Archive | June, 2015

Commentary for Chukat

29 Jun

In this week’s parshah we learn the laws of purifying a person who has come into contact with a dead body. After a short period of living outside of the main camp, the person takes a mixture prepared by the priest and sprinkles him or herself with it, once on the third day of exile and once on the seventh day in order to become ritually pure again and may then reenter the camp. The main ingredient of the mixture in question is the ashes of the rare red heifer. Mixed in with that are cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool, all mixed into water to make it possible to sprinkle them on someone.


Interestingly, those middle three ingredients are also ingredients in the mixture used during the ceremony to ritually purify someone who has contracted the skin disease tzara’at, which was a spiritual punishment contracted as a result of spreading gossip. With tzara’at, the water and ashes of the red heifer are replaced with the blood of a sacrificed bird, and rather than being sprinkled onto the person being purified, a second bird is dipped into the mixture and then set free to fly away.


In our society the bird is often glorified for its ability to fly away. To spread its wings and leave all worldly cares and burdens behind. To simply get up and go somewhere else. To escape.


The cow, on the other hand, is grounded. It does not wander off. It is a pillar of the community, providing us with labor in our fields and milk and meat on our tables.


The conditions which cause someone to suffer from these two types of ritual impurity are not things that happen by accident. Any time we open our mouths to speak it is under our own control, and people tend not to randomly just keel over and die in mid-hug or handshake. The difference is that while a gossip shows little regard for the feelings of those they are gossiping about, one who comes into contact with a corpse is doing so because they are defending their people in battle, because they are a medical professional attempting to administer life-saving treatment, or because they are performing the most selfless of all mitzvahs: burying the dead.


While the gossip is received back into the community only after witnessing one bird fly away, coated in the blood of another, giving no care about what it has been involved in, a person who has come into contact with a corpse is welcomed back into the community almost as a hero, being anointed with the ashes of the red heifer.   While the carefree life of the bird might seem glorious, it is the cows who give of themselves to keep our communities running strong.


Commentary for Korach

19 Jun

In last week’s parshah, the Israelites once again rebelled against God, and this time God finally punishes them, dooming the generation that left Egypt to die in the desert, never seeing the promised land. This week, some of the Israelites are rebelling once again, but rather than rebelling against God, they are rebelling against Moses and Aaron. The ringleaders of the rebellion, Korach Datan, Aviram, and On, along with two-hundred and fifty followers, who are all men of great repute within the community, have a fairly simple question: If all of us are part of God’s holy nation, then why are Moses and Aaron in charge of everyone else?


The answer, of course, is because God said so, but when the rebels persist in their revolt, Moses offers them a contest to determine whom God wants to lead the community. Tomorrow morning, everyone who wants to should bring a fire-pan filled with incense to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Moses and Aaron will do the same, and God will do something to make known who should lead the community.


When the morning comes, God makes clear who the rightful leaders of the community are in grand fashion: by appearing in front of the community and threatening to destroy all those who stand against Moses and Aaron. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that anyone who no longer wishes to rebel should move away from Korach, Datan, and Aviram. They do, and those three and all those who still stand with them are swallowed up by the ground.


When Moses gives the Israelites instructions about the contest, he tells them to “take for yourselves” fire-pans full of incense. Moses’ choice of words is meant to remind the rebels that while there is a large group rebelling, that group is ultimately made up of individuals who must each make his own choices for himself. While Korach, Datan, and Aviram are listed as standing against God’s decision and are punished for it, On is not mentioned along with them. Just like Joshua and Caleb did last week, On does not give in to the mob mentality and instead he evaluates the facts and makes decisions for himself. This is an example we can all learn from.

Commentary for Shlach Lecha

12 Jun

In this week’s parshah, the Israelites send spies to scout out the Promised Land. When the spies return, they tell the people of the greatness of the Promised Land. They bring back an example of the gigantic fruit that grows there (a cluster of grapes so large that it required two of them to carry it on a special carrying frame), and confirm that it does indeed flow with milk and honey. But they also brought back military reports. The kingdoms are too powerful to defeat, the cities are too well defended to besiege, and the people who live there appear to be the offspring of giants, so tall that, as the spies themselves put it, they must have looked like grasshoppers to them. A land that “devours its settlers (Num. 13:32)”


For ten of the twelve spies, this was clear evidence that the land could never be conquered, and the Israelites bought into this pessimistic view. This stirred the people up into a frenzy of rebellion. After all of this trekking through the blistering heat of the unforgiving desert, the land that was promised to them was impossible to settle in without being crushed by its current inhabitants? After all of the effort they put in to this grand journey, they were utterly furious to hear that it had been doomed to end in failure all along.


But the other two spies, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephuneh, stood up in front of the angry mob of Israelites and said “The land that we have traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If The Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us… have no fear of the people of the country for they are our prey. Their protection has departed from them, but The Lord is with us. Have no fear of them (Num. 14:7-9)!” The Israelites responded by threatening to pelt them with stones.


Many times in our lives we are confronted by people who balk in the face of adversity. People who won’t want to try to take that next step because it seems like so much work to do. Defeatism is contagious; it spreads quickly and takes root deep. But if the cause is truly worthwhile and mission is truly doable, we must stand up for it, just like Joshua and Caleb do in this week’s parshah. In the end, Joshua and Caleb were right. The Israelites had all of the tools they needed to conquer the Promised Land, and they did so. If we have the right tools, we, too, can accomplish whatever we set our minds to so long as we do not give in to defeatism,

Commentary for Beha’alotcha

5 Jun

This week’s parshah begins with God giving Moses instructions about lighting the menorah to relay to Aaron. Specifically, God says “Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘when you cause the lamps to go up, let the seven lights cast light toward the front of the menorah (Num. 8:1).’” Many modern translations translate the awkward phrase “cause the lamps to go up” as to “kindle” or other similar words, such as in the phrase “to go up in flame” meaning to catch fire. While this translation certainly works on the P’shat (surface) level to convey the literal actions that Aaron will be taking, the actual Hebrew word the Torah uses, “beha’alotcha”– the word from which our parshah gets its name- has nothing to do with kindling fires. Beha’alotcha, meaning “when cause to go up” comes from the Hebrew root meaning “ascend.” This word is used both in the literal context (such as climbing a mountain) and in the spiritual context to mean coming closer to God (such as having an aliyah in synagogue or offering the Olah sacrifice). By lighting the menorah in the way that God specifies, Aaron is turning what is essentially a fancy lamp into an instrument by which he can serve God.


We use the same table for dinner all seven nights of the week, but on Friday night, that table becomes more than just a table: It becomes our Shabbat table. By eating Shabbat dinner on it, we “cause it to go up” from merely being a table and turn it into something we use it to serve God. Through our actions we have the ability to bring the world around us closer to God, and was we do this, we become more aware of God’s presence in the world, and bring ourselves closer to God.