an amazing trip and we had so much fun.  While there, waiting on one of the many lines that we stood on to meet a character or go on a ride it occurred to me how a Disney vacation truly is an escape from reality.  Forget about the wars being fought in the world, problems of poverty or inequality.  All that mattered was which Disney princess were we going to meet next, and how long is the ride for the nearest roller coaster.  This was literally all I thought about for an entire week. 

Real life, of course, is much more complicated.  This week’s parsha highlights one of those complicated, real life issues that is way too complex for the simplistic, happy Disney world experience. 

As the drama of the makot (ten plagues) unfold and we read of the first seven this week, there are three times when Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aaron and begs them to make the plague stop.  It is too much for Pharaoh to bear and he asks Moshe to Hashem pray on his behalf in order to stop his suffering. 

The first time this occurs is after מכת צפרדע, the plague of frogs. 

Exodus 8:4: 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־ה’ וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לה’ 

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: ‘Entreat the LORD, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice unto the LORD.’ 

Pharaoh makes a similar request during the plague of ערוב (wild beasts).  He is on the brink of agreeing to allow B’nei Yisrael to go to worship Hashem for three days and says to Moshe: 

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי. 

And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me. (Shemot 8:24) 

Finally, at the end of the parsha during ברד (hail): 

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם ה’ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃ הַעְתִּ֙ירוּ֙ אֶל־יהק וְרַ֕ב מִֽהְיֹ֛ת קֹלֹ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּבָרָ֑ד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לַעֲמֹֽד׃ 

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9:27-28) 

The commentators tell us that Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh were sincere, and difficult for Moshe to utter.   

On his prayer during tzfardeah, the Torah records: וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה’ עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. – he cried unto the Lord concerning the frogs He had wrought on Pharaoh (Shemot 8:8).  The Da’at Mikra contemporary commentary explains that the verb צעק cry out/scream implies that Moshe cried out loudly as if he were crying   in distress and despair. 

ויצעק משמע שמלל בקול גדול כצועק מתוך צרה ומצוקה. 

Concerning the prayer offered during Arov, Rashi writes: 

ויעתר אל ה’ – נתאמץ בתפילה וכן אם בא לומ’ ויעתיר היה יכול לומ’ ומשמע וְיַרְבה תפילה, וכשהו’ אומ’ בלשון ויפעל משמ’ וַיִרְבֵה להתפלל. 

and entreated the Lord: he exerted himself in prayer. Similarly, if [Scripture] meant to say וַיַעְתִּיר, it could have said it, and that would mean that he increased [words] in prayer. Now, however, because it uses the וַיִפְעַל form, it means that he exerted himself to pray [devoutly]. 

Moshe exerted great effort in praying for Pharaoh. 

And finally, at the end of our parsha during barad, Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa in Israel writes in his book on the parsha Yoducha Ra’ayonai: 

משה נכון היה לשאת תפלה בעד האויב המשעבד את עמו.  על אף המציאות הסבוכה מצליח משה להפלל מעומק לבו ולעורר את רחמי הקל על סבלות העם המצרי. 

Moshe was correct to offer prayer on behalf of the enemy who was subjugating [Moshe’s] people.  Despite the complicated reality, Moshe succeeds to pray from the depths of his heart and to arouse God’s compassion over the suffering of the Egyptian nation. 

Why does Moshe go to such lengths to pray for Pharaoh and the Egyptian people?  Surely Moshe’s behavior goes beyond what we would expect. 

To answer this I’d like to return to an episode from Sefer Breishit.  On Rosh Hashanah we spoke about the plight of Yishmael and his mother Hagar (https://rabbikap.wordpress.com/2015/09/16/shema-koleinu-when-we-are-not-heard/).  Hagar is kicked out of Avraham and Sarah’s house twice. Once on her own and once with her son Yishmael.  On the second occasion, both mother and child are on the brink of death with no food or water to be found.  Hagar abandons Yishmael, too pained to see her son suffer.  This story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael immediately precedes the story of Avraham and Yitzchak ascending Har haMoriah for Akedat Yitzchak.   

In his latest book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contrasts these two episodes: 

“We identify with Hagar and Ishmael; we are awed by Abraham and Isaac.  The latter is a religious drama, the former a human one, and its very humanity gives it power.”  (115) 

Despite the fact that Yitzchak is the favored son and chosen successor of Avraham, we more easily identify with Yishmael.  The Torah deliberately does not vilify him, and wants us to empathize with him.  Rabbi Sacks continues: 

In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal.  It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging.  At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Isaac.  She is the he first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child.  But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael.  We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathize with their emotions.  That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy.  We weep with them, feeling their outcast state.  As does God.  (117-118) 

One of the Torah’s fundamental lessons is to empathize and identify with the other, even with our enemy. To bring this back to our parsha, when Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jews go, Hashem insists that the Jews not leave empty-handed.  They should leave ברכוש גדול – with great wealth.  The simplest explanation is that the Jews are instructed to demand payment for the hundreds of years of servitude.  But not all agree that the רכוש גדול refers to material wealth, or only material wealth. 

Rav Yehuda Amital a”h quotes the Ari z”l who explains that God wanted the Jewish people to take with them the positive aspects of Egyptian culture and to integrate them, to “raise the sparks.” (http://etzion.org.il/en/plead-people-they-should-take-property).  Despite the oppression to which the Egyptians subjected us, there were still positive elements of Egyptian culture and society.  On our own, we would not have taken anything from Egypt.  It would have been a terrible nightmare that we wished to put far behind us.  To erase all memories.  Therefore, God pleaded with Moshe to make sure that the people would take the good aspects of Egypt with them. 

