by David Farber
This week’s Torah portion is a combination of two parshiot, Chukat and Balak, so I decided to write a little about both.
The obvious choice for discussion in the Parasha Chukat is about the Parah Adumah, or Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was used in the ritual purification of people and objects that had come in contact with someone who had died. This ritual has often baffled Religious scholars though. It is said that King Solomon once declared: “I have labored to understand the word of God and have understood it all, except for the ritual of the brown [red] cow.” Many Rabbis concluded that this law should be followed solely because God commands us to do it, not because our own logic tells us to. It shows that we have so much faith that we will follow God even if his laws do not make sense to us.
However, in the spirit of Conservative Judaism we are encouraged to find the meaning behind the rituals ad rites of the Torah, so let’s try to have a stab at this law. After being sacrificed the cows ashes are added to water and are used to purify those who have become ritually impure. On the flip side all the people associated with the sacrifice and gathering of the ashes of the Red Heifer, become impure after the sacrifice is completed. This contradiction was noted by Israel of Ruzhin, who saw that the Red Heifer purifies the impure, but makes the pure impure. The priest and his assistants give up their own purity so someone else can become pure. The ritual of the Red Heifer shows us that we may have to give up something, in order to help another person.
In Parashat Balak we see the story of Balaam, the wizard, being called upon by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the people of Israel before Balak intends to wage war against them. However Balaam instead of cursing the people of Israel blesses them three times.
In the beginning Balak sends a delegation to Balaam to try and persuade him to curse the people of Israel, Balaam ‘consults’ with God on the matter, and after listening to God’s wishes, sends the Moabite delegation back. However, the Moabites come once more to ask Balaam for his curse against the Israelites. This time the Moabites add an element that wasn’t there the first time. The Moabites offer Balaam “his [Balak’s] house full of silver and gold”, this time God comes to Balaam and says: “If these men have invited you, go with them.” It seems that God is ordering Balaam to go with the Moabites, however the Rambam (Maimonides – a prominent torah commentator) explains that God is really giving Balaam a right to exercise his free will. It seems that Balaam is swayed to go by the fact that he is offered money, his greed overcomes his conscience. On the way to Moab, however, Balaam is confronted by an angel who shows Balak that God does not want Balaam to curse the Israelites, he tells Balak to keep going to Moab, but only say what God tells him to.
Later in the portion, when Balaam is going to curse/bless Israel, it seems that God does not let Balaam exercise his free will, but rather “puts the words in his mouth,” literally. Each time God tells Balaam what to say, and Balaam says it. However, at the end of the portion, after Balaam’s third blessing upon the Israelites, he tells Balak why he could not curse the Israelites. He explains to Balak that “I could not do anything good or bad contrary to the Lord’s command.” He says I could not (In Hebrew – “Lo Uchal”) instead of I must not … showing that he really does have free will, but he uses his free will to follow the commandments of God.
This portion teaches us that although we have the free will to follow or not follow the commandments of God, we should follow Balaam’s example, and uphold the commandments of God upon our own accord. This is how we show true reverence to God by choosing to follow what he commands us to do.
by Ariana Berlin
July 4, 2009/12 Tammuz 5769
This week we read the double parasha Chukat-Balak. Parashat Chukat includes the story of Moshe hitting the rock: B’nai Yisrael complained to Moshe that there was no water, so G-d told Moshe to speak to the rock and then water would come out. Moshe hit the rock twice, water came out, and G-d punished Moshe and Aharon by telling them that they would not be able to enter Eretz Canaan. This story and punishment have always baffled the commentators because when does such a small sin result in such a huge punishment?
One puzzled commentator such as Rashi says that Moshe tried speaking to a rock, however when he realized that it was the wrong rock he thought perhaps it was necessary to hit it, as he was commanded in Shemot 17:6 when he said: “Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” When Moshe hit the rock the first time only a little bit of water came out, so then he hit it a second time and more water came out. Regarding Moshe and Aharon’s punishment, Rashi notes that in the past when they have done things that G-d was not happy about, they were not so harshly punished. However, this time they sinned in public, in front of all B’nai Yisrael. Since they did not follow G-d’s words and did not sanctify G-d’s name, they were not being good dugmaot, examples, for B’nai Yisrael.
Just as it was important for Moshe and Aharon to act as proper dugmaot, it is also important for us to act as dugmaot not only in USY or in school, but also as Jews. This is because we are supposed to be a light unto other nations, Or L’Goyim. This comes from Yishayahu’s prophecy in 60:3, where it says: “And nations shall walk by your light, kings, by your shining radiance.” As Jews, other nations look up to us, not because we are better, but because we live by high standards, following all of the mitzvot which make us ethical people.
While it is important for all Jews to act properly as dugmaot, it is even more important for our leaders to act as greater dugmaot. It says in the Talmud that “when a prophet loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him” (Pesachim 66b). The Rambam says that Moshe grew angry when the people were complaining too much, so he called them rebellious and lost his temper. He explains in his Shmoneh Prakim that G-d became upset when he saw Moshe’s anger because when B’nai Yisrael see that Moshe is angry, they presume that G-d is angry as well. This shows us that it is important for people who serve as dugmaot to control their temper because if they don’t, then their position of leadership could be taken away. Similarly, Moshe’s gift of prophecy abandoned him because he lost his temper.
Or Hachayim attempts to minimize Moshe’s wrongdoing by explaining that he hit the rock because of a miscommunication: Moshe thought that G-d had wanted him to use the staff because in the past when he was commanded to bring his staff with him, he had used it to perform miracles. Apparently, he assumed incorrectly. What Or Hachayim said is like what Hannah Montana says in her song, Nobody’s Perfect: “everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days.” Misunderstandings and miscommunications are bound to happen to the best of us, even such a great prophet and dugma as Moshe. However, as she later says in her song, it is necessary to get right back up again and fix what has gone wrong. While we may err it is essential to repair the damage, however what’s most important is that we never give up or lose faith in G-d.
The Etz Hayim Chumash comments that maybe not letting Moshe and Aharon enter Eretz Canaan was not a punishment, but “a recognition that their time of leadership was over. … Moshe and Aharon were not sinners, … they were not the right people to lead a younger generation into battle.” This shows that G-d will protect us and give us good leadership as long as we fix our mistakes. Even though mistakes are bound to happen, once in a while, in the end, yihye tov, it will be okay. Shabbat Shalom!
Did you know (in honor of 4th of July) …
… that the first synagogue building in America was in Newport, Rhode Island, the Touro Synagogue – and it’s still standing, and it was recognized and respected by George Washington!
by Scott Greenberg
The placebo effect is one of the enigmas of modern medicine. Medical studies in the 1950s showed that sometimes a pill made of sugar can be just as effective as one made of complicated chemicals in order to treat a disease, condition, or illness. Even if a pill, surgery, or treatment doesn’t do anything physically to treat a patient’s condition, medical research shows that sometimes a person’s health is improved simply by believing that they have been treated. So, this raises the question – what cures a sick person’s illness? The treatment or the patient himself?
In chapter 21 of this week’s parashah, Chukat, the people of Israel complain yet again to Moses. This time, their complaint is particularly pessimistic. They complain, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in this wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loath this miserable food.”
In response to this insolent and hopeless complaint, God sends serpents to attack the children of Israel, and the nation begins to die from the snakebites. When the people come to Moses, confessing their impudence and begging for a cure from the bites. After Moses consults God, the text says that “Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bittern by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.”
How does looking at a serpent cure a serpent bite? Could I look at a statue of a bee to cure a bee sting or a statue of a rusty nail to cure tetanus? The whole situation is disturbing because it seems more like magic than religion, more like witchcraft then Judaism. What in the world were God and Moses thinking?
According to the Mishnah, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 3:8, “When Israel would look upwards and direct their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed.” Thus, according to this interpretation, the bronze serpent serves as a physical aid toward contemplation and prayer – like t’fillin, or an aron kodesh. In this vein, the bronze serpent is actually similar to a placebo, as both involve a more mental process for curing illness than a medical one.
So, another question is raised: when Moses makes a bronze serpent to cure Israel – or when a doctor gives a placebo to a patient – aren’t the people or the patient being deceived? After all, Moses is sort of lying when he tells people to look at the serpent and be cured, as the serpent isn’t really curing them, just as a doctor tells patients to take a pill when the pill isn’t really helping them. Both of these cures seem like trickery, like something that would be against Jewish or medical ethics.
However, one could also look at it the other way, that sometimes the best type of motivation is when a person responds to a different motivation. It’s just like how sometimes we get people to give tzedakah by playing on their motivations to play sports, gamble, or do arts and crafts. One Jewish story goes that Jewish schools used to get young children interested in torah study by putting a drop of honey on every page. As they tasted the sweet flavor of the honey, they would associate their learning with the sensual experience. Similarly, the people of Israel are motivated to pray to God through looking at a serpent, and patients are motivated to get better by taking a pill.
So, the next time that you are sick, ask yourself: what will cure me? Will doctors and pills, or my mind and God? Will others’ deception or my own motivation? You may be surprised with the answers you give yourself.
by Josh Nason
While recent portions in the Torah have told of rebellions against God. Parshat Korach deals with a rebellion against Moses. Korach is determined that Moses no longer has the mandate from God to lead the people. He feels that everone should have the chance to be a leader. There is also discussion that God did not choose Aaron as the High Priest, but rather Moses used his political position to get Aaron the job.
Moses challenges Korach to prove that his men are more worthy of the Priesthood, stating that God would only accept the offering from a priest. While Korach is planning to take on this challenge, Moses consults God on the issue. God declares that he will destroy the whole community for having questioned Moses. Moses points out that only those men who incite others to rebel should be dealt with.
Korach eventually rounds up his men to take on the challenge. As soon as they begin to make the priestly offering, the Earth opens up and swallows Korach and all of his followers.
This doesn’t solve Moses’ problems though. The people begin to accuse Moses of causing God to kill so many followers of Korach. So, Moses declares that he will take a staff from each of the 12 tribes and God will chose who is to lead as High Priest. Naturally, God chooses the staff that Moses has denoted as Aaron, and ends the discussion.
This portion teaches a great deal about responsiblity for leaders. If someone is to lead a people, they must be able to take the responsibility. Korach was unable to take responsibility and his people paid for his mistakes. We must remember that being a leader is a huge responsibility, we must be able to take the consequences for many people, and that is no little task.
by Cory Nagelberg
June 27, 2009/5 Tammuz 5769
A few years ago, a great mystery was revealed to me while I was watching a basketball game. The Philadelphia 76ers were playing the New York Knicks, and one player stood out among all of them – Allen Iverson. Allen Iverson was the flashiest, most selfish, most arrogant basketball player I had ever seen. But the first thing that came to my mind when I saw him wasn’t the idea of a basketball legend, but rather the story of Korach.
This week, we will read about Korach and his followers in the Torah reading, aptly titled “Korach.” Korach was a man from a priestly family who believed that he was equal to, if not greater, than Moshe and Aharon. He wondered why they had more power than him, and why they were shown more respect than he was. He amassed a group of followers who felt the same way – they believed that “All the community are holy, all of them, and Hashem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?” Moshe was appalled to hear that any Israelites felt this way, so he set forth a challenge – Korach and his followers would get a chance to make an offering to Hashem, and then Hashem would choose whether Korach should be a leader or whether Moshe and Aharon should retain their positions. The next day, Korach and his followers make an offering, and in response, Hashem forces the ground to open up and swallow Korach and his followers alive.
Now, it is hard to believe that Hashem forced the ground to open and swallow people. But it isn’t hard at all to understand the message from this parasha. As Moshe says, “Is it not enough that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him?” We should be thankful for what we have, for the special duties that each and every one of is responsible for. It may be something as simple as walking the family dog, or something as complex as running a website. Either way, it is important not to downplay the importance of our roles. Every individual does something special to make the kehilla run smoothly, and that’s very important. If we forget that, we might wind up like Allen Iverson, ridiculed and mocked for our ultimately foolish ball-hogging ways.
