Abraham was the first monotheist. According to the midrash, he arrived at the realisation of G-d’s oneness after a thorough intellectual inquiry. In considering the sun that rules during the day, and the moon at night, he realised neither ruled completely; hence, they must have a Creator who created them. Through this reflection, he raised himself up above the idolatrous beliefs of his countrymen. His newfound belief could only be nurtured, by removing himself from his environmental milieu, so that he would not continue to be influenced by idolatry. So that when G-d called him to lechlecha (literally, go forth to yourself), he was ready to go.
Yet, not until he departed with Sarah, Lot (his nephew), and his entourage of souls (converts) that they had acquired, did H’Shem appear to him in Shechem. The question is asked, why did H’Shem first speak (vayomer) to Abraham, when he was first called (Genesis 12:1), then appeared (vayeira) and spoke to Abraham in Shechem (Genesis 12:7)? Why is there a differentiation noted in these passages? A direct answer is not given. Yet, accompanying the vision, Abraham was granted greater insight into the nature of H’Shem. For this reason, out of gratitude towards H’Shem, Abraham built the mizbeach (altar) there (Zohar; Sheini Luchot HaBerit). I would add that there is a progressive revelation given to Abraham, beginning with his intellectual realisation. Next, he is called directly by H’Shem, then, after he takes that first step on the journey “to a land that I will show you,” H’Shem appears to him.
Abraham’s initial call, “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and thy father’s house” (Genesis 12:1), compelled him to separate from his familiar environs. He became known as an “ivri,” mraning, “other side,” because he was from the other side of the Euphrates River. In terms of his belief, he was on one side of the moral sphere, and the world was on the other side. Incidentally, the transliteration of the word, ivri is Hebrew. Abraham was the first Hebrew, thus becoming the progenitor of the Hebrew people, whom later became known as the Israelites. Yet, the blessings given to Abraham would also include all the families of the earth being blessed through him (Genesis 12:2).
“Justice justice [tzedek tzedek] shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the L-RD, Our G-d giveth thee.”
Moshe proclaims the imperative to establish judges to judge the people, emphasizing the pursuit of justice. However, the Hebrew word, tzedek, may also be translated as righteousness. Therefore, the verse (pasuk) may be rendered, Righteousness, righteousness, shall you pursue, providing a more accessible understanding for the benefit of the everyday reader. Within this framework, the pasuk (verse) may be taken an ethical imperative, that places a strong emphasis on individual righteousness. Besides, if we are not walking in righteousness, what right do we have to judge others?
Additionally, inasmuch that the word tzedek (righteousness) is repeated twice, we may infer that the repetition refers to two types of righteousness. This might be alluded to in several passages within the book of Deuteronomy. The first, is a call for Bnei Yisrael to circumcise their hearts, making an effort on their own to improve their ways, moving towards righteousness (Deuteronomy 10).
The second, HShem states that He Himself will circumcise our hearts (Deuteronomy 30), whereas the righteousness that will ensue is a gift from Above. Viewed together, these two ways may imply that when we make an effort to draw close to HShem through teshuvah, He will meet us halfway (Shabbos 104a). I.e., When we attempt to improve ourselves, HShem will respond in like manner to our efforts.
Furthermore, to be righteous in HShems eyes, a casting away of aveiros (transgressions) is first necessary. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean (Ezekiel 36:25, JPS). I will put My spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes (Ezekiel 36:27, JPS 1917 Tanach). H’Shem’s gift from Above will be bestowed upon us through the Ruach (Spirit), so that our lives may be sanctified.
“Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.”
Deuteronomy 11:26, JPS 1917 Tanach
“See, I set before you this day,” in other words, perceive that I present before you this very day, the significance of blessings and curses in your lives. According to Rabbeinu Bahya, the so-called, “mental eye” of the spiritually sensitive is able to see the effects of the blessings and curses, on an individual basis, in their own lives. The blessings originate with the Attribute of Mercy, whereas the curses are derived from the Attribute of Justice.