Along similar lines, in explaining Hashem’s command to take riches from the Egyptians,  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to a Halacha recorded in Sefer Devarim:  When a Jewish slave is set free, his master is obligated to provide him with wealth on his departure (Devarim 15:12-15).  Rabbi Sacks explains that this gift is not meant to be compensation for the years spent in slavery.  Rather, the gift is meant to provide closure of this chapter in the slave’s life and allow for the parting to be in good will.  The slave does not leave his master bearing bad feelings or with feelings of humiliation.  Rather, the gifts are symbolic of a new beginning.  This is the same idea behind Hashem’s insistence that B’nei Yisrael take money and riches from the Egyptians.  If we did not take a symbolic parting gift we would bear resentment and ill-will toward the Egyptians for the rest of our national history.  We would be a people stuck in the past.  We must let go of whatever animosity we have in order to realize our national destiny. (http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5769-bo-letting-go/

This idea of empathizing with the enemy is at the forefront of a contentious debate in Israel.  During the latest streak of terrorism and stabbing attacks, one question that has emerged and that is truly dividing Israeli society is how to treat with the terrorists and perpetrators of these attacks once the immediate threat has been stopped. 

The Israeli Medical Association, and the medical community has adopted guidelines that once the terrorist is no longer a threat, that all people on the scene – whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Jew or non-Jew, terrorist or victim – should be treated in order of severity.  Those who are most critically wounded should be treated first.  ZAKA, the volunteer emergency service organization has refused to accept these guidelines.  Yehoshua Meshi-Zahav, the founder and chairman of ZAKA has stated that ZAKA volunteers will treat Jewish victims first. 

 “In spite of the ethical code that says one should treat the most severely injured first, one should know that even morality has its boundaries,” Meshi-Zahav added. “If we do not make this distinction, we lose our direction. Even in Jewish law it says, ‘He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.’” (http://www.timesofisrael.com/volunteer-medic-group-rejects-treating-terrorists-and-victims-equally/).  (For a different perspective on this question, see the article written by my friend Rabbi Seth Winberg http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Killing-a-terrorist-who-is-no-longer-a-threat-430114

I certainly understand this position and relate with Meshi-Zahav’s sentiments.  I do not know what the right answer is in this situation. 

What is clear, is that Judaism demands of us that we follow in the tradition of Moshe who prayed on behalf of Pharaoh.  That despite the harshness of our enslavement in Egypt, we must be able to see the positives of that oppressive society and leave open the possibility of reconciliation.  We must be able to see the humanity and to empathize with human suffering, even that of our enemies. 

Breishit – Science and Torah. In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler

Over Shemini Atzeret Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler passed away.  Rabbi Tendler was a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a professor of Jewish medical ethics and biology at YU.  He was a leading authority in issues of Jewish law and medical ethics.

Rabbi Tendler was married to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s daughter, Shifra, and he was very close with his father-in-law.  Rav Tendler provided Rav Moshe with the medical and scientific background needed to answer the complicated שאלות that Rav Moshe fielded on a regular basis.  To this effect, Rav Tendler was also heavily involved in translating and publishing many of Rav Moshe’s teshuvot related to medical ethics into English.

Also of note was Rav Tendlers passionate advocacy for organ donation based on his understanding that the halachic definition of death is based on brain death and not cessation of the heartbeat.  After publicly denouncing his detractors on the matter, he explained in a 2011interview:  “You say a thing, I believe you’re ignorant on this topic.   That’s not an insult. It’s a fact.”

It is quite fitting that we mourn Rabbi Tendler on Parshat Breishit.  We have all had to contend with questions of how to reconcile our scientific knowledge with the Torah and nowhere are these questions more explicit than in Parshat Breishit.

  • If according to Judaism the world is 5782 years old, how do we make sense of scientific evidence that it is is billions of years old?
  • Where do dinosaurs fit into the Torah’s account of creation?
  • How does a believing Jew make sense of Darwin?
  • How are we to understand the various miracles described in the Torah that seem to go against science.

Unlike R. Yehuda Amital who would declare every year:

“Big Bang… Small Bang. אני לא מבין כלום בפרשת בראשית – I don’t understand anything in Parshat Breishit!”

Rabbi Tendler approached the study of science with the utmost confidence that Torah could withstand any attacks, contradictions or questions lobbed its way.  He opened a seminal article – Molecular Genetics, Evolution and Torah Principles” (Torah Umadda Journal vol. 14; https://www.yutorah.org/_cdn/_shiurim/7.%20John%20D.%20Loike%20and%20R.%20Moshe%20D.%20Tendler%20-%20Molecular%20Genetics,%20Evolution,%20and%20Torah%20Principles.pdf) that he co-wrote with a friend’s father, Dr. John Loike, by quoting Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah 10:6

אֵינוֹ אוֹהֵב הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶלָּא בְּדַעַת שֶׁיְּדָעֵהוּ. וְעַל פִּי הַדֵּעָה תִּהְיֶה הָאַהֲבָה אִם מְעַט מְעַט וְאִם הַרְבֵּה הַרְבֵּה. לְפִיכָךְ צָרִיךְ הָאָדָם לְיַחֵד עַצְמוֹ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל בְּחָכְמוֹת וּתְבוּנוֹת הַמּוֹדִיעִים לוֹ אֶת קוֹנוֹ כְּפִי כֹּחַ שֶׁיֵּשׁ בָּאָדָם לְהָבִין וּלְהַשִּׂיג

No one loves the Holy One, blessed is He! save by the measure of knowledge that he knows Him. According to that knowledge will that love be; if it be small, the love will be small; if it be abundant, the love will be abundant. It is, therefore, necessary for man to dedicate himself to understand and acquire intelligence in the sciences and reasonings which make known to him his Owner, in the measure of power that man possesses to understand and attain it,

As the two authors explain:

Rambam maintains that the twin obligations to love God and to stand in awe of Him are fulfilled through scientific inquiry and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. Through scientific study one comes to appreciate God’s wisdom (resulting in love, ahavah) and, in addition, to understand the insignificance and lowliness of the human being in the cosmic order (resulting in awe, yir’ah).  It is with this view in mind—that scientific study can enhance religiosity— that we approach the issue of how molecular genetics should be viewed within the perspective of Torah.

