First of 5780-

As we approach Shabbat Shuva, we realize that there are many ways to improve ourselves if only we take the task seriously. I am always amazed when some of the most disabled or limited people at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) reach out to others even at times when it seems to be beyond their means! They clearly take tshuva very seriously...

Shabbat Shuva, VaYelech 5780; Returning; Deuteronomy 31; Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27


Returning a book, returning a soul,

Returning to mitzvot we should go.

As we start a New Year with hope,

We can stay on the Path and not stray

From Tikun Olam, World Repair,

From love your neighbor, feed the poor,

Care for strangers, All respect,

So long ourselves we don’t neglect.


Last of 5779 - Nitzavim:

I and we at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) pray: 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 no-one be punished on my/our account, whether the wrong done to me/us was accidental or malicious, unwitting or purposeful, by word or by deed. May it be Your will, Our Holy One and 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. 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 & Shabbat Shalom & Shana Tova to come!

Nitzavim 5779; Choosing; Deuteronomy 29:9-30; Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9

Choosing Life

Days of Awe are near upon us.

Deep soul searching needs to be done

So amends offered can be made

To clear the air; atonement won-

As we reflect on all we’ve lost:

Teachers, parents, emotions’ costs...

We need to choose to heed mitzvot;

To forgive all; to live with love

Respecting life, the Earth, the Sea;

Repairing what we can, to be

In tune with Hashem’s endless caring…

With widespread mercy so we can see

There is still real hope for our future

If only we work to secure it

For our generations yet to come.

We must choose life for us, for all!


Once more it is the time of year

To reflect on all we have done,

To be forgiving of those near

Who have crossed us, or so we suss,

Although intent might not be there

Forgiveness heals both them and us.

Then, too, our actions we review.

To be forgiven we can ask.

To improve ourselves, start anew,

For this New Year ‘twill be our task!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat HaAzinu 5780; Listening; Deuteronomy 32; 2 Samuel

This week in the portion of Parashat HaAzinu we listen to Moshe’s farewell to the People. We hear his anguish that those People have difficulties following the Laws and Commandments. He reminds them of the natural consequences of their choices.

He knows they need to move on to prepare for battles under Joshua. That means they need to let go of him totally. He does not want them to worship him nor have a shrine to him for pilgrimages. So going up the mountain seemed to be a way of making a clean break. We read earlier in Torah that his attendants said he was buried on the way to Midian [in a place on the plains of Moab]. However Joshua could never find out where. It leaves us with the question of whether he actually made it to his family in Midian for a well earned retirement… He was probably not interested in leading another military campaign – especially since he had taught Joshua pretty much all he knew about military tactics [and many other things…]!

Jewish law required burial within 24 hours of death. Was there someone with Aaron to bury him within 24 hours on Mt. Hor? Why would the plains of Moab be within 24 hours if Moshe had died on Mt. Nebo? Does it matter if we know where Moshe died or was buried? SHABBAT SHALOM!

Sukkot A.Z.: Bees, Pollens, Breeze

Ah! The fresh air, cicadas’ sounds

as we shake lulav all around.

Noon time snoozing - A pollen sneeze!

Can you embrace that quite stiff breeze?

Still hanging walls flap quietly

while cool wind gusts discourage bees...

Love the chicken, squash and peas

with wind chimes, bright stars, shadow trees...

Challah, candles, read Torah too -

A week of Nature for me and you!


We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) welcome the new year of Torah with deeper conviction that we must strive to learn the facts of the world in order to properly understand Torah:

Bereishit 5780; Educated Interpretation; Genesis 1:1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5-43:10

We have learned over the years that Maimonides, the Rambam, was an unparalleled sage of great wisdom. Not everyone takes his teachings as a whole but rather pick and choose the parts they like, sometimes out of context. Therefor his teachings can thusly be misinterpreted. We see this often when people latch onto one statement or story in the liturgy. Without the context and without related passages or stories, the interpretation can be way off.

One of the teachings of the Rambam is that all should learn the facts of our generation in the modern world in order to properly understand and interpret Torah. [Everything else of the liturgy is history, commentary, and/or interpretation.] Hence when we come this week to Bereishit, the first portion / parashah of the first book of Torah, we realize that we are not talking about 24 hour “days” of creation but rather about periods of time or epochs. This stems from the inclusion of understandings from geology, paleontology, and even astronomy which have been learnt in recent times. The sequence of creation we read in Torah seems pretty consistent with the facts we have learned.

