Archive | July, 2015

Commentary for Devarim

24 Jul

The book of Deuteronomy is largely based around Moses’ final set of discourses to the Israelites as they camp on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to go into the Promised Land. Moses begins with a short history of the Israelites, recounting the events, both the good and the bad, which have led them to this place on this day.

 

One theme that pops up occasionally over the course of the parshah is giving reassurance to those in need. He recounts how when establishing a judicial system he told the judges to “fear no man, for justice is God’s (Deut 1:17).” No threat shall be carried out against them so long as they rule justly, as God desires. When the reality of the difficulty of conquering the Promised Land first begins to dawn upon the Israelites, Moses tells them “fear not and be not dismayed (1:21).” He even speaks of a time when he himself needed reassurance before a battle with Og, King of the Bashan, and God said to him “do not fear him, for I am delivering him and all his men and his country into your hand (3:2).” The parshah also ends on this same note, with Moses reassuring Joshua about the daunting task he will have before him: “You have seen with your own eyes all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings; so shall the Lord your God do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over.   Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who will battle for you. (3:21-22).

 

Many times in our lives we have anxieties about the future. Sometimes, like the judges, we take up new positions that we know will be strenuous or require us to make tough decisions with many outside forces trying to pull us one way or the other. Sometimes, like the Israelites, we face some monumental task or are forced to do things that will put us in conflict with others or will change our whole lifestyle as we know it. Sometimes, like Joshua, we are thrust into all of these situations at once.

 

The future can be very scary, and having doubts and fears about it is perfectly normal. Even Moses did. Just like us, the Israelites were regular people. They were faced with the monumental task of not only conquering the Promised Land, but then also settling it, which would drastically change their entire way of life from the nomadic way- the only way they had ever known- to the agrarian lifestyle they had only heard about from the previous generation. And they were afraid. As they were about to enter the undiscovered country that was their future, they needed reassurance. Moses gave them that reassurance by reminding them that God would always be there for them, just as God had been there for their forefathers, and just as God will always be there for us when we need reassurance as well.

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Commentary for Matot-Ma’asei

20 Jul

In this week’s parshah we come to the final stage of the war between the Israelites and the Midianites that has been going on for the past ten chapters. First the Midianites, along with the Moabites, hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Later the Midianites tried to destroy the Jewish culture by luring the Israelites away from God by sending people into the Israelite camp to introduce the Israelites to their idols (and many, many, Israelites did become idolaters). Now, having seen that the Midianites just won’t leave them alone, it is time for the Israelites to go on the offensive. The Midianites have tried every other possible tactic to destroy their way of life, so the Israelites resort to violence to prevent a physical attack that seems inevitable.

 

While the fighting might be inevitable, it is not something the Israelites are keen to do. Throughout their trek, the Israelites have done whatever they reasonably could to avoid violent confrontation with other nations. But this battle seems inevitable, so if they must fight, then they will. The Israelites send a relatively small force of just 12,000 warriors, and the campaign goes extremely well. The Israelites defeat the entire Midianite army and take their possessions as spoils of war.

 

The passage discussing the war concludes with a reminder that the surviving Israelite warriors must purify themselves and their clothes before reentering the camp because they have become impure by touching a corpse. This would be done using the procedure described in chapter nineteen of Numbers, which includes spending a week outside of the Israelite camp.

 

That passage is one of only two in the entire Torah to begin with the phrase “This is the decree of the Torah.” The second such passage is the epilogue to the war narrative, which discusses what to do with the spoils of war. In this passage we learn that the utensil captured from the Midianites should be assumed to be impure and must be purified before they can be used. These vessels did not want to become impure. The impurity was forced upon them through circumstance. They happened to be owned by non-Jews who used them to cook and serve non-kosher food, so they must be purified before they can be use to cook and serve kosher food.   Similarly, the Israelite soldiers did not want to become impure. They did not want to go war at all. But circumstances necessitated that they do so, and so they did, causing them to become impure and thus need to be repurified. Sometimes life throws situations at us that are against our will out of our control and we find ourselves having to deal with consequences we don’t like and never asked for. The Torah teaches us that in order to be able to return to “real life” inside the camp, we must first accept the consequences of the situations we have found ourselves in and adapt to them.

Commentary for Pinchas

13 Jul

This week’s parshah contains the story of Tzelophechad’s daughters, who come to Moses to ask if it is okay for women to inherit their father’s property after he dies. In discussing this passage, the Rabbis go out of there way to ascribe many Aggadic statements to Tzelophechad’s daughters in order to point out their righteousness and wisdom and to specifically point out that although they are asking if they will be able to acquire property, they are not doing so out of any sense of greed (Bava Batra 119b). More modern commentators have looked upon this focus as a way to differentiate Tzelophechad’s daughters from the rest of the Israelite multitude we have seen since the Exodus, almost all of whom have constantly been complaining about one thing or another and always bringing their petty squabbles and disputes to Moses to solve, rather than questions of any true moral, religious, or legal value.

 

In just two weeks we will read Deuteronomy 1:12, in which Moses says “How can I by myself bear the trouble of you and the burden and the bickering.” This verse is the only verse in the Torah not read with the standard cantillation. Instead it is read with the cantillation for the book of Lamentations to connect it to the destruction of the Holy Temple. As we head into this period of the Jewish calendar that is focused on both the consequences of mistakes past and on repentance, we should all take a lesson from Tzelophechad’s daughters and ensure that we are focusing our energy on the greater good of the community instead of on the petty squabbles that arise in our day to day lives.

Commentary for Balak

6 Jul

In this week’s parshah we encounter an oddity in the Bible: Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet. Normally any “priest” or “prophet” who does not have God’s interests in mind is treated as if he or she is a false prophet or a priest of a false god, but in the case of Bilaam, Rabbinic literature paints him as being just as wise as Moses and just as respected among the gentiles as Moses was among the Israelites. While similar figures such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the priests of Ba’al are exposed as frauds, when Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites it is presented as a real danger.

 

While Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites is thwarted by God, there is still a lesson to learn from it. We often dismiss the words of our critics out of hand as being “wrong,” whether because we feel that they don’t understand the situation or because we feel that the views from which they have formed these opinions are flawed, but that does not mean that their words should not be considered.

 

“Ben Zoma says: who is wise? One who learns from everyone (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Although Bilaam was a mercenary and an idolater who sought to sabotage belief in God, it should always be remembered that he was also a very wise man, and any weaknesses he tried to exploit were probably areas in which the Israelites really could have used some improvement.