Korach, the son of Itzhar, the grandson of Kehat, and the great- grandson of Levi; Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab; and On, the son of Pelet, descendants of Reuben, began a rebellion . . . (Bamidbar 16:1)
You know what it is like when you first tear something, even just a little? And then, it just seems to keep tearing for one reason or another. Well, that is the way it has been for the Jewish people. We started off from a single piece of cloth, and then we ripped, and we have kept ripping for thousands of years, for one reason or another, until we have come to resemble different pieces of cloth altogether. To disagree, it seems, has become an inherent trait of being Jewish, at least that is what many have come to believe.
Moshiach will have to be a master tailor to sew it all back together and restore achdus -(unity) until we return to being a single, seamless piece of fabric. Fortunately, he will have miraculous abilities to do so, but in the meantime, this parshah sheet will be devoted to knowing at least a little, and I mean only a little, of the history of the split within Klal Yisroel and the reasons for it.
It is a point of disagreement as to when the split in this week’s parshah occurred, but most hold it was in the year 2487, one year prior to entering Eretz Yisroel. The rebellion was quickly extinguished, and Dasan and Aviram, Moshe’s nemesis since Egypt times, were finally no more.
However, THE split of Jewish history from which we have not since recovered, was the breaking off of the ten tribes into an independent nation called the Kingdom of Israel. The other two tribes of Yehudah, Binyomin (and Levi), were called the Kingdom of Yehudah. This happened after the death of Shlomo HaMelech -(2964/796 BCE), and according to the Talmud (Source), was blamed on Dovid HaMelech. Only 240 years later, they were driven into exile by the king of Assyria and they became the Ten Lost Tribes.
Whether they will EVER return is a point of debate in the Mishnah. Whether they completely disappeared is also another point of discussion. For example, the Talmud says that the resurrection that Yechezkel performed in the Valley of Dry Bones was on the 30,000 Ephraimites who had left Egypt prematurely and were killed as a result. They were resurrected just before the destruction of the First Temple and subsequent exile of the Kingdom of Yehudah, and if they were, ironically, they would have survived the split into the two kingdoms and exile of the Ten Lost Tribes.
In 3338/423 BCE, Nebuchadnetzar and the Babylonian Empire finished off the job that the Assyrians had begun. Within ten years, practically every Jew was in exile, either lost in Assyria or living in Babylonia. And, seventy years later after the Purim miracle, as Jews began to make their way back to Israel to rebuild the Temple on their land, many did not return with them. Rather, they had built up communities, seeing little if any reason at all to return to the Holy Land.
The second time was around 3410/350 BCE from Creation. It was finished in Herod’s time, some 315 years later. During that time the Greeks invaded and occupied Eretz Yisroel for 180 years, which lead to the Chanukah miracle, and by 63 BCE Pompey had conquered Jerusalem, officially beginning the fourth and final exile: Golus Edom. It was the Romans who moved Jews, primarily as slaves, to various parts of their vast empire, widening the Diaspora for the Jews.
By 70 CE, the Second Temple had been destroyed, and a bitter period of exile only got worse. With the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus, Jews were shipped back to Rome and other parts of Europe as spoils of war. Once a small, compact nation localized on a single piece of land, we were in the process, a long process, of fulfilling the words of the Torah to be sent to the four corners of the earth.
And, between persecution and poor lines of communication, it was just a matter of time before communities lost complete touch with one another. But, until this time there had only been Jews, those who kept Torah and those who did not. There was no such thing as Ashkenazic or Sephardic communities at that time. There were communities of Babylonia and Eretz Yisroel, and some other smaller ones scattered throughout. But as Jews sought refuge by going further east to the lands of Ashkenaz (Germany, Poland, and Lithuania), and west to France and Spain, the foundations for the divisions of today’s Jewry were being laid, creating demands upon the leaders of Torah Jewry to respond with extraordinary measures to assure the survival of Torah and the Jewish people.
For, it is a time to act for G-d, they have voided Your Torah. (Tehillim 119:126)
So much of Torah convention is in reaction to a crisis. For example, the Oral Law was not supposed to be written down, but in 187 CE Rebi Yehudah HaNasi did just that with the approval of his colleagues, because he saw how persecution and exile were weakening the ties of the people to Torah learning and law. About 300 years later, for similar reasons, the Talmud went a big step further, recording the explanations of the Mishnah in order to make sure that the tradition remained intact as the Jewish community scattered and thinned out.
In the period of the Geonim (589-1030 CE), the age of responsa began and flourished. Not every community had great rabbis to bring their halachic questions to, and many were new because the situation for the Jew was new and constantly changing. Torah is rarely performed under ideal circumstances, but it addresses EVERY type of circumstance and few knew enough Torah to make major halachic decisions.
