Thursday, June 25, 2009

Parashat Chukat: They Encamped at Obot

by Elli Sacks

In this week's post, we continue on a theme that was introduced two weeks ago in Parashat Korach. There we learned the necessity of looking beyond the physical surface of things to seeing into their inner essence. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, every created physical object in this world has a deeper core meaning that is partially reflected, but also partially obscured by its physical appearance. Not only does the list of physical things include the Land of Israel and human beings, it also includes Torah!

But this leads to a halakhic conundrum. For, if the words of the Torah are merely it's "garments", and the true essence of the Torah is hidden deep within, then we may be missing out on fulfilling the essential Torah by fastidiously clinging to its revealed physical words. Here in parashat Chukat, the Ishbitzer expands on this theme, describing when we must remain firmly within the bounds of Torah and when we must go beyond them in order to fulfill the Will of Hashem.

Without further adieu, here is the text: Mei ha-Shiloah (Chukat; 1995 ed. B’nai Berak, Vol. I, pp. 159-160.):

"And the Children of Israel sojourned and encamped at Obot." Obot (whose root is a.b.) refers to the rules and principles of Torah and Mitzvot, as in the expression "av (a.b.) be-chokhmah" (a generating principle in wisdom). Regarding this, it is written in the Talmud (Berachot 54a): "'It is time to act for the LORD, for they have violated Your Torah' (Psalms 119:126). Rabbi Natan reinterpreted the verse, saying "Violate the Torah, because it is time to act for the LORD."

The Mei ha-Shiloah wastes no time in jumping into the heart of the matter. He quotes the well-known Talmudic dictum of R. Natan, that when circumstance necessitates, we must violate the Torah in order to fulfill Hashem's Will. But how do we know when is such a time? How do we know when we are permitted to violate or even obligated to violate? Can we trust our own judgment in such matters? These are the questions that will be addressed in this teaching.

And here is the meaning of the matter: The words of the Talmud refer to a time when it is evidently clear to the individual that now is the time to act for the LORD, for example when Elijah the Prophet [challenged the priests of Ba'al] on Mount Carmel.

In the example cited here (I Kings, Chapter 18), the prophet Elijah acts of his own volition without the commandment of God. In challenging the Priests of Baal to a "sacrificial duel", he is encouraging them and the people to engage in idol worship, one of the three gravest sins of the Torah, on the same level as murder and adultery. But his purpose is to demonstrate the truth of Hashem's dominion and the folly of Ba'al worship. He violates the law, in order to prove the divinity of the law.

At such a time, it is necessary to violate the rules of Divrei Torah, and instead to act in accordance with the Divine wisdom (binah) that The Holy One imparts upon the individual. R. Natan is saying that at a time when that Divine wisdom is not absolutely clear to the individual, then he is obligated to conduct himself in accordance with the rules of Divrei Torah and Mitzvot, without deviating from the borders of halakhah.

The Ishbitzer frames the problem as one of "rules vs. specifics." The halakhah can only give us the rules to follow. It cannot contextualize those rules into every given circumstance. But to understand what Hashem REALLY wants from us in any given circumstance, we have to be graced with binah, or Divine wisdom. At a time when we are not graced with clear binah, we must rely upon the boundaries imposed upon us by halakhah.

But R. Natan is also saying that when a person's heart is drawn after the Will of Hashem, and when he removes from himself all negi'ot, then Hashem may call upon him to act in a way that seems to him (heaven forfend) to overstep the fence surrounding the rules of Divrei Torah. In such a case, it is certain that he will not be led into iniquity (heaven forfend), and he will surely know that this was a "time to act for the LORD."

According to the Ishbitzer, by shedding our negi'ot - all the trappings of personal self-interest and ego (and by walking in simplicity and humility, which he mentions in other teachings of the Mei ha-Shiloah) we can attune ourselves to the voice of God that calls upon each of us to fulfill His will. When we do so, we might find that Hashem calls upon us to act in a way that SEEMS to violate halakhah. In such a case, we should not be afraid we are sinning, because that case is exactly what R. Natan meant when he declared "it is a time to act for the LORD."

The Israelites sometimes encamped at Obot. However, for as long as Aharon the High Priest lived they would conduct themselves according to the Divine wisdom in their hearts which was manifestly clear to them, and they would go after their understanding of the Clouds of Glory (ananei ha-kavod). But when the Clouds of Glory dissipated, they began to conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of Divre Torah, as in our own period when the Temple is destroyed and Hashem has no more home on earth than the 4 cubits of halakhah (Berachot 8a).

