This Parsha, Devarim, begins the final book of the Torah. Sefer Devarim is dedicated to Moshe's final messages to the Children of Israel; he knows he will be dying very shortly, so he reviews the entire Torah with the people. The first two stories that Moshe repeats are the stories involving the Meraglim (spies) and the story of the wars with Sichon and Og. These two stories share a particularly important message that I would like to share with you.
Both of the stories deal with a war that was fought by the Israelites. Since the people will soon be fighting wars to conquer Canaan, warfare is a very important topic to discuss. However, there is a primary difference between the war fought at the time of the spies and the war fought against Sichon and Og- it is a difference that Moshe takes great pains to point out. The war during the time of the spies was fought by the people without the aid of God; conversely, the war against Sichon and Og was fought by the people with the aid of God. When God is supporting the people, it is as though He is fighting for us. That being the case, it does not matter which side is bigger. stronger, better trained, or better equipped…we will always win! This is why we are commanded by the Torah not to fear our enemies. On the other hand, when God is not supporting us (a war fought against His wishes), it is merely a bunch of Jews fighting. The “natural order” of things comes into play, so we do not stand a chance against bigger, stronger, better trained and better equipped armies.
Unfortunately, this is a position that has been ignored in today's world. Jews often look to the United Nations or the United States to play the role of 'savior'. We have forgotten the essential fact that God is our savior, and instead, we rely on people with fancy guns! Perhaps Moshe is highlighting these stories to remind us that our only guarantee of victory is having God as our ally. May it be God's Will that we always remember who our most powerful ally really is and that we always merit having Him on our side.
"And God said to me: 'Tell them not to go up and not to fight because I am not with you, lest you be smitten by your enemies.’” (Deut. 1:42)
"You shall not fear them because God, your God, He is the fighter for you.”
In Parshas Mattos, we see the command to fight a war against the Midianites. However, unlike the wars which the Jewish people fought against Sichon and Og (wars which were responses to an attack by the enemy), this is a war where the Jewish people are on the attack. The Torah tells us in Parshas Balak that, unable to curse the Jews, Billam suggests that the Midianites get them to sin by sending immoral women into the Israelite camp. The plan works and a massive plague kills 24,000 people- it doesn't stop until Pinchas kills Zimri and Kazbi, an act which earns him the Kehunah. Since the actions of the Midianites caused the Israelites to sin, Hashem commands the Jewish people to attack the Midianites. Moshe is commanded to take men from each of the tribes and send them to attack the Midianites. He is also told that his death will occur after the war. Why does the verse tell us that Moshe is going to die after the war? What does that piece of information have to do with gathering an army and sending the Jews off to fight?
I believe that the mention of Moshe's death is really an integral part of the story. When Moshe is told that he will “die after the war”, this implies that Moshe will not die until the war is over- as long as war is going on, he would remain alive. Moshe could have then taken his time selecting an army, gathering supplies, discussing various battle plans with the commanders, doing extensive reconnaissance, giving them a plethora of instructions, and so on-actions which are normal ‘war prep’ and which would also extend his life. Instead, his next move is to quickly gather the army and send them to war. This selfless action showed two special things about Moshe: he loved the Jewish people more than he cared about himself, and that he had absolute trust in Hashem. He knew that Hashem would be fighting the battle, so extensive preparations were unnecessary.
Sometimes people might tend to be a little bit selfish. We might do favors for people, but it might be begrudgingly or because we want them to ‘owe us one’. Moshe, on the other hand, literally gave his life so that we could enter the Land of Israel. He knew he was not getting anything in return; on the contrary, he knew that this might very well be the last thing he ever did! Yet, instead of waiting even a second, he immediately tells the tribes to start gathering soldiers and preparing for war. May it be God’s Will that we can follow Moshe’s example and put the commandments of God above our own personal selves!
“And God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards, you will be gathered unto your people.’ And Moshe spoke to the people, saying: ‘Arm men from among yourselves for the legion that may be against Midian to inflict God’s vengeance against Midian.’” (Num. 31:1-31:3)
Parshas Ma’ahsei begins by listing all the places that the Jewish people traveled on their journey from Egypt to the Land of Canaan. Rather than say something like "The Children of Israel journeyed from Egypt to Canaan by way of the desert." or words to that effect, the Torah mentions each place that they made camp separately. Furthermore, it mentions some of the special events that happened along the way (for example, that lack of water at Rephidim and the death of Aharon at Hor HaHar). Why does the Torah need to mention the journey of the Jews in such detail?
I believe that the message of this section of the Torah is really a message for the Jewish people throughout history (yes, even in 21st Century America). The Torah is trying to teach us the fact that life itself is a journey and that each step along that journey is important. As we make our way through life, we find stretches of road that are straight and smooth as well as stretches that are windy and full of bumps and potholes. However, when we look back on where we have been and the challenges that we, with God's help, have overcome, it gives us a renewed strength to help us tackle the rest of the journey. By listing each stage of our people's journey, including the destination, the Torah is giving us a clear and direct message that knows no centurial boundaries: sometimes the road of life makes a lot of twists and turns, but if you stay true to yourself and the path laid out by the Torah, your journey will have a glorious end. May it be God's Will that we take the lessons of our 'Journey of Life' to heart and reach our final destination in happiness, health, and peace.
"These are the sojournings of the Children of Israel by which they went from the Land of Egypt by their hosts at the hand of Moshe and Aharon.”
In this week's Parsha, Korach and his followers create an uprising which challenges Moshes right to be the leader and Aharon’s right to be the High Priest. In an attempt to show that it was Hashem who appointed the leader and the High Priest, Moshe says there will be a ‘trial by ordeal’; Korach, all of his followers, and Aharon himself are to each take a firepan and attempt to offer the Ketores (incense)...the person whose offering is accepted by Hashem is the rightful High Priest. Moses gathers the people and explains what is about to take place. Additionally, tells the people that the 'proof' he is speaking the words dictated to him by Hashem is that the ground will open up and swallow Korach. As a child, this story was always one of my favorite parts of the Torah. I imagined the final moments of Korach’s life as the ground opens up beneath him, a final cry “Noooooooooo!!!!!” as he plummeted down into the bowels of the Earth fading out as the Earth closed upon itself once more. It was certainly a powerful argument in favor of proper behavior.
However, all pageantry aside, why was it necessary for the ground to open up and swallow him alive? After all, all we need do is to turn our attention back to Nadav and Avihu-the two sons of Aharon who died at the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan. The Torah tells us that they, too, took firepans and offered incense. Since they were not commanded to do this, their deed was called an “aish zarah” (lit. ‘strange fire) and they died. Fast-forward to Korach. He will be taking a firepan and he will be offering incense. If he dies the way Nadav and Avihu died, it will be clear that his deed is an “aish zarah”. The point would be made with his death-no ‘earth-shattering’ miracles necessary.
In order to understand the necessity of the earth opening up, I believe it is essential to look at things from Moshe’s perspective. He knows that Korach will die if he goes through with the trial. Unfortunately, the death of Korah may have a negative effect. Perhaps the people will see Korach die and accuse Moshe of picking a trial that could result in someone’s death; they will wonder why Moshe did not choose a less lethal form of selection. For example, he could have asked everyone to put a staff next to the Ark-whoever’s staff sprouts flowers should be the High Priest…a trial which is done later in the Parsha! Such a doubt would undermine everything Moshe does; each time he says that Hashem commanded him to tell the people something, they would wonder if the command was really Divine or just Moshe putting one over on them. Hashem understood how important it was for the people to be able to trust Moshe, so He used the additional miracle of the ground opening up and swallowing Korach to prove that the “trial method” was chosen by Hashem, not by Moshe.
Sometimes a tragedy causes us to question people’s motives. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. I cannot tell you how many times I heard people say that there is no reason to wear masks-our leaders just made the rule because they are getting kickbacks from manufacturers. I have even heard people say that the only reason the Government wants us to get the vaccine is because they get money from the drug companies for each dose administered! This type of undermining does not only make it extremely difficult to lead, it can have dire-even fatal-consequences. May it be G-d’s Will that He not only bless us with trustworthy leadership, but that there be no doubt as to their trustworthiness.
"And Moshe said: 'By this you shall know that Hashem has sent me; none of this [the choosing of Aharon] is not from me.” (Num. 16:28)
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