Friday, July 16, 2021

Lacking Nothing - A Path to Life Success

Parshat Devarim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Towards the beginning of Devarim Chapter 2 we read of the ways in which the Israelites were instructed to relate to Eisav’s descendants – their cousins! You are not to enter their land, you are not to take any food from them. You may purchase food and water from them. But Mt Seir is theirs!, so don’t even think about conquering that land for yourselves. 
 In this context, Moshe further recounts how “God has blessed you in all that you do, knowing your journey through this vast wilderness. These 40 years God has been with you, you have lacked nothing.” (2:7) 

On a simple level, Moshe is certainly referencing the fact that the clothes and shoes of the Israelites didn’t wear out (Devarim 29:4), and how there was an endless supply of manna and water, as well as meat available and accessible – whether from the birds God sent their way, or the animals that traveled with the people through their sojourn in the wilderness. 

Hadar Zekenim notes that “you had the means to purchase whatever you needed” along the way. 

Owing to the fact that we always read this parsha during the Nine Days, and specifically on the Shabbos before Tisha B’Av, the Chassidic masters would read into this statement a greater message regarding the relationship of God and the Jewish people. The Kozhnitzer Maggid would note that the wilderness is a metaphor for living through dark times, and that the verse is showing that even in such dark times as the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, God is with us. If He could lead our ancestors through the wilderness, through places that no humans walked, or could certainly survive for 40 years, He can be with us through this time as well. 

The Slonimer Rebbe took this a step further suggesting that any travail a Jew goes through should be looked at through the lens of comparing it to 40 years in the wilderness. Through believing that God is with you, one should easily come to the realization that you therefore lack nothing. 

The Apte Rebbe (also known as the “Ohaiv Yisrael” per the title of his book) quoted a Midrash that “There wasn’t a holiday in Israel like the day the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed.” 

אוהב ישראל דברים שבת חזון 
י"ל אשר שבת חזון הוא יותר גדול במעלה מכל שבתות השנה. על דרך שנשאלתי פעם אחת לבאר המדרש דאיתא שם לא היה יום מועד לישראל כיום שנחרב בית המקדש עד כאן והוא פלא. וכבר עמד בזה בעל המחבר משנה למלך בספרו הטהור פרשת דרכים עיין שם. אמנם בשום שכל והערת לב. יש לומר בזה על דרך מאמר חכמינו ז"ל (יבמות סב ב) חייב אדם לפקוד את אשתו בשעה שיוצא לדרך. והמשכיל יבין. דוגמא לזה תמצא בפרשת ויגש על פסוק (בראשית מו, א) ויסע ישראל וכל אשר לו גו' יעויין שם ובפרט כשחל יום טי"ת באב בשבת והבן היטב: 

He quotes R Yehuda Roseannes (author of the Mishneh L’Melekh on the Rambam) who speaks of this topic in his book “Parshas Derachim.” While I could not find the exact quote there, what might be the reference he makes is to the passage on Parshat Shmini (can be found on page ק here: https://hebrewbooks.org/48331) in which the author describes how Moshe could not build the Beis HaMikdash because then it could not be destroyed (an idea found in many places). But the idea that the Beis Hamikdash could be destroyed is what guaranteed that the generation that died in the wilderness would have a chance to enter the land at the time of the Final Redemption. This relates to the verse we are familiar with from the first paragraph of Kabbalas Shabbos (Tehillim 95) 

10Forty years I quarreled with a generation, and I said, "They are a people of erring hearts and they did not know My ways."

11For which reason I swore in My wrath, that they would not enter My resting place.

  יאַרְבָּעִ֚ים שָׁנָ֨ה | אָ֘ק֚וּט בְּד֗וֹר וָֽאֹמַ֗ר עַ֚ם תֹּעֵ֣י לֵבָ֣ב הֵ֑ם וְ֜הֵ֗ם לֹא־יָֽדְע֥וּ דְרָכָֽי:

יאאֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥עְתִּי בְאַפִּ֑י אִם־יְ֜בֹא֗וּן אֶל־מְנֽוּחָתִֽי:


This passage indicates that the generation which died in the wilderness may not have been ever welcome to come into the land, even in some era of a Final Redemption, had there not been an overturning of their judgment. 

In this light, the Apte Rebbe seems to be suggesting that the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash overturned this thought in Tehillim, and was therefore one of the most noteworthy מועדים. The additional comment by the Apte Rebbe, about the moment of departure between husband and wife, can perhaps be understood in this light as well: before parting ways through an exile, God made it clear through the destruction of the house and not the people that the relationship would remain intact despite the separation of time and distance. 

The Slonimer Rebbe took the Apte Rebbe’s teaching and explained it as a demarcation of the relationship between God and Israel as being parallel to that of a parent and children. Were Israel simply a nation “chosen” by God, God could decide to reject them and choose another people, just as any king can find a different people over which to rule. But, just as one does not reject one’s children no matter how far they may stray, in designating Israel as His children – through destroying their building rather than destroying them – God demonstrated that they were not to be rejected no matter what the future would bring. 

Furthermore, the fact that the verse says יָדַ֣ע לֶכְתְּךָ֔ אֶת־הַמִּדְבָּ֥ר הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה - that God has known your journey in this wilderness – is a further hint to both the connection spoken of by the Slonimer Rebbe as well as the one hinted to by the Apte Rebbe. ידיעה, knowledge, in the Biblical sense, references a very deep and intimate connection. In the case of God and the Jewish people, that intimacy spans time, place, space, distance, sin, error, rejection, exile. 

The Slonimer Rebbe concludes his essay right where he began. If you have God on your side, through all the challenges and darkness you face in life, you will find in the end that you never lacked for anything. 

May this feeling be one we come to appreciate through all the challenges that life throws our way – not only in the lead-in to Tisha B’Av, but in all we experience, may we always feel that because God is with us, everything will be OK. 

לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי

Friday, July 9, 2021

A Nine Days Message?

 Parshat Matos-Masei

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The source for our need to kasher (kosherize) and toivel (immerse in a mikveh) pots for cooking is the tale of the war with Midian, as appears in our parsha (31:21-24). In the book Shaar-Bas-Rabim, the author notes the question of Ramban – why was there a rule to kasher these items in the context of this war, but not in the context of the previous wars with the Emorite kings, Sichon King of Cheshbon, and Og King of Bashan? 

Shaar-Bas-Rabim answers the question through looking at the concept of kashering as a metaphor for other kinds of purging. Halakhically, the way one kashers a metal pot that has been used for non-kosher, or has been accidentally used for dairy (if a meat pot) or for meat (if a dairy pot) is usually to clean it thoroughly, then wait at least 24 hours, then burn out the absorbed flavors through the same method used to have them absorb into the pot. An additional method for removing the absorbed flavors is through boiling bleach or ammonia in the pot (noten ta’am lifgam), thereby rendering any absorbed flavors as having been neutralized. (Wash thoroughly and boil again with water afterwards to neutralize that agent!) 

The metaphor of kashering/purging can be implied from the word utilized in Elazar’s depiction of the rules of kashering – when he spoke to those who were הבאים למלחמה – those coming “to” war after the war was already over. The “war” was a personal one – what kind of credit will you be taking for the success in the battlefield? This is the war “to which” they were coming – the war against the yetzer hara, the inclination that tries to convince them that they are responsible for their own successes. 

In many examples in the Torah and books of Navi, it is not always numbers alone which are the decisive factor in any battle. In fact, sometimes it is the underwhelming number who bring about a victory or a salvation. Sometimes it is the merit of the righteous who go out to battle which brings about a salvation or victory. 

The difference between the battles with Sichon and Og v. the battle with Midian is that in the former battles the entire nation went to fight against, while against Midian it was a select group of 12,000, 1,000 soldiers per tribe (31:5). In the former, they could look at their sheer numbers and explain away their victory as not having been something they achieved because of any special merit. But after the battle with Midian, they simply couldn’t say that. Firstly their numbers were tiny, and secondly the selective nature of who went out to fight would seem to indicate they were chosen for their merits as well. 

When the entire nation goes out to war, the righteous and the not-as-righteous, no one can argue that it is the merit of any part of the nation that brought a salvation because all people were included in the battel. 

In the battle with Midian, however, there is a concern that those elite few will have their victory get to their head. The rules of purging forbidden flavors from the captured pots was thus a metaphor for these soldiers to purge such thoughts from their minds, to remember that while their success in the battlefield is partly on account of their merits, that should not get them thinking that it is ALL in their merits. “Purge such thoughts,” Elazar was telling them. “Purify the heart, cleanse it from anything that might get you to forget God’s role in all of this.” 

On the one hand, perhaps this notion can serve as a source of encouragement for us, that even when we have question as to the need to kasher something that is brand new (which is accomplished by dipping it briefly in a mikveh) our action is meant to remind us that we too need a cleansing, that we too need to be purified on a regular basis through doing an action that demonstrates our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. 

On the other hand, it could serve as a reminder that even when we are righteous, we constantly have a battle with the yetzer hara who tries to destroy us. 

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman was once asked, “You moved around studying in different yeshivas in your formative years. Who did you consider to be your Rebbe Muvhak (your main teacher)?” His answer was, “My main rebbe is the yetzer hara. I am still trying to not listen to what he teaches me.” 

When we consider the statement that “any generation that does not live to see the rebuilding of the Temple is as if they’ve witnessed its destruction” we must always ask ourselves why we do not merit? What are we, the collective Jewish people, still doing wrong? 

Like the full nation that went out to war against Sichon and Og, perhaps our collective hearts are not yet pure enough to be worthy to see the final redemption. Perhaps seeing this kashering of pots as the metaphor we need for purging evil inclinations and impurity from our hearts is a good step towards reaching our communal goals that will help us achieve redemption.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Free to Serve God – a Nod to Liberty and Independence

Weekend of July 4th (coinciding with Parshat Pinchas)

by Rabbi Avi Billet

On this July 4th weekend, it is appropriate to consider what the Declaration of Independence meant for the United States, and what it came to mean for the world. One of the most-oft quoted lines from that document is “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” 

These Rights are completely in consonance with Judaism, as we have the exhortation to choose Life (ובחרת בחיים), to embrace Liberty (בחירה חפשית – within reasonable societal parameters), and to serve God with joy (עבדו את ה' בשמחה, and rebuke comes תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' א-לקיך בשמחה). Of course the “Pursuit of Happiness” can be interpreted in different ways, but it can also be subsumed under Life and Liberty – if we have those two, then the pursuit of Happiness is open to us as well. 

The Braisa in Avos (6:2) says “שאין לך בן חורין אלא מי שעוסק בתלמוד תורה.” Only one who delves into Torah study is truly free. In Meseches Kala Rabasi (5:3) the question is asked how can this be so? After all, one who studies Torah is rewarded! If one is paid for what one is doing, one is not free - one is beholden to the customer, to the consumer, or to the boss who dictates whatever is the job at hand. Even the person who works alone and makes one's own hours still needs to satisfy those who are being serviced and who provide the income the person needs.

Perhaps an answer, also from Avos, is the teaching of Antigonos of Socho (1:3), when it comes to Torah study and mitzvos fulfillment: “Do not be like a person who works in order to receive a reward from the Master. Rather be as one who works for no reward, and simply Fear Heaven.” If we’re not getting paid, we are not hired or owned by anyone, we are truly free. A volunteer may walk away at any time, though those who voluntarily choose God are free in their decision making. 

A related teaching of liberty comes in the context of understanding the song of Parshat Chukas - ממתנה נחליאל ומנחליאל במות – as recording in Tanna D’bei Eliyahu Zuta. There it says that the only person who is free is the one over whom the angel of death has no dominion. While this might be true in the realm of thought, in the realm of reality, find a person who will not die one day! 

So we turn to Rabbi Moshe Alshikh on Koheles (10:16) who writes the following: 

“It is known that when one is beholden to his evil inclination, he is like a slave who serves. But when one is beholden to his good inclination and does his will, he is actually called a בן חורין and not one who is enslaved. There is none as free as the person who involves himself with Torah and Mitzvos, because the one who follows his good inclination is in fact doing the will of his Creator. A human is a tiny portion of God – which makes him his own servant (he works for himself) which is the ultimate definition of freedom.” 

In essence, freedom is defined by Alshikh as being free of the shackles of the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) (opening comment on Kohelet 10:17). 

Kli Yakar on Mishpatim 21:7 hones in on this concept through his analysis of the Eved Ivri (the Hebrew slave/indentured servant), noting that freedom for people in the nations of the world comes when they can finally do what they want. A slave goes “free” if he is injured by his master. Or, perhaps we can make that argument more contemporary, that a worker is “free” when he retires and no longer needs his boss to pay him (and when his boss can no longer make demands). But the Jew who is involved in Torah says “I choose my master.” The Jew who is involved in Torah says “I work until I have what I need, and then I choose to involve myself with Torah.” The choice to do this, to feed the cravings of the soul – to engage in Torah study and involve oneself in the performance of mitzvos – is the ultimate form of freedom. The only thing dictating what I do are the leanings of my own soul, which allows me to do what I want to do within a system of my choosing. 

To summarize, we have three ideas of freedom 
1. One who involves oneself in Torah 
2. One who is free from the dominion of the angel of death 
3. One who is free from the ruling power of the evil inclination 

The Kli Yakar’s teaching helps us understand that all of this really means that freedom is the right to choose. Understanding that that phrase has been co-opted (in some ways) for political means, the idea of choosing doesn’t mean anarchy. Even the founders of this nation noted “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…” 

There need to be rules. And the rules will often allow much freedom until the point of harming someone else and impinging on someone else’s right to life, liberty, and pursuing happiness. The rules which overstep what should be their own limitations are rules which should never be made in the first place. 

One of my drama teachers taught us his understanding of what freedom of expression looks like on stage, in a method he channeled from a certain outlook on what halakha is supposed to mean. “If you want to give a cow freedom, put a fence around the meadow.” What is being articulated is that there needs to be a framework in which one lives out one’s freedom, but within that framework, there is much freedom as to how one goes about one’s existence. [A character in a theatrical production is given lines, blocking (movement), and the size and limitations of the stage. How the lines are read and delivered, how the body moves, the cadence of the story telling – all of that changes per each person’s interpretations – giving each performer much freedom, while still working with other people.] 

What about being free from the dominion of the angel of death? One could argue that we aren’t truly free in that sense since we know he is always lurking. But how much do we let that fear run and control our lives? There’s a reason why those who are called “free spirits” are referred to in that way – they don’t let the angel of death define for them what risks are not worth taking and how they will choose to LIVE the most IMPASSIONED life. Indeed if we live with the philosophy that we need to look over our shoulder because the angel of death is waiting to pounce, we aren’t truly living. 

What about people who do not have the Torah? Aren’t they even more free? Can’t they eat in any restaurant? Go to any venue of entertainment? Gamble and drink freely? Waste as much time as possible and not view it as a waste of time? 

Rabbi Zev Leff explained – similar to the Alshikh’s teaching above – that anyone who has a habit or vice which is not good for them is actually enslaved to the Yetzer Hara. To use Rabbi Leff’s example, the smoker is enslaved to the cigarette. The drinker is enslaved by the alcohol. The gambler is enslaved by the thrill of the gamble. The sports fan is enslaved by a game being played by other people. The consumer is enslaved by marketing. Even the restaurant aficionado, even if making good eating choices, is perhaps enslaved by the idea of eating new kinds of food very often. The person who works and works and works without making time for Torah is enslaved by work and money. 

In a way many or most of us are enslaved by smartphones, televisions, or computers (depending on how we use them), as they help us waste a tremendous amount of time, and for what end? 

How is Torah and Mitzvos a defining place for liberty? Quoting Berachos 17a, Rabbi Leff suggested: גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך – “It is known before You, that our desire is to fulfill Your will.” The Jew’s free will and natural impulse is to fulfill God’s will. But as the Gemara says, what gets in the way is the שאר שבעיסה, which literally means the rising agent in the dough, but figuratively refers to the Yetzer Hara, the inclination that distracts us from our fundamental desire – to fulfill God’s will. 

We appreciate the freedoms we have to make our own choices. We choose to serve God and to be good and honest citizens of this great country. May we continue to be blessed to practice our faith in peace and to be able to thrive on this most welcoming nation that gave the Jewish people a safe haven from those who challenged our desire to be free under the service of God throughout our history.

Friday, June 25, 2021

To Have Eyes and Yet Not See – the Curse of Bilaam?

For those who are interesting in helping those who are in need at this time, please be aware that The Shul of Bal Harbour, under the leadership of Rabbi Shalom Lipskar, has created a central fund to be dispersed as needed directly to the victims and their families at thechesedfund.com/shulofbalharbour/miamitragedy. In the merit of our Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, May we merit to see no more tragedies. 

Parshat Balak 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Another terrible tragedy has befallen members of our greater Jewish community, as well as many of our Florida brothers and sisters in Surfside and beyond. What message is Hashem trying to tell us? Why so costly a message? What did all these people do to have this be their fate? 

There is no way to answer these questions. We mourn, we pray, we assist where we can, and we hope for all who are injured to recover, and for all the mourners to find a path forward. 

Historically these kinds of events were meant to inspire introspection in those who survive or who are untouched. Why did this happen to them? Why not me? Again, unanswerable questions. 

However, we are also enjoined to heed the fact that God is talking to us. In some way He is telling us to remember Who is really in charge. 

The Talmud suggests that Bilaam was blind in one eye. There are subtle hints to this in the text, such as when Bilaam says “'This is the word of Beor's son Balaam, the word of the man with the enlightened eye.” This translation is from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s “Living Torah” and on the words “enlightened eye,” Rabbi Kaplan includes the following note, first attributing his translation to the view of Ramban and Midrash Aggadah. 

Shethum in Hebrew. Or, 'future seeing eye' (Lekach Tov), 'seeing eye' (Targum; Saadia); 'open eye' (Rashbam; Radak, Sherashim; Rashi); 'true-sighted eye' (Septuagint); 'sleepless' (Ibn Janach), 'evil eye' (Zohar 1:68b); 'dislocated' (Rashi); 'blinded' (Sanhedrin 105a; Niddah 31a). 

The question can be asked in either direction – if he was blind in one eye, how could the other commentaries refer to him as one with great vision? If he is referred to in the text as this great visionary, why would the Talmud go to any length to suggest he is blind? Perhaps three Chassidic teachings can “enlighten” us as to what may be taken from this information. 
  1. A person can not truly achieve prophesy without having dedicated oneself to holiness, without having sanctified oneself to serve God fully and completely, and without being dedicated to purity. Bilaam, who dedicated everything about himself to impurity, was thus challenged from achieving his potential as a prophet for the nations of the world. God therefore blinded him in one eye to prevent him from sinning with that eye, to allow him to focus his energies for his remaining eye in the proper direction. Because it was all that remained, it became the source of ALL of his vision – thereby making the lone eye enlightened (told over in the name of the Baal Shem Tov). 
  2. Every person needs to have two eyes – one for seeing how great, and mighty is the Master of the World, and the other is for seeing one’s own lowliness and need for humility. Bilaam understood God’s greatness, as evidenced by what he told Balak’s emissaries. But he was unable to see his own need for humility. Thus, whether he was truly blind or not, he was as if he only had one eye. (Harav HaZaken MiNeshchiz) 
  3. The Midrash has God asking Bilaam – “If your intent is to destroy the nation of Israel, who will keep My Torah?” and Bilaam answered, “I will.” God thus had Bilaam’s donkey stray from the path 3 times (שלש רגלים) (22:33) including the one time when Bilaam’s leg (רגל) was smashed against a wall, and also had Bilaam strike the donkey 3 times (שלש רגלים) (22:28,32) so Bilaam could receive a subtle hint of the mitzvah to go to the Mishkan/Mikdash for the שלש רגלים – Three Festivals. Bilaam was being told, a person who is blind in one eye, and crippled in one leg, who is such a Baal Mum (blemished individual) is exempt from the mitzvah, and unable to fulfill his intent of replacing the Bnei Yisrael as Torah observers. (Peninim Yekarim) 

Along similar lines, the Chozeh of Lublin noted in last week’s parsha, on the verse describing the red heifer that it needs to be one “that does not have a blemish and never had a yoke on it,” that this is also a note to human beings. A person who views himself or herself as having reached the pinnacle of achievement in this life, who has no flaws and no need for improvement has identified as a person who does not carry the burden of the yoke of Heaven – עול מלכות שמים. The Chozeh would say, if the person had even the smallest burden of the yoke of Heaven, the person would see a person who has far too many flaws, far too many spiritual מומים (blemishes) and would know there is still much to achieve and much to accomplish. 

 Bilaam was a man possessed with talents and blessed with gifts. As humble as he thought he was, and as special a relationship he believed he had with God, he couldn’t get over his own ego that drove him to want to curse the Bnei Yisrael, even as he knew God would not let him. God’s instruction to him didn’t produce a verse such as we’ve seen regarding Moshe’s humility. We never hear “And Bilaam was exceedingly humble” because he wasn’t! 

Whether he was literally blind in one eye, or whether he was simply blind to his own flaws, we can learn from Bilaam a simple litmus test for ourselves as individuals and ourselves as a people. 

We are once again facing 17 Tammuz, the 3 Weeks, and unless the Messiah comes, the prospect of another Tisha B’Av. The redemption, though we are to wait for it and anticipate it daily, is not yet here. 

We have one life to live – do we view ourselves as people who have arrived and therefore don’t need to take steps to shake the heavens to change the status quo? Or do we aim, in our lives, to challenge God to redeem us and bring us back to the way they were/are supposed to be? Do we do so through taking increased steps towards serving Him better? A greater commitment to Torah and Mitzvot? 

With an ever increasing amount of suffering in the world, we like to think we’re so close to the end. But we are not going to get there resting on any laurels alone. If we had the laurels, we’d have arrived already. The challenge is for all of Am Yisrael to step up our game (so to speak) and our commitments. We must feel the yoke of Heaven as a burden we carry always, so we will always be proceeding forward and upward in our relationship with Hashem. 

May suffering come to an end, and may we merit to see the salvation and comfort that was promised to us so long ago.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Singing A Song About Water, and Moving Forward

Parshat Chukat 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Despite the traumatic events of Mei Merivah (the Waters of Strife) from which we see Moshe and Aharon fated not to lead the people into the land of Canaan, along with a lesson of Chapter 20 not to complain about food or water when asking to go through the Land of Edom (e.g. verse 17), we nevertheless once again see a complaint emanating from the people in the early part of Chapter 21 in which they complain about a lack of food and water (21:5). This is even after Aharon had died, and we were once again told that certain actions at Mei Merivah caused Aharon to have to die (20:24). 

The snakes come, and we see the creation of the copper snake which helps thwart the snakebites from being deadly (21:6-9). 

It is in the aftermath of these narratives that we are told the people once again gathered at the well (21:16). At this gathering, the Torah shares a brief song which starts with the following words: אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ: “It was then that Israel sang this song: Rise, O well, respond to [this song].” 

The opening verse here is of course most reminiscent of the Song of the Sea, with two notable differences. (1) Moshe is not participating in the song, and (2) we are not told that the song is directed towards God. 

