A deeper understanding of the multi-faceted, even contradictory arguments coming from Korach’s camp. The parsha sheds light on the terrible nature of argument as well as gives us better understanding of Judaism’s message.
Based on a class by Rav Moshe Lichtenstein
Tearing toilet paper on Shabbos is prohibited as it is tearing, a violation of koreiah. If one finds oneself in a situation where there are no tissues or cut toilet paper, one may tear toilet paper in an abnormal fashion, such as resting the paper on their leg and tearing it with their elbow. Though there are some who hold it is forbidden to tear on the perforations, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach maintains that it is permitted. Therefore when tearing in this abnormal fashion one need not be careful about not tearing on the perforations.
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” – Berkley Breathed
“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.” – Henry David Thoreau
There are no shortage of inspiring quotations telling us that no matter what, we can always turn around, we can always change, always erase the past. The problem is that it is not always true.
We read today one of the most tragic passages in the Torah. The Jewish People on the cusp of one of the greatest turnarounds in history were about to leave their past behind. No longer slaves, bearers of a radical and powerful tradition, and about to complete the trifecta by entering the land of Israel. But they did not.
They foolishly believed the report of the spies, they lost their faith in Moshe, lost their faith in G-d, and they were left to die in the desert. That would seem to be a summary of this week’s Parsha.
Only that there’s one more chapter to the story, one that we normally gloss over.
After hearing that G-d was upset with them, after hearing that they made a terrible mistake by not believing in G-d and wanting to go back to Egypt, a large number of the Jewish People say, “Hey, it’s never too late!” They arm themselves, and instead of going back towards the desert as G-d told them to do, they start marching towards Israel. Moshe begs them to turn around, to come back, that they’ll be unsuccessful, but they don’t listen. “Moshe, it’s never too late to be what you might have been, to have a happy childhood. We’re going for it.”
But it was too late. They didn’t make it too far before being defeated and killed.
It’s not very often that I get emotional listening to C-Span. But when Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, concluded his rousing speech this week after the terrible shooting in Virginia, and was followed by Nancy Pelosi, who said, and I quote, “You’re going to hear me say something you’ve never heard me say before. I identify myself with the remarks of [the speaker].” I was genuinely moved.
Only that after being moved, a more cynical thought crossed my mind, “It’s too late Ms. Pelosi, and it’s too late Mr. Ryan.” An atmosphere of such intense hatred is a fertile ground for the terrible calamity that we saw at the Republican baseball practice. And it’s very nice to come together at a time like this, but it would even be nicer if they had done so in the past.
Sometimes it is too late.
There is some fascinating research that demonstrates the relationship between tragedy and human bonding. Crises do make us closer. The theory behind it is that when there’s a crisis we feel vulnerable and alone. And it’s then that we have a heightened need for social connection, our most basic human need. So it’s natural to come together at times of distress. But sometimes, we have burned so meant bridges before the crisis that there is no one left to bond with.
I hope I’m wrong, I hope this past week demonstrated that maybe just maybe it’s not too late on Capitol Hill for people to come together. Maybe just maybe there still exists a human bond of shared purpose bridging the political divide. I hope and pray that that is the case.
Turning inwards, I hope we can also learn the tragic lesson of the spies, and recognize in our own lives that sometimes it’s simply too late.
When a person is reckless with their life and only acknowledges it after something tragic happens to them or to someone else. It’s too late.
When a child forgives their parent only after the parent dies. It’s too late.
When a husband and wife are constantly bickering and they don’t start to work on their relationship until one party wants out. It’s too late.
Of course, sometimes it is not too late, and we have an obligation to not throw in the towel. But sometimes we’ve simply waited too long and when we wake up there is something irrevocably lost.
I want to share with you a story of someone who thankfully did not wait until it’s too late.
About four years ago, a young Chassidic man, Nachman Glauber, was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York. Raizy, his wife, was six months pregnant with their first son, who died the next day, after being delivered. A few days later, a letter that Nachman had written to his parents on his wedding day emerged. I’d like to read it to you (translated by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg):
To my dear parents:
In these imminent joyous and highly spiritual moments of my life, when I’m heading to my chuppah to begin my own family, I feel a sting in my heart that I’m already leaving your warm home.
I feel an obligation to thank you for everything you did for me since I was a small child. You did not spare time, energy and money, whether it was when I needed a private tutor to learn or an eye doctor or general encouragement. Also, later on, you helped me to succeed in my Torah studies, you sent me to yeshiva to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.
Even though I’m leaving your home (actually I’m not leaving, I’m bringing in an additional family member) I want to tell you that all the education and values you taught me I’ll – with G-d’s help — take along with me in my new home, and continue to plant the same education in my home and kids that G-d will grant me.
But since kids do not grasp what parents are, and how much they do for them, and only when he matures and – with G-d’s help — have their own kids, they could realize it. And unfortunately I may have caused you a lot of pain; I am asking you to please forgive me.
I’m asking you, I’m dependent on your prayers, pray for me and my bride, and I will pray for you.
I pray to G-d that Daddy and Mommy should see lots of pride and delight from me and my special bride, until the final redemption of the Messiah.
From your son who admires and thanks you and will always love you.
Nachman could not have known that his life would be robbed just a few months later. We never know when that day will come. But Nachman thankfully said what he what to say before it was too late.
May we learn to do the same, to say thank you, to say I love you, to say I’m sorry today. May we be blessed with long lives. May we be blessed with second chances and third chances and fourth chances. But let’s also remember that sometimes it is too late.
There is a Biblical prohibition against tearing an item apart – Koreiah. This was done in the Mishkan when curtains would get holes by insects or wear and tear, they would rip the material a little bit larger than the hole so they could sew it up again. This being the prototype of Koreiah it only includes tearing for a constructive purpose. However, our Sages included tearing even for a destructive purpose. Since tearing destructively is Rabbinic there are certain types of tearing that were not included in their decree.
Tape cannot be used on Shabbos. Similarly, one should not stick a sticker as it is an extension of ‘sewing.’
A sticky tab on a diaper may be used when putting a diaper on. As opposed to an adhesive which one plans on putting on for a limited amount of time which is forbidden, a diaper is intrinsically a temporary act (diapers cannot stay on a baby for very long). However. after using the diaper one should not use the tabs to wrap the diaper as they are being placed to last permanently.
Extensions of the prohibition of sewing are gluing, stapling, and the like.
Buttoning and zipping, although they too bring two pieces together, are not considered a form of sewing and are allowed on Shabbos. The reason for this distinction is that the two sides or pieces that are brought together when zipped or buttoned are not perceived as becoming one. Therefore, one may zip a lining of a coat on Shabbos even though they plan on leaving it there for a long time.
Included in the prohibition of sewing is the following scenarios: If the stitching of clothing starts to come undone and one were to pull a thread causing the two pieces of fabric to come close again is a form of sewing. The same is true for a loose button – pulling a loose thread that causes the button to be attached is also prohibited on Shabbos.
One of the 39 prohibitions on Shabbos is called Tofer, which means to combine two pieces of material and make them one through sewing. This was done in the Mishkan when they sewed the curtains together. Extensions of this prohibition (tolados) include taping, stapling, gluing or attaching by any other means.
The Rema rules that even attaching two items temporarily is included in this prohibition. This poses a number of questions including using a zipper or fastening a diaper with its sticky tabs. They will be discussed in the days to come.
Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg was invited to deliver the commencement speech at Harvard University. He began by stating that if he gets through the speech it would be the first time he actually finished something at Harvard. As many of you know, Zuckerberg, the 32 year-old founder of Facebook and one the richest men in the world, was a Harvard dropout.
It was a beautiful speech, especially touching when he invoked his Jewish heritage with a prayer that began with the words, Mi Shebeirach. But I want to share with you one story that he considered to be his favorite. John F. Kennedy once visited the NASA space center in the early 60’s. Walking around the facility, he came upon a janitor an he asked him, “So what do you do here?”
The janitor, without missing a beat, said, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.
One of the most well-known and oft-quoted ideas from the Zohar is that every Jew has a letter in the Torah. What that means is that each and every one of us plays a central and unique role in the world. Just like a Torah that is missing a letter is invalid, so too the world would not be the same without each and every one of us.
The janitor was right. Without his contribution, man would have never walked on the moon. And without our letter, this world in some way, would be incomplete. Regardless of our age, regardless of our profession, the Zohar is teaching us that we play a role far larger than we can ever imagine.
Three years ago, Coby Rosemore, who was then eight years old, was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors had found a metastatic, aggressive tumor in Coby’s brain. He underwent four craniotomies, countless rounds of chemotherapy, gene therapy, and immunotherapy. All of those treatments left Coby, a formerly energetic young boy, entirely immobilized. But instead of giving in, the young boy decided to take up painting, which he did with gusto. Chai Lifeline, an organization that helps children with illnesses, pulled some strings and Coby’s paintings made their way into the Walter Art Museum for a one-day showing.
I want to read to you his mother’s post on Facebook, inviting people to attend her son’s art debut:
“If someone were to ask me to paint a picture depicting my feelings during the 29 months since Coby’s diagnosis, the canvas would be filled with blacks, grays, ugly greens, and moody blues. Perhaps if I had any talent, it would resemble Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” But not Coby. Despite multiple surgeries, uncertain prognosis, and endless rounds of debilitating chemo, Coby paints in rich, vibrant, and lively colors. His paintings radiate hope, light, and life.”
I never met Coby, but I would often see pictures on my Facebook feed of a tiny little bald boy with the biggest smile you can imagine. Over the past few months as his situation deteriorated I would receive countless emails about special prayers that would be said on his behalf and learning that would be taking place in his merit.
This past Monday, eleven year-old Coby Rosemore returned his soul to his creator. And of course I cannot tell you why such terrible things happen. What I could tell you is what this little boy accomplished in his short little life. He brought people love, he brought people joy, and he brought people hope. He was the catalyst for countless prayers, so much learning and so much Chessed.
(May G-d comfort his parents and may his memory be for a blessing.)
A janitor brought a man to the moon, an eleven year old brought unparalleled light into the world; every letter in the Torah is needed, every letter, every one of us can make a difference.
Which brings me to my next point – you see, there’s something that we sometimes miss in this teaching of the Zohar, that every person has a letter in the Torah.
You see, we’re very good at respecting the Torah and standing in awe in its presence. We lift the Torah and everyone stands up. A person drops a Torah, Heaven forbid, and everyone fasts. We, here, spent the past few months committing ourselves to the writing of a new Torah, and boy did people respond! Beyond our wildest dreams. So many people participated on so many levels. Everyone wanted to take part in this amazing Mitzvah.
On Sunday, when the final letters of the Torah were being written, and as we danced the Torah to the Aron, there was not a dry eye in the crowd. And today! As we danced and sang, followed by the children, bringing the Torah to the Bima for the very first time, who here didn’t feel inspired? Uplifted?
But ladies and gentleman, we’re missing something here. The Zohar, by teaching us that we are rooted in the Torah, that every Jew has a letter in the scroll does not mean that we get our holiness by being connected to the Torah! It’s the other way around! The Torah gets her holiness from us! From the fact that we are connected to her!
The Torah is an instruction manual and we are the product! Which one is more important?!
This is why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuos. The book of Rus is all about chessed, kindness, it’s about people living their lives to the fullest, it’s about people pushing themselves beyond self-imposed limitations and the limitations of society, it’s about changing the world, and it’s about people who changed themselves. But there is nothing there explicitly about the Torah itself. Why then do we read this book on Shavuos?
Explains the Sefas Emes, that is precisely the point. The Torah we received at Sinai was just a book. The story of Ruth reminds us that we are not just celebrating the receiving of a book. We are celebrating those who live by the book! Ruth, Naami, Boaz – they didn’t just study Torah. They lived it! There is a Torah Shebiktav, a written Torah, and there is a Torat chayim, a living Torah. That’s the real deal. That’s what we’re really celebrating.
All the respect, all the honor, all the emotion that we feel towards the Torah, it belongs to you. We are Sifrei Torah! Far more important than the manual, is the man or woman who lives by it; who lives as a living Torah.
It’s not just Torah scrolls that we are good at honoring. We are good people and we are so good at seeing holiness everywhere; ask a parent about their children’s potential, ask the many people staying in this room in a moment about their parents’ kindness. Us Jews are so good at memorializing the past and educating the next generation. But what about ourselves? What about ourselves? We too are Sifrei Torah. We too are holy. We too are important. Let’s not forget that.
In 1945, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, men and women were returning to their homes all over Europe. They weren’t there to say, they were there to see if they could find family members so they could move on and rebuild. Vilna, a once-thriving community, was one such place where survivors were gathering. Every few days a few more survivors would come home, more often than not, to find out that their worst nightmares were true, that no one in their family remained.
One chilly October day, as the survivors gathered around talking, a man came running over, shouting, “Chevra, friends, it’s simchas Torah today!! Let’s go dance with the Torah scrolls!”
They may have been skeletons of their old selves, but their souls were still burning. They were beaten but not broken. And so together they made their way to the old shul, which was now boarded up. As they walked through the streets, more and more survivors joined them. They started singing defiantly through the streets despite the stares from the windows.
Upon arriving at the shul, a few strong men came forward and ripped away the boards blocking the entrance. Joyfully, they jumped over the barrier… and stopped in their tracks.
Torn pages strewn all over the floor, bullet holes punctured wall, and blood, dried blood everywhere they looked. Their gaze slowly made its way to the Aron, to the Ark, and there it stood, wide open and empty. The Torahs had been stolen by the Nazis.
Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.
And then they heard two children crying. Children after the Holocaust? Somehow, a young boy and girl managed to survive, and they stood among the crowd, and started to sob.
Slowly, one man made his way over to them and picked up the young boy and held him tight. One woman bent down and picked up the young girl and hugged her. And then without saying a word, the men and women of Vilna started to dance. Slowly at first, but the circles moved faster and faster. All night, the survivors of Vilna danced.
At the center of their circles was not a Torah made up of parchment and ink, but one made up of flesh and a soul. That night, the children were their Sifrei Torah.
Do you know how we truly memorialize our parents? Do you know how we properly educate our children? Do you know how we appropriately respect the Torah? When we see ourselves as a letter in the Torah, when we recognize that we too are a part of something bigger, when we recognize that G-d believes in us more than we believe in Him, when we appreciate that an eleven year-old can make a difference and we say, so can I, when we think not only of the future and not only of the past, but we think about the present.
Writing a Torah is a slow process, and the same is true for our growth; letter after letter, challenge after challenge. Mistakes are made, you go back and erase it. But with time, with patience, and with energy, it gets done.
Friends, we have reached a very special milestone in our shul’s history – we have written a new Torah scroll. Now, it’s up to us to live by it, to actualize our immense potential, to become a living Torah.
If I read one more article, hear one more comment, or receive one more questions about who allowed Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump to travel on Air Force One last Shabbos, I will hit the roof. And no, it was not me.
A week and a half ago, a short article in Politico cited unnamed sources who claimed that Jared and Ivanka received permission from a rabbi to travel by plane to Saudi Arabia on Shabbos. The power-couple have, in the past, stated that they keep Shabbos every week, and on face value this flight to the Middle East seemed to be a breach of their religious observance. For the past week, my email box has been exploding with a running debate on a rabbinic forum, the amount of articles that have picked up this short Politico piece is staggering, every single Tom, Dick, or Harry has weighed in on whether or not they were justified in doing so.
This is not the first time their religious observance has made the news. After the inauguration ball they were driven home by the Secret Service, on Friday night, which was once again questioned by everyone who had a mouth, pen, or keyboard.
And I’m here to say, E-NOUGH!
On so many levels.
Lets’ start with the law itself. Which prohibition is there to get on a plane before Shabbos and be in a plane on Shabbos?
There is no prohibition whatsoever!!
And here’s a little secret. I once flew on Shabbos! Yup! I was in Australia and I flew home on a Sunday. Now according to some authorities, the Halachic dateline begins almost immediately after you fly off the continent. So technically, as soon as the plane took off, I went from Sunday – to Shabbos.
But guess what? Sitting in a plane is no different than sitting on a cruise ship. And assuming you could avoid all other prohibitions on the boat or plane, there is no problem riding on one.
Now, there is a very serious Biblical injunction of not travelling beyond the city limits, a prohibition that would prevent them from travelling anywhere past the airport. That’s why you cannot get off of a cruise ship on Shabbos. Now I don’t know what the Kushner’s did about that. But I just want to begin by pointing out that Politico is a great news outlet, but not exactly a legal authority when it comes to Jewish Law.
And then of course you have the question of violating Shabbos for saving lives. One is allowed to get into a car, one is allowed to violate virtually any Torah prohibition to save lives.
Now, in Halacahic literature there is a distinction made between imminent danger and saving someone’s life down the line. So for example, there is no dispensation for a scientist who is doing cancer research to go to work on Shabbos. But where we draw the line, what is imminent and what is not, that’s a tough question. I imagine, though I don’t know for certain, that some pretty important things were discussed behind closed doors in Saudi Arabia. It is well-known that the Saudis are inching forward to some form of official tie to Israel. I don’t know if that is enough of a justification, but it’s a really good question.
So my first point is simply, get the facts straight. Before we find out WHO gave them the dispensation, which rabbi did they speak to, let’s acknowledge the complexity of the case. I am not weighing in on it – especially since there are so many details I don’t know. But it’s far from simple to assume that what they did violated Shabbos.
Point two is an observation made by my friend Shmuel Winiarz. According to this Politico article they asked a rabbi who gave them permission. Because of the gravity of this issue, all the investigative reporters in Washington took a break from researching Russian ties to the Trump administration and from looking into the tragic death of Seth Rich, to put all their efforts into figuring which rabbi they spoke to. (That was sarcastic, by the way.) They have yet to find which rabbi told them that it’s allowed. But you know what, if it’s true, if it’s true that they asked a rabbi – good for them! They asked a rabbi! Now I don’t know if the rabbi was Rabbi Shem-Tov from Washington, if it was Rabbi Google, or if the president put on a fake beard and they asked him, but how many of us ask at all when we are not sure?! We assume, we guess. It’s uncomfortable to ask – especially since we may not get the answer we want. So you know what, if it is true, that’s great. Instead of slamming them and the anonymous rabbi we should learn from them.
Point #3, and what I really want to get to. I once saw a beautiful and somewhat controversial idea by Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz. He asks the following question – the first two kings of the Jewish People both committed grave sins. King Saul disobeyed an explicit command to wipe out the entire nation of Amaleik and King David sinned with Bat-Sheva. King Saul is immediately told that he will lose his royal position and no longer be king. Whereas King David is not only allowed to maintain his role as king, G-d later tells him that the Davidic line will never cease. They both sinned gravely, why the difference?
Now there are many differences between the mistake of Saul and the mistake of David, but Rabbi Steinzaltz chooses to focus on one key difference. King Saul disobeyed G-d’s orders because he was persuaded by the people who didn’t want to kill the livestock of the Amaleikim. King David on the other hand sinned out of passion. Suggests Rabbi Steinzaltz, King Saul’s sin demonstrated that he was a weak leader; a follower and not a king. David, while his act was inexcusable, demonstrated a lapse of judgment and a shortcoming that did not impact his ability to lead. King Saul sinned in a way that impacted his public persona, King David did not. Losing his kingdom was not a punishment, insofar as it was an expression of his inability to lead. King David, who never allowed his shortcoming to impact his ability to govern, humbled by his sin could stay on as king.
Now I understand that this is extremely controversial. Controversial because if we take this to the extreme one can suggest that a man or woman who is truly a vulgar person in private can compartmentalize their immoral private life from their public life, which I don’t think is true. There will be spillover.
But I think we can all agree that whether Jared and Ivanka keep Shabbos strictly, not so strictly, or not at all, none of that impacts their role in the White House. Being scrutinized by the media may “come with the territory” of being in politics, I get that. But I’m not speaking to reporters. It’s unbecoming of US to sit around and talk about other people’s level of religiosity. It does not impact their political abilities, it’s not our business, and frankly, it’s voyeuristic.
If someone is trumpeting their religiosity, if someone claims to be a religious leader and we know that they are not, call them out on it. If someone is claiming that something is allowed according to the Torah when it is not, call them out on it. But when someone says, as Ivanka once said, “We’re pretty observant, more than some, less than others. I just feel like it’s such an intimate thing for us.” That means it’s private. Let’s give them that privacy.
Since when do we go around judging how religious people are?
And I want to clarify, when people do things and say things and publicly claim that it is acceptable according to Orthodox standards when in reality it is not, that’s something entirely different – personally, I think we should speak out against that. Judaism is predicated on a set of laws and standards and I am not sure if we could afford to live and let live when our tradition is at stake. But let’s leave private citizens – or in this case, the private aspects of public citizens alone. Whether it’s politically motivated, whether it’s motivated by a desire to make us feel better about our lapses in religious observance, wherever it’s coming from, it’s unbecoming.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, one of the leading rabbis of the 19th century, was once invited to the home of a community leader for a meal. The host noticed that when his distinguished guest washed his hands before eating bread, he only washed up to the point where the fingers meet the palm. He was surprised that Rav Yisrael did not adhere to the preferred practice of pouring water on his hands up to his wrists. During the course of their meal, he asked the great rabbi why he sufficed with the minimal standard of washing.
Rav Yisrael explained, “It’s very nice to be stringent, to be machmir and wash until one’s wrists. However, that is all fine and good if one does not have to worry about someone having to transport the water for him to do so.”
Rabbi Salanter lived in the 18th century and he knew that a water carrier was bringing water to this gentleman’s home. Rabbi Salanter was teaching his host a message he would repeat over and over again: “A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.”
It’s natural to look around and be curious as to what other people are up to, especially when they are in a position of prominence. We don’t have to stifle that very natural tendency. Let’s look around but instead of looking for other people’s spiritual shortcomings, let’s look around and see who’s suffering, who’s hungry, who’s crying, who’s broken. And when it comes to spiritual matters, let’s look inside. Instead of worrying about Jared and Ivanka’s Shabbos observance, let’s worry about our own. Instead of worrying about which rabbi they spoke to, let’s ask ourselves how often we ask someone else when we are unsure. Instead of worrying about their soul, let’s worry about our own.