Weekly Cycle

Monday, June 27, 2011

Words in the Desert: Miriam, the Red Heifer, and the Torah Portion of Chukat


This week's Torah portion begins with the description of the purification ritual of the "Red Heifer" followed by mentioning of the death of Miriam. Rashi notes the juxtaposition of these two subjects in verses regarding Miriam and states as follows:

1. The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.

RASHI - Miriam died there: Why is the passage relating Miriam’s death juxtaposed with the passage of the Red Cow? To teach you that just as sacrifices bring atonement, so the death of the righteous secure atonement. — [M.K. 28a].

The parallels between Miriam and the Red Heifer appear to go beyond the idea of atonement for the Jewish people. The Red Heifer appears related to atonement for Miriam herself. The Red Heifer is said to be an atonement for the cardinal sin of idolatry, related to the Golden Calf (a young cow), but it also appears to be related to a sin that is equal to all three cardinal sins (idolatry, murder, and adultery): Lashon HaRah, evil speech. Miriam's words regarding Moshe, even though they were said with the best of intentions, is the quintessential example of Lashon HaRah. Below are two verses that recount the occurence and Miriam's punishment. The opening verse of the story and the last one:

1. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married (lit. “taken”), for he had married (lit. “taken”) a Cushite woman.

15. So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had entered.

Regarding the Red Heifer, the first verses of our Torah portion contain very similar language to the above:
1. The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:
2. This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.
3. And you shall give it to Eleazar the kohen, and he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it in his presence.
4. Eleazar the kohen shall take from its blood with his finger and sprinkle it toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.

Rashi's comments also parallel Miriam and her actions towards Moshe:

RASHI - This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “ What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute.” I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it. — [Yoma 67b]
and have them take for you: It will always be called on your name; 'the cow which Moses prepared in the desert.’- [Mid. Tanchuma Chukath 8, see Etz Yosef]
perfectly red: lit., red, perfect. It shall be perfect in redness, so that two black hairs disqualify it. — [Sifrei Chukath 5]
1) Just as Miriam was told by Hashem that she has no right to challenge Moshe's separation from his wife, so too, the Satan and the nations are told that they have no right to challenge the mitzvah of the Red Heifer.
2) Just as Miriam is introduced in the Torah as Miriam's sister, so to the Red Heifer will always be called by Moshe's name.
3) Just as Miriam attempted to disqualify Moshe's actions regarding his marriage to a "Cushite" (black) woman, which is repeated twice, so too, even just two black hairs disqualify a Red Heifer. 
There are other parallels between Miriam and the Red Heifer. Miriam is the ancestor of King David, who is described in the Torah as being red. She merited to have the line of David descend from her because she acted with pure unblemished faith before Pharaoh, when she did not obey his command to kill the newborn children of the Jewish people. 
Miriam was also from the Tribe of Levi, which did not have to serve as slaves in Egypt. She therefore had no yoke placed upon her.
It is interesting to note that in Book I of The Kabbalah of Time, Week 27, the week of the Cow, is very close to Miriam's yahrzeit. That week is also a week connected to purification through the Red Heifer, as it comes immediately prior to Passover.
Moshe's actions following the description of the Red Heifer and Miriam's death, appear to be a further attempt to spiritually fix what Miriam had done. After Miriam speaks to Aharon, Hashem appears and tells them:
6. He said, "Please listen [SHIMU NAH] to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream.
In this week's Torah portion, right after Miriam's death, there is no water for the people:
2. The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moses and Aaron.
RASHI - had no water: From here [we learn that] all forty years they had the well in Miriam’s merit. — [Ta’anith 9a] 
10. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, "Now listen, [SHIMU NAH] you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?"
Moshe was trying, once and for all, to make the people stop doubting their leadership: "Please listen, understand!" The problem was that this time it was Moshe that did not properly understand - Hashem had said to use the staff to gather the people, but not to hit the rock... Miriam, whose merit the water had been provided until now, was known to speak (not hit) to crying children in the gentlest of manners:
 15. Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah.

RASHI - Puah: This was Miriam, [called Puah] because she cried (פּוֹעָה) and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. פּוֹעָה is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry (אֶפְעֶה) " (Isa. 42:14).

After all, knowing the power of words is the main lesson of the entire Book of Bamidbar.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Words in the Desert: Human Calculations and the Torah Portion of Korach

This week's Torah portion depicts Korach's rebellion against Moshe and Aharon and the Divine retribution that followed. Rashi makes an extensive comment that explains the nature of the rebellion, quoted below in most relevant part:

1. Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi took [himself to one side] along with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben.

RASHI - Dathan and Abiram: ... [Korach said] Who is entitled to receive the second [position]? Is it not I, who am the son of Izhar, who is the second brother to Amram? And yet, he [Moses] appointed to the chieftainship the son of his youngest brother! I hereby oppose him and will invalidate his word ...  He dressed [250 men] with cloaks made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes [’tzitzith’], or is it exempt?” He replied, “ It does require [fringes].” They began laughing at him [saying], "Is it possible that a cloak of another [colored] material, one string of blue wool exempts it [from the obligation of techeleth], and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself? 

Korach was very smart. His logic was flawless. There was only one slight problem: the G-d of Israel is not limited to human logic. The main issue with Korach's dispute is not that he was wrong; people make mistakes all the time. The problem was that by limiting the entire situation to logic, he was not only debasing Moshe, but also Israel, the Torah, and G-d Himself. After all, Moshe did not make any decisions on his own. G-d was the One that appointed Moshe and his brother! Moshe did not decide that a cloak of Techelet requires Tzit-Tzit any more than he decided his role as leader. Korach's challenges put him on par with Dathan and Abiram, who our sages teach us, time and again failed to see the G-d's hand in everything that took place since the first moments of redemption from Egypt. It is therefore not coincidental that Rashi's comments are placed next to both of their names.

We also must open our eyes and realize that the events of our lives are truly Divinely ordained, and not simply a product of human calculations.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Words in the Desert: Ants, Grasshoppers and the Torah Portion of Shelach

Thank you to Daniel Najman for thinking of this question in Rashi.

The Torah portion for this week includes the disgraceful account of the spies. All but two of them (Calev and Yehoshuah) went about exploring the Land of Israel in the wrong way, coming back with a negative report. Their report, and the people's reaction to it, caused the Jewish people to wander an additional 40 years, and that entire generation did not enter the Land.

A particularly puzzling part of the spies' report is a comment about how they looked in the eyes of the former inhabitants:

33. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes. 
It is one thing to state how they saw themselves compared to them (which is bad enough), but yet a whole other level of lack of emunah to think that the inhabitants themselves saw them in the same light. How could they know?

Rashi gives an answer to this inherent question by commenting as follows:

RASHI: and so we were in their eyes: We heard them telling each other,“There are ants in the vineyard who look like people.” - [Sotah 35a]

Rashi answers the above question but raises another. Why does the description change from "grasshoppers" to "ants."

Perhaps the answer is as follows: Depending on the context, being seen like an ant can also be a very great compliment. In Proverbs, King Solomon states, "Go to the ant and become wise." (Proverbs 6:6; Perek Shirah 6:6 also!)

Grasshoppers are generally considered pests and not good for the land. Ants are generally considered good and compatible with working the land. The spies, who actually wished to stay in the desert living a completely spiritual existence, were trying to say that we did not belong in the Land of Israel.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The spies had said, "The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants..." They were afraid of its physicality and did not wish to be consumed by it. They did not comprehend that this was Hashem's will. He wants us to engage with the physical and elevate it. That is how we know if our spirituality is real in the first place. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Words in the Desert: Inverted Situations and the Torah Portion of Beha'alotcha

The Torah portion of Beha'alotcha contains a segment demarcated by two inverted nuns, the only such occurence in the Torah. Our sages remark that the nun stands for nefilah, fall, and that it is from this point on that the Jewish people begin to experience spiritual falls. Rashi's commentary on the verse follows a similar line of thinking, but it is not exactly the same:

35. So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.


לה. וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה קוּמָה | יְהֹוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ:

RASHI: So it was, whenever the ark set out: He made marks for it [this passage], before it and after it, as if to indicate that this is not its proper place [in Scripture]. So why was it written here? To make a break between one punishment and the next… as it is stated in [chapter 16 of Talmud Shabbath , commencing with the words] “All the Sacred Scriptures.”

