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Parshat Masei — In Retrospect: A Troubling Travelogue

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha

Context

Parshat Masei, the final parsha in the book of Bamidbar, opens with a retrospective listing of the forty-two stations that marked the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings.

Questions

What is the purpose of this after-the-fact travelogue? Why is this dry, technical information included in the eternal Torah text?

What possible lessons can be derived from this forty-nine-sentence itinerary?

Approaches

A

The severity of these questions is, apparently, so deeply felt by the Ibn Ezra that he feels compelled to offer a revolutionary suggestion. The inclusion of the itinerary in the Torah was not “God’s idea.” Commenting on the passage’s introductory statement, “And Moshe wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord,”the Ibn Ezra explains that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” refers to the travels themselves (and not to their recording in the text by Moshe).

Towards the end of the Israelites’ forty-year period of wilderness wandering, this scholar maintains, the Israelites encamp for a number of months in the plains of Moab, departing only upon Aharon’s death. During that time, apparently of his own volition and for his own unstated purposes, Moshe records in retrospect the details of the Israelites’ wilderness journeys, which had all taken place “by the commandment of the Lord.”

B

The vast majority of scholars, including the Rambanand the Abravanel,however, take serious issue with the Ibn Ezra’s approach. Moshe, these authorities maintain, would never have recorded this detailed travelogue in the Torah of his own initiative. The very idea that Moshe could independently amend the text undermines our understanding of the Torah as “God’s word.” Additionally, the Torah does not need to tell us that the Israelites’ wilderness journeys took place by God’s commandment. This fact has already been clearly established in the text (see Beha’alotcha 2).

These scholars insist, therefore, in direct opposition to the Ibn Ezra, that the Torah specifically informs us that Moshe recorded the itinerary at God’s behest. Representing this viewpoint, the Rambam asserts that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” is designed to emphasize the divine origin of a passage that we might have otherwise found “useless.”

Like every other section of the Torah, these scholars maintain, the retrospective travelogue at the beginning of Parshat Masei is part of God’s message to His people. Confronted with this puzzling textual passage, we are tasked to uncover its divinely determined purpose.

C

Rising to this challenge, the authorities suggest a number of approaches to this section of text.

To cite a few…

In an opinion quoted in Rashi, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan notes that the recorded route attests to God’s benevolence even in the realm of punishment. Although God, in response to the sin of the spies, had condemned the nation to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites’ “wandering” was actually severely curtailed. Only forty-two stations are listed in the itinerary. Of these stations, fourteen served as stopping points during the first year after the Exodus, before the divine decree, while another eight stations were visited during the final year, before entry into the land. Over the span of thirty-eight years, therefore, a total of only twenty journeys took place. The Israelites’ wilderness experience was remarkably stable in spite of its tragic origins.

Like Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, the Ba’al Akeida discerns indications of God’s compassion within the retrospective itinerary. This scholar maintains, however, that the considerations described are specific, rather than general. Each station listed in the text references a particular divine act of kindness bestowed on the people, from the elaborate details of the Exodus to the many miracles that sustained the nation during its wanderings.

Going one step further, the Tosafists detect a halachic purpose to this section of text. Jewish law obligates an individual, upon encountering a location where divine miracles occurred, to recite the blessing “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed a miracle for my forebears at this place.”In order to facilitate the fulfillment of this obligation, the Torah now records the locations in the wilderness where such miracles transpired.

Moving in a totally different direction, the Sforno argues that the wilderness itinerary does not extol God’s allegiance to the Israelites but, instead, the Israelites’ allegiance to God. For four decades, the people traveled at God’s behest, through stark, barren terrain, moving from station to station without prior knowledge of their immediate destination. This loyalty to God’s wishes now earns the nation the right to enter the Promised Land.

D

The most direct explanation for the inclusion of the Israelites’ wilderness itinerary in the text, however, is suggested by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed. The Rambam maintains that this passage plays a critical role in establishing the veracity of the Torah’s narrative. With the passage of time, the Rambam suggests, doubts could easily develop concerning the authenticity of the miracles that marked the nation’s travels:

Miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them, while coming generations, who know of them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue….

The greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, sustained by the daily supply of [the heaven-sent] manna….

God, however, knew that, in the future, people might doubt the veracity of these miracles…they might think that the Israelites remained in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible to live [in the ordinary way]…or that they could plow, sow and reap, or live on vegetation [naturally growing along the route]; or that the manna came down regularly in those locations as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water [along the route]….

In order to remove all these doubts, and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations [that marked the journey of the Israelites], so that the coming generations may see them and learn the greatness of the miracle[s] that enabled human beings to live in these places for forty years.

By carefully describing the route followed by the nation during their extended wilderness travels, a passage through barren wasteland that could only be survived through miraculous intervention, the Torah buttresses its own narrative concerning God’s miraculous care for the nation during their wilderness wanderings.

E

A striking observation offered by the Malbim grants a final perspective on the wilderness itinerary recorded at the beginning of Parshat Masei. This scholar notes that the parsha opens with the statement “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt according to their legions….”

As a rule, the Malbim maintains, a journey is defined by its destination, not by its point of departure. Why, then, does the Torah describe the Israelites’ journey by the fact that they “went out of the land of Egypt” and not as a journey “towards the land of Canaan.”

Incisively, the Malbim argues that the wilderness journey of the Israelites could not be defined as a journey towards Canaan. Arrival at the border of Canaan could have been, and initially had been, accomplished without passage along this tortuous route. Instead, the lengthy wilderness sojourn was specifically designed to “take the Israelites out of Egypt,” to purify the people from the defiling effects of centuries of servitude and immersion in Egyptian culture.

For this reason, He caused them [the Israelites] to wander in the wilderness; and they underwent numerous tribulations and were tested with numerous trials and experienced refinement after refinement, until they were purified and exchanged their “soiled garments” for “sanctified vestments” of pure and holy character….

Each step of the Israelites’ carefully recorded journey is designed to move the nation one step further from Egypt, to further complete their transformation from servile slaves into a nation worthy of its destiny. It is this journey of the spirit, described in a detailed itinerary as the book of Bamidbar begins to close, that defines the entire book in retrospect.

Parshat Matot: Changing World, Unchanging Law

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar

Unlocking_Bamidbar_front

Context

As Parshat Matot opens, Moshe outlines the laws governing nedarim, personal vows. These edicts underscore the seriousness with which such verbal commitments are to be treated.

In contrast to men, who remain personally responsible for all vows taken, a woman’s vows can be summarily rescinded by her father or her husband, depending upon her status.

In general terms: A father is granted the right to rescind the nedarim of a single daughter until she reaches the status of a bogeret (six months after puberty), while a husband is granted the right to revoke his wife’s vows. The vows of an underage betrothed woman can only be canceled by her father and her husband-to-be, acting jointly.

Questions

In our “liberated society,” some aspects of the laws of vows seem difficult to accept.

Why should the Torah draw a distinction between the vows of men and women? Is a woman any less capable of responsibly committing herself to specific behaviors than a man?

How should the woman of today view laws that seem to place her in a subservient position to the male figures in her life? Aren’t such edicts proof positive of the Torah’s bias against women?

Approaches

A

We find ourselves, once again, entering turbulent waters….

On the one hand, we could well ask from the outset: Do we even have the right to ask these questions, to assume that the laws of the Torah must always conform to our modern sensibilities? Almost every society in human experience feels that it has finally arrived at a communal structure that most closely reflects the desired social reality. And yet, how many such societies and their structures have come and gone, while Torah law has endured? God clearly has His reasons for distinguishing between men and women in halachic areas such as the laws of vows. Perhaps those reasons are destined to remain elusive to the “modern mind.”

On the other hand, should the natural limitations of our perspective cause us to shy away from confrontation with any aspect of the Torah text? Many authorities, as we have seen, are even willing to delve into the mysteries of chukim, ritual laws for which no apparent reason is evident in the text. Certainly societal laws, such as the laws of vows, should be fair game for our philosophical exploration. All laws of the Torah, after all, are meant to inform and shape our lives. If we can succeed in better understanding those edicts that, at first glance, seem foreign to us, we may well uncover new life lessons that we have missed before. And, if we fail, we will be no worse off. We can always back away, accepting the existence of mysteries that lie beyond our ken.

B

As a first step, we might be tempted to approach the laws of vows as we have approached other issues in the text before, by noting the tension between eternality and temporal context in the study of the Torah text. While our tradition clearly maintains both the divine origin and the eternal applicability of Torah thought and law, we cannot deny that the Torah was revealed to a specific people in a specific era.

Noting this double-edged reality, we have wondered aloud whether or not we can understand specific phenomena in the Torah, such as the biblical allowance for slavery, as products of the times. We have also seen that historical context serves as the basis for such classical approaches to the text as the Rambam’s explanation of the origin of korbanot (in his Guide to the Perplexed) and the Ramban’s understanding of the character of the priestly garments.

Attempts to apply the approach of historical context to the laws of vows prove, however, to be less satisfying. The laws of slavery have fallen into disuse with the disappearance of the institution itself from our society. Even the laws of korbanot and the priestly garments, which we expect to be reinstated at some point in our history, are distant from our current experience and make no apparent comment on the status of any group within the community.

The laws of vows, however, while seldom applied, remain on the books to this day. With the continuing drive towards women’s equality in so many spheres of the society surrounding us, we confront the challenge of explaining these and similar laws to an increasingly sophisticated audience. Failure to do so adds fuel to the accusations that such edicts are either outdated or unfairly prejudicial.

C

A review of the halachic literature regarding the laws of nedarim reveals that, from the outset, the rabbis derive severe limitations from the text over the rights of a husband or a father to revoke a woman’s vows.

Based on the Torah’s statement “Any vow and any oath-prohibition to cause affliction of the soul, her husband may let it stand and her husband may revoke it,” the Mishna maintains that a husband may only rescind vows that would deny his wife one of life’s permitted pleasures. The Talmud, noting a second defining phrase, “These are the statutes that God commanded Moshe, between a man and his wife…,” expands the rights of the husband to include the cancellation of any vow that can affect the marital relationship.

While the Rambam maintains that a father’s rights over his daughter’s vows extends to all vows taken, numerous other authorities disagree and restrict the father’s rights, as well, only to those vows that would deny his daughter one of life’s permitted pleasures. Furthermore, the biblical phrase “in her youth, in her father’s house” is understood by the rabbis as limiting a father’s rights over his daughter’s vows to the six-month period following the onset of puberty. Before that point, the young woman is considered underage and any vows she takes are automatically nonbinding. After the six-month period following puberty, she is considered to be mature enough to be responsible for her own commitments.

The rights of a father or a husband over a woman’s vows are limited to the day that he first hears of the vow. This period of time is not defined as a twenty-four-hour period but is determined by the day itself. If a father, for example, hears of his daughter’s vow late in the day and wishes to revoke that vow, he must respond immediately, before that day ends.

These and other technical boundaries, rooted in the text and discussed extensively in the Talmud and later halachic works, severely restrict the rights of a father or a husband to rescind a woman’s vows. Clearly, the Torah is not granting open-ended control over a woman’s verbal commitments to the male figures in her life. Instead, the text constructs a narrowly targeted allowance, restricted to specific types of vows and carefully regulated by a detailed network of laws.

D

In sharp contrast to the extensive halachic literature dealing with the technical boundaries of these laws, almost no information is found in the classical commentaries concerning their rationale. Why does the Torah grant a woman’s father or husband the right of repeal over even a limited category of her vows? What explanation can be offered for the clear asymmetry between the roles of men and women reflected in these laws?

The silence of the classical commentaries concerning these issues can, of course, be interpreted in a number of ways. Perhaps the scholars did not see these edicts as troubling at all and were comfortable accepting them, without question, as God’s will. Perhaps the commentaries felt no discordance between these laws and the societies of their day, which were marked by a myriad of clear public differentiations between men and women.

E

It is not surprising that the first real attempt (at least that I could find) to explain the rationale behind these laws is made by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch; the towering nineteenth-century German scholar whose religious philosophy envisions a relationship between traditional observant Judaism and the modern world. Hirsch, as might be expected, bases his interpretation of the laws of nedarim on the distinct roles that, in his view, are mandated by Jewish tradition for men and for women.

A man, this scholar explains, “is the independent maker of his position in life.” If, therefore, a man vows to take abnormal restrictions upon himself, he, alone, must make the necessary arrangements to allow these conditions to be met.

The greatness of a woman’s calling in life, however, lies in her entering and assuming a position that is not of her own creation. “The woman herself does not provide the house. She enters the home provided by the man and rules in it as the happiness-bringing administrator of all that is to be found there, in the sanctity of manners, the morals and feelings directed towards God.”

As the spiritual guardian of the Jewish home, the woman occupies a central role upon which others become clearly dependent. To fulfill her responsibilities, a woman must be free of external constraints that could “permanently stand in the way of the fulfillment of her calling.”13 The Torah, therefore, grants limited veto rights to a woman’s father or husband over any vows that might prevent her from fulfilling her primary religious role.

