Parshat Balak: Love over Hate

“I have decided to stick to love… Hate is too great a burden to bear.” -Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Love vs. hate, Blessings vs. Curses. These are some of the themes which run through the commentaries on parshat Balak. The midrash notes linguistic and thematic similarities between the stories of Balaam and Avraham. Both Avraham and Balaam demonstrate “zrizut,” enthusiasm for their mission. In the story of akeidat Yitzchak, Avraham rises early and saddles his own donkey to fulfill the word of God. Balaam too, sets out with enthusiasm to do as Balak has commanded, to curse the nation of Israel. The midrash points out that both these men had servants who certainly would have saddled their donkeys for them, but as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches, regarding Avraham: “Love upends the social order,” and about Balaam: “Hate upends the social order.” Similarly, Pirkei Avot teaches that one can choose to be a student of Balaam and have an “evil eye” or like a disciple of Avraham, with a “good eye.” Balaam was keen to curse a whole people he did not know, while Avraham sought out opportunities to bless others. Perhaps this is why the midrash teaches that at first God was the only giver of blessings in Bereshit, until God gave the ability to bless others over to Avraham and his descendents.

Each day we have an opportunity to look at the world negatively, with a critical eye and spread hatefulness in the world, or with a good and generous eye and share brachot with others. Perhaps that is why we start the day with Balaam’s curse-turned-blessing, “mah tovu,” to remind us of this choice. 

Hatred is on the rise these days. It has been seen between Jews and fellow Jews, in the form of antisemitism and through the recent tragic bloodshed in Chicago. By following the model of Avraham, “the father of many nations,” we can upend the current social status quo by promoting love over hate. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

*Ultra-Orthodox youths interrupt a bar mitzvah ceremony at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall on June 30, 2022. (Laura Ben-David)

Chukat: Mayim Chayim (Living Waters)

Parshat Chukat is a parsha of leavetaking and loss, yet it also contains the seeds of renewal and hope for the future. This is reflected in the imagery of the be’er, the well of water which dries up and then flows once again, yet differently. 

The parsha begins in the fortieth year, when the desert generation has mostly died out. Both Miriam and Aaron pass away and Moshe is told he too will not enter the land. The parsha also contains the hopeful image of Bnei Yisrael (the next generation) poised across from Jordan, readying to enter the land of Israel. With Miriam’s death, Bnei Yisrael cry out for water. Later, the people sing to a well which brings forth water. The Tosefta Sotah explains that there was a be’er which accompanied and sustained Israel for forty years in the desert in Miriam’s merit. After she died, the well disappeared and returned in Moshe’s merit. 

However, Ramban suggests that this may be a new be’er. There are numerous elements which support this position. First, this is the first time the people take an active role and sing for water. Second, the song states “Az yashir Yisrael…” As opposed to the splitting of the sea, when the people sang with Moshe and Miriam, here they sang independently. This be’er represents the passing down of tradition alongside new characteristics. This can be applied to Torah too, which is called “mayim chayim.” Each generation receives it and imbues it with new meaning.

This week the Jewish world lost a great Talmud scholar. Rabbi Prof. David Weiss Halivni represented the transition from the old world of Torah erudition to a post Shoah world, with new approaches to critical study of the Talmud. I, like so many others, am grateful to have merited to drink from the well of his brilliant Torah. May his memory and teachings be for a blessing. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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Parshat Korach: Power of Community

Community is an essential part of Judaism. Parshat Korach is about the risks of separating oneself from the community, which resonates through today.

Rashi highlights that Korah’s separateness is already expressed in the first verse: “And Korach took…” It does not say what he took; it only lists a few of his followers. Rashi, citing midrash Tanhuma teaches: He purposely took himself out of the community to make machloket (conflict). The story continues with Korah’s claims, refusal to engage in dialogue with Moshe and Aaron and punishment. How surprising it is then that Korah’s “edah” (community) is the source in the Talmud for the requirement to pray in a minyan (quorum) of ten men! (There is also value placed on praying as part of a tzibbur – of men and women). 

The source for minyan in the Talmud is derived from a verbal analogy in Torah. Vayikra states that God should be sanctified “among” Bnei Yisrael. The word among is also used when God instructs Moshe to separate from “among” Korah’s community (edah), as attempts to reason with them were futile. The word edah is also used in the story of the spies, from which the number ten is derived for minyan. So the basis for communal prayer is derived from two groups of great sinners. 

Perhaps this was not only a literary connection, but rather a deeper point expressed by the rabbis. Separating and not engaging with diverse perspectives can lead to isolation and extremism. By deriving minyan from such imperfect models, the Sages encourage openness and inclusiveness within communities. This allows for people of varying religious commitments, or who feel less worthy, to take part in communal prayer. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Shlach: On “Influencers”

Parshat Shlach is most known for containing the sin of the meraglim (spies). Yet, the entire generation was punished. What was their fault and what lessons can be drawn from this tragic story for our world today?

Biblical interpreters point out that the narrative of the meraglim did not occur in a vacuum. This is not the beginning of the people’s faithlessness. It is part of a series of stories of criticism and resentment in Bamidbar, which begins with small groups and spreads throughout the nation. Rashi teaches that the meraglim narrative follows the story of Miriam’s punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra to show that the spies should have learned the dangers of slander, yet they did not. The Ha’amek Davar sees the failings of the spies as going further back to the “mitonenim,” (provocateurs) who start a downward spiral of criticism which culminates with the spies who spread negativity among the nation.

However, these interpretations risk portraying the people as being easily swayed by the meraglim and therefore lacking some degree of agency. Caleb and Joshua rejected the negative reports and said “let us go up!” Why weren’t they listened to? Rabbi Yehuda Brandes suggests that the nation’s unmitigated support for the ten spies, complete disregard for the words of Caleb, and immediate cries of hopelessness, show that the spies were feeding off the fears and faithlessness of the people. Bnei Yisrael were not just swayed but had an active role in escalating the negative reports and were therefore punished severely. The people influenced the spies as much as the spies influenced the people.

In our era of digital connectivity, negativity and resentment can spread particularly rapidly. Complacency allows them to breed. The recent spate of violence against healthcare workers in Israel and of gun violence in the US are a call to spread positive and constructive voices in the world. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Beha’alotcha: On Setbacks and Success

What wisdom does Parshat Beha’alotcha contain on how to view life’s setbacks and successes? 

The parsha describes Israel’s spiritual heights alongside displays of their faithlessness and bitterness. The language of going up appears several times. When Aaron “goes up” (beha’alotcha) to light the menorah, the midrash Tanhuma explains that this gesture signifies God’s exalting of us, Israel. Later, the lifting up of the cloud indicated it was time to “go up” to the land of Israel. And then come the inspiring words we say every Shabbat upon opening the Aron Kodesh, bracketed by two upside down letter “nuns”: 

“וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה ה’…”

Yet, this theme is interrupted when Israel begins to complain bitterly, spreading negativity and leading to punishment. 

Why was the immediately preceding section bracketed by two upside down letter “nuns”? The Talmud teaches that these “nuns” signal that this section was placed here to pause between the calamities of Israel. The bitter complainers actually followed an earlier failing, when Israel ran away from God at Sinai. The pause provides optimism amidst a series of difficult setbacks. 

The letter “nun” reinforces this idea. The Talmud asks: Why in the acrostic Ashrei prayer is there no verse beginning with “nun”? One answer: the nun is the first letter in the word for the downfall of Israel in a verse from Amos, “She has fallen (naflah) and will rise no more.” Yet, the Sages taught that it should read: “She will fall no more,” a source of optimism. Failures and setbacks will occur, the question is how to overcome them. 

Beha’alotcha provides a healthy perspective: Recognize that life is filled with setbacks as well as successes, try to find points of optimism amidst failure and try to use disappointment as an opportunity and source of growth. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

Wavin’ (the Israeli) Flag

Flags are on the news and on our minds this week. Flags also play a prominent role in Bamidbar. Parshat Naso continues to describe the layout of the camp of Israel, where the people were situated according to their  standard (דגלו), under the signs (אתת) of their ancestral house. What is the significance of the emphasis on the flags?

Biblical interpreters differ on whether there were twelve flags or whether the tribes were united under four flags. Rashi suggests that each tribe had a different color flag which corresponded to the breastplate of the kohen, and the different colors highlighted the diversity of the nation of Israel. Other commentaries view the flags as an expression of military pride and prowess. Abarbanel – who understood politics and diplomacy well – explains that the tribes were placed next to each other and traveled together in four groups. Judah’s group (whose symbol was a lion) was placed at the head and Dan’s (whose symbol was an eagle) was in the rear, because they were the strongest and would deter the enemy from attacking. 

The layout of the flags also surrounded the mishkan, drawing on the holiness of the Shechinah. This is reinforced by a midrash brought by Dr. Avivah Zornberg, which teaches that the flags originated at Matan Torah. When God descended on Har Sinai the people saw myriads of angels with different banners. They too longed to have their own flags as a symbol of God’s love for them, hence, they were arranged by flags in the desert.  

Flags should symbolize national pride alongside holiness and devotion, not hate and destruction. May we continue to fly our Israeli flag from a place of pride, strength and love rather than from hatred. May we not have to see flags of hate here. Finally, may we experience the love of the banner of Torah this Shavuot, just as Israel experienced at Har Sinai. Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach – Karen Miller Jackson

Bamidbar: Redemptive Counting

The Book of Bamidbar is also called by the rabbis “Chumash HaPekudim,” (loosely) the Book of Numbers, since it contains two lengthy censuses of Bnei Yisrael. Counting people is sometimes viewed positively in Tanach, while other times it is considered a sin. Why is there such a varied view of counting people in Jewish sources? 

Bamidbar opens with God commanding Moshe to count the males who are of age to be soldiers, in preparation for entering the land of Israel. Rashi comments: “Because of God’s love for Israel, He counts them often…” This is in contrast to when King David counts the people. The book of Divrei Hayamim states that God was displeased with this counting. What was the difference? 

In Bamidbar God commands the counting, whereas later, David counted from his own initiative. Moreover, Sforno explains that in Bamidbar they were counted “with names,” highlighting each individual for their unique contribution to the nation. Thinking of people as numbers is dangerous, as we know too well from Jewish history. One last interpretation: Ramban notes that there is a significant difference in language between Bamidbar and Divrei Hayamim. In Bamidbar, the word used for counting is from the root פקד, which can also mean redemption. In the David narrative it is ספר, which only means to count. Ramban explains that counting should be done rarely and only when necessary, for positive, redemptive purposes. David’s counting was not for any good reason.

Unfortunately, this is a particularly relevant message, as we try to process the news of so many young lives lost this past week. The parsha is a reminder that each one has a name and is an entire world. May our countings be only for redemptive purposes. Shabbat Shalom and Yom Yerushalayim sameach -Karen Miller Jackson

Be’chukotai: Walking through Torah

Parshat Bechukotai contains several references to walking. “If you walk in my laws (“be’chukotai telechu”) and keep my mitzvot” – you will be blessed with rain and peace and God will “walk among you.” The section of brachot concludes with the declaration that God took us out of Egypt and slavery and enabled us to “walk upright.” Why does the imagery of walking recur, and what is its connection to laws and blessings?

The opening verse contains superfluous language. “If you walk in my chukim (laws) and observe my mitzvot (commandments)…” If one observes the mitzvot, what does “If you walk in my chukim” add? Rashi, citing Sifra, says that “to walk in my chukim” means “If you study my Torah laboriously.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks, why would one specifically study chukim – the laws which defy logic and understanding!? He quotes the Alter Rebbe, who offers a unique interpretation of the phrase “be’chukotai telechu.” The language of chukotai is related to the word chakika, engraving. Through studying areas of Torah which we have to struggle with (chukim), we humble ourselves, and Torah becomes truly part of us. And the walking, telechu, describes continual effort and forward movement. 

The imagery of engraving and Torah study is used in the midrash about Rabbi Akiva’s beginnings as well. Rabbi Akiva ponders how water erodes stone and concludes through this that Torah, which is hard to understand, can then certainly engrave his heart. Rabbi Akiva began the humbling journey of Torah study at age forty and defied expectations by becoming one of the greatest Sages. 

The engraving in Rabbi Akiva’s story is also about empowering oneself in Torah study from a place of love and choice, even if it is daunting. These sources encourage us to continue searching for personal meaning in Torah,  and to keep making effort, so our lives are a journey through Torah. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Behar: Good and Bad Ripple Effects

Parshat Behar contains a number of mitzvot which at first glance don’t seem to be clearly connected: Shmita and yovel (the sabbatical and jubilee years), the prohibition against mistreating others financially and verbally and the mitzvah of tzedakah. Yet, the commentaries point to a common theme which runs through these mitzvot. 

Starting with Shmita, the Rashi (citing the Talmud) sees a chronological connection which results in a downward spiral of consequences: One who is not careful about observing shmita and benefits from the produce of the seventh year, will lose his land in the yovel year when it is returned to the original owners (in biblical times). This may lead to taking financial advantage of others in selling property. Soon after, one will become destitute and eventually sold into slavery.  

Similar negative ripple effects occur with regard to verbal mistreatment, as seen in the Talmudic story about the shaming and ostracism of Rabbi Eliezer. As a result of the verbal mistreatment he endured, Rabbi Eliezer’s tears caused damage to the world and to others. The message: the effects of ona’at devarim, verbally mistreating others can lead to limitless consequences of hurt and pain. 

Also, the language “if his hand falters,” is understood by the midrash as the mitzvah to give tzedakah quickly, to stop a downward spiral of poverty before it gets too far. It is likened to a load on the back of a donkey – if the load falls partially it is easier to pick up than if it falls all the way down to the ground. So too, with helping others. 

Parshat Behar is the great equalizer. These mitzvot share the message that the world ultimately belongs to God and by gently recalling our origins as strangers and slaves it is a reminder to act ethically and show compassion to those who are alienated and vulnerable. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Emor: Counting and Connection

So much of what counts in today’s world is what can be measured. The Torah also places value on a type of metric – quantifying time by counting days or years in various contexts, including Sefirat HaOmer, the period we are currently in. What is the significance of counting the Omer? 

The source of this mitzvah is found in parshat Emor. Based on the words “u’sefartem lachem,” the midrash Sifra teaches that the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer falls on each individual. The sources discuss whether this requirement applies to women as well. While women were once generally considered exempt from Sefirat HaOmer, today most poskim hold that women may take on this mitzvah fully, with a bracha. Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch also mentions a remnant of a custom where some women refrained from work each night of the Omer till the morning. Perhaps historically, this was a unique way for women to take part in the mitzvah. If a woman wishes to take on Sefirat HaOmer she too becomes part of the command “lachem,” to count for yourselves.

Why is the counting up to each individual? Various commentaries understand the purpose of counting from the day after Pesach until Shavuot as potential for transformation within a person. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this mirrors the process which Am Yisrael experienced starting from yetziat mitzrayim and culminating with Matan Torah on Shavuot. When each individual counts the omer, s/he too is going through a process of preparation to receive and recommit to the Torah and its mitzvot and values.

When the Torah commands us to count the Omer it is not just to mark the passage of time, but to emphasize the potential each day and year brings, the imperative to make them count. Sefirat HaOmer in particular, invites all individuals to be counted in each year and to find their connection to Torah. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson