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Volume 17, Issue 36
Shavuot and Shabbat Parashat Behaalotcha
5771 - B”H
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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“And the nation became evil”(Numbers 11:1) From this week’s reading of Beha’alotcha, the Book of Numbers takes a dramatic turn, ushering in the sin of the scouts, the rebellions of Korah and Zimri ben Salou, and the general squabbling which resulted in the death of that generation in the desert.
The words which signal this destructive dénouement are difficult to translate: “And the nation became evil ‘mit’onenim’” (Numbers 11:1), a word which only appears in the Bible this one time, and is generally translated as “complainers” (as if it had been written “mitlonenim”). How can we explain this sudden downward spiral? This turn of events is particularly surprising since Numbers began with such a positive and optimistic description of the tribes surrounding the Sanctuary, the Kohanim and Levites at their proper stations, and the army poised for the conquest of Israel.
I believe the answer is found in the midrashic name of this book: The Book of Censuses. Two censuses are taken: the first at the outset of Numbers, and the second in Chapter 26, in the midst of the Israelite rebellions against Moses. How the Israelites are to be identified for each census is radically different, and herein lies the reason for the apparent spiritual decline.
The first census is introduced as follows: “Take a census of the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ households, every male individually… everyone who goes out to the army of Israel” (Num. 1:2-2). Rashi explains that each individual is listed according to his tribe, his father’s house, and his individual name; only those above the age of 20 – the minimum age for army service – were included.
By contrast, Targum Onkelos interprets the word “l’mishpehotam” to mean “their children” rather than “their forebears,” or “their tribes.”
In memory of Sam & Ruth Pianko, a"h,
on their yahrzeits
by their granddaughter, Arlene Pianko Groner
Even from a more general perspective, the “yihus” (familial status) that one accrues for oneself is far more important than the pedigree one receives from one’s forbears. When I was the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, much of my time was spent match-making. I would often receive phone calls from out-of-town parents anxious about the impending shidduch between their child and someone about whom they knew little, asking: “And what about the family, the yihus?”
I had a stock response: “I guarantee you a better yihus than our King Messiah. After all, King David's had as his forebears a Moabite convert from an act of incest on his maternal side and the result of a forbidden sexual relationship between a man and his daughter-in-law on his paternal side.”
Nevertheless, Rashi is still our most classical commentary, and since l’mishpehotam precedes leveit avotam (fathers’ household) in the verse, a simple reading would favor Rashi’s interpretation of “tribal forebears” over Onkelos’s “children.” Moreover, Rashi’s interpretation helps us understand the crisis which occurred.
The second census has altogether different instructions: “Take a census of the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their father’s houses, all who go out to the army of Israel” (Num. 26: 2). Missing are two crucial points found in the first census – the tribal background and the individual name.
Every good officer knows how important it is that each soldier has a sense of pride in his mission. This impetus derives from a historical tradition, a feeling of connectedness to a familial or tribal narrative for the sake of which the soldier is ready to sacrifice his life. Without this historical connection, the individual will be without the morale required to act with courage and commitment.
The Israelites at Sinai were imbued with the mission to be a “holy nation and kingdom of priest-teachers,” to set out for Zion from whence the God of peace and morality would be revealed.
Somehow, they lost this sense of connectedness to their past during that first year in the wilderness. The Netziv explains the Hebrew “mit’onenim” as deriving from the phrase “anna v’anna,” to wander hither and thither, without a moral compass. In the absence of connection to an idealistic past, they gave up their dream of a consecrated future – and had to die forlorn where they were. Shabbat Shalom
Covenant and Conversation
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Leadership Beyond Despair
Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is remarkable for the extreme realism with which it portrays human character. Its heroes are not superhuman. Its non-heroes are not archetypal villains. The best have failings; the worst often have saving virtues. I know of no other religious literature quite like it.
This makes it very difficult to use biblical narrative to teach a simple, black-and-white approach to ethics. And that – argued R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes (Mevo ha-Aggadot) – is why rabbinic midrash often systematically re-interprets the narrative so that the good become all-good and the bad all-bad. For sound educational reasons, Midrash paints the moral life in terms of black and white.
Yet the plain sense remains (“A biblical passage never loses its plain interpretation”, Shabbat 63a), and it is important that we do not lose sight of it. It is as if monotheism brought into being at the same time a profound humanism. G-d in the Hebrew Bible is nothing like the gods of myth. They were half-human, half-divine. The result was that in the epic literature of pagan cultures, human heroes were seen as almost like gods: semi-divine.
In stark contrast, monotheism creates a total distinction between G-d and humanity. If G-d is wholly G-d, then human beings can be seen as wholly human – subtle, complex mixtures of strength and weakness. We identify with the heroes of the Bible because, despite their greatness, they never cease to be human, nor do they aspire to be anything else. Hence the phenomenon of which the sedra of Behaalotecha provides a shattering example: the vulnerability of some of the greatest religious leaders of all time, to depression and despair.
The context is familiar enough. The Israelites are complaining about their food: “The rabble among them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’”(Num 11: 4-6)
This is not a new story. We have heard it before (see for example Exodus 16). Yet on this occasion, Moses experiences what one can only call a breakdown:
He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? . . . I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11: 11-15)
Moses prays for death! Nor is he the only person in Tanakh to do so. There are at least three others. There is Elijah, when after his successful confrontation with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, Queen Jezebel issues a warrant that he be killed:
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (I Kings 19: 3-4)
There is Jonah, after God had forgiven the inhabitants of Nineveh:
Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4: 1-3)
And there is Jeremiah, after the people fail to heed his message and publicly humiliate him:
“O Lord, You enticed me, and I was enticed; You overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me . . . The word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long . . . Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you—a son!” . . . Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20: 7-18)
Lehavdil elef havdalot: no comparison is intended between the religious heroes of Tanakh and political heroes of the modern world. They are different types, living in different ages, functioning in different spheres. Yet we find a similar phenomenon in one of the great figures of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill. Throughout much of his life he was prone to periods of acute depression. He called it “the black dog”. He told his daughter, “I have achieved a great deal to achieve nothing in the end”. He told a friend that “he prays every day for death”. In 1944 he told his doctor, Lord Moran, that he kept himself from standing close to a train platform or overlooking the side of a ship because he might be tempted to commit suicide: “A second’s desperation would end everything” (these quotes are taken from Anthony Storr, Churchill’s Black Dog).
Why are the greatest so often haunted by a sense of failure? Storr, in the book mentioned above, offers some compelling psychological insights. But at the simplest level we see certain common features, at least among the biblical prophets: a passionate drive to change the world, combined with a deep sense of personal inadequacy. Moses says, “Who am I . . . that I should lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3: 11). Jeremiah says: “I cannot speak: I am only a child” (Jer. 1: 6). Jonah tries to flee from his mission. The very sense of responsibility that leads a prophet to heed the call of G-d can lead him to blame himself when the people around him do not heed the same call.
Yet it is that same inner voice that ultimately holds the cure. The prophet does not believe in himself: he believes in G-d. He does not undertake to lead because he sees himself as a leader, but because he sees a task to be done and no one else willing to do it. His greatness lies not within himself but beyond himself: in his sense of being summoned to a task that must be done however inadequate he knows himself to be.
Despair can be part of leadership itself. For when the prophet sees himself reviled, rebuked, criticized; when his words fall on stony ground; when he sees people listening to what they want to hear, not what they need to hear – that is when the last layers of self are burned away, leaving only the task, the mission, the call. When that happens, a new greatness is born. It now no longer matters that the prophet is unpopular and unheeded. All that matters is the work and the One who has summoned him to it. That is when the prophet arrives at the truth stated by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it” (Avot 2: 16).
Again without seeking to equate the sacred and the secular, I end with some words spoken by Theodore Roosevelt (in a speech to students at the Sorbonne, Paris, 23 April 1910), which sum up both the challenge and the consolation of leadership in cadences of timeless eloquence:
It is not the critic who counts, Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, Or where the doer of deeds could actually have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, Who strives valiantly, Who errs and comes short again and again – Because there is no effort without error and shortcomings – But who does actually strive to do the deed, Who knows great enthusiasm, great devotion, Who spends himself in a worthy cause, Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement And who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly – So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls Who know neither victory nor defeat.
Leadership in a noble cause can bring despair. But it also is the cure.
The Growth of Cynicism is a Symptom of a Decline in Belief
Credo - The Times - March 2002
It was, I think, Dominic Lawson who coined the phrase that best describes our age. He called it "the death of deference". How true. Today, no office, person or institution commands automatic respect - not politicians or religious leaders, not judges or intellectuals, and certainly not members of the royal family. No man, it used to be said, is a hero to his butler. Nowadays no one is a hero to anyone for very long. Sooner or later a story will appear revealing our erstwhile star to have an Achilles' heel to their feet of clay. It's become almost irrelevant whether the story is true or false, serious or trivial. It satisfies the great public hunger to unmask, dethrone, unveil and expose. In the fading days of the Roman Empire, Christians used to be thrown to the lions. Today their successors are thrown to the media, whose hunger is no less savage and whose claws are no more gentle.
In one way, of course, there is something positive about all this. It means that we are demanding. We expect high standards from people in the public eye. We are no longer willing to doff our forelock to those who presume to guide our destinies. Leadership in an open, democratic society has to prove itself repeatedly. So far, so good, but only (in Sir Humphrey's wonderful phrase) "up to a point, minister."
Beyond that point, good people begin to think twice about public service. Why expose yourself to the risk - not so much a risk as a certainty - that the more your succeed, the more likely you are to be pilloried and vilified. Far better to live a quiet life, make money, enjoy yourself, and let the rest of the world pick on someone else. So fewer and fewer good people go into politics, the Church, teaching, nursing or the police, and we are all the losers.
I learned much from my late father, though he never had much of an education. He was deeply impatient, in all spheres of life, with the bogus and the pretentious. He hated counterfeit piety and fake shows of virtue. But he taught us, his sons, the capacity to admire. When he saw excellence of any kind, he loved it, praised it and trained us to do likewise. Whether it was art or intellect or moral integrity or someone he saw doing an act of kindness, he was alive to goodness and felt lifted by it. He was critical, perhaps even excessively so; but he knew excellence when he saw it, and said so, and celebrated it. That's the difference between high standards and cynicism. There wasn't a deferential bone in his body, but he knew how to admire.
G. K. Chesterton famously said that when people stop believing in religion, they don't then believe nothing, they believe everything. Maybe so, maybe not. I think the reverse is true. Once we stop believing, we become like the Greeks, convinced that every human aspiration is an act of hubris to be punished by nemesis. "The higher they climb, the further they fall." Or as that great Greek scholar Enoch Powell said, "Every political career ends in failure." We stop believing in any ultimate goodness, and to prove it we take malicious pleasure in showing that yesterday's hero is today's unmasked sinner.
Bosh! Let's recognise the real greatness in those who dedicate their lives to the public good, and give thanks for it, loudly enough to drown out the carping voices of those who, unheroic themselves, are unprepared to recognise it in others.
Yeshivat Har Etzion Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
Torah and Life
Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Yitzchak Barth with Reuven Ziegler
Translated by Kaeren Fish
1) “REAL LIFE”
Many people assume there is a contrast – if not conflict – between Torah and “life.” In this view, “life” includes all the practical, “serious” spheres whose participants contribute to the world and help develop it. As opposed to them is the “Torah,” with which young people who have not yet moved on to “real life” amuse themselves. Unfortunately, echoes of this view are even to be heard within the beit midrash. Many yeshiva students do not relate to Torah study as “life” itself, but rather as preparation and training for life.
In the chapter on the word “life” in his Studies in Words (Cambridge, 1967), C.S. Lewis points out that when a person speaks about “real life,” he refers to those elements of life which he values most highly. Thus, for example, many people relate to a business deal as an expression of “real life,” while writing poetry or engaging in philosophy are pursuits not deemed worthy of such a dignified title. Lewis claims that the source of this mistaken distinction is to be found in “the deeply ingrained conviction of narrow minds that whatever things they themselves are chiefly exercised on are the only important things, the only things worth adult, informed, and thoroughgoing interest” (p. 292). He finds this distinction unacceptable, since it means that “everything except acquisition and social success is excluded from the category of ‘real life’ and relegated to the realm of play or day-dream” (ibid.).
Lewis’ analysis of the prevailing attitude towards spheres of secular thought is all the more applicable when it comes to engaging in Torah. Many Jews believe that the Torah is relevant only within a constricted area, and they attempt to discover at which points this area coincides with “life” – the world in which they themselves are engaged. In many cases people think this way even if they are not aware of it. The frequently posed question, “What are you going to do when you leave yeshiva and go out into the big wide world?” actually reflects an attitude that regards Torah as a sphere external to life. Obviously, such a view – in which utilitarian activities take precedence over the realm of thought – is deficient from any self-respecting religious and spiritual point of view. Of course, we value yishuvo shel olam, developing the world, and the people involved in it are certainly worthy of praise. But we must be firm in our opposition to the view that engaging in divrei chokhma, Torah and matters of the spirit, is not “real life.”
A well-known mishna teaches that both the practical and the intellectual spheres are essential; neither can exist without the other. “If there is no worldly sustenance (literally: flour), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no worldly sustenance” (Avot 3:17). The mishna does not mean to equate the significance of these two spheres. Man was not created in order to grind flour, nor to fill his belly with bread. Rather, he was created in order to serve God – including the pursuit of Torah, “for it is for this purpose that you were created” (Avot 2:8). Like the famous assertion of the French playwright Moliere, that “One should eat to live, and not live to eat” (Valère, Act 3, Scene 1), we believe that we must work and eat in order to engage in Torah, rather than engage in Torah in order to eat. Torah is not detached from life; on the contrary, we declare daily that Torah “is our life and the length of our days.” This means that engaging the Torah is the crux, the essence, the most important part of life.
At the end of Avot de-Rabbi Natan (34:10), the beraita lists ten entities that are called “life”: God is called “life,” Israel are called “life,” the Torah is called “life,” as well as the righteous, the Garden of Eden, the Tree, Eretz Yisrael, deeds of kindness, Torah sages, and water. Even the most cursory review of this list reveals that most of the things that are called “life” belong to the realm of the spirit. Some of them are connected to the practical world, and some even belong to that world exclusively, but this list unquestionably suggests that “true life” is found, first and foremost, in the world of the spirit, the Torah, and sanctity. The reasoning behind this assertion is clear: King David defined life as the connection with the Source of life: “For with You lies the source of life; by Your light we shall see light” (Tehillim 34:10), and the Torah is the most central and direct channel to the Creator. The Torah connects man with God, and therefore occupation with Torah is the principal channel of life.
At the conclusion of two different discussions, the Gemara quotes Rabbi Tarfon’s exclamation after Rabbi Akiva won an argument between them: “Akiva, anyone who separates himself from you is, as it were, separating himself from life!” (Kiddushin 66b; Zevachim 13a). Ironically, the subjects under discussion in each of these two debates are far from practical. In Massekhet Kiddushin the debate concerns matters of ritual purity and impurity, while in Massekhet Zevachim the Tannaim discuss receiving the blood of sacrificial animals. The impression conveyed by the Gemara is unequivocal: it is Torah itself that is life, and hence there is no need to seek artificial points of contact between these two spheres.
Since the Torah is called “life” and engagement in it is a central occupation of our lives, it is clear that yeshiva study should not be regarded merely as a preparation for the rest of life. Every moment in which a person is not engaged in Torah is a moment wasted, and represents a loss in its own right – over and above the loss for the future, in that the person is not preparing for the rest of his life. When King David asked God to allow him to die on erev Shabbat rather than on Shabbat day, his request was refused: “Better for Me one day that you sit and engage in Torah than a thousand burnt sacrifices that Shlomo, your son, is destined to offer upon the altar before Me” (Shabbat 30a). Obviously, the Torah that David learned on the eve of his death was not preparing him for anything. The sole significance of those hours on Shabbat eve was the learning itself, altogether unconnected to “preparation for the rest of life.” Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes decisively that those hours of learning, not preparing him for anything, were preferable in God’s eyes to the thousand sacrifices that Shlomo offered on the day of the dedication of the altar!
Torah study has inherent importance in God’s eyes, and we should view it in the same way. The mishna teaches, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the life of the World-to-Come” (Avot 4:17) – even if it is one single hour, in which the person is not preparing himself for the rest of his life. Beyond the fact that the period of yeshiva study prepares students for the rest of their lives, it is a period of intensive life in its own right – filled with Torah and closeness to God. The purpose of life is to cleave to God, and the road to this cleaving passes through the beit midrash.
We must be careful not to downplay the importance of engaging in Torah by assigning an exaggerated significance to worldly concerns. The Torah’s definition of “life” is unequivocal: “And you who cleave to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day” (Devarim 4:4). Cleaving to God is itself “life,” and the place where this “life” is realized is in the beit midrash. For this reason, King David says of the Temple – the focal point of cleaving to God – “For there God commanded the blessing, eternal life” (Tehillim 133:3). It is specifically within the beit midrash, the place where we cut ourselves off from the external world and devote all our energies to achieving an intensive closeness to God – it is specifically here that the blessing of eternal life is invoked.