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Interesting quotes from famous Jews
My father never lived to see his dream come true of an
I once wanted to become an atheist but I gave up. They have no holidays.
Look at Jewish history. Unrelieved lamenting would be intolerable. So, for every ten Jews beating their breasts, God designated one to be crazy and amuse the breast beaters. By the time I was five I knew I was that one.
The time is at hand when the wearing of a prayer shawl and skullcap will not bar a man from the White House, unless, of course, the man is Jewish.
Even if you are Catholic, if you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you are going to be a goy even if you are Jewish.
The remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served us nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.
Let me tell you the one thing I have against Moses. He took us forty years into the desert in order to bring us to the one place in the Middle East that has no oil!
Even a secret agent can't lie to a Jewish mother.
My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.
It's so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don't say it.
Don't be humble; you are not that great.
I went on a diet, swore off drinking and heavy eating, and in fourteen days I had lost exactly two weeks.
-Joe E. Lewis
A spoken contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.
I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
Whoever called it necking was a poor judge of anatomy.
A politician is a man who will double cross that bridge when he comes to it.
Too bad that all the people who know how to run this country are busy driving taxis and cutting hair.
A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.
I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.
Television is a medium because it is neither rare nor well done.
When I bore people at a party, they think it is their fault.
"DAILY JEWISH WISDOM" is found @ Beliefnet.com
Fear builds walls to bar the light. - Baal Shem Tov
Engage in Torah and charity even with an ulterior motive, for that habit of right doing will lead also to right motivation. - Talmud: Pesahim, 50b
The sword comes into the world because of justice delayed and because of justice perverted.- Ethics of the Fathers 5:8
Ever since Rabbi Akiba used the Passover seder to plan a revolutionary struggle against the Roman occupiers, the Jews have used the seder to begin concrete work on tikkun (healing and transformation).
- Rabbi Michael Lerner, the Tikkun Magazine Passover supplement 2006
To work out ends of righteousness and love are you called; not merely to enjoy or suffer.
- S.R. Hirsch, "Nineteen Letters," 1836
“Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.” Golda Meir
The worship of God, though desirable as an end itself, can somehow never be in the right spirit, unless it impels one to the service of man. - Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan
Concentrate on three things and you will not fall into the grip of sin. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before Whom you will have to give account and reckoning.- Pirkei Avot 3:1
We cannot learn from general principles: there may be exceptions. - Johanan, Talmud: Kiddushin
A truly generous man is he that always gives, whether it be much or little, before he is asked.- Orchot Tsadiqim
The best security for old age: respect your children.- Sholem Asch
A Jew can be Jewish with God, against God, but not without God.- Elie Wiesel
He who promotes his own honor at the expense of his neighbor's has no portion in the world to come.- Judah b. Hanina, Genesis Rabbah
Even if all the world tells you, "You are righteous," consider yourself a sinner. - Rabbi Simlai
Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.- Abraham Joshua Heschel, "On Prayer"
Lose with truth and right rather than gain with falsehood and wrong.- Maimonides, "Tzavaah"
Seek the good in everyone, and reveal it, bring it forth.- Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811), "Likutey Moharan"
Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our neighbors despite the faults we see in them.- Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov
A man should never impose an overpowering fear upon his household. - Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 6b
If you add to the truth, you subtract from it.- The Talmud
Love unaccompanied by criticism is not love....Peace unaccompanied by reproof is not peace.- Genesis Rabbah 54:3
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Shabbat HaAzinu 5773 then Shabbat Shuvah, VaYelech
Shabbat Shuva, VaYelech 5773
Shabbat Shuvah 5773
We have entered into the Days of Awe for Repentance, Remembrance, Rituals, and Prayers. These High Holy Days give us the opportunities to remember the past: our personal histories and the histories of the world.
If we pay attention, these histories can show us the errors of the past so that we can avoid repeating them in the future. The meditations and contemplations we enter into during the rituals and prayers of the season are supposed to help us focus on exactly that: identifying our misdeeds and making a plan to avoid repeating them in the future.
Yet we need to return to the ethical path not only for ourselves, but also for our communities. That is the greater challenge to get the diverse members of the community to get along, to be respectful and tolerant of each other, and to cooperate to work together in order to better the community and the world around us.
So I close now with sincere hope that we all can return renewed from these Days of Awe. May we be renewed and refreshed, dedicated to Tikun Olam – the betterment of the world – and to a new year, happier and healthier, better than those of the past. May that be our focus of this Shabbat Shuvah, Sabbath of Return.
SHABBAT SUKKOT, 5773 -
SHABBAT SUKKOT, 5773 - USHPIZIM, WELCOMING GUESTS
Sukkot is the Season for Joy, for a fantastic fall harvest, for savouring the beauty of the pre-winter weather from within our Sukkot, and for welcoming guests of all sorts: the souls of the living and the souls of the dead, animals and people alike. Whether it be the coyote who visited Rav Nina’s Sukkah, Sissy the abandoned cat, big Momma skunk, or the many people who share in the holiday joy, ALL are welcomed guests.
Maimonides, the Rambam, taught that it is not enough to enjoy Sukkot and the meals with our families and friends. We are enjoined by him to share each meal with the poor although some prefer to give Tzedakah [charity] rather than open up their homes. Whether Tzedakah is equivalent to direct feeding of the poor in a homey setting is a topic we need to address in our studies and Shabbat discussions.
The 16th century Zohar developed the concept of welcoming the patriarchs to our Sukkot [sukkahs] with the focus on a different one each day. As women became more educated, some non-orthodox streams of Judaism embraced more egalitarian approaches to our customs and traditions. There are even some orthodox women’s groups who choose to welcome the matriarchs instead of the patriarchs to all female gatherings in their sukkot. For these people, the Matriarchs are also welcomed as honored guests to our sukkot. So Sarah, Rifka, Rachel, Leah, Devorah, Ester, Ruth, Miriam, and Avigail are often welcomed along with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moshe, David, Solomon, and Aaron among others.
Two other interesting customs are observed by some Jews on Sukkot. The first is the welcoming of Jews from all over the world, with focus on a different country for each day. The second is the welcoming of people of different faiths with a focus on a different religion for each day. Clearly the goal is to encourage peace and cooperation among all peoples and within the strains of every religion as well.
May we all welcome with joy the rich and the poor, strangers as well as our families, our adversaries as well as our friends, our ancestors and our descendants! Shabbat Sukkot Shalom!
Bereishit 5773, Birth and Re-Birth
At the beginning of the spiritual year we start re-reading the Torah from the beginning. The first parasha [portion] of Bereisheet of the first book of the Torah, Bereisheet or Genesis [literally : in the beginning] starts with the story of the beginning of the world, the story of creation. We also are told of the beginnings of all life forms in the world. This includes the beginnings of mankind.
In addition, we are told of the beginning of the Garden of Eden although later we are told it was sealed off to us. Then we are told of the generations of Adam and Eve.
Within these generations are mentioned individuals who began various endeavors. We are told of the beginnings of dwelling in tents among herds, of playing the lyre and the pipe, of forming implements from copper and iron, and of invoking the Lord by name.
Yet we are also told of the beginnings of evil and the continuing evil that filled the world. Nonetheless, the parasha ends with the promise of re-birth, of new beginnings through the work of Noach and the promise therefrom for a better future.
What beginnings do we each have yearly at this season?
Which beginnings are the most important for us to pursue?
Are any of them essential for our survival?
So, this Shabbat may we begin our days of deep reflections on new beginnings. Shabbat Shalom!
NOACH 5773 – New Beginnings, New Nations: Role models
Whom do we choose to emulate? When we invited Ushpizim, Guests, into our Sukkot, whom did we choose and why? Many were friends and family, but some were chosen because they had admirable qualities. They are for us role models with qualities we strive to have ourselves.
However, which role models were available to the earliest of humankind? Clearly it wasn’t obvious what was evil, whether to avoid evil, nor how to avoid evil if that was the inclination for choices. Last week we read that Adam and Chava got kicked out of Gan Eden for not knowing these things. This week, in Parashat Noach [the portion of Noah] we can read that even though HaShem lost patience with the evil doers and brought about a world encompassing flood upon them, the Holy One gave humankind another chance to get it right through Noach and his family.
Yet it was a new beginning with only Noach as a role model. As the generations passed, people learned to be different from one another and to forget how to cooperate and how to communicate. So when arrogance overcame the leaders of the nations of humankind, they wanted to build a tower to reach to gods so that they could join them and be as gods. They started the ambitious project but communications failed. As a result, all instructions to others were just babbles to their ears. Cooperative efforts failed. The building project did not succeed. Discord among the nations increased.
Were there no good role models for them to follow other than their warped perception of gods? They certainly succeeded in squandering their new beginnings, their chances to do good deeds.
Sound familiar? The United States before the Civil War? The League of Nations before WWII? The United Nations now facing the disasters building in Syria and Iran? The European Union facing a financial meltdown?
Will we ever learn to communicate with each other in order to achieve common goals? Can we even cooperate enough to decide what those common goals are? Or will we be like the gathering at Babel, disagreeing on how we can go forward in peace and harmony and thereby squandering our new beginnings post-WWII.
It is a painful topic for discussion given our intense desire for peace and our equally intense fear that it can never happen. May we all learn to overcome our fears and succeed in achieving peace in our families, in our communities, and in our world. Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Lech Lecha 5773
Lech Lecha 5773
DISCERNING our DIVINE PATH
In this week’s parasha [portion] of Lech Lecha, our Patriarch Avram figures out how to go forward with his life after his father’s death through discussions with HaShem and his family. First he was told by HaShem to leave Haran where his father had settled and to continue on to Canaan. While travelling to Shechem and then to Bethel, and then by stages to the Negev, Avram was able to survey the land HaShem promised to his descendants. Yet he could not stay for there was famine in the land, so he continued on to Egypt only to return later with greater wealth.
The last third of the parasha is our focus for this, the third, year of the triennial. We learn that Avram listened to his wife Sarai and fathered a son, Ishmael, with her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. Then he listened to her as to how to treat Hagar. Of course, HaShem was the one who told him to listen to Sarai. HaShem also told Hagar to listen to Sarai. Avram also followed HaSHem into changing his name to Avraham and Sarai to Sarah [Priestess to Princess]. Then Avraham moved forward along his path as per HaShem’s instructions and established circumcision as a covenant between HaShem and himself along with all his descendants.
For Avraham, discerning the divine path he needed to tread upon was easy. HaShem explained it all to him directly. However, how are we mere mortals supposed to recognize the path HaShem wants us to travel? We do not hear the Holy Voice… or do we?
How many times do we have an experience we talk about as Yad HaShem, the Hand of the Almighty? How often do we take these experiences to heart and try to discern their meanings? Should we? When we do, how successful can we be in gaining an understanding of what our paths should be?
Without a direct line to HaShem, how can we tell what path is the Divine one for us to take given all the choices we have? Plenty to ponder this Shabbat comes from this quandary. May we all discern at least some answers to help us go forward. Shabbat Shalom!
Vayera 5773 – Near Death Experiences and being Reborn
This week’s parasha [portion] of VaYera has three cases of near death experiences described. Two are in the Torah portion: the near death of Ishmael from thirst and the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father. The third is in the Haftorah where the Holy man Elisha saves the child of a Shunamite from heat stroke/ prostration.
All three of these events were traumatic, life changing ones. What happened to these children after nearly dying?
Did Ishmael hate Sarah for sending him and his mother into the desert? Perhaps instead, Ishmael was in awe of the miracle of the well that saved him at the last moment?
Was Isaac convinced that Abraham had lost his marbles in being willing to sacrifice his son to HaShem? Alternatively, perhaps Isaac learned both to fear and to love HaShem, realizing that HaShem alone has control over life and death but also understanding that HaShem loved him and kept him alive to do HaShem’s work on this earth?