In other words, it isn’t that humans are another species of animals that happens to be a little smarter than other animals.  Rather, we were endowed with צלם אלקים (image of God) which fundamentally distinguishes us from other creatures and which cannot be measured in scientific terms.

In a touching memory, Rabbi Jesse Shore, who studied with Rav Tendler at YU wrote  (https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/rockland/2021/09/30/obituary-rabbi-moshe-tendler-jewish-medical-ethicist-monsey/5927788001/):

When the New Atheism was enjoying its heyday, he once casually remarked that, ‘Richard Dawkins is an atheist only because he has not studied enough science.’ At first I thought he only said this for the shock value. But after several semesters observing him learn, teach, and publish, I realized that the remark was not at all intended to be provocative.”

In their article on molecular genetics, Rabbi Tendler and Dr. Loike provide three lessons from the fact that humans share so much genetic makeup with animals and other lower forms of life.

  • Humility – if we don’t behave with צלם אלקים then we are basically no better than the lowly creatures with whom we share 99% of our DNA.
  • The slightest differences in DNA are what distinguish humans from other creatures and what distinguishes each human from everyone else.  This is an important insight as we navigate our responsibilities to the community and to ourselves.
  • Finally, humans are the only beings capable of understanding and appreciating the randomness of life that results from genetic mutations and other events.  The tool we were gifted to compe with that randomness is faith.

While the question of science and Torah/faith requires much more time than we can allot during a short d’var Torah, I want to encourage everyone to continue to raise these difficult and important questions.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a crucially important book on this topic – The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.

His basic thesis is:

We need both religion and science…They are the two essential perspectives that allow us to se the universe it its three-dimensional depth.  The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing spiritual sensibility.  It keeps us human and humane.”

Science is interested in taking things apart to see how they work, how they mesh and interact.  Religion puts things together to see what they mean – so that they tell a story and join people together so they form relationships. (2)

As we begin Sefer Breishit again and remember Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, I hope that we will continue to ask difficult and important questions while maintaining our צלם אלקים.  Please make every effort to join our Tuesday evening Parsha class and to share the questions and issues that you grapple with by sharing words of Torah with our shul.

Yom Kippur – Unconditional Love

It is amazing how when thinking about what to say, there always seems to be someone on the internet who says it better.  In this case, when thinking of what to say on Yom Kippur, I came across a podcast in which Yossik Klein HaLevi was in conversation with Rabbi Doniel Hartman.  We’ve discussed Yossi Klein HaLevi before.  He is an American born author and journalist living in Israel.   His two books Like Dreamers and Letters To My Palestinian Neighbor are required reading.  In the podcast he identifies the most pressing issue that the Jewish people, as a whole, should focus on as part of our collective teshuvah. (For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. No. 31 Can Nations Repent.  https://www.hartman.org.il/no-31-can-nations-repent-transcript/):

I think this has been an especially brutal year for internal Jewish discourse. The way we relate to each other the way we think about each other. But…rather than begin by pointing fingers outward about what’s wrong with the way other Jews speak about their fellow Jews, I’d like to start with myself: what I feel I need to do to teshuva for in the context of this increasingly acrimonious and even dysfunctional Jewish discourse – is the way I’ve thought about entire communities of Jews over the last year. And specifically about the Haredim.
So I really want to stop and look at myself and look at where this anger comes from. I think it comes from disappointment. I think maybe in its deeper and pure root, that comes from love, from a feeling of unrequited love. But it also comes from an inability to accept other Jews as they are

There is a remarkable story told in the Gemara Yoma 39b:

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אוֹתָהּ שָׁנָה שֶׁמֵּת בָּהּ שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק, אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּשָׁנָה זוֹ הוּא מֵת. אָמְרוּ לוֹ: מִנַּיִין אַתָּה יוֹדֵעַ? אָמַר לָהֶם: בְּכׇל יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים הָיָה מִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ לְבָנִים וְעָטוּף לְבָנִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְיָצָא עִמִּי, וְהַיּוֹם נִזְדַּמֵּן לִי זָקֵן אֶחָד לָבוּשׁ שְׁחוֹרִים וְעָטוּף שְׁחוֹרִים, נִכְנַס עִמִּי וְלֹא יָצָא עִמִּי. אַחַר הָרֶגֶל חָלָה שִׁבְעָה יָמִים וָמֵת.

The Sages taught: During the year in which Shimon HaTzaddik died, he said to them, his associates: In this year, he will die, euphemistically referring to himself. They said to him: How do you know? He said to them: In previous years, on every Yom Kippur, upon entering the Holy of Holies, I was met, in a prophetic vision, by an old man who was dressed in white, and his head was wrapped up in white, and he would enter the Holy of Holies with me, and he would leave with me. But today, I was met by an old man who was dressed in black, and his head was wrapped up in black, and he entered the Holy of Holies with me, but he did not leave with me. Indeed, after the festival of Sukkot, he was ill for seven days and died.

