Weekly Cycle

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Torah Portions

Devarim: The Desert in Words: 

Ki Tetzeh: Tackling the "Evil" Inclination 

Shoftim: Justice as a Communal Obligation

Re'eh: Destroying by Failing to Destroy

Ekev: G-d's Committment to the Land

Va'etchanan: "Giving it All You've Got"

Devarim: "All of Israel"

Bamidbar: Words in the Desert

Ma'asei: The Journey as the Cure

Matot: Verbal Agreements

Pinchas: Earning One's Place

Balak: Horrible Bosses

Chukat: Miriam, the Red Heifer

Korach: Human Calculations

Shelach: Ants, Grasshoppers

Beha'alotcha: Inverted Situations

Nasso: Brides

Bamidbar: Being Dear to G-d

Vayikra: In Service

Bechukotai: Pursuit and Self-Persecution

Behar: Working the Land, Working the Soul

Emor: Speak Softly and Carry a Big Kohen (Kohen Gadol)

Kedoshim Holiness, Sexuality

Acharei Mot: After Mourning

Metzorah: Life's Challenges

Tazria: Life and Death

Shmini: Knowing When to Be Quiet

Tzav: Elements of a Spiritual Work Out

Vayikra: The Fine (Humble) Line Between the Holy and the Unholy 

Shemot: Leaving Egypt

Pikudei: Focusing on Actions (Not Their Amazing Results)

Vayakhel: Shabat, Leadership and Community

Ki Tissah: The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Connect to the Tzadik 

Tetzaveh: Glory, Humility, Tiferet

Terumah: To Give or Not to Give

Mishpatim: Trust versus Initiative

Yitro: The Importance and the Danger of Foreign Influences 

Beshalach: Singing and Dancing

Bo: The Importance of Acting as One

Va'eira: Getting to Know G-d

Shemot: Purposeless Work

Bereshit: In the Parasha Series

Vayechi: Shechem in the Parasha

Vayigash: Oded in the Parasha

Miketz: Daniel in the Parasha

Vayeshev: Rachel in the Parasha

Vayishlach: Korach in the Parasha

Vayetzei: Jerusalem in the Parasha

Toldot: David in the Parasha

Chayei Sarah: The Four Exiles in the Parasha

Vayerah: Uriel in the Parasha

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Desert in Words: Yosef, Mashiach Ben Yosef, Bittersweetness and the Torah Portion of Vezot HaBracha


When reading Moshe's blessing for the tribe of Yosef, there is one word that immediately stands out: Meged. It is repeated five times in a blessing that is itself only five verses long. Meged means "sweet," or "sweet fruits." It appears in Tanach also in Shir HaShirim, and Rashi states that it's used a metaphor for the sweet reward of keeping Hashem's commandments.

Looking at Moshe's blessing alone it is hard to understand the need for such repetition. However, in the context of Yaakov's blessing to Yosef (as well as to Yosef's sons Efraim and Menashe) it becomes easier to understand why Meged is indeed repeated so often.
As with the other tribes as well, there are incredible parallels between Moshe's blessing and Yaakov's. In addition, Moshe's blessing is also related to Yaakov's blessing for Ephraim and Menashe. We could spend pages and pages drawing parallels between these blessings, and how they in fact complement one another. Below, the verses for both Yaakov and Moshe's blessings (five verses each) are laid out, and then each verse is paired up to show just how similar the blesssings are.

Returning to the importance of the repetition of the word Meged in Moshe's blessing, there is also one aspect of Yaakov's blessing that truly stands out. Every verse in Yaakov's blessing is extremely positive, but there is one verse that recounts Joseph's suffering:

23. They heaped bitterness upon him and became quarrelsome; yea, archers despised him.

Rashi notes, in relevant part: "His brothers heaped bitterness upon him (Joseph), [and] Potiphar and his wife heaped bitterness upon him by having him imprisoned."

Despite the other amazing blessings that Joseph received, one cannot but remain with a certain "bitter taste" about Joseph's life and legacy. Embittered by his own brother, and then by the masters of the household he had served so loyally and exceptionally.

Moshe comes to take away this bitterness by blessing Joseph with sweetness - five times, one for each verse of Yaakov's blessing (and his own).

Also, there appears to be a reference to the cause of Joseph's "bitter" encounters: his two dreams. The first one was agricultural, in which he saw his brother's sheaves bowing to his. The second, astrological, where not only his brothers' stars bowed to him, but even the sun and the moon as well. After the dreams, Jacob sends his son to Hebron, which is described as a deep valley, even though it was in fact a mountain. (Bereshit 37:14, See Rashi)

Moshe now endows these moments with sweetness. He speaks of the sweetness of the heavens as well as the "deep," the sweetness of the sun and the moon's yield, of the crops of mountains, hills, and of the land as a whole.

Moshe, who is from the tribe of Levi, originally one of the main instigators against Joseph, now comes to fix the past and sweeten it.

At the same time, Moshe's blessings may actually also be a reference to the future, concerning the progeny of Joseph and the times of Mashiach. In Zechariah, we find the following passage:

10. And I will pour out upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplications. And they shall look to me because of those who have been thrust through [with swords], and they shall mourn over it as one mourns over an only son and shall be in bitterness, therefore, as one is embittered over a firstborn son.

11. On that day there shall be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the Valley of Megiddon.

Rashi - as one mourns over an only son: As a man mourns over his only son. And our Sages expounded this in tractate Sukkah (52a) as referring to the Messiah, son of Joseph, who was slain.

Moshe's blessings and emphasis on the word Megged may in fact be a prayer on behalf of Mashiach Ben Yosef, one that may mitigate the circumstance surrounding his death and even spare him of his fate altogether:

R. Isaac Luria (Ari-zal) notes that the descendant of Joseph, by being the precursor of the ultimate Mashiach, is in effect kissey David, the "seat" or "throne" of David, i.e., of Mashiach. Thus when praying in the daily Amidah, "speedily establish the throne of Your servant David," one should consider that this refers to Mashiach ben Yossef and beseech G‑d that he should not die in the Messianic struggle.16 As all prayers, this one, too, will have its effect.[1]

May we all do our part, and may we all merit to truly live in the times of Mashiach, immediately, in our days.

Here are Yaakov's blessings regarding Ephraim and Menashe:

15. And he blessed Joseph and said, "God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day,

טו. וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמַר הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק הָאֱלֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:

16. may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."

טז. הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ:

Yaakov's blessing to Joseph is as follows:

22. A charming son is Joseph, a son charming to the eye; [of the] women, [each one] strode along to see him.

כב. בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר:

23. They heaped bitterness upon him and became quarrelsome; yea, archers despised him.

כג. וַיְמָרֲרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים:

24. But his bow was strongly established, and his arms were gilded from the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob; from there he sustained the rock of Israel,

כד. וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו מִידֵי אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב מִשָּׁם רֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל:

25. from the God of your father, and He will help you, and with the Almighty, and He will bless you [with] the blessings of the heavens above, the blessings of the deep, lying below, the blessings of father and mother.

