Shabbat Shalom Weekly

Torah Portion:      Shemini  (Leviticus 9 – 11)

Straight Talk

“Pavlovians No More”

by Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt
In this week’s parsha, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, committed a lethal mistake. The exact nature of the transgression is the subject of much discussion amongst the Sages. Bottom line, though, they did something very wrong. And this is one of the only occasions in Torah where we see immediate consequences; a fire comes from heaven and consumes them on the spot.
The average person might ask why such a thing should happen. After all, Aaron’s sons were great and righteous men. But the wise man will ask the real question: Why does this not happen more often? If we are confident that God exists and that He means what He says, then why does He not mete out the punishments that he promises? And for that matter, what about the rewards? For example, we say in the Shema that “if you listen to My words,” there will be rain (i.e. material riches), and if you do not, there will not. It seems quite straightforward. And yet, we see that people don’t listen to God and are wealthy. Why is there no clear system of reward and punishment?
It’s obvious really.
Let’s say you were to go into McDonald’s and order the Mcbacon Big Mac with extra Mccheese. As you reach out your hand to grasp the offending item, bang – a bolt of Mclightning descends from the clear skies and scorches your hand black. The next day you try the same and, lo and behold, your hand gets a little blacker. Feeling in a repentant mood, you decide to try synagogue instead. On your way, you find a brand new $50 bill. On your way to synagogue the next day, you find $100.
Now imagine that you wake up the next day with a desire for a Big Mac. What do you think you will do?
I think you’ll go to synagogue.

Of course, you won’t do it because you “want to”; you’ll do it because you enjoy money more than lightning. Pavlov would be proud.
This is an extreme case, but it illustrates the point. God does not want to compromise our free will. He does not want robots. He wants us to be thinking, responsible human beings. In order for that to be the case, He has to leave room for doubt, room to question and rationalize. If we cannot make the “wrong choice,” then making the right choice becomes meaningless.
God has created a world where the consequences of our actions are not immediate. They are often delayed, and always subtle. Though you may not see justice immediately, if you look deeper, sometimes very deep (though never too deep for us to understand), it always exists.
We may not like the idea of God, so to speak, being hidden from us. But were this not the case, we would be no better than Pavlov’s dogs. For the gift of independence, this frustrating lack of clarity is a small price to pay.

The Guiding Light
Acquiring a Friend

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
The Torah Portion begins with the joyful celebrations of the Inauguration of the Mishkan (tabernacle), however this joyous occasion becomes a time of mourning with the sudden deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. “The sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before Hashem an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem.”
The Rabbinical sources offer a number of explanations as to the exact wrongdoing of these two great men which caused them to receive such a strict punishment. The Torat Kohanim(2) writes: “…Nadav and Avihu did not seek advice from Moses… and each man went on his own accord and they did not seek advice from each other.” This Midrash teaches us that Nadav and Avihu did not actually go to offer the incense together; rather they each had the same idea and went alone to offer the incense in the Mishkan. They are criticized because they did not seek advice from their teacher, Moses, before undertaking this bold act, and also because they did not seek advice from each other. Rav Berel Soleveitchik says that this Midrash is very difficult to understand; it is obvious why they should have consulted Moses because he would have surely advised them to not offer the incense, however why are they criticized for not consulting with each other? They both evidently believed in the correctness of their plan and so what benefit would have been gained from consulting each other — surely they would have merely confirmed that the plan was a good one?!
Rav Soleveitchik answers that we learn from here a fundamental principle in human nature: A person may want to commit a certain sin and yet he may simultaneously see the flaw in such an action when his friend is about to commit the very same sin. This is because each person is greatly influenced by his yetzer hara (negative inclination) which prevents him from making decisions with objectivity. Rather, the yetzer hara clouds his reasoning and causes him to rationalize that it is acceptable to undertake certain forbidden actions. However, when this same person looks on his friend about to perform the very same sin he is able to take a far more objective attitude towards his friend’s actions. This is because with regard to others, a person is not clouded by a desire for self-gratification and he can more accurately assess the validity of his friend’s plans. Accordingly, had Nadav consulted Avihu about his plan (or vice versa) then there would have been a good chance that Avihu would have seen the flaw in his brother’s reasoning despite the fact that he planned to do the very same act! That is why they are criticized for not consulting each other despite the fact that they both planned to do the same sin.
Rabbeinu Yonah brings out this principle from the teaching in Pirkei Avot: “…Acquire for yourself a friend.” He writes that one of the benefits of having a friend is that he can help you in observing Mitzvot. “Even when a friend is no more righteous than him and sometimes he even acts improperly, nonetheless he does not want a friend to do the same [action], because he has no benefit from it.”  He then brings as a proof to this idea the principle that “a person does not sin on behalf of someone else.” This means that a generally observant person usually sins because he is blinded by some kind of desire for pleasure, however with regard to someone else we presume that he is not blinded in the same way and therefore we do not suspect him of sinning on behalf of others. This idea is applied in a number of places throughout the Gemara. Rabbeinu Yonah thus teaches us the importance of acquiring at least one friend who can act as an objective onlooker towards our own actions, and that this friend need not necessarily be on a higher level than ourselves.
We learn from these ideas a very important life lesson; a person should not rely on his own assessments of his actions – it is impossible to be purely objective when making decisions because of one’s natural subjectivity that causes him to rationalize the validity of committing certain sins.
Rather, he must realize the necessity of finding a friend who will be prepared to offer advice and even rebuke when necessary when he sees that his friend is blinded by his desires. May we all merit to acquire true friends who can help us find the true path in our spiritual growth.

 

FAMILY PARSHA

Cheerleading

by Nesanel Yoel Safran
It can be good to look back on the past. We can learn a lot both from our past successes as well as our mistakes. But we also have to be careful not to let our past mistakes bog us down so much that we’re afraid to try again. The Torah this week relates that it was time for Aaron, the High Priest, to perform some of his special sacred tasks for the Jewish people in the Tabernacle. He hesitated and felt unworthy to do such holy things, because he felt responsible for the golden calf that the people had made against God’s wishes. But Moses, his brother, reassured him. He encouraged him to go beyond his past mistakes and accomplish all the great things he could in the present. We learn from this to try to be the best we can be now, no matter what might have happened in the past.
“Cheerleading”
The Finer kids excitedly piled into the family’s mini-van. Mrs. Finer was careful to pack enough snacks and games to make the one-hour drive to the nursing home a pleasant one.
“Great Aunt Millie is really going to be happy to see us,” chirped Liz as her dad started the engine.
Her mom looked around. “Hey, where’s Michael?” she asked noticing the boy wasn’t in the van.
Without missing a beat, little David leaned over into the driver’s seat and started to honk the horn insistently.
“Hey, cut it out!” said his dad with a smile. “You’ll wake up the entire neighborhood.” Turning to his oldest daughter, he said, “Liz, could you please go tell your brother we’re leaving now and ask him to hurry up?”
“No problem, Dad,” answered the girl cheerfully. She ran into the house and made her way to her younger brother’s room at the end of the hall. “Michael, Mi-chael,” she called out in a sing-song voice. She knocked on his door a few times. Finally hearing a muffled “Yeah?” she turned the knob and walked in.
Michael was curled up on his bed, the covers pulled over his head. “Hey Mike what’s happening?” she asked. “We’re all waiting for you in the car and you’ve decided to take a nap?”
The boy poked his head out from the blanket. He wasn’t smiling at his sister’s joke. “I’m not going,” he said simply.
“But why not?” asked Liz, surprised. “It’s going to make Aunt Millie so happy when we visit her today.”
Her brother shook his head. “Maybe she’ll be happy to see you,” he said, “But I’ll probably just get her upset.”
Noticing Liz’s confused look, Michael went on to explain. “Remember last winter when we went to visit Grandma in the hospital?”
The girl nodded.
“Well, when I kept asking her about why she was there and why she wasn’t moving her arms, and then I asked her if she was going to die — she got upset and started to cry. Mom told me after that it would be better just to try to cheer her up. So this time I’m staying home. I’m not going to blow it again and make Aunt Millie cry too.”
“Beep-beep!” blasted the car horn.
“Oh-oh, David’s at it again,” smiled Liz. “Look Michael,” she said. “I can understand why what happened last time upset you. But I also know that you’re a considerate person who doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes says the wrong thing, but why should you let what occurred last time stop you from trying this time?”
Michael’s face brightened a bit as he sat up on his bed.
Liz continued, “You want to cheer Aunt Millie up, don’t you?”
Michael nodded. “Sure. I know she’s lonely and needs people to visit her. But after what happened with Grandma, I just don’t know if I can…”
“Okay, what happened, happened,” said Liz. “But now you can put it behind you and make a fresh start. How about telling yourself that from now on you’re going to do it the right way?”
Michael thought for a moment and said, “I guess I can do that, can’t I?”
Suddenly they were rudely interrupted by yet another horn blast. “Let’s go,” Michael said, jumping down off of the bed. “Before David wears out the van’s horn.”
They laughed. As they headed out to the waiting car, Michael turned to his sister and said, “Thanks Liz, I can certainly take some lessons from you about how to cheer a person up!”
Discussion Questions
Ages 3-5
Q. How do you think Michael felt when it was time to go visit his great aunt in the nursing home?
A. He didn’t want to go because he felt afraid that he would make her feel bad like he did with his grandma.
Q. Just because we made a mistake or did something wrong in the past, does that mean that we can’t try to do the right thing now?
A. No. We can always start fresh and do the right thing from now on.
Ages 6-9
Q. What did Liz say that convinced Michael to come along to visit their great aunt?
A. She was able to help him realize that a person always has a second chance to improve. The fact that he had made some incorrect choices in the past was no reason why he couldn’t act correctly now. Her words encouraged Michael to try again in spite of what happened in the past.
Q. Do you think that we are ever stuck having to behave a certain way, or can we always choose to change for the better?
A. Some things we can’t change. A tall person can’t become short or vice-versa. But when it comes to how we choose to behave we’re never stuck. While we might not be able to improve overnight, if we keep trying, we can eventually come to behave in ways that we really want to.
Q. Can you think of a time you decided to do something that was very difficult?
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our spiritual tradition describes a good person not as someone who never does bad, but rather as someone who repeatedly fails and picks himself up. How do you understand this? Why do you think this is so?
A. Life is a dynamic process. Inevitably, a person who is focused on spiritual growth is going to encounter challenges and tests, sometimes he will pass these, sometimes he won’t. Yet even when it seems like he “failed,” this in itself is really only a test. God wants us to unlock the hidden ability within ourselves to pick ourselves up and continue along the path of personal growth. The dynamic process of growing toward goodness is good in itself. The boy in our story accomplished this when he overcame his fears of past failure and agreed to visit his aunt.
Q. Would you say that somebody whose natural personality or life circumstances makes it very difficult for her to do the right thing is somehow not responsible for the way she behaves? Why or why not?
A. Certainly such a person faces a greater challenge to make the proper choices. Nevertheless she, like all of us, is ultimately responsible for the choices she makes. God wants all of us to succeed and He gives us the tools to do so. If we honestly search within ourselves we can often discover the means to overcome the most challenging circumstances. God never gives up on us and He doesn’t want us to give up on ourselves either.

Q. Can you think of a time you decided to do something that was very difficult?

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“You are where your thoughts are.  Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be”
— Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

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JOKE OF THE WEEK

Morty and Sally are eating breakfast while reading their Sunday paper. Morty comes upon a study that says women use more words than men. Excited to prove to his wife his long-held contention that women in general and his wife in particular talk too much, Morty shows Sally the study results, which states: “Men use about 15,000 words per day, but women use 30,000.”
Sally thinks about it for a while, then finally says to her husband, “That’s because we have to repeat everything we say.”
To which Morty replies, “What?”

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