Category Archives: Masai

Levels of Control (Matot-Masai)

Levels of Control (Matot-Masai)

Nothing is more dangerous than a friend without discretion; even a prudent enemy is preferable. -Jean de La Fontaine

Moses addresses the leaders of the tribes of Israel. He instructs them as to the laws of vows. He instructs them about literally, “what comes out of your mouths.” The Bat Ayin on Numbers 30:2 connects the fact that Moses is addressing the leaders of the tribes to a person’s ability to control their mouth.

It seems that Israel’s judicial, military, and most likely political leadership during their years of wandering in the desert was organized in a hierarchical system, as initially proposed by Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. Back in the Book of Exodus, shortly after the nation of Israel is miraculously freed from Egypt, crosses the Reed Sea and camps out at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jethro gives Moses much needed advice. He saw Moses attending individually to every single person in Israel, tells him it’s unsustainable and recommends a hierarchical meritocracy. Moses implements Jethro’s plan and establishes the roles of Captains of Ten, Captains of Fifty, Captains of One Hundred and Captains of One Thousand.

The Bat Ayin suggests that a person achieved a higher rank based on their ability to control their mouth. Those who exhibited the greatest control over what they said, how they said it, when they said it, to whom they said it, and perhaps most importantly, what they didn’t say – those people merited the highest rank within the leadership of Israel. The less prudent, less sensitive, less cautious and less circumspect a person was in their dialogue, the lower their rank, and ostensibly, those with little control of their speech were not given any positions of responsibility.

However, the control of their tongue was a product of their awe and reverence of God. The stronger a person understood their divine responsibilities and obligations, the more a person sought sanctity and transcendence. The more they used their powers of speech for noble and holy purposes, the more they were elevated.

May we always use caution and deliberation in what we say and achieve greater levels of divine connection.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the surprising discovery of a large, 50km wide, cooled magma patch on the far side of the moon, which may have been generated by volcanic eruptions from radioactive elements billions of years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure it out.

Nipping Evil in the Bud (Masai)

Nipping Evil in the Bud (Masai)

In every phenomenon the beginning remains always the most notable moment. -Thomas Carlyle

The tribes of Israel have reached the end of their wandering in the desert, and they are assembled on the plains of Moab, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, ready to conquer the Promised Land. God gives very clear instructions as to the reason they are crossing the river:

“When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.” -Number 33:51-53

The Chidushei HaRim on Numbers 33:52 explains that the Jewish nation needed to understand from the very beginning of their entry into the land the purpose for their entry. This included uprooting the existing dwellers, namely the seven nations that God commanded Israel to destroy. He elaborates that the seven nations represented the seven roots of all evil and hence part of Israel’s job was to uproot that evil from the start, at the first possible opportunity.

He continues; if Israel were to forget or veer from its mission, the same nations would blind Israel to reality and the evil would take root within the children of Israel, blocking their ability to perceive truth or wisdom.

Hence, the particular importance of starting off strong, for he states, the outcome of most things is very much dependent on how they begin. A strong start to any endeavor increases the chances of success. A lukewarm beginning doesn’t engender a promising conclusion.

A strong start that is pursued with all of one’s strength will keep the evil that surrounds us, and is always threatening us, to stay at bay. A proper investment of all our energies in worthy and noble tasks will become the guarantor of a successful outcome, untainted by evil.

Additionally, we are blessed that we have new beginnings every single day, to tackle, correct and improve whatever we individually and collectively need to conquer.

May we pursue all good things with tremendous energies and fresh starts.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the Maccabiah Games

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

Two-Time Sorcerous Loser (Matot-Masai)

An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains. -Henri Frederic Amiel

A couple of weeks ago, we read in the Torah how the sorcerer Bilaam was hired by the king of Moab to curse the nation of Israel. The Moabites allied themselves with the Midianites to fight Israel. Their hope and expectation were that the curse of the powerful sorcerer Bilaam would allow them to rout the Israelites who were getting uncomfortably close to their borders on their desert journey to the land of Canaan. Though Israel had no intention of bothering either of those nations and had explicit instructions from God not to harm the Moabites, these allies either weren’t aware or didn’t believe in the peaceful intentions of the nomadic tribes of Israel who had spent almost forty years in the desert and had recently started making their way towards Canaan.

As we read then, the efforts of Bilaam were a massive failure. Despite his eagerness and enthusiasm to curse Israel, God forces Bilaam to utter beautiful poetic blessings to Israel in front of the Moabite and Midianite leadership. After three botched efforts, Balak, King of Moab, sends the failed sorcerer home. The question arises as to why we see Bilaam unexpectedly mentioned in this week’s reading, seven chapters after Balak sent Bilaam home in ignominy? In this week’s reading, the Israelite army does ultimately attack the Midianites in retaliation for the mass-seduction of Israelite men by the Moabite and Midianite daughters, which followed the episode with Bilaam. The public licentiousness and accompanying idolatry lead to God’s fury and punishment of Israel by plague. What is Bilaam doing in the middle of this later battle with Midian?

The Bechor Shor on Numbers 31:8 explains that Bilaam had indeed failed in his bid to curse Israel and was sent home in shame. However, the Midianites had understood from Bilaam that the way to harm Israel is to get them to sin and that God is particularly hateful of sexual licentiousness. The Moabites and Midianites follow Bilaam’s hint, sending their daughters to seduce the Israelite men, which leads directly to God killing 24,000 Israelite men by a sudden plague. Finally, seeing the vulnerability of Israel due to their fresh and flagrant sin, the Midianites call Bilaam back to finish the job and curse Israel.

Bilaam does indeed return to try to curse Israel again, which explains his unexpected presence at this later place and time. However, this apparently powerful sorcerer didn’t learn from his first failure against Israel and he succumbs to an ignoble fate, to be caught and killed during Israel’s retaliation against Midian.

May God always protect us from our enemies, on all fronts.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of Joseph Wiesel z”l. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

Wasted Influence (Matot-Masai)

The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dare to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow. -Marian Anderson

Historically, it was extremely common for armies and soldiers to ravage and pillage their enemies. It was seen as their right to claim the spoils of war, whether human, animal, or inanimate valuables.

God, at the end of the Book of Numbers, commands Israel to battle the Midianite army. The Midianites had allied with the Moabites when they tried to curse the nation of Israel through the sorcerer Bilaam. When the cursing scheme proved unsuccessful, the Midianite and Moabite women conspired to seduce the men of Israel into illegal romantic activity, and succeeded. This was followed by heinous idol worship, which raised God’s ire and led to a sudden plague and the death of 24,000 men of Israel.

God commands the army of Israel to avenge the Midianite involvement and to take the fight to them.

The army of Israel is victorious and completely vanquishes the Midianite army. As a bonus, the Torah reports that the Israelites didn’t have even one casualty from their battle. On their return from battle, the army commanders offer sacrifices to God and donate from the gold and jewelry they captured in battle.

The Meshech Chochma on Numbers 31:49 deciphers the language the army commanders use before they offered their sacrifices. The army commanders were given charge of their soldiers. They reported that they didn’t lose one soldier. The deeper significance that the Meshech Chochma uncovers is that no soldier even touched an enemy woman, though it might have been quite natural in those days for them to do so in the heat of battle and victory.

Upon witnessing the upstanding behavior of their charges, the army commanders realized a previous mistake they had made. Seeing how the soldiers followed their commanders’ orders not to touch any of the enemy women, the commanders belatedly understood that they could have, likewise, influenced the men who had previously given in to the temptations of the Midianite and Moabite women. Had the commanders made clear their expectations of the behavior of an Israelite man, they surmised that the illegal romantic dalliances may have been averted. The commanders were guilty of not using their influence where and when it was required in that case, and as such, they felt it necessary to bring a sacrifice to atone for their lack of judgment and involvement.

May we realize the influence we have on those around us and always use it positively.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the memory of our Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital z”tl, on his tenth yahrtzeit. His influence was significant and undeniable.

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

Elevating the Sparks (Masaei)

There are glimpses of heaven to us in every act, or thought, or word, that raises us above ourselves. -Arthur P. Stanley


In Jewish mysticism, Kabbala, there’s a concept of divine, spiritual sparks that are scattered and dispersed throughout the world. Many of these sparks are locked, imprisoned, bound to some mundane earthly reality, waiting to be unlocked, freed, released to return to the spiritual world, to return somehow to the divine source from whence they came.

Part of man’s task in this world is to find those sparks and free them. Many sparks are waiting, have been waiting for eons for specifically one person to come at an exact moment in time and through some positive act, some Mitzvah, free that spark and enable that spiritual ascendance, that consummation of a divine reunion that had been waiting for all of history.

The Torah portion of Masaei lists the forty-two different places where the nation of Israel camped during their forty-year sojourn through the desert. In some places they camped just for a day, in some they camped for years. The language the Torah uses to describe the stops alternates between and conjoins the term “journeys” (“Masaiehem”) and “outings” (“Motzaiehem”).

The Berdichever explains how a key purpose of each of these stops in their journey was to bring out (“Lehotzi” – the same verb as “outings”) the hidden divine sparks that were scattered throughout the desert.

In some locations, they were able to extract and elevate the spark quickly, hence they only needed a short visit. Some locations required years of effort to free the spark and therefore the long residence in those places. Different locations and different sparks also needed different types of effort. Some sparks could only be released by a divine service that focused on awe of God. Others could only be freed by demonstrating love of God. A third type of spark required a combination of both types of service, represented by the Kabbalistic attribute of “Tiferet” – glory.

By being in the right place, at the right time, for the right amount of time and performing the right actions, the nation of Israel was able to elevate the scattered and imprisoned divine sparks and reunite them with their original source.

May we use all of our sojourns to elevate the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Rabbi Hillel and Yael Simon, for inspiring hosting of our family.

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

Your money or your family (Matot-Masai)

If money is all that a man makes, then he will be poor. Poor in happiness and poor in all that makes life worth living. -Herbert N. Casson

The nation of Israel had just vanquished two major kingdoms on the eastern side of the Jordan River, across from the land promised to them. After the battles, and with all the pasture around them, two tribes approached Moses. The tribes of Ruben and Gad came up to Moses and declared that they were laden with vast amounts of animals and the current land they were in was perfect for them. They wanted to stay, to settle outside the Promised Land, with their flocks.

Moses gets angry, there ensues a discussion, and the tribes of Ruben and Gad declare that they will leave their flocks and their families in the east and go battle with the rest of Israel in the west, until the land is fully conquered. After the expected conquest, they will return to the land, to their flocks and family.

What is most telling is the order which these two tribes phrase their request. They place the flock before their family. Many of the commentators highlight the priorities these two tribes are exhibiting as well as Moses’ response to them. Moses flips the order, basically saying, take care of your family before you take care of your flock.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 32:2 (Matot-Masai) takes the criticism even further. He claims that because the tribes of Ruben and Gad put their financial gains and greed before their families’ wellbeing, all their financial gains were cursed.

By being more concerned with their material wealth, their livestock, with animals, rather than with human beings and their own flesh and blood, they doomed themselves, and eventually were left with neither. Indeed, the tribes to the east of the Jordan would be the first to be exiled and seemingly lost to Jewish history.

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his criticism with the famous dictum from Pirkei Avot (Chapters of our Fathers) which asks rhetorically, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”

May we be thankful for all the blessings in our life and especially for the one of family.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the summer, and more opportunities for the family to spend time together.

On Capital Punishment

On Capital Punishment

 Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness; it is the one crime in which society has a direct interest. -W. H. Auden

God is very clear on where He stands on the topic of capital punishment. Even though God commands Do Not Murder (as opposed to Do Not Kill) in the Ten Commandments, there is a long list of sins (murder among them) that God prescribes the death penalty for. Already to Noah and his sons God warns: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.”(Genesis 9:6)

The Rabbis however explained that in most of those cases, it is actually quite rare for the death penalty to be carried out. The guilty party needs to have been given an explicit and detailed warning before committing the sin; there needs to have been two valid witnesses to the sin and a variety of other judicial requirements. No video or circumstantial evidence suffice.

The more bloodthirsty among us may feel that this practical suspension of justice is unfair. How is it that all these sinners and murderers can roam around free and unpunished? The Talmud tells us not to worry. God has his way of inflicting the right punishment on each deserving individual, at the right time and in the right form, if the human court is unable to carry out its duty.

The more merciful among us may feel that punishment for crimes, even one as odious as murder, is unwarranted, and that the death penalty especially has no place in modern civilization.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 35:33 explains part of the rationale for the death penalty:

“A human society that does not regard the blood of each of its members as sacred, one that does not take up the cudgel for innocent human blood that has been spilled negates the very purpose for which the forces of earth operate.”

“The hypocrisy can be purged from the land only if the innocent blood that has been spilled, and the human being who has lost his life as a result, finds an advocate in the society that survives him and the murderer is made to atone for his deed by dying at the hands of that advocate, thus losing his own life, which he has forfeited by his crime. For since he has spilled the blood of his fellow man, his own blood no longer has a right to life; he has forfeited his own right to existence. And to tolerate the continued existence of one who knowingly and deliberately murdered a fellow man would be a travesty on the dignity of man, who was made in the image of God.”

May all murderers be brought to justice, whether earthly or divine, and may we see justice reign in the land.

Shabbat Shalom,



On the confluence of the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin that we have started this week in the Daf Yomi cycle, with Maimonides’ Laws of Sanhedrin that we are in the midst of in the Rambam Yomi cycle – both of which deal with the subject of capital punishment.

It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Netziv Numbers: Masai

It’s not the journey, it’s the purpose

There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but only one view.  -Harry Millner

In my mad rush to book a last minute flight to Israel, I had to study multiple itineraries, websites, schedules and jump through too many web hoops. Flights that I finally managed to reserve suddenly changed prices and eventually disappeared altogether. Reservations that were made were then canceled by the airline. Finally, I got a flight which, as of this writing, I hope will still see me through on my journey to the Holy Land.

Netziv on Numbers 33:1 notes that the term “their journeys” is repeated three times at the introduction of the summary of the stops which Israel made since leaving Egypt until they were about to enter Canaan. He explains that each repetition represents a different purpose for the journey, that the purpose defines the journey and each journey or path requires a separate introduction.

The first leg of the Israelite journey was the Exodus from Egypt with a stopover at Mount Sinai to receive the divine revelation of the Torah, with the final purpose of entering the land of Canaan. However, the mission of the spies went awry and doomed the tribes of Israel to wander in the desert for forty years. The wandering was the second leg of their journey. The third and final leg of the journey was the resumption of the initial purpose – to enter the land of Israel.

Sometimes the journey is defined by its purpose, and to fulfill it, you have to reach the destination. The journey itself becomes secondary.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Dani Baruch of Adventour, for helping me with my journey.

Pillars of the Universe

Kli Yakar Numbers: Masai

Pillars of the Universe

“Duct tape is like the force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together.” Carl Zwanzig

What is the basis of creation? What keeps our world afloat? Ancient myths believed in a giant turtle that swam through the currents of the cosmos, upon which the earth rested. Scientists from not long ago believed in an invisible ‘ether’ that the planet moved through. Jewish tradition believes that it is the righteous that hold our world together and keep things going. 

“And they camped upon the Jordan, from Bet Hayeshimot until Avel Hashitim.” Numbers 33:49

The Kli Yakar reads meaning into the names given for the Israelite encampment at the end of their forty years of wandering. Just a few verses earlier, the Torah mentions the death of Aaron the High Priest, who died in the Hebrew month of Av, a month that contains sadness and mourning, the month that starts this Monday.

“Hayeshimot” refers to “shmamah” (destruction), while “Avel” (mourning) “Hashitim” (of the cedars) refers to the loss of the righteous that are compared to the cedars, the tall majestic trees of the world. The verse foreshadows the destruction of the Temple(s) in the month of Av which is equated to the death of the righteous.

The Kli Yakar takes the comparison further. At the destruction of the Temple the heavens shook and the earth quaked. It was a catastrophe of epic proportions which altered and lessened all of existence. So too the death of the righteous. When they pass away, creation trembles. The righteous are the very foundations of reality. Their loss loosens the power that binds the world together.

May we have the merit to identify them, treasure them and support them.

Shabbat Shalom,



In memory of Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory, Founder and Head of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut. This week commemorates one year since his passing. The universe shook that day and reality seems ever so tenuous since.


The Next Leader

Numbers Fiction: Masai

The Next Leader (inspired by Numbers Chapter 34, Masai)

“You’re the one, Elizafan.” Chever slapped Elizafan on the back as they headed towards Moses and the Assembly. They walked along the wide, dry Moabite plain, overlooking the Jordan River to the west. “Surely he’s going to name you Prince of Zevulun.”

“Chever, please. Stop saying that. If he names me, I’ll be greatly honored, but I think it’s in bad taste to discuss it beforehand.” Elizafan’s eyes darted across the converging crowd, wondering if anyone had overheard them.

“Elizafan, you’re the natural choice. Wealthy, from a distinguished family. A war hero. A High Judge. Handsome, popular, a natural leader.” People in the crowd craned their necks to look at Chever.

“Stop it, Chever. If I am named, all and well; but let’s stop harping on it. Moses will declare the best person.”

“I think it will be Raui for Zevulun,” and old man croaked.

“Raui? Who’s Raui?” Chever hissed back.

“Why, Raui is a great and holy man, not like the peacock Elizafan at your side. Just your strut announces overweening pride. Raui is my bet. He’s learned and humble and patient. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Nonsense, old man,” Chever sneered. “A sweet sage might be nice for dispensing advice from his tent, but we need a leader who will conquer Canaan. A man who will stand at the head of our troops, look the enemy in the eye and attack. Yes, it needs pride.”

“Pfah,” the old man spat at the ground. “You young ones always think you know best. Well, we’ll see soon enough who’s right.” The old man turned his neck toward the platform in the middle of the assembly. Moses and the Elders were stepping up to the long, low wooden structure.

“Let’s get away from this relic.” Chever pulled Elizafan by the arm into the thickening crowd.

“I know Raui,” Elizafan whispered. “He is a great man. The old man may be right.”

“What? You think a timid scholar would make a better leader than you?”

“He is wise and brave and many seek his council. I would follow him.”

“It’s one thing to give good advice. It’s another matter altogether to lead men into battle, to judge them, to be accountable to the Children of Israel. I would not be so quick to dismiss yourself from this possibility.”

“There is nothing to dismiss!” Elizafan stomped his foot on the dry Moabite plain. A small cloud of dust enveloped his sandaled foot. “In a moment, Moses will announce the new Princes. The Princes of Israel who will lead the Tribes into Canaan. I won’t lie to you. It would be a great honor that I am not sure I am worthy of. But there is nothing to discuss or dismiss. I have no weight in this matter. God who knows the hearts of men will decide. He will tell Moses. Moses will let us know. That is what he announced. Now for God’s sake stop talking about it and let us calm down.”

“You see Elizafan, you’re a natural. I would even follow you back to Egypt.”

“Enough!” Elizafan slapped Chever across the face. “You dare hint at our sins, even in jest? Is your memory so short that you forget the rebels that cried for the very same thing – to return to Egypt? Chever, your mind has been addled by the upcoming succession. Do you hope to be at the side of a future leader? Is that why you fawn and flatter to no end? Or are you truly my friend giving me encouragement? If you are my friend, the best thing you can do is stop talking on the matter. What will be, will be. If I am selected, I will pray that God will give me the strength and the wisdom to guide our tribe. If not, I will be relieved and give whatever assistance I can, whether it is to noble Raui or someone else. Come now, Chever. I’m sorry I slapped you, but I knew no other way to muzzle your inane blabbering. Do you forgive me?” Elizafan put out his hand.

“Yes.” Chever took the hand. “You – yes. Yes, I forgive you.” Chever rubbed his cheek and held back what he planned to say. “I am your friend. I let the excitement of you as Prince go to my head. I am sorry for infuriating you. I will speak no longer on the subject.”

“Look, there is Raui.” Elizafan motioned with his chin.

“Let’s go over to him, I’d like to meet him,” Chever said.

“Can you control yourself?” Elizafan asked.

“Yes, I promise.”

“Raui, how are you?” Elizafan bowed politely. “Please meet my friend, Chever.”

“I am well, Elizafan. It is good to meet you, Chever.”

“Honored sage.” Chever bowed. “Who do you think Moses will select for Zevulun.”

“Ah, that is the question on everyone’s mind, isn’t it? It is hard to say. We are blessed with many great men. To whom will this doom go? Who will bear the burden of an entire tribe? Who will have the glory, the temptations of power and authority? Who will age before his time? Who will deal with the incessant complaints of a stubborn people? Who is worthy? Who has the strength?”

Raui looked deeply into Chever’s eyes and continued:

“Perhaps you, Chever. You strike me as a passionate man. Always concerned about your friends, your fellow tribesmen, your brothers. Perhaps that is the most important trait – a passionate care for your people. If God were to select you, I would follow you unhesitatingly. You, or whoever from my brothers God deems worthy. I do not know. I know that I am not worthy of special honor, nor do I desire it. Though I am not sure it is bad to desire honor. To lead men, to live a public life requires a certain fortitude, a certain interest and willingness to be in the public eye. Only God knows who the ideal leader is, and even then, men have consistently disappointed God. Is that helpful, Chever?”

Chever nodded silently, his mouth slightly ajar.

“I think it is you who is worthy of following,” Elizafan said.

“Thank you, Elizafan.” Raui bowed. “That is a noble sentiment. We should often think that of one another, even without the divine ordination.”

“You are correct,” Elizafan said.

“Perhaps,” Raui smiled. “It seems our questions will be shortly buried.”

The Elders finished filing onto the platform with Moses. Moses stretched his arms out over the sea of people. A wave of silence rolled over the entire assembly. Moses announced in a booming voice:

“These are the names of the men that shall take possession of the land for you: Elazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun. And ye shall take one prince of every tribe, to take possession of the land. And these are the names of the men: of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Yefuneh…”

Moses continued listing the new princes.

“…and of the tribe of the children of Zebulun a prince, Elizafan the son of Parnach.”

“Congratulations, Prince Elizafan.” Raui shook his hand warmly. “I believe God and Moses have chosen wisely. We shall need your courage and fortitude in Canaan. I am at your service, should you ever wish for my help.”

“Honored Raui,” Elizafan bowed. “I am thankful of your offer and expect I may make good use of it.”

Chever hugged Elizafan. “I knew it! I…”

Elizafan raised his arm as if to slap Chever.

“I’ll behave, O Prince,” Chever grinned.

“You may yet regret our friendship,” Elizafan said. “I will put you to work.”

“You are already calling in favors?”

“Not favors. Demands. There is much we will need to do and I will put your quick and incessant tongue to productive use.”

“I am yours to command, Prince.” Chever deeply bowed.

Elizafan shuddered, both savoring and loathing the obeisance of his old friend.

* * * * * *

Biblical Source:

Numbers Chapter 34


Elizafan: Name in the text of new prince of Zevulun

Chever: close to Chaver (Friend)

Raui: Worthy