Numbers

“Parsha and Purpose” – Pinchas 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders

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Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

“Every Generation Needs Its Own Leaders”

After wandering for 40 years in the desert, the Jewish People will soon be led into the Promised Land. 

But their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, will not be accompanying them. 

This was made painfully clear to  Moshe in the Torah portion two weeks ago, when he famously struck a rock in order to draw water from it, instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. 

God explains to Moshe that he will not merit to cross the threshold of the desert into Israel:

כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם

For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. (Numbers 27:14)

And now, in this week’s portion of Pinchas, God reiterates the punishment, figuratively pouring salt in Moshe’s wound.

In fact, the narrative that Moshe will be replaced by another leader and not merit to enter the Land of Israel will be repeated no fewer than five more times between now and the account of Moshe Rabbeinu’s death. 

Surely Moshe comprehended this news the first time. What is the lesson we learn from its repetition? 

A careful look at the events preceding each time the message is given to Moshe hints at a possible answer: Moshe is not being punished merely for striking the rock. Moshe is being replaced because he is unable to engage the next generation.  

When the first generation of Israelites  leave Egypt were involved in the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe shows amazingly strong leadership qualities.

He is willing to sacrifice his own life for his people:

וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ

Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)

In this week’s portion, however, after the Jewish People engage in idolatrous behavior, the disconnect between Moshe and the second generation is woefully apparent.

He simply doesn’t understand them.

They were not born and raised in the crushing slave experience in Egypt. They live with Divine miracles on a daily basis. Their clothing grows with them and their food and drink comes from the Heavens! 

Moshe had high hopes for this unencumbered younger generation. He envisioned how their comfortable lives would enable them to devote their time to Torah study. 

But instead of striving to achieve greatness, they are rebellious and demanding. 

Deeply frustrated by this behavior, Moshe seemingly gives up on them. When action is required, he takes no initiative.

When the people engage in hedonistic and idolatrous indulgences, as they do in this week’s parsha, Moshe doesn’t intervene. All he can do is weep. (Numbers 25:6)

This is not the Moshe of the past, the active protector and leader of the Jewish People.

And for that reason, his fate is sealed.  He must step down.

Moshe cannot negotiate their needs; he cannot offer any resolution. 

This is not the Moshe of the past who was able to see the silver lining in clouds much darker than this. 

Every time an issue pops up, Moshe is no longer the pro-active protector/leader of the Jewish People; he realizes that he can no longer suffer their impudence at the moment. 

Moshe turns to God using this language: 

יִפְקֹד ה’ אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה

Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a person over the congregation who can tend to the diverse needs of all people;

אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם

who will go out before them;

וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם… 

someone who will bring the people together… (27:16-17)

Moshe says that a leader is someone who can tackle the needs of each person, who inspires people to think higher and live more purposefully, who will advocate for them, and who can unite them.

Just as Moshe articulated the leadership qualities necessary for the generation after his, we too need to connect with leaders who understand the generation and environment in which they live.

We must nurture these leaders; elevate them when they are ready; allow them to grow in their role; learn from them; engage them; support them and, yes, sometimes respectfully challenge them.

May we merit leaders who meet the standard for excellence mentioned by Moshe, and may they merit to lead us to our ultimate destiny as a people.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Balak 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

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Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

“The Never-Ending Goal of Unity Without Uniformity”

It was the summer of 1935.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the young Lithuanian-born-and-raised heir apparent to a legendary rabbinical dynasty was making his first – and as it turned out, his only – trip to Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Shlomo Aronson, the widely beloved Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, had passed away in March, and Rav Soloveitchik, who had earned a PhD from the University of Berlin and who was then a community rabbi in the city of Boston, was hoping to succeed him in that position.

During that visit, the 32-year old Rav Soloveitchik was invited to deliver a shiur at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, the spiritual home to the vision and teachings of the legendary Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.

This provided an opportunity for Rav Soloveitchik to meet with Rav Kook, the ailing Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael who would pass away a few months later.

After the visit and the shiur, Rav Kook recalled his own experience as a student attending the shiurim of Rav Chaim Brisker, Rav Soloveitchik’s grandfather, at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and commented that “The power of the genius of the grandfather now resides with the grandson.” 

As a candidate for Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, that Shabbat Rav Soloveitchik presented a drasha on the parsha, which was the same as this week’s portion: Parshat Balak.

In retrospect, we know that Rav Soloveitchik – the man who Rav Kook described as a genius and who went on to become a seminal figure in Modern Orthodoxy – did not receive the position of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi.

As a curious student, I once asked Rav Soloveitchik why he thought they didn’t choose him.

He explained that he believed it was due to the drasha that he delivered.

With a bit of further prodding, the Rav  shared that the drasha he delivered focused on the verse:

מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

How beautiful are the tents of Jacob, the dwellings of Israel (Numbers 24:5)

And he cited these words to express his hope that the various tents of Israel should soon be able to dwell together: Ashkenazim and Sephardim, the religious and secular.

To try to achieve unity even without uniformity.

In the aftermath of his not receiving the position, Rav Soloveitchik realized that the community was not ready to hear and internalize such a message.

With the 20/20 hindsight of history, perhaps it was fortunate that Rav Soloveitchik never became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and instead remained in the United States in order to help shape world Jewry using both the community of Boston and Yeshiva University as an incubator for his creative thoughts and to become “the Rav”, the greatest teacher of his generation.

Yet, as we revisit this parsha, some 86 years later, we see clearly and sadly that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s message remains unrealized.

We are responsible to continue to strive toward actualizing the dream of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

We must all extend ourselves to ensure that there is more achdut, more unity amongst the Jewish people.

We must be respectful in how we talk to each other and about each other.

To accept and respect Jews who observe Judaism differently from us. 

Jews who have different customs and traditions, who hail from different descents.

To accept and respect one other – even when we don’t agree with the practices or beliefs of the other.

The capacity for us to show God that we are a people that even though we may not be uniform, we are nevertheless committed to unity, so that we can merit the blessing of מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Chukat 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Life’s Fragility and Maximizing Our God-Given Potential”

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

“Life’s Fragility and Maximizing Our God-Given Potential”

Far too often, life is so hectic that we lose our focus on the larger narratives of our existence.

Why are we here? What can we do to give meaning to our relatively short time on earth?

How can we reclaim a proper perspective that will enable us to live lives of purpose and accomplishment in all aspects of our existence?

One answer comes from a surprising source, the intricate laws of ritual impurity found in the beginning of this week’s parsha, Chukat.

The parsha begins with the laws involving טומאת מת – the ritual impurity of someone who has come into contact with a human corpse, which is the quintessential example of טומאה, ritual impurity. (Numbers 19:1 – 22)

As we continue, we learn that only vessels that have a function can become ritually impure.

Moreover, a vessel’s ability to become ritually impure is proportional to its importance.

The higher the value of the vessel, the greater the capacity for ritual impurity to permeate its walls.

This principle becomes even more pronounced when we look at the laws of impurity in relation to the lesser creations.

For example, earthenware vessels, כלי חרס, the most simple and fragile of utensils:

…וכל כלי פתוח אשר אין צמיד פתיל עליו טמא הוא

…and every open vessel, with no lid fastened down, shall be unclean. (Numbers 19:15)

The walls of such a vessel are too primitive to contract ritual impurity from contact by touch.

They can only receive ritual impurity when an impure object is placed in its air space – Avir Klei Cheres.

Let’s reflect on that. An earthenware vessel and a human being come from the same elements.

The difference between them is their environment, and their potential.

The Torah views the human as the highest of vessels, with a commensurate ability to receive or impart ritual impurity in a multitude of ways, while the earthenware pot is the lowest of vessels, with a limited ability to contract ritual impurity.

What an important message for us.

Human beings are the crown jewel of God’s creation.

