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Shelach 5771-2011

Challah–-All Possessions Are From the L-rd”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The primary narrative of this week’s parasha, parashat Shelach, concerns the episode of the scouts (spies) who were sent into the land of Canaan and came back with an evil report. Many aspects of the ten scouts’ tragic lack of faith and the subsequent punishment of the people of Israel are discussed in detail in my previous weekly Torah messages on parashat Shelach.

Toward the end of this week’s parasha, almost hidden away in a series of five brief verses in Numbers 15:17-21, is the fascinating mitzvah of “Challah.” The Torah informs us that when the people of Israel will be brought into the land of Israel, “V’hah’yah ba’achal’chem mee’leh’chem hah’ah’retz, tah’ree’moo t’roo’mah la’Hashem,” When you will eat of the bread of the land, you shall set aside a portion for G-d. Once the kneading process begins and the mixture becomes dough, the commandment goes into effect to separate “Challah,” a segment of the dough that is given to the priest. The details of this ritual, and the rationale behind the practice, are discussed in Shelach 5765-2005 .

One particular aspect concerning the mitzvah of Challah that has not been discussed previously is the question of the placement of the law of Challah in the Torah text, and its juxtaposition in the parasha. One of the most popular questions that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) frequently asks is why a particular Torah portion appears in the Torah before or after another Torah portion. The answer, often based on the Midrash, is frequently intriguing, revealing hidden messages from within the text.

Oddly enough, the portion that follows the laws of Challah in the Torah deals with the question of atonement for public idol worship. So, of course, the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shelach 247) asks, Why do the Torah laws regarding idolatry follow the laws of Challah? The Midrash suggests that it comes to teach that fulfilling the mitzvah of Challah serves as a powerful denial of the efficacy of idolatry.

Commenting on the Midrashic response, the Avnei Azel (attributed to Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, rabbi and Torah commentator in pre-war Warsaw. Author of the popular anthology, Wellsprings of Torah) suggests that those who observe the mitzvah of Challah out of true faith affirm that all that they possess is a gift from Heaven. Such individuals feel obligated to set aside a first portion of their possessions as a sign of gratitude.

Thus, the giving of Challah serves as a stinging rejection of idolatry, and especially a rejection of those who arrogantly proclaim (Deuteronomy 8:17): “My strength, and the might of my hands, have made me this great victory (this great wealth),” which, in effect, is the worst form of idolatry. As the Psalmist writes (Psalms 115:4), “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands,” implying that it is idolatrous for people to regard their silver and gold as the work of their own hands.

When Jews make bread, and set aside the Challah from the dough, it is an affirmation of thanksgiving, underscoring that the dough is a gift of G-d. “I may have worked hard to earn this, ploughing, seeding and harvesting the wheat. But, without G-d’s beneficence, I would have little or nothing. Let me stop right now, before I even taste a morsel of the delicious bread that I am baking, to express my gratitude to the Al-mighty for everything He has given me.”

Not long ago, an intriguing essay circulated, concerning the values of contemporary young people, which stirred up much controversy. The author argued that many of today’s young people are overly narcissistic and self-centered. Using the Yiddish term, “ess kumpt meer,” he argued that many of these young people feel that they have everything coming to them, as if they earned it or deserved it.

This attitude, very much like “Koh’chee v’otzem yah’dee,” My power and the might of my hand have brought me this great wealth, is most destructive, bordering on idolatrous.

Countless young people, who grew up with silver spoons in their mouths, have been rudely awakened by the recent recession, realizing that their resources, and of course their parents’ resources, are now extremely limited, and that their outsized and exorbitant aspirations are hardly sustainable. The adjustment to the new reality is, to say the least, unsettling.

Spring break trips to Acapulco, and luxurious Passover vacations to Arizona, may very well be things of the past. Fancy private colleges are no longer in the cards–-the funds are simply not there.

The reality is that, “ess kumpt meer,” I have it coming to me and I deserve it, is not a realistic way of life. While not everyone’s efforts will be rewarded in the same manner or to the same degree, only those who make the effort can expect to reap rewards and enjoy them. Those who cannot make that adjustment will find, in short order, that their idolatry has failed them.

While many are under the impression that “Challah” is simply the name of the bread we eat on Shabbat, which is of course true, the most important aspect of the mitzvah of Challah is the bread that we do not eat–-the bread that Jews in ancient times would give to the Kohanim, the priests, to eat. Today these morsels of dough are respectfully discarded or burned because they are too holy to be consumed.

The message of Challah is a timeless message. It is a message of frugality and balance that we must learn today, or face the bitter consequences.

It is rather intriguing, that on Shavuot, two Challot were offered on the Temple altar, marking the conclusion of the seasonal wheat harvest. The message of the two loaves is similar to the message of Challah. The harvest is a gift of G-d. He has entrusted it in our hands. Now we must use it properly.

May you be blessed.