Jun 13

An Evil Report

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In this week’s reading we learn about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an. As is clear from the consequences, their evil report, and the Children of Israel’s reaction, became their greatest sin in all their time in the Sinai desert — and it was initiated by “leaders of the Children of Israel” [Num. 13:3]. Even among the Generation of the Desert, those who heard the Voice of G-d at Mt. Sinai, those who set this in motion were on an exalted spiritual level. How could this have happened?

the-juiciest-gossipAfter they went through the land of Cana’an, these great men came home very discouraged. They knew that the Children of Israel had sinned previously, especially with the Golden Calf. They saw that the inhabitants were giants, and it would take open miracles for Israel to be victorious. So they concluded, erroneously, that Israel was no longer worthy of that level of protection — that G-d’s promise was not unconditional, that they would lose.

So what did they do when they returned? Did they go to Moshe? Moshe, of course, had a direct line to G-d, and they all knew it. Like all the rest of the Children of Israel, even these leaders, the spies, couldn’t withstand hearing G-d’s Voice directly — at Mt. Sinai, says the Medrash, their souls left their bodies both times G-d spoke to them, so they asked Moshe to listen and transmit to them. Moshe was thus uniquely able to tell them if Israel was or was not worthy, or if it mattered. His guidance stood above that of all the elders, all the judges, and certainly all the nation.

But what did they do? They didn’t turn to Moshe. They made their own judgement and spread their story via the rumor mill. And that was their failing. And all the Children of Israel listened to them, and not to Moshe — and that was their failing.

Had the spies turned to Moshe and let him reassure them, or had the Children of Israel known the difference between being a leading figure and having true leadership (and listened to the latter), they would have entered the land forty years sooner — all those adults would have entered the land rather than dying in the desert.

Have we learned from their experience?

Today, following the spies seems to be commonplace. Magazines and websites exist solely to gossip about leading entertainers and anyone else they choose. There are no shortage of outlets, especially blogs, whose primary purpose is to speak evil of Jews or Israel, and Jews read them. Today, anyone can set him or herself up and claim to be a “leader” — and get plenty of followers.

We, the Children of Israel, cannot afford to repeat the error of the spies.

May 30

Shared Glory

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Upon the inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the leaders of each of the Tribes of Israel, the Nesi’im, brought gifts to be offered as sacrifices. We read the details of the gifts offered by each of the twelve, and immediately realize that the Ba’al Koreh, the Torah reader, had an easier job preparing that we might have thought — because besides the names of the tribes and their leaders, essentially the same six verses are repeated twelve times. Each one of them brought precisely the same gift.

torah-mountainRabbi Shmuel Greineman writes that this is no coincidence. On the second day, Nesanel ben Tzuar of the tribe of Yissachar had to make a decision. What would he do differently than Nachshon ben Aminadav of Yehudah? Each of the remaining ten, of course, would then have to decide how to vary from the earlier ones, inevitably leading to jealousy as each one felt compelled to upstage those who gave previously. So he chose instead to let Nachshon’s gift serve as the template which they all followed. G-d found this so gratifying that He had all twelve gifts recorded in the Torah individually, although they could as easily have been stated collectively.

This week’s reading, Naso, is universally read either immediately before or after the holiday of Shavuos, when the Torah was given, when the entire Nation gathered around the mountain “like one person with one heart.” The gifts of the Nesi’im teach us the importance and greatness of unity. The Torah, with its “seventy facets,” is not a prescription for anarchy. On the contrary — the depth of Torah provides abundant lessons all leading us in the same direction, to bring G-dliness into the world and share it with the next generation.

May 23

Every Jew Counts!

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This week we begin Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. This, the fourth book of the Torah, acquired its Latin/English name because it begins with a count of the Children of Israel. This, though, is not the first such census — we find repeated counts of the Jewish Nation throughout the Torah.

number-peopleRabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), commenting at the beginning of our reading, explains why: “because they are precious before Him, He counts them every hour: when they left Egypt He counted them, and when they fell due to the Golden Calf He counted them to know the number remaining, and when He came to rest His Divine Presence upon them, he counted them.”

G-d established the People of Israel to bring His message to the world… and each individual plays a critical role. Each one is precious.

Today’s crisis of assimilation and intermarriage has come about because Jews have lost an understanding of the value and privilege of carrying His Torah. The decision to marry another Jewish person should never be a matter of racial or ethnic bias — after all, anyone is welcome to join the Jewish People. On the contrary, a Jewish marriage is built around our shared mission, a mission which is transmitted “to your children and your children’s children.” Both partners must share the goal of raising the next Jewish generation.

When we learn and study Judaism, it cannot only be for ourselves — it must be shared with others. Every Jew must be inspired to understand, share the mission and help ensure the Jewish future.

May 16

A Gift of Love

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mordechai eliyahu with etrogMy cousin’s daughter is celebrating her Bas Mitzvah this weekend, and as they studied this week’s reading in preparation, they came across one of the classic questions of Jewish philosophy: why do we do what we do?

The parsha says that if we follow G-d’s Laws, we will be richly rewarded — but also says that if we don’t, we will be punished. So are we acting out of fear of punishment, or because we want the reward? Our Sages add two additional possibilities: acting out of fear or love of G-d, without regard to the reward or punishment. Similarly, if someone has done wrong and is returning to G-d, the Sages distinguish between one who does so out of fear of punishment, fear of G-d, or love.

Obviously the highest level is to do the Commandments simply out of love. The story is told of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Gaon of Vilna, who was unable to locate an Esrog (one of the four species taken on Sukkos) one year. His assistant found someone with an Esrog, but he would part with it on one condition only: that all of the Gaon’s reward for the Mitzvah of taking Lulav and Esrog that year would belong to the one giving up the Esrog. The Gaon would share in none of the reward at all.

Observers said that the Gaon did the Mitzvah that year with even greater intensity than his elevated norm. Why? Because he was doing it purely out of love for HaShem and His Mitzvos, without the least concern for the reward he was earning!

It is obvious, though, that sometimes this isn’t enough. G-d never wants to punish us, any more than a loving parent enjoys disciplining a child who has done wrong. But it is sometimes necessary for a person to fear the consequences of bad behavior, in order to avoid it. G-d knows (of course) that we aren’t always up to the challenge of acting out of love alone.

Nonetheless, that is the goal we should be striving to meet. Mazal Tov, Sarah Miriam Edelson, on your Bas Mitzvah, and may you always merit to serve G-d out of love! [And may we all have the same blessing.]

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