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Parashat VaYelekh – At Summer’s End

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

At Summer’s End

The summer is over, and we observe today the last Shabbat before Rosh HaShana. As the last syllables of the dying year fade away, we shall begin, tonight, the seliĥot – the appraisal of ourselves, our failures and our successes, and our petition for forgiveness as we look forward towards the new year.

How do most of us respond naturally when we challenge ourselves to this self-appraisal, to evaluate the year we are now ushering out? What have been our attainments and our accomplishments? No doubt, the majority of us and those in our social class, in this economy of abundance, will be able to record an impressive number of achievements and feel a warm glow of satisfaction. Business, I am told, has been good, our reputations have been upheld or enhanced; we have made progress on almost all fronts.

And yet – if that is our attitude, it is the wrong one with which to end the old year and begin the new. Listen to how the prophet Jeremiah sums up what ought to be our mood on this threshold of the changing years: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” ( Jeremiah 8:20). For the prophet, the dominant mood at summer’s end is not one of jubilation and satisfaction, but one of disappointment and frustration. He turns to his contemporaries, in the agricultural society of those times, and tells them: You may have a good and bountiful harvest, you may be pleased with yourselves at the ingathering of the summer’s fruit, but that is not what really counts. “We are not saved.”

Those are hard words, words with a cutting edge, words that etch like acid on the flabby and complacent heart. Yet without these words and the attitude they summon up, we remain blind, out of contact with reality, caught up in the euphoria of a dream world. Our sacred tradition prefers that we end the old year and prepare for the new year with
the heroic self-criticism of a Jeremiah – with a confession of frustration. We look back over this past year and we think we are well off. Yet for all our work, for all our victories, our triumphs in business and social life, our attainments and profits that we have entered into our ledgers and accounted for, for all that we have done and all we have harvested – we have a nagging sense of futility and helplessness! “And we are not saved!”

If we follow our natural instinct and pamper ourselves with congratulations, we will never grow; honesty is sometimes cruel and devastating, but it is indispensable. Without acknowledging our failures of last year, we can never avoid them in the coming year. The parent or child, congregation or family, community or nation which rejects reproach and criticism, is like the businessman who prefers to ignore his accountant’s stern rebuke as to the conduct of his affairs. The feeling of frustration, of being dissatisfied and unredeemed despite our harvest, is most appropriate for this season of summer’s end. Every one of us must ask: Have I been a good spouse this year, or have I been indifferent to my husband or wife, taking him or her for granted? Those of us who are blessed with parents who are still living – have we acted towards them with honor and love, or have we allowed the excuse of our busyness to deny them the companionship and affection and feeling of importance that they crave? Have we acquitted ourselves well in our responsibilities towards our children – or have we so involved ourselves in “activities” on behalf of our children’s welfare that we have overlooked the most significant element – the direct relationship between ourselves and our children?

At summer’s end, after the fruits of our labors are harvested, we concentrate on the discrepancy between the real and the ideal, and we emerge with self-judgment, “and we are not saved!”

Indeed, Moses, in today’s sidra, experiences the same frustration, in an even more tragic sense. “Behold, you are going to die,” he is told by the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:16). What kind of harvest is Moses to reap at the end of 120 summers of utter dedication, toil, often bitterness and anguish? “Vekam ha’am hazeh vezana aĥarei elohei nekhar ha’aretz” – This same people to whom you gave your life, whom you taught the worship of the one God, will immediately upon your death forget all about you and go astray after the local pagan deities. What a let-down! What a bitter harvest! “And we are not saved!”

Unless the words we recite in our Seliĥot prayers, which we shall begin reciting tonight, are merely empty, automatic, rote prayers, we must be prepared to translate them into relevant, contemporary terms. If the Seliĥot means anything at all, then it means that in this season we must cease the bombastic little ritual of proclaiming in public, “I am proud to be a Jew,” and acknowledge in private, amongst ourselves, that occasionally, “I am ashamed as a Jew.” We shall say those words tonight: “ashamnu mikol am,” “we are more guilty than any other people;” “boshnu mikol dor,” “we have incurred more shame than any other generation.” Perhaps, indeed, our greater guilt is the result of the fact that we have more to be ashamed of than any generation of Jews that preceded us.

Shall we not be ashamed to the core of our souls when every time we read statistics about the religiosity of the American people, the Jews always trail the other major religions in the degree of their religious devotion? What Jew is not embarrassed by the fact that the leading peddlers of smut, and their most articulate defenders, have intensely Jewish names? Or that the most disgraceful and degenerate novels are by Jewish authors about Jewish life? Boshnu mikol dor – how disgraceful! What shall we say to the blasphemous abominations of a member of the Supreme Court of Israel who compares our Talmudic laws, which declare a child to follow the faith of its mother, with the infamous Nuremberg laws of the Nazis? If this is the fruit of the summer’s end of fifteen years of independence, if this is the harvest of all our tears and toil and hopes and work and sacrifice, then Jeremiah is right – indeed, “we are not saved,” we have a long way to go!

How dreadfully frustrating and devastating to learn that pious Jews, so-called, with all the outward appurtenances of Old World devoutness, are arrested because of illegal dealings on an international scale. What a sense of frustration for all of us who devote our lives to the teaching that Judaism leads to a different kind of conduct! What an

At this juncture, each and every congregation must pose before itself the same question. What kind of year have we had? Most synagogues and temples can probably produce impressive figures and overwhelming statistics: increased membership, more people, greater attendance, more activities – a wonderful congregational harvest! And
yet, if they are honest, then the rabbis and leaders and members of a congregation – any congregation! – must be ready to admit that to a large extent “we are not saved,” we are yet unredeemed. As long as our people do not translate affiliation into the observance of Shabbat, membership into greater honesty and integrity in their business and social lives, participation in “activities” into greater dedication to Jewish education, dues-paying into an increased sense of responsibility for Jewish philanthropy, then much of the fruit of our harvest must go to waste
and the summer must end on a frustrating note. “The harvest has past, and the summer is ended, but we are not saved.” To a large extent we have tilled the wrong field, planted the wrong seeds, and harvested the wrong fruit. Last year’s harvest was plenty – but a good part of it was, like gourds, outwardly attractive, but inedible and unable to sustain life. Do I mean to say that the picture is all bleak? Heavens, no! There are many shafts of light that cut across the gloom, there are many reasons for healthy and realistic optimism. More of our youth is returning to Judaism, Orthodoxy is achieving a greater prestige, our educational institutions are increasing. In fact, one can say that the last several years have seen a decided improvement and an upward trend.

What I am emphasizing is that there is a time and place for everything. We American Jews have silently accepted a new dogma – that you must always assume that this is the best of all possible worlds, that to admit less than success is neurotic and bad business, and that to congratulate yourself is to keep in the spirit of things. This dogma may come from Madison Avenue, but certainly not from Mount Sinai. And at this time of the year, at summer’s end, in the season of Seliĥot, we turn the eyes of our mind and our heart to our failures, our inadequacies, our shortcomings.

Such an admission of error, of frustration, of spiritual poverty amidst material wealth, of having pursued the wrong goals and succeeded in the wrong ambitions, can be wonderfully creative – but it requires courage, guts, backbone. The weak, the immature, the incompetent – they cannot abide anything but compliments and blanket surface-optimism. The strong, the mature, the stable – they can face up to the truth even if it be unpleasant, they can bare their hearts and acknowledge failure. For they know that the road to ultimate triumph in the things that really matter is paved with the cobblestones of little failures freely acknowledged and lovingly corrected.

