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Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition, which teaches that we are physically the same as animals but intellectually and morally superior to them. As our tradition has evolved, so too has a discussion about our greater similarity to animals – and therefore what is the “ideal” form of kashrut, or fit manner of eating. In parasha Re’eh, the laws of what animals are “tahor”, pure to eat, and which are “tamei” or forbidden, is repeated. The land animals that are “tahor” must chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, the pure sea animals must have fins and scales (NB, all fish that have scales have fins, so it is the former characteristic that is determinative), and only birds that can be domesticated are “tahor”. It seems that the Torah suggests that our superiority to animals enables us to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Is eating kosher animals an ideal or an accommodation to human nature?

All evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the mythic stories of Torah hint that this might be the case – after the disaster of the flood, the Noah story describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening story of the Torah, the beginning of all life in the imaginative Garden of Eden and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of all life, and not to consume animals at all. That story teaches that we should eat a vegan diet: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.” (Genesis 1:29). According to the great 20th century mystic, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, vegetarianism is the ultimate ethical way of eating. Chasidic traditions have disagreed, teaching that to eat animals elevates their souls.

While the Jewish jury is out on what is the ideal approach to eating animals, Judaism clearly states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parasha tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. That we are permitted to eat them does not require us to do so, and now more than ever we should reflect on the Torah’s dietary options. Our daily choices have life long consequences.

In this week’s parashah, we find the well-known words from Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals); “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach – when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai, your God, for the good of the land which God has given you” (Devarim 8:10).

Our sages taught that it is this verse that forms the basis for the commandment to give thanks after we partake in a meal. While the main foundation for the rather involved Birkat Hamazon lies in the verse quoted above, we learn that it is actually made up of four different blessings. Perhaps even more surprising is that three of the blessings are not food-based. The four blessings are; a blessing for God Who sustains the world with food and nourishment, a blessing for the land of Israel, a blessing/request for the protection and renewal of Jerusalem, and a universal praise of God.

So, why all these blessings? And why do we recite the Hamotzi blessing (over bread) before we eat and the Birkat Hamazon after we eat? Most other times, we recite blessings before or at the time of the event, not afterwards. The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the Birkat Hamazon is actually a response to arrogance and pompousness. Just a few verses later in this week’s parasha, Moses warns against the eating of the land and enjoying the earth’s abundance without recognition of from where it is that we get our riches, imploring us to remember our history. In a land as good and abundant as the one described in the Torah, it is too easy to enjoy the wealth and opulence, and to forget the source of our blessings.

In that light, the intent of the Birkat Hamazon is to act as a shield to help avoid the lonely emptiness that results from self-gratification and arrogance, and to ensure that we act with humility.

It is a reminder that, in case we forgot, the food that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy, did not just appear out of nowhere, and that there are many factors involved with growing, sourcing, and preparing that food. Moreover, it is a reminder that there are many people who are not as fortunate as we are, who struggle each and every day to get enough food just to survive. Acknowledging their difficulties when we have so much helps us to realize that we need also to show humility, especially during fortunate times.

Reciting Birkat Hamazon, after we have finished enjoying our meal, and doing so with appropriate intentions, allows us to properly express our gratitude and fortune, acknowledging the many aspects that resulted in the food on our plate, and how lucky we are.

This week as we continue Moses’ journey back through the Israelites’ wanderings we find him recalling the moment when he pleaded with God to reverse the decree and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Moses made one mistake and as punishment he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work, his dream; to bring his people to the land God promised. For more than 40 years Moses has dealt with the stubborn, rebellious Israelites, he has tended to their needs, ministered to them, navigated their relationship with God and after everything, he is told not only will he not go with the Israelites but he must prepare Joshua the next leader who will succeed him.

Imagine the pain of that position, the struggle he must have had, to realize that his dreams would not be fulfilled, that another will go in his place and more than that, he must prepare that person. It would have been tempting to walk away, say: “I am too old, you take over, good luck!” to allow bitterness, anger and jealousy to cloud his actions. But Moses did not do that. He accepted his fate, confronted his mortality and his humanness and sat together with Joshua, teaching and guiding him, as he had the Israelites throughout the years. Moses then turns to the people he so loves and does the same for them, he instructs, he nurtures and he continues the work he has been doing for 40 years. And through this teaching he secures his legacy and ensures his dream will be realized, if not through his own hand.

Moses this week teaches us all an important lesson about disappointment, accepting who we are and being content and proud of having done enough. Few of us, if any, will achieve all our dreams, will reach all our goals, will have lives where we fulfill all our desires. As Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein writes:

…maturity impels us to confront our own limitations, to accept what cannot be changed, in the faith that with all our failings and weaknesses, with all our unfulfilled dreams and our disappointed hopes, each one of us in our unique individuality is cherished by God, who wants us to be the very best we can be but who accepts our humble contrition over what we did not achieve.

