Tag Archives: Curse

Parshat Shemot (2013)


Parshat Shemot
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When People Actually Curse Themselves Through Their Own Words

Pointing FingerHave you ever known people who have overactive mouths and imaginations? People who are constantly over-thinking things, ever speculating, and let their mouths get ahead of them. Most of us would agree that for the sake of prudence one should not let their minds and mouths run amok. Unfortunately, some people do not have this type of common sense; common sense is not always so common. But it’s hard to explain this to people who think they are so smart and therefore see no reason to filter what is passing through their heads and spilling out their mouths. This may sound harsh, but it’s less drastic than the consequences that arise in the lives of people who cannot compose themselves. Trust me, I know this from personal experience.

The reason why we have to be careful about what we let consume our imaginations, and likewise what we confess with our mouths, is because what we begin to believe and profess has a habit of becoming our reality.

The Chassidic maxim, “Tracht gut, vet zein gut / think well, and it will be well,” it is not just wishful thinking. It is a powerful truth. However, in this parsha we will learn this lesson backwardly through the foolishness of Pharaoh and the Egyptians; people who thought evil in their minds and then declared it to be such in their lives. This error on their part started a downward spiral that made the tragedy they lamented over their reality. It began through thinking it, then speaking it, and finally acting it out.

In this weeks parsha we learn that a new Pharaoh arose, or at least a new type of Pharaoh. Our sages are split on the subject of if it was actually a mamash paro chadash – an actually new Pharaoh as the text leads us to believe by using the word chadash (new) – or if it was just a new type of administration, same man but that he had a different way of thinking. As we see the death of Pharaoh is not mentioned here, just that there arose a new Pharaoh after the death of Yosef haTzadik. (see Rashi to Genesis 1:8) Either way, this man ignored and pretended to not know the contribution that Yosef and the Hebrews had made to their society and economy. He began to conspire against the Israelites saying:

“Look, the people of the children of Israel

are too many and mightier than us.

Get ready,

let us deal cleverly with them

lest they multiply

and it happens that a war befall us,

and they also join them to turn against us,

and go up out of the land.”

| Hinei, am benei Yisrael

| rav v’atzum mimeinu.

| Havah

| nit’chak’mah lo

| pen yir’bah

| v’haya ki tik’rehnah mil’chama

| v’nosaf gam hu al son’einu banu

| v’alah min ha’aretz.

Genesis 1:9-10

Here the Pharaoh of Egypt is making a point to his people, one that politicians often make about strangers is in their midst, namely that there are too many of these foreigners being born in their land. Not just that, they have even become stronger and more successful than the established citizenry. So he tells them to go and get ready, they need to prepare, because they are going to have to deal wisely and shrewdly with them; he is going to outsmart the Israelites.

Now what is the reason that he decided to act in such a way towards them? It’s not enough that he make the point of their growing population and success, but he has to justify it with another paranoid claim. He works his subjects up with the possible scenario that if they find themselves in a state of war that the Israelites might decide that they actually hate the Egyptians (son’einu, literally hate us or loath us) and join their enemies. Only lastly does he make the point that they might get up and go out of the land of Egypt.

Rashi makes the most interesting point in his commentary on this text:

And depart from the land:

against our will.

Our Rabbis, interpreted [of Pharaoh]

that this is like a man who curses himself

but hangs the blame of his curse

on someone else.

Therefore it is as if it was written:

And we will be driven out of the land

and they will take possession of it.

ועל מן הארץ: |

על כרחנו. |

ורבותינו דרשו |

כאדם שמקלל עצמו |

ותולה קללתו |

באחרים, |

והרי הוא כאלו כתב: |

ועלינו מן הארץ |

והם יירשוה. |

Rashi on Gensis 1:10

It is indeed a very interesting point, but it might seem a bit perplexing to us on the surface. Rashi tells us that what this literally means, in the context of how Pharoah stated it, is that the descendants of Israel would leave the land of Egypt against the will of the Egyptians.

However, Rashi goes on to expound that our Rabbis interpret this text differently. He says that the Rabbis make an observation, saying that the words Pharaoh spoke were a curse upon himself. He had no reason to believe that this would actually be the case, nonetheless he began to plot and act against the Israelites. He preemptively began an action of hostility against them. He had no evidence that this would be the case, but his enmity towards Israel started off an atmosphere of antagonism that lay squarely on his shoulders. The collisions between Israel and Egypt was something that he started, but we see him placing the blame on them instead. It was as though he was cursing himself with a negative conclusion. (see Talmud Bavli Sotah 11a, the statement in the name of Rabbi Abba ben Kahana)

Rashi then goes on to make an even more perplexing statement. That this text was taken as though it were written that in the case of a war they themselves – the Egyptians – would be driven out of the land and the Israelites would instead inherit their land and occupy it.

But why is it that Rashi says this? What point is he trying to make?

If we consider it, that instead should have been Pharaoh’s primary concern, for the security of his own people. That in a state of war the Israelites could align themselves with their enemy and they could go to war against them. And that in the aftermath it would be that the Egyptians could find themselves occupied and displaced from their land; that the Egyptians themselves could be forced to leave the land of Egypt against their will. That it could be the Egyptians that would get up and go, not the Israelites.

However, that isn’t what he said, and likewise that isn’t the way it happened. In his hysteria and speculation against them Pharaoh let his mouth slip, instead his words confessed a different scenario all together. And so it happened just like he said in the end, that the Israelites would get up and go out of the land. He curses himself with this outcome. Pharaoh did something terrible to himself here, he didn’t know what he was talking about nor did he even have a clue about what he was speaking into reality in his life.

The Israelites would indeed get up and go, however it would come to pass with great suffering and a barrage of curses that would trouble the Egyptian people during this exodus. But we cannot blame the curses on the presence of the Israelites, nor even their G-d. Sure it was destined that Israel would leave Egypt, but he began a state of hostility that only Pharaoh was really to blame for.

Think about it, in the Torah G-d told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a land that was not their own for 400 years. (see Genesis 15:13) Instead, the Israelites would only find themselves in captivity for 215 years at most (as suggested by many traditional people who utilize biblical chronology). Not only did Pharaoh provoke a situation, he made it much worse than it really had to be for his people. He was accelerating Israel’s departure and causing terrible plagues to befall Egypt in the wake of their exodus. Though there is no way that the Israelites could find themselves to blame for what befell the Egyptians, and why they would be left in shambles. It was Pharaoh’s own doing, and his alone by leading all the people involved towards this.

Before we move on from this parsha, we should look at Pharaoh as a terrible example of conniving thought, deed and speech that backfires. Of people who think they are so wise (chochmah). And this is generally the case with people of defective thinking, they can’t even imagine the type of mess that their scheming is getting them into.

But why is it, even if by turn of phrase, that the ending sum of Pharaohs words should come to pass exactly as he said it would? Our teachers would point out the he was a leader, and words of a great man, even a bad one should never be discounted. There is always a little bit of truth found even in the declarations of a foolish man, especially more so when they are in a role of authority. But it’s not because he had any type of insight or even intuition, it’s not as though he was prophesying something. He wasn’t that well-informed or virtuous. The reality is that this situation was concerning his existence and domain, what he spoke came to pass because it was his life and what he focused on was naturally going to become his reality.

As we consider the Chassidic saying once again, let us remember for ourselves that if we think good things it will begin to produce good things in our lives. If we think bad then it will bring about bad results in our lives. People need to learn to catch themselves when they find their thoughts and words starting to wander to the negative, because it will surely lead to an action eventually. If we cannot think positively about a situation or person, at the very least we should try to calm our minds and tongues before it starts a chain of negative actions. In the end the things we let slip might actually become our final outcome, whether we know it or not at the time. And when this happens we surely have no one to blame but ourselves.

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Parshat Bechukotai (2012)


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”


And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.

|

And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.

|

| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d

|

But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.

|

| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.


Parshat Re’eh (2011)


Parshat Re’eh
Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

How Moses challenged both Israel and G-d to consider their ways. Engagement goes both ways.

“Behold, I lay before you today

blessing and a curse”

| Re’eh anochi notain lifneichem hayom

| b’racha uk’lalah.

Deuteronomy 11:26

Investigate with Looking GlassThe name of our parsha is “re’eh,” which is often translated as behold and see. Just as in the English and Romance languages such a word is used quite flexibly, the same is true in Hebrew. To ra’ah not only means to see, but also to perceive, to understand, to determine; it can also mean to investigate, check or examine.

As we come into the this parsha we have Moses speaking to the nation, as we will read starting in verse 29 the people are commanded that when they come into the land of Israel they are to divide up the tribes, half are to go to Mount Gezarim to hear the pronounce blessings and affirm them with the word “amein,” and half of the tribes are to remain on Mount Eival and affirm the words of the curses likewise with the word “amein;” they are to be affirmed as they are pronounced by the priests (see Deut. 27:11-14).

Even though we are going to deal with this in our studies of Parshat Ki Tavo in a few weeks, it is important that we make sure we are already in the proper frame of mind. As we come into this study it is essential for us to realize that we are not talking about the people being offered either enchantment or hexing. Basic Judaism everyone knows is that a blessing is not anything magical, it’s merely taking an ordinary thing and elevating it for a divine purpose; wine, bread, fruit, water, just about anything. To say words acknowledging the handwork of G-d in the item, and connect it to a spiritual task. We recognize the goodness in it and therefore gratefully bless G-d; we elevate His Name, we don’t enchant Him. But how about for cursing? That is something we don’t often hear about. Thank G-d, we don’t go around cursing each other in our culture, it’s so foreign of a concept that few understand what is meant. But to kalal – to curse – means use an expletive, a swearword.

What Moses is telling the people is that he is placing before them the following conditions, if they keep them they will have reason to bless, but if they don’t they will groan with curses. What are the conditions? Let’s read on:

“The blessing if you give heed

to the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

which I command to you today.

The curse if you do not heed

the commandments

of Hashem your G-d

but turn from the path

which I have commanded to you today,

to follows after other gods,

after which you have not known.”

| Et-haberachah asher tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom.

| Vehakelalah im-lo tishme’u

| el-mitzvot

| Hashem Eloheichem

| vesartem min-haderech

| asher anochi metzaveh etchem hayom

l alechet acharei elohim

| acherim asher lo-yedatem.

Deuteronomy 11:28-29

It’s very clear, we keep mitzvot (the commandments) and we will have blessings, but if we abandon the path and go seeking after novel religious experiences we are going to be cursed. It’s simple and clear. Also let us bring to mind the concept understood by the Kabbalist, to l’daat Hashem is to know G-d intimately, like a man knows his wife; it means to make an intimate union, thats how close the communion is. G-d does not want us to know other gods in that way.

One of the things we have been discussing as we deal with the subject of prayer and kabbalah is how to connect to G-d (see article “Breaking Down Elitism in Kabbalah Study“). We understand as the scriptures say that G-d is the sole Authority in the universe, He stands alone as the only power (see Isaiah 45). He is all-powerful; this force was already described in Devarim (Deuteronomy) as:

“For Hashem your G-d

is a consuming fire;

a jealous G-d.”

| Ki Hashem Elocheicha

| aish ochlah hu,

| El kana.

Deuteronomy 4:23

This scripture we can easily understand: as G-d is all-powerful we know that it is not possible to literally connect to G-d, to touch the Divine, or else we would be devoured by the sheer glory of this force that drives all of existence. We also understand since G-d is not a person (Numbers 23:19), that G-d is not driven by emotions as we are, so we must understand this word jealous in its pure sense, kanah means the demand to be exclusive to someone (see Parshat Nasso). G-d wishes that we understand that He is everything, and therefore by virtue of that He is everything we need! And secondly, He demands that we come to the conclusion in ourselves that He is our entire world, there is none other to even consider. G-d being the sole force in our universe permeates all, anything that is not according to His order is consumed and destroyed; it is an anomaly that is canceled out.

Understanding this we move beyond the childish concept of G-d as a whim driven person who is prone to emotional outbursts that we need to fear. Instead the scriptures present us with a picture of G-d as a fire, not just a fire but a fire that consumes everything and anything; an all-consuming fire. Now a fire is not good or bad, nor is it happy or angry when it does what it does. Fire when utilized properly brings us warmth, comfort and light; it is useful and necessary. But when used improperly it can burn, destroy, harm and even kill. But we need not fear G-d, as one might a fire. In fact we shouldn’t even fear fire at all, instead we should show a respect for it and its nature. So too our fear for G-d should be, that we should be in keeping with the proper respect for G-d’s order in this dynamic universe in order to receive the benefits of His light. Because if we do not, then we can be harmed; though it has nothing to do with maliciousness, that is the natural outcome of our misuse.

What Moses is doing here is laying out this Torah before the people and saying to them this is a powerful tool, for those of who follow the instructions that were given by G-d through him it would serve them well. But if they did not show proper respect in order to do it, it would come to harm and destroy them. It has nothing to do with the desires of G-d nor the nature of His Torah, it merely has to do with how they utilize it.

This principle is also mirrored in the Oral Torah, the Talmud:

“Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani [said]:

Rabbi Yonatan [pointed out the following]

contradiction:

It is written:

The authority of Hashem is right,

gladdening the heart. (Psalm 19:9)

But it is also written:

The word of Hashem is tried. (Psalm 28:31)

If he is meritorious, it gladdens him;

if not, it tries him.

Resh Lakish said: From the body of

the same passage this can be derived:

If he is meritorious, it tries him unto life;

if not, it tries him unto death.”

רבי שמואל בר נהמני |

רבי יונתן |

רמי |

כתי |

פקודי ה׳ ישרים |

משמחי לב |

וכתיב |

אמרת ה׳ צרופה |

זכה משמרתו |

לא זכה צורפתו |

ריש לקיש אמר מגופיה דקרא |

נפקא זכה |

צורפתו לחיים |

לא זכה צורפתו למיתה |

Talmud Bavli Yoma 72b

If one does what they told, to keep the mitzvot and stay true to Hashem their G-d then this Torah will be something for them to rejoice over. But if not, this Torah is going to be something that is going to be very trying for them, in fact to the point that they will perish.

Now the latter part of this text is interpreted by our rabbis a bit more deeply, and honestly more appropriately, by translating it as “if he merits it, then it is a drug of life, if not it is a poison of death.” This is most likely because the word for “try,” or “tests” as some say, actually means to be refined, to be purified (the word צרף). In the figurative sense what this alludes to is essential extracts that were used as medicines, the first drugs in existence. Many of the rabbis were well-educated in medicine, and this concept was understood easily by them. That a drug when used properly can bring health and repair to the body, but when misused and if we do not follow the instructions as given, it can become a poison of death to us. There is nothing wrong with the prescribing physician or the remedy, the fault lies in the user if there are mishaps! So too is the Torah like a drug, it bring us health or ruin depending on how much we respect the power of it.

Moses tells us to “re’eh,” to examine for ourselves, to check, to investigate to see if this is not true. If we do, we will be able to see and understand that this is true, determining that G-d really does fill the lives to those who hold to His ways with blessings, whereas those who have not have perished from the face of the earth. The Torah, unlike the religions of world does not demand that you “see it my way,” but that you examine it in order to perceive it for oneself.

