This week, we will be reading of the story of the Jews’ first post-Sinai failure, a very catastrophic incident that has haunted our nation ever since. At the very base of Mt. Sinai, less than two months after hearing G-d’s voice directly, something tragic happens:
וַיַּרְא הָעָם, כִּי-בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן-הָהָר; וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה-לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ–כִּי-זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה-הָיָה לוֹ
And the nation saw that Moshe delayed in descending from the mountain, so they gathered around Aharon and said to him; go and make us a god that will walk before us, for Moshe [the man of G-d] that brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what happened to him. (שמות לב:א)
While it is definitely reasonable to lament the quick turnover from “נעשה ונשמע” to “נעשה לנו אלקים,” the real question is how did the Jewish leaders, hand-picked by Moshe to keep things in order while he was up on Sinai, handle the situation? Their reaction could make or break the crisis:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי.
Aharon said to them; remove the golden jewelry that is in the ears of your wives and children and bring them to me. (שם ב)
Most of the commentators are up in arms about Aharon’s apparent agreement with their cause. Rashi famously teaches that Aharon’s demand was a tactic to stop the creation of a god before it even happened- after all, why would they want to give up their valuable jewelry to build a false god? Putting that aside for a second, it appears from the pshat interpretation of the pesukim that Aharon complied with their demands, and helped them build an idol that led to the destruction of the first luchot and caused a lot of trouble. While it was definitely a tricky situation involving mob psychology, faction control, and missing figureheads, it is clear that according to the most straightforward reading of the story of the Egiel Hazahav (Golden Calf), missing leadership was a key factor that led to the sin.
This past Shabbat, I was zoche to complete my study of Sefer Shoftim, which tells the story of the Jewish People in Israel after the passing of Yehoshua Bin Nun, Moshe’s disciple. The last three perakim of Shoftim tell the unfortunate story of the Pilegesh B’giv’ah (The Concubine of Gibah), and the fallout from the retaliation. The story begins:
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וּמֶלֶךְ אֵין בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל
It was in those days, and there was no king in Israel (שופטים יט:א)
The narrative continues to tell the tale of a Levite man who married a concubine (secondary wife) from Bet Lehem. She left him for a few months, and then he got up and traveled to her father’s home to try to win her back. He succeeded, and was urged by his father-in-law several times to stay overnight, but after five days, he decides to leave, even though it was already late afternoon. They make some progress before it gets dark out, and then decide to spend the night in Gibah. At this point, the story begins to resemble that of Lot’s final night in Sodom- the men of the town surround the house, demanding the visitors’ release to their caring custody- their host steadfastly refused, with a counter-offer. However, whereas Lot had offered his daughters to the mob but didn’t have to fulfill this because of his divine visitors, the visitors’ host in Gibah had no such luxury. He instead decided to one-up Lot, by offering not only his daughter, but also the man’s concubine. The mob agrees, the concubine is violated and eventually dies from the abuse, and her widower, in disgust, sends her remains to all of the other tribes to show them what evil had taken place there.
The tribes gather and mount an attack against the Benjamites, driving them out of Gibah, killing eighteen thousand men, and scattering the rest, torching their cities. In the end, no one was happy that the Jews were fighting among themselves, and they bemoaned the fact that the fight was started in the first place. Then, in the concluding verse to Sefer Shoftim, we see an insight as to how something so evil could have taken place among G-d’s chosen people:
בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו, יַעֲשֶׂה.
In those days, there was no king in Israel. Each man would do whatever seemed proper in his eyes. (שם כא:כב)
So, we see that one of the biggest tragedies that ever befell the Jews from their fellow brothers, one that created what might have been the biggest shidduch crisis since the times of Avraham Avinu, was a result of the same failure that led to chet haeigel; a lack of strong and central leadership. Without a national recognized leader, the result is that everyone does “whatever seems proper to them,” whether it’s building a golden calf or raping guests’ concubines. While the former led to G-d revealing His Thirteen Midot Harachim, and the latter set the stage for Sefer Shmuel, the beginning of Jewish kingship, it is without a doubt true that in times of weak Jewish leadership, the worst types of tragedies occur, especially from fighting amongst ourselves.
