On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parsha Chukas – Aaron HaKohein… Perfect Hero or Failed Leader?

Among many of the incidents in the Torah portion of Chukas we read about the death of Moses’s brother Aaron. 

There are few characters in Chumash who present us with such as dichotomy as Aaron.  On one hand, he was so great that the entire Jewish people wept and mourned him for 30 days.  On the other hand, he had a role in the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people, the golden calf.  Several months ago, I witnessed a conversation between two friends of mine about Aaron.  One referred to him as a failed leader.  The other took the opposite extreme and denied that he had any participation in the incident in the golden calf at all.  This leads to the question, who was Aaron?

Let’s go over what happened in the Torah portion of Ki Sisa.  Chapter 32, Verses 1-5: The people saw that Moses delayed in descending the mountain and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him “Rise up, make for us g-ds who will go before us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt – we do not know what became of him!”  Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”  The entire people unburdened themselves of the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took it from their hands and he bound it in a scarf, and made it into a molten calf; then they said, “These are your g-ds” O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  Aaron saw and built an alter before him; Aaron called out and said, “A festival to Hashem tomorrow!”

There are several classical answers given as to why Aaron did what he did.  Here are some:

  1. Aaron tried to delay the people by telling them to get jewelry from their wives.  He knew that Moses would be back the next day.
  2. In the exact language of the verse, he never pronounced the golden calf to be a G-d.  He stated that G-d took them out of Egypt and there will be a festival to G-d tomorrow.
  3. The Midrash tells is that Hur, the son of Miriam and Caleb stood up to the people when they first demanded that the golden calf be made and the people killed him. Aaron didn’t want the Jewish people to kill him.

All of these provide some sort of explanation, but they still seem to leave us lacking in the true understanding of Aaron.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that Aaron never waivered in his belief in Hashem.  If that’s the case, then maybe Aaron was afraid he’d be killed and that’s why he participated in the making of the golden calf.  This also can not be the case.  When G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, Moses begs and pleads for more time.  When Aaron finds out that he’s going to die, he doesn’t complain at all.  He clearly wasn’t afraid of death.  If he wasn’t afraid of dying, why did he do it?

In the Torah portion of Korach, a plague fell upon the Jewish people when Aaron’s leadership was questioned my a minority of men.  G-d was so outraged that the people stood by while this happened, he started killing them.  The plague was only stopped by the actions of Aaron.  Aaron was a prophet.  He understood that if this was going to happen when the Jewish people questioned him, if they would have killed him, there would have been no way that G-d would have forgiven them.  They all would have been wiped out. 

Coincidentally I heard in a lecture today, that it’s better for to sin for the sake of heaven then to do a mitzvah not for the sake of heaven. (Nazir 23b)  Even though the lecture didn’t have anything to do with Aaron, I couldn’t help to think that this was very fitting.

I offer two other proofs.  The first is that it wasn’t until after the incident with the golden calf that Aaron was given the job as high priest.  The second is found in this week’s parsha.  One would expect that the reason for Aaron’s death would have been a delayed reaction to the golden calf.  In actuality, the Torah says clearly it was because that “you (Moses) defied my word at the waters of strife.”

By acquiescing to participate in the building of the golden calf, Aaron was willing to risk his life in both this world and the next in order to save the Jewish people.  Can there be a greater act of leadership?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Parsha Korach – Strong Wife / Weak Wife

The Torah portion of Korach centers around two women that we never officially meet, doesn’t mention directly and never even get to know their names.

The text of the portion tell us how Korach, the cousin of Moses, assembles a group of 250 or so leaders of the Jewish people and strongly questions the leadership of Moses and even more precisely, questions the role of Aaron as high priest.  Obviously, Hashem sided with Moses and Aaron and Korach and his followers were destroyed.

One of the questions that the Midrash deals with is what inspired Korach to mount this open act of rebellion.  After all, Korach was a leader among the Jewish people.  As a Levite, he did not waiver at the sin of the Golden Calf or the incident with the spies.  Why now?  There are many reasons given, but there’s one that I found particularly interesting.

