Sometimes you get the feeling that the Talmud has something on its mind it wants to explore. Page 152 of Shabbos is about old age and references from Ecclesiates and Rabbinic statements about aging. Near the bottom of the page, Reb Yitzchak quotes Ecclesiatsts which states: ” All things in childhood are and youth are vanity” According to Reb Yitzchak it means the “things he does in his youth blacken his face”
This immediately reminded me of all the rock stars from 50-60 years ago. In their youth they were sleek, muscular, with flowing hair and great complexions. Think of Mick Jagger, James Taylor and the list goes on. These guys lived hard. They played hard. Think of all the drugs, late nights, wild parties. But when we see them now…. its a little scary. The faces are sunken, ashen or bloated and disfigured. The Rabbis must have been to a Dead Concert of the Talmudic times when they composed this page.
The Talmud has a discussion whether one can wrap or wear felt to bring out of the house into a public area. Rav allows and Shmuel prohibits. The Talmud then retracts that attribution that Rav prohibited. The Talmud brings a story that Rav was in a town and was about to give a class outside and they brought him a felt pad to sit on. He refused the pad and everyone assumed it was because he did not permit carrying a felt pad into a public domain. His answer is precious: Rav did not sit because two other Rabbis- Rav Kahana and Rav Assi were present and they did not sit. Out of respect for them he did not sit on the felt pad.
What a beautiful story. The beautiful part is that halacha was a springboard to demonstrate a concept of respect, admirations and sensitivity. All things which are the whole point of halacha to being with.
Parsha Devarim starts in the first sentence with veiled criticism of the past behavior of Israel mentioning the places where they failed. Rashi says he places mentioned are references to the sins such as the golden calf, the sin of bal peor etc.
R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner-the Ishbitzher Rav who was made famous by the teachings of Shlomo Carlebach turns this on its head. The Isbitzer remarks on the sentence: ‘the Arava plains, opposite Suf”
The locations are mentioned, not the sin is because the text is telling you that the sins were avoidable. By connecting the place to the sin, the reader should understand that the people of israel could not avoid the sin, as there was nowhere else to go.
This is classic antinomian thought(against Torah law). Free will is a pillar of Jewish thought. Free will makes us empowered as humans. Frankly, The SD always thought free will on the part of a human was presumptuous and arrogant.
People like to think we have free will, the will to avoid mistakes or bad behavior. This idea by the Izbitzer turns it on its head. By referencing “the place”, rather than the sin, the Torah is telling you that on your journey in life, mistakes, sins and failures are inevitable.
Parsha Matos begins with the laws of taking vows and oaths. The Bal Haturim (13 century rabbi from Cologne) says “nedarim” is the gematria or numerical equivalent of murderer (rotzach)because one who vows and does not pay , the sin leads to dead children. This is wild, heavy and where did Bal Haturim get this? He quotes Talmud Shabbos page 32b
If one looks at Shabbos 32b there is another opinion just before this stated idea of unpaid vows lead to dead children. The previous opinion says unpaid vows leads to ones wife dying.
The question is why did the Bal Haturim quote the dead children and not the dead wife in explaining that the gematria of Nedarim is murdere? Why pick comparing failing to make good on vows to dead children and not spouse. The SD would like to weigh.
Every parent will tell you that the thing they love most in the world is their children. They love them unconditionally, without question. We would do anything for a child. A spouse… well… not so much. We are more likely to let down a spouse than a child. Children are our first and last love. We do anything and everything for our children. Nothing is ever enough for a child.
The Bal Haturim is telling you that you should treat those charities or people that you promise assistance with the same concern and sense of responsibility that you have for your children. Your charity or gift should be as precious to you and as heavy on your soul as concern for your children. The same way you would not let down your child or neglect your child is the same way you should view your commitments. The same commitment you have to your children is the same commitment to charity and giving. We love our spouse, but we would do anything for our children.
