Bamidbar and the Lessons of War

Welcome back to the Joseph Cox show.

This week’s episode is being recorded just before Shabbat. The reason it is late is because I focused on other writing – particularly an editorial I wrote earlier this week which is at the end of this podcast.

The second reason is that I didn’t have much to say until just today. Normally this is a very hard Parsha to speak about – but that has changed.

I’m going to do two things this week. The first is focused on Torah, the second is focused on the riots that have overwhelmed some of our cities this week.

Let’s start with Torah side of things.

This week is Parshat Bamidbar. But I want to roll back from this parsha to the previous parsha and a question that has long bedeviled me.

In the last parsha of the Book of Vayikra we have an understandable climax. After describing the rules and limits of a people close to G-d, Hashem describes the wonderful blessings that will come to a G-dly people and the horrifying curses that will overwhelm us if we deal casually with Him.

Those blessings and curses fit. They fit into the storyline of the book of Vayikra and the long shadow cast by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

But then, tucked in at the very end, is something very strange. We are given valuations for souls, and then guidelines for the dedication of property and land to Hashem.

Aside from throwing up modern alarm bells as we see the lower valuations for women, the elderly and children, the entire passage seems out of place.

And then, if we ignore the barriers between books, we are in Bamidbar and we are counting the people in preparation for entering the land.

What is going on here?

I noticed something new this year, while reading that last parsha of Vayikra.

Later in the Torah we read two ways in which the people can return to the land. In the first, we circumcise our own hearts and can thus connect to Hashem. In the second, Hashem circumcises our hearts for us and then we can return to the land.

Circumcision is obviously big in Torah. It is connected to removing something – an Arel.

In Egyptian religion, there is a concept that a prophet removes any impediment from the gods speaking through them. That impediment is an Arel.

In the Torah, the removal of this Arel is the removal of an impediment to the divine purpose or divine action.

When we perform circumcision, our willful act of procreation is no longer simply natural.

Instead, it can become an expression of divine will. Our children become an expression of divine will.

And when our hearts are circumcised our nephashot – our animating souls – can be dedicated to Hashem.

In one path, we circumcise our own hearts. In the other, Hashem does it for us.

So, what did I notice in last week’s parsha?

In last week’s Parsha we return, but our hearts are not circumcised. Instead, they are humbled.

We make space for Hashem by humbling our own motivations, but not my eliminating them.

To me this path is the highest of them all. Our humanity is allowed to fully remain. Our resistance to the divine is allowed to remain. It is just muted. We are still ourselves, we just give space to the divine in our lives.

The process is this: Hashem returns us to our land. We humble our uncircumcised hearts. And then we are granted the blessings of our forefathers.

So why is this followed by the valuation of souls?

Because that dedication of our souls is a practical, hands-on, measurable way of humbling our uncircumcised hearts. We dedicate our nephashot – our animating souls – our physical reality – to Hashem.

This is why the valuations are different. For a man, from 20 to 60, the price is 50 shekel. Their Arel, the strength of their G-d-blocking membrane is very strong indeed. For others, that Arel is more humble already.

Women, children and the elderly – each for their own reasons – are more easily able to suppress their own prideful will and accept the guidance Hashem.

And if our pride in in our property or our land, if our resistance is due to those things, then we can dedicate those as well.

When we come to Parshat Bamidbar, the men again bring a representative gift. But instead of giving 50 shekel each, they give only a half a shekel.

Why the difference?

On one level, the purpose is different – they are providing some sort of protection for their souls. Protection when they are stood up and counted before Hashem.

But cast it in the light of the readings just before this reading and there is something else.

We could be giving this money for the same reason we gave it in the prior reading.

We could be giving this money to humble our Arel.

We could be giving it to open up space in our hearts for the divine.

But instead of giving 50 shekel a man, we give only one half shekel a man.

The reason for this is simple. This count is a count for war. It is a mustering of men. And in the face of war, we are already more open to G-d. As the old saying goes: “no man is an atheist in a foxhole.”

In the face of the random circumstances of war, the risks that we will face, we are more open to Hashem.

We do not need to give 50 shekel for a man, but only a half shekel.

But why a half shekel?

The answer comes in the counting itself. The count is by Gulglotam. It is often translated as “by your heads” but it literally means “by your circles.”

We count in hundreds because that is the size of an army unit. The evidence for this is in the count itself. Every tribe is rounded to hundreds, except the tribe of Gad. They are rounded to 50s. Gad is distinct. In Yaacov’s blessing, he says: GAD GADUD YGUDANU HUH YAGUD EIKEV. Let’s make an English word for the root Gad and say it is different forms of Attack. A translation of this would read ‘attackers will attack against Attacker but he will attack their heel’. Gad is so aggressive – and attacks the vulnerability of his enemies so effectively – that he cannot be attacked.

