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Parashat Shoftim 5774 — 08/27/2014

Parashat Shoftim 5774 — 08/27/2014

The priests from the tribe of the Levi’im, and the entire  tribe of Levi, shall not have a portion of inheritance with the rest of the Jewish People  (18:1).

See the commentary of the Seforno at the beginning of Parshas Pekudei, where he gives an insightful explanation of the difference between the Mishkan that Moshe Rabbeinu built, and both the Beis Hamikdash built by Shlomo as well as the second Beis Hamikdash built at the behest of the Persian King Koresh (Cyrus). About the Mishkan built by Moshe, it is written, atzei shitim omdim – “acacia wood [planks] standing upright” (Shemos 36:20), because the beams stand forever, and no part of the Mishkan fell into the hands of our enemies. This is the opposite of what happened to the House built by Shlomo as well as its vessels, as we know from the accounts of the first Churban at the hand of Nevuzaradan. Commenting on Mishkan Ha’eidus (Shemos 38:21), the Seforno writes: “The Torah enumerates the special qualities of the Mishkan which caused it to be eternal and not fall into the hands of our enemies. Firstly, it was ‘The Dwelling-place of the Testimony,” housing the Tablets of the Testimony (Luchos). Secondly, the Mishkan was built as commanded by Moshe.  Thirdly, there was the ‘avodah of the leviirn under Isamar.’ Finally, ‘Betzalel, the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Yehudah did [all that Hashem commanded Moshe]. That is, the head craftsmen for the work of making the Mishkan and its vessels were the [spiritual] elite and the tzaddikim of the generation. Accordingly, the Shechinah dwelled upon their handiwork, and none of it fell into the hands of our enemies. But as regards the Mikdash of Shlomo, workmen were taken from the nation of Tzur, and although the Shechinah rested upon the First Mikdash, parts of it wore out and needed repair. And in the end, all of it fell into the hands of our enemies. As for the Second Mikdash – which lacked all of the aforementioned qualities – the Shechinah did not dwell there, and it, too, fell into the hands of our enemies. The Second Mikdash was not the dwelling-place of the Tablets of the Testimony, for the Tablets were not there; and its construction was commanded only by Koresh. Neither were the leviim there, and among the workmen building it were men from Tzur and Tzidon, as it is written in the Book of Ezra…”  (Chafetz Chaim)

Full disclosure – the quote from the Chafetz Chaim is actually a note by the compiler of Chafetz Chaim on the Torah.

Last week we discussed the relationship of the spiritual and the physical, in our common understanding (physical is primary, spiritual is an “emergent property”) and in Jewish tradition (spiritual is primary, body is housing for the soul so it can act in the physical world).  Interestingly, physics has come to recognize the primacy of the abstract over the concrete.  We see another example in the fate of the desert Tabernacle and the two Temples in Jerusalem.

In the case of the Tabernacle/Temples, there appears to be an inverse correlation between the grandeur of the building and its spiritual status.  Indeed, we often find the same thing in the modern day.  A small shtiebl with a few dozen people praying fervently may manifest the Divine Presence much more than a magnificent edifice with 250 people all gossiping about sports and the weather.  For the physical structure to last, the spiritual content must be strong.

I just came across a marvelous analysis that can shed light on this phenomenon.  In Bamidbar Rabbah (1:20) the Midrash is discussing the command Gd gave us not to attack Esau.  The Bais haLevi (R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1820-1892) analyzes this command in terms of the meeting of the two nations’ ancestors upon Ya’akov’s return from Aram.  I am here synopsizing from the Artscroll edition.

In the Scriptural account, Ya’akov hears that Esau is approaching with 400 armed men, apparently still smarting over Ya’akov’s receiving Yitzchak’s blesssings 20 years before.  Ya’akov prays, “Please save me from my brother, from Esau,” and sends lavish gifts to appease Esau.  Apparently all this was effective, because their meeting is friendly, to the point that Esau suggests that Ya’akov accompany him on his journey southward.  Ya’akov politely declines Esau’s offer.

