-At Shaare Tzedek, I taught midrashim from the 9-11th century Palestinian collection Bamidbar Rabbah which helped me respond to and reflect upon the some of the events of the past week, including the senseless murder of 8-year old Leiby Kletsky and a fire which engulfed the Krhillath Jeshurun (KJ) Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Just as these rabbinic commentaries were almost certainly responding to real events and needs at the time they were written, I hope they will help us to reflect upon happenings in our own day which trouble us and seem to defy explanation.
Shavua Tov and thank you for joining in my journey!
“Where Do We Go From Here? We Are The Keepers of Our Brothers” –Safam
“כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה- All of Israel is responsible for one another.” We are taught so often as Jews that we have a collective obligation to one another. So much of Judaism is focused on community and the importance of coming together, reaching out and even bringing others in as part of our observance. Yet modern philosophies often stress the value of personal freedom and autonomy, of being responsible for oneself only in relationship to God. How do balance these two tendencies which often claw at us with equal strength?
This might seem like a recent conflict of ideas, but the Torah itself, and especially this week’s parasha of Pinehas present both of these approaches to our responsibility and culpability for the actions of others. The prescriptive potions of the Torah present conflicting commands and promises of whether God holds us responsible for the actions of others:
We read as part of the Aseret Hadibrot, the ten utterances or commandments found in Chapter 20 of Exodus and Chapter 5 of Deuteronomy: פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי, visiting the sins of parents upon children unto the third and fourth generations for those who detest me#; yet later in the book of Deuteronomy, in Parashat Ki Tetze, we are instructed: לֹא-יוּמְתוּ אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וּבָנִים לֹא-יוּמְתוּ עַל-אָבוֹת: אִישׁ בְּחֶטְאוֹ, יוּמָתוּ.# Parents should not die for the sins of their children, nor children for the sins of their parents; each should die for his or her own sin. These distinctions could be explained homiletically through midrash or critically through the proposal of different authors, but I think that the Torah wishes for us to struggle over collective responsibility vs. personal autonomy.
Perhaps the most famous example of the struggle over taking responsibility for one’s actions in the Torah comes at the beginning of Genesis. God challenges Cain after killing his brother Abel, אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ, where is your brother Abel? Cain answers, השומר אחי אנכי, Am I my brother’s keeper? While Cain should certainly be responsible for his own actions, his exclamation continues to ask us just how much we should be responsible for the actions of others.
This dynamic is seen in two episodes in our parasha. Slipped into the census which occupies almost half of the parasha is the statement ובני קרח לא מתו, and the children of Korah, who led a rebellion against Moses in the parasha a few weeks ago, did not die. The rabbis offer a number of explanations for this surprising occurrence; the book of Psalms notes that the sons of Korah were singers in the Temple in Jerusalem; the eleventh century French commentator Rashi proposes that the children of Korah repented; yet I think it is most noteworthy that contrary to what we might expect, compared to many other stories in the Torah and Tanakh, even Korah’s immediate family was not held responsible for his actions, and were given the opportunity to repent and change their ways.
Later on in the Parasha, five daughters of a man named Tzelophehad from the tribe of Menashe approach Moshe and asked for an inheritance, since their father had died and they had no brothers. Yet it is telling how the daughters go about approaching Moshe: אָבִינוּ, מֵת בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהוּא לֹא-הָיָה בְּתוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַנּוֹעָדִים עַל-יְהוָה, בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח: כִּי-בְחֶטְאוֹ מֵת, וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לוֹ. Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the assembly who rebelled against God in the assembly of Korah; he died for his own sin and left no sons.
Why did these women to mention their father’s sin and its exact nature? Why should it matter whether Tzelophehad was among Korah’s assembly or died for his own, separate actions? Rashi tries to explain the significance of Tzelophehad dying for his own sin -- he connects the man’s death to an earlier account of a man who was stoned for chopping wood on Shabbat – he died for his own sin only, thus he did not lead others astray, and made decisions which did not negatively impact the community.
Interestingly, Moses’s answer to the daughters of Tzelophehad does not even acknowledge their concern about their father’s sin; instead, he unequivocally grants them an inheritance. They are not punished for their father’s actions, but awarded their rightful inheritance on their own merit. But even if these women, considered particularly righteous for their wish to inherit in the land of Israel, were judged on their own merit, the mention of their father’s actions is a reminder that they, and we do, not live in a bubble, but our actions towards God and others, especially in the realm of mitzvot, are so often tied to those around us.
I believe that these struggles within the laws and narratives of the Torah text regarding personal and collective responsibility have much to say about our Judaism and life today. We have many different conceptions of halakhah, obligation, observance and how to practice. It is often easy to see ourselves on individual journeys towards how to express our relationships with God and our Jewish observance, and as personally responsible for only our own actions. But even when we feel empowered, we must remember that we have an obligation to our communities and other Jews beyond them; to share our passion and knowledge, to nurture, to educate and to create caring communities, so that those around us have the tools to take ownership of their actions like the sons of Korah and Daughters of Tzelophehad.
 Sifra Behukkotai 7:5
 Exodus 20:5/Deuteronomy 5:9
 Genesis 4:7
 Genesis 4:8
 Numbers 26:11
 Numbers 27:3
 Rashi ad. loc.
Seudah Shlisheet @Shaare Zedek
Seudah Shlisheet @Shaare Zedek
1) Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2: A True Leader Must Understand The Uniqueness of Each Human Life
“ Moshe said: May God, master of the spirits of all creatures, appoint a person (leader) over the community. Who shall go out before them and return before them, who will send them out and bring them back, so that the community of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:16-17).”
A halakhah is taught: if one sees a large population of people, s/he says: Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, discerner of secrets. – For just as their faces are not the same, so their opinions and needs are not the same, rather each has a unique personality and perspective of his or her own. And thus it is written (Job 28:25), “to give a weight to the wind,” (homiletically, spirit), to the spirit of each and every person – you should know that it is thus that Moshe was requesting at the time of his death.
Moshe said before God: Master of the Universe! The thoughts of each and every person are clearly known before You , and the thoughts of each of Your children are not the same as another; please, appoint a leader for the, who is capable of being patient with each person according to his or her own needs, as it it is written, “May God, master of the spirits of all creatures, appoint a person (leader),” – it does not say master of the spirit, but rather of the spirits. Thus it is written: (Isaiah 45:11), “Ask Me about the things to come regarding my children, and command Me about the work of my hands.”
To what metaphor can this be compared?
To a king who married a woman and had a friend; Each time the king got angry at his wife, the friend would help them to reconcile. When the friend came close to his death, he requested from the king: please, turn your thoughts to your wife. The king turned to the friend and said: If you are commanding me regarding my wife, command my wife to be careful about my honor!
Thus conceivably, it is as if God said to Moshe: Since you command me to ‘appoint them a leader,’ command them that they should be meticulous regarding My honor.
Therefore it is written, “Command the children of Israel and say to them regarding my daily meal offerings” (Numbers 28:2).
וידבר משה אל ה' יפקוד ה' וגו'
אמר לפניו: ריבונו של עולם! גלוי וידוע לפניך דעתן של כל אחד ואחד, ואין דעתן של בניך דומין זה לזה, וכשאני מסתלק מהן, בבקשה ממך מנה עליהם מנהיג, שיהא סובלם לאחד ואחד לפי דעתו, שנאמר: יפקד ה', הרוח אינו אומר, אלאהרוחות זה שאמר הכתוב: (ישעיה מה): האותיות שאלוני על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני.
משל למה הדבר דומה?
2) Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah 21:25: Regular and Special Sacred Time As A Space for Community and Healing
There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
“On the Eighth Day it shall be an Assembly for you (Num 29:35). What does “for you indicate?”
God said to them: The Festivals should be pleasant for you.
A certain idol worshipper came to Rabbi Akiba, and said to him: Why do you observe these Festivals? Did the Holy one Blessed be God not say to you, “I detest your New Moons and Festivals (Isaiah 1:14).
Rabbi Akiva answered: If God had said, I detest My New Moons and Festivals, then I would agree with you, but the text stated “your New Moons and Festivals’ because of the festivals proclaimed by Jeroboam, as it is written “Jeroboam made a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the festival that was celebrated in Judah. He offered sacrifices on the altar which he had fashioned in Beit El in the month which he had chosen of his own volition, and he went up to offer incense on the altar (I Kings 12:32-33).”
But the appointed times and new months listed in our parasha will never be cancelled. Why is this the case? Because they belong to God, as it is written (Leviticus 23:2), “These are the Festivals of God,” and (ibid. 23:44) Moses communicated God’s Festivals to the people of Israel.”
Thus, the Festivals will not be cancelled in the time to come, as it is written, (Psalms 111:8) “They are upheld now and forever (when) practiced with truth and uprightness.”