YOU KEPT THE WOMEN ALIVE? – “Mattos” Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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YOU KEPT THE WOMEN ALIVE? – “Mattos” Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Punishment, revenge, anger – all motivate the story we will read in this section called “Mattos,” literally “tribes.” The heads of the Israelite tribes hear Moses call for 1,000 fighting men from each tribe – including his own tribe of Levi which otherwise does not provide soldiers but only chaplain’s assistants. This is to be Moses’ last battle, and he is told he must conclude it before being “gathered to his people,” the beautiful Biblical euphemism for dying. Even when facing his earthly end, Moses responds gladly. We can expect this to be a highly important battle.

The military operation has a specific purpose, namely to punish the people of Midian. To execute “Divine revenge” on them is how the Torah phrases it. Two weeks ago we learned of the sexual epidemic that took the lives of thousands of Israelites, engineered by the false prophet Bilaam. Remembering how that all started with the Israelite men getting seduced by the “girls of Moab,” we might wonder why the revenge is not ordered against Moab. True, Bilaam himself was a Midianite, but what about those girls? So let’s go back to Chapter 25. There we find the violent action Pinhas took to stop the spread of the epidemic. He saw a grandee of the tribe of Shimon take a woman into his tent, and Pinhas proceeded to grab a spear and strike them both fatally, through the tent. Who was this woman? Her name was Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian. Not Moab. Midian. Conceivably Bilaam saw an opportunity to destroy Israel with poisonous orgies, and brought in his own female operatives to carry it out.

Another reason for not attacking Moab, says Rashi, is because Divine punishment is withheld in consideration of one great woman who will come from there to join Israel and bring it glory. Her name was Ruth, who set the pattern for all future converts – “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d shall be my G-d” – and became the ancestor of King David.

So Midian gets attacked. Indeed it gets destroyed. The Israelites besiege Midian, wipe out the male population, execute the kings, kill Bilaam, and take the women and children prisoners. Quite a complete punishment, right?

Wrong. Moses meets the returning troops and he is angry. “You kept all the women alive?” he shouts. These are the women whom Bilaam sent to lure you to the orgies of Baal-Peor! They brought you the plague! And he proceeds to order them to execute all women old enough to have sex, and the male children too. Just keep the young girls… They’re clean.

Did Moses himself commit a sin here? The “Arizal” teaches that anger is a most dangerous sin. In his mystical thinking, when someone becomes angry his soul leaves his body and gets replaced with an “external soul.” Anger can make one forget all his Torah learning, misled by that external soul. Spurred by his anger, did Moses insist on a mass slaughter of defenseless people? Was this some kind of genocide? Or did he give this order in desperation, hopeful that this, his last battle, would guarantee his people’s survival?

Just maybe, our teacher Moses recognized in Midian the kind of dangerous deceit we see in some of our enemies today. Executing the leaders is not enough. Eradicate the source of the danger, whether that source is female or not. Just maybe, that last battle set an example that every free people needs to remember.

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“Pinhas” – Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 – Pick a subject – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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“Pinhas” – Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 – Pick a subject – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading, named after Pinhas – Phineas, son of Elazar son of Aaron – contains enough different subjects for at least 5 messages. We learn that Pinhas is granted permanent priesthood for himself and his descendants. Then we witness a census of the Israelite people, the first one in 40 years. We see the aging Moses designate Joshua to be his successor. And we read the description of all the offerings, daily and seasonal – a section that is quoted on all the occasions of the Jewish calendar.

So this Dvar Torah will discuss none of the above.

Between these contrasting sections we find the first story of women’s rights, when the daughters of Zelophehad present their case to Moses. Even though the Israelites were still east of the Jordan, conversation in the camp undoubtedly stressed questions about how the Holy Land would be allocated once they settled there. Ownership questions, and inevitably inheritance questions. When the father of a family died, his property would customarily pass to his son, or sons. But Zelophehad had no sons. He had daughters. If no male heirs are available, would his inheritance be lost to his tribe? So here they come, Mahlah, Noa, Khogla, Milka and Tirtza, to tell Moses that “our father died in the desert. He was not part of Korach’s rebellion. He died in his own sin. Why should his name be lost from among his family, just because he had no sons? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses takes their case into the Tabernacle for some Divine help. Here the Midrash offers a beautiful thought. This, it says, is what Zelophehad’s daughters wanted. They knew that a human father might prefer his son over his daughter. But the Creator extends his love equally to all His children! And indeed, the very next section in our reading sets up the order of inheritance: son, daughter, brothers, uncles, and then the closest remaining relative. Only later in the Torah does Moses instruct Zelophehad’s daughters to marry men from their own tribe, so their inheritance will remain in the tribal territory.

Women’s inheritance rights, 3,000 years ago. Many centuries later, a rabbi named Shimon ben Shetakh spelled out a woman’s marriage rights in the K’tubah, the sacred document we still present to the bride at every Jewish wedding. Yes, Jewish women always had rights.

Limited? Yes. But just compare these rights to some contemporary ones, like Sharia law, for example, where a woman has virtually no rights at all.

Maybe the Torah is more modern than we sometimes suppose.

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BILAAM & BAAL-PEOR – “Balak”– Num.22:2 – 25:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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BILAAM & BAAL-PEOR – “Balak”– Num.22:2 – 25:9 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Every week’s Torah reading has a name. A name can be just an important word from the first sentence, like “B’reyshis” – In the Beginning – or the name of the principal character who appears in that reading, like Noah, or Jethro or Korach. This week our reading is named Balak, and tells of a king by that name who saw the dreaded alien Israelites approaching his country, and felt he had to do something about it. Rather than face them on the battlefield, since they already defeated other local rulers who tried to fight them off, Balak decides to go for supernatural help. He hires a well-known sorcerer from Midian named Bilaam (rendered Balaam in the English Bible) to curse Israel. Most of this week’s reading deals with Bilaam’s adventures in the effort to carry out that task. First, he has to warn Balak’s messengers that “only what G-d puts in my mouth can I say.” Then he has to deal with a heavenly threat to block his path, an angel of death that is invisible to him although his donkey sees the sword-wielding angel clearly. In a unique scene, the donkey opens her mouth and speaks to him, distinguishing her passenger Bilaam as the only man in the Torah who had his life saved by a talking donkey.

Eventually he reaches Balak’s camp, and offers sacrifices before speaking his message. Three times, in three different places, he views the Israelite camp from mountain lookouts, then goes into his trance and comes out with not a curse but a blessing. Totally frustrated, Balak gives Bilaam one more chance, and this is when he comes out with the classic line “Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov” – “How fair are your tents, Jacob!” – the same words Jews say to this day on entering a synagogue. Finally Balak gives up and goes home without paying Bilaam any reward.

This story certainly treats Bilaam, not Balak, as the central character. So why is this week’s reading called “Sedrah Balak?” Shouldn’t it be “Sedrah Bilaam?” Another challenging attitude is the traditional description of Bilaam as “Bilaam haRasha” – Balaam the wicked. Here he blessed Israel four times, predicting a triumphal future and even providing the classic greeting for a Jewish sanctuary, so how can he be called wicked? And that’s not all. Two weeks from now we will read about Moses’ last battle, conquering Midian, where the Israelites “kill Bilaam with the sword.” Is this the end he deserves?

What happens in between these two stories provides the answer to all of these questions. At the end of this week’s reading, we learn that the people camped near a place called Shittim –(no, it just looks like Shiites) – and the Israelite men took to “whoring around with the girls of Moab.” Their seduction involved orgiastic idol-worship in the cult of Baal Peor, and resulted in an epidemic. Before Aaron’s grandson Pinkhas takes violent action to stop this contact, 24,000 people die. Who organized this mass seduction? Bilaam. If he couldn’t beat them with a hex, he’d try sex.

Intentions outweighed action in his case. He refrained from speaking hatred of Israel. But he could plot ways to take advantage of human weakness to try to destroy them. He has modern disciples. Today’s Bilaams sound off about their regard for the Jewish people, but boycott Israel, divest from companies that do business with Israel, coddle our Muslim enemies as practitioners of a “religion of peace.” Etc.

So why is this reading named for Balak and not Bilaam? Try this. Balak was an enemy but he was honest. Bilaam was a hypocrite. G-d save us from the likes of him.

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A PUZZLING PARADOX – “Khukat” – Num. 19:1-22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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A PUZZLING PARADOX – “Khukat” – Num. 19:1-22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week’s reading starts with what is frequently called the most irrational of Mitzvos, namely the sacrifice of the red heifer. The animal to be sacrificed is described as a full-grown cow, with no defects, never yoked and having a totally red color. Even two black hairs would disqualify her. The men who slaughter her and burn her entire body must be in a condition called “tahor” – pure. The priest must sprinkle the cow’s blood toward the tent of meeting, and he throws cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the burning carcass. Now both the priest and the man who burns the cow must bathe and wash their clothes. Why? By performing this sacrifice, they become “tamey” –contaminated. The purpose of this action is to take the cow’s ashes, which must be carried by another man, who is “tahor,” to a point outside the camp where they are immersed in water and become “a purification.” Of course the man who carries the ashes thus becomes “tamey” until nightfall.

Who needs this purification? Anyone who had contact with a dead body. So we learn the laws of contamination in a rather paradoxical way. Sacrificing the red heifer purifies those who are contaminated, and contaminates those who are pure. Illogical to say the least. But this is a “khok,” an ordinance. The very name of this week’s reading is “Khukat.” Ordinances don’t need logic. There’s no apparent reason for it, it’s just our policy. In a comment in the book of Genesis, Rashi states that both our own evil urge and the other nations will challenge such puzzling laws. They will point to other ordinances that lack logic, from the prohibition of combining wool and linen, to the prohibition of eating pigs. Traditionally, we learn that we show our loyalty to G-d by obeying His ordinances even though they defy our understanding.

Now wait a minute. Is there more to the Red Heifer story? Maybe.

Josephus points out that this ritual was carried out only nine times in all Jewish history. The first time was by Moses, and it was on the occasion of Miriam’s death.

After all, besides being the sister of Moses and Aaron, Miriam was a special lady in her own right. It was she who helped Pharaoh’s daughter adopt the infant Moses. She led the other women in song at the Red Sea. And it was her noble soul that merited a miraculous well that kept the people alive all through the years in the desert. We learn that “Miriam’s Well” accompanied them on their way. And this week, we will read that “the people camped at Kadaish, and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the people.”

Presumably the people all joined in burying their beloved Miriam. And so they became “tamey.” But they got purified by the sacrifice of the red heifer. This illogical mitzvah took their grief and their thirst and turned it around. More than the well, they missed Miriam.

In the tractate Taanis, the Talmud counts three blessings that came to the public because of individuals. They are Miriam’s Well, Aaron’s Clouds of Glory that guided the people on their way, and Moses’ Manna that sustained them. As each of these individuals died, the blessing that they brought was retained through those who survived.

Observing Mitzvos we might not consider logical could be one way to honor the great people in our lives whose service sustains us. Though they may leave us, we can keep their blessing through our own action. As we remember them, let us bring their blessing to those who follow us.

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REBELLION – “Korach” Numbers 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

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REBELLION – “Korach” Numbers 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

Of all the challenges Moses faced through his 40-year leadership on the desert journey to the Promised Land, Korach’s rebellion stands out as a singular and spectacular confrontation. A fellow-Levite, Korach considers himself better qualified than Moses and Aaron to be a religious leader. His father was senior to theirs. And the other rebels coming from the tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, consider themselves hereditary national leaders. Not to mention that the rebels are among the wealthier ex-slaves.

At a remarkable trial by Divine judgment, Aaron’s offering is accepted and Korach’s is rejected. Not just the offering is rejected, however. The earth breaks apart and down go Korach, his family, his followers and their homes into a Biblical sinkhole.

Certainly a violent verdict on a rebellion conceived in envy and pursued in audacity.

Later generations found this account highly significant. Rabbah bar bar Khana, known as the “Baron Munchausen” of the Talmud, told of an experience in the desert when an Arab guided him to a place where he found a crack in the ground. Bending down to it, he heard the voices of Korach and his followers calling out: “Moses and his Torah are true and we are liars!” Their eternal punishment for their rash action.

Yet, a couple of weeks from now we will read that “the sons of Korach did not die.” Not only did they survive their fathers’ destruction, they had special duties in Solomon’s Temple. As loyal Levites, they sang and composed Psalms, which are credited to them in our daily prayers.

Rebellion did not die with Korach either, that’s definite. But it remained for other misguided Israelites to pick it up. Each generation on its own.

Clearly the necessary element is exactly what Korach missed. Know what you are rebelling against, and why. Sometimes we need to rebel – against greed, injustice, tyranny, corruption – because we have to take action for a better life. Not that we ourselves are better, not that we are so special. Just not to be stepped on. Korach’s sons knew that. Too bad their father didn’t.

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