Monday, June 28, 2010

Pinchas 5770-2010

"The Colorful Biography of Pinchas" --

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

At the end of last week's parasha, we learned that a prominent couple performed a lewd act in public in order to directly challenge Moses' authority. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, arose suddenly from among the congregation and, in his zealotry, plunged his spear through the couple, stopping the plague that had struck the people of Israel.

As this week's parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens, G-d praises Pinchas for turning back His wrath from upon the children of Israel by zealously avenging G-d, so that He did not consume the children of Israel in His vengeance.

The parasha now reveals the names of the wanton couple. Zimri, the son of Salu, was a leader of the house of the tribe of Simeon, and the slain Midianite woman was Cozbi, whose father Zur was one of the leaders of Midian. In Numbers 25:12, G-d declares: "La'chayn eh'mor, hin'neh'nee no'tayn lo et b'ree'tee shalom," Therefore, says G-d to Moses, let it be said that I give Pinchas My covenant of peace, and that he and his offspring after him will be part of the eternal covenant of priesthood, because he exacted vengeance for his G-d, and atoned for the children of Israel.

Pinchas, a descendent of one of the most prominent families in Israel, was the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron, the High Priest. His grandmother was one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25), a descendent of Jethro who had married into the family of Joseph. Apparently, Pinchas was an only child, and father of a son named Avishua (Chronicles 1, 6:35).

Although, Pinchas is widely known for his zealous action, during his lifetime he amassed an impressive record of achievement. Psalm 136:30, sings the praises of Pinchas for standing up and "praying" to stop the plague that had struck Israel. When Israel was instructed to avenge the Midianites for their treachery (Numbers 31:6), Moses chose Pinchas to head the forces that defeated the Midianites. In Joshua 22, we are told that Pinchas was sent along with 10 tribal leaders to reason with the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe, after these tribes built a large altar for themselves on the east side of the Jordan. Through his diplomatic negotiations with the prodigal tribes, Pinchas elicited an apology from them, acknowledging that they had no intention of offering sacrifices on the illegal altar, but rather hoped that the altar would serve as an affirmation of their commitment to the tribes of Israel and the unity of the nation. The book of Judges (20:28) also records that it was Pinchas who, in his function as priest, consulted with the Urim and Tumim in the treacherous incident of the concubine of Gibeah.

The Midrash and the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was subject to great ridicule throughout much of his life due to his mother's foreign origins. The Talmud, in Sotah 43a, suggests that the reason that Pinchas led the battle against the Midianites was in order to avenge the sale to Egypt of his great-grandfather, Joseph, by the Midianites.

Despite the fact that Pinchas killed the defiant couple without authority, he is nevertheless regarded as a national hero. Jewish tradition considers his act honorable because it stopped the Jewish men from engaging in wholesale lewdness. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, graphically describes the dramatic confrontation with Moses: Zimri grabbed Cozbi by her hair, stood her in front of Moses and began to scream: "Son of Amram! Is this woman forbidden to me or permitted? If you say she is forbidden, who gave you the permission to marry the daughter of Jethro?"

When Moses did not answer, all the people began to cry. At that moment, Pinchas remembered the law that it is permissible to take the life of someone who performs such a lewd act and acted accordingly.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82b, states that six miracles occurred for Pinchas, enabling him to punish the two sinners. Pinchas then argued with the Al-mighty regarding the justice of punishing so many: "Shall 24,000 [People of Israel] perish because of these [Zimri and Cozbi]?" he cried out. The ministering angels sought to repulse him. G-d, however, insisted that they let him be, referring to Pinchas as "a zealot, a descendant of a zealot, a turner-away of wrath, and the son of a turner-away of wrath." This, apparently, was an illusion to Levi, the first ancestor of his tribe who was zealous for his sister Dina's honor, and to Aaron, Pinchas' grandfather, who turned away G-d's wrath on the occasion of Korach's revolt.

The Talmud, in Sotah 22b, tells us that Pinchas' act eventually became a byword among the people of Israel, especially for the hypocrites who "perform deeds like Zimri, and seek a reward like Pinchas!"

According to Maimonides'(Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) introduction to his Mishnah Torah, it was Pinchas who received the oral tradition from Moses and transmitted it to Eli, the High Priest. The Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 16a, identifies the two spies who were sent to Jericho as Caleb and Pinchas. The fact that Scripture in Joshua 2:4 states, "and she [Rahab] hid him" (singular) was because Pinchas was transformed into an angel who was not seen, and there was no need to hide him.

Furthermore, there are even those who suggest that after his death, Pinchas eventually returned to the world of the living in the form of Elijah the Prophet. Others explain that because Elijah was a disciple of Pinchas in zealotry, he is therefore considered like him.

