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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha'aloscha: Unchanged Judaism


The Torah praises Aaron that he did exactly as instructed and did not change anything. The Dubno Maggid uses the parable of three sick people to explain Aaron's praise. The success of the unbroken transmission from Mount Sinai until today is a result of the Jewish people's acceptance of their spiritual leaders. In order to guarantee the continuity and unity of the Jewish people, the great sages had to come to one decisive conclusion and listen to the leader of the generation. The descendants of Eisav hate the descendants of Jacob, irrelevant whether Jacob observes the laws of the Torah or not. Obviously, there is no continuity for Judaism by offering a religion based on mysticism void of practical observance. It is our obligation to continue in the way of Aaron. We shall investigate and study to the best of our ability, but we shall never make any changes to the observance of the mitzvoth.

Praise Aaron

In the beginning of this week's parasha, G'd tells Moses to instruct Aaron how to kindle the Menorah. The Torah concludes and says: (Bamidbar 8:3) "And Aaron did so as G'd had instructed Moses." Rashi comments in the name of Sifri that the Torah praises Aaron for doing exactly as instructed and not changing anything.

Three sick people

The famous Dubno Maggid asks what kind of praise is this? Even a simple person would not dare to change something G'd commanded, so why is Aaron praised for this? To answer this the Dubno Maggid offers a parable about three sick people who suffered the same serious illness. All three went to a well-known specialist, who instructed them to take a certain medication and how to conduct themselves. The first patient was a simple person. He followed the doctor's instructions without any questions and was soon healed. The second patient was somewhat knowledgeable in medicine and after receiving the doctor's instructions, he did some research of his own. He decided that the prescribed medicine was good and took it. However, he did not see the purpose of the doctor's other instructions and did not follow them. Unfortunately, his sickness took a turn for the worse and he eventually passed away. The third patient also had some knowledge of medicine and was curious to investigate the medication and other instructions he received from the doctor. However, he recognized the superior knowledge of the specialist and followed the doctor's instructions even though he did not fully understand why the doctor prescribed that particular medicine. As could be expected, it did not take long for this third patient to enjoy a full recovery.

Three followers of Torah

When it comes to following the mitzvoth (commandments)of the Torah, says the Dubno Maggid, we also find three categories of people. There are many simple, straightforward people who follow the Torah's instructions. Without delving too deeply into the reasons behind the mitzvoth, they readily observe every mitzvah. Others, who are more intelligent and have a more inquisitive mind, want to understand the rationale behind each and every mitzvah. They decide to observe only what they understand, and due to their limited knowledge they have major flaws in their observance. With the passing of time, their observance diminishes into a traditional brand of Judaism. Lacking the bulwark against assimilation, very often they assimilate into the gentile society. The third group are intelligent people who are eager to study the laws of the Torah and to understand the rationale behind them, but they realize that they are not capable of comprehending everything. Therefore, they undertake to observe every mitzvah even if it is beyond their comprehension.

Guaranteeing the future

The first group will no doubt observe the mitzvoth. However, when their children ask them about their observance, they will have very little to offer, and chances are that the next generation will lose their interest in keeping mitzvoth. The second group, who make their observance dependent on their own understanding, is a disaster, as each individual will develop his own brand of Judaism according to his understanding. The third group is the guarantee for the future and continuity of the Jewish people. For on one hand they are ready to observe the mitzvoth, and at the same time they try to understand the rationale behind them to the best of their ability. These people will be able to develop and pass on a "live" Judaism that satisfies the inquisitive mind and gives pleasure in the observance of the mitzvoth. They follow in the footsteps of our ancestors who at the revelation at Mount Sinai exclaimed (Shemos 24:7) "We will do and we will listen." As the commentaries explain, the deeper meaning of this seemingly illogical statement is "We will first of all do as we are instructed; subsequently we will listen and try to understand the explanations and the rationale behind the mitzvoth." This group's observance will never depend on anyone's personal understanding.

Not make slightest change

Says the Dubno Maggid, this was the praise of Aaron. Although he had a deep understanding of the mitzvoth (instructions of G'd) and had an inquisitive mind to further explore into the depths and rationale of the mitzvoth, he never made the slightest change to G'd's instructions. It is our obligation to continue in the ways of Aaron, to investigate and study to the best of our ability but never to make any change in the observance of the mitzvoth. Only in this way can we secure and guarantee the continuity and future of the Jewish people.

Unbroken transmissions

It is interesting to note that the Torah praises Aaron, not just for doing as G'd had commanded, but rather: "As G'd had commanded Moses." Aaron accepted the authority of his younger brother, since he was the leader of the generation. This is the success of the unbroken transmission from Mount Sinai until today. The Jewish people throughout the generations have always accepted their spiritual leaders who guided them and showed them the way. The Kabbalists explain that in every generation the Torah leader of the Jewish people has some of the spirit of Moses within him that enables him to lead and guide the nation (see commentary of Vilna Gaon Mishlei 30:4).

Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yoshua

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 24b) relates how one year there was a dispute amongst the sages when to establish Rosh Hashanah. Rabban Gamliel, who was the head of the highest Rabbinical Court at that time, sent a message to his colleague, Rabbi Yoshua, who had a different opinion, stating: "I decree on you that you should come to me with your staff and your money bundle on the day that is Yom Kippur according to your calculation." Rabbi Akiva noticed how this distressed Rabbi Yoshua and said to him that it was only right that they accept the authority of Rabban Gamliel. Since he was the leader of the generation, the Heavenly Court would reckon with the day that he decided was Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Dossa added that the decision of Rabban Gamliel's court was to be considered as if it was decided in the court of Moses. Rabbi Yoshua accepted what Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Dossa said. On the day that he had calculated to be Yom Kippur, he took his staff and money bundle and travelled to Yavneh where Rabban Gamliel resided. When Rabban Gamliel saw him he stood up in respect and kissed him on his forehead and said to Rabbi Yoshua: "Come in peace my master and disciple, my master in wisdom and my disciple as you have accepted my ruling. " These great sages understood that in order to guarantee the continuity and unity of the Jewish people, even if they had differences of opinion, they had to come to one decisive conclusion and listen to the leader of the generation.

Eisav hates Jacob

In the last few hundred years, many people have missed this important lesson and tried to institute reforms and change Judaism. Today we know how they all failed. After a number of generations, their descendants have either assimilated or returned to observant Judaism and become Ba'alei Teshuva. Some reformers thought that if they would change their lifestyle and blend in with the gentile population, they would be accepted as equals by their non-Jewish neighbours. They believed that the basis of the gentiles' hatred and animosity resulted from the Jewish people having their own value system and observing the laws of the Torah. However, our sages taught that the descendants of Eisav hate the descendants of Jacob (see Rashi Bereishis 33:4). It is irrelevant whether we observe the laws of the Torah or not. On the contrary, in many instances the rise of secularism amongst the Jewish people caused fear and concern to their gentile surroundings. As long as the Jewish citizens kept to themselves, the non-Jewish host country felt at ease. But as the universities, media and commerce filled up with Jewish intellectuals, the local population often felt threatened that the Jews were going to take control. At the end of the day, the Hamans and the Hilters of the world did not differentiate between observant and non-observant Jews. No Jew was spared during the Holocaust because of his secular lifestyle. Similarly, the modern day State of Israel, despite its effort to be like the other nations, still very much stands out as the Jew amongst the nations of the world.

Practical Judaism

Similarly, those who made reforms and leniencies to make it easier for the younger generation to stay within the fold of Judaism did not succeed. They created a watered-down Judaism void of spirituality and depth, achieving just the opposite of their intentions. In recent years the Kabbalah movement gained a lot of popularity by offering a religion based on mysticism without practical observance. Obviously, there is no continuity for this type of Judaism either. It is like taking the soul out of the body. The foundation of Judaism has and will always be the practical observance of every mitzvah. For example, when the Torah commands us not to "cook the kid in its mother's milk", this is not just a lofty ideal based on spiritual compassion, but it is the foundation of all dietary laws prohibiting the mixing of milk and meat dishes.

Torah blueprint

It is fascinating to see that despite that modern technology continues to develop at a accelerating speed, there has never been a halachic question that our rabbis have not been able to answer and solve, based on the eternal laws of the Torah. For, as the Zohar explains, the Torah is the blueprint of the world. As long as the world exists, it is based on the laws and commandments of the Torah, and even with the changing of times, the basic blueprint does not change. On the contrary, any change throughout the times was originally included in the blueprint. That is why there is no modern day question that cannot be resolved based on the words of the Torah.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel