Posts in Category: Bamidbar

Masei

In the Haftara for the second Shabbat of Bein HaMeitzarim (Masei, this year) we read from Sefer Yirmiyahu. 2:13 states:

 כִּי שְׁתַּיִם רָעוֹת עָשָׂה עַמִּי אֹתִי עָזְבוּ מְקוֹר מַיִם חַיִּים לַחְצֹב לָהֶם בֹּארוֹת–בֹּארֹת נִשְׁבָּרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָכִלוּ הַמָּיִם
“For My nation has committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, a source of flowing water, to dig for themselves cisterns – broken cisterns that cannot contain water.” 

Acting as a conduit of Hashem’s words, Yirmiyahu tells Bnei Yisrael that not only have they abandoned Hashem, but they have done so in favor of “broken cisterns” — foreign nations and empty beliefs that offer no meaning, benefit or security.

Rav Mendel Hirsch (son of Rav Shimshon Rephael), in his commentary on the Haftarot, points out that the Hebrew word used for “cisterns” is borot – a term typically meaning “pits,” such as in Breishis 37:24, when Yosef’s brother throw him in a pit:  וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם  
The word here, however, is spelled with a silent letter Alef, as if it were to read as be’eirot, or “wells.”  

Rav Hirsch suggests that this spelling accurately reflects Am Yisrael’s misguided perspective, decried by Yirmiyahu.  A bor/pit is an empty, vacuous hole in the ground. A be’eir, by contrast, is a hole that contains something of value and substance, namely water. Yirmiyahu is bemoaning the fact that Bnei Yisrael tragically looked upon borot – worthless, hollow beliefs – as be’eirot – things of substance and meaning. The word borot is spelled in such a way that it externally resembles the word be’eirot, alluding to the misplaced perception of value and significance that attracted Bnei Yisrael to people and ideas that were actually vacuous and valueless.

During the Three Weeks, it is particularly important to distinguish between those things that may be attractive but have little value, and those that have true meaning and help us draw closer to Hashem and the ultimate Geulah. The value assigned by society or pop culture to what are essentially empty borot, can often give the deceptive appearance of being be’eirot. It is during this difficult, painful and introspective time of Bein HaMeitzarim, that we have the opportunity to correct our ways, and appreciate the value, dedicate the time and carefully distinguish between borot and be’eirot; between that which is empty and worthless, and that which is meaningful and precious.

I would like to humbly suggest a connection between be’eirot, geulah and Miriam HaNeviah:

Rav Yossi bar Yehuda, in Ta’anis 9a, says that the gift of the “traveling” well that Bnei Yisrael were afforded in the desert, was in the merit of Miriam. What was it about Miriam’s life or actions that precipitated this miracle? Although the Torah does not provide lengthy narratives about Miriam’s life, we find her at two extremely pivotal moments, both connected to water:

Once, as a watchful sister, standing at the edge of Nile, as her baby brother – the future savior of Am Yisrael – tosses along the river in a basket, eventually safely arriving at the feet of Paraoh’s daughter. Shmos 2:4:  וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק
A second time, it is Miriam who rouses the nation into songs of gratitude and joy to Hashem after the harrowing experience of the Egyptians chasing after Bnei Yisrael, but making it safely through the parted waters to safety.
Rav Baruch Simon, in ma’amar 7 on Parshas B’haaloscha in his sefer Imrei Baruch, quotes a Midrash on Mishlei, which says that the passuk in 31:17 of Mishlei refers to Miriam. We may better know this passuk as the 8th verse in Aishes Chayil:
חָגְרָה בְעוֹז מָתְנֶיהָ וַתְּאַמֵּץ זְרוֹעֹתֶיהָ

She girds her loins with strength, and makes strong her arms.

This passuk is about sticking to your beliefs and emunahMiriam epitomizes emunah; she stood by the Nile and believed that, although nothing about the laws of nature would dictate that a baby floating on the Nile toward Paraoh’s palace could not only survive but become the savior of the Jewish people, there was still every reason to have hope, and have confidence in the prophecy she was given – that her mother would give birth to a son who would be the moshia of Bnei Yisrael. She also arranges for Yocheved, Moshe’s natural birth mother, to nurse him — again securing Moshe’s survival (see Shmos 2:7-9). She was mitzapeh l’yeshua.

After Krias Yam Suf — i.e. looming waters that once stood between their enemies and their freedom — Miriam bursts forward in song and praise, rejoicing that those who enslaved her people were vanquished, and they were now on the path to receive the Torah and enter Eretz Yisrael.

Like a cool, refreshing water revives an anxious and parched traveler, Miriam buoys Bnei Yisrael’s waning spirits with her unwavering emunah.
Thousands of years of waiting for the geula - suffering through pogroms, attempted genocide, ongoing battles for our tiny homeland, and excruciating loss – can, G-d forbid, cause us to lose our way, seek comfort in emptiness, and relinquish hope. We are implored in this week’s Haftorah, not to do so. We are reminded that the be’eir of Miriam was a reward for her deep-seeded emunah. Instead of becoming depressed, overtaken or distracted by what was happening around her, she “kept the faith.”

Perhaps symbolically, when one is in need of water and digs a hole in the ground, there is no promise that water will be discovered. Sometimes there is nothing but dirt and an empty hole. Sometimes we finally discover wells, but they get sabotaged by Plishtim (as Yitzchak Avinu encountered in Breishis 26:15-33. Parenthetically, Yitzchak establishes Be’er Sheva at the end of this section, and so: Sometimes you set up cities named after wells “ad hayom hazeh,” and it is the target of constant missile attacks…).