Therefore, it was quite common for communities to send their shailos to the leading Gedolei HaDor -(Torah leaders of the generation) of their time for responses. But, in any case, as Rebi Yehudah HaLevi writes, all of it, without exception, is a matter of Hashgochah Pratis -(Divine Providence).
Going back to the time of Yosef and his brothers, we see how G-d moves the pieces around and draws out certain responses based upon the needs of the moment, and the greater needs of history and the ultimate goals of Creation. He writes:
This was, in truth, one of the wondrous manifestations of Divine Providence, which provided each of these approaches [to Torah study] with its own place, each traveling its own road, until they converged and joined together. It is true that in France and Germany it was a while before the Geonic responsa and literature found its rightful place . . . In the days of the early Tosafists, however, the words of the Geonim and of the Sephardic Torah scholars began to reach them more frequently, while on the other hand, all of the literature of the Tosafists was received in Sephardic communities and was delved into carefully. This combined wealth of halachic literature was mutually clarified during the generations of Rabbeinu Zerachiah Ba’al HaMa’or, the Rambam, the Ra’avad, and all of their contemporaries; and after them, the Ramban, the Rashba, the Rosh, and all the scholars of those subsequent generations. This was truly the developmental approach of Torah scholarship that was ordained by G-d, and a true manifestation of the wondrous direction of Divine Providence in regard to all that bears upon a clarification of Torah knowledge. (Doros HaRishonim, p. 295)
Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi lived from 1075-1151 CE, around Rashi’s time, and thus only wrote about what he had learned and seen in his time. He died in the 2,464th year after Torah had been given, 852 years ago. Clearly, the vast majority of Torah history until the time of Moshiach had already been lived out. Yet he described a process that would continue on well after his time.
Indeed, the average Jew, and even Torah scholars often only see things in terms of keeping Torah to the best of their abilities, always trying to respond to the needs of the moment as per the teachings of Torah to the best of their knowledge. And, though situations arise that we fear and resist, especially when they make living by Torah next to impossible, G-d Himself is busy directing history in ways we’ll never understand until prophecy returns.
The truth is, the origins of split and different traditions can even be traced back to Parashas Yisro. It was Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, who had suggested that he share the power with other leaders. As Moshe criticized later in Parashas Devarim, “If you can learn from the teacher or from the student, which is preferable?” The answer is obviously the teacher. The people chose the students, opening the door for a system that could only lead to differences of interpretation and opinion, especially when persecution made intense Torah study extremely difficult, and exile made comparisons of traditions impossible.
Thus, the Talmud laments yeridas hadoros -(the going down of generations). The students of Shammai fought virulently with the students of Hillel, says the Talmud, because they did not serve their masters well enough. And, the split just kept getting bigger. It’s hard to imagine G-d’s master plan including the idea of the weakening of Torah knowledge and the breakdown of the Jewish community, but . . .
When Christopher Columbus set sail for America in 1492, there were Jews aboard his ships escaping the persecuting hands of the Inquisition. Indeed, the Inquisition, as is the case with all anti-Semitism, forced many Jews out of Spain for other lands, perhaps because the Holy Sparks of one place had been depleted sufficiently, while those of distant lands beckoned for Jews to come and collect them on behalf of G-d and history. Who knows?
By the 1500s, there were Jews all over Europe, Russia, Asia, and America. Some had held on to Torah in spite of the hardships, while many had simply given up. The Western world was also evolving, and it was having its own profound impact on the ways Jews lived, especially on those who had lost their connection to Torah tradition.
On the other hand, in the 1300s the Zohar was finally published and was making its way through the Torah world. Until that time, one either had a tradition in the teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and most did not. With the publishing of the Zohar, Kabbalah became far more accessible than the previous millennium, and though the revealed part of Torah became weakened, the hidden part -(Nistar) was becoming increasingly more revealed, especially with the life and teachings of Kabbalists such as Rabbi Moshe Cordevero (1522-1570) and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria – the Arizal (1534-1572).
However, the volcano of world history was still simmering and was destined to erupt soon after, especially against eastern European Jewry. The Chelminicki Pogroms of 1648 were still to come that would devastate many communities, inflicting torture and cruel deaths on countless innocent and peace-loving Jews. Perhaps, had it not been for these pogroms, the stage would not have been set for Shabbtai Tzvi, the false messiah of 1650, a Kabbalist and self-proclaimed savior of the Jewish people.
