Archive | July, 2014

Commentary for Masei

25 Jul

This week’s parshah is best know for its listing of the places the Israelites have travelled to and camped in from the time they left Egypt until they reached their current location on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River, about to cross into the Promised Land. Strangely, this section, a long list of places the Israelites have been, written in the form “they set out from Here and they encamped There,” with very short references to stories that we have already read thrown in occasionally, is read with a special cantillation reminiscent of the special cantillation used for the Song of the Sea. Why should a dry list of places the Israelites have camped be infused the same special joy as a moment of spontaneous thanksgiving and rejoicing at the salvation of our entire nation?


Looking to this week’s Haftarah, we find a very different tone. This Hafatarah, the second of the three Haftarahs of admonition before Tisha B’Av, is the beginning of the prophet Jeremiah’s rebuke of the Israelites. “Thus said the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in Me that they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded. They never asked themselves ‘where is the Lord, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, a land of deserts and pits, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt (Jer. 2:5 – 6)?’” Although it may seem dull and humdrum, when viewed in the terms Jeremiah puts it in, the Israelites journey through the desert is absolutely miraculous, and fully deserving of the celebratory cantillation of the Song of the Sea.


In our society we often find ourselves looking at the world with a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude, and this often carries over to our view of religion as well.   From this parshah we learn that it is important to remember all of the things that seem small and routine that are, in and of themselves, miraculous. Even the seemingly simple fact that our bodies’ function is miraculous when you think about just how complex an organism a human being is. Just like the cantillation in this week’s parshah does for the list of the Israelites journeys, we can take every little miracle and use it to fill our lives with joy.


Commentary for Mattot

21 Jul

In this week’s parshah the Children of Israel go to war with the Midianites. Moses instructed each tribe to choose only one thousand men to send into battle. Although this put the Israelites at a major disadvantage against the much larger Midianite force, the Israelites had God on their side, and not only did they win the battle, but as they later report to Moses, they did not suffer even a single casualty (Num. 31:49).

The Israelite forces return victorious, bringing with them all manner of spoils of war. Moses, Elazar the priest, and the elders rush out of the camp to welcome them home, but things do not go smoothly. Moses immediately becomes very angry with them for disobeying his orders by bringing adult female captives. He reminds them that it was Midianite women who came into the Israelite camp and induced the Israelites to start worshipping the idol Baal-peor, which was the most successful of a number of Midianite attempts to reek spiritual havoc within the Israelite camp, which was the very reason for the start of the war that these very soldiers had just gone off to fight!   Moses makes it clear to them that no adult Midianite woman can be allowed to enter the Israelite camp.

Aside from human captives, the Israelite army has brought many other spoils with them, including livestock, jewelry, cloths, and cooking utensils. About these utensils Elazar tells the people that they will need to kasher them before using them because they have been used for unkosher food. He tells them that “any article which can withstand fire- these you shall pass through fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration (a mikveh, according to the Gemara); and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water (Num 31:23).” In order to remove an impurity, you must put in at least an equal degree of work to that which went in to creating the impurity. This same concept can be applied to the idea of sin. The first step to repentance is to show true remorse for the sin committed.

Rashi reads 31:23 as saying that the passing through fire or water is an initial phase, and that everything must be purified in a mikveh afterwards. A mikveh is a place where people go to dedicate and rededicate themselves to God. When we seek to rededicate ourselves to a life of holiness after sinning, it is not enough to simply regret our sins. We must take steps to help ourselves avoid making the same mistakes in the future. God protected the Israelites in their war with Midian, but the Israelites were also responsible for protecting themselves and ensuring that they lived holy lives.

Commentary for Pinchas

14 Jul

The book of Numbers started out with God ordering Moses to take a census of all the Israelites of military age who were able to bear arms. Then jobs were assigned to the priests and the Levites, and the leaders of the tribes all gave initial offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle. The Israelites were ready to march on the Promised Land.

It didn’t happen, though.

The Israelites doubted God’s ability to deliver the powerful Canaanite nations into their hands, and they rebelled. After countless rebellions and doubts of both God’s power and intention to take care of them, this was the final straw for God. The entire generation (aside from Joshua and Caleb) was sentenced to die in the desert as punishment, with only their children seeing the Promised Land.

Over the next thirty-nine years, the Israelites (both the generation of the Exodus and their children) were anything but model citizens. Immediately after hearing their punishment, some of them claimed that they were once again pious and deserved to enter the Promised Land. Against Moses’ orders, they set out to do so, and were slaughtered by the Canaanites and Amalakites at Hormah.

Then many of them joined in Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God sent signs to show that Moses and Aaron were the chosen leaders of the community and caused the ground to open up and swallow Korach and his followers, the Israelites rebelled once again, blaming the deaths of Korach and his followers on Moses and Aaron. For ignoring such a clear and obvious act of God, God sent a plague upon them. After the plague abated and the Israelites repented, things went smoothly for a time until the Israelites once again doubted God’s ability to provide for them. For this God sent poisonous snakes after them, and the Israelites eventually repented.

