parshat shelach, Numbers 15
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on June 23rd 2022 on Clubhouse as we ignore the headline story of the nearsighted spies and leave the Sabbath Gatherer of sticks to his fate. We even pass up a chance to enjoy the blue indigo of the tzitzit. Instead we focus on the lowly loaf of challah and explore how it defined and saved the Jews.
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. Today we discuss parshat Shelach and we ignore the headline story of the spies who lacked vision. We overcome the urge to defend the מְקֹשֵׁ֣שׁ עֵצִ֑ים the gatherer of sticks on Shabbat. We even pass up a chance to enjoy the blue indigo of the tzitzit. Instead, we focus on the lowly loaf of challah and explore how it saved the Jews. So join us as we Make Challah!
Well, welcome. As I said at the introduction, I was looking through the parsha. And it brought back a lot of memories. But we’ve already discussed the spies last year, and we can wait to discuss the guy who gathered sticks on Shabbat and was stoned. I said to myself, let’s discuss Challah and sure enough, hidden in the parsha is the story, the origin of the concept and the ritual of Challah. But again, nothing is in a vacuum. And it does follow the story of the spies. And it follows I would say the worst punishment that the Jewish people ever got. It was a sin greater than the Egel, The Golden Calf and a whole generation was to die in exile, to die in the desert. And then after that story, it says in Numbers 15: 2 peak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in, כִּ֣י תָבֹ֗אוּ אֶל־אֶ֙רֶץ֙ and Rashi says the reason why we’re going to study two laws that relate to going into the land is God brought them good tidings that they would enter the land. He wanted to sweeten up the worst day of their life. And he says there will be a time where you will go into the land. And the first law that he gave them had to do with a sacrifice that you bring when you make a vow. But the second law starts as follows. And it’s numbers 15: 17 And it says God spoke to Moses saying speak to the Israelite people and say to them, when you enter the land to which I am taking you. Now it doesn’t say כִּ֣י תָבֹ֗אוּ אֶל־אֶ֙רֶץ֙ it says בְּבֹֽאֲכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ When you come into the land, and you eat the bread of the land מִלֶּ֣חֶם הָאָ֑רֶץ, you shall set aside as a gift to God. As the first yield of your baking you shall set aside a loaf as a gift חַלָּ֖ה תָּרִ֣ימוּ, you shall set it aside as a gift like the gift from the threshing floor. You shall make a gift to God from the first yield of your baking throughout the ages. And similar to the first Rashi that we quoted here to Rashi is focused on the fact that this law is associated with coming into the land. But he says it uses a different word than anywhere in the Bible. It doesn’t say when you come כִּ֣י תָבֹ֗אוּ אֶל־אֶ֙רֶץ֙ it says בְּבֹֽאֲכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ This statement about their “entering” into the land is expressed differently from all other statements about their “entering” made in the Torah, and he explains that everywhere else. It has the implication that you have to complete the entree, you have to complete the taking over the full possession the ירושה of the land, but this law has to do when you just come in. He says in this case however it is stated בבאכם and your coming, implying that as soon as they entered it they ate of its bread, they became subject to the law of Challah so already I feel a little bit fresh. I feel like “epis” there’s a taste of Challah in my mouth. What about you Rabbi?
Adam Mintz 04:42
i love it. I mean, you made a great point and that is you know it’s so it’s so psychological of the Torah that just at the lowest point where the Jews of the desert are told to dig in a wanderer for 40 years. The next thing God says to them, but don’t worry, I’m gonna give you two laws relating to the land of Israel, you’re gonna make it right, just when you’re frustrated, and you think you’re never gonna make it God promises, you’re gonna make it. Isn’t that nice?
Geoffrey Stern 05:10
I think it is. And I think if one of the questions that we discussed in the pregame was this mystery, how did Challah become so iconic? How did it become so associated with the Jewish people and with a meal and with Shabbat? I think we’re starting to feel the taste already. Here. It was, it was something to savor, after the most bitter, bitter day of their life, and you already have that. But I think it is a good question. I mean, if you think of the icons and the iconology, of the Jewish people, you know, there’s the Menorah. That’s, that’s very late. Start with David, you know, very late. And Challah is maybe that along with two candles, and you know, both of those associated with women, so we can talk about that a little bit later. But certainly in terms of what represents, what unites us, what brings us together. I think Challah is right up there. And here it is buried in this innocuous law. So what is the law of Challah?
