Tag Archives: Noah

The Incredible Midrash of the Death of Moses

‘The Death of Moses’ (Illustration from the Providence Lithograph Company)

On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we conclude the yearly cycle of Torah readings with the final portion, V’Zot HaBerakhah. This short parasha relays Moses’ final blessing to the people before ascending Mt. Nebo and returning to his Maker:

Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his vigour… And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom Hashem knew face to face…

The Torah tells us that Moses was incomparable, and there was never a prophet like him. Indeed, in his 13 Principles of Faith, the Rambam has one principle (#6) stating that God communicates with man through prophecy, and a separate belief (#7) that Moses’ prophecy is the greatest of all. The Sages stated that while all the other prophets saw visions only through a blurry (or dim) lens, Moses saw visions through a perfectly clear lens. While all the other prophets only received visions while dreaming or entranced, Moses alone could communicate with God fully conscious and awake.

‘Moses Coming Down From Mt. Sinai’ by Gustav Doré, with rays of light shining forth from Moses’ face.

The Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 11:3) presents an intriguing passage where various Heavenly figures argue with Moses on who is the greatest. Adam comes first and says: “I am greater than you because I was created in the image of God.” Moses replied that although Adam was initially very great, his honour was taken away from him, whereas the Torah says that Moses had not “lost his vigour”. The Sages teach that Adam initially glowed with a pure light. This light was lost after the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, leaving behind only frail skin. Moses reversed this: upon his return from the summit of Sinai, his skin glowed so brightly that he had to wear a mask (Exodus 34:35).

After Adam, came Noah and said: “I am greater than you because I was delivered from the generation of the Flood.” Moses replied: “I am far superior to you. You saved only yourself, but had no strength to deliver your generation, while I saved both myself and my generation when they were condemned to destruction at the time of the Golden Calf.”

Abraham arose next, and said: “I am greater than you because I used to give hospitality to all wayfarers.” Moses replied that while Abraham “fed uncircumcised men, I fed circumcised ones” and while Abraham “gave hospitality in an inhabited land, I fed them in the wilderness.”

Isaac argued he was greater than Moses because he was willing to die upon the altar, and witnessed the Divine Presence at that moment. Moses countered that he regularly spoke “face to face” with the Divine Presence, and his eyes had not dimmed from this, while Isaac had ultimately gone blind.

Finally, Jacob said: “I am greater than you because I wrestled with the angel and prevailed.” Moses replied: “You wrestled with the angel in your own territory [on Earth], but I went up to their territory, and they feared me.” The passage concludes by saying that this is what King Solomon hinted to when he wrote v’at alit al kulana, “…and you have excelled them all.” (Proverbs 31:29)

The Ascent of Moses

The Midrash continues to describe the moment of Moses’ passing. When the time came, God instructed the angel Gabriel to bring up Moses’ soul. Gabriel told God: “Master of the Universe! How can I witness the death of him who is equal to 600,000? How can I behave harshly to one who possesses such qualities?” So God told the angel Michael to bring Moses. Michael replied: “Master of the Universe! I was his teacher, and he my pupil, so I cannot witness his death.” God then had to summon the wicked Samael to bring up Moses’ soul. Samael took his sword and went gladly, for he had been waiting a very long time for that moment. However, when he approached Moses and saw the pure light shining from his face, he trembled and said: “Surely no angel can take away Moses’ soul!”

Samael tried to take Moses anyway, telling him that he should come willingly, for all mortals must die. Moses argued that he is unlike any other mortal, and proceeded to give a resume of his achievements. Convinced, Samael went back to Heaven. God insisted that Samael go back to bring Moses, and not take no for an answer. Samael returned sword in hand, and Moses drew his staff for battle. The Midrash says that Moses readily defeated Samael, blinded him, and “removed his beam of glory”.

At this point, a voice called forth from Heaven and said: “The time of your death has come.” Still, Moses would not relent, so God had to do the job Himself. As soon as He extracted Moses’ soul, the soul itself protested:

Master of the Universe! I know that You are the God of all spirits and all souls, the souls of the dead and the living are in Your keeping, and You have created and formed me and placed me within the body of Moses for a hundred and twenty years. And now, is there a body in the world purer than the body of Moses…? Therefore I love him and I do not desire to leave him.

