Forgive and be Forgiven
Shuva/ Haazinu 5778 Dvarim 32; 2 Samuel 22
Shana 5778 Tova Tikateivu vTichateimu – May you be inscribed and sealed in the Good Books
Both a farewell and a sweet New Year
Are coming soon to bring us cheer.
Moshe says farewell with history and song.
On Shabbat Shuvah, return after so long
To the precepts and mitzvot, good deeds;
Sorrow for warnings we do not heed.
Sincerely repent as we accept our past sins
While making amends, as best we can, so to win
Forgiveness, Atonement, a fresh new page
To start this year with hope, without hatred or rage…
Adapted from one of my most appreciated prayers:
Holy Creator of All! I and we herewith forgive anyone who may have irritated, angered, or injured me/us –whether acting against my/our persons, my/our possessions, or my/our reputations. Let no one be punished on my/our account, whether the wrong done to me/us was accidental or malicious, unwitting or purposeful, by word or by deed.
May it be Your will, O Holy One who was the Holy One of our ancestors, that we not repeat the wrongs we have committed, that we sin no more. May we never again anger You by doing that which is evil in Your sight. We pray that our sins will be wiped away not through sickness and suffering, but rather through mercy.
For Yom Kippur:
How can I ask to be forgiven?
What words can I say?
What for should I be forgiven?
Where have I gone astray?
For if I know not the depths of my sin
Or which words to pray,
Can I know if my prayer's to begin
With Man or G-d today?
Shabbat Sukkot [Intermediate] 5778; EXODUS 33:12 - 34:26 ; EZEKIEL 38:18 - 39:16
Sukkot days 1 &2 Leviticus 22:26 - 23:44; Numbers 29:12-16 ; ZECHARIAH 14:1-21 d.1; I KINGS 8:2-21 d.2 [10/4eve-6]
Shemini Atzeret, 8th Day of Assembly: Deuteronomy 14:22 - 16:17; Numbers 29:35 - 30:1; I KINGS 8:54-66 [10/12]
Simchat Torah: Deuteronomy 33:1 - 34:12; Genesis 1:1 - 2:3; Numbers 29:35 - 30:1 ; JOSHUA 1:1-18 [10/13]
This past couple weeks has been particularly challenging. SO much death and destruction! Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, mudslides, flooding, terrorists, genocidal bigots… A combination of ‘natural’ and people-made disasters all. SO much pain and sorrow…
At this festival season, we are told to embrace happiness and joy. There is also a tradition to welcome guests, lots of guests, into the sukkot [sukkahs]. Over the years, it became understood that the guest could also be the soul of the ancestors.
In the spirit of that custom, I will welcome all souls to be guests in my Sukkah, be they here or distant, alive or not. Let us all welcome in particular the souls of the recently passed innocents. Honor them. Remember them and their stories. Love them.
May we all have a meaningful and loving festive season of Sukkot!
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sukkot Sameach, and Moadim L’Simchah!
Good Shabbas, Happy Sukkot Holiday and Seasons for Joy!
Shabbat Bereishit 5778; Beginnings
Shabbat Bereishit 5778 Beginnings; Genesis 1:1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5-43:10
Now we come around full circle and begin our Torah reading yet again with Parashat Bereishit. We see cliff-notes to how the universe began, how plants began, and how animals began. We learn of how disobedience and evil behaviour started as well as suffering and hardship.
Then we read about interferences by HaShem’s messengers which might have influenced human advancement. To that understanding we are given the names and accomplishments of people of note who started certain innovative ways of living, men all, save for the very last of name on the list. A single woman is named at that end but without her accomplishment!
In the time of Adam and Chava, the male and female were equal helpmates. Over time patriarchal, sexist males took over the record keeping and minimized, if not eliminated, the names and accomplishments of women as much as they could get away with. So it happened that the accomplishments of Naamah [likely dealing with organized music and singing] were deleted.
Worse yet, later male leaders/ sexists Rabbis made up horrible, defaming stories about her. Possibly this was in conjunction with the prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice [as in singing?]…
Subsequent beginnings described include man’s unsuccessful attempts to be like Hashem or HaShem’s messengers and man’s experimentation with all manner of perversions. Yet not all men followed the perverted path. So next week we will begin with the times of Noah.
As we begin this New Year of 5778, what new beginnings are you embarking upon? Shabbat Shalom!
This Shabbat we seriously start into the origins and history of our Patriarchs and People. At Beit Torah we follow the teachings of Rambam and try to mesh history and archaeology with the Torah stories, both giving them credence and fleshing them out [interpretation]. So let's start the journey:
Shabbat Lech Lecha 5778 Magic or Con?;
Genesis 12:1-17:27; Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Noach had little outside encouragement to be a righteous person for it is said that everyone else of his generation was wicked. Generations have past and now we come to the family of Terach of Ur. It appears that the Semites were in control of Ur for at least five generations. They included many well-to-do camel route traders of which Terach and his family were. How do we know this?
Semites were from the Caucuses. Camels were domesticated in the Caucuses some at least 4000 years earlier but were not known in Canaan except with the camel route traders. If you had camels in Canaan, you were viewed as very wealthy if not royalty
So back to Ur where life was comfortable under Semitic rule BUT then the Elamites conquered this city of diversity to enforce rather patriarchal/ chauvinistic tyranny. Apparently when the Elamites took over, Avram’s brother Haran was killed [or died?]. This gave a good reason to flee Ur to Hauran, the western-most stop on the east-west camel route.
That is where Lech Lecha, the Parashah for this week, continues the narrative. Avram, Sarai, and Lot go to Canaan. Unlike Noach, Avram had a following of adherents [or at least camel route workers] and contemporaries with whom to discuss ethics and morality.
We see Avram work with other leaders to free people kidnapped in an invasion of territory. Of course, his nephew was one of those captives… Again Avram tries to protect his nephew in next week’s parashah… Spoilers! Stay tuned…
Drought and famine intervened in well made plans. So Avram, Sarai, and Lot ended up in Egypt. According to Josephus, Avram taught the Egyptians in sciences, astronomy, and mathematics topics while his wife was taken into Pharoah’s harem [under the misimpression that she was only Avram’s sister]. Lot convinced the Pharoah that he and his were cursed with a malaise for having a married woman in his harem but that Avram was an expert magician who would remove the curse if his wife was returned to him. [Or was it a case of drugging the food and/or water supply?]
In the end, Sarai was returned to Avram along with lots of wealth, livestock, and slaves for both him and Lot… and then they were all kicked out of Egypt…
Now returned to wealth, Avram turns his focus to ensuring there would be progeny to inherit his wealth. So he had a son by a surrogate, an Egyptian personal servant, Hagar, who was a bitterness to Sarai. Nonetheless, Avram was intent on consolidating his legacy. All those with him as well as himself and his son, Ishmael, were then circumcised. The parashah ends with them all resting up during their discomfiture.
Was Avram more righteous than Noach? If not, why not? If so, why? Can we measure righteousness in our times the same way righteousness was measured for Avram or for Noach? If not, how can it be measured?
Shabbat VaYera 5778 Repeating Cycles and Behaviours: Can we move forward?
Genesis 18-22; II Kings 4
In this age of constant psychoanalysis of nearly everything, we often hear that people establish patterns of behaviour, both good and bad. So, too, we see with Avraham in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYera.
Perhaps one of Avraham’s best qualities is his behaviour pattern of being very protective of others, particularly family. For example, Avraham argues with HaShem over the destruction of the cities of the plains, even to the point that if only there were ten righteous men then the destruction could be avoided. However there was only one, Avraham’s nephew Lot. So the cities were destroyed while HaShem’s messengers saved Lot and his unwed daughters.
Sometimes caring for family members may lead to unsavory or not so good behaviours. When finally Sarah had a son, Yitzchak, Avraham was faced with the choice between family discord and sending away his surrogate’s son, Ishmael (14+ y.o.) back to Egypt, probably to his maternal relatives. He chose, with a heavy heart, to send his older son, Ishmael, away.
When Avram and Sarai were in Egypt, they posed as brother and sister to avoid possible violence against Avram [which might even kill him] by the Pharoah who lusted after Sarai and put her in his harem. The outcome [ once the truth became known that Sarai and Avram were also married ] was that Avram, Lot, and Sarai became very wealthy. Was this a planned con or did they learn from these events that such a pattern of behaviour led to wealth?
Clearly when they repeated the untruth with Avimelech in this week’s parashah, they had experience upon which to pattern their behaviours. Once more they gained in wealth. Further, there was always mystery and suspicion about these events given that Sarah bore a son within a year of them.
That son, too, although dearly beloved, was challenged by strange behaviour by Avraham, his protective father. While some speculate that Avraham was out of his mind with grief over the impending death of Sarah, it is preferable to look at the customs of the times.
It was common in some of the cultures of that time that boys were mortally challenged when ready to enter adulthood. Was this such a challenge to see how he would respond?
Recall, too, that Yitzchak was probably very spoiled by aged, doting parents. In addition, Ishmael and other boys displayed inappropriate behaviours that might have been adversely influencing Yitzchak. So maybe the exercise was totally pre-planned by Avraham to put the fear of HaShem into Yitzchak who would need to be worthy enough to inherit both the physical and spiritual legacies of Avraham.
Remembering that the usually good patterns of behaviour was protective of family and others, how far would you go to protect family? How far would you go to protect other folk? How far would you go to protect the creatures of the world?
Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5778 The Accomplishments of Sarah
Genesis 23-26; I Kings 1:1-31
So now we have reached the portion called Parashat Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah. Yet at the outset of the parashah, Sarah has died and needs to be buried. In good Patriarchal approach, her life is apparently being measured by the accomplishments of her offspring Ishmael [adopted with surrogate birth] and Yitzchak. Nonetheless we have already learned that she was instrumental in other aspects of life, known to us even as far back as Ur.
In Ur she was known as Sarai which means “Princess” or “Priestess”. Since the Semitic rulers of that time seemingly did not have “Princesses”, it is likely to have been the title of “Priestess”. As such, or as a novice studying to become a Priestess, she would have learned many beautification techniques, ways to relate to a variety of supplicants, folk medicine useful in helping or hindering sexual urges, and such useful in preventing pregnancy, etc. (Priestesses of many cults of the times would lose their jobs if they became pregnant.)
After Ur, Sarai was involved in caring for and managing the people in their [Avram’s and Sarai’s] entourage [logistics management]. She was also involved in equal decision making, most notably recorded in the two sister/wife ploys. Only when it was foretold that she would have a son was her name changed to Sarah and all connection to “Priestess” was removed.
Along the way she raised a son and had unpleasant discord with her adopted son’s mother. She decided who would stay and who would need to leave among their staff and servants. Perhaps most important, Sarah was Avraham’s soul mate, deeply beloved. So it is clear that Sarah was not just accomplished through the accomplishments of her sons.
In your own view, what accomplishments have you achieved? What accomplishments would other view you as having achieved? Are they the same?
Shabbat VaYetzei, Thanksgiving Weekend, 5778 More Family Intrigue
Genesis 28:10-32:3; Hosea 11:7-12:14
How would you feel if your Father viewed you as a commodity to be traded or sold? How did Rachel and Leah feel in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYetzei? Rachel found the love of her life, her soul mate. Yet was her Father willing to let her marry or was there a price to pay?
A woman with weak, bad eyes was not likely to attract a husband. She would be considered damaged goods. Laban certainly had reason to want to unload his damaged daughter on a man who was effectively his prisoner, one capable of tending flocks well (and even able to understand how to breed for stripes and spots.)
Did Rachel know ahead of time? Did she agree with her Father’s reasoning? Alternatively, did she want to protect her sister and remove her from being alone with an abusive Father?
Perhaps. Why else would she and Leah gladly agree with Yaacov that they needed to flee the grasp of Laban, their Father? Further, they planned to do so in as secretive a way as possible to ensure a safe get-away. In fact, we are told that Rachel took her Father’s teraphim, family idols that were used as the deed to the property. Had Laban wanted to claim that the flocks, Rachel, Leah, and their children were all his property, he would have needed to present those idols to the local court as proof.
Did Yitzchak know? Maybe then, maybe later. Next week we will read that he will demand that all idols be buried. Was that out of guilt over their theft? Was that out of fear that possession of idols would tempt folk into idolatrous practices? Maybe both.
How do you avoid idolatrous practices? Do you succeed? Part of this picture includes keeping the Shabbat. How do you keep Shabbat? On that note: Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat VaYishlach, 5778 Rivka, Yitzchak, Devorah, and Rachel
Genesis 32:4-36:43; Ovadia 1
Up to now we have seen the ancestors participate in “deceptions” for safety and survival purposes. From the sister/ wife ploys of Avraham and Sarah to the inheritance switch off of Yitzchak and Rivka to Yaacov’s breeding of spotted and striped flocks to Rachel’s sitting on the family idols/ images… is it any wonder that Shimon and Levi decided to agree to the marriage of their raped sister on condition of circumcision of all males in Shechem BUT with the intent of slaughtering all the men? Somehow they lost sight of the need for safety and survival of all of the family. They missed the lesson that such a deception should not be for revenge but rather for security.
As a result in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYishlach, Yaakov needed to hasten back to his parent’s abode in Hevron. This arduous journey proved too taxing and fatal to both Rachel and Rivka’s nurse, Devorah. Yet the details of the progression of events is spotty at best with much omitted, deleted and/or lost over time.
Was Devorah the wet nurse for Rachel when she was born? Was she the wet nurse for Yaacov and Esau? Maybe both?
Alternatively, was Devorah Rivka’s nurse and companion throughout Rivka’s life, caring for her even in old age? So how did Devorah end up with Yaacov and much beloved by all in his entourage? Was she sent by Rivka to tell Yaacov [maybe even when he was still with Laban?] that it was safe to come home? It seems that at this juncture, Esau was no longer a threat. Maybe. It would explain why she was so mourned at the Tree of Weeping if she had been nursing Rachel during her pregnancy and effectively become known and loved thoughout Yaacov’s camp. So the sudden departure to Hevron would have been very stressful on both the elderly Devorah and the very pregnant Rachel. Clearly the sudden decision to go to Hevron did not rely on reassurances from Rivka but rather fear of reprisals after the slaughter of the men of Shechem. Hence Rivka was likely already deceased. So in a very short time: Rivka, Devorah, and Rachel died, the latter two buried along the way given the haste being made. If only we had been given more details about their lives!
To top it all, Yitzchak died at some point after Yaacov’s return to be buried next to Rivka by both his sons, Yaacov and Esau. It has now become clear that the cooperation and closeness among the Patriarchs and Matriarchs then had been lost in the generations of Yaacov’s offspring, likely due to assimilation pressures from the practices of the surrounding clans and tribes.
Would you use a con or deception to save yourself or your loved ones from being hurt? Would you use such to gain revenge? Why or why not? May we never need to so decide…
Shabbat VaYeishev, 5778 More Consequences: Reuven and Yehudah – Leaders or Deceivers?
Genesis 37:1-40:23; Amos 2:6-3:8
Last week we learned that Shimon and Levi were deceivers. Was Levi unduly incited by his older brother and later forgiven? Perhaps Levi did something courageous to become forgiven enough to later be the tribe of the Priesthood?
This week in the portion of Parashat VaYeishev, we once again see what kind of tsuris [heartache, grief, anguish] children can bring. First Reuven tries to deceive the world that his father was incompetent and that he, Reuven, should lead the family. How? In the custom of the time when a successor takes over, he takes his predecessor’s concubines to his bed – in this case Bilhah, Rachel’s servant. We are not told the details of how that deception was handled, but it is clear from later text that he was never forgiven. We even do not know if Reuven tried to apologize. He lost the customary Canaanite rights of the firstborn [Bereishit 49:4]. Was he told that unless he cleaned up his act, he would no longer be included in the family group? Regardless, he seemed to behave better subsequently. He and Yehuda even tried, unsuccessfully, to protect Yosef from the jealousy and wrath of their other brothers.
