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.”

May 24 2013

Parshat B’ha’alotcha: “The Disgrace of Accommodation”

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

The Book of Bamidbar, which we began reading two weeks ago, is explicitly dated as beginning with “the first day of the second month after the exodus from the land of Egypt.” It is more than surprising that this week’s portion contains the commandment to offer up the Paschal lamb, “in the second year from their exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month,” going backwards in time relative to the beginning of this book of the Torah! Indeed, this example is often cited as the proof-text that the Torah is not written in chronological order. Even though we accept this principle we still need to ask why the Torah moves events out of their chronological order. Why didn’t the Torah begin the Book of Bamidbar with this commandment of the first Paschal sacrifice in the wilderness?

Rashi, following the midrash, answers, “Why, indeed, does not the Book of Numbers open with this chapter? Because it is a disgrace for Israel. For in the forty years that the Jewish people were in the desert, this was the only Passover offering they brought.”

This explanation requires an explanation. The Torah limits the Paschal offering to “when you come into the land” and this instance is an exception to that rule. As long as they were in the wilderness they would be disbarred from offering the Passover lamb by Divine command. If so, what disgrace is there in the fact that this instance would be the only Paschal lamb in forty years? After all, God had ordained it so!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson explains that the answer lies in the very next passage in the Torah describing the genesis of the mitzva of the “Second Passover:”

A group of Jews had found themselves in a state which, according to Torah law, absolved them from the duty to bring the Passover offering. Yet they refused to reconcile themselves to this. And their impassioned plea and demand, “Why should we be deprived?” swayed G-d to establish a new institution, the “Second Passover,” to enable them, and all who will find themselves in a similar situation in future generations, “to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel.”

Therein lies the “disgrace” in those thirty-eight Passover-less years in the desert. Why did the Jewish people reconcile themselves to the Divine decree? Why did they accept this void in their relationship with God? Why did they not petition for an opportunity to serve Him in the full and optimum manner that the mitzvot of the Torah describe?

For more than nineteen-hundred years now, our Passovers have been incomplete. We eat the matzah and the bitter herbs, we drink the four cups of wine, we ask and answer the four questions, but the heart and essence of Passover, the Passover offering, is absent from our Seder table. For God has hidden His face from us, has removed the Holy Temple, the seat of His manifest presence on physical earth, from our midst.

The lesson of the “displaced” ninth chapter of Numbers is clear: God desires and expects of us that we refuse to reconcile ourselves to the decree of galut and its diminution of His manifest involvement in our lives. He desires and expects of us that we storm the gates of heaven with the plea and demand: “Why should we be deprived?!”

Our disgrace is our accommodation with a mediocre, “second-rate,” compromised existence. Let us indeed storm the gates of heaven and demand nothing but the best! And may God, our compassionate parent, “give in” to our petulant petition.

May 10 2013

Why in the Desert? Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) and reiterates the geographic context of the revelation of Torah, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” The Torah never conveys information gratuitously. What is significant about the desert as the context for the giving, and receiving, of the Torah?
The Midrash focuses on this issue and provides multiple answers:

The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it. (Mechilta D’Rashbi)

Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana)

The Torah is not the monopoly of an intellectual elite, those with distinguished “yichus,” graduates of yeshivot, or any other subgroup of Jewish society. The Torah is the universal possession of the entire Jewish nation, no matter who we are or how we define ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully actualize this heritage unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to a life-long engagement, full of discovery and self-discovery.

In light of these midrashim, the synchronicity of Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, is no wonder. There can be no better time to renew our commitment to Torah than right now. I invite you to participate in the many opportunities available for learning in your community.