Curses into Blessings

“How shall I curse, whom G-d hath not cursed?” 

– Numbers 23:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Before entering the Promised Land, B’nei Yisrael defeated the famous kings, Og and Sichog. Psalms attributes the victory to H’Shem, “to him that smote great kings; for His mercy endureth forever” (Psalm 136:17). The news of their defeat was heard by Balak, King of Moab, who grew disconcerted. “Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel” (Numbers 22:3).

So, Balak sent for Balaam, who was the prophet of the nations; he sent for Balaam to curse the nation of Israel, knowing they were too strong for him to go against in battle. Yet, truth be told, B’nei Yisrael was not a threat to them, since H’Shem had told them not to against Moab. It was only the fear that spread among Moab that lead them to think a preemptive attack was possible.

Balaam saddled his donkey, and on the way to Moab, G-d sent an angel to impede his path. Three times, Balaam’s donkey stopped at the sight of the angel. Each time, Balaam, who could not see the angel, struck the donkey. The third time, the donkey verbally rebuked Balaam; and, G-d opened the eyes of Balaam, so that he could see the angel with a sword, standing in the middle of the road. 

Yet, G-d let Balaam continue on his way, strongly warning him to only speak the words that G-d would put in his mouth. Three times, Balak took Balaam to a mountain top to curse Israel; yet, each time he was compelled to bless Israel instead. So, every time Balaam attempted to pint his finger, figuratively speaking, towards Israel, as if there was some immoral conduct or character trait amongst them, H’Shem compelled Balaam to say the opposite, in all truth, because Balaam’s initial critiques did not measure up to the truth of the moral integrity and character of Israel.

This is evidenced by the blessings themselves. “None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; H’Shem his G-d is with him” (Numbers 23:21, JPS 1917 Tanach). “There is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination with Israel” (Numbers 23:23, JPS). “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5, JPS). “Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee” (Numbers 24:9, JPS).

drash parashas Chukat 5781

A chukat is a particular type of commandment that defies rational explanation. The parashas refers to the chukat (decree) of the parumah adumah (red heifer). The entire premise of the chukat of the red heifer points towards having emunah (faith) in the effectiveness of this remedy for contamination. In other words, it is only through a chukat that is not objectively clear to the intellect, through which a means of purification occurs. It is as if the goal of the chukat is to inspire our faith in the One who gave the decree.


The parumah adumah (red heifer) offering is slaughtered outside of the camp; it is completely burned in fire. Hyssop, cedar wood, and crimson thread are thrown into the fire with the red heifer. The ashes are used in a specific manner – only sparingly mixed with mayim chayim (living water; i.e. from a water source like a river). The purpose of this water with the mixture of ashes is to purify people who have come into contact with a dead body, and, therefore tamei (unclean). The water is sprinkled upon them on the third and the seventh day of their purification.

Paradoxically, the kohein who is tahor (clean) becomes tamei (unclean) when he performs the offering of the parumah adumah. This is the paradox: the very ashes of the red cow that cause an unclean person to become clean, cause the pure person, who prepares the ashes, to become impure. “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” (Job 14:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Only G-d.


Additionally, the account of the passing of Miriam occurs right after the description of the chukat of the parumah adumah. The Sages infer that this exemplifies, how like an offering brings atonement, so does the death of a tzaddik (righteous person). Moreover, the passing of Aaron occurs in juxtaposition to a description of the garments of the Kohein Gadol. As the garments of the Kohein Gadol atone for sin, so does the death of a righteous person (Moed Katan 29a). The deaths of Aaron and Miriam brought atonement to the generation in the desert.

drash Korach 5781

parashas Korach 5781

“And he spoke unto Korah and unto all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the L-RD will show who are His, and who is holy, and will cause him to come near unto Him; even him whom He may choose will He cause to come near unto Him.”

