This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains some of the “greatest hits” of our tradition with its inclusion of the shema and the ten commandments. In this continuation of Moses’ address to the people, he reminds them of the essential principles of Judaism: our grounding in the Exodus from Egypt, adherence to the commandments and the centrality of God and God’s unity. Moses exhorts the people to follow the rules of God, the mitzvot, in order to create a just and compassionate society. But then comes a curious phrase where Moses says: “Remember to do what is right and good in the sight of God.”

Rabbi Artson challenges: if we are to merely follow the mitzvot and the halacha, why add a command to do what is right and good? Surely that is redundant. He then brings examples from the tradition to show that the phrase exists to help us interpret and live the rules of God. Often when we have the chance to implement laws there is more than one way of understanding and applying the rule. This overarching principle reminds us that, in its application, the halacha is to help guide us to do what is right and good. And sometimes this means that we need to depart from the strict letter of the law in order to bring in an element of compassion, goodness or heart.

Rashi says that the verse “implies compromise, going beyond the letter of the law”. The Ramban says “even in regard to those things where no specific command applies…it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior…God included a general injunction to do what is right and good in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.” (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

So flexibility when it comes to the application of the law is crucial to maintaining its relevance, but also in ensuring that we continue to apply the principles of Judaism with the effect upon people at the heart of all that we do. Rabbi Yochanan is recorded in the Talmud as saying that the Temple was destroyed because our ancestors acted only to the letter of the law and did not go beyond it. (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

Sometimes we can become so entangled in the minutiae of a situation that we don’t see the broader implications of our decisions. This week’s parashah reminds us to always have compassion, kindness and goodness at the heart of our application of Jewish principles so that we can bring the vision of our world as a place filled with love, generosity, peace and blessing, to fruition through our deeds and the work of our hands.

May we always act to do what is right and good so that we can be a blessing.

This Shabbat we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the culmination of the period begun three weeks ago to recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of our national sovereignty in the Land of Israel. While after the destruction of the First Temple we were fortunate to return to the land after 70 years, after the destruction of the Second Temple our exile lasted 1,900 years (and some say continues until the Third Temple is rebuilt). For 2,600 years we have looked at the destruction from a dual perspective. On one hand, we have seen it as a reminder of the errors of our ways, the need to take responsibility for our actions in community. On the other, we have seen it as a call for a return to our core values as a people. In this sense, the period of the three weeks mirrors the period of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that also have us look at ourselves self-critically with a goal to improving our individual way of being in the world.

The traditions of Tisha B’Av mirror those of Yom Kippur, except that since the former is not a holy day mentioned in the Torah, one is allowed to work — to drive, to use electronic devices, to use money and so forth. Its other restrictions are the same as on Yom Kippur: for 25 hours no eating, no drinking, no sexual relations, no bathing or anointing, and no wearing of leather shoes. We come to synagogue evening, morning and afternoon to hear the words of Scripture, particularly the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, particularly the latter’s haunting words in the book of Lamentations, or Eicha. Their teachings have been enshrined within the prayers of our tradition, written over the last thousands of years: “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land”. Indeed, this entire period, culminating on Tisha B’Av, is one of reflection on how we, as a people and a nation, have failed to live up to our values as Jews.

The prophets of old are quite clear as to what they understand those values to be. On the Shabbat of Devarim – Chazon, always the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, it is made clear. While ritual may be necessary to live one’s life as a fully engaged Jew, it is by no means sufficient. In fact, ritual without ethics has no meaning. One’s connection to God is expressed first and foremost in one’s connection to one’s fellow human beings. As Isaiah says in his “chazon”, or prophecy:

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.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

defend the cause of the widow.”

(Isaiah 1:16–17).

Jeremiah concludes Lamentations as follows (a phrase now entered into our Torah service): “Hashivenu Adonai Eleikha – Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old”. We must remember that the way back to God is through God’s creatures.

Just as we teach on Yom Kippur that there is none on earth who does only good and never sins, this day of Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity on a communal level – thinking of how we as Jews behave in Israel, the States, New Jersey and at CBTBI – to look at those actions for which we need to repent, and those ways we wish to improve.

This week’s double parasha marks the end of the book of Numbers. In the second portion, there is a curious list of 42 places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert. There they are, poised to enter the Promised Land, about to conclude a journey which has taken 40 years, and Moses recounts a small travelogue. Interestingly, he does not say anything about any of the places, he simply recites the list of names. It was as though he only had limited space and had to get in as many memories as he could. So rather than give details about what happened, he just says: there was Sukkot then Etham and Migdol…

I imagine the Israelites listening to the stories of those places and remembering what happened there; laughing, smiling, cringing, crying. Through that list they are inspired to recall the people who walked beside them during their travels; many of whom no longer walk the earth. They recall the moments of pride, the times they were ashamed of their actions and so much more. It is interesting to see which places are left off and which included. There is, for example, no recalling of Mount Sinai, the place of revelation — perhaps the most momentous event of their entire travels. Instead, the smaller moments are recalled; those which might otherwise have been lost in the sands of time.

There is much discussion in the commentaries about what this list of place names is trying to teach us, because we do not have the memories of the Israelites to be triggered. We did not have the experiences – we only have the stories of them – and so the list might seem dry and somewhat irrelevant. But, just as with everything else in the Torah, the sages of our tradition have extracted great meaning from just a few verses. One of my favorite explanations is from the Apter Rebbe. He refers to another section in the Torah portion which commands the creation of six cities of refuge to which people can flee. The Rebbe notes that there are six cities of refuge and six words in the shema; 42 places in Moses’ travelogue and 42 words in the veahavta prayer. This teaches us, he says, that just as people found refuge in the six cities, we should find refuge in the shema:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,

Listen Israel Adonai is your God Adonai is One.

When people cry out, we need to shema – to listen – to hear their cries, to hear their pain; and then veahavta – to reach out in love – in openness with compassion and justice. Shema Yisrael – listen Israel – our tradition calls to us. Listen to the pain, the hurt and the suffering; and work for justice with an open heart and with love. The Israelite journey was about finding a place where we could be one. It was about finding a home away from persecution and pain; a place where we could live true to our principles and our faith: the cities of refuge.

We fled the persecution and slavery of pharaoh; we journeyed to 42 places, healing, becoming one, learning to love and to be; and then we arrived at the Promised Land. So many are in that same place, on that journey — seeking hope and safety, a future for themselves and their families. Judaism, the Torah, and our parashah all call upon us to listen. To hear and to act, to create cities of refuge, places of healing, of welcome, and of love.

At the end of last week’s parashab, God calls to Moses and tells him just how disappointed God is in the Children of Israel. God is jealous and angry for they have turned away and begun worshipping other gods, sleeping with Midianite women – possibly cultic prostitutes – and God has had enough. God demands that those who are responsible be impaled and then causes a plague to infect all those who were led astray. Just as Moses is explaining what is happening to the people, another tragedy occurs. The Torah tells us that Moses is speaking and all around him people are weeping and crying in torment over the loss of their loved ones in the plague and the punishment that God seems intent on inflicting on them. Their lament is ascending to the heavens but God remains impervious to the pleas. In the midst of this scene walks Zimri, an Israelite, who has on his arm, Cozbi, a Midianite priestess. He parades in front of the weeping masses and heads to his tent for an afternoon of pleasure with her, a flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. This is all too much for Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, and a priest, so he takes his spear and impales the two of them upon it, spearing them through the genitals as they lay together. At that moment the plague against the Israelites stops and 24,000 people have died.

This week’s parasha begins with the fate of Pinchas, the zealot who carried out an act of violence in God’s name. We read:

God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas… has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israeli in My zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” (Numbers 24:10–13)

This is not the response we would have imagined. It appears that God has given the stamp of approval for Pinchas’ actions: the plague stopped, he receives the priesthood and a covenant of peace for all time. That someone should receive a reward for taking the law into his own hands, for killing in his zeal in the name of God is troubling and greatly disturbing. But Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a different explanation and interpretation. He suggests that God was behaving much like Pinchas. God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, immediate and disproportionate to the cause. However it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Zimri and imitated his God, that God saw the error of God’s ways. Rabbi Waskow writes:

In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me; he turned his hand to zealous killing. His zealous act opened My eyes, I saw him as a mirror of Myself. He shocked me into shame at what I was doing. That is why I stopped the plague, that is why I made my covenant of peace. I said to him, if you stop, I’ll stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”

In this reading, the story takes on an entirely different message. It says: zealous killing in the name of God is never OK, not by humans, not by God. And that is why God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace. They made a deal; neither would destroy nor bring about death again for impure motives. It was only once Pinchas agreed to work for peace, goodness and life that he merited the priesthood. Leaders must be calm and rational, interpreting laws with kindness and justice, compassion and peace. Pinchas did not do that in last week’s portion, but he, like God, repented and together they looked to a different future with the potential for calm and peace. During this three week period, when we lament the destruction of the First and Second Temple, partly brought about by zealots past, may we work to make sure our future here, in Israel and around the world is guided not by zealotry but by working calmly and rationally for peace.

Balak, the parasha that was a precursor to Mr. Ed, has a serious message delivered by a talking donkey — one of the three protagonists of the short story. Balak, the king of Moab, fears that the people of Israel are finally on their way to enter the promised land. He requests a regional prophet, Bilaam, to curse the people since “they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” While instructed by God not to go on the mission, Bilaam is lured by Balak’s flattery and financial enticement. The third protagonist is Bilaam’s talking donkey who perceives, better than the prophet himself, the presence and intent of God. The story unfolds in such a way that each time Bilaam attempts to curse the people of Israel, a blessing comes from his mouth instead.

For far too long we have cursed a group of people who should be blessed. Because of a passage in Torah that is purported to be the will of God, homosexuals – and by extension anyone who has a sexual orientation that is not that of the heterosexual majority – have been discriminated against, persecuted, assaulted, murdered and driven to suicide. This despite one core passage of Torah teaching that each human being is created in the image of God, and another that we are meant to live through practice of mitzvot.

Sadly, too many people hide their fears and prejudices behind words of Scripture, no matter what their faith. “Marriage has always been between one man and one woman” they say, even though it is clear that in both Judaism and Islam, a man can marry as many women as he can afford to support. (The rabbis only restricted this to monogamy one thousand years ago.) The definition of marriage has changed throughout the course of human development, including within religious traditions. Moreover, we live in a society with a secular, not religious, government, which should be looking after the welfare of all its citizens. It was this concept of putting the value of equality ahead of the law that led the US Supreme Court to its historic decision last week that sexual orientation shall no longer be a hurdle to marriage.

As Jews, we are moved by the words of the prophet Micah, whose teaching is read on this Shabbat. Micah teaches simply: “God has told you, human, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to act with lovingkindness and to walk humbly with God.”

To do justice requires providing all members of society with equal rights — a clear principle in Torah. To act with lovingkindness means to be kind and respectful to those who are different than you (as in love your neighbor like yourself). To walk humbly with God means to know that just because something is written, it is not necessarily so — one must always consider how one’s words and actions affect another divine being.

Parashat Chukat deals a lot with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, which is used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body. We then read a brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. Her passing is followed by the people’s outcry for water. A connection between these two events is drawn by our commentators who determined that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness — “Miriam’s Well”. We then read about the death of Aaron and the people’s mourning for him for thirty days. This is really one of the saddest portions of the Torah.

What makes this portion even sadder is that we witness Moses at his weakest. The long time leader of the Israelites, the greatest teacher and prophet of our tradition, loses control of himself. As a result he is punished by God.

The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam suddenly dies. The people start complaining of their thirst to Moses and Aaron, who go to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron begin to do as they are told and they gather all the people together. But then, instead of commanding the rock as instructed, they castigate the people. They proclaim, “shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses hits the rock twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but God then takes Moses and Aaron to task for not doing exactly as instructed.

God declares their punishment: because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment. After all, this is Moses, the great leader of our people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and then continued to lead them for forty more years, molding them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with this contentious people for four decades, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the Promised Land? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration? Let us remember also that Moses was grieving. He had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?

Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God was dismayed that Moses denied him the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith and compliance with God’s command, something that might have been common among the people but was certainly expected of their leader. Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (2:47a) teaches, “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”

Aaron the High Priest, who witnessed the incident, was also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, then he alone would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before he did it again.

According to Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was the contemptible language they used when they spoke to the people. Certainly all the prophets spoke to the people in harsh tones, but it was effective and deserved. But here the language is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except to satisfy his own needs. He compromised his own leadership and therefore was punished by not being allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses was, indeed, human, and therefore he could only the lead the people so far.

Moses’s sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. We may feel that, under the circumstances, Moses should have received some compassion. But even at the time of his greatest vulnerability, he was held accountable for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be a paragon of faith and virtue.

We understand that Moses was human. Like all of us, grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of highest leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during the toughest of times. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.

This week we read the story of Korach and his followers, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. When Korach began the rebellion against Moses, he stood up and said: “all the house of Israel is holy, every one of them, what is it that makes you think you are better than us and can lead us?”. These sentiments seem quite reasonable. Yes, we are all holy; God told us so earlier in the Torah: “kedoshim tihyu — you shall be holy because I, God, am holy”. Korach was swallowed up by the earth. So, why such a severe punishment for saying something that God has already said?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers in interpretation. He says that Korach’s problem was that he assumed that everyone was intrinsically holy, and that they need do nothing to nurture or develop their holiness. He believed that no matter how a person behaved – whether or not we follow God and God’s laws – is irrelevant. That we are all holy just by being human. This mistake, says Waskow, was his downfall. God does not actually say that we are all holy. God says we all can become holy — that we all have the potential, but it is still up to us to realize that potential within us. It is not enough to just be a part of the world, our actions determine how we will be; we are not all holy automatically, we must work to become the best that we can be.

Korach was looking for the quick fix – benefit without work, glory without responsibility – and he was not nurturing the potential for goodness within himself and his followers.

Korach did not make himself holy, and he was swallowed up by the earth. Like a seed, he needed to be planted in the earth so that his potential could be realized. Korach’s descendants became the priests, and many of his children wrote some of our most beautiful poetry and psalms. That was his legacy and it could also have been his future, had he accepted responsibility for his actions rather than believing that we are all deserving without any effort at all. Korach and his followers were quick to complain about the leadership, yet they offered no constructive suggestions for change; no opportunity for the leadership to address their problems. Instead they complained, it would seem, for the sake of complaining. They did not take responsibility and rather sat in the background; offering complaints, seeking glory and avoiding accountability.

But what of the others who were killed in the plague? What was their crime? We are told that those who stood up and supported Moses were spared, whereas all the vocal supporters of Korach were killed, along with those who said nothing. Again, it is an example of not taking responsibility. God is saying that even when we do not speak, that can sometimes be the strongest support of all. When we do not stand up to wrong and injustice, when we remain silent, we become complicit. When we are standing on the sidelines watching, we are involved.

So often, it is easier and more convenient to drive on by. Not to stop and help, but rather to stay in our own sheltered worlds — as so many did in the face of Korach’s rebellion. Instead of standing up to Korach and defending Moses’ leadership they fell silent, not wanting to be involved. This is not the path to holiness.

Korach is looking for the easy solution; the quick path to fortune and fame. He wants to be the leader and suggests that everyone is intrinsically holy, independent of our actions and behavior. Moses and God on the other hand remind us that being holy is not easy. It is not something that just happens. Rather, it involves us in an active way; and that is why Korach was so successful. We want to believe that he has the answer; that we can have it all without consequence nor responsibility. But that is not the way of this world. Our actions do have consequences. We live with other people, and what we do affects them also. We need to get involved and to be a part of this world; to work to be as good as we can be and to be a holy people.


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