Friday, July 29, 2011

Parshat Massei - פרשת מסעי

"אלה מסעי בני ישראל, אשר יצאו מארץ מצרים לצבאתם, ביד משה ואהרן. - These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the land of Egypt by their legions under the hand of Moshe and Aharon."
(במדבר, לג:א)

This week's Parsha is the final installment of the book of Bamidbar. In it, we have read of the Jewish people's travails in the desert on their way to the Holy Land. Before going on to describe the land of Israel and appropriate it to the various tribes, Parshat Massei serves as a reminder of the numerous treks and journeys that the Jews completed on their way.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin writes in Azanim LaTorah about Hashem's intention in compelling Am Yisrael to make these arduous, energy-sapping expeditions. Typically, the answer to this question is that because the people sought to return to Egypt after listening to the smears spread by the spies, they were "sentenced" to 40 years of exile in the wilderness. But this seems strange, though. First of all, weren't the Jews taken out of exile? What would the point be of taking them out of slavery in one place, only to have them broken in another? The real answer lies elsewhere.

Rashi's commentary gives us our first hint. Citing Rav Tanchuma, he explains that Hashem's actions vis-a-vis the Jewish people were akin to the act of a King sending his ill son far away so that the son can be cured. On the way back, the father counts his sons journeys. "Here we slept", "here we felt cold", "here you had a headache" and so on.

Still, this doesn't quite explain what the process of traveling was intended to do. If it wasn't simply a punishment, what was it? Rav Sorotzkin posits an answer: the generation who left Egypt were on the lowest spiritual level possible. For these people to suddenly become observant was very difficult. These people had lived a very unspiritual life and it wasn't possible for them to learn and adjust overnight. Hashem, therefore, devised a specific way of preparing them for life in Israel.

Normally, the process of reward and punishment is delayed. Reward is delayed so that we may enjoy it in the next world, where reward is eternal. Punishment, however, is typically suspended for a different reason - so that we may have a chance to mend our ways. But in the desert, the process was sped up. Open miracles occurred, as was the case with Miriam's well, the Clouds (and Fires) of Glory that accompanied the people on their way, and countless other amazing phenomena. And, in stark juxtaposition, punishment was much closer than usual, too. When the people sinned, they were not given much time, if at all, as the followers of Korach and the generation of the spies found out. All this contributed to a remarkable period in which Hashem personally trained the Jewish people for their new lives.

So these were the "Masa'ot" of the Jews. Less journeys or punishments than training missions, the served as the ultimate preparation. Later in the Parsha we read of how the land was to be divided between the tribes. Hopefully our generation too can find comfort that while we are going through many trials, we shall soon be able to live peacefully in this land once again.

(Sourced from the Yalkut Lekach Tov)

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Parshiot Matot and Masei - פרשיות מטות ומסעי

"וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה יהוה. And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes, to the B'nei Yisrael saying, this is the word that Hashem commands."
~Numbers 30:2

Normally I'd write about that which Moshe goes on to say but instead I'd like to discuss the manner in which Moshe speaks here.

The Sfat Emet raises precisely this issue, noting that Moshe uses the opening statement "זה הדבר," as opposed to the word "כה," which is frequently employed by lesser prophets. The former phrase suggests a level of accuracy that the latter lacks - it roughly means, "This is exactly that which was said."

With this in mind, the Sfat Emet asks a question - why are some of Moshe's prophecies introduced with the word "כה?" The answer is simple but spectacular - that there are things in this world which cannot truly be understood or grasped. We can talk our way around these issues with analogies, allusions and the like, but our understanding will only ever be imprecise at best. We learn that one of the Rambam's 13 principles of faith is to believe that Moshe was Hashem's greatest prophet, a prophet who was far more highly receptive of God's will than any other man. And yet even Moshe, who had the ability to relate his prophecies with absolute precision, could sometimes not address the people with the words, "זה הדבר."

So what is this realm that we cannot really understand? The Sfat Emet explains that it is the "Olam HaZeh." (The World we live in, as opposed to the afterlife.) At first glance, this might seem a little odd; after all, don't we live in "Olam HaZeh," wouldn't the affairs of this world be things that we grasp? Wouldn't goings-on of the spiritual realm of the world to come, the "Olam Haba"; wouldn't they be more likely to be inaccessable to us?

On reading the words closely, we can understand the concept better. The word "Olam," of "Olam Hazeh," is linked to the word "Ne'elam," meaning hidden. The first word of the phrase, "Hazeh," serves to indicate something very specific - something that can be quantified and related to. When we say "Zeh" in Hebrew, or "this" in English, we typically refer to something that is a known quantity. If we put this two words together, we arrive at a contradiction; which world are we living in? Is it a hidden world or a revealed world? Is everything clear to us, or is it all hidden away?

It would seem that the Sfat Emet is subtly teaching that this world has two parallel aspects. It isn't one or the other, but rather a composite of these two elements. There are times when everything seems clear, moments when we can say "Zeh HaDavar." But equally, even to the greatest and wisest minds, there are moments that can only be referred to as a moment when we only partially understand what's happening - a moment that is best defined by "Koh."

In Kabbalah thought, man is referred to as an "Olam Katan," a little world. I think we may see a parallel here, too. Every person has moments where they think that they know themselves inside out. But then we learn something new about ourselves. Nobody knows us like we do ourselves, but even we can be surprised by ourselves if we look and listen carefully enough. I think we may take this experience and apply it to the world at large. Many times I personally have caught myself thinking that I know a lot, only for me to be humbled and find out that my knowledge is actually relatively insignificant and sadly incomplete. It is up to us to learn how to deal with moments such as this; do we act arrogantly and defy what we are learning, or do we take a step back and admit to ourselves that we have much to learn? It's a terrible thing to be stuck in the same mindset and never to budge, even after hearing of a valid disproof to your ideas. I only hope that we can all grow and adapt to whatever new knowledge we may learn in life.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom :)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Parshat Pinchas - פרשת פינחס

"Therefore say - Behold, I shall give to him my covenant: peace - לכן אמר הנני נותן לו את-בריתי שלום"
(Bamidbar 25:12)

In this week's Parsha, we read of how Zimri ben Salu, a Nasi of the tribe of Shimon, slept with a Midianite woman, Cozbi bat Tzur. Pinchas, furious with their illicit relationship, slaughtered them together simultaneously with his spear. In this context, it is interesting to read of Hashem's instruction to Moshe - to bless Pinchas with a Brit Shalom (a peace covenant). After such a violent episode it certainly does seems fitting for Pinchas to be blessed with peace, but is there anything else going on beneath the surface, another dimension to this blessing that we may explore?

In Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's chumash, the commentary on this part of the Parsha details how Hashem "places the responsibilty for the realisation of the supreme harmony of peace on precisely those who individuals whose actions a thoughtless world, anxious to mask its passivity and negligence as 'love of peace,' would brand and condemn as 'disturbances of the peace.'" Whereas the act of killing Zimri and Cozbi might seem horrifying, and understandbly so, we must understand that when an action is required, we must be ready to peform our duties without a moment's hesitation.

I believe that there's a pertinent message to be learned from this episode. Unfortunately, many times Israel has been forced to act in a strong way in order to defend itself. Consequently Israel comes under a hail of criticism for her actions, even if the actions were the right ones. All kinds of "logical" arguments are thrown at the Jewish nation, each with the aim of persuading us from ceasing to defend ourselves. The concept of pacifism is something entirely laudable, but when other nations tell the Jews to be pacifists in the face of terrorism the concept becomes laughable. Unfortunately, there are elements of Jewish and Israeli society who are convinced that if only Israel were to stop defending herself would there be peace and the Arabs would live in peace with us.

Pinchas' blessing of peace was entirely fitting as it was proof that he had acted in the right way. If he had taken a half measure, he would have compromised on his values and not acted out of total fear and love for God. The relevant psukim specifically mention Zimri's and Cozbi's familiy background - if Pinchas had any level of fear for anything other than God, he would have been too scared to act the way he did. We must understand that while we cannot go about killing people carte blanche (this was a special case and not the norm) we must always be ready to act on behalf of Hashem and for this to be true, we must be at peace with our relationship towards Hashem. The truth of the matter is that anyone who fights against that which is injust and immoral, no matter what the world thinks or what is deemed politically correct, is a champion of true peace. Conversely, anyone who cedes ground to an opposition that is in conflict with God is an enemy of peace. It makes no sense to make concessions to an enemy who is in direct conflict with God and for this reason, it is exactly because of Pinchas' dedication and commitment to Hashem that he deserved the blessing of peace.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, July 08, 2011

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

The last words of the passage above, "שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים," are understood to mean three times. Literally, however, the combination of words means "three feet". This phrase is known in Judaism to refer to the three "foot" festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. (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 the 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. The 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? And why should Bilaam care?!

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!

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 01, 2011

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)

In the passage 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 a friend, Ezra Javasky, for teaching me this D'var Torah when we were in Yeshiva together. It's a lovely insight and I thank him for sharing it with me.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.