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Va-etchanan – Benyond the Letter of the Law

Parshat Va’etchanan contains some of the most fundamental and foundational passages in the Torah, including the first paragraph of kiryat Shema and the Ten Commandments.  It also contains a pasuk that highlights one of the most important themes and challenges when it comes to living a Torah observant life.  In Chapter 6 verses 17-18 we read:

(יז) שָׁמ֣וֹר תִּשְׁמְר֔וּן אֶת־מִצְוֺ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶ֑ם וְעֵדֹתָ֥יו וְחֻקָּ֖יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽךְ׃ (יח) וְעָשִׂ֛יתָ הַיָּשָׁ֥ר וְהַטּ֖וֹב בְּעֵינֵ֣י ה’ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וּבָ֗אתָ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

(17) Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the LORD your God has enjoined upon you. (18) Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the LORD your God promised on oath to your fathers,

Rashi explains that the phrase “הישר והטוב” – right and good – refers to compromise and acting לפנים משורת הדין – beyond the strict demands of the law.

The Ramban elaborates:

ולרבותינו בזה מדרש יפה אמרו זו פשרה ולפנים משורת הדין והכוונה בזה כי מתחלה אמר שתשמור חקותיו ועדותיו אשר צוך ועתה יאמר גם באשר לא צוך תן דעתך לעשות הטוב והישר בעיניו

And our Rabbis in the beautiful midrash (BK 100a) said: This refers to a compromise, acting beyond the strict demands of the law. And the intention of this is that from the beginning God said to keep God’s commandments, testimonies, and laws as God has commanded them. And now, it says: even regarding what God did not command, pay attention to do what is good and right in God’s eyes, because God loves goodness and righteousness.

He continues and explains that it would be impossible for the Torah to mention the proper conduct in every scenario.  Therefore the Torah provides many examples in the mitzvot and then gives the general rule that we should do that which is right and good in God’s eyes.

The Ramban’s understanding of our pasuk should be read as a compliment to his oft-cited explanation of Vayikra 19:2

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

The Ramban writes that the directive to be holy is necessary because it is possible for a person to be a נבל ברשות התורה – “a scoundrel with the permission of Torah.”  In other words, it would be possible to follow the strict letter of the Torah’s law while overindulging in permitted pleasures such as sexual relations, eating, and drinking. 

The Torah’s need to instruct us to go beyond the strict letter of the law should not come as a surprise.   In the Orthodox world we are constantly dealing with questions of what behavior is permitted in a technical sense with little concern for the greater spiritual impact of these questions.  To give just one example, in the mourning period of the Three Weeks and Nine Days which we have just completed, there is a myriad of questions over whether various activities – swimming, listening to various types of music, etc. – are technically permitted.  Restaurants taunt their “Nine Days Menu” with little concern for why there are restrictions on what we eat and drink during this period of national mourning.  Unfortunately, we can point to countless examples in the contemporary Orthodox world where people demonstrate that the Ramban’s concern of being נבל ברשות התורה – a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah – is a very real concern.  We can all point to  examples of “frum” people whose behavior falls well short of the ethical and moral standards we would expect of someone committed to the Torah.

The requirement to do that which is right and good in the eyes of God is codified in Halacha.  The Gemara in Bava Metzia 108a-b states what when selling land, the owner of the neighboring must be given priority over anyone else to purchase the land.  This is codified in Rambam’s Hilchot Shecheinim (Laws of Neighbors) 12:5.

The imperative to go beyond the letter of the law ensures that we will act morally and ethically when the adherence to the strict letter of the law does not guarantee such behavior.  But it also moves us to a higher level of observance where we internalize God’s intentions and deeper message.

Devarim – Timely Torah

Parshat Devarim is always read the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. Many explanations are offered for why this is the case.  I’d like to share an idea offered by Rabbi Yehuda Amital z”l, whose tenth yarzheit was observed this past Sunday (27 Tammuz) which helps explain the connection between our Parsha and Tisha B’Av.

Devarim opens with the following pasuk:

 אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab,

Rashi writes that the lengthy description of the location is not meant to tell us the geographical location of B’nei Yisrael when Moshe addressed them; rather it provides the the content of Moshe’s speech.  Rashi explains that Moshe rebuked B’nei Yisrael by mentioning all the places they had angered Hashem during their travels in the desert.   But out of respect for B’nei Yisrael, Moshe does not mention explicitly mention the sins they had committed but merely alludes to them:

א) אלה הדברים. לְפִי שֶׁהֵן דִּבְרֵי תוֹכָחוֹת וּמָנָה כָאן כָּל הַמְּקוֹמוֹת שֶׁהִכְעִיסוּ לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם בָּהֶן, לְפִיכָךְ סָתַם אֶת הַדְּבָרִים וְהִזְכִּירָם בְּרֶמֶז מִפְּנֵי כְבוֹדָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל

THESE ARE THE WORDS — Because these are words of reproof and he is enumerating here all the places where they provoked God to anger, therefore he suppresses all mention of the matters in which they sinned and refers to them only by a mere allusion contained in the names of these places out of regard for Israel.

Rashi proceeds to explain how each location mentioned by Moshe refers to a previous sin committed.  For example, מול סוף (near Suph) refers to the rebelliousness at the Yam Suf when they complained (Shemot 14:11)

הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר מַה־זֹּאת֙ עָשִׂ֣יתָ לָּ֔נוּ לְהוֹצִיאָ֖נוּ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?

Some allusions are not as obvious, as in the phrase ּבֵֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן  about which Rashi writes:

אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן חָזַרְנוּ עַל כָּל הַמִּקְרָא וְלֹא מָצִינוּ מָקוֹם שֶׁשְּׁמוֹ תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן, אֶלָּא הוֹכִיחָן עַל הַדְּבָרִים שֶׁתָּפְלוּ עַל הַמָּן, שֶׁהוּא לָבָן, שֶׁאָמְרוּ (במדבר כ”א) “וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל”

R. Jochanan said: We have gone through the whole Bible and we have found no place the name of which is Tophel or Laban! But the meaning is that he reproved them because of the calumnious statements (טפלו) they had made regarding the Manna which was white (לבן) in color— that they said, (Numbers 21:5) “And our soul loathes this light bread”

The Rashbam disagrees with his grandfather, Rashi.  Rashbam maintains that the intention of our pasuk is to provide the actual location of Moshe’s speech.  He asserts that it is typical of the Torah to provide detailed location:

כל הנזכרים בפסוק זה מקומות הן, כמו שמצינו שרגילים הפסוקים לתת סימן בתוך סימן אל המקומות שהוא רוצה לפרש היכן

The names mentioned in this verse all are names of locations, as we find that it is customary for the text of the Torah to give detail followed by further detail of the places whose exact location the Torah wishes to elaborate on in greater detail.

The Rashbam provides seven examples where the Torah provides such geographic detail and proceeds to demonstrate how our pasuk provides the precise location of Moshe’ speech which opens Sefer Devarim.

Rav Amital (https://www.etzion.org.il/en/understand-years-each-generation ) wants to know why the Torah bothers to provide such detail.  We are not only concerned with the sanctity of each word of the Torah, but in the greater scheme of things it should not make much of a difference where or when Moshe spoke these words.  The message is far more important.  Rav Amital explains that these historical details matter to demonstrate that the Torah has a unique message for each generation.  The Torah records the specific details of the location of Moshe’s address to B’nei Yisrael to emphasize that “Moshe adapted his words to the specific time and place where they were spoken.”  The beauty of the Torah is that while it rang true to the generation that Moshe addressed in the desert, it is relevant to each subsequent generation as well.

Rav Amital concludes very powerfully:

“When a person involves himself in Torah and takes care to fulfill the mitzvot, he must never allow himself to be cut off from the place and time in which he exists. He must look around him and think well how best to apply his Torah learning to the circumstances around him.”

While Rav Amital’s conclusion rings true at all times, it is especially relevant as we prepare for Tisha B’Av.  The challenge of Tisha B’Av is to be able to experience the loss of the Beit ha-Mikdash as something that matters to us.  Many efforts are made to contextualize the destruction of the Beit haMikdash and the other tragedies marked in the kinot so that they speak to us.  It is even more difficult for us to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem when we know Jerusalem to be a bustling city, the capital of the State of Israel!  And so we struggle year in and year out to find a way to make Tisha B’Av relevant.  In describing this challenge, Dr. Erica Brown writes in the introduction to her book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks:

We wait for a kina that describes an event we recognize, or one that uses language familiar to us, or a tune that overcomes the difficulty of he words by joining us in the outward from of a haunting melody.  One of the last kinot, now included by many, marks the Holocaust, and it usually induces a deeper level of involvement because it marks an even closer in time.

She continues with a powerful story:

I recall once being in a synagogue where congregants took turns leading the recitation of kinot.  The older man who began the Holocaust kina suddenly stuttered on the first words and began to cry.  Tring but unable to catch himself, he finally said, “Rabbi, pick someone else to read.  I can’t do it.”  The rabbi responded, “Better we should have someone read it who has less feeling?  We’ll wait.”  And we did.  I have never beard this prayer more movingly read. 

But she concludes more somberly,

Mostly, however, these prayers seem to present a thick fog of language that because of our lack of understanding, blocks rather than enhances the path to reliving tragedy.

For some the ongoing world health crisis will give Tisha B’Av great significance and spiritual relevance while others will struggle to find a connection without our normal structure or because the stress and anxiety of the past 5 months is overwhelming.  The reason we read Parshat Devarim right before Tisha B’Av is to drive home the message that the Torah and our commitment to Jewish living are relevant to our lives and our day.

Shabbat Shalom.

Matot-Masei: Living in the Moment

Since the onset of the Coronavirus in late February/early March, we have all been desperate for life to return to normal.   The ongoing tension over how fast to open up and how to balance the economic, social and psychological needs of a country that has been on pause for four months while ensuring the physical health and safety of everyone only highlights the desire to return to normalcy.  This week’s double parsha of Matot-Masei shows that focusing on a return to normalcy is misguided.  Let me explain.

The second Parsha that we read, Masei, is the final parsha in Sefer Bamidbar.  Parshat Masei begins by recording each of the 42 places that that B’nei Yisrael stopped and camped during their 40 years in the desert (Bamidbar Chapter 33):

) אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃ (ב) וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃

 These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (2) Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the LORD. Their marches, by starting points, were as follows…

Every commentator on the Chumash struggles to explain why all of these details are necessary. A survey of some the classical mefarshim shows the following:

  • Rashi suggests that the Torah wishes to show Hashem’s kindness.  Given that B’nei Yisrael had to wander for 40 years as a punishment for believing the report of the spies, we might have expected that Hashem would cause them to be on the move constantly for these 40 years.  But Rashi notes that 14 stops were made in the first year, before the punishment and 8 were made in the final year.  Over the course of 38 years they made only 20 journeys – less than one a year!  For Rashi this shows Hashem’s kindness and mercy in that He did not overly burden them.
  • Sforno takes a radically different approach and explains that the Torah records each stop of the journey to show B’nei Yisrael’s total faith in God.  The opening of our parsha is a precursor to the praise of the Jewish people offered by the prophet Yirmiyahu at the end of last week’s Haftarah (and the highlight of every NCSY Kumsitz ever):

הָלֹ֡ךְ וְקָֽרָאתָ֩ בְאָזְנֵ֨י יְרוּשָׁלִַ֜ם לֵאמֹ֗ר כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר ה’ זָכַ֤רְתִּי לָךְ֙ חֶ֣סֶד נְעוּרַ֔יִךְ אַהֲבַ֖ת כְּלוּלֹתָ֑יִךְ לֶכְתֵּ֤ךְ אַחֲרַי֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר בְּאֶ֖רֶץ לֹ֥א זְרוּעָֽה׃

Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:2)

  • In the Guide for the Perplexed (3:50) Maimonides writes that the Torah wishes to emphasize the miracles that Hashem performed for us in the desert.  We are told of all the stops they made in the desert to emphasize that they did not go from city to city but were truly in the wasteland and totally dependent on Hashem for the entire 40 years. 
  • The Abravanel understands that seeming excessive details serve as a promise and guarantee for future generations: “Just as God once liberated Israel Egypt and provided for its journey, so will God act again when Israel’s exile finally comes to an end.”

While there are plenty more explanations in the classical commentaries, I’d like to focus on a I’d like to focus on a wonderful explanation and analysis offer by Rabbi Shai Held in his book The Heart of Torah Volume 2.  Rabbi Held writes:

“The text serves to remind us that even seemingly inconsequential stops on our journey can be powerful opportunities for serving God.
We are often tempted to think that one of the many things we do is “real life” while everything else represents a distraction or — at best — a means of facilitating the activities we truly value: Our work is what’s essential and everything else is a best a diversion and at worse a distraction. Or our family is what’s essential and everything else is at best a diversion and at worst a distraction. Or any one of a thousand other things is what is significant; none of our other endeavors really matters — and certainly not in any ultimate way.”

To bolster his understanding, Rabbi Held turns to a gemara in Brachot 63a:

דָּרַשׁ בַּר קַפָּרָא: אֵיזוֹהִי פָּרָשָׁה קְטַנָּה שֶׁכָּל גּוּפֵי תוֹרָה תְּלוּיִין בָּהּ — ״בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ וְהוּא יְיַשֵּׁר אֹרְחֹתֶיךָ״.

Bar Kappara taught: Which is a brief passage upon which all fundamental principles of Torah are dependent? “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).

Bar Kappara asserts that it is possible to experience God in all of life’s activities.  Rambam (Hilchot Deot 3:2-3)understands this to mean that our entire goal in life is to know God.  Everything we do must be with this ultimate goal in mind.  We must take care of our bodily, physical needs so we will have the strength and wherewithal to meditate about God.  One should “set his heart to have a sound and strong body so that his soul be tranquil to acquire the knowledge of the Lord; for, it is impossible that one should comprehend and improve himself in scholarship when hungry or sick…”  For Maimonides we can experience God in all our activities only instrumentally – if we understand that everything we do is ultimately to afford us the strength, energy and intelligence to meditate and comprehend God then we can say that all of our activities allow us to experience God.

Rav Kook has a radically different understanding.  He says that every life activity is an intrinsic opportunity to experience God – if we are fully in the moment and open to experiencing God.  When praying, we should be focused focused only on prayer.  When studying our attention should be exclusively on our studies.  “When one strives with all one’s intelligence and with all one’s abilities to carry out every action with the summit of perfect wholeness in all its dimensions then one will know the Blessed Holy One in every way.”  Rabbi Held concludes that there are two ramifications of Rav Kook’s understanding: One is that we must train our minds and hearts to be fully present in the moment before us.  The second is that we must train our minds and our hearts to be fully present to the possibility of serving God in the present moment.

This brings us back to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and our desire to return to normal.  I don’t doubt that any of us wants to return to normal – to be able to shop at stores, to go back to school, work, camp, the gym, to be able to travel and to see our friends and family.  But the message of Parshat Matot is that we can’t see the ongoing situation as an interruption to life that puts everything on hold.  As the Torah teaches by listing every stop B’nei Yisrael made in the desert, each and every experience in life is significant and consequential.  If we follow the advice of Rav Kook, then each experience in life is an opportunity to fully experience God if we are open to the possibility.  The Coronavirus is  our current reality.  As difficult and challenging as it has been and continues to be, it also offers opportunity for true growth and spirituality.

In the worlds of mental health and of spirituality, there is an emphasis on mindfulness which means to be aware and in tune with all that is happening in the here and the now.  Some talk of it in terms of “being fully present.”  As we conclude Sefer Bamidbar amidst all the turmoil that surrounds us, I give each of us a bracha that we are able to live with this crazy reality, experience God’s presence and continue to grow. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Balak, the 4th of July and Isolationsim

Every year when we read Parshat Balak I am reminded of a favorite scene from one of my favorite books, The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israel Leadership  by Yehuda Avner.  I’ve shared pieces of this book many times in shul and may have even shared this story.  This year, as we read Parshat Balak (and Chukat) on July 4, I believe the story takes on even more significance.

Yehuda Avner was an advisor to four Israeli Prime Ministers: Yitzchak Rabin, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin.  He was closest with Begin.  The story begins in the first week that Menachem Begin began to serve as Prime Minister in June 1977.  Begin and his wife had always hosted an open house on Shabbat afternoon when they lived in Tel Aviv and the newly elected prime minister made it known that – much to the chagrin of his security forces – he would continue the tradition at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.  On the first Shabbat, the house was filled with hundreds of Israelis who could not believe they had been given an open invitation to the the equivalent of the East Wing of the White House.  At the conclusion of Shabbat, after Begin said havdallah on behalf of all those in attendance he wished everyone a Shavua Tov and informed the crowd that he would soon be heading to Washington for his first official meeting with President Carter.  “…Please come back and visit us after we return.”  As Avner writes, the guests, “bursting with delight, called back, ‘We will.  We will.’”  Despite the enthusiasm for the Open House, Begin’s security chief security officer prevailed and there would be no second Open House. 

As a “consolation prize” Begin did open open his house to a select group of scholars and thought leaders who gathered every Shabbat afternoon for a study session focusing on a passage of the Tanach.  The very first passage that this prestigious  group studied comes from Parshat Balak.  As Balaam stands to curse B’nei Yisrael for the first time he states his dilemma (Bamidbar 23:7-8):

(ז) וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר מִן־אֲ֠רָם יַנְחֵ֨נִי בָלָ֤ק מֶֽלֶךְ־מוֹאָב֙ מֵֽהַרְרֵי־קֶ֔דֶם לְכָה֙ אָֽרָה־לִּ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּלְכָ֖ה זֹעֲמָ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ח) מָ֣ה אֶקֹּ֔ב לֹ֥א קַבֹּ֖ה אֵ֑ל וּמָ֣ה אֶזְעֹ֔ם לֹ֥א זָעַ֖ם ה’׃

…From Aram has Balak brought me, Moab’s king from the hills of the East: Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel’s doom! (8) How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the LORD has not doomed?

And then in what most assume is the first time that God changes Balaam’s intended curse to a blessing he says (Bamidbar 23:9):

(ט) כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃

As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations,

Prime Minister Begin focused on the question of whether the description of the Jewish people dwelling alone with no reckoning among the nations remains true in his day.  The conversation turned to an examination of classical Zionism whose goal was “normalize the Jewish people so that it could become a גוי ככל הגוים – a nation like all other nations.”  The underlying premise of early Zionist thinking was that “once Jews possessed what every other normal nation possesses – a land of their own – they would automatically become a normal nation within the family of nations.  And the consequence of that, so the classic Zionist theory held, would be that anti-Semitism would wither and die.”  The declaration by Balaam would seem to disprove the Zionist theory – according to this, we are always destined to remain alone, distinct from other nations.  Indeed, our verse has been cited as support for the idea that anti-Semitism is somehow built into the fabric of the world and that we must always have a defensive mindset.

Other scholars at the Prime Minister’s home suggested that the Jews were not destined to dwell alone, but that our success as a nation might be contingent on dwelling alone.  Professor Ephraim Auerbach, basing himself on one explanation found in the classlical mefarshim explained that “dwelling alone’ meant voluntarily setting oneself apart.  “In other words, the Jewish nation distinguished itself from other peoples by virtue of its distinctive religious and moral laws.  The most extreme formulation of this idea is found in the Netziv who says that the Jewish people is different from other nations in that when other nations are exiled and assimilate into the host nation they find acceptance and respect.  But the opposite is true for the Jews.  When we remain true to our faith in exile, then we have been able to live at peace with our neighbors.  But when we try to assimilate and be exactly like our neighbors, the result is that we find ourselves despised and reviled.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, according the Netziv, our pasuk should be translated: “If it is a people content to be alone, faithful to its distinctive identity, then it will be able to dwell in peace. But if Jews seek to be like the nations, the nations will not consider them worthy of respect” (https://rabbisacks.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CC-5778-A-People-That-Dwells-Alone-Balak.pdf).

Perhaps my favorite understanding of Balaam’s description of the Jewish people as a “nation that dwells alone” is offered by Rabbi Sack as the key thesis to his book Future Tense (Rabbi Sacks’ interpretation also appears in several installments of his weekly commentary on the Parsha Covenant and Conversation.  See for example, https://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5771-balak-a-people-that-dwells-alone/.)  Rabbi Sacks maintains that this understanding of Judaism being pitted against the rest of the world is dangerous.  To be isolated without friends or allies is not a blessing but a curse.  As Rabbi Sacks continues, “To be a Jew is to be loved by God; it is not to be hated by Gentiles.”  It is true that we have a unique identity and responsibilities that distinguish us from other nations.  But, writes Rabbi Sacks, “to be different is not necessarily to be alone.  Indeed, it is only by being what we uniquely are that we contribute to humankind what we alone can give.  Singular, distinctive, countercultural – yes; these are part of the Jewish condition.  But alone?  No.”  He further explains that we have enabled Balaam’s curse to come true by accepting and internalizing its message.

The scene at the Prime Minister’s residence is remarkable on many levels.  I love the idea of Begin, as Prime Minister, engaged in serious Torah study on a regular basis.  I also love the idea of his open house and can only imagine what it must have been like for his guests to be served cookies and soda by the Prime Minister and First Lady.  It is also amazing to note that this discussion about Jewish distinctiveness/aloneness took place on the eve of Begin’s trip to Washington to begin discussions that led to the historic peace treaty with Egypt.

As I wrote at the beginning of this d’var Torah the question of how understand Balaam’s curse/blessing of עם לבדד ישכון  – a nation that dwells alone – has added relevance as we celebrate the 4th of July.  Though not necessarily couched in the same terms, the same debate over the merits of aloneness – or isolationism – are gripping our nation.  As our celebrations this year are complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I hope that this Shabbat will give us a chance to reflect upon what America means to us and whether as a nation we are meeting our ideals.  The question of isolationism and what America’s relationship to the rest of the world should be has to figure prominently in any of those conversations.  I wish everyone a good Shabbos and happy 4th of July with the strong hope that we can gain clear understanding of blessing and curse.

Beha’alotecha – The danger in Reopenning

As restrictions from the quarantine begin to lift, there is much excitement about the prospect of returning to Shul.  I was inspired to participate in Wednesday night’s Zoom meeting, and the board meetings leading up to it, where we were able to discuss the protocols to allow us to resume communal tefilah in a modified format.  Since the painful decision to close shul in March, this has been our goal.  And yet as we prepare to reopen on Sunday morning, our Parsha highlights the extreme caution with which must proceed. 

It should go without saying that we must exercise extreme caution to prevent a second wave of Coronavirus infection.  The economic, social and psychological toll of the past 3 months are very real.  The desire to return to normalcy is understandable.  As difficult as Zoom schooling has been for parents, children and teachers, the prospect of a summer without camp, playdates or trips to the pool is even more daunting. The desire to eat out in a restaurant  (even for those who usually complain about the Baltimore scene) or to step foot into a store is understandable.  And none of us is looking forward to discovering what kind of tan lines our masks will leave on our faces.  So of course we must proceed with caution and with deep tefilot that we will be able to continue on the path of return to normalcy without having to take too many steps backward.

But the danger that our parsha describes is of a different nature.  One of the major themes of Parshat Beha’alotecha is that of being left out.  The parsha opens with the instructions to Aharon to light the Menorah in the Mishkan.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” (Bamidbar 8:-2)

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

Rashi asks why this is juxtaposed with the Torah’s description of the offerings of the nesi’im (tribal leaders) during the dedication of the Mishkan.  He explains that Aharon was depressed at seeing their participation knowing that he and his tribe had no role.  Basing himself on the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi explains that Hashem consoled Aharon by telling him that ultimately his service is greater than that of the nesi’im since Aharon and his descendants would have the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. 

בהעלתך. לָמָּה נִסְמְכָה פָרָשַׁת הַמְּנוֹרָה לְפָרָשַׁת הַנְּשִׂיאִים? לְפִי שֶׁכְּשָׁרָאָה אַהֲרֹן חֲנֻכַּת הַנְּשִׂיאִים חָלְשָׁה אָז דַּעְתּוֹ, שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה עִמָּהֶם בַּחֲנֻכָּה לֹא הוּא וְלֹא שִׁבְטוֹ, אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּבָּ”ה חַיֶּיךָ שֶׁלְּךָ גְדוֹלָה מִשֶּׁלָּהֶם, שֶׁאַתָּה מַדְלִיק וּמֵטִיב אֶת הַנֵּרוֹת (עי’ תנחומא):

WHEN THOU LIGHTEST [THE LAMPS] — Why is the section treating of the candelabrum put in juxtaposition with the section dealing with the offerings of the princes? Because when Aaron saw the dedication offerings of the princes, he felt distressed because neither he nor his tribe was with them in the dedication, whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “By your life! Your part is of greater importance than theirs, for you will kindle and set in order the lamps” (cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Beha’alotcha 5; see also Nachmanides).

It is fascinating to note that Aharon would feel excluded.  After all, as the Kohen Gadol he is the one person able to enter the kodesh kodashim (holy of holies).  He is involved in every aspect of the operation of the mishkan.  And yet he was upset because there was one sacrifice where he had to sit on the sidelines as an observer. 

Equally as fascinating is Hashem’s reaction.  One could easily imagine a different response to Aharon.  Given that he and his tribe will play the central role in the Mishkan and Beit ha-Mikdash it would be understandable for Hashem to castigage him for feeling left out.  “Imagine how everyone else will feel knowing that their experience in the Mishkan must be mediated through you and your family.  Just sit back and experience what that is like for a moment!”  But Hashem does not criticize.  Rather, He takes Aharon’s feelings seriously and offers consolation.

The theme of being left out continues in the third Aliyah with the story of Pesach Sheini.  Hashem instructs the nation that they should bring a korban Pesach in the desert.  But the Torah proceeds to tell of certain people who had become tameh (ritually impure) and thus unable to offer the korban Pesach.  These people approach Moshe and Aharon and ask why should they be excluded from such a seminal mitzvah. 

וַ֠יֹּאמְרוּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָהֵ֙מָּה֙ אֵלָ֔יו אֲנַ֥חְנוּ טְמֵאִ֖ים לְנֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם לָ֣מָּה נִגָּרַ֗ע לְבִלְתִּ֨י הַקְרִ֜ב אֶת־קָרְבַּ֤ן ה’ בְּמֹ֣עֲד֔וֹ בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Those men said to them, “Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the LORD’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Bamidbar 8:7)

Moshe brings their question to Hashem and Hashem responds with the rules of Pesach Sheini.  If anyone is unable to offer the Korban Pesach at its proper time because they are tameh or too far away to travel to the Beit ha-Mikdash, they are able to bring it a month later.  (As an interesting side note, when the Coronavirus quarantine began and interrupted everyone’s Pesach plans, there was much discussion about using Pesach Sheini as a model for families to meaningfully celebrate Pesach together under the assumption that the restrictions would not last for more than a few weeks.)  It is important to note that the rules of Pesach Sheini and who is included are more expansive than the original question.  

דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ אִ֣ישׁ כִּי־יִהְיֶֽה־טָמֵ֣א ׀ לָנֶ֡פֶשׁ אוֹ֩ בְדֶ֨רֶךְ רְחֹקָ֜הׄ לָכֶ֗ם א֚וֹ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעָ֥שָׂה פֶ֖סַח לה’׃

Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your posterity who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a passover sacrifice to the LORD, (Bamidbar 9:10)

Though the original question was posed by a specific group of individuals who were impure, the commandment given by Hashem is for anyone who is impure or too far away and is given לָכֶ֗ם א֚וֹ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם to future generations as well.  The principle is given that in any situation of someone feeling excluded, then the Halacha should accommodate them.

The theme comes full circle at the very end of the Parsha which concludes with the story of Miriam and Aharon speaking badly of Moshe’s wife.  After Hashem castigates them, he punishes Miriam with tzara’at (leprosy).  At Aharon’s request, Moshe prays for Miriam to be healed.

וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה ה’ לֵאמֹ֑ר קל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ׃

So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” (Bamidbar 12:13)

Hashem immediately heals the tzara’at but explains that Miraim must remain in quarantine for seven days.  We are then told that the nation did not travel until Miriam was allowed reentry into the camp:

וַתִּסָּגֵ֥ר מִרְיָ֛ם מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים וְהָעָם֙ לֹ֣א נָסַ֔ע עַד־הֵאָסֵ֖ף מִרְיָֽם׃

So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. (Bamidbar 12:15)

This is a curious detail – we read earlier in the parsha that the nation would follow the ananei ha-kavod (clouds of glory).  Most commentators explain that for the seven days of Miriam’s quarantine the clouds did not move because Hashem decided they should wait for Miriam.  But the Sforno maintains that the clouds did in fact move, indicating the nation should depart.  According to this, the people refuse to travel without Miriam.  It was a case of civil disobedience!  For our purposes, the message of the nation’s disobedience is that they refused to go on with “business as usual” knowing that Miriam could not be a part of it.

I think that these three stories – Aharon’s depression, Pesach sheini and Miriam’s punishment – must inform our community as we return to communal tefilah.  The reality is that there are many in our community who are unable to participate at this point.  We are aware of this reality and we are saddened that the entire community cannot come together.  There are many whose personal health, risk aversion, or family circumstances require them to remain in quarantine-like conditions for far longer than the general public.  Just as Hashem had compassion for Aharon and expanded the Halacha of Pesach sheini, we must be sensitive and compassionate to those who choose to stay at home.  Just as the nation refused to follow God’s directive to travel until Miriam returned, we must continue to show the utmost concern and sensitivity to those who remain in quarantine. 

I would like to conclude by reiterating a few points that were made during the Zoom meeting.

  1. There is absolutely no expectation of anyone that they will participate in our backyard minyanim.  It goes without saying that no judgment will be passed.
  2. As was the case throughout the past few months, the greatest concern should be one’s health and wellbeing. 
  3. We will continue our online programming of educational, social and spiritual events as long as there members of our community who are unable or unwilling to participate in shul events in person.
  4. I want to encourage everyone to redouble their efforts of reaching out to others and continuing the amazing efforts that have allowed our shul family to grow even stronger during these past few months.

Shabbat Shalom

Naso: Reflections on the Race Protests

I was on a Zoom call earlier this week organized by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat in light of the unfolding crisis following the death of George Floyd.    We heard reports from alumni serving in some of the communities most intensely impacted by the protests – Minneapolis, Nashville and Philadelphia, reflections from Rabbi Weiss drawing on his vast experience as a political activist and the thoughts and feelings of alumni and current students on how best to respond.  One of the participants wrote in the chat feed how relieved he was to not have to give a drasha this Shabbos because shuls are still closed due to Cornoavirus.  Immediately someone else wrote that he desperately wished he could give a drasha because that is the only way he can convey any sense of nuance and emotion to his congregation.

While it is certainly hard to imagine delivering a drasha at such a pivotal point in our nation’s history, my initial thought was of course I would want to have to face that challenge – because preparing a drasha means that we would be together in shul able to discuss and debate the issues, offer comfort to each other and commit to face the inyanei de-yoma (matters of the day) together as a shul family.  Preparing a drasha means that we would be able to respond together as a community.  Writing a d’var Torah in this format –  while our shul is closed and we remain under partial shutdown orders – is far more challenging.

My thoughts on framing the recent events and ongoing protests center around a rather obscure mitzvah discussed in this week’s parsha,  Naso.  At the beginning of Bamidbar chapter 5 Hashem instructs Moshe (Bamidbar 5:6-7):

דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּה’ וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא׃ (ז) וְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶֽת־חַטָּאתָם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒ וְהֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ בְּרֹאשׁ֔וֹ וַחֲמִישִׁת֖וֹ יֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֑יו וְנָתַ֕ן לַאֲשֶׁ֖ר אָשַׁ֥ם לֽוֹ׃

(6) Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, (7) he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.

The Torah is describing a rather complicated case where one person unlawfully holds the money of a fellow Jew (i.e., refuses to repay a loan or overdue wages or steals) and then swears falsely that he does not owe anything.  If the thief subsequently confesses his wrongdoing, he must offer a sacrifice and pay an additional fine of 1/5 the amount owed in addition to the principal value.

The Rambam highlights this detail in Hilchot Gezeilah ve-Aveidah (Laws of Robbery and Lost Property) 7:8

(ח) אֵין הַנִּשְׁבָּע עַל כְּפִירַת מָמוֹן מְשַׁלֵּם חֹמֶשׁ עַד שֶׁיּוֹדֶה מֵעַצְמוֹ. אֲבָל אִם בָּאוּ עֵדִים וְהוּא עוֹמֵד בִּכְפִירָתוֹ מְשַׁלֵּם הַקֶּרֶן בִּלְבַד עַל פִּי עֵדִים וְאֵינוֹ מְשַׁלֵּם אֶת הַחֹמֶשׁ. שֶׁהַחֹמֶשׁ עִם הַקָּרְבָּן לְכַפָּרָה הֵם בָּאִים וְאֵינוֹ מְבִיאָן אֶלָּא עַל פִּי עַצְמוֹ:

(8) If one takes an oath, denying money that is due, he does not have to pay the fifth part unless he confesses of his own accord. But if witnesses came and he persists in denying, he has to pay only the capital value, on the testimony of the witnesses; he does not have to pay the fifth part, since the fifth part and the offering are intended as an atonement, and he is to provide them only upon self-confession.

The added penalty of a sacrifice and paying an extra fifth only applies if the sinner confesses his sin.  If he is outed by someone else, he only repays the principal amount that was stolen.  This appears to be a case of חוטא נשכר – the sinner is rewarded.  Nechama Leibowitz explains that though this detail of the law is counterintuitive, it makes perfect sense:

“The explanation is quite clear if we bear in mind that the fifth part and the offering are not penalties or fines for the act of robbery and subsequent perjury but atonement…Without any change of heart or indication by word of mouth or deed, on the part of the wrongdoer, the offering is valueless and so is the payment of the fifth.  These instructions only apply to the repentant, helping him to atone for his deeds.” (N. Leibowitz Studies in Bamidbar “Guilt Offering for Robbery”)

As we have discussed often in the context of Hilchot Teshuvah (the Laws of Repentance) usually in the month of Elul there are two elements of Teshuvah.  The first is to right the wrong that has been done.  But above that is repair the relationship that has been damaged.  This is true in our interpersonal relationships and in our relationship with Hashem.  In order to truly make things right with someone you have wronged, it is necessary to take a greater personal hit than strict justice would demand.  The added penalty allows an individual who is truly remorseful and repentant of the sin he has committed to move beyond returning the money to its rightful owner to repair the damaged relationship and atone his wrongdoing.

The protests bring to light the great pain and betrayal experienced in the African American community.  As a society we have a responsibility to recognize their pain and anger and to take steps to repair that relationship.

This idea is expressed in another curious detail found in our pesukim.  There is a change in language from plural to singular that is not reflected in the English translation brought above.  The Torah introduces the mitzvah by stating

אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּ֤י יַעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכָּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם  When a man or woman commit (plural) any wrong…

It continues

וְהִתְוַדּ֗וּ אֶֽת־חַטָּאתָם֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂוּ֒  they shall confess the wrong they have done.

But it then states

הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־אֲשָׁמוֹ֙ He shall make restitution.

Many of the commentators are sensitive to this switch in person. Rabbi Zalman Sortozkin (1881-1966) explains in Oznayim la-Torah that the verb for confession is in the plural because when it comes to teshuvah, many people are able to confess – to recognize and articulate the wrongs they have done.  But the act of restitution in in the singular because very few people take the actions necessary to make actual change.  He powerfully concludes with an image with which we can all identify:

רבים המתודים ביום הכפורים ומבטיחם “למען נחדל מעשק ידינו” ומעט המ ההמקיימים את הבטחתם

Many confess on Yom Kippur and promise “so that we may refrain from the injustice of our hands” (from Neilah of Yom Kippur) but few are those who keep their promise.

The great fear is that no real change will come from the protests, promises and commitments made by so many individuals, organizations and leaders to address the racism that plagues our nation.

Building off the powerful insight of R. Sorotzkin, I would add that the need for restitution is in the singular because when it comes to racism (or other hate crimes) only a few individuals actively sin by committing crime or expressing racist attitudes.  Yet the Torah insists that the confession be said in the plural because the entire community is guilty of enabling and fostering such individuals.  The idea of structural racism requires that the entire community confess even when a few individuals actively sin.

I’d like to share one more idea in the parsha.  A far more familiar passage in the parsha is the birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing).  The first of these blessings is (Bamidbar 6:24):

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ May the Lord bless you and protect you

Most commentators understand the second clause “protect you” to refer to physical protection from harm.  But the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 18-16-1893) offers a far more piercing understanding.  He writes that protection is required from the very blessing(s) we receive.  דכל ברכה בעי שמירה – “May God protect you, lest the very blessing you receive turn into a stumbling block” (translated by Rabbi Shai Held in The Heart of Torah vol. 2 “On Channeling and Receiving Blessing”).  Though it is difficult to write about our blessings during a global health pandemic and national race crisis, we must continue to count our blessings.  One of our blessings is to be living as Jews in America in the 21st century.  Despite rising numbers of antisemitism in America and abroad, we are certainly blessed to be living in such a time and place.  We are able to practice our religious freely and proudly and to pursue any job or degree that we want.  We have much privilege.  As our community struggles to make sense of current events and to find an appropriate response, I worry that we are not taking heed of the Netziv’s message.  We need protection from the blessings of comfort and acceptance that can so easily turn into complacency and insensitivity to those around us.

I recently finished an important book:  How to Fight Anti-Semitism by Bari Weiss.  She writes:

“Remember:  It is easy to think of the Jews as the sole victims of anti-Semitic hate.  But another, far bigger victim is often overlooked: the culture that facilitates anti-Semitism.  To tolerate anti-Semitism is to tolerate lies.  A culture in which anti-Semitism thrives is a culture in which truths can be replaced with lies.” (48)

The exact same thing can be said about racism, sexism, homophobia or any other evil that plagues our society.  Returning to the Torah’s description of the Asham Gezeilot and the mixing of plural and singular language, the Ohr haChaim explains that the shift in language indicates that the sin tarnishes the collective soul of the Jewish people  (See Ohr haChaim on Bamidbar 5:6; see also Stone Chumash Commentary).  Similarly, the sin of racism, even if perpetuated by a small minority tarnishes the soul of our entire nation.   We stand in unity with the the Black community and affirm that Black Lives Matter.  We pray to Hashem to bring peace and healing to the American people and that He give us the strength and wisdom to move beyond the anger and vitriol that has overcome our society.

Shabbat Shalom.

Emor: The Holiness of Humanness

This week the Modern Orthodox world lost one of our gedolim, Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch, z”l.  Rabbi Rabinovitch served as Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe (Ma’aleh Adumim) and authored many important works on Halacha and Jewish thought.  The following story was shared by Rabbi Rabinovitch’s son at the funeral:

Early in his career Rabbi Rabinovitch was the rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina where he founded a Jewish day school.  He once met a rabbinic friend from New York who was visiting, who asked Rabbi Rabinovitch about his activities, and what he was teaching in South Carolina. “Aleph bet” responded Rav Rabinovitch. “Oy vey,” his friend said. “That’s the American rabbinate.”
“Perhaps,” answered Rav Rabinovitch. “Maybe it’s beneath my dignity to teach aleph bet. Maybe it’s not like teaching gemara in depth with all the rishonim. But I can tell you this: When I teach aleph bet I am teaching the truth of Torah (Torat Emet). And Torat Emet has the power to create a revolution!”

I share this story not only is this story a powerful illustration of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s leadership, compassion and love of Klal Yisrael, but because I think it highlights a key theme of Parshat Emor.  The parsha opens with the prohibition against kohanim becoming ritually impure by coming into contact with the dead:
The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself. (Vayikra 21:1-3)

Yet the Torah says that the Kohanim may defile themselves upon the loss of a close relative.  Lest anyone think that this is optional, Rashi quotes the Gemara in Yevamot 60a that when it comes to the immediate relatives listed above, it is a mitzvah for the kohen to mourn and become tameh.  There are many who assume that the idea of holiness requires us to overcome our basic human desires and emotions in order to supplicate ourselves to God’s will.  The requirement of a Kohen to mourn his relatives stands in stark contrast to such an idea.  As Rav Yehuda Amital z”l explains: “The Torah teaches us that sanctity specifically means connection to reality and proper behavior within its boundaries. Thus even the kohanim, holy people, must not ignore their healthy, natural emotions; they are required to defile themselves for relatives who have died” (https://www.etzion.org.il/en/human-holiness).

The Torah’s restrictions on kohanim participating in mourning highlights two issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The first is the inability to participate in conventional mourning practices.  In addition to the technical reasons precluding a kohen from becoming tameh, I believe there is a great spiritual lesson as well.  The Kohanim must still participate in the mitzvah of nichum aveilim (comforting the mourners); as the spiritual and religious leaders of the nation they must provide pastoral comfort during times of crisis.  The prohibition against attending funerals or participating in burial thus places a greater responsibility on the kohanim to show empathy and attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of those in mourning.  In a sense we have all assumed the role of Kohanim in this period of physical distancing.  We are unable to follow the normal protocols of how we provide comfort for friends and members of the community who have experienced loss or are in crisis.  The challenge of our time is to rise the occasion and find ways to express our empathy and compassion from afar.

The second issue highlighted by the Parsha is the tension between communal and personal responsibilities.  It should be noted that while most Kohanim are obligated to cast aside their communal responsibilities and mourn fully for their immediate relatives, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) may not become impure for any relative:
The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments.  He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. (Vayikra 21:10-11)

There are times when our communal responsibilities preclude us from meeting our personal responsibilities.  This is a tension that is felt in so many areas of life and has been highlighted under our current situation, especially as we are beginning to see a push to “reopen.”  We all must recognize our responsibility toward broader society and do our part to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus.  A special appreciation goes to all of the medical professionals, first responders and other essential workers whose communal and professional responsibilities are especially burdensome at this time and who have gone to heroic efforts on behalf of all of us.

I began this d’var Torah by citing a story of Rabbi Rabinovitch, one of the greatest Rabbinic minds of our generation, and his commitment to Torat Emet – the Truth of Torah.  The Torah’s instructions to the Kohanim at the beginning of our parsha is another illustration of the Truth of Torah.  Torah demands of us that we never lose site of our humanity and that we remain attentive to our physical, psychological and emotional needs.  The Torah demands that develop the capacity to empathize with others – especially when offering physical comfort is not possible.  And the Torah demands of us that we appropriately navigate our responsibilities to the community with our personal responsibilities.  Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Shemini — The Chase: Lessons From Aaron in Peace and Happiness

The hero of the parsha, at least the first half of the Parsha is Aharon.   

There is a tension  and seeming contradiction in the portrayal of Aaron in Parshat Shemin.  On one hand Aaron is portrayed as having self-doubt.  In pasuk 9:7, Moshe instructs Aaron to “come close to the alter” קרב אל המזבח and give his sacrifices.  Rashi quotes the Sifra which asks why Moshe must use the verb “kerav” approach, or come close.  Rashi writes,  

שהיה אהרן בוש וירא לגשת. אמר לו משה למה אתה בוש, לכך נבחרת: 

 “Since Aaron was ashamed and afraid to approach, Moshe said to him: Why are you ashamed?  It is for this that you were chosen.” 

 Aaron was ashamed to perform his duties.  He lacked confidence in himself to do that for which he was chosen. He had feelings of inadequacy.   

Rashi explains that Aaron’s doubt came from the fact that the leaders of the community questioned Aaron’s fitfulness as Kohen Gadol.  Ramban explains that Aaron was ashamed from the sin of the golden calf.   

 A related theme also found in the parsha – that of submission.  This theme is first seen in the death of Nadav and Avihu.   

The theme of submission is continued in Aaron’s dealing with the death of his sons.  Aaron’s response to Moshe’s explanation of their death is vayidom Aharon.  Aaron was silent.  The Rashbam explains 

וידום אהרן – מאבילותו ולא בכה ולא התאבל, שכן כת’ ביחזקאל בן אדם הנני לוקח ממך את מחמד עיניך במגפה וגו’ האנק דום מתים אבל לא תעשה, אף כאן וידום ממה שהיה רוצה להתאבל ולבכות.  

Aaron was silent – from his mourning.  He did not cry and did not mourn as it says in Ezekiel:    Son of man, behold, I take away from thee the desire of thine eyes with a stroke;… Sigh in silence; make no mourning for the dead…Here too he was silent from his desire to mourn and cry.   

Aaron wanted to mourn his sons, but he was not allowed to.  He had to submit his will and accept God’s punishment.  Similar explanations of this verse say that Aaron wanted to complain to God, to question God, about why his sons had to die.  But after Moshe’s explanation – vayidom Aharon.  He submitted himself to the divine retribution.  He wanted to cry out against it but didn’t. 

 The second theme found in Shemini’s portrayal of Aaron is exactly the opposite of submission.  It is self-assertion and autonomy.  After offering the sacrifices for himself and for the nation, the Torah tells us in 9:22 

יִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת ידו יָדָיו אֶל הָעָם וַיְבָרְכֵם 

“Aaron lifted his hands to the nation and he blessed them, and he descended from having done the sin offer, elevation offering and peace offering.” 

 Ramban maintains that Aaron’s blessing was spontaneous and personal.   As Ramban explains,  

 “this blessing that Aaron blessed the people came from himself and is unknown, and the Torah did not specify for us what it is…” 

 In direct contradistinction to the theme of submission, we see here that Aaron was assertive, creative and confident.  He blessed the people of his own volition.  We can only assume that the Torah sees this in a positive light because it tells us of no punishment. 

 We see then that there is a tension in the Torah’s portrayal of Aaron.  On the one hand he lacks confidence, feels inadequate and submits to God completely.  On the other hand he is assertive, confident and spontaneous.   

 I believe that we can use this to explain a well known Mishnah in Pirkei Avot.   

Pirkei Avot 1:12 משנה מסכת אבות פרק א:יב 

 [יב] הלל ושמאי קבלו מהם הלל אומר הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן אוהב שלום ורודף שלום אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה:   

Hillel and Shammai received the tradition from them.  Hilllel says:  Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, and pursuing peace, loved people and bring them closer to the Torah.  The mishna is generally understood to mean that we should be over-zealous in achieving peace.  The line “pursue peace” is often explained with the following story of Aaron.  When Aaron heard that two people were in a fight, call them A and B, he would approach A and tell him that B wanted to make amends with him.  Aaron would also go to B and tell him that A wanted to make amends with him, despite the fact that neither of them had ever expressed such an interest.  The two men would meet and realize how silly their argument had been.  Even though neither of them had expressed any interest in making up, they ultimately did make up. 

In light of the analysis of Aaron presented above, I believe that the Mishna can be understood in a new way.  When Hillel teaches “Be like the disciples of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace, love all creatures and bring them close to Torah” it could be that the peace of which the Mishna talks is not peace between two fighting people, but is inner-peace in a religious/spiritual sense.  The reason the mishna says to pursue this peace, is that like all things which one pursues, it is elusive.  One can never fully achieve inner peace in a religious realm because it necessarily entails living with these two contradictory ethos – that of submission and that of self-assertion.  Thus Hillel was aware of the tension with which Aaron struggled and is telling all generations that to live as Jews means to live with this tension. 

We too must be able to maintain a clear vision – and pursuit – of our ideals while being realistic about the world around us, when it comes to Israel and all other areas of life. 

Korban Todah, Pesach and Coronavirus

This week’s parsha, Tzav, contains the description of the Korban Todah (Thanksgiving offering).  This sacrifice is the basis for the recitation of Birkat ha-Gomel, which we have been learning about in our pre-davening shiur.  Birkat ha-Gomel is recited as an expression of gratitude for one who has survived a dangerous experience.  The gemara (Brachot 54b) lists four types of people who must give a Korban Todah and by extension recite Birkat ha-Gomel: one who crosses the sea, one who crosses a desert/wilderness, one who was ill and healed, and one who was confined in jail and was freed.  It is interesting that Parshat Tzav often coincides with Shabbat haGadol (the Shabbat before Pesach).  I once heard a provocative suggestion that the four cups of the Seder represent the four categories of people who must recite ha-Gomel.  This is a powerful reminder that on the Seder night we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally experienced the Exodus and redemption from Egypt.  We joyously drink wine to express our gratitude for having been saved from perils of Egypt.

Nechama Leibowitz brings a fascinating insight from R. Josiah b. Joseph Pinto regarding the Korban Todah and birkat ha-Gomel.  The Gemara does not say that there are four types of people who are OBLIGATED (chayav) to offer thanks.  Rather it uses the phrase tzrichin from the root tzarich (to need).  The term chayav (obligated) implies a there is a religious obligation to bring the sacrifice or recite the blessing.  The term tzarich, on the other hand, indicates an inner urge to thank God – not out of a sense of obligation, but out of sincere gratitude.  We have to feel the need to offer thanks.  This echoes beautifully with the dayeinu song from the Seder.  Dayeinu shows that we express gratitude for each step of redemption and for each kindness done for us, even if the redemption was not yet complete.  The meaning of dayeinu, which we repeat after each line is “it would have been enough reason for us to express our gratitude to Hashem.”

Had God brought us out of Egypt…but not split the sea, it would have been enough! 

Had God brought us to Mt. Sinai but not given us the Torah it would have been enough!

We understand that until the splitting of the sea we were not safe from the Egyptians.  Gathering at Mt. Sinai without the giving of the Torah seems like it would be missing the point.  Yet we are told that for each step of the process we should be thankful.  It is possible, and even desirable to express gratitude even while suffering.

As we enter another Shabbos distanced from our community and prepare for Pesach without our family, friends and neighbors we are certainly justified in feeling sad and disappointed.  But even as our world has been turned upside down, we have much to be thankful for as well.  That is the message of this Shabbos and this Pesach.  We should all be able to recognize the many blessings in our life and to feel truly grateful for them.

Holding Back

This week we conclude Sefer Shemot and with it the Torah’s prolonged description of the Mishkan.  Toward the end of the Parsha, as the work on the Mishkan is complete, there is a seeming redundancy in the Torah that bothers many of the commentators.  In Shemot 39:32 we read, All the work of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the Children of Israel had done everything that Hashem commanded Moses, so did they do.  The pasuk  seems to repeat itself – if they did “everything that Hashem commanded,” then what is added by the phrase “so did they do”? 

The Netziv offers a fascinating explanation of the significance of the phrase.  He explains that because the Jewish people had such an intense desire for the Divine Presence to reside in their midst, they may have done more than was required or expected of them.  The Torah therefore emphasizes that they “’did everything that Hashem commanded…so they did’ – and “not a jot more.”  Part of the greatness of B’nei Yisrael’s participation in the construction of the Mishkan was their capacity to restrain themselves and their spiritual yearnings to accord with Hashem’s desires.   

In this regard, we must contrast B’nei Yisrael here with the Torah’s description of Nadav and Avihu in their efforts to consecrate the Mishkan on its first day of operation.  We know that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they “offered strange fire before HaShem, which He had not commanded them” (Vayikra 10:1).  The Ohr ha-Chaim understands their death as resulting from their efforts to seek out closeness to God and a spiritual experience that was beyond the scope of Hashem’s intentions.  As he writes: “We are thus taught to reject the notion of a violent bid for closeness to the Divine even at life’s expense.  This occurs when man has set his heart and soul on the attainment of a goal even if it entails the loss of one’s life.” 

Nadav and Avihu could not control their personal spiritual yearnings and acted in a way counter to what Hashem had desired.  For this they were killed.  B’nei Yisrael, on the other hand were able to control themselves and channel their spiritual yearnings to meet God’s commandments.  There is a danger of allowing one’s sincere spiritual yearnings to cause that person to act selfishly.  It is key to remember that true Jewish spirituality is to follow the ratzon Hashem – the will of God – even if it runs counter to our personal intuitions.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes about Nadav and Avihu: “There is no room for any subjective discretion in any part of the sacrificial service in the sanctuary.  Precise limits and forms are prescribed even for the free-will offerings which must be strictly adhered to.  The closeness of and approach to God, which we seek with every offering may only be found through obedience and acceptance of God’s will.”   

As we prepare for a second Shabbat of social isolation and the inability to be in shul with our community, the message of the Mishkan is especially resonant.  We have a strong desire to connect with Hashem and with our holy tzibur.  Sometimes that requires us to hold back and refrain from doing that which might bring immediate emotional or personal satisfaction.  It is hard to believe that Hashem truly wants us to stay home and daven without a minyan, miss kriyat ha-Torah or to spend Shabbos alone.  But the Torah’s message is that we must be able to hold back and show restraint when that is demanded of us.  The Mishkan was the precursor of the Beit ha-Mikdash.  The Beit ha-Mikdash in turn is the paradigm for our modern day shuls, which are called mikdash me’at (mini-Temples).   In the interest of the health an wellbeing of our members, our community and the broader society our task this week is to show restraint by holding back from our normal Shabbos observance.  In doing so we are living the lesson of this week’s parsha and internalizing the message of the Mishkan.  Shabbat Shalom.

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