Pinchas – Leaders, Reluctant and Otherwise

Although the Torah tells us that Moshe did precisely what he was commanded to do and transmitted his leadership role to Yehoshua, along with a degree of his spiritual splendor, the pasuk relates, seemingly superfluously, that Moshe “took” Yehoshua as part of his fulfillment of the commandment (Bamidbar 27:22).

Rashi, quoting a statement found in various Midrashim (e.g Sifri), explains that “took” means that “he persuaded him with words, informing him of the reward that will be given to the Jewish people’s leaders in the world to come.”

Reward in the world to come is a reflection of the essential importance of an act. Here, Yehoshua had to be persuaded that his acceptance of the mantle of leadership was truly Hashem’s will. Only by being “taken” by that fact did he accept his new role.

Like Moshe before him, who argued with Hashem and tried to avoid the leadership role Hashem had him assume, Yehoshua is a reluctant leader.

It’s a painfully obvious thought but still worth our focus: Leaders of populations today present the perfect opposite: Their egos and feelings of worthiness propel them to fight for the role of leader, stopping at nothing, undeterred by the true state of their abilities, by realities, by demonstrable truths. 

It wasn’t always that way. Dwight Eisenhower had to be effectively drafted to run in 1948; a century and a half earlier, George Washington initially rejected all requests to enter politics. American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, suggested as the Republican candidate for the 1884 election, famously stated, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”

Those men were exceptions and may reflect an ironic truth we can glean from the Torah: A decisive qualification for a true leader is his reluctance to become one. 

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Balak — Coddling Curses

There’s a question that begs to be asked at the very start of the parsha, about Balak’s determination to curse the Jews: Why?

I don’t mean what motivated him. That is clear in the Torah’s text: 

And now, please come and curse this nation for me, for it is too mighty for me, perhaps it will enable us to strike at him, and banish them from the land; for I know, that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Bamidbar 22:6).

Why, though, not ask for that blessing rather than that curse? Why not just ask the sorcerer for an assurance of victory in warring with the Jewish nomad nation? 

The question, though, is its own answer. Nations are motivated by self-interest; their enemies are simply those who stand in their way. But when it comes to those who see Jews as adversaries, self interest isn’t the first priority; cursing Jews is. Their foremost desire is not to enhance their own welfare but to deride and attack the object of their irrational hatred.

To take a current example, were it not for such paramount animus,  there would have long been a thriving Palestinian state. In 1947, in 2000 and in 2020, Arab leaders opted not for blessings but for curses against Jews, even though it deprived them of peace and prosperity

Chants across the globe of “Death to Israel” are commonplace. Cognoscenti know well what “From the river to the sea…” really means, and it’s not peaceful coexistence with Jews. To Iran’s Führer, Ali Khamenei, Israel is a “cancerous tumor” and its leaders “untouchable rabid dogs.” 

Maledictions against Israel are regularly hissed from the snake den of Middle-Eastern terrorist groups. Part of the Houthis’ slogan is “Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews.”

In imams’ sermons, Muslim children’s lessons and high school textbooks, calls for the destruction of the state that Jews founded in 1948 are regular menu items. Poisonous entrées.

In the end, though, cursing Jews today won’t work, any more than those planned by Balak. In the future, as then, one way or another, a Higher Authority will prevail.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Letter to the Editor

A letter I wrote to the New York Times was published on Shabbos. It can be read here. Its text is below:

The Evil of Jew-Hatred’

To the Editor:

Re “My Son Is a Hostage. Comparing Hamas to the Nazis Is Wrong,” by Jonathan Dekel-Chen (Opinion guest essay, June 24):

Professor Dekel-Chen misses the point. The parallel indeed fails if all that is analyzed are the particulars of the Third Reich and the Hamas movement. But focusing on the trees here obscures the ugly forest: antisemitism.

The evil of Jew-hatred is a shape-shifter. It may come from political entities on the right or on the left, from one religion or another, from governments and from societal movements. And the ostensible reasons for the hatred vary wildly with time and place. But the target is the same: the Jews.

May the professor’s hostage son, and all those being held by this generation’s Jew-haters, soon be able to rejoin their families.

(Rabbi) Avi Shafran
New York
The writer is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Chukas – Choose Your Weapon

Approaching the land of Edom, Moshe Rabbeinu sends messengers to the region’s king, requesting passage through his land. Moshe reminds Esav’s descendant of how his ancestor’s brother’s descendants had sojourned in Mitzrayim for “many days” (hundreds of years), how oppressed they had been and how they “called out to Hashem,” Who “heard our voices” and released them from Egyptian servitude.

Moshe reassures Edom that the Jewish desert-wanderers will not encroach on its fields or vineyards, that they will happily purchase food and water (which they didn’t even need, as they had the mon and the be’er).

The request is tersely rebuffed. And Moshe and his people are threatened by Edom’s king with the words: “I will come against you with the sword” (Bamidbar 20:14-18). 

Rashi (based on Midrash Tanchuma, Bishalach) fleshes out the response: “You pride yourselves on the ‘voice’ your father bequeathed you…  I, therefore, will come out against you with that which my father bequeathed me when he said, ‘And by thy sword you shall live’.” 

These troubled days, under the pressure of contemporary enemies’ murderous designs, many Jews are less than fully sensitive to the fact that our “voice” – our prayers and Torah-study – are our most powerful means of undermining those who wish us harm. There may be superficial acknowledgment of the value of our “voice,” but less than full investment in the truth of that value.

We have witnessed colossal failures of physical means intended to protect Jewish lives. That should make us all the more cognizant of the truth of “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Hashem” (Zecharia 4:6). 

Military might, to be sure, is necessary. But what ultimately empowers and protects both those on the front lines and Jews worldwide are our “voice.” 

That, and our true, honest and complete conviction that Torah and tefillah are indeed key to effecting victory.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Korach – Democracy and Its Discontents

Few contrasts in the Torah are as stark as the one between Moshe Rabbeinu and Korach.  The latter is propelled by jealousy, a blinding sense of self (and self-entitlement). And, like populists who followed, he used the masses to foster his personal goal.  

Moshe is the opposite, “the most humble of all men” (Bamidbar 12:3), and aspired to no leadership position; he had to be drafted. He serves the masses, stands up for them with his very existence – mecheini na, “erase me from Your book” if You won’t forgive them for the sin of the egel, he pleads with Hashem (Shemos 32:32). 

And so he is puzzled by Korach’s rebellion.  “I didn’t take even one donkey from them. I caused them no harm? (Bamidbar 16:15)” (Rashi sees the statements as expressions of pain.)  

To Moshe, leadership is a mission; to Korach, it’s a perk. Like all populist politicians, he claims, “I’m working for YOU” – while Moshe speaks of leaders being picked by Hashem.

Rav Yosheh Ber Soloveitchik notes that Korach invokes “democracy” to push his agenda. Which, Rav Soloveitchik and others note, inheres in Korach’s “arguments.”  Why should there be a need for a single strand of techeles if a garment is made entirely of techeles?  Why should only two small parshios in a mezuzah be necessary for a house filled with holy books? Why, in other words, should Moshe and Aharon be set apart from everyone else? – The entire nation is holy! (Bamidbar 16:3),

Today, too, there are truly selfless and dedicated leaders of Klal Yisroel – and their detractors. 

And some of the contemporary disparagers are “observant.” The religiosity of Moshe’s detractors saved Ohn ben Peles’ life. His wife, wise woman that she was, got him intoxicated enough to take a long nap when he was to be summoned to be part of the mob. Then she sat out front of their tent with her hair uncovered.  When the plotters, who she knew were “holy people,” approached the Ben Peles home to fetch Ohn, they turned on their “frum” heels.

Today, too, people who claim to uphold the Torah choose to portray Gedolim negatively.  When we read the words that one “should not be like Korach and his eidah” (Bamidbar 17:5), we are being exhorted to reject them.

© 2024 Rabbi Avi Shafran