commentaries 5776 [2015-16]
High Holy Days 5776
Rosh HaShanah Changes 5776
Changes always changing ever changed.
Flows of Life take us forward to the strange,
The beautiful, and the challenging.
Yet what goals have we at this time of year?
We are told to atone; “Do better, Dear,
At fixing the World while we dance and sing.”
How can we achieve these goals?
How can we redeem our souls
As we are buffeted along rocky shoals?
What is the cost to open wide our hearts?
Can we put together the broken parts?
Are words enough? Can they say we repent?
Or – do we need actions with good intent?
Can we enjoy the obligations of Law
While trying to repair each blemish and flaw?
So open wide to the Words of Torah.
Feel the flow of Life.
Maybe then we will find complete happiness
Full health, and no strife!
Update continued for Yom Kippur:
Before the Almighty we stand in stark relief.
We bare our souls before the throne, our joys, our grief…
We ask for clear guidance in our deeds and beliefs,
Never sure we’ll be sealed in the Books of Good Deeds,
Happiness, Good Life, Income, Good Health, well met needs…
May we all be sealed for a wonderful life in 5776! Don’t forget to beat the willow to cast away the last of your sins at the end of Sukkot! ... or at least picture it as a beautiful, poignant part of our heritage and lives! Shana Tova Tichateimu!
Hi again! It has been a while since last I wrote an update…
5775 was a year of changes. Lots of folk moving around. Prescott Valley people moved to Prescott. A Chabad “house” was established in Prescott as of last November. Some people never before involved with Judaism in this area have come out looking to return in some small measure.
Home, email, and telephone visits have become more frequent for the elderly and the infirm. A de facto shofar by phone program has been started. It is a great joy to see more people affirming their Judaism through one platform or another.
Yet Torah makes it clear that the High Holy Days are not just for Jews, but for everyone. We all are imperfect. We all have reason to repent. We all should be trying to make amends with others where needed. We all should strive to forgive and be forgiven.
Added joy has been with us in the form of weddings. Two this past year and at least one planned for this coming year. Also, despite the odds, I made it to the SW Region Chaplaincy Corps Staff College for Civil Air Patrol. To my great joy I found considerable encouragement to apply to be Chaplain as well as learned of a four year program to modernize the culture towards diversity and away from religious bigotry as per the Air Force rules and regulations. All the little sidetracks during the year seem insignificant in comparison: a little minor surgery, new glasses, the loss of our oldest cat to colorectal lymphoma, being adopted by an outdoor kitten at that same time, etc.
Not insignificant are the ongoing challenges to provide a couple incarcerated folk with access to Jewish prayer and Tanach [bible] materials, proper health support, dietary accommodations, etc. Bigotry is, unfortunately, an equal opportunity vice at every level of our lives.
What will this New Year hold for us? We can never be sure. Yet we now gather together to reflect on how best we can go forward, doing what is right in the hopes that the path we will then follow will lead us to happiness, health, and fulfillment. May we be sealed in all the Good Books for 5776!
Sukkot 5776 Guests and Joy, No Magic
Guests and Joy, No Magic
Therefore please remember to come and celebrate Sukkot Sept. 27 thru Oct. 6 in the Rabbi’s Sukkah. Shake the Lulav and Etrog, sing and dance to festival appropriate songs, eat good food, learn about the customs of the festival, and enjoy the presence of guests live and otherwise. May this season, having started in atonement and fasting, end in joy and love!
Therefore please remember to come and celebrate Sukkot Sept. 27 thru Oct. 6 in the Rabbi’s Sukkah. Shake the Lulav and Etrog, sing and dance to festival appropriate songs, eat good food, learn about the customs of the festival, and enjoy the presence of guests live and otherwise. May this season, having started in atonement and fasting, end in joy and love!
Sukkot right before candle lighting prayer...,
Shabbat Bereishit 5776 Time in the Beginning
Noach 5776 Relative Righteousness [Bereishit 6:9-9:32; Isaiah 54-55:5]
Last week we read about Cain and Abel. For his time, Abel was a righteous man. Indeed his sacrifice was acceptable to HaShem. Apparently during his time, that was all that was needed to be “righteous”.
This week we learn that Noach lived in a time when people were basically not righteous. When we talk today about Noach, we list seven behaviours that made him righteous since other people did not follow these seven behaviours. They include:
- Do not murder.
- Do not steal.
- Do not worship false gods [i.e. no idolatry].
- Do not commit adultery.
- Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal [or any other part thereof]
- Do not curse the Holy One.
- Set up courts of justice to bring offenders to just consequences.
Next week in the portion of Parashat Lech Lecha we will read about and discuss the righteousness of Avraham. For his time, he needed to follow more than just the seven Noachide Principles. Minimally we know that Abraham also circumcised the male members of his household.
What additional righteous behaviours did Noach do? What additional righteous behaviours did Avraham do [answers next week]? (see Bereishit, Genesis 8:20-9:7; 6:9, 22)
Since Avraham did more righteous behaviours than Noach, and Noach more than Abel, does that mean that in every age a righteous person needs to be ever more righteous than in the previous age? Is there someone we can hold up as a role model for righteousness in our times? What behaviours do you think you need to accomplish in order to be righteous?
May our discussions this Shabbat, Oct. 17, lead us to discovering how to follow a more righteous path into the future! Shabbat Shalom!
Lech Lecha 5776 The Righteousness of Avraham, Bereishit (Genesis)12-17
This week we have the portion of Parashat Lech Lecha when Avram picks up and leaves his father along with Lot his nephew and Sarai his wife. The portion is jam packed with many adventures in Canaan, from Egypt to the north of Damascus, in Sodom and Gomorrah, and in the wilderness bordering Egypt. Throughout, Avram demonstrated righteous behaviours such as trying to protect family, saving captives, not taking spoils, and trusting in HaShem.
While the covenant with Noach was a basic promise of not having further worldwide destruction brought on by HaShem, the covenant with Avraham that we read in this week’s parasha is far more complicated. The covenant which came to Avram in a deep, dark slumber promised difficulties with exile in a foreign land for 400 years before coming into “possession” of the Promised Land. The covenant was then sealed by Avraham through circumcision of all his male household host. Hence circumcision is called a brit, a covenant.
Interestingly enough, although usually associated with a prediction of servitude in Egypt, the actual time according to the stories in Torah comes out to a bit over 200 years. It seems that the time spent in Babylonian exile might have been closer to that predicted time than the time in Egypt!
Did one of the later ‘editors’ or ‘redactor’ insert that number of 400 into Torah while thinking that the time in Babylonian exile was what was predicted? By all accounts though, Babylonian exile was no-where near as harsh as the time in Egypt. Additionally the Diaspora time after the destruction of the second Temple until the founding of the modern Land of Israel was far greater than 400years and filled with ever more vile atrocities than in Egypt or Babylonia.
Perhaps the time is irrelevant as the prediction will repeat itself again and again for as long as Jews are viewed as outsiders unworthy of the Land and life. As we all know, anti-semites have always been around and often are powerful.
If indeed than the Land is our legacy, what do we need to do to both hang on to it and to deserve possession of Yisrael? Is the lesson in this portion to hold to the Covenant and to be righteous in all our dealings? Is Avraham a role model of righteousness we should emulate?
The answers are probably as complicated as the portion of Parashat Lech Lecha is. May our discussions this Shabbat help us to better understand why Avraham deserved the Covenant with HaShem and what the importance of “possessing the land” truly is. Shabbat Shalom!
Topic for this Shabbat :
VaYera 5776 ... Bereishit (Genesis)18-22
VaYera 5776 Written vs Tradition; Genesis [Bereishit] 18-22
This week, again, we read a portion packed with many complex stories. Parashat VaYera takes us from recovery from the acceptance of the Covenant, the Brit circumcision through the challenge of whether child [or any human] sacrifice is ever acceptable. Along the way Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the rest of the plains in the locale were destroyed despite Avraham’s arguments to save them; Lot was isolated in a mountain cave with his two daughters who thought the whole rest of the world was destroyed [so they got Lot drunk and had children by him]; The messenger guests predicted a son for Sarah the following year; Sarah spent some time in Abimelech’s harem purporting to be Avraham’s sister; Sarah had her son, Issac, at the predicted time; and Avraham expelled Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and his son with her, Ishmael.
Many years later Avraham took his son, Isaac, to a mountain in the land of Moriah to make a sacrifice to HaShem. He was then firmly told not to harm Isaac but to use a ram tangled in the brambles instead.
Lot’s daughters did not know that the rest of the world was not destroyed. So they acted to the best of their knowledge.
Abimelech did not initially know that Sarah was married. So he, too, acted to the best of his knowledge. It is not clear what he did or did not do. However, later he protested strongly that nothing untoward [sexual] had happened. [Genesis 20:15-16]
Similarly we do not know which mountain in Moriah was used for Avraham’s sacrifice to HaShem. About all these events, tradition tells us stories to fill in the gaps. Yet stories are just stories. Just because they are repeated often, like propaganda, it does not necessarily follow that they are fact. Further we know that stories change according to the political correctness of the times. Even Torah was edited on occasion.
So when we have a story become tradition that the Temple Mount was the mountain in Moriah of Avraham’s sacrifice, we have reason to wonder. Similarly there are disagreements over where the Temple actually stood [at least 4 plausible sites according to archaeologists]. However tradition has us at the Western Wall and arguing over the Al Asqa Mosque location.
Is there any way we can resolve these disagreements? How important should these traditions be in deciding the on-the-ground realities of the modern state of Israel? What place should archaeological studies have in our understanding of our traditions?
It is a hot button topic this week when some hold the tradition can become fact where others say facts are needed to verify or deny traditions which are beliefs [unsubstantiated to date]. . . complex like this week’s parasha! Shabbat Shalom!
Chayei Sarah 5776 The Legacy of Sarah,
Genesis [Bereishit] 23-25:18; 1 Kings 1
As we approach Shabbat Chayei Sarah, there are thousands camping out by the Tomb of the Patriarchs near Hebron to honor the Matriarch Sarah. What exactly are they honoring in the life of Sarah? [The portion actually discusses her sons Ishmael [adopted] and Isaac. It says nothing of Sarah other than her age at death and where she was interred.]
According to Josephus, Sarah was an equal partner in the adventures of Avraham, advising him on important matters [such as to travel as siblings rather than as a married couple] and henpecking him on others [such as the expulsions of Hagar and Ishmael]. Together they expounded and spread monotheism according to later sources – although much of Bereishit reads like “my god is greater than your god”.
The vast majority of discussions today regarding Sarah’s legacy focus on the accomplishments of her children, a rather patriarchal view perpetuated by generations of men teaching their intolerant and sexist view of the world. This is quite evident in the Talmudic pronunciations that the disable, the lepers, the barren, etc. are as if they are dead to/ in the world.
So what is the legacy of Sarah Imeinu [our Mother]? She was educated in Ur as Sarai, a princess. She helped manage the family camel caravan, organize the logistics to care for all the people involved, as well as acted as a diplomat with the various royalty met along the way. She was also a very [overly?] protective mother deeply loved by her son, Yitzchak. Sounds like Sarah is a role model for independence, self-sufficiency, and authority tempered by ethical considerations in all she did.
Perhaps a modern manifestation of Sarah’s legacy is one news headline just announced: Cecile Richards, Director of Planned Parenthood, was named Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine.
What do you think is the legacy of Sarah? It would not be surprising if there are as many views on this matter as there are people! Shabbat Shalom!
Toldot 5776 The Legacy of Rivka; Bereishit (Genesis) 25:19-28:9; Malachi 1-2:7
When we get to Toldot [Generations], the parasha portion for this week, most say that this is about the life of Yitzchak. However, if we look closely at the parasha, who is most described? We learn a lot about Rivka and some about Yaakov and Esau, but very little about Yitzchak other than he was afraid of dying because of his blindness [temporary or permanent we do not know] and therefor wanted to take care of inheritance issues just in case he was dying. Even earlier during Avraham’s bewildering attempt to sacrifice to HaShem, we never did learn what Yitzchak thought of almost becoming a sacrificial lamb.
We did learn earlier that Rivka was a kind, caring, and competent young woman. She offered hospitality to a stranger who happened to be a most trusted servant of Avraham. She watered and fed his livestock. Further, she was treated as a person of equal status within her family. Although local customs might have allowed for her brother to tell her what to do [as he later did with his daughters], instead he insisted that she agree first to the marriage proposal to marry Yitzchak. She was not forced to do so.
The parasha for this week further depicts Rivka’s independent nature. She worked successfully on direct communication with Hashem. She does not always follow her husband’s preferences and she is willing to support her differences in position with actions. She is pro-active to have her more worthy son inherit the family blessings.
This is not to say that there was discord between Rivka and Yitzchak. Rivka clearly knew what pleased her husband as she cooked his favorite type of food. They worked together to try the brother-sister ruse with Abimelech, but he saw through it. They felt the same about idolatrous daughters-in-law. Further they seemed to be in agreement that Yaacov needed to go to his uncle Laban for safety and to find a wife.
Like Sarah before her, Rivka took care of the needs of the extended household and community involved with their business/ diplomatic concerns. Also like Sarah, Rivka took care of her husband and children. Rivka, too, can clearly be viewed as a role model for women. Hence there is good reason to consider her one of our honored matriarchs. It is no wonder Yitzchak was comforted after Sarah died!
Did Yitzchak know what his wife was planning? Was he really fooled by fur attached to Yaacov’s arms? How much of their lives was engineered by Rivka? Remember: Yitzchak lived many years after these “deathbed” blessings…
May we appreciate all of our forebears during our discussions this week… Shabbat Shalom!
VaYetzei 5776 [and he went forth] Family Dysfunction [Bereishit(Genesis) 28:10-32:3]
Haftorah : Hosea 12:13-14:10… Sepharadim read Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 or 12:14 or 13:5
This past week has been quite challenging and stressful. The incomprehensibility of terrorist caused murders and destruction in Ankara, Beirut, and Paris grieves us all. We are all diminished by this horrible toll on hundreds through this high level of dysfunction in the ‘human’ family. Further, we are challenged to maintain our own humanity and not fall prey to hatred, revenge, and bigotry.
Where does this diminishing of the value of life start? If we look at governments around the world, there are none that lack dissidents. However only some find it acceptable to devalue the lives of part of their populations. These governments make it easy to kill those disenfranchised residents for minor infractions, different religions, different countries of origin, being female, being not heterosexual, or etc. Some even hijack their education systems to teach bigotry and to devalue the lives of others as well as to sanction murder as a means to settle disagreements or address others with different points of view. Still, even in the worst of these countries, there seem to be pockets of decency. In the best of world governments, although they do not sanction murder of ‘lesser’ beings, the prisons still get occupied by criminals including murderers.
SO we need to go down to interpersonal relationships which start for all of us with what passes for family. As we read Torah, we learn that even in the most prominent and the best of families there are moments of vile behaviour and threats of bodily harm. Sometimes the threats are acted upon.
During Avraham’s time, there was the discord between Sarah and Hagar. In Yitzchak’s generation, his sons did not get along even to the point of Esau threatening to kill Yaakov.
So now we come to this week’s portion of Parashat VaYetzei with the relating of many little episodes of Yaacov’s life. Most of them deal with family dysfunction.
Yaacov leaves his parents’ household after death threats from his brother. While welcome by his Uncle Laban as a laborer, he is deceived into marrying Leah when he had contracted and intended to marry Rachel. Then his uncle took advantage of his work contracts by constantly changing the contract terms. Uncle Laban’s violence and greed apparently was well learned by his sons so Yaacov feared doing anything to displease them when in their vicinity. Once Rachel and Leah, Laban’s daughters, were married off, they felt that their father hardly paid attention to them and their children to the extent that they feared he might be violent towards them should they try to get out from under his control.
Only by intelligent planning and great caution did Yaacov and his family avoid the pitfalls of the changing contracts and other risks. Similarly they managed to escape Laban’s clutches after a forced détente with a festive meal sealing a peace pact… under pain of death should one of Yaacov’s family cross the border into Laban’s territory. For Laban and others like him, even the lives of family held little if any value! So too it is sometimes today.
Is dysfunction part of all families and governments? How can we reduce the worst effects of that dysfunction? Can changes in our education system help reduce such effects? Such questions of massive scope challenge our hopes that things can get better. Shabbat Shalom!
VaYeishev 5776 Heavenly Consequences
[Bereishit (Genesis) 37-40:23; Amos 2:6-3:8]
Here we come now to continuing tales of Yaacov’s family in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYeishev. However the perspective is changing. Instead of talking about “Natural Consequences”, good and bad, stemming from the choices made by family members, we view the consequences according to the general benefit they give to the family and the tribes, i.e. “Heavenly Consequences”.
To a certain extent, the tales we get this week seem to be without linear chronology. Last week it seemed that, save Yosef, all the brothers were young men or older. Hence they were able to either slaughter the men of Hevron or despoil the city. Reuven was certainly old enough to attempt to displace Yaacov as clan leader and be sexually intimate with Bilhah the concubine while living separately from the rest of the family.
Yet as we start this week’s portion of Parashat VaYeishev, we read of the brothers all as young men [except Binyamin] working together, tending their father’s flocks. So when Yosef, the teen, is sent to find them, they are all unpleasant towards him. Perhaps Reuven and Yehuda were less malevolent towards him, but they were all together in this episode there to rid themselves of Yosef and deceive their father about what had occurred. Even we can not be sure what occurred given that the account seems to be an amalgam of at least two versions. Who pulled Yosef from the pit? To whom was he sold? Who sold Yosef to the Egyptians?
The tale of Tamar seems more straightforward as a tale of broken promises by Yehudah, deception by Tamar [with help from others] to rectify these broken promises, and recognition throughout that she was more righteous than Yehudah. Yet Yehudah is an older man here with his own territory apart from the rest of the family.
After the tale of Tamar, the text returns to the life of the righteous young Yosef, but this time after he has arrived in Egypt. Again we have a major deception. This time the wife of the Potifar, Yosef’s owner, lies about Yosef after he spurned her sexual advances. As a result, he is thrown in prison where he gets a reputation for accurately interpreting dreams.
One might be tempted to interpret these outcomes as natural consequences, but all three led to huge cogs in the preservation of the house of Yaacov/ Yisrael and the later royal lines. Had Yosef not been in Egypt and forced to be in prison, would his family been able to survive the years of famine to come? Had Tamar not had children by Yehuda through her deception, there would have been no royal line of David and Solomon. How would that have affected the viability of the ancient Jewish government? Hence these consequences seem to be more than “natural”. Rather they seem to be divinely directed i.e. “Heavenly Consequences” of divinely inspired choices by the people involved.
Have you ever had what seem to be “Heavenly Consequences” in your life experiences? Are “Heavenly Consequences” another name for Yad HaShem, the Hand of the Holy One? Let us look forward then this Shabbat to share our experiences of “Heavenly Consequences”! Shabbat Shalom!
Miketz 5776 Disaster from Disrespect; Bereishit (Genesis)41-44:17; 1 Kings 3:15-4:1
The portion of Parashat Miketz continues the saga of Yosef in Egypt, the family deceptions during the famine, and the maturation of the brothers over the years. Since we have started reading about the ancestors, we read about ever more deceptions and partial truths. Yet even with the family intrigues, one has to wonder whether there was still respect for each other as family despite differences in viewpoints.
How human and modern this all seems! We are faced with challenges regularly where we must choose whether to try to do what sees right and safe or whether to respect others enough to let them make their own decisions. The choices include, among others, whether to be patronizing out of arrogant, but possibly well meaning, intentions or to make decisions I concert with all parties involved.
There are so many area of news now that are excellent examples of one person or group trying to force their views and practices on others: religion; women’s rights; oligarchs; corporations; and so on. Let us focus on two specific examples.
Disability law (and common decency) requires that accommodations be effective and timely. Unfortunately, often the people in position to effect accommodations do not bother to talk with the disabled to find out what accommodations will or are most likely to be effective. People with power are often patronizing towards those they de facto consider lesser even if these empowered people have no experience nor understanding of the specific issue(s). This is true for discrimination of all sorts against the disables, women, different religions, different ethnic origins, etc.
So if someone invites another person to visit after having been informed that plug-ins are deadly to the guest and would need to be removed overnight minimally, then the decision to not do so by the host is disrespectful towards the invitee not to mention dangerous. Just closing the door to the room with the plug-in a few minutes before arrival of the guest is both disrespectful and patronizing not to mention certainly not the hosts ‘best possible effort’. Most importantly, it is unsafe and invites a medical disaster. Respect could have been shown by discussing whether closing the door in such a way would be adequate to the accommodation needs. If the host was unwilling to do what would be effective, then there would be time to cancel the visit before unsafe exposures and the need for medical intervention such as oxygen treatment.
The other commonly known example is with parents facing loss of independence. These older people often become stubborn. They refuse to use life alerts. They refuse to allow home visits of medical professionals or home assistants. They refuse to stop driving. They insist on living alone at home.
Others know that each of these decisions increase the risks to their parents’ lives esp. in view of multiple earlier adverse events such as mini-strokes. To force these older folk to do other than what they want [say by declaring them incompetent or dangerous to themselves] is disrespectful. Yet total respect in allowing them their decisions may lead to a further disaster.
Still if coercion or imposition of religious practices, etc. is disrespectful and unethical, how then can we justify imposition of safety measures and behaviours on ageing parents? Neither can we accept imposition of non-effective accommodations as anything other than disrespectful.
What a discussion it will be trying to discern what is respectful during this season of celebration of freedom from religious oppression! Happy Chanukah and Shabbat Shalom!
VaYigash 5776 Resettling; Bereishit [Genesis] 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15-28
So this week we have come to our reading in Torah where Yaacov and his family all resettle in Egypt in the area of Goshen. What happened to the people who had been living there, you might ask? Given that the famine then in progress for 2 years [45:6] had forced the people to pay for food with all of their properties [and later with themselves as indentured servants], Yosef had accumulated for Pharaoh nearly all of the land of the Egyptian residents except for their Egyptian Priests who were exempt from such actions.
As a result, the people were redistributed according to the will of the Pharaoh. So when Yaacov and his family arrived, it was easy for the Pharaoh to assign them lands as he wished. Since he had been told that they were breeders of livestock, particularly goats and sheep, it would have been clear to the Pharaoh to send them to good pasture as distant from his palaces as possible. Shepherds were considered unsavory by Egyptians. Nonetheless, the Pharaoh invited any interested breeders of livestock to help with his livestock of horses, cattle, asses, and so forth. (47:6)
So due to a major calamity, most of the population was displaced or at risk of being displaced. Their properties, abandoned or bartered away for sustenance, were taken over by others. What would have happened if the displaced people wanted to return home? Would it be different if these people first bartered away or sold all their properties before they became displaced? Is there something in this parasha portion of Torah that could help shed light on how to handle the massive refugee problems of the world today?
We may not be able to resolve the world refugee problem. But maybe our discussion this Shabbat will help us better understand it.
VaYechi 5776 Endings and Beginning Again;
Bereishit (Genesis) 47:28-50; I Kings 2:1-12
This year we have a confluence of endings facing us all at the same time. As Yaacov’s life comes to an end in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYechi, we also come to the end of the Book of Genesis, Bereishit. Coincidentally it is the last Shabbat of the Gregorian year 2015, the end of 2015. For some of us it is also the end of the fiscal year.
Nonetheless it is also a time of new beginnings. Yaacov blesses his sons and predicts their ethical and livelihood pathways, their new beginnings. At the end, Yaacov also gains two more sons (Ephraim and Menashe) of his beloved wife, Rachel, when he adopts the two sons of Joseph and allows for even more new beginnings such as a later land of Ephraim. In the meantime, all of the children of Israel are in the process of starting new beginnings in Egypt.
This brings us to the beginning of 2016 and the beginning of the Book of Exodus, Shemot.
For some of us, the custom of New Year’s resolutions is embraced. For some of us, we are looking forward to late January, to 15 Shvat. It will be the birthday of the trees, the yearly new beginning of their cycle of life, Tu B’Shvat.
What will you end and be done with this winter season? What new beginnings and adventures will you embark upon? Let us share them this Shabbat as the weather truly begins to be wintery.
