In an 1898 article for Harper’s Magazine, this is what Mark Twain had to say about the Jews:
The first of this week’s two parshiot, Matot, tells the story of Moshe’s final duty, avenging Balaam’s wicked plot to entice the Jews into licentiousness. The story takes some unusual twists, particularly in verses 2 and 5 of chapter 31. Verse 2 says that G-d told Moshe, “Avenge [the treachery to] the Children of Israel [which] the Midianites [perpetrated], and then you shall [pass away].” Moshe duly repeated the command and ordered the Jews to take “G-d’s vengeance” against Midian. Verse 5 records, “From the multitude of Israel were delivered 1,000 for each tribe [12,000 in all to go to war].” The Jews killed Balaam in the process of defeating Midian.
Sefer Bamidbar opens with the final preparations for the journey from Har Sinai (the physical setting for all of Sefer Vayikra) to the promised land. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik discusses the final preparations in his classic dvar Torah on Behaalotcha (available from Torah.org).
It says in Pirkei Avot “velo habaishan lamed,” that “the timid doesn’t learn” (2:5). Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi,in his classic commentary on the Mishnah in Avot explains that boshet (timidity) is always a great trait to have, except in an educational setting. We see this idea in the verse in Tehillim “vadebera bedoteicha neged melachim velo evosh,” “I will talk in your laws opposite kings and I will not be timid” (119:46). When running away from King Saul and standing in front of the kings of the world, King David was not embarrassed to speak about the Torah and mitzvot even though they laughed at him and mocked his words.
Why is peace of mind so elusive?
In any previous era, maybe it would have been easy to answer such a question. How can people feel satisfied when life is so brutal and short, or the threat of war too imminent, or disease and tragedy were ever present? These, however, are not the issues most of us are struggling with on a day to day basis — so what gives?
The mishna in Pirkei Avot (1:5) states: יהיביתךפתוחלרוחהויהיוענייםבניביתך "Let your home be open wide to the multitudes and treat the poor like members of your household."
A few weeks ago, my friend accidentally broke my glasses. Of course it wasn’t intentional, and she felt awful about it. Nevertheless, one moment I had functional glasses to wear; the next moment, thanks to a perfectly positioned (and delicate) impact, I was left with a broken pair that I affectionately called a monocle.
When my son was young we took a trip together. It was before 9/11 and airport security was going through the standard questions when the officer asked: “Did anyone give you anything to take?”
This week’s parsha revolves around a serious schism within the nascent Jewish nation. Korach, Moshe’s cousin and leader of a cabal of 250 prominent citizens, challenged Aaron’s legitimacy as high priest. Like most people who disguise their personal ambitions as matters of principle, the dissenters wrapped themselves in theology. They complained to Moshe and Aaron, “For the entire congregation is comprised of holy people and G-d is in their midst, and why do you elevate yourselves over G-d’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).
As they say in Hollywood, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” There are some things in the Torah that could not have been written unless they actually happened.
The opening verses of Behaalotcha seem out of place. Last week’s parsha closed with the story of the offerings of the chiefs of the tribes of Israel as the culmination of the consecration of the Tabernacle. This parsha begins with G-d commanding Moshe: “Tell [Aaron]: when you light the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah should the seven candles [beam their] light” (Numbers 8:2). The next two verses state that Aaron fulfilled his obligation without fail and that the Menorah, of one piece, looked like the image G-d showed Moshe.
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