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Posted July 18, 2019 - 10:12pm
Parashat Balak - Numbers 22:2-25:9

The portion of Balak is filled with supernatural interactions between God and a Gentile prophet by the name of Balaam. From our portion, Balaam appears to have been renowned for his spiritual acumen, and seems to have a close relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet in the end we find that he is dead set on destroying the Children of Israel. How did this come about? Let's take a brief look at Balaam's mistake.

When Balak's men came to Balaam and asked him to curse Israel, he realized that his services would fetch a large sum of money. He only had one problem. He couldn't speak anything more than what God would allow him:

"Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more" (Num. 22:18). 

How would he be able to bring a curse upon Israel? The sages tell us, however, that this was a mixture of truth and a lie. Truth, in that Balaam was indeed limited by what God allowed him to speak. But also a lie, in that his answer masked the greed hidden in Balaam's heart. Balaam's Achilles' heel was his evil eye-greed-as it is said:

The evil eye, the evil desire and hatred of his fellow creatures put a man out of the world (Avot 2:16)

How do we know this? Not only does Rashi and other ancient commentators mention this, but we also have the Apostolic testimony:

They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing (2 Peter 2:15)

Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam's error and perished in Korah's rebellion. (Jude 11)

Posted July 11, 2019 - 7:45pm

Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week's Torah portion contains one of the least understood passages in all of the Scriptures. In the beginning of our portion we have the instructions for the parah adumah—the red heifer—whose ashes are mixed with water to create the singular source of ritual purity for specific conditions described within the Torah. For example, it is only by the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer that corpse contamination could be negated. 

One of the mysteries about the red heifer is how purification through its ashes works. The cow is burnt completely along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool. Then the ashes are gathered up and a small amount is mixed with a large volume of water. Now, by sprinkling this mixture  on someone who is considered to have contracted the highest level of ritual impurity, it somehow has the power to transform the status of that person. How does it work? No one knows. That is why this ritual is called a chok, a decree or ordinance. It is a command that seems to make no sense to our human minds.

More puzzling, however, is the question of how coming into contact with these ashes makes a ritually pure person become impure. Everyone who comes in contact with the ashes—the priest who oversees the burning, the one who burned the animal, and the one who collects the ashes—becomes impure. This defies human reasoning. And yet the solution to the problem of one who has become defiled through the ashes of the red heifer is an immersion in water. Water, therefore, is a common denominator in transmitting ritual purity. However, we have an example of when water can be the opposite. It can also be a source of ritual impurity: 

Posted July 5, 2019 - 10:20am
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

If you've read this week's Torah portion, you already know that the story of Korah is a sad one. But there are many important lessons we can learn from the story of Korah. The primary, and most obvious lesson we can learn from Korah's mistake is in regard to humility. However, a deeper understanding reveals that his lack of humility stemmed from his disregard for mishchah, distinction. Let's explore this further.

Korah was a Levite of the Kohathite family, a cousin of Moses and Aaron. He wasn't just the average Israelite. He had special privileges that the average Israelite did not. Being a Kohathite, he was also responsible for transporting the most holy items in the Tabernacle: the Ark of the Covenant, the table of the showbread, the golden menorah, etc. And as a Levite he was also supported by the tithe of his Israelite brothers. He was not content, however, to enjoy the privileges of a Levite; he wanted the privileges of the priesthood also. He did not like the distinction between the priests and the Levites. Since the priesthood is determined by birth, Korach felt this was unfair, and his indignation ultimately lead him to destruction. He failed the test of humility because he failed to recognize the distinct calling of Aaron's sons. His name will be forever remembered and associated with arrogance, pride and jealousy.

Posted June 24, 2019 - 7:39am
Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

This week's Torah reading begins by recounting the spies being sent into the land of Canaan on behalf of the Children of Israel. Joshua, Caleb and ten other qualified leaders were chosen from each of the twelve tribes and sent into the land of Canaan ahead of the Children of Israel in order to scout out the land and report back their findings. Their job was to spy out the land, as it says in Numbers 13:2, "Send men to spy out the land of Canaan ..." As we know, ten of these twelve men came back with an evil report that slandered the land God had promised to them. That evil report delayed their entrance into the Land of Promise by forty long years.

At the end of the portion we read about how the Children of Israel are to make tzitzit—ritual fringes/tassels—on the corners of their garments. Even to this day religious Jewish men wear a special garment with these tassels attached to it as a normal part of their daily attire. The commandment is as follows:

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels ("tzitzit") on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. (Numbers 15:38-39)

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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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