Devarim 5777

Judging ourselves favorably[1]

ואלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל-כל-ישראל בעבר הירדן במדבר בערבה מול סוף בין-פארן ובין-תפל ולבן וחצרת ודי זהב
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel, on the other side of the Jordan River, in the wilderness, in Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzeiros and Di Zahav[2]

The book of Devarim, also known as Deuteronomy, takes place right before Moshe’s death. It’s essentially a goodbye speech to the people. He takes the opportunity to teach them new laws, as well as recount past experiences. The first verse in the book takes great pains to detail the exact geographical location of Moshe’s speech. Rashi explains[3] that some of these aren’t even real names of places, but rather subtle references to past sins of the people. Moshe was rebuking the people, hoping they would catch the hint and learn from their mistakes. The last four cities mentioned, Tofel, Lavan, Chatzeiros and Di Zahav refer to three separate incidents. Tofel and Lavan refer to the sin of the Jews complaining about the munn, the manna that they ate in the wilderness[4]. Tofel implies complaining[5], and Lavan means white, the color of the mun[6]. Chatzeiros refers to the Korach rebellion[7]. Di Zahav, which means “enough gold”, refers to the creation of the Golden Calf from the abundance of gold they had been given[8]. The obvious question on this list of sins, is why was the Golden Calf listed last[9]? It was the first to occur chronologically, and was undoubtedly one of the worst sins the Jews ever committed.

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Mattos-Masei 5777

Settling for less[1]

ויאמרו אם-מצאנו חן בעיניך יתן את-הארץ הזאת לעבדיך לאחזה אל-תעברנו את-הירדן
They said [to Moshe]: “If we have found favor in your eyes, this land will be given to your servants as an inheritance; [therefore] we will not cross the Jordan River”[2]

As the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, the tribes of Reuven and Gad, as well as half the tribe of Menashe, made a request to Moshe. They had just conquered the land known as “Arvos Moav”, which was on the other side of the Jordan River. Officially it was now Jewish land. However, it wasn’t part of the land of Israel proper. These tribes noticed that this area was great for grazing, and they had a lot of flock to feed. They asked if they could settle there, and not cross the Jordan River with their brothers. After some debate back and forth, Moshe agreed to their request. In the end, was this request proper?

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Pinchas 5777

The effects of a bad reputation[1]

ראובן בכור ישראל בני ראובן חנוך משפחת החנכי לפלוא משפחת הפלאי
[Regarding] Reuven, the first born of Israel: The sons of Reuven are Chanoch, [who has] the Chanoch family, Palu, who has the Palu family.[2]

After a terrible plague that badly affected the Jews in the wilderness, Hashem commanded Moshe to take a census of the people[3]. This is similar to a shepherd who counts his sheep after a wolf attacked the flock; he desires to know how many remain[4]. The Torah expends the effort to list every tribe, as well as every family in that tribe, as it tallies up the totals. However, the Torah does this in an unusual way. Every family that is listed has the letter ה preceding it and the letter י following it. For example, one of the sons of Reuven is Chanoch. When the Torah mentions the family of Chanoch[5], it calls them mishpachas HaChanochi. For his other son Palu it says mishpachas HaPalui. Why does the Torah do this, not only for this family, but every family mentioned?

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Balak 5777

The path a person desires to take[1]

ויאמר אלקים אל-בלעם לא תלך עמהם, לא תאר את-העם כי ברוך הוא:…קום לך אתם…
Hashem said to Bilaam: “Don’t go with them, don’t curse the people, for they are blessed.” “Get up and go with them.”[2]

This week’s parsha deals primarily with the plot of Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jewish people. He is hired by Balak, the King of Moav, and is more than happy to oblige. However, Hashem informs Bilaam that his objective will not end successfully, as the Jewish people are already blessed. Following repeated failures to curse the people, he gives up trying to carry out this ploy, and ends up employing a different tactic. After a careful inspection of the story of Bilaam, his every action seems to contradict common sense. Knowing what kind of a person he was, he did things that on the surface seem ridiculous. What is it that we know about Bilaam?

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