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!

Shavuah Tov! 

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! 

 Shabbat Shalom!

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?

Shabbat Shalom!

We are supposed to be nation building. That is getting harder in the present atmosphere. Perhaps the upcoming elections will help get us back on track. We at Beit Torah ( encourage all to vote so that maybe we can build a BETTER FUTURE.

VaYera 5779 ; Building; Bereishit 18-21; II Kings 4:1-37

It seems that this week’s portion of Parashat VaYera has many unconnected parts. We have messengers telling Avraham that Sarai will have a son and that Sodom will be destroyed. Then Avraham and Sarah visit Abimelech and do the sister-wife ploy again. In the meantime, Lot saves the messengers from assault by town folk and then flees the town/city before its destruction. Then when Yitzchak is born, Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael expelled.

Yet all these events have the common theme of building family and assets. To wit:

We have Avraham building his family through Sarah with the birth of Yitzchak and through Ishmael who, although expelled, built a well-to-do tribe with his Egyptian relatives. After escaping the destruction of the plains, Lot also built his legacy into two great nations. Lot’s daughters decided to build that future for their family by getting Lot drunk enough to impregnate them as they hid from the destruction of the five cities of the plains.

Avraham’s and Sarah’s sojourn with Abimelech helped build their resources and assets as well. Given the timing of the events, many have asked if that sojourn also contributed to the building of Sarah’s family, but Abimelech denied it vociferously and paid off Avraham handsomely to agree with him while keeping peace despite water disputes.

Clearly building families is very important to our people. What have you built for the future? Will it improve the world or just provide short term gratification for your desires? How important is family to you? Community? Country? World? What are you presently building?

Shabbat Shalom!

At this time of mourning and reflection, we get to read a portion of Torah that deals with rebuilding and going on after the death of a loved one. We at Beit Torah ( mourn along with so many others the loss of those murdered in recent anti-colored and anti-Semitic attacks. If only that mourning were universal...

Chayei Sarah 5779 ; Re-Building; Bereishit 22:1-25:18; I Kings 1:1-31

How do we go on after a death? We re-build. After Sarah died at the beginning of this week’s portion of Parashat Chayei Sarah [the life of Sarah], her son Yitzchak married his independent [perhaps headstrong] cousin, Rivka. She had readily agreed to the marriage proposal when asked both by Eliezer and by her family. We rarely read in Torah about needing a woman’s permission to do anything let alone marriage. Something to ponder. Further we read that Yitzchak took Rivka to his mother’s tent and was comforted then after his mother’s death.

Ishmael, Sarah’s adopted son, also kept building his family. He, like Yaacov after him, ended up as a father to twelve tribes.

So now we need to figure out how to apply the lesson of this portion to the deaths happening at this time. How do we rebuild after the death of a family member? How do we rebuild after the racist murder of black women in a grocery? How do we rebuild after a mass murder on Shabbat in a synagogue?

The shock, the numbness, the fear, the emptiness in the aftermath, and perchance the anger at the unfairness of it all: All that pent-up emotion just begs for an outlet. What though is an appropriate vent for those emotions? Crying? Prayers? Withdrawal from usual activities? Planning for revenge? Trying to prevent such deaths from occurring in the future?
Yet how can that be done? Donate to stroke research? Work to ban assault style weapons? Work for stricter laws against hate speech?

Have you ever needed to rebuild after the death of someone you cared about? What did you do to bounce back and go forward – to rebuild your life?
May we all have the strength to find a way to successfully rebuild. May we be able to go forward after a major loss such as death in the family, in our community, or among others we care about! ...and would should be caring about every living soul...
Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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!

                                                               Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Journeying

A new chapter, a new journey after our recent elections. What will that journey hold? We at Beit Torah ( pray that it will include a return to decorum, civility, politeness, and respect without any lashon haRah! As for Yaakov [Jacob]:

VaYetzei 5779 ; Journeying; Bereishit 28:10-32:3; Hosea 11:7-14:10

In the wake of his discord with his brother Esau, Yaakov [Jacob] now begins a series of journeys after fleeing his parents’ home in this week’s portion of Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei [and he went forth]. Yaakov journeyed to find faith in HaShem as he journeyed to his Uncle Laban to find refuge from his brother. He journeyed into love and marriage, multiple wives and fatherhood.

Yaakov’s full acceptance of the children of both his wives and their concubines underscores how Ishmael was indeed a full son of Avraham, Avraham’s older son. Still Esau marrying a daughter of Ishmael did not reduce the bitterness of his parents, Yitzchak and Rivka, over Esau’s turning away from their teachings.

Yaakov journeyed into successfully breeding goats and sheep for specific characteristics. He journeyed into fighting corruption in the business dealings with is Uncle. He, with the help of his wives, journeyed into the politics of ownership by removal of the deeds of that time, the family idols, so that Laban could not claim ownership of his daughters and their offspring and, later, by a peace treaty delineating the boundaries between them.

Finally he journeyed back to the land of his parents, still in great fear of his brother and the potential of continued enmity. Next week we will read about how the two brothers reacted to each other after more than 14 years.

How has your life been a journey? Did you ever journey forward without a clue as to what would meet you along the way? Traveling on a wing and a prayer? May all your journeys be safe ones in health and peace!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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?

Shabbat Shalom!

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.

Shabbat Shalom!

Let the Light Grow 5779 Chanukah

Adele Jay

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?

Shabbat Shalom!

Are we our siblings' keeper? Are people all really one family? We at Beit Torah ( think that many people have forgotten that simple truth. So all the horrors of family discord do play out on the political arenas, in international relationships, even within our own communities. Does it really need to be so? What does Torah say? :

VaYigash 5779 ; Reuniting; Bereishit 44:18-47:27; Ezekiel 37:15 - 37:28

Dysfunctional and broken families can be found everywhere, unfortunately. We often hear about skeletons in the closets, abuses, or vicious infighting. Sometimes members stop interacting with each other. Should we be trying to reunite these broken families? Is such a goal realistic?

According to this week’s portion of Parashat Vayigash, not only is it desirable to reunite families but also possible. Even as Ishmael and Yitzchak worked together to honor their Father Avraham, and even as Yaacov and Esau patched up their differences, so too the sons of Yaacov and their Father reunited in joy and love. We are told that Yosef attributed the earlier family discord to divine will to enable all of the family to survive the famine in the Land.

Okay. There was a bit of drama with Yosef encouraging fear of Pharaoh with a fake theft of his chalice and with the hiding of his identity. Yet it is clear that he wanted to be reunited with his family. If you were in Yosef’s place, what thoughts would be going through your mind? Fear? Uncertainties? Hope?

Is it worth the effort to try to reunite a broken family despite fears and uncertainties? Does such an effort require all parties to work together to reunite amicably? How would you approach such an effort?

Jews have the tradition of making amends and patching up differences particularly during the Days of Awe [High Holy Days], but also nearly every month on the day before Rosh Chodesh (the start of the month) called Yom Kippur Katan, the little Yom Kippur. We at Beit Torah work towards being a family despite our differences. Let us pray that all people will see the light and try to be one peaceful, large family.
Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov! Blessings

Life is a constant series of ups and downs. We at Beit Torah ( try to wake each morning giving thanks for the blessings of our lives and in our lives. We pray for blessings for those in need and give thanks for the blessings of small kindnesses. Blessing and Blessings are a main focus of the last portion of Bereishit [Genesis] that we read this week. To wit:

VaYechi 5779 ; Blessing; Bereishit [Genesis] 47:28-50; 1Kings 2:1-12
Blessings are an integral part of everyone’s life. Even those who profess no religion can be heard offering a blessing of gratitude when barely escaping some unpleasantness. Blessings can also be blessings of praise of some entity [deity, person, group, etc.]

Further, Blessings can be blessings of inheritance: ethical lessons, praise of strengths, warnings of weaknesses, etc. This is what we read about this week in the last portion of Bereishit, Parashat VaYechi [and you should live].