But instead of losing hope, or filling that figurative hole or disappointing void in one’s life with other empty beliefs or objects, we are to follow in Miriam HaNeviah’s footsteps and continue searching for a be’eir of water, for mayim chayim (Torah)in song and dance, and ultimately merit Yishayahu’s prophecy:

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה

Mattos

[based in part on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg on the VBM]

Parshat Matos describes the war Bnei Yisrael waged against Midyan after the incident of Ba’al Pe’or, as recorded at the end of Parshat Balak. Upon the soldiers’ return from their successful campaign, a group of generals approach Moshe, bringing an offering from the spoils of war. They say to Moshe (Bamidbar 31:49):
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲבָדֶיךָ נָשְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדֵנוּ וְלֹא נִפְקַד מִמֶּנּוּ אִישׁ

Your servants took a count of the men of war that were with us, and not a man has been lost.

The Midrash in Shir HaShirim 4:3 suggests a homiletic approach to the verse, which does not speak to the physical survival of all the troops, rather their spiritual success during the operation. “Not a man has been lost” means that no man was spiritually lost; that all the soldiers maintained and practiced the proper belief in Hashem on the battlefield.
The proof provided by the generals, according to the Midrash, is that “not one of [the soldiers] gave precedence to the tefillin shel rosh over the tefillin shel yad.” As is our tradition remains to this day, one must bind the tefillin of the arm, before affixing the tefillin of the head. According to the Midrash, the generals proudly attested to their soldiers’ strict compliance with this law.

Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson, in his Divrei Shaul, explains this Midrash by suggesting a symbolic meaning behind the tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. Chazal comment that one must wear the tefillin shel yad on “yad keiha” = the weaker arm. The Divrei Shaul suggests that the tefillin shel yad thus symbolizes the “weakness” of the human hand — the notion that our efforts are only as successful as Hashem sees fit. The tefillin shel rosh, by contrast, are a symbol of grandeur and nobility. Some sources even speak of tefillin shel rosh as a crown on our heads.

Putting teffilin on in the proper order, expresses the belief that we are too “weak” and too limited to achieve majestic heights without the help of the King of Kings. We acknowledge the inherent limits of our “arm,” our strength and our efforts. Only once we have done this, can we hope to achieve the crown of honor. The binding of the teffilin on our arm is the binding of our need for Hashem’s assistance with the efforts of our “arms” and with the toil of our hands.

[I believe this fits well with the parshiot in our teffilin, which are so closely connected with the concept of being Hashem’s firstborn, and what that meant during Makat Bechorot and Yetziat Mitzrayim. The only active role we played in Makat Bechorot was putting blood on the doorpost. We demonstrated that we were willing to make the efforts demanded of us, but of course only Hashem would decide which firstborns to kill and which to leave unharmed. We bind ourselves to Hashem, and He binds Himself back to us. As the Gemara in Brachos tells us, that in Hashem’s teffilin the parshiot read:

מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ

We acknowledge His power and try to emulate Him, and He will empower us.]

The generals reported to Moshe that the battle against Midyan was a success because the soldiers understood the message of yad keiha – the weak arm that characterizes human effort in the absence of divine support. As a result, they achieved victory, rooted out the cause of their sins, and once again donned the crown of Hashem.

I write this to myself, as a reminder, that every time I am wowed by, please G-d, the continued success of Iron Dome and the efforts of Tzahal, that it is Hashem squarely behind everything, protecting us from those that are intent on our destruction. As a new phase of the ongoing battle in Israel puts our soldiers in more dire straits – Hashem yishmor – it is the hope that the day is soon upon us when we can say, “lo nifkad mimenu ish,” when Am Yisrael defeats its enemies without losing a single member of achienu kol Beis Yisrael, and we intensely feel the “hand” of Hashem and the “zeroah netuya” protecting us and guiding our physical and spiritual efforts.

Pinchas

[based in part on a shiur by Rav Moshe Taragin]

In the middle of Parshat Pinchas, the text momentarily transports us back to a story from 3 weeks ago, namely that of Korach and his rebellion.

Bamidbar 26:9-11
‘ט:  וּבְנֵי אֱלִיאָב נְמוּאֵל וְדָתָן וַאֲבִירָם הוּא-דָתָן וַאֲבִירָם קרואי (קְרִיאֵי) הָעֵדָה אֲשֶׁר הִצּוּ עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן בַּעֲדַת-קֹרַח בְּהַצֹּתָם עַל ה
י:  וַתִּפְתַּח הָאָרֶץ אֶת-פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלַע אֹתָם וְאֶת-קֹרַח–בְּמוֹת הָעֵדָה בַּאֲכֹל הָאֵשׁ אֵת חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ וַיִּהְיוּ, לְנֵס
יא:  וּבְנֵי-קֹרַח לֹא-מֵתוּ

In the middle of the census, while enumerating the families of Shevet Levi, the Torah reminds us of Korach’s revolt, and mentions that Korach’s sons did not die along with their father and his cohorts.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 110a says that as Korach’s sons were about to fall into Gehinom, a piece of earth jutted out, caught them, and there they said shira:
ובני קרח לא מתו תנא משום רבינו אמרו מקום נתבצר להם בגיהנם וישבו עליו ואמרו שירה
Chazal interpret shira to mean that they authored/sang perakim in Tehillim.

The Maharsha in his Chidushei Aggadot says that they sang Tehillim 88:

It is a very harsh introspection, and represents perhaps the more classic idea of teshuva; we are in a downward spiral, we have been bad, all hope is lost, we cry out to Hashem for help and mercy.

The Zohar, on the other hand, says that they sang Tehillim 48 – otherwise known as the Shir shel Yom we say every Monday.
At first glance, it appears to be a strange song for Korach’s sons to sing, if their goal was teshuva. It describes the beauty of Yerushalayim, joining together and celebrating, mentioning kings from other nations trembling at the sight of Yerushalayim — this is a starkly different tone than Perek 88. What sort of teshuva is Perek 48??

Rav Taragin suggests that there are (at least) two types of teshuva:
One type is looking very insular, recognizing our wrongdoing and shortcomings of our actions and desires. We acknowledge our human frailties and reach out to Hashem to save us.

A second type of teshuva comes from connecting to the idea of geula and the larger community. The Midrash says that all of Bnei Yisrael’s sins were atoned for at Yam Suf through the singing of Az Yashir. But there are no passages in that shira about any admission of wrongdoing. Rather, the shira is an enthusiastic expression of geula – coming together as a nation to praise Hashem and bursting forth with excitement about entering Eretz Yisrael.

Teshuva isn’t only about retracting inward, but also about expanding our imagination and connecting to something larger than ourselves; joining a larger narrative (in song, at times), stripping away ego and replacing it with selflessness for the betterment of the Jewish people.

Korach and his followers felt they got passed over for leadership positions. As anyone is prone to fall victim to, they got wrapped up in their own personal aspirations, and forgot about the larger arc and national trajectory; they lost sense of the idea of going to Eretz Yisrael to set up a Mikdash; they “forgot” that Hashem knows what He’s doing, and finds the right leaders to carry out His will.

Teshuva requires both (i) moral/personal inventory, and (ii) communal/outward consciousness and sensitivity.

According to the Zohar, the sons of Korach chose the second voice, looked to the holiest place in the world, and eventually merited the ability to serve there as Leviim.
This may be a stretch, but perhaps Perek 48 of Tehillim, in addition to being a form of teshuva for Adat Korach, also addresses and tries to serve as a tikkun for the sin of the Meraglim: Instead of having faith that the land Hashem promised to us could indeed be acquired, the Meraglim were consumed by fear.

The stories are linked in that Adat Korach and the Meraglim both doubted Hashem’s decisions. Korach doubted Hashem’s choice and allocation of leadership, and the Meraglim doubted Hashem’s choice of a proper land. The lack of perspective of the Mergalim, in not remembering Eretz Yisrael’s intrinsic holiness and the promise that Hashem would deliver us there to serve Him, is another kind of example of neglecting the larger arc and trajectory, discussed above. They couldn’t get past their own fears, and the importance and beauty of the Land was lost in their eyes…

The Mergalim’s report includes the word רָאִינוּ three times in reference to the frightening sights that they encountered on their excursion. (Bamidbar 13: 28, 32, 33)

In Tehillim 48, a form of the word רָאה and the same word of רָאִינוּ is used, but the roles and perspectives are reversed:
כִּי הִנֵּה הַמְּלָכִים נוֹעֲדוּ עָבְרוּ יַחְדָּו הֵמָּה רָאוֹ כֵּן תָּמָהוּ נִבְהֲלוּ נֶחְפָּזוּ
Here, the kings of the other nations see Yerushalayim and THEY are the ones trembling with fear.
And finally, the view of what is being “seen” by us, produces an entirely different result:
כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְנוּ כֵּן רָאִינוּ בְּעִיר ה’ צְבָאוֹת — the authors of this perek now see clearly the splendor of the land, instead of the shortcomings – that is the tikkun of the Meraglim. We are no longer “like grasshoppers” as the Meraglim described themselves to be, rather we are rejoicing in Yerushalayim’s towers and palaces (סֹבּוּ צִיּוֹן וְהַקִּיפוּהָ סִפְרוּ מִגְדָּלֶיהָ שִׁיתוּ לִבְּכֶם לְחֵילָה פַּסְּגוּ אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ) and reveling in Hashem’s enduring strength.

 

Balak

 

In the introduction to his third blessing to Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam describes himself as a “shetum ha-ayin” (24:3).
The Ramban notes that there is no similar word to “shetum” in the entire Tanach.
Among the explanations given for this term, as noted by Rashi, is that Bilaam only had one eye. The other eye was a just the socket. The word “shetum” means “open,” and thus when Bilaam describes himself, he is referring to his open eye socket, that has no eye in it, leaving him with one working eye.

Symbolically, as many scholars have noted, the notion of Bilaam having only one functioning eye is significant. When looking at a person, we are capable of using two different “eyes” – a critical eye, and a complimentary eye: One eye looks suspiciously, cynically and judgmentally, searching to find fault. The other eye looks in a far more positive and accepting manner, focusing on the good in a person, generally holding people in a favorable light. Both “eyes” are important for us to properly relate to the world around us. Certainly, we must judge favorably and highlight the positive aspects in people, but we also need the critical eye to be discerning, so we can distinguish for ourselves between proper and improper, and between good and evil.

Bilaam, however, saw with only one eye – the eye that looks critically and sees the evil in everything.
The Mishna in Avot 5:19 distinguishes between the “ayin tova” of Avraham and the “ayin ra’a” of Bilaam. Avraham graciously welcomed and fed three desert travelers whom he had mistaken for idolaters, and he prayed fervently on behalf of the sinful city of Sedom. He looked at the world mainly with his ayin tova.
Bilaam, by contrast, searched for Bnei Yisrael’s weaknesses and negative traits. The Gemara in Brachot 7a comments that Bilaam knew the precise second of the day when Hashem’s anger is aroused (“ki rega b’apo”). Bilaam had a knack for prosecution; finding fault in people and incriminating them. He thought he could make Hashem focus on all Bnei Yisrael’s negative episodes on their journey from Egypt, and “convince” Hashem to allow them to be destroyed.
Bilaam closed or didn’t have the “eye” that saw the goodness in people, and looked only with the “eye” that found fault.

Hashem steps in and reverses Bilaam’s tendency, and instead Bilaam ends up give blessings to Bnei Yisrael instead of the curses for which he was hired. In introducing his first blessing, Bilaam proclaims (23:8-9):
‘מָה אֶקֹּב לֹא קַבֹּה אֵ-ל וּמָה אֶזְעֹם לֹא זָעַם ה
כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב

“How can I curse whom G-od has not cursed, how can I doom when the Lord has not doomed?
For I see them from the top of cliffs, and from the hills I look out upon them…”

When we look at people “from the top of cliffs,” from afar, we have a much different perspective than from up close. Looking from up close means that we think we can pass judgment because we’ve accurately scrutinized their every move. In truth, only Hashem can do that, and that is His job alone. We can’t know where people are coming from, their background, motivations, why they do what they do, etc. Only Hashem is bochein klayos valeiv.

We we look from the top of cliffs, we are working to appreciate the admirable qualities of a person. I think that looking from afar – “from the hills” – involves 2 types of mindsets: One is about how we are to look at others — from afar, without harsh scrutinization. The second is how we are to regard our own limited abilities in evaluating others — realizing that no matter how we look at a person, it will always be from a limited perspective.

Looking with an ayin tova requires us to step back and assess our peers “from the hills,” and from this perspective we can more easily appreciate and admire their fine attributes.

Finally, Rashi (quoting the Medrash Tanchuma) on the above passuk says that Bilaam “looked” at Bnei Yisrael from their beginnings / from their roots, and saw their strength like the rocks and hills; the strength they received from the Avos and Imahos.
אני מסתכל בראשיתם ובתחלת שרשיהם, ואני רואה אותם מיוסדים וחזקים כצורים וגבעות הללו ע”י אבות ואמהות

Looking with two eyes gives you depth. Gives you perspective.
How we are supposed to look at acheinu kol Beis Yisrael? All as fellow descendants of the Avos and Imahos.

Perhaps one of the most talked about messages, in the wake of the horrible tragedy that befell klal Yisrael this past week, is the importance of achdus – unity when we fervently prayed and hoped together that our boys would return safely, and unity when we had to cry and comfort each other when our worst fears became reality; tens of thousands of people at the funeral of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal A”H, and millions of Jews from all different walks of life praying and mourning together.
Hopefully, this lesson from Bilaam, of all people – to look at others with a kind eye and look at one another as all part of the same rich lineage – is something that can resonate not only through this horrific tragedy but going forward, throughout our modern day journey which Hashem is unfolding before us.

Chukat

Parshat Chukat records the tragic story of Mei Meriva. Moshe’s sister, Miriam, dies, and with her passing, Bnei Yisrael’s miraculous water supply (a well which sustained them in Miriam’s merit) vanishes. The nation complains for water; Hashem instructs Moshe what to do; Moshe deviates slightly, and he is severely punished. 

Until this point, whenever Bnei Yisrael complained, they were answered in one of two ways: Either Hashem granted their wish, or they were punished. Here, Hashem asks Moshe and Aharon to gather the people and speak to a rock. Instead Moshe hits the rock (twice) and Hashem rebukes Moshe and Aharon for this reaction, and for not having faith in Him. Rashi on the spot says that were it not for this misstep by Moshe, he would have been able to enter the land of Israel. Instead, Moshe is punished, and denied entry into the Land.

The Netziv has a very interesting explanation for the “crime” and punishment involved in this episode of Mei Meriva.
In the Netziv’s hakdama to Sefer Bamidbar, he writes that the main theme in Bamidbar is the transition from Bnei Yisrael’s supernatural relationship with G-d, to a relationship more grounded in the natural order. From the time Moshe confronted Paroh in Egypt, until the 40th year in the desert, Bnei Yisrael witnessed and were sustained by the most incredible miracles ever performed. To use the Netziv’s poetic words, Bnei Yisrael went from walking “b’midat tiferet” in the desert, until the 40th year when it began to change into a more natural interaction with Hashem – “bderech heteva b’sitrei hashgachat malchut shamayim.”

As Bnei Yisrael made their way toward Eretz Yisrael, their relationship would start to change. The desert became a training ground for the new reality that awaited them in their own land – a life more in line with a natural existence.

The Netziv sees Moshe’s misstep within this broader context of Sefer Bamidbar: Moshe was the ultimate agent of and conduit to Hashem. With the passing of Miriam and the disappearance of their supernatural water source, Bnei Yisrael stood poised to learn a pivotal lesson. Moshe – Moshe Rabbeinu – was supposed to teach that lesson. He was directed to teach the nation that their physical survival – something as basic as drinkable water – would hinge on more than one-sided, overt miracles. In a situation of distress and crisis, they would need to rely on the belief in their hearts and the power of words on their lips.
 
Moshe received specific instructions – to take the staff with which all of the miracles until this point had been performed, but not use it. Hold the symbol of the supernatural, but do not use it. Instead, begin to teach the People the power of speech and the power of prayer. Show them that as individuals and as a collective nation, they have the ability to have a natural relationship with Hashem through teffila. The Netziv says, that Hashem’s method of punishment, of not allowing Moshe entry to the Land, was a midah k’negged midah – because Moshe didn’t use the opportunity he was given to teach Bnei Yisrael about how farmers, removed from the Dor HaMidbar, would one day have to react when faced with drought in Eretz Yisrael (i.e. through belief and prayer), Moshe demonstrated that he was not the proper leader for the nation in Eretz Yisrael.
 
In Sefer Devarim (32:51) Hashem describes the actions that Moshe took in Parshat Chukat:
עַל אֲשֶׁר מְעַלְתֶּם בִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמֵי-מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר-צִן עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא קִדַּשְׁתֶּם אוֹתִי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

(1) “ma’altem bi” you trespassed against Me”; and (b) “asher lo kidashtem Oti” = you did not sanctify Me.

By hitting the rock, Moshe “misappropriated” the miracle of water being brought forth. The purpose of the episode was to teach the people to pray and inculcate a deeper feeling of emunah in Hashem during trying times. Instead, Moshe “trespassed” the miracle – using it for an unintended purpose – and gave the impression that it was his own, great prophetic stature that produced the desired results. Moshe misappropriated the emunah of the nation.
 
Indeed, we are supposed to find that proper mixture of investment of time and human effort, on the one hand, with belief and dependence on Hashem, on the other. We put our heads down and work as hard as we can, yet still remain cognizant that we must lift our heads to the heavens and pray for rain, and pray that Hashem will steer our efforts toward success.
 
The Land of Israel is not like Egypt. There are no overflowing rivers to sustain life. All of its water – its life-source – comes from above: Devarim (11:10-12):

“For the land, which you enter to possess, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out…But the land, which you are going over to possess, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water from the rain of the skies; A land which Hashem your G-d cares for; the eyes of Hashem your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”

We are a nation that believes in human effort coupled with Divine oversight, in a land that demands both.
Tragically, the greatest eved Hashem of all time missed just one opportunity to teach emunah in the way Hashem had prescribed, and he paid the ultimate price.
 
We no longer have a Moshe, or a miracle-performing staff. Prophets and staffs will not provide us sustenance, protect us from our enemies, win our battles, or “bring back our boys”. If only…
But the efforts of Chayalei Tzahal, and the outpouring of prayers from Jews all over the world for the safe return of Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devora, Gilad Michael ben Bat-Galim. and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah, is how we are meant to respond in periods of hardship.

The lesson meant to be taught to Bnei Yisrael in the desert, was the beginning of what has been taught throughout the generations to this day – that through our hard work, resilient effort, unwavering emunah and heartfelt prayer, we will achieve our goals and bring the ultimate Redemption.

 

Korach

[based on Rav Shimon Schwab ztl, and a dvar written by Rabbi Moshe Taub]

Rav Schwab ztl, in Ma’ayan Beis Hashoeva, based on an idea of Rav Yisrael Salanter ztl, has a fascinating insight into the psychology of Korach.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin tells us that Korach actually started out as a very righteous man; during Cheit Ha’eigel, when Moshe said “Mi LaHashem Eilai”, Korach followed him. What then, made Korach falter to such a tragic degree?

Furthermore, there exists a textual question about the timing of Korach’s complaint – if the section about Korach’s rebellion appears in its correct chronological order (as the Ramban maintains), why did it take so long for Korach to protest? Shouldn’t he have expressed is discontent with Moshe at the appointment of the princes in the opening of Bamidbar or when Aaron was first chosen as the Kohen Gadol?

In seeking to answer these questions, Rav Schwab turns to Gemara Sukkah 52a. There, the Gemara teaches that in the era of Mashiach, Hashem will slaughter the Yetzer Hara. Before doing so, inhabitants of the world will have the opportunity, for the first time, to actually see with their eyes this force with which they have tangled throughout their lives. The righteous will see a force of such might and size that they will proclaim “who can climb such a mountain!” The wicked, by contrast, will see the Yetzer Hara as something as small as a single hair.
This seems like the exact opposite of what we would have expected…The righteous, who have managed to overcome their evil inclination should be the ones to see the Yetzer Hara as a defeated entity, or a single hair. The wicked, who could not muster the strength (or interest) to defeat this foe, should be the ones to proclaim what a huge “mountain” they could not summit!

He explains that most people who fail in their existential religious struggles do not set out to be wicked; rather they strive to ignore the evil that exists. Additionally, the Yetzer Hara is focused on the external character of such a person, intent on getting the wicked individual to perform improper actions. The desire is put in front of the person, and he/she falls into the trap with very little thought involved. In the event they realize it was wrong, then there may be some remorse, but another improper action is sure to spring up again, because this person lacks the interest/strength to oppose it. This evil, having never been contended with is seen by them as trivial; like the addict who has yet to even try to quit, who confidently proclaims their ability to stop when they so desire. It is thus understandable why the Yetzer Hara appears small and insignificant in their eyes. If you never march onto the battlefield, then you have no knowledge of the identity and no concept of the strength of your enemy; you simply sit back, and it conquers you.

On the other hand, the righteous contend with their vices and desires, acknowledging how strong they can be and fighting them nevertheless. By a righteous person, instead of targeting mere actions, the Yetzer Hara tries to dig at his/her core. It tries to sully and erode the essence of a person motivations behind his/her actions. The righteous person is behaving properly, but the Yetzer Hara tries to poison those intentions. For example, a person might be learning lots of torah or giving massive amounts of charity, but perhaps he is doing so only to garner kavod from his peers, instead of performance l’sheim shamayim. People who contend with such a force – a force so strong that it can even infiltrate righteous deeds – see the Yetzer Hara as large and looming. 

In the time of Mashiach, each person will see the Yetzer Hara the way in which it was regarded during his/her lifetime.

Korach began as a tzaddik, but a unique and dangerously self-assured one. His Torah study and spiritual growth was used subconsciously as a decoy against his own conscience. Instead of dealing with his jealousy and desire for power, he chose to ignore them, covering them up with acts of virtue. His good deeds were a habitual self-distraction that both fooled how others perceived him, and how he perceived himself.

It was only now, after the Cheit HaMeraglim, when Moshe’s approval ratings were at an all-time low, that there was a possibility of a coup d’état. Suddenly, Korach felt a stirring within; a desire that he had repressed for some time (since the beginning of Bamidbar), had now clawed its way back to the fore, having festered into a fiercer and more powerful entity.
Korach stood before a mountain that he could not climb.
(Perhaps that is one reason why his punishment was to get swallowed by the earth, almost like an inverted mountain (?).)

(I also saw an idea that may explain the choice Chazal made for the portion we read as this week’s Haftorah, taken from Shmuel I, in which Bnei Yisrael ask for a king. Despite the fact that a Jewish king is a concept which appears in the Torah, Bnei Yisrael’s asking for a one was viewed, at least partially, as a failing. Why? Perhaps because of our motivations behind the request. Asking for a king was fine, but convincing ourselves that this was for religious reasons was the error. We should have been conscious of our true motivations – which was that we wanted to be like other nations – and not have convinced ourselves it was to achieve greater religious inspiration.)

If I understood Rav Schwab correctly, I think this concept can be best summarized, that when we acknowledge and contend with our own human frailty, we actually move closer toward achieving G-dliness. 

Perhaps the first steps in growing and trying to perfect ourselves are (a) wanting to do so, and (b) being cognizant of what is innate and being honest about our true desires and shortcomings – facing our Yetzer Hara head on. When challenges are discernible, they become exponentially easier to overcome.

Shlach

Bamidbar 15:38
דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת

Each corner of our garment should include a thread of techeiles.
Chazal teach us that this thread serves as an inspirational reminder. The color of techeiles resembles the color of the sea floor, the color of the sea floor is similar to the color of shamayim, and the color of the shamayim is similar to the color of Hashem’s throne of glory – the Kisei HaKavod. By gazing at the techeiles thread we begin a process that ends in being reminded of Hashem’s throne of glory.
 
Rashi in Bava Metzia 61b, notes that there are two ways to produce the color/appearance of techeiles. The halachically correct way is to extract the dye from a sea creature called the Chilazon. According to Menachos 44a, this Chilazon is a rare sea creature that appears on land only once in 70 years. Because the Chilazon emerges so infrequently, the dye produced from the Chilazon is less accessible and very expensive.
The halachically invalid way of producing the desired color is through an extract of the indigo plant. Since the indigo plant is commonly found, the dye produced from it is relatively inexpensive. The Gemara warns that Hashem will punish anyone who hangs wool dyed with the extract of the indigo on his garment claiming that he possesses techeiles.

Rav Aharon Lewin ztl, asks the following question:
If chazal teach us that the reason we have a thread of techeiles is so that we gaze at its color and be inspired to remember Hashem’s throne, what difference does it make as to the origin of this color? As long as we have the correct color, it will remind us of Hashem’s throne. The end result from either approach is the same!

The answer, of course, is that there are 2 ways to produce the color of techeiles: the hard way and the easy way.
The hard way involves waiting up to 70 years for the chilazon to appear, and carefully extracting a rare dye. The easy way is to obtain the color from a commonly found vegetable plant.
When we perform a mitzvah commanded to us by Hashem, it is as if we are appearing before the throne of Hashem and presenting Him with a gift. When one performs a mitzvah without any thought or preparation, simply to check a box, it is as if he took a shortcut to appear before Hashem; he has come before Hashem with indigo. However, when one dedicates the time and invests the necessary preparation to perform a mitzvah fully and correctly, it is if he took a long, arduous road to come before Hashem; he has come before Hashem with techeiles.

When we look at the techeiles we are reminded not just of our destination to Hashem’s throne but of the journey as well. Just as one waits with great anticipation for 70 years for the chilazon to appear and appreciates its great value, likewise we are reminded that we must approach the performance of mitzvos with anticipation and appreciate what it means to have an opportunity to perform a mitzvah, and in its proper fashion.

The difference between techeiles and indigo teaches us that it is not only the destination that counts but the journey as well. 

—–

A quick idea on Yehoshua’s name change: The midrash says that when Hashem changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, He allocated the displaced yud for Yehoshua’s name, from Hoshea. Rav Nison Alpert notes that Sarah paved a very important path for Yehoshua. Sarah had the unequivocal belief that Eretz Yisrael – in its entirety – belongs to the children of Avraham and Yitzchak. In Breishis 21:10 she says:
גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת-בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן-הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם-בְּנִי עִם-יִצְחָק 

Sarah was saying that Yishmael, the son of Haggar, has no share in the inheritance of her son Yitzchak. Yishmael, nor any descendant of his has a portion in Eretz Yisrael. With great passion, Sarah conveyed this message to Avraham, and Hashem backed it up by saying:
כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ 

Yehoshua, who was chosen by Hashem to lead Bnei Yisrael into Eretz Yisrael and conquer the land, receives part of his name from Sarah, precisely because of her conviction on this matter. Equipped with a “piece” of Sarah, so to speak, Yehoshua boldly leads Bnei Yisrael into the Promised Land, conquering every corner of the land. B’ezras Hashem, hopefully the day when all of Eretz Yisrael is peacefully in our hands, is rapidly approaching.

 

B’haalotcha

[based on a dvar torah written by R’ David Silverberg]

Parshat B’haalotcha contains several unfortunate incidents that occurred after Bnei Yisrael left Har Sinai:
In Perek 11 the Torah recounts the incident of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava, where Bnei Yisrael complained about the mahn and demanded meat, and were subsequently punished.
Next, in Perek 12, Miriam and Aharon speak improperly about their brother, Moshe, and they are punished with tzara’at.

