Parshas Chukas begins with the laws of Tumas Mes, where we learn that if a person comes in contact with a dead body (or is merely under the same roof as a dead body) he is given the status of a ‘Tameh Mes‘ and the only way for him to become tahor (pure) is for him to be sprinkled with the water of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) on day three and day seven of a seven-day procedure.
The pasuk reads, “And the pure one shall sprinkle on the impure one on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall purify him on the seventh day; then he shall immerse his clothing and immerse his flesh in water and be pure in the evening. [Bamidbar 19:19]. There is an interesting passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) which certainly requires further exposition. Rav Yehoshua ben Kafsai said “My whole life I read this pasuk ‘the pure one shall sprinkle on the impure one…’ and I assumed that a single tahor individual needed to sprinkle the Parah Adumah water on a single impure individual.” Rav Yehoshua ben Kafsai then says, “This was the case until I learned otherwise from ‘Oztroseha shel Yavneh’ (literally – the storehouse of Yavneh) that a single tahor individual can even sprinkle on many tameh individuals.”
The question is, what does it mean he learned this law from the “Otzros of Yavneh”? What does the Talmud Yerushalmi mean by the term storehouse of Yavneh? Rav Meir Shaprio, the Lubliner Rav and the founder of the Daf Yomi concept, was also a powerful orator. He presents a homiletic exposition to this passage of the Talmud Yerushalmi.
What happened in Yavneh? At the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai met Vespasian, the Roman General who later became Emperor of the Roman Empire. Vespasian granted Rav Yochanon ben Zakkai three wishes. One of the three things Rav Yochanon ben Zakkai asked for was “Yavneh and her Sages.” Yavneh was a city on the Mediterranean Coast of Eretz Yisrael. It had a Yeshiva. Rav Yochanon pleaded that this Yeshiva be spared so that despite the great Destruction that was coming to the Temple and the Jewish population in Jerusalem and other parts of the country, he would have a few remaining Talmidei Chachomim who would preserve Torah and Judaism for future generations.
The Talmud (Gittin 56b) suggests that Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai may have made a mistake. Perhaps one of his requests of Vespasian should have been to spare the Beis HaMikdash. Be that as it may, Rav Meir Shapiro suggests that the Yerushalmi, in referring to the “Otzros of Yavneh,” was indeed referring to the lesson learned from the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakkai in Yavneh!
The Torah that we learn here today, and the fact that there are still people who learn Torah throughout the Jewish world, is the result of the few Talmidei Chachomim left in Yavneh after the Churban HaBayis who literally saved the world of Torah. Had they been wiped out, Torah would have been forgotten.
So, what do we see from the “Otzros of Yavneh“? Rav Yehoshua ben Kafsai was saying, “I see from Yavneh the power of one individual. One person—and certainly a few good people—can make a difference, can save the world! I always thought that one tahor person can sprinkle on one other tameh person and have a one-on-one affect. But from Yavneh I see that one tahor person can affect hundreds of people.”
We have seen in our lifetime individuals who have revolutionized the world. It is his homiletic insight, so we can cite him as an example. Consider Rav Meir Shapiro himself. It is mind-boggling to think of the zechus Rav Meir Shapiro has for coming up with Daf Yomi—now in their 14th cycle of daily Talmud study, completing Talmud Bavli once every seven-and-a-half years by synchronized study of a Daf a Day! Thousands and thousands of people worldwide learn Daf Yomi. Rav Meir Shapiro did not live 2,000 years ago or even 200 years ago. He lived in the 20th century. He came up with an idea that revolutionized the world. There are people like that.
There are others as well—Rav Aaron Kotler, the Vilna Gaon, the Ramban and the Rambam—people that revolutionized the Torah world. But even people like us can make a difference. One person can make a difference. For example—this is not a plug, but it comes to mind—The Ner Israel Rabbinical College, which many in my audience had the zechus to attend, started in 1933 with four students. Those four boys came to a nothing of a Yeshiva—it hardly even existed. But because four people came, it came into existence. Those four people who ‘took the plunge’ in 1933 can take at least partial credit for all the thousands of people who have passed through the portals of Ner Israel in all the subsequent decades of its flourishing development. They made a difference. This is what the Gemara means when Rav Yehoshua ben Kafsai says, “This I learned from the ‘Otzros of Yavneh‘.” This is why one pure person can effectively purify many tameh individuals.
The Ultimate Battle Between the Sechel and the Lev
The pasuk in this week’s Parsha says, “The Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelled in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he warred against Israel and captured a captive from it.” [Bamdibar 21:1]. So, who is this? There is a very interesting Rashi here. He explains that this Canaani nation who lived just south of the southern border of Eretz Yisrael who attacks Klal Yisrael is actually none other than our old nemesis Amalek, because it says about Amalek [Bamidbar 13:29] that they dwell in the land of the South.
If this nation is Amalek, what does our pasuk mean when it calls its leader “the Canaani”? He is not a Canaani but is an Amaleki? Rashi explains: They disguised their language to speak the Canaanite language (rather than the Amalekite language) in order to trick the Jews. The plan was to mislead Bnei Yisrael to pray to Hashem “to deliver this Canaanite nation into our hands” when in fact they were not Canaanites! Their strategy was to deflect the prayers of the Jews by having them pray for the wrong thing!
Rashi, however, notes that there was a major flaw in their “battle plan”. The Jews noticed that they were dressed like Amalekites, even though they were speaking the language of Canaan. The Jews therefore became suspicious and were unsure whether they were dealing with Canaan or with Amalek. That is why, Rashi continues, Bnei Yisrael offered a generic prayer without mentioning a specific nationality: “If You will deliver this nation into my hand…” [Bamidbar 21:2].
Let me ask a question: These Amalekites are so wise and so perceptive that they realize that if a Jew davens to the Ribono shel Olam, it is going to be effective. They are even so knowledgeable that they know if a Jew davens to Hashem and he utters the wrong Tefilla, it is not going to be effective. They know the Almighty listens to prayer and that it is effective and how precise it must be. Furthermore, they knew that the Jews already did battle with Amalek once (at the end of Parshas B’Shalach) and they knew the Jews realized Amalek was a fierce enemy. The Jews recognized that defeating Amalek would require dedicated and focused prayer. Part of Amalek’s plan was to pretend they were only Canaanites. The Jews would think they were doing battle with a pushover nation, so their davening would not be as intense. Less intense davening will not be as effective.
One might ask: If Amalek knows all this, the power and effectiveness of prayer and the existence and omnipotence of Hashem, then why do they remain Amalek? Why do they persist in their evil ways? Why don’t they say, “Listen, Hashem Elokim Emes”? How can one remain an Amaleiki if he knows all of this? Why not throw in the Amaleki towel and say “I give up. You are right” and convert to Judaism?
The answer is that their sechel (intellect) may have told them that, but whatever their tayvos (lusts) and lifestyle had been was not compatible with being a Jew or being a Shomer Mitzvos. I can see something as clear as day right in front of my hand, but there is a long distance from a person’s brain to his heart. They may have known it with their minds. The point could have been proven to them intellectually and rationally, but if it does not fit in with a person’s personal agenda, he may not make that final leap. He will twist and turn and rationalize and be in denial, but will refuse to honestly confront the truth.
This is not only the story with Amalek. This is the story with all of us. We know the Emes. We know that the Ribono shel Olam knows everything we do. We know what He expects of us. But from time to time, we do things that we should not be doing. Ay, we know the truth? We know that one day we will need to pay a price for this? But there is a big difference between the Sechel (intellect) and the Lev (heart).
We see another example of this in this week’s parsha. There is a big dispute among early authorities regarding the exact aveira (sin) of “Mei Meriva.” What did Moshe do wrong? Rashi and other commentaries learn that he hit the rock, when he should have spoken to it. The Rambam in Shmoneh Perakim offers a different explanation. He says the aveira was that Moshe Rabbeinu lost his temper. He said “Hear ye, you rebels.” [Bamidbar 20:10]. There must be fifteen different interpretations as to what the aveira was.
The Ramban here cites an explanation of Rabbeinu Chananel, which he endorses. He explains that their aveira was in verbalizing the question “Shall WE EXTRACT for you water from this rock?” implying that it was within their power, not that of the Almighty, to perform such a miracle. Moshe’s aveira was giving the nation an opening by which they might not fully believe in the powers of Hashem.
Let us ask the following question: Chazal say that all of Klal Yisrael, which numbered in the millions of people, all stood around the rock and saw the rock. But how could that be? It is impossible to fit two million people into a ten square foot area. Rashi explains that it was a miracle. “This is one of the places where a small area (miraculously) held a great number of people.” Furthermore, Chazal say that once this Rock opened up, all the rocks in the area began spouting water. Another miracle!
Thus, there could absolutely be no denying that they were witnessing miracles from Heaven. There was no way anyone could err and believe it was some kind of trick that Moshe was doing though sleight of hand. And yet, Chazal say that from the fact that Moshe used the expression “WE SHALL EXTRACT for you water” – people could rationalize and say “It is not from G-d, it is from Moshe Rabbeinu.”
This is yet another example of the phenomenon that something undeniable can be staring a person in the face, and yet, if the person wants to rationalize and wants to ‘make a mistake’ and deny, he can deny: “No! Moshe Rabbeinu had some kind of trick up his sleeve.” It is the same principle: Something can be as clear as day, but if for some reason psychologically we don’t want to believe and we don’t want to accept, we will find an excuse.
I once said over the following story, but it bears repeating. It is another classic example of this same idea:
A story occurred with Rav Yechezkel (Chatzkel) Levenstein, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir in Europe, and later of Ponevezh in Eretz Yisrael. An irreligious cab driver who was driving Rav Chatzkel remarked that he had once witnessed an open miracle.
When secular Israelis complete their army service, they typically unwind by touring some exotic location. After his army service, this cab driver decided to tour a mountainous region in Africa with some of his army buddies. One night, they awoke to hear one of their friends screaming in terror. The young man was enveloped by a huge boa constrictor, which was squeezing the life out of him.
They had no idea how to free their friend, and they were afraid to do anything to the snake, lest they antagonize it and make it squeeze even harder. Facing what seemed to be the inevitable, one of the friends said, “I know that when Jews are about to die, they recite Shema. Maybe you should recite it now.”
As soon as the ex-soldier screamed, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” the snake unwound itself and slithered away into the darkness of night.
“That miracle changed my friend’s life,” the cab driver concluded. “He vowed to become a baal teshuvah, and he kept his word. He traveled directly back to Israel and is now a thoroughly religious Jew. ”
Rav Chatzkel turned to the cab driver and asked, “U’mah itcha—and what about you?” “Me?” the driver responded in a quizzical tone. “The Rav doesn’t understand. The snake wasn’t wrapped around me; it was wrapped around my friend. “He had the snake around his neck – what does that have to do with me? Let him become frum. Why should I change my lifestyle? What do you want from me?”
Now, you might think that if someone witnesses such an event, it should have a personal impact on him. He should react. He should say “Look at this!” The answer is that if someone wants to deny, he can be staring at a miracle and still deny. A person can see two million people in a small area, a person can see water coming out of stones, a person can believe in the power of prayer like Amalek did – but if a person wants to continue living the life that he has been living, then he will continue to do so no matter what.
This is the ultimate battle between the Sechel and the Lev. Our job is to see to it that our Sechel overpowers our Lev.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Chukas is provided below:
- #018 – Rending Garments on Seeing Yerushalayim
- #063 – Intermarriage
- #107 – Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva — Do Sons Inherit?
- #152 – Halachic Considerations of Transplanted Organs
- #199 – Stam Yeinam: Non Kosher Wines
- #245 – Skin Grafts
- #335 – Postponing a Funeral
- #379 – The Jewish “Shabbos Goy”
- #423 – Tefilah of a Tzadik for a Choleh
- #467 – Detached Limbs and Tumah
- #511 – Autopsies and Insurance
- #555 – Women Fasting on 17th of Tamuz, Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur
- #599 – Blended Whiskey
- #643 – Choshed Bekesherim and Daan L’kaf Z’chus
- #687 – Water, Coffee and Tea
- #731 – Shkia – 7:02: Mincha 7:00 A Problem?
- #775 – Wine At a Shul Kiddush
- #819 – Mayim Geluyim – Uncovered Water – Is There a Problem
- #863 – Shabbos In The Good ‘Ol Summertime
- #907 – Bracha Acharono on Coffee and Ice Cream
- #951 – The Body Works Exhibit
- #994 – Bilam and His Donkey: A Problem with Tzar Ba’alei Chaim?
- #1038 – Flowers At The Cemetery?
- #1082 – Should You Buy An Expensive Esrog Box?
- #1125 – Saying Kaddish For More Than One Person; Lo’aig Le’rash for Women?
- #1167 – “If Hashem Saves Me, I Make A Neder to…….” Good Idea or Not?
- #1210 – Postponing A Funeral Revisited
- #1255 – I keep 72 Minutes, You Keep 45 — Can I Drive Home With You After 45 Minutes?
- #1256 – The Last Day of Sheva Brachos Starting Before Sh’kia, Bentching After Tzais — Are There Sheva Brachos? And other such Shailos.
- #1299 – Can You Remove Your Yarmulka for a Job Interview?
- #1343 – Making a Mi’she’bairach for a Choleh on Shabbos – Is It Permitted?
- #1387 – May A Kohain Attend the Funeral of the Gadol HaDor
- #1431 – Reuven Has Yahrzeit for Father; Shimon Has Yahrzeit for Mother -Who Gets Maftir?
- (2020) – Can You Pay Someone to be a Shomer for a Mais? – Can You Use a Used Matzeiva
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