  • Numbers 16:5, JPS 1917 Tanach

Korach separated himself from the assembly of H’Shem. He purported to champion the people, inasmuch that he claimed that everyone was holy, saying that Moses and Aaron should not lift themselves above the assembly of H’Shem (Numbers 16:3, JPS 1917 Tanach); yet, commentary explains that Korach wanted Aaron’s position of Kohein Gadol for himself. Therefore, his mass appeal was a ruse, made only to aggrandize himself, and his followers.


In response to the challenge of Korach and his followers, Moshe spoke of a test, whereby H’Shem will show who are His, and who is kadosh [holy] (see above). He said, take ye everyman his fire-pan, and put incense upon them, and bring ye before H’Shem every man his fire-pan, two hundred and fifty fire pans; thou also, and Aaron, each his fire-pan (Numbers 16:17).


H’Shem told Moshe, Speak unto the congregation, saying: Get you up from about the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16:24). The earth opened up its mouth, and swallowed Korach, his family, and his followers; they went down alive into the pit; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly (24:33). Fire came forth from H’Shem, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense (24:35).

The fire pans were gathered up, “and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,” as a reminder that only those who are “of the seed of Aaron, [may] draw near to burn incense before the L-RD” (Numbers 17:4-5, JPS). Yet, inasmuch that on a symbolic level, prayer is likened to the incense service, today we may always offer up our prayers to the L-RD, whether in a communal setting, or through hisbodedus (personal prayer). Our avodas (service) is the prayer of the heart.

Hesitance Will Not Prevail

“H’Shem spoke unto Moshe, saying: Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach). Yet, this does not give the complete details, as later revealed in Torah. In Deuteronomy, it is written, “Behold, H’Shem thy G-d hath set the land before thee; go up, take possession, as H’Shem, the G-d of thy fathers, hath spoken unto thee; fear not, neither be dismayed (Deuteronomy 1:21, JPS).


These are words of encouragement; however, the people responded with caution, requesting of Moshe, “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land” (Deuteronomy 1:22, JPS). This is the prior conversation between Moshe and the people, before the opening words of the parashas, where H’Shem literally says, if you would like to send men, send men for yourself.” In other words, H’Shem left the actual decision to Moshe, whether or not to grant the request of the people to send out spies into the land of Canaan.

Previously, B’nei Yisrael had been told that they “would inherit their land, a land that flows with milk and honey” (Leviticus 20:24). When the ten spies spoke of the fruit of the land, including a cluster of grapes, carried by four men, on two sets of poles, crossways, and a giant pomegranate, they concurred that the land was truly, a land of milk and honey. Yet, they continued with their words to the people, by interjecting the conjunction, but, proceeding to give a negative bias on the local inhabitants, and the land itself.

The people were demoralized by their report; consequently, they were not intent on entering the land at that point in time. This is the generation that H’Shem decreed, would pass away during the next thirty-mine years of wandering in the desert. Hence, only the young ones at the time would enter the land. For, this decree excepted the women and children; only the men eligible for the legion, who were fit for battle passed away, as if by natural causes, over the next thirty-nine years. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who had a “different spirit,” the ten other spies were consumed immediately.

Moving On

parashas Beha’alotecha 5781

“In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony.”

  • Numbers, 10:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael had been encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for ten days under a year. When the Cloud lifted up from above the encampment, that was the signal to journey to the next location. “And the cloud of the L-RD was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp” (Numbers 10:34, JPS 1917 Tanach). Thus, did the Children of Israel move out in the formation that was previously established for them.


First the tribe of Judah, then, as they began to march, the tabernacle would be disassembled, and placed in the care of the three Levite families. Two of the families followed the tribe of Judah; the third Levite family followed the tribe of Reuben. The rest of the tribes followed in formation behind them. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” (Numbers 9:17, JPS). By day also He led them by a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire (Psalm 78:14).

Let us consider how G-d’s Presence guided the B’nei Yisrael, during the wandering in the desert. “Thou goest before them, in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14, JPS). This points toward H’Shem’s role in our lives to guide us in the right direction, to be a compass in an uncertain world, and a light in the darkness, as well as a refuge from the tumults of life. Appropos of the times, the day speaks of the necessity to turn towards the Creator, whose words are better than silver and gold (Psalms 19:1-5, Proverbs 8:19).

Teshuvah (Repentance)

parashas Nasso 5781

Speak unto the children of Israel: When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to commit a trespass against the L-RD, and that soul be guilty; then shall they confess their sin which they have done.”

– Numbers 5:6-7a, JPS 1917 Tanach

According to Rambam (Maimonides), this verse is the basis of vidui (confession), within the context of teshuvah (repentance). “And shall make reparation in full” (Numbers 5:7, JPS). This latter part of the pasuk (verse) denotes reparations made to others, if the aveirah (transgression) is against another person. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for reparation is from the same shoresh (root), shuv (to return) as teshuvah (repentance). Essentially, repentance is a return to H’Shem (the L-RD). “Let us return unto the L-RD” (Hosea 5:15b, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Such confession is a mandatory commandment. How is the verbal confession made? The sinner says thus: “I beseech Thee, O Great Name! I have sinned; I have been obstinate; I have committed profanity against Thee, particularly in doing thus and such. Now, behold! I have repented and am ashamed of my actions; forever will I not relapse into this thing again.” This is the elementary form of confession; but whosoever elaborates in confessing and extends this subject is, indeed, praise-worthy.

– Maimonides, Laws of Repentance; sefaria.org

Central Glory

drash for parashas Bamidbar 5781

“The L-RD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: ‘The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.’”

– Numbers 2:1-2, JPS 1985 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael were encamped around the Mishkan, according to their tribal affiliation. Aaron’s family and Moshe’s family were encamped on the east side, facing the front of the Mishkan. The Levites were encamped on the other three surrounding sides of the Mishkan. The rest of the twelve tribes were encamped further away from the Mishkan, three tribes on each side, north, south, east, and west.

The Levites were assigned the tasks, regarding the carrying of the Mishkan. B’nei Yisrael had been encamped at Sinai; now, these responsibilities were given, specifically, to each of the three Levite families, in preparation for the movement of the camp. First, a census was taken, of all the men eligible for war. The Levites were counted separately; they were chosen “to do the service of the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:6-8, JPS).

At the center of the encampment of the B’nei Yisrael [the Children of Israel] was the Mishkan, meaning “dwelling place.” This is where H’Shem’s presence, the Shechinah dwelt. The Hebrew word, Shechinah is derived from the word Mishkan. G-d would appear to Moses, when His presence rested between the two cherubim [golden angels], on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant. Also, He appeared within the manifestation of the Clouds of Glory to all of Israel.

drash: Behar-Bechukosai 5781

“And the L-RD spoke unto Moses in Mount Sinai, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the L-RD.”

– Leviticus 25:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The Torah, specifically, mentions that the commandment of Shemitah, wherein the land is to lie fallow every seven years, “a Sabbath unto the L-RD,” was given on Mount Sinai. Why is this particular commandment, singled out, as being given at Mount Sinai? The Sages say, that this serves as a reminder that all the commandments, not only the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – were given at Sinai. Yet, this still does not answer the question, why is the commandment of Shemitah given prominence?

Shemitah is a commandment that requires strong emunah (faith): for it is the trust in H’Shem to provide enough crops in the previous year, to eat, while the land lies fallow, until the third year, when the harvest arrives. Emunah (faith), the essential element that was initially exhibited at Sinai, when B’nei Yisrael committed to observing the commandments, before actually hearing them (na’aseh v’nishmah) is also required for Shemitah.

This faith is integral to receiving the commandments on Sinai, inasmuch that G-d guarantees that during the seventh year, when the land lies fallow, He provide enough food from the previous year, to last throughout the seventh year, as well as the next year, when the crops are being planted. Yet, the Torah warns of the consequence for not having faith in regard to the Shemitah year:

“And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye are in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths. As long as it lieth desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it” (Leviticus 26:33-35, JPS).