The Israelites had settled in Goshen. Yaacov [Jacob] has become very old and nearing death. His sons gather round including the two sons of Yosef [Joseph]. As per family Hurrite tradition from Hauran of giving the inheritance responsibilities to the most deserving or the youngest, Yaacov gave Yosef a double portion by way of giving each of Yosef’s sons a portion. It is of note that the younger of Yosef’s sons was given the portion of leadership over his brother.

The format for Yaacov blessing the brothers of Yosef was one of ethical lessons warning each of his weaknesses and the adverse consequences they have brought and potentially could yet bring as well as praising each about his strengths. Then the brothers were encouraged to use these strengths in building strong tribes.

Do we focus on using our strengths to build our futures? How do we minimize the adverse effects of our weaknesses?
What do we bless in our lives? Are we thankful enough? Do we offer praise enough? What blessings are important to us in our lives?

May we all be blessed with Peace and Love…

Shabbat Shalom!

Civil rights are constantly being redefined. Rights for people of color are questioned. Rights for LGBTQ incite harsh feelings among some and often end up in court. Are the people without equal rights considered lesser beings? After all, the ERA amendment still needs another state to affirm it before becoming law! Are women lesser beings until that happens? Are these 'lesser beings' therefor somehow suffering a form of enslavement? Perhaps this week's parasha can shed a bit of light on these questions:

Shemot 5779 ; Enslaving; Shemot [Exodus] 1:1-6:1;
Sephard: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3; Ashkenaz: Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13; 29:22 - 29:23

In the USA we enjoy rights we feel entitled to and are recognized by the UN as Human Rights. When we feel our rights are endangered, we feel free to protest or write letters to public media or political leaders. Echoes of Nazi-like behaviour in our leaders should terrify us. We feel impotent to stop the huge illegal market for enslaving kidnapped women and children.

What can happen to remove rights from people? How can they be forced into servitude or slavery?

One way this could happen is described in this week’s portion of Parashat Shemot, the first portion of the book of Exodus [Shemot]. When the Israelites first came to Egypt, they were honored family members of an important Egyptian official. For a while they had a fair amount of self-rule. Yet they were still considered foreigners. Most other foreigners had come during the famine to get food. When they ran out of money, they sold themselves into servitude so that they could eat. For a while, the Egyptians let these foreigners work 3-6 months a year on Egyptian projects to pay off their debts. They were given food and shelter during these times and allowed off for their Holy Days.

Yet when the political winds changed over to a new Egyptian regime [invaders from the east?], all foreigners were considered to be a cheap source of labor and potential enemies of the state. As described in Torah, the terms of their servitude kept on getting more and more oppressive. Laws were decreed to control their procreation. Israelite rights and independence were progressively taken away.

Sound familiar? 1930’s? Present day immigrants? Present day minorities? Vietnamese refugees?

People are not perfect. What can we to do to fix these imperfections? Is it enough? Do we respect each other enough to care to do so?

Shabbat Shalom!

Is the world being plagued by an unwillingness to recognize the sanctity of life of all those born in this world? That lack of respect causes us at Beit Torah ( to be fearful for our safety, for our democracy, for our freedoms to respectfully speak, worship, and even think as we wish... Yet much more is plaguing our world even as the biblical world was plagued by a variety of horrors:

VaEra 5779 ; Plaguing; Shemot [Exodus] 6:2-9:35; Ezekiel 28:25 - 29:21

What is plaguing the modern world today? Volcanoes? Tsunamis? Floods? Hurricanes? Tornadoes? Fires? Droughts? Famine? Wars? Disease like Ebola?

Can we blame these disasters on any particular entity or group? Should we even bother to ask when working on repair and recovery may be far more important a task to tackle? Maybe we should just run away – but to where?

This week in the portion of Parashat VaEra, we get to view a world filled with plagues [disasters]. It was in a time during which all plagues were usually attributed to the wrath of HaShem. So Moshe and the Israelites understood that HaShem was plaguing the Egyptians in order to get the slaves freed from the abusive life they had to endure.

Still, this week’s parasha does not yet get to the release of the Israelites from Egypt. It is a cliffhanger ending with the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh.

Up until this point, the first 7 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 would flee before the ash laden air and seek shelter and food where-ever they could. Sufficient irritation of the skin 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. Likely knowing this, the Pharaoh was not impressed because a volcano was plaguing the land.

Volcanoes are only a small part of what is plaguing our times. What other plagues are challenging us? Are bigotry, hatred, or disrespect to be considered plagues? More importantly, how can we respond to these plagues? How can we recover and repair their damages? Is there a way we can prevent such plagues? The solution is probably quite complex even though we wish it were simple and easy… Shabbat Shalom!

It is well recognized that there will always be refugees seeking safety from natural disasters, political harm, or others life threatening situations. How we handle refugees shows what our ethical mettle is made of. We at Beit Torah ( wonder how the worldwide refugee problems can be handled while respect for all is maintained. There have been refugees in every generation as we read in the book of Exodus and, particularly, in this week's portion of Bo:

Bo 5779 ; Fleeing; Shemot [Exodus] 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13 - 46:28

Last week we discussed whether fleeing was a good option for escaping plagues. However there was no good place to flee to.

This week in the portion of Parashat Bo, we learn that sometimes one needs to go on a wing and a prayer. We read that Moshe told all that they had to have faith that what he instructed them was HaShem’s will so that they could be released from servitude with the goal of eventually reaching the ancestral land of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Rifka, Yaacov, Leah, and Rachel.

Who were all these folk in this mixed multitude fleeing servitude? They were foreigners and the oppressed. During the seven years of famine, many foreigners moved to Egypt. When their funds to buy food were depleted, they sold themselves into servitude. So, too, the poor of the country who were already living there. Then though, when the locusts ate the last of the year’s crops, the people once again needed to rely on the pits of stored grains for food. Those pits had not been used for the time during the darkness: the thick, palpable, volcanic explosion polluted air.

Independent documentation records nine days of darkness in Egypt central/ northern regions. So three days near/ in Goshen of darkness was barely a taste of the plague.

Particulates were precipitating all over including on the tops of the bitumen/tar covered food storage pits. Toxic particulates. Now Egyptian custom was to feed the firstborn of livestock and people first from the first food portions removed from the storage pits… The people who wanted to flee ate primarily lamb.

Why would the neighbors who were staying give those fleeing their portable wealth? Were they bartering for non-portable properties in exchange? If you were fleeing, what emotions would you be feeling?

What emotions are modern refugees feeling? Syrians? Africans? Yemenites? Latin Americans? Rohinja? To where can they flee? What is the humanitarian view on these challenges? What is the Jewish view? How can these views be funded? Conundrums upon conundrums… Shabbat Shalom!

In what or whom do you trust? The government? Your clergy? Family? Friends? HaShem? When times get rough, do you lose that trust? We at Beit Torah ( find that each person has their own unique answer. Yet people tend to be fickle, trusting differently [albeit perhaps not wisely] as their life situations change. Still, people now reflect what people have always been as described in this week's portion of Parashat B'Shallach :

B’Shallach 5779 ; Trusting; Shemot [Exodus] 13:17-17:16;
Judges 4.4-5.31 Sepharadim begin with 5.1

Last week the People were faced with the choice of whether to stay in Egypt after the plagues or trust in Moshe and HaShem to flee on a wing and a prayer. Yet how far does such trust go? What did the people think that the living conditions would be as they fled? Perhaps they were not thinking or reflecting on the future. They just wanted to flee for their lives even as today’s refugees are fleeing for their lives.

So for the initial stage of flight through a lush wadi, the People did not complain as we read this week in the portion of Parashat B’Shallach. Perhaps they were more focussed on fear of the pursuing Egyptians. One would think that the trust they had placed in Moshe up to that point and through their miraculous escape from the Egyptian chariots at the Sea of Reeds would have solidified their trusting Moshe.

However rather than brave the coastal road east where there were food supplies, but also conflict between invaders [Philistines] and the locals, Moshe chose a more southernly route along the wilderness. Conditions for the People became much more challenging, especially regarding food and water. Their trust diminished and their complaints became quite loud. Many stopped trusting in Moshe and HaShem.