He may have come to unify the Jews of Europe in a common cause of redemption from the hostile gentile populations of time, but his escapade had the opposite effect. He may have wanted to encourage the learning of Kabbalah among the masses, but instead he instigated a ban on the learning of Kabbalah until age 40. And, it was in the wake of his disaster that left the Torah Jews of Eastern Europe somewhat paranoid, and which laid the groundwork for one of the last great splits of Jewish history between a new approach to Torah -(Chassidism) and their opposers -(the Misnagdim).
Therefore I have loved Your commandments, more than gold, even more than fine gold. Therefore, I have declared the fairness of every precept regarding everything! I have hated every path of falsehood. (Tehillim 119:127-128)
So we’d like to believe.
Today we read the writings of the Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with enthusiasm and pleasure, however, while he lived (1770-1746), they burned his books and forced him into exile. He had been a victim of the paranoia that had set into European Jewry. As righteous and brilliant as he was, as a Kabbalist, he spoke openly about Moshiach and the redemption, a great mitzvah:
In the Sefer Mitzvos Katan, he wrote in his explanation of the Positive Mitzvah of, “I am G-d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt,” that it means one must know that He Who created Heaven and Earth alone controls [the world] above and below. However, to this he added, “This [mitzvah] is the basis for what the rabbis teach: At the time of a person’s judgment after death, they ask him, ‘Did you anticipate redemption?’ (Shabbos 31a). Where is this mitzvah written? Actually, it comes from this [same mitzvah], for just as, ‘I am G-d, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt,’ means that we are expected to believe that G-d redeemed us from Egypt, it also means, ‘Just as I want you to believe that I took you out [from Egypt], I also want you to believe that I, G-d your G-d, will gather you in and redeem you in mercy a second time’.” According to what he (Sefer Mitzvos HaKatan) has said, belief in the future redemption is part of our faith in, “I am G-d, your G-d,” and thus included in the first of the Ten Commandments. However, if we examine ourselves, it seems as if we are very far from having faith in the future redemption. Occasionally we speak about G-d having made Heaven and Earth, and that He directs creation. However, when it comes to the arrival of Moshiach and the resurrection of the dead, we are quiet, as if we are embarrassed to speak about them, as if we have given up [on such realities] altogether. However, the words of the Sefer Mitzvos Katan should arouse trembling in our hearts since they are part of the mitzvah of “I am G-d, your G-d.” And, anyone who is not involved with these matters is far from having any true faith . . . In truth, most of the Shemonah Esrei deals with the future redemption . . . And, just as we are lacking faith in this matter, we are also distant from the essence of prayer. We lack connection to [the blessings regarding redemption], and all of our prayers are only lip service! (Ohr Yechezkel, Emunas HaGeulah, 1960; p. 287)
As a result of the Shabbtai Tzvi disaster, the Jews of Eastern Europe charted a course of Torah learning that was as mainstream as one could get, because it was safe. Deviatation from that line of learning, one risked being branded dangerous at the least, and a heretic at worst. And, when the Ba’al Shem Tov introduced such a deviation which quickly resulted in all kinds of differences in approach to performing mitzvos and serving G-d, one that was geared more to the masses, it triggered an all-out war that included the greatest Torah scholars of the time, such as the Vilna Gaon.
Reconciliation was not forthcoming, and polarization resulted instead. While the Misnagdim focused on the essence of Torah learning, the so- called bread-and-butter of Torah tradition -(Talmud and Poskim), Chassidism focused heavily on the spirit of Judaism, sometimes at the cost of the former. And, as Rabbi Berel Wein points out, Chassidus survived the test of time, at its start it was quite volatile and anything but mainstream, with an emphasis on Kabbalistic teachings that seemed to put salt into the wounds inflicted by Shabbtai Tzvi and his followers.
The trouble is that there have always been breakaways in Jewish history, and most of them have been destructive to Torah tradition. We are a small people who have been entrusted with a sacred mission that carries with it tremendous responsibility. The world depends upon our living up to that responsibility, and it is the nature of men, when living under such conditions, to reduce everyone to either friend or foe. Change never comes easy to the Torah world, especially when it first appears as a break with tradition, as so many movements have proved to be, as opposed to just another aspect of it that had yet to be revealed.
It’s like raising children. If parents were prophets and could see that the shtick their kids are doing now will not prevent them from growing up and becoming responsible Torah adults, they could afford to be more forgiving now. But parents are not prophets, and often today’s shtick is tomorrow’s habit and way of life, and wars develop between parents and their children (often resulting in even more rebelliousness). The whole thing might be very entertaining in Heaven, but down here on earth it can become as hot as Gehinnom between parents and children, and between different groups of Jews.
