I know some of you are Yiddish mavens; or at least you know more Yiddish than I do. But tell me if you know what this means: ES IZ SCHWER TZU SEIN A YID.
Yes—it means it’s hard to be a Jew.
Does everyone agree? I think we’d all probably agree that being Jewish, as rewarding as it is, is also challenging. We may be the Chosen People, but it’s a lot of responsibility. Whether it’s keeping kosher, or attending long services, or constantly doing mitzvot. It’s a lot. And sometimes, maybe especially this time of year, we may really feel the pressure. We try to maintain secular jobs and keep up with family and cooking and doing teshuvah. We try to live in the moment, but we are anticipating how big a brisket to get, or where we’ll be seated in the sanctuary, or when we’ll get out of services.
Or maybe that’s just me!
So: ES IZ SCHWER TZU SEIN A YID.
BUT this week’s first of two Parshiyot—Netzavim—tells us something a little different. Now remember that we’ve just come off all those curses of Ki Tavo, and we have been hearing Moshe’s long, obsessively long, instructions to the Jewish people about what they will have to do once he is no longer their leader. How they will have to conduct themselves in the Promised Land.
BUT Netzavim tells us that it’s really NOT SO HARD. And, after the nightmare curses that are described, and the demanding mitzvot that we are required to follow, this passage seems really strange, almost out of place. But I wonder if Moshe suddenly realizes that he’s not making Judaism very appealing. I wonder if he realizes that the people are dealing not only with the curses and the blessings and the high bar that God has set for them. They are also dealing with the impending death of their leader Moses. So perhaps he’s smart enough to lighten up.
So what does he tell them?
First, he tells them that the instructions are “not too baffling.” In other words, this shouldn’t be hard to understand. Don’t charge interest. Shoo away a mother bird before you take her eggs. Be kind to the widow and the orphan. How hard is that? And he also tells them: “It is not beyond reach.” In other words, there’s nothing here that a good, solid, everyday human being can do. You don’t have to be Superman or even Moshe to be able to follow these commandments.
And then he’s very clear—these instructions are not in the heavens. If they were in the heavens, then you’d say “Who among us can go to the heavens and get it for us?” The answer is that you don’t need someone to do that because the rules and regulations are not to be found in heaven. Nor is it “across the sea.” In those days, it must have seemed just as daunting to go to the heavens as it was to cross the sea. So, Moshe tells the Israelites: you don’t need someone to cross the sea to get this wisdom for you. Instead, he completes his speech with a little bit of cheerleading: “The thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”
No one is going to claim that observing the principles of Judaism is a piece of cake. (In fact, if you think about it, the cake has to be kosher, and the kind of cake depends on what you’ve just eaten, etc. etc. etc.). NO. It’s not easy, and I don’t want to imply that it is. But at this time of year, I think that we tend to focus so much on the challenges that this section from Netzavim is a good reminder. We can be good Jews. We can experience joy in being Jewish. Because, ultimately, this “THING” (as the Torah calls it) is close to us—it’s in our hearts and our mouths. And Netzavim begins with everyone assembled—from the water drawer to the woodcutter, from the Kohanim to the “stranger within your camp”--EVERYONE has to hear this message, because EVERYONE, no matter what their station in life might be, EVERYONE is capable of walking in God’s ways and keeping his commandments. I think that kind of sense of shared responsibility and equality is part of what makes Judaism so beautiful.
This week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo, is full of both blessings and curses. The curses are vivid and frightening, and one rabbi referred to them as55 consecutive verses of nightmarish misery and torture. Many of We are cursed with confusion and bewilderment, which Rashi translates literally as a “clogging of the heart.” We are told that “you will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark.” Ki Tavo tells us that the strong and high walls and fortresses of our cities will all collapse, and I can’t help but think that this is meant in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense because we no longer have any real bearings. Ki Tavo even threatens us with insanity: “You will go insane”—the Hebrew word used here is MESHUGAH—and that “you will be in fear in your life.” You will have a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and you will not be calm. To me, one of the worst curses is that “you will not be able to believe that this is your life.” Rambam says that the worst is that no one will even want to buy you as slaves.
There is a lot of tradition related to this Parsha. One is that the curses are read very quietly and very quickly—the obvious message here is that no one wants to spend much time on these terrible threats. There’s a story that the son of a rabbi had to laen Ki Tavo one Shabbat when his father was ill. The son later had to be hospitalized for shock and high blood pressure. The people asked him, “You hear this Parsha every year. Why would it affect you now?” And he answered, “When my father reads it, I can’t hear the curses.” Another tradition is that a number of rabbis take the curses and try to argue that they have all come true for the Jewish people. Some rabbis even single out the Holocaust and claim that Ki Tavo predicts it.
This portion is also known as the to chechah, or rebuke. It is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah and is intended to alert us to the realities of life so that we can do some soul-searching and introspection in order to improve our behavior before the coming Days of Judgement.
It’s incredible that Ki Tavo represents almost the very last words that Moshe will share with the Jewish people. And there are only 14 lines of blessings, in contrast with the 55. But no matter what we think about why these curses are so lengthy and so harsh, we cannot ignore the fact that we are still here today, and our enemies have not destroyed us and scattered our ashes to the winds. We can still experience the joys we associate with Judaism, however challenging it may be to be a good Jew.
As Moshe tells the Israelites, only today—after forty years in the desert have they attained a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
AND MAY IT BE SO FOR ALL OF US.
The Torah tells us that an individual can be exempted from army service if he is a newlywed (24:5). The Sages derive that this one-year exemption applies also to someone who has moved into a new house, or redeemed a new vineyard, so that he is able to enjoy its produce for the first time. It is stated that he should spend the first year of marriage in rejoicing with his wife. This is a very important lesson that a loving and happy relationship can be the basis upon which marriage is built. We do realize that it is necessary to nurture any close relationship that we have with another individual. No relationship is closer between two individuals than the sanctity of the marriage relationship of a husband and wife. When the husband will dedicate himself to making his wife happy, this will go a long way in that first year to making it habitual so that it will permeate the total length of the marriage for decades and decades. A husband who dedicates himself to his wife will benefit greatly when she returns the favor and dedicates herself to the happiness of her husband. This way of thinking will guarantee that the future of their marriage will be one of stability and mutual caring.
The Torah states that when it comes to harvesting olives, a person is not required to go on a ladder; he will have such an abundance of produce, with God’s blessing, that he will just have to stand on the ground and beat the branches with a stick and the olives will fall to the ground. “Do not remove all the splendor behind you.” The literal interpretation means: do not take off all the olives – leave some of them on the tree so that poor people can have some. Rabbeinu Bachya expounds on the Midrashic idea of not being over glorified and boasting of your financial status. When you give charity and help poor people, do not look for credit. Instead you should have an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness to Hashem that He has provided for you and you are able to be a giver and not a taker. Do not look for credit should be a message for many other mitzvot that we perform as well.
Haftorat Ki Taytzai:
The Jewish people have suffered from an insecurity about the future. With the cloud of anti-Semitism that is always hovering about, the Jew is extremely competitive in his or her fight for survival. Each ray of sunshine is met with caution because we know how easily our hopes can be dashed. We fear redemption because any sense of redemption is usually proved to be premature. No redemption has been complete and therefore we fear them to be false or at best, temporary. (Radak on Isaiah 54:4). The great fear that the prophet sees is that the Jewish people will develop a redemption complex. Even when it is actually beginning, the Jew will have a difficult time bringing himself or herself to believe that it is happening. Too many unfulfilled dreams will breed a heart that is incapable of dreaming and hoping. We must never lose Tikvah, hope, that we will all be ultimately redeemed.
There are so many troubling parts of the Torah, and we struggle to interpret them. The laws about owning slaves, for example, are hard to grapple with, even if they were probably pretty progressive for their time. In addition, many of the Torah’s preachings about women might give us pause (to say the least). And should we really stone the disobedient child? Do we genuinely believe that idolaters should not be allowed to live? I have no doubt that we could provide many more such examples.
These concepts and principles force us to interpret the Torah through a modern lens. And rabbis over the centuries have struggled to do that as well. And, God willing, centuries of future Jews will face the same intellectual and spiritual challenge.
But this week’s parsha has a very modern feel to it. Much of SHOFTIM is devoted to JUSTICE. Justice justice shall you pursue. The very repetition of the word makes clear how important a concept it is. And Shoftim gives us clear guidelines not only for how kings should be appointed over a people but also about limitations on the king’s behavior. These are VERY radical ideas.
It wasn’t that long ago that many scholars and politicians defended what has been called the DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS. That idea meant that the King was the direct descendent of God, and that God had actually APPOINTED the king. What would that mean? Well, it would mean that to question a king is literally to question GOD. It would also mean that the king had absolute authority over his people—in other words, there were no limits to what a king could do. And, finally, the idea of the divine right of kings meant that the successor to the throne was based on one’s ancestry. Any idiot son could (and DID!) lay claim to the throne. And that was not at all unusual.
It was only in the 1600s and 1700s that real opposition to this idea became forceful. Think about THAT—only four or five hundred years ago radical thinkers challenged the idea that God appoints kings.
But the Torah has something to say about that LONG before the 1600s. In parshat Shoftim, there are definite limits on a king’s power. First, one’s king has to be a “kinsman,” not a foreigner. A king, we are told, should not keep too many horses or have too many wives. In other words, kings should not be distracted by wealth or romance. As the Torah tells us, “He shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.” Even our own rulers (think about Shlomo) didn’t always follow those principles.
And perhaps the most radical idea of all is that Shoftim tells us that the king should always keep a copy of the Torah by his side. “Let it remain with him and let him read it all his life.” What a powerful idea—this passage is instructing the king on how to rule. This passage is telling the king (and all of us) that rule cannot be arbitrary, that rule must be based on teaching, on scripture, on the Torah. So that we know that there is always something higher than the king. The Torah (and God) limit what the king can and cannot do; and that’s a very radical idea, not only for the time when it was written but even for today.
This week’s parsha—EIKEV—is Moses’s final address to the Jewish people. He’s pretty long-winded—this begins on the first day of Sheevat and concludes 37 days later on the seventh of Adar, the day of Moses’s death. There’s quite a sense of urgency here; he reminds the people of their previous sins—of the Golden Calf, of Korach’s rebellion, of the spies who lack faith. He’s worried, for sure, and with good reason. As he tells them, “you have been rebelling against the Lord since the day I became acquainted with you.” I’m not sure that this is the best pedagogy (I know I don’t become better when I’m told about all the things I did wrong), but I’m guessing that Moses can’t imagine his people without him. I’m sure that he feels that he has to do his best to instill in this “stiff-necked” people the importance not only of NOT sinning but also of doing positive mitzvot and of creating a Jewish identity for future generations. No doubt he mourns the fact that he cannot be part of that future. Hence this death-bed soliloquy.
Most commentators believe that this parsha includes two negative commandments and six positive ones. The positive ones include the duty to bless God for the food we receive; from this we take the Birkhat ha-mazon, the blessing after meals. We are also commanded in this parsha to associate with Torah scholars and to invoke the name of the Lord when we swear an oath. My personal favorite of these positive commandments is the mitzvah to love the convert to Judaism.
I want to look for a moment at the second word of this parsha, the word that gives this parsha its name: EIKEV. Most translations, including our own here, translate EIKEV as “IF.” Some go a little further and translate EIKEV as “because” or “in exchange for,” meaning that if you do X, then God will give you Y, presumably IN EXCHANGE FOR your obedience and your faith. But it’s also worth noting that there is another AKEIV—different spelling but same pronunciation –and that AKEIV means HEEL.
Think about the HEEL. It is the part of the body that is most in touch with the ground. It is the true work-horse of the human being.
Aikev/Ekev might represent a concrete way to remind us that it’s the small things that count. The little things under foot. It’s the mitzvot that we may tend to forget—perhaps the ones that aren’t quite so colorful—that matter in the day-to-day. Not likely that we’re rushing to kill anyone, for example, but grace after meals is something we might cheat on if we’re in a hurry or just not in the mood. If we take care of our heels, the rest of the body may follow. Similarly, if we take care of the smaller mitzvot, the bigger ones might follow. It’s a nice concept. Thoreau once said “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Perhaps that’s why we can connect EIKEV—because—and AKEIV—heel. Connecting these concepts would suggest that nothing is really mundane in a Jewish life and that the so-called small mitzvot are not so small at all.
I remember a brilliant speech I heard years ago in a local Temple delivered by Rabbi Harold Kushner. The topic of that talk was “what have the Jewish people given to humankind?” Of course, he spent a good deal of time discussing monotheism, and when we read Parshiyot like Eikev, we can see just how challenging the idea of ONE GOD must have been to the early Jewish people. But Rabbi Kushner also cited another major gift of Judaism—namely that Judaism makes the secular or the mundane the divine. Secular activities like eating, working, farming our crops, repaying a debt, even enjoying sex—these are all spiritual activities for Judaism. Each is imbued with a divine aspect, and the more we see and feel that spiritual component, the more we embrace Judaism and the more we reach toward God.
So—with a debt to Parsha Eikev—we add the HEEL to the revered HEAD and the beloved HEART. Doing so means that we recognize that we walk on this earth even as we look towards the heavens.
This week we begin the last book of the Torah, Devarim, where we read Moshe’s speech to the Jewish people. That speech will take up pretty much the rest of the Torah. It’s rather ironic, considering that Moshe has always claimed to be a man of few words. But he feels a sense of urgency—he knows that he will not be there to instruct the Israelites about how they should conduct themselves, once they’re in Eretz Israel. Moshe knows that God will not allow him to enter the Promised Land. I think we all understand that Moshe has good reason for this urgency. The Israelites have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of faith, even when they have had Moshe’s instructions and one miracle after another. How can Moshe have any confidence that they will live a Torah-based life when he is no longer around to lead them, and God no longer provides them with everything they need to survive? Miracles will cease, and hard reality will set in. How will they meet that challenge?
I think we know the usual explanations for God’s refusal to allow Moses to enter Eretz Israel. Most scholars cite the fact that Moshe struck the rock when he was supposed to speak to it. So, his sin was disobedience. And others cite Moshe’s WORDS just before he struck the rock as the reason. Just before striking it, he exclaims: “Listen now, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Commentators note that that little word “WE” seems to imply that Moshe, along with Aaron, is taking credit for the water and not giving it to God, who is the TRUE source of the miracle.
There are even some who argue that Moshe’s failure to reach the Promised Land is NOT a punishment. For example, many commentators (including Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, z’l) offer a very practical reason for Moshe’s remaining behind: they say that Moshe’s style of leadership was wrong for the new generation of Jews, and that it was important for him to step aside so that Joshua could lead without being in the shadow of Moshe. I also found another argument about why Moshe doesn’t make it to Eretz Israel. A website called “Reconstructionist Judaism” maintains that Moshe’s failure was NOT a punishment but rather a life lesson for all of us. Here’s a short passage from that site:
Moses is a perfect representation of the regrets we all have at things we have not completed. Moses alone speaks to us as we envision him in his last moments, gazing at the never-to-be-attained. The image is poignant and understandable. Moses didn't fail to reach the Promised Land because of a punishment inflicted on him. He failed—if can be called a failure—because he was human. We are all Moses at our best, striving, going forward, hoping for but never attaining perfection.
I’m not sure which—if any—of these reasons might help to account for Moshe’s failure. Perhaps we don’t even have to choose among these alternative explanations. Each has merit. But—bottom line—there is no question that our ancestors were imperfect—we don’t have Jewish saints—and we are imperfect as well. Moshe behaves as we would probably behave, were we in the same situation. He is disappointed. He even asks God to change His mind and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Like us, Moshe doesn’t have control over when his projects end, when we can no longer achieve our aspirations. We know that Moshe does see the future—from a vantage point that God allows him, Moshe DOES see Eretz Israel. Is that enough? Is that enough for any of us? We just can’t know.
Even without that knowledge, though, I think we can all agree on the importance of dreams. Moshe was a man of dreams and aspirations. Without dreams, we have no hope. With dreams, we can always imagine something better, both for ourselves and for B’nai Israel. And perhaps, like Moses, our dreams are powerful enough to inspire another generation.
This week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, includes long descriptions of battles the Israelites fight, and a recounting of all of the places where they sojourned on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. But I want to focus on the first part of Matot, which focuses on VOWS. Much of this section describes when vows can be annulled and when they cannot, and we can discuss in our post-kiddush class why it is that women’s vows are treated differently from men’s. But here I want to think about vows themselves and why they matter.
Mattot opens with an injunction about the sanctity of our words: “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes . . . if a man takes a vow . . . he shall not desecrate his word; whatever issues from his mouth he shall do . . .”.
Whatever issues from his mouth, he shall do. That’s pretty unequivocal.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the terrible story of the king who vows that if his kingdom wins a battle, he will sacrifice the first thing that he sees when he returns from the war. And, of course, what is that first “THING” he sees? It is his daughter. But he has made a vow and must go through with it. Vows are not meant to be taken lightly.
Our word is our word. Promises are promises. And the words we utter are sacred and inviolate. If we disregard what we say, we have profaned and desecrated our words. That is why some people are careful to add the words bli neder—“without vowing”—whenever they say something that might be construed as a vow. That means that, should they be prevented from fulfilling what they expressed their intention to do, this would not constitute the grave offense of violating a vow. This, of course, in no way diminishes the regard we hold for our words, and the need to carry out one’s promises unless we are incapable for some reason of doing so.
Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”? Doesn’t that saying sound naïve to us today? Because we know that names—words--CAN hurt and DO hurt. We see evidence of that every day in stories about bullying, and, in many cases of the disastrous consequences of that behavior. It used to be that kids were cruel to other kids in school or on the playground. But then you went home and could escape from the nastiness. But today, the omnipresence of the internet means that children—and, in some cases, adults—can never escape verbal cruelty. This phenomenon has become so pervasive that there are private and governmental organizations created to try to educate the public and stop the behavior.
Why does this matter?
Because we know that words have POWER. They have the power to hurt and the power to heal. In our Chumasch, Rabbi Kushner in the below-the-line commentary mentions that human beings are the only animals to be able to use language. I think that that view has now been debunked—we know that lots of other animals—including chimpanzees and maybe even dolphins—are capable of language. But Kushner also notes that humans are the only animals whose language can make words HOLY. And that is something we can all probably agree with. But I would also add that human beings are the only animals that can make words PROFANE. UNHOLY.
As we approach the High Holidays, we think of the words of Kol Nidre, where we declare that any promises to God that we make and are unable to keep in the New Year are publicly retracted and should not be held against us. Though those words have been turned against us by our detractors, there is in those words the recognition that we are fallible and that there may be good reasons outside of our control why we cannot keep our promises. As we approach the High Holidays, let us pray that we might live in an orderly world where promises can be kept, where words are a source of healing and comfort, and where our vows reflect what is best in each of us.
AND LET US SAY AMEN.
This week’s parsha has been called “the parsha of just deserts,” because in it we see many examples of people getting what they have deserved, getting what their actions have led to. One, which we’ll talk about more tomorrow, deals with the daughters of Tzelafchad, who asked that they be permitted to inherit a share in the land of Israel that would have gone to their father, had he not died. This is an incredible moment in the Torah for many reasons. It shows a group of young women asserting themselves, and voicing what they believe is their righteous perspective. It shows Moshe, usually the arbiter of such questions, seeking God’s advice on this question. It shows God as a righteous judge who hears all claims, including (and maybe especially) those of the underdog. And, finally, in a very practical sense, it also makes clear that, in Jewish law, women can inherit the estate of their father. I know that the circumstances are pretty narrow, but even with that, it’s a pretty radical move for the time.