כה. מֵאֵל אָבִיךָ וְיַעְזְרֶךָּ וְאֵת שַׁדַּי וִיבָרֲכֶךָּ בִּרְכֹת שָׁמַיִם מֵעָל בִּרְכֹת תְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת בִּרְכֹת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם:

26. The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents, the ends of the everlasting hills. May they come to Joseph's head and to the crown (of the head) of the one who was separated from his brothers.

כו. בִּרְכֹת אָבִיךָ גָּבְרוּ עַל בִּרְכֹת הוֹרַי עַד תַּאֲוַת גִּבְעֹת עוֹלָם תִּהְיֶיןָ לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו:

Now, Moshe's blessing (Devarim33):

13. And of Joseph he said: "His land shall be blessed by the Lord, with the sweetness of the heavens with dew, and with the deep that lies below,

יג. וּלְיוֹסֵף אָמַר מְבֹרֶכֶת יְהֹוָה אַרְצוֹ מִמֶּגֶד שָׁמַיִם מִטָּל וּמִתְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת:

14. and with the sweetness of the produce of the sun, and with the sweetness of the moon's yield,

יד. וּמִמֶּגֶד תְּבוּאֹת שָׁמֶשׁ וּמִמֶּגֶד גֶּרֶשׁ יְרָחִים:

15. and with the crops of early mountains, and with the sweetness of perennial hills,

טו. וּמֵרֹאשׁ הַרְרֵי קֶדֶם וּמִמֶּגֶד גִּבְעוֹת עוֹלָם:

16. and with the sweetness of the land and its fullness, and through the contentment of the One Who dwells in the thornbush. May it come upon Joseph's head and upon the crown of the one separated from his brothers.

טז. וּמִמֶּגֶד אֶרֶץ וּמְלֹאָהּ וּרְצוֹן שֹׁכְנִי סְנֶה תָּבוֹאתָה לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו:

17. To his firstborn ox is [given] glory. His horns are the horns of a re'em. With them, he will gore peoples together [throughout all] the ends of the earth these are the myriads of Ephraim, and these are the thousands of Manasseh."

יז. בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ הָדָר לוֹ וְקַרְנֵי רְאֵם קַרְנָיו בָּהֶם עַמִּים יְנַגַּח יַחְדָּו אַפְסֵי אָרֶץ וְהֵם רִבְבוֹת אֶפְרַיִם וְהֵם אַלְפֵי מְנַשֶּׁה:

Looking at the similarities between the verses of the two blessings, one could pair up each verse as follows:

22. A charming son is Joseph, a son charming to the eye; [of the] women, [each one] strode
along to see [Shur] him.   כב. בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי עָיִן בָּנוֹת צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי שׁוּר:

17. To his firstborn ox [Shor] is [given] glory. His horns are the horns of a re'em. With them,
he will gore peoples together [throughout all] the ends of the earth these are the myriads
of Ephraim, and these are the thousands of Manasseh."   יז. בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ הָדָר לוֹ וְקַרְנֵי רְאֵם קַרְנָיו בָּהֶם עַמִּים
יְנַגַּח יַחְדָּו אַפְסֵי אָרֶץ וְהֵם רִבְבוֹת אֶפְרַיִם וְהֵם אַלְפֵי מְנַשֶּׁה:

[The references to Ephraim and Mannasseh parallels also the blessings previously made to them by Yaakov: "may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."]

23. They heaped bitterness upon him and became quarrelsome; yea, archers despised him. 
כג. וַיְמָרֲרֻהוּ וָרֹבּוּ וַיִּשְׂטְמֻהוּ בַּעֲלֵי חִצִּים:

14. and with the sweetness of the produce of the sun, and with the sweetness of the moon's
yield,   יד. וּמִמֶּגֶד תְּבוּאֹת שָׁמֶשׁ וּמִמֶּגֶד גֶּרֶשׁ יְרָחִים:

24. But his bow was strongly established, and his arms were gilded from the hands of the
Mighty One of Jacob; from there he sustained the rock of Israel,   כד. וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵיתָן
קַשְׁתּוֹ וַיָּפֹזּוּ זְרֹעֵי יָדָיו מִידֵי אֲבִיר יַעֲקֹב מִשָּׁם רֹעֶה אֶבֶן יִשְׂרָאֵל:

16. and with the sweetness of the land and its fullness, and through the contentment of
the One Who dwells in the thornbush. טז. וּמִמֶּגֶד אֶרֶץ וּמְלֹאָהּ וּרְצוֹן שֹׁכְנִי סְנֶה

25. from the God of your father, and He will help you, and with the Almighty, and He will
bless you [with] the blessings of the heavens above, the blessings of the deep, lying
below, the blessings of father and mother.   כה. מֵאֵל אָבִיךָ וְיַעְזְרֶךָּ וְאֵת שַׁדַּי וִיבָרֲכֶךָּ בִּרְכֹת שָׁמַיִם מֵעָל בִּרְכֹת
תְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת בִּרְכֹת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם:

13. And of Joseph he said: "His land shall be blessed by the Lord, with the sweetness of
the heavens with dew, and with the deep that lies below,   יג. וּלְיוֹסֵף אָמַר מְבֹרֶכֶת יְהֹוָה אַרְצוֹ
מִמֶּגֶד שָׁמַיִם מִטָּל וּמִתְּהוֹם רֹבֶצֶת תָּחַת:

26. The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents, the ends of the
everlasting hills. כו. בִּרְכֹת אָבִיךָ גָּבְרוּ עַל בִּרְכֹת הוֹרַי עַד תַּאֲוַת גִּבְעֹת עוֹלָם

15. and with the crops of early mountains, and with the sweetness of perennial hills
טו. וּמֵרֹאשׁ הַרְרֵי קֶדֶם וּמִמֶּגֶד גִּבְעוֹת עוֹלָם:

26 (b) May they come to Joseph's head and to the crown (of the head) of the one who was
separated from his brothers.    תִּהְיֶיןָ לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו:

16(B) May it come upon Joseph's head and upon the crown of the one separated from his
brothers.   תָּבוֹאתָה לְרֹאשׁ יוֹסֵף וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו:

[1] J. Immanuel Schochet, “Mashiach in Jewish Law,” Appendix II, citing (Pri Eitz Chayim, Sha'ar Ha'amidah:ch. 19; and Siddur Ha-Ari; on this blessing. The Ari's teaching is cited in Or Hachayim on Leviticus 14:9, see there (and also on Numbers 24:17, where he relates this prayer to the next blessing of the Amidah); and see also Even Shelemah, ch. 11, note 6. Cf. Zohar II:120a (and Or Hachamah there), and ibid. III:153b) Available at: http://www.chabad.org/library/moshiach/article_cdo/aid/101747/jewish/Appendix-II.htm#footnote16a101747

