Mattos / Masei 5781

The responsibility of the Kohen Gadol[1]

‏…והשיבו אתו העדה אל-עיר מקלטו אשר-נס שמה וישב בה עד-מות הכהן הגדל וגו’‏
…The congregation shall return [the accidental killer] to his city of refuge (where he initially fled to), and he shall dwell there until the death of the Kohen Gadol…[2]

The Torah mandates that someone who, G-d forbid, accidentally kills another, be sentenced to exile. They have to leave their family and friends and dwell in one of the cities of refuge that the Torah delineates. It serves both as protection from the deceased’s relatives (who may want to take revenge)[3], and as a form of atonement[4]. The Torah does give a time limit to this exile. Although, it’s seemingly incongruous to the crime committed. The accidental killer must stay in their city of refuge until the death of the Kohen Gadol. Only then can they return to their home. Why did the Torah make his freedom dependent on the Kohen Gadol’s death?

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Pinchas 5781

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Just reward[1]

פינחס בן-אלעזר בן-אהרן הכהן השיב את-חמתי מעל בני-ישראל בקנאו את-קנאתי בתוכם ולא-כליתי את-בני-ישראל בקנאתי
Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Jewish people, by acting out his zealotry amongst you. [As a result] I did not wipe out the Jewish people with my zealotry[2]

Parshas Pinchas begins where the previous parsha ended. Zimri ben Salu, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, committed a leud act with a Midianite woman in front of the entire congregation. Moshe was at a loss what to do[3]. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon HaKohen, recalled that in such a situation a zealot may take the law into their own hands[4]. He punished Zimri, and Pinchas was rewarded kindly by Hashem. The Sages in the Midrash make an unusual comment about the results of Pinchas’ actions. They say[5] that “it makes sense that Pinchas was rewarded”. What do they mean by this teaching, and what are they stressing?

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Balak 5781

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Bilaam’s interaction with Hashem[1]

ויבא אלקים אל-בלעם ויאמר מי האנשים האלה עמך: ויאמר בלעם אל-האלקים בלק בן-צפר מלך מואב שלח אלי
G-d came to Bilaam and said to him: “Who are these men who are with you?[2]” Bilaam said to G-d: “Balak, the son of Tzippor, the King of Moav, sent [them] to me”[3]

ויאמר אלקים אל-בלעם לא תלך עמהם לא תאר את-העם כי ברוך הוא: ויקם בלעם בבקר ויאמר אל-שרי בלק לכו אל-ארצכם כי מאן יקוק לתתי להלך עמכם
G-d said to Bilam: “Do not go with them. Do not curse the nation, as they are blessed”. Bilaam got up in the morning and told the ministers of Balak: “Go back to your land, as Hashem has withheld permission for me to go with you[4]

ויבא אלקים אל-בלעם לילה ויאמר לו אם-לקרא לך באו האנשים קום לך אתם ואך את-הדבר אשר-אדבר אליך אתו תעשה
G-d came to Bilaam in the night, and said to him: “If these men came to invite you, then get up and go with them. However, relate [only] that which I will tell you. That is what you shall do”[5]

The King Balak, whom this parsha is named after, hired the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. The verses show that he was a non-Jewish prophet, and communicated with G-d. It’s interesting to see and analyze their interactions. Rav Rutterman, the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, related that we can glean two fascinating insights into the human psyche from these interactions.

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Chukas 5781

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Subtle differences[1]

וירם משה את-ידו ויך את-הסלע במטהו פעמים ויצאו מים רבים ותשת העדה ובעירם
Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. A lot of water came out and quenched the thirst of the congregation and their animals[2]

The episode of Mei Merivah is one of the more famous episodes in the Torah, and one of the most difficult to understand. The whole story is only a few verses long, and describes the Jews’ thirst for water, Hashem commanding Moshe to speak to a rock, and Moshe’s sin of instead hitting this rock. The commentators struggle[3] to understand what exactly he did wrong. Despite Moshe’s sin, the people got the water they requested. Hashem miraculously brought forth water from a rock, just because Moshe hit it. The verse says that a lot of water came out. This extra benefit would seem to be something positive, but perhaps there’s more to this miracle than meets the eye.

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Korach 5781

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Eyes to see[1]

ויקח קרח וגו’ ודתן ואבירם וגו’ ואון וגו’ ויקמו לפני משה ואנשים מבני-ישראל חמשים ומאתים וגו’‏
Korach took [his tallis][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. Rashi asks[4], how could Korach ever conceive that his rebellion would be successful? Moshe clearly was a miracle performer. He produced the Ten Plagues, and split the sea. He obviously had a relationship with Hashem. Rashi says[5] that Korach’s eye misled him. He saw a prophecy that his future descendant would be the prophet Shmuel, who Chazal say was of equal prominence to Moshe and Aharon[6]. Korach figured there is no way he would merit this great descendant unless he took action[7]. He would have to usurp Moshe and Aharon and become the leader. In the end his rebellion proved unsuccessful, removing all doubt to Moshe’s authority. The commentaries[8] are bothered with Rashi’s[9] phraseology. Why did Rashi say that Korach’s eye misled him, instead of a more normal expression Korach’s eyes misled him?

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Shelach 5781

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The reminder of tzitzis[1]

ויהיו בני-ישראל במדבר וימצאו איש מקשש עצים ביום השבת: דבר אל-בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם ועשו להם ציצת על-כנפי בגדיהם לדרתם וגו’‏
While the Jews were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on Shabbos…Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: “In all generations, make tzitzis on the corners of your garments…”[2]

The Torah juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated and disconnected points. The first is an episode where a man was caught brazenly violating Shabbos. Immediately after this story is told, the mitzvah of tzitzis is described. Why are these two things put next to each other? One explanation is[3] that Moshe had a claim against Hashem[4]. The Jews are commanded to wear tefillin on their heads and arms six days a week. The mitzvah of tefillin reminds them to keep and observe the Torah properly. The one day that the Jews don’t wear tefillin is on Shabbos[5]. As such, this man was susceptible to forgetting the mitzvos. How could it not be expected for someone to desecrate Shabbos? Hashem responded with the mitzvah of tzitzis, which apply all seven days of the week. Tzitzis are also a sign that Jew wears to remind them of all the mitzvos. This way, there’s no need to worry about someone forgetting the laws of Shabbos, or any other mitzvah. The problem with this explanation is we are taught[6] that the person who desecrated Shabbos knew full well what they were doing. They didn’t forget anything. How then can we understand this approach[7]?

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Nasso 5781

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The three who became impure[1]

צו את-בני ישראל וישלחו מן-המחנה כל-צרוע וכל-זב וכל טמא לנפש
Command the Jewish people to send out of the camp anyone with tzara’as, anyone who had an unusual emission, and anyone who is spiritually impure due to contact with the deceased[2]

After the Torah describes the three different camps, the camp of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, the camp of the Leviim, and the camp of the rest of the Jews, it immediately relates the inherent holiness present in these camps. These camps are concentric circles, with the camp of the Divine Presence containing the highest level of sanctity, and the camp of the Jews having the lowest level. Someone with tza’ras, a leprous-like spiritual malady with physical symptoms, would be sent out of all three camps. Someone known as a zav, who suffered an unusual emission from their body, would be sent out of the inner two camps. Someone who is tamei mes, spiritually impure due to contact with the deceased, is only sent out of the innermost camp.

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Masei 5780

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Growth through adversity[1]

ויכתב משה את-מוצאיהם למסעיהם על-פי יקוק ואלה מסעיהם למוצאיהם
Moshe wrote the experiences[2] of their journeys that were directed by Hashem. These are the journeys of their experiences[3]

This week’s parsha starts off with a glaring inconsistency. The Torah proceeds to describe the forty-two journeys the Jews made from their Exodus from Egypt to their final encampment before entering the land of Israel. To introduce this list, the Torah says that Moshe wrote the experiences of their journeys. It immediately follows by saying that this is the list of the journeys of their experiences. The first time it mentions their experiences first, yet the second time it mentions their journeys first. Why is there this apparent inconsistency?

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Mattos 5780

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Clean from suspicion[1]

ונכבשה הארץ לפני יקוק ואחר תשבו והייתם נקיים מיקוק ומישראל והיתה הארץ הזאת לכם לאחזה לפני יקוק
Once the land is conquered before Hashem, then you can return. You shall [then] be deemed innocent [in the eyes] of Hashem and the Jewish People. This land shall [then] be yours for an inheritance, before Hashem[2]

After the Jews conquered the land on the east side of the Jordan River, it became considered part of the land of Israel. The land of Israel proper, on the west side of the Jordan River, still had to be conquered. Two and a half tribes, that of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe, requested for the opportunity to have their portion be solely in the land on the east side of the Jordan River. Moshe took this to mean that they weren’t interested in helping their brethren conquer the rest of the land of Israel. This could lead to distrust, quarrels, and maybe even civil war. Moshe reasoned with them that they’ll be allowed to be the sole inheritors of this part of the land if they help with the war effort on the west side of the Jordan. Upon victory, they’ll be welcome to return to their families on the east side of the Jordan River, and begin to settle it.

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Pinchas 5780

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The just reward[1]

פינחס בן-אלעזר בן-אהרן הכהן השיב את-חמתי מעל בני-ישראל בקנאו את-קנאתי בתוכם וגו’ לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את-בריתי שלום
Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, removed My wrath from upon the Jewish people, as he avenged My vengeance amongst them…Therefore, it shall be said that I hereby give him My covenant of Peace[2]

This week’s parsha starts by concluding the episode of the previous parsha. There were many Jews who were involved in lewd behavior with foreign women and idol worship[3]. This had the danger of causing the entire Jewish people to be wiped out in a plague. The grandson of Aharon, Pinchas, volunteered to take action. Although he wasn’t required[4], he punished the main instigator of the debacle. He stood up, when no one else did. His bold deed gave everyone time to pause, and the sinning stopped. The Jewish people were safe again. Hashem, in this week’s parsha, confirmed that Pinchas behaved properly by taking the law into his own hands. He announced that Pinchas would be rewarded. Chazal make a point[5] of stressing that Pinchas deserved to be rewarded. Why did they feel the need to point this out? The verse seemingly does a fine job of saying that he deserved to be rewarded.

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