Tag Archives: Bedtime Shema

Parshat Vayeitzei (2013)


Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Our G-d Chooses to Associate with Broken and Damaged Men

Doesn’t it seem like G-d watches over some people despite themselves? In this week’s Torah portion we see an example of how G-d not only allows less that fully meritorious people to find refuge in the shadow of His mercy, but also how G-d purposefully chooses to associate His Name with even the weak of character that others might dismiss.

This is the key verse that catches my eye as I read this text this week:

“And behold,

Hashem stood by him

and said:

‘I am Hashem,

G-d of Abraham your forefather

and the G-d of Isaac,

the land on which you are laying

I will give it to you

and your seed.”

| Vehineh

| Hashem nitzav alav

| vayomar

| Ani Hashem

| Elohei Avraham avicha

| ve’Elohei Yitzchak

| ha’aretz asher atah shochev

| aleiha lecha etnenah

| ulezar’echa

Genesis 28:13

In this parsha we begin with Yaakov leaving his father’s home in Ber Sheva on his way to Haran. He has bought his brother’s birthright and has likewise tricked his way into receiving the honor of spiritual blessing as well. He tricked his father and acted shrewdly to acquire Eisav’s rights and blessings. In fear of them he heads back towards “the old world” from which his ancestors came in order to find sanctuary there.

Yaakov travels until the sun sets, to the very boundaries of the promised land. As the sunsets he lays his heads upon some rocks, “vayishgav b’makom ha-hu / and he laid down in the place.” (28:11) And at this point we encounter the story of Jacob’s Ladder,

Now before Yaakov awakes we have this verse describe what is going on as he dreams, “v’hinei Hashem nitzav alav / and notice, Hashem was standing by him.” As Yaakov rests G-d watches over him.

For what reason does Hashem stand there over Yaakov? Rashi tells us simply and concisely, “l’shamro / to guard him.” To protect him.

The liturgist in me gets excited at this point. As this story describes the angels ascending and descending, with G-d standing over Yaakov I can’t help but think of the words of the Ashkenazi angel song, “May Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me, Raphael behind me, and above my head the presence of G-d.”

This song was introduced into the existent Kriyat Shema al haMitah – the bedtime prayers. Religious Jews say the Shema and several appropriate prayers to acknowledge G-d’s watching over us as we sleep. Then we lay down in confidence that we should awake in peace, in order to intentionally place the Name of G-d before us at all times.

One of the reasons that we can be so confident in this is because we know that G-d watches over all people. He watches over nice people, and not so nice people. He watches over the righteous and the wicked as they sleep. Though not all have respect for G-d in heaven, He nonetheless watches over us all so well that few have any difficulty falling asleep at night with the confidence that they will awake. G-d is all present, all of existence is contained in Him, therefore it is just a fact that when we lay down G-d is naturally over us. He is always there, He can never not be there. When we nitzvav, when we lay down it is naturally a fact that G-d stands alav – by us. To be alav means to be held angle parallel in relation to something else. It’s an observation not really an action.

For this reason we can understand why G-d would watch over Yaakov. Though in honest review of his actions we clearly see that he has acted cunningly and deceptively in order to get what he desired. Sure our Torah credits him with a zealous love for Hashem and righteousness as opposed to evil Eisav, but he was not exactly an above the board person. He was a bit shady. It is true that some of our sages, even Rashi, try to sanitize the image of patriarch. However the record shows for itself that he was a trickster, he was sheisty. Why should G-d watch over him? Simply because He watches over all.

But its more than that. When we see this story unfold for us, G-d does in fact choose to make His presence uniquely manifest over Yaakov in order to engage him. He stands over him and tells him that He is the G-d of his fathers, in order to reveal to him that this very land will become his and his descendants,

Despite all the issues and lack of character that Yaakov displays in his shrewd and deceptive acts, it was for the purpose of a greater good. His heart was in the right place, as he eagerly yearned for the yoke of spiritual responsibility that Eisav spurned. If his brother had no appreciation for it, then he had to have this honor for himself. And that was enough for G-d to work with, that Yaakov had some character worth developing.

And that is the story that we explore through out the life of Yaakov, how he started out as a trickster and he then develops himself until even those who contend with him must admit that he is truly worth of this blessing.

This is not the only place in this verse that we see a hint of G-d taking the special character and situations of individuals into account when considering them.

One of the things a reader that is critical of Yaakov will notice is that G-d bestows his blessing starting with identifying Himself as the G-d of Avraham and Yitzhak. It seems like maybe Yaakov is receiving a blessing in the merit of his forefathers. As if his father and grandfather are so holy that it justifies a form of nepotism.

