Monday, July 24, 2006

A test drive

Parshat Devarim

Moshe begins his review of the events of the travels through the dessert. He gets to the tale of the sending of the spies to Israel and he says that you came to me and wanted to send spies, etc.. In 1:23 Moshe says, “the idea was good in my eyes.”

Rashi aks if Moshe approved of the idea, why does he seem to be criticizing them? He explains that it is like a car salesman (he actually uses donkey instead of car, but I am paraphrasing). A guy is trying to sell a car. A customer comes in and asks questions. Finally he asks if he can take it for a test ride. The saleman says of course. Than he asks what about uphill? Downhill? In the sun? In the rain? Etc.. and the saleman keeps on responding in the affirmative.

When the buyer sees that the seller has nothing to hide and is willing to let him test it under any condition, he says I have no need for a test drive, I see from your confidence that nothing is wrong with it and I will buy it right now.

The same is true with Moshe. He thought that by his displaying confidence and agreeing to send the spies to Israel, they would say that if Moshe is so confident that everything there is ok that he is even willing to let us send spies, it must be fine and they would drop the idea of spies and just go in.

My question is, why would Moshe think his confidence would inspire them? What is the comparison to the car salesman – after all, the car salesman knows the specs of the car and where it works and has problems. His confidence really would inspire a potential customer. However, Moshe never saw the Land of Israel that he would have any reason to have confidence in what he was offering them? Why should his sales pitch inspire them when they knew that all his info was only second hand?

Moshe spoke directly with God and that is where his information came from. Moshe heard how great the Land of Israel is directly from the mouth of God. He was not trying to pass off bad information – he was passing on the word of God. He was so in tune with God and so in sync with God and Gods will that if God said the Land is great, Moshe can confidently say it as well, as if he had even seen it himself. Moshe had no doubts whatsoever of Gods intentions and sincerity.

That is why he assumed his confidence would inspire the buyer. However, he “forgot” that they were not on the same level as him. They were doubters. They found reasons to complain and doubt Gods words and abilities.

That is why he thought he would inspire them, but they refused to accept his inspiration.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The rallying call

Parshiot Matos and Maasei

When we conclude reading this weeks parshat hashavua, we will be concluding the chumash of Bamidbar and we will call out Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek.

In the final book of Collected Writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch he concludes the book with a brief essay on the call Chazak. I will simply quote here a piece from the initial paragraph of that essay, as nothing more really needs to be said here.

It is in keeping with the spirit of Judaism that we mark the successful completion of any good endeavor with the rallying call Chazak V’Nitchazek, thereby exhorting ourselves and our companions to muster continued strength and courage so that the work may go on. It is not the Jewish way to look backward and to bask in the glory of past achievements, to rest on our laurels, as popular parlance has it. Whatever a Jew has accomplished should vanish from his view; the memory of past attainments should serve only to give him confidence and courage so he may go on to new and, if possible, even greater achievements…

For arguments sake

Parshat Maasei

In chapter 46 the Roshei Avos and Nessim present their complaints to Moshe. Their complaint is that if the daughters of Tzlafchad are given the inheritance of their father, they potentially could marry out of the tribe and that land which was part of the tribal division will then suddenly belong to a different tribe. Eventually there would be chaos with different tribes possessing parcels of land in various tribal areas. Specifically they were worried about their tribe losing parcels of land.

Moshe responds with an answer from Hashem that such women who inherit because there were no sons to inherit should only marry within their own tribe. This would ensure that the lands would stay in the original tribal division.

In verse 10 the Torah tells us that as Hashem commanded Moshe, so acted the daughters of Tzlafchad. It then proceeds to tell us that they married their uncles, thereby keeping their lands in the same tribal division.

Why did the daughters of Tzlafchad have to go through the whole process of arguing for the inheritance if at the end of the day they were going to marry their uncles, who would have been next in line anyway to inherit the land had the daughters not stepped forward? What did the women gain that gave them reason to argue as they did?

The Seforno and Ohr Hachayim seem to be answering this question. They each suggest that the command of Hashem that women who inherit should only marry within the tribe did not apply to the daughters of Tzlafchad. They had already been given permission to marry whomever they so desired. The fact that they chose to only marry within the tribe shows they were doing so to set an example, even though they did not need to.

I would like to suggest a different answer. It could be that they did not need to marry in their own tribe and this was a selfless act to set an example. However, they could have married some other nice young men from their tribe. They did not need to marry their uncles. It seems to me that the fact that they married their uncles indicates that they originally intended to regardless of the fact that they did not have to. In fact it was very common then to marry relatives, uncles, cousins, nieces, etc.. So the chances are that this was the original intention anyway. So my question still stands, why did they have to go through the whole issue if they were planning anyway to keep it in the family?

I would like to suggest this answer. They were arguing the point purely for arguments sake. They felt it necessary to be the precedent. Sure, it did not really make a difference in their case, but they saw an injustice happening and that would affect many other women in the future, even if it did not really affect them. They were willing to stand up and put themselves in the line of fire, so to speak, to set the precedent for future scenarios similar to theirs.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Give a good impression

Parshat Matos

After the tribes request to be given their portion of land on the other side of the Jordan River, Moshe responds with a question: “Why do you dishearten Bnei Yisroel from crossing over to the land that Hashem has given them?” (translation by Tachash)

By requesting to stay on the East Bank of the Jordan because the grazing land was no good there, Moshe was concerned that they would leave a bad impression about going to Israel in the eyes of the rest of the nation. People would hear of the request and think that maybe other lands are better, maybe Israel is not so good, etc.. maybe, as Rashi says, they are afraid of going to battle and that would make others afraid and weakened as well, etc.. Moshe goes on and brings up the sin of the spies and makes a comparison of the impression they are leaving to what the spies did.

A person has to be very careful of his actions that they not influence negatively on other people. That is true in every issue that one should be careful from not giving a bad impression, but especially so when referring to the Land of Israel. Moshe was comparing the impression they were leaving to the act of the spies, who actively tried to dissuade the Jews from entering the Land!

David Shirel of Hebron told me a story last week, and this passuk reminded me of it.

David Shirel is the manager of the English department of Manhigut Yehudit. He and his family went to Safed last week for a few days of vacation. This was just before the Katyushas started falling. On their last day of vacation the katyushas began falling and the residents of northern Israel were beginning to clear out to find safer places. As they are getting ready to leave to go back home, his children said, “Abba, we cannot leave!” He asked why not?

The response from his children was, “If we leave, we will be giving people an impression that we are running away and that is wrong! We cannot give over that impression!”

That is exactly what Moshe is concerned about in our parsha. What you do must be done with concern over the impression you are leaving about Israel. Make sure it is a good one.

One nation coming together

Parshat Matos

In chapter 32 we experience the request of 2.5 tribes to receive their portion of land on the other side of the Jordan. They had dealt in cattle and sheep and the grazing land on that side of the Jordan was much better for their needs.

In 32:6 Moshe responds to their request. His initial response is to ask (rhetorically), “Will your brothers go to war, and you will sit here?” In other words Moshe was saying that it was wrong for them to take this land and begin to settle it while the rest of the nation goes to war.

After some discussion, in verses 16-19 we see they return with the response that Moshe was looking for. They say they will put their families into their land and they will continue on to help their brethren conquer the land and they will not go back until everybody else is settled each in his own parcel of land.

The message is clear. We cannot divest responsibility from acting on behalf of our brothers. We are one nation. We are all responsible for one another. When one part of our nation goes to battle, we all go to battle. When one is found in a crisis situation, we are all in the same crisis. We are all obligated to participate together and equally in our national struggle.

Looking at the current events, we can all be proud of the fact that we do feel this message applies to us. Even if at other times we fight and bicker and criticize each other. In the time of crisis we all come together and somehow find ways to help and support each other.

From the leadership down

Parshat Matos

In 31:14 we see Moshe taking the leaders of the army to task for failing to criticize and properly instruct their soldiers what to do in battle (regarding taking the booty and who to let live and who to kill). The passuk says Moshe got angry at them and Rashi explains that “This teaches that the entire corruption of the generation is attributed to the great men, since they have the power to rebuke.” (Translation by Tachash website).

This clearly shows that leadership is responsible for the general public’s attitude and behavior. We sometimes find situations in which criticism of leaders (be they Rabbonim or lay leaders) is defelected with the statement that they have other concerns and cannot always be the ones to lead the way on all issues. They say if it is right to do, do not wait for the Rabbonim.

I will not deal now with the issue of deciding on your own what is right to do or not. Obviously every case needs to be judged individually – sometimes it will be ok to do what you feel is right and sometimes it would be inappropriate without rabbinic approval.

However, this parsha seems to contradict that thought. The leaders are responsible at all times for instructing the people properly. If the great men do not rebuke, the people just don’t figure it out on their own, or even may extrapolate the wrong ideas from the lack of rabbinic response (e.g. if so and so did not say anything against it he must approve, etc..).

The leaders have an obligation to lead, all the time. No passing the buck.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Appointing a successor

Parshat Pinchas

Moshe finds out he will soon die. We find the unusual phrase of “And Moshe spoke to Hashem saying.” in 27:15. I say it is unusual because we usually have God speaking to Moshe, not the reverse. Here we see the reverse.

So what does Moshe tell Hashem? He goes into a speech in which he explains how important it is to appoint a successor to lead the Jews into Israel and that it should be somebody who has merits and can lead, etc.

Did Moshe really think Hashem would knock off Moshe and leave Bnei Yisrael without a leader? After everything Hashem had done the previous 40 years or so, taking them out of Egypt, through the desert, to the cusp of Eretz Yisrael and Moshe thought Hashem would now abandon them to their own abilities and forces? Moshe must have known Hashem would appoint someone, so what is the big discussion here?

Rashi tells us that the Torah is showing the greatness of the righteous (and Moshe in particular) that they are concerned with the welfare of the community even to the point that at the time of their deaths they are concerned with the public rather than closing their own affairs.

Of course Moshe knew Hashem would make sure the Jews were taken care of and had a leader. However, he felt it important to deal with the issue of appointing a successor while he was still alive, to ensure the smooth transition of leadership.

We see nowadays many organizations and groups who suffer from not planning the future leadership properly. The top brass leave or die and suddenly the whole organization is in turmoil. People do not know who to turn to. Oftentimes there is a split in the organization because of competing rivals looking to take the leadership role, etc. Other times there is a void as the competing rivals duke it out and the ones to suffer are the regular people who end up with no real leadership.

Yes, Hashem would take care of it. But a true leader makes sure his people are taken care of and does not leave it for other people to worry about. Moshe had to make sure his people would be taken care of. That is why Moshe spoke up now.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

Who’s your daddy?

Parshat Pinchas

In 25:11 the passuk tells us “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon Ha’Kohen”. Rashi tells us the reason the Torah felt it important o state the lineage of Pinchas back to Aharon (the grandfather) instead of just to Elazar (the father) was because people were talking about how hypocritical Pinchas was. After all, they said, Pinchas’ grandfather (Yisro) himself was a priest o Avoda Zaras who fattened the animals for sacrificing to all sorts of deviant gods. Who is Pinchas to preach to us??!! Therefore the passuk relates Pinchas to Aharon.

So what? What does relating him to Aharons side of the family do for anyone? Did people stop talking after that? It must have gone something like this: People were talking about Pinchas and then suddenly they read he was Aharons grandson so they stopped??!! I do not think so. They knew he was Aharons grandson to start with, so what was the purpose of writing this?

I think the passuk was not writing this fact in order to stop the rumors and lashon hara from spreading and to stop people from besmirching the integrity of Pinchas. People talk and nobody likes to be told they are acting inappropriately, so they spoke badly of Pinchas. The passuk is coming to tell future generations – us, that we should know that the intentions of Pinchas were honest and done with integrity.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Nothing unusual here..

Parshat Balak

Bil’am is heading out to curse the Jews on behalf of Balak. He is cutting through a field riding on his donkey, and the donkey veers from the path. It happens a few times and it upsets Bil’am. He threatens to kill the donkey. All of the sudden the donkey starts to talk and defends his actions. Bil’am responds and explains himself to the donkey.

Can you imagine this happening? I picture the story in my head and what do I see? How would I have responded if my donkey had started to talk to me? I picture myself falling off the donkey, extremely shocked and startled. Yet Bil’am reacts as if this is a perfectly normal situation.

I would assume that Bil’am must have always seen and experienced unusual things, in order for this not to have surprised him. Maybe that is part of the package of being a prophet.

And they call us a stubborn people!!

Parshat Balak

We have a very strange situation in Parshat Balak. Balak sends messengers to persuade Bil’am to assist him in bringing about the downfall of the Hews, via a terrible curse Bil’am would place upon the Jews using his calculations to figure out the moment God gets angry at the Jews. He would take advantage of the moment and curse the jews and in His great anger, He would allow Bil’ams curse to have the desired affect.

Yet Bil’am rejects the request a couple of times, saying he would not do it. Finally he is persuaded to attempt on the condition that Balak be aware that he provides no guarantees (and no money back guarantee) to being able to curse the Jews. He says very clearly that what he accomplishes regarding the Jews would be completely dependant on what Hashem wants to happen.

Balak accepts the pre-condition and they head out to try to curse the Jews. Bil’am tried once and it comes out as a blessing. When confronted by Balak, he responds that is what Hashem wanted and tough noogies, I told you inadvance it would happen.. Balak persuaded him to try again and he does. Again, it comes out as a blessing with some added stinging rebuke to Balak for even bothering to try.

This happens over and over again in the parsha with Balak attempting to curse and Bil’am giving a blessing.

Balak had a one track mind. He had to curse the Jews. He had to destroy the Jews. By hook or by crook. He did not care about anything else. He was extremely stubborn and ignored everything that was happening.

The passuk in 23:17 even tells us “The ministers of Moab were with him” and Rashi explains that earlier it had said “all the ministers of Moab” which indicates that some had left because they could tell it was a waste of time and there was no chance of success. I would venture to say that the ministers that remained with Balak did so out of respect to Balak’s position (and probably fear for their lives) rather than because they wanted to be there for the curse.

Only Balak could not see what was going on. He was so stubborn that he was blinded and could not see the reality of the situation.

It is worth taking a deep breath and reassessing a situation that is not working out rather than just driving on blindly. Don’t let your stubbornness lead you to the abyss.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Second nature

Parshat Balak

In 22:29 Bil’am responds to his donkey by saying if he had a sword he would kill the donkey. Rashi mentions that in the eyes of the ministers accompanying him it was an embarrassment that he had to threaten the donkey with physical violence, while he was on the way to supposedly destroy the Jews by using his sharp tongue. After all, why would he need a sword to kill the donkey, why not just say something that will cut short the donkeys life?

What is going on here? Why would they expect Bil’am to present a verbal attack on the pathetic donkey rather than a physical attack, which would clearly be considered normal?

In the original decision to hire Bil’ams services, Balak expressed the knowledge that he had no physical power to beat the Jewish nation and he knew he needed to beat the Jews at their own game – by verbal powers. He specifically pursued and hired Bil’am because Bil’am was unique among the nations of the world, whose strength normally lies in the physical realm, in that Bil’ams strength was similar to the strength of the Jews, by using his mouth.

The raison d’ĂȘtre of Bil’am was to gain advantage by curses and blessings. He could use any lowly servant to attack with physical violence. Now he sees Bil’am getting frustrated over a confrontation with a donkey (!) and he threatens the donkey with physical violence. When a person gets frustrated lie that, he generally lashes out, and usually will attack with what is second nature to him, in Bil’ams case he should have automatically cursed the donkey and felled it in its tracks. But he did not. He threatened it with violence.

That made the ministers think maybe we are bringing back a fraud to Balak. They were embarrassed they spent so much time and effort pursuing the services of somebody who clearly did not have the powers (or at least the level of powers) he claimed to have.

The gemora even says in many places one of the ways to know a person is to view him in his state of anger. At that time he reacts with a natural reaction and by watching him at that time you will see if he is really in control of himself, and if not you will see what comes naturally to him. The ministers witnessed Bil’am in his state of anger and frustration and they saw that he was not all he claimed to be..