Monthly Archives: June 2020

Complicity and Conscience: Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5780

The Torah says that Caleb ben Yifuneh was blessed with “a different spirit,” and that this differentiation allowed him alone to survive the curse of death in the desert. At Numbers 14:23, God tells Moses that the entire generation that had witnessed divine miracles in Egypt and the desert but had nevertheless acted testily ten times would never see the land, but rather die in the wilderness. The next verse reads, “But my servant Caleb had a different spirit with him, and followed me, so I will bring him to the land where he had come, and his seed will inherit it.”

This verse occasions many questions. Why only Caleb? What about Joshua? Why is Caleb called “my servant,” an honorific used sparingly in the Torah (though Avot D’Rabbi Natan gives 18 examples)? And what is his different spirit? Our commentators have much to say on this and more. Joshua acquitted himself well, but perhaps only because Moses gave him special attention and protection. His survival is therefore not entirely earned. And at the crucial moment in the prior chapter, Caleb alone spoke out against the evil report of the spies, silencing them with his confident belief in God. For this reason, he is honored with the title “my servant” and singled out to enter the Land. But what was his different spirit?

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Separation from Cain: Naso 5780

“When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:5-7).

This passage from Parashat Naso opens a section dedicated to the purification of the camp of Israel prior to its journey toward the Land. It anticipates interpersonal conflict and notes that hurtful behavior has both social and spiritual consequences. The bad actor has wronged both their victim and also God, since brazen behavior denies divine authority. They are required to confess their actions, to pay restitution plus a fine. There is also a required sacrifice—a ram of expiation (איל הכפורים)—to repair the spiritual component of the sin.

The phrase לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּה’, translated by JPS as “breaking faith,” is rendered in the Aramaic translations as “speaking lies,” before the Lord. Robbery always involves an element of deception. The rabbis notice that back in Levit. 5:21 a similar law is taught, but there the victim is identified as “one’s kinsman,” namely, a fellow Israelite, so this passage comes to be known as גזל הגר, “stealing from a stranger.” Even if the victim has died before the thief can be forced to restore the stolen property, and even if the victim has no heirs, the stolen goods must still be repaid, in this case to the public purse of the priests. The “stranger” is claimed as “one of us.” They are protected from theft, and if robbed, they are owed apology and restitution.

One of the more imaginative and timely expansions of this text is found in the Zohar to Naso (3:122). Who is a biblical figure most associated with both violence and deception? Cain. But we don’t know much of his subsequent history. As always, Midrash abhors (or exploits) a vacuum. There is a later biblical people called the “Kenites,” (קנים), and the rabbis like to associate them with Cain (קין).  In the book of Judges, there is a verse which sets up the valorous act of Yael in defeating Sisera that reads, “Heber the Kenite separated from Cain, from the sons of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses (4:11). What does it mean to “separate from Cain”? Continue reading