Torah Portion


READ A PREVIOUS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION

Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

Parashat Vaethanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

Parashat Vaethanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

Tisha B’Av

Parashat Matot-Masee (Numbers 30:2-36:13)

 

Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

 

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

 

Parashat Chuka (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

 

Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)

 

Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

 

Parashat Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

 

Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

 

Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

 

Parashat Behar-Behukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

 

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

 

Acahre-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

 

Parashat Tazria-Mezorah (Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59)

 

 

No Exemption from Tradition

By Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

“Once a person has died, what difference would it make to him if someone else were to live in his house, or harvest his grapes, or even marry his betrothed?”

This is the blunt question that Don Isaac Abravanel, the great 15th-century sage, asked, concerning the Torah’s exclusion of certain individuals from the obligation of military service. As this week’s Torah portion describes the scene, the officers, just prior to the commencement of battle, would address the troops: “Whomsoever has built a house but has not yet dedicated it, let him go and return home, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it.” The officers would then repeat this order for the man who has planted a vineyard but has not harvested it, as well as for the man who has betrothed a woman but has not married her.

It is here that Abravanel poses his question. Post-mortem, what difference does it make? Abravanel certainly doesn’t mean to be insensitive. He simply wants to understand precisely what the Torah’s concern is, and what all of us — whether we’ve ever faced battle or not — can learn from this passage.

In working toward his solution, Abravanel lays down the premise that, as tragic as it would be for any one of these soldiers to be unable to complete the important project that he had begun, this concern is not the one that drives the military exemption law. Abravanel suggests, rather, that these particular exemptions were chosen for the beneficial impact that they would have on the army as a whole. The primary benefit of these exemptions would accrue not to the soldiers who would be going home but to the ones who would be staying and fighting.

How so? To understand it, we need to think for a minute about the value system that soldiers need to adopt in times of war. Success, in both communal and personal terms, needs to be defined in the most brutal of terms. The highest value must be placed on the ability to overpower the other, to seize and possess that which is his. Glory and honor will devolve on the ones who most successfully train themselves to see the human beings on the other side of the line simply as “the foe.” In short, the normative values of Jewish living all need to be temporarily suspended and replaced with their polar opposites.

The Torah takes several steps to mitigate the effect of this inversion of values. (See for example, Deuteronomy chapters 20, 21 and 23). One of these steps is the sending home of the new home-builder, vine-planter and betrother. Each of these three had been on the verge of performing a vital mitzvah. The house-builder was about to put up a ma’akeh (the railing around the roof, which would prevent anyone from falling off), and the vine-planter was soon to leave the gleanings and tithes for the poor. The newly betrothed was within months of fulfilling the ultimate of life-affirming mitzvot — the mitzvah of procreation. They were being sent home to perform their respective mitzvot as a way of sending the message to all of the troops that it is mitzvot that occupy the highest rungs of our value system, and that define our goals and aspirations. It may be that we sometimes have no choice but to enter a world in which compassion and loving-kindness have little place. But this other world must not come to define who we are or what our lives are about.

So often in our professional lives, we find ourselves in a world that is driven by a set of values that stands in stark contrast with the one that our tradition teaches us. We can find ourselves in situations in which we are required to do that which is “legal” rather than that which is truthful. We are sometimes asked to assess a particular person’s beauty in external rather than internal terms. And, more often than not, it is competition — not cooperation — that we need to engage i
n vigorously. We could use the soldiers’ reminder just as much as they did.

The good news is that the daily reminders of our value system and the Jewish tradition’s definition of success are near at hand. They come in the form of our daily obligations of prayer, study and acts of tzedakah. Somehow, the daily obligations are the ones that often get forgotten in favor of the glitzier, once-a-year religious experiences. But it is the power of the dailies that keep our lives on track, that ensure we return at the end of the day, still knowing who we really are.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

 

Torah Portion


READ A PREVIOUS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION

Parashat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

 

Parashat Chuka (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

 

Parashat Korach (Numbers 16-18)

 

Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

 

Parashat Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

 

Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

 

Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

 

Parashat Behar-Behukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)

 

Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

 

Acahre-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

 

Parashat Tazria-Mezorah (Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59)

 

 

The Right Leader for the Right Time

By Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin

People often complain that if we only had leaders like those in past generations, we would not have the problems we face today. It seems to be a chronic malady that we never are satisfied with the leaders of our own time. Yet, an old Jewish adage states, “each generation receives the leader it deserves.” In truth, nowhere is this fact so apparent as in this week’s Torah reading.

Few biblical stories are as sad as the account in this week’s parasha, which describes how Moses could not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (27:12). Yet, in the midst of this traumatic moment, Moses showed the measure of his greatness. The parasha relates how, instead of bemoaning his own fate, Moses concentrates on appointing a successor (27:15-23). Our own Sages in the Midrash suggest that this is the highest form of altruism, stating: “This tells us the praise of the righteous. When they are ready to part from this world, they put aside their own needs and concern themselves with the needs of the community.”

Although our Sages praise Moses, his successor, Joshua, does not seem to fare as well. The Talmud, in Baba Batra 75A, remarks, “The Elders of that generation said: The countenance of Moses was like that of the sun; the countenance of Joshua like that of the moon. Alas, for such shame!”

Rashi, the classical commentator, in interpreting this Talmudic passage, explains that the Elders were depressed and frustrated because they realized that Moses could never be replaced. No matter how great Joshua was, he simply was not another Moses, and, thus, the level of Jewish leadership must decline like the moon in comparison to the sun.

The 19th century of Musar (Jewish ethics) offers an even more critical interpretation, suggesting that Joshua could have truly replaced Moses, but he never rose to the challenge, remaining like the moon, never as brilliant as the sun.

Not all commentaries, however, agree with this critique. Instead, some of the greatest commentators suggest that the Talmudic passage should be read not as a negative assessment of Joshua but as an indictment of the Elders. The “shame” and “reproach” refers to the fact that the Elders did not give Joshua an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership qualities. As is often the case, the Elders of a generation find it too difficult to encourage a younger leader, feeling that the new leader is not worthy of their support. True, the Elders missed Moses, but Joshua deserved their help, and this they tragically were unable to offer.

Moreover, the Elders did not assess the situation properly. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, they needed a commander equipped with the ability to communicate with the masses. Under these circumstances, Joshua, not Moses, was the better leader.

The 19th-century biblical commentator, the Malbim, remarks that Joshua’s charisma, his warm, congenial and dynamic personality, provided leadership that everyone could identify with, whereas Moses possessed an aloof personality that only the intellectual elite could approach.

The Hatam Sofer, another 19th-century commentator, reinforces this idea when he interprets the expression in the Talmudic passage, “the Elders of that generation,” as referring to a few special leaders who learnt directly from Moses and had a personal relationship with him. The masses, however, were awed by Moses and turned instead to his pupil, Joshua, for advice and guidance.

All too often, we are critical of leaders, comparing them to a glorious past, and we see only deficiencies. Yet we must remember that each generation receives the leadership it needs. Joshua was not a failure at all, but the Elders of his generation judged him harshly and incorrectly because they wanted another Moses. Israel, however, did not need another Moses. Rather, it needed Joshua. And in God’s infinite wisdom, Israel received exactly what Israel desperately required.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.