Jul 24 2015

Criticizing Israel

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Domino TheoryThe last book of the Torah, Book of Devarim, is called “Deuteronomy” in English — an Old English translation of Deuteronomium, Latin for “Second Law.” G-d tells Moshe to record what Moshe himself said to Israel, which includes further discussion and elaboration of the Commandments.

Moshe begins, however, by giving Israel Tochacha, rebuke. in modern English we might call it a “stern lecture,” but that fails to capture its full meaning. Moshe lived his entire life as a servant of the Nation. G-d testifies that Moshe was “more humble than anyone” [Num. 12:3]. He was their leader because he was called upon to lead — and showed leadership by demonstrating, as a shepherd, concern for a small lost sheep in his flock. He cared about every person. So if he was criticizing them, it was because he truly desired the very best for them.

Even before he begins to speak, Rashi explains, the Torah describes the People of Israel’s location in a way that reminds us of places where we, Israel, angered the A-lmighty through our misbehavior. And the Torah knows a thing or two about rebuke — why does it say that he spoke “to all of Israel?” Because if only part of them were there, those out in the marketplace at the time would come back and say, “you didn’t respond when he said that? If we had been there, we would’ve answered him!” So Moshe assembled everyone, so that no one could say afterwards that they could have justified themselves but didn’t have the opportunity. And why did Moshe only do this shortly before his death? Otherwise he would have had to rebuke Israel constantly, and we would have been ashamed.

Perhaps the strongest criticism is when the Torah points out that they found themselves eleven days away from Horeb, Mt. Sinai [see 1:2]. Forty years later, they were all of eleven days from where they received the Torah.

And there is a deeper message, Rashi tells us, behind mentioning “eleven days from Horeb.” — to get from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea takes eleven days, but excluding the days when Israel stopped (due to its own actions), they traveled there in only three. That is how anxious G-d was to bring us to our land! And then at Kadesh Barnea the spies went out… and as a result, Israel traveled in a circuit around Mt. Seir for forty years.

This is a good message to be reading on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the day both Temples were destroyed. Even the bad things that happen to us are for our own benefit — and usually because we, Israel, did something wrong. We live in a time when people refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, and we are taught to take responsibility beyond what even seems logical: “every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed during their time” [Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1].

Today there is a terrible disconnect between cause and effect — by which I mean spiritual cause. 78% of Jews in America told the Pew report that “remembering the Holocaust” is an important part of being Jewish. But where are they on the ninth of Av? On Tisha B’Av, we remember terrible things that befell the Jewish People, and remind ourselves that it is ultimately up to us to do better, to honor the memory of the holy martyrs of our nation by coming closer to G-d and being truly deserving of peace in our land.

Jul 17 2015

The Myth of 40 Years of Wandering

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LostManAs a result of the Nation of Israel’s lack of trust, their belief (based upon the report of the spies) that they could not conquer Cana’an and would die trying, G-d said the entire generation of the desert would remain just that: rather than being the generation that entered the Land of Israel, they would remain wandering in the desert until they passed away. Their children would be the ones to enter the land.

The last Torah portion in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) enumerates the migrations from place to place — from Ramses to Sukkos, from Sukkos to the edge of the desert, etc., until reaching the plains of Mo’av. When you read them, the number of migrations seems overwhelming. There are enough of them that many congregations read that section with a special tune.

In actuality, and as Rashi explains, this image is deceiving. First of all, there are only forty-two steps, barely one per year. Fourteen of them describe the journey to Mt. Sinai and shortly thereafter, all during the first year — and prior to the decree. The final eight steps, all of which transpired after the passing of Aharon, are in the last year in the desert as they prepare to finally enter the land. So during all thirty-eight years when they were decreed to wander without real purpose, there were only twenty such journeys.

So we see that in actuality, the decree was delivered with mercy. The Rambam [Moreh Nevuchim] also says that a person can go through the Sinai desert, and see for him or herself that the Nation of Israel camped in places where other people did not. In fact, anyone would say that those places were “unfit for habitation,” pure desert with little water, much less food.

Even when there is a decree against Israel, there is a bit of light in the darkness. We must never give up hope — that, as the spies demonstrated, only makes matters worse. We must always remain aware that G-d is watching over us!

