Rabbi YY Jacobson
Rabbi YY JacobsonIsrael National News

Two Requests

In this week’s portion, Moses, facing his mortality, asks G-d to appoint a successor.

May the Lord, God of the spirits of all flesh, choose a man over the congregation who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Num. 27: 16).

G-d responds that Moses should appoint Joshua as his successor; he will be the next leader of the nation.

Following that, the Torah states:

The Lord spoke to: Moses, saying: Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My food for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time.

And you shall say to them: This is the fire offering which you shall offer to the Lord: two unblemished lambs in their first year each day as a continual burnt offering. The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon.

The juxtaposition is strange. Moses is pleading for a new leader. He is afraid that the flock would be left without a shepherd. G-d responds by instructing the Jewish people to bring a daily offering—one sheep in the morning, one sheep in the afternoon; which since temple times has been substituted with morning and afternoon services, shacharis and mincha, when we “offer” our hearts to G-d.

The Parable

What’s the connection? Rashi, quoting the Sifri, explains that G-d said to Moses, “Before you command Me regarding My children, command My children regarding Me.” It is almost as if G-d is saying, do not worry about My responsibilities toward My children; I will take care of them. There is a far more worrisome issue: Tell the children to take care of Me.

This seems perplexing. G-d is upset with Moses that he is asking Him to take care of the children who might be left as a flock without a shepherd. Instead, G-d says, why don’t you instruct the children to offer Me sacrifices?! But how can you compare the two? Moses is beseeching G-d that the nation survives and endures; G-d wants Moses to first tell the nation to bring the appropriate sacrifices!

So Rashi continues to present a fascinating parable, to shed light on the exchange:

רש"י פינחס כח, ב: צו את בני ישראל: מה אמור למעלה (כז, טז) יפקוד ה'. אמר לו הקב"ה עד שאתה מצוני על בני, צוה את בני עלי. משל לבת מלך שהיתה נפטרת מן העולם והיתה מפקדת לבעלה על בניה וכו', כדאיתא בספרי.[1]

There was a princess who was about to die. She called in her husband and commanded him to take care of the children after her demise. Her husband, the future widower, responds: “Rather than you commanding Me about My children, command My children about Me.”

Moses, the faithful mother and shepherd of Israel, who led them for more than four decades, is about to die. Now, mom is concerned: In the absence of a mother, who will make sure my kinderlach (children) are fine?

What is G-d’s response? Rather than telling Me to take care of them, make sure to tell them to take care of Me! I will now be a widower. I will not have you anymore. I will only have my children—and I am afraid to lose them. I need you to speak to my children and tell them they should take care of their dad after you pass on.

And what does the Father ask for? “Make sure to give me my daily bread; a daily sacrifice of sheep, one in the morning, one in the afternoon.”

Why Is G-d So Lonely?

Which only leaves us scratching our head. The infinite G-d is “crying” to his “wife,” Moses, that He is afraid of remaining a lonely widower after her death? I can understand Moses' wishes. He led the people for forty years, through thick and thin. He knows how disheartening and rebellious they can be. He also knows they can get on their Father’s nerves. He comes to G-d and says:I need you to take care of my children and of Your children. They need a great leader.

But G-d? The infinite Creator? The all-powerful one? The omnipotent and the omniscient? G-d, the embodiment of perfection and flawlessness? Why is He comparing Himself to a lost widower? What exactly is He worried about?

The Alteration

Forty-nine years ago, on Shabbos Parshas Pinchas, 24 Tamuz, 5731, July 17, 1971, the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented a most moving insight.[2]

As always, it is intimated in one slight nuance.

In Sifri, the original midrashic text which is the source of this Rashi, the parable is about a king and his wife. But Rashi alters the text. He changes one detail in the parable. It is about a princess and her husband. For the Sifri, G-d is the King and Moses is His queen. For Rashi, Moses is the princess, the daughter of a king, and G-d is her husband, a “regular” husband.

Why would Rashi make this dramatic change? why would Rashi turn Moses into the princess and G-d into the “layman”?[3]

Yet it is this subtle change that sheds light on the very powerful exchange between the Jewish leader and the Creator of the world.

The Lonely Husband

When a king loses his queen, it may be difficult, but the palace does not crumble, and the kings’ needs are still taken care of. The monarch is surrounded by an entire apparatus of ministers, assistants, advisors, servants who will ensure that the king has his needs met and that the country can continue running.

Not so with a simple widower. When his wife dies, he is often completely lost.[4] All he is left with are his children. If his children abandon him, he will be forlorn in an empty and tough world. So before his wife passes on he asks her to please encourage the children to be there for their father—to make sure his children do not neglect him.

Infinite Love, Infinite Need

It is here we discover the daring and shocking message of our sages here.

G-d is infinite, perfect, and has no “needs.” Needs by definition indicate you are lacking; you are imperfect. How can G-d be lacking anything? A finite being can have needs. An infinite being has no needs.

Yet here lay one of the great ideas of Judaism. G-d, the perfect endless One, the essence and core of all reality, desired a relationship with the human person. G-d created the entire universe. Man is a tiny infinitesimal creature. Yet G-d chose us to be His children. The unlimited Creator chose to make Himself vulnerable. It is a choice that comes from G-d’s undefined essence (not defined even by being “perfect” and “unneedy”), and hence it is absolute and infinite.

When you love because you need, the love is as deep as the need. When you have a relationship with someone just because you need them (such as a cleaning lady, or a family doctor) then when that need has been fulfilled the relationship ends. When you need because you love, it is an essential need, intrinsic to yourself. Hashem does not love you because He needs you; He needs me because He loves you, and if the love is limitless and absolute, so is the need.

We need G-d; but G-d needs us too.[5] So when G-d knew Moses was about to pass on, He pleads with him: Just as you say to Me that your children need Me, I say to you: I need them with the same equal intensity, maybe more. Children need parents, but parents also need children. One of the most painful experiences for a parent is when a child rejects him or her.

I need them, says G-d, for my “daily bread,” “lachmi l’eishei;” without them I am—so to speak—despondent and forlorn. Please make sure they remain connected and loyal to Me.

The Protest of Judaism

"I'm NOT needed." These are familiar words. We hear them from the lips of the young and those who have lived many years.

All of Judaism is a protest against this notion. G-d needs every one of us. We are here because we have something to do for Him and for His world. He has only our hands, feet, hearts, minds, souls, and voices. G-d needs my prayer, my heart, my truth, my mitzvah, my conviction, my commitment, and my passion. G-d needs us just as we need G-d. G-d is looking for ordinary people to do extraordinary work.

The Teenager

Rabbi Mannis Friedman shared with me a personal experience he had.[6]

He was once called to a hospital to see a Jewish teenager who was suicidal. Feeling that he was a good-for-nothing who could not get anything right, the boy had attempted to take his own life. But even his suicide attempt failed. Seeing that he was Jewish, the hospital staff called the rabbi to come and try to lift the boy’s dejected spirits.

The rabbi arrived at the hospital not knowing what to expect. He found the boy lying in bed watching TV, a picture of utter misery, black clouds of despair hanging over his head. The boy hardly looked up at the rabbi, and before he could even say hello, the boy said, “If you are here to tell me what the priest just told me, you can leave now.”

Slightly taken aback, the rabbi asked, “What did the priest say?”

“He told me that G-d loves me. That is a load of garbage. Why would G-d love me?”

It was a good point. This kid could see nothing about himself that was worthy of love. He had achieved nothing in his life; he had no redeeming features, nothing that was beautiful or respectable or lovable. So why would G-d love him?

The rabbi needed to touch this boy without patronizing him. He had to say something real. But what do you say to someone who sees himself as worthless?

“You may be right,” said the rabbi. “Maybe G-d doesn’t love you.”

This got the boy’s attention. He wasn’t expecting that from a rabbi.

“Maybe G-d doesn’t love you. But one thing’s for sure. He needs you.”

This surprised the boy. He hadn’t heard that before.

The very fact that you were born means that G-d needs you. He had plenty of people before you, but He added you to the world’s population because there is something you can do that no one else can. And if you haven’t done it yet, that makes it even more crucial that you continue to live, so that you are able to fulfill your mission and give your unique gift to the world.

If I can look at all my achievements and be proud, I can believe G-d loves me. But what if I haven’t achieved anything? What if I don’t have any accomplishments under my belt to be proud of? Now it is time to remember: You are here because G-d needs you. and if you failed to live up to your potential till now, it only means that He needs you even more!

The Essence of Torah

This might explain an enigmatic Midrash which credits an isolated verse in this week's Torah portion, Pinchas, with encapsulating the quintessence of Judaism.

The Talmud and the Midrash[7] quote four opinions as to which biblical verse sums up the ultimate message of Torah. One sage, Ben Azzai, believed it was the verse in Genesis: "This is the book of the chronicles of man; on the day that G-d created man He created him in the image of G-d."[8] Another sage, Ben Zoma, holds a different verse to be more central to Jewish thought: "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One." A third Talmudist, Ben Nanas, chooses this verse: "You shall love your fellow man like yourself."[9]

Finally, the fourth sage, Shimon, the son of Pazi, casts his pitch for the epic verse of the Bible. It is culled from the section in this week's portion that deals with the obligation during the time of the Temple to bring each day two lambs as an offering to G-d. "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon." This verse, according to Shimon ben Pazi, is the defining verse of Judaism.

The Midrash concludes: "One of the rabbis stood on his feet and declared, 'The verdict follows the opinion of Shimon the son of Pazi!'"

This is perplexing, to say the least. The notion that all of Judaism can be traced back to the idea that a human being reflects G-d, makes sense. The same can be said about the concept of a single and universal G-d, or the injunction to love our fellow man like ourselves—these ideas, introduced 3300 years ago by the Hebrew Bible, vividly embody the essential weltanschauung of Judaism and its contribution to human civilization.

But how does the verse "One sheep you shall offer in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon" represent the essence of Torah? How can one even begin to compare the message about offering two lambs with the global and noble ideas contained in the other three opinions?

What is even more astonishing is that the final verdict in the Midrash selects this verse about the sheep as the "winner." The biblical verses dealing with love, monotheism and human dignity, the foundations of morality and civilization, did not "make it" in the contest; it is precisely this verse enjoining us to offer a lamb in the morning and a lamb in the afternoon -- that was chosen as the "representative" of the Jewish paradigm!

According to the above, we can perhaps understand the words of the Midrash. What this verse conveys more than any other verse is the mind staggering infinite dignity Judaism conferred upon human person and human life.

As Moses is about to die, and is pleading for the welfare of his people, G-d reminds him how much He needs us. He needs us as much as we need Him. Maybe more.

You may view yourself as small and insignificant. But remember: G-d has a burning need for you! G-d’s “needs” are infinite, because they are not “coerced,” but chosen by an infinite G-d. This means that G-d has an “infinite need” for your goodness, holiness, beauty, commitment, sacrifices, for your “bread,” and for your offerings.

The Power of Prayer

Today, as we recall, these two lambs have been replaced by the two and three daily prayers. Sometimes you may think to yourself: What’s the big deal if I miss a “mincha” on a simple Wednesday? What’s the big deal if I don’t pray at all? What’s the big deal if during the prayer I am busy texting or checking my email? Don’t tell me that G-d Almighty cares about some little guy’s prayers, saying every day the same words.

Some people look at their davening (prayers) as valueless. Are you going to tell me that if I missed a “maariv,” it really matters?

