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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Chukas / Balak 5780

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Just passing through[1]

נעברה-נא בארצך לא נעבר בשדה ובכרם ולא נשתה מי באר דרך המלך נלך לא נטה ימין ושמאול עד אשר-נעבר גבולך: ויאמר אליו אדום לא תעבר בי פן-בחרב אצא לקראתך
Please[2], let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard. We will not drink the water from [our] well. [Rather], we shall walk through the path of the king[3]. We will not veer right or left until we’ve passed through your border. Edom said to him: “You shall not pass through my land, lest I encounter you with the sword”[4]

After almost forty years of traveling through the wilderness, the Jewish people finally received permission to enter the land of Israel. As they approached its borders, they encountered the land of Edom, their cousins and enemies. Edom, the nation of Yaakov’s brother Eisav, bore the same jealousy and hatred[5] towards the Jews that their ancestor had towards his brother. The Jews requested permission to pass through the land. They promised not to tread through Edom’s fields and vineyards, and to purchase food and drink from the populace[6]. Their request for permission was denied. Seemingly, the Jews were promising that their passing through the land would not only not be damaging, but even profitable. As well, the nation of Edom seemingly denied entry as they predicted their emotions would lead to fighting and bloodshed. However, is there another way to understand this exchange?

In Jewish law, land can be acquired in three ways: with money, a sale deed, or what is known as chazakah[7]. The first two are clear, but what is chazakah? Essentially, it’s an act by the purchaser which expresses ownership. For example, building a fence around a field[8]. Only the owner would do that. If this act of chazakah was done with the owner’s permission, with the intent to transfer ownership, the land now belongs to the person who performed the chazakah. There are other methods of chazakah, and some of them are subject to a dispute.

What if the purchaser simply walked across the length and width of the land? Perhaps the purchaser is showing ownership over the area that they traversed. This method of chazakah is a matter of dispute[9]. Rabbi Eliezer says that it works, and the Sages disagree. What is the reasoning of Rabbi Eliezer? The gemarra says that he learned it from Avraham. Hashem told Avraham that he would acquire the land of Israel, and that he should walk across its length and width[10]. You see then that this is a method of acquisition.

The Sages reject this source, as that command wasn’t about acquisition. Rather, they say it showed how dear Avraham was to Hashem, as this traversing of the land would make it easier for his descendants to conquer it. How was this so? By traversing the land, it would make his future descendants look like they were inheriting it from him, rather than appearing like they were stealing from the inhabitants. If the latter were the case, there would have been room for heavenly forces to influence their defeat[11]. However, the gemarra clarifies that the Sages agree to Rabbi Eliezer in the case of a path that goes through a vineyard. Since that path is exclusively made for traversing, by doing so it effects ownership[12].

With those laws in mind, subtext in the exchange between the Jewish people and the nation of Edom becomes more apparent. Geographically, the land of Edom is part of the lands of the ten nations which were promised to Avraham’s descendants[13]. As such, Edom was concerned that the Jews’ intent in passing through the land was in order to effect an acquisition of it. To alleviate this concern, the Jews said they wouldn’t pass through any field or vineyard. This was to include even the paths of the vineyards, which do in fact effect ownership. They would only walk through the regular paths that the king would allow[14], which according to the Sages wouldn’t be a valid chazakah[15].

How did the nation of Edom respond? They said they will not grant passage, lest they encounter the Jews with the sword. At first glance, this seems like an admission that as the Jews pass through, the Edomites will inevitably wage war, causing bloodshed. However, according to this gemarra about Avraham, there could be a different intent. Perhaps Edom was saying that in the future, not now, they might need or want to wage war against the Jews. However, if Edom allowed the Jews to pass through their land, this would be to their disadvantage. Just like Avraham traversed the land of Israel, making it easier for his children to conquer the land, so too the descendants of this generation. If the Jews passed through the land of Edom, it would enable their own descendants’ victory in future battles against Edom. This is why Edom refused any passage whatsoever, forcing the Jews to take another course.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Meshech Chochmah to Numbers 20:17,18

[2] Cf. Targum Onkelos ad. loc., who as usual translates נא as כאן, now

[3] Contrary to the implication of the popular Yaakov Shwekey song, the simple reading of the verse tells us that the path of the king refers to the king of Edom, not to Hashem. However, there are some chassidishe sources which also read the verse to be referring to the path of Hashem, such as Likkutei Moharan 20:10, Sefas Emes to Numbers 20:14 from the year 5639, Agra DeKala ad. loc., Be’er Mayim Chaim to Genesis 3:24

[4] Numbers 20:17,18

[5] See Sifrei Bamidbar § 69, brought by Rashi to Genesis 33:4: הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב. It’s probably more accurately הלא בידוע, as demonstrated by Yalkut Shimoni Beha’alosecha § 722. Although, one could argue that that aphorism is specifically referring to Eisav and Yaakov, and not their descendants

[6] Rashi to v. 17

[7] Kiddushin 1:5

[8] Bava Basra 3:3

[9] Ibid 100a

[10] Genesis 13:17

[11] Rashbam ad. loc. See Pesach Einayim ad. loc.

[12] See Rashbam and Ramban ad. loc.

[13] Genesis 15:18-21 with Rashi and Bava Basra 56a with Rashbam s.v. כל שהראהו

[14] Lekach Tov to Numbers 20:17

[15] See Tosafos to Bava Basra loc. cit.

Korach 5780

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The danger of scoffing[1]

וידבר אל-קרח ואל-כל-עדתו לאמר בקר וידע יקוק את-אשר-לו וגו’ זאת עשו קחו-לכם מחתות וגו’‏
[Moshe] spoke to Korach and his assembly, saying: “Tomorrow morning it shall be known who is Hashem’s…Do this: Take for yourselves firepans”[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. Korach claimed that Moshe was making everything up[3]. He claimed that Moshe was a false prophet. Moshe challenged this band of rebels to a test to determine who was the true prophet of Hashem. The next morning, they would all take firepans and put incense on them. Through this act of Divine service, it would become clear who was Hashem’s chosen leaders. The result was that those that banded with Korach were burned to death by their firepans, whereas Moshe and Aharon emerged unscathed. This validated their rightful place as the leaders of the people, and prophets of Hashem.

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Shelach 5780

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Humble matters[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, were 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 5780

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Turning curses into blessings[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. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel explains this was 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?

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Nasso 5780

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The value of shalom[1]

וכתב את-האלת האלה הכהן בספר ומחה אל-מי המרים
The Kohen shall write these curses on parchment, and blot it out in the bitter waters[2]

The Torah describes what’s known as the Sotah ritual. If a married woman, due to her immoral behavior, becomes a presumed adulteress[3], her and her husband cannot live together until the matter is confirmed. If she indeed committed adultery, they have to divorce. If she is in fact innocent, they can resume married life as normal. How can they clear up this scandal? The Torah provides a unique avenue for her to prove her innocence. The woman, now known as a Sotah, is taken to the Temple. Various rituals are performed, and offerings brought. This includes writing down on a piece of parchment a set of curses which are to fall on her if she is guilty. This parchment contains instances of the name of Hashem. It is then placed in a cup of bitter water, the writing dissolves, and she is to drink it. Miraculously, after the ceremony, it became clear to everyone if she is innocent or not.

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Bamidbar / Shavuos 5780

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Revealing the facets of the King[1]

איש על-דגלו באתת לבית אבתם יחנו בני ישראל מנגד סביב לאהל-מועד יחנו
The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person according to his flag, with signs according to their father’s house. They shall encamp opposite and surrounding the Tent of Meeting[2]

A significant amount of this week’s parsha describes the encampment of the Jewish people in the wilderness. In the center was the Mishkan, surrounded by the camp of the Leviim. Surrounding them were the rest of the nation, divided by their tribes. Each tribe had a specific cardinal location, with respect to the center point of the Mishkan. Each tribe is also described as having their own flag. These flags served as unique markers to distinguish each tribe from the other. They had different colors and patterns than each other[3]. However, Chazal teach us[4] that there was a greater significance to these flags than the Torah describes.

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Mattos-Masei 5779

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Mistaken priorities[1]

וגשו אליו ויאמרו גדרת צאן נבנה למקננו פה וערים לטפנו וגו’ בנו-לכם ערים לטפכם וגדרת לצאנכם וגו’‏
[The tribes of Reuven and Gad] approached [Moshe] and said: “We will build shelters here for our flock and cities for our children”…[Moshe responded: “Build for yourselves cities for your children, and shelters for your flock”…[2]

After the Jews conquered the land of Sichon and Og, on the east side of the Jordan River, they were prepared to enter the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuven and Gad noticed that the area they had just conquered was excellent grazing land. Being that they had ample flock to feed, they thought it would be a good idea for their apportioned land to be given from this one, instead of the land of Israel proper. They approached Moshe and told him if they received this conquered land, they would use it to build shelters for their flock, and cities for their children.

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Pinchas 5779

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Two forms of scholarship[1]

ובני קרח לא מתו
The sons of Korach didn’t die[2]

This week’s parsha contains yet another census. The Torah lists all the different families by tribe, and states their total numbers. While detailing the families in the tribe of Levi, the family of Korach, who started a failed rebellion against Moshe[3], is mentioned. The Torah wanted to emphasize that although Korach’s children were part of his rebellion, they did not perish like their father did. Rather, they repented at the last moment, saving their lives[4]. The gemarra relates[5] that when their lives were spared, the children of Korach sang a song of praise to Hashem. What song did they choose to sing?

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Balak 5779

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The repulsive idol and the lack of boundaries[1]

ויחל העם לזנות אל בנות מואב וגו’ וצמד ישראל לבעל פעור וגו’‏
The [Jewish] nation began[2] to commit lewd acts with the women of Moav…and the Jews clung to [the idol] Ba’al Peor[3]

At the end of this week’s parsha, the Jewish people hit a new low. They began to have illicit sexual relationships with women from the foreign nation of Moav, and they committed severe acts of idol worship. The Torah uses an unusual expression to describe their attitude towards the idol known as Ba’al Peor. It says וצמד, which is the verb form of the word which describes a tightly bound cover on a vessel[4]. This means that the Jews became tightly bound, or clung, to the idol Ba’al Peor. With some historical context, this is very hard to understand. The form of worship of this idol was one of the most repulsive things imaginable. The way to serve this idol was to eat and drink things which would cause diarrhea[5], and then to defecate on it[6]. How could the Jews be not only interested, but totally attached to such an idol?

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