Bamidbar 5781

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Seeing (or is it counting?) double[1]

שאו את-ראש כל-עדת בני-ישראל למשפחתם לבית אבתם במספר שמות כל-זכר לגלגלתם: פקד את-בני לוי לבית אבתם למפחתם כל-זכר מבן-חדש ומעלה תפקדם
Count the heads of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, by their families and their father’s houses, by the number of the names[2], all the males, by their heads. Count the Levites according to their father’s houses and by their families. Count all the males from one month of age[3]

Sefer Bamidbar’s English name of Numbers is aptly put[4], as there are many censuses that are described throughout the book. This parsha alone contains two censuses, one of the Jewish people at large (excluding the tribe of Levi), and one exclusively of the tribe of Levi. The two censuses have some differences. One of them is the main census of the people was of all the males above the age of twenty. This is not like the census of the tribe of Levi, which counted all males from the age of one month and up. Another difference is regarding the general census of the people, the Torah stresses that they be counted by their heads. This requirement is strangely absent from the census of the Levites. Regarding this latter difference, why did the Torah leave out the requirement of counting by their heads?

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Beshalach 5781

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An embittered situation[1]

ויבאו מרתה ולא יכלו לשתת מים ממרה כי מרים הם על-כן קרא-שמה מרה: ויצעק אל-יקוק ויורהו יקוק עץ וישלח אל-המים וימתקו המים שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו
[The Jews] arrived at Marah, and they weren’t able to drink the water at Marah, as it was bitter. Therefore, the place was called Marah. [Moshe] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a piece of wood. [Moshe] threw the wood into the water, and the water became sweet. There [Hashem] placed for them a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested them[2]

The episode of Marah is short and sweet[3]. The Jews, after traveling for three days, had run out of water. They were hoping to drink from the water sources that they found at Marah. The problem was the water there was too bitter to drink. Moshe threw a piece of wood into the water, and it miraculously became sweet. Right afterwards is a vague verse. The Torah says that Hashem gave the Jews חק ומשפט, a decree and an ordinance. Our Sages teach us[4] this means that at that time they were introduced to a few mitzvos to be involved with: Shabbos, Parah Aduma (the laws of the Red Heifer used for ritual purity), and monetary laws[5] [6]. They would receive the rest of the Torah when they arrived at Mount Sinai.

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Asarah BaTeves 5781

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When Asarah BaTeves falls on Shabbos[1]

בן-אדם כתב-לך את-שם היום את-עצם היום הזה סמך מלך-בבל אל-ירושלם בעצם היום הזה
Son of Man, write for yourself the name of today. On this very day, the King of Babylonia began his siege on Jerusalem, on this very day[2]

Of the four minor fasts in commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the tenth of Teves is unique. This fast, which is in commemoration of the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem[3], is the only fast in our present calendar that can fall on a Friday[4]. It creates an unusual situation where we go into Shabbos having not eaten the entire day prior. Usually, a person shouldn’t go into Shabbos hungry[5]. This day is the exception. While this in fact happens this year, 5781, it’s also a very infrequent occurrence. Although it will happen again in two years, it’s been 20 years since it last happened. Something else that’s unique about the fast known as Asarah BaTeves is that in our present calendar, it cannot fall on Shabbos. The other fast days can. However, since it is forbidden to fast on Shabbos (besides Yom Kippur), they get pushed off until Sunday[6]. This situation doesn’t occur for Asarah BaTeves, as it cannot fall on Shabbos anyways.

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Vayishlach 5781

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Pursuing consideration[1]

ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו וגו’‏
Yaakov was very afraid, and it was distressing to him[2]

As Yaakov was nearing the end of his journey to his parent’s home, his worst fear came true. His wicked brother Eisav, who had a known death threat against him, was approaching with four hundred men. The Torah tells us that Yaakov was very afraid and distressed. Why are his emotions given these two descriptive terms? Rashi tells us[3] that he was afraid that he would be killed, and was distressed in case he would have to kill others to defend himself. It’s understandable that he didn’t want to be killed, but why should he be distressed from the thought of defending himself? If someone is coming to kill you and your family, it’s the proper thing to do defend yourself. The Torah says[4] that if someone is planning to kill you, get up before them and beat them to it[5]. What could he be distressed about?

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Vayeira 5781

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Serving while sleeping[1]

ותשקין את-אביהן יין בלילה הוא ותבא הבכירה ותשכב את-אביה ולא-ידע בשכבה ובקומה

[Lot’s daughters] gave their father wine to drink that night. The elder went and slept with her father, and he did not know of her sleeping or getting up[2]

The episode with Lot, the nephew of Avraham, and his daughters is well known. They got him drunk, and conceived children from him. He was so drunk that he was totally unaware of what was happening, as it was happening. This begs the question, what is a person’s level of responsibility when they are in this state? Obviously a person is accountable for getting themselves this drunk. However, when they are completely not in control, oblivious to their surroundings and to their actions, are they responsible? If a mitzvah is accomplished in this state[3], do they get credit? If they transgress a prohibition, are they punished? These questions are equally applicable to someone who is asleep. They too are totally unaware of what is happening. What is a person’s level of responsibility when they are sleeping?

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Yom Kippur 5781

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The foreseen repentance[1]

והיתה-זאת לכם לחקת עולם לכפר על-בני ישראל מכל-חטאתם אחת בשנה וגו’

This shall be for you an eternal decree, to atone for the Jewish people for all of their sins, once a year…[2]

There is a Midrash which teaches[3] us that on Motzei Yom Kippur, when the Holiest day of the year ends, a Heavenly voice declares: “Go out and eat your bread with joy! Drink your wine with a merry heart! As G-d has already accepted your actions”[4]. This teaches us that we should feel confident after Yom Kippur that our sincere efforts for repentance were accepted. However, the phrasing of this teaching is a little odd. If it said “G-d has accepted your actions”, that would have been fine. What does it mean that “G-d has already accepted your actions”? Seemingly, this only just happened today.

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HaAzinu 5781

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The required rebuke[1]

שובה ישראל עד יקוק אלקיך כי כשלת בעונך
Return, Israel, to Hashem your G-d! For you have stumbled in your sins[2]

The first Midrash in parshas HaAzinu[3] seems to have a completely irrelevant halachic query. What’s the law if someone has some sort of ear ailment on Shabbos? Is it permissible for them to seek medical help? The Midrash answers that our Sages taught us[4] that preservation of life overrides Shabbos[5]. This back and forth sounds like some sort of cryptic riddle. What’s it alluding to? Is there some relevance to the time period that we find ourselves in?

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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.

Vayeitzei 5780

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The joy of redemption[1]

מלא שבע זאת ונתנה לך גם-את-זאת גו’‏
Complete this week, and she will be given to you [in marriage] as well…[2]

The Mishnah teaches us[3] that it is forbidden to get married on Yom Tov, as well as the intermediary days of Yom Tov. The reason given is that it is a simcha, a joyous event. Why is that a reason to forbid it on Yom Tov?

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Ki Sisa 5778

Rabbi Reznick requested that I remove all divrei Torah that I wrote up from him. He didn’t want them in a public forum. If you would like to see a copy from this week’s parsha, please email contact@parshaponders.com.