Sunday, June 11, 2017

And here's the derashah... (Behaalotcha 5777)

... from the aquarium billboard:

A couple of years ago, the Nova Scotia board of tourism posted a giant billboard on Bathurst. It featured a monster-sized, awesome picture of a diving whale off the Nova Scotia coast, and it said in tall letters, “We heard you have an aquarium. That’s nice.”[1]

I give the ad campaign a 10 for snark, and a 10 for content – it reminded me that I really, really want to see Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I have a problem: minyan. Other than in Halifax, there aren’t too many minyan options in the Maritimes. Is a Jew – and especially a male, who has extra obligations – allowed to go to a cottage, to go on vacation, without a minyan?

Of course, going to Nova Scotia can have religious value. We can appreciate Divine creation, declaring מה רבו מעשיך ד'! Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, “I almost believe that all you homebodies would one day have to atone for your staying indoors, and when you would desire entrance to see the marvels of heaven, they would ask you, ‘Did you see the marvels of Gd on earth?’ Then, ashamed, you would mumble, ‘We missed that opportunity.’”[2]

There is also religious value in charging our batteries, absorbing energy for future mitzvos. The Shulchan Aruch writes, “Eating or drinking for your own pleasure is אינו משובח, not praiseworthy. One should intend to eat and drink in order to live, to serve the Creator.[3]

But I’m not talking about going to Nova Scotia in order to appreciate Hashem’s creation, or to recharge for spiritual service. Yes! Admiring nature can be a spiritual experience, but I’m just talking about going as a human being. Human beings love to experience the new and different, we relish natural beauty, we dance to music, we expand our souls through literature and art. Is being human justification for missing minyan, or not learning another page of gemara, or not volunteering for an organization?

Of course, I’m not going to pasken here. First, because psak rightfully belongs solely with shul rabbis. Second, this is a simple, perhaps even a bit oversimplified, derashah; it’s not a shiur. So instead I’m going to focus on the underlying philosophical question: How do we look at sacrificing a mitzvah for the sake of being human?

Let’s review two stories from our parshah: The lashon hara about Moshe, and Pesach Sheni.

First, the lashon hara: As the Talmud[4] tells it, Moshe separated from his wife Tzipporah because he expected to speak with Gd at any time and he needed to be available, just as Jewish men and women separated from each other temporarily at Har Sinai. His siblings, Miriam and Aharon, were scandalized; after all, they were prophets too, but they had families! Hashem decisively declared Miriam and Aharon wrong about Moshe, and they were both punished with tzaraas.[5]

But here’s what people often miss in the story! Miriam and Aharon were right about everyone not named Moshe, everyone who did not speak to Gd “face to face”. Normal human beings are meant to pursue normal human life, with families! And as the sage Ben Azzai noted,[6] does not family life impose obligations which necessarily obstruct total commitment to the omnipresent mitzvah opportunity? Will not a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend, a neighbour, an organization lay ineluctable claim to your hours, directly and indirectly? Will not participating in a family involve diapers and carpools, cameraderie and sympathy – in short, being human?

If Miriam and Aharon are correct, does that not mean that the Jew is supposed to be a human being, to recognize the limits of Covenant and honour human need?[7]

Rabbi Alex Israel of Yeshivat Eretz haTzvi eulogized Rav Yehudah Amital z”l, former Rosh Yeshiva in the Gush. He reported on the time when Rav Amital saw someone straining to fulfill the minutia of a ruling in the Mishneh Berurah. Rabbi Israel wrote, “Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: “Danny. Be normal!” He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.[8]

So far, then, it seems that Miriam and Aharon are right, and it’s fine and appropriate to relax and take a few days in Nova Scotia. Be normal!

But there is another story in our parshah: Pesach Sheni.

At the start of their second year in the wilderness, the Jewish people brought the korban Pesach, but a small community was denied participation because they were tamei, ritually impure. According to the Talmud,[9] they were ineligible for the best of reasons – they were the chevra kadisha, carrying the bones of Yosef and his brothers. So they were exempt. They could relax. They were required to relax! While the rest of the nation went about their duties.

But that’s not what these Jews did; they came to Moshe in protest, למה נגרע, why should we lose out on this mitzvah? We don’t want an exemption! We don’t want to relax! We want to do the mitzvah! And although they did not receive exactly what they wanted, they are unquestionably admired for seeking greater duties, greater obligations![10]

And if I quote Rav Amital on one side, I must also quote Rav Asher Weiss, the posek of Shaare Zedek Hospital, on the other. He was asked about a thoroughly exhausted person, awake all night for a particular mitzvah, going to sleep at the end of the night, shortly before the time for Shacharis. Since he would be out cold come morning, our Sleeping Beauty would be exempt from davening when the time came. Rav Weiss replied, in part, “One who keeps himself from becoming obligated in a mitzvah, before its time arrives, has not ‘failed’ in the mitzvah. However, the desire of the Torah – רצון התורה – places an expectation upon people to make certain they will be able to fulfill mitzvot, and indeed pursue their fulfillment.[11]” The desire of Torah is that the exhausted individual push past his boundaries and achieve more!

So who is right, Rav Amital or Rav Weiss? Is rest and relaxation in Nova Scotia a fulfillment of the message of Miriam and Aharon, or a violation of Pesach Sheni?

Let’s go back to a problem at the start of Bereishis.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik noted[12] that plants, fish, birds, animals and human beings were created with shared language in the 10 Declarations of Creation:
·         אמירה, עשייה, בריאה – the same verbs create all of us.
·         We were all brought forth as miraculous life from dead matter.
·         Gd expressed a desire for all of us to bear fruit and multiply.
·         Both animal and human are vegetarian at the outset.
·         Adam was even named for the mud from which he and the plants and beasts were taken.
At first blush, to be human is to be a mobile plant, a fish with lungs, an earth-bound bird, a two-legged animal with opposable thumbs.

But first subtly, and then explicitly, Hashem differentiates the human being from all else by communicating with us:
·         The fish and birds are blessed with procreation, פרו ורבו, but humans are told פרו ורבו.
·         Gd tells the reader that animals are to eat plants, but Gd tells the human being directly to eat plants.
·         And then, most powerfully, ויצו! Gd commands us! As Rav Soloveitchik wrote, “Gd takes man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will.”[13]
Once Gd gives us not instinct but instruction, not physicality but spirituality, we enter into a relationship with Gd, our first and primary commitment, in which we must strive to prioritize that instruction above all else.

And to me, this is the big question of Bereishis, and our parshah, and I think of Nova Scotia as well:
·         When human beings “enter Gd’s confidence”, are we meant to shed our animal skin, to transcend the plant, fish, bird and beast, to bond with Gd and never look back?
·         Or is our spirituality meant to co-exist with our original, animal character, so that we are both human and pursuers of the Divine?

And I would suggest that the answer also appears right there in Bereishis. Right after ויצו charges Adam with spirituality, Gd charges Adam with sociality. Hashem declares לא טוב היות האדם לבדו – it is not good for the human being to be alone. And Gd searches the kingdoms of beasts and birds, who could have been mates of animalistic humanity prior to ויצו but who are now inadequate for the Commanded personality. And Gd finally separates the souls of Adam and Chavah into different bodies, to join with each other socially.

If ויצו meant that we were only to bond with Gd, then there would be no role for a mate and the demands of family. We would spend our lives seeking to grow out of our desires and become as superhuman as possible. No sports, no hobbies, no literature, no tourism, no artwork, no gourmet dining.

Of course, when Gd seeks a mate for Adam, when Gd creates the concept of community, Gd is undoubtedly looking for that mate to help Adam become a better spiritual person, become a better citizen of that ויצו mandate – but here’s the thing: Gd also implies a parallel mandate: Be a mensch! Be normal! You are to have spouses and children, and therefore you shall have parents and siblings and communities, and you will need those most human experiences and sympathies and goals. Live the life of a human being, feel the emotions of a human being, experience the pain and joy of the people around you!

If Gd desires for human beings to exist in the company of others, then ויצו must not supercede our humanity. We are charged with two competing and complementary aspirations: ויצו, to bond with Gd, and לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, to bond with man. We must aspire to be godlike and we must aspire to be human.

The challenge is for a human being, over the course of a lifetime, to feed both of these drives[14] – to excel in both arenas. To produce a mosaic of ten thousand occasions, a million instants when we learn a page of gemara or give tzedakah or go for a walk in the woods, we become ideal servants of Gd, fulfilling every mitzvah and spending our every moment in search of ways to grow closer to the Shechinah, and we become ideal human beings, living life, reading books, seeing Nova Scotia, playing games, visiting art museums, viewing plays, growing in our ability to be sympathetic, productive members of society.

The lesson of ויצו is that we must aspire to defy human weakness and draw close to Gd.
The lesson of לא טוב היות האדם לבדו is that we must aspire to be human.

Those aspirations must never be separated. The Jew who tours Nova Scotia or reads a novel must also make a siyum haShas. And the Jew who makes a siyum haShas must also go to Nova Scotia – or at least the Toronto Aquarium, nebach. The Jew who schmoozes with friends on Shabbos afternoon must also make time to learn. And the Jew who learns must also make time to schmooze. We can satisfy both, if we look at our lives not moment by moment, analyzing each decision in a vacuum, but as a whole, to gauge whether we are satisfying our duties in both areas.

These are our grand aspirations. The poet Cordelia Ray wrote of human aspiration,[15] “We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart, and eager pulse, like children toward a star.” May our twin goals, spirituality and sociality, be the binary stars that make our hearts throb. We can never fully achieve either one while we yet stand on the slopes of life – but may our mission, and our passion, be to make that climb.

[2] Collected Writings Vol 8 pg. 259 “From the notebook of a Wandering Jew”
[3] Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 231:1
[4] Shabbat 87a
[5] Shabbat 97a
[6] Yevamos 63b
[7] Indeed, when Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son came out of their cave after 12 years of non-stop study in hiding from the Romans, they could not deal with human beings; shocked to find people spending time plowing, they turned their gaze upon the fields and those fields were incinerated. Hashem rebuked them, “Did you emerge to destroy My world? Go back into your cave!” They observed a year of mourning in the cave, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai emerged much chastened. (Shabbat 33b) Human beings are expected to live as human beings do.
אבא, בזמן השואה הכנת את עצמך למות על קידוש השם, ולאחר השואה המניע העיקרי של הרבה פעולות שעשית היה למנוע חילול השם; רצית למות על קידוש השם – אבל קידוש השם היה המניע העיקרי שלך בכל חייך, קידוש השם כפי שמגדיר אותו הרמב"ם בהלכות יסודי התורה: "עושה בכל מעשיו לפנים משורת הדין, והוא שלא יתרחק הרבה ולא ישתומם". המקור לענין שדברת עליו הרבה פעמים על הצורך להיות "יהודי נורמלי", לא להתנהג בצורה משונה וחריגה אלא דווקא כ"יהודי פשוט", גם הוא נמצא בדברי הרמב"ם הללו: "שלא יתרחק ולא ישתומם".
[9] Succah 25a-b
[10] It is as the Talmud (Sotah 14a) states regarding Moshe, that he longed to enter Israel not to enjoy the produce, but to fulfill mitzvot from which he was exempt!
[11] Minchat Asher II 9. Ditto Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on tiyulim and exemption from Succah, at the end of
[12] The Emergence of Ethical Man
[13] We are also צלם אלקים, and it fits, but I didn’t want to go into that here.
[14] חציו לכם וחציו לד' of Shavuos – Beitzah 15b


  1. Lovely drasha! Very relevant to me, both to things I have been thinking about lately and to where my life is going at the moment.

    I would add something you hint at near the end, but don't develop: the balance varies from person to person. There are gedolei haTorah who can and should spend their waking hours studying Torah, with minimal time for sleep and food, let alone anything else. Conversely, there are people who need to do less Torah and mitzvot than the average e.g. due to illness or some other unavoidable issue.

    As a side note, it is interesting that Gandhi was opposed to friendships. I don't have the source with me, but I think he was afraid that having an affectionate relationship with another human being could cloud one's judgement and lead to sin. Fascinating that the Torah commands us to do the exact opposite.

  2. You write, "Gd is undoubtedly looking for that mate to help Adam become a better spiritual person, become a better citizen of that ויצו mandate". But I think that turns community (in this case marriage) into a means for spirituality rather than the essence of spirituality.

    Twice earlier in this blog your quote R' Yitzchaq Volozhiner's reminiscence about his father R Chaim:

    This is what my father always told me: "This is a person's entire purpose. A person is not created for himself. A person is created only to benefit others.

    With this definition of spirituality, wouldn't this thought have been phrased differently? Chavah and Adam were "just" each other's chavrusah in learning spirituality; Adam without other is incapable of the kind of spirituality we were made for.

  3. Daniel-
    Thanks for reading and writing! Yes, it definitely varies by person. I would add that the proportion necessary to exercise one's humanity also varies.

    R' Micha -
    I included that sentence because I wanted to make clear that I don't view community is solely about being a human being, without the spirituality of it. In terms of your thought here - To my mind, there is the spirituality of community and there is spirituality of the individual. And I don't think Rav Chaim's statement denies that.

    1. If we take R' Chaim at face value, and perhaps we shouldn't, he does exclude other kinds of spirituality. To add emphasis to the quote:

      "This is a person's entire purpose. A person is not created for himself. A person is created only to benefit others."

      I would view what I think you mean by "spirituality of the individual" as a hand-maiden; the accumulation of the means to obtain spirituality as a contributor to community.

      As Rav Shimon Shkop opens Shaarei Yosher (introduction):

      Blsssed shall be the Creator,
      and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in
      the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it

      And later:
      This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level. The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation.

      There is reason to believe there was a school of thought in Litta which really did see a person's mission in terms of interpersonal contribution, and that this was the measure of a soul.

      None of which was possible yet -- lo tov heyos ha'adam levado.

      (BTW, this pasuq may be echoed by Yisro: וַיֹּאמֶר חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה אֵלָיו לֹא־טוֹב הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה׃. נָבֹל תִּבֹּל גַּם־אַתָּה גַּם־הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ כִּי־כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר לֹא־תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ׃.)

    2. R' Micha -
      I hear what you are saying - but is Rav Chaim talking about "spirituality"? One may be created for chesed - which I believe to be true - without that being the sum of one's connection with Hashem.

    3. You are correct, I am projecting R' Shimon Shkop (already quoted) back onto R' Chaim Volozhiner.