In addition to this, the Israelites have also recently lost two of their leaders, Miriam and Aaron, and with them, the miraculous gifts God provided on their merit. On behalf of Miriam they had had a travelling well, providing them with easy access to water in the middle of the desert, and for Aaron God had granted them the ananei hakavod, pillars of cloud that surrounded them on all sides and served to both protect and guide them. Upon hearing of the loss of the ananei hakavod, other nations took this as a sign that the Israelites were no longer under God’s protection and immediately sought to make war with them (Ta’anit 9a), leading the Israelites into a string of unwanted wars.

Finally, at the end of last week’s parshah, many Israelites abandoned God in favor of worshipping the idol Baal-peor, and are punished for it with another plague. When even that does not deter the Israelites, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas takes matters into his own hands and stabs and Israelite and a Midianite while they are engaged in publicly desecrating the Tent of Meeting. Finally the Israelites turn back to God, and the plague ends.

In this week’s parshah, God again commands Moses to take a census of all the able-bodied men of military age in the community, once again preparing the people to march into the Promised Land. Despite all of the ups and down of their relationship, all of the times the Israelites turned away, God did not abandon them. When the fortieth year came, God’s promise to the Israelites and their forefathers was fulfilled. Sometimes in our lives, we feel distant from God. We feel that God has turned away from us, or that we have turned away from God. In these times it is important to remember that God does not abandon, just as God never abandoned our forefathers. “God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:19).” “For God will not cast off God’s people, nor will God forsake God’s heritage (Ps. 94:14).”   “God, being merciful, forgives iniquity and does not destroy; time and again God restrains God’s wrath and does not arouse all of God’s rage (Ps. 78:38).” “God delivers; the King will answer us when we call (Ps. 20:10).”

Commentary for Balak

4 Jul

In chapter twenty-one of Numbers (read in last week’s parshah), we learn about three wars that the Israelites fought during their journey to the Promised Land. The first is the war with the nation of Arad, who heard that the Israelites were coming their way, and so they attacked them, taking hostages. The Israelites prayed to God to deliver Arad into their hands, vowing to forgo the loot that normally would have been their pay. God answered their prayers, and the Israelites held up their end of the bargain as well (Num. 21:1-3).

Then the Israelites came upon the border of the nation of Emor. “Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites, saying: ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory (Num. 21:21-22).” Rather than accept the Israelites’ offer of peaceful transit and vow not to use any of Emor’s resources, Sichon decided to attack them instead. The two nations fought, and in the end, the Israelites were victorious, and camped themselves in the Amorite cities while they recovered. (Num. 21:23-32).

After that, as the Israelites marched on, they were confronted by the army of Og, King of Bashan, but God delivered them into the Israelites’ hands, and the Israelites took possession of Og’s land as well (Num. 21:33-35).

This week’s parshah starts out with the making of another conflict: “Balak, son of Tzipor (King of Moab), saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous, and Moab dreaded the Israelites. Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field (Num. 22:2-4).” To try to give his nation an edge in a war he believes is coming, he hires the wizard Balaam to curse the Israelites.

The way we interact with the world around us is influenced by our perception of that world. If our own perceptions do not match up with the reality, this can often lead to making mistakes. In this week’s parshah, Balak makes two major mistakes. The first is his belief that a war with the Israelites is inevitable. Although the Israelites started none of these fights, Balak still believes that the Israelites intend to attack his country. Furthermore, the text records the particular incident that set him off as being the war with the Amorites. “Balak, son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites (Num. 22:2),” but what Balak perceived was not the reality, for if it was, he would have known that Israel had offered to pass through Emor peacefully, without even using any of its food or resources. In fact, Israel never had any intention of entering his land, as Judges 11:18 explicitly states that on their journey into the Promised Land, “they never came into the border of Moab.” Whether he was acting on incorrect information or if he was attempting to force the facts to fit into his own perception of the world, we do not know, but what we do know is that his incorrect perception leads to his utter humiliation front of his court when Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing them, and curses Moab to boot.

Balak’s second mistake is his inability to accept God’s power and God’s role in the Israelite victories. How could a powerless charlatan possibly hope to curse a people protected by God? God decides to prove his power to Balak by controlling Balaam each time he tries to curse Israel, and blessing them instead.

One question that is commonly asked regarding this incident is why God felt the need to control Balaam’s speech at all. If God is omnipotent, then surely Balaam’s curses would not be able to circumvent God’s protection! Does God really care so much about how Balak perceives the world? Astruc says that it is not just Balak’s perception of things at stake, but the whole world’s. If Balaam were to curse the Jewish people, and then some disaster were to befall them, others might perceive this as proof that Balaam is more powerful than God, even though the events in question are completely unrelated (and would come to ignore the fact that God would be the One causing a disaster to befall Israel as punishment for their sins). God might be invisible, but that does not mean that God is not there, and as we learn from Balak, it is a major mistake to overlook God’s influence in the world.