Parashat Matot-Masei: The chief rabbi’s role

Number Matot Chapter 30/3: WHEN A man voweth a vow unto the LORD, or sweareth an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word.

July 4, 2013 14:32
4 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha.

picture from the parasha man smiling 521. (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)


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I write this commentary just as the date was announced for elections for Israel’s chief rabbis, and just after the disgraceful public utterance of unsubstantiated vilification by a former chief rabbi against a leading candidate for the chief rabbinate – which in turn was followed by screaming headlines informing us of the “house arrest” of a current Ashkenazi chief rabbi for suspected money laundering and acceptance of bribes.

The tragic irony is that we have also commenced the three-week period of mourning for the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, national destructions brought about according to our sages largely because of rabbinical infighting (sinat hinam or baseless hatred) and our leadership’s loss of its ethical compass (Isaiah 1, Jeremiah 9).Let us look to the Bible for direction as to what ought be the purpose and major qualifications of the chief rabbinate.

In this week’s portion, we read – for the second time – of the death of Aaron atop Mount Hor, as a kind of accompaniment to the closing travelogue of the various encampments of the Israelites during their desert sojourn.

When we are initially told of his demise in the portion of Hukat, we read that “the entire household of Israel wept for Aaron for 30 days” (Numbers 20:29). When the Bible informs us of the death of Moses, who was our greatest prophet and the great liberator and lawgiver of Israel (apparently greater than Aaron), we read, “and the children of Israel wept for Moses for 30 days” (Deuteronomy 34:8).

The classical commentator Rashi notes a glaring absence at Moses’s funeral: “[Only] the males [mourned for Moses], whereas for Aaron, the entire House of Israel mourned, men and women; that was because Aaron was a seeker after peace and effectuated peace between neighbors and between husbands and wives.”

A comparison of these two leaders may well highlight two crucial aspects of rabbinic leadership today.

In the last portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, the opening verse refers to Moses as “a man of God,” and in the very last chapter Moses is referred to as a “servant of the Lord.”

Indeed we have seen how Moses constantly sought God’s “fellowship” (as it were), how Moses was the most unique of prophets, to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth,” and that his “heaviness of speech” may well refer to the kind of conversation which interested him – matters of theology, jurisprudence and philosophy – rather than to a physiological problem of stuttering or stammering.

Moses spends much time atop Mount Sinai, perhaps even in the supernal realm of God’s presence, and he takes his “tent of meeting” with God “outside the camp,” far away from the camp of human social intercourse.

Aaron, on the other hand, is a man of the people, wearing an apron ephod with two shoulder straps sporting two shoham stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 Tribes, the people of Israel. Likewise, on the high priest’s breastplate of judgment were precious stones, each inscribed with the name of a different tribe, so that Aaron bore the names of the sons of Israel on his heart.

Moses was first and foremost a devoted man of God, who saw his task as faithfully communicating the vision of a God of “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” to Israel and the world. Hence he slays the Egyptian taskmaster to protect the Hebrew slave, chastises the Hebrew who struck his brother Hebrew, and rescues the shepherd Midianite daughters of Jethro from their shepherd Midianite oppressors.

Hence he liberated the Hebrews from Egyptian subjugation. Hence he revealed God’s Decalogue at Sinai, the most succinct expression of ethical probity in human history, based upon humanity’s having been created to be free in the divine image.

Similarly, the chief rabbi of Israel must, first and foremost, be a supremely honest individual, above suspicion and without avarice. He must be fearless in the face of graft and corruption, establishing moral probity as the greatest Israeli product.

He must be deeply learned, committed to solving problems of Jewish law such as women bound to recalcitrant husbands, issues whose lack of solution not only causes tragic individual suffering, but also brings disrepute upon our holy Torah and the God who gave it.

Aaron the High Priest was a man of the people, “one who loved peace and pursued peace, loved all human beings and brought them close to Torah.” He took responsibility for every single Jew, carrying the tribal names of all upon his shoulders and within his heart. He was responsible for the Temple ritual, the synagogue liturgy, Sabbath and festivals, rites of passage and life-cycle events. He had to minister to all nonjudgmentally and lovingly.

So too the chief rabbi, who must recognize that Israel is the homeland of every Jew – not only the Orthodox Jew – and that we must make the House of Israel open and welcoming to all. He must love the convert from the moment he asks about conversion.

We’ve had such chief rabbis in the past. If it is not possible today, then it would behoove us to dissolve the office for the sake of Heaven.

Shabbat shalom.

Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2-36:13, is read on July 6.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat

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