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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Chukat

Parshat Chukat

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter

Parashat Chukat                                                                             Print Version
10th of Tammuz, 5778 | June 23, 2018

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky 
Why Are You Jewish?

During my years in yeshiva, there used to be a rebbe to whom I would present many of my questions. Almost every time, he would have that nervous look on his face as I approached him. “Why don’t you like me coming over?” I curiously asked. “I’m not the smartest boy here.” “Dovid,” he said, “you ask easy questions and easy questions are hard to answer.” Now, for a very good reason, such basic questions are difficult to answer. And that is because they cut to the core and fundamental of whatever is being discussed. And so, let us begin to address the simplest of questions, which is by extension the hardest. We will take a little detour in getting there, but rest assured we will answer it.

Let us begin with Avraham Avinu. Before Hashem appears to Avraham at age seventy-five and tells him to leave his homeland, Avraham makes a cameo appearance at the end of Parshas Noach amidst the listing of his father and two brothers. It is there that we learn some of the background of Avraham’s family and discover a fascinating insight into his familial history. The Torah relates that Terach was the ninth generation from Noach and had three sons: Avraham, Nachor and Haran (Bereishis 11:26). Just two verses later, the Torah further states, “And Haran died in the face of Terach, his father…” (ibid. v. 28).

Rashi cites two explanations as to the meaning of “in the face of Terach…” For one, it refers to Haran dying in the lifetime of his father. Alternatively, it means that Haran died “because of” Terach, his father. As the Midrash famously explains, Avraham’s father was not only an idol worshiper, but manufactured idols. Just imagine. Terach would be asked, “How’s business?” “Thank G-d,” he’d say. Terach would ask customers, “So are you looking for a love g-d, a money g-d or anything else?” Yet Avraham, as an honest intellectual, looked around the world and said, “How can they all be a g-d? There must be one, all-powerful g-d. And so, Avraham went on to discover monotheism and find the true one and only Creator. But now he had one slight dilemma: how do you explain this all to your father?

And so, one day as his father headed off to a g-d convention, Avraham got to work. He took a hammer and walked around his father’s store, smashing just about every idol in sight. He then waited for his father to return home. When that fateful moment arrived, Terach was shocked to see his business destroyed. “What happened?” he exclaimed. “It wasn’t me, “Avraham replied. “All of the g-ds started fighting and each said that he is more powerful than the others. But then finally, the big idol over there smashed everyone.” “Avraham,” Terach cried out, in an outburst of disbelief, “idols cannot talk or move.” “So why do you pray to them?” Avraham innocently asked.

Now what would any parent do if their child asked a devastating theological question? Of course, take him to King Nimrod. 

Nimrod, the leader of all the idolatrous cults, asked Avraham the question that kids have been asked for centuries. “Why can’t you be like all other children? Just choose a g-d and stick to it!” “I don’t know which one to choose,” Avraham said, “there are so many of them.” “Well,” interrupted Nimrod, “choose my g-d! I worship fire because it is the ultimate power. It burns and destroys everything.” “Really?” Avraham piped up. “If that’s why you worship fire, then why not worship water? Water is so strong it can put out fire.” “Come to think of it,” mused Nimrod, “that’s a good one. I’m open minded! From now on, we worship water!” But before Nimrod and his entourage could break out into any celebratory dances reveling in their new g-d, Avraham piped up once again.

“Wait a minute… If water is power, then why don’t you pray to the clouds? They produce water!” “Ohhh!” Nimrod and his men cried out. “We will worship the clouds!” “But now, wait a minute,” Avraham interjected again, “if you are worshiping the clouds, then why not worship the wind? It can blow the clouds away.” “I see where you’re heading kid…” Nimrod figured. “I am going back to fire.”

Nimrod proceeded to build an enormous bonfire into which Avraham was going to be thrown. Nimrod’s men began to grab Avraham, as his brother Haran looked on from afar, but could do nothing more than think, “Uh oh, I’m next.” At that moment, Haran decided, “If Avraham will come out alive, I will side with him and declare myself committed and loyal to Hashem. If, however, he dies, then I will join sides with Nimrod.”

Avraham was thrown into the furnace, yet remained unscathed. Now Haran knew his next move. “And you?” Nimrod’s men said, directing their attention to Haran. “I believe in the same G-d as Avraham!” And with that, he was cast into the furnace. Except, he was not as fortunate as Avraham to come out alive. And that is what it means, concludes Rashi, “in the face of Terach, his father.” It all began because of Terach’s idol worship that these series of events unfolded, leading to the demise of Haran.

As you look at this Rashi, an obvious question arises. Why did Avraham Avinu receive a miracle and come out alive while Haran didn’t?

One of the classes I have often given to non-observant Jews revolves around intermarriage. Years ago, as I discussed this topic with a group of students, a girl burst into tears and ran out a mere five minutes after we had begun. After the class came to a close, she approached me and we began talking. “This is a very sensitive topic,” she began. “I come from a traditional Jewish family, and I knew I was Jewish and I would never intermarry. I dated some non-Jewish boys in high school, but I knew nothing would come out of it because my Judaism was so important to me. But then I dated some guy in college and I fell in love with him… But because my Judaism was so important to me, I told him that we could only get married if he agreed to convert.” I continued listening to her tell her story.

“He began the process of converting, although it didn’t last long. Halfway through, he called me and said that he could not go through with it, and he would agree to marry me if I could accept him the way he was.” The girl now stared at me, as I could tell she was trying to hold back tears. “I just broke off the engagement. It was so hard…”

“Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because my Judaism is so important to me,” she replied rather straightforward. I was confused. “What do you mean by that?” “Well, you know, holidays…” I interrupted her before she continued any further. “You know you can be intermarried and still put up a menorah in the window.” After hearing that, all she could say was, “I don’t know.” “Okay,” I continued, “what would you do if I pulled out a gun and said, ‘You have two options. Either convert and become Christian or die.’ “I would let myself be killed,” she said. I stared at her with a solemn face.

Nebuch (that’s unfortunate),” I said. “You broke up with the guy you loved and planned on marrying and you would give up your life for Judaism, but you cannot even tell me what Judaism is and why it is so important to you.”

It was then that I suddenly realized the meaning behind the Midrash cited by Rashi. Avraham believed there was something important enough in this world to die for. He didn’t expect to come out of the furnace alive. But Haran went into the furnace for one reason only: because Avraham went in. And that is why he didn’t survive. He was not doing it because He believed in G-d, but because Avraham did it. And yet as strange as it may sound, there is a similar refrain that is heard in our day and age, thousands of years later. Ask the average Jew today, “Why are you Jewish?” and what is the response you will get? “Because my parents are Jewish, and their parents were Jewish and on and on…” The answer is “because.” That was Haran’s thought process, and what is often thought nowadays.

I have asked many kids, “If you suddenly found out you were not Jewish, would you convert to Judaism?” Guess what the most common answer is? Not right away. I have yet to hear the response that Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l gave: “I would build a bama (private altar) and offer a korban olah (elevation offering) because only a non-Jew is allowed to do this, and then I would convert.” “So then why are you Jewish now?” I ask these same kids. “Because I was born Jewish,” they reply.

Let me give you a further example.

Years ago, I lived in a community which hosted a Friday night youth program for teenagers. It was essentially an oneg Shabbos and social event. All the kids came from homes that kept Shabbos and kosher, although Judaism was something that did not always “catch their interest,” if you could say so. After the list of interesting people to speak had been exhausted, I was contacted. I was told that I had five to six minutes to hold their attention, so I knew I needed to move fast.

“Imagine you have two buttons in front of you,” I began telling them. “If you push the one on the left, you will wake up as a nice kid in a nice family, with the same socio-economic strata, except that you were never Jewish. If, however, you push the button on the right, you will remain the same way you are right now.” As I let the question settle for a second, I quickly added my own two cents. “My guess is that if I would offer this challenge to your friends in high school, sixty to seventy percent of them would push the button on the left and choose not to be Jewish.”

All the kids just looked at me. ”Rabbi, how can you talk to us like that? Everyone would push the button on the left!” Then I realized. There I was on a Friday night in a room with a bunch of Jewish kids who would rather be Christian. So I turned back to them and prodded further. “Now why is that? Why would you push the button on the left?”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” I said. “You hate being Jewish.” “Oh rabbi,” they chimed in, “you cannot say that! It might be true, but you cannot say that.” “So then why are you Jewish?” I asked again. Thousands of tuition dollars have been invested in this question, and what did they conclude within those next few moments? “Because my parents were Jewish. If I were born a Christian, I would be a Christian.”

I looked down at my watch and looked up at them. “My time is up,” I said. “No, no, no,” they all flared up. “You know the rules; you can challenge us all you want, but at the end, you have to give us a self-satisfying answer so that we forget we ever saw you. We don’t want to have any angst.” Interesting argument. So I just stood there and asked the question again.

“Okay rabbi, I know why. We are Jewish because otherwise G-d will burn us in Gehinnom.” Now that’s a thought.

Allow me to digress and tell you a little related anecdote. I was once in Israel talking to a boy who was in his second year in yeshiva, when I asked him, “What happens at the end of life?” “You know,” he replied, “you go to the World to Come.” “And what is it like?” “It’s like a cold beach,” he began saying. You can imagine the rest of the picture he developed. “Is that what you believe?” “No,” he said, “that’s what I wish.” “So what do you really believe?” “Well, you sit on a cloud and play a harp.” “Do you like harp music?” “Not particularly.” “So what are you going to do?” “I’ll get an electric harp! I’ll put my halo on sideways…” “Okay,” I slowly said, “and what happens if you are bad?” “G-d burns you forever.” “Are you comfortable with that?” “I guess,” he said, “that is what I always heard.”

What a sad reality. Is that how we view Hashem and life in this world and the Next? Other answers as to why we are Jewish abound here and there. The Jews have been around the longest and made many contributions. We must preserve Jewish culture. While that may be true, that is not why we are Jewish. 

I’m sure that by now you are getting quite curious, so let’s address it. Why are we Jewish, and by extension what is our purpose as Jews in this world? To give you the answer to this question, let us quote the first couple of lines of the classic Mesillas Yesharim (Path of the Just), written by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (known, in short, as the Ramchal).

“The foundation of saintliness and root of perfection in the service of G-d lies in man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspirations in all of his labors all the days of his life. Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in G-d and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His presence, because this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this greatest pleasure may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it…”

Now what does this mean? Well, let me tell you first what it does not mean.

I was once speaking to a group of men about the importance of setting goals in life. Afterwards, someone came up to me and said that he wanted to be a dentist. “That is not your goal in life,” I said. “Sure it is,” he countered. “I am in Dental school.” “So let me get this straight. You are ninety years old and they are writing your eulogy and say, ‘He was a dentist and filled many cavities. He removed many impacted teeth, and he was especially good with molars…” “No, no, rabbi…” “Wait!” I said. “I’m getting to the best part. Your tombstone is a big tooth and upon it are the words, ‘Here lays a dentist. He fills his last cavity.’” “No rabbi, what I meant is that I am going to support my family through dentistry.”

“Ahhh,” I sighed. “Okay now, so what is your goal in life?” “I have no idea. Anytime anyone would ask me, I would say that I want to be a dentist, and then life would move on.”

So what does the Mesillas Yesharim really mean? Why were we created?

When I asked this question to a number of yeshiva students I was teaching, I was told, “To serve Hashem.” “Read it again,” I said. “The Mesillas Yesharim doesn’t say that.” “Okay rabbi, to enjoy the light of the Shechinah (Divine Presence).” “Read it carefully,” I repeated. “The “because” makes the sentence. “Man was created for the purpose of ... deriving pleasure from the splendor of His presence, because this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found.”

Hashem created us for one purpose and one purpose only: to receive the greatest possible pleasure. Period. Not to serve Him. He is infinite. He is very secure and has no needs and wants. He doesn’t need us to pray and eat matzah or shake a lulav. Life is only for you to receive the greatest possible pleasure. 

What does this mean?

Think about it. What is davening about? Chazal (Berachos 30b) relate that the Chassidim HaRishonim, pious individuals living during Talmudic times, used to take an hour to settle themselves after the transformative and inspirational experience of davening. While this is not what most people experience as they daven, it is truly the goal. That pleasure is something we can experience this moment. Why do we keep Shabbos? Because when Shabbos begins, a wave of kedusha (holiness) enters the world. All mitzvos are likewise designed to enable us to tap into that special and sublime connection we can gain with Hashem. 

But here is the most key part of this monumental idea. Hashem created us to have the greatest pleasure in this world and earn eternal pleasure in the Next. Several commentaries – Rav Yisrael Salanter, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, Michtav Me’Eliyahu, Leiv Eliyahu – explain that the Mesillas Yesharim means to emphasize that we are alive in order to have tremendous pleasure from being close to Hashem in this world. Rav Wolbe, in example, notes the precise diction of the Ramchal: “Because this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this greatest pleasure may truly be derived is the World to Come.” Why does the Ramchal only reuse the words greatest pleasure when referring to the World to Come? In the sentence before, he spoke of true joy and the greatest pleasure?

The answer, explains Rav Wolbe, is that the true joy mentioned previously refers to joy which is experienced in this world through our relationship with Hashem. That is the only reason we are alive: for true joy in this world and the greatest pleasure in the Next. The way to achieve this greatest pleasure, as the Mesillas Yesharim continues to say, is in the Next World, but Hashem created us for enjoyment in this world, which is attained through a deep and meaningful connection to Him in the here and now. 

It is not about doing mitzvos and collecting brownie points, and earning a music player if we were good when we arrive in Heaven or a little toy soldier with a tangled parachute if we weren’t. This very moment, we can experience tremendous pleasure from being close to Hashem. And that is life. Hashem put us here for one reason, and we have to make our lives count. If we missed that, we missed everything.

It is true in every relationship. Every relationship comes with so-called mitzvos. Every husband knows this. You bring home a dozen long-stem roses for your wife’s birthday and say, “I have to do this, right? It is a mitzvah… Do you want to put it in water or should I? Maybe I’ll do the mitzvah in the best way and do it myself. Do I have to talk to you now or can I go?”

This is a prime example of how we are not meant to do mitzvos. It is not about, “I davened this morning G-d, are You okay? I’ll see You later at mincha… I did my mitzvah for now…” We are meant to daven because we want to be close to Hashem and love Him.

We are now writing the eulogy that is going to be read at the end of our lifetimes. Everybody wants to have lived an exceptional life, but the only way to get there is to live it. Today is the most important day of your life. If we can turn around and say, “I am not going to live an average life because that is what everybody does, but I am going to live an exceptional life,” we will be able to look back at the end of our days and say, “That is the life I wanted to have led and I did just that.” It’s all up to us.

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