A further parallel between Pinchas and Elijah is that they both defended G-d's dignity. Pinchas did so when confronting the lewd offenders. Elijah did so when confronting the evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, who forbade the circumcision of Jewish children.

The Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 60:3 states that Pinchas lost his power of prophecy, because he failed to release Jephtah from his vow. Both Jephtah and Pinchas felt that it was beneath their dignity to be the first to approach the other to resolve the issue. As a result of their hubris, an innocent woman [Jephtah's daughter] was to suffer unnecessarily.

The Arizal (Isaac Luria,1534-1572, considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah) taught that Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who died for bringing an improper fire, had entered the body of Pinchas when he killed Zimri. The parallel being that all three acted without conferring with their elders. However, in contrast to the two sons of Aaron, Pinchas was not punished because he did the correct thing.

Obviously, we see that Pinchas was much more than simply a "zealot." He was a formidable leader of Israel who left a most impressive legacy of service to his people, who continue to benefit from his bold actions to this very day.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar b'Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, June 29, 2010, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city's and Temple's ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the "Three Weeks" period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha B'Av.Have a meaningful fast. Click here for more information.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Balak 5770-2010

"A Nation that Dwells Alone" --

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balak, the king of Moab, retains the services of the renowned gentile prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people. Due to G-d’s intervention, Bilaam is unable to curse Israel and, to Balak’s great chagrin, Bilaam instead blesses the Jewish people.

Even in his first prophecy, Bilaam acknowledges that he is powerless to curse Israel, declaring in Numbers 23:8: “Mah eh’kov, loh ka’boh Kayl; ooh’mah ehz’ohm, loh zah’ahm Hashem,” How can I curse, if G-d has not cursed? How can I be angry, if G-d is not angry? Bilaam then discloses that he is helpless against Israel. After all, from their very origins, due to their loyalty to their forebears, the people of Israel are as firmly established as the rocks and the hills. Bilaam then famously exclaims, Numbers 23:9: “Hen ahm l’vah’dahd yish’kohn, ooh’vah’goyim loh yit’chah’shav,” Behold, a nation that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among other nations.

There are those who interpret this verse to mean that the Jewish people are never counted among the traditional number of 70 nations. There are 70 nations and the nation of Israel. According to tradition, while each of the 70 nations has its own angelic guide, the Jewish people are under the exclusive dominion of G-d. Therefore, it is inconceivable that any curse can have impact upon them.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) maintains that the phrase, “Israel is not reckoned among the nations,” means that, in the final judgment, Israel will not be annihilated along with the other nations. The Netziv (R' Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’amek Davar, 1817-1893) explains that when the Jewish people do not assimilate with the nations among whom they dwell, they will dwell in peace and with honor. However, if they do mix with the nations, they will lose all respect and dignity.

The prophecy of Bilaam declaring that the Jewish people are a breed apart, has proven to be a very accurate portrayal of the Jewish people throughout its history, for better or for worse. It is as if the world is divided in two factions: the Jewish people and the non-Jewish people. One, a tiny group--the other, the overwhelming numbers of humankind.

Although the Jewish people are overwhelmed quantitatively, they hold their own qualitatively. Certainly, the People of Israel have had much experience in living physically apart, in ghettos, in the Pale of Settlement, excluded from feudal trade unions, and subject to constant anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the Jewish people have also lived spiritually apart, attempting to live as a holy people, offering their submission to G-d and His Torah. Having focused on education, they have successfully taught the world a new social order. They created schools and nurtured students to pursue knowledge as a sacred calling.

Although the doctrine of the chosenness of Israel has come under attack, especially in the last 200-300 years, looking at the agenda of the world, it is hard to argue that the Jewish people are not chosen, for one reason or another, for good or for bad. It seems as if the vast majority of the world’s agenda is focused on Israel. Every day, another crisis seems to arise.

Many Jews feel that the emphasis on Jewish exceptionalism is far too overstated, and wish to assimilate out of its specialness. Even the State of Israel wants to be treated simply as a normal member of the community of nations. But, Bilaam’s doctrine apparently prevails. Israel remains apart from all the countries of the world.

There are those who argue that the concept of a nation that dwells alone is a very dangerous and harmful model. They maintain that it is unwise to inculcate Jewish youth with this paradigm, which implies that Jews are meant always to suffer. On the other hand, the nation that dwells alone is truly special, and that specialness is a great blessing and privilege.

When the nations of the world start judging Israel (the people and the nation), by the standards they expect of all other nations, then we are in trouble. The Jewish people should expect to be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. We are a nation apart. We are intended to be different. We must be a more moral nation, more committed to good than any other people. If we lose that special status, we lose the magic of being Jewish.

