Mattot: Silence is assent

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation, while still in her father’s house by reason of her youth; and her father learns of her vow, or her self-imposed obligation, and her father remains silent, then all her vows shall stand, and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day that he hears; not one of her vows, or of her self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father restrained her. (B’midbar 30: 4-6)

The guests around the table
are savoring the meal
raising crystal glasses
amid good-natured talk.
When a sudden lull is countered
with a denigrating joke
targeting a group of others:
women, elders, homeless, gays –
or those of different origin
(there is no dearth of candidates) –
I might sit there uncomfortably
and hold my laughter back
yet if I swallow my response
and do not say a word
then by my very reticence
I signify assent.

Most of the opening chapter of Parashat Mattot is devoted to the annulment of vows made by women. The verses cited above are frequently described as reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband (see a previous post from 2014 and thus as having less relevance in modern society. However, it is edifying to leave aside momentarily the seemingly antiquated aspects and examine the details.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2002,, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that the Torah insists that the father or husband acts (either endorses or annuls) as soon as he hears of the oath. If he delays, he can do nothing. Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why the man cannot make a decision to get involved later. He says, “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved.” He notes that the Talmud [Yevamot 88a] teaches that “shetika ke’hoda’ah – silence is like assent.” Once the father (or husband) knows what the woman has sworn, he himself is a party to that oath. Unless he voices his disapproval immediately, thus nullifying her words, his silence makes him an accomplice in her vow.
Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Silence is assent. How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading of political oppression in our newspapers – all of these instances summon us to choose a side. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or – through our silence – we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”
He continues, describing injustices in our own societies: the increase in homeless people; higher unemployment rates among minorities; lower rates of literacy among less affluent children leading to a poverty cycle; ongoing bias against women who are less well-paid then their male counterparts; prejudice and bigotry resulting in violence against gays. Rabbi Shavit Artson adds “This ought to be a time of profound embarrassment to religious people.” He contends that far from partnering God in maintaining the world justly and compassionately, we often turn our backs on the welfare of others. He says “How do we participate in these evils? By not opposing them in public, we allow our silence to speak instead of our words and our deeds.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betsalel the Maharal of Prague (born between 1512 and 1526 – 1609) “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments “In the midst of the dark ages of his time, the Maharal understood that his obligation as a being in covenant with God was to represent God’s light and God’s passion, despite the powerful forces mustered in opposition.
“In the midst of the current dark age, we too need to remember our eternal calling – to sanctify God in the midst of the people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, pursuing peace and identifying with the weak, we move from silence to eloquence. We provide God with hands and a voice. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

In his commentary from 2005 on the same issue,, Rabbi Barry Leff notes that the Talmud has an entire tractate devoted to the laws of vows. He adds that the medieval Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (c.1475 – 1550) teaches “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done.”
Rabbi Leff adds that when we are forbidden (in the Ten Commandments) to bear false witness against our neighbor, the rabbis understand this to include bearing false witness by not speaking up. He says, “For example, under Jewish law, you need two witnesses to be prosecuted for a crime. If there is one witness, and you stand next to that witness, making it look like you are a witness with him, when you are not, you have borne false witness – you have tried to make someone believe something that is not true with your silence, by just standing there. And you would be considered guilty of violating this commandment.”
In the episode at the end of Parashat Baha’alotcha (B’midbar 12: 1-16) we learn that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of “the Kushite woman” [a reference to his wife Tsiporah]. The text says “Vatedaber Miriam ve’Aharon which literally means “Miriam spoke, and Aaron” or possibly “Miriam spoke with Aaron”. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089 – c.1167) picking up on the feminine singular conjugation of the verb “to speak”, teaches that Miriam speaks while Aaron says nothing. Thus God, we learn, is incensed and reprimands them both. (Miriam is then stricken with leprosy, Aaron appeals to Moses who then prays for Miriam to be healed. After a seven day exclusion from the camp, she is readmitted and the people continue journeying.)

