I want to be very clear at the beginning. I don’t gamble or even watch horse racing. I have never been to a casino in my life and I think it is an inappropriate place to go.
But, that being said, I have become a fan of the story of a thoroughbred that is capturing the attention of America: the story of California Chrome.
For those of you who have never heard of this horse, California Chrome is the winner of the Kentucky Derby and also the Preakness. If California Chrome wins the Belmont then he will be the first horse in 36 years to win The Triple Crown of horse racing.
There is a Jewish side to this story.
The trainer of California Chrome is a man named Art Sherman. Art Sherman had never trained a Kentucky Derby winner prior to this and at 77 years old, the is the oldest trainer ever to train a Kentucky Derby winner.
Art Sherman is also Jewish, although he never had a bar mitzvah. Last Friday, the day before the Preakness Race, my friend, Effy, who runs a camera surveillance company and lives in Baltimore, heard about Art never having had a bar mitzvah. Effy ran over to the track and brought a pair of Tefillin to the Preakness and lay Tefillin with Art Sherman. If Art is putting on Tefillin with Effy is there any question about who is our horse in the race?
But there is another Jewish aspect to this story. This other aspect says that this horse has a serious and meaningful message for all of us.
For those of you who haven’t heard about California Chrome this is the background story. California Chrome is owned by two families who are both working class folks and had never owned a thoroughbred before they raised California Chrome. They wanted to invest in a horse and had a relatively modest sum at their disposal ($8000) and so they bought the mother of California Chrome, who’s name is Love the Chase. The thing is that Love the Chase’s pedigree is undistinguished. When they decided to buy her they were ridiculed and laughed at. In a sport where people spend enormous amounts of money on pedigree and breeding is considered essential to success, it was considered the height of foolishness to invest in a horse without proper pedigree. The owners of California Chrome were laughed at by so many people for this decision that they called their partnership DAP, short for Dumb --Partnership.
By all measures of pedigree and horse breeding science this horse should not have had a chance. No one should have invested in it. But pedigree can’t measure will power; it can’t measure desire; and it can’t measure love. And so despite its indistinguishable pedigree this horse has performed beautifully.
The message of our parasha is about recognizing the value and the limitations of yichus, lineage.
Parashat Bamidbar is all about the importance of pedigree.
At the start of the portion Moshe is commanded to count the Benei Yisrael for the third time since the Exodus from Egypt. This time, however, the count is done differently.
The pasuk states:
“Va-et kol ha-edah hikhilu ba-echad lachodesh hasheni vayityaldu al mishpechotam le-veit avotam, and they assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers' houses” (1:18).
The phrase vayityaldu al mishpechotam is an unusual phrase and needs elucidation.
Rashi (ad locum) explains that it means: “He’vi-u sifrei yichuseihem; they brought the records of their pedigrees and witnesses of their birth claims, so that each one should trace his genealogy to a tribe.”
Ramban explains that this third census, with its emphasis on pedigree was different. In this third census, each person was required to walk in front of Moshe and declare his pedigree by stating, “I am so and so and I was born from so and so from the tribe of so and so.”
Thus for this census alone we see an emphasis on the Jewish people demonstrating their pedigree through either a formal declaration of their pedigree or else through a book of their family pedigree.
And yet, as much as the text seems to emphasize pedigree, there is another Rashi in the portion that minimizes the importance of pedigree
The Torah states:
“Ve-eleh toldot aharon umoshe, these are the offspring of Aaron and Moshe” (3:1).
But then the Torah goes on to only list the offspring of Aaron, and not those of Moshe.
Rashi (based on Sanhedrin, 19b) explains: “Yet only the sons of Aaron are mentioned. However, they are considered descendants of Moses because he taught them Torah. This teaches us that whoever teaches Torah to the son of his fellow man, Scripture regards it as if he had begotten him.”
So the Torah is telling us that as great as Moshe Rabbeinu was his pedigree was not passed on to his own biological children, bur rather to Aaron’s children.
Real pedigree is not measured through biology and genes but through the spiritual. In the Jewish tradition real pedigree is achieved not through one’s lineage, bur rather through one’s commitment to Torah study.
Even though this Rashi tells us that Aaron’s children received the pedigree from Moshe Rabbenu, there is another passage in the Talmud that tells us that Aaron’s children themselves also lost their pedigree.
The Talmud tractate Yoma tells the following story (71b):
One year as Yom Kippur came to a close, the Kohen Gadol left the Temple surrounded by throngs of people. This was the most glorious and joyous time of the year. We sing about this moment on Yom Kippur to this very day. The Kohen Gadol had just finished representing the people all day with his avodah in the Temple. He had been at the center of everyone’s attention. And his specialness came as a direct result of his pedigree as only a direct male descendant of Aaron is capable of serving in the Temple on Yom Kippur.
And yet, as the Kohen Gadol was surrounded by the people, the people then spotted that the two Torah scholars, Shemaya and Avtalion, were leaving.
Shemaya and Avtalyon did not have the pedigree of the Kohen Gadol. They were not descended from Aaron. They were descendants of converts. They were not descendants of righteous converts, but of the wicked Sancheiriv, King of Assyria.
As soon as the people saw Shemaya and Avtalyon leaving they left the Kohen Gadol and surrounded Shemaya and Avtalyon.
The Kohen Gadol was very insulted. He had the blue blood pedigree. How could the people not appreciate that?
He turned to Shemaya and Avtalyon and said to them in a snarky manner: “Yeytun benei ammamin le-shlam, let the descendants of the nations come in peace.” They responded, “Better should go in peace the descendants of the nations that do the will of Aaron, then should go in peace those descendants of Aaron that do not do the will of Aaron.”
In other words, the message they were giving to the Kohen Gadol is that true pedigree is not about genetics but rather about who incorporates the message of our ancestors. Since Shemaya and Avtalyon were the ones who were truly incorporating the teachings of Aaron into their lives, they were the ones who were his true ancestors.
Just like Moshe’s real children were the children of Aaron who he taught the Torah to, so too, the real descendants of Aaron were not the Kohen Gadol but Shemaya and Avtalyon.
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is the anniversary of the accepting of the Torah on Sinai. The Torah is not a birthright or an inheritance. It is not a yerusha, but a morasha. Not an inheritance, but a heritage.
Shavuot is a holiday where we must be committing ourselves to Torah study and actually engaging in Torah study on the holiday itself. This is why it is a common custom to stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah. We are trying to demonstrate how much we love Torah. Even if a person can’t stay up all night, a person should make an effort to stay up part of the night and study Torah. Each of us should spend extra time on the holiday studying the Torah.
If a person’s celebration of the holiday of Shavuot is just about eating dairy food, then it is a defect. A Shavuot without Torah study is a missed opportunity.
Not only must we commit to study Torah on Shavuot we should also use Shavuot as an opportunity to energize ourselves and commit to studying more Torah on a regular basis. I am so proud that more than ten folks in our shul are now studying the daf yomi. This includes folks from a whole slew of backgrounds.
But each of us has to find an avenue of Torah study that works best for us.
On the Shabbat after Shavuot, we are having a limmud-style Shabbaton where we will be having a whole series of opportunities for folks to study Torah. I want encourage each of us to go all in on Shavuot and commit to studying Torah with an even greater sense of seriousness and commitment both on Shavuot and beyond.
Please don’t say: “I can’t study Torah. I am not a rabbi. I don’t have the background.”
There are two answers to that.
First, the Torah belongs to everyone, not just to a rabbi. The Midrash explains that the Torah was given to us in the desert, with fire and water (from the sky). The Midrash explains that the reason for this is to teach us a symbolic lesson, “mah elu chinam le-kol baei haolam, kakh divrei torah chinam, just like these three elements are free and open to the whole world, so too is the Torah free and available to everyone.”
I recently read an interview with one of my rebbeim, Rav David Bigman. Rav Bigman said the following:
“A young child has the right to make an attempt to interpret the material at hand before learning what Rashi or any of the other great commentators said about a pasuk. We always allow interpretation; nobody is denied access to talmud Torah. And never have my suggestions to a posek, even before I had semikhah, ever been dismissed because I didn’t have the “right” or the “authority” to offer my own answer or suggest my own solution.” http://www.kolhamevaser.com/2012/04/interview-with-rabbi-david-bigman/
So the Torah belongs to all of us. But only if we study it. If we don’t study it then we are losing our heritage and our pedigree.
And what about those who say, “I don’t have the background.” I say to that, “We do have the background.”
Lets look again at the story of California Chrome. Even though this horse had inauspicious parents, if we look a little closer at its pedigree, we notice that its ancestors were remarkable. In fact, two of its ancestors actually won the Kentucky Derby—one in 1964, and one in 1955. Most seasoned breeders thought that such distant ancestry is of limited value, but obviously there was something in its ancestors that was passed down to California Chrome.
Despite what we have just studied—how the Torah is not passed down through an inheritance but through a heritage—we must remember that the Torah does go to great lengths to tell us the lineage of our ancestors.
The reason for this is not to tell us that we have an entitlement to the Torah but to inspire us and remind us that we have a spark of our ancestors inside all of us.
This is the primary value of our yichus. It reminds us that when we go back far enough –for some farther than others, but all of us can go back and find it -- we find that we do have great ancestry. And we all have this ancestry within us. For some it is more latent and for others it is more apparent, but our ancestry is with us in our hearts.
So the story of a horse that almost no one believed in is really a story of Shavuot. It is a reminder that our Torah cannot be acquired through pedigree. The Torah was given to all of us and it must be our job, our mission, and the focus of our commitment. Inside each of us is a connection to the Torah through our ancestry, and as a result, we all have the ability to make the Torah a part of our destiny.
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