The Bais haLevi points out that Esau and his descendants (in Rabbinic thought Esau is identified with Rome, and by extension with the West in general) have two basic approaches to destroying Ya’akov.  The first is through force – wars, pogroms, concentration camps.  That approach has caused immense damage and suffering, but has not eliminated us.  The second approach is to kill us with kindness, “graciously inviting the Jews to enter their circles, take part in their culture, and adopt their mores; and in that way bring about the Jews’assimilation – and spiritual ruin.”  Along with this, Esau would adopt some Jewish beliefs and practices as well.

Ya’akov was more concerned about the second threat than the first – he prayed to be saved from “my brother” before “Esau”!  Why?  Because it’s easier to get people to assimilate than it is to kill them!  Who wants to be different?

The trouble with assimilation is that it diverts us from our mission in the world.  Bilam said of us, “It is a nation that dwells alone, not reckoned among the peoples.”  Each nation is governed by its own celestial minister (a reflection of that nation’s collective consciousness), while Israel is governed by Gd directly, and our mission is to manifest Gd’s sovereignty in the world.  In order to accomplish this mission, we must be completely focused on the spiritual life; we must view physical creation as the realm in which we must act, but not our primary dwelling place.  This, of course, is in contrast to Esau, whose whole focus was on satisfying his physical lusts and desires.

I think the lesson for us is clear.  When we walk along with Esau, whatever we create will have fatal flaws.  Even if we are in charge, and Esau is but a hireling, as was the case with the first Temple, the structure reflects the consciousness, the spiritual level, of those who build it.  If the structure is even partially built by those whose consciousness is, at least now, at odds with our own, it will have built-in cracks that weaken it and make it brittle against the blows that may occur.

Perhaps at no time in history has Esau been quite as inviting, even alluring, as in our society.  And we have seen that Jews have succeeded in contributing to our culture in virtually every area.  What we have not done to any great degree, is to develop our own cultural genius.  In fact, the great majority of our people are leaving their Judaism behind and becoming completely indistinguishable from the surrounding people.  Bagels and lox will take you only so far.  Our mission is perhaps the most vital mission for the preservation of creation, for the whole purpose of creation is to manifest Gd’s perfection on even the grossest physical level.  To accomplish this we must perfect ourselves first, both as individuals and as a nation.  And this is a task that we can’t hire others to do for us.  We can engage with Esau, but we must make our way along our path by ourselves.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 19: Gemilut Chasadim [Acts of Kindness] (26 September 1971)

I translated Gemilut Chasadim as “acts” of kindness, but R. Steinsaltz points out that in fact the root g-m-l has the meaning of recompense.  Gemilut Chasadim then means “repaying kindness.”  Whose kindness are we repaying?  Generally it’s not the recipient of whatever action we are taking; rather we are “repaying” Gd, as it were, for all the kindness He has done for us from our gestation and onward, every minute of every day we are alive.  In the same way “charity” in Hebrew is tzedakah, which means justice.  When we give of our resources to someone in need, we are not doing them a favor – rather we are doing Gd’s Will as stewards of the material world.  If we are not proper stewards of what we have been given, it will be taken away, as the Talmud declares, famine and pestilence come to the world for neglect of tithes and robbing the gifts to the poor (the agriculatural gifts like the corner of the field, the gleanings and the forgotten sheaf, which are actually the property of the poor and not the landowner).

R. Steinsaltz applies this concept particularly to the area of public service.  For much of recorded history, public “service” has meant “lining one’s own pockets.”  Even in places which still give lip-service to the notion that upon election one becomes a servant to the community, the actual situation is often quite the opposite.  In Jewish thought, however, public service was uncompensated, and, in accord with the dictum “You shall be clean [of suspicion] before Gd and man,” safeguards were put in place to assure that there would not be even the appearance of impropriety.  Indeed, this goes back to the accounting Moses made of all the materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle!

When we view ourselves as finite individuals playing a zero-sum game, we find the economic and political distortions that are evident world-wide and that will eventually destroy societies, and perhaps the planet.  If instead we can raise our level of consciousness and realize that our lives and all we possess are gifts from Gd, to be used to perfect the world, perhaps we can create a more just and a more kind society.