Rashi explains that these two stories are juxtaposed because one led to the other; Miriam only learned of her brother’s divorce as a result of the events of Kivrot Ha-ta’ava. (In response to the nation’s demand for meat, Hashem instructed Moshe to appoint 70 elders to assist him. During the formal designation of these leaders outside the camp, two other men – Eldad and Meidad – began prophesying within the camp. Tzipora, Moshe’s wife, observed the prophecy and expressed her concern that Eldad and Meidad may divorce their wives as Moshe had divorced her. Miriam overheard Tzipora’s comments, and it was then that she spoke with Aharon about Moshe’s divorce.)

Rabbenu Bechayei, however, suggests a connection between the two incidents, not necessarily because one led to the other, but rather due to their resemblance. Both incidents involved “hotza’at diba” — negative speech about something or someone special. In the episode of Kivrot Ha-Ta’ava, Bnei Yisrael spoke disdainfully of the mahn, claiming that they were better off with their diet in Egypt. Rather than appreciating the extraordinary miracle of the mahn, which fell each morning from the heavens and sustained every member of the nation, the people complained about it. Similarly, Miriam, rather than speaking admiringly and reverently about her brother, found something negative to express. Just as Bnei Yisrael complained about the miraculous food Hahem provided them, Miriam likewise complained about her brother, the greatest prophet that ever lived.

Rabbenu Bechayei adds that the next narrative – the sin of the spies, in Parshat Shlach – continues (or perhaps culminates) this theme of hotza’at diba. (The Torah specifically refers to the spies’ reports as dibat ha’aretz” in 13:32 and 14:37)  The spies chose to focus their attention specifically on the challenges they viewed with settling Eretz Yisrael, rather than on the Land’s remarkable qualities and innate kedusha. The story of the Mergalim thus continues the topic of looking negatively upon the great gifts given to us by Hashem. 
In all three episodes, a person or a group of people sinned by finding fault in a great person (Moshe), place (Land of Israel) or thing (the mahn).

These three complaints perhaps reflect three broader areas where this mistake of hotza’at diba is often made. 
1. Kivrot Ha-ta’ava — Material discontent and dissatisfaction with financial conditions: The mahn represents a gift from Hashem, which is how were are supposed to view everything we have, and whatever that lot may be, we are supposed to be satisfied and grateful.

2. Miriam and Aharon’s lashon hara — Inclination to comment on the behavior or shortcoming of others: It’s always easier to evaluate someone else instead of ourselves. If we look hard enough, we can find fault in anyone – even Moshe Rabbenu. Our goal should not be to point out the negatives in other people, rather to focus our attention instead on admirable qualities.

3. Meraglim — Focusing on the challenges and complexities of Jewish destiny, rather than its opportunities: The spies had the privilege of being the first ones to go into Eretz Yisrael, and instead of relishing the opportunity of planning how to settle the Land, they focused on the difficult challenges that this privilege entailed. The catastrophe of Cheit Ha-Meragelim reminds us to keep our attention focused on the great opportunity we are given as Hashem’s chosen nation, and to approach the challenges that go along with this lofty stature with enthusiasm and confidence, rather than excuses and complaints.

All three instances demonstrate the dangers of negativism. A negative, fault-finding outlook prevents us from feeling satisfied with our material blessings (Kivrot Ha-Ta’ava), damages our relationships with family and friends (Miriam and Aharon), and discourages us from actively pursuing the spiritual goals and national duties that are demanded of Hashem’s special nation (Chet Ha-Meragelim). 
If, instead, we are able focus on the positive qualities about everything and everyone around us, then we can more readily find happiness, fulfillment and pride in our daily lives and our service of Hashem.

 

Nasso

Bamidbar 5:9-10
ט  וְכָל-תְּרוּמָה לְכָל-קָדְשֵׁי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-יַקְרִיבוּ לַכֹּהֵן–לוֹ יִהְיֶה. 9 And every heave-offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they present unto the priest, shall be his.
י  וְאִישׁ אֶת-קֳדָשָׁיו לוֹ יִהְיוּ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן לַכֹּהֵן לוֹ יִהְיֶה. 10 And every man’s hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his.
Rashi explains on passuk that the “terumah” being referred to are Bikkurim – the first fruits of the harvest of the Seven Species, which must be given to the Kohen.
Rav Moshe Feinstein ztl points out, that from the Kohen’s perspective, it’s irrelevant whether the fruits he receives are the first of the harvest, or otherwise. The special significance of these fruits is appreciated only by the owner, who toiled by planting the tree, nurturing it, and ultimately watching it produce fruits. To the Kohen, one pomegranate is the same as another pomegranate.
Nevetheless, the Torah requires the owner to specifically give the first fruits to the Kohen, and even if other fruits are given – and the Kohen suffers no loss – it is still considered stealing. The lesson, is that the essence of stealing is not just about harming another person; it is the misappropriation of an item which is not rightfully yours. Only that which Hashem has rightfully bestowed upon us may be utilized and enjoyed.

Bikkurim are of course a major part of Shavuot, since Shavuot was the first day that one could bring Bikkurim to the Beit HaMikdash.
I would like to try to connect the lessons of Bikkurim and stealing, to some ideas, found in Rav Nebenzahl’s sefer, on the topic of why we read Megillat Ruth on Shavuot:
One reason is that just as we took upon ourselves all of Torah and mitzvot at Har Sinai, so too Ruth took upon herself ol malchut shamayim when she converted.
Another reason is that Ruth exemplified giving of herself entirely, both to her mother-in-law, Naomi, and to Hashem. In order to fulfill the expectation of being a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh” we have to go ‘all-in’. Serving Hashem, often means sacrificing our time, inclinations and desires. Along these lines of sacrificing of ourselves, Ruth the Moabite departs from the ways of her Moab ancestors, and becomes a shining example of the middah of chessed. The nation of Moav (along with Amon), who refused to offer bread and water to Bnei Yisrael in the desert, and as a result is never allowed entry to Klal Yisrael (see Devarim 23:4-5), represents the utter lack of chessed. With Ruth’s amazing demonstration of chessed, she is the tikkun of Moav. As Boaz says (Ruth 3:10):
הֵיטַבְתְּ חַסְדֵּךְ הָאַחֲרוֹן מִן הָרִאשׁוֹן

I would like to humbly suggest, that based on the definition of stealing, above from Bikkurim, it seems that chessed and stealing are polar opposites of one another (not only because one is nice and one is not nice). Stealing is gaining pleasure from something that isn’t yours, which belongs to someone else; Chessed is taking what IS rightfully yours and voluntarily giving it to someone else. One is taking something you don’t own, and the other is giving something you do own.

Ruth gave of herself to her grieving mother-in-law (chessed), and Ruth gave of herself to find Hashem (kabalas ol malchus shamayim) — both important lessons for zman matan torateinu.

Finally, another aspect of becoming a mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, is cleaving to role models who exemplify righteousness and proper values, which brings us to another Moab ancestor: Lot was the incestuous grandfather of Moav (the guy), and an ancestor of Ruth. Lot left the tent of Avraham Avinu to live in the most grotesque city of its time, in Sedom. He left the greatest role model of chessed to chase wealth (see B’reishit 13:10, describing Sedom’s saturated fields) and to be with the licentious people of Sedom. Ruth, by contrast, was royalty – a descendant of Eglon and Balak. She left luxury so that she could cleave to Naomi, because she realized that being with Naomi and learning from her was (a) the right thing to do, and (b) far more valuable than material wealth.

By clinging to special individuals with character traits befitting a mamlechet kohanim, we equip ourselves to strive for righteousness, and ensure that those values get passed to the next generation.

In sum, Bikkurim teaches the importance of appropriating ownership properly; Ruth teaches the importance of chessed, sacrificing ourselves and our material possessions to benefit others, and the middos necessary to be worthy of receiving the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach

Bamidbar

[based in part on ideas found on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s VBM]

The second perek of Bamidbar discusses, at length, the encampment of Bnei Yisrael in the desert, specifically the familial and tribal flags.

Bamidbar 2:2:
אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ

What is this section on Bnei Yisrael’s encampment all about, and what is its significance?

To help answer, we must skip ahead a few weeks to Parshat Balak, in which Bilaam utters the famous passage of “mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov”. 
The passages leading up to this praise of Bnei Yisrael give us the context for the praise, and relate directly to Parshat Bamidbar. A closer look:
1. The section leads off by telling us that the “spirit of Hashem was upon Bilaam” (ותהי עליו רוח א-לה-ים), so already we know that Bilaam is going to make a profound statement.
2. Secondly, in contrast to the previous times when Bilaam only saw part of the Israelite encampment, Bilaam now sees the entire nation.
3. Furthermore, the Torah tells us that he saw this encampment against the backdrop of the desert: “… and he set his face to the desert. And Bilaam lifted his eyes and saw Israel dwelling by their tribes”(24:1-2).

What is the significance of each?

Points 1 & 2: The introduction, describing Bilaam’s cognitive state,  tells us that this is not an external, superficial observing of the nation, but rather a perception of a certain quality exemplified by the nation of Israel: he sees them camping “by their tribes.” This description refers to the order and organization of Bnei Yisrael’s encampment. Once Bilaam sees the impressive organization of the Israelite camp — compartmentalized by their tribes, each individual connected with his family and his clan — the exuberant blessing bursts forth: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel” (24:5).

Point 3: The desert represents a world without boundaries and order; it is untamed, lacking societal norms, a place where wild animals roam free. Here, in the midst of the boundlessness of the desert, Bilaam witnesses a remarkable sight: 600,000 soldiers, along with the elderly, women and children, journeying by families and by tribes. It is specifically against the backdrop of the desert that the splendor of the camp of Israel stands out: a nation that creates banners and tribes, that maintains clans and tents of families.Even in an environment with blurred boundaries; even from the perspective of Bilaam – who was commissioned by Amon and Moav, whose genealogy goes back to the story of Lot sleeping with his daughters, where the fundamental definitions of lineage are themselves blurred (through Lot’s daughters’ incestuous plot) – the camp of Bnei Yisrael is based upon a solid foundation of “good tents.”

Bnei Yisrael rallies around the Torah (at the center of the entire encampment), and the strong relationships within each individual tent and grouping, so that in the wild, untamed desert, no one gets left behind, and every child knows the importance of family. Most importantly, their behavior is not governed by, and does not mirror, their unruly surroundings. Just because they are in a place devoid of rule and order, doesn’t mean they conduct themselves in that way.

A final, related thought: It is within Sefer Bamidbar and in the desert that Bnei Yisrael goes through their toughest challenges. Over and over they anger Hashem and Moshe (mit’onnenim, meraglim, Korach,Mei Meriva, etc.), but it is out of difficult experiences and harsh lessons, that they (really, the children of the Dor HaMidbar) can become the nation to inhabit the land of Israel. The midbar serves as a training ground for this young nation.

So among the many reasons why the entire sefer is called “Bamidbar”, are perhaps to teach that:
1. Sometimes being in a difficult situation or environment allows us to shine the brightest and make tremendous kiddushei Hashem. Our world today is somewhat of a treacherous desert, and our challenge is to ensure that our beliefs and behavior are not altered to fit our surroundings, so that we can maintain the regal and disciplined tents of Yaakov; and
2. Tangling with adversity is necessary, because it builds character and prepares us for the road ahead.