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Parsha Re’eh – 5777

Parshat Re’eh In-Depth

“See, I give you today a blessing and a curse (Deuteronomy 11:26)

Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands . . .

This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments. As it is written [Deuteronomy 30:15]: “See, I have set before you life [and good, and death and evil]” and “See, I set before you today [a blessing and a curse].” . . . For were G‑d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, or if there were to exist something in the very essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed . . . how could G‑d command us through the prophets, “Do this” and “do not do this” . . . ? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G‑d punish the wicked and reward the righteous? (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 5:1–3)”

Torah Sparks: Re’eh 5777

“Tsdaka is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community. Jews have long been noted as donors to charity far out of proportion to their share of the population.

It is unlikely that this is the natural human instinct – we hoard, we protect what we have. Sheli, sheli; shelcha shelcha – “what’s mine is mine; what’s yours is yours,” it says in Pirkei Avot (5:12) – that’s the approach of your average bloke. Giving, sharing with others, particularly those we don’t know, is a later evolutionary stage; it’s an acquired “taste,” not what we’d normally do. We have to condition ourselves, to teach it to our children, which is best done by example. I have a cousin who told me years ago, “I learned to give from my parents; they always gave.” Tsdaka reminds us the good fortune we have has come through Divine assistance and we should try to advance tsedek, justice, in the world by sharing.”

Tear Down Their Altars

“Parashat R’eih begins with a set of instructions to the Israelite people that will apply when they cross the Jordan River and enter the land of the Canaanites, promised to the Patriarchs for their descendants. Announced by Moses in advance, they were to go into effect only when the conquest was complete and the people were settled in their new home (Deuteronomy 11:31–32).

What is the first commandment that becomes operable after the crossing and the conquest? “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site” (12:2–3).”

Open Your Hand

“Sometimes the Torah reveals its deeper meanings to us through elaborate interpretation and subtle analysis. At other times, Torah speaks to us directly across the millennia, with little need for mediation. Our passage this week falls in this latter category – here is my lightly adapted translation:

“If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy fellow. Rather, open, yes, open your hand, and lend, yes, lend sufficiently to meet their need. Watch yourself, lest you harbor the base thought, “I will never see this loan repaid.” Give, give readily, and have no regrets when you do so. And as a result, YHVH will bless you in all of your efforts and all of your undertakings. For there will always be needy among you, and therefore I command you: open, open your hand to the poor and to the needy in your land. (Deut. 15:7-11)”

Haftarah Re’eh

“What is the role of the prophet? Is a prophet a soothsayer, a future teller or is a prophet someone who says what needs to be said when it needs to be said? This question can perhaps be answered by understanding a little of the history of this week’s haftarah. Modern biblical scholars speculate that the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah (40-66) are the product of a later prophet who prophesied during the period of Shivat Zion – the period of time when the exiled people of Judea returned from Babylonia. This means that the prophecies offered in this section of the book, instead of being messages offered to a people confronted by the onslaught of the Assyrians, like in the first part of the book, were meant to contend with the uncertainties of a people returning from Babylonian exile.”

Parsha Eikev – 5777

Parshat Eikev In-Depth

“Because you hearken to these laws (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The commentaries dwell on the Hebrew word eikev in this verse—an uncommon synonym for “because.” Many see a connection with the word akeiv (same spelling, different pronunciation), which means “heel.”

Rashi interprets this as an allusion to those mitzvot which a person tramples with his heels—the Torah is telling us to be equally diligent with all of G‑d’s commandments, no less with those that seem less significant to our finite minds.

Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides interpret it in the sense of “in the end” (i.e., “in the heels of,” or in the sense that the heel is at the extremity of the body)—the reward being something that follows the action. A similar interpretation is given by Ohr HaChaim, who explains that true satisfaction and fulfillment comes at the “end”—the complete fulfillment of all the mitzvot, and by Rabbeinu Bechayei, who sees it as an allusion that the reward we do receive in this world is but a lowly and marginal (the “heel”) aspect of the true worth of the mitzvot.”

Torah Sparks: Eikev 5777

“In game theory a zero-sum game is one in which each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the other participants. A person cutting up a cake who takes a larger slice thereby reduces the amount of cake available for others.

I imagine we are all only too familiar in these difficult times with video clips of confrontations connected to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The current crisis on the mountain blew up after the killing of two Israeli Druze policemen on 14th July, since when at least five Palestinians have been killed in clashes and three Israeli civilians have been stabbed to death. Israel’s moves after July 14th to ensure security on the mountain were perceived by many Palestinians as a threat to the status quo. Changes in the status quo are normally viewed by both sides as zero-sum, in other words that one side will gain at the other’s expense, and are therefore resisted vigorously. The mountain is a permanent flashpoint for violence since victory for one side is perceived as defeat for the other.”

