This week’s parasha, B’reishit, famously gives the Jewish view on the creation of the world. Whether or not this is meant to be a scientific accounting, it does seem to be a statement of our tradition’s thoughts on the goals, aspirations, and ideals for the world. While the initial creation story in the first chapter contains many instances of God’s approval, the Rabbis see at least two places where God alters our reality in relationship to God’s original plan. The first change was to insert mercy and compassion into a world initially created based solely on justice. A world based on justice alone, God realized, would be unsustainable. God’s wisdom (as it were) is shown by the first two generations of humanity, both of whom engage in disobedience of God. The second, Cain, goes so far as to undo God’s creation by committing murder. If the world had been created strictly based on justice, God would have needed to wipe out humanity for its crimes rather than forgive Adam, Eve, and Cain. The insertion of mercy into God’s judgement of the world gives all of us a chance to survive and come back from our mistakes. But it also means that sometimes people are not properly punished for their crimes.
A second change in God’s plan was in how God creates people. Two verses, in the first and fifth chapters of Genesis, have a contradiction in describing God’s creation of humanity. The Torah teaches that God created him - the first man - in God’s image, but God created them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Genesis 5:1-2 similarly states that God created man in God’s image, but created them as male and female and named them “Adam”. More confusingly, the second chapter of Genesis describes God as forming man and then creating woman from man’s side. Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that God created a single person and later created woman from that person’s side. Rebbi Abahu (3rd century Israel) explains, however, that God thought to create two separate people, but in the end only created one.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (16th and 17th centuries Poland) writes that, like creating the world only based on justice, creating two separate people with wholly individual identities was the ideal. However, the world would not be sustainable if separate people were created simultaneously. People have a tendency to quarrel, to the point of violence and destruction, over the smallest differences. God thus decided to create one initial person in God’s image so that everyone would be forced to admit to the same origin -- and God hoped that this would lead to more peace in the world. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) explains that, because we all descend from the same initial person, no person can claim greater ancestry than anyone else. Further, this also leads us to aspire to close relationships with others -- knowing that we were once meant to be together, we yearn for the recombination of two people into the original one.
As God anticipated, and as we can see in our world today, too often the existence of individual people leads to dominance by one type of person over another. But holding onto the idea of fundamental human unity can be dangerous, too. If we see ourselves only as one person, we can’t draw boundaries, even healthy ones, for ourselves -- or recognize those boundaries in others. If everything came from one original person, someone could abuse this by assuming that others must not have personal space or autonomy. This becomes even more dangerous due to the second chapter of Genesis. Since gender differentiation happens by taking something from the side of the first person - who becomes a man - some people see this as permission for men to encroach on women’s physical space. It is at this point we should remember God’s original plan for the world in our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein (in Chashukei Chemed Eruvin 18a) explains that the idea was for people to have two independent identities not reliant on one another in any way: physically, materially, emotionally. In believing that God created the world with an intention of individuality but with the reality of unity, we should be inspired to find an appropriate balance between these two poles.
However, finding a balance between unity and individuality, as well as finding a balance between justice and mercy, is difficult. We often swing too far one way. Sometimes our society is too inclined to be merciful towards people who violate others’ boundaries -- we are too quick to forgive such transgressions. In such times, we must remember that our tradition teaches that God’s original plan for the world was true justice. In the same way, people can be too inclined towards the results of a creation story where people were created from a single individual. People are too lax with others’ individuality and personal space. This is particularly and often seen in men’s treatment of and dominance over women and women’s bodies. When the world swings too far to that side -- and I believe it has -- we should recall our tradition’s claim of God’s original plan for the world: multiple people with independent and equally valid identities and separate bodies, owned exclusively by themselves and created by God.
We must find the appropriate balance between respecting individuality and union -- we must make up for giving too much weight to the side of allowing the violation of personal privacy and individuality. I hope we can have both the respect of individual worth, which comes from God’s original plan for the creation of person, and the appropriately timed and desired intimacy and friendship, which comes from God’s eventual choice to create us all from the same person. In the same way, I hope we can find the right balance between God’s original plan for a world of justice, with all the fairness it brings, and the actual world God created, which is one where we eventually learn when it is appropriate to be compassionate and forgive.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, explains the laws of bringing first fruits to the Temple. “Then you will take from the first of every fruit of the earth that you brought forth from your land which Hashem your God gives to you; then you shall place it in the basket and go to the place that Hashem your God will choose for God’s name to reside there,” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The basket and the fruits are taken by a cohen and placed in front of the altar. The midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, the Sifrei (parashat Ki Tavo, no. 300), reports that rich people would bring their first fruits in gold or silver vases, while the poor would bring them in wicker baskets. It also reports that the baskets themselves were given to the priests along with the fruit, “in order to increase gifts to the priests.” This implies that, unlike the baskets, the vases brought by the rich were returned. Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (15-16th Century Italy) comments that this supports the folk saying that, “Poverty follows the poor.” The rich get to show off without losing anything, and the poor look bad and lose out financially. The statement of the midrash is also nonsensical. If the Torah really wanted to increase the gifts given to to the priests, it would direct them to keep the gold and silver vases brought by the rich.
