• Shelach lecha


    I spy, with my little eye…

    The first fact-finding mission in Jewish history – the twelve spies – return from scouting out the land of Canaan with glowing reports. The land, they say, flows with milk and honey. But there is a drawback, say ten of the spies. The inhabitants of the land are fearsome giants, and the Israelites stand no chance against them:

    “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant tribe of the Nephilim. And we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and so were we in their eyes…” (Numbers XIII:33)

    The spies’ report tells us much about what they saw in the land of Canaan. But it reveals even more about how they saw themselves.

    Abraham Twersky, the well-known Rabbi and psychiatrist, sees an important psychological insight in the report of the ten spies. First we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, they say, and only then did we become as grasshoppers in the eyes of others. Our standing in the eyes of others, Twerski notes, is often a function of our own self-esteem.

    In a world which has often viewed Jews and the Jewish state with suspicion and disdain, this insight suggests that one key to improving our standing in the eyes of others is maintaining our own estimation of ourselves. As one popular folk-saying has it: No-one can make you feel small without your permission.

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes a contemporary example of this insight. A young woman in Moscow went to visit an elderly rabbi. She was clearly in distress and explained why. She was Jewish, but had hidden her Jewishness all her life and was convinced that nobody knew the secret of her origins. But just recently a group of youngsters had seen her in the street and shouted “Zhid” at her as she walked by. The elderly rabbi paused then asked the young woman: “I have lived in this town for many years. I am clearly identifiable as a Jew by my beard and my clothes. And yet never has anyone shouted out the word ‘Zhid’ at me. Why do you think that is?”

    The young woman hesitated, and then answered: “Because with me they know I will take it as an insult. But you – you will view it as a compliment”.

    In others’ words

    “On almost any campus in the United States, a young Jewish student will be confronted with questions that challenge his or her most basic identity. Some may stem from ignorance, some from hostility, but all have to be faced: Why, they will be asked, have Jews been hated for so long – is there really no smoke without fire? How can Israel, a country founded to combat racism, have a Law of Return for Jews only? Haven’t the Palestinians been made to pay the price for the Jewish Holocaust? And why, of the 3000 peoples that could claim the right to self-determination, should the Jews be entitled to their own state?

    “How well have we trained our younger generation to confront such challenges? Are they aware of what their heritage has given mankind in the past, and what it has the potential to give now and in the future? Or of the astonishing role played by Zionism as a rare model of national liberation and democracy? Or of the fact that there are 35 democracies which have a law of return?

    “I see here a terrible gulf in the education of our youth. On the one hand we have a small group of youngsters from committed homes with strong Jewish backgrounds and identity, but for the most part sheltered and ill-prepared to engage with the outside world. And on the other hand we have the vast majority of our Jewish youth, who do meet with this world, who do have the tools, but sadly have little or nothing to communicate.

    “We need to cultivate a generation of leaders who can straddle and synthesize, who have the tools and the raw materials to be a bridge within our communities and our most effective spokespeople to the world at large.

    “We need to give our next generation this sense of responsibility, and this sense of pride. Pride in our history as one of the oldest and most radical of faiths, and one of the youngest and most remarkable of states.”

    Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Inaugural
    Address at opening of the University of the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, November 2001

    On a lighter note

    A popular Jewish joke from before the Second World War highlights the power of self esteem, even in the harshest of circumstances:
    Goebbels was touring German schools. At one, he asked the students to call out patriotic slogans.
    “Heil Hitler,” shouted one child.
    “Very good,” said Goebbels.
    “Deutschland über alles,” another called out.
    “Excellent. How about a stronger slogan?”
    A hand shot up, and Goebbels nodded.
    “Our people shall live forever,” the little boy said.
    “Wonderful,” exclaimed Goebbels. “What is your name, young man?”
    “Israel Goldberg”, replied the boy.

    Told in ‘Humor in the Holocaust’ by John Morreall.

  • Beha’alotcha


    the 7th Book of Moses

    “And when the ark was to set forth, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, And may your foes flee before you!
    And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, to the tens of thousands of the families of Israel!”
    (Numbers 10:35-36).

    In middle of this week’s reading these two verses stick out, separated at their beginning and end by an unusual symbol which appears only here in the Torah: the upside-down form of the Hebrew letter ‘nun’.

    Why are these verses separated in such an unusual way?

    The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 116 a) suggests that these two verses comprise an entire Book of the Bible in themselves. If so, the rabbis calculate, this means the book of Bamidbar comprises three separate books – one before this section, these two verses, and then one which follows, meaning that there are not five but seven books of Moses. (In fact this observation even has halakhic implications – a Hebrew book is required to contain 85 letters, like these two verses, in order to have the status of a holy text.)