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Desert in Words: "Eclipse" in Leadership and the Torah Portion of Haazinu

In the Torah portion of Haazinu, we come across a very interesting verse:
And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people he and Hoshea the son of Nun. (Devarim 31:44)
There appears to be an obvious contradiction/question within the verse itself: Who actually spoke the words of the song? Was it Moshe or was it Moshe and Yehoshuah together?
In order to answer this question, it is important to look into the previous Torah portion, Vayelech, which serves as an introduction to the song Haazinu itself. G-d's commandment regarding the song was not just to Moshe, but to Moshe and Yehoshuah together (Devarim 31:16-30):
14. And the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, your days are approaching [for you] to die. Call Joshua and stand in the Tent of Meeting, and I will inspire him. So Moses and Joshua went, and stood in the Tent of Meeting. (…)
19. And now, write for yourselves (plural) this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.
Rashi - this song: [This refers to the passage beginning with] הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם [until] וְכִפֶּר אַדְמָתוֹ עַמּוֹ (Deut. 32:1-43).
Yet, we see that it was not Yehoshua who wrote down the song, but Moshe:
22. And Moses wrote this song on that day, and taught it to the children of Israel.

23. And He [Rashi states that this refers to G-d] commanded Joshua the son of Nun, and said: "Be strong and courageous! For you shall bring the children of Israel to the land that I have sworn to them, and I will be with you."

24. And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion,
Moshe, in the conclusion to the Torah portion of Vayelech, further states:
28. Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, and I will speak these words into their ears, and I will call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses against them.
29. For I know that after my death, you will surely become corrupted, and deviate from the way which I had commanded you. Consequently, the evil will befall you at the end of days, because you did evil in the eyes of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands.
30. Then, Moses spoke into the ears of the entire assembly of Israel the words of the following song, until their completion.
We are left with at least a couple more questions. If Moshe is still the leader and the one that ultimately performs Hashem’s commandment, why is Yehoshuah included at all in the commandment, as why does verse 31:44 imply that he was also the one that spoke the song to the Jewish people? And if Yehoshuah is also the one commanded to act, why doesn’t he do so?
Now let us examine Rashi’s comments to our initial verse:
And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song into the ears of the people he and Hoshea the son of Nun. (Devarim 31:44)
He and Hoshea the son of Nun: It was the Sabbath upon which there were two leaders, authority was taken from one and given to the other. — [Sotah 13b]
Rashi continues:
Moses appointed a meturgeman [literally, an interpreter, here a spokesman] for Joshua, [to relay to the public what Joshua said,] so that Joshua could expound [on the Torah] in Moses’ lifetime, so that Israel would not say [to Joshua], “During your teacher’s lifetime you did not dare to raise your head!” - [Sifrei 31:1]
Rashi further notes, still under the same verse:
And why does Scripture here call him Hoshea [for his name had long since been changed to Joshua (see Numb. 13:16)]. To imply [lit., to say] that Joshua did not become haughty, for although he was given high status, he humbled himself as he was at the beginning [when he was still called Hoshea]. — [Sifrei 32:44]
Even though (as we mentioned in the last post) there can only be one leader, Rashi states that for this "Sabbath" there were actually two. The word Sabbath is particularly appropriate here, because just as the Sabbath is the culmination of the previous week and the foundation of the next, so too here, it was the culmination of Moshe's leadership and the foundation of Yehoshua's.
Rashi does nevertheless state that Moshe was the one that spoke the words of the song. It appears that, out of awe and reverence for his teacher, Yehoshua could not bring himself to act in any way that could make him comparable to Moshe. Yehoshua’s reluctance is so strong, to the point that Hashem Himself, exclaims (as cited above) ""Be strong and courageous! For you shall bring the children of Israel to the land that I have sworn to them, and I will be with you." (Devarim 31:23) Moshe therefore appointed someone to amplify Yehoshua's words so that he could expound on the words of song and that all could hear him, further empowering Yehoshua as the new leader.
It would seem odd that Rashi comments that Moshe made Yehoshua speak in public in order to counter those that would say, "During your teacher’s lifetime you did not dare to raise your head!" After all, that is exactly what a person is supposed to do when one is before his teacher! Not only that, we actually learn this particular lesson from Joshua himself, who previously answered a single question in front of Moses, ultimately causing him to remain childless. Here however, the situation is quite different because Yehoshua is no longer only the disciple of Moshe, but actually already the leader himself. For this brief moment, Moshe and Yehoshua’s leadership eclipsed (literally, given that Moshe is compared to the sun and Yehoshua to the moon).
Finally, Rashi notes that despite this empowerment, Yehoshua humbled himself, just as he was at the beginning of his tutelage. It is not just that Yehoshua had become the leader and humbled himself, but that he was made to play a leadership role while Moshe, the greatest prophet of all time, was still alive and well. Despite the potential for Yehoshua, even if for a split second, to see himself as higher than Moshe, he nevertheless saw himself simply as Hoshea, which was his name before Moshe’s blessing, which changed his name to Yehoshua. Yehoshua knew that he owed everything to Moshe: not only his name, but also the very essence of who he had now become as the leader of the Jewish people.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Desert in Words: Being Strong and Courageous and Connected to the Head. (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

We're playing a bit of catch-up here, due to the high holidays and the entire month of Tishrei. Let's begin by addressing a theme that appears in Nitzavim as well as Vayelech.
The Torah portion of Nitzavim begins with the following verse:
You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, (Devarim 29:9):
In Hebrew, the exact wording is רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, [lit., “your leaders, your tribes,”], which leads Rashi to comment as follows: “The leaders of your tribes.” Some suggest that Rashi's comments are necessary given that the leaders themselves are obviously part of their respective tribe. While that may be true, perhaps there is also a deeper point Rashi is trying to make, which is that when it comes to the "head," it makes little sense to speak of more than one. There is only one head. That head is the tribe, as Rashi notes in a different place, "HaNassi Hu HaKol," the head of the tribe is everything.
We see this in Rashi's discussion of apparently repetitive verses found in Vayelech, which are also repeated in the Book of Joshua. In Vayelech, Moshe urges the Jewish people as follows:
Be strong and courageous! Neither fear, nor be dismayed of them, for the Lord, your God He is the One Who goes with you. He will neither fail you, nor forsake you." (Devarim 31:6)
He then immediately urges Joshua in a similar manner:

7. And Moses called Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous! For you shall come with this people to the land which the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them. And you shall apportion it to them as an inheritance. (Devarim 31:6)
Towards the end of the Torah portion, he again urges Joshua:
And He commanded Joshua the son of Nun, and said: "Be strong and courageous! For you shall bring the children of Israel to the land that I have sworn to them, and I will be with you." (Devarim 31:23)
Rashi compares the two times that Moshe addresses Joshua, and draws a contrast between the two:
for you shall come with this people: Heb. כִּי אַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה [as the Targum renders:]“For you shall come with this people,” [hence, the אֶת here means “with.” Accordingly, Moses’ statement of leadership role to Joshua can be understood as follows]: Moses said to Joshua, “The elders of the generation will be with you, [for] everything should be done according to their opinion and counsel.”
Rashi continues:
In contrast, however, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Joshua,“For you shall bring (תָּבִיא) the children of Israel to the land which I have sworn to them” (verse 23). [God’s statement of leadership role to Joshua here means:] “You shall bring them [even if it is] against their will! Everything depends [only] upon you; [if necessary,] you must take a rod and beat them over their heads! There can be [only] one leader for a generation, not two leaders for a generation.”- [Sanh. . 8a]
While Joshua is told to take advice from the elders as a whole and to follow their opinions and counsel, he must also understand that he is the one in charge and the one that is ultimately going to be held accountable.
[As an aside, it is interesting that Rashi goes as far as stating that if necessary, Joshua is to take a rod and beat [the Jewish people] over their heads, because Moshe himself was punished for apparently much less than that, taking a staff and hitting a rock, instead of speaking to it. It comes to teach us that Moshe was not necessarily wrong in principle by hitting the rock, it's just that this was not what G-d had commanded.]
In the Book of Joshua, the repetition of the verse "be strong and courageous" is said to represent two different aspects of life altogether:
Be strong and have courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land that I have sworn to their ancestors to give to them. (Joshua, 1:6)
RASHI - Be strong and have courage: in worldly pursuits, as the Scripture states: “For you will cause this nation to inherit the land.”
Just be strong and very courageous to observe and do in accordance with all of the Torah that Moses My servant has commanded you. Do not stray therefrom right or left, in order that you succeed wherever you go. (Joshua, 1:7)
RASHI - Just be strong and very courageous: in Torah, as the Scripture states: “To observe and to do in accordance with all of the Torah.”
We also see that Joshua strength and courage as the head of the Jewish people is ultimately for the purpose of being connected to his head, Moses.
There is a very important application of the above in our daily lives, especially as the Torah portion of Nitzavim (as usually Vayelech as well) always comes before Rosh Hashanah. There is something to be learned from all the sages, all the Tzadikim, and there is certainly a way to do everything according to their will. Yet, at the same time, there must be one ultimate head of the generation, just as we observe only one head of the year. We also cannot choose to have one leader and apply a set of standards for "religious" considerations and another for worldly matters. Ultimately, they both stem from the same place, and we must have a single leader (and set of principles) to guide us in both areas of life.
Again, that is not to say that we are not supposed to learn from all the sages (and from every individual, as stated in Pirkei Avot). Similarly, this is also not to say that there is not a hierarchy in leadership, just as each tribe had a leader, who in turn was ultimately subservient to their leader, the head of the entire generation. Ultimately even the head of generation is but simple and completely nullified and subservient slave in the hands of the One and Only. The King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Desert in Words: Seeing the Whole Picture and the Torah Portion of Ki Tavoh

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, begins with the description of the offering of the first fruits in the Temple and contains a long series of "curses" if the Jewish people do not follow Hashem's commandments.

In the ritual of bringing the first fruit, there is a fascinating recitation that each individual makes, in which he retells the story of the Jewish people. Its beginning, and particularly the choice of words used, is the subject of much commentary and debate:

5. And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. 

RASHI - An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather: [The declarer] mentions [here] the kind deeds of the Omnipresent [by stating]: “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather.” That is, Laban, when he pursued Jacob, sought to uproot [i.e., annihilate] all [the Jews], and since he intended to do so, the Omnipresent considered it as though he had actually done it (Sifrei 26:5)...

who then went down to Egypt: And [apart from Laban,] still others came upon us to annihilate us, for after this, Jacob went down to Egypt [“and the Egyptians treated us cruelly…”]. 

with a small number of people: [Namely,] seventy persons. — [Sifrei 26: 5; see Gen. 46:27

The following verses go on to speak of how the Jews were miraculously saved by G-d's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and how they were brought now brought to the Land of Milk and Honey, and to the Temple.

Not only is the verse about the "Aramean" puzzling,  but Rashi's comment, as well as its placement, is even more so. How is a description of the suffering of our forefather Jacob, as well as continued the suffering in Egypt and beyond, part of the description of the "kind deeds of the Omnipresent?" Yet, that is exactly the case. Rashi is coming to teach us that the end of the story is dependent on its beginning. The suffering in the hands of the Aramean is what helped transform Jacob into Israel. The suffering the Jewish people as a whole is what made possible for them to have such a close and deep bond with G-d, to the point that they merited the revelation of G-d Himself and His miraculous redemption.

When one is in the middle of the suffering, one cannot hope to see how the present struggle will ultimately lead to positive and even miraculous outcome. When one plants a seed, that seed is stuffed into the ground and even decomposes. It is hard to see how this could lead to something good. Yet, when one has the first fruit in hand, and merits to bring it as an offering to G-d in the Temple itself, then it becomes clear that all that suffering was not in vain, but rather was fundamental in developing a closer relationship with G-d and in the success that followed.

This message is equally applicable to the curses that come towards the end of the Torah portion. The suffering described is also not for naught. It is part and parcel of the ultimate, highest blessings that are still to come. In fact these blessings are included in the very words used for the curses, albeit in a hidden fashion. It is simply a matter of interpretation.

Similarly, in a sense, Laban the Aramean did "destroy" Jacob, since Jacob was no longer the same after his experience living with such an evil and deceiving individual. The suffering and "destruction" that Jacob underwent made a him a better and stronger person, both spiritually and physically. This is true for Jacob as well as for all of his descendants. This was seen clearly in the times of the Tabernacle and of the first two Temples, and will be seen clearly again soon, with the building of the final Third Temple, speedily in our days. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Desert in Words: Tackling the "Evil" Inclination and the Torah Portion of Ki Tetzeh

This week's Torah portion begins with speaking about going to war and finding a captive. Our sages teach us that even though the Torah seems to be speaking about a physical war against an enemy nation, the verses are also applicable to our own internal spiritual war, against the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination.

In fact, Rashi states as much quite explicitly, even though, his statement is usually read in a different way:

10. If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, 11. and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife.
ולקחת לך לאשה: לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע

 you may take [her] for yourself as a wife: Scripture is speaking only against the evil inclination. For if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. [The Torah teaches us, however, that] if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives-one beloved and the other despised]” (verse 15); [moreover] he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these passages are juxtaposed. — [Tanchuma 1]

The traditional reading of this Rashi is that, in permitting this marriage, the Torah is allowing the soldier to do, what he would likely do anyway because of his evil inclination. His desire for this woman would be so strong, that it's better to allow him to take her in a permissible way.

