But Zeide made us laugh,
Zeide made us sing…
– “My Zeide” – by Moshe Yess
What is the role of a wise, Jewish leader in addressing the wants expressed by his generation? What is his role in communicating the eternal values of our people, while convincing those who come to him with the demands of “now” that they cannot have what it is that they want? What does he say to his daughter, a good and caring daughter, who asks, “Why can’t a woman be granted semicha?”
How does he explain the divergence of what her generation understands to be so eminently “fair and good” and Jewish practice? How does he do so even as he keeps her on a path of righteousness?
For lessons in leadership, we always return to the greatest of Jewish leaders, Moses himself. For there was never a more demanding generation or one more in need of leadership than the one he led from slavery to freedom.
In this instance, we find ourselves alongside him as the tribes of Reuven and Gad come to him, requesting that, rather than crossing the Jordan River with the other tribes to take their rightful shares in Eretz Yisrael, they be allowed to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, in the lands of Sihon and Og.
Like the man’s daughter, their request was a fair and considerate one. Both Reuven and Gad had much larger flocks than the other tribes, the result of the victory over Midian. Ohr Hachaim posits that Reuven and Gad were distinguished fighters and had plundered larger numbers of animals than the other tribes. Other commentators acknowledge the larger flocks but attribute them to Reuven and Gad placing a greater emphasis on material wealth than the others. In telling Moshe that, “…pens for the flock shall we build here for our livestock and cities for our small children…” these commentators hear the voices of those who do not have their priorities straight. Build pens for their flocks before cities for their children?
Either way, it was apparent that they needed the greater space that the eastern bank afforded. In other words, their request was reasonable. So, did Moses give them what they asked for? No.
To his ears, they sought to forsake their fellow tribes in the conquest of the Promised Land. He viewed the request as tantamount to the disastrous mission of the Meraglim and accuses them of a request that could demoralize the nation! “Behold! You have risen up in place of your fathers, a society of sinful people…tarbut anashim chatayim.”
He accused them of following in the footsteps of their fathers who had refused to enter Eretz Yisrael out of fear of the Canaanites and so were punished by death in the midbar.
Moses forcefully questioned their request. As it turns out, neither Reuven nor Gad sought to shirk their responsibilities in any way. They were ready and eager to send their troops alongside the other tribes in the wars until they were successfully concluded. They were not the Meraglim’s disciples.
They promised to fight with their brethren; and to stay with them until the battle was over. Seven years. And then another seven while the Land was allocated.
Perhaps more troubling to us than Moses’ initial reaction to Reuven and Gad’s reasonable request, was their silence in the face of his rebuke. Why didn’t they promptly protest?
* * *
The Sefas Emes’ father died when the Sefas Emes was a young boy. The young prodigy was raised by his grandfather, the Chidushei Harim, who, naturally, had the highest expectations for his grandson.
It happened that, when he was still young, the Sefas Emes stayed up almost the entire night learning with a Chavrusa. His study was so rigorous that he was rightfully tired at the conclusion of the long session. So, not long before shacharis, he fell asleep, and arrived late to davening.
His late arrival was noted by his Zeide. Immediately after davening, the Zeide Chidushei Harim approached his grandson and criticized him with passion. His lateness to davening was a disgrace! It was a chillul haShem!
There was no let up to his mussar-filled criticism.
Throughout, the young boy sat silently, accepting the rebuke, not once offering a word in his own defense.
Finally, his zeide had finished his tirade, leaving the young man momentarily alone. Not for long. Soon, his chavrusa – who, like everyone else, could not help but overhear zeide’s tirade – came over to him.
“Why didn’t you tell your zeide that you had been up all night learning?” he wanted to know.
The Sefas Emes looked at his chavrusa and a small smile lit his countenance. “To hear mussar from a great person is a most wonderful experience. It was well worth it to hear the admonitions and chastisement of the great Zeide, even though I am completely innocent.” He then cited the behavior of Reuven and Gad in the face of an unjustified rebuke from a great person as justification.