Adam Mintz 06:18
So the law of Challah and it’s still practiced today, that when you bake bread, you take off a little piece of that bread. What’s the significance? I think the significance is it even a thing as basic as bread, that you need to remember that all of our blessings come from God? I think that’s really a very good point. And a very important point.
Geoffrey Stern 06:52
It is, there’s no question about it. If you had to think of all the sacrifices of all of the observances that we have in the temple, the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and finally, the temple. This is probably the only one and I’ll go even further, even laws that have to do with beautiful law has to do with the Land of Israel, where you have to leave the corner of the field, Peah, Leket, if you drop a few straws, you can’t pick them up, you have to leave them for the poor. But of all those laws, whether we’re in Israel or outside of Israel, it seems that this one ritual of taking out that little piece has survived. And I think that is … it’s amazing to me, and maybe it comes down to this בבאכם this entry into the land. It’s not a status. It’s not a state of being. But it’s this little moment that we went in, and we might have gone out and we might have not been fully there and we might not have been there forever. But it does seem from all the stuff in the temple. This is it. This is the one thing that’s universally celebrated. Am I wrong?
Adam Mintz 08:10
No, I think you’re right. The other interesting thing here is that it says תָּרִ֥ימוּ תְרוּמָ֖ה לַה. It doesn’t seem to say that it goes to the Cohen. It seems to be that it’s an offering to God, you know, most of the offerings are given to the Cohen or to the Levi. But here we have an offering that’s given directly to God. That also seems to be interesting to me.
Geoffrey Stern 08:35
So I’m looking at the verses now. We know the outcome was that it was given to the Kohanim….
Adam Mintz 08:48
I know but look at the verses וְהָיָ֕ה בַּאֲכׇלְכֶ֖ם מִלֶּ֣חֶם הָאָ֑רֶץ תָּרִ֥ימוּ תְרוּמָ֖ה לַה’׃ (כ) רֵאשִׁית֙ עֲרִסֹ֣תֵכֶ֔ם חַלָּ֖ה תָּרִ֣ימוּ תְרוּמָ֑ה כִּתְרוּמַ֣ת גֹּ֔רֶן כֵּ֖ן תָּרִ֥ימוּ אֹתָֽהּ׃ מֵרֵאשִׁית֙ עֲרִסֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם תִּתְּנ֥וּ לַה’ תְּרוּמָ֑ה לְדֹרֹ֖תֵיכֶֽם׃ Isn’t that interesting?
Geoffrey Stern 09:13
It’s it’s absolutely. It’s interesting… by itself it’s interesting and the fact that it was totally identified that you gave it to the Kohanim. And you know, I think the best parallel or analog to how this system work was. If you look at Buddhist monks who live off, people giving them food offerings. The Kohanim we’ve said this before I had no land inheritance, they were separated from agriculture. And they literally lived off of these types offerings, givings and sharings. And one of the sources that I bought is a source called Panini halacha. And it says that a donation of Challah to the Cohen, and the Cohen and his family can prepare from it breads and cakes and eat in purity, in order to fulfill their spiritual mission to teach Torah to Israel. כדי שיוכלו למלא את שליחותם הרוחנית ללמד תורה לישראל So it was also this aspect of elevating our lives that we had a priestly class and maybe later on we’ll talk about a class of scholars that literally would come to the table and be given these handouts these, the dough in order to make themselves bread and cakes.
Adam Mintz 10:54
So the Torah says you give it to God, practically speaking, you give it to the Cohen. This is one of those gifts that you give to the Cohen, because the Cohen as we know didn’t have any land. So they needed these gifts. And you remember, see, we sometimes forget this. Today, we live in America, you know, you’re not supposed to eat too much bread, bread, … breads bad for you bread, you know, makes you gain weight. So we don’t eat much bread. But if you go to Europe, every meal is around bread. And of course, in the old days when they didn’t have very much to eat, everything was around bread. Right? They didn’t have silverware, because there was like, you know, like the hummus, they used to have bread that used to, you know, slurp it up with the pita. So bread is the main staple. So it’s not surprising that this is the gift that’s given to the Cohen.
