Mas’ei: Way stations on the journey

These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord…(B’midbar 33: 1-2)

The journey encompasses forty-two places
to encamp and align once again with the sacred.

Forty two places
of wonders and dailiness;
terror and love;

affliction and healing;
ingratitude and grace;

obstinacy and generosity;
misdeeds and regret;

grumbling and contentment;
discord and peace;

sanctity and baseness;
rejoicing and tears;

intimacy and alienation;
duty and neglect;

anger and compassion;
sin and reprieve;

ardor and disappointment;
rupture and goodwill;

outbursts and silence;
regression and growth;

birth and death;
darkness and light;

descent and ascent.

Wandering fitfully, yet
at last coming home.


In Mas’ei, the final parasha of the book of B’midbar, Moses enumerates the forty-two journeys and encampments of the children of Israel, from the Exodus to their final encampment on the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan.
The commentators, both ancient and modern, wonder about the meaning behind this list.

Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698 – 1760 Ukraine) teaches that this list is none other than a reflection of each individual’s journey through life, from birth until death.

In a commentary on the dual parashot Massot-Masei from 2009 http://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5769/matot-masei/, Dr Yossi Chajes describes the list as an “abridged travelogue of forty years of wanderings in the Sinai” and wonders what we today might find in these desert vistas. He notes that we read “And they removed from Mara [a place name, but meaning “bitter”], and came to Elim; and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm tress; and they pitched there.” (B’midbar 33:9) Dr Chajes says, “Just another transition, yes… but the juxtaposition of bitter and sweet waters has long captivated the imaginations of our holy teachers. If all the journeys adumbrated in our portion have been taken as symbolic stations of our present journeys through life, through Torah, here our masters have found a moment of special poignancy and, I might add, urgency.”
Dr Chajes brings a further teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that when one sees a Jew who is learned in Torah but who is nevertheless acting in an unworthy faashion, one can infer that this person has certainly drunk from the “bitter waters.” The Ba’al Shem Tov‘s grandson, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, expounds further that “our Torah has both sweet waters and bitter waters”, and notes that “from time immemorial, saints and sinners alike have managed to reach the highest highs of divine service as well as the lowest lows of human degradation” as evidenced by the proofs he brings from episodes in the Torah.

In a commentary from 2011, http://www.jtsa.edu/on-the-road, Rabbi Marc Wolf recalls the epic novel by Jack Kerouac entitled On the Road, chronicling the journeys of its characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, as they travel America. Rabbi Wolf notes “As the story goes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in April of 1951 in one three-week sitting on a continuous roll of paper. Much like the road described in his epic novel, the roll of Teletype spills out before you and gives a sense of the significance of the journey. For Kerouac, his novel and the story of its creation function as a commentary on the voyage itself.
“As much as he may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty individually. The truth that we know from scholars is that the original story took form in small notebooks that Kerouac carried with him over the course of a few years spent traveling North America, chronicling thousands of miles and countless stops along the way. That inconsistency points to a tension that comes from Jack Kerouac’s account of his journey. It leaves us with the question: what should we highlight, where we are at the end of the journey or the many stops along the way?”
Rabbi Wolf suggests that in its own way, Parashat Mase’ei negotiates that same tension. He says that when Moses stands at the edge of the Promised Land, he reviews the journey that he and the people have taken together “with the same sweeping overview that Sal Paradise narrates.” The description is formulaic: “The Israelites set out from this place and encamp at at that one…” through forty-four verses. There is little elaboration – just the bare bones. Rabbi Wolf says it seems to him that Moses understands that having overcome the challenges of the odyssey, the people already have their faces turned towards their ultimate destination. He adds that we could surmise, along with many commentators, that this generation of the people knows the stories of what occurred at each stop, so a re-telling here is superfluous. However, Rabbi Wolf says, “But I cannot help but contrast Moshe’s retelling with the countless times my parents would return from a vacation, invite all their friends, schlep the screen and projector out, and give slideshows of the many stops along their journeys. Each slide would be accompanied by a story or a description of a place or a person they met along the way.”
He continues “We are wired to strive for resolution, for denouement. But the anticipation of completing a trip can eclipse the road and experiences that got us there. As much as we may have our sights set on the destination, it is the journey that makes us who we are when we arrive. Every aspect of the road —the bumps and the turns, the detours and the stops along the way — make up the whole route. Viewed this way, the journey becomes more than the sum of its parts — not merely the means to arrive at a destination.”
So he asks what we should understand from the tension. What should the children of Israel be feeling as they stand at the edge of the land? He notes the massive changes that have occurred on the journey both demographically (very few members of the original people who left Egypt have survived) but more importantly, he says, “the spiritual, religious, and emotional shift that occurred on their wanderings through the wilderness itself begs attention. They have nearly reached the end of their mission and were about to begin another era of Jewish life, so how can Moshe simply recap the places they passed through along the way? How can he not go deeper and explain what the journey meant to their development?”
He cites the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, in his commentary on parashat Mas’ei, echoing the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, saying that Moses’s repetitive list had meaning less for its hearers then, and more for us, today.
Rabbi Wolf concludes, “Each of us makes journeys through our lives that mirror the growth and maturation that the children of Israel experienced during the trek from Egypt. But it is more than arriving in the Promised Land that matters. Parashat Maseei spills the ink it does in listing all the places in order to teach each of us the many paths we individually take to arrive at our destination.
“The Torah’s lesson is eternally relevant. Addressing the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, Moshe knew that the journey had changed each of them differently. Who was he to tell them what each station along the way meant to them? As a people they wandered, but as individuals they were going to cross into the Land. Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, they had walked the same road, but the experiences affected them individually. Each year, as we read the parashiyot of their wanderings, we glean relevance for ourselves. The Torah knows we turn each page to get closer to the Land, but it is the journey that makes us the people who can enter.”

In another commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12415, Rabbi Adam Greenwald brings another modern literary comparison, in which he cites the writer E.L. Doctorow who once said “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Rabbi Greenwald sees that as an apposite metaphor, not only for writing “but for love, and for life. We cannot imagine where life will take us, with what accompanying twists and turns and unexpected bumps. We can only continue forward, taking each curve and dip gently as it leads us to a future that is always just beyond the horizon line.”
He continues “Certainly it is this way when we embark on a marriage. Couples stand under their huppah not knowing what the life they begin together will actually entail. They cannot know who will get sick and who will live to see great-grandchildren. They cannot know who will fall out of love and who will experience a love that only intensifies over a lifetime. And so it is with having a child, and beginning a career, and moving to a new place, and so on. Our life’s journey takes us in directions we never expect, and poses challenges we will never know until we face them.”
So Rabbi Greenwald says we read of our ancestors’ sojourns, through the forty-two stops in the desert, on the way to an unseen, undreamed-of future. He too, sees us through the prism of the Ba’al Shem Tov‘s lens, as the wanderers in our own lives, stopping and starting on the way.
He cites Rabbi Noa Kushner, in a sermon she delivered in which she taught that there is “a profound difference between being lost and zigzagging.” “To be lost,” she says, “is to wander without purpose and without goal; but, to zigzag is to take a long and winding path with purpose and conviction. Our ancestors were not lost as they made their circuitous route through the wilderness – they were proceeding together with a firm belief in the possibility of a better world, even if the details of that dreamt of place were beyond their sight.”

In a further commentary http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5595, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz changes the focus slightly on the list of stations at which the people stopped en route to the land. She cites the Malbim Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael (1809-1879, Eastern Europe), who asks why the Torah enumerates all the different stops and further, why was it necessary to make so many stops? He suggests that during their enslavement in Egypt, the people they were surrounded by evidence of the degradation and hardships there. At each stop they made in the desert during the long journey, through many experiences both positive and negative, they gradually threw off some of the detrimental influences which might have endangered their ability to flourish in the Promised Land.
Rabbi Peretz also cites the Sefat Emet who notes that in the second verse of the parasha (B’midbar 33: 2) the order of the words is reversed from the beginning to the end of the verse “Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys forth as directed by the Lord; these are their journeys forth and their starting points…” The Sefat Emet says “Scripture is telling us that all this “going forward” depends upon “coming forth” from Egypt. Only after all those journeys is the Exodus from Egypt complete; with each “going forward” they got further from Egypt until they reached the Land of Israel.”*
Rabbi Peretz concludes “Only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the land of Israel. Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been. And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges. But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise.”

And finally, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch brings a different angle to the list of journeys and encampments, in a commentary from 1999, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-power-of-jewish-history/.
He recalls the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov (1860 – 1941), of whom he says,”No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov’s last words were, “Jews, write it down.” And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the many terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Dubnov devoted his life to addressing “the power of historical consciousness.” He says that Dubnov, an autodidact living in Odessa had, fifty years earlier, attempted to galvanise Russian Jews, to start to collect “rapidly vanishing documentary fragments of their thousand-year history.” Rabbi Schorsch continues that Dubnov said that “to their lasting shame and detriment, Russian Jews shared with the primitive, illiterate peoples of the world a pervasive indifference to their own history.” It was the death in 1891 in Germany of Heinrich Graetz (1817 – 1891) who was amongst the first historians to write a comprehensive history of the Jewish people from a Jewish perspective (his magnum opus History of the Jews was quickly translated into other languages and ignited worldwide interest in Jewish history) which had influenced Dubnov to “mobilize a national archival effort which one day would culminate in an expanded national history far fairer to the vital role of Eastern European Jewry than Graetz’s German bias and ignorance allowed.”
Dubnov inspired others to begin to archive untold treasures of Jewish history, including S. Ansky, who initiated the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1912 into Ukraine which over two years gathered photos, folktales, music, writings and artefacts. Later Ansky infiltrated into Galicia at the outbreak of the First World War to “alleviate and record the untold suffering of the nearly one million Jews trapped between the Russian and Austrian armies.” Afterwards he turned his diaries into a harrowing four-volume record, written in Yiddish. Simon Dubnov’s student, Elias Tcherikover was inspired by him in 1919 to record eyewitness accounts of the ongoing pogroms that were decimating Ukrainian Jewry in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Finally, in Vilna in 1923, a group of Yiddishist intellectuals founded the Yiddish Scientific Institute (better known by its English acronym, YIVO), realising a vision devised by Dubnov and other Russian Jewish emigrés in Berlin after the war. Rabbi Schorsch says “Like Dubnov back in the 1890s, YIVO drafted an army of collectors [zamlers] to track down multiple primary sources for its archives without which no serious academic history could ever be done. It is the culture and persona of this remarkable embodiment of Dubnov’s craft that the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who did research there in 1938-39, depicted in her evocative memoir From That Place and Time [1989].”
Between the two world wars, Rabbi Schorsch relates that Dubnov lived in Berlin, where he completed his very accessible ten-volume comprehensive Jewish history which he entitled The World History of the Jewish People. Rabbi Schorsch says “The title meant to convey the global nature of the Jewish odyssey. What other nation had ever settled in the four corners of the world without losing its identity and unity? The key to Jewish survival, Dubnov would argue, was an uncanny ability to form self-governing communities in exile that perpetuated a distinctive religious culture. The task of the historian was to track that unfailing achievement of group discipline, political savvy and spiritual creativity. No way station was to slip into oblivion. Singlehandedly, Dubnov had transformed many Eastern European Jews into amateur historians.”
So Rabbi Schorsch continues “This record of historical recovery is brought to mind by way of comment on an historical archive embedded in the final parasha of the book of Numbers (33:1-49), which brings the trek through the wilderness to a close. Before Moses turns the reins of leadership over to Joshua, he swiftly recapitulates the itinerary taken since the exodus from Egypt by naming each one of 42 sites at which the nation encamped. The formulaic style is almost totally bare of narrative detail, yet each name is repeated twice as if to reinforce retention. On occasion, the descriptive nature of a particular name elicits a faint memory of what happened there. Still, all are precious, for all contributed to shaping the national character of Israel. The list is the product of a historical sensibility.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Rashi (as quoted by Nachmanides) emphasises that according to the text, God had not commanded Moses to compile this list. It was completely Moses’s idea, prompted by a “divine hint that the end was near.” God had told Moses a bit earlier: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (B’midbar 31:2). So Rabbi Schorsch suggests “Having accomplished that military victory with but 12,000 troops, Moses awaited his death by assembling the outline of a memoir….like many humans, Moses faced his own demise, by exerting himself one more time to leave a well ordered account of the journey taken.”
Rashi suggests that the list comes to teach us that, looking back, God never relinquished His care for His people. They had been guided through hostile, barren territory, although, en route, they had rested in oases of serenity. (It is incorrect to imagine the people wandering constantly – in fact there were only 20 stations in 38 years, and they were settled in some places for years at a time.)
Rabbi Schorsch comments that for him, the list is “a harbinger of lists yet to come. As wilderness fades into exile, the number of stops keeps growing and the journey goes on without end or interruption till it encircles the globe. As master of the lists, the historian peers into the mystery of Jewish survival.” He concludes that he sees the lists as pieces of an intricate whole as Jewish history continues to unfold.

* Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in his book The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

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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 https://parashapoems.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/mattot-a-womans-vow/) 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, http://ziegler.aju.edu/default.aspx?id=5583, 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, http://www.neshamah.net/2005/05/silence-implies-consent.html, 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, http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/silence_is_consent_20110719, 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, http://www.jtsa.edu/doing-violence-for-god, 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, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-importance-of-constructive-action, 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, http://www.jtsa.edu/religious-moderation-in-the-face-of-extremism, 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).

Wherever
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, http://www.jtsa.edu/always-strive-to-be-israel 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 http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2011/07/parashat-balak-view-from-above.html
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, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/balak-how-good-are-your-tents, 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, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-sin-of-moses, 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, http://www.jtsa.edu/moses%E2%80%99s-misstep-words-not-deeds, 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, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2013/06/parashat-hukat-speech-that-draws-water.html, 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.”

Korach: Seeking change

“For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3)

Can there never be change
to the iron-clad order?

If you were not born
in the right social group
will your longing to serve
be directly discounted?
May you never rebel
nor challenge authority;
is ability sidelined
in favor of caste?
If you have grown up
an outsider, other;
a woman, a convert or
openly gay,
must you forfeit your dreams,
your loftiest yearnings

or be wholly consumed
in darkening depths?


This parasha relates the story of the eponymous Korach, Moses’ first cousin, who instigates a rebellion against Moses, accusing him of keeping the power for himself and his brother Aaron. He attracts a following of a few ringleaders and another 250 eminent tribesmen. Korach says, “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (B’midbar 16:3) Korach takes specific issue with Aaron’s appointment as High Priest. Moses suggests a test on the next day in which the contenders all bring an incense offering and God will indicate His choice by accepting or rejecting the offerings. Moses begs the rebels to desist, but to no avail, so he pleads with God to reject the offering of the rebels. In the meantime Korach incites the people against Moses. God becomes angry and wants to destroy the people but Moses and Aaron intercede so the people are saved, apart from Korach and his family who are swallowed up by the earth while the 250 followers are consumed by a heavenly fire. The people then complain that Moses and Aaron caused the rebels’ deaths and a plague breaks out in which thousands die. Moses then instructs Aaron how to quell the plague. Finally God reiterates His choice of Aaron with a miracle in which each of the tribes presents a staff, and only Aaron’s blossoms.

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser devotes a commentary that he wrote in 2013 on Parashat Korach http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/nurturing-and-caring-for-your-inner-korach, to mitigating Korach’s bad reputation, which Reb Jeff believes may have been deserved at the end, but was not so at the beginning.
He says, “I want to sing the song of Korach, that rebel of all rebels who opposed Moses and was punished with fire from God and swallowed up by the earth. I want to remember him with some fondness and remember that we all have a little Korach in us. It is a spirit that we need to develop and nurture lovingly.”
Reb Jeff is not alone in noting that Korach’s initial argument is both powerful and even democratic. He says, “Korach held that there was no good reason why Moses and Aaron alone should be in charge of the whole Israelite community — dictating the laws, deciding how they would be enforced, and appointing the heads of each tribe and clan. Korach held that it was wrong for Moses to assume the exclusive right to decree God’s will. Korach declared that God was not the exclusive possession of any one person — no matter how wise or pious — and that each Israelite should be recognized as having his or her own sacred relationship with God.”
Reb Jeff continues that it seems that Moses could hear some truth in Korach’s words as he immediately prostrated himself, which in Ancient Eastern culture indicated recognition of the other’s superiority, and was a sign of humility. Reb Jeff adds, “Moses understood that he was being chastised for a personal failing he had known about for a long time.” He adds that even before the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses’ father-in-law Yitro had cautioned Moses about his inability to delegate power (in Shemot 18:14,17-18). He says, “Moses was something of a control freak, to put it in modern parlance, and Korach was calling him on it. Moses needed to let go.”
However, Reb Jeff suggests that before embarking on a psychoanalysis of Moses’ personality, we need to focus on Korach. He wonders, “What kind of personality might we attribute to a person who recognizes when an authority figure has gone too far? What could we say about someone who challenges power run amok? We could say that Korach himself was power hungry and he used Moses’ personality flaw as a point of leverage to attack him and to attract other Israelites to follow him. That is possible. It is also possible that Korach had a strong sense of fair play and the courage to stand up against injustice — even against a very powerful foe.”
Reb Jeff asks whether, if this episode occurred today, you would be supporting “the man who says he uniquely speaks for God and has the unilateral authority to set laws over you” or “the man who challenges the established order and declares that power should be shared by all?”
He suggests that Korach is not fighting a meaningless battle; either he wants to propel himself up the rungs of power, or he wants to bring an awareness of everyone’s right to holiness. He believes that a change in the order of things is needed.
Reb Jeff believes “That is a spirit to be nurtured. We need people who passionately want to change the world.
“Jewish tradition teaches that the way the world is right now is not the way that God intends it to be. We are living in a broken world, either because of a cosmic catastrophe (as Lurianic Kabbalah teaches), because the link between heaven and earth was broken by the destruction of the Temple, or simply because error and sin are the nature of imperfect human beings. The world is in need of repair, tikkun olam, and human beings are needed to make it right.”
But Reb Jeff does not end there. He adds that having a desire to change the fixed order is not enough. Although Korach’s initial thesis might have been appropriate, at some point it becomes distorted, turning him into a threat to the order of things. Reb Jeff pinpoints that moment, when Moses challenges Korach and his coterie to bring incense offerings to God, and let God indicate His choice. Moses is suggesting that Korach and his followers essentially carry out the job of the priests, alongside Aaron. Korach does not see the inconsistency in his agreeing to the plan.
Reb Jeff points out, “Korach had been at his best when he declared that his rebellion against Moses was not about himself. He had said, “All of the community — all of them! — are holy.” Now, however, it was Moses’ turn to recognize Korach’s personality flaw and use it against him. If Korach had answered the challenge differently, the story would have ended differently. If he had said, “No, Moses. It is not for me to take up God’s offering, or even for my 250 followers to do so. It is the right of every Israelite, for they are all members of a nation of priests,” then he would have had a strong moral basis to continue his challenge.
“But he didn’t. Korach’s ego was too invested in everything he did. He may have been sincere about wanting to create a more democratic and just society, but Moses demonstrated that Korach also really wanted power for himself. The greatest distinction between the personality of Korach and the personality of Moses is that, when challenged, Moses threw himself to the ground in humble admission of his flaws. Korach, in contrast, lifted his ego up and claimed the right to assume the highest honor.
“Korach saw something that was truly wrong — even Moses knew that it was wrong — and he wanted to do something about it. So, let us sing some praises for Korach! Let us recognize that there is a part of us also that does not just want to complain about injustice of the world, but actually wants to change it. We need more people like that … but only up to a point.”
Reb Jeff adds that it is a delicate balance between challenging inequity and retaining humility, and history is replete with examples of people who have fought for justice but once they have become powerful, have metamorphosed into leaders who are more tyrannical than those they ousted. He concludes that Korach may have been right in his ideas of justice and equality, but his ego also fueled his cause and led to his downfall.

Rabbi Gail Labovitz entitles her commentary on Parashat Korach from 2014, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12162 “The Most Difficult Parashah.” In it, she describes her journey into a stricter standard of Jewish practice than that with which she grew up. However, she says that there was one issue that always held her back from a whole-hearted move into that life-style, and that was gender. She says, “More particularly, gender segregation of Orthodox life and the rights and responsibilities denied to women in Orthodox synagogues and study halls. And it was a challenge for me from the beginning. I still remember a conversation with a man I knew at the time, one of the people who was most influential on my journey of personal discovery, about this very issue. What he said to me then was an iteration of a common apologetic (and I choose that word quite deliberately) on this topic. He said – I paraphrase – “I might want to be a Kohen, but I’m not a Kohen, and nothing I do can make me one. I have to accept that I am an Israelite, and the limitations that go along with that.” The implication was meant to be clear: he could not alter having been born an Israelite, and I could not alter having been born a woman, and the only proper response was acceptance of our God-given roles. But even then, at least one response was apparent to me. Was this not comparing apples and oranges? Just how many privileges do the Kohanim – a small minority of the Jewish population – generally enjoy in Judaism today? – The first aliyah, the opportunity to say Birkat Kohanim before the congregation…and not much more. How could exclusion from those few perks (which also happen to come with a few traditional limitations, such as a ban on marrying a woman who is a convert or previously divorced) possibly compare to the near complete exclusion (in most of the Orthodox world) of half the population from participation in the synagogue, in the most rigorous forms of Jewish learning, in religious decision making for the community as a whole?” She adds though, that in the eras of both the Mishkan and later of both Temples, when being a (male)Kohen bore some rather significant rights and responsibilities, and the (male) Kohen was indeed quite distinct from his Israelite co-religionists, or even the other members of his own tribe of Levi who were not descendants of Aaron. He would serve in the Mishkan or Temple, would have access to certain sacred areas denied other Israelites not of the priestly caste, and would also receive assorted portions of, among other things, sacrificial meat, first fruits, first-born animals, tithes, a portion of dough. This, it seems, is one of the things that sparked Korach’s rebellion: the privilege derived only by accident of birth. Rabbi Labovitz focuses on this aspect of the parasha even though she notes that there are several strands of narrative that run through it. She says that after reading through the parasha and various interesting points and commentaries, she concluded that the reason this may be the hardest parasha of all to explain, and not just because the narrative is complex, is that to concentrate on any one particular point is “to attempt to pretend one needn’t grapple with the problematic heart of the parashah as a whole. Which is this: In the modern, Westernized, post-Emancipation context (and perhaps others too) in which I presume most if not all of my readers reside, wouldn’t it seem that our natural urge would be to side with Korah and his band? His/their protest against the autocratic leadership of Moses would seem to fit well with our democratic and meritocratic ideals, in which all people have (or should have) access to roles of leadership, and such roles are awarded based on competence rather than arbitrary characteristics beyond a person’s control or unrelated to ability, such as racial/ethnic origin, religious identity, gender. Put another way: how is Korah’s claim against Moses and more particularly against Aaron and the concentration of the privileges of the priesthood in a single family (and its future male descendants), so different from the claims of Jewish women – or other marginalized groups in the Jewish community such as gays and lesbians? Must we simply accept the roles or limitations placed on us by birth, irrespective of our abilities or desires to serve God more fully?”
It is also very noteworthy that Korach is portrayed even more negatively in rabbinic literature than the biblical text reveals. The midrash relates that not only did Korach seek to oust Moses, but he also challenged the Torah by denigrating certain laws. He is depicted as deriding rabbinic authority and even of accusing Moses and Aaron of oppressing the poor. Commentators have attempted to bring proofs why Korah’s motives were base. Korach’s statement that “the community is holy, all of them” as opposed to the exhortation found throughout the book of Vayikra to “be holy,” is construed as a claim that the goal has been achieved and no further effort is required. Nehama Leibowitz suggests that Korach and his followers believed that the assignment of holiness would grant “superiority and privilege” rather than “extra duties and responsibilities.” Unlike Moses, and other subsequent prophets who were reluctant initially to answer God’s call, Korach is athirst, less for leadership and more for power. Rabbi Labovitz notes, “Personal self-aggrandizement, not a desire to serve God or the community, drove the rebellion.” She adds, “Jewish feminists, of course, are familiar with at least this last charge. As just one example, in 1976, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great halakhic scholars of the 20th century and a posek (legal decisor) still revered in and sometimes beyond the (Modern/Centrist) Orthodox community, wrote a teshuvah addressing the rise of feminism. He headed this work “Concerning the new movement of smug and (self-) important women,” and in it insinuated that any desire of women to be more involved in areas of Jewish life traditionally withheld from them “comes out of a rebellion against God and his Torah.” Women’s own testimony about their spiritual desires or motives – their desires to delve deeper into their religious identity, to embrace Torah learning, to serve the community, to come closer to God – is discounted, irrelevant, not trustworthy.” However, she brings a commentary by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, (19th century, Lithuania), who does recognize “positive spiritual longing” in Korach’s motives, citing from his work the Ha’amek Davar (translation taken from Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar): “The men who offered the firepans were not sinners but saintly persons, for whom the deprivation of priestly office spelt the forfeiting of a coveted opportunity for closer communion with the Creator. They harboured no illusory worldly ambitions, nor hankered after the sweets of office but longed to sanctify themselves and achieve greater spiritual heights through the sacred service.” However, Rabbi Labovitz continues that even if we accept this reading, how can we contend with the ultimate failure of Korach’s mutiny and the calamitous punishment that God inflicts? She says, “Can we take away any other message than that a challenge to the established order, no matter how arbitrary that order appears to be, no matter how well intentioned the challenge may be, is sinful and wrong, worthy of the harshest punishment?” And she answers, “Oddly enough, if there is an alternative to be found, I think we might find it among the very rabbis who inaugurated the midrashic tradition that first tried to interpret the complexities of this story. Not in their attempts to discredit Korah and his motives, and not in their own rulings that limited and restricted women’s equal participation in Jewish rite and ritual, but rather in their very existence. Rabbinic Judaism began and eventually flourished precisely by taking the place of other models of leadership that could no longer stand. Prophecy, the rabbis asserted, ended with the last of the biblical prophets. Kingship (considered an ambivalent form of leadership already in the Bible; see the haftarah this week) had become the province of the corrupt Hasmonean dynasty before being abolished under Roman rule. The Temple was no longer standing, depriving the Kohanim of the locus of their relevance and claim to leadership. In the place of these forms of privilege and leadership, the rabbis created a system that – though still not open to all – was far more open than anything that preceded it. Again and again, the rabbis tell stories of men who have no claim of birth yet come to prominence for their scholarship purely on the basis of merit and ability, despite coming from places of poverty (Hillel, Akiva), illiteracy (Akiva), and even criminal doings (Resh Lakish). Even so, it took hundreds of years for the views and ideals of the rabbinic movement of antiquity to become simply the Judaism that dominated most of subsequent Jewish history. May it be that with the fullness of time and always with the intent of dedicating ourselves more wholly to the service of God and the community, that the expanded ideals of leadership that we are developing today themselves become simply the Judaism of the future.”

Shelach Lecha: The Comfort Zone

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” …At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land…and they made their report…”We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.”…Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…” (B’midbar 13:1-32).

It’s easier to stay pristine
when we know what God wants,
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

He tells us; we do it.
Everything is supplied:
manna floats down from heaven,
water spouts from the rock.
Nothing much to think about.

Neither complexity nor modernity
intrude. And if we do slip up,
feedback is not slow to come
(preferably mediated by His chosen one).

Is it not better, then,
to stay sheltered in our safe oasis
and not sully our hands
with the work of the world?


In Parashat Shelach Lecha, we read about the episode of the spies who are sent to reconnoiter in the land of Israel ahead of the Children of Israel going up and inhabiting it, as God has promised they will. We are told that the land flows with milk and honey as promised, yet ten of the twelve spies return extremely negative and fearful about the possibility of a successful outcome. Only Joshua and Calev are encouraging and believe in the people’s ability to go up, with God’s support, to inherit the land, but the people are led astray and refuse to listen, despite having been the closest witnesses to God’s power when they left Egypt and were guided through the wilderness.

In a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2011, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/parashat-shelach-on-fear-and-bravery.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld opens with an anecdote about her small son who wants to join his father in the men’s section of a synagogue they are visiting for the first time. Looking through the glass door, her four-year- old sees rows of men, but cannot spot his father who is among the crowd. He opens the door, goes through but returns after a short interval, saying he is scared. He tries again, but comes back a second time. Finally his mother encourages him by telling him he can do it: “This is your chance to be brave. You’re scared. That’s fine. But you can do it. You just have to be brave.” And with that he goes and does not come back. Dr Anisfeld suggests that had she elaborated on the reality of the situation, that there really was nothing to fear (as she had tried in the past) her words would not have helped him. Through four-year-old eyes, she suggests, entering a sea of men three times his size might be reminiscent of the spies who enter a land whose inhabitants appeared like giants to them. In both cases, she says, their fear might be justified.
Dr Anisfeld cites the Esh Kodesh, the Piaseczner Rebbe who was martyred in the Warsaw Ghetto. He notes that Calev realises that it will be useless to try to argue the other spies out of their perception and deny their impressions. So instead of saying that the inhabitants are not giants, but actually tiny, and that the cities are not well fortified but rather undefended, he is encouraging: “Alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah ki yachol nuchal lah – we will surely go up and inherit it because we will surely be able to accomplish this.” He does not tell them their fears are groundless. As the Esh Kodesh knows, from his own experience, the problem lies not in the reality, which may in fact be insurmountable, but rather in the attitude that might enable fear to conquer faith. Therefore Calev does not try to disabuse them but he tries to instill confidence in them that they can overcome their fear and progress towards the goal. Dr Anisfeld points out that within Calev’s encouraging words, he repeats two of the verbs for emphasis: “ALoH na’ALeH – which translates as “we will surely go up” and “YaCHoL nUCHaL – which in current parlance could be rendered “we absolutely can do this”. She suggests that Calev is trying to point them in the direction of trying, and of overcoming their fear, although, as we read, he does not not succeed.

However, in a commentary on Shelach Lecha from 2012, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5772-shelach-lecha-the-fear-of-freedom/ and in a later commentary from 2016, http://www.rabbisacks.org/two-kinds-fear-shelach-5776/ Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the same episode, which he notes puzzled the sages through the ages and was generally regarded as a huge failure of faith and vision on the part of these ten spies. What makes this story more bewildering is the fact that these ten scouts were leaders and princes among the people, not ordinary citizens. So why were they so mistaken? Rabbi Sacks cites the Rambam who suggests that they were fearful because they had been slaves and although now free, they were not ready to fight to inherit the land and live as free people. That would be the work of a new generation, born in freedom. The Rambam posits that human beings can change, but that transformation does not happen so fast. (Guide to the Perplexed III, 32). Rabbi Sacks says that most of the commentators then, assume that the spies were guilty of a failure of nerve, or faith, or both, and this is what the text seems to imply. But, he says, Chasidic teaching, from that of the Baal Shem Tov through R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (the Sefat Emet) to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, brings a vastly different interpretation. These Rabbis suggest that the spies, all princes and leaders, had good intentions. They were not afraid of the battles against the inhabitants of the land. Rabbi Sacks says, “They did not fear failure; they feared success. Their concern was not physical but spiritual. They did not want to leave the wilderness. They did not want to become just another nation among the nations of the earth. They did not want to lose their unique relationship with God in the reverberating silence of the desert, far removed from civilization and its discontents.”
He continues that here in the desert, they could feel God’s presence among them, in the Mishkan and in the clouds of glory that led them. No other generation before or since lived in such palpably close proximity to the Divine Presence. They were fed on heavenly manna and drank water that issued from the rock. They witnessed miracles daily! Rabbi Sacks says, “So long as they stayed in the desert under God’s sheltering canopy, they did not need to plough the earth, plant seeds, gather harvests, defend a country, run an economy, maintain a welfare system, or shoulder any of the other earthly burdens and distractions that take peoples’ minds away from the Divine.
“Here, in no-man’s-land, in liminal space, suspended between past and future, they were able to live with a simplicity and directness of encounter they could not hope to find once they had re-entered the gravitational pull of everyday life in the material world. Paradoxically, since a desert is normally the exact opposite of a garden, the wilderness was the Israelites’ Eden. Here they were as close to God as were the first humans before their loss of innocence.”
Rabbi Sacks reminds us that both Hosea and Jeremiah liken that early era in the wilderness to a honeymoon. Hosea says, quoting God addressing His people “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:16), prophesying that in the future God will return to the desert with His people to celebrate a second honeymoon. Jeremiah says in God’s name, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). So both prophets allude to the wilderness years as the time of the first love between God and the Israelites. And that, suggests Rabbi Sacks, is what the spies were reluctant to leave.
He adds that although this line of thought is not suggested by a simple reading of the text, we should not disregard it as he believes it gives us an insight into “the unconscious mindset of the spies” which has something to teach us today. He says the spies did not want to relinquish their intimacy with God and the comforting simplicity of their life under His shadow, just as children sometimes are reluctant to move into adulthood. “Ultimately the spies feared freedom and its responsibilities.”
But, Rabbi Sacks continues that Torah is about going out into the world.
Judaism has produced its hermits who have retreated from the world, like the Qumran sect depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Talmud also teaches us about R. Shimon bar Yochai who lived for thirteen years in a cave, so as not to see people pursuing physical activities such as ploughing a field. But these were by no means part of the mainstream. Rabbi Sacks says “This is not the destiny of Israel, to live outside time and space in ashrams or monasteries as the world’s recluses. Far from being the supreme height of faith, such a fear of freedom and its responsibilities is – according to both the Gerer and Lubavitcher Rebbe – the sin of the spies.”
And although a few people, epitomised by R. Shimon bar Yochai, regarded involvement in worldly matters as incompatible with spiritual ascent, the majority view did not accept this. Rabbi Sacks cites from Pirkei Avot, (2:2): “Torah study without an occupation will in the end fail and lead to sin” and from the Rambam: “One who makes his mind up to study Torah and not to work but to live on charity, profanes the name of God, brings the Torah into contempt, extinguishes the light of religion, brings evil upon himself, and deprives himself of life hereafter.” (Laws of Torah Study 3:10).
So Rabbi Sacks suggests that the spies had an idyllic fantasy in which they might be secluded from the outside world, and the people would dwell forever in “the eternal childhood of God’s protection and the endless honeymoon of His all-embracing love.”
So Rabbi Sacks surmises that the spies were not afraid of failure, rather of success. Their mistake, he says, was that of very holy men, who failed to understand that what God is searching for is, in Chasidic parlance, “a dwelling in the lower worlds”. He notes that Judaism is notable for seeking to bring Heaven down to earth, rather than the reverse. Thus Torah is incredibly occupied with mundane and practical issues, often not considered the stuff of religion at all, like agricultural matters, loans and debts, responsibilities of employers, welfare provisions. Rabbi Sacks says, “It is not difficult to find God in the wilderness, if you do not eat from the labor of your hands and if you rely on God to fight your battles for you. Ten of the spies, according to the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe, sought to live that way forever. But that, suggested the Rebbe, is not what God wants from us. He wants us to engage with the world. He wants us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice with all the power of law, and combat ignorance with universal education. He wants us to show what it is to love the neighbour and the stranger, and say, with Rabbi Akiva, “Beloved is humanity because we are each created in God’s image.”
“Jewish spirituality lives in the midst of life itself, the life of society and its institutions. To create it we have to battle with two kinds of fear: fear of failure, and fear of success. Fear of failure is common; fear of success is rarer but no less debilitating. Both come from the reluctance to take risks. Faith is the courage to take risks. It is not certainty; it is the ability to live with uncertainty. It is the ability to hear God saying to us as He said to Abraham, ‘Walk on ahead of Me’.” (Bereishit 17:1).
Rabbi Sacks notes that the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed this teaching in a very practical way. He dispatched emissaries to every possible place where Jews might live and thus transformed Jewish life world-wide. He asked his followers to take risks, to leave their comfort zones. But the Rebbe believed in them and in their mission that demanded of them to radiate their faith outwards in a very practical way.
Rabbi Sacks concludes, “It is challenging to leave the desert and go out into the world with all its trials and temptations, but that is where God wants us to be, bringing His spirit to the way we run an economy, a welfare system, a judiciary, a health service and an army, healing some of the wounds of the world and bringing, to places often shrouded in darkness, fragments of Divine light.”