Perhaps an equally valid reading of Rashi would be simply to interpret Rashi to mean that this captive from your enemy's land is itself the evil inclination. All three segments mentioned by Rashi can be read in this way: the "beautiful captive" is the evil inclination, also the "despised wife," as well as the "wayward and rebellious son."
The evil inclination is not really "evil." It's is our natural, self-centered, animal instinct, which is base, yet nevertheless important for survival. In Kabbalah and Chassidut, instead of good and evil inclinations, the terms used are G-dly soul and animal soul.

The animal soul attracts us, on a base level because of the physical pleasures it can bring us, but on a higher level, for the mitzvoth we can accomplish with it. After all, most mitzvoth are physical in nature, so the physical drives of the animal soul are important to get the mitzvoth done in the best possible way. However, before being able to use the animal soul for mitzvoth, it has to be somewhat disarmed or "defanged:"

12. You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. 13. And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you.
In Judaism, there are proper ways to perform physical acts that constitute mitzvoth. The most common are probably eating and having marital relations in a kosher way, but there are others as well, such as proper commercial dealings, proper speech, etc.

Not everyone in the Jewish people is necessarily required or up for the task of constantly engaging the animal soul to perform mitzvoth.

14. And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her.

There is room in Judaism for those that want to lead a more spiritual existence, such as those that wish to lead a life of Torah study. However, the Torah warns that one should not do so "for money." Pirkei Avot states, "Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig."

Judaism does not believe in complete ascetism. Some level of physicality will always be present. Still, those that have "afflicted" their animal soul, and chosen not to use it for mitzvoth, will not be able to "keep her as a servant." For these people, the animal soul will not be a very strong tool or aid in their G-dly service.

Similarly, when it comes to the son of the beloved wife (the G-dly soul) and the son of the despised wife (the animal soul), a person must realize that the animal soul is actually the firstborn. The animal soul comes to a person first, much before the G-dly soul. One should not underestimate its importance.

17. Rather, he must acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the despised [wife] and give him a double share in all that he possesses, because he [this firstborn son] is the first of his strength, then he has the birthright entitlement.
Yet, there are aspects of the Yetzer HaRah that have no positive characteristics whatsoever. There are parts of the animal soul that are like Amalek: wayward and rebellious to the extreme, a "glutton and a guzzler." These parts have to be destroyed altogether:

21. And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The words in Hebrew for "listen and fear" are Yishme'u veYira'u,  יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ - containing the roots for Reiyah (sight) and Shmiyah (hearing). These in turn are the roots for the names Reuven and Shimon, the first two sons of Jacob.

A question arises as to how the above applies to our patriarch Jacob on a simple level. There is a tradition that our patriarchs were so spiritually sensitive that they kept the Torah much before it was given at Mount Sinai. If so, how is it that Jacob gave the right of firstborn to Joseph, the son of Rachel, the wife he most loved, instead of Reuben, the firstborn, son of Leah?

Comes the Torah and joins the segment regarding the sons of the two wives to the segment regarding the wayward and rebellious son. A son that is deserving of death certainly would not be entitled to anything. There are differences of opinions as to what exactly were the sins of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, but there is one sin that all the older brothers of Joseph committed, which is in fact punishable by death. This sin is also addressed in this week's Torah portion (Ch. 24):

7. If a man is discovered kidnapping any person from among his brothers, of the children of Israel, and treats him as a slave and sells him that thief shall die, so that you shall clear out the evil from among you.
The brothers kidnapped Yoseph HaTzadik (Joseph the Righteous) and sold him as a slave. Rashi explains that there are other requirements for the death penalty, which were not met by Joseph's brothers, such as witnesses and a warning, and treating the person as a slave. Nevertheless, the verse appears to be direct reference to Joseph's situation. By kidnapping Joseph, the older brothers appear to have forfeited their firstborn right. As the Torah itself shows, it was exactly by kidnapping Joseph that the brothers brought upon themselves the very thing they were trying to avoid: Joseph's rule over them.

In fact, we read about this verse on Yom Kippur, in the context of the death of the Asarah Harugei Malchut, the Ten Martyrs (including tzadikim such as Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva) who were viciously killed by the Romans. The Roman emperor used this exact verse to justify killing the ten sages. He stated that their death was necessary to atone for the sin of the ten brothers of Joseph.

 Let us not wait until Yom Kippur to remember the lessons of repentance and atonement. Let us start today, right now, to tackle our animal inclination, treat our brothers properly, and to attach ourselves to Tzadikim Amiti'im, the true sages, of our generation and of the past. May we then merit to see the true and complete redemption of our people and of the world at large.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Desert in Words: Justice as a Communal Obligation and the Torah Portion of Shoftim

The Torah portion of Shoftim begins with a discussion of the appointment of judges. Below are a few of Rashi's comments on this subject:

18. You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. 

Judges and law-enforcement officials: Heb. שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים. שֹׁפְטִים are judges who decide the verdict, and שֹׁטְרִים are those who chastise the people in compliance with their order, (who strike and bind [not found in early editions]) with rods and straps, until he [the guilty party] accepts the judge’s verdict.

and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment: Appoint judges who are expert and righteous so that they will judge justly. — [from Sifrei]

19. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.
You shall not pervert justice: [This is to be understood] according to its apparent meaning.  

you shall not show favoritism: Even during the statement of pleas [by the litigants]. This is an admonition addressed to the judge, that he should not be lenient with one litigant and harsh with the other, [e.g., ordering] one to stand [while allowing] the other to sit, because as soon as one notices that the judge is showing more respect toward his opponent, he cannot plead his case any longer [because he thinks that it will be of no use].

20. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.

Justice, justice shall you pursue: Seek out a good court. (Sifrei; San. 32b)

that you may live, and you possess [the land]: The appointment of fitting judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land. — [from Sifrei]

 It's very interesting to note that Rashi establishes obligations not only on those in the government in charge of appointing judges, not only on the judges themselves, but also on the law-enforcement officers as well as on the guilty parties. Last but not least, is the obligation of every litigant in seeking out a good court.

The pursuit of justice is truly a communal mitzvah, applicable to every single person and to the nation as a whole. It therefore comes as no surprise that the reward for appointing fitting judges is also a national one: "sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land."

