Category Archives: Numbers

Parshat Beha’alotecha (5774)


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Is Jewish Honor Based on Birth or Merit?

One of the most difficult things for people to grasp is the way that inherited and earned roles play-out in the Jewish life. Is one form of recognition preferable over the other? Or is there a seeming dance going on between the two and their respective roles? That is what we are going to try to explore this week.

Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

Outgoing chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with incoming Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

This week’s parsha begins with Aharon, the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest – lighting the Menorah. I don’t want to side-track us too much, as most of us will quickly remember that this section’s Rashi commentary brings up why this is mentioned here in this part of the reading mostly about ordaining the Levites for their roles. Our rabbis tell us this is in order to highlight that this role was given to Aharon and his sons as a sign of honor.

The midrash says that Aharon was previously distressed when he saw the princes of each of the tribes present their inauguration offerings on their own.  Without the presence or help of the Levites. (Numbers chapter 11) The Levites, they were excluded from this count and thus felt distressed. In light of this feeling of being overlooked, the kindling of the Menorah – a truly great rite – it was given to Aharon, who was now the tribal head of the Levites.

After this, in the early part of the first aliyah, we have the instructions for purifying and sanctifying the Levites. At the end of this reading we see that the Levites are brought before all the entire congregation of Israel and ordained for services with physical smicha – the laying on of hands, and conferring authority. (Numbers 8:10)

Aharon, as their leader, he was to be given instructions to “lift up” the Levites and offer them as a “wave offering” on behalf of the children of Israel. (Numbers 8:11) What do we mean by this? What did he do?

It’s not like he could serve them all up on a silver platter, lifting them towards the sky. No, instead it means symbolically. He lifted them up, as one would a flag, he made a symbolic rise to the occasion through a gesture of pride and honor. And instead of offering in the normal sense – by simply waving forward animals donated to be used in the service of the Temple sacrifices – Aharon, the Levite elder, he offered his sons in perpetuity to physically perform this service.

This is the meaning of the phrase, “Veheinif Aharon et haleviim tenufah lifnei Hashem / Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before Hashem…” (Numbers 8:11) That Aharon was to elevate his sons for service by pushing them forward, driving them (tenufah) to take their role in service to Israel and G-d.

Now let’s back up a second and remember why the Levites are not accounted for as part of the Twelve Tribes during the inauguration offerings. Normally the Levites were not called-up or recognized, being regularly snubbed in the tribal roles and inheritances. This as a consequence of collective error on the part of the Levites several times in the past, going all the way back to their tribal role in the slaughter of Shechem and the sale of Yosef haTzadik. They were disinherited in a way, so that they were never counted as a normative tribe again. As a consequence the half-tribes (such as Efraim and Menasheh) slipping into the vacancy when it was time to take count and set-up camp.

So why are they honored now? How is it that the come to take this role as spiritual leaders among the tribes of Israel? Sure Moses and Aharon are both Levites, and this does distinguish the clan. But given their disinherited role, how is it that the Levites are able to take this place of honor now as the Mishkan service takes shape?

The answer comes by exploring the second aliyah. Let us look at this span of text which address this for us:

“Following this, the Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. You shall cleanse them and lift them as a waving.

“For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself.

“For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.

“And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ הַלְוִיִּם לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם וְהֵנַפְתָּ אֹתָם תְּנוּפָה:

כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

וָאֶקַּח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Numbers 8:15-18

Our text reminds us of two facts. First off, in the general sense every firstborn male belongs to G-d. Be it human, a kosher animals, or even an ass (donkey). As it is written, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn of the children of Israel, everything that opens the womb of man and of animal.” (see Exodus 13:2)

And even more so, after G-d inflicting wrath upon the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the Israelite firstborn sons, these sons are even more so considered sanctified to G-d. They were spared and then set apart for His service. And this is the way that it should ideally have been, with the princes of each tribes offering up for their people. The firstborn of each tribe offering sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.

So the firstborn are: 1) naturally sacred, and 2) supernaturally set-apart. There are two reasons why the firstborn of all Israel should be set-apart as priests.

So why is it that we don’t see that happen here? Why are the Levites elevated to this role and pushed forward for this service instead? The answer is found in our Rashi commentary:

For all the firstborn… are Mine: The firstborn are Mine by right, for I protected them among the Egyptian firstborn, and I took them for Myself-until they erred through the golden calf; so now ‘I have taken the Levites’ (v.18)”

כי לי כל בכור: שלי היו הבכורות בקו הדין, שהגנתי עליהם בין בכורי מצרים ולקחתי אותם לי עד שטעו בעגל, ועכשיו ואקח את הלוים:

Rashi for Numbers 8:17

Our midrash teaches us that during the incident of the sin of the golden calf all of the tribes were involved in worshiping it, except for the tribe of Levi. (Yoma 66b) For this reason the firstborn of each tribe were set aside, and the honor of priesthood was thus given to the Levites in perpetuity.

So lets consider this. This issue of priesthood and honor.

To being with, priesthood is a topic that most of us are out of touch with. We just don’t generally see this role filled in our daily lives. Sure in the traditional word we have them acknowledged in the giving out of aliyot – when reading the Torah. And in rare ritual cases such as the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn male, born of natural birth to a Jewish mother.  (see Exodus 13:13–16, Numbers 3:45-47) All this hearkens back to that age. But for the most part, rites overseen by kohanim are rather rare today. Except on high holidays, when the Priestly Blessing is given, most of us barely recognize the kohanim in our midst.

And in progressive synagogues the roles of priesthood is often overlooked all together, having theologically moved beyond affirming Temple ritual and inherited roles. With even the Priestly Blessing today being given by rabbi or cantor.

But the awkwardness and tension between the birth and earned roles is something that many people still struggle with in light of our Jewish tradition. It is not just modern readers and progressives that have struggled with this issue. Indeed the wrestling between inherited and earned roles goes all the way back go the beginning for the nation of Israel.

Yet there is one fact that we cannot ignore. That our religion and culture emerged for a world were the right of inheritance and status was given to the firstborn. More precisely the firstborn male. In the ancient world this was the only seemingly clear and objective way to settle the issue of inheritance and status. In such a system there is seemingly few points by which to argue. Everyone remembers which is their firstborn child, so this is the one who is blessed and to whom possessions of the father’s estate are to be left to.

This cannot be ignored or understated. And just in case this point is missed, the right of firstborn is explicitly reaffirmed by the Torah. (Deuteronomy 21:17)

Inherited roles which are assigned by birth and held in perpetuity are further stressed elsewhere, not just here and now in the Torah when discussing the Levites. It is also stressed with it comes to the role of the Kohanim, distinct from that of the general Levites. It is also later shown to be the case for nobility, with kingship being passed on by right and order of birth. And of course, Jewish identity is also assigned at birth. Being passed by maternal line according to halacha. Inherited status and recognition is something that is undeniably present in our tradition.

But as I’ve previously stated, the challenging of birth status has always been part of the Hebrew-Israelite experience since the beginning. Our patriarch and namesake being Yisrael – also known by his birth-name, Yaakov. Yaakov, the same one who overcame Eisav the firstborn, for the right to be the heir and spiritual chieftain. And this is not a lone example. Such tension is similarly mirrored in Avraham Avinu’s recognition of Yitzhak over Yishmael, who was technically the first-born son. We also see this later on when the tribes are established, when Yitzhak gives inheritance to Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. There we see the tension between Yosef and Yitzhak palpably present in this incident, as the patriarch insists that the younger once again rises above the older. (see Parshat Vayechi 2012)

Our founders and leaders have challenged the natural order and risen above it, time after time again. And this is the legacy they leave to us, an inherited drive to be people who would will to smash the glass ceiling. To rise above obstacles to a place of leadership and honor, as opposed to those who gingerly ease into that seat. People who acquire their rightful place through merit and zeal, not just through mere nepotism.

When we read here in this parsha of the ordination and assignment of the Levites as priests by the congregation we can get caught-up in a narrow view of this text, and maybe even see this narrative as reaffirming the appearance of nepotism and favoritism. Until we remind ourselves the reason they are called up for this role, because of their tribal merit in avoiding the golden calf. In this light, their appointment is not to be seen as an example which reaffirms a perception of the mighty establishing their heredity. It is a story of people who come from a lowly and unlikely place to the height of honor through merit.

And in the not so far off future in this very book of Bamidbar (Numbers), we are going to see the roles shaken up once again. As Pinchas, who was not ordinarily not eligible to be High Priest, has this honor as Kohen Gadol given to him and his descendants in perpetuity. An honor given to him on account of his act of zealotry. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011) We will again see the earned role trump the inherited role.

Something to consider

To this day much of Judaism still struggles with the issues of balancing out honor and respect based on lineage, and that of showing proper recognition to those who are honorable in their own right. For which is more worthy of recognizing? Which should we lunge to honor first? The noble through heredity or the honorable in their own merit?

Even for traditional Judaism, which still recognizes the roles of the priestly lineages, there is still a seeming awkwardness. One that is seen through a philosophical and practical dance to help us maneuver the contortions we feel stretching us in this matter.


While commenting on this topic of heredity vs. merit
relating to kohanim in Parshat Tzav, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin – a Torah commentator well-known for his discussion series highlighted by the Orthodox Union – he states the following upon consideration of the way the Levites and even Pinchas shake up the roles of heredity. He observes how the shake-up is not just far-off in the past, it’s still seen present in our halachic lives:

“Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)”

As we know, even when the roles of priestly caste are recognized, in the real world we still most often give precedent to the meritorious over the blue-blooded.

In closing, today I would like to leave you with the continuing and closing words of Rabbi Goldin for consideration. He offers us some words which are wholly appropriate for us as we come out of Shavuot – celebrating the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai:

“Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

“Full descendants of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept G-d’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to G-d’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

“The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.”

Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’

Parshat Tzav – by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

Related articles:


Parshat Nasso (5774)


Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Treachery and its Remedy: Setting things right in word and deed

_img-sefer-gavelAs we come into this week’s parsha we are walking in the middle of something. Previously, in the final verses of Parshat Bamidbar, we began to hear about the tasks and charge of the Kohanim (priests). But now in this week’s parsha we read about the assignment of the other Levitic clans, the sub-tribes of Gershon and Merari; the families who carried and assembled the tabernacle. Here in this week’s parsha is where the real nuts and bolts come together in this story about the establishment of the Mishkan – the desert tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Everything and everyone is put in place.

Now it is very easy for readers, especially after all the detail on priestly duty and purity in our previous book of Levitivus, to just breeze over much of the early text in this section. Especially the modern reader, who is not as interested in the temple cult as much as they are the more philosophical themes that come with later mitzvot.

Quite often we lunge for the exciting parts. Even myself, in previous years I have found my mind focusing on the real attention getters like the curious ritual of the sotah – the strange custom imposed upon the suspected adulteress, a woman who has acted treacherously against her husband (כי תשטה אשתו, ומעלה בו מעל). She has been unfaithful to him. (see “Parshat Nasso 2011: The Ritual of the Sotah, the Offering of Jealousies”)

But this week I would like us to step back just a little bit in this text. As we are going to focus on this topic of unfaithfulness, most often described simply as treachery in English. But this time we will come in at ground level on this topic. Because the suggestion of adultery is not the only form of treachery one can commit. Treachery can be committed by and against any type of fellow, man and woman; and by extensions it can also be committed against G-d.

Treachery is actually a very good word to use for the Hebrew word ma’al – which means to embezzle, to misappropriate. This is understood to happen as a result of people breaching a relationship of trust, and thus acting treacherously – meaning faithlessly and dishonestly.

There is another type of treachery and breach of trust that is just as appalling and distasteful as adultery. And it is revealed for us here in the third reading of our parsha.

Even before we begin to hear about the issues of unfaithfulness in marriage, we are first forced to recognize and deal with faithlessness and a breach in trust in the generals sense, between one person and their fellow. This can be broadly applied, and is explicit in mentioning that this applies to both men and women. Our text reads:

Tell the children of Israel:

Any man or woman

who commits any sins against man

to act treacherously against Hashem

and that person is guilty,

then they shall confess the sin

they committed,

and make restitution for

the full amount of their guilt,

adding a fifth to it,

and give it to

the one against whom they were guilty.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ish o-ishah

| ki ya’asu mikol-chatot ha’adam

| lim’ol ma’al b’Hashem

| ve’ashmah hanefesh hahi

| Vehitvadu et-chatatam

| asher asu

| veheshiv et-ashamo

| berosho

| vachamishito yosef alav

| venatan

| la’asher asham lo

Numbers 5:6-7

If we read this text just straight forward we see a very important principle relating to justice presented here. How to remedy a breech of trust. When one acts treacherously, when one is dishonest, when one engages in stealing from people. This is how we remedy any type of violation of trust. Any sin against man (כי יעשו מכל חטאת האדם), any sin of embezzlement or dishonest practice. A sin against our fellow-man.

One is required to confess their sin and pay back the full amount of restitution to that person, plus a 20% penalty for harming the person. All this is paid directly to the injured party. If they cannot be found, then it should be given to their next of kin. If a family member cannot be located then it is given to the kohain – to a priest.

But notice the way it is further phrased, “to act treacherously against Hashem.” (למעל מעל ביי)

Now there are a few ways we can read that. First, the most obvious and the most striking is the face-value statement. That when we commit any type of sin against any man or woman, we are acting treacherously with our G-d. We are acting faithless, we are being a cheater. Likewise we are creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration of the Name of G-d. We are trashing G-d’s good name.

When ever a person among the people of Israel commits a sin against his fellow-man, he is not just harming that man. He is also offending G-d. He is being like the sotah – he is being faithless and untrustworthy like an adulteress in our relationship with G-d. That is the level of breach of trust there is going on here.

Now our rabbinic tradition, it likes to suggest a more specific type of crime here. Tradition is that the Torah does not repeat itself, there are no superfluous verses in the Torah. Yet we already see other verses in the Torah related to stealing in Viyikra  (Leviticus).

With this in mind our sages further identify this related to take a false oath, in order to steal their fellow’s property. Thus literally creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration, but taking a false oath. Which is the meaning of commandment, “Do not use name of Hashem in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) Attaching the name of G-d to a lie and injustice. Causing the Name of G-d to be used inappropriately. Negating the good name of G-d.

So why here, and why again? As this is also suggested to us elsewhere in Torah. However our sages focus in on a specific act this time around. The Rashi, in line with many of the rabbis, identifies this crime as being gezel ha-ger – the sin of stealing from a convert, or an immigrant.

But before we talk about that the ger – the convert, I want us to notice one other point. Let us look at the commentary. Rashi says:

To act treacherously against G-d: [Scripture] repeats the section [dealing with] a thief who swears falsely, which is stated in parshath Vayikra; “… and acts treacherously against G-d by falsely denying to his fellow…” (Lev. 5:21). It is repeated here because two new matters are introduced. The first is that it is written: “they shall confess,” which teaches us that he [the thief] is not required to pay a fifth and [bring] a guilt [offering] when incriminated by two witnesses, until he admits to the deed himself, and the second [matter] is that what is stolen from a proselyte must be given to the kohanim. – [Sifrei Naso 1:13]

למעל מעל בה‘: הרי חזר וכתב כאן פרשת גוזל ונשבע על שקר, היא האמורה בפרשת ויקרא (ה, כא) ומעלה מעל בהוכחש בעמיתו וגו‘, ונשנית כאן בשביל שני דברים שנתחדשו בה האחד, שכתב והתודו, לימד שאינו חייב חומש ואשם על פי עדים עד שיודה בדבר. והשני על גזל הגר שהוא נתון לכהנים:

Rashi to Number 5:6

Notice what it says here. That the person who has embezzled, who has stolen is not required to pay for their crime until they confess. And that is what makes this type of justice different from what we know today. And vastly different from what we see in secular legal remedy. When taking on civil cases, for instance. In such instances people are required to pay the amount back – to put the person back into their right standing, as before they were deprived of their property. And often there is a punitive damage added. So a person settles all of their issues by paying up. But there it is no requirement for them to confess their wrongs. Often people still deny their guilt, even as they pay damages.

Our sages suggest that the process is incomplete if a person does not confess their sins. And I believe that is the most difficult point of this lesson. That when we wrong someone, we are required to confess the wrong we have done to them. Torah morality does not allow us to just silently throw money and make the problem go away. No, we are required to confess what we have done in order to put it behind us and set things right. To validate the reality of the wrongs we have done against people.

However, I have a personal observation. I believe that the need to confess is not just for the sake of the person wronged, and to do right by G-d. But it is also for the sake of the sinner. It is essential that a person recognize for themselves the wrong they have done, in order to make a correction in themselves. In order to lay it out all so that they never repeat this again. To stop hiding their sin in the background, by shedding light on it. Shattering that dark area in our lives. Liberating one from shame and guilt, and all the burden of denial.

As I stated, our rabbis take this discussion one step further. And Rashi, at the end of this commentary, in short makes the point that like others who have no next of kin the amount of recompense and damages against a convert is paid to the kohain instead. He focuses on the ger – the convert, the immigrant. Stealing from them while lying under oath. This is the specific sin that requires this seeming repeat in the principles of fair dealings. Of course, the prohibition against harming a ger is something often mentioned in our tradition, but to our rabbis it is more specifically connected to oath taking here.

Our tradition, is very strong on demanding that we do right by the stranger in our midst. That we do not harm the ger – the convert or the immigrant. And it challenges us more than just on a social-civil level. It challenges us to do right by them, so as not to harm the holy message of the Torah true life. To not desecrate the Torah and Judaism itself through our deeds.

Why is it so important that our rabbis constantly warn against doing wrong by the convert? I believe one of the most clear and concise ways of summing this up is done by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin – the well-known Torah scholar and inspirational writer:

“A person who comes to Torah on his own volition does so because of the beautiful and elevated ideas he hears regarding Torah principles. He made his decision on the assumption that those who follow the Torah will act toward him in accordance with all the Torah laws pertaining to interpersonal relations. If someone cheats him financially or in some other way wrongs him, he [the Ger Tzeddek; the Righteous Convert] will not only suffer a monetary loss. Rather, he might also feel disillusioned with his decision to accept a Torah way of life.

The Ger Tzeddek has usually given up very much because of his ideals and will experience much pain from his disappointment that the people he is in contact with do not meet the Torah standards he expected of them. The importance of not harming a convert can be seen from the fact that Torah warns us about this in a number of places. From the negative we can learn the positive. The merit of acting with love and kindness toward a convert is great.”

Growth Through Torah”, page 312

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

I don’t think I really need to add anything to that, as these wise words encapsulates how this all pans out in my mind as well upon consideration. This lesson especially hangs heavy on my heart, with personal sting of not so infrequently seeing strangers and converts wronged.

And furthermore, I feel the rabbi is right. This text and understanding can be redeemed by helping us realize just how important and meritorious it is to show kindness a stranger – to a convert or an immigrant.

In closing I would like to also leave us with one more observation by another very wise scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He gives us another reason as to seeming juxtaposition of this section with other commandments on the page. He instead relates it back to the conversation we had last week, about the tribal flags. And how some struggle with that in light of nationalism and the hostility towards outsiders. (see “Parshat Bamidbar 5774: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?”) The rabbi writes:

“But why must the laws of gezel ha-ger [stealing from a convert/immigrant] appear in Parashat Naso? The underlying idea, the motto which appears again and again throughout the first two parashiot of the book of Bemidbar [Numbers] is “le-mishpechotam le- beit avotam” – “according to their families and by the house of their fathers.” The beginning of the book of Bemidbar is filled with the idea of family and tribal roots. However, there is a psychological danger stemming from feelings of tribal rootedness and connection; it can lead to disregard and even hostility towards all outsiders, towards all those not belonging to the clan.

“While Judaism sees the family and the nation as central to Jewish identity and consciousness, it is well aware of the danger to which these loyalties can lead when taken to an extreme. It is for this reason that we are commanded with regard to gezel ha-ger in the middle of Parashat Naso. It is precisely the ger, the foreigner, lacking the sense of familial, tribal and national roots, who is most vulnerable to the atmosphere pervading the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar. Therefore, the Torah commands us here to deal with the ger exactly as we would with our fellow Israelites.”

Sicha of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a

I hope we all take this to heart as we read this parsha, and make a commitment to do right by the strangers in our midst.

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Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

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Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

Related articles:


Parshat Matot-Massei (2012)


Parshat Matot-Massei
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13

Shall your brothers go off to war and you sit here?”

Bochur and Soldier PrayingMost years the parashiot of Matot (Numbers 30:2–32:42) and Massei (Numbers 33:1–36:13) are paired together in order to accommodated the Lunar/Solar calendar that is free from seasonal drift due to celestial procession; Matot is only read separately on leap years in the Hebrew calendar. When parashiot are read together we try to find the connection between the two. In these two its not very hard, in fact much of the information in these final two Torah portions is actually more of a final summary of what has taken place so far in this book. However, it is important for us to remember that this is the drawing line in the narrative between the their journey BeMidbar (Heb. in the wilderness; also the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers) and the coming conquest of the Promised Land.

There is, however, a certain story that does stand out in this reading that is unparalleled; though elements of it is mention in both of these Torah portions; that is the inheritance of the Tribes of Ruvein and Gad.

What is important for us to remember is that the Israelites are now dwelling on the eastern side of the Jordan river, on land that was acquired in a war of self-defense. The inhabitants of the land had decided to attack the Israelites as they approached, despite Israel’s request for peace and compensation if they were allowed to passed on through their land. (see Numbers chapter 21) The Israelites quickly defeated them and captured the valleys east of the Jordan river. This is where they dwelt until it was time for them to ascend to the land.

Now as they are realizing that the tribes are getting ready to go up and cross over the Jordan, these two tribes would approach Moses, Eleazar the High Priest, and the elders of Israel. They make a simple statement:

“The land which Hashem struck down

before the congregation of Israel

is a land for livestock

and your servants have livestock.”

| Ha’aretz asher hikah Hashem

| lifnei adat Yisra’el

| eretz mikneh hi

| vela’avadeicha mikneh.

Numbers 32:4

And thus these two tribes request that they be released to not have to go over the Jordan river with the rest of the camps. (v.5) What is going on here? Why are they saying this and why now?

First off, its a simple statement. They are saying, “This is a good land for raising cattle, and what we have is cattle.” They are saying it at this point because the people are gearing up to cross over the Jordan to conquer the Land. Up until now it was understood that the Land on the order side of the Jordan was going to be divided among the Tribes, but here these two tribes look around and can’t help but notice that these plains are an ideal land for herding. They don’t want to leave this behind, as to abandon it means to lose it as a possession forever. The only way they can logically keep it is by settling it.

But there is another issue that seems to be driving their sense of urgency at this point. Notice the repeated point that is made, seemingly so that we don’t miss it; they have livestock. And quite a bit of it for them to make it a central concern, and for it to stand as their primary reason for needing this land acquisition.

For a moment let us remember this is not the first time Hebrews have ascended to this land. Avraham Avinu and Yaakov Avinu – our holy fathers Abraham and Jacob (also called Israel) – journeyed into the land. We can see that especially in the case of Yaakov’s ascent it was considered quite risky to try to cross over the Jordan with children and livestock in fear for their safety, and therefore he made every effort to not have to do so if at all possible. (see Parshat Vayishlach) It appears to me they bare the same concern here. They do not want to put their children or their numerous flocks at risk by trying to ford the river when they had already come to acquire a good and hospitable land.

Now Moses does seem a bit incensed by their request. But it is not because they wanted to live on those parcels of land. Notice how Moses responds:

“And Moses said to the descendants of Gad

and the descendants of Ruben:

Shall your brothers go off to war

and you sit here?

Why do you discourage the hearts

of the children of Israel

from going into the land

which I have given to them?”

| Vayomer Moshe livnei-Gad

| velivnei Re’uvein:

| Ha’acheichem yavo’u lamilchamah

| ve’atem teshvu foh.

| Velamah teni’un et-lev

| bnei Yisra’el

| me’avor el-ha’aretz

| asher-natan lahem Hashem.

Numbers 32:6-7

First lets hit on the obvious note here, Moses is positing the clear reality that these two tribes are of significant number and will be needed as part of the military force to go against the Canaanites. They are already outnumbered. If these two tribes settle here are they just gonna sit behind on their laurels as the rest of their people go up against an existential threat? In the strongest terms Moses assails them, in a tone that seems to questions their manly honor; as if to say, “How can you live with yourself knowing you didn’t get off your rear-ends to help?”

But Moses doesn’t just appeal to their most carnal sense of honor; the type of dignity that any regular man should have inside himself; on a secular and humanitarian level. Moses goes one step further, to challenge them on a moral and religious level.

As we come upon this story we cannot help but notice that is affair is story is interspersed between references to Yehoshua and Kelev (Joshua and Caleb, the spies) who were honored and rewarded for their faithfulness. But here there is a direct purposefulness in the connection being made, other than using it as a point of reference for a unique precedent of mere land allotment.

Moses begins to immediately make the claim that the request they are making is going to discourage the people from going into the Land. It is just like when the people went up to the edge of the Land, sent spies to see it, but then refused to actually go up into it. (v.8-9) The spies showed reluctance, and this had an affect on the moral of the rest of the people who looked to them. And this is the key issue here. The spies hesitance led to grumbling and fear in the rest of the congregation. This brought down G-d’s wrath which lead to the plagues and the generation-long wandering in circles in the wilderness. Moses felt he had to address this head-on before it got to that again.

If we think about it, even though these two tribes are significant in size they are not the most populous. And it is also true that they are already greatly outnumbered by the Canaanites, so their lack of support was not necessarily jeopardizing the Israelites goal of conquest fatally; the odds were already against them. Quite honestly, the best support that they could really show was moral support and solidarity for the cause of the entire Nation of Israel by not abandoning their brothers and joining in the campaign.

Sure, there is something to be said about their physical and material contribution by them staying along with the ranks of their brothers as they went to war. We are not merely talking about these two groups backing out and leaving a whole left-flank with only the sole Tribe of Shimon to attack and keep the Canaanites from coming down and around to their rear as they advanced. Yes, they did have some physical usefulness.

However it appears to me that that their greatest contribution was that as moral support and guidance, and that is what Moses is getting at. If we look at what puts these two tribes in a unique position over the rest of the tribes, its not in their numbers. However, both of these two tribes are the senior families of their clans. Ruvein is the eldest of the sons of Leah; and Gad is the elder son of Zilpa, Leah’s servant and concubine to Jacob. However Ruvein is the eldest over all the sons of Israel as first born. These two tribes, being the senior clans of the house of Leah the first-wife, would naturally be looked up to by the rest. What ever Ruvein and Gad would do the rest of the tribes are likely to follow.

Sure, Ruvein and Gad leaving the rest of the Tribes of Israel physically vulnerable was of concern to Moses. But more so, he is concerned that they are again rising up in the same rebellion as their forefathers, and that would bring wrath upon the people. (v.14) Furthermore, he states if they abandon their ranks then G-d will likewise desert them. They will be lost in the inhospitable wilderness once again. But not just that, even worse they will become responsible for the destruction of their entire people. (v.15)

Ruvein and Gad have enjoyed the position of being the wise and influential older-brothers. Now they are being called on to meet the responsibility of that position. Their guidance and assurance were surely needed in this campaign.

After considering this the two tribes understood their role. They were not repentant in their desire to posses that land of their choosing and settle their families safely there. But they could not escape the reality that they had a responsibility to their people. It was not enough that they got what they wanted and were content; they had an outstanding debt to provide the same security to the rest of Israel.

For this reason they respond to Moses with the promise that they will indeed settle there, making fortified settlements for their livestock and children, (v. 16) and then immediately after they would arm themselves and go up as the vanguard. Their children would be left behind in safety, but they would take up the front-lines. (v. 17) Quickly wanting to return home they would use their skill and prowess to form an advancing force of shock-and-awe in order to capture the Canaanite cities. And thus they promise:

“We will not return to our houses

until the inheritance of the Children of Israel

is inherited by each person.

For we will not inherit with them

on the other side of the Jordan

and onward,

for our inheritance is transferred to us

on this side of the Jordan eastward.”

| Lo nashuv el-bateinu

| ad hitnachel bnei Yisra’el

| ish nachalato.

| Ki lo ninchal itam

| me’ever la-Yarden

| vahal’ah

| ki va’ah nachalatenu eleinu

| me’ever haYarden mizrachah.

Numbers 32:18-19

Sure, the tribes of Ruvein and Gad are going to play it safe. They are going to keep their possessions and their children safe, maintain a tranquil home for themselves outside of the conflict-zone, while still meeting their responsibilities to their people. But now they were not just asking for special treatment as first-born sons, instead they are stepping forward as men of the order of Yehoshua and Kelev who would be given special land rights by earning such an honor through their exceptional national service.

Moses accepts this vow. Anyone who crosses over and goes to battle will be given their land grants on the east of the Jordan river. (v.29) Those who do not go to war will be given land inside Israel Proper, on the lands they will capture from the Canaanites. (v. 30) This is agreed upon by the tribes. (v. 33)

But before this promise is made and accepted Moses does give them one warning about this responsibility that is being carried by these elder tribes. This is what Moses says is the consequence for reneging and not following through:

“And if you do not do accordingly

you will have sinned against Hashem,

and you know which of your sins

it is that will find you.”

| Ve’im-lo ta’asun

| ken hineh chatatem l’Hashem

| ude’u chatatchem asher

| timtza etchem.

Numbers 32:23

Again, these two tribes are playing it safe. They do not want to put their assets at risk. Here they are being warned if they turn around, once they realize that they have left their possessions and families fortified but unprotected, and then they should decide to go back in aid of their own preservation, they should know that all the horrors they have tried to avoid will come to their own doorstep.

Even though we see that Ruvein and Gad did do the right thing in the end, our tradition cannot help but call to attention their selfishness and greed. How do I say greed? Notice that the first thing the mention regarding their possessions they wish to preserve is their livestock, only secondly do they mention their children. (v. 16) Their reason for staying put is clearly a financial one all along!

Some things still haven’t changed. Some people are still content to try to take it easy and live in luxury outside of the Land of Israel instead of helping secure the Jewish homeland. Our Rabbis would criticize this attitude among the ancient tribes and us today:

“Likewise for the origins

of the children of Gad,

and the children of Reuben,

you will find that they were rich,

possessing large numbers of cattle,

but they loved their money

and settled outside the Land of Israel.

Consequently they were the first

of all the tribes to go into exile.”

וכן את מוצא |

בבני גד |

ובני ראובן, |

שהיו עשירים הרבה |

והיה להם מקנ |

הגדול וחבבו את ממונם |

וישבו להם חוצה לארץ. |

לכך גלו תחלה |

מכל השבטים |

Midrash Rabbah, Siman 5

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Parshat Pinchas (2012)


Parshat Pinchas (2012)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Cost of Leadership: Having to take it up with your Higher Authority

Confused JudgeWhat is the cost of leadership? What type of price does someone need to pay in order to be in charge. It goes without saying that most people would not mind being a person of greater importance. Being ambitious is a good thing. Most people wouldn’t mind being the boss, with all the benefits and privileges that comes with leadership. “Being in Charge” is really attractive to most people. People always seem to think that it means that you have no one to answer to, until you find yourself being “The Decider.”

That’s not to say that everyone is ambitious for power. As we learn Moses was more humble than any man on the face of the earth (see Numbers 12:3). In fact he showed great resistance to taking on leadership (see Exodus 4:10-17). But it becomes apparent to us as we go on through the exodus story that Moses does actually grow into his job. In time he would take responsibility for the governance of Israel and hearing all the cases of the Israelites.

But as we learned along the way, this was not the ideal. Moses was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to delegate responsibility because he could not do it all himself. (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim) Thus the cases were heard by tribal leaders and elders who served as judges. But if something was too hard for them to figure out it was to be brought to Moses. (see Deut. 1:17)

Here in this parsha we see one of these situations arise, where a case was appealed to Moses as an ultimate authority to rule on a subject. Starting with Numbers chapter 27 we see that five daughters of Tzel’ofechad, of the Tribe of Menasheh, descendant of Yoseph haTzadik (Joseph the Righteous), brought a case to be settled. Up until now the camps and corresponding land allotments are being given according to one’s paternal lineage; from father to son exclusively.

Among the few exceptions that were not accounted for out of all the families that were recorded in the census at the beginning of this book were the families of those who perished with Korach and his rebellion, therefore there were no living heirs. The other exception was the allotment to Yehoshuah and Kelev (Joshua and Caleb, the spies) who were given their choicest lands as a reward for their upstandingness instead of by lot (see Numbers 26:55; with Rashi; and corresponding references to Judges 1:20 and Joshua 19:49-51).

We find out that these five daughters who brought their case to Moses were the only living descendants of their father. Though their father had perished in the desert, his death was unique from the others in that he had not be in rebellion. His daughters stood before Moses and all the authorities and made their case that their father died of some sort of private sin, but it was not for incitement or rebellion. We don’t know why exactly, but our sages suggest everything for violating Shabbat or approaching Sinai when it was unsafe to do so, and therefore he died. The fact that their father was not a rebel was obvious from the fact that they were alive, whereas rebels and their kin had all previously perished (see Parshat Korach).

These women contended the only reason they were being excluded from the land allotments was because their father died without having any sons. Furthermore, they contended his error had nothing to do with them. Even yet, his sin to some could be considered a transgression based on ignorance which caused him to die in an untimely manner. Their father might have had his faults for which he paid ultimately for, but that didn’t warrant that his name should be forgotten and his descendants treated like they didn’t exist.

There was no remedy for them. An examples would have been the leverite marriage; someone closely related could have married them to help them keep their property. But no one stepped up to the call here, and this wasn’t their fault. Therefore they demanded a remedy. (Numbers 27:1-4).

The parsha (at the end of the third aliyah reading) reads as follows:

“And Moses brought their case

before Hashem.”

| Vayakrev Moshe et-mishpatan

| lifnei Hashem

Numbers 27:5

Rashi makes the most ingesting commentary regarding this verse:

So Moses brought their case:

The law eluded him,

and here he was paying

for crowning himself [with authority]

by saying:

‘and the case that is too difficult for you,

bring to me’ (Deut. 1:17)”

ויקרב משה את משפטן: |

נתעלמה הלכה ממנו |

וכאן נפרע |

על שנטל עטרה |

לומר: |

והדבר אשר יקשה מכם |

תקריבון אלי |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

Surely other people had died in such careless ways as the father of these women, but the uniqueness of the situation was that there was no other living male in this case to help them. And even more unique, is all of these women were very wise and bold enough to adequately make their case before Moses and the elders. It had been appealed all the way to him to settle.

Keep in mind this wasn’t the first case of inheritance rights that was being brought to him to settle, we saw the case of the half-Egyptian Israelite earlier where he did appeal, but his claim was rejected and it resulted in a great crisis in their midst. The half-Egyptian flew off the handle and so it went no further, because he was so mad he cursed G-d and then died. (see Parshat Emor) These women also strongly presented their claim, yet they honorably made their case and so it stood to demanded a response.

So here arises this case. This time even more complicated, not a son, but daughters. And their claim seemed valid. It could not be so easily dismissed. So what does Moses do in response? He decides to bring the issue before G-d.

There are a few things we lead from Rashi’s commentary. The first is that this was something that Moses had not considered before. He didn’t think of mentioning such a situation in his previous instructions, only recognizing the rights of male-to-male relative inheritance. He didn’t possess an answer to remedy this situation. Moses was stumped.

Now it is true that Mosheh Rabbeninu – Moses our Teacher – as the author of our tradition, was the teacher par-excellence who understood Torah more so that any other person. But here it is admitted that something eluded him. This is not surprising to us Jews. Moses is not an oracle or avatar, he was a mere man who was limited in ability and understanding just like any individual. This is not so surprising for me to see this revealed in these scriptures

What is amazing to me is that Moses actually admits that this issues is beyond his compressions. He does what few people of high authority do; after struggling with the issue he admits that he doesn’t know the answer and he does not do anything until he consults G-d on it. This is yet another sign of his great humility.

Yet there is something more that amazes me still about Rashi’s commentary. He states that Moses “nefshar,” meaning that here he was paying the price. What was he paying the price for? For taking the “crown” of authority. He had previously said that if there was any issue that was too hard for the people then it should be brought to him, and here he was being called on to follow through.

And herein comes our lesson about authority and leadership. Everyone wants to be the king of the hill. It looks so easy to wear the crown. By “crown” we are being symbolic. But here in the biblical age it is quite literal. For the most part authority laid in the hands of monarchs. Even in Israel’s case, at this point in history they are without a monarchy and nobility, but the honored people of their tribes are still refereed to a princes. (see Numbers 1:16; Parshat BeMidbar) That is how much respect they commanded. But above them all was Moses, the final authority. We was the Commander-in-Chief; as they say, it appears that the buck stopped here.

Want to see the cost of leadership? Sometimes it’ written all over the faces of those in charge.

For a moment I would like us to consider our own leaders today, my friend. For a moment let us just consider our politicians and government officials. One of the most remarkable observations most of us have about leadership, being in a modern world where we are accustomed to seeing our leaders regularly, is how quickly they age when they get to the top off the ladder. The media loves to discuss how quickly we age our Presidents. The responsibility is so weighing upon them that is clearly evident to us that the burden they shoulder wears on them to the point that its prematurely ages them in dramatic ways. Being the boss isn’t as cozy and easy as it seems. They are people who we turn to in order to provide solutions to us for the really hard decisions. Such responsibility takes its mental and physical toll. This is the cost of leadership.

Let us consider the case again for a second, and try to understand what make it so perplexing to Moses. These daughters of Tzel’ofechad are not just being difficult women. They aren’t there to just nag him. Their problem is very pressing. The nation is going to ascend into the Land and they are going to be left homeless unless a situation is found for them. Moses’ instructions regarding inheritance seemed clear and easy enough to understand, there was very little ambiguity regarding it, but it did not address their needs. It was unthinkable that they should be left without remedy. Upon hearing their case and considering the real injustice in this matter if left unsettled, Moses appeals to G-d to give him the answer that is escaping him.

Again I want us to remember the situation of the half-Egyptian (in Parshat Emor). A remedy was not found for this man thus it led to blasphemy of the Name of G-d, and subsequently the man’s death. It appears to me that in light of this situation, when once again called to rule on an issue of inheritance, especially on an issue that was sorely neglected from his policy, Moses not only felt like he had to hear out their issue but he also seemed to feel the urgency of having to find a real answer. Their livelihood depended on it. He would not allow the children of Israel to stand back aloof once again; unbending, unresolved; and leaving these women in ruin.

Now despite all Moses’ wisdom this issue was beyond his ability to decide on his own. We should also keep in mind that this is a dramatic switch in inheritance rights in an age where women are ordinarily given no regard at all. Any change in policy would be a big deal, with huge societal consequence. In Moses’ humility he does not think himself wise enough to decide alone, and thus brings it to G-d to decide.

Of course we learn that G-d responds to Moses’ petition on this matter. G-d says that in this case “Ken benot Tzel’ofechad dovrot / the daughters of Tzel’ofechad spoke correctly,” and thus G-d commanded the transfer their father’s property to them (v.7). Our tradition says that it is said intensely and with great “evrah,” or anger or wrath on the part of G-d for the situation of these women. (Rashi on v.7)

Hashem therefore instructed that from then on any daughter of Israel may inherit their father’s property. Practically what this means is any woman who has no left her father’s household may retain it as her own property in his passing as inheritor. However, it is not to be transferred to another clan, say if she were to remarry. It was already the case that land and tribal holdings remain in the tribe, not to transfer forever to another; this law previously understood to apply to mere sales. Now in around about way it’s extending this law even to this situation, while allowing provision for a maiden to maintain her home and lifestyle should she not marry into another family. If this were to happen, then the father’s male relatives would inherit the property and keep it in trust for the tribe. Likewise, if a man was without any daughters as well as sons, then it would follow the regular method and likewise go to the nearest male relative. (v.8-11) Thus a legal remedy was found.