We still see this behaviour in people today. If they are not happy with what they have, they will protest, riot, or vote a different party in to govern even though it might make their lot in life much worse. They have no patience to think things out and evaluate possible consequences. If things are not going their way, they will try to cheat, lie, or deceive to get to the goal they want. They do not trust being honest. They do not trust they are on the best path even though they might be.

In what do you put your trust? In whom do you put your trust? Is it naive to be trusting? Beyond HaShem, is there anything or anyone who is trustworthy? May we go forward trusting that we can find the best possible path for ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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?
Shabbat Shalom!

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!

Shabbat Shalom!

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?

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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!
Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Let us count our contributions to the world. Are they valuable? In theory, in a democracy we all count. We at Beit Torah ( count on each other. In this week's Parasha of Ki Tisa, there is a lot of counting going on:

Ki Tisa 5779 ; Counting; Shemot [Exodus] 30:11-34; I Kings 18:1-39... [Sephardim start at 18:20]

We get to do a lot of counting in this week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tisa. We count the number of able-bodied men [30:11-12]. Then we count how much head tax [30:13] was collected ostensibly to help, among other things, to build the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and its accoutrements.

The people were impatiently counting the days [32:1] that Moshe was up on the mountain. This they got to do twice. The first time, Moshe brought the first set of tablets of Law down only to discover cavorting around a gold plated idol of a calf! During this third description of what happened at Mt. Sinai, in anger Moshe threw down the stone tablets [32:19] which then shattered. Before Moshe went up the mountain to replace the broken stone tablets, lots more counting happened.

The dead were counted from Levites trying to execute the idol worshippers [32:28]. One suspects that the fighting killed many alleged idol worshippers who defended themselves, killing some Levites as well. Additionally ‘plague’ victim deaths were counted. Was that ‘plague’ from heavy metal poisoning given that the drinking water was contaminated by the burnt idol ash [32:20- note: solid metal does not burn] spread into the waters [32:35]?

After Moshe returned with the replacement tablets after forty days and nights, he shared the Law with the people including a promise from HaShem to extend kindness to the faithful for a thousand generations but also threatening to punish iniquity even unto the fourth generation of a family. We read that among other terms of the Law are included counting the days of the week so that Sabbath could be faithfully observed and counting of the weeks until the next harvest after the observance of the anniversary of escaping Egypt [Pesach].

How important to our lives is counting? IRS? Budget? Counting from one religious observance until the next? Counting the days until personal observances {birthdays, anniversaries, graduating, etc.]? Shiva and other mourning practices? Our Mitzvot ledger during Yom Kippur [day of Atonement]? Which accounting is most valuable to you? Does what you do count towards making yourself and the world better? We all count.
Shabbat Shalom!

We each try to build our lives as best we can to be safe, secure, and well cared for. Sometimes our resources are not adequate to the task. We at Beit Torah are glad we have a community to rely on for extra resources we do not have always individually - like when a couple of the folk dug me out from the snowstorm! Building a Mishkan can also be a challenge for us as we read about in this week's parasha:

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!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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

As we approach Purim, we are exhorted to remember Amalek and stop all the evil from Amalek. Yet how can we recognize what is the evil of Amalek? Are we wise enough? We at Beit Torah [ ] encourage treating all with respect and love, hoping that can dissuade others from giving in to the temptation towards Amalekite evil as described in many places such as the Book of Esther and this week's Haftorah [ I Samuel 15:1-34]:

Zachor/ VaYikra 5779 ; Remembering; VaYikra 1:1-5:26; 1 Samuel 15:1-34

In this cycle with a leap year, we now start VaYikra, the Book of Leviticus. De facto it is a handbook for the Levites and Cohanim [Priests of the Temple]. The sacrifices and the practices of the Temple times and of the Levites are no longer used since there is no longer a Temple. Prayer and non-Temple related mitzvot [good deeds] have become the modern sacrifices as per Rabbinic decision.

However because it is a leap year, this Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat when we are reminded to get rid of Amalek where-ever Amalek is found. During Purim[March 20 eve-21, 2019], too, we are remembering this for Haman and his family who were an embodiment of Amalek. In the case of Haman and his sons even as also in the case of Hitler and his henchmen, death was the way to rid the world of this aspect of Amalek. So, too, in our haftorah of 1 Samuel 15:1-34 where even though King Saul and the Israelites wanted the spoils and to spare the evil Amalekite King Agog who ordered the savage attacks on the weak and defenseless of the Israelites, Samuel took up the sword and slew Agog. He also rebuked Saul for not heeding the word of HaShem to get rid of all Amalekites.

Yet now, when we think we have found Amalek, do we need to put them to death? Were we able to rid ourselves from Amalek after WWII? Probably not as today we still see the evil of Amalek in many places. How can we recognize where and who Amalek is today? How should we rid ourselves of Amalek? Can that ever truly be accomplished?
Shabbat Shalom!

Purim reminds us Amalek must go.
Yet how do we catch them and where must they go?
Amalek’s all around us tolling evil.
Who are tools under their spell? Who's truly evil?
Still we go forward with faith and in hope.
We will stop Amalek; we can make them go!

Shabbat Shalom!

With Amalek rearing their heads in New Zealand, what can we do, what can we offer that will counter Amalek and bring us closer to HaShem? We at Beit Torah ( will ponder those questions during Purim and discuss them come Shabbat. Maybe Jeremiah had the best advise as we read this Shabbat:

Tzav 5779 ; Offering; VaYikra 6:1-8:36; Jeremiah [Prophet] 7:21-8:3, 9:22-3

This coming Shabbat, once more, we read of instructions for the Levites [including the Cohanim] on how to do the sacrificial offerings, what can be eaten by whom, and how to purify/ sanctify the leading Cohanim. Many people will start reading this portion of Parashat Tzav and shrug their shoulders saying “Why bother?”. We do not do animal or other altar sacrifices any more. It seems that this was the custom of the times for there are no commandments to do such sacrifices. While we do not mind the concept of anointing with fragrant oil, the idea of sprinkling with blood to ordain grosses out most if not all people. It should.

Recalling that Rambam taught that we should learn the facts of our world and act accordingly, blood sprinkling is a clear health hazard. Accordingly there should be no purifying, anointing, nor ordaining with blood!

So what value is this parashah? Clearly there is a concept of offerings for expiation and atonement. Then rather than throw up our hands and abandon the parashah, perhaps we should look closer at the Haftorah which speaks to our discomfort. Jeremiah was a realist [not a bullfrog], perhaps a distressed realist, but pragmatic even so. In his rebuke of the sinful people, he makes clear that burnt offerings were not commanded. He emphasized that kindness, justice, equality [charity of spirit] are the basis for getting to know HaShem and thus becoming more in Hashem’s image. Indeed, the Sage Yochanan ben Zakkai spread this concept widely after the fall of the Temples. So what can we offer in lieu of burnt offerings? What do you offer for atonement or guilt? How best can we know HaShem? How can we become more in HaShem’s image? Should we even try? Shabbat Shalom!

Purim reminds us Amalek must go.
Yet how do we catch them and where must they go?
Now Amalek’s in NZ tolling evil.
Who are tools under their spell? Who’s truly evil?
Still we go forward with faith and in hope.
We will stop Amalek; we can make them go!

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 ( 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:

Shabbat Parah, Parashat Shemini 5779 ; Burning; VaYikra 9:1-11:47; Ezekiel 36:16-38, some Sephardim stop with 33

What color does wood burn? What color is alcohol burning? What colors do we see when various fragrant oils burn? The answers are all part of the facts of the world. They are part of what Rambam [Maimonides] taught we should know: all the available facts of the world. What color would a fire be to burn a red heifer to ash for use in purification rituals? So when you think of fire, what color do you envisage?

If the fire were with a blue or green flame, would you think it strange? If your answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have a good idea of how the People reacted when they saw Aaron’s two oldest sons’ heads aflame. This is described in a fair amount of detail in this week’s portion of Parashat Shemini even as the preparation of the red heifer ash is described in this week’s special maftir for Shabbat Parah.

When we read about the tragic event of how Aaron lost two of his sons, and if we have good knowledge of worldly facts, we realize that this is a lesson on fire safety. In other words, before you light a fire: NO excessive drinking; NO excessive dousing with alcohols and fragrant oils; NO loose, long hair; always keep an eye on the flames; and so on…

Even if we do not appreciate details of sacrifices, altar purification/sanctification, and ideas about edibles; we still can very much appreciate lessons about fire safety. After all, we are familiar with terrible fires started from candles, from flammable items [such as in clothing and hair products] and from fireworks. Speaking of fireworks: how many different colors have you seen in fireworks? Do you know what makes the colors to be different?

May we all be aflame with love of HaSHem and mitzvot but not in a bodily sense! Shabbat Shalom!

As we now enter into the month of Nissan, we proclaim to all that Pesach [Passover] is nearly upon us. We at Beit Torah ( are focussed on cleaning and cooking we need to do before the start of the feast so that we can focus on the religious practices [like the reading of the Haggadah] come the actual two days of Pesach. Yet with all the hustle and bustle, how do we manage to purify ourselves spiritually and bodily in time for Pesach? Maybe this week's parashah commentary can shed some light on this question:

Shabbat HaChodesh, Parashat Tazria 5779 ; Purifying;
VaYikra 12:1-13:59;
Yehezkel Ch. 45: 18 -25; 46:1-15 Sephardim;
Ashkenazim 45: 16-25 ; 46:18-24; Dvorah 45: 16-25 ; 46: 1-18

Once the Temples were destroyed, the Rabbinic leaders of the time had to find explanations as to why certain practices of the Cohanim [Priests] were valid. They were not versed in contagion control nor were they learned in medical practices of their times as the common view was that ‘medicine’ was made to work through religious prayer. If it was not Jewish prayer, it was considered idolatrous.

So these Rabbinic leaders decided that all was a matter of spiritual purity or lack thereof. Rambam did not approve of that approach. He knew that medical practice was not religious but rather practical application of observed healing approaches to medical conditions.

Hence when we read this week’s portion of Parashat Tazria and next week’s Metzora, we realize that the ‘spiritual impurity’ explanation really does not work for clothing, houses, and other non-living objects! Pragmatic infection and contagion control does.

Besides prayers and sacrifices, purification also needed washing in water which evolved into the use of mikvot [ritual pools]. After a person used a mikvah, that person would be checked by an attendant to verify that there was no contamination by whatever was deemed inappropriate such as loose hairs. Some even used lakes, rivers, or oceans as mikvot.

Is taking a modern bath or swimming in a pool or in natural flowing water able to accomplish the same cleansing and purification as in a mikvah? What would you do to purify your spirit so that you can be more attentive to your religious practices? How will you purify yourself to be prepared for the Feast of Pesach? For indeed we have this Shabbat now started the month of Nissan, the month of Pesach! How can we get ourselves ready to fully embrace Pesach?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  Reconciling

The theme of reconciling with others occurs throughout the year, particularly for Rosh HaShanah and for Pesach! It is not really clear to many of us how to do so. Do you have any ideas how to do so? We at Beit Torah ( think we need to pass over any discomforts or disagreements in order to be able to get together to fully observe and celebrate Pesach. Maybe our Haftorah portion and related commentary can offer further ideas:

Shabbat HaGadol, Metzora ‘79 ; Reconciling; VaYikra 14:1-15:33; Malachi 3:4-24

Here we now come to a Shabbat just one week before our Pesach Seders. The message for this Shabbat, especially from Malachi, is most clear: we need to be reconciling ourselves with HaShem AND ourselves with others, especially with family. Why? We need to reconcile so that we can truly have Pesach in our families and our communities, together, even as the Israelites were together as they fled Egypt. To do so we need to pass over real or imagined slights and reconcile with others so we all can concentrate on hearing the Pesach story and enjoying the festive meal.

Who do you need to reconcile with? HaShem? Family members? Community members? How would you go about with such reconciling?

Cleaning and cooking for Pesach just do not cover it all. Neither does selling chometz [leavened products] in a timely fashion before Pesach. What else could you do to reconcile with the world before Pesach?

Pesach 5779 Thoughts

What do we pass over on our Pesach?
Do we skimp on the Seder, the cleaning, or the food restrictions?
Is Family the most important part?
Do we embrace freedoms for all or prefer comfort in fictions?
Life is not simple.

If family and food overshadow freedoms,
Why bother us with Pesach at all?
We could meet every month just to say ‘hi’, or
Could get on a huge conference call!
But where’s the meaning?

Every tradition, each practice and telling
Brings a lesson in life for all to peruse.
If we do not strive for ethics and freedom,
Do we then deserve love, respect, or abuse?
It is ours to choose…

May you choose a Happy, Healthy, Kosher Pesach however you define it!
Happy Pesach and Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 (, 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!

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?

Shabbat Shalom!

Do we want to have a justice system or do we want punishments and revenge when we feel insulted or violated? What we read about in this week's Parashah makes us wonder if the story at the end is a case of what we should NOT do. We at Beit Torah ( pray that we can always find a way to correct abuses without stepping into vengeance. After all, we are supposed to have judgements by impartial judges - or so we are told. How does this week's parashah mesh with that concept?:

Emor 5779 Telling; VaYikra 21:1- 24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31

While last week the Parasha left us a bit confused, this week’s portion of Parashat Emor only compounds the conundrum. Emor seems to be HaShem telling the Cohanim [Priests] how they are to be different from everybody else. At first the Parashah is telling about when the Cohanim are permitted to come into contact with the dead, e.g. to bury close relatives. The telling continues with restrictions on hair and skin care followed by with whom they [the men] can marry.

Today, some try to follow these Temple times restrictions, but what if a Kohane wants to be a physician, a livestock farmer, a law enforcement officer, or an undertaker? What would a Kohane lose if he were to marry a divorcee? Blessing the congregation? Leading a Pidyon HaBen [redemption of the firstborn]? Have the first aliyah for Torah readings?

The telling of the Parashah then deals with how Cohanim with physical deformities must not be allowed to do sacrifices. Yet last week we were told not to curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind. This restriction smacks of disability discrimination on top of the ever present sexism since the Exodus from Egypt or at least since Temple times.

Much of the Parashah then deals with how and what to do about sacrifices - moot now without a Temple. More pertinent are reminders telling of when the Holy Days occur albeit associated sacrifices and offerings are no longer relevant.

Even more perplexing then is the telling of the stoning to death [no longer acceptable as a punishment] of an half Israelite for blasphemy which is neither described nor defined. Is it a true story or a parable? What is meant by “blaspheme”? Is this supposed to be a teaching against intermarriage, claiming that offspring of such marriages are immoral? Is this then a teaching of bigotry against intermarriage? How does this mesh with the concept of one rule for citizen and stranger alike? Why then is there no example of an Israelite being punished for blasphemy? How is this to be combined with the interspersed concepts of eye for an eye and equal restitution for damages or death? How then can blasphemy equate to death? Perhaps this is a parable about the deadly effects speech and words can have [such as Lashon HaRah, the evil tongue]!?! May we all figure out how to resolve this confusion and conundrum!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 ( 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?

B’Chukotai 5779 Blessing? Cursing?; VaYikra 26:3-27:34; Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

Have you ever noticed that there are very few unconditional promises HaShem makes to the Children of Israel? Nearly all statements of good things to come are with a caveat that we all be faithful and abide by the mitzvot [good deeds] or else. So, for instance, we need to earn the right to have HaAretz [the Land]. If we misbehave, we will lose it.

As we now finish the Book of VaYikra, Leviticus, we once again read about the rewards for following the mitzvot and the adverse consequences for not doing so. This is a fitting way to close a book of instructions for the Priestly Class, the Levites and the Cohanim. However these are not the final words of the book. Instead, the final words are concerning the valuations of people and properties for purposes of taxes, tithes, redeemings, and compensations.

It is interesting to note that the valuations for people only start at one month of age and are different from male to female. The former is consistent with the understanding that death in utero or during the first month postpartum is not treated as death of a person one month or older. There are no funeral practices or rights as would be for people one month or older. Hence, there is no personhood until one month postpartum according to Torah and Jewish practice.