Rashi states that the nuns "make a break between one punishment and the next." There's only one tremendous difficulty with this statement: there is no evidence of any punishment immediately preceding the demarcation. Only after this line does the Torah mention that the Jewish people complained and that this was evil in Hashem's eyes, which caused a fire to burn in the camp. Before, there is no mention of punishment, neither in this portion or the one prior. It is even hard to remember the last time punishment was mentioned at all, except perhaps for the Torah portion of Bechukotai (in the Book of Leviticus!), which is discussing future punishments.

The answer to this question lies perhaps in the fact that we do not really understand what is meant by punishment and what is meant by a spiritual descent.

Immediately prior to the above verse, the Torah describes how Moshe tried to convince Yitro, his fahter-in-law, to come to the Land of Israel with them, but that (at least for now) he refused and returned to his home. This itself can be considered a punishment, because having Yitro with them was a tremendous honor. He after all, was someone who had tried every single idol worship and rejected all of them to accept G-d alone. His departure showed that the Children of Israel had failed to make a significant lasting impression on him that would have made him truly leave everything behind and fully join them, just as he had done initially. Yitro's excitement did not last, which was perhaps an indication that it was never fully there to begin with.

Similarly, the text indicates that the Jewish people themselves were not on such a high spiritual level as they imagined. Our sages teach us that when they departed from the "Mountain of G-d," they were actually willingly trying to escape from G-dliness. This also is the greatest punishment.

When a person sins and is punished, do not think that the sin appeared out of the blue. Rebbe Nachman teaches that the sin is a true indication of your actual level! You might have thought you were much higher than that, but the reality is that you were never so high. The proof is that you now sinned.

The positive side of this is that it leaves no reason to be sad because of sin. Now that you know your true level, you are free to restart your Divine service in a much more true and real way, without delusions of grandeur. Start again, fully trusting in Hashem's mercy and realizing that both the sin and the punishment are actually a FAVOR that G-d does for us, taking us out of our inverted sense of greatness and helping us land on our feet.    

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Words in the Desert: Brides and the Torah Portion of Nasso

This week's Torah portion continues the counting of the Jewish people (specifically the Levites), and contains the laws of the Sotah (wayward wife) and the Nazir (the holy nazirite, who abstained from wine and from cutting his hair). It also describes the completion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the offering of the princes of each one of the Twelve Tribes.

In the middle of the Torah portion, Rashi makes a fascinating comment on the following verse:

1. And it was that on the day that Moses finished erecting the Mishkan, he anointed it, sanctified it, and all its vessels, and the altar and all its vessels, and he anointed them and sanctified them.

א. וַיְהִי בְּיוֹם כַּלּוֹת משֶׁה לְהָקִים אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת כָּל כֵּלָיו וְאֶת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְאֶת כָּל כֵּלָיו וַיִּמְשָׁחֵם וַיְקַדֵּשׁ אֹתָם:

RASHI: And it was that on the day that Moses finished: Heb. כַּלּוֹת. On the day the Mishkan was erected, the Israelites were like a bride (כַּלָּה) entering the nuptial canopy.

The comparison of Israel as G-d's bride, entering the nuptial canopy, sounds familiar. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is often compared to our wedding with G-d. Here, however, the Torah discusses a much later event, after the giving of the Torah, the sin of the golden calf, and the forgiveness we received on the following Yom Kippur.

In life, we have more than one opportunity to be like a bride entering the nuptial canopy. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslev teaches, every moment is an opportunity to start again, from the beginning, in a brand new relationship with G-d and with the world.

Perhaps that is why the Torah specifically used the word כַּלּוֹת in the plural instead of כַּלָּה in the singular. To be a Kalah does not need to be a one time thing. Each of us can be Kalot, starting anew again and again, just as we will receive the Torah again, just like the first time, on Shavuot.


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