May we be strong and strengthen each other in our new beginnings!
Shemot 5776 Stories, Beliefs, Logic, and Facts; Shemot [Exodus] 1-6:1; Jeremiah 1-2:3
This weekly Torah portion of Parashat Shemot continues relating more stories of our history. As always, these stories are believed to be cliff notes of actual events. We need to work to figure out what lessons we should draw out of these stories. The lessons considered important in any generation will vary according to the customs of the readers and their sensibilities. This is possible since the stories are not per se facts. Hence we have latitude in interpreting what they mean within the framework of known historical, archaeological, etc. facts. The pool of such facts is ever increasing given modern discoveries and improved investigative techniques.
So if these stories are not all facts, what are they? They are part of our belief system that they were inspired by HaShem to be written in their original form. We are not certain that the original form is the form they are presently in. For that matter, we are not certain for what purpose they were inspired to be written. So on faith we have accepted that they are an incomplete and/or approximate description of our history with emphasis on lessons we need to learn to live good, ethical lives.
That is consistent with the places where multiple and conflicting versions of an event are related in Torah. It could also be consistent with the known facts of editing and redacting by others across the generations. This actually leads to the interesting question: Were the editors and redactors also divinely inspired?
So religion is a system of beliefs. Chosen liturgy is accepted based on belief, not fact. Any related systems of interpretations, meditations, numerology, etc. are philosophies of how to answer questions unanswered in the liturgy. Each such philosophy is based on a core belief or beliefs from which a logical matrix of principles is constructed. As such, the philosophies must be considered as part of the body of commentaries. They are not part of the original liturgy.
For instance Gematria, a Jewish form of numerology, has a core belief that the numeric values of the Hebrew letters are imbued with Holiness and special meanings. The larger the sum of the letters’ values in a word, the more relative importance is assigned to the word. Perhaps it stems from the ancient and widespread belief that if one knows the true name of an object, one can fully control that object. Gematria views Hebrew as the only Holy language, the only language in which “true” names can be found. These names would have been given by Adam during creation. Did Adam speak Hebrew and name HaShem’s creations in Hebrew in a time before the Tower of Babel?
Similarly the Mystical and Kabbalistic philosophies were highly influenced by earlier non-Jewish mystical practices. As in most surviving philosophies, the core logic matrix contains presumptions [i.e. beliefs] along with facts and/or observations. The logic matrix allows the philosophy to explain unfathomable observations and occurrences. Yet it can not ever make the philosophy into facts. There may be other ways to reach logical explanations that are not within any given philosophy. Even one assumption within the logic matrix results in the entire philosophy being a belief system, never a system of facts.
Nonetheless, so long as beliefs can not be disproven by facts, Judaism teaches us that one is welcome to embrace these beliefs. Simply put, if these beliefs make some people happy with their lives, then they are welcome to embrace those beliefs and be happy.
So when we come to our stories of Torah, we need to accept that we might be able to prove occasional factual details in the stories [as often are in good historical fiction] but that it is more important for us to ask: “What ethical lessons are there in these stories for us to live by?” !
What ethical lessons do you draw from the stories of the birth of Moshe, his exile, his marriage to Zipporah the Midianite princess, the birth of his son, and his return to Egypt to lead the Israelites to freedom? There is much to discuss, so much that it might occupy us for years! Shabbat Shalom!
VaEra 5776 History and Biblical Plagues;
Shemot [Exodus] 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28.25-29.21
While Genesis [Bereishit] gave us the stories that summarized the maturing of the world from creation through the lives of the ancestors, Exodus [Shemot] continues the stories with a focus on the People of Israel and how they gained guidance from HaShem so that they might mature as a nation. There are many obvious instances of multiple versions of a story both in Bereishit and Shemot.
For instance, in the weeks to come we will come across three versions of the People receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai. One is the famous golden calf story. Another notes that the people heard HaShem initially, became frightened, and insisted that Moshe then act as intermediary… and so on.
This week in the portion of Parashat VaEra, we continue the story of how the People will find their way to Freedom from Egyptian servitude. We read of signs proving Moshe’s mission was divine. Then we read of the first six plagues. Yet, what if Shemot is both obvious and hidden amalgams of many stories?
From the incomplete collection of Egyptians records, we know that Mose was a title or honorific usually combined with a personal name such as Tutmose. There are presently known two clear references to different people described only as Mose. So it is conceivable that Moshe and his stories are an amalgam of two or more historical figures.
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. This area 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 possibly a bit later. 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.
However, biblical stories place the plagues and exodus during the later time period despite no independently recorded histories found recording volcanic activity. Yet the descriptions of pillars of cloud and fire [soon to be read about] as well as earthquakes and such would indicate for the most part a direction towards Arabia, S. / S.E. of Midian. It should be noted that volcanic activity does not have a quick explosion. Active volcanoes can rumble, tremble, and spew forth repeatedly over months or more of time.
Clearly people of biblical times viewed the intense forces of nature as awesome punishments by deities. There were probably more historic accounts of these occurrences that, although lost to us, may have been available in Solomonic times when Bereishit and Shemot were compiled more or less in the form we now have them.
Given these historical details, how likely do you think it is that Shemot is an amalgam of stories about the Children of Yisrael? If so, would the goal of these stories be to teach both that we have obligations to act morally and that if we fail to do so, there will be natural consequences? Lastly, would such a goal have been divinely inspired?
Awesome or not this Shabbat, please stay safe with all the storms. Shabbat Shalom!
Bo 5776 Remembering Leaving Egypt; Shemot 12:29-13:16[Exodus] ; Jeremiah 46:13-28
BeShallach, Shabbat Shira, 5776 – Loving All of HaShem’s Creations
Shemot [Exodus] 13:17-17:16; Shoftim [Judges] 4:4-5:31
Way back in the story of Noach we read a promise from HaShem that there would never again be near total destruction by HaShem of all the creatures of the earth. It is understood that HaShem grieved over the loss of each living creation. This sentiment is reiterated in the present portion of Parashat Beshallach.
Leaving Egypt was not so simple as packing up a car and driving off. Although there was a clear agreement that the people needed to get away from the plague ravaged land and the cruel bondage, it was not clear where they would go and how to get there. After all, the mercurial Pharaoh might well try to recapture and re-enslave them!
Clearly a first goal would be to get out of Egyptian controlled territory. A further goal would be to figure out a way to stop any pursuit by the Pharaoh and his army. Moshe seemed to have a handle on how both these tasks could be accomplished. By luring the pursuing Egyptians into the marshes of the Sea of Reeds, he could cause them problems given that heavy chariots would be slowed by the sinking effects of the marshes. This effect was less noticeable when lighter people and livestock were crossing. Once in the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptians were more vulnerable to any sudden major change in water level which indeed then happened.
What a joy and relief the people must have experienced when the pursuing host drowned! No wonder they sang out in songs of praise with music and dance!
Yet HaShem rebuked them and asked why they celebrated such a large loss of life – people and horses, why they celebrated the drowning of living creatures! Did HaShem draw parallels to the Great Flood of Noach’s time? Death by drowning apparently was mourned by Hashem both then and during the Exodus crossing of the Sea of Reeds.
This clearly indicates that we should treasure the lives of every creature – and by extension, all of HaShem’s creations. Yet like children, we rarely live our lives according to HaShem’s mitzvot.
Why did Moshe lure the Egyptians to the Sea of Reeds? Did Hashem tell Moshe to do so despite knowing what was likely to happen to the Egyptians and knowing that it would likely recall the distress of the Great Flood? Did HaShem share with Moshe what was likely to happen to the Egyptians?
How have we failed in protecting and valuing HaShem’s creations? How can we better value and protect all of HaShem’s creations? Truly these questions may well trigger great soul searching and deep discussions this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Yitro 5776 Shlom Bayit; Shemot [Exodus]18:1-20:23; Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6
Shlom Bayit is a major goal of Jewish teachings. It means peace in the house. Which house? Usually it is commonly understood to refer to a calm domestic situation. However the phrase does not have to be limited to the personal home. Bayit can refer to any structure such as Bayit/Bayt Knesset, a house of gathering; Beit [house of – Bayit shel] Torah, a house of Torah; etc. In other words, we should striving for peaceful relations at every level of life be it in our private homes, our local governments, our state governments, and national governments as well as world international contacts. Unfortunately the bitter truth is that we are lousy at keeping peace anywhere.
Chasidic Rabbi’s often tell of the Rabbi who embraced the concept of Shlom Bayit everywhere. He went to the King to ask for his help and was laughed out of court. He went to the local elders who also told him to bud out. When he shared this with his family, they essentially rolled their eyes. So he, too, learned that before you can fix the world, you have to start by cleaning your own back yard.
Well Moshe was certainly put upon to find paths to meet all these challenges. At some point he had sent his wife and sons back to family in Midian to escape Egyptian woes. In this week’s portion of Parashat Yitro tells us that Moshe’s father-in-law was big into Shlom Bayit.
So he brought Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, and the sons back to Moshe as they camped by the Holy Mountain. Then he told Moshe to do what it takes to make Shlom Bayit. After they rejoiced over the escape from Egypt, Yitro gave Moshe more advice: teach others the law so they can be judges and DELEGATE! Do not be the only Judge, the all powerful central government so to speak! Have Judges at each level so that justice will be meted out by the righteous people who understand the contexts and circumstances of the people and have no vested interests in the judgements. In theory, this system allows for peaceful resolution of all conflicts so that Shlom Bayit can be achieved at every level. Peace for Bayt Yisrael, Peace for the House of Yisrael.
How can we apply this concept of Justice and Peace to our lives? How can we encourage others to work for Shlom Bayit? What are the successes and failures in pursuing peace that each of us face? It is a huge topic to discuss this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
Mishpatim 5776 Receiving the Law,
Shemot (Exodus)21:1-24:18; Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-6
Well now that we have been told by Yitro how to have a judicial system, we surely need some specific laws for the system to work with. For most of this week’s portion of Parashat Mishpatim, that is exactly what we get: laws. Yet interestingly enough the parasha ends with another account of receiving the law at Mt. Sinai.
You know how accident reports often have accounts from multiple witnesses? They are never identical. Each witness has a unique perspective. So too with the witnesses of Matan Torah, the giving of the Law, the Torah, at the Holy Mountain.
Last week in Yitro we read in Ch. 19-20 one version of receiving the Law at the Holy Mountain [as Yitro called it]. This is the version where the people had three days to self-purify before hearing the ten main terms to our Brit, Covenant [Pact], with HaShem. These terms are described as the Ten Commandments despite not being in command format. This is the version where the people begged Moshe to be an intermediary so they would not hear HaShem directly and maybe die. Instructions for making an altar without steps are also given at the very end of the Parasha.
This week in Parashat Mishpatim, starting with Ch. 24, we get another perspective with different details. Preparation of the altar is described differently. Joshua, the Priests, and the Elders went part of the way up the mountain with Moshe for a repast with HaShem. Then Moshe went further up with Joshua and then alone into the cloud of HaShem to receive the Law on stone tablets. He stayed for forty days and nights.
In three weeks more, we will get to Parashat Ki Tisa with yet another perspective with different details. Considerable detail describes not only preparation of the altar, but also of the entire tabernacle as well as the preparation of the Priests and an ark for holding the Brit [30:26, 31:7]. In Ch. 31, Moshe is instructed by HaSHem to tell the People to keep the Sabbath (31:12-17). Yet verse 18 implies that this is part of a conversation with HaShem on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the conversation, Moshe received the two stone tablets.
Ch. 32 then relates a well-known story, the story of the golden calf, the broken stone tablets written by HaShem, and the replacement set of tablets. Only this time Moshe and Joshua are on the Holy Mountain called Mt. Horeb [33:6]. Moshe cleans up the mess with the golden calf idolaters first before getting the replacement tablets in Ch. 34 by going alone up the mountain again.
The terms of the covenant in this version are also a bit different than in Mishpatim. There is a focus on keeping Shabbat, avoiding idolatry, xenophobia, Pilgrimage Festivals [with Pesach and Shavuot specified], and not seething a kid in its mother’s milk. It is a further forty days for Moshe to be on Mt. Sinai while writing the new tablets of the Brit terms or watching HaShem do so [“‘he’ wrote the tablets of the Covenant”]. (34:28-29)
Are these three versions the same event reported by different witnesses? Or from different sources with similar records? Or as the results of editing due to political or religious agendas of later writers? Hmmm- lots to consider… Shabbat Shalom!
Terumah 5776 Free Will Offerings; Shemot [Exodus] 25:1-27:19; 1Melachim [Kings] 5:26-6:13
Up to now we have had two brief descriptions of how to build altars for sacrifices to HaShem. The tone in Shemot now moves to descriptions of considerable details as to how the Tabernacle was to be built and decorated, as well as the ark, the accoutrements, the Priestly garments and their tools.
This next portion of Parashat T’rumah starts with the basic funding plan to cover the building of the Tabernacle. All contributions were to be free-will offerings. There was not to be any coercion to contribute or participate in the building and practices of the Tabernacle.
This is quite a contrast to the building of the Temple we read about in the Haftorah of this week. For that 30,000 were conscripted to bring the building materials from Lebanon. As is done in all kingdoms with royalty, taxes pay for building projects.
Let us return, though, to the Tabernacle. Many rare and unusual components are described such as acacia wood and seal skins. Where did they get such items? Were they among the items given to them by the Egyptians when they left? Were the free will offerings used in trade for these items? If so, with whom did they trade in the wilderness? ---Midianites? ---Caravan traders? Nonetheless, it all started with free will offerings.
However free will offerings are not always financial. Doing mitzvot should be of free will: Caring for the needy, comforting the bereaved, celebrating joyous occasions, etc. Our lives should be built upon our free will offerings even as we are reminded repeatedly in Torah and as we are told to do for every Holy Day, for every festival, for even every day of our lives! On every minor fast day we read about Isaiah exhorting the people to welcome into the community all who have through free will taken upon themselves to observe Shabbat [and related mitzvot].
Yet as time has passed, many have forgotten that Judaism is bound to free will. We should not be coercing others to be Jewish as was done in Hasmonean times. We should be more tolerant of others who do not observe as we do, but are through their own free wills observing at least some of the mitzvot.
How far should free-will be extended? Is charging dues to be a member of a synagogue proper? Dues likely are not from free-will offerings. What about congregations where the Rebbe dictates what the congregants should do? Are those congregants embracing the congregation out of free-will?
We all are imperfect individuals. If we can not allow others free-will in their choices, how can we honestly support civil rights and anti-discrimination? How can we honestly embrace doing mitzvot? Shabbat Shalom!
Tetzaveh 5776 Idolatry of Things; Shemot [Exodus] 27:20-30:10; Ezekiel 43:10-27
Normally our commentaries stick closely to the texts of the Torah and/or Haftorah portions. However this week’s portion of Parashat Tetzaveh describes the details of dressing the Priests which we no longer have to do. The Haftorah of Ezekiel describes the building of and ornamentation for the Ark in the Temple which we no longer have.
So the focus of Tetzaveh is material objects, things. Yet why are material things so important to our spiritual lives? Or are they? We no longer have a tabernacle nor an ark. We no longer have Priests to ornately dress nor even a Temple for Priests to serve in. We pray directly to HaShem and should no longer feel a need for an intermediary Priest although many treat Rabbis as such.
Yes, people often want to pray in beautiful surroundings, but times change from generation to generation as do concepts of beauty. Nonetheless one can do Havdalah with an ornate silver spice box or with just some sticks of cinnamon.
So why the focus on all these expensive things? Will use of expensive things bring us closer to HaShem? So long as the Torah is modestly covered, do we need yet another ornate cover for High Holy Days and Festivals? Do we need silver ornaments for the scroll spindles and the breast plate while so many are having trouble putting food on their tables? Will these pretty silver things bring us closer to HaShem? [Just like the Golden Calf did not enhance our spirituality…]
For that matter, will building yet another Temple in Jerusalem, when we have neither ark nor tablets, bring us closer to HaShem? Would a monarchy, that Shmuel so detested for a justified fear of corruption, enable us to get closer to HaShem? All these are things, materialism at best. Are we keeping up with the Jones’, our non-Jewish neighbors? Are we wearing our most expensive outfits and jewelry on display during the High Holy Days and festivals to do so?
How incongruous to do so on Yom Kippur when we are to be as unadorned as possible in order to focus on our relationship with HaShem! Are our words just things to be done by rote and meaningless to our souls? Is that why some of us tolerate being blessed [cursed] by blatant idolatrous speech in government public meetings? Is that why we allow these ‘blessings’ to violate our spirits and souls? Does that not impede our getting closer to HaShem? Do we care if we get closer to HaShem?
Yet so many Jews do exactly that: showing off their wealth and accepting idolatrous prayer… It is as though some of us have come to worship wealth and material possessions. It has become an idolatry of ‘things’!
Beyond that, are words things that can be worshipped? How can we distance ourselves from materialistic idolatry like lavish weddings when we can not pay our utilities? How best can we become closer to HaShem? Shabbat Shalom!
Ki Tisa 5776 Our Covenant’s View of “Things”; Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34; 1 Kings 18
Going through Shemot, Exodus, we are repeatedly reminded that we have a Brit (Covenant, Pact, Contract) with Hashem. This is once more emphasized in this week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tisa. Clearly a golden calf is a “thing” not to be worshipped under our Brit agreement not to worship graven images or basically any material object’.
However idolatry is not the only part of the contract dealing with ‘things’. The tenth term of what is known as the Ten Commandments describes how to treat possessions. [no coveting]. Although, it is truly hoped that our modern world does not view people as possessions [not slaves, not women, not children].All other ‘things’ are covered in #10, including the theft thereof.
So what does #8 describe? No stealing. It is taught that this refers to stealing part or all of a spirit or soul. This covers forbidding kidnapping, abuse [verbal, physical, domestic], forced prostitution, forced idolatry, etc.
This brings us to the question of whether souls or spirits are ‘things’ of a sort. They certainly are possessions… As possessions then they have value albeit not one we can attach a monetary tag to.
Should one then violate #8, the victims of that violation would then be damaged spiritually. This contention is certainly supported by the many laws against damaging verbal abuse.
Hence if an adherent to an Abrahamic religion violates #8 by forcing or attempting to force idolatry upon others, it is clear that those others will be violated and spiritually damaged. Is this kind of violation ever excusable? What action is appropriate for a person being threatened with a spiritual violation in order to avoid such a violation?
Jewish teachings [Avodah Zarah – Foreign/Alien Worship i.e. Idolatry] are clear that we must avoid participating in idolatrous [as defined in Judaism]. Also we must avoid the appearance of agreeing to such practices and prayers. How can we achieve that avoidance of appearing to approve of idolatrous practices while in public government meetings started with sectarian church-like invocations? How can we still protect our constitutional right to equal access to public government functions under such circumstances? These are questions to keep us up at night if we are not careful… Shabbat Shalom!
VaYechel 5776 The Allure of Materialism,
Shabbat Shekalim, the Sabbath of Free Will Offerings; Shemot, Exodus, 35:1-38:20; 1 Kings 7:40-50
As we approach the start of the second month of Adar [leap month] this coming Wed. eve through Friday, our attention turns towards Purim coming up. Purim is not a Torah feast, yet it has been embraced enthusiastically for generations as a reminder to oppose those who would destroy us for being religiously different. Anti-semitism against Jews may stem from many sources: hatred taught over many generations; envy of mythical riches; intolerance of those who are different; insensitivity towards those who refuse to worship tyrants’ gods; etc. So we celebrate how we escaped genocide but recognize that we had to take up arms to protect ourselves – at a cost.
Today we choose to honor this sacrifice through reading the Megillah Book of Esther, through having a festive community meal, and through some specific acts of charity. That is where the free-will offerings [usually monetary coins e.g. shekalim] come in. We make up food packets for the needy. We help provide for the needs of people so that all can have a full Pesach experience. We contribute to our community’s upkeep. We can choose to contribute as well to other good causes.
However overcoming temptation to use our time and money for other things is always a huge challenge. There is that leather jacket in the store window, that new music CD online, the carpet sale with free installation, or any number of other things calling to us.
After all those folk down the road just repaved their driveway and repainted their house! Plus their children are going to equine summer camp…
The allure of the material beyond our basic needs is strong. It is reinforced intensely by the constant barrage of advertisements and relatively easy credit. They try to brainwash us into thinking we are saving money when we pay half price for buying something we do not need. It is so easy to covet that which our neighbors have as has been true for people for millennia. Hence the tenth term of our Brit, our covenant, our contract with HaShem…
How do people resist that temptation? Do most people succeed in resisting? Can love of others, caring for others, help us to embrace giving free-will offerings/ charity more easily? Does being in a compassionate community help? How can we fight jealousy and the urge to “keep up with the Jones’s”? Shabbat Shalom!
Pekudei 5776 Lessons of Exodus; Shemot 38:21-40:38; 1 Kings 7:51-8:21
Shemot, Exodus, has focused on what happened to the people once they left Egypt. How did the people adjust to the sudden change of circumstances from urban or herders to travelling in the wilderness? How were leadership services set up, esp. judicial? What legal structure was set up to administer the newly received laws? What was done to firmly establish the Priesthood?
The answers to all these questions were detailed in the readings of the last several weeks culminating in detailed descriptions of the materials and methods used to build the ark, the altar, and the tabernacle as well as how the Priests were dressed and their accompanying accoutrements. Yet even in those sections, there were scattered reminders of the most important laws.
We read the final portion of Shemot this week. This reading of Parashat Pekudei comes on the heels of welcoming in the new month of leap month Adar 2. In a sense, when we close with Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek – be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened -, we are asking this year for the strength to get through Purim and then Pesach a month later.
Which are the most important laws we have learned in Shemot? Some would say the famous ten, but do we truly understand them? The ones repeated most are the ones against idolatry and even more so, to keep Shabbat. So when Shemot ends with [the Holy Presence in] a cloud above the Tabernacle when the people are to stay at a location, is this a way to constantly remind the people that there is one and only one Holy Presence? Does it encourage us to keep the Shabbat and the Mitzvot? Does it show us that we must go along the Path following the cloud of the Holy Presence?
Idolatry is forbidden. Torah teaches us mitzvot which teach us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do not unto them as we would not have them do unto us. Why can’t we all respect each other, be sensitive to our differences, and overall get along?
VaYikra 5776 Modern Sacrifices; Leviticus, VaYikra, 1:1-5:26; Isaiah 43:21-44:23
Having gotten a large chunk of laws in Shemot, Exodus, we now turn to the question of how to deal with them in Leviticus, VaYikra. As the bureaucracy of the Temple was solidified, so too rituals and procedures were also solidified regarding non-judicial system laws. Whether voluntary, through peer pressure, or by edict; the people brought sacrifices to atone for their sins, to give thanks, etc. Did the people become more focused on the rituals of purification or thanks than on the actual reasons for the sacrifices?
Now that we no longer have Temple sacrifices, how do we achieve expiation for our sins? Is prayer enough even with Yom Kippur and near monthly little Yom Kippur-like prayers? Do we think that we need replacement sacrifices for those we no longer can do? If so, what would such modern sacrifices be like?
What do we have to sacrifice? Money? Our properties? Our time? Our skills? Is the teaching of Tikun Olam, Repair of the World, a recognition that we all need to make sacrifices?
Were Temple period sacrifices like the Catholic confessional? Can we all recognize when we need to confess our sins and make appropriate amends?
If only that were so. For as many as there are trying to repair the world, we still have genocides, eco destructions, atrocities of rape and pillage, hate speech with resultant bigotry and violence, crumbling infrastructure, inadequately supported education systems, and so much more.
Will we be able to reach out to others, successfully encouraging them and ourselves to do sacrifices that can help in the efforts to correct the oh-so-many ills of the world? If not, what will the world look like in 5 years, 50 years, 100 years? Shabbat Shalom!
Tzav 5776 Where’s Amalek?; [Leviticus, VaYikra, 6:1-8:36 ; Jeremiah 7:21-8:3, 9:22-23]
As we observe Purim, we need to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of this observance? Last Shabbat was called “Shabbat Zachor”, the Sabbath to Remember Haman, Amalek, and all such evil described in the Purim Megillah, the Book of Esther. In other words, we are to remember Amalek and to wipe out Amalek where ever found. To find out where Amalek is, we need to know what to look for, to know what Amalek is.