Allowing the rich to be financially ostentatious around first fruits stands in contrast to the Rabbinic approach to food brought to houses of mourning. The Talmud teaches (Mo’ed Katan 27a) that, originally, people would bring food to a house of mourning differently depending on their wealth: the rich in gold and silver vases, and the poor in wicker baskets. However, this embarrassed the poor; for the sake of their honor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should bring food to a house of mourning in wicker baskets. That is, in order to protect the dignity of the poor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should act like a poor person when bringing food to a house of mourning. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13-14th Century Catalonia) explains that a person is constantly required to examine their actions to ensure they do not embarrass the poor. Further, a rich person should make themself equal to the poor in order to not cause shame.
The tension between laws around bringing first fruits to the Temple and bringing food to mourners leads many commentators to attempt a resolution. In my humble opinion, a resolution may be found in a different version of the midrash from Sifrei, brought by the Vilna Gaon (Eliyah ben Shlomo, 18th Century Lithuania). Instead of ending the midrash with, “in order to increase gifts to the priests”, his version ends, “in order to give merit to the poor.” The Torah Temimah (Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 19-20th Centuries Lithuania) suggests that the reason the poor give their baskets to the priests is because they actually made the baskets out of the first fruits, so the baskets themselves are due to the priests as well. This makes the baskets both a merit to the poor and a true gift to the priests. Perhaps the rich also desired to give their baskets to the priests. But the priests have no interest in a gift that was merely a purchase, made with the money one happens to have. While that may seem like a beautification of serving God, just like a present wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper that came from the store, it is too easy. The rich might have nicer fruit to bring to the Temple than the poor, but they merely wrap it in what their money can buy; and money, to them, is easily disposable. However, the poor person, whose fruit is likely inferior to the rich person’s, uses their own hand and effort to beautify God’s gifts. They may not have anything great to offer, but they make it into something great. That is, their own poverty gives them motivation to create something truly worthy of a gift to the priests. This is why the priests only take the baskets from the poor, and this is why this practice gives merit to the priests.
My explanation does not immediately solve the initial problem. If delivering the first fruits in hand-made baskets is more meritorious, then the rich should also bring first fruits in hand-made baskets, just like when they bring food to mourners. Second, if bringing handmade baskets is more meritorious when bringing first fruits, why would it suddenly become more embarrassing for the poor when they bring food to mourners?
In the case of the Temple, the two methods of bringing first fruits - in precious vases or in wicker baskets - are empowering to a person’s station in life. This is strengthened by the statement made when bringing the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramean; then he descended to Egypt in small numbers, but he became there a great nation, strong and numerous,” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The rich and the poor have a common story, a story of both poverty and wealth. The great ancestors of the Israelites went through periods of each. Therefore, both being rich and being poor have an anchor in our heritage; neither is a position that should bring shame. In the current time, when they are giving their first fruits to their Temple, they are permitted to do so in a way that gives them pride in their place in life - for the rich, using their wealth for beauty, and for the poor, using their work for beauty.
However, the case of death and mourning is different. I have heard people discuss how equalizing death is. But the Talmud relates that before the Rabbis made decrees to equalize how the dead and their mourners were treated, it was anything but equalizing. The reason we bury bodies in closed caskets is because poor people who died tended to look famished, while rich people looked well cared-for (Mo’ed Katan 27b). The size of the crowd at a funeral or the number of eulogies were often related to a person’s fame or wealth. Funerals and mourning created an inequality of pride, which necessitated Rabbinic interference to equalize how people acted.
We need to ask ourselves about whether the institutions we build and activities we hold are more like bringing first fruits to the Temple or more like bringing food to mourners. Do they create an environment where everyone can be proud of their station in life, or an environment which gives pride to some at the expense of others? If we can build the former, we are doing well. But when we fail to do so, we might wish to take lesson from the Rabbis. In such cases, those who have power and wealth should take heed of the Meiri’s injunction: they should humble themselves, ensuring no one is ashamed due to lack of wealth or power. May we merit to build a world where all of our spaces are like the Temple at the time when first fruits were brought. Then we can fulfill the vision of Rabbi Akiva, who sees everyone, even the poor of Israel, as equally deserving of pride - as befits the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Shof’tim, teaches us the laws about witnesses who conspire to testify falsely against a defendant. “You shall do to him as he conspired to do to his fellow,” the Text instructs (Deuteronomy 19:19). The Rabbis read this in an incredibly literal manner, summarized by Rashi as follows: “As he conspired - and not as he did. From here they said, if he [the accused] is executed, they [the witnesses] are not executed.” That is, if the conspiring witnesses are successful in convincing the court to falsely punish a defendant, they themselves are not punished, even though their testimony was false. They are only punished if they are caught before the punishment of the defendant is completed. Here, the Rabbis actually limitthe window for catching conspiring witnesses to between the time of the guilty verdict and the time when the punishment is executed. If the witnesses are found to have conspired falsely, but outside of that time, they cannot be tried and punished for it. This means that if the conspiring witnesses fully succeed in their plan to have the defendant punished - including via capital punishment - they are rewarded with immunity.
Traditional commentaries are flabbergasted by this and come up with a number of justifications. Nachmanides (13th Century Spain) suggests that while the witnesses may indeed have testified falsely, the fact that God allowed the accused to be executed must mean that the accused was actually guilty. The witnesses lied, but the punishment was warranted. I find this explanation incredibly difficult to accept, given how easily it can justify any kind of unfair suffering and death. People use such excuses to justify all sorts of personal and global tragedies. This includes Jewish sources that attempt to justify acts of evil by claiming that, while the perpetrators were horrible people, the fact that God still allowed the victims to die is proof that they deserved it. Such rhetoric tends to cause pain to those who loved the deceased more than it helps anyone relate to God.
Equally difficult for me to accept is the explanation of the Kesef Mishnah (Yosef Karo, 16th Century Turkey and Israel). He explains that conspiring witnesses who are successful in having the accused executed have committed such a heinous crime, death at the hands of people is too good for them. Since, in our tradition, punishment by the court atones for a person’s sins, we do not want these witnesses to gain atonement. Therefore, we leave their punishment in the hands of Heaven. This is unsatisfying to me. It calls into question whether we need courts in the first place, and lets us solely trust God to take care of the world’s evils. Considering that another commandment in this week’s parasha instructs us to set up a court system (Deuteronomy 16:18), this explanation flies in the face of the Torah’s own theology.
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (15th Century Italy) brings a third explanation that, unsurprisingly, I also find difficult. However, I think it does explain the thinking behind the Rabbinic interpretation of conspiring witnesses, and I find that it makes Nachmanides’ and Yosef Karo’s commentaries more palatable. Rabbi Ovadiah says that, if the accused is executed and the false witnesses are executed, there would be no end to the matter. It takes two additional witnesses to condemn witnesses who have falsely conspired. If we executed the conspiring witnesses, their families would bring other witnesses to testify against the witnesses who testified against them, claiming that the second set of witnesses were actually the ones conspiring. This will continue with no end. While Rabbi Ovadiah does not say this directly, I think he means that to say that, in order to limit unending feuds of testimony, each court case gets a maximum of one punishment per case. The system is unfair, but that is the limitation of a human system. We try for maximum fairness, but at the end of the day, we have to accept the system’s limitation rather than leave an unending trail of bodies. Fairness should be the goal in solving disputes, but fairness is also an asymptote we can never reach. The Torah’s court system certainly sees fairness as a goal. It explains that conspiring witnesses are punished so harshly in order to prevent others from testifying falsely (Deuteronomy 19:20). But as much as we may strive for fairness, we need to ensure that the quest to get there does not leave too much damage in its wake. Sometimes, no matter how frustrating, it is better to have a limited system than one which becomes an arm for ongoing personal feuds.
The idea which underlies Rabbi Ovadia’s explanation also helps to explain Nachmanides and Yosef Karo. Both of them create stories that make an unfair part of our legal system more palatable by trusting that, at some point, God will step in. They accept that human legal systems cannot be truly fair. Whether or not God does act, they still both recognize that human systems on their own are limited - and that fairness should not come at the expense of considerable damage.
While Jewish religious courts no longer have the ability to judge cases outside of monetary and religious status disputes, the principles here apply to person-to-person interactions as well. We should strive for fairness in life, and we should not allow people to report falsely about others. However, our determination for fairness must not come at the expense of an unending cycle of pain. Life is occasionally unfair; as difficult as it may be, sometimes our best bet is to move on. As the High Holidays approach and people who wronged us in the last year show remorse, we should all keep in mind that the goal of the season is not to right wrongs, but to repair relationships. For the person who makes t’shuva, this means laboring to fix those wrongs that they committed. But for those who have been wronged, that can mean accepting that while some things cannot be fixed, forgiveness is better than an unending grudge or quarrel. And even if our wrongs are not righted - even if, in the end, those who hurt us get away with nothing but an apology - we must sometimes accept imperfect justice. Of course, the Torah teaches that there should still be consequences for people who act inappropriately. When possible, such people should attempt to right their wrongs, even when their wrongs are so grievous they cannot be righted. However, the Rabbis understood that perfect fairness is sometimes not worth the human cost. Hopefully, even as we strive for fairness in our courts, communities, and relationships, we can understand this too.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
My Grandfather did not smoke. When he served in the US Army during World War II, this had the potential to isolate him socially. However, instead of isolating him, it became his social outlet. He would exchange his cigarette rations with other soldiers for more food. Rather than refrain from camaraderie with those whose views on smoking differed from his, he used those differences to create social bonds. (Actually, he exchanged the cigs for chocolate!)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, forbids Jews from eating certain types of meat (such as pig), as well as from mixing meat and milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21). Food practices create identity and friendship--sharing a meal is a great act of social exchange. We see this numerous times in our tradition. The Mishna (Chullin 8:1) teaches that two lodgers--one eating meat and one eating cheese--may eat at the same table, even though we are forbidden to mix the two foods. The Rambam explains that this only applies if they are strangers, since they are less likely than friends to share food. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) bans non-Jewish beer because of “marriage,” likely meaning, more broadly, social exchange. Here, Jewish law affirms that the exchange of food is an act of friendship. Prohibiting Jews from eating foods common in non-Jewish spaces appears to discourage intense social bonds between Jews and non-Jews.
There are two places in the Torah which list the animal species that Jews are not supposed to eat. One is in this week’s parasha, and one is in parashat Sh’mini in Vayikra. Both lists are connected to our holiness as a nation (Leviticus 11:45, Deuteronomy 14:2). However, the list in Sh’mini is also connected to God raising (מעלה) us out of Egypt, while in our parasha, it is connected to our being a treasured nation from amongst all the nations.
