Sivan 27, 5774 · June 25, 2014
Chukat begins with an account of the Red Heifer, a strange practice whose object was the purification of those who had become contaminated through contact with the dead. The heifer was burned, and its ashes, mixed with water, sprinkled on those who had become defiled. But the paradox was that though it purified them, it made impure all those who were involved in its preparation. Thus it is called, in the Sidra’s second verse, a chukah (“ordinance”)—a technical term meaning, “law for which no reason can be given.” Rashi gives this explanation for the word, but his comment has some unusual features which the Sicha first points out, and then explains, showing that it is intelligible only if we distinguish two different kinds of chukah.
1. Rashi’s Comment Analyzed
“And the L-rd spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ordinance (chukat) of the Torah which the L-rd has commanded….”1
Rashi interprets the phrase, “this is the ordinance of the Torah” thus:
“Because Satan and the nations of the world provoke Israel, saying, ‘what is the meaning of this commandment to you and what is its reason?,’ therefore it is described as an ‘ordinance’ it is a decree about which you have no right to speculate.”
But there are difficulties here:
(i) From the words of Rashi—“therefore it is described as an ‘ordinance’”—it is apparent that he intended not to explain the meaning of the word “ordinance” itself—which he has already done previously on many occasions.2 (And even though he has not done so previously in the book of Bamidbar, it is not as if he suspected that readers of his commentary would have forgotten his earlier explanation, because the word “ordinance” occurs earlier in Bamidbar3 and passes without comment from Rashi.) Rather, Rashi wants to explain the fact that it appears to be superfluous, since the phrase “this is the law” would have been sufficient.
And if this is so, since the reader already knows the meaning of “ordinance,” a brief explanation would have served. Why then does Rashi add, at length, the comments about Satan and the nations of the world, which he has already made several times previously?
(ii) Also, there are several differences between Rashi’s answer here, and in earlier places, which require understanding.
In earlier comments the agent provocateur is the “evil inclination”; here it is “Satan.”
In these earlier places, he is represented as “raising objections”4 or “caviling”5; Here, as “provoking.”
And in one earlier comment, one is said to be forbidden to “exempt oneself”6 from the ordinances; here one is forbidden to “speculate about them.”
(iii) If our earlier reasoning is correct, Rashi’s comment applies only to the seeming superfluity of the word “ordinance.” Why then should it bear the heading7 “this is the ordinance of the law,” as if Rashi intended to explain the whole phrase?
2. Within Reason and Beyond
The explanation is as follows:
The wording of the phrase, “this is the ordinance of the law” suggests that the law of the Red Heifer is the only ordinance in the Torah. But surely there are other ordinances (mentioned as such by Rashi), like the prohibition of eating the meat of pig or wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen.8 Therefore, we are forced to say that there is a special class of ordinance, of which the Red Heifer is the only example; that is, that there are two kinds of ordinance:
(i) those which could in principle be understood by human intelligence, but details of which are beyond comprehension;
(ii) those which are entirely beyond the scope of human understanding.
The phrase “this is the ordinance of the law” is thus intended to indicate that the law of the Red Heifer is alone in belonging to the second category.
Therefore when Rashi brings examples (in Vayikra9) of ordinances, he mentions the prohibitions of the meat of the pig and of clothes made of wool and linen mixture, and the waters of purification, but he does not include the Red Heifer, since that belongs to an entirely separate category.
The “waters of purification” (water mingled with the ashes of the Red Heifer) is something whose principle can be understood rationally. For, just as purification through immersion in a Mikvah is a notion which Rashi never classifies as an “ordinance,” because it is quite reasonable that waters of the Mikvah have the power to cleanse spiritually; similarly, the “waters of purification” can have equal effect. Their only peculiarity lies in the detail that only a few drops of it suffice to purify, whereas the Mikvah requires total immersion.
Hence the waters belong to the first class of ordinances—decrees which are partially intelligible.
But the laws of the Red Heifer itself are entirely beyond understanding. It cannot be construed simply as a kind of burnt offering, since:
(i) no part of the Red Heifer was offered up at the altar;
(ii) all the actions involving the Red Heifer were to be done “outside the three camps”;10 whereas all the offerings were made specifically within them;
(iii) the Red Heifer is not even analogous to the goat of Azazel11 which, (besides its preliminaries being conducted within the camp,) was something for which a partial explanation was given (“and the goat shall bear forth on it their iniquities unto a desolate land’’12).