Amalek was originally a tribe that preyed upon the weak. They attacked the elderly, the ill, mothers with small children, and other stragglers at the tail end of groups of travelling nomads such as those following Moshe in the Wilderness.
Various historical persons such as Haman and Hitler have been alleged to be descendants of Amalek. Still, Amalek is not only specific people nor people of specific lineage, but also some unethical inclinations within people. These inclinations could include the willingness to view some group of folk as sub-human. This leads to disrespect and demeaning of certain groups of people. It leads also to the willingness to force these people to act in certain ways on pain of death. At times it leads to abuse and even murder of these folk just for being different.
Racism, religious discrimination, Lashon HaRah [hate speech or graffiti], targeting would be victims for abuse such as larceny or grand theft, genocide, drug wars, and so much more are all elements of Amalek. So how can we wipe out such elements of Amalek when they seem to be so ingrained in human behaviour? Efforts at education have been sporadic. It seems continuous efforts have never been attempted. Yet would such education stop the expression of Amalek?
What other expressions of Amalek can you think of? How would you control or wipe out Amalek? Are such approaches practical? Do you think that politics invites Amalek to reside in politicians? Will Amalek always be with us? Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Parah and Shemini 5776; Purification and Fire Safety
VaYikra [Leviticus] 9:1-11:47; 2 Shmuel [Samuel]
As we approach Pesach [Passover], we will have a few special Sabbaths. This week is Shabbat Parah recalling the purification of people through the use of ingested red heifer ashes. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the purification method using the ash of the golden calf statue structure. There were other purification techniques described in Torah most often including thorough washing of clothes and body.
According to Rambam [Maimonides]. Torah is a living document and must constantly be re-interpretted according to ever changing awareness of what the facts of the real world are. Hence he encouraged everyone to be as broadly educated as possible in order to know what facts there are [history, archaeology, sciences, math, etc.]. That way people would then be able to differentiate the facts from beliefs. He taught that without knowledge of the facts of the real world, correct interpretation of Torah can never be properly accomplished. It is commonly accepted that if it is found that an earlier decision is based on a false assumption, then the whole issue must be revisited. However, the leaders of various streams of Judaism tend to be slow to do so – the more “orthodox”, the slower.
So while water is still most acceptable for purification purposes, we now would frown upon golden calf ash drinking given the likelihood of heavy metal poisoning which probably was the ‘plague’ referred to at the end of the golden calf story. Similarly red heifer ash would encourage GI cancers. However the red heifer question is moot at the moment as no red heifers have been found for centuries if not more!
Nonetheless, there are a great many directives in Torah that seem to have a solid basis and have not needed to be revisited to date. This week we have two batches of interesting directives.
The first deals with the death of Nadav and Abihu, two of Aaron’s sons, due to careless handling of fire [Ch. 10:1-9]. The second deals with what foods are safe to eat and how to handle the preparation and storage tools for such foodstuffs [ch. 11].
Directives regarding the safe handling of fire include not to have loose, flowing hair near an open fire, not to go near open fire if covered/drenched with alcohol or [fragrant] oils, and so forth. Anyone who knows about fire safety can immediately see the wisdom of these directives. 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.
The food handling bans foods that were known to cause disease such as pork [trichinosis; 11:7], shellfish [cholera, etc.; 11:10-12], and insects other than crickets, locusts, and hoppers [difficulties distinguishing which are poisonness; 11:20-23]. It is further taught how to prevent spoilage and contamination of food such as washing dishes, avoiding prolonged storage after cooking, or not eating carrion or anything contaminated/touched by carrion [11:32-9]. Since some restrictions we do not understand [yet], there are those who say we should follow all the restrictions ‘just because’ despite our promise at Sinai to “do and then understand”. This is consistent with the arrogant, patronizing attitudes of some “leaders” [Priests, Rabbis, etc.] towards the illiterate, uneducated masses whom they deemed unable to adequately grasp the reasons behind the mitzvot/directives. Even today, unfortunately, we have such leaders.
Clearly revisiting or acceptance just because seems unnecessary when discussing fire safety. It is more complicated regarding food and food handling issues. Those complications may just mean that we need to learn more about what the directives mean, that we need to better understand them. It is arrogant for us to think that we fully understand them all, although fire safety comes close. It is a topic we know n greater depth than what is presented in Torah. Are we perfect? No. Short sightedness of officials may well leave us unprepared to fight urban firestorms or evacuate timely when water and foam supplies as well as transportation are no longer adequately available.
What are your views on fire and food safety? Given modern understandings of food related issues, what would you do regarding whether to keep kosher, kosher style, or whatever? Some say that Torah contains the answers to all questions, even modern living ones. How would you interpret Torah directives when dealing with artificial food additives; antibiotic, immunization, and hormone treatment of livestock; preservative, anti-oxidants, etc. for food storage; and chemical additives that may leach into food from food/drink containers?
There is much to ponder and decide in our modern technological lives. Please share with all of us any insights you might have this Shabbat and at any time. Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat HaChodesh, Tazria 5776; VaYikra [Leviticus] CH. 12-13; 2 Kings 4:42-5:19
As promised we have another specially named Sabbath leading into Pesach [Passover]. This one is focused on announcing the start of the month of Nissan, the month during which we observe Pesach. Hence the Haftorah for this week is not the usual one for Tazria. Instead it goes on at length about how to observe Pesach during Second Temple times.
The topics for the portion Parashat Tazria continue the discussion about purity for women’s issues and for skin disorders. They include time to wait for the impure to become pure again but only under certain circumstances as diagnosed by the Priests. One verse amidst the discussion on the purity of women notes that circumcision of a newborn male normally occurs at 8 days of age. Tenuous as it is, this connects Parashat Tazria to Pesach. Why? In Exodus [Shemot] we were instructed to not let the uncircumcised join I the Pesach observances. Yet we know that not all Jews are circumcised [such as for medical reasons]. Of course, women too are not circumcised. Also some non-Jews are circumcised.
So what does it mean that only the circumcised can be at the Seder? If it means circumcised of lips, then anyone who can tell the Passover story can be there. More likely it means circumcised of heart to be faithful to the Laws/ Mitzvot of Moshe [Moses].
However it is commonplace to have guests of all kinds at our Pesach Seders. Do we presume that all who are invited and come will be followers of at least the seven Noahide laws? What boundaries do we have now as to which people will be allowed to join in Seders? Are there any boundaries to observe if someone wants to be invited to a Seder?
Perhaps there are more important things to worry about while preparing for and observing Pesach such as cleaning out the chometz, remembering those significant ones who have passed over, telling the Exodus story at the Seders, and eating all those yummy Pesach foods! As always we will be “selling” our chometz that we can not clean away for the duration of Pesach. If you want for us to ‘sell’ yours as well, please let us know.
Our annual kosher Pesach Seder will be on Fri. Apr. 22, in Chino Valley like last year. Please RSVP asap so we can plan for the number of guests and for the menu. In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat HaGadol, Metzora 5776 Lepers Save the Day…; VaYikra [Leviticus] 14:1-15:33; 2 Kings 7
Purity continues to be the topic for our Torah reading this week in the portion, Parashat Metzora. The portion talks about skin afflictions [translated as leprosy but not meaning Hansen’s disease]. It also describes “leprosy” of structures [? mold, mildew, other infections?] Both these sections give directives to the Priests on how to handle these situations: how to diagnose them, how to treat them, and how to make pure that which has become impure by contact with them.
The last two sections deal with impure emissions [discharges] of men and women – and how to purify the people after such emissions. Clearly VaYikra, Leviticus, is a handbook for the Priests both from the aspect of observed hygiene and safety lessons and from the beliefs that any of these untoward events stemmed from some spiritual impurity or divine action [? punishment?]
Far more interesting is the related Haftorah portion from 2 Kings ch. 7. A walled city was being besieged by invaders. Apparently this had been going on for some time as food has become exorbitantly priced. It is even said that some had resorted to cannibalism recalling the report in Lamentations of the siege of Jerusalem as well as other historical reports of sieges. Yet nowhere is there a report of distress from lack of water. This is important when discussing walled cities.
Now in this particular story there were four lepers who wanted to enter the city to seek safety from the invading Aramaeans. However they were refused. So they decided that they could be no worse off if they defected to the invaders’ camp. At least there was a chance they would be fed. In the meantime at the camp of the invaders, a sound of rumbling in the ground was increasing as though a multitude of steeds were approaching. This sound caused fear among the invaders that other enemies of theirs were approaching to save the city. So the invaders fled in haste leaving tents, food, weapons, livestock, spoils, etc. By the time the lepers arrived, they found an abandoned camp site. They drank [spirits] and ate their fill as well as looted a bit. The loot they hid. Still they likely had been part of the community in the city and probably still had relatives and friends there. So they went back to tell those in the city that the invaders had fled. As the Holy Man of the city had predicted, after the spoils of the camp were brought to the city, the price of food plummeted.
Yet was this the ‘miracle’ predicted? It seemed to be. For people who knew nothing of the city planning and the architecture of the city, it could be seen no other way. What then of city planning? Sites for walled cities at that time were chosen to be near a sustainable water source [e.g. underground cisterns, etc.]. Tunnels and conduits connecting this water source to the city would then have been built. Both in Jerusalem and likely in this walled city, there were people who could safely traverse the underground system to enter and leave the city.
So was the Holy Man’s prediction based on faith in miracles or prior knowledge of a subterfuge being planned. Think what it would have sounded like if men in the tunnels and/or cisterns under or near the enemy camp were pounding on the underground surfaces in the cadence of running horses! Could there have been a spy in their midst hysterically suggesting that enemy troops were approaching? Was one of the ‘lepers’ actually pretending to be a leper so as to lead the lepers into the enemy camp to evaluate the effects of the ruse?
Can you think of other ‘miracles’ that had more mundane down-to-earth explanations? Can you think of other ruses that had similar ‘miraculous’ outcomes? A few WWII stories might come to mind… What does this say regarding how we face adversity: should we just resign ourselves to being abused and pray for a miracle OR should we try to oppose such abuse directly and/or through plans of subterfuge? Do any of these questions relate to the Exodus story which we will read shortly at our Seders?
There is much food for thought and discussion in this week’s Haftorah! Shabbat Shalom!
Choosing to be Free, Pesach 5776
Freedom from servitude, freedom to pray,
Freedom to choose whether to leave or to stay
With choices of paths we care to celebrate,
While choosing to save Earth before it’s too late.
For even if we few that choice do embrace,
How do we stop those who in greed toxins lace
In our food, in air, water, in minds of folk an’
Poisoning miracles ‘ere any word’s spoken?
As Partners with HaShem* to save this world that we love,
We tell ourselves at Seders to choose life and the dove;
But when tomorrow comes, will we feel what’s above
And still make our choices in compassion and Love?
[* the Holy One]
May you all have a Happy, Healthy, and Kosher Pesach if you celebrate as well as a thoughtful Earth Day...
We at Beit Torah [www.onetorah.org] will have our annual seder Friday eve. It will be an Earth Justice Seder for this unique occasion of Shabbat, Pesach, and Earth Day combined. Enjoy you all!
Dear Friends and Family;
For those of you who dislike being part of a crowd and not being treated in an individual and personal fashion, I profusely apologize for this mass holiday greeting and update. If you respond, I guarantee a more personalized and loving reply.
This season has been a most interesting one for sure. First though I want you all to know that we had a wonderful community Seder first night of Pesach with an Earth Justice theme in honor of Earth Day. However we defined it broadly and included discussions on modern slavery and torture. While we were not a large crowd [2 tables], we were all of us well engaged. The time flew. Although we got out the same time as last year [by 11:30 once we cleaned up], it felt that it was still early in the evening.
I felt as if we had a number of unexpected blessings given us this year. We were able to get our Pesach article into the Courier newspaper in a timely fashion. Our posting in the Chino Valley Review was messed up the first time, but there was still another week in which it was corrected.
