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)
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