This chastisement was carried out towards the end of the first Temple period, as is mentioned, “to fulfill the word of H’Shem by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had been paid her sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfill threescore and ten years” (2 Chronicles 36:21, JPS). Thus, failure to observe Shemitah led to the Babylonian exile.

drash: parashas Emor 5781 – the Holy Days

“And the L-RD spoke unto Moses, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: The appointed seasons of the L-RD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are My appointed seasons.”

– Leviticus 23:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach


Torah explains the imperative to observe “the fourteenth day of the first month,” when the Pesach offering was made (Leviticus 23:5). Also, the Torah prescribes a seven-day observance, beginning on the fifteenth of Nissan, when we refrain from eating chometz. This is “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (Leviticus 23:6). Next, “When ye are come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring the sheaf of the first-fruits of your harvest” (Leviticus 23:10, JPS 1917 Tanach). This was brought to the kohein [priest], on the day after the first rest day of Pesach. The offering is referred to in Torah as the waving of the Omer; it was only enacted after B’nei Yisrael entered the Promised Land.

Then, the Torah mentions, “even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto the L-RD” (Leviticus 23:16, JPS). That is, fifty days were counted from the second day of Passover, onward until on the fiftieth day, the first wheat offering of the harvest was brought “unto the L-RD.” (The offering that was made prior to this – the Omer – on the second day of Passover, was the first of the barley harvest). Today, we refer to the fiftieth day after Passover as Shavuot (Weeks), in commemoration of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah).

In Autumn, we celebrate Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Sukkot, which follows Yom Kippur, is considered a Festival, like Passover, and Shavuot; so, it is the third of the Festivals: “Ye shall dwell in booths seven days” (Leviticus 23:42, JPS). We build Sukkot (Booths) to commemorate the protection we received from the Clouds of Glory, while dwelling in booths, during our forty-day sojourn in the desert. On the eighth day, we celebrate Shemini Atzeret, symbolizing Olam Haba (the World-to-Come).

weekly Torah: parashas Acharei-Kedoshim 5781

At the beginning of parashas Acharei, the Torah briefly mentions the deaths of two of Aaron’s sons, Adav and Navihu, whose lives were taken by the L-RD, when they approached near to Him (Leviticus 16:1).  Immediately afterwards, the H’Shem commands, in regard to Aaron, “that he not come at all times into the the holy place within the veil, before the ark-cover which is upon the ark; that he die not; for I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover” (Leviticus 16:2, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The juxtaposition of this admonition along side the mentioning of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu hints to one reason why they were consumed by fire: H’Shem’s warning to Aaron, not to enter at all times, implies that Nadav and Avihu made an unbidden entry into the Holy of Holies, for which their lives were taken. For, “The L-RD thy G-d is a devouring fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Next, the Torah begins to relate the various details of the Yom Kippur service: “Aaron shall come into the holy place” (Leviticus 16:3).  Only the Kohein Gadol could enter the Kadosh Kadoshim (Holy of Holies), and only on one day of the year, the Day of Atonement. The Sages ask, why are the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are juxtaposed with the Yom Kippur service: In like manner that the Yom Kippur brings atonement, so does the death of the righteous also bring atonement” (Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1). Even though Nadav and Avihu were consumed, the Torah credits them as righteous (Leviticus 10:3), because of their intentions to draw close to H’Shem. So, the juxtaposition of their deaths with the Yom Kippur service points toward the understanding that the death of the righteous atones for sin.

The nature of atonement may be better understood in light of the following commentary: “For the life [nefesh, soul] of the flesh [basar, body] is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that maketh atonement by reason of the life” (Leviticus 17:11, JPS 1917 Tanach). Rashi comments on ci nefesh habasar, “for the life of the flesh” of every creature, “not only of animals brought as sacrifices, is dependent on its blood (badam hiy), and it is for this reason that I have placed it [on the altar] to make expiation for the life of man: Let life come and expiate for life” (Rashi, commentary on Leviticus 17:11, sefaria.org).