The language of the Torah in Sh’mini is unusual and therefore noteworthy. Usually, the Torah says that God took us out of Egypt - הוצאתי or המוציא. There, it says God raised us out of Egypt - מעלה. The Talmud in Bava Metziah (61b) notices this and explains that had God only taken us out for the sake of not eating certain creatures, and insects in particular, it would have been a sufficient reason. I think this means that a single food prohibition would have been sufficient to distinguish us from the Egyptians--to make us a separate nation.
But the set of food laws in our parasha ends differently. After listing forbidden animals, we are taught not to eat animals who die a natural death; instead, we should economically exchange them with non-Jews (Deuteronomy 14:21). The Torah gives us two choices. Either we should give them to the non-Jew living amongst us (the ger), presumably as gifts, or we should sell them to non-Jews living apart from us. Here, while dietary laws distinguish us from others, they also allow--and, in fact, encourage--intercultural interaction and exchange. They continue to set us apart as a nation, but they also create camaraderie with others. This might be why, in this week’s parasha, the Torah compares us to all the nations, not just the Egyptians. In Leviticus, soon after becoming a free and separate nation, we needed to define ourselves apart from the Egyptians specifically. Now, as a developed nation soon to be in our own land, we need to maintain our uniqueness; but unique does not mean isolated. We should be distinct from all the nations, but involved with them at the same time. This should be a goal of our observance of dietary restrictions and, likely, many other areas of Jewish law: figuring out how we can use those restrictions to simultaneously set us apart and still create cultural exchange. My Grandfather--of blessed memory--kept his differences regarding smoking, but used those differences to be a part of a larger group. In the same way, we should allow our dietary laws to establish our uniqueness while also motivating us to form connections outside of our community. May we all merit to maintain our distinctions--and to create friendships and relationships beyond them.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
Getting credit for work can be important, contentious, humbling, and telling about the nature of the work itself. It is important because people should be recognized for their time, efforts, and initiatives. It is sometimes contentious because work often involves multiple people, and choosing to give credit to only some, or even sharing credit can sometimes diminish the effort by all involved. It is potentially humbling because lack of credit, or muted credit, can remind us that the work we did was actually quite ordinary and any number of people could have performed it. It tells us about the nature of the work itself, in that choosing how people are credited often tells which part of the work is most important. Sports provide a good example of this. In baseball, a hitter who moves a runner from first to third gets less credit than the batter who moves the runner home, even if the former contributed more overall bases. In basketball, a brilliant pass through a tight defense to a wide open player standing under the basket merely gets an assist. The player who makes the easy basket is credited with the actual points.
This week’s parasha, Eikev, teaches, “You shall observe all of themitzvah that I command you today, so that you may live, multiply, arrive, and inherit the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers,” (Deuteronomy 8:1). Reading the phrase, “all of themitzvah,” carefully, the midrash Tanchuma concludes that only one who completes a mitzvah receives the credit. It does not read “all of the mitzvah” to mean that performing the mitzvah from start to finish is necessary for credit. Rather, credit goes for merely completing themitzvah. Its proof is the story of Moses taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Joseph died in Egypt and adjured the Israelites to take his bones out of Egypt when, in the future, God would lead the people out of the Egypt. During the Exodus, the Torah specifically states that Moses took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19). However, since Moses never enters the land of Israel, the completion of the task falls to others. When the book of Joshua describes the burial of Joseph’s bones, it credits all of the Israelites with taking the bones from Egypt and burying them in the land of Israel. Even though Moses alone took the bones, since he did not complete the task, he gets no credit in the end. This is additionally strange because Joseph only asked to have his bones removed from Egypt, not necessarily to have them buried in the land. Moses could have buried Joseph in the desert and received full credit. However, he passes the task on to others, allowing Joseph the honor of a burial in the land of his forefathers. According to this midrash, when deciding where to give credit for a task, one should look to those who completed it and not those who began it.
Our tradition also includes a contrasting midrash to the Tanchuma. Psalm 30, which we say at the beginning of P’sukei D’zimra, begins, “A Psalm, a song for the dedication of the Temple, of David” (Psalms 30:1). Mekhilta D’Rebbi Yishmael (another, earlier collection ofmidrash) notes that this Psalm ought to be “of Solomon,” not “of David,” since Solomon dedicated the Temple. The Midrash resolves this by suggesting that since David gave so much of himself towards the building of the Temple, it was dedicated in his name, not Solomon’s. So too, any time a person gives much of themselves towards a task, that person is credited for it, even if someone else completes the task. From the perspective of this midrash, we should honor the effort over the completion.
Rabbi Yiztchok Zilberstein (may he live for many more good years) suggests a solution to the competing midrashim (Chashukei ChemedRosh Hashana 11a noted 30). In Moses’ taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, Moses was a replaceable person. Had Moses not taken the bones, someone else would have. Taking the bones was a routine play. However, if not for the sheer will of David in beginning the project of building the Temple, it would never have been built. For an exceptional move like David’s, credit is due, even if he did not see the task to completion. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (20th Century Israel) makes a similar suggestion (Notes of the GRI”SH to Sotah 13b), based on the world of matchmakers. He deals with a case where a successful match is made through the work of two matchmakers. Rabbi Elyashiv explains that if the efforts of the first permit the second to be successful, the first receives ⅓ of the reward (presumably monetary, not just in Heaven). Otherwise, the credit is given entirely to the second matchmaker, and the first receives nothing.
It is important to note the conduct of both Moses and David. Moses takes up a task that anyone can do. In fact, Moses could have strictly completed the task by burying Joseph in the desert - a task any Israelite could have started and completed. Yet Moses humbles himself to begin the task and shows even more humility by not completing the task. Instead, he gives up credit and also gives greater honor to Joseph by allowing others to complete the burial in the land of Israel. He displays the humility for which the Torah describes him as, “More humble than any [other] person” (Numbers 12:3). David gives his heart and soul to a task, even though he risks never seeing it through. He displays incredible faith and dedication, even though, in his lifetime, his efforts will fail. Moses and David should both be models for us in our own lives. May we all find the humility to begin and attempt to complete the mundane tasks in life, as Moses did. May we all be willing to give up credit to see a task completed with more honor than we ourselves are capable of giving it. May we all be like David, willing to pour our souls into projects which may not be completed in our lifetimes and from whose success we will never truly reap the benefits. Finally, may we always give proper credit where it is due.
Reb Joel Goldstein
In this week’s parasha, Va’Etchanan, Moses reminds the Israelites of the laws and statutes that God has commanded them to follow. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of continuing to perform them after Moses’ death and after the conquest of the land of Canaan. Without Moses’s charismatic leadership, our people would need to find other motivations for obedience to God’s laws. Moses gives us one: “You shall keep them and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations, that they will hear all of these statutes and they will say, behold a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Deuteronomy 4:6). That is, God’s laws are wise, and if we follow them, other people will consider us to be wise. ...Of course, “You Jews are so wise for not eating pork,” said no one, ever. The Torah’s claim does not seem to match reality. Further, how, many Jews have ever said, “Every fall, I am commanded to march around the synagogue with leaves and a citrus fruit. God’s laws are so wise!”?
One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is the Talmudic approach. The Talmud (Shabbat 75a) asks, “What is wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations?” and answers: learning astronomy (my apologies to Humanities people). Learning to calculate the motions of the sun and moon is in fact a commandment, or at least a necessary preparation for performing the commandment of counting the months and leap years. The context, and especially the use of “them” implying multiple commandments, makes it difficult to accept that our verse is only about the commandment to learn astronomy.
Maimonides (12th Century Spain and Egypt), in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:31), says that all of the commandments are wise and beneficial. It is on us to figure out how. However, this explanation seems lacking--the verse says that the other nations will hear our statutes and laws and consider us wise. It doesn’t say that they will read the 613 PhD theses written by Jewish professors on the wisdom of each of the commandments and then say, “Oh, yes, those are wise, and the Jews must be such a wise and discerning people.” So how do the commandments themselves demonstrate their (and our) wisdom?
The Rashba (Solomon ben Aderet, 13th Century Spain), has a third solution which, I think, helps to make sense of the Talmud’s solution as well as Maimonides’. The Rashba teaches that we must trust that all of the Torah’s laws are wise. However, only some appear wise. Neither we, nor others observing us, have the infinite intelligence to understand the reasoning behind every last commandment. But some commandments do seem obviously wise, and he lists four examples: charity, honoring parents, refraining from theft, and praising God. When we perform these commandments properly, both others observing us, as well as our own doubting inner monologue, will notice that some of the laws are wise. After recognizing that some laws are wise, we may then come to trust that the other laws must be wise as well. Taking the Rashba’s perspective, the Talmud is not claiming that Moses is simply motivating us to learn astronomy.
Rather, the Talmud suggests that Moses is instructing us that, when we establish ourselves in the Land and are observed by outside nations, we should emphasize those commandments which line up with the values and actions that the other nations consider to be wise. In Talmudic times, it was astronomy. In the Rashba’s time, it was charity. Perhaps, in Maimonides’ time, it was learning Torah by turning it into a philosophically complete system. If we focus on emphasizing the commandments which are obviously wise in our own day and age, and use our appreciation of those commandments to motivate us to perform the other commandments with vervor, the people around us will begin to trust that all of the commandments are wise.
Of course, as the Rashba points out, this is also effective against our own internal doubts (our yetzer ha’ra). Personally, I do not have the intelligence to see the wisdom in every commandment. But I do have the wisdom to see it in some. Following the Rashba, I can start by trying to perform those commandments, and through them, begin to create a relationship with the Torah. From there, I can learn to grow and trust the system, so much so that I come to assiduously perform more and more of the commandments, knowing that they too must be wise, even if I have not yet come to understand the wisdom. Over time, I will come to see wisdom in parts of the Torah I previously thought lacked it. Of course, it can go the other way too: over time, I might stop seeing wisdom in parts of the Torah where I originally saw it. However, once I have developed trust for the Torah, I will eventually come to embrace all of it, even as I continue to try--and sometimes fail--to see the wisdom in all of it. Hopefully, so too will the people who see me practicing Torah. Of course, in order to convince myself and others through my actions that the Torah is wise, I must approach the Torah not with the haughtiness of practicing a system I trust to be wise, but with the humility of not having the wisdom to yet fully understand the system. And when a part of Torah continually fails the wisdom test both for myself and others, I must be open to assuming I was not understanding the Torah correctly. With such a relationship with Torah, I pray others can one day look at me and say, “What a wise and discerning person he is.” May we all merit to find parts of the Torah we find to be wise, and may we use those parts to help us develop a relationship with the entire Torah.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
At the beginning of parashat Devarim, Moses recalls how he created a system of judges so that the burden of leadership would be more evenly distributed, and lays out the foundations of the Israelite justice system (Deuteronomy 1:9-18). In Deuteronomy 1:17, he instructs: “Do not show favoritism in judgement, hear out the small like the large; do not fear a person, for judgement is God’s.” The terms “small” (קטון) and “large” (גדול) are ambiguous. Based on the beginning of the verse - the charge not to show favoritism - the plain meaning is that one should judge people of high and low status equally within the same case. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) understands “small” and “large” to be the monetary value of different cases. The Talmud explains the implications of its interpretation: a judge should not order cases by the amount of money on which each rides. Instead, a judge should take cases in the order in which they appear. In fact, the actual language of the Talmud (attributed to Reish Lakish) is that a case of small monetary value should be as dear to a judge as one of large monetary value.
Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, the great Talmudic commentator of 16th century Poland, writes that it should be obvious that cases are taken in the order in which they arrive. I assume he means that, given all of the warnings the Torah gives to judges about not showing favoritism, there should not need to be a specific law directing judges to prioritize cases based on when they arrive rather than on their size. However, Rabbi Eidels suggests that the Torah does need this more specific prohibition because, at least in his world, judges were paid for their time. They were more likely to be able to collect their full payment from claimants in a large monetary case - more likely to be people who deal with large sums of money - than from claimants in a small court case. Therefore, the Torah warns that even though a judge might not receive a large reward, or even their just reward, by taking cases in the order in which they are received, a judge should forgo worrying about receiving proper payment and instead give equal priorities to all cases.
Modern judges are usually salaried and do not have this same concern. However, this Talmudic law might extend to many other professions and situations in life. Many times, when I have been in a conversation with one person and seen another person across the room with whom a conversation would be of great benefit to me, I have attempted to delay the first conversation to speak to the second person. At times, I have paid attention to a conversation only proportionally to how much it can help me, minimizing the needs to the person speaking with me. Hopefully, I am the only person guilty of this, but I doubt it. In our parasha, the Torah reminds me how wrong this kind of behaviour is.
Of course, this rule has limits. The Talmud in tractate Sh’vuot (30a) teaches that one should prioritize the cases of Torah scholars over other cases. The commentators dispute whether this only applies if two cases arrive before a judge simultaneously, or if it also covers times when the case which does not involve Torah scholars came to the judge first. Similarly, in our own lives, it is true that one should sometimes prioritize meeting with their boss, parent, or a high ranking official over meeting with others. However, even these choices should be a matter of dispute. The Torah teaches us that, at the end of the day, we should strive to treat each person who wishes to speak with us equally, without worrying about what personal reward we might get as a result. We should, paraphrasing Reish Lakish, make every person who wishes to speak with us as dear to us as the next person. We should focus on the individual people in front of us now, rather than worrying about what other conversations we could be having - even if we think those other conversations might have a bigger impact on our own lives, or even on the the world, in the future. May we be blessed with the kindness and forbearance to treat each person speaking with us with all the respect and attentiveness they deserve.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) teaches that Torah studied not for its own sake becomes poison, while Torah studied for its own sake becomes an elixir of life. It also warns us against the category of people known as inappropriate Sages. The point is that Torah by itself does not necessarily create good people. In my view, at a minimum Torah can make someone a good person when joined with wisdom. However, wisdom - including the wisdom to discern whether Torah is for its own sake or someone else’s - is an enigmatic concept. Thankfully, the first of this week’s two parshiyot, Matot, gives us some insight into wisdom.
Parashat Matot begins with a set of laws around vows. While vows seem common in the Biblical world, the Rabbis have a poor view of vows. The Talmud in Nedarim (77b) teaches us that a person who vows commits a sin, even if that person later fulfills their vow. It derives this from a close reading of a different part of the Torah, Deuteronomy 23:23: “If you cease vowing, there will be no sin in you.” It does not state what makes vowing sinful. I propose that a vow is a sin carelessly using words. As we will see, the only way to release someone from a vow is through a person or group of people who show the opposite behavior: those whoarecareful in their use of language. We might conclude that carefully using words and language is a foundation of wisdom.
The beginning of our parasha states, (Numbers 30:3) “A person, if they make a vow to Hashem or swear an oath to restrict themself, they should not profane their word; they should perform all that leaves their mouth.” Shmuel, a second century Sage, derives from this verse that while a person who makes a vow cannot make the vow profane - that is, annul the vow - someone else can. We have a tradition (Nedarim 78a) that a vow can be released by either a single expert - a wise person known in Hebrew as achacham- or three non-experts. In a dissenting view (Bekhorot 37a), Rabbi Judah states that a vow mayonlybe annulled by three people, at least one of whom must be wise.
Our system of annulling vows gives us insight into an important aspect of wisdom. One of the ways to release a vow - in fact, the one our tradition considers to be the way requiring the most wisdom - is to find apetach, an opening. This means that thechachamin question must ask the vow’s originator whether, if they had known such and such would be the effect of their vow, they would have made it in the first place. If the person says they would not have, the vow can be annulled. To be able to ask such questions requires a nuanced and thoughtful sensitivity to language, one that acts both to nullify the vow and demonstrates to the vower how to be more thoughtful about their language in the future. And if a wise person is the only type of person who can perform this nullification by themself, then this kind of sensitivity to the power of words must be part of true wisdom. In the case where an individualchachamcannot be found, we can extrapolate that three people working together are able to create a body that can be as sensitive and discerning about language as a single, wise individual.
As we saw in Nedarim, the Rabbinic tradition sees vows as paradigmatic of poor choices in language. What one says matters, and how one says it matters as well - speech is not something to throw around casually in Jewish tradition. When a person vows, they represent the nadir of thoughtless speech. “Mere words” count. And words said in a serious enough manner, such as invoking the name of God, can become vows or oaths that are dangerously powerful, even permanent.
The only way to revoke these thoughtless words is through wisdom at the level of achacham- at the level of one who is not casual with their speech. A person who makes a vow cannot annul their vow on their own, because they have proven their lack of wisdom by vowing in the first place. But three people who are not necessarily wise on their own can also be worthy to revoke vows. While each may not individually be so careful with their words, three people who are willing to consult and check with one another before making a group statement can be as successful in choosing words with discernment and care as one truly wise person. As we saw earlier, Rabbi Judah takes this one step further. While his view loses, it also has a lesson. He teaches that even the wisest of people are not careful enough in their use of language to annul vows by themselves; even wise people need the checks of others to ensure proper sensitivity to language. That is why a vow, in his view, may only be annulled by a wise person plus two other non-experts.
Taking a lesson from this week’s parasha, we would all do well to better embody wisdom by being more careful in what we say and how we say it. Perhaps we can put a little more prior thought or preparation into our writings, speeches, posts, and conversations. Perhaps we can pause for a moment before expressing ourselves. And perhaps we can check our words with two others before making them more public. May we all merit the wisdom to speak carefully, clearly, and for the sake of Heaven.
Shabbat shalom - שבת של׀מֺ
Reb Joel Goldstein
At the end of last week’s parasha, Pinchas acts as a revolutionary. Zealously and outside of the system of law, he rights what he sees as an injustice against God: Israelite men following Midianite women into idolatry. In the midst of a plague brought on by God’s anger, Pinchas kills an Israelite and Midianite couple who engage in sexual activity in front of the Sanctuary. This quells God’s wrath. Pinchas’ action prevent the plague from wiping out Israel. In this week’s parasha (Numbers 25:12), God grants Pinchas a covenant as a reward. That covenant is shalom: peace. Per the cantillation and Rashi’s commentary, it is not a covenant of peace; rather, peace itself is the covenant. Further, God also grants Pinchas and his descendants eternal priesthood.
Peace is an appropriate reward for Pinchas. His actions, though warranted, moved him outside of the system of Torah law--the system whose primary objective is peace. To save the people, Pinchas had to take radical, violent action. But by doing so, he essentially forfeited his priesthood. We see this in Talmud of the Land of Israel (Sanhedrin 9:7), which teaches us that the Sages sought to excommunicate Pinchas for his actions. He worked outside of the law, and they (understandably) wanted to remove him from the system entirely. Yet in the course of granting Pinchas peace, God also grants Pinchas and his descendents eternal priesthood, returning him to the system of law. In doing so, God instructs Pinchas and revolutionaries everywhere that while revolution is sometimes necessary, it must ultimately lead to a return to--or the creation of--a system of justice whose goal is peace for those who live under it.
The midrash in Sifrei Zuta, following a comment on Pinchas’ reward, explains that Torah is an allegory for peace--as it says in Proverbs 3:17, “All of its paths are peace.” By giving Pinchas this peace-covenant, God essentially gave Pinchas Torah, which is the instruction of a code of law. When Pinchas acted violently and outside the law, God affirmed his actions. But after his zealous deed was done, God then sent Pinchas on a path of action inside the law: towards non-violence, towards peace. By giving him the priesthood, God not only affirms Pinchas’ place in society, but his place as an instructor of the law, which is seen as part of the priestly duty.
Our own system of peace, Torah, also has internal ways to correct injustices and failures in the system. Not every injustice or failure requires a Pinchas-level reaction; it can also be resolved by action within the system. In our parasha, Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Titzah see an injustice in the laws of inheritance. These five women have no brothers. Because only men can inherit land, their father’s land stands to be lost to the immediate family after his death. Unlike Pinchas, they work to change the system with reasoned argument. The sisters argue that their father was not part of a rebellion against God, so why should the law remove his name from his family just because he has only daughters (Number 27:3-4). God rules in their favor. The Rabbis (Bava Batra 119b) imagine that the sisters not only made an argument based on rational analysis of the law, but an argument based on the very law that Moses was studying that day in the Beit Midrash. They argue within the current discourse, using Moses only studies. Given the recent events of Pinchas, they might have chosen to act as revolutionaries and forcibly taken their father’s land. Instead, they learned not from Pinchas’ actions at Ba’al Pe’or, but rather from the blessing given to Pinchas as the result of his radical actions: Torah, law, peace. They appealed to Torah, using Torah; they used law in a peaceable, reasonable approach. In response, God actually changes the laws of inheritance for everyone, not just for the sisters. These five women instruct us in another kind of revolution, one which brings about revolutionary change with revolutionary arguments, not revolutionary actions.
