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Leadership without Partitions

This week’s parasha, Behaalotcha, tells us about the appointment of the elders. This story did not begin well. The nation that was being nourished by the manna – the Divine food that came down from heaven every morning – started missing Egypt. It remembered the abundance of the Nile, the fish, the vegetables, the varied foods. The manna seemed boring and tasteless. Moshe heard the nation crying and complaining and felt he no longer had the strength to lead it on his own. He turned to God and said: Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. (Bamidbar 11, 14)

God responded with a practical solution: Then the Lord said to Moses, “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel…Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone.” (Ibid Ibid, 16-17)

These seventy elders would now be partners in leading the nation. They would help carry the heavy burden, take on responsibilities, and make decisions. Indeed, Moshe implements what he is told to do. He collects seventy elders and shares his burden with them.

This event influenced halacha (Jewish law) for generations of leadership. The Sanhedrin – the halachic institution that functioned until 1,600 years ago, that determined halacha for the entire nation, was composed of seventy-one members because of these seventy elders who shared in leading the nation alongside Moshe. We learn this from the words of the Mishna: The big Sanhedrin was composed of seventy-one, and why was it seventy-one? Because it says, ‘Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel’ and Moshe was with them, bringing it to seventy-one. (Tractate Sanhedrine, ch. 1)

It is interesting to note that contrary to the negative motives for appointing these seventy elders, coming on the heels of the nation’s complaints and Moshe’s despair, the sages of the Talmud see this appointment as an important event, a very significant step in the process the nation undergoes from the Exodus of Egypt until its entrance to the Land of Israel.

The Blessed be He liked the day of the appointment of the elders as much as the day the Torah was given. (Bamidbar Raba, ch. 15)

What is the message inherent in the appointment of these elders? What is the great fondness for this day of the elders’ appointment to the point of comparing it to the most historically significant day for the Jewish nation – the day it received the Torah?

We may be able to grasp this based on a halacha brought in the Talmud in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, the greatest of sages in the Land of Israel in the 3rd century. The sages of the Sanhedrin, he said, had to be proficient in “seventy languages”, meaning many languages. Why? So that the Sanhedrin would not need a translator. The sages sitting on the Sanhedrin had to hear the issues first-hand. A translator can translate accurately, but there are things he cannot translate: pain, suffering, sorrow, distress… These are things that are hard to convey through another person. The sages had to experience themselves what the person standing before them was experiencing, up close, without human intermediaries. For this reason, the sages of the Sanhedrin had to be proficient in many languages, so they could listen to the person before them, understand his distress and sense his suffering. Only then could they determine halacha for the nation. Only if they were attentive to the complicated humane issues could they correctly determine what the correct decision would be.

Moshe Rabeinu, the admired leader who received the Torah and conveyed it to the nation, could no longer cope alone with the difficulties the nation was suffering: yearning for Egypt, the boredom of the desert, the difficulty of waiting day after day without knowing for how long… He admitted his inability and therefore God proposed the solution of appointing the elders. In order to comprehend the nation’s distress, the leadership had to have some variety by adding seventy elders, seventy additional opinions, seventy new perspectives. Leadership must be able to contain an array of complexities.

This is true for leaders of a nation as well as for every parent. Children need leadership. Children need parents who can take responsibility and make decisions. But parents in their role as leaders must always remember the need to listen, to understand, to contain all the complexities. Only thus can true leadership take place.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

Free for Anyone in the World

In this week’s Parasha of Behar, which we will read along with Bechukotai, we encounter a unique phenomenon not found elsewhere in the Torah. Usually the Torah does not get involved in issues relating to the free market. Someone interested in selling something can name his price and sell it to whomever is interested. The Torah does not involve itself in whether the price is higher or lower than the value of this item. Only when an exorbitantly high price damages the public, our sages set up various rules that protect the public but they too did not deal with the private sector. Even if that same item is of great value to the seller, the decision to sell it and the price he will get for it is between the seller and buyer only, under the laws of supply and demand, and the Torah does not get involved.

But in this week’s parasha of Behar, we find a case of actual involvement in the free market regarding two things a person cannot actually sell: his family land in Eretz Yisrael, and himself.

In the ancient world and in certain cultures even today, family land is far more significant than its market value. Selling this land means losing family heritage, losing a basic financial resource, and disconnecting from a precious emotional asset.

To a greater extent, a person selling himself into slavery – which was a common occurrence at some point and which sadly has not yet disappeared – obviously means a loss of freedom, without which a person might feel his life is not a life. Loss of freedom means loss of respect. A fundamental aspect of self-respect is the knowledge that one can make his own decisions, or work in a field of his choice. He is free to be himself with all that entails.

In these situations, the Torah says: Stop! You cannot do this!

Actually, the Torah does not completely forbid these acts. There are times when a person’s situation could be so terrible that the sale of his family land or of himself into slavery can temporarily help him. But a permanent sale is never an option. Every fifty years, everything goes back to the way it was: Family land is returned to its original owners, and all Jewish slaves are set free. Man does not have the right to permanently forfeit his honor or his freedom.

It is interesting to read the Torah’s reasoning for these laws. The reason for the return of family land is: The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me. And the reason for the release of slaves is: For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. (Vayikra 25, 23; Ibid, 55)

These declarations are clear. God declares that the real owner of the land and of the person himself is God. These are rare declarations in the Torah. There is no other place in the Torah where God demands that man obey His laws because of God’s ownership of him. Usually, the Torah is more delicate and tries to tempt man to take the path that will benefit him. Here the language is clear-cut: The world has an owner, the land has an owner, and man is not completely free. The restriction of man’s freedom is expressed in the step he cannot take: He cannot forfeit his own freedom. God demands ownership when a person considers surrendering his own freedom and respect.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

A Sacred Complex “ Here is Life ”

The two parashot we read this week – Tazria and Metzora – deal with a list of halachot (Jewish laws) pertaining to purity and impurity. Certain situations in life are considered “impure” and these parashot guide a person how to purify himself. Contrary to popular belief, it is not forbidden for a person to become impure (other than for a Kohen) but if he wants to enter the Temple or eat sacred foods, meaning sacrifices, he must first purify himself.

One of the greatest Jewish thinkers and poets of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (Spain 1075 – Israel 1141) developed an interesting outlook regarding the concept of impurity which he explained in his philosophy book The Cuzari. According to him, all the situations which cause a person to become impure are connected to death. Impurity is the reaction to a person’s encounter with death, and the process of purification is a process of distancing oneself from death and returning to life. Indeed, the most severe impurity is impurity from being near death. A dead person is recognized in halacha as the ultimate in impurity and a person who touches a dead body or is in the same house as one is made impure and must go through a complicated process to be purified.

Death is an inescapable fact. But how we deal with this fact is subjective. One common way of dealing with death is by negating the significance of life. If we are all ultimately going to die anyway, if everything we do and create is temporary, we cannot escape the thought that life is not eternal.

This is a human response we are all familiar with and it gets stronger when we experience a real encounter with a dead body. How does the Torah deal with this? Does it forbid contact with a dead person? No, on the contrary. One of the most important commandments is accompanying the dead person and his burial, a commandment that cannot be fulfilled without close contact with the dead body.

But there is a sacred complex in which this thought cannot exist. This is the Temple. There, there is no space for death and therefore a person who became impure and wants to enter the Temple must first go through the complicated process of purification.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, one of the great commentators on the Torah (Germany, 1808-1888) explained this severe attitude toward the encounter between death and the Temple. Religious experience, he said, tends to focus on our lack of power. Faith in God’s unlimited power can bring humans to a state of passivity as we accept reality and feel tied to it. For this reason, religious priests are part of the cemetery scenery. Death might be considered as interwoven with religious experience.

But Judaism is a religion that focuses on life. The Torah is a “Torah of life”. The commandments all guide people to act in a way that does not accept reality but rather tries to change it. It challenges death. Man is obligated to act, create, change, and build, without considering the fact that life is terminal.

Therefore, it is necessary to keep a distance between death and the Temple. The Temple is the center of Jewish life, and death and its influences should not enter it. Had there been a big sign greeting people to the Temple, it would not have said “Welcome” but rather “Here is life”.

This is a brave outlook that is not easily achieved. Man is expected to suspend his finality and look beyond the horizon, beyond the limited human scope. God asks man to integrate himself into the master plan which is so much greater than the number of years given to man. This ability could be harmed if the concepts of death, non-existence, and passivity were to enter the Temple.

The Temple has not stood for about two thousand years, but Judaism continues to exist and continues to challenge death. This amazing phenomenon was expressed only a few decades ago when after the Jewish nation suffered the horrific Holocaust, it dusted itself off, returned to the land of its forefathers, and built it with hard work and a sense of mission. Those who had suffered so many blows now faced the future, faced hope and the following generations. This was an amazing expression of the Jewish spirit that lived on.

Purity and impurity – although they may sound like ancient and irrelevant concepts – have the ability to instill a new spirit in every person, one that inspires faith and confidence. This is the spirit that tells every person – You must live!

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

You are not Free to Forfeit your Freedom!

In this week’s parasha of Behar, which we will read along with Bechukotai, we encounter a unique phenomenon not found elsewhere in the Torah. Usually the Torah does not get involved in issues relating to the free market. Someone interested in selling something can name his price and sell it to whomever is interested. The Torah does not involve itself in whether the price is higher or lower than the value of this item. Only when an exorbitantly high price damages the public, our sages set up various rules that protect the public but they too did not deal with the private sector. Even if that same item is of great value to the seller, the decision to sell it and the price he will get for it is between the seller and buyer only, under the laws of supply and demand, and the Torah does not get involved.
But in this week’s parasha of Behar, we find a case of actual involvement in the free market regarding two things a person cannot actually sell: his family land in Eretz Yisrael, and himself.

In the ancient world and in certain cultures even today, family land is far more significant than its market value. Selling this land means losing family heritage, losing a basic financial resource, and disconnecting from a precious emotional asset.

To a greater extent, a person selling himself into slavery – which was a common occurrence at some point and which sadly has not yet disappeared – obviously means a loss of freedom, without which a person might feel his life is not a life. Loss of freedom means loss of respect. A fundamental aspect of self-respect is the knowledge that one can make his own decisions, or work in a field of his choice. He is free to be himself with all that entails.

In these situations, the Torah says: Stop! You cannot do this!

Actually, the Torah does not completely forbid these acts. There are times when a person’s situation could be so terrible that the sale of his family land or of himself into slavery can temporarily help him. But a permanent sale is never an option. Every fifty years, everything goes back to the way it was: Family land is returned to its original owners, and all Jewish slaves are set free. Man does not have the right to permanently forfeit his honor or his freedom.

It is interesting to read the Torah’s reasoning for these laws. The reason for the return of family land is: The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.

And the reason for the release of slaves is: For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.
(Vayikra 25, 23; Ibid, 55)

These declarations are clear. God declares that the real owner of the land and of the person himself is God. These are rare declarations in the Torah. There is no other place in the Torah where God demands that man obey His laws because of God’s ownership of him. Usually, the Torah is more delicate and tries to tempt man to take the path that will benefit him. Here the language is clear-cut: The world has an owner, the land has an owner, and man is not completely free. The restriction of man’s freedom is expressed in the step he cannot take: He cannot forfeit his own freedom. God demands ownership when a person considers surrendering his own freedom and respect.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

A Proposal for a Different Culture

This week, we are again reading two parashot – Achari Mot and Kdoshim – just like last week. These two parashot are read together almost every year since they complement each other in many ways. For example, the prohibitions of forbidden sexual relations are mentioned in Acharei Mot and the punishment for them is written in Kdoshim.

At the beginning of this list of prohibitions in Acharei Mot we read something interesting that was said to the nation in the desert as they were making their way from Egypt to the Land of Israel, then called Canaan: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: I am the Lord, your God. Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. (Vayikra 18, 1-3)

“…the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled” – had certain practices, laws, norms and rituals. Don’t do as they did! You are coming to the Land of Canaan where there are also traditions, rituals, and a developed culture. Don’t do as they do either! A complete rejection of both Egyptian and Canaanite cultures begs the question: So what should we do? If the Egyptian culture that the nation had been familiar with for centuries is rejected, and so is the Canaanite culture they are about to become familiar with, what is the alternative?

The answer to this is given in the following verse: You shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to follow them. I am the Lord, your God. (Ibid Ibid, 4)

The ordinances and statutes that God gave are the alternative culture the Torah is referring to. The following verse clarifies the quality of this culture: You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them. (Ibid Ibid, 5)

To properly understand these verses, we must note Judaism’s uniqueness. The Torah proposes to man 613 mitzvot, commandments that encompass every aspect of his life: morning, noon, and night; at home and at work; with family and community; when eating and walking; on weekdays and holy days. Contrary to other religions that suffice with few commandments and rituals, Judaism does not. It encompasses the entire life span, from birth to last breath. Why is this so? Why is it necessary to have so many mitzvot?

The answer to this is that Judaism was not meant to “decorate” life with a few good deeds. Its purpose is to teach man that there is another way to live, different from plain existence, different also from other familiar cultures. The words “and live by them” teach us that the Torah is a Torah of life, or in other words: A human culture with Divine significance.

To create a culture, it is not enough to have a few solitary actions, and it is certainly not enough to have philosophical insights. What is needed is a reorganization of reality. Man is a creature of wisdom and consciousness. He recognizes feelings and has needs, he believes in values and knows how to plan his steps. All these are basic traits of every person. But Judaism wishes to add new content to every single detail of life. Not to erase life, not to move it aside, not to circumvent it – but to live life with more quality, more holiness, more transcendence.

Jews live within the culture of their environment, whether it be Egyptian, Canaanite, western, or eastern. Jews will always live within a certain culture while creating for themselves a unique Jewish culture through the Torah’s commandments.

Also in our generation, after the “information revolution”, we face a tsunami of cultures, an abundance of lifestyles. But we know what the Torah proposes and we understand that these are not just religious rituals. This is the creation of a human culture with Divine significance.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site

The Spiritual World that Survived – Love Israel

This week’s parasha, Emor, deals with many commandments, the lion’s share of which relate to halachot (Jewish laws) of the kohanim who served God in the Temple. One of these mitzvot is the mitzvah of “truma”: a certain percentage of the field’s yield given to the kohanim. The parasha details under what condition the kohen can eat from the truma and when this is forbidden; who of the kohen’s family can eat from the truma and who cannot, and other issues connected to this commandment.

The mitzvah of “truma”, though obligatory for every farmer in the Land of Israel, is to a large extent a voluntary commandment because the Torah does not determine the percentage of the yield which the farmer must give the kohen. Therefore, even one sheaf of wheat can be the “truma” from an entire field. Any addition to this one single sheaf is given from the goodness of the farmer’s heart as he recognizes the significance of this mitzvah.

Why would a farmer want to give “truma” to a kohen? We can understand this if we analyze Am Yisrael’s original social structure as it is described in the Torah. In the past, the nation was divided into tribes with each tribe generally working in a specific sphere of the nation’s life. One tribe dealt with commerce, another with politics and governance, and yet another might have an expertise in wines. But we must be clear. This was not a caste system or an extremely hierarchical society. The members of a tribe were not obligated to work in that tribe’s field of expertise. It was not a person’s fate from the day of his birth. But each tribe had an area – some important part of the life of the entire nation – that became its specialty.

Only one tribe was the exception: the tribe of Levi. This tribe, some of whom served as kohanim in the Temple, did not receive parcels of land in the Land of Israel as the other tribes did. The tribe of Levi was the one in charge of leading the nation spiritually. They worked in the Temple and in teaching the entire nation Torah. Therefore, they did not live in one particular area of the land, but rather were scattered in small towns all over the land to allow for easier access to their spiritual roles.

The farmer who works his field and sees blessing in his yield might see the field as merely an economic issue disconnected from the spiritual and ideological world. But the Torah instructs him to put the spiritual world “into” his field. How? By setting aside a certain percentage of the yield and giving it to the spiritual tribe, the one busy teaching Torah. In this way, the farmer becomes a partner in the Levi’s spiritual work and that of the kohanim. This adds values and holiness to the farmer’s work.

This Saturday night and Sunday, Am Yisrael will be celebrating Lag Baomer. It is an ancient custom to mark the 33rd day of the Omer as a day of joy and of visiting the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meiron in the Upper Galilee. As this custom became more popular, its original reason became less known. What happened on this day and what’s the connection with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai?

Rabbi Hayyim Vital (Safed, 1542-1620) was one of the students of the great Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Ar”I, z”l). He wrote the reason for this custom in his kabbalist book “The Gate of Intentions”, a reason that relates to the mitzvah of “truma”.

The Talmud tells us about Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of Tanaim in the 1st and 2nd centuries, who had thousands of students. Over a short period of time, a terrible tragedy struck the nation: all of Rabbi Akiva’s students died within a few weeks. The Talmud says their deaths came as punishment for “not being respectful to one another”. Despite being knowledgeable about Torah, their interpersonal relationships left much to be desired. The influence of this event on Jewish society is described in the Talmud with one short and powerful sentence. “The world was desolate.” In a short time, the nation’s spiritual leadership disappeared. Desolation, emptiness, and a deep void were felt in the world. But Rabbi Akiva did not despair. He set up five students, the most important of whom was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and these five students continued the tradition of learning Torah and teaching it to the nation. They were the ones who made the desolation blossom again.

Rabbi Akiva’s thousands of students died between Pesach and Lag Baomer. On Lag Baomer, therefore, the tradition of passing Torah from generation to generation was renewed by the teacher – Rabbi Akiva, and his student – Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. This, says Rabbi Vital, is the reason to celebrate on Lag Baomer. On this day, we celebrate the survival of Am Yisrael’s spiritual world; the survival of our spiritual greats, the teachers of Torah; the fact that ultimately the world did not remain spiritually desolate – It has Torah, it has values of truth, and it has values of justice and peace.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Site