As we consider this weeks parsha, and we consider all the responsibilities and positions of authority in which we may find ourselves accountable for, I would hope that we would come away taking to heart the example of Moses. When people turn to us for help we should do everything that we can to provide the assistance and guidance they need. We should not just ignore their problem, thinking ourselves so smart and so important that we should not be questioned and further appealed to when our answers don’t seem to fit so nicely. We should not just harshly hold on to what we think we already know about something, but hear a person out regarding their situation. And if we do, we might find that we have don’t really have all the answers after all. The situation might not be as cut-and-dry as we expect.

We need to listen and really consider things. How could Moses have taken this issue to G-d if he hadn’t first listen enough to comprehend their concerns and adequately present their case to Hashem?

And the greatest lesson of all is that we should not just rely on our own understanding and impulses regarding something. We should take it to G-d, and continue to seek His guidance and understanding until we do understand and find a solution. This is not just a good idea. This is the cost of leadership. The weight of this crown his heavy; the cost of it is very great. If listening to people intently and giving heavy reflection was necessary for Moses, how much more is it necessary for us simpletons?

Something To Think About:

In the Jewish tradition we refer to the Torah as “Zot haTorah asher sam Mosheh lifnei bnei Yisrael; al-pi Hashem b’yad Mosheh / This is the Torah that was set before the children of Israel; upon the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” This is said during the Hagbah – the lifting of the Torah for all to witness; in Ashkenazi tradition this is after the reading; it is composed of two verses, Deuteronomy 4:44 and Numbers 9:23; in the Sephardi tradition this is said before the reading, though interchanging the latter verse with Deuteronomy 33:4 instead, continuing with the words “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh morasha kehilat Yaakov / the Torah which Moses commanded us, as a heritage for the congregation of Yaakov”. Traditionally people understand this as meaning that the Torah was written by Moses.

Whether or not Moses physically wrote the Torah in our tradition is something we almost consider irrelevant. We recognize that almost all of our tradition was mostly oral at one point. When we say “b’yad” (Heb. “by the hand of”) we don’t always necessarily mean that a person physically wrote something out themselves, but that it was “handed down” from them. Some of our tradition was written, some of it was oral for a great deal of our history. But either way we consider it coming from Moses because he had a hand in the decision-making and demonstration of these truths.

If we return to the commentary of Rashi we have a very interesting statement being made regarding our original verse we discussed in Numbers 27:5. The continuing commentary reads as follows:

“Another interpretation is

it was proper that this affair

be written down by the hand of Moses

but the daughters of Tzel’ofechad won [their case]

and so it was written in by them.”

דבר אחר |

ראויה היתה פרשה זו |

להכתב על ידי משה, |

אלא שזכו בנות צלפחד |

ונכתבה על ידן: |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

What do we mean by this? There is something unusual about the verse. It does look quite out-of-place because it actually refers to Moses in the third-person; “and Moses brought their case…” How can this be if this is “written” by Moses. This seems like another interesting fluke akin to when the scriptures say Moses is the humblest of men; would Moses really speak of himself in this manner? I don’t know. But to me it’s still irrelevant to debate if Moses was the physical scribe.

However this question is kind of interesting to contemplate, because if we say that this phrase means Moses wrote out the Torah himself, are we saying here in this verse that these five Israelite daughters wrote this passage into the Torah themselves “al yadin / by their own hand?” Most likely not, but it doesn’t matter if they did or didn’t anyhow. The truth is had they not raised this issue before Moses and the elders to bring before G-d it would have never been documented in the Torah at all. Their veracity and wisdom regarding this matter makes it as good as if it was written by them, because without their insight this would have never have been mentioned and resolved at all. Through these five women a whole new insight into Torah was handed down for the benefit of all Israel. They “wrote” a new chapter in Jewish history.

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Parshat Balak (2012)


Parshat Balak
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

What Is Divination and Soothsaying? What is the problem with working magic?

CharmsAs we come into this parsha we need to once again remember that the majority of this story is going to surround the actions of Balaam, and not Balak from whom this parsha is named. (see Parshat Balak 2011) The Torah expresses that he possessed some sort of prophetic abilities, even though it is quite obvious that he is not an Israelite. His gentile status is revealed in how he is astonished by Israel and considers them “the other” in his utterances. Though we are not sure exactly where he was from, early Torah translations and variations identify his land of Pethor as being in Ammon; this is north of Moab, being north of the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan River. This is supported by us finding verses here and in other places that further identify the area as Amon, and being in Mesopotamia; simply put, the present day Syria. The king of Moab sent for him in order to curse the camps of Israel.

What we have to ask ourselves first is what type of prophet is this? How can we consider this person a prophet at all? We cannot deny that he had an ability to connect to the Divine because he even refers to G-d by His explicit name; Havayah – Hashem, the Ineffable Name of G-d (יהוה). He knew G-d well enough to understand who He was, and how wrong his involvement was all throughout the story and yet still goes along with the scheme. I would suggest that he possessed prophetic abilities, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a prophet. He had spiritual sensitivity, but was not in-tune enough to hear the voice of any moral conscience. He was driven more by greed than mysticism. At best all we can consider him some sort of mercenary prophet.

In reality, he is really more of a magician than a prophet. Even then we must understand that by considering him a prophet we aren’t saying much about the quality of the individual or their abilities. A navi was always understood as more of being a person who speaks for an official purpose, generally regarding things that are of contemporary concern to the people whom they represent. In our scriptures we have other examples of people who were not morally right who experienced the state of navuah – the state of prophetic utterance; the officers of the evil King Saul and even the king himself were said to be overcome and immobilized by a state of prophecy when they were on their campaign of oppression and murder. (see 1 Samuel 19:18-24) Their appointed status seems to merit their spiritual experience, not their character. And so it is with Balaam.

In fact there is nothing all that mystical about the word prophecy in Hebrew anyhow. Navuah is not magic. If we look at the roots for the word navuah we find that the scriptures reveal that its source word Niv means “sayings.” A Navi is just a person of official capacity that is good with words, so G-d utilizes them. (see Isaiah 57:19) They know how to entice people with the G-d-given ability to provide the sweetened fruit of their lips.

For all his spiritual abilities and exceptional nature, we need to remember the bottom line is that he was a man whose morals were for sale. He was an opportunist and corrupt, but he wasn’t exactly dishonest. He fully disclosed that he had no real abilities other than what G-d would allow. (see Numbers 22:18) He had no true power at all, he was just able to read the signs around him. And even then, not even well enough to control the ecstatic state of prophecy that would overtake him. He wasn’t all that impressive in the end. He was just a magician, using good observations and a lot of dramatic tricks. This was the norm. So much so the norm that he would instead point out the exceptionalism of Israel in this matter. In astonishment he would declare the words:

“For there is no sorcery in Jacob,

and there is no soothsaying in Israel.

And in time it will be said of Jacob

and of Israel: ‘What has G-d done?’”

| Ki lo-nachash beYa’akov

| velo kesem beYisra’el

| ka’et ye’amer le-Ya’akov

| ule-Yisra’el mah-pa’al El

Numbers 23:23

In his observations about the spiritual practices of Israel he points out that there is no nachash in the descendants of Jacob, also called Israel. Generally we understand this to mean divination or sorcery. What this mean is to figure out something by use of omens, augury (observance of animal related omens) or spell-casting. A nachash is a spell or enchantment.

Actually enchantment (nachash; noun, masc.) is probably the best way of describing this in biblical terms. You see there is a drawn mental image that might explain the entomology of the word. Nachash (also a noun, masc.) is also understood to mean a snake as well. Charming snakes is one of the oldest tricks in the books. In the book of Exodus we see Moses’ rod turns into a nachash, a snake or viper (see Exodus 4:3). But this was so well achieved as a parlor trick that even Pharaoh’s magicians accomplished a similar feat with water-serpents (see Exodus 7:9), so they felt unimpressed.

To us modern Hebrew speakers, an everyday and more common understanding isn’t so impressive for us either. We are less than impressed with the practice of nachash, as sorcery and enchantment. To nichesh (verb) is generally understood merely to mean to guess, to speculate, hypothesize and make conjecture.

This is the cheesy side of magic. We generally see magic as a bunch of tricks and performance art. Modern people like us don’t see anything special about “magic.” Which we comely associate with the everyday word kesem, this is the more correct word when it comes to magic. To kosem means to captivate a person, to entice them, to allure them; thus when we call a person a kosem, we are calling them a magician but what we really mean is soothsayer because they are just using mysticism and spiritual tones to pacifying people.

In purely secular terms the correct word for kesem would be illusionism. A kosem does things that seem impossible ordinarily, but have logical explanations for the phenomenon in the end. The skill of their “craft” was more dependent on being good at entertainment in the end.

But there was some element of actual physical craft that was part of this of the kosem’s profession. A kosem in the biblical age was a person that someone went to for a physical form of divining, it was not something nearly as passive and suggestive as nachash. Kesem bares similar roots for many words that relate to cutting, specifically with the connotation of wood or fruit cutting. For this reason it is associated with wooden pieces used as lots for divining. So much so that in modern Hebrew keisamim meanstoothpicks.” By reading the way they portioned themselves once cast one would decipher a person’s fate; in Arabic they still utilize a word for this, qismah to this day; from this is derived the Turkish word adopted into the English language for fate, kismet.

The kosem wasn’t okay with just letting things be. Balaam was not willing to do any form of physical sorcery, it seems. But not everyone is so upright. Sure, Balaam was a wicked man by any measure. But he was only willing to go so far. Not everyone is so reserved when it comes to this. Naturally when one involves themselves in tapping into magical arts they often find themselves taking it to another level and try to change their presumed fate though witchcraft. This reality is driven home to us by the fact that the messengers of Balak seem to have expected him to resort to this.

And they came, the elders of Moab

and the elders of Midian,

with charms in their hands

and they came to Balaam and they spoke

to him the message of Balak.”

| Vayelechu ziknei Moav

| vezikney Midian

| uksamim beyadam

| vayavo’u el-Bil’am vayedaberu

| elav divrei Valak.

Numbers 22:7

Again whereas nashash can seem to be more passive, through suggestiveness and seeking intuition; kesem is more active and includes physical acts. To mikasim, engage in magical arts and to spell-cast (mak’sim), is completely related to people using physical items in order to work their magic. Notice the commentary of Rashi:

And divination in their hands:

with all forms of charms (kesamim)

so that he could not say:

‘I don’t have any ritual items with me.’

Another way of read it is

this omen

the elders of Midian took with them…”

וקסמים בידם: |

כל מיני קסמים, |

שלא יאמר |

אין כלי תשמישי עמי. |

דבר אחר |

קֶסֶם זה |

נטלו בידם זקני מדין |

Rashi on Numbers 22:7

One of the points that is pointed out by our rabbis in their translations and their commentaries on the Talmud is that the acts of a kosem is to take ordinary things, enchant them in order to reflect their desires, and then cast them as an act of the Divine Will. Instead of being in-tuned with the situation and proactive in adverting their disaster by their own actions, they instead want to change the world around them. They do that sympathetically by taking items created by G-d, manipulating them in a certain way and then trying to strong-arm the orders of the universe to submit to their will. Instead of mitigating and preparing, all too often the simpletons think they can change they whole world to suit them. By taking elements of nature and tweaking them, they mistakenly believe they can manipulate the Divine Will and the order of the universe. (see Talmud Sanhedrin 81b; also related commentary of 19th century American Talmudist Rabbi Marcus Jastrow)

The Rambam has the following to say regarding magic:

ודברים האלו כולן |

דברי שקר וכזב |

הן והם שהטעו בהן |

עובדי כוכבים |

הקדמונים לגויי הארצות |

כדי שינהגו אחריהן |

ואין ראוי לישראל |

שהם חכמים מחוכמים |

להמשך בהבלים אלו |

ולא להעלות |

על לב שיש תועלת |

בהן שנאמר |

“כי לא נחש ביעקב |

ולא קסם בישראל” |

ונאמר |

“כי הגוים האלה אשר אתה יורש אותם אל מעוננים |

ואל קוסמים ישמעו |

ואתה לא כן |

וגו’” |

|

|

כל המאמין בדברים האלו |

וכיוצא בהן |

ומחשב בלבו שהן אמת |

ודבר חכמה |

אבל התורה אסרתן אינן |

אלא מן הסכלים |

ומחסרי הדעת |

ובכלל הנשים |

והקטנים |

שאין דעתן שלימה |

אבל בעלי החכמה |

ותמימי הדעת |

ידעו בראיות ברורות |

שכל אלו הדברים |

שאסרה תורה |

אינם דברי חכמה |

אלא תהו והבל |

שנמשכו בהן חסרי |

הדעת ונטשו כל דרכי האמת |

בגללן ומפני זה |

אמרה תורה |

כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים |

“תמים תהיה |

|

עם ה’ |

אלהיך”: |

|

“And all of these things

are matters of falsehood and lies,

and they are the very means through which

the idol worshipers

fooled the nations of the world

into following them.

And it is not proper for Israel,

who are exceptionally wise,

to follow after these vanities,

nor to entertain the possibility

that they have any benefit.

As it is said [in the Torah]

“there is no divination in Jacob,

nor charming in Israel.”

And it is stated,

“For these nations that you will inherit

listen to the omen-readers and charmers;

but for you, it is not so

[…that Hashem, your G-d, should permit you to do

so].” (Deut:18:14)

|

Anyone who believes in these things

and things like them,

and thinks in his heart that they are true

and wise matters,

even though the Torah has prohibited them,

he is one of the mindless

and ignorant,

and is grouped among the “wives”

and immature

whose mind is lacking.

But those who possess wisdom

and sound mind

knows by clear demonstration

that all of these things

that the Torah prohibits

are not things of wisdom;

rather, they are emptiness and vanity

that fools stray after,

and all of the paths of truth

have been corrupted because of them.

Because of this the Torah states,

when it warns us about these vanities,

“You shall be simple

[or perfect; uncomplicated; whole-hearted]

with Hashem,

your G-d:” (Deut. 18:13)

[see Parshat Chukat 2011]

Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim, Chapter 11, § 16

Rambam, Rabbi Mosheh ben-Maimon, Maimonidies;

the 12th Century Spain and Egypt

It is undeniable that our tradition forbids the use of charms and magical items. It is our goal to be unison with the seasons of blessing. We want to be on the same page as nature and G-d so that we don’t miss out. But we aren’t so foolish enough to think that we can change the order of the world to suit our own purposes. Anything that we hold as a charm is forbidden to us, we can’t warp the world nor should we warp our minds minds with such foolishness.

But do we not as Jews hold certain items as sacred? Are not certain ritual items held in high regard, and when we take them upon ourselves do we not feel a sense of protection and a good atmosphere surrounding us? Yes. But it is not at all the same. Balaam apparently recognized the difference, when he said:

Behold, they are a people

that rises up like a lioness

and raises itself like a lion;

it does not does not lie down

until it eats its prey

until it drinks the blood of it’s kill.”

| Hen-am

| kelavi yakum

| vecha’ari yitnasa

| lo yishkav

| ad-yochal teref

| vedam-chalalim yishteh.

Numbers 23:24

Rashi would acknowledge that we do have ritual items and ceremonial acts that we as Jews engage in. But we should understand that we are not enchanting or spell-casting through our acts or rituals. Rashi points this out in his commentary for this verse:

Behold a people etc.:

For when they awaken from sleep

in the morning

they strengthen themselves as a lioness

and like a lion

in grabbing mitzvot;

to don a tallit,

to recite the Shema,

and put on tefillin

|

Does not lie down:

at night until he consumes and destroys

any harmful thing

that comes to tear him.

How so?

He recites the Shema on his bed

and entrusts his spirit

into the hand

of the Omnipresent [Heb. ha-Makom].

Should an army or any troop

come to harm them,

the Holy One, blessed is He,

protects them,

fights their battles

and strikes them [their attackers] down dead

הן עם כלביא יקום וגו‘: |

כשהן עומדים |

משנתם שחרית, |

הן מתגברין כלביא |

וכארי |

לחטוף את המצות, |

ללבוש טלית |

לקרוא את שמע |

ולהניח תפילין: |

|

לא ישכב: |

בלילה על מטתו |

עד שהוא אוכל ומחבל כל מזיק |

הבא לטרפו. |

כיצד? |

קורא את שמע על מטתו |

ומפקיד רוחו |

ביד |

המקום, |

בא מחנה |

וגייס להזיקם, |

הקבה |

שומרם |

ונלחם מלחמותם |

ומפילם חללים. |

Rashi on Numbers 23:24

When the morning comes a Jew should be quick to rise in the morning with enthusiasm in order to take on their daily responsibilities. (see Tikkun Chatzot; and Modeh Ani) Sure we have ritual items, and we hold them so dear that as religious Jews that we start our day with taking upon ourselves the ritual-items of our faith. But we don’t do it for the protection of the items. We do it because they enable us to be able to meet our responsibilities of prayer and devotion; with the reciting of the Shema day and night. This is our avodah, our service and our work before Hashem, that we are to do as faithful people. These symbols of our faith are not charms, they are items that meant to help connect us to our spirituality and to the Torah; to help us get in touch with the consciousness of the Omnipresent. We don’t try to fight against G-d’s works and creation, instead we try to be in sync with it.

We must keep in mind that our faith is not at all passive, but it does not allow us the possibility of believing we can change the universe and nature. We aren’t allowed the luxury of sympathetic magic in order to try to bring blessing and good fortune to us. What is the working principle and the distinction between the nations and Israel, as far as Balaam can see, is that they have the drive to go out and grab their fortune for themselves. Like a lion they get up with strength and eagerness to grab hold of what they desire, and don’t stop until they are satisfied.

We don’t try to fight the Divine Will, nor try to mold it to our own shallow and short-sighted desires. Instead we engage ourselves in the works of Torah and mitzvot that are given to us by G-d. We engage in His works. And at the end of the day when we finally do lay down to rest we need not rely on our own strength or any type of magical power; instead we entrust ourselves to G-d and He does the work of protecting us.

For this reason it is said this parsha, in this first verse we have discussed, that:

“For in time it will be said of Jacob

and of Israel: ‘What has G-d done?’”

כָּעֵת, יֵאָמֵר לְיַעֲקֹב |

וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל, מַה-פָּעַל, אֵל: |

Numbers 23:23


Parshat Chukat (2012)


Parshat Chukat
Numbers 19 -22:1

The Bronze Serpent: Sometimes problems arise, quite literally

Seprent on a RodAs we come into this weeks parsha we see that the children of Israel have been turned away from entering into the Promised Land. The Edomites, the descendants of Eisav (Esau, the brother of Yaakov Avinu, Jacob our Father who was also called Israel; see Parshat Vayishlach) turned them away, not allowing them to cross through their land in their travels. (Numbers 20:18) For this reason they were forced to turn back into the wilderness toward the sea where they had come from. In the process this also exposed them to the attacks of Canaanites, who had managed to take captives from their ranks before subsequently being defeated. This left the Israelites with acquired land in the south to occupy, but they still did not have enough access to territory to ascend up to their land. Having to turn back around and face the windlessness they dwelt in for a whole generation it says “vtikzar nefesh / and they were disheartened.” (Numbers 21:3-4) What this literally means is “and they were short of spirit”.

The people begin to complain and grumble over their situation. This results in them befalling a horrible tragedy, as we read:

“And Hashem sent against the people

venomous [lit. burning] snakes

and they began to bite the people

and many people of Israel died.”

| Vayeshalach Hashem ba’am

| et hanechashim hasrafim

| vayenashchu et-ha’am

| vayamot am-rav miYisra’el

Numbers 21:6

Our rabbis bring down the obvious allusion being drawn by this plague, the people’s evil and negative words had become like the venom from the fangs of a serpent. This was slander that was so great that it had mortal consequences, and it immediately began to be demonstrated by a plague from G-d to show in their physical bodies how they were being consumed spiritually. What do I mean by this? I don’t many anything spooky. Spirit literally means a burst of air, wind. But figurately spirit in Hebrew (ruach), just like in the English language usually means an attitude of people; most often of people in group. To be of spirit means a determined and enthusiastic attitude shows by an individual or a group of people. Like when we think of the terms “team spirit” or “school spirit.” Only in passing and more figuratively do we reference the very similar words nefesh (souls) and ruach (spirit) in relations to an person’s eternal-soul or spirit-beings.

Instead of being of spirit, motived by an air of respectability and determination; they were short of spirit, they had the wind taken out of their sails. They were depressed. And this depression lead to resentment, and eventually anger being leveled against G-d and Moses through their griping. (v.5)

If spirit is like wind, the rushing and passing air that invisibly animates things, so too their words invisibly have effects on the atmosphere and situation around them. Not just subtly, but with all the ability to consume a person to the point of death, by poisoning their outlook. It does not take long for the people recognize the symbolism here, and to understand their wrong was speaking against G-d and Moses. As the American Indians say of liars, “they speak with forked-tongue,” the children of Israel are dripping negativity and slander like venom from fangs and they recognized it. So they turn to Moses and confess they that had spoken wrongly against G-d and again him, and asked for salvation from the resulting plague of snakes that was sent as a lesson to them. (v.7)

Moses does pray to G-d, who answers him with the following words:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

Make yourself a venomous snake

put it on a standard

and everyone who is bitten

and that shall look on it will live.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| aseh lecha saraf vesim

| oto al-nes

| vehayah kol-hanashuch

| vera’ah oto vachai

Numbers 21:8

Golden Eagle Standard

A replica of the top of the Roman Golden Eagle Standard

We read that Moses follows this order, and fashions a snake out of copper, places it on a nes – a standard. Most often when we read the word nes, we are talking about a flag or a banner. But it does also mean a standard, like a mascot; for instance the Roman army’s Golden Eagle was held high upon a pole before them when mobilized. When armies fought with their banner before them they would not just be fighting to defeat their enemies but also to keep the symbol of their honor raised high. As long as it was kept up it would become a rallying point for the people. As they looked up it would give them hope to get up and fight. What flags and standards have in common is they are elevated on a pole high enough for everyone to notice. For this reason nes is commonly translated as merely pole for this purpose in this verse here.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of symbols like a flag (nes). They have the ability to give such powerful motivation they often inspire another noun for nes; a miracle. The power of positive thinking produces nothing less than miraculous result in our lives. And this is what they needed, because the Israelites were consumed by their negativity.

Thus Moses created the Copper Serpent. But why was it made of out copper? For this answer we turn to Rashi:

Copper serpent

He was not told to make it out of copper.

Moses said: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He,

called it a snake (nachash)

so I will make it out of copper (nechoshet),’

which is a play on words.”

נחש נחשת: |

לא נאמר לו לעשותו של נחשת, |

אלא אמר משה הקב”ה |

קוראו נחש, |

ואני אעשנו של נחושת, |

לשון נופל על לשון: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:9

The details for making this standard was left open for him to decide. He could have made a flag with a snake on it if he wanted to. But it appears that Moses did not want to stray and be too imaginative in the plans for the symbol that he was making. He went with a material that sounded like the symbol he was forming.

It is important that we understand that this story is steeped in symbolism. The choice of construction for this symbol is also seemingly symbolic in other not so obvious ways. Lets take a look again at the term “saraf vesim / fiery serpents.” This simply means burning snakes. Their venom felt like fire against the flesh, so there is a purposefulness in their name. But there is another symbolism that seems to be drawn from here, or at least later commentators and apocryphal literature would notice of the term seraf, which means burning, that this is reminiscent of the Serafim; the fiery angels. What is a Seraf? It is a form of heavenly angel. Among the most notorious of the angelic hosts are Charbim in our tradition, which are placed on the Ark of the Covenant; two large, golden angels with wings touching, placed upon the covering lid. (see Exodus 27:9) They too stand as unique symbols of Israelite iconography.

Whereas cheribs guard the glory of G-d, the serafim constantly declare the glory of G-d. They are the exalted angels, that raise themselves above the throne of heaven and constantly praise His holiness and might. We see them in the book of Isaiah, where witnessing them was so overwhelming that the prophet could not contain himself and began to make a holy confession, as we read:

“Then I said: Woe is me! for I am undone;

because I am a man of unclean lips,

and in the midst of a people of unclean lips

do I dwell:”

וָאֹמַר אוֹי-לִי כִי-נִדְמֵיתִי, |

כִּי אִישׁ טְמֵא-שְׂפָתַיִם אָנֹכִי, |

וּבְתוֹךְ עַם-טְמֵא שְׂפָתַיִם, |

אָנֹכִי יוֹשֵׁב: |

Isaiah 6:5

We are told that a single angel was sent to the prophet and purified his lips with a burning coal from the Altar. If we think about it, this is precisely what we need to have happen here. The people need to be purified. The burning of the prophet’s lips is something different than the burning of the Israelites flesh, but the gist is the same. Here we can see a single seraf being sent to the people; and the promised declared that if they see, hear, understand with their hearts, and return then they would be healed (Isaiah 6:10)

Rod of Asclepius and Caduceus

The Rod of Asclepius (left) is the traditional symbol of medicine. The Caduceus (right), though not classically being associated as such, is the widely recognized American symbol for medicine adopted by the US Army Medical Corps in 1902.

For this reason it may not be unfounded that people associate the Copper Snake as something more akin to the symbol of the winged Caduceus than the more related classical association with the Rod of Asclepius; the latter being the correct Greek symbol of medicine, while the former is a more recently adopted winged symbol being recognized by us Americans. Americans seem to commingle the symbols based on a biblical understanding, and less on the actual Greek mythology that propagated the symbols.

This is because in the Torah what we see is Moses creating a copper snake standard that is more of a messenger (Heb. malach, also the same word for angel). But why out of copper? What benefit would this have as a symbol? It seems obvious to me that copper has a highly reflective surface, often finely polished and used as mirrors in the biblical age. (see Exodus 38:8) When forged of this choice of metal it would be very bright when lifted up, and thus easy for people to see. This symbol would serve the same purpose as the cherabim of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) it seems, to reflect light so brightly that they appear to glow and flood the entire area around it.

If my assumption of this is true, then you might ask yourself why not make it out of gold like the cherabim of the Ark? Surely it would last longer, as the shinny surface of copper quickly begins to oxidize; first turning a dull brown, and then eventually green over time. But I believe this is precisely one of the reasons as well, as this symbol was not made to be a perpetual representation like the cherubs. This symbol had one purpose, only there and in the context of that situation. This symbol didn’t have to be built to last.

