This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Shemini (5771)
This week’s Torah portion begins with a bizarre tragedy: On the day that the Jews inaugurated the first ‘House of G-d’ ever, the Tabernacle in the desert, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, became so infatuated with the holiness that they rushed in to the Holy of Holies and were killed by flames that entered their nostrils.
This is certainly very interesting and even shocking but seemingly it’s not very relevant to us today, which is the purpose of the Torah. The word ‘Torah’ means ‘teaching’ and every idea in it must be relevant to not only our daily lives but to the very essence of our beings.
What is this story doing in the Torah?
Today there is no Holy of Holies and people don’t get burnt because of rushing in there. What is the lesson here for us?
To understand this here are two stories about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who passed away almost exactly 25 years ago (13th of Adar 5746)
The Torah is G-d's law. It teaches us how to sanctify every detail of the world. But it takes an unusual talent to know what the law is in every situation and such a person was Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. He was one of the greatest 'Poskim' (deciders of Torah law) of all time.
The story is told about him that in 1933 when he was a rabbi in the U.S.S.R. in the city of Liubon, the Communists, in their ruthless drive to eradicate Judaism, announced one day that the women’s Mikva was ‘unhealthy’ and had it unceremoniously demolished and rebuilt as a public swimming pool and bathhouse.
[For those of you that don’t know, the Mikva is a precisely built ‘immersion pool’ that women must use according to Torah law before having marital relations. This makes it the most important edifice in every Jewish community and destroying it means threatening the very essence of Judaism, G-d forbid.]
We must remember that in those days the murderously evil dictator Stalin totally ruled the minds and bodies of all Russia. It is said that he killed some 50 million of his own people. Opposing him, even in thought, meant certain imprisonment and probable death. But this did not bother Rabbi Moshe.
Fully realizing that his life was at stake he made his way to the local government office and explained to the officials that although the bathhouse was a welcome change to the small and inefficient ‘Jewish’ one they used to have nevertheless it presented another health problem. The new bathhouse was for men and women together and religious Jews would not use it. Unclean Jews would eventually bring disease and even epidemics that could spread to the entire population!
So he suggested an easy solution; that every evening (or perhaps it was a few times a week) after hours, there would be a special time for men to wash alone and a special time for women. This would totally alleviate the problem and assure total hygiene and health to the area.
Miraculously the officers agreed.
Afterward he told his congregation that when the new ‘bathhouse’ was in the process of being built he convinced, at great cost and even greater risk, one of the architects to arrange the pipes, water ducts and other structures according to his directions so as to conform to Torah standards. The communists actually provided the Jews a ‘kosher’ mikva.
Rav Moshe’s willingness to die for Judaism saved an entire community.
But after a while he moved to the U.S.A and became a very famous Torah personality.
Because of his uncanny knowledge, memory and unique ability to determine the most difficult legal questions he was flooded with inquiries constantly, day and night often by some of the greatest Rabbis from the four corners of the earth who sought his opinions on the most difficult legal issues.
In addition to this he was also the head of a Torah Academy with several hundred pupils and was a spiritual mentor to thousands of religious Jews. So, as you can imagine, he was a very busy man.
But nevertheless every Tuesday his door was open to the public so Jews of all sorts and levels could come and ask their questions.
So was his custom for tens of years until 1987 when, at the age of 91 after a long and debilitating illness, he passed away and was mourned by the entire Jewish world.
But it seems that not everyone knew of his passing.
One Tuesday, a few weeks later, an old lady came to his home and asked why there was no line of people, perhaps the Rabbi changed his schedule? Perhaps she arrived late?
When she heard the bitter news she began weeping. But when she calmed down one of the young Rabbis there told her that if she had questions he would be glad to try to help her.
After all, he reasoned, how difficult could such a simple woman’s questions be? She probably wanted to know if her chicken is kosher or something similar.
"Oy!" The woman replied. "He was such a wonderful man!! I don't know if there exists such a person like him. He was such a help. But I suppose you are right, if you are his pupils you can probably can answer my problems. Do you understand Russian?"
"Russian?" Asked the Rabbi. "No, I don't think any of us knows Russian. But what difference does that make?"
"Ahh! So I guess you can't help me then." She sadly replied. "You see, for the last twenty years, once every few weeks I would get a letter from my sister that lives in Russia. But I don't understand a word of Russian so I used to come here to the Rabbi and he would sit for fifteen minutes to translate it and explain it for me.
“Such a wonderful man!"
This answers our questions. True, today we don’t have a Holy Temple and there is no physical death for over-religiousness. But it can kill spiritually.
Nadav and Avihu’s ‘crime’ was they were so holy and sensitive they didn’t allow anything in the world to ‘bother’ them. They wanted to come close to the Creator …. but on their terms; namely without the creation.
But it was a mistake.
In fact, the goal of creation is to make the CREATION holy. That is the idea of Moshiach; a Jew who will fill THIS physical world with the awareness of the Creator (see Rambam, last law) thus completing the task that the first Jew, Abraham, began.
This is TRUE spirituality.
This is what Rabbi Moshe did: when it came to fighting for that mikva he didn’t let anything in the world bother him. Indeed … something like the two sons of Aaron, he was even prepared to give his life.
But he was also able to forget his ‘holiness’, come ‘down’ and think in G-d’s terms: to G-d that simple lady with her un-deciphered letter could have been more important than the highest spiritual heavens.
This is what we can learn from Nadav and Avihu. It’s necessary to be as holy as possible, G-d even called them ‘dear’ and ‘sanctified’ (10:4). We must separate ourselves from the world, learn Torah, devote ourselves to prayer and be extra enthusiastic in doing the commandments and transform ourselves into Holy Temples.
But we also must be able to ‘change form’ when the situation so demands and CIRCULATE holiness into the most mundane aspects of creation; transform the entire world into a Holy Temple as well.
This circulation is true life, and without it is spiritual death.
In order to do this we need humility, joy and, of course, Torah knowledge.
This is the main message of the teachings of the Chabad Rebbes called ‘Chassidut’ (see your local Chabad House for details).
Then even one good deed, word or even thought can tip the scales and bring….
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