This parsha lists all the sacrifices starting with the daily ones, then Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and the holiday. When it comes to Shabbos the Ramban says something cryptic (at least it is vague to me). Ramban notes that the “musaf” or additional sacrifice on the shabbos is different than other musafs like Rosh chodesh that includes a “chatas” or sin offering. He says no chatas in musaf offering. Ramban says that the “congregation of israel” is like the spouse and all is Shalom.
The SD showed this Ramban to a friend who suggested that on Shabbos the relationship of Israel and hashem is so close that a Chatas-sin offering would “ruin the mood.” The SD think this is correct. The whole point of offerings is to get close to Hashem-like one would in any relationship. Sometimes relationships need correction and work. Sometimes, they just need love and closeness.
Shabbos page 118 is the gastronomic guide to Shabbos. Tucked into this daf on what to eat on Shabbos is a strange statement from R. Yose. R. Yose says, I want to be among those who say a full Hallel every day. The Talmud questions this and says, Really, but that is for blasphemers. the Talmud corrects him and says only a few verses we call p’seuka d’zimra are appropriate. Rashi comments those people who do it every day, are just singing songs not in the appropriate time.
When the SD read this, he saw it slightly differently. We only says full or big hallel on a few occasions, holidays, chanuka. It is rare. It is like life. How often are we incredibly happy, so spiritually uplifted, so on such a spiritual high? Probably not that often. Hopefully we are usually in a state of quiet happiness, contentment, peace and tranquility. But not the high, high, high of winning the lottery, marrying the girl (or boy) of our dreams, etc. So most days the p’seuka d’zimra is appropriate. It expresses our level of happiness and contentment. Once in a while we fly high. The Talmud is telling us that life is alot of good things, nice things and once in a while, big things. It is unrealistic to be flying high everyday. It recognizes that we will have great days, good days and not such good days. Those who sing hallel, like rashi says, are just “singing” a song and not expressing a real sentiment.
Conventional wisdom is that Korach was motivated by the jealousy of Moses and Aron; that Korach was rebellious and looking to take power. In Chapter 16 verse 19 we are told that “the congregation and korach gathered in front of the opening of the Miskhan and the Cloud appeared in front of all the congregation.”
Rashi says on this, the night before korach made rounds to all the tribes inciting them and telling them, it is not for me I am doing this, but for all of us, the king and his brother the Kohan” . This sounds like jealousy cloaked in populist rhetoric.
Ramban says something nuanced. Ramban says originally the first born were to serve and even more so, originally all or Israel was allowed to build private altars for sacrifice, but then Aron was chosen to do the holy work in a mishkan and Korach argues on behalf of the first born. Furthermore, it should be returned to all of Israel because all of the congregation of Israel is holy. This is the populist stance. We are all holy and can worship and lead our own spiritual lives without the rabbinic leaders. We can be our own priests.
Hashem delivers the verdict and swallows up the korach and the congregation. However, one must admit that Ramban’s interpretation of Korach’s position is tempting. We are all holy, we can all serve hashem in our own way, without the centrality of the mishkan and without the authority of the rabbis. It is tempting but not realistic.
A successful society requires Indian Chiefs and foot soldiers. An organized society requires wise and benevolent leadership- but it does require leaders. Korach’s populism was at best delusional and at worst evil. As Rabbi Schwartz of OZ said. Korach’s populism leads to Venezuela, lawlessness and violence.
On page 92, there is an esoteric as to carrying on shabbat and comparing it to the Leveim carrying the mishkan and objects. The Levim are said to be very tall because they carried the Tabernacle so it was not within 3 amos of the ground. The Talmud alludes to Moshe’s height as 10 amos. The Talmud then makes a startling and odd statement: “The Divine Presence only rests on those who are wise, strong, rich and tall.”
How strange! Since when does the Torah make such superficial distinctions. Wise one can understand but rich? Tall? Tall is truly arbitrary.
The SD would like to weigh in. Obviously, someone who is short, lacking muscles and of modest means can be spiritual and can have a beautiful relationship with Hashem.
However, when a tall, well-proportioened, well presented person walks down the street wearing a kepah or tzitus or dressed in a manner which clearly indicates he is a Torah Jew, then heads turn. The world notices these things. When a Jew is physically presentable and beautiful yet modest and demonstrating “chein”, he stands out and can be a kiddush Hashem. It is human nature to recognize physical traits of elegance, strength or a strikingly tall physique. However, when the Jew who is blessed with these attributes can also be modest, sweet, kind and compassionate the greater masses more easily recognizes the Presence of God. Gd resides in all of us. It is up to us, to present the heavenly presence in the most beautiful manner possible. So after davening, learning and acts of chesed.. Hit the gym… and Barneys.
We all know that carrying on Shabbat from one domain to another domain (public domain to private or vice versa) is prohibited. The act of “carrying” requires a minimum measurement or amount being carried. The measurement /amount differs from various substances, for example carrying food the measurement is a ripe fig, other items, utensils, vessels all have different minimal measurement amounts. There is an exception. If one determines that the item is “important” or has value. The hebrew is “chashuv” or “chashivut”. So, if an item is “chashuv” to an individual, he is liable for carrying even less than the normal minimum amount.
On page 91 an interesting question pops out. What if someone intends his items ( that are less than the amount to be liablie for “carrying”) to be “Chashuf.’ Then a second person unknowingly carries them from one domain to” another domain. The second person sees that the amount is less than the minimum requirement to be held liable and thinks that the is acting permissively. The second person does not know the original person intended the item to be “chashuv.” According R. Shimon Ben Elazar, the second person is liable.
Huh? How can the second person be liable.? The second guy did not know of the intentions of the first. He was in his right to carry the small amount. Why is he liable.
The SD has a thought. There is an expression. Man plans and Gd laughs. The SD dosen’t really like that expression. The better expression is: ” we don’t see the big picture.” We don’t have all the facts. We don’t see the whole universe, cosmos and vision of ultimate reality. We think we are doing something which is innocent or harmless and BOOM. We get slammed. After being thrown we ask: How did I not see that? How did I miss that? Why is this happening to me? I thought stepping on the little green thing was ok. I did not know it was a landmine.
This is what Shimon Ben Elizur is teaching us. We must go through life with a fear and reverence of Hashem, understanding and realizing that even small acts of picking up meaningless or small amounts of things can have significant consequences… And even then we do not always control our reality. The ultimate lesson is that Hashem controls our reality. It is a scary inroad into free will. It is difficult with our modern sensibility to accept this. Hashem controls the world, even down to the smallest most insignificant items.
At the end of the parsha, the Levi family of Kohath is charged with taking down and carrying the mishkan items. The Torah says in chapter 4 sentence 17: Don’t cut off the family of kohath from the Levites. Rashi says: Don’t cause them to die. Then there is cryptic and difficult sentence to translate in sentence 20: They will not come to see when wrapping the holies and die. Rashi says: they will cover the vessels . The word “kebela” is difficult or vague . As said, Rashi understands it to be “covering” or to cover.
Ramban takes a different way. Ramban quotes Rashi and then sends to you Talmud Sanhedrin 81b where it talks about taking law into your own hands and killing someone when they are in them middle of doing something bad. The Mishna in Sanhedrin says : someone steals a”kisva”. The Talmud tells us that the Kisva is a holy service vessel and quotes the pasuk from Bamidbar 20. Ramban understands the word “kebala” as stealing?
Who would steal a holy vessel? Maybe the answer is that what starts as innocent looking becoming familiar ends up in stealing. Life is incremental. Actions lead to other actions. As golfers say, ” You keep kicking the ball a little closer the green”. The point of the Torah is learning to respect boundaries and values that are immutable. Laws maybe can be changed to reflect realities, but values do not change. THe SD could use this mussar. As the SD is always in life kicking the proverbial “ball closer to the green”.