Author Archives: Rabbi Howard Alpert

About Rabbi Howard Alpert

Rabbi Howard Alpert is the Executive Director of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.

Restoring Wealth And Dignity

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Parashat Re’eh, continues Moses‘ farewell speech to the Children of Israel. In it, Moses anticipates their entry into the Land of Israel and the covenantal relationship upon which their success in the Land depends. Moses discusses the implications of their covenant with God and pays special attention to the societal obligations that it imparts to them — and to us.

In that context we read (Deuteronomy, Chapter 15, Verses 7-8): “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and provide him that which is sufficient for all he is lacking.”

Your Bible Navigator

1. How do we measure the “lacking” for which we are obligated to provide?

2. What, if any, are the limits on our obligation?

3. Are there circumstances under which we can refuse to help?

4. Exactly what loss are we making up for?

5. What is the nature of the obligation of Tzedakah as understood by these passages?

Talmud, Tractate Ketuboth 67b

The rabbis taught: “That which is sufficient…”–You are commanded to provide a pauper with sustenance [i.e. his basic needs] but you are not commanded to make him wealthy.

“for all he is lacking”–Even if he is lacking a horse to ride upon and a servant to run before him, you must provide these for him. It is said that Hillel the Elder regularly took a horse and a servant for a pauper who was of aristocratic parentage. Once, when he could not find a servant [available] to run before the pauper, Hillel himself ran before him for three millin [a distance of about two miles].

The rabbis taught: If an orphan boy and an orphan girl come before the administrators of a charity fund to be supported, we first provide for the girl and then we provide for the boy. For it is common for a man to go begging from door to door but not for a woman [who would therefore be more embarrassed].

The rabbis taught: When an orphan boy comes for charity funds in order to get married, we rent a house for him, supply him with a bed and all the furnishings required for his use, and only then do we marry off a wife to him, for it says, “You must open your hand and provide him that which is sufficient for all he is lacking.”

Your Talmud Navigator

1. What is the difference between “providing for that which is lacking” (for which we are obligated), and “making him wealthy” (for which we are not obligated)?

2. In the anecdote regarding Hillel the Elder, what is the significance of the information that the pauper involved was of aristocratic parentage? Would it have made a difference had he been the son of paupers? Why?

3. Based on the last excerpt quoted from the Talmud, whose responsibility is it to ascertain “that which is lacking?” On what basis is that determination made?

4. What reason does the Talmud give for the requirement that the Fund administrators help the pauper girl before the pauper boy? How might the principle involved deepen our understanding of the rest of this Talmudic passage?

Maimonides, Laws of Gifts To the Poor

A pauper who owns a home and household utensils, even utensils of gold and silver, is not obliged to sell his home and utensils [in order to receive Tzedakah]. It is forbidden to pressure a pauper or to raise one’s voice at him because his heart will break. One who gives less than a Prutah (coin of little value) is not credited with having given anything. One who gives Tzedakah rudely loses all merit even if one gave one-thousand gold pieces.

Concluding Observations

One might conclude that “that which is lacking” is not to be measured in material terms at all. Sustaining a pauper is important as a means of restoring that which is really lacking: his (or her) dignity and sense of self-worth. Deprived of possessions, a person experiences a loss of dignity and a diminution of self; restored to them, his dignity is returned. As understood by Maimonides and by the rabbis of the Talmud, our parashah tells us to recognize the loss of dignity and sense of self that accompanies material depravation and commands us to act and to restore “that is lacking.” The Jewish society envisioned by the Torah is a society in which all its inhabitants are allowed lives of dignity and value and in which each member cares for the dignity of all others.

Zeal And Peace

The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

One of the more startling, and for many troubling, episodes of the Torah bridges last week’s reading of Parashat Balak with this week’s reading of Parashat Pinhas.

The stage is set at the end of Parashat Balak. The king of Midian, unable to destroy the Jews through sorcery, turns to debauchery to serve his nefarious ends. Young women of Midian are sent into the Israelite camp to seduce the Israelites in the name of the false god, Pe’or. As the plan succeeds and the Israelites succumb to temptation, God’s wrath is unfurled upon them in the form of a deadly plague.

B’midbar 25:6-10 picks up the story:

Biblical Text 1

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites were checked. Those who died of the plague numbered 24,000.

The Lord Spoke to Moses, saying, Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying his zealousness for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my zealousness. Say, therefore, I grant him my covenant of Shalom. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites."

Observations On Biblical Text 1

The Torah’s description of Pinhas’ action, of Moses’s inaction, and of God’s reaction raises some disturbing questions. Among them:

1. Does the Torah condone zealousness? Is even murder permitted when performed in the service of one’s personal sense of God’s will? Are there no limits to what the Torah believes can be done in the name of God?

2. Does Moses’ silence and God’s ‘Covenant of Shalom’ with Pinhas imply that zealousness and murder have no consequences? Is Pinhas the model for Jews through the ages to emulate?

These questions stem not only from the sensibilities of the late 20th century liberal. In truth, the story of Pinhas has evoked ambivalent feelings among Jewish sages throughout the ages, as the following texts attest.

Rabbinic Text 1: Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7

"The Elders of Israel sought to excommunicate Pinhas until the Holy Spirit hurried and said: "It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’"

[Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah explains: "Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinhas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine."]

Observation On Text 1

The Rabbis of the Talmud Yerushalmi (as explained by Rabbi Epstein) understand Pinhas’ act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of God. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinhas’ requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. God’s intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinhas as a uniquely righteous individual (can there be another who meets the commentary’s standard for selflessness?) and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when God no longer speaks.

Rabbinic Text 2: Midrash Shemos Rabbah 33:5

"Pinhas expounded, ‘A horse who goes to war risks his life for his master. How much more so should I risk my life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He!’ He began to ponder: ‘What shall I do? Alone I cannot prevail. Two can overpower one; can one overpower two?" While he was pondering, the epidemic raged among the Israelites.’"

Observation On Text 2

Like the first text, the Midrash Shemot Rabbah also assumes Pinhas’ righteousness. To do so, it denies zeal for God as a motive for his actions and sees only that he needed to act in order to end God’s plague. Only God may act zealously on his own behalf. Pinhas’ action was to save Israelite lives by appeasing God’s wrath, and in that regard he is criticized for acting too slowly.

Rabbinic Text 3: Talmud Bavli, Tractate Zevachim 101b

"Pinhas did not become a priest until he had made peace among the Tribes [i.e. between the Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasheh, and the rest of Israel."

Observation On Text 3

The Talmud Bavli is less certain of Pinhas then are texts 1 and 2. Were his actions warranted? Perhaps. But their results are those of "Ei-Shalom" (lack of Shalom) and their reward claimable only after Pinhas has compensated for the loss of Shalom that they wrought.

The theme set by the Bavli, that there is a price to be paid for acts of zealousness and that Shalom is the higher goal, is reflected by medieval and modern sources. As the following texts indicate, inner harmony and communal peace are perceived as both the ultimate objective and the highest blessing:

Rabbinic Text 4: Commentary Of The Netziv (Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin)

"In reward for turning away the wrath of the Holy One Blessed Be He, God blessed Pinhas with the attribute of Shalom, that he should not be quick tempered or angry. Since, as it was only natural that such a deed as Pinhas should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised inner peace and tranquility."

Observation On Text 4:

The Netziv focuses on the self-destructive nature of zealous violence. It as if the Netziv is warning that such acts can only lead one away from the path of Godliness, i.e. the path of Shalom. Perhaps informed by the Midrash Shemos Rabbah, the Netziv assumes that Pinhas may be justified only through an understanding that he acted to protect the Israelites (from God’s wrath). An act of zealous violence on behalf of God would not be justifiable.

Rabbinic Text 5: Rav By Nathan (as quoted in "Iturei Torah")

"After the great zealousness that he acted upon for God, God gives him as a gift the Covenant of Shalom. It is as if the Torah is hinting that the path of Shalom is always preferable to, and more successful than, the path of zealousness and war."

Observation On Text 5


[Note: All of the texts referred to above are available in English translation and accessible to the casual student. Two compendiums which are especially helpful in finding primary sources for a Torah Study such as this are Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg and The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities by Yishai Chasidah.]

Nature Or Nurture?

Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Early in Parashat Toldot we are introduced to Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob. As the Torah describes them, Esau and Jacob were as different from one another as brothers could be. Jacob was a Yoshev Ohelim (a dweller of tents) who enjoyed intellectual and spiritual pursuits, while Esau was an outdoorsman and a hunter enamored with the physicality of life. In rabbinic literature Jacob is the Tzadik Tamim (the guileless righteous person) and Esau the personification of wickedness. Reverberations of the enmity that came to define their relationship have been felt throughout Jewish history.

Genesis 25:27-28

“When the boys grew up, it came to pass that Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, and Jacob was a guileless man dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, for he was a hunter for his mouth, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”

Your Genesis Navigator:

How could two brothers, born to the same parents and raised in the same household under the same conditions have turned out so different from each other? Why does the Torah choose to tell us that Isaac favored one son while Rebekah favored the other? Does the nature of each brother predetermine the outcome of the story?

Rabbinic tradition considers education and child-rearing to be among the most sacred of tasks. The principle that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch learns from our parsha echoes much of the Rabbis’ attitude toward education throughout the ages:

“The striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due not so much to a difference in their temperaments as to a mistake in the way they were brought up. No attention was paid to their differences while they were little; both were given the same teaching and educational treatment. Had Isaac and Rebekah studied the nature of Esau and spoken to that nature, who can say how different the history of the ages may have been recorded.” [Commentary On The Torah, Genesis 25:27]

A Selection of Jewish Teachings Regarding Education:

1. “Teach a child according to his own way.” [Proverbs 22:6]

2. “How is Torah taught? The teacher sits at the head of the class and the students sit around him. The teacher should not sit on a chair while his students sit on the ground. Rather, either everyone should sit on the ground or everyone should sit on chairs.” [Rambam, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:2]

3. “If the teacher taught a concept and the students did not grasp it, he should not become upset with them and display anger. Rather, he should repeat and review the matter, even if he must do so many times.” [Rambam, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:4]

4. “Rabbi Ishmael Ben Rabbi Yosi said: One who learns in order to teach is given the means both to learn and to teach; one who learns in order to enact is given the means to learn and to teach, to preserve and to enact.” [Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Forebears 4, 6]

A Final Word

Later in our parsha, when Isaac asks Esau to hunt for him so that he [Isaac] may bless him [Esau], he says: “Take your quiver and your bow and go out into the field and hunt game for me. Prepare for me a tasty dish like I love and bring it to me so that I may eat and so that my soul may bless you before I die.” [Genesis 27:3-4]

Three verses later, when Rebekah recounts this conversation to Jacob, she has Isaac saying, “that I may bless you in the presence of God before I die.” Again, when Jacob, dressed to appear before Isaac like Esau, speaks of God, Isaac responds, “The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Note that commentaries understand Isaac’s comment, “the voice,” as referring to Jacob’s use of the name of God.)

This student of Torah observes that Isaac and Rebekah speak of God when talking to Jacob but not when talking to Esau, and wonders: Did Isaac and Rebekah try too hard to speak to Jacob and Esau only on the plane that they thought each would be comfortable?

Perceiving Esau as “earthy,” did they neglect to speak with him about God; perceiving Jacob as “spiritual” did they neglect to teach him about the beauty of physicality, also created by God?

In their attempt to “engage” each son on his own terms, did they fail to challenge him?

Had Isaac and Rebekah challenged each of their sons to grow beyond their natural inclinations who can say how different the history of the ages may have been recorded.