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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Beha'aloscha/Shavuos 5774 "Strength or Weakness"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Louis “Buck” Newsom was a pitcher in Major League Baseball during the late 1930’s. He was fondly known as “Bobo” because that was what he called everyone else. He had a witty personality that led to some humorous anecdotes.

Bobo was given the honor of pitching the 1936 season opener for the Washington Senators with President Franklin Roosevelt in attendance. The owner of the team promised Bobo a new suit of clothes if he won the game. In the third inning his own third baseman fired a throw across the diamond. Bobo forgot to get out of the way and the ball smashed into the side of his face. Cluthching his head he staggered off the mound. The manager offered to take him out. “Naw”, replied Bobo, “Ol’ FDR came to see Bobo and he’s gonna see him all the way.” Later x-rays revealed that his jaw was broken in two places and had to be wired shut. But Bobo continued pitching and won the game 1-0. Afterwards the owner pressed some bills into his hand. “Keep the sugar,” Bobo said, “Bobo bought the suit before the game. The bill is on your desk.”

In another game, after the home plate umpire repeatedly called some of his best pitches balls, he finally got a call strike. Bobo genially walked off the mound toward home plate, stood in front of the umpire, bowed to his waist, and said, “Thank you my dear fellow.” He was immediately ejected from the game.

On one occasion when the mighty Yankees were in town, Bobo vowed that he was going to find Joe DiMaggio’s weakness and overpower him. He told everyone that DiMaggio couldn’t hit low curve balls. That day DiMaggio ripped two doubles off of Bobo’s low curve balls. After the game his teammates chided him by asking him if he had discovered DiMaggio’s weakness. Bobo unflinchingly replied, “Yep, I discovered that he has a weakness to hit doubles!”

The firstborns were originally slated to be the elite kohanim of Klal Yisroel. However, when they participated in the egregious sin of the golden calf, they forfeited their status to the Levites. To assume their new status as the substitutes for the firstborn in serving G-d and transporting the Mishkan, the Levites had to undergo a one time sacrificial ritual.

After the Torah describes the consecration process it delineates the different tasks that the Levites had throughout their life. “This shall apply to the Levites: From twenty-five years of age and up, he shall join the legion of the Service of the Tent of Meeting. From fifty years of age, he shall withdraw from the legion of work and no longer work. He shall minister with his brethren in the tent of Meeting to safeguard the charge, but work shall he not perform.”[1]

Rashi notes that when the pasuk states that Levites over fifty years of age shall “no longer work” it refers to the ‘service of the shoulders’, i.e. carrying the vessels and performing the daily service, “- אבל חוזר הוא לנעילת שערים however they would return to the task of locking the gates.”

The Chiddushei Harim questions why Rashi specifically says that they would return to the task of locking the gates. The truth is that it was their responsibility to open the gates as well. Why didn’t Rashi simply say that they were in charge of managing the gates?

The Medrash relates that before G-d offered Klal Yisroel the Torah, He offered it to every other nation in the world. Each nation responded by questioning its content. To each one G-d replied by telling them about a prohibition that countered their nature. To the descendants of Yishmael He replied that it was prohibited to steal, to the descendants of Esau He replied it was prohibited to murder, and to the descendants of Amon and Moav He replied that adultery was prohibited. Upon hearing the prohibitions each nation rejected the Torah, until Klal Yisroel proclaimed, “We will do and we will hear!”

It seems unfair that each nation was challenged to accept the Torah except Klal Yisroel. Why did G-d not tell them that the Torah would challenge their nature as well, to see if they were truly accepting it?[2]

Shem MiShmuel explains that G-d did indeed challenge Klal Yisroel from the outset. Prior to His revelation on Sinai, G-d commanded Moshe to explain to Klal Yisroel the enormity and greatness of the imminent event. “Let them be prepared for the third day, for on the third day G-d shall descend in the sight of the entire people on Mount Sinai. You shall set boundaries for the people roundabout, saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall surely die’.”[3] There was a fatal prohibition for anyone to ascend Mount Sinai while G-d’s Presence was on the mountain.

Following that warning the Torah continues its narrative: “It was on the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lighting and a heavy cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire people that was in the camp shuddered….it’s smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the entire mountain shuddered exceedingly…. Moshe ascended the mountain into the smoke, G-d spoke to him and said, “Descend, warn the people, lest they break through to G-d to see, and a multitude of them will fall…Moshe said to G-d, ‘The people cannot ascend Mount Sinai, for you have warned us, saying, ‘Bound the mountain and sanctify it’.” G-d said to him, ‘Go descend. Then you shall ascend, and Aharon with you, but the Kohanim and the people – they shall not break through to ascend to G-d, lest He burst forth against them.”

G-d repeated the warning no less than three times. Why was this prohibition so severe that it warranted so many warnings?

Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that at the time of the revelation of Sinai the people’s love and devotion to G-d transcended all else. Their supreme desire was to draw as close as they possibly could to G-d’s Presence. Therefore, the people might rationalize that it was worth it for them to ascend the mountain even at the cost of their lives just to have that momentary sublime connection with G-d’s Holy Presence. The nation had reached a level where they felt that there could be nothing greater than to die clinging to the Presence of G-d. Therefore, G-d repeatedly warned them that if they were to ascend the mountain, not only would they die, but they would “fall”. It would be a disastrous display of disobedience and treachery, not a passionate testament of their love and devotion.

This was a tremendous test for Klal Yisroel. For a nation whose greatest desire is to cling to G-d, bridling and restraining themselves was exceedingly challenging.

The potent message was that a Jew cannot lose himself to his emotions and passions, even when they are noble and worthy. Even his love of G-d must follow the dictates of G-d!

Chiddushei Harim explains that although the elderly Levites also opened the gates of the Temple, Rashi only notes closing the gates to allude to a very profound idea: The elderly Levites had a responsibility to teach the younger generation about how to properly curb their emotions. A young kohain who was so excited about performing the Divine Service that he decided to add to it would die on the spot[4].

The verse states, “מה יפו פעמיך בנעלים בת נדיב – How beautiful are your (pa’amayich) footsteps in the (na’alayim) shoes, O daughter of nobles.”[5] Chiddushei Harim notes that the word “pa’amayich” can also refer to heartfelt devotion and an awakening of the heart, and the word “na’alayim” can also refer to locks. Thus an alternative understanding of the verse is that it is saying, “How beautiful is your passion and excitement, when it is locked, i.e. when it is grounded and maintained, in the proper perspective.”

The older Levites were to teach their younger brethren how to keep their passion to serve G-d in check. That is what Rashi refers to when he notes that they would ‘lock the gates’. Their role was to lock-in and safeguard the passion and devotion of the younger generation.

This is not merely a nice discourse. This idea is at the root of understanding some of the most heinous events that transpire in our world, on an individual and global level.

One of the most appalling anecdotes that I ever heard helps illustrate this idea. It is a story that often elicits a gasp from those who hear it:

A man who had tragically lost a child a few months prior was talking in shul during davening. The fellow next to him turned to him and said, “Is it not enough that G-d took away one child from you that you’re still talking during davening?!”

How could a person be so cruel and heartless? How could a person say such an insensitive comment to someone who had suffered so much? The answer is that he meant it “לשם שמים - for the sake of G-d’s Name”.

In fact, the most vicious and vile atrocities committed are done in the name of G-d. One needs look no further than at the pain and anguish we suffer at the behest of Arabs terrorist - may their names be erased - who purportedly acts “in the name of god”.

It was with this in mind that the great Kotzker Rebbe quipped, that when the Mishna states, “כל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים- all of your actions should be for the Name of Heaven,”[6] it means that “even your לשם שמים must be לשם שמים.” In other words, even - or rather - especially when one acts for the sake of sanctifying G-d’s Holy name, he better ensure that his actions are truly for the sake of G-d’s Holy Name, and not merely out of unbridled religious zeal gone awry.

G-d wanted to instill this lesson in Klal Yisroel before they even accepted the Torah. One cannot and may not serve G-d in the manner which he deems appropriate. He must rigorously follow the guidelines and expectations that the Torah itself describes. Even something as vital and important as serving G-d with emotion and feeling is a potential weakness and danger.

Shavuos is the holiday when we reaccept the Torah with renewed love and passion. One of the hidden messages of Parshas Beh’aloscha, which is always read shortly after Shavuos, is that we must be careful not to “run away” with our passion. A strength can become a weakness if it is not kept in the proper perspective. It requires the wisdom and insight of the elderly Levites to ensure that the younger generation does not become carried away with their own ideas and excitement. G-d did not give His beloved nation His Torah until they had learned this vital lesson.

Despite all of the outpouring of love that was present at the revelation of Sinai, without the accompanying awe and fear that the thunder and revelation provided the giving of the Torah could never have occurred. Love without limits and a certain measure of fear can be lethal!

“They would return to the task of locking the gates”

“That all of your action should be for the Name of Heaven”

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[1] 8:24-25

[2] The truth is that the nations of the world deserved to be dissuaded the moment they questioned the content of the Torah. When G-d offers a priceless gift one’s initial response shouldn’t be to question it. Klal Yisroel, who immediately accepted the Torah exuberantly, were not deserving of the same dissuasion. Nevertheless, it seems logical that G-d would challenge them from the outset to determine the genuineness of their acceptance of the Torah.

[3] Shemos 19:11

[4] like Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon, had died when they offered their own fire on the altar

[5] Shir Hashirim 7:2

[6] Avos 2:12

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