The Ishbitzer further expounds upon this theme, utilizing the sojourns and the encampments of the Israelites enumerated in Numbers Chapter 21 as the springboard for his exegesis. At the very end of Chapter 20, Aharon the High Priest is laid to rest at Mount Hor. Aharon's death signifies the end of the period when the Clouds of Glory showed the Israelites when and where to journey and when to pitch camp. The clouds are representative of the period when the Israelites were graced with clear binah and could constantly ascertain Hashem's Will without the necessity of halakhic rules. Aharon's death changed all that.

And so [in Obot], they began acting according to rules, because Obot refers to rules and principles as we explained previously on the verse "Thou shall not make for yourselves molten gods."

We will examine this amazing teaching, iy"H, on Parashat Ki Tissa.

However, the Israelites fully understood that such conduct, acting only according to rules, could not purify their hearts and prevent them from sinning against the Will of Hashem.

We have seen in previous teachings of the Mei ha-Shiloah, that the person who strives to purify his/her heart and attune his/her ear to the Will of Hashem is on a higher spiritual level than the one who constantly looks for answers in the Shulhan Arukh.

Thus it is written (Numbers 21:1) "and Israel came by the way of Atarim", meaning they were perplexed because, according to the principles of Torah, it was not yet the correct time for them to enter the borders of Esav. (Regarding this, see the verse (Genesis 33:14) where Jacob addresses Esav: "So let my lord go on ahead of his servant... until I come to my lord in Seir.") Whereas the Canaanite [in Atarim] was Amalek, according to Rashi.

The Torah makes a point of stating that the Israelites had to travel around the borders of Edom and not to enter into that land which had been given as an inheritance to the descendants of Esav. Regarding the verse in Genesis 33:14, the midrash states (Gen. Rabbah 78:14): "So when will Jacob go to Seir [i.e. Edom]? In the days of the Messiah, as it is said (Obadiah 1:21): “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esav.”

If I'm not mistaken, the Mei ha-Shiloah is saying here that the Israelites (mistakenly) believed that Atarim was part of the Land of Edom, where the rules forbade them to go, and thus they were greatly perplexed. In actuality, Atarim was inhabited by Amalakites.

And it seemed to them that Hashem had called upon them to act in violation of the rules. But they took counsel and made pains to eliminate all their negi'ot, and then the specifics of Divrei Torah became evident, because it was a "time to act for the LORD."

Because they were able to eliminate their own self-interest, they were privileged to hear the voice of Hashem. The rules no longer applied, as Israel was able to ascertain what Hashem specifically wanted from them in this particular situation.
And of this it is written, (Numbers 21:11) "and they encamped at 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim," i.e. they looked inward and clarified themselves to ensure that they were not involved in the two prohibitions: "Thou shall not murder" and "Thou shall not commit adultery" -- for these two prohibitions are the foundation and the root of the entire Torah. Therefore, if a person is counseled that something will happen to him that appears to violate Divrei Torah, he must first clarify himself regarding these two prohibitions. 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim hints at this, for 'Iyyei is from the word ya'im, meaning "to remove from one's self," and 'Abbarim is from the word 'avar, meaning "violation." They purified themselves from both these aspects of 'Iyyei ha-'Abbarim.

There is much wordplay going on in this segment, but the key to understanding the meaning of this teaching is in the verb beireru, meaning "they clarified" or "they elucidated." The same exact letters also form the word boreru, meaning "they sifted." We will see in the next segment how the two meanings become conflated in the same word.

And the Nation of Israel gained much physical power in this clarification. Of this it is written (Numbers 21:12) "and they encamped in the Valley of Zered," (literally, the "Valley of Sifting".) That is to say, that Hashem gave them physical power, because Zered ("sifting") refers to physical might. As it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 47a) "ve-Zered ima 'alah le-gag" "that which was sifted (Zered) became the greatest of all." When the Children of Israel sifted (boreru) themselves and removed all self-interest from their conquests and clarified (beireru) themselves, then they merited that Hashem would listen to their voice.


I leave it to the reader to ponder whether this is a radical anti-halakhic teaching, or an extremely conservative reading of R. Natan's dictum.

Have you ever encountered a "time to act for the LORD" in your own life? If so, how does this inform your reading of this Mei ha-Shiloach?

Shabbat shalom,


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