Wednesday, June 25, 2008



This week's portion is Korach.

Last week we read of the Spies whom the Jews sent into Israel. Those spies returned with a report attempting to convince the Jews to stay out of Israel. Gd punished the Jews for listening to the spies, sentencing them to die in the desert.

This week we get a destructive follow-up: Korach, a Levite who felt he had been snubbed when leadership positions were handed out, thought he saw his chance to strike at Moshe and Aharon. He appealed to other Jews to rebel against Moshe, arguing that Moshe had arrogated power for himself, and had instituted a variety of laws intended to create an atmosphere of obedience and to impoverish and degrade the nation. He also argued that others, besides the Kohanim, should be allowed to bring incense in the Temple; Korach assembled a group of 250 who felt they should have been allowed to bring the incense.

Moshe responded by challenging Korach’s crew to a duel of sorts. He ordered Aharon to bring incense, and he ordered Korach's crew to bring incense, to show that Gd wanted Aharon's incense - Gd would punish whoever brought an unwanted offering of incense. Moshe then turned to Gd and asked that Gd create a definitive sign in punishing Korach, so that everyone would know that the punishment and justice were Divine in origin, and not achieved through some human means. Gd responded by opening the earth to swallow Korach and his belongings. Only Korach’s sons survived, as they repented at the last moment.

A fire then consumed Korach’s backers who had tried to bring incense in the Temple.

This, of course, was not the end. Now that the Jews had seen that Moshe was backed by Gd, they attacked Moshe for inciting Gd to kill his opposition. In response, Gd sent a plague among them. Moshe was horrified, and he made use of a secret which he had learned years before - that incense would stop Divine wrath. He told Aharon to bring an offering of incense, which Aharon then did, halting the plague.

To show that Gd is not only a Gd of punishment, and that one would not die automatically upon coming close to the Temple, Gd instructed Moshe to collect a staff from each tribe, as well as one from Aharon. These staffs were left in the Tent of Gathering overnight, and the next day they found that Aharon’s staff had brought forth flowers, buds and almonds, signifying the life present in the Temple and in those who served it.

The tribe of Levi was then charged with protection of the Temple, to prevent the death of any who might accidentally enter where he did not belong.

The portion concludes by running down a list of tithes which were given to the tribe of Levi and specifically to the Kohanim, who had now been shown to have been selected by Divine decision.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, June 18, 2008



This week's portion is Sh'lach.

We left off last week as the Jewish nation began to leave Mount Sinai.

The Jews sent 12 representatives to investigate Israel and its inhabitants and to report back to Moshe. The spies did their job and returned with a report which told of a land producing great crops, but with fearsome inhabitants.

The spies opted to emphasize the negative, even to the point of contradicting themselves. Even as they said the land was great, they said that it "consumed its inhabitants," a reference to funerals they witnessed in their travels. Only Yehoshua and Kalev refused to participate in the attempt to frighten the Jews away from entering Israel.

The Jewish men listened to the spies. The women did not go along with the negative report - this is clear when Gd describes His punishment, singling out the men of military age for death; the men, specifically, had followed the spies and declared their intention to return to Egypt, and Gd responded by killing the spies and decreeing that the entire society of Jews would have to spend the next 40 years in the desert, one year for each day the spies spent in Israel, until this generation would perish. The day of this decree was the 9th of Av, Tishah b’Av, a day we commemorate with a fast down to our own times.

After Gd declared that this generation would die, the same minds who had decided to listen to the spies came up with another plan: They would show Gd they had repented. They would demonstrate their new love of Israel by leading a charge toward Israel immediately, regardless of Divine command. Moshe protested, but without success. This renegade army ran headlong into a war and was eradicated.

Following this section, the Torah portion includes a list of Korbanot - offerings and tithes. The list begins with a voluntary offering, and Gd gives the parameters under which a person may volunteer an offering. Perhaps this section is included here as a pointed message regarding the previous segment: Even volunteerism, such as was shown by the post-Spies group who tried to march to Israel singlehandedly, requires rules and boundaries.

The list also includes Challah, the tithe of dough. During the time of the Temple, one who baked more than a certain minimal amount of dough would give a portion of the dough to a Kohen family. Today, in the absence of a Temple, that portion of dough is burned.

The Torah portion then mentions the story of a wood-gatherer, who chopped wood on Shabbat and died for his sin. The Talmud cites a view suggesting that the wood-gatherer actually had noble intentions - he wanted to show people how important and serious Shabbos observance was.

Finally, the portion mentions the mitzvah of Tzitzit, of wearing four doubled strings on each corner of a four-cornered garment, as a constant reminder of our Torah. There are all sorts of mystical overtones to this mitzvah, but on a basic level this mitzvah represents a simple and valuable approach to Judaism - we make sure that Torah and mitzvot are always around us, so that we maintain an awareness of who we are and of our task in this world.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, June 11, 2008



This week's portion is B'ha'alotcha.

The portion begins with the final Mishkan [Traveling Temple] instructions. Aharon is instructed regarding the daily lighting of the Menorah, and the Levites are officially installed in their service.

It is now one year since the Jews left Egypt, and so the nation is instructed to bring the annual commemorative Pesach offering. One group, though, is unable to bring the Pesach Offering; they have been in contact with corpses, and so they are ritually ineligible for bringing offerings. Gd tells Moshe that these people should bring the Pesach offering a month later, in a make-up offering called Pesach Sheni. From that year on, people who are not able to bring the first offering bring the make-up offering one month later.

The Jews then resume their trip through the desert. A cloud leads the camp by day, and an apparition of fire leads them at night. Trumpets are blown to assemble the nation for travel, as well as to mark celebrations, war and general assemblies.

The Jews leave Sinai. They soon run into trouble, complaining about a lack of meat. The nation had done this once before, and at that point Gd gave them meat, but this time He killed the complainers. Perhaps the difference is that here the Jews didn’t just ask for meat; they also denied Gd’s gift of the Manna, thereby showing ingratitude for its beauty, taste and convenience.

Moshe, in responding to the people’s request for meat, tells Gd he gives up; he can’t handle the nation.
Gd responds by appointing 70 elders to help Moshe. The 70 elders are chosen by taking 6 from each tribe, but that yields 72, so they have a lottery. Two don’t make it, and those turn out to be brothers, Eldad and Meidad. They prophesy in the camp after the elders have departed; there is some debate as to whether this was real prophecy or faux prophecy. The Talmud offered a view that their prophecy was that Moshe would die and Joshua would take over. Joshua asked Moshe to imprison them, but Moshe said he would prefer to have everyone become a prophet.

At the end of the portion, Miriam told Aharon a negative statement about their brother Moshe. As the classic commentator Rashi (citing the Midrash) understands it, Moshe had separated from his wife Tzipporah because of his need to be available for Gd at all times, and Miriam complained that this was arrogant of Moshe.
Gd summoned Aharon and Miriam and rebuked them for their lack of respect for their younger brother, Moshe. Miriam, as the active partner in the slander, has her punishment recorded in the Torah; she receives Tzaraat, a skin ailment described elsewhere in the Torah. Moshe prayed for her and Gd healed her, but she had to stay outside the general camp for a week.
Aharon, who was silent in the slander, has his punishment for his part omitted from the Torah, but the commentator R' Abraham Ibn Ezra notes that Aharon was punished, too.
The Jews waited for Miriam to be able to re-join them, and then they continued their trek.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, June 4, 2008



This week's portion is Naso.

Naso begins with a discussion of the role of the Levites in transporting the Mishkan [Temple] as the Jews traveled in the desert, on their way to Israel.

There were three Levite families: Gershon, Kehat and Merari. Kehat carried the central sacred items of the Mishkan, such as the Ark. Gershon carred the outer parts of the Mishkan, such as the curtains and the walls of the courtyard. Merari carried the rest of the structure.

The portion then provides a census of the Levite families.

The Jews are then instructed to set up camps when they arrive at breaks in their travels, and they are given rules governing life in those camps.

The Torah then teaches two other sets of laws:

The Laws of Sotah – If a married woman and a man (either married or single) are secluded in a suspicious way, and there is only one witness, the courts cannot handle the case due to a lack of two witnesses. Instead, a rite is practiced in which the married woman drinks of a special potion which includes the erased name of Gd in it. If she and the man are guilty, they both suffer painful supernatural deaths (not administered by human hand); human courts have no power in this area, as there is only one witness. If they are innocent, Gd promises her great reward in restitution to her.

The Law of Nazir – This law provides a legal means of taking a vow of quasi-asceticism. A Nazir vows to refrain from hair-cutting and drinking wine, and to stay away from the dead. The Torah generally disapproves of unnecessary oaths; this vow is provided as an outlet for someone who feels a special need to purify himself. Even with this positive motive, the Nazirite brings a sin offering at the end, among other korbanot; this sin offering is understood by some to atone for having forsworn things which Gd declared to be permitted

The portion concludes with the dedication of the Mishkan. Aharon blessed the nation, and the Jews dedicated the Mishkan with offerings brought by each tribe's representative.

Have a great day,