Tag Archives: Leadership

Parshat Emor (5775)


Leviticus 21 -24

Do you expect perfection of your spiritual leaders?

Do you demand a lot out of your leaders? Do you find that you demand a certain level of perfection in your spiritual leaders and rabbis? Can a leader with defects still be useful and inspiring to the community?

11078623_10153757197976110_119730993_oIn age of the Bible and when the ancient Temples stood, the role of spiritual leadership was held by the kohanim, the Temple priests. This whole section of Torah is related the Temple sacrifice and to the sanctity of these priests.

I come to you today, with my eye drawn to this one section related to the demanding qualities and the harsh disqualifying physical characteristics which pertain to a kohen – a priest. To the section related to disabilities which disqualified a priest from religious service, specifically the odd topic of broken bones.

Though I am not a kohen or rabbi, I am recognized as a leader among many of you. I am returning after some time of being away from the written and scholarly world because of issues relating to broken bones, tumors and surgery; all of which has still left me unable to write well. Yet all the while maintaining my vital active service in my community and synagogue through these limitations. All this has me feeling pretty sympathetic to the priests in this story. But enough about me for now, let us jump right into the lesson and I’ll explain my current struggle along the way.

Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous and equate my work with that of the kohannim – the Temple priests. The role of the kohen was more demanding than any job I can possible think of, not just in laborious physical demands and responsibilities.

I find these thoughts regarding the role of the kohen captured most beautifully by the words of poet David Harris Ebenbach, in the Artist’s Torah:

“In Biblical times, the role of the kohen, temple priests, was an extraordinarily demanding one, and not just in terms of the workload. There was also an expectation that the priests would attempt to do better than a good job – to approach, in fact, perfection in a variety of ways – and that anything that compromised this perfection would render the priest unfit for sacred duty. We’ve seen this other parashiyot where God makes precise and detailed rules for the way a priest should set the temple up and maintain it, how a priest should conduct the sacrifices, even how the priest should dress. Again and again there is the sense that doing things a little bit wrong makes everything turn out extremely wrong.”

The demands upon the kohen were also extraordinary in regard the physical and carnal characteristics it demanded of these leaders. In them, the Torah also demanded a certain level of perfection. And this is what we find described in the greatest detail here in parshat Emor.

In this week’s Torah portion we read of all the ways by which one may become disqualified from the sacrificial service. These laws fall into two categories.

This first category is dealt with in our first aliyah – in our first reading from Leviticus 21:1-15 – concerning that which makes a priest tamei, ritually impure. Such as defiling oneself by coming in contact with the dead, except for the case of a close relative. In like manner the Torah also describes other defiling features, such as shaving one’s head in certain fashions and cutting one’s flesh for the dead. Among this is also includes other defilements and demands, such as those related to forbidden sexual unions: a sexual union with a harlot; or marrying a non-virgin; taking a widow or divorced woman as a wife.

These things are generally understood as clearly being a matter which one has a choice regarding. These things presumably can be remedied, as they are only temporary restrictions. The disqualifications are conditional and specific. This state of tumah which disqualifies him from duty is consequential. Therefore one can restore himself from this state and recompose himself. Even in the matter of forbidden relationships for a priest, this can be solved by sending his paramour away and repenting. Once he does, he can then return to the sacrificial service.

My Hand Xray with Tumor

A tumor was removed from inside the bone of my left index finger, seen here on this xray.

And then there is this second category which starts in our second aliyah – Leviticus 21:6 until the end of the chapter – covering that which rendered a priest mum, or blemished. And in this the Torah becomes even more specific and demanding. We are left to read a number of disabilities which render one unfit for sacrificial service: being blind, maimed or lame; having abnormally long or short limbs; having broken bones. And it also lists other unusual abnormalities which it lumps together; having a hunchback; dwarfism; cataracts; permanent lesions and sores; and even usual disqualifications like having crushed testes makes the list!

This second category of things – those things which are considered blemishes – these are the most striking of all because these things are all matters which a person does not have any choice or control over. These were seen as permanent disabilities, and therefore they permanently disqualified one from their priestly service.

It’s truly astounding to realize that the kohanim were required to be utterly flawless, even in the matters which he has no control over. He had to be free of all these impediments.

This is something which modern readers undoubtedly find shocking, as a form of discrimination. But some of us can almost understand their antiquated mentality of why this was required. Why it was important for Temple priests to be free from these “defects.” Why a certain level of perfection needed to be maintained.

Before I start to diverge in thought, I want to go back and share with you one other precious observation by Ebenbach though:

“Tough to be a kohen, for sure, and understandably – these men were involved in the most important work of the community, work crucial to the soul. What they did on a daily basis could either elevate us towards the divine or, if done poorly, could leave us cut off, bereft. What they did mattered. ”

I appreciate that as an artist he has come to understands the mechanics of the drama and the physical aesthetics, all of which were seen as necessary to facilitate temple worship. He then poses a question to other artists and modern readers in the end. Does an artist have to be perfect to produce art? He concludes that no, he clearly doesn’t. However, one also shouldn’t be riddled with personal issues which distract and get in the way of creating that art.

For a moment I want us to step back into the text to they key verse which caught my interest here. A verse which perks my interest, but which also is kind of a painful subject for me right now in my personal life, quite literally.

In the middle of the listing all these blemishes by which they are disqualified from sacrificial service, we find this listed:

Or a man who has a broken foot |

or a broken hand.|

אוֹ אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁריִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל,

אוֹ ,שֶׁבֶר יָד.

O ish asher vo shever ragel, o shever yad.”

Leviticus 21:20

From this we derive that a kohen who has broken bones may not serve as a priest for the offering of sacrificial offerings. Specifically, having one’s leg or arm broken, as the text literally reads.

Now today in the modern age we don’t have sacrificial worship led by kohanim, instead have prayer’s as offerings. And we engage in learning of the Torah which is led by our clergy. Our leaders are Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and often characters like myself. And luckily for us moderns, we don’t have so many restrictions upon us. And our responsibilities are quite different. Those of us who work for the Jewish community still do the crucial work of the soul and ministering to people’s needs, just in a different fashion.

Work which isn’t isn’t quite so back breaking, which doesn’t require the handling and dismembering of animals. Thankfully.

The most physical work I ever have to do is the carrying of some Torah scrolls around at synagogue and helping as gabbai during the Torah service. Helping out the clergy at the bima. And caring for the sacred scrolls as we transition between the ritual readings and several high points in the service. In a small congregation like ours, my knowledge and assistance in facilitating this is most often needed. Yet even this has come with some great difficulty for me lately, and has left me requiring even a bit of assistance myself.

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The large post-surgery cast.

For the past few months I been notably nursing my left hand and arm. And I still currently find myself wrapped up in a series of cumbersome bandages and attention grabbing casts. All this related to some broken bones in one of my hands.

This issue all began a few months ago when I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Thinking that the pain was just something passing and being quite used to physical pains, I ignored it at first. Then one day I heard a crack in my hand, followed by terrible pain. And even then I ignored it for a few more weeks. I didn’t see a whole lot physically wrong at first, but then came the swelling. Of course everyone in the synagogue told me to see a medical specialist, which eventually I did get seen by once the condition became too hard to ignore.

In the end the doctors found a lesion growing out of the bone of my left index finger. Surgeons then identified it as a huge tumor growing out of my bone marrow, one which had been silently growing inside for some time. Getting fatter until its expansion fractured the bones in two places on its way out. A tumor breaking my bones, from the inside out.

The doctors quickly scheduled me for surgery, to remove the tumor and the damaged bone. And the surgeon also rebuild my hand from bone fragments sawed away and harvested from up near my elbow. The tumor was then submitted for biopsy, to make sure it wasn’t cancerous. And the hand and arm was then set in place, leaving me all bandaged up as I was sent home for a few months of recovery.

Of course, any of you know me well enough see that I have been just as stubborn and determined as ever during this recovery. I’m hardly the type of person to lay back and take it easy. Though it appears that I have been missing from the written world, this has actually been the most active time in my life both as a religious figure and as a community organizer.

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Walking tour with Beth Shalom of Whittier; on Breed Street, Boyle Heights.

All through this crisis I’ve been planning all my many doctors visits and events narrowly close, just to keep up with my civic and religious duties. And just five days out of surgery, I even had the honor of giving a long awaited tour of historic Jewish Boyle Heights to the sweet people of my synagogue. And then from there jumping right into the thick of the Passover holiday. I have all the while been determined to stay in bed no longer than necessary, quickly returning to the joys of public service. Making public appearances as I’ve been capable.

Now I realized I’m not completely healed. I spend a lot of time teaching and directing things right now, but I’m a lot less hands-on with projects right now. Though the bones are set, I am not completely healed yet.

A reminder of this came a few weeks ago when my dear friend Eileen, who is like a mother to me, scolded me as I took a Torah in arm. It was a Passover holiday service which required more than one scroll, and due to a slip in choreography I ended up with a Torah scroll in my good arm during a set of prayers. Carefully cradled so as not to drop it, and to prevent a disruption to the special holiday service. Though as I turned to face the crowd I saw Eileen rightfully wagging her finger at me and later scolding us guys for letting me do it, in her motherly way of course. She is among the many of you who are now teaching me to slow down and how to accept that I’m not whole. And also how to also be patient with myself, as it will heal in due time.

Now you see why I am so drawn to this reading from our parsha about broken bones, specifically relating to the hand and arms of a priest in public service. Now it’s not that I’m just fixated with this issue of broken bones on my own. This Torah portion also seems to be quite fixated and very concerned regarding the topic of broken bones.

Why is this issue of broken bones so important? And why is this condition lumped up with the permanent disabilities?

For those of you who are part of my synagogue family, we will find an answer suggested in the Etz Chaim Torah volumes that we use for service and learning, found here in the isles. [see Etz Chaim, page 720; also cited by Ebenbach] It can be logically deduced, and so it is also suggested by some rabbis, that in the ancient world broken bones were indeed a permanent condition in most cases. In a world without precise medicine and surgical ability, a bone could not be properly set. And for this reason it would often continue to be a source of pain and disruption in one’s body for the rest of their life.

Unlike my broken bones as a modern person with the benefit of medical science to restore me, the same type of injury suffered by one in the ancient world was prone to remaining a permanent disability.

However, the prohibition against a kohen who has broken these bones is not just a practical one, so as not to have one physically disrupting the temple service. Our rabbis also point to another more ritually significant reason, one which keeps with the theme of sacredness which is stressed here in this sacrifice heavy book of Leviticus.