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Desert in Words: Destroying by Failing to Destroy and the Torah Portion of Re'eh

This week's Torah portion begins by Hashem laying out two paths before us: the path of blessing if we follow Hashem's commandments, and the opposite if we do not. The Torah then begins to enumerate some of those statutes, and contains a very puzzling statement:
1. These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep to perform in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live on the earth.
2. You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.
3. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.
4. You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.
How could we possibly thinking of doing so to Hashem? Rashi picks up on this, and addresses it in a long comment:
RASHI - "You shall not do so [to the Lord your God]: to burn sacrifices to God in any place you choose, but rather at the place that He will choose. Another explanation is: “And you shall tear down their altars… and destroy their name… [but] do not do so [to the Lord your God]”; this is an admonition [addressed] to one who would erase the Name [of God from any writing] or remove a stone from the altar or from the courtyard (Mak. 22a). Rabbi Ishmael said: Would it enter your mind that the Israelites would tear down the altars [of God]? Rather, [the meaning of “You shall not do so” is that] you should not do like the deeds of the nations so that your sins would cause the sanctuary of [i.e., built by] your fathers to be destroyed. — [Sifrei]"
Obviously, no one of the Jewish people would intentionally try to destroy Hashem's altar or His name. However, what the Torah is trying to tell us is that by allowing the worship of other gods, one would be in fact hurting Hashem's presence in the world. The utter destruction mandated by the Torah here parallels the total destruction of Amalek. Failure to destroy Amalek has a similar impact on Hashem's name: “And he said, For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
RASHI - For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal: The hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, was raised to swear by His throne, to have a war and [bear] hatred against Amalek for eternity. Now what is the meaning of כֵּס [as opposed to כִּסֵא and also [why is] the Divine Name divided in half? [I.e., why is the Name יָ-הּ used instead of י-ה-ו-ה ?] [The answer is that] the Holy One, blessed be He, swore that His Name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated. And when his name is obliterated, the Divine Name will be complete, and the throne will be complete, as it is said: “The enemy has been destroyed; swords exist forever (לָנֶצַח)” (Ps. 9:7); this [who they are referring to] is Amalek, about whom it is written: “and kept their fury forever (נֶצַח)” (Amos 1:11). "And You have uprooted the cities-their remembrance is lost" (Ps. 9:7) [i.e., Amalek’s obliteration]. What does it say afterwards? “And the Lord (וַיהוה) shall sit forever” (Ps. 9:8); thus [after Amalek is obliterated] the Name is complete. "He has established His throne (כִּסְאוֹ) for judgment" (Ps. 9:8). Thus the throne is complete [i.e., thus the throne, here spelled with an “aleph,” is now complete]. — [from Midrash Tanchuma, end of Ki Theitzei]
Amalek affects not only Hashem's name, but also his throne. Perhaps that is also why this week's Torah portion complements the discussion of the need to destroy altars and images of alien gods with a discussion of the ultimate place of G-d's throne, Jerusalem:
5. But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

6. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

7. And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you.
We find a similar parallel in Maimonides' ruling regarding who is Mashiach, the messiah (Laws of Kings and Wars 1:4):
If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
It is only after there is proper observance of Torah and the wars of G-d have been successfully fought, only can the Temple be built in its place. Then, as we say in the end of the Aleinu prayer, which concludes each of our daily services, "One that day, He will be One and His Name, One."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Desert in Words: G-d's Committment to the Land, and the Torah Portion of Eikev

One of the main themes of this week's Torah portion is primarily about reward for following G-d's commandments. Last week's sixth Aliyah (reading) contained the first paragraph of the Shemah, and this week's portion contains the Shemah's second paragraph. It also contains a somewhat puzzling comment by Rashi.

The sixth aliyah has a few additional verses before reaching the part contained in the Shemah:

10. For the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by foot, like a vegetable garden.
11. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven,

12. a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13. And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul...

Rashi - And it will be, if you hearken: וְהָיָה (Vehayah) is referring to what is said above (verse 11):“and absorbs water from the rains of heaven”

Why does Rashi feel that it is necessary to note that Vehayah is referring back to verse 11 (describing rain) and not a continuation of the previous verse, about how Hashem's eyes are always upon the Land "from the beginning of the year to the end of the year?"

The answer, perhaps, is a simple one. As mentioned previously, much of this Torah portion is about a certain quid pro quo, reward and punishment. Rashi's comment serves to emphasize that G-d's eyes will always upon the Land. Unlike the rain, harvests, etc., this is not subject to change. G-d will always look after the Land in a very special way, no matter what.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Desert in Words: "Giving it All You've Got" and the Parashah of Va'etchanan

This week's Torah portion speaks of how Hashem pleaded with G-d to let him into the Land of Israel, so much so that Hashem had to tell him to stop asking. It also describes the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, and concludes with the first paragraph of the Shemah:

4. Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.
5. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your means.
6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart.
7. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.
8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.

9. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.
(Deuteronomy, Chapter 6)

Rashi's comments on these verses are quite incisive. However, there is one in particular comment that stands out: "and with all your means: with all your possessions. There are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their own bodies. Therefore, it says, 'and with all your means.'" 

Rashi's comments are almost always a response to an inherent simple question that would bother a sharp five-year-old. The question here seems to be, "Why mention 'with all your means' at all? Wouldn't  'with all your heart and with all your soul' also imply with 'all your means' as well?" Especially since Rashi had just stated regardgin "with all your soul," that it means, "Even if He takes your soul." Rashi therefore answers that this is not necessarily the case because there are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their own bodies.

Interestingly, Rashi does not say that there are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their souls. That would appear to have been a more direct correlation with the previous verse. Why then does Rashi particularly state, "their bodies?"

Perhaps the answer is that what was bothering Rashi was a different question altogether. The verses of the Shemah appear related to three different dimensions of a person: intellectual/spiritual ("soul," which rests is in the mind"), emotional (heart) and physical ("means," action).

Rashi's inherent question then would have been: "Regarding the physical realm/dimension, why does the Torah state "your means," instead of "your body." Rashi than answers that a person can (and should) reach a level of involvement in the world in which their possessions are literally their  "means" in which to affect the world, and become more precious to them than their own body. 

This second way of understanding Rashi's inherent question would be a more positive way of interpreting Rashi's comment, and would appear to be in line with the Talmud's own statement in Chullin 91a regarding our forefather Jacob's going back across the river Jabok to pick up some small vessels he left behind. The Talmud states there that, "From here [we may infer] that the money of righteous people (Tzadikim) is more precious to them than their bodies." Jacob had crossed the river alone at night, when he encountered Esau's angel, who attacked him.

Encountering Esau's angel appears to have been a good thing to have happened to Jacob, because his victory over him is ultimately what gave him the confidence to face down Esau himself the following day. The Kli Yakar, however, disagrees, and sees Jacob's behavior as overly materialistic and Esau's angel attack as a punishment. The statement of the Talmud would then need to be interpreted as "even the money of Tzadikim can become more precious than their bodies." (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/salt-bereishit/08-15vayishlach.htm)

Regarding Rashi, the question remains. Is his statement regarding certain people viewing money being more precious than their bodies ultimately positive or negative? Is it talking about somebody who is overly materialistic or of someone who is so righteous that they see a higher purpose in their money? The fact that Rashi slightly changed the words of the Talmud and does not use the term "righteous" (Tzadik) but simply "Adam," man/person, suggests that he is in fact referring to both scenarios. This is also hinted at by the second part of this explanation to this verse:

Another explanation of וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ [and with all your means"] is: You shall love God with whatever measure (מִדָּה) He metes out to you, whether it be the measure of good or the measure of retribution. Thus also did David say: “I will lift up the cup of salvations [and I will call upon the name of the Lord]” (Ps. 116:12-13); “I found trouble and grief [and I called out in the name of the Lord]” (Ps. 116:3-4).