We are the ultimate vessel of God’s will in this world, His partner in working to perfect it.

We are holier than angels. (Tiferet Yisrael [Maharal], Chapter 24)

And built into our spiritual DNA is the incredible capacity to be a vessel for tremendous achievement and enlightenment.

But proportionally, we also have the capacity for stunning levels of degradation and destruction.

With this precarious balance in mind, we must constantly ask ourselves how the way we live our lives fits into the larger narrative of the purpose and potential of our existence.

God has made known His affection for us and our unique standing in the universe, as Rabbi Akiva taught:

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם

Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. (Pirkei Avot 3:14)

One more fact regarding the ritual impurity of a vessel:

If a vessel shatters, it may have lost its primary function, but if any of the shards can still hold water or food then they still have the capacity to be מקבל טומאה to receive impurity.

Shards of a vessel which still have purpose, can receive ritual impurity. 

Sometimes, our dreams and goals are shattered like a piece of pottery.

When our dreams and goals are not being achieved, when there are obstacles in the way it may make us feel broken – but it is important for us to realize that despite all of that we are still receptacles of holiness – even when we feel fragile, even when we fail.

We have the capacity to transform ourselves, our families, our community, our society.  

With this in mind, it is upon us to constantly consider the incredible potential that we possess the capacity in us to transform  ourselves, our families, our communities and the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Korach 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“From Devastation to Transformation: Owning Our Adversity”

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Parshat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

“From Devastation to Transformation: Owning Our Adversity”

The horrific scenes from last month in the Israeli city of Lod – synagogues being set afire as Sifrei Torah and holy books lie strewn on the floor – have been forever etched into our collective memory.

And the wounds – psychological and physical – from altercations between Jewish and Arab neighbors in that city, will take time to heal.

But out of the pain in this fractured city has come some inspiring responses from our students at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s campus in Lod.

They entertained local children with carnivals and games so parents could go to work; they helped staff the community’s situation room during night shifts so other residents could sleep; they boxed up possessions salvaged from rubble in burnt apartments; they cleaned up apartments that had been vandalized; and they began to raise money to rebuild a burned Talmud Torah.

Perhaps the spirit driving these acts of love and compassion are best expressed in the words of Carmel Levi, an 18 year-old student at Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod, who said:

“I chose to spend this year learning Torah specifically in the city of Lod because here, I can learn Torah in a family-like atmosphere and really be part of what’s happening in Israel – even in times of trouble. Despite everything that happened, we won’t give up on Lod.”

These inspiring words and actions, which demonstrate a deeply-rooted sense of Ahavat Yisrael and Ahavat HaBriot, also reflect the quintessentially Jewish tradition of transforming devastation into redemption, an example of which we find in our parsha, Korach.

250 leading figures among the Jewish people challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. (Numbers 16:2-3)

In the subsequent contest to authenticate if Moshe and Aharon are indeed the chosen leaders, Korach and his rebellious followers must take their firepans and place incense before God, as do Moshe and Aharon. (Numbers 16: 16-18)

The result is decisive:

וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵאֵת הֹ’ וַתֹּאכַל אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ מַקְרִיבֵי הַקְּטֹרֶת

And a fire went forth from God and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:35)

What is most perplexing is what happens to these firepans, the very items that were used in their campaign to overthrow Moshe and Aharon, essentially a rebellion against God.

I would have assumed that these firepans would have been destroyed along with the people who participated in the rebellion.

After all, these items are spiritually radioactive, to be placed in a spiritual nuclear containment facility, decommissioned and destroyed.

However, the opposite occurs!

Here’s what God instructs Elazar, the son of Aharon and heir to the priestly leadership of the Jewish people:

וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ׃

…remove (literally, lift up) the firepansfor they have become sacred – from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals. (Numbers 17:2)

Elazar is then to take these firepans from the rebellious group and hammer them into sheets of bronze, to be used as plating for the mizbe’ach, the altar.

These firepans, which had been used in religious rebellion, are now considered sacred, to be used in service to God.

What a powerful message for each and every one of us.

When we face setbacks or difficult ordeals, we try hard to put them behind us, to discard them from our consciousness as much as possible.

But while that may help to temporarily ease our pain, there is another, exceedingly difficult but rewarding path that we can take, and that is transformation. 

Not only were the firepans not destroyed, they were transformed into a vessel that represents our capacity to sacrifice, engage with and find redemption from God.

As our inspiring students in Lod teach us, we are not to run away, but rather to transform darkness into light, in order to live more joyful, productive and more meaningful lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Shelach Lecha 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Overcoming the Challenge of Robotic Judaism”

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Parshat Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

“Overcoming the Challenge of Robotic Judaism”

In conversations with students, educators, parents and colleagues over the years, one of the recurring themes is the concern about going through the motions robotically when it comes to fulfilling mitzvot.

The reasons vary from person to person, but the fact is, it can be hard to connect meaningfully on an ongoing basis  to our rituals.

What can we do to create an environment where Jewish practices empower our spirit and ritual commandments speak to us in the here and now?

What can we do to be more active partners with God,with our Judaism – rather than simply doing the spiritual equivalent of painting by numbers?

I would like to suggest an answer based on a mitzvah that we encounter in this week’s parsha, Shelach: that of the tzitzit.

And perhaps this unique meta-mitzvah status is reflected in the way the Torah formulates the commandment:

“ועשו להם ציצית…”

“And they should make tzitzit, fringes, for themselves…” (Numbers 15:38)

The Talmud addresses one aspect of this, explaining that “ועשו להם ציצית” – “and they should make tzitzit for themselves” – means that in order for one to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, they must rightfully belong to me, and not be stolen. (Sukkah 9a)

As with any mitzvah, a stolen item cannot be used to achieve a sacred relationship with God.  

I cannot cheat on my taxes or have corrupt business practices and think that the accumulated funds can be spiritually laundered via tzedakah.

But beyond that, perhaps the words of ועשו להם, “and they should make for themselves”, also means that we must be personally, proactively invested in what we are doing.

ועשו להם – we must take action; we must invest ourselves in the mitzvot that we perform in order for them to speak to us.

It won’t happen by waiting for inspiration to come.

ועשו להם – we must work on our relationship with God to the point where our fulfillment of His mitzvot, the expression of His will in this world, affects every part of us, emotionally,  in our kishkes, and cerebrally, in shaping our weltanschauung.

We need to ask ourselves: 

ועשו להם ציצית – How can/must the rituals communicate & speak to us?

What must we do to better invest ourselves in understanding the rituals and making them relevant, not robotic.

How can they affect the way we interact as professionals, the way we engage with our spouse, children and grandchildren?

As we read about and engage with this mitzvah of tzitzit this week, let us internalize the command of ועשו להם and take upon ourselves to actively invest ourselves in the meaningful fulfillment of mitzvot, helping us reconnect to our mission of shaping the destiny of ourselves, our people and humanity.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Beha’alotcha 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Terror, Civil Unrest and Antisemitism: What the Parsha’s Trumpets Reveal About Our Current Crises”

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Parshat Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

“Terror, Civil Unrest and Antisemitism: What the Parsha’s Trumpets Reveal About Our Current Crises”

The past few weeks of terrorist rocket-fire, civil unrest in Israel and a spike in antisemitic acts in the United States and Europe have put the Jewish world on edge.

How do we react to these multiple existential issues?

The answer to this question will tell us a lot about who we are as inidividuals, as a community and as a nation. 

I’d like to share with you an important  lesson for this moment that is found in our Torah portion, Beha’alot’cha.

In the parsha, we are introduced to the mitzvah of crafting trumpets – chatzotzrot – which are to be sounded on various occasions. (Numbers 10:1-10)

Amongst the occasions, times of community challenge: war, famine or distress, in which the blowing of the trumpets is a clarion call to the Jewish people to galvanize and respond to the crisis.

In contrast, other occasions include times of communal joy; on our holidays, Rosh Chodesh, or specific occasions to call the Jewish people in celebration.

As we are all aware, there is also another instrument mandated by the Torah that is still used today to galvanize the Jewish people together and with which we are all familiar: the shofar.

As we know, the shofar is sounded on Rosh HaShanah (Numbers 29:1), and, according to widespread custom, during the month of Elul to call us to re-engage with God, to do teshuva, in advance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (Rema, Orach Chayyim, 581:1).

Why are two different instruments needed?

Why are we commanded to use the chatzotzrot, the trumpets, in certain contexts, but the shofar, the ram’s horn, in the context of teshuva?

The answer can be found in the crucial difference between how each instrument is made.

The shofar, the ram’s horn, comes entirely from the world of nature, with minimal human involvement.

Conversely, the chatzotzrot, the trumpets, are painstakingly-fashioned out of silver by people.

Why is it that the instrument that is used to call us do teshuva must be found in nature? Why must the instrument that is used to call us together in times of joy or challenge be fashioned by human beings?

It is because when it comes to teshuva, what is critically important is for us to recognize the all-encompassing aspect of our relationship with God.

That God’s presence can be found in every aspect of our lives and everywhere in the world around us.

So in our effort to renew our relationship to God, we use an instrument that represents the notion that God visits blessings upon us, his creations, every moment of every day.

In contrast, the instruments used to gather us in times of joy and in times of challenge must be fashioned by people because, ultimately, how we react to the crises and joys that we experience, is largely dependent upon people: ourselves and others.

The Torah commands us to sound the human-crafted trumpets in times of crisis because it is human behavior, intelligence and initiative – with God’s help – that can transform crises into redemptive and uplifting moments.

As we face the crises of terror and civil unrest in Israel, and a threatening resurgence of acts of antisemitism throughout the world, we can hear both the shofar AND the trumpets being sounded from Above.

This is a time to do teshuva and to gather together as a people to respond, together, to the common threats we face.

Please God, may we succeed in taking the steps needed to repair our relationship with God and to transform these crises to celebrations in our lives, in the lives of our people and in society at large.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

This week’s parsha commentary has been sponsoredby the Charif family of Sydney, Australiain memory of Bryna (Bertha) bat Nottel Noteh Charifwhose yartzheit is on 21 Sivan Shabbat Shalom: Behalotcha (Numbers 8:1 – 12:16) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin            Efrat, Israel –– The Jewish people seemed poised for entry into the Promised …

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“Parsha and Purpose” – Naso 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Civil Unrest in Israel and the Blessing of Peace”

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Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)

“Civil Unrest in Israel and the Blessing of Peace

We find ourselves in very turbulent times. So many of us in Israel are worried about our families, children and grandchildren as well as our colleagues and students – including those in the army – all of whom face challenging situations and are in harm’s way.

During periods of uncertainty like these, we seek perspective and guidance. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik taught us that when you want insights into a current situation, you needn’t look any further than that week’s parsha.

And in fact this week, in Parshat Naso, we are introduced to Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, through which Aharon and his children will convey God’s blessing to the Jewish People. 

The Torah specifies the precise language that the Kohanim are to use:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃

May Hashem bless you and protect you.

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May Hashem deal kindly and graciously with you.

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃ (במדבר ו:כב-כז)

May Hashem bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:22-27)

 

The prayer concludes with peace – the most important blessing we could receive.

For me, at this moment – as I witness families sleeping in safe rooms, students being rushed into army service, colleagues in Lod whose possessions have been torched and lives are potentially at risk – I am reminded that peace comes at a price and that true peace must ensure that Jewish blood is no longer cheap.

My father, a Holocaust survivor, was thrown out of Poland. We will not be thrown out of Lod!

The Gemara in Tractate Sotah resolves that there must be a synergy between the Kohanim, who are the conduits of God’s  blessing, and the congregation, which must actively accept the blessings — whether by saying ‘Amen’, or reflecting with intent upon each utterance.

