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Torah Commentary

Balak: Love and curses

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“Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotechah Yisrael!” —

“How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.”

These beautiful words of blessing stir up warm memories of growing up Jewish. They were among the first holy verses that I sang and chanted with peers in school and in camp. And yet, I wonder how these words of blessing — uttered by Bilam, who came to curse — got into our Torah in the first place.

When Bilam is hired to curse the Jewish People, God blocks his curse and turns it into a blessing. At the heart of this story is the question of why God, who runs the world, was concerned with Bilam’s curse. Bilam himself concedes that “there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel” (Bamidbar 23:23). Why did this story unfold as it did? What lesson does it contain that makes it worthy of being in the Torah?

Nechama Leibowitz quotes the commentary of Rav Yosef Ibn Kaspi. He asserts a truth regarding relationships to explain why God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing. As Kaspi puts it, “A true friend will save his colleague any pain, even if he knows that no danger will ensue. Similarly, the Almighty, out of the abundance of his love for Israel, prevented Bilam from cursing them.” When you really love someone, you care about that which matters to them, even if you know it to be insignificant. God knew that the Israelites were afraid of Bilam’s curse, so He not only prevented Bilam from saying his negative words but He flipped them into blessings, all because of His love for His people.

Ibn Kaspi’s take on Parshat Balak exposes the subconscious layer of the literal text, revealing God’s love of the Jewish People as the theme of this episode. God is modeling a loving relationship for us, and thus we must try to be like God, fulfilling the mandate of Imitatio Dei. We need to remember that what matters to others aren’t necessarily the things that we think are important. To truly care for another person means to be sensitive to what they care about. When those around us are concerned about something, even if we don’t understand why they care about it, true friendship and love dictates that we be supportive of their feelings.

When God took the Jews out of Egypt He took us the long way in order to avoid war. He could have told the Jews to buckle up and that He was with them and they didn’t have to be afraid. Instead, He respected and accommodated to people’s fears rather than challenging their feelings, which He knew were objectively unwarranted.

The Rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot that every human being is beloved by God. This love is made clear by the awareness we are granted of the fact that we were created in the image of God. Additionally, that love is evidenced by the giving of the Torah and by our being deemed children of God. Similarly, before we fulfill our obligation of reciting Shema in the day and the night, we reference God’s “abundant love” for us, highlighting this aspect of the relationship.

God turned Bilam’s curse into a blessing at a time of transition, right after the decree that Moshe would not enter the Land of Israel. The generation that left Egypt had died out; the new generation was feeling insecure as they prepared to finally enter the Promised Land and they needed and were given a reassurance of God’s love.

May this illustration of God’s great love for His people in the desert cause us to recall and be inspired by the immeasurable love that God has for each of us today. May we approach our spiritual lives with a sense of God’s love and reciprocate that love through joyous involvement in Torah life, rather than regarding our observance of mitzvot as a mandated burden. And may we all strive and succeed to follow His ways and to be there for each other in vulnerable times when we are needed most.


Chukat: The price of disobedience

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It is difficult to read the episode of Moshe hitting the rock without feeling bad for Moshe. The devoted leader of the Jewish people for 40 years made a small deviation from God’s instructions. For that he is punished and banned from entering the land of Israel.

What happened? The miraculous well of water that traveled with the Jewish people had dried up when Miriam died, so the Jewish people complained of thirst. God instructed Moshe to speak to the rock so that it would give forth water. Moshe, reflecting his earlier experience when he drew water by striking a rock, decided instead to hit the rock instead of speaking to it.

Does Moshe not deserve a second chance? Why was this one episode so important?

The Holy Ari explained that Moshe’s sin was identical to that of Adam eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Moshe hit the rock, “sela” in Hebrew, and Adam ate from the tree, “eitz” in Hebrew. The two words “sela” and “eitz” are numerically the same: They each equal the number 160.

Adam’s one act of not adhering to the exact instructions of his creator redirected the entire world into a place of challenge and darkness.

So too, Moshe’s failure to adhere to the exact instructions of the Almighty led to his being unable to enter the land and secure an eternal redemption for the Jewish people. Instead, Joshua led the Jewish nation and exile continued.

The human being has intellectual, logical, and communicative abilities that make us unique and superior to all creatures. However, this does not negate our responsibility to precisely adhere to the instructions of God, even when it does not fit into our world of logic and reason.

By deviating from the instructions of God, we risk, like Moshe and Adam, redirecting our entire path.

God gives us a variety of instructions. Some logically appear to be self evident (“mishpatim”), others can be understood through the process of intellect (“eidut”), yet some surpass rationality and cannot be understood in our world of consciousness (“chukim”).

Adhering to the laws that are beyond rationality is as important as following the logical ones. The difference is only in our perspective.

Every soul is composed of five dimensions: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya, yechida. These correspond to animation, emotion, intellect, subconscious, and the spark of the soul — the quintessential essence of our existence.

Our prayers on Yom Kippur are divided into five sections corresponding to each of these elements. At the height of Yom Kippur (Neilah), when we have ascended through the five dimensions and express our complete unity with the Almighty, we scream “Sh’ma Yisroel,” attesting that we are completely committed to God and we have permeated our entire existence to be one with Godliness.

Just as one cannot deprive a human being of intellectual, emotional, or physical expression, one cannot suppress their extra-rational or quintessential expression. If we try to suppress our faith or irrational commitment to the Almighty, it will express itself elsewhere, where it may not belong. We will find ourselves irrationally attached or committed to something inappropriate, frivolous, or dangerous.

The Holy Ari teaches that every soul is placed in this world with a mission. The Torah and its mitzvot is the guide to navigate through life to help us achieve our individual life’s mission.

Every mitzvah instruction of God should be adhered to, regardless of our inability to comprehend its importance. Every Jew is infused with a deep calling to connect to God. Some conceal or suppress those feelings, but eventually they will surface.

That is the job of the Moses in every generation to inspire and nourish the faith of every Jew to prepare the world for the day when our collective mission will be complete, when Godliness will be visible and revealed, speedily in our days.


Korach: What kind of leadership?

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Who speaks for the people?

Does having a leader at the front of a movement indicate strength, or does it open the potential for egos to obscure the collective message?

Parashat Korach sits at the crossroads of these questions, as the Israelite murmurings of dissent and complaints against Moses coalesce into revolt.

Complaint for the nation of former slaves is nothing new, but now a leader attempts to speak for them. Korach’s claim resonates: “For all of the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

If everyone is holy, why does one person have closer access to God? Moses’s initial silence — his chagrin that causes him to fall on his face — stems from his ongoing questioning about the leadership role that God has chosen him for. Maybe, for a second, he believes that Korach is right.

The Torah is suspicious of Korach’s argument even before it is raised.

He might speak for the people, but he is introduced by his lineage, as are his co-conspirators, and by their roles as “chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.” (Number 16:2) These are not the Israelite rank and file; they might not have the direct access to God that Moses does, but they have power.

Once Moses recovers, he recognizes that it is ego, and not a greater good, that motivates their actions. He sets up a contest between individuals, challenging Korach and his followers to demonstrate that they can be spokespeople for God.

This challenge makes visible a divide between leadership in the name of service and leadership out of the need for recognition. Korach needs to be seen as needed, even as he speaks for the many. And by doing so, rather than giving voice to the masses of Israelites, he silences them.

Leaders can take over a movement or they can confer legitimacy. We are so used to looking for the Moses in any given movement that we might fail to recognize different models of leadership.

One of the critiques of the #BlackLivesMatter movement of the past year is that leaders have not emerged — that there is no modern Martin Luther King, Jr. The youth protesters’ response has been that they are not leaderless but leaderful, a movement of the many. Another activist characterized their approach to change as “Low ego, high impact.” This model is a critical challenge to a narrative of social change that is told through the leadership of extraordinary individuals.

Being Moses is great — but looking for Moses opens the door for the creation of Korach as well.

The chasidic dilemma, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” is critical for leaders who are so bent on being Moses that they forget what Moses largely did not — that leadership is a form of service.

Maybe if the Israelites, in their thirst and pain, had tried to be leaderful, they could have asked Moses deeper questions. They could have had holy rebellion, and brought transformation, rather than death. Movements of the many are the living embodiment of Korach’s truthful challenge: “For all of the community are holy.” To be part of such a movement can be to live in holy space.

Last fall, two days before Thanksgiving, I marched with thousands of other activists through the streets of New York, protesting the failure of a Missouri grand jury to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown. In my professional role as an activist, I’m used to being at the head of rallies, but that night, there was tremendous power in being one with the crowd as we marched up the FDR, chanted “Whose streets? Our streets?” and held silent vigil outside the U.N. for those who died through state violence. It was important that leaders like myself were there as participants — and that we had put our egos aside. There was no Korach — and there was no Moses. But there were many, many Zusyas.


Parshah Shelach — Joshua: champion of moderation

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Judging from our history, leading the Jewish people is a unique challenge. Even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals the many obstacles Moses faced shepherding the nation of Israel out of Egypt and through the desert. I’m sure he would be able relate to the story that is told about the American president and Israeli prime minister comparing their jobs. The president comments that it’s not easy to be the president of several hundred million people, to which the prime minister responds, try being the prime minister of three million prime ministers.

In this week’s Torah reading, the most difficult events of national rebellion and betrayal climax with the sin of the spies and the people’s ensuing despair. And yet while many other biblical leaders faced similar challenges like Moses to varying degrees, there is one notable exception. Joshua, Moses’ successor, faces no rebellions and no national betrayals of God as he leads the people into the land of Israel and settles them there. In fact, the book of Joshua concludes with “Israel served God all the days of Joshua.” (Joshua 24:31) Moses endured a number of bitter moments of conflict and national sin and even goes so far as to say that God became angry at him because of the people, and here his student faces no such challenges whatsoever. What was it about Joshua that he enjoyed leading a generation so loyal to God and to his leadership?

Looking at the story of the sin of the spies we can find the roots of Joshua’s unique personality and sense of leadership. When the Jewish people accept the negative report of the 10 wicked spies and abandon all hope of settling the land of Israel, there is a notable contrast in the reaction of Moses and Aaron on the one hand and that of Joshua and Calev on the other hand. While the former pair falls on their faces making no attempt to address the people, Joshua and Calev follow the rending of their garments with a rebuttal of the claims of the 10 spies. “And they spoke to the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.’” (Bamidbar 14:7) One way to account for this difference is to recognize that Moses and Aaron belong to the older generation and had difficulty understanding and relating to the malcontent younger generation in the desert. Joshua and Calev are able to address the people because they belong to this younger generation. According to the rabbis, there was already a prophecy that declared that Moses would not lead the people into Israel, while Joshua would. This episode represents just one of several indicators that Moses and Aaron are becoming increasingly estranged from the younger generation that was expected to conquer and settle the land.

Nevertheless, if we look further at the details of the aftermath of the sin of the spies we find that Joshua and Calev diverge in their responses. Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein observes in his book, “Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People,” that prior to their aforementioned joint statement to the people, it is only Calev who reacts and speaks up when the wicked spies initially give their report. “And Calev silenced the people toward Moses, and said: ‘We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.’” (Bamidbar 13:30) Calev makes a bold stand against the other spies and pointedly exhorts the people to ignore them. Joshua, however, avoids this more confrontational approach and instead joins in the more moderate statement that simply asserts that the land of Israel “is an exceedingly good land.” Indeed, the Torah recognizes these differing approaches later on. In the first chapter of the book of Devarim, Moses observes that the only members of the generation who left Egypt who will enter the land are Calev, who will inherit a special portion in the land because “he followed God wholeheartedly,” and Joshua because he will settle the people in the land. Calev is rewarded for his self-sacrifice while Joshua is not given any such reward. He merits entry not because of his actions. He simply was destined to lead the people there. While Calev’s bold action in defending God’s honor garners praise and reward, it doesn’t earn him any responsibilities because his reaction had no effect on the people. Certainly he sanctified God’s name in his bold gesture standing up for God in the face of rebellion, but in this case such a stance yielded no practical consequences for the people. Joshua, however, walks a different path. He chooses his battles. He doesn’t rebuff the spies and the people once he sees that such an attempt would be futile. He remains silent in order to cultivate his relationships with others, ensuring that he remain an effective leader. Having a sense of politics, he works behind the scenes at this point. Joshua is more focused on educating the people and restoring their sense of priorities as he knows he will be the one leading them.

The success that Joshua enjoyed as a leader can be traced back directly to moments like this one in which Joshua assumes this moderate approach. His commitment to God and Torah was shown not through bold declarations this time, but rather through patience and hard work in the areas of education and spiritual guidance. Joshua’s moderate voice was able to penetrate more deeply than Calev’s loud declaration. In fact, the rabbis say that the elders of this generation observed that the face of Moses was like the sun while the face of Joshua was like the moon. Moses, who received the Torah directly from God, possessed a spiritual intensity that was as difficult to approach as it is to look into the bright light of the sun. Joshua, the student of Moses, was able to reflect this light just as the moon reflects the light of the sun in a fashion that allowed for a closer relationship with the people. Joshua’s moderation was easier to handle.

We hear many voices today, largely due to the proliferation and anonymity of the Internet. And with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and the smartphone, an environment has been fostered in which we face an onslaught of slogans, headlines, and catchphrases from individuals, companies, and organizations competing for our attention to buy their product and or buy into their opinion. The result of this reality is that many important, complex issues are boiled down into bold Calev-type declarations — pithy, declarative slogans and sound-bytes. Nuance and complexity are sacrificed for the sake of one-upmanship and making information easily digestible. So much discourse regarding politics, social issues, and the like, especially in comment threads on blogs, are reduced to the level of what I like to call “bumper sticker sophistication.” Ideological lines are drawn hard and fast in black or white with little room for other opinions or moderate voices in between. There are certainly moments that call upon us to make a bold stand like Calev. But our standard, every-day mode of communication should match Joshua’s voice — a voice that communicates and teaches in a deliberate fashion marked by patience, diligence, moderation, and sophistication.

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