Geoffrey Stern 11:57
So I have to say, and I think we’re going to jump between what Challah means to us today and what it means to the Jewish people, and what it meant back then. And when I read this about giving the holler to the kohanim, who were the educators, I thought of when I was a student at the Yeshiva and I studied at two Yeshivot that this happened to me at where I was a Shabbos Bachor. And that meant that on every Shabbat I would go to a family who lived in the neighborhood and they would feed me and I’d bring a little Devar Torah with myself not to sing for my supper, but to maybe give Torah for my supper. And this is I don’t know if you know a guy named Ivan Berkowitz. I was in Torah Vodaas in Flatbush and I went to his and his wife’s house in Ocean Parkway, where I was their Shabbos Bachor. And then when I was in the Yeshiva in Long Beach, I actually had a relative who lived there (Ed and Judy Steinberg). And I did a Google search for Shabbos Bachor and I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t find anything. And I really spent a little bit of time. So the one thing I did find, and it’s in the Sefaria notes, is I looked up the word Bachor. And there’s a language dictionary. And it gives an example “we hosted a 15 year old Bachor for Shabbos”.
Adam Mintz 13:31
So they had it .. not exact words…
Geoffrey Stern 13:35
And then the other thing that I did is I remember to in the end told the movie, how Yentl was eating at the house of the girl that her Avigdor had had given up. And sure enough, I have the text there. It was during the week, it wasn’t even Shabbat. But the custom of having a scholar, come to your table and break bread goes back, I think all the way to this. And imagine how enriching it is for the family, and how enriching in another way it is for the scholar. It’s just a beautiful custom that I think still exists in the Hasidic and Orthodox world, but probably doesn’t exist as much as it should in our worlds.
Adam Mintz 14:33
In Eastern Europe before the Second World War. So you know, the Yeshiva … you talked about Torah Vodaas, you talked about Long Beach. The origins of the yeshiva go back just around 200 years, around the year 1810 or so. They had the first yeshiva in a place called Vologen in Lithuania. And what made that yeshiva special is that it was the first time they had a Yeshiva, where boys came from out of town. It used to be this used to learn in the local place, and you went home every night. But Rabbi Haim Velozener introduced the idea of boys coming from out of town. And they had exactly what you said a Shabbos Bachor, and that you used to go to people’s homes for Shabbos. And people used to take care of you. Sometimes not only Shabbos, but during the week, they didn’t have dormitories, they didn’t have public kitchens, you went to their house.
Geoffrey Stern 15:29
My guess is more people know about the shabbos goy than people know about the Shabbos Bachor. And I think they’re both two fascinating institutions. Where you ever a Shabbos Bachor?
Adam Mintz 15:43
I come from Washington DC. And I both went to high school in New York, Rabbi Riskin’s High School. And then Yeshiva University. And I used to go to people’s houses for Shabbos. Because the most depressing thing was not having a Shabbos invitation and having to stay in the dormitory. So you always got an invitation. And I was the Shabbos Bachor.
Geoffrey Stern 16:05
So So I do think it’s amazing. And of course, I would, I would be remiss if I left out the third element, which is the poor people, you would leave the synagogue on a Friday night. And you might argue over who gets to bring the poor person home. But there certainly was this aspect of sharing the meal. And I think the real definition of Challah is not the plucked up beautiful bread that we have. But the act of separating the part that is given as a gift from the part that we eat. And I think that tradition is is a fascinating one.
Adam Mintz 16:48
Yeah, that is most definitely a fascinating one. So what you really have if you want to draw a line, Geoffrey, is you’re drawing the line from the Cohen all the way to the common practice of providing for the poor for by providing for the Yeshiva Bachor, but it’s really a direct line isn’t.