Rabbi Soloveitchik has a beautiful interpretation of this story:

The man who accompanied him into the kodesh kodashim represents the Jewish people.  As long as Shimon’s vision was of the congregation dressed in white—optimistic, ambitious, and open to opportunity—he knew he still had a future as a leader of these people. However, once his representation of the Jewish people was dressed in all black—pessimistic, cynical, and negative—he knew his time as a leader was expiring. (As quoted by David Bashevkin in Sin-a-gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought).

When we think of the Jewish people, כנסת ישראל, we do so on two levels.  Rabbi Soloveitchik and others write of the metaphysical entity the Jewish people comprise:

The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity endowed with a life of its own.  (“The Community” Tradition 17:2, 1978)

Or as Rav Yehuda Amital writes:

The mission of our people is to a light unto the nations, not as exceptional individuals, but as an exceptional people.  (Yehuda Amital “The Jewish People Come Before the Land of Israel” quoted in By Faith Alone p. 360)

But we have to dig deeper.  One of my favorite Jewish books of all time, A Letter in the Scroll by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is based on the idea of the Ba’al Shem Tov that the Jewish people is a Sefer Torah and each and every Jew is one of the letters of the Torah.

“A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined together to others, they make a word. Words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter, every family a word, every community a sentence, and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story, in the annals of mankind.”

If we take this this beautiful metaphor to its logical conclusion, then we must contend with the halachic ruling that a Torah scroll that is missing one letter renders the Torah פסול (unfit).  Same for a letter that is cracked or otherwise defective.  So while we must be able to see the beauty in the collective Jewish people as a whole, we must also appreciate the beauty and infinite value of each individual Jew.  We run the risk of rendering the Torah scroll of the Jewish people פסול when we disparage others and focus only on the flaws of individuals or even large swaths of the community with whom we disagree.

The most apt model for thinking of our relationship to כלל ישראל is as a family.  No matter how strongly we may disagree with members of our family, our love for family must be unconditional.  I’ve become quite a fan of Dovid Lichtenstein and his podcast and books Headlines.  David’s Wikipedia page begins “David Lichtenstein is an American billionaire entrepreneur and real estate investor.”  He is יודע ספר (thoroughly knowledgeable in Jewish learning).  He is firmly entrenched in the Yeshivish world.  He tackles many difficult and controversial topics and does not shy away from asking hard questions.  He has a beautiful idea that relates to this topic.

The Shulchan Aruch rules (Yoreh De’ah 246:7)

(ז) אין מלמדין תורה לתלמיד שאינו הגון אלא מחזירין אותו למוטב ומנהיגין אותו בדרך ישרה ובודקין אותו ואח”כ מכניסין אותו לבית המדרש ומלמדין אותו:

We do not teach Torah to a student who is not fit [to learn].  Rather we first reform him to do and set him on the proper path, and then we bring him to the Beit Midrash to teach him.

If this is the case, then we have a serious problem at the Pesach Seder.  Because we know that we include the 4 sons at the Seder and in response to the  בן הרשע, (wicked son) the Haggadah instructs us

 ְאַף אַתָּה הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם”. לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל:

you will blunt his teeth and say to him, “‘For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8).” ‘For me’ and not ‘for him.’ If he had been there, he would not have been saved.

The question is how can the father teach Torah to his son who is a רשע.  R. Lichtenstein answers that even if the child is objectively a רשע, the father sees only good in his son.  A parent’s love does not allow the parent to see their child as a Rasha. 

I don’t think this means that shouldn’t expect a parent to see the flaws in their child or to be able to identify areas of improvement.  But even when we know our children have shortcomings or have made mistakes, our love for them overshadows everything else.

This is how we must see and relate to our fellow Jews. 

I’d like to conclude with a beautiful story.

It is told that one year, on the night of Yom Kippur Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the Mirer Rosh Yeshiva, spoke to the Yeshiva and described his experiences during the day of Erev Yom Kippur.  He first went to pray at the Western Wall, and he senses that a voice was telling him that his prayers were ineffective.  He then went to Rachel’s Tomb, figuring that there his prayers would be accepted, but there too, he heard a voice telling him that his prayers were not helping.

He then went to the tomb of Avshalom, the son of King David, and he prayed citing David’s lament for Avshalom after he was killed in his failed attempt to overthrow and murder his father (II Shmuel 19:1):

בְּנִ֤י אַבְשָׁלוֹם֙ בְּנִ֣י בְנִ֣י אַבְשָׁל֔וֹם מִֽי־יִתֵּ֤ן מוּתִי֙ אֲנִ֣י תַחְתֶּ֔יךָ אַבְשָׁל֖וֹם בְּנִ֥י בְנִֽי׃

“My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!” 

Rashi, citing Chazal, writes that David cried the words “Avshalom” and “B’ni” eight times in order to elevate his son’s soul from the seven domains of the underworld and then lift it to the eternal world.

“No matter what evil a son commits against his father,” Rav Chaim shouted, “the father still has compassion for his son!  And so, Master of the world, You said בנים אתם לה’ אלקיכם (Devarim 14:1).  A father always has compassion for his children!”

He then heard a voice that exclaimed, “Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva!  Very good.  Have a good year!  (Dovid Lichtenstein.  Headlines 3: Halachic Debates of Current Events Is Our Teshuva Worth Anything?  P. 361)

We are all God’s children, and as such we must see each and every Jew as a treasured member of the family.  It is very dangerous to make predictions or guarantees for the next year.  But one thing I feel fairly confident about is that we will continue to have serious differences and disagreements with various factions of the Jewish community.  I can also pretty much guarantee that there will passionate debate on both sides of the issues.  I can only pray that the debate will be done in the loving manner of a family that has serious disagreements but deep love for each other.  May it be a good year for us and for אחינו כל בית ישראל. 

Rosh Hashanah – Gratitude and Teshuvah

Over the summer Toby shared a remarkable book with me.  It was actually assigned to all the teachers at KSDS to read – yes, teachers get summer reading assignments too!  When she was done with it she told “This book is a Rosh Hashanah drasha.”  Well, as I hope to show in the next ten minutes or so, she wasn’t wrong. 

The book is called A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.  It is written by John Kralik, a Judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

At the time the book was written Kralik had hit rock bottom.  The law firm that he had started was failing.  He was in the middle of painful divorce – his second divorce; and his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  He was living in a miserable apartment and was 40 pounds overweight.  He had grown distant from his two sons from his first marriage and was afraid that the same thing would happen to his daughter from his second marriage.  He felt as though he had not met any of his professional goals and life was quickly getting away from home. 

In one of the first scenes of the book, Kralik decided to go on a New Year’s Day hike that he had planned to do with his girlfriend before she broke up with him.  Soon he found himself lost in the woods.  As panic starts to settle, he suddenly hears a voice:

Until you learn to be grateful for the things you have,” it said, “you will not receive the things you want.”  I do not know who spoke to me.  I could not explain this voice, or the words it said, which seemed to have no logical relation to the thoughts in my head…

I sat down for a minute.  The voice was loud.  For me, the voice was loud enough that I thought it might be important, and that it might have an important message.  I should not throw it away. (14)

And then Kralik has a memory of his grandfather:

When I was about five, my grandfather gave me a silver dollar…It was about 1960, and if you really wanted to wow a child in those days, you gave him or her a silver dollar.  It seemed an impossibly large sum of money in a shiny, mysterious package.  I didn’t know how to spend it, and don’t believe I ever did.  Silver dollars doled out by my grandfather and other relatives in those days were confiscated by my parents who did not trust us with them.  Eventually, my mother put them in a bank account, and I believe they are still there today.  Though the money would have made no difference to me, I should have paid more attention to the message that my grandfather deliver with it.  He promised that if I wrote him a letter thanking him for this silver dollar, he would send me another one.  That was the way thank-you letters worked he told me.
I have only a few memories of my grandfather from this period of my childhood, but I remember well that on this occasion he was true to his word, and soon I had two silver dollars.  Having experience the truth of this principle, however I failed to learn it.  I never sent a second thank-you note for the second silver dollar.  For some reason I left it at that.
(15)

Inspired by the voice and the memory of his grandfather, the author resolves to write one thank-you note a day for the next year.

At the beginning of his project Kralik gives a poignant example of how gratitude was lacking in his life: 

In the course of writing and tracking these initial notes with a list, I typed some of the text of the notes into my computer, where it encountered spell check.  As a result, I discovered that I had been misspelling the word grateful – as greatful – for my entire life.  Because I used the word so infrequently, no one had ever pointed this out.  Yes, that’s right:  I had so seldom been grateful in my life that I didn’t even know how to spell the word.  I had been spelling it as if a grateful person a person full of greatness, rather than a person full of gratitude. 

As inevitably happens, the thank-you note project hits some bumps over the course of the year.  The first day he misses writing a note is when he finds out that his application to be a judge had been rejected.  Feeling lousy about himself, he was unable to find anything to be grateful for on that day.  The next morning, on his way to work he stopped at Starbucks, where he was greeted by a clerk with a big smile who said “Good morning John, the usual venti?”  And he decided to write a thank you note to the Starbucks guy:

Scott,

Thank you for taking the time each morning to greet me in a friendly way.  It is also so wonderful to me that you took the time and trouble to remember my name.  In this day and age, few people make this effort, and fewer still do it in a way that feels sincere.  You do both.  It really make a difference to me every day.

Best,

John

I handed him the note the next morning, after he gave me my venti, and his cheery eyes fell a shade.  He put it aside.  I wondered why he did not smile.  When I went in the following day, Scott explained.  He had recently been put in a management position, he said, and his day was largely spent on customer complaints…so when I have him the note, he was wearily thinking it was yet another customer complaint, and from someone who had seemed like a nice customer, no less.  Scott had been taken aback to discover my envelop had only a simple statement of gratitude…

This interaction reawakened my sense that unpredictable good would happen if I wrote 365 thank-you notes and that I needed to follow through.  (82)

There are many lessons that John Kralik learns during his thank-you note project.  Some we could anticipate and others are a bit more surprising. 

We can all agree that gratitude is an important Jewish value.  I am sure I am not alone in saying that I can certainly use some improvement in expressing my gratitude to the many people who enrich my life and for the countless blessings that I receive.  This message is especially true during the age of COVID in which we are living, where it is so easy to focus on the negative and the disappointment that has become a familiar part of the past year-and -a-half.  The davening of Rosh Hashanah points us to gratitude.  In the זכרונות  section of Musaf we quote the pasuk from Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 2:2

הָלֹ֡ךְ וְֽקָרָ֩אתָ֩ בְאׇזְנֵ֨י יְרוּשָׁלַ֜͏ִם לֵאמֹ֗ר כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה’ זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַֽחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה׃

Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD:I accounted to your favor The devotion/kindness of your youth, Your love as a bride—How you followed Me in the wilderness,  In a land not sown.

The Radak explains that Hashem is making a promise:

אף על פי שאני מביא עליך רעה בעבור מעשיך הרעים לא אעשה אותך כלה וגם אעניש המריעים לך כי זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך

Even though I am bringing bad upon you due to your wicked ways, I will not utterly destroy you, and I will punish those who do evil to you.  Because I remember the kindness of your youth.

We evoke this pasuk as part of the זכרונות section of the Amidah to remind God that just as He did not destroy us in the days of Jeremiah due to the kindness of our youth, we conjure up that memory as we stand before God in judgment as a reminder that this year, too, God should judge us favorably even if all we have to stand on is the חסד נעוריך – the kindness that WE did for God when we were but a young nation.  In other words, we rely on Hashem’s gratitude.

Yet we all know that the focus of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season is Teshuvah.  There is a remarkable connection between gratitude and Teshuvah seen in a fascinating Midrash.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 22:13) takes us all the way back to Adam ha-Rishon and  his son קין (Cain).  The Torah tells us that after קין killed his brother הבל (Abel), he is punished and must wander the earth the rest of his life.  קין protests that the punishment is too great for him to bear and he fears that whoever he encounters will kill him.  Hashem therefore promises him protection.  Comforted by Hashem’s assurance, the Torah tells us (Breishit 4:16):

וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃

Cain left the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

The Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 22:13) picks up the story here and wonders מהיכן יצא – from whence did he leave?  R. Chama maintains that he left happy.  On his way out he encounters his father who asks “what was your punishment?”

Cain responds עשיתי תשובה ונתפשרתי,  –  “I repented [and settled with God].”

At which point Adam shudders and exclaims כך היא כחה של תשובה ואני לא הייתי יודע – “So potent is repentance and I did not know it?!”.

The Midrash concludes that upon learning of the possibility and effectiveness of Teshuvah, Adam composed Psalm 92 מזמור שיר ליום השבת, טוב להודות לה’ which we normally translate as “A song for the Sabbath it is good to thank unto the Lord”  but here is being translated as טוב להודות לה’  it is good to confess to God, i.e., to do teshuvah. 

What does Teshuvah have to do with gratitude?

I heard a really interesting interview with David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who focuses on the the relationship between our emotions and moral/ethical behavior (https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/where-gratitude-gets-you/). 

He has conducted numerous experiments that confirm what we might have intuited about gratitude.  People who are grateful in their lives:

  • Are more able/willing to delay gratification for greater gains in the long-term
  • Are more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of others
  • Have better physical and mental health
  • Are more happy

Having a strong sense of gratitude can help us achieve many of the same goals we hope to achieve through the process of teshuvah. 

Dr. DeSteno likens gratitude (and other emotions) to skills that can be developed.  One of the most over-looked, but perhaps most interesting elements of emotional intelligence is “learning how to use your emotions as tolls or as skills to achieve your goals.”

Another interesting component of DeSteno’s work is what he calls the virtuous cycle.  We know that emotions are catchy – if you spend time with someone who is depressed, you are more likely to feel depressed.  One person’s anxiety can rub off on me.  This virtuous cycle is even stronger when it comes to gratitude.  We refer to it as “paying it forward.”  The idea that when someone does something kind for us we have an immediate need to do something kind for someone else.  The most often discussed example of this is when one person in the Starbucks line decides to pay for the person behind them.  There have been instances when this pattern continues for over 150 customers. 

In case it isn’t obvious by this point, I’d like for this Rosh Hashanah to be one in which we all commit to being more attentive and conscious to expressing gratitude.  While the task may seem onerous, I’d like to challenge everyone to take on their own Thank-you project.  Find the parameters that make sense for you – whether it is writing a note every day, making a phone call or sending an email on a regular basis to friends and family who are very close to us, to acquaintances and colleagues from work or to people from earlier chapters in our lives from whom we may have grown apart.  We stand to benefit as individuals and as a community when we are more focused on gratitude.  Rather than beating ourselves up by focusing on our many shortcomings,  this is the model of Teshuvah that we need this year.

Let me conclude with John Kralik’s conclusion from his book.

 I did not view writing thank-you notes as a self-help system, nor did I view it as a new, positive, psychological method to delude myself into believing that my life is better than it really is or to cultivate an artificial state of well-being.  This is just an exercise in average good manners.  I was simply engaging in a custom my grandfather had attempted to teach me fifty years ago.

At the risk of making an unscientific and directly moral statement, I will say that writing thank-you notes is a good thing to do and make the world a better place.  It also made me a better man.  More than success or material achievement, this is what I sought.  (226)

Ki Tavo – Fulfilling the Torah

Every morning in the bracha preceding the Shema we say:

אָבִֽינוּ הָאָב הָרַחֲמָן הַמְ֒רַחֵם רַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ וְתֵן בְּלִבֵּֽנוּ לְהָבִין וּלְהַשְׂכִּיל לִשְׁמֹֽעַ לִלְמֹד וּלְ֒לַמֵּד לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת וּלְקַיֵּם אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָתֶֽךָ בְּאַהֲבָה

Our Father, merciful Father, Who acts with compassion, have compassion on us and put into our hearts [comprehension] to understand and to be intellectually creative, to listen, to learn, and to teach, to preserve, to practice, and to fulfill all the words of instruction in Your Torah with love.

What is the significance of this phrase to fulfill/לקיים the Torah?

It seems to have its origins in our Parsha.

The Parsha contains the Tochecha which is introduced with a shorter ceremony of blessings and curses in which we read (Devarim 27:14-26):

יד) וְעָנ֣וּ הַלְוִיִּ֗ם וְאָ֥מְר֛וּ אֶל־כׇּל־אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל ק֥וֹל רָֽם׃ {ס}         (טו) אָר֣וּר הָאִ֡ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יַעֲשֶׂה֩ פֶ֨סֶל וּמַסֵּכָ֜ה תּוֹעֲבַ֣ת ה’ מַעֲשֵׂ֛ה יְדֵ֥י חָרָ֖שׁ וְשָׂ֣ם בַּסָּ֑תֶר וְעָנ֧וּ כׇל־הָעָ֛ם וְאָמְר֖וּ אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (טז) אָר֕וּר מַקְלֶ֥ה אָבִ֖יו וְאִמּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יז) אָר֕וּר מַסִּ֖יג גְּב֣וּל רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יח) אָר֕וּר מַשְׁגֶּ֥ה עִוֵּ֖ר בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (יט) אָר֗וּר מַטֶּ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט גֵּר־יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ (כ) אָר֗וּר שֹׁכֵב֙ עִם־אֵ֣שֶׁת אָבִ֔יו כִּ֥י גִלָּ֖ה כְּנַ֣ף אָבִ֑יו וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כא) אָר֕וּר שֹׁכֵ֖ב עִם־כׇּל־בְּהֵמָ֑ה וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כב) אָר֗וּר שֹׁכֵב֙ עִם־אֲחֹת֔וֹ בַּת־אָבִ֖יו א֣וֹ בַת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כג) אָר֕וּר שֹׁכֵ֖ב עִם־חֹֽתַנְתּ֑וֹ וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כד)אָר֕וּר מַכֵּ֥ה רֵעֵ֖הוּ בַּסָּ֑תֶר וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}         (כה) אָרוּר֙ לֹקֵ֣חַ שֹׁ֔חַד לְהַכּ֥וֹת נֶ֖פֶשׁ דָּ֣ם נָקִ֑י וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {ס}  (כו) אָר֗וּר אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹא־יָקִ֛ים אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֑ם וְאָמַ֥ר כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אָמֵֽן׃ {פ}

(14) The Levites shall then proclaim in a loud voice to all the people of Israel: (15) Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by the LORD, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen.(16) Cursed be he who insults his father or mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (17) Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (18) Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (19) Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (20) Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (21) Cursed be he who lies with any beast.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (22) Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether daughter of his father or of his mother.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (23) Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (24) Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret.—And all the people shall say, Amen.(25) Cursed be he who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person.—And all the people shall say, Amen. (26) Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this Teaching and observe them.—And all the people shall say, Amen.

One theme that comes up several times in this passage – committing sins in private or secret.  This is certainly true with the verses bolded above that talk about setting up an idol in secret or striking someone in secret.  We can also apply it to the admonition against misleading the blind and the various sexual improprieties described.

Rav S.R. Hirsch explains:

All blessing is denied to him who outwardly plays the pious man devoted to God but in secret denies the exclusive existence of One God and His ruling.

We certainly understand that the true test of someone’s commitment is how they act when no one else is watching.  There are many who observe Torah and mitzvot when they are being watched.  Or because of “peer pressure.”  But once they are out of the view of others their commitment to Torah is thrust aside.

R. Chaim Sofer, a leading rabbi in Hungary in the 19th century takes this from the other side of the coin.  Commenting on the corresponding blessings found a few pesukim later (Devarim 28:1-3):

(א) וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם וּנְתָ֨נְךָ֜ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֙יךָ֙ עֶלְי֔וֹן עַ֖ל כׇּל־גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ב) וּבָ֧אוּ עָלֶ֛יךָ כׇּל־הַבְּרָכ֥וֹת הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻ֑ךָ כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֔ע בְּק֖וֹל ה’ אֱלֹקֶֽיךָ׃ (ג) בָּר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בָּעִ֑יר וּבָר֥וּךְ אַתָּ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶֽה׃

(1) Now, if you obey the LORD your God, to observe faithfully all His commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. (2) All these blessings shall come upon you and take effect, if you will but heed the word of the LORD your God: (3) Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.

R. Sofer asks why the need for different blessings in the city and the field.  He answers:

בשכר המצות שאתה עושה בעיר] הכוונה יש שעושים מצות בבתים בחדר מלפנים מהחדר אבל בעיר לפני כל רואי שמש הם בושים להיות יהודי’.  אבל ברוך לעשות המצות בעיר ולא יבוש מפני המלעיגים ואז יקבל שכר גדול והבן.  

In reward for for the mitzvot that you do in the city – this means that there are those who do mitzvot in their inner room but in the city in front of others, they are ashamed to be a Jewish.  One who is blessed to do mitzot in the city without shame of those who scorn, will receive great reward.

For R. Sofer, being alone, in private provides comfort and security that many are lacking when out in public.  He says that the Torah’s message is that we must be comfortable and confident to perform mitzvot when out and about.

In this understanding, קיום התורה means to be proud of our connection to Torah and our observance of Torah.  Not to be ashamed or try to hide it.