In both cases, whether you are a righteous individual and you "lift up the cup"  (elevating your posessions to holiness and bringing the world closer to G-d), or if instead you are still over materialistic and that causes you to be encountered by "trouble and grief"), either way you must love G-d. Love him with everything you've got.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Desert in Words: "All of Israel" and the Torah Portion of Devarim

This past week we began a new Book of the Torah: Devarim ("Words") in Hebrew. In keeping with the month of Av, and Tisha B'Av, which is upon us, the words that open the Book are actually words of rebuke. Rashi points out that the rebuke, however, is said quite indirectly.

א. אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר משֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב:

1. These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on the side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.

Rashi: These are the words: Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them, [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel (cf. Sifrei)

Rashi also notes that these words were said to every single person of Israel:

Rashi: to all Israel: If he had rebuked only some of them, those who were in the marketplace [i.e., absent] might have said, “You heard from [Moses] the son of Amram, and did not answer a single word regarding this and that; had we been there, we would have answered him!” Therefore, he assembled all of them, and said to them, “See, you are all here; if anyone has an answer, let him answer!” - [from Sifrei]

Rashi then starts listing each of the places mentioned in the above verse and relating it to each of the major sins of the Jews in the desert. There is, however, one apparent gap in Rashi's analysis. Rashi begins by mentioning "in the desert," as the first place, related to the sin of having angered Hashem in the desert. In the above verse, though, "in the desert," is not the first place mentioned. Rather, the first geographic position noted is, "on the side of the Jordan," in Hebrew, "בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן (B'Ever HaYarden)."

Why did Rashi not link this place to one of the sins of the Jewish people. The answer perhaps is that this one is a reference not to any particular, but to the whole. It appears to be connected to the previous part of the verse,  "to all Israel," as B'Ever HaYarden is reminiscent of the first partriarch of the Jewish people, Avraham Ha'Ivri (the Hebrew). Avraham is called Ha'Ivri because he stood on one side (believing in One G-d), while the entire world stood on the other. It may well also be a reference to the other side of the Jordan as well. The Jordan itself also symbolizes the all-encompassing whole. It runs from the Sea of Galilee, in the north of Israel all the way to its south, down to the Dead Sea.

There is however, also a hint to concept of the sins of Israel as a whole. The Hebrew word for Jordan, Yarden, is composed of the word Yarad (descended) and the final Nun, Nun-Sofit. The Nun is often associated with the word Nephilah, fall. However, the Nun is also associated with the redeemer, Moshe, and the final Nun with the final redeemer, Mashiach. (See Book 6, on the current, 14th cycle of 22 days of the year, here)

Every descent is only for the sake of a greater ascent. In order to learn how to walk, sometimes it is necessary to fall first. The main thing is to remain united, connected to the whole. If we do so, we are certain to merit

Monday, July 25, 2011

Words in the Desert: The Journey as the Cure and the Torah Portion of Ma'asei

This week's Torah portion speaks of the 42 journeys of the Jewish people in the desert. The second Rashi's opening comments make a parallel between Hashem and the Jewish people and a king that is taking his son back from a journey to find a cure for him:

1. These are the journeys of the children of Israel who left the land of Egypt in their legions, under the charge of Moses and Aaron.

RASHI: ... It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a far away place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey, saying to him, “This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache etc.” - [Mid. Tanchuma Massei 3, Num. Rabbah 23:3]

What is the cure and what is the illness? The Jewish people had not entered the Land yet. They were now at its border, ready to enter. Wouldn't it be more appropriate for Rashi to speak about an upcoming cure? And why are they on their way back?

The answer is that coming to Israel is the way back. The cure was the exile itself. Rebbe Nosson of Breslov speaks of how the exile took place because of a lack of faith. The exile and the wondering in the desert made it possible for that faith to be restored.

Similarly, the Counting of the Omer represents a period in which we cure ourselves. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that 49 is the gematria of Choleh, sick. Only after we are cured can we receive the Torah.
49 also equals the number of journeys (42) plus the number of Cana'anite nations to be conquered (7). The first 42 days of the omer, as well as the 42 journeys, are about internal rectification, the sefirot of Chesed through Yesod. From 43 to 49, we tackle our outwardly behavior, in dealing with the reality of the world around. That reality must be conquered, and that requires "curing" the Sefirah of Malchut, kingship. Don't be afraid to show the world who's Boss.

Observation: It is well known that G-d's seal is truth, Emet, in Hebrew. There is also a well known explanation that the word Emet itself represents truth because its gematria is 441, and 4+4+1 = 9. 9 is a number very much connected to truth because any multiple of 9, if you sum up their digits, is a multiple of 9. For example, 18 is 1+8=9, 27 is 2+7=9, 36, 45, and so on.

In addition to the above well known concept, there also appears to be a another reason 441 is chosen. 441, for the reasons explained above, is also a multiple of the number 9. But not just any multiple: 441 is 49 x 9. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Words in the Desert: Verbal Agreements and the Torah Portion of Matot

This week's Torah portion contains a striking parallel between how it begins and how it ends. The portion begins as follows:

2. Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing the Lord has commanded. 3. If a man makes a vow to the Lord or makes an oath to prohibit himself, he shall not violate his word; according to whatever proceeded from his mouth, he shall do.
ב. וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה אֶל רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהֹוָה

ג. אִישׁ כִּי יִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַיהֹוָה אוֹ הִשָּׁבַע שְׁבֻעָה לֶאְסֹר אִסָּר עַל נַפְשׁוֹ לֹא יַחֵל דְּבָרוֹ כְּכָל הַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיו יַעֲשֶׂה:
Towards the end of the Torah portion, the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe ask Moshe to dwell on the other side of the Jordan, not in the Land of Israel proper. They promise to join the rest of the people in conquering the land, and "build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children." Moshe responds:

24. So build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep, and what has proceeded from your mouth you shall do."

כד. בְּנוּ לָכֶם עָרִים לְטַפְּכֶם וּגְדֵרֹת לְצֹנַאֲכֶם וְהַיֹּצֵא מִפִּיכֶם תַּעֲשׂוּ:
Rashi famously comments on how Moshe changes the order of the Tribes' promise. He states as follows:

We shall build sheepfolds for our livestock here: They were more concerned about their possessions than about their sons and daughters, since they mentioned their livestock before [mentioning] their children. Moses said to them, “Not so! Treat the fundamental as a fundamental, and the matter of secondary importance as a matter of secondary importance. First ‘build cities for your children,’ and afterwards 'enclosures for your sheep’” (verse 24) - [Mid. Tanchuma Mattoth 7]
Another comment made by Rashi, perhaps not as famous, is on the phrase that links the beginning of the Parasha to its end:

and what has proceeded from your mouth you shall do: for the sake of the Most High [God], for you have undertaken to cross over for battle until [the completion of] conquest and the apportionment [of the Land]. Moses had asked of them only “and… will be conquered before the Lord, afterwards you may return,” (verse 22), but they undertook,“until… has taken possession” (verse 18). Thus, they added that they would remain seven years while it was divided, and indeed they did so (see Josh. 22).

