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Parashat Pinchas

Parashah Pinchas continues the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, a man rewarded for zealotry, for killing in the name of God. 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. Our world seems in tatters as killing in the name of God and Scripture becomes more widely practiced.

Those who endorse Pinchas’ action, and zealousness for God, argue as the great 19th century Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “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 our 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.”

For some, upholding one’s moral standing by taking action that is against the law is problematic. This solipsistic argument to support killing in God’s name from the sense of morality from God’s supposed book is precisely the same point made by other religionists who now argue for God’s war against Western society. These “wars of God” have nothing to do with God or morality, when one has a more nuanced understanding of God and more responsible position of what is moral.

Accordingly, an entire other tradition arose in Judaism, one that over time has become preponderant. 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 they halakhically classified as murderer one who claimed to kill for God as a zealot. In addition to this restriction in 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 same letter used in God’s name, and learned from that that one who commits violent acts, even for a “good cause”, has diminished his own Godly nature. Similarly, the “vav” in shalom is written with a broken stem, suggesting 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 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. The essence of the message of the Torah and the prophets is that those of us who wish to create real shalom know it is achieved with justice tempered by compassion. In just a few weeks, we will read in the Torah the words that form our core teaching: “Shema: Listen Israel, being is what is our God, all being is One”. The seventh word of that teaching is “Ve’ahavta”, and therefore you shall love. As the rabbis indicated thousands of years ago, zealotry has no place in Judaism, or any religion at all. Rather, the unity of being calls us toward love.

As Martin Luther King said decades ago: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Parashat Balak

Rabbi Jonathan Magonet writes: “I sometimes ask my Bible class: “If you were a donkey, what would you look for in the Bible?” and the answer comes quite readily: stories about donkeys! And believe it or not there are a number from which to choose, the most famous of which is in this week’s Torah portion. Balaam, a non Jewish prophet is dispatched by Balak, a non Jewish king, to curse the Israelites. Balaam says that he will go, afterall, a job is a job, but he can only say what God places in his mouth and if God does not want him to curse the Israelites he won’t. Balak decides that is good enough and Balaam heads out on his donkey. At one point in the journey, the donkey stops and refuses to move forward, Balaam curses and beats the donkey who turns around and says: what are you doing!? Have I ever behaved like this before? Surely you can understand that there is a reason for this! Look there is an angel in our path and we can’t move forward! So in this fascinating story, Balaam the prophet can’t see what is before him and his donkey can! From the perspective of a donkey, this is a pretty great story. The donkey has insight and is more wise than its master, she teaches lessons about listening, power, having a voice, the treatment of animals. From Balaam’s perspective it is a completely different story. He considers the miracle of his donkey talking, is chastised for beating his animal, he is embarrassed that his donkey, traditionally considered one of the less “intelligent” animals, has vision that he, one of the great prophets, does not.

Whenever we read a passage in the Torah we bring with us our perspectives, our biases and our prejudices. We bring our life experience, our age, gender, education, values, religion, so many aspects are brought to play in our interpretation. This adds to the richness of the conversations, the unfolding of different meanings and the discovery of the intricate layers of our Torah. But this is only possible when we are able to speak and have a conversation with openness and understanding, where we respect one another’s opinions and honor those with whom we speak, even when, and especially when we disagree. There are records of the many debates between the schools of the two great Talmudic Rabbis, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. They are legendary for their disagreements but we are told that they are: machlochet shem shamayim “disagreements for the sake of heaven.” The Mishnah tells us there are a number of reasons why these disagreements qualify for such attribution.

The first is that despite the fact that they did not agree on anything much, they still had close relationships with one another. They ate at each other’s homes, they married one another and were able to separate their debate about issues from the person with whom they were debating, enabling them to sustain their personal connections. They also had a motivation for the discussion beyond winning or losing and were open to admitting when they were wrong. Too often, the discourse in the public arena and in the Jewish community seems not to meet these criteria. We see personal attacks, people being vilified for holding positions of thought and the dialogue being less than respectful. And with the increase in the use of social media, this situation seems to be becoming more prevalent.

Each time we enter a discussion or disagree with another person, we would do well to remember the debates of Hillel and Shammai and ensure our debate is a machlochet leshem shamayim.

Parashat Chukat

This week we read a very well-known and much debated piece in the journey through the desert. God says to Moses; “Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock…”. By all accounts, this seems a very simple set of instructions to follow.

As we are aware, Moses does not follow God’s instructions precisely. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses raises his arm, and he strikes the rock with his staff, twice. Nevertheless, water does come out of the rock, and the people and their animals receive abundant water.

God, of course, is angered by this incident, and tells Moses and Aaron that because they did not obey the instructions given to them, their punishment will be that they do not get to lead the people into the Holy Land.

In Parashat Beshalach, in the book of Shemot, we learn that the people have just crossed the Red Sea and they complain to Moses that there is no water. Moses says; “Why do you contend with me? Why do you test God?” He cries out to God, saying; “What shall I do for this people? A bit more and they will stone me!”

So God says to Moses; “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and in your hand you shall take your staff with which you struck the (Nile) River, and go. Behold I shall stand before you by the rock in Choreb; you shall strike the rock and water will come forth from it and the people will drink”. Of course, here, Moses follows God’s instructions, and water gushes out of the rock.

