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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Matos 5774 "The Letter of the Law"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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During the summer of 2008, Camp Dora Golding[1] was graced with a four-day visit from basketball star Tamir Goodman. Tamir came to camp to run ‘basketball clinics’, giving tips and instruction drills to help campers improve their game. But far more important than the basketball he taught was the powerful message he conveyed.

Tamir gained popularity when he was featured by the American media for being an unusually talented basketball player who, as an Orthodox Jew, refused to play on Shabbos, and insisted on playing with his yarmulke and tzitzis.

He earned recognition in Sports Illustrated and was interviewed by ESPN, 60 Minutes, and Fox sports. When he was in 11th grade he was ranked the twenty-fifth best high school player in the country. Tamir was dubbed “JJ”, the Jewish Jordan, a title that he has been trying to downplay.

At the age of 16, Tamir received a full scholarship to the prestigious University of Maryland, which boasts one of the top-ranked basketball teams in the country. However, when the University insisted that Tamir play on Shabbos he handed back the scholarship. Almost immediately after returning the scholarship the media went into a frenzy with his story. He had 700 video requests in one week, including many of the major broadcasting stations. The country was enamored by the fact that a person would proudly forfeit his dreams because of his religion and beliefs.

I asked Tamir how he, as a sixteen year old, had the inner fortitude to turn down such an offer, which was his dream come true. He replied that in the 60’s his father was the first lawyer to walk around corporate Baltimore with a yarmulke on his head, and his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. He also added that he always has a mental image of his Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l, who he met a few times, at the fore of his mind. He added, “If I walk out onto a court and seventeen thousand people start jeering at my yarmulke and tzitzis, I think of the Rebbe and that gives me courage. Then, I let my game do the talking!”

Tamir later accepted a scholarship from nearby Towson University. The team was committed to working around Tamir’s religious needs. The coach had marked down on his schedule the time for candle-lighting each Friday afternoon, and no games or practices were scheduled for Shabbos. Each Friday afternoon the team would get together and shout in unison, “1-2-3-4, Good Shabbos”, before walking off the court for the weekend.

Tamir emphatically concluded his talk with his important message: “Be so proud of who you are! Use your talents - whatever they may be – to serve Hashem (G-d). My motto is ‘Always remember that Hashem is with you’. I tell it to my children every time I leave them. And whatever you learn apply to your life and live it!”

The battle against Midyan was to be Moshe Rabbeinu’s ‘swan song’, the final national action he would lead on behalf of his beloved people.

“G-d spoke to Moshe saying, “Take vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midyanites; afterward you will gather to your people (i.e. you will die).”[2] Rashi notes that although Moshe understood that he would die shortly after this war he did not tarry. He led the nation into war with alacrity in fulfillment of G-d’s command.

The Medrash[3] comments: “Our Teachers said, ‘It is written in reference to Yehoshua (1:5) ‘Just as I (G-d) was with Moshe I will be with you’. Yehoshua was to have lived 120 years like Moshe Rabbeinu. Why was his life shortened ten years? Because at the time that G-d instructed Moshe, “Take vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midyanites; afterward you will gather to your people”, although he was informed that his death would follow the war, he did not delay but enthusiastically dispatched the troops. However, in regard to Yehoshua, when he was battling the thirty-one Canaanite kings he rationalized that ‘If I kill them all immediately then I will die sooner, just as Moshe Rabbeinu did.’ Therefore, he began to delay the wars… The Holy One, blessed is He, replied, ‘Is this what you have done? I will shorten your life by ten years. This is in accordance with what King Shlomo wrote “Many are the thoughts within the hearts of man, but the counsel of G-d, that is what will endure!”[4]

Harav Henoch Leibowitz zt’l[5] notes that it is obvious that Yehoshua’s motive in delaying the battles was noble. Yehoshua understood that after his death the nation would stray from G-d and engage in sin. In fact, Moshe himself had warned the nation prior to his death, “For I know that after my death you will become corrupt and you will turn away from the path that I have commanded you, and evil will befall you at the end of days.[6]” Rashi there notes that Moshe was referring to the period after Yehoshua’s death, for as long as Yehoshua was alive it seemed - in regards to the nation’s spiritual level - as if Moshe was still alive. Therefore, Yehoshua wanted to detain his own death for as long as possible in order to detain the retribution that would follow when they began to sin.

If Yehoshua’s intentions were so noble why was he punished so severely?

Rabbi Leibowitz answered that one is obligated to perform every mitzvah with alacrity and enthusiasm. That law applied to Yehoshua as much as it applies to anyone. G-d had commanded him to wage war and he was obligated to do so as quickly as he could, his personal rationalizations not withstanding. Even though Yehoshua seemed to have a very valid and even laudable reason to delay the wars, his task was to adhere to G-d’s Word.

One must always remember that this is G-d’s World and He is responsible for its upkeep, as well as the preservation of the eternity of His people. We cannot be “more religious than G-d”. If G-d instructs us to do something we must not allow our personal rationalizations to interfere with our fulfillment of those commandments. Our obligation is to fulfill the letter of the law as dictated to us in the Shulchan Aruch[7] and not concern ourselves with what the ramifications of keeping G-d’s commandments may be in the future.

Rabbi Leibowitz further expounds on this pivotal concept in parshas Vayera. The Medrash[8] records that when G-d commanded Avrohom Avinu to circumcise himself, Avrohom was unsure if he should proceed. He sought the advice of his three confidants - Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner and Eshkol both tried to dissuade Avrohom; it was only Mamre who encouraged Avrohom to fulfill G-d’s command. Avrohom hearkened to the advice of Mamre.

The Medrash is shocking. Did Avrohom, the great monotheist and prince of faith, really have a thought to disregard G-d’s Word?

Rabbi Leibowitz quotes the commentary of the Taz on the Torah which states that, in truth, Avrohom was not obligated to fulfill the mitzvah. G-d told him that if he did so the world would continue, and if he didn’t the world would cease to exist. However, whether he fulfilled the mitzvah or not was entirely his prerogative. In other words, the perpetuity of mankind was contingent on whether Avrohom would adhere to G-d’s command and circumcise himself.

The statement of the Taz is enigmatic. If the continuation of the world was contingent on Avrohom circumcising himself why would he even contemplate not fulfilling it?

Avrohom had reason to fear that if he circumcised himself he may not survive the difficult ordeal, thus destroying his legacy and his vital message. If Avrohom circumcised himself – which he was not clearly commanded to do – and died, he would no longer have the ability to fulfill any commandments or continue to perpetuate his message of faith. Thus, Avrohom was unsure if he would proceed because he had never been blatantly instructed to do so.

We see from here, continues Rabbi Leibowitz, that the future of the world and the continuation of man and Klal Yisroel is not our concern. That is G-d’s domain and somehow He will care for it and ensure its eternity, even if to us it is inconceivable. Our task is to fulfill what G-d has obligated us to fulfill and not allow our own rationalizations and skepticism to interfere. If we have done what is incumbent upon us, then we need not be worried or troubled that our actions may have negative repercussions.

Many of the greatest tragedies that occurred throughout the Torah can be attributed to great men who rationalized against the Word of G-d. Our task is merely to fulfill our responsibilities and leave the Divine for the Divine.

“Take vengeance, afterward you will gather to your people”

“Many are the thoughts of man, but the counsel of G-d will endure!”

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[1] Where our family enjoys our summers and I serve in the capacity of Division Head

[2] 31:1-2

[3] 22:6

[4] Mishlei 19

[5] Chiddushei Halev

[6] Devorim 31:29

[7] the Code of Torah law for the last five centuries

[8] Bereishis 42:8

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