BY BENJAMIN D. SOMMER, JTS
Upgrading the Torah—and the World
Is God’s law perfect? Most of us would assume that anything created by an omniscient and omnipotent being must have no flaws. But a story in today’s parashah suggests otherwise—in a manner that shows a surprising similarity to a key concept of Jewish mysticism.
At the end of the reading for this Shabbat (Num. 36:1–9) and in four other passages in the Torah (Lev. 24:10–23, Num. 9:1–14, 15:32–36, and 27:1–11), the Israelites and Moses confront a situation in which the law is unclear, or in which some Israelites seem dissatisfied with the existing law. Moses asks God to clarify the law relating to the situation, and God responds to Moses’s request.
BY JONATHAN MILGRAM, JTS
Law as Response to Its Context
What social and economic criteria demand a reevaluation—or perhaps even redefinition—of divine law? How does Jewish legal development through the ages illustrate the interrelationship between God and the Jewish people that results in new and relevant Jewish laws? The analysis of one element in parashat Pinehas—inheritance by daughters—teaches that, at times, the Jewish people’s response to the divine call may be determined by the social and economic contexts, resulting in a reframing of the divine message for a new age.
BY JOEL ALTER, DIRECTOR OF ADMISSIONS, THE JTS RABBINICAL SCHOOL AND H. L. MILLER CANTORIAL SCHOOL
Fear, Truth, and a Donkey
Bilam, the highly paid but visionless prophet, sits high in his saddle on his donkey’s back as she swerves off the path. She’s strayed, it seems, for no reason; an angel standing with sword drawn is as yet unseen by him. He beats the donkey to drive her back onto the path. The next time she stops short she traps her rider’s leg against a stone wall. He winces in pain. I imagine him throwing one hand down toward his leg and perhaps grabbing his headdress, by now slipping off, with the other. He frantically beats his donkey again, flailing to regain control. Bilam is coming undone: a prophet made a fool by an ass (Num. 22:22–25).
BY MARC GARY for JTSA
Striking Out or Stepping Up: A Leadership Model for Our Times
“Moses entered the stage of Jewish history by striking (the Egyptian) and exited from the stage of Jewish history by striking (the rock).” This startling observation by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in his commentary on the Book of Numbers (Torah Lights: Bemidbar, 169) causes us to reflect deeply on the subject of Jewish leadership.
Narrative symmetry, of course, is a characteristic of both biblical literature and rabbinic interpretation. It suggests purpose over randomness—a meaningful connection between beginnings and endings. Here, however, the symmetry is ironic, even disquieting. Moses’s entry onto the stage of Jewish history is through killing another human being; his forced exit is the result of hitting an inanimate object.
BY ALAN MITTLEMAN, JTS
Korah: Democrat or Demagogue?
Korah is the first left oppositionist in the history of radical politics.
–Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (111)
How shall we read the Korah story? What is his rebellion about? Is Korah the first left-wing radical? He seems to want to level the distinction between leaders and masses. All of the people are holy, he claims. There is no need for a priestly caste which, in the wilderness setting, is a governance class. This view relies on the Midrash’s framing of Korah’s claim: “It is not you alone who have heard at Sinai, ‘I am the LORD your God.’ All of the people heard it” (Tanhuma Korah 4). From Korah’s point of view, the promise of Exodus 19:6, that Israel will be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” has been fulfilled. Mass reception of the divine word means equal standing in holiness. Korah, on this view, is something of a hero, a tribune of egalitarianism before its time.