“It is forbidden to point out the faults of the Jewish nation and the Holy One, blessed is He, takes great issue with one who does this. For He desires kindness and He wishes for people to always speak in defence of His nation, Israel! Do not think that this is an insignificant matter, for the words said below on earth have far-reaching effects on High – for good or otherwise.” (Rabbi Eliezer Papo, Bosnia and Bulgaria, 1785-1827, in Peleh Yoetz, in the chapter of dibbur, speech).

In many of his shiurim since seventh October 2023, the distinguished posek (expert on Jewish Law), Rabbi Asher Weiss, has pointed out that during times of trouble, such as the current war, one must be exceedingly careful not to ‘prosecute’ the Jewish people. This is a principle he heard from his great mentor, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe. When the nation of Israel is in need of Divine assistance and protection, it is entirely inappropriate for Jews to find fault with other Jews. Rather, we should do our utmost to promote unity and to defend the Jewish people to the greatest extent possible.

Rabbi Natan of Breslov (Ukraine, 1780-1844, the foremost student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov) deals with the subject of defending the Jewish people in a remarkable passage in his book Likkutei Halachot (Orach Chaim, Hashkamat Haboker 4:11). Let us preface his remarks with verses from our parsha (Shmot 33:7&11), “Moshe would take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far from the camp. And he called it the Tent of Meeting. It was the practice that anyone who sought the Lord would go out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp… The Lord would speak to Moshe face-to-face as a man speaks to his neighbour. And he would return to the camp. But his servant Yehoshua, son of Nun, a lad, would not move from within the Tent.” “And he would return to the camp” – The Aramaic translation indicates that this was an ongoing occurrence. [I.e. not “he returned to the camp” but “he would return to the camp.”] The Midrash (Tanchuma 27) interprets the verse as follows: “The Lord spoke to Moshe [telling him] to return to the camp.” He said to him, “I am angry [with the Israelites] and you are angry [with the Israelites]. If so, who will draw them near?” (Rashi, Shmot 33:11)

After the debacle of the golden calf and Moshe’s subsequent eighty-day sojourn on Mt Sinai to plead for forgiveness, he placed his tent outside of the camp. This arrangement lasted from Yom Kippur (when the Israelites received a pardon) until the Tabernacle was erected several months later (see Rashi 33:11). The placement of the tent beyond the camp’s boundaries was an indication of the displeasure Moshe felt for the people who had betrayed Hashem by worshipping an idol a mere forty days after hearing the Ten Commandments. However, according to the Midrash cited above, Hashem was unhappy with this arrangement and He told Moshe to return to the camp. 

Rabbi Natan’s starting point is the famous disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding how one kindles the Chanukah lights (Shabbat 21b). Beit Hillel holds that on the first night, one kindles a single flame and then one is “mosif v’holech”. He adds a flame each night until there are eight flames on the last night. Beit Shammai is of the opinion that one kindles eight flames on the first night and then one is “pochet v’holech”. He subtracts a flame each night until there is a single flame on the eighth night. The halakha follows the opinion of Beit Hillel. This is an unusual argument. Doesn’t Beit Shammai agree that the miracle of the Menorah in the Temple was of an incremental nature? Every day that the oil burned was an additional miracle, considering that the original jar of oil contained an amount that was only sufficient for a single night. Rabbi Natan writes that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel do not disagree on this point. Rather, the issue has much to do with their very different outlooks towards people whose behaviour does not conform to the teachings of the Torah.

An illustration of their different worldviews is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a). There, three incidents are recorded regarding potential converts who approached Shammai with unusual requests. The first wanted Shammai to convert him on condition that he teach him only the Written Law and not the Oral Law. In the second incident, a man asked Shammai to convert him by teaching him the entire Torah “while I am standing on one foot” [i.e. very quickly]. And the third person asked to be converted on the condition that he would be appointed the Cohen Gadol and wear the splendid robes of that office. In all three instances, Shammai scolded the potential convert and pushed him away with a building implement he was holding. After being rejected by Shammai, the three men went to Hillel who accepted them and converted them. Rabbi Natan notes that there “are righteous people, who are truly on an exalted level but precisely because of their holiness they cannot tolerate the world and therefore, through the force of their sanctity, they distance and denigrate certain people with whom they become angry because they cannot bear their unpleasant deeds.”  

Shammai was one of the greatest sages of the Mishna. He was, without doubt, a very holy person. But his holiness did not permit him to “suffer fools gladly” and when he saw or heard behaviour that was inappropriate, he distanced himself from such people. In Shammai’s view, the enormous light of Torah had to be concealed from sinners and lowlifes in much the same way that Hashem concealed the primordial light of creation from mankind because it was not worthy to bask in its radiance and He put it away for use by the righteous in the time to come (Bereishit Rabbah 12:6). The same is true of the miraculous light of Chanukah. Beit Shammai, the Academy founded by Shammai, taking the lead from its master, felt that the light must be concealed to the fullest extent possible and made available only to those who would appreciate it, hence it ruled that one must subtract a flame each night of the festival.

Rabbi Natan continues, “But Hashem, may He be blessed, does not desire this [the behaviour of Shammai]. For He desires kindness and He wants the righteous to have mercy on the Nation of Israel continually and to draw them close, despite the fact that they are what they are [i.e. far below par]. And even if He has incredible anger at them for their deeds, He nonetheless wants the righteous to pray for them and draw them close, as our Sages, of blessed memory commented on the verse, ‘and he would return to the camp’ – this means that Hashem said to Moshe, ‘I am angry and you are angry [and that is why you have pitched your tent beyond the camp], but if this is so, who will draw them near?’ We find similarly regarding a number of prophets and righteous people: When Hashem Himself complained to them about the incredible anguish He felt (so-to-speak) on account of the many sins of the Jewish people and they corroborated His words and did not offer a defense for Israel, He became very upset with them…as we find regarding Elijah (I Kings 19:16)”. When Elijah proclaimed the extent to which he had acted zealously for God in response to the sins of Israel, God told him to appoint Elisha as his successor. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) puts it this way: “I no longer desire your prophecy because you prosecute the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Natan concludes, “Hashem desires that the righteous should come up with a good defense for the Nation of Israel and have mercy upon them, even on the lowest of them, to draw them close to Him, as Moshe, our teacher, of blessed memory, did. In fact, he displayed self-sacrifice when he said, ‘If You do not forgive them, wipe me out of the book You have written’ (Shmot 32:32). This is what Beit Hillel means when it explains that the reason one adds a flame each night of Chanukah is because, ‘we increase in holiness but do not decrease.’ The higher one reaches in levels of holiness and the more one comprehends the Divine, the more he must attempt to lift up the souls of people and not allow them to fall.” It is therefore the duty of the Torah leaders of Israel to come up with strategies to expose the “everyman” to the light of Torah in ever-increasing increments until they are able to draw many people close to Hashem and heal even the sickest of souls. This was the life-work of Rabbi Natan’s master, Rabbi Nachman. He revealed the inner light of Torah to the common folk using ingenuous allegories and stories that were appropriate to their level, thereby drawing them closer to Hashem and His Torah. 

 Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!   

Rabbi Liebenberg Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

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