F

Recognizing that Rabbi Hirsch’s approach might not resonate with some modern readers and failing to find other serious attempts in the literature to explain these laws, I decided to try something different. Through the listserv of the Rabbinical Council of America I asked my colleagues whether any of them had either encountered or independently arrived at a rational approach to the laws of vows. The thoughtful, varied answers I received served to reinforce ideas that I had been considering on my own.

Some of my colleagues maintained that, in a general sense, these laws can only be understood against the backdrop of the Torah’s general resistance to vows. The potential sources of this resistance are manifold, and include a rejection of asceticism; a belief in the transformative power of Torah law without the need for added constraints; a recognition that Torah values can be distorted through the addition of individually authored rules; and an aversion to the creation of situations where, due to the acceptance of supplemental restrictions, individuals are increasingly likely to fail.

Nonetheless, the Torah does acknowledge that certain vows can enhance an individual’s religious and spiritual growth. Instead of mandating, therefore, a blanket prohibition on vows, the Torah institutes a selective process of annulment or revocation under very specific conditions. The prerogatives of the father and the husband are part of this selective process.

While this approach grants us context, however, it fails to address the asymmetry between men and women in the area of nedarim.

G

Confronting this issue squarely, a number of my colleagues readily opened the door to an obvious, potentially explosive area of consideration that I, myself, had been approaching with caution. Perhaps the asymmetry in Torah law concerning vows, they suggested, reflects naturally existing perceptual and behavioral differences between men and women (à la Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus).

Once this door is opened, the possibilities before us are manifold and understandably controversial. To suggest a few…

Can it be, for example, that these laws are partially necessary, not because of a woman’s limitations, but specifically because of the emphasis that men place upon physical attraction? Clearly, neither men nor women can completely see their relationship through the eyes of the other. A woman might, therefore, take upon herself specific restrictions in the quest for greater spirituality without fully understanding how those restrictions could make her less attractive to a potential suitor or a mate. In order to forestall the damage possibly caused to crucial relationships by such an act, the Torah grants a woman’s father and/or husband a limited opportunity to rescind such vows.

Perhaps, by granting a father the right to cancel his daughter’s vows during the six-month period following the onset of puberty, the Torah provides him with a unique opportunity to exercise parental control and direction during a particularly turbulent time in her life. Buffeted by the physical and psychological changes that mark her emergence into womanhood, the young woman confronts her inner conflicts and begins to develop the worldview and the personal skills that will carry her through life. Specifically at this time, the Torah grants significance to the young woman’s verbal commitments, but only with parental oversight, enabling her to safely and securely test her limits under a watchful eye.

Some of my colleagues suggested that a woman’s greater emotionality, compounded by her historically vulnerable status in society, makes her more prone to extreme threats and vows. While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, the Torah operates in general categories. The woman must recognize that, even under duress, her verbal commitments will be treated seriously. She is offered, however, the safeguard of limited oversight.

Finally, there are times when the father or husband’s very act of canceling a daughter or wife’s vow can itself be constructive. Given the nature of the vows that can be revoked, the cancellation conveys to the woman the ongoing concern of a “significant other” in her life for her continuing welfare and/or his desire to maintain a healthy, unburdened relationship between them. Such assurances can be particularly significant to a woman, young or old, at various stages in her life.

There may be those who feel that, with suggestions such as these, we have crossed the line of “political correctness.” And, certainly, we can offer no proof that any of these explanations, or any others that we might offer in this vein, actually form the basis of the laws of nedarim found at the beginning of Parshat Matot. Even those individuals, however, who adamantly insist on equality between men and women must admit to natural differences between the sexes. Is it not conceivable that those differences may play a role in the formulation of God’s law?

H

In the final analysis, answers to our questions concerning the laws of nedarim may be found in all, some or none of the above explanations. Perhaps other sources that we have not cited at all contain keys to understanding. When the Torah itself provides no explanation for its laws, we are left with possibilities, rather than certainty.

We return, therefore, full circle, to where we stood as our study opened. The eternal law of the Torah has withstood the test of centuries and will, we believe, withstand that test until the end of days. While there will certainly be those, in each generation, who will demand that its edicts conform to the thinking of the time, there can be no guarantee of such correlation. Our task is to remain loyal to the law, even as we struggle with its meaning.

Points to Ponder

While the asymmetry between men and women reflected in the laws of nedarim has little practical impact on our daily lives, other social distinctions drawn in the Torah between men and women can have major effect. The tragic plight of the aguna (lit.: the chained woman), a woman unable to obtain a get (Jewish decree of divorce), results from one such distinction.

At the core of the issue lies the one sentence in the book of Devarim that serves as the basis for divorce proceedings in Jewish law: “And he [the husband] wrote her [the wife] a bill of divorce, presented it to her and sent her from his house.”

As clearly indicated by this passage, the husband is the active party in the halachic events that effect a Jewish divorce. He (or his agent) must initiate the proceedings by writing the document of divorce and he (or his agent) must deliver that document to his wife. She, in contrast, plays a passive role as the recipient of the divorce decree. So passive is her role, in fact, that she need not even be a willing participant in the process. According to biblical law, as long as a man delivers a get to his wife’s personal domain, she is automatically divorced, even absent her agreement.

By the time we reach the Middle Ages, however, Rabbeinu Gershom, one of the greatest luminaries of the Ashkenazic community, issues a takana, a rabbinic decree, designed to even the playing field somewhat in the area of divorce. He prohibits, upon pain of excommunication, the divorce of women against their will. This takana does allow for exceptions in cases of great exigency, as determined by the decision of one hundred rabbis.

The Torah-mandated centerpiece of Jewish divorce, however, remains inviolate, beyond the reach of Rabbeinu Gershom’s takana or any other. The husband must, of his own free will, initiate and participate in the divorce process. This fact gives rise to a tragic possibility. If a husband is unable or unwilling to effect divorce proceedings, in spite of the clear need for severance, his wife becomes an aguna. She remains “chained” to her husband, still married and thus prohibited from moving on to another relationship.

In the past, this tragic eventuality usually resulted from a man’s disappearance due to accident, war or the like. To avoid the creation of agunot in such cases, Talmudic authorities adopted halachic leniencies, wherever possible, in their acceptance of evidence concerning the husband’s death.

A different type of igun (aguna status) however, has also always existed, created by recalcitrant husbands who deliberately refuse to grant a get to their wives. These women remain trapped in a state of limbo, held hostage, often for financial ransom, by bitter, angry, manipulative men. By all accounts, such agunot have become more prevalent in recent times.

Cognizant of the deep personal pain caused by this situation, halachists have struggled to develop halachically acceptable ways to counteract the actions of recalcitrant husbands. The stakes, the authorities understand, cannot be higher, and the balance that needs to be struck cannot be more delicate. On one side lies the personal pain of the aguna, chained to an unloving partner, unable to move forward with her life. On the other side lies allegiance to the halachic system in one of the most critical areas of Jewish law, defining the nature of the marital bond and of the Jewish family itself.

Faced with the challenge of striking this balance, the solutions proposed by the rabbis are varied and imaginative. They consider, for example, the possibility of “unfriendly persuasion.” While all agree that a get must be granted willingly by the husband, sources as early as the Mishna allow for a certain degree of “pressure”: “We coerce him [the recalcitrant husband] until he says, ‘I am willing.’ ”

Few halachic statements, however, are as open to interpretation as this one. How much coercion is allowed? At what point does a get become invalid because the pressure applied has crossed over the line? No less an authority than the Rambam maintains that in a situation where a get is clearly warranted, a husband can even be physically pressured into becoming a “willing participant” in divorce proceedings. Other coercive steps, such as social pressure, communal ostracism, public humiliation and, where possible, even imprisonment have been used effectively in convincing recalcitrant husbands to relent.

Recent years have seen other proposed solutions. In certain cases, authorities such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein have invalidated marriage ceremonies retroactively and allowed women to remarry, on the basis of halachic defects (such as unacceptable witnesses) in the original ceremonies. The Rabbinical Council of America and other groups have taken a proactive step, advocating the signing of a halachic prenuptial agreement. This agreement, a legal document designed to pass muster in civil court, obligates both the bride and groom to appear before a beit din (Jewish court) in the sad eventuality of a decision to divorce.

The document further obligates the husband to a fixed sum of daily support from the time the beit din determines that a get should be given until the time the divorce proceedings actually take place. This payment is not constructed as a fine, which would create an invalid “forced get,” but as a continuation of the customary support a husband is obligated to provide for his wife throughout marriage. The authors and proponents of the halachic prenuptial agreement hope that its widespread use will greatly minimize the incidence of igun throughout the Jewish community.

In spite of these and other rabbinic attempts to mitigate the phenomenon of igun, the problem understandably remains a vexing one for the Jewish community. One case of igun is one case too many; and, if anything, as we have noted, the number of cases in the Jewish community seems to be increasing. Given the deep pain that marks each instance, many observers feel frustrated with what they perceive as the inability of the rabbinate to simply “solve the problem.” Why can’t Jewish law find a way, they ask, to equalize the process of divorce?

While such protestations are certainly understandable, the move towards solutions at all costs can prove damaging, even to the agunot themselves. As a case in point, in 1996, a number of rabbis, including one of the leading thinkers of the Modern Orthodox movement, established an independent beit din, Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot, specifically designed to deal with the plight of agunot. The centerpiece of this beit din’s approach to the problem was the halachic concept of mekach ta’ut, false sale.

Marriage, these rabbis reasoned, is fundamentally a contract between two individuals, and, like any other contract, must be marked by full disclosure at the time of the “deal.” According to Jewish law, if a participant in an agreement discovers that a critical detail was not shared with him at the time of a contract’s formalization, that individual may claim his rights as the victim of a false sale and abrogate the contract retroactively. A woman victimized by a recalcitrant husband, reasoned the founders of this beit din, can easily claim that at the time of her marriage, the true character of her husband to be was hidden from her. Had she known his true nature, as an individual who could now, consciously and sadistically, cause her such pain, she never would have married him. Under the laws of contracts, this claim alone should be enough to annul her marriage and render a get unnecessary.

As attractive as this solution seemed, however, it failed to garner support even in the most liberal corners of the Orthodox community. The activities of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot were roundly condemned by a myriad of halachic authorities and by major Orthodox organizations including the Beit Din of America, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union; Agudath Israel of America; the National Council of Young Israel and many others. In 1998, a petition signed by scores of Modern Orthodox rabbis warned that women remarrying on the basis of divorces obtained by this court would be considered adulterers according to Jewish law and that their children would be considered halachically illegitimate. “We are certain that virtually no Orthodox rabbi would be willing to officiate at weddings of women who wish to remarry based upon [the court’s annulments],” the authors of the petition proclaimed.

The strenuous and nearly unanimous criticism of the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot was based on the conviction that, although in selected cases the argument of mekach ta’ut can be used to annul a marriage, the criteria applied by this court for the revocation of marriages failed to approach even the most minimal legal standards for the determination of mekach ta’ut.

Of even greater concern was the potential impact of these decisions on the legality of future marriages. If a woman could cancel her nuptials retroactively in such facile fashion, the critics reasoned, what would prevent cancellation of marriages for a myriad other reasons, as well? Literally any husband or wife could seek an annulment on the basis of newly discovered “damaging” information concerning his/her spouse not known at the time of their marriage. “Had I only known…I never would have married him/her.” The very sanctity of the marital bond was at stake, and the battle had to be waged.

In hindsight, the argument can well be made that, in spite of the best of intentions, the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot performed a real disservice to the hundreds of women who obtained divorces under its auspices. Few, if any, authorities within the Orthodox community accepted the divorced status of these women and, consequently, their ability to remarry either in Israel or the diaspora was severely curtailed. So controversial were the actions of this beit din that even a leading Orthodox feminist and activist for agunot proclaimed that the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot had actually made the situation worse for the women involved. The efforts of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot proved to be, at best, a classic case of good intentions gone awry.

The controversy surrounding the actions of the Beit Din Zedek L’Ba’ayot Agunot underscores the complexities that the Orthodox world faces as it struggles to ease the plight of agunot. Without question more can be done to address this tragic problem. Communities should certainly unite behind the efforts to identify and socially ostracize each individual who refuses to grant his wife a get. The use of proactive techniques such as the halachic prenuptial agreement should be made universal. Continued exploration of imaginative new approaches within the law to resolve the tragedy of every aguna should take place.

We must, however, also recognize the dangers of precipitous action. As deeply painful as the plight of each aguna may be, and as difficult as the law that gives rise to these situations may be to understand, the divinely inspired legal system that has preserved us as a people must, itself, be respected and preserved. An inauthentic approach, however appealing, can undermine that very system and cause unexpected, damaging consequences.

 

Parshat Balak: From Curse to Blessing

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers
Derashot Ledorot-- Numbers

The opening verse in the daily order of public prayer is the familiar “Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). It must be quite an important verse to be so strategically and significantly placed, as it is the very first thing we say as we enter the synagogue. And indeed it is just that. For as the opening chord in the overture to the Morning Services, “ma tovu” sets the key for the entire day of prayer, the symphony of the Jew’s mind and heart and soul rising harmoniously with those of all of Israel towards our Father in Heaven.

Just what does this verse mean? Our Sages (Pesikta Numbers 129) interpreted “tent” and “dwelling place” to refer to synagogues and religious schools. “How good are your synagogues and your halls of study” is the meaning of this blessing. May they increase in influence and grow in beauty and splendor. And this blessing, which is found in today’s sidra, comes from a most surprising source. It was first uttered, our Bible tells us, not by a Jew but by a non-Jew – and an enemy of Israel, at that. It was

Balaam harasha, the wicked one, who, upon seeing Israel’s tribes arrayed in the desert about the Tabernacle, exclaimed “ma tovu.” And there is yet something more surprising in the entire episode, something that makes the choice of this verse for our opening prayer even less understandable. Tradition consistently reports, in all its comments on this episode, that Balaam fully intended to curse Israel. He had been hired to do so by the Moabite king Balak. Seeing Israel proudly and devoutly arrayed about the Tabernacle, Balaam arose and wanted to curse Israel, saying, “May you not have any synagogues and schools, may they diminish in influence and in scope.” But instead of a curse there issued forth from his mouth, by divine command, the blessing of “ma tovu.”

But if so, then it is difficult to understand this choice of “ma tovu.” Was it not intended as a curse? Was it not uttered by an enemy of our people, by the ancient forerunner of the modern intellectual anti-Semite? Indeed, one of the outstanding halakhic scholars of all generations, the Maharshal (Rabbi Solomon Luria, sixteenth century), wrote in his Responsa (#64): “I begin with the second verse and skip “ma tovu,” which was first recited by Balaam, and he intended it as a curse.” This is the weighty opinion of a giant of the Halakha!

And yet our people at large did not accept the verdict of the Maharshal. We have accepted the “ma tovu,” we have given it the place of honor, and as we well know, it has become the “darling” of cantors and liturgical composers. And if all Israel has accepted it and accorded it such honors, then there must be something very special about it that somehow reflects an aspect of the basic personality of the Jew and a deep, indigenous part of the Jewish religious character.

That unique aspect of our collective character, that singularly Jewish trait which manifests itself in the choice of “ma tovu” under the conditions we mentioned, is the very ability to wring a blessing out of a curse. We say “ma tovu” not despite the fact that it was intended to harm us, but because of that very fact. It is Jewish to find the benediction in the malediction, the good in the evil, the opportunity in the catastrophe. It is Jewish to make the best of the worst, to squeeze holiness out of profanity. From the evil and diabolical intentions of Balaam, “May you not have any synagogues and schools,” we molded a blessing of “ma tovu,” which we recite just as we enter those very halls of worship and study.

Hasidism, in the symbolic language of its philosophy, elevated this idea to one of its guiding principles. We must, Hasidism teaches, find the nitzotz in the kelipa, the “spark” in the “shell” – that is, we must always salvage the spark of holiness which resides in the very heart of evil. There is some good in everything bad. The greatness of humanity consists of our ability to rescue that good and build upon it. In fact, that is just how the entire movement of Hasidism had its beginning. European Jewry, suffering untold persecutions, was desperately seeking some glimmer of hope. There was a tremendous longing in every Jewish heart for the Messiah. There was a restlessness and a thirst for elevation. Two false messiahs,one a psychoneurotic and the other a quack and charlatan, proclaimed themselves messiahs and led their people astray. All European Jewry was terribly excited about these people. Soon one led them into Mohammedanism and the other into Catholicism. The common, simple Jews of Eastern Europe – those who suffered most and who bore the most pain – were completely depressed by this tragedy of seeing their only hopes fizz and die. Now there was nothing to turn to. And here the Baal Shem Tov stepped in, took these yearnings and longings and pent-up religious drives and directed them not to falseness and apostasy and tragedy, but channeled them into a new form, into sincere and genuine religious expression which, all historians now admit, literally rescued all of Jewry from certain annihilation. He wrung a blessing from a curse. He found the good in the evil. He saw opportunity in catastrophe. He knew the meaning of “ma tovu.”

Jewish history is rich in such examples of making the best of the worst, of transforming the curse into a blessing. The Temple and its sacrificial service was destroyed, so our forefathers reacted to the catastrophe and found new avenues for religious expression in prayer, the “sacrifice of the heart.” Jerusalem and its schools were ruined, so they decided that Torah is unprejudiced in its geography, and they built Yavneh, where they accomplished even more than in Jerusalem. British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin refused to permit 100,000 Jewish refugees to immigrate into Palestine, so, having no choice, we proclaimed and built a State of Israel for over a million Jews. Remember the mourning and sadness and gloom when Bevin refused us? And remember our joy and thrill in May of 1948 when the State was declared? Blessing from a curse. We have never completely surrendered to curse. We have always poked around in its wreckage, found the spark we were looking for, and converted the whole curse into one great blessing. That is what is implied in reciting “ma tovu” as the opening chord of our prayers. God, continue that power within us. Let us make the best of the worst – blessing from curse.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding examples of a human being who was able to transform curse to blessing is the renowned Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who died in 1929. Rosenzweig was a German Jew, an assimilationist, who was profound, scholarly, and sincere in his intellectual pursuits. He is the one who, concluding that he was going to convert to Christianity, decided to follow the historical process, and so attempted to acquaint himself with Judaism as a stepping stone to his new faith. Interestingly, he experienced a great religious feeling during the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur in some small Orthodox synagogue in Germany, and thereafter became one of the leading Jewish philosophers of our time, a man who attracted many great students and colleagues and, in his criticism of Reform, led people back to our origins. Rosezweig was an extremely active man. He was a thrilling and popular lecturer. He was a talented speaker, writer, and administrator, as well as thinker. But, at the prime of his life, in 1922, tragedy struck. In the wake of a cerebral hemorrhage came partial, and then complete, paralysis. The widely traveled searcher could not move. The able lecturer could not speak. The writer could not move his hands, could hardly even dictate notes. Surely, this should have killed him. Surely, this should have marked the end of a fruitful and promising career. But no – Rosenzweig had rediscovered Judaism, and with it its inarticulate but very real insights. And so he learned to wring fortune from this misfortune. He dictated numerous letters, scholarly articles, and books to his wife by virtue of a special machine. His wife would turn a dial, with the alphabet, and he would nod ever so slightly at the letter he wanted. Thus, mind you, were letters, articles, diaries, and books written!

Nor was this only a flurry of panic activity, something to “make him forget.” No, it was a state of mind, it was the Jewish genius ever seeking the “spark” in the “shell,” the blessing in the curse. Shortly after the onset of illness, he wrote the following: “If I must be ill, I want to enjoy it. In a sense, these two months have been quite pleasant. For one thing, after a long spell, I got back to reading books.” This from a man who couldn’t move a limb, and who couldn’t pronounce one consonant intelligibly! And listen now to what the same man wrote seven years later, just before his death: “I read, carry on business…and, all in all, enjoy life…besides, I have something looming in the background for the sake of which I am almost attempted to call this period the richest of my life…it is simply true: dying is even more beautiful than living.” What a conversion of curse to blessing!

It is so, and should be so, with every individual. Misfortunes, may they never occur, have their redeeming qualities. Death brings an appreciation of life. Tragedy can bring husband and wife, father and child, brother and sister, closer together and bring out dormant loves and loyalties. Failure can spur one on to greater successes than one ever dreamt of. In the inner shells of curse there lies the spark of blessing.

The aim and goal of prayer, as our Jewish sages have pointed out through the ages, is not to change God, but to change ourselves. We come before God as humble petitioners, terribly aware of our short­comings, our inferiorities and our sins. Whoever prays truly knows that somewhere, sometimes, he or she has been caught in the web of curse. We feel tainted with evil. And so we pray. We pray and we want God to help us change ourselves. What sort of change is it that we want? The change from evil to good, from curse to blessing. We want to transform ourselves. That is the spirit of the prayerful personality.

And that is the reason for beginning the day of prayer and petition with “ma tovu.” We enter the House of God which stands and survives despite and because of its ancient and modern enemies. The synagogue itself is the symbol of that transformation. We begin now to pray, with the object of such transformation in ourselves. Hence, “ma tovu.”

How good. Indeed, not only good, but how fortunate is a people who can forever hope and smile, knowing that even if, Heaven forbid, curse could be its lot, it will wring out of it every drop of blessing. This, indeed, is the greatest blessing. “Ma tovu.” “How good.”

Parshat Chukat: An Abundance of Mystery  

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha

Unlocking_Bamidbar_front

Context

With the phrase Zot chukat haTorah, “This is the statute of the Torah,”God introduces the laws surrounding the purifying ritual of the para aduma, the red heifer.

In summary, the Torah mandates that an individual who comes into close proximity with a human corpse enters a seven-day state of tuma, ritual impurity. On the third and seventh day of this period, as an essential step in the process of purification, a solution containing spring water and the ashes of a red heifer are sprinkled upon the contaminated individual. At the end of the seven-day period, after immersing in a mikva, a natural pool of water, the individual completes his process of purification.

In a perplexing turnabout, the Torah also mandates that those involved in the manufacturing of the red heifer solution and its application upon the impure individual experience their own brief period of tuma (ritual impurity).The ashes of the red heifer thus possess the unique, puzzling capacity l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim, “to purify the defiled [the subjects of the ritual] and to defile the pure [the performers of the ritual].”

 

Questions

Fundamental questions emerge as we confront one of the deepest mysteries of the Torah.

What is the significance of the red heifer and why do its ashes, mixed in a solution with spring water, effect purification?

Why does the para aduma solution “defile the pure even as it purifies the defiled”?

Are we consigned to accept the ritual of the para aduma as a commandment without rational basis or can lessons be learned even from this seemingly “magical” mitzva?

 

Approaches

A

Once again we find ourselves squarely in the realm of chukim (statutes), laws of the Torah that seem to defy logical explanation. While we have entered this arena in our studies before, for the first time we find ourselves at the core of this mysterious realm. More than any other set of Torah laws, the ritual of the red heifer, introduced by the text itself as chukat haTorah, “the statute of the Torah,” has come to symbolize God’s will at its most unfathomable.

Numerous sources in rabbinic literature attest to the depth of the mystery surrounding the para aduma. To cite a few:

1. King Solomon, the wisest man in history, was able to unravel all the mysteries of the Torah, with the exception of one. Concerning the laws of the red heifer, he was forced to admit, “I thought I would become wise, but it is beyond me.”

2. In response to the challenges of an idolater, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai offered an explanation of the laws of para aduma. Afterwards, his students objected: “Our teacher, you have pushed him away with a reed [you have given a weak argument]. What, however, will you say to us?”

Rabbi Yochanan responded, “By your lives, the dead do not defile and the waters [of the red heifer] do not purify. Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He has decreed: ‘I have forged a statute and enacted a decree and you have no right to transgress my decree.’ ”

3. Knowing full well that the nations of the world will challenge the Jews concerning the unfathomable laws surrounding the para aduma, the Torah introduces these laws with the phrase Zot chukat haTorah, “This is the statute of the Torah. This is an edict decreed by Me, and you have no right to question it.

How then are we to approach the puzzling edicts surrounding the para aduma? Can logical analysis offer any insight into their mysteries? Do we even have the right to try?

 

B

Before we continue our analysis, it will be helpful to review a series of conclusions reached in earlier studies concerning chukim (for a more detailed discussion of these points complete with references, see Shmot: Teruma 3; see also Vayikra: Vayikra 1, Approaches II A; Shmini 4, Questions, Approaches F; Tazria-Metzora 1, Questions; Acharei-Mot 1, Approaches; Kedoshim 5b).

1. Rabbinic opinion is divided concerning the value of intellectual search within the realm of chukim. At one end of the spectrum lie those authorities who insist that chukim must be viewed not only as laws beyond our comprehension but as edicts that have no individual intrinsic purpose. The primary role of these laws, as a group, is to develop man’s loyalty to God through the cultivation of unquestioning obedience to His will.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those scholars who insist that each of God’s laws is uniquely purposeful and that the search for meaning within all mitzvot is not only allowed but encouraged. Man should make every effort, these authorities believe, to determine the fundamental reasons for each mitzva. Such study can only help us attain a more complete understanding of God’s will.

Intermediate positions along the spectrum of rabbinic opinion maintain that, while every mitzva has a reason, blind obedience to the commandments represents the highest level of relationship with the Divine. Only those unable to relate to God on this elevated plane, these scholars feel, should engage in rational investigation of the mitzvot.

2. Even those scholars who encourage rational examination of chukim clearly recognize the potential dangers of such search. Failure to determine the reason for a specific commandment, they emphasize, should never lead us to treat that mitzva lightly. We must also recognize that any rationale we do arrive at may or may not be accurate, given the limitations of our own intellectual abilities.

