Parshat Matot Maasei 5778

Parshat Matot Maasei 5778

In commemoration of the 8th yahrzeit of our father and zaidie,
Cecil A. Labow, Zisse Alexander ben Yisrael Meir Halevi, Z”L, on the 3rd of Av

In Matot, the first parshah which we read today, we find a very interesting command, given to Moses contained in the first verse of Chapter 31.

“Va-Yidabair Hashem el Moshe Laimor” Nikom Nikmaat B’nai Yisrael Mayet Hamidyaneem Achar Taiasaif el Amecha”

“Take revenge for the Children of Israel from the Midianites, afterward you will be brought unto your people”

Yalkut Shimoni states that the word “Vayidabair” always refers to “tough talk”. Moses began by trying to appeal to
Hashem concerning his imminent death, but Hashem refused to be appeased. Moses said to Hashem “why should I die, having witnessed so many miracles, G-ds Greatness, Power, and Attributes of Mercy”. Hashem heard Moses, and was willing to meet him half-way saying “If you want to live on for a number of years, the Israelites will not live to see the
defeat of their enemies during those years, neither will Midian be conquered by them. After Moses had allowed G-d to convince him that it was better he should die now, Hashem in turn, found it difficult to issue orders, the fulfilment of which would cause the death of Moses.

We are also told by Yalkut Shimoni that another reason G-d had to use the harsh word “Vayidabair” instead of “VaYomer” was to tell Moshe to act with authority when recruiting soldiers for the campaign. The commandment to
punish the Midianites was to be treated with the same degree of seriousness as any of the 613 commandments which were given to the people for all times.

The word “Laimor” as usual, means to tell, referring to the Israelites. The Or Hachayeem, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, “
questions, why, if the purpose of the word “Laimor” was for Moses to tell these instructions to the people, did the Torah not write the plural form, “Neekmoo Nikmatchem”, instead of “Nikom Nikmaat”? After all, would Moses not be right in assuming the task was given to him personally by Hashem, and exclusively for him?

The Alshech had an answer. He explains in his book Torat Moshe the strange use of the the two words “Nikom Nikmaat”, which is too simply translated as “take vengeance”. We learned that two types of sin took place at Sheeteem. The Moabites had seduced the common people, and the daughters of Midian had seduced Israel’s crème de la crème, by inducing them to worship Baal Peor in a manner which had made these “Elite Israelites” think they were actually

displaying disgust for that deity.

He says that there are two ways of killing people. One is to induce them to commit a moral sin, which will result in the sinners physical as well as spiritual death. The other is simply killing a person, when the Soul of such person remains unimpaired, capable of returning to its divine origin in a state of purity. Since Edom and Egypt had never aimed at more than the physical body of the Jewish Nation, as we ready everyday in “Shirat Hayam” , when the Egyptians say “Areek Charbi Toreshaimo Yadi”, I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them”, or in Bamidbar-Chukat Chapter 20, verse 18, when Edom says “Pen Bacherev eitzei Likratecha..”lest I go forth against you with the sword”. Hashem has
commanded us NOT to hate those nations. On the other hand, the men of nations which had striven to make Israel sin, such as Moab and Ammon were not to be accepted into the Jewish community. In the case of the Midianites, there was an express commandment to kill them. The Midianites knew Hashem did not tolerate harlotry and incest, and they were aware that HE hated idolatry. They tried to entice the Elite of the people of Israel into these two basic transgressions, hoping that the masses would follow their example.

Anyone fighting Midian could consider himself fighting a “milchemet mitzvah”, a “holy war”. When the Torah wrote
tzaror, Ki Tzoririm” it means that they caused a dual harassment, both physical and spiritual.

The Alshech also says that the reason why the campaign had to be conducted BEFORE the death of Moses’ was to prevent the Midianites from ever claiming that if Moses had still been alive, he would never had consented to such cruel treatment of the people amongst whom he had once found refuge, and one of whose daughters he had married.

 

Prepared by Devorah Batsheva Abenhaim and Martin S. Labow

 

Parshat Pinchas 5778

Parshat Pinchas 5778

This week’s parsha (Numbers, ch. 25) describes an extremely unusual incident that seems to contradict much of Jewish ideals. Up until now, the Torah has praised love of fellow man, righteousness, resolving disputes, etc. Yet here is an episode where Pinchas, a minor player in the hierarchy of the Israelites, seemingly takes the law in his own hands, kills one of the leaders in an act of zealousy – and instead of being rebuked, he is elevated in stature by God. Not only that, but he is given the “blessing of shalom,” peace. What’s peaceful about what he did? The “slayee” had done some pretty bad things, and flaunted it in public. But does that really justify Pinchas’ actions? This seems to violate the standard Torah law that if a person deserves the death penalty, they need a court case, witnesses, etc. and then a punishment is meted out with the court’s supervision. Nowhere do we see the idea of vigilantism or personal justice like this.

Rabbi Max Weiman comments: ‘The story of Pinchas teaches us something about the Jewish idea of destiny. Every human being is designed by God with character traits, talents and surroundings that help mold the person. Although “it’s a free country,” we really should examine ourselves carefully to see if the Almighty had anything particular in mind when He created us. What pursuits do I enjoy? What am I talented at? Many people feel that the Almighty set them up in a position to fulfill a role or a profession. Nothing is by accident. As it says in the Talmud, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Avot 2:6). This means that if you’re in a situation where something needs to be done, and no one seems to be doing it, push yourself to do it.

Now certainly that doesn’t mean we should always wait around and leave what needs to be done to others, and only if no one’s taking care of it do we jump in. It’s possible to suggest that what the sages mean is that if you’re in such a situation, it’s not an accident. You might just be fulfilling the unique role that you were given the tools for. For Pinchas, it was the right time, and the right pace, and he stepped forward to meet the need of the moment.’

“Moses placed his hands on Joshua” (Numbers, 27:22). One of the signs of a great leader is the ability to do what is best for his people, not what is best for himself or his family. Rashi explains that as Moses approached the end of his life, he hoped that one of his sons would succeed him as the leader of the Jewish nation. Rabbi Ron Jawary explains that God, however, had different plans and told him that Joshua would be the next leader. Interestingly, Moses immediately accepted the decision and, rather than appointing Joshua with inner resentment and ill will, he showered Joshua with blessings, going far beyond what God had asked him to do. True leadership involves the recognition that it is less important who does the job than getting the job done properly.

The daughters of Tzelafchad approached . . . (27:1)In that generation, the women repaired what the men broke down. Midrash Rabbah explains: ‘You find that Aaron told them: “Break off the golden rings which are in the ears of your wives” (to make the golden calf—Exodus 32:2), but the women refused and held back their husbands, as is proved by the fact that it says (ibid. v. 3) “All the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears,” the women not participating with them in making the calf. It was the same in the case of the spies, who uttered an evil report: “The men… when they returned, made all the congregation to murmur against Him” (Numbers 14:36), and against this congregation the decree [not to enter the Land] was issued, because they had said: “We are not able to go up” (ibid. v. 31). The women, however, were not with them in their counsel, as may be inferred from the fact that it is written in an earlier passage of our Parshah, “For G‑d had said of them: They shall surely die in the desert. There was left not a man of them, save Caleb the son of Yefuneh . . .” (ibid. v. 65). The men had been unwilling to enter the Land; the women petitioned to receive an inheritance in the Land.’

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Balak 5778

Parshat Balak 5778

 

Why is this Parsha named after Balak, a man who set out to destroy the Israelites? If anything, the Parsha might have at least borne the name of Bilam, who at least communicated with Hashem and who blessed the Jews. Chazal teach that for all of Balak’s wickedness, he possessed at least one good attribute — honesty. Rabbi Mordechai Katz explains: Balak made no attempt to conceal his hatred of the Israelites. At least everyone knew where he stood. Bilam, however, did not possess even this attribute. He pretended to be a holy man and to aspire to fulfill only Hashem’s desires. Yet, his actions proved how hypocritical he was. When Balak’s messengers came and offered him wealth and honors in exchange for his curing the Israelites, he didn’t flatly refuse them. Rather, he told them to lodge with him overnight to await Hashem’s verdict, hoping that Hashem would give him permission to comply. The permission was denied, but when the messengers returned with offers of even greater wealth and honors, Bilam again welcomed them into his house. He hadn’t learned his lesson and remained hopeful that he might be allowed to fulfill their wishes. How could he turn down all those riches, even if it required cursing Hashem’s chosen people? And when Hashem did grant him permission this time, he left to fulfill his mission with astonishing swiftness. Nothing could stop him now. His mask of holiness and his greed came through. Unfortunately, there are many who have adopted Bilam’s tactics of pretending to have high moral values and then throwing them aside at the first chance to earn money. They mobilize all of their efforts in an attempt to become wealthy and forget that wealth is a means with which to benefit mankind.

“How goodly are your tents, Oh Yaakov; your dwelling places, Oh Israel.” This blessing (the Mah Tovu prayer) came from Bilam’s lips when he saw the Israelites’ camp. This same blessing is recited daily by Jews throughout the world. Its great importance lies in the fact that it offers appreciation for the foundation of Judaism — the Jewish family. The interaction between family members provides the structure on which Judaism needs to thrive. It is the Jewish family that provides one with love and a sense of worth, and that passes down Hashem’s traditions from generation-to-generation. It is the Jewish family that makes the individual feel part of a group and part of the Jewish nation. The Jewish people are, in reality, one big family and we should emphasize our similarities. This cohesiveness has enabled the Jewish people to survive throughout the hardest of times. It has been the Jewish family that inspired this cohesiveness and tradition.

Why did the Sages choose these words to open up the daily prayers? Rabbi Moshe Kamenetsky comments: Our Sages wanted to teach us a lesson — first thing in the morning, every day. How? Bilam, accompanied by Balak, set out to find a good vantage point from which to curse the Jews. As they traveled, they thought about the supposedly horrible character of the Jews. The two aroused their evil spirits for the worst curse of all time. But, when they looked what the two saw startled them. The tents of Israel were positioned so as to conform to the highest standard of morality: not one tent opening faced another. Those tents epitomized modesty. Bilam, a very spiritual person, was dumbfounded, and his curse would not work. The sight of these tents (and, of course, Hashem’s intervention, left him not a detractor but a advocate for Israel). Every day as we enter shul, or when children pray in school, we say the words of the “Ma Tovu” and remind ourselves that all eyes are upon eyes — what we say, what we do are observed. We are not only on this earth to see — we are also hear to be seen. Our daily actions can transform the curses of our detractors into blessings.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Korach 5778

Parshat Korach 5778

The centerpiece of this week’s portion, Korach, is Korach’s challenge of Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Dathan, Abiram, and two hundred and fifty elders join Korach in the revolt, claiming that they have an equal right to lead. Moses responds by telling Korach and the others to bring their fire pans the next day and lay incense on them: God will decide who should lead. To this point, the only characters mentioned are Moses, Aaron, Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and the elders. The people are not involved. But when the hour of the test arrives, Korach “kicks it up a notch” by gathering the people to observe the event. He turns his attempted revolt into an attempted revolution. The text makes if clear that the congregation plays no part in what happens: They have been called by Korach to witness. Yet God speaks to Moses, saying: “Stand back from this community that I may annihilate them in an instant!” (Numbers 16:21) Whereupon Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and plead with God: “O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22) Apparently God listens and reconsiders. God’s response is: “Speak to the community and say, ‘Withdraw from the abodes of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram.'” (Numbers 16:24)

The question is, Why did God want to destroy the entire nation in the first place? What did they do? Some commentators are so puzzled by this episode that they say Moses misinterpreted God’s original command. By “community,” God meant just the rebels. Maybe Moses misunderstood by thinking that God meant the entire people. In his book Torah Concepts: The Source of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joe Radinsky points to the Malbim’s commentary as the best explanation. He posits that, in fact, God did originally intend to destroy the entire nation because they were guilty of a great sin: “They had committed the sin of fence-straddling, the sin of indifference.” It was for this that God wanted to destroy them-for not taking a stand against evil.

Rabbi Roy A. Walter of Houston, comments:  “The text doesn’t in any way suggest that the people supported Korach, but they didn’t oppose him, either: If Moses should win, they’d continue to work with him. If Korach should win, they’d work with him. They saw their community threatened, but they didn’t want to get involved. Moses didn’t understand this at first. He protested, “But God, they haven’t done anything!” To which God responded, “That’s exactly the point: They haven’t done anything. Let them stand back from Korach and Dathan and Abiram. If they want to be saved, let them dissociate themselves from the evil around them.” Is there a message more enduring than this one: Evil in a society or a nation endures when the people stand by and watch! By not condemning Korach and his followers, by their silence, the People of Israel condoned the former’s actions. No less today, when we stand by and allow evil to go unchallenged, we share responsibility with those who are perpetrating it. The only way to prevent ourselves and our world from falling prey to the evil that others propose to do is to stand up against them with our words and our deeds.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Shelach Lecha 5778

Parshat Shelach Lecha 5778

In Parshat Shlach, Moses sends 12 people to scout out the Land of Israel. They return with the conclusion that there’s no way to win a battle against the indigenous Canaanites.

Commentators point out that Moses sent the spies only to answer the question of how to conquer the land – not to decide “whether it’s possible.” What went wrong? Rabbi Shraga
Simmons says that to help us unravel this puzzle, we need to ask which of the following two statements is more accurate: “I can succeed.” Or: “I can’t succeed.” Simmons expands on this: ‘At first glance, the statement of “I can’t” sounds more accurate. Because “I” can’t do anything independently at all. It’s only because of God that I’m even able to wake up in the morning and tie my shoes! But on a deeper level, the statement of “I can” is more accurate. Because if we understand that everything is a gift from God, then we know there’s no limit to what we can achieve. The Almighty is all-powerful – Almighty! – and with the understanding that He’s behind us, there is no basis for “I can’t.” The Talmud says: “You are not required to finish the job; you’re just expected to do your best.” It’s that kind of effort that God wanted from the spies. The task seems impossible? You think you can’t do it? That’s because you’re thinking small, thinking finite, thinking on the basis of your own independent power. Before Moses sent the 12 spies away, he added the Hebrew letter Yud to Joshua’s name. Yud is the first letter of God’s Name. This was meant to be a reminder to the spies – every time they’d mention Joshua’s name – that the Almighty is always with you.’

We find a curiosity in the Torah regarding Moses’ treatment of Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who passed the test and came with a good report. It seems that Moses prayed for the welfare of Joshua, but not for Caleb (Rashi commentary on Numbers 13:16). Why would Joshua need Moses’ prayer, but Caleb not? After all, Joshua was closer to Moses, as his prime student, so if anyone would need a prayer to help pass the test, it should be Caleb.

Rabbi Max Weiman explains: ‘It must be that it was a prayer for Joshua’s physical welfare, not his spiritual welfare. Joshua and Caleb had two different styles or personalities: Joshua went straight on; when there was something he believed in, he said it loud and clear. Caleb was more subtle. He could play along with the spies until he got back to camp where he was safe, and then dispute their mistaken assessment. Joshua, in being “up front” with his viewpoint, might have been killed by the other spies as a rebel. He needed prayer for his physical safety.

We all have a choice to make in different situations. At times, we need to be like Joshua, and at times we need to be like Caleb. At times we need to confront the opposition, and at times we need to go with the flow until we can safely oppose. Right is right, but there is a time and a place to express it.’

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Beha’alotecha 5778

Parshat Beha’alotecha 5778

An interesting theme runs through the end of last week’s parsha, Naso, and the beginning of this week’s, Beha’alotcha. At the end of Naso, the נשיאים –  the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, approach Moshe with an unasked-for gift – wagons, and oxen to pull them, for carrying the Tabernacle and its vessels. After Moshe is instructed by God to accept the gifts, and give them to the Levites, whose job it is to transport the Tabernacle, the heads of the tribes approach Moshe again, with another unasked-for contribution: a series of dedicatory sacrifices for the new Tabernacle, which are also accepted.

Rabbi Shimon Felix comments: ‘What happens next, at the beginning of Beha’alotcha, is interesting. Aharon, the high priest, is told by God how to light the Menorah in the Tabernacle. The Rabbis try to understand why this story follows the story of the tribal heads and their gifts, and come up with a fascinating scenario. When Aharon saw the voluntary gifts being brought by the leaders, he lamented his religious status, feeling that his ritual activity is inferior to their contributions. Now, this is a bit strange coming from the high priest, who has lots of important ritual to do every day, all year long, in the Tabernacle. Nachmanides clarifies his jealousy by explaining that what upset Aharon is the voluntary nature of the act of the leaders. They brought offerings which were not asked for, while Aharon is called upon to simply follow instructions; there is no creativity, no personal statement, no innovation, in what he does as high priest. That is why he’s jealous.

According to Nachmanides, God reassures him with the ritual of lighting the Menorah because that hints at the volunteerism of Aharon’s descendants, the Macabbees, who, centuries later, will step up to fight the Greeks and reclaim and rededicate the Temple, miraculously rekindling the Menorah in the process. That act of volunteerism, of stepping up and doing something that is not specifically demanded of them, is at least as good as, if not better than, the innovative and unasked-for gifts of the tribal leaders. What is fascinating in all this is the stress on finding one’s own unique, personal contribution to religious life. The heads of the tribes wanted to stand out, and contribute something to the Tabernacle which had not been given by anyone else; that was the impetus behind their innovative gifts. Aharon was jealous of that dynamic, and dissatisfied with the obedient, rote, by-the-numbers nature of his religious activity. He is reassured by the promise of a voluntary, from-the-heart act to be done by his descendants in the future: the Hasmonean rebellion against the Greeks, their rededication of the Temple, and their lighting of the Menorah. Many years ago, one of my wonderful teachers, Rabbi Nosson Kaminetzky, pointed out that with this phrase we each ask for our own חלק –  our own, personal, unique, piece of the Torah, our own understanding, our own path, in our religious lives. This is what we are meant to strive for in our lives as Jews – to be alive to the possibilities and opportunities to carve out our own חלק –  our own share – of Jewish life, meaning, and ritual. Just as the tribal leaders and Aharon looked for, yearned for, ways to make a personal imprint on Jewish life, so, too, we are told to ask for our own, personal, piece of the Torah, something that comes from us, reflects who we are, and celebrates our understanding of God’s will in the world.’

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim