Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
“Shamor v’zachor” opines the poet in the beautiful L’cha Dodi prayer: “Observe and remember.” These words come from the Ten Commandments, or more specifically, the commandment to make every seventh day a shabbat, a day of rest and refreshment for both body and soul.
In the book of Exodus, during the Revelation at Sinai, God commanded us: “lizkor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Ex. 20:8] Yet, when Moses recounts the Ten Commandments in this week’s parasha, he s ays: “shamor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Deut. 5:12]
Why would God say “remember” and then forty years later Moses “observe?” Did Moses misremember? Possibly, but unlikely. Whenever anything is repeated in Torah, and there is a change in the text, that is a ‘red flag’ for us to pay close attention. When the Israelites first heard the commandments, the very idea of Shabbat was new and radical to them because the only way of life they had known previously was as Egyptian slaves. They had no experience or even knowledge of Shabbat, and needed to be reminded every week. Forty years later, presumably, Shabbat was no longer a new idea – so Moses urged the Israelites to keep it going.
So far, so good.
Then, in the 16th Century, kabbalist Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote the L’cha Dodi prayer. He changed the order to “observe and remember,” choosing to quote Moses first and then God. To be fair, he wanted to create a poetic acrostic of his name using the first letters each of the first eight verses. “Shamor” starts with the same letter shin as his name “Shlomo.” If he followed the order of the Torah, the acrostic would fail in the very first verse!
I think there is more.
It made sense for the ancient Israelites first to remember, and then to observe. For today’s Diaspora Jews it is different. The secular flow of time does not follow the Hebrew calendar. Saturday is not a day of rest (except in Israel). We are pulled in so many different directions, that it is easy, outside of an orthodox community, to just go with the flow. Far too many of us no longer mark Shabbat regularly, if at all. As a result, we have forgotten what once we knew.
Shabbat is a radical, revolutionary practice. It was radical when God first introduced it to Israel, and it still is today. Until the advent of Shabbat, the world claimed us seven days a week. Shabbat teaches us that while the world does have a claim on us for six days, on the seventh day we can be free. It reminds us that while we need to work, both for the world and for ourselves, even God needed a day of rest. Shabbat undermines the status quo that never lets up, it lifts us above the fray so that we can reconnect with what matters most: each other, ourselves and our Creator. It is not a day for sleeping, but for cultivating the spirit, deepening our wisdom, and strengthening our relationships.
Today, far too many of us have lost the experience of Shabbat, and this is a multigenerational loss. The command to “remember” is meaningless, because we have no memories now to draw on even as the concept of shabbat is not new. A reminder will not work, we are already too busy. We need to “do” Shabbat first, even if it is only for a taste, so that we can experience what Shabbat can truly be for us. Then we can understand and remember and truly celebrate this precious and holy gift.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
We live in a complicated world, where senseless hate and violence are becoming ‘normalized’ and fear of ‘others’ is reaching new heights. This weekend, in Torah and Jewish observance, our tradition compels us to confront hate and fear though our weekly Torah portion, a special Shabbat called Shabbat Hazon, and Tisha B’Av.
Shabbat Hazon (the Sabbath of Vision) is named for its haftarah, in which Isaiah envisions the coming destruction of the First Temple. In our Torah portion, Devarim, Moses recounts how 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Promised land, returned with an evil report rooted in fear of the ‘other.’ According to Midrash, God responded to the weeping of the Israelites by saying: “You want to weep? I’ll give you a reason to weep today.” The rabbis teach that this happened on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the most grief-ridden day in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av was the day of multiple calamities throughout our history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. On Tisha B’Av we mourn our losses, and struggle to learn from them. For example, the rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam (unjustified hatred). Our hatred for each other caused such divisions that our community became an easy target for the Romans to conquer.
Today we seem as divided as ever by our fears and our hatreds, and the violence which can result. El Paso, Dayton, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and more. Some say that the cause is mental illness. However, the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing. Some say the cause is guns. However, the vast majority of legal gun owners do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing.
