Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Ordination of Joshua - Reflections on Parashat Pinchas

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Pinchas, Moses is told that the ride is almost over. He is commanded by Hashem to appoint his successor: “…take for yourself Yehoshua bin Noon, the spiritual man, and place your hands on him.” (Numbers 27:18) The Hebrew word for “placing the hands” of the teacher upon the student is called ‘semichah.’

And so it was that on the Sunday of Parashat Pinchas, I attended a mind-blowing rabbinical conference which culminated in the granting of semichah, rabbinical investiture, to about 40 individuals, including me, after years of study, testing and preparation.

Why is this significant? Aren’t there enough unemployed rabbis in the world?

Well yes…but no. You see, this Yeshivah and these rabbis are a very unique lot, for three reasons.

First: My yeshivah is a virtual yeshivah. Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim (YPS) harnesses the incredible potential of the internet to spread the light of Torah in the world. My teachers, the Rabbanim, live in Israel, and their students live all over the world. A student in Miami can have a chavruta (study partner) in Johannesburg. A global network of friendships is forged poring over the great books of Jewish law, all plugged into the Rabbanim in Israel. Laptops, tablets and smart phones are the new tools of the Torah trade.

This speaks to a larger point: there are certain voices in Torah that want to declare the internet off-limits because of all the shmutz and frank evil that can be found out there. And there’s no denying it – it’s out there. But YPS disagrees with this impulse to ban. Just like radio and TV in earlier generations, the medium itself is neutral; it can be used for good or for evil. The internet is like a fertile field; it can grow food or it can grow weeds. The field doesn’t particularly care one way or the other. 

Online Torah study dispels enormous darkness in the world, just like a single kernel of corn is worth an acre of weeds. Rav Kook taught that the proper way to fight evil in the world is not to confront it on its own terms, but rather to flood the world with goodness: with Torah study, with mitzvoth, and with acts of kindness towards our fellow man.

Second: Students of YPS span the spectrum of Jewish life: Gerrer Hasidim, Litvish (people schooled in the intellectualism of the Lithuanian yeshivah tradition), Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Religious Zionists, Ba’alei Teshuvah (people who have returned to a life of religious observance), and more. Despite our disparate backgrounds, we all stand together in brotherhood and amity, united by a common commitment to an informed, centrist understanding of Halachah (Jewish Law).

Meaning: We are witness to a disturbing polarization in Jewish life. On the left is the complete rejection of the authority and authenticity of Jewish Law. Like a rose clipped from the bush, it may be fragrant for a short time, but its end is inevitable.

On the right is a growing trend to pile stringency upon stringency in the interpretation of the law. To extend the metaphor: this is like wrapping that beautiful rose in protective netting so tightly that it gets neither light nor water. This trend towards stringency is born of insecurity, or a flawed or inadequate understanding of the Halachic decision-making process.

Both approaches are self-destructive. Holding the religious center is always the most difficult path. YPS and its talmidim, Jews from all walks of life, are committed to deciding questions of Jewish Law leniently whenever possible, and strictly only when necessary. This requires in-depth study, close consultation with the Rabbanim, a clear understanding of legal precedent and the rationale behind those precedents, and the courage to speak the Halachah unequivocally in the face of opposing views.

Third: there is an old aphorism that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. The talmidim of YPS all work for a living. We are doctors, lawyers, educators, business owners. We have mortgages, car payments, and tuition bills. We are busy. We are classic overachievers - overbooked and straight up exhausted.

But like rabbis through the generations, we are making a strong statement about the critical importance of combining Torah study with an honorable living. The new normal in the Torah world that eschews productive work in favor of learning Torah full-time on public support violates Jewish Law and is ultimately counter-productive.

As business owners and communal leaders, our sphere of influence is considerable. We leverage that influence to carry the message of Torah and authentic, passionate Judaism to an audience all out of proportion to our numbers, and far greater than could any young man fresh out of school.

And think about this: after working 10 hours or more at the office; after seeing to our familial obligations, social and communal obligations, we commit 2 or 3 hours every day to Torah study. Why? What could be so important?

The answer goes to the heart of the mission of YPS and its talmidim.

We live in a world that has lost its way. 

In the chase for the almighty dollar...we have forgotten that true wealth is being content with what you have. 

In the quest for power...we have forgotten that true power is self-control. 

In the pursuit of self-gratification and the endless buzz...we have forgotten that true happiness is found in the service of others. 

The things that really count are the things you really can’t count.

YPS and its talmidim go out into the world to proclaim these truths. Many people intuit that something is amiss in their lives, but don’t quite know what it is or how to fix it. Maybe a YPS rabbi is there to speak to their heart - of Torah study, of Shabbat, of spending real time with the fam, of the power of keeping kosher. Maybe, just maybe, there is deep truth in the discarded values of our Bubbies and Zaydes.

So when a person is ready to improve their lives, a YPS rabbi or military chaplain will be there to provide instruction, guidance, support and help. And so we bring Gcd’s light to the world, one page of Torah at a time, one soul at a time.

For these and many other reasons, I am both proud and humbled to be a musmach (graduate) of YPS.

Shabbat Shalom.

For more information about Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim, please contact me or go to

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