Now we begin a new year, and if we realize the mistakes of the past we can prevent them in the future. Now we must plant new seeds of the spirit, of Torah, and above all of love – love of God, love of Israel, love of mankind. Let us plant them with care, with devotion, with tenderness. And if the planting is marked with tears for the failures of yesteryear, may they end this next year in a song of joy for a harvest of happiness. “Hazorim bedima berina yiktzoru” (Psalms 126:5) – may those who sow in tears reap the harvest of all their efforts and their work in joy and in happiness.

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The Hidden Light: Ki Tavo – The Restoration of Self

Excerpted from Jerry Hochbaum’s The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms for Leadership, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers

The Restoration of Self

Parashat Ki Tavo contains the tokhaḥah, one of the most foreboding chapters in the Torah, in which the Torah relates all the tragic events that will befall the Jewish people if they do not observe its precepts. It is such a sorrowful description of the events that will befall the Jewish people that it is read sotto voce and very quickly by the ba’al keriah in the synagogue.

Is there anything that we can learn from this chapter describing the composite tragedies that will befall us if we – as individuals or as a community – deviate from the Torah? I believe the answer is provided in two verses of the tokhaḥah.

The first verse explains why the events described in the tokhaḥah will occur: “Taḥat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokekha b’simḥah,” because you have not served God with joy. It is very interesting that in the parshiyot that precede Ki Tavo, the Torah describes a multitude of mitzvot relating to man’s required behavior toward his fellow man and God. Yet in the tokhaḥah, there is little specific mention of any of the lapses from those mitzvot. The Torah states explicitly that all the tragic events contained therein result from our failure to serve God in simḥah, joy.

From this text it appears that joy should be the underlying disposition in our service of God. “Ivdu et Hashem b’simḥah,” contends the Psalmist. We are required to serve God in a state of joy. The Kotzker Rebbe makes this same point cogently in his own unique fashion. He raises this pertinent question in Yiddish: “Vi kricht min arous fun der
blota?” How does one escape the quicksand of tragedies confronting the Jewish people? His response is also drawn from the Psalms. “Ki b’simḥah tetze’u,” go forth in joy. Simḥah is the exit vehicle.

So we are advised by the Torah and the Psalms, via the Kotzker Rebbe, that joy is the indispensable disposition for Jews in the service of God. It is the ultimate prophylactic against the potential tragedies enumerated in the tokhaḥah.

The question remains: How do we achieve this disposition of joy individually and collectively as Jews? The answer, I believe, is provided in a second text in the tokhaḥah:Hager asher b’kirbekha ya’aleh . . .mala mala, v’ata tered mata mata,” the alien who is with you will rise higher and higher, and you will descend lower and lower. The simple interpretation of this sentence is that the foreign leaders who will rule the societies in which the Jews will be dispersed in the Diaspora will grow more and more powerful, while the Jews, on the other hand, will simultaneously decline, falling lower and lower.

This verse can also be understood in an even more powerful, psychologically incisive manner. In Western civilization today, Jews fill many roles in the secular societies in which we live, as Jews but also as professionals and citizens. Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook wisely advised us that our existence in the Diaspora can – and often does – distort the importance, priority, and commitment we assign to these different roles. That is to say, the culture and values of the societies in which we reside, which are often foreign to our traditions, can undermine our deportment and behavior in our role as Jews and the priority we should assign to it.

The “ger” in our midst – that is, the alien influences inherent in the roles we play in secular society as citizens, in our professional work, and in our social interactions – may become the dominant focus of our lives. Those alien elements may rise and grow to such importance that they become more valued by us than our Jewish selves.

And as a result, our true identity as Jews – reflected in our traditions, culture, and, indeed, the Torah itself – becomes more and more minimal in our lives. Those alien elements which envelop us on a regular basis in the Diaspora can weaken, offset, or even invalidate our identity as Jews, that which constitutes our essential selves.

This is the greatest tragedy that can befall us. Even if we retain some exterior aspects of our previous lives, when the alien elements become the dominant force in our personalities, the simḥah that provides emotional meaning and depth to our service of God will become progressively constrained, diminishing us inalterably. If we are not who
we really are or should be, we inevitably become joyless.

The Maharal explains the difference between matzah and ḥametz in the manner in which we celebrate our liberation on Passover. Matzah, unleavened bread, contains only flour and water. To ḥametz we add additional spices and liquids to enrich the bread. Matzah, the metaphor for liberation on Passover, requires us to eliminate our consumption of ḥametz because of those alien elements it contains. We consume only matzah because it only retains just the essential ingredients of bread.

The antidote to the tokhaḥah is the reduction of those alien elements from our personalities and communities. In restoring our essential selves, we ultimately also revive our joy in His service.

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Day Seventeen – 4 Av: When Absence is Presence

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks, co-published with Maggid Books

When Absence is Presence

Since memory is so unreliable and yet so necessary for Jewish life, the sages of the Talmud codified practical memory triggers around Holidays and historical events. Perhaps the most seminal event for which we need a memory jog is the destruction of the Mikdash. Living without it for centuries, and without any real substitute for pilgrimage and sacrifice, necessitated an absolute change in both religious practice and religious mindset. It takes more than one day of fasting and Jeremiah’s lamentations to recreate the universe of faith that was lost. In response to this dilemma, the rabbis instituted a number of practices as daily reminders that life is simply not the same without a central sanctuary to call our own.

The Shulĥan Arukh codifies these laws and places them together in a catalogue of loss:

When the Temple was destroyed, the sages decreed that throughout the generations one was not to build an edifice completely plastered and finished like the buildings of royalty. Rather one should plaster and finish one’s home and leave a cubit-by-cubit space without plaster opposite the threshold. If one were to purchase a courtyard that is already completely plastered, the courtyard may be left to remain in that state; one is not obligated to remove its walls.

If what we lost was a building and the activities that building housed, then our own personal buildings are to be compromised in some way, marked by the loss. It is not uncommon to see an unfinished wall space of about eighteen by eighteen inches, above or opposite doorways in the homes of religious Jews in Israel and, more rarely, in the Diaspora. When we enter and exit that space, we take a moment to reflect on another space in another time, a space that we no longer have and cannot even fully imagine.

But the laws not only reflect large structures, they impact upon more intimate settings, from the interiors of our homes to our very person. The Shulĥan Arukh continues:

Similarly, they [the sages] decreed that when one lays the table for a festive meal, one should leave one place setting empty, absenting the tableware that is usually placed there.
When a woman wears her silver and gold jewelry, she should leave off one piece that she is normally accustomed [to wear] so that she does not don a complete set of jewels.
When a groom takes a bride, ash should be placed on his forehead in the place he dons his phylacteries.
All of these acts are to remember Jerusalem, as it says [Psalms 137:5]: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”

We are asked to observe a ritual of emptiness at times of abundance. When we are gathered for a Holiday meal and the wine flows and the table is laden with the best cutlery and china, we leave out one place setting. There is no subtlety to the statement. Something is amiss. Women accustomed to wearing a full set of jewelry bear the slight irritation of leaving out a bit of finery. A handsome groom must mar his appearance on the most obvious and visible part of his face. His forehead becomes a canvas for a spot of ash, the dirty, charred remnants of a fire that cannot
be ignored by him or any of the onlookers, even on this, the most joyous of occasions.