Jul 09 2015

The People’s Guide

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A young man in Poland was once diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. His teacher, the holy Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, advised him to seek a blessing from a certain scholar in another town. He asked his student not to reveal to anyone the nature of his counsel. The student traveled to receive the blessing, and, to everyone’s surprise, recovered rapidly from the illness. As the Chofetz Chaim had requested, he told no one about the special blessing.

Twenty years later, after this young man had gone on to marry and raise a family, his sister-in-law was diagnosed with the same life-threatening illness. After great pressure from the family, he told his wife the secret of his recovery, and she became hopeful that such a blessing might heal her sister.

But soon afterwards, the man himself fell ill once again — and he was frightened that this happened because he had told his wife how he was healed, against his teacher’s request. He had no choice but to visit the Chofetz Chaim, who was now elderly and weak, and ask again for his assistance. After hearing the story, the Chofetz Chaim said, “I really wish I could help, but I’m not as strong as I used to be. After sending you for a blessing, I took it upon myself to fast forty forty days for the sake of your recovery, and I’m afraid I’m not able to do that anymore.” The Chofetz Chaim was so dedicated to the needs of others not only did he fast for forty days on behalf a student, but he deliberately made the student believe that someone else should get all the credit!

Near the end of Moses’ days he asked G-d to appoint a successor so “the congregation of G-d should not be like sheep who do not have for themselves a shepherd (Numbers, 27:17).” Why didn’t he simply say “like sheep without a shepherd”?

The Jewish People would certainly find a successor, of that Moses had no fear. His concern was that their leader and guide would only do the minimum of what’s necessary to be seen as a responsible leader, and secure his job. Moses prayed that the shepherd not be devoted to only himself, but to the sheep. May the people have a leader for themselves! (Lekach Tov, Kehilas Yaakov, and Rav Sholom Shvadron zt”l)

Jul 03 2015

Open Your Eyes

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donkeyIn this week’s reading, we learn the incredible story of Bila’am, who traveled to curse the Jews, only to be confronted by an angel – and his own donkey.

His donkey saw the angel first, with a drawn sword, and prudently steered to avoid the angel by walking off the path. Bila’am responded by hitting the donkey, especially when it trapped Bila’am’s leg against the wall as it desperately tried to avoid their death.

The donkey was doing the right thing; Bila’am refused to see. Even when G-d miraculously gave the donkey the power of speech, Bila’am responded by threatening to kill it. Finally the donkey started to get through: it asked Bila’am, (paraphrasing Num. 22:30) “in all the years you have ridden me as your donkey, have I ever acted like this towards you?” And Bila’am admitted that it had not.

And then, finally, G-d opened Bila’am’s eyes. Or, at least, this is what the translations say. The Hebrew word, “VayeGal,” comes from the root “Galui,” something which is revealed, the opposite of hidden. Of course Bila’am could see, his eyes were wide open the whole time. But he could not see the truth — that there was an angel standing in front of him.

He should have known the truth. Clearly the donkey was acting wildly out of character — he should have known there was some good reason without needing to see the angel himself. Only once he began to understand, and admitted that the donkey had never acted this way, only then did G-d let him see the truth.

Friends of us once recounted the story of taking a walk on a Shabbos afternoon, when a well-known Rabbi and his daughter suddenly emerged from their house and jumped into a waiting taxi. After Shabbos, the daughter called them to let them know that her father had a medical emergency, which required “breaking” the Sabbath in order to save his life in accordance with Jewish Law. The wife, telling this story, recalled thinking to herself “no, really? We thought that after 80 years, the Rabbi had said ‘I’ve had enough of this Jewish observance, let’s go for a ride!'”

Sadly, though, it’s not always so simple. It’s not always so obvious that the person acting so out of character might have a very good reason (even emotionally) to act contrary to his or her normal behavior. And it’s our obligation to try to see beyond the limitations of our eyes, to imagine .

This world is all about concealment. We only know part of the story, we don’t know all the facts, we don’t understand. If Bila’am should have understood that there must be a really good reason for his faithful donkey to suddenly act this way, we should certainly try to recognize that good people don’t suddenly go bad — and interpret their actions for the best.

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