Category Archives: Chukat

The Blessing of Satiation (Chukat)

The Blessing of Satiation (Chukat)

Wealth after all is a relative thing since he that has little and wants less is richer than he that has much and wants more. -Charles Caleb Colton

During the fortieth year of the wandering of the Jewish people in the desert, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, dies. The Midrash states that the well which miraculously followed the people of Israel throughout their desert journey disappeared after Miriam’s death. Now the people of Israel are thirsty without water. They cry out. God tells Moses to take his staff, take Aaron, and talk to a particular rock, a rock which will provide them with water. The text tells us that Moses hits the rock (as he did forty years earlier, but we don’t see him talking to the rock, as God had directed this time). God subsequently punishes both Moses and Aaron with the decree that they won’t cross the Jordan river into the Promised Land, but that rather, they would both die in the desert.

However, Moses’ hitting the rock is nonetheless effective and a stream of water gushes out of the rock, enough to quench the thirst of the people and their flocks.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 20:8-11, based on the verses of the miraculous provision of water, analyses the idea of the blessings of sustenance and perhaps challenges our conventional notions of wealth and success.

It would be reasonable to believe that the more possessions we have, the more money, property, investments, and resources we can draw on, the wealthier we are, the greater the material success we have achieved.

But the Meshech Chochma states that such plenty is not the highest form of blessing. It’s not the quantity, but the quality that counts. And the quality he’s referring to is the blessing of being satiated, of being satisfied with little. He explains that when God truly gives the most exalted and elevated material blessings that He can, he doesn’t rain down quantities of material wealth on the person. Rather, God bestows the much more refined and pleasant blessing of making sure the person is satisfied and content with little.

He quotes the Midrash which states that the people of Israel weren’t truly comforted until they were told that they would be satiated with little, that a little bread and a little water would be all they would need to be satisfied.

When the people of Israel don’t live up to God’s expectations, then they get the secondary level of sustenance: quantity. At that level they are compared to the animals, hence the verse states that the water was “for them and their flocks.”

May we achieve true levels of wealth, where our needs and desires are reduced and we become satiated and satisfied with little.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the people who need to reinvent their careers and businesses.

Ignorant Body (Chukat)

Ignorant Body (Chukat)

Ignorance is a voluntary misfortune. -Nicholas Ling

Judaism has a unique, specific and detailed relationship with death. It is neither afraid of death, nor does it worship that realm. Jewish law defines and circumscribes the parameters of how death interacts with our lives. One of the most fascinating aspects, which is explored in this week’s Torah reading of Chukat, is the law that exposure to a dead body conveys ritual contamination. The Torah also prescribes the process of ritual purification.

The Berdichever digs deeper to understand one of the possible reasons for why an inanimate body should make both people and objects “impure.” He analyzes the existential and constant battle between our bodies and our souls regarding the performance of God’s commandments.

Our physical, material selves are generally incapable of understanding the rationale for performing the Mitzvot. Our bodies are preoccupied with the myriad of desires and urges which drive us, with little interest in doing good, or being benevolent, or pursuing a spiritual life. Our bodies are ignorant. They are ignorant of the greater spiritual truth and reality of the universe. Our bodies are unaware and uninterested in God, in the divine, in our eternal souls. Our bodies are little more than dumb animals.

It is our soul that realizes the importance of the commandments. It is our soul that understands the reason and value of the Mitzvot and is driven to fulfill them. However, it has an often-uncooperative partner in the body. If the body would only know the reasons behind the commandments, it too would pursue their fulfillment relentlessly.

Nonetheless, while the body and the soul are joined, the soul can push the body, it can train the body, it can encourage the body to pursue a spiritual life. It has the power to direct the body away from its animalistic pursuits and lead it to a life of meaning and goodness.

However, once a person dies, once the soul has been separated from the body, the body reverts to the ignorant being it was before it housed the soul. That ignorance, that lack of a driving soul is what makes the dead body a source of impurity, of spiritual contamination.

The Berdichever adds a known caveat, that the graves of the righteous don’t convey impurity. Their souls refined their bodies to a point where their bodies were no longer ignorant. Their bodies, of their own volition, also desired to fulfill God’s commands. Their bodies were “educated” and pure, even in death.

May our soul’s desires override our bodies baser urges, and may we strive to be conveyers of purity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To 243 years of American independence.

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder (Chukat)

It’s sin and not poverty that makes men miserable. -Scottish Proverb

The Jewish people demonstrate yet again why God calls them a stiff-necked people. Near the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert, they complain needlessly. They prove to be an ungrateful lot, crying that they have nothing to eat as they are tired of the miraculous sky-delivered Manna that nourished them daily. God’s wrath is immediate. He allows the desert snakes, that were previously kept away from the Israelites thanks to the divine cloud cover, to now enter and attack the Jewish camp.

The poisonous snakes attack and start biting people. People start dying. Belatedly, they realize the error of their ways and apologize to Moses. God commands Moses to construct a giant metallic snake. Whoever looks up at the metal snake is saved, whoever doesn’t, dies.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 21:9 (Chukat) says that God’s solution of the giant snake would seem to fly in the face of convention. He explains that after a person is attacked by some animal, he will be in deathly fear of that animal thereafter. His fear would be so great, that just seeing such an animal again can be enough to fatally threaten the health of the traumatized person. He gives an example of someone bitten by a dog who thereafter will have a mortal fear of dogs, and actually being confronted by a dog or even an image of a dog can threaten their mental, if not their physical health.

So too, the nation of Israel. They had just been bitten by venomous snakes. They are lying there on the desert floor, dying with the poison flowing through their veins. The last thing in the world the snake-victims would want to see is a giant metallic snake over their heads.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that God was trying to make a point. It’s not the snake that kills. It’s the sin that kills. The snake is just God’s agent. Just as the snake was God’s messenger for the punishment, it can just as easily be His agent to heal.

By getting the snake-victims to look up at the metallic likeness of the snake, it forced the Jewish people to acknowledge their faith and belief in God. They needed to realize that what placed them in their precarious life-or-death situation was not the snakes, but rather their obstinacy in refusing to listen to God and following His desires. Their stubborn refusal to see His hand in their lives and to be grateful for his daily sustenance put the people of Israeli in mortal jeopardy. Only confronting the very agent of their misery rekindled their faith in God and saved them.

May we realize that there is often a deeper, spiritual cause for many of our challenges and tribulations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and his new initiative for Jewish education, Emek Hamelech.

Old Eternal Law

Old Eternal Law

There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy. -Henry Miller

The Torah is filled with arcane laws, many of which no longer apply in our day and age. One of the most esoteric and least understood laws is the one about the Red Heifer. The Torah prescribes an unusual ritual that was performed in the times of the Temple.

A completely red cow was taken and slaughtered. The cow was then burned together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The resulting ashes were then mixed with water from a fresh spring source. All of this process was done in a state of extreme ritual purity, yet those involved in the preparation became impure. This water mixture had the unique and exclusive ability to purify anyone who had become ritually contaminated by any contact with the dead.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 19:10 highlights that the Torah’s conclusion to this section is unusual. It states that “…it shall remain for them an everlasting statute.” By concluding this law in such a forceful fashion, the Torah is coming to teach a much deeper lesson than merely redacting a ritual that would not apply for a majority of Jewish history. It is coming to affirm that there is an eternal aspect to the law. The eternal aspect is not necessarily that the formula for purification is reenacted, but rather that the law itself, along with all of the Torah is of divine origin. And hence, that fundamental to our lives is the unflinching belief that the Torah and its laws are of eternal value. There are continuous lessons to be learned, by all people, in all ages, from the Torah. But the first step is an actual belief in the divine and the eternal nature of the Torah.

Rabbi Hirsch states that in this case: “the dictum of the Red Heifer proclaims the principle of atonement and the fundamental tenet that all authority is based on the Law and that all hopes for Israel’s salvation are dependent on Israel’s recognition of the Law as an everlasting norm for Israel.”

May we learn and successfully apply the ancient lessons of the Torah in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the eventual separation of Religion and State which certain political actions are hastening.

Faith over Reason

Faith over Reason 

Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking.  -Kahlil Gibran 

desert-caravanAmongst the hundreds of commandments that God bestows upon the people of Israel, are many that on the surface are difficult to understand. These are classically called “Hok,” or “Hukim” in the plural. King Solomon himself, that most wisest of men, is quoted as stating that the law of the Red Heifer, featured in this week’s Torah reading, was beyond his comprehension.

The Temple rite of the Red Heifer consisted of a rare cow, completely covered in red hair, that was ritually slaughtered and subsequently burned. The resulting ashes were then mixed in water and that water was sprinkled over individuals, purifying those who had been ritually impure because of contact with the dead. What was perhaps most ironic about the rite was that the Kohen doing the sprinkling and having been ritually pure beforehand, became impure by the end of the rite, even though he was the source and cause of purification in others. It’s as if by purifying the other, he absorbs some of the impurity himself.

Nonetheless, the Sfat Emet in 5632 (1872) explains the path to understanding these perhaps incomprehensible commandments. He states that of course every commandment has a reason, but that we can’t understand the reason until after we accept the commandment without an explanation. Then, according to the level of faith, of acceptance of the commandment and the willingness to perform it without understanding, so too will be the level of understanding we achieve.

He further explains that the reasons behind these commandments are actually spiritual matters as opposed to merely intellectual exercises and only the spirit has the capacity to understand, or more accurately to “sense,” the reason behind the commandments.

May we develop the capacity to believe so that eventually we may understand.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Jewish Community of Uruguay on the celebration of its 100th anniversary.

Beware the Fool

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-beware-the-fool/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Chukat

Beware the Fool

Against stupidity; God Himself is helpless. -Yiddish Proverb

homer-simpson-wallpaper-photo-1600Judaism puts great value on intelligence and learning. One of the highest appellations one can be given is that of “Talmid Chacham” – a wise scholar. Conversely, Jewish tradition is disparaging of the ignoramus, called since Mishnaic times an “am haaretz” – literally “people of the land”, but meaning a boor.

As the study of Torah is the cornerstone of Jewish life and practice, those who decide to be ignorant, those who do not engage in the Torah, those who do not become familiar with its contents, put themselves in a sub-standard position in the hierarchy of Jewish achievement.

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 19:2 highlights this reality with a particular law. The people of Israel had an obligation to give a regular contribution of produce to their local Cohen called “Truma”. The Truma had a certain sanctity and the Cohen had to consume it in a state of ritual purity. However, we are warned that we should not give this contribution, we should not give Truma to a Cohen who is an “am haaretz”. If the Cohen is an ignoramus, if the Cohen could not be bothered to learn the laws of the Torah, then he is not deserving of these special contributions.

May we always improve our familiarity and connection to the Torah and merit a myriad of blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To a Cohen Talmid Chacham, Dr. Shmuel Katz, on the opening of his sixth free dental clinic in Israel. May blessings come quickly his way and may he merit having some joyous weddings in the very near future.

Gentle Strength

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-gentle-strength/

Netziv Numbers: Chukat

Gentle Strength

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  -Eric Hoffer

“Rotund” was the simplest way to describe the smiling, mild mannered professor who lectured us regarding ancient Near East archeology. However, what belied that gentle exterior was a martial arts master who could pulverize bricks with a single blow. During one particularly disruptive class the professor warned in a deceptively mild tone, which I remember decades later: “Don’t confuse niceness with weakness.” The class immediately quieted down.

Ancient enemies of Israel did confuse politeness with feebleness. Moses and the Israelites asked permission of the nations in their path in the desert to pass peacefully through their territory on their way to the Promised Land. According to the Netziv on Numbers 21:1, these nations assumed that Israel was nicely asking for permission because they didn’t have the strength to pass by force of arms. The nations saw such politeness as a sign of weakness and marched to war upon the presumably feeble Israel. What ensued was a massacre. Israel completely destroyed the entire armies and leadership of the two attacking kings of Sichon and Og and conquered their entire territory in a swift decisive victory that caused the entire region to tremble in fear of the approaching Israelites.

May our enemies learn to fear us and may we show strength to people who don’t understand gentleness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Israel’s army and security forces. May God protect them during their search for our sons: Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.

Talk is Cheap

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/chukat-talk-is-cheap/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Chukat

Talk is Cheap

“Speak out in acts; the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice.” -John Greenleaf Whittier

The people of Israel are thirsty and restless. They complain and demand water. Moses is worried. God tells him to take his staff and talk to the rock. Moses strikes the rock. God punishes Moses by prohibiting him from entering the land of Israel. This is one of the more confusing episodes in the Bible.

Why did God punish Moses? There are as many answers as there are Bible commentaries. Ibn Ezra chimes in with his own theory. What does Moses do right before he strikes the rock? He gives a speech. It is a curt, sharp speech, biting and sarcastic in its tone. It is highly unusual for Moses, though not unwarranted, given the excessive complaints of the people. In Numbers 20:10 Moses asks:

“Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?”

Moses doesn’t wait for an answer. He hits the rock (twice) and water gushes forth.

Ibn Ezra (on Numbers 20:8) claims that the sin of Moses was his speech. He didn’t need a preamble. He didn’t need to announce his plans in what was a negative, derogatory comment. He just needed to act. He needed to follow God’s instructions and provide the people of Israel with water.

It is true that they may have deserved a reprimand and that before performing yet another miracle, this may have seemed like an opportune time. But according to Ibn Ezra he should have acted first and spoken later.

May we always remember that talk is cheap and that actions always speak louder than words.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

In memory of Leon Lempert and Solomon Gerstenfeld. Men of action.

Beardless Righteousness

Kli Yakar Numbers: Korach

Beardless Righteousness

Judaism has generally venerated old bearded men. The righteous aged scholar with a lifetime of wisdom is the apex of the Jewish communal life-cycle. There is an ancient belief that these righteous individuals are a major force for good in our lives. The Kli Yakar traces the source of this belief to this week’s Torah portion. Though the personality upon whom this doctrine is based, was not bearded, nor even male.

The source is Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Moed Katan 28a). After Miriam dies, the well of water that miraculously accompanied the Children of Israel throughout their desert journey, disappears. This occurred apparently to highlight the connection between the well and this righteous woman.

The Kli Yakar (Numbers 20:2) explains that the righteous individual accomplishes four different things for her or his generation:

      1. Nourisher”: Just as in Miriam’s Well, the righteous are believed to be a source of our sustenance – not only spiritual, but even physical.
      2. Teacher: The righteous guide us in how to live our lives.
      3. Shielder”: In some sense, the righteous protect us from negative events.
      4. Forgiveness at Death: The death of the righteous individual provides atonement at some level to the generation.

An impressive list of effects that the righteous accomplish.

May we find such people and attach ourselves to them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the memory of Berel Schwartzblatt of Cedarhurst, NY. A righteous and sweet singer of Israel, we will always remember his song.