Israel Science and Technology Directory

Jewish Studies : Parshat Tzav: For the Haredi community, too little, too late

By J. J. Gross. April 1, 2020

Parshat Tzav: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying …

It is fortuitous yet timely that our Torah portion this week is Parshat Tzav. And not because its content is so riveting or even remotely relevant to our time. After all, the sacrificial rites of the משכן (Tabernacle), and the details of the priestly garments worn by the kohanim are very remote from the Judaism we practice - at least until the Redemption and restoration of the בית המקדש (Temple) in Jerusalem.

Rather what sets this parsha apart is the odd and unique second verse.

Normally when G-d tells Moses to convey a commandment to the Israelites or to Aaron and his sons, the standard phrasing is וידבר י-ה-ו-ה אל משה לאמר / And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, followed by the details of the commandment. Yet here there is a brief interjection after these introductory words, namely צו את אהרן ואת בניו לאמר / Command Aaron and his sons, saying ...

This seems totally superfluous. After all every time G-d speaks to Moses with a request to convey a verbatim message, it is a Divine command that must be carried out precisely as ordered. Why then the addition of צו / TZAV which is the command form and root of the word מצוה (mitzvah)? Surely Aaron and his sons would not question the command, and would execute the order precisely as specified without this interjection?

Rashi convincingly tells us that this peculiarity is meant to convey urgency. That not only must these mitzvahs be performed with precision, but they must commence right here and now - no delays.

So what is the relevance of צו /TZAV, of this demand for alacrity, to our time? Everything.

Two days ago, the greatest living sage of the Lithuanian haredi community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered his followers to shut their synagogues and study halls, to sequester themselves in their homes, and to avoid all social gatherings.

Yet, by the time the sage issued his ruling an estimated one-third or more of his followers - indeed of the entire city of Bnei Brak where he holds court - had already contracted the COVID-19 virus. Israel's hospitals were already overflowing with haredi patients who had been praying together, studying together, celebrating and mourning together, and carousing together at massive wedding parties weeks after such gatherings were made illegal because of the lethal contagion that threatens every man, woman and child.

Indeed the draconian, but absolutely necessary law was a TZAV meant to be obeyed fully and immediately, no exceptions - and that meant haredim too.

Yet the haredi world considered itself an exception, starting with pronouncements that it is only because of the Torah learning in the yeshivas that the world exists in the first place, and that Israel is safer only because of the little boys sitting in the cheders and continuing their lessons.

When police would enter the haredi communities in Jerusalem or Bnei Barak in order to enforce the law, they would be scorned at best, and pelted with stones at worst, as mobs of howling men and women would scream at them and call them "Nazis".

By cavalierly and militantly disobeying the TZAV to avoid all gatherings, haredim contracted the coronavirus en masse, and are now crowding emergency rooms that are staffed by the very people they so revile. For there are precious few doctors in the haredi world, and even fewer nurses. And the funding for Israel's medical services does not come from a community that rarely pays taxes, never serves in the country's defense, and views anyone unlike them as heretics who may be exploited by any means possible.

I do not for a moment believe that the nonagenarian Rabbi Kanievsky is evil. Nor do I think that he intentionally mislead his flock. Quite the contrary. I believe the sage was ill-informed and made his initial pronouncements - if he even made them - based on fragmentary and manipulative bits of information fed to him by a close coterie of fanatics who routinely put words into his mouth and then spread these deliberate distortions as "das Torah", the infallible utterances of the sage.

Every day I receive messages from a haredi charitable organization - on Facebook no less - purportedly quoting Rabbi Kanievsky. These fundraising appeals tell me, repeatedly, that Rabbi Kanievsky has declared "anyone contributing a significant amount - which has been determined to be $900 - will be spared from illness and misfortune". That's right; according to these diabolical messages, Rabbi Kanievsky will protect anyone shelling out $900. The implication, of course, is that anyone who does not fork over that "significant amount - which has been determined to be $900" is on their own.

Now, not for a moment do I believe Rabbi Kanievsky said anything of the sort. Nor do I believe that he is aware of this horrible attempt at spiritual blackmail being perpetrated in his name - a blackmail that is defrauding innocent people of money they do not have.

How does this happen? All one needs to do is watch videos of these askanim (community busybodies) feeding carefully edited words to Rabbi Kanievsky to which he may grunt a monosyllabic response. They then construe this to mean he has signed off on what they intend to publish, and everything their devious words imply.

It is doubtful that Rabbi Kanievsky reads newspapers, or listens to radio, or watches the news on TV. Any information he gets is carefully screened, edited and filtered in order to manipulate him to give a response that suits the agenda of his feeders. Surely, had he known just how dangerous COVID-19 is, and had he been made aware of the TZAV outlawing any public gatherings, he would have issued his own directive weeks ago.

Tragically, Rabbi Kanievsky only got the word once a third of his followers had been infected by the virus, and the shmoneh shratzim (the proverbial eight rodents who hover around a sage) were left with no choice but to share the truth with him.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky may well be a tzaddik. After all he has never been known to be more than three inches from an open Gemara, and has lead a life free of blemish. But saintliness and wisdom are two separate things. And there are certain decisions - certain TZAVs - that are best made by experts rather than saints.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe - who did read the newspapers and was inordinately well-informed about everything - nevertheless was a great believer in deferring to "mumchim", authoritative experts. This was part of his greatness. He lacked all hubris, and knew not to depend on half-baked and self-serving sycophants to feed him decisions. There were no shmoneh shratzim crowded around Rebbe.

In the Lithuanian haredi world, gerontocracy rules. The oldest rabbi alive is ipso facto the greatest rabbi. Well, perhaps he is the greatest saint, but this does not make his the greatest authority on practical, everyday matters. Even משה רבנו - Moses - was removed from the scene when G-d determined that he was no longer the right person to lead.

It is especially aggravating the way these ancient sages are exploited, manipulated and misrepresented. It's bad enough when they are being used simply to pilfer funds from naive people. But when they are being prevented from endorsing a clear TZAV - one that brooks no delay - until it is too late and people are literally dying, they become unwitting accessories to murder. It is time to put a stop to his human idolatry, and choose younger, more worldly leaders. They need not be saints.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.