He is the inverse of Achilles (whose only weakness was his heel).

The tribe of Gad are Special Forces. Which is why their units are smaller – only 50 men instead of 100.

Each man gives a half shekel because a whole unit, empowered by their togetherness, has the same resistance to the divine as a single man has in normal times.

Again, in the face of war, we are more willing to accept Hashem.

The goal is the humiliation I’ve described is not humility per se. We are not supposed to think less of ourselves. We are not fear of the enemy or nature. We are not even supposed to seek anonymity. Our leaders are named and recorded forever.

This humiliation is about one thing: creating space for Hashem.

When we do that we can be named, we can live without fear, we can blessed and we can remembered forever. And the promises made to our forefathers can be unlocked.

Remember the process we saw at the end of Vayikra: Hashem brings us back – but then it is up to us to humble the blockade of our hearts so that our blessings can be unlocked.

This it is a road to blessing. A road we are on today.

We have been returned, and it is up to us to humble the blockade of our hearts.

And if we face challenge in humbling our hearts?

Then Hashem makes it easier for us. He brings us war. The war is not to punish us. It is there simply to open our hearts to Him.

To enable us to realize just how much we depend on Him.

And to unlock, ultimately, the fulness of his blessings.

This is our reality today. Our forces are on the precipice of Gaza. The precipice of going to war on the ground. All of us our exposed to rockets and sirens and alarms. And despite all the confidence of our technologies, all the confidences of our air power – the reality of our situation, of our risks, brings into focus just how powerless we are. It brings into focus just how much we need Hashem.

The coming Parshiot show us what comes when we humble our Arel. We are ready to bring gifts to Hashem – humbly, every leader the same. We are ready to repair relationships and then we are ready to come to true comfort and peace.

We come to the very edge of Eden in only two readings.

The reality that be unlocked in one of total blessing.

But there is another perspective I want to explore.

You see, the armies are not coming to conquer a land they came from. The armies in this parsha. They are coming to conquer a land that, by any human reckoning, does not belong to them.

In fact, they were travelers from Ur – self-expelled. They were slaves in Egypt – with no claim to that place. No land belongs to them. No land belongs to us. The Torah emphasizes this later. Our inheritance is not the inheritance of land – it is the inheritance of our relationship to Hashem.

That relationship is our only claim on this land.

The Jewish people are called the Ivrim. The word means “across” or “from across”. Our very name implies that no matter where we are, we came from someplace else.

We never belong.

Why? Why can’t we be true natives anywhere? Why can’t we simply belong?

Why must we always wander, even when we are in our home?

On one level, this reality prevents us from having a cultural Arel that is overblown. We don’t have a culture that cannot be humbled before Hashem.

But there is much more going on and a hint of this is in Avraham’s family.

Terach (Avraham’s father) names his three sons, seemingly born at the same time (I love triplets) after the past, present and future. Avram is for father (the past), Nahor means sneeze (the present) and Haran means education (the future).

Terach is also the first person in the Torah to travel from one culture to another.

His family, from which all the forefathers and foremothers are derived, represent a people connected to every time and every place. At the same time, because of this, they are not connected to any one time or any one place.

Like Avraham, because we connect across places and times, we can better connect to every place and every time.

We can better connect to infinity.

With this reality, every other culture can point to us and say: “they do not belong.” Our reality is not justified by the rules of any other people. Whether they want us dead, dispossessed, weakened or absorbed – we are not justified by the morality of any other people.

Even China is seeking to constrain us in our present conflict.

There is always an argument from somewhere as to why we are wrong and no matter where we are, we do not belong.

We stand apart. We always stand apart.

But as negative as this can seem, there is another side to it.

In the Purim story, Haman’s accusation is that we do not fit. We have our own laws and our language and despite being dispersed among all the nations we are not a part of any of them.

Mordechai’s solution is to flip the script. Because we are a part of every people, but not absorbed by them, we can strengthen the empire. In the end, Achashveirosh can raise taxes because this people – the Jewish people connected to him through Mordechai – strengthen his empire.

As much as we belong nowhere, we belong everywhere.

In modern terms, our Iraqi Jews have more in common with Iraqi Arabs than Americans do. And our American Jews have more in common with Americans than Indians do. And our Indian Jews have more in common with Indians than Poles do. And so on and so on.

Our strings connect to everywhere and we are a part of everyone.

Just as in the Purim story we can – as hard as it can be to imagine now – tie the world together.

But we do not do this by raising our own pride or by pointing at how amazing we are or by highlighting the technologies or charities or ventures we launch. Or by speaking of our amazing people or even by defending ourselves from the accusations of those who hate us. Defenses that never seem to work.

We do it through service. Service to our King on one level. And service to those other cultures on another.

In recent years, Israeli TV has taken America by storm. In many cases, it is adapted to an American audience – from Homeland to the Beauty and the Baker. Our reality, as being just outside, enables us to provide something that doesn’t arise indigenously. It comes something fresh but something familiar at the same time. But we can, and we should, extend this reality. We can entertain the Arab world, the Persian world, the Indian world, the Chinese world.

We have bridges to everywhere and every people. And so we can tie the world together – even as they point to us as that singular people who do not belong.

Of course, it isn’t just about entertainment.

No, there are two realities we must bring together.

On the one hand we can connect to the world. But on the other we must connect to Hashem.

It is when these two aspects of our destiny our tied together that we can realize another reality.

Imagine the Jewish people knitting the world together as we simultaneously open ourselves to the service of Hashem.

That, perhaps, is what it means to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Nation of Holiness.

We can be hated because we do not belong – or we can bring the love of G-d to all of humankind.

These parshiot, as boring and misplaced as they may seem, can guide us towards our ultimate destiny.

By virtue of our belonging nowhere and by virtue of our openness to G-d, we can connect all of humanity to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Our land is called the land of Canaan. The word for humility that is used is canaa.

Our land humbles us. But that very humility can lift us – and all of humankind – up to a reality of ultimate goodness and holiness.

The next section is the op-ed I wrote about the riots. I wrote it two days ago and have posted versions of it in multiple places. Thousands of people have read it and I think it is worth sharing here as well. It is a few days old so some of it might seem a bit out of date although they are still in flux.

I am deeply saddened by what is happening in my country.

The war with Gaza is one thing. Sadly, it occurs and reoccurs. It is simply a continuation of what has been before.

The ethnic rioting is another thing altogether.

Israeli society is loosely held together. There are undercurrents of resentment and anger between lots of ethnicities. Knitting together a multi-ethnic society is hard. The *Jews* in Israel often have a hard time of it – with tensions across lines of religious and national origin.

One can watch and simply hope that they generally improve. I was *delighted* to see that an Arab party might be included in a right-wing or centrist government. I was delighted to see the Abraham Accords. These things heralded a new era – in which “the Arabs” and “the Jews” were not necessarily enemies.

Now, it is all falling apart. Yesterday, in cities with Arab and Jewish populations – cities that represented coexistence – there were anti-Jewish pogroms.

Today, there are anti-Arab pogroms as well.

Only a few weeks ago, the ethnic lines were cracking. A new light was just beginning to shine.

And I think that’s exactly why we have the situation we have now.

The current tensions, by my reading, were sparked not by Sheikh Jarrah or police on the Temple Mount. The tensions were sparked by the Palestinian elections. The PA is supposed to have elections every four years. The last parliamentary elections were in 2006. Fatah (the PLO party) and Hamas agreed to elections in May of this year.

Why does this matter? Because when March 31st arrived and official lists were needed, Marwan Barghouti’s wife and a few other breakaway members of Fatah formed a party separate from Fatah. The opinion polls showed Hamas would have 30% of the vote while Fatah would have 22%. The new party would have 28%. Fatah – Mahmoud Abbas’ party – realized they’d lose.

Fatah needed reasons to cancel the elections. They started with Jerusalem voting. On April 29th (less than two weeks ago), they used that lever to cancel the elections. But as Reuters put it “many Palestinians regarded the Jerusalem issue as an excuse to avoid elections that Fatah might well lose to its Islamist rivals Hamas, as it did in the last parliamentary ballot in 2006.”

The Jerusalem story didn’t fly. So, it was time for another excuse. It was time for a little violence. After all, in a pinch you can always blame Israel for your cancelled election.

So tensions ramped up. We had people chanting “Bomb Bomb Tel Aviv!” on the Temple Mount. We had a drive-by shooting officially supported by Fatah (for the first time in years). We had a Border Police station attacked by three men.

Well, Hamas couldn’t be outdone in the violence game. That is, after all, the basis of their legitimacy. So on Jerusalem Day (often a needlessly provocative day of Jewish triumphalism) they saw Fatah’s few riots on the Temple Mount and raised them with rocket attacks on Jerusalem itself.

Israel, of course, had to retaliate.

All of this was entirely *normal*. It was just two Palestinian factions trying to kill Jews for internal political purposes and Israel reacting.

