Archive | June, 2014

Commentary for Chukat

30 Jun

Throughout the Torah so far, the Israelites have earned quite the reputation as an ungrateful lot of complainers. After seeing all of the plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let them go, they immediately start complaining that God brought them into the desert to die when the Egyptian army starts to give chase. After God saves them with yet another miracle at the Red Sea, they start to complain about not having any water. Once God fixes that problem, they complain about not having any food, as if God would take them this far and provide them with water, but not provide them with food. This pattern of complaining would continue until the incident with the spies, in which God finally got fed up with the Israelites doubting God’s intentions and capability to fulfill them, and condemned the entire generation to die in the wilderness. That incident was a mere two weeks ago, and yet, in this week’s parshah the Israelites are at it again.

After the kingdom of Arad attacks the Israelites, the Israelites pray to God to help them defeat Arad, and God delivers Arad into their hands. Just a short journey later, and the Israelites are at it again. “Why did you make us leave Egypt just to die in the desert because there is no bread and no water and we loathe this miserable bread (Num. 21:5).” It takes a lot of chutzpah to complain that you don’t have any bread while in the very same sentence acknowledging that there is bread in the middle of the desert, and you just don’t like it. God reacts to this by sending poisonous snakes into the Israelite camp, and killing many Israelites.

The Israelites then went to Moses and said “we sinned by speaking against God and against you. Please pray to God to make the serpents leave us alone (Num. 21:7).” Moses does so, and God proscribes a cure. God orders Moses to make a fiery serpent and mount it on a pole, and anyone who was bitten by a snake could come look at it and be cured.   The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 3:8) explains that when the people would look up at it, they would think of God. If they turned their hearts back towards God, they would be healed, and if they didn’t, they would die of the snakebite. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch posits that the serpent reminded them of how dangerous their journey through the desert was, and how much they depended on God for protection and sustenance.

It is interesting to note that in last week’s parshah, after God caused the ground to swallow up Korach and his cohorts when they rebelled, the Israelites actually ascribed this clearly supernatural act to Moses and Aaron instead of God, and for this, God sent a plague upon them. In this week’s parshah, they recognize that it is God who is punishing them, and that it is God who has supreme power over everything. After this incident, the Israelites never complained about their troubles in the wilderness again.

Commentary for Korach

23 Jun

This week’s parshah tells the story of the rebellion of Korach. Many commentators have characterized Korach’s rebellion as one based on jealousy and dissatisfaction with the hierarchy God commanded Moses to put in place. Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, had no problem not being the top banana. Moses and Aaron’s father was his father’s older brother, so he felt it was natural that the top two positions should go to them. What he was unhappy about was that Moses had appointed their cousin Elitzaphan, son of their father’s youngest brother, as the leader of the Levites instead of Korach, who was the oldest son of the second oldest brother, and thus should be third in line after Moses and Aaron. This is supported by the Torah’s identification of Korach in the beginning of this story as “Korach, son of Itzhar son of Kehat son of Levi,” with Jacob’s name being left off the list, as compared to I Chronicles 6:18-23, where the genealogy of Heman the Singer is traced all the way back through Korach to Jacob. For this story, we are given all of the relevant genealogical information about Korach, and nothing more, even though the omitted information is well known.

Unlike the many other internal troubles the Israelites faced in the desert, Korach’s rebellion is not a challenge to God, but to Moses and Aaron. He gathered a group of followers, all of whom were distinguished members of the community, and challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying “the entire community is holy, for God dwells in our midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the community of God? (Num. 16:3).” Moses’ response in 16:5 (“Come morning, the God will make known who is God’s and who is holy, and whom He will bring close to Himself, and the one who he chooses, He will bring close to Himself”) makes clear what Korach’s true challenge is: ‘If we are all God’s people and we all heard God at Mount Sinai, why, all of sudden, did God start giving laws only through you?’

Midrash Rabbah expands on this idea, saying that Korach tried to prove that the laws Moses had given them could not have possibly come from God because they were illogical. Korach and his followers ask Moses if a four-cornered garment is made entirely of blue material, does it need to have tzitzit with a blue fringe? Moses told them that it does. Korach and his followers laughed at Moses, asking how it makes any sense that a four-corned garment made entirely of blue thread still needs tzitzit with a blue thread to fulfill the mitzvah, but a four-cornered garment of any other combination of colors fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzit by just having one thread of blue in its fringes.

They then asked Moses another question: If a house is full of Torahs, does it need to have a mezuzah on the doorpost? Moses replied that it does, and once again Korach and his followers laughed, asking how it is that any random house fulfills a mitzvah by having just the few paragraphs of Torah contained in the mezuzah, but a house full of scrolls of the entire Torah would still need a mezuzah on its doorpost.