So we end VaYikra with many questions. What choices must we make to be able to truly observe the mitzvot? If we succeed, what blessings will we receive? Mitzvot relating to the Temple practices and sacrifices can no longer be done. Without them, can we truly fulfill observing the mitzvot? Is it enough to avoid idolatry and observe the Holy Days in order to prevent the adverse consequences we read about?

Are we worthy of the blessings of our Brit [Covenant] with HaShem? Or have we been negligent of our obligations and therefore deserving of the curses? May we all be granted the wisdom to follow the path of mitzvot!

Shabbat Shalom!

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.

For instance:
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 [1573] 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.

Shabbat Shalom!

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?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!   Gossiping

The topic most written about in all generations in Jewish books and literature [non-fiction] is Lashon HaRah, the 'evil tongue'. Clearly this fact tells us that the problem of loose tongues is widespread and very difficult to combat. We at Beit Torah Jewish Congregation ( have often seen the horrors caused by lashon haRah and could tell a book full of stories about what we have seen and experienced. This week's parashah certainly includes a good eyeful of lashon haRah:

Shlach Lecha 5779 Gossiping;Numbers ch. 13-15;Joshua 2:1-24

Last week we discussed how some people are disrespectful by using Lashon HaRah to besmirch the reputation of others. In this week’s portion of Parashat Shlach Lecha, we read of just such disrespect by ten of the twelve tribal representatives sent to evaluate the “Promised Land”. (Caleb and Joshua were the other two of the twelve.) The text uses a word rarely seen in Torah [dalet-bet-hey] which may be translated as evil reports [older Hertz] but more commonly now as calumnies [Etz Chaim etc.]. Calumnies are more severe and are defined as “false and malicious statements designed to injure the reputation of someone or something” [such as libel, vilification, derogation, etc. - Random House Unabridged]. In other words: Lashon HaRah! As a result of these calumnies, the people wanted to stone Caleb and Joshua to death, but were stopped.

The sages taught that to use Lashon HaRah destroys three worlds [at least]: that of the speaker, that of the listener[s], and that of the person or thing being maligned. In this parashah, the severest destruction occurred. The ten were wiped out by a plague.

We then read about how to look for extenuating circumstances before rushing to judgement. Yet the people still rushed to judgement over the man collecting wood on Shabbat.. They stoned him to death without being stopped like for Caleb and Joshua. We do not know if there were extenuating circumstances. We do not know if they acted as a mob and stoned him on Shabbat. Certainly if they had, it would have been a far greater sin to thus violate Shabbat than collecting wood. Were calumnies involved in turning the community against the wood collector? Is this an example of what we should not emulate?

So it seems that, in part, this Parashah warns us that Lashon HaRah can have serious, sometimes lethal, consequences. It is warning us, even as the Rambam did so later, to get all the facts of a case and ignore any gossip about the case before moving forward to judgement or decisions. Is that something you can do? Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

In theory, we all want out leaders to be chosen by the people, working for the people, in honest and ethical ways. In practice, we see abuses of many sorts by some of our elected officials. This is not a new problem. Neither is dirty politicking [mud raking] loaded with dishonest, disrespectful and abusive propaganda. We at Beit Torah Jewish Congregation ( have seen and experienced such disgusting behaviour at the local level in governmental and religious institutions. It is the 'win at all costs' mentality... So it is not a surprise when we read of such unpleasantness during biblical times such as in this week's parashah:

Korach 5779 Politicking; Numbers ch. 16-18; I Samuel 11:14-12:22

The emphasis on ethical behaviour continues in this week’s portion of Parashat Korach. Korach was a self-important, arrogant Levite with probably a self-interest in attaining power. He propagandized that all the People were Holy and hence the High Priest and other top leaders should be selected from among all the tribes and people. Since he presented himself as being able to do better than Moshe and Aaron, clearly he was using the concept of equal Holiness to justify his eligibility to be the top leader. Politicking…

Were he and his followers pious Holy men? When challenged to do the fire pan/ incense ritual, did they use the prescribed ingredients and the holy fire from the Tabernacle? No. Apparently they used whatever they had on hand and maybe caused a plague [Excess fumes from over 200 incense pans? Or toxic, poisonous fumes, debris, and deposits from inappropriate ingredients?] That Aaron with a proper fire pan and incense could counteract the “plague” makes one wonder how… [Remember that the Rambam, Levi Yitzchak the Berditchever, and other sages all taught that HaShem would not violate the natural laws in presenting ‘miracles’…]

Alternatively, the plague may have been the result of off-gassing from the violent earthquake activities in the area which swallowed up whole families. Apparently three families most vocal against Moshe’s leadership were camped on an active earthquake fault. Since Moshe was very familiar with the area from his years living in Midian, was he able to perceive the signs leading to violent earthquakes? Was that why he was able accurately to predict when they would occur and warn those camped there to repent and flee or perish? If so, was it ethical of him not to give a more direct warning of danger? If he had, would he have been scoffed at? OR… Did he just want to get rid of his political rivals?

Perhaps the best take-away from this week’s parasha comes from the teachings of Samuel in our Haftorah portion and of HaRav Kook: Samuel warned the People that having a King as their leader could likely lead to non-ethical behaviours and lack of adhering to the Mitzvot. This is so for other leaders who feel entitled, self-righteous, arrogant, etc. The temptations to corruption and deadly palace [government/political] intrigues might not be resisted as indeed we saw during the generations of the Temple Kings. Similarly Torah teaches that all Judges must be ethical, honest and fair beyond reproach.

HaRav Kook looked at it for all leaders, including religious. All leaders need to keep honest and healthy in order to avoid corruption and complacency. Indeed he embraced the challenges such as from skeptics and agnostics as the means to help the leaders to monitor their actions in order to act to stay honest and healthy. Further, he thought that all people have potential holiness within them if only they would oppose stagnation and complacency.

The parashah ends with instructions to the Priests and the Levites on how to have a livelihood without fleecing the people or mismanaging the wealth. Too bad they did not always follow those instructions as seen periodically during Second Temple times.

Does this not sound like politics to you? Do we have a right to expect ethical behaviour from our leaders, both governmental and religious? How can we promote such ethical behaviour? Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!   Grieving

Grieving is a major part of living. We all run into situations of grief for which we must learn to deal with as best we can. We at Beit Torah ( recognize the deep impact grief can have upon us. Hence we are dedicating this week's Shabbat discussion to sharing our griefs and ways to provide support to the grieving. Death and grief are major concerns also in this week's Torah and Haftorah portions:

Chukat 5779 Grieving; BaMidbar 19-22:1; Judges ch. 11

Both this week’s Torah portion of Parashat Chukat and Haftorah portion have sad foci on death. There are clear grieving sections with the passings of Miriam, Aaron, and the daughter of Jephthah. However the [male] compilers of the Haftorah portion did not consider the daughter of Jephthah [the insignificant virgin daughter of Jephthah] to be important enough to recall and remember even though the women of Israel at the time did. So they eliminated her verses [34-40] and focussed on military might and the resultant slaughter of the enemy combatants, even as the Torah portion did at the end of the parashah.

Besides considering grief itself, included are a now defunct red heifer ‘purification’ ritual method post-contact with a corpse and a way to combat the fear of death [in this case from snakes]. A review of what is presently known about the geography of Moab at the time of this parashah seems to indicate that to skirt the Moab territory, the People needed to go through wadis, wetlands [the many of which were all called seas of reeds], and possibly along the [much larger at the time] Dead Sea.

These are the areas in which snakes prefer to live. However copper colored snakes are not common. From the area reptiles of today, there are two candidates: a sand colored sand viper not really copper colored and a more common non-venomous orange-gold colored snake. This latter seems more likely and is consistent with the way the snake encounter is described. Medical data in Jordon indicates that there is rarely a snake bite fatality. Many of the worst symptoms are from hysterical fear. So too when the People stumbled upon a snake hatching ground. It seems that Aaron’s copper snake staff distracted the people from their fear and allowed them to pass through unscathed.

The verses in Judges chapter 11 omitted by earlier haftorah compilers [34-40] deal with the oath of the military leader Jephthah to sacrifice, if victorious, whatever creature met him when he returned home. His only child, a daughter, met him. After giving her time to prepare herself, we read that he did as promised and that the maidens of Israel spent four days a year grieving for her.

Was this topic too painful and reminiscent of Baal worship and child sacrifice for the compilers? If the child had been a son, would it have been included? Regardless, it seems we all can agree that this is behaviour we should never emulate! Why do you think that these verses were not included in the Haftorah?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

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 anomalies 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!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  Conflicting

Once again we tackle the divide between fake news and reality. We recall that people who report news and record 'history' often have ulterior motives to present their own views, opinions, and biases. So when we read conflicting statements of events in the same source, we have to wonder how much these biases are at play. We at Beit Torah ( know we need to look for supporting facts and pray that the audience is rational enough to see facts as real. Yet how should we understand the conflicting statements in Torah such as those seen this week and last?

Pinchas 5779 Conflicting; BaMidbar 25:10-30:1; Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

It is sometimes rather perplexing when contradictory statements are presented close to one another. Is one true and the other false or fake? Is it possible that both can be true? Indeed when such conflicting statements appear in Torah, the Rabbis tried to explain away any conflicts or differences. Sometimes they seem just to have ignored them. At other times they made up stories to justify horrid actions by the people or the consequences thereto.

For instance, last week we read that when Bilaam consulted overnight [by dreaming] with HaShem, he was told to go to Balak but only to speak as directed by HaShem [22:20]. Then on his way it is said that HaShem was angry with him for going [22:22]! HaSHem’s prosecutor, satan, then blocked Bilaam’s way and tried to kill him for going only to be stopped by the actions of Bilaam’s donkey [22:23-35]. The conclusion though was the same: go but speak only the words of HaShem [22:32-5]. Perhaps this is a case of two versions being melded into one?

Other conflicting verses are in this week’s portion of Parashat Pinchas. The Moabitess women were blamed for a plague in this parashah. Yet it was supposedly stopped by the murder by Pinchas of a Benjaminite prince, Zimri, and his Midianite princess wife, Cozbi [25:8,11-5]. In other places it is said that the murders were ‘during’ the plague [25:17, 26:1]. Yes, five Midianite tribe leaders were told the plans of Moab. We do not know if they joined in on those plans. However, Moab and the confederation of diverse tribes known as Midian were very different ‘nations’. Midian was to the southeast of a narrow land bridge between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Dead Sea. To the north of Midian was Edom. To the north of Edom was Moab. The Parashah contains the instruction to wipe out the Midianites [25:17]. However we know from the book of Joshua that Joshua used Midianite guides. Further, it was Moab that was overcome and replaced by the Reubenites and Gadites with part of the tribe of Manasseh just north of them. Beyond that, it was not until Judges ch. 6 that the Midianites were wiped out.

We should note that the many diverse Midianite tribes had a variety of religions including among others: worship of Baal, Chemosh, Ashter [wife of] Chemosh; and HaShem. At times some, each independently, aligned themselves with Amalek. At other times some aligned with Moab. At yet other times they did whatever was politically convenient and/or desirable.

After the murder of Cozbi, many of the Midianite tribes became bitter enemies of the Israelites – understandably… Wars with them were hence very likely from their desire for revenge over Cozbi’s murder and not because HaShem told the Israelites to go to war. Indeed HaShem in Deuteronomy [7:2,17-24] cautioned Moshe to not start wars unless HaShem told them to after HaShem first cleared the way for victory.

Another situation this week with a conflicting account presented in a future parashah involves women’s rights to inherit. It is stated in this parasha that daughters will be allowed to inherit if there are no sons [27:1-10]. That right will be chipped away by multiple restrictions and caveats [36:1-12]. Two different versions or decision reversal? Sounds like the oppression of women has not changed much over the ages… Women pleaded for and got certain rights, rights previously taken from them, which are now bit by bit, once again, being eroded and challenged.

It certainly seems that bigotry is an equal opportunity vice; that hotheadedness and abuses are forgiven or ignored in those of power; that people really have not changed much from generation to generation; that they have not become more civilized. What can we do to combat that inclination to give in to the temptations of violence, bullying, and abuses both in ourselves and in others? Just watching the world go by should not be a choice according to Rambam. We need to speak up and point out when abuses are happening or we will be de facto complicit in letting them happen. How can we do that?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!  Belongings and Belonging

Much has been said about the worship of the almighty greenback and keeping up with the Jones's. We daily see corporate and individual greed raping this world and abusing disadvantaged or powerless to resist peoples. If that greed is not curbed, we may end up with a non-livable planet choking on plastic and trash in the oceans and on land, with poisoned waterways, ozone holes, violent weather patterns, deadly heat waves, etc. We at Beit Torah feel nearly powerless to stop the wave of planetary destruction and grieve over the selfishness that has led us here. So too, greed has been a part of human foibles to be constantly battled although often accepted as the way things are:

Mattot-Massei 5779 Belongings and Belonging; BaMidbar 30:2-36:13; Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 or 4:1-2

Now that we approach our second Haftorah of Admonition and Desolation, it seems most appropriate as we reflect on the violent excesses of Biblical people and of us modern folk. They are certainly deserving of admonitions. The reported slaughter of some Midianite tribe[s] has distressed Torah scholars throughout the generations. Is this a case of events we should not emulate? Or maybe this is a case of providing justification for World War to stop heinous tyrannical government acts? How then should we define heinous and tyrannical?

Regardless of the broader lessons, this week’s portions of Parashot Mattot and Massei highlight the importance that Biblical peoples put on tangible wealth and booty. The idolatry of gathering things seems to be just the way it was back then with little value on human lives and much value on the accumulation of wealth, land, and belongings to be distributed evenly among the male family members, the male tribe members, or the male confederation of tribes members.

Given the tendency of people towards greed, the worship of wealth, how did the tribes of Israelites manage to stay together? There did seem to be a desire by the tribal leaders to belong. So while the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Manasseh wanted to avoid more warfare and bloodshed as much as possible by settling in and around Moab territories of TransJordan, they compromised and agreed to send specialized forces [‘shock’ troops] to help the other tribes conquer Canaan [cisJordan] so that they, too, would have land and booty wealth. Hence all tribes would be belonging equally to the confederation with special terms for the Levites.

The Israelites were a young, emerging nation. Despite having been given good laws initially at Mt. Sinai, they all were embracing the mores of violence, looting, and booties of their times. The young nation had yet a long ways to go from seeking belongings and belonging to their confederation of tribes to seeking to understand the teachings of Torah and belonging to the World Community on equal footing. Do you think these goals will ever be achieved?

Shabbat Shalom!

Once again we are in shock and heartbreaking numbness over the senseless murders of people just trying to live their lives celebrating a garlic festival, getting school supplies, promoting a local soccer team, just going out for an an evening of fun, and so on. Once again we feel despair that the obviously needed efforts to stem the ever increasing violence may well be stopped and blocked by uncaring political motives. We at Beit Torah ( know we need to keep living our lives as normally as possible but also know how others might be pushed into constant fear of going out into the public. El Paso with the lowest rate of crime for a city that size, with a high degree of diversity yet a lot of cooperative efforts among various groups there, with wonderful relations with their neighbors just over the border in Mexico, and with a great deal of compassion on all issues it seems did not deserve such horror. It is hard to find the words for Dayton just as it is hard to find the words for Tisha B'Av as we recall past and present murders of the innocent:

Devarim 5779 Killing; Dvarim 1:1-3:22; Isaiah 1:1-27

What value is a human life? Should we value equally all those born into this world: human, cetacean, canine, feline, equine, bovine, ovine, or any other creature? Do we get mixed messages from our liturgy? On one hand they say we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Love your neighbor is another teaching. Yet because there are those who define “neighbor” as “kinsman”, vengeance killing was not considered murder. So too the murder of civilians in the process of taking land, property, and possessions from those deemed as worthy of being invaded and as seen in sieges of towns and cities such as those of the Temples was justified as divinely promised. This coming Saturday night and Sunday we will recall those sieges and the huge number of people murdered by starvation as we read the Book of Lamentations. This was clearly premeditated and yet standard practice of the nations at that time period. We are horrified, yet we have more recently had the holocaust and currently genocides and abuses of refugees who have fled equally life threatening situations. Given that, can we say that we are more civilized?

The line between killing and murder is a murky one that seems to change depending on who is doing the defining. There are places in Tanach that describe genocidal warfare. Elsewhere protection of non-combatants is described. Given how times have changed, perhaps none of what is described in Torah or Tanach is applicable to us today? The history described may just be a broader lesson in what to watch out for in order to go forward in an ethical fashion. Indeed Moshe’s recounting of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness en route to the ‘Promised Land’ in Devarim, Deuteronomy, the Torah book we are now starting to read and review, may be exactly that: how to go forward in an ethical fashion in light of the history recounted.

Nonetheless there are divisions over how to respond to murder, killing, and mass murder. So we have laws regarding manslaughter, unpremeditated murder [second degree], and premeditated murder [first degree]. It gets murkier when we talk about hate crimes, mass murder, and terrorism. As seen in the two most recent mass murders in Ohio and Texas, one really can not separate this issue from reasonable weapon, especially gun, control and from extremist ideology and violent terrorism. If only we will be able to treat all violent extremist groups with equally vigorous responses! Can we in the present climate of divisiveness and fear mongering? If not, what can we do to prevent heartbreaking tragedies of mass murder and to keep us safer? Shabbat Shalom!

This last month has been heart wrenching in so many ways: Several deadly shootings here in the US, most clearly stemming from bigotry and violent hatred; three weeks of ‘desolation’ leading into Tisha B’Av; the reading of Lamentations; the continuing abuse of people wanting asylum, wanting to immigrate- in other words, refugees; a worsening fight over the protection of the environment for all creatures including people, the wild, and the domesticated… We at Beit Torah have had our own personal stresses compounding these heart wrenching events. So we all recognize that consolation and comforting are really needed at this juncture:

VaEtchanan 5779; Comforting; Dvarim 13:23-7:11: ; Isaiah 40:1-26

Comforting. We all need comforting after all the murders past and recent that we have been remembering of late. For some it has been a time of self-recrimination asking: what could we have done and what do we need now to do to prevent such horrors?

It is said that Nachamu, Comfort, is the first haftorah of consolation after the reading of Lamentations. De facto it is the first Shabbat Haftorah of comfort or consolation. The afternoon haftorah read during Tisha B’Av is also one of comforting [Isaiah 55:6-56:8). It teaches inclusivity where all should be accepted into the Community if they follow the mitzvot [good deeds] and observe Shabbat regardless of whether or not they are barren, disabled, or a convert. A modern parallel could be that everyone has a right to equal, quality health care access regardless of gender identification, disability, or religion.

To emphasize such openness to all, welcoming all into the Community, Moshe recounts the core mitzvot in this week’s portion of Parashat Nachamu/ VaEtchanan. Included are the contract [brit] terms of the Decalogue. The Shema is also part of this Parashah.

Are you accepting of all others into the Jewish Community? Are all Jews accepting of others within the Jewish Community even when their observances of Judaism may be different? Are you willing to fight for equal rights for all to access quality health care? Are you willing to fight for equal access for all into your religious community?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!     Conditional Promising, Idolatry Avoiding [Eschewing]

We are taught that each one of us should pursue an individual relationship with HaShem. To do so could be a sign that each individual is seeking a way to be loved by and to love HaShem. Each day we may say the shema and the veAhavta, but do we really focus on the words to understand what we are saying? We at Beit Torah ( accept that we are all imperfect and must constantly work on trying to mean what we are saying without just saying the words by rote. The challenge of loving HaShem is also one of the foci in this week's parashah of Ekev:

Ekev 5779; Idolatry Eschewing, Conditional Promising;

Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 7:12-11:25; Isaiah 49:14-51:3

We continue our comforting and consoling this week with the second haftorah of Consolation, again from Isaiah. This week’s portion of Parashat Ekev continues describing what we need to do to be worthy of consoling and comforting. Here, as in many other places in Torah, we have conditional promises from HaShem and guidance as to how to go about receiving those promised goods [verses 8:19; 11:13; 11:22]. 

For instance, as per Moshe, HaShem noted that the Promised Land will not all become possessed all at once. The People were told to proceed slowly and wait for signals from HaShem that the path to take over each portion or parcel of land has been cleared through the weakening of the population through plague and/or some other means. However this would not happen unless the People fulfilled the conditional requirements: follow the mitzvot including befriending, clothing, and feeding the stranger and the weak [10:18-19] as well as avoid and eschew idolatry [7:16; 7:25-6; 8:19; 10:20].

To help us remember to fulfill these conditions, the People also were given parts of the VeAhavta in this week’s parashah [11:13-21]. However the generalities within the VeAhavta do not tell us how to go about “loving” HaShem. For that, we need to remember Mt. Sinai and delve into the Nishma interpretations and understandings of the Na-aseh.

Will we ponder about how to love HaShem? What things are we being told should be in our hearts? Respect for others? Honesty? What should we be talking about and sharing with others, such as our children, throughout our days? How shall our visions and our actions be guided onto our paths forward?

There are rituals and traditions that try to answer these questions. Are they still relevant today? Do we need to tweak them to become more relevant? Is all of this reflection and Nishmah part of “loving” HaShem?

May we all find our paths to loving HaShem!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!     Blessing and Cursing

This Shabbat starts the month of Elul which is a two day Rosh Chodesh. It is also Re’eh with the third Haftorah of Consolation. Nothing is supposed to interfere with the reading of all seven Haftorot of Consolation before Rosh HaShanah. The Jewish calendar leap year and arrangement is done so that can happen [among other considerations]. Hence a Rosh Chodesh Haftorah should not supplant a Haftorah of Consolation as has been long time practice. Unlike some [maybe in ignorance] who blindly try to use the Rosh Chodesh Haftorah, we at Beit Torah seek to understand why traditions are as they are and honor those that totally make sense for modern times [e.g. no animal sacrifices]. It is our way of choosing to do good. In this case, use of the Rosh Chodesh Haftorah might be done on the second day if Rosh Chodesh is considered chag and a day of rest [shavat]. Choosing good in order to choose life is also the focus of this week’s parashah:

Reeh 5779; Blessing and Cursing; Dvarim [Deuteronomy] 11:26-16:17; Isaiah 54:11-55:5; [Sunday Rosh Chodesh Elul Isaiah 66:1-24 if so chosen]

As we go through life we make many choices. The consequences of these choices may seem like blessings or they may make us feel cursed. This concept of choosing our paths is emphasized in this week’s portion of Parashat Re’eh. Elsewhere in Torah we have been given lists of some consequences of our choices. One list describes blessings for our good choices and the other curses from our bad choices. Overall we are told to choose life. This week starts the process by recounting some of the mitzvot, the rules and restrictions we should live by.

The parashah starts with a reminder of the stark and awesome experience of the people as they entered the “Promised Land”, a parallel to the Mt. Sinai experience missed by the generation of the desert. They stood with a barren mountain on one side and a lush green one on the other while they listened to the echoing words of the Priests as they read the entire Law which was also inscribed on twelve pillars, six on each of the two mountains. The choice was clear: choose good actions to have the blessings of the lush mountain or be cursed as the barren one.

Does that mean all our choices should be good ones? If so, how should we define “good”? Must life include good and bad choices so that we can grow from the ill consequences of bad choices? Isn’t this a continuation of the conditional promises we read about in previous parashot?

Further must we ponder over which of these rules and restrictions are to be used today? Certainly avoidance of idolatry is crucial to our existence. However rules relating to sacrifices and Temple proceedings are now moot, and as to sacrifices, repulsive. Treating others with compassion and respect as well as providing for the needy can be agreed upon. Yet how are we supposed to implement providing for the needy?

Once again the world finds itself with masses of refugees and immigrants fleeing death. How can we provide for their safety and needs? Where are the resources to do so? If we choose to directly or indirectly harm others, will we be cursed?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shabbat Shalom!

Reading all of the Haftorot of Consolation is to prepare us to be in a frame of mind ready to focus on the Days of Awe, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. With Selichot on the night of Sept. 21 and approaching fast, we at Beit Torah Jewish Congregation ( wonder what else we can do to prepare for the High Holy Days. Part of that can be a review of what we have done judged against what we should have done. This week’s parashah also presents many things that should be done. It is up to us to decide which are relevant to today’s world. Perhaps this commentary can help:

Shoftim 5779; Presiding; Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12

Corruption among officials seems to be a favorite past-time of many of those in power. Despite being focussed on how to maintain order and justice when the People enter the “Promised Land” [HaAretz].This week’s torah portion of Parashat Shoftim teaches many basic principles that still can be applicable to modern times. In this parasha Moshe reiterated what he learned from his father-in-law. He again notes that all judges at every tier of judging need to be beyond reproach: honorable, financially secure, not bribeable, etc. [verse 16:18-20]. This worked well while wandering in the desert. Yet Moshe appears to have been aware that settling down would need modification of Yitro’s justice system. So he added another level of judgement. The difficult cases the judges were not sure how to decide were to be referred to the Kohanim for final decisions [17:8-11].

Some of the instructions in this Parashah were clearly strictly for their contemporary times: cities of sanctuary for manslaughterers, Temple and approved shrine functions such as sacrifices or judicial decisions, murder of all male enemy combatants, enslavement of those who surrender [20:10-14]. etc.

On the other hand, some instructions seem timeless. An example could be having at least two witnesses (unrelated, uninterested in the situation, independent) to convict someone [19:15-20]. So to convict for sodomy, the act would need to be public or there could not be two witnesses. This is not surprising since the source of this restriction was, in part, a backlash against the common practice by Greeks, Romans, and some others to have public competitions of who had the most continuous sexual stamina with both male and female partners. Similarly the prohibition against male cross-dressing stemmed from abuses by men who cross-dressed in order to get into all female ‘religious get-togethers’ and then take advantage of drunken or stoned females [Hertz]. As an aside, the Talmud recognized five gender orientations [similar to that of Native Americans], none of which were condemned in Talmud.

So once again we are faced with a mixture of actions to do and actions to avoid. How can we decide which are to be observed in our modern times? How can we apply modern sensibilities to such decision making? The Rambam would say that we should learn the facts of our generation and apply them to decision making. Can we? Can you?

Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!     Respecting

Respect and safety top my list for what this world really needs. With Selichot next Motzei Shabbat, we at Beit Torah Jewish Congregation ( wonder what we will discuss that evening. Will we focus on our own misdeeds and try to make amends? Will we try to plan how to help others in need? This week’s parashah also presents many ideas that could feed such discussions. We must search our souls to discover what path each of us must pursue. The teachings of this week’s parashah might help:

Ki Tetzei 5779; Respecting; Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19; Isaiah 54:1-10

This week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tetzei is full of do’s and do not’s: 74 of them! The most relevant of these appear to deal with respect and safety. A few are hard to classify: using tzitzis; keeping vows; using honest weights; and remembering Amalek. Some are irrelevant to modern times. There are no Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites to be excluded from our communities. There are no cult prostitutes although there were plenty in the past from Ur to Rome and beyond – even on and off defiling the Second Temple.

Some of the 74 are regarded as disgusting or abhorrent by most, such as:

* exclusion of the children of adulterers from the community [note: such a practice is in opposition to another of the 74 where children are not to be punished for sins of parents];

* taking slaves and wives from war booty; * killing the unruly son [reportedly never carried out]; * killing non-virgin brides who claimed to be virgins; marrying victims of rape to their rapist with no divorce is allowed; banning cross-dressing; reducing the bride price for victims of rape; * excluding eunuchs and castrated from the community as was done in many nations from even before the Exodus – note that Isaiah taught, as read on fast day afternoons, that none should be excluded if they embrace following Shabbat; * following Levirate marriage or refusal rituals and practices; and * cutting off a wife’s hand for crushing an attacker’s genitals while she protected her husband [likely never enforced according to sages – instead they said the punishment was economic].

The safety concepts appear to be equally applicable to then and now: * helping others with stranded livestock; * possibly male cross-dressing as discussed last week; * ensuring roof safety e.g. by parapets; * punishing kidnappers [note that kidnapping (stealing of souls/spirits) is forbidden by the eighth term of the Brit [Decalog]; * not forcing repayment of loans with life essentials of debtors [presented twice in this Parashah]; * allowing eating grapes and gathering gleanings by needy[also twice presented e.g. 24:19-22]; and * mixing seeds for planting. The Rambam said that if mixed, the plants would gain undesirable characteristics from each other. Native Americans would say this was desirable as tri-culture of maize, beans, and squash balanced their nutritional content and has been a mainstay of their culture for generations. Soil science shows that intercommunication and cross-feeding can occur among the plants.

Perhaps most important are the teachings on respect: * war captive wives are allowed to mourn their parents and may never be enslaved; * unloved wives need to receive equal treatment and benefit as loved ones; * executed criminals must be buried on the same day; * wayward livestock is to be returned to the owner; * no muzzling of a working ox; * a mother bird is not to be killed when her eggs or fledglings are taken; * no interest on loans to the needy; * newlyweds are not drafted the first year of marriage; * laborers are to be fairly treated and paid promptly; * punishments are not to exceed what was legally decided; * family members are not to be punished for the crimes of relatives; and perhaps most importantly * the needy must be cared for be they widows, orphans, strangers, impoverished, etc. [e.g. 24:17]. So too the Rambam and many other sages taught.

Does that mean that the teaching to provide sanctuary to [abused?] slaves upon request can now be understood as the need to provide sanctuary to refugees? [23:16-7] Which of these teachings will you reflect on while preparing for the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur? Shabbat Shalom!

Shavuah Tov!     Forgiving

Ki Tavo and Selichot commentary are below. It is time to order lulav and etrog [one of the three big expenses we get every year]. High Holy Days and the Festival of Sukkot are approaching quickly. Where has the year gone? It is also time to remember: remember of beloved teachers no longer with us; remember those with whom we need to ask forgiveness and to forgive; remember for what we need to repent; remember to make amends where appropriate; remember the horrors of the past and the present so that we can to work for Tikun Olam, Repair of the World; and so much more to remember...

I apologize for earlier not including more full details about the reading of all the Haftorot of Consolation before Rosh HaShanah. Some folk have insisted on using Rosh Chodesh Haftorah instead of the third Haftorah of Consolation. Of these folk, some realized that all Consolation Haftorot need to be read before Rosh HaShanah, so they developed a work-around. The third Haftorah of Consolation is read after a later Haftorah of Consolation, commonly the short fifth. Not doing the third Haftorah of Consolation at all therefor should never be an option although Stone and HebCal present it as an option.

As for the Rosh Chodesh haftorah, there is no absolute requirement to use it for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh. One would never use it instead of Rosh HaShanah haftorah. Neither should it be used during Chanukah for the same reason: Chag must not be supplanted by Rosh Chodesh. [The Chag status of Chanukah might be a discussion for another time…] We at Beit Torah though are focussed now on forgiving and forgiveness given Selichot this Motzei Shabbat and noted below:

Ki Tavo 5779; Forgiving; Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8; Isaiah 60:1-22

Much of this week’s portion of Parashat Ki Tavo [when you arrive] deals with what the People should do when they enter into HaAretz [the “Promised” Land]. From how to give thanks for the first harvest fruits to greater detail about the reading of the Law in the valley between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerrizim, between the barren and the lush, the cursed and the blessed. Much of the following review lists a great many reasons for which one could be cursed or blessed with a bit of details on some of the curses and blessings. The parashah ending reiterates of some post-Egypt history.

Perhaps knowing we can be so cursed gives us even more reason to fully embrace repentance and atonement. All the more to take seriously during Selichot this Motzei Shabbat [after Havdalah Sat. eve].


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!