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Last week I observed that the Intelligent Jew lives in a manner that reflects their learning. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who is about to retire, adds some powerful examples that we can live by in his commentary on Parashat HaShavua. Since it fits in so well with our theme of self-improvement in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, I have included it here in its entirety.

Here is the link to the entry:

COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Ekev – Greatness and Humility

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Intelligent Judaism is about acting in a manner that reflects our learning. What does this mean? Looking at today’s parasha provides us with a key explanation of this vital concept. We are told, “do what is good and right (tov v’yashar) in the eyes of the L-rd your G-d.” One would think that if the Torah is best understood as a book of rules, then the verse simply needs to tell us to do what is “right.” Why is the word “good” inserted? What does it add to the text and to the interpretation? We could ask the same questions of the phrase “in the eyes of the L-rd your G-d.”

On this rare occasion, both Rashi and Ramban agree that this law adds another layer to the Torah: that of moving beyond the letter of the law to ensure that what is done is morally correct as well. The Ramban brings a general example of a person who could win his case according to the strict interpretation of the law being required to compromise to maintain harmony in a legal dispute with a neighbour. By way of example Nehama Leibowitz cites Maimonides’ legal code, which specifies that if a landowner puts his land up for sale, he must offer it first to his neighbour even though, according to the strict interpretation of the law, he may sell to whomever he wishes.

This is the likely reason for the additional words “before the L-rd your G-d.” Going beyond the letter of the law does not come easily to people. Most are delighted to follow the “letter of the law” and not its spirit when it suits them to do so. And this is the exact behavior that enrages people when they encounter those claiming to be “observant Jews” who regularly violate the law’s spirit. As Ramban has shown, it is absolutely simple to be a “boor with the full consent of Torah law” but it is not the goal of Judaism to allow people to act in this manner. We can now understand why this parasha also contains the commandment to “neither add nor subtract from the commandments.” It is clear that this is a hint that Judaism commands adherence to the highest standard of “going beyond the letter of the law” in all cases. Doing anything less is incorrect and ill founded. And that is the essence of Intelligent Judaism: doing the commandments in a manner that will leave others saying, as Moses put it so nicely, “what a wise and upstanding nation this is.” Moses makes this observation specifically about the mishpatim, the judicially enforceable commandments that require one to go beyond the letter of the law. In addition, these commandments are enforceable when Jews have dealings with non-Jews. It is clear that the Torah intends for us to practice model conduct in all contexts where our behavior can be clearly defined as being “beyond the letter of the law.”

This explains why the observant Jew is not necessarily the Intelligent Jew, though the Intelligent Jew is always on the path to improved observance. The Intelligent Jew stands ready to improve their “Jewish skill set” by any means necessary, and are careful to act in a manner that reflects only credit on themselves. The Intelligent Jew is a reflective person who constantly evaluates his/her progress and seeks to ensure that he/she measurably improve their Jewish knowledge from year to year. They understand the mitzvoth they practice and make efforts to learn more about Jewish practices. Most importantly, they understand that being Jewish requires passion, thought, reflection, and knowledge, and that occasionally regression comes before improvement. In short, you want the person who knows nothing about Jews to meet an Intelligent Jew, in order to understand that depending on the letter of the law is far inferior to adhering to its spirit as interpreted by the Sages of yesterday and today.

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“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.” For Rashi, this opening verse of Sefer Devarim lists the places where the Israelites paused to hear significant speeches by Moses. The astute reader will immediately notice some strange place names. Di-Zahav and Lavan and Tofel are three examples. These places were not enumerated on the previous parasha’s list of sites that the Israelites stopped at on their 40 year desert journey. Rashi’s proposed solution is very interesting. He argues that these names hint at places where the Israelites committed serious sins. Di-Zahav, translated “enough gold” is an allusion to the Golden Calf, while “Tofel” hints at foolish complaining (tiflut) about the manna which was Lavan (“white”) in colour. But Rashi’s explanation explains neither the verse’s openly listing “Chatzerot,” the place of Korach’s rebellion and where Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses and were punished, nor “Paran,” the desert where they listened to spies’ negative report.

Rather than critique Rashi for inconsistency, it may well be useful to assume that his explanation is logical. He assumes that the Israelites’ itinerary in the previous chapter is complete, and the superfluous place names are intermingled with real ones. He believes that all these place names constitute “words of rebuke,” places in which the Israelites sinned. This of course brings us back to the question of why some sins are openly listed and others not. The answer is simple: the sins of the Golden Calf and complaining against the manna occurred early in the Israelites’ desert experience; the other sins occurred many years later.

Moses thus hinted at all past Israelite misdeeds but was far more obvious about those that occurred recently. Why hint at these serious shortcomings? They were in the past and the people were already seriously punished. Pouring salt in the wound would only increase the uneasiness of an already volatile people, many of whom were only the descendants of those who had committed these sins. This teaches us that erroneous behavior can be used as a positive educational force in the future, provided the action was properly consequenced when it occurred. The embarrassed remorseful wrongdoer must be taken into account, which explains why Moses was so careful with his language.

Dwelling on past misdeeds is never good for a relationship. Moses, great leader that he was, looked beyond the considerable pain Korach’s rebellion and his siblings’ murmurings against him must have caused, and only hinted at their misdeeds. But he spoke about them more openly not only because the wounds were fresh, but they were much more personal and thus immediate. Yet even here, close to the end of his life, Moses refrained from open condemnation. Knowing that the end was near, he chose not to die wrapped in bitterness—and there was a great deal of it if we read the opening of next week’s parasha carefully—but to try to teach succeeding generations the important lesson of remembering that those who repent are sincerely sorry, and reminding them of their errors is unfair and reprehensible. The Gemara in Baba Metzia famously condemns those who remind pardoned criminals of their misdeeds or the descendants of converts of their lineage. Can we do any less?

As the shadow of Tisha B’Av falls over the week, with its numerous lessons about the importance of avoiding sinat chinam, mindless hatred, between Jews, we need to pray for the strength to focus on the future of our relationships rather than past negativities.

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As we conclude the book of Bamidbar, I cannot help but think of how terribly the Israelites act throughout this book. We read about calumnies against Moses and Aaron, Miriam and Aaron complaining about Moses, tribes wishing to have better land outside the assigned borders of Canaan, a refusal to have faith in G-d on numerous occasions, and open rebellions of Korach, Datan, Abiram and On ben Pelet. All this eventually saps Moses’ indomitable patience and leads to his apparent loss of concentration or anger when he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. How is all this to be explained? After all, this is the same generation that saw the miracles of Matan Torah and the Splitting of the Sea, of which the Talmud famously comments, “the merest bondswoman saw more wonders at the Sea than all the prophets and prophetesses of Israel combined.”

The Torah tells us these sad stories for a reason. Our sacred texts teach that physical journeys serve spiritual purposes. We have discussed our forefathers’ and foremothers’ journeys in great detail in our classes; we can readily see that Moses’ wanderings to Midian, where he first encountered God at the bush, were also spiritually purposed. There were some negative elements in all these geographical and spiritual quests, but generally they were positive experiences of personal growth. Not so with the book of Bamidbar. Its stories are very upsetting narratives of great people sinking to new lows of behavior while the Israelites lurch from one crisis to another. How, one wonders, did this nation merit redemption in a Promised Land? Why does the Torah relate these stories in all their tumultuous detail?

The prophet Jeremiah had a far more charitable view, one that is part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. He reported that G-d spoke of the Generation of the Desert in this way, “I remember the kindness of your youth as you walked after me in the desert in a land without vegetation … I will surely have mercy upon you, says the Lord.” G-d saw a people just coming to nationhood who, despite all their numerous failures, tried to walk behind G-d and follow in G-d’s footsteps. The Israelites were entitled to the mercy of 40 years in the desert rather than being destroyed precisely because they had just begun to seek spirituality, and for many of them, the road to self-improvement led downwards or sideways before it eventually sloped upwards as adherents gained traction in the “Road of Hashem.” G-d’s timeline is far longer than ours, and this is what Jeremiah tries to teach us.

This perspective shift is vitally needed. We are often too hard on ourselves when we begin to change our lives through faith, or fitness, or meditation. Old habits die hard and slowly. This parasha teaches that relapses are frequent when we are pressured. We need to realize that, as Jeremiah put it, “we are young,” we are newbies on the road to self-improvement. The Intelligent Jew knows that truly changing behavior is very difficult, and if G-d could be patient with us, then we certainly can stop trying to “bootcamp it” ourselves. Not an easy message in a “hurry-up” and overly “benchmarked” society in which every day that a child cannot read past the age of 3 turns into a family crisis. We need to look away from the short term and immediate to the long term—both on the stock market and in maximizing our potential to become more Intelligent Jews. As the calendar slowly begins to point towards Rosh Hashana, this is the right place to begin our journey towards making this year better than the last.

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Zelophehad the son of Hefer passed away leaving only daughters as his descendants. His tribe rightly feared that if these young ladies married into another tribe, the size of their tribe’s allocation of land in Eretz Canaan would diminish. The young ladies, worried about their future, came to Moses and asked him to rule on who they could marry. They began by saying, “our father died in the desert, and he was not one of those who rebelled along with Korach, but died because of his own sin...” As soon as Moses heard this, he asked G-d to judge the case.

This has provoked some interesting reactions from commentators seeking the connection between the daughters’ statement and Moses’ immediate refusal to adjudicate the case. Some commentators wonder why his daughters stressed the fact that “he died for his own sin” when it would have sufficed to simply state he did not ally himself with Korach. Were they not disrespecting their dead father, a great sin in and of itself? The Talmud doubts this approach, stating categorically in Baba Batra “the daughters of Zelophehad were considered wise women.” According to this line of argument, their wisdom was marked by the delicacy of their reference to their father’s death because he, according to the midrash (and repeated by Rashi), was the man put to death because he gathered sticks on Shabbat. The Talmud evidently learns this because in both cases, Moses did not know how to rule and asked G-d to adjudicate.

But why would Moses not want to handle the situation? One interesting argument, put forth by both the Sochachover Rebbe and the Kotzker Rav, is that Zelophehad’s daughters were crying as they spoke and Moses feared that their cries might influence his judgement. Indeed, the Sochachover Rebbe cited a case in which a widow burst into tears when she began to testify and he immediately withdrew from the case, saying that the tears were equivalent to a bribe, and a judge is forbidden by Torah law to accept a bribe. This Chassidic approach is very interesting because it sees the true religious judge as far from being aloof from those who come before them seeking justice. It assumes that the tears are honest and reflect true suffering. On Yom Kippur at Neilah, the final prayer, we similarly ask G-d to hear our “heartfelt cries” that will open the “gate of tears” to our prayers. In this interpretation, the tears are like a bribe because they influence the judge irretrievably. This is a good thing because how can a human judge ignore the plight of a crying witness? Only G-d can see beyond the tears; human judges need humanity and mercy rather than strictness.

For those, like me, who prefer judges who can control their emotions, there is another answer which focuses on the fact that in the verse “the daughters of Zelophehad brought their case to Moses,” the underlined words are written with an elongated letter NUN. The Or HaChaim posits that when the daughters stood in front of Moses, he thought “I am getting old. Soon I will be in their position and will wonder about how my sons Eliezer and Gershon will deal with my death and what they inherit from me.” Realizing that he was influenced, Moses removed himself. But Rabbi Zacks of Belorus disagrees and argues, that it is precisely why the “nun” is elongated—Moses was highly impartial and that is the entire point of the letter’s elongation! Other people would not have been able to be impartial but Moses would have adjudicated the case without thinking about his own personal angst. But if this is true, one wonders why the commentator does not explain how the case was then given to G-d if Moses was impartial enough to adjudicate.

So the mystery remains—why did Moses not adjudicate? I will continue to investigate and will report again next year. A lovely example of why we need to keep learning.




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