As an educator, I have always found that finding a way to relate to the lesson being imparted is crucial to making it a lasting, powerful experience. Someone who is detached or does not dedicate the time to building up the importance of a particular message, but rather simply gives the punchline, misses an opportunity to make an indelible impact in the life experience of the student.

We are beginning this week the final book of the Torah, Devarim, or Deuteronomy. Throughout the entire book, Moses is giving what is in essence, his last will and testament. He knows he will not be joining the Israelites into the Promised Land, and he knows that he does not have long to live. Yet, he still takes the time to gather the people together and share with them many of the experiences of their wanderings. Why? What are to learn from this? We have a tradition, taught in the Midrash (an early rabbinic commentary on the Bible):

Said R. Shimon, Happy are those righteous persons who do not pass from the world without giving instruction to their children after them in matters of Torah; for thus we find that Abraham did not pass from the world without instructing his children and his household to follow God’s ways…. And thus Isaac instructed Jacob…. And Jacob instructed his children… And David, King of Israel instructed Solomon his son…. And so too Moshe Rabbenu [“our teacher”] did not pass from the world before admonishing Israel for the transgressions they committed and instructing them to observe God’s mitzvoth, as it says, ‘These are the words [the opening words of the book of Deuteronomy],’ etc.”

This idea of giving an ethical will is certainly familiar and understandable. We would want the next generation to receive a set of instructions, or fundamental lesson. Yet, Moses is not simply giving his last will and testament. He is recapping the entire journey he had with the Israelites. Why not just simply state the final lesson?

That answer is given in the Shema, which we will read next week, and which we say three times a day, the foundational core principle of our people.

And you should sit down with your children and speak to them…” The biggest success of our people is not the instructions and traditions we pass on in our final moments, but the way we live those acts and traditions with our families and communities. An ethical will is not effective if it is not accompanied by a lifetime of experience. Otherwise, it’s just a stranger giving strange advice about foreign customs, rituals and values. Moses was with these people for 40 years in the desert. He crossed the Red Sea with them; he stood at Mt Sinai with them and interceded on their behalf with God. He was a constant presence. Only then, is he able to pass on his wisdom. To the parents, I urge you, sit down with your children and speak to them. Don’t wait until your last will and testament to pass along something. Live it with them, together. Give them substance to the words, something tangible to cling to.


There are moments that have the power to transform our lives and our relationship in deep ways. If we learn how to take advantage of them, we can turn our own lives into real art works

The way we experience or perceive time is not related to the mechanics of a clock. All along our lives we have experienced moments charged with intensity and fast pace. In those special moments, a couple of words can bring a radical change, perhaps a break or a new beginning.

Learning how to appreciate the here and the now, sizing the moment, can allow us, as William Blake wrote in his famous poem “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour…

Awareness of the value of an instant can make our experience more open, more authentic, more alive, more powerful.

When we meet a new person, the first moments are key. Everything is open. That moment is like almost raw clay that can take a thousand forms and then fired and tempered in the workshop of memory. There are lasting relationships that begin with a “love at first sight”.

It is common people remember that very first time we looked at that person who later on turned to be very special in our lives. The first look, but it can also be the first words or that first smile. That moment is engraved in our memories forever. And despite this, the possibility for change is still open at every moment, especially if the right set of circumstances are present.

The different quality of time

Classical Greek distinguishes the time that goes by uniformly, chronos (from which the term “chronometer” derives), from the qualitative time, kairos, those moments imbued with special transcendence; the magic moment in which suddenly new horizons and possibilities open up. Plato and other authors also speak of the “good time”, eukairia.

The life we live is not made up of chronometric instants, but of qualitative moments, so to speak kairos moments. These moments are the breadcrumbs of our conversations and daily activity and they are essential in much of what attracts our attention: the key moment captured by the photographer, the decisive move that tilts the result of a sporting event, the moment that changes the course of a novel or a movie or just life. A moment is not an insignificant moment, but something of the greatest importance.

Every moment includes the possibility of change. Etymologically, moment implies movement (both come from the Latin movimentum). In fact, each moment is an impulse, the beginning of a movement. English still uses the word moment in the sense of both “moment” and “important” (of great moment means “of great importance”, and something that is momentous is transcendental, decisive).

Moment sometimes refers to a long period of time, maybe months (we say “at that moment in my life…”), but in general it is the same as an instant. Instant refers to the idea of being present (from the Latin in-stare) in the moment.

At the beginning of In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, we find an already classic example of a key moment: when eating a cupcake next to a cup of tea, the narrator is transported to a similar feeling he had had in his distant childhood, and this sets in motion seven volumes of memories and memories.

How important is a moment?

Sizing and appreciating the moment is essential in all forms of art. Also in the art of relationships. The awareness of the qualitative value of each moment can help us to flow with the present, distinguishing the moments of pause and continuity from those key moments in which everything can change. This distinction can make our experience more open, more authentic and, above all, more alive.

The American psychologist Daniel Stern thoroughly explored the internal architecture of the present moment in his book The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. When we listen to a piece of music, we do not experience isolated notes happening uniformly but musical phrases that occur in periods of a certain duration, between two and eight seconds.

As Stern explains we also experience our life and our relationships in moments that last, generally between three and five seconds. Many of those moments serve to keep pace and direction but in occasions one or more of them make us jump or take another path.

Our experience of the present moment is not like a continuous line, but like an archipelago of islands of experience that emerge again and again, each one with its own geography and characteristics.

Some experiences of the present moment can last more than ten seconds, or only one (those that occur in less than a second, like the moment of recognizing a familiar face, are largely unconscious).

The contemplation of a sunset can fascinate us for several minutes, but every few seconds the focus of our attention is changing. The same happens when we look at ourselves in the eyes. Sometimes, when we do it for real, that instant lasts an eternity.

How long is a moment?

My answer: a moment is the time that elapses between the traffic light turning from red to green and the car behind blowing the horn. Jokes aside I would like to list here some of the important moments in our lives:

The first moments of a relationship are key. Everything is open. But the possibility for change is still open at each moment, especially if we know how to appreciate how fluid the moment is and size the infinite possibilities it offers us.

Our living experience of the present is not a succession of infinitesimal portions of time, but a succession of moments that have a duration. We are the outcome of all the decisions we took during those life shaping moments.

In a dialogue, most of our being in the moment experiences last between two and five seconds, time in which we say or hear a meaningful phrase. It is also, approximately, the time a complete breath lasts and in which the “sequences” of body language unfold: gestures, looks, small changes in posture.

When two people have a fluent conversation, with a certain degree of intimacy, their breathing, as well as their gestures and postures, tend to harmonize.

In this week’s parasha we find a series of instructions on vows. A vow is a pledge, or a guarantee, and the opening section of the Torah reading this week is a reminder of the seriousness with which the Torah bestowed upon the making of a pledge. We would normally say that a person gives his or her word to do or to abstain from doing something. Judaism takes the promise of a pledge very seriously. We find in this week’s Torah portion numerous situations in which the expression of a “word” is understood as having an obligating force upon the person making the pledge.

At the beginning of Matot, we read; “If a person makes a vow to God, or takes an oath to establish an obligation on themself, they shall not break their pledge, they must carry out all that has crossed their lips” (Numbers 30:3). In plain English; a person’s word is their bond. The Torah, however, is implying much more. There is something special about that which proceeds from your mouth. Not fulfilling what you say is not just a question of breaking your word, but it desecrates the very essence of who you are.

It was Descartes who said; “I think therefore I am”. The Torah seems to be trying to convey a much stronger message; “I speak therefore I am”. More than the realm of “thought”, the spoken word changes the type of person you are. Thoughts are ideas in potential; we bring them into reality through the medium of speech. Articulating our most noble dream moves us a significant step closer to making it a reality. Judaism teaches us that words are not merely sounds or vibrations in the wind. They are reality. Words take an idea out of potential and make it real. However, when we lie, we lose the ability to express actualise our ideas, and so we lose our connection to reality.

There’s another popular adage that says; “Think before you speak”. When we look at the excerpt from the beginning of this week’s parasha, it’s probably a good idea to follow that last piece of advice.

If, as we are very prone to do, we deliver words of advice or opinion before we put some real thought into it, we may very well find ourselves committing to do something we are not really prepared to do – all because we let our tongue do the thinking, and not our brain.

The Hebrew month of Av has just begun, and we are in the midst of a 3 week period marking several tragic events in our history, in particular the destruction of both the First and Second Temples (some 656 years apart). The Talmud (in Tractate Yoma) recognizes that one of the key contributors leading up to the destruction of the First Temple was sinat chinam (causeless hatred). While sinat chinam covers a wide area of actions, it also refers to our inability to keep true to our word, to make good on that which we commit to, often because we don’t think about the appropriateness of what we say, or perhaps it is because we don’t care if what we’re saying causes hurt and harm to others.

No, keeping true to our word alone, is not going to make the whole world a magical fairyland with everyone holding hands and living in harmony. It will, however, make us better people, more considerate of others, and will go a long way to maintaining trust and confidence in each other. It will also strengthen our resolve to put proper thought into what we say and commit to.

When we begin our morning services in the synagogue we open with the words of the prophet Balam which appear in this week’s Torah portion: Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” “How lovely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” I have often wondered what kind of “real estate speak” is this? “Lovely tents” does that tell us that the Israelites were living in a “renovator’s delight” did their tents have “room for improvement” to turn them from “lovely” to “fabulous.” Were they the worst tents in the best street in the desert, or had they over-extended and found great tents in a terrible neighbourhood?

The Torah commentators tell us that there were a number of things which made the Israelites’ tents lovely and the real estate ad would probably go something like this: don’t miss this opportunity to buy into this tightly held enclave: fabulous, quiet, private location in the heart of the desert. Community feel, close to eateries, 24 hour access to prophet of God. Strata fees: 613 mitzvot per annum. Price on request.

We are taught that the Israelites merited the glowing report about their tents, their homes in the desert, because even though they were temporary dwellings, they were homes. The tents were arranged in an incredibly ordered fashion, with no tent looking into another, no ones’ privacy compromised despite the close living quarters. Yet they were not distant from one another. Each person cared for the other and was aware of what those around them needed. It was a true community and their homes reflected who they were and what was important in their lives; community and family, a place to be together and also the space to be alone with those you love most dearly.

Today we are very good at creating homes with privacy. The doors to our tents definitely do not open to the street for people to see inside. We build walls and barriers between ourselves and our neighbours and we are losing the sense of community so valued by our ancestors. And at the same time as we are building physical walls to shut others out, we are inviting them into our private worlds through the facebook, instagram and reality television. The barriers between the public domain and the private one are so blurred as to be almost indistinguishable. Even though we cannot look into each other’s homes, we have access to each other’s most intimate secrets and thoughts. So ironically, as we are creating more physical distance between one another we are dissolving the personal barriers. But it is not giving us the sense of community that our ancestors felt. It is not providing us with the balance that the Israelites managed to forge in the desert.

Researchers who have studied happiness suggest that one of the major sources of happiness and contentment is to be part of a community with shared values and goals; to be involved in something which is larger than each of us as an individual. We need to find that again, to recognize the value and importance of caring for those around us and connecting with them. And we also need to find the private space and time too, moments where we can connect with those closest to us, to have personal space and place to be. And if we can find that balance then once again we can exclaim: “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael!”

Parashah Pinchas continues the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas. At the end of last week’s story, we read that Pinchas, upon witnessing an egregious act of apostasy between an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, takes immediate extrajudicial action, executing them on the spot. This week we hear God’s word in response to Pinchas’ deed, “[Pinchas] has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace.’” Both God and Pinchas are depicted as characters of zealotry and passion. Despite the Torah’s seeming endorsement of Pinchas’ act of zealotry, Jews throughout the centuries, sages and student alike, have questioned Pinchas’ act in particular and zealous behaviour as a Torah principle. Today, it is not just Judaism that struggles with what it means to be willing “to kill for God,” for all religious traditions have a text or tradition that endorses that type of killing.

Those who endorse Pinchas’ action and zealousness for God argue as the great 19th century Orthodox Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch did: “anyone who wages war on the enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth even while engaged in war.” Of course, what is good and true is defined within the very scripture that allows one to kill in its pursuit. The commentary in the Etz Chayim Chumash points out that, “The tradition generally considers moral threats to be more dangerous for national survival than physical threats. Although the Egyptians and the Edomites threatened Israel’s physical existence, we are commanded not to hate them. We are told to wipe out the Midianites, however, for they tried to undermine Israel’s moral standing.” Thus, one sees justifications in the tradition for zealotry, including the execution of the other.

However, for others, upholding one’s moral standing by taking action that is either immoral, against the law, or both is problematic. Accordingly, an entire other tradition arose in Judaism, one that over time has become the preponderant position. Thousands of years ago, the rabbis of the Talmud established so many rules that a person ready to take zealous action had to follow that, for all intents and purposes, that one who claimed to kill for God was classified as a zealot. In addition to this restriction in Jewish law, they added the following homiletic teachings. The early rabbis noted that Pinchas’ name in the opening of this parashah is spelled in the Torah scroll with a small “yud”, the yud being the first letter of God’s name as well. From that they learned that one who commits violent acts, even for a “good cause”, has diminished his own Godly nature. Similarly, the “vav” in shalom, speaking of the covenant of peace promised Pesach, is written with a broken stem. This suggests that peace achieved through force is not complete or sustainable.

While the minority position endorsing zealotry in Judaism still exists (Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir have not been condemned outright by the tradition, the former having a grave visited by many as a shrine and the latter still considered as a hero by hundreds of thousands), the majority finds such action abhorrent. Pinchas’ actions are considered to be “of that time” and it is noted that he is assigned to the priesthood partly to disarm him.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow takes this limitation one step further, to the heavenly realm itself. This week’s parasha opens, “God spoke to Moes, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Eleazar son Aaron the priest, has turned back My warth from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion.” Commenting on the fact that God’s anger precedes Pinchas’s act of zealotry and that this week’s parasha clearly states that God’s plague ceased in response to Pinchas’s act, Waskow suggests that even God understood zealotry had no place in life’s drama. According to Waskow’s reading, God understood Pinchas’s extrajudicial execution as an act of “Imitation of God”. It was as if Pinchas held up a mirror to God, changing God’s own perspective on zealotry. God then stopped the plague and made a covenant of peace with Pinchas that bound each of them.

