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Kee Teitzei 5778-2018

“The Impact of Performing Mitzvot”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Teitzei, has more mitzvot than any other parasha in the Torah, featuring a total of 74 mitzvot, 47 negative and 27 positive.

In her always astute and penetrating analysis of the Torah portions, Nehama Leibowitz, remarks that since Kee Teitzei contains the most mitzvot, it is entirely appropriate to focus on the overall aim and purpose of the Divine commandments, the mitzvot.

The beautiful mitzvah of, שִׁלּוּחַ הַקֵּן, Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs from the nest, that is contained in parashat Kee Teitzei, is a primary example of a most meaningful mitzvah.

The Midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah 6:3, regards the role of mitzvoth, as serving as “good angels.” The good angels accompany those who perform mitzvot, gracing their daily acts and consecrating their earthly deeds.

Mitzvot elevate even a person’s most mundane daily actions, such as tilling the soil, earning a livelihood, acquiring clothing, grooming one’s hair and building one’s house.

The Midrash concludes by saying, “G-d said: Even if you are not engaged in any particular work, but are merely journeying on the road, the precepts [mitzvot] accompany you. From where do we learn this? For it is said: ‘If a bird’s nest chance to be before you in the way,’ etc.” That is why Scripture, in Proverbs 1:9, refers to the performance of mitzvot as לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ, that mitzvot are a crown of glory, a beautiful adornment, a decoration of honor for those who perform them.

Professor Leibowitz points to another approach to understanding the aim of the mitzvot that is found in the Midrash on parashat Shelach. The Torah in Numbers 15:38, declares וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת, that “they make for themselves tzitzit,” fringes on the corners of their garments.

The Midrash states that the Torah and the commandments were given to serve as an inheritance to Israel in the hereafter. Every earthly action and deed is somehow associated with a Torah commandment. An Israelite who goes out to plow, sow, knead dough, who sees a bird’s nest, plants a tree, buries a dead person, builds a house, or wraps himself in a cloak, will invariably encounter a mitzvah that directly pertains to that action.

The Midrash Rabbah in Numbers 17:77 compares it to a case of a person who falls into the water. The captain throws out a rope and shouts to the drowning person, “Take hold of the rope, do not let go, otherwise you’ll lose your life.” So, says the Midrash, G-d says to Israel, “Cleave to the commandments. Adhere to them, for they are your life.”

The first Midrash sees mitzvot as serving as ornaments, adding grace and beauty to a person’s life, as he or she walks through the garden of the Holy One blessed be He, in pursuit of his or her own personal advancement. The second Midrash sees the performance of mitzvot as far more crucial than an ornament. Mitzvot are an essential ingredient of life, saving those who are drowning in the stormy seas of their own selfish passions and pursuits.

Professor Leibowitz cites two mitzvot in the parasha to demonstrate the powerful impact of mitzvot. The first, is the mitzvah of Shilu’ach Ha’kain, of sending away the mother bird, as an example of extraordinary compassion, the compassion shown to a mother bird when taking her chicks. Much more however, does this mitzvah serve as an example of the compassion that human beings are expected to show their fellow human beings, far beyond what might be normally expected.

A second example is the return of lost property. This mitzvah is first mentioned in Exodus 23:4, כִּי תִפְגַּע שׁוֹר אֹיִבְךָ אוֹ חֲמֹרוֹ תֹּעֶה, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֶנּוּ לוֹ, When you encounter your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him. The mitzvah of returning lost property is repeated again in Deuteronomy 22:1, לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים, וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ, You shall not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray and hide yourself from them; you shall, in any case, bring them again to your brother.

Ramban points out that there’s a subtle, but critical, difference between the two verses. The verses in Exodus uses the expression טוֹעֶה, to’eh, lost, whereas the verse in Deuteronomy uses the expression נִדָּחִים, Nidachim, if they were pushed away, implying that they had wandered far afield, requiring much time and effort to recover them.

Nevertheless, no matter how great the effort, the Torah insists on the obligation to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.

The expression in Deuteronomy 22:1, הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם, You shall surely return them, is interpreted in the Talmud to teach that even if the finder brought the lost animal back, and it ran away again, even four or five times, the finder is obligated to bring it back again, and again, until it is restored to its owner.

Rashi says that the phrase, “You shall surely restore them,” teaches that the finder must make certain that there is something to restore to the original owner. While waiting in the finder’s home for the rightful owner to claim his lost property, the lost animal must not be allowed to eat the equivalent of its entire value. Therefore, the finder should rather sell the animal, after a short while, so that there will still be value left to return to the proper owner.

The story is told in the Midrash Rabbah Deuteronomy 3:5, that on one occasion several men came to the city where Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair lived, and deposited with him two measures of barley. Unfortunately, they forgot about their deposit and went away.

Concerned about restoring the value of the barley to the original owners, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair proceeded to sow the barley every year, harvested the crops and stored them. After seven years, when the original owners returned to claim their lost measures of barley, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair called them, and instructed them to take several granaries full of grain, that was harvested from their original two measures of barley.

These exceptional stories vividly demonstrate that the mitzvot can surely be a diadem, a crown, on the human head. Mitzvot help Jews behave in a manner that goes way beyond the call of duty.

As extraordinary as that seems, tradition seems to say that these actions should not be considered extraordinary. Rather, they are to be the Jewish way of life, and without them, we will surely drown.

May you be blessed.

Shoftim 5778-2018

“Identifying the True Prophet”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, we, once again, encounter the difficult challenge of identifying the true prophet who speaks faithfully in the name of the Al-mighty.

In Deuteronomy 18:15, we read, נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ השׁם  אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ  אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן, A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me [Moses] shall the L-rd your G-d establish for you–-to him you shall hearken.

A few verses later, in Deuteronomy 18:20, the Torah warns of the dangers of a false prophet, אַךְ הַנָּבִיא אֲשֶׁר יָזִיד לְדַבֵּר דָּבָר בִּשְׁמִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִיו לְדַבֵּר, וַאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר בְּשֵׁם אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וּמֵת הַנָּבִיא הַהוּא,  But the prophet who will willfully speak a word in My name, that which I have not commanded him to speak, or shall speak in the names of the gods of others–-that prophet shall die.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 18:21, then asks: How can we know for sure that the false prophet is speaking the word that G-d has not spoken? The Torah responds, Deuteronomy 18:22, if the prophet predicts that something will happen, and it does not occur, that prophet has spoken falsely and you shall not fear him.

The general consensus regarding the vetting of prophets is that once a person has gained recognition as a genuine prophet and directs the people to obey the dictates of the Torah, it is required for every Jew to respect and obey that prophet.

The Talmud and the rabbinic codes, clarify the true prophet’s qualifications as well as the false prophet’s deficiencies. A prophet, who insists that a mitzvah of the Torah is forever cancelled, is a false prophet.

While a true prophet may declare that a particular Torah mitzvah is suspended, it may only be suspended temporarily, as a one-time measure. However, if that temporary measure incites people to worship idolatry, that prophet is clearly false.

A true prophet will never speak in the name of other gods. A prophet who encourages people to observe a particular mitzvah of the Torah, but does so in the name of an idolatrous god, such as Ba’al Pe’or, is a false prophet.

According to Maimonides, (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 10:4) a prophet who prophecies that evil shall befall a particular nation or people, such as the people of Nineveh in the time of Jonah, and that prophecy is not fulfilled, may not necessarily be a false prophet. After all, repentance by sinners can forestall the impending evil, as occurred in the time of Jonah. However, according to many commentators, if a prophet prophecies that a good thing will happen, and it does not happen, that prophet is false. Others say that the failure of a positive prediction to be fulfilled is not necessarily an indication of false prophecy since once-deserving people can lose their reward due to recent improper behavior.

According to tradition, there were 55 prophets–48 male and 7 female. The Talmud (Megilah 14a) records that there might have been thousands of true prophets who were recognized by the authorities–the members of the Sanhedrin. However, only those prophecies that were relevant to all times were recorded for posterity, otherwise neither the prophecies nor the prophets’ names were recorded.

What is the status of prophecy today?

The general assumption is that because of the decline of the generations, the power of prophecy was lost sometime during the time of the Second Temple.

However, others suggest that the absence of prophecy today could very well indicate that prophets are no longer needed because the world is so much more sophisticated than it was in ancient times. In fact, because of science and the expansion of knowledge, humankind has a much more accurate ability to predict the future.

It is not only the ability to forecast the weather, eclipses of the sun, high tides and low tides that we possess today. The explosion of knowledge could also indicate that rather than communicating His messages from the higher abodes of heaven, G-d has brought the power of prophecy down to earth. It may very well be, that there are people among us today, who, though not identified as prophets, have extraordinarily sophisticated senses of spirituality. Through their enhanced spirituality and advanced knowledge of Torah, they have the ability to advise others properly in times of emergency and challenge, and to communicate the essential “Divine” information that is necessary for our survival.

The test that we face today, is to identify those true contemporary “prophets” who carry the special messages of G-d in their very mortal and non-supernatural manner.

 

May you be blessed.

Re’eh 5778-2018

“The Torah’s Definition of True Wealth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we read some of the most exalted statements ever recorded in human literature concerning caring for the poor and the downtrodden.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 15:7, states, כִּי יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ, בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, If there be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in the Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. The Torah then concludes, Deuteronomy 15:8, כִּי פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת יָדְךָ לוֹ, וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ, Rather, you shall open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, whatever is lacking to him.

When reading these verses, we must bear in mind that they were written over 3,000 years ago, at a time when, aside from the Jews, charity and caring for the widow, orphan and poor were not at all a cause for concern among any other people or nation.

Especially in the seventh year of the shemita cycle, when the farmland lay fallow and unworked, the Torah warns that the Hebrew farmer not look malevolently upon their destitute brothers and refuse to support them as the seventh year, shemita, approaches.

The Torah truly set a new standard of concern for the needy and the poor by proclaiming in Deuteronomy 15:10, נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן לוֹ וְלֹא יֵרַע לְבָבְךָ בְּתִתְּךָ לוֹ, כִּי בִּגְלַל הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה יְבָרֶכְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ בְּכָל מַעֲשֶׂךָ וּבְכֹל מִשְׁלַח יָדֶךָ, You shall surely give him [the needy and the poor], and let your heart not feel bad when you give him, for in return for this matter the L-rd your G-d will bless you in all your deeds, and in your every undertaking.

What is the operating rationale behind these exalted statements and noble sentiments that are unparalleled in human and religious literature or culture?

The psalmist, in Psalms 24:1, declares, “The earth and its fullness belong to the L-rd, the world, and all its inhabitants.” Judaism rejects the notion of “personal” property. Everything belongs to G-d! Humans are merely caretakers of G-d’s property that is placed temporarily in our possession.

As if to underscore the idea of caretaking, it has become a popular Jewish custom to inscribe the books in one’s personal home library with the verse from Psalms 24:1, and then writing, בִּרְשׁוּת , Birshut,  this volume, is only in my possession, as if the volume is borrowed from G-d.

The rabbis declare, in Beitza 16a, that on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s income is allotted from one new year to the next, with the exception of expenses for Shabbat and holiday meals, and the cost of Jewish education. According to Rabbeinu Bachya (click here for full bio) even those who work harder will not earn more, and those who work less will still earn the same. One cannot increase or decrease what has been ordained in Heaven.

The prophet Malachi 3:10, declares, וּבְחָנוּנִי נָא בָּזֹאת אָמַר השׁם צְבָאוֹת, Test me herewith, says the L-rd of Hosts, if I will not open to you the windows of Heaven and pour out a blessing that shall be more than sufficiency. The prophet assures those generous people who bring tithes and give charity with an open heart that G-d will provide for them. Despite the general prohibition of testing G-d, when it comes to charity, G-d implores the people to test Him by giving charity and expecting to be rewarded.

A similar theme is found in parashat Re’eh. In Deuteronomy 14:22, the Torah proclaims, עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, You must surely tithe all the produce of your planting that your field yields on a daily basis. The Talmud, in Shabbat 119a, in a play on words, declares, עַשֵּׂר בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁתִּתְעַשֵּׁר, Tithe, so that you will become wealthy.

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, says that this rabbinic statement is not a promise of riches for giving tithes. Rather, it is a formula for self-education. After all, when a person gives, he actually decreases his material wealth. Yet, by sharing his material blessings with others, he is cultivating in himself true wealth: that of being שָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, sa’may’ach b’chel’ko, of being satisfied with what he has.

Rabbi Schwab explains that only a person who gives charity to others can fully realize that his wealth is indeed sufficient, so much so, that he has enough to share with others. Now that he is truly happy with his lot and with what he has, this realization automatically makes him rich.

May you be blessed.

Eikev 5778-2018

“Contemporary Idolatry”

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, Moses, just days before his demise, continues his final oration to the People of Israel, and conveys his message of encouragement to the nation as they stand ready to enter the Promised Land.

The formula for success for the people is unambiguous. In return for observing and performing all the commandments of the Torah, the covenant and the kindness that G-d swore to bestow upon the forefathers, will be conferred upon the present and future generations.

Not only will the people achieve material success, G-d will also bless the fruit of their wombs and the fruit of the land. By following this formula, Israel will be the most blessed of all people. G-d will remove all illness from His people, and devour all their enemies. If the people only abide by the directives of the Torah, G-d promises to deliver the enemy kings into Israel’s hands. No man will be able to stand up against G-d’s people.

However, there is a quid pro quo. In Deuteronomy 7:16, G-d sternly warns, וְלֹא תַעֲבֹד אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, כִּי מוֹקֵשׁ הוּא לָךְ, You shall not worship their [alien] gods, for they are a snare for you.

For added security, Moses reminds the people to burn all the carved images of the Canaanite gods. The Israelites are forbidden to covet or to take for themselves the silver and gold that adorns the idols, lest they be ensnared by it. It is an abomination of the L-rd your G-d (Deuteronomy 7:24-25).

In Deuteronomy 7:26, Moses continues his admonition by boldly demanding in G-d’s name, וְלֹא תָבִיא תוֹעֵבָה אֶל בֵּיתֶךָ וְהָיִיתָ חֵרֶם כָּמֹהוּ, שַׁקֵּץ תְּשַׁקְּצֶנּוּ וְתַעֵב תְּתַעֲבֶנּוּ, כִּי חֵרֶם הוּא, And you shall not bring an idolatrous abomination into your home, lest you become cursed like them; you shall surely loathe them and you shall surely abominate them, for it is a cursed thing.

The commentators explain, that only the idols themselves are forbidden, but not the ornaments. However the Torah admonishes that any benefits from the idols whatsoever, are strictly forbidden.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that because of greed, Jews would not easily part with the silver, gold and jewels that adorn the idols. The warning must be reiterated because the people would not otherwise have the spiritual strength to cast the precious jewels aside and would eventually be ensnared in the practice of idolatry itself.

Maimonides explains that a person who takes an idol home may suddenly experience good fortune, and attribute the success to the idol. That coincidence may very well lead to idolatry and idol-worship.

I have frequently noted, that although we Jews reside in a most benevolent country, it is important to recognize that the United States is a Christian country. The average Jew knows well the words to the popular Christmas song, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but has no clue of the words of the Chanukah hymn, “Ma’oz Tzur.” Most Jews know who was the mother of Jesus, but have no idea who was the mother of Moses. For many Jewish people, the so-called “melting-pot of America,” has become a virtual “melt-down.” Secular and Christian values permeate the lives of all Americans without our even recognizing it.

I recall being invited to a UJA meeting that was held in a fancy private Manhattan home. The topic of discussion was announced as, “The Dangers to the Jewish Community of Assimilation and Intermarriage.” For highly identified and involved Jews, the hosts of that evening had a most unusual hobby: they collected little statues of Buddha. Hundreds of Buddhas in glass cases adorned the room and surrounded the guests. To this day, I still wonder if I was the only one present who felt odd and uncomfortable. The verse about not bringing an abomination into one’s home immediately flashed in my mind.

While the biblical verse may be referring to ancient idols of Ba’al Pe’or and Ba’al Zevuv, the same ancient text resounds loudly and clearly today. It is not that much of a stretch to say that the ancient abominations have their counterparts in contemporary society. Not only do we bring abominations into our homes regularly by subscribing to cable TV and the internet, we even invite the providers to drop off their garbage in our home, for which we reward them quite handsomely.

Unfortunately, very often, we pay a much larger “price” than just the monthly costs of these services: The impact on our families and our values, is profound.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev suggested that this verse may also refer to the types of people whom we allow in our homes. Welcoming haughty and nasty people into our home is similar to bringing an abomination into our home.

As the Bible says (Deuteronomy 23:15), וְהָיָה מַחֲנֶיךָ קָדוֹשׁ, May your encampments be holy.

May you be blessed.

Va’etchanan 5778-2018

“Never Despair!”

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, Moses pleads with the Al-mighty to display His greatness and to forgive Moses’ sin, and allow him to cross into the land of Israel.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 3:25, records Moses’ intense plea, אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא, וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן, “Please let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon!”

Unfortunately, G-d is angry with Moses on account of the people of Israel (see Va’etchanan 5770-2010), and demands that Moses not speak any further with G-d about the matter. He instructs Moses (Deuteronomy 3:27), to ascend to the highest point of mount Abarim, and raise his eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward and see the land, for he will not be permitted to cross the Jordan.

Rashi explains that the term, וָאֶתְחַנַּן, Va’etchanan (to implore), means that Moses begged G-d to grant him a request that is entirely undeserving or a gift for free. Even though the righteous could easily justify their request based upon their merits, they do not ask G-d to compensate them for their good deeds, but rather ask for a favor, as if they were not at all deserving.

The Midrash’s description of Moses’ pleas is extraordinarily extensive. In fact, the rabbis say that Moses offered 515 prayers and petitions before G-d, which is equal to the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word, Va’etchanan. Yet, after his 515 petitions, Moses was still not permitted to enter the Promised Land, and was only allowed to climb the mountain to see the Promised Land from a distance.

The rabbis expound on the seemingly extraneous word in the verse, לֵאמֹר, lay’mor — that Moses implored G-d at the time “saying.” They explain, that the use of the word “lay’mor,” indicates that the message is directed to Jewish future and Jewish posterity. Through his relentless pleas, Moses taught future Jewish generations to never despair. And just as Moses continued to pray, even though he had been told definitively by G-d that the land was off limits to him, so must the Jews in future generations never give up hope for G-d’s merciful intervention. The gates of tears are always open.

The description in the Midrash of Moses pleading for Divine reconsideration is extensive. According to the Midrash, after offering his prayers, Moses drew a circle around himself and stood in the center and declared that he would not move from the spot unless the judgment was suspended. Heaven and earth began to tremble because they thought that Moses’ demands would lead to the destruction of the world.

G-d then proclaimed throughout all of heaven and in all the celestial courts of justice, that Moses’ prayers should not be accepted. G-d directed the angels to descend and lock every single gate in heaven so that Moses’ prayers not be accepted.

Nevertheless, Moses continued to plead with G-d to suspend His judgment, arguing that G-d must take into consideration how long and hard Moses had pleaded for the sake of Israel and had always gained forgiveness for the People.

Moses at first pleaded that he be allowed to enter and live in the Promised Land for only two or three years and then die. He then petitioned G-d to allow him to enter Israel as a common citizen rather than a leader, and if not, then at least allow his bones to be carried to the other side of the Jordan. Moses then beseeched heaven and the earth to intercede on his behalf. He pleaded for the sun and the moon, the stars and the planets, the hills and the mountains, Mount Sinai, the rivers, the deserts, and to all the elements of nature and finally to the great sea, to speak up in his behalf, all for naught. Moses even begged his disciple, Joshua, to implore G-d for his sake, that perhaps the Al-mighty will take pity upon him and allow him to enter the land. When that too failed, Moses turned to Aaron’s son, Elazar, and to Caleb, all to no avail.

G-d then presented Moses with an offer that would allow him to enter the land–if Israel were to perish. Moses however, rejected the offer, saying sternly: “Rather shall Moses and a thousand of his kind perish, than a single soul of Israel be harmed.”

Although it seems that at that point Moses finally accepted his tragic fate, when the time came for him to pass from the world, Moses pleaded one last time: “L-rd of the world! Let me at least, by the power of the Ineffable Name, fly like a bird in the air; or make me like a fish, transform my two arms into fins and my hair into scales, that like a fish I may leap over the Jordan and see the land of Israel.” G-d still refused, because it would have meant that He would have to break His vow and harm Israel.

As we know, despite all his pleas, Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. 515 prayers and all the permutations  of prayers were rejected. All the legal arguments that Moses had mustered, all the emotional pleas, the fact that Moses had sacrificed so much for Israel and that they were forgiven, went unheeded. But still, Moses continued to plead.

What may we learn from this?

Never give up hope. Never despair. As long as there is life, there is hope. It could be the 516th prayer that is finally heeded. The Gates of Heaven are never sealed. While mortals may not be able to change our fate, we can change ourselves, and be given a new fate.

Just as the sun always rises and sets, and there is always a tomorrow, there is unimpeachable knowledge that the mercy of the L-rd endures forever.

May you be blessed.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is traditionally known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Thursday night and Friday, July 26th and 27th, 2018. Happy Tu B’Av (for more information, please click here.)

Devarim 5778-2018

“The Final Rebuke”

 

With this week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, we begin to read the fifth and final book of the Torah.

The book of Deuteronomy is known in rabbinic literature as מִשְׁנֶה תוֹרָה, Mishneh Torah, which means, a repetition or review of the Torah. During the last five weeks of Moses’ life, the fortieth year after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses conveys his final teachings to the People of Israel.

Moses was concerned that once the people enter the “Promised Land,” the new generation would succumb to the powerful influences and temptations of the local Canaanite inhabitants. He reasoned that if the previous generation of Israelites, the parents, could continually sin even though they were surrounded by constant miracles, what would happen to the new generation who were confronted by the blandishments of the idolatrous Canaanite nations?

Moses therefore, gently rebuked the new generation to prepare the people for the new reality. According to Rashi, Moses offered his rebuke in an indirect and mild manner, rather than forcefully.

The book of Deuteronomy opens with the following prologue (Deuteronomy 1:1): אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, בַּמִּדְבָּר, בָּעֲרָבָה, מוֹל סוּף, בֵּין פָּארָן וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת וְדִי זָהָב, These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the opposite side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in the Arabah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.

Rather than forcefully reprove the people for the terrible sins they had committed as they wandered in the wilderness, Moses alludes to the sins obliquely by referring to the various places where these sins were committed: בַּמִּדְבָּר, in the Wilderness, where the people complained that they had been led into a desert to starve (Exodus 16:1-3); בָּעֲרָבָה, in the Arabah. Rashi and Onkelos  explain that this refers to the plain where many Israelites were seduced by the Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-9); מוֹל סוּף, opposite the Sea of Reeds, where the Israelites, who were being chased by the Egyptians at the sea, sarcastically complained: “Were there no graves in Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). Even when they emerged from the sea, the people cried because they were certain that the Egyptians had escaped drowning and were waiting for them on the other side of the sea; בֵּין פָּארָן, between Paran, which is where the spies were sent from in the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 13:1-15); וּבֵין תֹּפֶל וְלָבָן, between Tophel and Laban. Rashi claims that these places are not mentioned anywhere in Scripture, rather they are allusions to complaints about the manna (Numbers 21:5). Tophel also refers to the tasteless bread–-the manna (Numbers 11:6); וַחֲצֵרֹת, Hazeroth is either the location where Korach’s rebellion took place or where Miriam was stricken for slandering Moses (Numbers 12:1-16); and finally, דִי זָהָב, the Jews were blessed with an abundance of gold (Zahav) when they left Egypt, but instead used this gift to fashion the Golden Calf.

The Torah, in Leviticus 19:17, declares, הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ, you shall surely rebuke your brother. The Talmud, in Baba Metzia 31a, explains that the repetition in the verse is intended to underscore that one should rebuke his brother repeatedly until he repents. The verse concludes with, וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא, and you shall not bear sin because of him. The sages declare that this implies that those who have an opportunity to prevent their friends and neighbors from sinning and fail to do so, commit an unfortunate sin of omission, and must assume at least partial responsibility for the misdeeds they could have prevented. As an example, the Talmud in Shabbat 54b reports that a cow, belonging to Rab Elazar ben Azaria’s neighbor, used to go out on Shabbat wearing a forbidden type of strap. Because he never tried to correct his neighbor’s improper behavior, the cow was known as “Reb Elazar’s cow.”

The regulations regarding rebuke require that one who rebukes a neighbor/friend must do so in a kind and gentle manner with no ulterior motive, and with only the clear intention to help the transgressors mend their ways.

One must not shame a sinner in public without first having tried to rebuke the sinner in private. One who unnecessarily shames or humiliates another person in public, forfeits his share in the World to Come. That is why the rabbis say that Moses did not mention the sinful acts themselves, but rather alluded to them obliquely by mentioning the locations where the sins occurred.

The Kedushat Levi notes that the above-cited verse, contains a seemingly extra phrase, אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, to underscore that Moses spoke to all of Israel. He says that this comes to teach that Moses offered the words of reproof only when all the people were united, so that no one could blame their friend or neighbor and say that Moses was speaking only to certain individuals and not to all of them. It is interesting to note, says the Kedushat Levi, that when Moses speaks to the people, he offers words of rebuke. However, when Moses speaks to G-d, he always tries to defend the Jewish people, and speak favorably about his beloved nation.

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni says that the phrase, “all of Israel,” teaches that all of the People of Israel were not only worthy of receiving rebuke, but were also capable of hearing the rebuke and taking it to heart.

The Talmud, in Yevamot 65b, states that just as it is a mitzvah for a person to speak only words that can be understood, so is it a mitzvah for a person to refrain from saying things that cannot be heard or understood. This is what the Yalkut Shimoni means when it said that the people were able to “tolerate” the reproof–that they heard it, accepted it, and used it to mend their ways and attitudes.

The medieval commentator, Recanati cites the dictum found in Talmud Sanhedrin 27b, כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה, that all of Israel is responsible, and acts as surety, for one another. It was this deep concern for one another, declares the Recanati, which has enabled the Jews to survive throughout the ages.

A Jew who sins becomes a weak link in the chain of Jewish posterity. Giving rebuke to sinners can often help repair that link. It may also help to strengthen the commitment of those who give rebuke, because they must now live up to the ideal of what they expect of others.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, July 21st and continues through Sunday night, July 22nd, 2018. Have a meaningful fast.

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of the Vision (prophecy), named after the opening word of the Book of Isaiah, the first 27 verses of which are read as the haftarah (prophetic reading) on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av).  Much of the haftarah is recited in the mournful tune of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) that is recited on the night of Tisha B’av. The 12th verse of parashat Devarim begins with the word “Eicha” and that verse is also recited to the tune of Eicha. In addition, many synagogues have the custom to sing the  L’cha Dodi hymn on the Friday night of Shabbat Chazon to the tune of Eli Tzion, a mournful tune sung at the end of Kinot (Tisha B’Av poems) on the morning of Tisha B’av.

 

Matot-Masei 5778-2018

“Judaism and Warfare”

In parashat Matot, the first of this week’s double parashiyot, Matot-Masei, we read of the great battle that Israel waged to avenge the Midianite nation for leading the men of Israel into sin and idolatry.

Although the Torah recorded, in Number 25:1, that the Jews in Shittim began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab, according to the Alshich, war was declared on the Midianites, because the Moabite women were considered less guilty than the Midianate women. The women of Moab enticed the general population but the women of Midian tried to entice the Jewish leaders, including Moses himself, to sinful behavior. It was the immodesty and idolatry of the Midianite women that eventually led to the public act of harlotry performed by Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Simeon and Kozbi, the Midianite princess.

In parashat Matot, Numbers 31:1, G-d tells Moses נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים, אַחַר תֵּאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ, Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people. (See Matot 5765-2005)

The immorality and idolatry that resulted from the harlotry of both the Midianite and Moabite women resulted in the death of 24,000 Jews from a plague (Numbers 25:1-9). Rashi states that because Ruth, the ancestress of King David, was destined to descend from Moab, G-d spared the Moabites. Nachmanides, the  Ramban, suggests that the Moabites were spared punishment because they acted out of fear while the Midianites were motivated by sheer hatred of the People of Israel.

The Torah, in Numbers 31, notes that each of the 12 tribes sent 1,000 men to do battle with the Midianites, totaling 12,000 soldiers. Although Pinchas the son of Elazar, now a Kohen, did not personally fight, he was present during the battle, and stood with the sacred vessels and the trumpets sounding in his hand to encourage the soldiers. The Torah states that the Israelites killed every Midianite male and that Bilaam the son of Beor was among those slain by the sword. The women of Midian, their young children, the Midianites’ cattle, flocks and all their wealth was taken as spoils. The homes of the Midianites and their palaces were burnt in fire.

When Moses saw that the Israelites had allowed the Midianite women to live, he was angry and ordered the soldiers to kill every woman who had previously lain with a man, as well as all the male children. The spoils of the war, the booty, were distributed equitably–half to the soldiers and the remaining half to the rest of the People of Israel.

Of course, this is not the only instance in which Israel is instructed by G-d to make war. In the war with Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13) the Israelites killed all the inhabitants–men, women, and children and even their animals. And so it was with the battles with the seven Canaanite nations when Israel conquered the Promised Land with Joshua as the leader.

Of course, all this took place in a different era, over 3,000 years ago, at a time when the prevailing values were much different than contemporary values, and yet it is quite evident that Judaism was extremely sophisticated in its rules of warfare.

Nothing in Judaism is more sacred than the sanctity of human life, whether that life is Jewish or non-Jewish. In fact, the utopian dream of peace is articulated by the prophet, in Isaiah 2:4:

And they [the nations] shall beat their swords into Plowshares,
And their spears into pruning-hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.

Rashi on Exodus 20:22, cites the Midrash Mechilta that explains that iron and implements of iron are forbidden to be used in the construction of the altar because the stones of the altar were intended to atone for the human being’s sins and to prolong life. Iron and weapons of iron shorten life. King David was forbidden to build the Temple in Jerusalem because of the blood he shed in warfare (I Chronicles 22:8).

Maimonides in the Laws of Kings 6:4,  remarkably claims that members of the seven Canaanite nations and even those of the detested nation of Amalek, who were prepared to accept the Noahide principles of basic common humanity could be spared. The operating assumption is that the Canaanites and the Amalekites were non-Noahides. They would not abide by, nor accept, the seven Noahide principles: the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, eating an animal’s limb while the animal is still alive, and establishing basic rules of law and business. Thus, these nations–literally barbarians, who refused to accept even the lowest common denominator of human conduct, were killed. All others were spared.

The laws of conduct in warfare in Judaism are quite remarkable and far ahead of any other people of their time. Everything possible must be done to avoid war. However, there are times when war is not only justified, it is mandatory. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 72a, therefore proclaims, “If a person intends to kill you, be first to kill him.”

The Torah demands that the leaders of Israel must first sue for peace when they go to war. If the enemy agrees to live by the seven Noahide principles, they may be spared. According to Maimonides, it’s forbidden to besiege a city on all four sides–there must be an open avenue of escape. One is not permitted to cut down fruit-bearing trees even in times of war, even when Jewish soldiers’ lives are at stake. One is not permitted to destroy property for the sake of destruction. One is not allowed to close up wells and divert the waterworks. A Jewish soldier has to carry a spade with him in order to properly get rid of his bodily wastes.

While Judaism is not a pacifistic religion, it abhors the wanton taking of life. In ancient times, Israel was able to declare wars of self-defense and even wars to expand the borders of Israel as David did, as “mitzvah wars.” With the exception of “mitzvah wars,” a king could generally not declare war independently; he needed the approval of the 70 sages from the Sanhedrin in order to go out to battle.

Yet, there are strains of pacifism that may be found in Judaism. The fact that every Jewish soldier has to give a half shekel, (Exodus 30:12), as a “redemption for his soul,” implies that no matter how noble the cause, a soldier who takes another human being’s life is a sinner, and is thus required to pay atonement for his soul.

These extraordinarily advanced laws were promulgated 3,300 years ago. These values are the true underpinnings and foundations of Judaism, the bottom line of which is the sanctity of human life.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, will be observed on Friday, July 20th and all day Saturday, July 21st. It marks the beginning of the “Nine Days,” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha B’Av.This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Chazon“–the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

Pinchas 5778-2018

“Pinchas the Zealot?” 
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens with G-d praising Pinchas, the son of Elazar, for turning back His wrath upon the Children of Israel, when Pinchas was zealous for G-d’s sake, and brought atonement for the sin of the people. G-d therefore declares that as a reward for Pinchas’ actions, He will give Pinchas His Covenant of Peace, and that Pinchas and his offspring after him shall be part of the Covenant of the Eternal Priesthood.

 

The actual details of the story of Pinchas are recorded in Numbers 25, the last chapter of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak.

 

The people of Israel had settled in Shittim, where they began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. When G-d’s wrath flared up against Israel, G-d demanded of Moses that all the leaders of the people who had taken part in this horrible idolatrous act, be put to death.

Moses had just instructed the judges of Israel to punish those who had sinned with the idolatrous Ba’al Peor, when suddenly a prominent Israelite man came forth and, together with a Midianite woman, began to commit an act of public harlotry.

 

It was then that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the High Priest, stood up amidst the assembly, took a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite man and the woman into the tent and pierced them both. With their deaths, the plague halted, but not before 24,000 Israelites had already perished.

 

The Torah identifies the two perpetrators as prominent individuals. The man was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Kozbi the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess.

 

While Pinchas’ act of vengeance is hailed by G-d, the commentators are quite troubled by Pinchas’ impulsive and zealous action. After all, by what right does Pinchas decide to preempt Moses’ authority, and take the lives of the perpetrators, especially in front of Moses who had himself witnessed the harlotry?

 

While the rabbis of the Talmud and many of the biblical commentaries see Pinchas’ deed as heroic and bold from both the Jewish legal and a practical standpoint, they nevertheless are troubled by his action. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, in fact, confirms Pinchas’ action as being legally correct, but declares that the law is not practiced and not taught. In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 9:7, states that the Sages wished to ex-communicate Pinchas for his act. Furthermore, had Zimri, the perpetrator, turned on Pinchas and killed Pinchas in self-defense, Zimri would not have been subject to punishment.

 

The rabbis wonder why the Torah goes to such great lengths to publicize the names of the perpetrators, calling Zimri אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמֻּכֶּה, the Israelite man who was smitten (Numbers 25:14). Some commentators assume that it comes to underscore that since Zimri was a tribal prince, there was a great risk that his fellow tribesmen would rise up to avenge his death. Nevertheless, Pinchas did not hesitate to stop the sinful act and fulfill the call of his conscience.

 

The Kli Yakar notes that when G-d declares in Numbers 25:11, that Pinchas, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, had turned back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake, among them, the additional words “among them,” come to underscore that Pinchas performed his act of vengeance among Zimri’s tribesmen and relatives who were extremely likely to take revenge. Nevertheless, Pinchas acted with great courage and fortitude, and proceeded to act without fear or hesitation.

 

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni in his Studies in the Weekly Parashah on the book of Bamidbar, states that it is Pinchas’ self-sacrifice, and not his zealotry, that G-d applauds. Pinchas brazenly endangered himself for the sake of Torah and the Jewish people, proving that he didn’t act out of personal interest or gain, but only to avenge G-d’s anger.

 

The Akeidat Yitzchak goes so far as to say that Pinchas is celebrated by the Torah for using his Divine insight to do what Moses failed to do. Apparently, Moses saw Zimri’s deed as an act that would not incur the death penalty in an earthly court, and therefore refrained from taking any action himself. Pinchas, however, concluded otherwise.

 

The Kotzker Rebbe declares that while Pinchas’ act of vengeance was celebrated and his virtues praised, he was nevertheless invalidated from becoming the leader of the Jewish people. Moses had originally thought that Pinchas would have been a suitable replacement, but when he saw Pinchas’ zealotry, he realized, that as a leader, Pinchas could not conduct himself with moderation and flexibility. Therefore, he appointed Joshua as his successor.

 

The commentators also wrestle with the well-known principle that a Kohen who kills, even when permissible by Torah law, is rendered invalid to serve as a priest. How then could Pinchas become a Kohen? This further underscores the great commitment of Pinchas, who nevertheless proceeded to act even though the action could jeopardize his becoming a priest. Some suggest that an exception was made for Pinchas, and that is why his status was not invalidated.

 

More likely is that since Pinchas was born before Aaron and his sons were made priests, Pinchas was regarded simply as a Levite. Having the status of a Levite when he killed Zimri and Kozbi, Pinchas was not subject to being invalidated. It was only after G-d’s blessing, that Pinchas became a priest.

 

The complex issues raised regarding Pinchas’ dramatic act, underscores the primacy of the concept of the sanctity of life in Judaism. This is why, the deed of vengeance is not glorified. It is only Pinchas’ courage to sacrifice everything meaningful in his life in order to stand up for the dignity of Moses and G-d that is hailed as heroic.

 

May you be blessed.

Balak 5778-2018

“The Contemporary Impact of the Blessings of Bilaam”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Balak, records Bilaam’s dramatic prophecies regarding the Jewish people.

Balak, the son of Tzipor, the king of Moab at that time, was terrified that the People of Israel would attack the Moabite people and destroy them, as they had recently vanquished the Amorites.

Knowing that the Israelites did not battle in a conventional manner, but rather relied on Divine help to succeed, Balak called upon the services of Bilaam, son of Beor. Bilaam, who was known as a talented prophet, possessed the ability to curse the People of Israel and defeat them through his words and imprecations.

After much convincing to secure Bilaam’s participation in the strategy to defeat Israel, Bilaam finally agrees. G-d, however, appears to Bilaam to warn him not to curse the Jewish people.

After several rounds of prophecy in which Bilaam offers favorable words toward Israel, Balak, in utter frustration, says to Bilaam, Numbers 23:25, גַּם קֹב לֹא תִקֳּבֶנּוּ, גַּם בָּרֵךְ לֹא תְבָרְכֶנּוּ. “If you can’t curse them, at least don’t bless them!” Bilaam responds to Balak, saying, הֲלֹא דִּבַּרְתִּי אֵלֶיךָ לֵאמֹר, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר השׁם אֹתוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה, “Have I not spoken to you saying, ‘Whatever the L-rd shall speak, that shall I do?’”

After another round of blessings, Balak’s anger flares against Bilaam. Clapping his hands in fury, Balaak says, Numbers 24:10-11, לָקֹב אֹיְבַי קְרָאתִיךָ, וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, and behold you have blessed them these three times! Now go, flee to your place. I wanted to honor you, but G-d has withheld honor from you.”

Again, Bilaam tells Balak, Numbers 24:12-13, “I told your emissaries who came to fetch me, that even if Balak were to give me an entire household of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G-d to do good or bad on my own. Whatever the L-rd speaks, that shall I speak.”

Perhaps by stepping back a bit, we can properly absorb what has transpired in this story. After all, it’s not very often in Jewish history that anyone, especially an avowed enemy of the Jews, blesses the Jewish people.

It could not merely be a serendipitous coincidence that only recently a former Australian member of parliament, Ross Cameron, offered an amazingly positive commentary on SkyNews Australia about the Jewish people.

I just want to say that the Arab world, you’ve got 350 million Arabs in 22 countries, you pride yourself, the Arab, sort of Bedouin culture, prides itself on hospitality. I just want to say to you that I don’t think your policy of punting the Jews is in your interest. And I think if you just sat down for a moment and said, “Okay, we’ve got this little rare jewel of six and half million Jews in the State of Israel of eight million people. This is one of the best things going for the Middle East, this is what I have described previously as ‘the magic of this operation.’” So wherever you are in the world, if you have a Jewish neighbor, say, “G-d bless you!” When you see a Jew walking on the street, you should recognize an ancestor [descendant] of King David, and say, “This is absolutely the most awesome story of human survival ever written.”

The prophecies of Bilaam are beyond beautiful. Says Bilaam, Numbers 23:21, “G-d does not behold iniquity in Jacob or see the perverseness of Israel, G-d is with him [Israel].” In Numbers 24:5&9, Bilaam concludes, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Blessed are those who bless you and cursed are those who curse you.”

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in his work, Baruch She’Amar, asks: Of all the verses in the Bible that could have been chosen, why do the daily prayers of our people open with Bilaam’s prayer? Rabbi Epstein suggests, that if Bilaam, who hated the Jewish people so intensely, said these wonderful things about the Jewish people, מַה טּבוּ אהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקב , ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob,’ imagine what the truth really was! Imagine how incredibly wonderful the Jewish people really were, exceeding even Bilaam’s own extraordinary praises.

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David in his invaluable compendium of Shabbat table conversations entitled Around the Shabbat Table, makes the very insightful point that Jewish people in the time of Bilaam and Balak were quite distressed because of the hopelessness of their situation. They had just suffered a multitude of crises: the spies, the rebellion of Korach, the impending cessation of the Manna from heaven, Miriam and Aaron had passed away, and Moses too would soon pass. Would the Israelites really be able to enter the Promised Land and defeat their enemies?

Comes along Bilaam, a man who abounds with hatred for the Israelites, and pronounces a most hopeful message, saying clearly that Israel will vanquish its enemies, Numbers 24:8-9, “The people [of Israel] will lift up itself as a young lion; will not lie down until it eats of the prey,” Numbers 23:24, “Israel will eat up the nations, its enemies, will break their bones and pierce them through with its arrows. It lies down like a lion and, like a great lion, who will stir him up?”

When the angels sing praises to G-d about Israel, says Rabbi Ben David, they are tainted witnesses. All those who love Israel and say nice things about them are also tainted. But, when our enemies say nice things about us, we have to perk up our ears to listen and believe them.

Bilaam’s curses, that were turned into blessings, remain with the Jewish people forever as a source of inspiration. It is because of these blessings, that the curses of our enemies cannot harm us.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 1, 2018, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 21st and 22nd. Have a meaningful fast.

 

Chukat 5778-2018

“The People of Israel are Taught to be More Independent”
by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, opens with the laws of the פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה, Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer that was used in ancient times to cleanse the people from impurity. The parasha, however, also contains a host of other themes, including Miriam’s death and the subsequent lack of water, the punishment of Moses and Aaron for hitting the rock, the death of Aaron, the battle with Amalek, the people’s complaint and the attack of the fiery serpents. The parasha concludes with Israel’s victory in battle over Sihon and the Amorites.

After the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and the loss of those great leaders, the people needed to prepare for the future. Life for them would be very different after their leader Moses will no longer be with them. Until now, the people of Israel have been living a supernatural lifestyle, wandering through the wilderness on Divine clouds. According to the Midrash, these clouds leveled out the terrain so the people would not have to endure the challenging mountains or valleys. Their clothes were washed by the clouds and their garments grew along with their bodies. Water suddenly appeared in the wilderness when Moses spoke to the rock.

Now Miriam and Aaron were gone. Moses was soon to pass away as well. The people of Israel could not continue to live in this supernatural manner for much longer. They need to prepare for a more normal life that they would experience after the death of Moses, who passed away immediately prior to their entry into the land of Canaan.

When the Canaanite kings heard of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, they regarded the people of Israel as extremely vulnerable and, one by one, began to attack. The first Canaanite king to attack is identified in the Torah (Numbers 21:1), as the king of Arad. Rashi citing the Midrash, maintains that the attackers were actually Amalekites, who had disguised themselves as local Canaanites (from Arad) in order to confuse the people of Israel. This tactic would hopefully render the Israelites’ prayers for salvation ineffectual because they were intended to defeat the Canaanites and not the Amalekites. According to the Midrash, the king of Arad and his troops (the disguised Amalekites), captured one Canaanite slave girl, leading the Israelites to do battle with them, in order to redeem the unfortunate captive. The deception did not help, and when the people of Israel took an oath to G-d, the Al-mighty delivered the king of Arad and his people into their hands.

The Ha’Emek Davar notes that Moses did not play a role in this battle, or in the later battles with Sihon and Og, the Amorite kings. While, according to the Talmud Brachot 4b, Moses does personally kill Og the giant king of Bashan, it was because it was impossible to defeat Og naturally. Through prayer and battle, the nations of Sihon and Og were defeated by Israel, as was the king of Arad. As we learn in Numbers 21:24, וַיַּכֵּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְפִי חָרֶב, and Israel smote him [Sihon] by the edge [literally “by the mouth”] of the sword, meaning that Israel defeated the enemies utilizing both prayer and battle, which continued to be the method employed in the later conquests of the land of Israel as well.

Unfortunately, the People of Israel once again fail to acknowledge how their lack of faith affects their security. When the people begin to speak against Moses and G-d, the Al-mighty strikes the people with fiery serpents who begin to bite the Israelites.

The Akeidat Yitzchak points out that with this attack, the supernatural life, which the Israelites had experienced for 40 years, comes to an end, and the natural pattern of life for the Israelites begins. The Akeidat Yitzchak notes that even though the Torah, in Deuteronomy 8:15, describes that the people had traveled for 40 years through “an arid desert of venomous serpents and scorpions,” not a single creature had ever harmed them. But, when the people lash out at G-d and Moses, declaring, Numbers 21:5, וְנַפְשֵׁנוּ קָצָה בַּלֶּחֶם הַקְּלֹקֵל, “our souls are disgusted with this insubstantial food,” G-d brings the serpents to show them what happens when they renounce G-d’s protective powers. The serpents, that were always there but never harmed them, begin to attack. The supernatural protection of G-d vanishes, and nature begins to run its course. The serpents, says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, show how dangerous nature really is, and that it is only G-d who protects the people from harm.

The Israelites, who will soon enter Canaan–the Promised Land, will have to readjust to their new unprotected reality. Moses, Aaron and Miriam will no longer be there to perform miracles for them and protect them. The Divine clouds, upon which they rode, will disappear and they will have to wash their own garments and tailor new garments as their bodies grow. The “new normal” has arrived, and the Israelites will have to face the consequences of life as it runs its “natural” course.

The mercies of G-d can always be evoked, but only for a people who live a life devoted to G-d and His Torah.

May you be blessed.