Not by Bread Alone: Strange Food from the Sky

“Several years ago, I saw in London an extraordinary play entitled “Not by Bread Alone.” The eleven actors, from an Israeli company called Nalaga’at (meaning “please touch”), were all deaf and blind. As the audience entered, they were sitting at a long table on the stage, each one kneading dough that would be baked during the course of the performance. At the end, the audience was invited to come to the stage to taste the bread. But the main purpose was not for us to eat the delicious warm bread, but to communicate on some level, by touch, with the actors who could not hear our applause or see our smiles.

Deuteronomy 8:3, a long and rather complex verse near the beginning of our parashah, Eikev, contains one of the most familiar phrases of the Bible: “Lo al halechem l’vado yich’yeh ha-adam … ””

Living the Good Life

“Ah! Living the good life! The words conjure up villas on the Mediterranean, fancy cars, gourmet meals, fashionable clothes, consorting with the well-to-do.

On the other hand, living the good life is the fundamental question that religions try to answer. There are myriad answers, and over the millennia Judaism has managed to give many of them.

Some religions say that having material possessions and good fortune are a mark that one is blessed or among the elect or has grace, while poverty and bad fortune are a mark of those who are not blessed. Some religions would take the opposite view and see those who are the most blessed and holy as those who eschew material possessions and who do good works among the poor and outcast.”

Haftarah Eikev

“After the exile at the hands of the Babylonians, it was totally reasonable for the people of Judea to experience insecurity. It was totally understandable for some to feel that the nation would never be rebuilt and that the exile to Babylonia would never end. While the prophet Jeremiah’s message of defeat and exile was also marked with elements of hope amidst the despair, his message was very much shaped by the idea of divine abandonment. This idea was perpetuated by one very forceful image. Jeremiah compared the relationship between the harried nation and God to that of a married couple whose marriage was deeply troubled, potentially warranting divorce: “I noted: Because rebel Israel had committed adultery, I cast her off (shilakhteha) and handed her a bill of divorce (sefer krituteha): yet her sister, faithless Judah, was not afraid – she too went and whored.” (Jeremiah 3:8)”

Parsha Vaetchanan – 5777

Parshat Vaetchanan In-Depth

“I beseeched G‑d at that time (Deuteronomy 3:23)

Prayer is called by ten names: cry, howl, groan, song, encounter, stricture, prostration, judgment and beseeching. [These synonyms for prayer are derived from: Exodus 2:23–24, Jeremiah 7:16, Psalms 18:6, Deuteronomy 9:25, Psalms 106:30 and Deuteronomy 3:23.] (Midrash Rabbah)

Prayer is called by [thirteen] names: cry, howl, groan, stricture, song, prostration, encounter, judgment, entreaty, standing, appeal and beseeching.
[The additional synonyms in this Midrash are from Genesis 25:21, Psalms 106:30 and Exodus 32:11.] (Sifri)”

Torah Sparks: Vaetchanan 5777

“What does the prophet Zechariah have against ‘Shema Yisrael’?

The most famous line in the Torah appears in our parasha. It is the first verse we are to teach to our toddlers and the last we are to recite on our deathbeds: ‘Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.’ Or: ‘…the LORD is one.’ (Deut. 6:4; the JPS translation offers both options).

Either way, the point is the uniqueness of the God identified in our tradition by a particular name, YHWH. No other entity is really a god, says Deuteronomy. Nothing else deserves to be worshipped, no matter what other nations might call a ‘god.'”

When Imploring Fails to Give Us What We Want

“The verses at the very beginning of Parashat Va-et’cḥanan record a searingly poignant incident of hopes shattered and prayers denied.

Years before, Moses had heard the words that must have filled him with immeasurable sorrow. Because of a failing described by the Torah only as a vague sin of omission — that on one occasion he had failed to sanctify God in the presence of the Israelites — he was told that he would not be permitted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:8–12).

At the very beginning of Va-et’cḥanan, we learn that Moses did not accept this decree without protest. We are told that Moses prayed and implored God to change His mind and grant permission for Moses to fulfill his dream by leading the people into the land of their destiny.”

The Ten Commandments

“The Torah reading of Va’et’khanan continues the retrospective view of the 40 years in the desert, given by Moses and ending in a list of “commandments, statutes and ordinances.” This is rich material—not only the ten commandments, but also the Shema, the credo statement of Judaism; we even find the passage for “the wise son” in the Haggadah.

Let us focus on the ten commandments, quite enough to fill today’s ticket.

If you compare this version (Deuteronomy 5: 6) to the one in the book of Exodus (Exodus 20:2) you immediately notice the differences. As the old saying goes: If you have a watch, you know what the time is; if you have two watches, you no longer do. Because, if the watches disagree (quite likely!), which of them do you trust?”

Haftarah Vaetchanan

“This Shabbat begins a two-fold journey from the darkness of Tisha b’Av to the light of the Yamim Noraim (the holidays of the month of Tishei – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot). The haftarah cycle for this period is marked by the Shiva d’Nehemta (the seven haftarot of consolation) all taken from the later part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40 to the end of the book). These haftarot proclaim the idea of reconciliation with God and the return of the people from exile.

The reestablishment of a rapport between God and His people was not a simple process after the trauma of exile. The prophet had to work hard to remind the people that God was at their side in confronting the trials which faced them. A series of three verses, juxtaposed with each other, offers a window into this renewed acknowledgement of God: ‘(10) Behold the Lord God comes in might, and His arm wins triumph for Him… (11) Like a shepherd He pastures His flock; He gathers His sheep in His arms and carries them in His bosom, gently He drives the mother sheep. (12) Who measures the waters with the hollow of His hand. And gauged the skies with a span, and meted earth’s dust with a measure, and weighed the mountains with a scale and the hills with a balance? (13) Who has plumbed the mind of the Lord; what man can tell of His plan?'”

Parsha Devarim – 5777

Parshat Devarim In-Depth

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the desert, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and Di-Zahav (Deuteronomy 1:1)

According to the Sifri, the numerous place names listed here are not landmarks indicating where Moses spoke these words—indeed, some of these places do not even exist as geographical locations. Rather, these are words of rebuke by Moses to the people of Israel. Instead of mentioning their sins outright, he alluded to them with these place names:

“In the desert”—the time they complained: “If only we would have died in the desert” (Exodus 17:3).

“In the Aravah (Plain)”—their worship of Baal Peor in the Plains of Moab (Numbers 25).

“Opposite Suf”—the trouble they made at the shores of Yam Suf, the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:11 and Rashi on Exodus 15:22).

“Paran”—the sin of the spies, who were dispatched from Paran (as recounted in Numbers 13 and later in our own Parshah).

“Tofel” and “Lavan” (meaning “libel” and “white”)—their libeling the white manna (Numbers 21:5).

“Chatzerot”—where Korach’s mutiny against Moses took place.

“Di-Zahav” (literally, “too much gold”)—the sin of the golden calf. (Sifri, Rashi, et al)”

Torah Sparks: Devarim 5777

“This Shabbat we begin Sefer Dvarim, Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah. Sefer Dvarim records Moses’ words to the children of Israel in the weeks before he dies. Moses knows his role is almost over – he has been barred from entering the Land and his successor has been appointed. But this is no farewell speech marked by anecdotes or nostalgia; it is more an “ethical will.” Moses recounts the events since leaving Egypt 40 years earlier, reviews legal material the people should know upon entry into Eretz Yisrael, and warns them about the dangers to their faith in God, most particularly from material success and the arrogance that can come from that.”

Does God Command Going to War?

“After a five-verse introduction, Parashat D’varim is presented as the beginning of the text of a speech by Moses addressed to the Israelite people not long before his death. The content of this oration is historical: an overview of events experienced by the listeners or their parents, beginning after the Revelation at Sinai and continuing to the present. The events have already been narrated in earlier books of the Torah, but there are subtle shifts that make this not just simple repetition. If the original narratives are a source for history, the Deuteronomy oration is evidence for historical memory. This may be illustrated by focusing on one passage, relating to Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon.”

Retelling Our Story

“I was sitting in my study a few years ago with a couple who had been members of my synagogue for over 35 years. They were recounting a recent experience they had when celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and it made me think about this week’s Torah portion.

The story they told me was typical: the husband had decided to surprise his wife by ordering a special 50th anniversary wedding cake, created to look exactly like the beautiful, long-flowing blue dress that she wore on their first date when they went to a dance at a local synagogue together. He smiled as he told me how his wife was certainly surprised, but not exactly the way he had expected. Following his grand flourish of presenting the cake and recounting the story of the dress and dance to the assembled guests, she smiled and replied that in fact her dress had been short and red — and their first date had been to the local county fair.”

Haftarah Devarim

“The opening chapter of the book of Isaiah marks the culmination of the three haftarot of admonition (T’lata d’Poranuta). Its first word also lends its name to this special Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av – Shabbat Hazon, literally, the ‘Shabbat of the Vision’. The book of Isaiah is popularly known for its messages of comfort and consolation but the haftarah for this special Shabbat is anything but comforting. It is a message of chastisement pure and simple, embodying the rabbinic tradition’s emphasis on scoring the nation for its own sin to account for its downfall. Its message is bleak and sobering, challenging the people both for their moral wrongs and for their abandonment of God.

It is hard to “feel the love” with accusations, even when warranted, like those found in Isaiah’s message: “children (banim) I have reared and brought up and they have rebelled against Me” (2); “a seed of evil doers, children (banim) that deal corruptly who have forsaken the Lord” (3). These words of admonition read like an indictment and seem more like a sign of abandonment than an attempt at rapprochement.”

Parsha Matot-Masei – 5777

Parshat Matot-Masei In-Depth

“Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes (30:2)

This was the procedure with all the laws that Moses taught: first he would teach them to Aaron and the heads of the tribes, and then he would instruct the people, as described in Exodus 34:31–32.

Why are the tribal heads particularly mentioned by the laws of vows? To teach us that an expert Torah scholar has the ability to annul vows like a tribunal of three laymen. (Talmud; Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Matot-Masei 5777

“Sefer Bemidbar (the Book of Numbers) ends with a little incident, limiting somewhat the right of women to marry. It seems technical at first but indeed is a most fitting close for this difficult book. Last week (but two Parshas ago) the daughters of Zelophehad claim rights to the land in Canaan that would have been their father’s, to perpetuate his name and legacy. Moses consulted with God ad hoc, and God responded favorably: ‘Zelophehad’s daughters speak well (ken banot Zelophehad dovrot), give their father’s share to them’ (Num 27:1-7). A nice victory for the women, who up to now had no hereditary rights.”

Changing the Plan in a Holy Way

“For the final parashah of the Book of Numbers, imagine we are with our ancestors on the east side of the Jordan River. This week is a double portion of Matot/Mas’ei. The episode we will explore begins in Numbers 32 in Matot.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad owned a lot of cattle. They saw the regions of Jazer and Gilad, outside of the Promised Land, were good for cattle. Representatives from Reuben and Gad went to Moses, Eleazer the priest, and the chieftains of the community to ask permission to settle outside of the Promised Land.”

The Importance of Re-reading Torah

“The Book of Numbers is in many ways the least cohesive of the five books of the Torah. Its narrative excursions and legal legacies are occasionally related, but more often discrete.

In Matot and Mas’ey, which conclude the fourth book of the Torah, the narrators/editors of the Torah attempt to pull things together by accounts which summarize the forty years in the desert and anticipate the imminent entrance into the Land of Israel.

However, even before the Torah moves to prescriptions for social and religious regulation within the Land, it presents a narrative of proscription which is chilling. Beginning in Numbers 31, the text tells the story of the Israelite war against the Midianites. So brutal is the account that even Dr. J. H. Hertz, the preeminent apologist for the traditional rendering of the text, states in his well-known commentary that ‘The war against the Midianites presents peculiar difficulties…we cannot satisfactorily meet the various objections that have been raised…’. ”

Haftarah Parshat Matot-Masei

“During Jeremiah’s lifetime, Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel – rested between the world’s great civilizations. At times, this meant getting trampled by the armies of the competing powers, from the south, Egypt, and from the north, either the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Here and there, however, there were periods of quiet which were no more restful. Jeremiah’s youth and the beginnings of his prophetic mission were in just such a period.

During these times, Israel’s peril was not physical. It was the threat of maintaining its unique religious identity without being swallowed up by the larger cultures which surrounded it. Jeremiah’s prophecy makes it quite clear that the assimilation of the religious ideas of the surrounding cultures was compelling to both his fellow citizens and much of their leadership. He challenges his people’s betrayal of God in favor of the false deities of the neighboring nations. This attraction to what others do and believe should not surprise us. After all, we in modern times know how hard it is to hold on to our distinctive identity in the larger society. We see it in others and perhaps even note in ourselves the pull of the milieu. For most of us, this is a tremendous struggle and we ponder daily how much we can afford to be like our neighbors without losing our authentic Jewish identities.”

Parsha Pinchas – 5777

Parshat Pinchas In-Depth

“Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron (Numbers 25:10)

Why does G‑d refer to Pinchas as ‘the son of Elazar the son of Aaron’? Because the tribes of Israel were mocking him, saying, ‘Have you seen this son of the fattener, whose mother’s father (Jethro) fattened calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and now he goes and kills a prince in Israel?’ Therefore, G‑d traces his lineage to Aaron. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b)

Few professions are as cruel and inhumane as the fattening of calves for slaughter. So when Pinchas slew Zimri, many said: ‘Look at this holy zealot! He acts as if motivated by the desire to avenge the honor of G‑d and save the people, but in truth he has merely found a holy outlet for his cruel and violent nature. After all, it’s in his blood—just look at his maternal grandfather . . .’ So G‑d described him as ‘Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron’ in order to attest that in character and temperament he actually took after his paternal grandfather—the compassionate and peace-loving Aaron.