This lesson has unfortunately become very apparent in our days as well. While great progress and great suffering has brought many of the Jews together, there are still small quibbles that drag us apart. A tampered election in Bet Shemesh, an army draft against Yeshiva students, a cutting of funds against Hareidi schools, and the resulting protests and fights, have ensured that Sinat Yisrael has reached levels that are approaching those felt immediately after the Pilegesh B’givah incident. Punches are thrown, people are starting protests and violence, and it seems very much like everyone is acting like “איש הישר בעיניו יעשה.” Throughout all of this infighting, there seems to be only one thing that both sides can agree on; the other side is preventing the geulah from coming- they are the ones who are stopping true Malchut Yisrael from returning, and because of them, we are still in these troubling times.
It is clear that, just as in Parshat Ki Tisa, a strong and accepted leader needs to step up to stop the infighting- we need the Mashiach to come to settle our differences and return our nation to a whole. Unfortunately, when and how the Mashiach will come is already a point of contention between the two sides of our latest family feud, and until they can agree, no positive outcome is likely in the near future. I would like present a solution to this problem, brought by Rav Teichtel in Em Habanim Semecha. Rav Teichtel had a unique perspective on Religious Zionism as someone who grew up very much against the idea of a pre-Mashiach Jewish State, before he understood the Antisemitism in Europe as a sign that the Jews needed to return home. His point of view, reflective of both a Hareidi upbringing and a Tzioni understanding, is shown in the following piece from his flagship work, which describes simple steps for bringing the geulah:
ורב גדול אחד עוררני מרש”י (תהלים, תחילת פרק ע) שכתב על הפסוקים “כי אלקים יושיע ציון ויבנה ערי יהודה וישבו שם וירשוה. וזרע עבדיו ינחלוה ואוהבי שמו ישכנו בה. למנצח לדוד להזכיר.” וזה לשון רש”י: “‘לדוד להזכיר’- לשון תפילה הוא וכו’. ובמדרש תהלים ראיתי: משל למלך שכעס על צאנו וסתר את הדיר והוציא את הצאן ואת הרועה, אחר זמן החזיר את הצאן ובנה את הדיר ולא הזכיר את הרועה. אמר הרועה הרי הצאן מוחזר והדיר בנוי ואני איני נזכר. כך למעלה מן הענין נאמר ‘כי אלקים יושיע ציון וגו’ ואוהבי שמו ישכנו בה’- הרי הדיר בנויה והצאן כנוס והרועה לא נזכר, לכך נאמר ‘לדוד להזכיר'” עד כאן לשנו. היינו שדוד התפלל שגם הוא יחזור לישראל למקומו. הרי מפורש ברש”י כאן דתחילה יחזרו ישראל לארץ ישראל ויבנו אותה, עד טרם ביאת בן דוד, עד שדוד יבקש מהשם יתברך, אחר שישראל כבר חזרו, שגם הוא רוצה לחזור אליהם…
A great Rav once awakened me to Rashi’s approach to the verse (Tehilim 70): “For G-d has saved Zion and rebuilt the cities of Judea, and they will return there and inherit it. And the descendants of your servants will inherit and the lovers of your name will dwell there. For the Conductor to David to remember.” And Rashi writes; “‘To David to remember’- these are words of prayer… And in the Midrash Tehilim I saw: it is compared to a king who gets angry at his sheep, so he hides the pen, removes the sheep, and fires the shepherd. After some time, he returns the sheep and rebuilds the pen, but he still hadn’t remembered the shepherd. The shepherd will say; here are the sheep returned, and the pen rebuilt, but I haven’t been remembered. This is why above it says ‘for G-d has saved Zion… and the lovers of His name will well there…’- behold, the pen has been rebuilt and the sheep and returned, but the shepherd has not been remembered- therefore it says ‘To David to remember.’ [until here are the words of Rashi.] This is saying that David will pray that he too will return with Israel to its place. So, it is clear from Rashi that first Israel will return to the land of Israel and rebuild it, until immediately before the time of the coming of the anointed descendant of David, then David will beg of G-d, after Israel has already returned, that his descendant will return to them [and redeem them.] (אם הבנים שמחה פרק ב: אות ג)
So, we see that based on this interpretation by Rashi, clear steps are set out for the coming of Mashiach Ben David, and by extension, the Malchut David who will rule over us and stop our infighting. First, the sheep must return to their pen- only after that can the shepherd beg for his job back. Eretz Yisrael is without a doubt being rebuilt, and the Jewish people are pouring back into their National Homeland, finally home under their rule for the first time in millennia. Unfortunately, even as David Hamelech is poised to beseech G-d to bring the Mashiach, he cannot yet, for not enough of us have returned yet. For this reason, we continue to wait and wait for his coming, even as our internal and external threats worsen every day.