But something *wasn’t* normal: The Abraham Accords. Egyptian planes coming to Tel Aviv with their actual flags flying. The religious Arab Ra’am Party perhaps joining a right-wing or centrist Israeli government.

What wasn’t normal was that, for the first time in Israel’s history, *Arabs* could see there was no need for ethnic conflict with Israel. There was another path opening. They could not only be a part of government but use their political leverage to secure real benefits from their position. This would be akin to large numbers of African Americans being willing to vote Republican. The sudden need to court these once guaranteed Democratic voters would increase the power of African American voters to influence *both* parties.

This sort of ethnic shift – in which the sectarian lines between Arabs and Jews were fracturing –  would be a death blow to both Fatah and Hamas.

Remember one thing both sides agree on is that Jews cannot be allowed to live on their territory. The ethnic conflict is critical to them.

So Fatah and Hamas fomented riots in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

And this was not normal.

Synagogues and schools were burned and homes were attacked. Jews shot people coming to attack their neighborhoods – perhaps in self-defense. The Arab Ra’am party called on the rioters to stop. They said they had been misled by Islamic preachers. The Arab-Jewish Hadash party called for the rioters to stop. But the other purely ethnic Arab parties didn’t.

Riots spread to Lod, Acre, Jaffa and Haifa. These weren’t protests, they were pogroms.

And all of a sudden, all those Jews who had wondered whether their Arab neighbors were secretly hoping to attack them had their worst fears confirmed.

A day later and there are anti-Arab riots. Jewish leaders across the spectrum – including those leaders of hard-right parties – have called for Jewish rioters to stop. But they haven’t. And so all those Arabs who had wondered whether their Jewish neighbors were secretly hoping to expel them have had their worst fears confirmed.

And now we have an ethnic conflict, fully rekindled, courtesy of the fears of Hamas and Fatah.

What can we do? How do you unmake an ethnic conflict? How do you take away from the kindling that sets it aflame? How do you dispel the distrust?

These mixed cities, places like Ramle and Lod, were troubled places. But they represented the possibility of a better future.


Now, they represent a nightmare.

Here’s what I hope will happen.

I hope Lapid, Bennet and Ra’am’s Abbas form a government *now*. I think Ra’am needs a *prominent* position in that government and all parties need to strongly speak out in support of that government.

If the lowest levels are falling apart, then it is urgent for the highest levels to hold together.

This government should seek to cool tensions on both sides. How? Water down the nation-state law as an unnecessary distraction and provocation. Create an Arab-focused police force (populated with a higher-than-normal percentage of Arab officers). Expand housing permits for Druze and Arab towns.

We could even go so far as to create a special residency permits so vetted families from Gaza can temporarily live in the homes of Arab citizens of Israel.

What about Jewish fears? First and foremost, it must be the declared and primary mission of that Arab-focused police force to suppress violence within the sector. But more can be done. Jews in Israel have a very positive view of the UAE. Invite the UAE to send religious leaders to Israel to host high-profile meetings between Jewish and Arab civic leaders. But don’t stop there, use peace-minded leaders from both Arab and Jewish society (including the UAE) to meet with the hoodlums responsible for the violence. Televise those meetings.

Bring the bad actors to task while increasing understanding between the sectors of society.

Show a way past what has occurred.

And then? With the immediate tensions cooled it will be the work of a generation to pull the pieces back together.

In 2016, I wrote “the City on the Heights”, a book about unwinding the ethnic war in Syria and Iraq.

I wrote in the epilogue of that book:

“The major fault lines of the society had cracked into thousands of smaller and overlapping lines. People had not assimilated with one another, but the definition of their groups had weakened. My father’s dream became reality. In time, the clear edges of conflict became fuzzy and the City grew further and further from the edges of war.”

Please G-d, may we see such a reality both in Israel and throughout this region.

Thank you for listening and Shabbat Shalom.

Photo by Diego González on Unsplash

  1. Joseph Cox says:

    This concept of women having lower resistance to G-dliness is derived (for me) from the story of the Garden. Chava (Eve), in eating the fruit, sacrifices the timeless for the pleasures of the moment. When the time for expulsion comes though, Chava is not cursed. She is inverted. She accepts the pain of the present (a husband and childbirth) in order to create the timeless (the future, through children). She is inherently holier – and thus the lower cost to humble her soul.

  2. Susan R Quinn says:

    Wonderful. The idea of bringing together the two realities–our lives in the world and our relationship with Hashem– is very alive for me. Thank you for these posts, Joseph.

  3. Joseph Cox says:

    Another concept is that women and others aren’t counted in this way not because they don’t count but because they – sending their men off to war – need no payment to humble their Arel.

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