Several weeks ago in the Torah portion of Beha’aloscha, it tells us that Hashem commanded Moses and Aaron to put all of the Levite men through a purification ritual.  The shaved the hair off their entire bodies, immersed their clothing, Moses leaned is hands upon their heads and then Aaron picked each one up and waved them around as a wave offering.

After this incident, the Midrash tells us that Korach was walking home, bald, no eyebrows, wet clothes and after being picked up and waved around by his cousin Aaron when he saw is wife.  She saw the humiliation of her husband and fed and nurtured the seeds of strife within him.  With his wife egging him on, any inhibitions about his plan were removed and it emotionally freed him up to commit open rebellion against Moses.

In the beginning of the parsha, the Torah tells us who the leaders of the rebellion were.  Korach is listed first, followed by Dathan and Abiram.  We know Dathan and Abiram from when the Jews were still in Egypt.  They were the two Jews fighting with each other which eventually led to Moses leaving Egypt after they told the Egyptian authorities that Moses has murdered an Egyptian guard.  The Torah mentions one more leader.  His name is On the son of Peleth.  Later on the portion, when the Torah tells us about the rebellion and the punishments given to the perpetrators, On is missing.  The Midrash asks the question, what happened to On?

It answers by telling us that On was married to a righteous woman.  When she heard what he and his friends were doing, she wanted no part in it for her and her husband.  She tried to talk to On to convince him that he was going down the wrong path, but he wouldn’t listen.  Not giving up, she seduced her husband and got him drunk.  After he was drunk, she put him to bed where he passed out.  (I once read that she actually tied him to the bed) so he would miss the rebellion.  When Korach’s followers saw that On had overslept, they went to get him.  Still protecting her husband, she sat at the entrance of her tent and uncovered her hair.  (This by the way, is one of the first evidence that we know that married Jewish women should keep their hair covered).  Even though the men were following the wrong path by rebelling against Moses, they were still G-d fearing men and wouldn’t dare look at a married woman whose hair was uncovered so the left and On slept through the whole thing.

On and his wife are never mentioned again, but she goes down in history as a role model for all Jewish wives.  In the Torah portion of Bereishes, G-d makes Chava as a help mate against Adam.  What does this mean?  Either the wife is a help mate or she’s against her husband.  How can she be both?  The answer is that when her husband is acting properly, the wife is a help mate.  When acting improperly, she’s against her husband.  On’s wife fulfills this commandment beautifully.  With righteousness and modesty, she put’s her own humility on the line to protect her husband.  Korach’s wife, on the other hand, is so her concerned about her husbands dignity and her own, that she sacrifices their values for it.  This is why she suffered the same death as her husband.

Many times we thing that marriage should be peaceful and there should be no fights ever.  Sometimes we think that our wives should be docile and subordinate, but this is not the Torah way.  Our wives should be strong and forceful for the sake of the keeping the family together and fulfilling the words of the Torah and its mitzvahs.

If you think about it, most of the world’s calamites have been caused by an arrogant husband and a wife to weak to stand up against him.

A wife of strength, modesty, self sacrifice and persistence is the true Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor) may G-d let all men have such wives and may we have the strength and humility to listen to them when they guide us towards the proper path of service of Hashem.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Parsha Shelach - The Spies Evil Report?!

The Torah portion of Shelach describes one of the lowest points for the Jewish people after becoming a nation.

After everything they went through in Egypt and during the exodus… after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and the incident with golden calf 39 days later.  After everything the Jewish people went through, they finally reached the boarder of the land of Israel.

It should have been a momentous time.  So many trials and tribulations in their past.  The opportunity to build a new national life for themselves in the land of Israel, the permanent home of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well.  Moses sent 12 men ahead to spy out the land and deliver a report back.  Ten of the men reported that though the land was great, it was inhabited by mighty people and the challenge was too great for the young nation to bear.  The people quickly became disheartened and cried out to return to Egypt.  The L-rd unleashed a punishment that killed those 10 men, said that the nation would not be able to enter the land of Israel for 40 more years and decreed that all of the men above the age of 20 with the exception of the tribe of Levi, the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, would die before entering the land.  Numbers aren’t precise, but I would guess that included close to 750,000 people.  The Hebrew date was the 9th of Av.  This was the first disastrous event to start off a date that has brought tragedy after tragedy to the Jewish people.

While tragic, we rationalize the decree against the people that they lacked faith and they will enter the land after the coming of the Messiah during the resurrection of the dead.

The decree on the spies and their exact crime is a little more perplexing.  Here’s exactly what they said in chapter 13, verse 27. “We arrived at the Land to which you sent us and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But, the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant.  Amelek dwells in the area of the south; the Hittite, the Jebosite and the Amorite dwell on the mountain; and the Canaanite dwells by the Sea and on the bank of the Jordan.”  In verse 31 they state, “We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!  The Land though which we have passed, to spy out, is a land that devours its inhabitants!  All the people that we saw were huge!  There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant among Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and we were in their eyes!”

According to the commentaries that I read, the spies told the truth.  If that’s the case, what exactly did they do so wrong?  And additional question is if the spies were so evil, how come they got exactly what they wanted?  They didn’t want those people to go into the land of Israel and that’s what happened.

Ramban says that when they used the word “But” it left a negative connotation and they should have used a more positive word.  While this may be correct, it certainly seems like an extreme reason to deserve the death penalty.

Rashi says that when they said “It is stronger than us!”, they really meant that “It is stronger than him!” claiming that the spies said the land is stronger that G-d.  This could be construed as a rebelling against G-d and that would be a reasonable reason for the death penalty.  However, if this were truly the case, one would imagine that the text of the Torah would reflect it.

In looking at the actual text, the verse Rashi speaks about says that “It is stronger than us”… not “They are stronger than us.”  The verse seems to be saying that as great as the people are, Israel can beat them.  However, the land is stronger than Israel can handle.  That being said, were the spies wrong?

Since the nation waivered so easily, clearly they couldn’t handle living in such a demanding land.  Even after Joshua conquered the land, we were expelled from it because of our improper actions.  The Torah tells us that the land of Israel vomits out immorality.  Even today, living in the land of Israel provides immense challenges.

I heard once in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the spies’ intentions were to protect that generation.  They saw their faults and did not think that they were up to the challenge of living in Israel. It’s clear from G-d’s response, that this was not their decision to make. 

Leaders of Israel need to lead and inspire not judge and limit.

Just to add one additional point… one should never doubt the greatness of the land of Israel and G-d’s holy people.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Parsha Beha’aloscha – Where’s the beef?

The Torah portion of the Beha’aloscha as the unique privilege of containing the end of the 4th book of the Torah, the entire 5th book of the Torah and the beginning 6th book of the Torah.

You may be thinking… wait one minute here.  There are only 5 books of the Torah.

In a sense, you’re correct.  On the other hand, Chapter 10, verse 35 and 36 in our parsha are surrounded buy two Hebrew letter nuns.  The Sages tell us that these two verses contain an entire book of the Torah to themselves.  The verses state: When the Ark would journey, Moses said “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered and let those who hate You flee from before You” And when it rested, he would say “Reside tranquilly, Hashem, [among the] myriads [and] thousands of Israel.”

You may recognize the verses because we say the first one as we open the ark to take the Torah out and we say the last one as we close the ark to put the Torah away on Monday, Thursdays, Shabbas and holidays. 

They’re certainly moving verses, but what’s so special about them that they need a book all to themselves?

In order to figure this out, let’s take a look at what happened in before these verses and after them.

