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Blog - Torah Insights

Separation of Powers?

Separation of Powers?

As we approach the end of the fourth book of the Torah, we are nearing the end of the life of Moses. We read of how Moses asked G-d to appoint a successor who would lead the next generation of the Jewish people as they would cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, the land of Israel. Moses says to G-d:

Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd."[1]

Moses was not just asking for any leader to be appointed, according to Rashi, Moses requested that G-d appoint one of his own children. Yet that was not meant to be. G-d told Moses to appoint his faithful student Joshua. G-d explained to Moses that there was no better candidate to succeed Moses than Joshua. Joshua was the most committed student, never departing from the tent of Moses. As Rashi explains:  

Moses… said, “It is time to ask for my own needs-that my son should inherit my high position.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “That is not My intention, for Joshua deserves to be rewarded for his service, for he would not depart from the tent”. This is what Solomon meant when he said, “He who guards the fig tree eats its fruit”.[2]

This leads to the following question: Moses was the humblest of men, the last person we would expect to put his own agenda ahead of the needs of the people. So how could Moses overlook his student Joshua, who was clearly the right candidate, and ask that the leader should be his own child, who was less qualified? This seems completely out of character for Moses!

The 17th century Rabbi and kabbalist, Rabbi Nosson Shapira, author of the Megaleh Amukos, offered the following explanation: Moses thought it appropriate that G-d create a separation of powers. While Joshua, the student most devoted to the wisdom of the Torah would be leader of the “judicial branch”, the chief teacher and conveyor of the Torah, Moses felt it would be best to have a separate branch of government, a political leader, which, he hoped, would be his own child.  

Indeed, Moses used a double expression when he asked to appoint a successor. He asked that G-d appoint a leader: “who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in.” Why the double language? The Megaleh Amukos explains that he was asking for two leaders. The first expression “who will go forth before them and come before them” refers to a political leader who would lead them in battle, while the second expression “who will lead them out and bring them in” refers to a leader who would lead them in their pursuit of wisdom and understanding of Torah.

Moses, understood that separation of power was the best protection against an unhealthy concentration of power, it provided for checks and balances against corruption. In fact, separation of powers was the model for Jewish leadership in subsequent generations. There was a division between the king, the political leader, and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, led by the Nasi, the chief justice.  

And yet, G-d did not accept Moses’ request. As it was with Moses, the successor of Moses would also embody both powers, the political as well as the judicial. Thus, Joshua, who excelled in the wisdom of the Torah, would also be the political leader who would lead the people in the conquest and division of the land of Israel.

Why no separation of powers? If separating the powers was the right approach for the subsequent generations, why was it not right for the generations of Moses and Joshua?

Torah represents the ideal world. It is the exercise of seeking to understand the will and wisdom of G-d. The Torah leader’s mission is to elevate the people to greater heights of wisdom, and refinement. The political leader, by contrast, deals less with the ideal and more with the practical. The political leader is one who can navigate the less than desirable current reality. Thus, the spiritual and political leadership are divided, as they require different skills and operate in different domains. An expert in battlefield may not be an expert in the battle of ideas.

And yet, at the foundation of our peoplehood, at the beginning of our national identity, when we left Egypt and entered Israel, there was to be one person who embodied both spiritual and political leadership. The reason for this is that at the core, the goal and purpose of the political leader and the spiritual leader are one and the same. Ultimately our politics are a tool to implement our spiritual ideas. So while the spiritual and political goals, sometimes are not fully in sync, while they play by different rules, contemplating the stories of our founding fathers - Moses and Joshua - we are reminded that ultimately, we have one goal, and that is to make the ideals of the Torah a political reality. Ultimately, the chief of the Jewish court and the head of the executive branch, are both working toward the same truth.     

The life of each and every one of us is divided into the political and the spiritual, the needs of the body and the needs of the soul. The Torah expects us to operate differently in each realm, we are not expected to operate during the six days of the week as we do on the Holy Shabbat. We don’t employ the same skill set when we are praying and studying as we do when we are seeking to earn a living. We do accept a figurative separation of powers.

Yet, we remember that we are not living a dichotomy. That, just as Moses and Joshua modeled how a political leader and a spiritual leader can and must have the same purpose and goal, so too, in our life, both parts of us, the mundane and the holy, the body and the soul, the weekday and the Shabbat have the same goal.

Both want to connect heaven and earth. They operate in different theaters, they speak different languages, they play by different rules, but deep down there is no separation. Both body and soul strive for a single goal. Both body and soul are working to fill the earth with the oneness of the creator.

 


[1] Numbers 27:16-17.

[2] Rashi, Numbers 27:16. 

Anti-Semite or Admirer?

Anti-Semite or Admirer?

Billam, the prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Jews, was, arguably, the most paradoxical character in the Torah.

He was not Jewish, yet his prophecy was as great as the prophecy of Moses[1]. He was “one who hears God's sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High”[2], he proclaimed the most beautiful praises of the Jews, yet his hate for the Jews was profound. He was one of the most spiritually gifted people to ever live, a man who “sees the vision of the Almighty”[3], yet he did all he could to try to curse the Jews and then cause them to sin. 

How do these opposite qualities reside together in one individual? How is it that one of our greatest enemies is the one who declares our greatest praises?

To understand Billam, we must first ask ourselves the age-old question: why are we so hated? What is the nature of anti-semitism?

Throughout the generations, up to this very day, researchers and scholars pondered this question, and came up with a variety of answers, some more true than others. Does the Torah offer any clues for the cause of anti-semitism? If we look carefully we discover that indeed, the Torah does offer insight into the minds of some of our greatest haters.

The Torah tells us that the nation of Moab, whose king, Balak, hired Billam to curse the Jews, was terrified of the Jews. In addition to the fear-factor that was at play, the Torah tells us that “Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel”: 

Moab became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel.[4]

The root of the Hebrew word “Va’y’kutzu”, translated here as “became disgusted”, also means “thorn”, translated literally that would mean “(the people of Moab) became like thorns because of the children of Israel”.[5]

The Hebrew word “Va’y’kutzu” appears once more in the Torah in the context of anti-semitism. When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt the Torah tells us of the attitude the Egyptian people had toward the Jews. Once again the Torah uses the word “Va’y’kutzu”, which means (“disgusted” or) “they became like thorns”:

and they [the Egyptians] were like thorns because of the children of Israel.[6]

What does it mean that the Egyptians, and then the Moabites, felt like thorns?

To feel like a thorn is to feel inadequate. To feel like a thorn is secondary to the primary product of the earth - the plants that require cultivation.

Let’s say a person who is exceptionally kind moves into a neighborhood. People will respond in various ways. People who don't appreciate the kindness will not be affected. The people who appreciate and value kindness, the people who always aspired to being kind will be stirred. Some of them will be inspired to grow, to improve, to emulate the kindness of the newcomer. For them the arrival of the newcomer is an inspiration to work toward the goals and values that they always held dear but never invested the effort to achieve. Others, however, have no interest to improve, no desire to change. To them the newcomer serves as a reminder of their shortcoming. To them the newcomer is a source of feelings of inadequacy. Instead of being inspired by the newcomer, the feelings of inadequacy cause them to hate the newcomer. Not because they don't understand the gift the newcomer possesses. On the contrary, precisely because they value the gift of the newcomer, precisely because they wish they possessed that gift without having to sacrifice for it, precisely because they value it, is why they hate the possessor of the gift.

In this case, the hate, which is the result of jealousy, is a sign of appreciation. One can only be jealous of someone who possesses something one values.

Sometimes, your greatest hater, the one who is the most jealous of you, is also your greatest admirer.

The same is true about the people of Israel. The People of Israel were chosen for the task of carrying the message of morality to the nations of the world. The Jews were tasked with being the “newcomer” who comes to town preaching the values of goodness and kindness. Some nations ignored us, they were unmoved by the message. Some were inspired by our call. Others felt like thorns in the midst of a vineyard. They felt that in comparison to the people of Israel, their lifestyle was devoid of higher meaning. Refusing to work to heed the message carried by the Jews, they turn to hate the messenger. Not because they don’t value the message. On the contrary, the more they value the message, the more inadequate they feel, the more they hate. The deeper they admire the message, the more powerful the hate.

This understanding of anti-semitism, that hate stems from jealousy which is a result of admiration, leads to great optimism. For it teaches that deep within the hearts of our adversaries lies an admiration for us. It helps us understand that even our greatest detractors have the potential to be transformed.

They too, like Bilam, will eventually take the message to heart. They too will eventually declare the praises of the messenger. 

 


[1] Midrash, Sifri, Devarim 357:10. 

[2] Numbers 24:16.

[3] Ibid. 24:4.

[4] Ibid. 22:3.

[5] See Kli Yakar on 22:3.

[6] Exodus 1:12. 

Purity of Freedom

Purity of Freedom

In the introduction to the laws of the red heifer - which enabled the purification from the most severe ritual impurity, an impurity brought about by coming in contact with a dead person - the Torah states: “This is the law of the Torah”[1]. Not “the law of the heifer”, which would imply that this law is specific to the idea of ritual purity, but rather “this is the law of the Torah”. If you want to know what is the “law of the Torah”, what is the Torah’s essential message, look no further than the law of the red heifer . 

Is there one word, or one idea, that captures the essence of all the Torah? There is no question that an essential and foundational message of the Torah is freedom.

Looking through the Torah, we find the message of freedom everywhere. The exodus from Egyptian bondage is central to our story, it is central to the biblical holidays, and the Torah insists that each of us “remember the day you left the land of Egypt all the days of your life”.

Freedom is much more than just an important part of our history, freedom is the foundation of all of morality. If we believe that we are unable to choose, that we are trapped by our nature, by our environment, and by our animalistic instincts then all of Torah is pointless. For the Torah and all its commandments are predicated on the idea that each of us has the freedom to control our instincts, change our nature, and follow, not the desire of our hearts, but rather the teachings of morality.

Impurity imparted by the dead, represents the greatest threat to the Torah’s message of moral freedom. When a human being confronts death, he is confronting his own limitation. No human being can escape death, and the thought of death forces the human being to acknowledge that he or she cannot escape fate, that ultimately life is progressing toward a specific end, and there is nothing that he or she can do that will change the fact that the human being is trapped by the laws of nature. This in turn can lead a person to mistakenly think that his spirit is also governed by fate; that he has no ability to choose freely, no ability to attain moral freedom, and that he is powerless to free himself from the grip of his nature.  

Contact with the dead, coming face to face with human mortality and limitation, makes one spiritually vulnerable to the mistaken notion that, not only the body, but the soul as well is trapped by the confines of nature.

To achieve spiritual purity, is to understand, that while the body is subjected to nature, the spirit is not. Thus the Torah commands us to take a red heifer - a symbol of vibrant life - to slaughter it and to burn it to ashes. This is a stark acknowledgement and reminder of the truth; that the human body is destined to disappear, as we say in the high holiday prayer: “A man's origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust... he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.” 

Yet, that is only part of the story. We take some of the ashes and place them into the “living waters”, water taken directly from a spring, and sprinkle them on the person who came in contact with a corpse. The message is powerful. Indeed the body cannot escape its destiny. The vibrant red heifer was just a temporary state in the journey to an inevitable end. Yet, the human spirit is like a spring of living water. The human soul is free of the limitations of natural physics. The human soul lives on and even while on earth there is nothing that can prevent it from making the right moral choices.

“This is the law of the Torah”. If you want to know what is the “law of the Torah”, what is the Torah’s essential message, look no further than the law of the red heifer.

 


[1] Numbers 19:2. 

Korach the Populist

Korach the Populist

Korach was a savvy populist. He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear.

In this week’s Parsha, Korach began a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. He was, he said, sick and tired of the elite leading the masses. He had enough of Moses and Aaron serving as the moral voice for the people, encouraging them to grow ever higher in their devotion to G-d and in their commitment to a lifestyle of holiness.

The slogan he chose for his rebellion was: “the entirety of the people are holy”. No need for a Moses or an Aaron. No need for spiritual leadership.

As the Torah states:

Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" 

Korach’s claim seemed impeccable. Did Moses not agree that the people were holy?

Earlier, in the book of Leviticus, G-d’s told Moses:

Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.

There is a profound difference between Korach’s claim “the entire congregation are all holy”, and G-d’s statement “you shall be holy”. Korach’s claim, “(you) are all holy”, is in the present tense, he was telling the people that they were already holy. Korach’s statement required nothing of the people, there was no need for them to grow and advance, to strive to ascend ever higher. They were perfect. They were holy. By contrast, G-d’s statement “be holy” was in the future tense. It was a call to put in the effort it took to refine themselves. It was  a call to the people to improve, to change, to advance, to become holy.

Which of the two claims - that the people “are all holy” as Korach preached, or “you shall be holy” as Moses taught - held the people in higher regard?

On the surface it seems that Korach’s claim, that the people were already holy, was the greatest compliment they could receive. The opposite, however, is true. When Moses saw the Jews he saw not only their exterior but rather he saw their essence as well. When Moses saw a Jew, he saw the infinite potential of the soul. Moses understood that no matter how great the Jew was, he could become greater yet. Specifically, because Moses held the people in so high a regard, he was not satisfied with their state of holiness. The core of his message, therefore, was always: “be holy”. No matter how holy you are, become more holy in the future.

