Sunday, June 28, 2015

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 4, 2015 Balak

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 4, 2015

22:2-25:9Bamidbar (Numbers) 

Balak is the seventh sedrah in Bamidbar.  It takes its name from the first word in the sedrah, “Balak, son of Zippor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.” (22:2).  Balak is the name of the King of the Moabites.  Balak divides into two parts.  Most of the sedrah (22:2-24:25) is taken up with the Story of Balaam.  Some commentators contend that this section of Bamidbar was originally a separate book of the Torah, which would have meant that the Torah would have consisted of seven books.  The last nine verses of the sedrah start the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron.

The Story of Balaam (22:2-24:25).  I have always found this story to be a mystery, especially when you get to the part about the talking ass.  There appear to be several differing views about its importance.  Plaut talks about this portion with almost reverential awe while the editors of Etz Hayim refer to it as containing “what may be the only comic passage in the Torah.”  In Torah Studies, a compilation of Rabbi Schneerson’s talks on the weekly readings, the editors do not mention the Story of Balaam, focusing instead on the episode involving Pinchas, which comes at the end of the sedrah.  I have relied heavily on the Plaut Chumash and the writings of Rabbi Telushkin in preparing this section.  The sedrah opens with the Israelites camped “on the steppes of Moab.”  Balak, the King of Moab, is frightened by this mass of intruders and sends for the prophet Balaam to help him fend off the invaders.  According to tradition, those who Balaam blesses remain blessed and those who he curses are cursed forever.  Balak does not ask Balaam to bless Moab.  Rather he wants him to come and curse the Israelites.  Balaam hears the voice of God, and turns down Balak’s first offer.  This is not the first time that we have seen God revealing himself to non-Jews.  After all, He is the God of the entire Universe.  But the second time, God relents and lets Balaam accept Balak’s offer.  Balak saddles his ass and heads for Moab.  But the donkey balks at her mission.  (Yes, this wise, talking animal is a female.  Is this a continuation of the feminist theme we saw when God told Abraham to listen to Sarah?)  The ass sees an armed angel standing in the road and tries to turn aside.  This angers Balaam who begins beating the animal.  Then the ass speaks, reminding Balaam of her loyalty, at which point God reveals the angel to Balaam.  The angel admonishes Balaam for beating his ass, telling him that if it had not been for her, Balaam would have been slain right there on the road.  For those of you who are bothered by super-natural events like this, relax.  According to Midrash, this talking ass was one of the things created on the evening of the Sixth Day of Creation.  In other words, the talking donkey does not violate the laws of nature; it was pre-programmed to appear at this moment.  Balaam arrives at Ir-Moab, the capital city of Balak’s kingdom.  Balak has to be one of the most disappointed employers in history.  He is paying for curses on his enemies and instead he hears blessings on the Israelites.  Balaam views the Israelite camp from three vantage points and each time he utters blessings upon them.  In his own defense, Balaam tells Balak that he can only utter the words that God puts in his mouth.  The angered Balak sends Balaam packing without paying him.  At this point, as if to add insult to injury, the departing Balaam speaks for a fourth and final time.  This time he predicts that Israel will eventually triumph over Moab.  There are obvious messages in the story.  In allowing Balaam to go to Balak when he is asked for a second time, God is allowing man to exercise free will.  The fact that God puts the blessings in Balaam’s mouth is a reminder that while men may speak words of blessing all blessings come from God.  Balaam’s willingness to sell his prophetic powers for material gain shows the difference between a real and false prophet.  To paraphrase the Mishnah, he who profits from the crown of the Torah shall surely perish.

Pinchas (25:1-9).  Pinchas is the name of next week’s sedrah.  However, we meet him for the first time at the end of Balak.  The events in these last nine sentences of the sedrah provide the antecedents to the events we will be reading about next week.  Having failed to defeat the Israelites with curses, the Moabites send their women to the Israelites in an attempt to seduce them.  God orders Moshe to have the “ringleaders impaled.”  Moshe then calls upon the leaders of the Israelites to carry out God’s command.  Just at this moment an unnamed Israelite (we will find out who he is next week) approaches Moshe with his “woman” and heads for his tent to enjoy her pleasures.  Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the Kohein Gadol and grandson of Aaron, is so outraged that he grabs a spear, enters the tent and stabs them both in the belly.  The sedrah ends by telling us that this stopped the plague that had broken out.  The plague had claimed the lives of 24,000 Israelites.  We must wait until we read Pinchas next week to fully understand the import of these events.

