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Torah Sparks

July 3, 2010 - 21 Tammuz 5770

Annual (Num. 25:10-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 918; Hertz p. 686
Triennial (Num. 28:16-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 931; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (1 Kings 18:46-19:21): Etz Hayim p. 968; Hertz p. 710

Torah Portion Summary

God rewards Pinchas for his zealous action by granting Pinchas His pact of friendship (or covenant of peace) and His “pact of priesthood for all time.” God then tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites for their role in enticing the Israelites into sin.

After the plague that killed some 24,000 Israelites, God tells Moses and Eleazar to take a census of the Israelite men who are 20 and older, according to their ancestral houses. This census was to be used to apportion the land. The Levites are counted separately because they would not receive a share of the land.

Five sisters, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad, approach Moses and the other leaders. They explain that their father died without sons and they want to claim his share of the land. Moses asks God what to do, and God tells him that the women have made a just claim. Whenever a man dies without a son, his property shall be inherited by his daughters. If there is no daughter, the property will go to other male relatives.

God tells Moses to ascend Mount Avarim so he can see the land from there before he dies. Moses asks God to select a worthy successor and God tells Moses to appoint Joshua to lead the people after Moses' death.

God instructs Moses about the daily sacrifices and the additional (musaf) offerings for Shabbat, rosh chodesh, and festivals.

1. Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. (Numbers 29:1)

  1. One verse says “a sacred occasion, a remembrance of sounding the horn” (Vayikra 23:24), while another verse says, “a day when the horn is sounded.” There is no contradiction, as one refers to a festival that falls on Shabbat and the other to a festival that falls on a weekday. . . . According to the Torah [sounding the shofar] is allowed, and it is the rabbis who prohibited it as a precaution; as stated by Rabbah, for Rabbah said, All are under obligation to blow the shofar but not all are skilled in the blowing of the shofar. Therefore there is a danger that perhaps one will take it in his hand (on Shabbat) and go to an expert to learn and carry it four cubits in the public domain. (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 29b)
  2. An Excursus on the Sound of No-Shofar:

    What other religion would eliminate the major symbol of its festival, just for the sake of making a point about the day on which the festival falls?

    The absence of shofar on Shabbat is a splendid statement about the occasional relative unimportance of symbols in Judaism. Certainly symbols are vital to the tangible appreciation of abstract concepts. (In a typical year, the sounding of the Shofar centralizes the multitude of abstractions of Rosh Hashanah.) But when these symbols threaten to eclipse the more important abstract concept of the Shabbat, then the symbol must go. Judaism has made a point of its priorities.

    There are some great discussions in the Talmud about why we do not sound the shofar or read Avinu Malkeinu on Shabbat. Among other reasons, one of the most compelling is the differentiation between ordinary days and Shabbat.

    One of the illustrations used is a bit of Zen-like reasoning about how we tie our shoes. If you tie your left shoe first during the week, then on Shabbat you must attain a high level of consciousness that permits you always to tie the right one first. Rather than a trivial example, it is a perfect example of the larger picture that on Shabbat even the ordinary things must be done differently, to act as a reminder that Shabbat is set apart and made special.

    It is appropriate that these signs are employed in the High Holy Day service. They teach that even during the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, Shabbat still takes precedence.

    Therefore, while the practice of not sounding the shofar on Shabbat may originally have had to do with the prohibition against carrying it, the shofar's absence has acquired new meaning and power at a time when, for many Jews, the main difference between Tuesday and Saturday mornings is that on Tuesday you're in school or at work, and on Saturday, you're watching cartoons or shopping at the mall. (Rabbi Stanley Greenstein and others, cited in Moments of Transcendence, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins)
  3. The number of aliyot to the Torah:
    Monday, Thursday, Shabbat Minchah - 3
    Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed - 4
    Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot - 5
    Yom Kippur - 6
    Shabbat - 7

Sparks for Discussion

Hearing the shofar is the essential mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah, yet it is omitted when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. Why? What is the most sacred day on the Jewish calendar? Why do you say that? How does the number of aliyot given on different days explain their relative importance? Why do you think synagogue attendance is greatest on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Is this as it should be?

2. The Middle Path

On the tenth day of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall practice self-denial. You shall do no work. (Numbers 29:7)

  1. Our rabbis taught: You shall practice self-denial. You might assume that you must sit in heat or cold in order to afflict yourself, therefore the text reads: “You shall do no work;” just as [the prohibition of] labor [means] sit and do nothing, so does affliction [signify] sit and do nothing. (That is, deny yourself certain things, but do not seek out activities that cause affliction.). (Talmud Yoma 74b)
  2. Dr. Kaplan reminds us that the prohibitions should not be construed as mortification of the flesh. “Thus, while abstinence from food and drink and the other forms of bodily gratification on the Day of Atonement is commanded, self-torture for the purpose of mortifying the flesh is discountenanced. When we refrain from indulging our physical appetites for a limited period, in order to devote ourselves for a time more exclusively to demands that rank higher in our hierarchy of values, we are not denying the physical appetites their just place in life; we are simply recognizing the need of putting the in their place.” (Rabbi Isaac Klein, “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice,” p. 211)
  3. Our Torah, about which King David stated, “The Torah of the Lord is perfect... Making wise the simple,” advocates no mortification. Its intention was that man should follow nature, taking the middle road. He should eat his fill in moderation, drink in moderation. He should dwell amid society in uprightness and faith and not in the deserts and mountains. He should not wear wool and hair nor afflict his body. On the contrary, the Torah explicitly warned us regarding the Nazirite. (Rambam, Eight Chapters (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt)
  4. Rabbi Isaac said: Are not the things prohibited in the Torah enough for you that you want to prohibit yourself other things? A vow of abstinence is like an iron collar, such as is worn by prisoners, around a man's neck. Someone who imposes on himself such a vow is like a man who meets a detachment of soldiers with such a collar and puts his own head into it. Or he is like a manwho drives a sword through his body. (Talmud Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:1)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah does not define “practice self-denial” (literally: afflict your souls/yourselves). The rabbis rule that it means fasting rather than any more extreme mortification of the flesh. Unlike some other religious traditions, Judaism by and large does not promote asceticism (although some of this can be found in the sources). Why do you think this is the case? What does it day about the nature of the world? About our physical appetites? Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

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