Judah Kerbel

Two Narratives in Vayikra: Can We Balance Principles and Inclusion?

(This sermon was given on Shabbat of Parashat Emor. This version is modified and expanded somewhat.)

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion. In some ways, he represents the typical profile of a “right-wing” religious Zionist who supports settlement in Judea and Samaria. In 1993, as the Oslo Accords were coming into fruition and the transfer of weapons was under consideration, and as his revered rebbe Rav Yehuda Amital was supporting the journey, Rav Medan went to the center of town in Yerushalayim to protest by going on a hunger strike. Rav Medan felt with great conviction that the approach taken by the liberal-leaning Labor government would be disastrous. But even with their differences of opinion, Rav Amital was extremely proud of his student-colleague, who was heeding the “cry of the baby and demonstrating his care for the world outside of the Beit Midrash. A few years later, Rav Amital showed his care for the world outside the Beit Midrash by leaving the yeshiva temporarily to serve as a minister without portfolio in the government of Shimon Peres, with the mandate to try to repair the fragile relationship between the secular and Zionist communities. In a certain sense, despite their political differences, Rav Medan very much walked in Rav Amital footsteps in this respect. In the early 2000s, Rav Medan took a sabbatical from yeshiva to work on what became known as the Gavison-Medan covenant. “Gavison” refers to the late Professor Ruth Gavison, a secular law professor representing a liberal outlook. Together, she and Rav Medan published a proposal to try to tackle some of the most complex issues in balancing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It “aims to create a common ground, through a common framework which, while unifying, leaves room for disagreement on a number of issues.” Of course, Professor Gavison and Rav Medan were of very different minds. But they knew they would have to have the difficult conversations to try to maintain the unity of the State of Israel. For this effort, and for “always acting to connect and unify [Israel’s] various sectors through shared understandings and innovative agreements,” Rav Medan received an honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University this past week.


The book of Vayikra includes only two narratives. The rest of the book comprises laws, particularly those related to sacrifices and priesthood, but really spanning all aspects of Jewish life and ethics.

What are these two stories? What message are these stories conveying in the midst of all of the essential laws taught in this book?

A number of years ago, I heard these stories beautifully elucidated in a sermon given by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander. (It is recorded, but I heard it in the Beit Midrash when it was given.)

The more famous of the two appeared in Parashat Shemini. In this parasha, we read the story of the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aharon Ha-Kohen. There are various interpretations regarding the essence of their sin. But one thing is clear: they brought an אש זרה, a “foreign fire,” into the holy of holies. While their intentions were noble, they crossed a severe boundary. They were seeking a spiritual experience, but they went about it in the wrong way. While we want to connect with God, holiness cannot be a free-for-all, or it loses its divinity. Nadav and Avihu did not understand this. The beginning of Parashat Acharei Mot is clearly a response to this. When Aharon is given instructions for entry into the Kodesh Kodashim, the Torah explicitly links these instructions to the death of Nadav and Avihu. בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן אֶל־הַקֹּדֶשׁ – only through this protocol may he enter. Spiritual experience is attainable when done in good measure and with proper care. There is a tragic irony in Nadav would have been the Kohen Gadol if he had waited; he would have had this opportunity if he would have waited for the right time. Essentially, what we learn from this story is the importance of halacha and of protocol, even as we nobly try to forge a meaningful relationship with God. This remains relevant today in terms of prayer. While Chazal sometimes put forth the idea that it would be ideal if a person was praying all day, and there is the possibility of the voluntary prayer, tefillat nedavah, practically speaking, we do not go in that direction nowadays. While Chassidic thought teaches our closeness to God, Rav Soloveitchik would often say that prayer requires a “matir,” one needs to attain permission to approach the holiness of a relationship with God, through Pesukei D’zimra, Hashem Sefatai Tiftach, etc. We can approach God, but we should not take for granted that it is a free for all.

The other story is found in Parashat Emor, this week’s parasha. Towards the end of the parasha, we read the following verses:

 וַיֵּצֵא בֶּן־אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית וְהוּא בֶּן־אִישׁ מִצְרִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּנָּצוּ בַּמַּחֲנֶה בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית וְאִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי׃ וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן־הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת־הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת־דִּבְרִי לְמַטֵּה־דָן׃

There came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses—now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan (Vayikra 24:10-11).

The cursing, the kelalah, performed by the Israelite/son of Egyptian was delivered via pronunciation of the ineffable name. This is very serious and egregious. But we must ask, what caused this guy to curse Hashem? Rashi cites two answers that can be found in the midrashim. First, the man had a theological issue. Previously in the parasha, we learn about the lechem panim, the shewbread. Six pairs of loaves that would be changed out each Shabbat. The man was incredulous – would you ever serve stale, cold bread that is over a week old to a king? How could this be done to God? By the way, not a terrible question. Chazal say the bread stayed warm and fresh the entire time. But this theological dissonance causes the man to issue a curse. That is answer number one.

The second answer is that while the man’s mother is from Dan, his father is Egyptian. Where is he to place his home? Naturally, he thought it should be in Dan. But the people of Dan protested that tribal land is given according to the father’s tribe. This man, therefore, could not be among the people of Dan. He goes to Beit Din to argue his case, but Moshe rules according to the people of Dan. From there, he emerges and curses in the name of God. What is going on in this case? You have a man who does not really know his place among the people of Israel. He wants to be part of the nation and to find his place, but he feels excluded and alienated. To no fault of his own, his identity is precarious. Does that excuse his actions? No. But we have to understand where he is coming from.

When we look at these two narratives, the following picture emerges: if Nadav/Avihu had no religious boundaries, story of meklael is one in which a person is marginalized by rigid boundaries, an inability to find his place in society, and someone who feels theological dissonance.


In today’s world, we have to consider the costs and benefits of these two polarizing ideals. On the one hand, we desperately need boundaries to maintain the sanctity of God and the sanctity of the Torah. Our religion is not “Sheilaism,” in which we do anything and everything that makes us feel spiritual and ethical. We have a rich tradition that guides our choices, and we must be judicious to maintain the integrity and continuity of this tradition. Yet, we also know how badly we need fellow Jews to connect with the Torah. We want to do our best to ensure that we are enable to cultivate an environment in which a Jew never feels like s/he needs to unleash their frustration with a curse of our religion.

This issue plays out in one of the most crucial issues facing our community today: the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. A microcosm of this issue has played out in the case of the proposed-Pride Alliance at Yeshiva University. On the one hand, I believe YU must have the autonomy to govern its religious policies, especially in the undergraduate divisions. Questions that intersect with halacha and hashkafa must be addressed to our poskim and spiritual leaders. Those who were opposed to the club have a right to be concerned about the image it portrays and the events that would take place on campus under the auspices of this club. On the other hand, we are talking about real individuals with real struggles. We are talking about people who have legitimate theological struggles as well as legitimate concerns about their place in our community. How are we going to provide them with a place to support each other? To find community among those who share their identity while they navigate the difficulties often placed on them to feel like they are really part of the larger Orthodox community? As a shul rabbi, if, for example, two men were to approach me to say they plan to get married and would like to have an aufruf and celebration in the shul, on the one hand I would share that I feel that such a celebration in our shul would be halachically problematic. And yet, the message I would want to leave them with is that this is just one particular point that I feel has halachic issues; where there are no halachic issues is to say that our community loves you, wants to include you in every way we can, wants your participation, and wants your fellowship as much as we want that from every other person. We see you as people who want a relationship with Torah and mitzvot no differently than anyone else here. You have your place in our community. Yes, halachic standards are important. That will not change. But what we cannot have any longer is people leaving our community with highly charged negative feelings because we could have done more to make them feel welcome.

The second issue I want to address goes back to where I started. While Professor Gavison and Rav Medan worked very hard to bridge the divide between different political and religious sectors of society, that work has not been completed. Let us remember some of the greatest rabbanim and leaders of religious Zionism in the last century. One does not need to read a single one of Rav Kook’s writings to be aware of his relationship with the secular kibbutz world. Realize that secular Israelis were much more adamant about their secularness than they are today. But Rav Kook nonetheless saw the holiness of their work, saw them as partners, and yes, hoped that one day they would return to tradition.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously discussed the covenants of Egypt and Sinai, the covenants of fate and destiny in his seminal speech Kol Dodi Dofek. The covenant of Egypt/fate is the covenant of our shared peoplehood and that which happens to us as a result of our shared nationality. The covenant of Sinai/destiny is the covenant that mandates us to do something with our peoplehood, to serve the purpose of worshiping Hashem and keeping Torah/mitzvot. Rav Soloveitchik criticized secular Zionists for only paying attention to the covenant of fate and not destiny; yet, he parted ways with the Agudah movement in recognizing that indeed, the covenant of fate is still essential. Secular Zionists share similar concerns as we do in terms of our peoplehood. For the Rav, the task of Religious Zionism is to “fuse the two covenants, the Covenant of Egypt and the Covenant of Sinai, the covenants of fate and destiny, of isolation and loneliness.”

It is obvious that Rav Amital and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein felt similarly, and Rav Nachum Rabinovich, who was the primary rebbe of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and whose yahrzeit we observed this past week, wrote about this extensively. Sometimes, the sins of the nonobservant are excused by giving such Jews the status of תינוק שנשבה – “captive children.” Both Rav Lichtenstein and Rav Rabinovich took exception to this categorization. Does one mean to imply that non-observant Jews contribute nothing of value? We have plenty to learn from non-observant Jews, including morals and ethics. Keeping that relationship intact was of great importance.

Yet, despite, the vision of these towering rabbanim, I’ve been wondering to myself lately, what happened to the mission of bridging the divide between secular and observant? It feels like while some progress has been made, a lot is being undone in the present. Those who hold the name of Religious Zionist in the current government have alienated our brethren in their rhetoric and initiatives. Do they see themselves as being tasked with bridging this divide? How can it be that the government passes a law forbidding chametz in hospitals, a measure of religious coercion, in response to which the CEO of a hospital purposely eats chametz in his hospital? This is the modern day mekalel! And not that I excuse one from breaking the severe laws of Pesach, but we have done something incredibly wrong if one is doing so just to spite us! Even if one thinks they are “right” in their pursuit of religion, is it worthwhile if it is at the expense of our own self-respect?

I fear for this in America as well. Modern Orthodoxy has a unique opportunity, as it historically has maintained, to bridge gap between our non-Orthodox brethren and our vision of Judaism. There is an opportunity for us to work together on so many crucial issues that unite us – antisemitism, Israel, the need to encourage commitment to faith. Will we allow our divergent political and ideological leanings to undermine other important pursuits?

Our task and challenge today is to find the right balance between the Nadav/Avihu approach, which undercuts the boundaries of the Torah, and the plight of the mekalel, who is also incorrect but was not given the space to deal with his issues with theology and identity. Our task is to bridge the gaps, and be proud of our principles while also finding a way to those who should be part of our world as well.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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