Thursday, June 22, 2017

Parshat Korach - Augmented Reality

This week's parsha features the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moshe. Korach's main point of contention was Moshe's appointment of Elizaphan Ben Uziel as a Nasi, despite the fact that, in terms of age, Korach was next in line for this position. Korach, perceiving this to be a fabrication of the Will of Hashem, gathered together two-hundred and fifty heads of the Assembly to challenge Moshe's leadership.
The Midrash Tanchuma asks a deeply penetrating question regarding the motives of Korach: "Korach was a clever man; what did he see that brought him to such foolishness?” The Midrash answers: "His eyes misled him, for he saw a great chain of descendants emerging from him: Shmuel Hanavi, who was as important as Moshe and Aharon, as it says in Tehillim (99:6) 'Moshe and Aharon were among his priests and Shmuel was among those who invoke his name.'" Korach saw from the fact that Shmuel is mentioned in the same sentence as Moshe and Aharon, that Shmuel is just as important as them. He then took this as proof that he, an ancestor of Shmuel, was rightful in mounting this rebellion.
Korach's line of reasoning is very difficult to understand. He feels that he is justified in replacing Moshe and Aharon as leader because he saw that one of his descendants will be a very important person. How does his offspring prove that he is fitting to be a leader? If Shmuel himself were leading this rebellion, then the argument would make sense: Shmuel is just as important as Moshe and Aharon, so perhaps he could be fitting to lead in their place. But what does Shmuel's greatness say about Korach's own worthiness? Furthermore, this thought process only proves the very opposite of Korach's entire goal. Inherent in his argument is the assumption that Moshe and Aharon are men of spiritual greatness themselves (i.e. Shmuel is as great as them.) But yet, he claims that Moshe and Aharon are unfitting, and that they are fabricating the will of Hashem! How can they be great enough to prove his own greatness, yet not great enough to be the rightful leaders?
How can Korach make such an incredibly illogical argument?
From here we can gain tremendous insight into the devastating effect of a negiah (a personal bias) on an otherwise straight-thinking individual.
Rav Yecheskel Weinfeld Shlit”a explains that there are two ways that a negiah can manifest in a person. In the first, the person is uninterested in the facts that might prove him wrong and simply ignores them. Such a person is so stubborn and set in their ways, that they refuse to consider anything that may move them from their belief; they walk through life with proverbial blinders over their eyes. Then there is a second, more pernicious type of bias. This is when the person willingly examines the facts, but he is so engulfed in his prism of reality that these facts cannot disprove his notions and theories. On the contrary – all the facts in the world only serve to corroborate him!
This second level of negiah, even a minutely subconscious one, can skew a person's reality with absolutely newfangled, misguided interpretations, all just in order to justify his desired worldview. No matter that others don't understand or agree with a word he says – and tell him he's crazy – for this person is so locked in his ideas that he concludes everyone else is crazy!
This was the downfall of Korach. His main thrust to overtake Moshe and Aharon – his negiah – was his desire for honor. This bias led him so far astray that he came to the ridiculous conclusion that he was fitting to be a leader, and argue that he had been unjustly denied a position of authority, all through a faulty line of reasoning. Shmuel, the progeny who “proved” his worthiness, and would himself have been fitting for the job, would not be born for generations. Additionally, his logic caused him to mount a rebellion against leaders whom he himself inherently admitted were great and holy men!
This clarifies another difficulty in the sedrah as well.
It's interesting to note that this Midrash cited above is only quoted by Rashi much later in the episode (16:7), after Korach has already begun his rebellion. Seemingly, if the Midrash is explaining Korach’s motives, wouldn't it have made more sense for Rashi to quote it in the beginning? However in light of our explanation we can understand that Korach’s thought process was really post-facto; once he already decided to rebel, his bias forced him to conjure up a justification for his actions. Meaning that Rashi implicitly understood that the real, initial motivation for Korach’s actions was the appointment of Elizaphan, and the Midrash only comes to tell us this this was Korach’s second-thought.
This explanation also sheds a new light both on the Midrash and on a fundamental question in our parsha. The Midrash says "His eyes mistook him for he saw a great chain of descendant's emerging from him." Seemingly, Korach saw this with ruach hakodesh. If he was of the caliber to be able to merit these lofty visions, doesn't that perhaps lend some credence to his claim of personal greatness? How could such a great person be so misled? However, now we can understand that when a person is unaware of his subliminal biases, it can bring ruin upon him. It can even turn his positive traits against him. The Sefas Emes quotes the Chozeh of Lublin in regards to what we can learn from Korach: when a person is not self-aware, even ruach hakodesh is destructive! The need to be aware of our biases is so great because the damage they can wreak on our lives can be monumental.
Rav Yisrael Salanter called this necessity to be self-aware, the avodah of דע את עצמך – “to know thyself”. L’ehavdil, this idea goes back to Plato and the pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Thales of Miletus. Benjamin Franklin, in his 1750 Poor Richard's Almanack observed, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.” Even the wise men of the world were cognizant of the potential damage that an unchecked bias can cause.
Though it is extremely difficult to do, if we can challenge ourselves to become more attuned to our inner workings and subliminal thoughts, we can avoid being led astray from our tasks in life. May we merit the strength to realize – and subsequently overcome – our biases, and may we be able to see reality in a pure form that will allow us to fulfill the true will of Hashem.
Shabbat Shalom 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Parshat Shelach - From Reaction to Action: A National Hysteria

This week's parsha contains the episode of the spies. The Meraglim were sent to scout the Land of Israel, for the future settling of the Jewish People there. G-d comes to Moshe saying: “Send forth for yourself men, and let them spy out the Land of Canaan” (Bamidbar 13:2). Noting the interesting additional phrase לך (for you), Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma which says that the idea to send out the spies was not a commandment from Hashem – rather it was a response to the people's request to do so.

When the spies come back, all of them (aside from Yehoshua Bin Nun and Calev Ben Yefuneh) deliver negative reports of Eretz Yisrael. Thoroughly scaring the Nation, the Meraglim cast doubt in the hearts of the people about entering the Land.

The Torah recounts the entire response of the Nation:
“The people wept that night. All the Children of Israel murmured against Moshe and Aharon, and the entire assembly said to them, “If only that we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only that we had died in the wilderness! Why is Hashem bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and young children will be taken captive! Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!’ (ibid. 14:1-4).

Distressed upon hearing the Nation's hysterical response, “Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces before the entire congregation of the assembly of the children of Israel” (ibid. 5).

In analyzing the verses, there seem to be two parts or stages of the Nation's response to the report of the Meraglim. The Nation first responds by speaking to Moshe and Aharon and questioning why G-d would bring them out to the desert to die. They also add “Is it better not for us to return to Egypt?” That is the first stage. In the second stage, they speak amongst themselves and act upon their doubts: “They said to one another ‘let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!’”

Towards which part is Moshe and Aharon’s response? One might have expected Moshe and Aharon to react to stage one – to the blasphemous statements hurled towards them. However, it seems from the pesukim that they “fell on their faces” only directly after B’nei Yisrael said, “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt.” The fact that B’nei Yisrael were doubting Hashem did not immediately elicit the great distress of Moshe and Aharon. Rather, only once the Nation expressed the desire to appoint a new leader did they respond in such a fashion. What was it about this second stage that so greatly distressed Moshe and Aharon more than the first?

I would like to suggest the following: One could reason that the initial fear of the people was not only understandable, but perhaps even justifiable. The response of hysteria to the fear-mongering reports would be natural, especially when we examine the intentions of the Meraglim. The Midrashim are rife with explanations impugning the motives of the spies; how they added superfluous details just in order to scare the Nation. For example, the spies mention: “Amalek dwells in the area of the south” (ibid. 13:29). Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma that points to their ulterior motives for mentioning Amalek: “Since they [B’nei Yisrael] had already been ‘burned’ by Amalek, [i.e. previously having had a war with them] the spies mentioned it in order to strike fear in them.” Is it any surprise, then, that the Nation was indeed scared?

However, the test of life is not about how we initially react, but how we let that affect us. The mistake the people made was not in being afraid; the mistake was letting that fear overtake them, and lead them down a path of devastation. This is, in my opinion, the key to understanding Moshe and Aharon's response. Moshe and Aharon implicitly felt that for the Nation to respond in fear and worry was ultimately justifiable – how could they react any differently to such terrifying news? However, when they heard the people conspire and say: “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt!”– that conclusion elicited Moshe and Aharon’s intense reaction. This was, in fact, devastating. That the people, rather than confront their fear and filter it through their logical thought processes (which if they had done they would have surely recalled G-d’s unending devotion to them), followed their fear down the dark and winding road towards blasphemy, leading them to conclude to return to Egypt. This response was unforgivable, and would ultimately barr this generation from entering the Land of Israel.*

Too often we guilt ourselves when we don't initially respond the way we would like. But that is not always the test! Sometimes, our challenges are too difficult and we cannot expect more of ourselves. However, what is in our hands is if we let that emotion or fear overtake us, causing us to come to false judgements and conclusions about the world, the people we love, but more so – ourselves. Sometimes all that is needed is for us to slow down, give ourselves and others a chance, and make our decisions with a level-head. And when we think it through, we can be confident in the knowledge that Hashem is always with us.

Shabbat Shalom

*So great was the Nation’s unwarranted panic and crying, it would serve as the catalyst for our national cry of thousands of years: Tisha B’Av. The Gemara in Ta’anit (29a) tells us: “That night was the night of the Ninth of Av. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: You wept needlessly that night, and I will therefore establish for you a true tragedy over which there will be weeping in future generations.” It is interesting to note that what is highlighted as their sin is that they “wept needlessly”. In light of our explanation, their weeping would not have been needless had they allowed it to lead them towards greater faith and reliance upon G-d. However, since their weeping only resulted in furthering them from G-d and taking negative action, it retroactively was characterized as needless.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Parshat Beha'alotcha - Lighting Up the Nation

This week's parsha begins: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, Speak to Aharon and say to him: When you kindle the lamps, towards the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light” (8:1-2). Aharon was given the task of lighting the Menorah in the Mikdash.

The previous parsha, Parshat Naso, featured the inaugural offerings of the נשיאים, where each tribe was represented. The juxtaposition of these parshiot raises a question: The portion featuring the Menorah and its directives appeared earlier in the Torah, prior to the parsha of the Nesiim. Thus would we have expected the chapter on preparations for the Menorah to occur earlier. Why does it appear now?

The Be’er Basadeh, a commentary on Rashi, tells us that from this difficulty, it is clear that the placement of this parsha next to the parsha of the Nesiim, shows that it is directly connected to their offerings. Therefore, Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma here: Why was the passage dealing with the Menorah placed next to the passage of the Nesiim? Because Aharon saw the inauguration, and he felt badly, for neither he nor his tribe was represented among them. G-d, seeing Aharon's sadness tries to comfort him: “I swear by your life, your portion is greater than theirs, for you kindle and prepare the lamps.”

The Ramban asks a very strong question: Why is Aharon only now comforted, by the Mitzvah of the Menorah? Why wasn't he comforted with the Ketoret, a service done every day, morning and night? Why isn’t he comforted by the entire Yom Kippur service – the holiest of the year! Not only was he privy to entering the Holy of Holies, but only he was permitted to enter, something the other tribes were not allowed to do. In light of these questions, the Ramban (quoting Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon) says that the mitzvah of Menorah is not only referring to the Menorah in the Mikdash, but also referring to the miracle of Chanukah, and the mitzvah of Neirot Chanukah, which would last forever. That is Aharon’s comfort.

Yet still one could ask, why was this issue generated only after seeing the Nesiim? And what was it in particular about the mitzvah of the Menorah that comforted Aharon, in connection to the Nesiim?

I would humbly like to suggest the following approach. And in the traditional Jewish way, we will answer a question with a few more questions:

The Rambam rules (ביאת מקדש ט:ז) that despite the fact that there is a general prohibition for a זר (non-Kohen) to perform services in the Mikdash (as it is set aside for the Kohen) a non-Kohen is allowed to light the Menorah (assuming the Menorah was brought out of the Kodesh and into the outer courtyard where non-Kohanim are allowed to enter). The common explanation of this Rambam is that the kindling of the Menorah is not an עבודה, thus it does not necessitate a Kohen to do the actual lighting; even a זר is allowed to perform this service. However, the Raavad asks: that the kindling is not considered an עבודה only allows for the fact that if the non-Kohen lit it, it would not disqualify the lighting. But who says that it allows for a non-Kohen to light the Menorah לכתחילה? Furthermore, other Mefarshim are troubled with this Rambam, for doesn’t the Torah say explicitly, “Speak to Aharon”? This would imply that it is a mitzvah specific only to the Kohen Gadol. So how is it acceptable for a זר to light the Menorah?

In his magnum opus on the Rambam, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik זצוק״ל explains that we see clearly from the Rambam a different understanding in the nature of the mitzvah of Menorah. Rav Chaim sets down the principle that the mitzvah of the Menorah is not to light it, rather the mitzvah of the Menorah is for it to be lit. The only obligation incumbent upon the Kohen is to prepare the wicks of the Menorah, known as הטבת הנרות. As long as the wicks were prepared by the Kohen, we are not concerned with how or why or by whom the Menorah is lit, as long as it is lit. Therefore, even a non-Kohen may do the lighting. According to the Rambam, it follows that the mitzvah of the Menorah is not specific to Kohanim; rather anyone can do it.

Seemingly, this understanding of the halacha detracts from the exclusivity of Menorah to the Kohanim. And if the mitzvah of the Menorah is not reserved for Aharon and his tribe, how was it a comfort to him? Wasn't Aharon bothered that he wasn't represented with the dedication offerings, like the Nesiim? Furthermore, the only aspect mitzvah that is exclusive to the Kohen is simply the preparation of the lights – a seemingly menial job of clearing out the used wicks and oil of the previous day – something that surely isn't befitting of the honor due to the Priests. How does it help to give him this mitzvah, in which he only plays an ancillary part?

To explain this we must go back and understand what was so special about the offerings of the Nesiim. Every Nasi brought the same exact offering, and the Midrash explains that each Nasi decided to do this so so as not to cause a feeling of one-upmanship, thus promoting a sense of community, peace and unity among them all. The Baalei Mussar tell us that this was a manifestation of the greater unity that the Jewish People had at that time. They were sensitive to each other's feelings, desiring only to serve G-d, rather than let their offerings devolve into a showing of haughtiness and wealth. The fact that the tribe leaders chose to refrain from “standing out” from each other, despite their potential ability to be extravagant in their offerings, showed the unity and humility of the nation’s leaders. It served as a lesson for future generations that one can be unique without the need to overtly and externally separate oneself from the greater whole.

Perhaps Aharon HaKohen, the most removed and regal member of a separate class (Kohanim) from an already removed tribe (Levi), desired to have his share in this unity. Aharon, being an אוהב שלום ורודף שלום also wished to avoid “standing out.” Therefore, G-d gave him the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. The Menorah, though situated in the Mikdash, is applicable to all, not just the Priestly class. This was the answer to his discomfort, for this mitzvah was in essence quite appropriate for someone as humble as he. With it, he performed the simple (yet important) task of cleaning the Menorah, and the actual lighting was not given exclusively to him and his tribe, but rather was a reminder that all have a share in this Avodah*. The fact that the kindling of the Menorah does not need to be done by a Kohen is a perfect extension of the message derived from offerings of the Nesiim and it is only logical that the Menorah and its preparation would follow after their offerings. Just as the Nesiim chose to refrain from adding to their offerings for the sake of brotherhood, Aharon was also taking part in this value with the mitzvah of the Menorah.

Aharon HaKohen shows us that there is a duality in Judaism. While we each have our own special place and role, we also fit into a greater, larger picture – one which will suffer if we chose to emphasize our role too much, or choose to minimize and deny it altogether. It is most fitting for us to learn this lesson of unity and humility from the Kohen Gadol himself, who stands at a unique place in the Jewish hierarchy. It is then up to each one of us to recognize and honor our own role and become a unified part of the greater whole. May we each find success in this endeavor.

Shabbat Shalom

*This fits well with Chazal’s advice of how to become wise: בבא בתרא כה:) הרוצה שיחכים ידרים) – One who desires to become wise should turn towards the south when praying. The Menorah was situated to the south in the Mikdash and the Menorah was symbolic of Torah as the pasuk says כי נר מצוה ותורה אור. Torah is truly the common denominator between all the people of the nation, rich or poor, a Mamzer or Kohen Gadol! Everyone is equally obligated to study it, and is capable of mastering it. Thus it is only fitting that the lighting of the Menorah itself would be a point of commonality and unity among the nation.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parshat Bamidbar - A Mini Har Sinai

With this week’s parsha we begin a new book in the Torah – Sefer Bamidbar. The central focus of this book is the laws and history of the Mishkan as the Jews travel through the desert.

The Ramban (Shemot 25:1, 35:1) points out that there are many interesting parallels between the building of the Mishkan and that of the revelation at Har Sinai. From this comparison we learn that the Mishkan, the Beit Hamikdash, and later the community synagogue are meant to serve as reminders of the experience the Jews had at Har Sinai. When the Torah was given, the Shechina rested among the Nation. So too, in the Mishkan (as well as the Beit Hamikdash and the Beit Haknesset) the Shechinah resides permanently in our מקדשי מעט (Megillah 29a), and we have the opportunity to re-enter the experience we had at the giving of the Torah.

Perhaps we can carry the Ramban’s concept a bit further. The beginning of the parsha deals with the counting of the Nation, yet Hashem specifically commands Moshe, “ But you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take a census of them among the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 1:49). At first glance this is very interesting – why does Hashem give the command not to count Levi? Are they not part of the Nation as well? Rashi explains that it was because the tribe of Levi did not sin with the golden calf at Har Sinai, and therefore they are not to be counted with the rest of the Nation, but rather as a separate entity. Because the Leviim  did not sin with the golden calf, they have an elevated status.

Immediately after this commandment, Hashem directs Moshe to entrust the tribe of Levi with the assembling, disassembling, transporting and guarding of the Mishkan. One might ask why it was that specifically the tribe of Levi was chosen? In what were they meritorious, and what connection does it have with the Mishkan?

However, according to the aforementioned Ramban and Rashi, the connection between the Leviim and the work in the Mishkan is obvious. As we know, the Nation reached incredible spiritual heights at the revelation by Har Sinai. To have Hashem’s Divine Presence revealed was the most seminal moment of holiness in this world, and its power still reverberates through the generations. According to our tradition (Avoda Zarah 22b, Yevamot 103b), the Nation reached the same level that Adam Harishon was on before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. But this was dashed when the Nation erred with the golden calf, causing them to tumble from their lofty level. However, one tribe remained steadfast in their devotion to Hashem; this was the tribe of Levi. In withstanding from sinning, the tribe of Levi retained the holiness which was reached at the revelation.

Since the Leviim were the only ones who did not sin at Har Sinai and therefore the only ones who did not fall from this high level, it stands to reason that only they could do the service in the Mishkan, this “mini-Har Sinai”. The Leviim would serve as constant, tangible reminders of the Divine revelation that was witnessed by all of the Nation at Har Sinai.

We see that in choosing Levi, Hashem is once again highlighting the connection between Har Sinai and the Mishkan, the Beit Hamikdash, and the Shul. We may often take for granted the level of holiness that we can achieve by entering our local shuls, and the proper respect with which they are to be treated.

With Shavuot approaching, it is quite appropriate to ingrain in ourselves this lesson and cultivate this value. For while we did not consciously experience the giving of the Torah personally, we have the incredible opportunity to tap back into the level that was reached there – every time we enter a shul to daven or learn! We can take this idea to heart by behaving in shul as though we are visiting the Shechinah, and we too can merit to be on the level of the Leviim. We should be zoche to see the return of the Beit Hamikdash, where we can once again perform the Holy Service, speedily in our days. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

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