Pinchas’ approach, as I argued last week, is risky, but sometimes necessary. Sometimes the law is not sufficient, and we must act quickly, radically, and even rashly to fix it. But for all revolutionaries, when the goal is finished, the next objective must be a system which promotes the path of peace. We must take our revolutionary strength and apply it to a system of laws. As we have seen from countless revolutionaries who then become brutal leaders, having just any system of laws is insufficient. The system must be of a particular type: one that leads to and encourages peace--one that, like Pinchas’ blessing, turns the revolutionaries into subjects and leaders of the new system. God encourages Pinchas in this by granting him Torah through peace and peace through Torah, returning him to a position of leadership, instruction, obedience within the system. Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah demonstrate the best of this system, presenting us with a paradigm for how to be revolutionary within the Torah. As the verse in Psalms states (29:11), “Hashem will give strength to His nation; Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” Or, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."
Reb Joel Goldstein
This week’s parasha, Balak, ends with a troubling interaction between the Israelites and the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-9). Israelite men engage in sexual relationships with women from the very people who just hired Bilaam to curse them - the Moabites. It is unclear, from the text, whether or not the type of relationship is itself inappropriate. What is clear is that the relationship inappropriately leads the men to worship and offer sacrifices to the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed with the Israelites and sends a plague to kill many of them. In response to idolatry, the highest level of violating God’s law, and the plague wiping out the Israelites, Moses orders his legal forces to execute those who have attached themselves to idolatry. Before the law can respond, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman - the Midianites and the Moabites colluded in using Bilaam to curse Israel - and flaunts her in front of Moses and the entire congregation. The people and Moses begin to weep, but do nothing. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and, without considering the law or the legal system, executes the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in front of all the people. The Torah, whose ways are only supposed to be paths of peace, condones his actions. Through Pinchas’ shocking willingness to kill without deliberation, God’s wrath is quelled and the Israelites are saved from the plague, though it had already killed 24,000 Israelites.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9:6) uses the anecdote of Pinchas to declare that it is occasionally permissible for zealous people to step outside the law and execute their own justice. There are times when the law seems ineffective, too slow, or just wrong; in some cases like these, the Mishnah permits passionate individuals to take action on their own. While one of the three core statements of the Men of the Great Assembly was to always be deliberate in judgement (Avot 1:1), the Rabbis somehow permit zealous people, on very specific occasions, to be incredibly hasty in their actions. We know that hasty, zealous action can sometimes lead to positive change and even revolution, as many of us will celebrate on July 4. In the case of Pinchas, it saved thousands of lives. Nonetheless, his actions still seem disturbing. We have all unfortunately witnessed the abhorrent actions of those people who thoughtlessly murder others in the name of God, be it in a cafe, bus, or nightclub.
This story forces us to consider how we can determine when action beyond the law is necessary, abhorrent, or something in between. I am sure that all of us, at times, feel some system of rules to be frustratingly slow, wrong, or even immoral. We may have a desire to take action outside of that system. However, while those cases may indeed warrant an extrajudicial response, thankfully, they seldom require one as extreme as Pinchas’; in other cases, this kind of necessary action has taken the form of writing counter to government censors, marching in the streets, or harboring Jews in 1940s Europe. Hopefully, unlike Pinchas, the action we need to take is constructive, not destructive; we will see an example of this in next week’s portion, when the daughters of Tzlophchad appeal to Moses about their very real troubles with the law and its treatment of women. But our parasha seems to be a case where the confines of the legal system genuinely are ineffective. The system of law has failed to prevent rampant idolatry and leads to a plague on the people. Moses, under guidance from God, tells the legal officials to take action, but the only consequence is more unabashed idolatry. As the Israelites die from plague, those working within the system can only react with tears. It is only through the hasty, independent action of Pinchas that the nation is saved from idolatry - and thereby from God’s wrath.
However, while the Rabbis are careful to affirm that such action is sometimes necessary, they make clear that it also carries incredible risks. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a), the Rabbis teach us that had the Israelite man and Midianite women stopped their illicit behavior, and had Pinchas then still executed them, Pinchas would have been liable for murder. Further, if the Israelite had instead turned around and killed Pinchas before being killed, the Israelite, despite his crimes, would have been following his right to save himself, and would not be subject to punishment for killing Pinchas. That is, as much as we want to sometimes work outside the system of law, and as much as doing so might be appropriate, we need to also understand the risks. Once we break out of a system of law, we make ourselves vulnerable to the broken system as well. Our opponents can work outside of the law and be equally justified in their actions, since there is no codified system of justice controlling either side.
There are times we must fight against injustice and an entrenched or incorrect system, but we also need to be incredibly conscious of the grave consequences of those actions, and therefore strive to limit our work beyond the system only to those cases which are necessary and guided by our well trained moral instincts. We must, as I assume Pinchas did, train ourselves morally to have the wisdom to discern when acting outside of the law is necessary. May we all merit to achieve the wisdom which allows us to know when to act carefully and within the system and when to move beyond it. And may all of our actions be in the service of peace.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein