• Mattot-Masei


    the wandering Jews

    The Book of Numbers, which started with the counting of the people, now draws to a close with the counting of places. In many synagogues a special tune is used to chant the 42 separate locations at which the Israelites encamped during their wanderings in the wilderness. But why is this long travel itinerary necessary?  

    Two traditional commentators suggest contrasting reasons for God’s command to Moses to record an exact list of all the places the Israelites camped during their years in the wilderness.

    Rashi (France, C11-12th) suggests that the travelogue is actually a tribute to God’s kindness, emphasizing that that the people had to move camp less than once every year. It also marks the care that they were shown at every stage of their long journey from slavery to freedom.  To highlight the point, Rashi cites a touching Midrash:

    This is compared to a king whose son fell ill, and he brought him to a distant place for treatment. When they returned, the father began enumerating all the journeys. He said to him ‘Here, we slept; here, we rested in the shade; here, your head ached…’

    Sforno (Italy, C15-16th) takes a converse approach: the list of places is intended to praise not God, but the Israelites, and to demonstrate their dedication throughout years of hardship. At the end of the book of Bamidbar, which chronicles the complaints and failings of the Jewish people, the Bible takes pains to balance the negative picture with a reminder of the trust they showed facing the challenges of the wilderness for forty long years.

    The history of the Jewish people is in many ways a history of journeys, and almost every family can record its own list of places that been have passed through by former and current generations. For some of these journeys, the approach taken by Rashi rings true, and we can point to the moments of respite and kindness that have marked different stages on the way. But for many of these journeys the approach suggested by Sforno seems more fitting, as we look back with awe at the courage shown by those before us, in the face of unimaginable challenges and hardships.

    Different as the two approaches are, both suggest that it is our responsibility to record and remember the journeys of previous generations that have led us to where we find ourselves today. The special nature of these journeys is hinted at in the curious verse that introduces the list of places in our reading:

    And Moses wrote their points of origin for their journeys (motzehem l’masehem) at God’s command, and these are their journeys to their points of origin (masehem l’motzehem).” (Numbers 33: 2).

    A number of commentators note the curious wording of this sentence, and particularly the way in which, at the end of the verse, the wording of the first part is reversed to refer to their people’s “journeys to their point of origin”. The unusual wording seems to suggest, that even as we move forwards we are bringing our past with us, and even returning to it. As contemporary scholar Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has put it:

    As we move down the road of time we must always keep in front of our eyes the places of our origin. We chart our future by rediscovering our past… The points of our origin must be the goal of our future.

    In others’ words

    “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

    Shai Agnon, Address on being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966

    On a lighter note

    Heard from a Jewish stand-up comedian:
    And now I’d like to perform my impression of Moses’ wife: “Moses, we’ve been wandering for forty years in the wilderness. Ask directions already!”

  • Pinchas


    lessons in leadership

    Perhaps the mark of Moses’  leadership is never felt so strongly as when he hands over the reigns of power. This week’s reading contains the tragic moment when God tells Moses that, after having led the Jewish people to the very edge of the land of Israel, he may see the land but will never enter it. Rather, God tells him, “When you have seen the land, you shall be gathered to your people”.  
    It is at  this very moment, when Moses experiences his greatest disappointment, that he gives us his greatest lesson in leadership.
    In fact, in handing over his authority to his successor, Moses demonstrates three qualities which are the hallmarks of any great leader:
    Concern for the people above all else: Moses, who has not hesitated to disagree and even argue with God in the past, raises no objection to God’s decision to replace him. He simply has one request: “Let the Lord appoint a man over the congregation… so that the congregation will not be a sheep which have no shepherd” (Numbers XXVII:116-17). On this request, the classic commentator Rashi notes: “This is the hallmark of the righteous – that when they are about to leave this world, they put aside their personal needs and become preoccupied with the needs of the community.”

    Concern for the success of his successor: Moses is not just concerned about the people, but also concerned for the success of his replacement.  Despite his heartfelt disappointment that he would not himself be able to lead the people into their land, he asks God to appoint a leader who “may lead the people out, and who may bring them in”.  As the Midrash observes, Moses prayed that, unlike himself, the next leader would not only be permitted to begin his task by moving the Israelites out, but would also be allowed to conclude his mission by taking the people into the land of Israel. (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:16)

    Generosity in handing over the reigns of power: Once told by God that his own sons were unworthy to succeed him, Moses unselfishly transfers the reigns of power to Joshua.  The rabbis note that, whereas God told Moses to “lay your hand (in the singular) on Joshua”, (27:18) Moshe actually places both hands on him. (27:23)  Rashi emphasizes that Moses laid his hands on Joshua “generously, in much greater measure than he was commanded.”
    To this very day, the laying on of hands demonstrated by Moses, known as smikhah , is the way in which rabbinic ordination is given, and the line of Jewish authority passes from generation to generation.  In the eyes of the Jewish tradition, the concept of conveying leadership through the laying on of hands is very different from simply transferring one’s authority. As the Midrash describes it: the transfer of authority is like “emptying one vessel into another”. In other words, authority is a finite value, and the more I pass on the less I have.  But the laying on of hands, says the Midrash, is different; it is like “lighting one candle with another”. True leadership is not limited.  Those we touch with our leadership do not detract from our influence but increase it.  Indeed this may be Moses’ greatest message to leaders at every level of society. Authority may be finite, but true leadership is infinite.

    In others’ words

    “The debate goes on: Who shapes the face of history? – leaders or circumstances? My answer to you is: We all shape the face of history. We, the people. We, the farmers behind our plows, the teachers in our classrooms, the doctors saving lives, the scientists at our computers, the workers on the assembly lines, the builders on our scaffolds. We, the mothers blinking back tears as our sons are drafted into the army; we, the fathers who stay awake at night worried and anxious for our children’s safety. We, Jews and Arabs. We, Israelis and Jordanians. We, the people, we shape the face of history.

    “And we, the leaders, hear the voices, and sense the deepest emotions and feelings of the thousands and the millions, and translate them into reality.”

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

    On a lighter note

    From the bitter Jewish experiences in Tzarist Russia comes the following Jewish joke:
    In the shtetls of Tsarist Russia, no visitors were feared more than the “khappas”. These were the Russian officials whose job was to capture the children of the village and drag them away to serve in the Red Army. If they were captured they would not see their family again for years, if at all. So when the khappas came to a village, all the children would run as fast as they could to escape their grasp.
    In one village, when the khappas came, a bystander was surprised to see that along with all the children, an elderly man was also running away. “Hey, old man,” he called out. “Why should you be running?” The old man paused a moment to reply: “You think they don’t need generals?!”

  • Balak


    “a people that dwells alone”

    One of the most  hauntingly accurate descriptions of the Jewish people comes from the mouth of a non-Jewish prophet and appears in this week’s Torah reading. Worried by the success of the Israelites in their battle against the Amorites, the Moabite king Balak summons the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people. But Balak’s plans turn sour when, instead of cursing the people, Balaam actually praises them.

    Among the famous lines uttered by Balaam are these:

    Indeed (‘hen’) this is a people that dwells alone And is not counted among the nations. (Numbers XXIIII:9)

    Balak, the king is furious. “I summoned you to curse this people, and look you have praised them”, he complains. But is this prophetic statement about the isolated situation of the Jewish people really a blessing or a curse?

    That the people of Israel are singled out for special treatment is a fact of life familiar to every Israeli diplomat. Within many of the institutions of the international community there is no precedent or parallel for the attention given to Israel, or the discrimination exercised against it. Excluded from regional groupings, subjected to reams of hostile resolutions, and placed under a scrutiny that seems to bear no proportion to its size or importance, one cannot help be struck by the accuracy of this three thousand-year-old prophecy: Israel truly seems to be “a people that dwells alone, and is not counted among the nations”.

    But how should we relate to the unusual situation in which we find ourselves? Should we embrace it or fight against it? Is it an eternal fact of life to be accepted or a historical challenge that we should struggle to overcome? Attitudes to these questions underlie many of the ideological debates within Israeli society, from those who view the aim of the State as being to normalize the situation of the Jewish people as ‘a people like all others’ to those who see the challenge of Israel to reflect unique Jewish values as ‘a light to the nations’.

    The attitudes of the commentators throughout the ages to this prophecy of Balaam’s reflect a variety of attitudes to the isolation of the Jewish people. Here are four different interpretations of Balaam’s prophecy, each suggesting a different approach:

    Separateness as part of the natural order:  The Midrash (Shemot Rabba) picks up on the curious Hebrew word ‘hen’ with which Balaam introduces this prophecy, and notes that it comprises the two Hebrew letters heh and nun . The Midrash points out that all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have pairs except for these two. In the first part of the alphabet,  the letter aleph pairs with tet  to make a total of 10, so bet pairs with chet  to makes ten, so  gimel with zayin makes ten, leaving heh alone. Similarly with the later letters, yod and tsadi make 100, as do lamed and ayin,  and so on leaving the letter nun alone and unpartnered. Just as these two letters remain apart, concludes the Midrash so it is decreed that the Jewish people is destined to remain separate from the other nations.

    Separateness as a reflection of antisemitism: Rashi, the classic 11th century French commentator sees the word ‘hen’ as deriving from the word hana’a, enjoyment, and gives the sentence a very pessimistic reading:
    “When the Jewish people are happy, no other nation is happy along with them.”

    Separateness as a necessity for Jewish survival: Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Netziv of Volozhin, Lithuania C19th) suggests that verse needs to be punctuated differently, reading it as: ‘They are a nation that when alone – dwells’. In other words, as long as the Jewish nation retains its special character, it will survive.  But when it loses its particular identity, then it is in danger of losing the secret of its survival.

    Separateness as a challenge to Jewish action:  Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Holocaust survivor, Israel Lau, has suggested that Balaam’s prophecy should not be read alone, but together with another sentence of prophecy later in this weeks reading, which also begins with the word ‘hen’ –  “hen am ke-lavi yakum” – ‘this is a people that will rise up like a lioness’. Balaam’s focus on Israel’s isolation, Lau suggests, is only the first half of a two part prophecy that calls on Israel to rise to action and take control of its destiny. These four different approaches suggest radically different readings of the Balaam’s prophecy. Yet they all have one striking aspect in common. They all accept, as indisputable fact, the truth of Balaam’s observation that Israel is indeed isolated and separate (for a different approach see In others’ words below).

    So perhaps it is fitting that this week’s haftarah, the reading from the prophets, counterbalances this particularistic approach, opening with a vision of the Jewish people not as isolated but as an integral part of humankind, with a message not just for one ethnic group, but for all mankind:

    And the remnant of Jacob shall be in the midst of many peoples, as dew from the Lord, and as showers upon the grass… (Micah V:)

    In others’ words

    Two different Israeli perspectives on ‘dwelling alone’:

    “The theory of classic Zionism was national normalization. What was wrong with the theory? It was the belief that the idea of a ‘people that dwells alone’ [Num 23:9] is an abnormal concept, when actually a ‘people that dwells alone’ is the natural concept of the Jewish people. That is why this one phrase still describes the totality of the extraordinary phenomenon of Israel’s revival. If one asks how the ingathering of the exiles, which no one could have imagined in his wildest dreams, came about, or how the State of Israel could endure such severe security challenges, or how it has built up such a flourishing economy… one must come back to the primary idea that this is ‘a people that dwells alone.”

    Ambassador Yaakov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone

    “No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone’ and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.’ We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation and co-operation that is spreading over the entire globe these days — lest we be the last to remain, all alone, in the station.”

    Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Address to the Knesset, July 1992

    On a lighter note

    A famous antisemitic jingle summarized antagonism to the Jewish idea of separateness in four short lines:

    “How odd
    of God
    to choose
    the Jews.”

    Jews, of course, are not ones to remain silent in the face of criticism, and this hostile little ditty generated at least two responses. The first, focused on the absurdity of anti-semites who have no problem accepting a son of the Jews as their Messiah:


    “But not so odd
    as those who choose
    the Jewish God
    but spurn the Jews”

    The second, less deep perhaps, but no less effective;

    “Not odd
    of God;
    the goyim
    annoy ‘im!”

    And as a final blow in self defense,  the Jewish poet Humbert Wolfe suggested the following epitaph for G.K.Chesterton, the Catholic anti-semite  who is credited with the writing the original poem in the first place:


    Here lies G. K. Chesterton
    Who to Heaven would have gone,
    But didn’t when he heard the news
    That the place was run by Jews!

  • Chukat


    sticks and stones

    Shortly before they complete their wandering in the wilderness and enter the land of Israel, the Israelites complain they are thirsty for water. Moses prays to God, who tells him to take his staff, assemble the people by a rock, and then to ‘speak to the rock’.  When he does so, God assures him, the rock will give forth water.

    What follows is one of the most puzzling – and tragic – episodes in the entire Bible. Moses takes the staff, but instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it. Water gushes out, but Moses is punished. On account of this incident, God tells him, he will not be permitted to lead the Israelites into their land.

    Why should Moses have disobeyed this simple command? And why should his punishment have been so severe, depriving him of his dream of leading the Jewish people into the land of Israel?

    Over the centuries Jewish commentators have struggled with these questions and proposed literally dozens of answers. But one suggestion in particular seems to have a resonance for our time, a suggestion put forward by the 18th century German commentator, Rabbi Isaac Bernays.

    For Bernays, the clue to the answer lies in an episode which took place nearly forty years earlier. As described in parshat Beshalach, shortly after the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel complained that they had nothing to drink. In that particular instance, God commanded Moses to take his staff and hit the rock with it. Moses did this and water came out for the people.

    With this in mind, Moses behaviour in this week’s portion seems even stranger. He did exactly what he had been commanded to do in the same situation forty years earlier. So to the original question another question must be added: Why did God change the rules of the game, telling Moses to speak to the rock this time rather than hitting it?

    Bernays points out that the two episodes took place at two very different moments in Jewish history. The first occurred just after the Children of Israel left Egypt and were about to begin a prolonged period in the wilderness, in which their survival would be dependent on miraculous and divine protection: a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, and for food manna falling from heaven. In such a world, when water is scarce, the way to resolve the crisis is with a miracle. For this reason God commands Moses to use his staff – the same supernatural staff that wrought all the miracles in Egypt – to bring about yet another miracle.

    But the episode in this week’s portion takes place forty years later.  At this moment the Children of Israel are standing on the threshold of a very different type of existence. They are about to enter their own land, and to start building their own society with their own hands.  No longer will they be able to rely on divine intervention; now they must use their own potential. For this reason, God tells Moses that, while he can still hold the staff as a sign of God’s presence, he must talk to the rock himself, and use his voice to bring forth water.  What will lead the people from now on, he is being told, is not the miraculous staff in his hand but the words that come out of his mouth.

    This focus on Moses now being required to rely on his own words is reflected in the wording of God’s command to Moses. God tells him: “Daber el haselah” – “Speak to the rock”, but he does not tell him what to actually say. In fact, of the hundreds of times in the Bible that God commands Moses to speak, this is the only one in which he does not tell him exactly what he should say. This is the crucial test for Moses. Can he make the transition from being a desert leader, who is a channel for God’s word and relies on miracles, to being a leader in the new reality of the land of Israel, in which he will rely on his own potential? For Moses, it turns out, the transition is too great. He cannot find his own words and relies, as in the past, on the staff of God.

    It seems that Moses, the greatest of all prophets, even prophesied his own failure. At his very first encounter with God, at the burning bush, he insisted that he was not cut out for the task of leading the Jewish people. “I am not a man of words”, he insisted.   God’s reassuring answer to him was not to worry:  “I will be with your mouth, and will instruct you what to say”. And indeed for 40 years God did just that, telling Moses exactly what to say in every situation. Until the moment that the Jewish people were on the verge of entering their land and a new model of leadership was required. At that time, just as Moses had predicted, he was not the man for the task. His own words failed him, and it fell to another leader to take over the challenge of leading the people into a land where human potential, rather than miracles, would play the greatest role in determining their fate.

    In others’ words

    In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.

    David Ben Gurion, interview on CBS-TV, October 5, 1956

    On a lighter note

    “If only God would give me a sign – like making a large deposit in my name to a Swiss bank account!”

    Woody Allen

  • Korach


    arguing for the sake of heaven

    Every argument for the sake of heaven will in the end be of lasting value, but every argument not for the sake of heaven will not endure. Which is an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument between Hillel and Shammai. Which is an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Korach and his company. (Mishna, Avot 5:17)

    For Jews and Israelis, argument and lively debate are a way of life. But the Mishnah is careful to point out that there are actually two types of argument. The type of argument which is of lasting value is typified by the arguments between the great scholars Hillel and Shammai. The type to be avoided is the one we read about in this week’s reading, that of the rebel Korach and his followers.

    What is it about Korach’s argument that makes it the archetype of the destructive disagreement, and what it is about Hillel and Shammai that makes their disputes ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’?

    In this week’s portion Korach, a cousin of Moses, amasses 250 followers and launches a rebellion against Moses.  Although Korach is careful to clothe his claims in democratic rhetoric (“All the people are holy” he insists, “why do you raise yourself above them?”), to the rabbis it is clear that he is not motivated by anything other than personal ambition. Indeed, in the Mishna quoted above, one would expect that by contrast to the phrase ‘Hillel and Shammai’, the Mishna would refer to the argument between ‘Korach and Moses’. But instead it refers only to ‘Korach and his followers’, since they had no real quarrel of substance with Moses. As the Meiri (France, C13th -14th) notes: “Korach’s motivation was to undermine Moses and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory.”

    For the Mishna, the opposite of having an argument like that of Korach, is not have no argument at all, but rather having the right kind of argument. This kind of argument is typified by the debates between the great Mishnaic scholars Hillel and Shammai. Indeed much of the Mishna records the differences of opinion between these two scholars, and later, between their schools of followers. At one point the Mishna asks why, if the law in each case goes according to only one of them, the opposing opinion has to be recorded:

    Why was it necessary to record the views of both Shammai and Hillel, seemingly for no purpose? To teach future generations that one should not stubbornly insist on one’s views, since the great teachers did not obstinately maintain their positions. (Mishna, Eduyot 1:4)

    For the Mishna, the primary difference between Korach on the one hand, and Hillel and Shammai on the other, is that the former was motivated by personal ambition while the latter were motivated by a desire to find the truth. As the Meiri puts it: “In [Hillel and Shammai’s] debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of obstinacy or a wish to prevail over his fellow.

    But the Mishna also highlights another difference between the two types of dispute; while Korach was seeking to foment rebellion and discord among the people, Hillel and Shammai, even as they argued about fundamental questions for law and principle, remained keenly aware of the need to preserve unity among the people. The description given by the Mishna is striking in its relevance to the fractured state of Jewish life today:

    Although one school declared some people ineligible for marriage that the others declared eligible, nevertheless the School of Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the families of the School of Hillel and the families of the School of Hillel did not refrain from marrying women from the School of Shammai. And notwithstanding all their disputes concerning questions of purity and impurity, they did not refrain from using one another’s belongings… (Mishna, Eduyot 4:8).

    With all the arguments and debate in Jewish and Israeli public life, the contrast between Korach, and Hillel and Shammai, suggests two questions that may be worth asking when we find ourselves with differences of opinion: Are we genuinely motivated by desire to discover the truth – even if it conflicts with our own opinion? And, even as we differ in our opinions, are we making an effort to preserve the unity between us? If we can answer both questions affirmatively, the Mishna suggests, then we can be confident that our arguments are truly ‘for the sake of heaven’ and that their value will endure.

    In others’ words

    “This is not the first crisis in our history, and I am sure it is not the last. It is also by no means the worst crisis. But this does not ease the pain it inflicts, the anxiety it promotes, and the alienation it causes. We cannot, we must not allow this crisis to become a disaster. We cannot, we must not allow it to pull us apart. Our sages tell us that fraternal hatred caused the destruction of the Temple. We will betray the trust of all Jews if we let mutual resentment and hostility overwhelm us again. In this case too, we must unite behind those things that truly bind us to one another.”

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Speech to Council of Jewish Federations, November 1997

    On a lighter note:

    A young rabbi went to take up a position in his new community. On his very first Shabbat, the Torah portion happened to include the Ten Commandments. When the time to read this section came, half the congregation stood up, and other half remained seated. Soon a fierce argument broke out between the two halves of the congregation as to whether they should stand or sit.
    The rabbi looked desperately at the chazzan and the gabbai of the synagogue. “Tell me” he asked, “What is the custom in this community?”
    “We always stand,” declared the chazzan.
    “No, we always sit,” insisted the gabbai.
    Eventually, the rabbi decided that he would travel with the chazzan and the gabbai to a nearby old age home, where Mr. Gradstein, one of the founder members of the community was still living.
    The following day, the three drove to the old age home, and entered Mr. Gradstein’s room.
    “We’ve come to ask you about the synagogue’s custom for reading the Ten Commandments,” explained the rabbi.
    “We’ve always stood, haven’t we, Mr. Gradstein”, shouted the Chazzan excitedly.
    “No,” said the old man, “that wasn’t the custom.”
    “See, we’ve always sat down, haven’t we?” insisted the gabbai.
    “No,” said the old man. “That wasn’t the custom either.”
    “But Mr. Gradstein”, pleaded the rabbi. “You have to help us find out the custom. At the moment it’s dreadful: half the congregation stands, half sits, and everyone shouts at each other.”
    “Ah”, said the old man. “That’s the custom!”

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