Friday, June 25, 2010

Parshat Balak - פרשת בלק

"וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים. - And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam: 'What have I done to you, that thou have hit me these three times?' "
~Numbers 22:28

Quite why I'd never paid attention to the phrasing of this verse before now, I'll never know, but upon reading the passage above, I noticed something quote odd. The last words, "שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים" are understood to mean three times, but the phrase literally means "three feet", which is the way the three "foot" festivals in Judaism are typically referred to. (They were known as foot festivals because the entire people would descend on Jerusalem, proceeding there by foot, in order to mark the holidays.) The normal way of saying three times in Hebrew would be "שלוש פעמים", so why unusual terminology here?

Rashi explains that the words were meant as "a hint to him [Bilaam]. 'You seek to uproot a nation that observes the three festivals each year'" was the message. Problem is, while this does explain the reference somewhat, it doesn't satifactorily identify why this specific aspect of the Jewish nation is referred to. After all, Jews have many unique characteristics; why not refer to our observance of Shabbat, Brit Milah, heck, even our big noses! What's so special about the Three Foot Festivals that they are specifically referred to here? Moreover, the Gur Aryeh notes that while the regular פעם and its plural form of פעמים appear over 100 times over the course of the Torah, this word "רגלים" appears just four times in the Torah: three times here and once more in Exodus when referring to the festivals themselves. Clearly, there is a connection, but what is it exactly?

The Sfat Emet asks exactly this question, and posits an answer that I find particularly brilliant and illuminating. His explanation is that these three festivals were a form of testimony that the land of Israel was part of the Jewish heritage, and that it was the place where the Bet Hamikdash would stand. (He sources this from a verse in D'varim: " שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר--בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם. - Three times in a year shall all your males appear before Hashem your God in the place that He shall choose; on the festival of Matzot, and on the festival of Shavuot, and on the festival of Sukkot; and they shall not appear before Hashem empty." ~Deuteronomy 16:16)

The curse that Balak was trying to place on the Bnei Yisrael, through his messenger Bilaam, was to remove them from their deserved inheritance of the land of Israel. This actually makes a lot of sense with the text; earlier, Balak complains about that the Jews have "covered the eye of the land" (Numbers 22:5). Clearly, someone doesn't want the Jews to settle down in this particular spot.

Now that we understand what this fear was, and why this particular mitzvah of observing the three foot festivals was referenced, the Sfat Emet goes on to reveal an aspect of the blessing that Bilaam is forced into bestowing upon the Jews. This is the part of the Dvar Torah I most like. Famously, Bilaam pronounces, " כִּי-מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב. מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב, וּמִסְפָּר אֶת-רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים, וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ - For from the top of the rocks I see it, and from the hills I view it: Behold! it is a people that will dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned amongst the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered a quarter of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like his!" (Numbers 23: 9-10) This blessing is amongst the most notable in the Torah, and so I never really paused to consider the way it is phrased. The Sfat Emet, though, remarks upon the words "Who has counted the dust of Jacob." Upon consideration, I think we may agree that the word dust seems rather unusual. The answer the Sfat Emet gives is that this is another link, (Midah k'neged Midah, I might add) to the land of Israel. For just as Bilaam went out to deprive the Bnei Yisrael of their right to the land of Israel, he ultimately only goes to underscore it. As the Sfat Emet explains, the word dust here refers to the land itself and all the MItzvot that the Bnei Yisrael were given that could only be observed fully upon the land of Israel.

I think we might find this passage highly relevant to our times. In an age where there is an ongoing campaign to deprive the Jewish nation of their right to their homeland, it is important that we remember where we got this right from. Not from the League of Nations vote in November 1947, neither from our winning the War of Independence. No, the real reason why the Jewish people deserve to live in the land of Israel is because it is ours; an eternal heritage and our home. We would do well to remember this and that the source of our claim is biblical, no less. If we can remember this, stick to it and observe the Torah, the day will surely come when our claim to this land will be recognised by all. Amen!