3. When we deal with issues related to the biblical constructs of tuma and tahara we must also overcome the problems presented by the terms themselves.  No appropriate English translation exists for the Hebrew words tuma and tahara. The commonly suggested translations “pure and impure” or “clean and unclean” carry value judgments that are not necessarily applicable.

For want of a better option, in the course of this study, we will continue to translate these terms in the usual manner, while recognizing the limitations of such translation.

 

C

As the rabbis focus on the core issues of the para aduma, their comments naturally reflect the range of opinion concerning logical analysis of divine law in general.

At one extreme are those scholars who not only acknowledge the inexplicable nature of the red heifer, but view its mystery as a commentary on the Torah as a whole.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, for example, lists various possible approaches to mitzvot in general, including the approach of rational search. He concludes, however, that the highest level of Torah observance is reflected in Rabbi Yochanan’s response to his students concerning the red heifer: “By your lives, the dead do not defile and the waters [of the red heifer] do not purify. Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He has decreed ‘I have forged a statute and enacted a decree and you have no right to transgress my decree.’ ”

Blind obedience to God’s law without the need for rational explanation represents the pinnacle of religious devotion. The very inclusion of chukim in the panoply of mitzvot, Arama argues, is designed to convey this lesson and to apply it to the entire Torah. Just as we observe chukim without comprehending them, so too, we should observe all mitzvot, even those we think we understand, specifically because we are so commanded by God and not on the basis of any supposed rationale.

In a similar vein, the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is among those who note that the Torah does not introduce the laws of para aduma with the statement “This is the statute of the red heifer,” but rather, “This is the statute of the Torah”: “In principle, the reasons for the Torah and its laws are hidden from mankind. Man must perform and observe [the mitzvot of] the Torah simply because God commands us to perform and observe them. This truth is hinted at in the phrase ‘this is the statute of the Torah.’ The entire Torah and its mitzvot are to be considered by us as chukim.”

Another Chassidic master, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, goes a major step further, maintaining that “belief does not require the concurrence of rational interpretation. Instead, rational interpretation requires the concurrence of belief.” To support his point, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech notes that the Talmud uses a Torah phrase to prove that an object with a three-cubit circumference also possesses, by definition, a width of one cubit. At face value, this Talmudic exercise seems superfluous. Why should a fact easily verified by physical measurement require scriptural proof? Because, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech argues, the Torah does not require logical support. Logic, however, requires the support of the Torah.

 

D

In stark contrast to those who are willing to accept the mystery of the para aduma without question, other scholars struggle to find rational meaning in this strange ritual.

An early Midrashic tradition, for example, views the red heifer as an atoning rite for the sin of the golden calf.In interpreting this Midrash, the Kli Yakar explains that full atonement can only be achieved by “digging up the roots of sin.” Only by addressing the underlying cause of a transgression can one hope to avoid its recurrence. The burning of the red heifer symbolizes the destruction of wealth, the abundance of which was a fundamental cause of the sin of the golden calf.

While the Rambam also views the para aduma as a ritual of atonement, he parts company with the Midrash concerning the sin for which the ritual atones:

The red heifer is called a sin offering because it effects the purification of persons who have become impure through contact with a human corpse and enables them to enter the Sanctuary…. Once a person became impure he would have been forever forbidden to enter the Sanctuary and to eat hallowed foods had it not been for this heifer which bore the burden of his sin.

Apparently, according to the Rambam, the very phenomena of tumat met and the distance from God caused by such impurity create the need for atonement. Even when caused for valid reasons, distance from God is a “sin.”

Comparing the ashes of the red heifer to the sent goat of Yom Kippur (see Vayikra: Acharei Mot 1) and other similar rituals, the Rambam also suggests a logical explanation for the para aduma’s puzzling capacity to “purify the defiled and defile the pure.” Just as the sent goat acquires the taint of sin by symbolically acquiring the transgressions of the Israelites during the Yom Kippur service, so too, during the ritual of the red heifer, sin is figuratively removed from the defiled individual and transferred to the waters of the para aduma solution. To underscore this symbolic transference, the solution now gains the potential to convey its own “acquired impurity” to anyone with whom it comes into contact.

Numerous other commentaries offer extensive and imaginative interpretations of the ceremonies associated with the red heifer. The Sforno, for example, suggests a pedagogic approach. Through the combination of the antithetical symbols of ashes (fire) and water in the para aduma solution, the Torah teaches that the path of tshuva, return from sin, sometimes requires bold counterbalancing action. An individual who falls into a pattern of extreme behavior may need the temporary corrective of acting at the other extreme in order to return to the desired middle path. The union of physical opposites in the “waters of the red heifer” thus symbolizes that the balance between behavioral excesses will produce the “golden mean.” Many other details surrounding the para aduma, the Sforno maintains, can also be explained by this approach.

The “first and irreplaceable condition for living our lives on a higher plane,” Hirsch maintains, is “freedom of will in moral matters.”Man’s perception of such freedom, however, is endangered when he confronts the fact of his own inevitable death. If death destroys the entire human being; if man, like all other organic creatures, lives under the spell of this “irresistible, overpowering force,”then moral freedom is only an illusion and moral laws become meaningless.

Only by recognizing that he operates simultaneously in two arenas – a limited physical sphere and an unlimited moral, immortal sphere – can man transcend his confrontation with death.

The laws of tuma and tahara throughout the Torah serve as correctives, designed to sensitize man to his moral freedom whenever he is challenged by physical limitations. In effect, God exhorts man: “Be not deceived by corpse and death, become free, become immortal not in spite of, but together with all that is physical…remain immortal master of your mortal body….”

Hirsch explains that the various details of the para aduma ritual are constructed to help man regain his equilibrium after a close encounter with death. The unblemished red heifer, for example, having never borne a yoke, represents the uncontrolled physical-animal nature of man. The handing over of the animal to the Kohen represents an individual’s free-willed, conscious choice to integrate his physical nature into a world governed by the laws of the Torah. Both the body’s eventual return to the earth, symbolized by the burning of the red heifer into ash, and the eternal continuity of the soul lie within the scope of God’s plan for mankind.

With great detail and care, Hirsch proceeds to show how each aspect of the para aduma ceremony further teaches that gaining proximity to God on earth requires the joining of both aspects of man’s existence. “The laws of God’s Torah always presuppose the mortal body joined to the immortal part of man’s being.”

 

E

No scholarly exercise within our tradition more clearly showcases the relationship of the Jewish people to the totality of Jewish law than our age-old, continuing struggle with the ritual of para aduma.

Both those who accept this mysterious rite with blind obedience and those who strive to pierce its mysteries view this difficult section of Torah text as relevant to our lives, transmitting lessons concerning our relationship with God, our world and ourselves.

 

Points to Ponder

Another observation concerns the para aduma’s unique capacity l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim, “to purify the defiled and to defile the pure.”

Perhaps what we have labeled as a unique phenomenon is not really so unique, after all. Our world is, in fact, filled with phenomena that can cut both ways – phenomena that, dependent upon the situation and the players involved, can give rise to either positive or negative results, and sometimes even to both simultaneously.

As a case in point, I have often felt that many “open,” heterogeneous Modern Orthodox communities, such as the ones that I have been privileged to serve, have the capacity, for want of better terminology, l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim.

Tolerant, welcoming and nonjudgmental, these congregations carry the real potential to draw individuals and families of varied religious backgrounds closer to Judaism and its practices. Many individuals who might well have felt uncomfortable in more rigidly Orthodox communities find themselves at home in these congregations, drawn in by the warm friendship and acceptance shown to them and by the acts of communal kindness and sharing that they observe. Their developing congregational affiliation often leads to a growing interest in Jewish tradition, resulting in greater personal study and observance.

At the same time, however, “open” Orthodox communities can prove challenging at the other end of the spectrum. The communal “tolerance” that proves to be such an asset in attracting the less affiliated can encourage diminished observance among the “already affiliated.” Communal standards of religious practice are invariably relaxed, as an atmosphere of “live and let live” is fostered. Behaviors that might be seen as questionable in other Orthodox communities become commonplace, even among those who would have adhered more strictly to the letter of the law had they lived elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong….

I love the communities in which I have served as rabbi. Even more, I consider such communities essential to the fabric of Jewish life, presenting Orthodoxy in a welcoming fashion and providing a rich, dynamic religious texture that cannot be experienced elsewhere.

Nonetheless, these communities also offer an ongoing challenge to rabbis and congregants alike. Together, they must work to maintain a healthy balance between the tolerance that defines the community’s character and the potential relaxation of religious standards that can threaten its spiritual growth.

Parshat Korach: Reenacting an Old Drama

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers

 

Derashot Ledorot-- Numbers

The rebellion of Korah and his co-conspirators against Moses and Aaron, of which we read this morning, is the first great, direct test of the leadership of Moses. The quelling of the rebellion of this band of malcontents reestablished and reaffirmed the leadership of Moses of his people in the desert.

And yet, according to Yalkut Reuveni, the Sages of the Kabbala taught that this great battle between Moses and Korah had ancient roots. The struggle between these two, they say, was merely the re-enactment of the old drama of the strife between Cain and Abel. They identify Moses with Abel and Korah with Cain.

The detailed kabbalistic analogy is beyond our limited comprehension. Nevertheless, it is obvious to all of us that the Sages of the Kabbala have here enunciated a great truth. For indeed, as we analyze the two dramas, we find confirmed the similarities between these two sets of biblical characters.

Thus, for instance, we can detect at least three elements which unite Moses with Abel and Korah with Cain. The first of these is kina – jealousy or envy. The fratricide committed by Cain against Abel had its roots in Cain’s envy of Abel – the Lord accepted the offering of Abel, but did not accept the offering of Cain. The same feelings provoked Korah to his abortive insurrection. Both Moses and Korah were brothers in the sense of being members of the same tribe of Levi. Yet Moses was the undisputed leader of the people, while Korah was not. He was consumed by the fires of jealousy – even as later he was consumed by the fires of the Lord when he met his end.

The second observable element that unites these two pairs is ta’ava – concupiscence, desire, a ravenous appetite for more and more. In the story of the sons of Adam, the Sages tell us that they divided the world between the two of them. Cain owned a full half of the world – yet he begrudged his brother the other half and desired it for himself. Korah, according to Jewish tradition, was exceedingly wealthy, so much so that “as rich as Korah” has become a byword in Yiddish. Yet Korah was not satisfied with his wealth, and instead he was overwhelmed by a ta’ava for political power as well.

A third similarity is the striving for kavod, for honor and recognition. More than envy or desire motivated Cain to his tragic act. He was, in addition, the older brother of Abel – and he regarded Abel’s distinction as an insult and an offense against his position. He did not receive the kavod he thought was his due. So, Korah felt deeply unhappy because of the lack of recognition he felt he deserved. He wanted kavod, and did not receive all that he expected. How clearly this comes out in the first accusation that Korah publicly directs against Moses in his denunciation, “Wherefore do you presume to raise yourselves over the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3).

The Abels and the Moseses, the people of good will, must always be prepared to cope with the malcontents, the dissatisfied, those who always grasp for more than they deserve. As the Rabbis taught us in Avot (4:21), “Envy, desire, and undeserved honor drive a man out of the world.” This was literally true in both our cases. Cain was forced out of his world – he was sent into exile, to wander over the face of the earth. No place could he call his own, no house could he identify as his home. Korah too was driven out of the world – indeed, he literally was swallowed up by the earth and vanished from the world of men.

The quarrel between Moses and Korah was not something localized in ancient history – it is a universal drama, as old as man himself. So long as there will be people who will allow themselves to be dominated by unworthy aspirations, someone is going to be terrorized and victimized. The two cases of Cain and Korah are, in essence, a biblical insight into the personality of the aggressor.

Yet there is one question that remains to be answered. If indeed the story of Korah and Moses is but the reenactment of the old drama of Cain and Abel, why are the results so different? Why is it that Abel was the victim of Cain in that ancient story, while the man identified with Abel, Moses, is the victor over Cain’s representative, Korah? Why does the good lose in one case, and triumph in the other?

Before we answer that question, we must find yet one more similarity between these two couples. And that lies in the element of disguise, of cloaking evil in piety. The most characteristic element in both stories is the projection of selfish, egotistical, aggressive intentions in the guise of the noble, the good, the decent. For his own nefarious purposes, the devil will quote scripture, and the aggressor nation will announce itself “leader of the peace-loving camp.” Thus, Cain’s motivations were, as we have seen, completely selfish in nature. Yet, Cain did not announce his intentions as boldly as all that. Tradition teaches (Genesis Rabba 22:7) that Cain and Abel divided the world in the following manner: Abel was to receive all chattel, or moveable objects, while Cain was to possess all land, all real estate. Therefore, Cain decided to press his claims in the form of justice and righteousness. Wherever Abel went, Cain told him, “You are standing on my land. Please move on. If you continue to trespass I shall protect my rights against you.” From a formal, conventional point of view, Cain was apparently within his rights. He had justice on his side. If that was the agreement between the two brothers, Cain had the right to insist upon its complete execution – so his kina and ta’ava and kavod were all wrapped up in the cloak of legalism, piety, righteousness.

