Category Archives: Numbers

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)

Make progress one time and it makes you happy. Make progress day after day, week after week and it makes you a champion. -Greg Werner

The Torah portion of Balak is unique in the sense that it is an account of the history of the young nation of Israel from the perspective of an enemy. It tells the tale of King Balak of Moav, who is fearful of the encroaching Israelite nation. Balak hires the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the nation of Israel during their wandering in the desert, before their entry into the Promised Land.

While Bilaam was known to be a powerful wizard capable of casting effective and destructive curses, in the Torah reading of Balak we have the almost-comic scenario of God forcing Bilaam to utter blessings over Israel instead of his intended curses.

Bilaam’s blessings are amongst the most graphic ones in the Torah and include the following:

“Behold, a people that rises like a lioness,

And as a lion lifts himself up,

Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,

And drunk the blood of the slain.” -Number 23:24

The Berdichever learns from the above blessing the importance of gradual improvement. The blessing starts off describing the rise of the lioness, but then shifts to the rising of the even more powerful lion.

Similarly, he explains, in our performance of commandments, we need to take them one step at a time. We may initially perform the commandments for selfish reasons, for expectation of some reward. Only after we’ve become accustomed to performing the commandments, after we’ve learned, understood and internalized their importance, can we hope to perform the commandments at the higher, more idealized level of doing them without any expectation of reward.

Hence the oft-repeated Talmudic maxim that one should perform the Mitzvot “not for their own sake (lo lishmah)”; for by doing them we will eventually come to perform the Mitzvot, as they should be done, “for their own sake (lishmah).”

The continuation of the blessing suggests additional levels of performance. “Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,” hints that once a person performs the Mitzvot for their own sake, they will encourage and raise other people to also perform Mitzvot, people who have previously fallen “prey” to their evil inclinations. And “drunk the blood of the slain,” alludes to fallen divine “sparks” that are like the “slain” that are raised and revitalized by the fulsome performance of the commandments.

May we continue on our paths of spiritual development, continuously learning and methodically doing what is right, and growing step by step as spiritual beings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbanit Dr. Avigail Rock z”l. May God comfort her family amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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.

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

It is not whether your words or actions are tough or gentle; it is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state. -Ching Ning Chu

The events in the Torah portion of Korach, the rebellion that Korach led against Moses, occurs after the Sin of the Spies and the decree of forty years of wandering in the desert. That generation of Israelites, known as the Generation of the Desert, would never cross the Jordan River, would never enter the Promised Land. Their children are the ones who would fight the battles, conquer the land, see the promise fulfilled.

The Berdichever explores some interesting differences between the Generation of the Desert, under the leadership of Moses, and the generation that entered Israel, under the leadership of Moses’ disciple, Joshua.

He takes his cue from the Hebrew word for desert (Midbar) which has the same root as the word “speaks” (Medaber) and demonstrates a deep connection in our story. Moses, the leader of the Generation of the Desert, accomplished things primarily via speech. In this week’s reading, Moses speaks, and God causes the earth to swallow the rebels. Moses is the great orator. He speaks with God. He speaks the word of God to the nation of Israel. Ironically, even though when we first meet Moses, he states his suffering of a speech impediment, he subsequently speaks more than any other person in the Torah. Moses undoubtedly has a divinely-powered faculty of speech.

Joshua on the other hand, the leader of the generation that entered Israel, is a man of action. When Israel fights Amalek shortly after their departure from Egypt, it is Joshua who leads the actual fighting. He continues to lead active battles when they enter Israel.

However, there is one curious exception. When Joshua conquers Jericho, the first city they encounter after crossing the Jordan, they conquer it exclusively by the sound of their voices and Shofar blasts. After a siege of seven days and an enforced silence upon the Israelite troops, Shofar blasts and the cries of the Israelite soldiers cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, decisively ending the siege without one armed strike.

The Berdichever explains that the miraculous conquest of Jericho was in merit of the Sabbath. The “audio” attack of Jericho occurred on the Sabbath. He quotes the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI), who elaborates as follows: The elevated, superior “mind” of the master (in this case, Moses), is not generally within reach of the disciple (Joshua). Moses’ mind was so powerful, so refined, that he was able to affect the world just by the power of speech. Joshua was not at the same level as Moses (the classic comparison is that if Moses was the sun, then Joshua was the moon). Joshua affected this world as most mortals do – through action. However, the Sabbath has a special quality which allows the disciple to grasp the mind of the master. It allows the disciple to possess, even if for a limited time, some of the powers, some of the capabilities of the master.

Joshua uses his master’s powers of speech to supernatural effect by causing, just with sonic waves, the walls of Jericho to fall.

May we realize the underlying powers of both speech and action and always use them for good.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our daughter, Tiferet, on her graduation and moving on to high school! Mazal Tov!

When Heaven and Hell meet (Shlach)

When Heaven and Hell meet (Shlach)

How well I have learned that there is no fence to sit on between heaven and hell. There is a deep, wide gulf, a chasm, and in that chasm is no place for any man. -Johnny Cash

After the sin of the spies and the devastating punishment of forced wandering in the desert for forty years, Korach leads a rebellion against Moses. Korach seeks the priesthood, for himself and his followers, though that honor, of being a Kohen, had already been assigned by God to Aaron and his descendants.

The rebellion suffers a catastrophic and fatal failure when at Moses’ behest, God causes the ground to open and swallow Korach’s followers “alive into Sheol (hell).”

The Berdichever addresses the question as to why the members of Korach’s rebellion should have received such a particular and unusual punishment of going “alive into hell.” Why not just kill them as God had done and would do for multiple other infractions and rebellions? Why have them descend while they are alive to the realm of death?

He explains that it had to do with the complex nature of their sin. On one hand, Korach’s crew sought the priesthood. They wanted the privilege of serving God, of being the intermediaries in dealing with the ritual and spiritual needs of the nation of Israel. It is an honorable role and the fact that they wanted it indicated their desire to become more connected to God, to the source of life. On the other hand, that role had already been given to Aaron and his sons by God’s direct decree. To covet and seek that role was to go against God’s express desire, to detach themselves from God, to seek death.

Hence the reason why Korach and company went “alive to hell.” They sought to do a Mitzva via a sin. They sought to get closer to God, but in the same act, to separate themselves from God. They sought the source of life and the source of death. Therefore, their confused desires led to the unusual but reflective punishment of being both dead and alive, of being alive in the realm of death.

May we always have the clarity and the ability to distinguish between the sources of life and the sources of death; and choose life.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Rabbi Aaron Tirschwell, z”l. May the family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The spiritual transforms the physical (Behaalotcha)

The spiritual transforms the physical (Behaalotcha)

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. -James Baldwin

God had revealed Himself to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai where they were presented with the Ten Commandments. They spent almost a year at the foot of the mountain, sinned with the Golden Calf, got a second set of Tablets and built the Tabernacle.

Now they set their sights on the Promised Land and start their journey across the desert. No sooner are they on their way and they start to complain. They complain about the food (how little has changed over the millennia).

They want meat, they fondly remember the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they ate in Egypt. They are dismissive and disdainful of the miraculous Manna that God provided to them daily. The Torah takes the time to describe the Manna in a little more detail, but what is truly fascinating is the description of the Manna given by the Midrash. The Midrash states that the Manna was able to take on the taste, the texture, the flavor of whatever the eater desired.

If the person eating the Manna wanted to taste a sumptuous steak, that’s what they tasted. If they wanted to taste a ripe melon, that’s what they tasted. The Manna had the unique ability of taking our thoughts and transposing them into a new taste-able, edible, physical object.

The Berdichever points out that this equation demonstrates a counterintuitive and lopsided symbiotic relationship.

In the case of the Manna, a physical substance was feeding, sustaining the nation of Israel. But it was the spirit, the thoughts of the Israelites which really gave purpose and existence to the Manna. So, at a deeper level, the spiritual contribution of the nation of Israel to the formation of the Manna was more influential than the material benefit the Manna had upon Israel.

So too, the Berdichever explains, is the relationship between a giver of charity and a recipient of charity. Superficially it would seem that the giver of charity provides a substantial, if not complete benefit to the recipient, while the benefit the recipient provides is not apparent at all. Such an analysis misses the deeper spiritual reality.

It is true that the giver provides the recipient with a clear, important, physical benefit with his charity. However, the recipient causes the giver to receive a significantly more important spiritual return.

The recipient becomes the direct cause for the giver to receive the afterlife, holiness and purity, spiritually powerful gifts that we can barely appreciate, bestowed by God for the kindness the recipient enabled the giver to provide.

May we be supporters and enablers of charitable causes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Netanel, on completing high school, and the exciting path ahead.

Influence and Charity (Naso)

Influence and Charity (Naso)

In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us. -Flora Edwards

In the Torah reading of Naso, we’re presented with the formula of the Priestly Blessing, the blessing that Aaron the High Priest and his descendants, the Kohens, were commanded to give the nation of Israel, since the giving of the Torah and until today. It is also a traditional blessing which parents bestow upon their children every Friday night, before the Kiddush, before welcoming the Sabbath. The verses are as follows:

“And God spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May God bless you and protect you! May God shine His face upon you and be gracious with you! May God turn His face to you and bestow upon you peace! And place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.” -Numbers 6:22-27

When the Kohens recite the blessing, they outstretch their arms, palms facing downward. The Berdichever reads a great symbolism in the positioning of the hands. When a person receives an item, they will outstretch their arm and typically have their palm facing upwards. The person giving the item will have their hand facing downward. The giver has their palm down, the receiver has their palm up.

The Kohens, with their palms down, are giving, they are transmitting blessings, they are influencing. They are even influencing God and, in some sense, giving to God. God very much enjoys such positive influence, and in turn Himself will then give goodness and blessings upon Israel.

The Berdichever adds that when we pray to God, if we are praying just for ourselves, then we are merely receivers with little influence. However, if when we pray, we do so to give to God, to give Him pleasure, then we’re considered givers and have great influence over divinely ordained results.

However, this influence is not limited to just prayer. Whenever we give, whenever we’re charitable, whenever we’re kind and caring, we become divine influencers and that causes God to respond to us in kind, charitably, kindly, caringly.

May we do good and have that goodness come back to us manifold.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the upcoming wedding of Oria and Azi Brody. Mazal Tov!

Patrilineal Descent (Bamidbar)

Patrilineal Descent (Bamidbar)

One of life’s greatest mysteries is how the boy who wasn’t good enough to marry your daughter can be the father of the smartest grandchild in the world. -Yiddish Proverb

In antiquity, it seems that the nations of the world would determine a person’s lineage through their mother. Perhaps because promiscuity was so pervasive, one could never be sure of the father’s identity. Likewise, there are echoes of the female connection to one’s ancestry in the term “motherland” (though one can make a converse argument based on the word “fatherland”).

The Berdichever explores this theme, when in the beginning of the Book of Numbers, in the Torah reading of Bamidbar, God instructs Moses to count the army-age men of Israel. A phrase that keeps getting used in the request for the count, is to do so “according to their families, to their father’s house.”

The Berdichever explains that the word “nation” in Hebrew (Umah) has the same root as the word for “mother” (Imah) and that it was well known at the time that all the nations gave their lineage through their mother’s side.

However, the nation of Israel, after God’s revelation to them, after receiving the Torah, merited a new level of lineage determination. They were asked and commanded to henceforth present their ancestry based on who their fathers were.

In requesting the count, the literal translation of the command is “raise the head of all the children of Israel, according to their families, to their father’s house.”

The term “raise the head” comes to highlight how this new way (three millennia ago), this different criteria of showing and determining one’s ancestry through their father was a new higher level. Perhaps because it showed the strength and commitment of the bonds of marriage, where the children of Israel could feel with confidence that the child was indeed the father’s child and not of any other man. The Egyptian and Canaanite cultures at the time were highly promiscuous and the Torah strongly condemned such behavior and legislated for the Jewish people matrimonial fidelity.

It is curious how millennia later, presenting one’s lineage, or at least the last name, based usually on the father’s last name, has become so predominant throughout the world.

It is interesting that in Judaism, while one’s tribal status, and nowadays whether one is considered a Kohen or a Levi, is still determined by the father, the underlying Jewishness is determined by the mother.

May we be worthy of our lineage from all sides, and may our ancestors be proud of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the dozens of families who lost their homes and all their belongings in the recent blazes in Israel. May God restore your homes and possessions quickly.

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

If money is all that a man makes, then he will be poor. Poor in happiness and poor in all that makes life worth living. -Herbert N. Casson

The nation of Israel had just vanquished two major kingdoms on the eastern side of the Jordan River, across from the land promised to them. After the battles, and with all the pasture around them, two tribes approached Moses. The tribes of Ruben and Gad came up to Moses and declared that they were laden with vast amounts of animals and the current land they were in was perfect for them. They wanted to stay, to settle outside the Promised Land, with their flocks.

Moses gets angry, there ensues a discussion, and the tribes of Ruben and Gad declare that they will leave their flocks and their families in the east and go battle with the rest of Israel in the west, until the land is fully conquered. After the expected conquest, they will return to the land, to their flocks and family.

What is most telling is the order which these two tribes phrase their request. They place the flock before their family. Many of the commentators highlight the priorities these two tribes are exhibiting as well as Moses’ response to them. Moses flips the order, basically saying, take care of your family before you take care of your flock.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 32:2 (Matot-Masai) takes the criticism even further. He claims that because the tribes of Ruben and Gad put their financial gains and greed before their families’ wellbeing, all their financial gains were cursed.

By being more concerned with their material wealth, their livestock, with animals, rather than with human beings and their own flesh and blood, they doomed themselves, and eventually were left with neither. Indeed, the tribes to the east of the Jordan would be the first to be exiled and seemingly lost to Jewish history.

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his criticism with the famous dictum from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of our Fathers) which asks rhetorically, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

May we be thankful for all the blessings in our life and especially for the one of family.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the summer, and more opportunities for the family to spend time together.

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful, and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. -Aldous Huxley

During my years in Uruguay, I met multiple people who had discovered, some quite recently, that they had Jewish ancestors. Many of them were descendants of the crypto-Jews of Spain, that significant portion of the Jewish community that chose to convert to Christianity centuries ago, rather than be exiled from the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabel. They kept their Jewish identity and practice secret, especially from agents of the Inquisition. I’ve heard estimates that as much as twenty percent of those of Spanish descent are of Jewish origin. We’re talking about tens of millions of souls.

However, that was not the only source of newfound Jews. There were a number whose grandparents had hidden any trace of their Jewishness during the Holocaust, that on their deathbeds, or even after, were revealed to be Jewish. My friend, Rabbi Avi Baumol, active in the Krakow Jewish community, confirms that there is a growing phenomenon of young Poles discovering their Jewish pedigree and returning to their roots.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 26:51 (Pinchas) analyzes the census that Moses conducts at the end of the Jewish forty-year journey through the desert. He then calls upon the prophecy from Isaiah (Chapters 54 and 49) which claims something surprising for a nation that was always the smallest, the weakest, the most insignificant in terms of population. The claim is that at the end of days, Jews will be the largest nation on the planet and they will return in mass to Israel.

Have we seen the initial trickle of what may turn out to be a flood? Are the Ethiopian Jews a sign of more to come from the African continent? Are the Bnei Menashe of India a portend of a more significant influx from the subcontinent? Are the resurfacing Jews from throughout the Americas and Europe a hint of much more below the surface?

What of more ancient rumors and theories of the lost ten tribes? Are the Celts and their progeny somehow our long-lost cousins? Do the Jews of Kaifeng, China, really predate the Tang dynasty (618-907) and are they perhaps just the tip of the iceberg as to what part of the Chinese population is actually Jewish?

The possibilities are both intriguing and exciting. What would it mean to the world to suddenly have hundreds of millions of people, perhaps over a billion souls, identify themselves as Jewish, and show solidarity with Israel? That is one of the possible scenarios of the Messianic age.

May we be welcoming to all who seek us out and demonstrate kindness and graciousness to make us a tribe worth rejoining.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ethiopian Jews. You are our brothers, no matter what any bureaucrat says.

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Royal Frailty (Balak)

Don’t forget your great guns, which are the most respectable arguments of the rights of kings. -Frederick the Great

The nation of Israel was nearing the end of their punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert. They were ready to enter the land that God had promised them. Just a couple of kingdoms stood in their way. Moses sends messengers to the first king in their path, Sichon, king of the Emorites. Moses asks for safe passage and offers to pay for anything the people of Israel would consume on the way. Sichon answers by marching his massive, overwhelming army towards the Israelite camp. However, a one-sided battle ensues with Israel completely annihilating the Emorite army and conquering the entirety of Sichon’s kingdom. The same exact scenario plays itself out with Og the giant, King of Bashan.

Rabbeinu Bechaya on Numbers Chapter 22 (Balak) explains that both Sichon and Og relied on their strength of arms and the size of their armies. They assumed that the smaller, less experienced Israelite army would be easy to destroy. What they didn’t take into account is that while the might of a mortal king is defined by the strength and size of his army, such military force is meaningless to God. God is not defined by any physical attribute. God is the cause of every physical attribute.

The massive armies of Sichon and Og basically evaporated in front of God’s wishes for Israel to win the battle. The Torah reports that Israel killed every single combatant without losing one person on their side. This unnatural victory had Balak, King of Moab, scared witless. He was depending on his bigger, more powerful neighbors to defend him from what he saw as the Israelite threat. He abruptly discovered that the monarchs he felt were so strong, turned out to be of no consequence when facing God’s plans. All those men, all those armies that defined the strength of those kings, proved to be ephemeral.

Balak understood that physical force would have no effect against the nation of Israel. He then went on to try non-military strategies with mixed results. He had learned that in a world where God intervenes, strength of arms does not a king make.

May we realize where our true strengths lie.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the World Cup players, with the exciting wins, upsets and perhaps some divine involvement as well.