There are two types of leaders: one who is always loving, accepting and understanding of the people and their shortcomings. The other is always demanding more. Moses captured both of these seemingly opposing traits. On the one hand, whenever the people sinned he was the first to run to their defense. He was their greatest advocate and defender. On the other hand, he always expected more from them. He understood that the role of a Jewish leader, of a Moses and an Aaron, was to encourage the people to grow and unleash the infinite energy of their soul.

These two traits, accepting and demanding, are not contradictory. In fact, these two traits stem from the same root. Moses saw the essence of the people, he therefore understood that sin was just an external and temporary state of being that did not define their essence. And because Moses saw their essence he understood that no matter how holy they were, they had the potential to soar ever higher.

✱✱✱

This Shabbos, the third of Tamuz, is the twenty second Yahrtzeit of the Rebbe. It is a day when Jews around the globe reconnect to the Rebbe’s teachings and inspiration. The Rebbe, the Moses of our generation, saw the essence of the soul within  every Jew. Therefore, like Moses before him, the Rebbe was the loving defender of the Jewish people. And therefore, he taught us never to be satisfied with our achievements, to always climb ever higher, to understand that our capacity to grow is boundless.   

He taught us to look for the soul of every person. To continuously seek to uncover and connect to the treasures within our own soul, as well as within the soul of every individual Jew.    

The Power of Desire

The Power of Desire

It was one of the most tragic moments in Jewish history. After generations of exile and slavery, after the miracles of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai, the Jews were about to reach their ultimate destination: they were at the cusp of entering the land of Israel. Tragically, at that pivotal moment, it all fell apart. The spies, sent to scout out the land, reported about the might of the native inhabitants. The Jewish people lost faith in their ability to conquer the land of Israel. As the Torah relates:

The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, "If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?" They said to each other, "Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!"[1]

The obvious lesson of this story of colossal loss of faith is the importance of believing in G-d, and not losing hope at the critical moments of life’s journey.

Yet, if we examine some of the details of the story, we will notice that, this is a story about more than faith alone.

Let us begin with the end of the story. G-d told Moses that in punishment for the sin of the spies the people would be barred from the land. Only their children would merit to enter Israel:

As for your infants... I will bring them there, and they will come to know the Land which You despised.[2]

Here we see that G-d classified the sin as despising the land.

Let’s examine another verse. When ten of the spies shared the negative report, Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who remained loyal to G-d and to Israel, responded:

They spoke to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, saying, "The land we passed through to scout is an exceedingly good land.”[3]

Why did Joshua and Caleb keep talking about how good the land was? How was that relevant to the question of whether or not the Jews were capable of conquering the land? Why did G-d say that the Jews “despised” the land, if all they did was lose faith in G-d?

What G-d was saying, and what Joshua and Caleb understood, was that faith follows desire. The reason the people lost faith in their own ability, and the reason they lost faith in G-d’s ability to help them conquer the land, was because they had no deep desire for the land.[4] Desire is the deepest of the soul’s powers and is the key that unlocks all other aspects of the soul.[5] If one truly and deeply wants to achieve something, that desire will unlock the wisdom, the emotions, and yes, the belief in the possibility of achieving the desired goal.     

That is why, when Moses sent the spies to scout out the land, he did more than just ask them to investigate the military might of the Canaanites. Moses instructed the spies to investigate the produce of the land, hoping the Jews would fall in the love with the land, its beauty and bounty.

Moses sent the spies because he understood that it is important for the people to desire the land. It is not enough for the people to head toward Israel because G-d promised it to their ancestors, and because G-d assured them that it is a land that flows with milk and honey. Moses understood that the people needed to desire Israel. It is not enough to march ahead fulfilling G-d’s orders, but rather the time had come for the people to identify and internalize and desire the Divine plan.[6]

G-d, Moses, and Joshua and Caleb, each in their own way, expressed this important truth: don’t wait for faith and belief. If you have a deep desire to achieve what you know is your inner purpose, if you want to succeed in reaching your potential, then belief and the confidence in your ability to so, will follow.

 


[1] Numbers 13:1-4.

[2] Ibid. 13:31.

[3] ibid. 13:7.

[4] See Atarah Limelech.

[5] See Hayom Yom. 2 Elul.

[6] See Lekutey Sichos Shlach Vol. 23 Sicha 1. 

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