It is true that both mental illness and the easy availability of military-style rifles are a common thread for most of the people who have committed these heinous crimes – and we need to address them both. However, neither of these approaches, by themselves, will solve the problem. As Rabbi Michael Gold teaches, we must look at the underlying hatreds and fears that lead to this horribly repeated cycle of violence.
Hatred and fear go hand in hand. They drive the agendas of White supremacist groups who have a long list of enemies from immigrants to Jews. They eat away at those who feel victimized or bullied by the people around them (such as the Parkland shooter). Hatred and fear are the primary motivators behind both Islamist extremism and domestic terrorism. Yet it does not stop there. We live in a society rife with racism, homophobia and many other hatreds and fears of ‘other.’ Indeed, Rabbi Gold notes its existence “on college campuses among those who start out hating Israel and end up hating Jews.”
At least in theory (if our politics allowed it) we could shut down neo-Nazi groups, get better background checks on guns, reinstate the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and improve public mental health treatment. However, we all know that would require congress to somehow function across party lines.
What, then, can we do to stop all this hatred and fear? Begin with ourselves. We can fight the hatred and fear in our own hearts. How many of us fear or hate others within our own community? Be honest with yourself. What do you think of the ‘other?’ What do you think of people who have different colored skin, or speak other languages, or have different beliefs than you? What do you think of people who are either poorer or wealthier than you? What do you think of people who have a different sexuality than you, or who do not fit into either male or female genders? Here’s a really tough one, even if you think you are doing well so far. Regardless of whether you are a conservative or a liberal, what is your general feeling about the ‘other’ party? How strong is your disdain, distrust, fear, anger and/or hatred for them?
In Devarim, this week’s Torah reading, Moses begins a series of speeches all designed to help us to survive as one people in the Promised Land. During Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av, we can mourn not only the violent tragedies which our people suffered in history, but we can also mourn the violent tragedies of this past week in El Paso and Dayton. And we can use these days to examine our own hearts as we determine to fight hatred and fear wherever they dwell.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: the narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here with Israel encamped on the edge of the Jordan River.
It turns out that the book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah have concluded if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, did not deny the request but instead asked God, who granted permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to Moses’ ruling. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her inheritance.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefered the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land and asked to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses was concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if these tribes stayed behind and allowed them to settle on the east bank only if they fully committed to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They could leave their children and cattle behind, but the men would only be able to return once all the Promised Land was under Israelite control.
In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes precedence. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land.
If Torah really ended with the book of Numbers, then the final lesson would be clear: to inherit and thrive in the Land of Promise we must balance the wants of the individual with the needs and health of the collective.
“These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week, instead of offering my own commentary, I’d like to share a sermon by Rabbi Jack Riemer. I have never met Rabbi Riemer, who is a retired conservative rabbi in Florida, but have long admired his homiletical genius from afar. When I read this week’s sermon I was so taken that I just had to share it. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I did!
What Are You Looking For In A Shidduch? – by Rabbi Jack Riemer
There is a profession that was once very respected among Jews. And then, for some reason – I am not sure why – this profession virtually disappeared. And now, for some reason, and again I am not sure why – this profession has made a comeback in recent years.
Do any of you know what this profession that I have in mind is? It is the profession of the shadchan…the matchmaker.
You can hardly turn on the television nowadays without seeing an ad for this profession. There is one I see all the time in which a good-looking man in his fifties, dressed in a long sleeved white shirt, with no tie, is coming out of a fire station. And his fellow firemen ask him to come along and have a drink with them, and he says politely: no. And then he turns to the camera, and says, “My life is in order. My job is in order. There is just one aspect that I need to attend to.” And in the next scene, we see him meeting a lady who is about his age. They kiss each other politely on the cheek, and then we see him take her hand, and lead her into a restaurant. Have you seen that commercial?
Or there is another ad that I see all the time on television in which a woman says to the camera, “I have a good business, I have a good life…now all I need is a relationship with a man.” And in the next scene, we see her filling out a questionnaire. Have you seen that ad?
Or there is the one in which a nice, gentle, fatherly looking man is talking to a young lady on the street. He asks her how many dates have you had in the last six months? And she says, “Not very many”. And then he asks her, “Were any of them any good?” And she says, “No. They were awful!” And then he says, “Why don’t you sign up for our service? If you do, I promise you that you will find at least a couple of men that you will find that you have a lot in common with.
As you can see from these ads, the shadchan has come back in recent years…and there are now a lot of agencies who are involved in this new profession. Do you know how they work?
They have – or they claim to have – hundreds, maybe even thousands of names on their computers, together with their pictures, and a report of what they do for a living, what they are like, and what their interests are. And if you sign up, they will give you the password that enables you to look at these files.
Now at this point, you may be wondering: why is this weird rabbi that we have talking about matchmaking here in shule on Shabbat? And what on earth does this topic have to do with Parshat Pinchas, which is the sedra of the week?
The answer to these questions is that I happened to read an essay by somebody named Yonatan Bredni. I have no idea who Yonatan Bredni is, but he wrote something about his experiences as a single recently that caught my attention. And I want to share what he wrote with you today, because I think it raises a question that the singles in this room should think about. The question is: what are the characteristics that you should look for in choosing a mate?
Yonatan Bredni begins his essay by saying that every so often someone tries to fix him up. And when they do, they always begin by asking him the same question. They say to him: “Before we try to fix you up with someone, will you please tell us what you are looking for in a girl.”
It is a fair question. ¬He says that he has been asked that question so many times by now that he has his answer all ready. He says that whenever he is asked this question, he rattles off his list of the four main characteristics that he is looking for in a girl: He says that she should be nice, she should be someone with good character traits, she should be someone with a good sense of humor, and she should be someone who is good looking. He says that he has learned that you have to put ‘good looking’ fourth on your list, because if you put it first, they will think that you are shallow and superficial, and if they think that, then they won’t work very hard at finding you a mate.
So Mr. Bredni only lists these four requirements, and then he gives them his ‘not too’ list as a follow-up. Do you know what a ‘not too’ list is? She should be not too tall and not too short; she should be not too thin and not too fat; she should be not too religious and not too secular; she should not be too intellectual and not too un-intellectual, she should not be too aggressive and she should be not too passive, etc.
Then he says, I sit back, content that I have put all my requirements out there. But then the shadchan or the shadchante usually says: “That’s very good, but will you please tell me what else you are looking for in a date – beside these obvious things that everyone lists?”
There is a good reason, he says, why they always ask that question: What else? The reason is that everyone else that the matchmaker talks to has the very same list. They all ask for a girl who is nice, who has good character, who has a sense of humor, and who is nice looking. They have never, ever, heard a guy say that he is looking someone who is not nice, who has no good character traits, who does not have a sense of humor, and who is not good looking. Never. And so, if your list is exactly the same as every other guy’s list, that does not help the matchmaker very much in his or her efforts to find the right girl for you. Does it?
Yonatan Bredni says that when the matchmaker asked him: “What else?” they were assuming the standard stuff on his list. They were assuming that they were the same as the things that were on every other guy’s list. And they were insisting that he tell them what he really wanted in a match, and not just rattle off what everyone else says that they want in a match.
Yonatan Bredni says that he never quite knew how to answer this question: ‘What else?’. He really couldn’t come up with any more characteristics on his own, but then he read this week’s sedra, and it gave him an idea.
The sedra tells the story of the daughters of Tselofchad: Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. When the Israelites stood on the edge of the Promised Land, and Moses was about to divide the land among the tribes, these five young women came forward and made a request to him, in the presence of the High Priest, and in the presence of the heads of the tribes. They said, “Our father left no sons, only daughters. And so, we would like permission to inherit land in the Land of Israel, so that his share of the land is not lost.” Moses took their case to God, and God found in favor of their request.
So Yonatan Bredni says that when he first read this story, he was tempted to put on his list for characteristics of the girl he was looking for: “Someone who is open to the possibility of aliyah, and someone whose father has left her an apartment in Jerusalem.” But then, when he thought it over, he realized that these five young women had other qualities as well, and that these were qualities that were worth putting on his ‘what else?’ list.
First, they had manners. Look how politely they speak. They don’t picket. They don’t protest. They don’t threaten. They don’t yell. They simply make their case – firmly – but politely. And that is an important quality to look for in a mate, is it not? You don’t want someone who is pugnacious, and who will make every disagreement she has with you into a showdown, do you?
Second: they had Jewish commitments. The men panicked every time there was trouble, and said: “Come, let us turn around and go back to Egypt”. These women said the opposite: “We want to go into the land of Israel, and we want to have a share in the land.” In other words, we believe that we are going to get there, and we believe in the vision that this land is our land. Commitment to the Jewish way of life, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to be part of the Jewish vision – that is a good quality to have in a prospective bride, is it not?
Third, they were not competitive. Did you notice that in one part of the story they are mentioned in one order, and further on, in another part of the story, they are mentioned in a different order? From this, the Sages learn that they were partners and not rivals in making their case. And wouldn’t you want to have a wife who is not envious or competitive, but who is able to get along with her family and with yours?
And above all, they had courage. Can you imagine the bravery it must have taken for these five young women to stand up before Moses, and before the Kohen Gadol, and before the heads of the tribes and make their case? Courage is a good quality to look for in a bride, because the journey of life is filled with dangers, and it helps to have a brave woman at your side. Does it not?
So, if you are putting an ad on line, or in the Personals Section of the newspaper, in which you have to describe the kind of girl you are looking for, and if you have to pay by the word, and it is expensive to list too many characteristics that you are looking for, may I suggest that you could save some money, and you could describe precisely the kind of woman that you are looking for with just this simple ad. If you are looking for a date, this is what I suggest you should write:
‘Young, single, handsome Jewish man, who is nice, learned, and successful, who has a sense of humor, and who is modest, kind, and generous, is looking for a Daughter of Tselofchad type of girl. If interested, you can reach me at…”and then I would leave my phone number or my e-mail address.
But of course, I am not single. I am very happily married. And so, I would not think of putting in such an ad.
In fact, if I may say this without embarrassing her, my wife is a bat Tselofchad. She has all the qualities, and all the characteristics that these five daughters had. She has wisdom. If she had to make her case before a court, she would arrange her arguments carefully and persuasively, because she is very smart. She is much, much smarter than I am.
Second, she has Jewish commitments. She comes to shule almost every Shabbat, and she expresses her love and her loyalty to the Jewish way of life in many other ways, which I am sure you are aware of.
Third, she is not an envious person, not at all. Those of you who know her know that she is generous and helpful to others when they are in trouble, and that she is honestly pleased for others when they are happy.
And most of all, she has courage. Can I tell you how much courage she has? She recently took my favorite jacket, the one that I have worn ever since I was a teenager, the jacket that I am emotionally attached to, and just because it is completely worn out, and just because it no longer fits, and just because it is frayed and torn in several places….and do you know what she did with it? She threw it out! Without even asking me, she threw it out!
That’s courage! She threw the jacket that I love so much out, without even asking my permission, without even telling me that she was going to do it! She threw it out without even hesitating to think about whether doing that might endanger our marriage, without thinking about whether it would lead to my divorcing her or not. That’s courage!
And therefore, hurt as I am by the loss of my jacket, alav hashalom, wounded and grief stricken as I am by the loss of my jacket, zichrono livraha, I am impressed with her courage, and her concern for my appearance, and I feel that she is truly a disciple of the daughters of Tselofchad, and so I will not divorce her, but instead, I will consider myself fortunate to be married to her, and I will get over – eventually – what she did to my jacket, and I will love her just the same.
And I say to those of you who are here today who are single, that if the matchmaker asks you: ‘what kind of a woman are you looking for?’ tell her all your requirements as to looks and temperament and character if you wish, or else just say to her: “I want a girl who is like the daughters of Tselofchad”. And may God send you, as He did me, the answer to your dreams. And may my jacket rest in peace, wherever it is. Amen.
Numbers 22:2 – 25:
“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” [Num. 24:5]
With these words the pagan prophet Balaam blessed the people of Israel, despite his commission from King Balak to send a destructive curse instead. How do we make sense of these words, coming from a man who was no friend of the Israelites, and later plotted their destruction through other means? Why does God force Balaam to bless Israel instead of inviting Moses or Aaron to do so? Why is Balaam’s blessing enshrined in our prayer books and chanted each morning as we gather to pray, to frame our experience of worship?
One possibility, developed by the medieval rabbinic commentators, speaks to the idea that our greatness comes because we are different from all other peoples, and we must be diligent to maintain our distinctiveness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, offers a different interpretation – turning instead to the words of another anti-Semite (at least according to the poet W.H. Auden), G.K. Chesterton, who famously described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” and “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Rabbi Saks continues:
“That is, in fact, precisely what made Israel different – and America’s political culture, as historian Perry Miller and sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out, is deeply rooted in the idea of biblical Israel and the concept of covenant. Ancient Israel was indeed founded on a creed, and was, as a result, a nation with the soul of a religion.”
Most every other nation formed out of practical circumstances – functions of demographics, geography, economics and similar concerns. Israel, however, received the Torah (our effective constitution) in the wilderness of Sinai, forty years before establishing ourselves in the Promised Land. We are a covenant people, governed by ideals and values, faith and hope – and regardless of our demographic conditions have born witness to this, our way of life, for thousands of years.
Rabbi Saks notes that Balaam was right in describing Israelite exceptionalism and notes the irony of Chesterton’s similar description of American exceptionalism. I agree and would also suggest that this exceptionalism is but a step along the way. The goal is that all nations, regardless of how they originated, be governed by principles and ideals of freedom and justice like those which permeate both Torah and the American Constitution. Of course, for that to happen, we must all be diligent – just as the medieval rabbis warned – lest we lose what we have so generously been given.
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
If the first part of the book of Numbers is about making plans to keep things in order, this middle part is about how life gets messy. Last week the Israelites were condemned to 40 years of wandering the in wilderness because they let their fears trump their faith, panicking after the report of the 12 spies. Then, in direct violation of God’s command, they attacked the Canaanites they previously thought of as “giants” and suffered a devastating defeat.
This week a challenger to Moses’ leadership arises. Korach, a member of Moses’ own tribe, attempts to set himself up as the next leader with a two part “stump speech.” First, he describes all of Israel as holy, and suggests that they deserve better than Moses. Second, he accuses Moses of nepotism, imposing his and Aaron’s leadership upon the people (conveniently ignoring God’s role in all of this) and suggests that the people should choose their own leader – one who would be better than Moses (meaning Korach).
Let’s review some facts about what has already happened up to this point. First, before God chose Moses, the Israelites suffered generations of slavery in Egypt. Second, Moses was the reluctant leader of the Israelites, chosen against his wishes by God at the Burning Bush. Third, God demonstrated Divine power and faith with Israel through the Plagues, parting the Reed Sea and the Revelation at Sinai. Fourth, the troubles the Israelites suffered in last week’s portion were a direct result of their own actions, not Moses.
Yet this week, Korach implies that everything is Moses’ fault. And the Israelites listen.
Even after God causes the ground to swallow Korach and his followers alive, the Israelites continue to murmur against Moses. Once again, God decides to the destroy the people, and once again Moses comes to their rescue.
Why does this pattern repeat itself? Why can’t the Israelites seem to grasp the reality of their circumstances?
Last week’s Torah portion explored how fear and other strong negative emotions can distort our perceptions and lead to poor decisions. This week we see how misleading language can be toxic. Korach plays on the fears of the people in his grab for power, but he does something else as well: he uses innuendo to suggest falsehood and spread rumors. The rabbis call this lashon hara, “the evil tongue,” and consider it the worst of all possible sins because of its insidious nature. They understood that even if people only believe half of what they hear, they still believe half of what they hear.
I once heard of a psychological study (I think it was done in the 60s or 70s) where a group of public elementary school teachers were told (at random) over the summer break which of their incoming students were good and which were trouble. To the horror of the researchers, the random prediction played out perfectly during the school year, as the teachers subconsciously treated each student according to what they had been told. The experiment was stopped, and the students reassigned, and the results were devastating.
Korach cynically used lashon hara and fear mongering to grab political power. While in other places in the Torah it is acceptable to challenge authority, even God’s authority, Korach is destroyed for his rebellion. The difference is simple and striking. When Abraham and Moses challenge God, they do so on behalf of others and for l’shem hashamayim (for the sake of heaven), not for their own personal gain. They are rewarded, Korach is punished. Torah could not be clearer: leadership is a form of service, not a tool for self-aggrandizement.
Yet, just one day after Korach was killed, the Israelites still repeated his lies and murmured against Moses. Korach’s lies not only brought ruin upon himself but were so insidious that they continued to infect Israel even after his death – obfuscating them from seeing the truth. As Rabbi Samuel ben Nachman put it: “Gossip kills three: the speaker, the spoken of, and the listener.” (BeMidbar Rabbah 19.2)
Some political leaders have followed Korach’s playbook for as long as there have been political leaders. Communities always suffer as a result.
Torah reminds us that the ‘end does not justify the means,’ but that the means determines the end. How we act determines who we become; how we govern ourselves determines who we become as a community.
We cannot leave this lesson unlearned: “When people do not appreciate a good leader, they get a wicked leader.” (Sefer Hasidim 13C, #225)
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
“100% of the shots I don’t take, don’t go in.” (Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky)
Twelve scouts were sent to spy out the Promised Land, each of them leaders of their tribes. After forty days they returned to the Israelite camp and reported:
“… We came to the land … And it flows with milk and honey … Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong and the cities are walled … We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we…” [Numbers 13:27, 28, 31]
The panic and chaos that quickly spread through the camp was thorough. Never mind that two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, believed that we were strong enough and urged us forward. Never mind that God had already demonstrated miraculous power in Egypt, at the Reed Sea and at Sinai, and had literally promised this land to us. At the end of the day, the Israelites did what so many of us do – ignored the good to focus on the bad (or in this case, their fear). The result was disastrous. God decided to destroy the Israelites and give Moses a new people to lead. Moses pleaded for a Divine pardon, and God eventually relented, but with the condition that we wander for forty years in the Wilderness to learn how to be a free people before entering the land. Everyone over the age of 20, except Joshua and Caleb, would die in the Wilderness. A new, untainted generation would inherit the land.
Why did the Israelites panic? And why was God so angry? Let’s go back to the scout’s report:
“We cannot go up against the people for they are stronger than we … And there did we see the Nephilim, sons of the giants … we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:31-3)
Giants and grasshoppers? These are exactly the problem.
When we see ourselves as “grasshoppers” it is only a matter of time before we believe that everyone else sees us as “grasshoppers” too – regardless of what they might actually think! The problem with this approach is that it has no basis in reality – it is entirely manufactured in our minds – yet it can lead us to make poor decisions in reality. In modern terms, this story is about the pitfalls and dangers of deep-seated low self-esteem.
When we believe we will fail, we probably will. The problem with “giants and grasshoppers” was that these images brought the Israelites to a place of complete inaction – they just gave up on the spot. This was the cause of God’s anger – their self-doubt was so profound that they could not see the real power they had, and they lost faith in God.
To be clear, the problem was not what the spies saw – it was how they (and the Israelites) perceived what they saw. Caleb and Joshua did not contradict the actual report. They did not say that the land was not hostile, or that the Canaanite cities were not well fortified and defended by fierce warriors. They acknowledged the challenge and the danger, but they also looked at the whole picture. Instead of seeing the Israelites as weak, they recognized that (with the help of God) we were strong. They believed in us, and in God. So, after their colleagues urged inaction, they said: “Aloh na’aleh – let us go up and take possession of it.”
As for the self-defeating belief that everyone around us saw themselves as giants and us as grasshoppers – that was categorically false. In this week’s haftarah portion, the Canaanite woman Rahab tells the next generation of Israelite spies:
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you ... As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you.” (Josh. 2:9-11)
The Israelites who fled Egypt were bred in captivity, and in a sense, they suffered collectively from what Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) calls “learned helplessness” – a recurring internal narrative that reinforces powerful self-doubt and feelings of helplessness. Learned helplessness plays a devastating role in anxiety and depression. CBT has shown tremendous success in treating these illnesses by helping patients to use their cognition to recognize that these thoughts are not based in reality. As a therapeutic process, it helps them to develop different, more affirming thought patterns supported by real-life experiences.
In Shelach Lecha, Torah anticipates this approach. Shelach Lecha warns us about the danger of these negative emotions. It inspires us to be like Caleb and Joshua – to use our cognition to overcome our negative emotions so that our emotions do not distort our perceptions. It teaches us to see the world as it is, rather than as what we fear it might be. And as Rabbi Jonathan Saks wrote, it reminds us to: “let faith banish fear.”
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Naso is a smorgasbord of seemingly (but not really) random topics leading up to the consecration of the Mishkan (the Sanctuary): a census of some of the Levitical clans, what to do with ritually unclean people, how to handle accusations of adultery (with the strange ritual of the sotah), the rules and restrictions of the Nazarite and the famous three-part priestly benediction.
This week let’s focus on the nazir – the one who takes the Nazarite vow and pursues holiness in the extreme. The Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, literally means, “set apart for God.” The nazir is someone who takes a vow to set themselves apart either for a specific period of time, or for their entire life. Once the vow has been taken, there are three restrictions: they may not cut their hair, drink wine or come into contact with the dead.
If the purpose of being a nazir is to remove all distractions so that the nazir can focus only on God and holiness, then there is a certain logic to these restrictions. Coming into contact with the dead naturally leads us to consider our own mortality. If we are thinking about ourselves, then we are not thinking about God. Similarly, grooming oneself could also be a distraction from God. Plus, the long hair of the nazir would make them easy to spot – alerting others to respect their special status. Finally, drinking wine does not exactly clear the mind. How can we be holy if we are drunk?
Being nazir may lead to an intensification of holiness, but it is an extreme act, and despite its clear depiction in Torah, is rarely if ever seen today. On the contrary, the rabbis ordained that holy days and life cycle celebrations be sanctified with the kiddush (literally “the holy prayer”) over wine.
How can this be? How can drinking wine lead to holiness when the Torah says abstaining from wine leads to holiness?
The rabbis devoted an entire tractate of the Talmud to this question and continued to argue it well into the medieval period. In the end, the consensus suggests that different people require different paths. As a general rule, the rabbis advocated the path of moderation. They understood how an extreme approach to piety could lead to religious extremism. However, they allowed that some people, perhaps because they were spiritually unstable (either on a temporary or permanent basis), needed the rigidity of the nazir’s vow as a spiritual counterbalance.
For the rest of us, the vast majority, they offer a different approach. Rabbi Eliezar HaKappar taught that asceticism is not a path to holiness, but rather is a sin, because wine is a pleasure which comes from God’s creation. He wrote: “from this we may infer that if one who denies himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so one who denies himself the enjoyment of other pleasures of life.”
Not that he was a Hedonist, far from it! The rabbis were, after all, passionate about moderation. Rather, Eliezar recognized that every pleasure of life is a gift from God. For us, pursuing a life of holiness does not require withdrawal from the world, but the opposite. Our task is to orient ourselves towards God through gratitude, recognizing the Divine in all the good which surrounds and permeates our lives. So, eat, drink and enjoy! And offer thanks to the One who so generously made every bit of it possible.
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Once, my clergy assistant of years gave me one of my favorite birthday gifts ever: a coffee mug proudly emblazoned with the seal of the “National Messy Desk Society.”
I love this mug, because it perfectly describes my self-created work environment. Generally speaking, I know where everything on my desk is, but periodically, the mess grows so much that I can no longer be confident that I am on top of everything. That’s when I clean my desk to restore some semblance of order, and neat piles appear for a brief period. The cycle repeats every few months, until after a few years, I need to really clean my desk to the point where the surface is completely cleared. Then, for one glorious day, a sense of perfect order is restored to my office.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar is all about restoring order from chaos. With the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we pick up our narrative right where it ended at the end of Exodus. Since we have spent so much time in Leviticus learning about priestly and holy ideas, we might need a little refresher on hamatzav – the situation:
The Israelites are still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have received the Ten Commandments, survived the Golden Calf, and built the mishkan – the Tent of Meeting where God can dwell in our midst. We have been out of Egypt just over a year when the Book of Numbers begins. That means that people of Israel, until now, have been a mob of disorganized refugees, exposed to attack from marauders like the Amalekites.
Bamidbar begins with a detailed census, tribe by tribe, of the Israelite men capable of serving in the military, and of the priests of age to serve in the mishkan. The tribes are also assigned specific places in the camp, with the mishkan placed in the center. This creates a protective barrier for the entire camp, and for the Israelites when they are on the move.
By definition, slaves have no control over their lives. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are finally beginning to establish order and control through the census and reorganization in Bamidbar. Never mind that Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness.” We need order most when the world around us seems “wild” or out of our control. So, with proper pomp and circumstance each tribe steps forward to announce the results of its census and to take its place among the free people of Israel. This is a great, even exhilarating moment. And it is absolutely necessary before we can begin the journey to the Promised Land.
Does this mean that the journey will be smooth?
No, not really.
Just as I create a mess on my desk every day, so too the ancient Israelites acted to bring less order and more messiness into their own lives once the journey began.
Not that we should be surprised
We plan, we organize, we create beautiful visions and strategies – and then, as we begin to act on our plans, life gets in the way. We deal. We adjust. We adapt. We reorganize and we try again.
Torah does not teach us that everything will be perfect, or even easy. However, in this week’s parasha, it teaches that we are part of something greater than ourselves – and if we read ahead, that despite the difficulties along the way, one day we will reach the land of Promise.
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Can a Torah commentary start with a Santa story? You decide.
Rabbi Paul Plotkin shares the following:
Jane and her older sister had been fighting a lot this year. Jane’s parents warned her that Santa Clause was watching, and Santa does not like it when children fight.
What does this have to do with the Torah? Everything! B’Chukkotai brings the book of Leviticus to an end. The opening (and shorter section) of the parasha consists of a series of blessings which will come if we follow God’s law. Then the tochecha (the admonition) takes over, detailing a much longer series of devastating curses which will result if do not follow the law. According to tradition, these curses are chanted rapidly and “under the breath” (in a soft, hard to hear tone) during a single long reading. We don’t like to listen to the curses, and in some synagogues, it is difficult to even find someone to read them. Yet, there is wisdom in their placement at the end of Leviticus, the book of Torah most concerned with holiness.
B’Chukkotai is not simply about divine reward and punishment, it is about human agency. Rabbi Plotkin shares the story of Jane because it exemplifies why we need this parasha: our actions have consequences, and we are responsible for the choices we make. Put differently, our choices and actions create consequences which we experience regardless of whether we take responsibility or not. So, if we want to have any sort of influence over what comes back our way, we need to take responsibility for choosing well. This is the beginning of Jewish mindfulness as a practice. The more attention we pay to how we make decisions and how we take action in our lives, the more agency we gain over what we do.
However, our responsibility extends far beyond ourselves. The point is not just to act for our reward and to avoid punishment; in the kind of just community Torah commands we also take responsibility for each other. If we see a wrong, we are required to right it. If we witness a crime, we cannot claim to be innocent bystanders. Either we act to stop or at least to report the crime, or we enable the crime to happen.
Whether we like it or not we are responsible – and that means we have the power to bring great pain or great blessing to the world.
As we conclude the book of Leviticus and contemplate how to bring more holiness into our lives, but one question remains: how shall we choose?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras