Monday, July 28, 2008



This week's portion, the last one in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), is called Masei.
Masei begins with a list of the Jews' trips and encampments in the desert.

We customarily try to read all of the encampments in one reading, as a unit, which is problematic when Masei is a single portion (and not combined with the preceding portion of Matot). Some chumashim do break up this section into multiple readings.
The Jews are then instructed to eliminate idols when they enter the land, lest the idolatry lead them astray.
The portion then delineates the borders of Israel, and instructs the Jews to create Cities of Refuge for people who kill accidentally and need to flee.
Finally, the portion provides details of land-transfer and marriage for women who inherit land; these laws were meant to ensure that a tribe would not lose land if the women who owned land were to marry out of the tribe.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008



This week we read the portion of Matot.

The portion of Matot begins with the laws for annulling vows. Judaism teaches that words have spiritual power, and so a person can make a binding declaration prohibiting himself from certain benefits or certain activities, or dedicating a possession of his to the Temple. On the other hand, courts may annul personal vows, given certain conditions.
Additionally, a husband can annul his wife's vows, if they hurt him. In exchange for a man's marital obligations (outlined in the wedding Ketubah), a woman grants him certain rights - which include the ability to annul vows which damage him.
A father has financial obligations toward his unmarried daughter, and these obligations generate a right for him to annul her vows, as well.

This section is followed by a war against the nation of Midian. At the end of the "Balak" portion, Midian corrupted the Jewish males by seducing them and then luring them to idolatry. Now the Jews fought a war of retaliation.
The Jews took many vessels and cooking implements in the spoils, and Gd taught them the laws of making this equipment Kosher, as well as immersing new dining utensils in a Mikvah.

After this, the tribes of Reuven and Gad told Moshe they were not interested in receiving a share of land in Israel. Moshe warned that they would dishearten their brethren by refusing to cross the Jordan, but Gd agreed to their request for land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, on the condition that they would first help the rest of the Jews get settled in Israel.

Have a great day,

Wednesday, July 16, 2008



This week's Torah portion is Pinchas.
Pinchas begins where last week’s portion left off. The Jews had been ensnared by an unconventional Moabite assault: Instead of fighting a war, Moav sent out their daughters to seduce the Jews. The approach succeeded in leading the Jews toward abandonment of Judaism, until a man named Pinchas killed a major Jewish leader, Zimri, who had been participating in the public adultery and idolatry.
Gd promised the zealous vigilante, Pinchas, a great reward for his role. Pinchas received a promise of Shalom (peace) from Gd; Gd would protect him from reprisal. Further, Pinchas was made into a Kohen. (Although he was already a grandson of Aharon, he was not a Kohen, as he was born before Aharon was made into a Kohen. Now, though, he would qualify as a Kohen, as would his descendants.)

The Torah does not generally reward vigilante justice (see Yaakov's rebuke of Shimon and Levi), and so the commentators wrestle with the question of why Pinchas was not only protected, but even rewarded for his actions.
Gd then instructed Moshe to count the Jewish people, in preparation for war against the nation of Midian. The Torah records the census of each family.
Following the census, Moshe began to instruct the nation in the way they would divide up the land of Israel. Under Jewish law, land is inherited by males so as to keep the land within the tribe. However (as noted in the Talmud in Ketuvot), the sons must provide for their sisters; in the event that there isn’t enough to provide for both the sons and daughters, the daughters get everything.

The daughters of a man named Tzelafchad came forth with a problem – their father had died, and left only daughters. Who would inherit the land? Would it go to the broader tribe? Moshe was stumped, and he brought this question to Gd. Gd responded that the daughters of Tzelafchad were correct; in the absence of sons, the land would go to the daughters.
After this incident, Gd told Moshe to climb Mount Avarim, from which he could see Israel before his death. Moshe asked that Gd appoint a proper leader in his stead. Moshe wanted a leader who would put himself on the line, leading the nation to war rather than sitting behind the lines. Gd responded that Yehoshua (Joshua) would lead the nation, and Moshe ordained Yehoshua.
The Torah portion concludes with a list of various offerings which are brought on various holidays through the year.
Have a great day,

Wednesday, July 9, 2008



This week's portion is Balak.

The portion of Balak is a bit of a biblical anomaly – its main story has no Jewish players, and therefore the Jews were not aware of this event, at all, while it was going on. Presumably we are aware of this story only because Gd told Moshe it had happened.

A man named Bilam was known throughout the Sinai/Canaan region as a sorcerer and prophet; his specialty was the area of blessings and curses. Balak, king of the nation of Moav - a nation that lived in the Transjordan area - saw the Jews coming out of the desert, and he saw what the Jews had done to Sichon, the first line of defense for Canaan. Balak realized that military might wasn’t going to stop the Jews. Instead, he hired Bilam to curse the Jews on behalf of the nations of Midian and Moav, figuring that the mystical approach might work.

This was a logical idea, in theory. Unfortunately for both Balak and Bilam, a curse works only because the person invoking the curse asks Gd to punish someone for his sins – if Gd is not interested, or if the person has no sins, then the curse fails. Gd warned Bilam repeatedly, "Don’t bother, it isn’t going to work." Bilam planned to convince Gd to accept the curse.

Bilam began to travel to Balak, and Gd sent an invisible angel to block him. Bilam didn’t see the angel, but Gd made the angel visible to the donkey, who at first tried to go around him in a field. Bilam whipped the donkey for straying. The angel re-appeared in a more narrow area, and the donkey again tried to veer around, crushing Bilam’s leg against a wall, and again Bilam whipped the donkey. On the third occasion there was no room to get around, and Bilam whipped the donkey again, and said, "If I had a sword, I would kill you!" At this point the angel appeared to Bilam and mocked him for his inability to see the angel who the donkey saw. Bilam offered to go home, but the angel said, "Go bless the Jews."

Bilam showed up and, counter to the angel’s advice, tried to curse the Jews on three separate occasions. Each time he only succeeded in blessing them, until Balak angrily dismissed Bilam. Bilam left only after prophesying the ultimate demise of Moav, as well as the other local nations.

The Midrash records that before Bilam left, he offered Balak a piece of advice, triggering the next story to appear in the Torah. Balak arranged for the local women to go seduce the Jewish males into their tents, as part of a plan to get them to worship the Moabite idols. This worked well, to such a point that the leader of the tribe of Shimon, a man named Zimri, began to publicly take part in this activity, despite a plague which was killing thousands of Jews even as he did this. Up stepped a man named Pinchas, and he killed Zimri, thereby ending the immorality, the idolatry and the plague. Next week's portion, Pinchas, will continue with the end of this incident.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008



This week's portion is Chukat. Chukat is a densely packed portion, with many sub-plots and stories.

The portion begins with the law of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah, an entity used for purification after contact with a human corpse. We are taught that this law has no conceivable rational explanation; it is described as a chok, meaning that it is engraved in stone. There is no explanation which a human being could divine.

Following the presentation of this law, the Torah records the death of Miriam. It is generally understood that this account marks the beginning of the Jews’ 40th year in the desert.

The Jews then ran out of water. The sages explain that the Jews’ well had existed in Miriam’s merit; once Miriam died, the water dried up. Gd told Moshe to take his stick and talk to a rock and produce water. Moshe struck the rock instead, and although this produced water, Gd punished him by telling him he could not enter Israel, since he had failed to properly sanctify Gd’s Name. Aharon died for this as well. Aharon was not active here, but it appears that he died for failing to prevent the act. (Note that there are other explanations for the error of Moshe and Aharon; the text is unclear.)

After this, the Jews came to the nation of Edom, descendants of Yaakov’s brother, Esav. Edom refused to let the Jews pass through peacefully, even with a toll. Gd told the Jews to go around Edom, instead.

After this event, Aharon died. When Aharon died, the Clouds of Glory surrounding and protecting the Jews disappeared. The Canaanite nations noticed this and took advantage, launching a raid against the Jews. The Jews prayed, and they vowed to dedicate the spoils of war to Gd. They won this war, but this was the last time they would be permitted to take such a vow. Once they entered Israel, such a vow was considered a flawed addition to the laws Gd had given. (In their war with Jericho, they would again take such a vow - and suffer as a result.)

After a period of travel, the nation again began to complain about the Manna, the travel, etc. Gd sent poisonous serpents to punish them for their evil speech. When the people began to die, the nation repented.

Gd told Moshe to create a copper serpent and put it up on a pole where people could see it. Those who gazed at the serpent lived. The Talmud explains that the serpent had no power; it was the fact that people would look heavenward for their cure, and be reminded of Gd.

The Jews continued to travel, and engaged in their opening wars with the nations who tried to block their path. We find a victory song celebrating a battle barely hinted at in the text. We also find Gd telling Moshe not to be afraid of battle; Gd would aid the Jews in their quest to enter the land.

Be well,