Author Archives: Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Rabbi Avraham Fischer

About Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.

Remember Your Rock, Your Creator

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

The panoramic poetry of Ha’azinu embraces all of the Jewish past, present and future. Israel is warned that sin will be punished through the scourge of the other nations, but that Hashem will never completely abandon His Chosen People. Rather than referring to specific incidents, the poem’s use of the imperfect tense alludes to repeated events, thus making it supra-historic–beyond the limits of history.

The multiple layers of meaning in Ha’azinu invite a variety of interpretations. The following is one such example (Deuteronomy 32:18):

tzur y’lad’cha teshi, vatishkach e-l m’chol’lecha

Although the second part of the verse is the subject of some discussion by the commentaries, a straightforward translation is possible:

. . . and you forgot G-d Who produced you.

This speaks of how the Children of Israel, unmindful that they are indebted to Hashem for their very existence, forget Him and embrace any of the various "new gods" that each era generates. The imagery is reminiscent of a child who neglects his parent. Time and again, we have been guilty of this type of ingratitude.

It is the first part of the verse that we will analyze here. Typically, the poetry of the Tanach (Bible) is chiastic, meaning that the two parts of the verse say essentially the same idea in different words. A number of commentaries understand the first part of our verse this way, as we shall see. Still, it is possible that the first part of the verse contains a different idea.

tzur y’lad’cha:

tzur, usually understood as "rock," is often identified with Hashem, the Rock of existence; it would then parallel e-l (G-d) in the second half of the verse.

The Sifrei (Tannaitic legal commentary) and Ibn-Ezra (12th century Spain), however, quote the verse from Isaiah 51:1, "look to the rock from which you were quarried," there, tzur refers to the Patriarchs. According to this interpretation, the people first ignore their noble origins, and this leads to forgetting Hashem.


Most commentaries, starting with Rashi and Ibn-Ezra, say that tav-shin-yud derives from the root word noon-shin-hei, which means "to forget" or "to release." Both the noon and the hei are weak letters grammatically and drop out, the hei in this case replaced by a yud. Ibn-Ezra gives other examples of this kind of substitution: tav is the prefix for the second person in the imperfect tense. The resultant word, t’shi, becomes teshi.

For examples of noon-shin-hei, we might compare Jeremiah 23:39 and Genesis 41:51, where Haketav V’hakabbalah (Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865), explains that this verb means "to loosen one’s focus on an idea," which is followed by forgetting (shin-chaf-chet, as in vatishkach). Thus, our verse charts a downward course, in which the people first allow themselves to be distracted from Hashem, and then they forget Him entirely.

Hirsch does not accept Ibn-Ezra’s grammatical analysis, especially because the loss of the noon should result in the addition of a dagesh (dot) in the shin. Thus, he posits a different root for teshi, shin-yud-hei, which he connects with shai, a gift of allegiance. Hirsch’s translation thus reads:

The Rock had hardly brought you into the world,

And you gave your allegiance–offering to others,

And forgot G-d while He is still forming you.

Haketav V’hakabbalah cites R. Wolf Heidenheim (1757-1832), who agrees that the root here is shin-yud-hei. Unlike Hirsch however, he classifies this root with others in which the shin is dominant, surrounded by other weak letters (such as noon, yud and hei). The prevalent idea in all of these is "to relinquish," so the reading of the first part of the verse is parallel to the second:

The Rock Who bore you, you ignored/ and you forgot G-d Who produced you.

A radically different approach, found in the Midrash (Sifrei, Bamidbar Rabbah) and quoted by Rashi, is to regard the tav of teshi as part of the root, rather than the prefix for the second person in the imperfect tense. The word would thus be based on tav-shin-shin (a word which does not otherwise appear in Tanach), meaning "to weaken." Two possible interpretations, which do not view the verse as structured chiastically, follow:

1. Torah Temimah (Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein 1860-1942) understands teshi as a noun. He reads the verse:

The Rock bore you, weak one; but you forgot G-d Who produced you.

2. Rashi, quoting the midrashim above, explains that the Children of Israel weakened the power of Hashem by forgetting Him: whenever Hashem begins to benefit them, they anger Him through their infidelities, "weakening" His power. The Sifrei cites two examples of Israel’s fickleness: After the splitting of the Sea, the people sang praise and thanks to Him, but soon thereafter they complained, "Why have you taken us out of Egypt?" (Exodus 17:3); and, at Sinai, the people pledged their complete loyalty to Hashem, yet forty days later they built the golden calf.

The most difficult aspect of this last interpretation is the notion that the people can weaken the power of Hashem. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, known as the Maharal of Prague (c. 1525-1609), in his commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh, notes that it is not Hashem Himself Who is weakened, G-d forbid, since that is impossible; rather, the effect of His power is weakened by their sins. Although Hashem desires to give, if those meant to receive are unfit, then His power–meaning His manifestation in the physical world–is not realized. This, concludes the Maharal, is a very marvelous notion.

And so it is. If by not being suited to receive Hashem’s goodness, we are able to diminish the degree to which He is apparent in the world, then the converse must also be true. When we obey Him, He bestows of His bounty, and we become His partners in perfecting the universe.

Moses’s Approach Towards Death

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Moses teaches Israel about the centrality of repentance (Ch. 30), and then he prepares for his final message to his people:

(1) And Moses went (vayelekh) and he spoke these words to all of Israel. (2) And he said to them, "One hundred twenty years old am I today; I am not able (lo ukhal) any longer to go out and to come in, and Hashem has said to me, ‘You will not cross this Jordan.’ (3) Hashem your G-d, He is the One Who passes before you; He will destroy these nations before you and you will possess them; Joshua, he is the one who passes before you, as Hashem has spoken. (4) And Hashem will do to them as He did to Sichon and to Og, the kings of the Emorites, and to their land, which He destroyed. (5) And Hashem gave them before you, and you shall do to them according to all the commandment that I commanded you. (6) Be strong and courageous; do not fear nor panic before them, because Hashem, your G-d, He is the One Who goes with you; He will not fail you nor forsake you."

(7) And Moses called for Joshua and said to him before the eyes of all Israel, "Be strong and courageous, because you will come with this nation, to the land that Hashem has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you will cause them to possess it. (8) And Hashem, He is the One Who goes before you; He will be with you; He will not fail you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed" (Deuteronomy 31).

This passage, especially the first two verses, raises a number of questions:

And Moses went (vayelekh): From where, and to where, and for what purpose, does Moses go?

And he spoke these words to all of Israel: To which words does this refer–the preceding ones or those that follow?

Let us see how different commentaries address these questions.

Moses’s going as an expression of his relationship to his people

Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that, in Nitzavim (as the name of that portion suggests) all of the people were "standing," assembled before Hashem. Afterwards, they returned to their tents. Now, Moses went from the Levite camp to the Israelite camp in order to honor them, like one who wishes to take his leave from his friend and goes to receive permission from him. In preparing to die, Moses shows them respect.

Ibn-Ezra (12th-century Spain), on the other hand, sees Moses’s going as a form of kindness to the people:

He went to each tribe to inform them that he is dying and that they should not be afraid, and he encouraged them with the words spoken to Joshua [verses 7-8].

Moses’s going as an indication of a change in his status

Chizkuni (Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th century) notes that Moses goes to the people, instead of assembling them by sounding the trumpets (Numbers 10:1-10). This is because (Midrash Tanchuma Beha’alotecha 10), as Moses was about to die Hashem took the trumpets, which symbolized Moses’s role as ruler, and concealed them, since "there is no dominion on the day of death" (Ecclesiastes 8:8). Moses’s "going" indicates his loss of dominion.

The Targum (translation of the Torah into Aramaic), ascribed to Yonatan ben Uziel, interpolates:

And Moses went to the Tabernacle bet Midrash. Moses goes to the House of Study to transfer his authority to Joshua.

Moses’s going as a method of instruction

Sforno (Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) does not translate vayelekh as and he went/walked, but as "he bestirred himself, took the initiative," as in:

And there went a man from the house of Levi (Exodus 2:1).
And he went and worshipped (Deuteronomy 17:3).

Moses roused himself to comfort his people in the face of his imminent death, so they would accept the covenant he had just taught them in joy.

Finally, Keli Yakar (Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) offers two explanations for Moses’s going, one to indicate a change in Moses, and one to bring about a change in the people:

1) Vayelekh means "and he walked about," without reference to his point of departure or destination. Since lo uchal (verse 2) could mean either "I am not able" or "I am not permitted," Moses needs to make it clear that it is not that Moses is physically unable; at the time of his death "his eye was not dimmed nor was his freshness departed" (Deuteronomy 34:7). Rather, he is not permitted to lead; leadership has been transmitted to Joshua. Therefore, he walked about vigorously, showing them that he is still as capable as ever, despite his age of 120.

Actually, this idea is reflected in Rashi: I am not able any longer to go out and to come in matters of halakha (Jewish law), for the sources of wisdom have been closed to him. Moses walks about to demonstrate his loss of authority and Divine inspiration.

2) Vayelekh means "and he approached." Furthermore, "and he spoke these words to all of Israel" refers to the previous passage about the importance and accessibility of repentance (Ch. 30); "words" often alludes to repentance, as in the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy and "Take with you words and return to Hashem" (Hoshea 14:3). Before his death, Moses wishes to motivate the people to repentance. However, since most people do not recognize their own faults, he needs to approach them to inspire repentance.

Keli Yakar sees Moses’s assertiveness as influenced by a desire for peace; he develops his thesis that we are obligated to pursue peace actively (Vayikra Rabba 9:9), because peace benefits all parties concerned, and, ultimately, our collective connection to Hashem.

On the threshold of a new chapter in Israel’s history on the threshold of a new year Moses goes ahead, teaching Israel how to face the future.

Empowering Fear

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

In preparing the Children of Israel for the conquest of the land of Canaan, Moshe anticipates the people’s trepidation, and he promises Hashem’s ongoing support:

Perhaps you might say in your heart, "These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?" You shall not be afraid (lo tira) of them. You shall surely remember that which Hashem, your God, did to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt: The great tests which your eyes saw, and the signs and the wonders, and the strong hand, and the outstretched arm whereby Hashem, your God, brought you out–so will Hashem, your God, do to all the nations before whom you are afraid (yarei). Furthermore, Hashem, your God, will release the hornet against them, until the destruction of those who are left and those who hide themselves before you. You shall not be intimidated/frightened (lo ta’arotz) before them, because (ki) Hashem, your God, is in your midst, a God Who is mighty and feared (nora) (Devarim 7:17-21).

Moshe is trying to assure the people that they have no reason to fear the inhabitants of the land in the upcoming wars, because Hashem will defend them just as He did in Egypt. So, why is He described as "a God Who is mighty and feared?" Would it not have been more comforting to hear that Hashem is caring and protective?

Haketav V’hakabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Meklenburg, 1785-1865), quoting Rabbi Yehudah Leib Margaliot (1747-1811), head of the bet din (rabbinic court) in his birthplace Lesslau, explains that fear of Hashem is different from any other feeling we have towards Him. For example, one may fully honor, love and be grateful to other people, with no diminution of the honor, love and gratitude that are due to Hashem. This is not, however, the case when it comes to fear of Hashem, which is lessened by the fear of others, as we shall elucidate. 

(Of course, the Torah teaches us to revere our parents and our teachers, and it uses the same word, yir’ah, for both. However, these are forms of reverence that are commanded precisely because they develop one’s fear of Heaven; they certainly do not compete with it.)

The idea of the preeminence of the fear of Hashem is demonstrated in the exchange cited in the Talmud (Berachot 28b) between Rabbi Yochanan ben-Zakkai and his students while the sage lay on his deathbed. The students asked their teacher to bless them, and his blessing was: "May it be His will, that your fear of Heaven be as much as your fear of flesh-and-blood." And when his students asked, "No more than that?" he replied, "Would that it were as much as that! For you know that when a person is about to sin, he first thinks, ‘I hope no person sees me.’ One’s awe of Hashem must supersede all else."

What does it truly mean to "fear" Hashem? It denotes being aware constantly of His greatness, and of the fact that nothing escapes His sight. It means that our awe and fear of Hashem should supersede all other apprehension and nothing else–neither embarrassment nor power, neither pain nor death–should frighten us. Thus, the fear of anyone or anything other than Hashem detracts from the fear one ought to have for the Almighty.

Actually, the essence of this observation of Haketav V’hakabbalah is to be found in the brief comment of the Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) on the words, "You shall not be intimidated/frightened before them:"

Be frightened only of Hashem, Who is "a God Who is mighty and feared."  Only the fear of the Almighty is a fear to be cultivated.

Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush, 19th century) develops this idea still further. First, it is important to note the different words for fear used in this passage: y-r-a and ‘a-r-tz. Earlier in Devarim (1:29), Malbim differentiates between these two terms. He states that: y-r-a is fear that focuses on the other’s power; while ‘a-r-tz is fear generated by a feeling of one’s own weakness and inadequacy.

We can apply this distinction to our passage, as well. At first, the people might be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the nations, which would result in yir’ah. But, they are told, do not be awestruck by their prowess: Perhaps you might say in your heart, "These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?" You shall not be afraid (lo tira) of them. 

After all, Egypt’s superior numbers and might were no match for Hashem. In the same manner, "so, will Hashem, your God, do to all the nations before whom you are afraid" (yarei). When you call this to mind, not only will you not be terrified by them (y-r-a); you will not even feel inferior to them: You shall not be intimidated/frightened (lo ta’arotz) before them.

Finally, it would seem that Malbim has a different understanding of the word ki in verse 21, translating it as "when" instead of "because": You will not be intimidated/ frightened before them,–ki–when [you realize that] Hashem, your God, [Who] is in your midst, [is] a God Who is mighty and feared.

Your fear of Hashem will enable you to overcome your fear of them. By way of analogy, Malbim explains that if a person is pursued by a lion, he is not concerned about a bee that might sting him! A great and powerful fear extinguishes a lesser fear. Similarly, Moshe instructs the Children of Israel to immerse themselves in the fear of Hashem so that that fear will overpower their apprehension and anxiety vis-a-vis the nations.

Moshe’s message to the People of Israel, therefore, is actually the greatest comfort: Your awe of Hashem will elevate you above mundane concerns. It will ennoble and empower you.

Punishments, Land, And People

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Moses spoke with frightening detail regarding the destruction that will befall the people of Israel if they are disloyal to Hashem. Siege, famine, poverty, war, exile, desolation–all these are part of the covenant between the people and Hashem.

Then, Moses provides us with a glimpse of the future, after the destruction:

(21) And it will say–the later generation, your children who will arise after you, and the stranger who will come from a distant land–and they will see the plagues of that land and its afflictions with which Hashem afflicted it: (22) "Sulfur and salt, the entire land burnt, not to be sown, nor to sprout, nor for any vegetation to come up on it–like the overthrow of Sodom, Amorah, Admah and Tzevoyim which Hashem overthrew in His anger and His wrath." (23) And all the nations will say: "For what did Hashem do so to this land? What is the heat of this great anger?" (24) And they will say: "Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their fathers, which He made with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt, (25) and they went and served other gods and prostrated themselves to them–gods that they had not known, and which had not benefited them. (26) And the wrath of Hashem burned against that land, bringing upon it all the curse that is written in this Book. (27) And Hashem uprooted them from their soil, with anger, with wrath and with great fury, and He cast them away to another land, as at this day." (28) The hidden matters are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed matters are for us and for our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 29).

Moses hopes, through this graphic depiction of what may happen, to jolt the people from their false sense of security, and to both warn and motivate them to prevent this scene from becoming a reality.

As harsh as this description may be, it is somewhat comforting to know that there will be a future generation to contemplate its effects and learn from it. Still, there are elements of this passage that are hard to understand. Let us examine this passage as explained by Malbim (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879).

To begin with, verse 21 raises a number of questions:

Who will say, and to whom?  What will be said?  Would it not have been more reasonable for the phrase "and they will see the plagues of that land" to come before "And it will say," since the words are a comment on what is seen?

Therefore, Malbim says that this verse is a summary of a future encounter:

(21) And it–the later generation, your children who will arise after you–will say [and remark on the awful, but familiar, condition of the land], and the stranger who [as a result] will come from a distant land [will respond]; and they [the stranger] will see the plagues of that land and its afflictions with which Hashem afflicted it: (22) Sulfur and salt, the entire land burnt, not to be sown, nor to sprout, nor for any vegetation to come up on it–like the overthrow of Sodom, Amorah, Admah and Tzevoyim which Hashem overthrew in His anger and His wrath.

Clearly, this could not have been the original state of the land; this must have been the result of Divine intervention, punishment for the sins of the people of Israel.

In verses 23-27, the nations will ask, why did the land suffer for the sins of the people, and why was it so severely treated? The generation will counter that, while it is true that their forebears "forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their fathers," He had "made (it) with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt," long before their connection to the land. The future generation will share the stranger’s amazement that the land is made to bear the punishment of the people. At first, Hashem turned His wrath against the land, and then, after exiling the people, He increased His punishments.

The Importance of God

However, despite all this, the people will retain their importance to Hashem. They will not have been absorbed into their exile. Although the exile will have occurred many generations before, they will appear "as at this day," as if the exile had just transpired. 

Still, says Moses, there will be no answer to the essential question: Why will the land have endured these afflictions? Therefore, Moses provides this answer in advance, which the future generation will say to the nations: The full understanding of the exile will remain unrevealed, known only by Hashem.

Revelation & Exile

On the other hand, "the revealed matters"–namely, the Torah and the commandments–remain, even in exile, "for us and for our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah" to preserve us. Finally, when we will repent, the land will be healed of its afflictions. The land will not respond to anyone else, and will wait, like a woman whose beloved husband has traveled far away, for our return.

Malbim explains that this passage is a crucial postscript to the previous chapter of admonishments. The people might have thought that, once those horrendous and terrifying punishments will have been executed in full measure, the covenant with Hashem would have come to an end. On the contrary, Moses teaches, Providence will make the land absorb the brunt of Hashem’s wrath, while the people will retain their distinctiveness in exile, so the covenant will still be in effect. 

If while in Galut (exile) the Jewish people repent and are faithful to the Torah then Hashem will remain with them in exile. They will yearn to return to the land, where all the commandments can be fulfilled. They will then be able to return to the land, and to Him, in love.

Compassionate Conquest

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

In Moshe‘s final days he is commanded to attack the Midianites. This was the nation that had tempted the people of Israel to horrible sins of immorality and idolatry, such that Hashem struck them with a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites.

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Carry out the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you shall be gathered to your people.”

And Moshe spoke to the people, saying, “Detach men for the army from you, and they shall be against Midian to bring Hashem’s vengeance against Midian. A thousand from each tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the army.”

Then, out of the thousands of Israel, 1,000 from each tribe were handed over, 12,000 men deployed for the army. And Moshe sent them forth, 1,000 from each tribe to the army, they and Pinhas the son of Elazar the priest to the army, and the holy vessels and the trumpets for blowing in his hand. And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe and they killed every male (B’midbar 31:1-7).

This war is both “the vengeance of the Children of Israel” and “Hashem’s vengeance.” Clearly, Midian is to be punished for leading Israel to sin against Hashem, and for arousing Hashem’s anger against His beloved people of Israel.

This order to Moshe had been mentioned earlier:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Oppose the Midianites and attack them, for they opposed you with their wiles with which they beguiled you in the matter of Pe’or and in the matter of Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague on account of Pe’or (B’midbar 25:16-17).

However, specific instructions for the war are now given:

And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe (31:7).

What were these directives of war? Rambam, in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars (6:7), says that Moshe was taught a law for all wars:

When they besiege a city to capture it they must not surround it from all four sides, but from three sides, and they must leave a place for a deserter or anyone who wishes to save his life, as it says: “And they warred against Midian as Hashem had commanded Moshe.” Through the oral tradition the [Sages] learned that it was in this [matter] that He commanded him.

Rambam’s source for this law is the Sifre (the Halakhic (legal) Midrash on Bamidbar and Devarim) Matot 157 (see also Yalkut Shimoni).

It is interesting to note that Rambam does not count this law as a separate mitzvah (commandment) in his Book of the Commandments.

Ramban (Nahmanides), however, does list this as a mitzvah (Commentary on Rambam’s Book of the Commandments, Commandments Which the Master Forgot, Positive Commandment # 5):

We are commanded that when we besiege a city we are to leave one of the sides without siege, so that if they wish to escape there will be a way for them to flee, because from this will [we] learn to behave with compassion even towards our enemies in a time of war. There is another benefit, that we will open an opening for them so that they will flee rather than strengthen themselves against us.

Meshech Chochmah (R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926), in his comments on our verse, explains their argument: Ramban understands that the main motivation for this mitzvah is “because from this will [we] learn to behave with compassion even towards our enemies in a time of war.”

This is to say that, just as we are commanded to offer peace to our enemies (as we find in Positive Commandment #190 and in the Laws of Kings and Their Wars 6:1-5), so are we commanded to spare them and leave them a way of escape. Thus, the Torah formulates another commandment in the spirit of compassion.

Rambam, on the other hand, regards this law as a military tactic: If the enemy is completely surrounded, they will be driven to fight to the last man rather than fall into captivity, and their very desperation might lead them to prevail, in the words of R. Meir Simcha, “As it is known throughout history, that oftentimes from great despair there comes great triumph.” However, if the enemy sees a chance to escape, he will not risk his life, and Israel will have a better chance of a rapid (and, it should be added, less bloody) victory. Thus the Torah, while obligating this type of tactic, does not formulate it as a separate commandment.

