Parsha Pearls: Parshas Bamidbar

G-d Filters Out the Wicked
Peaceful Efforts Toward Redemption
When Silence is a Sin

And they established their birth to their families, to their fathers’ houses. (1:18)

Rashi explains that they brought documents or witnesses to prove their birth, to which tribe they belonged. In Parshas Pinchas (26:5) Rashi says that the gentiles ridiculed the Jewish people, saying, “How pretentious these people are, that they claim descent from their respective tribes! Do they really think that the Egyptian men did not have power over their mothers?” Therefore Hashem placed the two letters of His name on either side of each of the family names – hei at the beginning and yud at the end, to bear testimony that they were indeed their fathers’ sons.

The Rambam says (Isurei Biah 12:7) that although intermarriage carries no death penalty and thus may seem to be a lesser sin than the other forbidden relationships, it should not be light in your eyes, for it carries with it a loss that no other sin carries. If one violates any other arayos prohibition, the resulting child is still a full-fledged Jew and is still considered his son. But a child born from a gentile woman is not considered his father’s son, neither is he a member of the Jewish people.

However, there are times when intermarriage is a powerful tool in the hands of Hashem to purify the Jewish people. This principle of Jewish history was explained by Rabbi Avigdor Miller in his famous lecture entitled, “The Keg and the Serpent.” He began with the story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s meeting with the Roman general Vespasian (Gittin 56b). Rabbi Yochanan said that he and the other good Jews wanted to surrender and accept Roman rule, but the “ biryonim” (zealots) did not allow it. Vespasian said: “If a poisonous serpent coils itself around a keg of honey, do we not break the keg in the process of killing the serpent?” He meant that despite Rabbi Yochanan’s desire for peace, he could not call off the war because he had to defeat the zealots, and it would be impossible to do so without destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. Rabbi Yochanan was silent. He saw in Vespasian’s words a deeper and prophetic meaning of which the general himself was not aware. The Jewish people had been plagued for 150 years by the heretical Sadducees and the tyrannical Herodian monarchy. They had trampled on the people and on the Torah. Jerusalem and the Temple had become their political center and source of wealth; they were coiled around it like a serpent. One cannot shake off the serpent without destroying the keg, and so the destruction of Jerusalem was Hashem’s way of getting rid of them. Indeed, after the destruction, when there was no longer any political power or money to be had, these two groups were never heard from again. They assimilated, intermarried and went lost among the gentiles.

“This is very important,” he continued, “because there are analogies to this today. Today a snake has coiled itself around Eretz Yisroel…worse than the snake that existed then. The atheists who are in authority, who rule Medinas Yisroel, are the most dangerous serpent that ever came out from our midst.”

“The tribe of the wicked cannot rest together with the lot of the tzaddikim, so that the tzaddikim not stretch out their hand to do wickedness.” (Tehillim 125:3) This is the principle we are explaining now: to protect the virtue of the righteous, it is imperative that the wicked be weeded out. And throughout our exile, Hashem is constantly weeding out the wicked among us. “Behold it is I who gives the order, and I will shake throughout all the nations the house of Israel, as something is shaken in the sieve.” (Amos 9:9) Shaking means expulsions, exiles, troubles. If you have flour mixed with pebbles, by holding it still you won’t separate it. You must shake that sieve up and down. Now the flour would prefer you should let it alone. But we want pure flour, so we shake it up and down, back and forth, and that causes the flour to go out and the dirt is kept back. As Hashem leads us through the nations He is sifting out the wicked. He took us into Spain and then there was an expulsion. The wicked remained, converted, and the good ones continued. He took us to Germany and there was Reform, assimilation, and the wicked intermarried and we got rid of them. He took us to Russia, there was Communism, many Jews embraced Communism and intermarried, and they got lost. All this was for the benefit of ridding us of the undesirable elements. And to quote from Yechezkel (20:35-38), “I shall bring you into the wilderness of nations…and I shall cause you to pass under my staff…and I shall pick out from you those who rebel and those who are disloyal to Me.” (Tape # 52)

And all those counted of the children of Israel, according to their fathers' houses, from twenty years old and up, all who went out to the army in Israel, were 603,550." (1:45-46)

The Ramban speculates as to the reason for this census. His third answer is that the Israelites were about to enter the Land of Canaan and conquer it, and it is normal to count the soldiers before a war so as to know how to plan each battle. Although G-d had promised them that they would be victorious, they could not rely on a miracle, that one Jewish man could defeat a thousand of the enemy's men. They had to be sure to deploy enough soldiers in each place.

Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal was a Hungarian rav who became a Zionist during the Second World War. Zionists revere his book, Eim Habonim Smeicha, as one of their most sacred texts. Rabbi Teichtal writes (p. 176) that just as the Ramban says the Jews in the time of Moshe had to make preparations according to the natural way of the world before conquering Eretz Yisroel, so too during exile we are obligated to take natural steps toward our redemption. As proof of this, he cites a letter written by the Rambam to the sages of Marseilles on the subject of astrology. The Rambam says that all the wisdom of the astrologers is foolishness and a waste of time, and then adds:

"And this is what caused us to lose our kingdom and destroyed our Temple and prolonged our exile and brought us to this point, where our fathers have sinned and are no longer here, because they found many books on these matters, on the words of the astrologers, and they erred and followed them, thinking that these were sophisticated branches of knowledge that bring great benefit. And they did not learn warfare or methods of conquering lands, but instead thought that [their knowledge of the stars] would help them. And that is why the prophets called them fools and idiots – they were surely fools and idiots, who went after nothings that could not help them or save them, for they were nothings."

Thus, says Rabbi Teichtal, the Rambam says that the destruction of the Temple and our exile happened because we did not learn warfare, and it is this same attitude of relying on miracles and refusal to make our own efforts that has prolonged our exile. Of course, he says, the Rambam cannot mean that during exile we should learn to fight wars and conquer lands, for this is not in our power due to our dispersion among the nations. Furthermore, we were forsworn on this matter – not to go up as a wall (Kesubos 111a). Rather, he means that we should use whatever natural means we have at our disposal, such as asking kings to be kind to us and end our exile, or buying land in Eretz Yisroel.

The first thing to note here is that with these words Rabbi Teichtal makes it clear that he would not have permitted the Zionist state founded in 1948, had he lived to see it. The state was founded through warfare, and Rabbi Teichtal states clearly that the oaths are in force and prohibit warfare. His "Zionism" is limited to buying land and peaceful requests from kings.

Now let us analyze what he says. From his interpretation of the Rambam's letter, a picture of the reasons for exile and redemption emerges that is totally different from the one presented in every other Jewish source, including the Rambam's own writings. The Biblical books of Melachim, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel make it clear that the destruction of the First Temple happened primarily because of idolatry. Chazal say this in Yuma 9b and 69b. We say in our prayers, "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land." The Torah says that the redemption will come when we repent and listen to the voice of G-d (Devarim 30:2). The Rambam in his Laws of Repentance (7:5) quotes this verse and says, "Israel will only be redeemed through repentance. And the Torah has already promised that Israel will repent at the end of their exile, and then immediately they will be redeemed." And suddenly here, in a letter to the sages of Marseilles, the Rambam says that the exile happened because we did not learn warfare, and we will be redeemed when we begin taking practical steps toward the redemption!

The answer is, of course, that the Rambam did not mean this; in fact he meant the exact opposite. During the time of the Temple, Jews were permitted to take natural steps to defend their land, in addition to trusting in G-d. It was not in their trust in G-d that they were remiss; Chazal say that they placed their trust in Him (Yuma 9b). Their sin was in the natural steps they took. Instead of pursuing permitted natural steps such as warfare, the Jews took natural steps forbidden by the Torah: idolatry. The Rambam equates astrology with idolatry because both involve a denial of G-d's control over the world and attribution of that control to other forces or entities. It was the sin of making these forbidden "natural" efforts that caused the exile. Furthermore, he says, the exile is prolonged because Jews continue to practice astrology. In our times, the "astrology" is Zionism, because Zionism too involves making natural efforts in a forbidden manner.

If we analyze the matter further, we will see that even according to the Eim Habonim Smeicha there should be no permission to take active steps toward the redemption. We have seen that Rabbi Teichtal says that warfare is forbidden under the oaths but peaceful efforts to settle the land are not. Presumably, this ruling is based on his interpretation of the words of Rashi in Kesubos 111a, "beyad chazakah" – with a strong hand – to mean warfare. Most of the commentators (cf. Yefeh Kol) disagree with this interpretation of Rashi's words for the very simple reason that there is already another oath prohibiting "rebellion against the nations". If the prohibition to go up as a wall only prohibits warfare, then that would already be included in rebellion and there would be no need for a special oath. Rather, going up with a strong hand means any mass immigration, even with permission from the nations.

But there was one authority who agreed with Rabbi Teichtal's interpretation of Rashi: the Avnei Nezer (Yoreh Deah 454 and 456). The Avnei Nezer says that there are actually two ways to understand the oaths in his view. The first way is to say that the prohibition of going up as a wall prohibits only warfare because it is essentially the same as the other oath against rebellion, only more specific. The second is to say that the oath against going up as a wall prohibits only warfare because if the gentile rulers of the land give the Jews permission to immigrate en masse, this is considered a Heavenly sign of the redemption.

According to the second way, Jews should not make efforts to obtain this permission from the gentile rulers, because then it would no longer be a Heavenly sign, just part of a natural political process. According to the first way, any non-military immigration is permitted not because it represents an effort toward redemption, but because it does not violate the terms of exile. Thus either way, it is forbidden for Jews to make efforts toward the redemption. It can be an exilic effort, or a redemptive effort set in motion by G-d, but not a redemptive effort set in motion by Jews. This is the meaning of the oath mentioned later in the Gemara not to "force the end."

Many Zionists mistakenly use the Avnei Nezer as a source to permit the state, so it is important for us to take a moment to explain why this is an error. In 1947 the United Nations voted to give the Zionists a state, and in 1948 the British pulled out and left the land up for grabs. In the ensuing war, the Zionists conquered for themselves a large part of Palestine. This was definitely "with a strong hand" according to all opinions! The United Nations did not own Palestine and their resolution was no more than a suggestion; neither they nor the British did anything to implement it. Perhaps an argument could be made that war in an "up for grabs" situation does not constitute rebellion. But the oath against going up as a wall, even according to the Avnei Nezer, does not just prohibit rebellion; it prohibits anything short of a peaceful gift from the ruling power.

And with you will be one man for every tribe, each man a leader of his family. (1:4)

The Kli Yakar explains that the Torah is coming to praise each of these leaders as a leader even to his own tribe and even to his own family. They did not fear their people and they did not shy away from criticizing their families. This is similar to the blessing Yaakov Avinu gave to Dan, “Dan will judge his people like one of the tribes of Israel” (Bereishis 49:16). Dan would not be partial or cover up for the transgressions of his own tribe. Rather he would judge them with the same fairness as any other tribe.

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 4a) teaches us that leaders who do not rebuke and criticize their people will be punished along with those people. The Gemara poses a contradiction between two verses. When Avraham prayed for the city of Sodom, he said, “Will you destroy the righteous together with the wicked?” (Bereishis 18:23) G-d agreed to his prayer and rescued whoever was righteous from Sodom. (However, to spare the entire city there needed to be ten righteous people.) But Yechezkel, describing the destruction of Jerusalem (21:8), says, “And I will cut off from you righteous and wicked.” The Gemara answers that Avraham was discussing perfectly righteous people whereas Yechezkel is discussing people are not perfectly righteous. But, asks the Gemara, Yechezkel in another place (9:4-6) describes how G-d commanded His angels to destroy Jerusalem, and He tells Gavriel to write the letter tav on the forehead of every righteous person who cries over the evils committed in the city. The tav symbolizes that they kept the entire Torah, from alef to tav. At first He tells the angels not to touch the people with the tav on them, but then the Attribute of Justice speaks up and says, “They should have protested.” G-d says, “I know that the other Jews would not have listened to them.” The Attribute of Justice says, “Master of the Universe, You know that, but do they know that?” G-d agrees with this argument and instructs the angels to begin killing these righteous Jews as well (Shabbos 55a). So we see, argues the Gemara in Avodah Zara 4a, that even completely righteous people are punished along with the wicked. The Gemara answers that their failure to protest was considered a sin and so they were not considered to be completely righteous. In the case of Sodom, on the other hand, Avraham Avinu was praying only for righteous people who did protest; only they would be saved.

Sometimes, even being totally righteous and protesting is not enough. In order to be saved, the righteous have to remain separate from the wicked. When the Jews worshipped the golden calf, the Levites protested, and even carried out punishment when Moshe commanded them to do so, without partiality to their own family members. “He said to his father and mother, ‘I have not seen him;’ his brothers he did not recognize, and his children he did not know” (Devarim 33:9). Yet the Torah says in this week’s parsha, “But the tribe of Levi you shall not count, nor take their head-count, in the midst of the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 1:49). Rashi says: “The Holy One, blessed is He, knew that He would later decree that every Jew twenty years old and up would have to die in the wilderness. So He said: Let these Levites not be included in the census, for they are Mine, since they did not go astray after the golden calf.” Despite their protest, the Levites would have been punished along with everyone else, had they not been counted separately.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 19a) tells a terrifying story about Shimon ben Shetach and the Sages of his time. King Yannai’s slave committed murder, and the Sanhedrin called him to stand before them. Yannai sent the slave, but the Sanhedrin was not satisfied – they wanted Yannai himself to come and stand before them, as the Torah says “And it will be established with testimony in the presence of its owner” (Shemos 21:29). So Yannai came to the Sanhedrin, and he sat down. Shimon ben Shetach commanded, “King Yannai, stand on your feet and let the witnesses speak against you! Not before us do you stand, but before the Creator of the World!” Yannai said, “What do your fellow sages say?” Shimon ben Shetach turned to his right, but the sages buried their faces in the earth. He turned to his left, but the sages buried their faces in the earth. Shimon ben Shetach said to them, “You are thinkers! Let the Master of Thoughts come and punish you!” Immediately, the angel Gavriel came and beat them into the ground, and they died.

When Yannai refused to recognize the authority of the Sanhedrin, only Shimon ben Shetach had the courage to confront him. Similarly, today, there are few Jews, even among those who are opposed to the existence of the Zionist state, who have the courage to confront it openly. The Zionists, echoing Yannai, ask, “Where are all your supporters? Let them come out and confront us too, if they really oppose us!” We hope that our generation will not fail in this challenge, as did the sages at the time of Shimon ben Shetach.