Weekly Torah Commentary – Naso June 17, 2016

Note: At present, the Torah readings within Israel are different from those outside Israel.  This will continue for a short time and is due to the way the holidays fell this spring on the Hebrew calendar.  Since most of my readers are in countries outside Israel, I am following that schedule for the commentaries.

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 

In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to the Aaronic blessing.


“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. So they shall invoke My name on the sons of Israel and I then will bless them.”  (Num. 6:23–27).

Many of you may be familiar with this blessing but did you notice the last verse?  We call it the Priestly blessing or the Aaronic blessing. In reality, it is God’s blessing on His people delivered through the priestly line.  ‘…I then will bless them…’

Our words have great influence in the lives of those around us, and spoken blessings can bring hope, encouragement, and direction to others. I believe that our society is sorely lacking in the art of blessing others.  This practice alone could have a powerful impact on the ills of our world.

A spoken blessing is a positive, Biblical statement that invokes the blessing of God in the life of another.  Our words have potential to do good or to do harm. The Bible speaks directly about the power of our words in verses such as these:

  • “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Proverbs 18:21).
  • “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24).
  • “Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop: but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25).

While the blessing of the congregation of Israel was a task bestowed on the priestly line, it is also a template for how we can bless other people. I believe that cultivating an attitude of blessing is far more important than we realize. Sadly, cursing other people has become much more common than blessing them. To curse is to call evil or injury down on someone; to wish them harm or misfortune.  It is the very opposite of blessing. And our choice in life is to bless or to curse, to call forth goodness or to call down evil.

This choice goes beyond a formula of words for the choice between blessing or cursing someone else is a matter of the heart.  Whichever way we choose, we are unveiling the state of our inner being.  If we bless, we are living according to the commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  If we curse others, we reveal a dark and sinister heart attitude.

The priestly blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24–26 provides us with an excellent example of a Godly blessing: “The Lord bless you, and keep [guard, protect, compass about with a hedge of safety] you: The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: The Lord lift up his countenance [give full attention in a favorable way] upon you, and give you peace [wholeness, health, security, serenity, well-being, contentment, harmony; an absence of negative stress, disturbance, tension, and conflict].”

One of the most worthwhile habits you could cultivate is the habit of blessing which includes but is not limited to:

thinking the best of others, instead of being critical and/or judgmental

looking for the good in others, instead of focusing on their weaknesses or failures

having their best interests at heart instead of thinking just of yourself

celebrating others’ successes and good fortune without resentment or jealousy

By developing the habit of blessing others with my words, I reap the benefit of gradually creating a positive, inspiring and godly character.

Years ago I knew a young woman who was competing for the title of Miss Teenage America.  In the interview portion of the competition, she was asked this question by one of the judges:  If you could choose, would you rather be a baseball or a baseball bat?

Without hesitation, she replied, “I’d choose to be the baseball bat so I could propel someone else to achieve success.”

That reply won her the title.

In Tune with Torah this week = have you blessed anyone lately? Whether in your own mind or aloud, have you spoken the blessings of God into anyone else’s life?  It could be as simple as this: you see someone driving recklessly.  Choose: will you say, ‘Dear God, grant him wisdom and help him get to his destination safely’?

Or will you sit back and criticize (a form of cursing)?

The choice is yours.

Shabbat Shalom








Weekly Torah Commentary – Ki Tisa Feb. 26, 2016

Exodus 30:11-34:35

This week’s Torah reading teaches a strong lesson leadership.


Leadership failures occur for one of two reasons.  The first often has to do with timing.  The individual may read the situation incorrectly.  He or she may move out too soon or too late and failure follows. Sometimes despite your best efforts, you fail and must turn to God to profit from your failure by learning the lesson contained therein.

The second reason leaders fail is internal. A leader can simply lack the courage necessary for successful leadership: the ability to avoid being a crowd-pleaser, the ability to say ‘No’ when everyone else is shouting ‘Yes’. That can be daunting, even terrifying. Crowds have a momentum of their own. To say ‘No’ whenever those around you are pressuring you to say ‘yes’ carries severe risk. You may lose your job, be publicly humiliated and in extreme cases, even lose your life. That is when courage is needed, and the lack thereof constitutes a moral failure of the worst kind.

That is precisely what we encounter in this week’s Torah reading. Moses had been up the mountain for forty days. The people got nervous. Had he died? Where was he? He was their connection with God, their mediator. This is how the Torah describes what happened next:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and he fashioned it with a tool and made it into a molten calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ (Ex. 32:1-4)

Understandably,God became angry. Moses pleaded with Him to spare the people.

Coming down the mountain and seeing what happened, Moses smashed the tablets of the Torah which he had brought down with him, burned the idol, ground it to powder, mixed it with water and made the Israelites drink it.

Then he turned to Aaron his brother and his ‘deputy’ and said, “What have you done?”

“Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered.  “You know how prone these people are to evil.  They said to me, ‘Make us a god who will go before us.  As for this man Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold and I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!”  Exod. 32:22-24

Aaron blamed the people and denied responsibility for making the calf. It just ‘happened’, he claimed. This is the same kind of denial of responsibility we recall from the story of Adam and Eve. The man says, “It was the woman.” The woman says, “It was the serpent.” It happened. It wasn’t me. I was the victim not the perpetrator.  Evasion of responsibility is a moral failure in anyone but especially in a leader.

It is curious that Aaron was not immediately punished.  It wasn’t until years later when he and Moses spoke angrily against the people for their complaining that God declared, “Aaron with be gathered to his people.  He will not enter the Land..”  Num. 20:24

And it wasn’t until the last month of Moses’ life that he finally confessed a fact he’d kept from the people all those years:    I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the Lord listened to me. And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. (Deut. 9:19-20)

According to Moses, God was so angry with Aaron for the sin of the golden calf that He was about to kill him, and would have done so had it not been for Moses’ prayer.

It is so easy to be critical of people who fail the leadership test when it involves opposing the crowd, defying the consensus, blocking the path the majority are intent on taking. The truth is that it is hard to oppose the mob. They can ignore you, remove you, even assassinate you.

Moses had a real mess on his hands!  He destroyed the calf, then asked for support and his fellow Levites rose to the occasion. They killed the three thousand rebels who had instigated the whole thing.  The Israelites at the foot of the mountain didn’t realize how close they had come to being utterly destroyed.

Mercifully, there is more than one kind of leadership.  From a different perspective, Aaron is recognized as a man of peace, a quality dearly needed by a High Priest which was his calling.  The priesthood involves following rules, not taking stands and swaying crowds. The fact that Aaron was not a leader in the same type as Moses does not mean that he was a total failure. It means that he was created for a different kind of role.

There are times when you need someone with the courage to stand against the crowd, but there are other times when a peacemaker is needed. Moses and Aaron were different types. Aaron failed when he was called on to be a Moses, but he became a great leader when he stood in his own calling. Aaron and Moses complemented each other. No one person can do everything.

In Tune with Torah this week = each person will be the happiest and most effective when operating in their own calling, according to the gifts and talents which God planted in them.  To envy another’s position is ultimate folly.  You wouldn’t succeed there if it’s not your place!  Embrace your purpose and calling in life and respect the ‘other’.  This is a key to unity in any body of people.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Va’eira January 15, 2015

When Moses first returned to Egypt to lead the children of Israel to freedom, his mission seemed to be going well but the early sense of success was short-lived.  Things started to go wrong, and continued going wrong.

His first appearance before Pharaoh was a disaster. Pharaoh mocked God, rejected Moses’ request to let the people travel into the wilderness to worship, and increased the hardships on the people. They were required to make the same number of bricks but had to find their own raw materials. The result was that the Israelites turned against Moses:

“May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Ex. 5:21).

Moses and Aaron returned multiple times to Pharaoh with their persistent request.  Pharaoh remains increasingly un-cooperative. The plagues do not move him; he refuses to let the Israelites go. Though Moses has done everything God instructed him to do, the Israelites are still slaves.

The stress Moses felt is reflected in his prayer to God:

“Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all” (Ex. 5:22-23).

There is a profound message here. True leaders often experience failure.

Abraham Lincoln faced countless setbacks during the civil war. He was a deeply divisive figure, hated by many in his lifetime. Gandhi failed in his dream of uniting Muslims and Hindus together in a single nation. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, accused of treason and regarded as a violent agitator. Winston Churchill was held in low regard by the 1930s, and even after his heroic leadership during the Second World War was voted out of office at the first General Election after the war was over.

Principle: Heroes only appear heroic in retrospect when the setbacks and/or failures they faced can finally be seen as stepping stones to their greatness. Whether spiritual or secular, leaders are tested not by their successes but by their failures. It takes no special skill to succeed when the times are favorable. It’s when situations and conditions change that character is tested.

The great men and women of history are not those who never failed. They are those who survived failure, who kept on going, who refused to be defeated, who never gave up or gave in. They kept striving and they learned from every mistake. They viewed failure as a learning experience. Defeat was not an option; their drive was to become stronger, wiser and more determined.  That summarizes the life of Moses as described in last week’s Torah reading and this one as well.

Jim Collins, in his book HOW THE MIGHTY FALL, explains it this way:

The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before … The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat… and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.

The truth is that greatness cannot be achieved without failure. There are heights you cannot climb without first having stumbled. Defeats, delays and disappointments hurt. They hurt for Moses but he kept on keeping on.
In Tune with Torah this week = understanding that in those times we feel discouraged and demoralized, it behooves us to remember that today’s heroes, today’s ‘greats’ suffered failures. At times they were dismissed as troublemakers, even fools, but they never lost FAITH. What made them great is that they kept going. The road to success always passes through valleys of failure. There is no other way. Be strong and carry on.
Shabbat Shalom