(Reform Judaism 10 Minutes of Torah)

Moses reminds us that we are not perfect, not even he who is described as the greatest prophet that ever lived or will live, the one who was chosen by God, who met God face to face, spoke directly with the Divine, even he was flawed, even he made mistakes, and so do we.

Too often the messages we receive are that every avenue is open to us, that we can be and do and achieve anything of which we dream, that all we need to do is work and it will happen. But that is not the reality of the world. I may want to be a world class violinist, I may have dreams of becoming a world changing scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, I may want to be an opera singer, but I will not become any of those things. I can dream and hope and wish but that will not guarantee my success and that is ok. We need to learn from Moses that even one of the greatest leaders did not achieve all that he wanted and that was ok. We possibly won’t do or become everything we hope but Moses teaches us how to be gracious when we don’t, to not berate or blame ourselves but instead to be proud of what we have achieved, to find the good in the steps along the way and to celebrate all that we are rather than mourn what we are not.

Each year we come to this time of confrontation, when our greatest prophets challenge us to get out of our solipsistic thinking and do something positive and helpful for life itself. Alas, it seems as if as the years go on, the pleas from Moses and Isaiah, the greatest prophets of the Jewish people and perhaps all humanity, fall on ears turning more and more deaf. Jews, like many others, are “seeking spirituality”. Certainly, it is necessary, crucial, for each of us to be touched deep in our spiritual core, for our souls to feel connected to the source of life and light we call God, and therefore to each other. But spirituality is ultimately a launching point for action and goodness.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses imploring people to in essence “love God” (the spiritual element of being) as part of a covenant to be a people of justice and right action (the human element of doing). In his opening message read always in conjunction with the opening of Deuteronomy, Isaiah shares his vision with the people: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against Me! . . . that you come to appear before Me – who asked that of you? Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” (Excerpted from Isaiah 1: 1-15). Read in their entirety, these verses clearly state the essential Jewish proposition taught since the time of Abraham, that to “walk with God” means to do that which is just and right.

Reading through the Torah, Jews are often surprised that it does not speak much of spirituality. Today, many people want to to pursue a spiritual life. It seems as if people are asking for a life of inner reflection without a sense of responsibility or obligation for the other. Judaism, like certain other spiritual practices, teaches that the earth and all on it is the living expression of God. To be truly spiritual therefore is to embrace fully the human realm and all its requirements. Absolutely we must be in touch with our inner self – but not exclusively so. Thus, Isaiah further teaches in the name of God, “Wash yourselves clean, put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) To truly be a spiritual person, one must walk the walk, talk the talk: do the deeds that heal earth and humanity.

The rabbis established the scriptural readings in our calendar with great spiritual intention. These readings of Moses and Isaiah always precede Tisha B’Av, the time we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. According to tradition, not only the Jewish people, but also God’s Shekhina, or in dwelling presence, went into exile. The Temples were destroyed not because people were not spiritual enough, but because they thought that if only they were spiritual that would be enough. We stand on the verge of the destruction not just of the Temple but of an earth that will sustain human life. May our spiritual pursuits awaken us to our human obligations to act justly and do right, to protect our planet and to provide for those in need.

In this week’s parasha we read the fascinating story of the Daughters of Zelophad. They are five women who were the only remaining descendants when their father died. According to the custom of the time, when a person died with no sons, their property would revert back to the tribe. The Daughters of Zelophad were not satisfied with this situation and they went to Moses and petitioned him, saying that it was not right that their family holding would be returned to the tribe when their father had five deserving daughters. Moses was not sure what to do, he appreciated their arguments and said he would take it to God for a ruling. God ruled in favour of the daughters of Zelophad and thanks to their courage and wisdom, the law was changed to allow women to inherit property when there were no surviving sons.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson brings a beautiful commentary on this portion. He quotes Rashi’s words: “Their eyes (the daughters’) saw what Moses could not see.” What did they see that Moses did not? They saw the injustice of the law which would disposess the women and their family simply because there were no males to inherit the property. Moses and the elders failed to see the wrong which was being perpetrated until the daughters pointed it out to them. Only then were they able to make the situation right and care for the vulnerable in their society.

Sometimes we can be like the elders and Moses. We look with our eyes but we fail to see what is truly before us. We sanitize the world so that we look upon only the good and brush past the things which cause us pain or distress. But it is important to see not only with our eyes but also with our hearts and our heads.

When we look at the world around us we must try to be conscious of those who need assistance, those who need our love, compassion and care. Sometimes those who are struggling hide their pain, they are embarrassed, ashamed, feel nobody will care, nobody wants to listen. But if we look with eyes that see into the depths of their souls, we can see their hurt and then work to heal their suffering, be a listening ear, a compassionate heart. We are tasked as Jews, with tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world, making right the wrongs in society. We can only do that if we first see the places where there is need and then act to change them.

Every time I read this parasha, I can’t help but think of the hilarious Shrek movies, where the beloved talking donkey, voiced by none other than Eddie Murphy, displays a boundless ability of making his opinions and thoughts heard. Yes, it’s a movie franchise, an animated one at that, and yes, it is meant to be comical and poke fun at the vast array of fairy tales told through the ages.

