Category Archives: Numbers

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Treacherous Prominence (Korach)

Rust consumes iron and envy consumes itself. -Danish proverb

Korach, Moses’ first cousin, also from the tribe of Levi, was a great man in his own right. He was an elder, a knowledgeable sage, a gifted orator, wealthy beyond measure, touched by prophecy and a natural leader of men.

So, the question is, why did honored and prominent Korach unite with veteran troublemakers Datan and Aviram, raise a conspiracy of 250 other leaders of Israel and incite a doomed rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron?

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 16:1 deepens the question by referencing a Midrash that states that God intended for Korach to be the titular leader of the Levites, in parallel to Aaron’s leadership of the Kohens. Indeed, there was nobody else at Korach’s level from amongst the other Levites for such a prominent position. Korach himself was cognizant of his exalted level, which may have been the beginning of his downfall.

According to the Chidushei HaRim, Korach’s ruin came about from two related emotions: envy and arrogance. He became envious of another prominent cousin, Elizafan son of Uziel who had been given an important honor. That little seed of jealousy grew and corrupted the previously righteous sage until he was blinded by it. He was so blinded that it inflated his arrogance to a level that he started to throw baseless accusations against Moses. His envy, his arrogance and the resulting blindness were so complete, that he couldn’t appreciate that he was attacking the man who was directly and expressly chosen by God to lead the nation, the man whom God declared was the humblest of all men.

God’s reaction is severe and immediate, and Korach’s ruin is complete and permanent.

The 250 leaders who supported Korach are consumed by a heavenly fire when they recreate part of the Tabernacle service. Korach’s allies, Datan and Aviram, all their household and possessions are swallowed up by a miraculously opened earth. It’s not clear from the verses, which of the two dooms falls upon Korach personally. Some commentaries explain that both immolation by divine fire and getting swallowed by the earth occurred to Korach simultaneously for a particularly dramatic death for a formally great man.

While the cliché “the greater they are, the harder they fall,” could very well be associated with Korach, his story is also a warning to all, no matter how low or high, of the dangers of the twin emotions of self-destruction: envy and arrogance. May we steer clear of both.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbanit Tova Rhein z”l.

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Why Leaders Become Corrupt (Shlach)

Power will intoxicate the best hearts, as wine the strongest heads. -Charles Caleb Colton

Moses selects twelve men, twelve princes of Israel to scout the land of Canaan, the land God promised to the nation of Israel. The princes are named. Each one was a great leader. Not only were they great leaders, the rabbinic tradition holds that they were also righteous men.

However, between their appointment and their report on what they saw in the land of Canaan, something happened. Something that led them to sin so gravely that they sowed panic and dissension within the nation of Israel. They repudiated Moses’ leadership and God’s omnipotence and brought upon the entire nation the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert.

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 13:2 wonders how this transformation occured. How did ten of the most important men of Israel’s leadership, ten righteous men fall so low, so fast?

He explains that it had to do with the people. It was not only their appointment and the power it represented that corrupted these previously righteous men. It was the people they represented. Somehow, by having some level of representation of the people, the princes picked up on the people’s intentions. The problem was that a certain percentage of the population didn’t want to enter the Promised Land. They had tired of the desert, of Moses’ leadership and of God’s presence in their lives. They wanted to be free of those, and ironically, return to the slavery and the familiarity of Egypt. Those rebellious intentions somehow infected the previously righteous leaders once they were appointed. That tainted the princes’ scouting mission from the start. Their scouting of the land of Canaan commenced with an intention to sabotage the planned entry into the land.

However, two princes were spared from the conspiracy and demonstrated greater strength of character and loyalty. Those were Joshua and Caleb. Before Joshua had departed on the mission, Moses renamed Joshua (in Hebrew, he changed it from Hoshea to Yehoshua) by including a part of God’s name in Joshua’s name. Caleb went to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray at their graves. It seems that by binding oneself so firmly to God that it becomes a part of one’s name and identity, as well as intense prayer calling on the merits of our forefathers somehow deflected the negative influences of the crowd on those two leaders.

May we always seek ways to deflect the corruption and negative influences we may find.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the induction of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon as the Rabbi of Gush Etzion.

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Calm and Seasoned (Behaalotcha)

Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions have relaxed their hold and have escaped, not from one master, but from many. -Plato

By modern standards, the Levites who served in the Tabernacle, and later, in the Temple in Jerusalem, had an early retirement.

The verses declare:

“This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more. They may assist their brother Levites at the Tent of Meeting by standing guard, but they shall perform no labor.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 8:25 gets into more detail as to what this post-retirement life looked like for the over-fifty Levite. He says that these older Levites were assigned the duty of “closing the gates.” However, there is a much deeper significance to the term “closing the gates” than merely the physical shutting of some aperture.

He starts off by noting that the older Levites were charged with closing the gates as opposed to the converse task of opening the gates. He then compares the term “gates” to the same term that’s used in Solomon’s Song of Songs. However, the deeper meaning in that context is not “gates” but rather “excitement.” The Chidushei HaRim explains that while excitement is an important, if not vital emotion, there are times that it needs to be reigned in. It is much more the domain of the young to exhibit indiscriminate passion and exuberance. However, it can often be misguided, misplaced, disproportionate or otherwise tainted.

The older Levite, who has more life’s experience and perspective will be able to better discern when, and how much, exuberance has its place. The Chidushei HaRim continues that it is easy for negative, impure aspects to attach themselves to otherwise good and proper excitement. While after the age of fifty, the Levite may not have had to be involved in the physical or otherwise arduous role the Levites had in the Tabernacle and Temple, they still had an important part to play. They had a supervisory, mentoring, guiding role. Part of it is to “close the gates,” meaning, to rein in and properly direct the energies and enthusiasm of the younger, less experienced Levites.

May we always be able to combine the energy of youth with the insights of age.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of famed Israeli actor, Rabbi Uri Zohar z”l.

Free Protection (Naso)

Free Protection (Naso)

You must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing. -Andrew Jackson

The Torah reading of Naso is a diverse and content-rich portion. It includes a description of the work the Levites performed transporting the Tabernacle components during their desert journey. It has instructions regarding the treatment of anyone who is ritually impure, their need to exit the camp and purify themselves. We then have the unusual description of the Sotah ceremony, the ritual for a wife suspected and accused of adultery by her husband, followed by the narrative of the laws of the Nazirites who abstain from wine, from cutting their hair and from the defilement of the dead.

The second half of the portion of Naso gives a detailed and extensive description of the sacrifices and gifts the princes of the tribes of Israel bring for the dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. It is notable for the twelve detailed repetitions of what is ostensibly the same offering over and over and over again.

However, nestled in between these two sections of Naso, we have the famed priestly blessing, just a few verses long. It states as follows:

“God will bless you and protect you. God will light His countenance upon you and grace you. God will turn His countenance towards you and give you peace.”

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the need to mention protection together with blessing in the first verse. By way of explanation, he contrasts the blessing of God to the blessing of a king of flesh and blood. When a human king bestows upon a person some blessing or some gift, once that person has departed from the king’s presence there is little to then stop robbers from harming him, stealing the gifts and nullifying whatever blessing the king gave.

However, with God’s blessings, the protection of that blessing is part and parcel of what God is bestowing. The protection of the blessing is included in the blessing itself.

The Chidushei HaRim continues that even if a mortal king were to assign guards to escort and protect the recipient of his gift, that is not how mortal blessings are given and even such protection would be limited. On the other hand, God’s protection is intrinsic to the blessing and inseparable from God’s will.

May we always be recipients of gifts of the divine variety that will remain unharmed and untouched by any negative intentions.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Bat-Mitzvah of our niece, Illyana Spitz. Mazal Tov!

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The Peace of all Sums (Bamidbar)

The multitude which is not brought to act as a unity, is confusion. That unity which has not its origin in the multitude is tyranny. -Blaise Pascal

The name of the fourth of Moses’ five books of the Torah is called Bamidbar in Hebrew, meaning “in the desert.” As with the four other books, it is also the name of the first Torah portion of its eponymous book. While one can’t argue with the fact or the appropriateness of calling the book which deals primarily with Israel’s sojourn in the desert, the Book of In the Desert, it is interesting that the translators chose to call it the Book of Numbers.

It is not entirely inappropriate, for there is a significant preoccupation with counting the numbers of the Children of Israel, both at the beginning of their desert journey as well as at the end of it, as well as some other counting and numbering going on.

One of the peculiarities that become clear in the counting of Israel is the hierarchy of different groups vis-à-vis access to and service in the Tabernacle. The Kohens have the preeminent role, followed by the Levites in a supporting role, and finally the rest of the tribes of Israel. The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 1:1 discusses the importance and value of the different designations and separations. There are differences between individuals, families, groups and nations and it would be a mistake to look at or think of every individual as part of some universal, monolithic, amorphous whole. The identity, distinctions and roles serve a purpose.

However, when these disparate groups come together and unite while still retaining their distinctions and identities, that is when something truly special happens, that is when the elusive peace we are always seeking is possible. The Chidushei HaRim quotes a well-known Talmudic dictum that there is no vessel that can contain blessings for Israel except for peace. He adds that there is a hint in this dictum in the word “vessel” itself, which in Hebrew is “Kli.” He states that “KLI” is the acronym for Kohen, Levi, Israel. When Kohens, Levites and the rest of Israel are united, while still retaining their identities and their roles, that is when we create peace and that is when we can truly become vessels for bountiful blessing.

May we reach that unity, peace and blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Daniel and Rebbitzen Ilana Epstein on their induction as the Rabbinic couple at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue of London.

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains. -Henri Frederic Amiel

A couple of weeks ago, we read in the Torah how the sorcerer Bilaam was hired by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. The Moabites allied themselves with the Midianites to fight Israel. Their hope and expectation were that the curse of the powerful sorcerer Bilaam would allow them to rout the Israelites who were getting uncomfortably close to their borders on their desert journey to the land of Canaan. Though Israel had no intention of bothering either of those nations and had explicit instructions from God not to harm the Moabites, these allies either weren’t aware or didn’t believe in the peaceful intentions of the nomadic tribes of Israel who had spent almost forty years in the desert and had recently started making their way towards Canaan.

As we read then, the efforts of Bilaam were a massive failure. Despite his eagerness and enthusiasm to curse Israel, God forces Bilaam to utter beautiful poetic blessings to Israel in front of the Moabite and Midianite leadership. After three botched efforts, Balak, King of Moab, sends the failed sorcerer home. The question arises as to why we see Bilaam unexpectedly mentioned in this week’s reading, seven chapters after Balak sent Bilaam home in ignominy? In this week’s reading, the Israelite army does ultimately attack the Midianites in retaliation for the mass-seduction of Israelite men by the Moabite and Midianite daughters, which followed the episode with Bilaam. The public licentiousness and accompanying idolatry lead to God’s fury and punishment of Israel by plague. What is Bilaam doing in the middle of this later battle with Midian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 31:8 explains that Bilaam had indeed failed in his bid to curse Israel and was sent home in shame. However, the Midianites had understood from Bilaam that the way to harm Israel is to get them to sin and that God is particularly hateful of sexual licentiousness. The Moabites and Midianites follow Bilaam’s hint, sending their daughters to seduce the Israelite men, which leads directly to God killing 24,000 Israelite men by a sudden plague. Finally, seeing the vulnerability of Israel due to their fresh and flagrant sin, the Midianites call Bilaam back to finish the job and curse Israel.

Bilaam does indeed return to try to curse Israel again, which explains his unexpected presence at this later place and time. However, this apparently powerful sorcerer didn’t learn from his first failure against Israel and he succumbs to an ignoble fate, to be caught and killed during Israel’s retaliation against Midian.

May God always protect us from our enemies, on all fronts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Joseph Wiesel z”l. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

When to fear the powerful (Pinchas)

We should keep silent about those in power; to speak well of them almost implies flattery; to speak ill of them while they are alive is dangerous, and when they are dead is cowardly. -Jean De La Bruyere

It is a scene of chaos. Multiple Israelite men are being openly promiscuous with Moabite and Midianite women in the Israelite desert encampment in contravention of God’s laws. God, enraged, orders Moses to kill the offenders. The prince of one of the tribes of Israel, Zimri prince of the tribe of Shimon, goes so far as to publicly couple with a Midianite princess. Moses and the rest of the leadership are shocked into inaction by this display of open rebellion by one of the nation’s leaders. At the same time, a virulent God-sent plague is killing thousands of men in a matter of moments. Bodies are dropping dead left and right.

This is when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, steps in.  Pinchas takes a spear, and without preamble proceeds to skewer Zimri, prince of Shimon and the Midianite princess, Kozbi daughter of Tzur. The Torah tells us that Pinchas’ act stops the plague in its tracks, which reached an astonishing death toll of 24,000 during the course of the event.

God is effusive with his praise of Pinchas for his lone act of vigilantism. God promises Pinchas “a pact of peace.” A number of commentaries wonder as to the unusual if not ironic reward God promises Pinchas: peace as a reward for his violence.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 25:12 explains that Pinchas might have thought he would have much to fear in terms of repercussions from the families of the prince and princess. These were powerful people and powerful families that he had pitted himself against. They had the means, resources and motivation to take revenge upon Pinchas. God is telling Pinchas that he will have peace; that these families won’t touch him or trouble him. God guarantees it. He is telling Pinchas that he was right to confront the evil head on and not worry at the time about the importance, position or power of the wrongdoers. Pinchas was in the right and God will protect him with an everlasting covenant of peace from tribulations of any vengeful relatives.

While it is wise to be wary of the powerful, may we always be on the side of right, no matter the power of those involved.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the victims of the Surfside building tragedy. May the mourners be consoled.

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

The Destiny of Nations (Balak)

A country grows in history not only because of the heroism of its troops on the field of battle, it grows also when it turns to justice and to right for the conservation of its interests. -Aristide Briand

The Torah reading of Balak contains an almost comical story about the sorcerer Bilaam, attributed as possessing the power to curse people and nations, who is hired by King Balak of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. God warns Bilaam that he won’t succeed in cursing Israel. Bilaam nonetheless proceeds. To his great chagrin and embarrassment, Bilaam tries three different times, from three different places to curse Israel, but instead, some of the most beautiful and poetic blessings that have ever been declared about Israel come out of his mouth.

What is perhaps less noticed is that after the three different blessings that Bilaam pronounces, after his embarrassing failure to perform the job he was hired to do, he does continue to tap into that divine power clearly operating through him and utters prophecies about some of the other nations in the ancient Near East.

Two of the nations which he discusses in quick succession are Amalek and the Kenites. He sees that Amalek “the leading nation” will eventually face complete oblivion, but about the Kenites, he proclaims “your abode will be secure and your nest set among the cliffs.”

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 24:20-21 explains that the contrast of the two nations is purposeful and ironic. Amalek and the Kenites lived together, but beyond their physical proximity, they were on opposite poles in their relationship with Israel. Amalek was the first to confront, ambush and attack the nation of Israel, shortly after Israel’s miraculous exodus from Egypt. In response to their savage and cowardly attack, we are commanded to obliterate them, to which God also promises that “I will wipe the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.”

However, the Kenites, under the leadership of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, reached out to Israel in peace, friendship and love, and were even the conceivers of the justice system which Moses and the nation of Israel would adopt and implement. They merited a secure and prosperous existence, eventually joining the Jewish nation. Where Amalek was the first nation to fight us, the Kenites were the first nation to reach out to us in friendship.

May our friends and allies always be blessed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Yehoshua and Yehuda Spitz on graduating high school and to all graduates this year. Congratulations!

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

The Dearness of Impurity (Chukat)

We are not naive enough to ask for pure men; we ask merely for men whose impurity does not conflict with the obligations of their job. -Jean Rostand

The concept of ritual impurity plays a significant role in the Torah and Jewish law. The Torah deals extensively with a variety of scenarios where one contracts ritual impurity. There are several places and activities that are prohibited to a ritually impure person, and likewise, there are several processes enacted to purify such individuals and allow their return to either the places and/or the activities they were previously barred from because of their impure designation. The consequences of all of these laws had their greatest impact during Temple times, though some aspects remain in our current reality.

In its essence, the concept of ritual impurity in Jewish law can be most closely associated with death. Death, in a sense, is the ultimate source of impurity. The level of impurity is often a measure of the proximity of contact with death. A dead body is the highest level of impurity. People or items that touched or were housed together with the dead body can both contract and transmit lesser levels of impurity.

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 19:2 explains that some seemingly unusual comparisons can be made. For example, even a person as exalted and holy as the High Priest (Kohen Gadol), if he has died, he becomes a source of impurity, while the bones of a lowly donkey are considered pure.

Such a contrast became a source of contention and even ridicule on the part of the ancient Sadducees against the Rabbis of old. The Bechor Shor quotes their debate and brings the answer of the Rabbis (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, Tractate Yadayim 4:6) who states that “according to the affection for them, so is their impurity.”

A parent is incomparably more beloved than a donkey, and their remains should be treated with significantly more honor and respect. Hence, the fact that their remains contaminate, means we cannot utilize their remains for any other purpose. It reinforces the need for us to treat those remains with the utmost respect and give them an honorable burial. There are no such restrictions on using the remains of an animal.

According to this, there is not necessarily something wrong with a state of impurity. In fact, it can be considered a type of defense mechanism or even a status that demonstrates how dear something is to us.

May we understand and respect the few laws of impurity relevant in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the new Israeli government. Hoping good will come from it.

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

Premeditated Ritual Entrapment? (Korach)

It is a revenge the devil sometimes takes upon the virtuous, that he entraps them by the force of the very passion they have suppressed and think themselves superior to. -George Santayana

Korach, together with accomplices Datan and Aviram, instigate a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, the sons of Amram. They encourage 250 distinguished leaders of Israel to protest against the seeming nepotism of Moses, the de facto leader, and his brother Aaron, the High Priest.

Moses offers an unusual solution to their protest. He suggests that the 250 rebels come in front of the Tabernacle, each with his own fire pan with burning incense on it. Aaron will also come with his, and God will decide directly who is worthy of the designation of High Priest.

The 250 leaders come the next morning with their fire pans filled with burning incense. Aaron also arrives. Besides holes miraculously opening up in the ground and swallowing up Datan, Aviram, and their entourage, God sends a fire that kills each of the 250 rebellious leaders holding their incense burning fire pans. Aaron, Moses, and all other non-participants are unharmed.

However, the people of Israel are furious with Moses and Aaron and accuse them of murder. The Bechor Shor on Numbers 17:6 takes the accusation seriously and tries to understand what’s behind the murder accusation.

He explains that the accusers felt that Moses knew incense burning was a dangerous act. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, had died by the hand of God for offering unauthorized incense. The rebel leaders had trusted Moses when he told them to bring their incense, but the accusers surmised that Moses must have known it would lead to their death, that handling incense was a death sentence to those who came in contact with it, except for Aaron who must have had some immunity.

God is not amused by the constant challenging of the leadership He chose. Having lost patience, He strikes the nation of Israel with an insanely fast-hitting plague. Moses, realizing God had struck, sends Aaron with incense in his ladle right into the middle of where the plague had started. Aaron rushes in and stops the plague, standing right in between the dead and the living; giving a very palpable demonstration that incense, correctly used, is not only not dangerous, but can save lives. In a matter of moments, 14,700 had died from the plague. Aaron and his incense were the only things that stood between the dead and the survivors.

May we realize the value of rituals as well as the value of good deeds.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of our niece Leora Spitz to Sammy Landesman. Mazal Tov!