This week’s parasha, Balak, ends with a troubling interaction between the Israelites and the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-9). Israelite men engage in sexual relationships with women from the very people who just hired Bilaam to curse them - the Moabites. It is unclear, from the text, whether or not the type of relationship is itself inappropriate. What is clear is that the relationship inappropriately leads the men to worship and offer sacrifices to the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed with the Israelites and sends a plague to kill many of them. In response to idolatry, the highest level of violating God’s law, and the plague wiping out the Israelites, Moses orders his legal forces to execute those who have attached themselves to idolatry. Before the law can respond, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman - the Midianites and the Moabites colluded in using Bilaam to curse Israel - and flaunts her in front of Moses and the entire congregation. The people and Moses begin to weep, but do nothing. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and, without considering the law or the legal system, executes the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in front of all the people. The Torah, whose ways are only supposed to be paths of peace, condones his actions. Through Pinchas’ shocking willingness to kill without deliberation, God’s wrath is quelled and the Israelites are saved from the plague, though it had already killed 24,000 Israelites.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9:6) uses the anecdote of Pinchas to declare that it is occasionally permissible for zealous people to step outside the law and execute their own justice. There are times when the law seems ineffective, too slow, or just wrong; in some cases like these, the Mishnah permits passionate individuals to take action on their own. While one of the three core statements of the Men of the Great Assembly was to always be deliberate in judgement (Avot 1:1), the Rabbis somehow permit zealous people, on very specific occasions, to be incredibly hasty in their actions. We know that hasty, zealous action can sometimes lead to positive change and even revolution, as many of us will celebrate on July 4. In the case of Pinchas, it saved thousands of lives. Nonetheless, his actions still seem disturbing. We have all unfortunately witnessed the abhorrent actions of those people who thoughtlessly murder others in the name of God, be it in a cafe, bus, or nightclub.
This story forces us to consider how we can determine when action beyond the law is necessary, abhorrent, or something in between. I am sure that all of us, at times, feel some system of rules to be frustratingly slow, wrong, or even immoral. We may have a desire to take action outside of that system. However, while those cases may indeed warrant an extrajudicial response, thankfully, they seldom require one as extreme as Pinchas’; in other cases, this kind of necessary action has taken the form of writing counter to government censors, marching in the streets, or harboring Jews in 1940s Europe. Hopefully, unlike Pinchas, the action we need to take is constructive, not destructive; we will see an example of this in next week’s portion, when the daughters of Tzlophchad appeal to Moses about their very real troubles with the law and its treatment of women. But our parasha seems to be a case where the confines of the legal system genuinely are ineffective. The system of law has failed to prevent rampant idolatry and leads to a plague on the people. Moses, under guidance from God, tells the legal officials to take action, but the only consequence is more unabashed idolatry. As the Israelites die from plague, those working within the system can only react with tears. It is only through the hasty, independent action of Pinchas that the nation is saved from idolatry - and thereby from God’s wrath.
However, while the Rabbis are careful to affirm that such action is sometimes necessary, they make clear that it also carries incredible risks. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a), the Rabbis teach us that had the Israelite man and Midianite women stopped their illicit behavior, and had Pinchas then still executed them, Pinchas would have been liable for murder. Further, if the Israelite had instead turned around and killed Pinchas before being killed, the Israelite, despite his crimes, would have been following his right to save himself, and would not be subject to punishment for killing Pinchas. That is, as much as we want to sometimes work outside the system of law, and as much as doing so might be appropriate, we need to also understand the risks. Once we break out of a system of law, we make ourselves vulnerable to the broken system as well. Our opponents can work outside of the law and be equally justified in their actions, since there is no codified system of justice controlling either side.