Did you know …
… that Birkot Ha-Shachar, according to the Mishneh Torah, were not recited all at once at the synagogue, but were assigned to specific morning activities? (For example, for the bracha “Oter Yisrael B’tifara,” who girds Israel with His glory, one says it as s/he puts on his/her belt.)
by Alex Krule
In this week’s parasha, Korach, we read one of the most archetypal narratives in the torah. Korach, a Levite, gathers followers and stages a coup. Korach wants the authority and power of being a Cohen, a job reserved for only descendants of Aharon; he is not satisfied with the power and respect of being a Levite. Additionally, two members of the coup from the tribe of Reuven, Datan and Aviram, question Moshe’s intentions. They accuse Moshe of leading the Israelites out of a land of milk and honey (Egypt) to the wilderness to die. This is where the story gets interesting. Instead of all-out lashing out at the rebels, Moshe decides to leave things to God. This shows a very important leadership quality in Moshe; instead of becoming angry at the rebels and not doing anything conducive, Moshe decides to refer to the Boss to help him. Instead of denying the allegations of the rebels, Moshe allows for consideration the idea that he may actually not be perfect and that he may be abusing his power. This shows that Moshe is willing to admit his faults and to put his own pride aside for the good of the people.
Moshe tells the rebels that they will be tested by God to determine the solution to the coup. Aharon, Datan, and Aviram are instructed to bring a pan of burning incense to the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). Things seem to be going well, until God instructs Moshe to tell the Israelites to move away from the houses of Korach, Datan, and Aviram. Soon thereafter, their houses are swallowed up by the earth and a divine fire kills the 250 Levites who were offering the incense to God with Datan and Aviram. God clearly makes known His thoughts on the coup, yet many Israelites continue to blame Aharon and Moshe for their problems. God is so angered by this that he threatens to wipe out the nation, but Moshe tells Aharon to make an incense offering and end the plague that God send upon the people. Aharon then ends the plague and all seemingly returns to normal within the camp.
The next day, Aharon’s staff produces flowers and almonds, proving that he is God’s chosen priest. In order to prevent another coup from happening, the bowls used for the incense offerings of Aharon are melted down and used for a plating on the altar to remind everyone of the tragedy of Korach.
While this story is just another example of Israel’s complaining resulting in Moshe saving them from the wrath of God, I think that its message is just as important. As humans, we falter, but we also remember our mistakes and try to not repeat them. Let’s learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and try to improve our lives and connection to our faith.
Shelach Lecha 5762
by Dov Friedman
One of the most interesting stories in Parashat Shelach Lecha is the story of the 12 spies Moses sent to the land of Israel to survey the land. By the second verse there are already problems with sending the spies. Rashi, the famous 11th century commentator, says that when God “commands” Moses to send spies, he is not commanding Moses but rather telling him that it is permissible to do so if the nation feels like they need human observations. This is a problem because the nation was not able to rely on the word of God who said that Israel was “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This problem is a recurring one for the children of Israel because they often did not trust God’s word: they needed visual evidence.
Moses then gives clear instructions for what the spies are supposed to do. He tells them to look at three areas. They should observe the topography of Israel, the strength of the people who dwell in the land, and the strength of the cities. According to Nehama Leibowitz, a contemporary commentator, their answer to Moses’ instructions can be broken down into three parts. At first when they return to Moses, they speak favorably, albeit critically, about the land. They say, “it indeed does flow with milk and honey…nevertheless, the people within the land are fierce, and the cities are very strong and fortified…moreover we saw giants in the land…” They reported critically but gave no reason why the children of Israel could not conquer it. When Caleb, one of two spies who spoke only positively, said, “we shall surely go up to the land for we are surely able to conquer it,” the spies became even more pessimistic saying, “we cannot ascend to the land for the other nations are stronger than us.” But the spies were not satisfied to stop there. They took their complaint to the people saying, “[this is] a land which consumes its inhabitants!…” This incident is what forced the children of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years. The 10 spies save Joshua and Caleb could not put their trust in God, and neither could Israel. It is very clear that they did not revere God based on one Midrashic explanation of the verse “we cannot ascend, for the other nations are strong than us.” The hebrew mimenu can mean “than us” or “than him.” If we substitute, we get “we cannot ascend for the other nations are stronger than him!” – than God. The spies scare the people by telling them that the nations that dwell in Israel are stronger than God himself. This is the cardinal sin of the spies and the children of Israel, and the main reason why they were forced to traverse the desert before entering the land of Israel which they had slandered so unnecessarily.