Category Archives: Numbers

Fairy-Tale Theology

Hizkuni Numbers: Shelach

Fairy-Tale Theology

Writers and Hollywood producers have been selling us fairy-tales for generations. They presume that life has a happy ending, dreams come true and love conquers all. Apparently, mere feelings and intentions may overcome all obstacles and alter reality.

Real life is typically more prosaic, filled with disappointments, crushed dreams and broken hearts. Often we are confronted with bleak possibilities and our choices are limited to the least painful one.

According to Rabbi Hezekiyah ben Manoach (Hizkuni) there is at least one feeling that can change reality: fear.

The notorious spies return from their reconnaissance of Canaan and instill fear in the hearts of the Israelite nation. They cry out that they cannot conquer Canaan. Ironically they are right.

According to Hizkuni (Numbers 15:43) their fear created a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t believe you can win, you can never win. That generation would forever be incapable of conquering the land. God can of course perform miracles, but the human element was deficient. The lack of faith in God and belief in self doomed that generation to wandering and dying in the desert.

If the children of Israel would have been braver; if they would have had more faith; if they would have believed in themselves more, that tale would have had a very different ending. Almost like a fairy tale.

May we reach fearlessness, bravery, faith, be the heroes of our own tales, slay the dragons, win the maidens and live happily ever after.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To all those struggling with their personal horror stories. Banish fear and hold on to hope.

Intergenerational Training

Numbers Hizkuni: Behaalotcha

Intergenerational Training

The Rabbis of the Talmud, when asked to give advice on what career a young adult should pursue, recommend that a person should stick to their family business.

In a seemingly unrelated passage, the Torah explains that the Levites shall take the place of the Firstborns in the service of God in the Tabernacle (Numbers 8:16). This consecration of the tribe of Levi is transferred later on to the service of the Temple of Jerusalem. Most commentators relate that during the Sin of the Golden Calf all the tribes, including the Firstborns participated. The only tribe not to participate was the Tribe of Levi. This distinction gave them the honor, privilege and responsibility of replacing the previous role of the Firstborns.

Rabbi Hizkiyah ben Manoach (Hizkuni) gives a completely different, but very practical reason why the Firstborns were supplanted. It is entirely likely and statistically inevitable that a majority of children will not be Firstborn. Furthermore, a majority of Firstborns will not have fathers that are Firstborns (this is becoming less true in modern times with declining fertility rates).

As such, Hizkuni explains that a majority of Firstborns will not have a Firstborn parent that could ‘teach them the ropes’ of the Tabernacle service. This will lead to unfamiliarity and potential mistakes. Because of this susceptibility to error a new arrangement was devised: the Levites. To have an entire tribe dedicated to the Tabernacle service would ensure that the traditions, laws, procedures and ceremonies would be properly handed down from one generation to the next, with minimized possibility of error from lack of intergenerational training.

Hence, the Talmud’s assertion of the great value as well as the increased chances of greater material success of sons following the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers in their choice of profession.

May we value the work, direction and choices of our ancestors and may we leave a worthy path for our descendants.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Mikhail and Alexei/Eliyahu Bezeliansky on their extraordinary hosting and for their courageous continuation of intergenerational tradition.

Strangers Amongst Us

Numbers Hizkuni: Naso

Strangers Amongst Us

The Tribe of Jews can be fairly ethnocentric. A popular game when two Jews meet for the first time is “Jewish Geography”. The longer one plays it the more connections, acquaintances and even relatives one can find.

In Jewish law, the widespread nature of Jewish families can be helpful when finding an heir. There is always somebody, if you go back far enough on the family tree. This however is not the case with most converts to Judaism. According to Jewish law, a convert’s identity is completely renewed. There is no further legal Jewish connection between them and their natural parents, siblings and other relatives from their previous life.

Taking this into consideration, the Torah goes out of its way to describe the specific case of a financial debt that needs to be paid back to a deceased, but who has no heirs (Numbers 5:8). The Rabbis explain that in Jewish law, the only person that could possible have no heirs is a convert that died without children. The law is that in such a case the repayment of the debt is made to the Kohen.

Rabbi Hizkiyah ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains the payment for the convert to the Kohen, not as a lack of Jewish parentage. Rather Hizkuni claims that a convert is considered according to Jewish law nothing less than a complete child of God. Therefore, the Kohen, as an earthly representative of God, becomes the natural recipient of any material wealth the convert can’t bequeath directly to his Jewish parent – God.

May we always treat and welcome the converts amongst us as is their proper due – as our full brothers and sisters under the parentage of God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

Mazal Tov to Brian (Yosef) Maccaba and Hilary (Chava) Guiney on their upcoming marriage.

Correction: For several months now, I’ve been calling Hizkuni, Rabbi Yaakov ben Manoach. When I first did my research on him, I came across that reference. One of my readers pointed out that it is really Hizkiyah ben Manoach (makes more sense). I double checked and could not find the original reference, but rather many others that indeed refer to him as Rabbi Hizkiyah. I apologize for any confusion.

Color-Coded Conquest

Numbers Hizkuni: Bamidbar

Color-Coded Conquest

Recreation of Tribal Flags
Recreation of Tribal Flags

Seasoned world-conquerors know that there is a tactical advantage in the early conquest of the small purple-colored continent of Australia. In the popular board game “Risk”, it’s an almost guaranteed two extra armies per turn with only one border to protect.

The “Risk” board is an excellent introduction to general world geography if not military geo-politics (“never fight a land war in Asia”). While some of its “countries” have little relation to modern divisions (Irkutzk?), a few of them have been impressively prescient (who remembers playing when Ukraine was still an undistinguishable part of the Soviet Union?).

Modern maps and globes are often a patchwork quilt of multicolored entities, their land-masses clearly visible thanks to contrasting colors. It wasn’t always so. Millennia ago maps were mostly boring monochromatic parchments with sketches of whales filling up the seas. The Israelite nation was apparently the first to introduce color as a distinguishing characteristic between physical locations.

More recreated Tribal Flags
More recreated Tribal Flags

In the beginning of the Book of Numbers, the number, position and leadership of each tribe is given. Rabbi Yaakov ben Manoach (Hizkuni) claims that the Israelite nation was the first to use color coding for their tribal flags and to demark their domain. Hizkuni further explains that the nations of the world learned this practice from Israel and transferred the practice to cartography as well.

Therefore, France is a different color than Germany and yet a different color than Spain all because of the flags of the twelve tribes of Israel.

May we be happy with the flags we bear, and if not, switch colors quickly.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the movie “Invictus”. Highly recommended and highly moving. It shows the value of sticking to your colors.

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Evil’s Innocent Accomplices

Some time ago, I was drafted by the Israeli Police to assist in an international manhunt. My getting enmeshed in the particular case was fairly distressing and a confidant of mine was concerned about my getting further entangled in this mess.

However, shortly thereafter he encouraged my involvement with the following quote by Edmund Burke:

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I thought Ayn Rand expanded nicely on this in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”:

“The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no compromise on basic principles.”

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno comes to a related conclusion as to the acquiescence signified by silence from a more domestic example regarding a married woman taking a vow (Numbers 30:15):

“If her husband shall be silent about her from day to day – he will have let stand all her vows; or all the prohibitions that are upon her, he will have let them stand, for he was silent about her on the day of his hearing.”

Sforno comments:

“Silence by the one who can protest is like agreement, for the one who is silent is as if he agreed with the act.”

Silence may be golden, but there are times where it may be criminal. May we always know the difference.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To the Israel Police Force. I found them to be determined, resourceful and relentless. May they always be a tool of justice.

Outrageous Immortality

Outrageous Immortality

The quest for eternal life is recorded by humanity as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh (22nd century BCE). Judaism does not attribute much value to eternal corporeal life in this world except in one notable personality.

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen takes fatally violent vigilante action against a couple committing public and prohibited intercourse (Numbers 25:6-8). Rabbis and commentators expound at length the rarity of such vigilantism being sanctioned. They go into even more detail as to the spiritual, emotional and relational requirements of the vigilante himself who single-handedly acts as judge, jury and executioner.

Pinchas was apparently a rare individual, who under extremely trying circumstances, did the completely right thing at exactly the right time with utterly proper intentions. This combination of performing the right and dangerous deed against an entire nations-worth of disapproval or apathy, with pure and unwavering commitment to God, earns Pinchas the singular reward of the “Covenant of Peace” from God.

It seems odd that for such an outrageous and brutal deed, Pinchas should be rewarded with what seems the exact converse – Peace.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno also wonders at this apparent dichotomy of the aggressive man achieving Peace. Sforno explains that the peace Pinchas gets is a peace treaty with none other than the Angel of Death, who can no longer affect him.

In a sense, Pinchas, via his commitment, conquered Death. Sforno details that according to one opinion Pinchas went on to live for hundreds of years. According to another tradition, Pinchas is in reality the personality better known as Elijah the Prophet.

The following story from the Zohar reinforces the point:

“When God brought Elijah up to heaven, the Angel of Death stood against him.

God said: “For this purpose I created heaven: so that Elijah would come up here.”

Angel of Death: “God, now the people will have what to say – that they should not die, just as Elijah.”

God: “He is not like other people. He can eliminate you from the world; you do not know his power.”

Angel of Death: “Give me permission to go down to him.”

God: “Go down.”

As soon as Elijah saw him, he forced the Angel of Death beneath his feet and sought to eliminate him from the world, but God did not give him permission. Thereupon he bent the Angel of Death beneath him and went up to heaven. (Zohar Chadash 76a).”

Pinchas (a.k.a. Elijah) goes on to fulfill a number of eternal roles in Jewish history: Brit Milah, Passover Seder, and countless recorded physical appearances throughout the centuries.

May his long prophesized public return happen speedily in our days, preceding, as it is foretold, the Great and Awesome Day of God (Malachi 3:24).

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Rabbi Lazer Brody.  By a series of circumstances, I ended up having the honor of driving this special man home to Ashdod from Efrat. His life’s mission is the hastening of the redemption via educating “Faith”.

I was most impressed by the books he translated of Rabbi Shalom Arush, and I highly recommend them. The Garden of Emuna (now reaching 1 million in sales – unheard of for Jewish books), and The Garden of Peace (a must for every married man).