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Posted June 23, 2017 - 10:58am

Follow Your Heart?

“Korach took.” These are the opening words of our parashah. With these words, the lid to Pandora’s Box was lifted and the seeds of Korach’s uprising sprouted forth to begin bearing their twisted fruit. Korach took something that didn’t belong to him. But what did Korach actually take? 

In Hebrew, just like in English, these are two words, vayikach Korach. Hebrew, unlike English, has a special indicator to designate the direct object of a verb. The word, et (את), comes before the direct object in order to let the reader know which object is receiving the action. Since word order is not as critical in Hebrew as in English, this direct object pointer is necessary to distinguish the subject (the one doing the action) from the object (the one receiving the action). The problem with the opening verse of our Torah portion is that this critical word is missing. The Torah explicitly says that he took (from the Hebrew root lakach), but it doesn’t say what he took. Therefore, it is unclear as to what exactly Korach took.

Our sages wrestled with this problem as well. The midrash explores this question and proposes various answers to the problem. Midrash Tanchuma proposes that Korach “took” his heart in the wrong direction. This is proven by citing Job 15:12, which asks, “Why does your heart carry you away?” Since it uses this same Hebrew root word to express the idea of one’s heart “taking” a person away, the midrash uses this to explain the situation with Korach. This is similar to how the Bible describes the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It says that God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh’s heart had already taken him down a destructive path and he had already made up his mind what he was going to do. God simply strengthened his resolve. 

Posted June 16, 2017 - 8:00am

As most people know, James Bond—agent 007—is the flamboyant hero created by Ian Fleming in the 1950’s. This parashah is not about him, but one might think so, given the introductory subject of this week’s Torah portion. This week’s reading begins with the story of the twelve spies who are sent into the land of Canaan ahead of the Children of Israel. When many people think of spies and espionage, they imagine someone in the likes of Fleming’s popular fictional character. But the leaders of the tribes of Israel sent out to Canaan were not spies in the same sense as this British secret agent. Were they really “spies” in the traditional sense of the word? As we will soon see, these men had another purpose for being sent out altogether.

As we know, spies are sent out by a top security administration in their government. Their mission is top secret and only a handful of people know what they are doing and why. Upon completion of their mission they report back directly to their superiors and not to the general public. These twelve spies, however, do not fit this mold. Not only were they commissioned by the entire nation, but they reported back to the general public as well. What’s going on here?

We can find the answer to our question by examining the commissioning of these twelve men and discerning their intended mission. First, let’s take a look at our current portion: 

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” (Numbers 13:1–2)

Posted June 9, 2017 - 7:40am

God of Second Chances

In this week’s Torah portion, one of the things we learn about is how the Children of Israel offered the Passover for the very first time since their departure from Egypt (Numbers 9:1–14). It had been a full year since they left Egypt and it was time to fulfill the instructions they had previously been given: “You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year” (Exodus 13:10). Therefore, Moses instructed the Israelites to offer up the Passover at the appropriate time in the second year:

And they kept the Passover in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so the people of Israel did. (Numbers 9:5)

Everything went well until a group of men came to Moses with a dilemma. They had come in close proximity to a corpse and had contracted corpse contamination—the most serious of all ritual contaminations and the most difficult to cleanse. They were unfit to partake of the Passover offering. They appealed to Moses saying, “Why are we kept from bringing the LORD's offering at its appointed time among the people of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). Unlike our modern mentality which objects with, “Why do I have to?” these men were asking, “Why don’t we get to?” They were commanded to participate in the Passover, and they were eagerly anticipating doing so, but now they were unable to. What was the solution?

Posted May 26, 2017 - 2:20pm

Parashat Bamidbar, the first portion of the book of Bamidbar, often gets a bad rap. The bulk of it is filled will the results of a national census, the arrangements of the tribal encampments, and the duties of the Levites and Kohanim. For many people this material doesn’t hold their attention. They are looking for something they can “sink their teeth into.” But reading the Torah and understanding its principles takes more than a casual reading. Parashat Bamidbar is one of these portions that beg us to peer deeper into it to see meaning and application. Besides the obvious and practical instructions given to the Children of Israel regarding their encampment and responsibilities, the fact that these seemingly mundane details were recorded and preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures should inform us of their importance. We have to stop and ask questions that help us dig into the text on a deeper level. One of the lessons we can learn from this week’s portion can be found in an interpretation of the midrash presented by the mussar masters. The midrash tells us:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, told Moses, “Organize them [Israel] under standards in accordance with their desire,” [Numbers 2:2] Moses began to feel distressed. He thought, “Now strife will arise among the tribes; for if I bid the tribe of Judah camp on the east side of the Tabernacle and he says, ‘I will accept only the south,‘ and the same applies to Reuben and the same to Ephraim and to each of the other tribes, what am I to do?” (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:8)

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Latest Book Review

The Magerman Edition

Author: Daniel Rose & Jay Goldmintz
Publisher: Koren Publishers
Year: 2014

The Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur is one of the latest in Koren’s growing collection of siddurim (prayer books) geared towards a specific demographic. Koren describes Ani Tefilla as “an engaging and thought-provoking siddur for the inquiring high school student and thoughtful adult.” Koren says that Ani Tefillah has been developed in order “to help the user create their own meaning and connection during the Tefilla [prayer] experience.” The name of the siddur is connected with its objective. Ani Tefilla means “I pray.” 

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