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On the Heels (Ekev)

And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your soil, your grain, your wine, and your oil, the offspring of your cattle and the choice of your flocks, in the land which He swore to your forefathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples: There will be no sterile male or barren female among you or among your livestock. And the Lord will remove from you all illness, and all of the evil diseases of Egypt which you knew, He will not set upon you, but He will lay them upon all your enemies (Deut. 7:12-15).

The pledge Moshe makes to bnei Yisrael at the start of this week’s parshah strikes us, at first glance, as largely indistinguishable from dozens of similar exhortations Moshe delivers to bnei Yisrael in the final month of his life. Throughout sefer Devarim, Moshe stresses repeatedly the importance of observing Hashem’s commands and of guarding Hashem’s covenant, while highlighting the reward awaiting those that do so.

foot-310736_960_720.pngTurn your attention, however, to the word “ekev,” which appears in the parshah’s first verse, and which doubles up as the title of our parshah as well. “Ekev” (עקב, in Hebrew) literally means “heel.” By extension, “ekev” can also mean “on the heels of”—or, less semantically, “as a result of;” “since;” “because”—and it is this connotation that the term takes in our parshah’s opening verse: “And it will be, because [עקב] you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers (Deut. 7:12).” (more…)

Taking a Stand (Chukkat)

water-flowing-over-rocksNear the center of this week’s parshah, bnei Yisrael famously complain over a lack of available drinking water (Num. 20:1-13). Many commentators have discussed the remarkable similarities between this water crisis and an earlier water crisis recorded in sefer Shemot (Exod. 17:1-7). In both incidents, the nation lacks water; in both, they protest that man and beast alike will shortly die of thirst; in both, they question Moshe’s leadership and they regret their decision to leave Egypt; in both, Hashem commands Moshe to draw forth water from a rock, and to take his staff along with him. Moreover, the first crisis occurs when the people arrive at “the wilderness of Sin” [מדבר סין], which is later renamed “Testing and Strife” [מסה ומריבה, i.e. Massa U-Merivah], while the second occurs when the people depart from “the wilderness of Zin” [מדבר צין], which is later renamed “The Waters of Strife” [מי מריבה, i.e. Mei Merivah]. The parallels continue, and they are well documented.

What has not been noted, however, is the similarly compelling set of connections tying together the aftermaths of these two water crises. To that end, consider the following episodes:   (more…)

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…)