The midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, recounts that each time God taught Moses the circumstances which would cause a person or object to be rendered spiritually impure, God also revealed the remedy which would purify. Upon learning that a cohen/priest who comes into contact with the dead is thereby rendered impure (Lev. 21), Moses inquired as to the remedy, but God declined to answer. Moses was mortified, but received no answer until this week’s portion, which begins with God issuing the decree of the Red Heifer. It is this ceremony which restores the ritual purity of a cohen defiled through contact with a corpse. That’s 8 weekly Torah Readings; over 900 verses describing many biblical episodes and all sorts of laws. Moses had a legitimate and easily addressed question and was visibly anxious about receiving an answer. Why did God make him (and us) wait so long?
Just last week, in the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, God punished the people with a deadly plague. Moses, seemingly on his own authority, ordered his brother Aaron to intervene. Aaron ran to do so, positioned himself “between the dead and the living” (Num. 17:13), and single handedly prevented the plague from spreading. Standing with the dead and dying saved lives but triggered his ritual impurity. Without a remedy, Aaron would have been forever disqualified from serving as High Priest. Only a Torah Reading a week later do we (and Moses & Aaron) learn the decree of the Red Heifer. Now we know Aaron’s courage wasn’t limited to thwarting God’s wrath, he was prepared to do so at the expense of his role and status as High Priest.
Leaders, going at least as far back as Aaron, have had to take risks in saying or doing what they believe to be right and true. Sometimes their job or status hangs in the balance. 19th century rabbis lost pulpits over sermonizing against slavery. 21st century rabbis have lost theirs taking stands on more contemporary controversies. It seems God was less interested in Aaron’s defiance of the Divine Will and more interested in seeing how much he’d willingly sacrifice to follow his heart. God has a remedy for those called upon to pay a high price, but perhaps that remedy cannot be revealed until it has been earned.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
Nobody likes a complainer, including God. When the people complain without even bothering to name the problem (Numbers 11:1), God hurls a fire at them. In contrast, God doesn’t display any umbrage whatsoever when Moses
complains just a few verses later. God offers Moses concrete ideas to address Moses’s concerns. Why does God react with hostility to the complaints of the people, but conciliatory toward those of Moses?
The people subsequently weep that their todays are much worse than their
yesterdays. They romanticize the past and lament it can never again be the
present. Their venting reveals they are focused entirely on their embittered
circumstances and they are less interested in finding real solutions to their
problems than in making sure their complaining is heard. They are disinterested in exploring change to improve their situation. Rather than illicit sympathy, they evoke divine wrath.
Moses’s complaint goes beyond naming and bemoaning a problem. He
identifies its cause and seeks a solution. The scope and weight of his
responsibilities are simply too great for a single individual to bear. God
responds by advising the recruitment of 70 elders with whom to share the
burdens of leadership. Moses points out that delegating won’t cover expenses. He literally asks, “Where’s the beef?!” (11:13) God assures him that God’s got this. Problem solved.
All complainers anticipate a response. Mere venting can heat things up, but
positive results can be earned through focusing on the possible, asking the right questions, and being open to change.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
This week’s Torah portion juxtaposes what may be construed as the biblical version of unbridled hedonism (sotah) with sanctimonious asceticism (nazir). The implication would seem to be there’s virtue in avoiding extremes. As the (Jerusalem) Talmud puts it, our lives follow a “narrow path. One side is fire and the other side is ice. Therefore, adhere to the middle of the road.” This advice sounds practical and sensible, but it is unsatisfying when we are in need of inspiration. Adventure is the spice of life.
“The middle of the road,” the kotzker rebbe famously declared, “is for horses.” Anyone who lacks a bit of fire and ice in life is probably missing out. Is there a way to claim the thrill of heedless devotion without sacrificing the benefits of prudence?
The Talmud entertains the case of a drunk who commits to becoming an ascetic. The verdict is that the commitment is invalid. From Maimonides we learn that the vow likewise doesn’t stick when the individual seeks to alleviate the burden of being depressed, angry or grieving. It comes down to one’s state of mind. Clarity of purpose is a prerequisite for life on the edge. Adventure, spiritual and otherwise, isn’t a sound choice for distracted minds and clouded emotions.
We find the Hebrew roots for “Shabbat” and “desolation” each repeated in this week’s Torah Portion seven times in a single 6 verse passage. “Desolation” is repeatedly referred to as a Shabbat for the Land of Israel. Shabbat is meant to be a day of wonder and happiness. What aspect of Shabbat could be construed as “desolation”?
The desolation the Torah refers to is the condition of the land in the absence of its people. It will lie fallow; abandoned and solitary. Although Shabbat is generally regarded as a day of spirituality through community and connecting with others, there is a Jewish tradition to find spirituality in solitude. There are biblical precedents such as Moses communing alone with God for 40 days on Mt. Sinai. Philo mentions a monastic 1st century Jewish sect. Various famous rabbis in history secluded themselves, sometimes for years at a time. Jewish mysticism teaches the practice of “hitbodidut;” a discipline of self imposed isolation for purposes of prayer and contemplation. Nachman of Breslov urged his followers to spend at least an hour a day (and ideally the entire day!) alone meditating and speaking to God.
