Parshat Chukat / פרשת חקת

Parshat Chukat / פרשת חקת:  Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:
Often we tend to think of extraordinary events (some might say miracles) as rare.  In reality, our lives are filled with truly remarkable, mind-boggling phenomena.  We just need to be open to experiencing them.
This sentiment is expressed in a simple story told about Reb Zusya in reaction to this most common of biblical phrases: The LORD spoke… וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה:
Once Rabbi Zusya was in a class taught by the Maggid of Mezeritch. The Maggid began the class with a commonplace verse from the Torah: “And God spoke…” Just these few words were enough to excite and astonish Rabbi Zusya. He exclaimed “God spoke… GOD spoke… God SPOKE!” over and over until he had to be removed from the classroom due to the disruption he was causing.
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Parshat Korach / פרשת קֹ֔רַח:

Parshat Korach / פרשת קֹ֔רַח:
Numbers 13:1-15:41

וַיִּקַּ֣ח קֹ֔רַח בֶּן־יִצְהָ֥ר בֶּן־קְהָ֖ת בֶּן־לֵוִ֑י וְדָתָ֨ן וַאֲבִירָ֜ם בְּנֵ֧י אֱלִיאָ֛ב וְא֥וֹן בֶּן־פֶּ֖לֶת בְּנֵ֥י רְאוּבֵֽן׃
Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth, descendants of Reuben

When out of no where a man whose name means  “baldness, ice, hail, or frost” bursts on the scene it does not portend good things.  Indeed, if you read a few lines further into this week’s parshah the trouble ushered in with Korach is laid out in great detail.  However, adhering to my objective to stay focused on the opening verse only you’ll have to read ahead on your own to learn what headaches Korach caused Moses.

The Torah uses names as a vehicle for numerous literary devices.  Korach, for example, foreshadows something cold and calculating.  This is exactly what you will discover when you read ahead.  Sometimes names are onomastics, such as Yitzhak, which is derived from the Hebrew to laugh / li’tzok (לִצְחוֹק).  See Gen. 18:15 & 21:7.

In the Torah the meaning of names matter and reveal much about their namesakes. When it comes to names in the Torah the popular Shakespearean phrase “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” definitely doesn’t apply.

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Parshat Sh’lach / פרשת שלח־לך:

Parshat Sh’lach / פרשת שלח־לך:
Numbers 13:1-15:41

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:..

There is an interesting homograph in this verse.  The consonants aleph and lamed (el/אל) spell both a preposition meaning “to” and a generic term for God.  Throughout the Torah we find el/אל  combined with other words to form a different name for God, such as, El Shaddai or  El Elyon. Of course, there is the familiar Eloheim, the plural of El.

Out of curiosity I asked my rabbinic colleagues what, if any connection they thought there was between the preposition to/el and the noun God/El.  I also wondered how the verse would change if we read el/אל as a noun instead of preposition.  To be clear,  grammatically וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר (and he said) requires either the preposition al/אל, to or im/עם, with. 

The responses were fascinating.  Strict rabbinic grammarians said it was an absurd question because to read the preposition as a noun wouldn’t make sense.  Etymologically curious rabbis wondered about the origins of the two meanings.  My kabbalistic friends wondered if there some sort of mysterious connection between the meanings of the two words (30/lamed + 1/aleph=31=3+1=4 = 4 worlds).   My anthropology minded colleagues wanted to know more about how the two meanings evolved culturally and historically.  Finally, my friends who love to weave midrash out of whole cloth set to work creating imaginative connections.

Wow!  So many ways to approach a text.  Find the path that resonates with you and go with it.

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Parshat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך:

Parshat Beha’alotcha / פרשת בהעלתך:
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him.

First, a correction: Last week I mistakenly identified chapter 4, verse 1 as the opening line of parshat Nasso.  It should have been verse 21. 

I mistakenly parsed God speaking to both Moses and Aaron. This week God only speaks to Moses.  This raises a new question: How come God sometimes speaks to Aaron and Moses like equals and at other times God only speaks to Moses?

One explanation is called the Documentary Hypothesis.  This is a theory that claims that the Pentateuch is a composite of four separate coherent documents known as J, E, P & D.  Each distinct document had its own political or theological agenda and/or reflects a different time period in the history of ancient Israel.  For example, when Aaron is elevated to the same level as Moses indicates the work of P, short for priest.  The D.H. maintains that someone or a group of people politically aligned with the priestly rule of ancient Israel had their own version of the Torah and in Aaron was equal to Moses.  To read a concise summary of the D.H. Click here or get yourself a copy of Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard Elliott Friedman.

Suffice it to say that there are compelling arguments against the D.H.  Nevertheless, it provides one answer to the question how come God sometimes speaks to Aaron and Moses like equals and at other times God only speaks to Moses.

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Parshat Nasso / פרשת נשא:  

Parshat Nasso / פרשת נשא:
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

Who was Aaron?  Aaron is first introduced when God becomes angry at Moses for balking at confronting Pharaoh.  (Exodus 4:14)  The Torah offers only a few biographical details.  He was three years older than Moses.  He grew up in his parents home.  He married Elisheba daughter of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah. He had four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.  That’s about it.

Sometimes etymology sheds light on the meaning of a name and by extension the qualities or character of the person bearing the name.  There is only person in the entire Bible called Aaron. His name might have originated in Egypt and was then transliterated into Hebrew in such a way as to mean something in Hebrew.  We don’t know for sure.

Some scholars think Aaron comes from the Hebrew word הר (har) meaning mountain or hill.  Others think it comes from the אור (‘or) meaning light.  A third possibility is that Aaron is related to the Hebrew word ‘aron, meaning “ark”. From these root meanings of Aaron we might infer that he was a beacon or light shining from a mountain top, or towering beacon for the Israelites.  Alternatively, perhaps he was a vessel (ark) holding the sacred light of the Torah that was received on the mountain top.

The gematria of Aaron hints to his special role.  Aaron in Hebrew numerically is 256 (2+5+6) which then reduces to 13.  In the kabbalistic tradition the number 13 binds multiplicity into oneness.  One / Echad (אחד) can be expressed as aleph/1 + chet/8 + daled/4 = 13. Thus, perhaps the one called Aaron is so named because he was the one who bound the multiplicity of the mixed multitude who fled Egypt into one nation.  It seems to me that we are in desperate need of an Aaron today here and in Israel.  Don’t you agree?

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Parshat Numbers / פרשת במדבר

Parshat Numbers / פרשת במדבר: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:

Although the fourth book of the Torah is called “Numbers” in English the Hebrew name, B’midar/בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר, actually means “in the wilderness”. What exactly is a wilderness?

Roderick Nash in his book “Wilderness and the American Mind” points out that the “concept of wilderness has a deceptive concreteness. In fact, there is no specific material object that is wilderness. The term designates a quality (as the ‘-ness’ suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual and, as a consequence, may be assigned by that person to specific place. Because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive. One person’s wilderness may be another’s roadside picnic. Wilderness, in short, is so heavily freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind as to resist easy definition”.

Midbar/wilderness in the Torah is also “freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind”. It is at once a place of divine encounters or punishment; the idea of untethered freedom and unbound potential or exile and existential struggle; raw, rugged and unforgiving nature or breath taking beauty and peacefulness.

When I think of B’midar/בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר/wilderness I think of this passage from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire “… wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread”.

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Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי:

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃ 
The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:

According to tradition we don’t know the exact location of Mt Sinai. In addition, the Torah calls the site of revelation by two different names, Mt Sinai and Mt. Horeb. It is striking and instructive that the site of the most seminal event in the formation of Judaism is shrouded in mystery. I see this as an invitation to think of “revelation at Mt. Sinai” as something much more than an event in time at a specific location.

I understand Mt. Sinai and revelation as two components of the experience of expanded awareness. Restated as a b.g.o. (blinding glimpse of the obvious), we are somewhere (Mt. Sinai) when become aware of something that significantly impacts our life (revelation).

There is a lovely midrash that asserts “wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation; for every true internalization of the Torah’s teaching: Whoever would wish to acquire Torah must become ownerless like the wilderness.” The theologian and wilderness writer C. Beldan Lane points out that the “austere, unaccommodating landscapes of desert, mountain and heath remind us of the smallness and majesty of Being”. Mt. Sinai is then perhaps not one specific location, but rather a subjective place that is an “austere, unaccommodating landscape” where “revelation” happens, in other words, one experiences “smallness and majesty of Being”.

Where is the Mt. Sinai of your life? What was revealed?

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