• Re’eh


    the choice before us


    See! I have placed before you today a blessing and a curse; the blessing that you shall listen to the commandments which I command you, and the curse if you will not listen…(Devarim XI: 26 – 28 )

    Moses’ famous call to the Israelites to follow the path of righteousness begins with the word “See!”  This is unusual, since the Jewish emphasis is far more on hearing than on seeing. In the Shema prayer, for example, not only do we stress the importance of hearing (“Hear O Israel…”), but we cover our eyes to avoid visual distractions.  But in this case the word “See!” is appropriate, because the choice between the path of blessing and the path of curse was to be presented to the Jewish people in a truly visual manner, in one of the most powerful psychodramas in the Bible.

    The Mishnah (Sotah 7:5) explains describes how this drama was enacted:

    When Israel crossed the Jordan and came to Mount Gerizim and to Mount Eval… six tribes went up to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six tribes to the top of Mount Eval. And the Priests and the Levites and the Ark of the  Covenant stood below in between…The Levites turned towards Mount Gerizim and uttered the blessings and all the people responded Amen. Then they turned their faces to Mount Eval and uttered the curses and all the people responded Amen… And afterwards they brought stones and wrote all the words of the law in seventy languages…

    It is hard to imagine a more dramatic enactment of a people at a moral crossroads, faced with a choice between two paths that would affect their common destiny. Although this enactment took place many centuries ago, three lessons from the ancient account still seem very relevant to the Jewish people as it confronts moral choices three thousand years later:

    • A just society is its own reward:  The commentators pick up on the curious wording of Moses’ commandment to the people.  Rather than saying ‘the blessing if (‘im’) you listen’, and’ ‘the curse if (‘im’) you don’t listen’, Moses only uses the word ‘if’ (‘im’) in relation to the curse. In relation to the blessing he uses the word ‘asher’ – ‘which’. So the verse is more properly translated as a saying: ‘the blessing which is that you listen to the commandments’. As the classic commentator the Malbim (Meir Lobush, Poland C19th) notes,  the wording suggests that the reason to follow these principles is not order to receive a blessing, but that building a society on these values is actually its own blessing and reward.

    • Our choices affect ourselves – and our society: Moses’ command is unusual in another respect; it begins in the singular but continues in the plural.  Every one of us, it suggests, must learn to see ourselves as bearing individual responsibility for the fate of the community. The significance of every individual, and the ability of each member of society to tilt the balance one way or the other, could not be made more vivid that by the picture of  tribes equally balanced,  on each mountaintop. Indeed, according to the Talmud (Tractate Shavuot 37b), it was at this very moment the Jewish people accepted the idea of communal responsibility.

    • The Jewish people – chosen to choose: Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the dramatic description of the event quoted in the Mishna above is not the standing on the mountain or the blessing and the curse, but the short verse which follows. Once the ceremony was over, the Israelites brought stones and carved the words of the law in seventy languages. As Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, C19th) points out, at the very moment of making their choice, the Jewish people were to acknowledge that the values to which they committed themselves were not just national, but were universal. The Jewish people were chosen to choose, and by doing so to be the bearer of basic moral values to the world at large.

    Modern Israel, situated as it is in the heart of the Middle East, finds itself almost as much of an anomaly in terms of the values it represents as did the ancient Israelites. In committing ourselves to preserve basic rights and freedoms, even in the face of pressures and challenges, the ancient ceremony recorded in this portion reminds us that the establishment of a just society is a reward in itself, that this effort has to be made by every individual to affect society at large, and that in building such a society we are carrying a message to our region and the world at large.

    In others’ words

    “Jewish legend tells of a tyrant who would play a cruel trick on his subjects. Holding a tiny bird in his hands he would ask, on pain of death, whether the bird was alive or dead. If the subject answered “dead”, the tyrant would release the bird; if the answer was: “alive”, he would crush the bird between his hands.

    “One day a wise sage was brought to the tyrant and asked the question: ‘Is the bird alive or dead?’ The sage, aware of the tyrant’s trap, thought long and hard. ‘The answer to that question,’ he said finally, ‘lies in your hands.’”

    Ambassador Dore Gold, Statement before Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, July 1997

    On a lighter note

    A Rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were driving to a seminar when they were kidnapped. After stealing their money, the kidnappers told them that they could choose one final request before they were killed.

    “My last wish,” began the Rabbi, is to give a fascinating, complicated, long sermon that I have always wanted to but never been allowed to give.”

    “We will grant your wish,” the hijackers replied.

    “My last wish,” said the cantor, “is to sing a beautiful, Yemenite style song, one of my own composition, lasting two hours. I have never been allowed to sing it.”

    “We’ll let you sing it,” replied the hijackers.

    “What is your last wish?” the hijackers asked the synagogue president.

    “Please, please shoot me now.”

  • 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!”

  • 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!”

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