Pinchas is the ancestor of the priestly line, and his covenant of peace extends to us, for we Jews call ourselves “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. The acts of zealotry and violence still done in the name of God are the greatest desecrations of God’s name. We may challenge all the other extremists out there with righteous anger, but we should question why we still condone a shrine and heroic status to our own zealous murderers. Reading Parasha Pinchas during the period of the three weeks between the seventeenth of Tammuz and the ninth of Av, a time of national introspection, we should recall the words of the prophet Zechariah, “With truth, justice and peace shall you judge in your gates.”

The pain of losing a dear one is an experience we all face at one time or another over the course of our lives, whether it be a relative, a close friend or a mentor. It is inevitable. How we deal with loss is variable and hopefully something we can manage in a healthy way.

In this week’s Torah reading, Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Moses, passes away. She has been one of the leaders of the Children of Israel for the 39 years of wandering in the desert and now she is gone. With her passing, the well of fresh water that has accompanied the 12 tribes has dried up. The Talmud explains that the wellspring followed the people only because of Miriam’s presence. With Miriam gone and the well dry, the people complain in anger to Moses and Aharon, questioning why they had been encouraged to leave Egypt at all.

Moses, also mourning the loss of his sister, is instructed by God to gather the people and speak to the rock, thereby causing water to pour out. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses loses his temper, hits the rock, and thereby loses his right to enter the Land of Israel. Anger seems to be rampant amongst the Israelites after Miriam’s passing and has dire consequences. It seems to me that this week we are being invited to reflect on the natural stages experienced by many of us when losing a loved one.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist noted five natural stages of loss and mourning that are often experienced – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When these stages can be identified and worked through they can lead to an acceptance that holds within it a healing and an opportunity for growth.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi states that one of the most instructive aspects of Torah, is that the protagonists are not perfect. Through Moses we learn how letting anger take over, can have negative, life changing consequences. He is devastated that he cannot enter the Land, and yet, for us, the readers, Moses teaches us how destructive anger can be and that if we reach out for help when anger is uncontrollable, we might find a way to harness that energy in a productive way.

If explored more fully, the other stages of mourning can be found in this week’s reading however for now, we will move to the last phase of mourning, acceptance, and the song/poem the Children of Israel sing near the end of the Torah reading. The people sing a song in celebration of clean water, rivers, springs and wells – we could call it a Song of Acceptance, acceptance that the reality of the Children of Israel is changed forever, Miriam has passed away. However her memory is a blessing and they find are other ways to access the wellspring which she provided. This week, may we be blessed with the ability to hold in gratitude the memory of mentors who have passed away, and find their blessings ever present in our lives.

May we also do our part to look after the precious fresh water we have on this earth

This Shabbat, we continue the theme of the past several weeks of the Israelites rebelling again Moses and God. The revolt this week is spearheaded by Korach, a cousin of Moses. His basic gripe is that he wants, in essence, a slice of the leadership pie. Why should Moses get to do it all on his own? Why should he dominate the limelight? Surely, Korach, being a certified Levite, should be eligible?

The rabbis, in their commentary, do not seem to have a problem with Korach’s complaint, but his motives. Moses has sacrificed so much, given up so much and yet, in spite of all, does not get the benefit of the doubt from people like Korach. Suggesting that Moses shares the load is not a bad suggestion. Yitro (Moses’ father-in-law) makes the same suggestion earlier on in the Bible and is rewarded. Korach makes that same suggestion and the earth swallows him up. What’s the difference?

Despite the best of intentions, how many times have our actions been misconstrued and our motives questioned? We find it very easy to question those we place on high, in leadership roles, thinking we could do it better when given the chance. But, we must ask ourselves, are we doubting because of genuine concern? Or is our questioning dictated by a need for attention or selfish reasons? Do we truly have an understanding of the position the leader is in? Or is it simply easier to throw barbs and make assumptions about the decisions and style?

That is the difference between Korach and Yitro. Yitro was interested in the wellbeing of his daughter’s marriage to Moses and the entire Jewish People. Korach simply wanted a piece of the action for himself. Yitro had a higher purpose for Moses to share the load, while Korach was interested in elevating himself, without any thought to the actual job.

When we inquire of our leaders, let it be with the strength and courage that follows self-reflection, that we are expecting of them is no less than the standards we place on ourselves, and that it is always for the greater good.