Archive | June, 2013

Commentary for Pinchas

28 Jun

One thing we learn quickly in today’s society is that every rule has exceptions. As we get older, we realize that the exceptions are often much more interesting than the rules themselves, and have a lot to teach us. This week’s parshah begins in the middle of the story of Pinchas, which started at the very end of last week’s parshah. Many Israelites had started worshipping a foreign god called Baal-peor, and an Israelite leader, Zimri, and a Midianite woman, Cozbi, were so brazen that they went in front of the assembled Israelite nation, walked into the Tent of Meeting and went to worship Baal-peor. Pinchas, in an act of zeal, grabbed a spear and stabbed the two of them through the chest. This act scared the remaining Israelites enough that it caused them to turn back to God when even a God-sent plague could not make them forsake their foreign worship.
This week’s parshah immediately picks up where last week’s left off, with “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them My zeal in his own his zeal; thus I did not wipe out the Israelites in My zeal. Therefore say “I am giving him My covenant of shalom (Num. 25: 10-12).”
Under normal circumstances, if any letter in a Torah is found to be even partially scratched off or improperly formed, the entire Torah scroll is rendered unusable until the letter is fixed. The one exception to this rule is the letter vav in the word “shalom” in verse 12. If the stem of this letter does not have a small line scratched off it at least part of the way through, the scroll is rendered unusable. In this, there is yet another exception to a rule: Torahs must be written with a quill of feather from a kosher bird. No metal instruments may be used at all… except for here, where the scratching off of the letter must be done with a metal implement. This prohibition against using metal implements reflects instructions given to the Israelites in Exodus 20:22, prohibiting the use of iron tools in the construction of altars, derived from the fact that the word used for iron tools is “cherbecha,” which can also be translated as “swords.” Iron is used for making blades for killing (such as the spear that Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi with), and as a result, it is not fit to be used to construct an altar to God or to write a holy object like a Torah.
If we ignore the broken vav from “shalom,” we get the word “shalem” meaning complete, which is the lingual route of the word “shalom.” We learn from this that although much good came from Pinchas’ act of violence and God gave him a covenant of peace, a true, lasting, complete peace cannot be brought about through acts of violence.

Commentary on Balak

21 Jun

The Jewish calendar and the cycle of the Torah readings are often connected.  Some weeks, the connection is easy to find, such as the story of Noah, which shows us the danger of having too much rain, which is almost always read on the Shabbat directly proceeding the 7th of Cheshvan, when the prayer for rain is added into the weekday Amidah.  Other weeks, such as this week, we need to look a little bit deeper.

This week’s parshah, Balak, is always read on the Shabbat preceding the minor fast day of the 17th of Tammuz (this Tuesday from sunrise until sunset), which marks the beginning of the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the major fast of Tisha B’Av.  This time (and these two days, in particular) are considered to be days of historical misfortune for the Jewish people, and many Jews commemorate this by doing things traditionally associated with mourning, such as not shaving or cutting their hair, not going on long trips, and not scheduling weddings or Bnei Mitzvah during the Three Weeks.

Tradition tells us that this, and many of the other tragedies of the days were, were divine punishments from God for the misdeeds of the Israelites, both physical and spiritual.  Two of the five events listed in the Gemarah as having occurred on the 17th of Tammuz are the cessation of the daily tamid offering, and the placing of an idol in the Holy Temple.  This forsaking of God and the worshiping of a false god is also found in the end of this week’s parshah, when the Israelites, many of whom have started to have illicit relationships with foreign women, start to forsake God in favor of the Canaanite god Baal-peor.  Incensed, God strikes the Israelites with a terrible plague, but still the Israelites do not turn back to God.  One Israelite, Zimri, is so brazen that he and his Midianite paramour go out into in front of the assembled congregation and into the Tent of Meeting in order to excrete (an act which was both disrespectful to God and was the way people worshiped Baal-peor).  Unable, to stand this affront to God, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas takes a stand against this illicit behavior by stabbing them both with a spear.  Scared and awed by this display of zeal, the people cease worshiping Baal-peor and having illicit relationships with Canaanites, and the plague, which had killed 24,000 people, ceases.

While these upcoming three weeks are a time of sadness, the seven after them, between Tisha B’Av and the High Holidays, are a time of consolation. As we head into this part of the year which is so marked by sadness it is important to remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the sadness of the many tragedies that have befallen our people during this time, tradition teaches us that Tisha B’Av, the culmination of these three weeks and the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, will eventually become a day of happiness on which construction of the new Holy Temple in Jerusalem will begin.  No matter how dark things look, if we turn to God, we are never truly alone.

Commentary on Hukkat

14 Jun

This week, it finally happens: Moses loses his cool.  He has had to deal with a disastrous military defeat at Hormah, the rebellion of Korach and his followers, the incessant whining and complaining of the Israelites, and now the death of his sister Miriam.  Tradition tells us God gave the Israelites one gift for survival on the merit of their three leaders.  On the merit of Moses, God gave them the mana to eat.  On the merit of Aaron, God gave them the pillar of cloud to guide them on their journey, and on the merit of Miriam, God gave them Miriam’s Well, which would follow them around, providing an abundant supply of water in the unforgiving desert.

Now that Miriam has died, the well has disappeared, and the people immediately start complaining about the lack of water.  God commands Moses and Aaron to assemble the people and speak to a rock, which will cause water to flow from that rock.  Moses and Aaron assemble the congregation, and Moses berates the people.  He says “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” and then, rather than talk to the rock as God had proscribed, Moses strikes the rock with his staff.  Water flows from the rock anyway, but Moses is punished for disobeying God’s orders by being prohibited from entering the Promised Land.

The Rabbis have often debated why it is that Moses disobeyed God and hit the rock rather than speaking to it.  Based on everything Moses has been going through, it certainly seems possible that he did it out of frustration, but based on both Moses’ diatribe towards the Israelites and the harshness of his punishment, it seems possible that Moses disobeyed God because he did not want the Israelites to have water just yet.  He wanted them to first grieve for his sister as the spiritual leader she was, rather than treat her as just a source of water.

From Moses’ point of view, which we often take, we can see why he would feel this way, but a good leader and judge needs to put aside his or her own feelings and see things from all points of view.  For the Israelites, suddenly being cut off from their main source of water in the middle of the desert was a life-threatening concern.  In his personal grief, Moses lost sight of the basic needs of others and reacted harshly, and thus he was punished by God.  Moses does seem to eventually learn his lesson, as the midrash states that God returned the gifts of Aaron and Miriam, the guiding pillar of cloud and the well, on the merit of Moses alone.  (The Israelites seem to learn their lesson, too, as they mourn for Aaron for thirty days after his death later in this parshah).

Commentary on Korach

12 Jun

Just got saddled with temporarily doing the parshah commentary in my shul’s weekly bulletin, so I figured I’d repost it here.  Not off to a good start, though, as I just realized I forgot to post last week’s:


Throughout the Biblical narrative the Israelites seem very prone to losing their faith in God.  Just five days after Pharaoh tells them to leave Egypt, the vast majority of them lose their faith in God.  God responds by splitting the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land and drowning the might Egyptian army when it tries to follow.  A mere three days after that, and they have already lost their faith again.   Less than three months later, less than forty days after the Revelation at Sinai, they build the Golden Calf.  In last week’s parshah, they doubt God’s ability to help them conquer the Promised Land. Throughout all of these instances, one thing has remained constant: Moses’ faith in God.


In this week’s parshah, however, Moses seems to lose his faith in God’s divine will.   Korach foments a rebellion, challenging the leadership of God’s appointed spokesmen, Moses and Aaron.  A contest is set up between them.  Korach and his followers will all offer incense to G-d, and Moses and Aaron will do the same.  God will then send them a sign to show whose offering God accepts, and that person will be the leader of the community.


That night, Moses prays to God, saying, “Pay no regard to their oblation.  I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them (Num 16:15).”  Surely if Moses were the man of perfect faith he seems to be throughout the rest of the Torah, from the time that he accepts his mission until the day of his death, he would have faith that whoever God would choose the next day, whether it was him, Aaron, Korach, or someone else entirely, would be God’s appointed leader.  If God decides that it is time for a change in leadership, shouldn’t someone with such great faith in God accept that?


The truth is that even Moses, whom the Torah describes upon his death as having as close of a relationship to God as any human ever can, is still human.  We are all flawed.  The important thing is to work on our flaws; to not let them get in the way of achieving the most we can achieve, just as Moses did.  Never again did Moses’ faith in God waver, even until the day of his death.