Parashat Masei, recalling the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt toward the border of the Holy Land, calls upon all Jews to consider how we read and interpret words of Torah. After describing the marches toward the land over 40 years of wandering, and before detailing the extent of the land’s borders and how it will be apportioned amongst the tribes, the Torah speaks of the necessity of conquest. Unfortunately, as will be made clear even more so in the book of Deuteronomy that follows, the Promised Land we will inherit is inhabited by seven other nations whom we must dispossess.

In a passage known in the tradition by its first word, “VeHorashtem”, we are commanded: “you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it”. For thousands of years, sages have commented upon this teaching, and to what extent it applies in our time. In the 11th century, Rashi, understanding the context of the verse, states that “You shall dispossess the land of its inhabitants and then you shall dwell in it, that is you will be able to remain in it; but if you do not dispossess it then you will not be able to remain in it”. That is unless we expelled the inhabitants of the

land, they would lead us into idolatry and away from the Torah and we would suffer exile. Indeed, this is the story that is told in the rest of our Bible, and the explanation given for the destruction of the Temple that we recall at this time.

The 13th century sage, Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) suggests that the primary teaching of this passage is not about conquest of the land, but rather a positive mitzvah incumbent upon each individual of Israel to dwell in the land and inherit it. Most rabbis and sages endorsed this teaching of the mitzvah to live in the land of Israel, although there remains debate as to what political means should be taken to support that move.

With the return in the 20th century of Jews in great numbers to the land of Israel, contemporary rabbis discussed the significance of these ancient teachings of Torah and their interpretations by the sages of the Medieval period. A general consensus of these rabbis, relying on Torah and received tradition, is that there exists a command to conquer and settle the land. The next significant group suggests that it is incumbent upon all Jews to settle all the land, but only in peaceful methods. Only a minority suggests that the mitzvah of saving life (or pursuing peace) overrides the mitzvah of settling all the land.

Thus, one can see how commandments of Torah, as applied by contemporary halakhic authorities, have tremendous impact on not only the relationship of Jews to the land of Israel, but also that of Jews to the nations of the world. First, are we commanded to settle not just the land of Israel, but the entire land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan? Second, are we commanded to expel the inhabitants of the land, or at least prevent them from having any form of sovereignty over the land? Third, can the mitzvah of saving life override potentially disastrous consequences flowing from an affirmative response to the first two questions? While Israel is officially a secular democracy, rabbis who teach Torah and the communities they teach have enormous influence on governmental decisions.

Just as our ancient sages understood how to contextualize Torah teachings to ameliorate their consequences, so too should we. Remembering an overarching principle of Torah, “Chai Bahem” — we should live by these teachings. Now, more than ever, we need to work with the other peoples of the land who have settled there, to live with justice, security and peace for all.

Parashat Mattot, always read in the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temple and our people’s exile from the land of Israel. Ironically, it also addresses issues connected to the settlement of the land, particularly the conquest of the Midianites as a precursor to the conquest of the seven nations of the land, and the settlement of the land on the other side of the Jordan by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. The rabbis who established the cycle of Torah readings have set up a contrast between promise of land and reality of exile. In their teaching, exile resulted from the transgressions of the people. The opening passage of Mattot, concerning the making of vows, hints at some of those transgressions.


Moses speaks to the heads of the Israelite tribes, teaching them the laws of vows made by individuals, both men and women. The 18th century rabbi known as the Chatam Sofer notes that these instructions are first given to the heads of tribes because people in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. We live in a world in which we must think about how our leaders use their words, the import of them, and whether there might be a more accurate way of using language. For example, what is the difference between a “carbon tax” or a “price on carbon” or “Illegal

immigrants” and “unaccompanied minor?” Further afield, but still close to home, what is the difference between “occupied” and “disputed” territories? These few examples demonstrate the significance of words and especially the choice of words made by leaders and opinion shapers.


In general, how we use words is crucial. Commentators have noted that Judaism places enormous import on the use of spoken language, the Torah beginning conceptually with creation emanating from speech itself. (In the beginning God spoke and said, “Let there be light.”) The 19th century “Sefer Chafetz Chaim”, an entire book concerning the Jewish ethics and laws of speechby Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, deals entirely with how and when we should speak. Mattot states clearly that our word must be our bond: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips”.


According to tradition, the First Temple was destroyed because of commission of the three cardinal sins — idolatry, murder and sexual immorality; the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred”. We now have our third opportunity to settle the land of Israel. We must make sure, all the more so during times of conflict, to speak not intemperately but judiciously; to speak in a balanced and non-emotive matter as best as possible. Just as “the world” was created through speech, so too our words create our world.


At the end of last week’s parasha, God calls to Moses and tells him just how disappointed God is in the Children of Israel. God is jealous and angry for they have turned away and begun worshipping other gods, sleeping with Midianite women – possibly cultic prostitutes – and God has had enough. God demands that those who are responsible be impaled and then causes a plague to infect all those who were led astray. Just as Moses is explaining what is happening to the people, another tragedy occurs. The Torah tells us that Moses is speaking and all around him people are weeping and crying in torment over the loss of their loved ones in the plague and the punishment that God seems intent on inflicting on them. Their lament is ascending to the heavens but God remains impervious to the pleas. In the midst of this scene walks Zimri, an Israelite, who has on his arm, Cozbi, a Midianite priestess. He parades in front of the weeping masses and heads to his tent for an afternoon of pleasure with her, a flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. This is all too much for Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, and a priest, so he takes his spear and impales the two of them upon it, spearing them through the genitals as they lay together. At that moment the plague against the Israelites stops and 24,000 people have died.


This week’s parasha begins with the fate of Pinchas, the zealot who carried out an act of violence in God’s name. We read: “God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas…has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israeli in My zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” Numbers 24:10–13


This is not the response we would have imagined. It appears that God has given the stamp of approval for Pinchas’ actions: the plague stopped, he receives the priesthood and a covenant of peace for all time. That someone should receive a reward for taking the law into his own hands, for killing in his zeal in the name of God is troubling and greatly disturbing. But Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a different explanation and interpretation. He suggests that God was behaving much like Pinchas. God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, immediate and disproportionate to the cause. However it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Zimri and imitated his God, that God saw the error of God’s ways.


Rabbi Waskow writes: “In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me; he turned his hand to zealous killing. His zealous act opened My eyes, I saw him as a mirror of Myself. He shocked me into shame at what I was doing. That is why I stopped the plague, that is why I made my covenant of peace. I said to him, if you stop, I’ll stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”


In this reading, the story takes on an entirely different message. It says: zealous killing in the name of God is never ok, not by humans, not by God. And that is why God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace. They made a deal; neither would destroy nor bring about death again for impure motives. It was only once Pinchas agreed to work for peace, goodness and life that he merited the priesthood. Leaders must be calm and rational, interpreting laws with kindness and justice, compassion and peace. Pinchas did not do that in last week’s portion, but he, like God, repented and together they looked to a different future with the potential for calm and peace. May that be our future too.


Bilaam, the main character of this week’s Torah portion, is one of few non-Israelites the Tanakh considers a mediator of God’s will. His words carry the weight of divine speech; anyone Bilaam curses is cursed, and anyone he blesses is blessed. Balak, king of Moab, stands in awe of him and is ready to pay an enormous sum to have Bilaam do his bidding.

There seems to be a gap in Bilaam’s power, however. Towards the beginning of his journey from home towards the Israelite camp, Bilaam is riding on his donkey. The donkey is being pretty stubborn, it seems, and keeps veering off the road — first into a field, then crushing Bilaam’s foot against a wall and finally simply stopping and crouching down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilaam responds violently, hitting the donkey with larger and larger objects. Bilaam, a mystic powerful enough to destroy an entire people with his words, cannot convince his donkey to move. Bilaam even threatens to beat to death the donkey that has served as his means of transportation since the day he was born. When God opens Bilaam’s eyes to reveal the sword-waving angel blocking the road that his donkey could see the whole time, the sorcerer is positively humiliated.

Bilaam has an abusive relationship with his donkey. He refuses to listen to the nonverbal messages sent by his trustworthy animal, messages that are actually preserving his life. Instead Bilaam acts with disloyalty and abject cruelty. The reader becomes curious about how Bilaam treats other people, particularly those subordinate to him. Is it any wonder that the rabbis attach to Bilaam the sobriquet, “Bilaam the Evil”?

Contrast Bilaam to Moses. Exodus Rabbah, a medieval collection of stories about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, tells a tale of the young Moses working as a shepherd. One day, a lamb wanders from the flock. Moses follows the lamb’s tracks for some time and discovers the lamb inside a cave by a pool of water, drinking. Rather than punishing the lamb for straying, Moses allows the tired, thirsty lamb to drink its fill. He then lifts it on his shoulders carries it back to the flock. Our rabbis imagine Moses’ compassionate character inspiring God to appoint him leader – shepherd – of the Israelites.

Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power, we face a choice: to behave with violence or compassion, cruelty or patience. It is up to each of us to decide, in every situation, to choose the path of Moses over that of Bilaam.

In this week’s parasha we read about the death of Moses’ sister Miriam. Immediately after the Torah reports her death, we read that the Israelites were without water. This juxtaposition of verses leads the Torah commentators to suggest that Miriam was the reason that the Israelites had water in the desert, and when she died, the water source died with her. This led to the creation of “Miriam’s Well”, a mythical well which accompanied the Israelites on their desert wanderings because of the merit of Miriam, the prophet. But what was it about Miriam that made her so special? And how was she a prophet? We have no record of her speeches. Unlike her brother Moses, we do not find her talking to the Israelites, sending them messages from God. So how was she a prophet, and what did she bring to the Israelite people?