On the other hand, Yehudah deceived his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar by making excuses to prevent her from having a child with his third son as was custom to remember the line of the deceased. When Tamar, with help, tricked him into impregnating her, Yehudah owned up to his inappropriate behaviour and apologized. He even called Tamar more honorable than he. This clearly was a righteous seduction in contrast to the attempted seduction of Yosef by the Potiphar’s wife.
Perhaps as reward, Tamar birthed twins, one each for her dead husbands. Was the integrity with which Yehudah handled himself with this incident [and later in his dealings with Yosef] the reason he was blessed by Yaacov with the leadership responsibilities? Clearly Reuven and Yehudah had moments of being deceivers. However Yehudah knew how to consistently act with integrity and how to take responsibility for his own actions. So clearly, Yehudah was also a leader.
Do you live your life with integrity? How? Are you a leader? If not, do you want to be? May we all find a path to integrity in our lives.
Genesis 41:1-44:17; Chanukah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Last week we noted that in part due to Yehudah better leadership skills, Yehudah was blessed by Yisrael with the leadership of the Yisraelites instead of the first born, Reuven. This continues the ancestral practice of choosing the most qualified offspring to lead the family.
In this week’s portion of Parashat Miketz we learn about further evidence of why Yehudah was most qualified of the brothers to lead. As the episode progresses, we see that Reuven was still trying to be the leader of the brothers. His true nature came through under stress though.
After a first visit to Egypt to get food for the family during a famine, the 10 oldest brothers found their money mysteriously returned plus they were under an edict not to come back without their youngest brother, Binyamin. When they returned to their father Yisrael and knew that they would need to return to Egypt, Reuven showed a lack of ethics and integrity by offering to protect Binyamin while rashly saying that if he failed to do so, Yisrael could kill his two sons. Yisrael refused the odious idea of killing his grandsons.
Later Yehudah spoke in measured terms, diplomatically, to convince his father to let them take Binyamin to Egypt. So clearly he spoke with integrity and leadership qualities. Today we see what chaos, divisiveness, and unethical behaviour can be engendered by rash speech without measured words.
When our ‘leaders’ speak so rashly, do you feel they deserve to be ‘leaders’? How can we encourage people to choose ethical leaders with measured [diplomatic] speech? What can you do, personally, to improve the situation?
Shabbat VaYechi 5778 Blessings for Moving Forward
Genesis 47:28-50:26; 1 Kings 2:1-12
As we finish up the first book of Torah, we bring to a close the stories of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs as well as the twelve resulting tribes of their progeny. In Parashat VaYechi, we are reassured that Yisrael was a solid leader – even as his parents had thought.
He knew the strengths and weaknesses of his offspring as demonstrated in the blessings he gave them all. His last directives were also in keeping with family traditional funeral practices.
The blessings themselves clearly showed the value he placed on matching the qualifications of people to their future endeavors for optimal success. This, too, is in keeping with family traditions of having the inheritances, particularly regarding leadership positions, go to the most qualified son instead of the oldest [regardless of capabilities] as was Canaanite practice.
What strengths and weaknesses do you have? Who knows you well enough to appreciate your strengths and avoid your weaknesses – or at last love you unconditionally? Do you know anyone that well so that you can appreciate their strengths and avoid their weaknesses?
If we are sensitive and respect each other, do you think we would be able to get close enough to others so as to know well their strengths and weaknesses? If so, would we be able to appreciate them with love? May we all be so sensitive and respectful!
Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek!
Be strong, be strong, and we will then all be strengthened!
Shabbat Shemot 5778; Responding to Abuse
Exodus 1:1-6:1; Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13; 29:22 - 29:23 Ashkenaz; Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 Sephard
I write this to emphasize that no one needs to put up with religious abuse, insensitivity, and disrespect. We do not need to be silent when what is being said to us makes us feel uncomfortable, violated, or dirtied.
It is the time of year when many people tell me that they have been traumatized by having to put up with or otherwise deal with blatant religious greetings - but they do not totally understand why they feel so uncomfortable. Briefly: they have been cursed by another to have a Merry Idolatrous observance/celebration.
It is true that many of the speakers do not realize that they are being insensitive and disrespectful. However that does not excuse their making others feel dirtied. So we who care need to work on educating those around us.
How can we do that? First we need to understand why we feel uncomfortable or dirtied. As explained above in brief, we who do not accept the worship of a man as a deity would consciously or subconsciously feel that we are being proselytized into accepting idolatry. Certainly responding in kind would cross that line. After all, look at the name! Whose mass is it [from the Latin word for Messiah]?
So another aspect of the greeting violates the beliefs of those who do not think there has ever been a Messiah on earth. Indeed the Rambam, Maimonides, a great Jewish teacher and Rabbi, taught that the Messianic age would be one of peace, cooperation, and everyone's needs being adequately met. Since that has never happened, it is clear that no Messiah has ever been around.
Going back to the question of educating those who do not realize that they are de facto cursing others. A lot depends on the situation one is in. However there are many approaches that can be chosen. One can firmly say 'happy holidays' or 'have a wonderful winter season' if short on time. One can add 'if you observe, which I do not'.
If comfortable enough of a situation, one can say that being cursed with a merry idolatrous celebration/observance is most definitely not appreciated... and please do not curse me! Two responses that might need to be dealt with are 'it doesn't bother me if you say Happy Chanukah to me' and 'it isn't idolatrous!' or the like. For the former, a difference needs to be drawn between greetings that do not impose upon the beliefs and sensitivities of others and those greetings that do. Also, the Chanukah greeting is part of all the Abrahamic liturgy/traditions whether practiced or not. [My preference is to give no Chanukah greeting unless I know the person would not object.]
For the latter, it needs to be taught that the speaker's sensitivity and respect need to be directed at the sensitivities of intended listener[s] not selfishly at their own ideas of what their rights are. No one should have the right to impose their religion on others. That fact extends to many areas of interactions including some in political venues.
It will probably be an ongoing battle without end. However, starting right after the abuse has occurred in asking organizations to do sensitivity training is a good first step. Right before the religious fervor sets in is another good time. Note too, that this is not the only holiday season where these abuses occur. So education efforts basically need to be all year round.
The alternative is putting up with being abused, crossing the line into idolatrous behaviour, and/or mistakenly being viewed as having done such. Do you care?
As we start the second book of Torah, Shemot or Exodus, we start in a land of non-Israelites where we need to constantly protect ourselves from the decrees of the government [the Pharaoh]. A few brave individuals were creative back then. This led to the birth of Moshe who was then raised in the court of Pharaoh. This first Parashah, Shemot, describes the life of Moshe growing up until he had to flee to Midian after he killed an overlord who was viciously abusing an Israelite. He, too, opposed abuse. Only education was not a remedy to that abuse as it can be now in modern times. What other differences can you perceive in the responses to abuse back then to what we can do nowadays? How would you respond to abuse, be it verbal or physical?
VaEra 5778 Superstition and the Supernatural Then and Now
Exodus 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Given the abundance of superstition, ‘fake’ news, imposition of lies, violations on use of certain language, etc. which we face today, is it any wonder that biblical people dealt with the same and perhaps were more believing in the stories their leaders made up to explain what was going on? This week in Parashat VaEra we get plenty of that in Pharaoh’s court and through plagues. I take this opportunity to share with you some of the thoughts that my friend Dr. Maurice Mizrahi came up with for this portion. Please recall that the quotes from Rabbis hundreds of years ago are based on their understanding of the world around them and not on facts we have since learned. Nonetheless, it will be clear from these quotes why I so admire Maimonides. With that in mind, please enjoy:
In this week's portion, Vaera, miracles and magic abound:
-Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh... and it became a serpent. Pharaoh’s [magicians] did likewise… But Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs... [Ex. 7:10-12]
-Aaron… struck the water that was in the Nile before the eyes of Pharaoh... and [it] turned to blood. And the necromancers of Egypt did likewise with their secret rites… [Ex. 7:20-22]
-And Aaron stretched forth his hand over the waters of Egypt… and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. And the necromancers did likewise… [Ex. 8:2-3]
-Aaron stretched forth his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth… and the lice were upon man and beast. And the necromancers [could not do] likewise... So [they] said to Pharaoh, "It is the finger of God." [Ex. 8:13-15]
Supernatural events or beliefs are those that do not conform to our current understanding of the laws of nature. Our Sources are full of apparently supernatural events claimed to be caused by God and man. Many people strongly believe in the supernatural. What does the Torah say about it?
The Torah seems to resolutely forbid engaging in supernatural activities:
-There shall not be found among you anyone who... uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For those who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you… For these nations…listened to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you so to do. [Deut. 18:10-12; also Lev. 19:26]
Yet some of these practices are tolerated, sometimes even viewed positively. The Talmud even accepts those that clearly have no tie to idolatry.
Now, foretelling the future is not possible given our current understanding of physics. The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics precludes such predictions. (Yet science still has a long way to go [R’Adele]) Besides, commandments are meaningless if people don’t have free will. Nevertheless, this belief is not totally denied in Judaism. The Code of Jewish Law says: It is permitted to make a dying person swear to return after his death in order to convey some information he will be asked. And some permit an attempt to do this even after the person has died provided that he does not conjure the actual corpse but the ghost of the dead man. [Shulchan Aruch YD 179:14] Note that there is no promise the attempt will be successful, though!
Second, there is the matter of the Evil Eye, or Ayin hara’ in Hebrew. Some rabbis in the Talmud warned that your good fortune will cause envy, and this envy will cause harm to fall on you. So they enjoined us not to advertise our good fortune. [Bava Metzia 107b, Pesachim 50b] However, some said this concern applies to gentiles but not to Jews. [Berachot 55b, 20a] To wit, when a woman tried to cast a spell on Rabbi Ḥanina, he said:
Try as you will, you will not succeed, for it is written [in the Torah]: “There is none else beside [God]. [Deut. 4:35]” [Hullin 76b]
A common Jewish expression is Kenahora, a corruption of “Ken ayin hara’”, meaning “Let there be no evil eye”. Amulets abound to ward off the evil eye, such as blue pearls, or the Hand of Fatima.
Next is faith healing. Healing diseases by religious faith was practiced in the days of the Talmud [Berachot 5b]. The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidism, used it by laying his hands on the sick while pronouncing the secret Name of God. In 1916, Rabbi Alfred G. Moses wrote an influential book called "Jewish Science: Divine Healing in Judaism", which was followed in 1922 by the founding of the Society of Jewish Science by Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein. In general, Judaism recognizes the healing power of spiritual faith, but disapproves of cults that deny reality.
Then comes astrology, a very popular belief even to this day. The Prophets scoffed at astrologers. Yet a large number of Talmudic rabbis believed that stars influence our destinies. Among the giants in the Jewish world, Maimonides, alone, very strongly opposed belief in astrology. In that he went against the tide of his time and later (or earlier) times. Without mincing words, he said:
Astrology is a disease, not a science... Only fools and charlatans lend value to it. [Responsa 2:25b]
In accord, the Shulchan Aruch says: One should not consult astrologers, nor should one cast lots to determine the future. [Shulchan Aruch, YD 179:1].
Next is superstition. Maimonides hated all superstition with a passion, but made allowances to set people's minds at ease. He wrote:
A person bitten by a scorpion or serpent may whisper a charm over the wound even on the Sabbath, in order to settle his mind and to strengthen his heart. The thing is of no avail whatsoever, but, since he is in danger, he is permitted to do it, so he won't feel troubled. Those who whisper upon a wound a charm, consisting of verses from the Torah, or who read such verses over a child to save it from fear, or who place beside an infant a Torah scroll or tefillin to make him sleep, are not only guilty of superstition, but are amongst those who deny the Torah. They treat the words of the Torah as mere bodily medicine, whereas they are spiritual medicine. [Rambam, On Idolatry, 2:11-12].
Ironically, his own synagogue in Egypt, the 10th-century Maimonides synagogue and yeshiva has traditionally been considered to have miraculous healing powers!
A joint study by the University of Texas and Northwestern University concluded that people have a visceral need for order, even if that order is imaginary. So those who feel a lack of control try to impose one through superstitious beliefs. Full disclosure: I am a theoretical physicist and I have no faith in superstition. However, I am always in favor of testing things out under controlled conditions. So far these tests have revealed nothing real in the supernatural.
May we all see the real world clearly, work with facts to make the work a better place, and comfort each other without superstitions. Shabbat Shalom!
Bo 5778 Out of the Blue; Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13-28
The plagues of Exodus time clearly seemed out of the blue to nearly everyone. They were unexplainable except by attributing them to a higher power. When things happen out of the blue nowadays, we look for the why. Sometimes it is not easy to answer. So I can not answer why someone decided to rear-end me as I sat at a red light last Friday.
The power of wanting to know ‘why’ can be so intense, that many in our times have reviewed the plagues of Exodus times and tried to answer why given an understanding that any miracles are actually Hashem using natural laws and environments even as Rambam, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and some other wise folk have taught.
Since I am not feeling very creative at the moment [and I know that you know why], I copy for you some parts of my previous commentaries on Parashat Bo. I find them to be of particular interest:
With respect to the plagues, most sound like consequences of intense volcanic activity. During biblical times active volcanoes were along the N. Mediteranean, especially on Thera [Santorini] and also along two Arabian rifts. The Harrat Rahat area in N.W. Arabia is twice the size of Lebanon. It includes area near the modern city of Madina and area that would have been in and south of the biblical land of Midian.
The effects of intense volcanic activity can be experienced even 500 miles or more away from the explosion. Egypt is that close to both these areas of volcanic activity. Thera was active multiple times around 1600 B.C.E. give or take a century. The Harrat Rahat expanse has had at least thirteen major explosions during the last 4500 years [references available upon request].
Egyptian history records two expulsions of Semitic peoples from lower Egypt. The first was when the lower Kingdom was re-absorbed during the 1700’s B.C.E. or so. The second was apparently during the reign of Ramses II. The Ipuwer papyrus describes some events including a time of palpable darkness during that earlier time period, possibly coinciding with the Thera massive explosion. There has been found in Egypt a layer of volcanic deposits identifiable as from Thera. So is the Exodus story an amalgam of multiple stories from the two expulsions?
This week the locusts came first. Why? Their food source was destroyed by the oncoming darkness of thick particulates likely from the Santorini volcano with a massive explosion that destroyed half the island? Certainly all trees and plant life were severely impacted by fire and blunt trauma. So whatever remained, the locusts wanted. That left only stored food for the people and their remaining livestock.
After three days of darkness [although there were independent reports of nine days of darkness further west in Egypt], every surviving creature would be very hungry. Now the food stores were big pits in the ground covered by bitumen [tar], brimstone, and settled darkness particles. No doubt the top was quite toxic [i.e. an environmental pollution plague big time!]. It was the Egyptian custom when they went into the food stores to first feed the first born and strongest of the livestock and the firstborn of the family, especially important during lean times.
So after the darkness they were most hungry and went into the food stores to feed the firstborn from the stored grain that was likely most toxic at the top first portions than the deeper stored portions. Was this toxic first portion the source of the tenth plague? Moshe was probably aware of the toxicity effects from volcanic debris. He did warn the people. Did those who fled eat only lamb and not grain from the storage pits? Regardless of the source, plagues are plagues. What would you consider to be the plagues of today?
B’shalach 5778 Rejoicing at the Death of our Enemies?;
Shemot/Exodus 13:17-17:16; Judges 4:4-5:31
If everything living is to be respected, then we should be offering a prayer of apology every time we kill something to provide us food or meet other necessities such as self-defense. Even if we use only plant materials, we are faced with the question of whether we need to apologize. After all, plants are also alive.
In biblical times, blood was considered to be the life source and hence consideration was basically limited to animals who bled if offered in sacrifice. Many of the procedures used for sacrifices are based on this concept such as sprinkling of blood on an altar.