In Torah Living, Engagement Goes Both Way

There is another place in the Chumash (The Torah, The Five Books of Moses), that also displays the flexibility of this word “re’eh,” both cases in an engaging fashion as well. For those who know the Jewish faith, the idea of being engaged and challenging in the words of Torah is not anything new to the average reader. But to those that are of different faiths it can seem perplexing how often in the Hebrew scriptures the righteous engage G-d. Not only do they engage G-d, but they do so in very direct and strong terms. Not only are we allowed to consider the truth of G-d’s ways, but we are given the ability to approach G-d that He give consideration to us as well.

In Exodus 33 after the disastrous incident of the golden calf Moses approaches G-d, Who has separated His presence from before the people so as not to consume them until they all die. In verse 5 they are clearly told that if G-d were to let Himself approach them His presence would annihilate them. Therefore Moses separates the tent of meeting from the rest of the community of Israel and sets it up outside of the camp, where G-d would meet with him according to His command. As G-d is still in the act of ruling on the punishment for the people Moses gives us two strong ways of looking at the word “re’eh,” as well as surprises many people with a point-blank challenge to G-d Himself:

“And Moses said to Hashem:

See, you have said to me:

Bring this people up

but you have not let me know

who you will send with me.

And you have said:

I shall know you by name

and you shall also have favor

in My eyes.

And now, if I have found favor in Your eyes

show me your way, that I know You,

so that I might find favor in Your sight.

And consider that this nation is Your people!”

| Vayomer Moshe el-Hashem:

| Re’eh, atah omer elai

| ha’al et-ha’am hazeh

| ve’atah lo hodatani

| et asher-tishlach imi

| Ve’atah amarta

| yedaticha veshem

| vegam-matzata chen

| be’einai.

| Ve’atah im-na matzati chen be’eineicha

| hodi’eni na et-derachecha ve’eda’acha

| lema’an emtza-chen be’eineicha

| ure’eh ki amecha hagoy hazeh.

Deuteronomy 33:12-13

The context of the situation is one in which G-d is so fed up with the people after the golden calf that He is considering annihilating the entire nation aside from Moses and building a new nation out of him alone. (Exodus 32:10) But then Moses intercedes on their behalf and G-d forgives them. However, there yet remains the issue of consequence, they are no longer able to enjoy the Presence of G-d surrounding them in the midst of the camp, it takes residence outside the camp and calls only to Moses now. But Moses is not content to go forwards without the Presence of G-d still remaining with them. G-d does actually consider what Moses has to say, and honors his request because we read in the next verse:

“And He said: My Presence shall go with you

and give you rest”

| Vayomar panai yelechu

| vahanichoti lach.

Deuteronomy 33:14

Moses approaches G-d basically saying, “Look, this is what you said but I still don’t know how this all works and who You are. Show me your path and I will follow it, then I will know You and be able to please You. Think about it, these are Your people but we don’t know what You want us to do.” Moses is asking G-d to consider His relationships to His people, and the task at hand so as to examine if His dealing with them is best for the goals which He has set for them.

If the King of the universe allows His perfect way to be open to scrutiny, how much more should we as ordinary and faulty people be open to considering our ways. Are our ways consistent with the outcome that we desire in life? If not then we need to just admit it and make a new plan of action.

The Torah was give to us as a comprehensive plan at Moses’ requested. Here in Devarim – or as it is called in the Talmud the Misheh Torah, the repetition of the Torah – we are being told what it means. That this Torah can either bring life to us or death to us. But the decision of that outcome is completely up to us, it all has to do with how we receive it! How receptive are you as a person, my friend?


Parshat Balak (2011)


Parshat Balak
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Those of you who are familiar with Parshat Balak are probably going to immediately think of the talking donkey of Balaam. I love animals myself. However I think we need to focus on another stubborn ass.

As we dig into studying this parsha I want to remind us that this parsha is titled, “Balak.” This is primarily the story of King Balak of Moab. Sadly this is hard to see sometimes because there seems to be more action on the part of everyone else in this Torah portion than on the part of Balak himself, and that is the primary problem here.

Background: How we got to this point

In the previous Torah portion, Parshat Chukat, we learned that the nation of Israel had sent emissaries to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, asking permission to pass through their land using the king’s road. Even though they promised to not harm their fields and agreed to even pay for well water, Sihon objected and went to war against Israel and the Amorites were defeated. The people of Israel therefore took possession of the land of the Amorites and settled there.

Being Disgusted With Life

Our parsha starts off with the following statement:

And Balak son of Zippur saw

all that Israel had done to the Amorites

Moab became terrified of the people,

for they were numerous,

and Moab became disgusted because of the

children of Israel.”

| “Vayar Balak ben-Tzipor

| et kol-asher-asah Yisra’el la-Emori

| Vayagor Moav mipenei ha’am

| me’od ki rav-hu

| vayakotz Moav mipenei

| benei Yisra’el”

Numbers 22:2-3

In verse 4 we see what his concern is: 

Moab said to the elders of Midian

‘Now the congregation will lick up our entire surroundings,

as an ox licks up the

greenery of the field.’

And Balak son of Zippur was the king

of Moab at that time.”

| “Vayomer Moav el-ziknei Midian

| atah yelachachu hakahal et-kol-svivoteinu

| kilechoch hashor

| et yerek hasadeh

| uValak ben-Tsipor melech

| le-Moav ba’et hahi”

Numbers 22:4

The last part of verse 4 gives me an idea of who is speaking. Even though it says “and Moab said” the last words are “and Balak son of Zippur was king in Moab” suggest to me that he was speaking as the representative of the entire people of Moab. It also says “at that time,” which suggests to us that his kingship was not normative; our sages understand this as he was not normally entitled to be king but was appointed so, on a temporary or emergency basis due to a vacuum in leadership.

You would think that Balak would be a happy person, being called to be the leader of his people. However his lack of character shows very quickly; and you can almost hearing the whining in his voice. His statement is a reactionary one, not a proactive one; “now look what they are going to do!” We should understand that he didn’t expect to have to deal with this problem. He was relying on the Amorites to take care of the nation of the Israel, but now they were defeated and Israel dwelt in the land of their vanquished enemy. We should also understand that Israel was not a military threat to the Moabites, as in Deuteronomy 2:9 we learn that G-d instructed them not to attack Moab nor provoke them to fight. Balak’s problem was that there was a new kid on the block who seemed to have an unwarranted success, people whose needs he figured could possibly leave Moab with only the left overs of the natural resources in the region.

As Balak surveyed the nation of Israel encamped in the valley the text says, “vayakots Moav mipenei benei Yisra’el / and Moab became disgusted in the face of Israel.” Rashi and the Rashbam tell us that this verse is an abbreviated verse, or as I understand it meaning an idiomatic phrase; and we should understand the word “disgusted” as it appears in Genesis 27:46 “katzti vechaiai / disgusted with life.” It can also be understood as dreaded, distressed or grieved. However, I see all these meanings as one in the same, that Balak flinched back disgusted that he was dealt such a terrible hand in life. Here we have a good example of the self-pitying person; one that is disgusted with life, namely because he insists on leaving his fate to be in the hands of everyone else! They shrink back from a situation instead of facing the reality of it.

Self-Pity Attracts Bad Company

So little does he want to deal with the problem at hand that he turns to his enemies for help! In Genesis 36:35 we learned that Moab and Midian were enemies of each other. But here they are making a seeming peace, as suggested by the Talmud in Sanhedrin 105a. I have often found it strange in this life that those who wallow in pursuit of sympathy seem to seek out companionship of those who are not only the least able to help them, but also the least likely to truly have concern for them. My friends, self-pity sometimes makes a person blind enough to seek the sympathy of people in the same predicament to validate their misfortune. So common is this “misery loves company” attitude. However Sanhedrin 105a points out the quality of “friends” we acquire with this attitude, “There was never peace between Midian and Moab. The matter may be compared to two dogs in one kernel which were always enraged at each other. Then a wolf attacked one, whereupon the other said, If I do not help him, he will kill him today, and attack me tomorrow; so they both went and killed the wolf. R. Papa observed: Thus people say, ‘The weasel and cat [when at peace with each other] had a feast on the fat of the luckless.'”

However, there is a seeming logic to Moab’s alignment with Midian. First off, Moses had lived in the land Midian for many years after fleeing Egypt when he killed the Egyptian soldier. He was also the son-in-law of Yitro (Jethro) the priest of Midian. They wanted to know as much about Moses as they could in order to devise a plan of how to deal with the threat.

Secondly, because Balak and the Moabites knew that even though they intended to approach Balaam to curse the Israelites it might not work, in which case they would have to go to into battle if they wanted to remove them from the land. Thus they needed Midian for military support. It is this fact that makes Balak’s persistence of seeking a curse from Balaam so shameful; that several times he’s going to approach Balaam to curse Israel because he still doesn’t want to lift a finger to deal with the problem. The most he was dedicated to was to “perhaps strike it and drive it (the nation of Israel) away.” (v. 6) Had he truly wanted to deal with the problem he would have asked for a blessing for Moab, so they could defeat Israel. Instead he asked for a curse, because he was looking for a swift downfall to come at someone else’s hand.

Degrading Ones Self for Glory or Hatred

Balak didn’t even have any initiative in taking the easy way out! Balak seems too good to go out and seek the help of Balaam himself. Instead he sends representatives. When Balaam resisted he kept sending higher ranking officials. Eventually Balaam succumbs to the temptation of greed and glory offered by Balak.

Rashi points out, interestingly, that Balaam was already a man of standing and stature; but we read that he “rose up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey,” surely he had servants to do such menial tasks for him. Well obviously he didn’t let dignity get in the way! It has been my observation in life that self-aggrandizing people and hateful people often go about seeking glory in the most self-degrading fashions.

Balak’s Twisted Sense of Persistence

Even once Balaam goes to meet Balak, he is unable to curse the Israelites. He finds nothing that he can exploit to bring about their downfall on the spiritual plain. Balaam could only have cursed Israel if he found a form of immorality in them that he could capitalize upon, however there was no such immorality in Israel at that time. Thus once he cannot curse Israel the suggestion is to bring the people into sexual immorality and pagan worship. How terrible it is when someone cannot accomplish something in life because of their own merit, but depend on the deficiency of others to profit them.

Furthermore, its terrible how a person who lacks self-initiative often continues to demand of somebody what they cannot provide; putting the blame on someone else for not being able to fix their own woes.

Balak shows his lack of backbone in his direct conversations with Balaam as well. Twice when Balaam cannot curse Israel he asked Balaam to go somewhere else and look and see if he can pull it off. Balak says to Balaam in verse 13, “Go, now with me to a different place from which you will see them; however you will see its edge and not see all of it – and you will curse it for me from there.” Twice Balak pulls out another typical trait of those in self-pity, something to the tune of “but if you just see it from my perspective…” How interesting it is that he points out himself that his point of view is a skewed and partial!

Lastly, Balak shows the last resort of those who choose to live in self-pity. Once it becomes clear that he cannot have Israel cursed he becomes angry with Balaam and sends him away saying, “Now, flee to your place, I said I would honor you, but – behold! Hashem has withheld honor from you!” The final excuse of the self-pitying person is to blame G-d!

No less than five times we have explicit demands from Balak for Balaam to curse the nation of Israel. Gosh, if only he had as much persistence in finding a solution to his problems as he had in trying to avoid them.


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