Parshat Emor is said to mention broken bones as disqualifying blemishes three additional times, when in relation to the animals themselves which are being offered up by the priests. In Leviticus chapter 22 – in our third reading – we are going to see this mentioned in verses 20, 22, and 25. Rashi teaches us that one is not permitted to (1) consecrate, (2) slaughter, nor (3) dash the blood on the altar of an animal with broken bones as blemishes. This blemish rendered the offering unfit at every step of the way, and was considered an abomination. [see Rashi, Lev. 22:22]

It is seemingly understandable that just as G-d required perfection for His offerings, so too He also required the seemliness of perfection in those priests who were appointed to offer them up.

Now before we move on, I need to remind us that we are talking about a blemished kohen only being disqualified from being a priest who could sacrifices offerings on the altar. He is rendered unfit for this service alone, however his state as a priest remained. As long as he remained ritually pure he could continue to partake of his benefit as a priest in eating of the priestly portions, as we see also described for the rest of the priestly household here as the Torah continues on to the end of the chapter.

The sages and rabbis also held that a priest was still viable to participate in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, one of the highest points of the ancient service. We know very well that the blemished priest could and did extend their hands in blessing towards the people of Israel in the ancient Temple, when it was physically possible for them to do so.

Now there is a rabbinic prohibition, one which relates to the calling up of a kohen with blemishes. A revealing text, we find in the Mishnah:

“A priest whose hands are deformed, may not raise them [to bless the people]. Rabbi Yehudah also prohibits it to a priest whose hands are stained with woad or with madder roots, because the people stare at him.”

כהן שיש בידיו מומין,לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה, לא ישא את כפיו, מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.

Mishnah, Megillah 4:7

Generally we know that the prohibition, both by biblical and rabbinic standards. relates to noticeable deformities. One is prohibited from ascending if they are deformed either from their body or upon their body. The first being a noticeable deformity growing from the body, much like my tumor once it grew out the bone and to the surface of my hand.

This latter case of hands simply being stained, being an example of blemishes caused upon the body; presumably staining his hand dying cloth. A blemish to his body, simply as result of a priest having to take up a trade to help make ends meet. This staining was an occupational hazard and not a deformity. The marks of a working-class man. Yet it disqualified kohanim nonetheless.

The reason given for this prohibition is the most interesting thing yet. Why should a kohen be prohibited from performing his sacred service? Surprisingly, it’s not because G-d simply doesn’t want “inferior” people offering up His worship; a thought which somehow comes to mind for many fundamentalists. No, a more sensible reason is provided for us. So that this person will not be gawked at as they perform this sacred service.

In the Gemara we would later see this prohibition also seemingly extended to feet injuries, speech impediments and even being blind in one eye. All these things which might cause people to stare at the priest as he blesses. Interestingly, in the end the rabbis proved this prohibition to merely be pragmatic, as the talmud would finally conclude that if a kohen was well known enough that his condition raised no suspicion among the congregation then his service was permitted. (See Talmud, Megillah 24b)

Again, this prohibition is purely pragmatic. So that when a kohen ascends to engage in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing – that people should not inadvertently stare up at the kohen. [It is our custom to not look up at their extended hands as they are blessing, in reverence and awe.] Disrupting and distracting from the sacredness of this blessing, which in many traditional congregations is still one of the highest point of our service.

So now let us answer for ourselves, why is this point so important? Why is this even an issue at all? The answer should be obvious to all of us. The truth, it is the awe and wonder of the moment is what makes our worship so very powerful. A great deal of the power of the service is the drama, as it rises and falls with choreographed precision. Prayers with words which are carefully chosen and precisely delivered, invoked to elevate both emotion and spirit.

Yet, our tradition knows how distractible we are as people, especially to anything which we perceive as unusual or off-putting. Be it found in the offering, or found in the person of the priest offering it.

Our rabbis narrow in on this point in the Sefer HaChinuk, regarding our biblical prohibition against the elevation of a kohen with blemishes: [Thank you to Aharon Varady for helping me properly locate this citation.]

“From the root of the mitzvah: Since people ascribe value to activities based on the importance of the performers of those activities. A person who appears imposing and well mannered will find more favor in all that he does before those who see him. In the opposite case, a person who is of low form and unusual appearance will seem unworthy in the eyes of his beholders if his actions are any less than perfect. It is therefore appropriate that the person on whom atonement depends be of pleasant appearance in all facets so that people will attach their thoughts to him. Aside from this, it is possible that in his perfect form there is a hint to certain concepts, for as a person contemplates [the perfect form] he will purify his soul and elevate it. Therefore it is improper for there to be anything unusual in any form in him, lest the soul of the contemplative be scattered due to the anomaly, for it would then be moved from the purpose.”

משרשי המצוה. לפי שרב פעלות בני אדם רצויות אל לב רואיהם לפי חשיבות עושיהן, כי בהיות האדם חשוב במראהו וטוב במעשיו, ימצא חן ושכל טוב בכל אשר יעשה בעיני כל רואיו, ואם יהיה בהפך מזה פחות בצורתו ומשנה באבריו, ואם אינו ישר בדרכיו לא יאותו פעלותיו כל כך אל לב רואיו, על כן באמת ראוי להיות השליח שהכפרה תלויה עליו איש חן יפה תאר ויפה מראה נאה בכל דרכיו, למען יתפשו מחשבות בני איש אחריו. ומלבד זה, אפשר שיש בשלמות צורתו, רמז לענינים, שמתוך מחשבות האדם בהן, תטהר נפשו ותתעלה, ולכן אין ראוי בשום צד שיהיה בו שנוי צורה מכל צורותיו, פן תתפזר נפש המחשב מצד השנוי ותנוד מן החפץ.

Sefer HaChinukh 275:2

Interesting, and also very revealing. The truth is we as a congregation are often quite consciously observant regarding the leaders offering up our blessings. Yes. We hold them to a higher level of accountability. Just as close to faultlessness as we expect in our worship, we also expect this to be embodied in the people offering it up before us. A distinguished person, but not one whose issues are distracting.

We expect the art of our religious experience to shine forth, without the artists being a distraction to the creation of that art.

Yet, in the end our tradition finally comes to recognize that the “blemish” is not always such a great matter of disturbance for the sufferer himself, but for the congregation instead. It lays fault for any exclusion squarely upon us as a congregation, and not on the person himself.

I’m glad to say that at the synagogue where I am a member and teacher, at Beth Shalom of Whittier, we have an inclusive and progressive community. One where unkind gawking or unfair exclusion is unthinkable. We welcome everyone to participate, including those with disabilities and special needs. We find this to be as blessing and not a distraction!

Shmuel Gonzales, 6th Street BridgeAnd this is what I have in mind and heart today. This is what turns-over in my head as I ascend the bimah this week. A thought I keep in mind as I once again snicker at myself, unnoticed to anyone but myself. As I secure my tallit around me and over my ever present punk rock jacket, the one with the anti-swastika pin. As I march forward unlike any other guy in the room: in Doc Martin boots, studded belt, piercings here and plugs there. A queer and ethnic person. A working-class Latino, from the wrong side of the tracks. Imposing only in personality, but a shadow of as man I used to be. Who is now far too thin already from my long battle with chronic conditions and constant threats of terminal illness.

There are so many things about me that are unusual and sometimes breathtaking at first sight, altogether different from what people expect of a “good Jewish boy.” And so many hard issues related to my health and body, things which make me less than whole. And yet the only thing that makes people stare, in loving concern of course, is my brightly bandaged hand and arm. Sometimes distraction remains, but it’s a good thing in this case!

I am coming to realize a truth, one demonstrated by you all. That despite the superficial blemishes people like myself may have, we can still be inspiring and a joy to the community.

For months now I have risen before many of you to say some prayers and help us elevate our worship, burdened with these noticeable casts; white, black, red, and black again. Mostly helping people as I try to be as hands-off as possible. Hopefully for this week is for the last time, bizrat hashem. Thankfully the tumor was found to be benign, I will make a full recovery. I will be back at it after some physical therapy helps helps me get it moving again. But thank you all for your support through all of this. Shabbat shalom!

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Parshat Yitro (5774)


Exodus 18 – 20

Why are there so many warnings from Moses in this parsha?

This week we are going to discuss the importance of the individual and the collective. About the importance of each individual to G-d, as expressed by our tradition. And our importance as being a member of a community.

Har Sinai - Mountain on FireMore often than not, in recent years people know to expect this parsha to be about converts and conversion; as Yitro, whom this parsha is named after, was a convert to Israel. Though this is very meaningful to me and to many people in my circle of travelers, it has been discussed before in great depth. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) We will explore this more in the future. However, for now I would like to move our attention forward. To what’s next.

In this parsha we also have the Torah given, along with the reading of the Ten Commandments. This is the pinnacle moment of holiness and awe for the Jewish people, her during the revelation at Sinai. We see this begin in the sixth reading of our parsha this week. So that is where I would like to pick up today. We will not explore the actual matan Torah, but more so look at an interesting exchange before this. So this week we will be discuss what happened between these two notorious discussion points in our parsha. And some commentary surrounding this incident that is intended to awaken our sense of compassion for people.

Our reading begins with Hashem descending upon mount Sinai (vayired Hashem al har Sinai; see Exodus 19:20). What do we mean by descend? I’m not exactly sure, and I don’t think anyone really is. None of us have never witness that type of holiness and spiritual revelation. So what should this mean to us, vayired Hashem – that G-d descended?

Rashi says that this description might suggest to people that G-d somehow came down to this mountain, in some actual form. So to counter that, what Rashi begins to describe is the G-d who fills all the heaves and earth, that He made a connecting point here on the mountain. To prove this he shows us that later on G-d is described as speaking “from heaven.” (see Exodus 20:18). So G-d somehow causes “the upper heavens and the lower heaven” to descend and touch down with reality here at Sinai. Our commentary describes this to be like a sheet touching down on a bed. G-d’s spiritual plane shrouds the mountain. And so this mountain was filled with G-d’s Presence, and therefore He calls up Moses to meet with Him.

And this is where it the story gets stranger, in our second verse of the sixth reading. This is our key verse for this week:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

Go down and warn the people,

lest they break though [the barrier]

unto Hashem to gaze [upon Him],

and many of them fall.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| red ha’ed ba’am

| pen-yehersu

| el-Hashem lir’ot

| venafal mimenu rav

Exodus 19:21

So what is it that makes this verse strange? That G-d calls up Moses, and then immediately upon climbing up He sends him back down to warn the people to not ascend Har Sinai.

