The Circle of Life

parshat Pinchas – numbers 25-27

Join Geoffey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on July 21st 2022 for another episode of Madlik disruptive Torah. The Torah uses a term associated with harassment, pain, siege, and tsuris and we are intrigued, because it is also associated with being bound up in the bundle of life. In a week when we mourn our losses we explore the connections.

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Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform.  The Torah uses a term associated with harassment, pain, siege, and tsuris and we are intrigued, because this same term is also associated with being bound up in the bundle of life. During this period in our calendar when we mourn our losses, we explore the connections. So take off your shoes and sit on a simple stool as we explore The Circle of Life


Well, welcome to another week of Madlik and another where we are transcontinental, I am in Israel and the rabbi is in New York, I came to Israel, because there was a death in my family. And this learning tonight is dedicated to my mother-in-law whose name was Haya bat Hanna and Avigdor. And it also happens to be a time when all of the Jewish people are at a level of mourning. Many things that we do, when we mourn an individual I made reference to taking off your shoes and sitting on a stool, are done in a gradual fashion as we get closer and closer to the lowest point, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, which is Tisha B’av . And so, I think that one rule when you read the parsha, and you look for something that attracts you in any particular year is you can’t evade what happens in your own personal life. And I have always been intrigued by an expression that is used when we bury somebody and it’s used during the Yizkur and other times when we remember those who are passed. And that is the the concept as I mentioned in the introduction of being bound up in the bind of life, to be צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים and as I was reading this week’s parsha with that on my mind, I discovered that the word appears in the parsha and that is the link that will bind us and guide us as we today explore this word and how it is used in a different manner. So, we are in a parshat Pinchas. And Pinchas, a you probably know it started at the end of last week’s parsha was Zariz (קַנַאִי), a zeolot, he was a someone who took the rules of the law into his own hand. And after the Moabites failed to curse the Jewish people. They tried to entice them through sending harlots and prostitutes and there was one coupling of a prince of Israel and a prostitute and he was extrajudicial, he took a spear and he killed them. And that’s where most of the focus is when people read through a parsha. Very quickly it talks about how we deal with this in the future. And in numbers 25: 17 -18 it strangely enough, we’re not going to go into it takes aim not at the Moabites but at the Midianites and it says Asail the Midianites and defeat them for they assailed you by trickery they practiced against you because of this affair with Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain. So the word that it used for assail is צָר֖וֹר. And for those of you who have a ear, for the Hebrew language, and the Shoresh, the source system know that a word like צָר֖וֹר has the word צָר֖ in it. And צָר֖ can mean narrow. We always talk about Mitzrayim  מִצְרַיִם as a narrow place. It also as well, in the three weeks and we know that the siege of Jerusalem began at a certain time, a מָצוֹר is a siege, and we’re going to explore how else this word is used primarily in a negative way. But first what I’d like to do is to bring in in Rashi and Rashi is struck by not only the word, but the grammatical form that it’s used. And he says that what you Need to do with צָר֖וֹר It’s like זָכוֹר, and שָׁמוֹר. And again, those with an ear for the Hebrew language know that in the 10 commandments in one place, it refers to the Shabbat you shall remember the Sabbath day. And the other place it says you shall keep the Sabbath day. So he really feels that this צָר֖וֹר this you have to assail, you have to vex you have to have enmity for the Midianites is a very powerful charge to action. And he says it’s an idea of continuous action, just as you remember the Shabbat all the time. And all of the commentators kind of pick up on what Rashi is saying. And they go back and forth. And I’ve shared this in the notes about how emphatic it is whether it’s a combination of the present tense and the future tense. But I think the overall concept that Rashi’s trying to get a course is it has an exclamation point after it. And it is an absolute call to continuous action. And Rabbi, you know, normally I pose a question to you …. has this issue ever been raised? It’s not really an issue. But I guess it is the connection between צָר֖וֹר that we find here and צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים, this binding up? Are you at all that intrigued as we begin and set out on this journey?