The list of grieving measures continues with the minimization of music post-Temple, and then – in a rather dramatic close – Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the Shulĥan Arukh, boldly states: “It is prohibited for an individual to fill his mouth with laughter in this world.” This is not an ordinary sacrifice or a slight smirch on a day of happiness; it may
not even be emotionally feasible. The law demands that we dampen a condition of joy rather than a situation of happiness, so that behind the forehead, in the brain, our minds be inherently transformed by a loss that took place two millennia ago. This law is based on a statement made by Rabbi Yoĥanan in the Talmud:

R. Yoĥanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yoĥai: It is forbidden to a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world, because it says, “Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with singing” [Psalms 126:2]. When will that be? At the time when, “They shall say among the nations, ‘The Lord hath done great things with these.’”
It was related of Reish Lakish that he never again filled his mouth with laughter in this world after he heard this saying from R. Yoĥanan, his teacher.

Occasions which normally demand happiness, like weddings or the festival of Purim, cannot be experienced with total joy.

In the aggregate, these laws point to an absence which is a presence. We create a physical and emotional void to mimic a void that we do not know. It is more honest than filling in that void with memories we never experienced. Loss is not always about the fullness of memory but about its vast silences. We inherited the void, and sometimes we must occupy it by creating small reminders of loss through sensual absences – the visual reminder of a wall unplastered or a forehead marked, the tactile reminder of a ring not worn, or the auditory reminder of the music not played. These losses are no great sacrifice, just small irritations of a grief not imagined.

Kavana for the Day
Contemplate the loss of something precious to you, perhaps someone you love or a time or place which you cannot recapture. What have you done to create reminders of that loss? What cannot be filled in with photos and objects that you therefore express in other ways? Leave a place setting empty or take off a piece of jewelry or an object that you normally wear for one day to honor the memory of tragedy in Jewish history. How did it feel? How conscious were you that something was missing? Were you able to make the abstract leap from the loss to the memory of tragedy?

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Parashat Matot-Masei: The Disciples of Aaron

Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Numbers, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Derashot Ledorot - NumbersThe Disciples of Aaron*

The death of Aaron, recorded in this morning’s sidra, is described in stirring and dramatic detail in the midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 787). The people mourned for Aaron even more than they later did for Moses, for Aaron was a man who loved peace and pursued peace. It was an eternal tribute to the first high priest of Israel that Hillel bade us regard ourselves as the disciples of Aaron by emulating his noble qualities – “oheiv shalom, rodeif shalom, oheiv et habriyot, umekarvan laTorah” (Avot 1:12). These are four in number and deserve to be spelled out clearly for all of us who earnestly desire the ideals that Aaron cherished.

Oheiv shalom: To the person who is ambitious and opportunistic, peace is only a truce, a poor second-best to total victory for his own ruthless pursuits. In order to be a disciple of Aaron, you must not seek peace merely for its utilitarian value, not merely because it is the best arrangement under the conditions that prevail, but because you love peace, because peace is the normal, most desirable state of the world. One of God’s names is Shalom. Shalom is a positive virtue in its own right, not merely the absence of strife. Hence, one must not only hate war but love peace. Peace is the kind of harmony that leads to perfection. Shalom leads to shalem.

Rodeif shalom: To pursue peace means not to be satisfied with finding it, but actively to engage in seeking it out, in creating it where it is lacking. Aaron was a pursuer of peace. The Rabbis (Avot DeRabbi Natan 12:4) tell of Aaron going first to one antagonist and then to the other and telling each how the other regrets the state of enmity and
wishes that bygones be bygones. As a result of his active efforts, peace would reign.

There is yet another explanation of this felicitous phrase given by a hasidic teacher. Peace, he says, is a virtue only when it unites decent people with each other. But peace amongst people of evil design can only lead to greater harm to the world. Therefore one must “pursue” peace in the sense of chasing it away, when it concerns corrupt and malicious people. If we fail to “pursue” peace in this sense, then the Arab League might prove a more serious threat to Israel, the Chinese and Russians too powerful for the survival of democracy, and the gangsters of the country more influential than the forces of righteousness.

Oheiv et habriyot: The love of fellow man can come from many sources. I may love my fellow human because he is human. In a deeper sense, that means I love another because I love myself; I see myself in him. There is nothing wrong with that kind of humanistic approach. “Love thy neighbor as thyself ” (Leviticus 19:18) implies we must first
love ourselves. But there is the danger that this kind of love exists only where I feel a kinship of some kind between myself and another person. But where there are pronounced differences in color or belief or background or opinion, this kind of love breaks down. Hence, Hillel tells us, we must be disciples of Aaron who loved “et habriyot,” creatures.” He loved other people because they were created by God. In loving mankind he loved God, for the love of created and Creator were intimately bound up with each other in his eyes. And when we love a person because that individual is God’s creature, then no differences between us can affect that love adversely. Thus, the verse states, “Love thy neighbor as thyself, I am the Lord.”

Umekarvan laTorah: The love of fellow creatures may be expressed in many ways. Charity, respect, consideration, economic assistance, appreciation all are signs of such love. But greatest of all is helping your fellow creature find meaning in life, assisting others in appreciating why they are alive and helping them spend their lives in a manner that is worthy and dignified. The highest form of oheiv et habriyot is therefore mekarvan laTorah. The Netziv used to say that this mishna urges us to love not only those who are devout and scholars, benei Torah, but also – perhaps especially – those who are distant from Torah. For the Tanna pleads with us to love people and bring them close to Torah – which means that they originally were distant from Torah and only through our love were brought close!

By directing our energies towards embodying these noble ideals, we can truly honor the memory of Israel’s first high priest, who was mourned by the Children of Israel to an even greater extent than Moses.

*RCA Manual, 1960

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The Hidden Light: Korach – Two Types of Communal Dissension

Excerpted from Jerry Hochbaum’s The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms for Leadership, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers

Two Types of Communal Dissension

Parshiyot Shelaḥ and Koraḥ both deal with a common theme, dissension in the Jewish encampment in the desert following the exodus from Egypt. Is there anything we can learn from these two sordid events and their possible connection to each other? Indeed, they cast important light on the character and consequences of dissension in Jewish life – then and now.

The episodes differ in very significant ways. Their differences can best be understood by the Vilna Gaon’s interpretation of the statement in Pirkei Avot reminding us that we must always be mindful “lifnei mi atah atid liten din v’ḥeshbon,” all of us will ultimately be required to justify our behavior before God with regard to “din” and “ḥeshbon.” As I have previously explained, according to the Vilna Gaon, din deals with deviant acts and corrupt, immoral behavior for which we are held accountable. In this life, we are judged by what we do. In the Heavenly Court, however, the yardstick is ḥeshbon, not what we have done but what we could have done and accomplished with our time  and talents.

Koraḥ represents the former; the meraglim, the latter. Koraḥ, an angry and ambitious man, is interested primarily in obtaining power, prestige, and a position of leadership in the community. That is his major obsessive goal, not to contribute in any meaningful or effective  way to the welfare of the Jewish people. To achieve his ambition, he
recruits a band of troublemakers like himself who share the same goals he does. They join together not out of any altruistic motives. Their only objective is the achievement of power.

However, one cannot organize a campaign for leadership based only on personal ambition. Therefore, they cleverly conceive an ideological justification for their campaign. Koraḥ declares, “ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim,” all the Jews are holy and pious. There is therefore no need for a special cadre of religious leaders like Moshe and Aharon. In essence, Koraḥ and his followers are a corrupt gang of unhappy, angry men engaged in a personal coup against the leadership selected by God to ennoble the Jewish nation and lead them into the Promised Land.

The meraglim, however, are “kulam anashim rashei shivtei Yisrael,” prominent and distinguished personalities, leaders of the Jewish tribes. Until the episode in Parashat Shelaḥ of their mission to report on the military capacity of the residents of Canaan, they had indeed served their tribes and the Jewish people loyally. Theirs is a failed, rather than a corrupt, leadership. Because of them, the Jews not only are forced to tarry in the desert for forty years – a
postponement that is responsible for the death of dor hamidbar, the entire generation who left Egypt – but also for a “bekhiyah l’dorot,” a wailing for generations of Jews on Tish’ah B’av.

This occurs, now as well as then, when prominent Jewish leaders deviate from the mandate of their mission.

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Gan Shoshanim 3 – Shavuot

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Gan Shoshanim 3

שאל מו”ר מרן הגרי”ד הלוי סולובייצ’יק זצ”ל, מאי שנא קדושת סיני מקדושת המקדש, שהרי קדושת המקדש קדשה לשעתה וקדשה לעתיד לבוא (רמב”ם פ”ו מהל’ בית הבחירה הל’ י”ד) אבל קדושת הר סיני שירד עליו הקב”ה באש והיה מקום האירוע הכי חשוב בתולדות העולם, דהיינו מתן תורה, קדשה רק לשעתה, ובמשך היובל המה יעלו בהר, ואין שום דררא דקדושה שם היום.

ואמר בזה רבינו ז”ל דקדושת סיני היתה תלויה רק בקב”ה ששכן שכינתו על הר סיני, והכל היה תלוי רק בו ב”ה, ולכן כשנסתלקה השכינה מן ההר פקעה ממנו קדושתה, משא”כ קדושת הר המוריה יסודה במה שנתקדש בידי אדם, ששם היה מקום עקידת יצחק וכמבואר ברמב”ם (פ”ב מהל’ בית הבחירה הל’ ב) וז”ל מסורת ביד הכל שהמקום שבנה בו דוד ושלמה המזבח בגורן ארונה הוא המקום שבנה אברהם המזבח ועקד עליו יצחק, והוא המקום שבנה בו נח כשיצא מן התיבה, והוא המזבח שהקריב עליו קין והבל, ובו הקריב אדם הראשון קרבן כשנברא, ומשם נברא. אמרו חכמים אדם ממקום כפרתו נברא, עכ”ל. וכיון שקדושת הר המוריה נובעת גם מזה שהיה מקום העקידה ויש בו שיתוף פעולת האדם, לכן קדושתו שנוצרה גם ע”י מעשה האדם אינת מתבטלת לעולם.

והנה בעצם קושית רבינו ז”ל למה חלוק הר סיני מהר המוריה נראה לבאר באופן אחר, שהרי הרמב”ן ריש פרשת תרומה כתב שהעביר הקב”ה קדושת סיני למשכן וז”ל, וסוד המשכן הוא שיהיה הכבוד אשר שכן על הר סיני שוכן עליו בנסתר, וכמו שנאמר שם וישכן כבוד ה’ על הר סיני וכתיב הן הראנו ה’ אלקינו את כבודו, כן כתוב במשכן וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן, וכו’ עכ”ל, ועיי”ש באריכות. ולפ”ז מובן מה דחלוק סיני מהר המוריה, שקדושת סיני הועברה למשכן ומשם לשילה עד שבאה למקדש, אבל קדושת המקדש היא קדושת סיני בעצמו, ולכן מה דקדושת המקדש הוי לעולם הוא משום שהיא קדושת סיני שהועברה למקדש. וביתר ביאור, קדושת סיני הוא משום התורה וזה הועברה למשכן, שמשם דבר ה’ למשה מבין הכרובים, ומשם למקדש, והוא מרכז העם שהמחנות היו סביב לסיני וגם מחנה ישראל הוא סובב את המקדש וקדושתו היא לעולם.

וברמב”ן ריש ס’ שמות כתב שהגאולה נשלמה רק בבנין המשכן שאז שבו אל מעלת אבותם וז”ל, וכשבאו אל הר סיני ועשו המשכן ושב הקב”ה והשרה שכינתו ביניהם אז שבו אל מעלות אבותם, עכ”ל, ועיי”ש. והיינו שכל מה שנתחדש בהר סיני ובמשכן, שהיא ההמשך של הר סיני, “ראה חדש הוא כבר היה לעולמים”, בימי האבות, הן הן המרכבה. וכל מקום שגלו ישראל שכינה גלתה עמהם, והיינו שהר סיני שהועבר אל המשכן נוסע אתנו גם כל אורך גלותינו (ועי’ בספרי ברכת יצחק פ’ בהעלתך עה”פ ויהי בנסע הארון, בשם החיד”א).

והנה כמו שמעלת הגאולה היא שיבה אל מעלת האבות, כן הוא בענין חידושי תורה, המבחן של חידוש אמתי הוא “דבר שיאמר ראה זה חדש הוא, כבר היה לעולמים” – “כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש, נאמרה למשה מסיני” (עי’ ירושלמי מגילה פ”ד ה”א). וביאור הדבר הוא ע”פ הרמב”ן הנ”ל, דמעמד הר סיני נמשך ע”י המשכן ואח”כ המקדש, ולכן כל חידוש אמיתי מקורו במעמד הנכבד ההוא שעדיין לא נפסק והארון נוסע אתנו, וב’ הפירושים שהביא רש”י עה”פ קול גדול ולא יסף, “לא פסק” או “לא הוסיף”, אלו ואלו דא”ח, שמצד אחד הקול לא פסק ועדיין הולך וחזק, אבל מצד שני היינו רק כשנעוץ סופו בתחילתו, כלומר שהחידוש הוא דבר שיש עליו בחינת לא הוסיף, דהיינו שיבה אל מעלת האבות.

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Torah Beloved – The Little Things

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers 

The Little Things*

In the Book of Vayikra, in the passage where the Torah first mentions the major festivals of the year, we find the intrusion of a seemingly irrelevant verse, one which seems out of context in this list of great holidays. Our Rabbis already wondered at the fact that after the mention of Pesach and Shavuot, and before the mention of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Torah introduces an extraneous verse, one which seems to have nothing whatever to do with the moadim, or holidays. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not remove completely the corners of your field as you reap, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest; for the poor and the proselyte shall you leave them; I am Hashem, your God” (Leviticus 23:22).

When reaping the harvest, you may not reap the whole field, but must leave a “pe’a,” a corner of the field unreaped; and the “leket,” the gleanings of the harvest, the ears of corn which fell to the ground were to be left there. This leket and pe’a, the gleanings and the corner, were to be left for the poor man and the stranger, for the needy and the alien who have not their own fields.

Our Sages (Rashi on Leviticus 23:22 quotes Torat Kohanim 23:175), contemplating the mention of pe’a and leket in the context of the holidays, ask: Why did the Torah see fit to mention leket and pe’a in the middle of the portion of the moadim, with Pesach and Shavuot on one side, and Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur on the other?

Many answers have been offered to this question posed by the Rabbis. All of them are worthy of deep study. This morning, however, I invite you to consider what I believe is the intention of the Torah in this juxtaposition of the mitzvot of tzedaka (for leket and pe’a are really forms of tzedaka or charity-giving) and the festivals.