Geoffrey Stern 17:07
It is a it is a direct line. And I would go even further, there’s two other lines I want to draw. You know, the custom when you hold up the two, Challas, before you make Hamotzi, it reminds us a little bit of Bikkurim of the first fruits. And I think again, as I said before, in this color is the remnant of pretty much the only remnant we have of that whole temple tradition of celebrating the first fruits and celebrating the bread. It is kind of fascinating that it talks about its dough, and it’s not the threshing floor. So you know, the threshing floor is united and connected to the land of Israel. It’s connected to an agrarian society. But the dough and this is probably part of how it survived and served us so well. That’s done in the kitchen that’s cooked. And you don’t give out the bread as much as give out the “taig” the dough to let somebody else make an ugga, make a cake or make a bread. I think that’s kind of fascinating, too.
Adam Mintz 18:17
That is actually very fascinating. I like that. Now you know that having Challah baking has become a tradition as a time of prayer. If somebody’s sick, they have a Challah baking to pray for that person who’s sick. And I always wondered about that. Where does that jump come from?
Geoffrey Stern 18:44
So before we even get there, and I think it is an interesting question. I have a little bit of an insight of the answer. But the other part of Challah is become associated with women. And you could easily say well, because it’s dough because it’s cooking a woman’s place is in the kitchen. But even in some of the some of the texts that I bring, it just nonchalantly says and you might think you do Challah even for a small piece of dough. No, she must remove …. it talks in the “she”. And I think that there are two pieces of Talmud, at least, that associate Challah with the three Mitzvot, the three commandments that are most associated with woman, but I might argue are most associated with the home. And again, that’s that line between the temple, the tabernacle and the home …. the traveling home that belongs in each house and I think that there’s no question that it’s the Rechem… the womb that gives birth and possibly, maybe the womb is also connected to healing, maybe that has something to do with it. Or birth, I’m gonna quote something in a second that just blew me away. But what do you think of that connection?
Adam Mintz 20:14
That’s an interesting connection. You know, also when someone is sick, we use their mother’s name. Somehow our prayer for sick people is connected to women, to mothers.
Geoffrey Stern 20:28
So when I look for sources, and this week, I couldn’t find a whole lot on Challah in the old texts in the Midrash in the Talmud, besides the ones I’ve quoted, I look everywhere. And I happen to look at [Marcus] Jastrow, this amazing scholar who was I believe, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who wrote a dictionary of Aramaic and of the Talmud that when you study in a traditional yeshiva, you keep hidden under your Shtender, because he wasn’t in the Orthodox world, and you consult it. And in his listing for her lab, he always brings examples of how it’s used. And he brings the following example from Bereshit Rabba it says, I. THEN THE LORD GOD FORMED MAN, etc (II, 7). The king by justice establisheth the land, but a man of gifts (terumoth) overthroweth it (Prov. XXIX, 4). He’s quoting proverbs. The king refers to the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He; By justice establisheth the land’ means that He created the world on the basis of justice, as it is written: In the beginning Elohim (E.V. ‘God of Justice’) created (Gen. I, I); But the man of gifts overthroweth it refers to Adam, who was the hallah, the completion of the world, while hallah is designated terumah, as it is written, Of the first of your dough ye shall set apart hallah (E.V. a cake’) for a gift terumah (Num. xv, 2o). quoting our verse R. Jose b. Kezarta said: Like a woman who mixes her dough with water and separates hallah from the very centre, even so, at first, There went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground, and then THE LORD GOD FORMED MAN OF THE DUST OF THE GROUND. Now it doesn’t say just the lord of justice, but the Lord God of mercy formed man of the dust of the earth. So here is a metaphor of God creating man out of the Butz …. the mud out of the dough of the primal material. And it compares God to the woman who is making the Challah. And so you might take away that it’s took out the best and that was man, what I take away is that woman, Rechem, Rachmanut, Mercy is compared to God. And that in a sense, it is a reenacting of the God of creation, the God of mercy, who created us that woman does when she makes the Challah, maybe that relates to why the Challah is so important in terms of sickness and health.
Adam Mintz 23:38
That’s nice. I mean, I think that’s a nice Midrashic kind of explanation, you know, some of these cultural things, you know, there’s no real explanation. It might just be that someone in a community once had this idea that when people are sick, let the women get together and let them bake Challah. So it’s hard to know, either, I should just explain that to this very day. We still take Challah, when Sharon bakes Challah, she takes a little piece of the dough. She wraps it up in aluminum foil, as she puts it in the toaster oven. And, you know, it burns there, you know, kind of symbolically that’s the Challah that she takes. And that’s been practice basically for 3000 years.
Geoffrey Stern 24:27
And when I was reading the sources, it made a distinction between how much dough you were baking. Does she make that distinction?
Adam Mintz 24:35
Yes, there is absolutely true. It’s only if you bake a certain amount. She makes a lot of Challahs at once. So she doesn’t have to do it every week. She would know in a second. It has to do with how much flour you have? Only a certain amount of flour Do you start taking Challah.
Geoffrey Stern 24:55
But again, it just seems to me it’s kind of you know, it’s all rabbinic, that’s what the texts start to say right from the get go. When it says when you come into the land, they say, Well, you know, if we’re not in the land, it’s only rabbinic and, and all of these things, to me it’s rabbinic is another way of saying it was a mitzvah made to travel. It was a mitzvah on the go a mitzvah that developed over time, but it just seems to me that it is so associated with community. And maybe that’s has a little bit to do with the fact that it has to have a little oomph to it, it’s not just making a roll, but you’re making for a community or for a larger audience. But it just kind of symbolizes to me, the table, and, and the home. And one of the things that I started thinking about is that, in Jewish law, there are actually law upon law upon law about how you have to act as a guest in someone’s house. I bought the paragraphs in the Shulchan Aruch, and it starts by saying, and there were 22 paragraphs here, and it’s in the Orach Chayim. And, you know, it talks about two individuals who are eating out of the same plate, if one pauses to take a drink his friend should also pause until he is finished. It says you should not be stingy, when it comes to food. It says don’t look at someone eating and not at his portion in order not to embarrass them. I mean, it almost reads like Emily Post’s Etiquette. And not for knights of Shining Armor, it’s for everybody. It just seems to me that this tradition of so much focus on the table, so much focus, I mean, even the fact when we get back to the Challah is your koveah Seudah. You only have a real meal, if you have bread. It just seems to me that that’s what the Challah kind of personified, and maybe that’s why it became so universal.
Adam Mintz 27:27
I think that’s nice. I mean, I think sometimes these customs are bigger than the texts, you know, they just kind of took on a life of their own. And Challah is one of those things that took on a life of its own. It might also be Geoffrey, that the fact that Challah is so central to the Jewish week to the Jewish home, to Shabbat, it kind of elevates its importance.
Geoffrey Stern 27:51
Yeah, I mean, I think the association with Shabbat came and I do have an article in the source sheet that says that came fairly late. You know, in this article, it says it came in the 15th century Rabbi Joseph bar Moshe, and basically the association is to the manna to the mon. And on Friday, obviously, because you could not gather manna or sticks. As we learned in this week’s portion. You had two portions, you had what they call Lechem Mishneh. And as a result, the two Challos became part and parcel of the meal. But I mean, so much of what we’ve talked about tonight has nothing to do with Shabbat. But at a certain point in time, that focus definitely came to that moment at the Shabbat table. When you raise up those two Challot in thanks. And you and you make the blessing.
Adam Mintz 28:53
I think that’s right. It’s also interesting that actually in you know, in the Torah portion, it’s only five verses. It’s a very, very short little subsection, which you know, has come to mean so many things.
Geoffrey Stern 29:09
Well, it’s not only short, but it’s in a blockbuster Pasha and
Adam Mintz 29:13
right That’s correct. Yeah.
Geoffrey Stern 29:15
You have the story of the spies that overwhelms everything. But I love lashes connection, that after all those terrible things happen. You’re going to come into the land and you’re going to eat Challah.
Adam Mintz 29:31
Okay, don’t worry, it’s gonna be okay.
Geoffrey Stern 29:34
Now, one thing I’m curious if you have an insight into is in most of the literature, the focus was on Ashkenazi Jewry when it came to Harlem and you know, the idea of course was that if you go to a typical Mizrahi, Iraqi, Syrian home, it looks more like Pita there is no challah but I’m sure that they take the challah. And I think maybe it’s just a nuance or am I missing something?
Adam Mintz 29:35
No, I think you’re 100%. Right? I think that’s absolutely right. Every tradition has the tradition of Challah. It may look different, but everybody has the tradition of Challah.
Geoffrey Stern 30:25
Well, all I can say it was very refreshing me to me to pick …. maybe a topic that was not disruptive.
Adam Mintz 30:35
No… you know, what was disruptive about it is you didn’t choose the usual topic …. that was disruptive.
Geoffrey Stern 30:44
And it was disruptive to pick five verses that normally fall through the cracks like crumbs…
Adam Mintz 30:51
I think it was great.
Geoffrey Stern 30:53
So anyway, I’d love to wish everybody a Shabbat shalom.
Adam Mintz 30:57
Shabbat Shalom, everybody should feel good. Enjoy the Parsha. We look forward to seeing you next week.
Geoffrey Stern 31:01
Enjoy the Challah and see you all next week.
Listen to last week’s episode: Joining the Tribe
Operation Nachshon and the street jews
Nachshon, was a biblical character associated with the splitting of the Red Sea, in whose name a record three Israeli military operations were named.
The most well known Operation Nachshon was a Haganah operation in the 1948 War of Independence. The Arabs had succeeded in blockading the road to Jerusalem, preventing essential humanitarian supplies as well as ammunition from entering the city. At the end of March, convoys were no longer able to get through, and the situation in Jerusalem became critical. On April 3rd David Ben Gurion insisted on the largest possible operation, forcing Haganah commanders to plan and execute the first brigade sized operation they had ever undertaken. The operation involved about 1,500 troops taken from the Givati and Alexandroni brigade and some others, including the Gadna youth cadets. (see Operation Nachshon).
The second, lesser known, Operation Nachshon, documented in Six Days of War by Michael Oren (p. 168) and named Operation Nachshon 1, was commanded by Moshe Dayan and initialized “the conquest of the Sinai front … the opening of the Abu ‘Agheila – Rafiah-al-‘Arish axes, and the destruction of the Egyptian army in this sector.”
The third Operation Nachshon .. called Nachson 2 included the second phase of the Six Day War and was created by the IDF General staff to influence the final outcome of the post war borders. (ibid p. 237)
For some reason, the founding father of Israel, its most decorated generals and one must assume, the citizens and soldiers of Israel, had a visceral understanding of what Nachshon represented. So did HaShomer HaTzair, the Socialist-Zionist, anti-religious, youth movement who in 1950 founded Kibbutz Nachshon in Central Israel.
What was it about this biblical Nachshon that so captured the imagination of these secular Zionists?
The Nachshon we meet in the Bible bore an unflattering name (lit. snake), and as the descendent of Perez, the son, out of wedlock, of Judah and the harlot, Tamar… didn’t have the most prestigious provenance. Nachshon is nonetheless associated with the critical moment of life or death at the banks of the Red Sea.
The story of the original Operation Nachshon is the uniquely Jewish version of the iconic “Crossing the Rubicon”. (Ironically, The Latin word rubico comes from the adjective “rubeus”, meaning “red”.) It is a story that defines how we Jews chart our course and draft our destiny.
We all know the story… Pharaoh had second thoughts about letting the Israelites go and the Egyptian First Army were positioned to push the Jews into the sea …. Moses exhorts his flock to have faith in God and prepare to be delivered, whereupon he begins to pray. “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:5 – 20). The Biblical Text does not actually provide an account of Moses’ prayer, nor does it provide a record of Moses’ answer to God’s rebuke.
Surprisingly for such a well known legend.. the Biblical text does not mention Nachshon. Nachshon enters history in one opinion cited in the Midrashic Literature. (Nice to know that there was a time, not so long ago, when all Jews, knew their Midrash!)
R. Judah said to [R. Meir]: …. each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then sprang forward Nachshon the son of Amminadab and descended first into the sea; …. At that time Moses was engaged for a long while in prayer; so the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and thou prolongest prayer before Me!’ He spake before Him, ‘Lord of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?’ He replied to him, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward. And lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thy hand etc. For that reason Judah (of which Nachshon was a Prince) was worthy to be made the ruling power in Israel, as it is said: Judah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion. Why did Judah become His sanctuary and Israel his dominion? Because the sea saw [him] and fled. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a)
Nachshon was not only a man of action. His action represented a repudiation of Moses, and, by association, his brother Aaron. A repudiation of the entrenched leadership and the prayers and rituals of the Clergy. Nachshon was neither a scholar nor a saint, he had a humble name and lineage to match. He is mentioned rarely in scripture. He is not known for a lifetime of piety or fealty. Nachshon is a one act wonder.. he is the proverbial dog who has his day.
