Disable Floating
Monday, July 06, 2015
Text Size


Bamidbar בְּמִדְבַּר Num. 1:1-4:20  
Naso שֹׂא 4:21-7:89  
Behaalotecha בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ 8:1-12:16  
Shlach שְׁלַח-לְךָ 13:1-15:41  
Korach קֹרַח 16:1-18:32  
Chukat חֻקַּת 19:1-22:1  
Balak בָּלָק 22:2-25:9  
Pinchas פִּיְחָס 25:10-30:1  
Matot מַּטּוֹת 30:2-32:42  
Masei מַסְעֵי 33:1-36:13  

Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20

With this parashah we begin the fourth of the five books of the Torah. This fourth book details the 38 year journey from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land. The first 12 chapters detail the preparations for the trip.
Our portion opens with a census, telling us the names of the chiefs of each of the Hebrew tribes and then tells us the exact count of the numbers of men able to bear arms in each tribe. The Levite clans whose central responsibility is the care and maintenance of the Tent of Meeting are tallied separately.
We are then told the arrangement of the Israelite camp as they will travel from place to place and how they will camp. The Tent of Meeting will be at the center surrounded by the Levite clans which in turn will be surrounded by the other tribes with three tribes on each side, north, south, east and west.
Our portion describes the one for one transfer of responsibility to serve God from the first born males of all tribes to the male members of the tribe of Levi. In the end there were 273 first born who were not able to make the one-for-one transfer because there were more first born than members of the tribe of Levi. To this day the transfer for those 273 continues in the ceremony known as Piyon haBen, the redemption of the first born.

The book of Numbers which we begin this week picks up the narrative where the book of Exodus left off. The people remain at Sinai 13 months after departing Egypt. They have the Decalogue, have constructed a sanctuary and inaugurated a priesthood that will carry out the required sacrificial rituals in the desert. However it is still difficult to depart the place where they experienced God. In a sense with the tabernacle they are taking God with them.
The first several chapters of Numbers delineate the preparations that the people undertake prior to departing. The remainder of the book details the journey that will take them from Sinai to the border of the promised land.
In parshat Bamidbar we read of a census of men over the age of 20 from each of the tribes, except for the tribe of Levi. They recorded only this section of the population in order to determine their defense as they traveled further into the Sinai desert. The total came to 603,550. Scholars are unanimous that such a number putting the total population somewhere in the area of 2,000,000 is not possible. The Levites were not included in this census because they would have a different function, that of caring for the tabernacle.
We then read of the arrangement of the camp as it traveled and when it set up camp. Wth the tabernacle in the center and the Levite clans surrounding the Tabernacle on all sides, the remaining tribes would be distributed in an outer circle with three tribes on each side, north, east, south and west.
We then read of the tally of all Levite males older than one month and all first born males of the other tribes. Levites came to 22,000. First born males among the other tribes totaled 22, 273. Since originally God had chosen all first borns to serve God, God determined that a one-for-one exchange should take place. Each first born would be redeemed by a member of the tribe of Levi. But 273 remained unredeemed. That is the basis for the Pidyon haBen ceremony we conduct to their day, redeeming first born makes by members of the tribe of Levi.
A separate census of the tribe of Levi, males aged 30-50, was then ordered.


The book of Numbers will now carry us the rest of the journey from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land.  The first several chapters will deal with issues of preparation for the journey.  The people do not know if yet, but they will spend the next 38 years wandering in the desert until the entire generation that departed Egypt will die off.

The first part of that preparation is the taking of a census of all males above the age of 20, i.e all those able to bear arms.  Each tribe was counted in this census except for the tribe of Levi, who would be counted separately.  The total number came to 603,550, a number that is exceedingly large especially in that it did not include women and children.

The parashah then describes the arrangement of the camp, with the tabernacle in the center, the Levite clans surrounding the tabernacle and the other tribes arranged on all sides around them.

Then following a separate census of Levites was taken.  Their job was to serve in the tabernacle, the kohanim to fulfill the religious requirements and the three levite clans each given assignments for dissembling the Tabernacle and transporting each part as they moved from oasis to oasis. Separately all the first born males among the other tribes was tallied.  The number of Levites was 22,000 and the number of first born who were originally supposed to function in the role that the Levites were now to function was 22,273.  22,000 first born transferred their responsibility to Levites, leaving 273 without a "redeemer".  For eachof those a redemption price of 5 shekels per person was to be paid.  That money was transferred to Aaron.


This week we begin the fourth of the five books of the Torah.  Leviticus, focusing largely on  issues of personal and communal holiness and purity, contains virtually no narrative.  In many ways, the book of Numbers functions as a continuation of the book of Exodus.  After the revelation at Sinai the last section of the book of Exodus dealt with the construction of the Tabernacle and preparation of the priestly vestments.

The book of Numbers is centered on two subjects: a. preparation for the impending journey, and b. the journey itself from Sinai to the border of the Promised Land.  Along the way they encounter many obstacles and challenges, including uncertainty as to whether the entire endeavor was worth the effort.

Our present Torah reading begins with a census of the males age 20 years and over of each of the tribes, excepting the tribe of Levi.   This census is for military purposes.  The total number given in the Torah is 603,550, a highly unrealistic if not impossible number, since adding in women and children would give the Israelites a population of over 2,000,000!  Bible scholars have struggled to find alternative ways to understand this number.

We are then told about how the Israelite camp would be arranged.  Three tribes would be stationed on each of the four sides of the perimeter.  Inside the perimeter the clans of the Levites would station themselves and at the very center of the camp the Tabernacle itself.

Then separately we are advised of a census of the male members of the tribe of Levi from the age of one month and up, i.e. those who would be engaged in performing the Levitical duties.  There were 22,000 Levites.  The Levites were to replace God's original choice of those who would service God, i.e. the first born among all the tribes.  The numbers of first born and the number of Levites was almost identical there being 22,273 first born.  They brought about a one for one transfer, transferring the duties from the first born to the Levites, but 273 first born could not transfer their responsibility.  Therefore to this day we engage in redeeming the first born males among the non-Levite Jews through a ceremony called Pidyon haBen.

A second census of Levites is conducting numbering the Levites between the ages of 30 and 50.  This was conducted in order to determine the size of the work force necessary to transport the sanctuary during the wilderness march.


This fourth book of the Torah which we begin this week is very much a continuation of the Book of Exodus.  The intervening book of Leviticus contains virtually no narrative and is focused on what both priests and laity must do to live a sacred life.  Following the revelation on Mount Sinai the Book of Exodus describes in great detail the instructions for building the Tabernacle which was to house the Tablets of the Law and then tells us how each part of the Tabernacle was fabricated.  This Tabernacle was a necessary step allowing for the Israelites to move on from Sinai.

The first 10 chapters of the book of Numbers continue with issues of preparation.  The people remain in the wilderness of Sinai until they are ready to leave.  The rest of the book describes 1) their journey from Sinai to the land of Moab on the east side of the Jordan and 2) instructions to the people about entering the land.

Our Parasha begins with instructions to conduct a census of all males above the age of 20 who would be eligible to defend the Israelite camp.  The tribe of Levi, Moses' tribe, was singled out for a special census in which all males would be counted from the age of one month and above.  The clans from the tribe of Levi were to be given the task of protecting the Tabernacle from encroachment.  A secondary census of Levites from ages 30-50 was also taken in order to distribute the sacred jobs of carrying all the parts of the Tabernacle when the Israelites moved from camp to camp.

Our parasha also contains the layout of the camp with the Tabernacle at the center, surrounded on four sides by Kohanim/priests and Levites.  Outside of that ring another would be created with three of the tribes each stationed on each of the sides, west, east, north and south.


The Hebrew names of each of the books of the Torah are taken from the opening line of each book.  Thus the name of the first book is the very first word, Bereshit.  Thus the name may or may not be indicative of the contents of the book.  Thus Sh'mot, the name of the second book, which simply means "Names" or Vayikra, the third book meaning "He Called", does not give the reader any indication of the book's contents.

By contrast the English names, which are taken directly from the Greek, were efforts to summarize the contents of the book in one word.  Thus Exodus, the English name of the second book, tells us what that book is all about.

The principle exception to that rule is the fourth book which we begin this week.  In English the book is known as Numbers, which gives an indication of the first topic covered, a census of the people, but does not by any stretch of the imagination summarize the full contents of the book.  By contrast, the Hebrew name, B'midbar/ In the Wilderness, really is an accurate summary.

This fourth book will describe the preparation for and actual wandering through the desert which will take the people from Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land.  We are first told of the counting of the people into a defensive military force and the arrangement of the camp.  The Levites are counted separately and given their respective duties for dismantling and reassembling the Tabernacle when the Israelites travel.  In addition there are other provisions for maintaining the purity of the camp and incidents of complaints by the people even before setting forth.  However the bulk of the text of this fourth book enumerates the events that take place along the way, the enemies they encounter and the challenges they create for themselves.  The book will take us up to the ultimate goal, entrance into the land of Israel, but it will not tell us what happened when the people crossed over the Jordan. For that we will have to read the book of Joshua.

(back to top)



Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89

As the people continue their preparation to depart from Sinai they conclude in this week's portion the census of the people that we read about in Last week's portion. The tribe of Levi was counted separately from the other tribes. Each branch of the Levite tribe were give special duties for dismantling the Tabernacle and transporting the pieces when the camp moved from oasis to oasis.
Various laws are now explicated. Ritually impure individuals were to be removed from the camp. Anyone who had stolen from another would have to make full restitution and pay a penalty of an additional 20% of the theft as well as offering a sacrifice of expiation.
The Torah then presents the law of Sotah, a trial by ordeal called for if a man suspected his wife of infidelity. She would be made to drink a potion which would reveal her guilt or innocence. (Husbands were not accused of infidelity since the Torah presumes polygamy, unless the woman was another man's wife!) The rabbis declared this test of infidelity null and void, because "soteh worked only in an age when people believed in its power to expose the guilty and exonerate the innocent. In the more cynical period of the Second Temple, it had to be discontinued".
Next the Torah explored the law of the Nazir, a voluntary oath that an individual could take upon him/herself for a defined period of time. A Nazir would avoid becoming ritually impure, would not drink alcoholic beverages and would not cut his/her hair. Samson was the most famous Nazir in Biblical history. Although the Torah recognizes the desire of some to take upon themselves additional restrictions as a means of declaring a special love for God, these kinds of oaths were discouraged.
Perhaps most famous in our Reading is the Birkat haKohanim/ the Priestly benediction. It is a blessing we use commonly today at all kinds of life cycle events and in blessing communities of people who gather together. "The blessing is structured in three lines, each slightly lnger than the preceding one: in Hebrew, three words, then five words, then seven words, with the divine name occurring as the second word in each line.
The final chapter of this week's Parashah describes the 12 day ceremony in which each tribe in succession brought gifts to the Tabernacle in a ceremony of dedication. Each day the gifts are identical, yet they are listed separately to emphasize the importance of each tribe's individual gifts.
Our Torah reading end with "When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him."


This second parashah in the book of Numbers continues the preparation for departing from Mt. Sinai on the Israelites trek on their way to the Promised Land.  Last week's reading included a census of each of the tribes for military purposes and a separate counting of the males of the tribe of Levi who would function in the Tabernacle and be responsible for transporting it when the Israelites moved from one oasis to the next.  Our reading continues with numbering the Levite clans and distributing their various tasks.

Maintaining camp purity was a significant concern during their travels.  Severely impure individuals had to be removed.  Human failings toward others had to be confessed and proper restitution made and expiation offering made.

Adultery was a serious crime.  A husband who suspected his wife of infidelity could bring charges and have his wife subjected to an ordeal which would prove her guilt or innocence.  Since Judaism presumed polygamy, no similar test existed for men.  "The Talmud tells us that the ordeal worked only in an age when people believed in its power to expose the guilty and exonerate the innocent.  In the more cynical period of the Second Temple, it had to be discontinued (M. Sot 9:9)."

At the opposite extreme individuals could take upon themselves oaths of restriction for limited periods of time as a means of professing their piety.  These people would forswear alcohol, allowing themselves to become ritually impure, or cutting their hair.  They were known as Narazites.  Judaism discouraged such shows of excessive piety.

Our Parashah also includes the Birkat Kohanim/ the Priestly Blessing with which we are all familiar.  God instructed Moses to tell Aaron that it was with these words that the Kohanim should bless the people:  "The Lord bless you and protect you!  The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!  The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!"

The last chapter of our parashah provides a 12 day ceremony in which each of the tribal heads in turn offered initiatory gifts to the completed and consecrated tabernacle.  Each tribe presented the identical gift of animals and grain for the sacrificial ritual.

"When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him."


Our parashah now concludes the census begun last week, assigning specific responsibilities to Levitical clans for the transport of the tabernacle when the Israelites were moving from oasis to oasis through the desert.

Secondly the parashah is concerned with maintaining the purity of the camp, where impure individuals were to be removed.  Inserted here are also moral wrongdoings and how restitution was to be made.   Adultery, defined as a married woman having sexual relations with a man other than her husband, was another kind of impurity.  The Torah portion raises the issue of how a jealous husband suspecting his wife of unfaithfulness could use a procedure known as Sotah to determine his wife's innocence or guilt.  It is the only example in the Torah of a trial by ordeal.  The rabbis of the Second Temple period determined that the test only worked in an age when people believed in its power to expose the guilty and exonerate the innocent and they therefore determined that it was no longer useful and had to be discontinued.

Immediately following the laws of Sotah comes the laws of the Nazir.  A Nazir was a person who voluntarily took upon him- or herself certain restrictions for a specified period of time.  These restrictions included not allowing oneself to become ritually impure (similar to the restriction that were imposed upon Kohanim), not drinking any alcoholic beverages and not cutting one's hair.  Thus Samson was the quintessential Nazir.

Our text then contains one of the most famous Biblical texts, namely the priestly benediction, a blessing offered frequently by rabbis and Christian clergy alike.

The last chapter of our Parashah provides us with a detailed 12 day ceremony in which on each day a designated tribe would present initiatory gifts before the Lord.  The gifts each day were identical, but rather than slight any of the tribes, each day's presentation is delineated individually.  And God accepted all of the offerings.


This 176 verse parashah is the longest of the entire year.  The length is primarily due to the last chapter (89 verses alone), which details the offerings brought by each tribe during a twelve day ceremony that concludes the sanctuary's dedication.  Each gift by each of the tribes was identical, but rather than simply describe the gift and then designate which tribe offered it on the various days, the text meticulously describes each day separately and distinctly, which tribe made the offer and what they presented. In this way one really has the sense of ceremony.

The parashah opens with a continuation of the previous parashah. The census of all the tribes has been taken, that of the tribe of Levi done separately.  Now each of the clans within the tribe of Levi is given its assignment for transporting the various parts of the tabernacle when the people moved from one oasis to the next.

Chapters 5 and 6 are inserted at this point to make sure that the Israelite camp will not become impure.  In each case discussed the Kohen plays a prominent role.  Individuals with physical "impurities" were to be removed, until those impurities were healed and the person purified. The Torah goes on to concern itself with individuals who became impure by committing various wrongs to his/her fellow.  Concerns about accusations of adulterous behavior are also of concern.  The Torah describes its only "trial by ordeal" in order to prove the wife innocent or guilty.  Only the wife could be accused of adultery since the Torah presumes polygamy. However by Talmudic times this test was abandoned on the theory that few believed in its power.

Chapter 6 informs us about the vows of the Nazir, an individual who took upon him/herself additional restrictions or abstinence from allowing him/herself to become ritually impure, from intoxicants and from cutting his/her hair.  Such vows could be assumed for limited periods of time and were often taken as a means of atonement or thanksgiving.  The most famous Nazir of Biblical times was Samson, about whose birth we read in the Haftarah.

(back to top)



Behaalotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16


We read this week of the last of the preparations before departure on the journey across the desert toward the Promised Land. Our portion opens with instructions as to how the priests were to light the menorah each day. The Levites were then to be purified so as to embark on their sacred duties to serve the priests.
Before departure the people were told about celebration of the Passover which had to be observed in a state of ritual purity. Some men approached Moses appealing for an alternative since they were impure. Unsure of what to do Moses turns to God, who tells Moses that he should make available an alternative date a month later for those unable to celebrate Passover with the rest of the community.
With all in readiness a cloud covered the Tabernacle, appearing as a guiding fire by night. Moses had two trumpets made, whose purpose was to summon the people, to set the divisions in motions as the Israelite camp moved. Signals were agreed upon which would indicate whether the camp should gather or if only the chieftains were summoned. Short blasts were a signal to begin to move.
The march then begins with each tribe and contingent grouped in their separate areas. Moses invites his father-in-law to join them, but he refuses the invitation. The text of their exciting departure is the text we chant every time we remove the Torah from the ark.
After the people complain about not having meat to eat, Moses complains to God about the burden of leading the people. God, also frustrated, has Moses gather 70 elders to share the leadership burden with him. God will imbue them with a special spirit. But two additonal individuals are similarly imbued which causes Joshua concern. When he speaks to Moses, Moses says he wishes everyone could feel this special spirit. Then God caused quail to fall to feed the people, but brought a plague as well to punish the complaining and ungrateful people.
At the end of our reading we find the famous episode in which Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses' Kushite wife. Miriam is stricken with Tsara'at.   Aaron appeals to Moses to pray for Miriam. Moses does and she is healed.


This parasha is easily divisible into two parts: a. final preparations and b. departure.

Our parasha opens with God's instructions through Moses to Aaron to light the seven branch Menorah made of hammered gold.

Secondly in preparation of the journey in which the Levites are commissioned to dismantle and carry the various parts of the tabernacle and other sacred objects, they had to engage in a purification process.  This involved washing themselves and their clothes and shaving their entire bodies.  They would offer purification sacrifices in a public ceremony in order to set them apart.  They are replacing the first born among all the Israelite tribes.  Thus they became qualified to serve.  They would serve in this capacity from age 25 to 50 at which time they would retire.

The people observed their first Passover in the desert, but there were those who were unclean and asked Moses why they would be excluded from the Passover observance.  Moses turned to God, who instructed him that anyone who was ritually impure or on a journey preventing him from observing Passover could observe the festival a month later.

The people were to pay attention to the cloud that covered the tabernacle during the day and fire by night.  When the cloud lifted the people would set out and when it settled they would make camp and remain there until the cloud lifted once again.  God had Moses make two silver trumpets to summon the people and to set the divisions in motion.  Various blasts would signal gathering together or a signal for various parts of the camp to move forward.  Blasts would also sound during war and on joyous occasions as a reminder of God.

Finally after 13 months the cloud lifted and they began their trek further into the desert.  Moses invited his father-in-law to join them.  He refuses the offer, but Moses pleads.  The outcome is unclear.

They marched with the ark in the lead reciting a text which we continue to recite each time we remove the Torah from the Ark.

No sooner than the people have gotten underway than the complaining begins.  They complained at Taberah and in anger God let a fire break out against them.  The fire died down when Moses prayed on their behalf.  They then complained about the food, reminiscing about the food they ate in Egypt.  They were tired of the manna.  God became angry and Moses distressed.  Moses complains to God for having given him the burden of leading these people.  Moses even asks to die rather than lead the people.  God tells Moses to gather 70 elders, so that they might share the burden of leadership.  God also promises to shower them with meat, so much meat such they will be sick of it.  Moses wonders whether God can keep his pledge to which God responds, "Is there a limit to the Lord's power? You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not."

Moses gathered the 70 elders and God shared some of the spirit that was on Moses with the others.  As a result they spoke in ecstasy!  Two others Eldad and Medad also were filled with the spirit, which concerned Joshua, Moses' aid.  He urged Moses to restrain them.  Instead Moses rejoiced that the spirit had spread to others.

A wind then brought quail from the sea and they fell all over the camp.  The people stuffed themselves, but in God's anger he brought a plague.

Finally we read about Miriam and Aaron who spoke out in jealousy about their brother Moses and against their sister-in-law. God affirms his choice of Moses as the appointed leader and struck Miriam with Tsara-at, snow white scales.  Moses prayed on her behalf and seven days later she was healed.


This parashah can be divided into two distinct sections: a. final preparations for the impending journey into the wilderness (8:1-10:10), and b. beginning the journey itself (10:11-12:16).  The former is idyllic, the latter traumatic.  Throughout the preparation all is well; the journey involves one crisis after another, inlarge part challenging God's choice of leaders.

Our portion opens with instructions to the Levites concerning the lighting of the Menorah, followed by an explanation as to the specialness of the Levites and their unique role in serving as God's agent in performing all of the ritual duties.

Next our reading makes accommodation for those who would find themselves either in an impure state or away on a journey during the celebration of Passover.  They could delay their celebration by a month and celebrate what came to be known as Pesakh Sheni, a second Passover.

In final preparation the fire by night and the cloud by day which would guide the Israelites appeared.  They would indicate God's will as to whether the people should break camp and move on or whether they should remain in place.  Two silver trumpets were fabricated that when blown could be used to summon the people or just the tribal heads and indicate to the various sections of the camp when they were to move out.  They would also be used in time of war and at times of holiday observances.

So, beginning the second section of the reading, the Israelites set out on their journey. Moses invites his father-in-law, here referred to as Hobab, to join the Israelites in their journey, but Hobab refuses the invitation.  Moses insists, but whether Hobab relents or not is left unclear.

The ark of the Covenant marched in front of the camp and Moses recites the words that we continue to chant whenever we remove the Torah from the ark.

But the people begin to complain: first at Taberah and then they complained about the food they have to eat in the desert.  They want meat and they reminisce as to all the good foods they had in Egypt.  Both God and Moses were upset.  God promises to provide quail in such abundance that it will come out of their noses and become loathsome to them.  The quail came followed by a punishing plague.

Moses also gathered 70 elders to share the leadership burden, but the spirit extends outside the group to two additional individuals, Eldad and Medad.  Joshua with concern reports this strange phenomenon to Moses, but Moses rejoices: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, the Lord put His spirit upon them."

Then Miriam along with Aaron, Moses' siblings, complain about Moses.  It is not clear whether their complaint has to do with his wife or in jealousy that they should have been given leadership responsibility too.  Indicating God's displeasure, God strikes Miriam with leprosy.  Moses prays on her behalf and eventually she is healed.


This third parashah in the book of Numbers marks a transition from preparation for the journey (Chapters 1-10:10) and the journey itself from Sinai to the border of the Promised Land.

The parasha opens with the instructions for the priestly lighting of the seven branch Menorah, which had to be done twice each day.   We then read of the purification of the Levites so that they might engage in their sacred work of dismantling the Tabernacle for the journey ahead.

Provisions for individuals who might be impure during the Passover celebration are made, allowing for such individuals to observe Passover a month later.

We are reminded that God will lead the people on their journey as prior to Sinai in a fire-cloud or a cloud-encased fire.

Two silver trumpets are made at God's command in order to summon the people and to set the divisions in motion.  All shall assemble when both trumpets are blown in long blasts, but if only one is blown just the chieftains should gather.  Shorter blasts would indicate instruction for movement.  The trumpets were also to be used in time of being attacked and in celebration of joyous occasions as reminders of God.

"In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai."  Moses invites his father-in-law to join them, but he refuses the invitation, preferring to return to his native land.

It is at this point that we read the text that has been taken and incorporated into the service for removing the Torah form the ark: "Vayehee Bin-so'a Aharon/When the ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, And may your foes flee before You!  And when it halted, he would say: Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!"

We then read a long series of complaints that the people had.  The first at Teberah, where as a result of Moses' prayer the fire that God had sent died out.

The complained that they had no meat to eat and recalled the wondrous things they had to eat in Egypt.  Instead all they had was manna that "tasted like rich cream."  When Moses sensed God's anger, he complained to God for laying the burden of this troublesome people on him.  Where is he to get meat to feed them?  God orders Moses to gather 70 elders who will share the leadership burden with him.  God also promises meat, but in such abundance "until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you".  Moses questions God's ability to perform such a miracle, to which God responds, "Is there a limit to the Lord's power?  You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not!"

Moses gathered the 70 elders and God gave of the spirit of Moses to these elders.  "When the spirit rested upon them, they spoke in ecstasy."  Two others Eldad and Medad also began to speak in ecstasy.  Joshua, Moses' attendant, urged Moses to restrain them.  But instead Moses proclaimed, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!"

Then a wind brought quail in enormous abundance.  As the people gathered and ate, God's anger presented itself in the form of plague.

The last chapter is devoted to the famous occasion when Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses.  It is unclear whether their complaint had to do with his wife or the fact that they were jealous of his relationship to God.  God formally criticizes Aaron and Miriam, informing them of his special relationship with Moses.  As a result of this incident Miriam is stricken with Tsara'at.  Moses offers a simple brief prayer on Miriam's behalf.  After 7 days of isolation, Miriam was healed and the people once again set forth.

Last minute details before departure: 1) God instructs Moses to tell Aaron about lighting the Menorah, a central feature in the Tabernacle. 2) The Levites had to be purified by being sprinkled with purification water, entire body shaved and clothes washed.  Through a series of public sacrifices and laying on of hands, the Levites would receive their commission to do the work of the sanctuary on behalf of the people.  They could serve from the age of 25 until retirement at age 50. 3) Instructions for observing Passover, but when men came to complain that they could not observe Passover at its proper time because they were ritually unclean, God instructed Moses to allow for a second Passover a month later for those who could not observe at the proper time.  (This is no longer applicable.) 4) Announcement that God would lead the people in the form of fire at night and a cloud by day. 5) Two silver trumpets would be employed to either gather all the people together or just the chieftains, or for short blasts signal that it was time for various tribes to move forward.  The trumpets would also be used in time of war as a reminder of God's presence.

In the second year, on the 20th day of the second month, i.e. 13 months after the Exodus, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and the Israelites set out on their journey from Sinai.

Moses informed his father-in-law that they were departing and invited him to come along to the Promised Land, but Hobab/Jethro declined the invitation.  Moses continued to encourage him to join them and the final outcome of the conversation remains unclear.

Once on the way they began complaining.  God became angry and a fire broke out. The fire died out as a result of Moses prayer.  They complained further that they had no meat to eat and how the diet was so much better in Egypt.  Here they had to subsist on Manna alone.  Moses now complains to God that the burden of leading the people is too great.  God has Moses gather 70 elders to be endowed with God's spirit to assist in leading the people.  God also promises to provide meat.  When Moses wonders whether even God can provide for this many people, God responds, "Is there a limit to the Lord's power?"  Meat in the form of quail and God accompanies the meat with an outbreak of plague.

A lost chapter includes Miriam and Aaron speaking out against Moses because of his Cushite wife.   As a result Miriam is stricken with Tzaraat.  Relief only comes when Moses prays on her behalf.

(back to top)



Shlach L’cha, Numbers 13:1-15:41

On the road to the Promised Land having left Sinai behind God instructs Moses to send a representative from each tribe to scout out the land. (In Deuteronomy Moses claims this was the people's idea...) Moses provides the scouts with the parameters of the task before them: "See what kind of country it is. Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the country good or bad? Are the towns open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And bring back some of the fruit of the land." They were being asked for an objective assessment, not personal opinions or biases.
After 40 days they returned. In the midst of their public report, Caleb, on of the scouts, interrupts the proceedings encouraging the immediate invasion of the land. That prompts the other scouts to offer an alternative discouraging opinion, claiming that the Israelites would fail in their efforts to conquer the country, exaggerating that there are giants there and the scouts must have appeared as grasshoppers to the natives.
Discouraged the people rail against Moses for having brought them into the desert. "It would be better for us to go back to Egypt," they proclaim. And they determine to return to Egypt.   Caleb and Joshua protest that the land is exceedingly good, flowing with milk and honey. If they cease their protest, God will help them conquer it. But the people threatened to pelt them.
God fumes at the reaction of the Israelites. When God threatens to plague them with pestilence, Moses intercedes, protesting that destroying the people will only hurt God's reputation. Moses pleads for mercy. God relents, but determines that none of the protesters will enter the land. The only exceptions will be Caleb and Joshua. The Israelites will wander in the desert for 40 years until they have all died off and their children have taken over. The scouts who delivered the negative report will die of plague. When the people heard God's verdict they determined to conquer the land, now again contravening God's plans. The Amalekites and Canaanites defeated them in battle.
The remainder of the Parasha is given over to an explanation of laws, including the Halah offering, inadvertent and brazen wrongdoing by the individual or by the entire collective community and the law of tsitsit/tassels on clothing that will remind people of God's commandments. The portion also includes an episode in which the people capture a Jew gathering wood on Shabbat, an obvious violation, but whose punishment is unknown. It was determined that the violator should be stoned to death, which the Torah tells us was carried out by the people.

Two-thirds of this week's parashah deals with the disaster of the reconnaissance mission of the 12 scouts sent to spy out the land. God urges Moses to send a representative from each of the tribes to gather information about the land they would soon enter. Their commission was to return with an objective report as to what they discover there and to bring back some of the fruit of the land.
(Bible Scholars tell us that the Torah conflates two versions of the same story. In the first they only explore the south and only one scout demures from the general report; in the second their exploits take them further north and two scouts, Calev and Joshua, take a majority position.)
The scouts return with grapes carried by two people, pomegranates and figs and report that the land flows with milk and honey, but the inhabitants are powerful and live in fortified cities. They consist of various tribes.
Caleb, one of the scouts, interrupts their report to urge immediate invasion. At this the others leave their script to offer their collective negative opinions. "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them." The people became despondent, suggesting that rather than invasion it would be better for them to return to Egypt.
Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb pleaded with the people that God would help them in their efforts. However the people were prepared to stone them. God then appeared furious with the people's response and prepared to destroy them. Moses pleads that destruction would only reflect badly on God whose reputation was inexorably tied to the success of the Israelites. He appeals for God's mercy. God accedes. However God determines that the people will wander until all those who left Egypt have died off and a new generation born in freedom takes over. The negative scouts will die of the plague.
Grief stricken at the news the people now determine to invade the land. But it is too late. They were now defying God and were defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites.
The final chapter contains various laws. Most notable is the cast of the Shabbat wood gatherer, who is brought to Moses for punishment. Moses does not know what sentence to impose. He seeks advice from God who determines that the man must be stoned to death.  
The final section of our Torah reading mandates the wearing of Tsitsit on the 4 corners of our garments to be a constant reminder of God's commandments. This paragraph was chosen by the rabbis to be the third and final paragraph of the Shema. It was chose not so much for the mention of tsitsit as for the inclusion of the mention of the Exodus.


Now headed in the direction of the Promised Land God tells Moses to send spies to scout out the land of Canaan.  Moses appoints a leader from each of the tribes and charges them to bring back an objective report of what they see.  At the end of 40 days they returned not only prepared to present a report, but to show the people some of the produce that they brought back which included a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a frame by two men.

They presented their objective report which included that the land is rich, but the inhabitants are powerful.  Caleb, one of the scouts, then interrupts the report by offering his subjective opinion, urging immediate conquest.  In response the other spies offer their subjective opinion that in fact the inhabitants are so mighty, the Israelites would not have a chance.

The people lost faith and even considered turning back and returning to Egypt.  Moses and Aaron plead with the people not to reject God.

God in anger brings pestilence and considers disowning the people.  Moses pleads with God that if God destroys the people, then the Egyptians will think ill of God who freed the people only to destroy then in the desert.  Moses pleads for forbearance.  God agrees to pardon the people, but vows that none of those who left Egypt will enter the Promised Land.  The people will wander until the entire generation has died out.  The spies who claimed defeat died of plague.  Only Joshua and Caleb survived.  In order to have God rescind God's decree they resolved to conquer the land, but God would not relent.

Chapter 15 includes a series of laws concerning sacrifice, halah, inadvertent and brazen wrongdoing by an individual or by the community.  We are told of the case of the individual caught gathering wood on Shabbat and the determination that he must be stoned to death for transgressing the laws of Shabbat.  Finally we are introduced to the obligation to wear tsitsit on the four corners of our garments to remind us of God's laws.  This final section of the Torah reading became the third paragraph of the Shema recited by observant Jews at the evening service and the morning service every day, often recited as the last words spoken before going to bed and the first words spoken when rising up.


All but the last chapter are of a piece.  God tells Moses to send a representative from each tribe on a reconnaissance mission to scout out the land, promised to the people.  Their mission is to bring back an objective report of what they find and to bring back produce from the land.  Forty days later they returned with grapes that had to be carried on a frame by two people, pomegranates and figs.  They confirmed that the land flowed with milk and honey, that the inhabitants are powerful and live in fortified cities.

Then Caleb, one of the scouts, enthusiastically encouraged the people to rise up, because the land is delivered into their hands.  However the other scouts demurred now providing their subjective analysis.  They said the land "devours its settlers", that "we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them."  The people were discouraged and railed against Moses, claiming it would have been better had they remained in Egypt.  Caleb and Joshua tried their best to turn sentiment around, but were unsuccessful.

Furious with the people's lack of faith God resolved to destroy the people and give Moses another people.  Moses pleaded with God, repeating God's claim to be slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression.  God relented, but vowed that none of the people who had left Egypt would enter the land.  They would wander in the desert until all of them had died and another generation arose in their place.

In response the people were overcome with grief.  They set out to enter the land, acknowledging that they were wrong.  But now they were defying God and they were defeated by Amalekites and Canaanites.

The last chapter contains an assortment of laws, but ends with the paragraph that the rabbis chose as the third and last paragraph of the Shema.  In it God commands us to wear Tsitsit on the four corners of our garments to remind us of God's laws.


Now that the march from their long encampment from Mt. Sinai toward the land promised by God to the people of Israel is finally underway, God tells Moses to send a delegation of scouts to spy out the land of Canaan.  (In the first chapter of Deuteronomy Moses claims this was the result of the people's initiative.)  A leader from each of the tribes is chosen.  They are instructed to bring back an objective report as to the number and strength of the local inhabitants, how rich the soil is, whether towns are fortified and told to bring back produce from the land.

They returned 40 days later and the people gathered to hear their report and see the produce.  Their report confirmed that the land flows with milk and honey, that the inhabitants are strong and the cities fortified.  They described the locations of the various indigenous tribes.

Caleb, one of the scouts, immediately urged possessing the land without delay.  But the others sounded a different discouraging tone, claiming that the locals were stronger and "devoured their inhabitants", they are enormous in size and the scouts felt like grasshoppers among them.

The people complained to Moses and moaned that they should have died in Egypt, rather than die here in the desert.  They even suggested returning to Egypt.  Moses and Aaron were despondent.  Joshua, another spy, tried to change the mood by extolling the wonderful land that God would help them conquer.  He urged the people not to rebel against God.  As the people began pelting them with stones, God's presence made itself felt.

God complains about this people that after all the miracles they have witnessed, they still have no faith.  God threatens to destroy them and provide Moses with another people to lead.  But Moses pleads that when the Egyptians hear that the people were destroyed in the desert, they will assert that the Israelite God was powerless to bring them into the land.  Moses appeals to God's forbearance, urging God to forgive the people.  God relents and agrees to pardon.  However God claims that none of those who witnessed God's miracles in Egypt of in the desert will see the land, except for Caleb and Joshua.  All the rest will die in the wilderness during the 40 years of wandering, corresponding to the 40 days of scouting.  The scouts who discouraged the people will die of plague.

At hearing this the people were overcome by grief and prepared to enter the land, admitting that they were wrong.  Moses urged them to stop, but they refused and without God help they were defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites who dwelt in the area.

The last chapter of this parashah includes a collection of assorted laws pertaining to accompaniments to sacrifices, the obligation to donate Hallah (the first of the dough to the priests), inadvertent and brazen wrongdoing by the community as a whole or an individual.  As an example the Torah describes the situation of a defiant member of the community found gathering wood on Shabbat.  He was brought to Moses for punishment, but Moses did not know what was appropriate.  God indicates to Moses that the man must be stoned to death!  The people fulfill God's command.

The parashah ends with what has come to be known as the third paragraph of the Shema.  It commands us to wear tsitsit/fringes on the four corners of our garments.  The purpose of the tsitsit is to be a constant reminder of our obligations to God.  These tsitsit were to contain a thread of blue.  (Tradition determines that one is only obligated to wear tsitsit if one is wearing a four cornered garment.  Thus since our upper garments are not four cornered we are not obligated to fulfill this commandment.  However we wear tsitsit each time we don a Tallit.  Traditional Jews, wanting to fulfill as many commandments as possible, also wear a garment alternatively known as Arba Kanfot/ Four Corners or a Talit Katan/Small Talit on which are attached tsitsit.

Intelligence gathering is the focal point of both Torah and Haftarah reading.  God urges Moses to send one representative of each of the 12 tribes on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the land of Canaan. (In Moses later recounting in Deuteronomy 1:22-23 this was the people’s idea rather than God’s.)  Their mission was to bring back an objective report in order to guarantee the success of the future conquest.

They returned 40 days later with clusters of grapes, pomegranates and figs with a report to Moses Aaron and the entire Israelite community.  They reported that the land flows with milk and honey, but the inhabitants are strong and they live in fortified cities.  They listed the several nations resident there.

Caleb, one of the spies, enthusiastically interrupted the report to urge that the people quickly take possession of the land.  This outburst prompts the other spies to now add their subjective opinion, rather than sticking with the objective report.  They offered the opinion that they would not be able to overcome the present residents after which the people became despondent.  They once again pined for Egypt and thought it would have been better to die there than here in the wilderness.  They even suggested returning to Egypt.

Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb tried to reverse the damage that had already been done to no avail.  God threatened to strike the people with pestilence, disown them and provide Moses with another people.  But Moses pleaded successfully with God that if God destroys the people, the Egyptians will think God powerless to protect them. Moses appeals for God’s forgiveness, which God grants.  However God determines that this faithless generation will die in the desert.  They will wander for 40 years until the entire generation that left Egypt will have died out.  The spies who discouraged the people would die of plague.

When the people heard the verdict they now said they were prepared to conquer the land, but there was no turning back.  They nevertheless headed up the hill and were dealt a shattering blow by the Amalakites and Canaanites in the area.

The Torah reading concludes with the unusual case of the wood gatherer, an individual who contrary to community norms gather wood on Shabbat.  He is brought to Moses for punishment, but Moses must seek direction from God.  The punishment was death by stoning.

The last section is the paragraph we know otherwise as the third section of the Shema, obligating Jews to were Tsitsit, fringes, on the four corners of their garments as a constant reminder of out obligations to God.

(back to top)



Korach, Numbers 16:1-18:32

Korakh provides yet one more in the long series of tests to Moses leadership. Korakh is Moses' first cousin. He accuses Moses of usurping too much power and lording it over the community. "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord's congregation?"   The rabbis are convinced that at base Korakh is jealous and believes as the son of the oldest brother, he rather than Moses should have been chosen leader. They are also convinced that Korakh is a demagogue and creatively advance arguments that they claim would have been in Korakh's arsenal.
In addition Korakh has gathered other discontents who join him in his rebellion. Scholars are convinced that in fact there are at least three separate rebellions that our parashah telescopes into one.
Moses challenges Korakh to a demonstration where God can make clear who is God's chosen leader. Moses chides Korakh's followers, members of his own Levi clan, that they should consider it sufficient honor to have special access to God as Levites.
When the time for the test arrives God makes God's Presence felt and tells Moses and Aaron and their followers to stand back so that God can annihilate Korakh and his band. The earth opened up and Korakh and his followers were swallowed up alive. The fire pans that were used in the test were deemed sacred.   They were hammered into plating for the altar as a reminder of what happened to Korakh.
When the people railed against Moses for bringing destruction, God was determined to annihilate them as well. Moses did whatever he could to intercept the impending doom and to make atonement for the people. Many died.
God wanted to further demonstrate his choice of Moses and Aaron as leaders. God instructed Moses to gather staffs from leaders of each tribe and place them in the Tent of the Pact. The next day Aaron's staff had sprouted, produced blossoms and bore almonds though the others did not.
The Israelites, as a consequence of this mayhem, begin to dread the tabernacle and will not come near it. To allay their fears, they are given assurances that henceforth the priests and Levites alone will bear responsibility for the sacred rituals.

Most Bible scholars contend that the rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron is in actuality a conflated narrative of more than one rebellion. The most well known is that of Korakh, Moses and Aaron's cousin. A second may be that of Dathan and Abiram, Reuvenites, descendants of Jacob's oldest son. Each convinces themselves that they are the rightful hereditary leaders of the Jewish people.
As a populist demagogue the rebels reject the entire idea of leadership since all are holy in the eyes of God. Moses in his humility claims that God will demonstrate who God has chosen to lead the people. Moses turns to his tribal family, supporters of Korakh to challenge them that God had already chosen them from all the tribes with special leadership responsibilities. In fact in wanting the priesthood too, they were in fact rebelling against God.
Separately Moses attempts to deal with Dothan and Abiram, but they refuse to negotiate. Moses turns instead to God and pleads innocence to any injustice.
God's presence makes itself known promising to wipe them all out. Moses pleads on their behalf. At God's insistence he warns Dothan and Aviram and their followers to separate themselves from Korakh. The ground opened up swallowing all of Korakh's people. Those that remained were in shock and fear. However the rebellion had not abated. Now Moses and Aaron were accused of bringing death to the camp. With that a plague broke out. Moses and Aaron did all they could to quell the plague.
To further prove God's choice of leadership, God had each tribe submit a staff. They were put in the Tent of Meeting with the promise that only the staff of God's chosen will sprout. The next day only Aaron's staff produced blossoms and bore almonds. This only served to strike more fear in the people. God reaffirms God's choice of Aaron and his descendants are priests to fulfill the special duties assigned to them as well as that of the entire tribe of Levi.


Modern Biblical commentators view Parshat Korakh as a conflation of several rebellion into one.  However the seams remain readily available.

Korakh was Moses' and Aaron's cousin.  His father was the older brother which seems to be the basis for his claim that he rather than Moses should have become the people's leader.  Dothan and Aviram apparently join the rebellion.  They are descendants of Jacob's oldest son, Reuven, and therefore may have a similar complaint that leadership should have passed to them, rather than to Moses and Aaron, descendants of Levi, Jacob's third oldest. 

Korakh is a consummate demagogue, claiming that Moses and Aaron have no right to leadership since the entire community is holy, not just the two of them.  Moses urges Korakh and his followers to participate in a test that would clearly demonstrate which of them is God's choice as leader.  Moses also chides Korakh and his fellow Levites reminding them that they have indeed been chosen for a special role in community worship and care of the Tabernacle.

Moses also summoned Dothan and Aviram, but they refused to appear.  Moses pleads innocence of any inappropriate acts as leader.

During the test arranged by Moses with Korakh, God appears and threatens to wipe out the rebels.  Korakh and his people are swallowed up by the earth and they vanished striking fear in those who remained.  A fire consumed the rest.

God to Moses to order Aaron to take the firepans employed in the test and to treat them as sacred.  From them plating for the altar should be fashioned to serve as a warning to the people. The people continued to complain that Moses had brought death upon them.  Despite Moses pleas a plague broke out and Moses did what they could to stay the plague, but the Torah says 14,700 died as a result of Korakh.

Moses then at God's request took a staff from each tribal chieftain, putting the names on each.  They were placed in the Tent of Meeting and God announced that the staff that sprouts will designate the one God has chosen to lead.  The next morning it was Aaron's staff that had sprouted and each of the leaders recovered his staff.  But the people were terrified, fearful of doom.

Moses reaffirms Aaron's sacred responsibilities.  He also reaffirms the role of the Levites in assisting the Kohanim in their tasks.  God tells Aaron the special treatment that the Kohanim will receive in performing their roles.  They will receive tithes and eat of the sacrifices.  Bt on threat of death they must perform without profaning any of the sacred donations.


More rebellion.  First it came from Moses' sister and brother.  Then last week from the people who were reluctant to trust in God and conquer the land.  This week a series of rebellions all collapsed into one complicated episode: a. Korah, Moses cousin, b. Dotan and Abiram, descendants of Jacob's first born Reuven and c. chieftains of the community.  They all come to challenge Moses leadership.

Moses responds to Korach that God will prove that he is God's chosen leader, telling him to have his band bring firepans.  Moses chides them that God already chose them to serve God as Levites.  Isn't that enough?  Moses summons Dotan and Abiram, but they refuse to answer his summons.  When they came with their firepans and incense, God spoke to Moses and Aaron, threatening to annihilate them.  At God's command Moses had all the people separate themselves from Dotan and Abiram and combining the two revolts, God opened the earth and swallowed Korach and his followers.
The firepans which were now sacred were removed and they were hammered into plating for the altar as a reminder to all the people s that none might suffer the fate of Korach.

The people railed against Moses for bring death upon them.  God was again ready to destroy them.  Moses ordered Aaron to take the firepan and make expiation for the people, but a plague had already begun, doing his best to check the plague.  The Torah says 14,700 died.

God instructed Moses to take staffs from each of the chieftains of each tribe and one for Aaron head of the tribe of Levi.  The staffs were deposited in the Tent of the Pact.  The next day the staff of Aaron had sprouted producing blossoms and bore almonds, proving God's choice of Aaron.  God reminds Aaron and the Levites of their special charge to fulfill the duties of the sanctuary and serve the people in all their religious functions.

Rebellion against God and God's designated leaders, Moses and Aaron, reaches a crescendo with this week's Torah reading.  Most scholars agree that several distinct rebellions are telescoped into one somewhat incoherent narrative.  "Koach, a Levite, asserts himself as the equal of Moses and Aaron.  Leaders of the tribe of Reuben claim leadership in the name of the descendants of Jacob's first born".  And there may indeed be a third rebellion in the mix.  "One miracle destroys the rebels and affirms the primacy of Moses and Aaron."   Indeed the text tells us that the earth swallowed them.  "A second miracle authenticates the primacy of the Levites for the divine service."  Each of the tribes' chieftains was instructed to bring staffs and deposit them in the Tent of Meeting.  They are told that only one of the staffs would sprout indicating God's choice for leadership.  The next day it was Aaron's staff that had sprouted, producing blossoms and bearing almonds!

These events were so terrifying that the people were afraid of the power to punish of the tabernacle.  They were therefore assured that only priests and Levites would henceforth  bear all responsibility for the care of the sacred spaces.


Korah, Moses’ cousin, leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron.  The first verse provides us with his disparate allies in this effort, which most Biblical commentators agree indicates a series of separate rebellions that were telescoped together in this one episode.

Korah publicly challenges Moses that he has assumed too much personal power since all the people are holy.  Moses responds that God will demonstrate who is supposed to have special access to God.  He proceeds to set up a public test for that demonstration.  Moses chides Korah because as a member of the tribe of Levi, he already has a preferred position.  Their rebellion is in essence against God.  Moses also sent for the other rebellious group, but they refused to appear, complaining that Moses had taken them “from a land of milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness”.

God urges Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God could annihilate them all, but Moses and Aaron prayed to God on their behalf.  God instructs Moses to tell the people to move away from the rebels, Dothan and Abiram.  Moses warns that something extraordinary will happen to them and their supporters.  The ground opens up and swallows them, including Korah’s people.

God orders Moses to remove the fire pans that were used in the test of wills.  They were hammered into plating for the altar as a warning to others.  The people complained to Moses and God’s presence appeared.  Again God threatened to annihilate the people.  A plague broke out, despite their efforts to pray on behalf of the people.  Many died.

God ordered Moses to take a staff from each of the twelve Israelite chieftains and one for Aaron.  They were to be deposited in the Tent of Meeting.  The next day it was discovered that only Aaron’s staff had sprouted blossoms and almonds.  Aaron’s staff was returned to be kept as a lesson to the rebels.

Further instructions are given to Aaron and the other Levites as to their duties and what rewards they would receive for fulfilling their duties.

(back to top)



Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1

The rabbis declare this one of the more curious passages in the Torah. God instructs Moses and Aaron on the laws of purification. When an individual becomes ritually impure, primarily by proximity to a corpse, s/he must undergo a purification procedure. That involved being sprinkled with the ashes of an unblemished red heifer, which when located had to be properly slaughtered by the Kohen and then burned. The procedure for Kohen and for the one purified was enormously complex.
The rabbis found the ritual mystifying. They claimed this was the quintessential Hok, a category of laws which could not be rationally explained. Also in the category of Hok were the dietary rules, where no explanation for them is ever given in the Torah. Since we no longer conduct ritual sacrifice and do not have an unblemished red heifer, the ritual is moot (though there are ultraorthodox Jews in Jerusalem who would like to reinstitute the ritual). Thus anyone who has attended a funeral, entered a cemetery or visited a hospital with a morgue is ritually unclean with no prospect of becoming pure.
Nearing the end of their journey toward the promised land, once again the people complain about a lack of water. God instructs Moses and Aaron to take a rod and before the people speak to the rock and miraculously water will flow forth. Moses gathers the people and addressing them as rebels, Moses strikes the rock. Water flows as promised. However God sees Moses action as a lack of trust and punishes him by denying him the right to enter the Promised Land with the people.
The rabbis squirm feeling the punishment too severe for the crime. Some suggest the real crime was losing his cool and calling them rebels. Others claim that in hitting the rock, rather than speaking to it, Moses undermined the miracle of water flowing simply from words, rather than actions. Yet others search for deeper explanations.
Our Parshah includes the death of both Moses sister Miriam and brother Aaron.
Now traveling north on the east side of the Promised land, the Israelites confront local populations: the Edomites and Canaanites. They request permission to cross the land, because their ultimate goal is beyond.   Permission is refused. The Canaanites engage the Israelites in battle and lost.
The people complain once again, this time about the food. A plague of serpents began to punish, but was stopped by a bronze snake that Moses mounted on a standard. From there the people continued on through TransJordan. They battled as well against Sihon, king of the Amorites. The Israelites defeated them as well as King Og of Bashan. Finally they came to the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.

Parshat Hukkat begins with what the rabbis agree is the most mysterious ritual in the Torah: ritual purification by means of the ashes of a red heifer. The main source of ritual impurity was through proximity with a corpse. If one was even in the same structure as a dead body one became ritually impure. Our portion provides in great detail the process by which a ritually impure person could become purified. This involved the preparation of ashes from a red heifer that after cleansing was sprinkled on the one to be cleansed. The rabbis recognized that there was no way they could explain this ritual rationally. They acknowledged that there were certain traditions which they called Hukkim, which were to be observed without explanation. Of course without sacrifices, there is no contemporary means of cleansing oneself today.
Next we read the narrative of Moses punishment by God for hitting the rock when the people clamored for water rather than speaking to the rock as instructed by God. The rabbis struggled mightily with this story, because the punishment, that Moses would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land seemed much to harsh. Thus the rabbis searched the text for some other greater sin that justified this severe punishment.
In our Torah reading we confront both the deaths of Moses' sister Miriam and soon thereafter his brother, Aaron.
The remainder of the Parashah is consumed with the issue of the Israelite attempts to negotiate with the local populations on the east side of the Jordan, asking permission to traverse their land so that they can reach the place where they will cross into Canaan.
The final wilderness complaint once again opens up the question of the entire enterprise. "Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?" They complain again of lack of bread, water and poor food. When God sends serpents and many died, the people admit that they sinned and asked Moses to intercede. God has Moses make a Seraph serpent image mounted on a standard. Anyone who will look upon it will be healed. Here we have one origin of the caduceus.


The opening of our Parashah describes the procedure for purification when someone has become impure by virtue of proximity to a dead body.

The  name of this portion is Hukkat, a form of the Hebrew Hok.  According to the rabbis, a Hok is a law commanded by God which has no rational explanation.  Logically we might ask why observe laws which have no rational basis?  But we do all the time....Dietary laws are perhaps the best example, and not just Jewish dietary laws, but American customs.  For example in America we do not eat horse meat, but they do in France.  In Asia people eat all kinds of creatures that we do not serve to an American public.  In Southeast Asia they eat dogs and cats!!!  To this list of the irrational we might add customs about burping, yawning, sneezing and other natural bodily functions for which we have all kinds of rules most of which have nothing to do with health or hygiene.

So in order to purify someone according to our parasha, s/he must be sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer.  The heifer had to be without blemish or defect.  It was then slaughtered and the ashes collected to be used for this purpose.  Since the Temple no longer exists and sacrifices no longer take place, we are all ritually impure with no means of securing a state of purity.

Washing of hands when departing the cemetery is a vestige of the sense of impurity that proximity to the dead brings about.

The rest of the parashah deals with the transition from the generation that left Egypt to the generation that will follow.  We read first of the "sin" of Moses in hitting the rock, rather than speaking to it when the people complain of a shortage of water.  God's punishment will be that even Moses will not have the privilege of entering into the Promised Land with the people.  (There is much Rabbinic discussion as to exactly what Moses' sin consisted of.  Many rabbis think the punishment does not fit the crime if it is only this seemingly insignificant mistake.  They scour the text for better explaniations.)

Along the way we read of the deaths of Moses' sister, Miriam and brother, Aaron.

The last section of our parasha deals with the Israelite's encounter and confrontations with Edomites and other Canaanites, who did not give the people passage through their land on their way to the Promised Land.  We leave the text as the Israelites camped in the steppes of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.  It is here that we will pick up next week with the story of Balak, the Moabite king.


Ritual purity was a universal religious concern in antiquity among virtually all societies.  Each of those societies saw the source of that impurity coming from different places.  For Jews the primary source of impurity was in contamination from a dead body.  Any contact, even being in the same enclosure rendered a person "unclean".  Our Torah reading opens the subject of how someone who had become ritually impure, could restore their sense of "cleanness." 

The complicated ritual described involves being sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer.  The rabbis throughout the centuries have been at a loss to provide a rational explanation for the ritual.  The claim that laws come in several forms, those that have a rational basis and those which simply come from God and are to be observed on that basis alone.  These latter laws are called Hukkim.  While the ritual of the red heifer is foremost among them, second on the list would be our dietary laws, also given by God with no further explanation. 

Irrational laws are difficult for moderns to accept in theory, but we all obey innumerable laws/customs that have no rational basis: rules concerning how a table should be properly set, the fact that we do not eat horse and other animals that are part of the diets of other societies, the custom of responding when someone sneezes or apologizing when we burp.  These customs also have no rational basis but we observe them nonetheless.

Today ritual impurity is not an issue.  Though religious Kohanim still avoid going to a cemetery, and we still wash our hands when leaving the cemetery, we are all technically ritually unclean.  However since we no longer have sacrifices, we have no means of undergoing a traditional purification process.

Also in this week's parashah we read of the sin of Moses.  When the people complain of a lack of water, God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water will flow.  Instead Moses berates the people publicly and hits the rock.  Water flows, but God punishes Moses by telling him he will not be allowed to enter the Promised land, a severe blow to Moses.

The last section of the Parashah describes the Israelites encounter with several kingdoms as the head north on the east side of the Jordan River.  They ask for permission to pass over the lands, but the kings are reluctant to grant that permission.


In Jewish tradition we are told that there are various kinds of laws, Mishpatim, Dinim, etc.  An additional type of law is known as Hok.  These laws are God-given, but not necessarily subject rational explanation.  These are the rules that we usually have most trouble with, despite the fact that we observe such laws readily in everyday life.  Many of the rules which we refer to as manners or common courtesies often have no rational basis: why we say “God bless you’ after someone sneezes or why knife and spoon are always placed to the right and fork to the left, why traditionally hats were not worn inside, etc.  We obey these rules without thinking, they are so ingrained in our upbringing.  Jewish dietary laws are a prime example of laws which we would understand as Hukkim.

Our Torah reading also begins with a very complicated Hok, namely the procedure for ritual purification.  If one had become ritually impure, s/he would have to subject him/herself to purification.  This would involve bathing and then being sprinkled with the ashes of a red heifer.  Our Torah reading begins with a detailed description of how that was done.  Since the destruction of the second Temple and the end of sacrificial rites, this law is no longer applicable.

The second focus of our Torah reading is the sin of Moses and Aaron following the death of their sister Miriam.  When the people complain yet again for more water, God instructs Moses to go to a particular rock and speak to it.  In a similar incident (perhaps another version of this incident) recorded in the book of Exodus Moses is told to hit the rock.  Here Moses hits the rock and water comes flowing forth.  God is angry at Moses and punishes him by telling him he will not enter the Promised Land, he will not finish the journey with the people.  Instead he will die and only be able to look into the land of Israel from the mountaintop.  The rabbis struggle with this narrative.  What was Moses’ sin that would have justified such a severe punishment.  Moses had been such a loyal servant and good leader.  The rabbis are fairly adamant that the sin must have been more than merely hitting the rock.   Virtually every commentator weighs in with an explanation of his own.

Much of the rest of the reading tells of their continuing journey, encountering first Edomites and them Canaanites.  The people complain yet once more that they have insufficient food and water.  God sent serpents that caused many of the people to die.  When Moses prayed on behalf of the people to remove the serpents, God instructed Moses to make a copper serpent, which would be the source of healing for anyone bitten henceforth.

(back to top)


Balak, Numbers 22:2-25:9

The last section of last week's Torah reading, Parshat Hukkat, dealt with Israel's interaction with the territorial people's east of the Jordan as Israel made its way north in order to cross into Canaan north of the Dead Sea. They repeatedly asked and were denied permission to cross land that belonged to others. On the first occasion they decided to go around the land. In the second instance they fought and defeated the Amorites.
Israel was now approaching the border with Moab. Having seen what the Israelites did to the Amorites, Balak, king of Moab, decides to fight with magic. He sends a delegation to hire Balaam, a recognized sorcerer to curse the Israelites. Balaam at first refuses claiming that God did not give him permission. When the delegation returned with even greater gifts Balaam agrees to the task, but God instructs Balaam to follow God's commands.
On the way Balaam's ass sees an angel blocking the road with drown sword, but Balaam is oblivious. The ass first veers into the field, then tries to bypass the angel but squeezes Balaam's foot against a wall and finally lay down, each time whipped by Balaam. The ass then spoke to Balaam pleading his loyalty. Finally God allowed Balaam to see what the ass saw, i.e. the angel blocking the way. Balaam offers to turn back rather than complete the mission. The angel tells him to complete the mission, but only say what God puts in his mouth.
Balak went to meet Balaam and Balaam repeats that he is only able to say what God places in his mouth. Altars are prepared and sacrifices offered. Nevertheless the curse becomes a blessing. Balak is furious and Balaam again repeats the condition. After the second attempt reveals the same result, Balak appeals to Balaam that if he cannot curse, then do not bless. During the third attempt part of Balaam's blessing is the famous: "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel". After a fourth attempt Balak gives up in frustration and Balaam returns home.
The final chapter stands at odds with all that has preceded. It tells of Israelites profaning themselves sexually with Moabite women and sacrificing to their gods. God tells Moses to have all the ringleaders impaled! At that moment an Israelite brought a Midianite woman in public. Phineas, a priest took a spear and stabbed both of them, stopping the plague that had come upon the people. The Torah claims that the plague killed 24,000 people!


The Moabite king Balak is faced with a problem.  The Israelites are approaching his land from the south and will want to cross his land.  Though other kings have objected, the Israelites defeated these kings.  Balak sends messengers to engage a famous diviner, Balaam, for the purpose of putting accurse on the Israelites so that Balak might defeat them.  Balaam refuses their entreaty when God instructs him not to go with the messengers.

Balak sent a second more prestigious delegation that promised Balaam riches.  This time he agreed to join them because God gave him permission on the condition that Balaam do only what God commands.

On the way we read of a peculiar incident in which the donkey on which Balaam was riding sees the way blocked by an angel which Balaam is not able to see.  The donkey tries to circumvent the angel by going into the field, by squeezing Balaam leg and then in frustration sitting down.  Frustrated Balaam whips the donkey which prompts the donkey to speak, criticizing Balaam's intemperate behavior.  Only then can Balaam see that his loyal donkey has greater insight than he himself.  The angel reminds Balaam of his mission that he must say nothing but what God instructs him.

Balak went to greet Balaam.  When questioned why he didn't come when summoned the first time, Balaam claims he is not an independent agent, but an agent of God's message.  After sacrifices, Balaam is taken to a place where he can overlook the Israelite camp.  Instead f a curse, a blessing emerged.  Balak is infuriated.  Balaam again claims he is subject to God.  They tried again from a different vantage point, but the curse became a blessing again.  Balak pleads that if you can't curse them, at least don't bless them.  The attempt is made four times, each blessing stronger than the previous one.  Then they parted.

By strong contrast the final verses of the parashah tell of the apostasy at Baal Peor.  The Israelites "profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the people to sacrifice to their gods."  God orders Moses to have the ringleaders publicly impaled to turn away God's wrath.  As Moses gave the order an Israelite publicly brought a Midianite woman into the camp.  Phineas, grandson of Aaron took a spear in his hand and killed both of them, thereby stopping the plague.  The parashah concludes by informing us that 24,000 died!


Marching north on the east side of the Jordan valley, the Israelites camp "in the steppes of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho."  In order to enter the Promised Land they must traverse the land of Moab.  

Having heard of the approaching Israelites Balak, king of Moab, is determined to stop them.  Prior to engaging them in armed conflict he decides to engage the services of Balaam, a renowned sorcerer to curse the Israelites.  Balaam turns away the first delegation claiming that God would not support his mission.  When the delegation returns with more gifts he agrees to go with them, claiming that he can only say what God puts in his mouth.

Along the way his donkey sees a menacing angel blocking the path.  The donkey veers off the path and is beaten by Balaam.  The donkey then tries to push past the angel scraping Balaam's foot for which he receives additional lashes.  Realizing he cannot pass the angel the donkey sits and is lashed again.  The donkey then speaks claiming eternal loyalty to Balaam and not deserving these punishments.  Only then is the angel revealed to Balaam himself.  He realizes that given the circumstances, the donkey behaved properly.  Balaam is warned again about the mission upon which he is engaged.

Upon arrival sacrifices are made upon an altar and Balaam is placed where he can overlook the Israelite camp.  Rather than curse them, he blesses them, concluding "May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!"  Balak is outraged, choosing a second point from which Balaam can only see a portion of the Israelite camp.  Again the curse emerges as a blessing, "When He blesses I cannot reverse it."  Balak instructs Balaam, if you cannot curse, do not bless.  He tries once more only to hear another blessing: Mah Tovu/ How fair ate your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel".    Balaam speaks one final time again in praise of Israel after which Balaam returns home.

However blessed the people are not immune to the worst aspects of assimilation.  In the final episode Israel begins to worship the local god.  God orders the ringleaders to be impaled.  One of the Israelites brought a Midianite woman into a tent.  Phineas, grandson of Aaron, with spear in hand killed them both ending the plague.


The Israelites are on the last part of their journey to the Promised land.  As the venture north to the east of the land of Israel, kingdoms become alarmed and they fear the approaching Israelite camp.  Balak, king of Moab, sends a delegation to invite Balaam, a recognized sorcerer, to assist by placing a course on the Israelites.  When Balaam consults God, who instructs Balaam not to go.  When a larger second delegation arrives promising great reward, Balaam again consults God.  This time God grants permission, provided Balaam agree to do only what God commands.

On the way Balaam’s ass perceived an angel with drawn sword blocking the path.  The ass swerved off the path and Balaam beat the ass.   Then the ass tried to get by the angel by pressing itself against the wall squeezing Balaam’s foot and Balaam beat her again.  When the ass saw there was no way past the angel, the ass sat down and a third time Balaam beat the ass.  At that point God allowed the ass to speak and the ass asked what he had done to deserve such treatment.  Balaam still unaware of the angel complained that the ass was making a mockery of him.  If he had a sword he would kill the ass.  The ass made Balaam admit his long-standing loyalty.  Only then did Balaam see the angel causing Balaam to bow to the ground.  The angel is there to emphasize how obnoxious Balaam’s errand is.  It is Balaam who deserves death, rather than the ass.  Balaam agrees to turn back, but the angel urges Balaam to continue on, but only do what God tells him.

Balak went to greet Balaam and when he questioned Balaam’s initial refusal Balaam confesses that he is not a free agent, but subject to God. After requisite sacrifices, Balaam was taken to a place where he could see the Israelite camp.  God then instructs Balaam as to what to say, including the words, “How can I damn whom God has not damned, How doom when the Lord has not doomed.”

Balak is incensed.  Rather than a curse a blessing.  Balaam again confesses that he can only produce God’s words.  Balak determines to take him to another vantage point.  The second decree includes the words: “No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel.  The Lord their God is with them.”  With that Balak says that if he cannot curse, then at least don’t bless them.  He takes Balaam to yet a third place.  There again he offers sacrifices.  This time his blessing is crystal clear: Ma Tovu Ohaleha Yaakov/How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel.”

Furious Balak says that he was going to enrich Balaam, but now he decides tosend him home.  Balaam claims again that ithese words are from God and goes on to proclaim what the Israelites will do to Moab.  “It smashes the brow of Moab…Edom becomes a possession…Israel is triumphant.”

(back to top)



Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1

Containing the extensive listing of offerings that were to be offered daily, on Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh and major holy days, the rabbis determined that such should be the reading from the second Torah on each of those occasions. As a result we read short sections from the end of this parashah during the year more than any other. Thus a Sofer/scribe will often examine this portion above all others for wear and tear.
But much precedes the above section.
Parshat Pinkhas is named after a grandson of Aaron's named Pinkhas. At the end of last week's portion we read of an act of zealotry when Pinkhas executes an Israelite man and Midianite woman who were amongst others "profaning themselves by whoring". With Pinkhas' act a plague that had killed 24,000 was checked.
This week's Torah portion opens with God offering Pinkhas his "pact of friendship" seemingly indicating God's approval of his act of passion. By separating the act from the approval, rabbis claim, that approval was not so fast in coming. They wanted to stipulate that Judaism does not approve of vigilante acts. "In the text of the Torah scroll, the letter yod in Pinkhas' name is written smaller than the other letters. When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God and for y'hudi/Jew) is diminished thereby."
At this point we enter the concluding section of the book of Numbers focused on getting the people prepared for the eventual entrance and conquest of the Promised Land. Following the plague God orders Moses and Eleazar, Aaron's son, to take another census to determine the number of able-bodied men able to serve in the militia and the relative land needs of each of the tribes. The count comes to 601,730 with an additional 23,000 Levites.
The five daughters of Zelophehad then petition Moses. Their father died leaving no sons. Although inheritance rights flow to male heirs, the daughters ask for the right to inherit their father's estate. Unsure how to respond, Moses presents the case before God. God responds that the cause of the five daughters is just. God further delineates intestate rules.
Moses is then told to ascend the mountain from which he will be able to overlook the Promised Land. There he will die. Moses asks God to appoint a successor. God singles out Joshua and tells Moses to transfer leadership by laying his hands upon him in front of the entire community.


Please note that our Torah reading begins with verse 10, rather than verse 1 where most of the Torah readings begin. The division of the Torah into chapters and verses was done by Christian scholars. We use it, because it is convenient and is a fairly universal reference. In fact the Christian scholars are correct. The story of Pinkhas (Phineas in English) begins with the last 9 verses of the previous Torah reading. However commentators have noted that the rabbis discomfort with the episode became the reason for separating the story into two parts.

Pinkhas was a priest, a Kohen. During a time of idolatry and sexual impropriety, God demanded that all the ringleaders be impaled. This was followed by a plague. When an Israelite flagrantly brought a Midianite woman publicly into the camp, Pinkhas overcome with emotion stabbed both of them through the belly. This stopped the plague.

End of previous parashah...

In this week's parashah God awards Pinkhas with God's Brit Shalom, Covenant of Peace. Many of the rabbis were uncomfortable with Pinkhas' taking the law into his own hands without any due process, no finding of fact, no court or finding of guilt with proper punishment imposed. And so both in breaking up the episode into two parts and well as other hints the rabbis pointed to, they claimed that God was indicating that such action should not become precedent setting.

Our parashah continues with a second census of the people. This would be an accounting of the people of military age who as they approach their final destination would form the army upon entering the Promised Land. The census as before was taken by tribe. The total number was 601,730. God tells Moses that these numbers should be used in apportioning the conquered land, with more land going to larger tribes. The tribe of Levi would get no apportioned land and therefore they were not included in the count.

The five daughters of Zelophhad then came to Moses with an appeal. Since their father had no sons who were the standard inheritors of estates, they wanted the right to inherit in their own names. Not knowing how to respond, Moses appeals to God. God sided with the appeal of the daughters. This became precedent setting in cases where a man died leaving no male inheritors.

Moses is then told to ascend the mountain where he might view the land. Moses appeals for a successor to lead the people. God tells him to single out Joshua and formally invest him publicly.

Chapter 28 is the most read chapter in the Torah. It lists the sacrifices that were to be offered every day and on special occasions. We read from this section as a second Torah reading on all holy days.


It is no accident that this Parashah begins with verse 10, rather than the more common verse 1.  The story of Pinkhas began at the end of last week's portion.  Pinkhas in an act of passion kills an offending Israelite with a Midianite woman engaged in inappropriate acts.  His act checks the plague that killed thousands.

Our Torah reading this week opens with God's approval granting Pinkhas God's pact of friendship/peace.  But the rabbis were in large measure uncomfortable with Pinkhas' action.  It smacked of vigilante behavior.  There was no finding of fact, no trial.  Pinkhas' act, praised by God, could not function as precedent for how Jews should conduct their just society.  And so they separated the story of Pinkhas from the judgment rendered about it indicating their discomfort.

The parashah contains the second Israelite census of all able bodied men above the age of 20.  The purpose of this census is for the eventual dividing of the Land among the tribes and providing a militia for the forthcoming war against Midian.  Each tribe is tallied separately.  The combined total exclusive of the tribe of Levi was 601,730.  Levites were tallied of all males from one month and above.  They numbered 23,000.  The tribe of Levi was counted separately, because they would not inherit a separate portion of the land.

The five daughters of Zelophehad came to Moses and other leaders asking for the right to inherit since their father had no sons and inheritance laws only permitted males to inherit.  Unsure, Moses inquired of God.  God's response to the daughters request was positive.  God also provides other inheritance provisions in circumstances where someone dies without children, or without male siblings who would be the next in line to inherit.

God further encourages Moses to ascend the mountain from which he will be able to view the Promised Land, but will not be permitted to enter it.  Joshua is singled out as Moses' successor.  Moses laid hands upon Joshua in a public ceremony indicating the transfer of leadership.

Parshat Pinkhas contains the catalog of communal sacrifices that were to be offered each day and on Shabbat and holy days.  We read from this section on each and every holiday as the reading for the Maftir.


Our Parasha opens with the conclusion of the events from the previous Parasha.  Pinkhas, a Kohen, in an act of passion stabbed and killed an Israelite man and Midianite woman when engaged engaged in flagrant violation of sexual mores.  Pinkhas' violent act checked a violent plague that had killed 24,000!  The verdict on Pinkhas' very troubling murder opens this weeks reading.  Pinkhas "turned back My wrath from the Israelites, by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion."  God then rewards Pinkhas.  The rabbinical commentaries take strong positions, pro and mostly con, on the manner in which Pinkhas behaved, primarily concerned with others using this act as precedent for others acting as judge, jury and executioner.  Even those who write in favor of Pinkhas describe what he did as unique to his situation and must not be taken as precedent.

The last 11 chapters of Numbers are focused on preparations for entering the land of Canaan.  Prior to entering the Promised Land, God orders Moses to take a second census of all able-bodied men above the age of 20 for the purpose of dividing the land once they have conquered it.  The Levite clans are numbered separately because they will not inherit any land.  The census was necessary because during the travel in the desert the entire generation that had left Egypt had died and a new generation would now inherit the land.  Only Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who brought back a positive report about the land would be privileged to enter the land with the new generation born in the desert.

Five daughter of Zelophehad approached Moses asking for the right to inherit from their father who left no male heirs.  Unsure, Moses consulted with God.   God agreed with the women, opening the door slightly for women to claim rights in inheritance.  Further the Torah explicates the laws of inheritance.

Moses is told to ascend Mt. Abarim (otherwise known as Nebo) where he will die.  Moses asks God to appoint a successor.  God tells Moses to single out Joshua and invest him with Moses' authority so that the community will change its allegiance and obey him.  In a public ceremony Moses laid his hands on Joshua symbolically transferring the leadership to him.

The last part of the Parasha is the most read section of the Torah.  In it are described the sacrificial calendar, which sacrifices should be prepared every day, every holiday and special occasion.   We read from this section as a reminder of what sacrifices would have been offered had the Temple not been destroyed on every holiday.


Our Torah reading begins in the middle of a chapter, because it begins in the middle of a troubling episode.  We ended last week’s reading with significant sexual and idolatrous violations that Israelite men were committing with Moabite women.  In one public incident Pinchas, a Kohen, kills an Israelite man and Midianite women in an act of passion, ending a punishing plague.    This week’s reading begins with praise for Pinchas in being given the covenant of peace by God.  The rabbis struggled long and hard to determine whether and how to justify this act of zealotry or fanaticism.

The final chapters of the book of Numbers deal with preparation for the occupation of the Promised Land.  That begins with another census of all able-bodied men above the age of 20for the ultimate purpose of dividing the land among the tribes and providing a militia for the forthcoming war again Midian.

The 5 daughters of a man named Zelophehad approached Moses to challenge the traditional inheritance laws in which only sons inherited.  Not having any brothers, they petitioned to be their father’s heirs.  After consulting with God, Moses granted their wish.

God warns Moses about his impending death and urges him to appoint Joshua as his successor.  He did so as God urged in a public ceremony, laying his hands upon him.

A calendar is now laid out detailing the various public sacrifices that were to be offered on all holidays and public occasions.  This section becomes quite well known, because we read from it as the reading from the second Torah on all festivals

(back to top)



Matot, Numbers 30:2-32:42


As the Israelites stand at the end of their journey prior to being ready to cross the Jordan River into Canaan, Moses transmits laws about verbal commitments. All verbal commitments and pledges are sacred and must be kept. However a father when his daughter lives in his house and a husband during marriage has a right to annul vows of his daughter or wife. If not annulled the vow stands. Vows of widows or divorcees stand.

Our Etz Hayyim comments: "These rules, reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband, have been superseded by developments in the modern world. Already by the time of the Talmud, the Sages limited the applicability of this law by restricting its time (the year between ages 11 and 12) and circumstances. The sense here of the married woman as subservient in the early period of our tradition, however, seems unavoidable."

Our reading continues with difficult and complicated relations with the Midianites. God tells Moses to conduct a military campaign against the Midianites. Each tribe contributed 1000 soldiers. They defeated the Midianites and took women and children captive as well as their herds and wealth. All was brought to Moses, Eleazar the Kohen and the people. Moses criticized the leaders for saving the women who were responsible for the plague at Peor. The men and all the possessions then had to be purified. An inventory was taken and taxes removed.

Two tribes, Reuben and Gad, then came to Moses requesting permission to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, because the land was good for grazing. Moses was angry, because he assumed they would not help the other tribes conquer Canaan. They assured him that they in fact would leave their families and possessions behind, but they would function as shock troops. Moses agreed.



Our Torah reading begins with the discussion of vows and verbal commitments.  Vows and verbal commitments are sacred and must be kept.  However the Torah specifies that fathers may nullify vows of their daughters as long as they live in his home and husbands may nullify the vows of their wives.  However if the father/husband does not take immediate action, the vow stands and must be kept.  The vow of a widow or divorcee stands and may not be nullified by another.

Rabbi Kushner comment in our Humash: “These rules, reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband, have been superceded by developments in the modern world.  Already by the time of the Talmud, the Sages limited the applicability of this law by restricting its time (the year between ages 11 and 12) and circumstances.  The sense here of the married woman as subservient ub the early period of our tradition, however, seems unavoidable.”

Chapter 32 describes the war against Midian in which 1000 men from each tribe were recruited for this campaign.  Following victory they brought the collective booty to Moses, Eleazar the priest and to the entire Israelite community.  Following the conflict they purified themselves and all the instruments of battle.  The booty was then divided.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad which owned much cattle came to Moses and Eleazar and appealed to them for the right to settle east of the Jordan on land that would be good for grazing.  Moses attacked the members of these tribes for wanting to abandon their fellow Israelites who would be entering the land of Israel.  They responded that they would settle their families on the land and then act as shock troops in the battle to conquer the land.  Moses accepted this plan.

(back to top)


Matot, Masei - Numbers 30:2-32:42, Numbers 33:1-36:13


With this double portion we conclude the book of Numbers. In many ways the end of the book of Numbers concludes the Torah narrative for the entire last book of Deuteronomy is devoted to final speeches by Moses to the new generation born in the desert reminding the people all the events that have taken place and exhorting them to obey God's expectations of them.
Matot opens with an excursus on the legality of vows. Oral obligations are sacrosanct and must be kept. However the vow of a woman may be countermanded by her father if prior to marriage or by her husband. If father of husband having heard the vow says nothing the vow stands. Vows of widows or divorcees are binding. Our Humash comments, "These rules, reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father of a husband, have been superceded by developments in the modern world. Already by the time of the Talmud, the Sages limited the applicability of this law by restricting its time (the year between ages 11 and 12) and circumstances. The sense here of the married woman as subservient in the early period of our tradition, however, seems unavoidable".
Chapter 31 relates the last great task of Moses, a war against Midian. An army of 1000 men from each tribe is gathered. They defeat the Midianites and treat the captives brutally.
Two tribes came to Moses asking permission to settle on the east side of the Jordan since they found there good grazing land. Moses was incensed assuming that they would not accompany the rest of the people into Canaan and would not help the other tribes conquer the land. Such a decision would cause doubt within the other tribes. However the Gadites and Reubenites responded that they would surely accompany the others and serve as shock troops. Moses then granted their request. Half of the tribe of Menasseh joined the tribes of Gad and Reuben.
In the second Parashah we read the list of all the stopping points where the Israelites camped an their journey from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. "Rashi, citing Moses ha-Darshan, calculates that, if we omit the first and last years, when the Israelites were constantly on the move, there were only 20 stations during 38 years. It is wrong to think of Israel as constantly on the march. The list of place names reminds us that during most of the 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites were living normally at one oasis or another for years at a time".
Moses is told to tell the people what they are to do in dispelling the local inhabitants. Each tribe would receive an apportioned share of the land. The text also delineates the borders of the land and describes the cities that will be designated for the Levites. "The tribe of Levi, unlike the other tribes would receive no land to farm. Perhaps this was to prevent what the Israelites had seen in Egypt, where the priests were wealthy land owners who tended to side with the rich and powerful." Also designated are the cities of refuge, places to which a person responsible for accidental homicide could flee and be protected from revenge killings.
Although God had ruled that the daughters of Zelophehad, who had no brothers could inhetit their father's estate, members of the Menasseh tribe challenged the ruling claiming that if the se women married out of their tribe they would lose possession of the land within their allotment. Moses agreed and required the daughters to marry within their tribe. And so they did.


Masei, Numbers 33:1-36:13


Hazak, Hazak, v’Nit-hazek/ Strength, Strength, May we be able to strengthen one another.  We will recite this at the end of the reading tomorrow as we conclude the Book of Numbers.

In many ways the Book of Numbers is the end of the narrative though it is only the fourth of the five books.  That is so, because the book of Deuteronomy contains a series of speeches that Moses delivers to the new generation born in the desert summarizing all that has happened to them on this journey and all that God expects from the people after he transfers the leadership to his successor, Joshua.

Therefore our Torah reading this week opens with a list of the 42 stops the Israelites made on their way from Egypt to the steppes of Moab on the east bank of the Jordan River across from Jericho.  God tells Moses to instruct the people that when they cross the Jordan they are to dispossess the local inhabitants and destroy the images they worship as gods.  The tribes should apportion the land among themselves.  God warns that those who remain behind will be “stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides”.

The text then provides us with one of the several listing of the boundaries of the Promised Land.  These boundaries will contain the 9½ tribes that will live in the land.  The tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Menasseh will settle east of the Jordan.  God further tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to establish Levitical towns in which the Levites will live.  Six of the 48 Levitical cities will also function as Cities of Refuge, places where those accused of manslaughter can flee for protection.  There he will receive a hearing to determine whether the death was intentional and whether the perpetrator will be allowed into the city as a sanctuary from those who would seek revenge.

To convict a person of a capital crime at least two witnesses are required.  If found guilty, no ransom is to be accepted or in lieu of having to seek sanctuary.  “Blood pollutes the land and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.”

Having permitted the five daughter of Zelophehad to inherit from their father, the Torah now restricts female inheritors to marry only within their tribe, so that the integrity of the tribal lands will remain in tact.  The five daughter agreed to this condition.

“These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.”

Hazak, Hazak, v’Nit-hazek

(back to top)

Add comment

Security code

Congregation Neveh Shalom | 2900 SW Peaceful Lane | Portland, OR 97239 | Tel: 503.246.8831 | Fax: 503.246.7553
Directions DirectionsDonate Donate