In fact it was better that the symbol not be something perpetual. It’s purposefulness seems evident from the fact we will see later in the Scriptures that this symbol was set up in the Sanctuary, and was present even in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It must have most certainly been a memorial to their incident with the snakes, as well as preserving something that was previously used as a sacred item in a way to not show contempt for it. But apparently the people did begin to reverence it too much to the point that it was considered unacceptable. It became and idol presence in the place where the holy offerings were elevated, so it was destroyed along with the sacred trees dedicated to pagan worship in the days of Hezekiah and the Assyrian empire. It was so well known as as symbol that it was given a nickname, the Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4)

And this is precisely why most of us are uncomfortable with this story of the Nehushtan. How is that Moses is creating this item, with G-d tolerating his choice of design? We know very well what the Torah says regarding this type of construction:

“Do not turn to idols

or make gods of cast metal for yourselves.

I am Hashem your G-d.”

אַל-תִּפְנוּ, אֶל-הָאֱלִילִם, |

וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם: |

אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. |

Leviticus 19:4

It is well known that based on its mirroring verse in Deut. 7:25 that many people’s general understanding of the halacha is that we are not allowed to make sculptures; in setting a fence around Torah we abhor anything that might be associated with iconography. But this is not the actual halacha, we are taught that an item does not become an idol until it is worshiped. (see Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kohavim 7) In fact even the most conservative of poskim would not hold by this halacha at this point in history, resorting to the traditional understanding, that something does not become an idol until it is actually worshiped. Now in the modern age, outright idolatry is so unknown that lifelike objects made by anyone are not considered an item of idolatry until utilized for that purpose. (see Shach 23, and a referencing article) Nonetheless our distaste in such items remains.

Simply put, once the image of the Nehushtan took on too much importance it needed to be destroyed. There was nothing divine or special about it that demanded reverence. It seems to me that it was a transient symbol, only purposeful in the context of the desert plague of serpents. Only over time did it pervert into something else, that literally became an idol lifnei Hashem – before the face of G-d, as we are commanded against having in the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:3)

It is my belief in the intent of the Nehushtan to be temporary that explains why this symbol was formed after the likeness of a serpent. It only needed to be used that once time, and for that one purpose. Had it been something that was be more permanent then I’m sure it would have taken on the form of a cherub instead; fitting nicely into the permanent decor of the Sanctuary. But a guard for the presence of G-d was not necessary, one to declare His glory was needed this situation in the desert. And it was only important in the there and then.

Rashi firmly states for us that the purpose of this symbol was, and demands that people abandon any idea that there was any mystical property in the Nehushtan itself. As he teaches us:

“Our Rabbis said:

Does [this] snake cause death or life?

However, when Israel

looked heavenward

and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven,

they would be healed,

but if not, they would waste away.”

אמרו רבותינו |

וכי נחש ממית או מחיה, |

אלא בזמן שהיו ישראל |

מסתכלין כלפי מעלה |

ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים |

היו מתרפאים, |

ואם לאו היו נמוקים: |

Rashi on Numbers 21:8; 11th century

This is also further support by the disciples of Rashi, one of whom would go on to affirm this point while also offering us yet another reason that the symbol of the serpent was chosen instead of a more simple figure of an angel:

“And the reason he made a serpent

and not some other object

was to magnify the miracle,

for the Holy One, blessed be He,

smites with a knife and heals with a knife

(as said in the

Mekhilta, Be-Shalah, s.v. va-yasa, p. 156).

If the

Holy One, blessed be He, had so wished it,

no object would have been necessary,

and they would

immediately have been healed;

rather, it was to intensify the miracle,

so that they would not say

it was mere chance.”

ומה שעשה נחש |

לו דבר אחר, |

כדי להגדיל הנס |

שהקב”ה |

מכה באיזמל ומרפא באיזמל |

(מובא |

במכילתא בשלח, ויסע עמ’ 156) |

ואם היה |

רצונו של הקב”ה |

לא היו צריכין שום דבר, |

אלא יון |

מתרפאים מיד, |

אלא להגדיל הנס |

ושלא יאמרו |

מקרה הוא. |

Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, 12th century

What G-d was doing was providing an appropriate and recognizable cure to their problem at hand. Moses did not provide a traditional angel, mostly likely because he did not want it to be an intermediary between the people and G-d. The symbol of the Nehushtan was only created in order for the people to recognize that G-d was providing a cure for their situation at hand. All they needed to do was intently focus their attention heavenward, towards the Throne of Heaven with their problems in mind and G-d would heal them.

But there was no power or mystical virtue in the Nehushtan itself. It was merely a nes; a banner and standard. It was a symbol created to lift the peoples spirits up and out of their situation, and to focus their attention towards our Father in Heaven. Though the symbol was powerless in and of itself, their use of it had miraculous results.

Consider it for a moment, why does the word nes also means a miracle in Hebrew? What was so miraculous about this symbol? It was a sign (nes) to the people; as we see it used it used in Parshat Korach (see Numbers 26:10). This would serve as a sign to the people, as it would be raised up in the wind like a flag (nes; see Isaiah 11:12) to signal hope to them. Being raised in the wind (ruach) it would serve as a sign (nes) to raise their spirits (ruach), so that the people would no longer be vtikzar nefesh (short of spirit; disheartened). Sure the symbol itself was powerless, just like a national flag or similar item is endued with nothing more than the hopes of the people who look to it. In reality they didn’t need a symbol at all, it was just a mundane item they regarded as a talisman.

That’s how powerful human belief and hope is. G-d seems to have instructed the creation of the item to help the people who needed to be motivated by simple suggestibility to look above their current situation. All they needed was to find the enthusiasm to believe.

This story serves as a lesson to us, that G-d does in fact permit us to have very tangible symbols and signs in which to help us focus our attention and faith heavenward. But it stands as a testaments to us as Jews as to why we tend to not rely on symbols and signs, because in the end they can just become a distraction. Symbolisms and ritual items should only direct our attention to G-d alone, as we should never let anything become sacred and revered in its own right.


Parshat Korach (2012)


Parshat Korach
Numbers 16 – 18

Korach: The hysteria and downfall associated with false revolutionaries

We are taught through our Rabbis that the name of a parsha is a shoresh (root, or sum) of the entire parsha. Very few parashiot are named after a person, but so infamous is the story of Korach and his rebellion against Aaron and Moses that his name is fixed in the order of the Torah portions.

In fact the story of his brazen rebelliousness and revolt was so dramatic that his name actually made it into one of the 613 commandments that were given to Israel to observe for all time, as we read:

“And be not like Korach and his assembly.”

| Velo-yihyeh cheKorach vecha’adato

Numbers 17:5

Summary of Previous Parsha: How did it come to this

In order to understand what Korach’s contentions are we have to understand that the Nation of Israel has passed up an opportunity to ascend to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). We find that they panic in Parshat Shelach when they hear the negative report provided by 10 out of the 12 scouts. When they finally get their hysteria in check they find that they are too late. Their realization of this happens with tragic results, they attempt to go up to the Land without the blessing of Hashem and without the accompaniment of the Ark and the get crushed by the Amorites and Canaanites.

The Rise of Korach: Double-Talk

Where Parshat Korach picks up we find that the people are fed up with the management; namely Moses and Aaron. In their resentment of their leaders they challenge the entire institution of the priesthood and the leadership of Moses. What is Korach’s argument? In Numbers 16:3 we have the assembly of the elders of Israel saying to Moses and Aaron:

“It is too much for you!

For the entire assembly – all of them –

are holy and Hashem is among them;

why do you exalt yourself over

the congregation of Hashem?”

| Rav-lachem

| ki chol-ha’edah kulam

| kedoshim uvetocham Hashem

| umadua titnase’u

| al-kehal Hashem

Numbers 16:3

And in the midst of this we see Korach rise up as a Che Guevara like character, a revolutionary and seeming champion of equality. It seems to be a decent and reasonable concept, G-d has called His entire nation to be holy, set apart for G-d; no one is better than the other. However the hypocrisy, as with many so-called revolutionaries, was as that at the same time as attacking the validity of the government and institutions, he insists he can do a better job at their helm. Thus we see Korach attacking the institution of priesthood and in the same breath suggesting that he been appointed High Priest. The double-talk doesn’t stop there. Yet here the Torah gives us a good example of how to deal with people who come aggressively to us with their fallacious claims: hear them out and wait for the true intentions to reveal themselves.

You see at first the argument seems to be one of reasonable concern for Moses and Aaron. It is true that “rav lachem” can mean “You’ve gone too far,” but in can also mean “it is too much for you.” In other words, “you’re overwhelming yourself Moses and Aaron.” However, their true intentions come out as they are allowed to speak. Their real feelings surface as, “you think your better than us!”

Divisiveness Begins with Alienation

Starting with the beginning words of the parsha we see that Torah is in fact offering proof that supports the claim of Korach that he is just as qualified. Not only does it provide his credentials as a Levite, but he is also a Kohain. Thus the text states:

“Korach son of Izhar

son of Kohath, son of Levi separated himself.”

| Vayikach Korach ben-Yitshar

| ben-Kehat ben-Levi

Numbers 16:1

But the text here is also rich with meaning if we look at it closely. Notice that here in the genealogy it stops with the name of the patriarch of their tribe, unlike other genealogies it does not go on to say “son of Israel.” The Torah is giving us an insight into the nature of where their heart was, they had already separated themselves from the Nation.

But what do we mean by “separated?” The term “vayikach” means literally the he “took.” But what did Korach take? The text goes on to read, “veDatan va’Aviram benei Eli’av ve’On ben-Pelet benei Re’uvein / with Dathan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, and On son of Peleth, the offspring of Rueben.” The Targum Onkelos (Aramaic translation) renders “vayikack / took” as “separated.” Rashi further supports this understanding by explaining that in context Korach took them to the side, isolating them from the rest of Am Yisrael (The People of Israel) and privately conspired with them. Only then after they conspired together in private did they approach the body of the elders of Israel. We need to take a good look here and realize that private conspiracy has only one aim, to separate people from one another. It’s a natural principal in this universe, things reproduce after their own kind; dogs give birth to dogs, cats give birth to cats, and divisiveness and separation only births further division and separation!

How ironic it is then that the shoresh (root) of the name Kohath, who was patriarch of the most sacred priesthood, means “to gather together.” In the introductory words of our parsha we see the Torah supporting the outward claim of Korach as a son of Kohath, while at the same time showing the hidden element of his conspiring that invalidates his claim.

Furthermore it appears to me that Korach has gone one step further, he has done the typical act of a shyster in convincing each of the elders that they each are better candidates as well. One should be aware this is a typical act of a conman to build up the ego of each individual, uniting them against a common enemy and yet dividing them against each other in a spirit of competition. For this reason we see that Moses is going to put them to the test, Korach and his mob of 250 are offered a chance to show if they had what it took to fill the shoes of High Priest. He asks them to take fire-pans, or censers, which are used to burn incense and to offer it to Hashem; then let G-d choose for Himself.

Here in the Torah we find some striking examples of the human condition and the workings of the human psyche. Here we see a typical act of a coward in Korach as the ringleader of this madness, in that he has nothing to say when confronted by Moses directly. He has no answer for the basic question:

“And Aaron,

who is he

that you should have grievance with him?”

| Ve’Aharon

| mah-hu

| ki talinu alav

Numbers 16:11

Moses attempts to speak with Dathan and Aviram but they also refuse to meet with Moses and say “lo na’aleh / we won’t come!” (v.12) We find that Korach’s co-conspirators to display another loathsome quality of conmen and those manipulated by them, they not only refuse to answer for themselves directly but they try to shovel the blame of their unhappiness upon Moses. They not only blame him for not bringing them into the Promised Land, but twist the words of Hashem and have the vulgarity to describe Egypt as a land flowing with milk and honey. (v.13) The very description Hashem gave them of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) they apply to the land of their captivity. How typical are people in the wrong, in that for all their brazenness they most often refuse to stand up and let their situation be judged in light of their own actions.

English: The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram...

English: The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, by Gustave Doré (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we consider it, we see that at the time of the offering of incense there are 250 fire pans, one for each of the elders. How is that Dathan, Aviram and Korach are not included in this count? I believe the answer is that Dathan and Aviram never intended to seek the priesthood, their aim was all together different in that they sought kingship. I believe as offspring of Reuvein, the first born son of Israel, their contention was that the tribe of Reuvein was entitled kingship. They sadly proved that the traits of their forefather Reuvein were alive and well in them; in Genesis we learned that Reuvien lost the right of first-born and it was given to the sons of Joseph because at the time of Joseph’s abduction Reuvein did not prevent the injustice taking place. Instead Reuvien compromised, in that he suggested instead of killing Joseph they should just capture him, furthermore he stood back as his brother was sold off. So here again we see in his offspring the lack of backbone to deal with situations directly here in the lives of Dathan and Aviram.

I believe that the reason Korach isn’t included in the 250 is that despite his contention that he should be High Priest, he never rose to the occasion when the time came to prove his ability. It appears Korach is conspiring to take the High Priesthood by force, in return for the support of the sons of Ruvein whom he each seem to promise a crown. They are going to lead a revolution and share the power as dictators. This is an ultimate example of back-room politics and corruption!