There are none in this sedrah.

As we have seen before, the Torah is a source for many of our prayers.  The Mah Tovu, the prayer recited when entering the synagogue for morning prayers, comes from the mouth of Balaam (24:5).  You may recognize the traditional English translation for its opening verse, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O House of Israel.”

Separate and Apart
One of the recurring themes of the Torah is the special role of the Jew in the world.  We are the people of the Covenant.  We are the people of whom God has said, I will make you a holy (separate) people.  I will make you a nation of priests.”  Now the words of Balaam drive this point home again, “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.”  There are those who seek the walls of the Ghetto to keep us apart from other nations because they are afraid that we will assimilate and lose our identity.  There are those who would place us behind Ghetto walls to keep us from “contaminating” other nations.  There are those Jews who bridle at this concept of separateness for a variety of reasons and reject this as anachronistic chauvinism.  And then there are those who would say that the challenge for modern Jews is to live in the world while maintaining a strong, positive sense of our own identity.

Genesis Connection
This sedrah contains at least two connections to Bereshit.  First, they both contain talking animals - the snake in Bereshit and the donkey in Balak.  Secondly, we see God asking questions for which He should have known the answer.  In Bereshit He asks Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”  In Balak He asks Balaam, “Who are the people who came to you?”  Since God obviously knew the answers, why ask the questions?  Because, according to some commentators, this is so we will know that confession is the beginning of repentance.

The Power of Words
Jews and Judaism are all about words and language.  After all, we are known as The People of the Book.  This sedrah is filled with reminders of the power of speech.  Balak knew that he could not defeat the Israelites with armed might so he tried to use the power of negative speech (curses) to destroy us.  The donkey spoke in an attempt to save her master.  This proves that we should listen even to the humblest of creatures because they might have a message worth hearing.

What’s in a Name?
Balak is one of only six weekly portions that takes its appellation from a person’s name.  The others are Noah, Cha’Yay Sarah, Yitro, Korach, and Pinchas.  What do “a righteous man in his time,” Abraham’s wife, Moses’ father-in-law, a rebel leader, the King of the Moabites and a killer turned High Priest have in common?  Why are these six people memorialized for all times?  Why do their names appear every year on Jewish calendars around the world?  Is this one of those questions that “Rashi’s five year old could answer” or one of those that would elicit commentary from those engaged in Torah study?  Since nothing is placed in the Torah for no reason, there must be one.  The question is what is the reason?

The Universal God
There are those who contend that the God of the Israelites was essentially a tribal or a national deity.  Many of them believe that the concept of the God of the Israelites as a Universal God is a later manifestation formulated in the time of the literary prophets and the Babylonian Exile.  The sedrah of Balak challenges that assumption.  The God of the Israelites speaks to both Balak, King of the Moabites and Balaam.  Balaam says, “What the Lord says, that I must say.”  Balak tells him, “I was going to reward you richly, but the Lord has denied you the reward.”  At the beginning of the Torah, God spoke with all people i.e., Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah.  As the tale progressed, He established a special relationship with the Israelites, but that does not mean He is not the God of the entire World.  As the narrative of the Torah is coming to a close with these chapters of Bamidbar, it is almost as if the author, in this sedrah, is reminding us that God does indeed speak to all people, not just the Jewish people.

Balak and the 17th of Tammuz
Balak reminds us of the importance of words.  In America, whether it is bullying or the coarsening of our public discourse, we are painfully aware of the harm that speech can do.  Tomorrow we will observe the Fast of Tammuz because the 17th falls on Shabbat and except for Yom Kippur, Shabbat trumps fasting.  Since most American Jews do not refrain from food and drink on the 17th of Tammuz maybe we could refrain from Lashon Hara on this minor fast day.  To paraphrase the old Chasidic tale, we will show as much concern for what comes out of our mouths as we show for what we put in our mouths.

Methods of Destruction
There have been a myriad of methods used to try and wipe out the Jews.  In the Torah we have already read about Laban, Pharaoh and the Amalekites using drowning, starvation and physical force to destroy the Israelites.  But this week we read what might be the first account of psychological warfare or “black-ops” to wipe out the Jewish people.  The attempts to use “curses” and appeals to the supernatural smacks of ancient man’s attempts to use “mind games” to destroy his opponents.

5:6-6:8 Micah

The Man:  The name Micah is actually an abbreviation of the name “Micaiah” which means “who is like unto God.”  Micah is one of the Twelve Minor Prophets.  While he may be minor in terms of length (fifteen pages in the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation, The Prophets) he is certainly a major figure when it comes to the complexity of his preachings, the boldness of his teachings and the majesty of his language.  Consider the following famous statements, all of which are found in this slender work.  “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (4:2).  “And they shall beat their swords in plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more” (4:3).  “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; And none shall make them afraid” (4:4).  “It hath been told thee, O man what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee:  Only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God” (6:8).

Based on information in the text, we know that Micah preached during the reign of three Judean Kings, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  This means he lived at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. and the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E.  He lived during the last days of the Northern Kingdom and a period in which the Southern Kingdom was threatened with foreign conquest.  He was a younger contemporary of Isaiah.  Some statements including one cited above are found in the writings of both men.  Nobody is sure if one is quoting the other or they are both referencing an even older source that has been lost to us.  Micah lived at a time of wealth and social upheaval.  Judean society was moving away from an agrarian egalitarianism model to a more urban model with increasing gaps between the rich and the poor.  He decried the abuse of power by the wealthy and their exploitation of the masses.  He warned the people that this behavior would bring exile and destruction.  He told them that possessing the holy city of Jerusalem would not protect them.  He mixed this harsh message of immediate punishment with a message of ultimate redemption.  God would not forget us.  He would forgive us and redeem us.  “Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth the iniquity, And passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?  He retaineth not His anger forever, Because He delighteth in mercy.  He will again have compassion upon his; He will subdue our iniquities; And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.  Thou wilt show faithfulness to Jacob, mercy to Abraham, As Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old” (7:18-20).

The Message:  As Goldman points out in his commentary on this prophet, the Book of Micah can be divided into three parts.  Micah opens with a message devoted almost exclusively to denouncing sin and proclaiming impending punishment.  He then shifts to a message almost totally devoted to “words of hope and cheer.”  The haftarah is taken from the third section where he mixes the two elements.  He opens by addressing the “remnant of Jacob,” an obvious reference to punishment and exile.  But then he reminds the people of God’s past beneficence.  Surely, God who has been good to us in the past will be good to us in the future.  As the editors of Etz Hayim point out, this leads the people to ask in what manner they should approach the Lord.  Should they approach with mounds of sacrifices?  No, not with sacrifices alone should they approach God.  Instead the prophet tells them to approach Him in the way they already know is proper - with justice, mercy and humility (6:8).  The classical English version of verse eight loses some of its meaning in the translation.  As the notes in the Soncino edition point out, the prophet uses the word “justly” first because it is the lack of justice both in the legal and social sense of that term which will lead to the destruction of the nation.  But justice is not enough.  The people must love mercy.  In Hebrew the word used is “chesed” which actually means acts of loving-kindness.  “Chesed” is to be the basis of interaction with all human beings, regardless of their social station.  Finally, the English reads “walk humbly” but the Hebrew word “v-hah-tznayah” which is translated here as humbly actually has the connotation of “modesty or decency.”  And of course modesty and decency have a multiplicity of meanings far beyond just being humble.  There are those who have praised Micah for reducing the commandments to three items.  But in following this list of three, the Israelites will be led to follow all 613 commandments.

Theme-Link:  There are at least two connections between the sedrah and the haftarah.  The sedrah tells the story of Balak and Balaam.  In reminding the people of “God’s gracious acts”, Micah reminds his contemporaries of this episode.  Furthermore, Balaam speaks the words “Mah Tovu” as in the famous “How goodly are your tents O Jacob?”  Micah uses the same term “Mah Tovu” in the famous words of 6:8.

Micah and George Washington:  Sometime during the 7th and 8th centuries BCE, Micah gave us a vision of the peaceful life that we could expect “in the end of days.”  “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; And none shall make them afraid.”  Thousands of years later, in 1879, President George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in part to reassure the Jews of their acceptance in the new republic.  Echoing the words of the Jewish prophet he wrote:  “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants - while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” (emphasis added).  Whether he meant to or not, Washington was telling the Jewish population that the messianic vision of peace and justice could be realized in the United States of America under its newly adopted constitutional form of government.

Two Hundred Years - Two Anniversaries

This weekend we celebrate anniversaries of events that took place on July 4th that were two hundred years apart.

1776 (17th of Tammuz):  Celebration of Independence Day.  During the Revolutionary war there were fewer than 2,500 Jews living in the 13 colonies out of a total population of about 2,500,000 people.  The fact that there were one hundred or more Jews who fought for independence, while not sounding large, is considerable when looking at the size of the Jewish population.  For example in Charleston (or as it was called then Charles Town) SC, Captain Lushington commanded what was called “the Jew’s company” because so many of its members were Jewish.  For a more complete list of Jews who fought or worked for Independence as well as those who were loyalist see

On lighter note, when a copy of the Declaration was sent to Amsterdam via the small Dutch Caribbean Island of St. Eustatius it was intercepted by the British at sea.  An accompanying letter with the Declaration of Independence was also intercepted and sent to London because it was written in what the British thought was a secret code that needed to be deciphered.  The secret code was in fact Yiddish!

According to the mystics, when the Messiah comes, fast days will become feast days.  In 1776, the 17th of Tammuz - a minor fast day before the 9 of Av - fell on July 4.  Some saw the creation of the United States as a harbinger of the coming of the Moshiach.

1976 (6th of Tammuz, 5736):  The Entebbe Rescue - 98 Jewish and Israeli hostages from an Air France plane who were held prisoners and threated with death by Palestinian terrorists and Ugandan soldiers were rescued after 8 days by Israeli commandos in a brilliant operation under the command of Yonatan Netanyahu.  “The raid on the airport resulted in five Israeli casualties:  IDF officer Yonatan (Yoni) Netanyahu (brother of MK and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); Dora Bloch, an elderly woman hospitalized during the raid and murdered after the raid (her remains were returned to Israel in June 1979); Ida Borochovitch, Jean Jacques Maimoni, and Pasko Cohen were killed during the Operation.  While Arab nations and members of the Communist bloc condemned the raid, most western nations and decent people everywhere applauded the rescue.

Copyright, June 2015, Mitchell A. Levin


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Torah Readings For Saturday, June 27, 2015

Torah Readings For Saturday, June 27, 2015

Chukat (Statute)
19:1-22:1 Bamidbar (Numbers)

Chukat is the sixth sedrah in Bamidbar.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the second verse of the weekly reading, “This is the statute (Chukat) of the law, which the Lord hath commanded.”  For convenience, the sedrah can be divided into three major parts: Chukat - The Statute of the Red Heifer, The Changing Generations and The Conquests Begin.

Chukat or The Statute of the Red Heifer (19:1-22).  Although people may not know the specifics of the statute concerning the Red Heifer, it remains one of the best known and least understood commandments in the Torah.  Since the text is fairly straightforward in describing the ritual, there is no need to paraphrase it here.  The ritual was intended to purify one who had come in contact with a corpse or household items found at the scene of the death.  As strange as the ritual might sound, it becomes even stranger since the clean person who sprinkles the ashes on the unclean person then becomes unclean for a day.  In other words, the ritual results in cleansing the defiled, and defiling the cleansed.  Obeying the statute was obviously of great importance since the penalty for deliberate disobedience was “karet,” being cut-off.  Use of this term has come to mean a form of Divine punishment, which further underscores the importance of the statute.  As Rabbi Hertz points out, “The word ‘statute’ (or Chukat) is used in connection with all laws or ordinances whose reason is not disclosed to us.  In Bereshit 26:5 we saw three terms used to describe laws and ordinances.  Mitzvoth or commandments were laws dictated by a sense of morality such as prohibitions against robbery and bloodshed.  Chukim or statutes were laws ordained by God, which we are to observe although reason cannot assign an explanation such as the prohibition against eating swine’s flesh.  Toroth or laws are customs and traditional ordinances orally transmitted from generation to generation such as we find in Midrash.”  In his commentary on Chukat, Rabbi Schneerson cites Rashi who contends that even among Chukim, there are two categories:  “Those which could in principle be understood by human intelligence, but details of which are beyond comprehension” and “those which are entirely beyond the scope of human understanding.  The Statute of the Red Heifer is alone in belonging to the second category.”  More important than the legal term Chukat, is the spiritual concept of Chukat.  As the book of Job freely admits, there are things that happen in life that are beyond human comprehension.  We may make haphazard attempts to explain such events, but in the end the explanations are not very satisfying.  While such a concept of Chukat may seem like a cop out it may very well serve as a safety valve.  By admitting that there are things beyond our comprehension, we can then devote our energies to dealing with that which we do understand even if it is only a partial understanding.  For example, our inability to understand where God was during the Holocaust does not give us the right stop being Jewish.

The Generations Begin to Change (20:1-29).  According to some commentators, the events described in this chapter are out of sequence.  Chronologically, they follow after the events of Bamidbar 14, the chapter in which the Israelites are condemned to wander the Wilderness until the generation of the spies dies out.  This means that events described in this chapter occurred in the fortieth year of the wanderings.  In other words, the Torah is silent about the events of the thirty-eight years during which one generation gave way to another.  Be that as it may, the chapter begins without fanfare or comment announcing the death of Miriam, “…the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there.”  This is how we are told of the death Miriam - the sister of Moshe, the singer of songs of victory, and the prophetess.  Fortunately, we have just read Chukat, so we know that those who tended to her corpse could be purified.  The narrative does not even pause to tell us if her passing was even mourned by the people.  It just picks up with the next event, another rebellion concerning a lack of water.  In yet another famous biblical tale, God tells Moshe to speak to the rock so that it will give water.  But Moshe in his anger strikes the rock twice, producing a gusher of water.  God then tells Moshe and Aaron that they will not enter the Promised Land.  Why such a harsh punishment?  Were the brothers to be denied the supreme moment of accomplishment just because Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it?  Isn’t God being a little extreme, especially when you consider all the great things Moshe had done?  The notes are rife with all kinds of speculation.  Maybe, by his statements and actions, Moshe had led the people to believe that he and not God was the source of the miracle.  Or, maybe, by losing his temper, Moshe had forfeited his role of prophet and had become just another member of the generation of spies that had already been condemned to perish in the Wilderness.  In the end, we really do not know and all of the explanations fall flat.  Fortunately, we have the concept of Chukat, which means that there are things we must accept even if we do not understand them.  Moshe and Aaron appear to have accepted the decree since neither of them offered any argument.  Instead, the text picks up with the travelogue.  Moshe attempts to pass through the land of Edom.  The Edomites refuse.  Moshe accepts the refusal and changes routes because God has already decreed that Edomites have their assigned piece of land and the Israelites are to take no action against them.  After journeying from Kadesh, the Israelites stop at Mount Hor.  God tells Moshe that Aaron is now to be “gathered unto his people.”  And just in case Moshe has forgotten why he is to die in the Wilderness, He tells Moshe that it was “because you rebelled again My word at the waters of Meribah.”  Apparently God was not confused about why the brothers were being punished.  Aaron does not die a mean death.  He gets to see his son Eleazar don the vestments of the Kohein Gadol.  He dies peacefully knowing that his son has succeeded him.

The Conquests Begin (21:1-22:1).  A new generation has grown up, a generation that is capable of fighting for the Promised Land.  The chapter begins with a victory over the King of Arad, a Canaananite Kingdom located in the Negev.  This new generation has learned its lesson.  Before going into battle, the warriors seek God’s support.  In this case, they promise to forgo the spoils of war if God will reward them with victory.  The Torah then describes the march of the Israelites through the region of the Transjordan i.e., the land across or east of the Jordan River.  The Israelites defeat Sichon, King of the Amorites and Og, King of Bashan.  According to the sedrah, some of our information about this comes from a text called “the Book of the Wars of the Lord.”  This may have been an actual text, written at the time of the Torah, which has been lost to us.  It should also be noted that verses 27 through 30 are a Song of Victory, similar in style to the Song at the Sea.  It is as if the Israelites began and ended their journey through the Wilderness with song.  One difference is that that here, Moshe does not lead the Song.  The great leader’s voice is soon to become silent.  The sedrah ends with the Israelites making camp across the Jordan from Jericho.  In the midst of all of this fighting and traveling, we do find one last rebellion over water.  When the first rebellion over water occurred in this sedrah, God did not punish the Israelites.  However, this time He sends serpents to attack the people.  Once again the people admit their sin and beg Moshe to intercede.  Once again Moshe intercedes and God relents.  As a result of this episode, Moshe fashions a copper serpent, which is placed on a pole and is kept as an item of veneration by the Israelites.  King Hezekiah will later destroy it because it became an object of idol worship.  For many of us, this copper serpent is more of a mystery than the Statute of the Red Heifer.  But then maybe the sedrah was meant to begin and end in the spirit of “Chukat.”

The requirement that a ritually clean person shall sprinkle water and ashes of the Red Heifer to purify one who has become ritually unclean (19:19).

Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

As if to emphasize the uniqueness of this commandment, it is the only one listed in this sedrah.  Furthermore, the companion sedrah of Balak (during no-leap years) does not contain any commandments.  Therefore, regardless of the cycle, the Statute of the Red Heifer stands alone.

The Death of Miriam
According to some, the failure of the Israelites to properly mourn the death of Miriam led to the lack of water at Meribah.  Legend has it that Miriam’s virtue was the source of the magical Well that accompanied the Israelites.  By failing to properly mark her death, the water stopped.  This led to her brothers’ sin, which denied them entrance to the Promised Land.

The Death of Aaron
When the people saw that Aaron was dead, the whole House of Israel wept for thirty days (20:29).  This thirty day mourning period for Aaron is the source of the thirty day mourning period known by the Hebrew word for thirty - sh’loshim.  It follows the seven days known as Shiva.  During the Sh’loshim, the mourners avoid public displays of joy and happiness.  In the Synagogue, mourners may lead services but do not accept honors such as chanting the haftarah.

Hand Washing
When leaving the cemetery or entering the Shiva house, it is customary to wash ones’ hands.  There are those who will claim that this custom has to do with a superstitious attempt to wash demons from our hands.  Jewish tradition sees this custom is a reminder of the washing that took place according to Chukat.

The Punishment of Moshe and Aaron
There are numerous commentaries on this most of which revolve around explaining what the brothers did that was so bad that they were excluded from entering the Promised Land.  However a sage known as Ramav has a different spin on the statement “…you will not bring the congregation of Israel to the Holy Land.” (20:12).  He said that the Israelites were being punished for their lack of faith.  God was depriving them of their two greatest leaders.  Only once they had to face life without these brothers would the Israelites recognize their greatness of these men.

The Color Red
Red is the color of sin.  Hence the heifer must be red.  It can never have worn a yoke because it symbolizes “the sinner who casts off God’s Yoke.”

The Mystery of Chukat:  the sedrah not the ritual
This reading is filled with mystery in the truest sense of that term.  There is the mystery of the ritual of the Red Heifer.  There is the mystery of the lack of water following the death of Miriam.  There is the mystery of why Moses was really denied entry into the Promised Land.  And then there is the ultimate mystery itself - death; in this case the death of Miriam and the death of Aaron.  But the sedrah also provides us with the clue to understanding these mysteries as well as all the other issues that confront human beings.  In the opening section of the sedrah we find these stark “Zoht HaTorah,”  “This is the Torah” (19:14).  Even if we do not understand why we are to do something, we know what we are to do.  At the same time we are encouraged to delve into the Torah so that we can at least begin to understand the “why” of life as well as the “what” of it.  You can question, you can challenge, but you cannot ignore that stark reality of the life of the Jew - This is the Torah.

What Was Moses
Moses is variously referred to as Moses, our teacher, or as the first of the prophets.  This week we see another appellation applied to him.  In recounting the history of the Israelites to the King of Edom (20:14) the text said “We cried out to the Lord and He heard our voice; He sent a Malach (translated as emissary or messenger) and He took us out of Egypt” (20:16).  The Malach is Moses.  Malach can be translated as “angel” because, according to Rashi, the prophets are referred to as angels which Ibn Ezra construes to mean that an angel, Moses, accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt.  Considering the fact that this week’s portion includes the display of temper that kept Moses from entering the Promised Land, one must wonder how angelic he really was.  Or is this a reminder that we are all capable of a variety of behavior, some angelic and some, well let’s just say a little less than angelic.

No One Left Behind
The IDF prides itself on not leaving behind any of its men on the battlefield and of going to great lengths to rescue anybody who fails into enemy hands.  Similarly Jews in the Middle Ages went to great lengths to ransom any of their co-religionists who fell into the hands of marauders, thieves and pirates.  Communities actually had special funds for this purpose.  This week’s reading shows that this practice is deeply rooted in our people’s history.  When the King of Arad attacked the Israelites “he took some of them captive.” (21:1).  The Israelites then turned to God and asked Him to aid them in their fight.  They plainly stated that they would forgo the booty and loot that most armies fought for.  The implied deal is give us victory so that we might free the captive or captives taken by the Canaanite king.   While some commentators opine that there was really only one captive and it was a non-Jewish slave, others say that this does not matter - that one captive, one person denied their freedom, is one person too many.

11:1-33 Judges

The Man:  The Book of Judges covers the period between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel.  As we have seen from previous readings from the Book of Judges this was a period of semi-anarchy where “each man did what was good in his own eyes.”  It was a period where the Israelites failed to display a high level of spiritual and moral purity.  This week’s haftarah describes events in the life of Jephthah, the ninth of the thirteen (or fourteen) leaders who are active in the Book of Judges.  He was active for six years before his death.  Most of his life was spent on the east bank of the Jordan River in the land settled by the two and one half-tribes before the Israelites invaded Canaan.  After World War I, this land was part of the British Mandate of Palestine.  Today this is the Kingdom of Jordan.  Jephthah is connected with one of the greatest acts of folly and sin in the TaNaCh.  The haftarah only covers the first part of Jephthah’s life.  The rest of the story is covered in 11:34-12:7.

The Message:  Part of this haftarah reads like one of those romance novels complete with the illegitimate son who is forced to leave home and then returns to claim his patrimony.  According to the haftarah Jephthah of Gilead was born out of wedlock.  His father’s legitimate sons drove their half-brother away because they were afraid he would claim part of their father’s estate.  Jephthah joined a group of brigands and gained a reputation as a fighting man.  When the Ammonites threatened the people of Gilead the elders asked Jephthah to become their leader.  Jephthah agreed only if he would be the “commander and chief” once victory had been won and peace returned to the land.  The elders agreed and Jephthah set out to meet the enemy.  However, before the fighting began, Jephthah attempted to negotiate with the Ammonites.  He pointed out to them that they had no real claim to the land and that they had accepted this fact for an extended period of time.  But Ammonites refused to yield and in the end Jephthah defeated them in a series of battles in area around modern-day Amman, the capital of the Kingdom of Jordan.  Unfortunately, just before the battle, “Jephthah made this vow to the Eternal:  If you hand the people of Ammon over to me, Then I will offer to the Eternal as a burnt-offering whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I come home safe from the Ammonites.” (11:30-31).  The text, but not the haftarah continues, “And Jephthah came to…his house, and, behold, his daughter came to meet him…And when he saw her…he rent his clothes, and said:  ‘Alas, my daughter!  Thou hast brought me very low, and thou are become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.’” (11:34-35).  When he made the vow, he thought he would see an animal and would sacrifice it.  But he saw his daughter and two months later “she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow…” (11:39).  Various commentators have condemned him for this act of folly.  What makes it so bad is that he did not have to carry out the vow.  There were ways around it.  But because he was ignorant of Torah, he committed this vile act.  Unlike those popular romantic novels, Jewish heroes need to know Torah as well as martial skills.  In driving Jephthah away, his half-brothers might have helped to create a military leader but they denied him the teachings of Torah, which would have made a true leader.  Jephthah would add one more infamous deed to his record.  Before his death, angry members of the tribe of Ephraim confronted him.  Rather than try and find a peaceful solution to their claims, Jephthah fought them, killing 42,000 of his co-religionists.

Theme-Link:  There are at least two.  First, in negotiating with the Ammonites, Jephthah referred to events described in the sedrah.  In fact “verses 19-22 in the haftarah are a recitation of verses 21-25 in the sedrah.”  Secondly, both readings contain vows related to victory.  In the sedrah, the Israelites promised to forgo any booty from the towns they were about to attack.  We already know about the vow contained in the haftarah.

Copyright, June 2015, Mitchell A. Levin

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Torah Readings For Saturday, June 20, 2015 Korach

Torah Readings For Saturday, June 20, 2015

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 as we approach Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, when the death throes of the Temple begin that 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; June, 2015; Mitchell A. Levin