Monthly Archives: June 2018

Fear of Others and Its Consequences

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

The historian Salo Baron famously critiqued the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” that we often associate with Jewish identity. But at the Pesach seder every year, we declare that in every generation, we have enemies that threaten to annihilate the Jewish people, but God saves us each time.

The experience of the generation that left Egypt is the paradigmatic Exodus. But by the time we reach Parashat Balak, that entire generation has passed on, per the decree resulting from the episode of the spies. There is now a new generation. Did this generation experience any sort of similar threat of annihilation? And if so, is this instructive for how we should view Jewish history?

A close reading of Parashat Balak reveals striking thematic and literary parallels to Parashat Shemot. Here are some of the examples of the similarities in language:

ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא… ועתה לכה נא ארה לי את העם הזה כי עצום הוא ממני (במדבר כב, ג; ו)

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ (שמות א, ט)
ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל (כב, ג) וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (שמות א, ו)

In each case, we have a king who is very afraid of B’nei Yisrael because they are a “large nation” who might harm his core constituency, and as a result of that, the king attempts a solution to “deal” with the problem.  

But there are some key differences:

In Shemot, the king is afraid and imposes his fear on his people, while in Balak, the fear begins with the people, who then appoint a king to deal with the problem.

The fears, and therefore solutions, of each king differ as well. In Shemot, Pharaoh’s fear is that B’nei Yisrael would go to war with Egypt.  He, therefore, seeks to weaken them through hard labor and to kill their baby boys so that they won’t grow up to be enemy soldiers. Balak’s fear, however, is that B’nei Yisrael would deplete the resources of Moav. Cursing them to stunt their growth might be a sufficient solution.

Despite these differences, though, the Gemara in Sotah suggests that Bilam, the sorcerer that Balak sought out to curse B’nei Yisrael, was the advisor to Pharaoh who suggested killing the Jewish male infants. This suggests that the comparison is worth exploring.

Do these two experiences indicate a pattern? The anti-Semitic tropes of Pharaoh and Balak can still be heard in our times, even though  many of us in America do not face daily threats of anti-Semitism. Last summer, marchers in Charlottesville who chanted, “the Jews will not replace us.” In February, a faith leader remarked “the Powerful Jews are my enemy.” In March, a councilman in Washington, D.C. declared that the “Rothschilds” control the climate and the federal government. The common thread between all of these scenarios is an unfounded fear of Jews being too powerful, like that we see twice in the Torah. Hopefully, these parallels give us a greater insight into our own history, although Baron is likely correct that the sum-total of our history is not just these trying times.

But more than that, these experiences should teach us about how we relate to others. Americans are in constant debate about how we relate to others – whether it is those throughout the world who wish to enter the United States or minorities already within our borders. Security is one side of the conversation that must be dealt with, but the question is, what results from our seeking security? Does fear lead us to unnecessarily oppressing an “other,” like Pharaoh and Balak did? With awareness of our own history, hopefully we will cultivate sufficient self-awareness to not allow fear to guide us towards an unwarranted hatred of others.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is a student at RIETS and the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and he served this year as rabbinic intern at Young Israel of Plainview.

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What Plague Did Pinchas Stop? A New (I Think) Reading of Parshat Balak, With a Moral

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Parashat Balak is a largely self-contained narrative.  There is suspense – will Bil’am succeed in cursing the Jews?  There is conflict between Balak and Bil’am. There is farce, as the wordsmith seer “who knows the mind of the Most High” is outclassed by his donkey’s vision and rhetoric.  There is of course spectacularly beautiful poetry.  But at the end of the day none of it matters to the plot of Chumash.

Then the seventh aliyah comes out of nowhere.  Suddenly the men of Jacob, whose “tents are so goodly”, are compulsively attracted to foreign daughters.  The “nation that dwells alone” is picnicking with idolaters.  The G-d in Whose eyes “it is good to bless Israel”, and Who never changes His mind, demands a Vlad-the-Impaler response. Mosheh Rabbeinu tries to call out the national guard and declare martial law, and the result is a complete breakdown of authority.

The Torah reading seems deliberately constructed to draw attention to these contrasts.  Moreover, while Chazal often try to end liturgical sections on a positive note, Balak ends with a census of plague victims – 42,000 dead!

Some midrashim read the narrative sequentially.  Bil’am realized that he could not directly harm the Jews.  But his fundamental animus remained.  So he looked for ways to undermine his own blessings, and came up with the idea of corrupting Jewish morals.  In this version Bil’am’s idyllic description of the Jews were accurate when he said them.

But it seems to me potentially more powerful to read the stories as simultaneous.  Bil’am blesses the Jews even as they lose their morals.  G-d forces Bil’am to bless them even as He demands that Mosheh execute many of them, and perhaps even as they are dying en masse of His plague.

Can we read the story that way?  Sure.  People will often defend their family and friends against outsiders’ critiques in the strongest terms, and then turn around and privately but pungently express their full agreement with those critiques.  Reading G-d’s actions this way would not require any theologically problematic changing of the Divine Mind.

What should we learn from such a reading?

Let’s start at the end.  Mosheh Rabbeinu responds (in the human political world) to this failure essentially as he did to the Golden Calf, the last episode combing eros with idolatry; he asks some Jews to kill their sinning brethren.

This failure of leadership should be compared and contrasted with the rock-striking episode last week that is presented as the cause for Moshe being unable to lead the Jews into Israel.  The comparison is clear; the Desert Generation has the same weaknesses as the Exodus Generation, which suggests that Moshe’s leadership has not been adequately transformative.  The contrast is that Moshe failed at Mei Merivah because he had no new ideas for reacting to complaints about thirst.  Here he does try a new approach, but it backfires.

Why doesn’t it work?  Perhaps because last time he called on his fellow Levites, and this time he asks each tribe to handle its own criminals. Perhaps because last time he asked for volunteer vigilantes – “whosoever is for Hashem, to me!” – whereas this time he tries to utilize the regular national bureaucracy.  Ultimately it is a volunteer Levite vigilante who acts effectively to stop the plague brought on by the immoral behavior.

Or so it seems.  Let’s take a closer look at the story that bridges Balak and Pinchas.

וישב ישראל בשטים

ויחל העם לזנות אל בנות מואב:

ותקראן לעם לזבחי אלהיהן

ויאכל העם וישתחוו לאלהיהן:

ויצמד ישראל לבעל פעור

ויחר אף יקוק בישראל:

ויאמר יקוק אל משה

קח את כל ראשי העם

והוקע אותם ליקוק נגד השמש

וישב חרון אף יקוק מישראל:

ויאמר משה אל שפטי ישראל

הרגו איש אנשיו הנצמדים לבעל פעור:

והנה איש מבני ישראל בא

ויקרב אל אחיו את המדינית

לעיני משה ולעיני כל עדת בני ישראל

והמה בכים פתח אהל מועד:

וירא פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן

ויקם מתוך העדה

ויקח רמח בידו:

ויבא אחר איש ישראל אל הקבה

וידקר את שניהם את איש ישראל ואת האשה אל קבתה

ותעצר המגפה מעל בני ישראל:

ויהיו המתים במגפה ארבעה ועשרים אלף: פ

 וידבר יקוק אל משה לאמר:

פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן

השיב את חמתי מעל בני ישראל בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם

ולא כליתי את בני ישראל בקנאתי:

Israel dwelled in The Cedars

The nation began straying toward the daughter of Moav.

They called the nation to their gods’ sacrifices

The nation ate, and bowed to their gods.

Israel yoked itself to the Baal of P’or

Hashem’s anger was kindled at Israel.

Hashem said to Mosheh:

“Take all the heads of the nation

and hang them up to Hashem in the sunlight

and the kindled anger of Hashem, will turn back from Israel”.

Moshe said to the judge of Israel:

“Each of you must execute his men who have yoked themselves to the Ba’al of P’or!”

Behold, a man of Israel came;

He brought the Midianitess near to his brothers

in full view of Mosheh, and in full view of the edah of the Children of Israel

while they wept at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

Pinchas son of El’azar, son of Aharon the Priest, saw

He stood up from the midst of the edah

He took a spear in his hand

He followed the man of Israel into the pavilion

He stabbed them, the man of Israel and the woman, in her pavilion

The plague was constrained from upon the Children of Israel.

The dead in the plague were forty two thousand.

Hashem spoke to Mosheh, saying:

“Pinchas son of El’azar son of Aharon the Priest

turned My rage back from against Israel by acting zealously for Me in their midst

so I did not exterminate Israel in My zealotry.

There is unquestionable a plague, and Pinchas’ action stops it.  The problem is that we hear nothing about a plague until Pinchas acts.  We know that G-d is angry, but we don’t know that His anger has been physically expressed.  We also don’t know that the plague had genocidal possibilities until Hashem tells us that Pinchas prevented Him from exterminating us.

Ramban nonetheless takes the story at face value.  G-d sent a plague in response to our straying, and it is the way of plagues to kill the innocent along with the guilty.  Pinchas stopped the plague before it had killed even all the guilty, so that in Devarim 4:3 Hashem needs to point out to Bnei Yisroel that all those guilty of following Baal’ Peor have been destroyed from their midst.

Seforno, who usually follows Ramban, apparently finds this approach unsatisfying, and offers a radically different interpretation.

“ותעצר המגפה” שכבר גזר הא-ל יתעלה,

כאמרו “וכל מנאצי לא יראוה”

“The plague was constrained” that Hashem had already decreed,

 when He said “all those who disgust Me will not see it (=the Land).”

According to Seforno, the plague was decreed in Bamidbar 14:23, after the episode of the Spies.  The victims of the plague are not a new generation, but rather the same people who have defied and frustrated Mosheh and Hashem all along.  Pinchas does not stop a genocide; rather, he delays yet longer the deaths of the Desert Generation.

Seforno’s answer serves more to emphasize the gaps in the narrative than to compellingly explain them.  So I want to suggest a perhaps even more radical alternative.

If our parshah’s stories are simultaneous rather than consecutive, the risk of genocide comes not as a reaction to this specific sin, but rather because the sin makes it harder for G-d to make a compelling case for preventing Bila’am from cursing us.  Pinchas’ act of zealotry takes place just as Bilaa’m begins speaking.

We are often under the illusion that our faults matter only to our enemies.  The truth is that in both society and politics, enemies are constrained by friends, and weakening our friends’ moral confidence in us by acting immorally can be as dangerous as giving ammunition to our enemies.  The piercing criticism of a Pinchas may be much more effective at maintaining alliances based on values than the passive and helpless response of Israel’s appointed leadership.

Shabbat shalom

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The Parah-dox and Orthodox Ethics

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Talmud on Yoma 14a records a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and the Sages about the meaning of the opening phrase of Bamidbar Chapter 19, verse 19:

והזה הטהור על הטמא

“And the pure will sprinkle on the impure”

According to the Sages, this means that Red Heifer Ash-water loses its spiritual and halakhic potency on something which is incapable of becoming impure.

According to Rabbi Akiva, it means that sprinkling Red Heifer Ash-water on a tamei person makes them tahor, but the person sprinkling becomes tamei.

The Rabbis object to Rabbi Akiva’s argument – isn’t this needlessly paradoxical, they ask?  Even if your reading makes sense in the text, shouldn’t we prefer an interpretation that fits with reason?

Rabbi Akiva’s response is: ABSOLUTELY NOT.  This detail of the law, he says, is what drove King Solomon to confess in Kohelet 7:23

אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני

“I said: “I will become wise”, but this goal remains distant for me.”

This is what Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l described as a “gesture of surrender”, a humble and noble willingness to acknowledge that “Because your thoughts are not My thoughts, and your ways are not My ways, declared Hashem.  As the heavens rise above the earth, so too My ways rise above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts”.   Ultimately Divine wisdom cannot be fully comprehended by human intellect.

BUT: Does that mean we shouldn’t try?

Put differently:  Is it better to have thought and lost, or never to have thought at all?

For some people, Rabbi Akiva’s embrace of irrationality is the paradigm for our relationship to mitzvoth.  We are best off not asking “why” questions about mitzvoth; ours not to make reply, but simply to follow G-d’s orders.

But for others, Rabbi Akiva’s understanding of this verse is an exception.   One law is immune to reason, to remind us of the limits of human intellect.  But with that reminder in hand, we must try our best to understand everything else using the minds that Hashem gave us.

Or maybe Rabbi Akiva is simply wrong.  The Halakhah follows the Sages against Rabbi Akiva; there is no reason to interpret this verse as generating an irrational law when an alternate explanation can be found.

I remember my excitement when I first realized that this third position was possible within the tradition, that there were great rabbis who believed that we should believe that all mitzvoth were comprehensible.  It came not from Rambam – my high school strongly discouraged me from reading the Guide for the Perplexed – but from the introduction of the great medieval parshan Rabbi David Kimchi, known as RADAK, to his commentary on Nakh.

אין צריך לומר התורה והמצוה שהם בנויות על דרך השכל

כי גם החוקים אשר נאמר עליהם כי אין להם טעם

כן הוא שאין להם טעם נראה לרוב בני אדם

אבל החכם המתבונן בהם ימצא טעמם ברור ומבואר

It goes without saying regarding Torah and mitzvoth that they are built on the ways of the intellect

as even the chukim, about which it is said that they have no rationale

It is true that they have no rationale which is apparent to most people

But the sage who meditates on them will find their rationales clear and explained

Even the chukim, Radak says – even the Red Heifer, which is described as THE chok of the Torah – makes sense to philosophers.  NOTHING about Torah law is in principle beyond human comprehension.

This was extremely attractive to me as a teenager.  But the problem with this position, as my high school teachers knew, is that:

The belief that nothing about Torah is utterly incomprehensible easily slides into the belief that we already comprehend everything in Torah.

The belief that we comprehend everything leads us to identify Torah with our own understanding of Torah.

The identification of Torah with our understanding of Torah means that we attribute our own errors to G-d.  When times change, so that our rationales for mitzvot no longer seem reasonable, we take that as evidence against the Torah, rather than as evidence that we have misunderstood Torah.

But the first position, the extreme version of Rabbi Akiva, can send us sliding down its own slippery slope:

The belief that nothing about Torah is ultimately comprehensible easily slides into the belief that we should not use ethics to evaluate our interpretations of Torah.

The belief that Torah interpretations need not be ethical leads us to accept interpretations that make Halakhah irrelevant, immoral or even cruel.

For example: some years ago, the Summer Beit Midrash studied the laws regarding the halakhic status of the deaf who also cannot speak audibly.  The Talmud categorizes deaf-mutes as not bnei and bnot mitzvah, as incapable of halakhic responsibility.  In the late 19th century – think Helen Keller – it became clear that deaf children could be fully educated, and that deaf adults could be fully competent even if they spoke Sign rather than verbalizing.

For some rabbis, this made it obvious that their halakhic status had changed.  We know, they argued, why the Talmud declared deaf-mutes to be exempt from mitzvot – it was because their minds had not properly developed.  Reality has changed, and it would distort Torah if halakhah did not take this new reality into account.

For other rabbis, our capacity to educate the deaf instead proves that their halakhic exclusion was not based on their mental incompetence, but rather is simply a gezeirat hakatuv, an incomprehensible (and therefore unchangeable) Divine decree.

I much prefer the middle position, the moderate understanding of Rabbi Akiva.  We should not be afraid to admit that some mitzvot are beyond our comprehension; but we should also not be afraid to admit that some halakhot are perfectly within our comprehension.

Jews should not glory in incomprehensibility, and obey the absurd with greater joy than the reasonable. We should instead strive to rationalize when we can do so with sincerity and integrity.  At the same time, we need to recognize that in every generation there will be some mitzvot – often different than those considered chukim in earlier generations – that we cannot rationalize with sincerity and integrity, and which we must nonetheless obey.

I wrote the following rationalization as an in-shul introduction to the leining of Parshat Chukkat 2015.

Why is the ritual of the Red Heifer in Sefer Bamidbar, rather than together with other priestly rituals in Sefer Vayikra?   The simplest answer is that our parshah is suffused with death.  Miriam dies; Aharon dies; Mosheh is sentenced to die in exile; the people ask repeatedly “Why have you taken us out of Egypt to die in the desert?”; and many of them in fact die at the hands of fiery snakes.  The Rabbis like to say that G-d often sends the refuah before the Makkah, the cure before the disease.  So here He gave Bnei Yisroel the laws of the Parah Adumah just before we had to deal with many crushing deaths.

How does this ritual help us deal with death?  My dear friend Rabbi Elisha Anscelovits points out that the ashes were sprinkled on the third and seventh days of shiva.  In the midst of mourning, G-d reminds us that we have responsibilities; that while our grief is justified, it cannot define us permanently or absolutely.  But the ashes cannot be self-sprinkled; to emerge whole, we need the help of others.

This is the deepest meaning of the paradox of the parah adumah, in which the sprinkler becomes tamei while the sprinkler becomes tahor – one person willingly becomes tamei so that others can become tahor.  The ritual reminds us that there are so many powerful areas of life where we are not self-sufficient, where we cannot bootstrap ourselves out of our ruts – we need our family, our friends, our community, and sometimes the human community.  Once we recognize our own needs, we will then try to be the helpers our family, friends, community and fellow humans need.

In the past week, the human religious community of the United States was frayed by the shocking racist murders in Charleston.  In response, a wide spectrum of Jewish organizations has called for this Shabbat to be a “Shabbat of Unity” as a statement of sympathy for the African-American community and as a protest against racism and discrimination. The RCA and the Orthodox Union have joined this call in the spirit of the Rav zikhrono livrakhah’’s call for human cooperation across religious boundaries on social and political issues.

May this be the beginning of a much deeper commitment by the Orthodox community to that spirit and that call.

Let’s make it so.

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A Look of Tumat Met

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jared Anstandig

Regarding the Mitzvah of the פרה אדומה, the Torah states, “זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּה ה’ לֵאמֹר.”  On this Pasuk, רש”י draws attention to the תורה’s usage of the term “חוקה,”

לְפִי שֶׁהַשָּׂטָן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מוֹנִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לוֹמַר מָה הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת וּמַה טַּעַם יֵשׁ בָּהּ? לְפִיכָךְ כָּתַב בָּהּ חֻקָּה — גְּזֵרָה הִיא מִלְּפָנַי, אֵין לְךָ רְשׁוּת לְהַרְהֵר אַחֲרֶיהָ.

Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it”, on this account it (Scripture) writes (uses) the term חקה about it, implying: It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to criticize it.

The traditional approach to the פרה אדומה aligns with רש״י’s comment, and so Judaism takes the פרה אדומה as the quintessential חוק, a law which we will never be able to fully understand. The mystery of פרה אדומה notwithstanding, it is worth exploring the issue that פרה אדומה resolves, namely טומאת מת.

The deceased human being is the highest level of טומאה that exists: in the language of רש”י in this week’s parsha, a corpse is an אבי אבות הטומאה.  This טומאה requires a specific process, the פרה אדומה, in order to become טהור again.

There are three main ways a person becomes טמא from a מת – touching a corpse, carrying a corpse, or being in the same room or above a corpse.  Being in same room (or tent) or above the corpse is known as טומאת אהל.

The Gemara in .יבמות דף סא addresses who can transmit טומאת אהל:

ר”ש בן יוחאי אומר: קברי עובדי כוכבים אינן מטמאין באהל שנא’ (יחזקאל לד, לא) “ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם” אתם קרויין “אדם,” ואין העובדי כוכבים קרויין “אדם.”

The graves of gentiles do not render items impure through a tent, as it is stated: “And you My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are men [adam]” (Ezekiel 34:31), from which it is derived that you, the Jewish people, are called men [adam] but gentiles are not called men [adam].

As evidenced from the continuation of the Gemara, רשב״י’s explanation draws on the opening of the section that deals with טומאת מת –i “אדם כי ימות באהל,” “when a man dies in a tent.”  In this context, “a man,” רשב”י argues, refers to a Jewish body, to the exclusion of non-Jews.

Along these lines, בבא מציעא קיד א-ב tells the following story:

אשכחיה רבה בר אבוה לאליהו דקאי בבית הקברות של עובדי כוכבים… אמר ליה לאו כהן הוא מר מאי טעמא קאי מר בבית הקברות א”ל לא מתני מר טהרות דתניא ר”ש בן יוחי אומר קבריהן של עובדי כוכבים אין מטמאין שנאמר (יחזקאל לד, לא) ואתן צאני צאן מרעיתי אדם אתם אתם קרויין אדם ואין עובדי כוכבים קרויין אדם

The Gemara relates: Rabba bar Avuh found Elijah standing in a graveyard of gentiles… he said to him: Is not the Master a priest?[1] What is the reason that the Master is standing in a cemetery? Elijah said to him: Has the Master not studied the mishnaic order of Teharot? As it is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says that the graves of gentiles do not render one impure, as it is stated: “And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, are man” (Ezekiel 34:31), which teaches that you, i.e., the Jewish people, are called “man,” but gentiles are not called “man.”

It appears from this Gemara that אליהו himself subscribes to רשב”י’s opinion, arguing that he may stand in a non-Jewish cemetery since there is no concern of טומאת האהל from the non-Jewish bodies therein.

In practice, רמב”ם פרק א’ מהלכות טומאת מת הלכה יג follows the opinion of רשב”י:

וְאֵין הָעַכּוּ”ם מְטַמֵּא בְּאֹהֶל… וְכֵן הָעַכּוּ”ם אֵינוֹ נַעֲשֶׂה טְמֵא מֵת אֶלָּא עַכּוּ”ם שֶׁנָּגַע בְּמֵת אוֹ נְשָׂאוֹ אוֹ הֶאֱהִיל עָלָיו הֲרֵי הוּא כְּמִי שֶׁלֹּא נָגַע.

A non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה through a tent… And, likewise, a non-Jew cannot become impure from a dead body.  Rather, a non-Jew that touches a corpse, or carries it, or stands above it, he is like someone who did not touch the corpse.

For רמב״ם, a non-Jew is completely removed from the world of טומאת מת.  A non-Jew cannot become טמא, and so a non-Jew cannot transmit טומאה. This position appears to fit perfectly with the both יבמות and בבא מציעא, which both indicate that a non-Jewish corpse does not create טומאת מת through an אהל.

However, תוספות (in יבמות סא א ד”ה ממגע) side against רשב”ג:

ואר”י דאין הלכה כר”ש… וצריכים כהנים ליזהר מקברי עובדי כוכבים, ובפרק המקבל (ב”מ קיד:) בעובדא דאליהו דהשיב לרבה בר אבוה כר’ שמעון בן יוחי דהכא דחויי קא מדחי לה…

Ri says that the halacha does not follow Rabbi Shimon… and Kohanim must be careful about the graves of non-Jews, and in Perek Hamekabel (in Baba Metzia), concerning the story of Eliyahu, that he responded to Rabba Bar Avuh that the halacha follows Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, this was merely to push off the question…[2]

תוספות understand that רשב”י’s position about טומאת אהל is subject to a מחלוקת and side against him.  This forces תוספות to take a different approach to the story with אליהו, explaining that אליהו’s words are not to be taken as a halachic argument, but merely something to prevent further question. [3]

When it comes to practice, both the שולחן ערוך and רמ”א hesitate to rule as leniently as רמב”ם and rule, somewhat indecisively, in accordance with תוספות.  They write (in יורה דעה שעב:ב):

קברי עובדי כוכבים, נכון ליזהר הכהן מלילך עליהם; (מהר”מ ותוס’ פ’ המקבל) (אע”פ שיש מקילין (רמב”ם והגמי”י בשם ס’ יראים). ונכון להחמיר.)

The graves of non-Jews, it is appropriate for a Kohen to be careful not to walk on them. (Even though there are those who are lenient, it is appropriate to be strict.)

Given that the position of תוספות prevails in practice, it is worth considering the deeper significance of תוספות’s position.  After all, רמב”ם’s position not only fits better with the read in both Gemaras, but would seem to be more logical – across the board non-Jews are excluded from טומאת מת.  On the other hand, it appears that תוספות agree that a non-Jew cannot contract טומאת מת. Nonetheless, תוספות maintain that a non-Jewish corpse still transmits טומאה.  Why should this be the case?

The answer to this question could be the very nature for the reason for טומאת מת exists in the first place.  Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky in גשר החיים (in a footnote to the beginning of פרק ו’ – דיני טומאה page עה), provides the following explanation for the concept of טומאת מת:

מעלת האדם, בחיר יצורי האדמה, שבכחו להתעלות בקדושה  – היא הגורמת שנמשכים ונאחזים באדם יצירי הטומאה… בדבר שאין לחלוחית קדושה אין להם אחיזה…

The greatness of Man, the chosen creation of earth, is his ability to ascend in holiness – this causes impurity to follow and adhere to a person… impurity does not take hold to something without even the slightest amount of holiness to it.

טומאת מת exists because of the unique holiness of humans.  It is not limited specifically to Jews, but to all mankind.  The human being, endowed with free will, has the potential to ascend to the greatest of heights.  This, alone, bestows a certain level of קדושה to all humanity. In this vein, בראשית רבה ח:א notes the following about all people:

אִם זָכָה אָדָם אוֹמְרִים לוֹ אַתָּה קָדַמְתָּ לְמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת, וְאִם לָאו אוֹמְרִים לוֹ זְבוּב קְדָמְךָ, יַתּוּשׁ קְדָמְךָ, שִׁלְשׁוּל זֶה קְדָמְךָ.

If a person merits it, they say to him “your creation preceded the creation of angels.”  If not, they saw to him the fly preceded you, the mosquito preceded you, the word preceded you.

The laws that dictate when and how a person becomes טמא may be uniquely Jewish rules.  However, our innate sanctity as people is not based on commandedness or religion. Our potential to change, grow, and develop endows each of us, as people, with an internal holiness.  It is the vacuum of kedusha created by the loss of human life and ability to grow that creates טומאת מת. Let us therefore be mindful of the significance of what it means to be human and recognize that universally, we are holy and capable of profound growth and development.


[1] As per רש”י there, רבה בר אבוה identifies אליהו as being פנחס, a כהן

[2] תוספות supports his ruling based on רבן שמעון בן גמליאל’s position in משנה אהלות יח:ט which implies that there is a concern of אוהל for a קבר עכו”ם.

[3] There is also a larger question about the concept of לא בשמים היא and deriving halacha from supernatural occurrences.

Jared Anstandig (SBM 2011) currently teaches Tanach and Gemara at Ramaz Upper School. This summer, Jared will be moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan and will serve as rabbi for the Orthodox community at the University of Michigan.

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Korach in Context

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz

On some level, we’re not as surprised by the events of this week’s parsha as we should be. We know from history and current events that people often come forward when they’re dissatisfied with the leadership and insist on a change in the power structure. As students of Tanach, we’re very familiar with stories of both peaceful and violent leadership transitions. This story may also be familiar to those of us who can remember learning year after year about a rebellion swallowed up by the earth. However, in the context of the Chumash, the Korach story is actually pretty surprising.

Moshe has been the undisputed leader of Bnei Yisrael since they were in Mitzrayim. The people complain, sometimes very bitterly, and moan that he shouldn’t have led them into the desert, but they continue to rely on him. Suddenly, however, Korach gets up and declares that some changes need to be made: He and his group come before Moshe and Aharon and say “Rav Lachem! It’s too much[1]! All of the community are holy, and Hashem is among them, so why do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?[2]”

The parshanim offer several explanations for Korach’s behavior, and emphasize that he may be furious that Moshe chose their cousin, Elitzaphan, to be the Nasi of Shevet Levi. As Rashi puts it, Korach reasons that he should have been chosen to be Nasi, as his father comes before Elitzaphan’s in the order of Kehat’s sons. It’s certainly possible that Korach is seething with jealousy, but I believe it’s also important to bring up the role of the Nasi here to demonstrate the new power structure that has come up in Sefer Bamidbar: a plurality of leaders. In Shemot, Moshe was in charge, other than specific people chosen by Hashem to build the Mishkan or chosen by Moshe to help teach and judge. In Vayikra, the new leaders we meet are the Kohanim. In Bamidbar, however, we have the Nesiim of each tribe (including Levi), more responsibilities for the Leviim, and, when Moshe feels that his role is too much for him, seventy secondary leaders. Perhaps Korach and his contingent feel that they can ask Moshe to share or give up his authority because they’ve now seen that he’s not the only one who can lead.

One small problem with the theory that Korach is bitter over Elitzaphan’s appointment is that the appointment takes place many perakim earlier. Why would Korach only react now? Some parshanim, such as Abarbanel and Shadal, suggest that Korach protests now, after the sin of the meraglim, to take advantage of the nation’s despair over the spies’ report and the communal punishment. He knows people will be more likely to join him if they have a reason to be mad at Moshe. This makes sense, but I believe Korach may have additionally been inspired by the aftermath of the sin.

After Hashem declares that no one above the age of twenty will enter Israel, one group decides to conquer the land anyway. Moshe warns them not to go, stating twice that Hashem will not be with them. They proceed anyway, and are attacked by the Canaanite nations because, the Torah tells us, “the Ark of Hashem’s covenant and Moshe did not leave the camp[3].” This is one of the few times in the Torah that members of Bnei Yisrael go against Moshe’s direct orders and warnings. They suffer the consequences, but perhaps Korach was inspired by this group of people who chose not to heed Moshe’s word as law. Note that he is careful to point out to Moshe and Aharon in our parsha that the nation is holy and “Hashem is among them.” Perhaps he’s insisting that Bnei Yisrael doesn’t need Moshe’s leadership to access Hashem, but perhaps he’s also arguing that he and his group are not like the group of dissenters who tried to go to Israel and were punished. He’s seen that listening to Moshe may not be the only option, but he’s also seen the wrong way of going against Moshe. After all, there have been very few instances so far of standing up to or going against Moshe, and Korach presumably needs to gather some data, based on prior experience, before staging the first rebellion in the nation’s history.

As the mishnah states that Korach’s rebellion is the epitome of an argument which is not for the sake of Heaven[4], we shouldn’t fight for power the way he did. However, Korach can teach us lessons about how and when to effectively protest when we have something worthwhile to advocate for.



[1] The translation of רב לבם is somewhat unclear. JPS translates it as “you take too much upon you,” while Sefaria translates it as “you go too far.”

[2] Bamidbar 16:3

[3] 14:4

[4] Pirkei Avot 5:17


Dina Kritz (SBM 2015) is pursuing a Master’s in Jewish Education at YU’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.


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Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Spies

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Mosheh gives the spies a tactical brief.  He wants them to tell him how best to conquer Canaan.  The spies instead present a strategic evaluation. They tell the people whether it would be best to try to conquer Canaan.

From a leadership theory perspective, there is room for blame all around. Administrators need to know their personnel well. They should not be surprised when independent and creative subordinates exceed their brief.  Trusted subordinates should try their best not to surprise the administrators who trust them, so the spies should have warned Mosheh Rabbeinu what they would be saying.  All this is wholly independent of the religious or practical correctness of the spies’ strategic conclusion.

The breakdown in the chain of command means that the dispute between the spies is presented to outsiders unmediated (as raw intelligence), and perhaps in a context of unmoderated direct democracy.  In such contexts (and many others), rhetoric, defined as the capacity to make the stronger argument appear weaker, and the weaker argument appear stronger, is generally more powerful than objective truth. Rule-bound democracies create the expectation that each presentation will be countered.  The audience knows enough not to act until it has at least the illusion of having heard all plausible positions defended. Here the proposal to return to Egypt is made before Calev and Yehoshua have said a word.

Mosheh and Aharon respond by (silently) falling on their faces in front of “all k’hal adat Yisroel”.  It is not clear whether their gesture is directly to the people, or rather whether they are assuming an attitude of prayer.  Yehoshua and Calev now speak, also to “all k’hal adat Yisroel”, and try to counter rhetoric with rhetoric.  The response, in verse 14:10, is:

“all the edah spoke to pelt them with stones; but the Glory of Hashem appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all B’nei Yisroel.”

It is challenging throughout Chumash to determine with any precision what is meant by the various terms for aggregations of Jews kehal, edah, kehal adat, Yisroel, bnei Yisroel, etc.  But careful readers cannot help noticing that three different such terms show up here.  Mosheh, Aharon, and all 12 spies speak to “k’hal adat Yisroel”; “all the edah” speaks about stoning; and the Glory of Hashem appears to “all Bnei Yisroel”.  Presumably these refer to separate groups, and we should at least try to identify them.

Once we undertake that task, we have to take note that in 13:26 the spies appear to report separately to “Mosheh, Aharon, and all k’hal adat Yisroel” and to “all the edah”.  In 14:1, it is “all the edah” that raises its voices”, while it is the “am” that cries. “All Bnei Yisroel complain to Mosheh and Aharon, but it is “all the edah” that expresses the complaint verbally. In 14:4., the plan to return to Egypt – possibly after appointing a new leader, depending on how one translates נתנה ראש – is spoken about “one man to his brother”, i.e. within a group.

One clue to unravelling all this, I suggest, is the term lirgom otam ba’avanim.  As used in the rest of Chumash, this does not seem to refer to mob killing, but rather to a form of judicial execution.

If we accept this, it follows that the edah is a judicial body with capital jurisdiction, aka a Sanhedrin.  This reading is strengthened by the inclusion in chapter 15 – apparently entirely out of context – of a sacrifice brought by the edah = Sanhedrin when it errs.  Presumably the decision to execute Yehoshua and Calev was an error.

Our image of one aspect of the episode of the spies therefore has to change. The final step of the sin is not mob violence, but rather the politicization of the judicial system.  There is hope for human agency until that point.  G-d finds it necessary to intervene only when the Sanhedrin decides to execute those who oppose the newly minted popular will.

The episode of the spies of course has eternal religious significance. I want to suggest here that it also has very immediate political lessons to teach about the role of the judicial system.  Specifically, I want to talk about the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling of the Supreme Court. Let me be clear upfront that I think the lessons go both ways, and that poskim can and should learn from that ruling.

Masterpiece Cakeshop tested whether religious opposition to homosexual behavior could be legally stigmatized in the same way as racism, antisemitism, and misogyny.

Justice Kennedy’s opinion rested largely on the undisputed fact that an earlier person with authority over the case had condemned as “despicable” the use of religious arguments to refuse to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding.  This meant, he said, that the earlier hearing had been tainted by obvious and legally unacceptable hostility to the baker’s religion.

I doubt that the same argument would have been found convincing if the issue had been refusal to bake a cake for a mixed-race wedding.  Moreover, Justice Kennedy’s opinion fudges in that it leaves open the possibility that this kind of official animus toward a religious position was out of bounds only because it took place before Colorado had legalized same-sex marriage, in other words before homosexuality had been fully assimilated into prior civil rights paradigms.

I do not want to address the religious substance of the issue in depth here.  Suffice it to say that there are Orthodox Jews who believe very strongly that the halakhic prohibitions in this regard are rationally defensible and socially essential, while others believe as strongly that it is purely a chok that cannot be justified on any ground other than obedience to Divine Will.  Those in the former category have every reason to maintain a fighting retreat, and hold out the hope of regaining lost political ground. Those in the latter category have no real basis for carving out any but the narrowest legal protections for their religious needs.

I do want to argue that we should recognize as a society that moral changes which occur with sweeping rapidity are risky – that’s why we have a Constitution – and therefore where possible, people who stick to their suddenly unpopular moral positions should be protected.  In that regard, to the extent possible, even if we feel compelled to enact our current beliefs into law – and often we should feel the moral compulsion to do that – we should try our best to leave the courts as neutral arbiters of that law, rather than turning them into further vehicles of popular moral expression.

I am sure that the Sanhedrin saw it very differently.  From their perspective, the people had now been subjected for a year (or perhaps several hundred years) to ceaseless propaganda demanding the conquest of Canaan. The spies’ rhetoric provided a brief and fragile opportunity to overcome that propaganda, and it was essential to solidify that opportunity as rapidly and irreversibly as possible.

The spies were terribly wrong, and the Sanhedrin was wrong to accept their position.  But I wonder whether G-d would have found it necessary to intervene had they been willing to let Yehoshua and Calev have their say, without resorting to the threat of judicial violence.  Allowing the law to stigmatize moral dissent undermines the social contract which allows people with differing opinions to constitute and accept a common authority.

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Cast Aside but Not Abandoned

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Benzion Chinn

Parashat Shelach is the middle of the Torah’s extended effort, starting last week and continuing through Chukat, to shoot down in advance any attempt to write an “Artscroll history” of our ancestors. We are presented with an almost non-stop parade of Israelite missteps to anger God that somehow ensnares even their leaders.

This week’s episode of the spies represents a critical low point in this parade of follies. Moses sends out spies to scout out the Land of Canaan and they bring back a negative report, causing the Israelites to refuse to enter the land. In contrast to the previously established pattern of event, God becomes angry – Moses prays – God forgives the people until the next incident = this time God washes his hands of the Exodus generation and declares that Bnei Yisroel will now have to wait thirty-eight years, until this generation has passed away, to finally inherit the land.

As with all great tragedies, there is a gleam of hope to save us from utter despair. Yes, God temporarily cast Israel aside and hid his face, but even in the depth of anger, He did not abandon us.

Perhaps more than the highs of the biblical narrative, it is this low that binds God to us. We can pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  but in seeking that protection there is a trap. Do any of us really live up to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, so that we can honestly call ourselves their children?

I do not know about you but, for myself, I confess that Pauline Christians have the first part of their argument right. I am a Jew descended of the wrong Israelites; my ancestors complained in the desert, built the Golden Calf, danced in a non G-rated orgy and later listened to the falsehoods of the spies. Again and again, they tested God and whether He would destroy them, to the extent that He took a step back from them for a generation. Yet, in the end, God did not abandon them. More than any promise to any righteous ancestors, it is this promise to Israel’s sinners that gives me faith that we too will not be abandoned.  

This has implications for how we understand the upcoming period of the Three Weeks. If the biblical narrative encapsulates Jewish History, the episode of the spies represents the destruction of the two temples. According to rabbinic tradition, the spies returned on the ninth day of the month of Av. God promised that, because the Israelites cried for nothing, in the future he would give them something to mourn. Tisha B’Av is contrasted with the holiday of Passover as the day we left Jerusalem instead of Egypt. On the surface, Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning but, as R’ Akiba taught us, there is a mysterious laughter to accompany the crying.

R’ Akiba could laugh at the ruins of the Temple because he saw in those same ruins the reality of redemption; if God has fulfilled His curses, He is bound now to carry out his promised blessings. In a sense, Tisha B’Av is not the opposite of Passover but a twin that safeguards its promise. If Passover is God’s redemption, Tisha B’Av is the guarantee that God would not abandon Israel like a romantic couple that gets divorced a few years later. In Lamentations, Jerusalem is compared to a woman in a state of niddah. That is a curse, a blessing and a promise. Niddah can be a very difficult and solitary time.  But it is a status within an ongoing committed relationship, not a divorce. The comparison carries the promise of a time of taharah and togetherness. If you say that God has declared us impure and put us aside then you implicitly concede that no divorce happened and we are coming back.

Benzion N. Chinn (SBM 2003) lives in Pasadena with his family, where he works as an academic and special needs tutor. He pontificates on religion, politics, and sci-fi/fantasy on his blog,

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