We are embarking, for this and the next week, on what is called “the Shechinah unit”. That spans this week’s portion, Terumah, and the next, Tetzaveh. Both of those portions have the first description of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and the unit begins and ends with “they will make Me a mishkan, and I will dwell among them.” So this exercise of constructing the Mishkan is to have God’s presence, the Shechinah, being felt among the Jews. And please notice that the text does not say that God will dwell in the Mishkan, but rather that God will dwell among the people of Israel.
Terumah means offering, and our portion opens with vayikechu li terumah – and they will take for Me an offering. Now, the word vayikechu, they will take, has a root that connects with something we sing the end of the Torah service: Ki lekach tov natati lachem, torati al ta-azovu. This is just before “etz chayim hi”. Lekach, connected to vayikechu, means portion. I gave you a good portion, the text says, do not abandon My Torah.
That is an important connection for most of the hasidic rebbes. Because, of course, how do we, modern Jews, talk about the Mishkan, the Tabernacle? How do we make these many verses something significant? And this connection is not a connection only made by the hasidic masters, but some midrashim will make that connection as well. There is something that the writers of the midrash and the hasidic rebbes both share, and we share with them, which is a Judaism without a Temple. If the Tabernacle and later the Temple were a way of bringing down God’s Shechinah into the world, how do we do it now, without a physical space?
We do that through studying Torah, the lekach tov, the good portion. And the Sefat Emet, whose real name is Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the rebbe of Gur, will begin by reminding us that lekach also means acquisition. And he says: look how different Torah is from other acquisitions. When we exchange something, and I produce beans and you cloth, I give you beans and you give me cloth, we exchange and both win and lose. We get what we want, but we lose what we produced. Torah is different. When I know a piece of Torah, and you know a piece, and we share, we both continue with what we have, and we both gain.
And here lies another fundamental way of looking to the world and to people: every one of us has a specific Torah to teach and to learn in this world. We are not an accident. Not a single one of us is. Just as we are individuals, so is our specific Torah. And yet, says the Sefat Emet, Torah is what joins all of the Jewish people together. When I learn and when I teach, and when you teach and when you learn, we become one people. That is how we find peace, according to the Sefat Emet. Peace is actively learning with one another, with an open heart, looking at one another’s words, thoughts and actions and learning Torah through them. Peace, shalom, is also seen as one of God’s names.
You know that God in the Jewish tradition has many names. One of them is peace. And peace, for the Sefat Emet, is not attained if you are in your corner, and I am in my corner, and we know we disagree and we are both silent. That is something more like a stalemate, or a truce, but it is not peace. Peace – and God’s presence – can only come if we join together to learn. If we are open to be challenged and changed by that encounter. It is when we see each encounter not as a zero-sum game, not as a win-lose, but as a win-win. We both are challenged and changed and grow.
This process of learning Torah, with both a capital and a lowercase letter, is what brings us together as a people. That is the bringing of God’s presence in the world. It is when we internalize both that we are valued, that we have our Torah, and that others have value, and so does their Torah. And we go one step further, which is learning from one another. There are, the Sefat Emet reminds us, seventy faces of the Torah. And if we read closely the list of the people that came to Egypt, we read that they were shiv’im nefesh, usually translated as “seventy souls”, but that translation washes over the obvious Hebrew problem: the text actually says “soul”, in the singular. We are supposed to be, in our individuality, still a people together, still one soul. We only become a people when we embrace all the faces of Torah.
Ki lekach tov natati lachem – I gave you all a good portion. Take an offering for Me – each person, according to their ability, desire, and Torah that they came to learn and teach in this world. That is how we bring down the Shechinah, God’s presence, a task that is now both simpler and more complex in a world without a Temple. Shabbat Shalom.
Yitro is one of the three portions named after a non-Jew – the other two being Noach and Balak. Yitro, differently from the other two, even according to the Torah text, joins the Jewish people. This portion is famous because it is the one where the Ten Sayings appear, the Aseret hadibrot.
This is the first thing that needs to be clear to us: The Jewish tradition never calls these the Ten Commandments. Never. The Torah text calls them Aseret hadevarim, variouosly translated as “the ten sayings”, “the ten utterances” or “the ten statements”. They are different from mitzvot. Most mitzvot will have a punishment attached to them, and many of the ones we read in the Torah are conditional laws, the structure being “when this happens… then”, often called “case law”. We will see a lot of those in next week’s portion.
The Aseret hadibrot are unconditional laws, a basic frame of reference, do this or don’t do this, the value of the law being self-evident, particularly in the negative ones. This style of law, unconditional, is found only in the Torah and not in any of the other law codes of the Ancient Near East. That is why they are called Aseret hadibrot, the ten sayings.
That is the basic background. However, it is striking to notice that not just these sayings are given at Sinai, but the whole thing is accompanied by an spectacle. There’s thunder, lightning, shofar blasts – it is so overwhelming that the people go back and stand away.
Kol shofar – translated as the blare of the horn – can also be translated as the voice of the shofar. And voice is really central to this moment. Later, in Deuteronomy, Moshe will remind the people: you never saw anything, you just heard a voice. God spoke to all of you from the fire, you just heard the voice.
And this brings Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, in the 18th century, to make an interesting point. Our tradition (Pirkei Avot 6:2) has a beautiful vision, which is that every day a bat kol, a heavenly voice, comes out from Mount Sinai exhorting all humans to study Torah. When we study, we use our voice, we literally bring down Torah to the world. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk then reminds us that there is a principle which is “Torah, the Holy One of Blessing, and Israel are one”. There is this idea that we are completely intertwined with Torah and the Holy One, inseparable. And that complete identity is expressed in the idea that each of us has a letter that represents the root of our souls. And so each letter in the Torah represents one Jewish person. When we study Torah, using our voice, we are connecting to that voice in Sinai. And the revelation of Sinai is the contact of the person with their soul-root, which is quite marvelous.
And yet, when we read is text, we can’t help but seeing the fear of the people, who fall back. A midrash says that they fall back at the first letter of the Ten Sayings, which, surprisingly, is Alef, from the word Anochi, I. And why they fall back? Well, according to the Me’or Eynayim (Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797), who also wrote in the 18th century, it is because no one can stay at this high level of consciousness at all times. It is humanly impossible: the feeling of the presence of God ebbs and flows, this connection with the life-force, the root, is felt in waves.
