Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Beha’alotecha: Leadership, Personal, Communal, and International

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Tsara’at Comparisons

This week’s parsha is bookended by encounters with tsara’at (skin lesions brought on by various sins). In the course of prescribing the dedication ceremony, 8;7 requires that Levi’im shave all the hair on their body.  Rashi, on והעבירו תער, quotes R. Moshe haDarshan that the Levi’im were substituting for the first-born, who had rendered themselves unfit by their worshipping a power other than Hashem (the Golden Calf).

Since idolatry is called offerings of the dead, and one stricken with tsara’at is considered akin to being dead, Levi’im had to undergo purification akin to that of those afflicted with tsara’at.  Four verses later, when the Torah says Aharon should wave the Levi’im before Hashem, Rashi comments that this is to parallel the waving of the guilt-offering of a metzora.

At the end of the parsha, when Miriam suffers tsara’at for speaking out against Moshe’s conduct, Aharon begs Moshe to pray for her, asking that she not be left like the dead. Rashi on the word כמת says again that having tsara’at is like being dead, with some of the halachot of how we treat the dead applying to them as well.

For the comparisons to make sense, we have to assume a meaningful link between idolatry, tsara’at, and death, not one that’s purely linguistic or metaphorical. Rashi does not elaborate; without speculating too much, it seems safe to say death is the end of human beings’ existence in this world, and idolatry and tsara’at are times when the people involved also cease contributing to this world, idolatry because it hinders progress towards the goal of the Kingdom of Hashem and tsara’at is Hashem’s way of removing that person from interaction with the world, for as long as it persists.

If so, the dedication of the Levi’im in place of the first born has some elements of being freed of tsara’at. The Levi’im were being given the opportunity to step in where the first-born’s idolatry had rendered them unfit.  They were like the dead coming back to life, idolaters freed of their idolatry, metzoraim freed of the restrictions of their condition.

Distance and the Pesach Sheni

9;10 says that anyone who was בדרך רחוקה, on a far path, can bring a Pesach Sheni, may take advantage of the opportunity, a month later, to offer a Pesach sacrifice. Rashi on או בדרך רחוקה notes dots on רחוקה, one way the Torah calls attention to a word, implying it might not mean exactly what it seems. In this case,  Rashi thinks it shows that being outside the courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash is far enough to allow bringing a Pesach Sheni.

Baruch Leib haKohen, a”h, and I met at Lincoln Square Synagogue, which had a wonderful Associate Rabbi, also no longer with us, Rabbi Herschel Cohen a”h. He was fond of quoting the Rav, zt”l’s, idea that Pesach Sheni isn’t only technically a chance to bring another sacrifice, it’s a reminder that Jews can always return to Hashem, that those who seem or feel far can still repair and renew the relationship, even those who missed earlier chances to do so.

In that reading, our Rashi tells us that even one so neglectful as to fail simply to enter the courtyard of the Temple from just outside—a neglect that comes close to being willful or deliberate—would nonetheless be welcomed for Pesach Sheni.

Hatred of the Jews Is Hatred of God

10;35-36 tells us what Moshe Rabbenu used to say when the Aron Kodesh (the Ark of the Covenant) would move—and which we say today before taking out the Torah and then before putting it back. When it was on the move, he would call for Hashem to rise and scatter His enemies. Rashi on משנאיך, enemies, defines the haters of God as all those who hate the Jewish people. Because anyone who hate the Jews inherently hates He Who spoke and the world came into being, Rashi says (citing Tehillim 83;3 for support).

I think Rashi means this very literally, and it bears stepping back and considering. Presumably Rashi would tell us that because Hashem has chosen the Jewish people to represent Him in the world, as it were, hatred of us is by that very fact hatred of Hashem—even by those who swear up and down that they very much care about serving Hashem.  We Jews are the people who stand for the fact that there is a Creator, Who commands certain acts (and rejects others).  To hate the Jews is to hate what they stand for, which is Hashem.

The Difficulties of Public Service

Twice in the parsha, 8;6 and 11;16, Rashi comments on the use of the verb לקח for appointing someone to a public position—the Levi’im and the elders. Both times, he says it is telling Moshe to encourage the people taking on this new position, to stress how fortunate they are to have been chosen for that form of service.

But if service is truly so wonderful, there would be no need to add the encouraging words.

Rashi to 11;28 gives part of the answer. When Eldad and Medad (the two potential elders who elected to remain in the camp rather than join the lottery) prophesied in the camp, Yehoshua asks Moshe to react.  Rashi on the word כלאם, which literally means imprison them, reads it instead as saying to impose upon them the needs of the community, and they would stop on their own.

Siftei Chachamim explains their prophecy would stop, because the Divine Presence only rests upon a person who has a certain freedom of movement and spirit—one who is in mourning or overly burdened will not prophesy (as was true of Ya’akov during the years Yosef was missing).

Public service comes at a cost to the public servant (there is a story I couldn’t find online, about a man who was a dedicated and successful public figure during WWII and the aftermath, working on behalf of refugees of the Holocaust and their resettlement in America, who was then treated as less important than a significant Rosh Yeshiva. Insulted, he said to the man who had treated him that way, “You and I both know that had I stayed in yeshiva, I’d have been greater even than that Rosh Yeshiva!” The poignant response was, “yes, but you didn’t stay in yeshiva, you went to help people.” Because service, great as it is, comes at a cost as well).

It is for that reason that Moshe Rabbenu had to stress the upsides of what the Levi’im and the elders had facing them. Those who dedicate themselves to the community do not generally become great scholars or prophets– they’re too busy tending their communities.  It’s worth it for them, as Moshe tells the Levi’im and the elders, but might not appear so at first glance.

Looking Askance

12;13 offers another example of Rashi’s assumptions about the people’s complicated relationship and attitude towards Moshe Rabbenu.  Noting that he uses only five words to pray for his sister’s healing, Rashi suggests that it was to avoid the Jews’ commenting on how lengthily he prayed on her behalf (“when his sister is stricken, he goes on and on and on; when it’s our health or lives or whatever at stake…”).

It’s not the only such Rashi, but it surprises me each time I see it. After all Moshe Rabbenu has done, at each step of the way, the people are unable to wholly commit to him, unable to wholly accept that he is in fact the faithful servant he is.  They may have respected or loved him, but Rashi sees them as quite able to fully trust him. Perhaps he was too different from the rest of the people (as in Hashem’s response to Miriam and Aharon about how qualitatively different his prophecy is from theirs) for them to fully accept that anyone could be that great, and they were always on the lookout for the flaw they hadn’t caught yet.

It reminds me of a scene in the movie Draft Day, where an NFL team’s general manager is looking at a prospect who seems too good to be true. He notes that all the great players of NFL history had a “but” about them that they overcame, and wants to know this prospect’s “but.” Perhaps Rashi sees the Jews as looking for that “but” in Moshe’s case, and never finding it. Leaving them to continue, always, looking, and Moshe having to be sure not to give them cause to think they’d found it.

No overall theme this week; or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. But there are five Rashis I found interesting and stimulating.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.