For generations, Nachshon represented a popularist myth in Judaism that the future of our people does not depend on the scholars or clergy, but rather on one man or woman, at the right place, at the right time who does the right thing.
Was not this the message of the most secular story in the Hebrew canon? Ester, the beauty queen… the original sleeper cell … also known as Hadassah (Megillah 2:7) is living in the Palace with a Persian king and she’s having a ball. She has been told not to reveal her true identity. At the critical moment when only Ester can intercede with the King on the Jew’s behalf.. Ester has a Nachshon moment. Mordecai, her mentor tells her: “Don’t imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place…. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position.” Megillah 4: 13-14
Note: If the malicious software program, known as Stuxnet, designed to disable Iranian centrifuges was created by Israel then the fact, as reported by Symantec, the virus specialists, that the worm/trojan creates a directory called myrtle or Hadas, it means that the Israelís who named it, were following in the Operation Nachshon tradition and honored Ester, the original Jewish Virus in Persia by nameing a software virus after her. Every virus has its day!
In recent times, the popularist Nachshon tradition reapeared with the Baal Shem Tov and the Hasidic Movement. The Hasidim rejected the elite scholars of the Lithuanian Talmudic Academies and celebrated the simple faith of the common Jew of the shtetl street. The great Hasidic Rebbes taught that every simple Jew could merit redemption and the world to come in a single act, at a single moment.
According to Hasidic thought, when the Bible writes: “Surely, this Mitzvah (singular) which I command you today, is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach” (Deuteronomy 30:11) it means that God promises us that we, like Nachshon, can find our single mitzvah at a single moment and find salvation. Or to quote Mishneh Avot “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov taught: When a person performs a single mitzvah, he acquires an advocate for himself…”, (4:13) “This was a favorite teaching of his: Repentance and good deeds in this world, even for one hour, are better than eternal life in the world to come…” (4:22).
Or as the Talmud says:
A person should always perceive himself as though he were half-guilty and half-meritorious. If he performed one Mitzvah, he is fortunate for he has tipped the balance for himself toward the side of merit. If he committed a single transgression, woe to him – for he has tipped the balance for himself toward the side of guilt … R’ Elazar the son of R’ Shimon says: because the world is judged on the basis of the majority of its inhabitants, and the individual is judged on the basis of the majority of his deeds, if he performed a single Mitzvah, he is fortunate for he has tipped the balance for himself and for the entire world toward the side of merit, if he committed a single transgression, woe to him for he has tipped the balance for himself and for the entire world toward the side of guilt” (Kiddushin 40a).
Many Hasidic stories celebrate the simple, many times ignorant and unobservant Jew who through the simple purity of a single word or deed reaches the highest rung.
See for example the very typical story of: A HEAVENLY PARTNER
where the Baal Shem Tov finds that his future study partner in heaven lives in a city without Jews, observes not one commandment and on Shabbat eats, drinks, smokes, dances and generally whoops it up with his friends. Not able to contain himself any longer the Baal Shem Tov asks this player to explain his actions to which his future havruta responds: “When I was a small child, I was taken away from my Jewish home and brought here. I know absolutely nothing about Judaism. I only remember that my father used to always teach me that we are commanded to rejoice on Shabbos. I still remember the many people that came to our house every Shabbos. So to follow in the tradition of my family, I have the custom of making a great feast every Shabbos and inviting my neighbors to rejoice with me.”
Today, the Nachshon approach to Hasidism is most closely followed by Chabad. It is accepted wisdom that Chabad is successful because they are non-judgmental.. and this is probably true.. but the reason that Chabad Rabbis do not insist that their followers perform every mitzvah and refrain from all that is forbidden, is not, in my opinion because they are so tolerant. It is because the Rebbe z’l understood the power of a single mitzvah at a single moment: “Every Jew has a mitzvah to which he finds an affinity. Don’t argue with him. Find that mitzvah and encourage him in it.” — Rabbi Schneerson, Chabad. That’s why putting on tephilin on a stranger or lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat are so important to Chabad… they represent the Nachshon moment that we, the street Jews, can all achieve. (Ever get the feeling that Chabad Shlichim would rather mix it up with street jews then hang out in Monsey or Bnai Brak… that’s why.)
Returning to the secular Israeli pioneers who lived and breathed Nachshon and who are justly credited for the rebirth of the Jewish nation …
To these secular Zionists, and the rest of us street Jews.. before we turn over the high ground and pass the keys of statehood and public policy to the so-called religious camp.. the self proclaimed modern-day Zionists and latter-day pioneers… let’s remember that it was the street Jews, not the religious ideologues who created Zionism and began to rebuild the Land. It was the followers of Nachshon who saw the signs of the Holocaust and acted on their own rather than listened for a sign from God or a proof text before they acted.
So as for me, I may go to Moses and his students to study Talmudic texts, and I may follow Aaron and his latter day clergy for advise in ritual choreography, but when it comes to issues of security, peace and the future of the People of Israel.. I’ll follow Nachshon’s example and join other street Jews who know what it means to be a Jew in their gut and are willing to seize the day whether to fight a war or sue for peace.
A hint at a Jewish Popularist Movement in the Rabbinic Period
A precursor to a Jewish popularist movement may have appeared not among any of the well know sects around at the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism. Not by the Rabbinic Pharisees, not by the Priestly Seducees, not by the ascetic drop-out Essenes and not by the early Christians. Rather a radically anti authoritarian popularist platform was held by the Am HaAretz… literally, people of the land, but pejoratively translated in Rabbinic sources as ignoramus.
The mutual intolerance and animosity between the simple Jew of the land and the Rabbis were no less extreme in the 2nd – 4th Century Rabbinic period then they are today.
Our Rabbis taught: Let a man always sell all he has and marry the daughter of a scholar. ….. but let him not marry the daughter of an ‘am ha-arez, because they are detestable and their wives are vermin, and of their daughters it is said, Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. …. R. Eleazar said: An ‘am ha-arez, it is permitted to stab him [even] on the Day of Atonement which falls on the Sabbath. Said his disciples to him, Master, say to slaughter him [ritually]? He replied: This [ritual slaughter] requires a benediction, whereas that [stabbing] does not require a benediction. R. Eleazar said: One must not join company with an ‘am ha-arez on the road, because it is said, for that [the Torah] is thy life, and the length of thy days: [seeing that] he has no care [pity] for his own life, how much the more for the life of his companions! R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Johanan’s name: One may tear an ‘am haarez like a fish! Said R. Samuel b. Isaac: And [this means] along his back. (Babylonian Talmud; Pesachim 49b)
It is clear from this text that the Am Ha’aretz was not simply an ignorant Jew. he was a Jew who had a strongly anti-Rabbinic bias and opinion. It is no surprise that strong feelings of animosity became mutual… The most famous ex-Am HaAretz; Rabbi Akiva is reputed to have said: “When I was an ‘am ha-arez I said: I would that I had a scholar [before me], and I would maul him like an ass.”
Clearly the Am Ha’aretz were not apathetic, detached Jews. To the contrary.. they appear to be extremely opinionated and opposed to Rabbinic controls and opinions. Unfortunately, we have, to my knowledge, no record of their opinions, other than recorded in the rabbinic sources. Just goes to prove that it’s easier to pass on to the next generation.. an answer, rather than to pass on a question! No one said it was easy being an Am Ha’aretz. (possbily… The great Zionist thinker Ahad HaAm aimed to reinvent the thought of the Am Ha’aretz.. will have to research further….)
We are seeing this type of bifurcation between ideological Jews and street Jews today.. I fear… maybe it’s time for still another operation Nachshon….
Filed under Judaism, Religion, social commentary
Tagged as am haaretz, baal shem tov, chabad, hasidism, Israel War of Independence, nachshon, Six Day War, slitting red sea, zionism