Our active response to the words  וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ – God’s protecting us; and וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ – God sharing his countenance with us, is the creation and participation in a strong IDF.

But our responsibility towards שָׁלֽוֹם – peace must also include our commitment to never take the law into our own hands. 

I am referring to a small group of Jews attacking innocent Arabs.

They are created, as we are, in the image of God.

Our responsibility to peace, towards our Torah values, requires a commitment to the rule of law.

As Prime Minister Netanyahu said in recent days: “Tolerating vigilantism and violence paves the way to anarchy”.

It is a total rejection of the priestly blessings that are to rest upon the Jewish people.

Please understand: there is no equivalence between isolated acts of vigilantism committed by a small number of misguided Jews and the full-blown acts of terror by Hamas and other terror organizations.

Nevertheless, as Yaakov Avinu reminds his sons Shimon and Levi, vigilantism is not acceptable. It is not part of the Jewish gestalt.

And so, as we read this parsha, we pray that these acts of violence by Jews have already ended.

I know from my colleagues at Ohr Torah Stone whose lives have been turned upside down that replacing their destroyed physical belongings will be far easier than repairing the shattered coexistence between them and their Israeli Arab neighbors.

So we pray for their shalom, both physical and inner peace. 

We pray for shalom for everyone in the State of Israel, especially the residents of Israel’s embattled south, where an entire generation of children has grown up under rocket fire. 

And we pray that we all merit Jews and Arbas alike in the State of Israel – God’s Priestly Blessing and the ultimate blessing of Shalom.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

“Parsha and Purpose” – Bamidbar 5781 
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar”

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Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)

“Individualism, Conformism and Community: The Book of Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three…”

This is a traditional way of counting people in Judaism. We don’t count Jews conventionally, using numbers, but rather look for other ways of reaching the final sum. 

Because in Judaism, every individual is important – every person is an entire world. If we count them as part of a larger whole, we limit their uniqueness and reduce them to being merely part of a group.

This dialectic of the prominence of the individual vs.the priority of the cmmty plays out throughout the entire book of Bamidbar, which our Sages accurately called “Sefer HaPekudim”, the English translation of which, the “Book of Numbers” –  how the cmmty is counted and the individual adds up.

For example, the daughters of Tzelafchad, women who challenge Moshe and ask how it is possible that they are not counted for inheritance simply because they did not have any male siblings.

Why should our family, they asked, which differs from the communal norm, be excluded from inheritance in the Land of Israel?

Ultimately, the perspective of this individual family triumphs over the communal norm.

Another example is the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni, in which individuals who for various reasons were unable to bring the Pascal Sacrifice  on the 14th of Nissan when the community is commanded to, are offered a “do over” one month later, when they are able to offer the Korban.

And in a third example, the Tribes of Reuven, Gad and part of Menashe request of Moshe that due to their particular individual needs they cannot dwell in a geographic area known as Israel, and ask that the definition of the Land of Israel be expanded to accommodate their particular needs.

Sefer Bamidbar – the Book of Numbers – highlights for us the challenge and the responsibility that we have to be committed to the larger narrative of community on the one hand, while at the same time remembering that the goal of the community is to create an environment which inspires each person’s creativity and ability to contribute their own unique talents to the world.

It reminds us that yes, our relationship to God needs to include the reality that we are part of a community, but it must not be limited to that paradigm: each of us needs to find our own individual rendezvous with God.

And it asks of us to be counted and to be willing to accept this duality: to celebrate our individuality while concurrently being part of our community.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sharona Hassan (1)

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Rabbi Dr. Mikhael Ben Admon

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Rabbi Riskin

Shabbat Shalom: Matot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13) By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Efrat, Israel –   What unites Jews throughout the world as one nation and one people? What is the most critical factor responsible for our amazing persistence as a unique historical entity, despite our having been scattered throughout the globe and subject to persecution and pogrom, despite …

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