Furthermore, he not only failed to offer incense here, but also in other cases when he really should have. Unlike Moses and Aaron when the dispute and Hashem’s anger over this row became apparent, again Korach made no attempt to intercede for the people to G-d as they were suffering the fallout.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory, explains to us based on the interpretation of Rashi that the judgment that came about, with the earth swallowing Korach, was a symbol that Korach had the desire for greater spiritual status; his spirit desired to be High Priest, however he lack the commitment. What greater commitment is there than to be willing to commit ones life to the point of descending into their grave for your cause? He lacked this commitment and the truth of it overwhelmed him, as symbolized by the earth swallowing and covering over him.

Korach was willing to let the people sacrifice their lives in support of his supposed search for equality, however he truly didn’t desire it in his heart, and this desire is represented by fire. He nor any of the 250 candidates interceded for the people before Hashem, they were willing to die for the cause, but not to live with passion for it and it overwhelmed them, as symbolized by being consumed by a flame from heaven. (v.35)

What is so terribly saddening in the end is that, as is often the case, this terrible display of rebellion cost more to the collaborators than the initial instigator. How so? In Numbers 26:9-11 we have the recounting of this story in a census of the next generation being taken; it reads, “…Dathan and Aviram, the same Dathan and Aviram who were summoned by the assembly, who contended against Moses and Aaron among the assembly of Korach, when they contended against Hashem. Then the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach with the death of the assembly, when the fire consumed two hundred and fifty men – and they became a sign. But the sons of Korach did not die.” The children and household of Dathan and Aviram was swallowed alive by the earth along with them, however the sons of Korach lived on. You will find that the beginning of Book Two of Psalms – which starts with Psalm 42 – being attributed to the sons of Korach.

Korach was so short-sighted, as we see the sons of Korach went on to serve before Hashem but he did not. Furthermore we see in chapter 17 that the fire-pans used for incense were collected together after the death of the assembly of 250 candidates. As the fire-pans had been used in holy service to Hashem they became sacred. The pans were commanded to be hammered down and made into coverings for the Altar of G-d. Though their bearers never ascended to offering at the Altar, the copper covers made out of the fire-pans ascended to the Altar as an eternal reminder. (Numbers 17:3) Let us all learn from their example, that when we do not live in unison with the plans of Hashem for peace sometimes we cut ourselves short; ourselves never seeing the day that our work and dreams mature to greatness.

Be Among the Disciples of Aaron…

What is so tragic to me about this whole story is that the symbol of incense was as symbol of peace. Everyone knows that incense is intended to provide a pleasant aroma. However the Zohar goes on further to explain that the offering of Incense (the Ketoret) was intended to remove impurity from the world and to bring peace among the proverbial 70 nations of the world (the whole world, in other words, all the peoples). Here the very offering of it becomes twisted around by the cynics and self-important.

For all the complaining that Korach and his assembly did against Moses and Aaron, these two leaders of G-d showed their overwhelming love for the Nation of Israel through their conduct. Again, unlike Korach and his conspirators Moses and Aaron interceded for the people at each turn. They continuously humbled themselves by even falling on their faces and begging the people to reconsider the error of their ways. Korach, Dathan and Aviram however were not only unwilling to speak for themselves, they were also unwilling to speak up for the Nation of Israel and showed they had little concern for the outcome of the people as a whole. It was only Moses and Aaron that when faced with the reality of Divine Judgment against the people responded back to G-d with a challenge for justification, in their asking:

“Oh G-d, G-d of the spirit of all flesh,

shall one man sin, and You be angry

with the entire congregation?”

| El Elohei haruchot lechol-basar

| ha’ish echad yecheta

| ve’al kol-ha’edah tiktzof

Numbers 16:22

Even after the tragic deaths of Korach and his assembly the people didn’t waste time attacking Moses and Aaron again. The next morning the people rose up against them and again they plead with them and tried to compel them to not again incite the “anger” of Hashem. Again Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and interceded for the people of Israel. However the people did not listen to Moses and Aaron and a plague broke out among the people, causing the people to drop dead.

In the next chapter we read:

“And Moses said to Aaron:

‘Take your fire-pan

and put on it fire from upon the Altar

and place incense,

and go quickly to the assembly

and make atonement for them!'”

| Vayomer Moshe el-Aharon

| kach et-hamachtah

| veten-aleiha esh me’al hamizbe’ach

| vesim ktoret

| veholech meherah el-ha’edah

| vechaper aleyhem

Numbers 17:11

In verses 12-13 we see a scene that I think is one of the most beautiful events in all of the Torah, we read:

“Aaron took as Moses had said

and ran to the middle of the congregation.

And behold! The plague had begun

among the people.

He placed the incense

and provided atonement for the people.

He stood between the dead and the living,

and the plague was checked.”

| Vayikach Aharon ka’asher diber Moshe

| vayarotz el-toch hakahal

| vehineh hechel

| hanegef ba’am

| vayiten et-haktoret

| vayechaper al-ha’am

| vaya’amod bein-hametim uvein hachayim

| vate’atzar hamagefah

How beautiful it is to me that unlike those who criticized him, Aaron had such genuine love for the people that when faced with a situation of G-d striking them down with a plague he didn’t run away, or hide behind a mob, instead he threw himself into the middle of the situation; and (1) stood as a buffer, used himself as a shield to protect the people; (2) interceded for the people to remedy the needless ruin. He stood between the living and the dead and put the plague in check, that is powerful.

In the commentary for Pirkei Avot in the Artscroll Etz Chaim Siddur it aptly states, “In Talmudic literature Aaron is described as the great peacemaker who went to any ends to make peace between man and his wife and between feuding Jews.” For this reason we read in our tradition;

“ [Rabbi] Hillel said:

Be among the disciples of Aaron,

loving peace and pursuing peace,

loving people

and bringing them closer to the Torah. ”

הלל אומר: |

הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן, |

אוהב שלום ורודף שלום , |

אוהב את הבריות |

ומקרבן לתורה. |

Pirkei Avot 1:12


Parshat Shelach (2012)


Parshat Shelach (2012)
Numbers 13 – 15

The Strength of the Repose

Angie and Child Smiling

The most powerful and mature thing we can do is be patient and understanding with those who aren’t

As human beings who are finite, if asked to define the Divine, the Infinite G-d, it is usually within our first considerations to relate the idea of G-d being all-powerful. For this reason we often ascribe the name Almighty to the Holy One, blessed be He. It seems natural that we as people who are restrained in our abilities should first consider the obvious distinction between us and an all-encompassing concept of Deity, which represents all potential and all strength. Too often when people consider what it means to be G-d, they first think in terms that one is able and empowered to do anything they desire. Unfortunately this is an incomplete concept of what strength is, and we find this idea challenged here in this parsha.

Considering all the miracles that the Israelites had experienced in their exodus from Egypt, it should come as no surprise to us that when the Torah relates G-d’s response the narrative begins with His astonishment at their lack of trust. (Numbers 13:11) G-d is so provoked by the people’s complaining and murmuring, to the extent that He considers annihilating the nation and instead starting over with Moses to make a nation out of him alone, just like He did with Abraham. (v.12) He did it before, He could do it again.

Moses concedes to G-d’s ability, however he objects to G-d’s plans. From here on it is Moses that begins to challenge G-d on what strength and might really means. Again, he concedes to G-d’s fame for the miraculous and based on this he appeals to Him. Moses begins to say that after all G-d had done in brining them out from Egypt as a display to them of His strength over the world’s greatest power, all the Egyptians would in the end consider in Israel’s demise is G-d’s inability to beat the less sophisticated Canaanite kingdoms. (v.13) Furthermore in the eyes of the inhabitants of the Land, that had already seemed to become aware of Israel’s approach in the desert because of the awesome display of G-d’s Presence before them in the pillar of fire and smoke that guided them, they would not understand the complexities of the Israelites personal failures; it would be looked at as a failure on G-d’s part if He annihilated them. (v.14-16)

Simply put, Moses contends that this course of action would have great implications about G-d’s ability. And it seems like a brilliant defense, even to the point of speaking to G-d as a king whose ego is being appealed to. But Moses’ entreaty doesn’t end here, he further continues to appeal to G-d’s higher nature.

“Now, please, let the strength of Hashem be increased,

as You spoke, saying:

‘Hashem, slow to anger,

abundant in kindness,’

forgiving iniquity and transgression,

and by no means clearing,

keeping in mind the iniquity of the fathers

on the children,

unto the third and fourth [generations].

Pardon, please, the iniquity of this people

according to your great kindness,

and forgive this people

as you have from Egypt until now.”

| Ve’atah yigdal-na ko’ach Hashem

| ka’asher dibarta lemor

| Hashem erech apayim

| verav-chesed

| nose avon vafasha

| venakeih lo yenakeh

| poked avon avot

| al-banim

| al-shileshim ve’al-ribe’im.

| Slach-na la’avon ha’am hazeh

| kegodel chasdecha

| vecha’asher nasatah la’am hazeh

| miMitzrayim ve’ad-henah.

Numbers 14:17-19

In this appeal Moses makes a striking request, that G-d cause His strength to gadal; to flourish, to multiply, to increase and to grow stronger. Interesting word because we usually are more accustomed to using it in terms of people; as to gadal when applied to living beings, it means to grow up, to physically mature, and to develop oneself. What is Moses saying to G-d? Is He asking Him to grow up? Certainly not, but what Moses is asking of G-d in his request is that Hashem “yigdal-na koach / please, let your strength increase,” is that G-d show an even more expansive sense of strength and maturity over and against the people’s foolishness.

And how does Moses suppose that G-d do that? Moses at this point begins with a paraphrase of G-d’s estimation of Himself in the first words of the Shelosh-Eisrei Middot – which we commonly call in English scholarship The Thirteen Principles of Mercy. (see Exodus 34:6-7) They reason that we call it so is quite obvious from the beginning of the statement; here Moses begins with a single appellation of Havayah – the explicit name of Hashem (יהוה), which we pronounce as Adonai; this Name is appealing to a personal identification with the G-d of Mercy. Then he asks G-d to live up to His statement of being “erech appayim / slow to anger” and “rav chesed / great in kindness” in this he is telling G-d that the most mature and greatest way that He can display His strength and stature is by restraining His anger and overcoming it with kindness.

Often times us people are so reactionary. We are so quick to respond to everything that irks us. It seems very natural for some people. It seems the more brawn a person has the more prone they are to be a brute; but it’s not exclusive, it’s just as common for those who they think are intellectually intimidating. People so much want to be right and defend their honor that they come out all barrels blazing in their wrath. Though in reality, this is the most unsophisticated and unrefined thing a person can do. Anyone can fly off the handle, but few have enough strength to maintain their repose; to hold their poise, and not be forced to act out in rage. Moses is asking G-d to show this level of restraint and kindness. He is appealing to G-d to show this level of maturity in overlooking their wrongs and showing patience towards Israel.

And it is the principle of patience that we need to have at the forefront of our mind as we continue on through this text, because this is essential in order for us to comprehend what is being said by the next statement. Moses begins to break with his summary of the attributes, and begins to identify G-d as forgiving of our guilt (avon) and rebellion, our lack of trust (pesha).

It all sounds well and good, and very straight forward until we continue on, after lauding G-d as being so forgiving Moses also ascribes to Him that He “venakeih lo yenakeh,”(v.18) which means He does not completely acquit a person; the circumstances of sin is not completely purged. (nakah) In fact we are told He remembers wrong deeds unto the third and fourth generations after the fact. We all know this statement, mostly of us according to the crude and archaic King James Bible fashion, that lends to the idea that G-d inflicts punishment in some cases even to future descendants.

In the face of this how is it that we can consider G-d so forgiving and patient, how merciful is our G-d in light of this type of mentality? For most of us Jews this question is very poignant. We believe that the punishment of sin lays squarely on the person who commit the unjust act, and no one else can pay for it. (Exodus 32:33) This is a revolutionary idea, one that is so contrary to the regular mentality of the world that generally sees fit to continuously punish people of subsequent generations for injustices and wrong doing they have nothing to do with. For this reason the prophets admonish us that we should seek the messianic goal of a better world, in which the entire world operates in equity and each person is only responsible for themselves on this earth. (Jeremiah 31:29-30) So how is it that we have G-d seeming to revisit the sins of the fathers on the children, even unto the great grand-children?

The answer comes in that G-d does in fact forgives sin (noseh avon), but lo yenakeh means He does not forget. But what is important for us to know is that the reason that He does not completely purge out of His recollection these wrong deeds is in order to display patience. Though He forgives the sin G-d does actually continues keep it in mind, and in His patience and mercy is mindful of the shortcomings of our forefathers. G-d does not patiently wait in order to take His wrath out on future generations, quite to the contrary He exerts even more patience to future generations; keeping in mind the unbecomingness and the personal failures of our ancestors when considering our own failures and temperament.

Instead of G-d vicariously holding someone else responsible for another’s sins, the Torah instead champions the idea of G-d being patient with us by keeping in mind our own background, and for this reason considering us for even more mercy. He is not just slow to anger with us, He is also slow to anger even to our future generations that are indirectly disadvantaged by the mistakes we make today. That is how patient our G-d is.

In the final line of the request Moses once again appeals to G-d’s great kindness that He forgive, reminding Him that He saw fit to change His mind and forgive the people in every other instance up until now in the desert. He appeals to Him to be reasonable and likewise forgive in this instance. (v.19)

Moses’ request does not go unheard and unfulfilled. Without any fuss, based merely on the reasoning with G-d and appealing to Him in prayer this request is granted:

“And Hashem said:

I will forgive in accordance with your words.”

| Vayomer Hashem:

| salachti kidvarecha

Numbers 14:20

Sure as we will see going on in this parsha and through the rest of this exodus story there are definite consequences and sometimes far-reaching repercussions for bad choices and decisions already made. As we continue through this story of the desert travels of the children of Israel as they ascend to the Land we will continue to witness their failures and weaknesses. If we find ourself asking why is it that G-d should continuously be so forgiving and understanding of the people, the reason is that G-d in His patiences is grading us on the curve. In light of our ancestors in their failures and unrefined characteristics, and in the face of that type of disadvantage G-d chooses to show enduring patience towards us.

The lesson of our parsha is that not only is our G-d patient, He is also able to be reasoned with. (Isaiah 1:18) These are the attribute of a truly great and strong G-d.


Parshat Beha’alotecha (2012)


Parshat Beha’alotecha
Numbers 8:1-12:16

What does the Torah say about a convert who wants to turn back? What should we do?

Recently there has been much discussion about converts and baalei teshuva (returnees to Jewish observance) going off the derech (the path). It has sparked at lot of discussion and suspicions in the Jewish community regarding converts and those that aren’t observant from birth. This parsha has some interesting discussion and commentary that is really appropriate for the given atmosphere.

As we came into the book of BaMidbar (Numbers) we discussed how the tribes took their positions around the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). Even before the Children of Israel went into the Land of Israel they began implement order by encamping as they intended to dwell in The Land, and governing themselves with a provisional but fully active government as well. This is because the people had every intention to immediately go up to the Promise Land, it would have taken them a three days journey our sages tell us. We must keep this in mind as we read this section.

“These were the marching orders

of the Children of Israel

according to their divisions

when they set out.

And Moses said to Chovav

the son of Reuel the Midianite,

choten of Moses

‘We are journeying to the place

which Hashem has said:

“I will give you.”

Come with us and we will be good to you.

For Hashem has promised good to Israel.’

And he [Chovav] said to him:

‘No I will go down to my homeland,

and to my native family I will go.’”

| Eleh mas’ei

| vnei-Yisra’el

| letziv’otam

| vayisa’u

| Vayomer Moshe le-Chovav

| ben-Re’u’el haMidyani

| choten Moshe

| nos’im anachnu el-hamakom

| asher amar Hashem

| oto eten lachem

| lechah itanu vehetavnu lach

| ki-Hashem diber-tov al-Yisra’el.

| Vayomer elav

| lo elech ki im-el-artzi

| ve’el-moladeti elech.

Numbers 10:28-30

The Children of Israel are getting ready to move on and up to settle The Land, Moses is speaking of this in the immediate sense because they have not yet encountered the delays caused by their grumbling and rebellion that would lead to their 40 year wandering.

In our tradition many sages often tend to recognize the Midianite spoken of here as Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. This is because of our rabbinic understanding of the word “choten,” which generally means a father-in-law or son-in-law relationship. When ever a Midianite is spoken of, it is the assumption we are speaking of some sort of appellation of the same person, though different names are used at different times; superimposing the stories over each other. However, in doing so this also complicates another matters, in that layering these stories over each other present us with a problem that Jethro is said to be sent on his way before the revelation at Mount Sinai. (see Exodus 18:27)

The simple answer for this is that we are possibly using the term here in the Torah of choten as meaning a male in-law. As we saw when Jethro came, he sent messengers ahead of him. Likewise as an elderly man, and one of some importance, he would have traveled with other kinsmen of his for his actual journey to Moses as well. We do see the elderly Jethro departing earlier on. But here we see someone who appears to be a much beloved, and possibly a much younger Midianite man who needs to consider his own future. And yet in Moses’ consideration he was quite valuable in the aid of Israel and their goals. For this reason some of our sages suggest Chovav is actually Moses’ brother-in-law.

Confusion seems to arise because once again we are superimposing two events over each other; possibly needlessly. Though this is an interesting subject, I am very pleased to have recently found a wonderful article written by Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen that he wrote for “Jewish Bible Quarterly” that confirms and beautifully presents this position both linguistically and in light of our the rabbinic commentary. I defer to the honorable rabbi on this. (see “Jethro/Hobab’s Detainment by Rabbi Jeffrey M. Cohen“)

What I would like us to look at is the incident itself. Why did Chovav want to turn back and return to his native people? The more precise question we should probably be asking is actually, “why now?” And why did Moses go out of his way to encourage, and further make guarantees, in order to have this person continue on with them?

Notice Moses doesn’t leave the issues alone. He appeals to Chovav with the following words:

“He said:

‘Please don’t abandon us,

after all you know

our encampments in the wilderness

and you can be our eyes!”

| Vayomer

| al-na ta’azov otanu

| ki al-ken yadata

| chanotenu bamidbar

| vehayita lanu le’eynayim.

Numbers 10:31

Moses makes a pleading request, asking him not to leave them. He points out that he knows where they are camping and will need to camp in the future. Moses asks him to stay and be a guide.

Now I dislike to utilize male cynicism, but I have to point out what seems apparent for anyone who is thinking from a military position. This is quite possibly a young man, that was aware of the moving and camping patters of Israel. He would be returning to his native people who were inhabitants of Canaan. Eventually these people would come to be enemies of Israel, it has not descended to that point as they had not yet joined forces with Israel’s enemies; but it does seem inevitable as Israel was going in to occupy The Land for themselves. He would be an asset to Midianites in future conflicts, exposing Israel’s tactics and weaknesses. But suspicion does not seem to be in the mind of our rabbis; they actually seem only concerned for his safety, that he should not get caught up in this conflict. As far as I see, they seem to hold no suspicion in this regard.

Neither does this reality seem to come into the mind of Chovav either. What is of concern to him is that now that Tribes of Israel are starting to encamp in preparation for their invasion and declaration of sovereignty, and it becomes apparent to Chovav that he is a guest among the tribes, but he is not being allowed a homestead of his own. He realizes now that he has no right to inheritance in The Land, he is not among the gentry of Israel.

Let us consider this for a second, to put it in perspective. We are assuming here that several Midianites converted to our religion, this is not unthinkable because the actual Jethro is said to have converted and we should not think it unlikely that his other kinsmen would also do so when they came to dwell with the Israelites. Though these were relatives of Moses that were undoubtedly hosted by him, they apparently would not acquire land of their own. In the biblical age, because property and lineage is a matter of male ancestry, this made it very simple for female converts to melt into Israel; they would marry and their children would be native sons of Israel with a right of inheritance. It would be little consequence for a woman anyhow, as no women were entitled to inheritance by right. But it would not be so for male converts. Now seeing all this it appears Chovav realizes that he does not have any possession of his own and heritage to pass on to his descendants. (see Parshat Emor and Parshat Bamidbar) We must understand that in near-eastern culture abandonment of ancestral holdings is a great offense and dishonor in the first place; he had done so by joining Israel. Now realizing he didn’t have a heritage of his own to pass on under those constraints it seems better that he return to his native land, inheritance, and people.

These ideas are supported by Rashi as well, but sandwiched in between these ideas we’ve discussed we see a very interesting concern being attributed to Moses:

Please, don’t abandon us:

na” in simple words means a

request (Lit. please);

So that no one will say

a convert gave up his affection [for Judaism].

He believed that converts had a part in The Land

and now seeing he had no portion

he left them and went his way.”

אל נא תעזב: |

אין נא אלא לשון |

בקשה, |

שלא יאמרו לא |

נתגייר יתרו מחבה, |

סבור היה שיש לגרים חלק בארץ, |

עכשיו שראה שאין |

להם חלק הניחם והלך לו: |

Rashi on Numbers 10:31

Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our Teacher – being a teacher his concern, and likewise that of our rabbis after him, is a bit different. He requests, with respectful pleading, “Please, don’t leave us.” Our rabbis are concerned that Chovav not go away discouraged, that one could say that he fell out of chibah – fondness and commitment to their faith in the G-d of Israel. He did not wish for Chovav to be discouraged and turn away. To our rabbis the concern is to not allow a situation that disgraces the veracity of our faith, so it could be said Judaism is unwelcoming and not accepting.

This has to be part of the reason, because quite honestly, Moses had dwelt in the land of Midian until he was given a vision at Mount Sinai himself and commanded to return to Egypt to instigate the Exodus. He was well seasoned in the wilderness from herding for Jethro in his exile from Egypt, it seems very unlikely that Moses actually needed his assistance as a guide. Though Chovav’s familiarity with Israel and the wilderness were cited, our rabbis seem to pass right over that and make notice of a different element of familiarity:

For because you are familiar

with our encampments in the desert:

Because it is fitting for you to do all this

as you know our camps in the desert

and you saw the miracles and wonders

that were done for us.”

כי על כן ידעת |

חנתנו במדבר: |

כי נאה לך לעשות זאת |

על אשר ידעת חנותנו במדבר |

וראית נסים וגבורות |

שנעשו לנו: |

Rashi on Numbers 10:31

Our rabbis seem to point out that Chovav had already witnessed and associated with the miracles that G-d did for his people, and the “us” spoken of included him as well because he was there along to experience it. It is right that after all of this he should continue on with them. Furthermore it suited him well to be a guide. Moses gave him a purpose and usefulness among them. The qualities that could have been a threat as an opponent, or might simply just have gone untapped, Moses puts to work in the service of the Children of Israel. What Moses was really doing was finding a pretext to save his life as a friend.

In the final part of Rashi’s commentary, summarizing on all this, he makes note that it is true that Chovav would be able to enlighten the eyes of Israel in their future endeavors. But he also makes the note that the Aramaic Targum (translation) references this verse in the past tense. Sure they had been there to see the miracles that already took place, as Rashi notes. But I can’t help but also note that the Midianites that joined Israel had also already contributed enlightening ideas to Israel; most notably when Jethro recommended enacting chiefs and judges over the people (see Parshat Yitro, and Parshat Shoftim). These people had been a good contribution to the nation of Israel and he wished that they remain to continue to be an asset.

Furthermore Rashi interprets this yet another way, as to what he was saying to Chovav in that he could be “their eyes:”

“Another interpretation is:

You shall be as beloved to us

as the pupils of our eyes,

as it says,

‘You shall love the proselyte’

(Deut. 10:9).”

דבר אחר |

שתהא חביב עלינו |

כגלגל עינינו, |

שנאמר: |

ואהבתם את הגר: |

(דברים י, יט) |

Rashi on Numbers 10:31

How could Israel show concern and love the convert and the stranger that had left all behind to join them? They could recognize them as an inseparable part of their body that needs to be cared for like one would the most essential and tender of their parts. How could he do this? Moses’ response gives us some indication:

“It shall be that if you go with us,

it shall be that whatever good

Hashem does for us

we will show to you.”

| Vehayah ki-telech imanu

| vehayah hatov hahu asher

| yetiv Hashem imanu

| vehetavnu lach

Numbers 10:32

Further on in Rashi’s commentary for this verse he ask us a simple question, what did they actually receive in the end? It all sounds nice as a promise, but did they actually follow through? He tells us that our tradition says that large tracts of date plantation land was given in the city of Jericho to these Midianite converts, as well as to other landless people such as the son of Rehab the sympathizer. Some even suggest that the land that the Temple Mount would come to rest upon, that allotment of land would also be appropriated for them as well, until it was time for the building of the holy house.

We don’t know if Chovav actually acquired this land. Nor are we sure if he stayed the course himself. What we do know, and this is also pointed out in the last commentary by Rashi on this, that in the Book of Judges the descendants of Moses’ male in-laws are later called up from the “city of dates” which is Jericho (Judges 1:16); we must assume they were there because they dwelt there and had inherited this land according to this promise after deciding to come along with Israel up to the Promised Land instead of turning back.

I don’t think I need to point out that much has changed since these days. The laws of inheritance and restrictions upon converts no longer apply in the post Temple period and in the absence of the full in-gathering of all the Tribes of Israel. Furthermore in our rabbinic tradition many converts and sons of converts have served as rabbis and leaders of our people.

Today males and females are on equal standing when it comes to assimilating, this is most often done through marriage. In this instance I mean by melting and normalizing themselves into the community of Israel through familial ties. We all know that many people convert after falling in love with a Jewish person. A Jewish person marries another Jewish person and make a Jewish family, they can build a heritage.

But not everyone always feels so at home, or like they have a future. Not everyone finds its so easy to assimilate into our people. They might feel disenfranchised and alone. Often times these people have given up a lot in order to join our faith, leaving everything behind, and coming with very little. This is the main reason for Chovav’s discouragement and concern; the concern for his and his families wellbeing. He is reassured that not only does he have Israel as a family, where he is a useful member, but he is assured that all the good that is in store for the Children of Israel also applies to him. They share their blessings with him.

The lesson of this parsha to me stands to admonish us all to make sure that we make a home for the convert and strangers among us. It calls us out to make a place for them, and to care for their wellbeing as much as we care for our own. One should never have any reason to feel like they have to turn away, especially if it’s because they feel needy or alienated.

At the center of what we find in this story, and furthermore presented by the commentary of Rashi, is a heartfelt concern for the soul of the convert and stranger that connects themselves to the People of Israel. We should find every reason to encourage them, instead or searching so hard for reasons to scare them away or make it difficult for them. That is true rabbinic Judaism.


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