The theme of vision is paramount in SHELACH LECHA. The parshah begins with G-d telling Moses to send men who “will SPY OUT the Land of Canaan which I am giving to the Children of Israel”. The parshah ends with the passage recited by every Israelite in the SHEMA morning and evening: “They will make for themselves TZITZIS on the fringes of their garments. and you shall LOOK at it and remember all the commandments of HaShem and you shall do them, AND YOU SHALL NOT GO SPYING AFTER YOUR HEARTS AND AFTER YOUR EYES that you went astray after them.” (Numbers 15:38-39). The same word for spying occurs in the opening and closing verses of the parshah, highlighting the importance of the theme of vision throughout the parshah. The Tzitzis are the remedy for faulty and sinful vision.
In the words of Rashi’s comment on the latter verse (Numbers 15:39): The heart and the eyes are spies for the body, and they act as the body’s agents in sinning. The eye sees, the heart desires and the body carries out the sins.” The fringes of the Tzitzis surrounding us on all four sides, are a visual reminder of G-d’s presence everywhere. The blue TECHEILES thread in the Tzitzis is the color of the sea, which is a reflection of the color of the heavens, the seat of G-d’s glory.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum explores the spies’ actions: ‘
On their tour of the land, the spies saw exactly what they wanted to see. With the exception of Joshua and Kalev, they rejected the vision of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They did not want to accept the traditional report that their ears alone had heard: that G-d promised to take them to a land “flowing with milk and honey”. They could not take it on trust. They wanted to check it out with their own eyes and decide for themselves. And they saw what they wanted to see: a real place, a land governed by natural laws, where people live and die. A beautiful land, but one which it was against all the laws of nature that the puny ex-slave Israelites could conquer in the face of a sea of entrenched Amalekites and Canaanites. “And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). The sin of the spies was a failure of faith. They allowed themselves to be misled by the external appearance of the natural world into a colossal failure of nerve, despite all the promises given by G-d that He would bring them to the land. The faith of Israel does not depend upon what the eyes see. On the contrary, we declare our faith wrapped in the Tallis, clutching the Tzitzis by our hearts, closing our eyes to the visual world around us and covering them with our hand: “Sh’ma Yisrael, HaShem is our G-d.!” Only Joshua and Kalev closed their eyes to external appearances, knowing that with G-d’s help, it is possible to “bend” nature. “We will go up and take possession of it, for He can — we can — (conquer) it.” Perhaps the spies feared the people could not live up to the level of the law of the land, and they preferred an easier, more natural way of life outside of Israel. As leaders of their tribes, the spies conducted an ingenious operation of public opinion manipulation, using skillfully chosen words to implant in the people’s minds a vision of the impossibility of achieving their natural destiny that led them all to tears. (This the spies achieved with words alone, even without the use of television, which is the Satan’s ultimate deceiver of eyes.) “And all the community cried out, and the people WEPT on that night.” Tears come from the eyes, the organs of vision. With our tears we try to wash away the bad that our eyes have seen. The people should have focussed their vision on that which is beyond nature — the miracles that had been performed for them. This should have given them the faith that G-d has the power to fulfill His promises. (See Rashi on Numbers 14:11). Those who had seen the miracles and still did not believe in G-d would not see the land. “All the men who see My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the Wilderness yet have tested Me in this ten times, and have not listened to My voice — They shall not see the land that I have sworn to their fathers, and all who despise Me shall not see it” (Numbers 14:22-3). Yet immediately after the imposition of the decree, the Torah continues with a series of commandments that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, including the laws of the wheat, oil and wine libations that accompany animal offerings in the Temple, and CHALLAH, the gift of the first portion of one’s bread to the priest (Numbers Ch. 15). The positioning of these commandments directly after the narrative of the spies is a reminder that even though the exile may be lengthy, eventually Israel will inherit the entire land and have the merit of offering its choicest produce in the Temple and on the table of the priests.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
When we open the Ark and take the Torah out, everyone recites a verse from this week’s Torah portion: “And it was when the Ark traveled, Moshe said, ‘Arise Almighty and disperse Your enemies, and those who hate You will flee from You.’ ” Why is this verse recited then? Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a Torah luminary, who lived in the Old City of Jerusalem until 1932, answered this question at the dedication of a Yeshiva. “Whenever someone wants to start some worthwhile Torah institution or project, there are always people who will try to stop him. Therefore, when we take out the Torah we ask that the Almighty should disperse the enemies of Torah and prevent them from causing trouble.” Rabbi Zelig Pliskin explains: Torah is the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Our enemies knew that if they could keep the Jewish people from learning Torah, the Jewish people could be swayed and conquered. Therefore, for the Jewish people to be strong and to continue, we must give our support for every effort to teach and spread Torah. Any Jewish leader who does not throw his support behind efforts to teach Torah and expand Torah schools for our children, sorely lacks the fundamental principle crucial to our survival.