Moses notes this in his response in verse 23, that he had already warned the Israelites. Moses then mentions that he had already spent three days prior to this marking boundaries with them (ha-givel; meaning limitations or restrictions, as well), and sanctifying the mountain. This is what our parsha text has concerned itself with from Exodus 19:17 and on, until we get to this event when Moses alone ascends.

So in this scene we see this strange back and forth. That once Moses goes up he is commanded to back down with a second round of warning. Moses says he already has. Yet G-d tells Moses to do it again, anyhow. And then G-d reiterates the point to Moses, a third time yet to make sure he understands as well (v.24). Only after this, do we have the Torah given over to the people.

So in Exodus 19:25 we hear of the warning that is given, and then G-d tells Moses the words of the warning which He wants relayed to them here in this last verse of chapter 19. Here we have the first taste of the whole Torah to come, through the Ten Commandments. So now here in Exodus chapter 20, we have matan torah – the giving of the Torah.

I can only imagine that this was frustrating for both Moses and the people. They were already prepared in their minds for their reception of Torah, and to experience G-d as He makes His presence known in smoke and fire. They have prepared over, and over, and over yet again; three days. But then they are sent with another warning before the commandments are even given. I can only imagine their anxiousness and excitement.

And it is this anxiousness which Rashi addresses, when he asks answers the question for us of why they need a warning at all. Why does G-d need to send out another warning and define some restrictions? The commentary reads:

Lest they break, etc: their position [i.e., their ranks] because of their longing for G-d, to see [Him], and they move too close to the side of the mountain.”

פן יהרסו וגו‘: שלא יהרסו את מצבם על ידי שתאותם אל הלראות ויקרבו לצד ההר:

Rashi to Exodus 19:21

It seems to Rashi that G-d understands that the people are desperate and excited to “see” Him, to experience Hashem. And in this excitement they might break away from the units in which they are organized, and rush the mountain to witness this wonder. And in doing so, “v’nafal / they fall.” Not that they fall off the mountain, no that they fall over and to their demise! That they might move too close and then encounter G-d, and in this run-in get consumed by His overwhelming nature. They are warned so they don’t perish, so they don’t drop dead.

So this is what we see. For three days the people prepare, and then Moses their leader goes up. And He is told to warn them again, and he himself is also warned and instructed again before the Ten Commandments are relayed to him. He relays the warning to them so they don’t have an explosive encounter with G-d that harms them spiritually and mortally.

But doesn’t all of this seem like a bit much? Doesn’t this warning and self-preparation seem like a bit of overkill? To some observers this totally might seem excessive and even a bit paranoid. However, Rashi enlightens us to why this is so important for both G-d and for Moses as a leader. Our commentary reads:

And many of them will fall: Heb. וְנָפַל. Whatever [number] falls from them, even if it be even a single person, to Me it is considered [as if] many [have fallen]. — [from Mechilta]”

ונפל ממנו רב: כל מה שיפול מהם ואפילו הוא יחידי חשוב לפני רב:

Rashi to Exodus 19:21

I find this commentary so very beautiful, it’s enough to warm my heart.

Rashi shows us why we should be receiving these warnings as something other than as expressions of authoritarianism, control, suspicion, and nagging. These boundaries are stressed and warning are repeatedly given, so that not one person would go and fall. So that no one unknowingly goes rushing towards their fall. No one, not one person. Because the fall of one of His own is not like a fall of just a single solider, its like loosing a whole company in His eyes.

We all know this Talmudic adage which says that whoever destroys a soul it is as though he as destroyed an entire world, and who ever saves a soul is as though he has saved an entire world. (Talmud Bavli, Sanheidrin 37a) Each person is like a whole world to Hashem. We all matter that much. We are all a world of possibilities that needs to be allowed to thrive.

On an individual level, we are profoundly important to G-d. We matter significantly in this big universe. So much that we as a people are warned by the Torah and our leaders again and again, in order to make sure people are told of dangers ahead. Though the message might seem like it’s not for us at times, and thus feels needlessly bombarding, it might be really necessary for that one person among who might not know. The review and reproof are for that one person, that might not know or understand. In Hashem’s eyes, each person is worth the fuss and concern that we should be asked to all give heed to His warnings and boundaries yet again. Signs and warning, marked out for the benefit of everyone and not intended just to glare in our face.

Now though it may seem cynical for one to ask, nonetheless experience with my own generation tells me some people do find themselves openly asking, “Why should this matter to me? Does this have anything to do with me, that I should care?” The truth is, it should concern us. Even if correction that comes down to us isn’t related to us specifically, it does have implications for the rest of the community and society as well. It does concern us even if we don’t know it. Because when we as individuals fall, we don’t fall alone. The community does take a hit as well. Let me explain, in conclusion.

Rashi in his continued commentary for verses 21 and 22 of Exodus chapter 19, he brings our attention back to the word yehersu – the word “to break off.” Rashi contends that it not just means to break off from one’s regiment and position, and go running off to their demise. It also means that one is literally broken off from something, broken off from a larger construct. Or even like a room demolished on a building, that is the actual example Rashi uses. We are part of a greater construct.

When a person is harmed, when they fall, part of us falls. When one of us falls, part of the collective “us” is left devastated. When one person in our community falls there is a breach left in us, in that person’s place there remains a gaping hole. The community and congregation are left incomplete. That’s how much a single person matters.

Each person is important, not just as an individual. But also profoundly important as a piece of a bigger construct – the Jewish people, and the brotherhood of humanity.

Our Focus for this Week: This week I challenge our community leaders, be open to the warnings and words of correction handed down to us. Understanding that we need to help keep people in our care from falling by the wayside. From stumbling to their demise. We need to take a look at our position, are we and our people within the safety zone as defined by Torah?

And as members of a community, in our capacity as lay people, we need to also be more receptive of the words of warning offered to use as advice. When we face reproof by our caring leaders, we should be open to receiving their words first as ones of concern and not accusation.

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Parshat Beshalach (5774)


Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Moses, why are you still praying? Go forward!

Jewish Woman Praying at KotelAre you a person who is inclined to prayer and meditation? Do you find your spiritual devotion through prayer to be meaningful? Many people today like to discuss the benefits of prayer. Most often we talk about how doctors notice the benefit prayer has on the outlook of a patient so inclined.

I’m one of these people that is so inclined. I don’t base my belief in prayer off of pseudo-science or because polls tell me it should matter. I find the act of prayer to be very meaningful and comforting to me. And I’m not even a supernatural minded person, but I benefit very much from prayer. So much do I love prayer that I dedicate most of my time to transcribing and translating siddurim – Hebrew prayerbooks. I find the way the way that humans make a song of their pains and hopes to be very powerful and captivating. It also gives me personal strength.

Even as much as I love prayer, I have come to realize one needs to have more than just that in our lives. Our Torah seems to suggest that there are times when people may be spending too much time praying and too little time doing.

Let me put this weeks Torah reading and this discussion in context. The children of Israel are with their backs up against the wall for the first time. Quite literally, when they are being pursued by Pharaoh and they are locked in by the Sea of Reeds on the other end. The people immediately begin to complain and consider breaking ranks. They lament to the tune of: We told you so, Moses. We wanted to just be left alone. We are okay with being slaves to the Egyptians. But now we are going to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:10-13)

We will pick up the text with this next verse. We will start with our Hebrew text, and then later I will transliterate our key verse for the benefit of all students. Our text reads:

“And Moses said to the people |

don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see |

the salvation of Hashem |

which He shall work for you today |

For the way you see the Egyptians is only for today. |

But you shall no longer continue to see them this way |

for eternity. |

Hashem will fight for you, |

but you shall remain silent.” |

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶלהָעָם

אַלתִּירָאוּהִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ

אֶתיְשׁוּעַת יְיָ,

אֲשֶׁריַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:

כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶתמִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם

לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד,

עַדעוֹלָם.

יְיָ, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם;

וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן

Exodus 14:13-14

I could simmer on so many points here in this text. The murmuring. The disappointing lack of faith even after all they had previously experienced. The fact that people were so complacent and defeatist that they professed to preferred a life of slavery, as that was something they understood. Faced with freedom and the consequences of it, they react with fear. This was more than they expected, so the children of Israel panic and complain.

However I would like to bring out attention to how Moses challenges them with this statement. He calls them to not be afraid; stand firm and watch G-d work a salvation for them. G-d is going to save them, He is going to rescue them from this danger.

However, before Moses begins to explore their options and talk about G-d “fighting” for His people, Moses beings to address the harder issue. The bigger obstacle for them to overcome was in themselves, even before they could face the enormity of their threat by the Egyptian army. Their own lack of self-determination and belief in themselves was their issue. They didn’t feel worthy of freedom, however they did understand their former roles as beaten-down slaves to a master.

But then Moses tells them, the way that they see the Egyptians is just for today (ha-yom). That is their reality today. That might be the way that they see their masters today, as strong and overwhelming. Though that is just today’s reality. Even though one might feel that way to-day (ha-yom), tomorrow they wont.

Rashi focuses on some key words here, and directs his attention to the way the Hebrews see the Egyptians. Rashi interprets this phrase to focus on, “Mah sheritah otam / on how you perceive them.” To Rashi this phrase is more than just saying that G-d is going to magically pull off a now-you-seem-them now-you-don’t routine by magically getting rid of the Egyptians. Moses had to struggle with the Hebrew’s perceptions that crippled them in fear. The way they understood their masters (asher reitem) and in-tern themselves, it was debilitating to them.

Here Moses performs the effective role of a good and concerned leader. He comforts his people through this. He assures them that they are not always going to feel this way. And as for this threat, this too will also pass, he assures them. But more so, Rashi seems to focus on the idea that the people had always seen their Egyptian masters this way, but now it was going to be over.

In contrast, Ibn Ezra takes a different approach. He is of the opinion that we should emphasize the word “ha-yom” (today), because what they were seeing of the Egyptians that actual day was actually unprecedented. Never had the Egyptians been so fierce and threatening. Ibn Ezra has has Moses saying they have never seen anything quite like that before, but that it should be of no consequences because they will never see it ever again.

The people are pushed up against the water now, and the Egyptians are coming at them with everything they’ve got. Moses tells the people to not fear, and to be quiet. He says tichrashu – be quiet, Not just to be quiet and stop their complaining. To restrain oneself. The root word implying to act as though deaf and dumb. Almost like a parent Moses seems to push the people to the side like children, as though telling them to put their fingers in the ears and hum out world as he faces this problem coming at them. G-d will fight for them.

However much comfort and assurance Moses gave the people, it seems that he doesn’t seem to take his own advice to heart. He appears to begin to freak out over the situation himself, while still trying to calm their fears.

How can I assert this? Look the next statement, in our key verse for today. This next verse begins at the top of our fourth reading:

“And Hashem said to Moses:

What are you crying out to Me?

Speak to the children of Israel,

and have them go forward!”

| Vayomer Hashem el Moshe

| mah titz’ak elai

| daber el benei Yisrael

| veyisa’u

Exodus 14:15

What do we have Hashem saying to Moses? Immediately after Moses tells the people to hold ranks and to be quiet, the next thing we hear is G-d asking Moses, “Mah titzak elai / why are you crying out to Me?” Moses silences the people, but then in the next sentence G-d is asking Moses why he is shouting at Him. Why are you yelling, why are you complaining at Me? Mah titzak elai?

Whereas Moses tells the people to hold their peace and await G-d’s salvation, he does not stand by quietly. We learn by way of G-d’s response, that Moses is desperately and fiercely crying out to G-d for help. As a leader, Moses cannot just sit back silently. These people are looking to him for a solution.

Now how does Rashi understand this part of the text? Our master’s cometary for this verse reads:

Why do you cry out to Me: [This verse] teaches us that Moses was standing and praying. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.’

Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,” as it is said further [in Scripture]: “Concerning My children and the work of My hands do you command Me?” (Isa. 45:11). — [from Mechilta, Exod. Rabbah 21:8]”

מה תצעק אלי: למדנו שהיה משה עומד ומתפלל, אמר לו הקבה לא עת עתה להאריך בתפלה שישראל נתונין בצרה.

דבר אחר מה תצעק אלי עלי הדבר תלוי ולא עליך, כמו שנאמר להלן על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני” (ישעיה מה יא):

Rashi to Exodus 14:15

I include the second explanation here as well. In these latter lines Rashi goes on to give us another interpretation that is key as well. In it he acknowledges that Moses is using a tone that is reprimanding of G-d. The other meaning of the work tzak.

However, as a master rabbi he first tempers the tones a bit. He provides a bit more of a dignified and reverencing tone for our dear Moses. He wants to show Moses as being respectful to G-d. And in doing so he actually accuses Moses of doing something that is just as terrible, if not more so in our eyes.

Rashi says Moses was too busy praying to act. Moses was standing there saying lengthy prayers. Though these actions on the part of Moses would on one hand seem honorable, they are also obviously misguided. And that is the lesson that Rashi delivers to us today.

This isn’t the only place that we have this type of example of “crying out” being related to prayer in the Torah. In Parshat Pinchas was also have a case where the people were literally crying out. In Numbers 25:6, we are told that when rebellion and a plague broke out the elders were too busy “bochim / crying” to do anything about what they were witnessing. There we are told by our rabbis that the leaders were too busy praying there as well. But in that case, in sorrow and wailing. Crying with tears.

However here, Moses’ crying out was one of protest and and desperation. He calms the people as they look to him, but now he demands that G-d answer him. And G-d instead turns the situation back on to Moses.

In the alternative interpretation Rashi has G-d acknowledging that He is indeed responsible for this people. G-d doesn’t need to be told who is really in charge of the entire universe, and therefore responsible for this situation as well.

Though from G-d’s perspective, what is really needed is for Moses and the people to take ownership of their situation and move forward for themselves. G-d assures them that He will help them, but they need to nasa, the Hebrew root for veyisa’u they need to push forward, the need to move ahead, they need to travel, they need to drive on.

And therefore in our next verses of the parsha, we have the most famous moment in all of Jewish history presented.We read of the command of Hashem for Moses to hold out the staff and part the Sea of Reeds. And then they cross over on dry land.

Almost all people have strong feelings about the phrase, “G-d helps those who help themselves.” I think we can all see some truth in this, and yet also recognize the cruel oversimplification of personal hardship made by these words. But in this parsha our scriptures and tradition comes close to making this statement. It’s not as judgmental, yet it is even more personally demanding.

Instead of standing put in prayer and meditation, we need to move forward. We need to drive on, and out of our situation. Why do I throw meditating into that mix there? It may seem out of place to make such a charge, but it is less so for the student of Kabbalah who practices meditation as an active form of mysticism.

You see the power of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds is one of the most revered displays of the Divine in all of human history. To the student of the mystical tradition, this is a key moment in the Torah to study as it displays how a direct intervention of G-d works. So sacred is this moment that we have many kavvanot and piyyutim – guided meditations and liturgical songs – based on this very moment in the Torah. That seek to connect us to the mystical power of that miracle.

The 72-Letter Name of G-dKavvanot and piyyutim – these meditations and liturgical songs, they are detailed and focused forms of prayer and concentration. They take real mental energy, and often take some time to get to know well. They are a beautiful way of centering oneself, but it takes time and effort. Not so much action, but they are very time consuming and engrossing. And for the deeper mystics, some even meditate upon the 72-Names, a mystical prayer form that some Kabbalsists say helped part the Sea of Reeds. There are some that contend that the people meditated upon the 72 Names of G-d; hidden in cypher in the words of Exodus 14:19-21. And upon doing this G-d parted the Sea of Reeds.

One might think that the Kabbalists – who actually embellished and extended prayers more than any other group, who added layer after layer of meditation to our prayerbooks, created pauses in the prayers to direct your thoughts, and further added a heavy wealth of liturgical poems – that they would disagree with Rashi’s harsh rebuke.

Yet even our mystical tradition challenges us, that when we are pushed up against a body of water – when our backs are against the wall – we need to move forward. Our Kabbalists don’t tell us to just chant and pray, and wait for everything to turn out all right.

They would bring to our attention back to our Midrashic tradition. Our inherited wisdom through folklore, which tells us that Nachshon, a prince from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah) was the first to lead his men into the waters. The midrash stresses that not until he had immersed himself into the problem, this being the Sea holding them back, did G-d intervene and split the waters before them all. (see “Split Your Sea” at Chabad.org; Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7)

Our tradition, both in the basics and in the advanced practice, teaches us that we need to do more than just pray about our problems. We need to do more than think about how we are going to be saved. We need to even do more than just get our feet wet, we need to be bold like Nachshon and jump into the problem. It’s not enough to just sit by the banks and consider what to do next. It’s not enough to just wait for G-d to rescue us.

Whereas our Torah only superficially reveals a command for Moses to compose himself and extend his staff over the waters as our call out of complacency, our deeper tradition even goes further and says we should be willing jump into the problem up to our nostrils before we start expecting that G-d has to help us out of our troubles.

It is not commendable to just pray and hope for the best. Our prayers are not supposed to distract us and release us of the responsibility to make as much progress on our own behalf as we can. To have to face the real problem for ourselves. Our prayers and meditations are supposed to give us strength. Strength to help us move forward. And to direct the focus of our hopes. Not to keep us stuck ascetically in one spot, mystically waiting to be saved from our problems. If we do our part, then we instantly enable ourselves with the opportunity to further see how G-d can help us work a salvation in our lives.

About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am an author and translator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.

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Parshat Mikeitz (2013)


Genesis 41 –  44:17

Yosef: The Minority Leader with Major Influence

What does is it that makes a man a visionary or a dreamer? How would you define this type of personality and mindset? These type of people often tend to be charismatic leaders that not only command respect from a crowd, but they often tend to be people who are able to uniquely communicate the needs of the individual as well. They also know how to take one person’s dream and translate it into success for all.

We are going to take a look at that type of person today as displayed through the life of Yosef haTzadik.

My attention was actually captured by the last verse in our second reading. However to put it into context we should starts with the preceding verse as well. Our text reads as follows:

“And the statement was good

in the eyes of Pharaoh

and in the eyes of his servants.

And Pharaoh said to his servants,

‘Where will we find another man like this,

a man with G-d’s spirit in him?’”

| Vayitav hadavar

| be’einei Paroh

| uve’einei kol-avadav

| Vayomer Paroh el-avadav

| hanimtza kazeh ish

| asher ruach Elohim bo

Genesis 41:37-38

Our text tell us that this matter (ha-davar) was pleasing (vayitav) in the eyes of Pharaoh and his advisors. But what matter are we speaking of? In this parsha we learn that the Pharaoh had a disturbing dream, but he was not able to understand its significance. The dream and it’s meaning eluded him.

Yosef is still in slavery in Egypt, in-fact he is still imprisoned unjustly for a crime he was framed for when he is called up and out of prison to interpret a set of dreams for the ruler of Egypt. He has previously had success with interpreting dreams for some servants of Pharaoh’s, so he is eventually remembered and is turned to as a last resort.

Why do I put it that way? It’s because Yosef is certainly the last type of person this king and all his advisors would normally turn to. This is even stated by the Butler who brings up the story of how his dream was amazingly interpreted for him by Yosef.

Before the Butler gets too carried away he first has to give the king a few qualifying “buts.” He has to warn Pharaoh about the type of person he is speaking of. Actually, more precisely this butler actually gives Pharaoh the reasons that he would think of dismissing such a person, but he insists that Yosef should be listened to because his words prove to be true.

It doesn’t flow the same way in English, but in Hebrew it lays out the points like thuds for Pharaoh to brace himself for:

“Now there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant of the captain of the guard; we told him, and he interpreted our dreams for us. He gave each person an interpretation for his dream.”

וְשָׁם אִתָּנוּ נַעַר עִבְרִי, עֶבֶד לְשַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, וַנְּסַפֶּרלוֹ, וַיִּפְתָּרלָנוּ אֶתחֲלֹמֹתֵינוּ: אִישׁ כַּחֲלֹמוֹ, פָּתָר:

Genesis 41:12

If we think about it, Pharaoh is the most influential man in the known world. His name really needs no explanation, he is king and conqueror over his own impressive empire. Naturally as a ruler of paramount influence he had the most senior and experienced advisors to turn to in all matters. He had the best and wisest men money could buy lining his court.

Though when they failed him, Pharaoh’s butler could only recommend that he call on a na’ar – a young man, a boy, a youth. Most often the classical bible translations render this as “lad,” but that doesn’t appropriately relay the meaning of the term. It is true this word is rooted the same as the word no’ar – which clearly means youth. But here this word na’ar comes with all the condescending tones that is similar to snapping one’s fingers and yelling “garçon” (French) or “joven” (Spanish) to a waiter; sure it means “youth,” but it also is a declaration about the other’s status of subservience. The Egyptians identify that their first objection to him is based on his youth. He is a child, to be seen and not heard.

Now the next thing that you would think that would be brought up would be the fact that he is a convict and a slave. No, this seems rather easy to dismiss. If we notice here, the fact that he is a convict and for what type of crime is of no concern worth mentioning. Even his slave status is not mentioned until last. He is not just a servant, he is an eved; a slave.

What is of more importance to bring up, in order of priority, is that Yosef is an Ivri – he is a Hebrew.

Of course we all know how this story ends. Yosef interprets the dream of Pharaoh and is made a regent over all the land of Egypt, second in command to the ruler himself. He is elevated because of the good interpretation of the dream. Pharaoh being convinced that if this wise lad could see what was coming he could also help prevent that disaster.

Yet even as Yosef became a man of authority and status, the stigma of being a Hebrew always hung over him.

Now what proof do I have to make such claim? I present us with a verse from a little bit later on in our parsha. The banquet scene with Yosef and his unwitting brothers:

“And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, that did eat with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.

וַיָּשִׂימוּ לוֹ לְבַדּוֹ, וְלָהֶם לְבַדָּם; וְלַמִּצְרִים הָאֹכְלִים אִתּוֹ, לְבַדָּםכִּי לֹא יוּכְלוּן הַמִּצְרִים לֶאֱכֹל אֶתהָעִבְרִים לֶחֶם, כִּיתוֹעֵבָה הִוא לְמִצְרָיִם.

Genesis 43:32

Think about this for a moment. Later on in our parsha we read of Yosef in the best light. Where he is really showing off his authority and is at his most ostentatious, as he calls a banquet for his clueless brothers. But notice when the meals are served Yosef sits alone. And his brothers, they dine on their own. We are told why, because Egyptians are not allowed to eat with Hebrews, it is toyveh – it is an abomination, it is detestable to them to eat with Hebrews.

One of the points that many seem to miss is that our text also suggest that even the Egyptians on staff for Yosef ate separately from him as well, they ate at the same time but they set out separate place-settings for themselves to the side. There are three sets of place-settings laid out! Even in his role as ruler, Yosef was not socially equal to the Egyptians. To even eat with him, the Egyptians considered that to be against that natural order of their world.

This is a long side-track, but it’s important for us to understand the amount of discrimination and the layers of prejudice Yosef had to battle in his lifetime. We just tend to think it all got easy for him once he was raised up as regent, but that’s not so.

If this was the case, that Yosef was always under a racial stigma, then why would we suppose that the Egyptians would give such authority to Yosef the Hebrew? Well, as our text reveals the first reason is because the interpretation that Yosef gave to Pharaoh’s dreams was pleasing in their eyes (vayitav hadavar b’einei). It satisfied something in them. And specifically in Pharaoh himself, in a very personal way as well.

Now what we need to recognize regarding the revelation that Yosef gave is that Pharaoh did not wait to see if this interpretation proved to be valid. He just accepts it as so. But how can this be? How could a man such a Pharaoh put his trust in seemingly unsubstantiated claims. How could he just trust in this Yosef’s words and advice so?

Also we need to notice that Pharaoh just flung the task of governance on Yosef without him even directly asking for it. Notice that Yosef tells Pharaoh to find for himself a man who is “navon u’chacham / who is smart and wise.” Someone that is witty and intelligent. I’m not ssur if Yosef is talking about himself, or is merely just giving the qualifications for the type of man who Pharaoh needs. But he finds himself landing the job.

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

The words of any person, no matter who they are, is worthless unless their words resonates with the listener. It is of no effect unless the message also bring harmony to the dreams others aspire to in their heart

What is it about his message that made Pharaoh value it more than all the words of his advisors? What was it that caught his attention that made him trust Yosef more than even his cabinet? Our rabbis tell us that it was because Yosef’s message resonated with Pharaoh in away that the others didn’t.

The Midrash Shechel Tov (12th century) offers us some interesting insights that address these points in its commentary for our two previously mentioned verses (see Midrash Shechel Tov, Genesis 41:37-38).

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh dreamed this up in his head he had also received the interpretation for it. He didn’t just have a dream! He had dreamt of the solution as well, though he had forgotten them both.

I think most of us know this type of frustration, to be startled awake by a dream. And having your partner asking you to tell them the dream, but as you try to recount it you realized you forgot your dream. You woke-up knowing what it was about, but now as you try to explain what captured you so the memory begins to fade. And that often becomes more frustrating as one senses there is something just out of grasp in our minds, and then it’s gone again. It’s even more irritating as people try to help you piece it together with things that don’t seem to fit. This seems to be what Pharaoh is experiencing.

The midrash tells us that when Pharaoh heard Yosef’s interpretation Pharaoh began to recall his dreams again. He was able to recognize the vision that Yosef was having as being the same as the dreams that Pharaoh had experienced.

Our sages and scholars also give us some other interesting insight into this text. The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abravenel, 15th Century, Spain) also gives us another reason why Yosef’s interpretation was valued over that of Pharaoh’s advisors. The reason they could not interpret his dream was because they saw the two dreams Pharaoh had as independent and separate dreams. But it was only Yosef that was able to pair them together, and thus offer a solution to both.

The famed scholars Nechama Leibowitz comments on this point of the Abarbanel, asking us to take notice that when Pharaoh refers to his dreams he speaks of them in the singular. He says “I’ve dreamed a dream,” chalom in the singular. (see Genesis 41:15,17) He seems to know that they are one in the same, they are one dream. And likewise there is only one answer to those dreams. He just feels that they are one in his soul. No answer was pleasing to Pharaoh until a unified solution was offered to him by Yosef.

When Yosef is taken out of the prison, cleaned and shaved he was still facing a lot of discrimination against him. They couldn’t fully wash away all the stigma. By the standards of Pharaoh and his men, he was still but “a boy.” Yosef was not exactly the type of person that one would expect to give audience to (probably the reason why the Butler never brought him up), let alone put in a place of authority and leadership for the king.

Yet he is still elevated as a leader, all things considered. But even then, he is not transformed into a beltway-boy. He is not ever really accepted into the establishment and upper-crust. He is respected, but not honored with true dignity. They always saw him as different.

And he was different. What makes Yosef different from that of Pharaohs men is that he was not just able to deliver a visions of the future, Yosef was able to offer a solution and a plan. While the rest of the men were following after their own separate visions of Pharaoh’s dream, Yosef was already several steps ahead of them in offering a comprehensive answer to it all. He was the first to step out of fantasy and into reality with some sort of suggestion and advice. And that commanded respect, above all the individual speculations of the others in Pharaoh’s court.

In the end Pharaoh is forced to concede, and even battle off the objections of his own prejudices and that of his court in saying “Even if we tried, would we ever find another man like this?” Pharaoh himself says that Yosef has a unique character about him, that he has the spirit of G-d in him. That Yosef is blessed with a unique quality of wisdom that only G-d alone can give. He isn’t exactly what they were looking for, but he is the best they can find. He is worth giving a chance to.

Do you consider yourself a dreamer? Do you aspire to be a visionary? Maybe you might even consider your ability to be effective and influential in your community to be limited by the prejudices people have against you. You might identify with Yosef in this way. Maybe you are different, because you don’t fit in for some sort of social, ethnic or religious reasons. If so, then you have the example of Yosef going before you as a pioneer of success and strength in the face of lifelong prejudice.

The example of Yosef goes before us, challenging us to be people who are more than just smart-talking men. It is also tasking us to be more than mere dreamers as well. Here at this point in Yosef’s life he has matured to being more than a mere dreamer with his own goals in mind, he is now a problem solver and a unifier. He is now able to use his words as more than just tools of gossip and judgmentalism that divide, as in his youth among his brothers when he bombarded them with his self-serving visions. Here he is now able to use his words in a way that resonate with truth for the listener. He was able to take things that were seemingly confounding and contradictory, then unify them as a single goal that everyone could identify with. Even his critics had to concede in the end, that his advice seemed pleasing even in their eyes as well (uve’einei kol-avadav).

I wish that more of us were willing to take up these examples from Yosef so that we can also be effective and purposeful people. To be a visionary, and not just a dreamer. People who will be willing to bring unity to our goals of social justice and spiritual harmony.

The Midrash Sechel Tov also makes another point of this in its commentary here, hinting at a reason to seek this path of unity and harmony. The midrash suggests that we should operate according to ways that are pleasing to G-d, for when we do that it will show with even our enemies being compelled to be at peace with us as well. (Proverbs 16:7) The sages tell us then even our enemies will become advocates and allies with us.

If our vision and spirituality is valid, it will show by compelling unity among us and our enemies. That is an interesting challenge I am willing to take-on. I hope that there are others who are also willing to join me this year in doing the same.

The lesson this week is simple. Sometimes the last thing we need is just another smart person in the room. What society really needs is people with a lot of spirit.


Parshat Yitro (2013)


Exodus 18 – 20

Anshei and Eishet Chayil: Resourceful Men and Women

Shabbat Candles - Eishet ChayilParshat Yitro is not a particularly long parsha. It’s three small chapters, but it only really has two major themes to it. The first is the set-up and delivery of Moses’ father-in-law’s advice as to how to govern. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) The second part is the set-up and delivery of the Ten Commandments episode.

I want us to take a look at the first part of this story this week. In it we are told that Yitro advises Moses that what he needs to do more that just be the representative of the people before G-d, bringing all their issues before Him. Moses needs to also delegate and deputize people under him to help establish law and order. We read the following statement being made to him:

“Moreover you shall select from all the people

men of valor who fear G-d,

men of truth who hate gain.

And you shall place over them

leaders of thousands,

leaders of hundreds,

leaders of fifties

and leaders of tens.”

| Ve’atah techezeh mikol-ha’am

| anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim

| anshei emet son’ei vatza

| vesamta alehem

| sarei alafim

| sarei me’ot

| sarei chamishim

| vesarei asarot.

Exodus 18:21

Moses is told that he needs to establish a chain of command under him. Leaders are appointed over certain sectors of the population. Some leaders only in charge of as little as ten people, then there are people above them that supervise a larger population of say fifty, another to supervise one hundred, and then authorities continue in like fashion until they represent thousands of people as magistrates. At the top of this leadership was Moses as a final office holder in this structure of appellate courts. But Moses function would be to advocate for them, not just before G-d but “mul Elohim / against G-d.” Thats what it means by he shall bring their cases unto G-d. He represents them as an advocate for the people. (Exodus 18:19)

There are two sets of qualities mandated for the people who are to be judges and magistrates under Moses. First is for them to be “anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim / men of valor who fear G-d.” Second is for them to be “anshei emet son’ei vatza / men of truth who hate gain.”

The second of the qualities hardly needs explaining when we are talking about appointing judges and authorities. They should be men who are honest, people who hate “vatza / profit.” People who are not concerned with amassing money. Most often this term vatza comes with more than just a connotation of greed, but the idea that one gains profit from dishonest dealings. In 1 Samuel 8:3 we see this shown to be on the level of bribe taking. Instead these judges should be honest men, who can’t be bought off.

In this same vein as this it should make sense for us to understand the term “anshei-chayil / men of valor,” to mean men who aren’t afraid of doing what is right. Men who can’t be intimidated or bought through bribes or blackmail.

Normally when we think of the word chayil we think of someone being brave, like a soldier. This is very fitting because this word variant can be used to describe people as individual fighters (chayal, soldier; chayalim, soldiers), but also a unit of men called a chayil can also mean an army (see Isaiah 36:2, 2 Kings 18:17). Earlier in this book of Exodus we even explicitly see the forces of Pharoah that got destroyed in the sea called “l’chol chayil Paroh / the whole army of Pharoah.” (see Exodus 14:28)

If we think along these lines we should understand that a person that is called to be a leader needs to be a valiant and fearless person, not necessarily that he is combative. We are talking about a brave man who is not afraid to fight the good fight. This is what it means in essence to be a “ben chayil,” or as we would say a mighty man. (see 1 Samuel 14:52, also used in the plural “bnei chayil / men of valor” in Deut. 3:18). It is their bravery and strength that we are considering when we used this term. We are describing their character more than categorizing their profession.

The fact is that in order for one to be able to resist the pressure of bribes or intimidation that is often levied against those in authority one needs to be a very brave person. One must to be fearless. But surely it’s not their combative nature that is sought here. I can say this with some certainty because when most of us religious people think of the term chayil we don’t think of bnei chayil. No instead we think of an “eishet chayil / a woman of valor.” (see Proverbs 31:10, Proverbs 12:4) And no one wants a combative woman, don’t just take my words for it, the scriptures even attest to this, “Do not give you strength (chaylecha) unto women, nor your ways which obliterates kings.” (Proverbs 31:3) No offense to women soldiers, but the ideal of a womanhood is not to be warring brute. I don’t think it is any different for us men though.

I say the ideal character for a woman, because the way that most of us know the term chayil is through one of the aforementioned examples of the term Eishet Chayil where it is a virtue. Every Shabbat evening in religious homes it is the custom for the family to gather around the table and for all to sing from Proverbs 31 before Kiddush. The family praises the wife and mother of the house as a women of valor (eishet chayil). It is reinforced into us since we are young boys to find this type of woman, and for girls to aspire to be this type of person, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is above rubies. The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, and he has no lack of abundance.” (Proverbs 31:10-11) A matriarch of a family should be a woman of valor, virtue, strength and substance. In the Eishet Chayil we praise the ideal woman.

Now as we think back to our parsha, and we try applying this type of characteristic to men, that they should be anshei chayil – men of valor – we find that our teacher Rashi also stresses this point of substance. His commentary understands the text as follows:

Men of substance: (anshei chayil)

wealthy men, [or the bountiful]

one that does not flatter

or show favoritism.”

אנשי חיל: |

עשירים, |

שאין צריכין להחניף |

ולהכיר פנים: |

Rashi to Exodus 18:21

Now I must admit that Rashi’s interpretation rubs me the wrong way. I whole-heartedly disagree with his understanding, I don’t think that the rich are any more better suited to govern others. Nor do I necessarily believe that the wealthy are less likely to show favoritism and partiality. That is not how it appears to me, especially in this day and age where the wealthy corporate voices have taken over politics. Especially in a country like America, where it is notorious for people who are major business owners to get special tax incentives and no-bid contracts merely for having financial clout and social connections.

So why does Rashi make this point at all? It is because the word chayil does actually mean substance. And in some cases it means more than just substance of character, it also means to be of monetary substance. During the blessing of the tribes we read of Moses blessing Levi this way, “Hashem Bless his substance (chai’lo) and accept the work of his hands.” (Deut. 33:11) There are several places where chayil clearly means riches (see Isaiah 8:4, 30:6; Genesis 34:29)

Now the reason that Rashi says this is not because he is following some conservative political doctrine that says that people who are bigger money makers show through their wealth that they are wise enough to be in-charge. He is not asking us to ascribe to some type of libertarian view that government should be run like a business and people good at finance should be allowed to be larger decision makers in our society.

His reason is revealed in his commentary for the words “hating monetary gain.” Rashi says therein that a judge should hate to have their own property in litigation. They are not frivolous litigants or quick to sue a person. Or as others understand it, not just that they are not in legal and financial dispute but that they should not owe money to anyone. They should be above reproach financially and be independently wealthy. One is more prone to be honest if they don’t need to gain anything by swaying justice one way or the other.

And sadly for me that is one reason I believe that his point doesn’t necessarily fit our current society. Today the wealthy often placed themselves in charge in order to advocate the gain of their own upper-class. They often come out of the corporate lobbying world prior to holding public office and go right back into it when they leave office. More often these people, because of their familiarity, become crooked as they are just not brave enough to stand up to pressure of their peers or colleagues. They are rarely people whose nature is to hate dishonest gain, people who are already satisfied with their existent wealth. The corruption in our culture tells us this is not true for us today.

I do not believe that to be among the anshei chayil (men of valor) means to be a rich man any more than it I believe that eishet chayil means a “rich woman.” Men and women of wealth are not any more capable than people of modest means. In fact we have one notorious eishet chayil mentioned in the scriptures that was not rich at all, she was a penniless widow that needed to be redeemed by Leverite marriage; Ruth, the grandmother of King David! Notice in Ruth 3:11, of her it is said, “…for all the men of the gate of my people do know that you are a virtuous woman (eishet chayil).”

However it must be said that this word does give us the connotation as a term that can be applied to a certain quality of person, a person that does show great capability. In Genesis 47:6 when Pharoah gives the land of Goshen to Joseph and his family to settle he tells him, “…and if you know of any capable men (anshei chayil) among them, then put them in charge of my livestock.”

And this is most likely what this term “anshei chayil” means. It means men of great capability, of exceptional leadership qualities.

No I don’t believe anshie chayil means rich men any more than eishet chayil means a rich woman. Most certainly I can’t deny that if we use the example of the text of the Eishet Chayil as a comparison, I cannot say with certainty that it cannot be suggested to mean “woman of substance;” meaning that finding a well-off bride is a catch as good as finding rubies. In the biblical era the giving of a dowry was common. It may seem odd to us today that people would pay men to marry their daughters. However we must also understand that women did not have the rights of owning property or making a living outside of the home. Marrying off your daughters was an interesting dance of trying to find the best person to not just be a provider for her but to also take on the inheritable property of the family. Sure, sometimes a man could make out well by marrying a prominent bride, but I don’t think this is what it means.

True, if we look at the Eishet Chayil text in Proverbs 31:10-31 we do see that this woman brings great gains for the husband and the family as a whole. Though if we carefully consider it we find all this is kind of striking because of all we think we know about how generally patriarchal ancient Hebrew society was. It is not the picture of a woman who is too fragile to work, or a lady that is too inept to be in involved in business. She does bring financial gain and prosperity to the home, but in this praise of women of virtue we find a description of a very empowered and capable type of woman. Her contribution of wealth and success is not incidental, it’s not just through happenstance like inheritance. She is said to seek out fabrics and fibers to work into cloth. (v. 13) She is competent at imports and purchasing. (v. 14) She not just feeds the family day and night (v. 15), but she also invests in land and farms it with her own hands (v. 16). She clothes her own family, and cares for the needy of the community. (v. 19-22) She not only makes garments for her family but she also fabricates them and other merchandise to sell for profit. (v. 18; 24) She is not just a passive contributor to her family, she is praiseworthy because of the work of her hands and she reaps the benefits of the fruits of her labor (v. 31) She is so good at business that her husband is said to sit at the gates with the elders of the land, instead of engaging in work he is hearing cases of law and studying Torah in the public square with the rest of the men of status. (v. 23) She is not just a woman of resources, she is resourceful.

If we consider this description of the Eishet Chayil it should not necessarily sound weird to us, especially those of us of haredi backgrounds. Even thought gender roles are notoriously strict in the ultra-orthodox world we still see that this description of an Eishet Chayil actually is quite appropriate for haredim, more so than even for the secular. Quite frankly, it is actually quite common in the haredi world for many men to not seek out a typical profession. Often times when a man marries it is common for the family to not just give seforim (holy books) as gifts but also its quite customary for the family of some brides to subsidize the income for the couple so that the husband can continue to study in a kollel – a yeshiva, a Torah academy for married men. Fervently religious people encourage the husband to get the best Torah learning he can so that he can help raise children knowledgable in it. It is common for the wife to take on work or business in order to help keep the family afloat, in addition to her caring for their daily needs of them all. Even in the “old-world way” women are not just gentle little creatures that mostly sit on their virtues, they are depended on to be strong and resourceful pillars of the home. A mother is nothing if not resourceful. An eishet chayil is very resourceful and capable woman.

Likewise, in the same line of thinking I believe that anshei chayil is better understood to mean capable and resourceful men. It does not just mean brave or valiant men, nor does it just mean that men called to leadership should be people of virtue and substance. I believe it does means one should be bold. But I don’t believe that it has to mean that people need to be wealthy to be in governance, as Rashi suggests. I do believe that it means that these leaders should be people who instead do well for themselves, but primarily because they are resourceful people.

We need to place more capable and resourceful people in leadership. In the defense of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged (like women). More often than not, it is these people which have struggled hardships and societal setbacks, these people are most resourceful in this life. Honestly, most of us can’t think of a person more resourceful than our own sweet mothers who always did what it took for us to get by. This is something that men can learn a lot from their female counterparts about.

In an ideal world we would have more women that strive to be an eishet chayil so that we can have more men learn to also be among the anshei chayil.


Parshat Pinchas (2012)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Moses brought their case

before Hashem.”

| Vayakrev Moshe et-mishpatan

| lifnei Hashem

Numbers 27:5

Rashi makes the most ingesting commentary regarding this verse:

So Moses brought their case:

The law eluded him,

and here he was paying

for crowning himself [with authority]

by saying:

‘and the case that is too difficult for you,

bring to me’ (Deut. 1:17)”

ויקרב משה את משפטן: |

נתעלמה הלכה ממנו |

וכאן נפרע |

על שנטל עטרה |

לומר: |

והדבר אשר יקשה מכם |

תקריבון אלי |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something To Think About:

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

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

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

“Another interpretation is

it was proper that this affair

be written down by the hand of Moses

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

and so it was written in by them.”

דבר אחר |

ראויה היתה פרשה זו |

להכתב על ידי משה, |

אלא שזכו בנות צלפחד |

ונכתבה על ידן: |

Rashi on Numbers 27:5

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

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

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Parshat Korach (2012)


Parshat Korach
Numbers 16 – 18

Korach: The hysteria and downfall associated with false revolutionaries

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

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

“And be not like Korach and his assembly.”

| Velo-yihyeh cheKorach vecha’adato

Numbers 17:5

Summary of Previous Parsha: How did it come to this

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

The Rise of Korach: Double-Talk

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

“It is too much for you!

For the entire assembly – all of them –

are holy and Hashem is among them;

why do you exalt yourself over

the congregation of Hashem?”

| Rav-lachem

| ki chol-ha’edah kulam

| kedoshim uvetocham Hashem

| umadua titnase’u

| al-kehal Hashem

Numbers 16:3

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

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

Divisiveness Begins with Alienation

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

“Korach son of Izhar

son of Kohath, son of Levi separated himself.”

| Vayikach Korach ben-Yitshar

| ben-Kehat ben-Levi

Numbers 16:1

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

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

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

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

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

“And Aaron,

who is he

that you should have grievance with him?”

| Ve’Aharon

| mah-hu

| ki talinu alav

Numbers 16:11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Among the Disciples of Aaron…

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

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

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

shall one man sin, and You be angry

with the entire congregation?”

| El Elohei haruchot lechol-basar

| ha’ish echad yecheta

| ve’al kol-ha’edah tiktzof

Numbers 16:22

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

In the next chapter we read:

“And Moses said to Aaron:

‘Take your fire-pan

and put on it fire from upon the Altar

and place incense,

and go quickly to the assembly

and make atonement for them!'”

| Vayomer Moshe el-Aharon

| kach et-hamachtah

| veten-aleiha esh me’al hamizbe’ach

| vesim ktoret

| veholech meherah el-ha’edah

| vechaper aleyhem

Numbers 17:11

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

“Aaron took as Moses had said

and ran to the middle of the congregation.

And behold! The plague had begun

among the people.

He placed the incense

and provided atonement for the people.

He stood between the dead and the living,

and the plague was checked.”

| Vayikach Aharon ka’asher diber Moshe

| vayarotz el-toch hakahal

| vehineh hechel

| hanegef ba’am

| vayiten et-haktoret

| vayechaper al-ha’am

| vaya’amod bein-hametim uvein hachayim

| vate’atzar hamagefah

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

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

“ [Rabbi] Hillel said:

Be among the disciples of Aaron,

loving peace and pursuing peace,

loving people

and bringing them closer to the Torah. ”

הלל אומר: |

הוי מתלמידיו של אהרן, |

אוהב שלום ורודף שלום , |

אוהב את הבריות |

ומקרבן לתורה. |

Pirkei Avot 1:12


Parshat Shoftim (2011)


Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How the Torah calls us to an extreme pursuit of justice, and towards an abhorrence of corruption

_img-sefer-gavelMany of you know that when I get into a parsha, sometimes I get stuck for weeks even. I feel like I can’t move on until I really grasp the lesson, and take it to heart. Every year this parsha stops me, and always about these very points. Even though it is last weeks parsha, I want to share this you. I would love to do a more complete study at some point, but a new Shabbat is coming upon us so I gotta get on with this weeks parsha now!

Last week, in Parshat Re’eh we began to see some interesting language being laid out for us. Several times we read in the text that the children of Israel are to do what is right in the eyes of G-d, by following after all of these mitzvot that He has commanded us. The first thing we learned was that when the people entered into the land there would be a chosen spot appointed, and worship would be centralized there. We later read of the mitzvot against idolatry and the command to destroying all traces of the false deities of the inhabitants. These many local place of worship and home altars were to be destroyed; as the children of Israel too would be forbidden to participate in private worship,thus offerings were to only be offered at the Temple once it was established. Then the parsha also goes into the details of the shelosh regalim – the three pilgrimage festivals. Of course lumped up in between there we were also presented with the mitzvot relating to kashrut, tithes, etc.

But early on we were given with blunt words from Mosheh (Moses) regarding how things were going to change once they went into the land:

“You shall not do all that we do

here this day,

everyman what is right in his own eyes.

For you have net yet come to the rest

and the inheritance that Hashem your G-d

gives you.”

| Lo ta’asun k’chol asher anachnu osim

| poh yayom.

| ish kol hayashar b’einav.

| Ki lo batem od atah el-hamenuchah

| v’el ha-nach’alah asher Hashem Elohecha

| noten lach.

Deuteronomy 12:9

Though in the preceding verses up to this Mosheh tries to soften up the message, saying that they are being commanded to do this so that they will be able to rejoice and celebrate together that G-d blesses them at whatever they set their hand to. It was to unify the people, and provide a space for everyone to celebrate before G-d. Though you must understand that this most certainly would have been a contentious issue to people, maybe even considered as religious intolerance. But notice that when public worship was possible, private worship was not to be allowed. It was so necessary that people be in relationship with one another and responsible to each other that we were given commandments and seasons were it was compulsory for people to go up to the House of G-d. Both as individuals with life cycle events and corporately as a nation during holidays, they were mandated to ascend to the congregation of the people.

It was not just religious observance was going to centralized, so too the judicial system would also come to rest in Jerusalem. This would serve as a capital in all respects. We begin to read of that in this weeks portion, Parshat Shoftim.

This parsha is going to go into great detail about justice, and the rules for establishing justice. But it doesn’t just deal with the concept of justice in general and on the national stage, it’s also going to establish a system for adjudicating justice locally. Thus we read in the opening words of our parsha:

“Judges and officers

shall you provide at all the gates [of the cities]

which Hashem your G-d shall give you,

so each tribe shall be judged with

righteous judgment.”

| Shoftim veshotrim

| titen-lecha bechol-she’areicha

| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lecha

| lishvateicha veshafetu et-ha’am

| mishpat tzedek.

Deuteronomy 16:18

So our parsha opens with the word shoftim – which means judges, which is very appropriate because the bulk of this parsha is going to be about the rules that relate to the judges and officers; including priests, kings, and local magistrates. This Torah is very demanding of those in authority. This is what is expected of the leaders:

“You shall not twist judgment,

you shall not respect persons,

and you shall not take a bribe

for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise

and perverts the words of the righteous.”

| “Lo-tateh mishpat

| lo takir panim

| velo-tikach shochad

| ki hashochad ye’aver einei chachamim

| visalef divrei tzadikim.”

Deuteronomy 16:19

Now this is very clear, this cuts right at the heart of old-world and small-minded thinking that is left in the children of Israel. Like all people who come from the old way of doing things, favoritism and bribes is the societal norm. But here they are being told this is forbidden, because even the wise and righteous will find their judgment perverted by such things. But it doesn’t just outlaw bribes, it uniquely outlaws showing favoritism. It actually informs one that “lo takir panim / you shall not recognize a face;” that you should deal with the issue at hand and not even give consideration to the person for whom the case is heard. But takir also means to become acquainted, to know, to become familiar with, or to be introduced to. One also must not be chummy with the people related to the case or they cannot rule appropriately.

Then our parsha gives us some of the most famous and lovely words in all of the Torah:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue

that you may live

and occupy the land

that Hashem your G-d gives you.”

| Tzedek tzedek tirdof

| lema’an tichieh

| veyarashta et-ha’aretz

| asher Hashem Eloheicha noten lach.”

Deuteronomy 16:20

These three words “tzedek tzedek tirdof / justice justice shall our seek” are such a central concept to the Jewish people that these words are known the world over as a battle cry of Jewish progressives. Though one may not know any other Hebrew words, these words have been made infamous even in the United State where they were proclaimed by Jewish people who fought for abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, child labor laws and civil rights.

Interesting statement, to tirdof tzedek to pursue justice. This word tirdof means to seek and pursue, yes. It literally means to chase after. But normally this word is used very differently in spoken Hebrew, more often it means to haunt or trouble a person, to chase them down. Why chase them? Normally one does this to oppress or persecute a person, so they are on the run! For this reason to be nirdaf in Hebrew means to be persecuted or to be oppressed. Instead our Torah tells us to do the exact opposite, it tells us to go running and chasing after people in order to do righteousness and provide them justice; so that they may live, and so we can all live more securely. It’s not good enough that we don’t go after people to persecute them like it’s an inquisition, instead we are commanded to go out and seek people out in order to show extreme justice and compassion to those who are deprived of it!

Justice. Not just any sort of justice, but tzedek tzedek; said twice, which is the classical way of emphasizing something important that should not be missed. We are to seek to fill this world with perfect justice; tzedek, which simply means what is right and correct. Again we are reminded that we are to show correct judgment to all people, indiscriminately. We are not be crooked or biased people.

Here in this parsha there is established a system of judgment were appointed magistrates and elders are assigned through out the local towns, cities, and tribal regions that operated as almost like individual states. They are to meet at the local gates, which in this society is the primary marketplace for all forms of business and social interaction. The bigger the city is the more gates they have to accommodate the traffic, thus the more judges and officers they city also had as they were placed at all the gates. One should not have to go far to find justice, it should be as accessible as going to buy groceries! And it should be proclaimed in the open, for all the people to witness and not in private back-room dealings.

The House of Hewn Stone: The Roots of the Sanhedrin

In this parsha we begin by discussing the local judicial system. But this was not the only branch of government that was established to oversee the law. Earlier in the Torah, in Parshat Yitro we learned that Mosheh was challenged by his father-in-law Yitro to appoint judges because the task was too big to for him to hear all the issues of the people himself. He presented him with a system of selecting elders and judges that were given a certain jurisdiction, and then judges set over larger regions still; like courts of appeal, increasing in jurisdiction as one progresses up the legal system. The lower courts should hear the minor cases, and the major ones that were too hard to deal with would be brought to him. This made good sense to Mosheh, who we read listened and did just as Yitro said (see Exodus 18). Actually, Mosheh at one point totally broke down. And after much complaining from the people he admits that being responsible for everything and all of them is too much, and he even asks G-d to do him a favor and kill him because he’s even disgusted with himself. We read that Hashem approved the idea of appointing judges in his place, and commanded him to implement it accordingly:

“And Hashem said to Mosheh:

Gather for Me seventy men

of the elders of Israel

that you know to be

the wise men of the people

and their officials

and bring them to the Tent of Meeting

that they may stand there with you.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| esfah-li shiv’im ish

| miziknei Yisra’el

| asher yadata ki-hem

| ziknei ha’am

| veshotrav

| velakachta otam el-Ohel Mo’ed

| vehityatzvu sham imach

Numbers 11:16

So here, at the Ohel Moed – the place where Mosheh normally heard all the issues and concerns of the people, as well as made all his judgments from – he was no longer to stand alone, but with seventy men standing with him in an official capacity. These were not priests or sacred people such as a Levite, they were people of all the tribes of Israel. Mosheh was to choose these leaders, thus it was required that he know them and their reputation personally.

To be an elder – a zakein – in this sense does not necessarily mean that one is old man with a zakana beard. But this is the image one normally gets, even in the Talmud where the term usually means ones grandfather. But in actuality this term means something more than one who has aged; it can often means one who is aged, thus in everyday speech this often can mean a person who is old-fashioned, or as we say old-schooled. They are a wise person from having some life experience under their belt. Thus to be a zakein also means one that is a wise man and or a sage.

Thus we read of the setting up of the assembly of the elders at the Ohel Moed – which would later be incorporated into the Beit HaMikdash – The Temple, as the Lishkat haGazitThe Chamber of Hewn Stone. This body which was established by Mosheh at the command of G-d would later become known as the Sanhedrin, who functioned in the capacity of hearing the most complex and high-profile cases. Most often the difficulty in trying these cases was because they dealt with the most extreme cases and people. As we will see the situations presented to us in this parsha concern false prophets, rebellious leaders, and cities of idolatry. Mosheh was not alone in dealing with these issues any more. G-d promised to speak to him from there, and the people would also be given some of the spiritual mantel that only Mosheh wore up until now so that they help share the responsibility and he not go at it alone. G-d and his fellow man would advise him.

But there is one point that is often missed by people when we read this. It does not say that they will be given a spirit like Mosheh, that would suggest that they would be like minded to Mosheh. No, instead we read that G-d would atzaldelegate spiritual responsibility to the elders. Nor does it say that they will just stand there merely supporting him, it says that they will “vehityatsvu sham imach / and they will present themselves there with you.” To hityatzeiv not only means to present oneself, but it also means to face, or to stand before one. Mosheh as he heard these cases would be advised by these elders who also would present Mosheh with issues and advice, each being wise in many matters and able to contribute. Mosheh and any successive leader that headed this body would would listen to these 70 sages, and they in tern would oversee the legislative process of enacting the Torah law. Not even Mosheh was above the law, nor able to act willfully he was kept in check by the elders and G-d. In this sense we can understand why the word hityatzeiv can also mean to stabilize. They didn’t just support him to help from falling over, their functions was one of bringing moderation and balance to the legal system.

In this parsha Mosheh now lays out how this is going to effect the body of elders and the people’s relationship to them once they are established within the Promised Land. It also gives us some pretty good insight into how things worked during those days as very little changed, the system was just incomplete before the nation was established.

Now for the sake of time I will paraphrase some of the text to bring us up to speed on how this system functioned. When there was a cases that arose that were too difficult such as judgment “between blood and blood” (presumably capital cases), between conflicting laws and please, causes of assault, plague like epidemics arise, or when there is controversy boiling over in that place, they are to get up and go the place G-d will choose (it’s contentiously refereed to this way because Jerusalem is not yet the capital, as they have not even entered into the actual country yet). They are to approach the Levite priests and unto the judges that are there in those days to ask questions, and the judges will declare the sentence to the people. The case may already be tried, but this is in place for cases in which there is dispute or a ruling of capital punishment. To show impartiality and settle the issue once and for all, the approval of a supreme court was prescribed for judgment to be sentenced and then carried out.

Like I said, it doesn’t sound a whole lot different from Mosheh’s style of governing, but it does assure the people that they will still have continuity of government that they have depended on. Even though it will change, it will still be able to serve their needs in the same way. In fact just in case anyone questions if they have to listen to these leaders since they aren’t like Mosheh who spoke with and for G-d we read the following words:

“And you shall do according to the sentence

which they shall inform you

from the place which Hashem shall choose

and you shall observe to do

all that they shall instruct you.”

| Ve’asita al-pi hadavar

| asher yagidu lecha

| min-hamakom hahu asher yivchar Hashem

| veshamarta la’asot

| kechol asher yorucha.

Deuteronomy 17:10

The people are going to be able to approach the judges and know that they represent G-d just as much as Mosheh who stood and spoke with G-d’s Presence in a mere tent, as their leaders would be instructing them from the House of G-d where His Presence dwells. They were not inventing the law, their function was to yigidu, to inform people of the law in laying down the sentence. So this system would continue until in function until the 3rd century CE; seventy plus one judges just as in the days of Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our teacher

But their job went much further than just being judges. And this is where the role of the Sanhedrin goes far beyond being just a senate or an over sized supreme court. As wise men, as sages and as men of great experience, their brilliance was to find its use for more than just laying down the law. Yes it was in their capacity as judges, but here as a mature institution we see that a Sanhedrin goes one step further and is to instruct the people. The job of the sages should also be to teach you (yorucha).

“According to the Torah

which they shall interpret

and according to the law

they shall tell you,

you shall do.

Do not deviate from the sentence

which they shall declare to you

to the right hand, or to the left.”

| Al-pi haTorah

| asher yorucha

| ve’al-hamishpat

| asher-yomru lecha

| ta’aseh

| lo tasur min-hadavar

| asher yagidu lecha

| yamin usmol.

Deuteronomy 17:11

We are to follow through with the commands given to us by the leaders of the Sanhedrin because they are hereby being charged to interpret and legislate law. They are to determine the law according to the Torah, not that of their own will. Because they are commanding people to be in obedience of the Torah, and also because the consequences of failing to follow through results in judgment, the people must be properly instructed so that it is clear and there is no misunderstanding. As person is often ignorant of what is correct it is commanded that for all capital cases there must be warning first be given before being sentenced to judgment. As we see here this warning also comes with instruction in how they are to practice the Torah correctly. Thus if a person breaks the law from here on out it is out of willfulness and not merely a case of ignorance.

The Presumptious Man: The Willful Sinner

This point of willful sinning, in rebellion to the Torah and the sages must be understood in order for us to make sense of the next few verses. It is also essential in understanding the Talmudic interpretation of these verses.

“And the man who does presumptuously

and does not listen to the priest

who ministers there before

Hashem your G-d,

even to a judge, that man shall die

and thereby exterminating evil in Israel.”

| Veha’ish asher-ya’aseh vezadon

| levilti shmoa el-hakohen

| ha’omed lesharet sham

| et-Hashem Eloheicha

| o el-hashofet umet ha’ish hahu

| uvi’arta hara miYisra’el.

Deuteronomy 17:12

The key word here that is difficult for many to understand is the word vezadon – to be presumptuous, as it says in most of the classic English Bible translations. The word itself is quite rare, used only a handful of times in the scriptures. We can only come to this understanding of the word by interpreting in accordance with tradition, as in the Talmud where we find that this means a man who is actually a judge or elder who acts in rebellion to the sentence of the Sanhedrin. This makes sense because the Sanhedrin was not a court to try cases but to interpret if the law was prescribed correctly and appropriately, therefore only other judges and officials would be heard by the Sanhedrin. Therefore it is interpreted by the great rabbis that as insinuated by the text, even a man who is a judge shall be executed if he goes against the law. No one is above the law, or too good for capital punishment.

But the crime that he is understood to be guilty of in this case is not enacting the sentence of the elders. Thus the archaic 14th century word presumptuously does have a purpose, one that is missed today; it means to overstep the one’s bounds, to take liberties regarding something. In this case it is someone overstepping their authority and/or taking liberties regarding their application of law that goes against what was commanded them by the sentencing court. Instead of laying down Torah law they insist on their own will and thus distort the commands of G-d. We will see this same term used in Deut. 18:20 regarding the prophet who speaks presumptuously in G-d’s Name, though he was not commanded to say anything. So too is the judge that twists the law, they speak what they want instead of what is right. They both are to be executed

Now one might wonder how it could be so, that leaders and officers of the people could be guilty of such things. The Talmud contends this only applies to members of the Sanhedrin who were able to bring issues before them to be heard and thus reject; whereas I could suggest that this means any man at all by a plain reading of the text. None the less the position of the Talmud is true for their usage, as the Sanhedrin did not make habit of trying individuals but only other leaders that did not act in accordance with the ethics of their profession. They were not to be lenient towards them, but punish according to the full extent of the law even if it meant death. We are told doing this would exterminate evil in Israel, in all levels of society. So the next verse reads in summary:

“And when the entire people hear of this

they will fear

and do not more presumptuously.”

| Vechol-ha’am yishme’u

| veyira’u

| velo yezidun od.

Deuteronomy 17:13

Or as we can understand this word now, they shall not act rebelliously anymore. By enacting judgment against those in authority the people were also taught to not act willfully and out of rebellion. This type of attitude is something that is not just found in the common man, it is even found in the most learned and men of status; maybe even more so, some might suggest. The term zid in the purest sense of the word means to boil over, to seethe; we see this used of when describing the lentil soup made by Yaakov and given to Eisav. (Gen. 25:29) But figuratively when used to describe people it means to be proud, and thus unbending (see Neh. 9:16,29; Jer 50:29). It can also be used to describe how a person acts towards someone else, as in Nehemiah 9:10 we see that G-d enacted judgment against Egypt because they “ki hatzidu alechem,” meaning they acted arrogantly towards the children of Israel. The teachers and sages of the Sanhedrin understood that such attitudes were surely more prevalent in the ruling class, and not nearly as much among the humble average citizen. And their actions had greater consequence and must be treated according.

However, I should point out that the Torah itself does say that all people, even the common man, was able to be proud and arrogant. But why do do rabbis focus its application to leadership instead of all people? It is because they understood their place. Their decisions as leaders had greater consequence, effecting many lives not just their own. And when the laws was applied to the great then even the modest man clearly understand there was no way he is above the law himself and thus will become too afraid to willfully do evil anymore.

Again, I stress. This negative attitude could be found in any class person. Anyone could seethe in their own pride and become arrogant and haughty in the themselves as to rebel against the authority of the law. We should all be careful to not let our pride and arrogance arise, letting it bubble over to the point that we show contempt for the law.

To have a healthy society it is essential that the people respect the law, and this could only be if it applied to everyone. Whereas the law does not play favorites, it does however take into account the status of the individual in order to hold them to a higher level of accountability. This is contrary to the norm among the nations to instead provide immunity for officials. In this sense the Torah is very unique.

In having a system of accountability to others and not just doing what is right in one’s eyes, there was a mechanism for checking to make sure that a verdict was correct. But even more so it demanded one of the virtues of true justice, that at some final point people must accept the sentence of the law and end their claim once and for all; not to assume they are the only one that is right. I believe this is the wrong of being presumptuous; being sure in your mind you’re the only one that is right.

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