Parashah Ponderings

My Children, My Well

Parashat Chukat 5781 / פרשת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1

One of the greatest joys in my life is fatherhood. Not only because I take pleasure in being with my children. Not only because I delight in watching them grow into compassionate adults. Not only because I am proud of their achievements. But also because my children have helped me be present in the world. Because they’ve helped me be a more compassionate person. Because they’ve inspired me to achieve. Because they’ve taught me. They are for me a wellspring of Torah.

In the famous rabbinic collection of pithy aphorisms known as Pirkei Avot (6:6), we read that “Torah is acquired through 48 things.” Among these “things” through which we acquire Torah are joy, an understanding heart, and feeling loved, but also “a minimum of sleep,” “critical give and take with others,” “sharing in the bearing of a burden with another,” and humility. These and all the other things are integral to my life as a parent.

Not all of these things are easy and fun, of course. What parent hasn’t experienced strings of sleepless nights when their children are babies? What parent hasn’t engaged in lively exchanges, sometimes heated and angry, with their children. And what parent hasn’t needed a partner or a village to share the burden of parenting some of the time, if not always. Who hasn’t felt totally humbled by their children? All these things AND joy and love and an understanding heart are part and parcel of fatherhood for me.

Even the mundane and aggravating parts of fatherhood are worthwhile. There’s laundry and food preparation and schlepping and kvetching and all those other things that are part of living in the world with growing beings underfoot. But we find Torah in these parts of parenting, too, if we choose to see them that way. A friend once said to me, “We love what we put work into.” Nothing could be truer than loving our children.

As the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, they encountered boredom, hunger, thirst, rebelliousness, warfare, death, lack of faith and quite often the wrath of God. And yet we learn that it was through these experiences over 40 years that the Israelites acquired Torah for themselves. In the first year, Moses acquired Torah directly from God, but it took another 40 years for Israel to really ingest and absorb Torah for themselves. 

Once, shortly after Miriam died (Num. 20:1) , the wells that had sustained Israel throughout their journey only because of Miriam’s merit — the Sages teach us — dried up. These wells, according to the great hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, otherwise known as the Sefat Emet, symbolize the Oral Torah, that Torah which is acquired through the stream of life as we experience all of these 48 things of which Pirkei Avot speaks. And so, you can imagine, how parched our ancestors became in those days following Miriam’s death, how thirsty for Torah they were.

But then something wonderful happened. First, God brought forth water from a rock (20:11). And then God led Israel to a place called Be’er (21:16), which means “Well.” And the Torah says, God brought them to that place with a well, “which is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” You see, God didn’t abandon the Israelites. They still had water. They still drank in from the source of Torah. But they also had to work to dig the well and make the waters flow.

The Torah continues (21:17-18), “Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it—The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” In the midst of their difficult journey, in the midst of a series of unfortunate events, Israel sang! They sang to the well that fed their bodies and their souls.

Notice that they didn’t sing to God, and they didn’t sing because they experienced a miracle. They sang because they worked to dig that well in Be’er, and their work was good. With their own hands, they made the waters flow and that water would sustain their bodies. In the same vein, through their own encounters with whatever life put in front of them, they learned the Torah that sustained their souls.

So here we are on the Shabbat of Father’s Day weekend. As I pause to think about my journey of fatherhood, I give thanks to God for the many gifts and blessings that have graced my life. I, too, want to sing a song to the children I have co-parented with my own two hands and who have, in turn, taught me Torah, for Jacob and Katie are the well I have dug and their lives are the water that nourishes my soul. And I am grateful.

Psalms 128

(1) A song of ascents. Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways. (2) You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper. (3) Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. (4) So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed. (5) May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life, (6) and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!

Parashah Ponderings

Mining the Torah for Gems: The Case of Parashat Terumah

Parashat Terumah / פרשת תרומה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

In this week’s portion, Parashat Terumah, God gives Moses instructions to build the ark that would contain the tablets of the covenant between God and Israel, the menorah that would stand in the Tabernacle, and the Tabernacle itself. The word “terumah” refers to the voluntary offerings of materials – minerals, stones, fabrics, dyes, oil and spices — that Moses was to take from the Israelites to build these things and other holy objects. If you’re into lists, you’ll love this week’s reading!

The lists and instructions in Terumah, however, may very well cause some readers’ eyes to glaze over. Unlike the narrative components of Torah, the details of the Tabernacle do not provide the most engaging reading. To be sure, Terumah is just one of many portions dedicated to seemingly mundane or esoteric topics relating to the priestly system, much of which can be difficult to access without a full appreciation of their significance to biblical Israel or to us today. Without the willingness to discover transcendent meaning in the details of the Torah, the Torah itself will appear to many people as a massive rock that cannot be penetrated, when in truth, the Torah is an endless mine of precious gems.

Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th century Spanish commentator also known simply as Abarbanel, feels the pain of those who try to find meaning in Torah but fall short when they encounter the complex, drier sections of Torah, such as we have in Terumah. Speaking to the Jewish community of his own day, Abarbanel writes:

Do not think that the commandments about the Tabernacle, which do not apply to us here in the exile, or the laws that are valid only in the land of Israel, or the laws of priestly purity, have not value for us today. The Torah is a book of elevated wisdom and divine teaching. What we understand of these matters today, in terms of their allusions to higher things, is of as much value as when they were in practice. The same is true of all Torah matters. The Torah is a tool to prepare the way for us to become “like God, knowing good” (Gen. 3:5), to keep us alive in every place and at all times.[1]

Clearly, we are not the first generation to struggle with the Torah’s density, but as Abarbanel suggests, there’s much to be learned from the Torah if we’re willing to look closely and patiently at the text and, I would add, be a little creative.

One of my favorite examples of this approach to Torah comes this week in relation to the construction of “an ark of acacia wood,” the portable container for the tablets of the Ten Commandments:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold — overlay it inside and out — and make upon it a gold molding round about.  (Exodus 25:10-11)

The late 11th century commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, aka Rashi, helps us visualize these instructions:

Bezalel (the master craftsman, who oversaw the construction of the Tabernacle and its contents) made three arks, two of gold and one of wood. Each one had four walls and a bottom, and they were open on the top. He placed the wooden one inside the golden one and the [other] golden one inside the wooden one. He covered the upper rim with gold, thus it is found that [the wooden one] was overlaid from inside and from outside [with gold]. — [from Yoma 72b, Shek. 16b][2]

Rashi demonstrates that the ark is a complicated structure. Though God instructs Moses to build simply “an ark of acacia wood,” the ark is in fact three boxes, one made of wood, two made of gold.

The rabbis of the Talmud take this description of the ark and transform it into a lesson about the integrity of Torah scholars: Any Torah scholar who is not the same on the inside as on the outside, is no Torah scholar [Yoma 72b]. That is, as pure as one appears to be on the outside, one must also be in the inside. This is an ideal not just for Torah scholars, I believe, but for all of us.

There is yet another message to be found in the construction of the ark.[3] Why couldn’t the ark be made of just the two gold boxes? What need is there for the box of acacia wood as well? One answer is that in many respects human beings are most like this wooden layer. Unlike gold, which is a pure, unchanging metal, wood comes from trees, which grow and change over time. We may want to present ourselves to the world as pure in thought and resolute in belief, like the outer box of gold, which can be seen by all. We may want to present ourselves to God with similar purity and resoluteness, like the inner box of gold, which is closest to the tablets and seen only by God. On the way to achieving such purity and resoluteness, though, we humans need to be able to work out our ideas, acknowledge our doubts, and struggle with whatever keeps us from maximizing our intellectual, physical, moral and spiritual potential. That work of self-improvement is often done in solitude, out of the public eye. Furthermore, it is work made possible by the gift of free will; even God provides us the space to keep on growing.

There is much more to be learned from the Torah’s treatment of the ark and the Tabernacle than I can possibly touch upon here. Indeed, the mine of Torah never ceases to yield brilliant gems. Unless one is prepared to do the work to discover those gems, however, the Torah will always appear as a big, impenetrable rock.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Carasik, Michael. The Commentators’ Bible: Exodus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005. p. 215.

[2] Ibid., p. 219.

[3] See, for example,

Parashah Ponderings

The Sin of Avoidance

Parashat Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach Lecha, tells of one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the People of Israel during its sojourn in the wilderness. Commonly referred to as the “sin of the spies,” this incident becomes the very reason it would take the people 40 years to enter the Promised Land. During those 40 years, the entire generation of Israelites that left Egypt, save two men — Joshua and Caleb — would perish. Only the generations born in the wilderness, those who never experienced slavery in Egypt, would merit possessing the land.

In chapter 13 of the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers) God instructs Moses to “Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (13:2). In fulfilling God’s bidding, Moses says to the scouts (or spies), of which there was one from each tribe: “‘Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land'” (13:17-20).

What Moses asks for is “just the facts.” However, what the scribes bring back is a report with too much commentary. The scouts effectively undermine the people’s faith in God and once again ready them to return to Egypt: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13:32-33).

Incensed at the scouts and those who joined them in fearing that Israel would never be able to possess the land that God had promised their ancestors, God declares that the generations of Israelites that left Egypt would be doomed to wander for 40 years, one year for each day the scouts were on their mission. This would be enough time to ensure that younger, more faithful Israelites would eventually take over the leadership of the tribes and then conquer the land of Canaan. The People needed optimistic leaders who wouldn’t easily be swayed to abandon their divine mission only to bear the shackles of slavery in Egypt once again.

For a brilliant interpretation of why the generation of the scouts was punished by God as it was, I urge you to read the article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at Rabbi Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of England from 1991 to 2013 and is one of the most astute readers and teachers of Torah in the world today. In answering his own question — “Why did the spies err so egregiously?” — Rabbi Sacks shares a Hassidic train of thought that the spies preferred the wilderness life over the life that would come with building a nation in the Land of Israel ( In the wilderness, the people felt close to God and they could focus on serving God free of responsibilities like plowing and harvesting, self-defense, maintaining a welfare system, etc. In reality, though, Rabbi Sacks writes, “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand” (ibid.).

As we go through life, we often face obstacles that initially feel insurmountable, and it is tempting to simply back away from the obstacles and abandon whatever it was we were hoping to achieve. Had the spies had their way, the People of Israel would have returned back to Egypt, leaving Canaan for another nation to conquer. But that was not God’s plan. So eventually a generation arose with the resolve to see God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to fulfillment. We must show similar resolve in our lives to do the hard, sometimes frightening work required to enjoy a life of meaning and to make the world a better place for all humanity. It is our task to make God’s love manifest for all God’s creatures; this can only happen when we overcome isolation and avoidance to engage the “real world.”