June 10, 2024
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Shemini, Self-Control and the RCBC

Editor’s note: The following is last week’s Shabbat drasha given to Rabbi Goldberg’s congregation, Young Israel of Fort Lee.

April 7 will be an exciting day for baseball fans. It’s Opening Day. In a year when a baseball strike threatened to cancel the entire season, there will be special joy in the air when pitchers throw out the first ball. 

L’havdil bein kodesh l’chol, Parshat Shemini begins with Opening Day at the Mishkan. We can only imagine the type of euphoria Moshe, Aaron and the Jewish people felt on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the day on which Aaron would begin his service as the kohen gadol, the high priest. The Mishkan was now open for business!

Moshe gives very specific instructions regarding the exact protocol to follow on this auspicious day. Aaron was to offer a sin offering and a burnt offering. He was to offer three additional sacrifices on behalf of the people. And then Moshe includes one more task:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק תַּעֲשׂוּ וְיֵרָא אֲלֵיכֶם כְּבוֹד יְקֹוָק

And Moses said, “This is the thing the Lord has commanded to do and the glory of the Lord will appear to you.”

The problem is that Moshe does not identify what this “thing” is! This ambiguity leads the Netviz to exclaim:

זה הפסוק אומר דרשוני

This verse calls out to be expounded.

Some commentaries offer technical answers. Sforno, for example, suggests that Moshe is reminding Aaron to fulfill the mitzvah of semicha, placing his hands on some of the sacrifices, thereby symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal. Ibn Ezra explains that Moshe’s command is a reference to the animal sacrifices that have been outlined earlier on. 

Today I want to share with you a cryptic Midrash that also fills in the blanks.

The Midrash explains:

אמר להם משה לישראל אותו יצר הרע העבירו מלבכם

Moshe said to the Jews, “You must rid yourselves of the evil inclination from your hearts.”

That’s quite a task Moshe was asking of the Jewish people. Was Moshe really asking us to rid ourselves of our evil inclination before the Mishkan could operate successfully?

Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, suggests a powerful insight. He explains that the Midrash is referring to a very specific type of evil inclination, an inclination that develops when you really love something. 

After all, when you love something very intensely it is hard to respect boundaries. By way of illustration, I know many in this audience love chocolate. I surely do. Think about how hard it is to stop eating chocolate even though you know it’s not healthy. As someone wise once quipped, “A balanced diet is chocolate in both hands.”

Chazal understood this, too. In a number of places they teach: אהבה מקלקלת את השורה, love breaks the rules. 

Boundless love is not healthy. Any emotion in the extreme, for that matter, is not healthy. It is a form of our yetzer hara. Rav Schwab offers the simple parable of a mother’s hug. Nothing displays a mother’s love more than a hug. But if a mother hugs her baby too tightly, she could chas v’shalom suffocate the child.

With this in mind, explains Rav Schwab, we can better understand the meaning of the cryptic Midrash. When Moshe told the people: יצר הרע העבירו מלבכם, he was teaching Aaron and the Jewish people that the final step to inaugurating the Mishkan was developing a sense of self control.

Yes, the Mishkan would be a place where the Jewish people could experience an intimacy with God, but it had to be an experience with defined boundaries. Non-kohanim could only enter the Mishkan up to a certain point. Kohanim could go further still, but they were forbidden from entering the Holy of Holies. Even the kohen gadol was only able to enter the Holy of Holies once a year. Sacrifices would be offered to God as gifts, but under very specific guidelines. Sprinkle some blood here, the rest here, dip your finger once here, twice here, so on and so forth.

When Moshe told the people זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְקֹוָק he was commanding them to excel in self-control. Any boundless emotion can be destructive, even love. The palpable presence of God demands structure and control. 

Rav Schwab adds that ultimately it is this very issue that caused the premature death of Nadav and Avihu. In their passion and exuberance to serve God they offered a sacrifice to God that God did not command, essentially overstepping their boundary. Emotions are such powerful tools, but they must be controlled and channeled in order to be effective.

This insight of Rav Schwab resonates particularly strongly with me this week for two reasons: One reason relates to the Jewish people throughout the world, the second relates to the Jewish community in Bergen County.

This past Sunday, nearly 1 million people gathered to pay their last respects to a gadol b’Torah, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l. Although Rav Kanievsky was not part of our “YU” world and many people in our circles did not directly interact with him, he was a Torah giant and we can appreciate his indelible contributions to the Jewish people.

He lived his entire life with a sense of self control. Every fiber of his being was focused on Torah study. He would wake up early every morning and embark on an ambitious learning schedule that included Zohar, Tehillim, Tanach, Gemara, Halacha and musar. His yearly siyumim on Shas and Shulchan Aruch were a sight to behold.

It is hard to fathom the self-control and discipline that type of rigorous Torah study required. We collectively are poorer now that such a great Torah scholar is not in our midst. 

On a local level, unfortunately, much of this past week for me was spent dealing with a Bergen County crisis. As many of you know, an owner of two restaurants in Teaneck was arrested on charges related to taking advantage of an underaged employee. It goes without saying that any type of sexual misconduct is morally and halachically abhorrent and cannot be tolerated nor swept under the rug and dismissed. 

Once this news story broke, there were some in the Bergen County community that called upon the RCBC to immediately revoke our hashgacha on both restaurants. The RCBC’s initial silence was interpreted as tacitly condoning such terrible behavior.

There were calls on social media for the rabbis to stand up for the victims and to act swiftly against the alleged perpetrator. There was a sense of unbridled passion and zeal to punish and penalize. And while I cannot underscore enough how seriously any allegation of sexual misconduct must be taken, I also think that as a community we can hold ourselves to a higher standard than trial by social media.

What I learned this week is that our passion for justice cannot cloud what is just. Complex matters require time, thoughtfulness and deliberation. Rushing to make rash decisions is not a Torah value. I am proud that the RCBC handled this matter with integrity and modeled for the community a balanced approach.

After all, the Torah demands of us that every decision in life be carried out with self-control and the clarity that often comes with the passage of time.

While we may not be able to keep up Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s learning schedule, we can learn from him what it means to live our lives with focus and control, ultimately channeling each and every emotion toward the service of Hashem.

By Rabbi Zev Goldberg


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