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Judaism: A two-sided coin

This week,  Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, President of The Schechter Institutes, describes Judaism as a two-sided coin which encompasses both joys and burdens. Using the text in Parashat Beha’alotcha, he highlights the dichotomy between the exciting parts of Judaism, like Oneg Shabbat and the Passover Seder,  with the more challenging parts, like cleaning before Passover. How do we see this same contrasts in the State of Israel?

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We read in this week’s parashah regarding the Levites (Numbers 8:16): נתונים נתונים המה לי — “They are given, they are given unto Me from among the Children of Israel”.

Similarly, we read in Numbers 3:9: “You shall assign the Levites to Aaron and to his sons, they are given, they are given unto him from among the Children of Israel”.

One may inquire: why did the Torah repeat the words “they are given”? After all, in Numbers 18:6 it says regarding the Levites “they are given to God” just once. The Rashbam, following the peshat or simple meaning, explains in his commentary to Numbers 3 that there is a doubling of the verb as is common in the Bible (e.g. Numbers 27:7).

On the other hand, Midrash Hahefetz written in Yemen in the 15th century by Rabbi Zekharia ben Shlomo Harofeh gives a homiletic explanation to the verse in Numbers 3: ” ‘They are given’ as singers, ‘they are given’ as gatekeepers“. In other words, the Levites, on the one hand, were chosen for the lofty and enjoyable task of singing in the Temple to the accompaniment of “cymbals, harps and lyres” (I Chronicles 6:16-28; ibid., Chapter 25; and more). On the other hand, they were also chosen for the prosaic task of guarding all the entrances to the Temple (ibid., 9:17-27; ibid., Chapter 26; and more) Indeed, I did this for many years in miluim (reserve duty) in the IDF; there is no task more boring!

A similar explanation is given in Midrash Aggadah (France, 12th century) to Numbers 8: “And why did the verse repeat ‘they are given’ twice? To teach that they are given for burden, they are given for singing” (and cf. Rashi, ibid.). In other words, the Levites, on the one hand, were chosen for the difficult and exhausting task of carrying the Tabernacle and, on the other hand, to sing in the Temple.

These two midrashim contain an important message for Jews, for Zionists and for modern human beings. Everything important in life demands effort and suffering on the one hand, while granting spiritual and emotional rewards on the other.

On the Jewish-halakhic level, one can point to the example of Shabbat: Jews opposed to the halakhic observance of Shabbat see only the “burden” of the 39 forbidden types of labor. Yet they fail to understand that that “burden” allows the “song” of Oneg Shabbat spent with the family and accompanied by singing, prayer, sleeping and respite for the soul. And so it is with Pesah. The “burden” of cleaning the house and removing the hametz leads to the “song” of the Seder at which we experience anew the Exodus from Egypt year after year. Negative commandments and positive commandments are two sides of the coin called “Judaism”; one enriches and completes the other.

On the Zionist level, one can look at the State of Israel in these difficult times and see only the “burden” of taxes and reserve duty and terrorist attacks. On the other hand, one can look at the “song” of the Ingathering of the Exiles, the revival of the Hebrew language and the building of a Jewish State. But there is no “song” without a “burden”; coping with all the difficulties has allowed us to achieve all of the wonderful things which exist in Israel today.

Finally, on a personal level, one can look at modern human beings and see only the “burden” of hard work and constant pressure. On the other hand, one can look at the “song” of a shorter work-week, of fast and efficient transportation, of labor-saving devices and of instant communication with the four corners of the earth.

Therefore, one can say regarding all of the above: “They are given, they are given” to us – “they are given to burden, they are given to song”. May we have the wisdom to understand this important message.

(inspired by a sermon by Rabbi Ralph Simon z”l)

Shavua Tov From Schechter

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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