The assimilation and subsequent loss of Jews has been a problem since the beginning of Jewish history. Many of us were taught--in kindergarten, no less--how Abraham and Sarah converted many to Judaism. This is the midrashic explanation of the verse we will read next week, “and the nefesh, souls they made in Charan” (the simple explanation is that nefesh refers to the wealth they had acquired). Yet these anonymous people or their children must have assimilated, as we never hear from them again.
Life is full of conflicts, contradictions, and challenges ,and it is our task to mediate them as best possible. Torah, our guide to life, is similarly full of conflicts, contradictions, and challenges. We will discuss just one such general conflict; that of a positive mitzva that conflicts with a concurrent negative mitzvah.
Masechet Yevamot opens by listing the fifteen women who "exempt their co-wives and the co-wives of their co-wives from chalitzah and yibum, ad infinitum" (Yevamot 2a). Under normal circumstances, when a man's brother dies childless, a surviving brother must either marry the widow (
Masechet Yevamot gets a bad rap. Many consider it amongst the most difficult masechtot to learn. Yet its seems to me it is difficult in the same sense that financial planning or preparing a tax return is difficult for many--something about numbers makes people nervous. A case of four brothers, two of whom marry two sisters and die, and one of the widows is the mother-in-law of one of the remaining brothers (Yevamot 26a) is more foreign than difficult.
The Jewish people had sinned, and their future stood in the balance. G-d's initial plans to destroy the people were thwarted by the intense prayers of Moshe, and it was on Yom Kippur that our covenant with G-d was reestablished. And on the very next day, the construction of the Mishkan began.
A question I have often been asked by non-observant Jews runs as follows: Since cars were not yet invented when the Torah was given, how can one claim that Biblical law prohibits driving? While the answer to that question is relatively simple--it is just a modern application of the Biblical verse, “Do not light a fire in all your places on Shabbat”--the idea behind the question has much merit. Shabbat, as described in the Bible, has little resemblance to how it is observed in practice.
“Even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are never closed”. With the destruction of the Temple--“the house of prayer for all the nations”--prayer is no longer enough. Rather, we must cry out to G-d with all our heart.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the Yamim Tovim, especially in Temple times, was the coming together of Jews from all walks of life to celebrate together in Jerusalem. “Rava expounded: What is the meaning of the verse: ‘How beautiful are thy steps in sandals, O prince's daughter’. [It means:] How beautiful are the feet of Israel when they go up on the festival pilgrimage” (Chagiga 3a). When Jews join together--whatever the reason--there is great beauty. When they do so to revel in the Divine presence, the beauty is enhanced.
The mitzvah of aliyah laregel--going up to Jerusalem on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot--was a central feature of these holidays of national celebration. While we now have the ability to come to Jerusalem for Yom Tov, and many do just that, we can no longer bring the festive sacrifices associated with each holiday. It is this mitzvah of that opens Masechet Chagigah.