Korah, according to the Bible and Rabbis, did the very same thing. He did not call a press conference and announce that he was going to initiate a coup d’état in order to satisfy his ambition for greater power and influence. He did turn his eyes heavenward and act as the protector of a true demagogue, he denounced Moses and Aaron saying, “Have you not taken enough power for yourselves? Do you not realize that all these people are holy, that not only the two of you are holy?” He set himself up as the great democrat, defender of the people. Jewish tradition further records that Korah tried to make Moses and Aaron appear as tyrants who needlessly exploited the people for their personal gain and profit. He cast himself in the role of the advocate of the ordinary, common man against the tyranny of Moses.

So both in the case of Cain and Korah, the real motives of envy, desire for power, and the grasping for honor, are disguised in a veneer of righteousness. They are hypocrites.

Perhaps this is the reason we find in both these stories a strange grammatical construction – a verb without an object. In the story of Cain and Abel we read: “And Cain said to his brother Abel, and it was when they were in the field that Cain rose and killed his brother Abel” (Genesis 4:8). What did he “say”? We read that he said something, but we do not read what he said. So too, in today’s sidra we read: “Korah and the people who were conspiring with him, took…and they rose up and rebelled against Moses” (Numbers 16:1). But what or whom did they “take”? We are not told.

Perhaps what the Torah means to tell us with these unusual constructions is that the reasons they gave, what they said, the “front” they presented, the excuses they offered – were all empty, meaningless, and of no concern to us. What Cain said was totally irrelevant – he never said what he really meant. The fact is that he was fraudulent and hypocritical. What Korah said or whom he took along with him was equally inconsequential – the important thing is that in order to satisfy his own desire for power he deceived and almost destroyed his entire people. It is the action, the deeper motive, unspoken and unarticulated, but disguised in the cloak of piety, that is so terribly and unspeakably evil. It is that which really counts. The rest is unworthy of being recorded in Scripture.

Here, then, we can discover why Moses was the victor, while Abel was the victim of his aggressive brother. In all our readings of the Torah and our midrash we do not find that Abel truly fought back against Cain. We do not find him calling Cain’s bluff. Instead, in all likelihood, he tried to counter his brother Cain on his terms. No doubt he rebutted his arguments with legal arguments of his own. And when you try to fight the devil on the devil’s terms, you are bound to lose.

But Moses had learned the lesson of Abel. He refused to discuss Korah’s complaints in the manner they were presented. Instead he pierced the mask, he went straight to the heart of the matter, and ripped off the disguises of these evil men. He said to them (Numbers 16:8-9), “Listen here, you sons of Levi, is it not enough for you that God has chosen your tribe above all others, that you seek as well to become the priests, the sole leaders?” He stripped them of all their pious pretentions and let all the people see what these rebels really wanted – power, power, and more power. And then he turned to the people and said to them, “Depart from the tents of these evil, wicked people.” That is all that they really are. Moses learned from the story of Cain and Abel – and we must learn from the story of Koraĥ and Moses – never to be impressed by pious frauds, for even their piety is fraudulent. Evil should not be debated – it should be exposed.

This is a lesson for us in all aspects of life. In order to survive, physically and morally and spiritually, we must insist upon the truth and look for it with all the power at our command.

In recent years, Jewish writers and “intellectuals” who are very uncomfortable with their Judaism have pronounced publicly on our faith in many ways. Worse yet, certain organizations which should know better have turned to them as the oracles who will decide for us the real nature and future of Judaism. The magazine Commentary started this with a symposium, and the results were sad indeed. Now the American Jewish Congress has instituted a “dialogue” between American and Israeli Jews in Jerusalem. From the most recent reports of The New York Times, the dialogue this week included American writers, novelists, and columnists. All of them, according to the report, were “rather nebulous about their identification as Jews.” One author – whose recent book portrays a rabbi in a role that would make any sensitive reader blush with embarrassment – declared the “essential nature of Jewishness” to be a feeling of alienation, of being in exile, an outsider. Thus, he declared, most Jews in Israel and the United States, being insiders, in their respective societies have “ceased to be Jews.”

What a romantic definition! It certainly sounds appealing. But then, by this definition, King David, King Solomon, the Gaon of Vilna and countless others were not Jews! They were not alienated from their own society. This particular writer is a Jew, but they are not. Furthermore a Jewish society is impossible – for a society cannot be alienated from itself!

Another writer, who recently no doubt made a great deal of money with his “best seller,” declared that to be a Jew one must be a “dissenter from the affluent society.” By such terms, Rabbi Judah the Prince, who according to the reports of our tradition was very wealthy, was not a Jew – although he was the editor of the Mishna!

It is useless to show the emptiness of this dilettantism. It is humiliating to hear Jews alienated from Judaism describe Judaism as a state of being alienated from Jews. It is embarrassing that the American Jewish Congress saw fit to invite only one observant Jew – a Professor of Physics from the Hebrew University – to participate in this “dialogue.”

We must learn, and should have learned by now, that all this is a façade. It is an elaborate circumlocution for assimilation – a word no longer popular nowadays. It is a roundabout way for saying, “I desire to commit spiritual suicide but haven’t the courage to face up to it. I would like to forget that I am a Jew, but the cruel world won’t let me. In my heart of hearts I want to be reborn a ‘WASP’ – a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant – but my infantile wishes are constantly frustrated.”

It is a sad but true fact that those who ponder the definition of their Jewishness have usually lost it by that time. The Jew who practices Torah and mitzvot does not normally concern himself about the definition of his Jewishness. It is when an individual has assimilated in fact, but is unwilling to acknowledge it in words, that that person wraps up his assimilation in this existentialist rhetoric of “alienation.”

Our policy ought to be not to discuss “Who is a Jew?” on such terms. We should, rather, recognize assimilation for what it is, call it by its real name, and avoid unnecessary dialectic.

Those of us who are true to the Jewish tradition and loyal to our Torah need not participate in this new fad and fashion on inventing new definitions of Jewishness. Like Moses, we prefer to go straight to the truth. We will not call Judaism “alienation” or “dissent.” We will recognize such terms merely as excuse for assimilation, for the surrender of Torah and mitzvot, which alone constitute Judaism.

It is for good reason that the Aggada (Bava Batra 74a) tells us of Rabba bar Bar Hannah putting his ear to the ground in a spot in the desert pointed out to him by an Arab as the burial place of Korah and his cohorts, and hearing them declare from the bowels of the earth, “Moses is true and his Torah is true.” Our Torah is truth, and our truth is Torah. We shall not become ensnared by the slogans, “images,” and posturing of the Cain’s and Korah’s and others of their ilk. Through our Torah of truth we shall become perceptive. With its wisdom, its insights, and its eternal blessings we shall learn to live our lives in a manner pleasing to God. We shall forever proclaim, through all time and all the world, “Moses is true and his Torah is true.”

Parshat Shelach — Chet Hameraglim 1: Unfair Blame?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar

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Context

As the nation stands poised to enter the land of Canaan, Moshe selects twelve meraglim, spies, to tour Canaan and bring back a detailed report concerning the land and its inhabitants.

Upon their return, the spies issue an initial report:

We came to the land to which You sent us and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.

But the nation that resides in the land is powerful, and the cities are fortified and very great, and also the descendents of the giant we saw there.

Amalek resides in the Southland; the Hittites, the Yevusites and the Emorites reside in the mountains; and the Canaanites reside by the sea and on the bank of the Jordan.

Reacting to this report and to the spies’ further arguments, the Israelites descend into despair, openly rebelling against God, Moshe and Aharon.

Questions

What exactly is the sin of the spies? Charged with the responsibility of collecting accurate intelligence concerning the land of Canaan and its inhabitants, why are they now apparently blamed for fulfilling their mission? To quote the Ramban: “Did [Moshe] send them for the purpose of testifying falsely?”

Why does this revolt, in contrast to all previous rebellions, seal the fate of the generation of the Exodus? This time, confronted with the specter of overwhelmingly powerful adversaries, the Israelites arguably have cause for despair. What aspect of the nation’s reaction does God apparently find unforgivable?

Approaches

A

A close look at the text reveals that the spies’ report to the Israelites unfolds in three distinct stages. With the unfolding of each stage, the culpability of the spies increases.

1. The initial report. While the spies’ initial report (see above) seems to be a faithful fulfillment of Moshe’s directives, one word changes everything. When the meraglim preface their remarks concerning the inhabitants of the land with the word efes (but), they endeavor to change the parameters of their role. No longer satisfied with simple intelligence gathering, the spies unilaterally assume an advisory capacity.

Rabbi Isaac Arama, in his Akeidat Yitzchak, offers a simple analogy. A servant, sent by his master to determine the quality and cost of a garment, oversteps his boundaries if, upon his return, he proffers an opinion concerning the reasonableness of the asking price.

In the case of the spies, however, this seemingly simple overstepping of boundaries has a devastating effect. The implication of their report becomes: The land is indeed beautiful; but the inhabitants are (too) strong (to conquer). Suddenly, what had been a certainty now becomes an open question. The spies, after all, had been sent to determine how to conquer the land, not to offer an opinion as to whether or not the land should be conquered. By venturing an opinion concerning the latter issue, the meraglim sow seeds of doubt concerning the Israelites’ very entry into the land.

Against this backdrop, the spies’ unusual use of the Hebrew word efes to introduce their doubts becomes particularly telling. Efes (literally “zero”) connotes total negation. Through their choice of language, the spies deliberately transmit a sense of profound hopelessness, striking to the core of the nation’s heart.

2. The second stage. No sooner do the ten spies conclude their initial report, than Calev courageously rises to neutralize the effect of their words: “We can certainly ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!”

Calev’s erstwhile colleagues, however, counter his efforts by immediately moving from oblique suggestion to open assertion: “We cannot ascend against that people for they are stronger than we [mimenu].”

Nehama Leibowitz explains the devastating double entendre within this seemingly straightforward declaration. The Hebrew word mimenu, she notes, can either connote the first-person plural, “than we” (as explained above, in line with the pshat), or it can be read as the third-person singular mimeno, “than he.” This dual meaning serves as the basis for the Midrashic tradition that a secondary, even more disturbing message courses through the words of the spies: Not only are the nations of the land more powerful than we, but they are more powerful “than He,” than God Himself.

3. The third stage. Although the third section of the meraglim’s report follows immediately upon the second, this stage is set apart in the text by an introductory statement: “And they brought forth an evil report concerning the land they had spied upon, saying…”

Finally, the true colors of the spies emerge as their tactics change. No longer do they issue pessimistically shaded reports. No longer is their full intent concealed in suggestion and double entendre. Instead, they now embark upon an open, deliberate, calculated campaign, using any means possible to discourage the people from entering Canaan. For the first time, the land itself is cast in a negative light as a “land that consumes its inhabitants.”8 The nations within are no longer simply characterized as strong and powerful, but instead are now described as “nefillim [giants], the descendents of giants.”

Most revealing of all, however, are the final, culminating words of the spies: “And there we saw the nefillim, the sons of the giant from among the nefillim; and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers and so were we in their eyes!”

A careful reading of this sentence reveals a striking “Freudian slip,” millennia before Freud. “We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers,” the spies proclaim, and only then “so were we in their eyes.” Only once we felt our own worthlessness did we become worthless in the eyes of others.

Here then, in their own closing words, the bottom line, the true failure that lies at the core of the sin of the spies: when all is said and done, the spies are guilty of a loss of faith in themselves.

How overwhelmingly devastating their implied message to the Israelites must thus have been!

Do you know how we felt and what we realized when we saw ourselves matched against the nations of Canaan?

We realized that it’s all been a lie all that we have experienced and all that we have been promised over these last months – the plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Reed Sea, the Revelation at Sinai…

We are not a conquering nation; we are not a fledgling, divinely chosen people. We are grasshoppers! We are still the servile slaves who endured centuries of servitude to Egyptian masters. We haven’t changed; we haven’t moved an inch.

We simply cannot do it. We will never enter that land; we will never possess that land; we will never become a nation; we will never achieve our “promised” destiny.

B

We can now understand why the sin of the spies emerges as the turning point for the generation of the Exodus. Less a story of sin and punishment, the chet hameraglim reflects a frightening but inescapable reality: this generation simply cannot enter the Land of Israel.

By accepting the arguments of the meraglim, the Israelites negate the very journey that has brought them to this point. Their loss of faith in themselves clearly demonstrates that God’s attempt to forge them into a confident, conquering nation has failed (see Points to Ponder).

The generation of the Exodus cannot make the transition from slavery to freedom. A generation will have to pass before that transition can be made.

Points to Ponder

Two disparate areas of consideration rise out of our discussion of the sin of the spies.

I. Making the Leap

According to our analysis, the sin of the spies underscores the inability of the generation of the Exodus to make the leap from slavery to freedom. An entire generation will have to pass before the Israelites enter the land.

Our own current national experience proves powerfully instructive in helping us understand this biblical narrative on a human level. After all, the miracle of return to the Land of Israel in our day has certainly not been seamless. In many cases the full acclimation of new immigrants from disparate backgrounds has waited until the second generations truly become citizens of their newfound home.

Returning to the biblical narrative, however, a serious problem emerges as we examine the unfolding events. Doesn’t God know from the outset that the generation of the Exodus will fail in its transition to freedom? Why, then, does He allow the tragedy of the meraglim to unfold? Why not short-circuit the process and simply inform the Israelites at Sinai that their children, not they, will inherit the land?

This question, of course, brings us back to an issue that we have explored before (see Bereishit: Noach 1, Approaches A; Shmot: Teruma 1, Approaches B). How are we to understand the biblical narrative when God seems to change His mind; when out of apparent necessity, God discards Plan A in favor of Plan B? Why should a perfect God require the experience of trial and error?

The answer lies, as we have noted, in recognizing that God creates a world predicated upon the existence of free will, and that free will, in turn, is predicated on the possibility of human failure. God knows that man will fail, but He retreats to allow for man to learn from that failure.

Had God informed the Israelites of their fate from the outset, they, justifiably, would have felt that they had never been given the chance to prove themselves. They (and we) would never have learned the extent of their own limitations and the ramifications of their missteps. By giving the generation of the Exodus the opportunity to succeed and to (unfortunately) fail, God allows the unfolding events to transmit critical lessons across the ages.

II. Facts or Opinions?

A careful reading of the report of the spies reveals that they overstep another critical boundary – one easily crossed in our own experience as well.

From the outset, the meraglim offer their opinions as fact.

Had the spies stated upon their return, we believe that the nations that reside in the land are too strong for us to conquer, or even, it seems to us that we cannot enter the land, the Israelites might not have despaired so deeply. Opinions, after all, can be debated. Once, however, the spies offer their subjective report as fact, they leave no room for dispute. This phenomenon of transforming opinion into fact becomes more pronounced as the spies continue to speak.

The question could well be raised: How often are we – in our own dialogues, discussions and debates – guilty of the same sin as the spies? How easily do we slip from the realm of opinion into the realm of “assumed fact,” convinced of our correctness, unable to recognize the validity of other points of view?

The strength of our convictions, however strong they may be, does not have the power to transform opinion into fact. This lesson, tragically taught through the sin of the spies, should not be forgotten in our day.

Shavuos: The Torah’s Mystery Man

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays 

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The Book of Ruth read on Shavuot is a beautiful and inspiring story, instructive to us in many ways. The story itself is fairly simple, and most of us are, or should be, well acquainted with it. The cast of characters is well-known: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi as the major characters, and Orpah, Elimelekh, Mahlon and Kilyon as the minor characters.

But there is one personage who makes a brief appearance in this Book (chapter 4) whom we may designate as the “Mystery Man”! The Bible doesn’t even give him a name. He is an anonymous and therefore mysterious character. You recall that Boaz was determined to marry this young widow of his cousin, this Moabite girl Ruth who had embraced Judaism. Now since Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi owned the land left to them by their respective husbands, marriage would mean that these estates would be transferred to the new husbands. Let us remember that in those days real estate had more than commercial value—it meant the family inheritance, and sentiment was supported by law in making every attempt to keep property within the family or as close to it as possible. Now while Boaz was a first cousin, there was a closer relative—the brother of Elimelekh, the father of her late husband. Before Boaz could marry her and take possession of the family property, he needed the closer relative’s consent (this relative is called the go’el or redeemer, for he redeems the family’s possessions). Boaz therefore met this man and offered him priority in purchasing the lands of father and sons. He seemed willing to do this, regardless of price. But when Boaz told him that he would also have to marry Ruth if he should redeem the land, the go’el hesitated, then refused. I can’t do it, he said. Boaz was then next in line for the right of redemption, and that he did, and, of course, he married Ruth. From this union, four generations later, came one of the greatest Jews in our long history, King David.

Who is this relative who missed the historic opportunity to enter history? What is his name? We do not know. The Bible does not tell us. It does tell us rather pointedly that it does not want to mention his name. When the book describes Boaz’s calling to the man to offer him the chance of redemption, we read that Boaz said, “Come here such a one and sit down” (Ruth 4:1). Peloni Almoni—“such a one.” Lawyers might translate that as “John Doe.” Colloquially we might translate those words as “so-and-so,” or the entire phrase in slang English would read, “and he said, hey you, come here and sit down.” Translate it however you will, the Torah makes it clear that it has no wish to reveal this man’s name. Evidently he doesn’t deserve it. He isn’t worthy of having his name mentioned as part of Torah.

We may rightly wonder at the harsh condemnation of this person by the Torah. Why did he deserve this enforced anonymity? He was, after all, willing to redeem the land of his dead brother and nephew. But he balked at taking Ruth into the bargain as a package deal and marrying her out of a sense of duty. Well, who wouldn’t do just that? Are those grounds for condemnation?

As a matter of fact, our Rabbis tried to pry behind this veil of secrecy and they found his true name. It was, they tell us, Tov, which means “good” (Ruth Rabbah 6:3; TanhumaBehar, 8). He was a good chap. He showed a generally good nature. There was nothing vicious about him. And yet the Torah keeps him as a mystery man, it punishes him by making him a nameless character. He remains only a faint and anonymous shadow in the gallery of sacred history. His name was never made part of eternal Torah. He was deprived of his immortality. He is known only as Peloni Almoni, “the other fellow, “so-and-so,” “the nameless one.” A goodly sort of fellow, yet severely punished. Why is that so?

Our Sages have only one explanation for that harsh decree. By playing on the word Almoni of the title Peloni Almoni, they derive the word illem—mute or dumb. He remains without a name she-illem hayah be-divrei Torah because he was mute or dumb, speechless in Torah (Ruth Rabbah 7:7). He was not a Torah-Jew. Some good qualities, yes, but not a ben Torah. When it came to Torah, he lost his tongue. He could express himself in every way but a Torah way. Had he been a Torah kind of Jew, he would not have sufficed by just being a nice chap and buying another parcel of land. He would have realized that it is sinful to despise and underrate another human being merely because she is a poor, forlorn, friendless stranger. Had he been imbued with Torah he would have reacted with love and charity to the widow and the orphan and the stranger, the non-Jew. The Rabbis suggest that his reluctance to marry Ruth was for religious reasons: that the Torah forbids marriage with a Moabite, and Ruth was a Moabite. Had he ever bothered to study Torah in detail, as a Jew ought to, he would have known the elementary principle of Mo’avi ve-lo Mo’aviyyah (Yevamot 76b)—only male Moabites could never marry into the Jewish nation; female Moabites are acceptable spouses. Once this Moabite girl had decided to embrace Judaism from her own free will and with full genuineness and sincerity, she was as thoroughly Jewish as any other Jewish woman, and a Jewish man could marry her as he could the daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Israel. But this man was illem be-divrei Torah, he was unfeeling in a Torah way, he was out of joint with the spirit of Torah, he was ignorant of its laws and teachings; he had no contact with it. And a man of this sort has no name, insofar as Torah is concerned. He must remain Peloni Almoni—the nameless one. Such a person is unworthy of having his name immortalized in the Book of Eternal Life. His name has no place in Torah.

What we mean by a “name” and what the Torah meant by it, is something infinitely more than the meaningless appellative given to a person by his parents. It refers, rather; to a spiritual identity; it is the symbol of a spiritual personality in contact with the Divine, hence with the source of all life for all eternity. A name of this kind is not given; it is earned. A name of this sort is not merely registered by some bored clerk in the city records. It is emblazoned in the sacred letters of eternity on the firmament of time. One who is, therefore, Almoni, strange to Torah, can never be worthy of such a name. He must remain a Peloni Almoni.

It is told of the famous conqueror, Alexander the Great, that he was inspecting his troops one day and espied one particularly sloppy soldier. He said to him, “soldier, what is your name?” The soldier answered, “Sir, it is Alexander.” The great leader was stunned for a moment, then said to him, “well, either change your name or change your behavior.” That is what we mean by a name in Torah. It is the behavior, the personality, the soul, and not the empty title that counts.

As far as we Jews are concerned as a people, we can be identified primarily through Torah. Without it we are a nameless mass. Our history, like that of other peoples, has in it elements of military ventures, politics, economics. But more than any other people, it is a history of scholarship, of Torah. It was a non-Jew—Mohammed, the founder of Islam—who called us “The People of the Book”—not just books, but “The Book.” It was a non-Jew—the famed economist Thorsten Veblen—who called Jews “eternal wayfarers in the intellectual no-man’s land.” It was a non-Jew—the Protestant philosopher Paul Tillich—who said that, for Christians, Jews serve the spiritual purpose of preventing the relapse of Christianity into paganism. It was a non-Jew—the King of Italy—who in 1904 told Theodor Herzl that “sometimes I have Jewish callers who wince perceptibly at the mere mention of the word Jew. That is the sort I do not like. Then I really begin talking about Jews. I am only fond of people who have no desire to appear other than they are.” The King of Italy was referring to nameless Jews, those who reject the name “Jew,” those who are “mute in the words of Torah.” For the Jew who is not

illem be-divrei Torah knows that the function and destiny of our people is to be a “holy nation and kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6). As a people we have the choice: remain with Torah and be identified with the House of David, be benei melakhim, princes of the spirit— or become nameless and faceless blurs in the panorama of history; the people of Boaz, or a collection of Peloni Almonis.

And what holds true for our people as a whole holds true for us as individuals as well. The Kabbalah and Hasidism have maintained that the name of every Jew is merummaz ba-Torah, hinted at in the Torah. Here too they meant “name” as a source of spiritual identification, as an indication of a living, vibrating, pulsating, soulful personality, a religious “somebody.” When you are anchored in Torah, then you are anchored in eternity. Then you are not an indistinguishable part of an anonymous mass, but a sacred, individual person.

We who are here gathered for Yizkor, for remembering those dearly beloved who have passed on to another world, we should be asking ourselves that terrific question: will we be remembered? How will we be remembered? Or better: will we deserve to be remembered? And are we worthy enough to have our names immortalized in and through Torah? Are or are we not illemim bedivrei Torah?

Oh, how we try to achieve that “name,” that disguise for immortality! We spend a lifetime trying to “make a name for ourselves” with our peers, in our professions and societies. We leave money in our wills not so much out of charitable feelings as much as that we want our names to be engraved in bronze and hewn in stone. And how we forget that peers die, professions change, societies vanish, bronze disintegrates and stone crumbles. Names of that sort are certainly not indestructible monuments. Listen to one poet who bemoans the loss of his name:

Alone I walked on the ocean sand/A pearly shell was in my hand;

I stooped and wrote upon the sand/My name, the year, the day.

As onward from the spot I passed/One lingering look behind I cast,

A wave came rolling high and fast/And washed my lines away.

The waves of time wash names of this kind away, indeed. Try as we will, if we remain each of us an illem be-divrei Torah, unrooted in Judaism, then we remain as well Peloni Almoni. Is it not better for us to immortalize our names in and through eternal Torah, so that God Himself will not know us other than as Peloni Almoni?

There is a custom which we do not practice but which Hasidic congregations do, which throws this entire matter into bold relief. The custom stems from the famous Shelah ha-Kadosh, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, who recommends that in order she-lo yishkah shemo le-Yom ha-Din, that our names not be forgotten on Judgment Day, we should recite a verse from the Bible related to the name at the end of the daily Shemoneh Esreh (Siddur ha-Shelah s.v. pesukim li-shemot anashim). There is a Biblical verse for every name. Thus my own is Nahum. And the verse I recite is from Isaiah, Nahamu nahamu ammi yomar Elokeikhem—console, console My people, says your God (Is. 40:1). My, what that makes of an ordinary name! Even as a child I was terrifically impressed with it—a job, a mission, a destiny: console your fellow man, your fellow Jews!

Let any man do that and no matter what his parents called him, God knows his name—it is not Peloni Almoni; it is an eternal verse which will be read and taken to the hearts of men until the end of days.

On this Yizkor Day, think back to those whom you will shortly memorialize: does he or she have a name in Torah—or must you unfortunately refer to Peloni Almoni a shadow of a memory about to vanish? How will we be remembered— not by children, not by friends, not by other men at all . . . but at Yom ha-Din, on the day of judgment, by God Himself? Will we distinguish ourselves with humility, so that our names will become merged with the glorious verse of Micah (6:8): Ve-hatznea lekhet im Elokekha, walk humbly with thy God? Or will we prove ourselves men and women of sincere consideration and kindness and love for others so that our names will be one with ve-ahavta le-re‘akha kamokha, love of neighbor (Lev. 19:18)? Or will we devote our finest efforts to the betterment of our people and effecting rapprochement between Jews and their Torah, so that our names will be beni bekhori Yisrael, Israel is my firstborn (Ex. 4:22)? Will we delve to the limits of our mental capacity into the study of Torah, so that our names will be an etz hayyim hi la-mahazikin bah, a tree of eternal life to those that hold it (Prov. 3:18)? Or will we do none of these things, just be tov, good-natured men and women. with no special distinction in Torah, no real anchorage in Jewishness, and find that our lives have been spent in nothingness and that even God has no name for us, that we will be just plain Peloni Almoni?

On this Shavuot day, when we recall the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the “Mystery Man” of the Book of Ruth calls to us from the dim obscurity in which he has been shrouded: Do not do what I did. Do not be illem be-divrei Torah, mute and speechless when it comes to Torah. Do not end your lives in a puff of anonymity. Grasp the Tree of Life which is Torah. Live it. Practice it. Overcome all hardships and express it in every aspect of your life. Do not abandon it lest God will abandon you. Jump at this opportunity for immortality. In short: make a name for yourself—through Torah, and with God.

Parshat Naso: Sinner or Saint?

Excerpted from Unlocking the Torah Text –Bamidbar by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

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Context

Conflicting signals mark the Torah’s attitude towards a man or a woman who vows to become a Nazirand thus accepts the personal obligation to refrain from

1. Consumption of wine, grapes and any grape product

2. Haircuts

3. Any defiling contact with a human corpse

On the one hand, the Torah emphatically states, “All the days of his nezirut, sanctified is he to God.”

On the other hand, if the Nazir comes into inadvertent, unavoidable contact with death, the Torah maintains that he must “atone” for his sin.In addition, upon completion of the term of his vow, every Nazir is commanded to bring, among other korbanot, a sin offering.

 

Questions

How does Jewish thought view a Nazir? Is the adoption of additional stringencies in the quest for holiness considered praiseworthy or not?

Why must a Nazir atone for circumstances beyond his control, in the case of unavoidable, inadvertent contact with death? Even further, why must every Nazir bring a sin offering upon completion of the term of his vow? Is this offering an indication of the Torah’s disapproval of the original vow of nezirut?

If nezirut is less than optimal, why is it offered as an option in the Torah? If, on the other hand, nezirut is praiseworthy, why isn’t this status mandatory for all?

 

Approaches

A

The textual hints of attitudinal ambivalence towards the Nazir emerge as full-blown debate in rabbinic literature. At the core of the argument lies the broader question: How does Jewish thought, in general, view the ascetic, someone who voluntarily abstains from that which God permits?

In a philosophical battle that rages across the ages, the sages map out widely divergent positions concerning the search for sanctity in a physical world. What follows is a representative – albeit far from exhaustive – sampling of their opinions.

 

B

A foundational Tannaitic dispute, quoted in the Talmud, sets the stage for the multigenerational discussion.

Rabbi Elazar Hakapar maintains that the Torah refers to a Nazir as having sinned because the individual unnecessarily deprives himself of the pleasure of drinking wine. “If an individual who deprives himself of wine is a sinner,” this sage concludes, “how much more so is someone who deprives himself of all pleasures? We therefore learn that an individual who voluntarily fasts is considered a sinner.”

Rabbi Elazar (ben Shammua, not to be confused with Rabbi Elazar Hakapar) draws the opposite conclusion. The Torah clearly describes the Nazir as sanctified. “If someone who deprives himself of wine is considered holy,” this sage argues, “how much more so is someone who deprives himself of all pleasures? We therefore learn that an individual who voluntarily fasts is considered holy.”

The Talmud goes on to explain, however, that even Rabbi Elazar limits his encouragement of abstinence to those who can bear the burden without undue suffering.

Other Talmudic sages weigh in on both sides of the debate.

 

C

As seen by the conclusions they draw, Rabbi Elazar Hakapar and Rabbi Elazar do not confine their debate to the case of nezirut. At issue is the overall question of asceticism within Jewish tradition. How does Judaism, they ask, a religion that generally embraces the physical world view those who wish to retreat from it? Can such retreat result in the attainment of greater spiritual heights or is abstinence a fundamentally aberrant path? Furthermore, are the answers to these questions consistent across the board or dependent on the makeup of each individual?

Centuries later, in his halachic magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam clearly adopts the position of Rabbi Elazar Hakapar on this fundamental issue:

 

A person should not say, “Behold: envy, desire, honor and the like are evil paths…; I will separate myself from them completely,” to the point where he will not eat meat or drink wine, will not marry, will not live in a beautiful dwelling, will not wear nice garments; but instead wears sackcloth, rough wool and the like, as do the priests of the nations.

This, as well, is an evil path upon which it is forbidden to travel; and one who travels this path is considered a sinner, for the text states: “And he [the Kohen] shall provide him [the Nazir] atonement for having sinned concerning the soul,” and the rabbis further maintain: “If a Nazir, who only separates himself from wine, requires atonement, how much more so does someone who abstains from many things [require atonement]?”

Therefore, the rabbis instruct that an individual should not abstain except from those things prohibited to him by Torah law [my italics]….

And concerning these issues Shlomo [King Solomon] proclaimed: “Do not be overly righteous nor overly wise; why should you destroy yourself?” (Kohelet 7:16).

 

Nonetheless, in spite of this clearly stated position in opposition to asceticism as a lifestyle, the Rambam does defend the institution of nezirut in his Guide to the Perplexed:

 

The purpose of nezirut is obvious: it provides for abstention from wine, a substance that has ruined lives in both ancient and modern times….

For he who abstains from wine is considered holy and is placed on the level of a Kohen Gadol in terms of sanctity, to the point where he may not defile himself, even [upon the death] of his mother or father. This is the honor granted to him because he abstains from wine.

 

The Rambam fails to clarify, however, how he considers the Nazir to be, at once, both a sinner (as he notes in the Mishneh Torah) and a sanctified individual (as he notes in the Guide to the Perplexed).

 

D

In stark contrast to those who consider the Nazir “sinful” for having restricted himself from that which is normally allowed, the Ramban adopts the position that nezirut is a totally laudatory state.

The sin offering brought by the Nazir at the end of his period of abstinence, the Ramban explains, is far from a negative comment on the state of nezirut. It is, in fact, exactly the opposite – a reflection of this state’s loftiness:

This individual sins to his soul on the day of the completion of his period of nezirut, for he now is a Nazir in his sanctity and in the service of God, and it would have been appropriate for him to separate forever and remain all his days a Nazir and sanctified to his God….And behold he now requires atonement upon his return to the defilement of earthly temptations.

In a bold move, the Ramban thus redefines the entire thrust of the sin offering at the end of the Nazir’s term. A Nazir requires atonement, this sage maintains, not for entering the state of nezirut, but for leaving its sanctified confines.

 

E

Numerous other commentaries offer their own solutions to the apparent contradiction between the Torah’s identification of the Nazir as both “sanctified” and “sinful.”

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), for example, views the experience of nezirut as a spiritually curative process, in line with the Rambam’s general prescription for positive behavior modification.

The Rambam maintains that in order to arrive at a healthy behavioral middle road, there are times when individuals must temporarily go to extremes. Someone who has a tendency towards haughtiness and pride, for example, should debase himself for a period of time. Through this exercise, all haughtiness will be driven from his system and he will be able to return to the desired middle road.

In this vein, says the Rema, the Torah prescribes nezirut for someone who recognizes in himself the tendency to succumb to earthly pleasures. By temporarily adopting the extreme path of abstinence, this individual will train himself to eventually attain proper life balance.

The Torah’s description of the Nazir as sanctified, the Rema explains, refers to his condition after the period of nezirut is concluded. Through the vows of nezirut, the Nazir enters a temporary period of extremes (and all extremes are inherently “sinful”) in order to ultimately reach a “sanctified” equilibrium.

Agreeing with the Rema’s vision of nezirut as an exercise in positive behavioral modification, Rabbi Meier Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk explains a strange choice of wording in the Torah’s description of the end of the nezirut period. The text states: “And this is the law of the Nazir, when the days of his nezirut are fulfilled, he shall bring himself to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.”

Why does the Torah make use of the cumbersome construction “he shall bring himself”? Why not simply state, “he shall come”?

Rabbi Meier Simcha explains that the fundamental purpose of nezirut is to cure an individual of his tendency towards lust, pride and excess. The Torah, therefore, mandates no specific length to the nezirut period. Each individual must determine for himself how long he must remain in this “corrective” period of nezirut in order to achieve the desired goals. The Nazir thus “brings himself”; he alone determines exactly when he should come to the doors of the Tent of Meeting.

Concerning the sin offering brought at the end of the Nazir’s tenure, Rabbi Meier Simcha offers an intriguing theory. The adoption of nezirut is not a sin, he suggests, but does create, by necessity, other ancillary sins of omission. During the time of his nezirut, the Nazir was proscribed from performing specific mitzvot such as the mitzva of honoring his dead (due to the nezirut restrictions concerning contact with death) and the mitzvot of Kiddush and Havdala over wine (due to the prohibitions concerning consumption of grape products). Although the acceptance of his nezirut may well have been positive, the Nazir still must atone for the mitzvot that he consequently missed.

The Netziv maintains that God Himself will sometimes “weigh in” concerning the judgment to be passed on a particular Nazir. As proof, this sage focuses on the atonement required of a Nazir upon inadvertent contact with death. Why, asks the Netziv, should a Nazir be culpable for an unavoidable situation that arises, in the Torah’s words, with “quick suddenness”? The Netziv therefore argues that, in reality, the Nazir atones, not for the contact with death that was beyond his control, but for his original decision to become a Nazir and deprive himself of wine. Such abstinence can be commendable, but only for the select few who are worthy of attaining a higher level of sanctity. By placing this particular Nazir in a situation of unavoidable contact with death, God sends a divine sign that this individual is unworthy of being a Nazir. The individual must therefore atone for unnecessary self-denial in what has been a flawed attempt to attain a status beyond his reach.

Finally, the Kli Yakar, in one of a number of approaches, views the Nazir’s sin from a societal perspective. Quoting the Talmudic statement “Anyone who vows is considered to have built a personal altar [a practice forbidden by Jewish law],”18 this scholar chastises the Nazir for separating himself from the community. By denying himself that which others are allowed, the Nazir embarks upon a search that is inherently isolating.As we have noted before, from the perspective of Jewish thought, connection to and involvement with the surrounding community is essential. Any religious path that breeds isolation is, as a rule, fundamentally flawed.

 

F

Yet other commentaries maintain that the mindset of the Nazir is the ultimate determinant of the value of his vow.

The Ohr Hachaim, for example, views the text itself as distinguishing between two different types of nezirut:

1. Nazir: Someone who accepts nezirut out of a personal predilection for an ascetic lifestyle.

2. Nazir La’Hashem (to God): Someone who accepts nezirut for the appropriate purpose of drawing near to God.

In a similar vein, The Chatam Sofer differentiates between the Nazir who, mistakenly, views asceticism as a goal unto itself and the Nazir who, appropriately, views nezirut as a means to an end.

To these and other like-minded scholars the message conveyed by the textual ambivalence towards the Nazir is clear: “It depends.” An individual who embarks upon the path of nezirut for the appropriate reasons is “sanctified,” while an individual whose motivation is faulty is “a sinner.”

 

G

When all is said and done, the most basic questions concerning nezirut still remain largely unanswered: Given the controversy surrounding these laws, why does the Torah offer nezirut as an option in the first place? Why not simply insist that all individuals find meaning and significance within the complex decrees that are already commanded to all Jews?

The answer to these questions reveals the brilliance of Torah law as it continues to strike a delicate balance between man’s initiative and God’s will.

On the one hand, nezirut reflects God’s recognition of the need for “safety valves” within the structure of ritual worship. There will always be those, the Torah acknowledges, for whom the norm will not be sufficient – individuals who will aspire to a different, perhaps loftier path. And while, as we have seen, such aspirations are of questionable merit, nezirut provides the necessary structure within which these individuals can pursue their personal objectives.

There is, however, a catch….

For if nezirut provides a channel for individual religious expression, this very same phenomenon also clearly limits such expression. Counterintuitively, the Torah denies the Nazir the right of self-determination in his religious search.

In effect, God declares to the would-be Nazir: You desire to move beyond the law, to be the exception governed by standards all your own? I will allow you to do so. If I attempt to stifle your initiative, if I deny you an avenue within the system, your need to be different may well find expression in other, less productive ways.

Just one point, however. As you leave the box that governs the behavior of those around you, here is the new box into which you must move; here are the new laws that you must now observe. For, within the world of My Torah, even those who would travel beyond the law will be governed by the law.

Ultimately you must remember that I, not you, make the rules….

 

Points to Ponder

As our discussion has shown, the jury is still out concerning nezirut. Unlike other faith traditions that view asceticism as a goal, Judaism views the path of abstinence with caution. Under certain circumstances, for specific individuals and with the right motivation, temporary self-denial and social seclusion can sometimes lead to a heightened state of sanctity. As a rule, however, on a day-to-day basis, sanctity is to be found through connection to the community and within the context of the physical world.

Jewish tradition’s ambivalence towards nezirut and the lifestyle that it represents should give us pause as we consider the nature of our own communal religious posture. Two areas of query can provide the framework for our brief self-analysis:

1. Is the adoption of greater ritual stringency necessarily always synonymous with deeper religiosity?

2. Given the clear value placed by our tradition upon belonging to the whole, shouldn’t the search for communal harmony factor into our halachic decisions, as well?

These questions acquire greater urgency against the backdrop of growing conflict between the increasingly strident Charedi and the increasingly alienated secular communities in Israel. With growing frequency, as these societies drift further apart, Jews perceive other Jews as opponents rather than as allies, as problems rather than as partners. The voices of moderation and pride-filled cooperation, once so strongly represented by the National Religious camp, seem strangely weak and silent.

Can a halachically true model of religious observance be attained in Israel that engenders harmony rather than hostility? Can a measure of respect for that observance still be regained among those who feel so deeply disenfranchised?

The answers to these questions will determine, in great measure, the future viability of the State of Israel.

Parshat Bamidbar – Beyond Mitzvot

Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers by Rabbi Norman Lamm 

Derashot Ledorot-- NumbersOur haftara for this morning, from the second chapter of Hosea, begins on a high optimistic note: “And the number of the Children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered” (2:1). For a people who chronically suffer the status of a minority, this prophecy comes as a cheerful source of encouragement.

The verse seems simple enough. Yet the Rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 22b) detected in this statement an apparent contradiction. The first half of the verse says that the number of the Children of Israel will be very large – as great as the sand of the sea. That, indeed, is a large number; but it is not infinite. The second half of the verse speaks of the population of Israel being so great that it cannot be measured or numbered; this implies an even greater number of Israelites.

This is, of course, only an apparent contradiction, because the prophet wants to explain his metaphor and tells us that by the words “as the sand of the sea,” he means that the people of Israel will be well-nigh too many to count. But the question of the Rabbis, counterposing the idea of a finite with the idea and an infinite number, was meant merely to introduce the answer they offer:

 

When Hosea speaks of the Children of Israel being beyond number, he refers to a time when the Israelites will do the will of God; and when Hosea speaks of us being as many as the particles of sand on the seashore, he refers to a time when we will not perform the will of God.

 

Now this is a stranger answer. When one reads the beginning of our haftara, one finds himself in a mood which is favorable to our people who obviously are considered as deserving of divine reward. How, therefore, can the Rabbis maintain that the great promise that we will be as many as the sand of the sea refers to a time when we do not do the will of God?

I should like to propose an answer, which, to my mind, touches the heart of the Jewish outlook on God and mankind and contains an incisive and perceptive comment on the ethics of our Torah. The answer derives from a comment, in another context, by one of the most seminal of hasidic thinkers, Rabbi Zadok HaKohen of Lublin. The Kohen, as he is called, distinguishes between two terms: retzono shel makom and mitzvato shel makom, the will of God and the commandment of God. All of the Halakha, including the 613 biblical commandments and the many more rabbinic commandments, represents God’s mitzva, His commandment, His directions, His demands upon us. These are the things that we must do in order to justify our existence before Him. But the mere performance of the divine commandment – His mitzva – does not exhaust the relation of God and mankind. There is much that goes beyond mitzvot, a surplus of meaning, whole worlds that transcend the idea of mitzva. This is the area of retzono shel Makom, the will of God. God wants of us more than He commands us; His ratzon is far greater than His mitzva. The divine mitzva is something that every Jew can, with enough exertion, perform completely. But that extra something beyond the commandment, namely the ratzon, is what each individual must strive to realize and actualize according to his own ability and talent.

For instance, the idea of mitzva means that we are commanded to be decent members of the Jewish community and fulfill our obligations. But the will of God, the ratzon, is that we be far more than passive participants in the drama of Jewish life; it means that those of us who have any leadership ability must develop it and use it. The will of God is that we not only get but we also give, that we not only belong but that we bring in others, that we not only react to others but that we act on our own.

One of the most obvious places where we may see the difference between commandment and will is the study of Torah. It is important to keep this in mind especially in contemporary times, when despite all our extravagant talk about intellectuals and sophistication, the study of Torah – the real intellectual content of Judaism – is honored more in the breach than in the practice. The Talmud (Menaĥot 99b) had already told us that one can get away with a minimum if he so wishes: Merely by reciting the Shema, which is a portion of the Torah itself, one can really fulfill the requirements of studying Torah by day and by night. It is easy enough to abide by the mitzva of the Almighty. But the function of man is to go beyond this and to try to live up to God’s will, His ratzon. And in this case, the Jew must realize the verse of Joshua who, speaking of the Torah, said, “You shall meditate therein by day and by night” (1:8). The commandment of God may not be confined to the recitation of two brief passages. The will of God is that we live in the study of Torah constantly, by day and by night – that every spare moment be devoted to the contemplation of the Torah.

Interestingly, both these interpretations found their way into the explanation of Rashi on the mishna in Avot (1:15) which says that we must set aside regular time to the study of Torah. One comment in Rashi has it that we must study “bekhol yom,” “every day”; the other requires of us to study “kol hayom,” “all day.” The first is the commandment of God, the second is His will.

With this distinction between mitzvato shel Makom and retzono shel Makom, we may understand what the Talmud told us about our verse in the haftara. Both halves of this verse are set in the context of an Israel which is obedient to the Lord. In both cases, Israel accepts and performs the commandments, the mitzva of the Almighty. The difference between these two halves is this: The first half, which speaks of Israel being rewarded by a large population, but not a very large one, refers to the time when Israel will perform only the commandments of God but fail to live up to His will. Whereas the second half of the verse, which promises an extraordinarily large increase in Israel’s citizenry, refers to the time when the Children of Israel will perform not only the commandments of God, but, even more, retzono shel Makom – His infinite will!

This distinction between mitzva and ratzon affords us a new insight in Judaism that is relevant to us and our times. For one thing, it means that none of us, no matter how observant we may be and no matter how Orthodox we consider ourselves, dare submit to the temptation of self-righteousness. It means that no matter how great our religious accomplishments may be vis-à-vis others, we must always bear and conduct ourselves with the utmost of humility. We must always remember that loyalty to the Halakha is not at all an expression of maximal Judaism, but merely minimal Judaism! To observe every last iota of the Shulhan Arukh is to live up to the mitzvato shel Makom. And that, most certainly, is not enough! If we observe kashrut, Shabbat, family purity, prayer, and all the other institutions of Judaism – we have only reached the level of God’s commandments. The real test of genuine piety and authentic Jewishness is when we can get beyond the mitzva and reach out for the sublimity of God’s ratzon! This will of God is far greater than His commandments not only quantitatively, but also measured by the standard of the kind of attitude we bring to the practice of Judaism. If we approach Judaism in the sense of mitzva, then it becomes for us an ole hamitzvot, a yoke, a burden, an obstacle to our freedom. But when we live the Jewish life with a feeling that we are blessed thereby, that this is what makes us happy – then we have gone beyond the commandments towards the will. The test therefore is: When we live Jewishly, do we feel deprived or privileged? Do we consider that the regimen of religion hampers us or hallows us?

Indeed, it is with reference to the study of Torah that our Rabbis (Song of Songs Rabba 1:53) tell us a remarkable story that illustrates our point. Ben Azzai was teaching Torah when suddenly the people about him noticed a remarkable sight: A wall of fire enveloped him. They quickly came to Rabbi Akiva and reported the incident to him, where­upon Rabbi Akiva hurried to Ben Azzai and asked him: “Is it true what they say, that a wall of flame enveloped you while you were teaching Torah?” “Yes,” answered the younger colleague of the great Tanna. “It is perhaps,” asked Rabbi Akiva, “because you were studying the ma’aseh merkava, the most mysterious portion of the Torah, that part which deal with the most divine secrets, and therefore it was the holiness of the subject matter which caused you to be enveloped in flame?” “No,” answered Ben Azzai, “it was nothing as remote and mysterious as that. I was simply studying Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketubim – just some Humash, some haftarot, and perhaps reciting some Psalms. What, then, was so unusual about my study? It was neither the particular subject matter nor the amount of studying I did; rather, it is just that I was so happy, so overjoyed, so enraptured with the Torah, as if this were the very day it was given from Sinai. These words were as sweet and as precious to me as when they were given.”

Indeed so! The study of Torah must not be considered merely an obligation which one must dispose of by doing it however reluctantly. It must be considered at all times as a joyous fulfillment of the will of God, as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, far and above what is demanded of me – rather, in the realm of what is wanted of me.

This distinction has special relevance to the great Jewish institution of charity or tzedaka. If a man gives, no matter the amount, he performs a mitzva – and a very, very great one. But the will of God goes far beyond this. To give a coin to a poor man is to perform a commandment; to help him so that he does not become poor in the first place, that is the accomplishment of retzono shel Makom. To give by itself is a mitzva, but to give with love, with grace, with kindness and joy – that is the ratzon of the Almighty.

Mitzva and will with regards to philanthropy is beautifully reflected in a passage in the Talmud (Rosh HaShana 4a): “If one says I will give this coin to charity in order that my children may live, or in order that I may merit the life of the world-to-come, harei zeh tzaddik gamur – the man who gives in this manner is completely righteous.” Such is the reading of our text of the Talmud. But it is a problematical one; can such selfish and egotistical giving be the work of a man who is termed a tzaddik gamur, a completely righteous individual? The commentaries on the Talmud struggle with that question. But an answer is provided by another reading of the same text offered by Rabbenu Hananel and the Meiri. Their text reads, “harei zeh tzedaka gemura,” that this kind of philanthropy is considered complete philanthropy. In other words, it is a complete fulfillment of the mitzva to give charity; but it does not at all characterize the one who gives in this manner as a tzad­dik gamur! In terms of our own thought, this means that if one gives, but his giving is motivated by some self-concern, then he has abided by the commandment of God but he is still very far from performing the will, the ratzon, of God. The mitzva was performed, the act was fully done in accordance with every particular of the law – but such giving is without compassion and without love, and therefore has failed to rise to the level of retzono shel Makom. For the will of God is to give without the expectation of any reward, even without a spiritual kick-back!

Now we may understand the words of our Rabbis in Avot (2:4): “Do His will as you would perform your own will, so that He will do your will as if it were His own will.” Our will – our demands of God – are never minimal. We ask not for the material things which will keep us on a bare level of subsistence, but for the luxuries to which we are accustomed and for which we strive. We ask not that we be spared humiliation, but that we be accorded honor and dignity. We ask not that our children not abandon and revile us, but that they love and cherish us now and even after we have gone. We plead not that our children not intermarry, but that they marry well and Jewishly. We present God, as it were, not with a human mitzva but with a human ratzon. We are not satisfied with the minimum; we strive for the maximum. Therefore the Tanna tells us that we must respond not only to the divine mitzva but also the divine ratzon! If our material desires are maximal, so must our spiritual endeavors be maximal. Only when our gesture to God is on the level of His will may we expect that He will consider our will.

Bernard Revel Arrested for Socialist Agitation

Excerpted from “Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy” by By Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff

Bernard RevelThe ideals of social justice and human betterment were of paramount concern even within the yeshiva world. Many yeshiva students abandoned their studies and completely cast their lot with the revolutionary groups. Others envisioned plans whereby these secular ideologies could be merged with the Torah outlook. Dov [Revel] was caught up in these crosscurrents and debates which dominated the conversations of many yeshiva and kloyz students… Dov became an idealistic follower of the social justice for labor that was preached by Bund leaders, and he joined this movement. Years later his son was to write in a eulogy: “He possessed a many-faceted personality; he had a profound grasp of historical events, and while yet in Lithuania he contributed to the ideology of the movement for social betterment which later turned to Leninism.”

During the Russian Revolution of 1905, when general strikes and demonstrations—more political than economic—partially paralyzed the empire, many arrests were made by the czarist government. In Kovno thousands of reform agitators were detained. Dov Revel was among those arrested following his printed contributions to the political and social unrest of his time. The Kovno jail for political prisoners, a large building behind a high wall, was filled with defendants during the unrest of 1905. Revel found himself in a large, crowded, dimly lit cell. Boards to sleep on ran the length of the whole rear wall of the cell. In the middle of the cell there were also boards which were cut in the middle to allow passage. Dirty hot water and bread served as the main sustenance of the inmates, while the lavatory facilities were even more miserable. One small receptacle, which was cleaned only once a day, served the needs of all the tens of prisoners in one cell.

Here in prison Revel began to give serious thought to his future. He realized that his idealistic plans for universal social justice and improvement would not come to fruition in Lithuania in the immediate future… Released from prison, Dov Revel, using the name Bernard Revel, arrived in the United States in 1906 at the age of twenty-one.