Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

The Security and Continuity of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

דברים פרק לא, י-יג

(י) וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אוֹתָם לֵאמֹר מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת: (יא) בְּבוֹא כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵרָאוֹת אֶת פְּנֵי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר תִּקְרָא אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת נֶגֶד כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: (יב) הַקְהֵל אֶת הָעָם הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ וְיָרְאוּ אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת: (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדְעוּ יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵיכֶם כָּל הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם חַיִּים עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:

The 612th mitzvah in the Torah requires us to read the Torah publicly on Sukkot once every seven years. There are two questions I have on this passage. First, why is not listed among other mitzvot earlier in Devarim? If it has anything to do with Sukkot and/or shemitta, why not share it in Parashat Re’eh? Second, why only once every seven years? If the goal is “in order to hear, to learn, and to fear the Lord your Gd,” should we not be obligated to read the Torah much more frequently?

I suggest that the purpose of this public reading is not the immediate experience of Talmud Torah, or the short-term goal of conveying information. Rather, it is about ensuring the continuity of Torah and the teaching of Moshe Rabbeinu while simultaneously maintaining the superiority of the Torah over any future leader.

We know that Moshe is unique; in fact, he is the greatest prophet of all time. This appears explicitly in the description of Moshe upon his death (Devarim 34:10), and Gd also conveys this to Aharon and Miriam when saying that while Gd communicates with most prophets through visions, Moshe was privy to direct communication (Bamidbar 12:6-8). Furthermore, beyond his singular access to Gd, Moshe so far has been the only prophet or leader to teach Torah to B’nei Yisrael. All these factors combined might raise questions about the security of Torah and of the next leader – perhaps neither the Torah nor subsequent leaders could command the same authority that Moshe did. Or, a leader might try to assert authority by means of casting the Torah aside.  Thus, hak’hel upholds the authority of the Torah. It simultaneously supports the leader who fosters the observance of the Torah while serving as a check for the one who may try to circumvent it. The Torah holds its absolute authority in every generation, regardless of the will of any future leader or the will of the masses.

This would explain why these pesukim appear in this context and not earlier in Devarim. Before the mitzvah of hak’hel, Moshe provides extra support and reassurance to Yehoshua, which has already been described in the Torah (Devarim 3:28). The continuity of leadership is clearly of concern, so the Torah itself serves as a reassurance to Yehoshua. No matter who the leader is, the Jewish people and its leadership structure will be preserved through the authority of the Torah.

This seems to emerge also from the person who reads the Torah. The Mishnah (Sotah 7:8) describes the king as the one who reads the Torah, but Netziv points out (Devarim 31:11) that the original mitzvah of hak’hel is on Yehoshua, and in subsequent generations, on whoever the top leader is (be it the king or, if no political entity, the Kohen Gadol). The point is that whoever the leader may be, the Torah is in full force. If that leader furthers observance, his authority is to be maintained; but the leader himself reading it also serves a check. [1]

This may shed some light as to why the Torah is read only every seven years. Clearly, not much knowledge is to be conveyed in one presentation that takes place so infrequently. On a peshat level, it would seem that hak’hel is connected to shemitta because that is when people are physically and spiritually available to learn. But if what we have been saying is correct, another layer of hak’hel is to simultaneously preserve the authority of the Torah and its leader, and this needs to be conveyed only semi-frequently. Each generation should experience this continuity and be instilled with a יראה that inspires a general commitment to Torah (this goal of יראה is stated twice in the passage). While presumably, the details of Torah and its morals are still being communicated more frequently, this particular experience need take place regularly enough to be memorable but also sparingly enough to maintain its significance.

The reassurance that Moshe gives Yehoshua is that the invaluable teachings of the Torah do not expire with the death of Moshe. Likewise, the Torah itself is greater than any leader or any generation. The Torah bestows authority upon its greatest thinkers and practitioners, and they are invested with great responsibility to convey it to the people. When a great Torah scholar passes, it is necessarily of great anguish for the community – yet, the Torah continues to impact each subsequent generation. At the same time, leaders and scholars are not above the Torah; they answer to Torah, not the Torah to them. This model of checks-and-balances ensures the continuing integrity of the Torah, and thereby, the Jewish people. While the bulk of our relationship to Torah might be to learning its details and nuances, once in a while, we should step back and appreciate the distinctive role the Torah plays in every generation.

Notes:

[1] See Rabbi Elchanan Samet for related comments on this point.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is completing semicha and a master’s degree in medieval Jewish history at Yeshiva University. He is currently a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and has served as rabbinic intern at The Roslyn Synagogue and Young Israel of Plainview.

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Going to War with Biblical Monsters

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Benzion Chinn

This week’s portion begins and ends with two of the most morally disturbing commandments in the entire Bible. We begin with the Yifat Toar, the beautiful captive gentile woman that you can apparently legally rape if you follow certain legal procedures, and end with the apparently genocidal commandment to wipe out Amalek.

These commandments exemplify how the Bible allows, and sometimes even appears to encourage, practices that are morally reprehensible, while at the same time subtly undermining these very practices. Understanding the Bible in this way does not come cheap. For such a moral stance to be meaningful, and more than an exercise in apologetics, one must be prepared to pay a price.  Specifically, one must acknowledge that Biblical morality cannot be derived solely from Biblical law, with no moral preconceptions.

Take for example slavery.  The Bible clearly allows for slavery, even of Israelites in cases of theft and dire poverty. Why?  One might be tempted to say that biblical slavery was so “wonderful” that slaves did not want to be free. Yet the Bible punishes the slave for wanting to stay a slave, by having his ear pierced. The reason for this is that by desiring a human master, he is ignoring the commandment of “I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:2). This idea is made explicit in Leviticus: “for the Children of Israel are my slaves” (25:55). Furthermore, when this law is repeated in Deuteronomy, we are admonished to remember that we were slaves in Egypt (15:15). Remembering the Exodus from Egypt, the central act of Biblical faith, is placed in tension with slave ownership. Yes, it is legal to own slaves – just as God allowed the Egyptians to enslave the Israelites. Thus, any slaveowner, even as he acts within his legal right, faces the same judgment as Pharaoh.

What you have is a kind of Shylock dilemma. Yes, Shylock’s argument for his being allowed to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body is legally airtight.  But his attempt to exercise such a claim requires suicidal recklessness, as Shylock has to ignore the fact that has made himself vulnerable to a Christian legal establishment that will now seek to hoist him on his own legal petard. So too with slavery. Yes, the master may have a legal claim, but to exercise that claim is to make himself vulnerable to the full wrath of the G-d Who made that law.   

Nonetheless, denouncing biblical slavery has its own consequence. One must concede that Biblical morality cannot be contained within halakhah, but rather must transcend it. Halakhah will not stop you from owning a slave. Therefore, anyone who claims that halakhah is complete and the only necessary moral authority is implicitly endorsing slavery.  Anyone who opposes slavery honestly must recognize this. 

The law of the captive woman functions similarly. Rashi, basing himself on the Midrash Tanchuma, argued that the Bible only allowed the practice out of a fear that people would otherwise simply give in to their Evil Inclination. Lest anyone be under the delusion that anything good might come out of legalized rape, the text hints that eventually the man is going to hate this woman, and that such a union will produce rebellious children (another moral monstrosity).

That being said, honestly facing the monster of biblically sanctioned rape requires more than denunciation. We risk the very notion of chosenness in order to make this denunciation. 

The Bible forbids selling the beautiful captive into slavery “as compensation for your having afflicted her” (21:14). The extra-legal lesson of slavery is once again relevant here. If you cannot “even” sell her into slavery after raping her, how much more so will you be held accountable for having raped her in the first place, however legally?

There is something more going on here, though, as this acknowledgment of the woman’s feelings flips the moral script.  The Bible tempts us with a narrative of “You are God’s special chosen people and, therefore, it is only right that you plunder, kill, and even rape gentiles”.  But we learn from “as compensation” that this narrative is false.  Instead of the good guy Israelites who have defeated the evil “goyim,” it is the “shiksa” that God cares about, and it is you the Israelite who is the oppressor. The very act of assuming chosenness becomes its own refutation.   

This brings us to the commandment to wipe out Amalek. As with slavery and the captive woman, we are baited into a Shylockian legal trap that makes it impossible to follow through on the law. Consider the example of King Saul, who was punished for not killing Agag, the Amalekite king, and for sparing the Amalekite cattle. One way to view Saul’s crime is that he was willing to kill all the other Amalekites. If he had refused to go mass murder Amalekites, his sparing of Agag and the cattle would have been understandable. The fact that he spared only them showed that he was never really motivated by a desire to listen to God, the only conceivable justification for such an action. So not only did Saul disobey God, but he was a murderer too.   

The apologetic temptation is to spiritualize the commandment of wiping out Amalek, so that it refers to the defeat of the Evil Inclination rather than to murdering innocent women and children. This sounds like an easy way out until you recognize the full price to be paid for acknowledging, at least in principle, the possibility of spiritualizing commandments. This makes it possible for a person eating a ham sandwich to “spiritually” keep kosher, and for such kashrut, at least hypothetically, to be superior to many conventional acts of keeping kosher.

To find wiping out Amalek to be morally objectionable therefore means that you are willing to risk the destruction of the entire halakhic system over something that is purely hypothetical. Even though there are no actual Amalekites today, you must prefer to risk putting a kosher symbol on very real ham sandwiches rather than admit that, if there were actual Amalekites, we should kill them.  (There are implications here for how we respond to rabbis who proudly make a point of saying “politically incorrect” things about gentiles in the name of demonstrating their allegiance to “authentic Torah Judaism.”)