Meshech Chochmah also cites the following verse from Kings II (15:16):

Then Menachem from Tirtzah attacked Tifsach and all that were in it and all its borders because he did not open, and he attacked; he split open all its pregnant women.

Although he does not explain the connection, he seems to be following not Rashi, but the commentary of Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877), that wicked King Menachem disobeyed the law that requires Israel to leave open one side of a city under attack. Meshech Chochmah might also imply that it was this “total warfare” that led the inhabitants of Tifsach (a city on the Euphrates that had once been the frontier of King Shlomo‘s kingdom; see Kings I 5:4) to fight ceaselessly until only the barbarous mutilation of their pregnant women brought an end to the battle.

The war against Midian teaches that there is no forgiveness for those enemies of Israel who drive a wedge between them and their Father in Heaven. It also teaches Israel not to glory in war, but to prefer peace. And when Israel must fight, it must pursue a course of war that will lead to the fewest casualties on both sides.

War, however just, challenges us to affirm our commitment to the values of Torah.

And Your Camp(s) Shall Be Holy

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Shortly, the people of Israel will begin its national life, including the conquest and settlement of the land. And when Israel goes to war, Moses teaches, the Torah continues to maintain its concern for sanctity:

(10) When you go out as a camp (mahaneh) against your enemies, you shall be on guard against any bad thing. (11) If there will be among you a man who will not be pure because of an incident of the night, he shall go forth outside of the camp (la’mahaneh); he shall not come inside the camp (ha’mahaneh). (12) And it shall be towards evening, he shall wash in water, and when the sun has set he may come into the camp (ha’mahaneh). (13) And a designated place shall you have for yourself outside of the camp (la’mahaneh), and you shall go there outside. (14) And a spade shall you have for you with your implements; and it shall be when you sit outside, you shall dig with it, and you shall turn back and cover your discharge. (15) For Hashem, your G-d, walks in the midst of your camp (mahanecha), to save you and to deliver your enemies before you; and your camp(s) shall be (v’haya mahaneycha) holy; and He will not see in you any indecent thing, such that He will turn from behind you (Deuteronomy 23).

Aside from the fact that the word mahaneh, camp is mentioned a significant seven times, this passage describes appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the military camp. However, it also sheds light on the general life of the society.

One who becomes impure (tamei) through emission is required to remain outside the precincts of the Tabernacle (or, in later history, the Temple); this is the camp spoken of in verses 11-12. Then, in verses 13-14, the focus is on cleanliness and maintaining the proper atmosphere in the military camp. Rambam, (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 6:14, 15), explains these laws as follows:

It is forbidden to relieve oneself within the camp or in the field in any place. Rather there is a positive commandment to establish there a special path to relieve oneself there, as it says, "And a designated place shall you have for yourself outside of the camp."

Likewise, there is a positive commandment for each one to have a spade suspended with his weapons. And he goes out along that path and he digs with it and turns and covers, as it is said, "And a spade shall you have for you with your implements…" And whether the ark is with them and whether there is no ark with them, so do they do always, as it is said, "and your camp(s) shall be holy."

Ramban (Nahmanides) explains why we must be especially concerned with exercising self-control, and preventing coarseness and brutality during war:

It is known from the behavior of camps that go out to war that they eat every abomination, they rob and loot, and they are not ashamed even of adultery and every crime. The most naturally upright of men clothes himself in cruelty and rage against the enemy, and therefore the Scripture warns "you shall be on guard against any bad thing."

In general, we are enjoined to do nothing that will drive the Shekhinah (divine presence) from our camp, for we need to turn to Hashem to lead us to victory, rather than rely on our own military strength. Therefore, says the Sifri (legal midrash on Numbers and Deuteronomy, 254), the introductory verse "you shall be on guard against any bad thing" extends this reminder to include all those observances that keep the Divine Presence in our midst, whether in war or in peace: Kashrut, morality and decency, and avoiding such sins as idolatry, wanton killing, blasphemy and gossip.

Mesheh Hokhmah (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926) adds that gossip is especially damaging in time of war, for divulging secret intelligence can cost many lives.

By the time we reach verse 15, the two connotations of mahaneh seem to blend together. Thus, the Talmud (Berakhot 25a) can derive from "and your camp(s) shall be holy" that any place of prayer must be clean and inoffensive both to sight and smell.

Ramban explains the connection:

For the entire camp is like the sanctuary of Hashem, and from it we extrapolate to the place of prayer. . . . It is forbidden to see [excrement] at the time of prayer and when the heart cleaves to Hashem, since repulsive things will produce disgrace in the soul and will disturb the intention of the pure heart, but when it disappears from the seeing eye there is no evil.

The fusing of the camps is reflected in the unusual spelling in the words "and your camp(s) shall be (v’haya mahaneycha) holy:" The verb is singular, however the spelling of the noun suggests plural. Nevertheless, Minhat Shai (Yedidya Shlomo Raphael b. Avraham of Norzi, 17th century) insists that this word is to be understood as singular, despite its plural spelling.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments that all of Israel’s many "camps" are to be one:

What is said here primarily for military camps is, of course, meant to apply to any "camp," to any sphere in which we may temporarily or permanently settle. All are to bear the stamp of a pure moral way of living. All the places where we live, not just our synagogues and schools, are not to lack consecration by thoughts of the mission of our life.

The battlefield is not the place to be divested of Torah values, rather it is actually their proving-ground. When the purity of all our camps is ensured by these values, then we are a unified nation.

Wary Of War

Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Judges and the judiciary system, the king, the kohanim (priests), and the prophet–each contributes to the nation, each interacts with the other, so that the Children of Israel can function as the nation of the Torah.

When the Children of Israel goes to war, all segments of the realm are involved, both on the military and the spiritual level. Before the battle, the kohen (priest) who has been anointed for war (mashuach milchamah) addresses the troops:

(1) When you go out to battle against your enemy and see horses and chariots, a people more numerous than you, do not be afraid of them, for Hashem, your G-d is with you, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt. (2) And it shall be, when you come near unto (k’karov’chem el) the battle, that the priest shall approach and speak to the people. (3) And he shall say to them: "Hear, O Israel, you are coming near to (kreivim . . . l’) the battle today against your enemies, let not your hearts falter, fear not, do not panic nor become terrified before them. (4) For Hashem, your G-d, is He Who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you" (Deuteronomy 20:1-4).

In the verses that follow (5-8), the mashuach milchamah instructs those who had "unfinished business" back home which might distract them from fighting whole-heartedly to return and provide service from behind the fighting lines.

Thus, one who had either: acquired a new house but had not yet occupied it; acquired a vineyard but had not yet eaten of its produce; betrothed a wife but had not yet married her; or one who was, despite the mashuach milchamah’s words of motivation, fearful and fainthearted, would bring supplies, water and food, and repair the roads.

The Sifrei (legal midrash on Numbers and Deuteronomy from the tannaitic period) and the Talmud (Sotah 42a-b) insist that the mashuach milchamah addressed the troops twice. The source for this law is the repetition of the word k-r-v, "coming near," in verses 2 and 3: since the text refers to "coming near" twice, it connotes that the mashuach milchamah spoke to them twice, once at the border before leaving the land of Israel, and once before preparing for battle.

According to Rashi‘s reading of the Talmud and the Sifrei, the command delineated in verses 5-8 (house-builders, etc.) was uttered at the border, while verses 3-4 were said immediately before the battle.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, (1808-1888), explains this change in the order of the verses as follows: In verse 1, Moshe reminds the people, in a general sense, that Hashem will always protect them, just as He did in Egypt, so they must not fear in time of war; and therefore, before each battle, the mashuach milchamah will reassure them (verses 3-4). However, this reassurance will be preceded by the command to the house-builders and the others to return home (verses 5-8). Hirsch adds:

When the leaders of the Jewish State decide they have to go to war they must be conscious beforehand of the support of G-d in taking that serious step, and not make the main issue the size of their army . . .

The Rambam understands the Talmud differently because, as the Ohr Sameach (R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926) writes, Rambam relies not on the Sifrei, but on the Tosefta Sotah 7:10 (tannaitic material). According to the Rambam’s reading and ruling (Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 7:2), the mashuach milchamah repeats the same address (verses 3-8) on both occasions, once at the border and once before the battle.

Rabbi Zvi Magence (1914-1989), in Magen Zvi, Sefer Kedushat Ha’aretz, reminds us that the primary reason for turning these people back is so that their own fear of dying will not affect the others. Therefore, he suggests, since some people did not feel afraid when they first left Israel but then realize they are when they approach the battle, they are given a second opportunity to return.

But, the fundamental question remains: On what basis do all our sources insist that the mashuach milchamah addresses the troops twice? The repeating of the verb k-r-v alone is insufficient an explanation, since verse 2 is an introduction and verses 3 and 4 are a quote, so the verb is mentioned in two different, and thus justifiable, ways.

Malbim (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877) proposes a novel solution to the problem. He notes that there is a difference between when the verb k-r-v (come near) is used with the preposition word el or the prefix preposition l’. Although both mean "to," they are not used in the same way:

K-r-v el is used with nouns, for example, “and all those who come near to the table of King Solomon” (I Kings 5:7);

K-r-v l’ is used with verbs, for example, “and then shall he come near to do it” (Exodus 12:48).

In our passage, however, we have both prepositions. In verse 2, which reads:

When you come near unto (k’karov’chem el) the battle, Malbim understands "battle" as a noun, meaning the place of battle. Consequently, this refers to the address made to the troops when they are about to leave the land of Israel, crossing the border to enter the place where the war will occur. On the other hand, in verse 3 where the mashuach milchamah says:

Hear, O Israel, you are coming near to (kreivim . . . l’) the battle,

Malbim understands "battle" in a verbal sense, meaning to wage war. Thus, this is a second address delivered as the troops are about to enter the battle.

War from a distance looks very different from war when it is near at hand.

Facing Long-Standing Foes

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

Imperceptibly, the Torah has skimmed over nearly 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The generation of the Exodus has expired, and the generation of the wilderness has taken its place. Two beloved leaders of the Exodus generation–Miriam and Aharon–were taken from them. A new reality crystallizes: this will be the generation that will conquer and settle the Land of Israel, and will establish a society based upon the Torah.

The wilderness generation will fight many wars. Their parents had fought only once against Amalek in Refidim (Exodus 17:8-16). And when they themselves are faced with the threat of war against Edom, they are constrained to withdraw:

And Edom refused to allow Israel to cross his border, and Israel turned away from him (Numbers 20:21).

But now, on the edge of the land of Edom, the new generation of the Children of Israel are about to encounter their first war:

And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev/South, heard that Israel was coming by the way of the Atarim, and he attacked Israel, and he took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, and said: "If You will surely deliver this people into my hand, then I will consecrate their cities" (root ch-r-m). And Hashem listened to the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite, and he (Israel) consecrated them and their cities (root ch-r-m). And he (Israel) called the name of the place Chormah (Numbers 21:1-3).

This incident echoes earlier events. "The way of the Atarim," according to the Targumim (Aramaic translations), Rashi, Ibn-Ezra (12th century Spain), and others, is the way of the tarim, referring to the scouts of Chapter 13 above.  The report reaches "the Canaanite, the king of Arad" that the Children of Israel are approaching their Promised Land, intending to follow the same route used by their scouts a generation earlier. Certainly, the inhabitants of the land would remember this, and, fearing an invasion, they launch a preemptive strike. 

As to the identity of "the Canaanite, the king of Arad," Rashi notes a problem: Canaan is a descendant of Cham (Genesis 10:6), but from the report of the scouts (Numbers 13:29) we know that those "who dwelt in the Negev/South" refers to Amalek, a descendant of Esav/Edom (Genesis 36:12)! In addition, the expression used here, "and he attacked (vayilachem b’) Israel," is reminiscent of the earlier battle against Amalek:

And Amalek came, and he attacked (vayilachem im) Israel at Refidim (Exodus 17:8).

Therefore, Rashi, quoting a number of midrashic sources, explains that the nation "who dwelt in the Negev/South" was indeed Amalek. However, they disguised themselves by adopting the language of Canaan, expecting to be immune to Israel’s prayers when they would ask Hashem to deliver them from the "Canaanites." Israel saw their attackers dressed as Amalekites but speaking Canaanite, so they outwitted them by praying that Hashem "deliver this people into my hand" without specifying which nation.

How are we to understand this midrash? How do the Children of Israel meet the challenge of their recurring encounter with Amalek? A close examination of Rashi’s original source (Yalkut Shimoni 764) reveals profound insights into what becomes Israel’s first battle for Eretz Yisrael (land of Israel). 

Israel was forbidden to provoke the descendants of Esau/Edom: Do not provoke them, for I will not give you of their land . . . (Deuteronomy 2:5), but when Amalek attacked again and again, Hashem declared that Israel treat them like other nations of the land:

But you shall utterly destroy (ha-charem ta-charimem) them (Deuteronomy 20:17).

The root word ch-r-m in this pasuk (verse) refers to killing all the inhabitants. In the incident of "the Canaanite," ch-r-m means "consecrating;" the Children of Israel vow to consecrate the material items to Hashem, rather than take the spoils of war for themselves.

[Since Rashi states that "the Canaanite" is really Amalek, one might raise the point that nothing should have been spared, in order to fulfill the command to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek" (Deuteronomy 25:19; Samuel I 15:2-3). However, as the Rambam teaches ("Laws of Kings and Their Wars" 1:1,2), this command will not take effect until after the conquest and secure settlement of the land and the appointment of a king.]

The development of Israel has been demonically paralleled by the growing sophistication of Amalek’s strategies. At Refidim, Amalek and Israel engaged each other in battle (vayilachem im); now, Amalek is able to enter into the Israelite camp and attack them (vayilachem b‘); (see Malbim on Joshua 10:29). Before, they attacked without planning, but now Amalek plans its attack.

Amalek/Esav knows full well where his strength lies, and where Israel/Yaakov‘s strength lies: The voice is the voice of Yaakov, and the hands are the hands of Esav (Genesis: 27:22). This time, Amalek wants to forestall Israel’s verbal power. If Amalek, grandson of Esav, desires to use his power, which is in his hands, against the descendants of Yaakov, whose power is in their voice, then he must use his voice, and disguise his language. 

But Amalek, who is all surface and no substance, is incapable of altering his outward appearance, whereas Israel defeats him by combining prayer and vowing with military might: 

And Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, and said: If You will surely deliver this people into my hand, then I will consecrate their cities. And Hashem listened to the voice of Israel, and He delivered the Canaanite.

Israel is thus able to overcome Amalek/Esav in Esav’s area of strength. 

Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) says that this incident was designed by Hashem to prepare the Children of Israel for the wars of conquest of Eretz Yisrael, and teach them the natural means of battle. Consequently, they learn that, even in the realm of war, the realm of "the hands of Esav," Israel can prevail when they appeal to Hashem using "the voice of Yaakov."

Sticks And Stoned

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

After the tragic incident of the scouts (Meraglim), as a consequence of which the generation of the Exodus is sentenced to live out the rest of its existence in the wilderness, we learn of the Mekoshesh, the one who collected wood on the Shabbat day:

"And the Children of Israel were in the desert, and they found a man who collected wood on the Shabbat day. And those who found him collecting wood bought him [close] to Moshe and to Aharon and to all the congregation. And they placed him in the jail, because it was not explained what should be done to him" (Numbers 15:32-34).

Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Sanhedrin 41a), says that the Mekoshesh was warned by witnesses, yet he ignored them and continued collecting wood. Although it was known that a Shabbat desecrator is sentenced to death, thus far the manner of execution had not been taught. Hashem instructs them to stone him, and the sentence is carried out.

Many details of this incident are shrouded in mystery:

When did this occur? Rashi, based on the Sifri, says that it was during the second Shabbat in the wilderness. Ramban (Nachmanides) claims, according to the simple meaning of the text, it happened after the incident of the scouts.

Who was the Mekoshesh? Rabbi Akiva identifies him as Tzelofechad (Rashi, B’midbar 27:3). Rabbi Yehudah ben Betera insists that we are not meant to know who he is.

What was his sin? The Talmud (Shabbat 96b) quotes a three-way dispute regarding the precise melakha (category of work) that he violated: 1) plucking, which is a sub-category of harvesting; 2) heaping, a sub-category of making sheaves; 3) carrying four-cubits’ distance in a public domain.

What were his intentions? A straightforward reading suggests that his wood-collecting was an act of rebellion against Shabbat. But some midrashim (including the Targum Yonatan) insist that the Mekoshesh acted l’shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven), in noble self-sacrifice, to show the Jewish people that the Shabbat must be observed.

The Limits Of Power And Conquest

The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

The journey to the land of Canaan has been long and arduous. But, at long last, the conquest of the land is underway. Now, at the end of the journeys there are five utterances, which Hashem directs to Moshe, instructing the Children of Israel how to take possession of their land:

33:50-56–to dispossess all the inhabitants of the land and destroy all idolatry.

34:1-15–the boundaries of the land are described.

34:16-29–the tribal representatives who will help divide the land are listed.

35:1-8–the command to set aside cities for the tribe of Levi, who will not receive a regular portion in the land.

35:9-34–the cities of refuge for the unintentional murderer are designated, and the laws of murder and manslaughter are set forth.

Abrabanel (Don Yitzchak Abrabanel, 1437-1508) says that Moshe is thereby comforted: Although he will not lead the Children of Israel into the land, the conquest in its entirety is dependent upon the Divine utterances he will teach.

At first glance, it would seem that the cities of refuge are discussed here because six of the Levite cities were cities of refuge. Then, it is appropriate that the fuller discussion of the laws of murder and manslaughter follows. Still, the effect of concluding with these topics is unsettling.

Why end the tumultuous book of Bamidbar–indeed, why prepare for entry into the land–on this note? Of the many commandments that are particular to the land of Israel, why "sign off" with the cities of refuge? Are there not more uplifting commandments to be dealt with than bloodshed? And, are there not other commandments more specifically land-of-Israel-oriented than murder?

And, what is the relevance of the marriage of the daughters of Zelophehad, which concludes the book (Ch. 36)?

Regarding murder, the Torah says:

And you shall not pollute the land in which you are, because blood is that which pollutes the land; and the land will not be atoned for the blood that is spilled in it except by the blood of the one who spilled it. And you shall not defile the land in which you settle, in the midst of which I dwell, for I Hashem dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel (35:33-34).

As the Ramban (Nachmanides) explains, although these laws apply everywhere, they are even more severe in the land of Israel, because of the Divine Presence there. All human life must be cherished, because all human beings are created in the image of Hashem. Murder is deplorable in any society, and respect for human life must be the basis of any system of ethics. 

But, if innocent blood is spilled in the land of Israel, this desecrates the bond between Hashem and the land. Often, the Torah speaks of the land of Israel as an organic entity: it reacts by rejecting immorality in its most basic forms, such as sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:25-28), idolatry (Deuteronomy 11:16-17), and bloodshed, in our passage.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) sees a parallel between this passage and the commandments given to Noach after the Flood. Mankind’s emergence from the Ark was a precursor of the Children of Israel’s leaving the wilderness–Israel prepares to inhabit the promised land just as Noach and his descendants prepared to inhabit the earth. Humanity, from that point on, was permitted to use both vegetable and animal life as it saw fit, but they were cautioned against bloodshed:

One who spills the blood of man, by man shall his blood be spilled; because in the image of God did He make man (Genesis 9:6).

Similarly, before entry into their land, Israel is reminded that the basis of any society must be respect for life.

Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century) goes further. Bloodshed was prohibited to all humankind beginning with Adam (Sanhedrin 56b). However, once humans were given the power over animal life, they might believe they have dominion over all life–then it is a small step, psychologically, to allow suicide and murder. Therefore, Noach must be reminded that his control over life is limited.

We might apply the same idea to the conclusion of the book of Bamidbar. The Children of Israel are commanded to possess the land and prepare for warfare against the inhabitants and their idolatry:

And you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you, and you shall destroy all their symbols, and all their molten images shall you destroy, and all their high places shall you demolish. And you shall take possession of the land and then settle in it, for to you have I given the land to possess it (Numbers 33:52-53).

The Torah calls for all-out, uncompromising war to claim the promised land. But, this necessary and justified bloodshed can make a people callous towards the value of human life. Thus, the Torah must reiterate the laws of murder, demanding that even involuntary manslaughter be expiated.

In this context of sensitivity to others, we might further understand the closing sequence of Bamidbar dealing with the marriage of the daughters of Tzelofechad, and relates the last verse in the parsha to these laws:

These are the commandments and the statutes that Hashem commanded by the hand of Moshe to the Children of Israel in the plains of Moav by the Jordan before Jericho (36:13).

Because of the division of the land according to the tribes, intermarriage between the tribes in this generation is forbidden. Although necessary, the result is division among the Children of Israel. The Talmud (Taanit 30b) says that when this decree was repealed at the end of this generation, the day of reconciliation between the tribes, the 15th of Av, was proclaimed a holiday. Separation within Israel, no matter the circumstances, is a tragedy. 

When a people has known killing, they must be reminded of the value of human life. When they have known internal division, they must be reminded all the more.

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