Category Archives: Numbers

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

The Fallacy of Good Intentions (Shelach)

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand. -Bertrand Russell

There were multiple crises, challenges, and mistakes that occurred during the journey of the nation of Israel through the desert. Perhaps none were as dramatic and impactful as the Sin of the Spies. Moses chose twelve men, one from each tribe, each one a prince, a man of high character and position. He sent them on what should have been an easy and straightforward mission: Check out the land. Check out the land that was promised to us by our all-powerful God, the God who liberated us from the most powerful empire and army on the planet, the God who revealed Himself to us at Mount Sinai when the entire world shook from His presence.

However, ten of the twelve spies returned with a negative, disheartening report, which struck fear into the nation of Israel, causing them to cry, to rebel against God’s plans. God, in His fury, struck down the ten rebellious spies and decreed the punishment of forty years of wandering in the desert to the rest of the nation.

The mission of the spies should have been just a formality. Why the need to check something God had promised would be a land “flowing with milk and honey”? If God could destroy the largest, most powerful military at the time in Egypt, why would there be any concern over the smaller, weaker vassal Canaanite city-states?

A related question is that with such promises and such Omnipotent strength on their side, why would Moses send spies at all? and once he did authorize such a mission, how could it have led to such calamitous results?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 13:33 explains that Moses had a significant divergence in his thinking from the ten spies. Moses indeed did not need to send spies, as he had no reason to doubt God’s promise. However, he thought it a good idea to send the spies as a preparatory scouting team. He had every intention of going into the land and the spies were an appropriate step to advance God’s promise, to check out the routes and the practical tactical steps they would take to conquer the land.

However, the ten spies had entirely different motives. Their motivation was to determine if Israel should venture into the land or not. They were less moved by God’s promise, but rather gave in to their fears and let their fears overtake the faith they should have had as direct witnesses and beneficiaries of God’s might.

Moses’ tragic error was that he attributed to the spies the same intentions he had. He incorrectly assumed that the spies were looking for practical means to implement God’s will. His assumption of their good intentions proved disastrous.

It’s nice to assume the best of people, but not when there’s reason to believe otherwise.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those fighting antisemitism.

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

African Royalty (Behaalotcha)

He that can work is born to be king of something. -Thomas Carlyle

There is a large gaping mystery in the biography of Moses. The Torah describes the birth of Moses in Egypt. It recounts the dramatic story of his mother having to put him on the river to save him from the Egyptian decree to murder all of the newborn Jewish boys. We see him taken and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. We have snippets of him as presumably a young man, killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was harming a Jewish slave. We see him break up a fight between two Jews. We see him flee to Midyan after Pharaoh puts out a death warrant for him. In Midyan he helps the daughters of Jethro, High Priest of Midyan, in their struggle for water with the local shepherds and he then marries one of those daughters, Tzipora.

However, the next part of his biography that we can put on a timeline is when the Torah tells us that he’s eighty years old when he returns to Egypt to confront (the new) Pharaoh and take the Jewish people out of bondage.

What happened to all the intervening decades? Where was he and what did he do between the time he fled from Egypt as a young man until he returned as an octogenarian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 12:3 provides an answer based on the story of siblings Miriam and Aaron discussing Moses’ “Kushite woman.” The classical interpretation is that the Kushite woman is referring to Tzipora, Moses’ wife. However, the Bechor Shor explains that there was another woman in Moses’ life. This woman was the queen of the kingdom of Kush (what is today Upper Egypt and Sudan) and that Moses served as the king of Kush for forty years, where according to the Midrash he was a revered warrior and served with great distinction.

It is interesting to note that Moses’ background as a long-serving monarch of one of the major kingdoms of the era didn’t even merit a footnote in the Torah. His later role of freeing Israel from Egypt, receiving the Torah and leading Israel, would completely overshadow even as grandiose a title as King or Emperor.

May our greatest accomplishments always lie ahead of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To crowdsourcing in general and Fiverr in particular.

Massive Blessings (Naso)

Massive Blessings (Naso)

To those leaning on the sustaining infinite, today is big with blessings. -Mary Baker Eddy

In the Torah reading of Naso, we’re introduced to the famed Priestly Blessing, the Birkat Cohanim, that to this day are pronounced by those of Cohen ancestry in the synagogues on a daily basis (in Israel) and on the holidays (in the Diaspora). It has also become a beloved custom for parents to bless their children every Friday night with the Birkat Cohanim blessing by placing their hands on their children’s heads right before the Shabbat meal. The Birkat Cohanim blessing reads as follows:

“May God bless you and protect you.

May God deal kindly and graciously with you.

May God bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.”

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 6:24 wonders as to the details of what “bless” actually means in this context. What does God’s blessing entail?

He then proceeds to provide us with a nice list of what God’s full blessing encompasses and what it is that the Cohens are pronouncing upon us or what a parent is wishing upon their children when they state this formulaic blessing.

For God to “bless” you, means that he will grant you children, a healthy body, intelligence, longevity, and greatness. It means that these blessings will accompany you at home and during your travels, whether you are coming or going, whether in the city or the fields, whether in your basket or your kneading bowl. It means you will be blessed with happiness, that you will be happy with your portion in life. All of these elements comprise a blessing and a blessed life.

The second part of the first verse of the blessing asks for God to protect you. It is asking for God to protect you from evil; that all of the blessings that have been granted should remain untouched, undisturbed, unharmed, complete; that the progeny, health, wisdom, long life, and accomplishments should remain strong and unblemished without any evil corrupting it; that we should remain happy with our lot in life, for ultimately it is God who provides or withholds what we would consider blessings and it is God who takes them away.

May we appreciate all of the blessings in our lives and may God continued to grant them and protect them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all friends of Israel. Thank you.

Firstborn Conundrum (Bamidbar)

Firstborn Conundrum (Bamidbar)

You can’t push anyone up the ladder unless he is ready to climb himself. -Andrew Carnegie

Already during the events of the Exodus, God demonstrates a special relationship with firstborn children. During the tenth plague to strike Egypt, the Plague of the Firstborns, God kills all of the Egyptian firstborns and spares all of the Jewish firstborns. God makes a point of repeating this fact and having us commemorate that event.

Furthermore, God’s saving of the Jewish firstborns creates an obligation on the part of those firstborns as well as all firstborns thereafter. The Jewish firstborn boys belong to God and have a higher obligation of servitude than those not born first.

It seems there was even a plan of their being a constant elite cadre of firstborns that would serve as priests in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple, honored and eternal servants of God. However, the firstborns messed up. They proved unready for this special honor and distinction.

According to the Bechor Shor on Number 4:13, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, which included firstborns from most of the tribes of Israel, all of the firstborns then and thereafter were disqualified from the previously planned honorary role. In their place, God substituted the tribe of Levi, who had not participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. He elevated the Levites to take the role that had been previously assigned to the firstborns.

Additionally, to keep the Levites focused on their sacred ritual duties, the entire tribe of Levi did not inherit any land in Israel. They did not have the burden of owning land, of having to farm it or manage it. Their time was meant to be exclusively dedicated to the service of God and their brother tribes were directed to support the Levites with a tithe of their produce.

On the other hand, the firstborns, all of whom had been cast out from the Temple service were legislated as getting a double portion of their father’s inheritance compared to their non-firstborn brothers. The Bechor Shor implies that in a sense in the trade of the Levites for the firstborns in the Temple service, the firstborns received the Levites’ material possessions, hence the double portion.

May we all become worthy of divine service no matter our birth order or tribe.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the safety of all of Israel.

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dare to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. -Marian Anderson

Historically, it was extremely common for armies and soldiers to ravage and pillage their enemies. It was seen as their right to claim the spoils of war, whether human, animal, or inanimate valuables.

God, at the end of the Book of Numbers, commands Israel to battle the Midianite army. The Midianites had allied with the Moabites when they tried to curse the nation of Israel through the sorcerer Bilaam. When the cursing scheme proved unsuccessful, the Midianite and Moabite women conspired to seduce the men of Israel into illegal romantic activity, and succeeded. This was followed by heinous idol worship, which raised God’s ire and led to a sudden plague and the death of 24,000 men of Israel.

God commands the army of Israel to avenge the Midianite involvement and to take the fight to them.

The army of Israel is victorious and completely vanquishes the Midianite army. As a bonus, the Torah reports that the Israelites didn’t have even one casualty from their battle. On their return from battle, the army commanders offer sacrifices to God and donate from the gold and jewelry they captured in battle.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 31:49 deciphers the language the army commanders use before they offered their sacrifices. The army commanders were given charge of their soldiers. They reported that they didn’t lose one soldier. The deeper significance that the Meshech Chochma uncovers is that no soldier even touched an enemy woman, though it might have been quite natural in those days for them to do so in the heat of battle and victory.

Upon witnessing the upstanding behavior of their charges, the army commanders realized a previous mistake they had made. Seeing how the soldiers followed their commanders’ orders not to touch any of the enemy women, the commanders belatedly understood that they could have, likewise, influenced the men who had previously given in to the temptations of the Midianite and Moabite women. Had the commanders made clear their expectations of the behavior of an Israelite man, they surmised that the illegal romantic dalliances may have been averted. The commanders were guilty of not using their influence where and when it was required in that case, and as such, they felt it necessary to bring a sacrifice to atone for their lack of judgment and involvement.

May we realize the influence we have on those around us and always use it positively.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of our Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital z”tl, on his tenth yahrtzeit. His influence was significant and undeniable.

Kohen Forever (Pinchas)

Kohen Forever (Pinchas)

No love, no friendship can cross the path of our destiny without leaving some mark on it forever. -Francois Muriac

God has made a lot of promises to us. And when you read some of those promises, they sound quite nice. However, many of those promises are conditional. If we are good, then God will bless us with bounty, success, victory over our enemies, and more. When we don’t fulfill our side of the deal, then God doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to fulfill His side.

For example, we are told by the Talmud (Tractate Berahot 4a) that our patriarch Jacob was worried that perhaps some sin of his may have reduced not just his reward, but even the divine protection God had promised him. Jacob, it seems, understood that God’s promise to him had been conditional.

However, there are a handful of promises that are unconditional. This week’s reading of Pinchas has one such promise.

At the end of last week’s reading, we are told of the mass promiscuity that men of Israel embarked on with the seductive women of Moab and Midian. At the height of the illegal dalliance, a prince of one of the tribes of Israel is publicly intimate with a princess from Midian. Moses and the elders are horrified and seemingly paralyzed into inaction, but Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and skewers the couple during their romantic act. Pinhas’ violent, vigilante execution is credited with stopping the plague which had killed 24,000 men of Israel because of God’s wrath over the widespread immorality.

As a reward for his daring, decisive act, which demonstrated Pinhas’ love, obedience, and allegiance to God, God promises him an everlasting covenant of peace. The covenant installs Pinhas and all his descendants as Kohens, as the priests consecrated and dedicated to the service of God in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 25:11 explains that this is an eternal, unconditional promise. It doesn’t matter if a future Kohen misbehaves, he will always retain the status of a Kohen, with all of the ensuing rights and responsibilities of a Kohen.

He underlines that whenever God makes an absolute promise through His prophet, the promise cannot be revoked by any sin. He brings as further proof that there were descendants of Pinhas, who though they were the opposite of shining examples of morality, merited to serve as High Priests during the era of the second Temple.

May we merit to see both conditional and unconditional blessings, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Kohens who are studying the laws of their Temple service.

God’s Time Versus Human Time (Balak)

God’s Time Versus Human Time (Balak)

It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves. -Thornton Wilder

In the Torah reading of Balak, the anti-hero, the sorcerer Bilaam, famously sets out to curse the nation of Israel. Bilaam also famously fails, but his failure created some of the most beautiful and poetic blessings to be bestowed upon Israel. Out of his flowery language, the Meshech Chochma on Numbers 23:21 teases out a profound understanding of time, both from a human as well as from a divine perspective.

In our current “scientific” linear thinking, when we think about the passing of time, we typically think in terms of Past, Present, and Future. First is what came before, then we reach our present time and finally, time leads us into the unknown future. However, there are some common patterns in the description of events which can be found in biblical and liturgical verses that differ from our modern way of thinking about time. One pattern can be described as “Present, Past, and Future.” A good example is the well-known liturgical verse from our daily prayers: “God rules, God ruled, God will rule.” First, we see the present, then we look back at the past and only at the end do we look forward to the future.

The Meshech Chochma explains that according to human nature, we first deal with what’s in front of us, the present. After that, we examine our memories of the past, a record of which we may find in our minds. Finally, we may look to the future, a hazy and unclear vision that our imagination might conjure. The progression is from firm sensing to memory to tenuous imaginings.

However, God’s perspective on time vis-à-vis humans is entirely different. God created Time. God is beyond Time. It is ultimately incomprehensible to try to describe Time from God’s point of view. Nonetheless, the prophets, when they deliver God’s messages, are attempting just that, and their description of God’s time is indeed different. One example is from Isaiah 44:6: “I am First (Past), I am Last (Future), and besides Me, there is no god (Present).” God’s time refers to the Past first, the Future second, and the Present third.

The Meshech Chochma describes that for God, Time is one tapestry. He sees in one glimpse, if you will, a timeline that for us mortals stretches into eternity in both directions. God mentions the Past first, which stretches backward into infinity. He then moves on to the future, which ventures forwards into infinity. Finally, He mentions the Present, that infinitesimal slice of reality suspended between the two poles of eternity.

May we, mere mortals, seize the present, appreciate the past, and look forward to the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Technion’s discovery of the “branched flow” of light. Illuminating.

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.

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

God created the flirt as soon as he made the fool. -Victor Hugo

The word “Holy” (Kadosh or Kodesh in Hebrew) is used extensively in the Torah. There are many Hebrew words whose etymological root “k-d-sh” stems from the concept of holy, sacred, sanctified, consecrated. Most people are familiar with “Kadish,” the mourner’s prayer, where we sanctify God’s name in that prayer. In Hebrew, to marry is “lekadesh,” and the marriage ceremony is called “kiddushin.” The Temple is called the “Bet Hamikdash” (literally, the sanctified house). The innermost chamber of the Temple is known as the “Kodesh Kodashim” (the Holy of Holies).

In talking about the portions of the sacrifices which the Kohens would consume as part of the Tabernacle (and Temple) service, the Torah states as follows:

This shall be yours from the most holy sacrifices, the offerings by fire: every such offering that they render to Me as most holy sacrifices, namely, every meal-offering, sin-offering, and guilt-offering of theirs, shall belong to you and your sons. You shall partake of them as most sacred donations: only males may eat them; you shall treat them as consecrated. – Numbers 18:9-10

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why the Torah emphasizes that only a Kohen and his sons, only males, may eat from these sacred sacrifices.

He explains that these holy offerings were eaten exclusively in the Temple courtyard. The eating was part of their divine service. Women were not allowed to eat with them there. The men needed to be focused on consuming these offerings in a state of single-minded divine service. Were they to perform this service accompanied by women, it would turn into a social affair that would sidetrack the Kohens from focusing on the sacrificial service.

The Meshech Chochma adds that this separation of men and women during the holy service is the very essence of what “holiness” means. He states that wherever the Torah refers to “holiness” it is creating a fence against promiscuity. Marriage, “kiddushin,” for example, is the consecration of the bond of a couple, a unique and holy relationship, excluding and prohibiting all other romantic relationships.

May we gain a deeper appreciation for what holiness, “kodesh,” means.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the partial end of the school year and the partial start of the summer. We’ll take what we can get.

Equalizing the Elite (Shelach)

Equalizing the Elite (Shelach)

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -James B. Connant

By both biblical and rabbinic accounts, Moses is likely the greatest man who ever lived. He confronted Pharaoh, brought the plagues upon Egypt, and took the Jewish nation out of its slavery. He split the sea, spoke to God like no person ever has or will. He received the Torah and relayed it to the People of Israel. The Torah also declares that he was the humblest of men and the greatest of prophets. We can’t even imagine the type of person he was, his caliber, his sanctity, his righteousness, his wisdom, or his nobility.

Yet according to the Meshech Chochma on Numbers 15:37, God puts Moses on an equal footing with every Jew when he presents the commandment of Tzitzit.

Tzitzit are the ritual fringes that every Jewish male is meant to wear on an item of clothing that has four corners. From a young age, boys usually wear the Tzitzit under their shirts, some with the fringes sticking out, others with the fringes tucked in. From Bar-Mitzvah age, and at the latest, once a man is married, there is the related custom to wear a Talit, the prayer shawl, an outer garment with the fringes on the four corners, for morning prayers, or if someone is serving as the Chazan, the leader of the prayer service.

The passage regarding the commandment of Tzitzit is so important, that it was incorporated as the third section of the twice-daily reading of Shema, which we recite in our prayers.

What is interesting about the passage, the Meshech Chochma points out, is that it gives part of the rationale for the commandment of Tzitzit: “so that you shall not go after your hearts and after your eyes.” It is a warning, a reminder, even protection, against inappropriate thoughts and intentions.

It would be reasonable to assume, that those of a high moral character, the spiritual leaders of the generation, those with little to no presumption of sin or even inappropriate thoughts, would be exempt from the need for Tzitzit. Why would a great sage whose thoughts are constantly dwelling on the holy and sacred need a coarse physical reminder of the Tzitzit to “not go after your hearts and after your eyes?”

The Meshech Chochma explains that God is saying that not only do “the great” need to wear Tzitzit but even the singular Moses, the greatest prophet, the one whose mind was as close to regular communion with God as possible, even Moses needed to wear Tzitzit.

May we appreciate the depth of the many commandments God has bequeathed to us, whether we are among the elite or not.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

On the marriage of Yakira and AJ Baumol. Mazal Tov!