Jun 26 2015

An Unbroken Chain


We read this week about the passing of Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. At the time of his passing, G-d tells Moshe to ascend the mountain with both Aharon and Elazar, his son — and to remove the vestments of the High Priest from Aharon, and place them upon Elazar before his father’s passing.

IMG_1802_1__61147.1423773883.1280.1280The Sifsei Chachamim points out that this is a unique moment. It was forbidden to leave the Temple Mount wearing those unique garments — so why was Aharon told to ascend the mountain in them, and Elazar to return wearing them?

Aharon was special to the Jewish nation in two ways, which we could perhaps describe as “personal” and “professional.” He, Aharon, was a pursuer of peace, the one who helped people to reconcile their differences. But he also held a critical office in the leadership of the Jewish people, as the High Priest.

Every time a great leader or teacher passes away, it is natural to worry that no one can fill his place, that he was irreplaceable. By having Elazar descend back to the Jewish nation in the Priestly Vestments, HaShem was sending us a message — that as much as every individual truly is unique, the nation will not be leaderless.

Hashem had to order them to ascend the mountain. None of the three, of course, wanted to see Aharon pass away. But Moshe was also ordered to dress Elazar. The impression given is that Elazar would not, otherwise, have wanted to put them on. He would have hesitated, but HaShem showed him that he should wear them. He would never be Aharon, his father — but he would be Kohen Gadol.

Just last year, following the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, who had been the leader of Sephardic Jewry around the world, Rav Shalom Cohen, Dean of Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem, was appointed to succeed him as the head of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah, the council of scholars that guides Sha”s, the Sephardic party in Israel. While Rav Cohen was a member of that Moetzet since its formation over thirty years ago, many pointed out that he always invested his time in scholarship and in teaching his students, rather than political matters.

It has been this way throughout our history, that the true leaders have not sought leadership, but only to dedicate themselves to God and the Jewish people. They find leadership thrust upon them, often by their own predecessors if not by that predecessors’ other students. HaShem promised us that just as the Jewish people will always survive, we will never find ourselves like a ship without a rudder. The two go together — we will always find ourselves with leaders, to guide us forward through history.

Jun 12 2015

The Land of Israel


EinGediThis week, we read the portion of the spies, send by the Children of Israel to go spy out the land that they would enter. This wasn’t, as Rashi tells us from the Medrash, a Commandment — but rather “if that’s what you want to do, send them.” G-d knew, of course, that this was going to be counterproductive, but He allowed them to make their own decision. As we know, they returned with an evil, destructive report.

The Ba’al HaTurim comments that there is a hint to future exile in the very word “send” — the numerical value of “Sh’lach” is 338, and the First Temple was destroyed in 3338.

It seems that speaking ill of the Land of Israel doesn’t go out of style. I was there recently, and a daughter just completed a year of study. A close relative, one much less familiar with today’s reality in the Holy Land, described this as having sent my daughter to a war zone. [We live in Baltimore; need I say more?]

It is sad to contemplate how many Jews now believe that not only is Israel a war zone, but that Israel is warlike, responsible for the ongoing conflict. On campuses across America, Jews unfamiliar with the history of anti-Semitism now lend credence to its modern iteration — the delegitimization of Jews living in our ancestral homeland.

Instead we are told that native “Palestinians” are Arab, and Jews — who never left that land except by force — are “immigrants.” That Jews anxious to simply live in peace are the problem, while those who celebrate murders are simply “resisting occupation.” That terror attacks against Jews should be ignored, while efforts to neutralize those terrorists are Israel “attacking” Gaza.

Reverse the error of the spies — go to the Holy Land and see for yourself. You will see how safe it is, generally speaking. Learn how Israel defends Jewish lives in a more humane fashion than any other army in the world, including those of the US and its allies. And above all, appreciate what it means to be able to stand on holy ground.

