By: Rabbi Menashe Sasson
Reporting from Jerusalem, Israel
In last week’s Parashah, we discussed, among other things, the twelve spies [מרגלים], whom the Torah refers to as “great men” [אנשים]. These great men [אנשים] had studied Torah at the foot of Moshe Rabbeinu and were Rabbis, leaders of their respective tribes. After having reconnoitered Eretz Yisra’el in preparation for the military invasion that was to follow, ten of these great Rabbis issued a joint psak Halakha [פסק הלכה] (ruling on Jewish law) that because a military invasion of Eretz Yisra’el would likely result in the loss of life, the doctrine of pikuah nefesh [פקוח נפש], a doctrine that permits (and, in some situations requires) one to violate a Torah commandment (misva [מצוה]) in order to save life, allowed the Jewish people to decline to perform the misva [מצוה] of Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל] (the Torah commandment to settle the Land of Eretz Yisra’el).
This psak Halakha [פסק הלכה] of the spies, the anashim [אנשים] who reconnoitered Eretz Yisra’el, was erroneous for at least two reasons.
First, prosecuting a war to Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל] is a milchemet misva [מלחמת מצווה], a war mandated by the Torah. The doctrine of pikuah nefesh [פקוח נפש], which allows a person to violate a Torah commandment in order to save life, cannot be applied in such a manner that would have the effect of completely excusing compliance with a Torah commandment which, by its very nature, involves danger to human life.
Second, there are three situations in which the doctrine of pikuah nefesh [פקוח נפש] may not be applied to permit violation of a Torah commandment. One of those situations is idolatry.
The Talmud states:
Because the purpose of the Exodus was to give the Jewish people Eretz Yisra’el and because “anyone who resides outside of Eretz Yisra’el is considered as one who does not have a G-d,” it follows that a refusal to Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל] by who one has the opportunity to do so, is a rejection of the Torah, a rejection of G-d himself, and, thus, constitutes a form of idolatry. Therefore, because idolatry is one of the sins that one may not commit to save a life, if follows that the doctrine of pikuah nefesh [פקוח נפש] may not be applied to excuse a failure to Yishuv Eretz Yisra’el [ישוב ארץ ישראל].
Thus, we see that the psak Halakha [פסק הלכה] of the spies, the anashim [אנשים] who reconnoitered Eretz Yisra’el, was erroneous.
In Parashat Qorah, we find three additional Halakhic disputes:
First, Qorah, a very accomplished and learned man, alleged that he, not Aharon, should have been appointed Kohen Gadol. Qorah reasoned that because leadership of the nation had gone to Moshe, as the son of Levi’s firstborn, Amram, he, Qorah, as the son of Levi’s secondborn, Yitzhar, should have been appointed Kohen Gadol.
Second, the firstborn of all the tribes collectively challenged the tribe of Levi, alleging that they, not the Levites, should have the privilege of serving in the Mishkan.
Third, the tribe of Reuven, as represented by Datan, Aviram, and On, claimed that the privilege of royalty should be belong to them, as offspring of Ya’akov’s firstborn, and not to the tribe of Yehudah.
As with the spies, the claims of Qorah, the firstborn, and the tribe of Reuven, all lacked merit.
Because prophecy existed during the time of Moshe, the spies, Qorah, and the tribes, it is not too difficult for us to determine what HaShem wanted from the Jewish people.
Today, things are different. There are still many factions within the Jewish people and many disagree with others on matters of Halakha. The question, then, is: What criteria should a person use when choosing a Rabbi?
There, of course, can be no “one size fits all” answer to this question. However, a few guidelines might be helpful.
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Menashe Sasson is a Sephardic rabbi and American attorney who resides in Jerusalem, Israel.