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    Grumps & grumbles – Chukkat

    June 25th, 2023

    The people felt they were not getting a fair deal so they spoke against God (Num. 21:5).

    The Targum Onkelos is concerned at the thought of anyone criticising God so it amends the verse and says that they grumbled against the memra, the “word” or “command” of God.

    People who have a complaint are not allowed to attack God personally. He is great, loving and awesome and perfect, but when God gives a ruling they can and do question the wisdom of the ruling.

    The verse goes on to say that the people quarrelled with Moses – something which is both feasible and possible, because though Moses is great he is not perfect, and there may be something in his personality which is error-prone.

    Seeing the serpent – Chukkat

    June 25th, 2023

    The Brazen Serpent, from the 1890 Holman Bible

    When the Israelites grumbled, they were bitten by serpents (Num. 21).

    What happened next? God told Moses to make a brass serpent and place it on a pole. If anybody was bitten by a serpent, they were to look at the brass serpent and then they would live.

    Rashi questions this notion and suggests that if someone suffered they should turn their gaze upward to God and subdue their hearts to their Father in heaven, and this would cure them.

    It seems clear that if anyone had sinned the result would be suffering, and only if they appealed to God would they be forgiven and purified.

    However, this leaves unanswered the question of the purpose of the brass serpent. Ramban thinks the idea is psychological: if one were suffering, the healing would come from the cause of the suffering. “Healing,” said Ramban, “is effected by the very cause of the suffering itself”.

    Maybe the lesson is that suffering comes from looking away from God, and recovery comes from restoring one’s trust in the Divine power.

    The son of Tzippor – Balak

    June 25th, 2023

    King Balak’s name is linked with the verb “to lick” because his power “licked up” his enemies.

    It is possible that this is one of the ancient Hebrew words that gave rise to a word in English. Other examples are keren, which may have a connection with “corner”, and mazon, which might be connected with “maize”.

    Whether or not these ideas have any validity, we are entitled to be bothered by the statement that Balak was the son of “Tzippor” (Num. 22:2) which literally is “a bird”.

    Tzippor, Balak’s father, ruled Moab in the time of Moses. If his name is Hebraic, it may be from a root that means “to chirp”, possibly because he had a happy disposition (others think he was a gossip-monger).

    Second day yom-tov – Ask the Rabbi

    June 25th, 2023

    Q. Do visitors from the Diaspora keep a 2nd day yom-tov when in Israel?

    A. It’s a difficult question with strongly opposed points of view. The general rule is to follow the most stringent view.

    The lenient view (associated with Rabbi Shne’or Zalman of Liadi and recorded in the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 496:5)) is that if a man and wife are in Israel together they are regarded as at home and need keep only one day. A student who is in an Israeli yeshivah is also regarded as at home.

    The strict view (Mishnah Berurah Orach Chayyim 496:13) says that if you intend to return to the Diaspora you should keep two days whilst you are in Israel.

    Wicked son or biblical rebel? – Korach

    June 18th, 2023

    The death of Korach, by Charles Foster, 1873

    The Torah has an ongoing issue with Korach.

    Like the rasha in the Haggadah, Korach symbolises rebelliousness. But unlike the wicked son, the pall of hostility to Korach derives from a real person and an actual event, not merely a (possibly temporary) philosophical challenge to conventional thinking.

    The wicked son of the Haggadah might be going through a disagreeable stage in his personal development, and by next Pesach he may have settled down.

    Korach, on the other hand, is an actual person who stands up against Moses and Aaron and is not likely to become more respectable next year – or ever.

    Unlike the wicked son, he is not merely aggrieved at the wise son’s Biblical exegesis. He is a politician who casts doubt on God’s choice of Moses and Aaron, an inciter who makes a bid to undermine the people’s leadership, a despot who thinks he should have the top job even though he lacks a positive track record.

    He is more than an intellectual debater who rejects ideas; he is a rebel who wants power and will end up with anarchy.