Parshat Balak

Parshat Balak

The Midrash states: “What is the difference between the prophets of the Jewish people and the prophets of the nations of the world? The prophets of Israel forewarned the nations not to transgress. However the prophets of the nations created breaches to destroy mankind so that it should have no connection with the world to come. The prophets of the Jewish people expressed the Attribute of Mercy, while their prophets expressed cruelty. Bilaam, the prophet of the nations, wanted to uproot and destroy an entire nation. This is the reason the Torah tells us the story of Bilaam. It is so that one should understand why there is no longer Divinely inspired people (prophets) among the nations of the world. If the power of prophecy would be given to an individual from the nations, it would be used for destruction, as Bilaam had done. Bilaam, being given prophecy, is the reason the nations of the world cannot claim at the end of time that G’d did not grant them the same opportunity as He had the Jewish people.”

The Torah states when Bilaam was on the way to curse the Jewish people, “G’d’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of Hashem stood on the road to impede him. Bilaam was riding on his donkey…The donkey saw the angel of Hashem standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand….” The Midrash asks, “Why did the angel have a drawn sword in his hand? The angel could have blown upon Bilaam and caused him to die. As we see regarding the destruction of the army of Sancherev. When Sancherev had come upon the Jewish people with millions of troops to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, the verse states, ‘The angel of Hashem went forth and had smitten the camp of Ashure. He had blown upon them and they dried-up.’ Why did the angel come upon Bilaam with a drawn sword, when he could have simply blown upon him? The angel said to Bilaam, ‘The power of the mouth was given to Yaakov. As the verse states, ‘The voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav.’ It also states regarding the nations of the world, ‘By the sword you shall live…’ But you, Bilaam, took hold of the craft of the Jewish people and came upon them with your mouth (to curse them). Therefore, when I come upon you I shall do so with your craft (the sword).’ This is the reason the angel came upon Bilaam with a drawn sword.”

Rashi cites Chazal who explain that before Balak commissioned Bilaam to curse the Jewish people he had consulted with the Midianites in order to ascertain the secret power of the leader of the Jewish people. They had told him that the power of their leader lies in his mouth, his verbal expression. They therefore summoned Bilaam to counter Moshe, with his power of expression to curse the Jewish people. However, Balak and the Midianites had no understanding of the essence of Moshe’s power. The effectiveness of Moshe’s ability emanated from his unique dimension of spirituality. Moshe had no relevance to evil, as Bilaam had. He was imbued with holiness only to carry out the Will of G’d. The only commonality between Moshe and Bilaam was that both of their expressions emanated from their mouth. Although Bilaam’s curse was lethal, as it had proven to be, it had no relevance to his spirituality; but rather, it was rooted in his evilness/physicality. Chazal tell us that when Moshe had killed the Egyptian in Egypt when he was beating a Jew, he had done so through the enunciation of one of the Names of G’d. His killing of the Egyptian, through verbal expression rather than a physical act, was an indication of the spirituality of Moshe. Bilaam was known for his “evil eye.” Chazal tell us that when Bilaam initially wanted to bless the Jewish people, G’d had said to him, “Do not bless them. They do not need your blessing.” It is as one says to a bee, “We do not need your honey and we do not need your sting.” This is because a blessing that emanates from an evil source is the equivalent of a curse.

 

                                                                                                                                                 Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Chukat 5779

Parshat Chukat 5779

The Torah states the following: “The Children of Israel, the whole community, arrived in the desert of Tzin in the first month and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” (Numbers, 20:1). There are many questions that need to be answered from this seemingly simple verse such as: Why does the Torah tell us what month the Israelites arrived – not usually found when the Torah reports arrivals; Why did the Torah emphasize that the whole congregation arrived?; Why did Miriam’s burial have to be mentioned and later on the absence of water as affecting the entire congregation?

Torat Moshe explains that our sages say that Moses and Aaron were busy with the funeral arrangements for Miriam, when they saw a multitude approaching. Moses was somewhat nonplussed, but Aaron felt that the people had surely come to pay their last respects to Miriam. Moses did not think so, for if Aaron had been correct, the people would have approached in an orderly procession. The confused mob approaching suggested to Moses that these people had something to complain about. When the people overheard this, they quarreled with Moses, and left Aaron out of it. In fact, they should have paid their respects to Miriam for a variety of reasons, not the least of it the fact that they had enjoyed a water supply for 40 years due to her merit. It was due to their indifference that God let it come to a critical situation. Should one argue that the people had been unaware that their water supply had been due to Miriam’s merit, God had stopped the supply IMMEDIATELY when Miriam had died, to bring home this lesson to the people who had either not known or had pretended not to know. Mention of their arrival in the desert, and the date, is to tell us that lack of water was not due to the natural habitat, nor to the time of year. At winter’s end, there is plenty of moisture remaining from the rainy season. Neither was the absence of water due to unfriendly terrain, since the people had settled there – in Kadesh – obviously a place fit for habitation. Water disappeared ONLY with the death of Miriam. This proved that the death of the righteous woman had caused the absence of water. The congregation was denied water now, because they had neglected to give water to Miriam after her death.

 

The red heifer plays a central role in the process of purifying someone who becomes “tamei”, i.e., spiritually tainted. A Jew becomes tamei when he or she comes into contact with a corpse, and as long as you are tamei you may not enter the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Bamidbar 19:13,21). However, this condition is treatable. A red heifer is slaughtered and burned, and its ashes are used to create a mystical potion with purifying powers. A kohen sprinkles the contaminated Jew with the red heifer ash mixture and the Jew then returns to a normal state of tahara, i.e. spiritual purity (19:1-12). (Obviously, these laws have been out of use ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.) This procedure is hard enough to understand, but here’s the clincher: The kohen who administers the sprinkling becomes tamei! The very same process that purifies the contaminated Jew contaminates the kohen (19:21). Several great medieval rabbis independently compiled listings of the 613 biblical mitzvot. But the most innovative of these works is undoubtedly the Chinuch (anonymous, 13th century). Besides the basic listing, the Chinuch also speculates about the meaning and purpose of every mitzvah. This makes for a fascinating blend of law, ethics, and philosophy. When it comes to the red heifer, however, the Chinuch throws in the towel. “Although my heart emboldened me to write hints of the reasons for the other mitzvot… when it comes to this mitzvah my hand goes weak and I am frightened to open my mouth about it at all. For I have seen how our sages of blessed memory wrote at length of its deep mysteries and the vastness of its theme…” (Chinuch, mitzvah 397). Rabbi Yaakov Kamanetzky (1891-1986) questions the Chinuch’s nervous reaction to the red heifer. The Chinuch knew that all mitzvot are ultimately beyond our understanding. Mortals can’t expect to fathom the myriad of divine reasons for mitzvot. Although we certainly do appreciate the beauty and relevance of every mitzvah, we need to remember that we are only dipping beneath the surface of great depths of meaning. As the Chinuch himself admits, his explanations of the mitzvot are no more than surface level interpretations. He never claimed that his suggestions were all there is to it. So why won’t the Chinuch provide us with some insights into the red heifer? If he managed to supply a reason or a message for each of 612 other mitzvot in the Torah, why not finish the job? Rabbi Kamanetzky explains that the Chinuch did not at all give up when it came to the red heifer. He indeed does reveal its message. The red heifer’s message is the very fact that it is completely unknowable. This is a fundamental principle for all of Torah. There comes a point with every mitzvah where we must recognize that our human minds are limited. There is more to this world than we can ever know. There is a spiritual reality.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Korach 5779

Parshat Korach 5779

A brief analysis of Parshat Korach illuminates the difficulty of convincing one to change their misguided approach. Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader who redeemed the Jewish people from slavery, led them to the encounter with God at Sinai, faithfully defending them at every turn – had lost the trust of the people. The tragedy of the meraglim- the spies – was much more than a conquest of the land delayed for a generation. It sowed the seeds of mistrust between the people and their leaders. These feelings were brought to the surface by the political opportunist and Moshe’s first cousin Korach. “They had a confrontation with Moses along with 250 Israelites who were men of rank in the community, representatives at the assembly and famous” (16:2). Aharon, the great peacemaker did not escape their wrath either. “They demonstrated against Moshe and Aharon and declared to them. You have gone too far”(16:3). The Jewish people were not willing to accept responsibility for their lack of faith. If they were to die in the desert the blame must lay elsewhere. Did not Moshe promise to take us to a land of milk and honey? It is he, not us who is failing.

 

Before the incipient rebellion could gain any more traction Moshe, Aharon and their detractors ‘had it out’ in full view of the people. Moshe successfully predicts a miraculous “earthquake” to swallow up the 250 dissenters. One would think that would be the end of the story vindicating the leadership of Moshe to the masses. Yet “the next day the entire Israelite community began to complain to Moshe. ‘You have killed God’s people’ they exclaimed” (16:6). Unbelievable. Recognizing Moshe’s continued leadership would mean taking responsibility for their own sins something they were not willing to do. They preferred to blame the victim. This continuing challenge to Moshe led to a plague costing the lives of an additional 14,700 people. Despite Aharon’s stopping of the plague, God instructs Moshe to conduct a further test to demonstrate Aharon’s choice as Kohen gadol. Even this would not suffice. “Put Aharon’s staff back there before the ark of testimony as a keepsake. Let it be a sign for anyone who wants to rebel. This should put an end to their complaints to Me and then they will not die” (17:23).

 

Rabbi Jay Kelman explains that this is typical of those who are fixated on blaming others for their problems they distort the facts converting positives to negatives. Though given a formula for long life i.e. stop complaining and stop trying to depose your rightful leaders, in the very next verse “the Israelites said to Moshe, We’re going to die. We will be destroyed; we are all lost” (17:21). It is at this point that God puts in motion His idea after the golden calf – of starting a new nation. The Torah thus records laws relating to the leaders, the kohanim and leviim and then silence, the silence of death for 38 years. “This is the decree of the Torah. When a man dies in a tent this is the law”. When the Biblical narrative picks up, it is with the death of Miriam in year forty.

 

“And do not be like Korach and his congregation” (17:5). While this prohibition refers specifically to creating unnecessary controversy it can also refer to refusing to learn from our mistakes or worse yet, to even see our mistakes. Korach, our Sages tell us, was a wise man. Many a wise person is convinced of their wisdom and is unable, or unwilling, to change course despite the warning signs. It might be health problems that are ignored or ignoring the obvious signs that our children (or we ourselves) have substance abuse problems. Perhaps we do not cut our losses from a misguided investment or continue conducting business oblivious to the changes around us. We may ignore a spiritual malaise blaming it on a mid life crisis. Who is wise? Haroeh et HaNolad – one who literally sees that which is born. The word “nolad” implies dynamic growth, maturation, freshness. The truly wise person is one who is always growing, carefully examining themselves to see if their thoughts and deeds need refining or even changing.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Shelach Lecha 5779

Parshat Shelach Lecha 5779

In this week’s Torah portion Moses sends 12 spies to go from their encampment in the desert and observe the land of Israel. Moses instructs the spies to “see what the land is like” (Bamidbar 13:18) Their task was to see the land, see for themselves and report back that it is a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet, ten of the 12 spies failed. They returned with a negative report.

“And there we saw the giants…and we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (Bamidbar 13:33) They had no real way of knowing how they were perceived in the eyes of the ‘natives.’ – Yet, in their own view they were unfit and inferior – and therefore they assumed that that was the reality. They looked for the negative and found the negative. We don’t see things the way they are, rather, we perceive things the way we are.

The ten spies were pessimistic about entering the land of Israel. They had other motives, wishing to remain spiritually sheltered in the desert and led by Moses and therefore went in with a negative and self-defeating attitude.

In contrast, the other two spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, were optimistic about entering Israel, and so they observed the exact same situation but saw something completely different. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (13:30) This was their response to the scouting mission. Rav DovBer Pison comments: ‘This week’s energy is the power of the scouts’ , the mentors, in our lives. These are the people we depend on to give us advice and lead us in the right direction. We must choose these people in our lives carefully, for their biases will affect the advice they give us and the path we ultimately take.If you already have such people in your life, be sure that they are the right people to turn to and the advice they give you is unbiased. Choose advisors, experts in whatever area you seek expertise and advice. But be sure to choose a person with your best interests in their hearts, with open and optimistic attitude and you will be led in the right direction.