Did the Shunamite’s son remember the Holy Man who saved him and want to follow in his footsteps? Or did he just keep on with the pastoral life he had been living up until then?
When we hear of near death experiences in modern times, we hear tales of people experiencing all sorts of responses. Some think they have returned to carry out an important task. Others return thinking that they are completely different people while yet others feel totally unchanged.
What experiences have we had that could be considered near death experiences? How did we change in the wake of these experiences? How did the people around us change in the wake of these experiences? Did any of these experiences bring us closer to HaShem?
Perhaps we can gain new insights on this topic during this Shabbat’s discussions. Shabbat Shalom!
Chayei Sarah, the Legacy of the Life of Sarah 5773
Chayei Sarah 5773 - Brotherly Love… or not
Haran, Nahor, and Abraham were brothers. Ishmael and Isaac were brothers. Absalom, Adonijah, and Solomon were brothers.
Even though we are told that Avraham and his brothers had quite different spiritual and religious inclinations, apparently they were still close enough that Avraham insisted on a grand-niece for his son, Isaac, to marry. The brothers and their tribes had good relations even though they lived relatively distantly from one another.
Despite the stressful behaviours towards his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, both viewed as sons of Sarah according to this week’s parasha [portion] of Chayei Sarah [the Life (or Legacy) of Sarah], both Ishmael and Isaac bore no enmity towards each other as evidenced by their coming together to bury their Father, Avraham, who was said to have died contented in very old age. Once again we see the brothers of the family getting along together. Once again we note that the brothers lived at some distance from one another.
However the sons of David did not live some distance from one another nor did they want to. They wanted to live in and control the palace and the kingdom. So in the beginnings of the first book of Kings, this week’s Haftorah portion, we read about the fighting between the factions of Adonijah and Solomon.
Should brothers get along because of family ties? Why do some get along and others do not? Did this dynamic affect international cooperation historically? Can this dynamic affect international cooperation now? If so, how? Baruch Hashem the political election discord is over for now. Shabbat Shalom!
Toldot 5773, Love your neighbor?
So is it “love your neighbor as yourself” [Lev. 19:18] or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “do not unto others as you would have them do not unto you”? Call it reciprocity [such as in the Hammurabian eye for eye implying equal measure, not more, in responses], karma, or the Golden Rule [coined @1670 in Christianity]. Regardless of what you call it, this concept clearly points out that there are consequences to our actions.
In this week’s Parashat Toldot [portion of generations], we are told very clearly that we can live alongside our neighbors, but you do not have to like them enough to let your children marry theirs. If they do marry, you are likely to be bitter over the in-laws. This begs the question: where are the boundaries to loving your neighbor?
According to Jubilees [a popular commentary of @ 200 BCE trying to explain the gaps in Torah] and later in the Torah description of Midianite and Moabite women at the time of Pinchas, Canaanite women were sexually immoral / fornicators and hence unsuitable as wives for the sons of Isaac. Were the Ishmaelite women better because they were relatives? Rifka’s nieces apparently were suitable. So why was family better [despite disputes] than neighbors to associate with and marry?
Where are the boundaries to loving our neighbors and do such boundaries lead to unnecessary discord? Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of good karma!
VaYishlach, 5773 – The Fruits of Deception
One of the world problems that is a constant source of aggravation to many of us is the seemingly unfair rewarding of deceptive and corrupt individuals with lives of wealth and luxury. Yet we see examples of deception being rewarded as we read the accounts of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Torah. This has bothered the sages as well over the years and many explanations have been developed to prove that no sin had been committed.
For instance, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani and Rabbi Yonatan taught that King David did not do evil as a soldier’s conditional divorce goes into effect once he leaves for war and hence BatSheba was not forbidden to him, the King. Legal technicalities get very messy if then the soldier returns. So this chapter of history still leaves many of us very uncomfortable knowing that David intentionally sent BatSheba’s husband to his death.
Hence we ask in this week’s parasha [portion] whether Reuben, the first born, actually sinned when he slept with his father’s concubine after his father had permanently left the area. Some teach that it was the custom of the times that when the first born son took the reins of leadership, he also took possession of his father’s concubines. However, apparently Reuven did not take into account the family roots in Hauran and Ur. Hurrites allowed Fathers to decide how inheritances were to be given and Ur had an early tradition of inheritance going to the youngest or the most capable/deserving, often decided by the Mother.
Many other Biblical stories also challenge us such as with the three deceptions over brother-sister marriages, Isaac being allegedly conned by his wife and son Jacob, Jacob being conned by Laban repeatedly, Rachel taking the household idols [teraphim], and this week’s episode of Shimon and Levi killing all the able bodied men of Shechem. Shimon and Levi were effectively disinherited as a result. If all these were excusable, we would have no reason to discuss the aftermaths.
Abraham and Isaac left after the brother-sister deceptions as very wealthy men. Jacob gained the birthright and the blessing for his part in the alleged deception of Isaac. The apocraphal Jubilees would have us believe that Abraham encouraged Rifka in this deception while Torah tells us that HaShem told her so. Yet the downside was there: Jacob was terrified of Esau for years and was abused by his uncle, Laban, for 20 years when he sought a wife.
Now we come to Rachel and her father’s family idols which were consulted before every major decision according to Torah. Her actions apparently saved her family at that time from violence at the hands of Laban and his sons. Perhaps though, the reason is more tied up with the customs of the locals: possession of the teraphim was like a family deed of ownership for all the property of the family. Had Laban wished to legally claim all the children and flocks as his own property, he would have needed to produce the family idols as evidence in the courts.
Yet Torah would have us believe that Rachel’s possession of these idols helped cause the disaster in Shechem. While Shimon and Levi did the slaughter, the other brothers got very wealthy with all the booty. Believing idol possession to be the root of what had happened, Jacob told everyone to get rid of any idols they had collected and packed up to flee back to Isaac. That journey resulted in two deaths: Deborah, Rifka’s maid, and especially Rachel in childbirth. Is Torah suggesting that Rachel’s death is punishment for having taken and kept her father’s family idols? Perhaps instead it is suggesting that the deceptions of Shimon and Levi had broader adverse consequences on the whole family?
In any case, we are left with the question of whether these Torah reported deceptions and modern day deceptions are ever excusable. If so, where should we draw the line between acceptable and not excusable? If not, how can we laud the Matriarchs and Patriarchs, not to mention King David? How does that help us understand what to do about deceptions in modern times?
Complex and challenging questions these are. Shabbat Shalom!
As we face the prospect of yet another bloody war [not just 'attrition'], questions of tolerance and peace come to mind. This week's parasha of VaYetzei touches on these topics along with the question of what we should do about idolatrous
VaYetzei, 5773 – How Should We Respond to Idolatry?
Back when Jacob worked for Laban, it was pretty clear what idolatry was. For every important decision, Laban consulted his family idols, his teraphim. Apparently his daughter Rachel disapproved of this practice. So in this week’s portion, Parashat VaYetzei, Jacob and his family decide to flee the jealousies and potentially lethal abuses of Laban and his sons. Unknown to Jacob, or so it seems, Rachel took her father’s teraphim.
Was this a protest against idolatrous practices? Was it a measure for self-protection against the violent and unpredictable relatives?
Clearly Jacob was tolerant of Laban’s idolatry, perhaps out of prudence and self-preservation motives. So the parasha ends with a big feast over a pact for peace with each party to the agreement taking an oath before their own deity. Also, after this peace treaty was sealed, each of the parties, Laban and Jacob, went their own ways with the promise to stay on their own sides of the agreed boundary [or else].
This tolerance of diversity seems to be the major mode of modern western civilization. Yet other parts of the world do not rein in the human tendency to force others to live without their idols, traditions, and/or customs. Like Rachel, they steal or destroy the teraphim of others and try to make them live without teraphim.
How can we recognize idolatry within diversity? Should we oppose idolatry in general or only when someone else is trying to force it upon us? If so, how should we oppose idolatry?
Is our obligation to HaShem to oppose idolatry or is it to maintain our own lives without idolatrous practices? May this Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend release us from all our idols. Shabbat Shalom!
VaYeshev 5773 –Yad HaSHem
Bereisheet 39:23 : …HaShem was with him [Joseph] and whatever he did, HaShem made successful.
This we are told in VaYeshev this week’s Parasha [portion] when Joseph is in prison. How much more so will it be when he exits prison to interpret the Pharoah’s dreams and become his trusted vizier in next week’s parasha.
Many times events unfold with unexpected consequences. Many times just a small change in the sequence of events could vastly change the outcome.
Where would we be today if Sarah never had a child and Ishmael received Abraham’s inheritance?
Where would we be today if Esau kept the birthright and received Isaac’s blessing?
What if Joseph had not been thrown into the pit?
What if Joseph had not been thrown into prison in Egypt?
What if Moshe had not been adopted by the Pharoah’s daughter, Batya [meaning the daughter of God]?
We could go on with many more “what if” ‘s, however we would not have many answers other than maybe life today would be very different. We could speculate beyond that, but truly still have no better answer.
In each of our lives we experience “what if” moments. When the moment is one of a narrow escape, we react in awe and maybe say it was Yad HaShem [the hand of the Almighty]. If we find a parking space sooner than usual and are able to get to a job interview on time which results in a job, we may wonder if that was Yad HaShem. If our timing in doing our errands unexpectedly not only allows us to finish errands but also ‘accidentally’ meet up with a friend we had been concerned about, we may say Baruch HaShem [Blessed Be] thinking it may have happened by Yad HaShem.
What things in our lives have made us think that we have experienced Yad HaShem? Why? If we can recall such experiences, perhaps we can become closer to HaShem during reflections on how we felt during these events. So may it be this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Recognizing Miracles, Chanukah/Miketz 5773
Similarly unusual was that the only sealed flask of oil found was under the High Priest’s seal when it was not customary for him to seal or even supervise the flasks of oil! Would finding that oil be considered a miracle? Perhaps each of these steps was an expression of Yad HaShem. Yet many would be unable to perceive anything miraculous in them.
The only commonly recognized miracle of the Chanukah story was the burning of a day’s worth of oil for eight days. Only with this miracle were the Sages convinced that the three years of battle were filled with miracles and the re-dedication of the Temple worthy of being declared a festival, a festival of spiritual freedom. [Only Purim, a successful battle for physical, corporeal freedom and safety, was also recognized by the Sages as a festival not mentioned in Torah. Yet it would be decades before Israel was fully freed. Did the proclaimed miracle of oil spur on the rebels and give them faith to continue until successful?
Was Yad HaShem also in the background causes of the Maccabean revolt? Assimilation and Hellenization beguiled many away from their Judaism. Only a small portion of them refused to stray away in any way from Jewish practices .
The Syrian/Greek invaders wanted to make an empire free from strife. They thought that could be achieved if everyone was the same with the same religion and culture. [How often I have similar thoughts from modern contemporaries!] Hence they defiled the Temple and decreed bans on observing the Sabbath [Shabbat], the New Moon [Rosh Chodesh which was used to determine the proper times of all Holy Day observances], and the brit of circumcision. All Jewish brides-to-be were raped prior to their marriages. No wonder Mattetyahu rebelled! Yet it still took these extreme measures to propel such a revolt!
How similar this scenario has repeated itself over the generations. Even now Germany is trying to ban circumcision and Hungary wants all Jews registered as state-unfriendly aliens. Remember how many Jews were lost to Judaism via the Soviet Union’s opposition to Jewish observances?
So where are the miracles of modern times? The establishment of the State of Israel in 1947? The airlifts of most of the Ethiopian Jews?