History has shown that occasionally the Jewish People need a wake-up call to remind them of their priorities, of keeping mitzvot, and actively anticipating the geulah. While many of these have come in the form of a near-annihilation, or holocaust, it might not be a stretch of the imagination to say that our current infighting should be a wake-up call to us to do teshuva. It’s clear from the pattern seen in both Chet Ha’egel and Pilegesh B’givah that our unfortunate situation is due to a lack of proper leadership, and Rashi’s approach in Tehilim makes it crystal clear why we’re still waiting for this long-anticipated leader. So, we should all try to use the current infighting among Jews as our wake-up call- not just to do teshuva for any private or cultural sins, but to do the highest level of teshuva– following the call of the king to return to our newly-rebuilt pen. Only then can we ever hope to bring back the fired shepherd and bring peace among the flocks of sheep.
One of the most popular questions on the story of Pilegesh B’givah is on the textual style that the story is written in. Most of Sefer Shoftim is written with very specific details- names, places, and dates. But the last three perakim of Shoftim are lacking very much in details. We are not ever told who the man and his pilegesh were, or who is his host in Gibah was, or even when it happened. Why were these perakim written so vaguely?
I believe the answer lies in the cornerstone moral of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman identifies himself to Police Commissioner James Gordon before going off on a kamikaze mission . Gordon then asks Batman why he kept his identity a secret. Batman answers with a very deep idea; he wore a mask and never identified himself, to show that the Batman could be anyone, to give everyone hope against the villains. The same idea applies to the story of Pilegesh B’givah, albeit for less positive reasons. Just like Batman’s heroic escapades were kept anonymous to give hope that anyone else could also do them, Pilegesh B’givah was kept anonymous to warn that a tragedy like that could also happen again- that if Jewish leadership ever got to the point of בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, אֵין מֶלֶךְ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו, יַעֲשֶׂה, there could very well be another Pilegesh B’givah, where the infighting gets so serious that after all of the self-righteous violence has finished, both sides are the in wrong. The only way to prevent another tragedy, and ensure that Pilegesh B’givah remains history, is to follow the call of Rav Teichtel, based on Rashi, and return to our national homeland, to ensure that the true king of Israel will return.
It is no coincidence that the story of Chet Ha’egel takes place in שמות פרק ל”ב, representing לב (heart). Immediately before Chet Ha’egel, we read of the reminder of Shmirat Shabbat. Then we progress to פרק לב and read of a tragedy that results in infighting and 3,000 Jews dead. This is a lesson that, as we wait for Malchut David to return, we cannot let religious issues such as keeping Shabbat, lead to us hating our fellow Jews. If this hatred enters our לב, and we begin to hate individuals or groups of Jews because of this, then only tragedy and infighting will follow. Rather, we must remember what happened in the 32nd perek of Shemot and love all of our Jewish brothers with our entire לב- only through this can we prevent internal tragedies like Chet Ha’egel and Pilegesh B’givah.
With Hashem’s help, the Jewish people will begin to think with their hearts and stop doing “איש הישר בעיניו יעשה”, until the point when their exiled brothers will return to Eretz Yisrael, leading to the Mashiach and unanimous Malchut Yisrael, and finally peace amongst G-d’s chosen nation, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.