For all of his purported logic, Korach and his followers fail to grasp that the mitzvot are not just actions, but also thoughts behind those actions. While an entire building full of Torah scrolls might help increase your feeling of closeness to God while you are in that building, once you leave that building, you cannot take those Torah scrolls with you, and as time and distance pass, the urge to stray becomes greater. A mezuzah, though, placed on the doorpost to kiss as you both enter and exit the house, serves as a reminder to walk in God’s ways both within that house and as “as you travel on your path (Deut 6:7).” Similarly, tzitzit are worn so that wherever we are, if we are tempted to stray, we can “look upon it, and remember all of The Lord’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow the desires of your hearts and your eyes that you lust over (Num 15:39).” We are the lone fringe of blue of in a world of other colors. What those around us are doing is not important. We are required to act according to God’s standards. In the world of Korach’s entirely blue garment, we are just one fringe of blue among a myriad of identical fringes, encouraged to act in accordance with the group of those around us, no matter what they are doing.

It is this same wisdom that Korach did not grasp that many of his followers could have used. The other ringleaders of Korach’s rebellion, On son of Pelet and Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, had no real reason to support Korach’s claim, and they had no any claim of their own. They were just neighbors of Korach’s from the tribe of Reuven who got swept up in Korach’s rabblerousing and convinced many of their neighbors to do the same, just for the sake of stirring up trouble. Had they been able to remind themselves that they needed to live up to God’s standards of behavior (as On son of Pelet did), they would not have joined in Korach’s rebellion and met the gruesome end that they did.

Commentary for Shlach Lecha

13 Jun

This week’s parshah deals with the theme of sin and punishment. It starts off with the story of the spies, who are sent out to scout the Promised Land. When they return, the spies tell of the beauty of the land and the abundance of food, but all but two of them also report that the inhabitants are so strong that it would be impossible to defeat them. This report spreads through the Israelite camp like wildfire, and soon the people rallied against Moses, Aaron and God, demanding to know why they had been led out of Egypt only to face an impossible task. Angry with this lack of faith, God declares that the Israelites shall wander in the desert until this entire generation that has repeatedly shown a lack of faith in God’s awesome might despite the evidence before them, has died out. Their children will live to see the Promised Land, but they shall not. Only Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who argued that God’s might could easily deliver their enemies into their hands, would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

The next day, a group of Israelites came to Moses, insisting that they now believed in God’s omnipotence and were ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses ordered them not to do so, warning them that they would not succeed in their attempt to escape God’s decree. The people persisted anyway, and they were soundly defeated, just as they had originally believed would be the case when they doubted God’s power.

In the second half of chapter fifteen, the Torah gives a list of the proscribed sin offerings for various situations. In a case where the entire community has sinned inadvertently, the High Priest offers the sacrifice on behalf of the entire community. If an individual sins inadvertently, he or she brings a sacrifice to the temple, where a priest offers the sacrifice for him or her. If an individual brazenly commits an act of heresy, however, there is no offering to be given. Such a person, who has rejected God’s laws, is to be cut of from God’s people, and forfeits his or her place in the World to Come.

Through these stories, the Torah teaches that we are all responsible for our own actions, and will be held accountable for them. The Israelites who, despite all that they had seen, regularly doubted God’s omnipotence, were punished, while Joshua and Caleb, who never lost their faith and argued for God’s cause, were not punished. If a sin is committed on behalf of the community, the entire community is responsible to help make atonement. An individual that sins, even by accident, is required to make a sin offering, and anyone who knowingly and brazenly commits heresy will be punished severely.

The Torah then follows this up with a brief story about a man who was caught desecrating Shabbat. He was out on trial in front of the whole community, and found guilty. He was then detained while Moses asked God what the proper punishment should be, and God decrees that the whole community should stone the man to death.

The Rabbis determine from the seemingly extraneous word establishing that this event happened “in the wilderness” that this event took place on the second Shabbat after the giving of the Torah. The first Shabbat had gone perfectly, but now, just fourteen days after the Torah had been given, someone was already desecrating Shabbat! The Torah makes certain to mention that this man was tried by “the whole community” and the sentence was carried out by “the whole community.” This story is included here to teach us that being responsible for our own actions does not just mean that we must avoid sinning, but that we are all responsible for helping to create an atmosphere for our society in which sin is heavily discouraged.

Commentary for Beha’alot’cha

6 Jun

The first two thirds of chapter nine of this week’s parshah contain an important but often overlooked story in the Torah. The Israelites are getting ready to offer their first Passover sacrifice after leaving Egypt. A small group of them, however, find themselves unable to offer the sacrifice because they have recently become impure via contact with a corpse. They go up to Moses and Aaron and ask what they should do. Moses says he will go ask God, and God responds by having Moses establish a date a month later on which those who are impure (and in later times, too far away from the Temple) on the eve of Passover may offer their paschal sacrifices.


