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Conquest Clues (Mattot)

Why is the war with Midian presented so disjointedly – that is, spread across two different parshahs, and interrupted with a series of laws and stories that seem entirely unrelated? What’s the relationship between the beginning of our parshah (laws of vows), its middle (war with Midian), and its end (request of Reuven and Gad to settle the transjordan)? Is there a subtle play on words going on with the name of the Midianite princess, “Kozbi bat Tzur?” How does the curious fact that Midian was ruled by five different kings shed light on a story from all the way back in Sefer Shemos? This and more, below: a very quick outline of a theory trying to make sense out of the bizarre war with Midian, along with several other, shorter insights on the parshah mixed into the footnotes. Shabbat shalom! (more…)

The Indignity of Indifference (Balak)

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—

and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller

In this week’s parshah, the Mo’avim “come” for Bilaam. Bilaam, the text tells us, is a pagan prophet. He is recruited by Balak, the king of Mo’av, who notices that “whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). Balak has use for such men. As the Torah records: (more…)

It Ain’t Over ‘Till it’s Over (Vezot Habracha/Simchat Torah)

Every year, in synagogues across the world, Jews come together on simchas Torah to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of communal Torah study. After spending the morning singing, dancing, and exchanging l’chaims, we gather around the bimah and culminate the festivities by reading publicly the final verses of the “Five Books of Moshe:” (more…)

The Split-Screen Scene (Vaetchanan)

In this week’s Parshah, Moshe—now in his last month of life, and stationed just outside the entrance to Eretz Yisrael—wistfully recalls one of the most disappointing moments of his forty-year leadership career:

I entreated the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, “It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter. Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan. But command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him, for he will cross over before this people, and he will make them inherit the land which you will see. And we abided in the valley opposite Beth Peor (Deut. 3:23-29).

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The Men in the Middle (Balak)

When you study Tanakh carefully, you begin to notice that many of its protagonists bear striking similarities to each other. In literary terms, such characters are referred to as “mirror characters.” We have compared many mirror characters together in the past, including Yitzchak and Noah, Shimshon and Avshalom, and Yosef and Tamar. There are dozens of others. (more…)