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!
Yes, Yom Kippur is past, but tradition says that the last of our sins may be shed by the beating of the willows on Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Sukkot… SO:
Are We Forgiven? 5777
Are we forgiven after one day of prayer and fasting
When on most other days fasts and praying thoughts are not lasting?
Does throwing breadcrumbs upon flowing waters
Absolve us from sins between us and others?
Even the extension to Hoshanah Rabah, the High Praise,
(When beaten willow leaves as sins do fall) won’t lengthen our days…
To be forgiven we need to be forgiven by HaShem, ourselves, and others
After we forgive and make amends with ourselves, HaShem, and all the others!
Bereishit 5777 Beginning the Cycle Again!?!
Bereishit 1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5-43:10
During the lifetime of a planet, it is likely to go through many cycles of development. Maybe, at times, a cycle of life begins. However it is not predictable how long that life cycle might continue. If, like on our own planet, there are multiple cycles of life, many beginnings and endings, a technological civilization might arise. Possibly that civilization might be charged by a deity to protect and maintain the environment, that ecosphere without which all known life would cease.
If so, this would be a good match for what we read in Bereishit [Genesis], as once more we start a new cycle of Torah reading. First the birth of matter some of which coalesced into a light giving source. Then the birth of solid objects such as planets and stars. From these macro cycles the focus then changes to ‘micro’ cycles relating to a single planet: the establishment of an orbit around a star, the formation of oceans, the beginnings of plants, the beginnings of animals, and then people. Archaeology and paleontology teach us that there were many cycles of organisms, five great extinctions, before we reached technological status where we would ask questions and endeavor to find the answers. We are now faced with a sixth great extinction event caused by ourselves… Will we do something about preventing such a catastrophe or will we wait for someone else to do so?
Further even within our societies we have cycles. From the most basic life cycle events to that of a community to that of a government, we see how impermanent all life and all life constructs are. Once more we embark upon yet another cycle, an election cycle. Will we embrace the concepts of an open democracy or that of an autocracy, plutocracy, or oligarchy? Will we even bother to vote? Do we wait until choices are presented to us or do we work to try to get desirable choices presented to us? Will you evaluate your options and choices, and then vote? Much to consider before 11/8 - Shabbat Shalom!
Noach 5777 Staying Afloat, Bereishit 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5
Last week no sooner than digs were provided to us and permission to roam freely in the Garden of Eden given us, we got ourselves in trouble eating forbidden fruit. HaShem took the tough love approach and put us out of the childhood home to fend for ourselves. Then we got into more trouble while inventing murder. Yet we were creative in both directions including inventing many life advancements as well as discovering all manner of evil to do.
Hashem was quite wroth with us. Sounding like an overwhelmed new parent yelling: “I’ll kill you if you don’t behave!”, HaShem vowed to wipe out all life on the earth. Yet for some reason, Noach found favor with HaSHem – either that or HaShem was reluctant to do away with the better parts of his creations. So this week we read about the life of Noach in the portion of Parashat Noach. Hashem charged Noach with saving the most creatures possible during the great mass extinction from the Flood, the flooding of all the known world. It is clear that flesh eating became common for after leaving Eden, Cain hunted and sacrificed animals and Noach stocked provisions for the flesh eaters in the Ark. This stands in contrast to the reportedly vegetarian approach in the Garden of Eden. Thus, Noach had the means to stay afloat to save at least a part of creation.
Are we in our own times duplicating the wide varieties of evils that led to the mass extinction from the Flood? Will we be able to stay afloat through the man-made horrors yet to come? Or will we find a way to build an Ark? Yet how much of our world can an Ark preserve? Can we succeed in staying afloat for the long term? What kind of Ark can each of us build to help the world stay afloat? Shabbat Shalom!
Lech Lecha 5777 Family First, Bereishit 12:1-13:18; Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Many years ago I was faced with a dilemma. The ex- wanted to alternate Yom Kippur times with the children with every other year Kol Nidre/morning services and in between years with Neilah and Break Fast. This would have required travel on Yom Kippur. So I broached the topic with my then Rabbi. He gave me, in two words, a lesson that has served me well ever since: Family First.
Indeed it is a lesson many people take to heart under a variety of circumstances. Some view family to be only those closest to them while considering their circumstances only in the here, now, and near future. Others include great grandchildren and even generations beyond. Still others embrace all creatures in our limited ecosphere. These different views of family clearly would influence voting behaviours. How do you think each would vote in the elections this week?
Yet Family First seems to have been a core value as far back as we can research, not always for the better. So too, we see it in this week’s portion of Parashat Lech Lecha. After Avram’s brother was killed, probably when the Elamites invaded Ur, his father Terach put the family first and uprooted everyone. Part of the family went north to settle and part went west to Charan [likely Hauran]. This was a prudent move to ensure survival of at least part of the family. What happened then in Hauran to make Avram move south away from his father’s household? Yet move he did with Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew. Along the way he protected family such as in Egypt when he said Sarai was his sister or such as when he went to free his nephew from being kidnapped into bondage. Family first. Family was so important that he had children with concubines, but more importantly, a son Ishmael by a surrogate. Ishmael was adopted by Sarai as her own when she thought she would bear no children.
Who do you call your family? How far would you go to protect them? Do you hold family first? Does your concept of family affect how you vote? May we cherish family this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
VaYera 5777 Unexpected Blessings; Bereishit 18:1-22:24; II Kings 4:1-37
Even when we protect our families to the best of our abilities, circumstances are not always ideal. So, too, with Avraham. He has accumulated wealth and respect. He has fathered many children with concubines and a surrogate, but he has no children with his beloved wife Sarah. So what an unexpected blessing it is in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYera when three strangers visit with multiple messages, one of which predicts the birth of a son to Sarah.
Another message warns of the impending doom of Sodom yet provides a means to save Avraham’s nephew, Lot and his family. It is another unexpected blessing albeit a mixed one.
Still, unexpected blessings still come with unanticipated complications. So the birth of Isaac [Yitzchak] to Sarah led to jealousy between Sarah and her surrogate, Hagar. The ensuing nastiness resulted in the expulsion of Hagar and Sarah’s adopted son, Ishmael. Similarly the saving of part of Lot’s family led to the unanticipated complication of incest so that the line of Lot would not die out. The daughters did not realize that they were not the only survivors of the cataclysm…
While we may always look for a silver lining, an unexpected blessing, in the face of difficult times or disaster, it may come with unanticipated complications. Many of us feel uncertainties about our futures. Do we see silver linings? Do we see unexpected blessings – or maybe just hope for them?
Could Sarah have anticipated the complications in the family due to the presence of Isaac? From the agony of the expulsion of Ishmael to the almost sacrifice of Isaac, Avraham surely observed family first – but especially his love of Sarah. Who did he love more, Sarah or Yitzchak?
Will we be able to see clearly the potential blessings of the future and discuss them with respect for all? A Shabbat challenge! Shabbat Shalom!
Chayei Sarah 5777 Matriarchal Independence;
Bereishit (Genesis) 23:1-25:18; I Kings 1:1-31
As in generations past, even today there are those who treat women as inferior to men; creatures to be controlled, enslaved, and oppressed; or alternatively demeaned, dismissed, and diminished: acid splashed on schoolgirls and in their faces; similar attacks on independent women; young girls cursed and spat upon for sleeves too short; women forced to sit in backs of buses; female genital mutilation; forced marriage even as children well before puberty; forced prostitution; other forms of forced enslavement… and all that in the ‘civilized’ world!!! Worse yet, there are women who buy into this abuse and blame themselves if they are punished for ‘stepping out of line’.
Many of the oppressors claim that this abuse is all based on the ‘Bible’. Yet that is well contradicted by this week’s haftorah and many of the Genesis stories of the Matriarchs.
Let’s start with Sarah of whom we have read the last few weeks. It seems that she was a full partner in her marriage. She and Avraham plotted together to twice perpetrate a brother-sister ruse. They worked together to ensure that their inheritance went to their son Yitzchak.
Now in this week’s portion of Parashat Chayei Sarah, we learn that Rifka is also quite an independent person as well. Not only did she tend to the family flocks alone, but also she needed to agree to marry her kinsman Yitzchak. There was no forced marriage. Like Sarah and Avraham, they worked as partners with a brother-sister ruse and to ensure that Yaacov would be the spiritual inheritor. Later, we will read how Yaacov conferred with his wives before any major decision [far better than consulting with family idols as their father, Laban would have done…]
In our Haftorah this week, Batsheva took steps to ensure that King David gave the throne to their son Solomon as he had promised. These are not depictions of “controlled” women of diminished capacity. What level of independence and respect do you think women should have? Does anyone have the right to tell women how to handle their medical issues? Does anyone have the right to impose their world view and religious mores on anybody else? Is discrimination permissible for any reason?
Toldot 5777 Birthrights and Blessings; Bereishit,
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9; Malachi 1:1-2:7
For much of the past 2000 years, the word “birthright” meant the inheritance of a family would be expected to go to the firstborn male. Most often inheritance was defined as material wealth. If we apply the customs of our own times to the Torah stories, however, we warp the proper understanding of those times and ignore the context in which they occurred.
As noted in last week’s commentary, the women of the countries from which came Terach’s family, which included Avraham and Sarah, were far more independent than would be in tribal, patriarchal nomadic groups and Canaanites. The Semite, Hurite, and Hittite traditions not only allowed for far more egalitarian [men and women treated equally] standing of people, but also more flexibility in decisions regarding the continuity of the clan or tribal birthrights. We should note that the inheritance was not just material wealth. It encompassed the spiritual leadership role as well for the family, clan, or tribe. The blessing that accompanied the birthright was to be a kind of ethical teaching describing the strengths and weaknesses of the recipient as well as suggestions as to how best avoid the worst of the pitfalls.
So it is not surprising that in this week’s portion of Parashat Toldot [generations], the birthright and blessing were allotted to Yaacov in the format of Hurite tradition [as noted by Hertz]. Esau would probably have known only local patriarchal custom and been unaware that the Hurite tradition allowed for the choice of the most suitable child to inherit the clan leadership: spiritual and mundane. So the ruse of dressing Yaacov as though he were Esau would not only provide Esau an easily understood, plausible reason for his loss, but also a good cover story to the neighbors so that they would not make trouble for Yitzchak and Rivka when they [the neighbors] found out that the local birthright custom was not followed.
We again will see this kind of friction between local custom and family tradition such as when we read later stories about Reuven, Yaacov’s first born son. What is your custom regarding inheritance? Should daughters and sons inherit equally? If so, are you comfortable following a female head of the family, clan, tribe, or government? In view of the recent UN finding that women are not treated equally nor as well as men in the USA, why do you think so many people in the USA would not be comfortable with a female head of state? Shabbat Shalom!
VaYetzei 5777 Shlom Bayit, Keeping Family Peace;
Bereishit, Genesis 28:10-32:10; Hosea 11:7-12:12 Sephardic or 12:13-14:10 Ashkenaz
Last week we explored the life of Yitzchak as related by the Torah. This week we explore the life of Yaacov when he sojourned in Haran while working for his Uncle Laban. This portion of Parashat VaYetzei highlights both functional and dysfunctional family relations.
While Laban treated his daughters, Leah and Rachel, as property with which to pay Yaacov for his 14 years of labor, Yaacov treated them as equals in managing the family and making important decisions. Apparently he learned this from watching how his parents got along. While Laban and his sons wanted as much wealth as possible, Yaacov was more concerned over the safety of his wives and children.
Nonetheless, there was still some internal family discord such as the competition among the wives and concubines as to who could bear more sons to Yaacov. Secrets were also kept such as when Rachel stole the family idols in order to slow down any pursuit by her father when they fled his control. Plausible deniability was given then when Laban came looking. Some say these idols were idols consulted before any major undertaking. Given the family materialism, perhaps not. Indeed, it was known custom of the time to recognize that whoever had possession of the family idols could prove ownership of the lands and the properties thereon such as flocks and servants. Without the idols, Laban could not prove Yaacov was trying to steal property. He was thus forced to make a peace pact with Yaacov.
Certainly this is not the behaviour of a loving uncle nor of a doting father and grandfather. However, the choices made by Yaacov and his family resulted in a path to maintaining Shlom Bayit, Family Peace.
How functional is your family? What tactics help you keep family peace and peace among friends? How important to you is Shlom Bayit? May we have a Peaceful discussion this Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!
VaYishlach 5777 Consequences of our Choices for Others
Bereishit, Genesis 32:4-36:42; Ovadiah 1:1-21
It is not unusual to hear someone lamenting that a stroke of bad luck was not deserved because they had been living an honorable life, a life filled with mitzvot [good deeds]. Yet life is not a tit for tat contract. Karma is not a guarantee that your good deeds will lead you on a glitch free path to the future.
Life is complex. The decisions and choices of many determine the collective path a community embarks upon, often with collateral damage to some individuals.
So, too, in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYishlach. After treading a path of peace with his brother Esau, Yaacov [now to be known as Yisrael] settled near Shechem. He was trying to make a peaceful so-existence with the neighbors. Yet his daughter, Dina, was a risk taker. Her brothers, Shimon and Levi, were hot-headed hooligans. So the story started with the rape of Dina by the Prince of Shechem, but it did not end with the slaughter of the men of Shechem by Shimon and Levi.
As a result of their vicious choices and actions, there was collateral damage that resulted in deaths of others, even in their family. The sudden need to flee for Yisrael and his dependents led to the deaths of Rachel in childbirth after her elderly midwife, Devorah, died. It also led to Reuven trying to stay behind and usurp his father’s leadership of the family. That choice led to the loss of his inheritance.
Everything is connected. Our choices may lead to repercussions among people we do not even know. Are you ever concerned about distant effects that may be triggered by your choices? Do you expect a return on your doing good deeds? If so, why? Let us delve into the complexities of choices this Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!
VaYeshev and Chanukah 5777
Can Lights Bring Hope and Peace?
We soon will light wicks for candles or oil.
Eight days they will burn with flames so Royal.
Although on usual tasks we will toil,
We’ll recall from bigotry to recoil.
All religious coercion, oppression, and fear
Need to be countered in places both far and near,
Ever vigilant to prevent outbreaks of fights.
That is the clear reason for our Chanukah lights:
To be free to pray and practice as we do
Without others imposing their ways on us,
As we do not impose our ways on others, too,
And work for coexistence in peace that is just.
Miketz 5777 Rivalry; Bereishit (Genesis) 41:1-44:17; I Kings 3:15-4:1
Last Shabbat in Parashat VaYeshev, we continued the story of Israel’s [Yaacov’s] family. Earlier we had learned about the misbehaviours of Shimon and Levi in revenge over the molestation of their sister Dina. We also read about Reuven’s failed attempt to take his father’s leadership position. This youthful rivalry with his father will lead Reuven to a loss of inheritance later on despite his laudable actions to save Joseph’s life when more mature [37:21-22, 42:22].
However, every person in a family can participate in rivalries: Ishmael and Yitzchak; Yaacov and Esau; Perez and Zerah [ch. 38, the twin sons of Tamar fathered by Judah giving his two older sons heirs]; etc. Plus that is with only two brothers! So now with twelve brothers there is the potential for lots of rivalry both good and bad including pranks, ganging up on each other, bullying, violence, etc.
