Sunday, July 16, 2017

Parshas Pinchas 5777

About Stories

When we are children, the stories that we are told are often simplified and are reduced to black and white. This is especially true in regards to good and evil, especially in regards to people and actions. However, it is only when we grow up that we realize that the world around us, ourselves included, does not operate in black and white terms but rather gray. People, events and actions are almost always gray, not wholly good or bad. We also find a similar phenomenon in adulthood in regards to things like politics and war, where great sections of the populace end up being convinced to believe in things in the same child-like terms of black and white, good and evil.

What actually happens in these cases is that as children, we are unable to yet grasp the complexity of the world. When we become adults, it is sometimes easier to revert to this child-like behavior as well. In both instances, we end up outsourcing our critical thinking to others and end up relying on their determination of what is good and evil, rather than doing that analysis ourselves. Unfortunately, reality is usually more nuanced, and is almost never black and white, good and evil.

The Story of Pinchas and Zimri

It is common for us to remain on the same "cheder" understanding of many stories in the Torah, which we are initially told when we are children. The same is true for the story of Pinchas and Zimri in this week's parsha. The simplistic understanding of the story goes as follows:

The evil Moabites and Midianites hated the newly redeemed Israelites. They did not have the military power to attack them directly, so they hired Bilaam to curse them. When Bilaam was unable to curse them, he recommended that they should try to entrap the Israelites in sin instead, so G-d gets angry at them and punishes them. The Midianites and Moabites proceeded to do just that by sending out their women to entice the Israelites men into multiple sins including immorality and idol worship. Among those enticed into sin was an evil man named Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. When Moshe and the other leaders started to judge those who sinned, Zimri who wanted to continue living in sin, grabbed his paramour - a princess named Cozbi, and brought her to Moshe. He challenged Moshe by asking: "Is she permitted or forbidden, and if she is forbidden how is that different from your wife, who is also a foreigner?". With Moshe unable to answer, he proceed to lead Cozbi with him to his tent. At that time, a righteous man named Pinchas - who was a grandson of Aharon haCohen and great-nephew of Moshe, but not a Cohen himself, approached. He was often mocked by others for also being a grandson of Yisro (through his mother). He took matters in his own hands and with a spear, killed both Zimri and Cozbi. The shocking action stopped both the populace that was sinning and the plague that G-d brought on them. As a reward, Pinchas was made a Cohen in his own right, even though he wasn't originally one.

In the classic simplistic retelling of the story, the lines are colored in black and white - the Moabites and Midianites are evil, and so is Zimri and Cozbi. On the other side we have the righteous Pinchas who was the underdog of the story. He leaps into action, does the right thing and gets rewarded. Bad guys lost, good guys win, and the curtain sets, right? However, if you look closer at the story we will find that things aren't quite black and white, good and evil, but quite more nuanced and gray, just like the real world is.

Moabites and Midianites

In the end of the previous week's parsha we find that the Israelite men sinned with Moabite women. However, it is the Midianites that end up being attacked later in Parshas Mattos and not the Moabites. The commentators explain that this was either because the Moabites motivation was fear which was legitimate, or it was because the idea to seduce the people came from Midian as the result of them hiring Bilaam. So while the simplistic reading of the story may imply that they did it because of hate, the more nuanced reading suggests that it may only have been the Midianites but not Moab.

Additionally, we also find that later on the Torah excludes Moabite men from joining the congregation but not Moabite women, because they did not bring out food and water. However, Moabite women like Ruth were not excluded because they were essentially powerless in a male-dominated society. This would seem to extend to the case here as well, where it seems that the women were forced into this episode and did not go into it of their own free will. Thus, while they may have gone on to try and seduce the Israelites, they may have been forced into it.

Zimri and Cozbi

The simplistic reading implies that Cozbi seduced Zimri, and then in the heat of passion he went and challenged the leadership of Moshe. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) tells us two facts that challenge this interpretation. First of all, Cozbi's name wasn't really Cozbi but she was called that because she wasn't true (Cozbi means "false") to what her father (Balak) told her to do. He commanded her to target the very top leadership like Moshe and Aharon, but instead when she ran into Zimri it was Zimri who convinced her to ago along with him.

The second thing that we find in the Talmud is that Zimri was not motivated by lust or passion. Rather, he acted after various members of his tribe of Shimon cam running to him asking for help once they saw that Moshe setup a court of law to judge and prosecute the sinners. It was only then that Zimri went ahead and decided to challenge the leadership of Moshe in order to save his people, not due to passion. It was a well intentioned but a misguided gesture.

We also find a curious coincidence. Our Sages tell us that Cozbi's father was Balak, and Balak himself was a grandson of Yisro. Pinchas's grandfather was also Yisro, and Moshe's father-in-law was Yisro as well. When Zimri brings Cozbi to Moshe and challenges him, this coincidence may take on a special meaning - Zimri was challenging Moshe's marriage with a daughter of Yisro by bringing in front of him a great-grand daughter of the same person - Yisro - and asking how can one be permitted and one be forbidden. It may be possible that this was part of Zimri's plan all along. 

The Act of Pinchas 

On a simplistic level, the story is read in a way that implies that the actual action that Pinchas did was a good thing. However, if we dig deeper there is an issue with it: Moshe setup a court of law and proceed to try and execute the sinners in accordance to Torah law. As the Sages discuss, the action of Pinchas was extra-judicial and lay outside of boundaries of regular Torah law. As mentioned by the Rambam, it was something that is not even normally taught for the fear of it being misused, if someone comes and asks whether it should be done we would tell him no, and if he gets killed in the process of trying to do it the other party cannot be prosecuted. It was vigilante justice  - an action taken only in extreme circumstances, and only by someone who can do it with 100% correct intentions. So while it accomplished the goal of stopping Zimri, shocking the other sinners and stopping the plague, the action itself lies outside the scope of normal Halacha as administrated by the courts of law.

Zealousness

In regards of Pinchas himself, we also find two additional incidents in his life where he was punished for what seems to be zealousness that should not have been pursued. The first incident happens when the Judge Yiftach makes a vow that ends up with his daughter about to be killed or banished. Our Sages tell us that both Yiftach and Pinchas were punished because they should have traveled to each other in order to have this vow annulled by Pinchas, but each thought that the other one should be the one traveling because of the proper honor of their respective positions (Judge and Cohen Gadol). As the result, Pinchas lost the gift of prophecy - for what seems to have been zealousness about the proper honor of his position, but not his personal honor.

We find a second incident later on, during the incident of the Concubine at Giveh, the entire nation ended up initiating a civil war which resulted in the tribe of Benjamin almost being wiped out. Tanna deBei Eliyahu writes that Pinchas was punished during this episode and was stripped of being the Cohen Gadol. Why - because he should have protested against the war plans. As commentators explain, he could not bring himself to protect the people who did a similar immoral action like Zimri.

Pinchas's Reward

While many commentators learn that Pinchas's reward was the grant of priesthood, there are others that disagree. The core of the disagreement revolves around a disagreement in the Talmud of when the priesthood was granted to Aharon if it included grandchildren already born or not. According to those that learn he was already a priest himself, the reward that he received was different (either that he would have a peaceful life or that many High Priests would descend from him).

Additional Notes

The commentators point out Pinchas was a descendant of Levi, and Zimri was a descendant of Shimon. The two brothers were the ones who acted in zealousness to protect their sister's honor during the episode of Dinah's kidnapping in Schechem, but now when Shimon's descendant sinned a similar way it was up to the remaining brother to act.

Another interesting thing that we find is that the Talmud tells us that Zimri was the same person as Shaul, son of Shimon, which many explain as being either the son of Simon and Dinah, or perhaps even the son of Schechem from Dinah who was adopted by Shimon as his step son.

We also find in the verses, that both Cozbi's father and Zimri may not have been the heads of their tribes (Midian and Shimon) but only the heads of one of the houses (there were 5 in Midian and 5 in Shimon).


There are discussions in Hassidic sefarim about that Pinchas was wrong and that Zimri was right in their actions based on Kabballah sources (see Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz, in Sefer Mei Shiloach).