The true greatness of Pinchas lay in that he acted in complete opposition to his nature, transcending his inborn instincts to bring peace between G‑d and Israel. (The Lubavitcher Rebbe)”

Torah Sparks: Pinchas 5777

“As I write this d’var Torah, I am reading a modern re-telling of the vampire myth called The Historian (by Elizabeth Kostova). Vampires are to an extent immortal, and can only be killed by a stake to the heart or extreme exposure to light. I will admit to a certain fascination with the notion of immortality and I will even admit to having read Anne Rice’s campy Vampire Lestat series when I was younger.

There are several biblical characters to whom ancient Jews ascribed immortality. One of them is Pinchas, the eponymous hero of our parsha. After having killed the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite Cozbi for fornicating, God’s promises Pinchas, ‘It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, vachaper and atoned (or ‘will atone’) for the Israelites’ (Numbers 25:13). The strange thing about this verse is that Pinchas was already a priest and the priesthood descends genealogically. Pinchas seems to be receiving an eternal reward that was already his in the first place!”

Their Father’s Sin Is Not Their Own

“The popular use of ancestry websites speaks to our curiosity about where we come from and the history of our families. Some of us want genetic information for medical reasons. Others want a connection to the past: What did our ancestors do for a living? Where did they live? Is there anything in our lives that resembles those who came before us? Placing ourselves as a link in a chain of ancestors can both satisfy curiosities and add meaning to our lives. It may also remind us that we are a link in connecting the chain to the future.

But what happens when we learn an ancestor did something terrible? This week’s Torah portion assures us that the sins of our family’s past do not require us to follow their path.”

Equal Before God

“Towards the beginning of Parashat Pinhas, we read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. After Moses instructs the people on the division of the Promised Land once they enter it he also informs them that the land will pass from father to son so that it will remain within the tribes. Upon hearing this the five daughters of Zelophehad confront Moses with the fact that their father died in the desert leaving behind only daughters. Given the new laws their land would be lost from their family. They believe that they deserve to inherit the land by stating “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kin!” (Numbers 27:3-4). Moses brings their case before God who declares that their claim is just and that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s share of the land. The law from that time on is that if a man dies without sons the land shall pass to his daughters.

Towards the end of Numbers/Bemidbar the tribe of Menasseh, to which Zelophehad and his daughters belong, complain that if the daughters marry outside the tribe the land will be lost from the tribal inheritance. Therefore the law is amended by Divine decree to include the provision that daughters who inherit must marry within their own tribe. Both decrees concerning daughters and inheritance insure that the land remains not only within the family, but within the tribe. Though at first it might seem that women’s rights and equality are the main concern of the authors (and many have tried to make that point) the reality is that familial and tribal integrity are the overriding principles.”

Haftarah Parshat Pinchas

“There is a mahloket (a dispute) over when the period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple begins. According to Rabbi Joseph Karo, the foundational decisor for Sfardim and author of the Shulhan Arukh, it only begins at the start of the month of Av:’“When the month of Av arrives, one diminishes one’s joy’. (Orah Hayim 451:1) Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Karo’s contemporary and the Ashkenazi authority, however, ruled that it is the custom for Ashkenazi Jewry to begin their mourner with fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th day of Tammuz), three weeks before Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), the day which memorializes the destruction of both the first and second Temples. (Orah Hayyim 452:2)

This dispute offers us an opportunity to learn a little about what lies behind the decision-making processes of these two sages. Rabbi Joseph Karo, by and large, hones closely to the language of the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud, where, in fact, we read the precise words of his legislation: ‘When the month of Av arrives, one diminishes one’s joy.’ (M. Taanit 4:6; Taanit 26b) The origin of Isserles’ decision is less straightforward. The three weeks mentioned above are known by the idiom, ‘bein hametzarim – between the straits’, a phrase known to us from Eicha – the book of Lamentations (1:3). This association is first known to us from Eicha Rabbah, the rabbinic midrash on Eicha (1:29): ‘between the straits’ – days of troubles, from the 17th of Tamuz through to Tisha b’Av, for on them destruction is found’.”

Parsha Balak – 5777

Parshat Balak In-Depth

“Moab said to the elders of Midian (22:4)

Moab and Midian were erstwhile enemies, as it is written (Genesis 36:35), ‘. . . who smote Midian in the field of Moab’; but out of fear of Israel, they made peace between them.

And why did Moab seek the advice of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious beyond the norm, they thought: ‘The leader of this people rose to greatness in Midian; we shall ask them what is his measure.’ Said they: ‘His power is entirely in his mouth.’ Said Moab: ‘We, too, shall bring a person whose power is in his mouth against them.’ (Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Balak 5777

“The wandering Israelites repeatedly reach out to the local Middle-Eastern kingdoms to ask for safe passage through their lands and then defeat them in battle once those peace overtures have been rejected (the exception – their ignominious retreat from the Edomites in Numbers 20:21). By the time they reach the border with the Moabites the local tribes are thoroughly rattled. Balak, the king of Moab, realises that the Israelites cannot be defeated militarily and that maybe spiritual force could succeed where physical force cannot. He summons the most prestigious regional prophet, Bil’am, son of Be’or, to come and curse the Israelites for him.”

