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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

This Shabbat we read Parashat Parah, a description of the preparation of the Parah Adumah which was needed to purify those who had become ritually impure so that they could participate in the Mitzvah of Korban Pesach just a few weeks later.

Rather than write about Parashat Ki Tissa or even about the ritual of the Parah Adumah, I’d like to go off on a tangent which comes to mind through a well-known story in which a Red Heifer was involved. We will be discussing some of the issues raised by this story in coming months and years with the high school students. 

The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) tells us that Dama ben Nesina,  a Gentile who lived during the Second Temple period, owned a precious stone which the  rabbis wanted to purchase for the Choshen (breastplate) worn by the Kohen Gadol. The problem was that the stone was in a locked box, and the key was under Dama’s sleeping father’s pillow. The Rabbis offered a huge amount of money for the stone, but Dama refused to disturb his father even to transact this major sale. Some time later, the Gemara continues, Dama was rewarded with the birth of an extraordinarily rare red heifer, which was needed for the Parah Adumah ritual, and which he sold to the Beit HaMikdash for even more  money than he had lost when he had refused to disturb his father.

The Me’am Lo’ez asks a very good question: Why was Dama rewarded with money for honoring his father? We all know—it’s stated quite clearly in the fifth commandment—that the reward for honoring one’s parents is   למען יאריכון ימיך, longevity. Why didn’t Dama cry “Foul! I’ve been cheated?” The response of the Me’am Lo’ez is that we need to look at Dama’s motivation for honoring his father. Dama understood that honoring one’s parent is an ethical imperative, that it makes sense to honor and express gratitude to those who gave one life and raised and nurtured him/her.  When we Jews honor parents, however, we need to be conscious that in doing so we are fulfilling a Mitzvah, that we are obeying one of God’s commandments exactly as we do when we eat matzah on Pesach. Yes, of course, it is much easier to perform Mitzvot Sichli’ot, the many Mitzvot which correspond to human reason and ethical sensibilities. But when a Shomer Mitzvot fulfills such a Mitzvah one should be aware that it is being fulfilled not because—or at least not only because—it is the right thing to do based on human reason and understanding or on a universal ethic , but that it is the right thing to do because in so doing one is obeying the will of the Creator. 

All of the above is relatively clear-cut and uncontroversial. No traditional Jewish thinker would take exception to the idea that when we, for example, don't steal we are primarily obeying the Torah but also refraining from an act which is ethically and socially negative. But this gives rise to a range of important issues.  The question of the interplay of ethics and Halakha is both tantalizing and crucial. Over the centuries critics of the Halakhic system, individuals and movements who have wanted to create a new brand of Judaism freed from, in their terms, the “restraints” of Halakha, have often attacked Halakhic Judaism as dry and legalistic and insensitive to ethical concerns.  This is a theme which has been raised to me over the decades by many wonderful, serious high school students who, as they should be, are in the process of thinking through their own religious identities and for whom we must create a safe space to discuss these religious issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect with adults who have thought seriously about the relationship of ethics and Halakha. We need, for example,  to understand and help our students appreciate that Halakhic authorities have always taken into account factors such as human dignity, preservation of life, and domestic and communal peace in arriving at Halakhic decisions and that in doing so they are not going beyond Halakha: Concern for these issues is part and parcel of the Halakhic system.  We need to think about—for our own ethical behavior—and to speak to our students about the significance of the Gemara in Baba Metzia (30b): “Rav Yochanan said, ‘Yerushalayim was destroyed because its inhabitants judged in accordance with Torah Law.’”  Is that not a good practice? Responds the Gemara: It is because they ruled solely upon Torah Law and did not act לפנים משורת הדין--that they did not go beyond the letter of the law in arriving at interpersonal legal decisions. A sophisticated discussion of this important concept would include the question of whether this form of ethical behavior, the idea of doing what seems to be right even when it is not demanded by the law, is actionable—that is, can a Beit Din actually require one to do this?  Each of us should think about, and our students should be discussing, two extraordinary Ramban commentaries, one on the Pasuk of קדושים תהיו and one on ועשית הישר והטוב both of which require us to internalize and demonstrate religious behavior which goes well beyond the specific do’s and don’ts of the Torah. These questions just scratch the surface of an important and sophisticated area of inquiry in which every thoughtful Jew should be engaged, and which should be explored with our older high school students. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Interim Head of School


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