Pinchas – Making it Your Mitzvah

Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month, is a special day, or two. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 417) sites the custom for women to refrain from strenuous work, like laundry on Rosh Chodesh. There are those who don’t shave, get haircuts, or cut their nails, based on a decree of Rebbe Yehuda HaChasid. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 419) says there is a mitzvah to enhance one’s meal on Rosh Chodesh. In many high school yeshivos they have a special Rosh Chodesh breakfast. From all this we find that the Jewish people treat the beginning of the month in an extra special manner. 
In fact, according to the Sforno in this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas there is a special reason of why this is so. The Torah, discussing the Musaf offering brought for Rosh Chodesh, states: “On your New Moons, you shall bring a burnt offering to Hashem: two young bulls, one ram, seven male lambs in their first year, unblemished” (Bamidbar 28:11). The Sforno points out “that there used to be a Jewish custom on Rosh Chodesh that made it considered extra holy in some way, as the pasuk in Shmuel Alef (20:19) testifies, ‘Where you hid yourself on the day of the deed.’ This pasuk was referring to the fact that they did not go into work on Rosh Chodesh. This is why the pasuk here associated Rosh Chodesh with the Jews, ‘your head of the months’. We don’t find this by the festivals. It doesn’t say by Shabbos, your Shabbos or by Shavuos, your Day of Bikkurim, or by Sukkos, your Sukkos. The reason for this custom is because it would seem that the success of the Jewish people in this world is in some way similar to the moon, which by itself does not have light accept from what it gets from something else, i.e. the sun.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from this Sforno that the concept of treating Rosh Chodesh as a special time or day for the Jewish people is a custom that dates back at least to the times of David and Yonatan, son of King Shaul, which the pasuk in Shmuel was referring to; but most definitely even before that. But what was so special about them not working on Rosh Chodesh? They didn’t work on the festivals and Shabbos either, as Hashem commanded, and doesn’t Chaza”l say greater is one who is commanded to do something and fulfills the command then one who is not commanded? Furthermore, we see throughout history how each Yom Tov was treated with extra care, with people going out of their way to get the best lulav and esrog set, beautifying their Sukkah, having elaborate seders on Pesach, etc. etc. So why in fact is Rosh Chodesh so special that Hashem and His Torah, which is not time-bound, foresaw that the Jewish People would decide not to work on Rosh Chodesh and treat it as a special day, any more than Shabbos and all the  Yom Tovim, so that the Torah calls it “Your New Months”?

It is true that one who performs mitzvos because Hashem commanded him to is better than one who voluntarily performs mitzvos, because the one commanded is showing more dedication in following what he was told to do. However, that is not in contradiction with this, because no one was commanded to do anything by Rosh chodesh besides bring a Mussaf sacrifice. Hashem foresaw that because they all personally related to this time and made it very special for themselves to the extent that they chose to take a day or two off from work, depending on how many days Rosh Chodesh was that month and they made it festive and even sang partial Hallel to Hashem then they owned it and it’s  called ראשי חדשיכם, “your New Months” in the Torah.

We can glean from here a very important lesson, for Klal Yisrael as a whole was commended for taking to heart and treating with extra care the time of Rosh Chodesh. It makes sense that on a personal level, of course everyone should treat all mitzvos with the utmost importance and beautify them, but an individual has the ability and should try to find one mitzvah which he can relate to more than any other and make it his, own, make that mitzvah extra extra special, then it will be yours! 

(Parenthetically, in many editions of the Sforno this text is found as a reason why the Jews related personally to Rosh Chodesh more than any other time: “Although prior to the sin of the golden calf the Jewish people’s fate was totally independent of any foreign domination, described as חרות על הלוחות, a kind of absolute independence, freedom engraved on the Tablets (the first set no doubt), (compare Exodus 32,16) as well as Eyruvin 54 and Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 16), once they had sinned they (divested themselves of this privilege, (and) no longer made use of this “Royal crown” at all times as did the other nations, so that they did no longer appear to enjoy this advantage over the other nations of the world.
Ever since that spiritual disaster, the Jewish people could enjoy their original privilege of independence from the restrictions imposed by the fact that one is part of the “laws of nature” only on rare occasions in their history, whereas most of the time they were dependent on “light”, i.e. good fortune, from external sources not under their control. To that extent, their history reflects the situation of the moon with its periods of ascent and decline month after month. When the moon is not directly exposed to the light of the sun it becomes invisible. The expression אין מזל לישראל, (Shabbat 126) means that the Jewish people do not generate light of their own, do not work at being masters of their own fate, but rely entirely on Hashem to guide their fates. They receive this Divinely emanated light when their deeds are pleasing to Hashem.
This is why in the parlance of our prophets Hashem Himself is referred to as: “אור ישראל” Israel’s source of light. (compare Isaiah 10,16 as well as Psalms 27,1 where David refers to Hashem. as אורי וישעי, “my light and my salvation.”)
Whenever the Jewish people are in a state of sin, their sins act as a barrier between them and their G-D so that they are deprived of their source of light. When Isaiah describes their state of being when sinful, he speaks of their G-D hiding His face from them, as Israel walking in darkness harassed by the gentile nations. (Isaiah 59,2).
Whenever the Jewish people’s fortunes are at low ebb this represents a desecration of Hashem’s name, i.e. His reputation, as the gentiles refer to us sneeringly as עם ה’ אלה “are these the ones who describe themselves as Hashem’s special nation?” We can understand what our sages have said in Gittin 58 that whenever the Jewish people are in trouble, Hashem is automatically forced to share their troubles. Having linked His honor to the honor and glory of the Jewish people, He suffers with us, (allegorically speaking). Whenever we suffer, whenever we are in a state of being oppressed, Hashem is described as saying that “the pirate has attacked Me and you simultaneously.”
Seeing that the sin offering presented on Rosh Chodesh/New Moon’s day is an atonement for the Jewish people who are the cause of preventing the light of the moon to shine, or the reason it shines so weakly when it does shine, the sages in our prayers on that day referred to that sin offering as לכפר בעדם זכרון לכולם יהיו תשועת נפשם מיד שונא, “to obtain atonement for themselves. They were to be a memorial for them all, and a salvation for their soul from the hand of the enemy.” This is the reason that this is the only sin offering described as חטאת לה’, “a sin offering on behalf of Hashem.” Presentation of this offering is also in respect of the damage the sinful behavior of the Jewish people has inflicted on Hashem’s image among the gentile nations.
When we read about the dialogue described between the moon and Hashem in Chulin 60, where Hashem is eventually described as saying to the Jewish people “bring a sin offering on My behalf,” (in expiation for My diminishing the light of the moon) what the sage (Rabbi Shimon ben Pezzi) wanted to explain by putting such strange sounding words in ‘Hashem’s mouth’ is that ultimately the reason why the moon was diminished was because seeing it has a kinship with the Jewish people and they did not always live up to their lofty destiny, the moon [as a celestial representative of Hashem Himself, Ed.] therefore has to suffer alongside with them for their shortcomings. Seeing this may not sound quite fair, Hashem allegorically ordered a sin offering to be brought by the Jewish people on Rosh Chodesh/New Moon’s day in order appease the moon.)”

Pinchas : A Never-Ending Battle

The daughters of Tzelafchad stealthily approach Moshe Rabbeinu in this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas, (perek 27), to claim their father’s share in the land of Israel since Tzelafchad did not have any sons to inherit him. Tzelafchad’s identity is unclear; he was either the mekoshesh eitzim, the one who gathered wood on Shabbos, or one of those who acted rashly and died in the second year in the desert. This means his daughters were born in Egypt and waited forty years in the desert before approaching Moshe Rabbeinu and getting married (See Maharz”u on this upcoming medrish).

The Medrish Rabba, with the Matnos Kehuna’s explanation woven inside it, points out that the daughters of Tzelafchad were all righteous because they refused to marry anyone except for those who were appropriate for them. Why then did Hashem orchestrate that they would approach Moshe in the end of the forty years wandering in the desert? So that Moshe won’t observe himself, and become haughty, over the fact that Moshe himself was divorced from his wife for forty years. Hashem therefore informed him about these women, saying, ‘Behold these women who were not commanded in the mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply only married a husband proper for them.’ The Rashash explains a bit more, that the daughters of Tzelafchad were not commanded to marry only a man who is appropriate for each one of them, whereas  Moshe was commanded to separate from his wife, either explicitly or through a kal vachomer, fortiori. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
According to this medrish, Hashem purposely created a situation that the daughters of Tzelofchad would only approach Moshe Rabbeinu at the end of his life, in order for him not to be haughty over the fact he was able to last forty years separated from his wife in order to be Hashem’s direct in-between with the Jews. They too were voluntarily single for at least that long until they found the right shidduch and proper time to be married, in spite of the fact that the gemara in Kiddushin 7a and many other times throughout Shas mentions that the attitude that women tell each other is that it’s better to be married than single, טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו, whereas Moshe Rabbeinu was without a wife upon command of Hashem.

Moshe Rabbeinu was known to be the humblest person in history, proclaimed by the Torah from this very episode, which began 38 years before where Miriam criticized Moshe for separating from his wife, as it says there, “And the man, Moshe, was very humble from every person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). Now, this very episode is coming to haunt Moshe Rabbeinu and threatens his humility, for if the daughters of Tzelofchad would not have engaged Moshe at that moment it would seem that the humblest person in history would have felt, albeit most definitely a very minute and miniscule amount of, haughtiness for having been able to last as long as he had without being married.

Why would we think that Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest person in history, would have felt any level of arrogance for this accomplishment, especially if this feat was the very thing which gave him the title of humblest person on the face of this earth?

Perforce, we are forced to conclude that this is a clear proof that the struggle to do the right thing and to reach and retain perfection is a lifetime accomplish that never ceases until the very end. Even though Moshe Rabbeinu reached the top and the Torah truthfully testifies that he was more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth, if not for the fact that Hashem orchestrated the confrontation between the daughters of Tzelofchad and Moshe at the end of his life, it would seem that Moshe would have felt some tiny level of superiority over everyone else which would have tainted his humble character and only because Hashem intervened and Moshe must have realized the lesson Hashem was trying to teach him, and chose to take it to heart, did Moshe Rabbeinu remain perfect in his ultimate state of humility.

Pinchas – Human Perfection

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 Hashem decreed Moshe Rabbeinu’s death by the hitting of the rock in the Torah portion of Chukas. Now, Moshe is faced with the reality for the first time that he will pass on before entering the Promise Land in this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas, “Hashem said to Moshe, “Go up to this mount Abarim and look at the land that I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aaron your brother was gathered…” (Bamidbar 27:12, 13). Responding,  “Moses spoke to Hashem, saying: “Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation…” (Bamidbar 27:15, 16).

The Ralbag learns from Moshe’s response that those who have lived a complete, well-rounded life are not afraid of death, for they don’t greatly choose the life in this physical world, as there is something much better after they acquire all their intellect, which can only be appreciated in its entirety after one loses his physicality. For this reason we don’t find that Moshe was scared of dying;at this point and in any other place in time rather, Moshe requested from Hashem to appoint a person over the congregation who would put all his efforts into leading them, because his intentions were to do what was good for as long as possible. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

There is an innate drive in every living being to stay alive and to cower from death. It is in everyone’s natural instincts to do whatever they can to stay alive, to the point that a person will automatically recoil when faced with a burning fire. 

Anyone who feels the opposite is deemed to be unhealthy and possibly dangerous to themselves or others. Yet we find here that those who have reached human perfection, who have fulfilled their potential in life, do not fear death. Indeed, on the contrary, those individuals would rather die than live in this finite world. How does this seem appropriate for such an upstanding citizen of society and leader as Moshe Rabbeinu?

Furthermore it seems that Moshe did request from Hashem (in the Torah portion of Vaeschanan) to change the deadly decree on him, and get permission to enter the Promised Land with the Jewish people. So what does the Ralbag mean?
It would seem that in fact Moshe felt he was not finished yet with his mission in life. He believed that he could gain better insights to take with him to the Land of Eternity, if only he could enter the Holy Land. Which is why he davened 515 prayers to enter The Land. But he was not terrified of death itself, because he understood that his physical body in fact hindered the ultimate spiritual and intellectual experience of basking in the Presence of Hashem and appreciating the Torah he learnt in this world on a more pure and Divine level.

Only one who has nearly completed his mission in life and feels no need for his body anymore can wholly appreciate this, if not then on whatever level one is  on there is this natural pull and drive to stay physically alive.

Pinchas – Blessing of Diversity

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There are many reasons why Hashem created us, and the entirety of existence, with a myriad of differences. No one and nothing is the same, although sometimes the differences are simply nuances. Hashem did this with a purpose in mind for everyone and everything, in order that challenges can be faced and overcome for the sake of doing His will and, optimally, serving Hashem to the fullest. If everyone and everything were the same then there would not be any challenges in life and there would be no room to grow physically, emotionally, and intellectually. People have a natural, innate tendency to react to change or things that are different than them, be it different looks or ideas. However the question remains: what is the appropriate response when faced with someone or something which is different, extraordinary, or just a change from the norm?

The Medrish Tanchuma discusses this issue in this week’s Torah portion of Pinchas when Moshe asks Hashem who will replace him as leader once he passes away. Moshe speaks in a harsh manner requesting, “Let the Lord, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation…” (Bamidbar 27:16). The Biur Ma’amarim on the Medrish Tanchuma suggests that the intent of the following medrish is to explain why Moshe described Hashem as “the God of spirits of all flesh.” The medrish begins by quoting halachos that can also be found in Brachos 58b. The medrish says, “Our rabbis have taught us that if one sees people who are different what bracha should be made? This is what our rabbis have taught us: One who sees a black person, or an albino, or one of really tall height, or one whose hands or body are filled with leprous like symptoms, or one who is lame, one should say, ‘Blessed is the One who makes the creatures different.’ One who saw a person who is missing a limb or is blind or one filled with boils should say the blessing of ‘Blessed is the True Judge.’ When is this last blessing said? Only when they were first fully healthy people then they changed. But if they were that way from their mother’s womb then one should say ‘Blessed is the One who makes the creatures different.’ And if one sees exceptionally beautiful people or trees one should say ‘Blessed is the One who has such in His universe.’ But if one sees a whole group of 600,000 or more people he should say the blessing, ‘Blessed is the Knower of secrets.’ Just as no one’s face are the same so to no one’s thought process are similar to each other, rather every single individual has their own mind. So to it says, ‘To make a weight for the spirit, and He meted out the water with a measure’ (Iyov 28:25), every single person has his or her own unique mind. Know that this is true for Moshe beseeches Hashem around the time of his demise, and said to him, ‘Master Of The World it is well known before You the minds of every individual, and none of Your children are similar to each other. When I disappear from the world, may You please, if You want to appoint a new ruler over them, appoint someone who will be able to be patient and understanding with every single individual according to each one’s mind.’ How do we know this? From the fact that Moshe called upon Hashem saying ‘Let the Lord, the G-d of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation…’” (Medrish Tanchuma, parshas Pinchas, paragraph 9 [or 10 in some editions]. Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Biur Ma’amarim adds that the reason the medrish mentions these halachos is because mentioned amongst them is the blessing upon seeing a whole group of 600,000 Jews all at once, where one should say the blessing of “Blessed is the Knower of secrets,” which means that Hashem recognizes the secrets hidden in the hearts of every individual even though they all have different mindsets. This explains why Hashem is called the G-d of spirits, which is similar to what we say in our Shemone esray 3 times a day, enacted by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah: ‘You graciously endow man with wisdom… Endow us graciously from Yourself with wisdom, incite, and discernment…’ So too Moshe said ‘You know the spirit of each individual, appoint upon them a man similarly who can be patient and understanding of every single individual.’
In reacting to diversity or change one can be a separatist or an antagonist, speaking or acting in a racist manner, and maybe even reacting violently to those who are different than them. But Halacha calls on every individual Jew to take the opportunity when seeing something different or changed from its original status to bless Hashem for creating so many unique things in the world and always doing what is best for humanity. The Mishna Berura in chapter 225 in fact says one only says this blessing once in a while when he or she has not seen the like before or in a very long time. Also, to those who see the crippled or lame, blind or very sick, they can only say that blessing if they knew that person. Meaning, if there is an emotional charge inside oneself, and excitement of seeing the uncommon or extraordinarily beautiful, or the emotional pain and suffering upon seeing someone you know going through terrible times, it warrants blessing Hashem. This positively channels one’s emotions and thoughts towards a whole new appreciation of how Hashem is in constant contact with and intimately involved in this world.

This is the way every Jew is supposed to react in such a situation. Every Jew is also supposed to ask Hashem in his or her prayers every day to graciously give us or really share with us the Divine ability to have knowledge, intuition, and deep logical thinking in our own individual way.

What then was the unique quality Moshe was asking for in the next leader? If you think about it, it is very profound! It can be very easy, and there are many leaders who are able to handle and lead groups as a whole. Many times though people hear or give complaints that their individual needs aren’t taken care of. It is easier to just run an organization or institution, or even a people with a general understanding or belief of what is best for the populace or what is best for the organization. But Moshe Rabbeinu beseeches Hashem for someone who would be sensitive and would be able to connect with and help every individual on their own level, certainly no matter how they looked or what condition they are in but even to understand where they are coming from, their essence, and to work with every single individual.

That’s a quality of a true leader!