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
In parashat Chukkat, God sends snakes to punish the people of Israel for murmuring against God and Moses (Numbers 21:5-6). The snake-bitten Israelites repent, admitting their errors, and ask Moses to remove the snakes. Instead of removing the snakes, God commands Moses to build a bronze snake on an ensign; anyone who is bitten is healed by looking at the bronze snake. If this feels a bit like idolatry to you, you’re not off-base--whether or not it is not in Moses’ time, interaction with the snake definitely turns into idolatry in later generations. When Hezekiah takes over the kingship of Judah, he destroys the bronze snake alongside all sorts of idolatrous accessories (2 Kings 18:4). The book of Kings tell us that people would sacrifice to the bronze snake and even gave it a name, “up until that day.” The people had been worshiping this snake for a long time--maybe even from the time it was originally built.
Our Talmud (Chullin 6b-7a), distressed by the idea of this bronze snake remaining as a stumbling block for those inclined to idolatry for hundreds of years, asks how none of the previous kings who rid the Israelites of idolatry destroyed the snake. It answers that Hezekiah’s ancestors left the snake around so that Hezekiah, by destroying the snake, would have a place to distinguish himself as king. The previous leaders of the nation allowed the people to commit idolatry so some grandson in the future could achieve glory as a leader. Idolatry represents the worst direction for the nation of Israel, so a king leaving a possible idolatrous object for the sake of glorifying his lineage seems selfish and antithetical to the entire Torah. A king who leaves open the possibility of idolatry prioritizes his family’s power over God’s power.
The Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) explains that it was not intentional on the part of previous kings--instead, they missed the implications of their inaction. Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) expands this, suggesting that some previous leaders were actually successful in convincing the nation not to worship the bronze snake; since it also served to remind the people of the miracles in the desert, they figured there was no need to destroy it. They knew it was a risk, but they also knew it was useful, and they lacked the wisdom to understand that, in this case, the risk was not worth the reward. However, Hezekiah saw more deeply, and realized that this snake would continue to be a future problem.To him, destroying a potential source of idolatry was worth sacrificing the reminder it served of God’s past miracles. Rabbi Sofer attributes Hezekiah’s insight, as well as the previous kings’ lack thereof, to God, explaining that God prevented the previous kings from understanding that this snake needed to be destroyed. In this view, God hides wisdom even from great people until the right person comes along: a person with both the ability and the proper situation to act upon this wisdom.
Two messages result from this interpretation. First, we should not expect ourselves to have the wisdom to make make all of the right choices. No matter how wise and how good our intentions, we will stumble and make decisions with awful future consequences. We must continuously evaluate our wise choices of the past to ensure they continue to be wise in the present and in the future. We must accept that our wisdom is imperfect and continually search and pray to God for more wisdom. However, we should also recognize that each of us does have some wisdom that our predecessors and colleagues do not. The difficult part--and this is where Hezekiah shows his maturity--is figuring out where we have more wisdom than others, and where our wisdom might be lacking. We must search for the wisdom God has uniquely given to us and find how we can use that to improve the world. In doing so, we distinguish ourselves. May we all merit to reach this point.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
In Korach, this week’s parashah, three men - Korach, Datan, and Aviram - lead a rebellion against Moses. They argue against Moses’ power, but the details of their complaints are absent. The story ends with a showdown between Moses and Korach, where Korach and his followers are variously swallowed by the Earth and burned in a heavenly fire. What did they do that was so abhorrent that God would alter the world to punish them?
Korach is a Levite from the family of Kehat, and Datan and Aviram are from the tribe of Reuben. Rashi, quoting a midrash, suggests that the union that forms this rebellion results because the family of Kehat made its camp next to the tribe of Reuben. “Woe to the wicked one, woe to their neighbor,” Rashi quotes. The people amongst whom we live are important and influential and it would seem best to surround ourselves by good people. This idea is also emphasized in a story in the Mishna (Avot 6:9), in which Rabbi Yose ben Kisma is offered great wealth to move but insists on only living in a place of Torah. To be a good person, it helps to be in a place of good.
But while it is important to place ourselves amongst good people, it does not necessarily follow that having bad neighbors makes us bad. Nor, necessarily, does sharing the opinions of bad people make us bad. The Jewish proof for this in in Korach’s own children. Not only are we told in a later part of the book of Numbers (26:11) that Korach’s children did not die, we learn that they are also the composers or singers of several poems in the book of Psalms. One midrash (Midrash Psalms 45) refers to them as “a rose among thorns.” Psalm 45, which is either for or by the sons of Korach, begins, “For the conductor, on roses,by the sons of Korach.”