How can we even recognize modern miracles when we barely pay any attention to the small Yad HaShem guided details of our individual lives? Do our practices and observances of Chanukah recognize the miracles of the times of the Hasmoneans? If so, how? If not, how best can we demonstrate our recognition of miracles?
We have a week to contemplate these questions and lifetimes to look for the answers. Chag Chanukah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
Vayigash 5773, Starting Over
Chanukah was almost most wonderful - but then there is Sandy Hook. It will enter our study discussions at Beit Torah for weeks to come and has certainly done so for this week's commentary:
VaYigash 5773, Starting Over
Back in biblical times, starting over happened frequently. Famine, drought, war, plagues, and changes in regimes were some of the reasons for the wanderings of our ancestors. In this week’s parasha [portion] of VaYigash, a famine forces Jacob and his extended family in Canaan to all move to Goshen in order to both access food and to reunite with Joseph and his family. They were welcome by the Pharoah and thrived after starting over in Goshen – at least initially.
Throughout our lives we are faced constantly with new challenges. Sometimes they are intense challenges from which we need to recover, move forward, and start over: Hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy; tornados; wild fires; civil wars; etc. – and mass shootings like Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook.
How can the survivors of these disasters start over? What resources may be available to them? Do losses from natural disasters differ from those from man-made disasters? Losses from natural disasters and losses from man-made disasters are losses nonetheless. Yet is it not harder to start over after a man-made disaster? How will people of Newtown start over? Will Sandy Hook ever be reopened? What can be learned from this recent horror?
As we search for miracles in our everyday lives, what miracles could we possibly find from the horror of Sandy Hook? Without a Pharoah as a benefactor, how can we and they start over to build a better future? As we finish a week this Shabbat so that we can start a new one, let us resolve to successfully start over – even as we do during the High Holy Days. Yet unlike those Days of Awe, we will be starting over to work with and cooperate with other people and the creatures of the world, not just with HaShem.
May we all find the strength to do so this Shabbat.
What are the Legacies we have received and how do they apply to the modern world? We at Beit Torah will be delving into these questions this week as we finish off the secular year as well as the first Book of Torah!
Parashat VaYechi 5773
Yerusha – Values, Ethics, and Inheritance
How do we gain a sense of values and of ethics? For that matter, what are values and ethics?
Depending on the culture of a community, values may vary a great deal from community to community, culture to culture. Some places have values which extol the protection of all life. Others focus only on human life. Still others value only some human life based on beliefs that only people who look a certain way or follow certain practices are worthy.
Perhaps saddest of all are those who value material wealth and power over human life or any kind of life. Come to think of it, that statement shows a clear value of disdain for such materialists and idolaters.
Usually a small portion of each culture is devoted to determining optimal values [not the most commonly practiced] and from them, develop a system of ethics and ethical behaviours. Sometimes there can be quite a gap between systems of ethics such as those within specific religious communities as compared to medical ethics.
When we finish the Book of Genesis, Bereisheet, this week with the portion of Parashat VaYechi, we read the final blessings that Jacob bequeaths to his sons. Some understand these as ethical wills.
What values can we find within these legacies? What ethical lessons are being presented such as those against gluttony, anger, and inconsistencies?
Can we use these lessons in guiding our modern lives? Which of them have value for us when we want to bless our own children?
It promises to be an interesting discussion on values and ethics this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Shemot 5773, Who Speaks the Holy One’s Words?
Moses, Aaron, and Jeremiah all spoke the words of HaShem as we are told in this week’s Torah and Haftorah [Jeremiah Ch. I, 1-10+] portions for Parashat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus [Shemot]. How did they know that what they spoke came from HaShem?
Aaron had to act with great trust that his brother actually had spoken with HaShem and knew what the words of HaShem actually were. On the other hand, Moses and Jeremiah not only had to trust that what they heard came from HaShem, but also had to overcome their own self-doubts over being able to effectively convey those messages to others. Both argued with HaShem that they were not fit for the tasks. Both were reassured by HaShem that they were even to the extent that HaShem offered up Aaron as a spokesperson for Moshe.
What thoughts passed through their minds as they sought to steel themselves to perform the tasks they faced? Did they fear ridicule from those they would address? Did they fear that the messages would be mis-understood?
In our “modern” times, does anyone speak the words of HaShem? If so, how would we recognize them? What words would HaShem want to be speaking to us now?
Moses and Jeremiah were considered prophets of their times. Are all speakers of the words of HaShem to be considered Prophets? If not, how can we recognize who is speaking those words and not just spewing forth some popular mantra? If so, how can we recognize them?
This week we have the opportunity to contemplate these questions at the start of the Book of Exodus and the start of a new secular year. Shabbat Shalom!
Rosh Chodesh & VaEra 5773
Rosh Chodesh & VaEra 5773
Hardened Hearts: Pharoah, Qadafi, Assad…?
Repeatedly in this week’s Parasha [portion] of VaEra we are told that Pharoah hardened his heart and that his heart became hardened. As a result, Pharoah continuously refused to let the Israelites go to pray and even took steps to make life harder for them like not supplying straw for bricks [and the heck with his buildings falling down from shoddy materials?]
What does this mean? What is a ‘hardened heart’? Is it a heart filled with base desires such as lust for power and wealth or such as greed? Is it demeaning of others until they are no longer viewed as human beings? Does it lack compassion? What parts do ego, self-doubt, and insecurities play? Do hardened hearts belong to control freaks? Do all control freaks have hardened hearts?
We do know that we are told that Pharoah wanted to keep his ‘slave’ labor force but to remove them from any will for opposition to his decrees. We are told that Pharoah considered the first half of the plagues to be temporary inconsequential tricks of magic. Yet even after the 6th plague which he recognized as being divinely ordained, his heart was hardened.
It seems incomprehensible to us that he would willingly choose more suffering for himself and his people. Nonetheless we continue to see such incomprehensible behaviours in modern times! Just looking at the way Qadafi hung on to power during his recent overthrow gives us that same sense of disbelief: telling his troops to rape women and children?; providing his soldiers condoms for the commission of this violence?
Now there is Assad. He, too, has been offered sanctuary elsewhere. Yet he, too, has incomprehensibly decided to fight to whatever the bitter end will bring regardless of the civilian casualties. Our hearts are heavy but not hardened as we see these events unfold. Our frustration over our impotence is immeasurable to us. Yet is there comfort to be found in discussion of these matters? We will find out this Shabbat as we share how we feel about these matters. Shabbat Shalom!
Bo 5773 Why the Firstborn?
Bo 5773 Why the Firstborn?
Why was the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, such a big deal? Last week’s parasha and this week in the parasha [portion] of Bo, we read of nine other plagues that were even more generally devastating against all regardless of birth status. Yet it was the tenth Plague that broke the hardness of Pharoah’s heart and caused him to relent on the exit of the Israelites.
If we use modern Western eyes to address this question, we might say that the firstborn are expected to take over the family business and to anticipate the inheritance of the family resources if no will specifies otherwise. Even so, why then would the “first born” of the livestock be targeted?
On the other hand, if we try to place this story in its historical context, we find that the value of the firstborn varied from culture to culture. While biblical stories of the Matriarchs and the Patriarchs clearly indicate that the firstborn do not always inherit the family legacies, we need to ask: what were the prevalent customs of the dwelling places the Israelites and the neighboring Egyptians, Midianites, Canaanites, etc.?
When the Semitic Eastern folk [many of whom came from camel caravan trader traditions] moved to Ur, there was a cosmopolitan mix of traditions including a long time prevalent one of matriarchal choosing of the youngest or the most qualified to inherit along with the governing by a princess/ priestess class. This would have been around the time of Avram and Sarai. Hurrites lived in the area around Hauran where Avram’s father took the family after leaving Ur. Hurrites did not have the tradition of firstborn inheritance. Instead, the Patriarch of a family chose as he wanted.
While the tribes of Canaan were Patriarchal during the times of the early Patriarchs and Matriarchs, there were concurrently both male and female Pharoahs in Egypt as well as female rulers of Ethiopia. However by the time of Moshe, the Egyptians had conquered Ethiopia and set up their own king while the most recent dynasty of Pharoahs were very Patriarchal to the extent that they tried to remove all mention of female Pharoahs from history!
In this week’s context of the Israelites wanting to leave Egypt, all that then mattered was how the Pharoahs viewed the importance of their firstborn who were zealously pampered and protected. For them, the death of their firstborn was the worst possible misfortune that could occur. Hence the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn in the house of Pharoah, was what caused [at least temporarily] the Pharoah to relent and allow the Israelites to leave. That is why the Plague targeted the “firstborn” then! Are there any good reasons for special rights for the firstborn today? Yet many follow that custom. A great topic to ponder this Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!
SHABBAT SHIRA - BESHALACH 5773
SHABBAT SHIRA - BESHALACH
Caring for All Life [Exodus 14:28-31; Genesis 8:21 & 9:11, 25; Jonah 4:9-11]
The Rabbis have taught that HaShem values all life as evidenced by :
1. HaShem’s promise to Noach never to indiscriminately again destroy life on the earth;
2. The Rabbinic story that HaShem wept for Pharoah and his host that drowned, even the horses; and
3. HaShem’s very specific lesson to Jonah on the value of all of creation from gourd to livestock to people.
So too this weekend, with the observance of Tu B’Shvat [the 15th of Shvat], presents another reminder of the precious value of all life, of all of HaShem’s creations, as we are reminded to care for the trees for future generations. If we do not take care, we will be destroying critical elements needed for the continuation and survival of our descendants.
Yet these biblical and Rabbinic lessons are noticed in the modern world by only a small fraction of people. Most people are so deeply involved in their own selfish pursuits that they do not allow themselves to love their fellow people let alone all plant and animal life!
Whether the distraction is power, materialism, sex, greed or jealousy, flawed human beings constantly demonstrate their capacity for destruction. Street gangs warring; competitive sports leading to riots; wars for so many possible excuses; piracy; rape; deforestation; wasteful murder of wild animals for trophies, horns, skins, collateral damage, etc.; abuse of each other and the animals dependent upon us; indiscriminate pesticide poisoning of many species; the KKK, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other hate group/terrorist activities; expressions of bigotries and discrimination in many other platforms; etc. are all expressions of our great difficulties in living up to our responsibilities to care for all life.
We who care can easily be frustrated and discouraged. How can we turn the tide and return this world to sustainability with the care for all life paramount in our goals? Is it futile to even try?
Heavy questions like these should not prevent us from appreciating the splendors of the world as it is today. Neither should they prevent us from joyously celebrating the Birthday of the Trees this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Yitro 5773 Listening to the Brit
Yitro 5773 Listening to the Brit [the Covenant with HaShem]
Shemot/ Exodus Ch. 20
We have all heard of the “Ten Commandments” many times even if only in reference to the Cecil B. Mills film extravaganza. Our ideas have been colored by imaginative children’s stories, movies, and old wives’ tales. Yet what does Torah actually say about the covenant with HaShem?
In this week’s parasha [portion] of Yitro [Jethro], we read the first of three Torah accounts of the giving of the covenant [brit] with HaShem to the Israelites and the others who joined the exodus. [Later in Deuteronomy we will read new words to listen to as an addendum to the brit.] This is also the only version that includes the complete ten terms to this contract which we have come to know [inaccurately] as the “Ten Commandments”.
Who listened to them when they were given? Who listens to them today?
We read that HaShem spoke these words directly to the people. When HaShem’s terms to the brit had been heard, the people pleaded with Moshe to not let HaShem speak directly to them ever again, that he should be an intermediary henceforth between HaShem and the people in all future communications. So it was.
Did the people really listen to the words of HaShem back then? How can we listen to HaShem’s words now? We no longer have Moshe as an intermediary. We are told by the sages that there are no true prophets any more to speak the words of HaShem. So how can we hear them and listen to them today?
This is a core topic for Torah study this Shabbat as well as at any time. Shabbat Shalom!
Shekalim /Mishpatim 5773
THE ETHICS OF THE WALL
Correspondence with an Orthodox Rabbi specialized in Jewish Ethics
from A. [at Beit Torah, www.onetorah.org ]
Recently Rav Ovadia Yosef [whom I used to admire] effectively spat upon women declaring the ones who wear tallitot in public to be transgressors of Jewish Law. He claims that the prayer shawl is strictly men's clothing while ignoring the history of the tallis en toto. I get the impression that what we are hearing is arrogance, self-righteousness, and sexist bigotry.
Ignoring for the moment the tendency for male re-writing of Jewish history to minimize any role women have had and demonize some of those remaining, there are two or three very important points to be made:
1- There are no kosher tallitot today. We do not have a thread of blue in our fringes nor the source of the dye nor the method by which to extract it. What we have at best is a tradition to use modern prayer shawls to remind us of the prayer shawls of old, to comfort us into a state of prayer readiness, and to symbolically separate us from the outside world so that we can focus on prayer. Since this is the case, we need to recognize that all people have the same rights to pray whether male or female. If the Tallit works for men in this way, why not for women too?
2- The original tallit was a pancho/tunic type overgarment/coat onto which fringes could be attached. This indeed was part of the wardrobe of men. However I doubt seriously that women went around without outer garments/coats and suspect that the style of theirs was no different than for men except maybe in size. Nonetheless, the modern tallit bears no resemblance to the original tallit and is certainly not an useful outer garment or coat. It seems to be quite a stretch to claim that it is solely a male garment. In fact women wear shawls all of the time for many purposes such as clothing, in particular for warmth. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the tallit most resembles a woman's garment... a garment that can be adorned any way a women sees fit.
3- Many of the tallitot of women are decorated in such a fashion that I have no doubt that no man would be caught wearing such a tallit in public!
4- It seems to me that it has become a cult of the idolatry of the Tallit. This is apparently going hand in hand with a cult of the idolatry of the Western Wall. Judaism is for all Jews: male, female, trans-sexual, bisexual, whatever. Until all Jews can access the Kotel and pray as is their custom, we are ethically lacking and don't deserve the land or the country. This week's Haftorah Shekalim of 2 Kings Ch. 11-12 reflects the rift around the sanctity of the Temple that is perhaps parallel to the rift about the wall. In the haftorah of Mishpatim Jeremiah speaks a pertinent truth well: if we free our slaves only to force them back into slavery, we are not deserving of HaShem's blessings. If we treat women as slaves needing to bow to the will of men such as extreme religious leaders not accepted by all Jews, we fracture and weaken Judaism through intolerance, tyranny of the powerful, hatred, despicable acts, and violence both physical and verbal. Stealing a person's soul is a far more despicable act than any imagined clothing infraction. Women are persons too.
There are times I hope that archaeologists will find that the Western Wall was never part of the Temple site. I am sorely troubled by the discord and nastiness I see growing ever more in a land that is supposed to be the homeland for all Jews but which has been made into a land for only some Jews.
from Rav W.
Regarding women wearing talitot in public. I will not enter the hashkafic issues, but just one point that particularly disturbs me is why go to the kotel in public when you know that this will create a backlash and disturbs others. Wouldn't haShem be happier if you wore the talit [if you feel that it brings you closer to haShem ] privately. Is the purpose of wearing the talis to get closer to haShem, or is it to prove that women are equal to men?
reply from A.
Thank you for your prompt response.
Many women wish to be in a minyan [in this case of women] ie. in public.
Your argument about backlash is the same that was used to enforce segregation because a black person walking into a white diner or hotel would cause 'a disturbance to others' and a backlash, potentially violent. It was the whites who were not controlling their behaviours and being tolerant of other human beings who have the right to walk the earth just as they do.
As for staying at home, that is the argument thrown at people with disabilities: that they should stay at home and not have full lives because it was disturbing to able bodied people to see them in public. De facto the able bodied tried to jail the disabled in their homes even though there were no infractions of law warranting house arrest. This too was/is an education problem of tolerance of that which is different.
I do not wish to impose my ways on others. If I were at the wall, I would be concerned with my spiritual experience and not with anybody else's. In fact anyone going to the wall should be focussed on just that. If they are so weak as to be distracted by non-life threatening events, then they should not be going to the wall until they are ready to be truly involved in a spiritual experience.
Why should men feel it is their right to impose their ways on women? Judaism teaches us to treat all others with respect and compassion, to speak gently with all. It does not teach us, in fact teaches against, public verbal abuse, throwing rocks, spitting on others, etc.
No, I do not believe HaShem would ever be happy that a part of HaSHem's children are being denied the right to fully worship HaShem in the Holy Places. What next? That women should not speak/sing in public because some man might be disturbed by hearing a woman's voice? Or that women should be totally covered up from head to toe because some man might become sexually aroused and rape her? Or that women should sit in the back of buses... wait- they tried that and it is not allowed in Israel just as the seating of blacks in the backs of buses is no longer allowed in the US.
It is the men who need to be taught to control their passions and that it is unacceptable to become violent verbally or physically over any of these issues. Otherwise you end up with a tyranny of men over women just as there was a tyranny of whites over blacks for many years... and not totally ended even today.
Boushah v'klimah over how men of the wall treat women of the wall... for that matter, not just at the wall.
What I present here is rational discussion a la Rabbinic tradition of old. I am practicing Judaism and working for tikun olam.
Perhaps some men will practice a bit of compassionate listening and respond in a rational fashion to these rational points laid out for discussion.
p.s. Thank you for your questions. They made me think more deeply as to how to explain the difficulties I have with all forms of discrimination, something for which I have worked many years in advocacy for the disenfranchised. I appreciate your willingness to discuss this all with me.
Oh and what did you mean by Hashkafic issues? Are you thinking that some men at the wall would become a hard-to-control mob like the Ku Klux Klan?
from Rav W. [an Israeli Medical Ethicist]
I am very impressed that you are devoted to tikun haolam. I have received from my mentors that if the root of one's goal is Torah based and seeped in yirat shamayim [fear of the Heavens] then it can bring a tikun haolam [repair of the world]... but if the root is from other hasahkafa [concerns] then it could sorrowfully create the opposite.
reply from A.
I am very aware that one can easily stray from the path. It is a constant question to be asked as to what our kavanot are and whether we are going for selfish gains instead. Hence I am constantly vigilant to try to be working towards what HaShem would want and not what people would want [if different]. However flawed human beings do not always perceive and understand the words of HaShem no matter how hard they try. We can only do our best and pray for guidance from HaShem. If we look closely, sometimes we, in awe, can even recognize Yad HaShem in our lives. May we all learn to see Yad HaShem in our lives and thereby become closer to HaShem.
B'vrachot, with Blessings and Shabbat Shalom!
Terumah 5773, Free-Will Donations
“Free-Will Donations” and the like appear to be phrases we often hear. We are deluged with requests for donations incessantly. Non-profits of all sorts survive on “free-will donations”. Our political campaigns seem to have become races for who can acquire the most “free-will donations”!
Of course, there is also what seems to be the most used reason for “free-will donations”: support of religious organizations such as churches, temples, synagogues, etc. More accurately it seems that the “free-will donations” support the maintenance of the buildings, associated structures, properties, and accoutrements of the religious organizations.
Last week was Parashat Shekalim. The Haftorah [parts of 2 Kings Ch. 11, 12] for Shekalim tells us of how funds were gathered for the refurbishing of the Temple under the child King Yehoash, after the devastation by royal intrigues that also effectively decimated the royal family until only Yehoash remained. While this eventual refurbishing of the Temple used not-so-free-will taxes, it does relate to one mitzvah important to Purim: the support of congregational needs. In contrast, this week’s parasha [portion] of Terumah [donations] describes the building and maintenance needs for the sanctuary to be supported by “free will” donations.
All of these situations treat “free will” donations as financial and/or material. Yet are those the only type of “free will donations”? Can any institution be run only on money and material objects, or must there be other kinds of “free will donations”? If so, what kind? If maintenance of our spiritual sanctuaries could be with only material wealth, would they then not become objects of idolatry?
So what “free will donation” is needed to maintain our spiritual sanctuaries? Is it enough, or is there a need for multiple kinds of donations? How can we balance the types of donations to maintain the spiritual but still avoid idolatry? This dilemma is one to be contemplated continuously – this week and every week. May we have the insight to discern the best path to balance. Shabbat Shalom!
Tetzaveh/ Zachor 5773
Tetzaveh/ Zachor 5773
BEAUTY OR THE BEAST?
We all like dressing up for special occasions. When we dress up and we feel beautiful externally, we also feel more beautiful internally. It is also wonderful to be in lavishly decorated surroundings. In a royal environment, that feeling of beauty is even more intense, almost the fulfillment of our fantasies.
So when we read how the tabernacle was to be built and decorated as well as how the priests were to be purified and sanctified and dressed, in this week’s parasha [portion] of Tetzaveh, we can understand how the beauty was intended to awe, to inspire, and to help the people feel special, beautiful, and chosen. How much more so when the Temple was built with the splendor of the popular style for palaces of the time such as the temple at Tyre! Such is described in the usual Haftorah portion for Tetzaveh. However this is the week before Purim.
So this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat to remember Amalek. We are told to keep a watch out for Amalek and oppose Amalek any way we can so that the works of Amalek will be utterly destroyed.
We do not have a beautiful Temple with splendidly dressed priests today. What in the modern world helps us to feel beautiful inside? If we do not feel beautiful and special internally, can that void not let in the dark ways of Amalek?
What costumes will we choose come Purim? Will we dress royally to look as beautiful as we feel inside? Or will we dress up royally to hide that we have not achieved our fantastic goal of inner beauty? Maybe we will dress as Haman, a son of Amalek. If we do so, will it be to show that we are flawed and must constantly battle that Amalek-like part within us? Or will it just be a fantasy of pretense to confuse and delight others?
Here’s to a Peaceful Shabbat and then a joyous Purim frolic!
Ki Tisa – Second Chances 5773
Shemot [Exodus] 33:12-17
Every parent understands that children will not be perfect in their behaviours. So parents try to explain, to encourage, and to teach adequately so that their children will become better and better behaved. Nonetheless, the youngsters always seem to find ways to mess up. It is understood that they need second chances [and sometimes 3rd, 4th, …]
Hence what we read in this week’s parasha [portion] of Ki Tisa seems so typical. Moshe and HaShem as parents are sorely aggrieved and peeved over the “misbehaviours” leading to the violation of the rules against idolatry and the building of the golden calf. They were indeed very peeved!
Yet, as often happens in our families, one parent tries to soothe the other. That parent takes the side of the youngsters and begs for clemency, for a second chance. Still there is punishment [although not exile, banishment, or death] even when the more lenient parent prevails.
Indeed that is what we read in this week’s parasha: the golden calf was burnt to ashes; the ashes were mixed in the water for all to drink [and likely caused the later plague by heavy metal poisoning]; and the dissenters were executed. Even so, the covenant between HaShem and the people was re-affirmed.
If we look at ourselves, we see that we mess up far more than just once. We are promised a good life if only we behave, but we mess up again and again. Perhaps that is why we have many opportunities to repent such as on Yom Kippur and Yomai Kippur Katanim [the Day of Atonement and the “little” Days of Atonement , roughly monthly.]
How many second chances will we need until all can have a good life? What punishments will we need to endure for each new chance? Will we ever reach a point where there will be no more chances? Let us take a chance this Shabbat to discuss the need for second chances. Shabbat Shalom!
With the 'new' old car dead with a thrown rod, I have been homebound with plenty of time to make up lists of what needs to be done. So how appropriate that we come to the lists of getting the Sanctuary and the Priests prepared for opening their doors [so to speak]. Speaking of opening our doors, we at Beit Torah open our doors at this season to anyone who wants to join us for a kosher Pesach [Passover] experience. Let us know! In the meantime, enjoy reading about lists for the Holy Days... Shabbat HaChodesh 5773, VaYachel – Pekudei
Lists for the Holy Days
Moshe gave the craftsmen lists of construction materials so that they could build the Mishkan sanctuary without missing anything. He gave Aaron and the Priests lists of materials to get for their uniforms and accoutrements in order for them to be dressed appropriately to serve.
These are the topics the double Torah portion [parashot] of VaYechel/ Pekudei cover this week as we finish the book of Exodus, Shemot. Many would yawn and say: “Boring…”, yet it is a good time to be reminded of the need for lists to remind us of all we need in order to prepare for big events in our lives. To that end this week’s Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat during which we announce the coming of the month in which there is Pesach [Passover].
Nonetheless, Pesach is a really big event for some of us. So we start preparing the lists:
• Lists for cleaning the house and for koshering the kitchen;
• Lists for what to cook for the Seders and for what to serve with it;
• Lists for the clothing we will need for the week and for the food to last all week;
• Lists of what to donate to the poor and of what to donate to the congregation [not mutually exclusive always…];
• Lists of whom to invite to the seders and of whom to study with during the festival; and
• Lists of what to prepare for services, and somewhere among all the lists, a list of what to eat once Pesach is over!
What lists do you prepare for the Holy Days and other festivals like Pesach?
May we not forget to write down everything that needs to be remembered on our lists!
Vayikra 5773, Opposing Oppression, Jeremiah 9:23 –applied to Pesach
“but let the one who glories, glory in this: to understand and know me [HaSHem] that I am the Lord who exercises mercy, justice and righteousness upon the earth. For in these things I delight, says the Lord.”
So as we approach Pesach [Passover], it is even more clear to us that we should therefor glory in that which delights HaShem: the exercise of mercy, justice, and righteousness. How shall we glory in that exercise? We can not be passive. So should we actively pursue mercy, justice and righteousness? It seems we must since that is what delights HaShem!
In order to pursue justice and righteousness, however, we must oppose oppression of all sorts, where-ever we can, in any possible way we can. What kinds of oppression do we need to oppose? Pesach teaches us that there are many faces to oppression such as by modern slavery and sexual pimping or by oppression through discrimination against minorities and/or women. Unfortunately, oppression occurs at all levels of society such as by individuals in family situations, by gangs in the cities, by interstate and worldwide corporations, by governments against each other and, at times, against their governed.
Each of us can affect only a small portion of the world. Yet no matter at what level we can oppose oppression, individually or through groups and organizations, we will be exercising justice and righteousness. Along with this, we also need to remember to exercise mercy so as to not go overboard in our opposition to oppression lest we, ourselves, become oppressors. As we started in Purim to remind ourselves to oppose Amalek so, too, we need now to continue through Pesach and the rest of the year to oppose oppression. How? That is the topic for continuous discussion during this week and every week. Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Tzav, 5773, Guiding Lights
Shabbat Tzav, 5773, Guiding Lights
How many times have we gotten ourselves into trouble by proclaiming we are the chosen ones of HaShem without explaining what it means to be chosen? This week we read of Aaron and his sons being chosen to be the Kohanim [Priests] of the Israelites. The Levites in general, too, were chosen to assist the Kohanim in their tasks from sacrifices to maintenance of the Tabernacle. To many, these details in this week’s portion of Parashat Tzav probably seem quite irrelevant to living a good life in modern times.
Yet the concept of being chosen is relevant. We are not chosen to be pampered nor made materially wealthy nor elevated above others. Instead, we are chosen to be as if a nation of Priests: educators of love and peace as well as examples to others as to how to live righteous, good lives.
Uh, oh! We have yet to figure out among ourselves how to live righteous, good lives in peace with others! So how then can we be guiding lights to others?
A few weeks ago we told the story of Esther and the saving of the Jews from annihilation. We promised to tell this story of success in opposing oppression every year. In another week we will tell our annual story of the Exodus from Egypt. Again we will remind everyone about how we succeeded in escaping oppression.
Is it enough to tell these stories every year? Absolutely not. Only if we can incorporate the lessons into our lives and actively oppose modern day oppression might we possibly be able to start the process of teaching how to achieve righteous lives for ourselves and others in peace. What else can we do to be effective guiding lights?
This is surely the season to seek the answers to these questions. May we find some answers, or at least part of them, this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
SHABBAT PESACH! 5773
Passover Embracing of Freedom 5773
Been through the long Lists and Rush of getting ready.
Still have loads of dishes and my feet to steady…
Yet the two Seders were and done as needed,
Although the lesson by all might not be heeded.
We tried. We were reminded to fight oppression,
To relish dear Freedoms and oppose suppression
Of equal rights for all to unabridged medical access,
To families’ benefits equalities, to success
In brokering Peace among all nations, to Dignity
Granted regardless of stations. Fidelity
To the Passover call: Embrace Freedom for All!
Shabbat Shemini - Living: Proactively or Reactively?
This week’s portion of Parashat Shemini describes with a fair amount of detail how two of Aaron’s sons were burnt fatally while preparing themselves to be Priests. In the wake of this horror, Moshe gives the Priests a list of precautions they will need to take in the future to prevent any reoccurrence of such a horror. For example, they needed to tie back their hair and enter and leave the tabernacle sanctuary while facing the open fire therein to prevent the anointing oil upon them from catching fire.
It seems that in this case, everything about how to minister to the people and care for the tabernacle was in the process of being learned and refined. So the list of safety prohibitions was a reactive response to try to prevent any further mishaps.
Such is a natural human response. Yet somehow, in today’s society, that response to make the world safer seems to be complicated and warped. Clear dangers which threaten us all get bogged down in denials, disagreements, viciousness and greed. Movement forward to effectively address is ground almost to a complete halt. Climate change, oil pipeline leaks, irresponsible gun usage, inadequate safety nets, and so many other brewing dangers are talked about ad nauseum but rarely acted upon.
How can we free ourselves from being frozen into inaction? What actions can we take to do tikun olam [repair of the world] through addressing these issues? Will our responses be reactive as to Aurora and Newtown or will they be proactive to the issues like climate change with the ever increasing threats of adverse weather?
May we have timely conversations on these topics this Shabbat and throughout the year! Shabbat Shalom!
Tazria- Metzora 5773
Tazria- Metzora 5773: What is Impurity?
The double portion this week of Tazria- Metzora focuses on the various situations that would make people be considered impure during biblical times. Menstruation, childbirth, leprosy, contact with the dead, and so on were said to cause impurity.
Yet what is “impurity”? Clearly it can be a temporary condition such as childbirth or a permanent condition such as incurable leprosy. The Priests were given methods with which to diagnose whether a person was impure and methods with which to attempt to purify an “impure” person. Sometimes the purification process worked as with childbirth and contact with the dead. Sometimes it only allowed for determining which cases of leprosy could become purified and which could not.
Nonetheless, such impurity is not viewed today as a negative judgment from the Almighty. This is contrary to the interpretations of some leaders through the generations who believed and believe that any adverse occurrence is punishment for not following the laws/ mitzvot [as interpreted by each leader individually]. Such clearly makes no sense for those impure by contact with the dead or from natural physiological functions of women.
Other leaders try to modernize by saying that what is described as a state of impurity is actually a state where spiritual wholeness is prevented by the ‘impure’ condition. In other words, the person is distracted from spiritual pursuits.
Yet the lepers of the Haftorah for Metzorah [II Kings 7:3-20], although effectively quarantined outside of the city, still managed to do what was right and get wealthy even though they continued to be lepers. Being treated poorly did not prevent them from acting righteously. One might even say they acted in a spiritual way.
Do we now agree that ‘impurity’ comes as a punishment? For that matter, how do we now define impurity? Do we differentiate between physical and spiritual impurity? Let us discuss purity and impurity this Shabbat. Then maybe we can reach a better understanding of Divine Justice… Shabbat Shalom!
Acharei Mot –Kedoshim 5773; Being Worthy
What do we want to be worthy of?
Being loved? Being protected? Being accepted for who we are? Being an accepted member of our community? Having a country of our own?
It seems that all of these and more are what we all want to be worthy of. In this week’s double portion of Parashot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, the Priests are given directives and rituals on how to maintain their purity and hence be worthy of caring for the sanctuary and ministering to the people.
What do we, ourselves, need to do to be/ become “pure” enough to be worthy? At this time when, through observing Israel’s Memorial Day and Israel’s Independence Day, we remember the losses we suffered just to establish and maintain HaAretz, our homeland. Hence we are even more sensitized to the horror and tragedy at the Boston Marathon this week. There the insecurity of our lives was brought home to us most clearly. We can no longer be easily lulled into the complacency of feeling we are worthy of being protected by our democracy! This past Monday, that innocence was ripped away from us in an abrupt fashion.
How can an 8 year old not be worthy of a full life? How can a foreign student worthy of studying in the U.S. be unworthy of graduating there? How can thousands of people peacefully enjoying the challenge of a joyous annual celebration not be worthy of health, happiness, and security?
Now that the comfort of such security and protection has been ripped away, how can we regain it? How can we be worthy of receiving the blessings of security and acceptance? Perhaps it has nothing to do with being worthy. Maybe it just is. Let us share our feelings of self-worth this Shabbat and our hopes for a better future and what that future would hold. Shabbat Shalom!
Emor 5773, Intermediaries or Institutionalized Bigotry?
As we read this week’s Torah and Haftorah portions, we read how the Cohanim, the Levite Priests, were to dress differently, marry differently, and be separated from the other tribes [see Leviticus 21:1-9, 17-21; 22:4-6; Ezekiel 44:17-25, 31]. They were not to be landed and were to appear unblemished to all. So even within their own ranks, some were to be relegated to a lower status and not allowed to perform priestly duties.
Were these customs and regulations used to comfort the people that there were physically unblemished and wise Priests who could guide them in all aspects of their lives with the wisdom of HaShem? Were they to provide a conduit to HaShem? That is to say: were they intended as intermediaries to intercede with HaShem on behalf of the people?
If so, does such not demean the non-Priest people, women in general, and the blemished (disabled, unclean, etc.)? Does it not imply that these others were not capable of a personal relationship, one on one, with HaShem? Does it imply that non-Priests are not capable of understanding and following the laws/mitzvot?
Indeed Hasidism was born out of a premise that Torah is for all, not just a select educated few. Even earlier during 2nd Temple times, the conflicts between Pharisees and Sadducees seem to stem from one group having the arrogance and self-righteousness to think that only their strict interpretation of Torah was correct and all others were sinners while the other group wanted to interpret and adapt Torah to being meaningful to the everyday person and the realities and practicalities of how non-Priests had to live.
Even today we have groups entrenched in their own self-righteousness who reject all other paths as those of non-Jews. Just look at the political chaos within Israel, their treatment of women, their treatment of marriage, and their difficulties in embracing the Jews of the world! Beyond all this it should be noted that the arrogant, self-righteous are often sucked into political [palace] intrigues as seen throughout our history. Power and wealth entice many to corruption. Unfortunately, modern times continue to have these kinds of scandals as well ranging from child molestation to organ harvesting to cult-like entrapment of parishioners.
Yet we need to recall that Rabbis are merely flawed human beings [as we all are] who happen to be educators. So why do many treat them, even expect them, to be more than mortals, to be saint-like intermediaries charged with approaching HaShem on the behalf of others? Are we among those many? Shabbat Shalom!
B’Har / B’Chukotai 5773, The Value of Each Soul
As we finish up VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus, this week we read a curious chapter  in which the equivalent [monetary] value in silver for each person is given based on gender and age. This sanctuary value was to be the basis for calculating what a person owed to be redeemed from a vow. Properties were similarly value for calculating redemption values.
These payments would then be used for the upkeep of the sanctuary and the livelihoods of the Priests. It seems that the differences in valuing people were based on differences in anticipated productivity but could be re-adjudicated by the Priests if the person was financially challenged – a kind of sliding scale.
Indeed Jews still use unequal valuation in some aspects of our lives today. For instance, a mother is valued more than an unborn she might be carrying. So if a choice needs to be made between the two, the mother will be preferentially saved.
Nonetheless, many of us today try to hear “All men are created equal” as “All people are created equal”. After all, on April 24th the Israeli District Court ruled that women may pray in the women’s section by the Kotel [Western Wall] replete with Torah, Tallis, and Tefillin if so desired. Yet they still anticipate verbal abuse and spitting by some “orthodox” men and women.
Are not our souls all of the same value before HaShem? Even if we do recognize this truth, do we not continue to value those we like over those we don’t, the successful over the impoverished, the clever over the dull, the beautiful over the plain, the powerful over the weak, and so on? How can we learn to respect and value everyone equally? Should we? This topic gives plenty of food for thought as we enjoy our food during Kabbalat Shabbat this week. Shabbat Shalom!
BaMidbar, 5773, Need for and Access to Spiritual Enrichment
This week we start a new Book of Torah, Bamidbar [Numbers]…in the Wilderness, perhaps both geographically and spiritually… Besides a census of the military aged males in all the Tribes [Ch. 1], there is also a description of where the Tribes are all encamped [Ch. 2]. This configuration allowed each of the Tribes to be about equally close to the Tabernacle as each other. All the Tribes had access to the center of their Spiritual devotion.
Did they need that access? We may never know what their needs really were, but they certainly were told by Moshe and the Cohanim [Priests] that they needed access in order to perform the sacrifices and the rituals.
Even with the urbanization of modern life, it is not always easy nor desirable for Jews to live close to a compatible Jewish congregation. Access may be difficult due to distance, livelihood difficulties, disability, finances, or other stumbling blocks. Yet if there is a need for spiritual enrichment, there should be a way made to provide access to the needy so that they will not be lost to Judaism.
Certainly the urban mode of access effectively eliminated those in agricultural settings unless they can afford to travel long distances and be away for extended travel. This mode has since been adopted as the desired venue for prayer and spiritual enrichment. Along the way, the disabled and women were told that they did not need to join in. Yet don’t they, too, have spiritual needs?
Today, some are more lenient about walking or driving distances. Hence they try to be more welcoming, more in accord with our being taught that none should be excluded from the community. However there are still beliefs that nothing of value is heard except in a minyan. Others take that belief further into thinking that such a minyan needs to be in a dedicated building, a Temple or Synagogue. Many of the stories in Torah seem to disagree. Further, the needs for spiritual enrichment are not limited by the presence or lack thereof of a minyan.
How can we make spiritual and religious guidance accessible to those in need who are unable to join a minyan for whatever reason? Is the model of the travelling [itinerant?] Rabbi useful to help meet such needs? Is the internet limited in meeting these needs given no direct person on person interaction? In what other ways can the unmet needs of Jews be met when they can not access a minyan or synagogue so that they are not lost to Judaism? These are questions pressing upon us when we lived disperse and away from a welcoming minyan or synagogue. These are questions to ponder on Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Naso 5773 The Value of Vows
We read that in Biblical times vows were used to attain greater purity and strength or to succeed in fulfilling mitzvoth. Hence a system of retribution payments was set up to be levied on those who broke their vows.
This week’s parasha [portion] of Naso, both Torah and Haftorah, concerns itself with Nazarite vows. The most serious penalty for breaking a vow was death. Yet the the Nazarite vow of Sampson was made by his mother before he was born! While she might lose her only son, he lost his life when his vow was broken through the cutting of his hair which caused the loss of his considerable Nazarite strength.
The vows of those times seem superstitious to the modern view. Further, modern people do not accept that one person can make a vow that obligates another to certain behaviours. Effectively we think today that each must make their own contracts which they can enter into freely after giving informed consent- at least in theory…
So the obvious questions are: What is a modern vow? What purpose is there to taking a vow nowadays? What value does a vow have in our lives today? What penalties are there if we, today, break our vows?
Should we vow to have Shabbatot of rest and Peace- at least for this weekend? Shabbat Shalom!
Memorial Day is coming. May we remember well, forgive so we can move forward, and heal even as Moshe prayed for healing for his sister in this week's parsha...
B’Ha-alotecha 5773, Forgiveness and Healing
In this week’s parasha [portion], Aaron and Miriam had unpleasant words about Moshe’s wife who was said to be a Cushite, a word we have not read before in Torah [ch. XII]. However this section seems highly edited. No details about what was said are given. Neither is whether it was said in public or in private. Further it is not clear whether the Cushite wife is Zipporah [of Cusi] or an Ethiopian African princess wife we learn of from Josephus. [This refers to Ancient Ethiopia corresponding to present day Ethiopia extended to include the coastal areas and other areas.]
Were the specifics of the story deleted to avoid the perpetuation of Lashon HaRah, the Evil Tongue [gossip]? We may never know. All kinds of thoughts are out there from Miriam sympathizing with Zipporah over Moshe’s neglect of her [Etz Chayim] to criticism of Zipporah for being a nag to needing to take in the Ethiopian wife after decades of separation and many other stories.
Did Moshe know what was said? If so, was he upset by their talk about his wife? If he was, he had to forgive Miriam before praying that HaShem heal her. If not, then HaShem was distressed by Miriam’s behaviour and felt it necessary to give her a skin affliction even as a father might spit upon his daughter to humiliate her and have her put outside the community for a week.
Did HaShem need to forgive her before healing her? Who knows? Only HaShem.
Regardless, given that Aaron was not afflicted by a skin disease, the sense of the story is that Miriam was the one who spoke ill of Moshe’s wife [and Aaron listened]. However it is said that both Aaron and Miriam lost their prophetic abilities and hence lost their stature as equal to Moshe in leadership. Miriam’s affliction/ rebuke was quite public.
Given all this, it is hard to imagine that the discord was not public. Nonetheless, as Hertz suggests, it appears that Moshe forgave both of them and wanted to protect and heal his sister. So, she was only exiled for a week of humiliation as would be a daughter spat upon by her father.
For us today, do we need forgiveness first before we can be healed? If so, is it forgiveness from ourselves? From HaShem? From those we have spoken ill of? If not, how can we achieve healing?
Shlach-Lecha 5773; Death Penalty: when?
This week’s parasha [portion] of Shlach-Lecha has a troubling story to the modern eye. A man was caught gathering firewood on Shabbat. The penalty imposed for this violation of Shabbat was death. He was stoned to death. That is pretty horrific to modern Western sensibilities.
We argue over whether to have the death penalty at all and if so, for which most heinous crimes? Some argue that it costs more to litigate for someone on death row than to keep that person locked up for life.
Yet we read in Torah of many actions for which a death penalty is given. For instance, abuse of parents was punishable by death.
We are told by the Rabbis of old that the death penalties were rarely carried out. We are told that at least two unrelated accusers were needed to prove that a violation had occurred. Stoning would not happen unless the accusers were willing to throw the first stones. It is alleged that the accusers [perhaps in recognizing their own flaws?] rarely, if ever, picked up stones to throw. Additionally, extenuating circumstances were to be taken into account before judgment was passed.
Yet we look at the tempers and jealousies in the modern world and find it hard to imagine that “justice” in the hands of the public would not lead to deaths. Think lynch mobs.
Israel no longer has the death penalty. So we are all faced with the question of whether there are any reasons to apply the death penalty. If so, what are those reasons? Do we have the right to judge at so harsh a level?
SO, non-judgmentally, we extend Shabbat Shalom!
A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. When will we learn tolerance of our differences as Jews? When will learn acceptance of others who are not Jews based on our commonalities and not our differences? Does joining groups that emphasize our differences encourage discord, hatred, and intolerance? Such is our discussion focus this week at Beit Torah Jewish Congregation [ www.onetorah.org ]. Will it be yours?
Korach 5773, Are Levites Still Special?
Korach felt that the Levites are specially chosen to be leaders. As we read in this week’s parasha [portion, BaMidbar/Numbers ch 18] by his name, Korach also felt that any Levites could lead, not just the Kohanim, the line of Aaron. Upon arrival in the promised land, the Kohanim were the religious leaders with a support cadre of other Levites.
However the leadership was divided into two areas of tasks: Religious and non-Religious [political]. Judges such as Devorah and Prophets such as Samuel led the people. As our Haftorah [Samuel ch. 12] points out, even though the leadership of Samuel was not corrupt, when he needed to retire the people insisted on having a king like the other nations and as chosen by Samuel despite his opposition to a monarchy.
Time has confirmed his fears of corruption, nepotism, and palace intrigues within the monarchies. His caution to cling to the ethical ways of HaShem fell by the wayside.
The kohanim at first stayed involved within Temple matters but eventually they also got involved in politics and political intrigues, especially in 2nd Temple times. After the fall of the Temples, the power of the Levites was considerably diminished, including that of the Kohanim.
We no longer have Prophets nor Priests, yet we maintain the Levite and Kohain lineages. Why? Are the Levites [especially the Kohanim] still special in some way? If so, what is it that we task them to do as they no longer have the tasks as described in Torah, e.g. BaMidbar ch. 18? If not, why do we continue tracking lineages? What would Judaism be like without Levites and Kohanim? Would it still be Judaism?
Nonetheless we are Jews for a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. As Jews we will discuss these questions and others as we go forward into modern times. Shabbat Shalom!
Chukat 5773, Changing of the Guard
A core theme in Judaism is repeated many times a year in Torah study and daily in prayer. This theme is the escape from slavery in Egypt. The reported 40 year trek from Egypt to the Promised Land has raised many questions. Why did it take so long when a direct route, even with flocks and the feeble, would have been weeks or maybe at most some months? The Sages tell us that the people of the exodus generation had the mindset of slaves. They had no vision for building their futures. They were fearful and insecure. So, according to the commentaries, the generation needed to die out before the people was ready to enter the Promised Land.
Yet the stories tell us that Joshua, Serah, and Yochevet all survived the trek and entered the Promised Land. While we know that Joshua, who was a child upon leaving Egypt, did enter the Promised Land as the military leader of the People, it seems incredulous to think that Serah or Yochevet did. For instance, this week’s parasha [potion] of Chukat describes the deaths of Miriam and Aaron. There is no mention of Yochevet. Yet these were two of her children! In fact, there is no mention of Yochevet in any of the stories about the Exodus or after. Besides these deaths of Miriam and Aaron in the desert, we know that Moshe, too, will not make it into the Promised Land. In part this is alleged to be because after Miriam’s death Moshe took over the task of finding water for the people. However, this week’s parasha tells us he was frustrated and impatient. Hence he violently struck the rock to get water rather than just quietly speak to it.
So we get the impression that by this time all the older generation was tired and ready to be out of the picture. Even Moshe and his siblings had to go? Was it because they, too, had the mindset of living in Egypt and lacked the vision for a future in the Promised Land? Yet Torah describes them giving us the template for living in the Land! Maybe they just got too tired [and cranky] with age? In any case, none of the Exodus adults entered the Promised Land, Moshe and his siblings included. A new chapter was started. There was a changing of the guard led by Joshua. How was this Chapter different? The books of Joshua and Judges add to Torah to hint at the changes and provide us with many topics for discussion, at least one for this week. Shabbat Shalom!
Balak 5773, Interspecies Communications
Listening is one of the hardest things to do for a great many people. If we do not listen well to other people, how much harder it must be to listen to HaShem and to all the creations HaShem has blessed us with!
This week in Parashat [the portion of] Balak we read how Bilaam had great difficulty in hearing let alone listening to his donkey who tried to give him a warning from a non-corporeal messenger of HaShem. In effect, the donkey was a prophet even more connected to the wishes of HaShem than Bilaam who was reputed to always speak the words of HaShem. Yet Bilaam wasn’t in very good listening mode.
Recently a radio story was broadcast that could not be any more timely to this week’s parasha: The Captain of a boat for hire received a frantic call that a sperm whale was entangled in buoy and crab lines quite a bit off the coast. Immediately the Captain called several divers he knew to get a crew to assist in rescuing the whale. They all came over right away with their gear.
When they reached the exhausted whale, it took some time before she was calm enough to approach. For hours they worked at cutting the ropes. Finally one diver near her tail which was being dragged down by the entanglement cut a bit into her to get under a key rope and cut it. Once cut, the entangled mess fell away and the whale was gone.
As the divers celebrated their success in releasing the whale, the whale resurfaced. Gently she went up to each member one at a time. This fifty foot creature nudged each one, one at a time, several times and then gazed upon each for a while before going on to do the same for the next. The huge whale gently interacted with the divers and the boat who came to her rescue.
The divers listened but still were not totally sure what the message beyond thanks was. Was she memorizing each one as a friend? Was she adopting their “pod” to be part of hers? Yet even when the will to listen is there, the message may not be totally understood.
So it is not surprising that Bilaam did not easily get the divine message from his donkey. By the time he did, it was too late and his life was forfeit.
Do we not need to listen better to all of HaShem’s creations if we want to avoid massive disruptions of life from our not understanding HaShem’a messages on how to care for Creation? When was the last time that we carefully listened to others of HaShem’s creatures and creations? These questions form a topic of concern for many and also for us this coming Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Shavuah Tov! Have a Great Week! Commentary, an oldie but goodie :
This portion is a difficult one for me to comment on as it comes usually with the Yahrzeit of my Father, Moshe ben Yaakov v'Dina, Zichrono L'Vracha, May His Memory Be for a Blessing.
The most meaningful part for me is the confirmation that women do have rights in the inheritances of the family and by generalization extension, in the community as well. This basic principle along with the core teachings of Judaism have guided me through my life to this point with the firm conviction that all are equal.
The potential for leadership roles should be open to male and female alike, yet no leader has the right to impose his or her personal view of the world upon others - just as it is also true for the everyday person. As we have learnt before, we should be students and teachers all. Our obligations in Judaism go beyond any ego or paranoia. We need to rein ourselves in with intense efforts to treat all as we would have them treat us, to reach out to include all in the community with understanding and compassion - or at least minimally with tolerance and patience -, to be a light or role model among the nations with our good deeds [mitzvot] towards all: Jews and non-Jews.
There should be no distinction between male and female. All should be welcomed with friendship and caring. Neither is there any expectation for earthly return on our good deeds: no payment for being a decent, righteous, humane human being other than the knowledge that mitzvot have been done. In this world torn with discord, disagreement, strife, horrors and wars - there is a serious lack of leadership bent on the forging of cooperative efforts to achieve peace and tranquility.
Is this sad state of affairs trickled down to the everyday folk who then act in equally abominable ways? Or- is this sad state of affairs a reflection of what already exists at all levels of society?
More importantly: how can we break these cycles of violence, immorality, and unethical behaviour? Do we as Jews obligated to do Tikun Olam, Repair of the World, accept this responsibility and challenge no matter how daunting? How?
Shabbat Shalom – a Good Shabbas to all!
A Great 2 commentaries Week!
1- Commentary from Rabbi Adele:
Mattot-Masei 5773, A time for sorrow
We are in the three most mournful weeks of the Jewish Calendar, the three weeks of desolation leading up to what we are told is the most inconsolable grief possible recalling the destructions of the Temples around the 9th of Av, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and many other horrors of the past. For me personally, it is a time to remember the passing of two of the dearest people in the world to me: my father and my closest high school friend, both to cancer.
Yet the sorrows over memories of events in the distant past or even from within my lifetime pale in comparison to the shock and grief over our recent community losses of 19 dedicated firefighters in the Yarnell Hill blaze. Memories of these brave souls and the scars left by their perishing will be with us for many years to come.
May they be role models for us all to actively seek ways to serve our communities with love, compassion, and respect for all regardless of our differences in traditions, religions, politics, and so forth. For as they knew clearly, we are all the same flesh and will all burn up the same way should fire engulf us.
May we recall this truth as we celebrate our independence, mourn our fallen, and embrace Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom.
2- Commentary from Dr. Mizrahi :In this week's Torah portion, Mass'ei, the five unmarried daughters of Tzelaf'chad want to inherit their father's land. They are allowed to, but only if they marry within their tribe, which they do. This restriction was later rescinded, a leniency that gave birth to Tu b'Av, dubbed "the greatest day of joy in the Jewish calendar", and a popular day for Jewish weddings.
Video: http://youtu.be/Deh0Za5msj8 [captions available -- click on "cc"]
Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi B”H
D'var Torah on Mass'ei
We are in the middle of the most somber period in the Jewish calendar: The three weeks from the Fast of Tammuz to Tish'a b'Av. The Fast of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and Tisha b'Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple and many other calamities in Jewish history. It is a period of mourning. All forms of rejoicing are prohibited, including weddings. Today, I want to talk to you about the light at the end of that dark tunnel.
This is prompted by this week's Torah portion, Mass'ei. It includes the story of the five unmarried daughters of Tzelaf'chad. Their father died, and they had no brothers to inherit his land. So they went to Moses and asked him to be allowed to inherit it. Moses was about to say, "Sure, no problem, I am an egalitarian at heart". But the leaders of the daughters' tribe, Menashe, argued that, if the daughters wanted to inherit, they HAD to marry within their tribe, because the leaders did not want the land to end up in the tribes of the husbands. Moses consulted with God, and God decided the daughters would BOTH inherit the land AND marry within their tribe. Note carefully the language in the Torah:
- 6. This is the word that the Lord has commanded regarding Tzelaf'chad's daughters. Let them marry whomever they please, but they shall marry only to the family of their father's tribe.
- 7. Thus, the inheritance of the children of Israel will not be transferred from tribe to tribe, for each person from the children of Israel will remain attached to the inheritance of his father's tribe.
- 8. Every daughter from the tribes of the children of Israel who inherits property, shall marry a member of her father's tribe, so each one of the children of Israel shall inherit the property of his forefathers.
- 9. And no inheritance will be transferred from one tribe to another tribe, for each person of the tribes of the children of Israel shall remain attached to his own inheritance."
- 10. As the Lord had commanded Moses, so did Tzelaf'chad's daughters do.
- 11. Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah married their cousins. (Numbers, 36:6-11)
The Talmud gushed about that decision in superlative terms. The Mishna says:
- Rabbi Shim'on ben Gamliel said: There never were in Israel greater holidays [yamim tovim] than Tu b'Av and Yom Kippur. (Taanit 26b)
- I can understand Yom Kippur, because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon, and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given; but what happened on Tu b'Av?
- -Rav Yehudah said in the name of Shmuel: It is the day on which permission was granted to the tribes [of Israel] to intermarry [without restriction].
Let us continue to read the Mishna (Taanit 26b):
- Rabbi Shim'on ben Gamliel said: There never were in Israel greater holidays [yamim tovim] than Tu b'Av and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem used to walk out in white garments, which they borrowed in order not to put to shame any one who had none... The daughters of Jerusalem came out and danced in the vineyards exclaiming at the same time, "Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself. Do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on [good] family." [As it says in Proverbs,] “Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman who fears God, she shall be praised.” (Proverbs 31:30).
The rabbis officially added Tu b'Av to the modern Jewish calendar. The only religious observance is the omission of Tachannun, a penitentiary prayer recited after morning and afternoon services (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 131:6). Since it is a joyous day, we dispense with penitentiary prayers. It is a regular workday. If a funeral must take place, eulogies are not read aloud.
The holiday has been rejuvenated since the founding of the State of Israel. In Israel, it is the custom, whether you are religious or not, to go to music and dance festivals, and send cards and flowers to your significant other. Girls from Shiloh, north of Jerusalem, dance today in the same vineyards mentioned in the Mishna, while Hassidic musicians play in the background.
Also, Tu b'Av comes at a time of year when the nights begin to grow longer after the summer solstice. Our Sages said, "The night was created for study." So this is a time when we must study Torah ever harder.
You can guess from its name that it comes on a full moon. Jewish months are lunar, 'Tu b'Av' means 'the fifteenth of Av', that is, the middle of the month, and the middle of the month is when the moon is full. A perfect setting for kissing your better half.
Just as the Talmud and later commentators associated many Jewish tragedies with Tish'a b'Av, other than the fall of the first Temple, so they associated many happy occasions with Tu b'Av, other than unrestricted permission to marry into another tribe of Israel. For example, in chronological order (Taanit 30-31):
-On Tu b'Av, The tribe of Benjamin was allowed to intermarry with the other tribes. That privilege had been suspended after the incident of the Concubine of Giv'ah, as related in the Book of Judges. (Judges 19-21).
The reasoning was similar to the one I mentioned earlier and is related in the same section of the Talmud. The Book of Judges says:
- None of us shall give his daughter to Benjamin for a wife. (Judges 21:1]
-On Tu b'Av, the last of the Israelites that had left Egypt died. This meant that their descendants could finally enter the Promised Land. They had not been allowed to do so as long as the generation of the Exodus was still alive. That generation was tainted by the Golden Calf, the sin of the Spies, a slave mentality, and too much “oldthink”. At that point, the Talmud adds, God began to talk to the people again.
-On Tu b'Av, King Hosea of the Northern Kingdom finally allowed his people to freely make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom, after two centuries of restrictions.
-On Tu b'Av, the Romans allowed the victims of the massacre of Betar to be buried. Betar was the last stand of the Bar Kochba revolt, in the year 135. That's where Bar Kochba himself died. The Talmud adds that the bodies had not decomposed, even though they had been exposed to the elements for over a year. On that Tu B'Av, a fourth blessing was added by Rabban Gamliel the Elder to the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals, which we still recite today.
Remember, the first three blessings are:
- -Birkat hazan -- the blessing for food
- -Birkat haaretz -- the blessing for the Land
- -Birkat Yerushalayim -- the blessing for Jerusalem
-Tu b'Av marked the end of the season for cutting wood for the main altar in the Temple. That was because from that point on the sun's rays become too weak to dry the wood fast enough. If it doesn’t dry fast enough, it becomes infested with woodworms and becomes unfit for the altar. They celebrated by cutting an axe, and called it The Day of the Breaking of the Axe! They sure loved to celebrate in those days.
But when you ponder all the reasons I just gave you, it does not leap at you that Tu b’Av should be “the most joyous day on the Jewish calendar”. Until you finally realize what ties all these reasons together: Tu b’Av is when you are finally allowed to do things you were not allowed to do before. (This, of course, is what a wedding is supposed to mark!) And that may be the greatest joy of all.
Tu b'Av, coming soon. May this coming Tu b'Av be a prelude to many more days of festivities and rejoicing, weddings and happy celebrations, for you, for us, and for all Israel, and let us say: Amen.
Devarim 5773 – Remembering
As we approach Shabbat Hazon, the last Sabbath before the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av], we note that these last few weeks have been steeped in horrible memories. Memories of historic tragedies seem now to combine with the memories of the horror of recent events: wildfires, deaths of firefighters, aircraft crashes, weather disasters, train wrecks, explosions, and so on.
There are those who believe that during the month before the 9th of Av, in particular during the last week and a half, people should not take any risks. They should not travel distances nor participate in risky sports like swimming. In what seems to be superstitious concerns, these people fear that disasters are more likely during this time period and therefore want to take all precautions they can think of whether logical or not.
Unfortunately, even if this time period is somehow jinxed, we are truly merely imperfect creatures without the ability to completely prevent disasters from happening. Instead, tragedies will continue to happen. Sometimes they will happen during this time period approaching Tisha B’Av.
This we have tearfully seen with the effects of the Yarnell Hill fire, effects that will be playing out for some time to come. Our memories will always be filled with the horror and the stories shared by others. We remember them and their stories perhaps even more vividly and indelibly than the events and stories of Tisha B’Av. We will try to avoid future tragedies in a variety of ways with varying degrees of success. Yet even if we can not succeed in avoiding future tragedies, we will remember the ones that have occurred and those that will occur. We will try to build a better future for all using the lessons and memories of them all.
May we take time this weekend to share our stories of what we remember and how these remembrances will affect us as we go forward into the unknown future. Shabbat Shalom
What defines Judaism? Many would have difficulty answering that question. For Jews who pray, it is evident that the prayer used by all types of Jews is the Shema. Often called the watchword of our people, the Shema is our testimony to monotheism. This week’s portion of Parashat VaEtchanan is the source of the Shema as are other excerpts from Torah for other prayers commonly used. It is the clear reminder by Moshe to the people that there is one and only one HaShem.
Is Judaism the only monotheistic religion? No. So what makes our monotheism different from others? What are the common characteristics of the monotheistic religions? What makes them different? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are the core to our discussion this Shabbat.
Ekev 5773 “and You Shall Love”
I love flying. As we flew above the town we saw how green it is after all the recent rains. We flew over the blackened remnants of the Doce fire and reminded ourselves that not all was green. Along the way we noticed someone’s back yard on fire and called it in to emergency services. The glittering of the sun off solar panels briefly distracted us. All the while we flew, it was liberating – and we loved it.
Nonetheless this was visceral love and should not be confused with the love we are told to have for our neighbors, for strangers, and for HaShem as seen in Dvarim 10:19 and 11:22 found in this week’s portion of Parashat Ekev. Still it is clear that the way love is used in these directives does not include the love we feel for flying, although it might be part of why we reported the yard fire!
So what does it mean to love in this week’s parasha? Does it mean we should give others, including HaShem, the benefit of the doubt? Does it mean that we should look at each individual as an individual regardless of what pigeonholes people may be tempted to place them in? If so, Travon Martin should never have been singled out for following.
Does it mean that everyone deserves respect regardless of what they have done? If so, the penal system leaves a lot to be desired.
Does it mean that anyone being challenged by a natural disaster deserves our help without any scrutiny of who they are nor what they have done? Does it mean that all should be equally able to access medical attention in time of need regardless of their socioeconomic status?
Do we have the right to say that some people should be treated differently than others because we don’t like them or because they have more money or power than others, or because they can terrorize us?
This last question will be addressed more fully when we talk about the obligations of judges in court proceedings during the portion of Parashat Shoftim. In the meantime we have plenty to mull over and discuss during this Shabbat and other times. May our discussions open our eyes to truths about ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom!
Reeh 5773- Caring for the Needy
Sometimes certain directives of Torah are stated more than once. We are told by the Sages that the more often something is repeated, the more important it is for us to follow it diligently. Such is the case with repeated statements to take care of the widow, the fatherless, the orphan, the children, the servants, the stranger, etc. Sometimes the statement includes caring for the Levites, sometimes not. Sometimes the statement is directed to specific holidays and sometimes it is for any time.
Nonetheless, the intent of the statement repeated several times in this portion [besides in other parashot as well] is that we should be diligent in caring for the needy. Two of the iterations occur just in the last triennial section of this week’s portion, Parashat Reeh [Ch. 16:11-12, 14]. So now we know that it is important to care for the needy, how should we care for them? For that matter, who are the needy?
In this country we have something called ‘the poverty line.’ It is picked out by people elected to govern us and can be changed nearly as easily as the wind changes direction. Besides, such numbers do not define need. People with special medical needs can not effectively be cared for in the same way as people who are elderly and hungry nor as people who are homeless but capable of working if given a dignified opportunity to do so.
The question of how to care for the needy is addressed repeatedly throughout the ages, often with answers specific to a given culture and time period. When the society was mostly agricultural, there were expectations that a tenth of the fields along the edges would be left for gleaners. In some of the Temple times, there were certain sacrifices that were eaten with 10% of those eating being needy folk. The Rambam [Maimonides] wrote a rational well thought out description of the levels of charity that can be used to care for the needy. Yet the Rambam could not have anticipated the changes in lifestyle that have occurred since his time. So even his levels of charity need to be re-interpreted and updated to be meaningful for modern times.
Do randomly packed food boxes meet the needs of all the hungry? Is it appropriate to require proof of citizenship and/or proof of income level before the needy can get food assistance? Is it appropriate to allow people to live on the streets regardless of the weather conditions? Where is the dignity for the needy when they are forced to beg and/or give up their privacy? How best can we care for the needy in a respectful, dignified manner without embarrassment or humiliation? Are we not all needy in one way or another? Shabbat Shalom!
Shoftim 5773, Who has the Right to Judge?
Up to now in Dvarim [Deuteronomy], Moshe has recounted history and laws to live by. This week’s portion, Parashat Shoftim [Judges], seems to have a different focus. Instead of telling everyone how to act, such as we saw in Reeh last week with the repeated directive to care for the needy, this week seems to be directed to a specific part of the population. It appears to be a compilation of the do’s and don’ts for people selected to be the decision makers of the land [judges, kings, priests, etc.].
In particular, the ethics of how to judge fairly is described. There are underlying assumptions with which some of us modern folk may disagree. First, it is assumed that although HaShem is the only true Judge, human society can not be civilized without some people appointed to uphold the laws, pass judgments based on the laws, and carry out those judgments.
In theory, the appointed are supposed to be the best of the best, those of the highest ethical structure. Shouldn’t these guidelines for ethical behaviour of the decision makers apply to all of us? Are people such a hopeless cause that they can not all be expected to reach such rational and detached decision making? That seems to be another underlying assumption one that many, if not most, of us would agree with.
A third assumption is that ethical people can be found to fill the decision making posts as judges and law keepers. Yet time and time again we have proven ourselves rarely capable of agreeing to use such people in these posts. Power and greed often [but not always] are motives behind the choices made to fill these posts, choices made by people who do not exemplify the standards of a Judge or other decision maker as described in these guidelines.
This brings us around full circle. If we are to get good choices to be judges, law makers, and law keepers; then we who choose them must follow those same ethical standards. If we all follow those same standards in decision making for these choices, then why do we need judges and law makers? If we do not, then can we ever get righteous judges and law makers chosen? Do any of us truly have the right to stand in judgment of others? Can we ever truly pursue justice?
KI TETZEI 5773 – WIPING OUT AMALEK
In Torah we often read of what, to us seem to be draconian measures to prevent idolatrous practices introduced through cultural contamination. Yet historical evidence indicates that, regardless of what draconian measures were taken, there was cultural cross-contamination. So it is somewhat curious that apparently out of the blue in our portion of this week, Parashat Ki Tetzei, ends with a clear directive to wipe out Amalek.
We know that there are no official remnants of the tribe of Amalek. Haman in the story of Purim is said to be of Amalek but many say it was his behaviour and not his lineage that earned him that description.
As a result we now come to two major questions: Who or what is Amalek today? And
How can the Amalek of today be wiped out?
If we define Amalek as those who kill the weakest of the community such as the elderly and the disabled and the young, then Hitler and all the other war criminals would be Amalek. What of the soldiers who willingly carried out their orders, sometimes even enjoying the atrocities they committed? What of those who perpetrate indiscriminate killing of civilians during times of conflict?
Who hasn’t at one time or another done something cruel or vicious? Is there a part of Amalek in each of us? If it is in each of us, how can we wipe out that part of us?
What resources do we have to use to wipe out Amalek where-ever we may find it? –in ‘leaders’? -in followers? -in each of us?
These questions weigh heavily on us all as we approach the High Holy Days. May we be blessed with the wisdom to figure out at least a part of the way we need in order to go forward with fighting Amalek and building a better future for us all. Shabbat Shalom!
Ki Tavo 5773 Jewish Responsibilities and Obligations
In this week’s portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, the Israelites are told that when they enter the land, they are to erect 12 huge pillars containing all the laws and words of HaShem written upon them. This is not unusual for the time period as such pillars have been found for other cultures. This portion is also filled with many curses for doing the forbidden and blessings for following the mitzvot.
We also read again of mitzvot we have been told before such as caring for the needy. In this parasha special attention is being paid to tithes where 10 % of the tilled fields of those who work the land are to be left to be harvested by the poor and needy. Yet this is a tithing instruction to landowners and tillers. It is told that in some later Temple times there were some sacrifices that were eaten by the Priests and their families at tables where 10% of the spaces were reserved for the poor and needy.
An earlier portion of the Torah describes the required sacrifices to be made by all. However there are leniencies described for the poor and needy. Indeed the Priests were given the duty to adjust the amounts owed by the poor according to what they can afford. How then did we get to the understanding that there should be a 10% tithe on everyone? Do we still have such leniencies built into our system of “tithes”? Are “tithes” only what we give to our congregations or are taxes a form of tithes?
Certainly the wealthy are encouraged to give as much as they can to charitable causes even as were the Children of Israel were to give donations from the heart for the building of the Tabernacle. Later in Temple times, taxes were levied according to variable schemes of fairness depending on who was governing at the time.
So we in modern times are still left with the questions: What are tithes? How are tithes to be collected and used? If we are to be diligent in collecting tithes, would we then be able to adequately care for all of the needy? Who can take the place of the Priests to determine who is needy or at what level a person is to be assessed? Are tithes necessary in our modern society?
No doubt these questions could fuel many heated discussions, but maybe one cordial one this Shabbat will be a good start.
Netzavim and VaYelech 5773: Choose Life not Idolatry
Two recurrent and related themes are found throughout Torah. The first is the prohibition against idolatry. The second is the promise of the Promised Land to Abraham and all subsequent generations if and only if they observe the laws of HaShem, the mitzvot, including the prohibition against idolatry.
This week’s double portion, Parashot Nitzavim and VaYelech, reiterates these two themes in detail. Many examples are given of what horrors will happen if the mitzvot are not observed. On the other hand, we read that if the People observe all the mitzvot, then all the people would be gathered in from their dispersed locations to live in the Promised Land with all observing all the mitzvot, especially the prohibition against idolatry. Seems straightforward, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately it isn’t. There is no uniform agreement among the various Jewish factions as to what the mitzvot entail. There is no clear understanding of what idolatry is. Indeed, there is not even an agreement as to who belongs to the People!
Is it important and relevant to be able to determine who belongs to the People? Which Mitzvot must be followed? What is idolatry?
Without answers to these questions, how can we succeed in choosing against idolatry and for life?
Once more it is the season when we promise to do better at following the mitzvot. In a sense, this is our affirmation that we want to choose life. Yet if we can not define what the mitzvot to follow are, especially in defining what idolatry is in order to avoid it, then we can only guess at what choosing life can mean. Will our guesses at choosing life be adequate to get us sealed in the good books?
On a personal note, as in every year at this time, I extend peace and friendship to all. In forgiving all for their violations of me and mine [physical or verbal or by kavana (intent/ thought); intentional or unintentional], I fervently hope that all will reciprocate in kind. May this Shabbat and this Motzei Shabbat of Selichot bring us all to the forgiveness we need. Shabbat Shalom!