We live in an age which has an unusual flare for the dramatic and the spectacular. Our interests are directed almost solely to headlines and lead articles. The big things in life, the flashy glamors, they attract us, while the prosaic, everyday matters are regarded as too dull to merit our consideration. In an age of space travel, only that which goes farthest fastest is deemed worth discussing, and yesterday’s missile is passé. As one wit in the Pentagon is supposed to have informed his subordinates concerning rockets, “If it works, it’s obsolete!”

In this kind of world, only a daring rescue becomes a virtue, while a kind helping hand is worthless. Only a dramatic act of courage is worth emulating, not an unspectacular deed of generosity. And at the same time, only the violent acts of murder or pillage must be avoided, not the small sins which attract no public comment. In this kind of culture, we read the best sellers, but neglect the classic literature which does not strike us as sensational. We devour every new report about the mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls, even though some of us have yet to read through the far older and more important Bible for the first time. We have, in other words, decided to live on the peaks of life, and have neglected the fertile plains below.

And nowhere is this attitude more pernicious and more dangerous than when it comes to religion and religious observance. For here too are we inclined to bring our worship of the big and dramatic and spectacular. Here too we may emphasize the great acts and cavalierly dismiss the trivial, to stress the glorious breakthroughs of the spirit and demean the constant, slow struggle of the human heart and mind and soul to rise upwards. Thus do we American Jews tend to concentrate on the so-called High Holidays and overlook the less dramatic Shavuot – we call it a “minor” holiday – and certainly Shabbat. We hear of adult courses on “Customs and Ceremonies” which deal with the great turning points of life of birth and marriage and death, and which leave all in between forgotten and neglected. We begin to think that Judaism consists of bris and ḥuppa and shiva, but that we may ignore such details as tefilin and talmud Torah and taharat hamishpaḥa, which are marked by quiet dignity and unobtrusive modesty. And it is to forewarn us against this concentration upon the big issues to the exclusion of the seemingly trivial that the Torah inserts the mention of leket and pe’a in between the great festivals of Judaism. Remember, the Torah tells us, that no matter how important the big holidays are, they are meaningless unless the Jew pays attention to the daily requirements as well, the simple things as leket and pe’a. Yes, the themes of the moadim are world-shaking – revelation on Shavuot, redemption on Passover, judgment on Rosh Hashana, repentance on Yom Kippur. Yet all of these lofty themes are for naught if the poor man remains outside, cold and hungry and forlorn, because you choose to neglect the prosaic and plain and paltry and petty mitzva of leket and pe’a. The great things are great indeed, the Torah means to tell us, but a man stands and falls on the small things. What determines the success or failure of the spiritual life of the Jew are not his grasp of the great theological concepts or even his participation in the synagogue
festival service on High Holidays, but his everyday leket and pe’a, his daily Jewishness; not his rare splurge of kindliness as much as his constancy in tzedaka; not by his conduct in great public events, as much as by his tefilin and tefila, even in the privacy of his parlor, by his consideration for wife and children and neighbors, by his kashrut and his study of the Torah. In a word, the Torah counsels us to beware of the spectacular only and to concentrate as well on the substantial.

And oh, how history has proven the importance of the little things, the leket and pe’a amidst the moadim. The generation of Noah was destroyed by the flood because, tradition teaches, of gezel paḥot mishaveh peruta, petty pilfering! The whole Egyptian exile began because of a mere two sela’im worth of silk which Jacob gave his favorite Joseph more of than his brothers, thus incurring their jealousy. The founder of Christianity began with a tiny sin – rejecting netilat yadayim. Reform started its career of truncating our tefila by eliminating only the Yekum Purkan.

Today we read from the Torah the aseret hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. There was a time, when the Temple was on Zion’s heights, that they were recited daily as part of the service.Why do we not recite them thus today during our regular daily services? The Talmud answers that the Sages revoked this requirement, and actually forbade it because of tar’omet haminim, because of the heretics. They, the heretics, probably the early Christians, said they were going to observe only the big things, only the Ten Commandments, but that the rest was unimportant. Have you not heard that in our own day? “I’m religious enough; I observe the Ten Commandments.” Aside from the fact that Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, and usually not observed by people who are satisfied with only ten of the 613 commandments, this is a typically Christian attitude. It plays up the big and dismisses the trivial. Murder, adultery, stealing are acknowledged as evils. But what of the minor sins; what of this willful ignorance of Judaism? What of this unJewish diet and vocabulary and whole pattern of unJewish living? So what our Rabbis told us about the Ten Commandments that we read on Shavuot – that better not to read them at all if that is going to be all of our religion, that better no Ten Commandments if we are going to neglect less dramatic mitzvot, that’s just what the Torah meant when after Shavuot in the list of moadim it mentioned in the unglorious but extremely vital mitzvot of leket and pe’a. The Yiddish writer Peretz put it in his own way: no man ever stubs his toe against a mountain. It’s the little things that bring a man down. So it is with us, friends. None of us will ever commit murder. But someone may casually wound the pride of a friend by a word of lashon hara. No one here will ever bow to an idol. But someone may deny a smile to a neighbor who is starved for friendship. No one here is going to rob a bank. But someone may neglect to provide the leket and pe’a for a needy family. And it is these unspectacular little things, rather than the giant themes of the moadim or Ten Commandments, which ultimately decide our fate. That is why such seeming trifles are of such concern to the halakha – for trifles make perfection – and perfection is no trifle.

*May 25, 1958

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With Liberty and Justice: Day 31 – Law and Morality

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 31: Law and Morality

In the Bible, immediately after the Ten Commandments are handed down, God teaches Moses laws about building the sacrificial altar, and  then tells him to place ordinances before the Israelites.

Over the centuries, the commentators have explored the significance of this sequence – from the big principles of the Ten Commandments, to the architectural specifications of building the altar, to the details of civil and criminal law. The rabbis draw this primary lesson: God does not want there to be a separation between religion and everyday life, or between ritual obligations and ethical behavior. The profound moral norms of the Ten Commandments and the spirituality of the altar must inform every aspect of how we conduct our lives. In other words, God’s Law is meant to be pervasive and to infuse all elements of our existence with holiness. The prophets make clear that God places greater value on ethical social behavior than on strict ritual observance that ignores the needs of others. Isaiah makes this point beautifully:

When you spread your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you – because your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, purify yourselves, remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes…. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the victim, do justice for the orphan, take up the cause of the widow. (Is. 1:15–17)

In general, Scripture repeatedly reminds us what our priorities should be in making this kind of personal judgment, as in I Samuel 15:22: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”

One striking example, taught by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, concerns Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.11In Temple times, the most important person on this day was the High Priest, who performed the rituals of repentance in the innermost sanctum of the Temple. In preparation for this awesome responsibility, the High Priest
was removed from his regular tasks for days; he was even separated from his wife for a full week. However, if the High Priest happened upon a corpse on the eve of Yom Kippur (of a person who, for various reasons, no one else will bury), notwithstanding the prohibition against priests touching a dead body, he would be obligated to defile himself and see to it that the deceased received a dignified burial. In this dramatic example, human dignity triumphs over ritual, even though the beneficiary would never know about the kindness that had been extended to him. In sum, the Law itself allows for exceptions, in circumstances where strict observance would clash with ethical behavior.


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Parashat Vayak’hel-Pekudei – An Upright Torah

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Publishers, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

An Upright Torah*

The focus of significance in any synagogue is the ark containing the Torah. That this is so we learn, according to Maimonides, from a verse in this morning’s sidra. When the building of the Tabernacle was concluded, Moses performed a final act: “vayikaĥ vayiten et ha’eidut el ha’aron,” “and he took and he put the testimony into the Ark” (Exodus 40:20). The word “eidut,” “testimony,” refers to the two stone tablets, the luĥot, upon which were inscribed the revelation of God. And, Maimonides teaches us at the end of his Laws of Sefer Torah (10:10), just as the tablets were placed in the Ark in the Tabernacle, so are we commanded to place the scroll of the Law in the ark in the synagogue:

It is a commandment to designate a special place for a sefer Torah, and to honor it and embellish it even more than one thinks adequate. The words on the Tablets of the Covenant are the same words which we have on our scrolls.

However, this tracing of the institution of the sefer Torah in the aron in the synagogue to the luĥot in the aron in the Tabernacle presents certain difficulties. One of the commentaries on Maimonides’ famous Code, the author of Hagahot Maimoniyot, records a question asked of his teacher: If indeed the scrolls in the ark in the synagogue are of the same nature as the tablets in the Ark in the Tabernacle, then why is it that the luĥot in the Tabernacle were placed in the aron in a prone position, lying down, whereas the sefer Torah that we place in the ark in the synagogue stands upright? If the source is the tablets in the Tabernacle, then why do we not store the scrolls in a synagogue too lying down?

There is compelling logic to this question. In fact, the author of this commentary records a responsum by the famous Rabbi Jacob Tam who said that had he realized this point earlier, when they were building his synagogue, he would have ordered a much broader and wider ark in order that he might have the scrolls lying down rather than standing upright.

Nevertheless, the force of Jewish law and the weight of Jewish custom is against this decision to have the scrolls lying down. In all of our synagogues the sefer Torah is stored upright; indeed, in some Sephardic synagogues the scroll is read while standing on the table. Why, then, do we keep the sefer Torah standing up, unlike the tablets?

A famous Talmudic scholar, Rabbi David Ibn Zimra, known as the Radbaz, wrote a responsum on the subject in which he offered three alternative answers. All three are meaningful. They contain or imply insights into the nature of Torah and Judaism that are significant for all times, including our very own.

His first answer is that there is a fundamental difference between the luĥot and a sefer Torah. The tablets were meant as eidut, as a testimony, as symbols; they were not intended for reading. Their very presence was important, but people did not come especially to open the Ark and read the tablets in order to inform themselves of the Law. In contrast, the sefer Torah was meant specifically for reading and for instructing. Hence, the sefer Torah is kept in an upright position, always ready for immediate use.

What we are taught, therefore, is that the Torah must be for us more than a symbol, more than mere eidut. It must be a guide, a code for conduct. The very word “Torah” comes from the Hebrew “hora’a” which means guidance, pointing out, instruction.

A symbol is reverenced; a guide is used and experienced. Because of its very sacredness, a symbol often lies prone. It is remote and is less likely to be involved in the turmoil and bustle of life. It is treated with antiseptic respect. A guide, a “Torah,” is of course sacred; but its sanctity is enhanced by its involvement in life with all its complexities and paradoxes, its anxieties and excitements. A Torah, in order to fulfill its holy function, must stand ready – literally, stand! – to be read and applied.

It is this lack of involvement in everyday life that has caused one contemporary Jewish thinker to bemoan what he has felicitously called our American-Jewish “theology of respect.” We American Jews are a very respectful people; we do not reject Judaism outright. Instead, we are more delicate. We “respect” it. We have respect for the synagogue – therefore, we keep miles away from it. We respect the rabbi – hence we never consult him as to the judgment of Judaism on significant problems. We respect Almighty God and therefore would never think of troubling Him about the things that really bother us. We respect Judaism and Torah so much that we never think of taking them seriously in the rigors and hardships of our daily existence. But respect alone is something that is offered to a symbol, to the tablets which are merely eidut, and which therefore lie prone. They are a symbol – and that is all. It is only when we have transformed the symbol into the scroll, the theology of respect in Torat Ĥayyim, a Torah of life, that our Torah stands upright and ready for use.

This is important for Jewish scholarship in our days as well. Great opportunities are open for scholarship today, the formulation of the attitude of Torah to the great ethical questions of our day. There is a businessman who wants to know the decision of Torah on price collusion, a young man who is interested not only in the morality but also in the ethics of courtship, and a government employee who wants to know how far he may go in accepting unofficial gifts. Halakha can yield such guidance. If we do not know all the answers of Halakha it is because we need scholars to search more diligently and in greater scope and depth than has been done heretofore.

But nevertheless, the greatest majority of the problems that occur to us can, without new halakhic research, be dealt with decisively and lucidly by Torah. Our Torah is an upright one when we make the decision to consult it in these practical problems. This, indeed, is the difference between an ideal and a principle: An ideal is an abstraction to which we offer our gesture of respect. A principle is that which governs our very real conduct. The luĥot are symbols or ideals; the sefer Torah is a principle or guide. We have no dearth of ideals; we are sorely lacking in committing our lives to relevant principles. If our Torah is to be a Torah, it must be upright, ready to use.

The second solution offered by Radbaz is to make the following distinction between the tablets and the scrolls of the Law. According to tradition (Shabbat 104a), the engraving on the stone tablets went through the tablets from side to side. Nevertheless, a miracle occurred and these tablets could be read equally well from either side. In other words, despite the fact that the engraving went through and through, you were able to read the message on the stone tablets according to the normal Hebrew system, from right to left, no matter which side you approached them from.
Whereas the sefer Torah was written only on one side, on the parchment. Therefore, the tablets could be placed lying down, for no matter how you laid them down, you could read them from the side you approached them. But the sefer Torah had to stand with its face, upon which was written the text of the Torah, facing the congregation, so that it might always be ready for immediate reading and consultation and study.

There was a time in Jewish life when Judaism was such that it could be approached from any point of view. In a total Jewish environment, even a semi-literate could be a good Jew. Where one’s milieu was fully saturated with Jewish feeling and Jewish life, study and scholarship were not quite crucial. One could be unlearned and still sense the presence of God, the Shekhina. At the very least, one could benefit from the shekhuna, from the very Jewishness of one’s neighborhood and surroundings. However, in a society depleted of Jewishness, in a milieu emptied of Jewish feeling and life, Jewishness can be acquired only by study and by scholarship.

We do not live in a total Jewish environment. Our surroundings are secularized and often antagonistic to the goals of Judaism. Therefore, for us, Jewish scholarship, Jewish education, Jewish study, are not only paramount, but indeed the only way to acquire Judaism in the full sense of the word. It is our only guarantee of survival. It is interesting that when, two or three generations ago, very wealthy and philanthropic Jews founded our great philanthropic organizations, they acted according to the noblest precepts of Judaism. It goes without saying that charity, tzedaka,
is an all-important mitzva in our faith. Yet these people, who gave and worked so much for charity, who love their people so, completely neglected the study of Torah. And, tragically enough, today these founders of our Federation do not have one single Jewish survivor left! For indeed, Judaism without tzedaka is unthinkable, but Judaism without the study of Torah is impossible.

It is only recently that the day-school movement has won the approbation of larger sections of American Jewry. And not only Jewish studies for children, but also adult Jewish education has begun to show improvement. Only this week statistics were gathered that indicate that American Jews spend annually in the vicinity of $3 million on adult education. Of course, there is a question as to the results, the extent of its work, the methods employed. But, nonetheless, it is encouraging news that we have finally come to understand the importance of a sefer Torah which stands ready to be read and studied and researched. For that is why our scrolls are placed in a standing position: to teach us the need for immediate reference and education.

The third answer provided by Radbaz is a rather daring idea. The synagogue, unlike the Tabernacle, was meant to be primarily a House of Prayer, not one of revelation and sacrifice. Therefore, since the worshippers come to the synagogue and stand facing the ark, the sefer Torah must stand when it faces the worshippers.

In a sense, this summarizes the other two reasons advanced by Radbaz. The sefer Torah stands because the worshippers stand. What a beautiful idea! There is a mutual and reciprocal honor exchanged by the Torah and its admirers. The Torah itself rises before the mitpallelim who take her seriously, who involve her in their daily life, and who study her assiduously.

We are told in the first book of Samuel that God says, “For I will honor those who honor Me, and those who neglect Me shall be disgraced” (2:30). God honors those who honor Him! The Torah stands out of respect before the worshipper!

One of the great and seminal thinkers of Hasidism, the renowned Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, has expressed this idea in yet another way. The Torah as the revelation of God, and indeed even as an aspect of God Himself, is filled with holiness and divine light. It contains sublime, heavenly illumination. When the student of Torah studies it sincerely and selflessly, without any thought of personal gain, what he accomplishes is the broadening of the absorptive capacity of Torah for this divine light. He adds to Torah’s luster and brilliance. Whereas, if he studies it for selfish and unworthy reasons, the lights of Torah are dimmed and its brilliance diminished.

What a bold idea! The fate of Torah depends upon us. The sanctity of Torah is not a constant – its kedusha varies with the sincerity and application of the Jew who studies Torah. If we honor Torah, it honors us by being more sacred. And, Heaven forbid, if we neglect Torah, it contains less illumination and sanctity with which to bless our own lives.

That the destiny of Torah depends upon us we often see in unpleasant ways. Too often we discover that Judaism is reviled because of the personal conduct of individual Jews who are apparently committed to Torah, but who act in a manner that is unbecoming, unattractive, and unethical. A thousand years ago, the great Gaon, Saadia, at the end of his introduction to his Book of Beliefs and Opinions, offers eight reasons, all of them psychologically potent, as to why people reject God and Torah. One of them applies to our case: a man notices the obnoxious behavior of a Jew who believes in God, and he therefore rejects not only this inconsistent Jew, but also all that he professes, i.e. God and His Torah. It happens so often in our own experience. Let an Orthodox Jew misbehave, and people blame Orthodoxy rather than the individual. It is unfortunate, it is illogical, it ignores the weaknesses of all human beings no matter what their ultimate commitments, but – it is a fact. And, it places upon us a heavy, yet marvelous, responsibility. This very fact, whether we like it or not, reminds us that each of us possesses great risks and tremendous opportunities. We can, each of us, by our actions, influence the destiny of Judaism. We can, by our attitude and approach, either diminish or enhance the luster of the light contained within Torah. If we are omdim, if we stand, then the sefer Torah too is omeid. If we stand upright, then Torah stands upright. Heaven forbid, if we lie down on our God-given duties, then Torah falls because of us.

This then is the significance of the position of the Torah in the ark. It is upright because it must be ready for use as a guiding principle in our lives. It is upright because it must be studied and its message plumbed. It is upright because it stands in respect and honor of those who so use it and thereby enhance its own holiness and illumination.

Torah must never lie in state. It must stand in readiness. The Jew must never sink low; he must soar even higher – and thereby contribute to the sublimity of Torah. For as Maimonides put it in the passage we quoted in the very beginning, it is a mitzva to honor and glorify and embellish the Torah even more than we can. For if we will not strive to be more than merely respectful Jews, we will become less than respectful Jews. If we do not aspire to become more than human, we are in danger of becoming less than human.

The times we live in, the circumstances that surround us, and our ancient and hoary tradition all call out to us to stand up and live as upright Jews, and so keep our Torah in the ark upright as well.

*March 6, 1965

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Parashat Ki Tissa: Why Break the Tablets?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text-Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Why Break the Tablets?


God informs Moshe, on the summit of Mount Sinai, of the sin of the golden calf and commands him to descend the mountain and confront the nation. After beseeching God to forgive the people, Moshe complies, carrying with him the divinely created Tablets of Testimony upon which God has inscribed the Ten Declarations.

When Moshe nears the Israelite encampment, however, and sees the nation dancing before the golden calf, he becomes enraged and “casts the tablets out of his hands and smashes them beneath the mountain.”

In the book of Devarim, nearly forty years later, when Moshe recalls this event before the nation, he emphatically declares, “I grasped the two tablets and threw them from my two hands, and I smashed them before your eyes.”

In the wake of the destruction of these tablets, God commands Moshe to carve a second set upon which: “I [God] will inscribe the words that were on the first tablets asher shibarta (which you
shattered).” The Talmudic sages perceive in the two words asher shibarta divine approbation of Moshe’s actions: Yiyasher kochacha sheshibarta, “You are to be congratulated for shattering [the first set of tablets].” The rabbis thus identify the breaking of the tablets as one of three actions which Moshe performed of his own accord, to which God retroactively gives His stamp of approval.

So powerfully does Rashi identify with this rabbinic observation that he cites it in his final commentary on the Torah.

The Torah ends with the statement “Never again has arisen a prophet like Moshe, who knew God face-to-face; as evidenced by all the signs…and by the strong hand and great power that Moshe performed before the eyes of all Israel.” Rashi maintains that the very last words of the Torah, “…before the eyes of all Israel,” allude to the breaking of the tablets, an event which Moshe describes as having occurred “before the eyes of the people.”


The classic, familiar image of Moshe breaking the Tablets of Testimony at the foot of Mount Sinai demands a second look.

Simply put, why does Moshe shatter the tablets? Why does he take out his seemingly misdirected anger upon an object of such overwhelming sanctity? The destruction of any sanctified object is a grievous sin; how much more so the shattering of the God-created Tablets of Testimony.

Compounding the problem is the apparent positive judgment of the rabbis concerning Moshe’s actions. Why do the rabbis believe that God congratulates Moshe for breaking the tablets? Why, in addition, would Rashi see this action as so commendable and significant that he would cite it as his final comment on Moshe’s life and close his monumental work on the Torah specifically by recalling this event?


So serious are the issues raised by Moshe’s breaking the first set of Tablets of Testimony, that a wide range of often diametrically opposed views concerning this event are proposed by the commentaries.

Strangely enough, it is the Rashbam, pashtan par excellence, who veers sharply away from the straightforward explanation of the Torah text. Maintaining that Moshe did not shatter the tablets at all of his own accord, the Rashbam states: “When Moshe saw the calf, his strength ebbed and he only had enough power to thrust the tablets far enough away that they would not damage his feet as they fell from his hands.”

As the Rashbam himself indicates, he builds his position on earlier statements found in the Midrash which postulate a sudden inability on Moshe’s part to carry the tablets. A source in Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer explains, for example, that the divine inscription on the tablets miraculously enables the stone to “carry itself and Moshe with it.” When, however, the golden calf and the rejoicing Israelites come into view, the inscription “flies” from the tablets. With God’s words gone, Moshe can no longer carry the heavy stone and the tablets fall from his hands. Similar explanations are found elsewhere in Midrashic literature.