But Rashi sees something else in this passage. For Rashi, Moshe has a little twinge of jealousy toward his brother Aaron. Can you guess why? Rashi believes that Moshe is jealous because Aaron’s children will inherit his priesthood but that Moshe’s children will not LIKEWISE inherit his leadership role. Here’s what Rashi says: “When Moses heard God tell him to give the inheritance of Tzelafchad to his daughters, he said to himself, ‘The time has come that I should make a request of my own—that my sons should inherit my position.’ God replied to him, ‘This is not what I have decided. Joshua deserves to receive reward for serving you and never leaving your tent.’ This is what Solomon meant when he said, ‘He keeps the vineyard shall eat its fruit, and he that waits on his master shall be honored.’”
As we know, Moses’ prayer was not granted. Aaron was succeeded by his son, but Moshe was succeeded by his disciple, Joshua. This makes clear that Torah leadership does not pass automatically from one generation to the next. And it also gives hope to all Jews, even though God’s decision might have been disappointing to Moshe at the time.
God’s decision to appoint Joshua sends all of us a clear message that each of us can play a role in Torah study and in Jewish leadership. Moshe’s personal loss, then, becomes a source of hope for future generations. Torah leadership is not the prerogative of an elite. It does not pass through dynastic succession. It is not confined to those who are descended from great Torah scholars. It is open to each of us, if we give it our best efforts of energy and time. But at the same time, God did give Moses a great consolation. Just as to this day kohanim are the sons of Aaron, so all who study Torah become the disciples of Moses. To some is given the privilege of being a parent; to others, that of being a teacher. Both are ways of carrying something into the future. Parent-as-teacher, teacher-as-parent: these are Judaism’s greatest roles, one immortalized in Aaron, and the other is made eternal in Moses.
In the Torah portion that we read this week along with Chukat, we see the strange and almost comical interaction between Balak and Balaam. These names can be a little confusing, so just to clarify: BALAK gives our parsha its name. He is the evil son of ZIPPOR, the king of the Moabites, and he is—like Pharaoh before him and so many others after him—terrified of the growing power of the Israelites. And Balaam is a famous prophet, one who some say was second only to Moshe in the power of prophecy. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that there is some historical evidence found in early fragments that Balaam really did exist, and that he was just as famous as this parsha leads us to believe.
There’s a little passage that lets us know how respected and powerful Balaam is. We read that, as Balaam is heading toward Ir-Moab, on the northern border of Moab, BALAK HIMSELF goes to meet him. Royalty typically would wait for those they summon, but Balak’s behavior shows great respect for the prophet. It also shows that Balak is aware of how much he NEEDS Balaam. (I don’t know if this reminds anyone of another passage in the Torah, but here I think of when Yitro approaches the camp of Moshe. Moshe himself goes to meet his father-in-law, a great sign of respect. And this is what happens here between Balak and Balaam.)
So, I hope that that sets the stage for what happens next.
Balak wants to hire Balaam to curse the Jews. He hopes to wage war against them, and he believes that a curse from the powerful Balaam might tip the scales in his favor. He frequently mentions how large the Jews are becoming. At one point, he notes that they are so numerous that they “hide the earth from view.” He’s worried.
Balaam doesn’t really want to curse the Jews. He knows that they are favored by God. God even TELLS Balaam not to curse the Jews, that these people are favored by God Himself. But I suppose it’s not easy to say NO to a prince, so Balaam does his best to create some delaying tactics.
Balak and Balaam try at least three times to curse the Jews. But, first, Balaam insists that they have to build an altar and make a sacrifice. Actually, he makes Balak build SEVEN altars and there they sacrifice seven bulls and seven rams. Imagine the power of this prophet—he is able to make a powerful prince and his minions build what must have been a pretty impressive set of structures to find a way to God’s voice. Does Balaam really believe that this will enable him to curse the Jews, or does he use this strategy—maybe a little like Aaron and the golden calf--to delay? Regardless of his reasons, the creation of these offerings—three times, remember—certainly increases the drama of the narrative. And each time Balaam is unable to curse the Jews.
The reader is not surprised because we have already witnessed conversations between God and Balaam where God instructs Balaam that, when the time comes, He will give him the words that he needs.
As you’ll hear, rather than curse, Balaam becomes a poet. And his poems praise the Jews. “How can I damn who God has not damned?” he asks, and Balak couldn’t be more frustrated. Another leader might have just had Balaam killed on the spot—after all, this is a kind of insubordination—but Balak seems to feel strongly that he needs the prophet. So, they repeat these attempts, and the praise only becomes more effusive and more frightening to the enemies of Israel. As Balaam says, “No harm is in sight for Jacob. . . . The Lord their God is with them.” He even obliquely disparages his OWN prophetic skills as he proclaims, “There is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel.” In other words, God speaks DIRECTLY to the Jews, whereas so-called prophets like Balaam need some kind of intermediate sign to be able to read the future. It’s ironic that he does this, because we have just witnessed that God DOES speak directly to Balaam. But, as you’ll hear, this section of the parsha is full of these kinds of misdirections.
Is this meant as humor? As a moral lesson? As encouragement to future generations of Jews? Take a look at this narrative and see what you think.
Parshat Korach tells the well-known story of the rebel Korach and his followers. They question and resist Moses’s authority, and the punishment for their rebellion is swift. The earth swallows them all up and all 250 of them die.
But is resistance always wrong? We know that it cannot be, and we have many examples in the Torah that teach us precisely that.
Think about Abraham’s resistance to God’s initial desire to destroy Sodom. Abraham challenges God, but God does not punish him. On the contrary, God allows Abraham to engage in a dialogue whose conclusion God must already know. Abraham is not punished, even though he ultimately loses in his attempt to save the city.
We can see another parallel in this week’s Parsha, where God is ready to strike all the Israelites dead. Again, we see a leader resisting—in this case Moshe. But, unlike Abraham, Moshe actually convinces God not to kill everyone. As he pleads, “Oh, God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” This question seems to calm God, and, though a plague follows, most of the Israelites are spared.
We see, then, that Moshe is an exemplar of someone standing up to God, of someone engaging in a controversy rather than passively standing by. Disagreeing or even rebelling is not always wrong; in some cases, issues are complicated and there may not be one definitive answer. In fact, different answers may help to shed even more light on a complex subject. Hillel and Shamai—whenever they argued Talmudically—each had such a strong and persuasive conviction that even today there are Jews who subscribe to each opinion. In fact, they are the paragons of a “controversy for the sake of heaven,” where each side offers something of enduring value.
We can also play this out on a secular level. During a trip to London, Diane and I saw a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo—over 200 years ago—where one side was defending monarchy and the other side supported self-proclaimed emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Another, maybe closer to home example is no-fault divorce, which has become a very common practice across the United States. No fault divorce is the state’s way of saying “each of you probably has a legitimate argument in this controversy. We don’t need a resolution in order to fix the problem.” In fact, to try to determine who is right and who is wrong may only make matters worse.
So this gives us the beginning of an understanding of justified resistance. When an argument is for the sake of heaven, that argument—that resistance—has merit. Korach’s challenge to Moshe was NOT for the sake of heaven and was therefore without merit. Obviously, making this distinction is part of the challenge of being human.
One of the greatest deficiencies of Korach and his infamous followers was their failure to recognize miracles. No matter what marvelous gifts God gave the Israelites—the manna, the water from Miriam’s well, the pillar and the fire to guide them, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and—of course—the parting of the sea, Korach refused to see them as miracles and was blind to God’s will. All he could see was his own ego, his own jealousy of Moses and his leadership. As a result, another miracle appears—the earth swallows them all up.