Similarly the word usually translated as waters would more accurately be translated as fluids. [There is no separate word in Hebrew or Aramaic for fluids.] While we might wonder whether or not plants developed before or after the consolidation of the heavenly bodies [sun, moon, stars, etc.], the progression of the fluids cooling and coalescing is consistent with the facts learned from the natural sciences.

Yet what is the context of this story of Genesis? Genesis stories abounded during the time of Moshe Rabeinu. Unlike most others, this one has only one deity, HaShem, who is responsible for all that happened. Where did this version of Genesis come from? It seems that it predates Moshe but it [among others] would assuredly have been included in his education in Egypt. Did Moshe or the compiler of the stories in Genesis use this story to introduce the history of the world in order to then lead into the history of the Children of Israel? How important is the story of the Genesis of the World and its life-forms to following the mitzvot and living ethical lives?

Then there is the conundrum of where is or was the Garden of Eden… May the Peacefulness of Eden be a blessing for this Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!

Noach was the righteous man of his times. Does that mean that the standard for righteousness changes generation to generation? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) seek to understand what it is that makes a person righteous even if we can not all be righteous [or can we?]:

Noach 5780; Rebirth; Genesis 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5

Was Noach righteous to allow a rebirth of the earth? The key is that the need for rebirth came from HaShem. What we choose to do now in destroying the earth and the life therein, is not HaShem’s will. There is no guarantee of rebirth. There are only the consequences of our choices and actions… even so as Torah cautioned us. Can we become righteous if we save some of the Earth’s ecosystems and critters? Only time will tell. There are no rainbows of promise…

Afloat on a boat on waves unending -

How do forty days adrift passing feel?

A galley so large for to feed the crew

and varied critters to protect their weal…

Wind howling, G-d scowling with barf bags near…

Was there faith with trust – or perhaps just fear?

I think I would prefer a space ark rather than the sea

with cryogenic chambers of the critters yet to be.

Concentrated food and drink packs to feed those not asleep

As we all wait out the storms for the waters to recede...

Shabbat Shalom!

Now that we are getting into the Torah portions about the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, we are reminded of how important family is. Beit Torah Jewish Congregation (www.onetorah.org) is for us like another family, one we choose. So if conditions change and we have to move elsewhere, we know we can still have family around us:

Lech Lecha 5780; Family; Genesis ch.12-17; Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16

In this week’s parasha of Lech Lecha, when Avram left the idolatry of Chauran with his wife Sarai and nephew Lot, he realized that Lot had matured and would soon need to leave the nest. So after they gained wealth during their sojourn in Egypt, Avram realized it was time to part. Yet they were still family. So when Lot and his family were taken into captivity by invaders, Avram put together an effective fighting force in order to repel the invaders and free the captives [slaves]. He did not want the booty, just his family.

It was a great risk for Avram to go to war. Did he have a choice about whether or not to go to war? How does family affect our choices? How does family affect our risk taking?

We will soon read that Avram valued every part of his extended family including wives, concubines, their children, and all those who followed him. He provided for all of them. Yet his favorites were clearly his wife Sarah and her son Yitzchak who received the most from him.

How do you define your family? What is your position in your family or families? How do you contribute to your families? What benefits do you get from them? How would you make it better?

Are we not all one large family upon this Earth?

Shabbat Shalom!

Due to major car wreck thanks to semi running red light, Rabbi has multiple injuries including broken collarbone. All activities are cancelled until further notice except phone consultations and discussions possible as needed/ desired [928-227-0582]. Newsletter will be sporadic and commentary below is this last week’s- mostly written before the crash. This week is about the life accomplishments of Sarah, Imeinu [e.g. her sons Ishmael [adoptive] and Isaac].

How can we avoid violating one another? Beit Torah Jewish Congregation (www.onetorah.org) works to respect everyone. So we try to be honorable to those in our families as well as those who are not:

VaYera 5780; Incest; Genesis ch.18-22; 2 Kings 4:1-37;  Chayei Sarah - Genesis ch.23-25:18; 1 Kings 1

Families we would all love to be perfect. However, as we see in our lives and read about in the lives of the ancestors, families seem packed with drama. We have had jealous wives, sister-wife deceptions, circumcisions in bulk, and so on. So we are not surprised that our second triennial portion of VaYera deals with, of all things, incest! Yet what is incest and is it ever permissible?

The definition of incest has apparently changed over the generations and from culture to culture. Some say there were no other people during the time of Adam and Eve. So incest was unavoidable. To keep the bloodlines pure, early Egyptian royalty had sister-brother marriages almost exclusively. In Abraham’s circles one could marry a half-sib if the couple were borne by different mothers.

