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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Chukas 5777

The waters of strife[1]

ולא-היה מים לעדה ויקהלו על-משה ועל-אהרן: וידבר יקוק אל-משה לאמר: קח את-המטה והקהל את-העדה אתה ואהרן אחיך ודברתם אל-הסלע לעיניהם ונתן מימיו והוצאת להם מים מן-הסלע והשקית את-העדה ואת-בעירם: ויקהלו משה ואהרן את-הקהל אל-פני הסלע ויאמר להם שמעו-נא המרים המן-הסלע הזה נוציא לכם מים: וירם משה את-ידו ויך את-הסלע במטהו פעמים ויצאו מים רבים ותשת העדה ובעירם: ויאמר יקוק אל-משה ואל-אהרן יען לא-האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל לכן לא תביאו את-הקהל הזה אל-הארץ אשר נתתי להם
There wasn’t water for the congregation, and they assembled against Moshe and Aharon…Hashem [then] told Moshe as follows: “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and Aharon your brother, and both of you will speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give forth its water, and you will bring forth water from the rock, and you will quench the congregation and their animals.”…Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock and [Moshe] said to them: “Listen now you rebels! Will we bring forth water from this rock?” Moshe raised his arm and hit the rock twice with the staff, and a great amount of water emerged, and the people and their animals drank. Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon: “Since both of you didn’t believe in me, to sanctify my name before the eyes of the Jews, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them.”[2]

The episode known as “the waters of strife[3]” is one of the most puzzling in the entire Chumash. The verses say explicitly what happened with Moshe and the rock, yet all the commentators struggle to understand what his sin was[4]. Finding an explanation is particularly hard due to the severity of the punishment: not being allowed to bring the people to the land of Israel and to die in the wilderness. As well, it’s hard to find any justification for why Aharon was punished; it seems like he wasn’t involved at all in what happened. There are many approaches to these questions, and they all have their flaws.

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Korach 5777

A self-fulfilling prophecy[1]

ויקח קרח בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי ודתן ואבירם וגו’‏
Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehas the son of Levi took (something), and Dasan and Aviram, etc.[2]

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. Moshe challenged this band of rebels to a test to determine who was the true prophet of Hashem. The result was that the sages who joined Korach died in a fire, while Korach and his entire family were swallowed up alive into the earth, to live there until the end of days. The parsha starts with the awkward phrase ויקח קרח, Korach took. The verse doesn’t specify what exactly it was though that he took. There are various explanations among the commentators[3]. Reish Lakish in the gemarra says[4] that it means that לקח מקח רע לעצמו, he acquired a bad purchase for himself[5].

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Shelach 5777

All with the proper perspective[1]

וימתו האנשים מוצאי דבת-הארץ רעה במגפה לפני יקוק
The men who gave a bad report about the land [of Israel] died in a plague before Hashem[2]

As the Jews were just about to enter the land of Israel, they got an idea to send spies ahead to scout out the terrain. Twelve leaders, one from each tribe, were sent. They spent forty days touring the land, afterwards returning to the rest of the people. The Torah says that ten of them gave a bad report about the land, and the people wept and cried. They said that it was hopeless to try to conquer the land, for the inhabitants were mightier than they. Many wanted to return to Egypt, rather than die by the hands of the land’s inhabitants. As a result of what transpired, Hashem punishes the spies with a horrible death, and the rest of the people were sentenced to forty years of traveling aimlessly in the wilderness. Only those who survived would then get to enter the land.

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Beha’alosecha 5777

Running like schoolchildren[1]

׆ ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה קומה יקוק ויפצו איביך וינסו משנאיך מפניך: ובנחו יאמר שובה יקוק רבבות אלפי ישראל: ׆
When the Ark would travel, Moshe would say: “Rise Hashem, may Your enemies scatter, may the ones who hate You flee before You.” When [the Ark] would rest he would say: “Rest Hashem, Israel’s myriads of thousands”.[2]

In a standard sefer Torah, and in most standard chumashim, these two verses are surrounded by inverted letter-nuns. What are they doing here? The gemarra notes[3] that Hashem placed signs[4] before and after these verses. There are two opinions why. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel (Rashbag) says it’s to teach us that these two verses don’t belong here[5]. After the final redemption, they will be returned to where they belong, with the descriptions of the travel formations of the tribes[6]. Why then are the verses here? They are in order to create an interruption between the first punishments and second punishments (which will be explained shortly)[7]. Rebbe disagrees and says that it’s to teach us that these two verses are considered an independent book. In reality Rebbe doesn’t believe there are five books of the Torah, rather there are seven[8]. Meaning, he feels these two verses are in their proper place[9].