    But why should the book of Bamidbar be divided up in this way? These two verses represent a division between two different parts of Bamidbar which are very different in tone. Prior to this point, the Book of Bamidbar has described the ideal state of the Children of Israel: the holy tabernacle has been completed, and the Israelites are about to commence their journey towards the promised land of Israel.

    But from this point onwards the Book of Bamidbar takes a very different turn. It is marked by murmurings and complaints from the people, by divisions among different factions, and ultimately by the sin of the spies which resulted in a delay of 40 years before the Israelites could enter into the land of Israel.

    These two parts of Bamidbar, then, represent the ratsui and the matsui – the ideal and the reality which so often falls short of our hopes and expectations. And the two verses, the ‘extra book’ in our reading come to suggest that as different as they are, there may be a way to build a bridge between the two.

    And why these two verses in particular? The two verses highlight the two key challenges we face when our value systems are tested against harsh practicality. The first talks about times of crises and battle, and the second about periods of calm and prosperity. In the first case, the times of crisis and battle, the challenge is that when the “Ark also set forth” the values we cherish are not left behind in the heat of the moment. And indeed, it was the law that the Holy Ark carrying the Ten Commandments would accompany the children of Israel into battle, a reminder that if our values are to mean anything to us, they must also guide us in times of greatest difficulty.

    But times of comfort and prosperity present challenges also. As the second verse suggests, when the ark “rests”, the challenge is that traditions and beliefs will no longer be seen as a force for unity, but will become tools of friction and divisiveness. It is this challenge that the second verse addresses. In times of calm, when the “arks rests” we must remember that it is not the property of a select few, but the common heritage of the entire people; we call on God not just through a religious elite, but via all the “tens of thousands of the families of Israel”.

    These challenges are as present for modern Israeli society as they ever were for the Israelites in the wilderness: the temptation, in times of crisis, to fall short of the standards we have committed ourselves to, and outside times of crisis, the risk that we may lose our sense of peoplehood and of a common destiny. These two short verses, the 7th book of Moses, are a reminder that by acting with conviction, even in times of crisis, and by preserving unity, even in times of comfort, we may yet succeed in bridging the gulf between the ideal and the reality.

    In others’ words

    “In spite of continuous and grave problems of security and survival that we face, we will not be diverted from our path, from the great moral values that are the basis of our society, and which place us on the side of justice, of righteousness, of freedom and of peace.”Address by Prime Minister Shamir to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, 8 January 1987.

    On a lighter note

    The following joke, familiar to many Yeshiva students, highlights the difference between the ideal and the reality:

    A Yeshiva student had recently got married and told his Rabbi that he was planning to build a house for himself and his wife.
    “You should know”, said his teacher, “that the Talmud gives precise instructions on exactly how to construct a house. If you are a serious student of Talmud you should follow these instructions.”
    Dutifully the student studied the relevant Talmudic passages, and built his house in accordance with the instructions, down to the last detail. But the day before he and his wife were planning to move in, the entire house collapsed.
    The student went back to his teacher and asked him how such a terrible thing could have happened.
    The learned Rabbi pored through his Talmud for a moment, looked over the commentaries, and then his eyes lit up with satisfaction. “How remarkable!” he declared. “Rashi asks exactly the same question!”

  • Naso


    the blesser, the blessing and the blessed

    May the Lord bless and safeguard you
    May the Lord shine His face on you and give you favour
    May the Lord raise His face to you and grant you peace

    This week’s reading includes the most famous blessing in the Jewish tradition. This is the blessing that was recited by the priests in the Temple, and which to this day is recited by the kohanim when they bless the rest of the congregation in Synagogue and by parents as they bless their children on Friday night.

    In many ways this brief blessing – a mere fifteen words – is surprising. In particular, it suggests some unusual insights about the blesser, the blessing and the blessed.

    The blesser: Judaism generally insists that there is no need for an intermediary between Man and God, so it is surprising that this blessing is made not directly by God but by the priests. Indeed one might imagine that giving one group within the community the role of blessing the others could lead to a sense of superiority and condescension. Perhaps it is for this reason, that this is the only act in Jewish life which is commanded to be performed b’ahava – with love. And indeed it seems appropriate that this blessing, with its call for peace, can only be made by one person to another. As the mystical treatise the Zohar observes; “Any priest who does not love the people or whom the people do not love, may not raise his hands to make the priestly blessing.”

    The blessing: As understood by the commentators, the three-part blessing presents a progression: the first part focuses on our physical needs, the second on our spiritual wellbeing, and the third, on the ultimate blessing – peace. As the midrashic commentary Sifra notes: “Without peace there is nothing”. Although the blessing is to be given to the entire nation, it is striking that it is worded in the singular form. A Hassidic commentary (Itturei Torah) suggests that this is to convey the message that the most important blessing that Israel needs is unity.

    And the blessed: After commanding Aaron and his sons, the priests, to make this blessing, God adds an afterthought: “Let them place my Name upon the Children of Israel, and I shall bless them” (Bamidbar 6:27). As Rashi and other commentators note, the language is ambiguous. The word “them” – can refer to children of Israel who receive the blessing, or the priests who give it. If the former – it is a reminder that the source of true blessing is not man but the divine, if the latter – it suggests that in blessing others, we find our own true blessing.

    In others’ words

    “The Jewish tradition calls for a blessing on every new tree, every new fruit, on every new season. Let me conclude with the ancient Jewish blessing that has been with us in exile, and in Israel, for thousands of years:
    “’Blessed are You, O Lord, who has preserved us, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time’.”

    Address by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the United States Congress, Washington,
    26 July 1994

    On a lighter note

    On blessings – A joke which is equally unfair to all three major Jewish denominations:
    A barmitzva boy wanted to know whether he should make a blessing over a new playstation he had been given as a present. He approached three rabbis and asked them:
    “Should I make bracha over this playstation I got for my barmitzva?”
    The orthodox rabbi responded: “What’s a playstation?”
    The conservative rabbi answered: “What’s a bracha?”
    And the reform rabbi asked: “What’s a barmitzva?”

  • Bamidbar


    Counting people, making people count

    In Hebrew the fourth book of the Bible is called Bamidbar – “in the wilderness”. But in English it is known as the book of Numbers, a reference to another name given to this book by the Talmud: Chumash HaPekudim, “the Book of the Countings”, referring to the censuses of the Israelites that the book opens and closes with.

    As Israelis and Jews we have a near-obsession with counting ourselves. In Israel the annual publication of the results of the latest statistical bureau survey is headline news, while in the Diaspora the demography of the Jewish world demands the time and budget of a multitude of think tanks.

    But Jewish tradition has mixed feelings about this urge to count the Jewish people. Why?

    On the one hand, Jewish tradition regards God’s command to Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites as a sign of love for the Jewish people (Rashi on Bamidbar 1:1). Just as a merchant counts valued diamonds, or a child counts his cherished toys, so does God count every one of the Jewish people.

    Yet on the other hand, the notion of counting is also viewed with suspicion and fraught with danger. Towards the end of King David’s reign, a seemingly unwarranted census of his realm gave rise to a plague that killed some 70,000 inhabitants from Dan to Beer-Sheba (Samuel II, 24).

    The classic commentator Ramban (Nachmanides, C13th) suggests that these two censuses, by Moses and by David, represent two very different models of counting, different in both why and how they were conducted.

    As regards the why, Moses was commanded to count the people for a purpose: to prepare for battle and to allocate the land of Israel. David, on the other hand, wanted to count them for no other reason than to rejoice in his own glory. As the Midrash states:

    Whenever Israel was counted for a purpose, their numbers were not diminished; but when they were counted for no purpose, their numbers diminished. When were they counted for a purpose? In the days of Moses, at the setting up of the flags and the division of the land. When for no purpose? In the days of David. (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:17)

    As for the ‘how’, Ramban notes that, unlike David, who simply counted the number of his subjects, the command to Moses is not to count the people but “tifkedu otam” – to calculate their number by means of the half shekel contribution they each made. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it: “We are told not to count the people, but to count their contributions”.

    Jewish practice also reflects this ambivalence about counting people. The modern Hebrew word to vote, ‘lehatzbia’, comes from the word for a finger, etzba, and derives from the custom not to count the priests in the temple, but to count their outstretched fingers. In Yiddish the custom is to count people negatively (nit ein, nit zwei). And to this day Jews in synagogue check whether there are the ten men needed to start prayers, not by counting them, but by reciting a ten word verse: (‘Hoshea et amecha…’ ).

    This deep rooted suspicion of counting ourselves might seem unworldly and superstitious. But as interpreted by Jewish tradition it suggests an important message about how we view ourselves as individuals and as a people. What truly matters is not how many are counted, but how much every one of us counts.

    In others’ words

    “I can never stop thinking about this great loss to the Jewish people. About the doctors who went up in the smoke of the crematoria, about the rabbis who walked towards their deaths, about the teachers who stood in front of firing squads, about the children who were murdered. How many Einsteins were slaughtered? How many Sigmund Freuds were killed? How many Jasha Heifetzs and Yehudi Menuhins have we lost? How many from the glory of the Jewish people? These are losses for us and for all mankind.”

    Remarks by Prime Minister Rabin at the Hebrew University in honour of Chancellor Kohl, 8 June 1995

    On a lighter note

    On counting Jews:

    The President of the Synagogue Board was visiting the Rabbi, who was recovering from a serious illness in hospital.

    “I want to tell you,” the President told the Rabbi, “that at last night’s Board meeting we adopted a resolution wishing you a full and speedy recovery.”

    The rabbi smiled, until the President added:

    “And I want you to know, the resolution passed by 10 votes to 8!”

Back to Top