Another Midrash (Midrash Psalms 1) gives us a Rabbinic perspective as to what made the children of Korach a rose among thorns. It tells us that they, showing respect for their father, themselves brought Korach’s complaints against Moses to Moses. It was a legitimate complaint, too - that the Torah’s system of taxation was too difficult for a widow and her orphans. However, unlike Korach and his band, whom the Rabbis see as complaining against Moses in a mocking manner and for the sake of insult, the sons of Korach humble themselves before Moses and show him respect. They still argue, but they choose their words carefully and honor those with whom they disagree. In the Rabbinic imagination, the way we present our opinions is at least as important towards defining us as good or bad as are the opinions themselves that we hold. Argument and disagreement are fine - and, in fact, are necessary when one sees something wrong, as did Korach’s children and even Korach. The Rabbis teach us that doing so in a dismissive or mocking manner is not, so much so that in Korach’s case, it is a capital offense. Woe to the person who speaks to others disparagingly and woe to that person’s neighbor. However, arguing when we see injustice, and doing so in a proper manner is not just not-punishable, but is also an act that makes one worthy of having liturgy such as Psalms recited in one’s name. Let us judge people less by the opinions they hold and with whom they hold those opinions in common; instead, let us tend to judge them by the respect they show in presenting and espousing those opinions. May we all merit to fight those injustices we perceive, but may we learn to do so like the children of Korach: with humility and respect for those with whom we disagree.
Shabbat Shalom –שבת שלומ
Reb Joel Goldstein
Near the end of Shlach L’kha, this week’s Torah portion, is a curious story of a man caught collecting wood on Shabbat in the wilderness (Numbers 15:32-36). After Moses jails the man and appeals to God for help with sentencing, God orders the man executed for his crime. This narrative has stupefied commentators for two reasons. First, it is not clear which crime the man actually committed that would warrant his execution. While major violations of Shabbat are capital offenses in the Torah, his Shabbat violation seems to be at worst a lower level violation. Second, commentators are confused as to why an appeal to God was necessary to determine the man’s sentence since the Torah has already given the punishment for violating Shabbat. Looking at the sections of the Torah before and after this story can give us ways to answer these two questions.
Just before the story of the Shabbat wood gatherer, Shlach L’kha lays out a set of rules for sacrifices brought when someone accidentally sins. That is, making mistakes is the topic under discussion leading into the story of the wood collector. Following our story, we have the rules of putting tzitzit - fringes - on garments. The tzitzit function as a reminder to follow the Torah’s commandments. That is, the story is followed by the topic of reminders to compel us to follow God’s laws.
The Talmud (Shabbat 69b) teaches a formula for when to celebrate Shabbat if we are lost in the desert and do not know what day of the week it is. If it is so easy to get confused and make mistakes in the desert, perhaps the wood collector merely forgot that it was Shabbat. This would explain why Moses has to appeal to God to mete out a sentence: Moses is not sure if an accidental mistake warrants full punishment. But even though mistakes are only mistakes, sometimes they are genuinely preventable by paying a little more attention. As my high school teacher, Rabbi David Rue, once told me, “There really are no accidents. You could always pay better attention.” I do not think he is fully correct, but he has a point, and I think it is also the point made by our Parashah. Some mistakes are avoidable if we can just be more careful. Driving is one of the best examples where we allow ourselves to be distracted and rarely remind ourselves what is at stake. The Torah then gives us away to be more careful: by wearing fringes on our garments as a constant reminder to pay more attention to our responsibilities as Jews. Which is why Moses does not know the correct punishment for this man. Moses is not sure if the wood-gatherer’s sin is an unavoidable mistake and therefore not subject to punishment, or is it a mistake which, given more attention, should never have happened and therefore punishable? We should ask the same questions. We must commit ourselves to reminders which prevent us from making mistakes, whether those that remind us to not be distracted while operating machinery, those that remind us to watch what we say to people, or those that simply remind us to watch our elbows as we move through a crowd of people. At the same time, we must also remember the other possible ending to the story of the wood gatherer: he might have been innocent. We too should remember to also forgive ourselves for those mistakes which were unavoidable, even had we paid closer attention.
In this week’s portion, B’ha-alo-t’kha, the Israelites celebrate the Passover for the only time while they are wandering in the Sinai desert. Some Israelites are not in the proper state of ritual purity to perform the Passover sacrifice, so Moses appeals to God, who institutes a second chance at performing the Passover one month later (Numbers 9:4-14). Within this set of laws, we learn that a ger - whom the Rabbis understand to be a Jew-by-choice - has the same laws as a born member of the Israelite nation. “When a ger lives with you, he shall perform the Passover for Hashem; he shall perform the Passover per its statutes and its laws; there shall be one statute for you, for the ger and the citizen of the land,” (Numbers 9:14). The midrash Sifrei explains that without this verse, one might think that when a person converts to Judaism, they celebrate the Passover on the day of their conversion. This suggestion makes sense. The Talmud teaches us (K’ritot 9a) that the steps to convert to Judaism are the same steps taken by the Israelites at Sinai before receiving the Torah: circumcision for men, ritual immersion, and a sacrifice (no longer performed today). If conversion is meant to mimic the creation of individual Israelites, it would be sensible to start from the moment of the Israelites’ individual freedom, which begins not at Sinai, but rather at Passover.
Why then does a Jew-by-choice not enter the Jewish people by immediately reenacting the Passover? I would like to offer two possibilities. First, the Passover ceremony is about reenacting the time when God freed us to accept the Torah. Every year we remember that we were incapable of making this move on our own; we needed God to free us from Egypt so that we could accept the Torah. The Jew-by-choice, however, freed themselvesto accept Torah by choosing to convert. They did not require God’s help in accepting God and God’s Torah. They achieved this status on their own, about which most of our Israelite ancestors could only dream.
Another possibility is that accepting Torah and reenacting the Passover are fundamentally different in nature. The first is an individual journey. The pieces involved can be done individually and alone—until the building of a centralized house of worship, even some sacrifices were done individually. However, Passover is about the entire nation recalling a national event. It needs individuals to come together and perform it, and it is not a true reenactment if only a few take part. To ask a newly converted Jew to perform a Passover alone, or even with a few fellow converts, would send a message that this person was not yet part of the larger Jewish community. By telling them they do not need to perform the Passover until a larger group of Jews is performing, our tradition reifies their place in the community, ensuring that they are not isolated or singled out as Jews-by-choice.
These two approaches suggest a model for accepting a new person - whether a Jew by birth or by choice - within our communities. On one hand we should appreciate the incredible effort they put forth to join our community. On the other hand, we should not allow this effort to leave them alone and singled out. Rather we should invite them into our communal practices as if they were always there from the start.
Reb. Joel Goldstein
In Parshat Naso, this week’s Torah portion, two seemingly unrelated topics appear right next to one another. The first topic is about giving gifts to the priests (Numbers 5:9-10) and the second topic is about a jealous husband who suspects his wife of cheating without any real proof (Numbers 5:11-31).
Searching for literary continuity between these themes, the Talmud (Brakhot 63a) asks what the relationship is between these two topics. It explains that one who separates taxes for the priest but does not givethem will eventually need the priest to perform an elaborate ceremony to settle the issue of the jealous husband. It is not obvious from the Talmud if this is the result of Divine punishment for not giving taxes to the priest or a warning about souring a relationship on whom one might later come to rely.
However, I would like to suggest it is a lesson on the intertwined nature between the relationship of a community and its leadership and the relationship among the individuals of that community. The Talmud never assigns all or any of the blame on the non-priest. Perhaps both the priest and the non-priest share in the blame. It is the priest’s job to approach non-priests to collect taxes and the non-priests are permitted to give their taxes to whichever priest they like. The priest cannot force people to give to him in particular. Rather, the priest must cultivate the proper relationship with the people so that they give over their taxes willingly. The Torah’s lesson for us is that a leader who fails to properly cultivate relationships with the community has a partial hand in causing breakdowns in relationships among the lay people as well.
This sets a goal for me as I step into the job as your community’s religious leader: to recall the awesome responsibility the Torah puts upon religious leadership. A religious leader cannot take all the credit or the blame for the community they lead. Like the priest whose job it is to ensure people properly pay their taxes but is not permitted to force any hands, the job of a religious leader is neither to allow people to be remiss in their religious connections, nor is it to coerce people in their religious duties. Instead, it is to create relationships that encourage the community religiously. To do so can also help to create not just a strong religious community, but a strong community as a community.
May God grant me the strength to live up to this awesome responsibility and help me to continue to allow and encourage the amazing Jewish community in Hull to thrive.
שבת שלומ - Shabbat Shalom
Reb Joel Goldstein