Commentaries for 5779
Shabbat Shuva 5779 VaYeilech; Are Services Spectator Sports?
Dvarim 31; Hoshea 14:2-10 & Yoel 2:15-27 & Micah 7:18-20
Here we are at the Shabbat of Return between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is a time when all Jews are encouraged to go to services to participate and not be spectators. This is said to be particularly important for this Shabbat of return for many reasons such as: to better the success of our atonement experience; to assure getting a minyan [quorum] when many are tired out by the Rosh HaShanah experience with lots of family and services; to encourage greater participation in synagogue events; etc. One reason spread by some Rabbis is that complete attendance by all Jews everywhere on Shabbat Shuva would bring the Moshiach!
Obviously any business adventure needs to find adequate funding in order to continue. Often a paid ticket is requested to attend either through regular dues or via ticket sales. [To a certain extent this is counter-productive as the process to get a financial exemption frequently is a demeaning and embarrassing experience.]
So how do the religious groups try to draw in attendance? One option is to make the event into a spectacle. Some use new music, songs, and jokes to make the service “different” and more “enjoyable”. Particularly disturbing in traditional views is when the congregation claps after each song and joke. Are they treating services like a movie or a theatre play? Have these services and others where there is little if any “audience” participation become like spectator sports?
Are there any discussions about the service contents afterwards? Do any reflections on repentance and amends occur in these folk during the Ten Days of Awe? Do older folk participate more than the youth? How do you plan to participate?
We are all connected. If our youth are brought up as spectators, who will be responsible for our communities in the future? May we all find our ways to repent, make amends, and return to the mitzvot! Shabbat Shalom!
Please submit this week the names of loved ones you want added to the memorial remembrance list for 5779!
Shabbat HaAzinu 5779 ; History in a Song; Dvarim 32; 2 Samuel 22
When you read a history book, how long does it take for your attention to wander and drift? If you read or heard the history as an ode or song, would you be able to be more attentive?
So, too, people of every generation seem to be able to retain information from poems and songs more easily than by rote story or prose. Is that why In Torah we get the third version of our history as a poetic song from Moshe? It summarizes our history for those people about to enter the Promised Land, about to be faced with the spectacle of twelve pillars.
What are the events that you remember most vividly in your life? Why do you think these events were most memorable?
We are now in a season of attempting redress of our past errors, of forgiving others for their past errors [if we do not, we give them power over us to hurt us], and of resolving to improve our adherence to the Law, the Mitzvot. What could happen to make this season most memorable for us?
As a parent lies on the cusp between life and death at this time, this season will certainly be a most memorable one… Yet is there a lesson of improvement that will come from this experience? Or just sorrow and grief?
May we all have a memorable season leading us onto a path toward betterment! Tzom kal… Gmar Chatima Tova… and then Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Bereishit 5779 ; Beginning; Bereishit 1-6:8; Isaiah 42:5 - 43:10
Beginnings. Once more, Torah reading starts from creation, the beginning. A New Year, a New Beginning without our loved ones who passed from this plane of existence before the final securing of the gates for the year at the end of Sukkot after the last of sins were shed symbolically by the beating of the willow branches.
This year was so warm and dry that the willow branches quite easily lost their leaves representing the last of our sins. Did we feel purified and ready for a new beginning after we beat those willow branches on Hoshanah Rabah [seventh day of Sukkot]?
We will not be restarting Creation with this New Year of 5779. However we need to wonder if we will be unwinding creation this year. How will the creatures of the world fare? Will they be allowed a new beginning during this upcoming year? What devastation of plant life will occur? What will the world look like when we arrive at the beginning of 5780 in about a year?
In the meantime we have the opportunity now to begin again with ever improving approaches to tikun olam, repair of the world. Will you embrace that opportunity? If so, how? If not, why?
May we all begin along a path, embraced to lead us all to contributing to Tikun Olam!
Apologies for no commentary last week during Sukkot due to Rabbi Adele’s sitting with her failing and then deceased Mother in Tennessee. Baruch Dayan HaEmet! Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Noach 5779 ; Drowning; Bereishit 6:9-11:32; Isaiah 54:1-55:5
Drowning. We all often say that we are drowning in debt, drowning in grief, drowning in obligations and responsibilities, drowning in politics, and so on. What are our feelings when we feel we are drowning? Do we feel fear, anger or loss? Do we feel guilt that maybe we made wrong choices which led us into such a drowning mess?
Certainly it would not be a surprise if people drowning in the Mabul, the Great Flood, experienced regret that they had not chosen to listen to Noach’s warnings. They would have blamed themselves for choosing to abuse Noach and for disregarding what he said. Would they have regretted the unethical paths they had chosen to follow during their lives? - or even realized the evils they had done?
So, too, in modern times we have many choices to make. If some of us choose to follow unethical paths, will it make a difference to the world? If some of us choose greed, power, profits, and selfishness will it adversely impact the future of the world?
This week a United Nations report came out that makes it clear that global warming and climate change are progressing faster than previously predicted. It points out that we have very little time, maybe 11 or 12 years, to counteract the effects before the warming becomes runaway and massive destructive forces will be released: irreversible destructive forces.
Can we make choices that will halt the runaway climate effects? If not us, who can? Will we be faced with another worldwide catastrophe due to our bad choices just like the people of the world faced when they chose not to believe Noach’s warnings?
It is a terrifying time. What can you choose to do to help stop such a catastrophe? An ark is not enough... Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Lech Lecha 5779 ; Listening; Bereishit 12:1-17:27; Isaiah 40:27-41:16
We are often told to “go with the flow”. Is that another way of saying that we should listen to the world around us? Was that what Avram did when he decided to go west to Chauran? Ur had been taken over by Elamites who did not like Semites at all. Was that why one of Avram’s brothers “died”? The Elamite invasion was a good reason for camel caravan traders and Semites to settle elsewhere.
Yet trade does not stay around one city. It radiates east/west and north/south. The family however probably did not want to continue to trade given the Elamites’ nastiness to the East. So where was Avram to go? His brother went north to Padan-Aram and Haran for good grazing and water resources. Avram went south with his nephew, Lot, towards Canaan. He listened to the world around him. We are told that he listened to HaShem who guided him to make choices to be safe.
Still, Avram made choices of his own based on his self-confidence to use his resources according to what he felt was ethical. He saved peoples taken into slavery along with his nephew, Lot, and refused to take from the spoils of the conflict.
Avram listened to his ethical conscience. Do we listen to our ethical consciences? Do we act on what we hear in an ethical/ moral fashion? Are we in listening mode to the world around us and to HaShem? Should we be hearing the death cries of the animals and the forests, of the oceans and their denizens? Should we be listening?
Shavuah Tov! Repeating
Do we find ourselves repeating what our parents did when responding to certain situations? Do we repeat the actions we have seen or heard about in stories or liturgy? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) pray that any repeats are done after careful consideration of whether they are ethically solid and consistent with the Mitzvot. Yet repeating seems to be a human way to respond to similar situations as we read in this week's portion:
Toldot 5779 ; Repeating; Bereishit 25:19-28:9; Malachai 1:1-2:7
We all approach life based on our experiences of what we have done and seen as well as the stories which have inspired us such as in family histories, movies, theatre, liturgy, etc. So, too, we read in this week’s portion of Parashat Toldot that such approach was the case of Yitzchak and Rivka who heard the stories about the successful sister-wife ploy used twice by Avraham and Sarah! What they didn’t count on was that family stories were also passed down in Abimelech’s family. So when they tried the sister-wife ploy again, Abimelech called them on it. Despite this, they updated the water strife agreements and parted amicably.
Similarly, they later repeated the practice of Avraham and Sarah in which the younger [more deserving] son received the physical and spiritual inheritance from their parents. Yitzchak received instead of Ishmael and Yaacov instead of Esau. So, too, King David’s son Solomon became King instead of his older brother, Adonijah.
In the Haftorah from last week about the last days of King David, Adonijah was trying to become King before David died. Was it general conduct among those who felt entitled to try to depose their fathers or was it a repeat recalling how Yaacov’s son Reuven tried to take over the tribe before Yaacov died?
Have you ever based your actions on family stories you have heard? Have you ever voted for or against what your parents would have voted without considering the issues at hand? Are stories in Torah to be emulated or should they be evaluated to decide if one should repeat them or not?
As we are often told, if we do not remember history, we are doomed to repeat it – be it for good or for ill. May we all be wise enough to figure out which stories of the past are worthy of being repeated!
Shavuah Tov! Journeying
Shavuah Tov! Reconciling/ Protecting/ Sending
It seems to be a human thing that we do not listen carefully to others or that we presume things about them based on our biases or ... so that relationships with friends and particularly with family members often sour and seem irreparable. Yet we expect that family should be there for us... or do we? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) try to be a family to all, a place to go to just in case... However Yaacov only had one brother to turn to as we read in this week's parashah of VaYishlach:
VaYishlach 5779 ; Reconciling/ Sending/ Protecting; Bereishit 32:4-36:43; Ovadia 1:1-21
We have all heard the wisdom that you can not pick your family though you can pick your friends. Yet if family relationships have gone sour, how does one determine if reconciliation is called for?
In Yaacov [Jacob]’s case, he needed desperately to make peace with his brother, Esau, as he could no longer stay in the lands of Uncle Laban without great risk to his and his families welfare. He had to return to the land of his parents.
Yet both he and his brother had fears of how meeting with each other would turn out. Both were ready for the worst case scenario: Yaacov by splitting his entourage into two camps, thereby protecting at least some of them while sending one camp to meet Esau while holding the other one back in safety; Esau by bringing a large number of troops with him. Were their intentions pure when trying to reconcile? We can not be sure about Esau who offered to accompany Yaacov’s folk to a distant location. Wisely, Yaacov refused and went to camp closer [Sukkot] where the young of the children and the flock could more easily and safely rest up from the arduous journey. Yet future interactions seemed amicable.
Have you ever had a falling out with a friend or family member? Did you ever wonder whether it was worthwhile to try to reconcile? If so, how did you try to reconcile? Did it work?
Every year we encourage people to make amends and reconcile between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that all year round?
In the present atmosphere of 'fake news' and deceptive announcements/ advertisements, where should we draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not? If someone else is spreading lies, would that justify our getting down in the muck with them and spread lies as well? We at Beit Torah do not think so. What does Torah say? Perhaps we can get an idea from this week's parasha of VeYeshev:
VaYeshev 5779 ; Deceiving; Bereishit 37:1-40:23; Amos 2:6-3:8
Is deception always wrong? This week in the portion of Parashat VaYeshev, we have three stories with deception as a core element. When the brothers sent Yosef into slavery, they ended up deceiving their father, Yaakov, into thinking that Yosef had been killed by a wild beast.
When Yehudah denied Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law, a Levirate marriage, Tamar ended up deceiving him into getting her pregnant by pretending to be a harlot. This deception is apparently universally accepted as a righteous deception used to correct a wrong.
Thirdly, when Potiphar’s wife had her sexual advances rejected by Yosef, she deceived the Pharaoh's staff into thinking that Yosef had tried to sexually assault her. Based on her high status, she was believed and Yosef was incarcerated.
We are told in our readings that had the brothers not deceived their father and had Potiphar’s wife not deceived the Pharaoh's staff, then Yosef would not have become Grain Vizier to Pharaoh and our People would have succumbed to the famine. So we are faced with trying to decide when deceiving others is acceptable behaviour.
What do you think are good reasons to act deceptively? Can living by mitzvot ever allow you to deceive others? Are we permitted to pursue justice or safety through deception? Lots to ponder.
the Light Grow 5779 Chanukah
Little candles added one by one
Let the light grow stronger like the sun,
Brighter and brighter for all week long,
Filled with love and almost joyous song.
Yes, we were all saved but at what price?
Our freedom to worship is quite nice…
Yet then we denied that to others,
Leading to Herod and false brothers…
Still at this moment we can rejoice
O’er the principle of freedom’s voice,
If only we can keep in view
That all deserve these freedoms too.
Miketz 5779 ; Dreaming; Bereishit 41:1-44:17; Zechariah 2:14-4:7
What do dreams mean? Modern psychology would have us believe that dreams are expressions of our deepest desires, hopes, and fears. More ancient beliefs view dreams as prescient, predicting the future if only they can be interpretted correctly.
Earlier in Torah we read about Abimelech having a dream that Sarah was Avraham’s wife. He was able to interpret his own dreams without a dream interpretter. Hence he was considered a prophet. Are there two kinds of dreams: dreams of our hopes and fears as one kind and prophetic dreams as the other? If so, do they feel the same when dreamt?
Since Joseph was a child when he first had prophetic dreams, perhaps he needed to mature before he became a prophet who could interpret his and others’ prophetic dreams. By the time he was an adult in Pharaoh’s prison, he was able to accurately interpret dreams.
In this week’s portion of Parashat Miketz, Pharaoh had disturbing dreams. He sought a competent dream interpretter. At that point, Yoseph was remembered and came into the good graces of the Pharaoh for whom he interpretted dreams and accordingly built and managed storehouses of food for the eventual famine.
Did Yoseph realize at that point what his childhood dreams meant? Was that part of a plan to be there when the famine forced his brothers to ask to buy food in Egypt? Or- did it only occur to him when his brothers presented themselves for food?
Have you ever had a dream that seemed to predict an event that then happened? Did you take it as a prediction or recognize it only in hindsight? Do you even remember your dreams?
We all dream of a better tomorrow. What can we do better to achieve that desire?
Shavuah Tov! Blessings
How many versions of our Law are there? If we looks at the USA, each state has its own version and the Federal code is yet different as well. Local codes often expand upon or limit the codes of the county, state, or nation - sometimes for the betterment of the weal of folk and sometimes not so. Yet how did we get to such a multilayered pattern of government and jurisprudence? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) suspect that a lot was taken from the stories of the Exodus and the advice Yitro gave his son-in-law, Moshe:
Yitro 5779 ; Delegating; Shemot [Exodus] 18:1-20:23;
Isaiah 6:1 - 7:6; 9:5 - 9:6, Sephardim Isaiah 6:1-13
How Could Moshe keep things under control when shepherding hundreds of thousands of refugees across a wilderness? He had traversed that route many times alone or with a few others [such as family]. From the Sea of Reeds to the pass into what is now Arabia was a trip that would take longer the more people there were travelling. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Moshe sent his wife and children on ahead to his father-in-law’s home in Midian not far from that pass. Did he also know there was increased danger for the weakest stragglers from Amalekite bandits? Was that another reason he sent his family on ahead?
So fearful hungry and disheartened people finally cleared the narrow pass where the bandits attacked. Bickering and complaining, lamenting and weeping, they had no focus nor goal for the future. The locals [Edomites and Midianites] had no spare resources and did not want all those unruly refugees. They needed to find space further east and south to camp. What was Moshe to do?
First off then he needed to restore order and provide a framework for cooperation among the tribes and unaffiliated. How? That is when his father-in-law, Yitro, came on the scene. Bringing back Moshe’s family to Moshe allowed Yitro a chance to evaluate the mess his son-in-law had on his hands. Then he could share his knowledge of governing which basically was delegating. Different courts were to be set up within each tribe for different levels of complaints and crimes. The most difficult cases would be sent to a combined court. Only the absolutely worst or most complicated would be brought before Moshe. Delegation clearly worked.
Moshe was then able to focus on providing the laws by which the people would live and the goal for all to eventually go north and across the [Jordan] River to the ancestral homeland. This week’s portion of Parashat Yitro provides some details to the judicial system and the first version of the giving of the Law, in this case the Decalogue, ten terms to the contract [brit] with HaShem. Stay tuned for more versions of what happened at Mt. Sinai!
What laws do you abide by? Do your views of Jewish law sometimes conflict with U.S. law? If so, how? Which do you choose to follow?- or do you just delegate that choice to others?
Mishpatim 5779 ; Judging; Shemot [Exodus] 21:1-24:18;
Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-6
Where do our laws come from? They just do not pop out of the air. There are earlier cultures, each with its own set of laws. We know that our ancestors were influenced early on by Hurrites, Hittites, Egyptians, Midianites, and others. Later on they will be influenced by Babylonian, Greek and Roman cultures as well as others. Each tribe has its own collection of laws.
So now that the People have heard [but not understood] the main terms of their covenant with HaShem, and now that a common judicial framework has been set up with the guidance of Yitro, Moshe needs to tailor all those past sets of laws into one common law consistent with the values and ethics that Moshe understood are desired by HaShem. These laws and a later addendum to the laws are found in this week’s portion of Parashat Mishpatim.
However the laws needed to be codified in writing. So we get a second account of how we received the law at Mt. Sinai. Moshe, Aaron and his two older sons, and seventy elders of the tribes went partly up the mountain to feast before HaShem. Did they agree then to all the laws to be held in common at this conference? Were there compromises among the leaders as to what were crimes and what punishments were appropriate?
Torah is called a living document because the laws can be interpretted and updated with the times as new facts come to be understood. Are there laws in use today that you think are not consistent with Torah Law? If so, which and why? May our laws continually mature and become more rational and compassionate!
What do you do with your spare time? What do you do with your resources which are beyond your essential needs? Do you contribute to the betterment of the world around you? We at Beit Torah encourage all to contribute their utmost to the world around the: phone help lines; volunteer help for children, the disabled, the needy, or etc.; helping the environment; and so on... Free will offerings helped the Israelites get back on track with the building of the Tabernacle as we read in this week's portion of Parashat Terumah:
Terumah 5779 ; Contributing; Shemot [Exodus] 25:1-27:19; I Kings 5:26-6:13
Children become quite attached to things: Linus blankets, stuffed toys, favorite shirts, best loved people, etc. These give them comfort and perhaps a feeling of safety, reassuring then that there is consistency in the world around them. We all hope that our children will mature and grow to realize that the most important things are those we hold dear in our hearts: compassion, respect, love…
Yes, we all need ‘things’. Our minimal survival needs rank high on that list. However once these needs are met, we tend to use the excess resources selfishly. Greed, ego, arrogance, boastfulness, materialism, bullying, and other evil inclinations all beckon to those who have resources beyond their needs. It is also important to note that resources are not just financial [e.g. money] and properties. They also include our productive skills and time. That is why so many codes of law and religion encourage contributing to the needy, encourage contributing to Tikun Olam, Repair of the World, in many fashions.
How can we repair the world? So we need to save the world ecosystem? Do we need to insure all people their minimal survival needs? So we need to beautify our environment? Do we need to encourage and teach others to embrace Tikun Olam?
A hint may be in this week’s portion of Parashat Terumah. In order to build the Tabernacle, terumot, free will offerings of gold, silver, etc. were collected. We read that these were the resources beyond their survival needs that people were contributing willingly. Hence the title of this week’s parashah.
Unfortunately the good teachings are often forgotten or ignored throughout the generations. So, for instance, taxes were levied for Temple maintenance and repair. What would you do with resources beyond what would cover your living essentials? Do you embrace Tikun Olam? Shouldn’t we all?
Shavuah Tov! Illuminating
I would hope that we all work towards being the good people we think we are. Yet what guidebook do we use to determine what a good person truly is? Which Laws are the ones we need to hold close and keep in the light of our minds and hearts? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) look to Torah for guidance even as this week's parasha enjoins us to keep the Law continually in the light:
Tetzaveh 5779 ; Illuminating; Shemot [Exodus] 27:20-30:10; Ezekiel 43:10-27
Most of us all enjoy laser light shows, parades, beautiful art, and the like. They are a calming respite from the difficulties life dishes out to us. Yet they are just things, things we can survive well without if we have to, just like not having a Temple run by Cohanim, Priests.
As this week’s portion of Parashat Tetzaveh continues the description of the things in the Tabernacle and the attire of the Priests, it also describes how to sanctify them with blood and other practices. Much of what is described would nauseate the sensibilities of modern folk. The Health Departments would also be most displeased.
So what can we take to be a good modern teaching from this Parasha? It appears the first verse says it all. We need to have the Law continuously in the light. We need to keep the mitzvot illuminated and never let them recede into darkness. While there is some discussion as to whether the Ner Tamid, Eternal Light, being lit 24/7 is the right approach or whether illuminating the Law during the hours of darkness is sufficient, in both cases the Law will constantly be in the light and hopefully ever present in our minds and hearts.
Do we embrace the Mitzvot 24/7 and keep them ever in the light? Do you? Or do we hide some of the mitzvot in darkness as irrelevant, outdated, or not needed? How best can we manage Illuminating the Law at all times?
May we all learn to live continuously in the light!
VaYachel 5779 ; Shekalim; Building; Shemot [Exodus] 35:1-38:20;
II Kings 11:17 - 12:17 for Sephardim; Ashkenazim start at 12:1
So finally we get to read in this week’s portion of Parashat VaYachel about the actual building of the Mishkan [Tabernacle]]. Since we have an extra month this year, this short portion is read by itself instead of combined with next week’s portion of Pekudei. Also because of the leap year, this Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim. Shekalim were the currency of Biblical times as noted in last weeks portion where a head tax of half a shekel was levied on the able-bodied men.
Today we symbolically contribute shekalim on Purim to maintain our congregations and other Jewish institutions as well as to help support the needy especially in order to enable them to fully participate in Pesach [Passover] observances. Obviously we also contribute modern currency to these causes!
Hence having the funds to pay the construction workers helped move forward the building of the Mishkan. The Mishkan was to be the resting place for the Shechina, the Holy Presence. Yet we are taught that HaShem is everywhere. Nonetheless, many feel that they need a dedicated place to retreat to when wanting to commune with HaShem.
What kind of Mishkan can be provided to modern folk? Is a temple or synagogue sufficient? - Or – Are there too many distractions in such places to allow for effective communing?
Can we each within ourselves find a quiet place to be a Mishkan where we can commune with HaShem? What other purposes could a modern Mishkan serve?
How do you define communing with HaShem? Where is your Mishkan? May we all succeed in building an effective Mishkan for ourselves!
What shines light upon our paths forward? How can we finish making plans without a guiding light? Does Torah play a part in providing that guiding light for you? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) try to help each other find our guiding lights in the presence of the Shechina, which the people in biblical times believed was centered in the Mishkan as described in the last portion of the Book of Exodus, Parashat Pekudei:
Pekudei 5779 ; Finishing; Shemot [Exodus] 38:21-40:38;
I Kings 7:40-50 for Sephardim; I Kings 7:51-8:21 for Ashkenazim
As we come this Shabbat to finishing the Book of Shemot [Exodus] with the portion of Parashat Pekudei, we read about the finishing of the Mishkan. What was so important about having a Mishkan [Tabernacle]? The People needed a tangible place to be the home for HaShem, so that they could feel close to and loved by HaShem. Much later, when the second Temple was in disrepair, the use of local shrines was approved by the King and the Priests. De facto, they were a forerunner of modern Temples and Synagogues.
What was in the Tabernacle of HaShem? Among other things there were the ark of the Covenant [brit], the scrolls of the laws, and the eternal flame [light] so that the laws would never be in the dark. In this enclosed place [likely with a ceiling vent], the eternal flame would have produced considerable smoke. When vented upward, it would seem like a cloud enveloping the Mishkan. At night, the flames probably would be visible for quite a distance: a cloud by day and a fire by night.
Today we have other places where we place the scrolls of Torah, most often in an ark within a synagogue [schul, temple]. A Ner Tamid [eternal light] is placed nearby [literally an eternal candle, oil or wax]. What we no longer have is the ark of the Covenant. Some claim it is in Ethiopia, as described in the book, ‘The Sign and the Seal’. Some claim it is beneath the Temple Mount. No one knows for sure.
Do we need that ark for a modern mishkan? Is it a modern mishkan where-ever there is a Torah scroll? Do we need a Torah scroll in a Tabernacle where it is believed that the Shechinah Holy Presence is?
May the Shechinah envelop us no matter where we are! Chazak, Chazak, VeNitchazek! May we each be strong and strengthen each other! Shabbat Shalom!
Shabbat Zachor, Parashat VaYikra
Sometimes we burn with embarrassment over what our 'leaders' are doing or saying. Sometimes we are ablaze with anger. Sometimes desire burns within us to do Tikun Olam but we are not sure how. We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) try not to burn the holiday goodies. The gluten free Hamantaschen were delicious! Yet whenever something may be burning we need to proceed cautiously with good fire safety as we read in this week's portion of Parashat Shemini on Shabbat Parah:
Shavuah Tov! Reconciling
So much recent horror from hatreds, easy access to guns, mental distress, and/or bigotries leaves us all wounded and bleeding. With today's Holocaust and Heroes' Day Observance we also recognize that while all the victims were innocents, at least two were also ultimate heroes in Poway and NC. Our hearts at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org), too, are bleeding over the needless wanton pain and death. How appropriate, therefor, is the parashah name for this week: Acharei Mot, After Death:
Acharei Mot 5779 Bleeding; VaYikra 16:1-18:30; 1 Samuel 20:18-42;
Shabbat Machar Chodesh
Our hearts are bleeding for the victims of terror and their loved ones. Our hearts are bleeding for the recent loss of congregation members as recalled in our Pesach Yiskor service along with the Holocaust victims. We are grateful to and proud of the geburim, those who fight back against hatred even at the cost of their own well-being and lives.
How appropriate a parasha we have this week: the Torah portion of Parashat Acharei Mot, After Death. While the focus is highly about blood based on the ancient beliefs that blood contained the essence and spirit of life, we understand that those are not the beliefs of today. Hence we are obligated according to the Rambam and others to update our practices according to the biological facts we have since learned, not on false assumptions.
Splashing blood on objects or people for any reason is no longer acceptable. In fact such a practice poses a health hazard. Discriminating against menstruating and postpartum women is also unacceptable. Manners of dealing with such women [or for that matter, any woman] need to be revised to be respectful and considerate. Similarly, hygiene needs for those having had contact with cadavers, including butchers, may need to be updated. As for not consuming blood, there are multiple other reasons even though we no longer believe that consuming blood will transfer the characteristics of the consumed creature to the ones who eat it [as was commonly believed by many ancient cultures].
As for letting loose a goat into the wilderness during Yom Kippur: we should all support improving genetic diversity among wildlife and strengthening ecosystems. Still, there may be better ways to achieve these goals other than goat release. On the other hand, this is more humane than the source Babylonian practice of placing sins on a convict and letting the crowd have at him…
The other goat was a sacrifice, bled and prepared accordingly. We no longer share in the bleeding of sacrifices.
Nonetheless, for what do we bleed? Are you a bleeding heart? What is a bleeding heart? For what do you bleed? Suffering people? Suffering animals? Plastic polluted oceans, air, and land? Today we are still bleeding for the victims of terror… Shabbat Shalom!
Shavuah Tov! Focussing
In these times of horrors, discrimination, and terror, we often feel the temptations of revenge. Yet how can we live ethical lives if we give in to those temptations? We at Beit Torah keep on reminding ourselves that all people need to be loved, respected, and treated as we would want ourselves to be treated. It can be quite a conundrum. In part that confusion can be resolved in this week's Parasha. Still there are parts of the Parashah which just reinforce the conundrum and confusion:
Kedoshim 5779 Focussing; VaYikra 19:1-20:27; Amos 9:7-15;
When we try to live ethical lives [sure hope we do], on what do we focus? What core values are the basis for our lives? This week’s portion of Parashat Kedoshim [Holy objects/ things/ items/ behaviours] seems to be attempting to give that basis. Some of the things listed we would all agree with, such as:
Chapter 19 Verse 9: leave gleanings for the needy
19:10: leave fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger
19:11: you should not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another
19:13: Do not defraud your fellow nor commit robbery
19:14: Do not insult the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind
19:15: Do not render an unfair decision
19:16: Do not profit by the blood of your fellow
19:18: Love your fellow as yourself
19:29: Do not degrade your daughter and make her into a harlot
19:33: The stranger living amongst you shall be done no wrong… shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love that stranger as yourself…
19:35-6: You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have honest balances, weights, and measures…
Some we might not agree with:
20:9: If anyone insults his father or his mother, he shall be put to death.
20:10: If a man commits adultery with another man;’s wife, they both shall be put to death.
20:27: A person with a ghost or familiar spirit shall be stoned to death.
Perhaps it is best if we were to be focussing on the positive behaviours in this parashah. Which parts of this parashah do you agree with? Which parts do you think should be the basis for our ethical lives? Which parts do you think we should not include? Which parts are you focussing on?
Shavuah Tov! Redeeming [the impoverished]
What would the Rambam [Maimonides] think about the present state of world poverty and refugee problems? How did he handle poverty where he lived? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) try to look out for one another so that no one has needs for food or shelter. We support the QuadCity Interfaith Council in their efforts to provide shelter to the homeless, especially in adverse weather conditions. We donate to food banks when we do not need to use them ourselves. We try to make sure that no one misses any medical appointments. Yet is this enough for us to do in working towards redeeming all from being impoverished and returning all to productive lives with dignity and respect? This week's parashah addresses, in part, these questions for those living in the biblical land of Israel:
B’Har 5779 Redeeming; VaYikra 25:1- 26:2; Jeremiah 32:6-27
Poverty has apparently always been with us. Judaism teaches us that we need to alleviate the suffering of the needy. We are to leave gleanings in the fields and fallen fruit for the poor to gather. [Kedoshim, parasha from 2 weeks ago] Our great sage and Rabbi, Maimonides [the Rambam] described several ways to provide charity to the poor. The most honorable of these ways is to give the poor a means for an independent livelihood e.g. jobs.
This concept is echoed in our portion for this week, Parashat B’Har [e.g. chapter 25 verses 25, 35, 40, etc.]. Most of the Parashah deals with agricultural, real estate, servitude, and financial practices during shmitah years [every seventh year] and yovel years [every fiftieth year Jubilee]. All have components of keeping intact the dignity of all peoples of the community by minimizing their poverty while treating all fairly and justly. While this parasha seems to make a distinction in treatment between Israelites and resident aliens, we need to take it in combination with previous directives to have one rule for all, including resident aliens [e.g. VaYikra 19:33].
Hence these practices provide us with multiple ways of redeeming the impoverished and combatting poverty. How then can we apply these concepts to modern day combatting of poverty? Is there dignity in food banks? Where are there dignity and respect in refugee camps? Why do the homeless still sleep often in the streets, the parks, cars, and outdoors spaces? Do the poverty stricken get adequate food and medical care? What goals should we have for redeeming the impoverished so that they may live equally among us all with dignity and respect, contributing honorable to society?
Do all people have equal worth regardless of their gender identification, age, religion, disability, etc.? Is compensation for being injured, maimed, or killed the same for all people? Are obligations in conduct the same for all people? How should we define 'people'? We at Beit Torah (www.onetorah.org) realize that the answers to these questions are complex and that the theoretical understanding of what should be is often very different than what is. Is it societal bigotry or pragmatic evaluations that lead to the valuations in this week's Parashah? How then does that affect the expectations we have of people in the various categories of worth regarding following the mitzvot?
Shavuah Tov! Patronizing...
We start the next book of Torah, BaMidbar [Numbers], with another read about a census of the males for the purposes of taxes and military service. The logistics of where to camp is also addressed so that all the tribes will be equidistant from the Mishkan Tabernacle.
BaMidbar 5779 Counting ; BaMidbar 1-4:20; Hosea 2:1-22
Not much to comment on remains, so let us now turn to the women who are not mentioned. At Beit Torah we recognize there have continually been women educators and leaders, at times in positions of Priest or Rabbi. So included here now is a partial overview of the oft suppressed history of Jewish Women Leaders:
The status of women in cultures has varied from slave-like treatments to leaders and everything in between. Matriarchal rule tends to be more peaceful and egalitarian while Patriarchal more aggressive. Sometimes both tendencies appear in a single culture as we see even today in this country. So too was this seen in Ur under Semitic control before the Patriarchal Elamite takeover. Imeinu Sarah was educated under a tolerant, egalitarian system which included subgroups ranging from Matriarchal to Patriarchal with many flavors in between. That tolerance of diversity was lost when the Elamites invaded. No wonder Terach and all the family needed to flee west to Hauran!
In any case we can see the more egalitarian approach in all of the forefathers’ and foremothers’ marriages. Sarah advised Avraham on many matters. Rifka had to agree and give consent before going to marry Yitzchak. Yaacov consulted with both his wives on how to handle the mischief of their father.
Sometimes the Matriarchs took matters into their own hands such as Rivka getting the inheritance for Yaacov or Rachel secreting away from Laban the family idols [which were de facto the deeds to the property]. We all know also the stories of Yocheved and Miriam saving Moshe to later become the leader of the people to freedom along with the leadership of Aaron and Miriam.
Before the Temples and the monarchies, towns were led by councils of elders, wise women. We had great leaders and strategists like Devorah. Before and during the times of Moshe, Ethiopia was ruled by a line of Queens. Further, there were Jewish Queens during second Temple times. The most beloved and well known was Alexandra, Shlomtzion [Hasmonean times]. Also the Talmud includes contributions by Bruria, daughter of two teachers of Torah who were killed by the Romans for teaching Torah. She was wife to a Rabbi and recognized as wise for her own merit. Also quoted is Ima Shalom, another very respected wise woman.
Women as priests has mostly been dismissed as fantasy by men over the centuries. Yet evidences have been present – and ignored. Even today with dozens of orthodox women Rabbis [not to mention the many non-orthodox], there are some orthodox groups who want to dismiss them as invalid and inappropriate.
About 80 inscriptions found from Tel el.Yehudiyyeh [first to fourth centuries C. E.] mention three women Priests: Marin [50 y.o.], Guadentia [24 y.o], and possibly Maria. The last one was difficult to read. The language is parallel to the 4 or 5 male Priest inscriptions there found.
During the Renaissance, Pomona de Modena of Ferrara was reputed to be as adept in Talmud scholarship as the best of the male scholars. When Hasidism developed, they believed that all people should be able to study Torah and scriptures. Many women became Rabbaniot [or Rabbanot], that is to say female Rabbis.
1. Sarah bat Joshua Haschel Teumim Frankel acted as Rebbe after the death of her husband. She was known for wise parables and consulted by many famous Rabbis.
2. Hannah Rachel Yerbermacher [Maid of Ludomir] used tzitzit, tallit, and tefillin. She studied Torah and became a Rabbi whose sermons were well attended by many Rabbis.
As in the non-Jewish world, women were disapproved of as writers. Yet there were Jewish women writers of note such as between the 16 th and 18 th century CE:
1. Hannah Ashkenazi of Cracow  on moral topics.
2. Edel Mendels of Cracow [17 th century CE] who wrote a history book for women.
3. Bella Hurwitz, historian and printer [1700’s].
4. Eva [Hava] Bacharech of Prague was an expert in rabbinical and biblical writings. She was widely consulted especially about obscure passages [1580-1651].
5. Rebbetzin Rebbeca Tiktiner [a learned woman and preacher, mid-1500’s] wrote on poetry and moral teachings from Talmud and Mishna. The printer’s introduction to her posthumous book is: “This book is called Meneket Rivka [Genesis 35:8] in order to remember the name of the authoress and in honor of all women to prove that a woman can also compose a work of ethics and offer good interpretations as well as many a man.”
Undoubtedly, many Jewish women educators and role models remain forgotten in history. A great many more discovered are not addressed here. We women Rabbis in IFR continue the ever present [albeit rarely taught] traditions of our foremothers. As leaders, educators, and role models despite the patronizing sexism, bullying, and other bigotries we all have had to face, it is our prayer that this piece can open the door to intellectual curiosity and greater respect for each other regardless of gender identification.
Shavuot is coming. May we all enjoy a festive season with yummy food and with respect and love for each other regardless of gender persuasion! Shabbat Shalom!
We all want to plan our families so that we have healthy and well adjusted children. However sometimes wrenches are thrown in the works. Throughout though we have hope that all can be corrected and put back on track. We at Beit Torah Congregation can attest that the best laid plans don't always end up at our desired outcome. So too with the possibly most famous Nazarite, Samson, whose beginnings we read about in this week's Haftorah portion for Naso:
Naso 5779 Family-Planning ; BaMidbar 4:21-7; Shoftim [Judges] 13:2-25
Our second portion of the Book of BaMidbar [Numbers], Parashat Naso, continues with describing more priestly duties including how to judge women suspected of adultery. Since the parashah also describes the Nazarite vows, the associated Haftorah is about the birth of perhaps the most famous Nazarite, Samson.
As with many women we read about in Tanach [such as Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Hannah, etc.], Samson’s mother [known as wife of Manoah since her name was erased from history] was having troubled getting pregnant. She prayed and shared her woe with others. She bargained with HaShem to take the vows of a Nazarite if only she could become pregnant. So Samson was a most wanted child. His parents had the resources to raise him well… and without fetal alcohol syndrome or drug addiction.
However, would he have been so wanted if he were to have cystic fibrosis or another severe disability? Would he be so wanted if he were the result of rape or incest? What if the potential mother was a single woman without the resources to care for herself let alone a child as well? Some would say to let the pregnancy go to term and adopt out the neonate.
Yet the reality of the world is that there are not enough placement options available as is. Further, children of color are not so easily placed and severely disabled children are rarely placed. So if the State has to care for unwanted children, many with special needs, the taxpayer will end up paying immensely far more for their care [with minimal quality of life] than it would pay for full women’s healthcare and the termination of pregnancies when needed.
Most importantly, the women are known and loved members of society. Their health, well-being, and life are paramount in health decisions and family planning. Medical privacy laws supposedly ensure that. So why do some people feel it is okay to disrespect women, bully them, and violate their medical privacy?
Life is not a rose garden. Still, we need to treasure it with respect and love for all those born already. They are all of them people, human beings with equal rights to live unoppressed by others who would impose their different world view and beliefs on those who disagree with them.
Shavuah Tov! Sharing, Teaching, Governing
In this day of great proclamations about fake news, it is very troubling that some surveys show that large numbers of people, especially younger ones, can not differentiate between fact based news and "fake" news. Given that, it seems that we have horribly failed in our education system. It is no surprise since local and other governments keep reducing funding and resources for public education. We at Beit Torah feel that we must encourage quality education for all so that the population can recognize what is factual and what is 'fake'. Our Founding Fathers presumed that people would all be educated and rational so that they would be able to cooperate in governing this country for the good of all. Maybe that is why Moshe needed to teach the Law to the elders so that they could educate everyone else:
B’Ha-alotecha 5779 Teaching, Sharing, Governing;
Numbers 8:1-12:16; Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Judaism teaches that throughout our lives, we are always both students and teachers. Students of what? Teachers of what? When Yitro told Moshe to teach the law to the 70 elders and delegate judicial and governing duties, when in this week’s portion of parashat B’Ha-alotecha we read that Moshe delegated to 70 elders to teach and govern, the elders are designated to share and teach the Law to all [male and female] in order to promote the enforcement of the Law.
Part of the Law is of ethical behaviour expectations: Respect and love your neighbors [male and female], do unto others [male and female]… etc. Respect’s meaning is to accept that not everyone has the same world view and beliefs. That is okay. It also requires that one not claim another’s beliefs are invalid and therefor should be replaced with one’s own world view. In other words, no one has the right to impose one’s views and beliefs on others. Unfortunately, bigotry is an equal opportunity vice…
Further it is unacceptable for one to try to use Lashon HaRah or otherwise try to besmirch or demean those others who do not agree with one’s world view and beliefs. For instance, despite unsavory attempts to use it as such, it is not a pejorative to call someone a “modern Jew” or “Modern Rabbi”. In fact, it is consistent with the teachings of the Rambam that to fulfill Na’aseh vNishmah one must learn all the facts of the world one lives in [i.e. the modern world] in order to best be able to interpret Torah. Facts are part of history, archaeology, math, logic, philosophy, natural sciences, etc. Some areas include beliefs and assumptions [i.e. not facts], so one must learn to distinguish between facts and not facts.
To that end, the Rambam found it most important to teach how to differentiate between facts and beliefs, particularly commonly held beliefs. For instance, it used to be a commonly held belief that the world was flat. Just being commonly held does not make any belief into a fact! Similarly with global warming denial… Beliefs can not change the facts of the world.
Hence it is understood by top Jewish Rabbis such as one of my teachers, an Orthodox Rabbi who has been part of the Israeli Government Committee on Medical Ethics, that many of the centuries old decisions and interpretations about Torah were based on insufficient facts and false assumptions. Therefor we are obligated to re-decide from scratch all those faulty decisions and interpretations.
To assist in accomplishing this, we find that many siddurim, particularly older Orthodox ones, a section in the morning prayers describing several ways to approach decision making depending on what types of information are available. If we, ourselves, do not have the modern facts of all the disciplines needed to be considered for a decision, we are expected to consult with experts in those areas and thereby learn the pertinent facts such as how to determine if a DNA survey is on a statistically significant sample vis a vis the total population composition.
To convince people of the importance of facts and evidence based decisions, the Rambam constructed a parable about how best to get close to HaShem. Briefly, he wrote of HaShem’s palace with a gate, a forecourt, and an inner throne room, HaShem’s sanctum. According to the Rambam, for those who study only mathematics and logic, they would aimlessly search for the gate. Once the natural sciences are also studied, then that student may enter the forecourt. However only when the study of all natural sciences is completed along with metaphysics may one enter the inner sanctum to be at one with HaSHem, each one with an individually unique degree of perfection in that union.
It is a common goal to get closer to HaShem. Hence we try to adhere to the mitzvot. That is na-aseh. Rambam was writing about nishmah, trying to understand and properly interpret Torah. These tasks are for all people regardless of gender identification even as the Rambam well knew. When questioned by some town leaders about what to do with Bat Yosef who had a considerable following of her teachings [even to some claiming her as the Moshiach] the Rambam said to just leave her alone and eventually her star would fade- as it did.
We need to find it within ourselves to grow to get closer to HaShem. What are you doing to ensure that growth?
Shavuah Tov! Gossiping
Shavuah Tov! Grieving
Shavuah Tov! Bullying re:Truth-Saying
Bullying is a problem we are constantly trying to combat. In theory whether it be online causing an increase in teen suicides, in the workplace, at home, or by government officials trying to control the speech of others; it is agreed that bullying is unacceptable behaviour. The eighth of the Decalogue insinuates that bullying damages the spirit or soul of the victims. We at Beit Torah have witnessed such destructive damages. Hence we work as best we can to stop bullying through encouraging counseling and reassuring that all are still loved even though we all are imperfect. So, too, in the past there were bullies such as Balak trying to control the speech and other behaviours of others, in particular Bilaam who only wanted to tell the truth- as we read in this coming Shabbat's portion:
Balak 5779 Bullying; BaMidbar 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8
Now our readings come to the stories of Balak wanting to control everyone including the Israelites and Bilaam, the prophet, whom he tried to bully and coerce into cursing the Israelites. Bilaam did not want to come. His talking donkey really did not want to come. So we end up with what appears to be a fable about a prophet who did not want to speak untruths and explained his reluctance by both his need to speak the truth and by the divine messenger who tried to stop both him and his donkey repeatedly – according to what his donkey said… When he capitulated to Balak to [try to] curse the Israelites, he blessed them thrice and ended up being punished both by Balak and by HaShem.
If we follow the Rambam though, we know that there is no magic and no contravening of natural laws. Yet such anamolies are constantly cropping up in scripture. Perhaps we would be wise to remember Rambam’s caution to learn all the facts of our contemporary generation in order to properly interpret what we read in Torah and Tanach. Even some of Rambam’s teachings are clearly outdated [such as those about blood letting…]. Understanding that they are based on his best knowledge of ‘facts’, we realize that he also taught us not to accept his teachings as is, but to evaluate them based on contemporary facts available to us. He knew that he was not always right.
So let us look at some FACTS:
1. Torah as we know it was not compiled until Solomonic times [Genesis, Exodus, Numbers] and later.
2. It appears that multiple sources were used for the compilation.
3. Since people wrote down the various resources or passed them on verbally, and since people are imperfect, inaccuracies have crept into the texts. Hence they are not the original texts regardless of whether or not the originals were dictated or inspired by HaShem.
4. Further, proof of these inaccuracies is noted by the various ‘conventions’ at different times which compared existing Torah scrolls and found they were not all identical. Rather than pick the best version of each section with differing versions, the decision was made to pick the Torah scroll with the fewest “inaccuracies” and/or closest en toto to what was believed to be the original.
5. History is recorded by people who have their own interpretations, explanations, and spin control they want to present. Even Josephus, the most respected and accurate Jewish historian, displayed this. In his earlier writings he did ‘spin control’ so as to not anger his Roman sponsors. Later he tried to be as accurate as possible with the resources he had. Two senior high school books in libraries are called “The War Between the States” and “The Civil War”. Yet upon reading them, one might not realize they were about the SAME WAR!
6. The historical time lines of Torah and other Tanach books [e.g. Joshua, Judges, Samuel, etc.] do not agree with one another. Hence last week’s Haftorah with the implication that the Exodus was 16-15th century BCE is not a surprise.
Indeed archaeological and other historical data support the idea that in fact there were two main periods of people fleeing Egyptian territory: At the bloody end of Semitic Hyksos rule of the South [16-15th century BCE] coinciding with the Thera volcanic explosions’ plagues [corroborated by other historical documents] and then after a rebellion a couple centuries later with the worsening enslavement of the people particularly under Pharaohs Ramses and Thom.
Would a compiler a few hundred years later be able to distinguish between the two? Perhaps each was not a complete enough story, so that it read better to have the two combined even as multiple versions of Genesis and Exodus stories were combined.
So was Bilaam’s donkey able to talk? Did the donkey convey reluctance in other ways then words? How much of the story is about Bilaam’s conscience trying to convince him not to be untruthful? Was Bilaam a prophet? May we all be blessed with only speaking truths while avoiding Lashon HaRah!