Then there is the story of Lot… His daughters thought they were the last people on the planet. So they seduced their drunk father. None of these folk were punished for their relationships. Indeed the resultant grandsons of Lot later founded great nations.

So what is incest and when is it permissible? Come Shabbat: Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  

Due to major car wreck thanks to semi running red light, Rabbi has multiple injuries including broken collarbone. All activities are cancelled until further notice except phone consultations and discussions possible as needed/ desired [928-227-0582]. Newsletter will be sporadic and commentary below is this last week’s- mostly written before the crash. This week is about the life accomplishments of Sarah, Imeinu [e.g. her sons Ishmael [adoptive] and Isaac].

How can we avoid violating one another? Beit Torah Jewish Congregation (www.onetorah.org) works to respect everyone. So we try to be honorable to those in our families as well as those who are not:

A couple old commentaries:

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!

Toldot 5775 Water Rights

During our reading so far in Bereishit [Genesis], we have learned that Avraham, Sarah, and their kin lived for some time in the cosmopolitan city of Ur. As camel route traders, they would have been highly educated. Certainly if Sarai was a princess priestess, as her name appears to indicate, she would need to have been well educated in royal priestess duties, herbology, etc. According to Josephus, Avraham was a superb teacher of math and astronomy. Early in their travels, when they fled to Egypt from the famine in Canaan, it is said that Avraham supported himself and those with him by teaching math and science.

So it would be no surprise if Avraham and Sarah kept records of everything they did even as royalty kept such records through the use of scribes. Of course such a record would likely include detailed stories about the use of the brother/ husband – sister/ wife escapades. However more mundane dealings would have been recorded such as when famines and droughts happened and where wells were dug and what became of them.

Hence it is no surprise that in the lives of Rifka and Yitzchak, as recorded in this week’s portion of Parashat Toldot, there are clear reminders that the family knew of all these exploits of Avraham and Sarah [ch.26-27]. For example, we read that Yitzchak and Rifka tried the sister/ wife ploy when sojourning in Gerar during a famine in Canaan. However Avimelech would have none of it. He told them plainly that he remembered well when Sarah and Avraham visited.

Further, Yitzchak tried to excavate the old wells his father had dug. As with Avraham before him, he met with opposition by the locals. Again Avimelech stepped in, broke up the row, and confirmed Yitzchak’s water rights to some of the wells.

Why was Avimelech so protective of Yitzchak? What other commonalities are there between the lives of Sarah and Avraham and of Rifka and Yitzchak? How did such commonalities affect their children? May we successfully explore the generational repetitions during this Shabbat’s discussion. Shabbat Shalom!


VaYetzei 5775 Wise Husbands and Husbandry [Bereishit 28:10 - 32:2]

As we continue the saga of Avraham’s family, we focus this week on the survival of Yaacov, Avraham’s grandson. In this Parasha of VaYetzei, Yaacov goes to relatives at the north end of the coastal camel route both to escape the wrath of his brother Esau and to search for a wife among the relatives.

Although tricked into marrying both twins Leah and Rachel, we learn that he was a good husband to both and included them in important family decisions [31:15-16]. Despite the rivalry between the two sisters as to who would bear more sons, it is clear that they worked together for the best welfare of the family.

We also learn that Yaacov had good powers of observation so that he could breed for strong speckled and striped ovines. However, like any company protecting trade secrets, he led others to believe that he achieved this by the magic of whittled rods.

Since Yaacov came from a family of well-educated people who passed on their education [at least in part] to their most promising offspring, it makes one wonder what [if any] education Laban passed on to his offspring. Clearly his daughters, Rachel and Leah, were no dummies, but did they learn that wisdom from Yaacov after they were married?

Apparently Laban’s sons were jealous bullies. This led to Yaacov and his wives deciding to flee the clutches of Laban and their brothers. So like his paternal grandparents in Egypt before him, Yaacov left an uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous situation with his entire family and much wealth in livestock and followers while being told not to come back ever.

Is making lemonade out of lemons a family tradition? How influential and important is parental education of offspring? How does that affect us now in modern times? This Shabbat, let us reflect on how parental influence and education affect us all in the paths of our lives. Shabbat Shalom!

another oldie:

VaYishlach 5776 Natural Consequences; Bereishit 32:4-36:43; Ovadia 1-20

This week’s portion of Parashat VaYishlach continues the saga of Yaacov’s family, both with his brother and with his offspring. Plotting and deception continue throughout these stories. Whether or not these plots are justified depends on the narrator or the context. What is clear is that plots and deceptions are not necessarily evil nor necessarily justified.

Was Yaacov’s ploy to divide up his family into two camps justified by his fear of Esau’s wrath? Was the slaughter by Shimon and Levi of the men of Shechem, recovering from circumcision, justified by the rape of their sister Dinah by the Prince of Shechem despite the peace treaty arranged by their father Yaacov and the King of Shechem? Was the flight of Yaacov and his host back to BethEl and Hevron justified by the fear of neighbors wanting to avenge the deaths at Shechem? Was Reuven justified in assuming the leadership when his father left the area?

Each of these scenarios had natural consequences resulting from the choices made to plot and/or deceive. Given that Esau had matured and grown wealthy while Yaacov had become more [perhaps overly-] cautious, the reunion of Esau with Yaacov avoided dangers to both tribes. It was perhaps a good natural consequence of further enriching and assuaging Esau by Yaacov.

On the other hand. Could anything ever justify the slaughter of the men of Shechem? Not only did the hot headed actions of Shimon and Levi get them to lose their birthright inheritances, but also there were further natural consequences for the rest of the family.

During the rush to leave the area, the strain was too difficult for both Devorah, Rachel’s nurse midwife, and for Rachel during childbirth. Both died. Was Yaacov’s fear of the neighbors justified? There is no way to know for sure from what we read in Torah. Could it have been from misinformation supplied by Reuven [and maybe his lover, Bilhah, the concubine?] to help set himself up as clan leader instead of his father?

As far as Reuven’s actions are concerned, we need to look at the contemporary context. It was common for the firstborn to take over all the duties of the father upon the father’s death. It was also common for the firstborn to take the father’s concubines as their own upon the death of the father. However, Yaacov was not dead. Neither had he assigned any inheritance to his sons like Yitzchak had to him years before. The natural consequences of Reuven’s trying to usurp his father’s position included his later loss of his anticipated inheritance and his birthright.

Each of these vignettes rely on choices, good and bad, by members of Yaacov’s family. Each of these might or might not be justified. Do what seem to be the natural consequences explain whether or not the choices were justified?

All this reminds that history is written by the victor. There is only one version presented to us. In contrast, we are given three versions of the genealogy of Esau, probably from multiple references used by the editor[s]/writer[s] of Bereishit, Genesis, during the reign of Solomon and his sons. Since this is the last mention of Esau in Torah, and since we have no corroborating documents, we may never resolve the discrepancies for this case of multiple accounts for the same event nor for the many other similar cases in Torah.

How can we wade through the layers of deceptions, confusions, and multiple versions in Torah episodes in order to find the truth? Do we need to? Shabbat Shalom!

How can we avoid violating one another? Beit Torah Jewish Congregation (www.onetorah.org) works to respect everyone. So we try to be honorable to those in our families as well as those who are not:

An old commentary:

VaYeishev 5775 Righteousness; Bereishit ch. 37-40; Amos 2:6-3:8

It is strange that when we read of the lineage of the righteous king Solomon, we usually find the emphasis on the male lineage. We hear of the house of Judah and of King David who was most challenged in the area of righteousness. We also hear of Boaz who was a decent man. However it was the righteousness of Naomi and especially of Rut that led eventually to the birth of Solomon. Yet even before those righteous women spun their tale, there was a first righteous woman during the time of the sons of Yaacov in Canaan.

As we read in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYeishev (Bereishit [Genesis] ch. 38), Judah married a local woman who bore him three sons. He married off the oldest to a woman called Tamar. However this son died before Tamar could bear him an heir. As was the custom, Judah then had Tamar marry his second son in a Levirate marriage so that she could bear a child on his older brother’s name. The second son, it is said, also displeased HaShem and died.

Judah told Tamar then to wait until his youngest son became old enough to marry. However he continued to procrastinate. Tamar feared she would become too old to bear children if she waited much more.

Now people back then were really not much different than people now. Some were observant and others walked around in a fog. We know Yaacov was observant as he figured out how to breed for spotted and striped livestock. Women were no less observant.

For thousands of years women had been tracking their cycles relative to lunar cycles. At least some of them figured out when during their cycles they would be most fertile. So when Judah became a widower and went to shear sheep, folk within his clan [unhappy with his procrastination] worked with Tamar to set her up to seem to be a harlot along the way to the sheep. Judah could not resist but had no payment. So he left tokens as an I.O.U: his signet and his staff as collateral. The then pregnant Tamar was vindicated by Judah when she presented his tokens of good faith. He called her righteous. One of the twins she bore was a paternal line ancestor to King Solomon.

Who are the righteous women you have known? Let us enjoy sharing our tales of righteous women this Shabbat!

 Shabbat Shalom!

Miketz 5780 Bereishit 41:1-44:17; Shabbat Chanukah1, Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Miracles and Miracles 5780 Chanukah1

It is a season of miracles,

Ones for which our gratitude continues

from millennia ago even

to technological present venues…

Whether lighting candles to restore joys

or living despite reckless boys with toys,

we embrace each other in celebration

with hopes we can heal this divided nation…

Shabbat Chanukah Shalom!

another oldie:

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 young 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!

another mostly oldie:

VaYechi combo 5775,77,80 Ethics & Origins,

Bereishit [Genesis Ch. 47:28-50:26]; 1 Kings 2:1-12

As we finish the first book of Torah [Bereishit] this week, we realize that it has shared with us stories of many origins such as: the origin of this planet, the origin of good and evil, the origin of plant and animal diversity, the origin of human diversity, the origins of some specific livelihoods and talents, and the origin of the Israelites. At the end of this book, each tribe receives blessings and ethical cautions as well as descriptions of their strengths in livelihoods.

Why is it important for a people to know about these various origins? What difference does it make to recall who developed tent dwelling or figured out how to make metal tools, who developed a system of music and musical instruments or organized a consistent method of singing?

How significant can any of this be when we only have names of inventors and no stories to fill in details of context or of how they achieved their inventions? Were they the first inventors or only the people who brought these inventions to a specific locale?

Perhaps today the only significance we can attach is that there was a logical, gradual progression along a path of advancement to civilization and urbanization, from nomadic hunting to raising livestock and then to agriculture! Yet the last of the origin stories in Bereishit are the ones which give us an identity of who we are and where we come from. They tell us of our imperfections and our potentials. They hint at how we can live ethical, righteous lives. Yaacov blessed his sons and predicted their ethical and livelihood pathways while gaining two more sons (Ephraim and Menashe) of his beloved wife, Rachel, when he adopted 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.

Still, we will need to wait until the next books to learn about the origins of our laws and the ensuing battles we fought to encourage others to accept them [? impose them on others?] What interest do you have in the stories of our origins? How should we use them to guide and improve our lives? Do we need all of them? There is much to ponder and discuss this Shabbat… 

 Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazek! Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!

Shabbat Shalom!

another mostly oldie:

Shemot 5776, ‘77, ‘80 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, 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.

We know that had Yosef not been trained in the ways of the Egyptian court, he would never have been able to save people from the prolonged famine. Had Moshe not been raised in the way of Egyptian nobility, diplomacy, and military strategy; then he would not have been able to lead the mixed multitude out of Egypt and through the wilderness and desert. He also would not have been able to train Joshua in military arts.

Of course, Moshe’s being taken in by the Midianite leadership as family helped with the later stages of desert wandering. Similarly, Yosef being oriented to Egyptian ways by the household of a Potiphar helped him to be ready to learn the ways of the Egyptian court.

Yosef had the concerns of many peoples beside his family to consider as did Moshe later with the expanded tribes and mixed multitude. The overall circumstances may have changed, but the challenges were very similar. In all, Egyptian education meshed with Israelite values was critical to the successes of both Yosef and Moshe. Many believe that the circumstances of their lives were guided by the Holy One. Are these beliefs in the five books of Moshe or other 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 5777, ‘75. ‘80 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. It is not a stretch to think that when Moshe went into exile in Midian, he kept in touch with friends in many far away places. So when multiple natural disasters started in the Middle East, and particularly around the Mediterranean, Moshe heard rather quickly about all the bad news. Hence Moshe was able to choose to use these natural events to his benefit. 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. There are investigators, as cited by Rabbi Reeve [Reuven] Brenner, who convincingly tie the second through ninth plagues to the effects of a series of massive volcanic eruptions on Santorini Island, some even the first as well.

The earlier plagues could be explained by volcanic explosions such as the two preceding the massive third volcanic explosion as well as that massive one and the after explosion which destroyed half of the island of Thera not even 500 miles from Egypt. Red metal poisoning of the water from falling volcanic residues would kill the fish and cause the frogs to flee the water. Ash in the air would irritate the skin and cause it to feel like lice or other skin ailments. Insects would feed on the dead fish and later flee before the ash laden air seeking food and shelter where-ever they could. Sufficient irritation of the skin from the ash would lead to scratching and infectious boils. Fiery hail sounds like brimstone from a massive volcanic eruption. So the vegetation and the livestock were debilitated and killed bringing wild beasts to feast on their carcasses. Moshe may well have known about these effects and used them to to his advantage in his dealings with Pharaoh. As for the last plague, that too can be explained by a natural event. However that is more complex an explanation and for further discussion next week.

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!