Friday, July 31, 2020

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Parshat Va'Etchanan 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the more profound verses in the Torah is Devarim 4:29. After describing a sort of exile, a kind of distancing from Judaism-central that a person may experience, Moshe tells the people that when you’re out in that lonely place, the following will happen:

וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱ-לֹקֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

“Then you (p) will begin to seek God your Lord, and if you pursue Him with all your heart and soul, you will eventually find Him.” (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s loose translation)

The “p” in parentheses indicates a form of “you” that is written in the verse in the plural. Every other “you” and “your” in the verse is written in the singular. In his “Nitfei Neumim” Rabbi Yehuda Levinson noted that many people seek out God (hence the plural on who will be seeking), but each individual pursues this avenue using one’s own natural abilities and strengths. To the extent that groups work, there is limited to no success. It is only select individuals who merit to find that which they are seeking. For example, in order to find Him through seeking Him with all your heart and soul, you need to have fulfilled “don’t be turning after your heart and eyes…” (a quote from the 3rd paragraph of Shema).

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote, “Even as subjects of a heathen world, you will be aware of His illuminating, ennobling, an liberating nearness, which ennobles you and brings happiness… All of Israel’s history in exile, with its triumphant perseverance externally and its yearning for inspiration and refinement internally, is an ongoing revelation of the living God, in contrast to dead and deadening heathenism.”

The Rebbe Simcha Bunem of Pshischa took a different spin on the verse, noting that “When you seek from there” (a more literal translation of the first two words of the verse), meaning when you are seeking meaning from distant places, from philosophical and ontological sources that are beyond your comprehension, then only if you are truly seeking to find God there will you find success, if you are seeking Him out with all your heart and soul.

I think that all of these interpretations speak to a particular challenge our generation has. It is true in the Jewish world, and it is certainly true in the secular world.

There was a time when entertainment in this country consisted of going to an outdoor lecture for 2-3 hours. It was the pre-film equivalent of going to the movies. The speaker had to be entertaining, of course, but he was also well-read, well-thought-out, and had to keep the people interested in what he had to say.

There are certainly wonderful speakers today, some of whom could hold audience attention for a length of time. But how many people who are admired today for their speaking are very well read, extremely thoughtful, come to their knowledge from a full grasp of history and philosophy, understand the science of economics and politics and sociology?

And in the Jewish world, who are our heroes? More importantly, what do we do for ourselves that helps us emulate the greatest of Jewish thinkers and teachers?

We may find ourselves in present times in a difficult place, removed from shul, removed from community, removed from normal life as we know it. How are we filling the void? How can we seek out God when finding ourselves, as two verses earlier describe our predicament as “God will then scatter you among the nations, and only a small number will remain among the nations to which God will lead you.” (4:27)?

It is not expected that every one of us becomes a philosopher or a scholar. However, each of us can ask questions about our relationship with the Almighty, and what it means to follow the Torah and keep the mitzvos, a common theme presented by Moshe throughout the book of Devarim.

What do we feel when we reread the 10 Commandments? What do we commit to when we hear the Shema as part of the Torah reading this week?

What drives our relationship with the Almighty? How do we scale up our connection to Him, how do we “seek Him from there” – from wherever we find ourselves, physically, emotionally, spiritually?

A great start to answering some of these questions is to open a musser book, and to read through the table of contents, simply to get ideas of what we ought to be thinking about. Or perhaps we can look at the table of contents of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed.

There are many directions we can go, but the truth is that the avoidance of complacency, the avoidance of remaining in a rut, stuck in a rote routine, is taking steps out, venturing into territory which is a little uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar. Reading more. Asking more. Seeking out more ways to understand things. Challenging assumptions.

We live in a dark time in which one of the founding pillars of Americanism, free speech, is being censored at every turn. "Big tech" and "media" easily apply the term "misinformation" to ideas that don't jibe with the views of their sponsors (or the government?), so videos and websites are being deleted, deplatformed, and labeled "misinformation" without a debate or an honest effort at countering the information people find either difficult to hear, or even encouraging to hear!  It is becoming increasingly harder to have conversations, to have debate, to try to “learn from everyone,” and to enhance our greater efforts at expansive knowledge if information is denied to us.

In whatever way we can learn from opposing views, this is to the glory of humanity.

Certainly this is true in the realm of Torah, where people with opposing views appear in the same Talmud, and on every page of a commentary-laden Chumash. Seek, and you shall find, as long as you open your heart and soul to being expanded by all the new knowledge and information you find, and allow it to change you… hopefully for the better!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Is there Merit to Blaming Others? What if we KNOW It's Their Fault!

Parshat Devarim

 by Rabbi Avi Billet

Moshe begins the book of Devarim recalling two episodes from early in the wilderness experience: appointment of judges and spies. The latter retelling begins in 1:20 and sounds something like this: “We had gotten to a point where we were ready to go up and conquer the land, and you all insisted that we send spies. I capitulated. The spies went in, and upon their negative report, your parents” – remember, he is speaking to the second generation – “gave up on the land, demonstrated a lack of faith in God, and really doomed themselves to the wilderness for 40 years.” 