We dare not allow that to happen.

May you be blessed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Chukat 5770-2010

"And from Mattanah to Nahaliel"

In this week's parasha, parashat Chukat, after a series of battles and confrontations with hostile nations, the Torah records a lyrical, but esoteric, poem concerning the well of Miriam.

Numbers 21:17 reads: "Ahz yah'sheer Yisrael, et hah'shee'rah ha'zoht: Ah'lee v'ayhr, eh'noo lah." Then Israel sang this song:

"Spring up, O well, sing to it.
The well which the princes dug;
which the nobles of Israel excavated with the scepter, and with their staffs;
and from the wilderness to Mattanah.
And from Mattanah, to Nahaliel;
and from Nahaliel, to Bamoth.
And from Bamoth to the valley that is in the field of Moab, by the top of peak which looks down upon the wilderness."

According to our commentators, this poem is part of a series of verses describing famous battles that were recorded in "The Book of the Wars of G-d," a volume that some speculate originated with Abraham, and was lost along with other early historical documents.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) claims that the names of cities mentioned here are all places that Israel captured from Sichon, the king of Emor. They are recorded here to confirm Israel's right to possess these lands.

However, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) interprets these verses according to the Midrash, which claims that these places, as well as those mentioned in the preceding verses, are locations where great miracles occurred as Israel traveled through the wilderness.

So, for instance, when Numbers 21:15 states: "And the slope of the valleys that inclines toward the seat of Ar, and leans upon the border of Moab," Rashi cites the Midrash that states that the Emorites hid in the mountains in order to attack Israel after they passed through the valley. But once the people of Israel passed through the valley, the mountains began to tremble and moved closer to the mountains of Moab, crushing the Emorites who were hiding in the hills.

Rashi interprets the word "Mattanah" found in Numbers 21:18: "And from the wilderness to Mattanah," not as the name of a location, but rather that G-d gave the Jewish people the well of Miriam as a gift (mattanah) to supply the people with water during their 40 years in the wilderness.

The Talmud in Nedarim 55a-b, turns the phrase "Oo'me'midbar Mattanah," found in Numbers 21:18, into a lesson of ethics and educational philosophy.

Ravah [the Talmudic sage] was asked, What is meant by the verse "and from the wilderness, Mattanah"–-he replied: When one makes himself as the wilderness, which is free to all [meaning prepared to teach the Torah to all] the Torah is presented to him as a gift ["mattanah"], as it is written: "And from the wilderness, Mattanah." And once he has it as a gift, G-d gives it to him as an inheritance ["nahaliel"], as it is written, Numbers 21:19: "And from Mattanah, Nahaliel." And when G-d gives it to him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written: "And from Nahaliel, Bamot [heights]." But, if he exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: "And from Bamoth, to the valley." Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Numbers 21:20: "Which looks down upon the wilderness." But should he repent, the Holy One blessed be He will raise him again, as it is written (Isaiah 40:4): "Every valley shall be exalted."

From a literary perspective, the Torah simply seems to be stating that the Jewish people traveled from the wilderness to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth. Nevertheless, our rabbis make a point of emphasizing that the Torah, within the process of recording the historical itinerary of the people's travels, is teaching much more than the names of places. Consequently, the great sage, Ravah, declares unequivocally, that Torah, like a wilderness, is not only the legacy of all Jews, but that Torah may not be taught through hubris. In fact, whoever exalts himself, the Holy One blessed be He casts him down. There is no room for arrogance on the part of the teacher, no matter how brilliant a Torah scholar they are. An instructor may not insist that because of his erudition that he can only teach students of superior intelligence. Neither may one turn away a foolish question, if asked sincerely. Sincerity must be the determining factor, not endowed intelligence, which is purely a Divine gift, completely unearned.

Unfortunately, not everyone feels this way. Today there are yeshivot, schools established from kindergarten on, that are limited only to the children of clergy or scholars, so that these children will not be "contaminated" by the presence of children in the class whose parents may work for a living. One wonders, from how many yeshivot would Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir have been excluded. The same holds true for schools whose tuitions are so exorbitant that only the children of the most affluent can attend. The Talmud (Nedarim, 81a) warns to be careful with the children of the poor, for from them will Torah come.

The "mattanah," the gift of Torah, will indeed come from those who have traversed the wilderness, who appreciate what deprivation means, whether material or intellectual, and are prepared to share their Torah with all, to all sincere students.

That is the bold message of this seemingly innocuous poem. That is why it is so special, and so sacred.

May you be blessed.

Thoughts on Father's Day from Rabbi Buchwald

Monday, June 7, 2010

Korach 5770-2010

“And Behold the Staff of Aaron had Blossomed” --

The rebellion of Korach, about which we read in this coming week's parasha, parashat Korach, ends in great tragedy for Korach and his cohorts when the earth swallows them up. The 250 men who improperly offered incense also meet an untimely end when they are consumed by a heavenly fire.

Despite this intimidating display of Divine wrath, the very next day, the Children of Israel complain against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 17:6: "Ah'tem hah'mee'tem et ahm Hashem," You have killed the people of G-d! A plague breaks out, killing 14,700 Israelites before Aaron runs into the midst of the plague with an incense filled fire-pan, forestalling further calamity.

At this point, G-d tells Moses that all tribal princes are to take their staffs, inscribe their names on the staff, inscribe the name of Aaron on the staff of Levi, and place the staffs inside the Tent of Meeting before the holy Ark. G-d tells Moses, Numbers 17:20: "V'hah'yah hah'eesh ah'sher ev'char bo–-mah'tay'hoo yif'rach," And it shall be that the man whom I shall choose, his staff shall blossom. This, says G-d, will stop the complaints of the Children of Israel against you and Aaron.

Moses places the twelve staffs in the Tabernacle. The very next day, when the staffs are removed, they discover that the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had blossomed, sprouting a bud with ripened almonds.

The Torah informs us that the staff of Aaron was returned to the Tabernacle for safekeeping, to serve as a sign to prevent future rebellion.

Yehudah Nachshoni (popular Israeli parasha commentator) in his reflections on the weekly Torah portions, notes that the commentators are troubled by the new sign that G-d employs to prove Aaron's leadership. What is the point of the staff that blossoms? After all, there have already been three very definitive proofs confirming the leadership of Moses and Aaron: 1) Korach and his cohorts were swallowed by the earth, 2) those who brought incense were consumed by a heavenly fire, 3) 14,700 men died in the plague. Who else was there left to convince by the blossoming of the staff? What will this sign prove that the previous signs have not? After all this, how can G-d say, Numbers 17:20: That [with the sign of the staffs] I will cause to subside from upon me the complaints of the children of Israel which they complained against you?

The Ohr HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R' Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggests that even after the death of Korach, the people doubted Aaron's right to the priesthood. Although the people agreed that Korach deserved to die because he rebelled against Moses, his death did not in any way confirm that Aaron was entitled to be the High Priest.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), maintains that the issue was not the priesthood. In fact, the people had been convinced that Aaron was indeed entitled to be High Priest. They were, however, unconvinced that the Levites should serve as ministers in the Temple in place of the first-born. The blossoming staff of Aaron, representing the tribe of Levi, confirmed, once-and-for-all, that the Levites were to be the ministers, in place of the first-born.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer (of Nir Galim, Israel, renowned for his erudite homilies) suggests two lessons that are taught by the blossoming staff. Rabbi Firer maintains that open miracles such as a staff blossoming, in general, do not effectively address an issue such as jealousy. Those who are caught up in jealousy, like Korach and his followers, are so emotionally invested that no miracle and no logic can sway them from their position. The miracle of the staff could, however, address the issues of those who honestly complained about the role of Aaron. Since those who questioned Aaron's leadership did so sincerely, therefore, when the staff blossomed, their questions were addressed and they accepted Aaron's leadership.

Rabbi Firer further points out that the staff, in this instance, does not represent a scepter of authority over others, but serves rather as an example of service to others. The other miracles that the People of Israel witnessed were signs of power and punishment. In general, weak people are not convinced of the righteousness of the powerful because of the strength of the powerful. Indeed, it is often a cause for greater resentment and desire for vengeance. The staff of Aaron, on the other hand, represents pleasantness and conciliation, which effectively persuades those who disagree with Aaron's communal appointments to finally accept it.

It is important to note that, previously, in the time of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:12), the staff of Aaron had swallowed the staffs of his challengers. In this instance, however, Aaron does not wish to rule over the others. That is why the staff simply blossoms amidst the others, and gently convinces the others of its exceptionalness. It is a staff of peace, tranquility, and brotherhood. In this gentle way, the people are convinced of Aaron's suitability far more effectively than by power and punishment.

Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk (d. 1939, Chief Rabbi of Kutno, Poland, author of Mikreh M'furash, a lively commentary on the Torah) points out that there are some candidates for leadership who, on the surface, seem to be appropriate and well qualified. But, as soon as they assume the reins of leadership, they rapidly lose their talents and their pleasantness. There are others, who, once they enter into the office of leadership, seem to blossom, and their talents, goodness and kindness grow. This is the symbolism that the blossoming staff is intended to convey. In order to lead the Al-mighty's flock, Aaron and the future leaders of Israel must always grow in stature, talent and kindness, striving to become more perfect and effective leaders.

May you be blessed.