• June 15, 2024
  • 9 5784, Sivan
  • פרשת נשא

The WebYeshiva Blog

Elevated by words of Torah

By Rabbi Dr. Stuart Fischman

How Chasidut Studies the Chumash

The weekly Torah portion can and ought to be studied on many levels. The Torah portion of the week (the “parshat hashavuah” or simply “parshah”) contains information which we need to know and understand in a straightforward manner. This information is called in Hebrew, by some, “p’shat”- the readily apparent meaning of the text. But there is another level of meaning in the Torah which needs to be explored. This level of meaning is, one could say, the spiritual meaning. The Torah is God-given and the serious student of the Torah is correct in asking how does the week’s passage from the Torah bring her or him closer to God.

So what makes Chasidut special?

The teachers of Torah who took this search for spiritual meaning very seriously were the Chasidic teachers. As the Chasidic movement took shape one of the significant innovations in the movement was the lesson on the parsha. This lesson was given by the Chasidic rebbe during the third Shabbat meal. The Chassidic rebbe understood that what his followers needed was something that they could take home. They needed something that could help elevate the mundane and bring them closer to God. The questions that the Chasidic Rebbes raised in their parsha talks were not the ones raised by the great medieval commentators. Foe example, when someone wishes to understand what a sentence means in its context one looks to Rashi or ibn Ezra for an answer. But if someone wishes to know how does knowing this or that verse bring me closer to God, then the answer is found in the Chasidic works. Today I wish to share with you a teaching from the renowned Chasidic work, Sfat Emet, on the parsha.

Mosheh Rabbeinu and Stuttering

Our parsha begins, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel...” For the perceptive reader who has followed the Torah reading throughout the year this verse marks a remarkable change in Moses. For when God approached Moses for the first time and instructed him to speak to Pharaoh, Moses refused to go. Moses replied to God, “…please God, I am not a man of words…” And eventually it was Moses’s brother Aaron who spoke. So how did this transformation occur? How did Moses become a man of words? The Sfat Emet (based on the early Rabbinic text Midrash Rabbah) explains that what changed Moses was the Torah itself.

Elevated by words of Torah

The Torah is what gives life. The Torah was God’s blueprint for all of creation. When God first met Moses, Moses was truly “not a man of words.”  But what did Moses mean when he said that? When Moses said that he was “not a man of words” he did not mean that he could not speak clearly. What he meant to say was that his words could not reach the hearts of the Jews. But the Torah that Moses taught for forty years elevated his speech. His speech acquired the sanctity of the Torah. Now his words could enter the hearts of the people. So what is the lesson for us? Speech, the Sfat Emet says, is an immensely powerful tool. It is can cause great harm. But it can also bring about great good. The Torah certainly changed the speech of Moses, and if we open ourselves up to the Torah it can change us as well.
Dvar Torah

Cities of Refuge - Being Responsible for One Another

By In this week's Torah reading of Masei, Moshe is commanded to tell Yehoshua to set aside cities of refuge. Someone who kills another person unintentionally must flee to one of the cities of refuge before the deceased's next of kin catch him or her. A Beit Din sits at the entrance of the city to judge whether the death was unintentional or whether it was caused by negligence (in which case the city does not provide protection from the relatives).

Until the Cohen Gadol Dies

Once the murderer had been admitted, he must remain there until the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) dies. "For in the city of refuge he must remain until the death of the Cohen Gadol; after the death of the Cohen Gadol the murderer returns to the land of his inheritance," (Bamidbar 35:28). I can imagine that someone stuck in the city of refuge, waiting to return home, would perhaps hope and pray that the Cohen Gadol would die soon and release them from exile. I guess this is part of the repentance for the accidental murderer. Having killed once unintentionally, perhaps it would seem like not such a big deal to pray for the death of someone else. Even someone as important as the Cohen Gadol.

A Mother’s Care

The Mishna (Makkot 2:6) relates that for this reason, the mother of the High Priest would bring gifts to those living in the cities of refuge. “Therefore, the mothers of the Cohanim would provide them food and clothing, so that they should not pray for their children to die.” The Talmud (Makkot 11a) asks why the mothers were worried about those prayers. There is no punishment without sin. If the Cohen had done nothing wrong, the prayers would have no effect. A verse states, “A baseless cause shall not come true,” (Mishlei 26:2). The answer in the Talmud is that “They should have prayed for their generation but did not.”

The Responsibility of Leadership

The Cohen Gadol was more than just a figurehead. He was the person who effected repentance for the entire nation every Yom Kippur. He would bring the sacrifices, send the scapegoat to Azazel, enter the Holy of Holies, and by the end of the day, the nation would be absolved of its sins. And as a leader of the nation, he was responsible for everything that happened. It was up to him to set an example for everyone else, to act in a way that would build up the character of the nation. He could not shirk his responsibility. He was held so responsible that even a single unintentional death anywhere in the country would have earned him Divine punishment.

Not Only the  Cohen Gadol

After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis extended this responsibility of leadership to anyone in a position of authority (Makkot 11a). “A person was eaten by a lion three parsangs from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and Eliyahu the Prophet did not speak with him for three days.”

We Are All Responsible for One Another

I would even go further and say that each of us, even if not in an official position of leadership, has a responsibility to protect others from harm. In 1995, a severe heatwave hit Chicago, leading to 739 deaths. Eric Klinenberg showed in his book, “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago” that people living in neighborhoods and communities with strong social infrastructure had a much better chance of surviving the heat. That is just one example where being connected with one another literally saved lives. The Cohen Gadol was held responsible for not preventing deaths. Conversely, by caring for those around us, in person, through phone calls or online, each of us has the potential to prevent unnecessary deaths and save lives.
Dvar Torah

Half the Tribe of Menashe

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Matot is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By

Grazing land

At the end of Parshat Matot, the tribes of Gad and Reuven approach Moshe with a request. They point out that their tribes have large flocks of animals, and the land on the other side of the Jordan River is good grazing land. “This land… is land for flocks, and your servants have flocks,” (Bamidbar 32:4).

Did they not learn?

Moshe, understandably, becomes upset with the two tribes, reminding them of the sin of the spies –the last time the Israelites didn’t want to enter the promised land. The tribes of Gad and Reuven clarified that they were not shirking their duties and didn’t want to disobey God. They said they would build pens for their sheep and cities for their children, and then join the rest of the nation in conquering the land. Only after the conquest was complete would they return home to their families.

Moshe’s condition

Moshe realizes that the two tribes are genuine in their request. It is not that they don’t want to enter the land of Israel, but instead want to expand the borders of the holy land to include the side of the Jordan where Moshe will die and be buried. He agrees to their request, but he makes it conditional. They may only inherit the grazing lands on the other side of the Jordan if they fight alongside the rest of the nation to help them to inherit the land of Israel. Moshe also clarifies their priorities. Changing the order, he said to first, “Build cities for your children and pens for your sheep,” (Bamidbar 32:24).

Half of Menashe

After making the deal with the tribes of Gad and Reuven, Moshe does something surprising: “Moshe gave the children of Gad and the children of Reuven and half of the tribe of Menashe ben Yosef the kingdom of Sichon, King of the Emorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan,” (Bamidbar 32:33). Reuven and Gad made the request to stay on that side of the Jordan River, because they had flocks. Seemingly for no reason, Moshe suddenly adds that half the tribe of Menashe will also inherit alongside them, outside the borders of Canaan.

Did Menashe want to live there?

The Netziv (Devarim 3:16) says that it was Moshe who decided to add half of Menashe to live next to the tribes of Gad and Reuven. Moshe was concerned that being so far from the tabernacle and the holiness of Israel, the two tribes would forget about Torah and turn to idolatry. Moshe’s concern was well founded. As soon as the soldiers of Gad and Reuven returned home, they set up an altar, leading the rest of the nation to suspect them of idolatry (Joshua 22:10). So, he decided to have half of Menashe live with them, to remind them of their duties and obligations.

Why Menashe?

Moshe chose Menashe for a reason. Shoftim (5:14) describes the descendants of Machir (the leader of Menashe) as “legislators,” a term also applied to Moshe Rabbeinu. Not only did they know Torah, but they also knew how to live far from the spiritual center of Judaism. The founder of their tribe, Yosef’s son, was born in Egypt and served as Yosef’s advisor. He grew up in a palace and spent his days dealing with the Egyptian princes and governors, while remaining committed to the values of his father and grandfather. Moshe added another layer of protection. He placed half the tribe on one side of the river and half the tribe on the other. This meant that Menashe would always remain connected to what was going on in the holy land. When the families got together, they would discuss the latest Torah teachings and from there Torah would spread to Reuven and Gad, their neighbors.

The Original WebYeshiva

In a sense, the tribe of Menashe was the original WebYeshiva. They were able to take the Torah from Israel and spread it far and wide. They would share the latest Torah teachings with those around them who did not have direct access to the rabbis and teachers of Israel. In a sense, each of us is like the tribe of Menashe. We each have a responsibility to share what we learn with those around us, who may be too far away to hear the teachings directly themselves. We are a conduit for Torah. We must do our best to share our knowledge with the tribes around us.
Dvar Torah

Sin offering for God

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Pinchas is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By Parshat Pinchas lists the sacrifices brought daily, weekly, monthly and on each festival. The offerings for Rosh Chodesh include, “One goat as a sin offering for God,” (Bamidbar 28:15). The Talmud (Shavuot 9a) cites Reish Lakish, who explains: The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “May this goat atone for Me because I made the moon small.” There is a note printed in the margin of the Talmud which says, “This is a secret of the kabbalistic secrets, and it should not be understood like it seems, Heaven forbid!” Kabbalistic secret I don’t know anything about kabbalistic secrets, but I had to find some kind of explanation of this strange offering brought as an atonement for God. The Talmud in Chullin (60b) explains further:

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi contrasted two verses. It is written, “God made the two great lights” (Bereishit 1:16) and it is written, “The big light and the small light.”

The moon said before God, “Master of the Universe, is it possible for two kings to rule with one crown?” God replied, “Go and make yourself smaller.”

The moon said, “Since I said something correct, I should make myself smaller?”

God said, “Go and rule during both day and night.”

The moon replied, “What does it help to have a candle in the bright light?”

God said, “Go; Israel will count days and years by you.”

The moon replied, “They will also count by the sun…”

“Go; the righteous will be called by your name – Yaakov the small (Amos 7:2), Shmuel the small (a 1st century tanna), David the small (I Shmuel 17:14).

God saw that the moon was still not happy. God said, “Bring atonement for me for making the moon small.”

Knesset Yisrael

The Maharsha (Shmuel Eidels 1555 – 1631) explains (in his commentary to Chullin 60b) that when the Talmud describes God making the moon small, it is an allusion to the role of Knesset Yisrael in this world. Knesset Yisrael is an attribute of God which is bound up with the Jewish people. He explains that God made the Jewish people small, “For you are the smallest of all the nations,” (Devarim 7:7). In so doing, He also limited the ways in which He is perceived in the world. For God is most clearly perceived through His relationship with the Jewish people. While the other nations shine brightly like the sun, but then burn out, the Jewish people wax and wane like the moon, but are always eclipsed by the sun. Yaakov Avinu was eclipsed by his brother Esav, who established a kingdom for his children several generations before the Israelites had their own kings. King David, the greatest paradigm of a Jewish king, was not as powerful or famous as his contemporaries and counterparts. And the tanna Shmuel established the prayer for heretics, acknowledging that they were stronger and more widespread than the Jews who remained small.

The darkness of the new moon

This is why God instructs us to bring an atonement for Him on Rosh Chodesh. That is the time when the moon is barely visible, at its smallest point in the month. By analogy, there are times when we as individuals and as a nation are almost destroyed. But we know that in just a couple of weeks, the full moon will shine brightly in the sky. However bad things are, we trust that God will save us and make things better. The message of the sin offering is to hang on. Even if things seem bleak, even if it is hard to see in the darkness of our lives, things will improve. God is with us just as much when the moon is hard to see as when it is high in the sky, showing us the way.
Dvar Torah

Moshe wrote the Torah

PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Balak is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. By The Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) states that, “Moshe wrote his book, Parshat Bilaam, and Iyov.” I guess it goes without saying that Moshe wrote his book – the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses. There is a discussion on the following page about who wrote the last eight verses of the Torah – the ones that describe Moshe’s death. But the rest of it was definitely written by Moshe. The Talmud tells us that the book of Iyov was written by Moshe, because otherwise I would not have known that this existentialist work, about the nature of reward and punishment, came from Moshe’s pen. It also teaches us that Iyov, a righteous non-Jew, lived at the time of Moshe. According to Rava, he died and was buried just when the spies went into Israel. Alternatively, according to Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani, the book of Iyov is a metaphor, and he never existed at all. There are several other opinions. So it makes sense that the Talmud tells us that Moshe wrote that book.

Why the story of Bilaam?

But why does the Talmud tell us that Moshe wrote the story of Bilaam? That is part of the Torah, the main section of Parshat Balak. If Moshe wrote the entire Torah, why would anyone think he didn’t write this week’s Torah portion? The answer is, because Moshe wasn’t there. The entire story of Bilaam trying and failing to curse the Israelites was something they could not have known about unless it was revealed to Moshe. Sure, Moshe wasn’t at creation either, or at any of the events before his birth. But the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov had traditions for everything described in Bereishit, so even though he wasn’t born, Moshe would have known those stories.

Who knew?

But there is no way he could have known about Bilaam. Balak sent messengers to Bilaam, not once but twice. An angel tried to prevent Bilaam from going to curse the Israelites. The donkey spoke. Balak went with Bilaam to build altars and offer sacrifices in preparation for the curses. And Bilaam gave the Jewish people some of the greatest blessings they ever received, including words that are now part of our daily prayer service. But none of that involved the Children of Israel in any way. The beauty of the curses (or so Balak thought) was that he could defeat the Israelites from a distance, without ever having to fight them.

What about the history books?

Perhaps you will say that Moshe could have heard about Balak and Bilaam from the history books. We read just last week, “Therefore it is said, in the book of the Wars of God,” (Bamidbar 21:14). So Moshe may have known the contemporary books that were being written. But Bilaam is different. We say that history is written by the victors. The story of Balak and Bilaam was one where both of them lost. Neither would have been proud of Balak blessing the Israelites. Neither would have boasted about it to the newspapers, or whatever they had back then. So, someone reading the Torah may ask how it came to be included in the Five Books. How would anyone in the Israelite camp know what had taken place? The answer, says that Talmud, is that it was written by Moshe. And like everything else he wrote in the Torah, he knew it because God told him.

The greatest blessing nearly went unmentioned

Just think, the greatest blessing the Jewish people ever received; the tremendous salvation from the enemy; the kindness of God for blocking Balak’s attempts at cursing, all of these things went on without anyone in the Israelite camp knowing, until afterwards when Moshe told them and wrote it down. Nowadays, we are showered with so much information, from the news, social media, the internet. We think we know what is going on everywhere by everyone.

We don’t know everything

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we may not know even the most important things, the events that change our lives. Without Moshe and the Torah, we would never have known about Bilaam. And today, we must also remember the limits of our knowledge.
Dvar Torah