Balak 5778

Personalized rebuke[1]

ותאמר האתון אל-בלעם הלא אנכי אתונך אשר-רכבת עלי מעודך עד-היום הזה ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה ויאמר לא
The donkey said to Bilaam: “Am I not your donkey which you have ridden upon from when you first started[2] until now? Have I ever been in the habit[3] of doing this to you?” [Bilaam] replied: “No”[4]

As the wicked gentile prophet Bilaam was on his way to curse the Jewish people, an Angel of Hashem blocked his path[5]. He could not sense the Angel, unlike the donkey he was riding on. As the donkey kept trying to change course, Bilaam hit it. A miracle happened, and his donkey spoke to him. She asked him why he would hit it. This donkey had served him faithfully all these years, and surely this change in behavior was for some yet-unknown reason. Bilaam couldn’t deny the donkey’s logic. Chazal note[6] that there are two instances in the Torah were a person was rebuked and became speechless; they had no way to respond. These instances are to teach us to heed the final day of judgement, where Hashem will show us our failings, and we will be unable to respond. The first instance is with Yosef and his brothers[7]. Despite having his brothers sell him to slavery, Yosef became the viceroy in Egypt. When he finally revealed his identity to them, they were speechless. The second is with Bilaam and his donkey. When Chazal teach this lesson, they phrase it in a strange way. They say that when Hashem will rebuke us, He will do so in a manner that is in accordance to each person. What does this phrase mean?

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Chukas 5778

The mystery of the red heifer[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה ואל אהרן לאמר: זאת חקת התורה אשר-צוה יקוק לאמר דבר אל-בני ישראל ויחקו אליך פרה אדומה תמימה וגו’‏
Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: “This is the decree of the Torah, that Hashem commanded to say: ‘Tell the Jewish people to take towards you a perfectly[2] red heifer’”[3]

The Torah teaches us[4] about the laws of spiritual impurity caused by contact with the dead. There is a single remedy for a person to purify themselves: the ashes of a perfectly red heifer. The Torah details its preparation, and how and when it is applied to a person. We are taught that this mitzvah is the prototypical chok, or decree, from Hashem. This category of mitzvos are those to which the underlying reasoning alludes us. What is the chok of the red heifer? All those who prepare and apply the ashes of the red heifer become spiritual impure, whereas the person who is treated with them becomes pure[5]. How could these two opposites coexist? This is something only[6] Moshe understood fully[7], until the End of Days when its secrets will be revealed to all[8]. For us now, it is viewed as a chok; something we have to accept and await the day when we will finally understand it[9]. One could ask a basic question on this idea: since the red heifer does in fact have an underlying reason, why is it eluded from us? Why reveal it only to Moshe, especially since it will eventually be explained to everyone[10]?

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Korach 5778

Faulty logic and string theory[1]

ויקח קרח וגו’ ודתן ואבירם וגו’ ואון וגו’ ויקמו לפני משה ואנשים מבני-ישראל חמשים ומאתים וגו’‏
Korach took (something[2])…and Dasan and Aviram…and Ohn…they and two-hundred and fifty men from the Jewish people confronted Moshe…[3]

This week’s parsha details the rebellion of Korach. He challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, convincing a group of the greatest sages of Israel to join his cause. To kick off his rebellion, he took a tallis[4] which was entirely dyed techeiles[5], a blueish color. He had two-hundred and fifty of his men wear[6] a similar garment in front of Moshe[7]. Since a tallis with tzitzis requires some of its strings to be dyed techeiles[8], Korach asked Moshe: “This tallis, whose material is entirely colored techeiles, do some of its strings need to be dyed techeiles as well”? Moshe responded: “They do”. Korach rejected this ruling, and argued that if just some strings of techeiles fulfill the requirement, having the entire garment be techeiles should be more than sufficient[9]. How did Korach think Moshe would respond? If Korach felt that the tallis was exempt from techeiles strings, maybe Moshe would agree, and there would be no conflict. And if despite the argument to exempt, Korach had some counterargument, maybe Moshe would provide the same one[10]. As well, why did Korach specifically pick this topic to start his rebellion?

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Shelach 5778

The wrong kind of humility[1]

אלה שמות האנשים אשר-שלח משה לתור את-הארץ ויקרא משה להושע בן-נון יהושע
These are the names of the men who were sent by Moshe to scout out the land. Moshe called Hoshea the son of Nun: Yehoshua[2]

When the Jews had almost arrived at the land of Israel, they had the idea to send spies to scout out the land[3]. They wanted to know not only about the landscape, but about the inhabitants[4]. Were they a conquerable force, or not? Twelve men, one for each tribe, was selected for the task. One of them was Moshe’s faithful student[5], Yehoshua. He was originally called Hoshea, but Moshe as a form of prayer added the letter yud to his name, making it Yehoshua. Moshe was concerned that the spies had evil intentions, and would falsely give a negative report. He therefore added a letter from G-d’s name to Yehoshua’s, pleading that Hashem should save Yehoshua from the council of the spies[6]. What prompted Moshe to give this name change to Yehoshua? One explanation[7] is that Moshe saw Yehoshua’s great humility, and thus felt he needed this prayer[8]. What does one have to do with the other?

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Beha’alosecha 5778

Salvation for those who stumble in loshon hara[1]

ותדבר מרים ואהרן במשה על-אדות האשה הכשית אשר לקח כי-אשה כשית לקח
Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman[2]

Miriam and Aharon felt that Moshe wasn’t treating his wife properly, and they discussed the matter between themselves[3]. While they had positive intentions, their facts were incorrect. As a result, their discussion was deemed loshon hara, evil speech[4]. The Torah describes[5] that Miriam was stricken with tzaraas, a leprous-like malady which results from loshon hara[6]. There’s no mention that Aharon was punished. This is odd, as both of them were discussing Moshe. Some say[7] that in fact, Aharon was stricken with tzaraas. This is inferred from the fact that the Torah says[8] that Hashem was angry at them, meaning both Miriam and Aharon. The reason the Torah only mentions Miriam getting tzaraas is because Aharon was quickly healed from this condition[9]. Why was he healed so quickly, while Miriam had to wait seven days before she recovered[10]?

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