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Torah Sparks

July 18, 2009 – 26 Tammuz 5769

Annual: Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (Etz Hayim, p. 941; Hertz p. 702)
Triennial: Numbers 32:1 – 33:49 (Etz Hayim, p. 949; Hertz p. 707)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4 – 28; 3:4; 4:1–2 (Etz Hayim, p. 973, 976, 977; Hertz p. 725, 729, 729)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses instructs the heads of the Israelite tribes about vows and oaths. When a woman makes a vow, it can be annulled by her father or her husband on the day he learns of it. If this is not done, the woman’s vow is binding and she must fulfill completely, just like a man’s vow.

Twelve thousand men, one thousand from each tribe, are picked to form the force that will wage war against Midian. The Israelites kill the Midianite males and take the women and children captive. Moses becomes angry that the women – the very ones who enticed the Israelites to sin – were spared. He orders the soldiers to kill the women and male children, leaving only the girls alive. Moses then tells the soldiers they must undergo a purification ritual. Eleazar instructs them about the purification of objects seized as booty. The captured property is divided among the warriors and the rest of the Israelites.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad ask to be allowed to settle on the east side of the Jordan, where there is ample land for their animals. They, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, are given permission to do so once they promise to join the rest of the Israelites in the battle for the land of Canaan on the other side of the Jordan. Moses records all the stages of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, from Egypt to the steppes of Moab.

God tells Moses to instruct the people that when they enter the land, they are to destroy the Canaanites’ idols and cult places. They are to remove the Canaanites themselves from the land, lest any who remain become a source of trouble in the future. God describes the borders of the Promised Land. Moses tells the Israelites that this is the land that will be given to the nine and a half tribes (excluding Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh). God names the men who will join Joshua and Eleazar in apportioning the land.

God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to set aside 48 towns for the Levites. Six of these are to be designated cities of refuge, to which a person who commits unintentional manslaughter may flee to be safe from the victim’s family. Intentional murder is to be punished by death.

Leaders of the tribe of Manasseh express concern that when the daughters of Zelophehad, who were to receive their father’s share of the land, are married, the land they inherited would pass to their husbands’ tribes. Moses relays God’s instruction that women who inherit land must marry within their own tribes to preserve the integrity of the land.

1. Your Money or Your Life

Then they stepped up to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children.” (Numbers 32:16)

  1. They had consideration for their wealth more than for their sons and their daughters, for they mentioned their cattle before their little ones. Moses said to them: Not thus shall you do. What is of primary significance (should be) primary, and what is secondary (should be) secondary. Build for yourselves cities for your little ones first, and afterwards folds for your sheep (32:24). (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. In the case of the children of Gad and the children of Reuben, you find that they were rich, possessing large numbers of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the Land of Israel. Consequently they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile, as is borne out by the text, “And he carried them away, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (I Chronicles 5:26). What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions. From where can we infer this? From what is written in the Torah, “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers” (32:1). (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7)
  3. Rabbi Aharon Kotler writes that the two tribes’ intentions may have seemed commendable. With abundant grazing land for their livestock, they would not have to work as hard as farmers, and they would have more time to devote to Torah study. However, in fact this was not their true motivation. Their decision was induced by the wealth that Transjordan would bring them... As we have noted, the accounts in the Torah are intended for teaching and guidance rather than history. We have so many waking hours that we allot to prayer, Torah study, and work. Which of these gets the lion’s share? Is it proper that we often make short order of our morning prayers in order to get to the office as early as possible?... We would do well to rethink our priorities. (Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., Twerski on Chumash, p. 345)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators fault the tribes of Reuben and Gad for placing money and possessions – their cattle – before their families, their community (the other Israelite tribes), and God. Today, when technology allows us to be in contact with the office, clients, and co-workers 24/7, the problem has grown worse. Particularly in the current recession, when many people have lost their jobs and many more worry that they may, it is even more difficult not to make work our priority. Do you work to live or live to work? What do our commentators teach us about what our priorities should be? Are there mitzvot that can help us see our lives in the proper perspective? If you knew that you only had a few days or weeks left to live, how would you spend your time?

2. Serving God and Man

And the land has been subdued, at the instance of the Lord, and then you return – you shall be clear [alternate translation – guiltless] before the Lord and before Israel; and this land shall be your holding under the Lord. (Numbers 32:22)

  1. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: “In the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim we find that a person must fulfill his obligations to his fellow-man just as he must fulfill his obligations to God, as it states, ‘be clear before the Lord and before Israel’ (Yerushalmi Shekalim 3:2). Our sages stressed that one must meet both obligations in the same way, and that just as a person cannot fulfill his obligations to God by lying or flattery, he cannot fulfill his obligations to man by lying or flattery. (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, 1810-1883, Lithuania and Germany)
  2. One of the students of the Hafetz Hayyim was offered a position as the rabbi of a village, and he asked the Hafetz Hayyim how he should act with his community. The Hafetz Hayyim told him: “The Torah says that one must be guiltless before the Lord and Israel. First, the rabbi must ensure his own proper observance of the Torah and the commandments, so that he is guiltless before the Lord. Afterwards he must also fulfill his obligations to his community. That is the order the Torah states for the fulfillment of one’s obligations. However, if a rabbi reverses the order and is interested first in being in the good graces of his community and only afterward in being in God’s good graces, he will not succeed in either.” (Hafetz Hayim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen), 1835-1933, Poland, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter reads our verse as a call to treat our obligations to God and to human beings equally. The Hafetz Hayim reads it as a call to place obligations to God before obligations to human beings. With whom do you agree? Why?

Do you think the Hafetz Hayim’s advice to his student also applies to lawyers, accountants, doctors, and other professionals bound by a code of ethics? Should it apply to everyone? How?

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