Distracted by Blessing

“In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, the king of Moab, Balak, is afraid that the Israelites’ encampment will ravish his land. He sends emissaries to a diviner named Balaam with the intent of hiring him to stop the Israelites. A summary of their encounter demonstrates a classic misunderstanding:

Emissaries: Come with us to curse the Israelites.
Balaam: Let me check with God.
God to Balaam: You can’t curse the Israelites; they are already blessed.
Balaam to the emissaries: God won’t let me go.
Emissaries to King Balak: Balaam refused to come.

Balak sends the emissaries back with the offer of silver and gold, and whatever Balaam might want. Balaam consults with God again, in case God had a change of mind. This time God says, ‘If these personages have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do’ (Numbers 22:20).”

How Good It Is

“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael / מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל

How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5)

The Israelites are journeying toward the Jordan River, and pass through the territory of King Balak of Moab. Balak is terrified, and hires the prophet Balaam to lay a curse upon the Israelites. Three times Balaam climbs up to a promontory from which he can survey the Israelite encampment. Each time, instead of a curse, only words of blessing issue from his lips. King Balak is furious, of course, and reprimands Balaam. But Balaam reminds him that as a prophet, Balaam is only capable of uttering the words that God puts in his mouth.”

Haftarah Parshat Balak

“The prophets Isaiah and Micah were contemporaries, both living during the reign of Hezekiah, a period in which the Assyrian empire threatened the fate of the nation. In one of the prophecies in this week’s haftarah, Micah uses imagery found in a famous prophecy of Isaiah’s in a way which seems to be a response to the latter’s message. A comparison of the two prophecies offers us a window into two theological approaches to the problems which confronted them and perhaps some insight into debates going on in the contemporary Jewish world as well.

If there is one prophecy for which Isaiah is famous, it is this one: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, the calf, the beast of prey and the fating together, with a little boy to herd them.” (Isaiah 11:6) Isaiah, who was the older of the two, seems to have had an idyllic approach to the problems of his day. God would cause the animals of prey, namely Israel’s adversaries, to dwell in peace with their victims, Israel.”

Parsha Chukat – 5777

Parshat Chukat In-Depth

“In everything that G‑d taught Moses, He would tell him both the manner of contamination and the manner of purification. When G‑d came to the laws concerning one who comes in contact with a dead body, Moses said to Him: ‘Master of the universe! If one is thus contaminated, how may he be purified?’ G‑d did not answer him. At that moment the face of Moses turned pale.

When G‑d came to the section of the red heifer, He said to Moses: ‘This is its manner of purification.’ Said Moses to G‑d: ‘Master of the universe! This is a purification?’ Said G‑d: ‘Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed, and no creature can fully comprehend My decrees.’ (Midrash Rabbah)”

Torah Sparks: Chukat 5777

“The beginning of this week’s parashah presents the description of the red heifer ritual. In a nutshell, a perfectly unblemished red heifer must be killed, certain rituals performed with it, and its body burned to ashes. Those involved in the preparation of these ashes become ritually impure. The ashes, however, are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who have become impure through contact with the dead in order to render them pure again. The strangeness of the whole procedure did not escape the attention of the sages.

A passage in Midrash Tanhuma has Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai explaining the ritual to a non-Jew in a very ‘magical’ way. His students then say to him: ‘You may explain it that way to him, but what do you say to us?’ He answers: ‘The dead body does not literally make impure, and the water with the ashes does not literally effect purity. Rather, it is the decree of the King of Kings. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Hukkah hakkakti (I have made a decree), I have issued an edict, and you may not violate My edict.'”

Living in the Golden Mean

“Parashat Chukat opens with a description of the parah adumah — often referred to as the red heifer. The ashes of this sacrifice were used for purification. The laws of the red heifer are a classic example of accepting the yoke of the commandments without explanation. The laws of the red heifer do not apply today, as they are specific to a time when the Temple is standing in Jerusalem. But those of us who rinse our hands upon leaving a cemetery or prior to entering a shiva house are observing a remnant of this law.1 Other laws for which the Torah does not give rational explanations but that are enmeshed in Jewish identity include the instruction not to wear garments that mix linen and wool, and many of the dietary restrictions. Without reasons given in the Torah, the most traditional rationale is: God said so”

On Being A Paradox Jew

“Some three and a half months ago we read in Parashat Ki Tisa about the two tablets containing the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments) that were smashed by Moshe Rabbenu on the bare rock of Har Sinai. That incident still echoes with us as we look this week at Parshat Hukat and the Para Adumah – the Red Heifer.