When all is said and done, as of today, 5764 from Creation, 2004 by the Western dating system, we have ALL KINDS of groups of Jews. We have Ashkenazim (Litvacks), Sephardim, and Chassidim. We have Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, and a few more groups that have emerged out of those three categories. From a halachic perspective there are only two categories: those who observe Torah and those who do not. But from the community’s perspective, more and more keep emerging. And, when it comes to the keeping of Torah and mitzvos, “to each his own” is not really a relevant comment to make.
Thus, issues and topics that might be quite acceptable to discuss in some communities is off limits in others. In some shuls you can get up and make certain statements that will bring you praise, and in others scorn. One student’s hero may be another’s heretic, and this can be true even within a single group of Jews! Matters that should be foremost in our minds are often taboo because of the way they have been handled in history, much to the delight of the Sitra Achra who lives one day longer each day that we hold off the Final Redemption.
Yes, we have come a long way since the days of Korach. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been in the direction of division. Achdus -(unity) would be nice, but the truth is, we really don’t have the tools to bring it about. The differences between Jews are too many and too vast. There is too much confusion and not enough understanding of the situation and it needs to melt the differences and fill in the rifts. The analytical approach many take towards Torah is left behind in the Bais Midrash and not applied to everyday issues.
“I will sanctify My Great Name . . . And I will take you from the nations and gather you . . . And I will sprinkle pure waters upon you . . . And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit . . . I will put My spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will follow My decrees and keep My judgments and do them. You will dwell in the land . . .” (Yechezkel 36:23-28)
“[Israel] will no longer be divided . . . They will no longer be contaminated . . . My servant Dovid will be king over them, and there will be one shepherd for all of them; they will follow My judgments and keep My decrees and follow them. They will dwell on the land . . .” (Yechezkel 37:22-25)
We live in an era of specialization, of division. Once there was a concept of the Renaissance Man, someone who knew something about everything. Today, people know a tremendous amount about only a few things.
The Talmud actually debates this approach to learning (Horios 14a), and the decision is quite interesting. Even more interesting is that in spite of the Talmud’s decision the Academy followed the opposite course of learning. “Sinai adif” means that it is better to have a leader who knows something about ALL of Torah, than “oker harim,” someone who performs deep analyses on only specific topics.
The truth is, the Jewish people as a whole require both, and every talmid chacham must possess both abilities. But, overall, Torah is a totality, a big picture, and though it is possible to learn out the general scheme of themes from the specifics, it is unlikely that most will do so. For a Torah outlook to be a Torah-true outlook, it must take into account as much of the totality of Torah as is possible, and that is what makes our Torah leaders so unique and reliable (not to mention the Heavenly help they received as well).
It is the big picture of Torah that possesses the power to unify the Jewish people, as we saw when G-d gave Torah at Mt. Sinai, and as we learn when the Jewish people collectively face a crisis. It is by knowing all of Torah, all of the Mishnah, the entire Talmud, both of them -(Babylonian and Jerusalem), and all the myriad of commentators that interpret all of this. AND by knowing and understanding Kabbalah, one rises above his or her selfish tendencies and biases to respond honestly and accurately to the moment. A VERY tall order, even for a talmid chacham today.
And, rather than try and know all of Torah, instead we continue to focus only on certain aspects of it, and on sections that do not usually result in the kinds of lessons for living that make people better husbands, fathers, and Jews in general, and better in touch with the ultimate demands of Jewish history. Rather scary, is it not?
Perhaps, if one did not know Sod, for in the realm of Sod, as the Leshem explains, tikun of history takes place on two planes, at least until Moshiach arrives. On the surface of things, explains the Leshem, everything seems to be moving away from each other, achieving just the opposite of achdus. History is supposed to unify everything, but it seems as if just the opposite has been occurring.
Not so, says the Leshem. Somehow, the spiritual world is able to work in the opposite direction of the physical world without disturbing it. Of course, all that means is that we are actually misperceiving the physical world, which is easy to do when it does such a darn good job of appearing to be what it seems to be, even though we have found out time and again how we were wrong all along.
Thus, what we have been perceiving as the ultimate splitting of the Jewish nation into an exponential amount of parts and divisions in the physical world, has actually been masking a unification that has been occurring simultaneously out of the grasp of our mind’s eye. How does G-d do it? Beats me. But then again, He can do anything He wants any which way He chooses to do it, and human beings seem only too willing to make easy and comfortable assumptions about physical reality, which only makes G-d’s job that much easier, and free-will that much more possible.
I’d love to discuss the concept more, but it is late, and after eight pages of divrei Torah, one for each of the meals of Shabbos and a Melave Malkah, it is time to “split,” I mean close for today.
Have a great Shabbos,
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org