 In this context, of recounting the tale of the Spies, Moshe says, “God got angry. God swore none of the people of that generation would enter the land, except for Kalev, who fulfilled My instructions properly.” Then Moshe pontificates a little and notes, “God also got angry at me on your account – בגללכם – saying ‘You too will not go there.’” (1:37) 

Though Netziv attributes this verse to Moshe simply explaining that he will not be entering the land (for reasons related to the Mei Merivah/Rock incident), that doesn’t adequately explain away why Moshe refers to his non-entry to the land in the middle of his recounting Kalev’s and Yehoshua’s roles at the spies story. Oddly enough, in Parshat Va’eschanan, Moshe also indicates twice that the reason he will not be going into the land is the fault of the Israelites. 

Devarim 3:25: Moshe recounts how he had asked if he could cross over and see the land. “God got angry at me – למענכם – on your account! and He did not listen, and he told me to drop it.” 

In 4:21, in the context of telling the people of Revelation, and important rules surrounding not abandoning God, Moshe says “God was angry at me על דבריכם – on your words. And He swore I would not be crossing the Jordan and entering the land.” 

The context of these narratives are not in recalling the Rock incident. So why is God so angry at Moshe? Why does Moshe keep blaming the people – בגללכם, למענכם, and על דבריכם? 

Or HaChaim explains: 

“The real reason Moshe pins his non entry into the land on the people is because they established the בכייה לדורות [a reference to turning 9 Av, the day the spies reported, into a day of crying, as if God said, “You’re crying about the Land I promised to you? I’ll give you a reason to cry!”] when they cried on Tisha B’Av over the incident of the spies. The Talmud in Sotah 9a notes that had Moshe entered the land and built the temple it would never have been destroyed. In Midrash Tehillim, on the verse in chapter 79 
1A song of Asaph. O God! Nations have come into Your heritage, they have defiled Your Holy Temple, they have made Jerusalem into heaps.
  א מִזְמ֗וֹר לְאָ֫סָ֥ף אֱֽלֹהִ֡ים בָּ֚אוּ גוֹיִ֨ם | בְּנַֽחֲלָתֶ֗ךָ טִ֖מְּאוּ אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל קָדְשֶׁ֑ךָ שָׂ֖מוּ אֶת־יְרֽוּשָׁלִַ֣ם לְעִיִּֽים: 
this speaks of God throwing His wrath against sticks and stones rather than against people. For had Moshe entered the land and built the Mikdash, God would have deferred His wrath from Moshe’s temple and instead taken it out on the people. 

“For this reason, God decreed at the time of the spies that Moshe too would die in the wilderness. When Moshe says ‘Hashem got angry at me בגללכם’ he means בגלגול דברים שלכם. Through the circuit of your words at the time of the spies. Had there not been a sin of the spies, Moshe likely WOULD have entered the land at that time. And, yes, he would have built the Beis Hamikdash. But the בחינת הרע, the character of evil that entered the people through their acceptance of the report of the spies, never would have become part of the DNA of the nation of Israel. 

“But isn’t Moshe’s death tied to Mei Merivah?! 

“Answer: Had Moshe sanctified God’s name at Mei Merivah, Israel would have returned to their initial level of purity which they had prior to the sin of the spies. And through the tremendous Kiddush Hashem, God would have annulled the promise that Moshe would not enter the land, and he WOULD HAVE entered, and he WOULD have built the temple to last forever. And it would have lasted forever.” 

Moshe and Aharon were told at Mei Merivah you will not bring THIS congregation. But that does not limit them or prevent them from taking a future group of Am Yisrael into the land, such as, perhaps, a reemerging nation that is ready after the resurrection which accompanies the Final Redemption. 

What is the Or HaChaim telling us? 

He is saying that at the time of the spies incident, all the people had to do was listen to one man, who stood up against everyone else and said “We can conquer the land and defeat the inhabitants.” They had to listen to the pair of Yehoshua and Kalev who said “The land is very very good.” But they didn’t. 

They allowed a Shiga’on, a craze, to overtake them, and they – that generation - were doomed to the wilderness. The Nation would make it, but not that specific generation. And even the next generation had a chance for a Tikkun, to fix things in a manner that would allow Moshe and Aharon to bring them in to the land, but those opportunities were lost. Moshe could therefore blame the people for his non-entry, because they were never worthy of having him bring them into the land after the spies incident. 

Whether we blame the people (for any incident), Moshe (for whichever tales seem to condemn him), or circumstances, the opportunity was in fact lost to fix past deeds. 

Our challenge in our times is to wonder whether such an opportunity for Geulah (redemption) is lost forever. Can Moshe once again lead us, and can his leadership bring us to the Promised Land forever? 

I suppose anything is possible. But not if there are blame games. 

In watching the national and political landscape (here and in Israel), and in perceiving the winds which advance and keep turning in every direction, there is an awful lot of blaming going around. Moshe blamed the people for his inability to enter the land – and it may well be the case from the spies incident. We can even suggest (see Malbim in Bamidbar 20) that Moshe’s death came about because the people were unworthy of having him as a leader. 

But what if Moshe got it wrong and the fault for being unable to enter the land rested on himself? 

Every movement and platform that ventures into the realm of being political blames all the ills of society on everyone else. Democrats blame Republicans. Republicans blame Democrats. Fill in the blank on every other political movement (the examples I gave are the easiest to share without getting too political). 

But what if instead of blaming others we just all improved ourselves? What if instead of trying to change others we all moved a little more towards moderation than to extremism? Of trying to understand the other, rather than blame the other? 

How much of a Bechinat Hara (as Or HaChaim put it) do we carry? What eye leads us in our perception of others? Why does it never see the faults we ourselves carry? 

Too much of the world is a mystery. As advanced as we are, as much as we know, we’re likely not at the tip of the iceberg of the expanse of human knowledge. The pandemic has shown this to be true. There is much learning being done, but even the learning is undermined by politics. Why does that have to be the case? It’s so so sad. 

Moshe blamed the people for his inability to enter the land, because the people did not see how their succumbing to the words of the spies brought them down levels! They could not continue on their trajectory into the land, with Moshe at the helm. Their kedusha level dropped so much when they distrusted God over the Land and because they trusted a few negative people. 

And when they had the chance to bring their level up, to show the ultimate trust in God over issuing water from a Rock, somehow the connections couldn’t be made, between the people and Moshe, between the people and God, between Moshe and God. 

Human beings share this world, and we share in the need to see the humanity of others, and to share in the humanity of others. We must be kind, courteous, respectful, and decent. 

The thought police are doing all of us a disservice. We don’t learn when there is no opposition. We can’t refine our views when those very views are not challenged, or when any alternate view is silenced in the name of censorship and oppression, or through the label of “misinformation” without actual substantive debate. 

The Rabbis don’t let Moshe get away with blaming the Israelites for his non-entry into the land. After all, the people didn’t conspire against Moshe. (Had they conspired against him, they would be evil, and it would be their fault.) But the people also didn’t blame Moshe for his own non-entry. In that sense, they let him be.  

Silencing others, destroying others, blaming others, instead of engaging in human conversation, the likes of which have advanced free societies more than anything else in human history, gets us nowhere. When people can get together and converse in the courtroom of ideas, amazing things can take place, incredible advancements in thought, planning, problem solving can be achieved. 

Perhaps we don’t need Moshe to lead us to the Promised Land. But we do need to be able to live and thrive there as one nation under God. And that works best when the cacophony of human intellect meets and discusses, instead of shouting and blaming and getting nothing accomplished.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Finding Commonality With Humanity

Parshat Matos 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

This time of year often leads me to think about life in general, but also about the story and history of the Jewish people. Reviewing sermons from previous years, I found that a few years back I posed the question on this Shabbos Mevorchim: “How do we once again work ourselves into a feeling of mourning over the loss of the Beis HaMikdash? How can we make Tisha B’Av into something that pierces our soul? How can we get ourselves to cry in pain over the void in our lives – one to which we have no inkling of how to relate, because we don’t even know what we’re missing?”

Who could imagine that we’d have an easier time relating to these questions just a few short years later?

It’s not because we have a better appreciation of the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, unfortunately. But we do have a sense of a loss of normalcy (for hopefully the time being and not long term) and of what it means to see changes to life, at an alarmingly fast pace.

Think about what a 3-week period of breaching Yerushalayim’s walls leading to destruction of the centuries-old religious center, and immediate exile meant. Think about how many fell at the hands of the invading hordes, who didn’t particularly contemplate whether this man’s, woman’s, child’s life had any value. That was then – and we still feel the repercussions today. 

The war with Midian, which is described in Parshas Matos, is a frightening tale of how horribly wrong things can go when nations don’t understand one another. Midian were descendants of Avraham Avinu through Keturah. Moav were descendants of Lot – Avraham’s nephew. Neither were part of the 7 nations of the land of Canaan subject to whatever judgment had been meted against them by the Almighty. And yet they viewed Israel as their enemy, and were responsible for giving up their daughters to entice Israelites to sin in a manner that led to the deaths of 24,000 people.

Perhaps disturbing to our ‘modern’ sensibilities, the war with Midian is described as an act of vengeance (31:2). Why vengeance? And why not vengeance against Moav? The simple answer for why Moav is left out of this war of annihilation is because their motivation for getting involved with Israel was fear (Rashi has a different explanation). Instead of communicating with Israel through diplomatic means, they tried to destroy Israel in backhanded ways. Midian, on the other hand, entered an ideological and ultimately physical battle that was not their fight. They were never even remotely threatened - Israel never even tried to pass through Midian!

Rabbi Yitzchok Nissenbaum explained that revenge is a natural desire for individuals and for nations. However, it is only justified in two instances: a. if the hatred coming from the enemy has no reason or justification, meaning there is no way to rid the enemy of his hatred, and b. if the enemy is cruel by nature, which means there is no way to find a common ground.

Anti-Semitism is the world’s longest and oldest hatred. Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager co-wrote “Why the Jews?” analyzing its history. Unstrikingly, the Midrash Tanchuma on our parsha sums up their main arguments, in addressing why after God called it “the vengeance of the children of Israel,” Moshe went on to call it “the vengeance of Hashem.” The Midrash says, “Moshe said, ‘Master of worlds, it is known before You that all the hatred the enemies have towards us is because we are the nation of Hashem. The mountain was called Sinai; because of it ‘sinah’ (hatred) was brought against the nation of Israel. Were we to only worship their idols as they do, and mix with them and be exactly like them they wouldn’t hate us.” This is why Moshe called it “the vengeance of Hashem,” because it is only because we are the nation of Hashem that the hatred exists.

I do believe that many people are not anti-Semitic. I do believe many Americans believe in the free exercise of religion, the need for diversity of faiths, and that all good people are deserving of a fair space to believe as they believe, to worship as they worship, and to be accepted in society as citizens of the world.

Haters hate. Not all haters are evil. Some are grossly misinformed. Some have bought into stereotypes. Some are uneducated. Some have never met a Jew. Some read one bad story and assume all people in that category are bad. It is wrong to read any story and assume that all people who look like the criminal in a story are criminals.

I certainly believe that most African Americans are good people. That most Arabs are not terrorists. That most police officers are decent, hard working people who put their lives on the line every day. And of course, that most Jews are good people. And that most haters have never even met the people they hate. Maybe, if those who hate were to expand their horizons and engage in diplomatic conversations, they’d sing a different tune. (Google “Daryl Davis” and learn about a “black man who attends KKK rallies” - to prove this point.)

Midian didn’t have to fight. They chose to be cruel, sacrificing their own daughters, and they chose to engage in all-out war against Israel. Rabbi Nissenbaum said that kind of hatred can’t be fixed. Vengeance was in order.

Golda Meir is attributed with having said “We can forgive you for killing our sons, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill your sons.” Who would have ever thought that within 5 years of the Yom Kippur War, Egypt would turn to Israel to say we don’t want to fight anymore? Peace is always possible when the life choices we make are not ruled by the need or desire for vengeance. When we see another as a human being who just thinks differently, and who is also, at the core, a decent person who has similar dreams for our world and future generations, we can certainly find much in common and much common ground.

The Jewish people have always said, “We just want to live our way, and have others accept that we do things differently.” We don’t make demands of them, they should not make demands of us. With diplomacy and understanding of the other, we can see a brighter future.

Friday, July 10, 2020

What Are the Best Qualifications for Leadership?

Parshat Pinchas

by Rabbi Avi Billet

After watching the episode of Tzlafchad’s daughters unfold, Moshe Rabbenu was faced with the reality that his own mantle’s passing to a successor was not yet secured. Based on Rashi’s comment, Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch suggested that after seeing that daughters could inherit and could carry their father’s legacy, Moshe felt even his sons could inherit his position and lead in whatever method suited their style. 

Obviously God felt differently and instructed that Yehoshua will take over, mostly because Yehoshua has been primed to fill Moshe’s shoes more than any other person. 

Rabbi Shternbuch goes on to recount a teaching of the Kotzker Rebbe: 

“Why didn’t Moshe appoint Pinchas, who proved his holiness and righteousness in the Zimri encounter? Because the kanai (radical zealot) is not worthy or fit to lead the people. He can’t understand what drives each individual.” Rabbi Shternbuch explains that in his zealousness, Pinchas put himself in danger through killing one of the N’siim (princes) of Israel so publicly. The obligation is not on each individual to act so piously (a term we can use in retrospect because God’s reaction to Pinchas was so magnanimous), which is why Pinchas, who was so unique to serve God with such a stellar sense of mission, cannot be a leader of the people. 

 This is a significant difference that Pinchas had – he was so dedicated to the service of God that his service-to-the-nation could never extend to the mundane, to the day-to-day troubles people face. Yehoshua, on the other hand, whose daily training was in practical applications of Torah, was more suited to be the leader who would replace the ultimate master of Torah, Moshe Rabbenu. 

When Moshe calls out to God as “Elokei HaRuchot” (God of the spirits), Rashi explains this term as meaning God before Whom “the personality of each individual is revealed – they do not resemble each other. Appoint a leader who can put up with each individual according to each individual’s personality.” It is not the job of the leader to mold all of his people into his own image, but rather to accept all his people where they are in their Jewish experience, and to work with them. Do not reject anyone who thinks differently, who functions differently, who looks at the world differently. Anyone who wants to be under the wings of the divine should be welcome! 

 The Midrash Rabba (21:14) explains that one of the reasons Yehoshua was most worthy is because “he would arrange the benches and spread out the mats,” arriving first and being the last to leave, serving all who came to study, not caring one iota for his own honor, thereby demonstrating that what was most important to him was simply for each Jew to have the opportunity to grow in Torah. 

Reading of Yehoshua’s role with the benches reminded me of a fascinating story in the annals of rabbinic texts, the story of Rabban Gamliel’s being deposed as Nasi. (Brachos 28b) 

Through a series of incidents in which Rabban Gamliel had taken a harsh stance against Rabbi Yehoshua and ridiculed him publicly, the people (why not the rabbis? Were they afraid of Rabban Gamliel’s wrath?) objected and insisted that Rabban Gamliel be deposed. What had Rabbi Yehoshua done wrong? Through his own analysis he had reached conclusions which differed from Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel may have had honorable intentions in defending his rulings, defending the Torah, and his position. But that did not excuse the way he treated those with whom he disagreed! 

After rejecting a few candidates, they decided to appoint Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah as Nasi because he was an untouchable. He was wise enough to reach conclusions on his own, wealthy enough that he wasn’t beholden to anyone, and had wonderful yichus so even Rabban Gamliel could not criticize the choice. This is the background to the tale of his hair turning white and his declaring “I am like 70 years old” as is depicted in the Haggadah. 

To the point: One of the first, and most important changes Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah instituted was to remove the doorkeeper of the Beis Medrash, giving permission to anyone who wanted to study Torah to do so. Rabban Gamliel had previously declared all students who were “not the same on the inside as they were on the outside” to be unfit to enter the Beis Medrash. The Gemara records a debate as to how many benches were added to the Beis Medrash, 400 or 700, which were quickly filled by the influx of students clamoring to study Torah. Rabban Gamliel’s response to seeing this was, “Perhaps, chas v’shalom, I have withheld Torah from the Jewish people!” 

 Many successes in learning were achieved through the enhanced enrollment. More minds breeds more Torah and more discussion, and the inclusion of everyone was apparently a much greater policy than any kind of exclusion had ever been. 

The Gemara continues with another tale of a debate between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, in which Rabban Gamliel, now humbled by his own deposing, accepts Rabbi Yehoshua’s teaching and even goes to Rabbi Yehoshua’s house to seek forgiveness . A conversation ensues, and at the end Rabban Gamliel asks Rabbi Yehoshua for forgiveness. After Rabbi Yehoshua, who had been so so hurt by Rabban Gamliel, finally agrees to forgive for the sake of Rabban Gamliel’s father (or ancestor), the people who witnessed the reconciliation suggested Rabban Gamliel be reinstated as Nasi. The question became what to do about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah? The conclusion was that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would give the public lecture one week out of four, while Rabban Gamliel would give it three weeks out of four. 

After his reinstatement, however, the doors of the Beis Medrash remained open, and Torah was shared with a much larger population than before his deposing. 

In light of Rabbi Shternbuch’s insights, we can see the parallel to the differences between Yehoshua and Pinchas. 

Rabban Gamliel was very strict and intolerant of dissent, and went so far as to humiliate Rabbi Yehoshua over and over, in a manner that may have come from great intentions but from an outsider’s perspective propped up his own ego at Rabbi Yehoshua’s expense. Eventually this kind of behavior could no longer be tolerated, and the people rose up to put a stop to it. Only after Rabban Gamliel was humbled a little, seeing that he wasn’t always right and that his methods may have truly been harmful to Rabbi Yehoshua and the many people who had been turned off and turned away by his intolerance, was he able to fill his position once again. 

Pinchas had a heightened level of intolerance for tomfoolery which played out in his impatience with Zimri, and the drastic measure he took to stop Zimri. While he may have been right, that kind of leadership can’t serve the entirety of the people. Yehoshua, who was more measured in general, was much more suited for the job of leader of Bnei Yisrael. It took time, but Pinchas did eventually find his own proper place, as the spiritual leader of the people, the Kohen Gadol, whose job follows more of a set of rules than a balance of tolerance. 

May we be blessed to see and have leaders who are tolerant, patient, warm, accepting, humble (not ego-driven), who do not insist on full compliance to their own choices and decisions, but who inspire, teach, give options, and most importantly meet people where they are and do their utmost to bring all Jews under the wings of the divine, without pre-conditions and with the most Ahavas-Yisrael-inspired acceptance of our fellow Jews.

Friday, July 3, 2020

A Tale of Two Plagues

Parshat Chukas Balak

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The double-parsha we have this week is uncommon – it comes because the second day of Shavuos was on Shabbos, which put Israel ahead of us in the Torah reading track. We normally catch up with Matos-Masei, but because Israel will also be reading Matos-Masei (and not as two separate parshas) this year, we are catching up this week. The need for the catchup is to make sure Devarim preceeds Tisha B’Av, or more accurately, as the Shulchan Arukh puts it, so that Va’Eschanan can follow Tisha B’Av. 

The two parshas are largely dissimilar: 

Parshas Chukas has the (Parah Adumah), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, two complaints about water – one which concludes with the “rock incident” and one which concludes with the “snake incident,” a few military encounters (Edom, Arad, Sichon, Og). 

Parshas Balak has mostly one long story of Balak’s attempts to get Bilaam to join him so they may destroy Israel through magical means. This tale includes a fine mix of supporting characters (including a talking donkey!), a wall, several altars, many sacrifices, and three attempted curses which turn into blessings. Following the failed mission, we are told of the entrapment of Israel related to Baal Peor, and the deaths of 24,000 Israelites. (The Torah depicts a death sentence declared upon the followers of Baal Peor (25:5), though it also looks like nothing came of it once Pinchas killed Zimri and Kozbi, thereby stopping the plague God had unleashed.) 

Interestingly, the “snake incident” mentioned in the Chukas summary also consisted of a plague, as “A large multitude of Israel died.” (21:6) With all that as a background, people came to Moshe, admitting their sins (complaining about water), and asked Moshe to intercede. God instructed him to make a “Saraph” and Moshe made a copper “Nachash” which people would look at to be healed from snake bites. (21:8-9) 

One thing is certain: anyone who would go to a doctor to get healing from either plague in these parshas would not stand a chance. 

What I find fascinating is the distinction between the Saraph and the Nachash. In his Toldos Yitzchak, Rabbi Isaac Caro writes, “If God told him to make a Saraph, why did Moshe fashion a snake? They’re not the same thing! …Because the people did two sins – against God and against Moshe. Moshe was called an “angel”… and the angel is called a “seraph.” God is in the heavens which looks like copper. God says “I forgive what they did to me, but I don’t forgive what they did to you. So make a Seraph.” Moshe also forgave the slight to him, “…but b/c they sinned to God” he made a snake out of copper. 

Along similar lines, Rabbi Mordekhai HaKohen wrote in his Siftei Cohen, “Because they spoke against God – snakes (Nechashim). Because they spoke against Moshe – seraphim. God is more concerned for the honor of the righteous than for His own honor … a snake bite can be healed with herbs or care. But there is no cure from Seraphim. When it says “they bit” – this refers to the snakes. When it says “a large multitude died” – this is the result of the seraphim bites. 

Baal HaTurim and Or HaChaim both focus on the Lashon Hora component of the deeds being punished, noting how a snake is representative of a gossiper and tale-bearer, so it is a fitting punishment for those guilty of those crimes. [We ought to remember that Lashon Hora is even more of a challenge in our times, when some have encouraged people to tattle on businesses, or some people rush to tell things they see about their neighbors. Lashon Hora might not be true and it might also be true! If the goal of talking about others is to look down upon them or to have others be critical of them or to make them look bad – it is of the worst form of Lashon Hora that one can violate!] 

Or HaChaim (21:6) writes, “Because they had spoken of Moshe, and they continued to sin by speaking of God, God sent upon them what was born of their sin, as I have written elsewhere that from sin comes a mazik (one who causes harm).” 

Or HaChaim continues, quoting a Talmudic narrative (Taanit 8), “They asked the snake, a lion hunts and eats its prey… but you just bite to kill and move on. What benefit do you get from your actions? The snake answered, ‘What is the benefit of one who speaks of others (one who says Lashon Hora)? That person just bites to kill and moves on…’ The explanation for the snake’s answer is this: There is a form of sin which brings out its own kind of damage, and from this sin there were two forms of damage which emerged: one is a Nachash, and one is a Saraph. The Nachash has teeth, so it kills the person and burns the soul. ‘Hashem sent those among them.’ The Seraphim were sent because of how people spoke of God [They caused death]. The Midrash says Seraphim are called this because they burn the soul.” 

One of the key questions we face when we contemplate these plague tales, and even the story of Moshe and the rock, is the place of “Reward and Punishment” in our world. Rambam includes reward and punishment as one of his 13 principles (see Ani Maamin #11). The question is how are reward and punishment meted out? Is it like a child who gets a candy (reward) or a potch (punishment)? Is it how an adult might view it – getting money (reward) or suffering (punishment)? Or does it refer to the experience of the soul – which is something we might not have an easy time fathoming? 

The sins in these parshas are Lashon Hora and idolatry. And the antidotes to the plagues are surely the eradication of both sins. Were the deaths punishments, or were they atonements? It’s hard to know. After all, how DO we understand reward and punishment? 

When the people looked at the copper snake, they realized Moshe was not as bad a person as they had accused him of being. They stopped speaking of him and God when they saw what he and God allowed to cause healing. &&&& When Pinchas killed Zimri, he sucked the breath of life out of any continued desire to worship Baal Peor, and the plague following Baal Peor ended. 

An easy lesson is to not speak Lashon Hora, and to not worship idols. We know both of these, and yet gossip is so much fun! We don’t worship idols, so what’s the big deal? 

We don’t know anyone’s full story. We don’t know anyone’s history. We don’t know what anyone is going through, unless they tell us. Seeing them, judging them, deciding whether they are right or wrong, and then discussing it with other people (especially when we are not dealing with criminal behavior, or even if we are dealing with behavior that some deem “selfish”) is Lashon Hora. It must stop. 

Regarding idolatry, I highly recommend this article: 

Moshe Rabbenu knew that people had spoken of him, he saw that snakes had come, and yet he still considered to pursue the option of what would heal those bitten most quickly. Pinchas took a very drastic move to stop a plague, because sometimes you do what you have to do to get the job done. 

May Hashem watch over all of us, and see us through to the end of the current plague, speedily in our days.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Humility of the Elite

Parshat Korach 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

The last chapter of Parshat Korach escapes from the exciting and gripping narrative that defines the first 5+ aliyahs to talk about the responsibilities of the Kohanim and Levi families. Included in the instructions are the rules for what gifts and tithes these spiritual leaders are to receive, while there is a clear emphasis that they will not be getting a portion in the land (verses 20, 23, 24, etc.).

In the book Otzar Chaim, Rabbi Zuckerman (the editor) quotes a “darshan” who noted that even though the Torah recognizes the elevated status of Kohanim, it nevertheless does everything in its power to prevent the Kohanim from having any form of rulership over the nation of Israel. 

See how much power was granted to religious leaders in other traditions! In Egypt, Pharaoh owned all the land, “But only the land of the priests did not belong to Phraoah.”

In the Israelite experience it was the opposite. Every tribe was to be given a portion of the land, and it was specifically Levi, the impressive tribe of Levi, who were not given a portion – “Hashem is their portion.” (See Devarim 10:9)

Rabbi Mordechai Cheifetz noted to the Kohanim that they should not feel as if they are taking gifts from the nation, “For I am your portion.” What the people are giving you is from what I gave them to give you, God says.

It’s such an interesting dichotomy – the Kohanim are the elite, the aristocrats of the Jewish culture, and yet theirs is not the place to have castles and mansions, estates and large portions of land. The community is to look after them – that is the mitzvah given by God, and that is the responsibility they are to undertake. But Kohanim are never meant to lord anything over the people. Their job is to tend to the spirit, to help people with their service of God, to be the messengers through whom the korban is offered, and to simply be encouraging.

In a similar (yet limited) manner is how we are to view the Leviim. They may be the teachers, they may be leaders, they may be revered, but they too have no rulership power, and needed to be sustained by the congregation. How many times does the Torah remind us to look out for the Levi? (Hint: close to 10!)

The fundamental lesson here is to understand God’s design for each role we find ourselves filling. Much like being a rabbi today, the role of the Kohen or Levi was meant to be a role of service. The people may have interacted with the Kohen or Levi in their neighborhoods, but they came to the Kohen or Levi when they needed them – for a bracha, for a Pidyon Haben, for Korbanos, to be the recipient of the “Matnos Kehuna” (priestly gifts) or “Maasros” (tithes).

Being dependent on the community for personal survival was surely humbling, even though Rabbi Cheifetz noted it shouldn’t be looked at as charity. In fact, Kohanim who took advantage of their position were discredited – see the sons of Eili the Kohen (Chofni and Pinchas) who are heavily criticized in the Book of Shmuel I 2:22.

The key instruction given to the Kohanim and Leviim was to understand their role in helping the people towards their own spiritual fulfillment. The emphasis on their own financial position, most specified through their not having a portion of land, was meant to keep them humbled, even while they are honored and revered within the community.

Aharon HaKohen demonstrated his humility in the Parshat-Korach narratives. Moshe’s humility is the subject of legends. They were significant figures, honored, revered, and sometimes challenged by their constituents.

Did they ever demand honor? Did they take advantage of their positions, and behave in a manner that was deemed powerful or overbearing? Did they let personal affronts bother them, or did they let them slide, preferring to move on? (Defending God’s honor or the honor of all of Klal Yisrael is a different topic that Moshe and Aharon sometimes need to address) Compare how Moshe responded to what his sister said about him to how Korach, Dasan and Aviram challenge him. See also 16:15 and how some of the commentaries distinguish between ויחר למשה, and what is written elsewhere of ויחר אף.

Whether we find ourselves to be tremendously blessed, whether we think of ourselves as being powerful players in the spheres we occupy, or whether we have hung up our fatigues and are taking it easy, our lives should ideally be driven by the question of what makes us beloved to other people. In most cases, it is being kind, seeing the other person’s good qualities, and never seeing ourselves as better than others.

Everyone has opinions – that is how we are created. But difference of opinions should not cause us to view people differently.

No one cared what the Kohen’s political views were if he followed Halakha and did the Avodah correctly. The Kohen did not care what the Israelite’s view of the world was – he knew here is a Jew who needs help serving God.

When we are able to see what truly matters, we discover that many things we thought were important really aren’t all that important.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Rising to the Occasion – the Different Personalities of Kalev and Yehoshua

Parshat Shlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

The Gemara in Sotah (11b and 34b) tells us of the difference between Kalev and Yehoshua in how they were able to separate themselves from the mob that were the remaining ten spies.

 (:וכלב בן חצרון... - בן חצרון? בן יפנה הוא! בן שפנה מעצת מרגלים. (סוטה יא

 אמר רבא: מלמד, שפירש כלב מעצת מרגלים והלך ונשתטח על קברי אבות, אמר להן: אבותי, בקשו עלי רחמים שאנצל מעצת מרגלים. יהושע כבר בקש משה עליו רחמים, שנאמר: ויקרא משה להושע בן נון יהושע, יה יושיעך מעצת מרגלים. (סוטה לד 
“Rava taught: This tells us that Kalev separated himself from the council of the Spies and went to pray upon the graves of our forefathers. He prayed: My fathers! Seek mercy on my behalf that I be saved from the conspiring plans of the Spies. As for Yehoshua, Moshe had already beseeched God on his behalf, as it states: 'Moshe named Hoshea bin Nun Yehoshua' (13:6) – May God save you from the evil council of the Spies.” (Sotah 34b) 
Essentially, the Gemara explains (see also Temurah 16a) that Kalev had the inner strength to distance himself from the other spies, while Yehoshua had the merit of Moshe Rabbenu praying on his behalf. (These two interpretations are mentioned by Chizkuni (13:6) regarding Kalev, and by Rashi (13:16) regarding Yehoshua.) 

With regard to Moshe’s prayer on behalf of Yehoshua, one wonders why Moshe would send the spies, knowing they would come back with a negative report from which he hoped Yehoshua would be saved. Netziv argues that Moshe had actually prayed for Yehoshua and changed his name in the past – back at the battle with Amalek at the end of Parshat Beshalach – but he reaffirmed it here in the aftermath of the prophecies of Eldad and Meidad in Parshat B’haalotkha, when they indicated that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would lead the people into the land. 

Netziv’s conclusion is that Moshe was praying for Yehoshua to be able to overcome the battle of his own convictions, not knowing which way the spies might swing. 

Let us take take Netziv’s comment to a different level. Assuming that Moshe’s concerns for Yehoshua were heightened by the prophesy of Eldad and Meidad about Moshe and Yehoshua, the impression we are left with is that Moshe assumes this mission of sending the spies is his final mission. After all, if the prophesy was “Moshe is going to die and Yehoshua is going to bring Israel into the land” (see Rashi 11:28), then as they are on the cusp of entering the land, Moshe’s life would seem to be near its conclusion. 

Moshe is demonstrating an incredible level of personal sacrifice! If it is indeed the case that his life will end when it’s time to enter the land, his pushing ahead with the spies shows he is ready to see these next important steps through to their intended end, even as it spells his own demise. (He does this as well in Bamidbar 31:2 when God tells him to enact vengeance against Midian “and afterwards you’ll be gathered to your nation” – he does not delay in undertaking the battle with Midian to assure his own extended longevity.) 

Moshe’s prayer on behalf of Yehoshua may now take upon itself a life of its own, as Moshe is looking at his young protégé, who is in his 40s, who is about to take over the helm of this difficult nation. Moshe is praying that God will help Yehoshua overcome whatever opposition the spies might bring to his mission, even as Moshe could never imagine how low the spies would bring the people, condemning them (the males over 20) to spend the rest of their lives in the wilderness. 

It’s not just a prayer for Yehoshua as a spy, but a prayer for Yehoshua in what is to be his new position. “Should the spies come back with a report tainted by their opinion, you should be able to demonstrate leadership, and not fall to their negativity.” 

What is fascinating is that Kalev is actually the one who challenges the spies (13:30). Yehoshua starts off on the sidelines, as we don’t hear from him until 14:6, after two major things happen. In 14:4, people start murmering about appointing a leader and returning to Egypt, and in 14:5, Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces before the entire nation. In the next verse Yehoshua and Kalev tear their clothes and then turn to confront the people. 

Rabbi Yaakov Medan argues that what turned Yehoshua to join with Kalev was the suggestion to return to Egypt. (see more here:

Perhaps we can posit that what turned Yehoshua was that Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces. They will do this a few more times in Bamidbar (16:22 in Dasan, Aviram, and Korach narrative; 17:10 when there is a plague which will be stopped by Aharon carrying the ketoret; 20:6 post Miriam’s death, when there is no water and there is more talk about how amazing Egypt was), but this is the first time and is currently unprecedented. 

Is it possible that Yehoshua felt he had just witnessed Moshe’s and Aharon’s deaths, which prompted him to tear his clothes? Did he join Kalev because he understood this moment to be the fulfillment of the prophesy that had so troubled him, and he realized that Kalev, who had declared “We shall surely ascend and conquer it for we can do it!” (13:30) was his most natural ally? 

In hindsight we can argue that Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces when Egypt is referenced in any capacity as having been a good place for the Israelites to live. But Yehoshua does not have the hindsight we have, he needs to rise now and fulfill his destiny as the one who takes over. Indeed if we read through what he says in 14:7-9, we find him speaking as a leader, as if he is taking over. “The land through which we passed in our explorations is a very, very good land! If God is satisfied with us and brings us to this land, He can give it to us - a land flowing with milk and honey. But don't rebel against God! Don't be afraid of the people in the land! They have lost their protection and shall be our prey! God is with us, so don't be afraid!” 

Moshe did not need to pray for Kalev, partly because Kalev had different talents and strengths, but also because he was not destined to be the leader. No matter how we look at Yehoshua’s talents and strengths, it is clear from how many times Moshe blesses him in the book of Devarim (31:7,23) and how many times God blesses him in Yehoshua chapter 1, that being a leader requires strength and resilience, as well as much blessing. A leader always has detractors and people who do not approve of his appointment, his leadership, his style, the way he operates. But he needs to be blessed with hatzlacha so that he can do the job he is tasked with doing – even with the natural opposition that accompanies any appointment. 

Anyone making critical decisions that affect a population is going to have detractors. In Yehoshua’s case, Moshe’s hope was that he’d be blessed to not fall prey to those who wanted to destroy his mission, and that he’d be blessed with the resilience to overcome those who wanted to undermine his charge – to enter the land under God’s watchful eye, and not feel the need to ever return to Egypt. In Moshe’s absence this would be a particular challenge, but with a clear-thinking Kalev at his side, Yehoshua was ready to rise to the occasion. 

Do we ever know what our destiny is? Are we ever confronted with a never-before-seen reality that challenges our status quo? Do we ever know what the future brings? Is anything guaranteed? How much time do we give ourselves to adjust to things which don’t go as we planned? Are we thoughtful, are we confrontational, do we stand for truth? Do we wing it? Are we more deliberate as we come up with a new plan? 

Kalev and Yehoshua demonstrate two approaches to challenges – they are certainly not the only options available. When faced with challenge, do we run and hide, or do we too rise to the occasion? '

Shabbat Shalom!