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Posted June 29, 2018 - 7:42am

Righteousness, Seduction, & Destruction

If we were to read Parashat Balak in isolation, we would have a pretty high regard for the prophet Balaam. When Balak hires him for the task of cursing Israel, Balaam tells him flat out that he cannot go beyond what the God of Israel tells him. Indeed, each time he offers up his sacrifices and opens his mouth to speak over the Children of Israel, blessings burst forth from his mouth, rather than cursing. And at the end of the parashah he simply leaves Balak and returns home. 

But there must have been something else going on, because in Numbers 31:8 Balaam is killed by the Israelites in their battle against Midian. Not only that, but the rest of the Scriptures paint Balaam as a very wicked person. The Talmud describes him as being blind in one eye and lame in one foot (b.Sanhedrin 105a). But yet he had the insight and persistence to nearly destroy Israel. What did he do that was so horrible and how was he able to accomplish it? Parashat Mattot (Numbers 30:2–32:42) gives us insight into his deeds as it speaks of the Midianite women that Israel had taken captive:

Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. (Numbers 31:16)

But what treachery did Balaam devise against the Israelites and why? 

Posted June 15, 2018 - 10:45am

Between The Dead And The Living

A cursory reading of Parashat Korach suggests that the main topic of this portion is insurrection. Not only does Korach, Datan, and Aviram rise up against Moses and Aaron, but when the LORD punishes the rebels it seems that the entire Israelite nation decides to turn against them in response. They say, “You have killed the people of the LORD!” (Numbers 17:6 [16:41]). They blame Moses and Aaron for the LORD’s punishment against Korach. This indignation against Moses and Aaron incites the wrath of God against the Children of Israel and a plague breaks out among them. However, Moses and Aaron don’t take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked. Their compassion for the flock under their care drove them to make intercession on behalf of the Israelites. Moses told Aaron:

Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun.” So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped. (Numbers 17:11–13 [16:46–48])

Posted June 12, 2018 - 6:08am

The other night I was driving my family home from somewhere we had gone and my youngest son, who is obsessed with football, brought up the topic of the various ways a touchdown is considered valid or invalid. For instance, a play is considered a touchdown if the football crosses the plane of the goal line. However, he began explaining the difference between what is considered a touchdown in the NFL versus college football. Do both feet have to cross the goal line or just one? What if a player was in the end zone, but leaned across the goal line to catch the ball and immediately fell forward and the ball technically never crossed the goal line? What if a player was tackled a few inches in front of the end zone and slid, ball first, over the goal line? What if … As you can see, the scenarios are endless. But someone has to define what a touchdown is or isn’t in specific enough terms to allow the players to know if they have succeeded or not in scoring a touchdown.

But the details don’t stop there. For every play of the game there are specific rules that govern what happens next. What happens if a defensive player crosses the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped? What about if that happens to an offensive player? When an offensive player is carrying the ball, what criteria has to be met for the runner to be considered stopped? How much forward movement must he have to continue and what about the whole thing with his knee touching the ground? When is a fumble really a fumble and when can a ball continue in play? You get the point. The rules are endless.

Towards the end of my discussion with my son, I told him he was a legalist. At first he didn’t understand. And then I said, “You’re so caught up with the rules, that you’ve lost track of the game.” But my comment was in jest. For him, and so many other men like him who have a passion for sports, knowing the intricacy of the rules is one of the things that make the game 

Posted June 1, 2018 - 8:59am

Finding A Needle In A Haystack

Our portion begins by describing several events regarding the inauguration of the Levites, the laws of Pesach Sheini (the Second Passover), how the physical manifestation of the cloud by day and fire by night guided the Israelites in their journeys, the instructions regarding the silver trumpets, and the departure of Jethro. From there we hear how the Children of Israel begin to complain to the point of even looking back at Egypt with nostalgia. Their grumblings and ungrateful attitudes invoke anger from their Redeemer, causing the death of many through a plague that struck while they gorged themselves on the meat of quails.

Amid the harsh judgments measured out to the Children of Israel for their complaining and bickering, there is a sub-theme running through this week’s Torah portion like a golden thread woven into a garment. It begins when the LORD tells Moses that He will take a portion of the Spirit given to him and distribute it among a select group of Israelite elders:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone.” (Numbers 11:16–17)

First, rather than the LORD simply placing the Holy Spirit upon these men, some of the portion of what Moses was to be given was withheld for them. Moses could have easily baulked at this idea. However, he doesn’t complain. He is content with God’s plan, even if it means reducing the portion of what was given to him. He is thankful that God is going to give to others what was, until this time, exclusively his.

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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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