A second explanation of קיום התורה is brought by the Ramban.  He maintains that our verse is not referring to someone who transgresses one of the mitzvot

אבל אם עבר על אחת מהן כגון שאכל החזיר והשקץ לתאותו או שלא עשה סוכה ולולב לעצלה איננו בחרם הזה כי לא אמר הכתוב אשר לא יעשה את דברי התורה הזאת אלא אמר אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת

However, if one transgressed any commandment, such as eating swine or some abominable thing because of his desire, or he did not make a Booth or take the palm-branch [on the Festival of Tabernacles] because of laziness, he is not included within this ban, for Scripture did not say “who does not perform the words of this Law” but it states that ‘confirmeth’

Someone who succumbs to their desire to eat non-kosher or transgress any other prohibition of the Torah, or someone who is lazy and neglects to build a Sukkah or fulfill any other mitzvah is not guilty for having failed to “fufill” לקיים the Torah.  Rather the Ramban writes:

(ולפי דעתי כי הקבלה הזאת שיודה במצות בלבו ויהיו בעיניו אמת ויאמין שהעושה אותן יהיה לו שכר וטובה והעובר עליהן יענש ואם יכפור באחת מהן או תהיה בעיניו בטלה לעולם הנה הוא ארור

In my opinion this “acceptance” requires that one avow the commandments in his heart and consider them as the truth, believe that he who observes them will be requited with the best of rewards and he who transgresses them will be punished, and if someone denies any of them, or considers it annulled forever he will be cursed.

He quotes the Yerushalmi Sotah 31a and focuses in on the final explanation:

כתיב (דברים כ״ז:כ״ו) ארור אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת. וכי יש תורה נופלת. שמעון בן יקים אומר זה החזן שהוא עומד. רבי שמעון בן חלפתא אומר זה הבית שלמטן דאמר רב חונה רב יהודה בשם שמואל על הדבר הזה קרע יאשיהו ואמר עלי להקים. ר’ אחא בשם רבי תנחום ברבי חייה למד ולימד ושמר ועשה והיתה ספיקה בידו להחזיק ולא החזיק הרי זה בכלל ארור.

“‘[Cursed is] he who does not uphold [the words of this Torah]’ – Is there then a Torah that falls [if a person does not ‘uphold’ it]?
Rabbi Shimon ben Yakim said, This refers to the prayer leader [who must stand].Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta said, This refers to an earthly court.
Mar Rav Yehuda and Rav Huna taught in the name of Shmuel: Concerning this thing Yoshiyahu tore his garment and said, ‘I must uphold [the Torah].’
Rav Assi said in the name of Rabbi Tanchum bar Chiya: Even if one studied and taught, and observed and performed; if he had the opportunity to support [others in doing so] and did not support them, then he is included in this category of those who are cursed.”

The Ramban concludes:

ידרשו בהקמה הזאת בית המלך והנשיאות שבידם להקים את התורה ביד המבטלים אותה ואפילו היה הוא צדיק גמור במעשיו והיה יכול להחזיק התורה ביד הרשעים המבטלים אותה הרי זו ארור

Thus the Rabbis [in the above Yerushalmi] interpretated this “standing up” [of the Torah] as referring to the royal house and that of the Nasi [the Prince of the Sanhedrin] who have the power to uphold [the authority of] the Torah over those who annul it. And even if he was a perfectly righteous man in his own deeds, but he could have strengthened the Torah against the power of the wicked ones who annul it [but failed to do so], he is accursed. This is close to the subject that we have explained.

In other words, for the Ramban it is not enough for a person to be diligent in their personal observance.  We must take responsibility for the broader community.  Our connection to Torah and mitzot is lacking if there are other Jews who neglect Torah and Mitzvot. 

As we reflect on what it means to מקיים (fulfill the Torah), I think that all of these elements ring true. 

On the one hand we must be sincere and authentic in our observance as evidenced by whether we observe in private when no one else is watching.

We must be proud of our Judaism and our observance as evidenced by the blessing of observing Torah in the city/out in public when it might be uncomfortable.

Finally, we must take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the broader community.  It is not enough to meet our personal responsibilities.  We must take an interest and concern for those around as well. 

In this way we can be true מקיימי התורה/fulfillers of the Torah.

Bamidbar and the Current Violence in Israel

Parshat Bamidbar opens with the command to take a census of B’nei Yisrael.  This is followed by the description of the Israelite camp in the desert.  We are given a description of where each tribe was stationed with the Mishkan and shevet Levi in the center:

אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Bamidbar 2:2)

It is explained that each tribe was strategically placed to highlight their strengths and unique characteristics.  If this is the case, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky asks why the camp was only organized this way in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt; wouldn’t it have made more sense to organize the camp in the desired manner from the beginning?

He answers that had the camp been set up with each tribe marching under its own banner from the get-go, then there was  a strong danger that this would lead to division of the Jewish people.  Each tribe might take pride in their own abilities and downplay the need or significance of the other tribes.  It was necessary to wait for the Torah to given and the Mishkan constructed before emphasizing the unique characteristic of each tribe.  The camp was organized with the Mishkan at its center to emphasize that the Torah unites us.  Each tribe could celebrate its own uniqueness only when there was a shared commitment to the Torah.  The Torah must be a unifying force of the Jewish people.  The Torah provides a shared purpose and mission.  It would have been counterproductive to organize the camp before the nation had committed to and united over the Torah. 

As Jews living in the 21st Century, our symbolic camp is certainly centered around the Torah.  It is also centered around Israel – no matter where we live or our political leanings, the Jewish people should be united in our commitment to and deep appreciation for the State of Israel.  Just as the camp of B’nei Yisrael in the desert was organized around the Torah, our contemporary camp must organized with Israel at the center.

We offer our deep tefilot that the current violence comes to an end and that the families of those who have been killed and injured find some comfort.  We pray that those who have been traumatized by the missile attacks and constant retreats to bomb shelters find some calm and rest this Shabbos.