Monday, June 21, 2010

Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield On Chukat

Rabbi Yaakov Lehrfield of YISI said the following ideas in his shiur before Shacharis on Shabbos:

The way that we know that the dying stopped in the midbar is because when Miriam dies it says she died and was buried. Up till that point the protocol was being buried first and then dying (or not).

When the water was provided via the rock it says that it was water for the people and for the animals. We learn from here that a person should drink first and then give his animals to drink. We learn from the pasuk in Vehaya Im Shamoa that we should feed our animals before we ourselves eat. Rabbi Lehrfield suggested that since people usually eat on a more than regular basis they should feed their hungry animals first. But people often dehydrate and don't drink as much as they should and should therefore drink before giving their animals to drink.

Chazal say that we learn from the episode of the hitting of the rock that one who assists in doing an aveira is held responsible like the perpetrator of the aveira itself. The idea is that we learn this from Aharon. But how was Aharon to know that Moshe was going to hit the rock that he could have been expected to stop him? This may be why the Torah goes out of the way to say that Moshe hit the rock twice. The first time Aharon was taken by surprise, but perhaps the second time he could have/should have known it was coming.

The Baal HaTurim seems to say that the punishment fit the crime, regarding the hitting of the rock. Moshe did not sanctify G-d's name and therefore was not allowed in Israel, the land in which all existence is in essence a sanctification of G-d's name.

Tradition has it that when it mentions the Canaani in this portion they are located in the wrong place. Tradition has it that this was actually Amalek posing as the Cananites. They learned the language and pretended to be them. They had a choice - to dress like them or take their language. The question is, why not change both? The answer suggested is that if you change both your language and dress you change and become someone else. This is when people get serious about religion they change (or people influencing them have them change) two things, attire and way of speaking. This is why a major part of Shabbos is the altering of these two realms.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Juxtaposition is key in the Torah. This rule applies quite clearly to the start of this week's portion, Chukat. The opening law of this parsha is that of the red heifer. It provides a mystery that even the wisest man ever - King Solomon- could not solve. It is famous paradox, contaminating the pure and purifying the contaminated. It is supra-rational and represents what Rabbi Abraham Twerski dubs ""the suspension of logic in deference to the Divine Will." It is no coincidence that this portion follows the story of Korach.

In a piece often quoted by his students, Rabbi Soloveichik says that Korach's mistake was thinking that his own logic could override the logic of G-d. The essence of a Torah life is the opposite principle, that G-d's judgment must override our own. This is why this portion follows the downfall of Korach, highlighting his mistake of thinking that he could challenge G-d's decisions. The opening line of the parsha is "This is the law of the Torah." It does not say, as we'd expect, "This is the law of the red heifer." The idea is that suspending our own judgment is the basic rule for observance of the entire Torah.

Rabbi Yitzchak Twerski points out that the first mistake of man, is the most commonly repeated mistake of mankind. Adam and Chava thought that they could override G-d's judgment with their own thinking. They suffered the consequence for their mistake. Hevel began to repair their error, submitting himself to G-d. However Kayin regressed and brought death and exile to the world, as his parents did, by challenging G-d's judgment. Many years later the story of Korach echoes that old tale of misplaced hubris. There are only two places in the Torah that the earth is described as opening up it's mouth and swallowing; this language is employed in regard to Kayin and in regard to Korach.

Adam and Chava thought that people had no more accountability than animals. This is why Chava reasoned that if the snake could have contact with the tree then so could she. This is why snakes and people had to be made more markedly different than one another. According to Rabbi Nissan Alpert the mistake (cheit really means mistake, not sin) of the golden calf was that people were saying that this cow was a symbol of the essence of man, that man is like an animal - eating to live and living to eat. The Rabbis teach that that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf. The meaning of this may be that the red heifer comes to atone for the lowest level of impurity, a dead/soulless human being. Acceptance of this law is an admittance of the fact that humans are quite different than animals, given that animals have physical, utilitarian, value even in death.

Tradition has it that Moses was the only one granted the understanding of the ritual of the red heifer. RabbiLeibish Harif expalains that this is because Moshe was not involved in the cheit of the golden calf. Idolatry represents the opposite of what a Torah life is meant to be, rather than accepting our being created in G-d's image the idolater creates god in his image. A man can make a "god " out of wood and then remodel that same wood into furniture or charcoal. Idolatry is self will taking over subordination to the will of G-d. As Rav Chaim Schmuelewitz put it, "There is no such thing as doubts, there are only desires."

This portion, following on the heels of the Korach rebellion reminds us that his questioning of G-d was a form of idolatry. This is literally the oldest story in the book, going back to the first episode in human history.

An anecdote comes to mind: Two men made a deal that whoever died first would visit the other. One dies and appears to his friend in a dream The friend asks him what his day is like now. He replies, “I eat whenever I want, I sleep whenever I want, I fulfill every physical desire whenever I want.” The living man says, “I can’t believe it, you died and went to Heaven!” The other guy explains, “No, I was reincarnated; I’m a cow in Kansas.” We think sometimes that our greatest pleasure is fulfilling our physical urges. Our calling is much higher than that.

It would serve us well to keep our desires in check and to remember the unique essence of human beings. Our special stature comes along with responsibility that other living creatures do not have. It would serve us well to remember our uniqueness and to accept our covenant with G-d. May we be so blessed to rise up to being human in the highest sense of the word.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

On Korach: For The Sake of Heaven - Special To The Jewish Week

The Rabbis of the Mishnah say, “An argument which is for the sake of Heaven will have a positive outcome, and an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven will not have a positive outcome.” The paradigm presented of a sincere argument “is the dispute between Hillel and Shamai. And what was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his men” [Avot 5:20].

The Rabbis fail to mention Moshe, Korach’s antagonist, as they had mentioned Hillel’s opponent, Shamai. Why do they write asymmetrically, as if Korach was disagreeing with his own group?

The most common answer is that a major indication of Korach’s insincerity was the infighting amongst his followers. Korach and his men each had their own motives and fought not only against Moshe but among themselves, as well. Another popular explanation is that since Hillel and Shamai were both genuine, it makes sense to list them each as members of a sincere dispute. However, in the case of Korach against Moshe, it was only Korach who was insincere. Moshe was not engaged in an artificial fight and therefore his name is not mentioned here.

Perhaps the reason why Moshe is not listed as the other side of Korach’s fight is because from Korach’s point of view Moshe’s perspective did not exist. When someone is engaged in a fight that they just want to win rather than wanting the truth, they close out the other side.

This applies in every phase and arena of life. Most people want their political party, sports team, religion, sub-group within religion, and sub-group within sub-group of religion to emerge victorious, period. As a teacher, my experience is that many of my students just want a higher grade, while a select others truly wish to understand why I saw fit to take off points. The truly spiritual and sincere person who wishes to fulfill God’s will, fights honestly for the truth. Within that fight for truth he acknowledges the possibility of his own error and grants truth even when it rests on the other side of the party line.

When I was 17 and studying in Israel, I was primed to meet with the rabbi of the shul in which I grew up. He had been sent by my parents to convince me to go back to America. I was ready to explain why I was planning to stay in Israel, even against my parents’ will. On my way to the rabbi, I told a friend, “I’m off to an argument and I hope I win.” My friend said that he was sure I would not win. I was incredulous. Yet, he made a strong point, saying, “If you have a discussion you can get somewhere, if you have an argument you never win.” This Mishnah explains that an argument can be won if it is a sincere discussion with ears attuned to the other side.

When Moshe responds to Korach, he makes curious use of the same words that Korach said to him [Numbers 16:3-7]: “Rav lachem — it is enough for you.” Moshe tried to show Korach, by repeating Korach’s own phrase, that there was another side to the story. Korach could not, would not, allow himself to hear his own words echoed back to him from a different vantage point. This is often the case if someone is not open; they are unwilling to allow the other side the same right that they have to an opinion.

The sincerity of Hillel and Shamai trickled down to their students. The Mishnah in Yevamot [13a] says that although their two schools disagreed about major elements of Jewish law, the communities of Hillel and of Shamai were friends with each other and did not hesitate to marry one another. The Gemorah says that the reason why we follow the view of Beit Hillel is because they would study the opinions of Beit Shamai even before they delved into their own viewpoints [Eruvin 13a].

In a related note, the Talmud is sometimes puzzled by a statement made by a rabbi that didn’t seem to fit with his just stated standpoint. The Talmud’s resolution of this apparent inconsistency is that sometimes, in his earnest search for truth, a rabbi would enter the thinking of his opponent and speak l’divreihem — from the point of view of the other side.

The lesson of Parshat Korach is that when we conflict with others we must do it solely for the sake of Heaven. This applies to ethical, political, and religious issues of global import. It would serve us well to wisely take note even when we differ with others over seemingly mundane matters. What is the litmus test by which we can gauge if we are voicing our opinion for the sake of Heaven? Whenever we disagree with others we should truthfully answer one simple question, “Do I hear the other side?”

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School as well as a writer and poet whose work can be found here.