And it has the following exceptional features that the goat of Azazel did not:
(i) it was to be carried out by the Deputy High Priest;13
(ii) its blood was to be sprinkled seven times towards the front of the Ohel Moed;14
(iii) it was called a “sin offering” to show that it was similar to holy things.15
In short, the Red Heifer does not belong to the first category of ordinance for it cannot be even partially understood.
3. G-d and Man
In the light of this, we can understand why Rashi uses expressions here (“Satan” as opposed to “evil inclination”: “Provokes” in place of “raising objections”; and “forbidden to speculate” instead of “forbidden to exempt oneself from them”) which do not occur in his other explanations of the word “ordinance.”
It is clear that G-d’s intellect surpasses man’s, so that if we are told by G-d that a given commandment cannot be humanly understood, there is no ground on which the evil inclination can argue from its unintelligibility to its non-Divine origin. For, why should finite man be able to comprehend infinite G-d?
But when a commandment is partially open to human understanding, the evil inclination and the nations of the world do have (albeit fallacious) grounds for “arguing” or “raising objections” that it is not Divine: For how could G-d command something which on the one hand was accessible to human reason and on the other hand was inaccessible to it? They would therefore argue that they are not Divine, and not binding on the Jew.
But since the Red Heifer is entirely inaccessible to reason, it cannot be “refuted” by the evil inclination or the nations of the world. All they can do is to “provoke” the Jew by saying “what meaning has this commandment for you, and what is its reason?” Admittedly you have to obey the word of G-d, but in doing so you are doing something which to the human mind is completely meaningless and irrational.
Thus Rashi uses the word “Satan” instead of the “evil inclination”—for the skeptical voice seeks here only to trouble16 a Jew at the moment of acting, not to dissuade him from it at all.
And thus he does not say, “it is forbidden to ‘exempt yourself’ from the command” (for a case cannot be made out for exemption); but, that “it is forbidden ‘to speculate’ about its rationale,” and instead perform it with joy as if one understood it completely.
The reason is (as Rashi continues), that the Red Heifer is a “decree” of G-d: That is, that G-d Himself is telling us not to be perturbed by the absence of a rationale, and to do it simply because G-d so decrees. This is the only way that it can be properly fulfilled.
We can now understand why Rashi cites the whole phrase “this is the ordinance of the law” as his heading: For it is this phrase which makes it clear that this ordinance is different from all others; and this is what underlines the nuances of Rashi’s explanation.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII pp. 123-7) GARDEN OF TORAH: Beyond the Ken of Knowledge (Chukat)
Sivan 28, 5774 · June 26, 2014
The Path of Fire
CHASSIDIC DIMENSION: When to Reveal and When to Conceal (Chukat)
When to Reveal and When to Conceal
Chukas opens with the decree of the Red Heifer. Concerning this chukah (a command that has no rational explanation), the Torah states:1 “This is thechukah of the Torah.”
By using the terminology “This is the chukah of the Torah” rather than “This is thechukah of the Red Heifer,” the Torah is indicating2 that of all the inexplicablechukim , this is the most inexplicable. Thus we find3 that even King Solomon, the wisest of men4 who understood the divine rationale underlying the other chukim , could not fathom the reasoning behind the command of the Red Heifer.
Accordingly, we must understand the statement of the Midrash5 that “G-d told Moshe: To you I shall reveal the reason of the Heifer.” This seems to indicate that there is a reason for the chukah after all.
This being so, why couldn’t King Solomon fathom it? Additionally, why didn’t Moshe reveal this reason to the Jewish people, as he had done on other occasions6 when G-d revealed something to him, and Moshe in his goodness revealed it to the nation?
We must therefore say that Moshe did not reveal the reason for the Red Heifer because its rationale is truly incomprehensible to a created being.7 This is why even King Solomon could not fathom it. G-d in His true limitlessness revealed to Moshe something that a created being could never fathom on his own.
But this leads to yet another question. Why did G-d not reveal the reason to the Jewish people with the same infinite power that He used to reveal it to Moshe?
One of the interpretations8 of “This is the chukah of the Torah” is that the decree of the Red Heifer is the Torah — a foundation for the entire Torah and its commandments. Even the rational commands are expressions of Divine will,9 and as such they transcend man’s logic; just as no created being can comprehend its Creator,10 it is impossible for any created being to comprehend His will.
This is why the rationale for the Red Heifer remained concealed from all Jews; it was necessary that at least one command remain in a state of chukah, thereby indicating that the rest of the mitzvos were also chukim.11
This is crucial to one’s spiritual service. For if all mitzvos were to have descended to a rational level, their performance would be governed by human understanding. It would then be impossible for a Jew to attain mesirus nefesh , total self-sacrifice for G-d, a level that transcends the limitations of human intellect.
But according to this, it would seem that G-d’s revealing of the reason to Moshe was detrimental to him; he was now able to comprehend the rationale for all the commandments, so wasn’t his power of mesirus nefesh stifled?
Moreover, how can one possibly say that a divine revelation could cause a deficiency and inadequacy, rather than being a source of betterment and advancement?
Moshe had attained the level of supernal wisdom,12 a level suffused with self-abnegation, for which reason he was fully capable of receiving the most sublime revelations of G-dliness.13
Thus, the revelation of the reason for the Red Heifer in no way impeded his ability to perform mitzvos with mesirus nefesh , for that which was revealed to him was not a logical reason. Rather, G-d’s infinite divine will was revealed within Moshe’s intellect, so that it became Moshe’s essence.
Only one who exists apart from G-dliness must toil to attain total self-sacrifice for G-d. Moshe, however, was steeped in G-dliness; it was his entire being. Thus his very essence displayed mesirus nefesh.14
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, pp. 229-237.
FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: Illuminations (Chukat)
Life and light are often paired together. We seek life, and we seek light. Yet sometimes we seem to hit a patch of darkness. The darkness may be outside, or it may also be inside. What happens then? We try to illuminate the darkness, to change dark to light. The new light is very beautiful, stronger than ever.
An incident in the Torah reading of Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) expresses this idea, when looked at through the lens of the teachings of the Sages. In itself, the incident is mysterious and supernatural, but it does not take long to describe.
The Jewish people, traveling through the desert towards the Promised Land, and now close to the end of their journey, began complaining, speaking against G-d and against Moses. The result was that they were beset by poisonous snakes which attacked them and many died. The people came to Moses and apologized for their complaints: “We were wrong to speak against G-d and against you.” In order to heal them, G-d told Moses to make a copper serpent and put it up on a pole. Anyone bitten by a snake would look up at the copper serpent and be healed.1
The Torah with its laws and its stories teaches us about the possibilities in our inner lives. Complaining against G-d and Moses means entering a dark and negative realm. There are different ways this might happen in our lives today, such as giving in to the wrong kind of temptation. This might even lead to us seemingly being trapped in a very negative situation, feeling that we are “stuck,” unable to break free. Really this means we are trapped in our own inner darkness, the opposite of life and of light.
Darkness of this kind comes from the Serpent, the force of evil and spiritual darkness described in the Book of Genesis, which is also the source of death. Are we defenseless against this force?
No. The power of repentance reaches to the infinity of G-d, beyond the darkness, with the power to change dark to light, death to life. The Jews in the desert regretted what they had said, and they were given the opportunity to reach to G-d with the full power of repentance. The Sages tell us that the purpose of setting up a copper serpent on a pole was a cue to the Jewish people to lift their eyes and their hearts heavenwards, reaching to G-d, knowing that G-d is infinitely beyond the Serpent, the force of evil and death.2 From G-d comes infinite goodness and life.
By reaching to G-d in this way they were able drew life and light into their own selves, bringing them healing, and also into the world as a whole.
The account of the mysterious incident in the Torah is teaching us that we too can do the same. There may be patches of darkness in our lives and in the world around us. Through renewed connection to G-d, by each of us individually and by the Jewish people as a whole, these can be transformed. We can bring about a world of goodness, of light and of life.3
Imparting this message to our generation was the life’s work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe believed that the luminous teachings of the Torah have boundless power to transform our own lives and, ultimately, the lives of all humanity. May his memory be a blessing.
QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Must a Convert Honor His Biological Parents?
Must a Convert Honor His Biological Parents?
Sivan 28, 5774 · June 26, 2014
As a potential convert, I wanted to know what Jewish tradition says about the relationship of a convert to his parents who are not Jewish and who are not interested in conversion. Are they still considered his parents after the conversion?
Our sages say that when someone converts, it is as if he or she becomes a new person, now charged with a Jewish mission. “A convert who converts is similar to a child being born.”1
But while this is the case spiritually, the physical facts must also be taken into consideration. There are biological parents who gave birth to and raised that individual. The fact that someone has the opportunity to convert is due to what those parents did for that child. Practically, according to Jewish law, one should honor his or her biological parents.2
It can be difficult for parents to see their child choose a path so different from their own, and it is important to remain sensitive to their feelings.
Leaving a certain life behind you while still respecting those who got you there can be tricky. Finding the right balance is something to discuss with the rabbi you would be working with on your conversion.
Let me know if this helps.
Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar
Ask the Rabbi @ Chabad.org
Dear Rabbi Cotlar,
It was a pleasure to receive such a prompt response to my question. Moreover, it was wonderful to receive such an enlightened, considerate, well thought out, sensitive opinion. Judaism is a beautiful religion, and the Jewish people comprise a nation of “menschen” because of spiritual leaders such as you.
ONCE UPON A CHASID: The Path of Fire (Chukat)
This is the Torah (law): A man who dies in a tent… (19:14)
The Torah is only acquired by those who kill themselves for it in the tents of study.
– The Zohar
It happened in the winter of 1798 or 1799, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch was a child of eight or nine. Every Friday night Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi would deliver a discourse of chassidic teaching to a select group of disciples. Little Mendel begged to be allowed in, but his grandfather refused.
The dwelling of Rabbi Schneur Zalman consisted of two two-room buildings, joined by a connecting passageway. In one of the wings, a large wood-burning stove, used for heating and occasionally to bake bread, was set in the wall between the two rooms. The stove opened into the outer room, and also protruded into the inner room which served as Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s study.
One Friday night, the Rebbe was delivering his weekly discourse in his study. It was an exceptionally cold night, so a gentile was summoned to heat the oven. For some reason, he found it difficult to push the logs all the way in to the oven, so he built the fire near the opening of the stove. As a result, the outer room soon began to fill with smoke. Once again, he tried to push the burning logs further in, but they wouldn’t budge. The poor man had to start all over again. He put out the fire, pulled out the logs, and peered into the stove to see what was preventing the logs from going in.
His shouts and shrieks summoned the entire household. The session in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s room was disrupted; those in the second building also came running. Inside the stove lay a young boy. A small lamp was the only source of light in the smoke-filled room, so it took some time until the child was identified as the Rebbe’s grandson, little Menachem Mendel.
For some weeks now, the child had discovered that he could hear his grandfather’s words through the thin wall of the stove. Every Friday night he would clamber deep into the large stove, and listen to the profound and lofty words of the Rebbe’s teachings. And now, because of the bitter cold, his listening post had been discovered.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s daughter-in-law, Rebbetzin Sheina, who was present at the time, related:
“When they pulled the child out of the stove, he was paralyzed with fright. My mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Sterna, cried to my father-in-law, the Rebbe: ‘See what could of happened! A tragedy! Strangers you allow to enter, but when your own child begged you, you wouldn’t let him in!’ Father-in-law replied: ‘Sha, sha. Moses reached Mount Sinai only by beholding fire – only then did he merit that the Torah be given through him. Torah is acquired only through self-sacrifice.’
Sivan 28, 5774 · June 26, 2014
Beyond the Ken of Knowledge
Parshas Chukas; Numbers 19:1-25:9
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 229ff
What Mortal Knowledge Cannot Grasp
The term Chukim refers to those mitzvos whose rationale cannot be grasped by human intellect. Within this category, however, the laws of the Red Heifer stand out as unique. Thus the Midrash1 quotes King Shlomo (about whom it is written:2 “And Shlomo was wiser than every man on the face of the earth”):
I was able to comprehend all the [other difficult passages in the Torah], but with regard to the passage of the Red Heifer, I asked and I sought; “I said: ‘I will become wise,’ but I [saw] that it was far from me.”3
Indeed, it was only with regard to Moshe that the Midrash4 states: “The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe: ‘To you [alone] will I reveal the rationale for the Red Heifer.’ ”
On one hand, these quotes imply that the laws of the Red Heifer do not entirely transcend the realms of intellect, for Moshe was granted an understanding of their rationale. Nevertheless, the explanation obviously transcends ordinary knowledge, and thus could not be perceived by Shlomo, nor did Moshe communicate it to others.5Indeed, even Moshe’s appreciation did not come as a result of own powers of comprehension. As the Midrash states:6 “It is a chukah, a decree which I have ordained. No created beings are able to comprehend My decrees.”
Why was Moshe able to grasp this rationale? Because he was granted a unique gift from G-d. G-d is omnipotent able to fuse transcendence with limitation and it was by virtue of this omnipotence that Moshe was able to appreciate the explanation.
To Tap the Essence of the Torah
The question arises: Why was the answer given only to Moshe? If appreciating the rationale of the Red Heifer could advance one’s Divine service, why didn’t G-d or Moshe share it with others?
The answer depends on insight into the nature of the Torah. The Torah is one with G-d,7 an expression of His essential will. Therefore, just as His will is above intellectual comprehension, so too is the Torah. Nevertheless, G-d gave the Torah to mortals, not because He desires their obedience, but because He is concerned for their welfare. He wants man to develop a connection with Him, and for that connection to be internalized within man’s understanding, so that G-dly wisdom becomes part of his makeup. And with that intent, He enclothed the Torah in an intellectual framework.
This intellectual dimension is, however, merely an extension of the Torah. The Torah’s essence remains transcendent G-dliness, and cannot be contained within any limits even the limits of intellect. To relate to this essence, man must approach the Torah with a commitment that transcends wisdom or logic.
To highlight this dimension, it was necessary for at least one part of the Torah to remain entirely above intellectual comprehension. This is the passage describing the laws of the Red Heifer. These laws, which transcend our understanding, help us to appreciate that the entire Torah in its essence is also beyond our understanding. This in turn heightens our sensitivity to its inner G-dly core.
Were the entire Torah to have been clothed in reason, man would be motivated to rely on his own understanding, and would have difficulty in rising to a challenge that requires mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice. Indeed, limiting our spiritual commitment to the intellectual sphere would encourage man’s natural, material inclination. There would be a tendency to follow one’s desires, and to rationalize one’s conduct, even when it is lacking.8 Without making an unlimited commitment to the Torah, man would not be able to relate to its unlimited truth.
The laws of the Red Heifer, however, imbue a person with an awareness of the unlimited nature of the Torah, stirring him to devote himself entirely to the Torah, both to its observance and its study.9 Becoming conscious of the inner G-dly nature of the Torah awakens the inner G-dly nature of our souls, enabling us to develop a more complete bond with Him.
To underscore the unique contribution represented by the laws of the Red Heifer, the Torah refers to them as chukas haTorah (“the decree of the Torah”),10 rather thanchukas haporah (“the decree of the [Red] Heifer”).11 Use of the former term emphasizes that our connection with the entire Torah depends on a commitment which transcends intellect.
A Selfless Self
This answer, however, leads to a further question. If regarding the laws of the Red Heifer as a chok is essential to our approach to the Torah, why did G-d reveal their rationale to Moshe? According to the above reasoning, this would detract from Moshe’scommitment!
To resolve this conundrum, we must conclude that the explanation for the chok was not given in a form that could be grasped by Moshe’s intellect. Instead, G-d’s essential will was revealed within Moshe’s thought. That which cannot be understood thus became the cornerstone of his intellectual powers.
To explain: Moshe represented the personification of Chochmah, usually translated as “wisdom.” But there is a difference between Chochmah and our ordinary conception of wisdom.
All conceptualization is made up of two elements: a) the idea itself, and b) the process of opening oneself to that idea, stepping beyond one’s previous way of thinking.Chochmah relates to the second element, and thus is identified with bittul, selfless existence.12 This bittul makes Chochmah an appropriate vessel for the Ein Sof, G-d’s infinity.13 And this spiritual process the causing of the Ein Sof to rest within Chochmahis what took place when G-d made known to Moshe the rationale for the laws of the Red Heifer.
For this reason, knowing the rationale did not detract from Moshe’s commitment. Unlike other mortals, Moshe did not have a separate, individual self image; he saw himself only as a medium for the expression of G-d’s Truth. Mesirus nefesh was the essence of his nature, and hence could never be diminished.
In the Era of the Redemption, Mashiach will offer the tenth Red Heifer, purifying first the priests and through them the entire nation.14 And we will then proceed in our Divine service to the age when purification from contact with the dead made possible by the ceremony of the Red Heifer will no longer be necessary. For “He will swallow up death for eternity,”15 and G-dliness, the source of all life, will be overtly revealed throughout all existence.
PARSHAH IN A NUTSHELL: Chukat
Sivan 27, 5774 · June 25, 2014
Moses is taught the laws of the Red Heifer, whose ashes purify a person who has been contaminated by contact with a dead body.
After 40 years of journeying through the desert, the people of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin.Miriam dies and the people thirst for water. G-d tells Moses to speak to a rock and command it to give water. Moses gets angry at the rebellious Israelites and strikes the stone. Water issues forth, but Moses is told by G-d that neither he nor Aaron will enter the Promised Land.
Aaron dies at Har Hahar and is succeeded in the High Priesthood by his son Elazar. Venomous snakes attack the Israelite camp after yet another eruption of discontent in which the people “speak against G-d and Moses”; G-d tells Moses to place a brass serpent upon a high pole, and all who will gaze heavenward will be healed. The people sing a song in honor of the miraculous well that provided the water in the desert.
Moses leads the people in battles against the Emorite kings Sichon and Og (who seek to prevent Israel’s passage through their territory) and conquers their lands, which lie east of the Jordan.
WEEKLY ALIYOT: Parshat Chukat
Sivan 27, 5774 · June 25, 2014
Chukat Aliya Summary
General Overview: This week’s Torah reading, Chukat, begins with a discussion regarding the laws of the red heifer. Miriam and Aaron die. When the Jews are in need of water, Moses strikes a rock – despite being commanded to talk to it. Waters stream forth, but Moses is banned from entering Israel. Amalek battles the Israelites and is defeated. Edom and Moab refuse the Israelites passageway to Israel. The Israelites battle Sichon and Og, and are victorious.
First Aliyah: The most severe of all ritual impurities is tum’at met, the impurity contracted through contact with a human corpse. This section details the purification process for an individual or object which has contracted this form of impurity. A red heifer is slaughtered and is burned together with a few added ingredients. Water from a stream is added to the ashes. On the third and seventh day after contracting tum’at met, this mixture is sprinkled upon the individual or object. After immersion in amikvah (ritual pool), the person or object is freed of this impurity.
Second Aliyah: The abovementioned purification process is continued, along with an admonition that the impure individual not enter the Tabernacle or Temple until the purification process is completed. Miriam dies in the fortieth year of the Israelites’ sojourn in the desert. With Miriam’s death, the waters which flowed from the miraculous “Well of Miriam” dried up. The people complain bitterly about the lack of water.
Third Aliyah: G‑d tells Moses and Aaron to take a staff and gather the people in front of a certain rock. They should speak to the rock, and it will give forth water. Moses and Aaron gather everybody, and Moses strikes the rock and it gives forth water. In the course of this episode they committed a grave error, the conventional explanation being that they struck the rock instead of speaking to it. This caused G‑d to punish Moses and Aaron, barring them from leading the Jews into Israel.
Fourth Aliyah: Moses sends messengers to the King of Edom requesting permission to pass through his land (which is south of Canaan) on the way to the Promised Land. Despite Moses’ promises not to cause any harm to the land whilst passing, Edom refuses the Jews passage. The Jews are therefore forced to circumvent the land of Edom, and approach Canaan from the east.
Fifth Aliyah: The Jews arrive at Mount Hor. At G‑d’s command, Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son, Elazar, go up the mountain. Aaron removes his high priest’s vestments and Elazar dons them. Aaron then passes away. The entire nation mourns Aaron’s death for thirty days. The Amalekites, disguised as Canaanites, attack the Jews. The Jews pray to G‑d and are victorious in battle. The Jews complain about their food, claiming that they are “disgusted” by the manna. G‑d dispatches serpents into the Israelite encampment, and many Jews die. Moses prays to G‑d on the Jews’ behalf. Following G‑d’s instructions, Moses fashions a copper serpent and places it atop a pole. The bitten Jews would look at this snake and be healed.
Sixth Aliyah: The Jews journey on, making their way towards the eastern bank of the Jordan River. Encrypted in this section is a great miracle which occurred when the Jews passed through the Arnon valley. Tall cliffs rose from both sides of this narrow valley, and in the clefts of these cliffs the Emorites, armed with arrows and rocks, were waiting to ambush the Jews. Miraculously, the mountains moved towards each other, crushing the Emorite guerrilla forces. This section ends with a song of praise for the well which sustained the Jews throughout their desert stay — and whose now-bloodied waters made the Jews aware of the great miracle which G‑d wrought on their behalf.
Seventh Aliyah: The Jews approach the land of the Emorites, which lies on the east bank of the Jordan River. They send a message to Sichon, king of the Emorites, asking permission to pass through his land en route to Canaan. Sichon refuses and instead masses his armies and attack the Jews. The Jews are victorious and occupy the Emorite lands. Og, king of Bashan, then attacks the Jews. The Jews are triumphant again; they kill Og and occupy his land too. Now the Jewish nation has reached the bank of the Jordan River, just across from the city of Jericho in the land of Israel.
ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Crime Repays (Chapter 4)
Sivan 27, 5774 * June 25, 2014
E T H I C S O F O U R F A T H E R S
Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: He who fulfills one mitzvah acquires for himself one advocate, and he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one accuser. Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against retribution.
– Ethics of the Fathers, 4:11
* * *
“Your evil does afflict you,” says the prophet. Punishment for wrongdoing is not a Divine “revenge” any more than frostbite is G-d’s “revenge” for a barefoot trek in the snow: it is the natural consequence of one’s deeds. Just as the Creator has chosen to run His world in accordance with the laws of physics, so, too, He has instituted a spiritual “natural order.” Thus, the fact that good is beneficial and evil is detrimental to their doers is an outgrowth of their essential natures.
Every positive deed on man’s part is a realization of his Divine essence and purpose, and thus and intensification of his bond with his Creator. And since the ultimate source of life and bliss is G-d, the obvious result is a more enhanced flow of sustenance and well-being. On the other hand, the person who transgresses the Divine disavows the very purpose for which G-d grants him existence and life. So the suffering and afflictions to consequently befall him are the spiritually natural result of his having sabotaged his own link and lifeline to his Divine Source.
Didn’t Reach the Ground
Based on this concept of reward and punishment we can better understand the Torah’s account of the seventh of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt – the plague of barad, a devastating storm of rain, fire and ice.
Pharaoh had once again reneged on his promise to let the Jews go; the Divine response was to unleash “thunder and hail, and fire which ran down upon the earth…the likes of which there was not in Egypt from when it had become a nation” and which wreaked havoc on the Egyptians, their cattle and their crops.
“And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them: `I have sinned this time; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are in the wrong. Entreat G-d that there be no more Divine thunders and hail; and I will let you go….'”
“And Moses went out from Pharaoh, out of the city, and spread out his hands to G-d; and the thunder ceased, and the hail and the rain did not reach the ground.”
Suspended or Vaporized
Our sages have stated that “G-d desires to uphold the workings of the world as much as possible; nature is dear to Him, and He does not interfere with it unless it is critically necessary.” And yet, almost everything about the plague of barad, including the manner in which it ended, was supernatural.
Two sworn enemies, fire and ice, collaborated to create the “hail with fire flaring within it” that rained down on Egypt. And when Moses lifted his arms, the storm ceased – instantaneously. Even the hail and rain that had already begun its descent from the heavens “did not reach the ground.”
What happened to these orphaned raindrops and hailstones? A careful reading of the commentaries yields two versions of their fate: (a) they remained suspended in midair; (b) they ceased to exist altogether.
The need for supernatural plagues is self-evident. As G-d told Moses, “I will multiply My signs and My wonders…. And Egypt will know that I am G-d.” But why the miraculous end to the plague of barad? Why not allow the already falling raindrops to reach their natural groundward course?
Punishment, as we’ve noted, is not a Divine revenge, but the spiritually “natural” result of a person’s wrongdoing.
The fire and ice that rained down on Pharaoh’s Egypt was in punishment for his enslavement of the Jewish people and his repeated defiance of the Divine command, “Let My people go.” But when Pharaoh repented his crime, acknowledging his guilt (“G-d is righteous, and I and my people are in the wrong”) and committing himself to its rectification (“I will let you go”), the root cause for the plague of barad no longer was. The dynamics of reward and punishment now dictated that Pharaoh’s evil, now repented, would no longer afflict him.
The laws of physics may have dictated the continued descent of the hail and rain already en route. But the laws of physics are but the implementers of a higher nature. For a single hailstone or raindrop to now strike Egypt would have been a violation of the spiritual “natural order” that the Creator has established to govern our reality.
This also explains the two versions as to what happened to those hailstones and raindrops which Pharaoh’s repentance disarmed in mid-flight: did they halt in mid-air or did they cease to exist entirely?
Basically, there are two levels of teshuvah (repentance): teshuvah that affects the future, and teshuvah that reaches back into the past.
A person who has acted contrary to his ordained mission in life has turned his back on His Creator. As long as he does not repent his deed, he remains in a state of “estrangement” from the Almighty. But when he expresses real regret for his crime and commits himself henceforth to be faithful to his G-d, he repairs the damaged relationship; all is forgiven as he turns a new leaf in his life.
This is your basic, forward-effective teshuvah. None of this, however, changes the fact that, prior to his repentance, this individual had been disconnected from his Divine source and his own intrinsic goodness. His evil deed remains a past reality; all he has done is discontinue its negative effects on his life.
But there also is a higher level of teshuvah: a teshuvah which reaches back in time to change the past. This is the teshuvah of a penitent who succeeds in exploiting his past wrongs as an impetus for good, who garners from his spiritual descents the momentum to achieve otherwise unattainable heights. Whose estrangement becomes a source of yearning for His G-d, a yearning with a depth and intensity that far surpasses anything the spiritually pristine soul can feel. Whose negative past is transformed into positive force.
This is the difference between the two scenarios for the suspended barad. If Pharaoh’s repentance was of the first, “from now on” sort, his past evil, and what it has caused, remained in existence. Only its future effects on him were neutralized. The hail and rain remained – only they did not continue their punishment of the now repentant sinner.
But if Pharaoh were capable of achieving the higher level of teshuvah that rectifies the past, the negative cause of the barad would have been retroactively undone. And since it is “your evil that does afflict you,” the utter erasure of his evil would have spelled the immediate unbeing all that ever resulted from it, including the physical water, fire and ice that came to afflict its perpetrator.
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Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:
All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.”
1. Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated, “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you” ; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you”—in the World to Come.
Who is honorable, one who honors his fellows. As is stated: “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.”
2. Ben Azzai would say: Run to pursue a minor mitzvah, and flee from a transgression. For a mitzvah brings another mitzvah, and a transgression brings another transgression. For the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, and the reward of transgression is transgression.
3. He would also say: Do not scorn any man, and do not discount anything. For there is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.
4. Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh would say: Be very, very humble, for the hope of mortal man is worms.
Rabbi Yochanan the son of Berokah would say: Whoever desecrates the Divine Name covertly, is punished in public. Regarding the desecration of the Name, the malicious and the merely negligent are one and the same.
5. Rabbi Ishmael the son of Rabbi Yossei would say: One who learns Torah in order to teach, is given the opportunity to learn and teach. One who learns in order to do, is given the opportunity to learn, teach, observe and do.
Rabbi Tzaddok would say: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not act as a counselor-at-law. Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig. So would Hillel say: one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish. Hence, one who benefits himself from the words of Torah, removes his life from the world.
6. Rabbi Yossei would say: Whoever honors the Torah, is himself honored by the people; whoever degrades the Torah, is himself degraded by the people.
7. His son, Rabbi Ishmael would say: One who refrains from serving as a judge avoids hatred, thievery and false oaths. One who frivolously hands down rulings is a fool, wicked and arrogant.
8. He would also say: Do not judge alone, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One. And do not say, “You must accept my view,” for this is their [the majority’s] right, not yours.
9. Rabbi Jonathan would say: Whoever fulfills the Torah in poverty, will ultimately fulfill it in wealth; and whoever neglects the Torah in wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.
10. Rabbi Meir would say: Engage minimally in business, and occupy yourself with Torah. Be humble before every man. If you neglect the Torah, there will be many more causes for neglect before you ; if you toil much in Torah, there is much reward to give to you.
11. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Yaakov would say: He who fulfills one mitzvah, acquires for himself one advocate; he who commits one transgression, acquires against himself one accuser. Repentance and good deeds are as a shield against retribution.
Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-Maker would say: Every gathering that is for the sake of Heaven, will endure; that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure.
12. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Shamua would say: The dignity of your student should be as precious to you as your own; the dignity of your colleague, as your awe of your master; and your awe of your master as your awe of Heaven.
13. Rabbi Judah would say: Be careful with your studies, for an error of learning is tantamount to a willful transgression.
Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns–the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty–but the crown of good name surmounts them all.
14. Rabbi Nehora’i would say: Exile yourself to a place of Torah; do not say that it will come after you, that your colleagues will help you retain it. Rely not on your own understanding.
15. Rabbi Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.
Rabbi Matya the son of Charash would say: Be first to greet every man. Be a tail to lions, rather than a head to foxes.
16. Rabbi Yaakov would say: This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.
17. He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.
18. Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar would say: Do not appease your friend at the height of his anger; do not comfort him while his dead still lies before him; do not ask him about his vow the moment he makes it ; and do not endeavor to see him at the time of his degradation.
19. Samuel the Small would say: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles, let your heart not be gladdened. Lest G-d see, and it will displeasing in His eyes, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you]”
20. Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.
Rabbi Yossei the son of Judah of Kfar HaBavli would say: One who learns Torah from youngsters, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks [unfermented] wine from the press. One who learns Torah from the old, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.
Said Rabbi Meir: Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains. There are new vessels that are filled with old wine, and old vessels that do not even contain new wine.
21. Rabbi Elazar HaKapor would say: Envy, lust and honor drive a man from the world.
22. He would also say: Those who are born will die, and the dead will live. The living will be judged, to learn, to teach and to comprehend that He is G-d, He is the former, He is the creator, He is the comprehender, He is the judge, He is the witness, he is the plaintiff, and He will judge. Blessed is He, for before Him there is no wrong, no forgetting, no favoritism, and no taking of bribes; know, that everything is according to the reckoning. Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape; for against your will you are formed, against your will you are born, against your will you live, against your will you die, and against your will you are destined to give a judgement and accounting before the king, king of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.
Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:
Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.”
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