This week we start reading from the book of Devarim. The book opens with Moses recalling in his own words the story of Sinai. He retells of his need for administrative help in his role as national leader. “At that time I said to you, ‘I am unable by myself to bear you/וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם” (Deut. 1:9). The Izhbitzer Rebbe* has a different understanding of Moses’ recollection. He teaches (Mei HaShiloah, Devarim 1) that this was not merely a distant memory, but an opportunity for the people to learn from their past mistake. Avivah Zornberg writes that “...Moses is now appealing to his people to acknowledge a past failure. This was a failure in ‘emotional intelligence.’ Implicitly, in his past speech, he had wanted them to pray for him that he, and no one but he, should lead them into the Land...Without their prayer—alone, unaided—he would not be able to lead them to their destination. His speech at that time had performed his solitude, his helplessness, and his appeal for their prayers: ‘I can no longer bear you alone...’ He had wanted them to respond to his hint--’I need your prayers now!’ Moses had wished that the people would want to help him achieve his own desire” (Moses: A Human Life, pg. 149).
Moses worked tirelessly for the sake of the people. He has given his life so that they could become closer to God and eventually reach the Promised Land. Yet, he knows he will be left behind, alone. Now, as he is situated on the banks of the Jordan river, looking at what he cannot have, he is really telling the people that they have a second chance to pray to God for him. Of course, the people do not understand what he is getting at. They do not really hear what he is saying. They lack a certain level of understanding that leaves Moses alone.
This Monday night we will gather for Tisha B’Av, which commemorates, among many national tragedies, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the custom to read the Scroll of Lamentations/Eikha on Tisha B’Av. The opening verse sets the day’s sad tone, “How lonely sits the city/אֵיכָה יָשְׁבָה בָדָד” (Lam 1:1). The Rabbis, in a midrash, explain the meaning of this verse. “‘God gives the solitary a home to live in’ (Ps. 68:7). You will find that until Israel was redeemed from Egypt, the people would dwell alone and the Divine presence/Shekhina would dwell alone. When they were redeemed, they became united. And when they were again exiled, the Shekhina was alone and the people were alone” (Eikha Rabbah, P:29). The Sfas Emes** (Devarim 5647) reminds us that we do not have a fully functioning reality in exile while lacking the Land of Israel and the Temple. And that is that meaning of ‘how lonely,’ that a Jew should not find a complete home in exile.
The Sfas Emes teaches that the Scroll of Eikha has in it the entirety of Torah. The verse in Psalms says, “He leads out the prisoners to prosperity/מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת” (Ps. 68:7). The Rabbis teach that “we should not read the verse as ‘into prosperity/bakkosharot’; rather, read it as: Crying and singing/bekhi veshirot” (BT Sanhedrin 22a). Just as The Song of Songs is the Torah through the lens of joy and dance, Eikha is the Torah through the lens of tears and mourning.
We can sense Moses’ tears and loneliness in our Parsha. It reminds us of how difficult it is to be heard, understood and seen as the people we are. How many of us, as individuals, have felt that our reputations or other people’s perceptions of us are missing the big picture, leaving us feeling alone? I know this feeling well. So, it pains me to hear it in Moses’ voice. And, as a people, we have a lot of work to do to unify ourselves in order to be ready for the reunion with the Shekhina. This week we are steeped in the Torah of tears. We pray for God to have mercy on us and dry our tears, so that we can once again, dance together in the streets of Jerusalem. May we hear the holy music that comes out of Zion soon, and in our days.
*Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (Yiddish: איזשביצע, איזביצע Izhbitze, Izbitse, Ishbitze) (1801-1854) was a rabbinic Hasidic thinker and founder of the Izhbitza-Radzyn dynasty of Hasidic Judaism.
**Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Hebrew יהודה אריה ליב אלתר, 15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
This week we read a double portion, Matot and Ma’asei. One of the central narrative points of the Parsha is the story of the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half the tribe of Menashe deciding that they do not want to enter the Land of Israel, rather, they want to stay outside the Land where the land is fertile and life might be easier. Moses eventually agrees to this, but the deal that they strike ensures that the tribes outside the Land fight for the tribes that are inside. Was the decision of the tribes to remain outside of the Land a right and just decision?
One midrash in our tradition tries to answer this question. “Three gifts (matanot/מתנות) were created in the world, if one merits in one of them, one can take delight in the whole world. If one merits wisdom, one merits in everything. If one merits in strength, one merits in everything. If one merits in wealth, one merits in everything. When is this the case? In a time when they are conditioned (matnot/מתנות) from on high, and come through the power of Torah, but human strength and wealth are absolutely nothing, so says Solomon ‘Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all’ (Ecc. 9:11)...And these gifts, when they do not come from the Holy Blessed One, they will eventually run out” (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7). This midrash is teaching us that when one merits blessing, then life is good and good things come in abundance. However, these blessings must have been achieved through an understanding that they come from heaven, and Torah was involved in the process. The quote from Ecclesiastes is to remind us that the only thing that is certain in this world, is not our achievements, but that time will catch up to all of us. This midrash condemns the decision to stay outside the Land, concluding that they were the first tribes to be exiled specifically because of their decision to separate themselves from their brothers.
The Sfas Emes* teaches “that the portion in the Land allotted to these tribes was ready for them. However, the Divine desire was that that portion be made ready for the one who wants to receive it though Torah” (Matot 5639). The Sfas Emes emphasizes that “this is the essence of our work/avodah. As Jews, we need to lift up that which is around us through the power of Torah, only then does it become permanent. Therefore, we need to pray every day for the sustenance. Even the one who is not lacking is his/her livelihood [must pray for sustenance]! For the essence of our service of the heart/avodah she’ba’lev (prayer) is so that no person is lacking. That is why the Sages established eighteen blessings/brachot for the needs of all humanity** so that it becomes clear that everything that any of us has comes from God, and that they never become detached [in our minds], God forbid, from the Source of Life.” On the surface, it would appear that the Sfas Emes is also significantly troubled by the decision of the tribes to remain outside of the Land. They lack a fundamental understanding of a crucial aspect of the Jewish ethos: that we seek physical pleasure and comfort specifically through Torah and service/avodah. And because the tribes do not get this, it may be better that they stayed outside of the Land, since they could not have elevated their lot without that understanding.
However, I believe that the Sfas Emes is more open to nuance than it would first appear. He specifically mentions that one must pray for the wellbeing of all, even if one’s personal needs have been met. Service has two aspects. There is the service of the heart (prayer), and serving those that need help. Mentioning one implies the other.ꜜ The two and a half tribes seem to understand this. Their pledge says it all, “Then they came up to him and said, ‘We will build sheepfolds here for our flocks, and towns for our little ones, but we will take up arms as a vanguard before the Israelites, until we have brought them to their place. Meanwhile our little ones will stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until all the Israelites have obtained their inheritance” (Num. 32:16-18).
In the world that we live, there are ideals and there is reality. Ideally, we would all be living lives fully in accordance with the Torah and see God’s hand in all that we do. This is an extremely difficult approach to maintain, even for those who are so inclined to it. In reality, many of us do what is best for us and our families, simply, because we need to provide for those in our charge and we would like to enjoy our lives. This Parsha reminds us that there is an ideal. We should try and elevate our actions and all that we see in this world in recognition that it comes from God. And the Parsha is also recognizing that life on its own is hard enough, and that if we have opportunities to make it easier, it is ok to take them. But, if we should become lucky enough to stumble upon fertile ground, it is upon us to help our brothers and sisters, so that they too may live in comfort.
*Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
**The Amidah is specifically composed in first-person plural language.
ꜜIf we are praying for something, we better also be working to make it a reality. We do not rely on miracles.
This week we read Parshat Pinhas. In the middle of the Parsha, we get the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. The Daughters approach Moses to plead that they get to keep the land that belonged to their father. They had no brother to inherit (as Biblical law would normally instruct) and they were seeking the right to keep the land in the family, despite the lack of male heirs. This story is amazing for many reasons, not least of which is its role as what some might call a proto-feminist narrative. The Daughters stand up to authority to seek out what they believe to be true.
The next part of the story confirms this. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying/וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כֵּן בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד דֹּבְרֹת” (Num. 27:6-7). Rivka Luvitz, in her Midrash, writes, “Tanot* asked God: If the Daughters of Zelophehad spoke truth, why do You not write thus in Your Torah, for are You not truth and Your Torah true and Your words eternal? God answered her: ‘Truth will sprout from the earth’ (Psalms 85:12). Tanot asked: Does it not say, ‘God’s Torah is perfect (תְּמִימָה)’ (Psalms 19:8)? God answered her: I have already written in my Torah, ‘Complete (תָּמִים) you will be with the Lord your God’ (Deut. 18:13). And I have further stated: ‘Walk before me and be complete (תָּמִים)’ (Gen. 17:1). There is truth that comes down from on high and there is truth that sprouts up from below. Happy is the generation wherein these truths meet. As it says, ‘Truth will sprout forth from the earth and justice will peer on from the heavens” (Dirshuni, pg. 92). Luvitz wonders if it is correct what the Daughters had to say, why did the Torah not say so from the beginning, only waiting until now to amend the law? The midrash teaches that God is most pleased when human truth sprouts up and meets divine truth. Combined, this new super truth is the wholeness we are striving for.