This would seem to make sense when we consider the character of Avraham Avinu. He is the example of faithfulness par excellence. He is the father of our people and faith. It is understandable how the merit of Avraham Avinu seems worth of such favor. His memory is one of endless blessing that seems to extend to us until this day.

But how about for Yitzhak? Though we do consider him to be a holy man, so holy that he is never permitted to leave the promised land, he was not exactly a perfect man. He had his own faults. Rashi himself elsewhere tells us that none of our forefathers are fully meritorious, Yitzhak’s fault was his love for the evil Eisav. Yaakov was blinded by Eisav with game meats and the incense of his wives idolatry (see Rashi Genesis 27:1). He is not faulted with being an idolater himself, but as an enabler for his son. How is it that Yitzhak’s merit could be considered so great that is affords Yaakov a blessing?

Our commentary asks us to entertain the idea that there are special circumstances that are recognized regarding Yitzhak too.

Weeping Cemetry AngelRashi points out to us in his commentary that very rarely are men held to such high merit to command such respect in their lifetime. Even Avraham is deceased at this point. Yet Yitzhak lives and is not really recognized for any great deeds he engages in. He is not some sort of charismatic leader like his father. Instead in Yitzhak we find a passive and seemingly traumatized man.

And it is this traumatized nature of Yitzhak that is honed in on by Rashi. First our master leaders us to this statement by pointing out that the scriptures tell us that G-d does not place much weight on the fidelity of living men, even His holy ones (see Job 15:15). His point being that people cannot be trusted upon to be perfect, we all stumble and err in this world. Only when men have passed into the next world, when they are free from the yetzer hara – the evil impulse – does one usually become meritorious that the Name of G-d should associate itself with them in this way.

Have any of you ever watched the film “The Believer” staring Ryan Gosling, where he plays a discontent Jew that turns into a neo-Nazi? One of the most striking moments is when a scene flashbacks to the past, it shows a young child summarizing his view of the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac – as so outrageous that Yitzhak is traumatized and “a putz for the rest of his life.” We all wince at that phrase, because we are a bit uncomfortable with some of the truth of that observation.

Midrash gives us an interesting folk story to relate why the eyes of Yitzhak were dimmed, and his character scarred. Rashi tells us that when Avraham went to sacrifice Yitzhak on the altar just before sunset the heavens opened to reveal the ministering angels. Instead of ascending and descending like Jacobs Ladder, in this midrash we are told that the angels weep at the sight of the sacrificial act of the Akeidah. Their tears fall into the eyes of Yitzhak and we are led to believe that he never sees right ever again. His eyes are always blinded by sorrow and trauma the rest of his life, it is just not possible for him to see completely and objectively ever again. (see Rashi, Genesis 27:1)

As if the damage of the Akeidah wasn’t enough, we learn that he also lost his mother Sarah as well with the trauma of this event; she died of shock. (see Rashi. Genesis 23:2) There was already a real injury, one that was followed by even more tragic emotional upheaval for Yitzhak which related to that episode. Yitzhak nor his world is ever the same again because of this.

Our midrashim by and large present the picture of Yitzhak as forever scarred by the Akeidah.

Now here in this verse from this weeks parsha we see Rashi further enlighten us regarding that line of understanding, while at the same time giving us a reason why we should look compassionately upon Yitzhak Avinu. The commentary reads:

“Nevertheless,

here He associated His name with Isaac

because his eyes had become dim,

and he was confined in the house,

and he was like a dead person,

the evil inclination

having ceased from him.”

כאן |

ייחד שמו על יצחק |

לפי שכהו עיניו |

וכלוא היה בבית, |

והרי הוא כמת, |

ויצר הרע |

פסק ממנו: |

Rashi for Genesis 28:13; citing Midrash Tanchumah, Toldot 7

Our sages by this contend that the Yitzhak was a wreck of an individual, but he was not an evil man in his heart. He was blinded not just mentally and emotionally, he was also blinded and harmed physically. To the point that he seems to not only suffer some sort of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but his limitations disable him for the rest of his days. He was confined to his own home being both mentally and physically unable to engage the outside world. He suffers such a breakdown he appears to suffer debilitating agoraphobia and stress related illness.

Sometimes we discount the amount of suffering that people who suffer sever trauma endure. How much it eats away at their lives until they languish in their suffering. Rashi says it can become so bad that one can be almost considered like a dead person. Their trauma walls them in like a tomb.

