In Ethics of the Fathers 5:17 it states: ‘Every controversy that is pursued in a heavenly cause is destined to be perpetuated; and that which is not pursued in a heavenly cause is not destined to be perpetuated. Which can be considered a controversy pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And that not pursued in a heavenly cause? This is the controversy of Korach and his congregation.’
This week’s parashah focuses on Korach and his assembly rallying against Moses and Aaron in the belief that they are worthy of more distinctive roles as Israelites. In discussing controversies, the Malbim draws an interesting and penetrating distinction between two different kinds of controversies. He explains: ‘Our Sages wished to point out that in a holy or heavenly cause both sides are, in fact, united by one purpose, to further unselfish, Divine ends. However, in a controversy pursued for unholy ends and for personal advancements and the like, then even those who have come together on one side are not really united. Each are governed by their own calculations of what they stand to gain and are ready to cut each other’s throats, if it so serves their interests. This was the case as far as the controversy of Korach and his congregation. Korach was interested in High Priesthood, since he contended that Amram had received the firstborn share as the eldest son of Kehat, in the fact that his son, Moses, had been appointed leader and king over the people. It was therefore only right, so Korach claimed, that the High Priesthood be given to himself as the son of Yitzhar, the next in line of succession. Dathan and Aviram and On ben Peleth, on the other hand, were animated by their considerations in their opposition to Moses. Their grievance lay in the fact that they belonged to the tribe of Reuben who, as the firstborn son of Jacob, was entitled to all the highest offices – that of spiritual and political leadership. Instead, they complained that the priesthood and Divine service had been given to the tribe of Levi and leadership of the tribes to Judah and Joseph. Similarly, the 250 men contended that, as they were “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown”, they should be accorded the priesthood. They were against conferring a hereditary title on a tribe but asserted that individual prestige and distinction should be considered. Ibn Ezra suggests that these 250 rebels were in actuality firstborn who considered that the priesthood was their natural privilege.
Moses, in response, said the following statement to all those who had rallied against himself and Aaron: “Through this shall you know that God has sent me to perform these acts; that it was not from my heart” (Numbers 16:28). The Alshekh comments that it would be totally out of character for a man like Moses who always defended his people, even the sinners, to now announce an especially cruel fate for Korach and his associates. He therefore prefaces his announcement and the impending punishment of the rebels by explaining that only in this way could the fact that he had not appointed himself to a position of leadership be demonstrated. Just as his own appointment had been through supernatural power, so the death of the challengers would occur through supernatural power. When a body has been invaded by cancer or some other deadly disease, only the surgical removal of the infected part of the body can stave off total disaster. In this instance too, only the excision of these rebels could prevent the rebellion from infecting the whole nation with fatal results. Theirs was a spiritual disease; the disbelief in the Divine nature of Moses’ prophecy. Moses therefore made the point that the very death of the rebels represented the greatest act of mercy by God, since it saved mankind.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
“We felt like tiny grasshoppers, and that’s how we appeared to them!”
With this comment the spies ended their slanderous and dispiriting report about the land of Israel and its inhabitants. This statement speaks volumes about why they were afraid to continue their destiny to inherit the land.
The spies had no contact with the locals. The Torah records them traveling through the land, collecting a bit of fruit, sizing up the cities and lay of the land and assessing the population. Nowhere is there any indication of conflict or even contact. The Midrash teaches that the residents were preoccupied with their own doings and paid no mind to the small group of travelers.
If that is the case, then how could the Israelites know how they appeared to the Canaanites? What made them think that the residents saw them as grasshoppers?
Rabbi Efraim Davidson comments: It is simply because that is how they saw themselves. “We felt like tiny grasshoppers.” As former slaves their view of themselves was as small and powerless. That led them to project those feelings and perceptions upon the Canaanites. “And that’s how we appeared to them.” They thought of themselves as weak, and therefore they were. They thus paralyzed themselves into fearful rebellion and retreat. They forgot that it was God who fought for them against Egypt, and who would insure their victory in Israel.