We often look for ways to avoid our responsibilities, and will take any excuse we can find to shirk them. Instead, these men came to Moses and Aaron and expressed their desire to fulfill this obligation even though circumstances rendered them unable to do so. Rather than falling back on an easy excuse for why they couldn’t do something, they asked to know what they could do.


Throughout their time in the desert, the Israelites have developed a reputation for complaining, but here we have a much-overlooked example of people trying to find a solution to a problem. This sort of positive attitude is just as important in this day and age as it was back then. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us in Pirkei Avot 2:21 “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to neglect your duty.” You might only be able to do part of the job, but if you can find a few other people who can also commit to do part of it, the necessary job will get done. You might not be able to help make a minyan every week, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come help make the minyan on the weeks that you can. No one person can do everything, but all of us together can do anything.

Commentary for Shavuot

3 Jun

Judaism has many holidays. Some are happy, some are sad, and some are more widely observed than others, but they are all important. To mark the importance of these days, we observe them by doing special things to make them different than any other day of the year. On some of them we eat special foods and on others we don’t eat or drink anything at all. On some we observe the prohibition against doing melachah (creative or destructive work) while on others we celebrate by doing things that are melachah, such as lighting candles. On all of them, though, we make additions and subtractions to our standard prayer services to better fit the special day.

We use special holiday tunes, add in the musaf service, the Hallel (if it is a joyful holiday), and other special prayers and readings as is necessary. Most of the special readings that we add in take the form of the Torah reading, haftarah, and megillah reading. The connection between the holiday in question and these addition prayers and readings is often very straightforward and simple to discern. One of the rare times where this is not the case is most of the readings for Shavuot.

Both days of Shavuot have their own Torah readings and haftarahs. In addition to this, each day also has its own special poem in Aramaic, inserted immediately before the Torah reading begins on the first day, and after the first verse of the haftarah on the second day, and we also read Megillat Ruth after Hallel on the second day. The connection between Shavuot and the Torah readings is easy enough to see: Day one is the giving of the Torah and day two includes various laws of the sacrifices for the three pilgrimage holidays, of which Shavuot is one. The two haftarahs, the two poems, and Megillat Ruth, on the other hand, seem to be entirely unrelated to Shavuot.

The haftarah for the first day is one of the strangest passages in the entire Bible. It describes the prophet Ezekiel first receiving God’s calling, and records his vision of strange one-legged creatures with a calf’s hoof for a foot and a different face (some human, some animal) on each side of their heads and one wing on each side of their bodies, and some sort of strange spinning wheels next to them. Really weird stuff.

The poem for the first day, called Akdamut Milin, is similarly strange. It combines the straightforward, almost standard praising of God with grandiose imagery, to the point where its rhyming couplets are so complex that even the most experience Aramaic speaker will likely trip over the words. It also continues on and on and on to the point where it almost starts to get boring, until it starts talking about a fight between a giant ox and a leviathan, both of which wind up easily slaughtered by God’s awesome might.

In stark contrast to these is the haftarah for the second day, a praising of and declaration of faith in God, and its accompanying Aramaic poem, Yetziv Pitgam, which seems to be a standard prayer formula of praising God, followed by a request for protection and sustenance. Both feel very generic, and could easily fit in as readings for any time of the year, and seem to have no real particular connection to Shavuot at all. Providing a further contrast to these readings is Megillat Ruth, a very human story of love, generosity, and kindness.

When their content is contrasted to each other’s, these readings seem to have little in common, and even less in common with Shavuot, but if we instead focus on the character of the special readings for Shavuot, a pattern starts to emerge.

The haftarah for the first day of Shavuot is a mystical encounter with God so strange that it seems almost impossible to comprehend. Akdamut Milin takes a seemingly simple concept such as praising God and expands upon it to the point where this simple concept becomes hard to follow. The Torah reading for the first day, sandwiched between those two, combines the mystical atmosphere with the Ten Commandments, laws that are simple and easily understood on their surface, but also have much depth to them. The haftarah for the second day seems like straightforward praise of God, but is not as straightforward as it seems, because within this praise it also contains many veiled references to events in Jewish history, for those who are willing to look to find them. Yetziv Pitgam, on the other hand, is exactly the straightforward prayer it seems to be, and the Torah reading for the second day is simple procedurals for observing the holidays with some equally simple explanations thrown in, while the maftir reading instructs us which sacrifices to offer on Shavuot with no explanation at all. Ruth is simply a narrative, and provides a human element, teaching us which traits God desires us to emulate. Every passage in the Torah falls into one of these categories, and on Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate receiving the Torah, we read one of each.