This Dvar Torah was written in memory of Shaul Avraham Eliezer ben Shmuel Aryeh Leib, the father of a friend of mine who passed away this week. Kindly feel free to devote your learning in his memory, too.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Parshat Chukat - פרשת חוקת

"אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת: עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ - Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well; sing to it"
(במדבר כא:יז)

I have an exam in about an hour, and as it's been a hectic last week of semester, I haven't had too much spare time this week to prepare a D'var Torah. Nevertheless, I do have a quick parsha thought I'd like to share with you. (Even if it's the same one as I wrote last year.)

In the quote above, we read how Am Yisrael sing of the "Be'er Miriam," the well that accompanied them during their travails in the desert and from which water miraculously flowed. While it seems reasonable enough to mention and praise this incredible phenomenon, a question begs to be asked; why is it only now that Am Yisrael recognise the blessing of this well? After all, they had been in the desert for many years - shouldn't they have made their gratefulness known earlier?

To understand this difficulty, we have to look at the situation in it's proper context. The generation who suddenly found themselves (quite literally) singing the well's praises had never fully appreciated what a blessing this Be'er was. This particular generation had been born in the desert. As such, to them, a rock that rolled around of its own volition and produced drinking water (in huge quantities) was of no great consequence. To them, it was no more miraculous than a rainfall or a sunrise.

When Hashem punished Am Yisrael for speaking against him a few verses earlier in the Parsha, the B'nei Yisrael finally understood what a miracle this well was. Until this time, they had never appreciated Hashem's benevolence and it was only when this blessing (which they had always had) was taken away that they grasped it's goodness and their dependence on Hashem.

Part of their punishment was that "הנחשים השרפים," "the poisonous snakes" that lived in the desert, were sent after B'nei Yisrael, and consequently bit and killed many Jews. In classic fashion, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes with precision the phrasing of the verse, and highlights the letter ה - which means "the". Rav Hirsch teaches that the presence of the definite article here indicates that these snakes were not any old snakes. Rather, these snakes were already in the desert; they had always been there, even though Am Yisrael had not encountered them in their desert travels thus far.

Rav Hirsch teaches that we should understand that these snakes were kept away from the B'nei Yisrael in an act of kindness by Hashem. However, because they had shown themselves to be unappreciative of the kindness of the Be'er, Hashem punished them with the snakes so that they would appreciate all that Hashem had done to prevent them from experiencing hardship.

There is a vital lesson that we must learn from this incident. We cannot only be thankful for that which we are blessed with, rather we must appreciate all that we are not burdened with. Here we learn that the snakes had always been in the desert and only by Hashem's grace were the B'nei Yisrael spared being bitten by them. The B'nei Yisrael grew accustomed to the miracles that Hashem had done for them. The moment Hashem stopped sustaining these miracles, it became abundantly clear just how much we are dependent on his love and good will for us.

I'd like to credit Ezra Javasky for teaching me this D'var Torah last year. It's a lovely insight and I thank him for sharing it with me.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Parshat Korach - פרשת קרח

"וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב-לָכֶם כִּי כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים, וּבְתוֹכָם יְהוָה; וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ, עַל-קְהַל יְהוָה - And they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon, and said to them: 'You take too much upon you, for all the congregation, all are holy, and Hashem is amongst it, why wherefore should you lift up yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?' "
(במדבר ט"ז:ג)

The verse above is taken from the opening scene of this week's Parsha, in which Korach instigates a (doomed) rebellion against Moshe. Korach acted as if his intentions were pure, but really his desires and motivations were far from selfless; a close reading of the text with the commentaries reveals that he really wanted fame, recognition and honour.

One of the main issues Korach raises in order to provoke Moshe is that of Moshe's role as leader of Am Yisrael. For example, one of the questions that Korach asks is "If an article of clothing is made entirely of t'chelet, (a certain blue/purple colouring that is used for dying the 8th string of the tzitzit,) would there then be any need to have an additional string attached to this garment, one that would be dyed in the same colour? Surely if the entire garment is holy, argues Korach, there should be no need for an extra string to render the garment as holy; surely it's holy enough already.

The question seems fair enough, but the question wasn't really what Korach was asking. By asking this question of Moshe, he was making a point about the relevancy of Moshe's leadership. In the verse above, the same thing happens, and if anything, Korach's criticism is even more explicit. Here, Korach notes that the people are all holy, and that he sees no need for Moshe to raise himself above a nation of holy people. Just like his question regarding tzitzit, Korach asks sharp questions of Moshe's right to lead.

As it turned out, Korach was proved wrong. (And on more than one level.) The problem with his approach can be seen already from the beginning of his criticism. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has an insight into Korach's words which reveal the extent of the flaw in his thinking. In the verse above, Korach deliberately switches the subject of his sentence from at first speaking about the nation as a whole, to then speaking about the people individually before reverting back to the nation as a single entity. "For all the congregation, all are holy, and Hashem is amongst it," he says. Why the switch to the people as individuals?

I would like to tender an answer of my own. We already know that Korach placed too much value on his own pride, his own honour. He clearly valued his own individuality. Here, Korach wanted to make a point to Moshe that if all the nation were holy people (which, for the sake of this argument, I will assume to be true), then a leader above them would be redundant. What he didn't understand was that in his attacking questions lay the flaw in his thinking. He asked Moshe a question about tzitzit. But what is the answer to his question? Actually, it is that such a garment, one comprised entirely of t'chelet, still needs the special t'chelet string! The reason is that despite the undoubted holiness of each of the composite parts, there is still a need for a binding force between them. Returning to the question of the relevance of a leader over a nation made up of holy people, we must answer that a leader is still required. When the Jewish nation stand as one and act as one, our unity is so strong that we can achieve incredible things. But when we are taken as individual parts, the flaws in each of us begin to show. It is not that those flaws weren't there before, but when people come together they help mask one another's failings.

Korach was undoubtedly right that the each person within the entire nation was holy in their own right. What he didn't understand was that despite this, if they were not part of a collective, their imbalances and imperfections would be allowed to get out of control. When people work together though, and under common guidance from a recognised authority, people are able to correct their mistakes and learn from one another. If we can't do that, we too will be doomed to failure. Let us learn the lesson from Korach and only live together in unity and Shalom.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, June 07, 2010

How to Start a Blood Libel in Four Easy Steps

This is a guest post by Yedidya Kennard.


This is important. This is the story that you will have to stick to till the end, no matter what. It helps if part of the story is already well known - not true, but well known. For example, if your target is known to be an agressor, whether he is or isn't, this saves you a lot of work. For this reason it is important to keep a running campaign of libels, making all of them easily accepted.

The setting for your story is important. Boats are good, they bring to mind sun, beaches, deck chairs etc. If you can make it look like your target is bringing violence to a peaceful place, its always good. Of course, if your target is an army, you have an added advantage - soldiers are always associated with violence.

Try to link words with yourself that are associated with non-violence, that way even if you clearly are shown to be violent people will still be more inclined to believe you. Words like 'humanitarian' are good. Try and create a name for yourself involving words like 'freedom' or similar. It doesnt have to be relevant or true in any way, but if you can make it stick in the media they won't change it, no matter how clearly it is wrong.


It is important to be seen to lose. People like an underdog. Most people won't care who started or what happened; the main thing is the result. It may seem strange, but here you only win if you are seen to lose. After that, nothing else is really important. Also important is equipment, again you want to be seen here as the underdog. Words again are key. 'Guns' sounds bad, 'sticks' sound like a playground fight - even if you can kill people with them. 'Slingshots' are great too, remember, they are effective, they were once the long range weapon of choice, but now they sound like toys. Even knives and broken bottles sound harmless when put against guns. If you have to provoke at long range then you can still use this - call your rockets 'homemade' and all people will see is Grandma baking cookies. Harmless.


Speed is key here. Once the story is out there it won't stop being out there. Remember, journalists need stuff to report all the time, so if you get your story out there even 2 or 3 hours before the target gets his version out, you have a massive advantage. Journalists wont check if your story is true or not, as long as it is said by someone, they can report it. Once it is out there and there is no response from the other side, it becomes accepted as fact. It is far harder to change a story, or to challenge an established narrative, than it is to start one.


This is perhaps the most difficult and most critical part. Once the other side get their act together they will of course challenge your account, and may even have evidence to back themselves up. What you have to understand here is that evidence is irrelevant. A story, however obviously wrong, will never die. However, some skill is needed to keep it as the mainstream version of events. You need to be able to lie with a straight face, despite the evidence against being right in front of you. You can practise this by looking at the sky and declaring 'The sky is green!". Once you can say this and even believe it, try to make other people believe it.

Remember, someone out there already believes your story; he will want to keep on believing it instead of seeing it being proven wrong. Help him - if he sees someone else denying the evidence, then it's easier for him to do so as well.

A great tactic to use here is emotive language. Put evidence against emotion, emotion always wins. Words again are key. If your side is seen using violence, call it 'passive resistance', it sounds good even if it's wrong. It has the word 'resistance' in it so it sounds plausible. If you can say it enough times, instead of seeing your person stabbing someone, all the viewer will see is an old wisened man in a loincloth. Also, if your words stick, then anyone challenging them is seen to be obviously changing the accepted version of events, which is very hard to do.

That's it! It all comes down to the words, whether they have any bearing on reality at all is totally irrelevant. Get your story out first, get the media to accept your words and the story will run and run. Of course, if you have a media and a population for some other reason ready to accept your version, so much the better! Always remember, the truth is irrelevant, it's the Story that counts.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Parshat Sh'lach Lecha - פרשת שלך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה זֶּה אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-פִּי יְהוָה; וְהִוא, לֹא תִצְלָח - And Moshe said: 'Why is it that you transgress the commandment of Hashem? It shall not succeed!
(במדבר י"ד:מ"א)

The verse above comes at the end of the story of the Meraglim, the "spies" who were sent to scout out the land of Israel prior to what was supposed to be Israel's entry. Unfortunately, the spies' report was highly critical and negative. Because the spies spoke badly about the land of Israel (or according to some explanations, because they saw bad in Israel,) the people of that generation were reprimanded and punished by being told that they wouldn't be given the merit to enter the land of Israel.

In an attempt to correct their earlier error, some of the Jews then declared that they would push forward into the land of Israel regardless. It is at this point that Moshe warns them, above. Immediately afterwards, we read of how this plan was doomed to fail with shocking consequences; those who went to enter the land were met by forces from the Amalek and Canaan armies, and were thoroughly annihilated.

I'd like to take a close look at the wording of the verse above. If we pay attention to Moshe's warning, he words his statement in an odd way; he doesn't say "you will not succeed," rather he phrases it as "it will not succeed." What is the it that he is referring to? The answer is actually fairly obvious, and the Ibn Ezra makes no time in explaining that "it" was the action of making aliyah, of going into Israel. "It" was the plan to do this, and this "it" would not succeed.

But we've only gone halfway to answering the question; now we know what the it was referring to, but we still don't know why Moshe referred to the plan as liable to fail rather than telling the people that they would fail. By changing the subject of his sentence, it seems unncessarily clunky. I'd like to tender an answer I thought of myself: Moshe refused to criticise the people. He saw that they had good intentions and wanted to correct their earlier error. He realised that there was no point in telling them off for their hearts were true, even if their actions were off. I am not yet a parent and am not really in a place to direct people how to raise their own children, but I've heard it said that one must never say "stupid boy" or "bad girl", but rather must explain to the child in question that their actions were bad or lacked being thought through. The child is almost always good, even if the action isn't. In a similar manner, Moshe make sure to tell the nation that their actions would not succeed.

I'd like to relate this to current affairs. Benjamin Netanyahu spoke earlier this week of the hypocrisy of the world's leaders. He was absolutely correct. He asked how they would have reacted when faced with terrorists and supporters of terrorists. The world leadership and media have been quick to condemn Israel and declare it an illegal, immoral and apartheid state. Not many have thought through their stance and declared that they would like to have seen things done differently, and then explained how a better plan should have been formed. Israel is surrounded by shocking hypocrisy. But it remains up to us to ignore such inane criticism and try to conduct ourselves to the highest moral standard possible.

This week's Dvar Torah is dedicated to the soldiers injured in the operation against the flotilla terrorists*. May they heal quickly and may they not be discouraged from their holy cause of protecting the people of Israel.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

*They were injured by gunshot wounds, stabbings and being beaten. I think I can safely call these people terrorists.