Have you ever faced a challenge and withered, feeling that you were too small or weak to succeed? It is possible that your own self-doubt, rather than the challenge itself, kept you from succeeding. We have enormous power to do great things. We are not too weak to make a hard marriage better. We are not so puny that we can’t retrain ourselves toward a more lucrative career. We are not so powerless over our own character that we can’t become spiritually elevated and highly ethical people. If you think of yourself as weak, you certainly will be. However, if you see yourself as capable and strong, and you think big, you can accomplish great things for yourself and for those around you.
There is a Midrash that imagines God responding to the spies: “I take no objection to your saying, ‘we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.’ But I take offense when you say ‘so we must have looked to them.’ How do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as an angel!”
Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald explains: “You see, according to the Midrash, God did not punish the spies for their fear. After all, you can’t blame someone for how they honestly feel. What God objected to was how the spies saw themselves through the eyes of the Canaanites. Their sin was to project their fears and insecurities onto others. Their sin is was taking responsibility for their fears. And it occurs to me – thinking about the parashah in this way – which we are all at times guilty of this sin. Often when we are afraid or unhappy we blame others for how we feel. Perhaps it is too painful to confront our own fears and shortcomings. So we project those feeling onto others – we blame others for our feelings or we convince ourselves that it is only others who stand in the way of our success and happiness. I don’t mean to say that our fears are baseless or imaginary. Like the spies, our assessment may be factually correct. And I also don’t think that we should beat ourselves up for what we feel. After all, the spies were not condemned for their fear or self-doubt. The sin of which we are guilty – the sin of the spies – is the sin of lacking vision. It is a failure of imagination that leads us to blame others for our shortcomings. It is the failure to see possibilities in the midst of great challenges.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
In the opening verse of chapter 12 in this week’s parashah, it states: “Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses, the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said: Was it only to Moses that G-d spoke? Did he not speak to us as well? And G-d heard…” There are many questions that arise from this statement, including the following: 1) why would Tzipporah, who had converted to Judaism, still be described as a Cushite – a Midianite? 2) Why does the Torah first report Miriam and Aaron speaking harshly, i.e. va-te-dabber, whereas in v.2, the expression vayomru, they spoke, i.e. in a friendly manner, is used? 3) If one reads the Hebrew text, one will note that the opening sentence is in the feminine and in the singular, though both Miriam and Aaron are listed as doing the speaking. In v.2, however, the Torah employs the word vayomru, which is in the plural form. 4) Why does the Torah use two successive diminutive expressions such as ach and rak? 5) What are the words G-d heard supposed to teach us? Does G-d not hear everything?
The Alshekh offers his interpretation of these events and puzzling issues. He explains that we have a tradition that Moses was king in a country called Cush for 40 years – prior to becoming leader in Israel. While king, he had married a local woman who had converted, but had not consummated that marriage. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for divorcing Tzipporah who had been a Jewess already when he had married her. They criticized his reason for divorcing her. If it had to do with Moses’ status as a prophet, they felt that the difference in status between themselves and Moses was not all that great, since G-d had talked with them as well in broad daylight. This is banu dibber, i.e. He spoke DIRECTLY to us. This was as if to say that they maintain normal family relations with their spouses considering the fact that they have a high degree of holiness, and why therefore, cannot Moses do the same? Moses’ behavior seemed overbearing to them. The words ach and rak refer to Aaron and Miriam respectively. They both did not require an angel as an intermediary when G-d communicated with them.
Since the Torah reports Miriam and Aaron as speaking in the third person about Moses, i.e. he married, He spoke with Moses, it is clear that they were too modest to confront Moses directly with their criticism. The reason G-d singled out Miriam for punishments was that the more serious accusation came from her. This is why she is mentioned as va-te-dabber, i.e. she spoke harshly. When it came to amirah – the more friendly kind of criticism – Aaron also did his share. This is why it says vayomru, they said. It is natural for Miriam, a woman, to be upset that her sister-in-law also a woman had been abandoned by her husband. This sentiment could not be shared entirely by Aaron, a male. Tzipporah’s abandonment might give rise to outsiders viewing her as unworthy to be Moses’ wife. Since Miriam and Aaron considered Moses’ motivation as due to his holiness, not to his trying to denigrate Tzipporah in any way, vayomru, they couched their criticism in a friendly manner.