Earlier in the Parsha, God tells Moses, “Therefore say, “I hereby grant him my covenant of peace/לָכֵן אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם” (Num. 25:12). A midrash (Tanhuma Pinhas 1) teaches of the greatness of peace/shalom, since we end our prayers with it (Sim Shalom) and Torah is called Shalom, as it is written “And all of her paths are Peace/וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם” (Prov. 3:11). The Chernobyler Rebbe** teaches that to understand this verse, one first needs to understand the penultimate verse of the Book of Prophets, “Lo, I and sending you the prophet Elijah before the...day of the Lord comes/ ’הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא לִפְנֵי בּוֹא יוֹם ה” (Malakhi 3:23)ꜜ. The Chernobyler explains that the verse specifically uses the term “I am sending/שולח” in the present tense. Elijah represents our ideal current mindset. We should have passion for wholeness. Once we have the desire, we can tap into it and channel our actions accordingly. This unity is what the Messianic age is all about. This is the wholeness we are looking for. It is the union of thought and speech, of mind and body, of intention and fulfillment. This wholeness (shleimut/שלימות) is the covenant of peace/shalom that God is hoping for.
It is very easy for passion to lead us astray, from the zealous to the trivial. How many times have I been inspired and yet I cannot focus while I pray, merely muttering meaningless words? How many times have I felt the itch to go out and do something important only to flop down on the couch to play video games? How often have I been learning Torah and let my conversation become mundane? This Parsha instructs us in the virtues of passion directed properly. Once you feel it, you are in “Elijah” mode. You should be running and channeling the passion in your prayers, in your studies and in your actions. These actions, born of a union of intention and fulfillment, will bring about a Messianic world (speedily and in our days) of peace and wholeness. The Daughters of Zelophehad understood this. They had a passion for truth, and sought to make sure that their truth became combined with God’s truth. Our mission is to feel that desire and channel it properly. May we all merit to feel the passion of Elijah and Tanot, and may we see the day when our world is made true and whole.
*Tanot has become a hero figure, like Elijah, in certain feminist midrashic circles. She appears in the Bible in Judges 11:40.
**Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl (born 1730, Norynsk, Volhynia - died 1787, Chernobyl, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth) was the founder of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. He was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, and published one of the first works of Hasidic thought.
ꜜ Elijah, according to tradition, heralds the coming of the Messiah. If Elijah is here (if we have the passion) then the Messiah (wholeness) is coming.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Balak, the prophet Balaam is commanded to curse the People of Israel. But, when he looks out and sees the people, he cannot but help utter a blessing instead. He praises the people (Num. 24:5), “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your encampments, Israel/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל.” This blessing is a little cryptic. Normally, when I receive a blessing, I prefer it to be clear, and there is a tradition of making sure that when giving blessings (for example, as the bride and groom do on their wedding day) that it should be specific.
The Ben Ish Hai* explains (Parshat Balak Yr. 2) the blessing by way of the verse from Psalms (84:8), “They go from strength to strength/יֵלְכוּ מֵחַיִל אֶל-חָיִל.” He teaches that a wise person sits during the day and studies Torah in the House of Study/Beit Midrash, which is called the tent/ohel/אוהל of Torah. However, the homes in which we live should also be made holy through the words of Torah heard in them. This is the meaning of going “from strength to strength.” When we are blessed, “How goodly are your tents Jacob/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב,” these are the Houses of Study/Batei Midrashot that are filled with Torah. And the end of the blessing, “your encampments, Israel/מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל,” refers to the houses that we dwell (she’shochnim/ששוכנים) within.
This blessing, in its essence, according to the Ben Ish Hai, is a challenge. What we might see as specifically religious spaces should have an important role in our lives. We should be spending time learning Torah and praying in our houses of study and prayer. And it cannot stop there. We must take it home with us. There is no saying, “what happens in shul stays in shul.” This bracha/blessing reminds us that only part of our work/avodah/עבודה can be done at the synagogue.
As children, we had to participate in show and tell. The goal was to bring our home lives into the classroom and let our peers know us a little better, for who we are. Of course, equally as important, was that moment when you got home from school, when your parent asked you, “what did you learn in school today?”, or “did you ask any good questions today?”
The same is true for our religious lives as adults. It is deeply important to bring your whole self into the holy spaces that we are creating together. It helps us see each other and allows for deeper connections. And, it is also equally important to figure out a way to take it with you when you leave. This week, let us take this bracha seriously and try to take home an element of study or ritual or spiritual practice home with us. May every space we walk into be strengthened by the holiness of God and Torah that we carry in our minds, hearts and actions.
*Yosef Chaim (1 September 1835 – 30 August 1909) (Iraqi Hebrew: Yoseph Ḥayyim; Hebrew: יוסף חיים מבגדאד) was a leading Iraqi hakham (Sephardi Rabbi), authority on halakha (Jewish law), and Master Kabbalist. He is best known as author of the work on Halakha Ben Ish Ḥai (בן איש חי) ("Son of Man (who) Lives"), a collection of the laws of everyday life interspersed with mystical insights and customs, addressed to the masses and arranged by the weekly Torah portion.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.