Jun 12 2013

Parshat Chukat: At Least Keep It Private!

Rabbi Joel Zeff: Parshat Chukat

Moses Bringing Forth Water From the Rock

This week’s Torah portion recounts the collapse of one of Moshe’s highest aspirations. Imagine having taken on the assignment of leading the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. Moshe had endured the most taxing of crises, some of them in the form of the seemingly never-ending series of internal rebellions. When the Bnei Yisrael arrive in a location without any obvious supply of water they confront Moshe and Aharon in an outrageous expression of unmitigated chutzpa.

“If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink!”

God instructs Moshe to speak to a rock so that it should miraculously produce water. Moshe gathers the nation in front of the rock and declares: “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” He then strikes the rock, resulting in an eruption of a gush of water. This act of Moshe was regarded as such a grievous affront that God decrees the ultimate punishment, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”

The midrash points out that not only was this not the first time that Moshe had not responded optimally to the complaints of Bnei Yisrael, but it is not even the worst:

But had not Moshe previously said something that was worse than this? For he said (Numbers 11:22): “If flocks and herds be slain for them, will they suffice them? Or if all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, will they suffice them?” Faith surely was wanting there too, and to a greater degree than in the present instance. Why then did G-d not make the decree against him on that occasion?

The midrash answers with a most significant observation:

Let me illustrate. To what may this be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. Now this friend displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king, however, did not lose his temper with him. After a time he rose and displayed his arrogance in the presence of his legions, and the king passed a sentence of death upon him. So also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it.” Thus it says: “[Because you did not believe in Me] in the eyes of the children of Israel.”

There is only one thing worse than sin and that is public sin. Why? The answer lies in reminding ourselves of our job description as Jews. We are entrusted with the weighty responsibly of being God’s public relations professionals, charged with mastering and utilizing all manner of social media in order to promote God’s name. When our private behavior falls short it is a personal failure. When our public behavior is odious it is a desecration of God’s name and a betrayal of our mandate as Jews. Let us never cease to be mindful of the awesome responsibility of bearing the title “Israel.”

Apr 5 2011

Parshat Metzora: Opportunity and Responsibility

Parshat Metzora

Opportunity and Responsibility

Rabbi Joel Zeff

Our Torah portion is concerned with a particularly difficult area of Jewish law: “tzara’at,”   an impossible to translate term.  The Torah describes this as a phenomenon whereby blotches or dots appear on the skin, clothing, or the walls of the home, rendering the afflicted item ritually impure.  Let’s examine one especially instructive verse from this week’s parsha.

“When you come to the Land of Canaan that I am giving you as a possession and I will place an affliction of tzara’at on a house in the land of your possession… “ (Leviticus 14:34).

Ramban comments on the phrase “I will place”:

This alludes to the fact that the hand of God does this and that this is not at all natural, as I have already explained.

Ramban sees the Torah here as emphasizing the supernatural basis of this phenomenon which should not be confused with any sort of natural disease. This, of course, undermines the occasional translation of tzara’at as “leprosy.” He concludes his observation by noting that he has explained this notion elsewhere. Indeed, in last week’s parsha of Tazria,  Ramban comments:

This matter is not at all natural and it only exists in the world… when Israel is whole with the Lord and the spirit of God dwells upon them to support their bodies, clothes, and homes with the best possible appearance. When a Jew fails through sin and transgression there comes into being a kind of pollution on their flesh, clothing, or homes, in order to demonstrate that the Lord has departed from him.

With these fascinating and thought-provoking words, Ramban is suggesting that wholeness with God causes a spiritual “aura” resulting in a visible radiance of aesthetic quality. The various types of tzara’at are a function of the removal of this aura. Indeed, they serve as a wake-up call to repair and restore the integrity of our relationship with God.

Rambam (=Maimonides, not to be confused with Ramban= Nachmanides,quoted above) in his great law code, Mishne Torah, states that these “afflictions” do not appear on houses outside of the Land of Israel. This, again, is based upon our verse above which seems to condition the house being “in the land of your possession.” (No, not even in Brooklyn.)  According to Rambam, this phenomenon does affect people and clothing outside the Land.  Why should only homes in the Holy Land be vulnerable while people and garments were universally affected?

Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, in his work “Iturei Torah,” explains that tzara’at on the flesh reflects sins committed by the body, while tzara’at on clothing is a function of sins committed with one’s possessions.  Sins committed by society as a whole, with respect to its collective moral caliber, are expressed as an affliction on houses. This specificity accentuates the notion that tzara’rat serves to guide us to repent and even directs us to the particular realm in which we need to restore wholeness with God. We can, as individuals, correct our personal sins we committed with our own hands and possessions. But the sins represented by affliction of homes are representative of sinful behavior of society, and with respect to the nature of that society, as a whole. Only in Eretz Yisrael does the Jewish nation have the possibility of sovereignty and thus the ability to fashion an entire social fabric based on the values and laws of our constitution, the Torah. If so, tzara’at on houses is not relevant in the lands of the diaspora, where Jews are not sovereign and thus do not bear on their shoulders, as Jews, responsibility for the imperfections of those societies.

This notion is a powerful reminder of the special opportunity, and responsibility, represented by the rebirth of the Jewish Nation embodied in the State of Israel. Zionism, from our perspective, is nothing less than the opportunity to actualize the very raison d’etre of the Jewish people, the forming of a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.  Our parsha reminds us that this opportunity is inseparable from the weighty responsibility for the imperfections of the society we are creating. Let us rise to the occasion and may the good Lord grant our prayers we utter each Shabbat when we say, “Our Father in heaven, bless the State of Israel… and send your light and truth to its leaders, officials, and advisors, and guide them with good counsel…” and let us say, “Amen!”