G-d heard, is to underline that even if evil gossip – lashon hara – is not motivated by malice, as in this instance, and even if it’s purpose is constructive – such as protecting the reputation of Tzipporah – G-d reacts to it. How much more so will G-d react to malicious slander??!! Also, if G-d reacts in this manner when there was no confrontation with the object of the gossip and therefore no embarrassment for him, how much more serious would be such talk when it causes embarrassment to the person who is subject to such talk. Since Miriam and Aaron, whose remarks had been overheard only by G-d, were disciplined, how much more would others whose remarks are heard by fellow human beings be punished for such talk?
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
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 favoritism!
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. 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
God commands Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel according to their families and their fathers’ household. The Israelites follow this command and do everything that God instructs. Immediately following this census, the Israelites are commanded to “encamp, every man with his standard according to his ensigns according to the insignias of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp” (Numbers 2:2). The Alshekh asks the following questions: 1) Why, when looking at the Hebrew, is this commandment phrased as if it applied to individuals, i.e. ish a man, rather than collectively? 2) The Torah, in relation to the tribes, discusses the direction of their encampment preceding the camp leaders. With regard, however, to the camp of Judah, we read about the direction of the camp PRIOR to the camp leaders. 3) Why does the Torah vary the manner in which it introduces the second tribe in each encampment from the others? The Midrash describes that there was some jealousy between the tribes concerning their positions around the tabernacle, as well as the order in which they would travel. God told Moses to tell the tribes that they would occupy the same positions as their founders had occupied when they carried Jacob’s bier to burial in the cave of Machpelah. This is recorded in the Torah by the words “according to the ensigns of the houses of their fathers” (v.2). There are two other areas in which jealousy could manifest itself. 1) The 4 camps, each sharing 1 flag between them could be jealous of the composition of each camp, i.e. the tribes that had been assigned to be part of the same camp. 2) The camps that had been assigned to travel at the rear of the procession could be jealous of those marching in front. Ephraim, for instance, could be jealous of Reuben and Judah, and Dan of all the others. Since the leaders of each tribe could still have felt inferior to the 4 camp leaders, the Torah hints at the positioning of the sons at Jacob’s bier. To avoid Judah boasting that he was the leader, the Torah speaks about “AND those encamping in an easterly direction”, i.e. the other two tribes are described as an integral part of the camp of Judah. Displaying similar sensitivity for the members of the camp of Dan – the rearguard –the Torah, (v.31) states that though they traveled last, it was ‘ledigleyhem’, according to THEIR flags; as if all the other camps were subordinate to the camp of Dan, and not vice-versa. In the case of the tribes Issachar and Zevulun, the Torah writes u-fekudeyhem, THEIR counted ones (plural), to point out that unity existed. Though each one considered himself a separate unit, they related to one another in such a way that each one assumed responsibility for the other’s physical or spiritual well-being (Zevulun providing Issachar’s material needs, Issachar studying Torah and sharing his merit with Zevulun). The reason the Torah writes “the camp of Ephraim according to their armies westward”, is for that it is a compliment to the angels who had become the armies of Israel – as God’s presence is conceived of as emanating from the West (the Holy of Holies being the most western part of the tabernacle).
When the Torah discusses the issue of counting the people of Israel, we learn that this is an act of elevating the Israelites, i.e. numbering them. This was performed through their handing over the half shekel, which formed their ransom money for their sin of the golden calf. This is the reason the Torah employed the term ‘ki tissa et rosh’ – when you “lift the head” when describing their being counted. This is in contrast with the members of the tribe of Levi who had no need to pay a ransom for their soul seeing they had not been guilty of that sin. This is why the Torah introduced the instruction to count the Levites (3:15) with the words “pakad et bnei Levi” – “count the members of the tribe of Levi.” If all this is correct, why did the Torah change its wording when it came to counting the Kehatites and employ the same term ‘Nasso’ when instructing Moses and Aaron to count them? Perhaps the fact that the Kehatites were entrusted with a task such as carrying the Holy Ark and the Table which required them to enter the Tabernacle was a special elevation for them and this is why the Torah wanted us to know this and wrote the term ‘Nasso’. It is a relative term and shows that their function was more highly rated than that of the family of the clan of Gershon, although Gershon was the older of Levi’s sons. The reason that God chose the Kehatites for this task was that they provided “light for the world” in that Moses and Aaron were descended from. It was no more than fair that the branch of the Levites who had produced Moses and Aaron should be the ones entrusted with carrying the Torah, which Moses had communicated to the people. Our verse is careful to say – ‘meetoch b’nai Israel’, “from the midst of the children of Israel,” seeing that Kehat was the middle son of Levi’s three sons Gershon, Kehat and Merrari.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Maryland relates some interesting ideas in parashat Behar: 1) The primary characteristic of the Sabbatical year was leaving the fields and vineyards uncultivated. Some scholars have suggested that the Israelites were practicing an early form of soil conservation; modern farmers often leave fields uncultivated or practice crop rotation in order to restore nutrients to the soil. A second lesson of the Sabbatical year is derived from the fact that during this time all people, whether rich or poor, had to collect and gather food in the same manner; all were dependent upon what the land would produce naturally. This experience would sensitize the well-to-do to the conditions the poor always faced and motivate them to help support the needy.
2) The Jubilee year began on Yom Kippur rather than on Rosh Hashanah. The Rabbis explained that just as Yom Kippur gives an individual a fresh start, the Jubilee year allowed society a fresh start. Israelites that had to sell either their property or themselves into slavery due to economic circumstances would regain their property and their freedom and be able to start over and remake their lives. It is still customary for many Jews to pay off their debts before Yom Kippur.
The theme of Parashat Bechukotai is the “Tochacha” – a series of devastating predictions of what will befall the Jewish people throughout history – exile, anti-Semitism, persecution, and more.
Yet we know how much the Almighty cares for us, and He never “punishes” without “sandwiching” it with love. So it is not surprising that the “dire predictions” in this parashah also contain hidden blessings.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains: ‘…For example, Leviticus 26:33, God declares that “I will scatter you among the nations.” This is a hidden blessing, because if the Jewish camp is geographically divided, then when one community is persecuted, the other can carry on. Also, Leviticus 26:22 says that when the Jews are in exile, the “Land [of Israel] will be desolate.” This is a hidden blessing, because throughout the millennia – as numerous empires conquered the Land, and countless wars were fought for its possession – astonishingly, no conqueror ever succeeded in permanently settling Israel or causing the desert to bloom. This, of course, made it easier for the Jewish people to return in the 20th century and resettle their homeland – a hidden blessing. God cares for us so deeply, giving us the confidence that in life, every cloud has a silver lining.’
If you will keep my mitzvahs … the land will yield its produce … and I will give you rain” (Lev. 26:3). It’s interesting that the Torah promises an abundance of material and physical blessings in exchange for following the Torah. Most of us would probably expect a promise of spiritual return such as the promise of Heaven, paradise, or eternal life.
Rabbi Ron Jawary offers some insight into this verse: ‘Interestingly, the Torah never makes an explicit mention of life beyond this world. Perhaps what the Torah is teaching us is that we shouldn’t think the world and all the blessings in it have nothing to do with a spiritual life. The idea behind this could be that the physical, material blessings are truly spiritual blessings in that they provide us with an opportunity to connect to the Divine.
The more we understand this, the greater is our opportunity to become a conduit for God’s blessings. In fact, the Talmud expands on this and points out that we all have certain skills and talents, and should strive to share those talents with those around us. In doing so, we’re taking the physical blessings we’ve been given and transforming them into an eternal spiritual connection with God.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim