Archive | July, 2016

Commentary for Pinchas

29 Jul

This week’s parshah contains a very rare occurrence. A group of Israelites come to ask Moses a Halachic question, and Moses does not know the answer. This happens only four times in the entire Torah, but the occurrence in this week’s parshah is truly unique. In the other three instances, God immediately provides Moses with an answer, but in this week’s parshah, we are specifically told that “Moses brought their claim before the Lord (Num. 27:5).” This is the only time in the entire Torah where Moses goes to God and says, “I don’t know the answer to this question. Can you please tell me what it is?”

 

As is evident from even a basic reading of the Torah, Moses was an extremely wise and learned man. The fact that of all of the questions asked to him, there were only four times that he didn’t know the answer demonstrates that he has a dept of knowledge about Jewish Law that has rarely, if ever, been rivaled. But not even Moses knows everything, and as this week’s parshah shows, even Moses has to ask for help every once in a while.

 

The Torah specifically includes the verse “And Moses brought their claim before the Lord (Num. 27:5), ” to teach us that there is no shame in not knowing everything. Shame is found in realizing that you don’t know everything and still acting out of ignorance instead of consulting someone knowledgeable enough to guide you down the right path.

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Commentary for Balak

25 Jul

This week’s parshah contains a very rare occurrence in the Torah. It has one of the four times that God directly asks someone a question, expecting an answer. Like the first three instances (Adam in Gen. 3:9, Cain in Gen. 4:9, and Abraham in Gen. 18:13), this question is meant as a rebuke. The particular question in this week’s parshah, “Who are these men who are with you? (Num. 22:9)” is directed at Bilaam, son of Peor.

Bilaam is a very interesting guy. His portrayal in the Torah seems to be that of a wizard, but one whose curses really do have power, and who is working in opposition to God (though obviously not as powerful as God, as God is easily able to thwart his efforts to curse the Israelites in this week’s parshah). Because of this, rabbinic literature seems to treat him as someone who is simultaneously reviled for his evil deeds but also respected for his wisdom, power, and potential. He is frequently compared to great leaders in Jewish history, most commonly to Moses. Avot d’Rabbi Natan includes both of them on a list of people who were born circumcised. Moses describes himself as being “slow of speech and slow of tongue” in Ex. 4:10, but such weaknesses did not stop him from being able to effectively deliver God’s word to the Israelites. Similarly, the Talmud says that Bilaam was blind in one eye (Sanhedrin 105a), but this did not impair his foresight. Sifrei even goes so far as to interpret the verse “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet the likes of Moses (Deut. 34:10)” as indicating that while there was never again a prophet as great as Moses “in Israel” there was one prophet as great as Moses among non-Israelites: Bilaam.

Just as the Jews did with Moses, non-Jews sought Bilaam out for advice on all sorts of matters. According a midrash in tractate Sotah (11a), one of the non-Jews who sought Bilaam out for advice was Pharaoh, and one of the issues he asked for Bilaam’s advice on was what to do with the growing Israelite population. The Gemarah credits Bilaam with the suggestion to drown Jewish babies in the Nile, and because he lived well outside of Egypt, he seems to have been spared from any punishment for suggesting this horrible deed. By the time that our parshah takes place, God’s miraculous liberation of the Israelites from Egypt had become common knowledge in the region, so when Balaak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Bilaam asking him to put a curse the Israelites, Bilaam knew exactly who he was messing with.

All four people who God questions answer their rebuke in a different way. Adam gives slightly self-effacing but ultimately basic explanation for why he and Eve took the actions that they took. Cain angrily rejects God’s criticism. Abraham silently accepts God’s rebuke. When God comes to Bilaam and asks him “who are these people with you? (Num. 22:9)” Bilaam tells God that they are messengers of Balak, and repeats the message they brought him to God. Surely a prophet like Bilaam would know that God would already know such information, so why even bother to give this useless answer?

One interesting difference between God’s question to Bilaam and his questions to the other three is that the other three are rebuked after they have made their mistake, while Bilaam is rebuked beforehand. God’s question to Bilaam wasn’t demand for an explanation, but rather it was a warning, meant to provoke a conversation in which Bilaam would realize he was heading down the wrong path again. Bilaam provides the useless answer that he does not because he is being rude to God, but because he completely fails to understand what God is trying to tell him, so God has to outright tell him “Do not go with them; you must not curse that people, for they are blessed (Num. 22:12).”

Bilaam sends Balak’s messengers off, telling them that God won’t let him do it, but when they return with an offer of great riches, he tells them that he needs to check with God again, as if them offering Bilaam money will factor into God’s decision. God tells Bilaam to go with them this time, but the factor that change’s God’s mind is not the matter of payment, but rather Bilaam’s belief that this might influence God’s decision. On the way God makes several more attempts to help Bilaam come to the decision that he should turn back, but he does not, and his failure to grasp God’s warnings by allying himself with Balak against the Israelites ultimately leads to his downfall.