Unexpectedly, a box of Shmura matzah [hand baked] was sent to us by Aleph, a group I have worked with regarding Jewish inmate needs! Of course the USPS does not guarantee non-breakage of matzah, but it was still a welcome tasty treat… Also Trader Joe’s worked with us on getting kosher meat and poultry of desired cuts. Very impressive was the help we got from Whole Foods who searched diligently for kosher for Pesach condiments for us. They did not even realize that they had found the horseradish until I went to check on what they did have. I picked up 4 jars! They also had the most scrumptious kosher for Pesach desserts from Lilly’s [7 layer, praline roll, hazelnut bon-bons, etc…]. Totally decadent it was, and quite the favorite table [dessert] for the people at the Seder. They did not even touch the hazelnut macaroons!
However for me, the biggest gift, the nicest blessing, was that the Chino Valley Town Council was courageous enough to resolve the concern of a Jewish school board member over the sectarian language in the all Protestant/Catholic type invocations given by the council members. It was bumpy with some pretty harsh statements made by them, but after much citizen input [I even wrote a comprehensive letter and spoke with three of them], they decided to forgo the invocation for a moment of silence. Apparently if they wish to bless themselves or pray for guidance, they will do so in the privacy of the executive chambers before moving into the public meeting area.
I know one of the newsmen was hoping it would go to court and end up in the Supreme Court. Personally I am glad it won’t. It is a precedent we can use to present to the organization of Arizona Councils at some point. For those of you who wish there would be a court case, fear not. In another region of the country there is a very similar case at the appellate level heading on up.
Mom is still insisting on staying in her home. Fortunately my sister can check in on her and help with run arounds a couple times a month now that Mom has given up driving and gave my brother-in-law the car. My older daughter has been travelling the world, in part for work, and enjoying. The grandchildren are growing like crazy. More or less the same for the other offspring it is.
Did have some sad news with the passing of a cousin who had been suffering from MS. Same season it is as the Jahrzeits of two others from that part of the family [last week and end of this week]. On the other hand, we are looking forward to a congregational wedding this July.
In Civil Air Patrol, too, we have had good news with a successful testing of a new method to practice ELT [Emergency Location Transponder] location. Also we are beta testing a cadet character development project where they will develop new lessons more pertinent to their interests and experiences [albeit interspersed with established lessons].
All this wonder packed into the time since Chanukah and despite my being on my back for over 2 weeks with a really nasty bug! Baruch HaShem! Blessed be… Blessings and Love- Rabbi Judi-Adele
Acharei Mot 5776 Accepting Responsibility; VaYikra ch.16-18:30; Amos 9:7-15
Thousands of years ago there was a religious practice in Babylonia called KUPURU. It was done during a time of atonement. The Priests sacrificed an animal in order to purify themselves as religious leaders of the people. Then they took a condemned prisoner, such as a murderer, and did a ceremony that laid upon this prisoner for sacrifice all the sins or the people. The prisoner was then put out in the open amidst the gathered crowd of believers to be torn apart, stoned, and eventually killed in order to rid the people of their sins.
This was the environment from which the Jews needed to free themselves. However a total ban would not have worked for people with the mindset that they could rid themselves of their sins by transferring the sins onto someone or something else that they could then get rid of. So the practice was changed into something less gruesome, as we read in the first chapter of this week’s portion of Parashat Acharei Mot [VaYikra (Leviticus) 16:4-22; 17:7]. Goats became both sacrifices for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Instead of killing the goat laden with sins, the Priest sent it into the Wilderness.
Even today there are remnants of such attitudes such as in kapara where chickens are given the sins and then sacrificed for Rosh HaShanah. Most recently we burdened a neighbor with buying our unintended sin of chometz in the house during Pesach. Yet how many of us sidestepped the issue by not fully cleaning our homes or knowingly leaving a bit of chometz stored here or there since it would be covered by the sale of chometz to our neighbor?
We are taught during Yom Kippur that sins against our fellow folk can not be wiped away by prayers to Hashem. Prayers to HaShem can only substitute for sacrifices repenting over sins between us and HaShem. Grievances and sins between us and others must be tended to by direct interactions by us to make amends for the damages caused. Prayer does not cut it and certainly can not make amends.
Still how many of us do accept responsibility for the damages we have caused? How many of us cause property or environmental damages and expect someone else to take on the responsibility to repair the damages we have caused such as in abusing others, or in air and water pollution, or in poisoning ecosystems and food chains because we do not want weeds or insects or rodents around?
We have no scapegoat, no creature, upon which we can lay all our sins and be rid of them through sending the scapegoat away. The damages could not be repaired even if we did.
So how can we accept responsibility for our sins? How can we repair the damages our sins have caused? Let us reflect on these damages to people and to the environment. Maybe we can discover some actions we can take that would be effective in repairing the damages we have caused… Shabbat Shalom!
Kedoshim 5776 To Bless and Be Blessed; Vayikra (Leviticus)19-20
As we go through our Torah readings we often come across reminders about our Brit with HaShem, our Covenant of ten terms that we read about in Exodus. So it is a rather unusual portion of Parashat Kedoshim that we read this Shabbat. Nine of the ten terms are reiterated in these two chapters with the tenth partially touched upon along with additional terms specific for living in the Promised Land [verses 19:5-10, 19-27; 20:4-5].
Verse 19:2 tells us we are blessed for being bound to the one and only Holy One. Verses 19:4,12,31,37; 20: 6-8, 27 all deal with the first three of the terms describing acceptance of HaShem, prohibition of idolatry, and avoidance of profaning the Holy. Keeping the Sabbath is enjoined in verses 19:3, 30. Honoring parents [and the elderly] is noted in verses 19:3, 32; 20:9.
Prohibitions against adultery and damaging the spirit or soul of others [#8 about not stealing the life force of another] are described in verses 19: 11, 14-18, 20, 29, 33; 20: 10-21. Prohibitions against false witness and coveting appear in verses 19: 11, 13,15-18,35-36.
As for the tenth yet to be mentioned: the prohibition against murder is only peripherally presented in the prohibition of participating in or allowing child sacrifice [20:2-5]. Additionally, there are multiple further references to avoiding practices of idolatrous peoples [20:23] such as eating blood [19:26], consulting soothsayers and the like [19:26; 20:27], shaving practices [19:27], self-mutilation [19:28], and mixing of species [19:19].
These admonitions and mitzvot are critical to the continued fulfillment of staying in the Promised Land as repeated in what seems to be the main lesson of this Parasha [19:2,19,23-25,37; 20:7-8,22-26]. To wit in verse 20:22 : “You shall faithfully observe all my Laws and Regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle in spew you out.”
Hence in order for us to be blessed by HaShem, we are first responsible for and obligated to bless Hashem as spelled out in Torah by observing the Laws and Regulations. Therefor we must ask, do we deserve the country of Israel? If so, why? If not, why not?
Have we been faithful to the Laws and Regulations? Each of us will have a different answer to these questions this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
EMOR 5776 Capital Punishment; VaYikra (Leviticus) Ch. 21-24; Ezekiel 44:15-31
One would think that after the compressed treatment of the Brit, Covenant terms except for not murdering, that it would be an obvious segue to the next portion treating the topic of murder more intensely. Instead in this week’s portion of Parashat Emor we diverge off to more detailed explanations of what Keeping the Sabbath means and who can appropriately lead the sacrifices and services and how [ch. 21-23].
So ch. 21 describes how the Priests prepare themselves and maintain their purity so they can perform the Holy rites of sacrifice, prayer, etc. Ch. 22 provides a continued description of maintaining purity but this time in both the supplicants and the sacrifices. This leads into Ch. 23 which discusses more fully that keeping the Sabbath does not only refer to the seventh day of each week, but also to the Holy Days of the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot as well as Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
Only when we get to ch. 24 do we get to the expected discussion of murder and capital offenses. Perhaps this arrangement is to indicate that most of the previously mentioned offenses in Kedoshim could be atoned for through proper sacrifices as described in Ch. 21-23. Clearly this is no longer the modern view. Prayers and mitzvot have taken the place of ancient sacrifices. Although this raises the questions of how to attain an adequate state of purity with which to atone and what comprises adequate methods of atonement.
Yet Ch. 24 turns the focus to sins worthy of capital punishment: blasphemy [undefined] and murder. It is made clear that killing an animal or injuring a person are specified as not capital crimes, but that restitution of equivalent measure needs to be made. Last week we read of several sexual behaviours that were punishable by death. However, rape was not one of them.
In modern times, Western countries do not punish for blasphemy although there are some other countries which punish for ‘blasphemy’ against the government or as defined by the government. Similarly, while the sexual behaviours noted may still be considered punishable, they are not so by death.
So given the vagaries of changing cultural mores and unclear definitions, modern times focus on first degree murder and rape as potential capital offenses. Espionage and traitorous acts have been added into the mix based on the whims or dictates of any present government.
Nonetheless a clear distinction is always made between killing [unintentional or accidental] and murder [planned or intended] with the latter sometimes being a capital offense. Do we still believe that capital punishment is appropriate to use? If so, for which crimes? Are there capital offenses in Israel and a death penalty? How does that compare with the U.S., the U. K., and the Nordic countries?
For what crimes, if any, do you believe capital punishment is appropriate? Why? Remember ‘thou shall not murder” and for those thought worthy of capital punishment, the accusers were supposed to throw the first stones and then hold the person down so others could throw stones. Would you be able to throw the first stone?
Topic for this Shabbat: Natural Consequences or Punishments?
This coming Shabbat we finish the Book of Leviticus with the portion of
BeChukotai 5776 VaYikra [Leviticus] 26:3-27; Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Now that we have arrived at the last portion of Leviticus, Parashat B’Chukotai [with my rules/laws], we are receiving reminders of the core points of the book for life during second Temple times. The very last chapter essentially teaches how to keep the Priesthood in business with the dedication of the firstborn, tithe values, and pure sacrifices [ch. 27].
The previous chapter however lists all the good and the bad consequences that would result from our observing or not observing the mitzvot respectively. Plagues and infertile lands, iron skies and copper earth*, wild beasts and invaders, malnourishment and cannibalism [26:29], diaspora [26:38] and discord are all promised should we, as a community, not observe the mitzvot. [*Iron skies mean no rain; copper earth means infertile land unable to grow anything.]
So although we all have free will, it is not enough for each of us to do right, but rather it is the community choice to observe or violate the mitzvot be it by democracy, theocracy, or dictatorship. Hence we all have the obligation to assure that the community chooses wisely.
In this context, all the bad consequences are natural consequences for the abuses that the communities choose to do: abuse of the environment, abuse of each other, warping of religious precepts, etc. Gee, that sounds like the list of sins we try to atone for every Yom Kippur, every day for Atonement.
Nonetheless all this is presented as if by the Holy One promising punishment for arrogance and pride in order to discipline [26:23] us and bring us back to mitzvot. Was this an attempt by the Priesthood to try to control the behaviours of the populace? Were these the teachings to encourage people to live in harmony with each other and with their environment? Were the good and bad consequences listed just natural consequences or were they rewards and punishments?
Clearly this is something to contemplate deeply often and especially this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
May we all, at Beit Torah and elsewhere, be strong going into the future and thereby strengthen each other! Chazak, Chazak, v'Nitchazek!
BaMidbar 5776 Ch. 1-4:20; Hoshea 2:1-22; Erev Shavuot
Devorah, A Leader for All of her Time
Shavuot is a special Festival during which women and children as well as men have a processional parade to bring the first fruits to Jerusalem both in Temple times as well as today. Also there is a custom by some for women and children to celebrate by decorating their homes with greenery. Perhaps most focused on is our reaffirmation of our commitment at Mt. Sinai to “Na-aseh v’nishmah” – to do the mitzvot [good deeds] and then to work on understanding them. According to the Rambam, Maimonides, one of our greatest Sages, if one wants to be able to properly interpret Torah, one must first learn all the facts available during your modern times and not rely solely on commentaries of people of previous generations who did not have the same facts that are now available to us. Hence we should all study the sciences, medicine, agriculture, math, histories and their contexts, archaeology, etc. Indeed this view of studying Torah is the source of some political unrest in Israel where some ‘Orthodox’ yeshivot [schools] are fighting against inclusion of sciences, meth, etc. for teaching. Given all this it is good that Shavuot tradition provides for a full night of studying.
Our Torah recounts that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs worked as husbands and wives equals with each other. We have Torah stories which proclaim certain women as more righteous than men such as Tamar standing up to Judah to claim her right to bear a child of his lineage. Yet as time went on past Torah times, the Children of Israel became ever more tainted with the practices of the goyim, the neighboring tribes and nations. Hence the status of women devolved. Shavuot is a Festival intended to remind us that the acts of women are a major part of the development of our people. Hence the Book of Ruth is read during Shavuot.
Nonetheless, defamatory stories were invented by some of the historic Rabbis about women in Torah and Tanach. For instance, as we read in this Shavuot seder booklet, two highly regarded Prophetesses were derided for having animal names: Devorah and Huldah, a bee and a type of cat – as if animals are somehow not worthy of respect. Yet bees are pollinators and givers of life. So Devorah should be a well respected name for a woman!
More importantly, the biblical Devorah is described as a prophetess, a wise judge, an excellent military strategist, and the leader of all her people – not just women. [Shoftim, Judges Ch. 4: 4-9]
When her military Commander, Barak refused to go to battle without her, she predicted that the glory of victory would go to a woman and not to him. This prediction later came to pass when the enemy leader, Sisera, fled the battle and tried to take refuge with the wife of one he believed to be an ally. She, Yael, apparently did not agree as she hammered a tent peg through his brain. [4:17-21]
Still Devorah was not arrogant nor prideful about her success. She worked cooperatively with the military commander, Barak. When victory was achieved she shared the honor with Barak as seen in their shared song related in Ch. 5….
Yet some still have been derisive of her name and demeaned her for holding court under a tree…
May we all, male and female, enjoy the festivities of Shabbat and Shavuot! Shabbat Shalom! Chag Shavuot Sameach!
Naso 5776 Numbers [BaMidbar] 4:21-7:89; Judges [Shoftim] 8:2-25
From Shavuot Joy to Tisha B’Av Sorrow
Tisha B’Av sorrow has come early this year
With losses piling up as we readied to cheer
The Festival of Shavuot with reaffirmed faith and good food.
Yet losses of a parent and a dear friend dampened the mood.
On top of all that was an explosion of hate.
Fifty plus dead, scores more were injured in the wake
Of the worst mass shooting in the U.S. of late.
(Not counting the military slaughters during western expansion:
Over two hundred children and teachers died to army anger sate…)
So still we are left now in shock, in horror, and in grief
With no clear understanding of how to gain some relief…
Early Tisha B’Av sorrow challenges our beliefs…
The birth of Samson, Nazarites, tribal sacrifices, and jealous husbands just do not cut it when our week is filled with sorrows upon sorrows in the here and now.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet – Blessed be the Truth in Judgements of the Holy Judge…
BHaalotecha 5776 Gluttony and Lashon HaRah, the Evil Tongue
BaMidbar [Numbers] 8:1-12:16; Zechariah 2:14-4:7
So the Children of Israel are wandering through the Wilderness. According to the latter part of this week’s portion of Parashat B’Ha-alotecha, they are sick and tired of eating manna crackers. Manna, manna, manna, and ever more manna! Maybe they are hungry or think they are. Certainly they were longing for savory food. So many of them complained bitterly about not having meat.
Along comes a huge flock of quail perhaps fleeing volcanic activity and getting overcome by exhaustion while breathing ash and toxic fumes. Perhaps, too, there was no food along the way in the wake of locusts so they headed to where other critters and water were, where the Israelites were camped. In any case they fell in great numbers, enough to feed the Israelites for a month!
Now the Israelites had been told not to eat blood and to cook their food thoroughly – the healthiest way to eat tainted meat. Unfortunately some felt they could not wait and ate raw or undercooked quail. Apparently they paid with their lives for that brief joy. Were they starving and unable to digest so sudden a heavy intake of meat? Was the meat infected with microbes or tainted with volcanic toxins? Was it gluttony or intense hunger? Is it gluttony to want more than what you have even though you have enough with which to get by?
How many of us expand that feeling of want even to things we do not need? When does satisfying that want change from doing what is needed for survival into gluttony? Do we tend to blame others for us not having what we want? If so, does speaking of how we blame others become lashon haRah, the Evil Tongue?
Even when people in powerful positions engaged in lashon haRah, a week outside the camp with a skin affliction was the punishment as we read at the end of the Parasha. Miriam spoke with Aaron critically of the way Moshe was handling things, especially his family life. For this she spent a week exiled to outside the camp.
It is clear that lashon haRah can pop up over many possible reasons. Yet when we are upset or disappointed, how can we keep ourselves from engaging in lashon haRah? How can we assure we speak respectfully of others at all times?
These questions are ones we can ponder without end. Perhaps this Shabbat we can discover an approach or two to try. Shabbat Shalom!
Rebellion and particularly political rebellions are topics we tend to avoid discussing in congregations as tempers sometimes run high about deeply felt political views. So for Shlach Lecha many tend to focus on the one sentence that says one should wear fringes on their garment and for Korach they focus on the dedication of the first fruits to the Priesthood. Yet the lessons on rebellion are the primary ones for both these Parashot. So we here at Beit Torah do not shy away from discussing their importance as you can see in the following:
Korach 5776 Rebellions, BaMidbar [Numbers] 16:1-18:32; I Shmuel [Samuel] 11:14-12:22
In this present atmosphere of frustration and impatience, the idea of rebelling against the status quo becomes popular. People are tired of having a government that I not functional. People are frustrates to be unable to feed their families properly, pay all their bills without choosing which is more important, and keep a safe roof over their heads as well as get a decent education for their children. Yet for many it seems unclear who or what to blame.
Once they have someone or something to blame [whether deservedly or not], then their thoughts return to rebellion. It could be verbal rebellion through petitions or protests. At times it could turn violent verbally and/or physically. When it turns so ugly, one would hope that it would be a wake-up call for self-reflection and calming down. Yet there are those who justify their ugliness when they are so totally self-convinced that only they are righteous and on the proper path.
As we see among peoples today, so too it was in biblical times. In this week’s portion of Parashat Korach, Korach and his followers were unhappy with the insufficient food supply but more so with the leadership of Moshe and his family with their perceived benefits of power. So they supported rebelling. The benefits of leadership they perceived, they jealously wanted for themselves. So they were totally convinced that they would do better under the leadership of Korach. Clearly a large element of politics and power struggle was involved.
Moshe warned the people to distance themselves from Korach. Some did. Those who did not were swallowed up by the ground [volcanic rumblings, earthquake?] or by fire. Moshe understood the ways of the Wilderness. Korach did not. So was this disaster a punishment by HaShem supporting the leadership of Moshe? Or was it the natural consequence of the rebellious Korach’s choice to encamp near a hot vent or pray too close to an active volcano?
Similarly, was the subsequent plague a punishment from HaShem? Or was it the result of the toxic materials kicked up by the earthquake/ volcanic activity that swallowed up Korach?
Could Moshe have warned Korach about the risks of his campsite? Did he? If so, would Korach have believed Moshe or thought it was a political ploy? In any case, Moshe’s leadership was preserved through the outcome of these violent events.
In modern times politics have become much more complex what with mail, email, social media, broadcast media, and lots of money and Lashon HaRah, the Evil Tongue. Lashon HaRah often comes in the form of propaganda [if you repeat it often enough and loud enough, people will come to believe your lies]. Yet beneath it all, is it that much different than between Korach and Moshe? How much better we can understand the reluctance of Samuel to name a King with the attendant royal intrigues as we read in our Haftorah portion this week!
Hence, how can we re-focus politicians on the tasks needed for the welfare of all people and away from power, money, influence, self-promotion, selfishness, ego, etc.? Is that even a realistic goal?
Ah – the quagmire of politics we can discuss! Shabbat Shalom!
Chukat 5776 Timely and Untimely Death;
Balak 5776 Politics: National and International;
BaMidbar [Numbers] 22:2-25:9; Micha 5:6-6:8
Over the centuries people really have not changed very much. International treaties are only as good as the intents of the parties. Sometimes parties tried to conquer others through subterfuge and tricks. Even within nations, disagreements between factions, tribes if you will, can lead to hatreds and abuses, incitements and violence. Sound familiar?
So now we come to one of the best written parables in Torah, the parable of the talking donkey, in this week’s portion of Parashat Balak. Yet is the donkey the focus of our story? Not per se.
Let’s back up and take in the whole picture. We have two nations: the first camped peacefully and wanting to pass through the land to continue the journey to available land; the second so fearful of the first that there is the attempted use of magic and tricks to defeat and destroy the first. To do that, the second [Balak] wanted to entice and then force a third party, the Prophet Balaam, to curse the Children of Yaacov.
Balaam tried mightily to avoid getting involved. Both conscience and integrity forbade him to comply. They try to pull him away from getting involved. Nonetheless, how can one refuse a powerful king? So all the way en route to meet the King, a huge battle within Balaam is waged. He argues with the King’s attendants, he rages at himself, he tries to justify himself to HaSHem, and maybe, just maybe, expresses the battle waged through the reluctance of the donkey to go forward, the reluctance of his conscience to allow him to go forward and become ensnared in the hateful politics of the moment, the desire to let the angel of HaSHem guide him.
Even though Balaam did not curse the children of Yaacov, he was remembered in infamy for trying as noted in this week’s Haftorah of Micah. He was also no longer in the good graces of King Balak!
How do you think Balaam fared after disappointing the nefarious plans of Balak? Was his integrity still intact after this episode? Would Hashem still allow him to continue to be a true prophet? Do you ever feel that there is a raging war within you between the temptation to do evil and the desire to stay on the path of integrity? Sounds like politics all around us as well as politics within us!!! Shabbat Shalom!
Topic for this Shabbat: Bigotry: Sexist and Religious
Pinchas 5776 Bigotry: Sexist and Religious;
Bamidbar [Numbers] 25:10-30:1; 1 Kings 18:46-19:21
We all know the theoretical. Today’s Western sensibilities teach [in theory] that women are equal to men. Maybe anatomically and physiologically women might be considered different, however a shorter arm can be compensated for by a tool which extends the reach and capabilities of the short arm. We are told that we have religious freedom, but apparently many do not understand that freedom includes the caveat that all are to be free from government sponsored religious coercion and proselytizing. It is religious freedom for all, not just a favored segment.
So it is not surprising that even today in the Western world there are pockets of people in which women are treated as property, told whom to marry, not allowed to participate in certain activities, discouraged from education, etc. In some places, despite government laws, underage girls are forced to marry without any choice in spouse. Some claim all this is based on religious teachings. However as widespread as it is, it may just be men being obsessed with control and power over others.
Similarly there are pockets where the people behave so as to force others to conform to the dominant [usually religious] behaviour patterns or leave the area. Tactics often include denial of government services, verbal abuse and threats of physical violence. At times actual violence occurs.
Nonetheless it is universally voiced [but not always practiced] that physical violence is unacceptable. So how then can we understand the lessons of this week’s portion of Parashat Pinchas? On the face of it, women were given equal inheritance rights should they have no brothers [CH. 27:1-11]. Yet soon, in a later parasha, we will read how these rights were curtailed thus effectively forcing women to effectively turn over all benefits to other male relatives. Is this behaviour we can condone?
Even more troubling are the murders of Cozbi bat Zur and Zimri bar Shimon by Pinchas who was then rewarded with leadership of the Priesthood. Torah describes the couple when murdered as a tribal leader of Shimon with his mistress in his sleeping chamber. The famed and well respected historian, Josephus, reports that they were married [albeit not recognized as valid by Pinchas], both with high status: he, a tribal leader and she, the outspoken daughter of a Midianite chieftain. [see also Ch. 25:14-15] Do we really believe that they were lying down fornicating in the tabernacle as some would have us believe? Josephus reports they were in their tent chamber when Pinchas thrust his spear down through the both of them. [Ch. 25:6-8] Would we today want such a leader, impulsive in rage like Pinchas?
We note that in Torah if something bad happened, there was always someone to whom blame was attributed whether justly or not. Was Pinchas enraged by the joy of Cozbi and Zimri in each other [newlyweds?] when they passed by the mourners gathered by the Meeting Tent in the wake of a plague? [ch. 25:6-7] Did a Midianite woman try to comfort the mourners and share her wisdom with them, not realizing that women were not given a voice among the Israelites? Is there a parallel here with law enforcement murdering community members when their bigoted views of community members take hold? –or- is it a failure of education for these leaders?
Have we not matured beyond those biased attitudes? –or- Are we still supporting the idea that physical violence against others who are different or deemed less worthy can be justified? Shabbat Shalom!
Mattot-Masei 5776 The Pendulum;
BaMidbar [Numbers] 30:2-36:13; Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4 a Haftorah of Admonition
While we finish up this week with the reading of the last two portions of BaMidbar, Parashot Mattot-Masei, we realize that despite gracious statements of equality for women, in the end greed for maintaining land ownership within each of the tribes won out. Of course it was under the control of the male leadership. As earlier noted, caveats are put in to effectively insure that inheritance and property of women would be only under their control while they were single. Once married, inheritance and property reverted to under the control of husbands. Once an unmarried woman dies, her inheritance and property reverted to the control of male relatives.
Such a pendulum of fortune for disadvantaged groups is seen even today. Once upon a time there was Roe v Wade, heralded as promising all women control over their bodies and their medical decisions. Yet since then there have been a great many attempts to erode away those gains by women through legislation. Such legislation has been both direct and indirect attacks trying to negate Roe v Wade directly and trying to obstruct access to this right of women. So today there are areas of the country where some women can not choose the medical care they want, often due to blockades set before them by nearly 100% male legislators.
We have seen the pendulum at work in healthcare as well as with much of the unsettledness coming from court decision on the many objections brought before the courts. However this issue is too new to really know at this point how far the pendulum will swing. Several healthcare providers have already decided to withdraw from the Obamacare system this coming year… Will this force the pendulum more towards single payer ideas?
Similarly with the rights of same sex couples and even, quite unbelievably, over transgender facilities. The horrors of modern legislatures trying to allow bigotry and discrimination by the passing of laws is, for some, quite incredulous!
Let us not forget, too, about disability discrimination despite the ADA. Deaf and mentally ill people get killed for not obeying verbal commands of police even though they posed no threat and could not know what they were being told. The tragedy is that police forces rarely take responsibility for these murders. A very slow pendulum at work in these cases it seems.
Then there is the racial discrimination… What issues are you familiar with where a pendulum seems to swing constantly between respect of all people including the disadvantaged [at least in theory] and blatant, vile discrimination against those disadvantaged folk? Shabbat Shalom!
VaEtchanan 5776 Seeking Comfort; Dvarim 3:23-7:11; Isaiah 40:1-26
What is the core of Judaism, that focus which can keep us in balance? In Dvarim [Deuteronomy], Moshe wastes no time in laying down the foundation clearly and concisely. In this week’s portion of Parashat VaEtchanan, Shabbat Nachamu [Shabbat of Comfort], we read again the ten terms to our covenant, our brit, with Hashem [Dvarim 5:6-18]. The wording is a bit different than in the version we read in Exodus. In Exodus, the acts are proscribed. It seems in Dvarim that intentions are also taken into account for reward or punishment. However it might just be that the meanings of the words and the use of the language just changed over the several hundred years between the writings down of the two books.
Yet whether the first version included intentions [kavanot] or not is less important than what our present understanding is of our covenantal terms. In order to go forward beyond the calamities and sins of our past, we need to have a wholesome goal to go towards. So not only does Moshe reiterate the terms of our brit, our contract with HaShem, but also gives us a watchword [the Shema] with a brief explanation to focus on [three times a day at least]: the Shema and the VeAhavta [6:4-9].
It is fortunate that this is the portion for the Shabbat of Nachamu, Comfort. With this focus we can better embrace the message of Isaiah in our Haftorah of the week [Isaiah 40:1-26]: Comfort, comfort (to you my people)…
So why are we seeking comfort? We seek comfort and assurance to give us strength to believe that, despite our misbehaviours, we can successfully prepare ourselves to achieve atonement during the High holy Days. This is why we now have seven weeks of Haftorot of Comfort to help us properly reflect and plan on how to repent and what to resolve on improving our future maintenance of the mitzvot [good deeds].
What do you need to focus on in order to prepare yourselves for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? This we will discuss this Shabbat and during the weeks to come leading to Selichot. Shabbat Shalom!
Ekev 5776 Promised Consequences; Dvarim 7:12-11:26; Isaiah 49:14-51:3
When Dvarim [Deuteronomy] was put together, it appears that Moshe Rabeinu had a clear idea of his audience. They were/ are an arrogant people prone to trying to cut corners, seek power, and impose their different ideas upon the governing structure.
Hence we find repeated in different forms, over and over again, the teaching that if we choose to follow the mitzvot, it will go well with us, BUT if we neglect the mitzvot [particularly regarding the avoidance of idolatry and the need for respect for all of creation], then dire consequences are promised to us.
So, too, we see this even in the beginning of this week’s portion of Parashat Ekev. It could not be said in any plainer terms. This is a theme we will see repeated through Dvarim as well as elsewhere.
In fact, this theme seems to imply that if we choose our paths unwisely, we should not expect HaShem to miraculously save us from the consequences. We are not so special for that to happen. The land is not ours to tend unless we behave and choose well. If we poison our natural resources [land, sea, air, people, etc.], there will be no miraculous clean-up. Just like for an overflowing garbage can, we are responsible for cleaning up our own trash. Whales have starved from eating plastic trash mistaken for jellyfish. The land and ocean are more radioactive after the tsunami washed the Fukushima radioactive trash pits over the land and into the sea.
We can not just store our trash somewhere out of sight and pretend it is gone. Somehow we need to reduce the trash levels and prevent greater accumulations.
Likewise, we should not trash other people and pretend they do not matter. People who feel disenfranchised, alone, and unloved are much more likely to become criminals, terrorists, dysfunctional, etc. Promised consequences.
Every choice we make needs to be thought through carefully. Did you know that half our edible food in the USA is trashed? What choices do you make that might lead to adverse consequences for you and others? What can you do to make more responsible choices to protect all of creation? This is what we need to reflect on in order to prepare for the High Holy Days… Shabbat Shalom!
Reeh 5776 Preparing for Rosh HaShanah (at Beit Torah and elsewhere), Rosh Chodesh Elul
Ki Tetze 5776 Ethical Life; Dvarim 21:10-25:19; Isaiah 54:1-10
We read this week that Moshe continues his recap of all that the Children of Israel should know when they take up residence in the Promised Land. Up to now, we have had lots of general statements on how to behave; more specifics on how our Judges, leaders, and officials should behave; and what the consequences of good and bad choices might be.
This week in Parashat Ki Tetze, we get into greater detail. Seventy-four specific mitzvot are described which relate to a large spectrum of our daily living activities – or at least those activities of biblical times. From roof safety [22:8] to skin afflictions [24:8] to not abusing the needy or the stranger [24:14,15,17,19-21] to rapid burial [21:22] to returning lost items [22:1-4] to maintaining breeding couples of animals to prevent extinction [22:6-7], many of the mitzvot described still have pertinent lessons to today’s world even if not exactly as described for biblical times.
Others are clearly to be questioned. Examples include the many actions then deemed worthy of the death penalty [22:21-25 rape and sexual improprieties; 21:18-21 rebellious child; 24:7 kidnapping], the property status of women in sex related ‘mitzvot’ [24:1-5, 25:11-12, 21:10-17,22:13-22, 24:1-4…], levirate marriage [25:5-10], prohibitions against no longer existing nations [23:3-8], concepts of rape and adultery, and so forth.
Also some mitzvot are not clearly time/ generation specific such as tassels [fringes] on the four corners of one’s [outer] garment and the avoidance of mixing species such as cloth with wool and linen together. Yet others assuredly need more context for us to understand them. For instance, what seems to be a prohibition against transvestitism [22:5] is actually a condemnation of cultic [e.g. Syrian heathenism] practices where cross-dressing was common and cross-dressers at times infiltrated single sex rituals in order to sexually take advantage of [possibly drug impaired] others.
Perhaps most important for us to ask is if we need to get rid of Amalek [25:17-19], who or what is Amalek? So while perhaps we all need detailed instructions on how to lead ethical lives, it appears that this parasha can only start us on the path to an ethical life and on lots of reflection over what that might entail. Indeed it is a worthy endeavor especially at this time as we approach the High Holy Days.
What parts of this Parasha have caused you to reflect on the path of your life and how you might improve it? Do you want to improve it to pursue a more ethical direction? Shabbat Shalom!
Ki Tavo 5776 Twelve Pillars of Law; Dvarim 26:1-29:8; Isaiah 60:1-22
When we talk about Twelve Pillars of Law, the modern mind might well think that what follows are twelve most important principles in Law. However the biblical Hebrew in this week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tavo [when you enter (the Promised Land)] very clearly is referring to actual stone pillars, huge stone pillars to be set overseeing the valley at the entrance to the Promised Land. There they held a solemn ceremony revisiting and reaffirming the contents of the Brit, Covenant, with HaSHem, especially for all the people who were not at the Holy Mountain to receive the words of HaShem. Indeed they were too young or not yet born forty years prior. No remnant of these pillars has ever been found, but it is not outlandish to think it was possible.
In drier climes, such as Egypt and Babylon, it was a practice to plaster a smooth face on a pillar and then record laws, contracts, etc. on the pillar. Indeed part of such a biblical contemporary Babylonian pillar has been found by archaeologists.
Yet how many people of the times could actually read such a pillar let alone get close enough to see the writing? So it fell to the Priests below, gathered round the altar, to summarize for all the people what the mitzvot are the consequences for doing or not observing them. The curses that would befall the people should they fail to follow the laws and the blessings that would be the consequences of following the mitzvot were recited to all.
What a spectacle that must have been! Truly it was a pep rally unprecedented! The Pronouncements of the Priests were then apparently also recorded as an addendum to but not a replacement to the Brit made at the Holy Mountain, Mt. Horeb [28:69]. Was this a clear statement that nothing must ever supplant the Brit? Only interpretations and clarifications then could be permitted to be added.
So if we can add only expansions and clarifications, then how can we modernize our mitzvot? Who is qualified to interpret Torah for our modern times? Does this mean we can not drop any mitzvot to do from Torah? What would Maimonides have said about these questions? What makes Judaism alive for you? Shabbat Shalom!
Nitzavim 5776 Forgiveness and Choosing Life;
Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 29:9-30:20; Isaiah 61:10-63:9
We are now on the brink of a New Year, Rosh HaShanah 5777. The calendars have been printed up and are available to all who are interested. We should have just completed our Selichot Forgiveness Prayers. Yet they were prayers to HaShem for sins and violations for which we need to ask HaShem for forgiveness. Still it is also the season we need to ask for forgiveness from all others for any misdeeds they have perceived in us [and even of ourselves for misdeeds we have seen in ourselves].
Yet how can we achieve such forgiveness? Tradition would have us ask others directly for forgiveness while giving them unconditional forgiveness from ourselves. If refused, we are told to ask three times per season. If no response comes or if a refusal is the reply, then the proverbial ball is in the other person’s court.
This week’s portion of Parashat Nitzavim does not help answer the question except in the most general sense. Containing only about a chapter in length, it is basically a summary of what we has appeared before in Dvarim. It encourages and cajoles us to follow the mitzvot. It summarizes the consequences of following or not following the Law. Perhaps most importantly, it reassures us that we are a welcome part of the Community, welcome by HaShem, if we truly repent.
So to a certain extent, we need to be creative with how to approach people: in person, online, by phone, by snail mail, etc. We have to think long and hard on what we will say to each one. How do you plan to forgive and be forgiven? How do you plan to make amends with others?
For myself: 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 we all be blessed to start the New Year with a clean slate! Shabbat Shalom!
For Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return. Yet return alone is not enough if it is without amends to others as needed.
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 possessions, or my reputations. Let noone 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.
Then we will be able to enter this Blessed New Year and go forward with hope, even as the Children of Israel went forward into the Promised Land as we read this week they will in Parashat VaYelech, Dvarim Ch. 31. Our hope is that we will be forgiven for all our misdeeds and look forward to the best possible health, happiness, and enlightenment. As we embrace each other with these fervent prayers, let us all say: Amen
Shanah Tova ooMetukah! A Sweet New Year to All!