July 20th, 2014
Mass’ei is the travel diary of Israel in the wilderness, introduced with the words, “And Moses wrote down their goings forth on their journeys” (Num. 33:2).
The word for “their goings forth” is motza’eihem. Since the root is yatza, to go out, the word could possibly mean “their outgoings”, i.e. their expenses.
The sages say in Pir’kei Avot, “According to the effort is the reward”, which is the ruling principle of a person with the strange name of Ben Hey Hey (Avot 5:26). We can conclude that the level of one’s outgoings (not only financially but in other senses too) affects the level of their achievement.
Why is this doctrine attributed to Ben Hey Hey? The answer might have something to do with the fact that the previous teaching in Pir’kei Avot is attributed to another person with a strange name, Ben Bag Bag.
There is a theory that both were proselytes: Bag could be ben Gerim and Hey is the letter which denotes the Divine Name. Indeed they might even have been one and the same person. Their journey to Judaism entailed outgoings (personal, spiritual, intellectual, emotion and social effort). Because they believed in Judaism they exerted themselves for it.
Likewise in this week’s portion the Children of Israel invested immense effort and dedication to their trek through the wilderness, so that when they arrived in the Land of Israel they knew they had earned it.
July 20th, 2014
This sidra which brings us to the end of B’midbar sees Moses contemplating the difficulties of leading the people through the wilderness. Despite their moments of tension, both realised that they were bound up with each other.
Their link is suggested by an analogy used by the Baal Shem Tov many centuries later. The Baal Shem took an inordinate time over his Musaf Amidah on Shabbat – three quarters of an hour as a general rule. It was a trial for his followers who were all finished with their prayer long before and were now itching to get home and eat. Someone had the bright idea that they could all creep out while the Baal Shem was still davening, go home for a meal, be back in the synagogue by the time the Baal Shem concluded, and he would never know a thing.
They tried it one week and lo and behold, the Baal Shem only took three minutes to pray, and when he looked around, his followers were nowhere to be seen. Eventually they came back and asked him what had happened. His answer was this: “When I pray, my thoughts and feelings slowly ascend the rungs of the heavenly ladder – but today after a few minutes the whole ladder came crashing down and my reverie came to a sudden stop.
“You know, you, my community, are my ladder. Without you I cannot get anywhere!”
So it was with Moses and Israel – without the other, neither could achieve anything. Moses was Moses because of Israel: Israel was Israel because of Moses.
July 20th, 2014
Q. Is there any halachic reason why I can’t “fiddle the books” when it comes to paying my income tax?
A. Being a part of society comes at a cost. A halachic rule stated in the name of the sage Sh’muel, dina d’malchuta dina, “The law of the land is the law”, comes in every code of Jewish law. There can be discussion about the parameters of this rule, but nobody disputes that it applies to the payment of taxes.
There can be debate as to how much tax should be levied, but taxation as a principle is not a form of stealing, whilst failure to pay taxes is (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369:6). Failure to meet tax obligations is a moral as well as a legal wrong, a Chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s Name (Maimonides, Hilchot G’zelah 5:11, Kesef Mishnah). This not only applies to non-payment but to “fiddling the books”, including fiddling a tax return. Both are a grave infraction of the law against stealing and a desecration of the Divine Name.
One must be scrupulously honest in this as well as every other aspect of life. Ordinary people often complain that whilst they try to be honest, they see “the big boys” rorting the system. Jewish law is adamant that “the big boys” will not escape Divine punishment even if for a time they escape the force of the law of the country.
There is no reason why a person should not benefit from any validly allowed deduction, but concealing or distorting the facts cannot be halachically justified. If you claim a deduction for a charitable donation, you have to be able to prove that you really did give the charity. This is regardless of the religious obligation to give a percentage of one’s income to tz’dakah.
Honesty and transparency should apply in all one’s dealings. In 19th century Goulburn in Australia, there was a saying, “As honest as a Goulburn Jew”. We should all so live as to earn the epithet, “As honest as a Jew”.
July 20th, 2014
Q. Why does a woman wave her hands in front of her when lighting Shabbat candles?
A. Blessings should be said before performing the action. However once you have said the blessing over the candles you have already made it Shabbat and it would be a transgression if you then kindled a light.
The compromise is to light the candles, cover your eyes during the b’rachah and then remove your hands so that you enjoy the lights after the blessing has been said.
July 13th, 2014
The portion begins with a whole section about making vows. From the halachic point of view, the making of vows is a major issue. The halachic analyses of the Kol Nidre with which Yom Kippur commences could take up a library (as could the literary and historical aspects of the subject).
The underlying concept is the importance of how you use words. The capacity of speech is one of the great marks of distinction between man and the rest of Creation.
Yes, other species have their means of communication, and Martin Buber points out that even silence is communication. One example is what the English language calls “companionable silence”.
The careless and over-profuse use of words is one of our worst problems. The Midrash quotes the sentence from this parashah, “A person shall not break his word” (Num. 30:8), and goes on, “for one knows not when his time (of death) shall come”. What you say can wreak immense damage, and you might, God forbid, die before you have had a chance to repair what you have done.
There is a saying, “Everyone thought he was a fool, and when he opened his mouth they had their proof”. Being a fool in your speech is bad enough, but it’s worse if you let your words betray a spark of evil.