They could have risen up and refused to hear Moses’ rebuke. After all, they were “correct” and justified. Moses was “wrong.” But they did not. They listened to the great leader until he was finished and then, only then, responded appropriately.
How strange this message is to our “modern” ears! Better to be chastised by a worthy being than to be right? Is not being “right” all that matters? Isn’t the “last word” the most important thing? Prevailing, that is our goal.
Visit any blog or web site and peruse the lengthy comments and you will learn all you need to know about the ethos of our modern times. Shout out. Louder and louder. Be heard. After all, “my” way is the “right” way!
We are a generation bereft of great zeides.
Without a great zeide or a great leader, how do we sort through the urgency or our wants? In truth, what zeides saw and heard, what they communicated to us, is tradition, mesorah. We cannot help but look at our world and our experience through the lens of our times. After all, we cannot be what we are not. However, our communal experience did not begin with our generation. Jewish and halachic behavior did not and does not start with our opinions, our feelings, our interpretations or our societal norms. Authentic Jewish experience is rooted in yesterday’s Jewish behaviors and precedent. We do not live in a vacuum of time but nestled within the fullness of Jewish experience and teaching.
* * *
As a young talmid in Yeshivas Rabeinu Yaakov Yosef (RJJ) I learned a new nuance for the Pesach Seder. When I arrived home, I asked my father z’l why he did not follow that nuance. He held me in his steady gaze. “Because that is not the way your Zeide did it.”
There was no more conversation required. In Jewish life and lore, the way of our zeides trumps our so-called innovations. By listening to the voice of our zeide we can hear more than mussar, more than rebuke. We can hear genuine guidance.
After hearing Reuven and Gad’s response to his criticism, Moses instructed them they should, “…arm yourselves before God for the battle.”
Even understanding their intention and their desire, Moses understood the need to “fine tune” their focus. More than concern for their brethren, they should first and foremost carry out Hashem’s will, which was to conquer the land. Compassion, as defined by humans, is changeable, nebulous, and often proven wrong by history. Their offer to stay in the land until all tribes received their land allocation? Certainly that was a magnanimous offer! But Moses deflects, telling them the gesture was unnecessary. They must only stay until the wars were over – a point that could not be known without the great Zeide.
And, perhaps most significant, was a subtle change in emphasis and priority. Moses tells them,“…build for yourselves cities for your small children and pens for your flock.” He reverses their stated priorities.
We cower from mussar. We avoid criticism. We want to be acknowledged. We want to be right. Zeide is critical. Zeide is giving mussar. But, if we allow our ears to hear, we will hear not criticism but the whisper of history and the guidance of tradition.
* * *
Like the man listening to his daughter’s question, I hear the voices calling for women to receive semicha. I understand the genuine passion that women – who should be Torah educated and fully engaged in Torah study – feel in their desire to take on leadership positions in our tradition. I hear the cry of modernity. Equality. Egalitarianism.
“Tanach had powerful, female leaders. Why not now?”
The desire for female semicha is not rooted in selfishness.
Still, the response must be rooted in tradition! Judaism is not a willow, bending to whichever way the breeze blows. It is the holy response to God’s call. It is, ultimately, the voice of zeide whispering through the generations; singing, davening. More even than God’s laws, it is zeide’s voice that gives those laws a human pulse.
We do not grant women semicha because Zeide didn’t. It has not been in our Mesorah. Should our girls and women receive the best Jewish education? Absolutely. But semicha? No. The heart of the Jewish community is not just halacha, or reasonable argument; the tzura of the Jewish community is Mesorah.
Even if, like Reuven and Gad, the request is “reasonable”. Even if, like the Sefas Emes, there is innocence. Mesorah is the voice of our loving Zeides.
Zeide speaks and we must listen, even if we genuinely believe that we know best. We must be open to that voice, the one that has spoken to us throughout our longest and darkest hours.