Before them, the Torah tells us how the camp of Israel would travel during their 40 year span in the desert.  Sometimes they would stay in the same spot for a day and sometimes they stayed in the same spot for many years.  It seems like they never knew how long they’d be at each place.  The stayed or left by the word of Hashem.  The Torah doesn’t give any reason why they moved around so much. I heard a beautiful explanation that said that the reason for the frequent and unexpected moves in the desert was to give us strength to survive in our exile.  The Jewish people have been in almost every civilized country on the planet.  Sometimes, we were there a hundred years or so and sometimes we were there well over a thousand years before we were forced to leave without much notice.  It took great strength to remain a nation under such circumstances.  So much so, that the Jewish people are the only nation that has survived despite such hardships.

After them, the Torah tells us that some of the Jews and others traveling with them complained that they wanted to eat meat.  Up until that point, they had been eating Manna which appeared every day around the camp.  This was considered such an atrocity that Hashem brought down a plague on the complainers and the Torah tells us that the “wrath of Hashem flared greatly.”  A first glance, the desire for meat, while maybe not so nice, isn’t a sin at all.  They didn’t complain that they wanted pork or some other prohibited food.  They just wanted kosher meat.  What’s the big deal?  All they wanted was the next kosher restaurant.  Though it may be permissible, what they were really saying was that the Torah wasn’t enough for them.  There’s a distinct difference between someone who lives to do mitzvahs and someone who does a mitzvah to get it out of the way to get on with their lives.  With their request for meat, they were putting themselves into the latter category.  The Torah gives us 613 mitzvahs to fulfill.  The Torah also gives the non-Jewish nations 7 mitzvahs fulfill.  The difference between a Jew and a non Jew isn’t just a 606 mitzvah quantitative difference.  A Jew must be totally dedicated to G-d with every fiber of his being to such a degree that there are no other desires other than to serve him.  This is the essence of holiness. 

There is solution to our earthly desires and our preemptive cure to our exile.  They can be found in between the two verses “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered and let those who hate You flee from before You” And when it rested, he would say “Reside tranquilly, Hashem, [among the] myriads [and] thousands of Israel.”  Since those two verses constantly surround our reading of the Torah throughout the year, in a sense, the represent all of Torah.

The only salvation for the Jew is through Torah.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why are Jews so Successful? What would you say?

About 9 years ago I had an appointment with a client of mine and we decided to meet at a bar on in the upscale
Rittenhouse Square
neighborhood of Philadelphia after work.  We were having a couple drinks when we started talking to 3 guys sitting next to us at the bar. 

These guys were your stereo typical Wall Street types… with the fancy suits, drinking the best scotch and smoking their fine cigars.  One of them was especially full of himself.  He kept talking about how much money he was making and how he had such and such a car.  He seemed like one of those guys who carry a picture of himself in his wallet.   When we started to talk about where each of us worked, he mentioned that he worked at a fairly famous national stock brokerage company.  I happened to know someone who worked and there and even though my new friend wasn’t Jewish, I decided to play Jewish geography anyway. 

So I asked him… do you know David Schwartz (not the real name)? 

Before, I tell you what he said, here’s what I knew about David Schwartz at the time.  Like me, he wasn’t raised religious, but he became observant sometime after college.  At the time, David had 3 daughters and I had always known him to be a good father and husband.  He also spent whatever spare time that he had working on community projects and helping people rediscover their Jewish roots.  I didn’t know how much money David made, but he had a nice house and always seemed to give tzedaka and sponsor whatever local Jewish charities that he could.  David was one of my early mentors as I was growing in my Judaism and I was very fond of him.

When I asked if this guy knew David Schwartz, his face totally changed.  Every bit of arrogance dropped from his face and he was literally awe struck.  He said “You know David Schwartz???  He’s the number one guy in the area.  He’s one of the best brokers in the whole company.”  By the way he was acting, it was almost as if we were talking about some celebrity or larger than life figure. 

It took him a couple minutes to gain his composure back, but then he asked one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard.  He said “I hope I’m not crossing the line, but I have to ask you something… why are Jews so successful?”

In the hopes of getting a range of answers, I’m going to temporarily end the article here and not give my response.  I’ll give it some time down the road.  For now, I want to know…

…what would you say?