But this is not how G-d sees it. From G-d’s perspective, a “simple mincha on a simple Wednesday,”[10] means the world to Him. Without it, He is missing His “bread,” His food, His existence. My prayer, or lack of it, affects His essence. (I once heard from my Rebbe these words in Yiddish: “Yede tenuah fun a Yid,” every move of a Jew, impacts G-d at His core.[11]) Never think of yourself as tiny and useless. Imagine, the infinite perfect G-d needs you to be here for Him, and to be here for His world. You are the axis upon which the entire universe revolves.[12]

A Simple Mincha

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He related a lovely story.[13]

The minchah, or afternoon, prayer is the shortest of the three daily services. Moreover, the time for this prayer often arrives while we are still immersed in our work. People are tired and busy, and it is difficult to divest oneself of the effects of a day at the office in order to generate proper intention and emotional involvement.

It has long been my privilege to speak at the Shabbaton held every year at the end of December in Crown Heights. I would usually arrive in New York on Thursday or Friday, and leave the following Sunday. I always scheduled my return flight to allow me the opportunity to join the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s minyan (prayer quorum) for minchah on Sunday afternoon.

On one such occasion many years ago, I had arranged to fly back to Montreal at 4:30 PM. That Sunday morning, I began to worry about my return trip. I am a very nervous traveler, and I generally insist on being at the airport way in advance of my flight. Why had I decided to leave so early? The Rebbe’s minyan generally began at 3:15, and usually ended at 3:30. Allowing myself 15 minutes to return to where I was staying, I could leave for LaGuardia no earlier that 3:45. What if traffic was heavy? What if a tire went flat? What if a tree had fallen across the Interboro Parkway, and it being Sunday, the road crews took their sweet time in removing it? I calmed myself with the thought that these possibilities were very unlikely, and that if I left at 3:45 sharp I would probably make my flight to Canada [This was at a time before security was so tight; you could still walk up straight to the plane.]

I then embarked on my yearly nerve-racking ritual of arranging for a ride to LaGuardia Airport. In those days there was only one car service in Crown Heights, and it was run by chassidim, a class of people for whom time means nothing. I walked into the storefront office and told them I wanted a car to take me to LaGuardia at 3:45. I emphasized (several times) that 3:45 does not mean 3:50, or even 3:46. I was not interested in approximations. The proprietor, in soothing tones, assured me of a car at precisely 3:45. They were professionals with considerable experience in this business, and there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

I started to leave, but I remembered something as I got to the door. I turned to the boss and asked him whether he would care to know the address to which the car should be sent. “Oh yes, of course, sorry.” You see the sort of people I was dealing with.

By 3:00 PM I was packed into the little synagogue in which the Rebbe prayed minchah. Every student attending one of the two local yeshivahs, as well as numerous neighborhood residents and out-of-town guests, were competing for space in that small room. My bones ached and I couldn’t breathe, but this did not trouble me. This was normal. What bothered me was the time. 3:15, 3:16, 3:17. At 3:20 the Rebbe came in, and minchah began. I tried to concentrate on my prayer, reminding myself that I was in the same minyan as my holy Rebbe. However, my overwrought brain simply would not mind. It perversely dwelt on my imminent betrayal by the car service.

In the course of my struggles with myself, I became aware of a soft sobbing sound. I had already raced through my prayer, and I was able to glance sideways at my neighbor. He was a tall, thin, bearded man, dressed in chassidic garb. His eyes were closed and tears streamed down his cheeks. His face was intense with concentration. He prayed slowly and with obvious effort.

In spite of myself, I was touched. I could not imagine what sort of terrible trouble lay behind that heartfelt prayer. Perhaps he had a sick child at home, or some crushing financial burden. I assumed that he was an out-of-town visitor seeking the Rebbe’s aid, and I could not help feeling guilty about my own silly preoccupations with the car service, the airport, etc. I mentally wished him the best and hoped that things would turn out well for him.

Minchah completed, I raced back to my host’s home, and by 3:42 I was awaiting the promised car with fire in my eyes, certain that it would not show. At precisely 3:45, a noisy, rusty station wagon, belching blue exhaust, rolled up, and the driver waved me in. I couldn’t believe it. I put my suitcase in the back and then climbed in next to the driver.

My second shock came with the realization that the driver was none other than my heartbroken neighbor at minchah. As we drove off, the driver hummed a jolly hassidic melody, and seemed quite happy. We began to talk. Cautiously I asked him about his welfare: his health, the health of his family and the state of his finances. Each question elicited a hearty (if somewhat perplexed) “Thank G‑d.” Moreover, his wife was soon due to give birth, and he was in a particularly excited and happy mood. Gradually, it began to dawn on me that the remarkable outpouring of the heart that I had witnessed earlier was this man’s ordinary, daily minchah.

A Simple Davening

That is a how a Jew davens. Every Mincha is priceless. Every mincha is an intimate one-on-one with the Creator of the universe. Every time you pray to G-d, the world stops. All G-d wants to do is listen to you.

Like two people who love each other infinitely, who meet after five years of separation, when they come together, nothing else can disturb them. That is how G-d feels when you start davening.

Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it when asked why in Kotzk they called the Passover Seder a “dinner,” and Kal Nidrei—Maariv? He said: I teach my students that every supper is a Seder; and every Maariv is a Kal Nidrei.



[1] ספרי פינחס כח, ב: וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר צו את בני ישראל את קרבני לחמי - למה נאמר? לפי שהוא אומר אשר יצא לפניהם ואשר יבוא לפניהם; משל למה הדבר דומה? למלך שהיתה אשתו נפטרת מן העולם, והיתה מפקדתו על בניה. אמרה לו: בבקשה ממך הזהר לי בבני. אמר לה: עד שאת מפקדתני על בני - פקדי בני עלי, שלא ימרדו בי ושלא ינהגו בי מנהג בזיון. כך אמר לו הקב"ה: עד שאתה מפקדני על בני - פקוד בני עלי, שלא ינהגו בי מנהג בזיון, ושלא ימירו את כבודי באלהי הנכר! מהו אומר דבריםלא כי אביאם אל האדמה, עד שאתה מפקדני על בני - פקוד בני עלי! לכך נאמר צו את בני ישראל

[2] Sichos Kodesh 5731. Toras Menachem 5731. Most of the talk is published in Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 Parshas Pinchas p. 99. There are a few moving expressions that are not in Likkutei Sichos, but they are in the original unedited transcript.

[3] Rashi does say, “as it says in Sifri.” Obviously then he found such a version of Sifri, even though it is not existent in any of our Sifri manuscripts. Rashi, of course, would not amend the text and then state that “it says this in Sifri.” The question is, why would Rashi not choose the far more popular version of the text of the Sifri?

[4] See Sanhedrin 22b

[5] There is an expression in Kabbalah, “our service is a Divine need.” (Avodas Hakodesh section 2; Shalah Shaar HaGadol Toldos Adam.)

[6] The story was beautifully written up by Rabbi Aron Moss: https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1853663/jewish/The-Rabbi-and-the-Suicidal-Teenager.htm

[7] The Midrash is quoted in the introduction to Ein Yakov, compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Ben Chaviv. He writes there that he found this information recorded in the name of the Midrash, but could not discover the original source. He proceeds to present his own explanation to the Midrash.

[8] The view of Ben Azai is in Toras Kohanim Kedoshim ch. 19 and in Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4

[9] This is also the view of Rabbi Akiva, quoted in Toras Kohanim and Yerushalmi ibid.

[10] This was the expression the Rebbe used at the farbrengen.

[11] Sichas 6 Tishrei, 5735, September 22, 1974. See there for a beautiful proof from the words of the Ramba,m about Yeravan ben Nevat in his Igeres Teiman, and from the story of Miriam bas Bilgah, at the end of Talmud Sukkah.

[12] Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a