Moshe is holding the Tribes accountable for an additional condition, which Moshe himself had not asked of them. Moshe asked that they stay until the Land be conquered, but they vowed to stay until the Land had been properly apportioned, which required that they stay an additional seven years. 

The question is: how could Moshe hold them to this requirement if in fact they did not pledge to this in the form of a vow. All they said was, "We shall not return to our homes until each of the children of Israel has taken possession of his inheritance." One could even argue that they were still "negotiating" with Moshe.

From here we learn again, what is the main theme of the Book of Bamidbar: the tremendous power of words. (Midbar means desert, but has at its root Davar, word). One has to be so very careful about what one says, certainly involving the bad, but regarding the good as well. In Jewish law, any expression of willingness to perform a mitzvah or good deed brings upon an obligation.

Moshe is therefore able to take something that seemed abstract and perhaps even out-of-place in the outset of the parashah, and drive it home in the most practical of ways: a few added words led to a commitment to stay seven more years away from their families and livestock, and as Rashi concludes, "indeed they did so."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Words in the Desert: Earning One's Place and the Torah Portion of Pinchas


This week's Torah portion begins with the description of the great reward given to Pinchas for his dramatic act of killing the prince of the tribe of Shimon and the Midianite princess with whom he was openly having relations. In doing so, he stopped the plague that had engulfed the Jewish people. The plague had resulted also from the worshipping of the Midianite idol known as Baal Peor. The reward that Pinchas receives is nothing less than Kehunah, the priesthood.

There is, however, somewhat of mystery to the reward given. One would think that Pinchas, son of Elazar, the Kohen Gadol, would already be considered a Kohen. Rashi explains:

10. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11. Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.  12. Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace. 13. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel." 

RASHI:  an eternal covenant of kehunah: Although the kehunah had already been given to Aaron’s descendants, it had been given only to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him, and to their children whom they would beget after their anointment. Phinehas, however, who was born before that and had never been anointed, had not been included in the kehunah until now. And so, we learn in [Tractate] Zevachim [101b],“Phinehas was not made a kohen until he killed Zimri.”

Why is it that Aaron's sons, as well as future generations, received the priesthood automatically, while Pinchas had to earn it?

We know that in spirituality, certain positions and even character traits are inherited. Judaism itself is something inherited from our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Those that wish to join our people (converts), must earn that right through what is often a long and cumbersome process.

The Torah states that the priesthood was given to Yocheved for her bravery in saving the Jewish newborn babies and ignoring Pharaoh's orders. This reward materialized with Aharon, her eldest son, who showed great initiative in meeting his brother Moshe and being an essential part of the redemption process. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, Aharon himself embodied the ideals of the covenant of peace: He "loves peace and pursues peace, loves the creations and brings them closer to the Torah."

Why then was Pinchas left out? One can certainly assume that he had already inherited the same qualities (from Yocheved and Aharon) that Elazar and the other Kohanim had inherited.

Perhaps the answer is that Hashem wanted to give Pinchas an additional reward and connection to the Kehunah. To earn something, as opposed to getting it as an inheritance, is certainly a lot more special. Yes, the qualities were there all along. However, because Pinchas was able to specifically do something to become a Kohen, it was that much more special.

The same is true regarding converts, as well as our final redemption. Yes, converts have the qualities necessary to become Jewish all along (their souls too were at Sinai), but when they become Jewish through their own efforts, it's that much more special. Yes, Hashem has the ability to redeem us at any moment, but when we put in our own efforts, and share in its coming into being, we will value it that much more. And so will He.  


Monday, July 4, 2011

Words in the Desert: Horrible Bosses and the Torah Portion of Balak


This week's Torah portion is about the greatest prophet among the gentiles, Bilaam, and the evil king Balak, that hired him to curse the Jewish people. Instead of a curse, Bilaam delivers one of the most beautiful blessings ever delivered to our people. 

The Shem M'Shmuel states that Balak and Bilaam were trying hard to nullify everything that Avraham, Itzchak and Yaakov accomplished, and prevent the Jewish people from entering our Promised Land.

The parallels between Avraham and Bilaam are quite extraordinary. Avraham is told that whoever blesses him will be blessed and whoever curses him will be cursed. About Bilaam it states, whoever he curses will be cursed and whoever he blesses will be blessed. 

When embarking on a mission, the Torah states that Avraham arose early in the mourning and saddled his donkey. Almost the same words are used in describing Bilaam's preparations:

21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.

Rashi picks up on this parallel and comments on the above verse: 

saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’” (Gen. 22:3). - [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 8, Num. Rabbah 20:12]

Another striking parallel is that both men took with them two young men to accompany them in their mission. Rashi's comments in both passages regarding this are very similar, but far from identical. Regarding Abraham, it states:

3. And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

RASHI - his two young men: Ishmael and Eliezer, for a person of esteem is not permitted to go out on the road without two men, so that if one must ease himself ["go to the bathroom"] and move to a distance, the second one will remain with him. 

Regarding Bilaam:

22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.  

RASHI - and his two servants were with him: From here we learn that a distinguished person who embarks on a journey should take two people with him to attend to him, and then they can attend to each other.

Why does Rashi change the wording, regarding Bilaam. Why is it necessary to state that the servants of Avraham will need to distance themselves and go to the bathroom, while regarding Bilaam it says that they will attend to each other. Wouldn't one expect the more "respectful" (non-bathroom) language to be used regarding Avraham and not Bilaam?

The answer is that Avraham's encampment, like that of the Jewish people, was holy. One of the laws regarding a holy encampment is that one may not defecate among it. One must distance oneself and cover the excrement. The servants of Avraham would have to distance themselves when going to the bathroom. Although Bilaam praises the Jewish encampment for being holy, his own encampment was not. Quite the contrary, it was of the utmost impurity, and there was no need whatsoever to distance it from filth.

Similarly, Avraham's servants had a gracious and generous master, someone who knew their limits and would not overwhelm them. When one had to leave, the other would be able to attend to him. Bilaam was self-centered egotistical and the servants needed each other just to be able to cope with their master's vain demands, which most likely were anything but realistic, as we see regarding his interaction with his mule.

As Pirkei Avot makes clear, we must always strive to be students of Avraham, staying holy and pure, and deserving of the highest blessings, that had to be brought down through the impure mouth of the unholy Bilaam.


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