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Parashat Naso 5774 — 04/28/2014

Parashat Naso 5774 — 04/28/2014

L’ilui nishmat SheerEl ben Yehoshua haKohan

A person’s sacred things shall be his; whatever a person gives to the kohen shall be his. (Bamidbar 5:10)

Regardless of his accomplishments during his lifetime [and no matter how much wealth he accumulates], a person cannot take a bit of this with him when he dies. Upon leaving this world, he is accompanied only by his deeds that involved kedushah. These remain at his side for eternity, like faithful friends – not like the yetzer hara and his cohorts, who often feign fondness for him, but abandon him completely when he faces difficulty.

   A person’s most faithful friends are his mitzvos – as our verse says, A person’s sacred things shall be his. Even after he departs this world, they will never leave his side. They are his closest and most trusted companions, and only they will speak in his favor before the Master of the Universe. Therefore, a person must make as many friends like these as he can, and keep closely connected with them at all times – for they are his friends for eternity.

   Our verse concludes, Whatever a person gives to the kohen shall be his. This is so because none of the material wealth a person acquires during his lifetime remains with him in the end. Rather, only what he takes from his wealth and distributes for tzedakah and chessed will be his. Whatever a person gives to the kohen shall be his. That is to say, what he gave away to others is ultimately what he will have.’ (Chafetz Chaim)

A wise man once said, “Everything we get, we get to give away.”  One of our Founding Fathers used to say “Time is money.”  Our U.S. Constitution says that nobody may be deprived of property without due process of law.  What is the correct attitude towards property, and by extension, towards the material world?

A contemporary Rabbi quipped that we know the Torah is not a Socialist document, because it tells us that we only have to give up control of our land one year out of seven.  The other six years, we can treat the land as our private property.  The tenth of the Ten Commandments is a prohibition on desiring that which belongs to another, let alone stealing it (the prohibition against stealing that appears in the Ten Commandments refers to kidnaping).  And a substantial part of the Talmud (the order Nezikin / Damages) deals with property rights.  Ramban points out that the Torah portion Mishpatim, with its myriad laws and rules regarding property, rightfully comes directly after the prohibition on coveting – if we are told not to covet our neighbor’s property, then we need to know the boundaries between what is ours and what is not.

There is another theme in Rabbinic thinking, however.  In Pirke Avot (5:13) we read: One who says ‘mine is mine and yours is yours’ is an average person, but some say this is characteristic of Sodom … Mine is yours and yours is yours is scrupulously pious. (My bold)  And in the same passage in Torah regarding the shemittah (Sabbatical) year (the one year in seven we become “socialists”), Gd tells us that we are not to sell the land in perpetuity, because it belongs to Him, not us.  We are just sojourners with Him.  And the Psalmist sings, The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein (24:1).

How are we to reconcile these seemingly opposite points of view?  As usual, I think the answer is that both are correct; it just depends on the level of reality we are trying to describe.

The surface of life is the world of boundaries, and if boundaries are breached the result is generally chaos and destruction – Noah’s Flood being a prime example.  But we don’t have to go to such a grand scale to find examples.  Almost all crime is a breach of proper boundaries, and it comes at a terrible price.  Anyone who has ever been robbed knows the painful feeling of having been violated, and certainly victims of crimes of violence feel this even more strongly.  Even behavior, like taunting and bullying, that doesn’t rise to the level of criminality, can create the same response, sometimes with tragic consequences.

The punishments prescribed by Torah for various transgressions indicate the severity of the offense, even if, practically speaking, the punishment cannot be exacted.  Some of the most severe penalties are for breaching boundaries: many of the illicit sexual relations listed in Leviticus, chapter 18, carry the death penalty.  Our sex drive is extremely powerful and if it is not kept within proper boundaries it can be extremely destructive.  But violating Shabbat also carries the death penalty.  When we violate Shabbat we violate perhaps the most important boundary that exists – the boundary between the sacred and the ordinary – and again, the consequences are commensurately severe.

Underlying the world of boundaries is Gd, unbounded and infinite.  We are commanded to emulate Gd’s ways, which I believe really means that we have to learn to live a life connected to unboundedness while acting in the realm of boundaries.  What would such a life look like?  Certainly it would be a life of abundance, since we are intimately connected with the infinite source of all finite things.  From this inner abundance we can live generously, sharing everything we have with others.  Furthermore, since we are ourselves unbounded, nothing finite is going to be so charming that we will be terribly attached to it – it is just too small and negligible.

