Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bamidbar: The Blessing of Modern Media

This week, Orot conducted its third annual Amadot conference, which focused on the topic of "The World of Communication: Challenges and Objectives."
The introductory panel featured, among others, Rav Yuval Sherlow, a well-known thinker and leading rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community. While many speakers focused on the numerous potential pitfalls that modern media presents, Rav Sherlow also noted some of the advantages and benefits that today's communication tools afford us. I'd like to share some thoughts from his talk through the prism of the Parshah.

During the count of the nation, the Torah lists the count of the Kohanim, beginning with Aharon. Instead of just counting the people present, the Torah also mentions two men who did not make the count:
וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה' בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי ה' בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לָהֶם:
Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they brought a strange fire before Hashem in the Sinai desert, and they had no children. (Bamidbar 3:4)
This raises a very simple question: we already know what happened. We know why and how Aharon's sons died. Why does the Torah need to mention this painful episode yet again? The Midrash explains that through the Torah's description we learn some new information.
וכי במדבר סיני מתו ? אלא מלמד שמהר סיני נטלו אפופסין שלהם למיתה. הה"ד (שמות כד) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו.
Did they die in the Sinai desert? Rather, this teaches us that that from Mount Sinai they were already designated for death, as we read, "And upon the nobles of the Children of Israel He did not extend His hand." (Shemot 24)
According to this Midrash, Datan and Aviram died not because of the strange fire that they offered in the desert. The fire was simply the last straw. They had clearly engaged in some type of inappropriate behavior at Mount Sinai that put them in an extremely precarious position. When the brought the funny fire, Hashem decided that He had had enough, and their punishment ensued.
It's interesting to note that the Torah doesn't pull any punches. We might have thought that it was enough to think that they died because of what happened in the Mishkan. But the Torah believes in full disclosure: we learn of their mistakes; their missteps and their sins, so that we can improve ourselves and avoid their actions and their fate.
This, said Rav Sherlow, is one of the unique benefits that the world of communication affords us. While we must always be careful about violating lashon hara, spreading malicious gossip and rumor, there's a corresponding value as well. The Torah commands us, לא תעמוד על דם רעך – "Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother." The world of communication has the ability to bring to the light of day issues and practices that were once hushed up and pushed under the table.
The media has saved numerous children. It has shielded families, protected students and defended women through television stories, internet blogs and newspapers. Modern media has many problems, but we cannot ignore the benefits that it has also brought to our society.
Even when they're not pleasant, sometimes bringing painful issues out into the open isn't just a right. It's a mitzvah.