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Nasso 5777

The nazirite vow: ideal or criminal?[1]

וזאת תורת הנזיר ביום מלאת ימי נזרו…והקריב את-קרבנו ליקוק כבש בן-שנתו תמים אחד לעלה וכבשה אחת בת-שנתה תמימה לחטאת…
This is the law of the Nazir, on the day that he completes his nazirite-vow…He will bring as his offering to Hashem: one unblemished, year old male lamb as an elevation offering and one unblemished, year old female lamb as a sin offering…[2]

The Torah describes[3] the idea of someone who decides to become a Nazir. This is someone who for a specific amount of time, as a means to get closer to spirituality, vows to refrain from certain pleasures and activities. Specifically this refers to refraining from consuming wine and grape products, not trimming any of their hair, and avoiding ritual impurity from the dead (even close relatives). The most famous Nazir was Shimshon (Samson)[4], and some even say[5] the prophet Shmuel (Samuel) was a Nazir. The nazirite period can be as short as thirty days[6] and as long as a lifetime. The Torah explains the process that occurs after the nazirite period is over. The person has to go through a series of steps before returning to normal life. Included in this is the requirement to bring several offerings.

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Shavuos 5777

When was the Torah actually given?[1]

ותתן לנו יקוק אלקנו באהבה מועדים לשמחה חגים וזמנים לששון, את יום חג השבעות הזה זמן מתן תורתנו
Hashem our G-d, with love give us festivals of happiness, holidays and times of joy, this holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of our Torah[2]

In our calendar[3] Shavuos always falls out on the sixth day of Sivan. Something not mentioned explicitly in the Torah is the event that Shavuos commemorates. As noted in our prayers, Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This is why we read the Ten Commandments Shavuos morning[4]. There’s actually a disagreement in the gemarra[5] what day the Torah was given. The Rabbis say that the Torah was given on the sixth of Sivan, whereas Rabbi Yossi says that it was given on the seventh of Sivan. What is the basis for their argument?

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Bamidbar 5777

Rashi’s Royal Revelation[1]

ויקח משה ואהרן את האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות
Moshe and Aharon took these men who had been designated by [their] names[2]

Rashi comments פרש”י
These men: These twelve princes את האנשים האלה: את שנים עשר נשיאים הללו
That were designated: To him [Moshe], here, by their names אשר נקבו: לו כאן בשמות

Parshas Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, earns the book its name by beginning with a census of the Jewish people. This is one of many censuses that took place in the wilderness. Hashem commanded Moshe to count all the Jewish men above the age of twenty, those that would be suitable to serve in the army[1]. The leaders of the twelve tribes, described as princes, were appointed to help with the census. After listing the twelve princes, one for each tribe, the Torah states that Moshe and Aharon took them for their appointed task and began the count.

Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator, is unquestionably the most important and influential of the early authorities[2] on the Torah. His commentary is found in every edition of the Torah and has spawned dozens of supercommentaries whose task are solely to explain what Rashi meant. At the beginning of the Torah[3], Rashi describes the intention of his commentary by writing: “I came only for the peshat, the plain simple meaning of the words and verses”. Rashi only comments on the Torah when there is some difficulty in understanding the verse simply, or in order to correct a faulty first impression.

Given this introduction, Rashi’s comments on the above verse are puzzling. The verse is very self-evident; what is the need for clarification? What’s more puzzling is Rashi didn’t seem to add anything. After listing the twelve princes, the verse says that Moshe took “these men”, and Rashi tells us that it’s referring to “these twelve princes”. The verse says the men that were taken were the men that were designated by their names, and Rashi just adds the words “to him, here”. Meaning, the verse is saying that the men that were taken were the men that were designated to Moshe, here, by their names. What is gained by these additions?

The Mizrachi[4] tries to explain Rashi’s motivation. The verse could have simply stated “Moshe and Aharon took them”, why did the Torah add the words “these men”? Since the Torah added these words, Rashi was worried we would misinterpret the verse to be referring to some other men. This is why Rashi comments, to assure us that the verse is still discussing the above-mentioned princes. The problem with this approach is twofold. One, how does Rashi know the Torah is still referring to the princes? Maybe it really is referring to some other men. Even if it is referring to the princes, then why didn’t the verse say, “Moshe and Aharon took them”? What then was added by the words “these men”?

The Gur Aryeh[5] has a different approach to explain Rashi’s intent. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, it makes them sound like ordinary people[6]. Rashi wants to stress that these weren’t ordinary people; they were the twelve princes of Israel. Again, if this is the correct approach to Rashi, why did the Torah refer to them as men? Further, the verse uses the words אנשים, which Rashi elsewhere states[7] usually refers to men of importance. So why would I have misunderstood the verse?

A third approach to Rashi avoids all of these issues. This isn’t the first time princes were mentioned in the Torah. Before the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Torah describes[8] the various contributions the people made. It says[9] the princes brought “shoham stones” for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. However, the Torah doesn’t clarify which princes. Elsewhere, the Torah says[10] that the names of the twelve tribes are inscribed on these stones. Rashi names[11] which tribes, and lists Yosef as one tribe and also lists the tribe of Levi. Presumably, the princes who brought the stones were of the same tribes as those inscribed. However, the tribes listed in this week’s parsha are different than the ones listed by Rashi by the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, Yosef is listed as two tribes: his sons Efraim and Menashe. To keep the number of princes twelve, a prince for the tribe of Levi isn’t mentioned.

This is exactly Rashi’s point. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, Rashi is stressing the fact that it’s these princes, not the ones mentioned earlier. When the Torah says that they were the men who “were designated by name”, Rashi stresses that they were designated to Moshe here by name. Meaning, the Torah is referring to the princes designated here in this week’s parsha, not the ones by the Mishkan. The need to make this distinction is because this is the first time that Efraim and Menashe are considered to be their own tribes. This required Levi not to be counted, in order to keep the number of tribes at twelve.

This is just one example of the extreme depth that can be found in Rashi’s commentary. Sometimes a tiny addition to a verse can make a huge difference in understanding. Whenever Rashi doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the verse, in reality he’s helping us tremendously. This case of the princes teaches us the significance of every word in Rashi’s commentary.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on the book What’s Bothering Rashi, by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek. The piece on this week’s parsha can be read online at http://www.aish.com/tp/i/wbr/48930822.html

[2] Numbers 1:17

[3] ibid 1:3

[4] Known in Hebrew as the Rishonim

[5] Genesis 3:8

[6] ad. loc., one of the above mentioned supercommentaries on Rashi

[7] ad. loc., the Maharal of Prague’s commentary on Rashi

[8] Rabbi Hartman in his commentary to Gur Aryeh explains that we may have thought that they were not chosen for this task because of their nobility, so Rashi wants to stress that this was exactly why they were chosen

[9] Numbers 13:3

[10] Exodus 35:22-29

[11] ibid verse 27

[12] ibid 28:9-10

[13] to verse 10

 

Behar-Bechukosai 5777

Quality versus Quantity[1]

ונתנה הארץ פריה ואכלתם לשבע וישבתם לבטח עליה: וכי תאמרו מה-נאכל בשנה השביעת הן לא נזרע ולא נאסף את-תבואתנו: וצויתי את-ברכתי לכם בשנה הששית ועשה את-התבואה לשלש השנים
The land will give its fruit, and you will eat to satiation, and dwell securely on it. And if you’ll say: “what will we eat in the seventh year? Behold we can’t plant and gather our produce!” I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year, and the land will produce [enough] crops for three years[2]

The beginning of parshas Behar discusses the laws of Shemittah, the Sabbatical year in the land of Israel. Every seven years, the land attains a special level of kedusha, holiness, causing a whole set of laws to come into effect. Among the many laws that apply during the Shemittah year, a major one is that all agricultural work is forbidden. The land of Israel is to lie fallow. Before the industrial revolution, this mitzvah was incredibly relevant to the entire nation (while they were living in the land). Most of the people were farmers, and essentially got a year off to focus on more spiritual matters.

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