A number of commentators direct our attention to the Midrash Tanchuma on this section (which is quite similar to Bamidbar Rabba 19:26), which begins by addressing those two questions, and goes on to explain more about this song. (All translations of the Midrash are from sefaria.org)

“For what reason is Moses not mentioned there? For the reason that he was being punished because of the waters; and no person praises his executioner/speculator (“examiner” or “overseer”) (this word is written out in Hebrew as ספקלטור). And why is the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, not mentioned there? The matter is comparable to a governor who made a banquet for the king. The king said, “Will my friend so-and-so be there?” They told him, “No.” He said, “[Then] I also am not going there.” Also here the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Inasmuch as Moses is not mentioned, I also will not be mentioned there.” 

The Midrash goes on to describe how the Nesiim (princes) would channel the water for their encampments, and that these water channels divided between the sections of the camp (North, South, East, West surrounding the Mishkan) such that “a woman who had to go to her companion from one standard to [another] standard went by ship, as stated (in Ps. 105:41), ‘they traveled the river by tsiyyot.’” 

The Midrash continues noting that these rivers “would cause endless varieties of green herbage and trees to grow, as stated (in Ps. 23:2), “[He makes me lie down] in green pastures; [He leads me beside still waters].” All those the days that Israel was in the desert they used it (i.e., the well). Therefore, they rendered praise for it [with the song ending] (in Numb. 21:18), “the well that the princes dug.” (Numb. 21:18, cont.:) “From Midbar (literally, desert) to Mattanah,” [so stated] because in the desert [the well] was given (nittenah) them to use as a gift (mattanah).” 

Before going into a detailed exposition of what the names of the locations mentioned in the following verses (21:18-20) mean for the future, with a Temple centered in Jerusalem, the Midrash equates the waters of the well with the Torah, both of which were specifically given in the wilderness, both of which were aimed at providing a form of sustenance for the people. 

1. Why was [the well] given in the desert? Because if it had been given to them in the land, the tribe in whose border it was given would have argued and said, “I have a prior claim to it.” For that reason it was given in the desert where all would have an equal claim to it. 

2. And for what other reason was it given in the desert? Just as a desert is neither sown nor cultivated, so is the one who receives the words of Torah. They remove from him the yoke of the government and the yoke of earning a living. Just as a desert does not grow arnona so are children of Torah (i.e., Torah scholars) free [from it] in this world.141I.e., by accepting the yoke of Torah, such scholars are exempt from government taxes and the need to earn a living. 

3. Another interpretation [of why it was given] in the desert: Who is the one who fulfills the Torah? One who uses himself like the desert, [i.e.,] whoever makes himself like a desert and removes himself from everything [that might distract him]. 

From all of this, perhaps we can draw a few important lessons. 

A. Trauma is trauma. Singing about the well in Moshe’s presence would have been insulting and very hurtful. 

B. God cares about His children, even if they have done wrong, and even if they have negative consequences coming from their errors. However we understand Moshe’s role and outcome from the incident with the rock, a sensitivity was in order both from the people and from God to not expect Moshe to participate in any homage to the life-sustaining nature of the well. 

C. The best leaders do their best to take care of their people, sometimes at their own peril. Moshe gave up everything for the people. The Nesi’im did their part to channel the water to their people. Systems were put in place to help friends visit one another, despite the waterways that divided the camps. 

D. Wilderness existence was dependent on God, but it wasn’t only a food supply of water and Manna. Other food was brought into the mix, which kept the people grounded in the real world, knowing that their miraculous existence was a stop-gap, but never meant to last forever. 

E. There is great merit to carrying the metaphor of the wilderness into one’s existence, whether it’s to have a clean slate (as we pray for on the High Holidays), whether it’s being open to new ideas, whether it’s to see that the wilderness belongs to nobody, and therefore it’s truly available for everybody (no one has exclusive rights to it), or that in the right alignment, it can bring a unique kind of freedom from some responsibilities. 

F. In one form or another, Torah is supposed to bring a fulfillment to one’s life, as is knowing where one’s physical sustenance comes from… 

This song is largely overlooked in the annals of Torah study, but its lessons of sensitivity, and its charge for making life meaningful can speak to us no matter where we are in life, and no matter how much more we want to get closer to the Almighty and to our fellow man.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Leaders We Deserve

Parshat Korach 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The Haftorah describes the aftermath of the first battle in which the newly anointed King Shaul proves himself in the eyes of the nation who had received his appointment, requested by them, with a particular lack of fanfare. An air of cynicism is even recorded at the end of Chapter 10, as some people questioned whether “This one will save us.” 

In Chapter 11, Shaul emerges as a true leader in bringing a great salvation to the people of Yavesh Gilead (who return the favor at the very end of Shmuel Alef), and the prophet Shmuel suggests that the nation re-accept Shaul as king, now that they’ve seen his abilities. It is at that ceremony that Shmuel gives a speech eerily similar to the one Moshe gives in our parsha, when Moshe is confronted by Datan and Aviram, who challenge Moshe’s abilities as, in their opinion, a failed leader who was unable to fulfill his promise of bringing the people to the Promised Land. In Shmuel’s case, he speaks of how the people rejected his leadership, as the last Shofet (judge), in favor of a king, whose leadership style will necessarily impose on certain freedoms the people have enjoyed. Moshe is pointing to the unfairness of the claims made against him because the failures of the people to make it to the Promised Land are because of their behavior and rejection of God, rather than Moshe’s personal failures. 

Shmuel (12:3) : Here I am; bear witness against me before the Lord and before His anointed; whose ox did I take, or whose donkey did I take, or whom did I rob; or whom did I oppress, or from whose hand did I take a ransom, that I hide my eyes therewith, and I shall restore to you.

Moshe (Bamidbar 16:15): Moshe became very angry. He prayed to God, 'Do not accept their offering. I did not take a single donkey from them! I did not do any of them any harm!' 

Shmuel is reassured that the people harbor no ill will, they affirm that they accuse him of nothing of the kind. They simply want a king – they are perfectly happy with Shmuel as the prophet/spiritual leader 

Moshe, on the other hand, is patently ignored by those he is addressing; his honesty is irrelevant because their hatred of him runs too deep. They are accusing him of lording over them, when he knows very well he has only been self-sacrificing for the people. 

To be sure, both leaders are less suggesting that they never received anything from anyone than they are certainly claiming that they never used their king-like-status to their advantage to appropriate or lay claim to any property, tangible or intangible, that belonged to someone else. 

Shmuel is noting how he never took bribes in order to favor one person over another in judgment. Moshe Rabbenu is noting that even when he first came, when he didn’t want the job of taking the Israelites out of Egypt, he could have demanded a company car (or donkey), that all expenses getting him to Egypt should be covered by the Israelites. But he didn’t even do that! 

Additionally, Chizkuni notes Moshe’s final expression in this verse, “I did not do any of them any harm!” and suggests that is a personal response to Datan and Aviram, who were responsible for telling Pharaoh of Moshe’s having killed the Egyptian and he never sought any kind of vengeance for their effectively forcing him into exile. 

Both Moshe and Shmuel saw a serious upheaval of the Jewish communal institutions of their time, as we might see it, through the passage from bondage to freedom, from being slaves to Pharaoh to becoming servants of the Almighty in Moshe’s time, and the transition from libertarianism and anarchy to a monarchy and a more centralized order in Shmuel’s time. 

The key point that Moshe and Shmuel may have in common, relevant most to our era, is their lack of conflicts of interest. Their agenda, as it were, was “to help the people serve God in the most meaningful way, under the guidance of Torah and halakha” with no ulterior motive. 

Anything they saw getting in the way of those noble goals was a distraction. This is why each leader, in his own time, threw the same distraction back at the people. “Don’t accuse me of having a conflict of interest, or of overstepping my role, or of usurping power not given to me naturally by my role. I know who I am, I know what my role is, I know my position visavis the people, and I have always given my utmost to the nation in helping foster the right kind of relationship they are to have with God.” 

Even God said to Shmuel, “The people didn’t reject you in asking for a king. They rejected Me.” Shmuel was perturbed at what he was seeing, but God had to tell him it wasn’t personal between the people and him. It was an affront to God that they were asking for a king, but not a rejection of the prophet and that which he represented. 

We should be blessed to have leaders who, like Moshe and Shmuel, are altruistic, know their job, fill their role as best as possible, don’t take advantage of the people, and really want the best for the people. Our leaders should similarly be blessed that they not be held back by distractions or by things which get in the way of their doing that which they are tasked with doing – growing Torah institutions, teaching Torah, raising people up, being a moral, spiritual and emotional source of support, guiding and inspiring people to greatness in their personal relationship with God, and being an example and a model of what it means to live a life of Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name as much and as often as possible.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Kalev, the Hero

Parshat Shlach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the most admirable characters in all of the Torah is Kalev ben Yefuneh. What makes Kalev so special? He was a true mentsch, a quiet leader, a family man. He was a silent hero who spoke when he needed to. He was honest, and committed to the Jewish people and the land of Israel. He knew a good thing when he saw it and wasn’t afraid to stand up for the truth. 

Divrei HaYamim I 2:19 tells us he was the father of Hur, making him the great-grandfather of Bezalel, the main artist behind the craftsmanship of the Mishkan. 

An entire study can be made of the different names and identities the Talmud and Midrashic literature ascribe to Kalev. Similarly, the Tanakh mentions his wife a few times, and the midrash says each wife (Azuvah, Efrat, etc) were all additional names for his wife Miriam, the sister of Moshe and Aharon. 

If it is true that all of these names really identify the same individuals, it is fascinating that the Tanakh would mention them. The commentaries like to explain that some of the names were given or taken on account of events that took place or the impact the individual had on the society. 

For example, Radak on Divrei HaYamim I 2:18 quotes the Yalkut Shimoni who explains that the person listed as Kalev son of Chetzron was the same Kalev that we know as the son of Yefuneh. He is listed as “ben Yefuneh” because “pinnah atzmo me’atzat meraglim” - he distanced himself from the negative report of the spies. The play on words linking “Yefuneh” to “pinnah” is the source of his name being listed differently. 

In this explanation, Yefuneh does not refer to his father, but to his own behavior and character. 

Kalev’s most admirable characteristic was his ability to not fall prey to the tide of “what everyone else was doing” because he knew his cause to be just. He never lost his positive outlook, he knew what his mission was, and he was a tremendous believer in God and in the cause of his mission. He understood intuitively that the Land of Canaan was the “promised land” for a reason. 

While Kalev is generally linked with Yehoshua as one of the pair of “spies” who stood up against the others, ultimately Kalev is the real hero of the story, because he was able to stand up for his convictions alone, against the mob. Only later was he joined by Yehoshua. 

Rashi quotes the midrash in 13:16 when he explains why Hoshea’s name was changed by Moshe to Yehoshua: so that his name would mean “God will save you” from the negativity of the spies. Netziv notes that Moshe’s prayer was more general than that - Moshe was praying for Yehoshua to be able to overcome the battle of his own convictions, as Moshe did not know which way the spies might swing. This comes in the aftermath of the challenge Yehoshua faced in not knowing the proper way to respond to the prophecies of Eldad and Meidad – Yehoshua wanted them to suffer a repercussion, while Moshe embraced their having been gifted prophesy. 

The reality is that after the spies gave their initial negative report, only Kalev reacted to say “Let us go up, for we can defeat them!” (13:30) Clearly Kalev did not experience a battle of conviction. Where was Yehoshua? Possibly contemplating which way to go. The others respond that there is no hope, for the land is self destructive and the inhabitants are giants. (13:31-33). 

The night passes, the nation cries, and in the morning they complain to Moshe and Aharon. Only after Yehoshua sees how distraught Moshe is, does he finally join Kalev’s side and claim the land is good. (14:6-7) 

God singles out Kalev in 14:24 to say only he will inherit the land, and in 14:30, God says only Kalev and Yehoshua will get to see the land, of all the people of this generation. (see also 26:65, 32:12) 

In Devarim 1:36 we see again that Kalev inherits part of the land because of his unique role, while Yehoshua goes unmentioned in that context. Two verses later (1:38) and later on (Devarim 3:28 and in chapter 31), we see the main reason Yehoshua has a role is because he replaces Moshe as leader, a role it seemed he would take on even before the spy incident, one of the possible outcomes of the prophesy of Eldad and Meidad. 

Ramban notes that Kalev and Yehoshua’s merits are listed separately, as outlined here, because they were very different people. Yehoshua, Ramban suggests, was much wiser than Kalev, which is why he is listed first in 14:38 – out of respect for his wisdom. But it is not always the wisest who is the bravest – which is why Kalev is singled out, without Yehoshua, for having a “different spirit about him.” (14:24) 

We live in a world which is stifling debates and conversations. Sometimes the mob is too overwhelming, and the information that is sent our way is too overpowering, that no different from the experience of the Bnei Yisrael, the ten overpowered the two, causing devastation to an entire generation. 

The people only learned how wrong the ten were when it was too late. 

But this is our challenge – to weed through the noise to get to the truth. We all know that Kalev, and ultimately alongside him, Yehoshua stood for the truth. Recall that the spies didn’t lie in their actual reports. Moshe had asked them to find information, and they mostly provided that information. But it was their analysis PLUS their slander of the land (it’s a land that consumes its inhabitants) which destroyed them and the people because they demonstrated a lack of faith in God, and a lack of belief that the land God had promised was a good one, and that He would never have led them astray or to a place not good for them. 

Kalev reminds us that standing for what is right, not folding to peer pressure, even when everyone is against you, is one of the greatest characteristics a person can have, when you stand for truth. 

There is an element of irony even in that, because God’s 13 attributes of Mercy are repeated by Moshe in his prayer on behalf of the people, but even in repeating them, Moshe leaves out some of them. One of the words absent in Moshe’s recall is אמת – truth. He didn’t ask God to utilize אמת in His judgment of the situation, because if God were to use “Truth” in His judgment, He would have had to destroy everyone involved in accepting the report. Instead, God chose to bide His time, have that generation die over a 40 year period, and give the land to the next generation, those who were not responsible for accepting the lies of the spies. 

The next generation were to inherit the land, led by Yehoshua, and one additional man from that original generation lived to inherit the land: Kalev, who stayed true to himself and did not let a mob of spies or a mob of the people get in the way of his relationship with God and אמת.