We all know how obnoxious some children can be, especially spoiled ones. Is it any wonder that some of the brothers were jealous of their father’s affection for his favorite son, Joseph? Although Reuven and Judah [37:26,29] tried to keep the pranks against Joseph from going too far, Joseph still ended up sold into bondage in Egypt and then in prison, falsely accused of molesting his boss’s wife.
Now this week we get to the payback part of the story. In Parashat Miketz ten of Joseph’s brothers are sent during a famine to purchase food in Egypt. They are unaware that Joseph is now in charge of the storehouses for the Pharaoh after successfully interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph knew that the famine would not soon end. Also he wanted to see his whole family. So he warned the brothers not to return without their youngest brother, Binyamin. When they did, Joseph set up a scheme to implicate his younger brother, Binyamin, in a theft. A true cliffhanger it is for sure!
How did sibling rivalry affect these events? How did rivalry for power affect them? Have you any exposure to the effects of rivalry I families or in businesses? Is rivalry healthy? Shabbat Chanukah Shalom!
VaYigash 5777 Reunion in Exile. Bereishit [Genesis] 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15-28
As we finished our Torah reading last Shabbat, Binyamin had just been framed for a theft. The brothers could have panicked or begged. Instead, Judah pleaded to be allowed to take the place of Binyamin.
It was a very emotional scene. In fact it was so emotional that Yosef felt impelled to send the guards away and reveal himself to his brothers. Since the Pharaoh was willing to welcome all of Yosef’s family to settle in the Goshen area of Egypt, particularly given the long-term famine predicted, an invitation to do so was taken back to the elderly Yisrael.
However they needed to break the news gently to Yisrael that Yosef lived and wanted the whole family to come to live with him, to reunite in Egypt. So Asher’s adopted daughter, Serah, sang to him and told him all. The whole family in Canaan went then to Egypt to be reunited in exile.
It seems to be a pattern we have seen before. Twice Avram and Sarai were reunited in exile after being separated by the sister/ wife ruse: first in Egypt and then in the court of Avimelech.
Since the Holocaust, there have been many anecdotal reunions, often unanticipated, in many places of the diaspora. Undoubtedly such reunions have occurred throughout the generations.
Are you familiar with a case of reunion in exile? Have you ever felt that you have been in exile? Is there someone you would like to be reunited with? If so, where would that reunion occur?
May we all have the pleasure of a joyful reunion wherever it might be! Shabbat Shalom!
VaYechi 5777 Starting a New Chapter; Bereishit [Genesis] ch. 48-50; I Kings 2:1-12
The times we live in are filled with uncertainties. So many new challenges on the horizon exist! A new chapter starting with a new Gregorian year of 2017 is coming with a new governmental regime. Unlike Yosef and his family, we have no benevolent Pharaoh welcoming us into the future.
That future for Yosef and his family, in the short term, is described in the final portion of the book of Bereishit (Genesis), Parashat VaYechi. The reunited family has moved into Goshen. With their flocks and semi-nomadic ways, the transition appears to go smoothly. Yisrael [formerly Yaacov], feeling his age, blessed the sons of Yosef in the manner of his grandparents: the younger received the primary inheritance blessing.
Yisrael also blessed all of his other sons, describing their strengths and weaknesses as well as how these characteristics might affect the future of the tribes. In a sense, these were in part ethical will statements, the last teachings of a father to his sons.
Each of the brothers, hence each of their tribes, faced starting a new chapter as they each went their own ways. The inheritance each had received gave some guidance for approaching this new chapter of exile in Egypt. Unfortunately we have no such guidance as we embark upon 2017 and a new administration amidst a turmoil of corruption, terrorism, bigotries, and so much more.
Now you enter into this new chapter of our lives. What will you take to guide you through the rapids of the unknown future? How will you address the challenges you find dear to your heart? Will faith and spirituality be part of your guidance system?
These are questions to ponder this Shabbat and throughout the year. Be strong, be strong, and we all can be strengthened by us all being strong! Shabbat Shalom!
VaEra 5777 Plagues; Shemot [Exodus] 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28:25-29:21; Isaiah 66:1-24
Would the plagues have happened had Pharaoh not been stubborn? Was Pharaoh stubborn (paranoid?) because adverse events were already happening [e.g. weird weather, strange animal behaviour, etc.] and he was desperately clinging on to the control and power he thought he had?
It is known that ill patients lose control over nearly all aspects of their lives. As a result they are particularly stubborn about controlling their meals and complain about every little thing that is not perfect in their minds.
Beyond that, this was a time period when worldwide cataclysms were occurring: increased volcanic activity in Arabia and some Mediterranean isles; earthquakes, release of noxious gases from both of these types of activity, unusual animal behaviour probably related to other odd events, peculiar weather patterns, etc. Included in the odd events were mass human migrations, no doubt to escape adverse conditions at wherever they started.
Yet as Rambam, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and some other wise folk have taught, events do not just happen. There is a combination of the physics of natural geological and meteorological flows along with the interacting choices of the creatures of the world. This combination of factors leads to the facts on the ground.
Did Moshe know of the aftereffects of volcanic activity and the presence of such in Arabia and around other parts of the Mediterranean? Probably he did given the many years he lived in Midian’s relative proximity to the most active Arabian volcanoes. Did he take advantage of the timing of the geological events to mesh with his planned revolutionary ideas? Maybe. Such would explain his rush from Midian to Egypt right after his son’s birth and despite being in poor health himself. Was he in poor health after exposure to pre-eruption activity?
Whatever the case, the weather and the geologic instabilities apparently lined up together to support opposition to the seemingly superstitious Pharaoh in the form of a variety of plagues – or at least that is what would have been presented and explained by Moshe, the well-educated Military Commander graduate from the Egyptian Royal University who had lived many years near the Arabian desert. Was this strange Pharaoh, who did not know Yosef, from a militaristic opposition group that was not highly educated? Were the court people around him sycophants who also were not highly educated?
Given this model, what does it say for modern times when government leadership is gained by people who display disdain for science and for the well-being of others? Will no storehouses of food be kept to answer to future famine, but rather more weapons and other tactics could be used to kill off masses of people and thereby reduce the need for foodstuffs? Are terrorism and wars not man-made plagues? Is increased poverty the imposition of a plague upon the weakest of a community by those who can meet their basic needs many fold over? We are in times of much uncertainty. How can we prevent plagues, natural or man-made? Shabbat Shalom!
The concepts presented below are taken from scholarly studies. References are available upon request. Remember we at Beit Torah, like the Rambam and Levi Yitzchak, embrace the concept that the laws of nature never change. Everything that happens is through the choices of the creatures of the world and the laws of nature. Miracles are so named by the observers who do not know any other possible explanation for the events [and feel insecure without some explanation...]. We also recall that all the possible choices were set into motion during the first six epochs of genesis. An Omniscient One would then have known all the possible paths and outcomes we might have taken and take. Free choice for all within the limits of the choices available.
Bo 5777 More Plagues; Shemot [Exodus] 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13-28
As if we didn’t have our fill of plagues last week, they keep on coming this week too. So while poverty may have been the plague of our focus last week, a ban on entry to the country seems to be our plague for this week. According to Torah there was strife along the northern coastal route. Hence, the more southerly route of the Exodus was chosen to avoid the refugee immigration deluge causing strife along the coast possibly escaping volcanic activity in the Mediterranean.
That, though, is next week. So let’s back up a bit. This week the locusts come first. Why do locusts swarm? Their food source had become exhausted. Why? Were they fleeing the oncoming darkness of thick particulates as would happen following brimstone when a volcano like Santorini had a massive explosion that destroyed half the island? Was it the brimstone [fiery hail] that wiped out their resources? Certainly all plant life was severely impacted by fire and blunt trauma. Torah reports that the trees suffered greatly. So whatever remained, the locusts wanted from the Mediterranean coast to inland as far as they could go. That left only stored food for the people and their remaining livestock.
After three days of darkness [although there were independent reports of nine days of darkness further west in Egypt], every surviving creature would be very hungry. Now the food stores were big pits in the ground covered by bitumen [tar], brimstone, and settled darkness particles. No doubt the top was quite toxic [i.e. an environmental pollution plague big time!]. It was the Egyptian custom when they went into the food stores to first feed the first born and strongest of the livestock and the firstborn of the family, especially important during lean times.
So after the darkness they were most hungry and went into the food stores to feed the firstborn from the stored grain that was likely most toxic at the top first portions than the deeper stored portions. Was this toxic first portion the source of the tenth plague? Moshe was probably aware of the toxicity effects from volcanic debris. He did warn the people. Did those who fled eat only lamb and not grain from the storage pits? Regardless of the source, plagues are plagues.
At this season when we recall the Exodus in our weekly portions, it is hard not to wonder if we are to be faced soon with a new onslaught of plagues. What do you view as a modern plague we need to contend with? Shabbat Shalom!
Songs of the Season
BeShallach, Shabbat Shira 5777 Tu B’Shvat; Shemot 3:17-17:16; Shoftim [Judges] 4:4-5:31
The triple score for this week is an unusual occurrence. While the Song of the Sea is always in Shabbat BeShallach, it is not common for Tu B’Shvat to be on that Shabbat as well. However it is a welcome spot of cheer amidst the recitation of the plagues and the complications early in the Exodus. Perhaps a song of joy could be done for the Haftorah when Yael kills the enemy General, Sisera, by pounding a tent peg through his head. That is quite parallel to the Songs of the Sea [one by Moshe and one by Miriam] rejoicing over the death of the pursuit Pharaoh [likely Tom] and his contingent.
Yet should we sing rejoicing over the death of others? Even HaShem gave the rebuke that we should never rejoice over the death of the creatures or of any of his creations. HaShem did not say that it was wrong to kill in self-defense as Jael and Moshe did. Indeed the death of the Pharaoh and his host was viewed as a miracle! Still the appropriate response would have been to acknowledge that the world was diminished through their deaths as well as through the deaths of their innocent horses.
Still we are all imperfect people who sometimes delight in the suffering of those we do not identify with, nor do we understand, or perhaps we fear. Recent modern events highlight this behaviour around the world – to the great distress and potentially lethal outcomes among innocent folk. There is much to be saddened and troubled about. Can you think of examples of such disturbing occasions?
So it is wonderful that this coming Shabbat we have reason to be joyous in celebrating the birthday of the trees, Tu B’Shvat! Shabbat Shalom!
Yitro 5777 To Hear or not to Hear; Shemot [Genesis] 18:1-20:23; Isaiah 6:1-31
This week in Parashat Yitro we get our first version of the giving of the Brit, our Covenant with HaShem. To Moshe, the people listened. They bathed and kept clean for three days. None went onto the mountain where rumblings, quaking, thunder and lightning in a thick cloud had everyone one edge. When the ram’s horn sounded, the people gathered at the foot of the mountain in Sinai, the Sinai desert of Exodus times [probably in Arabia, near (S.E.?) of Midian]. Did all the people gather there? If not which part did not gather at the foot of the mountain?
Then from within the thick cloud, Hashem pronounced the ten terms of our covenant, the first Mitzvot of our Brit. Yet did the people hear and understand what they were supposed to be agreeing to?
Perhaps they were just words whose meaning was yet to be digested. Perhaps the people were so fearful of the thunder, earthquaking, and lightning that they could not focus on the words. If that were so, then it would explain why they asked not to hear HaShem directly but rather have Moshe relay Hashem’s words. Further, that fear may well have been why they agreed later to do the simple response according to what they heard while continuing forward trying to understand why [na-aseh v’nishmah].
At this point in time, do we truly continue to study and try to interpret and understand these first ten mitzvot? Will we ever truly be able to understand them? OR will our understanding change from generation to generation as our understanding of our world changes with time [even as Rambam would have encouraged us to pursue]?
The challenges of constantly updating our interpretations of Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming when we have trouble evaluating the qualifications of the Rabbis doing the interpreting. Perhaps it would be wise to recall that we are all imperfect people who get it right some of the time but never all of the time. Each person excels in certain areas but not in others. What do you think the Rambam would say on this matter? Shabbat Shalom!
5777 Shabbat Shekalim / Mishpatim; Charity and Community Support;
Shemot [Exodus] 21:1-24:18; II Kings 12:1-17
While there were systems of laws to follow before the Exodus, they were not laws tailored to the Israelites and their traditions. So this week’s portion of Parashat Mishpatim is the first presentation in Torah of a set of Jewish laws [53 mitzvot] specific to the People of the Law, the People who heard the Decalogue at the foot of the holy mountain.
This Parashah often occurs two weeks before Purim and hence coincides with Shabbat Shekalim when we recall that we need to provide for the needy including, during some times of our history, the Levites [which include the Cohanim/Priests]. Once settled in the Promised Land, customs supporting the Priesthood were developed such as giving them the first born offspring of man and beast unless redeemed by payment of say a shekel [the pidyon ha-ben ceremony in modern times redeems the firstborn if male; females do not get given nor redeemed]. The biblical census tax was also based on a shekel. More recent customs include giving an half shekel for charity, an half shekel for supporting the community, and an half shekel for Yisrael.
So Shabbat Shekalim is de facto a reminder to all to provide for the needs of the disadvantaged and to support the Jewish community. This is reinforced by the Haftorah for Shabbat Shekalim where funds were collected and then used for the repair and refurbishment of the Temple. These practices of charity and community support are particularly important when we approach Holy Days observances such as for Pesach. Why? We are taught that we need to ensure that everyone will be able to fully observe and celebrate all the Holy Days. Especially Pesach comes to mind at this time.
What do you think is the best way for you to give charity? What is the best way to support the Jewish community?... the world community? What will you, yourself, do to be charitable and supportive? Shabbat Shalom!
5777 Shabbat Zachor, Parashat Tetzaveh; Remembering Amalek
Shemot [Exodus] 27:20-30:10; Maftir, Devarim [Deuteronomy] 25:17-19; Samuel 15:1-34
We are often told the wisdom that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. When we read this week on Shabbat Zachor, the stern admonition to remember Amalek – and get rid of Amalek wherever we find it – reminds us of that wisdom. As we recall the difficulties of Esther and our people under the despotism of Haman who was advising the incompetent King [former good military leader], it is hard not to try to draw comparisons to modern governments.
Hitler, Mussolini, Assad, Stalin, Mao, Ghengis, and so many others seemed to be embodiments of Amalek. Apparently it takes a long time before people awaken to the danger and develop a way to successfully combat it. There also seems to be much concern that there are several countries today approaching the status of Amalek. For instance, North Korea continues ever more aggressive weapons testing while starving and otherwise abusing its own citizens.
What other countries do you think are being guided by Amalek? Explain. How would you approach fulfilling the mitzvah of “remembering Amalek” [Devarim 25:17-19] ? Have you ever observed or met any people who appeared to you to be embodiments of Amalek? What did you want to do when you observed or met them?
Please share your thoughts in person or online/electronically. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach!!!
Solidifying the Contract
Shabbat Parah, Ki Tisa; Shemot [Exodus] Ch. 32-34; Ezekiel 36:16-36
Maftir extra reading: BaMidbar [Numbers] 19:1-22
Our sidebar into describing the Tabernacle, the Priestly attire, the purification and other ritual procedures, etc. now turns us back to the events at the Holy Mountain. While Moshe has been up the mountain for about 40 days, the People forced Aaron into building a golden calf. Some of the People turned to worship this idol. As they were cavorting, Moshe came down from the mountain to his horror of the scene. In anger he smashed the two tablets of the Law.
Earlier the People had heard the Covenant [Brit], but apparently did not absorb the meaning. Instead they had asked Moshe to relay all the words. So Moshe and Aaron reminded the People of the Law given them. Apparently that, too, did not stick in their minds and actions. The brit/ Covenant needed to be solidified by something tangible, by luchot HaBrit, the tablets of the Covenant. It seems that the people of that time were not mature enough to have a solely cerebral religion. They needed Holy accoutrements and beautified environs. They needed things to remind them of the Holy. Are people now any much different?
People of today use other things to remind them to follow the mitzvot, the Law. These things include, among others: mezuzot, tefillin, tallit [large and small prayer shawls and fringed garments], kippot [skullcaps], and head coverings for married women. However the last noted may be more for modesty than for religious reasons.
So the Golden Calf was destroyed – along with its worshippers. Another 40 days led to another pair of tablets. At least, in theory, the tablets in the ark along with the scrolls of Law enclosed in the Tabernacle gave the People a focus and solidified the Brit.
Do we need these types of reminders today in order to do the mitzvot and follow the Law? Likewise will a tabernacle, tablets, an ark or a Temple make us any more pious? We have much to think about this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!
VaYechel, Pikudei, HaChodesh 5777 Building a Mishkan;
Shemot 35:1-40:38; Ezekiel 45:16-46:18
As we enter the month of Nissan this coming week, we realize that all the instructions on how to build a Tabernacle, Mishkan, along with its accoutrements and contents are moot to us today. So how then can we build for modern times a meaningful Tabernacle, a resting place for the Shechinah, the Holy Spirit? Can a Torah ark be such a place?
This Shabbat comes with two Torah Portions and a special Haftorah to announce the coming of Nissan on Tuesday the 28th so that all will know that Passover is two weeks thereafter. We even have an extra Torah portion to read that describes how Passover /Pesach should be observed. [Maftir of Exodus 12:1-20]
Oddly, last Shabbat we read that the Tablets of the Law include agricultural instructions to observe three Pilgrimage festivals. In fact, the instruction to keep the Sabbath also contains an agricultural reference [34:21]. Yet this is supposed to be during the interaction between Moses and the now nomadic livestock specialists in the desert! Some say that this second version was written down after the Israelites were settled in the Promised Land. It should be noted that the only contents similar to those in the first version deal with devotion to one god, HaShem; to the avoidance of idolatry; and to the keeping of the Sabbath which actually is repeated throughout the Torah more than for other Holy Days.
This week we continue with the reiteration of the story of how to complete the construction of the Tabernacle, the Spiritual Sanctuary for the people. So too, our reading of the book of Exodus is complete. When the last verses [40:34-38] are read on Shabbat morning, we recite [as we do at the end of each of the five books of the Torah] the Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek: Be Strong, Be Strong, and We should be Strengthened!
However what are we being strengthened for if not to find a way to build a meaningful modern Tabernacle? Our thoughts have turned from the frivolities of Purim to the charitable works we need to engage in to provide to all the ability to participate in a Passover Seder, to have enough to eat, and on Passover, enough of the Passover foods to eat. We are reminded of our obligations to provide shelter, food, and clothes for all of the needy. Also we are reminded to support the community here and in Israel however we can.
That spiritual presence within each of us reminding us to do mitzvot may well be our de facto Mishkan! In being reminded to do all of these mitzvot, we also come to think of other good deeds that we should do, but maybe have not been paying enough attention to do. Certainly the two mitzvot most emphasized in these latest readings are the keeping of the Shabbat and the keeping of our devotion to the One and only HaShem. Have we been mindful to observe Shabbat? Have we clung to only one Shechinah? Do we reflect on what the ethical way to go forward entails?
If we do, perhaps that is the evidence that we have constructed a modern Mishkan within ourselves. How can you build and improve your modern Mishkan? Shabbat will be a good time for these reflections. Shabbat Shalom!
VaYikra 5777 Cleansing of Regrets and Guilt;
VaYikra [Leviticus] 1:1-5:26; Isaiah 43:21-44:23
This week we start the Book of Leviticus [VaYikra]. We are told that this book effectively acts as a how-to book for the Temple Levites. What are we to make of it today given that the Levites no longer serve in the functions of yore? Do we really want to bring back a privileged class of Jews? Do we really want to encourage unequal birthright treatment for different groups [castes] of Jews as we have now [albeit not necessarily enforced] for Cohanim?
So let us delve more deeply into this week’s portion of Parashat VaYikra. A main topic covered deals with the different types of offerings such as those to expiate sins of various sorts. Well clearly we today are not going to bring physical sacrifices for use on the altar. In fact, the idea of doing so grosses out a lot of modern people. Perhaps we should feel sorry for those people who think it would be wonderful to kill animals on public display. Maybe then we could bring back public hangings?
Yet Judaism teaches respect for all living beings! Death should not be a public or TV spectacle. In theory, we have matured beyond that stage [although some are pushing for murder of wolf and bear while in their nursing dens and while hibernating]. More importantly, we have moved on away from sacrifices towards prayer and charity with which to atone for our regrets, guilts, and sins. Are they not adequate to assuage our consciences?
Do we need to return to the days when we were arrogant enough to think we could concentrate the Holy Spirit into a specific small location? Do we need to return to animal sacrifices so as to buy or bribe our way out of guilt? Do we need a Jewish equivalent to Hail Mary’s? If not, what is the modern way through which we can achieve atonement and absolution? Is Judaism a living religion or frozen in the past traditions, ignoring the realities of modernity? Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Shemini 5777 Arrogance and Stupidity or Just Dumb Luck?
VaYikra (Leviticus) 9:1-11:47 ; 2 Kings 6:1-7:17
Now that Pesach is done, biblical focus changes to preparing for the next harvest festival of Shavuot. Barley and wheat = mainstays of the diet then…
The portion this week of Shemini gives us three interesting examples of events ending in unpleasant [if not lethal] consequences. In the Torah portion, we read that Aaron’s two oldest sons were consumed by strange fire. We read that it must have been divine punishment, yet this is immediately followed by many fire safety rules. So was it divine retribution or arrogantly careless choices about anointing oils, loose hair, and excess alcohol consumption leading to dumb [[bad] luck? [VaYikra 10:1-10]
In the Haftorah we are told the story of how King David moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. While moving the Ark on a [possibly poorly balanced and secured] cart over uneven roads, the Ark began to tip over. Uzzah, one of the movers, possibly instinctively, reached out to steady it… unfortunately unsuccessfully as he was crushed to death. We are told that it was HaShem’s wrath over Uzzah touching the Ark. Was it? – or was it poor planning choices for the move leading to dumb [bad] luck? [2 Samuel 6:3-7]
Thirdly we read that David dances wildly to celebrate the arrival of the Ark to Jerusalem. Underwear had yet to be invented and tunics and skirts may have been short and/or may have swirled upward wildly. David’s wife, Michal, objected to the display and David showed no remorse. Did Michal’s anger last a lifetime? Regardless, she died childless. Was this the result of divine retribution for criticizing her husband, the King? – or was it the cumulative result of bad choices and circumstances? [2 Samuel 6:14-16, 20-23]
Why do bad things happen to seemingly good people? Are they divine decrees? Are the result of a combination of choices by multiple people? OR are they just ‘dumb’ luck? Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Tazria/ Metzora 5777 Science and Medicine
VaYikra (Leviticus) 12:1-15:33 ; 2 Kings 7:3-20
Listening to the March for Science this past weekend, gives hope that the teachings of the Rambam [Maimonides] may yet be more widely applied. As a well-educated physician, philosopher, scientist, and Rabbi; the Rambam believed and taught that in order to understand Torah, it is essential for all to be educated broadly in the most modern facts of the world such as math, sciences, history, archaeology, etc.
There are recent popularizations of anti-logic and anti-science, reinvention of ‘facts’ as alternate reality, and so forth. This has apparently spurred those who are educated in rational thought, logic and sciences to protest and try to fight back against that trend.
So when we read the Torah and Haftorah of this week’s double portion of Tazria/ Metzora instructing Levites about diagnosing and treating illness, infections, bodily exudates, etc.; we are reminded of Rambam’s instructions. It should be pointed out that this is the medical practice of biblical times, not just the religious addressing of impurity. To whom would the biblical Jews of those times turn when faced with these conditions? It was NOT the ‘medical’ practitioners most likely best versed in dealing with traumatic conditions like broken bones, but rather the religious leaders! There was little, if any, separation between ‘medicine’ and religion. All was viewed as due to the desires of a deity!
Understanding modern medicine enables us to understand these Parashot better. We can discern what are valid and effective medical procedures and which need to be updated based on modern, scientific, medical knowledge.
There are those who want to rebuild the Temple and re-establish these outdated approaches to medical diagnoses and treatments found in Leviticus. Do you think that this is a practical goal in the modern age? Would you support the re-building of the Temple given that it would include the re-introduction of animal sacrifices and pseudo-medical practices? How would you practice the Rambam’s teachings about broad education for all?
Surviving Climate Change
So on the heels of climate change marches, we at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) get to discuss whether we have the right to expect our government to protect us against the adverse effects of climate change... Maybe you do too...
Acharei Mot/ Kedoshim 5777; VaYikra 16:1-20:27; Amos 9:9-15
Civil Rights and Climate Change
Civil rights is high on the list of current political topics. So, too, apparently were they in the double portion of Parashot Acharei Mot/ Kedoshim this week. We are reminded to love each other in several ways. We are to treat the stranger and the convert as equals. We are not to use false scales. We are to treat everyone equally in court proceedings, without preferences for any person or group of people. We are not to put stumbling blocks before the disabled so that they, too, can access the necessities of life equally.
Hmmmm! Immigration, religious equality, banking practices, judge selections, disabilities, etc.!!! Civil Rights appear to be important to at least some leaders in every generation.
Simply put, civil rights are the rights of every person to shelter, food, water, safety; to livelihood, family, security; to be respected by all others. These basics of life were recognized even in biblical times. Hence the rules presented in recognition that not everyone is honest and loving. For instance, ten percent of the fields were to be left for the needy to harvest.
Yet how can civil rights be recognized today? Regardless of the source, climate change is happening. Do we not have the right to have our governments support us in the fight against the adverse effects of climate change? If not, how then can we successfully combat those perilous effects?
Who will help when there are forest fires to fight? Who will help when there are floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes to rebuild after? Who will help to relocate those coastal residents where the coast is being uncontrollably submerged? Where will we get our food when the growing season keeps being adversely challenged and changed? Can we, will we survive?
Emor 5777 Rabbis and Priests; VaYikra [Leviticus] 31:1-24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31
“Rabbis and Priests” – sounds like the start to a joke. However we are talking about Jerusalem Temple Priests, not any other kind. This week’s portion of Parashat Emor gives us a view of Priestly garment and obligations from the First Temple and a projection for the Second Temple Priesthood of Zadokim in the Haftorah portion from Ezekiel.
There are clear distinctions between the pre- and post-exilic views [re: Babylonian exile]. Ezekiel and Amos [from last week’s Haftorah] were pre-exilic, Amos earlier on, Ezekiel in transition. Amos saw the Priests as becoming less privileged, recognizing that religion lives and changes with the times. While pre-exilic prophets were primarily political prognosticators, post-exilic ones included concepts assimilated during exile such as the expectation of a messiah as a person rather than a messianic age of peace, plenty, and cooperation.
Indeed in Second Temple times there was a growing understanding that many religious functions could be handled at local shrines rather than all at The Temple which varied in functionality and availability. Also Rabbis were coming into their own during this time period so that after the destruction of the Second temple, they were in the position to be the leaders of the People. This further demonstrates the vibrancy of the religion to change with the times.
Priests today have limited responsibilities and often may not choose to observe some Priestly restrictions such as whom to marry or cemetery etiquette. The Jewish People can better now observe the judicial enjoinment of treating all equally. Yet some would have us go back to a de facto caste system or a lineage of royalty with Priests and other Levites or the offspring of the just line of David being separated above Klal Yisrael [the common folk].
Are not Rabbis adequate to meet the present religious needs of Jews? If not, why not? Shabbat Shalom!
BeHar B’Chukotai 5777 Natural Consequences;
VaYikra [Leviticus] 25:1-27:34; Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
This week we arrive at one of the Torah sections that spells out blessings and curses for the People. Yet, all are presented in a conditional format: you do such and such, then this will be the consequence. So if you follow specific mitzvot, then you will be blessed in this or that way. Further if you do not follow these mitzvot, then all these horrible things will happen to you!
So when we speak about treatment of the land, there is clear evidence that if you do not let the land lay fallow every seven years, your production will go down or fail. Nutrient depletion over the years would have led the observant to understand the effects and remedies even if the causes were mysteries. Yet how do you get the people to comply if they have not made the observations themselves?
Obviously only figures of authority, like Levites of that time, could get the general population to comply. Hence, it seems, this section is presented in Leviticus, the handbook for the Levites. It would then lead to a wider population effort to maintain agricultural viability and eco-sustainability.
There are people who ask why they do not get the expected blessings when they have adhered to the mitzvot. What they miss is that it is the accumulation of mitzvot by all the members of the population that determines whether the blessings or the curses are received.
At times, some people protest that HaShem knows all that will happen and if we damage the Earth irreparably, Hashem will miraculously repair it. Not so. HaShem is in the divine seventh period of creation, a period of rest. While knowing all that could happen depending on the choices we make, HaShem has us be the partners who choose the path of the world by our actions.
Some of our sages such as the Rambam and Levi Yitzchak taught that the laws of nature would never be broken in our world, not even by HaShem. Hence the blessings and the curses are the natural consequences of our choices. Do you believe we need eco-sustainability? If so, how do Jewish teachings help us towards that goal? How would you work to help reach that goal?
Naso 5777 Archaeology Views Changing Times;
BaMidbar [Numbers] 4:21-7:89; Judges 13:2-25
As mentioned many times before, the Rambam taught that to properly understand our liturgy, we need to understand the facts of our world, past and present. To that end, archaeology is a fantastic tool. So when we read in this week’s portion of Parashat Naso about how various laws of interpersonal relationships were handled, we may well cringe at the irrational barbarianism of the time. Yet this was the best known to the people of that time. Nonetheless we would never reinstitute the practice of sota [making a women accused of adultery to drink ash laden water]. There are many other practices described in Torah that modern people would be loath to re-institute.
So how can archaeology demonstrate the changing interpretation of the law? Let us take one example: the blue fringed garment we wrap ourselves in. When originally used, it was a poncho type over-garment with four corners on which the fringes were placed. By the time of the Romans it had undergone several changes in style. So at that time, the garment was more of an over-toga outerwear with fringes on four corners. As time went on, it became a prayer shawl used only in study, prayers, or official contract business. For those who wanted more continuous use of blue fringe, the tallit katan was developed while the prayer shawl still continues to be widely in use.
Can you think of an example of some other Torah interpretation that has changed over time? [Reading this week’s parasha might give you some ideas for answering this question.] Explain your choice, please.
BeHaalotecha 5777 Second Chances; BaMidbar 8:1-12:16; Zechariah 2:14-4:7
We are all imperfect people. At least most of you would agree about that! Given our imperfections, would we have been able to progress to where we are today were we not given second chances (and maybe even 3rd, 4th, etc.)?
Indeed, as a people, we stumbled frequently enough to earn titles such as “stiff-necked”. Nothing seemed ever perfect enough to us, so we complained a lot. This week’s portion of parashat B’Ha-alotecha describes good examples of this (mis)behaviour. For instance, although we were given manna, it wasn’t good enough. We were hungry for meat.
Yet when we then got quail, we were gluttonous and often did not slaughter and cook the quail appropriately. This led to some illness and death.
An irate parent might have given up on us at that point and we might well have perished in the wilderness. So we are very lucky [and grateful] that we were given another chance [among many] to be a Holy Nation.
So, too, individuals were often given another chance [or chances]. When Miriam spoke ill of her brother Moshe, she got a skin ailment and was excluded from the community. Yet she got another chance, the skin healed, and she returned to the community. Was HaShem merciful to give her another chance? Was that chance in response to Moshe’s prayers that she be healed?
When have second chances made a difference in the path of your life? Do you give others second chances? Should all people be given second chances? If not, who should be given second chances? When should we stop giving additional chances? Or - Should we ever stop?
Shlach Lecha 5777 Political Second Chances with Conditions
BaMidbar 13:1-15:41; Joshua 2:1-24
Last week we discussed the wisdom of offering second chances rather than punishing for a first [or whatever number] offense. At some point people get tired of being forgiving and offering additional chances without strings attached.
So the next obvious step is to attach strings. In this week’s portion of Parashat Shlach Lecha, twelve leaders of the tribes were sent out to evaluate and explore the “Promised Land”, “to spy out the land”. Ten of the twelve leaders viewed everything as politics. So when they returned, they wanted to discourage people from the violence of conquest and to wrest power from Moshe and Aaron. It was not enough for them to give negative feedback about the land and its inhabitants. Instead, they spread “fake facts” [i.e. propaganda] to discourage the people from wanting to enter the “Promised Land” and detract from Moshe’s leadership.
The political discontent was put to an end. We read that HaShem just wanted to wipe them all out [as was done after the Golden calf incident]. However Moshe interceded and the people were given another chance, but with a condition: forty years of wandering so that it would be a new generation that would eventually enter the Land.
Similarly in this week’s haftorah, the Harlot Rabah betrayed her own (unpleasant) people and helped the Israelite spies in Jericho. She was then given another chance to build a good [better] life as an adopted part of the Israelite People. Perhaps that was a welcome condition, an attached string to make her part of the People rather than just left to her own devices and the temptation to betray the Israelites as well. Was that a wise political decision by Joshua?
So second chances may have beneficial conditions such as probation with an addiction recovery program… or immunity for testimony. What examples of additional chances given by political decisions can you think of? Do you think they were justifiable and wise?
Chukat 5777 Water and Purification; BaMidbar 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33
Travelling through a wilderness requires considerable water conservation. The people who fled Egypt were not used to such drastic measures. So, every time there was insufficient water, they complained bitterly that they should not have left Egypt where they had enough water.
Now that their dowser, Miriam, had died, Moshe was faced with supplying water to the People in this week’s portion of Parashat Chukat. Knowing the terrain from his years living in Midian, he likely knew that the crust on the side of a volcano is brittle with captured water underneath. Moshe did provide water, but the demand was much more than minimal. We read that water was needed for many purification procedures including washing “impure” bodies and clothes as well as for a purification concoction of water with the ashes of a red heifer.
While we can all agree that washing ourselves and our clothes are good, many are perplexed by the use of red heifer ash. For external use, does it act as a borax or pumice would? For internal use, does it act as a mineral supplement? Yet what purpose would it serve to require the heifer to be all red?
If we now wish to be purified nowadays, how best can we achieve it? Mikvah ritual bath bathing? Symbolic or real hand washing? Soap and water washing? The Talmud notes that hand washing is critical for healthcare to prevent GI illnesses in a decision that allowed adults to wash their hands on Yom Kippur when they need to prepare food for others, particularly children.
Is water necessary for purification? Clearly it is necessary for human and livestock consumption. [In agricultural areas later in history there will be additional water needed for successful agriculture.] What other uses of water are necessary? Which uses of water would you forgo if you were trudging through a wilderness?
Do we need to carefully monitor our water sources so that all can access a clean, healthy supply of water? What would you do to maintain a reliable source of healthy water?
Balak 5777 How Do Animals Communicate with Us?;
BaMidbar 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8
Other animals do not speak as we do. Nonetheless they have ways of communication. A dog might bring his leash. Cats might swat to get TLC or remind that it is time for food. Both have ways to let us know if there is something immediate that needs to be tended to. All of us know of various ways animals can communicate, but do we listen?
Likewise in this week’s portion of Parashat Balak, Bilaam [a non-Jewish prophet] does not listen to his donkey who tries to warn him from following the demands of his King, Balak. In exasperation, the donkey spoke to Bilaam to protest abuse and to warn him of the angel/ messenger blocking their path and bringing a divine warning against trying to speak ill of the Israelites.
This is the only instance in Torah of a talking animal since the Garden of Eden. Still we need to wonder if this is a story to be taken at face value or a parable from which we need to glean some lesson. When birds and wildlife suddenly disappear from their routines, it is a good bet that a disaster approaches and people need to also seek shelter.
Yet people do not always listen- not to HaShem, and not to the animals around them. Maybe they do not care about the welfare of the animals, the land, and themselves which are all interdependent and entwined. Do you listen to the animals around you? Do you hear when the livestock or the fish or the chickens or the cats want to be fed? Do you listen to the animals in your life? How do they communicate with you?
Do we need to listen better to understand the animals in the world we live in? Do we need to listen better to hear HaShem in every aspect of our lives including the communications from the animals and the world around us? If so, how?
Pinchas 5777 First Haftorah of Admonition;
BaMidbar 25:10-30:1; Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
In some people’s estimation, Pinchas is even less likeable than David and other leaders who acted in a seemingly unethical manner. Often to avoid talking about Pinchas and how he murdered a more liberal leader and his non-Israelite wife in their bed chamber, commentators focus on the granting of inheritance rights to daughters who had no brothers. As we see even today, good decisions are often later chipped away to become almost meaningless. So, too, we will later read of restrictions on the inheritance rights of females.
Is there then something to discuss comfortably in this week’s portion of Parashat Pinchas? Perhaps it is safest to discuss the unusual nature of this Shabbat which occurs after the fast day of 17 Tammuz. Every year before Tisha B’Av, there are three required Haftorot of Admonition. As a result, we will not read the Haftorah assigned to Pinchas, but rather the one usually associated with Mattot [the Parashah from next week]. These three Haftorot of Admonition are intended to emphasize the imperfections of all of us as indeed Pinchas demonstrates in this week’s portion. However the message does not end there.
It is critical to understand that our imperfections may lead us to acts so vile in violating the mitzvot that we may consequently lose any rights we thought we had, especially with respect to the “Promised” Land. The loss of the two Temples is attributed by many as directly a result of the Israelites not adequately observing the mitzvot.
What will protect us and keep us in the Land of Israel? Will it be keeping the mitzvot well? Will it be a strong military that has both secular and religious participants as well as non-Jewish ones? Will it be the political will of major world powers? Or??? What do you think?
Shavuah Tov! For this coming Shabbat:
Mattot-Masei 5777 Bamidbar [Numbers] 30:2-36:13; Jeremiah 2:4-28, 4:1-2
During our second week of Admonition, our Haftorah again gives us a greater insight into Jeremiah, his works and his views. Perhaps this was done so that we can better appreciate Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, also said to be penned by Jeremiah. In any case, as we gain more insight into Jeremiah, we also tie up loose ends as we finish the Book of Numbers.
The loose end that finishes our double portion of Parashot Mattot-Masei is the continuation of allowing women inheritance rights by whittling away the conditions by which the women could receive and keep their inheritance. [Reminding us of the present whittling away of women’s rights in this country?] It is clear that the tribal leaders [all male] were more concerned with keeping the rights to land allotments within the tribe and less with the welfare of daughters who were effectively abandoned when they married. Any daughter with an inheritance would lose it either to her husband if he was a tribesman or to her nearest male kinsman if the husband were not a tribesman.
So again, we are faced with the question of how do we interpret these Torah stories? Are they to be emulated? It does not seem so.
In this case, it seems that the story is to make us reflect on the status of women and how they are treated in our generation. That this story was even included raises the question whether the scribe was a woman in the Solomonic Royal Court when this book of Torah was written down in its present form!
Do you think that reflection is actually occurring among Torah readers? What conclusions do you think they would reach? Would male readers reach conclusions that differ from female readers? What other stories in Torah seem to bring up issues of women’s rights? Which stories touch on how society treats women, both then and now?
This seems to be a reading very pertinent to our present modern day issues we try to wrestle with. What do you think?Shabbat Shalom!
Dvarim 5777 Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27
During our third week of Admonition, we are still being admonished for our losing sight of the need to be faithful to keeping the mitzvot and to not being tempted by wealth and/or power. Only this time Isaiah is the one who is doing the admonishing.
He starts by very explicit accusations against religious, economic, and political leaders. Then he goes into many allegorical descriptions of violations the people have done. The ending is a cryptic promise of redemption:
“Zion shall be saved in the judgment, Her repentant ones in the retribution.”
So what should we do with these weeks of admonition during which we have been accused of faithlessness? Is this a time period during which we are supposed to list all our failings and especially take note of the ones that might be so severe as to warrant the destruction of a Temple or life as we know it? If so, what do we need to do once we identify those failings?
One custom during the three weeks of Admonition is for each person to write elegies or other heartfelt songs/ poems in the spirit of abject loss and the causes for it as well as suggestions as to how to lift the spirits despite the loss. For instance:
The ninth of av
[can be read with Eicha trop]
how can i express my soul
on a day of such black mourning?
our temples are lost forever,
our homeland has brought world scorning...
no solace i find in praying-
lamentations are all i’m saying-
So gather in your broken hearted
and pray with sorrow
for today we mourn the galut,
life resumes tomorrow.
As we approach the fast of Tisha B’Av next Mon. eve July 31-Tues. Aug. 1, let us take stock of our behaviours towards all others in the world: people, animals, ecosystems, etc. If we find ourselves lacking, may we take steps to correct what we lack. For now, though,
Nachamu Va-Etchanan 5777 Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 3:23-7:11; Isaiah 40:1-26
Comforting the Grieving
“Comfort ye, comfort ye” does start our Nachamu song
After weeks of grieving over what we have done wrong.
We must now prepare for the great joy of Tu B’Av, but never forget
We have seven weeks to prepare for atonement over what we regret.
But for the moment, let us girls all dress in white for our dance
To attract happiness and respite plus perhaps some romance!
How appropriate this week to focus on comfort with two of our families losing loved ones: Marie and David losing their elderly brother[-in-law] and Ellie and Jerry losing a family member to lung cancer on Tisha B’Av. May they be comforted along with all who grieve for family, friends, Zion, Jerusalem, and the world!
Mon. Aug. 8 is Tu B’Av which is a bit like a Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day. [If you do not know of Sadie Hawkins, ask me!]
Do we yet need comforting so much more
As we deal with guilt built up on our shores?
Guilts from within ourselves, in our families too,
Guilts of all in our homes and governments we woo,
In communities at every level, in intents and hearts…
We will certainly now need atonements to restore our pained parts.
So we must be comforted to know
That we can atone and later grow!
Re’eh 5777 Dvarim 11:26-16:17; Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Tools for Comforting
The Dvarim words during the comfort of these weeks
Give us thrice daily prayers to guide our return,
Allow us focus on what more to do we need
To assure success while with good deeds we stand firm.
At first we affirm that to idols we don’t bow low.
Then we agree to recall to pray every day.
Yet while we pray for our promised rewards, we know
It’s our choices, if wise, that will show us the way.
Our choices are described for both evil and good.
So if we choose life, it is surely as we should!
Given the recent events in Charlottesville, we must ask who chooses life? In order to choose life, it needs to be life for everyone. SO it seems clear that the alt-right, white supremacists, neo-nazis, etc. conglomerate is only willing to choose life for a select few that does not include people of color, Jews, LGBTQ, and anyone else they deem as not like them and not worthy of life.
What of the counter protesters? They were not carrying semi-automatics and other deadly weapons. They were not chanting encouragement to violence nor threatening bodily harm to anyone. They were choosing life for everyone. Are you? Shabbat Shalom!
Ki Tetzei 5777 Who Deserves Comfort?;
Dvarim 21:10-25:19; Isaiah 54:1-10
Who Deserves Comfort?
When our souls gathered at the mount, we all for sure agreed
To learn the why’s of mitzvot as we followed each good deed.
We wish, that is to say, to understand the spirit there
Behind Tradition’s ways we’re taught, challenged to repair.
Yet we know the living law must flow in new paths we share:
To kill a wayward child is an act we now would never dare!
Nor would we stone adulterers, nor drink ash-laden fare…
Women are not property. Skin disease we do not shun.
Slavery’s not acceptable. Revenge killing is not done.
Hence we must reach out with kindness to each and every one!
So if we deserve to be comforted, we need to learn
Facts with which to interpret Torah’s guidance that we earn.
We need have no blind following of someone else’s view.
For comforting we offer effort to rethink anew!
Ki Tavo 5777 Awe in Comfort, Comfort in Awe;
Dvarim 26:1-29:8 ; Isaiah 60:1-22
Awe in Comfort, Comfort in Awe
Awe in Law was given to Exodus folk,
Yet the children in forty years recalled but naught…
How to instill that deep awe in desert kin
When to the Promised Land they must now go in?
Twelve pillars of written Law were standing on mountains high,
While in the valley below Priests read out laws to the sky…
Awesome echoes were resounding for all to hear:
A comfort and assurance that HaShem was near!
Nitzavim/ VaYelech 5777 Dvarim 29:9-31:30; Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Comfort from Choosing Life
Why would we all choose to lead ethical lives?
Why to follow good deeds should we choose to strive?
To live a good life, our Torah does describe
Choices with blessings and curses for all.
A choice is given of following mitzvot
‘ere into the pit of disgrace we fall.
Yet to interpret laws and curses they hold
Should we not embrace them in full?
We must learn Rambam’s way of seeing the world
With facts and science outside our schul.
For ignoring history is one sure way to achieve more curses and woe;
While ignoring facts and science will block the paths on which we surely should go.
So we must choose, with eyes open, the most logical way
To live our lives in this real world we’ve been given,
To gain sweet comfort in life as we live day to day
As we learn and understand and love and keep living!