When we take the perspective of the infinite, all the finite boundaries of the world are nothing more than the internal dynamics of infinity.  We can “afford” to be a chasid, because we recognize that “what’s mine is Gd’s and what’s yours is Gd’s!”  Gd has made us the steward of our small slice of the universe; if our awareness is grounded in the infinite, it is easy for us to recognize that that is our role.  We realize that our finite personalities are temporary phenomena, that we really are just sojourners in this world, resident aliens as it were, whose true home is actually in the transcendent.  When our awareness is established in our own infinite nature, we can be sure that our actions will reflect the high ideals that Gd has set for us in His Torah.

Stop the Presses!  As I was about to finish this essay, I came across the following in the Artscroll Midrash Rabbah, Shemot Rabbah, Chapter 1, §21.  The Midrash is discussing why Moses was placed in the river specifically in a wicker basket, rather than something more substantial, like wood:  R. Elazar said: Because the property of the righteous is dearer to them than their bodies.  And why [do they care] so much?  For they do not stretch forth their hands in acts of theft.  Artscroll comments: On a deeper level, continues Sifsei Chaim, the Midrash is imparting a lesson about the significance of personal property.  Our purpose in life is to sanctify Gd’s Name and spread its renown to every corner of the world.  Accordingly, when Gd grants a person something of value, He expects him to view it as a sacred trust, and to use it with his life’s purpose in mind.  If the owner does otherwise, he commits an act of sacrilege, and in effect steals the item from Gd’s holy domain.  Thus, Jocheved’s [Moses mother’s] frugal practices were actually part of a sustained effort t o achieve the maximum spirtual effect with every item she owned.  In her pure eyes, anything gless would make her guilty of theft.

The comment goes on to relate a story of the Chafetz Chaim: two students went to ask if they could borrow a book that he had cited extensively in his halachic work, Mishnah Berurah.  The Chafetz Chaim told them that he didn’t have the book, but had himself borrowed it during the time he was writing Mishnah Berurah.  He explained that to buy a book required money, and to get the money one must work, and work takes time away from Torah study.  This is a very steep price to pay!  For every book of Torah knowledge on the shelf represents that much less Torah knowledge integrated into one’s awareness!  As a wise man once said, “Knowledge in the books remains in the books, it’s never there when you need it!”

Hearing this attitude of our great forebears should make us all take stock of our own attitude towards the property with which we have been entrusted.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 6: The Rebbe’s Century (The Library of Congress, Washington, DC  11 Nisan 5762 – 3/24/2002)

A long time ago, when I was still living in New York City, we all found it amusing that these black-coated guys would drive around in their Mitzvah Tanks (vans with supplies of tallis and t’fillin) stopping anyone who looked Jewish and trying to induce them to put on t’fillin, sometimes for the first time in their lives.  I never bit then, but it was not that many years later that an up-and-coming Lubavitcher shaliach named Mannis Friedman (who was then in the Twin Cities) actually did teach me how to lay t’fillin, during a videotaped interview.

The Mitzvah Tanks may be gone, but the Rebbe has inspired tens of thousands of young couples to go to all corners of the earth to help Jews live a more Jewish life.  There are several centers here in Iowa, serving a Jewish population (2012 estimate) of about 6,000 (incidentally, this is only about 1000 higher than the estimate for 1899!)  There are sh’lichim throughout Asia who serve almost exclusively a transient population.  Much of the outreach movement, and perhaps we could even say much of the ba’al t’shuvah movement, can be traced back to the Rebbe’s efforts.

R. Steinsaltz writes that the Rebbe didn’t leave us a legacy, he left us marching orders.  The Rebbe saw the coming of Mashiach as an imminent possibility, and urged us all on to prepare ourselves and our world to receive him.  How will we do that?  Since the Messianic Age will be one in which spiritual values are supreme over material values, the first thing we will need to do is prioritize our thinking, placing value on that which enhances spirituality, and seeing the material world as a subsidiary realm, one in which we can reflect our inner subjective, spiritual values in outer, objective nature.  Creating an ideal society of fully-developed individuals would be a fitting legacy for the Rebbe.