One of the reasons, says the Me’or Eynayim, is that we need to ride the wave, so as to always reach higher next time. In everything, he says, there has to be Absence before Presence being felt. SO to reach a higher level, we first need to experience absence. The absence, of course, is felt but not real – since all the world is filled with God’s glory, kol haaretz maleh kevodo, as we say in the Kedushah.
But there is also another reason, says the Me’or Eynayim – we fall down so we can bring others up with us. When we fall from our level, we have the ability to reach others who are behind in their spiritual development, and so by riding the wave we have the ability to find them and bring them to ride the wave with us, and reach a higher level, previously inexperienced by them.
But all that can only be accomplished if we are aware that we are touching, and feeding, our soul-root, our letter in the Torah, our internal connection with the Transcendent, every time we study Torah. By using our voice we can connect and reconnect with the Voice that spoke the Ten Sayings, the Sound that created the world, the Voice, the Sound, that brought us, specifically, to existence.
May this be a week in which we reach higher and higher levels, and bring others with us, even as we experience the ebb and flow of the Divine Voice within. Shabbat Shalom.
Our portion begins with God revealing that God’s name has changed between the patriarchs and now. The “four expressions of redemption,” are used for the promise of taking the Jews out of Egypt and into the land. The Jews won’t listen, due to smallness of spirit and difficult work, kotzer ruach veavodah kashah.
Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G‑d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake and swallows the staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers. The ten plagues begin.
The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the land; lice infest all men and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; a pestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians, and a devastating hail. This is where the portion stops.
~ What is the purpose of the plagues, in your opinion? If God could take the Jews out of Egypt just like that, why didn’t God do so? Can you find in our text explanations for the purpose of the plagues?
~ Is there a progression on the Egyptians understanding of the plagues? Is there a progression on the Jews’ understanding of the plagues? Is there a progression on Pharaoh’s?
The ten plagues lasted a year, according to Rabbi Akiva. This is learned through a midrash on the last portion we read. According to Ex. 5:12 the plagues began only after the Egyptians forced the Israelite slaves to search for their own straw. Since straw is found in the month of Iyyar, May, and the Israelites left Egypt in Nissan, April, the conclusion can be drawn that the plagues lasted one year.
A year is a long time for plagues. If you just go with the text of the Torah, you will find that all of it happened in two weeks – the first, blood, lasts seven days, the other last one day, a total of 14 days of plagues. But would 14 days be enough to make the internal changes in the Jews, or in the Egyptians themselves, or in Pharaoh?
The plagues have an interesting structure:
Blood, wild animals and hail are all introduced with a WARNING administered in the MORNING, explaining a PURPOSE. Frogs, pestilence and locusts only have a WARNING and we do not read anything bout the time of the warning, and lice, boils and darkness all arrive WITHOUT WARNING. When you look at this structure alone, you see that at every three plagues you have a warning in the morning with an explanation. The explanations will deepen as the plagues happen:
Blood – “by this you shall know that I am Ad-nai”
Wild animals – “…that you might know that I am Ad-nai in the midst of the land.”
Hail – “that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.”
It is because of this structure that the traditional haggadot will bring the separation of the ten plagues into three groups:
“Rabbi Yehuda was accustomed to giving [the plagues] mnemonics: Detsakh [the Hebrew initials of the first three plagues, blood, frogs, lice], Adash [wild animals, pestilence and boils], Beachav [hail, locusts, darkness, firstborn].”
Another point I’d like to make is the progression among the Egyptians. First, the magicians themselves say to Pharaoh – this is the finger of God – in the plague of lice. So at the end of the first grouping, the magicians can’t reproduce lice, and have to admit their lack of power. At the plague of boils even the magicians can’t appear near Pharaoh – their lack of power is such that they can’t defend themselves.
And this progression is also found among the Jews. There is no distinction between the Jews and the Egyptians in the first three plagues. Look at the text carefully, and you will see that the distinction only happens on the fourth plague – wild animals. Ibn Ezra is the one that brings this unpopular opinion. The force unleashed in the first three is less precise than the rest, but the ability to control power also has to do with space and time. So as the plagues progress, the distinctions become sharper and more pronounced. The first series of plagues strikes Egypt and Israel without impunity, while the second and third series strike only Egypt. The timing begins to be more precise as well, the first three plagues do not come by appointment, but Pharaoh is told that wild beasts will arrive ‘tomorrow’, that pestilence will occur at a ‘fixed time tomorrow’, and that hail will begin to fall at ‘this very time tomorrow.’
Once you see this pattern, that you can understand why in the plague of hail, there is some break among the Egyptians in the belief in Pharaoh’s power, since we read that “Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Ad-nai’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety.”
Whether our fourth plague is wild beasts or swarms of insects, Goshen – and the Jews – are spared. That is when both Jews and Egyptians get a notice that this is about the Israelite slaves. The same happens in the fifth plague, pestilence, as we read – and of course the Egyptians had to notice, the lack of cattle dying is going to be obvious. Boils, which made a distinction between the two peoples, brought that point even further. So of course you had to be living under a rock not to bring your own slaves and what’s left of your livestock in. But I want us to notice that even at this point we do not read the Egyptians telling Pharaoh to let the people go. And whereas God and Moshe say that, we do not hear a peep from the Israelites themselves either.
It really looks like everyone is just looking out for themselves. But the idea of a collective action, a protest against Pharaoh’s mishandling of the situation is not remotely in anyone’s mind.
Our portion ends with Pharaoh almost relenting, but not really. And the question again is why. Also, if freedom is just the reason for the plagues, why not scoop up the Jews and land them on Mount Sinai?
And one possible answer I want us to entertain today is the creation of a collective identity. One that goes beyond the self. The ability to care for what happens with other segments of society, or of a group. Pharaoh’s permission would not make the Israelites truly free, and truly a people. Same with simply plopping them down at Mount Sinai. The process is important if changes will last. And this ability to care for beyond yourself is truly growth, and truly what brings about meaning in our lives.
I don’t think I need to remind people here who Victor Frankl is. In his “Man in Search of Meaning” he states that his own experience of surviving Auschwitz had to do with his focus on the other, on other inmates, on other realities, on the future he wanted to build after this was over.
Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of people, decent and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and so he tells us of “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain – we can call this the extreme of the individualistic person. That is the real plague of nowadays.
And so the process of becoming a decent person passes through the stage of being solely worried about oneself, and one’s possessions, as we see in the plague of hail. And we know that it will take a long time and a long process to take the Egypt out of the Jew, and to make us a nation that worries not only about our individuality, but about others – in our group and in other groups – as well. And the change is never complete, we are always struggling between our selfishness and our altruism, and so we must remember coming out of Egypt every day.
Kamtza, bar Kamtza and causes of destruction
|However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, and that they did not perform the sinful acts that were performed in the First Temple, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.||
אבל מקדש שני שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות ע”ז גלוי עריות ושפיכות דמים
There is a story about a certain man in Jerusalem who made a banquet. He said to his slave: “Go and bring to me my friend, Kamtza. He went and brought him Bar Kamtza his enemy and he came and sat down among the guests. He saw him between his guests and said to him: “You are my enemy and you are sitting in my house! Get up and leave my house!” He replied to him: “Do not shame me and I will return to you the price of the banquet”. He said to him: “You are not reclining here”. He said to him: “Do not shame me, let me seat and I will not eat or drink”. He said to him: “You are not reclining here”. He said to him: “Do not shame me and I will return the cost of this entire banquet”. He said to him: “Get up and go!” Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas was there and he was able to stop it and he did not stop it. He [Bar Kamtza] left from there and said to himself: “They are reclining and feasting in their contentment, I am going to inform against them.” What did he do? He went to the magistrate and said to him: “Those sacrifices which you send to the Jews to sacrifice, they eat them and they offer other ones, exchanging them”. [The magistrate] rebuked him. He came back and said: “Those sacrifices which you send to the Jews to sacrifice, they eat them and they offer other ones, exchanging them. If you do not trust me, send with me a lieutenant and a sacrifice and you will know that I am not lying”. As they were on the way, the lieutenant fell asleep and [Bar Kamtza] got up and secretly made all the animals blemished. When the priest saw them he sacrificed other animals in their place. The representative of the king said: “Why did you not sacrifice those sacrifices”? He said to him: “Tomorrow”. The next day came and he did not sacrifice them. He sent and said to the king: “The whole issue of the Jews is certainly true”. Immediately he came to the Temple and destroyed it. Because of this there is a baraita that says “Between Kamtza and between Bar Kamtza the Temple was destroyed”. Rabbi Jose said: “The extreme humility and unwillingness of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas burned the Temple”. …
מַעֲשֶׂה שֶׁהָיָה בְּאָדָם אֶחָד בִּירוּשָׁלַיִם שֶׁעָשָׂה סְעוּדָה, אָמַר לְבֶן בֵּיתוֹ לֵךְ וְהָבֵא לִי קַמְצָא רַחֲמִי, אֲזַל וְאַיְיתֵי לֵיהּ בַּר קַמְצָא שָׂנְאֵיהּ, עָאל וְיָשַׁב בֵּין הָאוֹרְחִים. עָאל אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ בֵּינֵי אֲרִיסְטְיָיא, אָמַר לוֹ אַתְּ שָׂנְאִי וְאַתְּ יָתֵיב בְּגוֹ בֵּיתָאי, קוּם פּוּק לָךְ מִיגוֹ בֵּיתָאי. אָמַר לוֹ אַל תְּבַיְּשֵׁנִי וַאֲנָא יָהֵיב לָךְ דְּמֵי דִסְעוּדָתָא. אָמַר לוֹ לֵית אַתְּ מְסוּבָּה. אָמַר לוֹ אַל תְּבַיְּשֵׁנִי וַאֲנָא יָתֵיב וְלֵית אֲנָא אָכֵיל וְשָׁתֵי. אָמַר לוֹ לֵית אַתְּ מְסוּבָּה. אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֲנָא יָהֵיב דְּמֵי כָּל הָדֵין סְעוּדָתָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ קוּם לָךְ. וְהָיָה שָׁם רַבִּי זְכַרְיָה בֶּן אַבְקוּלָס וְהָיְתָה סֵפֶק בְּיָדוֹ לִמְחוֹת וְלֹא מִיחָה, מִיָּד נְפֵיק לֵיהּ, אֲמַר בְּנַפְשֵׁיהּ אִילֵין מְסָבְיָין יָתְבִין בְּשַׁלְוַותְהוֹן, אֲנָא אֵיכוּל קָרְצְהוֹן, מָה עֲבַד הָלַךְ אֵצֶל הַשִּׁלְטוֹן אָמַר לוֹ אִילֵין קוּרְבָּנַיָּא דְּאַתְּ מְשַׁלַּח לִיהוּדָאֵי לְמִקְרְבִינְהוּ אִינוּן אָכְלִין לְהוֹן וּמְקָרְבִין אוֹחֳרָנִים בְּחִילוּפַיְיהוּ, נְזַף בֵּיהּ. אֲזַל לְגַבֵּיהּ תּוּב אֲמַר לֵיהּ כָּל אִילֵין קוּרְבָּנַיָּי דְּאַתְּ מְשַׁלַּח לִיהוּדָאֵי לְמִקְרְבִינְהוּ אִינוּן אָכְלִין לְהוֹן וּמְקָרְבִין אוֹחֳרִין בְּחִילוּפַיְיהוּ, וְאִם לֹא תַאֲמִין לִי שְׁלַח עִמִּי חַד אִיפַּרְכוּ וְקוּרְבָּנַיָּיא וְאַתְּ יָדַע מִיָּד שֶׁאֵינִי שַׁקְרָן. עַד דְּאַתְיָיא בְּאוֹרְחָא דְּמַךְ אִיפַרְכוּ, קָם הוּא בְּלֵילְיָא וַעֲשָׂאָן כֻּלָּן בַּעֲלֵי מוּמִין בַּסֵּתֶר. כֵּיוָן שֶׁרָאָה אוֹתָן הַכֹּהֵן הִקְרִיב אוֹחֳרָנִין תַּחְתֵּיהוֹן. אֲמַר הַהוּא שְׁלִיחָא דְמַלְכָּא לָמָּה לֵית אַתְּ מַקְרֵיב אִילֵין קוּרְבָּנַיָּא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ לִמְחָר. אֲתָא יוֹם תְּלִיתָאָה וְלָא קְרַבְהוֹן, שְׁלַח וַאֲמַר לְמַלְכָּא הַהוּא מִלְּתָא דִּיהוּדָאָה קָאָמַר קוּשְׁטָא קָאָמַר, מִיָּד סְלִיק לְמַקְדְּשָׁה וְהֶחֱרִיבוֹ. הֲדָא דִּבְרִיָּאתָא אָמְרִין בֵּין קַמְצָא וּבֵין בֶּן קַמְצָא חֲרַב מַקְדְּשָׁא. אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי עִנְוְתָנוּתוֹ שֶׁל רַבִּי זְכַרְיָה בֶּן אַבְקוּלָס שָׂרְפָה אֶת הַהֵיכָל.
~ Baseless or senseless hatred is one of the causes of destruction according to the rabbis.
~ Kamtza means “locust”. Why do you think the main character gets this name?
~ At each point in the story, who could have avoided the destruction? How?
Other causes of destruction
- Too much judgment and not enough justice
|Bava Metzia 30b
It was taught in the baraita: “That they must perform”; that is referring to acting beyond the letter of the law, as Rabbi Yoḥanan says: Jerusalem was destroyed only for the fact that they adjudicated cases on the basis of Torah law in the city. The Gemara asks: Rather, what else should they have done? Should they rather have adjudicated cases on the basis of arbitrary decisions [demagizeta]? Rather, say: That they established their rulings on the basis of Torah law and did not go beyond the letter of the law.
אשר יעשון זו לפנים משורת הדין דאמר ר’ יוחנן לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על שדנו בה דין תורה אלא דיני דמגיזתא לדיינו אלא אימא שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין:
- Shabbat, Shema and other lacks: education, respect, shame, rebuke
Abaye said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people desecrated the Shabbat in it, as it is stated: “And from My Shabbatot they averted their eyes, and I was profaned among them” (Ezekiel 22:26).
אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: לָא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁחִלְּלוּ בָּהּ אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּמִשַׁבְּתוֹתַי הֶעְלִימוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וָאֵחַל בְּתוֹכָם״.
The Gemara suggests additional reasons for the destruction of Jerusalem: Rabbi Abbahu said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because its citizens intentionally omitted recitation of Shema morning and evening, as it is stated: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning and pursue the drink and are aflame from wine until late in the evening” (Isaiah 5:11). And it is written in the continuation of that passage: “And their drinking parties have lyre and lute, drum and flute and wine, and they do not look upon the actions of God, and they do not see His hands’ creations” (Isaiah 5:12). And it is written in that passage: “Therefore My nation is being exiled for its ignorance; its honor will die of hunger and its multitudes will be parched with thirst” (Isaiah 5:13).
אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁבִּיטְּלוּ קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שַׁחֲרִית וְעַרְבִית, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הוֹי מַשְׁכִּימֵי בַבֹּקֶר שֵׁכָר יִרְדֹּפוּ וְגוֹ׳״, וּכְתִיב: ״וְהָיָה כִנּוֹר וָנֶבֶל תּוֹף וְחָלִיל וָיַיִן מִשְׁתֵּיהֶם וְאֵת פּוֹעַל ה׳ לֹא יַבִּיטוּ״, וּכְתִיב: ״לָכֵן גָּלָה עַמִּי מִבְּלִי דָעַת״.
Rav Hamnuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because schoolchildren there were interrupted from studying Torah, as it is stated: “And I am filled with the wrath of God, I cannot contain it, pour it onto the infants in the street and onto the gathering of youths together, for men and women alike will be captured, the elderly along with those of advanced years” (Jeremiah 6:11). Rav Hamnuna explains: What is the reason that the wrath is poured? It is because infants are outside in the streets and are not studying Torah.
Ulla said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people had no shame before each other, as it is stated: “They acted shamefully; they have performed abominations, yet they neither were ashamed nor did they know humiliation. Therefore, they will fall among the fallen, they will fail at the time that I punish them, said God” (Jeremiah 6:15).
Rabbi Yitzḥak said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because its small and the great citizens were equated. They did not properly value the prominent leaders of their generation, as it is stated: “And the common people were like the priest, the slave like his master, the maidservant like her mistress, the buyer like the seller, the lender like the borrower, the creditor like the one indebted to him” (Isaiah 24:2). And it is written afterward: “The land shall be utterly desolate and completely plundered, for God has said this” (Isaiah 24:3).
אָמַר רַב הַמְנוּנָא: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁבִּיטְּלוּ בָּהּ תִּינוֹקוֹת שֶׁל בֵּית רַבָּן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שְׁפוֹךְ עַל עוֹלָל בַּחוּץ וְגוֹ׳״. מַה טַּעַם ״שְׁפוֹךְ״ — מִשּׁוּם דְּ״עוֹלָל בַּחוּץ״. אָמַר עוּלָּא: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא מִפְּנֵי שֶׁלֹּא הָיָה לָהֶם בּוֹשֶׁת פָּנִים זֶה מִזֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הוֹבִישׁוּ כִּי תוֹעֵבָה עָשׂוּ גַּם בּוֹשׁ לֹא יֵבוֹשׁוּ וְגוֹ׳״. אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁהוּשְׁווּ קָטָן וְגָדוֹל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְהָיָה כָעָם כַּכֹּהֵן״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ: ״הִבּוֹק תִּבּוֹק הָאָרֶץ״.
Rav Amram, son of Rabbi Shimon bar Abba, said that Rabbi Shimon bar Abba said that Rabbi Ḥanina said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the people did not rebuke one another, as it is stated: “Her ministers were like stags that found no pasture, and they walked without strength before their pursuer” (Lamentations 1:6). Just as this stag turns its head toward the other’s tail when it grazes, and each one feeds on its own, so too, the Jewish people in that generation lowered their faces to the ground and did not rebuke one another.
Rabbi Yehuda said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they disparaged the Torah scholars in it, as it is stated: “And they mocked the messengers of God and disdained His words and taunted His prophets, until the wrath of God arose against His people, until it could not be healed” (II Chronicles 36:16). What is the meaning of: Until it could not be healed? Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: It means that anyone who disparages Torah scholars cannot be healed from his wound.
אָמַר רַב עַמְרָם בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בַּר אַבָּא, אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בַּר אַבָּא, אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁלֹּא הוֹכִיחוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״הָיוּ שָׂרֶיהָ כְּאַיָּלִים לֹא מָצְאוּ מִרְעֶה״. מָה אַיִל זֶה, רֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁל זֶה בְּצַד זְנָבוֹ שֶׁל זֶה, אַף יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁבְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר כָּבְשׁוּ פְּנֵיהֶם בַּקַּרְקַע וְלֹא הוֹכִיחוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה. אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה: לֹא חָרְבָה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁבִּיזּוּ בָּהּ תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיִּהְיוּ מַלְעִיבִים בְּמַלְאֲכֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וּבוֹזִים דְּבָרָיו וּמִתַּעְתְּעִים בִּנְבִיאָיו עַד עֲלוֹת חֲמַת ה׳ בְּעַמּוֹ עַד [לְ]אֵין מַרְפֵּא״. מַאי ״עַד לְאֵין מַרְפֵּא״? אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: כׇּל הַמְבַזֶּה תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים אֵין לוֹ רְפוּאָה לְמַכָּתוֹ.
But wait, there’s more! Lack of compromise
The Roman authorities then sent Vespasian Caesar against the Jews. He came and laid siege to Jerusalem for three years. There were at that time in Jerusalem these three wealthy people: Nakdimon ben Guryon, ben Kalba Savua, and ben Tzitzit HaKesat. The Gemara explains their names: Nakdimon ben Guryon was called by that name because the sun shined [nakad] on his behalf, as it is related elsewhere (see Ta’anit 19b) that the sun once continued to shine in order to prevent him from suffering a substantial loss. Ben Kalba Savua was called this because anyone who entered his house when he was hungry as a dog [kelev] would leave satiated [save’a]. Ben Tzitzit HaKesat was referred to by that name because his ritual fringes [tzitzit] dragged along on blankets [keset], meaning that he would not walk in the street with his feet on the ground, but rather they would place blankets beneath him. There are those who say that his seat [kiseh] was found among the nobles of Rome, meaning that he would sit among them.
שדריה עילוייהו לאספסיינוס קיסר אתא צר עלה תלת שני הוו בה הנהו תלתא עתירי נקדימון בן גוריון ובן כלבא שבוע ובן ציצית הכסת נקדימון בן גוריון שנקדה לו חמה בעבורו בן כלבא שבוע שכל הנכנס לביתו כשהוא רעב ככלב יוצא כשהוא שבע בן ציצית הכסת שהיתה ציצתו נגררת על גבי כסתות איכא דאמרי שהיתה כסתו מוטלת בין גדולי רומי
|These three wealthy people offered their assistance. One of them said to the leaders of the city: I will feed the residents with wheat and barley. And one of them said to leaders of the city: I will provide the residents with wine, salt, and oil. And one of them said to the leaders of the city: I will supply the residents with wood. The Gemara comments: And the Sages gave special praise to he who gave the wood, since this was an especially expensive gift. As Rav Ḥisda would give all of the keys [aklidei] to his servant, except for the key to his shed for storing wood, which he deemed the most important of them all. As Rav Ḥisda said: One storehouse of wheat requires sixty storehouses of wood for cooking and baking fuel. These three wealthy men had between them enough commodities to sustain the besieged for twenty-one years.||
חד אמר להו אנא זיינא להו בחיטי ושערי וחד אמר להו בדחמרא ובדמלחא ומשחא וחד אמר להו בדציבי ושבחו רבנן לדציבי דרב חסדא כל אקלידי הוה מסר לשמעיה בר מדציבי דאמר רב חסדא אכלבא דחיטי בעי שיתין אכלבי דציבי הוה להו למיזן עשרים וחד שתא
|There were certain zealots among the people of Jerusalem. The Sages said to them: Let us go out and make peace with the Romans. But the zealots did not allow them to do this. The zealots said to the Sages: Let us go out and engage in battle against the Romans. But the Sages said to them: You will not be successful. It would be better for you to wait until the siege is broken. In order to force the residents of the city to engage in battle, the zealots arose and burned down these storehouses [ambarei] of wheat and barley, and there was a general famine.||
הוו בהו הנהו בריוני אמרו להו רבנן ניפוק ונעביד שלמא בהדייהו לא שבקינהו אמרו להו ניפוק ונעביד קרבא בהדייהו אמרו להו רבנן לא מסתייעא מילתא קמו קלנהו להנהו אמברי דחיטי ושערי והוה כפנא
Shabbat Devarim ~ Shabbat Hazon
Devarim begins a long day for Moshe – it is his last day. He decides to spend it talking to the people in three different speeches, or so it seems.
Moshe opens with reviewing the events and telling the people to keep the Torah and observe its commandments. He recalls the appointment of judges, the journey through Sinai, the sending of the spies and the subsequent debacle. “God was also also against me,” says Moshe, “because of you and said: You, too, shall not go in there.”
Our triennial picks there, reviewing the kingdoms which Israel is not supposed to attack, just pass through in their way to the promised land. It also mentions the kings Sichon and Og, who did not let the people pass, began a war and lost that war. Their lands are then settled by the tribes of Reuben and Gad and part of the tribe of Manasseh.
~ Our triennial focuses on the review of the the kingdoms which Israel is not supposed to attack and the victories with Sichon and Og.
~ Why is it important for Moshe to review the events before having the people go into the land?
~ Why remind these people of the peoples they were not supposed to engage in battle while walking towards the Promised Land?
~ Why do you think this portion is always read before Tisha Be Av?
You can see all sources by clicking here: Source sheet for Tisha BeAv.
In the entire reading of Devarim, two words keep showing up – the translation does not give them the credit they need. “To turn” and “to go.”
This portion is always read before the 9th of Av.
Devarim has Moshe facing the Israelites precisely back on the same moment that led to the 40 years of wandering. Will now the people repeat the mistake of the past? Or will they actually do teshuvah, and in this last day of Moshe’s life, embrace the going up to the land?
The review is the beginning of the process of teshuvah of the people, at that moment – a process that Moshe will not see. He can only see the beginnings of it – the conquering of the lands of Sichon and Og, something so fabulous that we get them mentioned in the psalm we sing, Ps 136. Moshe sees the glimmers, and also knows the danger – we can’t call the process real until it is actually happening. Thinking that the land outside is as good as the land inside is a danger.
As is thinking that we do not have to do teshuvah, collectively or individually.
Tisha be Av marks the beginning of our process of teshuvah. The rabbis talk about many causes for the destruction of the Temple – the most famous is the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, that illustrates sinat chinam. [see Eicha Rabbah 4:3]
Sinat Chinam is an interesting phrase. It is commonly translated as baseless hatred or wanton hatred. But Chinam can mean free. Sinat chinam might be also translated as free-for-all hatred, and this certainly is possible given what the rabbis tell was one of the problems during the siege: the lack of compromise. [Gittin 56a-b]
But Sinat chinam can also mean the impression that hatred has no cost, meaning, it’s free. Which I wish I could say we don’t have nowadays, but I would be lying.
But the rabbis will have a laundry list of reasons why the temple was destroyed – people didn’t say the Shema, they didn’t let kids study, they had no respect for each other, there was no rebuke, people didn’t observe shabbat, people did not try to compromise, there was too much judgment and not enough justice.
Now – why would the rabbis do that? It is really not clear that the rabbis had anything to do with the temple service, despite what Bar Kamtza claims. And if you ask any historian, they will say – nothing of the sort mattered. Rome was invincible, they wanted, they took, there was no stopping their war machine.
But that, for the rabbis, does not matter – what matters is looking inward at the time of the breaking of structures, and finding rebuilding, rebirth, from there. We could even say that if the temple wasn’t destroyed, Judaism would not be what it is today. It is only because of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that we have an spiritual center in Torah. And that means that in a day like Tisha BeAv we check in with ourselves about those destructive forces. As a community, so the community can continue. As a people, so the people can go on to the next generation. We have to embrace the forces of renewal of structures, because otherwise they crumble – and then our renewal is stunted by trauma, the work becomes that much bigger.
We begin now, seven weeks before RH/YK to prepare for that moment. We begin collectively so as to refine ourselves individually seven weeks from now. That is why Devarim has so many turn and go. We need to do teshuvah and begin walking – now.
May we all have a meaningful fast tomorrow.
Pinchas: Death and taxes
~ Look closely at what God tells Moshe regarding Moshe’s death. What is it doing here, just after the apportioning of the land?
~ Can you find a connection between this scene and the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad?
~ This is the second time that Moshe calls God by a specific description – source of the breath of all flesh. When was the other time? How do you personally relate to this description?
It is with immense gratitude that I am experiencing this celebration – a new ritual that raises the awareness of our collective partnership. You might not know, but this is a first for me, and I am incredibly grateful for this moment.
I am indebted first to the members of the committee for making this happen, and I want to take a moment to thank Eileen, Linda, Michelle and Sandra. You’re amazing.
Also, all the leadership – everyone that serve in the board from last year, everyone who has taken up a position on the board this year. I have been in many board meetings throughout my life, and this is by far the best. A board that has clear its function, and that values and respects the work of its committees is a board with a great sense of ethics. The fact that most meetings last one hour is a clear proof that Adath Israel has a great institutional culture, and I feel blessed by this, too.
Jonathan Shapiro was the president of my first year at Adath Israel; and Carly Hoss will be the president of what we can call my second first year at Adath Israel.
Jonathan has been a great leader – and this past year was a difficult one to say the least, with a few curveballs added to the mix. So thanks go to Jonathan for your unwavering comitment to Adath Israel, for your vision of renewing the school grounds and for seizing the disaster of the Nester center and transforming it into a possibility of a youth center.
Carly, I am sure you will be a fantastic president. You are bringing new energy, a strong vision and a rich personality to Adath Israel. You understand that it is not just about maintaing what we have, but about growing and transforming our community.
I’d love to always call you by your full title “Jewish Rockstar of Radical Action and Joy, Modern Day Queen President Carly Hoss” but that is a mouthful, so you will have to accept just President. But I want to give you this tshirt, that says in Hebrew “zeh madam president bishvilchah” which means “it is madam president to you”. Because being president is a second job, it is demanding as it is fulfilling. Jonathan and every president knows this – you get as much meaning and fulfillment as you give into the job.
And let’s not forget Joanna who is the unsung hero of our community, nor Julio, who is the force behind our building being clean and ready for prime time. Thank you both for always being here.
Our relationship has begun in a difficult year, the year of COVID. As we collectively struggled to understand and accept the challenges this brought, and how to move forward, and how to mute and unmute, how to participate and sing alone but together, I have been constantly reminded of a saying in Pirkei Avot – if you keep the tradition going in difficult times, ultimately you will keep it going in better times. But if you don’t keep it going in difficult times, you will eventually abandon it in better times.
We, collectively, kept the tradition going. To those who came to services via Zoom, and learned together by trial and error how to make this work; thank you – you know who you are, and I don’t want to make a list and then forget names. But a special shout out to David Kaye and Richard Kamins, who are as supportive ritual chairs as a new rabbi can ask.
I have a favor to ask you at this point, this very moment: close your eyes for a moment, and give yourself ten seconds to see the Jewish community of your dreams. Your ideal Jewish community. What does it look like? Besides services and classes, what else does it bring? How enriched are you by your community, at the end of a year? How friendly is it? How embracing of diversity is it? How deeply comitted to Torah is it? How joyful? How meaningful?
And this should be a reminder that a community is what you personally make it to be. How engaged you are in your community is how fabulously close to that dream your community becomes. How much you dedicate yourself is how much you fall in love with your community. Our community is born anew every day, just like the world.
A Jewish community is a place where Jews are made, where Jews become ever more concious of our heritage and our inheritance, where we find support, meaning and guidance to deal with the inevitable difficulties of life. A rabbi is the facilitator for that – but a rabbi and their family are not someone who lives Judaism in your stead. Only you, personally, can live a meaningful Jewish life.
As members of our community, we need to do outreach – to live full Jewish lives, with depth, joy and pride; embracing our covenant, enabling others to join our covenant and opening and sustaining inclusive spaces for those who have made the decision to walk with us. To live deeply and fully both the ideals of tikkun olam, fixing the world; tikkun atzmi, fixing ourselves and kiddush Hashem, bringing light and holiness to this world by revealing the presence of God in everyone of our actions.
And as members of our community, we also need to do inreach – to strengthen our relationships within, to provide care, love and support to each other in this journey we call life, to be of service to others. This is particularly important given the fact that our community’s inreach forces were brought to a halt with COVID. Zoom meetings are the best solution for COVID times, but they are a very inadequate substitute to creating new relationships.
To those who joined the board this year, and to those who have served and serve in many capacities, as volunteers for all sorts of incredible activities – you are making the community of your dreams.
Adath Israel has 18 different committees, so a particular shout out goes to the Education and the Advertising committees, because they are engaged deeply with the future and sustainability of our Adath Israel; and another shout out goes to the cemetery, the hevra kadisha and the museum, because they are deeply engaged in Adath Israel’s past.
But what about our present, this bridge between the two? I can only tell you: it is what we make it to be. The bridge will become as wide and inclusive as we make it. The 13 other committees plus the daily minyan, the Shabbat crowd, the book club, the veterans group, the mahjongg group, the soon to exist movie club, the people who come for classes – we are the present of the community. There is no future without a strong present. And that present is ourselves, collectively, engaged, in love with the ideal community until we make it ours.
So let’s walk together, making this bridge wider and larger, giving to each other a Judaism that is deeper and richer, full of meaning.
Bilam is one of the few characters in the Torah for whom we do have an archeological proof of existence. In 1967 an archeological dig found an inscription on the wall of a structure in a city called De’ir Alla. The inscription has been dated to near 9th century BCE. The language of that inscription is a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, and no other inscription has been found in a language with those precise characteristics.
In our Torah, Bilam is portrayed in an interesting relation ship with God. He personally always uses the name for God that the Torah uses, YHV”H, but the text enforces that God, or E-lohim, is the one speaking to him. Which is an interesting point. In the De’ir Alla inscription, Bilam is a clear polytheist, talking to many different gods – but none of the names there is YHV”H. However, if you look into the whole story of Bilam, in verse 24:4 Bilam does use certain names of God of our tradition that do appear in the inscription of De’ir Alla, which are E-l and Sh-adai.
What is interesting from a historical perspective is that Bilam’s words were so powerful that they were deemed worthy of being written on a wall, presumably by his followers – which also make us know that he was an actual seer, apparently famous. Unfortunately that inscription is not complete, and I personally would like to know more about the female donkey.
In that aspect, the story is very instructive. One of the main teachings, aside from the fact that Bilam ends up only saying what God tells him to say, is that animals suffer. This is not to be taken for granted, remember that Decartes saw animals as mere automathons with no conscience and therefore unable to feel pain. I know, sounds difficult to believe, but some thinkers compared the sounds that animals make when they are being beaten to the sounds a drum makes. Kid you not.
The story shows the donkey as seeing the angel, not once, but three times, while the Seer himself can’t see. Similarly, Bilam beats the donkey three times, the third one with the staff. The two other times, presumably, he used his hands.
If you paid attention, it was YHV”H that granted the power of speech to the donkey, and the angel is described as an angel of YHV”H. This is supposed to be a more precise, a more intimate name for God, and E-lohim a much more general name.
So going back to the question of Bilam and his relationship with the Divine, in the Torah Bilam sees himself as being intimate, but that intimacy is not corresponded. But YHV”H is so concerned with the donkey that the donkey receives the power to speak. And what I find quite aazing is that when Bilam answers, he seems completely unfazed by this donkey talking. Moreover, Bilam has his perspective so twisted that he accuses the animal of being the abuser, when in fact he is. Bilam says he would kill the donkey with the sword, when in fact it was the donkey who saved Bilam from the sword. And when the angel speaks, it speaks in defense of the donkey, and sets Bilam straight.
And here comes one of the lessons of the donkey: contrary to Descartes, the Torah never for a moment believes that animals are drums. And I would like to let you know that Decartes did a disservice to kindness to animals, because his views were used for at least a century to justify cruelty towards animals or at least indifference. But there are several instances of curbing animal abuse in the Torah: Unloading an overpacked animal (Exod 23:5); Giving animals rest (Exod 23:12); Giving the mother a week with its baby (Lev 22:27); Not slaughtering baby and mother in one day (Lev 22:28); Shooing the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7); No plowing different animals together (Deut 22:10); No muzzling while plowing (Deut 25:4).
The rabbis will add a few mitzvot of their own, based on their reading of the Torah: Shechitah – the requirement to slaughter animals by cutting the windpipe and carotid arteries in one motion, which causes the animal to die quickly; Ever min ha-chai – the prohibition to consume flesh taken off a living animal; Feeding – the requirement to feed one’s animals before eating (b. Berakhot 40a). The rabbis even coined a term for this, צער בעלי חיים “animal suffering,” the avoidance of which some texts declare to be a Torah principle. (Shabbat 28b, Baba Metziah 32b)
Maimonides, while not avoiding the issue of needing to use animals for both work and food, comments that the angel’s rebuke to Bilam is the source of not inflicting pain gratuitously, and so avoiding the character trait of cruelty. He forbids killing animals just for sport – and reinforces the idea that mitzvot are given to make our souls more refined, more sensitive to others’ suffering (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:17, 3:26 and 3:48).
A contemporary of Maimonides in Ashkenaz, a rabbi called Yehudah He-Chasid, wrote a work called Sefer Chasidim, which has all sorts of moral and ethical ideas. In a paragraph about small cruelties, he talks about the small cruelty of using spurrs on horses. And he says the following:
It is sinful to cause pain to animals. Therefore, don’t place too heavy a burden on an animal, don’t beat it ruthlessly, and don’t pull a cat’s ears to make it scream. According to the Sages, this thought is implied by the verse, “In that day—declares God—I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness” (Zechariah 12:4). They expound this to mean that in the future God will punish horsemen for goading their horses with their spurs.
One of the main lessons of Torah is the protection of the vulnerable, and that can be seen throughout the Jewish tradition as a reality. Animals, in that sense, are among the most vulnerable. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his book Horeb, writes the following:
“There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man.
Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul—which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes—sometimes out of self-interest, at other times in order to satisfy a whim, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, yes, even for the satisfaction of crude satanic desire.”
Let’s forgive him for his male-centered language, and let’s focus on the value he and all the other sages are setting forward – not only animals suffer, but they are to be protected. Even a very famous seer like Bilam needs to know that – and sometimes, just like Bilam, we believe we are so great, and we may end up forgetting that one of the fundamental values in Torah is not to be cruel, and to defend those that are powerless.
Numbers 22:2-4 to 22:36-38 894-899
Haftarah Micah 5:6-6:8 915
The basic story of our parsha is fairly simple: Balak, king of Moab, hires Bilam, a well-known seer, to curse the Israelites. Balak sees them as a threat to Moab. But instead of cursing, Bilam blesses them in a series of four poetic oracles, since he can only say the words that God puts into his mouth.
~ Look closely to which names of God appear connected to Bilam. What do you make of it?
~ Why is a talking donkey present in this story? What does that scene teach us? Does it teach Bilam anything?
~ How is Bilam treated by the narrator’s voice in the story? Is Bilam powerful? Is Bilam good?
Korach and his followers rebel against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership and are killed; God instructs Aaron regarding laws of the priesthood.
In the aftermath of the two rebellions, God again talks about destroying the entire community – twice. This time, however, we do not see any of the back and forth between Moshe and God.
~ What is different in what Moshe and Aharon say to God that changes God’s mind on the first time? What happens in the second time?
~ What is the punishment? Is there forgiveness?
~ Is Korach’s, Datan and Aviram’s rebellions fundamentally different than the Golden Calf and the Episode of the Scouts in your opinion? Why or why not?
~ Why does this cycle of rebellions and mutterings end with the staff of Aharon having sprouts, flowers and fruit?
One of the interesting points of this piece of the Torah – Numbers 16 to 20 – is the presence of the expression “falling on his” or “their” face(s). This expression appears only twice before, and definitely connected to something positive, an encounter with God, with Avraham.
In Numbers, all the four times it appears: three times in our portion and one in the next – it has to do with Moshe and Aharon asking God not to destroy the community, or with Moshe expressing something like despair. Moshe falls on his face while talking to Korach for the first time, when Korch is accusing Moshe of raising himself and Aharon above the congregation.
Korach is seen by the tradition as a very capable and smart leader, with some prophetic abilities even. His rebellion, couched in language that makes us uncomfortable today, is in fact a manipulation of the emotions of the people as despairing of the next stage: the 40 years in the desert. Korach is also able to join forces with Datan and Aviram, whose lineage is not Levitical. Being from the Reubenite family, they too see an opportunity of seizing power: they are of Reuben, who was the first born way before when. In this sense, we can see this rebellion as fundamentally different: it is a personal rebellion against the structure put in place by God. The words used by Korach – all the community is holy – are a mask for Korach’s real intentions of taking over Moses’s place, while other Levites would become High Priests.
The question of forgiveness is interesting – individually, it appears that there is none. Datan, Aviram and all that is theirs disappears inside the earth; while the 250 other leaders are burned to a crisp, just like Nadav and Avihu. Of course, the reader knows that all those men should have known better. Offering incense is a dangerous proposition. The text makes clear that Moshe is warning those who offer incense that only one will survive – and all of them do it. The reader is left with the question of how could they have fallen for it?
If we see this as an attempt to seize power, by a loose connection of rebels, each person with their own agenda, not really caring about what happens to the rest of the coalition, all blinded by the possibility of becoming “it” – then we can understand that better. Arrogance and desire for power definitely blind people.
The name of God used to dispel the first anger of God is “אֵ֕ל אֱלֹהֵ֥י הָרוּחֹ֖ת לְכׇל־בָּשָׂ֑ר” usuall translated as “God Source of the breath of all flesh!” and the words really underscore how this is unlike the other two moments – the community is being misled by certain people among them, namely, Korach, Datan and Aviram. And Moses, over and over, seems to be saying the same thing in different ways: look, I have not appointed myself or Aharon, God did. In this, Moses is very consistent: he did not want to be a leader back in Exodus, and here, he is still saying I was put here by God. Moreover, in the part we did not read, Moses is affirming his honesty as a leader, saying that he did not take even a donkey from anyone. The image of the authoritarian leader seizing donkeys from people is repeated in many places in Tanach. And so Moses is defending himself against a specific political charge: the leader that has power and uses for his – or her – own personal interests.
Besides the earthquake swallowing Datan and Aviram and all that is theirs, and the fire consuming the 250 men, we have this third expression of miracle: the staffs. First, let’s pay attention that the word miracle here has nothing to do with goodness, but simply with an unexpected happening. There are three: the earthquake that closes back, the fire coming down, and the staff. And that staff itself has three miracles – it has sprouts, flowers and fruit. Those things are not supposed to go together in a living tree, let alone in a staff.
It is through this visual sign that God hopes the mutterings regarding leadership will cease. Aharon’s place as High Priest is secured – but not without rage, and then fear, spreading again around the people. As the leaders of the rebellion die, and the people treathen to kill Moses and aharon, a plague begins, almost without warning, and it’s Aharon’s job to stop it, using precisely incense and fire. The text is as surprising as it is shocking: Aharon stands between the dead and the living. A shield against God’s anger, made of human, incense and fire. Another set of three.
The visual of the staff is a sign and a warning. There is hope – we know that the community will be taken to the land eventually, that we survive. But there is also the warning: the staff, which will not wilt, is to be put in the Ark as a reminder.
The Ark now has its four contents: the full set of tablets, the pieces of the first broken tablets, a pot with manna and the staff. The staff I imagine is suspended in life – it does not wilt, but does not grow either. This is the image of the people of Israel at this very moment: they will walk in the desert and not wilt. But the changes that are expected cannot be seen – the expelling of both slavery and rebellion from their hearts. At this stage, after all these things that have happened, we see that the 40 years in the desert are actually a moment of taking stock and renewing.
This parsha happens usually at this point in the Jewish year, which is the beginnign of the Jewish month of Tammuz. Tammuz marks the beginning of the summer, both here and in Israel. It is the month before the great breaking symbolized by the month of Av. On the 17th of Tammuz we are remembering the beginning of the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans – and so the month of Tammuz is the point where things can still turn differently. We can still make different choices. And I think this is primordial to understand this portion – there are several moments when it could have been different, where the actors to make different choices.
So I hope this is a month of taking stock so as to prepare ourselves for the many moments of renewal that our tradition offers for the next few months – and may our good deeds have sprouts, flowers and fruit, just like Aharon’s staff, and may they multiply and bring light to the world.