Zoom class on Purim, b”H, Tuesday, March 22, 7:30 pm Israel time. Meeting ID: 836 1383 3117, Passcode: 327302, or see it on YouTube
THIS IS THE parsha in which Nadav and Avihu make the deadly mistake of offering an incense offering that was not commanded. Just when everything had reached such a great height at the ceremony to inaugurate the Mishkan, they did this thing that caused a complete reversal from joy to mourning, and from religious ecstasy to shock.
The commentators, of course, spend a lot words trying to explain what happened and why. And of course there is the idea of allilus, Divine pretext to carry out tikun on some level that we do not understand, but which can be traced back to Creation. (If you want to see the Leshem’s detailed explanation of allilus, go to my site at http://www.shaarnunproductions.org/leshem.html, Divine Pretext.)
From the Talmud, it seems that part of the problem may have been their over-anxiousness to lead the nation. The Talmud says that while walking behind Moshe and Aharon, they would wonder to each other when their elders would pass on and they could take over. In response to that, God said, “Let’s see who buries whom!” (Sanhedrin 52a).
It is okay to want to be great. It is the reason that makes the difference. If it is to be honored by others, the Zohar says that is an Erev Rav-like quality (Bereishis 25a). If you want to be great because you just want to be the very best you possibly can, that is a soul-drive. If you want to be great to make a positive difference to society, that is definitely a soul-drive.
A great way to learn about the path to greatness was actually in Megillas Esther last week. Mordechai did not aspire to be great for public praise. He wasn’t interested in rising to the top of anything. He was only looking out for the best of his people, and risked his life to do so. If he had died anonymously, it wouldn’t have bothered him as long as he knew he had done his best at what he believed God wanted him to do.
But look at where he ended up. In fact, the entire Megillah ends off talking about him and his success. It doesn’t even discuss what happened to Esther in the end, just Mordechai. Just as the Torah seems to chronicle Moshe Rabbeinu’s rise to prominence, Megillas Esther seems to do the same for Mordechai. The moral of the story: Greatness comes from God. Do your best to be the greatest for the right reasons, and God will take care of the rest. God knows who you are and where you can be found. If you deserve it, He’ll make sure you shine for the rest of the world.
THE YERUSHALMI LEARNS something else from Mordechai’s rise to power (Yoma 14a). It compares the redemption of the Jewish People to the rise in power of Mordechai. It says that just as the morning light sparks a bit first and then takes time to get brighter before becoming day (in five stages: Ayeles ha’Shachar, dawn, the eastern sky lights up, sunrise, and noon), likewise the geulah of the Jewish peoples comes little by little .
That’s certainly the way it seemed to have worked in Mordechai’s and Esther’s time. We talk about “v’nehafuch hu,” that all of a sudden, the events of Purim turned around in favor of the Jewish people. One moment they were facing down the barrel of Haman’s gun, and the next moment they were holding it on Haman. But that’s just the way it appeared to us because when the redemption actually started, it was too small for most people to notice.
How do we know this? Because these are the verses that the Yerushalmi mentions with respect to Mordechai:
“Mordechai was sitting at the gate, etc.” (Esther 2:21) … “Mordechai sat at the gate of the king” (6:12) … “Haman took the [royal] clothing and the horse, etc.” (6:11) … “Mordechai went out before the king in the royal clothing” (8:15), and “There was light and joy for the Jewish people” (8:16)
Now, until the last verse, do you think that anyone said, “Well that’s a sign that redemption is on its way!”? If anything, they might have wondered if Mordechai’s humiliation of Haman would only anger him more and intensify his hatred of the Jewish people. Sometimes good events are followed by even worse events, and given the spiritual condition of the nation at the beginning of the story, why should they have assumed that God wanted to save them?
But hindsight is not only 20-20, it is also very insightful. The Babylonian Exile had been the first one that the Jewish people had experienced since first becoming obligated in Torah. Everything was new including how redemption worked. Their learning experience was recorded for us to know for the future, because more exiles were eventually on their way, three major ones and other more local exiles.
Unfortunately, the lesson seems to have been lost over time. Again, people do not recognize the redemption in progress because it happens in stages and in amounts that most do not see as part of the final redemption. They’re waiting for the grand finish, when everything just seems to turn around so completely for the Jewish people.
Until then, they worry about the direction of history. Until redemption clearly happens, they ignore the signs that it is time to prepare for it and maybe even change locations. They see history as business as usual when in fact it is anything but that. They listen each year to Megillas Esther but they seem to miss its message.
Not good. Not safe.
WE SAID GOODBYE to another Gadol b’Torah this week, a truly remarkable man for many reasons, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l. Never someone who looked to be a famous Torah leader, Rav Chaim, as he was respectfully and affectionately called by so many in the Torah world, was clearly destined for it.
They once asked Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, how one becomes a Posek HaDor, a leading halachah decider for a generation. In his trademark simple and humble style, Rav Moshe answered, “One day someone asks you a shailah (halachic question), which you answer. If they like your answer, they tell their friends about you, who ask you their shailos. Then it just grows from there.”
Rav Chaim insisted until the end that he wasn’t a posek. But that did not stop people from living by his word. How could he not be a posek? He knew so much Torah, including obscure commentaries and recalled them all. If anyone knew what there was to say about anything Torah, it was Rav Chaim.
His devotion to Torah was legendary and unparalleled in recent times. It is hard to imagine what the learning of such people even just 100 years ago was like if we had someone who could learn as he did in our time. Aside from everything else, he made a siyum once a year on the entire Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, and who knows what else. And that was just his morning learning seder, because in the afternoons he saw people to help them with their issues.
We are not only a ship without a captain, as the signs posted around the country say, but a captain-less ship being tossed around in a tumultuous storm. There is no way to really know or properly appreciate how much a tzaddik counterbalances evil in the world. But you can be sure that the loss of a gadol of such caliber has left a gaping hole in our protective covering.
True, the Talmud says that the sun does not set on the life of one tzaddik without first rising for the next one. But there is also the concept of yeridas hadoros, a spiritual weakening that gets worse with each generation. To my knowledge, there is no next generation Rav Chaim as of yet.
If anything, that greatness is divided among different, less prominent, gedolim. Collectively, many gedolim may possess what Rav Chaim had as an individual. But it just works differently and more powerfully when all that Torah and middos (character traits) are in a single individual.
I was reminded this week of an idea I heard years ago that is very relevant and important at this time. Basically, when such a great person is taken from this world, it leaves a great spiritual void. As Rashi points out at the beginning of Parashas Vayaitzai, it also leaves a roshem, an impression. The void with the roshem creates a special opportunity for those left behind. It allows them to receive and make use of some of the light and heavenly help once used by the tzaddik who is no longer here to use either.
Of course, we need to mourn the loss of any great leader, but especially of a great Torah leader. But we must also take advantage of what they have left behind in their wake. Learn a little extra. Improve your middos a bit more. Stretch yourself spiritually while the light of Rav Chaim can still be felt.
This Week’s Book Excerpt: Not So Bad
IT IS THE 23rd of Tammuz, 5779, and SIX days into the “Three Weeks.” It is also 1,949 years since the Second Temple was destroyed, and 2,441 since the destruction of the First Temple. Yet life goes on for most Jews, including religious ones, as if things aren’t so bad.
Seemingly they’re not. We’re in exile, but not on the run. We live in nice houses in nice communities. We have kosher food galore. We send our children to good schools. We wear nice clothing. We make Shabbos and Yom Tov in style, and some even make billions of dollars. You call THAT exile?
The WORST kind.
There is a story in the Talmud of Nachum Ish Gamzu who, while riding his donkey, was approached by a beggar for some food. Nachum had every intention of giving the man what he needed, as soon as he dismounted from his donkey. After all, what difference could a few extra seconds make to the starving man?
EVERY difference. In that moment the man died. By the time Nachum dismounted to help the man, he was dead. Nachum became so distraught that he cursed every part of his body that should have been used to save the man. Consequently he suffered terrible physical injury and discomfort for the rest of his life.
The situation was apparently far more dire than Nachum had detected—and he was extremely sensitive. He was shocked at how oblivious he had been to the man’s true situation, and punished himself for it. When his students told him, “Woe that we have seen you like this!” he replied, “Woe if you had NOT seen me like this.”
In our case, we are Nachum. Who is the beggar? That is the Shechinah. We are aware of the Shechinah, talk about it, perhaps even do things to try to cause the Shechinah to dwell among us, but ALL of it is on our OWN time. We know that the Shechinah needs something, but we are oblivious to just how desperate the situation really is.
There is one important twist, however. In the world’s case, it is not the Shechinah that is ultimately at risk, but MANKIND—and the JEWISH PEOPLE specifically. In truth, God needs NOTHING. Being oblivious to the situation hurts no one but us in the end.
As Tisha B’Av comes around again, this is CRUCIAL to know.