When dealing with the Torah, it is important to face problematic texts head on.  This enables us to see how Torah morality undercuts the apparent morality of its own legal structure. Slavery, rape of captive women, and genocide are horrific doctrines.  Challenging them risks the very notion of halakhah and of our being a chosen nation. Taking a moral stance against the Torah’s moral monsters requires making one’s peace with this.  But it also means being true to the Torah’s carefully and subtly expressed morality.

 

Benzion N. Chinn (SBM 2003) lives in Pasadena, CA with his wife, Miriam, and his two children, Kalman and Moshe Eli. He works as an academic and special needs tutor. In his spare time, he pontificates on religion, politics, and sci-fi/fantasy (everything he is not supposed to talk about at the dinner table) over at izgad.blogspot.com.

 

 

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Taking the Hard Way Out

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

דברים י׳ז:ט׳ז

רַק לֹא יַרְבֶּה לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא יָשִׁיב אֶת הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיקֹוָק אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד

Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Hashem has warned you, You must not go back that way again

The Torah forbids a Jewish king to send Jewish people back to Egypt.  While the Torah only references a king, the Rambam (הלכוֹת מלכים ה:ז) understands this as a prohibition for all Jews in all generations, forbidding them to live in Egypt. The Talmud (Sukkah 51b) records the view of Abaye that this halakhah needs to be taken seriously, as a large and successful community in Alexandria, Egypt was wiped out by Alexander the Great because they had failed to heed this prohibition.   

Why should Jews hundreds, or even thousands, of years after the redemption from Egypt be barred from living in that country? While this prohibition would be understandable for the generation that received the Torah, as they had just been redeemed from slavery in Egypt, why should there be a prohibition for all generations?  The Torah doesn’t forbid us to live in Spain, Russia and even Germany, places where horrific atrocities were done to the Jewish people, and in more recent memory. So why the prohibition to live in Egypt?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that Egypt represents wealth. We see in Sefer Bereishit that Avraham goes to Egypt to avoid a famine, and Yaakov’s family does as well. Egypt is viewed as a place of natural resources, technological advancement and tremendous wealth. This presents a unique challenge. The temptation to become closely connected to Egypt is powerful, because they can ease many of the burdens facing the land of Israel.

A Jewish king could easily lean on Egypt for their natural resources and technological prowess, neglecting their own land and people. So too, if Jews start moving to Egypt there is a risk that they may stay there permanently for financial reasons. Over time the Jewish people will Become too dependant on Egypt, which puts the welfare of the Jewish people at risk and removes the motivation to cultivate the land of Israel and utilize the ingenuity of the Jewish people. This is not to say that the Torah is against all imports, merely the danger of becoming so dependant on one country that our independence becomes compromised.

While the Torah only prohibits us from living in Egypt, this lesson can certainly be applied more broadly. Our land and our people are our most valuable resources, and we need to have trust that Hashem will help us cultivate both. When we do so, we fully maximize the potential of our people and our land. Over the past seventy years we have seen the capacity of the people and the land of Israel when we are independent and self-reliant. May we never lose that vision or forget just how successful we can be if we trust that Hashem will help us maximize the potential of our people and our land.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is a faculty member of  Yeshiva University High School for Girls, where he also serves as the curriculum coordinator for the Talmud and Halakhah departments.

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Torah at the Core

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Batsheva Leah Weinstein

In parshas Eikev, Moshe describes to Bnei Yisrael the richness of the land of Israel. He describes its abundant sources of water and its special grains and fruits. Then he says that it is an

eretz asher lo ve-miskeinus tochal bah lechem lo sechsar kol bah” –

a land in which you will not eat in poverty, you will not lack anything in it;

eretz asher avaneha barzel u-me-harareha tachtzov nechoshes” –

a land whose rocks are iron and from her mountains you will mine copper (Devarim 8:9).

The plain meaning of this pasuk is that Eretz Yisrael is a fertile land. The Gemara (Ta’anis 4a), however, darshens this pasuk saying, “al tikri “avaneha” ela “boneha”” – don’t read “her rocks”, rather “her builders”, referring to talmidei chachamim. Read this way, Moshe describes Eretz Yisrael by stating that its Torah scholars are as hard as iron. What does this mean? Rashi (on the Gemara) explains that a Torah scholar must be strong and exacting when making decisions. Kli Yakar (commenting on Devarim 8:9) says that talmidei chachamim are like iron in that they sharpen each other by the challenges that each poses to the other.

Why does the Gemara choose this pasuk as the source for lessons about the characteristics of talmidei chachamim? What is difficult about the simple understanding of the pasuk? Additionally, why make the drasha from “avaneha” to “boneha” when “baneha”, meaning her sons, is closer linguistically and often refers to students of Torah?

In answer to our first question, Kli Yakar explains that in fact the entire pasuk is referring to talmidei chachamim.

The earlier pesukim refer to the land itself, but this pasuk foretells how Bnei Yisrael will experience living in the land – they will not eat in poverty and they will not lack anything. Thus the last part must also refer to how they will live in the land, and be giving not a mineralogical but rather a sociological report; they will live with Torah scholars hard as iron leading the way. The Jewish people are on the brink of entering a new stage in their life as a nation. Until now they have lived directly under the rule of Hashem, experiencing Him in their everyday lives. But now they are being charged with the task of creating a political society, supporting themselves not through the heavenly man but rather through the “sweat of their brows.” Moshe knows that they can easily falter, forgetting that Hashem is still behind all of their success despite its being harder to see. So when describing the land that they still soon live in, the new society which they will soon establish, he reminds them that Torah must be the basis of the nation.

Perhaps this is why the Gemara reads the word “avaneha” as “boneha”, her builders. Says the Gemara in Shabbos (114a), who are builders? These are the Torah scholars who are involved all of their days in building the world. The builders of the Eretz Yisrael are the talmidei chachamim because the land can only be built and survive on Torah. Talmidei chachamim must be as hard as iron so that they can establish Torah as the rock solid foundation of am Yisrael.

 

Batsheva Leah Weinstein (MA 2015,2016) recently graduated from Ma’ayanot and will be attending Migdal Oz this coming year.

 

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VeShinantam LeVanecha

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Alex Zaloum

On the verse (from this week’s parsha), “And you shall teach them to your children…” (Devarim 6:7), Rashi comments: “Your children — these are your students, and we find in every place that students are called children…” Rashi brings three proofs from Tanakh for this claim:

  1. “You are children to Hashem, your G-d.” (Devarim 14:1) – we are Hashem’s children by virtue of learning His Torah.
  2. “The children of the prophets in the House of G-d” (Melachim II, 2:3) – the disciples of the prophets are referred to as their children.
  3. “My sons, do not be negligent” (Divrei HaYamim II, 29:11) – stated by King Chizkiyah, who taught Torah to all of Israel.

Two questions:

a) Why does Rashi feel the need to bring not one, not two, but three proofs that students are called “children”?

b) Why does Rashi choose to bring these three proofs? [Rashi could instead or in addition have brought Bamidbar (3:1), in which the sons of Aharon are called “toldos (offspring of) Moshe” because Moshe taught them Torah (see Rashi there). Alternatively, Rashi could have brought Mishlei, in which King Solomon calls the student he is addressing “my son” dozens of times.]

In keeping with Jewish form, to answer these questions,  let’s ask another question:

As is well-known (though is not always readily apparent), Rashi states that his intention in each of his comments on the Torah is solely to explain the “straightforward meaning of the verse” What, then, compelled Rashi in our verse to translate “banecha” as “talmidim.” Why was he not content with its usual meaning (children)?

One possibility is that Rashi was making clear that the verse did not imply that parents must teach their children Torah personally.  Here are three possible grounds for avoiding that implication.

  • Rashi knew that Menashe and Ephraim were primarily taught Torah by their grandfather Jacob (see Rashi to Beraishis 48:1), and reasoned that Jacob would not have taken the mitzvah away from Joseph if it could only be fulfilled by parents personally .

  • Rashi understood Bereishis 49:7 as giving the tribe of Shimon the roles of (sofrim and) m’lamdei tinokos (teachers of Torah to children). It is clear from context that this role is to be the source of income for the tribe of Shimon, and it is not logical that their income could be derived entirely from teaching orphans or children of the ignorant.  Therefore, we must assume that even parents capable of teaching their children Torah may hire teachers instead.

  • Rashi knew that from time immemorial Jewish children were taught Torah primarily in cheder, and the five-year-old (“ben chumash l’mikra”), for whom Rashi writes his commentary, when taught our verse in cheder will certainly wonder: “If the obligation to teach children Torah rests on the parents, then why did my parents send me to cheder? They should teach me themselves!”

Whatever the source, it must have been strong enough to convince Rashi to uproot the word “children” from its straightforward meaning.  But Rashi was then bothered: why then didn’t the verse simply state: “And you shall teach them to your students”?!

To answer this, it did not suffice to bring a proof that students can be called children, rather, Rashi shows that “we find in every place that talmidim (students) are called banim (children),” i.e. that the Torah’s word for student is “child”.

To support this claim, Rashi brings proofs from all three parts of Tanakh – Torah, Nevi’im, and Kesuvim – each of which express a different teacher-student relationship: 1) G-d to Jewish people, 2) Prophet to disciple, and 3) King to subjects.

[With this we can understand why Rashi didn’t bring a proof from “toldos Moshe,” since there the word “banim” is not used (but rather “toldos”).

It is likewise understood why Rashi didn’t bring a proof from Mishlei, since one could argue that perhaps King Solomon initially wrote Mishlei for his actual son, Rechav’am, and only afterwards made it into a sefer for everyone (and thus this wouldn’t show how students in general are also called “children”).]

Rashi concludes, “…just as a student is called a child, so too a teacher is called a parent …” (and of course brings Scriptural support for that as well).

The message is clear: no matter the context, teaching Torah starts with a connection between rav and talmid — one that is comparable to the deepest human connection that exists. Our living Torah cannot be transmitted through words alone, however profound they may be; it must be given and received with mutual devotion, care, and respect.

Rabbi Alex Zaloum (WBM 2016) graduated from Harvard in 2016 and recently received semicha from the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, NJ. He currently works for BioCatch in New York.

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Rav Lakhem: How Many Rav’s is Enough?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Shira Silver

The root רב, meaning “much,” “many,” or “great,” appears in various forms at least ten times throughout Parashat Devarim and plays a subtle yet important role in connecting two seemingly unrelated ideas: the passage of time and the greatness of peoples.

In describing the passage of time, רב appears in two forms: רב־לכם (Devarim 1:6 and 2:3) and ימים רבים (Devarim 1:46 and 2:1). These two phrases (meaning “long enough” and “a long time,” respectively) characterize the passage of time in a parsha that describes Bnei Yisrael’s 39-year journey through the wilderness. More specifically, when Bnei Yisrael has stayed in one place for too long, G-d uses this choice of words to tell them it is time to move on.

But grammatically, רב־לכם is not the best way to convey “long enough.” As the Siftei Chakhamim notes on Devarim 1:6, “די לכם” may actually have been a better choice. Perhaps, as the Kli Yakar suggests, this language is deliberately reminiscent of Korach’s rebellion and the subsequent rebuke he receives (“רב־לכם בני לוי”). Alternatively, Rashi brings an Aggada to justify this phraseology, suggesting that רב־לכם refers not to the time passed, but to the distinction and reward (“גְדֻלָּה וְשָׂכָר”) accumulated by Bnei Yisrael at the mount.

I would like to offer an additional explanation for the use of the phrase רב־לכם. The repeated and conspicuous use of the root רב in describing Bnei Yisrael’s time in the wilderness serves to draw attention to the use of the term רב in describing great nations. Indeed, throughout Parashat Devarim we witness G-d’s role in facilitating the rise and fall of great nations.

The story of the meraglim, which is repeated in the parsha, broaches this theme. As Bnei Yisrael prepare to enter the land of Israel, they are frightened that they will not be able to overcome the great nations that live there. In Devarim 1:28, they make the following plea:

אנה אנחנו עלים אחינו המסו את־לבבנו לאמר עם גדול ורם ממנו ערים גדלת ובצורת בשמים וגם־בני ענקים ראינו שם

What kind of place are we going to? Our kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, ‘We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and even Anakites.’” (All translations are from Sefaria unless otherwise noted.)

The sin of the meraglim is commonly described as a lack of faith that G-d will help them defeat the great nations inhabiting the land of Israel. Now, 39 years later, Bnei Yisrael stand where their ancestors stood. Moshe tells them the story of the meraglim to remind them of where the previous generation went wrong, encouraging them not to make the same mistake again. The רב language, which both follows and precedes the meraglim story, reinforces this message.

The reference to great nations shortly after the meraglim story sends the signal that Bnei Yisrael have no need to fear because when G-d wants a certain people to possess a certain land, G-d makes it happen. This is seen in how the descendants of Lot, with G-d’s help, defeat great nations to ultimately possess their rightful inheritance.

The Moabites defeat the Emim:

האמים לפנים ישבו בה עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים

It was formerly inhabited by the Emim, a people great and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. (Devarim 2:10)

The Ammonites dispossess the Refaim:

עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים וישמידם יהוה מפניהם ויירשם וישבו תחתם

a people great and numerous and as tall as the Anakites. The LORD wiped them out, so that [the Ammonites] dispossessed them and settled in their place (Devarim 2:21)

It is particularly telling that the language of גדול ורב ורם found in each of these pesukim is mirrored in Bnei Yisrael’s fear in the meraglim story, when they speak of עם גדול ורם as well as ענקים.

So the reference to great nations immediately after the meraglim story supports the point that Bnei Yisrael have no reason to fear. But what about the reference immediately before the meraglim, where Moshe addresses how G-d has made Bnei Yisrael into a great nation?

יהוה אלהיכם הרבה אתכם והנכם היום ככוכבי השמים לרב

The LORD your God has multiplied you until you are today as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Devarim 1:10)

The commentators are provoked by this line for a number of reasons. They question whether, in fact, Bnei Yisrael are truly numerous or have even grown recently. They also comment on the redundancy of הרבה and לרב. Haemek Davar uses the double רב to distinguish between greatness in quality and quantity. Rashi, building on ככוכבי השמים, suggests that Bnei Yisrael, though not numerous, exist forever, just like the sun, the moon, and the stars. In short, what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.

Further, it is important to note that G-d is active in this pasuk. Bnei Yisrael are great because G-d makes them so. This highlights, once again, G-d’s role in the destiny of great nations. Here, too, the language of רב bolsters the message that Bnei Yisrael should have confidence that G-d will help them.

These observations bring us back to the use of רב־לכם in Devarim 2:3. Daat Zkenim makes a beautiful observation, connecting this language back to an episode in Sefer Breishit:

רב לכם סב. בלשון שדבר עשו ליעקב שאמר לו יש לי רב נשתלם לו שכרו:

רב לכם, סוב. “you have been skirting this land enough, now turn around (in a northerly direction) The word רב here is used in the same way as Esau used it in his encounter with Yaakov in Genesis 33:9 when he first wanted to refuse to accept Yaakov’s gift and said to him:יש לי רב אחי “I have lots, my brother;” he meant that he had been repaid sufficiently for any harm Yaakov had caused him in the past.

In other words, רב־לכם tells us that G-d is giving Bnei Yisrael a clean slate and a second chance to get it right. So much of Parashat Devarim is crafted to assure Bnei Yisrael that G-d will help them conquer the land of Israel. The variations on the root רב constitute a linguistic mechanism that holds it all together.

May we, too, recognize the presence of G-d in our lives and proceed forward without fear.

Shira Silver (WWBM 2018) is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Philosophy and Computer Science.

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Counting and Remaining Uncounted

This week’s Dvar Torah is by Aliza Libman Baronofsky

Our sages called Sefer Bemdibar “Chumash HaP’kudim” because of the censuses that bookend the book, right at the start of Sefer Bemidbar and then again in Parshat Pinchas, after the sin at Ba’al Peor. If you’re old enough to remember real bookends, you know that if you put a whole pile of books outside the bookend – analogous to the placement of this week’s parsha outside the ‘closing bookend’ in Parshat Pinchas – your last few books will fall off the shelf.

It is not my objective to look at every section in these two parshiyot, either to attempt to artificially ‘cram’ them in or to explain why they remain out. However, thematically there is much in Matot that we can see as a natural progression from Pinchas, as well as a natural conclusion to Parshat – and indeed, Sefer – Bemidbar.

Let us begin with the well-known fact that we have a prohibition (dislike?) against counting Jews, which stems from the opening lines of Shmot 30:11-12:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַה’ בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Translations from Sefaria unless otherwise indicated.)

It is acknowledged that sometimes we need to count the people, such as when determining how many warriors we have going out to battle (in early Bemidbar) or to determine how many are left after a plague (such as in Parshat Pinchas, after the plague of Ba’al Peor.) It is also clear that last week’s parsha’s census is tied to apportioning of the land.

This week, we tie up loose ends by exacting vengeance on Midian for their role in the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, as described in Bemidbar (Numbers) 31:25-54. The Jews are told to select 1,000 soldiers from each tribe to battle Midian, a total of 12,000. After a decisive victory, we get an extensive list of the spoils and booty the Jews were allowed to keep, presuming they divided it 50-50 between the warriors and those who stayed behind.

Here, an extraordinary number of verses are devoted to enumerating:

  • how many total of each type of spoils the Jews acquired;
  • what number corresponds to the 50% of each type that went to the warriors;
    and
  • the number that was given to God via Elazar HaKohen, called “מֶּ֥כֶס” – a tax levy or duty. (Elazar is generally understood to be taking this share for the Kohanim overall as a result of their service. The overall amount was 1/500 of the warriors’ share or 0.1% of the original total.)

Finally, the exact same numbers are listed again to enumerate the 50% given to the remaining Israelites, of which 1/50 is given to the Leviim. (Interestingly, we are not given the exact numbers for the Levi’im but are told their share as a fraction.)

After the spoils are divided up, the officers of the warriors come forward and give as tribute all of the gold jewelry they had taken as their personal booty (which was apparently allowed). They state:

(מט) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עֲבָדֶ֣יךָ נָֽשְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ אַנְשֵׁ֥י הַמִּלְחָמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּיָדֵ֑נוּ וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ

(49) They said to Moses, “Your servants have made a check of the warriors in our charge, and not one of us is missing (נִפְקַ֥ד).

The word נִפְקַ֥ד has to be translated a little oddly here, as missing, which Rashi takes the lead on stating and virtually everyone seems to agree. The use of the root פ.ק.ד, which sometimes means ‘to count’ reminds us of the censuses. After all, they must be counted (the more common נ.ש.א. here) in order to determine if any are missing.

Of course, we must ask: Why might anyone be missing? What is the implication here?

Before we proceed with this specific question, we must first address the more obvious omnisignificance in the room: Why do we need all these verses at all? At least in the eyes of the more traditional, midrashic commentaries, every verse needs to be justified. This text section gets 20+ psukim with numbers of sheep and types of gold jewelry.

In a traditional take on the Gemara in Shabbat 64, Chizkuni writes that the warrior officers were concerned about having been counted: They therefore stated:

(א) ונקרב את קרבן ה’, לכפר על נפשתינו שנדרנו מלפני החשבון שנמנינו כדי שלא ישלוט בנו נגף ולכך הביאונוהו אל אהל מועד. וכן מצינו ולקחת את כסף הכפורים ונתת אותו על עבודת אהל מועד.  

“We had made this commitment already before having been counted in order to protect us against the potential harm that might befall us on account of the count.  This is why we have now brought it to the Tabernacle.”

To forestall a potential epidemic, they vowed before they left to give from the spoils to Hashem. Chizkuni continues by citing the source for this as Shmot 30:16, our original source about not counting Jews, where “כסף הכפורים” or atonement money is given as a result of the census.

According to tradition, the count is not apparently sinful in and of itself; instead, counting the Jews exposes their sins.

Chizkuni writes regarding v. 49:

ורבותינו אמרו לא נפקד ממנו לדבר עבירה.

Our sages therefore do not understand the word נפקד here in the conventional sense, but they translate it to mean that none of the 12000 soldiers in this campaign had become guilty of a personal sin, which might have resulted in Satan having an excuse to kill him.”

Chizkuni says that being counted could have lead to a plague, but the phrase “ולא נפקד ממנו איש” means that no individual of the 12,000 men (or perhaps their officers) had a personal sin that would increase the likelihood he would die in battle.

Chizkuni here refers back to Rashi and the same Gemara in Shabbat when he says that these officers, who did not sin, are nonetheless atoning from having been tempted to sin. The classical interpretation of these verses, then, is that the donation of these officers is a rare example of leadership gone right in Sefer Bemidbar – leaders confronted with a bad choice who made a good one, which becomes a significant positive part of a story (Ba’al Pe’or) whose ending could have been much worse.

Rashi does something very characteristic on these verses: he lists the words that describe the gold items donated and explains which types of jewelry were included in the list. He notes that the final one is an item in the shape of a uterus to atone for the same sin – the unfulfilled desire the warriors felt for the women of Midian.

אצעדה. אֵלּוּ צְמִידִים שֶׁל רֶגֶל: (ב) וצמיד. שֶׁל יָד: (ג) עגיל. נִזְמֵי אֹזֶן: (ד) וכומז. דְּפוּס שֶׁל בֵּית הָרֶחֶם, לְכַפֵּר הִרְהוּר הַלֵּב שֶׁל בְּנוֹת מִדְיָן (שבת ס”ד):

We expect something like this from Rashi because he likes to take apart lists and give every item on the list additional meaning or detail (see, for example, his commentary on the first few verses of Sefer Devarim.). However, though this type of commentary is characteristic of Rashi, it does make a careful reader aware that he is focusing on the detail in these few verses without saying much about the detail in the lists of spoils.

A more ‘plain text’ approach to the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ” is given by Nachmanides, who writes

הנה השם עשה תשועה גדולה על ידינו שלא מת במלחמה אחד מכל אנשי הצבא אשר בידינו

Behold, Hashem made through us a great salvation that no one from all of our army died in the war. (Translation mine)

When Nachmanides says no one died, he’s continuing a theme he has built in many places. What do we think about the possibility that there were no casualties? While this seems unlikely, it is nonetheless a possible outcome if the Midianites were truly outmatched, says Rabbi Michael Hattin. (See Part 2 of this shiur from TanachStudy.com.) Similarly, Rashbam writes that the real miracle was that no one died of a plague (presumably of the type that were common among encamped soldiers lacking a modern understanding of germ theory.)

Nachmanides’ take on the ‘too much detail question’ is along the same lines as his later commentary (on 31:49):

הוצרך הכתוב לפרט הזה להזכיר כמה המחצה וכמה המכס להודיע כי מיום שלקחו המלקוח עד שמנו אותו וחצו אותו והפרישו ממנו המכס ונתנו לאלעזר הכהן לא מת מכל המקנה הגדול הזה אחד וכן במחצת העדה ללויים וזה נס:  

The Torah needed to include this much detail, noting how much was each half, to let us know that from the day they took the spoils, through the time they counted it and divided it in half, separated the ‘duty’ share and gave it to Elazar the Cohen, not one animal of this great amount died. Also, when the nation divided it up and gave their share to the Leviim [none died either] – which was a miracle. (31:36, translation mine)

This position of Nachmanides here in 31:36 foreshadows the officers later: just as not one of the officers died, so too, none of the animals died. This commentary is similar to Nachmanides’ commentary in 2:4, where he says that the two censuses (In Shmot 30 and Bemidbar 2) have the same count because no one died. We can tell he’s reading ahead to our text at that time because he uses the phrase “לא נפקד מהם איש”, reminiscent of verse 49’s “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אִֽישׁ׃”. (Indeed, our text is the only place in Tanach where the phrase “וְלֹא־נִפְקַ֥ד … אִֽישׁ׃” is used, but all kinds of commentaries pick it up later (Rashi, Radak, Metzudat David and others) and use it to mean ‘not one is missing.’)

So now we have a war where no soldier sinned and an aftermath where no sheep died. These might be pretty extraordinary miracles. I said earlier that we are perhaps commending the leaders for finishing the terrible story of Ba’al Pe’or off well, with retribution to those who scorned the will of God and a taking of responsibility by the new tribal leaders. The idea that not one died – neither soldier nor animal – can also be showing God’s total forgiveness – no remnant of the sin remains.

However, we might also be hesitant to see these as out-of-the-ordinary miracles (after all, Sihon and Og were more mighty and we defeated them, too.) Other commentaries explore alternate avenues.

The Ohr Hachaim accepts Ramban’s question, writing, “למה האריך כל כך בפרטי החשבון בדבר שיכול כל הבא למנות לידע ”, hilariously translated by Rav Eliyahu Munk as “Who amongst us cannot figure out what half of a total of 675,000 sheep amounts to?” Ohr Hachaim does not consider it to be miraculous that no animal died, in a time span he calls “מועט” – brief – but when he says “ומה גם שיצטרך הכתוב לכתוב כל הדברים בשבילו” – that this so-called ‘miracle’ would not be significant enough to make it worth recording in great detail in the Torah, he sets a high bar for his own answer!

Instead, he says

לא שהיה מונה חמש מאות ונותן אחד לה’ מפאת המכס אלא מונה תצ”ט ונותן אחד

(2) I believe that the reason that the Torah tells us what half the total of these flocks amounted to was to teach us that the calculation of the tax was based on the 500th animal being the tax rather than the 501st. This is the reason the Torah had to repeat this calculation in each instance. In other words, the tax amounted to one in 499 and not as we might have thought one in 500.

Ohr Hachaim says the Torah wants to make sure we don’t think it is a ratio of 1:500, where the 1 given to the duty is not from among the 500. By listing that 675 sheep went to Elazar for the duty, etc., we see that it is the fraction 1/500 (or 1:499). We math types would call this part-to-part as opposed to part-to-whole.

However, Ohr HaChaim’s comment might not even pass his own significance test – this is not a frequently repeated case or one with any practical ramification. 1/501 calculated as a decimal, 0.00199600798403 (repeating), can hardly be said to be much different than 0.002 as to make it worth so many extra verses from the vantage point of someone who, like Ohr Hachaim, does not like extra verses.

Ohr Hachaim, of course, has not resolved all of his problems yet. He still needs to account for the first, very long list. His second point, more meaningfully, is that the Torah’s way of writing makes it clear that the מכס – duty – was taken only out of the warriors’ share, after it was divided in half (where you might have thought it was taken off the top) and the Levites were given their share out of the half that the nation was awarded. This answer accounts for the listing of all the halves twice, to show that both sides started out with half of the original amount of spoils. It can even be argued that after the other sets of numbers are listed, we don’t need to know the exact numbers for the Levites, since we know what fraction of what whole we are calculating. Whatever we think of this answer, we can’t argue that the numbers are not significant enough to matter. This answer deals with much larger numbers. 1/500 off the top of 675,000 versus 1/500 out of 337,500 is 1350 sheep for God versus 675.

(For what it’s worth, Ohr Hachaim is completely on board with the ideas from Shabbat 64a that the soldiers donated the gold to atone for fantasizing about sin, even though none of them sinned and all came back alive.)

Our other reliable omnisignificance booster is the Malbim, who is less explicit but nonetheless does not disappoint. He connects the two sets of numbers, noting that the number of soldiers as a fraction of the nation as a whole corresponds to the fraction of the spoils given to the Levites, who are described in 31:47 as “שומרי משמרת משכן ה’”. Malbim attributes the nation’s success to the prayers of the Levites on behalf of the soldiers.

12,000/600,000=1/50

Since the Levites had an instrumental role through prayer, they are entitled to 1/50 of the spoils for protecting the 1/50 of the nation who went to fight in the war. While Malbim does not explicitly address the omnisignificance question, he clearly believes the specific numbers are significant.

As a longtime ‘math person’, I’ve always resisted any anti-counting bias I felt from the Torah’s census squeamishness. The idea that by counting you risk loss, and superstition in general, is a bit much for my Litvish way of being. Details matter!

Fortunately, I am not the first, or only, one to ever notice that counting can be an expression of love. In his first comment on the book of Bemidbar, Rashi writes, “מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה” – “Because they were dear to him, He counts them every now and then.” This is indeed a beautiful bookend to our Sefer. For a God committed to His people’s welfare, no detail is too small to escape His care and notice – not even the number of sheep. Especially in the aftermath of Ba’al Pe’or, Hashem takes time and care to show that the relationship is mended. He enables the people to act themselves to accomplish something significant. He then lists the exact number who did so, and the exact numbers of items they earned. In this coda to the Pinchas census, we can imagine that the relationship that’s been on the rocks since Parshat BeHa’alotcha is finally on its way to being mended.

Aliza Libman Baronofsky (SBM ‘06) teaches at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD.

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