Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 30, 2016 Pinchas

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 30, 2016
25:10-30:1 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Pinchas is the eighth sedrah in Bamidbar.  Pinchas takes its name from the first word of the second verse in the sedrah, “Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohein, turned back My wrath from upon the children of Israel.”  Since the word Pinchas is a proper noun, the name of the sedrah is the same in both Hebrew and English.  According to Plaut, Pinchas was a name of Egyptian origin meaning the “Nubian” or the “Negro.”  We have seen this before.  For example, there are those who contend that Moshe’s name was also of Egyptian origin.  Interestingly, in some English translations, the name of the sedrah is “Pinchas” but the name used in the text is “Phinehas.”  I have found no explanation for this apparent anomaly.  The sedrah may be viewed as a series of events and activities designed to prepare the new generation for entering into the Promised Land.  As such, it includes the following five parts:  Pinchas and the Priesthood, The Census, Inheritance Laws, Moshe’s Successor, and The Sacrificial Ordinances.
Pinchas and the Priesthood (25:10-18)
Last week’s sedrah ended with Pinchas stabbing an Israelite and his Midianite consort.  This week’s sedrah picks up where that narrative left off.  God rewards Pinchas’ zeal by announcing that he and his descendants will inherit the position of Kohein Gadol.  In an attempt to offer further justification for Pinchas’ action and God’s reward, the sedrah re-visits the crime, taking pains to identify the decedents.  The Israelite is Zimri, son of a chieftain of the tribe of Shimon.  Not only had Zimri flagrantly violated the commandments, but he had also betrayed his role as a leader.  As we have seen several times before, much is expected of leaders and their punishment exceeds that which would normally be meted out for a crime.  The Midianite is Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain.  The Midianites were so determined to conquer the Israelites that they would even go so far as to allow the daughters of their leaders to provide sexual favors to undermine the moral fabric of the nation.  In other words, the threat was great, which necessitated extreme action on the part of Pinchas.  The story of Pinchas is quite troubling for modern readers.  In a time when we have seen fanatics justifying mass murder by saying they are carrying out the will of God, we are more than just a little uncomfortable with this story.  This note of discomfort is not new.  According to one commentator, Talmudists in the Middle Ages are supposed to have said that if Pinchas had come to them as a Court and presented his evidence, they would not have enforced the death penalty.  At the same time, we know that there are times when killing is called for.  Anyone who remembers the events of the 1930’s must agree that a little steel and gunpowder instead of the soft words of Munich might have averted the firestorm of World War II.  And Jews still bridle at Ghandi’s suggestions that we should have passively accepted the Holocaust instead of rising up in armed rebellion whenever possible.
There are several other twists and turns in the story of Pinchas.  His willingness to take a life is reminiscent of Moshe and the killing of the taskmaster.  In the opening verses of the sedrah, the Torah takes pain to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aaron.  This detail is necessary because some may consider Pinchas to have a stain on his family name.  Elazar, his father, had married one of Jethro’s daughters (Shemot 6: 25).  This means that the blood of the Midianite enemies flowed through the veins of Pinchas.  Also, this story hearkens back to the story of Dinah.  At that time, Shimon and Levi drew the swords and stabbed to death all those who had defiled their sister and all of their kinsmen as well.  Now we have another story of sexual defilement involving the descendants of Shimon and Levi.  But in this case the two are on opposite sides of this issue.  Possibly this moral slippage is what accounts for the declining fortunes of the tribe of Shimon that we read about later in the Torah.  Finally, the Torah has strict rules about keeping a Kohein away from a dead body.  Yet here, Pinchas is in the tent with two dead bodies.  Regardless of how one interprets the story, the first part of the sedrah does settle the issue of who will be Kohein Gadol after the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
The Census (26:1-65)
Bamidbar began with a census and it ends with a census.  The headcount at the end of Bamidbar served two practical purposes.  First, it gave the Israelites an idea as to how many fighting men would be available in their upcoming battles.  Secondly, and possibly more accurately, the census was necessary to ensure the proper allotment the parcels of land once the tribes entered Canaan.  The location of each tribe’s land was determined by lot.  Population determined the size of the tribal allotment (26:52-56).  The idea that the latter reason for this second census is the most important of the two is reinforced by the fact that the headcount of the Levites, the tribe that gets no land, comes after all of their other tribes are counted and the rules of allotting the land are stated.  For the bean counters among us, the Israelites decreased in number during their sojourn in the Wilderness.  The first count was 603,550 (2:32) while the second count was 601,730 (26:51), which means a net loss of 1,820.  At any rate, the second part of the sedrah has taken care of tribal allotments once the Israelites enter the Promised Land.  You might want to consult the notes in the Plaut Chumash for an alternative count that is more credible if less traditional.
Inheritance Laws (27:1-11)
Once again we come to one of those quaint interludes where we find out that God and Moshe had not thought of all of the laws we would need.  (Remember the story of Pesach Shenni.)  The five daughters of a man name Tzlaphchad come to Moshe and tell him that their father had died and that he had had no sons.  Therefore, they want to inherit his portion.  Apparently God and Moshe had not considered the possibility of men dying without having sons, so Moshe had to have a chat with God about this problem.  The law was expanded so that the daughters could inherit but they must marry within their tribe to ensure the tribal integrity of the land.  Furthermore, Moshe provides a list of alternative inheritance patterns designed to deal with a variety of family situations (27:8-11).  Having described how the land is to be initially divided the third part of the sedrah tells us what the laws of inheritance will be once the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
Moshe’s Successor (27:12-23)
Moshe knows that he is not going to lead the people into the Promised Land.  Being a responsible leader, he asks God to name a successor while he is alive to ensure the orderly transfer of power.  God tells Moshe that Joshua, the son of Nun, will be his successor.  In accordance with the ceremony commanded by God, Moshe goes before Elazar and lays his hands upon Joshua as a sign of the transfer of power.  Elazar will be the spiritual leader.  Joshua will be the political leader, acting in accord with rulings of the Kohein Gadol and the will of God.  So the fourth part of the sedrah has taken care of the leadership needs of the Israelites when they enter the Promised Land.
The Sacrificial Ordinances (28:1-30:1)
This is not the first time we have seen the holiday calendar nor is it the first time that we have seen lists of sacrifices.  According to traditional commentators, this list of sacrifices is a compilation of the Musaf or additional offerings for the different holidays.  Since the Musaf follows the tamid or daily offering, the Torah first addresses this most common of sacrifices before moving on to describing the various Musaf sacrifices.  Another thing that makes this holiday calendar and its attendant list of sacrifices unique is its placement in the narrative.  It is contained in a sedrah designed to prepare the new generation for its impending entrance into the Promised Land.  Observance of the holidays and the offering of sacrifices are not expressions of personal religious belief.  They are an expression of what is later called our sense of “peoplehood.”  The sacrifices are an expression of our relationship with God, but they are also an expression of our national identity.  The importance of Shabbat is reinforced since it is listed first.  In listing Rosh Chodesh second, we can see that the observance of the New Moon was much more important to our ancestors than it is to us.  The holiday schedule follows the familiar pattern, starting with Pesach and working its way through to Shemini Atzeres.  In terms of the sacrifices themselves, those listed for Sukkoth are the most fascinating.  They require a staggering total of 98 lambs and 70 bullocks.  The seventy bullocks represent thanksgiving offerings on behalf of the seventy nations of the world.  The number of bullocks offered each day decreases in number as a sign of their removal from closeness to God.  Also of note is the fact that the Musaf Offering for Shemini Atzeres is the same as the offering for Rosh Hashanah and is a reminder of the unique relationship that Israel enjoys with God.  This section of the Torah has provided the basis for many of our current religious practices.  With the destruction of the Temple, prayer has taken the place of the sacrificial system.  Various parts of the worship service are designed to stand in the place of these sacrifices (see Themes below).  There is a cyclical tone to the sedrah.  It begins with the selection of the lineage for the Kohein Gadol.  It ends by enumerating the sacrifices, the offering of which will become the main responsibility of this religious functionary.
400.      The specification of the laws of inheritance when a man dies without a son (27:8-11).
401.      The requirement that a lamb should be offered as a burnt offering every morning and evening (28:30).
402.      The specification of an additional offering for Shabbat (28:9-11, 26-31).
403.      The specification of an additional offering for Rosh Chodesh (28:9-11, 26-31).
404.      The specification of an additional offering on Shavuot (28:9-11, 26-31).
405.      The commandment to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (29:1).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Forbidden Marriage
In the section about the Census we are reminded that the marriage of Moshe’s parents was forbidden after Sinai.  According to Vayikra an aunt and a nephew may not marry.  Jochebed was Amram’s aunt.  This is not the first time we see the difference of world with and without Torah.
Women in the Torah
Except for the five daughters of Tzlaphchad, Serach is the only other woman mentioned in the national census.  She is identified as the daughter of Asher, which if true, would have made her a very old woman indeed.  She is probably mentioned because there was no male heir for her family so she too would be entitled to an inheritance under the laws as revised by Moshe with God’s approval.  As to Tzlaphchad, the father of the outspoken five, we know very little about him except that he died and that he was not one of those who rebelled against Moshe.  Some claim that he was the man stoned for gathering wood on Shabbat.  However, the rabbis take a dim view of making such a charge.  First, the Torah does not provide us with this information.  And even if it were true, how can we speak ill of a man whose sin the Torah will not mention?
The Levitical Census
In the separate counting of the Levites, The Torah mentions two more women:  Jochebed, Moshe’s mother, and Miriam, Moshe’s sister.  The Torah also lists all four of Aaron’s sons including the two who died and the reason for their ignominious passing.  But there is no mention of the sons of Moshe.  It is one thing not to give them any honors, but to not even mention them when taking a tally of the people seems to be an omission worthy of commentary, discussion or at least a fanciful mystical tale.  There is a message in the absence of the sons and some day we will find it.
The Shofar
While there are many Rabbinic tales about why we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the real reason is found in this sedrah.  God commanded us to do it.  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month…You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (29:1)
The Daily Service
The tamid was the daily sacrifice offered in the morning and at twilight (28:4).  This gave rise to the Shacharit (morning) and Minchah (afternoon) services.  The Amidah (the Standing Prayer or the Eighteen Benedictions) is recited in place of the tamid.
Shabbat and Holiday Services
Since the Torah called for an additional or Musaf sacrifice on Shabbat and the Holidays; traditional Jewish services have a Musaf Service, which follows the Torah Service.  It is a variation on the basic Amidah and includes references to the sacrifices brought on the holiday being observed.
Torah Readings
During the course of the year, we have seen that there is a special second Torah reading on various festivals including Rosh Chodesh.  These special readings come from Pinchas, specifically chapters 28 and 29.
Rest is an integral part of observing Jewish holidays.  However there are different levels of rest, which means there are different levels of activities we can engage in on different holidays.  How do we know this?  On Shabbat and Yom Kippur we are told “You shall do no work” but on the other holidays we are told “You shall not work at your occupations.”  For the traditional Jew the variations in these commands make a significant different in their observances.
Updated Inheritance Laws
The Jewish view on the right of daughters to inherit has undergone considerable change over the centuries.  The Rabbis recognized that widows and daughters were entitled to a portion of the estate.  Finally, the chief rabbinate of what was then Palestine and now is Israel ruled that daughters had equal rights along with sons to any inheritance.
Separation of Powers
The American Founding Fathers were very conscious of the danger of giving one person or institution too much power.  In an attempt to avoid tyranny, they established a limited government with a written constitution that divided power between the central government and the state governments.  It also divided the power of the central government into three branches.  The Biblical model of government showed a predilection for some of these same concepts, even if they were not articulated in the language of modern political science.  This week’s sedrah opens with the establishment of the line of the religious leadership - the High Priest.  Later the sedrah deals with the issue of the civil leadership when it describes the ascension of Joshua.  This follows the pattern of the original divide where Aaron was the High Priest and Moshe was the “civil leader.”  Even Moshe was not allowed to hold both offices.
Sedrah Symmetry
There is supposed to be some inter-relationship between the seemingly disparate materials contained in the various weekly portions.  At least this week’s portion demonstrates one easy connection.  The reading begins with the establishment of the Priestly line.  It ends with a description of the sacrifices which are the raison d’etre for the existence of the Kohanim.
What’s In A Name Part II
Last week we noted that there were six weekly portions that contained the names of individuals.  The question was why these six?  Consider this as one possible explanation.  The Six are actually three pairs that get us to look at different facets of the same issue:
  1. Righteousness - Noah and the Life of Sarah; he was a “righteous man in his generation” while she was so righteous that God told Abraham to listen to her.
  2. Inter-faith relations - Yitro and Balak.  Both of these men were non-Jews.  They both treated the Jewish people differently and in turn were treated differently by the Jewish people.
  3. Leadership - Korach and Pinchas.  How do we know when a person is worthy of leadership?  When is it acceptable to rebel?  Is it ever appropriate to defy authority?  Is there something in the stories about these two men that might help us discern the difference between those who are pursuing “their own agenda” under the smoke screen of acting for the common good and those who really are acting for the common good?  Korach sought to overthrow the legitimate authority.  Pinchas acted to protect the legitimate authority.  The trick is to understand what makes authority legitimate and of that are Shabbat Kiddush discussions made.
Names III
The daughters of Tzelafchad came to Moses as a group to make their case.  But the Torah identifies them as individuals and gives us the names of these five women who were willing to challenge the system and speak up for their rights and the rights of all of the daughters of Israel.  One has to wonder why, in our own times when women are asserting their right to be full members of the Jewish community with no differentiation for gender we do not see more children named Machlah, No'ah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah.  Certainly each member of this quintet is worthy of being so honored.

Adding or Subtracting
When we celebrate Chanukah, we add a candle for each night of celebration.  This would seem to be the normal way of doing such things.  However, when it comes to offering the bullocks during Sukkoth, the Torah commands us to move in the opposite direction (19:12-35).  On the first day we are to offer thirteen bullocks, on the second day we are to offer twelve bullocks and so on in descending order until on the eighth day we are to offer only one bullock.  Surely there is a simple explanation for what appears to be “adding by decreasing” and I look forward to somebody providing it.

More Than Counting Heads
The census in this week’s reading is more than a simple head count.  There are side-comments that turn it into a message about the importance of obeying God’s law.  In counting the tribe of Reuben, Dathan and Abiram are mentioned by name and their rebellion is recalled (26: 9).  Korach is also mentioned but we are reminded that penitence can save the sinner which is why the sons of Korach did not suffer the fate of their father (26:9-11).  In counting the sons of Judah, Er and Onan are mentioned by name and reference is made to their deaths.  This would seem to be an oblique reminder of the story of Judah and Tamar; a subtle rebuke that would attach itself to the whole house of King David.  In counting the half-tribe of Manasseh, Zelophehad and all five his daughters are mentioned by name with no explanation.  Since the episode the five daughters is not described until later in the reading, it would seem that the by the time the Torah was canonized in its final form, the story was well-known and those who would hear the names of the five daughters would automatically know the importance of the reference.

What the Torah presents as a given can sometimes be more of a puzzle for the reader.  This sedrah raises a myriad of profound questions.  Is it ever acceptable to take a human life in the name of God?  What is the role of women?  If the role of women needs changing, how do we do this while maintaining Jewish tradition?  What is the purpose of the sacrifices?  These are but a few of the items we could discuss this year, or next year or for many years to come.  There is a lot to Pinchas and this guide is meant only to hit the highlights, to stimulate not to stifle.

Recurring Images
The last chapters of Bamidbar (Numbers) starting with “Pinchas” mark the end of a historic narrative that began with the first chapter of Shemot (Exodus).  In his commentary on “Pinchas” entitled “An Angry Young Man”, Gershom Gorenberg reminds of the images in this reading that we have already seen in the lifetime of Moses.  However, as Gorenberg points out, the images may be similar, but the outcomes are different.  For example both Moses and Zimri had taken Midianite women.  The former is remembered as Moshe Rabbenu, the latter as whoremaster.  Why?  Moses married Zipporah before there was Torah and she accepted the Law when it was given.  Zimri had taken Cozbi after the giving of the Torah and he was going to forsake the Law to follow her.

In another example, as young men Moses and Pinchas each killed a human being.  Moses killed an Egyptian task master who was beating a Jew to death.  He acted on his own in a place where there was no judicial system to protect the victim or punish the perpetrator.  Pinchas acted because his sense of morality was offended, not to save another life.  Also, he took the law into his own hands in a place where God, through Moses, had established a judicial system.  There is a time for quick action, especially when the legal system appears inoperative and the good order of society is threatened.  God’s response to the quick action of Pinchas contained a reward and punishment for his zealous act.  He and his descendants will serve as the High Priests.  The reward is obvious - Pinchas got one of the top two jobs in Israelite Hierarchy.  The punishment is a little more opaque.  By making Pinchas High Priest, God put a whole set of controls on his behavior.  The position of High Priest might be powerful, but the High Priest must behave in a very proscribed, moral manner.  Moreover, as powerful as he was, the High Priest was dependent upon the people for his physical existence.  If the people did not bring the sacrifices and pay the taxes, Pinchas and his descendants would literally not have survived.  The zealous man of action would now be bound by the velvet chord of official responsibility.  He could still be zealous, but only in a manner that conformed to God’s laws as given at Sinai.

Commentators agree that Pinchas was justified in acting because Zimri and the others were threatening the newly created rule of Torah law and morality.  Like any new creation, ethical monotheism was extremely fragile.  And that is the same reason that Pinchas was not justified in acting.  The newly created system revealed through Moses contained a legal and judicial system designed to deal with immorality and idolatry.  With this system in place, men were no longer free to dispense justice as they saw fit (i.e., the behavior of Dinah’s brothers).  When a grandson of Aaron took the law into his hands, no matter how justified he might have felt in doing so, the new order was threatened.  For those of you who are looking for some slick harmonizing conclusion - stop reading now.  There is none.  For this am Haaretz, these are puzzling issues to which I ultimately seek refuge in the famed line from Rashi, “of this I do not know.”

1:1-2:23 Jeremiah

The Man:  Since the Book of Jeremiah has provided us with six haftarot already this year, you probably feel like you know all there is to know about Jeremiah.  Therefore, this introduction will be comparatively short.  Jeremiah is considered one of the Three Major Prophets.  He lived during the last part of the seventh century and the first part of the sixth century B.C.E.  He preached for about forty years from 626 B.C.E. until 580 B.C.E.  This means he saw the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the rise of the Babylonian Empire, the destruction of the Temple (586 B.C.E.) and the dispersal of the Jews to Babylonia and Egypt.  As we have said before, Jeremiah must have been the loneliest and unhappiest of men.  Nobody would heed his warnings.  He was an outcast, a pariah.  Worse yet, all the misery he predicted came to pass yet he took no pleasure in being right.  In the end he was carried off to the one place he did not want to go, Egypt.  The land that had enslaved his ancestors and that had betrayed his contemporaries became his graveyard.

The Message:  The haftarah comes from the opening verses of the Book of Jeremiah.  It starts with biographical data about the prophet.  Then there is a shift to God summoning Jeremiah to take up his prophetic mission.  In the tradition of Moshe, Jeremiah does not want to accept the charge.  But God is insistent.  He reassures Jeremiah that He, God, will be with Jeremiah no matter how the people respond.  The language here, like much that we find in Jeremiah, is too powerful to paraphrase.  To get its full effect, read it aloud.  God tells Jeremiah that He will destroy the people for their evil behavior and their idolatry.  And it is Jeremiah’s job to let them know what is about to happen.  In keeping with the tradition that a haftarah should not end on a negative note, the reading continues with three sentences from chapter two.  The prophet reminds the people that God will always love them and will destroy those who do evil to the House of Israel.

Theme-Link:  There is no link between the sedrah and the haftarah.  The connection is between the haftarah and the calendar.  Between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av we read “Telata D’puranuta” an Aramaic term referring to The Three (Haftarot) of Rebuke or Admonition, of which this is the first.  The texts of these three Haftarot all contain strong condemnations of the people’s behavior and warn of national destruction.  Appropriately enough, two of the three come from the Prophet Jeremiah who is traditionally credited with authoring the Book of Lamentations, which is read when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple.  The third comes from Isaiah.

Jeremiah Quotes:  As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days.  Jeremiah: 17. 11

The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?  Jeremiah: 5. 31

Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.  Jeremiah: 6. 16

Copyright; July, 2016 Mitchell A. Levin

Friday, July 8, 2016

Torah Readings For Saturday, July 9, 2016 Korach

Torah Readings For Saturday, July 9, 2016

16:1-18:32 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Korach is the fifth sedrah in the Book of Bamidbar or Numbers.  The sedrah takes its name from the second word in the first sentence of the portion, “Korach.”  Since Korach is actually a person’s name, the Hebrew name for the sedrah and the English translation are the same.  Korach is dominated by two of the recurring themes found in Bamidbar - Rebellion and The Super-Natural.  The Sedrah may be divided into three parts:  Korach’s Rebellion, The Israelites’ Rebellion, and Duties and Gifts for the Kohanim and the Levites.

Korach’s Rebellion (16:1-35)
The rebellions continue and they continue to escalate in their severity.  Korach, a Levite, joins with Dathan and Abiram from the tribe of Rueben to challenge the authority of Moshe and Aaron.  Since all of the people are holy, says Korach, why should Aaron and his family hold such an exalted position.  Korach includes Moshe in his complaint because Moshe is the one who anointed Aaron.  According to the commentators, Korach uses the cunning common to demagogues seeking power.  First, he attacks those in power claiming all of the people should share equally in the power.  But in the end he really sees himself as actually replacing those whom he is challenging.  As a Levite, Korach has been assigned a special role in caring for the Tabernacle.  But he does not think it is important enough for him and that may be the source of his discontent.  Dathan and Abiram join in the rebellion supposedly because they are angry over the displacement of their tribe, Rueben, by Levi and Judah.  There are those who contend that there were actually two different rebellions - one by Korach and one by Dathan and Abiram - and that later editors combined the two episodes.  Some see Dathan and Abiram’s Rebellion as merely a challenge to Moshe’s political power.  They see Korach’s Rebellion as being far more serious since he is seeking to overthrow the House of Aaron and, by inference, the entire religious system laid out in Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar.  Regardless of your view of the origin of the rebellions, the text states that these three along with a man named On and two hundred fifty followers confront the two brothers.  Why now?  Possibly because Korach thinks the Israelites are ripe for a rebellion since they have just been sentenced to die in the Wilderness.

For once Moshe does not lose his temper.  Instead he summons Dathan and Abiram and seeks to reason with them.  Moshe’s restraint in dealing with these two may be a sign that he views this as the less serious of the two-pronged challenge.  When the two rebels refuse to meet with Moshe and begin to defame him, Moshe cries out to Heaven protesting his innocence.  The response to Korach’s challenge is interesting.  There will be no contest between Moshe and Korach.  There will be no debate, no public disputation with a decision rendered on the merits of the case.  Rather, Moshe calls out for God to settle the matter directly; by divine intervention in a cosmic manner that will leave no doubt that the judgment is God’s and not Moshe’s.  So the earth opens its mouth and swallows the rebels.  Of course, there is some question as to who got swallowed.  We know that the three ringleaders and the two hundred and fifty who followed them perish.  But all of Korach’s family could not been consumed as the text would seem to indicate, since the “sons of Korach” are mentioned in Bamidbar 26:11, in several of the Psalms including the one said every Monday morning and in the First Book of Chronicles.  (See Themes for more on this.)

The Israelites’ Rebellion (17:1-28)
After the episode with the spies and the punishment of Korach, you would think our ancestors would have learned to avoid rebellions.  Wrong!  The very next day, “the assembly gathered against Moshe and Aaron” (17:7) and chastised them for the deaths of the rebels whom they describe as "people of the Lord” (17:7).  God tells the brothers to step aside so that He can destroy the rebellious Israelites.  A plague breaks out, but Aaron rises to the challenge.  Without regard to his personal safety, he uses the rituals of the Kohein Gadol (fire from the altar and incense) and moves among the people checking the plague that wiped out fourteen thousand, seven hundred of the Israelites.  In an attempt to cement Aaron’s position among the Israelites and put an end to these rebellions, we see a further act of the super-natural or, at least unusual, direct divine intervention.  The staffs of each tribal leader and the staff of Aaron are placed overnight in the Tent of the Meeting.  In the morning, Aaron’s staff has sprouted almond blossoms.  For some reason, this last, peaceful manifestation of God’s power strikes a responsive chord with the Israelites.  They are chastened.  In fact they go to the other extreme.  A moment ago, they were ready to overthrow Aaron.  Now they tell Moshe that they are afraid to even go near the Tabernacle lest they perish.  It is this latest expression of fear that sets the stage for the last third of the sedrah.

Duties and Gifts for the Kohanim and the Levites (18:1-32)
God now reassures the newly chastened Israelites.  The Tabernacle will not be a source of death if the Kohanim and the Levites perform their functions correctly.  This time God does not use Moshe as an intermediary in communicating with Aaron.  Nor does He speak to the brothers together.  Instead, He speaks directly to Aaron, “The Lord said to Aaron…” (18:1).  This may have been a further attempt to cement Aaron’s position as Kohein Gadol.  It may also have been a way of impressing upon Aaron, who had shown signs of weakness at the Golden Calf and the Rebellion with Miriam that he was responsible for seeing to it that the duties of the Kohanim and Levites enumerated in this chapter were carried out to their fullest extent.  The Kohanim had duties, but they were entitled to their “gifts” which are also enumerated in this chapter.  The landless Levites were to receive their Tithe from the Israelites.  But in turn, the Levites were to give a tenth of their Tithe to the Kohanim.  The sedrah, which has been filled with so much tumult, ends in a quiet, benign mode.  It is almost as if the text is saying that peace will reign in the community when everybody accepts their own unique role and acknowledges the roles of others.

388.         The Levites’ obligation to guard the sanctuary (18:4).
389.         The prohibitions against the priests and Levites doing each other’s work (18:4).
390.         The prohibition against an outsider serving at the sanctuary (18:4).
391.         The commandment that the guarding of the sanctuary should be continuous (18:5).
392.         The obligation of a father to redeem his firstborn son (18:15-16).
393.         The prohibition against redeeming the firstborn of a kosher animal (18:17).
394.         The Levites’ exclusive obligation to perform the sanctuary service (18:23).
395.         The commandments to set aside a tithe for the Levites (18:24).
396.         The Levites’ obligation to donate a tithe from their tithe to the priests (18:23).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

In What Sense Did Korach Survive?
This is not a rhetorical question.  Normally, we blot out the names of evildoers.  Yet with Korach, we do him the honor of naming a sedrah after him.  As Rabbi Telushkin points out, this would be like having an annual Benedict Arnold Day.  The Sons of Korach do live on.  According to some they made a supernatural act of Teshuvah (Repentance) at the moment they were swallowed up and were returned to life.  Others say that the sons did not stand with their father and never died either literally or figuratively.  When we read psalm 48 every Monday morning, it begins “A psalm, a song by the sons of Korach” we should remember that we can also overcome the environment in which we live.  Just as the sons of Korach could overcome the evil nature of their father, so we can all find hope that we can overcome the Inclination to do Evil.

This ancient vestige of the Temple ritual must have carried a meaning far greater than modern man can imagine.  We see it used in this sedrah as weapon of rebellion by Korach and source of redemption by Moshe and Aaron.  The recipe for Incense is recited every day of the year and we are reminded that the penalty for error in mixing the incense is death.

Pidyon ha-Ben
Previous Torah Portions have described the historic reasons for the ceremony for the Redemption of the First Born.  The command to actually perform the ceremony is found in 18:15.

The custom of giving a tenth of one’s earnings to charity finds its origin in the commandment to give a tenth to the Levites (18:24).  The Levites must give a tenth of the Tithe they receive from the people to the Kohanim.  In other words, nobody is exempt from giving.  Everybody, no matter how poor, is supposed to practice the mitzvah of Tzedakah.

How Far is Too Far?
Korach said “You have gone too far!” (16:3).  This is his attack on Moses - accusing him of, among other things, nepotism by naming his brother Kohein Gadol.  Moses replied, “You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:7).  In his response, Moses literally hurls Korach’s words back at the rebel with the additional reminder that he, Korach is from the tribe of Levi.  Moses is not only denying the validity of the attack, he is reminding Korach and his supporters of their lineage and that their rebellion is a betrayal of the tribe chosen by God to serve in the MIshkan and ultimately in the Temple.

Korach and Pirke Avot
In the Chapter Four of Pirke Avot, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says:  “Envy, desire and ambition drive a man out of the world.” (4:28).  Some commentators view these particular words of wisdom as descriptions of the causes of Korach’s Rebellion.  Envy, desire and ambition (or in other translations, “jealousy, lust and honor”) are “the basic instincts and appetites that prevent a person from enjoying life.”  Rabbi Hertz describes them as the “three anti-social qualities…which are a hindrance to harmonious relations with our fellow man.”  Continuing with the comments of Rabbi Hertz, envy is not to be confused with emulation, “which increases skills and wisdom.”  Desire leads to sin because it is “the unbridled hankering after pleasure.”  Ambition or “lust for honor” clouds the mind and leads us to rationalize behavior that we would otherwise know is unacceptable.  The phrase “drive a man out of the world” has two different interpretations.  Sometimes it can be a reference to shortening one’s life.  Sometimes it can be a reference to cutting oneself off from the community.  And sometimes it can be both since the one may lead to the other. Now how does all this relate to Korach?  Why would a man of Korach’s power and wealth rebel against Moshe (and God)?  As Rabbi Weisblum points out, “Korach was already very wealthy and the head of the tribe of Levi but was unable to control his ambition.  His jealousy and lust for power led him to instigate a rebellion.…”  His inability to enjoy and value the many gifts that had already been bestowed upon him, literally led to his death.  Instead of challenging Moshe, Korach might have remembered to pray to want what he had rather than to have what he wanted.

Concepts of Holiness
In “Korach Among Us,” Yeshayaahu Leibowitz compares two concepts of holiness.  The first is found at the end of last week’s Torah portion which finishes with the commandments about the Tzizth.  The fringes are here so “you may remember and do all my mitzvoth and be holy to your God:  I am your God.”  The second concept is found in the opening verses of this sedrah when Korach declares, “All the community (of Israel), all of them are holy, and God is among them all; why do you lift yourself above them.”  Both of the verses use the term holy, but does the word holy mean the same thing in each of them?  Leibowitz contends that in the command concerning the Tzizth “holiness is not a fact but a goal.”  Holiness lies in remembering and doing the mitzvoth.  Holiness is not a state of being.  Rather it is a condition towards which people strive.  It is a journey as much as it is destination.  Holiness is something that we have to work at.  Leibowitz contends that for Korach holiness is a fact, a state of being for the Jew.  In effect he is saying that because we are Israelites, because we are the people of the Covenant, because we the chosen people of the Lord, we are holy by definition.  This would seem to be a form of the age old question of “who is a Jew?”  Is being Jewish a matter of biology or is it something we have to work at for it to have meaning.  Our tradition provides us with contradictory responses.  On the one hand the prophets remind us that God will never turn His back on us.  There is no “bill of divorce” between the Lord and His People.  But Jeremiah also warns us that holding on to Jerusalem and the Temple (symbols of God connected with holiness) will not save the Jewish people   Instead, the Jews will be judged on the basis of deeds i.e., observance of the mitzvoth.  Much to Leibowitz’s dismay, both views may be correct.  On the one hand, Holiness or at least a basic level of holiness may be seen as a gift given to us by God.  But this level of holiness is a base line; a point of departure.  For at the same, the ability to strive for that Holiness is also a gift, because that striving is what actually draws us into a deeper sense of the Divine.  In this concept, the merit is in the striving not in the succeeding.  In reaching out to God, we are not expected to always hit the mark, but we are expected to keep on trying.  There is no definitive answer.  Rather this is one of those questions that make for long, lingering questions at the Kiddush and study sessions that are part of the Shabbat observance.

Twenty-first Century Korach
Biblical characters and tales from the Bible have provided authors through the ages with themes and characters for their own works.  In 2010, we saw the debut of “Korach” a play written by Judith Malina.  Malina, the daughter of a Conservative Rabbi, is no stranger to Jewish sources.  While the Korach of the commentators may be a villain for challenging Moses, Malina sees him as “history’s first anarchist.”  Moses is the authority figure building the new nation who will not tolerate any challenge to his authority.  Korach must be silenced because if his voice is heard - “We are all holy!” - then other challenges will surely follow and that will be the end of central authority.  Regardless of what you think of Malina’s interpretation, it is important to note that characters of the Bible are often rich, multi-textured beings that provide us with food for thought on questions both great and small.

Korach and Tammuz
It is fitting that we read Korach just after observing Rosh Chodesh Tammuz.  Tammuz is the month that marks the start of the death throes of the Temple which will result in destruction and exile.  Korach reminds us of the critical role that the Priests and Levites played as interface between God and the Israelites; of the need to provide for them so that they could be totally focused on their holy mission.  But the tragic events of Tammuz remind us of how far from that lofty goal the religious officialdom of the Second Temple had fallen.  In the last centuries before the destruction of Temple, the position had become a political football and worse.  Men stole from the Temple treasury to finance their quest for the position.  Men killed other men to gain control of the position.  Rulers sought out the help of the Romans to secure the position.  Politics became intertwined with religion as those wearing the vestments of house of Aaron and the tribe of Levi joined jockeyed for temporal power.  Had the Temple been destroyed as a force for morality long before the building was destroyed thus rendering it useless?  As we read Korach during Tammuz, should we be leery of those religious figures who would use their role as rabbis and spiritual leaders to control the reins of temporal power?

11:14-12:22 I Samuel

The Man and the Book:  First and Second Samuel were originally just the Book of Samuel.  At the start of the 16th century, the Venetian printer, Daniel Bomberg introduced the division into the TaNaCh.  Bomberg took the division from Christian text that had made the split so that writings could conform to the size of the scrolls used by the Greeks.  The Book of Samuel covers a major period in Jewish History including the last of the Judges (Samuel) and the establishment of the Monarchy under Saul and David.  Events in the life of Samuel are covered in the first twenty-five chapters of First Samuel.  The rest of First Samuel concerns itself with the fall of the house of Saul and the rise of the house of David.  Second Samuel is a continuation of the events in the life of King David.  The two volumes cover about 120 years, from around 1085 B.C.E. to 965 B.C.E.  So why do these two volumes bear Samuel’s name if he was only alive for about the first seventy-five years covered by the narrative?  Samuel was a major figure in our tradition.  One of the psalms (99:6) elevates him to the level of Moshe and Aaron.  From an historic perspective he was the last and greatest of the Judges.  He was the one who began the work of re-uniting the tribes and drawing them out of the spiritual and ethical sloth that had become common place following the death of Joshua.  Also, he was the one whom God chose to anoint and guide the first two royal households of the Jewish people.  In other words, Saul and David could not have existed had it not been for Samuel.  Based on information in Chronicles as well as the Book that bears his name, we know that Samuel was a Levite.  We know that he was a Nazir.  We know he had two sons.  And we know that he was not a “happy person” by the time of his death.  Furthermore, in dealing with the issue of the monarchy, Samuel shows himself to be a complex, conflicted person.  When the Israelites come to Samuel and ask him to get them a king, he denounces their attentions.  Yet Devarim describes the proper behavior for a king, so God could not have been opposed to a king.  In fact it takes divine intervention to get Samuel to comply with the peoples wishes.  The measure of his greatness might be found in the lines that describe his death.  “And Samuel died; and all Israel gathered themselves together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house in Ramah.” (25:1).

The Message:  The haftarah begins with the third naming of Saul as King of Israel.  He has been chosen twice before in episodes described in chapters 9 and 10.  This ceremony is public and marks the final transformation from the leadership of the Judges to the leadership of the Monarchy.  The haftarah continues with Samuel’s valedictory.  First he proclaims his own honesty as a public official.  The he recounts the wonders that God has performed for the Israelites and takes them to task for wanting a temporal monarch when God was the only king they needed.  The people admit the error of their ways.  Samuel reassures them that all will still go well if they follow the laws of the Lord.

Theme-Link:  There are numerous connections between the sedrah and the haftarah.  According to tradition, Samuel is a descendant of Korach.  Both the sedrah and the haftarah contain stories of changes in leadership.  In the sedrah, God crushes the rebels and the leadership stays the same.  In the haftarah, God has sanctioned the change in leadership and Saul becomes king.  Both the sedrah and the haftarah contain descriptions of miraculous events that are a sign of divine power.  Interestingly enough, the two great leaders, Moshe and Samuel, proclaim their own honesty.  Both men proudly proclaim that they have done nothing to enrich themselves while in power.  Could any of those who seek public office in our own time make the same claim?  And are we not the poorer for the fact modern leaders cannot meet the measure of either Moshe or Samuel?

Copyright; July 2016; Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 25, 2016 Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)

Torah Readings for Saturday, June 25, 2016

Beha’alotcha (“When you light” or “When you kindle”)
8:1-12:16 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Beha’alotcha is the third sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The reading takes its name from a phrase in the second verse of the sedrah, “Speak to Aaron and say to him:  When you kindle (Beha’alotcha) the lamps….”

The sedrah can be divided in two main parts - Final Instructions and Ceremonies Before Beginning the Journey (8:1-10:10) and The Journey From Sinai to Canaan Begins (10:11-12:16).  The sedrah begins and ends with Aaron.  The fortunes of Aaron mirror the fortunes of the Israelites as presented in Beha’alotcha.  The sedrah starts on a note of spiritual exhilaration involving Aaron and the Jewish people, but it will descend into a description of a series of rebellions against God and Moshe, the last of which involves Miriam and Aaron.

The Menorah
The sedrah opens with Aaron being instructed in the rituals related to the Menorah.  The ceremonials relating to the Menorah may be seen as the capstone to the offerings described at the end of Naso.  The rituals relating to the Menorah are for Aaron and his family the equivalent of the offerings made by the leaders of the Twelve Tribes (See Themes for more on the Menorah).

The Levites
There is a pattern in the Torah of God telling us what He plans to do in one sedrah and then describing the implementation in a later sedrah.  Previously God had told the Israelites that the Levites would be consecrated to Him and would be assigned to serve the Kohanim.  In Beha’alotcha, the Levites actually go through the rituals that ordain them in these dual roles.  When the earlier census was taken, the Levites ranging in age from thirty to fifty were counted.  At the time of their actual consecration, the ceremony involves Levites ranging in age from twenty-five to fifty.  According to some commentators this five year discrepancy allowed for a period of apprenticeship before the male Levites actually assumed their duty.  Regardless, retirement came at fifty.

With the first anniversary of the Exodus, the Israelites are commanded to observe Pesach for the first time as free people.  The Pesach Offering is to be made “in its appointed time.”  This is interpreted to mean that the Pesach Offering is so important that it can even be made on Shabbat.  Now comes one of the most diverting little tales in the Torah.  Apparently there was a group of men who had been with a corpse at Pesach, which meant they could not participate in the Pesach Offering.  They complained to Moshe that this was unfair.  They were being denied participation in this important ritual because they were performing another mitzvah.  In responding to this dilemma, it was almost as if Moshe were saying, “Golly gee, God and I just didn’t think about this possibility.  Wait here a minute and I will get a ruling on this from God.”  Thus was created Pesach Sheni, the Second Pesach.  Pesach Sheni comes a month after Pesach and participation is limited to those who have become contaminated by a human corpse or are too far away to participate in the sacrifice at the appointed time and place.  Everybody else is still supposed to observe the holiday at its appointed time.

Traveling Signs
There are three signs to tell the Israelites when to travel and one sign to tell them when to stop.  Three are visual.  The fourth is auditory.  A cloud will hover over the Tabernacle by day and a pillar of fire by night.  When the cloud arises, the Israelites are to break camp.  When the cloud comes to rest, the Israelites will encamp.  The pillar of fire is the nighttime version of the cloud.  Since it is the motion of the cloud and not the pillar of fire that determines travel, there are those who assume that the Israelites only move during the day.  What is important is that God Himself, and no one else, determines the Israelites’ travel pattern.  In addition to these three visual signs, God commands Moshe to make two silver trumpets which are to be sounded each time the Israelites are to start traveling.  The Trumpets are also supposed to be blown when going into battle and at various times of joy.

The Journey Begins (10:11-12:16)
·        The First Stage - On the 20th day of Iyar in the second year after the Exodus, the Israelites follow the Cloud from Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran.  They follow the previously prescribed line of march.  At this point, Moshe’s father-in-law announces his plans to return to his home.  Despite Moshe’s entreaties, Jethro, or as he is called here, Hobab son of Ruel, is determined to leave and go back to his people.  As we shall see, this is not the last time we shall encounter the Midianites or the Kenites, the kinsmen of Jethro.
·        The First Rebellion - No sooner do the Israelites make camp than the chronic complainers begin making noise.  This so enrages God that he kills a group of them with a “fire” that was probably some form of lightning bolts.
·        The Second Rebellion - Now another group complains about the food.  They want meat.  They yearn for the delicious foods of Egypt.  They are tired of manna even though the text reminds us of what a perfect food it is.  Now Moshe seems to be almost rebelling against God.  He cries out that these people are too much for him.  He reminds God that he did not ask to be the leader.  God forced the job on him.  And if this is the way things are going to be, Moshe tells God to just kill him right now.  God responds in two ways.  First he takes care of the leadership and spiritual void by creating the Sanhedrin, the Council of Seventy Elders.  Then he sends the quail to meet the demands for meat.  But the gift becomes a punishment as the gluttons die with their mouths filled with unchewed meat stuck between their teeth.
·        The Third Rebellion - In what must have been one of the most painful moments in his life, Moshe now must face a rebellion by his sister and brother.  “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe regarding the Cushite woman he had married…They said, ‘Was it only to Moshe that God spoke?  Did He not speak to us as well?’”  In other words, first they gossiped about Moshe’s treatment of his wife and then they challenged his position, claiming to be his equal because they had also spoken with God.  Moshe is too humble (and probably too hurt) to respond to the charges by his siblings.  So God intervenes telling the sister and brother of Moshe’s unique relationship with Him and reminding them of his virtues.  Having chastised them, God drives home the point with physical discomfort.  Miriam is stricken with a skin disease.  Since Aaron is a Kohein, he knows the diagnosis and begs his brother to intervene.  Possibly remembering how she had saved him when he was a baby, Moshe intervenes with God.  God agrees to spare her, but she must be quarantined for seven days.  Was the separation only because of her physical impurity or was it in part also punishment for speaking evil against her brother?  The text is mute and we are left to speculate.  Once her seven days are over, the people renew their journey moving from Hazeroth to the Wilderness of Paran.


380. The obligation of one who was unable to bring a Passover offering at the appropriate time to do so exactly one month later on the 14th day of Iyar (9:10).
381. The obligation of one who is able to bring the Passover offering on the 14th day of Iyar to eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (9:10).
382. The prohibition against leaving over any of the Second Passover sacrifice until the next day (9:12).
383. The prohibition against breaking any of the bones of the Second Passover sacrifice (9:12).
384. The obligations to sound a trumpet when an enemy attack occurs and during joyous celebrations at the sanctuary (10:9-10).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

There are several commentaries about the importance of this ancient artifact.  Some commentaries portray the Menorah as a symbol of God’s light.  The light of the Menorah becomes fused with the concept of studying Torah, which is a manifestation of God’s light in our world of darkness.  Others see the episode described in this sedrah as prophecy and relate it to the Menorah of Chanukah.  In that time of spiritual darkness, the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, will protect the Israelites from the Hellenists.  While the Menorah of the Torah has seven branches, the Menorah of Chanukah will have eight branches, possibly indicating the need for additional “light” in a period of greater spiritual darkness.

Some numbers seem to have mystical quality.  While these numbers may have non-Jewish significance, we shall look at the meaning only within our tradition.  The seven lamps of the menorah correspond to the Seven Days of Creation.  The bride circles the groom seven times.  Mourners sit Shiva for seven days.  Pesach was originally seven days long.  The Omer is counted for seven weeks.  The Days of Awe come in the Seventh Month and Sukkoth was originally a seven-day observance.  The Sabbatical Year is every seven years and Joshua circled Jericho seven times.  And the membership of the Sanhedrin was seven times ten.

This time of the year provides us with two views of non-Jews and their relationships with the Jewish people.  On Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, the Moabitess who accepts God and His Torah with the famous lines, “thy people shall be my people and thy God my God.”

This week we read of the “mixed-multitude” or “riff-raff” that went out of Egypt with the Israelites.  These were non-Israelites who supposedly attached themselves to our ancestors to escape Egyptian slavery.  According to some, they were the ones who instigated the rebellion of the Golden Calf.  In this sedrah, they are the ones who complain about the food in the Wilderness (11:4-6).  They crave the fish and meats of Egyptian slavery while sneering at the Manna from God.  Unlike Ruth, this mixed-multitude attached themselves to the Jews for their own selfish purposes, not for the sake of God and Torah.  Once we had satisfied their needs (getting them out of Egypt), they made trouble for us.  This is to be a common thread in our history.  Up to our own time, there have been plenty of groups who have attached themselves to the Jewish people and sought to use us for their own agenda.  But when we have rejected their agenda, they have turned on us and become bitter foes.

Pesach Sheni
The story of the Second Pesach serves two purposes.  First it points out the importance of observing Pesach and the seminal nature of the Exodus in Jewish history.  Second, it points out the importance of interpretation.  Based on the events described, the goal should be to help people find ways to observe the mitzvoth even if that takes a little creativity.  On the other hand, that “creativity” needs to be consistent with the Torah, which means those making such decisions must be fully knowledgeable about all aspects of Jewish law.

The Torah appears to give very specific names for the different places through which the Israelites journeyed on their way to Canaan.  However, it is difficult, if not impossible to find places in the Sinai or Negev that correspond to them.  Those who are concerned about this might want to look at Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler.  Does our inability to locate the places named in Bamidbar mean that the trek across the Wilderness did not take place?  From the point of view of traditional Judaism, the answer is “no,” it does not matter.  For others the historicity of the journey is open to question and may even be rejected as mere myth.

The Sanhedrin
A Council of Seventy Elders is a recurring theme throughout Jewish history.  Although the term Sanhedrin appears frequently, it refers to different institutions.  In an oddity of history, Napoleon Bonaparte convened a Sanhedrin to determine the role of the Jews in post-revolutionary France.  According to some, the creation of the Sanhedrin is proof of God’s (Judaism’s) commitment to diversity.  But this pluralism takes place within the framework of respect for the Torah.  Jewish literature is replete with Rabbinic debate, but these debates are “disputes for the sake of Heaven” i.e., like those between Hillel and Shammai, not like those led by Korach.  Why Seventy Elders, as opposed to any other number?  One commentator cites Maimonides as saying that number included all opinions that are permissible in a given case.

Customs and Ceremonies
As we have seen before, the Torah and the events it describes are a source for different prayers and practices in our various worship services.  This week’s sedrah provides some of the utterances found in the Torah Service.  The words in 10:35-36 are intoned when we take the Torah from the Ark and when we return it to its resting place after reading from it.

Gossip and The Evil Tongue
Miriam and Aaron’s rebellion against Moshe began with gossip.  As we have said before, Judaism takes a dim view of those who “speak evil” about another.  There are many cautionary rules and commentaries warning us about being careful with our words.  This episode is so important that in Devarim, it becomes the source for one of The Six Remembrances, which are recited daily at the end of the Morning Service.  Why is Miriam the one who suffers physical harm?  The text says, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe…”  By putting her name first, it would indicate that she was the leader and Aaron merely went along.  Unfortunately, this would be consistent with Aaron’s behavior of just “going along” as we saw with the Golden Calf.  Aaron’s punishment is twofold.  First, he must watch helplessly as his beloved sister suffers.  Then he must beg his brother, whom he sought to supplant, to intervene with God to save Miriam.  While we have talked about Moshe’s anger, here he shows compassion and understanding by praying for his sister’s recovery.

In Humility of a Prophet, Yeshayahu Leibowitz examines Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to the leadership of Moses.  He draws our attention to the statement that “the man Moses was very humble, more than any other man” (Num.12:3).  He points out that the Torah provides us with no descriptions of Moses’ personality.  All that we know of him we deduce from his behavior with the exception of this direct mention of his humility.  From this we can deduce that humility must be a human trait of great importance - possibly more important than being wise, witty, compassionate, etc.  Why is humility of such importance?  What is the nature of humility?  Is there more than one form of humility?  We do know that Jewish sages place more emphasis on presenting the message than they do on taking credit for words of wisdom.  The literature is replete with sages who credit their teachers for the words they are speaking.  With several of the prophets, we have their wisdom not their biographies.  The ultimate example of this is unknown person who wrote the words that we ascribe to the “Second Isaiah.”  Leibowitz finds part of the answer to the questions about humility in Rashi’s commentary about Moses.  Remember, Moses is the one to whom God spoke “face to face.”  Yet Moses knew that truly understanding God was beyond the comprehension of man.  “All the prophets looked through a murky glass - and thought that they saw; our Master Moses through a clear glass - and knew that he had not seen Him to His face.”  If humility was important for Moses, how important a role should it play it in our own lives?

Meat and Milk
There are a myriad of laws prohibiting the mixing of meat and milk.  These all stem from the injunctions that we not cook a calf in its mother’s milk.  So, it is asked, why can we not eat dairy products when we are consuming chicken, turkey or other fowl?  After all they produce no milk so there is no way one could cook a baby chick in its mother’s milk.  In this week’s portion, the people demand “Ba-sar” which is translated as flesh, or in modern parlance, meat.  God tells Moses that He will send “Ba-sar” - meat.  And when God sends Ba-sar, what does he send?  He sends an unlimited supply of quail - fowl.  Now if God considers fowl to be Ba-sar, meat, who are we to risk eating chicken parmesan?

Travel Plans:  Divine and Human
This week’s reading reminds us again that when it comes to matters of this world, God has a role to play but so do human beings.  When it came to travel in the wilderness, God had his way of providing guidance, “And as the cloud arose from over the tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where they could abode, there the children encamped” (32:17).

But Moses must have felt the need for some human guidance since when his father-in-law announced his plans to leave the Israelites, Moses responded, “Do not leave us, I pray thee; since thou knows how we are to encamp in the wilderness and thou shall be to us as eyes” (10:31).  Is this an extension of that aphorism, “Pray as if everything depends on God; act as if everything depends on you”?

Travel Plans:  Predestination and Free Will
In this week’s reading we see that the Israelites had a path to follow on the way to Eretz Israel and that God, through the signs like the cloud and the pillar of fire showed them the way.  Many Jews believe that God has a plan for each of us.  This is the pre-destination part.  But we have to figure out what the correct signs are so that we will choose the path that will lead to the successful journey which is the Free Will part of the equation.

Jewish Journeys
Once again, we are reminded that for Jews life is a journey.  Starting with Abraham, generation after generation of Jews have had to take a physical journey which is matched by the spiritual journey.  This week’s journey from Sinai towards the land beyond the Jordan is just one more example of this.  As we know from the Golden Calf tale, many of the Israelites making this trip would not complete it - they would not reach Eretz Israel and they knew it.  Yet they made the trip anyway.  This might serve as a reminder for us that the important thing is to make the journey, learned the lessons along the way and not worry whether we complete it.  As the Cunard Shipping Lines said, “Half the fun is getting there.”

Line of March
Previously we have read about the positioning of the various tribes around the Mishkan and the positioning of the Levites within the precincts of the “Divine Dwelling.”  This week we actually read about the tribes heading down the road, with each of them assuming the positions assigned to them by God.  For anybody who has ever orchestrated a move, you can imagine the amazement our ancestors must have felt when they saw the whole thing working smoothly, just as had been commanded.  Leading the line of march was the Tribe of Judah - a fitting positioning for the tribe that would produce the Davidic Kings and would essentially survive as The Jewish State until the Destruction of the First Temple.  One can imagine the sense of pride that filled them as they stepped off.  But let’s look to the rear of the line at the Tribe of Dan.  For those of you acquainted with 19th century cattle drives, this corresponded to “riding drag.”  These were the people who spent each day “eating the dust” of those marching ahead of them; the last to drink at the waterhole, the last to eat the evening meal.  But drag riders played a crucial role.  They were the ones who picked up the stray cattle and brought them back to the herd, thus helping to insure the economic success of the cattle drive.  Based on the commentary of Rashi, the Danites gathered up the belongings of the other Israelites as they dropped them and returned them to their owners.  They also brought back those of their co-religionists who strayed from the Israelites.  There are plenty of people who want to play the role of Judah - strutting their stuff for all to see.  But we need the Danites, those willing to labor in the background who do the necessary work of bringing back those of our fellow Jews who, for whatever reason, have wondered from the “herd.”  Just as no cattle drive could afford to lose even one cow, so the House of Israel cannot afford to lose even one of its members.

2:14-4:7 Zechariah

The Man:  Zechariah is the eleventh of the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  Along with Haggai and Malachi, he is one of the three Post-Exilic Prophets.  In other words, these prophets were active after the Babylonian Exile.  The destruction of the First Temple took place 586 B.C.E. and marks the beginning of the Babylonian Exile.  The descendants of the exiles started returning from Babylonia in 538 B.C.E. during the reign of the Persian King, Cyrus.  We have few facts about the life of Zechariah.  According to tradition, he began preaching about 520 B.C.E. and he was a younger contemporary of Haggai.  The Book of Zechariah consists of fourteen chapters.  As far back as the time of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, there has been some question as whether the “book” really had two authors.  There is a distinct difference in the tone and style between the first eight chapters and the last six chapters.  The first eight chapters contain a lot of visionary material complete with the appearance of angels.  The last six chapters contain no references to angels, focus more on messianic visions and mention Greece.  There are those who contend that the reference to the Greeks means that the last six chapters were written some time after the death of Alexander the Great, which would have been about two hundred years after Zechariah was supposed to have begun preaching.  On the other hand, as at least one commentator points out, the reference to the Greeks could have been as a result of the battles of Marathon (480) and Salamis (490).  If Zechariah had been a young man when he began his mission, these last chapters would have been the work of an older man, prophesying about a future world where the menace of Greece had replaced the comparative comfort of Persia.  Zechariah may have been a member of the priestly class since he was either the son or grandson of Iddo, one of the priests who returned from Exile with Zerubbabel and Joshua.  Zerubbabel was a descendant of the House of David and was the governor appointed by the Persians.  Joshua was the Kohein when the exiles first came back to Jerusalem.

The Message:  Zechariah began preaching during the reign of Darius.  He called upon the returning exiles to finish rebuilding the Temple.  The original returnees had laid the foundation, but work on the Temple had been stopped due to a variety of political and economic problems.  He urged the Jews to complete the work as part of a larger effort, “the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.”  He saw the need for proper ritual to go hand in hand with just and merciful behavior to reach that goal.  The first four verses of the haftarah are an almost messianic vision of the joyful return of the people and God’s presence to Jerusalem.  The tone then shifts to a confrontation with Satan, the accuser, assaulting Joshua, the high priest, as being unworthy of his exalted position.  But God intervenes, describing Joshua as an ember plucked out of the fire.  In other words, whatever his shortcomings, Joshua is a survivor of the Babylonian Exile.  If Joshua and his companions will faithfully obey the laws of God, He will forgive them whatever sins they may have committed.  The haftarah finishes with a visit from an angel and a vision that includes a menorah with seven lamps.  When the prophet asks the angel what the vision means, the response includes the famous quote “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts” (4:6).

Theme-Link:  The sedrah begins with commands concerning the seven lamps and the menorah.  The haftarah ends with reference to another menorah with seven lamps.  While it is obvious from the Torah portion that the menorah is important, it takes the words of the haftarah to give explicit meaning to the importance of the seven lamps.  The message of the seven lamps must be extremely important since this haftarah is read twice during the year.  The haftarah is also read on Shabbat Chanukah since Chanukah is the festival on which we light the lamps of the menorah.  Why use the same haftarah twice?  Why not use another prophetic reading that deals with the “seven lamps.”  According to some, it is because of the paucity of mentions of the seven lamps in any other prophetic writings.

Copyright; June, 2016; Mitchell A. Levin