Jul 01 2016

Doing the Impossible

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climber-299018_640In this week’s reading, we find the well-known account of the spies who went into the Land of Israel. The Jews knew that they were supposed to inherit the land; the job of the spies was to find the best way to enter. Are the people strong or weak? Are their cities fortified? All of these were important for tactical reasons. At the same time, the spies were told to investigate the natural resources as well, to see what sort of land would be theirs.

As far as the latter, they performed their task to perfection. They returned calling the land “flowing with milk and honey,” bringing clusters of grapes so large that two people were needed to carry one cluster on a pole. What a wonderful land it was!

But as far as how to enter and take that land was concerned, the spies veered from their mission. Instead of providing tactical advice, they abandoned all hope — they said it cannot be done. They decided that G-d would not keep his promise, and the Children of Israel would never inherit their land.

Only two spies opposed the consensus: Yehoshua and Calev. Calev told the people, “we should certainly ascend and we shall possess it, for we certainly are able to do so” [Num. 13:30].

What was his message? Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 35), which says that this was far more than mere encouragement regarding their capabilities. “‘We should certainly ascend’ – even to Heaven. If he [Moshe] says ‘make ladders and ascend them,’ we shall succeed in all his words.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Calev provides us a model for all growth in Torah and performing G-d’s Will. Calev teaches us that it doesn’t matter if it looks impossible! Since what you wish to do is a “D’var Mitzvah”, something HaShem wants done, then if you try, He will help, and you will be able to do it.

Jun 24 2016

Genuine Humility

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humble-flowerThe Torah describes Moshe in a startling way. It says that he was “more humble than any man” [Numbers 12:3].

First of all, we know that Moshe had a unique relationship with G-d. That should make a person proud of his accomplishments, proud to be selected for such a prominent role. But he regarded everything that he had as a gift from G-d, not something for which he could claim credit. And we can understand that.

But there is another issue, as well. When we think about humility, we think of reticence — the opposite of leadership. This is the same Moshe who stood up to Korach, and who rebuked Israel every time they erred. How could you describe him as humble? He held back nothing!

The answer is that there is nothing that Moshe did for his own honor and respect. He was not standing up to Korach for himself, but for G-d. He did not rebuke Israel for offending him, but for not following the Torah!

The context of this comment about Moshe’s humility is when his siblings spoke with each other, feeling that Moshe was doing something wrong. Our Sages say that he separated, and remained separated from his wife, because he knew that G-d might speak with him at any moment — as G-d proceeds to explain to Miriam and Aharon.

What is the relevance of Moshe’s humility? He didn’t even know what his siblings had said to each other.

The Torah is saying that even had Moshe heard of it, he would not have justified himself. He was in a unique circumstance, both in his time and throughout history. He would not have spoken up simply to protect his honor.

So HaShem did it for him.

Our Sages say that a person who is shamed and does not respond, who says nothing, is honored and rewarded tremendously. In so doing he or she is following in the path of Moshe, who cared not at all for his own honor, and only for honoring G-d.

Jun 10 2016

A Unique Encounter

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flowers-mountainThe Torah teaches that at Sinai, G-d did not reveal Himself to a single individual. Rather, He spoke to the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, the famed Jewish scholar of over 800 years ago, calls this event the foundation, the “pillar upon which our belief revolves.”

Why is this not circular reasoning? The answer is that this event is not something taken on faith, itself. Every Jew today knows that at least until recent generations, his or her forebears believed that this event actually happened — Maimonides says “the best of all witnesses testified” about it.

He points out, further, that there has been no similar event in history, and that the Bible itself tells us that this will never happen again. Moshe warns the Jewish nation to never forget “the things which your eyes saw,” and to teach this to the next and following generations [cf. Deut. 32].

Many have tried to explain that this was merely a story, that it never actually happened. But when they try to explain it in detail, an alternative story stops making sense.

Imagine a village in Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean, that holds a festival every spring. The festival, they tell you, is a celebration of a miraculous event 400 years ago, when a flood swept through their community. The flood did massive damage, washing away entire buildings, yet afterwards not a single villager had perished. And they celebrate that miracle with an annual event. And they present you with records copied by hand from originals dating all the way back to that period.

Would anyone disbelieve the story? Would people argue that the village elders just made it up at some point? Everyone would agree that this almost certainly happened; there is no reason to discount it.

When we look around us today, we see billions of adherents of religions based upon Judaism. There are literally hundreds of religions and sects which claim that they and they alone have the correct theology. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormons — and the list goes on — most of which differ on core theology.

Obviously, the best way to start such a religion would be to create the tale that G-d Returned, spoke to a new group of believers, and explained His new rules. But the Torah asserts that “when you shall look back at the days before you,” you will see that this story was never told prior or after Sinai. The Rambam elaborates: “that there was never anything like this prior, and there will be nothing like it afterwards, this being that an entire individual nation shall hear the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and that they shall see His Glory eye to eye.”

Maimonides teaches that this has not been done, because it cannot be done — because the Jewish Encounter with G-d is truly unique in human history.

Jun 03 2016

It’s Not About Our Enemies

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passing-stormThis week we read a very uncomfortable section of the Torah. G-d warns us that bad things will happen if we don’t keep His rules in His land. Keep the rules, He says, and things will be wonderful. But if you don’t, punishment will come to the Jewish Nation.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netzi”v (the Hebrew acronym of his name), was the Dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva in Europe in the 19th Century CE. He says that we can tell where the punishment is coming from because it’s a punishment. It’s not an ordinary conquest of one nation over another.

When one army overcomes another, they don’t punish the population on the losing side. Even losing soldiers are released once they are known not to pose a further threat.

But if a group of people rebel against the King, that’s an entirely different story. After he puts down the rebellion, he will harshly punish those responsible — because he expected their loyalty.

So Kings would not exile populations or destroy their temples to their idols. What befell Israel, in accordance with the warnings of this Torah Portion (and similarly near the end of Deuteronomy), was extraordinary and even nonsensical in terms of warfare and geopolitical domination.

But it makes sense in the context of a punishment.

Since, the Netzi”v writes, G-d made a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, in which they would be His unique nation and guard His rules, it is the breach of those rules which explains why the people of Israel were punished.

As we know, this was used throughout history to “prove” that G-d had abandoned his nation. But the Torah itself says otherwise: “And even with that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not be disgusted with them to eliminate them, to nullify my Covenant with them” [26:44]. As Rashi explains, “and even though I will due to them this repayment [for their bad deeds] that I have described, ‘when they are in the land of their enemies,’ I will not reject them ‘to eliminate them,’ and to ‘nullify my Covenant’ which I have with them.”

The word “l’chalosam” is precise. It doesn’t mean simply to destroy, but to eliminate. Even in the punishment, we see G-d’s Promise to the Jewish People. Other nations can be eliminated, either physically or through a change to their ideology and beliefs such that they are no longer who they were. But the Jews have a promise from G-d — that no matter how bad things may be, we remain the Eternal Nation.

It is those who oppress us who disappear. The last group that tried to kill us is now society’s worst epithet, and we are here.

That promise stays with us always!

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