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The Hair Affair (Korach)

The day that bnei Yisrael (“the Children of Israel”) inaugurated the mishkan (“sanctuary”) which they had built in the wilderness ought to have been a day of national celebration. It was, until Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s two eldest sons, decided to enter the mishkan on their own, and offer a “strange fire, which had not been commanded” (Lev. 10:1). Upon doing so, the two kohanim (“priests”) were immediately consumed by a divine fire, leaving the entire nation shocked and grieving. It was one of the most jarring, most calumnious events recorded in the entire Torah. We can only imagine how it must have impacted those who witnessed it; surely, the trauma of this tragedy lingered with bnei Yisrael throughout their forty years in the desert. (more…)

Sending Signs (Shelach)

In this week’s parshah, Moshe sends spies to scout the land of Israel in advance of bnei Yisrael’s impending entry. These spies return reporting that bnei Yisrael will be unable to conquer the land, throwing the nation into panic and spurring calls to return to the land of Egypt. Hashem counters bnei Yisrael’s lack of faith by decreeing that they will have to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness before they enter the land of Israel. Upon receiving this news, bnei Yisrael immediately regret their decision, and attempt in vein to walk it back: (more…)

Out of This World (Naso)

This week’s Parshah introduces us to perhaps the most confounding character in the Torah: the nazir (“Nazirite”). The nazir is a person who takes a specific type of ascetic vow called nezirut (the “Nazirite vow”). Once he does so, all laws that pertain to nezirut apply to him; most notably, he is forbidden from cutting his hair, drinking alcohol and consuming grape products, or exposing himself to a corpse. (more…)

The Great Unknown (Bamidbar)

The glass has been falling all the afternoon,

And knowing better than the instrument

What winds are walking overhead, what zone

Of grey unrest is moving across the land,

I leave the book upon a pillowed chair

And walk from window to closed window, watching

Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air

Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,

How with a single purpose time has traveled

By secret currents of the undiscerned

Into this polar realm. Weather abroad

And weather in the heart alike come on

Regardless of prediction.

Between foreseeing and averting change

Lies all the mastery of elements

Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.

Time in the hand is not control of time,

Nor shattered fragments of an instrument

A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,

We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black

And set a match to candles sheathed in glass

Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine

Of weather through the unsealed aperture.

This is our sole defense against the season;

These are the things we have learned to do

Who live in troubled regions.

—“Storm Warnings,” by Adrienne Rich

Bamidbar: “in the desert.” It is the title of our Parshah, and the title of the fourth book of the Torah which we begin this week—and it beckons us into treacherous territory. The desert, after all, is fraught with danger. It is a place of blazing heats and howling winds; of scorpions and sandstorms; of drought and death. To enter it is to expose oneself to the extremes of the elements—to stake one’s very survival. (more…)

Short-Changed (Behar)

The following are some quick thoughts on Behar, the first of this week’s two Parshahs.

Near the beginning of Parshat Behar lies the prohibition against ona’at mammon, i.e. exploitative business practices:

“And when you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, you shall not exploit one another” (Lev. 25:15).

The details of this prohibition are discussed at length in the fourth chapter of the Talmudic tractate Bava Metzia. There, Chazal focus considerable attention upon the economic principle of caveat emptor: “buyer beware.” Seeking to protect traders from the information asymmetry that often imbalances markets, our sages granted both consumers and vendors a limited window of time in which they could void the transaction of goods sold above or below 1/6th their going rate. This right applies not only to typical merchandise, like livestock, produce and textiles, but also to coinage. Thus, with respect to currency exchanges, the Mishnah states: (more…)

Leaders and Lepers (Metzora)

This week’s Haftarah recounts one of the most improbable military victories ever attributed to the ancient kingdom of Israel. Ben Haddad, king of Aram, had laid siege to Israel’s capital, Shomron (“Samaria”). Widespread famine shortly followed, and, as the city’s last reserves of food dwindled, some even turned to cannibalism in order to survive. Shomron was imploding. It was slated to fall any day—if not from within, surely from without.

Then, four lepers (metzorim) changed the course of history. (more…)

Rise and Shine (Pesach)

Every year at our Pesach seders, we recite a list of “ten plagues” which afflicted the Egyptians before they finally freed Bnei Yisrael from slavery. The ninth of these plagues is the plague of “darkness.” Growing up, I harbored a very specific conception of what it must have been like to live through this plague. I imagined Egyptians fumbling about in the darkness, constantly crossing each other’s paths; constantly colliding with each other; constantly confronting each other in a series of unexpected and undesired encounters. (more…)