Commenting on the smashing of the tablets, the English commentator Bobby Hill writes, ‘No artifact however special, no persons however elevated, no land however sanctified can be confused with the Divinity … The returning leader feared that although the Golden Calf could be destroyed, the need for another replica of Holiness would not so easily be removed. The next candidate for Secondary Kedusha would be The Tablets themselves. They might now become the focus for veneration or worship. They might prove to be the ‘idolatry’ of the future.'”

Haftarah Parshat Chukat

“There are lots of difficult biblical stories; stories which transmit societal rules and then go about breaking them as part of the storyline. We are familiar with this phenomenon already from the earliest stories in the Torah. Early biblical society practiced a principle known as primogeniture, namely, the firstborn son was intended to carry on the familial legacy. Yet, time after time, in the patriarchal stories, it was not the firstborn who heads up the next generation but the younger son. In our haftarah, Jephthah is a character, who for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a societal outcast. He was born of an illicit relationship: ‘And Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, and he was the son of a whore-woman, and Gilead had begotten Jephthah.’ (11:1) This did sit well with his step brothers sired by his father once he married: ‘And Gilead’s wife bore him son, and the wife’s sons grew up and they drove Jephthah out and said to him: ‘You shall not inherit your father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” (11:2) Jephthah was forced to flee and to live on the fringe of society. The story obviously does not end here for Jephthah becomes a ‘strongman’ who is called upon to save the nation from its enemies and to serve both as its leader and savior.”

Parsha Korach – 5777

Parshat Korach In-Depth

“Korach . . . the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi (16:1)

What moved him to start a quarrel? He was moved to it by the fact that Elitzafan, the son of his father’s brother, was appointed prince over his family, as it says, ‘The prince of the father’s house of the families of the Kehatites was Elitzafan the son of Uzziel’ (Numbers 3:30). Korach argued: My father was one of four brothers, as it says, ‘The sons of Kehat: Amram, and Yitzhar, and Hebron, and Uzziel’ (Exodus 4:18). As for Amram the firstborn, his son Aaron attained to greatness, and Moses to royalty. Who then should rightly take the next office? Is it not the next in line? Now I, being the son of Yitzhar, should by right be the leader of the Kehatites. Yet Moses appointed the son of Uzziel! Shall the [son of the] youngest of my father’s brothers be superior to me? Behold, I shall dispute his decision and put to naught all that has been arranged by him . . .(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Korach 5777

“In this week’s portion Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon: ‘You take too much on you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them…’ (Bemidbar 16:3). And he is right: the covenant at Sinai established Israel as ‘a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Shmot 19:6) and thus, in fact, “all the congregation are holy.’ But why then did Korach arouse the wrath of God?

Perhaps because holiness, which stands at the center of the Korach story, is like electricity, powerful and dangerous. Without holiness religion loses its color, its drama and allure. But with holiness, dangers abound. Korach made a crucial error in his understanding of holiness, transforming it from good to evil. Korach thus symbolizes a fatal flaw inherent in holiness; one that should haunt all who seek it.”

Learning How to Go from Stress to Empowerment

“In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, demanding, “All the community are holy … Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Often, Korach’s actions are interpreted to be the jealous behavior of one who sees himself as entitled to power. But what if his behavior reflects something different — a feeling of helplessness and a fear of being disenfranchised?

Our haftarah this week (I Samuel 11:14-18:32) finds the prophet Samuel too facing feelings of helplessness. In his time, the people desired a king, but Samuel did not want to appoint a king over Israel. He feared people would think the king held the ultimate power over them, and they would lose their connection to God as the Ultimate Power. Samuel felt both powerless to say no to the people’s request, and powerless over their inevitable distancing from God if he were to say yes.”

Who Has The Authority To Change Judaism?

“In his well-known 1936 commentary on the Torah, popularly referred to as the “Hertz Humash”, Dr. J. H. Hertz refers to this week’s Torah portion, ‘Korach’, as ‘The Great Mutiny’. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, writing in the Reform movement’s recent commentary on the Torah, calls these chapters ‘The Rebellion of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram’. Dr. Jacob Milgrom, in the new commentary on the Book of Numbers published by the Jewish Publication Society, refers to this portion as the ‘Encroachment on the Tabernacle’.

The source of these negative ascriptions is not difficult to find. The very beginning of the Torah portion establishes the nature of the latest rebellion against the leadership of Moses: ‘Now Korach…betook himself…along with Dathan and Abiram… to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Aaron and Moses and said to them: ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?'” (Numbers 16:1-3) ”

Haftarah Parshat Korach

“Those who expect a monolithic theological picture in the Tanakh are in for a surprise. The Jewish Bible is chock full of conflicting views of the divine reality. This is to be expected from a work which spans ages and voices, each trying to come to terms with God’s role in the world. This is one of the fascinating aspects of the Tanakh (the Bible), the canonized sacred text of the Jews. This diversity is reflected when we contrast the opening verse of this special haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh with other ideas found in the Tanakh.

The prophet reflects on the idea that no house could possibly contain God: ‘Thus said the Lord: ‘The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool: Where could you build a house for Me? What place could serve as my abode?’ (66:1) This verse differs, however, from King Solomon’s dedication prayer for the Temple: ‘I (Solomon) have now built for You (God) a stately House, a place where You may dwell forever.’ (1 Kings 8:13) The idea that God was contained in ‘His’ house seems to have been a firmly entrenched idea in some circles, as is indicated by the following verse from Psalms: ‘Let us enter His (God’s) abode, bow at His footstool.’ (132:7) (See S. Paul, Isaiah 49-66, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 556-7)”

Parsha Sh’lach – 5777

Parshat Sh’lach In-Depth

“Send out for yourself men (Numbers 13:2)

‘Send out for yourself’—as your mind dictates. I am not instructing you; if you so desire, send. For the people of Israel had come to Moses, saying ‘Let us send men before us,’ as it is written (Deuteronomy 1:22), ‘You all approached me . . .’; and Moses consulted with G‑d. Said G‑d: I have said that it is a good land. . . . By your life, I shall now give you the option to err . . .(Rashi; Talmud)

Moses named Hosea . . . Joshua (‘G‑d shall save’) (13:16)

He prayed for him: May G‑d save you from the counsel of the spies. (Talmud, Sotah 34b; Rashi)”

Torah Sparks: Sh’lach 5777

“The Mishna (2nd century) in Ta’anit 4:6 tells that the sin of the spies took place on Tisha B’Av. The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) makes the calendrical connection, using verses. The discussion ends as follows:

And it is written, ‘And the congregation raised its voice, and wept; and the people wept that night (Num. 14:1).’ Rabbah said in the name of R. Joḥanan: That night was the night of the ninth of Av. The Holy One said to them: ‘You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for weeping throughout the generations to come.’

The ominous tone is expanded upon in the rabbinic Midrash Tanḥuma (5th century), which shows the identity of dates (9th Av) of the story of the spies and the destruction of a temple not to be built for several centuries. The Midrash (Tanḥuma Parashat Shlaḥ, 12) begins the same as the Talmud statement quoted above, and goes on…”

Hope in the Darkness of Fear

“One summer as visiting faculty at Greene Family Camp, I made the mistake of flicking through news headlines on my phone. They were filled with terror, pain, and discord. On one hand, I felt safe and comfortable at camp, surrounded by happy, boisterous campers soaking up the sun, Judaism, and each other. On the other hand, the headlines planted a seed of fear in my gut because of the unpredictability of the larger world.

Fear is a powerful emotion. For people with anxiety, even a little bit of fear can be crippling if our minds get wrapped up in playing over and over again all of the things that could possibly go wrong, regardless of how improbable they are.”

The Reminder of Tzitzit

“The parasha this week is Shelakh-Lekha. In this parasha Moses, at God’s command, chooses one leader from each of the twelve tribes to serve as spies. Their mission is to enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and to bring back a report to the people. “See what kind of country it is….. [investigate its cities, people, soil, and forests and] bring back some of the fruit of the land.” They do bring back grapes and other fruits, but ten of the twelve spies also bring back a report that, though the land is flowing “with milk and honey,” it is filled with “giants,” large fortified cities and other dangerous inhabitants. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, bring back a positive report reminding the people that God is with them and so they can overcome any obstacle or enemy. Unfortunately, the people are carried away by the report of the majority and wonder why Moses brought them this far out of Egypt in order to die in the desert. As punishment for following the negative report of the ten spies God declares that the Israelites will wander in the desert for forty years until this generation dies. Joshua and Caleb will be the only ones of that generation allowed to enter the land.”

Haftarah Parshat Sh’lach

“Sometimes when studying the Tanakh (Bible), the story is not the only thing there is to see. You can go in expecting to learn one thing and learn something entirely different. Joshua sent two spies to inspect Jericho before its conquest. When they get to the city, they are in need of a hiding place and turn to Rahab the Harlot to save them. She, in turn, brings them up to the roof and hides them: “But she brought them up to the roof and hid them in the stalks of flax (ba’pistei ha’eitz) which she had spread out on the roof.” (2:6)

Now, flax, from which linen is made, grows in tall “wood like” stalks and though it is not a tree, this biblical verse literally calls it a “flax tree”. This peculiar description turns out to play an unusual role in a debate over which blessing to say over smelling the scent of certain fragrant plants.”