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Parshas Balak 5777

Continuity Issues

In this week's Parsha, some of the characters are purposed to live a very long time:
  1. Balaam - our Sages tell us that he was also Laban and Cushan-Rashasaaim (a king that appears during the times of the Prophets). That would make Balaam live for hundreds of years. Additionally, later in the Torah he is killed "by the edge of the sword" which makes this harder to understand. Also, the Talmud tells us that Balaam was 33 years old at the time of his death and as the same time we have Midrashim that tell us that he advised Pharoh to kill the male babies prior to the birth of Moses over 80 years earlier.
  2. Zimri -  our Sages tell us that he was the same person as Shalmuel, the prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Saul son of Dinah. That would also make him live for hundreds of years. Additionally, according to some commentators, the princes died and were replaced before the story of Balak.
  3. Phineas - our Sages connect Phineas with Enoch from before the Flood,  Elijah the prophet and the angel Matatron. However, Enoch was taken to Heaven alive thousands of years later.
  4. Talking donkey - as the Mishnah in Avos writes, "the mouth" of the donkey was created during the six days of creation.
There are several general approaches to dealing with characters living such long time:
  1. Accept it as fact and a miracle deviating from nature. However, this is not necessary in all cases unless it is clear from the text or our Sages that it was the same person literally. We find this in regards to Achijah the Shilonite and Serach daughter of Asher, but it is not explicit here.
  2. Explain this as a "descendant of", or that the people that appear here are descended from the original people mentioned but aren't them. That is the approach that can be found in Chizkuni that explains that the Balaam in this week's Parshah was the grandson of the original Balaam.
  3. Explain this as a reincarnation of the original person or some sort of spiritual but not physical transfer. This would explain all the cases here, even the donkey (since the concept of the talking donkey was created earlier but not the donkey itself).
  4. This approach only applies in some cases but not here. In some cases where a title is used like Abimelech or Pharaoh, it can refer to different people with the same title.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Parshas Chukas 5777

The Rise and Fall of Balaam the Prophet

We find a curious thing in the end of this week's parsha (Numbers 21:26-30), where the Torah is quoting what is seemingly a non-Jewish book:
Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built And well founded is Sihon’s city. For fire went forth from Heshbon, Flame from Sihon’s city, Consuming Ar of Moab, The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You are undone, O people of Chemosh! His sons are rendered fugitive And his daughters captive By an Amorite king, Sihon.” Yet we have cast them down utterly, Heshbon along with Dibon; We have wrought desolation at Nophah, Which is hard by Medeba.
According to Rashi (ibid) this poem was recited by Balaam and his father Beor whom Sihon hired them to curse the Moabites [it is unclear if this in fact was the curse itself].  What is also interesting is Balaam is one of the few characters in the Torah whose writing is also found outside the Torah (see the Deir Alla inscription). What was special about Balaam?

Balaam had a talking donkey, one of the two animals in the Torah that was able to talk (the other one was the Snake in the Garden of Eden). However, the donkey was made to talk not in Balaam's merit and died right after (see Rashi ibid).

Balaam was also a magician. There are generally two types of magic discussed by the Sages, one of which is magic accomplished through a deal with a demon (see the servants of Pharaoh) and the other by changing nature by compelling an angel through a divine name or something similar (see Sefer Derech Hashem). Balaam's skill lay in the second area as our Sages discuss - Balaam was able to know when G-d got angry and redirect that anger. We also find a similar concept later on that he was able to figure out which actions can cause this anger by advising Balak on how to make the Israelites sin.

Balaam was also a prophet and as our Sages tell us even greater than Moses, and was able to talk to G-d directly. Later on, Balaam refers to himself as a man "with an open eye" and some explain that as a reference to a prophetic lens. Most prophets interpret their message through the lens of their personality which is why we find during the time of King Zedekiah that he sought out a female prophet (Chuldah) because she would be softer speaking. The uniqueness of Moses as a prophet was that while he possessed a similar "lens", that lens was entirely clear and did not change the message. Balaam's uniqueness was even greater in that respect that there was no lens at all and as we see later G-d was able to talk directly through Balaam to Balak when He pulled Balaam as a "fish with a hook".

Balaam's potential laid in the fact that if another nation were to accept the Torah, he would have served the same function as Moses in transmitting that message. However, he choose not to pursue that mission and instead ended up trying to hurt the people of G-d by advising Pharaoh, then by going to curse them and later on giving advice to Balak on how to make them sin.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Parshas Korach 5777

Who Got the Land of Korach's Company?

The Torah writes (Numbers 16:32):
and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 118b) states:
Abaye said to him: We are referring to the protesters who were among the assembly of Korah. This term is not referring to all those who protested, but rather to the 250 individuals who protested along with Korah, and it is their portions of land that Joshua and Caleb received.
(Korach himself was a Levite and did not get land, plus his sons survived and they probably got whatever portion of Levite cities he was supposed to get)

When Did Korach Get His Name?

The Zohar writes (3:49a):
When did he get the name Korach? At the time he was shaved [like all the other Levites]. At the time that Korach saw his head without any hair and he saw Aaron adorned with royal garments, it became light in his eyes and he became jealous of Aaron
(see also our previous post about his name being the same as the grandson of Esau)

What Was Korach's Job?

The Midrash writes (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:15):
Korach was the treasurer of household of Pharaoh and in his hands he held the keys to all of the treasuries
Midrash also writes (ibid 18:3):
Our Sages say: Korach was a wise person and he was from the carriers of the Ark

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Parshas Shlach 5777

Why Did Moses Sends the Spies from the South?

The Torah writes (Numbers 13:17):
When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country,
Bekhor Shor (ibid):
They were near the south of the Land of Israel and he told them to go through the Negeb which was near by
Sforno (ibid):
Moses wanted them to commence their mission from the very spot the Israelites found themselves in at this time, i.e. in the south of the land of Canaan. He considered that at this point entry into the land of Canaan would not present any difficulty and they would not have to travel around the country inn order to enter from a more distant location.
Rashi (ibid):
It (the South) was the worst part of the Land of Israel. He bid them spy this out first because such is the way of merchants: they show a prospective purchaser the inferior goods first, and afterwards they show the best 
The Traveling Staff
Rabeinu Bachya (ibid) writes:

Moses gave them his staff in order to safe them from their hands

Related Posts

See also our previous posts relevant to this parsha:
 [Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Parshas Behaaloscha 5777

What Did Miriam Tell Aron about Their Brother?

The Torah writes (Numbers 12:1-2)
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The LORD heard it.
Rashi (ibid) - he divorced his wife:
THAT HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN, and had now divorced her.
and (ibid) - he separated from his wife:
And whence did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife (for this was the statement she made; cf. Rashi below)? R. Nathan answered: “Miriam was beside Zipporah When it was told to Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (Numbers 11:17). When Zipporah heard this, she exclaimed, Woe to the wives of these if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just has my husband has separated from me!” It was from this that Miriam knew about it, and she told it to Aaron.
Daas Zekeinim:
“for he had married a woman from the land of Cush.” (Ethiopia) According to Moses’ biography, Moses had been king in that country and his wife had been a queen in her own right previously. Moses had ruled over that land for a period of forty years (before coming to Midian) This is why the Torah reported Miriam and Aaron as speaking critically only of Moses (“did G–d only speak with Moses?”) They thought that seeing that G–d had spoken with Moses, Moses had felt that no Jewish woman was good enough for him to marry, i.e. that he had given himself airs. They did not criticise Moses for having married Tzipporah, as he had done so in circumstances when he was a refugee from Egyptian justice at the time.

Chizkuni:
they wondered why Moses had chosen this point in time to separate from Tzipporah and concluded that it was because she wasn't beautfiul, and they could not understand that he had married her in the first place seeing that she had always been that way.
And:
A different interpretation of this line: She had been a queen in her land, the land of Kush. This would fit with what we have read in Chronicles that Moses had been a King in that land. At the time, he had to marry a local woman. Now there was no need for him to remain married to a Kushite woman. 

Several Points about the Story of Miriam

  • The definition of the words "אשה כושית" has several possibilities but the simplest is that it was someone from the land or the people of Cush
  • That is a problem if Tzipporah is the person referenced here since her father, Jethro, was from Midian who was one of the sons of Abraham. There are several possible solutions:
    • it does in fact refer to her, but the word doesn't mean "someone from Cush".
    • it does refer to her since her mother was from Cush (see Rokeach)
    • it refers to Moses's first wife who was the Queen of Cush
    • Midrash states that Tzipporah and Basiah, the daughter of Pharaoh, were twins who were abandoned in the marketplace and adopted by Jethro and Pharaoh. This way these still could have been originally from Cush.
  • What was the issue that Miriam noticed?
    • According to Rashi it was that Moses separated or divorced his wife
    • According to other opinions above, it was that as if Moses was too important to marry someone Jewish
    • Or that he should be marrying someone Jewish now that he has the opportunity
  • How did Miriam know this and why is this story placed here?
    • According to Rashi it was she overheard Tzipporah saying that during the story of Eldad and Medad (who were Moses's half brothers)
    • It is also possible she hard about her lineage from Jethro's family that was just here
[Published at parshapeople.blogspot.com / Comments welcome to parsha-people@publishyoursefer.com]

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Parshas Bamidbar 5777 / Shavuos 5777

Why Were Levites Counted from the Age of 30 Days and not 20 Years?

The Torah writes (Numbers 3:15):
Record the Levites by ancestral house and by clan; record every male among them from the age of one month up.
Chizkuni (ibid) answers:
The reason why they were not counted from twenty years and up is that they would not participate in any wars, and from 30 days of age and up they could be used to redeem firstborns of the other tribes. A first born son of any tribe became viable at the age of 30 days.

Why Didn't the Levites Get Any Land?

The Torah writes (Numbers 3:12):
I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.
Chizkuni (ibid) answers:
these firstborns also had not been intended to inherit ancestral fields, ever, as they were meant to be the priests in their respective families. When the Levites were appointed to perform the tasks previously meant to be performed by the firstborn, they forfeited their claim to ancestral heritage in the Land of Israel, and the firstborns, after redemption, could then lay claim to ancestral territory as did all the non firstborn.

What Was Drawn on the Flags of the Tribes?

The Torah writes (Numbers 2:2):
The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.
Rashbam (ibid) writes:
There was a symbol on every flag, as for instance, the picture of a lion on the flag of the tribe of Yehudah, or that of an ox on the flag of the tribe of Joseph.
Ramban (ibid) writes:
Each banner was a cloth dyed with a dye, and the dye of this one was not the same as the dye of that one. Each one's dye was colored like their stone from the breastplate [worn by the High Priest]
Tur ha-HaAruch (ibid) writes:
Rashi explains that each flag had coloured insignia woven or embroidered on it reflecting the appearance of the respective gemstone of the tribe on the breastplate of the High Priest. Ibn Ezra writes that each flag had a pattern that easily identified the tribe it belonged to; (possibly reflecting the definitions used by Yaakov when he had blessed his sons before his death.) They could also have reflected the images seen by the prophet Ezekiel in his famous vision of the merkavah.
Bereishis Rabbah (2:7) describes the flags
  • Reuben - red flag with mandrakes on it [that he picked for his mother] [see below where it says it was also a person]
  • Simon - green flag with the city of Shechem [because he conquered that city to rescue his sister]
  • Levi - flag that was 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 red and it has a picture of Urim veTumim [because they had the priesthood[
  • Judah - blue flag like the sky with a picture of a lion [from Jacob's blessing]
  • Issachar - very dark blue (almost black), and pictures of the sun and the moon [because they were wise in astronomy]
  • Zebulun - white like the moon with a picture of a ship [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Dan - somewhat blue with a picture of a snake [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Gad - the color was white and black mixed with pictures a military encampment [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Naftali - light red like diluted wine with a picture of a deer or gazelle [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Asher - gem-like white with a picture of an olive tree [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Joseph - black with a picture of two animals, for Menashe and Ephraim (an ox, and a wild ox or a unicorn - re'eim [based on Jacob's blessing]
  • Benjamin - a multicolored flag containing the colors of all the other flags with a picture of wolf [based on Jacob's blessing]
Midrash Bereishis Rabbah as cited by the Chizkuni (ibid) states:
the flags had the names of the (fore)father’s houses inscribed upon them. How did this work? On the flag of Reuven there was an inscription אי׳י, the respective first letters of the names of the patriarchs אברהם, יצחק, יעקב. On the second flag (there were four flags, for each army group of four tribes.) there were inscribed the letters בצ׳ע, the second letter in the names of each of the three patriarchs. The third flag would have the letters רח׳ק representing the third letter in the respective names of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and the fourth flag the letters מק׳ב, representing the last letters each in their names. The letter ה which had been added to Avraham’s name, would be represented by the protective cloud that rested above the Israelites and protected them against nosy intruders during all the years they were in the desert. An alternate interpretation of the line: באותות לבית אבותם. The flag of the camp of Reuven had the outline of a human being in red colour, matching the colour of his stone on Aaron’s breastplate. It represented the mandrakes Reuven had found in the field and brought to his mother Leah, which the latter had traded for an extra night with her husband. (Genesis chapter 30) These mandrakes were shaped like a human being. The outline of a lion was drawn or stitched ion the flag of Yehudah, who was called: “lion” in the Torah by his father (Genesis 49,9) The colour of that outline was turquoise as was the colour of his gem on Aaron’s breastplate. The flag of Ephrayim showed the outline of an ox, whom his father Joseph had reputedly called שור, ox, (Deuteronomy 33,17) The colour of that outline was onyx, as was the colour of his gemstone on the breastplate of Aaron. On the flag of Dan there was the outline of an eagle, coloured in a variety of colours, iridescent, as the gemstone that represented the tribe of Dan on Aaron’s breastplate. (Ibn Ezra) The Tabernacle located in the centre, was flanked by all these camps, and was a symbol of the holy angels called chayot, which surround the throne of G-d forming a square. The various nations learned from the Israelites to make tablecloths and the like in a variety of colours.

Shavuos 5777

The many ways to described a relationship between G-d and the Jewish people:
  • Like one between a king and his servant, or master and his slave
  • Like one between a parent and a child
  • Like one between spouses
  • Like one between two countries making a treaty
All of these are found in our everyday lives which serve as examples for us

[Published by parshapeople.blogspot.com]