With that focus, then it is no surprise that in this week’s portion of Parashat B’Shalach, we read of the drowning of the host of Pharaoh, men and horses alike, and are then asked to embrace the sadness of their deaths in commentaries such as in BT Meg. 10B. This respect for all life and the sadness at any death is the source of why we spill more than ten drops of wine during the Pesach Seder – both for the deaths caused by the plagues and these deaths by drowning in the Sea of Reeds. Just as we are rebuked when we are asked whether or not we should be grieved for the drowned as they are also HaShem’s creations, so too we should be scolded if we take life not just for necessities but also too for perverse enjoyment.
If we do not respect and value all life, how then can we ever achieve peace where all are living in harmony, respected, and equally supportive of all unconditionally? Yet bigotry is an equal opportunity vice that sometimes leads to violence and death. Where are your biases and disrespects? Do you intend to keep them?
For Tu B'Shvat and then this coming Shabbat:
Tu B’Shvat Higiah 5778
The excess warming has the trees confused
As their sap starts to flow, awake, renewed.
Let us hope that their buds, fruits and flowering
Will be plenty with spring showering!
So let us sample our grains, fruits and nuts
As we welcome all the returning trees
With Eco-focus cautionary tales:
Save water! Clean air! Avoid plastics PLEASE!
February 03, 2018
Exodus 18:1 - 20:23
Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6; 9:5 - 9:6
Delegate, Delegate, Delegate!
Shabbat Shekalim/ Mishpatim 5778 Receiving the Law;
Shemot 21:1-24:18; II Kings 12:1-17
Last week in Parashat Yitro, we read the first account of receiving the Law [20:1-14]. We were told that the people HEARD the Decalogue [“10 Commandments”][20:15-16], the Covenant with HaShem. However for fear that direct exposure to HaShem might kill them, the people asked Moshe to be the intermediary from then on. Also last week, Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro guided Moshe in setting up a judiciary of multiple levels.
This week in the portion of Parashat Mishpatim, we are given the Laws with which the judiciary can work. We are also told that when Moshe repeated the Covenant [Brit] to the people, they replied that they would follow the laws and study them to understand where they come from and why [Na-aseh v’nishmah].
Even though the people were no longer willing to have direct contact with HaShem, we are told that 70 elders, Moshe and other attendants went up the Mountain to see HaShem. Then in HaShem’s presence they shared a festive meal [24:9-14].
Twelve pillars containing the Laws were erected around the mishkan. They were the precedent for the later setting up of twelve pillars of Law and their reading when the Israelites entered the Promised Land.
In this parashah, the Promised Land is again promised but only little by little to be taken as HaShem would spread plague before the people to clear the land [23:28-30,32-33]. There was not to be a war of conquest.
A third account of the receiving of the Law will come in another three parashot, Ki Tisa, along with the golden calf. The intervening two parashot will describe the adornments and specifications for the tabernacle and for the Priests.
What Laws do you hold dear? How do government laws compare to Jewish laws? Are there government laws you would not accept in view of Jewish laws?
Terumah 5778 Things; Shemot 25:1-27:19; I Kings 5:26-6:13
Ancient people perceived the world through their senses. If something was not explainable through their senses, they made up stories to explain the unexplainable – usually invoking a deity in the process.
These peoples also understood the concepts of basic necessities and needs. Nonetheless, when there was an opportunity to accumulate more than basics, selfishness took over. After all, one can never be sure that you will have what you need in the future… So then, even as now, accumulation of ‘things’ was common despite the damage it might do to others.
In this environment lived our ancestors. Therefor it is no wonder that they, too, were obsessed with ‘things’. An expression of this obsession is seen in the parashot of this week [Terumah] and of next week in which there are the specifics of building and adorning the mishkan [Tabernacle] as well as adorning of the Priests. In a sense, the mishkan and the Priests became ‘things’, prized possessions of the people to be used for spiritual enlightenment and satisfaction. To be sure, these things also gave a sense of security to the people in uncertain times. They felt connected as well since the mishkan was built with the free will offerings of the people. It was their possession.
Indeed the concept of the Temple evolved into a covetted ‘thing’. Since the destruction of the Temples, we have been taught that spiritual fulfillment comes from within ourselves through prayer and good deeds [mitzvot] done anywhere we may be. ‘Things’ can not substitute for individual devotions and acts.
Nonetheless, some people still strive for accumulation of wealth devoid of charity. Some people still lavishly adorn their places of worship when a more simple structure could suffice and the cost difference dedicated to charitable acts. Is such a place a simulacrum of what they imagined the Temple was like? Is it a structure competing with the churches of non-Jews? Then there is a truly American question: are dues equal to free-will offerings?
What ‘things’ do we truly need to provide an environment conducive to spiritual enrichment and fulfillment? Have we ourselves become obsessed with ‘things’? What ‘things’ do you pursue?
Shabbat Zachor Tetzaveh 5778 Remembering Losses caused by Amalek;
Shemot 27:20-30:10; I Samuel 25:1-34
Sudden losses of things may hurt, but things are replaceable. Living creatures including people are not things. We have replaced Temples, ornaments, torot, waterbed mattresses, PC’s, TV’s, etc. Not so with losses of living creatures.
I can never replace my dear friend Lizzie who died a decade and a half ago on the fourteenth of Feb. after over 25 years battling breast cancer. A part of me hoped that she was there to greet and comfort the 17 who were murdered a week ago on the fourteenth. They all can never be replaced.
Their sudden losses remind us that Amalek can rear up at any time, especially when we have grown lax in our watchfulness for our own security and safety. How can we shore up such oversights?
On this Shabbat Zachor [the Sabbath of remembering Amalek], we are told some ways by which we can fight Amalek, but only in very general terms. What does it mean to totally eliminate Amalek, those with evil inclinations? [The first Amalekites preyed on the defenseless, the weakest stragglers of the mixed multitude escaping Egypt…] Haman, Hitler, the Inquisition Inquisitors, Mussolini, pogroms, etc. each needed to be combatted in a different way. There is no one solution, no one magic curative pill.
So too with mass killings and other gun violence. A multi-pronged approach will be needed to address deficits in the mental health systems, the law enforcement systems, the political bribery systems, the gun [esp. assault weapons] access systems, etc. What part of fixing the problems and ‘eliminating’ Amalek are you willing to do?
Baking Hamantaschen week… Come bake with me???
Purim 5778 Courage
We so need now to open our eyes
To prevent another Amalek surprise.
We need, too, to be ready to act
When we let lethal, evil plots become fact.
The courage to stand up and fight,
As did Esther and Jews despite fright,
Is within our grasp even today -
Let us now be brave to find the way!!!
Tikun Olam, repair of the World,
is what we promised when we received the Law.
So let us pursue the Mitzvot, Good Deeds,
and not vain worship of the Golden Calf.
Shabbat Parah with Parashot Vayechel & Pekudei; Using Second Chances
EXODUS 35:1-40:38 ; Ezekiel 36:16-38
Last week we learned about Moshe’s dedication to the People as he begged HaShem to give them a second chance after their abomination of worshipping the Golden Calf. HaShem relented and did give them a second chance. Moshe brought down the second set of tablets of law, the start of their second chance.
So, on this Shabbat Parah, as we finish the readings in the Book of Exodus, Shemot, we learn about how the people start to go about using their second chance. What would you do if you got a second chance to do something over or better?
These portions for this week, Parashot Vayachel and Pekudei describe the building and ornamentation of the Tabernacle. It seems to be a repetition of previous Torah readings. However, earlier we read the directives on how to do it. Now we are reading what was reported as actually done.
Free will donations to the project were collected, apparently from people who had not given their wealth to participating in Golden Calf worship. Worthy artisans were hired to do the work on the Tabernacle. The people still needed something tangible to focus on. So they were told that the tangible cloud over the Tabernacle indicated the presence of HaShem, a cloud likely the result of the eternal flame kept with the ark.
We are now taught that HaShem is everywhere at all times. Nonetheless, there are still those who feel they must have an ark with a Torah scroll to be faced during prayer as the local site of the Holy Presence.
What do you think is the proper approach to understanding the presence of the Shechina, the Holy One? Do you think that Judaism will embrace your concept? Do you think that the differing concepts will further divide Judaism into more subgroups? How can we reduce or remove divisiveness? Is that even possible?
Shabbat HaGadol, Tzav; Infrastructure
Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Malachi 3:4-24
This Shabbat HaGadol will be one week before Pesach [Passover]. We have read a lot about the infrastructure of the Tabernacle in recent Torah portions. We also read of the Temple infrastructure in Haftorah. Now we read in Parashat Tzav of a number of Priestly duties, some of which were for the maintenance of the infrastructure, such as maintaining the eternal flame. It would have been considered to be the worst calamity had the eternal flame gone out. It would have been interpretted by some that the presence/spirit of HaShem was no longer among the People.
So, too, today. Infrastructure failure is a calamity for the pragmatic reason that such failure causes risks to life and, even at times, deaths – as well as travel inconveniences. Consistent attention and efforts are needed to maintain infrastructure.
As we read that the Priests were directed to maintain the eternal flame, so too our leaders are obligated, at least in theory, to maintain the infrastructure of our country. To do so requires constant watchfulness, attention and efforts. These efforts require hands-on work which clearly needs to be funded. If we do not raise our voices, will our infrastructure be maintained? If we do not approve funding for infrastructure maintenance, will our infrastructure be maintained?
Is there something that each of us individually can do to help maintain infrastructure? Are you dependent on the health of our infrastructure? Do you/we educate yourself/ ourselves on the health of our existing infrastructure?
Are you willing to fund maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure? Does it matter if you get involved with the issue of deteriorating infrastructure? Is it not a part of Tikun Olam, Repair of the World?
Passover Challenges! 5778
In this time of unrest and woe
We recall when we had to go
At midnight time to flee our foe:
To Egyptian servitude we said: NO!
Yet today to where can we flee
From the bigots and each bully;
From hatred, searing oppression,
Victim blaming, demeaning, derision?
Are not minorities sought out
For abuse and violation?
What can we do to stop it all;
Gain respect, equality? To stand tall!
Dear Friends and Family;
Just a brief note to say I am recovering slowly day by day from the whiplash and the oral surgery. Okay so I can not quite enunciate well everything I want to say… Yet Pesach is coming; it is on my mind. We will have a Seder because some people are kind enough to help out. So I pray for each of you, no matter what you celebrate, that you have a wondrous holiday no matter how much you ate!
Blessings and Love, Judi-Adele
Shabbat Pesach Yiskor 5778
I remember dear Grandma born on Seder night.
I remember Uncle who on eighth day took flight.
We remember our Parents, Cousins, Friends, and more
On Shabbat Two, Pesach, as we recite Yiskor...
Shavuah Tov! For Shabbat: Fire Safety adapted from 5775
Shabbat Shemini 5778 Fire Safety? VaYikra [Leviticus] 10:1-10
Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47 I Samuel 20:18 - 20:42 | Shabbat Machar Chodesh
When modern people are faced with reading and studying the Book of Leviticus, VaYikra, they often shrug their shoulders and contend that it is just for the Priests [Cohanim] and hence no longer relevant to us today without The Temple. However, isn’t that like throwing the baby out with the bath water?
Even though much of what is written is no longer relevant to us since we no longer do altar sacrifices and no longer have Priests to dress and purify, there are still parts that can be very important to modern folk. Our obligation is to dig through to find what parts may be important to hygiene, kosher eating, safety, etc. If we look at each story as a parable, we can find basic truths in each one that perhaps can help us live better lives today.
For instance, in this week’s portion of Parashat Shemini, we read the story of the untimely demise of two of Aaron’s sons. Apparently they were exuberant and over-joyous in their preparations for purification of the tabernacle, the altar[s], and the Priests.
They had liberally doused themselves with volatile fragrant oils and had liberally consumed alcoholic drinks. Their hair was unkempt and unruly. In their exuberance (and perhaps drunken lack of good judgement), they decided to change the normally used procedures to light fires and go for the ‘big bang’ by using ‘strange fire’. Most likely the “strange” fire observed was blue in color as flashover of alcohol and some volatile oils will be blue given differences in flame temperature as compared to wood, cloth, coals, etc. Consistent with such flashover was that what was burnt was their hair and bodies but their clothes were basically intact. This we learn from their cousins being instructed to remove them by pulling them to the edge of camp by their clothes/ collars.
All this is quite tragic, but where is the lesson? This is clearly a lesson of what not to do when lighting fires. Just to be sure that the reader gets the points, a list of fire safety rules follow the story: tie back your hair; don’t be exuding fumes of fragrant oils or alcohols; always face the open fire when entering in, or exiting the tent of fire; etc.
What other useful information can you glean from VaYikra? How will you apply it to your living a good, ethical life? Let us search this Shabbat for such tasty tidbits! Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Tazria/ Metzora 5778 Lepers save the day or can’t tell book by cover
Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33 II Kings 7:3-20
This week we continue in the Book of Leviticus, VaYikra, with the double portion of Tazria/ Metzora. The Kohanim [Priests] are given instructions about discharges and eruptions from people and on people and materials such as clothes and buildings. It is clear that the people of that time had a lack of knowledge of biological systems and of microbes. This led them to act empirically out of past observations as to what would work to prevent a ‘plague’.
However if we follow the teachings of Rambam and learn the facts of our modern times, we understand that the Kohanim wanted to minimize the spread of infections. Today we have far better and more sophisticated ways to do so. Also we no longer blame victims for their afflictions by telling them their souls were impure.
The Haftorah portion for this week ties into skin eruptions and lepers. To the people of those times, all lepers looked the same and all were avoided absolutely. We read that the lepers were not welcome in the besieged town. So they went to seek succor in the enemy camp only to find it deserted! They ate and drank their fill. Then they pillaged what they could! Part they buried for themselves and part they took back to the town along with a report of the good news as was predicted by the man of HaShem, Elisha.
How could this be? It seemed like a miracle to the people. However, perhaps the answer lies in understanding how towns in the area were constructed. There was always a nearby water source. Usually it was an underground cavern or cistern of water. Connecting conduits or tunnels were built to bring water to the town. Resistance protectors of the town could well have entered the conduits, banging on them like hooves beating, thereby with the echoes scaring the besieging army into running away.
So we ask, were all the lepers actually lepers? Was one perhaps an infiltrating resistor who could suggest going to the besiegers’ camp and sharing the wealth? If all this is so, it could explain how the man of HaShem had predicted the end of the siege. Alternatively, is this a lesson that we can’t judge a book by its cover? Lepers saved the day! What do you think?
Emor 5778 Are We a Nation of Priests?
Leviticus 21:1-24:23 ; Ezekiel 44:15-31
This week with the portion of Parashat Emor, we see why VaYikra [Leviticus] is called a handbook for the Priests [Cohanim]. It is a portion of rules specific to the Cohanim. Yet we no longer have a functional “Priestly” class. Yes, they have some duties, but many Jews view them as echoes of a distant, maybe irrelevant, past.
In recognition of the lack of a Temple and effective dysfunctionality of the Priesthood, we have been taught that we are a Priestly Nation as in a Light unto the Nations. Yet, are we?
What do we need to do to deserve to be called a Priestly Nation? Keep the Shabbat? Well probably two thirds of us do not do that regularly if at all. Keep the High Holy Days? For even that we do not have full turn out. We could ask about the Festivals, especially Pesach, or keeping the mitzvot. Still, our track records could hardly qualify us to be a nation of Priests!
Is there anything that could qualify us to be a Priestly Nation? What is a Priestly Nation? Do we need to be a Priestly Nation?
Respecting All and Enabling Good Lives for All
BeHar & B’Chukotai 5778 ;
Ensuring Respect and Fighting Homelessness
Leviticus 25:1-27:34; Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Now we come to the last two portions of VaYikra, Leviticus: the Parashot BeHar and B’Chukotai. The laws or mitzvot presented seem to be dealing with ways to avoid poverty and homelessness in the country. Every seven or fifty years there were releases from servitude and/or property deed returns as prescribed. An emphasis on helping the less fortunate runs throughout Torah. Sometimes the Levites [including Cohanim] are included as less fortunate given that they were landless.
We would like to think that these laws were developed out of respect for every person rather than just a desire to keep beggars off the street. Indeed later practices of including the less fortunate at the meals of the Priests [up to 10% of the participants] also seemed to come from that desire to help all meet their minimal needs. So, too, the sharing of nice white dresses for all the women dancing during certain holidays to attract husbands seems to be focussed on leveling the playing field so to speak.
Many of these late practices seem therefor based on the laws that respect all people as valuable and help to fight poverty and homelessness. These laws are referred to in the last portion of VaYikra promising rewards if all mitzvot are observed. However, if we do not, we are promised a whole list of horrors as consequences.
Indeed if we do not respect each other and watch out for everyone’s weal as well as for the environment, we know that there are natural adverse consequences of our actions. So it is obvious to ask: are the mitzvot to be done so that the world and all its occupants can get along safely? Are some mitzvot to be done to ensure smooth government? Will it ever be possible that all the world will respect all the living? Will it ever be possible that all will observe all mitzvot possible to observe?
BaMidbar 5778 ; Making the Tribes Equal?
BaMidbar 1:1-4:20; Hosea 2:1-22
Last week as we finished VaYikra, the Book of Leviticusm we noted that there were given laws, mitzvot, to follow that tried to minimize homelessness and poverty. Since they discussed fifty year intervals, it is clear that these mitzvot were put in place in the Land of Israel. However, these laws were built upon those used during the Israelite sojourn in the Wilderness.
This week we start the Book of BaMidbar [Numbers – literally “In the Wilderness”]. Here we read that all was to be split equally among the Tribes with an attempt to keep each Tribe’s encampment about the same distance from the Mishkan [Tabernacle] for equal access.
It is also made clear that twelve Tribes were to be given lands and properties in the Promised land. However, the Levites would be given no land nor property. [The Twelve Tribes are made up of the other sons of Israel except Joseph who was given a double portion through the Tribes of Ephraim and Menashe].
The Levites [including Cohanim], in contrast, were given the responsibility to tend to the spiritual welfare of the other Tribes. In theory, their livelihoods would depend on the support from other tribes given to sustain the spiritual work they were obligated to do.
During the upcoming Festival of Shavuot, we read the Decalogue core covenant with HaShem. We also should study ethical topics of concern such as through discussing the Book of Ruth.
Do we have Mitzvot today which enable us to allow all Jews to be equal? Are there any significant differences among the tribes in modern days? Do modern Jews try to follow the Mitzvot? Has materialism become a new deity to worship? What can we do to minimize homelessness and poverty among Jews?
Shavuah Tov! For Shabbat: Unfounded Accusations
Naso 5778 ; Unfounded Accusations
BaMidbar 4:21-7:89; Shoftim [Judges] 13:2-25
It is interesting that this week we once more read about Levites and Priestly obligations. In particular, Priests were called upon to divine whether accusations without evidence had any merit. The focus seems to be on accusations by husbands of infidelity against their wives. The ritual ‘investigation’ involved an apparently non-lethal dosing with ‘bitter’ water. Unless the woman was overcome with guilt, she would be okay. Then the Priests had the job of trying to restore Shlom Bayit – Peace [and trust] in the Home. At this point though, how would the wife ever trust her husband again?
If the woman admitted her guilt, punishment could only be given by the husband and only if he could prove that he himself had not so sinned. This is perhaps the only negative reference to male infidelity other than the punishing of adultery caught in the act. Goose and Gander…
Beyond that, the wife’s reputation regardless of guilt or not, would be ruined. However the husband’s reputation would be unharmed even if the wife was guiltless.
So, too, today we see this kind of double standard of sexism. We also see a double standard between the powerful and/or well-to-do and the economically challenged. Justice can be bought through wealth, intimidation and/or bribes.
Women who accuse men of inappropriate sexual behaviour have an uphill battle of proof. They are slurred with characterizations of ‘liar’, ‘money digger’, ‘fame seeker’, etc. These unfounded accusations, de facto the evil tongue [lashon haRah], can ruin the reputations of these women. Yet the men seem to often get away with their misbehaviours for a long time such as Cosby and the present potus. Their reputations may survive unless the courts intervene, although there may be some negative family fallout. Yet court intervention is relatively rare.
Can we protect ourselves from false accusations? How? If not, how can the falsely accused go forward? Is there any justice in our modern society?
BaHa-alotecha 5778 ; Complain, Complain, Complain
BaMidbar 8:1-12:16; Zechariah 2:14-4:7
The Book of Leviticus [VaYikra] was filled with instructions for the Levites – especially the Cohanim. However when compared to the instructions seen now in BaMidbar [Numbers], and given the much later date of VaYikra being written down, it seems it was intended for life with a Temple in the Promised Land.
This week we read some more instructions for the Cohanim and Levites during the times of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. It was clearly contentious times. The People constantly complained about the lack of adequate food. Manna is not appetizing. When quail showed up, some people ignored the need to thoroughly cook them. Something weakened and/or killed those quail. Apparently not cooking them thoroughly allowed whatever that agent was to also weaken and/or kill the people who ate the uncooked or undercooked quail.
Everyone must have been on edge. Certainly Aaron and Miriam were when they publicly brought up the subject of Moshe’s wife. Some say they were complaining about Moshe marrying outside the faith. Others say that Miriam was complaining of Moshe’s neglect of his wife.
A voice from the smoky Tabernacle, said to be HaShem, told the sibs [Moshe, Aaron, Miriam] to go into the Tabernacle to discuss the matter in private. After their private talk, Miriam’s skin became scaly white.
Did she have an allergic reaction to the smoke in the Tabernacle? Was she affected by some artifact in the Tabernacle? Or, as we were told, was she having a divine punishment for speaking ill of Moshe in public? In any case, Moshe prayed for her healing. A week later she was healed.
Were these miraculous events of manna, quail, and divine retribution? If not, what were they?
Shlach Lecha 5778 ; More Complaining;
BaMidbar 13:1-15:41; Joshua 2:1-24
A couple weeks ago we observed the Festival of Shavuot when we discussed the Decalogue [known to some as the Ten Commandments]. In particular, emphasis was placed on the eighth term of the Covenant [Brit]. This is the prohibition of stealing part of a person’s spirit or soul through, kidnapping, bullying, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, etc. Was this term of the contract put into the Decalogue given the experience of slavery in Egypt?
After last week’s commentary, Ami observed that ‘Well, Jews did not stop complaining since then. ..’ So true as seen once again this week while we read about the People complaining. However we also read that the People were displaying behaviours fearful of new challenges and changes with an unwillingness to take risks to better their situations. The challenges of providing food for themselves seemed overwhelming to some.
So when the twelve men were sent to scope out the Promised Land, ten were too terrified of losing possible armed conflict. They were not a trained military. They were only familiar with being slaves. Only two of the twelve encouraged going forward. Ten of them had had parts of their spirits stolen by slavery.
How many of us have damaged spirits or souls? How did that damage happen? Have we stolen from others? Is there any way we can restore damaged spirits?
Korach 5778 ; The more we change, the more we stay the same
BaMidbar 16:1-18:32; I Samuel 11:14 - 12:22
In this week’s portion of Parashat Korach, we read of more political unrest and opposition to the leadership of Moshe and Aaron. The generation that left Egypt apparently was used to being told what to do with little knowledge of how to cooperate. Even though it is still happening, it is uncomfortable to read about resolving political unrest by killing off some or all of the opposition.
It is easier to believe that it was a convenient natural disaster [later attributed to divine intervention] than to think that Moshe intentionally placed the opposition campsite on a dangerous locale. Yes, he did warn them to leave [i.e. and not support Korach]. Worse still, should we believe HaShem is so vengeful when someone opposes the divine plan? Revenge is a human foible. Is it also a divine foible? Do we tell people to flee the volcanoes in Hawaii or Guatamala?
Nonetheless, we hope that we would be less violent today in settling political disagreements within a country. Despite considerable modern political discord, and unlike terrorist organizations, some parts of modernity frown upon executions to resolve political animosities. [However jailing in terrible conditions is far more prevalent. Is torture and suffering a better way to deal with the opposition?] As a result, the recent barrage of politically motivated attacks and murders are viewed as heinous by most folk. To wit: attacks on women’s healthcare facilities and providers; assassinations and assaults on Presidents, candidates, and other leaders [two Kennedy’s, MLK, Reagan, Giffords, Scalise, etc.]; attacks on and defacement of religious facilities; etc.
Can you think of any political situation for which such violence could be justified? Do you think that the biblical way to resolve political disagreements is applicable to our modern lives? Are palace intrigues a thing of the past? Then there is the question of political disagreements among countries including historic allies… but isn’t that discussion for another day?
Shavuah Tov! For Shabbat: Trust and Faith
Two main items meet us this week in Chukat: purification by Red Heifer and trust that water will be provided after Miriam's demise. We also need to trust that there is a reason behind the Red Heifer use. So is this parashah focussed on reminding us to trust in HaSHem? Is that part of our faith? - or do we need to be cautious of blind faith which may be meaningless?
Numbers 19:1 - 22:1 ; Judges 11:1 - 11:33
So for this week I share Interesting excerpts from Maurice's guest commentary containing a chuckle or two:
This week's Torah portion, Chukkat, begins with a most mysterious commandment. After touching a corpse, one must be purified by the ashes of a (very rare) Red Heifer mixed with water. King Solomon believes he understood the reasons for all the commandments, except this one: "I have been unable to fathom it", he says in the Midrash. What reason can there possibly be for the Red Heifer? Why would God give us a law that no one can understand? (For atheists: Who would invent such a commandment?) Why ask for something so rare? Why throw in a paradox? Why such an elaborate procedure? Let us examine these questions.
Dr Maurice M. Mizrahi B”H
D’var Torah on Chukkat
Why the Red Heifer?
This week's Torah portion, Chukkat, begins with a very mysterious commandment: The Red Heifer, or red cow (in Hebrew: parah adumah).
Let us begin with some relevant information. When you touch a corpse, you become tamei – or “impure”. That, by itself, is understandable, to make the point that death is something to be feared and avoided, not something to look forward to, even to get the benefits of the World to Come. However, the word “impure” is too pejorative a translation for tamei. The word means “not allowed to serve as a conduit for God’s manifestation” -- such as entering the Temple or eating sacrificial foods. There is no injunction in Judaism never to become "tamei". In fact, one can become impure by performing the mitzvah of tending to a dead person, or giving birth, or having a period. No wrongdoing is implied. It is not intended as punishment.
To get cleaned up, the Torah says that you must find a red heifer that is completely unblemished and never used as a beast of burden. This is an exceedingly rare animal. You must then slaughter it and burn it together with some cedar wood, some hyssop, and some crimson wool, mix its ashes with spring water, and cleanse yourself with that water on the 3rd and 7th day after defilement. Then you must immerse in a mikvah. You are then pronounced purified.
Here is the actual text in the Torah:
The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “This is the statute of the Torah [chukkat ha-Torah] which the Lord commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid. [Have it slaughtered outside the camp, then burned. Its ashes shall then be mixed with [spring] water and used for purification. Anyone touching a human corpse shall become unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days, he shall cleanse himself with [the ashes]...’” [Numbers 19:1-22]
There is a paradox implicit in the procedure. The supervising kohen, as well as his attendant who burned the heifer, become impure until evening after gathering the ashes. So the red heifer purifies the impure and makes impure the pure!
Let us review the laws and history of the Red Heifer. The Talmud, in a dedicated tractate called Parah, says a red heifer is valid only if it is at least three years old [Par. 1:1] If younger than that, it would be called a “calf”, not a “cow”. It must be natural-born (that is, not by caesarian). [Par. 2:3] It must not have mated with a bull sent specifically to mate with it. [Par. 2:4] However, if the bull does it on its own, it is valid. Finally, it must have no more than one hair that is not red. [Par. 2:5; Av. Z. 24a]
Only nine red heifers were ever prepared: One by Moses, one by Ezra a thousand years later, and seven since Ezra in the next 500 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple. [Par. 3:5] Maimonides says that the tenth and last will be prepared by the Messiah. [Rambam, Yad, Parah Adumah 3:4] So finding one today would be a harbinger of the Messiah!
The ashes could last a very long time, since large amounts of water could be added to them. No density is specified in Torah. So after the year 70, when the Temple was destroyed, some ashes were left. However, none are left now.
Once impure, one could not enter the Temple until purified. So the Red Heifer was required for attending Temple services and offering sacrifices. Since there is no Temple today, there is no real problem in being impure. In fact, the rabbis have declared everybody to be impure today. One reason is that everybody is assumed to have come near a dead body – in a cemetery, a hospital, or other places; and no credible records can prove one did not.
Now, many religious Jews want to rebuild the Temple. But rabbis forbid Jews from visiting Temple Mount today, because they are impure. So, to rebuild the Temple, we must first find a Red Heifer to purify those who go there. Candidate red heifers were found in 1997 and 2002, but they were disqualified. Some are trying new technologies to produce a red heifer. Some cynics have argued that the rarity of red heifers gives Jews an excuse not to rebuild the Temple.
The reasons for the red heifer commandment are far from obvious. There are two types of commandments: chukkim and mishpatim -- statutes and ordinances. A "statute" (chok) is a commandment whose rationale escapes us, such as kashrut. An "ordinance" is one whose rationale is understandable, such as the prohibitions against murder or stealing. The most mysterious "statute" is the red heifer. Indeed, our portion begins with "This is the statute of the Torah", as if there were only one. By saying that, the Torah hints that it is the most inexplicable commandment.
In other words: “Why? Because God said so, that's why.”
King Solomon, the wisest of men, understood all commandments except the Red Heifer. We read in the Midrash:
[King] Solomon [said]: “All these [commandments] I have fully understood, but as for the section dealing with the Red Heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined, but I have been unable to fathom it. [Then] I said [in the Book of Ecclesiastes]: "I will get wisdom, but it was far from me." [Eccl. 7:23]
[Eccl. R. 7:36]
Many questions come to mind. What reason(s) can there possibly be for the Red Heifer? Why would God give us a law that no one can understand? Who would invent such a commandment? Why ask for something so rare? Why throw in a paradox? Why such an elaborate procedure?
All commentators threw up their hands, saying, “If King Solomon couldn’t find reasons, how can I?”
One rabbi ventured an explanation in the Midrash:
Rabbi Aibu explained: [The reason] may be illustrated by a parable. The son of a maid got the king's palace dirty. The king said: “Let his mother come and clean up his filth.” In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, said: “Let the [Red] Heifer come and atone for the incident of the [Golden] Calf!” [Numbers R. 19:8]
So the Red Heifer, representing the mother, atones for the sin of the Golden Calf, representing the son!
Now, why didn’t God give us the reason for this commandment – and all the others for that matter?
The Rambam wrote:
If God revealed the reasons for all the commandments, they would find ways to disobey them… by saying, “”this was prohibited”, or “this was commanded” only for such-and-such a reason. I can avoid the reason for which the commandment was given and ignore [the commandment itself].” In such a way, the entire Torah could be nullified. God therefore concealed the rationale [for the commandments]. There is not a single commandment, however, that does not have a reason and a purpose… [Rambam, end of Sefer Ha-Mitzvot]
A commentator added that every mitzvah is like the red heifer: We can never be sure we have ALL the reasons for a mitzvah. Does this mean it is forbidden to look for reasons? No. Rabbi Akiva tells us [Eruvin 54b] it’s a duty to look for reasons for commandments. Presumably, if you satisfy yourself that you know the reason, you will be even more inclined to follow a commandment.
Rabbi Adele: Regardless, mitzvot are the basis for our living good spiritual lives Without mitzvot, would it not be anarchy? Where then does the red heifer fit in?