While the Rashbam does translate these Midrashic traditions into less miraculous terms, he nonetheless seems to contradict the clear intent of the biblical text, both here and in the book of Devarim. The Torah indicates that Moshe does not drop the tablets but actively thrusts them from his hands, destroying them at the foot of the mountain. The Rashbam must have struggled deeply with the concept of Moshe consciously shattering the divinely created tablets, to have adopted a Midrashic position so clearly at odds with the straightforward meaning of the text.

The Ramban believes, like the Rashbam, that the breaking of the tablets simply could not have been a conscious, premeditated action on Moshe’s part. Attempting to remain more clearly within the boundaries of the text, however, the Ramban maintains that Moshe is overcome not by physical but by spiritual and emotional weakness when he comes into sight of the celebrating Israelites: “Moshe did not hesitate to shatter the tablets, for he was so angered when he saw this evil deed, he could not control himself. ”

Numerous other authorities, however, are unwilling to accept the breaking of the tablets as an involuntary action on Moshe’s part. Strange as it might seem, they claim, Moshe consciously destroys the Tablets of Testimony in response to the sin of the golden calf. For this deliberate act, they continue, Moshe receives the divine approbation recorded in the Talmud (see above).

While the sources agree, however, on the deliberate nature of Moshe’s act, his motivations remain the subject of ongoing debate.

Some Midrashic authorities maintain that Moshe is motivated by a desire to protect the nation from the full effect of their sin. He reasons: If I give the law to the people, they will be held fully culpable for their actions under that law. Far better that they should be judged as inadvertent rather than as deliberate sinners.

Moshe, therefore, smashes the tablets to avoid presenting them to the Israelites.

Another Midrash suggests that Moshe goes even further in a self-sacrificing attempt to save the nation. He deliberately sins by breaking the tablets so that his fate will be bound up with the fate of the Israelites.

True, Moshe says to God, the people have sinned – but so have I. If You will forgive them, then forgive me as well. If You will not forgive them, then do not forgive me. Instead, “erase me from the book that You have written.”

At the opposite end of the interpretive spectrum, Rashi sees Moshe’s motivation as condemnatory of the Israelites actions. Moshe deliberates: If the Torah states with regard to the Pesach sacrifice, which is only one mitzva, “no apostate may eat of it,” now, when the entire Torah is involved and all of Israel are apostates, shall I give the Torah to them?

Yet other commentaries interpret Moshe’s actions as consciously educative in intent. Moshe wants, through the smashing of the tablets, to shock the Israelites back to their senses. The Netziv goes so far as to claim that Moshe deliberately refrains from breaking the tablets at the summit of Mount Sinai, when God first informs him of the chet ha’egel. He instead bides his time and waits until his actions will have the greatest impact upon the people at the foot of the mountain. When the nation witnesses his destruction of these overwhelmingly sanctified objects, Moshe reasons, they will be so shocked and aggrieved that they will, without objection, accept the punitive measures necessary in response to their sin.

The broadest and boldest classical suggestion concerning Moshe’s motivation in breaking the Tablets of Testimony is offered by the nineteenth– twentieth-century scholar, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk, in his insightful work the Meshech Chochma. Rabbi Meir Simcha maintains that Moshe wants to convey to the people one simple truth: there is only one source of holiness in existence: God, Himself.

Moshe recognizes that at the core of the sin of the golden calf lies the nation’s erroneous belief in sources of sanctity outside of God. The Israelites perceive Moshe as inherently holy and essential to their relationship with the Divine. When Moshe apparently disappears they feel compelled to create another source of supposed holiness in an attempt to reach God – hence, the creation of the golden calf.

Realizing that he must try to cure the nation of its misconceptions, Moshe turns to them and effectively says: I am not holy. I am a man just as you. The Torah is not dependent upon me. Even had I not returned, the Torah would have continued in my absence.

The Sanctuary and its utensils are not intrinsically holy. Their sanctity derives from God’s presence in our midst. If you sin, these objects lose their holiness.

Even these Tablets of Testimony – the word of God – are not holy, in and of themselves. Their sanctity derives from your relationship with God and your willingness to observe His law. Now that you have sinned, these tablets are mere stone, devoid of any sanctity. As proof of my point, I shatter them before you!

Moshe, Rabbi Meir Simcha continues, is deeply afraid that the Tablets of Testimony will be misused by the nation in its present state. He is concerned that the people will deify the tablets themselves. By shattering the tablets, therefore, Moshe directly addresses a root cause of the chet ha’egel as he teaches the Israelites that God, alone, is the source of holiness.

One final approach to Moshe’s actions can be suggested if we consider the fundamental differences between the two sets of tablets received by Moshe on Sinai: the first set, destroyed as a result of the chet ha’egel, and the second set, mandated by God to take their place.

The most obvious distinction is that the first set of tablets were both carved and inscribed by God while the second set were carved by Moshe at God’s command and then divinely inscribed on the summit of Mount Sinai.

A second, more subtle, yet fascinating distinction between the two sets emerges as part of Moshe’s recollections in the book of Devarim. Recalling the flow of events at Sinai for the people, Moshe states that accompanying the commandments to carve the second set of tablets and to ascend the mountain with them was an added divine directive: “And make for yourself a wooden Ark [in which to place these tablets].” So important is this Ark (which, strangely, is not mentioned at all when the events occur in the book of Shmot) in Moshe’s mind, that he cites it no fewer than four times within the span of five sentences.

Perhaps the message of the second tablets and the Ark into which they are placed is the message of context. The Torah is valueless in a vacuum. Its words are only significant when they find a ready home in the heart of man – only when those words are allowed to shape the actions of those who receive them.

Moshe, descending the mountain and witnessing the celebrating Israelites, recognizes that the tablets and the law they represent have no context within which to exist. The nation is simply unready to accept God’s word. Were that word to be given to them in their present state, the Torah itself would become an aberration, misunderstood and even misused. Moshe, therefore, publicly destroys the Tablets of Testimony, and then, at God’s command, begins the process of reeducating the people.

Central to that process of reeducation will be the symbolism of the second set of Tablets of Testimony, themselves. God will inscribe upon them His decrees but, this time, only on stone carved by Moshe. The tablets themselves will thus represent the word of God, finding a home in the actions of man.

These new tablets must also immediately be placed into a symbolic home, a simple Ark of wood. Only if the contents of those tablets find their home, as well, in the humble hearts of men – only if the Torah finds its context – will that Torah be worthy of existence.

Points to Ponder

One of the first personal mottos I developed for myself in the early years of my rabbinate was: You can’t judge Judaism by the Jews.

This motto has, unfortunately, come in handy more times than I can count during the years since.

We cringe when we are confronted with individuals who claim to be observant Jews but whose actions belie their faith. “How,” we are asked, or ask ourselves, “can a religious person act this way? If this is what Judaism produces…”

The appropriate responses to these challenges are, of course, clear. If an individual behaves in a way that contradicts the values that Judaism represents, then that individual is not an observant Jew and, even more importantly, what he practices is not Judaism. The problem is not with the law but with the context. Judaism cannot exist in a vacuum. For Jewish law to take concrete root in this world it must rest in the hearts and shape the actions of those whose very lives reflect its goals.

The partnership with which God challenges us is full and our relationship is, on some level, symbiotic. We are the vehicles divinely chosen to bring God’s presence into this world. Just as the law must give meaning to our lives, our lives must give meaning to the law.