Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas and Jewish Continuity - Remembering my Zayde Muschel z"l

Seven years ago, while in Israel for the year, I collaborated with my grandfather on a lengthy d'var Torah the week of Parshas Pinchas. Though I never published any part of it, I thought it would be appropriate to now share some of the highlights, as this year's Parshas Pinchas marks the first Shabbos of my life that I will not have my grandfather. Rabbi Nachum Muschel z"l passed away this past motzei Shabbos. Needless to say, these words are l'iluy nishmaso.

Pinchas begins where Balak ends. After several futile attempts to curse the Jewish people, Bil'am advises Balak to seduce the Jewish people into committing acts of adultery. As Bil'am says, "Elokeihem shel eilu sonei zimah," the Jewish G-d hates lewdness. Pinchas finds the greatest protagonist, Zimri, and publicly stabs him along with his adulterer Kazbi. At the beginning of this week's parsha, Hashem announces that Pinchas will be rewarded with the "brisi shalom" and the "bris kehunas olam." In addition to being reinstated into the kehunah, Pinchas receives the mysterious "peace covenant." What is this "bris shalom" and how is it the appropriate reward for Pinchas' actions?

To begin, we must understand the philosophy of Bil'am. This short space does not allow full elaboration, but in short, it is clear that Bil'am's fatal flaw was his belief that the Jewish people were subject to normal laws of time. He made several attempts to curse the Jewish people, predicated on his special insight into Hashem's "schedule." Bil'am believed that by using the precise moment ("yode'a da'as elyon"), he would succeed in cursing the Jewish people. His plan was thwarted because the Jewish people defy time. In one such hint, Bil'am's donkey warns him, through use of the words "shalosh regalim," that Bil'am cannot use time to uproot a nation that controls the clock. (My grandfather had a lengthy derasha on this exchange between Bil'am and his donkey, but that's for another "time").

At the end of the parsha, after his failed attempts to curse the Jews, Bil'am advises Balak to use immorality as the next best avenue to weaken the Jewish people. Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that this too was related to Bil'am's power over time. In its simplest sense, adultery is a waste of the future for the sake of the present (i.e. spoiling the unlimited potential of zerah for an ephemeral pleasure, v'ein kan makom l'ha'arich). By killing the leaders of the movement, Pinchas saved not only his contemporary Jewish peers, but he also preserved the Jewish future. He ensured once again that Bil'am's repeated efforts of using time against the Jewish people would fail due to the eternal nature of the Jewish people.

As a result, the most fitting reward for Pinchas' heroic act was for him to transcend time. On the pasuk of "brisi shalom," the Yalkut Shimoni says that "Pinchas hu Eliyahu," Pinchas is Eliyahu ha'navi. Since the story of his riding the chariot to Heaven, we know little about Eliyahu's existance. We do know that unlike any other, perhaps even greater prophet, Eliyahu was blessed with eternal life. To this day, he appears twice in Jewish ritual: the night of the seder and at a new child's bris milah.

By ensuring the future of the Jewish people on a micro and macro scale, Pinchas merited becoming the personality of Eliyahu who lives forever. Furthermore, he appears at the two events that most embody Jewish continuity. Performing the mitzvah of bris milah on a new baby immediately following its birth represents the continuation of generations; this baby will be an observant Jew like his parents. When we mark this passing of the torch, the creation of a new Jewish generation, Eliyahu sits there as a guest, honored that he helped preserve this endless chain of generations. His second visit comes on leyl ha'seder, a time when Jewish continuity is in the spotlight. As parents tell their children the story of our national Exodus in addition to their personal exodus (b'chol dor va'dor), Eliyahu again comes to participate in this special evening of Jewish continuity.

Not coincidentally, my Zayde pointed out, these two mitzvos, Pesach and milah, appear as another duo. Out of the 36 transgressions one can commit to deserve kares, only two are violations of positive commandments: not bringing a korban Pesach and not performing a circumcision. In light of the above, the reason is obvious. One who does not participate in the mitzvos of Jewish continuity, the mitzvos involving the immortal Pinchas/Eliyahu, deserves kares, being cut off from the Jewish people (either through premature death or death of children). Someone who does not inscribe his son with the Jewish seal or does not share the miraculous stories of G-d's abilities has no share in a people who are so deeply committed to tradition.

The story of Pinchas' heroics and appropriate reward is an idea I developed with Zayde Muschel several years ago. The idea is most fitting for his life, which was obsessed with Jewish continuity. He insisted on taking the Jewish education and tradition that he learned and experienced in Europe, and teaching it not only to his children and grandchildren, but also to the countless others who were associated with one of his many institutions, including HIRC and ASHAR. It was only this past week, through the week of shiva, that I began to appreciate just how many lives he touched. The entire Jewish community will miss him, but will most certainly be devoted to continuing his legacy. Yehi zichro baruch.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Once by Land and Once by Sea

The Chossom Sofeir points out that the day Moshe hit the rock to produce water was the same date as an earlier, more famous, incident involving Moshe and water. According to his calculation, Miriam died on the tenth of Nissan, they mourned until the 17th, and then went three days without water before complaining on the 21st of Nissan. Incidentally, the 21st of Nissan is well-known for another water-related incident that occurred on that day 40 years earlier: Kri'as Yam Suf.

There are countless explanations as to the precise nature of Moshe's sin at Mei Meriva (see for example here and here). Using the Chossom Sofeir's timetable, the Shemen Ha'Tov adds his own idea, pointing out what was lost when Moshe did not extract water from the rock as ordered. On the more famous 21 Nissan, in the year 2448, Hashem proved to the world that He can turn water into dry land. "U'vnei Yisrael halchu ba'yabasha bisoch ha'yam." Then, 40 years later, Hashem wanted to show that He can also reverse the trend, and turn a dry rock into fountains of water. Many magicians have been able to perform one-way tricks, transforming objects into new objects. Hashem asked Moshe to show Hashem's mastery over the world by creating opposite miracles on the same date; first He turned water to land, then he wished to turn land to water. In some small way, Moshe did not allow this perfect demonstration (see Rashi and other commentaries as to exactly how Moshe failed to achieve this goal).

With this, the Shemen Ha'Tov concludes by explaining a familiar paragraph from Tehillim (said as part of Hallel):
בצאת ישראל, ממצריים... מה-לך הים כי תנוס הירדן תיסוב לאחור.
ההופכי הצור אגם-מים חלמיש למעיינו-מים

The pasuk first poetically describes the water splitting when we left Egypt. But the last pasuk seems out of place: "He who turns rocks to water" seems irrelevant to the story of Yam Suf. But, explains the Shemen Ha'Tov, in light of his explanation, the pesukim flow perfectly. First, Dovid Ha'Melech alludes to the miracle of Kr'ias Yam Suf that occurred during yetzias Mitzrayim. Then, the paragraph concludes by describing Hashem's full range of "abilities," performing the exact opposite miracle on the same date.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Stay Away - Lessons from the Nazir

Commenting on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated stories, Rashi shares the well-known wisdom of our Sages, "kol ha'ro'eh sotah b'kilkulah, yazir atzmo min ha'yayin," one who witnesses the disgrace of a sotah will abstain from wine. The parsha of sotah is followed by that of nazir because one who observes the gruesome sotah process will realize that alcohol was probably involved in the immorality that led to the process and will therefore abstain from alcohol consumption as a nazir.

One of the questions commonly asked about this simple wisdom is why a person who watched the entire episode unfold--an ordinary woman being humiliated, even removing her hair covering in front of the kohen--would need any extra assistnace in avoiding her route.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Living the Good Life - How to Help the Poor

When man was first created, he was described as possessing a “nefesh chaya,” a living soul. Onkelus famously defines this human soul as an ability to speak. Onkelus was clearly sensitive to the additional life granted to humans over animals. The Netziv, noting the same observation, writes a fundamental idea in defining the word “chaya,” life, in this context and many others.

Friday, March 20, 2015

You Are What You Eat - Insights Into Korbanos

As Pesach approaches, the topic of acceptable and unacceptable foods are on people's minds. Aside from Pesach, foods occupy an important part of this week's parsha.
 
Among the intricate laws surrounding the sacrifice service introduced in Sefer Vayikra, a few that stand out are the prohibition to bring honey or yeast as part of any sacrifice in addition to the requirement to include salt in every sacrifice. Clearly, these specific laws have meaning and many commentaries note that the meanings transcend the sacrifice service in the Temple; they are equally as relevant in contemporary times. What is the message that these required and prohibited ingredients are supposed to teach?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Sing for the Moment...and Eternity

In the two most famous words of the Shiras Ha'Yam, Moshe and the Jewish people begin their song with "Az yashir," "then [they] will sing." In addition to the many insights offered to explain the word "az," "then," the meaning of the second word, "yashir," or at least its future tense has perplexed many commentaries.

Rashi suggests that after witnessing the splitting of the sea, Moshe and the Jews contemplated beginning to sing, or as Artscroll translates, "Then Moshe and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song...". Rashi then cites a Medrash offering a different explanation. The future tense, "yashir," is indeed referring to a song to be sung in the future, and this pasuk alludes to the revival of the dead. In other words, in addition to the song that the Jews sang on that day, they will sing again another song at a later date, i.e. techiyas ha'meisim.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Which Came First - The Mitzvah or the Exodus?

On the way out of Mitzrayim, Moshe informs the people Jewish about many commandments surrounding their departure. He commands them to take matzah and sacrifice the korban Pesach, among others. He also commands them with the famous phrase, "v'higadita li'vincha," tell your children, the two words which serve as the basis for our annual Seder night.

The words which follow the commandment of "v'higadita li'vincha," the content of what to tell the children is a little less clear. "Ba'avur zeh asah Hashem li b'tzeisi mi'Mitzrayim," because of this G-d has acted on my behalf when I left Egypt (Artscroll). Rashi says that "zeh/this" refers to the mitzvos of korban Pesach and matzah. Seemingly, then, the pasuk is out of order; G-d has acted on my behalf, therefore I am performing these mitzvos.