Friday, June 28, 2013

The Precariousness Nature of Peace

Parshat Pinchas begins with Hashem rewarding Pinchas for his act of bravery. Pinchas is given a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace. Many meforshim note the conveyance of a covenant of peace being awarded to man who engaged in such a violent act. The lesson being that we sometimes have to overcome our natural inclinations in order to accomplish the task at hand, and then focus back on our values.

In the Torah scroll, the letter vav of the word “Shalom” is cracked. Rav Zevin explained that the cracked vav allows us to think about the similarities and differences between the words “Shalom”, peace, and Shalem, whole. Both indicate a fulfilled state of being. However Shalem refers to an individual whereas Shalom refers to the relationship between two or more objects or people. 

The broken Vav highlights the difficulties that can exist in trying to get along with others and achieve Shalom. It is often easier to achieve Shalemiut for oneself. But true personal fulfillment must include peace between ourselves and those around us: family, friends, and neighbors. There can be no real Sheleimut without Shalom. And the broken Vav in Shalom reminds us just how elusive, yet essential, peace can be.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Taking A Spear Is Just As Important As Using It

At the end of Parshat Balak we are introduced to Pinchas, the hero of the ugly incident that occurred at Shittim. We are told that "Pinchas saw, stood up from among the assembly and took a spear in his hand"(24:7). In the next verse we read that Pinchas used the spear to kill a Jewish man along with the Midianite woman with whom he was involved with.

While Pinchas gets most of the credit for using the spear, it seems to me that there is something else going on here that Pinchas needs to be credited for. What is it exactly that Pinchas saw? The previous verse, 24:6, ends by telling us that while the camp was rampant with immorality, the judges/ leaders of Israel “were crying at the entrance of the Ohel Moed.” They were frozen by the enormity of the problem, coupled with the enormity of the task at hand necessary to ameliorate the problem.

Pinchas saw this and responds at first by simply taking a spear in his hand. Just taking the spear was an important first step whose value we must not underestimate. While everyone else was frozen with fear and crying about the problem, Pinchas picks up a spear, thereby indicating his commitment to do something to help solve the problem. I’m sure Pinchas also cried about the great desecration of God’s name that was transpiring; but his response did not end with crying. He knew something needed to be done. Just by taking the spear, even before he used it, he demonstrated tremendous strength of character as well as a very important lesson to the rest of the Jewish leadership. When Pinchas uses his spear in a correct manner he cements his status as a Jewish leader that is deserving of special Divine recognition.

Our community is faced with a number of challenges. The first step is to identify these challenges. The second step is to cry about them, to appreciate the problem and realize that it is something that needs fixing. But our response cannot end with crying. It cannot end with articles or op-eds or blog posts about the problem. We need to do as Pinchas, and indicate our willingness to tackle the challenge with actions. We may not solve all the challenges and our solutions may not be complete fixes or work at all. But we must learn from Pinchas: not just cry about our plight: but to “takea spear”, thereby indicating our commitment to action and to help make things better. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Religious Value of Learning History

Twice in Parshat Chukat the Torah makes reference to outside sources and quotes them. In 21:14 the Torah refers to a book The Wars of Hashem, and in 21:27 the verse quotes “Moshlim”, poets. Ramban explains in both places that one reason for quoting these “outside sources” is to show that lands that may have originally belonged to Amon and Moav, (whom the Jews were commanded not to wage war with) had already been captured by Sichon. The Jews therefore were allowed to capture those lands when they defeated Sichon in war.

In explaining what the book The Wars of Hashem was all about, the Ramban explains that it was a history book, chronicling the wars of each generation. There were many such books written in those times, but the book The Wars of Hashem contained descriptions of those wars and victories that were wondrous and difficult to explain in logical terms. Those wars were attributed to Hashem.
I find the entire concept of the book The Wars of Hashem to be fascinating. First, it justifies to me (the history major) the value that there can be in studying and learning from history- not just on a political, historical and social plane, but on a religious and spiritual plane as well. If we look for Him, we can find God in history, just like we can find God in the physical and natural sciences.
The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 52) raises a question concerning our inclusion of Az Yashir in Pesukei D’Zimra. One explanation offered by Rabbi Donnin in his book on prayer is that after reciting verses of praise emphasizing Hashem’s ongoing involvement in Creation, we close Pesukei D’Zimra with Az Yashir, which demonstrates God’s ongoing involvement in history as well.

We study history- not only to avoid repeating it- but to find the Hand of Hashem that we believe is present throughout.      

Friday, June 7, 2013

Lessons from the "Ketoret Standoff"

The showdown between Korach and Moshe reaches its climax with the “ketoret standoff.” Moshe suggests that the disagreement be settled by everyone offering incense to Hashem. So Aharon, Korach and 250 Korach-followers offer incense on fire pans. In response, Hashem shows His displeasure with the 250 men by sending a fire to consume them (16:35). 

The next chapter opens with God commanding Moshe to tell his nephew Elazar HaKohen to collect the firepans that were utilized by those 250 men and fashion them into a covering for the altar, “because they have become holy.” (17:2) These pans were used in a rebellion against Aharon and Moshe- why should they be considered holy and worthy of being kept? 

Rashi suggests that the pans became holy when the 250 men used them to offer incense to Hashem. Ramban questions this theory: after all, this was not a sanctioned offering – this was done as an expression of rebellion against Moshe! Instead, the Ramban suggests that the pans became holy because they were utilized as a vehicle through which G-d was ultimately sanctified. They became a symbol of the Divine choice of Moshe’s and Aharon’s leadership. From the Ramban we learn that sometimes people or situations can be used as messengers of Kiddush Hashem even if they have no idea or don’t mean to.

The fact that these firepans were fashioned into a cover for the altar is significant. It was on the mizbeach that a person would offer a sacrifice, a ritual that demonstrates humility, perhaps even a negation of self before the will of God. The cover on the altar is a cautionary note that warns people of how easily we can fool ourselves into believing in the righteousness of our cause. These 250 men were willing to die for the cause that they allowed themselves to believe whole-heartedly. 

It’s easy to allow ego, ulterior motives or even laziness to get in the way of what’s really important. The fire pans protecting the mizbeach served as that warning – then as well as now.