The Torah states that there were people who were in a state of ritual impurity because they had come in contact with the dead; therefore, they were unable to participate in the Pesach offering. They complained to Moshe: “Why should we be diminished by not offering God’s offering?” Moshe responded, “Stand and I will hear what God will command you” (Bamidbar 9:7-8). Rashi comments, “How fortunate is a mortal who can feel secure that he can turn directly to God and receive an answer.” Reb Yechezkel of Shinuv asks, “Inasmuch as the Torah states that Moshe was the most humble person on earth (Numbers 12:3), is this not out of character for Moshe to feel that he has free access to speak with God at any time? How could someone so humble be so presumptuous?” Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski expounds on this: “When Moses saw how heartbroken these people were because they were unable to participate in the Divine service of the Pesach offering, he was certain that their sincere desire to serve God would merit a Divine response. Moses was not presumptuous. His statement, “Stand and I will hear what God will command for you” was based on his conviction of their merits, not his.”
And I will emanate of the spirit which is upon you, and will bestow it upon them (11:17) The Lubavitcher Rebbe brings forth the following commentary: “On the most basic level, this is the difference between physical and spiritual giving. In physical giving, the giver’s resources are depleted by his gift—he now has less money or energy than before. In spiritual giving, however, there is no loss. When a person teaches his fellow, his own knowledge is not diminished—if anything, it is enhanced. Upon deeper contemplation, however, it would seem that spiritual giving, too, carries a “price.” If the disciple is inferior to the teacher in knowledge and mental capability, the time and effort expended in teaching him is invariably at the expense of the teacher’s own intellectual development; also, the need for the teacher to “coarsen” and simplify his ideas to fit the disciple’s mind will ultimately detract from the depth and abstraction of his own thoughts. By the same token, dealing with people of lower moral and spiritual level than oneself cannot but affect one’s own spiritual state. The recipients of this “spiritual charity” will be elevated by it, but its giver will be diminished by the relationship, however subtly. Indeed, we find an example of such spiritual descent in Moses’ bestowal of the leadership upon Joshua. In contrast to the appointment of the seventy elders, where he was told to “emanate” his spirit to them, Moses is here commanded to “take Joshua the son of Nun, and lay your hand upon him . . . and give of your glory upon him” (Numbers 27:18–20). Here the Midrash comments, “Lay your hand upon him—like one who kindles a candle from a candle; Give of your glory—like one who pours from one vessel into another vessel.” In other words, there are two kinds of spiritual gifts: a gift that “costs” the giver nothing (“emanation,” which is like “kindling a candle from a candle”), and a gift that involves a removal of something from the giver in order that the recipient should receive something (“pouring from one vessel into another”). There are times when we indeed sacrifice something of ourselves for the benefit of a fellow. But there are also times when we commit ourselves to our fellow so absolutely—when the gift comes from a place so deep and so true within us—that we only grow from the experience, no matter how much we give of ourselves.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
From the age of twenty and upward, all who are fit to serve in the army of Israel, you shall count them (1:3)Moses’ census of the Jewish people, defined as a count of “all who are fit to serve in the army of Israel,” included only those who were “from the age of twenty and upwards.” What is the significance of this requirement?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains: “The fifth chapter of Ethics of the Fathers includes an outline of the phases of a person’s education and life: “At five years of age, the study of Scripture; at ten, the study of Mishnah; at thirteen, the obligation to observe the mitzvot; at fifteen, the study of Talmud; at eighteen, marriage; at twenty begins the pursuit [of a livelihood]; at thirty, one attains strength; at forty, understanding; at fifty, one can give counsel . . .” In other words, the first twenty years of a person’s life represent those periods and areas of his life in which he focuses almost exclusively on his individual growth: the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom, and his moral and spiritual development. “Twenty” represents the point at which he ventures out to the world and begins to concern himself with the material involvements of life.Therein lies the deeper significance of G‑d’s instruction to Moses that only “from the age of twenty and upwards” shall a person be counted as one “fit to serve in the army of Israel.”A period of intense self-development and spiritual self-enrichment is a necessary preparation to life, but it must not be seen as an end in itself. The purpose of the “pre-twenty” times and aspects of a person’s life is for the sake of the “pursuit” which must follow: that he or she go out into the world and apply his personal attainments to the development and sanctification of the material reality. One who does not graduate to the “post-twenty” phase of life cannot count himself as a member of the “army of Israel.”
The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division, by the ensigns of their fathers’ house (2:2. What is the meaning of “by the ensigns of their father’s house”?
The Midrash Rabbah comments: When G‑d told Moses to organize the Israelite camp, Moses began to feel distressed. He thought, “Now strife will arise among the tribes; for if I tell the tribe of Judah to camp on the east side of the Tabernacle, and he says, ‘I will accept only the south,’ and the same applies to Reuben and the same to Ephraim and to each of the other tribes, what am I to do?” Said G‑d to him: “Moses, why should that trouble you? They have no need of you. They know their places full well themselves. They are in possession of a testament left them by Jacob their father, which tells them how to camp under their standards. In the same way that they disposed themselves round his bier when they carried him, so shall they dispose themselves round the Tabernacle. I am not going to make any changes.” For Rav Chama, son of Rabbi Chanina, said: When our father Jacob was about to depart from the world, he summoned his sons and he blessed them and commanded them concerning the ways of G‑d, and they acknowledged the divine sovereignty. Having concluded his address, he said to them: “My children, when my bier is being carried, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun shall be on the east side; Reuben, Simeon and Gad shall be on the south side; Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin shall be on the west side; Dan, Asher and Naphtali shall be on the north side; Joseph shall not carry at all, for he is a king and must be shown due honor; neither shall Levi carry, because he will carry the Ark, and he that is to carry the Ark of Him who is the life of all worlds must not carry the coffin of the dead. If you will comply with these orders and carry my bier as I have commanded you, G‑d will in the future cause you to camp beneath standards.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
This week we conclude the book of Leviticus with the double portion of Behar and Bechukotai. Behar, meaning “on the mountain,” refers to Mount Sinai, the place where the Torah was given to Moses. In this parasha we learn about the laws of the Sabbatical (Shmita) and Jubilee (Yovel) years. According to the law of Shmita, every seventh year is to be a Shabbat of complete rest for the land. Although the people were allowed to gather and eat whatever the land produced on its own, they were forbidden to plow, plant, or harvest the land. God guaranteed that in the sixth year of the seven-year cycle the harvest would be so bountiful that the people would have enough to eat until the harvest of the eighth year. (During the first year of the new cycle, they would have planted but not yet been able to reap.) The Torah notes that the land is God’s; we are merely tenants on it, and the land has rights.
Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of Maryland relates some interesting ideas in this parshah:
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.
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 who 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.
Bechukotai specifies a number of blessings that will be bestowed upon the Israelites if they obey God’s laws. The Rabbis were puzzled, however, by the fact that the Torah does not mention the spiritual rewards of living a holy life. One explanation for this is that people cannot attain happiness and peace if they are sick or hungry or in the midst of war or other trying times. Therefore, the Torah speaks about material blessings not as the ultimate goal, but rather as a means of achieving these rewards of the spirit.
If you walk in My statutes (Leviticus 26:3) The word chok (“statute” or “decree”), which gives the Parshah of Bechukotai its name, literally means “engraved.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman Of Liadi comments: “The Torah comes in two forms: written and engraved. On the last day of his life, Moses inscribed the Torah on parchment scrolls. But this written Torah was preceded by an engraved Torah: the divine law was first given to us encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which were etched by the hand of G‑d in two tablets of stone. When something is written, the substance of the letters that express it—the ink—remains a separate entity from the substance upon which they have been set—the parchment. On the other hand, letters engraved in stone are forged in it: the words are stone and the stone is words. By the same token, there is an aspect of Torah that is “inked” on our soul: we understand it, our emotions are roused by it; it becomes our “lifestyle” or even our “personality”; but it remains something additional to ourselves. But there is a dimension of Torah that is chok, engraved in our being. There is a dimension of Torah which expresses a bond with G‑d that is of the very essence of the Jewish soul.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
This parasha details restrictions to which the priests were subject, and restrictions over which sacrifices could be brought. It then describes the commandments of Shabbat, the counting of the Omer, and all of the festivals of the year. The eternal flame and showbread of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) are described, and the parasha concludes with the laws of blasphemy.
Rabbi Steven Greenberg comments on the role of the priests and how the priestly duties have evolved in this day and age: “For Jews, the body is no mere container of the soul. We are, as is the Creator, invested in the creation. We have drunk in the words of Genesis, “and God saw all that God had made and behold it was very good” and remain intoxicated by the manifold power of the material world. According to the sages, man and woman provide the blood, bones and tissues and God contributes the spirit, the seeing of the eye, the hearing of the ear, consciousness and understanding. The whole of the body/soul is what we call, human. Creation is the ground of Jewish ethics and theology. From this creation-centered beginning, we have become not only a people of the book but a “people of the body”. We are asked to love life as much as does God. For such a people, the state of the body carries meaning. It matters not only what comes out of one’s mouth, but what goes in. Our bodies are meeting places between earth and heaven, literal Temples. As such, the body is a text of sorts. Its form, and consequently, its deformity as well, have meaning. This identification of body with meaning has a potentially threatening consequence. It shapes a particularly challenging picture of disability. This week’s Torah portion begins with list of the physical deformities and disabilities that would disqualify a priest from serving in the sanctuary. A priest with an extra or broken limb, a blind or lame, blind or deaf could not serve. Contact with death would temporarily disqualify a priest, but the loss of a finger would do so permanently. Scholars explain that the special tasks of the priest required perfection. The Temple and its sacrificial service was the conduit of connection between the upper and lower worlds. The priestly officiant needed to mediate between the perfect and eternal upper world and the broken and temporal lower world. To stand at that nexus was dangerous and so required a wholeness of both body and spirit.
After the destruction, the laws of the priesthood largely collapsed into irrelevance. However, there is one halakhic detail in which the bodily wholeness of the priest survives. In synagogues in Israel commonly and in the diaspora on holidays, kohanim bless the congregation. A person with blemished hands, and even blemished feet or facial appearance is disqualified. A priest whose hands have blemishes may not raise his hands [in the priestly blessing]. Even if his hands were discolored, as those engaged in work of dying textiles would have been, he may not bless the congregation. The mishna in tractate Megillah 4:7 explains the reason. People would gaze at him and one may not look at the priest in the midst of the blessing. Whether it was feared that such a gazing was dangerous (holiness can be lethal) or that the appearance of blemish could undermine trust in the blessing, the preoccupation is not primarily with the priest, but with the people who see him. The Tosefta expands the limitation beyond hands to the face and feet of the priest, the exposed areas of the body, but it also permits a priest who is well known to his community, whose blemishes had become familiar to them, to participate in the blessing. Once a community has become attuned to the blemished or disabled person, once the they are no longer troubled or frightened by a person’s difference, even the rarefied demand for priestly perfection disappears. The movement of any disability away from the fear and revulsion, the sense of loss and vulnerability it may generate is about just this, familiarity. Once we know the person, the gazing and gawking diminish and relationship grows. It is the work of all communities to make the different familiar in the service of compassion. Grounding ethics in the realness of the body is a challenging affair, in part because the body is not fair. Its abilities are not evenly distributed and its graces are randomly given to kind and cruel. It is the distinction of Jewish ethics to remain with the body in its varied and socially complex meanings and to push both toward compassion and toward wholeness.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
There is an interesting midrash concerning this week’s parsha. Moshe, in writing down the Torah at G-d’s dictation, noticed something strange. Nowhere in the Book of Leviticus in the description of priestly functions up to now is his brother Aharon referred to directly. Repeatedly the instructions referred to “the children of Aharon.” Why is this?
According to the midrash, Moshe pleads to G-d on behalf of his brother in the following way; “L-rd, is it possible that you hate the well, but love the water that flows from it?” [Meaning; “How can You hate Aharon by refusing to refer to him, but still love his sons?”] G-d, according to the midrash does not say: “you’re being hypersensitive. I’m not annoyed at Aharon!” In fact, He responds: “very well, because of your plea, I shall relent.” In the very next verse which begins the parsha it says: “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, command Aharon and his sons thus…” (Levit. 6:1). G-d’s annoyance is over!
This is a strange midrash! What is the reason for G-d’s annoyance? We know Aharon was a righteous person. If it was the Sin of the Golden Calf, we know that Aharon had already repented for that. Further, G-d Himself had subsequently appointed him High Priest. Why should He so that with one He was annoyed with?
Rabbi Dovid Green, paraphrasing Rabbi Yaakov Haber, explains: “There is repentance, and there is repentance. One may repent for a sin according to all the rules, and there could still be something missing. That is that the cause of the sin is still intact in his personality, and has not been changed. Maimonides explains that the final step in repentance is to effect a change in one’s self that would make him like another person, and not the one who had previously sinned. It means that he has refined himself to such an extent that such behavior is beyond him now. Perhaps Moshe understood G-d’s displeasure with Aharon in the following way. Aharon had indeed gone through all the technicalities of repentance for the Sin of the Golden Calf, and was therefore qualified to be High Priest. Perhaps Aharon had not yet completed this final step, and that was responsible for G-d’s continued ire. How do Aharon’s sons compared to the water from the well come into this? Maimonides makes a fascinating comment regarding child-rearing. He says that a child is much more perceptive than we would give him credit for. A child can intuitively understand what his parent’s want from him. Even if the parent should say “I want such and such from you,” a child will realize if this is not in accordance with the parent’s deepest wishes, and act according to his intuitions. Moshe was saying, in effect: “see how wonderful Aharon’s sons are! It must be due to their carrying out the desires of Aharon’s deepest nature. That proves that Aharon has carried out the final step of repentance. Even though G-d knew of Aharon’s worthiness, He was not willing to consent to fully accept Aharon. There was still one detail left; Moshe’s prayer on Aharon’s behalf. Prayer is the bottom line for any endeavor to succeed. Even after everything had been accomplished humanly, there was still the need to pray to G-d on Aharon’s behalf. Moshe’s unselfish behavior is an example for us all. He was more concerned for his brother Aharon than even the status he himself was standing to lose. Let’s take his example to heart, and may we merit the blessing of “one who prays on another’s behalf, and he needs the same thing, is answered first.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim