• June 29, 2022
  • 30 5782, Sivan
  • פרשת חקת

The WebYeshiva Blog

Red Heifer – a statute PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Chukat is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Rabbi David Sedley Parshat Chukat begins with the laws of the red heifer, the ashes of which would be used to purify anyone who touched a corpse. Yet, the same ashes would make someone who was pure impure. This law is described by the Torah and the commentaries as the quintessential “statute” – a law that is beyond human reason and logic. Even Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, was unable to understand the rationale for these laws (Bamidbar Rabba 19).

Rabbi Eliezer explains the laws

Yet there was one rabbi from the Mishna who became closely associated with explaining its laws. Midrash Tanchuma states:

When Moshe ascended to heaven, he found the Holy One, blessed is He, sitting and learning the section of the red heifer. He said, ‘Eliezer, My son, says, ‘A heifer is three years old, a calf is two years old.’ [Moshe] said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, everything above and below is Yours, yet you say the halacha in the name of a human of flesh and blood?’ God replied, ‘There will be a righteous man in the future who will arise in My world and will explain the section of the red heifer.’ [Moshe] said, ‘May it be Your will that he is a descendant of mine.’

How did Rabbi Eliezer merit that God Himself would recite halachot in his name? And why was he so closely associated with the laws of the red heifer? Perhaps the answer to those questions can be derived from another famous story about Rabbi Eliezer.

Proof from Heaven

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) talks about a certain type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer held that it was ritually pure, while the other rabbis said it was impure. Rabbi Eliezer brought every possible logical argument to support his opinion, but the rabbis refused to change their minds. Once he saw that he could not convince them logically, Rabbi Eliezer began to bring supernatural proofs. “If the halacha is like me, let this carob tree prove it,” he said. Immediately, the carob tree flew up into the air. But the rabbis refused to accept a proof from a tree. So Rabbi Eliezer brought proofs from a nearby stream and the walls of the Beit Midrash. But his opinion was still not accepted. Eventually, he called out, “If the halacha is like me, let Heaven prove it.” A voice came out from Heaven and said, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer when the halacha is always like him.” Then Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said, “It is not in Heaven.” The story continues to say that on that day God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me.” At the same time, the other rabbis ostracized Rabbi Eliezer and rejected all his previous rulings.

Appeal to tradition

Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement is the basis for all halacha since his time. Any ruling must be justified with rational arguments and proofs. Yet that was not how Moshe decided halacha. If Moshe didn’t know the answer to a question, he would appeal directly to God. And similarly, Rabbi Eliezer upheld the halacha he heard from previous generations going all the way back to Sinai, even if he couldn’t convince the other rabbis to agree with him using reason. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “You did not hear [that halacha from our teachers] but I heard it,” (Nidda 7b).

Moshe’s spiritual descendant

Only Rabbi Eliezer, who had the tradition going all the way back to Moshe was able to explain the laws of the red heifer. He could bring rational arguments and then go beyond them, appealing for miraculous support. The other rabbis limited themselves to logic and reason; Rabbi Eliezer appealed directly to God and to tradition. Perhaps this is what the midrash means when it says Moshe wanted Rabbi Eliezer to be one of his descendants. He wanted someone to uphold the laws from Sinai and the received tradition regardless of the arguments the other rabbis challenged him with.   To sponsor a weekly dvar Torah, please contact us.
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Stubborn isn’t always right PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Korach is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Rabbi David Sedley Having the grit to continue in the face of adversity is admirable. But sometimes we refuse to back down even though it would be the sensible thing to do. Occasionally we wedge ourselves into a corner and can’t get out without admitting we were wrong, so instead we stand our ground. Marketing folk know this. Even a single word can commit someone to a viewpoint. Once a potential customer has said “no” it is much more difficult to get them to say “yes.” It is better to avoid giving them the opportunity to refuse. In this week’s eponymous Torah portion, we read of Korach who challenged Moshe’s leadership. Rav Yeruchom Levovitz (Da’at Torah, Biurim, Bamidbar 16:1) explains that initially, Korach’s motives were for the sake of heaven. He didn’t want to usurp Moshe’s role, and he didn’t think he was greater than Moshe. Rather, he wanted to rise up to a higher level of holiness and felt that the best way to do that would be to take on the role of a cohen, like his cousin Aharon. The Mishna (Avot 5:17) teaches: Every dispute for the sake of heaven will eventually continue. But that which is not for the sake of heaven will not continue. Korach’s dispute is the paradigm of one which was not for the sake of heaven. Even though, according to Rav Levovitz, Korach originally thought his motives were virtuous. In his mind, Korach thought his dispute was for the sake of heaven.


However, deep down, Korach was jealous of his cousin Moshe and resented the fact that all the best jobs were taken by or given to other members of the family. And this jealousy perverted his good intent to become more spiritual. Instead of the pure aims of raising himself up to holiness and spiritual growth, Korach came to crave the destruction of those above him, to cut them down to his level. But he couldn’t go and make a stand against the nation’s leadership all alone. He wouldn’t have stood a chance. So he recruited Datan, Aviram, and 250 neighbors from Reuven, the tribe next door. Perhaps Korach thought his followers would be happy to accept him as the new leader once he defeated Moshe. But it turned out that each of those 250 men also wanted to be the new leader.

Everyone is holy. But some are more holy than others

Korach's claim against Moshe was that everyone was holy and he had no right to be leader. But, similar to what George Orwell wrote about the pigs in Animal Farm, some of those who thought everyone was equal also thought they themselves should be in charge. [caption id="attachment_79980" align="alignleft" width="203"] Artwork by Shira Haber[/caption] So Korach and his entire team entered a contest against Moshe and Aharon. The Torah tells us that Korach issued the following instructions: This is what you must do: take for yourselves firepans, Korach and all his congregation. Put in them fire and place in them incense before God tomorrow. Whichever man God chooses will be the holy one. (Bamidbar 16:6-7). Even if Moshe would have lost the battle, so would the 250 or more people who went with the winner. With odds like those (not to mention Moshe's track record of having God on his side), only a fool would show up the next day with the firepan. A fool or someone who was too stubborn to back down. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) says that there was only one man who walked away from the challenge; his salvation came only with the help of his wife. Everyone else was in too deep by the time they realized they almost certainly couldn't win. And their stubborn pride wouldn't allow them to back down.

Jews are stiff-necked but know when to back down

Being Jewish means being stiff necked and stubborn. We don't give up on our beliefs easily. But sometimes we need to make sure we are being stubborn about the things that matter and not just because we are too proud to back down.   To sponsor a weekly dvar Torah, please contact us.
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Feelings of inadequacy

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Shlach is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Rabbi David Sedley When I was a communal rabbi, I felt for many years that I was kind of playing a role that wasn’t actually mine. Sure, I knew I was doing my job well, and got positive feedback from the congregation and others. But somehow, I often felt like a fraud. The better I got at playing the role, and the more I saw that others appreciated what I did, the more I felt like a fake. How could someone like me actually be a rabbi? Would someone come along at some point and unmask me, like the ending of every Scooby Doo episode? It was not only when I was a congregational rabbi. But also when I was a teacher, a translator, an author, a journalist, and just about everything else I’ve ever done, there were times I felt like a fraud.

Imposter syndrome

I know now that this feeling, of doubting one’s skills, accomplishments and talents, is known by psychologists (and pop psychologists) as “imposter syndrome.” And it is very common. It has been estimated that 70% of people will feel imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. The insecurity that leads to imposter syndrome can be triggered by the low self-confidence that comes with being thrust into a new environment or role. Part of coping with this syndrome is understanding how prevalent it is. If you feel like you are out of place, don’t worry, so does just about everyone else.

The spies

In this week’s parsha, Shelach, Moshe sends 12 spies into Canaan, to report back to the rest of the nation about the land they were about to enter. These were no ordinary people. The Torah describes them as, “All were men who were the heads of the Children of Israel,” (Bamidbar 13:3). They were important people and respected by the members of their respective tribes. Yet it seems to me that almost all of them also suffered from imposter syndrome. When they returned, ten of them told the people, “We were like grasshoppers in our eyes,” (13:33) – and they assumed that was how the people of Canaan also saw them. They were the greatest people of their generation, yet they thought they were merely grasshoppers, not worthy of the roles they had been asked to play.

Relationship with G-d

If someone doesn’t have a good relationship with themselves, they also can’t have a proper relationship with G-d. When the spies reported back to the people, they described accurately all the wonderful qualities of Israel. But then they added in the single word “efes” – “nothing,” (13:28). They implied that God (and the nation) did not have the power to conquer the strong nations living in Canaan. These 10 leaders thought of themselves as nothing, and they therefore thought the same of God. The Talmud (Sotah 35a) says that they didn’t believe that even God had the strength to remove the inhabitants from the land. We understand why the spies may have had imposter syndrome – they were new to the role of leader, had never been spies before, and if they had brought back good testimony, would have entered a foreign land where they would have felt even more like frauds. We understand why they doubted God – how could they not, when they doubted themselves? However, it was this feeling of inadequacy which doomed the nation to spend 40 years in the desert. They could not enter the land until a new generation had grown up who felt secure in itself and thought it was worthy to enter the land. A little bit of humility and self-doubt are not a bad thing. But we should also remember that if others see us as appropriate for a role, we are probably worthy of it. And once we can believe in ourselves, it will strengthen our belief in God.
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‘We want meat’ PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Beha’alotecha is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Rabbi David Sedley In Parshat Beha’alotecha, the Children of Israel complained that they were sick of eating manna and wanted meat. “We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt for free… but now our souls are dried, there is nothing to look at apart from the manna,” (Bamidbar 11:5-6).

Surprising response

It is surprising that they were not satisfied with the most versatile and delicious food ever eaten. But even more surprising is Moshe’s response. He complains to God, “Why have done evil to Your servant, and why do I not find favor in Your eyes that you placed the burden of all this people on me. Was I pregnant with this people, did I give birth to them? Yet You say to me, ‘Carry them in your arms like a nursemaid carries a baby.’… From where will I have meat to give to all this people? For they cry to me, ‘Give us meat to eat.’ I cannot bear all this nation alone for it is too heavy for me,” (Bamidbar 11:11-14). But the strangest of all is God’s response. “Gather for me 70 men of the elders of Israel.” To recap – the people complained about the manna and asked for meat. Moshe despaired, saying that this request was far too difficult for him. And God’s solution was to create a Sanhedrin. It is true that after Moshe gathered the 70 elders, God brought quail for the Children of Israel to eat. But why could He not do that through Moshe without creating a Sanhedrin?

Meat and milk

According to halacha, meat and milk cannot be mixed together. The milk which nurtures the young cannot be eaten with the meat of the mother. The Talmud (Taanit 9a) says that the manna came in the merit of Moshe. The parsha describes manna as tasting like “shad hashamen.” I don’t know how that is translated in your Chumash, but it could mean “fatted breast.” The manna was how Moshe breastfed the people. When he heard the request for meat, Moshe likened himself to one who conceived and gave birth to the nation, who acted as a nursemaid to nurture the Children of Israel. Moshe provided “milk” to the nation. When the people asked for meat, they were rejecting not only the manna, but the leadership of Moshe, who provided them with manna. The only solution was to create a new form of leadership that would provide meat for the nation. Moshe was the nurturing mother. The Sanhedrin acted like a father who provides meat.

Two approaches to halacha

The meat and milk of leadership also represents two approaches to halacha. Moshe was the lawgiver. The Sanhedrin was the arbiters of judgment. When Moshe didn’t know the answer to a question, he went straight to ask God. If the Sanhedrin had a doubt in halacha, they deliberated and decided based on the majority opinion. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 6a-b) discusses two forms of justice. One is mediation. When two litigants come before a judge, he may, with their agreement, try to resolve the dispute with a compromise position. This is similar to the role Moshe played when the people had questions or complaints. He would try to work through them without appeal to previous laws. In contrast, if the parties refuse to compromise, the court is instructed to use the strict letter of the law. In the Talmud’s words, “Let the law pierce the mountain.” This is the role of the Sanhedrin.

The Torah was only given to those who ate manna

The Mechilta (Beshalach 2) says that the Torah was only given to those who ate manna. That is one reason we eat dairy products on Shavuot. But in this parsha, having received the Torah, the nation wants something to get their teeth into. They want to be able to process and digest the Torah and stop being treated like babies. This is why Moshe could not provide them with meat. That was not his role. And even though the people were punished for rejecting Moshe’s Torah, it also allowed them to mature and have a Sanhedrin to lead them.
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Gifts of Princes PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Naso is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Rabbi David Sedley The second half of Parshat Naso lists the gifts the princes of the 12 tribes brought for the dedication of the Tabernacle, one prince each day, beginning on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Each prince chose what he thought would be the most appropriate gift for the dedication of the place where the Divine Presence rested. On the first day, Nachshon ben Aminadav, prince of the tribe of Yehuda, presented his offering. According to Bamidbar 7:13-17, he brought:

One silver dish, weighing 130 shekels, one silver basin weighing 70 shekels… One gold pan… one young bull, one ram, one one-year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, one male goat for a sin offering, and two oxen, five rams, five male goats, five one-year-old male lambs as peace-offerings.

The following day, Netanel ben Tzuar, prince of the tribe of Yissachar, brought his offering. The Torah lists each item he offered, and we find that his offering was identical to that of Nachshon. On day three it was the turn of Eliav ben Chelon. And he brought the same thing too. Each prince on each day brought the same gift. But instead of writing “ditto,” the Torah lists the details of each donation. This is one of the reasons that this is the longest single parsha of the year.

Second-hand explanation

Interestingly, Rashi does not explain the intent behind the first offering. But he does explain at length the intent of Netanel ben Tzuar who brought his donation on the second day. The silver dish alludes to Adam, the basin weighing 70 shekels alludes to Noach and the 70 nations who are descended from him. The spoon reminds us of the Torah, and so on. Then Rashi is silent until verse 84, after all the princes had brought their offerings. Why does Rashi only explain the meaning behind the second offering?

Princely intent

Ramban explains that each prince had a different intent when he brought his gift. Rashi went into detail about the second donation to show that the intent of Netanel was different than that of Nachson. Then, Rashi expected us to figure out the individual intent of each of the following 10 princes. Rabbeinu Bachaya (on Bamidbar 7:84) explains the meaning behind each gift. The tribe of Yehuda was the progenitor of kings, so Nachshon’s gift alluded to King Shlomo and Mashiach. The tribe of Yissachar would become renowned for its Torah scholarship, so Netanel ben Tzuar’s gifts alluded to Torah. Zevulun specialized in international trade. So, Eliav ben Chelon gave a donation which to him meant trade. Each tribal leader brought an identical gift, but each had entirely different intent and meaning behind the donation.

Unique intent

When we read the list of the same donations over and over again, we think it is repetitive. We may perhaps wonder why the Torah didn’t insert something more interesting. But actually, the Torah is teaching us a profound message here. We sometimes judge people by their actions or try to understand them by looking at what they do. But if we assume that their motivation is the same as we imagine it to be, we are making a mistake. We cannot understand someone’s intent through watching their actions. Quite the opposite. It is only through knowing someone’s intent that we can fully understand their actions.
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