However, unlike the Shrek movies, the Torah isn’t known for its comedic value, nor is it abound with talking animals. The only other talking animal in the Torah is the snake in Gan Eden in Bereishit. Yet, in this week’s parasha, we find the combination of both.

The King of Moab, Balak, asks the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel. So Balaam heads off to the Israelite camps, to carry out his assigned duty. Incensed at what was being planned, God places an angel armed with a sword, in the way of Balaam and his donkey, . Each time the donkey attempts to evade the danger of the armed angel, Balaam becomes more infuriated. Finally, the donkey drops to the floor and refuses to move. Then Balaam loses it, and starts to hit the donkey with a stick.

Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”. Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And Balaam answered, “No.” (Numbers 22:28-30)

Only at this point, is Balaam able to see the angel and he realises that he actually owes his life to the donkey. He expresses to the angel that if it is God’s will, he will turn back and not continue to the Israelite camp to carry out his assigned duty. The angel tells him to carry on with his journey, but he must only use the words that the angel will tell him. Balaam continue on his way, and instead of cursing the Children of Israel, he ends up blessing them.

The story could easily have taken place without the piece with the talking donkey. That being the case, what can we learn from this very unusual encounter?

Firstly, there is a direct connection between what happened there and Balaam’s mission. The donkey sees the angel of God blocking the way, which Balaam initially fails to see. Then the donkey speaks, and Balaam discovers the truth behind what had occurred. If we look back at Balaam’s mission, it involves seeing (he had to view the Children of Israel in their camps) and speaking (after he had seen/found them, he was to curse them).

Secondly, the donkey represents a humble beast of burden. Balaam rides atop the donkey reflecting the spoken order where the powerful are honoured and distinguished as they ride upon the backs of the lowly and the hapless. Through experiencing Balaam’s lack of control as he beats the donkey, eventually falling to the floor, the donkey seems to mock Balaam, and metaphorically, the assumed order.

By using the “over the top” encounter, where a donkey can see what the human cannot, and where that donkey not only speaks, but also challenges the hierarchy and order, the Torah teaches us that there is much to be learnt through humility and respect, and that power and perceived superiority are not always a formula for success. Let us take the time to acknowledge and respect that all parties (human or otherwise) play an important role in our journeys, and let’s be grateful for the role they play, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In the words of Shrek; “That’ll do Donkey. That’ll do”

This week’s parasha, Chukkat, challenges us with paradox. In it we learn of the mysterious ritual of the Red Heifer, a prelude to the story of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and the death sentence for Moses who will not enter the Promised Land. Much is taught about the failure of Aaron and Moses to sanctify God; the story of the waters of Meribah in a sense is as perplexing as the story of the Red Heifer. It makes no sense that two of our greatest leaders are condemned not to enter the Promised Land because of one mistake. Similarly, the story of the Red Heifer is beyond rational comprehension.

While the life giving waters of mikvah purify in most circumstances, only a special concoction, including the ashes of a specially slaughtered burnt cow purify one who has had contact with a corpse. Even stranger, while the ashes of the burnt heifer purify the one on whom they are sprinkled, the one who prepares and sprinkles them becomes impure by contact with the very same ashes. According to tradition, the wise Solomon said of this passage, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reached this chapter of the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned. I said I will get wisdom but it was far from me.” (Midrash, B’Midbar Rabbah 19:3). Despite this, sages throughout the generations have searched for meaning in this passage that is apparently beyond meaning.

The materials used for purification reveal a pattern of opposites. The four elements – the red heifer, cedar wood, hyssop and died thread – contain two opposite pairs. The red heifer is the rarest of creatures, while the worm from which comes the dye for the thread the most base. The cedar is the mightiest of trees and the hyssop the lowliest of plants. Only when these distinct and opposite realms are brought together in one mixture does purification become possible.

But what does the bringing together of these opposite realms suggest? The great Italian rabbi of the early 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno teaches that one must live a life of moderation. Others comment on the dangers inherent in following one extreme or exclusive path, and not seeing the truth revealed in tension or dialectic. Rather than being bound to one truth, one teacher or one leader, we should recognize the positive aspect of opposing positions in life and tensions in tradition.

That there is no “one truth” may be the essence of this passage. Perhaps the meaning within this passage is precisely its enigma, hinting that life itself presents us the greatest mystery of all. Tradition takes this back to a potentially dogmatic position: The Divine will is more awesome than the human, and therefore there needs to be a point where human will should bend to God’s will as expressed in the Torah. Beyond this traditional take, we can look at the same passage and understand that Torah is suggesting that we humans need to embrace the truth that not everything can be explained and categorized, that life is far more grey (or colorful) than black and white.

Judaism celebrates the asking of questions more than the dictate of authority. Perhaps that is why this passage precedes the one telling of the deaths of our greatest and most authoritative leaders – Miriam, Aaron and Moses. It reminds us to live courageously and with faith means precisely to live in embrace of the great mystery and the expanse of that which may be.