Parshas Matos begins with the discussion of vows. In the context of this discussion, the Torah commands us: “You shall not profane your words.” Rashi interprets this to mean that one should not make his words “chulin,” or profane. In other words, this is a general command against speaking d’varim b’teilim – meaningless words, wasted words. This seems like a strange prohibition. Why are meaningless words such an egregious problem? Lying, defamation, and lashon ha’ra are clearly harmful and negative; their prohibition is not surprising. Why, though, is wasting words so severe that it warrants specific mention? It appears to be neither harmful nor evil – simply unnecessary. Why, then, are wasted words so spiritually harmful? And in a deeper sense, why do we experience a unique pleasure in wasting words, simply talking for the sake of talking? In order to understand this, let us study the concept of speech.

Have you ever felt on top of the world, energy pulsing through your veins, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way? Most people, at some point in their lives, have felt invincible, unstoppable, almost G-dly. And yet, these very same people, at other points in their lives, have felt weak, incapable, deflated, and worthless. If we take a step outside ourselves, and realize that everyone experiences this, we are likely struck by how strange and paradoxical this experience is. How can we feel so capable and then so powerless, so brilliant and then so worthless, so full and then so empty, in such a short span of time [or maybe even simultaneously]? There is a fundamental truth that lies at the root of this experience, one that sheds light on the inner meaning of a strange event in Parshas Korach.

Throughout the Torah, there are many heroes with awe-inspiring ascents to greatness. When we think of Moshe Rabbeinu, we picture a burning bush, a dramatic confrontation with Pharaoh, and a spectacular splitting of the sea. When we consider Avraham, we imagine a man thrown into the flames, undergoing bris milah at 100 years of age, and the willingness to sacrifice his designated son on the altar. However, when we think of Pinchas, what do we see? The image is hazy, evoking conflicting emotions, and begging for explanation. Let us start from the very beginning of Parshas Pinchas, which follows immediately after the events of the previous parshah, Parshas Balak.

It was a stormy night, and a battleship was on exercise at sea. The captain stood on the bridge, looking into the foggy night ahead of him. Suddenly, he heard the lookout shout from the observation post. “There’s a light on the starboard side!”

The power and proper use of intellect is an oft misunderstood concept in the Western world, making this week’s parshah all the more important to understand. Parshas Chukas introduces us to the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer). A chok is commonly understood in contrast to a mishpat. A mishpat represents a rational, intuitive Torah law, such as the prohibitions against murder and stealing, and the command to give charity. Such laws appeal to the human intellect and align with the innate moral compass present within all human beings, irrespective of religion, race, or ethnicity. A chok, on the other hand, refers to a Torah law that seemingly defies human logic and rational explanation, such as the Parah Adumah, Kashrus (Jewish dietary laws), and Shaatnez (the prohibition of mixing wool and linen).

Consider a reality in which you had access to all wisdom and could experience and grasp it all instantaneously. It is so difficult to imagine this, because it is nearly impossible to think about something that you have never experienced before; just try thinking of a color that doesn’t exist.