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Shades of Gray

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

Some things in life are clearly bad, like idolatry. Some things in life are clearly good, like feeding the poor. In Numbers 19:2, the words "chukat hatorah" are used, meaning "decrees of the Torah." The word for decree, "chok" is related to the word meaning "to carve out of stone." Since the Almighty is eternal and perfect, His decrees are "written in stone."

Life, on the other hand, and the finite world He made, is not carved or simple. It is often complex. And some things, oddly, are a curious mixture of good and bad, light and darkness. This can cause us confusion.

The ultimate truth (which we are not privy to at this stage) is that everything is eventually good. All events and things come from the Infinite Being and are therefore by definition good. But we don't live in that realm. We live in a realm where we must choose between good and evil. We must try to define our situations in order to act in accordance with God's will, or the greatest good.

Like the yin yang symbol, there is often a little bit of light in the darkness, and a little bit of darkness in the light.

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Sometimes an otherwise righteous person does a transgression, thinking it is a mitzvah. In the beginning of the first book of Samuel, when Penina and Chana were together, Penina would purposely make Chana feel bad about not having any children. Why would a righteous person who had been blessed with children of her own act this way?

Her true intention was altruistic - to cause Chana's prayers to be more heartfelt and tearful, knowing that this would cause more impact in Heaven.

In the Purim story, Esther was chosen to be queen and forced into the situation of sleeping with the non-Jewish king Achashverosh, a transgression. However, since it was against her will, she was not held responsible. Later, when faced with Haman's evil decree to wipe out the Jews, Esther asked for an audience with Achashverosh, to get him to rescind the decree. And she knew that by going in to see the king, she was going to have to sleep with him. At that point she was willingly doing a transgression. But, as opposed to Penina, Esther was somehow justified in doing the transgression, since the outcome of saving the entire nation was at stake.

Similarly, two brothers of Dinah, Simeon and Levi, avenged her disgrace by killing the city of perpetrators (Genesis, chapter 34). Jacob was outraged at their behavior, yet they are the only ones referred to as Dinah's brothers, even though she had many more. This indicates that although their act was a transgression, their motivation was holy and correct.

All three cases are a mixture of right and wrong. But the Sages' assessment is as follows: Peninah was clearly wrong. Esther was clearly right. Dinah's brothers were a curious mixture of right and wrong.

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Before the first transgression of Adam, the world was a very different place. Mankind was pure and holy, and temptation was really an external drive. The fruit that Adam and Eve ate was not merely the symbol of temptation, it was temptation itself. Kabbalah teaches that when that fruit was ingested by primordial man, humanity became tainted. Humanity became a mixture of light and dark, causing all future decisions and temptations to become less clear.

Yet with the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the Exodus from Egypt, things became clear once again to a certain extent. Light and dark took separate places, and spiritual choices were easier to make -- until the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion when things went into a new level of light and dark -- i.e. gray. Our present time period contains so much confusion and mixture that it's extremely difficult for people to make the right decisions.

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And that is precisely what makes us great: When you live in a world of confusion and you are still able to make the right choices. When you have 357 channels on your TV, but you still turn it off to study wisdom. Abraham didn't have that test. Isaac didn't have the test of video games. Jacob didn't have Blockbuster.

Although we want to get as close to God as we can, our distance is what gives us a chance of meriting to see the ingathering of the exiles and coming of Moshiach.

When you live in a generation far from spirituality, every correct decision you make means so much more.

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Spiritual Exercise:

Think of one mitzvah that you do, yet contains a tiny bit of "wrong" in it. Try to remove that little bit of wrong.

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