The Soul continued to tarry until finally “God kissed Moses and took away his soul” with a Divine Kiss. It was then that the Divine Presence proclaimed: “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses…”

When reading such Midrashic passages, it is important to remember the old adage that those who deny the validity of the Midrash are heretics, yet those who take the Midrash literally are fools. Although this Midrash probably shouldn’t be taken literally, it certainly captures the incomparable greatness of Moses.

Chag Sameach! 

‘Moses on Mount Sinai’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c.1900)

Deciphering Bilaam’s End of Days Prophecy

‘Balaam and the Angel’ by John Linnell

This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king that sought to curse Israel. Balak hired the sorcerer Bilaam to do the job, but instead of cursing Israel, Bilaam’s mouth would utter blessings and prophecies. The parasha is perhaps most famous for Bilaam’s last prophecy, concerning acharit hayamim, the “End of Days” (Numbers 24:14-25):

“I see it but not now, I behold it, but it is not soon. A star will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph.” When he saw Amalek, he took up his parable and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations, and his fate shall be everlasting destruction.” When he saw the keini, he took up his parable and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest is set in a cliff. For if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” He took up his parable and said, “Alas! Who can survive these things from God? Ships will come from the Kittim and afflict Assyria and afflict those on the other side, but he too will perish forever.” Bilaam arose, left, and returned home…

What is the meaning of these cryptic words? The first part seems relatively clear: in the distant future, a leader will arise for Israel who will “uproot all the sons of Seth”, meaning all of mankind, who come from Adam’s third son, Seth. Israel’s enemies will be defeated for good, as will the evil Amalek. Bilaam is, of course, speaking about Mashiach. Then it gets more complicated. Who is the “keini”? Why does he dwell in a nest? What does Cain have to do with anything, and who is Assyria taking captive?

Balak’s Bird

The parasha begins: “And Balak ben Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab became terrified of the people…” The Zohar comments on the name Balak ben Tzippor (literally “Balak, son of a bird”) by saying that Balak was a powerful sorcerer who was able to do all sorts of witchcraft using various birds. One of those birds was called Yadua, and through it he was able to see visions. What did Balak “see” that made him so terrified of Israel?

The Zohar says that Balak took the Yadua bird as usual and performed his rituals, but this time, the bird flew away. When it returned, he saw the bird engulfed in flames, and this made him fear Israel. Why did the image of a flaming bird strike fear in Balak’s heart? What does this flaming bird have to do with Israel?

The Phoenix

In almost every culture around the world there is a myth of a magical flaming bird. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Bennu, the “solar bird” which lived for 500 years before being reborn from its own egg. The Persians spoke of Simurgh, a peacock-eagle that lived 1700 years before igniting itself in flames, and had lived so long that it saw civilization destroy itself three times. The most famous version of the myth is from the Greeks, who called the flaming bird Phoenix. The name derives from the fact that the bird comes from, and sets its nest, in the land of Phoenicia.

Phoenix by FJ Bertuch (1747-1822)

Phoenicia is another name for Lebanon, whose territories once overlapped with Israel’s. The Phoenicians and Israelites had very similar cultures and used the same alphabet. The Tanakh describes the central role that the Phoenicians played in the construction of the First Temple. They sent skilled artisans and builders, as well as gold and the cedar trees that served as the Temple’s framework. King Solomon gave the Phoenician king Hiram twenty Israelite cities around the Galilee as a gift. The two merged their navies and did business together, and are even described as “brothers” (see I Kings 5).*

In the Greek account, the eternal Phoenix builds its nest in one of the cedars of Lebanon before the nest catches fire and the Phoenix is cremated into ash. From the ashes emerges an egg, and the selfsame Phoenix hatches from it. This story is very similar to one told in the Midrash.

In the Garden of Eden

The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 19:5) describes what Eve did after eating the Forbidden Fruit. She gave some to Adam, and then

… She fed [the Forbidden Fruit] to all the beasts and all the animals and all the birds. All of them listened to her, except for one bird, called Hol, as it says, “Like the hol that has many days” (Job 29:18). The School of Rabbi Yannai said: “It lives for a thousand years; and at the end of a thousand years, fire comes out of its nest and burns it and leaves the size of an egg from it, and it comes back and grows limbs and lives.”

According to the Midrash, it wasn’t just Adam and Eve that ate the Fruit, but all living things had a taste, making them all mortal. However, there was one bird that did not listen to the humans, and flew away, escaping death. It lives one thousand years, then burns to ashes in its nest, and is reborn. Adam, too, was meant to live in segments of one thousand years, being reborn each millennium. However, after eating of the Fruit, his life was capped at a single one thousand year segment. (Of this 1000 years, he gave up 70 to King David, which is why Adam lived 930 years, and David exactly 70. See ‘How Did Adam Live 930 Years?’ for more.)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108b) also speaks of this immortal bird. Here, the Phoenix is waiting patiently for Noah to give it food, so he blesses it with eternal life. In both Midrashic and Talmudic passages, the scriptural source is Job 29:18, which speaks of Hol, the Hebrew term for the Phoenix. Why was Balak terrified when he saw an image of the firebird?

The Bird’s Nest

Some of the most ancient Jewish mystical texts are collectively known as Heikhalot, “Palaces”. These texts describe the ascents of various sages to the Heavens, and their descriptions of what they see. For example, Heikhalot Zutrati describes the ascent of Rabbi Akiva while Heikhalot Rabbati describes that of Rabbi Ishmael. In their description of the Heavenly architecture, the residence of Mashiach is called kan tzippor, the “Bird’s Nest”. This moniker is used throughout later Kabbalistic texts as well. Mashiach is said to be dwelling in a bird’s nest.

Mashiach’s role can be summarized in this way: his task is to complete the various spiritual rectifications (tikkunim) and return humanity to the Garden of Eden. Central to this is restoring a world without death—the world of resurrection. Note how Jewish prayers never request for us to enter some kind of ethereal afterlife in the Heavens, but rather to merit techiyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead, here in the earthly Garden of Eden. The Sages refer to that world as Olam HaBa, the world to come; not some other world or dimension, but the coming world that is here. (See here for more on the Jewish perspective on the afterlife.)

Mashiach is the one who is supposed to defeat death and usher in that world of resurrection. The Sages actually describe two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. The role of Mashiach ben Yosef is to fight Israel’s wars and defeat its enemies, paving the way for Mashiach ben David to re-establish God’s kingdom. However, amidst the great battles, Mashiach ben Yosef is supposed to die. This is first mentioned in the Talmud (Sukkah 52a):

What is the cause of the mourning [at the End of Days]? Rabbi Dosa and the other rabbis differ on the point. One explained: the cause is the slaying of Mashiach ben Yosef; the others explained: the cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination… Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to Mashiach ben David (May he reveal himself speedily in our days), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to thee”… When [ben David] will see that Mashiach ben Yosef is slain, he will say to Him, “Master of the Universe, I ask of Thee only the gift of life.” God answered him: “As to life, your father David has already prophesied this concerning you, as it is said, ‘He asked life of Thee, Thou gavest it him, [even length of days for ever and ever].’” (Psalms 21:5)

The Talmud links the death of Mashiach ben Yosef with the death of all evil. Mashiach ben David will then ask God to restore Mashiach ben Yosef to life, and God answers that He had already granted that request long ago to David himself, as seen from a verse in Psalms. Ben Yosef will die, then return to life, followed by the return of all the righteous dead after him.

Not surprisingly then, the symbol of Mashiach ben Yosef is a Phoenix, and he dwells in a “bird’s nest”. The Phoenix is said to take residence in the cedars of Lebanon, which is also associated with Mashiach ben Yosef, as it says in Psalms 92:13: “The righteous one will flourish like a palm tree, he shall grow like a cedar in the Lebanon”. [For those who like gematria, the term “cedar” (ארז) has the same value as “ben Yosef” (בן יוסף).]

‘Phoenix’ is one of the 88 constellations in the night’s sky. A modern map is on the left, and a 1742 depiction from Johann Gabriel Doppelmayr’s Atlas Coelestis is on the right. Every year, a meteor shower (called the Phoenicids) appears at the Phoenix constellation, from July 3 to July 18.

Warships in Syria

This is precisely what Balak feared when he saw the Phoenix. He realized that his plot to destroy Israel would fail miserably. Moreover, he saw that he would be the very ancestor of Mashiach, since he is a great-grandfather of Ruth, who is the great-grandmother of David! Unable to work his own magic, Balak summoned another sorcerer, Bilaam. It is highly appropriate that Bilaam’s final prophecy was regarding the End of Days and the coming of Mashiach.

Bilaam sees the “keini” in his nest—Mashiach—and says “… if Cain is laid waste, how far will Assyria take you captive?” What does Mashiach have to do with Cain? The Arizal explains that the tikkun associated with Cain is the most significant, for Cain is the one who actually brought death into the world. He is the first murderer, having killed his brother Abel. Abel’s was the first ever death. If Mashiach is to remove death from the world for good, he must rectify that primordial event.

And so, Mashiach ben Yosef is a reincarnation of Cain, and he must die as a measure for measure rectification for Cain’s murder of Abel. And who is Abel? Mashiach ben David, the one who brings about the resurrection of Mashiach ben Yosef! The brothers finally make peace. Cain and Abel are the two messiahs, and their mission is to restore peace to the entire world—after all, they were the ones that brought conflict into the world to begin with.

What did Bilaam say? He saw the keini, the one of Cain, in his nest. He is taken captive by Assyria—amidst a great battle that brings massive warships from the West—and “will perish”. He must perish because he is Mashiach ben Yosef, and through his demise all death and evil die with him. With these words, Bilaam fittingly ends his prophecy of the End of Days, for that event is the very end of the world as we know it, and the start of an entirely new era into which even Bilaam could not peer.

This week in the news: the USS George HW Bush, one of the largest warships in the world, docks in Haifa, Israel, on its way to a mission in Syria. Does the current Syrian conflict play into Bilaam’s prophecy?


*After the kingdoms of Phoenicia and Israel were destroyed, their outpost of Carthage in North Africa remained. This trading post had become a powerful city-state, and challenged Rome for control of the Mediterranean. The greatest Carthaginian leader was Hannibal. While many are familiar with Hannibal, few are aware of his last name, Barak (Latinized as Barca). Recall that the Biblical Barak was Deborah’s military general. He hailed from the tribe of Naphtali, and it is precisely from this region that Solomon gave Hiram twenty cities. Considering that Hiram and Solomon had combined their navies and traded together across the Mediterranean and Red Sea together, it is very possible that Carthage was one of the joint Israelite-Phoenician outposts, and Hannibal was a descendent of the Biblical Barak! Interestingly, Hannibal spent the last years of his life in Greek Syria, and helped Antiochus III conquer Judea. Unlike his son Antiochus IV (of Chanukah fame), Antiochus III was very friendly with the Jews, and supported Jerusalem’s Temple.

The One Commandment of the Torah

The Revelation at Sinai

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, famous for its account of the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. For the first time, the Jewish people heard the Ten Commandments, directly from God. Commenting on these verses, Rabbeinu Behaye (1255-1340) describes how God actually revealed the Torah gradually, starting with Adam.

To Adam, God revealed the very first six commandments: (1) not to deny God’s existence, (2) not to blaspheme God, (3) not to murder, (4) not to engage in immoral sexual relations, (5) not to steal, and (6) to establish just legal systems and courts. These may sound familiar, as they are part of the Seven Noahide Laws. Yet, Rabbeinu Behaye writes that Adam and Eve were given these commandments before Noah. These six are the basic laws of humanity so, naturally, they must have been given to the first humans.

To Noah, God added a seventh commandment. Originally, God instructed man to consume only fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29-30). In God’s original perfect world, nothing at all had to die. (Thus, the third commandment of “not to murder” likely applied to all living things at the time!) Yet, ten generations after Adam, we read that God permitted the consumption of meat, albeit in a limited way. There are deeply profound reasons for this, which we have addressed in the past.

From the time of Noah onwards, man was permitted to consume meat, so God added a seventh commandment: “do not eat the limb of a live animal”. The basic meaning of this law is that an animal should be carefully slaughtered (and as painlessly as possible) before its meat is consumed. However, the commandment takes on much broader implications, and is regarded as a general prohibition of not being cruel to animals.

From 8 to 613

Another ten generations after Noah came the eighth commandment, given to Abraham. It was Abraham who was first instructed to circumcise himself and the males of his household. God declared that henceforth, every newborn male should be circumcised on the eighth day of life. Appropriately, this was the eighth commandment.

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

Jacob received the ninth commandment: not to consume the gid hanashe, the sciatic nerve. This stems from Jacob’s famous wrestling match with the angel, where he was struck in the thigh, and “Therefore, the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh until this day…” (Genesis 32:33).

Finally, it was Moses’ generation – the twenty-sixth generation from Adam – that received the entire set of Ten Commandments. Of course, these Ten are quite different than the previous nine. However, the Ten Commandments are only the first of the entire set of 613 mitzvot in the Torah, which do encapsulate the previous nine as well. Jewish tradition holds that these Ten, in fact, allude to all 613. It is often pointed out that the text of the Ten Commandments in the Torah contains exactly 620 letters, corresponding to the 613 Torah mitzvot, plus the additional 7 mitzvot instituted by the Sages.

Going in Reverse

Rabbeinu Behaye teaches us that the Torah was revealed step-by-step, progressing from six in Adam’s time, to seven in Noah’s, eight in Abraham’s, nine in Jacob’s, ten in Moses’, followed by all 613. Interestingly, there is a passage in the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) that appears to neatly continue the Torah’s evolution, but this time in reverse!

The passage begins by reminding us that “…six hundred and thirteen precepts were given to Moses” before stating that “David came and reduced them to eleven.” King David was able to condense the entire Torah to eleven central principles, which he recorded in Psalm 15:

A Psalm of David. Hashem, who shall sojourn in Your tabernacle? Who shall dwell upon Your holy mountain? One who (1) walks uprightly, and (2) acts righteously, (3) speaks truth in his heart; (4) Has no slander upon his tongue, (5) nor does evil to his fellow, (6) nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; (7) In whose eyes a vile person is despised, and (8) one who honours those that fear Hashem; (9) one who swears to his own detriment, but does not renege; (10) One that does not lend his money on interest, (11) nor takes a bribe against the innocent. The doer of these will never falter for eternity.

“Isaiah” by Gustav Doré

David saw that all of the Torah boils down to these 11 principles. But the Talmud doesn’t stop there. The prophet Isaiah “came and reduced them to six.” He taught that it all came down to:

One that (1) walks righteously, and (2) speaks uprightly; one that (3) despises the gain of oppressions, that (4) shakes his hands from holding of bribes, that (5) stops his ears from hearing of blood, and (6) shuts his eyes from looking upon evil. He shall dwell on high… (Isaiah 33:15-16)

From 6 to 1

Along came Isaiah’s contemporary, the prophet Micah, and further reduced the commandments to three! “What does Hashem require of you? Only to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God…” Apparently, upon hearing this, “Isaiah came again and reduced them to two, as it is written: ‘Thus said Hashem: preserve justice, and do righteousness’” (Isaiah 56:1).

“Amos” by Gustav Doré

Sometime later, the prophet Amos came and was able to reduce the entire Torah to one single principle: “Seek Me and live” (Amos 5:4). The Talmud questions the meaning of this, suggesting that perhaps “seeking God” simply means fulfilling the 613 precepts of His Torah – in which case, we are back to where we started!

The Talmud concludes by telling us that the prophet Habakkuk came along and solved the problem, teaching that the one principle that the entire Torah boils down to is this: tzaddik b’emunato yichyeh, “The righteous shall live by his faith”. It all comes down to knowing without a doubt that there is a God in this universe, and having faith in Him every step of the way. When we fully understand God’s constant, absolute presence in our lives, we will surely live righteously – for how can one ever act unrighteously when they are gripped by God’s perpetual presence?

The Sages teach us that no person sins unless a spirit of folly – a temporary lapse in faith – rests upon him. Of course, if one constantly lacks faith, they will forever succumb to sin. Those who do not know God are doomed to fail. And knowing God is not so simple. The Kotzker Rebbe once beautifully taught that “One who does not see God everywhere, does not see Him anywhere.”

The righteous person is the one who does indeed see God everywhere, who “lives by his faith”, or to translate more accurately, “who lives in his faith”. And what is the purpose of the Torah but to cultivate a deeper understanding of God, and a closer connection to Him? The 613 mitzvot are there to guide us through this journey; to bring us closer to God. And so, the entire Torah can be reduced to this one principle. May we all merit to actualize it.

The Zohar’s Prophecy of Another Great Flood

This week’s parasha is Noach, recounting the famous episodes of the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel. We read that “In the six-hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened” (Genesis 7:11). Earth was flooded with waters rushing from above and below. After forty continuous days the entire planet was submersed in a global mikveh. Indeed, Rabbi Menachem Recanati (c. 1250-1310) comments here that the forty days correspond to the forty se’ah of water necessary for a kosher mikveh. (A se’ah is an ancient unit of volume equal to about 14 litres.) The Flood was nothing less than a purification for the whole world, which had become corrupted through violence, robbery, and sexual immorality.

Within these words, the Zohar (I, 116b) finds a prophecy for a future time, where the Earth will once more be submerged in waters from above and below. These waters, however, will be “waters of wisdom” which will be necessary to usher in the Messianic Age (or more accurately, the post-Messianic age). It is an old Jewish tradition that civilization will last for 6000 years – corresponding to the six days of Creation – followed by a seventh millennium, “the Great Sabbath”.

In preparation for the holy Sabbath, it is customary for one to go to the mikveh and be purified. The Zohar comments that the entire planet will undergo a metaphorical purification – not through water, but through wisdom. The Zohar speaks of two types of wisdom, one coming from the “upper gates” above, and the other from the “wellsprings” below. Traditionally, these have been associated with Torah wisdom, particularly mystical teachings, and secular wisdom, primarily science and technology. Based on the verses in Noach, the Zohar says these two types of wisdom will burst forth in the 600th year of the 6th millennium.

Lower Waters

The 6th century of the 6th millennium is the Hebrew calendar years of 5500-5600, corresponding to 1740-1840 CE. According to historians, this is precisely the time of the Industrial Revolution, which many consider the most significant turning point in history. For thousands of years until the Industrial Revolution, life was more or less the same: agrarian, rural, slow-paced. The Industrial Revolution changed all of that, and set the stage for rapid technological development, socio-economic progress, and massive leaps in human capabilities.

Before the Industrial Revolution, it was hard to conceive of a Redemption which would see Jews from all over the world returning to Israel en masse, and even harder to fathom a Mashiach that can bring peace to the entire planet, and speak to all of humanity. With modern means of communication and transportation, not only is this now totally possible, it is quite simple to envision!

Thousands of Jews Return to Israel En Masse - as Prophesized

Jews Return to Israel En Masse – as Prophesized

Upper Waters

Similarly, the “waters above” – Torah wisdom and spirituality – also saw a massive explosion at the turn of the 57th Jewish century. Mystical and Kabbalistic teachings – once hidden and reserved only for the greatest of scholars – began to flourish, and were further propelled by the rise of Chassidism, going on to penetrate the daily lives of all Jews. The yeshiva movement had its beginnings in this time, too, inspired by the first modern yeshiva, the Etz Chaim school of Volozhin, completed in 1806. Other major, ground-breaking movements within Judaism saw their seeds planted during this time as well, including Reform, Haskalah (“Enlightenment Judaism”), and Zionism.

Meanwhile, advancing technology has made the spread of Torah wisdom a breeze. Today, texts that were once impossible to find, and difficult to study, can be accessed at a moment’s notice with a click of a button, together with all of their commentaries and translations! The average Jew today has the entire library of three thousand years of Jewish wisdom available round-the-clock through the smartphone in their pocket. Never in history has there been so much Torah study; so many synagogues and yeshivas; countless books and lectures; podcasts, videos, and classes of every kind, for every kind of audience; not to mention the many charity and kiruv organizations, and a Chabad house on every inhabited continent, in the remotest of areas.

Truly, the waters above and below have opened up, and the planet has been flooded with wisdom. The Zohar’s prescient prediction has materialized perfectly, on schedule, and the world is just about ready for geulah – may we merit to see it soon.

Shabbat Shalom

Do Jews Really Follow the Torah?

This week’s parasha is the dual MatotMassei. We read in it how God commanded Moses to “take revenge” on the Midianites and smite them. Moses and the Israelites fulfil God’s word to a tee:

And they killed every male, and they killed the Midianite kings upon their slain… the children of Israel took the Midianite women and their children captive, and they plundered all of their beasts, and all of their livestock, and all of their possessions. They set fire to all of their cities and fortresses, and took all the booty and all the plunder of man and beast… (Numbers 31:7-11).

TorahEvery modern reader should be absolutely horrified to see this passage in the holy Torah. How could God command such seemingly despicable acts? To slay every single man without trial, and to abduct their women and children? To loot all of their possessions? To burn down their cities? Could this be the conduct of holy, moral people?

The Torah records a number of other instances that an ethical person would find reprehensible, including four types of cruel death penalties (stoning, burning, strangling, decapitating) and a call to commit genocide (Deut. 7:1-2), among others.

At the same time, the Torah records far more laws dealing with kindness and charity, peace, love, justice, and holiness. How is it that the same God that commands vengeance and extermination also commands to “judge your fellow favourably… do not take revenge or bear a grudge… and love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:15-19)?

What’s going on?

Not in Heaven

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) recounts a famous incident that happened in the study halls during a debate on the cleanliness or uncleanliness of one tanur shel akhnai, the “oven of Akhnai” or “oven of the snake”. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus declared the oven clean, while the majority of rabbis declared it unclean. Although the majority is always followed, Rabbi Eliezer was certain he was right, and said, “If the halacha agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!” Amazingly, the carob tree that he pointed to uprooted itself and moved some 800 feet.

The rabbis, seemingly unfazed, told him: “No proof can be brought from a carob tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer then upped the ante: “If the halacha agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!” Immediately, the river switched courses and miraculously flowed backwards.

Again, the rabbis told him: “No proof can be brought from a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer continued: “If the halacha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it.” As soon as the words exited his mouth, the walls started to shake violently and begin to tip over.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah interjected and told the walls: “How can you interfere when scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute?” So the walls stopped their descent and remained standing on an incline.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer said: “If the halacha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Lo and behold, a Heavenly voice emanates from above and states that Eliezer is indeed correct.

At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua looked up and said: lo b’shamayim hi, “It is not in Heaven!” Rabbi Yehoshua was quoting Deuteronomy 30:12, where Moses tells the Israelites that the Torah is not in Heaven; it is not distant from the people, but here on Earth for them to use and benefit from. The halacha went with the majority, and Rabbi Eliezer was overruled.

The Talmud continues by telling us that Rabbi Nathan later met Elijah the Prophet and asked him what God thought of the whole incident. Eliyahu told him that God had laughed heartily and said nitzchuni banai, “My children have defeated Me!”

This incredible story illustrates clearly how God’s intention in giving us the Torah was not to have us obey it blindly. Instead, we are meant to ponder it and grapple with its dictums, debate it, and come to our own conclusions as to what is right and wrong, moral and immoral. This is a key part of what the Talmud is all about.

For example, many of the Talmudic Sages found the Torah’s death penalties quite unpalatable; Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon said that they would never issue a death penalty at all (Makkot 7a), and ultimately, the death penalty was abolished from Jewish courts. Similarly, wars were replaced with debates in study halls; sacrifices were replaced with prayers; and the Torah’s caste system (where a select few priests lived in opulence and glory off the backs of the common people’s hard labour) was replaced with one of complete equality, where no distinction is made between even the greatest rabbi and the simplest Jew.

Struggling with God

So, do Jews really follow the Torah? When it comes to literally fulfilling its precepts – absolutely not! Of the 613 commandments that are derived from the Five Books of Moses (the nature and validity of which we have discussed in the past), well over 300 are impossible to keep today, and have not been possible for two millennia. Even if they were possible, very few people (if any) would actually want to return to an agrarian, slaveholding, militaristic, polygamous society. Those laws ceased to exist long ago for a good reason.

But do Jews continue to uphold the spirit of the Torah? Certainly. It is clear from the words of the Torah itself that God wanted us to question His commands and develop them on our own towards a clearer, more moral end. We see this at least as far back as Noach. While God commanded Noach to build an Ark, He also expected him to go out into the world and inspire people to repent so that a flood would be unnecessary. Noach failed, and the Sages say the Flood was called mabul noach, “Noah’s Flood” (or mei noach, “Noah’s waters”, as in Isaiah 54:9), because he was partly responsible for it.

We see it again with Abraham when God told him that Sodom would be totally destroyed. Abraham did not simply bow his head and accept; he questioned God’s decision and argued with Him. Moses argued with God for seven days during his first encounter with the Burning Bush at Sinai. Following the Golden Calf incident, Moses refused God’s suggestions again and brazenly told Him, “erase me from Your book!” if He would not agree to forgive the people. Rabbi Yehoshua’s bold rebuttal to the Heavenly Voice was just one in a long line of rebellious acts.

This is precisely the meaning of the name given to our forefather Jacob: He was called “Israel” ki sarita im Elohim… va’tuchal, “for you have struggled with God… and prevailed.” Jewish history is nothing but a centuries-old struggle with God. And for the most part, we have prevailed.