Jul 07 2017

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

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Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

Jun 30 2017

The Limits of Human Comprehension

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This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!

Jun 16 2017

The Eye of the Beholder

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When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!

May 25 2017

Entering Fifty Gates

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When G-d begins to speak to the Jews at Mount Sinai, He says, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Commentaries ask, why is the Exodus from Egypt important in this context? If G-d is trying to establish His Identity and explain why Israel is now obligated to serve Him, would it not be more appropriate to say “I am Hashem your G-d, Who Created you?”

The Ohr Gedalyahu notes that the Exodus, meaning the specific phrase “going out of Egypt,” is mentioned 50 times in the Torah (as found in the Vilna Gaon, Aderes Eliyahu). This corresponds to fifty spiritual “Gates of Understanding.” When the Children of Israel were in Egypt, they descended through forty-nine “Gates of Impurity,” and G-d brought us out through each one of them.

Our Sages say (Talmud R”H 21b) that Moshe was given all fifty Gates of Understanding, save one. The Vilna Gaon adds that similarly, Moshe understood why the Torah had to mention the Exodus forty-nine times, but not this fiftieth time.

In this way, the Ohr Gedalyahu answers the question of why the Exodus is mentioned here. According to the Gaon’s interpretation, this phrase was not added in order to explain to Israel why they were obligated to serve Him, but because the Exodus itself reached its final conclusion at the moment G-d said, “I am Hashem your G-d.”

It also corresponds to the one level of understanding that none of us, not even Moshe, can truly attain.

On Shavuos, we receive the Torah anew. We realize that it is this which has set us apart as a distinct nation from the days of the Exodus, and that its greatest secrets will always remain beyond our understanding. Yet what we have in our hands can keep the greatest of minds busy for a lifetime, while elevating us to the highest heights a human being can attain.

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