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Parashat Pinchas 5774 — 07/09/2014

Parashat Pinchas 5774 — 07/09/2014

L’ilui nishmat R’ Meshullam Zalman Hiyya ben Chaya Gittel veShlomo HaCohen

In fond memory of R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’l

Our father died in the desert, but he was not among the group… (Bamidbar 27:3)

Moshe brought their case before Hashem. (Bamidbar 27:5)

As to why Moshe Rabbeinu had to bring their case before Hashem, we have Rashi’s well known explanation [that it was a punishment for Moshe Rabbeinu’s having said to the lesser judges, “Whatever case is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it” (Devarim 1: 17).]

It is also possible to explain that Moshe Rabbeinu did not want to judge their claim himself because he felt that he might have a bias regarding the matter, for the daughters of Tzelafchad had said to him, “Our father was not among the group that banded together against Hashem [in the company of Korach].”  Although Tzelafchad’s daughters had to mention this point in order to merit a portion in the land (see Bava Basra 118b), still, Moshe Rabbeinu knew that these women were clever, and he suspected that they had said this also to influence him to be on their side. And that is why they had said to him, “You need to know that our father did not participate in the Korach rebellion” Upon hearing their words, Moshe immediately brought their case before Hashem because he felt disqualified from judging it. This response is similar to what we find in Chazal, where dayanim refused to decide disputes because they felt that one of the litigants had benefited them in some way. Having received even a slight and seemingly insignificant benefit from one of the parties to the dispute, the dayanim worried that perhaps they no longer could perceive the facts of the case in a totally unbiased fashion (See Kesubos 105b.).  (Chafetz Chaim)

A bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous.  (Deut. 16:19)

Be like servants who serve their master not for the sake of receiving a reward.  (Pirke Avot 1:3)

The issue of conflicts of interest and hidden agendas comes up in several places in Torah, and is an ongoing problem in any legal system, including modern ones.  In fact, it is an issue that can cloud all aspects of life, because it is intrinsic to the nature of human beings as “composites” of body and spirit.

This situation recently (March 2014) was thrust into my awareness when someone I care very deeply about, and whose care is in my hands, took ill.  I had to make a life-or-death decision, trying to assess her physical condition and the possible outcomes of various courses of action, her expressed wishes and, to the best of my understanding, Jewish Law.  I was fortunate to get very sound advice from her physician, and we appear to have weathered the crisis.  But in trying to work out what was the right thing to do, I became powerfully, painfully aware that I was not only battling my own ignorance and the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in the situation, but I was also battling my own, sometimes conflicting emotions and unstated personal desires as well.  With a lot of prayer and a lot of self-examination, I think I was able to put these things aside.  But it was a  bit of a rude awakening!

Where do these conflicts come from?  In most cases they come from the fact that our soul inhabits a physical body, and the two, yoked together, are pulling in opposite directions.  The soul, which is essentially infinite, a “piece of the Divine,” wants to reunite with its Divine Source.  The body, being purely physical, seeks pleasurable physical sensations.  In terms of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that we discussed last week, the body is governed by physical laws, including the Law of Entropy, while the soul is the conduit for energy and intelligence and order to flow from the infinite into the finite.

The downward pull of the body on the soul has obvious consequences when it comes to transgressions – actions that obviously create disorder in the universe.  But even in the area of mitzvah performance, conflict can rear its ugly head.  One can perform a mitzvah, for example giving tzedakah, in many different ways (Rambam actually lists 8 levels, but we’re not going to be quite so fine in our distinctions).  We can give a minimal amount, grudgingly.  We can give cheerfully, but not enough.  We can give because it makes us feel better, either concretely, because the poor person is no longer in front of us, or abstractly because we feel like we’ve “done something.”  We can give because we get a plaque in the synagogue.  We can give because we feel it’s the right thing to do.  We can give because it’s the halachah and we don’t want to violate the halachah.  We  can give because it’s the halachah and we’re always on the alert for opportunities to fulfill the halachah.

What is the “right” reason to give tzedakah?  All of the reasons just cited can include a large dose of self-interest.  In general our tradition tells us, anything we do, especially a mitzvah, can be done either for its own sake (lishmah, lit. “in its name”) or shelo lishmah, for an ulterior motive.  The ulterior motive can even be a spiritual motive – we want some spiritual reward for doing this mitzvah.  Honor is one kind of spiritual reward, as we discussed a few weeks ago.  The good feeling of having done something right is another spiritual reward.  Even if the reward is purely spiritual, and doesn’t involve the release of endorphins in our physical brain at all, but rather is reserved for a time when the soul is no longer bound to the body, this too can be an ulterior motive – it still involves our individuality, the expressed aspect of our soul.

In general, we are enjoined to perform mitzvot purely out of love of Gd.  Certainly the Torah lays out for us the rewards of acting in accordance with Gd’s Will and the negative consequences of thwarting it.  The lowest level of serving Gd is out of fear of punishment for disobedience.  Even a dog can learn to serve its master this way.  A better way to serve is to earn the rewards, both spiritual and physical, that come from attuning our individual will with Gd’s Will.

But the most elevated way to serve Gd is to do so purely out of love and gratitude to Gd for the opportunity He gives us to serve him.  Many of our Sages have likened the relationship between Gd and Israel to a marriage.  In a good marriage, both parties look for every opportunity to give the other love and to serve them in any way.  Gd certainly looks at us that way – He wants to shower us with blessings at every turn, and He is not looking to have His needs met, because He has no needs!  Our job in this world is to rise to a level of life where our love for Gd is as unconditional as is His love for us, or as close as a human being can come to that ideal.  When our mind is filled with Gd and our heart is filled with love for Gd, there is no longer any room for any hidden agendas, and there is no more conflict; all differences are subsumed in the transcendent glory of Gd.  This is the ultimate reward that Gd wishes us to have!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 12: The Time is Short and the Work is Great (28 September 1993)

The title of this essay comes from Pirke Avot (2:20), where our time on earth is the time that is short, and the work is the work that we have to do to fulfill our role in Gd’s Creation, to bring it to fulfillment.  The Master, the Mishnah goes on to say, is pressing – Gd wants us all to do our utmost, not for His good, as He is completely self-sufficient, but for our own.  The trouble is, “the workers are lazy.”  What is laziness in our context?  R. Steinsaltz points to the rampant assimilation in virtually every Jewish community in the world, including Israel.  When I was young the joke went, “How do you like Israel?  I like it great, but where are all the Jews?”

I am writing this on Shabbat haGadol, the Shabbat right before Pesach.  Our Sages tell us that we were liberated from Egypt on the basis of maintaining our uniqueness, even under the terrible physical and moral conditions we were subjected to by the Egyptians.  We maintained our language, our names and didn’t intermarry.  How many of us can speak Hebrew?  How many of us know our Hebrew names (I didn’t learn mine until I was almost 50!)?  The Pew report has given us a picture of intermarriage.  And all of this has been done willingly on our part – not as a result of the slavedriver’s lash!

Maintaining our uniqueness is the reverse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and this implies that it takes an input of energy and intelligence to accomplish.  There is no room for laziness and idleness.  There are also many, many tools available (such as the Koren edition of the Talmud, with R. Steinsaltz’s English translation and commentary, and the library produced by Artscroll) to learn from.  It is a nation that dwells alone, not reckoned among the other peoples.  As long as we resist assimilation, we may survive.  If we don’t survive, the special input of holiness that Gd has created us to bring to the world, will no longer be available, and it is hard to imagine how the world can survive without holiness.  What we do, or don’t do, has cosmic significance.  It is up to all of us to use our time wisely.