Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes regarding the Children of Israel,
saying, "This is the word which G-d commanded: When a man will make a vow
..." (Bamidbar 30:2)
A neder is a vow, and it is the opening topic of this week's parsha. It
follows from last week's parsha, since last week's parsha ended off with
the sacrifices due on the holidays, a time also for the fulfillment of vows
(promises to bring sacrifices to the Temple for some reason or another).
That is pshat. On a deeper level, the concept behind nedarim act as a
bridge between the concept of Jewish continuity in last week's parsha, and
the war about to be waged against Midian in this week's parsha--especially
since a neder was a verbalized promise that invoked the Name of G-d made to
strengthen one's commitment to perform a positive deed.
As mentioned before, the word "midbar" can mean either "desert" or "speech"
(same letters, different vowels) The theme of the book "Bamidbar" has been
to prepare the Jewish people for life in Eretz Yisroel, which means
learning to live above nature. This means using spiritual means to
physically impact the world, and there is no better means to do this than
through speech itself (as we learned from Moshe's hitting of the rock
instead of speaking to it; see Parashas Chukas). Hence, every parsha in
this fourth book has something to do with speech.
Furthermore, it is speech, not action that is the best indication of the
present mix of body and soul of an individual. Actions can appear
spiritual, but can be driven by physical motivations(e.g., giving charity
for honor as opposed to for humanitarian reasons), something only G-d can
ascertain. We can fool many people a lot of the time by the way we act, and
even ourselves some of the time, which is why actions can be so hard for
humans to judge.
However, what a person speaks about, when he speaks about it, and how
usually betrays his current spiritual level. The more bodily drives have a
say in one's course of life, the more one's priorities will reflect this,
especially in speech. Simply put, godly people talk about godly things most
the time (if not all the time). Even when such people talk about mundane
matters, their words seem to be imbued with spirituality.
Into this discussion enters the idea of the "Nun Sharei Binah," the "Fifty
Gates of Understanding."
Every idea starts off as being abstract, mere words that may ring neither
true nor false. It is only after trying to comprehend an idea that we can,
hopefully, begin to discern whether the idea is true or false, and its
relevance to our lives. In a conceptual sense, the Fifty Gates of
Understanding act as kind of a threshold for abstract ideas to pass over on
the way to becoming understandable, usable information. This takes place on
the level of our soul called "Neshamah" and it is speech that often
indicates where we stand with particular ideas.
Even the word "Neshamah" indicates this, for it is made up of two parts,
the letter "nun" and the word "shamah." The letter "nun" represents the
number "fifty" in gematria, and the word "shamah" means "there," as if to
say: there, on the level of the Neshamah resides fifty, the Fifty Gates of
We can do the same thing with the word "neder," which can be broken up into
two parts as well: "nun" and "der," which is the word for "to live." It is
as if the concept of "neder" allows us to access the "place" where "nun"
resides, that is, the Fifty Gates of Understanding. Or, more accurately, a
neder is a "vehicle" to allow one to be more in touch with his Neshamah,
which automatically provides access to the Fifty Gates of Understanding,
which, it turns out, the people of Midian came to shut tight.
According to the Pri Tzaddik, the spiritual quality of Midian was to hunger
for physical, sensual gratification. Theirs was an immoral and extremely
corrupt society bent on obliterating true spirituality, hedonism at its
worst. Even the name "Midian" in Aramaic means "knot," something which
alludes to their ability to "block" the spiritual channel between man and
G-d, to make a break in Jewish continuity.
They weren't so unsuccessful. After waging war successfully against Midian,
the avenged Jewish nation still stumbled by returning with female Midianite
captives. Moshe was incredulous and asked:
" ... Have you kept all the females alive? These were [the source of the
sin] to the Jewish people through the word of Bilaam, to cause a treachery
against G-d ..." (Bamidbar 31:15)
It was so obvious! How could they not see it?! The answer to this question
is: Midian, and the power of lust to dampen the impact of the soul.
When a person made a vow, it was a way of strengthening oneself against the
negative and spiritually damaging drives of the body. Really, a
spiritually-inclined person should be able to do the right thing without
invoking the holy Name of G-d in a vow. However, for the person who lacked
such a high level of fear of G-d, a neder was a way to compensate for this,
taking advantage of the person's existing level of fear of G-d to
springboard him to an even higher level. A neder was a way of putting a
person in touch with his Neshamah and the intellectual clarity that comes
with being so.