The commentators suggest that Moses taught with words and Miriam brought her prophecy through deed. She was a woman of action, working behind the scenes to make the lives of the people better. At the shores of the sea, after the Israelites crossed to the other side, Moses sings a song of praise to God. But it is Miriam who takes a timbrel and encourages everyone to sing along with her — to dance and rejoice in the glory of God and the miracle at the sea. It is Miriam who allows the children of Israel to truly celebrate their freedom and rejoice. And Miriam provided water, sustenance for them when they needed it most. She walked amongst the people, guided and nurtured them, sustained their souls whilst Moses and Aaron tended to leadership, Miriam led too in her own quiet, determined way. She was brave, courageous and strong. She was kind, compassionate and good. And she was flawed, just like her brothers.


As we look back on her life this Shabbat of her yahrzeit, we remember her and the contribution that women have made to our community and our tradition, giving and helping, each in their own way. This Shabbat, take a moment to celebrate our Judaism like Miriam, freely and wholeheartedly, and rejoice in the beauty of our world; it’s what she would have loved. 

When I was younger and a bit of a rebel myself, I admired Korach as the quintessential rebel on the side of the common person. It could be a matter of ageing – or it may be one of learning – that has allowed me to see this parashah through the eyes of our traditional commentators, who demonstrate that Korach is not the first of the great democrats, but rather demagogues. Korach challenges his cousin Moshe for the leadership of the people, getting the masses on side with the charge that “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” Korach seeks the power of leadership over the people, pretending that he is “just one of them”. He does so in his clever use of language, pandering to the notion of each of us being equally special. Indeed, Korach is partly correct in his claim of the people’s innate holiness; at the same time, he is subverting the core teaching of the Torah of Moshe about our striving for holiness. How is this so?

One of the basic principles of Judaism, as iterated in one of our first blessings every morning, is that the soul with which we are born is pure. Our neshama, our soul, is our divine spark of God, the purest aspect of our being that connects us with all being and Ultimate Being. Every human being has that aspect of divinity, and in this sense, each of us is “a child of God.” However, the essence of Torah is that once the soul inhabits the body, it cannot but be buffeted by our desires, our knowledge of “good and bad”, and our free choice between right and wrong. Try as we might, none of us is perfect, and all of us make mistakes. The teachings of Moses are all about human fallibility, the need always to strive to do more right and good, with the commensurate requirement to acknowledge when we have gone astray and make appropriate amends for so doing. The spark of holiness with which we are born gives us the impetus throughout the days of our lives to strive for holiness, constant growth and improvement.

Korach implies that our holiness is not our potential but our actuality and in this is most deceitful. In reality, all of us need leaders, teachers, and exemplars in order to learn the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Moses is that kind of teacher, a man who himself is a “servant of God”, indeed the most humble of servants, never seeking leadership for power but rather for instruction. In this week’s Torah, Moses reminds us that our daily task is to meditate upon our innate holiness so that we can strive to act with holiness in all our daily encounters. 

This week’s parasha opens with the infamous story of the scouts (or spies), who bring back the report about the “land that devours its inhabitants”, leading to the faithless people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It closes with the command to wear tzitzit, a teaching so important in our tradition that it has since become known as the third paragraph of the Shema, one of the few passages of Torah placed directly into our Siddur, recited twice daily. While the opening and closing of the parashah are seemingly disconnected, our sages noted a linguistic connection between the two passages through the word used to spy out the land, “la-tur”. This is the same word used in the commandment of tzitzit, in which we are told to look at the tzitzit in order “not to scout after our own eyes.” Rather, the tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot which in turn keep us from wandering in the wilderness. How so?


The notion of “mitzvot”, or commandments, is one of the most confusing in all of Judaism. There are some Jews who believe that there are 613 mitzvot that were directly communicated by God to Moses in the wilderness, that must be specifically followed according to the halakha — the Jewish law developed over thousands of years but also authoritative as God’s word. Others, recognizing the human hand in the writing of Torah and tradition, have reduced the concept of mitzvot into an amorphous, general concept of “doing good deeds.” The power of a life of mitzvah exists somewhere in between.


Mitzvot indeed have been constructed by our ancestors, but they are far more than just good deeds. The system of mitzvot is a sophisticated approach to living with an understanding that all life is interconnected; that we, as conscious beings, are responsible for each other and all living things; that we, as spiritual beings, can strive for continued growth and deepening. Mitzvot are a series of obligations, learned through study of Torah, which inform Jews how to live a holy and spiritual life.


Human beings have sacred potential, but we also have fears and desires that can easily lead us astray, as in the story of the spies. The tzitzit we wear, like a knot tied around our fingers, serve as reminders not to follow after our “hearts and eyes” into behavior motivated by poor emotional bearing. Instead we are to remember, as it says in the final lines of the third paragraph and this week’s parasha: “So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God.” Parasha Shelach Lecha reminds us as Jews to live a sacred life of obligation. 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.