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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
“Atem Nitzavim Hayoim Koolchem Lifnei Hashem Eloikaychem, Roishaychem, Shivteichem, Zikneichem, Veshoitreichem, Kol Ish Yisroel. Topchem, Neshaychem, Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah, Mechoitayv Aytzim Ad Shoiyayv Maymechah.” “Behold you are standing here before Hashem your Deity, your leaders, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel. Your children, your women, and the stranger which is amongst your camp, from the woodcutter to the one who draws your water.”
So begins this week’s Parsha, as we rapidly approach the end of Sefer Bamidbar, and mentally prepare ourselves for the many hours spent in Shul over the coming holidays, praying to the Reboinoisheloilum for a positive future, asking Hakadoshboruchhu for forgiveness for our past sins, and pleading with the Aimishteh to help us survive the many hours of amateur Chazanus, self righteous speeches, high pressure financial appeals, and poorly ventilated body odor emanating from multiple congregants sittings within a radius of ten seats.
When looking at this Parsha, Chazal posed many key questions that are still keeping us awake at night:
Rabbi Akiva asks in a famous Medrish: Why does the Toirah refer to Klal Yisroel as “standing”? He answers that the Parsha actually refers to anyone who has legs and is capable of standing, whether they are indeed standing or not. But the Toirah’s terminology comes to exclude people who have less than two legs and cannot stand on their own. Such people are either to be expelled from the Jewish People for ten generations, or traded to the Mariners for $50,000 in cash, a utility infielder in Double A ball, and a player to be named later.
A Gemarrah in Baitzah features a famous Machloikess between Abaya and Rava on this very Medrish. According to Abaya, the Medrish does not automatically exclude a member of Klal Yisroel who has no legs. Says Abaya, we are first required MiDioraisa to examine his assets, and if he is wealthy we consider him “as if” he has legs, and he is invited to return to the fold of Kehilas Yisroel in exchange for a large donation and a 20 percent restocking fee.
Rava holds Farkhert, suggesting that the requirement for legs must indeed be enforced quite literally. And he goes further: He cites a Braisah suggesting that Rabbi Akiva actually said that the Parsha excludes not only people who are missing a leg, but also excludes people who are missing toes. According to Rava, “Afilu Etzbah Achass”, “even the lack of a single toe,” disqualifies someone from Klal Yisroel. It also makes wearing Roman sandals or other open toed shoes a bit embarrassing.”
Reb Hai Goyn builds upon this theme, suggesting that while Rabbi Akiva’s use of the term ‘Etzbah” may indeed be interpreted as referring to toes, the word also refers to the more common use of the term, meaning fingers. Hence, the lack of any digit, be it on the hand or foot, can disqualify someone from Klal Yisroel. Says Reb Hai Goyn, “the Reboinoisheloilum blessed Klal Yisroel with generous noses. If a Jew is missing a finger and therefore cannot pick his sizeable proboscis, it is an insult to Aimishteh, as it is equivalent to a rejection of Ol Malchus Shamayim.”
A more critical question is the reference in the Passuk to “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah,” “the stranger which is amongst your camp”. Rav Huna asks in Masechess Baba Metzitza, “Maiy Taimah”, “what is the reason that the Toirah talks about a ‘stranger’”? What’s pshat a “stranger”, which is universally understood to refer to a Gentile who lives amongst the Jews? Why would Moishe Rabbeinu include local Gentiles as he delivers his final address to Klal Yisroel? Is he some sort of self hating Jew?
According to Rav Papa, Moishe Rabbeinu was of course not a self hating Jew! He loved all Jews, especially hot divorcees. However, for tax purposes, Moshe also wanted to include the foreign workers who did all of the physical labor in the community. Rav Papa points to the end of the Passuk which refers to “the woodcutter and the one who draws your water.” Asks Rav Papa, “Can you possibly believe that this refers to a Jew?”
However, in the modern context, how are we relate to this notion of Gentiles living amongst us? In a situation of prolonged war and hostility, of distrust and the potential for violent acts, especially terrorism, how should we relate to the question of Goyim living in Eretz Yisroel? Was the Toirah wrong, in its assumption that there would be “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah”? Is the Toirah “out of touch”? It the Toirah an anachronism that is not suited to the currently realities in which we all live, Chass V’Sholom? How can you suggest such a thing, you ignorant Minuval?
No. We are fortunate to be the chosen people, who can always turn to the eternal Toirah Emmes as our guide on contemporary questions of law, morality, ethics, medicine, business, science, and great dinner locations that cost less than $20 a person.
The RAMBAM addresses the particular topic of “Vegerchah Asher Bekerev Machanechah in detail in his Mishnah Toirah. According to the RAMBAM, Moishe’s inclusion of non-Jews in his speech indeed reflects a general assumption that Gentiles will always live alongside Jews in Eretz Yisroel. However, their residence is predicated on four conditions:
1) That they pledge loyalty to the chosen government, and not act in a hostile manner towards it, even if they are not always in agreement with it;
2) That they contribute to the security of the country by serving in its armed forces;
3) That they contribute to the finances of the country, without cheating on their taxes;
4) That they participate in the broader social fabric of their communities by having their children engage in public educational institutions.
In short, the provisions for their continued presence of Gentiles in Eretz Yisroel are exactly those conditions that are violated by the Ultra Orthodox of Israel every single day.
Rabboisai, I am reminded of a famous story about the Menachem Mendel of Cracow, who survived Europe and moved his Chassidic sect to Alabama in 1947. Menachem Mendel and his family survived the war by being hidden by their neighbor, Piotr Christianowics, underneath the floorboards in the Christianowics home, at great personal risk to Piotr Christianowics and his family.
One day, after the Nazis conducted a routine search of the area and had gone, Piotr whispered down to the floor, “Menachem Mendel, I am so sorry that all of this is happening to your people. I look forward to the day when you and I and our families can sit together and eat as free men.”
There was a pause. Then Menachem Mender quietly responded through the floorboards, “Don’t kid yourself, Piotr. I would never break bread with a Shaygitz.”
Rabboisai, like Klal Yisroel on that very day, many millennia ago, we too are standing before the Reboinoisheloilum at a critical juncture in our nationhood. We can either retreat into our shell of Jewish isolationism, or we can come to terms with the reality that we are fated to coexist with others. Gentiles, members of all other faiths and creeds, were also created by the Reboinoisheloilum. The details are not always easy – some people indeed are our enemies, as we once again were bitterly reminded this week in the area of Chevroin. But most people are not our enemies. Yes, it is not always easy to protect our interests and identify who our friends are. But as long as our Gentile neighbors are willing to live side-by-side in peace with us, are willing to pay retail, or are hot shiksas, then they are okay in the eyes of the Toirah, and they are ok by by me.
Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.