Moshe, Elazar the kohen, and all the princes of the Assembly went outside
the camp to meet them [the army]. Moshe became angry with those appointed
over the troops ... (Bamidbar 31:13)
Elazar the kohen said to the men of the host who went to war ... (Bamidbar
Since Moshe became angry, he erred, and the laws of kashering non-Jewish
utensils became hidden from him. (Rashi)
In last week's parsha, and the parsha before that, laws meant to be taught
by Moshe had been taught by others instead (see Rashi on 25:7 and 27:4).
However, in each case this had not been due to any failing of Moshe, but
rather, to the merit of Pinchas, and later, the daughters of Tzelofchad to
teach the laws relevant to their situations.
However, as Rashi points out in this section dealing with the laws of
kashrus, it had been Moshe's anger that shifted the opportunity to teach
these all-important laws from Moshe to Elazar the kohen, his nephew. But
why? Had Moshe not been angry for all the right reasons? Why didn't Moshe's
anger constitute an act of zealousness like Pinchas' did, of whom G-d
"Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the kohen stayed My anger
from the Children of Israel ... " (Bamidbar 25:10)
Perhaps the Talmud has the answer to this question:
Moshe became angry with those appointed over the troops ... (Bamidbar
Rav Nachman said in the name of Rabbah bar Avuha: Moshe said to
"Perhaps you repeated your original transgression?"
They answered him, "We never strayed from the Jewish way!"
He asked them, "If so, for what do you need to atone?!"
They explained, "Not for having committed a transgression, but for the
thought of doing so." (Shabbos 64a)
It seems as if Moshe had done more than simply get angry; he had also
misjudged those who had fought against Midian. And though it is true that
they provided the perfect "stumbling block" for Moshe to make such a faulty
assumption by bringing back Midianite women, still, the Talmud states:
Anyone who falsely judges a person will suffer bodily punishment. (Shabbos
Elsewhere, the Talmud warns:
One must always judge to the side of merit. (Shabbos 128a)
In fact, the word to describe Moshe's anger is "vayiktzof," which can also
mean "jumped," perhaps indicating that Moshe "jumped" to the wrong
conclusion about righteous people. And if Moshe could make such a mistake,
then how much more so can the average person make a similar mistake. How
often do we find that people have good and acceptable reasons for what we
call "offenses" against us?
If so, then how appropriate it is that the laws of kashrus were withheld
from Moshe as a result of his anger. For, in Hebrew, Moshe's act is called,
"choshed b'k'sherim," suspecting "kosher" people. Thus, for trying to
"extract" an admission of non-kosher actions from kosher people, Moshe was
denied the opportunity to teach those same people how to extract non-kosher
food from non-kosher utensils.
Furthermore, anger is an emotion that is associated with heat. There are
times to get "heated up" about causes, as Pinchas had done when he killed
Zimri in last week's parsha, and as Moshe had done when striking down the
Egyptian in Egypt. Kashering utensils to extract non-kosher food remains
also requires heat, and perhaps this too was part of Moshe's lesson: for
your misuse of emotional "heat," you have forfeited the right to explain
the proper use of physical heat when kashering utensils.
This message is not usually one of the principle lessons that one gains
from a study of the laws of kashrus. However, perhaps it should be, for as
they say, one should be just as careful (if not more so) about what comes
out of his mouth as what goes into his mouth. Not only does this allow us
to leave "kosher" people as such, but it also serves to certify our own
level of spiritual kashrus as well. And at a time when we mourn the loss of
the Temples, the most recent one having been destroyed because of wanton
hatred, it is a good time to think about just how deep this particular
Parshas Masei - The Journey Goes On
G-d spoke to Moshe in the Plains of Moav, by the Jordan near Jericho,
saying, "Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, 'When you pass over
the Jordan into the Land of Canaan you must dispossess all the inhabitants
of the land before you ... But if you will not dispossess the inhabitants
of the land before you, then it will happen that those whom you leave
behind will be pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and shall
trouble you in the land in which you live. Furthermore, it will happen that
I will do to you what I intended to do to them.' " (Bamidbar 33:50-56)
And so it happened. The Jews went in, they fought the war as commanded by
G-d, but did not finish the job and instead left behind Canaanites. A
"prick in our eyes"? A "thorn in our sides"? Oh, how many countless
millions of Jews have died since because we left over a few Canaanites?!