There are times we must fight against injustice and an entrenched or incorrect system, but we also need to be incredibly conscious of the grave consequences of those actions, and therefore strive to limit our work beyond the system only to those cases which are necessary and guided by our well trained moral instincts. We must, as I assume Pinchas did, train ourselves morally to have the wisdom to discern when acting outside of the law is necessary. May we all merit to achieve the wisdom which allows us to know when to act carefully and within the system and when to move beyond it. And may all of our actions be in the service of peace.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
In parashat Chukkat, God sends snakes to punish the people of Israel for murmuring against God and Moses (Numbers 21:5-6). The snake-bitten Israelites repent, admitting their errors, and ask Moses to remove the snakes. Instead of removing the snakes, God commands Moses to build a bronze snake on an ensign; anyone who is bitten is healed by looking at the bronze snake. If this feels a bit like idolatry to you, you’re not off-base--whether or not it is not in Moses’ time, interaction with the snake definitely turns into idolatry in later generations. When Hezekiah takes over the kingship of Judah, he destroys the bronze snake alongside all sorts of idolatrous accessories (2 Kings 18:4). The book of Kings tell us that people would sacrifice to the bronze snake and even gave it a name, “up until that day.” The people had been worshiping this snake for a long time--maybe even from the time it was originally built.
Our Talmud (Chullin 6b-7a), distressed by the idea of this bronze snake remaining as a stumbling block for those inclined to idolatry for hundreds of years, asks how none of the previous kings who rid the Israelites of idolatry destroyed the snake. It answers that Hezekiah’s ancestors left the snake around so that Hezekiah, by destroying the snake, would have a place to distinguish himself as king. The previous leaders of the nation allowed the people to commit idolatry so some grandson in the future could achieve glory as a leader. Idolatry represents the worst direction for the nation of Israel, so a king leaving a possible idolatrous object for the sake of glorifying his lineage seems selfish and antithetical to the entire Torah. A king who leaves open the possibility of idolatry prioritizes his family’s power over God’s power.
The Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631) explains that it was not intentional on the part of previous kings--instead, they missed the implications of their inaction. Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) expands this, suggesting that some previous leaders were actually successful in convincing the nation not to worship the bronze snake; since it also served to remind the people of the miracles in the desert, they figured there was no need to destroy it. They knew it was a risk, but they also knew it was useful, and they lacked the wisdom to understand that, in this case, the risk was not worth the reward. However, Hezekiah saw more deeply, and realized that this snake would continue to be a future problem.To him, destroying a potential source of idolatry was worth sacrificing the reminder it served of God’s past miracles. Rabbi Sofer attributes Hezekiah’s insight, as well as the previous kings’ lack thereof, to God, explaining that God prevented the previous kings from understanding that this snake needed to be destroyed. In this view, God hides wisdom even from great people until the right person comes along: a person with both the ability and the proper situation to act upon this wisdom.
Two messages result from this interpretation. First, we should not expect ourselves to have the wisdom to make make all of the right choices. No matter how wise and how good our intentions, we will stumble and make decisions with awful future consequences. We must continuously evaluate our wise choices of the past to ensure they continue to be wise in the present and in the future. We must accept that our wisdom is imperfect and continually search and pray to God for more wisdom. However, we should also recognize that each of us does have some wisdom that our predecessors and colleagues do not. The difficult part--and this is where Hezekiah shows his maturity--is figuring out where we have more wisdom than others, and where our wisdom might be lacking. We must search for the wisdom God has uniquely given to us and find how we can use that to improve the world. In doing so, we distinguish ourselves. May we all merit to reach this point.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
In Korach, this week’s parashah, three men - Korach, Datan, and Aviram - lead a rebellion against Moses. They argue against Moses’ power, but the details of their complaints are absent. The story ends with a showdown between Moses and Korach, where Korach and his followers are variously swallowed by the Earth and burned in a heavenly fire. What did they do that was so abhorrent that God would alter the world to punish them?
Korach is a Levite from the family of Kehat, and Datan and Aviram are from the tribe of Reuben. Rashi, quoting a midrash, suggests that the union that forms this rebellion results because the family of Kehat made its camp next to the tribe of Reuben. “Woe to the wicked one, woe to their neighbor,” Rashi quotes. The people amongst whom we live are important and influential and it would seem best to surround ourselves by good people. This idea is also emphasized in a story in the Mishna (Avot 6:9), in which Rabbi Yose ben Kisma is offered great wealth to move but insists on only living in a place of Torah. To be a good person, it helps to be in a place of good.
But while it is important to place ourselves amongst good people, it does not necessarily follow that having bad neighbors makes us bad. Nor, necessarily, does sharing the opinions of bad people make us bad. The Jewish proof for this in in Korach’s own children. Not only are we told in a later part of the book of Numbers (26:11) that Korach’s children did not die, we learn that they are also the composers or singers of several poems in the book of Psalms. One midrash (Midrash Psalms 45) refers to them as “a rose among thorns.” Psalm 45, which is either for or by the sons of Korach, begins, “For the conductor, on roses,by the sons of Korach.”
Another Midrash (Midrash Psalms 1) gives us a Rabbinic perspective as to what made the children of Korach a rose among thorns. It tells us that they, showing respect for their father, themselves brought Korach’s complaints against Moses to Moses. It was a legitimate complaint, too - that the Torah’s system of taxation was too difficult for a widow and her orphans. However, unlike Korach and his band, whom the Rabbis see as complaining against Moses in a mocking manner and for the sake of insult, the sons of Korach humble themselves before Moses and show him respect. They still argue, but they choose their words carefully and honor those with whom they disagree. In the Rabbinic imagination, the way we present our opinions is at least as important towards defining us as good or bad as are the opinions themselves that we hold. Argument and disagreement are fine - and, in fact, are necessary when one sees something wrong, as did Korach’s children and even Korach. The Rabbis teach us that doing so in a dismissive or mocking manner is not, so much so that in Korach’s case, it is a capital offense. Woe to the person who speaks to others disparagingly and woe to that person’s neighbor. However, arguing when we see injustice, and doing so in a proper manner is not just not-punishable, but is also an act that makes one worthy of having liturgy such as Psalms recited in one’s name. Let us judge people less by the opinions they hold and with whom they hold those opinions in common; instead, let us tend to judge them by the respect they show in presenting and espousing those opinions. May we all merit to fight those injustices we perceive, but may we learn to do so like the children of Korach: with humility and respect for those with whom we disagree.
Shabbat Shalom –שבת שלומ
Reb Joel Goldstein
Near the end of Shlach L’kha, this week’s Torah portion, is a curious story of a man caught collecting wood on Shabbat in the wilderness (Numbers 15:32-36). After Moses jails the man and appeals to God for help with sentencing, God orders the man executed for his crime. This narrative has stupefied commentators for two reasons. First, it is not clear which crime the man actually committed that would warrant his execution. While major violations of Shabbat are capital offenses in the Torah, his Shabbat violation seems to be at worst a lower level violation. Second, commentators are confused as to why an appeal to God was necessary to determine the man’s sentence since the Torah has already given the punishment for violating Shabbat. Looking at the sections of the Torah before and after this story can give us ways to answer these two questions.
Just before the story of the Shabbat wood gatherer, Shlach L’kha lays out a set of rules for sacrifices brought when someone accidentally sins. That is, making mistakes is the topic under discussion leading into the story of the wood collector. Following our story, we have the rules of putting tzitzit - fringes - on garments. The tzitzit function as a reminder to follow the Torah’s commandments. That is, the story is followed by the topic of reminders to compel us to follow God’s laws.
The Talmud (Shabbat 69b) teaches a formula for when to celebrate Shabbat if we are lost in the desert and do not know what day of the week it is. If it is so easy to get confused and make mistakes in the desert, perhaps the wood collector merely forgot that it was Shabbat. This would explain why Moses has to appeal to God to mete out a sentence: Moses is not sure if an accidental mistake warrants full punishment. But even though mistakes are only mistakes, sometimes they are genuinely preventable by paying a little more attention. As my high school teacher, Rabbi David Rue, once told me, “There really are no accidents. You could always pay better attention.” I do not think he is fully correct, but he has a point, and I think it is also the point made by our Parashah. Some mistakes are avoidable if we can just be more careful. Driving is one of the best examples where we allow ourselves to be distracted and rarely remind ourselves what is at stake. The Torah then gives us away to be more careful: by wearing fringes on our garments as a constant reminder to pay more attention to our responsibilities as Jews. Which is why Moses does not know the correct punishment for this man. Moses is not sure if the wood-gatherer’s sin is an unavoidable mistake and therefore not subject to punishment, or is it a mistake which, given more attention, should never have happened and therefore punishable? We should ask the same questions. We must commit ourselves to reminders which prevent us from making mistakes, whether those that remind us to not be distracted while operating machinery, those that remind us to watch what we say to people, or those that simply remind us to watch our elbows as we move through a crowd of people. At the same time, we must also remember the other possible ending to the story of the wood gatherer: he might have been innocent. We too should remember to also forgive ourselves for those mistakes which were unavoidable, even had we paid closer attention.