Thursday, July 28, 2011


And these things shall be for a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all you dwellings.  Whosoever kills any person, the murderer shall be slain at the mouth of witnesses:  But one witness shall not testify against any person that he die.  Moreover, you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death:  But he shall surely be put to death. 
And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, permitting him to come again prior to the death of the Priest and live in the land
So you shall not pollute [tachanifu] the land in which you are, for the blood pollutes [yachanif] the land:  And no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it other than by the blood of the one who shed it. 
 And you shall not defile [tetamei] the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell:  For I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Num. 35:29-34)

This text deals with homicide and its consequences.  It begins with the fate of the convicted murderer, indicating both that at least two qualified witnesses to the crime are required and also that, if convicted, the sentence is death. 

Although the process appears to be cut and dried, the rendering of a capital verdict was extremely rare.  According to the Sages, the execution of a murderer did not actually take place more than once in seven years.  According to Rabbi Akiva, it was so rare that it occurred no more than once in seventy years.  Tractate Sanhedrin explains why capital punishment was so very rare.  The laws of evidence, the role of the witnesses, the quality of their testimony, the nature of cross-examination, and other complex judicial procedures ensured that rendering a capital verdict was well nigh impossible.  Human life was simply too valuable to be squandered.  The court was warned of the eternal consequences of wrongly terminating a person’s life.  Nevertheless, our text makes it clear that once the process had concluded, the sentence would have to stick.  Monetary payment of could not ransom a convicted murderer’s life.

The second part of the text deals with the effects of inadvertent homicide.  Six cities of refuge were set-aside for unintentional killers.  There they would be protected from relatives who might wish to avenge the victim’s blood.  Our text demands that manslayers remain in cities of refuge until the death of the High Priest irrespective of whether the threat to their lives still obtained.  There were to be no exceptions.  The manslayer’s life could not be ransomed for money. 

The purpose of these laws was to emphasize the infinite value of human life.  No price could be placed on it.  Accepting ransom would devalue the invaluable. 

The   translation I have used is descriptive rather than proscriptive. It contains no other prohibition. It simply describes the consequence for accepting blood money as the pollution and defilement of the Holy land. So you shall not pollute [tachanifu] the land in which you are, for the blood pollutes [yachanif] the land:  And no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it other than by the blood of the one who shed it. (Num.  35:33). According to the Hertz commentary on the Torah, “the Hebrew root chanaf means to act wickedly, to profane or pollute.  If such redemption money were permitted [to allow the offender to escape the prescribed sentence] human life would be cheapened and the land become wholly corrupt.” 

But the translation and Hertz’s elucidation of the text obfuscate its meaning.   They do not clarify the difference between the words pollution and defilement. One therefore gets the impression that chanaf and tama are synonymous, and that our text is an example of biblical parallelism. The classical commentators do not agree, maintaining, instead, that the meanings of the boldfaced Hebrew words in our text are different from each other.

The Sifrei, the classical halakhic exegesis of the last two Books of the Torah, suggests that the Hebrew root chanaf means “ flatter.”  The exalted status, power and esteem enjoyed by the families of the offenders may have the effect of causing judges to give a nod to their status by commuting the sentence of the perpetrator, short of actually accepting bribes or ransom money.  According to this source, therefore, verse thirty-three of our text prohibits judges from being inauthentic sycophants.  (Sifrei Bamidbar 161). 

Ramban, followed by Chizkuni and S.R. Hirsch, takes the root chanaf to denote hypocrisy.  The hypocrite is one whose outward appearance and actions belie his or her hidden character and agendas.  This line of interpretation prohibits deceptive and hypocritical activity by judicial officers who create the false outward impression of personal piety and rectitude.

Our Sages have expressed very strong views about hypocrisy.  One story is particularly striking.  Alexander Yannai ascended to the Hasmonean throne through the machinations of Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Aristobulus, who had died childless.  The Queen maintained her grip on power through her levirate marriage [yibum] to the very unpopular Alexander Yannai. The Pharisees on sound ideological grounds vigorously opposed the ascension to power of Alexander Yannai.  To stifle the popular opposition, the king aligned himself with the Sadducees and slaughtered many Pharisees.  He died in 76 BCE after an impressive series of conquests and was succeeded on the throne by Salome Alexandra.  Before his death he had reconciled with the Pharisees and offered his wife the following advice:  “Be afraid neither of the Pharisees nor of the non Pharisees, but only of the hypocrites who only outwardly resemble the Pharisees.  They act like Zimri, son of Salu [Prince of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly intimate with Kozbi, daughter of Tzur, the head of the tribes of Midian and desire the reward of [the authentically virtuous] Pinchas”.  (BT Sotah 22b). 

The Sages relate the following verse to the sin of hypocrisy:  So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun:  And behold the tears of the oppressed who had no one to comfort him:  And power rested in the hand of the oppressors.  [And so the oppressed] had no comforter. (Eccl.  4:1)  Torah hypocrites – each is wrapped in his tallit, with his tefillin on his head, but behold the tears of the oppressed who had no one to comfort him.  (Kohelet Rabbah 4:2)..  This rabbinic commentary on Kohelet is remarkable because the text itself makes no reference to cruel and hypocritical Torah authorities.  The Sages are clearly using the text as a peg on which to hang their disgust at rabbinic corruption perpetrated in the guise of piety and principle, which they liken to the shedding of the blood of the innocent.  They were probably projecting their displeasure at the pain caused to so many people by the rulings of some callous rabbinic authorities of their day.  In their judgment, the perpetrators were guilty not only of manifest malfeasance, but also of the separate though not less serious sin of hypocrisy.

 It goes without saying that their comment transcends their particular historic experience. It also condemns anybody, in all times and under all circumstances, whose unfeeling and cold-hearted judgments are clothed in the garb of piety and principle.

Understood in this way, our text delineates two separate types of corruption.  The first is manifest.  The second is hidden.  The first often involves avarice and greed.  The second has its roots in flattery and hypocrisy.  The result is the same: And you shall not defile [tetamei] the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell:  For I the Lord dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Num. 35: 34).  Tum’ah is a spiritual category.  Overt and covert corruption, avarice and hypocrisy, undermine the spiritual foundations of society and contaminate the Holy Land.



Thursday, July 21, 2011


And Moses spoke onto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying:  This is the thing that the Lord has commanded.  When a man makes a vow onto the Lord or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word:  He shall do according to all that precedes out of his mouth.(Num. 30:2-3).

The juxtaposition of passages in the Torah usually suggests an intrinsic connection between them.  In this instance, the laws relating to the making of vows are followed by the description of the war of retaliation against the Midianites for having seduced the Israelites and attempting to shatter their sacred family structure.

 People most commonly make vows when they are vulnerable or/and crisis.  When they are frightened and in particular need of God’s help, they often offer to do something significant in return for God’s anticipated beneficence.  People commonly vow to do some good or to make positive personal changes if they or somebody close to them recovers from serious illness, if they are hoping for a victory in litigation or competition or if they are in crisis.

Scripture is replete with accounts of this all too human tendency.
When the patriarch Jacob first goes into exile, attempting to avoid his brother Esau’s lethal vengeance, he is lonely, dislocated, and terrified.  His future is utterly uncertain. He acknowledges his crushing vulnerability by making a vow, bargaining, as it were, with God:  And Jacob vowed a vow, saying:  ‘If God will be with me and will protect me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and garments to wear, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone that I have set up for a pillar shall be God’s house:  And of all that You will give me, I shall surely give a tenth onto you.’ (Gen. 28:20-22).

When the prophet Jonah attempts to flee from the politically repugnant task that God has given him, his ship is caught in a colossal storm.  Jonah accepts responsibility for having caused the disaster and offers to sacrifice himself to save all the other passengers and crew.  With great hesitation they accede to his suggestion, fearing divine retribution for his blood:  Therefore they cried onto the Lord and said:  We beseech You O Lord, we beseech You.  Let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: For you, O Lord have done as it pleased You.  So they took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea. And the sea ceased from her raging.  Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice onto the Lord and made vows. (Jonah 1:14-16).  Jonah then utters a majestic prayer of thanksgiving from the belly of the great fish, concluding with a vow:  But I will sacrifice onto You with the soul of thanksgiving.  I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.  And the Lord spoke unto the fish and it disgorged Jonah onto the dry land. (Jonah 2:9-10).

War is the most common trigger for feelings of vulnerability. For example, when Israel was belligerently confronted by the Canaanite King of Arad, who even succeeded in taking many Israelites prisoner, they reacted predictably:  And Israel vowed a vow onto the Lord and said: “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities”.   And the Lord harkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites. And they utterly destroyed them and their cities.   (Num. 21:2-3). 

A similar phenomenon occurs when Yiftach [Jephtah] prepares to go to war against the powerful Ammonites:  And Yiftach vowed a vow onto the Lord and said:  If You shall surely deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatsoever will come out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s, and I shall offer it up as a sacrifice. 
And Yiftach passed over on the children of Ammon to wage war against them and the Lord delivered them into his hands (Judges 11:30-32).

These texts clearly explain the juxtaposition of the laws of vowing with the frightening experience of going to war.  But once the crisis has passed and people no longer feel vulnerable, they often forget their commitments and minimize their responsibilities.   For this reason the Torah emphasizes the sacredness of human verbal commitments: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded.  When a man makes a vow onto the Lord or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word:  He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Num. 30:2-3).
However, important and sacred as verbal commitments may be, there is a strong likelihood that many commitments are made in the heat of passion.  The person who makes a vow under such circumstances is likely totally unaware of the long-term effects of his/her verbal commitment.  Two striking examples from my rabbinic notebook will illustrate what I mean.  The first occurred in my office in Durban.  A member of my congregation asked for an urgent meeting.  “Rabbi, I have done an awful thing”, he began.  “My business partner caused me great financial harm.  In my fury, I swore on my daughter’s life to never again have contact with him or members of his family.  Rabbi, what will happen if we meet accidentally or if I do come into contact with someone who, unbeknownst to me, is related to him?   Will I be responsible for my daughter’s death?”

The second case occurred in London.  The person who approached me was dismayed by a vow made at a time of great bitterness.  He had been in business with his brother and they had experienced an ugly falling out.  Angrily, he had vowed that neither he nor his children and grandchildren would ever speak to his brother and his children and children’s children.  The years had passed and the cousins were bewildered and deeply hurt by their enforced and mysterious separation from one another.  The effects of his verbal commitment had increasingly depressed the person who had made the vow. 

Because of the unintended consequences of vows, the Torah provided for their nullification.  A father could disallow the vow made by his daughter, or a husband by his wife, if it were clear that she would not be able to fulfill her verbal commitment appropriately. (Num.  30:4ff).  The Sages understood the Torah’s intent by instituting the practice of the formal annulment of vows in the presence of a Beth Din.  If the person could honestly declare that he or she retroactively regretted the verbal commitment, saying:  “If I had known then what I know now to be the consequences of my vow, I certainly would not have taken such a vow.”  Both the gentleman in Durban and the businessman in London could certainly make such a statement before the ad hoc Beth Din.  Each was enormously relieved when the members of the Beth Din declared his vow null and void.

According to the Kabbalah, the annulment of vows goes far beyond facilitating emotional relief and creating catharsis.  Belief in reincarnation [gigul neshamot] is a fundamental Jewish mystical precept.  We return to earth in different bodies to correct mistakes made in previous incarnations [gilgulim], or to complete uncompleted tasks.  Oaths, vows, and curses that have been neither honored nor annulled in any previous lifetime continue in force in subsequent gilgulim and are the cause of unusually toxic consequences. In such circumstances Kabbalists recommend the ceremony of nullification of vows.  Verbal commitments, it would seem, are really forever unless they are properly annulled. 

Considered in this light, the nullification of vows can be as important as their fulfillment.  The case of Yiftach is a striking illustration of this truth. And Yiftach vowed a vow onto the Lord and said:  ‘If You shall surely deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, then whatsoever will come out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s, and I shall offer it up as a sacrifice’.  And Yiftach passed over on the children of Ammon to wage war against them and the Lord delivered them into his hands (Judges 11:30-32). The first person to emerge from his house to greet him after his victory was his daughter.  Tragically, he considered himself bound by his verbal commitment.

The Sages of the Midrash were astonished that he did not seek annulment of his vow.  He would have had the opportunity to truthfully articulate his regret and to assert that, had he known that his daughter would be the first to emerge, he would not have taken so impetuous a vow:  Was not Pinchas available at the time to effect the nullification of his vow?  [However] we must surmise that Pinchas declared:’ He needs me [to effect the nullification of his vow] so why should I go to him’?  And Yiftach must have said:  ‘I am chief of the general staff of Israel.  Why should I go [cap in hand] to Pinchas’?  In the meantime while each was debating the merits of his own argument the maiden perished.(Bamidbar Rabbah 60:3). 

The rabbinic take on the arrogant intransigence of both Pinchas and Yiftach conveys a profound message.  We are often unable to be flexible, acknowledge our weaknesses and errors, and retreat from hard lines we have taken.  We rationalize our rigidity by claiming that our words are sacred and publicly polish our halos without regard to the negative consequences of holding on to promises that no longer make sense. Some politicians are notorious for making promises before elections that they have no intention of keeping.  Others are guilty of sticking to commitments made under circumstances that no longer obtain.  Keeping one’s word is a mitzvah, but breaking it may be a still greater mitzvah.  The tragedy of Yiftach’s daughter is a reminder of this truth.  

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi

PARASHAT PINCHAS:  2011 / 5771


And the Lord spoke onto Moses, saying:  Pinchas, the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away form the children of Israel, in that he was very zealous [be-kan’o] on My behalf [et kin’ati] among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my zeal [be-kin’ati].  Therefore say: Behold, I give onto him, My covenant of peace [shalom]:  And it shall be onto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood:  Because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.  (Num.  25:10-13).

The Hertz commentary on the Torah provides the following background to our text:  “Filled with unsparing hatred of evil and burning indignation against a deed that was a monstrous profanation of God’s holy Name, Phinehas executed summary vengeance on Zimri and Cozbi.  That action gained Phinehas the reward of hereditary High Priesthood.”

A case can be made that the type of intervention that Pinchas made is a magnificent instance of imitatio Dei –emulation of the Divine.  God describes Himself as El kana [a zealous God]:  You shall not bow down onto them, nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a zealous God [El kana], visiting [poked] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children onto the third and forth generation of them that hate Me. (Ex. 20:5.).

Significantly, the Hebrew root-word kana appears no fewer than three times in our text, strongly hinting at its recognition of Pinchas as the embodiment of this essential attribute of the Divine.  Just as God describes Himself as passionate in His zeal to punish pagan practice so is Pinchas passionate in his zeal to punish the horrendous behavior of public fornicators.

Given the resonance of Pinchas’ character with the Divine attribute of zealous pursuit of wrongdoing, the ambivalence of the Sages of the Jerusalem Talmud to Pinchas’ act is astonishing: “Zealots can strike dead one who has proscribed sexual intercourse.” It was taught [that an assailant who does so has acted] contrary to the will of the Sages, and Pinchas acted contrary to the will of the Sages.  Rabbi Yudah ben Pazi said: [The Sages of that generation] sought to excommunicate him had not a Divinely inspired voice declared preemptively: “The covenant of the priesthood will be his and his descendants’ after him forever.” (JT Sanhedrin 9:7).

The Sages’ displeasure at Pinchas’ unilateral intervention is hinted at by two scribal oddities in our text.  The Hebrew letter yud in Pinchas’ name is reduced in size.  That letter symbolizes the Divine.  Perhaps its reduction hints at a diminution of Godliness in Pinchas on account of his hotheaded, rageful behavior.  The Hebrew letter vav in the word shalom in the phrase My covenant of shalom, is written defectively. In every valid Torah Scroll this word has a broken vav [vav keti’a],  as if to remind succeeding generations that the peace enjoyed by people like Pinchas can never be complete.

The Sages’ ambivalence about Pinchas is reinforced by the Patriarch Jacobs’ condemnation of a similar act of rageful zeal by his sons Shimon and Levi:  Shimon and Levi are brethren:  weapons of violence are their kinship.  Let my soul not come into their council:  Upon their assembly let my glory not be united:  For in their anger they slew men. …Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel. (Gen. 49:  5-7).     

The view of the Sages is not without problems.  For one thing, God Himself expresses approval of Pinchas’ passionate zeal and rewards his action. For another, Pinchas’ action resonates with God’s self-description as a zealous God, indicating that Pinchas was acting in imitatio Dei.  In his Torah Temimah, the great Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein offers an insightful account of the rabbinic ambivalence towards Pinchas.  It is impossible to distinguish genuine ideological passion from uncontrollable fury.  Although both express themselves in similar action, their motivation is radically different.  Because the contents of the human heart are hidden, outside observers cannot judge the lethal effects of uncontrolled passion objectively.  Since there is a strong likelihood that such actions are motivated by rage rather than by disinterested lofty principle, they must always be forbidden, lest murder and terror become rampant.  God alone knows the secrets of the human heart.  In Pinchas’ case, God validated the purity of his motivations.  But absent God’s direct explicit justification of lethal zeal, it is never permitted. 

Rabbi Epstein’s insight may well account for the incongruence of the rabbinic attitude to Pinchas with the clear meaning of the text.  But it does not shed light on God’s self-description as El Kana in the Second Commandment. 

Critics of Judaism have seized on the Second Commandment to contrast the Hebrew Bible’s view of God as zealous, angry and vengeful with the Christian view of the loving nature of God.  I believe that this prejudice totally misreads the Second Commandment.  Its context negates any view of God as passionately vengeful.  The phrase:  Visiting the iniquity of the fathers [poked avon avot] upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me (Ex. 20:5) centers on the word poked.  This word can be translated as “visits,” and is usually translated in this way.  But it also means, “to make a deposit,” to set aside for future contingencies.  In this sense the meaning of the Second Commandment is that God sets aside for future contingencies the consequences of the sins of the fathers, just as one sets aside funds in a bank for future contingencies. According to the Second Commandment, God suspends, sets aside, His wrath for up to four generations, hoping that the merit of a worthy descendent will cancel the moral debt of his or her sinful forbear.  Accordingly, God describes himself as anything but rageful.  The image is of great tolerance, patience, optimism, and love.

If this is true, why does God call himself El Kana?  Rabbi Ya’acov Mecklenberg, author of Sefer ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah, provides a majestic answer to this question.  The Hebrew word el means power.   Elim were the pagan personifications of various natural powers.  The Hebrew word Elohim describes God as the sum total of all the powers of the cosmos.  Therefore the phrase El Kana denotes the One who exercises power over passion, restraint over rage, control of burning zeal.  This is who God really is. 

Rabbi Mecklenberg’s ingenious interpretation impressively explains the rabbinic disapproval of Pinchas’ action, the diminished yud in his name, and the broken peace he was to experience.

It is impossible to do God’s arithmetic and to fully understand his vindication of Pinchas’ action.  At best we have to validate Rabbi Epstein’s explanation. God alone knows the secrets of the human heart and judges accordingly. But the view of the Rabbis is abundantly clear.  Fanatical lethal zeal does not reflect the Divine.  To live in imitatio Dei requires us to exercise power over passion, restraint over rage, compassion rather than hatred.  Acts of terror are never justified.  Terror in the name of God is nothing short of monstrous, and indoctrinators and dispatchers of human bombers are despicable monsters.    

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


PARASHAT BALAK:  2011/5771

How shall I curse whom God has not cursed, and how shall I execrate whom God has not execrated?... Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Num.23: 8-9).

At first blush, it would seem that isolation and radical difference from other people are curses rather than blessings. A child with a withered arm will tell you how it feels to be different, how he tries to conceal his deformity under long sleeves, how he fears rejection when he reaches out to a girl. A young woman with a squint is painfully aware that she is the only one in the group who is afraid of looking anybody directly in the eyes. Ask a young man how it feels to be called effeminate because he prefers esthetics to athletics. Which child wants to be self-conscious, excluded, lonely or hated because he or she is different?

God declared that loneliness is an intolerable human condition. Aware of the isolation of Adam, He declared: The lonely condition of the man [heyot ha-adam levado] is not good. I shall make a support for him. (Gen.2: 18). Many people choose to remain in tolerable but unfulfilling relationships because they are afraid of living isolated as mature singles in a society of couples. The drive for sameness and acceptance is universal.

Groups are governed by the same powerful drive. Minorities yearn to assimilate into the dominant majorities. The experience of the Jewish people is perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon. Its history is punctuated by hatred, massacres, isolation in ghettos, expulsions and extermination. Their religion and culture set them apart and made them objects of curiosity at best and of hatred at worst. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee was unable to fit the survival of this radically different people into his scheme of historical logic. Their outlandish customs and radical difference from western values made them the fossilized remains of a primitive bygone age. Small wonder that many talented writers and artists chose conversion to the dominant faith as their moving staircase out of Jewish difference and isolation. Bil’am’s blessing: Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations (Num.23:8-9) was clearly experienced by them as a curse.

Western Jewry has long dreamed of freeing itself from the curse of isolation—and their dream has been realized to a remarkable degree. They are now largely indistinguishable from their non-Jewish neighbors. They dress the same way, eat the same food, choose the same schools for their children, enroll them in Saturday little leagues, relax in the same facilities and share the same values.

But the removal of the curse of difference is proving itself lethal. In the past quarter century the majority of young Jews chose to marry out, and over a million children of Jewish origin are being raised as Christians. In Benjamin Disraeli’s self-definition, most of the others can be described as the blank page between the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.

The divestment of difference has had another grotesque consequence. Assimilating Jews have become even more politically correct than their neighbors. They are vocal in their support of current prejudices, even when those prejudices undermine the survival of many other Jews. They are often the most vocal and passionate critics of Israel, even when innocent Israelis are victims of terror and naked aggression, justifying the obscene behavior of the attackers simply because it is the “correct” thing to do.

George Santayana famously declared that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to relive it.  The holocaust experience should have shown Jews the limitations of the Western cultural tradition.  Jews were murdered regardless of the extent of their assimilation. One did not even have to be twenty-five percent genetically Jewish to escape the Jewish fate.

 People like Roosevelt, whom they had uncritically embraced, refused their hapless brethren refuge, and justified their not bombing the railroad tracks that led to the factories of death. 

The Shoah was the collective failure of both Christianity and the ethical tradition of the so-called enlightened Western world, but many who were spared extermination naively believed that the world had learned its lesson. They stubbornly held on to their dream of acceptance, even at the cost of the accelerated disappearance of the Jewish community, granting Hitler a posthumous victory.  Astonishingly, they were still prepared to join the chorus of the politically correct critics of the notion of a state that dared to be different by being unapologetically Jewish..

Prof. Kurt Lewin was rescued from the holocaust.  He was a distinguished social psychologist and an astute observer of trends within the Jewish community.  In his famous essay on Jewish self-hatred, he pointed out that affirmation of difference [Ja Sagen zum Judenthum] was the most adaptive response to anti-Semitism.  He was merely asserting the psychological value of the dignity of difference.  After Toynbee had publically dismissed Jews as fossils, in 1961Ambassador Yaakov Herzog engaged him in an internationally televised debate.  Herzog demonstrated convincingly that Jews had impacted Western civilization in innumerable ways, precisely because they maintained their uniqueness, producing philosophers, theologians, poets, statesmen, scientists and artists of the first rank.  Notwithstanding repeated attempts to exterminate them, they had become one of the most successful and productive communities in the world—largely because of their commitment to education and the values of the spirit.

Several years ago I was interviewed on South Korean national television. The Koreans were fascinated by the success of the Jewish people, and eager to learn about the Jewish strategies for success.  They were impressed by Jewish intellectual prowess that they presumed stemmed from their tradition of analytical Talmudic study.  They were fascinated by the role of religious practice in maintaining a strong sense of history and destiny.  It is ironic that the study of Jewish sources is becoming increasingly widespread in the Far East even as the descendants of Akiva, Saadia and Maimonides are abandoning their involvement in Jewish learning. 

Sadly, others recognize what we ourselves have failed to affirm, that Bil’am’s blessing was a blessing after all: Behold, it is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Num.23:8-9).

Friday, July 1, 2011



And the Lord said unto Moses and onto Aaron:  Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them.  (Num. 20:12).

This verse is one of the most puzzling in the entire Torah. God had instructed Moses and Aaron to take the staff,  gather the congregation and speak to the rock in their presence, so that it would give forth its waters and suffice the assembly and their livestock.  True, Moses did lift up his hand and he did strike the rock twice with his rod.  But although Moses and Aaron had not done as God had commanded, the punishment does not seem to have fitted the crime.  In sharp contrast with his forty years of dedicated service to God and inspired leadership of the restive Israelites, this infraction was relatively minor.  Moses’ cherished dream of consummating his relationship with his people by leading them into the Promised Land appears to have been unjustly frustrated.

The incongruence of the crime and the punishment has exercised the minds of the great classical, medieval and modern commentators. The all attempted to justify the Divine retribution.  I present a sampling of their attempts:

THE SUFFERINGS OF THE RIGHTEOUS:  The Sages of the Talmud (BT Berakhot 6a) offer one of their standard responses to the theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people:  We have learned that it is beneficial for the righteous not to be favored in this world.  It was to Moses’ advantage that he was not rewarded in this world, as [our text] declares:  “Because you did not believe in Me”. [This implies that] “had you believed in me, the time for you to pass away would not have come.” (B.T.Yoma, 86a).   This dictum reflects the rabbinic view that life beyond the grave is infinitely more valuable than life in this world. (BT Avot 4: 21-22) Accordingly, righteous people experience painful retribution for all their infraction in this transient world so that their eternal life beyond the grave will be without any suffering.

THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC DISOBEDIENCE: In his elucidation of our text, Rashi (1040-1105) focuses on the consequences of Moses’ public disobedience. Moses had previously expressed his extreme frustration at the unreasonable demands of the Israelites in terms far sharper than his current outburst:  Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them and be enough for them?  Shall all the fish of the sea be gathered for them and suffice them? (Num.  11:22).  Nevertheless, there was an important difference between his two deprecating comments about his flock.  The first outburst was made privately.  No one else was present when he demeaned the Israelites to God.  In our case, however, his disobedience to God and disrespect for his people were public. The public nature of his action desecrated the Divine Name [chillul ha-Shem]. According to the sages, so serious is  chillul ha-Shem that only death effects repentance.( BT Yoma 86a)
THE EFFECTS OF IMPERFECT FAITH:  Rashi also refers to Moses’ punishment in his commentary on Kohelet (7:7): For distress makes the wise man stupid.  Citing another Midrash, Rashi suggests that Moses is the wise person to whom the verse refers, and that the pressure on him was Datan and Aviram’s mocking taunt. God had sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand the release of all the Israelite slaves.  However, Pharaoh was so incensed by the impertinence of the Divine request that he increased the hardship of slavery, making the burdens of the Israelites even more unbearable. Datan and Aviram then mocked Moses for his disastrous intervention, provoking him to declare:  My Lord why have you dealt evil unto this people?  Why did you send me?  From the time I came unto Pharaoh to speak in Your name he has dealt evilly with this nation.  And You failed to deliver your people [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta].  (Ex. 5:22-23).  In his commentary on that verse, Rashi writes:  You will see what will happen to Pharaoh”,[says God] but you will not see what will happen to the kings of the seven nations when I bring them [the Israelites} to their land. Moses’ comment about God’s seeming failure to bring about the redemption [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta] was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Moses’ lack of faith on that occasion was a prelude to his lack of faith by the rock.  According to this Midrash, he had only himself to blame for the fate that he had unconsciously predicted [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta].

THE EFFECTS OF ANGER AND RAGE:  Rambam (Maimonides: 1135-1204) offers an entirely different rationalization for God’s severe reaction to Moses’ infraction. He writes in his Shemonah Perakim ˆ[Introduction to Pirkei Avot] that Moses was punished for his raging at the Israelites. Ramban (Nachmanides:1194-1270) disagrees with Rambam.   The outburst by the rock was not the first occasion that Moses had been angry.  Moreover, anger is not included in the Torah’s catalogue of sins.  Ritva (R.Yomtov  ben Abraham Ishbili:1250-1330), another great medieval commentator, explains Rambam’s rationalization of Gods’ harsh punishment.  After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses had requested that God reveal His essence.  Demurring, God nevertheless disclosed his thirteen essential attributes.  These attributes were to become models for human behavior.  Among them was the attribute of infinite forbearance [erekh apayim.] .  Moses’ rageful outburst against the complaining Israelites by the rock demonstrated his failure to serve as the supreme human role model of the Divine attribute of infinite forbearance.  This failure merited Divine retribution.

THE HIGHER EXPECTATIONS FROM THE RIGHTEIOUS:  Rashbam (R. Shmu’el ben Meir: 1085-1184) reiterates the classical rabbinic notion of different standards of behavior for different people.  God expects more from more highly spiritually evolved and morally mature people than He does from ordinary folk.  Accordingly, his judgment of Moses’ relatively minor infraction is far harsher than it would have been if a person of lesser stature had made the same mistake.    Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) develops this theme in a more mystical fashion.  The perfectly spiritually, intellectually and ethically evolved human being achieves complete attachment to the Divine.  This connection permits him access to the Divine and gives him the power to perform miracles.  Moses’ outburst severed his connection to the Divine.  Therefore he was unable to perform the miracle as God had commanded, therteby failing to sanctify Him in public.  Moses was punished because he had not lived up to God’s higher expectations of him.

THE EFFECTS OF MISREPRESENTATION:  Ramban argues that Moses’ sin was clearly implied in his outburst.:  Now pay attention you rebels.  Shall we draw water from this rock for you? (Num.20:10).  Moses had implied that the miracle would be performed by him and his brother rather than by God (Shall we draw the water?).  This was a serious misrepresentation, and the reason for his extraordinarily harsh punishment.

MOSESES FAILURE AS A TEACHER:  Two commentators allude to God’s judgment as a reflection on Moses’ failure as a teacher.  Joseph Albo (d.1144), author of Sefer ha-Ikkarim, suggests that Moses failed to teach the Israelite nation that the righteous  [tzadikim] are able to bend the laws of nature to do their will.  Other prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha had demonstrated this power.  Some of the charismatic rabbis of the first century C.E. like Choni the Circle Maker had sanctified the Divine Name by making nature bend to their wills.  Surely Moses, the greatest of the prophets, should also have publicly demonstrated this principle.

The Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Berlin:1817-1893) refers to the practice of public fasting, repentance, exhortation and prayer during periods of drought.  The Jewish people adopted these practices after the period of prophecy, once they were living in their own land, subject to the laws of nature and no longer relying on miracles.  On the eve of their entry into the Promised Land, Moses should have taught them what they would have to do during subsequent periods of drought.  His failure to do so was, therefore, a reflection of his failure to teach a vital lesson.

FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP:  Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an ingenious explanation of God’s judgment.  The Divine command to Moses to speak to the rock rather than strike it was deliberate.  To be sure, Moses had used his staff to strike the rock under similar circumstances shortly after the crossing of the Red Sea.  His audience at that time was the assembly of the newly liberated slaves.  The slave generation was used to whips and sticks.  This was the way their masters had controlled them. This is what they had also expected from their new leader, who had used the same strategy as a Prince in Pharaoh’s palace and a commander of Egypt’s armed forces.  But forty years later, Moses was facing a generation. That generation had never known the humiliation of the taskmaster’s whip and the enforcer’s baton.  That generation required communication rather than intimidation, the tongue rather than the staff.  It was a generation that needed a kind of leadership different from that to which Moses had been used. His failure to deliver this new type of leadership was what determined God to replace him with a leader of a different mind-set. 

ENTIRELY DIFFERENT INFRACTIONS:  Malbim (R. Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michael:1809-1879) audaciously suggests that Moses’ striking the rock was not really his fatal transgression.  It was, indeed, a trifling infraction. His real transgression was his disastrous mandate to the twelve spies.  God had promised the Israelites victory in their battle to possess the Promised Land.  He had Himself described it as a land flowing with mink and honey.  These promises and affirmations did not require the validation of the spies.  God commanded Moses to send them to map the best route to be taken by the conquering Israelites.  Instead, Moses instructed them to report on the strength of the defenses, the nature of the inhabitants and the produce of the land. This ill-conceived mission was the immediate reason for the evil report of the spies. Its consequence was forty years in the wilderness and the death of an entire generation.  Four decades later, when the new generation was ready to conquer the Promised Land under a new leader, God, as it were, found an opportunity to punish Moses for his responsibility for the evil report of the spies and its terrible consequences.  Similarly, after God had chosen new leaders, Aaron could now be punished for his active participation in the building of the golden calf so many years previously. The incident by the rock was nothing more than the pretext for delivering the long delayed judgment merited by the serious misdeeds of Moses and Aaron.  

Justification of astonishing divine decrees underlies all the explanations of the disproportionate punishment of Moses for what happened at the rock.  All the commentators’ strain to justify God by vilifying Moses.  There is a perennial theme.  The ways of God are mysterious, puzzling and often inexplicable.  In order to understand God’s ways without questioning His harsh judgments, innocent victims are often vilified.  This is a Biblical theme.  The Book of Job is about the undeserved suffering of the righteous.  Its author makes it abundantly clear that Job’s suffering is totally unrelated to any infraction committed by him.  His so-called comforters are convinced that he must have sinned grievously to suffer such harsh punishment.  Surely a just God could not be guilty of the injustice of punishing the innocent.  In their attempt to do God’s arithmetic, Job’s companions justify God by vilifying their unfortunate friend.  

The Satmar Rebbi, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s (1888-1979) vilification of Zionists ( in his book Va-Yo’el Moshe) is the most recent example of this tendency. The unprecedented murder of six million Jews has challenged many theological certainties.  Compared to the Nazi fiends, the Jewish victims of the Shoah were saints.  Among the six million were great leaders, teachers and superb role models of the highest standards of noble living.  How could a just God have permitted so terrible a thing to happen to so many good people?  Rabbi Teitelbaum offered a facile explanation.  Citing an Aggadic passage in the Talmud that prohibited future illegitimate Jewish military conquest of the Holy Land, he accused the Zionists of frustrating the Divine strategy for the future miraculous salvation of the Jewish people.  The Shoah was the punishment for the Zionists’ impertinent, rebellious infraction of the Divine will.  Rabbi Teitelbaum had done God’s arithmetic, and justified Him by vilifying millions of innocent victims.

Rabbi Teitelbaum’s theology is grotesque.  It serves God far less than the erroneous assumptions of Job’s companions had done.  God’s will and ways are often mysterious. Indeed, this is the theme with which this week’s parashah begins. The law of the red heifer defies human rational understanding. The preparation of its ashes defiled those who were involved in the process. But, paradoxically, the same ashes were needed to purify those who had been defiled. The Sages themselves point out the apparent absurdity of this ritual. It is, they say, grist for the mill of scoffers, cynics and deniers. The divine calculus is beyond human comprehension. God, as it were, declares:  “This was My [inscrutable] idea. I have made a decree. I have made a determination. You have no right to second guess me.”

Rational beings need answers to perplexing questions—especially those that arise from incomprehensible divine decrees. However, the lesson of the law of the red heifer and the various attempts to justify God by magnifying Moses’ infraction is clear. We simply cannot successfully do the divine arithmetic.  It is healthier to have unanswered questions than to provide facile and often hurtful answers.