In this week’s Parshah too, the spies discovered that wherever they went, a plague struck down the Cana’anim and they were dying in large numbers. They concluded that the air of the land of Israel was unhealthy and prone to breeding plagues. They failed to see (or perhaps they did not want to see), that the Divine Hand was at work, protecting them, preventing their discovery by keeping the Cana’anim too busy to notice them, or at least, to be concerned with their presence. In this way, Hashem reckoned, they would be able to go about spying the land without hindrance. Yet they misconstrued Hashem’s chesed, mistaking His loving care for hatred.

The verse in Devarim (1:20) describes how Israel grumbled that night in their tents, how they declared that it was due to God’s hatred of Israel that He took them out of Egypt, to deliver them into the hands of the Ammorites to destroy them. In fact, Rashi comments, He loved them, and it was they who hated Him! And he goes on to quote a famous folk-saying ‘What a person thinks about his friend, he believes that his friend thinks about him’. Presumably, this saying is based on the verse in “ke’Mayim ha’ponim le’ponim” (Mishlei 27:19).

The Zohar attributes the spies’ prejudice to the fear that, once they entered Israel, the old constitution would end, and a new era would begin, incorporating new leaders, who would replace them. Presumably, that is also what prompted them to renounce Hashem as a hater. In order to misconstrue Hashem’s motives in His interrelationship with us, it is not necessary to be guided by personal prejudices (though it does help). All that is needed is a lack of appreciation a. of Hashem’s extreme goodness; b. of the fact that He loves all his people, and c. the extent of that love.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Beha’alotecha 5779

Parshat Beha’alotecha 5779

In the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha there appears a phenomenon that is found in no other place in the entire Tanach – two sentences are bracketed by two backwards facing Hebrew letters, nuns, as a way to set them apart from the rest of the text.

 

“And when the ark would journey, Moses said: ‘Arise God and let your enemies be scattered, and let those that hate You flee from before You.’ And when it [the ark] rested he would say: ‘Rest peacefully God among the myriad thousands of Israel” (Numbers 10:35-36). The first sentence is recited in synagogues around the world when the ark is opened and the Torah removed for public readings, and the second sentence is recited when the Torah is placed once again in the ark. Rashi, quoting the Talmud, (Shabbat 115b-116a) explains that these two sentences are set apart due to the fact that they are not in their natural chronological place. Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman comments: ‘This alone would not seem sufficient reason as Rashi tells us many times that various events recorded in the Torah are not in a sequential order. What then, according to the Talmud, is the reason that they appear here? Rashi informs us: in order to separate between a series of sins which occurred in the desert. The Talmud continues by stating that these two sentences actually are considered an entirely separate book! In this manner the five books of Moses are actually seven, as this two sentence book actually divides the book of Numbers into three books. As with all verses, mitzvot and stories in the Torah, there are multilevels of understanding, especially when there is a one time phenomenon such as inverted letters that create a separate book of just two sentences. The Slonimer Rebbe quotes a Torah from the Maggid of Koznitch who suggests that the ark represents a Torah scholar who is compared to an ark containing the Torah. The Torah has been so integrated into his being that he is like a “walking Torah scroll.” The word for “journey” in our verse shares the same root as the word for “test.” Therefore, anytime the ark, in this case a Torah scholar, journeys, it is inevitable that he will face challenges and tests. The Slonimer explains that this idea really applies to every person who wants to journey from one spiritual level to a higher, more refined level of consciousness, which is the ultimate goal of Torah and mitzvot.

 

He shall not exchange it nor substitute another for it (27:33)

 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that every person was born to a mission in life that is distinctly, uniquely and exclusively their own. No one—not even the greatest of souls—can take his or her place. No person who ever lived or who ever will live can fulfill that particular aspect of G‑d’s purpose in creation in his stead. This point is illustrated by a story told by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn: A wealthy businessman and his coachman arrived in a city one Friday afternoon. After the rich man was settled at the best hotel in town, the coachman went off to his humble lodgings. Both washed and dressed for Shabbat, and then set out for the synagogue for the evening prayers. On his way to shul, the businessman came across a wagon which had swerved off the road and was stuck in a ditch. Rushing to help a fellow in need, he climbed down into the ditch and began pushing and pulling at the wagon together with its hapless driver. But for all his good intentions, the businessman was hopelessly out of his depth. After struggling for an hour in the knee-deep mud, he succeeded only in ruining his best suit of Shabbat clothes and getting the wagon even more hopelessly embedded in the mud. Finally, he dragged his bruised and aching body to the synagogue, arriving a scant minute before the start of Shabbat. Meanwhile, the coachman arrived early to the synagogue and sat down to recite a few chapters of Psalms. At the synagogue he found a group of wandering paupers, and being blessed with a most generous nature, invited them all to share his meal. When the synagogue sexton approached the paupers to arrange meal placements at the town’s householders, as is customary in Jewish communities, he received the same reply from them all: “Thank you, but I have already been invited for the Shabbat meal.” Unfortunately, however, the coachman’s means were unequal to his generous heart, and his dozen guests left his table with but a shadow of a meal in their hungry stomachs. Thus the coachman, with his twenty years of experience in extracting wagons from mudholes, took it upon himself to feed a small army, while the wealthy businessman, whose Shabbat meal leftovers could easily have fed every hungry man within a ten-mile radius, floundered about in a ditch. “Every soul,” said Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak in conclusion, “is entrusted with a mission unique to her alone, and is granted the specific aptitudes, talents and resources necessary to excel in her ordained role. One most take care not to become one of those ‘lost souls’ who wander through life trying their hand at every field of endeavor except for what is truly and inherently their own.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Nasso 5779

In Parashat Nasso , Hashem commands Moshe to teach Birkat Kohanim to Aharon and his sons. The third verse of Birkat Kohanim reads, “May Hashem lift His face towards you (yisa Hashem panav eilecha) and give you peace.” (Bamidbar6:26) The Hebrew phrase nesi’ut panim – lifting the face – is interpreted in numerous ways. Chazal explain that it involves G-d granting favor to Israel, or, more specifically, treating them with favoritism. For this reason, the verses of Birkat Kohanim are read but not translated during kriat haTorah in the synagogue (as other verses were, according to the practice at the time of the Gemara), so that the listeners would not be confused by the concept that G-d favors one nation. (Megillah 25b)

 

The idea that Hashem shows favoritism, however, is more than confusing; it directly contradicts another pasuk in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d is the G-d of all power, and Master of all masters, the great, mighty, and awesome G-d who shows no favoritism (lo yisa panim) and takes no bribes.” (Devarim10:17) Indeed, the Gemara itself is puzzled by this contradiction: “The ministering angels said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, Master of the Universe! It is written in your Torah, ‘[He] shows no favoritism and takes no bribes,’ yet behold You favor Israel, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His face towards you!’ He answered them, Should I not favor Israel, for whom I wrote in the Torah, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your G-d,’ yet they are careful about themselves for a kezayit and a kebeitzah [i.e., they bless even after eating less than is necessary to be satiated]?!”

 

The Gemara’s explanation seems to be that G-d certainly does favor Israel, but they deserve this special treatment because of their willingness to do more than the law demands. But how does that answer the question? Despite Israel’s righteousness which makes G-d want to favor them, the pasuk nonetheless states that Hashem does not show favouritism!

 

One possible answer is based on the important idea that G-d acts toward us in the way that we act toward Him. In a real sense, we create the framework in which we live. In the words of the Chafetz Chaim, “It is known that according to how a person directs his attributes in this world, he correspondingly arouses G-d’s attributes in the world above. If his way is to ignore slights and to act with kindness and mercy towards people, he correspondingly arouses the attribute of mercy above, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on the world because of him. and he merits also that the Holy One, Blessed be He, has mercy on him and ignores his sins.”

(Shmirat HaLashon, Shaar HaZechira, Perek Sheini)

 

Thus, G-d’s favoritism – that is, going beyond the demands of strict justice – is a direct result of Israel’s willingness to do more than the law demands. The verse stating that G-d does not show favoritism refers to a normal case that demands justice. Israel does more than G-d’s law demands, however, so G-d acts toward Israel beyond the letter of the law. That is, in its own way, an aspect of justice.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim