Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Actively remembering

Parshat Chukat

In Parshat Chukat we read about the story of Hashem sending the snakes to bite the people as punishment for (yet again) complaining how Moshe could dare take them out of Egypt with no bread or water in the desert. Hashem sends the poisonous snakes to bite them and people start dying.

In 21:8 hashem tells Moshe to make a “saraf” (fiery serpent) and place it on a pole. Whoever would look at it would be healed and whoever would not look at it would not be healed. Rashi brings the words of Chaza”l who ask how could looking at the snake heal the people? Rather when they would look at the snake they would remember their Father in Heaven, Hashem, and repent. Those who did not look at the snake would have no catalyst to cause them to think about Hashem and repentance, hence they would die.

Why did this have to be part of the healing process? Moshe davened to Hashem to stop the snakes and Hashems response was to put a snake on a pole. Why did He require this? He has sent many plagues in the past which he cancelled without doing anything so strange, so why here did He require such an act of participation on the people’s behalf?

Because their sin was one of lack of faith (they asked and complained about having been taken from Egypt into a barren desert), Hashem could not just heal them and let bygones be bygones. Next week it would happen again, as it has already occurred a number of times. The only way to nip it in the bud was to make them realize on their own what their mistake was. By telling Moshe to put the snake on a stick and make them look at it to get healed, He was forcing them to think about what they had done wrong, thereby allowing them to repent for the lack of faith. Living in the desert was an experience of truly miraculous proportions. Every moment they were surrounded by unusual miracles. They just did not think about them and realize Hashem is taking care of them.

Their participation in the healing process would force them to think about it and later to remember the lessons of the past, thereby ensuring it would not happen again.

When you participate in a process, the results are often internalized in a much greater way than by one who simply observes from the outside.

Hitting the rock, hitting the Jews

Parshat Chukat

We read the story how the Jews complained about not having water to drink. Moshe was told to speak to the rock in front of the nation and water would come forth to satisfy the thirst of the people. Moshe hit the rock, the people drank and Moshe got punished for hitting rather than speaking.

In 20:12 Hashem punishes Moshe for hitting the rock, He says, “Because you did not have faith to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, etc..”. Rashi explains this verse that had Moshe spoken to the rock, the people would have extrapolated from the event that just as the rock was spoken to and did as it was told despite the fact that it receives no punishment for not listening, how much more so do I have to listen to Hashem’s word when I do get punished for not listening.

I was thinking about this “kal v’chomer” that the people would make to learn the lesson Hashem wanted them/us to learn. It seems that had Moshe spoken they would have naturally come up on their own with the above extrapolation. That means, I think, that now that Moshe hit the rock, they are coming up naturally with a different extrapolation. That kal v’chomer must have been – “Moshe hit the rock and it listened, so Hashem will hit us and we will listen (I.e. if we do not listen Hashem will hit us).”

If my thoughts are correct that the lesson we were supposed to learn was avoided and instead we learned a different lesson, it is understandable why Moshe was punished so harshly for a seemingly slight mistake (after all, hitting a rock to draw water is also a pretty big miracle). That would be because look at the lesson he taught them. He taught them (or at least made them think so) by his actions that God is a harsh God and quick to hit to have people act in accordance with His will. That is not the lesson Hashem wanted conveyed, because it is not true.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Visual Aids

Parshat Korach

After the Fear Factor/Survivor challenge between Korach and Aharon (or maybe The Apprentice is a better analogy) comes to a conclusion, Moshe, unbelievably, still finds doubters among the people. He goes back to the crowd and people say he was too harsh with Korach’s group, and they did not all need to die, and maybe Moshe sabotaged the challenge, etc.

Moshe comes up with another idea. He says the Nasi of each tribe should place his staff in the Holy Tent and the one that sprouts almonds would be a sign from God who is chosen for the job. They accept the idea, place the staffs, surprisingly Aharon’s staff sprouted almonds and everybody is calm and satisfied.

In 17:25 Hashem tells Moshe to place Aharon’s staff in the tabernacle as a reminder to the people, lest they should start complaining again. They would see the staff and remember all that happened.

Amazing that after all that happened, all they had seen and gone through, they would still need a stick and a pile of almonds to remind them. You would think the images of the ground swallowing the people would be seared in their minds. You would think seeing a stick sprout almonds would be unforgettable. Why is it necessary to keep the stick around as a reminder?

I think the answer is that until now also they had seen miracles of equal quality. The splitting of the sea. Water coming out of a rock. The daily Manna. The clouds and fire and daily protection form the elements. Yet despite all these miracles constantly flooding their experiences, they still keep finding reason to complain and to doubt Moshe. When you feel slighted, it does not matter how much your mind tells you that the other side is obviously correct – sometimes the only thing that can stop you in your tracks is a visual, physical reminder of what happened. Not just a memory, but something physical that forces you to remember honestly. That was the purpose of keeping the stick.

Last man standing

Parshat Korach

Concluding the stage of negotiating the challenge to see who would be Kohen Gadol, Moshe makes a seemingly innocuous condition. He says in 16:29-30 that if they will die a normal death, that will show that “Hashem did not send me” and if something unusual would be the cause of death such as the ground opening its mouth and swallowing them alive that would prove these people incited wrongfully against God.

Both sides of Moshe’s condition were based on the death of his opponents. If they die normally he is wrong, and of they die in a freak manner, he is right. Seems one-sided to me!? What about a condition, if Aharon dies that shows he is wrong? Why did they have to die no matter what? It does not seem like a fair deal - if they are right they die and if they are wrong they die?

I guess Moshe knew most of them would die even if Korach was right and he was wrong. Only one person could have the job and with 260 or so people vying for it, most people would die. It was not just a matter of losing the job and having to start sending out your resume again to new potential employers. Moshe knew that all losers would die. It was just a matter of whether he or Korach was right. If Moshe was right, they would die a horrific death. If Korach was right, they would die normal deaths.


Do you have anything to gain?

Parshat Korach

Korach started the argument for personal reasons. He wanted the job of nesius, he felt he deserved it, and the fight got notched up a few levels in the heat of the moment. Korach did not want to fight it alone and he found 250 other poor “victims” (victims of Korach’s persuasion I would suggest) to join him in his fight.

We are told nothing about these 250 people – other than of a select few. Why they joined Korach I have no idea, I can only assume he had powerful powers of persuasion, and maybe they did not like Moshe that much as it is. I do not know why they thought they deserved the position nor whether they believed they would win it when going up against 260 other people all claiming the same thing, with the possibility of death to the 259 or so losers. I am not sure what they were thinking.

It seems to me kind of pathetic that they joined the dispute at all and somehow it seems that they muist have been influenced by Korach, especially as it says Korach took them and rashi explains that to mean he took them in with his words. Korach convinced these guys they had a chance, when he knew they did not. I feel that might have been a worse offense than the dispute with Moshe. At least in the dispute with Moshe he had a possibly valid claim and wanted it verified. These guys had nothing and they were solely killed because Korach suckeres them into joining him, probably hoping they could force Moshe’s hand with their numbers.

Korach knew in advance that if anybody other than Aharon would win it would be him. We are told that he saw in a prophecy certain descendants of his. He took that to mean that he would be victorious, as he would clearly live if he was going to have descendants. He was mistaken because he did not realize his own children would back out of the dispute at the last minute. He knew these 250 or so people joining him had no chance. He knew it was either him or Aharon. Yet he still persuaded them to come join his fight. I find that despicable. He used them! And this was coming from someone who was one of the greatest people of the generation – he had nevuah, he was a leader, he was clearly persuasive and charismatic, we know he was learned and had the strength of mind and logic to make elephants jump through needles!!

When someone is trying to convince you to do something, check carefully to see what you will actually gain from the venture. See if he is using you for his own selfish purposes. Nobody, no matter how great they are, should be trusted automatically. Korach shows us that even the greatest of people can be looking out for their own interests and be willing to sacrifice innocent people to achieve their goals.

Who really appointed Aharon?

Parshat Korach

Korach had a dispute with Moshe as to who should lead the Jewish nation. He specifically was claiming the right to be Kohen Gadol for himself. We are told by Rashi and the Midrashim that his claim was based on what he felt was a personal slight.

Korach felt that he was skipped over for the Nesius (president or governor perhaps) position of the Kehas tribe in the Levite tribe. How so? Kehas had 4 sons. The eldest was Amram and his two sons took the first two positions, Moshe the leader and Aharon the Kohen Gadol. Next was Yitzhar and his children should have been appointed to the next positions in the food chain of power – the nesius of Kehas. That should then have gone to, so Korach felt, Korach, him being the eldest of Yitzhar’s children. Yet he was not appointed to the position. He was passed over and the job was given to Elitzafan the son of Uziel who was the youngest son of the 4 brothers. He came to claim the Nesius, and once he was making a claim, he changed it to the Kehuna, so he was basically questioning the validity of Moshe’s appointments, based on what he recognized as a bad appointment.

The argument between them proceeds as we all know and the rest of the story is history. In 16:15 after Moshe comes up and presents the terms of the challenge to find out who would be the Kohen, he is then angered by Dasan and Aviram who refuse to come before him for a conciliatory meeting. He turns to God and says a short prayer. He says do not accept their minchot – do not accept the korban they will bring.

I do not understand the purpose of this prayer. Assuming what we believe is true, that Moshe made all his appointments based on the command of Hashem, and nothing involved was personal, what was he davening for? He knew his appointments had been directed by God and by definition Hashem would only accept Aharon’s korban, and would not accept Dasan, Avirams or any of the other 250 people involved in the dispute! Hashem could not because they would have been bringing the korban inappropriately and would have to be killed like Nadav and Avihu had been killed. I understand why the people went ahead with it. They doubted Moshe and were challenging him. I do not understand Moshe – just by the very nature of his position and actions, he should have been confident of his victory over this uprising. Why would he feel the need to offer a special prayer for his victory?

Yes, I know Rashi says he was referring to other korbanos – not to accept any of the korbanos presented by these people, but that is hard to swallow as an answer – Moshe knew they were all about to be killed and would not be offering any more korbanot. It could be Rashi was bothered by the same question and felt the need to explain it referring to other korbanot, but I think that is an insufficient answer to my question.

If you have any suggestions and possible answers, please post it in the comments, or email me at – this question has been disturbing me for a few days now and I have not thought of a satisfactory answer.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Eretz Yisrael

Parshat Sh'Lach

There is really nothing more that needs to be expounded on in the main theme of the Parsha. No greater lesson can really be learned by expounding, rather than just looking simply at what happened.

The Jews were on the cusp of entering Israel. Any day now and they would be there. They just received the Torah. All cylinders were clicking and everything was going great. They start complaining and decide they need to send in spies to scout out the land. All they see is the bad, whether real or made up.
After they witnessed all the miracles of the dessert, did they really not think Hashem could help them conquer and settle the Land? Yet they spoke badly of the Land of Israel. They tried to dissuade the people from entering and building up the land.

The lesson is clear. We often hear people disparaging Israel. Be it the weather or the politics or the attitudes or the people or whatever. We have to see the good in Israel. Sure, we have to see the bad and try to improve it. But that would be looking at the bad with an eye to improve, rather than an eye to complain and disparage. Don't harp on the bad. See the good and encourage Aliyah, rather than discourage it.

Remember the Provider

Parshat Sh'Lach

The Torah in Chapter 15 describes the commandment of separating Challah from ones dough. In 15:20 and 15:21 it says from "the first of your dough".

The Torah uses the word "Reishit" a number of times. As far as I can remember, it is always in reference to one of the mitzvot hatluyot ba'aretz - a mitzva dependant on being in the land of Israel, generally one that has to do with agricultural aspects of being in Israel. Shemittah, Trumot and Maasrot, bikkurim, challah, etc..

The concept of giving from the first of ones produce or efforts is one of recognizing who is really the provider. The Jews wandered in the dessert for 40 years. They had all their needs taken care of and all their wants provided for. At worst they had to complain a little and then they were given what they wanted..
They are going to enter the Land of Israel and all that is going to end. Nothing will be given to them on a platter. They have to go back to living normal lives. They will have to work for their food. Plant, sow, plow, harvest - a lot of sweat and toil.

A person who works hard and eventually sees results from his labors, often takes the attitude that he has been successful in his efforts. We even say "Yagata U'Matzata, Ta'amin" - if you put forth effort and find success, believe (in your success). God tells us in advance that we should be careful from having such attitudes. When we give ourselves too much credit and forget who the actual provider is, we are headed for trouble. He therefore gave us a number of mitzvot whose goal is (or at leats in part) to protect us from having such thoughts and forgetting where our success really comes from.
After having planted and harvested and worked very hard for our produce, we are told to give the first fruits to the Kohanim and Leviim, or bring to the Bet Hamikdash, or let the land sit fallow for a year, or once a week stop working or separate from the first of the dough, etc. The first thing we do when we see the fruits of our labor is give some to Hashem (or His rep). This right away reminds us who really provided us with our success. It was not the toil of our hands and the sweat of oru brow. It was Hashem who made us successful. Don't forget it.

Monday, June 12, 2006

No Comment

Parshat B’Ha’Alotcha

Miriam and Aharon approach Moshe and complain that they heard he has separated from his wife. They say that Hashem does not only speak with him and if he separates from his wife, everyone else will as well. Moshe does not respond, rather the passuk in 12:3 tells us that Moshe was the most humble of men.

Passuk 12:3 seems to be out of place. Why is it here that the Torah decides to tell us that Moshe is the humblest of all men?

I think the reason is because the fact that Moshe was the humblest of all men was exactly the answer to Miriam’s issues and therefore it fits exactly. Moshe separated from his wife because Hashem told him to. He had to be ready at every available moment to talk directly with God. Sure, other people were great as well and spoke with God. However, nobody was doing it at the level of Moshe. Hashem even tells Miriam afterwards that they speak directly while everyone else speaks via dreams, etc..

Moshe was the humblest of all men and he therefore was not going to start bragging about how he had to separate from his wife because he speaks directly to God while everyone else only speaks in dreams. Because he was so humble he had no response available. Any response would have made him look haughty.

The proper attitude for a Jewish educator

Parshat B’Ha’Alotcha

In 11:29 Moshe responds to Yehoshua. Yehoshua had tried to defend Moshe’s honor. Moshe had gathered 70 elders to his tent to bestow upon them the ability to prophesize, thereby lightening the load on Moshe’s shoulders. Eldad and Medad, who had been left out of the group of 70, began prophesying on their own. The midrash tells us that they were prophesying regarding the future death of Moshe, and Yehoshua’s ascent to the leadership of the nation.

When Yehoshua heard this he felt Moshe’s honor had been affected. He stood up to defend Moshe’s honor and called for them to receive capital punishment for the great dishonor they caused to Moshe. Moshe responded that they should be left alone and he wishes that every Jew would be worthy to prophesize.

I had a cousin in a yeshiva for students with little to no background in learning Torah. After he spent two years learning in this yeshiva, it was time for him to leave to go back home to begin University. His rebbi asked him if he would consider sending his future children to learn in this yeshiva. He responded effusively that of course he would. He wants his children to learn in this yeshiva. It was great, they helped him grow so much, and he loved the rebbi and wants his kids to have the same rebbi.

The rebbi responded that if so, he was not successful. His goal in teaching this young man was to create a situation of growth so that he will not need to send his children to such a yeshiva, rather he would give his children a good yeshiva education and they would go to a yeshiva for kids with more background!

Moshe was not interested in his own personal honor. He was concerned with leading the Jewish Nation and effecting their growth. His highest goal was they should each and every person grows to the point that they no longer need Moshe telling them what to do and what Hashem wants. They should each be great in their own right and talk directly to God with no need for Moshe. When Yehoshua tried to defend Moshe’s honor, Moshe corrected him and said the fact that they are prophesying is making me deliriously happy! He wished everybody would reach that level of greatness!

That is a Jewish leader! That is a Jewish educator!