Mainstream Judaism has generally resisted withdrawal from society. The call for social justice, prayer with the more the better, and the abundance of community social events suggest the Jewish ideal is to be found in being together, not solitude. On the other hand, there may be benefits to reserve time in our hectic, hyperconnected lives to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves, and to relearn how to be intentionally alone. The son of Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, wrote of a blessing which used to be recited by the sages of earlier generations: “May God enable you to feel companionship in solitude and loneliness in a crowd.” Sounds intriguing. Perhaps worth striving for.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
This week’s Torah portion repeatedly instructs us to be mindful and generous with a kinsman who has fallen on hard times, even to the extent of paying to redeem him from indentured servitude or to restoring him his forfeited property. This could get expensive, so naturally kinsmen of means will have to be persuaded to step up. In this regard, the rabbis compare two verses from the Book of Proverbs. Here we find “One who is generous with the poor makes a loan to the Lord, who will repay it” (19:17) Therefore, the amount given to charity is considered as though the giver “loaned” it to God. Also,“A borrower becomes a slave to the lender” (22:7). When we “owe” someone a debt, that someone holds a kind of power over us. Astonished, the midrash concludes that it seems God has obligated God’s self to repay the giver and thus has committed to becoming the “slave” of anyone who bails out a victim of misfortune!
In Pirke Avot we read the advice “Make God’s will your will so that your will becomes God’s will.” That is, if I desire God’s favor, I should first submit to God’s will. This sounds like the opposite of what we have just learned from the Torah portion. There it is implied that through our generosity we may bend God’s will by forcing God to be indebted to us. The answer, of course, is that our being generous with those less fortunate has been God’s will for us all along. Doing God’s will as though it were our own has the happy consequence of making God’s will as if it were ours.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
According to Jewish Law, if a kohain (a descendent of the family of Aaron, the first High Priest of Israel) is present at a Torah Reading, he is entitled to the first aliyah (the honor of being called to the first portion being read). The Mishnah explains that the rational for this practice is to preserve the peace. Why would preferential treatment for a member of the priestly caste help preserve the peace?
The Talmud answers first by pointing out that Moses initially gave the Torah to the kohanim (Deut. 31:9), so inviting a kohain to be first preserves this original order as we reenact the drama of receiving the Torah when we read it today. A second answer points out that it is the kohanim who are called upon to first approach the victim of an unsolved murder (Deut. 21:5). If the kohain attempts to restore peace by stepping up first to address the epitome of a lack of peace in a community, unsolved murder, then it would seem fitting to be first to the Torah, the laws and teachings of which are called the “ways of peace.” Yet another answer is offered, based upon a verse from this week’s Torah portion, “You shall sanctify him [the kohain.]” (Lev. 21:8).
Drawing attention to the biblical admonition to regard the kohain as (literally!) holier than thou, would seem to be the opposite of preserving the peace. We can make sense of this by remembering that it is the office not the person which triggers the special status. Going first is not an honor which has been earned but a privilege which reflects the honor we accord the official who represented our faith and served God as our representative in the Holy Temple. The Talmud offers the additional insight that whereas extending deserved honors in a more intimate setting works just fine; in a public gathering, such as a synagogue service, there will be discord since inevitably people will disagree over who truly merits the honor. Someone has to be first. As long as it’s not about being most worthy there can be no implication some are more worthy than others. Peace is preserved.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
“Kadosh” means “holy” or to be “separated from.” This week’s Torah portion is called Kedoshim. In it, the Jewish People are referred to as “kadosh”/”holy” three times. Each time, the bible repeats that the people are holy because their God is holy. There is a prayer, called the Kedusha, which features the threefold repetition of the word “kadosh.” This prayer is repeated each morning service, you guessed it- three times. What’s up with this?
The midrash compares this to a kingdom whose citizens made three crowns for their king. With one they crowned their ruler but the remaining two they kept for themselves. They explained: Even though all citizens have some measure of authority, the king’s authority is singular and cannot be compared to an ordinary citizen. The unique status of the king is represented by the king’s crown. The people retain two crowns to symbolize that being sanctified cannot mean being separated from one another. A king is separate and apart from his subjects, but ordinary citizens typically must band together in order to make a positive difference. Wearing the crown means the individual matters. When I realize my neighbor may also wear the crown of being created in the image of God, then I can begin to recognize what it means to be holy. “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” – God is holy, there is a spark of holiness in me. And in you.
Rabbi Mitch Levine
In this week’s parasha, we are told, “You shall carry out my judgments and keep my laws in order to walk in them…” (Vayikra/Lev. 18:4) What is the implication of “to walk” in God’s laws?
At the time of the exodus from Egypt, we found ourselves facing the sea on the one side and the advancing Egyptian army on the other side. At that moment our ancestors expressed dismay, but Moses told them, “Stand fast, and see what salvation God will perform for you today.” Immediately, God objects, “Moses, why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Jewish people and let them move out!” (Shemot/Exodus 14:10-15) Why did God admonish Moses?
Moses’ error was in instructing the people to “stand fast” and wait for the “salvation God would perform.” There are times, in our strivings, that a person feels that he/she has nothing left to give; no place further to go. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that only God remains inert in his holiness – a human being must be constantly striving forward; always propelling one’s self to greater spiritual heights. One commentary, the Or HaHayyim, points out that the Jews were between the proverbial rock and the hard place. With the sea before them and the enemy behind them, which way were they supposed to go? This is indeed the point. Whichever way we turn, no matter how challenging our choices, we are charge to move forward, and not simply stand still waiting for God to make a move.
The Hebrew word for “to walk” in God’s laws shares the same root for the word we use to refer to adherence to the mitzvoth, “halachah.” To “keep halachah” means to “walk” in God’s ways, to overcome our hesitations, and to persevere in moving forward.
Rabbi Mitch Levine