So it was, whenever the ark set out. Moses would say. Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You. (Bamidbar 10:35)
Whenever the Torah is taken out to be read, some congregations recite the prayer ‘B’rich shmei’ (see Chief Rabbi’s Siddur page 408). The text is taken from the mystical work known as the Zohar, attributed to Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai (Zohar Parshat Vayakheil 206a). The prayer includes requests for God to show compassion and mercy to the Jewish people and asserts our Jewish faith. The preceding section of the Zohar explains that when the Aron HaKodesh (lit. holy ark, where the Torah scrolls are housed) is opened, the gates of compassion in Heaven are also opened (Zohar ibid.).
Both Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (known as the ‘Magen Avraham’ d. 1682) and the Baghdadi authority Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (known as the Kaf HaChaim, d. 1939) maintain that B’rich shemei was only to be recited on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Magen Avraham 282, Kaf Hachaim 134:11). This is the accepted custom in the United Synagogue.
The former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (b. 1920) adds that one should bow when reaching the words אנא עבדא דקודשא בריך הוא, ‘I am a servant of the Holy One, blessed be He’ (Yabia Omer 4:8). Others are not particular about this custom (Kaf HaChaim 113:12).
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986) cites Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margaliot (known as the Shaarei Efraim d. 1828) who holds that B’rich shmei should be recited when the Torah is taken of the Aron HaKodesh and not before hand (Iggrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:70). Nevertheless, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira (the Munkácz Rebbe, d. 1937) wrote the Torah should not be removed until B’rich Shmei has been completed. This is the accepted custom in the United Synagogue.
Before reading from the Torah, reciting B’rich Shmei helps us to focus on our relationship with God and in particular asks God to open our hearts to the ideas held within the Torah. This way we can help bring ‘goodness, life and peace’ for all of Israel.
But if you do not listen to Me and do not perform all these commandments… (Leviticus 26:14)
This week’s portion contains one of two sections of curses and admonitions, the other being in Ki Tavo. The Gemara explains that the calendar is always arranged so that there are at least two weeks between the reading of the curses and the festivals of Shavuot and Rosh HaShannah (Megillah 31b and Tosafot loc. cit.).
The Gemara relates that both Shavuot and Rosh HaShannah are classed as days of judgement (Rosh HaShannah 16a). Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen (known as ‘the Cofetz Chaim’, d. 1933) explains that there should be a break between reading the curses and these days of judgement to avoid ‘giving a mouth to the accuser who may indict the Jewish people’ (Beir Halacha 428:4).
Many reliable sources including Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (known as the ‘Magen Avraham’ d. 1682) and Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (known as ‘the Rema’, d. 1572) indicate that merely being called up for this portion is a bad omen for the individual (Magen Avraham 428:8 and Rema on Orach Chaim 53:19).
In the past the question of whom should be called up generated some negative Shul politics with members jostling to ensure that their adversaries were punished by being selected. Consequently, the Rema describes how the warden in some communities would ask for a volunteer for the aliyah, while Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathansohn (d. 1875) described the custom to simply not call anyone up for this portion (Shoeil u’Meishiv 5:9).
The custom has developed for the person leining (reading the Torah) to receive this aliyah. This means that it is not strictly necessary to call him up in the normal way as he is standing on the bimah (reading platform) already.
In this way we are able to find a practical solution to this difficult question. While it is perhaps not an honour anyone would seek, reminding ourselves that Hashem li v’lo irah – God is with me, I shall not fear helps us to rise above the threat of bad omens and embrace Divine protection.
And Moses said to God, ‘Why have you afflicted your servant and why have I not found favour in your eyes, that you lay the burden of this entire people upon me?’ Numbers 11:11
The Jewish people complained that the manna which God had provided was insufficient compared to the delicacies of fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic they had enjoyed in Egypt.
Yet this was not the first time the Jewish people had erred. At what should have been the most intimate moment between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, they committed the gravest of all transgressions by worshipping the Golden Calf. At that time Moses had reacted very differently by praying for the people and pleading with God not to destroy them.
In this case however, while the Jewish people’s complaint about the manna may have seemed a little churlish and impolite, Moses’ reaction appears to have been out of proportion.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik (d. 1993) explains that while the sin of the Golden calf was an idolatrous act, there were mitigating circumstances. The people were frightened that Moses had not returned and so sought to replace him with another leader. While it certainly deserved punishment, their idolatry was at the very least an understandable if not primitive attempt to satisfy the need for leadership and guidance.
In contrast, when the people complained about the manna and cried for meat, their behaviour was driven by a craving for the unrestrained satisfaction of every physical desire (Yoma 75a). This explains Moses’ response. Since the foundation of Torah is for man to practise restraint, their call for meat was therefore an even greater rebellion than idolatry. We learns that in essence the Torah promotes the most crucial virtue for all societies to emulate: the power of delayed gratification.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.