Jun 05 2015

Ignite a Soul


match-lightIn this week’s reading, Aharon is Commanded to light the Menorah in the Temple.

What happens when you light a flame? Lighting a second candle takes nothing from the first one. Doing so merely spreads the light, adding to it.

If you’ve ever seen a building constructed with old stone walls, you may have noticed that the windows are wider on the inside, to allow the sunlight from the outside to spread inside the building. The Temple, though, was constructed the opposite way. The windows were narrower on the inside, so that light from within the Temple should spread to the outside.

We read in Proverbs (20:27) that “The light of HaShem is the soul of man.” We are to not only to light candles… we are supposed to give light to souls, as well. Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l pointed out that G-d doesn’t need our help, in this as in anything. But He wants us to take part in spreading the light.

The Commandment is to light “until the flame burns by itself.” It is not enough to simply see a little spark of light; the job isn’t completed until the light is able to burn brightly by itself — and able to “pay it forward” and ignite other flames as well.

We should all do our part, every day, to light the lights not only within ourselves, but others.

May 29 2015

We Live to Give


selflessThe Talmud [Rosh Hashanah 17b] records an exchange between Bluriah, a convert, and the Rabbis. She questioned an apparent contradiction: the Torah says that G-d does not show favor [Deut. 10:17], but the Kohanim bless the nation in this week’s reading [Num. 6:26] that G-d should show favor to them. How, she asked, can this be?

Rebbe Yossi HaKohen provided Bluriah with a parable: imagine a person standing before the King and promising to pay a debt by a certain time — and swearing to do so on the King’s life. The time comes and goes, and the debt remains unpaid. The debtor comes before the King to assuage his anger, and the King says to him: “I forgive the embarrassment, but now go deal with your friend!”

The Rabbi explained that the situation is the same before the King of Kings. If a person sins against G-d, G-d can be asked to show favor. But between people, He cannot be bribed, He cannot show favoritism.

In this week’s reading, we also see an outstanding example of people not trying to earn favoritism from HaShem. This week’s reading recounts the individual offerings of the heads of the tribes, at the time of the dedication of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. Over and over again, we read the very same words — because each offering was the same as every other.

The Medrash says that although the Nasi, the leader of the tribe, of Reuven wanted to bring his offering second after Yehudah, HaShem commanded that the tribes should follow the way they camped in the desert — thus placing the tribes of Yissacher and Zevulun, which traveled under the flag of Yehudah, ahead of Reuven, the second of the four tribes with their own flag.

The Medrash explains that the head of Yissacher was told to bring second, because the tribe of Yissacher told all the tribes what to offer. What does this Medrash mean? What was so special about this offering, “a silver platter, weighing 130 shekels, and a silver basin, weighing 70 shekels, both filled with fine flour mixed with oil…” which was duplicated by all the tribes?

One answer given is that the duplication was the advice.

We have a natural instinct to be different — and to be better. But if someone is “outperforming,” that means that others are not. And indeed, sometimes it feels like there is a competition to “keep up with the Joneses,” and to outdo them.

This is exactly what the head of the tribe of Yissacher, Nesanel ben Tzuar, chose not to do. On the contrary, he chose to precisely duplicate Nachshon ben Amminadav’s offering of the previous day, so that none try to outdo the other. Otherwise, one would add upon the other, until the twelfth Nasi was bringing all he owned!

Nesanel ben Tzuar emulated the behavior of HaShem Himself, as found in the Medrash concerning Bluriah. HaShem does nothing for Himself — we have nothing to give Him except the opportunity to receive His Kindness. Nesanel ben Tzuar similarly cared not for himself, but only to avoid favoritism, any preference of one Nasi over the others.

We are enjoined to emulate HaShem and His attributes — but we might not have thought about the desire to outperform in that context. Obviously, in constructive matters like the workplace, and all the more so learning Torab, we should strive to do “better than ever.” But even for the best of purposes, we shouldn’t try to outspend others.

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