Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan – Marriage and the State of Creation

I prepared a derashah in case I was asked to speak at my shabbat chatan. In the end I did not give it, but I wrote it up and present it here for public consumption and critique.

 

Derashah L’Shabbat Chatan

The relationship between Man and Woman first arises in the second chapter of Sefer Bereishit (2:20-24). In order to rectify the first man’s state of being alone and without a partner, the man is put to sleep and a woman is formed using one of his ribs. The man then declares, “This one at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from Man she was taken,” (2:23). Man and woman have now been created as distinct entities, but due to their inherent sameness, they can, and must, join together to create new lives, both for themselves together and for their children. While the beauty and power of these statements cannot be overstated, they beg the question of why Man and woman were not simply initially created together from the same source material. It seems an oddity that suddenly in the middle of the rest of the process of Creation ‘א essentially had to go back and change his previous design. However, as we shall see, Rabbinic thought did not see this as an oddity, but rather as a paradigm for much of creation, and a brief look at several midrashim will demonstrate that this paradigm, rather than just being a particular way to read the Torah, is actually an approach of great depth regarding the nature of existence.

The first time the midrashim note that maybe creation did not go quite according to ‘א’s original plan is what might be called “The Sin of the Earth.” In Bereishit 1:11, on the Third day of Creation, ‘א commanded that the earth should bring forth “fruit-bearing trees of fruit.” However, in the actual creation moment in verse 11, the earth simply brings forth “fruit-bearing trees.” The midrash[1] leaps upon this deviation and declares that, originally, the tree would have been just as edible as its fruit but the earth failed to produce such trees. Rashi, ad loc., goes so far as to describe this as the earth “sinning,” and says that this is why the ground is punished in the sin of Adam and Chava in Bereishit chapter 3.

A similar and perhaps even more extreme deviation is found in the midrashic understanding of the Fourth day of Creation. Bereishit 1:16 says, “א made the two great lights, the Greater Light to rule the day, and the Lesser Light to rule the night and the stars.” In the first half of the verse, the two lights are described as equally great, whereas in the latter half the Sun and the Moon are differentiated as “greater” and “lesser” respectively. Noting this distinction, the Gemara[2] says that originally the Sun and the Moon were equal in size and brightness. The gemara describes the Moon speaking before the Creator of the Universe, and asking, “Can two kings wear one crown?” essentially questioning the status quo wherein it and the Sun were equal. To this, the Master of the Universe replies, “Go and Diminish yourself.” The Moon, noting that ‘א did not actually deny the validity of its question, responds, “I spoke correctly, and now I must diminish myself?” to which ‘א responds, “Go and rule the night.” Essentially, this midrash states that any and all differentiation between the Sun and the Moon is purely a function of the temerity of the Moon in questioning ‘א’s plan. Originally there would simply have been two equal lights at all times.

While the query of the moon that leads to the lessening of its stature is not explicitly called a “sin”, one might be tempted to think of it as such. However, the approach of the Gemara[3] diverges radically from such an idea. Instead of blaming the Moon, the midrash puts the blame on ‘א. “Bring atonement upon me, for I diminished the Moon!” cries ‘א in the midrash. The Chatat offering brought on Rosh Chodesh is described in Bamidbar 28:15: “And these shall be one goat as a sin offering to ‘א, , to be offered in addition to the regular Olah offering and its pouring.” This Chatat is unique in being referred to as “to ‘א” and Resh Lakish, based on the ambiguity of the Hebrew prefix “ל-” that could mean “to” or “for”, understands this as being a sin-offering brought to atone for ‘א’s sin in diminishing the Moon. Thus, this departure from the original plan is great in that it cannot simply be punished, as with the Sin of the Earth, but must be actively atoned for.

Returning to Creation of Man, the midrash in Bereishit Rabbah sees this very paradigm in the tension between the first two chapters of Bereishit, expanding on and emphasizing the ideas inherent in the text. Whereas Bereishit 2 describes the creation of Man and Woman as two chronologically separate acts, Bereishit 1 describes them as happening at the same time. “And ‘א created Man in His image, in the Image of ‘א He created him; Male and Female He created them.” (1:27). This would seem to contradict the chronological process described in Bereishit 2, but instead, the midrash[4] sees the two depictions as two parts of a larger chronological process. “R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman says, ‘When ‘א created Man He created him with two faces.” According to R’ Shmuel Bar Nahman, Man and Woman were originally created as one entity, composed of the two of them fused back to back. Then, when it says in Bereishit 2 that ‘א took the man’s rib and made the woman from it, it really means that He removed her from man’s side and fashioned her as a distinct entity. In this conception, Bereishit 2:24, “Therefore man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh,” is not simply enabled by man and woman’s inherent sameness, but is in fact a return to their original state of existence. As opposed to the Sin of the Earth, which was punished, and the Sin of the Diminishing of the Moon, for which an atonement is made by man, the splitting of Man and Woman can actually be rectified. When man and woman take their places side by side and build a life together, they restore the original plan of creation.

This paradigm of breaking and repairing creation is what is known in Kabbalistic literature as the process of Shevirah and Tikkun, wherein the original creation is broken, and then the creation repairs itself. The creation must re-create itself, and in doing so, not only does the Creation become Creator[5], it also gains the ability to build and develop on its original structure[6]. The joining of a husband and wife in marriage is part of this process. In the midrashic depiction of Day Six, Man and Woman are one fused entity. After they are split in Bereishit 2:21-22, they are two distinct entities, and, though they “cling to each other,” they remain separate entities. As such, they exist in a relationship, and have the ability to work together and improve each other. Marriage is not simply a new stage in the lives of the newlywed husband and wife; marriage is a part of the process of building and rebuilding Creation.

 

[1] בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת בראשית פרשה ה סימן ט

[2] תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף ס עמוד ב

[3] Ibid.

[4] בראשית רבה ח:א

[5] ראי״ה קוק, אורות הקודש ב׳ עמ׳ תקכז

[6] רב שג״ר, כלים שבורים, ״ערכים ואמונה בעידן בפוסט-מודרני״

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Parashat Balak 5774 – The Unmoved Mover vs. The Dynamic Relationship

לֹא אִישׁ אֵ’ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם

Parashat Balak describes Bnei Yisrael’s unknowing encounter with Balak, Midian’s new king (Bamidbar 22:4), and his countryman (22:5) Bilaam, a sorcerer of some repute. Balak asks Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, and, although he is initially forbidden by ‘א to do so (22:12), Bilaam goes. Three times they set up 7 altars and offer 7 rams and 7 cows, one on each, and then Bilaam receives a message from ‘א to present to Balak. While the first two times he desires to curse Bnei Yisrael, and instead blesses them, the third time he realizes that he has no option but to bless them, and does so intentionally. Despite this initial intention, Bilaam consistently states throughout the story that he will only be able to say and do that which ‘א tells him (22:18, 38; 23:3, 12, 26; 24:14). He is very clear that he himself cannot curse the people, but can only pronounce ‘א’s cursing them. Seeing as ‘א had already said that Bilaam “shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (22:12), it seems odd that he would try and curse them anyway. It is only after ‘א clearly states that He will not be changing His mind[1] (23:19) that Bilaam embraces his destiny to bless Bnei Yisrael (24:1).
It is not entirely surprising that Bilaam would have initially thought that ‘א’s mind could be changed. After all, in Bamidbar 22:12 ‘א tells him explicitly that he may not go and curse Bnei Yisrael, and then in 22:20 ‘א rather ambiguously states that Bilaam may go. Moreover, Tanakh depicts ‘א changing his mind pretty severely before the flood: “And the Lord regretted (וַיִּנָּחֶם) that He had made man on the earth, and He grieved in His heart,” (Bereishit 6:6). ‘א saw that mankind had become incredibly evil, and regretted their creation. This would seem to imply that ‘א might change His mind. However, in Bilaam’s second divinely-inspired speech to Balak, he explicitly contradicts this idea: “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of[2] man, that He should regret (וְיִתְנֶחָם),” (Bamidbar 23:19). These two verses, using the exact same word, directly contradict each other.
The resolution might be found in looking at what exactly Bilaam did that he thought would change ‘א’s mind. When preparing each of the three times to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam had Balak erect 7 altars and bring a cow and a ram on each. When Bilaam comes before ‘א the first time, he says, “I have prepared the seven altars, and I have offered up a bullock and a ram on every altar,” (23:4). The seven altars are not random. For whatever reason, perhaps due the importance of the number 7 in both Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern thought, Bilaam thinks that these 7 sets of altars and offerings will influence ‘א’s intent. The second thing Bilaam does to change ‘א’s mind is change location. The first attempt is from Bamot-Baal (22:41), the second is from the Field of Tsophim, at the top of Pisgah (23:)14, and the third attempt is from the top of Peor (23:28). These methods are based on the pagan conception of the Divine, wherein the gods are subject to magical energy derived from the meta-divine realm, where the gods themselves get their power[3]. This is what ‘א is specifically rejecting in His statement that He “is not a man, that He should lie, nor the son of man, that He should regret.”[4]
By contrast, ‘א elsewhere seems not only to suggest but to declare outright that His intent can be influenced by mankind’s actions.

At one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to uproot and to break down, and to destroy it; But if that nation turns from their evil, because of which I have spoken against it, I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the evil that I thought to do to it. And at one instant I may speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; but if it does evil in My sight, that it does not listen to My voice, then I repent (וְנִחַמְתִּי) of the good, with which I said I would benefit it. (Yirmiyahu 18:7-10)

‘א explicitly states that His decrees can be changed by man’s actions. However, it’s not a matter of incantations or offerings that creates this change. Instead it’s a matter of doing good versus doing evil.
‘א is not the “unmoved mover” of the philosophers. The Tanakh makes it very clear that ‘א is in a living and dynamic relationship with all of mankind in general, and with Bnei Yisrael in particular[5]. This means that the actions of mankind matter to Him, as these actions do not exist in a vacuum. However, He cares specifically about certain kinds of actions, those of ethics and morality, Torah and Mitzvot. This message comes across loud and clear throughout the words of Moshe and the prophets[6]. Man is not insignificant. Man is perhaps of the greatest significance. Man’s position at the end of the process of creation is meant to indicate the greatness of which man is capable. However, man is created on the same day as the animals to demonstrate that man can also sink to the level of the animals with great ease. With this great power comes ultimate responsibility. ‘א’s concern with us and our action obligates us to understand the great weight of our actions. Our actions are so important and powerful that they have the ability to influence even ‘א. But not through reciting meaningless incantations or performing magic rituals. It is the ethical life of man, lived in the framework of Torah and Mitzvot, with which ‘א fully concerns Himself.

[1] It’s difficult to reconcile the more philosophical, unchanging, way we think about ‘א with His depiction in Tanakh, but it is possible. However, that is beyond the scope of this essay, and for the purpose of the essay we will assume that, at the very least, the Tanakh does depict ‘א as changing.

[2] The “X, => Son of X” formula is a common form of emphasis in Tanakh. See Meir Weiss, The Bible from Within, “Neither a Prophet not the Son of a Prophet Am I”.

[3] Yehezkal Kaufmann, “The Religion of Israel”.

[4] This statement, verse 23:19, falls in the middle of Bilaam’s second speech to Balak. While he does still change location before the third speech, verse 23:28, he then realizes that he can’t change ‘א’s mind and that he might as well bless the people intentionally, verse 24:1.

[5] Bnei Yisrael have a specific, “covenantal” relationship with ‘א, a phrase with very important connotations, but beyond the scope of this essay.

[6] See Isaiah Chapter 1, for example.

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet”

“Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”

 

“Blessed is the True Judge.” “Blessed is the Judge of Truth.” “Blessed is the Judge [whose judgements are] True.”

 

This is a phrase we use to express sorrow and compassion at the loss of a human being. It means that on some level, we know there is a judge, and all is not chaos and randomness, even while we mourn. However, that’s not all it means. “Emet” is not a simple idea.

 

“Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create man, the ministering angels were divided into camps and factions. Some said, “Let Him create man;” others said, “Let Him not create man.” This corresponds to the verse: “Kindness and truth met; justice and peace came together” (Tehillim 85:11): Kindness said: “Let God create man, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth said, “Let Him not create man, for he will be full of deceit.” Justice said, “Let Him create man, for he will perform righteousness;” peace said, “Let Him not create him, for he will be full of divisiveness. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth, and cast it to the ground, as it says, “Truth will sprout from the earth.” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1)

 

Emet, with a capital “T”, transcends human existence, and the two are not compatible. When we say, “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” we are stating that what has occurred is not something that makes sense according to the logic of our existence. Something has happened we feel is not explainable, justifiable. We are not saying that it is ok because there is a plan, even if it beyond us. We are saying that we rage and we cry because we do not understand, because something has happened that it would be immoral to simply comprehend.

 

And finally, we are saying that when we cry and rage, when we mourn and fall apart, our voices do not simply echo into the void. There is a Judge who listens.

 

Parashat Hukat – Reasons and Messages

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

Parashat Hukat is chock-full of interesting narratives. It includes several skirmishes with other nations (Bamidbar 21), the deaths of Miriam and Aharon (20), and a cryptic mention of a godly well in “B’Er” (21:16-18).  Perhaps the most well known of these stories is that of the sin of Aharon and Moshe. After Miriam’s death (20:1), Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon to complain about a lack of water (20:2-5), and ‘א commands Moshe and Aharon to bring water forth from a rock for the people (20:7-8). Moshe and Aharon seem to fulfill the command, but the reader is suddenly informed that they have actually failed to live up to ‘א’s expectations in this situation, when Moshe and Aharon receive a sharp reprimand.

“And the Lord said to Moshe and Aharon: ‘Since you did not trust[1] in Me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them,” (20:12).

On a first read through, this punishment seems to come out of nowhere, as the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake is not at all clear. This has prompted commentators throughout the Jewish tradition to reread the passage with great attention to detail, finding all sorts of subtle clues, which point them toward the exact nature of the misdeed.

Quoting the Sifrei, Rashi notes that where ‘א had instructed Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock, when carrying out his command they instead struck the rock. Rambam rejects this and instead argues that Moshe’s sin was in becoming angry with the people. Ibn Ezra states that the problem was that they hit the rock twice instead of just once, as pointed out in verse 11, demonstrating a lack of faith that striking the rock only once would work. Ramban comments that all the above voices are “adding meaningless statements to meaningless statements,” and instead argues that the issue was one of phrasing; Moshe and Aharon’s statements to the people suggested that it was they, and not ‘א, who would bring forth water from the rock. Abarbanel quotes these and six other reasons mentioned by various commentators, including an opinion from the gemara that Moshe and Aharon actually did not sin, before settling on the one he thinks is correct. Topping Abarbanel’s ten, Shadal[2] quotes thirteen different opinions regarding the nature of Aharon and Moshe’s mistake. The number of opinions regarding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s mistake has increased over time, not lessened, clouding the true meaning of the text.

Shadal, in his comments on the passage, remarked that, “Moshe Rabbeinu only sinned one sin, but the commentators burdened upon him 13 sins and more, for each one invented of his own heart a new sin.” The only evidence the text gives of a mistake on the parts of Moshe and Aharon is the rebuke they receive for it. Once the existence of the mistake has been stated, the reader then has to go back and try and piece together what that mistake might have been from errant clues and seemingly extraneous parts of the text. The only thing that is clear from the text is that the text is unclear. ‘א’s statement in 20:12 that Moshe and Aharon did not trust Him and therefore did not make Him holy in the eyes of the people is confusingly followed by the words of 20:13, “These are the waters of Merivah, where the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was made holy with them.” Not only is the nature of the misdeed Aharon and Moshe committed unclear, what effect it might have had is also unclear. The one thing that the text conveys clearly is Moshe and Aharon failed to properly trust in ‘א, and that was the cause of the problem

A comparison can be drawn to a similarly unclear text in the story of Akeidat Yitschak (Bereishit 22:1-19). The biblical text goes beyond its normal silence regarding the persons and places involved, into true silence regarding the nature of this “test”[3] and its taker. Consequently, the range of opinions regarding the actual nature of the test have differed greatly. Rambam, making it a test of tension between ‘א’s will and man’s, says that the command to Avraham came through and absolutely clear prophecy, and that Avraham had merely to follow through with it. The somewhat antinomian Mei HaShiloah says the opposite, that the actual nature of the test was to follow an unclear and questionable prophecy. The debate about the nature of the test is so great that commentators can’t even agree as to whether or not Avraham passed. The Meshekh Hokhmah[4], basing himself on Rashi’s comments on 22:2, actually says that Avraham failed in this test, and many thinkers have since followed in his footsteps. Throughout all of these opinions, however, one thing has remained clear: “Now I know that you revere ‘א” is a positive statement, and is the foundation of the promises to Avraham that follow (Bereishit 22:15-18). The exact nature of the test isn’t nearly as important as the proof of Avraham’s reverence for ‘א. All the more so by the sin of Aharon and Moshe, where the lack of clarity is so much greater, what is important is not exactly what they did that was wrong, but that they did it due to a lack of trust in ‘א.

Moshe and Aharon were put in a tough situation, where it would be difficult for a person to know quite what to do. They even had the benefit of ‘א’s direct guidance, and they still acted incorrectly. Today we are often put in such situations, where the correct path is not clear, and we lack the aid of prophecy to show us the way. As such, the lack of clarity in the text of Bamidbar 20 is not stymying but enervating. It is the same lack of clarity that we face in our everyday lives. While we do not face the same difficulties as the great leaders of generations past, we are posed the same challenge. We can act out of trust in ‘א or we can fail to do so. When the horizon seems darkest we do not know which path to take, but trying to live up to this responsibility, trying to let our actions flow from total trust in ‘א, can be the light that guides our way.

 

[1] Throughout this composition, the hebrew word “אמונה”, generally translated as “faith” or “belief”, has been translated instead as “trust”, which more accurately reflects its meaning in Tanakh, and early Jewish usage.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadal

[3] It’s worth noting that Rashbam says “And ‘א tested Avraham,” 22:1, should actually be understood as “And ‘א punished Avraham.”

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meir_Simcha_of_Dvinsk

 

Parashat Korach – Leadership and Equality

כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים

Parashat Korah opens with sudden drama, as Korah and 250 other leaders of Bnei Yisrael gather against Moshe and Aharon in open rebellion. Korah and his followers challenge Moshe and Aharon’s authority and right to rule over Bnei Yisrael, on the basis of the fact that “כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים,” the entire congregation [of Israel] is holy. What is most interesting about this is that it doesn’t seem to be incorrect. In fact, it’s very reminiscent of Moshe’s comment from Bamidbar 11:29,  “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” “would that all ‘א’s People were prophets.” Moshe seems to agree with Korah in his statement regarding the quality of the people. In his response to Korah, he specifically doesn’t reject Korah’s statement that the people are holy. “Come morning, ‘א will show who are His, and who is holy, and who may come near to Him; and he whom He will choose He will bring near to Him” (Bamidbar 16:5). Moshe opens by saying that ‘א will show who is holy, but then when describing the process actually occurring, he leaves that part out. Moshe seems to agree with Korah, which means that the rather harsh manner in which Moshe responds to his accusations requires an explanation. Upon inspection however, the explanation can actually be found within the extendedly harsh rebuke. Starting with a seemingly redundant second speech, Moshe begins a series of rebukes which detail the specific problems in Korah’s claim.

Korah starts his speech by saying, “רַב-לָכֶם,” “It is too much for you [Moshe and Aharon]!” (16:3). Moshe turns this exact language around on him at the end of his first rebuke, saying, “רַב-לָכֶם, בְּנֵי לֵוִי,” It is too much for you, Sons of Levi!” (16:7). Moshe builds on this by inverting the accusation in his second rebuke. “הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל,” “Is it too little for you, that ‘א has distinguished you from the Congregation of Israel?” (16:9). Korah and (some of) his followers were from the tribe of Levi, and, as such, had already been designated for distinction in Bnei Yisrael, yet they’re treating this as if it is nothing. They’re acting as if Moshe and Aharon are the only ones with special jobs, and by implication they are denigrating their status and duty as Levi’im. Moshe is asserting that although his and Aharon’s jobs are more unique, they are not more important, and that saying they are is actually belittling ‘א’s designation of the Levi’im. In line with his statement from 11:29, “וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים,” Moshe thinks that all of Bnei Yisrael are important and holy. Unlike Korah, he doesn’t think this is dependent on the jobs they are given.

Korah’s fatal assumption, that the job of an Israelite is what makes them special, and that unique duties preclude equality, is addressed by a popular midrash,[2] quoted in Rashi’s comments in Bamidbar 16:1 (s.v. And Dathan.).

He dressed them with cloaks made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moses and asked him, “Does a cloak made entirely of blue wool require fringes, or is it exempt?” He replied, “ It does require [fringes].” They began laughing at him [saying], “Is it possible that a cloak of another [colored] material, one string of blue wool exempts it [from the obligation of tekheleth], and this one, which is made entirely of blue wool, should not exempt itself?[2]

In the midrash, Korah argues that the equality of all of the strings throughout the garment ought to eliminate the need for special strings on the corners. Similarly, the holiness of all of Israel ought to obviate the need for certain more distinguished leading individuals.

Korah does not respond to Moshe’s accusations, but his possible response, that he, not Moshe and Aharon, should be in charge of the nation of Israel, is dealt with by Moshe in his speech regarding the deaths of Dathan and Aviram. “Hereby you shall know that ‘א has sent me to do all these works… If these men die the common death of all men… then ‘א has not sent me.” Moshe and Aharon’s leadership is not a function of their innate status, nor could it be, for the entire congregation is holy, rather it is a matter of being chosen by ‘א, being assigned a duty by God. The midrash picks up on this as well, as Moshe’s response, cut off by Rashi, is that the tekhelet strings on the corners of the garments are needed by virtue of being commanded by ‘א. So too, the leadership of Moshe and Aharon is necessary by virtue of being commanded by ‘א.

Equality is part of the basic ideology of the Torah. All people are created in the Image of God (Bereishit 1:26; Seforno Ad loc.). Despite this, differentiation in duties is a necessary fact of life, of trying to form a nation. There must be those who lead the nation and those who perform the services. Therefore, ‘א commanded as such. That does not mean that anyone is innately better than anyone else. The same holds true today, after we have lost the Temple and any form of national leadership. We’re all equal, but we’re all different, and that’s a good thing. ‘א created everyone for a specific purpose, and differentiated us in order to enable us to fulfill those purposes. No one person is better or more important than any other. We’re all part of a greater picture, and all important within it.[3]

 

[1] Bamidbar Rabbah 18:3; Midrash Tanhuma, Korah, 2.

[2] Translation from http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?aid=45591&p=1&showrashi=true, with slight emendations for clarity.

[3] This conception of the nature of individuals in a society also has important ramifications for the way we think of our socio-political models. People tend to point to the emphasis the Torah places on taking care of the underprivileged as proof that the Torah supports liberal/socialist/communist political thought. However, while there are specific contradicting sources, this also runs contrary to the basic debate of the Korah and Moshe. Korah’s argument that all of Bnei Yisrael are holy and thus should be able to serve in the Mishkan lends itself to easy comparison with the liberal point of view, where all people ought to be given all opportunities. This emphasis on the whole as opposed to the individual when it comes to evaluation is classical liberalism. However, as demonstrated above, Moshe does not line up with what’s normally thought of as Conservative/capitalist political-thought. Rather, Moshe’s position really falls somewhere in the middle, emphasizing both the individual and the whole (for more on this, see Rav Jonathan Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference).

Parashat Shelah – Fear Not, For God is With Us

וַי-הוָה אִתָּנוּ אַל-תִּירָאֻם

 

Parashat Shelah is composed in large part of the narrative known as Het HaMeraglim, or “The Sin of the Spies”. Twelve men, one from each tribe, are sent to scout out the land and to assess its military and social appropriateness.[1] They come back with not simply an objective report as to the nature of the land, but also with cries of danger and warning about trying to conquer it.

“And the men that went up with him said: ‘We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.’ And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out to the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that consumes the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”[2] (Bamidbar 13:31-33)

Two of their own, Yehoshua and Calev, objected:

“And they spoke unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord favors us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord, neither should you fear the people of the land; for they are our prey; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” (Bamidbar 14:7-9)

As all twelve men presumably saw the same things, the difference of opinion requires explanation. A quick look at the above-quoted passages reveals something striking: the negative report makes no mention of ‘א, as opposed to the three direct mentions in the positive one. The notable theme in the words of Calev and Yehoshua, that “the Lord is with us,” is conspicuously absent in the words of the other ten spies. This explains their negativity, as they clearly don’t believe ‘א’s statement, “I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries,” (Shemot 23:22). The question this leaves us with is why?

 

Why do the spies assume that ‘א will not help them conquer the land, despite His statements to the contrary? It seems at first to be a question without an answer – the spies were just delusional. An analysis of Shemot 23:20-25 will show that, in fact, the spies had some basis for their suspicions.

“Behold, I send an angel before you, to keep you by the way, and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Take heed of him, and listen to his voice; do not rebel against him; for he will not pardon your transgression; for My name is in him. But if you will indeed listen to his voice, and do all that I say; then I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries. For My angel shall go before you, and bring you in to the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their doings; but you shall utterly overthrow them, and break their pillars into pieces. And you shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread, and your water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of you.”

Looking at this passage in its entirety shows that ‘א’s aid in helping Bnei Yisrael conquer the land is conditional. It requires the people to follow ‘א’s laws, or He will not help them. This is reinforced by the many times that Bnei Yisrael suffered at the hand of ‘א due to transgressing against His Will during their travels in the wilderness. One such event happened only slightly before the story of the spies in Bamibar 11 & 12. Therefore, the real doubt of the spies is not whether or not ‘א will remain in the people’s midst as they enter the land, but whether or not the people will be able to keep Him there. The spies believe that Bnei Yisrael will inevitably fail, and then disaster will strike.[3]

 

With that in mind, the debate, with Yehoshua and Calev on one side and the rest of the spies on the other, should be reframed as a debate over the potential success or failure of Kelal Yisrael. The spies feel that Bnei Yisrael are doomed to fail, while Calev and Yehoshua believe that ‘א is, and will remain, in the midst of the people. This debate leads to the fate of the “Ma’apilim”[4] in 14:40-45 and to the mitzvah of Tsitsit, which appears in 15:37-41. The Ma’apilim fail because they leave ‘א’s Presence behind. “The ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, did not move from the camp,” (Bamidbar 14:44). The mitzvah of Tsitsit is intricately tied into the Sin of the Spies, both linguistically and thematically[5], and furthermore, it comes to remedy their mistaken view, as a brief analysis will show.

 

Tsitsit are, among other things, a constant reminder of the Priestly nature of Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 19:6).[6] Tekhelet is a symbol of the Priesthood, as is Shaatnez. Both are included in the Tsitsit. The Tsitsit are a visual reminder that each member of Bnei Yisrael is commanded to wear each day, that all of Bnei Yisrael have the status of Kohanim, those who work in the Mishkan. Thus, Tsitsit are a constant reminder of ‘א’s presence in the midst of Bnei Yisrael. The Mishkan was the location and reminder of ‘א’s Presence, and the Tsitsit remind Bnei Yisrael that each and every member of the nation is connected to it.

 

The spies assumed that, due to their performance in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael would not be able to sustain ‘א’s Presence amongst them. Yehoshua and Calev disagreed. Right afterward, the Torah comes and gives us the mitzvah of Tsitsit to confirm the opinion of Calev and Yehoshua. The only time ‘א’s Presence leaves Bnei Yisrael is when they consciously abandon it, as in the case of the Ma’apilim. This is something that remains a problem in the modern world. ‘א is constantly with us. The only time he is not in our midsts in when we doubt His presence and therefore choose to walk away from it. We retain the same doubts about our abilities to maintain our relationship with ‘א, and these doubts often lead to our isolation. Tsitsit is connected to this parasha to remind us that ‘א is already in a relationship with us. As long as we don’t walk away, we can count on Him to remain and fight support us in all of our battles.

 

[1] Notably, the men are at no time referred to as “meraglim” in this passage (they are in the parallel in Devarim), nor is their mission specifically military. By way of contrast, see Sefer Yehoshua 1-2.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with slight emendations for clarity.

[3] Rav Menachem Leibtag, http://tanach.org/bamidbar/shlach/shlachs1.html

[4] For some very interesting related-reading: http://www.scribd.com/doc/163171820/Maapilim.

[5] For more on the connection, see this article by Rav Amnon Bazak: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.64/37shelach.htm.

[6] Ideas in this paragraph are taken from Jacob Milgrom, “Of Hems and Tassels,” https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzQYdQcngakSdTVaVlhScl9PSXM/edit?usp=sharing.

 

Parashat BeHa’alotkha 5774 – Moshe’s Leadership

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְ-הוָה נְבִיאִים

Parashat BeHa’alotkha bridges the end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay at Har Sinai to the beginning of their journey to the Plains of Moab and the land of Israel. Trouble begins immediately, as Moshe faces challenges to his leadership on all levels, from “each person at the entrance to their tent” (Bamidbar 11:10), to his own family (Bamidbar 12). These challenges are part of a larger string of narratives in Sefer Bamidbar dealing with issues of Equality and Leadership. The stories found at the end of Parashat BeHa’alotkha, in Bamidbar 11 & 12, discuss these issues in context of Moshe’s Leadership specifically, and in doing so, highlight the very foundation of biblical social structure, and the very nature of prophecy.

Bamidbar 11 opens with the complaints of the people, and Moshe’s reaction to the people. Moshe goes to the people and professes his inability to bear their weight (11:10-15). ‘א responds by validating Moshe’s concerns. Moshe says that he cannot lead alone (11:14), and ‘א responds by appointing 70 elders to lead alongside him (11:16). These 70 elders are gathered with Moshe to the Mishkan and ‘א overflows Moshe’s Spirit on to them, and they prophesy (11:17).[1] The problem that this raises is that if they are sharing in the prophetic spirit of Moshe, then Moshe’s hitherto unquestioned status as Leader of the Nation, not to mention Greatest of the Prophets, suddenly becomes shaky. The obvious solution for this dilemma, that Moshe is the one in charge of the bestowal of Prophecy on the Elders, and therefore he remains in charge, is made problematic by the existence of Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad decide not to come to the Mishkan, and yet despite this, they prophesy anyway, in the camp (11:26). These two prophets are outside the framework established by Moshe, and thus represent a direct challenge to his leadership.

This problem is addressed by Yehoshua, who calls upon Moshe to silence Medad and Eldad (11:28). Moshe’s response is somewhat astounding. “And Moses said to him: ‘Are thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”[2] (11:29). With this simple response, Moshe tells Yehoshua that he should not be concerned for Moshe’s sake. In Moshe’s eyes, the ideal would be that all of Bnei Yisrael would be prophets, if not for the fact that ‘א had clearly chosen only him to be the prophetic leader of the nation. Moshe doesn’t see himself as inherently special. Rather, anyone could receive this level of prophecy and leadership, if only ‘א would bestow it upon them.

The final story of Parashat BeHa’alotkha is one of the more difficult stories to deal with in the Torah. Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, challenge both his spousal choice (12:1), and his right to lead (12:2).  “And they said: ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not also spoken with us?” If ‘א spoke equally to all of them, then by what right could Moshe claim to lead? It would certainly be possible to answer that Moshe was simply better, naturally more fit to lead, but instead ‘א answers that their premise was wrong. While they saw their prophecy was being equal to Moshe’s, in fact it was not.

“And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he beholds the depiction of the Lord; Therefore why are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (12:6-8)

Moshe’s leadership is not a function of a greater innate stature than others, but rather of superior prophecy. Moreover, it’s not what moshe can do that makes him the leader, but the manner in which ‘א comes to him that does so.

Sefer Bamidbar has to confront the issues inherent in the growth of a nation. After receiving the majority of their laws at the foot of Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael begin to travel toward the land of Israel. In Israel, they will face all of the challenges involved in the running of a society, and the roots of those issues are here in Sefer Bamidbar. The primary issue of the first few books of Nevi’im is that of Leadership: who is fit to lead, how do they relate to those being led, etc. In Sefer Bamidbar, the leader in question is Moshe. How does he relate to the rest of Bnei Yisrael? Is he a part of them, or separate? Both? These questions get raised forcefully and directly, and the answer comes in kind. Moshe isn’t inherently better or different than the people, he has simply been chosen by ‘א for a specific purpose. Anyone could be chosen. In fact, Moshe seems to like the idea of everyone being chosen, as he is. That, however, is not his choice to make. What makes Israelite prophecy unique is the fact that the prophets of Tanakh are messengers sent by ‘א for a specific purpose.[3] Our purpose is not for us to decide, it comes from ‘א. It was ‘א who chose Moshe to be a prophet and the leader of the nation. It is ‘א who chooses the purpose of each person. It’s our job to remember that. We should not take an apparently superior purpose as a sign that we are inherently better than anyone else, but rather we should take time to recall, as Moshe did, that all peoples are great, and each person is imbued with divine purpose.

[1] Prophesy as an indicator of appointment to Civil Office is not unheard of in Tanakh. See Shemuel Alef 10:9-13.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.