Another interesting point of comparison between Moses and Bilaam is how they treated the Israelites while they were part of the Egyptian power structure. Bilaam advocated their mass murder, while Moses, upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, steps in to protect the Israelite at great risk to himself. Moses managed to get it right the first time around, while Bilaam fails to make the moral decision not just the first time, but now, for all of his wisdom and equipped with full knowledge of what happened to Pharaoh, still fails to make the right decision the second time, or the third time, and many more times in the future, as we will read over the next few weeks. The message of the story of Bilaam is a simple one: once you have identified the moral thing to do, be like Moses and not like Bilaam, and do not let personal gain sway you from doing what is right.

Commentary for Chukat

22 Jul

In this week’s parshah Moses is punished by God by being told that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The story of Moses’ sin is one that has bothered commentators for a long time because Moses’ sin seems both extremely trivial and yet also like such a simple and pointless mistake that there was no reason for Moses to make it. In Numbers 20:1-12 the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they haven no water to drink. God tells Moses and Aaron to go talk to a rock in front of the entire assembly of Israelites, and that talking to this rock will cause it to produce water. Moses and Aaron do what God says, except that instead of talking to the rock, Moses hits it with his staff instead. In Moses’ defense, hitting the rock was what God had told him to do the last time this situation happened, back in Exodus 17:1-7, but on the other hand, God did explicitly say “speak to the rock” and if God tells you to do something a certain way, it’s because Gods wants it done this particular way and you should do what God says because God knows better than you. Then again, Moses disobeying God’s orders and striking the rock instead of talking to it still produces the desired miraculous result, and surely if God were so upset at Moses’ disobedience, God would not perform the miracle on his behalf.

 

The conclusion that many commentators have come to is that Moses was guilty of not properly attributing the miracle to God, making it look like Moses himself had performed the miracle, and thus had to be punished. However, only the Malbim has offered any real reasoning as to why this was an issue here whereas in the previous incident in Exodus Moses did not credit God with the miracle either. Malbim points out that the word used for “rock” in Exodus is “tzur” while the word used for “rock” in this week’s parshah is “selah.” If you spell out the letters of the word “selah” and then take the middle letter of each word, you get the letters “mem,” “mem,” and “yod,” which can be rearranged to spell “mayim” the Hebrew word for water. Thus, a selah is a rock that has water inside of it (in more scientific terms, the pore spaces of the rocks are saturated with water). While all of the Israelites probably didn’t have geology degrees, they had been moving stones for the Egyptians for hundreds of years and there probably were a good number of them who would have recognized this. They would have either then accused Moses and Aaron of being charlatans or instead assumed that the power laid with Moses or his staff instead of with God (a sentiment that probably wasn’t helped by Moses’ statement, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” without specifying that the “we” in question included God as opposed to just Moses and Aaron, only added to), and as we saw with the spies a few weeks ago, a small number of people can stir up a large rebellion very quickly.

 

If the rock was a waterless tzur instead of a selah, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as bringing forth water from such a rock would have been rightfully viewed as a miracle instead of chicanery, and even a post-facto clarification that the miracle was due to God and not Moses or his staff would have averted the problem. Instead, Moses was careless in both his speech and his surroundings, and as a result, his attempt to elevate God opened up to ridicule. For this Moses was punished, and he serves as an example to all future Jewish leaders to do their best to understand their climate and surroundings and to choose their words carefully so as not to repeat Moses’ mistake and accidentally denigrate God. If even Moses can screw up, then so can the rest of us.

Commentary for Korach

7 Jul

In this week’s parshah Moses and Aaron face a rebellion. A man named Korach gathers up a large group of followers from across all of the tribes and they level a very interesting charge at Moses and Aaron: “You have too much; for the entire community- all of them- are holy and the Lord is among them; why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord (Num. 16:3)?”

It is an intriguing question. All throughout Jewish history we have seen God speak through individuals of all types. Eli was the High Priest. Samuel was born a commoner, but with the promise that he would serve God all of his life. Deborah was a commoner, but one noted for her wisdom. Amos was just a regular guy off the street. Yiftach was the son of a harlot, born out of wedlock and rejected by his family. And God spoke through all of them.

Looking at it through this lens, Korach and his followers seem to have a point. Didn’t God tell them at Mount Sinai that “you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19:6)?” So what makes Moses and Aaron so special that God only speaks through them? The text even goes out of its way to tell us that Korach’s initial 250 followers were all “chieftains of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of repute (Num. 16:2).” Surely there must have been at least one among them who were worthy of this honor?   Or, to put it another way, “why Moses and Aaron but not me?”

Despite the seeming jealousy behind such a sentiment, some commentators actually praise it (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) or at least do not paint it as a negative thing to have (Rashi, Tanchuma), seeing such a sentiment as driven by a desire to have a closer relationship with God. People only get jealous of others for having something that they themselves desire. And yet it seems strange that they express their desire to have a closer relationship with their omniscient Creator by criticizing that Creator’s decisions. Surely, if God is omniscient then God must have a good reason for only speaking through Moses and Aaron?

Moses’ reaction to their accusation is recorded as “he fell on his face (Num. 16:4),” a phrase used to indicate prayer. Strangely, no record of Moses’ petition or a response from God is recorded. Moses then replies to Korach and his followers with the following challenge: The next morning each of them will take some of the incense used for the incense offering, put it in his own fire pan, and offer it up to God in front of the Tent of Meeting. From this God will indicate who will be chosen to lead the community.

The next morning, Korach and his followers all do as Moses had instructed, and Moses and Aaron submit a fire pan of incense as well. Strangely, it is only at this point that God seems to take notice of this rebellion. God’s reaction is rather harsh, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this community that I may annihilate them this instant (Num. 16:21)!” Moses and Aaron respond to this by falling on their faces and petitioning God not to punish the entire community for the sins a minority of the individuals. God relents, instead having Moses and Aaron order the rest of the Israelites to separate themselves from Korach’s followers. Then God makes the ground open up and swallow Korach, his followers, and all of their possessions. It is the actions of Moses and Aaron in this section that show us exactly why God chose to speak to the community through them instead of Korach or any of those who joined with him.

This incident comes shortly after God finally gets fed up with the Israelites constant rebellion and decrees that this entire generation shall die out in the desert and only their children shall set foot in the Promised Land. And now here are the Israelites rebelling yet again. Moses has devised a plan to hopefully quell the rebellion before God needs to intercede, but worries that he has already pleaded for the Israelites so many times that God will not listen anymore. God’s response is not recorded because God’s lack of response is approval for Moses to go ahead with his plan.

The challenge of offering up an incense offering to God is one that is rife with symbolism. The incense offering was only offered by the priests or used to inaugurate the Tabernacle or a new High Priest. If anyone else used it- or even created a facsimile of it- that person would be spiritually removed from the Jewish People. By instructing them to offer the incense, Moses was asking them to do something that Korach and his compatriots, being chieftains and learned men, would know was strictly forbidden.

The incense offering was made from a mixture of many different fragrances to represent the many different types of individuals who comprise the Jewish People. Only when all are mixed together can the desired aroma be achieved. This aroma was offered to God on behalf of all of the Jewish People, and was used to inaugurate the High Priest, who would represent them before God on Yom Kippur. Two of the ingredients in the incense were fragrant cinnamon and fragrant cane, at exactly 250 weights of each: The same as the number of followers Korach had. Moses hoped that sending them home with instructions to offer the incense tomorrow, giving them a day to think about, would make them think of these connections and would remind them that they each already have their own special connection with God; that there is no need for them to desire the specific role played by Moses and Aaron as God’s voice to the Israelites, and thus they would hopefully not show up in the morning to offer the forbidden incense offering in an attempt to claim it.

Moses’ plan fails, and when Korach and his followers show up and offer the forbidden offering, God becomes angry and plans to destroy them. At this point Moses and Aaron both beseech God not to destroy the entire community because of a few sinners. In their petition, they refer to God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh (Num. 16:22),” a phrase only used one other time in the entire Torah. That other time is Num. 28:16, when Moses asks God to ensure that whoever his successor is will be the leader who is best for the people. That mindset is the difference between Moses and Aaron and Korach and his followers. Even in the face of having the legitimacy of their leadership challenged, Moses and Aaron acted with the best interests of the entire community in mind, every step of the way, while Korach and his followers, no matter how worthy their intensions were, acted only in their own interests. It is this that makes Moses and Aaron worthy of their positions as leaders of the community and representatives of God.

Commentary for Shlach Lecha

1 Jul

This week’s parshah ends with two passages that seem to have nothing in common. The first, Numbers 15:32-36, is the story of a man who goes out to collect wood on Shabbat in direct violation of God’s commandments. He is arrested and thrown in jail until Moses can ask God what should be done with him. God tells Moses that this person should be stoned to death, and so he is. The second passage, Numbers 15:37-41, is the third paragraph of the Shema, instructing us to wear tzitzit to remind us to observe the commandments and remind ourselves that God brought us out of Egypt.

 

These two passages might appear completely unrelated, but their placement next to each other teaches us an important lesson. Numbers 15:39-40 explain the rational for tzitzit as follows: “and you shall see them and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and you shall perform them, not straying after your heart and after your eyes, following your own sinful desires. Thus you shall remember and perform all of My commandments and be holy to your God.” Wearing tzitzit makes one conscious of them at every moment, and through them we are conscious of God. When we are about to sin, our tzitzit will cause us to ask, “is this really what God wants me to do?” and once we have identified something as being contrary to God’s desires, doing it becomes much more difficult because there will always be that voice in our heads reminding us that what we are doing is wrong.

 

The mitzvah of tzitzit is given immediately after the story of the man who gathers wood on Shabbat to illustrate to us that perhaps if he had been wearing tzitzit he would not have transgressed. God has given us the mitzvah of tzitzit not as a pointless burden, but as a tool to help us live better, more holy lives. God has created a world for us that is full of challenges, but God also makes sure to give us the tools we need to overcome those challenges.