R. Bahya makes reference to the pasuk (verse), “I have seen great wisdom and knowledge” (Ecclesiastes 1:16). As a direct result of our being aware of the blessings and curses in life, we may obtain great knowledge, concerning the causal relationship between our thoughts, speech, and actions, and their consequences. This may lead towards wisdom, having to do with how H’Shem Elokim guides us – each and every person, according to hasgachah peratis (divine guidance), weaving a tapestry of events and consequences in our lives, dependent upon the nature of our conduct.
Additionally, I would mention that King David wrote, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4, JPS); he was assured through H’Shem’s guidance and correction, that he would remain on the derech (path). H’Shem’s guidance, as represented by a staff (a sheperds crook) and His correction, as symbolized by a rod. This is akin to the undestanding that blessings can be understood as signs that we are on the right path; and curses are a form of chastisement meant to correct us, whenever we go astray.
“Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.”
“Beware lest thou forget the L-RD thy G-d, in not keeping His commandments, and His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command thee this day.”
Deuteronomy 8:11, JPS 1917 Tanach
This admonition exemplifies the connection between having an awareness of H’Shem’s presence, and the performance of mitzvoth (commandments). The message implies that if we do not observe the commandments, we will forget H’Shem. In other words, negligence in observance may lead to forgetfulness.
Hence, having a belief in H’Shem’s existence is only the starting point, as inferred by the first commandment, “I am the L-rd your G-d,” understood as an pronouncement to believe in G-d. Yet, we must constantly remind ourselves of His presence, by keeping Him in mind through tangible means. Whether through prayer, study, or observance, our whole self may have the opportunity to be attached to Him:
“After the L-RD your G-d shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.”
Deuteronomy 13:5 , JPS 1917 Tanach
By attaching ourselves to H’Shem, above all else, we will not lose sight of Him, and fall into forgetfullness. Within the greater context of the passage, the admonition not to forget H’Shem, given to B’nei Yisrael, continues, to warn against a potential snare of material prosperity, wherein the acquisition of goods could lead to forgetfulness of H’Shem, “lest thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17). Specifically, if credit is not given to H’Shem for all that He provides, we remain entrenched in the notion that He is aloof, as if he had no hand in the circumstances, breakthroughs and rewards in our lives. Yet, we should not leave G-d out of the equation.
Furthermore, If the children of Israel become too caught up in their own achievements, once they enter Eretz Yisrael, then a constant remembrance of H’Shem could be replaced by the busyness of their lives. How much more of an admonition can this passage be viewed as relevant for us today in the postmodern world, where the noise, and constant activity of the world has the potential to drown out the silence of our inward person. This makes reflection, as well as a continual awareness of H’Shem, even more challenging for us. Yet, we may persevere, if we keep in mind “to love the L-RD your G-d, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him” (Deuteronomy 11:22).
וְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְהֹוָה וַיּוֹצִא אֶתְכֶם מִכּוּר “You hath H’Shem taken and brought forth out of the iron furnace.”
– Deuteronomy 4:20, JPS 1917 Tanach
Rashi explains, “a כור is a vessel in which one refines gold” (sefaria.org). Moshe’s choice of words, attempts to impress upon the new generation, that the nisyanos (challenges) in Egypt, were meant to serve as a means to refine the people. Consider that when gold is placed in “a refiner’s fire,” the impurities are drawn out; what remains is pure. The soul is also refined, through the challenges of life, in order to be free from taint.
Joseph, serves as an example, who went ahead of the children of Israel into Egypt, endured many challenges, “until the time that His word came to pass; the word of the L-rd had tested him” (Psalms 105:19). His character was refined in the refiner’s fire, in preparation for his role as a leader in Egypt, only second to Pharoah. In this manner, he was tested, until his prophetic dreams were fulfilled by H’Shem, through the circumstances of his life.
Moshe continues, “H’Shem shall scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither H’Shem shall lead you away” (Deuteronomy 4:27). “From thence ye will seek the L-RD thy G-d; and thou shalt find Him, if thou search after Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).
In thy distress, when all these things are come upon thee in the end of days, thou wilt return to H’Shem thy G-d, and hearken unto His voice; for the L-RD thy G-d is a merciful G-d; He will not fail thee.”
– Deuteronomy 4:30-31
“G-d ventured to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders” (Deuteronomy 4:34). So too, will he lead us out of exile. As the sages note, the time that will precede the Final Redemption, will mirror the plagues that preceded the first redemption, when B’nei Yisrael was led out of Egypt. As we approach the building of the third temple, during a time of great nisyanos (challenges) for all the world (Daniel 12:2), we shall endure.
‘Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come.’”
Deuteronomy 1:22, JPS 1917 Tanach
Moshe recounts the events that led up to the incident of the spies. His discourse reveals that it was the people’s request to send spies ahead into the land. Yet, in the account given in the Book of Numbers, Moshe uses the Hebrew word for scouts. The people were more interested in sending out a reconnaissance mission, than in trusting H’Shem to show them the best routes and strategies when conquering the land. Moshe concurred, after receiving permission from H’Shem; yet, Moshe was only permitted by H’Shem to send scouts, inasmuch that they were meant to take note of the abundance of the land, rather than making judgments.
Even so, his language when assigning this mission was misleading: “see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds” (Numbers 13:18-19). He acquiesced to their demand; although, he tried to emphasize, “be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land” (Numbers 13:20).
The ill report of the spies, the ten whose perspective was skewed by their lack of emunah (faith), persuaded the people against entering the land at that time. Now, thirty nine years later, when speaking to the next generation, Moshe recounts the narrative, so that they will be on guard against the same erroneous perspective, a worldly concern, that discounted the G-d factor. In other words, they did not acknowledge that H’Shem’s wisdom would guide them, and His power would strengthen them. He would have made good on His promise to bring them into the land, despite their fears.
“Let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession.”
– Numbers 32:5, JPS 1917 Tanach
The tribes of Reuben and Gad requested of Moshe, thus, also of H’Shem, that their inheritance be given to them on the East side of the Jordan River. Yet, they were rebuked by Moshe, for implying that they would not set forth into Eretz Canaan, with the rest of the twelve tribes of Jacob, to partake in the battles that would enable them to defeat the local inhabitants, subsequently, permitting them to settle in the land. In response to Moshe’s concerns, they responded that not only would they fight with their brethren, rather, also they would be the vanguard, and would remain in the Eretz Canaan, until the lands were allotted to the other tribes, before going back to the East side of the Jordan.
What compelled them, to place themselves outside of Eretz Yisrael proper, set apart from their brethren, was the quality of the land, east of the Jordan, wherein they would be able to graze their flocks; apparently, they had more livestock than any other tribe. Also, their immediate concerns with their livelihood may be part of an overall faulty outlook, further revealed when examining Moshe’s correction of their values. Two points are noted, based upon Moshe’s critique of their response: 1). misplaced allegiance, and 2). neglect of primary responsibilities.
First of all, Moshe points out that rather than making a commitment as the vanguard of the Children of Israel, when going into battle, for the sake of their inheritance in Eretz Canaan, they should see themselves as marching “before H’Shem,” first and foremost, according to His will. This should be their primary allegiance, then all else will follow. Even any commitment they felt towards their brethren should not be stronger than their devotion to H’Shem. As Arbavanel points out, the compassion towards their fellow tribes that compelled them to assist them in battle, does not match their obligation towards H’Shem. Our best intentions towards our fellow human being, even family and friends may fall short of the mark from time to time. However, when we fulfill our commitments to others, because we know that we should do so by divine decree, we are less likely to shirk our responsibilities.
Secondly, Moshe reminded the tribes of Gad and Reuben of their family responsibilites. They had initially said that they would “build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). However, Moshe responded, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep” (32:34), reversing the order of their words to show that their children were certainly more important than their livestock.” A lesson for modern times, whereof misplaced values may lead to being sidetracked by an over-emphasis on work, material goods, and the temporal realm. Lest we forget, a more balanced perspective on life, inclusive of relationships, spiritual blessings, and the realm of the sublime.
“Search me, O G-d, and know my heart, try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any way in me that is grievous, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”
– Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach
B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.'” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.
It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.
Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. When they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).
In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The concern of the Moabites was that they could potentially be attacked by the Children of Israel. They had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).
Balaam’s three attempts to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, he and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed'” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).
Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). So, not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead.
Reflecting on the complaints of the Children of Israel, concerning the provision of manna and water that H’Shem provided for them, it is interesting to note that they were not somehow prevented from complaining; rather, they were rebuked after the fact. If there was some way that H’Shem could prevent us from complaining in life, then, perhaps, instead of words of negativity, we would speak positive words each and every time. Our intended curses would be transformed into blessings. “Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, JPS).
“So they, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit [Sheol]; and the earth closed upon them, and they perished from among the assembly.” – Numbers 16:33, JPS 1917 Tanach
Korach gathered the adus (congregation) against Moses and Aaron, in an attempt to overthrow their authority by means of an outright rebellion (Numbers 16:1-3). It was an opportune time for rebellion, inasmuch that the people were already disgruntled, because of the decree proclaimed by H’Shem that the men, over twenty years of age would all pass away in the wilderness, during the course of the next thirty-nine years, as a consequence of their lack of trust in H’Shem, when they neglected to enter the land at the designated time.
Korach, Dathan and Aviram were the ringleaders of the uprising. As a result of their insurgency, Korach perished (AVD), along with his family, and Dathan and Aviram, with their families, when they were swallowed up by the earth. Incidentally, the Hebrew word yov’du, translated as “perished,” derives from the shoresh (root word), aleph-beis-dalet. The word, avadon, is also derived from the same shoresh. Avadon refers to a place of destruction similar to Sheol, possibly Gehinnom. Additionally, the two hundred fifty men of renown, who followed him were consumed by fire from H’Shem, when they attempted to offer up incense, individually, every man his fire pan.
Both punishments were clearly by way of divine intervention; yet, the people ignored this. They still had a complaint against Moshe: they claimed that Moshe was responsible for the deaths of Korach’s two hundred fifty followers. The people themselves had been rallied by Korach against Moshe and Aaron; now, their enthusiasm was piqued by the loss of these men, who supported the rebellion. In response, to subdue another uprising, H’Shem sent a plague amongst the people, wherein 14,500 perished, before Aaron intervened at the urgent insistence of Moses.
“And Moses said unto Aaron: ‘Take thy fire-pan, and put fire therein from off the altar, and lay incense thereon, and carry it quickly unto the congregation, and make atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from the L-RD: the plague is begun’” (Numbers 17:11, JPS 1917 Tanach). The response was immediate: “And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed” (17:13). Symbolically, the burning of incense represents steadfast prayer; perhaps, prayer may serve today as an effectual means to combat the current pandemic.
“Towards the face of the menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.”
Numbers 8:2, JPS 1917 Tanach
The “seven lamps” shall cast their light towards the face of the menorah. Seven lamps, towards the face (p’nei). Commentary explains that the six lamps, three on either side of the center lamp, had their wicks tilted towards the center lamp. Yet, this begs the question, if the verse mentions that all seven lamps shall cast their light towards the p’nei (face) of the menorah, then the Hebrew word, p’nei must represent something other than the center lamp, since it is only one of the seven. Therefore, what does the Hebrew word p’nei represent in this verse?
An answer may be given by focusing on another verse from Kitvei Kodesh (Holy Scripture), wherein a clue may be found. “In Thy behalf my heart hath said: ‘Seek ye My face’; Thy face, L-RD, will I seek” (Psalms 27:8, JPS 1917 Tanach). Consequently, the verse about the menorah could be rendered as having the light of the seven lamps glowing towards the “face of G-d.” And, what may be learned by this understanding? The light of the lamps can be seen as symbolic of our avodas (service) towards H’Shem, seven days a week. All our efforts in avodas are to culminate in seeking the face of G-d.