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Message from our Clergy |Shelach, 5780

06/19/2020 10:40:50 AM


June 19, 2020

Dear Ohev Community,

Please see below for a D'var Torah from Rabbi Herzfeld.

Today is the holiday of Juneteenth, which celebrates the day that enslaved Blacks in Texas discovered that they had been freed in 1865. As I learn more about this holiday I am reminded of Pesach - our own holiday of freedom - and the spiritual challenges it has presented to many Jews throughout history who celebrated their freedom every Pesach even though they were often suffering antisemitism. And so the 3rd week of our 16th St Faith Vigil Against Racism feels particularly significant today. Please join me at 5pm in front of Ohev if it is safe for you to do so. Please bring a sign, and a mask.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

Maharat Friedman


Shelach, 5780
Dreaming Big is Never a Sin
Shmuel Herzfeld

This past week I read a biography of Albert Einstein and it inspired me greatly.  I learned that several years after Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking articles on atoms, light, and relativity, he was still unable to get a teaching jobin a university.  When he finally got a job in a university it was in an unpaid capacity teaching on Saturday mornings.  Only one student attended his class!  And yet, through his disappointments and failures, Einstein never wavered in his belief in himself and in his big ideas.

I thought of these inspiring snippets while reading parashat Shelach this week.

In parashat Shelach we read about a man who sinned while gathering wood on Shabbat:
Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron, and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death—as the LORD had commanded Moses (15:32-36).

The Torah does not reveal the identity of this man who gathered wood on Shabbat.

But Rabbi Akiva tells us who he thinks it is.  Based upon the fact that the passage here uses the word wilderness (midbar), he argues that this gatherer of wood is none other than Tzlofchad, about whom the word midbar also appears. 

The daughters of Tzlofchad came to Moshe and said:
The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons (27:1-3).

The daughters of Tzlofchad say that their father died because of his sin, but his sin is not explicit in the Torah, so Rabbi Akiva says that his sin was that he gathered wood on Shabbat.  Says the Talmud:
On the topic of the wood gatherer, the Gemara cites that which the Sages taught in a baraita: The wood gatherer mentioned in the Torah was Zelophehad, and it says: “And the children of Israel were in the desert and they found a man gathering wood on the day of Shabbat” (Numbers 15:32), and below, in the appeal of the daughters of Zelophehad, it is stated: “Our father died in the desert and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons” (Numbers 27:3). Just as below the man in the desert is Zelophehad, so too, here, in the case of the wood gatherer, the unnamed man in the desert is Zelophehad; this is the statement of Rabbi Akiva (Shabbat, 96b).

Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira is outraged that Rabbi Akiva would suggest that Tzlofchad is the one who gathered wood on Shabbat.  He cried out, “Akiva, you are going to have to answer for this in the Heavenly Court.  If Tzlofchad is the wood gatherer then the Torah covered it up for a reason and you should not have revealed it.  And if Tzlofchad is not the wood gatherer then you are wrongly suspicious of the innocent.”

Tosafot takes up this discussion and explains that the wood gatherer, i.e. Tzlofchad, had noble intentions and thus Rabbi Akiva was not maligning his character by revealing his identity.   (Bava Batra, 119b s.v. afilu).  Tzlofchad sinned out of concern for the future of the Jewish people.  After the sin of the spies (which appears earlier in our portion), the Benei Yisrael were told that they would not be allowed to enter into Canaan and would die in the desert.  Tzlofchad was concerned that many would think that there was no longer a point to observing Shabbat and that the laws of Shabbat did not apply anymore.  So he sinned, and martyred himself for the sake of reminding the community that the laws of Shabbat apply now more than ever and that indeed, the observance of Shabbat would be the pathway out of the wilderness.  

Understood in this manner, Tzlofchad’s sin was a holy sin.  In the face of being told that their dream of entering Canaan would not be realized, Tzlofchad reminded the people that their ultimate dream of building a utopian spiritual community was certainly not dead.  Despite their setbacks, the people should continue to strive religiously to build a spiritual community.

What about Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira?  He said Rabbi Akiva was incorrect and that Tzlofchad was not the wood gatherer.  In that case according to Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira what was the sin of Tzlofchad?  The Talmud says that according to him Tzlofchad’s sin was that he joined the maapilim.

However, according to Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, from where was Zelophehad’s liability derived? Why was he executed? The Gemara answers: Zelophehad was among those who “presumed to ascend to the top of the mountain” (Numbers 14:44) in the wake of the sin of the spies (Shabbat, 97a).

The story of the maapilim also appears in our portion.  After the Benei Yisrael are told that they cannot enter the land, a group refuses to accept this decree and still tries to enter the land.

When Moses repeated these words to all the Israelites, the people were overcome by grief. Early next morning they set out toward the crest of the hill country, saying, “We are prepared to go up to the place that the LORD has spoken of, for we were wrong.” But Moses said, “Why do you transgress the LORD’s command? This will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the LORD is not in your midst. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there to face you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned from following the LORD and the LORD will not be with you.” Yet defiantly they marched toward the crest of the hill country, though neither the LORD’s Ark of the Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp. And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah (14:39-44).

This group –known as the maapilim—failed miserably in their attempt to enter the land.  They were cut down in battle and died.  But in their death they served as an inspiration to many early Zionists who saw greatness in them for believing in their own strength and in their own ability to enter the land.  The maapilim declared we love the land so much that we will not wait for permission to enter into it.  We can do it even without the help of Gd.  Sure this is brazen and foolhardy, but there is something deeply admirable in their desire to follow their dreams no matter the cost.

Possibly Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira was also sympathetic to the maapilim.   Remember that he criticized Rabbi Akiva for accusing Tzlofchad of sinning.  If that is the case then how could he say Tzlofchad was one of the maapilim?  It must be that Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira did not consider the maapilim to be sinful.

According to both opinions in the Talmud, Tzlofchad is a heroic figure.  He takes upon himself the responsibility of bringing hope to his community.  The community has been given a harsh sentence.  He tells them all is not lost.  We must dig in and continue to dream.  

To dream big is never a sin.  Sometimes it might be a mistake, but it can never be a sin.  Imagine if Einstein had stopped dreaming.  Imagine if the early Zionists had stopped dreaming.  It is easy to have high hopes when everything looks rosy and bright.  The challenge is to continue to dream even after setbacks; the challenge is to dream even in days of darkness.

These last few months have tested all of us in ways we never could have anticipated.  There have been some very difficult days, but no matter the situation, we will always continue to dream big.

To dream big is never a sin.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783