Granted, of all the mitzvos incumbent upon Jews, killing human beings is
not an easy one. Picture walking into a Canaanite tent and finding, to your
surprise, a Canaanite mother innocently playing with her children on the
floor of the tent. How does one strike them down in cold blood, and go on
to the next tent to do the same thing? Killing warriors is one thing, but
killing women and children is something altogether different ...
Even if they are the mothers of the most immoral and illicit society on the
face of the earth? Even if they are the mothers of children who will have
absolutely no problem doing to your wives and children what you would never
do to theirs.
It was not unlike what happened to Pinchas. Zimri had taken a non-Jewish
princess and had broken the Torah, causing a massive plague that wiped out
24,000 of his own tribe, and no one cared to step in and do something
about. And even when Pinchas finally arose and risked his life to save the
day, he received something far less than a hero's welcome: the tribe of
Shimon wanted to kill him! "How dare you kill a prince of the tribe of
Shimon," they protested! It seems they had missed the point, as if they had
mistaken priorities ... Perhaps they just didn't want to deal with the
reality of what had happened around them.
Prime Minister Chamberlain made a similar mistake. Claiming that "Herr
Hitler is a reasonable man who wants peace" after their meeting in Munich
in 1938, Neville Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia to Hitler on a silver
platter, and then turned his back on the Nazi threat. He had not been alone
either; collectively, the Western world of that time ignored reality and
hoped that "things" would just take care of themselves. In the end they
did, but not as the Free World had dreamed, and the war they had hoped to
avoid was far worse than anyone could have ever imagined.
Misplaced mercy? Blind faith? Perhaps, but does it really make a difference
in the end? There are two ways to spell "peace": p-e-a-c-e or, p-i-e-c-e.
The former is the one we dream of achieving, but oftentimes we delude
ourselves into thinking that we must go the route of the latter to achieve
it. That had been Chamberlain's plan. However, as history has recorded, not
only do we not achieve "peace" that way, but we end up fueling the fires of
even bigger wars and untold suffering.
What it comes down to is the difference between being a "visionary," and an
"illusionary." Tragically, too many important people seem to confuse the
latter for the former. That's the way it appears to have been with many
Jews in the days of Yehoshua, and woefully and all too often, that's the
way it seems to be in our day-and-age as well.
These are the commandments and the judgments which G-d commanded by the
hand of Moshe to the Children of Israel in the plains by Moav by the Jordan
near Jericho. (Bamidbar 36:13)
Thus the book of Bamidbar comes to its close. On this simple and obvious
statement, the Ohr HaChaim HaKodesh has a question: Why did the Torah
change from its normal format of introducing a mitzvah with the above
statement and instead concluded with this statement?
He answers that the Torah wanted to make known that, even though the
daughters of Tzelofchad were treated somewhat uniquely inasmuch as they had
been permitted to marry any man they wished, this too had only been because
G-d had granted them special permission. In other words, all that preceded
this final statement was by the command of G-d, and not Moshe's own doing.
This, perhaps, is the most important piece of information necessary for
survival as a Jewish nation, especially in Eretz Yisroel. The Torah is
testifying here that only the laws that have come via Moshe constitute true
Torah; it is the role and obligation of all successive generations to
maintain that status quo, not to upset it. In other words, unlike other
ways of life historically, Judaism does not evolve, it involves (otherwise,
G-d forbid, it dissolves, but not before G-d steps in ...).
It is one thing to apply Torah, and to re-apply it in every generation,
especially as technology provides new innovations that must be scrutinized
under the auspices of Torah. Maybe G-d told Moshe about light bulbs and
telephones, maybe He didn't. It doesn't matter; what matters is knowing how
Torah addresses these issues to safeguard the principles of Torah from
being violated, principles that are forever immutable.
Thus it is the responsibility of the leading halachic authorities of every
generation to apply the principles of Torah as they see fit in every
generation, not to cancel them out to facilitate the transition of the Jew
into a non-Jewish culture. The starting point is knowing and accepting that
all of Torah that has come from Moshe is true and eternal; the questions to
be asked are, "Now, does Torah accept this novel idea, or reject it? Does
this invention uphold Torah, or interfere with its godly mandate?"
It seems that there are basically two Jewish approaches to life these days.
There is, "What does Torah say about life in Modern-Day Society?" and,
"What does Modern-Day Society say about Torah-life?" The latter approach,
we have witnessed, tends to abolish Torah from the national agenda.
However, the former approach allows the Jewish people to bridge the gap
that spans from the beginning of time, past our period of time, and into