But even in this our sages say there is something deserving of consideration, something that many people often miss about the broken and humble of spirit. His disability and broken character didn’t make him more prone to being a sinner or harsh man. To the contrary, his disability and emotional paralysis actually make him more prone to showing kindness towards people. To show more chesed (kindness) than discipline. To more often see the potential in them rather than the bad, as in the case with Eisav.

What Rashi is saying is that if we think about it Yitzhak’s emotional brokenness kept him at home, he wasn’t running the streets with the wild sinners. We are told he was so broken and inhibited that his passions were like that of a dead man. Not that he was just cold and inert. But that he through no fault of his own lived a life of morbid pain and seclusion, a life so simple that in comparison to the rest of us that engage the world he could easily be counted a righteous person. He wasn’t a great man, but as for sin he treaded an exceptionally light footprint.

Rashi says that the meritorious honor of a patriarch was awarded Yitzhak in his lifetime because the truth of the matter is that his yetzer hara – his evil impulse, the lusty passion that drives the soul – it had ceased to hold sway over him. His evil nature was pretty much dead inside of him.

Our sages employ a deep level of understanding at times regarding Yitzhak, as they challenge us to consider the hardships and limitations of others. It shows that G-d gives special consideration to the broken and feeble.

When we look at our parsha this week, when we see the sun setting and angels take flight over the head of Yaakov we need to remember the other occurrence of such a sight, the Aikdah. We need to remember the special consideration that was given to Yitzhak because of this trauma, and realize that it is not unthinkable that Yaakov would be looked upon favorably by G-d in the same manner. Even more so Yaakov deserved to also receive special consideration after the manner of Yitzhak, because he still suffered the ill effects caused by his father’s impairment.

As we continue to discuss Yaakov this week with our parsha I would like us to look upon Yaakov and Yitzhak with a new sense of compassion. Realizing that we don’t always understand the personal handicap that G-d takes into account with people. It’s not that G-d is just the merciful guardian of weak men and women because He has to be, because He is G-d and that’s His job watching over all mankind. G-d is shown here in the Torah to actually focus His attention and consideration upon people who He chooses to see as remarkable in light of their personal challenges. By recognizing that we can have more compassion for ourselves and others.


Parshat Vayechi (2012)


Parshat Vayechi (2012)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Let’s Overcome Ego During This Holiday Season

Blessing of Ephraim and MenashehAs I sit here in the darkness of Nittel Nacht (Yiddish for: “Birth Night”) – during the deadness of the night of Christmas eve – like many Jews I am sitting here trying to avoid mingling too much with the outside world. Not that I don’t find something charming about the common culture celebrating their holiday, but during all the chaos and revelry many of us choose to stay out of the way. There is very little to do to begin with, and yet we find ourselves with even less to do, most Jews purposely staying home seemingly in the trenches and out of the firing lines of a stressful holiday season. This custom comes from Jewish prudence to avoid the merrymakers and falling victim to the once common custom of people to get drunk on the holiday and for zealous reasons beat the occasional Jew they see in their path.

Instead most of us are indoors, saying our nighttime prayers, paying careful attention to every line about protection. Among the phrases included in the soothing lines of the Kriyat Shema al haMitah – the Bedtime Shema – we find the following line quoted from this weeks parsha:

“May the angel who redeems

me from all evil

bless the lads,

and may my name

be declared upon them,

and the names of my forefathers

Abraham and Isaac,

and may they proliferate abundantly

like fish within the land.”

| Hamal’ach hago’el

| oti mikol-ra

| yevarech

| et-hane’arim

| veyikare vahem shemi

| veshem avotai

| Avraham veYitzchak

| veyidgu larov

| bekerev ha’aretz

Genesis 48:16

Though it is beautiful in form, many rightfully wonder what the meaning of this verse is. Here we are repeating a blessing said for Ephraim and Menasheh. In the Jewish tradition when one blesses their children, and most often specifically their sons, we bless them that G-d would make them like Ephraim and Menasheh. As prescribed by the Torah we are told when Israel blesses we should bless in this way and with these words. (see Genesis 48:20) At night, upon our beds, we ask that the G-d who will surely protect us should also do so for our young; and that our children who bare our goodly names should also receive the merit of our patriarchs. We then ask that He makes us multiply like fish within the land.

It’s a curious verse because we are forced to ask, what do fish have to do with “the land?”

Actually, as our sages teach us, fish logically have very little to do with the land. And that is the point, they are concealed in the water, not really even visible upon land. Rashi declares, in step with Targum Onkelos and Midrash Rabba (Bereishit Rabba 97:3), that fish are unaffected by the “ayin hara / evil eye.” The mystical interpret this to mean that the evil eye, like spirits, are unable to cross water; it’s better to be like fish in the water. Though the more rational among us take the evil eye at face value according to our tradition, that ayin hara is nothing more than a projection of jealousy and envy. Like fish who are concealed under the water, so too we should have our way go unnoticed by the people of the land, going about one’s business and multiplying without much notice from the cruel animalistic world above the waters. Out of sight we avoid being caught in a snare, instead its better to multiply like the fish in the deep.

The Blessings of The Tribes

In this weeks parsha we encounter the blessings of the Tribes of Israel. Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father, also named Israel – blesses his sons. Likewise he also blesses the sons of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the Just. This is one of two places in the Torah a righteous man blesses the Israelite clans; once we encounter such a deathbed blessing being given by Yaakov here in this weeks Torah portion, and later on again another blessing of the tribes is given by Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our Teacher (see Deuteronomy chapter 33).

Though upon inspection we see that both sets of blessings cannot be identically delineated if we try to compare and contrast them. Not everyone is necessarily blessed here. Even more curiously we see here that blessings are unequally given to certain clans. Yosef and his sons take the cake when it comes to blessings.

In his blessing Yaakov Avinu asks G-d to bless the “lads,” meaning more than one young man. So who is he speaking of? This first tier of blessing is for two young men, Ephraim and Menasheh; the sons of Yosef haTzadik.

The Torah tells us that Yaakov, their grandfather, adopted them as sons with full rights of inheritance. (see Gensis 48:5) Reuvien and Levi, the sons of Yaakov, were stripped of their rights of inheritance and Shimon lowered in status below that of even his youngest brother when he blesses. Aside from their involvement in the selling Yosef as a slave, they also participated in callused acts against others (as in the instance of the slaughter of Shechem). Yaakov says of them, “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” Consequently Ephraim and Menasheh were elevated to the status of first-born son, giving them the role of leadership and granting them an inheritance; an honor they would both share. Their mazal was uniquely tied together; they were destined to work in co-operation with each other.

Even Moses’ blessings are lopsided, going on to declare that Yosef will be honored through Ephraim and Menasheh, and that Yosef’s name will be as synonymous with honor as strength is to the ox. He states, “with them shall he gore nations together, to the ends of the Land; they are the myriads of Ephraim, and the thousands of Menasheh.” (see Deuteronomy 33:13-17) For this reason the blessings for these two sons of Yosef are included here with the sons of Israel.

Menasheh: What happens when it seems that you’re under-appreciated?

The story of Ephraim and Menasheh’s inheritance has all the elements of a modern drama. The stories of the Torah are about real people, with real lives and emotions. Human emotions get messy when people feel they are under-appreciated or seem to be arbitrarily overlooked. It’s very likely that Menasheh understood this sentiment profoundly.

During the act of Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menasheh, his grandsons who he chose to adopt as his own, Yaakov declared that them and their descendents were appointed as princes over the tribes of Israel. It is not merely because of Yaakov’s disfavor in the cruel sons he set aside that they received this right. To their credit Ephraim and Menasheh were ideal for leadership as they had been educated well in Egypt, where they were exposed to diplomacy in the house of their father Yosef who was Pharaoh’s chief adviser.

When Yosef goes before Yaakov with his sons, as Yaakov begins to bless them Yosef stops him abruptly. Yaakov had placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim, extending the honor due to the firstborn to the younger of the two sons. When approaching Yaakov we are told that Yosef had Menasheh at his right hand side for the honor due to the firstborn and Ephraim to his left. Yosef believed that Yaakov had mistakenly placed his preferred hand on the wrong son, as from his seated position on his deathbed and facing them Ephraim was now on Yaakov’s right hand side and Menasheh on his left. Yosef attempts to inform his father that Menasheh is the oldest and reverse his hand placement. Instead we learn he crossed over his hands yet again. Yaakov then responds that he was fully aware and was not mistaken, that is was destined that the older should serve the younger. (see verse 19)

The pattern of the younger being chosen is a pattern we see many times in the Torah. Hashem often seems to favor the least likely candidate when we compare His leaders against their contenders. Though Menasheh had every right to be chosen for the blessing of the first born, he was seemingly snubbed by his grandfather. He was the older of the two sons, he had more years under his belt observing the way his father ruled; he was the most qualified. In similar situations brothers found themselves becoming mortal enemies over “unfair” blessings. In fact Yaakov Avinu himself was the younger son, who through a cunning trick received the blessing of the first born in place of his brother Eisav. Yaakov was the underdog, Eisav was the robust son that was also seemingly most qualified to take the lead.

We don’t know how Menasheh reacted. Though the Torah tells us that Yosef pressed the issue to the point that Yaakov is said to have “vayeman / refused” to amend his blessing. However there is no mention of protest from Menasheh.

When we consider it, it wasn’t appropriate for him to be upset. The inheritance he was receiving was an act of chesed (kindness), he was being given something as a gift and not due to his own merit. In reality, not either one of them deserved any favors anyhow. In fact it would have also been presumptuous for him to think that he was being cheated, because both Ephraim and Menasheh were each given as equal portion of land and inheritance as the actual sons of Yaakov Avinu, his own rightful sons.

The role of leadership was to be shared by the two brothers, an arrangement that was still honored in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, as the nation of Israel during the Exodus was governed by a descendent of Menasheh. To connect to the consciousness of Menasheh is to not give in to jealousy or despair when someone else succeeds, and understand that when someone else is recognized that it is their fifteen-minutes of fame. Your turn to share the spotlight will come too.

But who is this angel mentioned here?

Yaakov Avinu asks that the angel who “redeems me from all evil bless the lads.” There is only one time that we see Yaakov having a personal, one-on-one interaction with an angel, or a spiritual being if you will. This occurs in the story of Yaakov wresting with an angel in Genesis chapter 32. However the text does not initially identify the person wrestling with Yaakov as being an angel. It generally refers to him as merely a person using the phrase “איש עמו / a man with him. Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit Rabba 77:3) tell us that this angel in the form of a man, whom he is wresting with, is “שרו של עשו” meaning Eisav’s, his older brother’s, protective angel which we can think of as an almost an astral-projection of Eisav’s ego. The Baal Ha-Turim agrees, stating that “איש עמו” or a man with him, has the numeric value of 427 which is equal to that of the names עשו עדום, meaning Eisav and Edom.

From this perspective, in this remarkable story, we see Yaakov Avinu fighting with the ego of his brother. They had been battling their entire lives, even from before the time of birth they were wrestling with each other in their mother’s womb for the position of honor.

In life Yaakov was the small, quiet and seemingly passive son. It was Eisav who was the robust, manly and assertive type. Yaakov had to always seemingly struggling to validate himself from under the shadow of Eisav. Here Yaakov was determined to wrestle with this issue once and for all, thus he demanded that his opponent submit and bless him. He wrestled with the angel until daybreak, and when it was apparent Yaakov would not give in his opponent submitted and blessed him.

When the angel begins to bless Yaakov he asks him, “What is your name?” When Yaakov responded the angel replied to him, “No longer will it be said that your names is Yaakov, but Yisrael (Israel), for you have wrestled with the Divine and with man and have overcome.” (see Genesis 32:26)

Yaakov and Eisav often appear to be more as two-halves of the same coin instead of twins. Yaakov being easily characterized by a “left brained,” intuitive, mild and sensible side of a soul that had been separated. Eisav, the strong, dominant, aggressive side. In this act we see Yaakov really struggling more with himself than anyone else, to no longer be the usurper and trickster. It this powerful encounter it was as though he had “seen the face of G-d.” The commentary of Talmud Chullin 91a by the Tosafot tells us that this struggle raised the dust to the Throne of Heaven, meaning he shook things up until even G-d had to acknowledge his struggle. The Baal HaTurim also tells us the words ויאבק, meaning a man wrested, it has the same numeric value as the phrase כסא הכבוד, the Throne of Glory. Yaakov was always a devout follower and student of the Torah, or Divine Teaching, taught by his grandfather Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father. However he only became really truly in touch with the glory of G-d when he overcame egoism.

Therefore the angel changed his name to Yisrael. Yes, the name Yaakov means to be a “trickster.” It was true that Yaakov Avinu had to finagle and be a cunning man in order establish himself. However, when he lost his attachment to ego he also released himself from the stigma of that name and way of life. Now without attachment he was recognized as a truly great man, one who “struggled with man and G-d and prevailed!”

When we include the line of blessing from this week’s parsha during our nighttime prayers on Nittel Nacht we should hope that like in the life of Yaakov Avinu, G-d would settle and calm the tensions with those who disagree with our apparently unique, honored and chosen status.

Yaakov Avinu says, “and may my name be declared upon them.”

The blessing is said in the name of the patriarchs, this shows us the influence a spirit of blessing has for developing family, a sense of heritage, and the respect for culture and tradition.

It could also be that Yaakov Avinu, who knew the history of rivalry between brothers and the often violent tragedies that followed, wished that his descendants be spared this. In this blessing he seems to be telling G-d, “I have already gone through this, and so have my forefathers. Do not let Ephraim and Menasheh suffer the same misfortune. Grant them the knowledge and karmic retribution that allows them to overcome the urge to become rivals.”

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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


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