Parshat Behaalotecha, 5775

The Book that Changed the World

In 1958, Leon Uris published a book that transformed the Jewish world and changed the course of Jewish history.  ExodusExodus is an odd book – a blend of Jewish history, emotional Zionism and soap opera fiction.  But this book, this 600 page novel, spoke to the hearts of millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world; it eventually equaled the sales of Gone With the Wind, and was translated into 50 languages.

For the handful of secret underground Zionists in Soviet Russia – the founding members of the Refusenik movement – Exodus was pure sustenance.  People who could barely speak English spent countless hours, slowly translating the book into Russian, and then secretly distributed copies to their friends and relatives.  The book spread like wildfire – copies proliferated everywhere, even among the Jewish political prisoners in the Soviet prison camps.  Thousands of Russian Jews wept over Exodus, late at night, under the cover of darkness.  And for so many of these Jews, Exodus was their gateway not only to Zionism, but to Judaism as well.

In America, Exodus was a phenomenon. In the late 50s and early 60s, it was nearly as common to find a copy of Exodus in American-Jewish households as it was to find the Bible – and there were plenty of Jewish homes that only had Exodus.  For many American Jews, Exodus was the source of their Jewish pride, at a time when Jews were still very uncertain of their place in American life.

A few years ago, I saw a one man off-Broadway show called Circumcise Me, by Yisrael Campbell.  Campbell, as you might have guessed, is a convert.  And how did his journey to Judaism begin?  When, as a teenager, he happened to pick up a book called Exodus… The impact of the book is immeasurable!

Who was Leon Uris, the author of the most impactful Jewish novel of all time?

From a young age, Leon Uris was interested in writing.  But despite his interest in writing, he was a poor formal student of English – he actually failed the subject several times!  And though he eventually became one of America’s most successful and wealthiest writers, he was also one of the most consistently denigrated writers of his generation.  He may have been popular among the masses, but the literary critics thought his books were low level trash. The New York Times once declared that he took “130,000 words to display his incompetence.”

And even David Ben-Gurion would take digs at Leon Uris.  Regarding Exodus, he commeted that, “as a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”  A back handed compliment, if there ever was one!

But if Uris wasn’t much of a writer, he seems to have been even less of a husband.  His first marriage ended in divorce; his second marriage ended when his wife committed suicide by gunshot.  And the third marriage – yep, you guessed it, divorce.  Not pretty!

It’s hard to reconcile – How could a man so flawed be responsible for so much holiness?


Aharon’s Pain

Aharon, the humble brother of Moshe.  Aharon, the holy Kohen.  Aharon, the man who loved the Jewish people!  In Jewish tradition, Aharon is deemed one of the greatest Jews who ever lived – a role model for all generations.

But Aharon himself, according to the Midrash, lived a tortured, inner life.  His failure at Sinai to prevent the people from sinning with the golden calf tormented him for the rest of his life.

The Midrash says that after the episode of the golden calf, Aharon would wander through the camp of Israel, teaching Torah to his fellow Jews, as an act of penance.

And after his sons, Nadav and Avihu, died a tragic death, the Midrash says that Aharon stood and cried out “Oy Li!” – “woe unto me, that I have sinned so greatly and now I am getting what I deserve!”

And now comes the kicker.  At the end of Parshat Nasso, we read about the offerings of the Nesiim, the leaders of the 12 tribes.  It was a tremendous celebration; every tribe had the opportunity to bring its own sacrifice to the Mishkan – it a truly special moment in which Am Yisrael expressed their joy at having the privilege of serving God.

Except Aharon wasn’t a part of it.  He was the only one not to bring a Korban.  Rashi tells us that Aharon experienced a feeling of “Chalishus HaDaas,” a feeling of tremendous sadness!  You can imagine how he felt – “I had this coming to me!  I am a failure, and I deserve this!”  And so Rashi explains that this is why Parshat Behaalotecha begins with God’s command that Aharon should be the one to light the Menorah: “Why is the portion dealing with the Menorah juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the Nesiim?  For when Aharon saw the dedication offerings of the Nesiim, he felt distressed over not joining them…  So God said to him, “By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the Menorah.”

When you light: Why is the portion dealing with the menorah juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the chieftains? For when Aaron saw the dedication [offerings] of the chieftains, he felt distressed over not joining them in this dedication-neither he nor his tribe. So God said to him, “By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps.” – [Tanchuma Beha’alothecha 3]When you light: Why is the portion dealing with the menorah juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the chieftains? For when Aaron saw the dedication [offerings] of the chieftains, he felt distressed over not joining them in this dedication-neither he nor his tribe. So God said to him, “By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps.” – [Tanchuma Beha’alothecha 3]

The Midrash Rabbah adds: “The sacrifices of the Nesiim – those can only be brought as long as the Temple stands.  But the Menorah – the Menorah will always give light, even without the Temple, through the light of the Menorah of Chanukah.”

God’s comfort to Aharon is heart-warming – “don’t worry Aharon – I haven’t rejected you!  I’m giving you something even greater than the Nesiim!”  But it begs the question:  What, really, are we supposed to learn from this whole episode?  It can’t simply be that Aharon’s feelings were hurt, and so God made him feel better.  There has to be a deeper meaning!


Sin does not Diminish the Good

In one of his diary entries, Rav Kook writes about a problem that many good Jews struggle with.  A good Jew always wants to do the right thing, deep down.  The problem is, doing the right thing isn’t so simple; even good people are inevitably going to fail, some of the time.

He writes: “How much good is actively prevented, because holy Jews – who are worthy of experiencing the spirit of God pounding in their hearts – have “Shiflus HaDaas” – lowly thoughts about themselves!  They indulge in smallness of thinking, and do not believe in themselves, and in the greatness of their own souls!”

Good people, who are sensitive to holiness, feel terribly about themselves – “I’m such a failure, I never follow through, I can’t seem to control this particular temptation.”  And they come to believe that their failures cancel out, nullify, all the good that they accomplish in their lives.  “What value do my Mitzvot have, when I am failing in so many other ways?”

But this attitude is a terrible, terrible mistake!  The mistakes that we make, the constant failures that make up our lives – none of this diminishes the good and holy things that we accomplish as Jews!  And not only do our failures not nullify the good that we do, but the good deeds of flawed people can have an awesome impact!

Rav Kook continues: “After all of this, [after all of our failures], we must know that we have not worked for naught, and that we have created tremendous spiritual wealth through our hard work.”

In God’s book, there is no “asterisk” written next to our Mitzvot, simply because we have failed in other ways or aspects of our lives.  Our good deeds can change the world – just as much as the actions of a perfectly righteous person!


Narrow Windows

The Midrash says something very beautiful about the Menorah: When people built houses in ancient times, they would make the windows narrow on the outside and wide on the inside, so the light from outside would illuminate the inside of the house as much as possible (before electric lighting, you had to maximize sunlight inside the house as much as possible!).

But when King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, he did something very strange.  He made the windows in the opposite way!  The windows were narrow on the inside, and wide on the outside!  Why do this?  So the light of the Menorah would shine from inside the Temple, and illuminate the world.

This is very beautiful.  But I think we can understand this Midrash in an even deeper way.  You see, the teaching of the Menorah is that from a narrow window can come a tremendous amount of light – more light than we ever could have imagined was possible.  We – the flawed, imperfect people that we are – we are the “narrow windows”!  And yet, despite our flaws, we have the ability, the potential, to light up the entire world!


Aharon, Leon Uris and Narrow Windows

This is the message that God is giving Aharon by giving him the Mitzvah of the Menorah.  “You, Aharon, carry the burden of your sins and imperfections everywhere you go.  It weighs on you constantly!  And so you think that all the good that you do is somehow limited, or incomplete; that there is an “asterisk” next to all of your Mitzvos and accomplishments. But I want you to know that you are absolutely wrongYour accomplishments, your Menorah, your “narrow window” will burn and shine a light for the Jewish people for generations and generations to come!  Yes, you have made mistakes – but those mistakes do not diminish your accomplishments – not one iota!

And this, too, is the lesson of Leon Uris and that novel of all novels, Exodus.  Leon Uris was deeply flawed as a writer, and as a human being.  But from narrow windows can come great light!


Our Own Narrow Windows

So many of us are absorbed in our inadequacies.  We feel ourselves to be lacking in so many ways: some of us do not have the Jewish educational background that we would like to have; maybe we aren’t as careful in following Halacha as we should be; or perhaps we’ve made decisions and choices in the past that plague us to this day.

All of these things may be true.  But as Rav Kook teaches, it is essential that we understand that our failings and inadequacies, whatever they may be, do not nullify the good and holy accomplishments of our lives – not one bit…

Every parent is flawed – that’s life!  But each of us must, and can, succeed in teaching and inspiring our children.  We may be “narrow windows,” but the light that we share with our children, and with all those who are a part of our lives – this light can illuminate the world!

May Leon Uris’ legacy – his “narrow windows” – continue to bring great light to the Jewish people, and the entire world…