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The Rabbi Writes

The Rabbi Writes


July 13, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

Every serious Torah student is aware that Biblical stories are not as simple as they appear. Behind the obvious, there are sub-plots. This week’s tale is no exception. On the surface, the narrative is about two tribes, Gad and Reuven, concerned with their enormous amount of livestock. Recognizing that the recently conquered territories on the eastern side of the Jordan are prime pastureland, they ask that they be given these in lieu of their allotment in Israel proper.

Moses is extremely upset: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here? Why do you dissuade Israel from crossing to the land that G-d has given?  Forty years earlier he reminds them, their parents, poised to enter the Promised Land, spurned their inheritance. G-d’s response: Die in the desert. And now Moses thunders, “You are repeating the sin of the Spies!” Reprising that mistake, “will destroy this entire nation.”

The tribes accept Moses’ words with grace and clarify their position. Far from seeking to free themselves from battle, they are fully prepared to send their troops. Indeed their soldiers will be in the vanguard. They even pledge, "We will not return to our homes until every Israelite has received his.” At that point, Moses consents and grants them the Eastern territories.

Sounds simple, right? No! It’s actually quite perplexing. 1) Since their intentions were really pure, and they never intended to abandon their war-bound brethren, how did Moses so misread them? 2) Moses’ focus was Jews forsaking Jews, but what about Jews forsaking G-d’s Promised Land, His eternal gift!  Who gave these two tribes the right to redefine the Promise? So not why, but how did Moses agree? 

Enter the sub-plot: The two tribes were not concerned about cattle, but Moses. Proof for this comes moments before Moses’ passing. In his final words to Gad he says: “He chose the first portion [of land available], for that is where the lawgiver’s plot is hidden.” (Deut. 33) These cryptic words expose the real reason behind Gad’s insistence to settle east of the Jordan. Moses, the lawgiver, was destined to be buried there. That Moses’ remains be untended in the plains of Moab was untenable to Gad.

Thus their cry, “Do not take us across the Jordan” was a plea to not separate them from Moses.  In fact, the Chassidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunam, detects this sub-plot in the original Hebrew text: ומקנה רב היה לבני גד עצום מאד: The children of Gad had an extremely large number of animals; can also be translated as, “The children of Gad possessed a deep acquisition, i.e., an enormous connection to their Rebbe.”

If Moses is not destined to cross over, they were willing stay behind. They weren’t farmers worrying about real-estate. These were souls deeply attached to their teacher. Clearly, Moses did not anticipate their plea. Equally obvious is the reason for their deception. They could not talk to Moses about his own death.  But Moses sensed that they were hiding something. Since he could not fathom that it was only cattle that motivated them, it must be something else.  Perhaps they were trying to shirk their military responsibility, hence his sharp rebuke.

That is why they accepted Moses’ censure.  They knew that they were not being straightforward. Above all, this was not about their ego; it was about their dedication to Moses. His reprimand did not alienate them; it merely demonstrated once again his genuine love for all Jews. Indeed, his words only strengthened their resolve to remain in his proximity.

Subsequently, when Moses heard their pledge, that Gad would not abandon another Jew; neither would he. If his people reciprocated the love he showered upon them, he would not be the one to expel them from his midst.

Yet after all is said, the Sages criticize the tribes’ decision to remain in Trans-Jordan. Notwithstanding their noble intentions, it was spiritually short sighted.  They failed to realize that Moses’ true presence was not interred in a box, but in his teachings. And that included his mandate that the Jewish people make good on G-d’s promise, transforming the physical landscape into a Holy Land.  In fact, this may be the Midrash’s deeper meaning that these tribes cherished material possessions over souls; i.e., Gad and Reuven appreciated Moses’ bodily presence more than his spiritual identity. 

Moses, in fact all Jewish leaders, are not defined in terms of their final physical location, but on how well they inspired their generation to stay true to G-d’s master plan. As long as that truth beats in the hearts of their disciples, they remain alive. Certainly, to be in the physical presence of Moses is great, but even greater is to march on and fulfill his charge.


July 06, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

For a Jew, the Land of Israel is more than real estate. It is home for our people’s soul. As Yom Kippur is to Jewish time, so Israel is to Jewish space. Both beckon us to return. Both G-d and our ancestral homeland is where we began, where we belong and where we are free to be true to our identity and mission. Hence a Jew does not visit G-d or Israel, he returns home.

To explain this eternal bond that thousands of years of exile have failed to sever, let‘s travel to the village of Peki’in. When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, three priestly families fled to Peki’in. There, Rabbi Yehoshua taught Torah and Rabbi Shimon hid in a cave and wrote the Zohar. Even now, two stones in its present synagogue are believed to have been brought by the Kohanim from the Second Temple ruins.

When our daughter studied in Israel she visited with Margalit Zinati, the 86-year-old lone Jew of Peki’in. In the1930s, Arab pogroms chased Jews away.  Only one family, direct descendants of one of the three priestly families, returned. Their children were sent to boarding schools. Only one daughter, Margalit (born 1931) stayed to care for her aging parents. Determined to keep a Jewish presence in Peki’in, she understood that she would never entice an outsider to settle there and hence she remained single.

Margalit still sweeps the synagogue and the adjoining courtyard. She loves the tourists who come to see a living testament to a nearly forgotten era. This year, she was honored to light the torch for Israel’s 70th Independence Day, not realizing that it was we, the Jewish people, who were honored.

What lies in Margalit’s heart can be traced to this week’s Torah reading. “The land shall be divided according to their number (size of the tribe)…according to lot they shall inherit. If you read carefully, you will notice that the land was divided in three ways: (1) according to population, (2) by Divine lot, and (3) via inheritance.  In other words, our share in Israel is apportioned: (1) with reason (by size), (2) by Divine decree, and (3) by inheritance.

These three paths are not just how we acquire a home; it applies to most things. Let’s examine marriage. Method #1: Make a list of what you're looking for. When you find someone who fits your description, marry.  #2: Decide that this is your partner in life. Make that decision more important than how he or she meets your expectations. Marry and you will find yourself living with the kindest and most beautiful person in the world. #3: Stop thinking in terms of my wife or my husband. You are a single entity. You're not in this marriage, you are this marriage.

That is actually how G-d married us.  1) He found a person who was generous, wise, committed, and of strong faith. His name was Abraham. He tapped him on the shoulder and declared: Hey, I've been watching you and like what you're doing. Teach your descendants to follow my grand plan. 2) He chose a people and said: From now on, whether you deserve it or not, you are mine. 3) No words needed. G-d put a piece of Himself in their souls and made them an extension of His very being.

Actually, these are not three parallel paths, but three stages in the development of every maningful relationship. Back to marriage: We usually choose a spouse for all the typical reasons; they fit our childish formula for imagined happiness. Unfortunately some marriages never progress beyond this point, which is why, as we change, they fail. The marriages that endure are those in which we finally realize that we were lucky enough to find our lot, our bashert. That occurs when our original reasons become irrelevant. Ultimately, exemplary marriages no longer have a me and you, but an us in which our spouse is an integral part of our identity, an extension of our very selves. As the tzaddik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969) once told a doctor about his wife, “My wife's foot is hurting us.”

And so it is in our relationship with G‑d and the Land of Israel. Some Jews enjoy Chanukah and the Western Wall, but not Tisha b’Av or Gaza. We are picky. Some parts of our religion and land make sense, some not.  Others feel that we, His Holy People and the Holy Land were chosen. We love being Jewish and Israel; we would not trade one mitzvah or one inch of land for all the promises of goodwill from our gentile neighbors. A third group feels G-d is in their soul and so is a village in the Galilee. They cannot exist without either.   As inheritors they automatically take on their Parent's identity and property. They know: we did not earn it and He did not choose to bequeath it, We, G-d and His Home are one. This is what we mean when we pray each morning: How good is our portion, how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our inheritance.


June 29, 2018
By Rabbi Yossie Denburg

Talmud: One day a prominent Jerusalemite, BarKamtza, was mistakenly invited to a party for VIPs hosted by his enemy. To avoid embarrassment, BarKamtza agreed to pay for the entire party. Regardless, he was publicly thrown out! BarKamtza thought: Since the Rabbis present did not protest and agreed to my humiliation, I will take revenge and tell the Caesar that the Jews are rebelling. His ‘fake news’ caused the Romans to destroy the Holy Temple. (Gittin 55b)

Two issues: 1) Your enemy wants to pay the entire bill and you kick him out? Take his money! 2) Why indeed did none of the Rabbis protest?

Two more questions: Elsewhere, the Talmud informs us that Jerusalem was destroyed because people insisted on enforcing their halachic rights, rather than compromise. (Bava Metzia 30b) 1) Which is true: was Jerusalem destroyed because of blind hate or judicial fastidiousness? 2) Is demanding strict law so terrible?  On the contrary, a culture dedicated to justice should be praised.  And yet the Talmud suggests that Jerusalem was destroyed because of it?!

The Alter Rebbe (17451812) founder of Chabad has a fabulous explanation based on a Midrash: G-d’s attribute of Kindness voted that man be created due to humanity’s goodness and compassion. The Divine attribute of Truth, however, advised against man’s creation since he is full of lies. What did Gd do? He cast Truth down to earth and created man.

There is a remarkable insight here. Truth on earth cannot be what it is in heaven. Truth above is pure, unadulterated, and absolute. It brooks no compromises. But such truth below will create conflict, not peace. Men fight because they believe only they possess the truth. G-d’s solution: throw truth down so it will break into little pieces. No longer is there one complete truth in one man. Fragments of it lie in each person.

Torah itself proclaims these two levels. The Written Torah is called Toras Emes, the Torah of (absolute) Truth, which is why parts of Torah can be uncomfortable. It is raw and nondiplomatic. But there is also the Oral Torah given to interpretation based on the formulas Gd Himself provided. Here truth is not one dimensional. It has many perspectives. As we say: “These and these are the words of the living Gd.” Each opinion contains a fragment of truth. But none has it all.

These two truths are reflected in a Talmudic argument: the school of Shamai says that the heavens were created before the earth; the school of Hillel has the order reversed. (Chagigah 12a) What is the significance of their dispute and what, if any, are its practical ramifications?

How is one to praise a bride at her wedding?” asks the Talmud: Hillel held that, regardless of her looks, always say, “The bride is beautiful.” Shamai says call it as you see it. After all, “don’t lie” is a fundamental Torah principle. So if you see nothing beautiful, it's best to remain silent rather than offer untrue platitudes. (Kesuvos 16b) What they are debating is which standard of truth we ought to aspire to.

Since according to Shamai, Heaven came first, its absolute Truth must prevail. But according to Hillel, Earth appeared first, so truth is multidimensional. Hence, Hillel is not asking you to lie. What he is saying is that to this groom, this woman is beautiful. So, says Hillel, share his truth, not yours.

Society can’t function on heavenly truth. It defies human co-existence. Jerusalem too could not survive on this elevated ethic and was destroyed because its most idealistic citizens insisted on strict law. No compromises, no concessions. Like Bar Kamtza’s host (and the Rabbis) he abhorred political correctness.  He had principles and no money could make him budge from his convictions. I’m not for sale, he proclaimed.

Unfortunately, such principled hatred can easily destroy Jerusalem, and also our families. What we call principles may really be just preferences or stances. This is why Jewish courts that offer compromises are praiseworthy. (Choshen Mishpat, 12:2) What we really need is “lifnim meshuras hadin/to go beyond the strict law. Not because Torah law is incorrect, but because it is too correct.

The two reasons for Jerusalem’s destruction, the insistence on sticking to Torah law and senseless hatred, are really the same. When you cannot tolerate compromise, you end up hating people for no reason, other than that they don’t see things as you do. You live in your own orbit, convinced that your truth is the only truth. And everyone else is to be condemned.

Accommodation is not only for Rabbis. It applies to all. Hence, in Judaism, Shalom Bayis/harmony in the home is sacrosanct. But when individuals with different opinions live together, disagreement is inevitable. To achieve harmony we must compromise. The first thing we encounter when coming home is the mezuzah. It’s hung on a diagonal as a halachic compromise between the two opinions of whether it should be hung vertically or horizontally.   So the next time you come home after a brutal day at the office and your nerves are frazzled, look at the mezuzah, and internalize its message of compromise. Because though you may be right, so is she. 

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