Adam Mintz  06:36

I think that’s great. I mean, the fact that you’ve found that connection in this week parsha, which is a word that clearly is the same word, but a completely different context. And that’s really the beauty of Hebrew, that the same word is used in completely different ways. And you know, it’s kind of a challenge for us to see, is there a connection in the word between its two usages? And sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. And that’s part of the fun. So, yes, I am very intrigued.

Geoffrey Stern  07:06

So and I think you hit the nail on the head, sometimes there is a connection. And sometimes you think that you’re almost involved in some sort of artificial gematria, or some sort of artificial hermeneutics, and we will all be the judge. But it is fascinating to look at just as we look at the history of an idea, it’s fun to look at the history and the development of a word. So, I said before that usually the word at the at the root of צָר֖. צָר֖וֹר is very negative. And some of the verses that we can kind of touch upon to represent that would be as follows. It says, (Exodus 23: 22) And if you obey Him in all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. So, it says, וְצַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־צֹרְרֶֽיךָ. So, the idea is that צָר֖ is narrow. And that צָר֖ is as we said, about a מָצוֹר about a siege. It’s something that squeezes but it also became something associated with an enemy. So and it’s not only a political enemy in Leviticus 18: 18, it says, Do not take a woman as a rival to her sister, and uncover her nakedness. So, you should not take and I believe that’s probably the לֹ֣א תִקָּ֑ח לִצְרֹ֗ר that case. Is a sister. in law.  And the way it refers to that sister-in-law is לִצְרֹ֗ר. It’s a rival. It’s somebody who is not so much an enemy as as a rival. And then in numbers 10: 9 it says, when you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound the short blasts on the trumpets that you may be remembered before your God and be delivered from your enemies. And here too it says וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם. And so here again, it’s the enemy that attacks you. So, most of the references that refer to l’zror are of a military nature and so that is a Another thing that kindled my intrigue and my curiosity in terms of a verb, and a relationship that is so powerful and so visceral, that is usually used for enemies and is usually used for military actions. How does that end up being used also to talk about the bind of life? So one old additional interpretation is, it means again to be wrapped as in a, as in a siege, but something that’s wrapped around the body. So if you look in Exodus 12: 34, it says, so the people took their dough, they’re leaving Egypt, before it was leaven, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders. So here it says, צְרֻרֹ֥ת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָ֖ם עַל־שִׁכְמָֽם. So here again, I think we always think of tsar as narrow. But I think the image that comes to my mind when I combine this last verse in Exodus with the concept of a siege is it’s almost more like a chokehold, or it’s something that encompasses you. So it’s narrow not in the sense so much of a corridor. It’s now almost in the sense of something contracting, encompassing and slowly pushing together. What is your sense? Am I missing anything?

Adam Mintz  11:42

Good I liked that I liked the connection to the idea of the צְרֻרֹ֥ת בְּשִׂמְלֹתָ֖ם wrapped in their clothing, because that’s really what צָר֖וֹר אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים means in this week’s Parasha wrap them, but it’s wrapped them in the sense of surrounding, it’s a military wrap. I think that’s the way we would say it right, It’s a military wrapping, wrap them, surround them. And then בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים is a positive use of the same phrase, but it’s the same idea means wrap them in the bonds of life, but it’s also totally in, you know, it’s surrounding them, enveloping them somehow. Here is actually just to make that point sharper, is you see the same word used in a negative context and used in a positive context. Because the idea of being wrapped of being enveloped, can be positive and can be negative.

Geoffrey Stern  12:56

Absolutely. And so if you actually say Okay, so, we understand that, when you say Yizkor, you say, let his soul be bound up with the binding of life צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים, when you look at a graveyard, and you see ראשי תיבות, which is an acronym, and it says תַּנְצְבָ״ה , it is an acronym for תְּהִי נִשְׁמָתוֹ צֽרוּרָה בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים , we see it at the prayer El Moei Rachamim that we say at graveside all of these are referring to a single expression and a single verse. So let’s visit that verse. And it is in the book of Samuel; Samuel I. It’s 25: 29. And the background for the verse is as follows. There is a beautiful lady named Avigail. And Avigail is married to a person who has not such a beautiful name, his name is now Naval. Now Naval means disgusting, pretty much. And to make a long story short, David sends his soldiers to petition this Naval to provide a support: food for them and he declines. So now he sends a force to to kill Naval and Avigail comes out to meet him, and she provides his army. So again, we’re talking about a military situation with food and refreshments. And then she goes ahead and she blesses King David. And she says: if anyone sets out to pursue you and seek your life, the life of my Lord will be bound up in the bundle of life in the care of the Lord. But he will fling away the lives of your enemies as from the hollow of a sling. So what becomes fascinating here is, number one, the terminology is military. The second part of the verse talks about an image of a slingshot that I guess it’s randomly throwing out stones that aren’t seeming to hit their mark. And the blessing part of it seems to be that you shall have all the stones that you want, when it says that you’re that the soul of my Lord will be נֶ֨פֶשׁ אֲדֹנִ֜י צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים it almost seems like you’ll have live ammunition that you’ll have what you need to protect yourself. Have you ever thought about it that way? Am I reading something into this?

Adam Mintz  15:57

Right. I think that that’s a great read, because we see that the word is used both militaristically, but also in a way in a positive kind of way צְרוּרָ֣ה ׀ בִּצְר֣וֹר הַחַיִּ֗ים in the way we use it today. And I think that that pasuk (verse) is really the source of that kind of tension in the two ways of using that word.

Geoffrey Stern  16:17

So that takes us to now the question becomes, we have this beautiful imagery, but it doesn’t somehow relate at all, to the way that the history of the word has developed, were somehow those that we love those who pass away, it’s a blessing that their soul should be bound up in the bind of life. So I started looking at the Midrashim. the first thing I did is I continued reading are Parsha. And as you’re going to speak about this week about the death of Moses, and why his kids could not succeed him. It says in Numbers 26, after it takes a census. It says that among those who are not enrolled were Moses and Aaron the priest, when they recorded the Israelites in the wilderness, for God had said to them, they shall die in the wilderness. And for those of you who are longtime fans of Madlik, and two weeks ago, we discussed Freud’s theory of Moses being murdered in the desert. I should have quoted this verse because the words that he used when it says they shall die in the wilderness is מ֥וֹת יָמֻ֖תוּ, which is as close to a death sentence, as you will see, but I digress, …. and it talks about him, Moses Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.  For, in the wilderness of Zin, when the community was contentious, you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water.” Those are the Waters of Meribath-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin. when the community was contentious, you disobeyed my command to uphold my sanctity, those are the waters of mu BA and in the wilderness of Zin, now in a Midrash, called Avot D’Rabbi Natan. It goes into a long story about how God summoned Moses, or sent an angel to summon Moses, to meet his end, so to speak. And if you’re interested in the whole story, you can look at the notes in Safaria, but after failing a few times to get the messenger or the Satan to bring him Finally, the Holy Blessed One said to Moses: Moses! You’ve had enough of this world. The World to Come has been prepared for you since the six days of creation. As it says (Exodus 33:22), “God said, here is a place near Me; stand on that rock.” And then it goes on to say, And not only Moses’ soul is stored under the Throne of Glory, but also the souls of all the righteous are stored there! And he says, What about the people who are not righteous? Could it be that souls of the wicked are there too? And the verse continues? Well, I should have said that he quotes our verse in Samuel. And not only Moses’ soul is stored under the Throne of Glory, but also the souls of all the righteous are stored there! As it says (I Samuel 25:29), “[If anyone sets out to pursue you and seek your life], the soul of my master will be bound up in the bond of life.” Could it be that the souls of the wicked are there, too? The verse continues: “but He will fling away the lives of your enemies like a slingshot.” [(To what can this be compared?) It can be compared to someone who takes a stone and places it in a sling;] even though he flings it from place to place, he does not know where it will land. So it is for the souls of the wicked, which cast about and go wandering the world, and have no place to rest. So here we all of a sudden start to have references to stones, which is very true to the verse in David. But certainly, we start to use the verses that we saw in one Samuel as a metaphor. And to take the second metaphor, first, the sling is where the stones are lost, the stones are indiscriminately spread out into the field. And that’s what happens to the souls of the wicked. And by reverse metaphor, this idea of that the soul is bound up צרורה בצרור החיים means that all those stones, which ultimately become souls, are stored in the sack, they’re stored in the ammunition, thing. So here, we do start to see a transition of this military metaphor, which is life and death, after all, but into something that has to do with this contrast between the souls of the wicked who are lost, spread out, rejected, if you will, and the souls of Moses and the righteous who are collected, protected and stored under God’s Shechina.

Adam Mintz  21:38

Right, well, I like the idea….. you see, protecting the souls in the military way, you know, when you’re fighting and like you said, It’s life and death, you protect things in a much more serious way, when it’s not life and death. So you protect it, but, what difference does it make, but when it’s life and death, when you’re protecting the swords and the bows and arrows, you have to really protect it carefully. So I think it’s really a nice image to say that you protect the souls in that same way.

Geoffrey Stern  22:12

And, you know, it occurred to me as I was reading that, that there are few verses that the rock band The Byrds made very famous, but that is many times read at a funeral, the Byrd’s song was Turn, Turn, Turn. It’s from Kohelet; Ecclesiastes, and it says, A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up; A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing; A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; A time for seeking and a time for losing, A time for keeping and a time for discarding; And I always found that expression, kind of strange. Do you think there’s a connection here with this custom or this, this metaphor of the casting out of the stones and the gathering in of the stones?

Adam Mintz  23:10

I mean, that’s interesting. It’s a time to gather stones, you know, gathering stones really has the impression of building, it’s not really a military image, it’s a bit it’s an image of creating a building, right? It’s so time you collect the stones, and you build at a time when you get rid of the stones. So it is interesting, though, that there are all these ideas are related. And I think you know, you’re onto something in that the balance between the, between the military and kind of the embrace of this of this whole idea, right?

Geoffrey Stern  23:47

Yep. You know, I think for a Jew, where exile is such a powerful metaphor for us. You can’t but think of when they’re about Avot D’Rav Natan says that either the souls are gathered or they’re indiscriminately spread out, that either we have return, or we have exile, and Rashi on this verse in Ecclesiastes says, A time to cast away stones. The youths of Yisroel scattered during the destruction of the Beis [Hamikdosh], as it is stated, “sacred gems are scattered.” (Lamentations 4: 1) And a time to gather them from the exile, as it is stated, “And Adonoy their God will save His people like sheep on that day, for the stones of the crown will be exalted over His land.” (Zacharia 9: 17) So Rashia quoting the rabbinic texts definitely saw this as this metaphor on a national level. And we can then extrapolate that to a personal level of the difference between exile and being spread out indiscriminately amongst the world, even if you’re a gem, and then the gathering of stones together. And of course, that brings it very close to home for the three weeks, that we’re in.

Adam Mintz  25:12

Very right. It’s right on the mark.

Geoffrey Stern  25:15

I mean, another metaphor, I should say that they talked about was the difference between the first tablets of the 10 commandments, which were broken. And the second, but this one really resonated with me, because this really dealt on the dynamic between exile and return. And in a sense, as we move from the military, and as we move from the political to something that is very personal, it gives a different read on what it is to be gathered into the bundle of life, it’s a return from exile, if exile is alienation. The return is repatriation, if you will, it’s it’s finding coming back to your home, I think the other thing that comes to mind, of course, is the stones, you know, we all know the custom of leaving a stone on a grave site. And here we have the gathering of the stones and the throwing out of stones. If you were paying attention to Avot d’Rav Natan, it was standing on a stone. And of course, in the whole metaphor of the sling, we are talking about stones. And we even had a mentioned a second ago of a shepherd bringing back the flock. So one of the beautiful explanations that I’ve heard for both the stones, and for this concept of tsrurah b’tsror ha- chayyim, of gathering the stones in is one where in the old days, a shepherd used to go out into the field. And if he had 20 sheep in his flock, he would take 20 pebbles and keep it in his pouch. And then as the flock was out there, and he would he would put the pebbles out. And as they came back, he would return a pebble kind of like a census to let him know that every one of those sheep had returned. And of course, if there was an extra pebble, that meant that one of the sheep did not return. I heard it in the name of a great scholar in manuscripts called Betzalel Narkis, I think he told it to my dad. But again, I do think that there is this element of the shepherd of coming back to to the flock, to the to the home, so to speak. And again, this concept of return.

Adam Mintz  27:48

Yeah, no, that’s a really nice idea. So stones, first of all, there’s the tradition that Jacob slept on a stone. Right? That, when Jacob slept on that that dream when he saw the angel going up and going down, that actually there was a stone and he slept on the stone. The tradition there says that the stones fought to see which one Jacob would actually put his head on. And they all kind of bound into one. So stones on one hand, are kind of rough and difficult, but at the same time they give comfort and they give support. I think there’s both ideas of stones, the same there’s the way there’s both ideas when it comes to the idea of tsror.

Geoffrey Stern  28:48

Absolutely. You know, getting back to the idea of tsror I was thinking when I first started thinking about this, that really since tsror is so much this binding, and then not so much in a pleasant sense. But this this kind of almost a suffocating. Something that would there not be an opinion that looked at the kind of Stoic sense of death is a release from life that you are released from the bonds of life. You know, the most famous author of that is Marcus Aurelius. “Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh.” And I was wondering if there was any opinion within Judaism that saw this, this metaphor of the bond of life as not something that was either not totally positive or had within it this sense of the conflict between being bound to a body and then being released. And Maimonides in Mishneh Torah (Repentance 8: 3)  He talks about what the soul is. And he says he talks about the form of the soul, which is the intelligence and being a philosopher, he absolutely follows the idea that the real soul is your intellectual power, by which over your lifetime, you attain knowledge of the non-concrete. And he does talk about The life herein spoken of, because there is no death connected with it, seeing that death is only incidental to the happenings which befall a body, and as there exists no body, is called a collection of life, even as it is said: “Yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life” So Maimonides both here and in the Guide for the Perplexed get as close as I can find of a Jewish thinker, who sees here in depth as a release of the real intellect, the real soul. And I love the fact that he talks about, it’s a collection, it’s a collection of all the intellectual spiritual, moral activity and progress that we make during a lifetime. And that’s the bundle of life and what’s left behind, thrown away with the slingshot, so to speak, is the material things. So he does come close to that. There’s an amazing article by David Daube, that I have a quoted in the notes, which really deals with this question of is there in Judaism, this concept of Death as a Release in the Bible, and I encourage you all to look at that. But I’d like to leave you with the thought that this collection of life is the collection of our life is the collection of all those experiences. And I also love the idea to getting back to the original Rashi, that it has an exclamation point after it, and that the memories of that the person takes with them also remains behind, but it’s daily now. And it’s into the future. That was my takeaway. Anyway,

Adam Mintz  32:29

I think this is great. I want to thank you, Geoffrey, you picked one word in the parsha and you really made something that was really very meaningful. And obviously this week, we wish to your mother-in-law, she should be bound up in the bounds of the living and that you would ordain on the family should celebrate many, many happy occasions together, and together with all of us for many years to come. So we wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from New York, from Tel Aviv and from everywhere in between, and we look forward to seeing you next week. Be well everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  32:58

Thank you and Rabbi, I have to say personally, I thank you for sharing my life and your life with me and with our listeners as we move through this wonderful cycle of life so Shabbat Shalom to you. Thank you, as always.

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