Finally in a commentary from 2011,, Rabbi Laura Geller describes an email sent to her, among other people on a list of email addressees.
“I recently received an e-mail with the subject line “The Arab Mentality.” It described a Palestinian woman who had been badly burned and successfully treated in Israel, only to be arrested later for attempting to infiltrate Israel’s borders as a suicide bomber…
“As I often do when I receive e-mails like this, I consulted with the Anti-Defamation League to see if the story was true, and indeed it was. The author of the article was a medical doctor in Israel. What the article didn’t mention is that he is also a member of Moledet, a right-wing Israeli political party with an agenda. The labeling of this posting “The Arab Mentality” is like an anti-Semite titling a posting about Bernie Madoff “The Jewish Mentality.”
“I get a lot of e-mails like this — e-mails describing situations, sometimes true and often not true, that malign Arabs and Muslims as a group. I’m never sure how to respond. The easiest thing to do is to simply delete them. But this was sent by a congregant, a thoughtful person, engaged and passionate about Israel, a person I admire. And if I just deleted the message, what was I saying by my silence? Other congregants were on the same list; they knew I had seen it, too.”
Rabbi Geller continues that what she learned from Parashat Mattot partly fueled her decision to respond. She too notes that the veto by the woman’s father or husband has to be on the same day that he hears. She cites the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law 67:11] which says “He can only cancel the vow within the day he heard it. That is, if he heard the vow at the beginning of the evening, he may cancel it all night and the entire following day. If he heard it close to the time that the stars appear, he can cancel it only until the stars appear. Beyond that time he cannot cancel it. …”
She too cites the Talmud’s injunction “silence is like assent.” She continues “Once you know what the promise is, if you don’t speak up, it is as though you are also responsible for it. Once you know what is going on, if you don’t speak up, you are also responsible. Someone forwards a derogatory e-mail that tarnishes all Arabs and I delete it? “Silence is consent.””
Rabbi Geller quotes the Talmud “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household from sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b).
Rabbi Geller concludes, “So maybe I can’t prevent the whole world from sin, or my community or even my family. But still I am accountable if I do nothing.
“So I responded: “I am not sure that sharing e-mails like this is necessarily helpful in the ongoing discussion of what is best for Israel. You may be interested to know that the author is not an apolitical medical doctor. He is a former member of Moledet and now in the National Union — a right-wing party in the Knesset. While the story appears to be true, he wants people to know the story in order to support a particular political position. This is a not a story about the ‘Arab mentality’ in general. It is rather the story of a particular Arab woman.
“This week’s Torah portion asks us to be careful about what we say, the vows and promises we make. And it also demands of us to be careful about what we don’t say, because “silence is consent.” ”


Pinchas: A broken peace

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'” (B’midbar 25:10-13)

You come, you say, on God’s behalf:
your eyes ablaze with ardor,
your hand raised up to kill;
with spear (or knife or gun or bomb)
to extirpate the infidel;
to mete out justice to the faithless
and purge all evil from the world.
You think you know this is God’s will. But

the mandate that you execute
is perilously flawed
and peace will never blossom
upon a broken stem.

Last week’s parasha ends as the Israelites are lured into debauchery and idolatry and God becomes incensed. He instructs Moses to kill (impale) the ringleaders. Then an Israelite tribesman takes a Midianite woman into the chamber near the Sanctuary to engage in sexual relations with her, and Pinchas, the priestly grandson of Aaron, follows them in and impales both on a spear. The Torah is very clear: Pinchas has averted a worse disaster and the plague that has already claimed twenty four thousand people, is checked. This week’s parasha opens as God tells Moses “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned My anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for My honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making My covenant of peace with him.” (B’midbar 25:11 – 12)
So it seems that God approves Pinchas’s action and bestows a covenant of peace for him and for his descendants for all time. However the scribing of the text hints that Pinchas’s peace is imperfect. The Hebrew letter vav is comprised of a long vertical stem and a very short horizontal line at the top. However, in the Sefer Torah (the scroll), in the specific word shalom referring to the (covenant of) peace with which God endows Pinchas in this episode, the vertical stem of the letter vav has a break in it, the sort of defect which would normally render a Sefer Torah invalid.
In a commentary on parashat Pinchas,, Rabbi Arnold Eisen wonders what we are supposed to think about Pinchas and his action. He says there are many questions that this episode raises, of which three are particularly prominent for him:
“1. There seems something utterly primitive about the notion of an out-of-control God, grateful to Pinehas — as He was to Moses after the Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf — for finding a means to assuage His anger and stave off a national disaster that might have ended the Jewish story once and for all.
“2. Pinehas’s “passion” (or “zealotry”) is explicitly related to God’s in verse 10: “bekan’o et kin’ati.” The Torah seems to be saying that one can imitate God not only through acts of justice and mercy, creation and redemption, but in hot anger, violence, and slaughter. This is not the Judaism I have been taught, but there it is — or seems to be — in black and white.
“3. The entire passage reeks of violence. Moses has commanded killing. God destroys many thousands through plague. Immediately after the story about Pinehas, we are told that (v. 16) “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Assail the Midianites’ ” — the tribe to which Moses’s wife and father-in-law belong — ” ‘and defeat them, for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you [in the] affair of Peor.’ ” Pinehas is caught up in this violence. He is not an instigator or an outlier, but an exemplar.”
Rabbi Eisen continues, “Of all the problems the Torah places before a contemporary reader committed to walking in its path, following its guidance, and trying to ensure that “all its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” these incidents at the heart of the book of Numbers seem to be among the very hardest.” He notes that the Torah moves on very fast with other subjects, but he relates that he cannot turn away quite so quickly. “I am, I confess, both riveted and repelled by the image of his spear. My fealty to Torah requires me to face up to its challenges; my gratitude to Torah stems in part from what I learn from such challenges. That is the case here. I want to understand what I can learn from the very difficult passage, in which God apparently blesses Pinehas for resorting to vigilante justice.” As Rabbi Eisen acknowledges, he is far from the first Jew to question the text and cites the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS (which he thinks maybe exaggerates the case somewhat) in saying “most postbiblical commentators . . . tend to be uncomfortable with [his] zealous vigilantism” (918), but concedes that it is true that “the Talmud goes out of its way to show that Pinehas’s deed fulfilled rather than violated the law. If one “cohabits with a heathen, he is punished by zealots.” No trial is needed. Pinehas knew that law and complied. Taking the matter one step further, “R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so . . . What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinehas slain him, Pinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]. (Sanhedrin 81b-82a)
So Rabbi Eisen comments “The Rabbis knew that the law is not helped when people take it into their own hands. God would not, in their view, have rewarded lawless behavior. We have seen again in recent days what follows when vigilantes engage in revenge killings of innocents. Violence can quickly spiral out of control.” (Rabbi Eisen wrote this in 2014.)
Rabbi Eisen adds that Hasidic commentators bring a connection between our nature and God’s, and they suggest that Pinchas was able somehow to bridge between the Divine and the human, and was thus rewarded with a covenant of shelemut or wholeness. But, he continues, this idea somewhat idealizes Pinchas and his zealotry. “We would bridle, I think, if someone did the same for Crusaders or jihadists. But there is sadly something true to experience in the linkage of faith to fanaticism, and of loyalty to God to righteous anger at acts of perceived betrayal. The Torah frequently depicts God too as subject to such anger. God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously pointed out, is the very opposite of an “unmoved Mover,” Aristotle’s description of God. The biblical God cares immensely about us, practices mercy, and renders judgment. God’s nature, as it were, makes God unable to abide among Israelites who practice idolatry.” Rabbi Eisen notes, though, that being human, we get angry at times, yet our anger rarely brings about a good outcome. “Being passionate in the service of God carries with it the danger that one will find good reasons for indulging in fanaticism and even committing violence in God’s name. We know this all too well from recent headlines. And because humans are prone to violence, further violence is often required in order to stop violence, or stave off worse violence. As the Rabbis taught, the rigor of law is essential to the practice of mercy. Pinehas may well have prevented national disaster by taking the step he did. The Israelite mob, unchastened by the disaster of Korah’s rebellion, may have been on the verge of rampage. The threat to the people’s well-being, if so, was not divine plague but human anarchy.”

In another commentary on the parasha, also from 2014,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz also addresses the enigma of why Pinchas’s vigilante-style act was rewarded with the divine covenant of peace. He cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“Pinhas asserted My Rights and made them respected among the people, and thereby saved the whole nation from destruction into which they would irrevocably have fallen had I been forced to assert My Rights Myself. If a challenge to God finds no champion among a circle of human beings and the consciousness of the Rights which God has on them has disappeared from this circle, then they have lost God, and thereby their own future existence. And this must be the case especially in the Jewish circle of human beings, Israel, whose whole human historical existence rests on the word “li,” “[they belong] to me,” with which God has called Israel “His possession” and thereby dedicated every member of it to be “His” in every phase of its existence, and for all eternity makes this Right of Possession valid. Israel is either “God’s” or it ceases to exist. One such single man, Pinhas, and one such single manly deed become the savior of the entire nation.” (Commentary on Numbers, 432)
Rabbi Berkowitz endorses Rabbi Hirsch for emphasizing the measure of Pinchas’s loyalty to and sympathy for God, which lend a little more clarity and understanding regarding his grave act. He also acknowledges the value of Rabbi Hirsch’s insistence that we need to be in a partnership with God. Rabbi Berkowitz says, “…it is not enough for humans to sense the divine emotion, but they must also act in constructive ways. There must be a true striving to become a divine people. Given these reflections, the modern reader succeeds in making some sense of Pinehas’s fundamentalism.” Yet he contends that the narrative remains problematic, “An act of unbridled religious fundamentalism not only carries the day, but seems to be rewarded.” But he continues, ” Then again, perhaps the unique reward serves as a remedy: a “covenant of peace” must temper Pinehas’s zealousness, and “an everlasting priesthood” devoted to the disciplined service of God must be the channel through which Pinehas and his descendants distill their energies. Parashat Pinehas forces us to pause and reflect on the role of religious passion and its destructive as well as constructive consequences.”

In a further commentary from 2012,, Rabbi Marc Wolf notes that commentators have wondered why difficult episode of Pinchas is split between the two successive parashot read last week and this. He suggests one possible reason: “…in splitting the story, we are afforded some distance from the violence, so that when we read God’s gracious response and blessing of Pinhas and his descendants, it does not sit in as stark a contrast with the bloody beginning of the narrative.”
Rabbi Wolf, too, is uncomfortable with the seeming endorsement in the text of Pinchas’s brutal act, and furthermore wonders how to understand the reward of the “brit shalom – the covenant of peace.”
He cites the assortment of suggestions put forward in the Etz Hayim commentary, ranging from God’s promise of protection from retaliation by the clan of the Israelite Pinchas killed, to the assertion in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah that through this brit shalom Pinchas was granted immortality.
However, Rabbi Wolf is most taken with the commentary of the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, who he says, “helps me to walk the line between my discomfort with the action in question and the reward that is granted”. He notes that the Slonimer focuses here on understanding the “shalom” component in the brit shalom. He relates that the Slonimer opens by comparing the aftermath of the current incident at Ba’al Peor, in which Pinchas saved the entire people (24,000 died in the plague) whereas after the Golden Calf episode 3,000 died. So this was an extremely serious transgression.
Rabbi Wolf says, “The Slonimer reads incredible significance into shalom — beginning by stating with biblical proof texts that peace is the mission of the world, and the point of the entire Torah. If we take a short step back with him, we find that shalom surfaces as a fundamental idea in Judaism. The ‘Amidah that we recite three times daily ends with shalom; the priestly blessing ends with shalom. The Slonimer goes so far as to say that all of creation, everything physical and spiritual, hinges on this concept of shalom that God gave as a gift to Pinhas. But for the Slonimer, shalom is much deeper than the existence of peace or the absence of conflict.”*
He continues that the Slonimer connects peace (SHaLoM) with wholeness (SHeLeiMut), and he “sees all of humanity in a struggle for wholeness. We can all be doing everything we should in life, fulfilling our personal mission, and doing good in the world, but there can still be an internal struggle with sh’leimut…what the Slonimer recognized was that an individual can be doing what is right and good in the eyes of God, but still not be achieving wholeness. Our outward actions can, and often do, tell a very different story from our internal dialogue. The personal physical, emotional, and intellectual struggles that we negotiate on a daily basis frequently stay buried deep within ourselves. To achieve wholeness, true sh’leimut, we must find a way to make peace with our internal drives.”
Rabbi Wolf turns back to the parasha, saying we can perhaps see God’s covenant of peace a little differently, and yet with our modern eyes, it is still hard to read of violence being approved in the name of religious belief. But, he says, after the “intermission” between the two parashot, we see the outcome. God has understood that a brit shalom is needed because because the violence, though mandated, has undermined the unity among the people. Rabbi Wolf suggests “It is not only in the eyes of God that Pinhas needs shalom. It is among the rest of the Children of Israel, and within himself. We do not hear how his action affected his later life and relationships; we can only hope that he did find some means to achieve sh’leimut.”
He concludes, “Rabbinic Judaism could not let the story of Pinhas stand as an example for religious fervor. In a wonderful piece of Talmud from Sanhedrin, when his fanaticism comes face to face with rabbinic courts, the Rabbis acknowledge the immorality, but declare, “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (82a).
“This kind of fanaticism and violence are overwhelmingly the dominant voices much of the world hears in the name of religion. However, we are inheritors of a tradition that understands that Judaism is a voice of moderation, and that religion guides us to be better humans, working to fulfill God’s will and to respect life. We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage done by extremism. We practice a Judaism that seeks sh’leimut in our relationship not only with God, but with each other and within ourselves.”

*The Slonimer authored a book called Netivot Shalom (Pathways of Peace).

Balak: Wherever you go

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like streams that flow…(B’midbar 24:5-6).

My name is mentioned,
whenever you heed
who you truly are,
I will come to you
and bless you:
in the tents
of your migrations
as in your lasting home,
for hidden streams
flow with you
and if you seek their crystal waters
your light will mirror Mine.

In Parashat Balak, we read about the eponymous king of Moab, who becomes alarmed at the Israelite victories so he summons the well-known prophet Bil’am to curse the people of Israel, in the hope of impeding their successful progress. God does not approve but finally acquiesces. En route, Bil’am is blind to an angel blocking his path, while his she-ass sees the heavenly messenger. The angel tells him to go with Balak’s emissaries but to say only the words God puts in his mouth. Balak accompanies Bil’am to three vantage points where they look down on the Israelite encampment. To Balak’s dismay, each time, Bil’am pronounces blessings rather than curses.
The next episode describes how the Israelites succumb to the charms of the daughters of Moab, and are enticed to worship the idol Ba’al Peor. God is incensed and tells Moses to have all the ringleaders publicly impaled. Just then an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman over to his friends in full view of everyone else and then takes her indoors. Pinchas follows them in and impales them both, ending the plague that was raging among the people.

In a commentary on Parashat Balak from 2014, Rabbi Mathew Berkowitz ponders the connection between the first part of the parasha in which Bil’am divines the beauty of the Israelite people and blesses them, and the last part in which the people follow their baser instincts and end up involved in an idolatrous cult which is anathema to all they have learned from their close encounters with God.
Rabbi Berkowitz cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888, Germany):
“The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only the nation itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and Torah. As Midrash Rabbah remarks, after the victorious battle against Sichon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable, enjoyable rest. The district was called ha-shittim (Micah 6:5). It was a wooded, shady region which offered very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert. Rabbinic commentary goes on to explain that wherever the term ha-am, the people, is used it is derogatory; whereas when the term Israel is used, it is praiseworthy. Thus, “the people became complainers” (Numbers 11:1), “the people spoke against God and Moses” (Numbers 21:5), “the people cried that night” (Numbers 14:1), and “how long will this people have no faith in me” (Numbers 14:11). And here too: “the people began to whore after the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1). They began to break away from the moral faithfulness which they observed up until this point.” (Commentary on Numbers, 426)
Rabbi Berkowitz comments that ultimately, it wasn’t the Moabite king, or the seer he employed to curse the Israelite people that brought about their downfall, it was the people themselves who discarded their connection with God and the Torah and its inherent values. Rabbi Berkowitz suggests also that the midrashic description of the people going astray only after they have settled down comfortably (in Shittim), might be teaching us “the importance of occupying ourselves with both profession and continued learning.” He concludes, “And finally, the midrashic distinction between ‘am and Israel is striking. For, in the moment we simply see ourselves as just another people, we open the door to illusion and abandon; we must always strive to be Israel, reflecting the best of God and Torah.”

In her commentary from 2011
Dr Rachel Anisfeld, too considers the juxtaposition of these two episodes in the parasha, wondering why there is not just a happy ending with Bil’am’s blessings. She notes the dissonance between the two stories. Bil’am’s blessings poetically describe Israel’s greatness: “a nation that dwells apart” whose “dwelling places are good”. The Rabbis interpret this as indicating a chaste lifestyle. However, the subsequent episode with Ba’al Pe’or reveals the opposite: the people are not “dwelling apart” but rather joining an immoral debauched cult. Dr Anisfeld notes, “The sense of contrast here is well captured by the name of the idol, Pe’or, a word related to the modern Hebrew word pa’ar, meaning “gap.” Ba’al Pe’or comes to teach us about a gap, the gap between ideal and reality.”
Dr Anisfeld suggests that the two episodes bring different perspectives of Israel. From Bil’am’s vantage point, she says, we have a prophecy, a vision from afar. She says he speaks from on high: “ki merosh tzurim er’enu – As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights.” (B’midbar 23:9) Dr Anisfeld says, “From this lofty view, one can see the people’s great potential and imagine their great future. The Ba’al Pe’or story, on the other hand, speaks of the nitty-gritty daily reality of the people, its earthly struggles with the basest of desires.”
She continues, “The Mount Sinai story tells of a similar dissonance between ideal and reality. A momentous lofty task is given to the people from on high at Mount Sinai, the destiny of achieving “holiness” through the path of the Torah. “I am your God; do not worship any aside from Me,” says God. Meanwhile, down below, at the bottom of the mountain, the people create a molten calf to worship, dancing and eating around their idol. The reality of the people’s concrete deeds forms a sharp contrast to God’s lofty expectations.”
Dr Anisfeld describes these two vistas, the first representing our “idealized potential and destiny, our inspiration, our goal” and the other “the reality of the struggle to put that potential into practice, to actualize the dream in the real world.” She notes that the Torah does not just present us with the dream, but gives us a blueprint to put it into practice. She concludes, “The Ba’al Pe’or story expresses for us the gap between Torah ideal and our lived reality–it highlights the difficulty of our task, the enormity of the bridge we need to construct between heaven and earth.

In a further commentary on Balak from 2011,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser focuses on the verse above, part of the blessing proclaimed by Bil’am, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” which he notes are the first words read by the congregation at every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov; mishkenotecha Yisrael“. These words are the opening of a piyyut (liturgical poem) which continues with verses from the book of Psalms:
As for me, through Your great love, I will enter into Your House. I prostrate myself before Your holy Temple in reverence to You.
O Lord, how I love the refuge of Your House, the place where Your glory dwells.
As for me, I will bow in worship, I will bend the knee before the Lord my maker.
As for me, may my prayer come to You Lord, at a time of favor; God, in Your great love, answer me faithfully with Your redemption
.” (Psalms 5:7; 26:8; 95:6; 69:14)

Reb Jeff notes, “Together, these verses form a poem about being in sacred space. We begin the morning service by reminding ourselves what it means to stand on the sacred ground of God’s House in worship.” But he wonders why that should be necessary. He says that if we are in the synagogue, which is a holy place where a Jewish community comes together to pray, why do we need to proclaim that we are standing in sacred space? He asks, “Aren’t we there already?” And he answers that in the Jewish view, holiness is dependent on intention – kavanah. “Without the right kavanah, a synagogue is nothing more than a fancy building with a closet at one end to store some old scrolls. The building does not become a synagogue until we enter the space with the intention to be in a synagogue.”
So Reb Jeff suggests that in reciting the verses beginning with “Mah Tovu” we aim to sanctify the space in which we stand.” He concludes “This is the secret of Mah Tovu. With a turn of the heart, we place ourselves in sacred space. We discover that we can spend our entire lives living in holiness just by having the intention to be aware of God’s presence.”

And finally, the Sefat Emet teaches that holiness follows Israel wherever they go, as it says: “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” (Shemot 20:21). The Sefat Emet links “…your dwelling places, O Israel,” to the Temple in the Holy Land, but he says that “…your tents, O Jacob,” refers to wherever Jacob dwells in his wanderings outside the Land. He interprets the following verse, “Like streams that flow…” as the wellsprings of Torah that flow with the people wherever they go.

In his book “The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger” Rabbi Arthur Green adds some historical background to this teaching: “Offered in 1896, the very year when Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State was published, the Sefat Emet here as elsewhere in these teachings is seeking to confirm a hasidic point of view on the Holy Land and the Jews’ relationship to it. Ger was in fact less opposed to Zionism than were many other hasidic groups, and a number of its followers were to settle in the Land of Israel between the two world wars. But this sermon makes it clear that while Israel and the land are indeed spiritually bound together, holiness is found in the temporary “tents” of Jacob in Poland and elsewhere as well as in the permanent “dwelling places” of Israel in Jerusalem or on the Temple Mount.”

As noted, the verse cited above, “em>How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…” opens the morning service. As such, it has engendered numerous musical settings. Here is a link to such a piece composed by Abraham Saqui (1824 – 1893).

Chukkat: Words not blows

The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?…There is not even water to drink!” …the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (B’midbar 20:2-11)

The rock is set before us
unmoving and unmoved.

We know that there is water,
a latent crystal stream
to quench our thirst
and tend all life
but it eludes us;
there are words to utter
soft and clear but
we have been before
in this same place
and in our pain
we shun the words;

we strike the rock
and only bitterness spills forth.

In this week’s parasha, Chukkat, we learn how the Israelites arrive in the wilderness of Zin, and Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh. There is no water and the people launch a fractious diatribe against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron seek out God’s presence and He instructs them to take the staff but to tell the rock to yield its water. Moses takes the rod, and assembles the people as commanded, but then he departs from instructions. He says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (B’midbar 20:10). Moses then strikes the rock twice. Water gushes forth to quell the thirst of man and beast. God then tells the brothers that because they failed to sanctify Him in front of the Israelites, they will not lead the people into the promised land. He adds that those waters that flowed forth were to be called “Mei Merivah – waters of Merivah” alluding to the people’s quarrel with God through which He affirmed His sanctity. Subsequently Aaron dies at Mount Hor and his son Elazar succeeds him.

This striking episode has generated enormous discussion among the commentators who wonder what exactly was Moses’ sin. Could it have been so heinous as to deny the fulfillment of his dream of leading this rebellious people that he has shepherded for so long, to their ultimate destination?

In the JPS Commentary: Numbers, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom says, “Down through the ages, the sin of Moses, as described in Numbers 20:1–13, has been regarded as one of the Gordian knots of the Bible: The punishment is clear, but what is the crime?” (448). Rabbi Milgrom classifies 10 major interpretations suggested through the ages into three categories: striking the rock rather than speaking to it; displaying unworthy character traits given his leadership status; speaking inappropriately to the people.

It is noteworthy that this incident occurs in the fortieth and final year of wandering, before entry to the promised land. The older generation has died. This is the new generation (plus the tribe of Levi, and Joshua and Calev). We read “The community was without water…”(B’midbar 20:2). If we look back to Shemot 17:4, shortly after the miraculous crossing of the sea, we encounter the people’s first complaint of thirst. This was way before God’s decree that the Children of Israel would delay their entry to the land. So these two episodes are bookends of sorts around the forty-year odyssey through the wilderness.

In a commentary from 2009,, in which she too ponders why Moses was denied entry to the land, Dr Deborah Miller suggests that when Moses calls the people “rebels” in the later incident, it is  “as though he is saying to himself, “They are just like their parents! Always quarreling!” In fact, they are a new generation, and by reverting to an action that was appropriate forty years earlier, and not now, Moses shows that he is not the person to bring them into the Land.” Moses seems unable to alter his entrenched way of relating to the people who themselves are actually different. This has implications on both a personal and a national level.

In a commentary from 2014,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz notes that in the earlier story, Moses does, indeed strike the rock, which implies that his error in this week’s parashah must be something other than “hitting” the rock. Rabbi Berkowitz cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “At God’s command, Moses took the staff again in his hand out of the Sanctuary where it had reposed for nearly forty years, and with this badge of his mission coming from God, he assembled the nation. But when, after nearly forty years, he saw himself directed to the people with the staff of God again in his hand, the staff which nearly forty years ago he had required for the people as testimony and credential of his mission (see Exodus 4:1–15), it hurt him grievously to think that in all these forty years, and with all that he had done in those forty years, he had still not won the confidence and trust of his people, and in the bitterness of these feelings he forgot his orders, and spoke, instead of quietly addressing the rock, words of deep reproach to the people (calling them ha-morim, “rebels”), and in passionate agitation struck the rock — whereupon water in abundance gushed forth and satisfied the thirst of the people and their animals.” (Commentary on Numbers, 368–9)
Rabbi Berkowitz says, “Hirsch’s explanation is insightful. He pins Moses’s offense on his growing impatience with the Israelites. Quite beautifully, Hirsch gives us a sensitive window into the soul of Moses — the angst with which he has wrestled as well as how his leadership has been pushed to its limits by Israelite behavior. For Hirsch, it is because Moses speaks to the people in a denigrating and harsh way (calling them “rebels” in Numbers 20:10) that, ultimately, he must pay the high price of not entering the Promised Land.”

In a commentary on Chukkat from 2013,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld wonders whether, before Moses struck the rock twice, perhaps he did try speaking, but it didn’t work. She notes that we read that Moses gathers the people together first, and before hitting the rock, he says, “Shim’u na hamorim – listen up, you rebels, are we going to get water from this rock?” Dr Anisfeld says “This is speech.” So she speculates that perhaps this was the speech that Moses believed might bring forth the water from the rock.
She continues, “But it didn’t. It didn’t because only gentle loving speech brings forth water. Moshe’s speech is angry and dripping with sarcasm. He attacks the people at their very essence. He doesn’t just say, “You acted badly and rebelliously,” but [he says] “You are rebels.” These are words of despair and faithlessness in the possibility of change. They do not inspire, but degrade. They make the people feel badly about themselves…”
Dr Anisfeld comments that such words cannot elicit water, rather they obstruct its flow. She says, “There is water of life and creativity and spirit in every thing and every person in this world. God created them all through speech and speech is capable of bringing out their essence, their beauty, their power. But not such speech, not angry, hopeless speech.”
She adds that what is needed is the language of blessing. “After God created the world with speech, He gave over the power of speech to humans, the power to praise God and recognize the beauty of His world through speech and the power to bless other human beings…
“Such speech does have the power to bring forth water. (Indeed, see a bit later in the parsha, where the people sing another water song, connected to a new water well they have dug – 21:17). In its joy and its love, such speech brings forth the hidden well-springs of water in each of us. Angry speech like Moshe’s does not accomplish its purpose and so necessarily leads to blows. The rock – and the people – will not bring forth water that way except by force. With a gentle loving speech that inspires, who knows what kind of water can come forth? ”

In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis also understands Moses and Aaron’s seemingly disproportionate punishment in the light of Moses’ words and the anger that fueled them. He too recalls how Moses was in the same situation forty years before and God told him then to strike the rock. Here, in the same scenario, Rabbi Lewis surmises, in Moses’ anger at the people’s lack of faith, he does not pay attention to the instruction God gives him. He thinks he is in the same situation as previously and thus knows what to do. His anger obscures his ability to hear God’s current directive so he acts wrongly. Rabbi Lewis says, “A prophet’s vocation demands that he be always a perfect channel for God’s word. Anger makes Moses lose his capacity to listen. To miss God’s word even for an instant disqualifies him from his key role. Even one fleeting incident in which his hearing is impaired removes him from leadership. Later Elijah would also surrender the privilege of leadership due to his inability to hear God’s soft voice clearly (I Kings 19). Anger is underscored as a key obstacle to one’s relationship with God.”

Finally, on the phrase from above “And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod” it is told of Rabbi Yisrael of Rozhin, that he once saw one of his sons become angry with a certain Chasid, and when the son saw that Rabbi Yisrael heard but said nothing, he became even angrier. The Rozhiner quietened him and said, “With Moses our teacher, who struck the rock twice, it was considered a sin, for it is permitted for a person one time to lose control and become angry. But if that person repeats it, then it is a sign that he is a hot-tempered type, and anger is a reprehensible trait.” And he added “Our Rabbis said (Berachot 7), The Holy One Blessed be He gets angry every day, and how much is His anger? A moment, as it says (Psalms 30:6) “His anger is but for a moment…” From here we learn that a person is not permitted to be inside his anger for more than a moment, like God’s anger, and Moses, who struck twice, revealed that he remained within his anger more than an appropriate measure, and therefore he was punished.”