Back to this week’s parasha, and we see that, with the exception of one specific detail, the rest of the instruction is almost identical. In both cases, God tells Moses to go before the assembly, and God also tells Moses to take his staff with him. The crucial difference is that in this week’s parasha, God instructs Moses to speak to the rock, not to hit it.

Why the difference? In both instances, the people desperately needed water, so why could the procedure not be the same for the second time as it was for the first?

One explanation is that on the first occasion, the concept of hitting or striking was accepted, mainly because the people had just left Egypt, and this brutal language and actions were something that that generation understood. However, on the second occasion, the much softer approach of speaking was required by their leader. After all, this was a generation that grew up in freedom, not slavery. Therefore, our commentators explain that the punishment that Moses received was justified.

Perhaps God felt that Moses had acted in a way which was not becoming of the person that would be ideal to lead the current generation of the people into the Holy Land.

While we may be able to accept that the punishment was suitable for Moses, why was Aaron also punished in the same way? What did he do wrong? The Torah reflects that Aaron was Moses’ partner and assistant, in virtually everything he did.

Aside from serving as the first Kohen Gadol, Aaron’s role was to ensure that everything that Moses did, was done according to God’s instruction. Therefore, Aaron should have at least attempted to stop Moses from hitting the rock the second time. As he did not, God punishes Aaron in the same way Moses was punished. An obvious lesson to learn here is that when we see others doing the wrong thing, we have an obligation to say something, and where possible, do something about it. This lesson can be applied to so many situations we encounter week upon week. That is our obligation, at the very least.

There is also a further, unspoken message associated with this story. When we look at the story of the Exodus, and the many experiences that our people endured in the 40 years that they roamed the desert, we look at the story as a whole, and we acknowledge that there are many different experiences that constitute the entire narrative. We accept that humans do make mistakes, and that there are consequences as well as lessons arising out of those mistakes. We also accept that we need to look at a much larger sample to get the true perspective on someone’s success. If we were to judge Moses and Aaron’s contribution to our story as a people, based only on this week’s parasha, we would inevitably come up with a very negative outlook. However, when we look at their contribution and leadership in the context of the full narrative, we see that they accomplished so much more, and were indeed extremely valuable and important to our story.

Yes, it is important to view each situation and learn from our errors, but it is equally as important to take a step back and view the story as a whole.

Parashat Korach

The controversy between Moses and his fellow Levites, the latter group led by the infamous rebel Korach, reflects their different understanding of God’s relationship with us. Korach extrapolates his understanding from the story of creation: “God created human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created human; male and female God created them.” This verse teaches the ultimate equality and divinity of each human being. The rabbis learn from that verse that no human being can say to another “my blood is redder than yours”; that each human has equal dignity. Korach seems to presage the rabbi’s teaching with his words of attack against Moses and Aaron: “ You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” Yet the challenge of Korach is considered one of the worst rebellions in the Jewish tradition. How can we resolve this apparent problem?

We must acknowledge that Moses and Aaron taught slightly differently to Korach concerning the relationship of human and God. They accepted the notion that from creation each person has equal dignity before God. However, they also understood that our having a “a spark of the divine” is the beginning not the end,of our relationship. Coming out of Egypt, God instructs the people through Moses, “You shall (emphasis added) be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” We may have a neshama, a soul, an essential aspect of being connected to the ultimate singularity of being, but to be “God-like” is not to be God.

Over and over, the Torah emphasizes the obligation not just to be holy, but far more importantly, to act holy. To act holy as Jews, we need to learn Torah, understand its mitzvot and apply its halakhot (the traditional rules of how to act.) Just before the rebellion of Korach that opens this week’s Torah portion, we hear the maftir of last week’s Torah portion, which we now know as the third paragraph of the Shema. After the rebellion of the scouts, we are cautioned not to just follow our eye’s desire, but rather to look at the tzitzit, and remember what it means to life a life of mitzvah, of obligation toward others. Its teaches, “Then you will remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.” Our equal dignity derives from creation; our potential holiness derives from our actions.

Korach’s rebellion is considered so damaging because in his conflation of ideas from the Torah he actually undermines essential principles of Judaism. Moreover, he does so by his misuse of language (itself a violation of Torah) sounding as if he is defending Torah principles that in reality he overturns. This fomenting of rebellion through manipulation of others remains a plague upon humanity to this day, only defeated by being knowledgeable and discerning, and by being consistent in right action. This Shabbat may we learn from Moses, not be led astray by Korach.

Parashah Shelach

The story of the scouts’ exploration of the land of Israel that forms the basis of this week’s parasha concerns what we see (our vision) and how we see (our perception). This is made clear by the conclusion of the parasha in the maftir. (This maftir is taken into the liturgy as the third paragraph of the Shema. Alas, in most Progressive siddurim this paragraph is abridged and truncated, obfuscating its import in our liturgy. The important Torah verses under consideration herein have been removed from Reform’s version of the Shema. These verses form the basis for the practice of wearing a tallit with tzitzit.).

The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge . . ..’”

The Hebrew word that is here translated as “do not follow” (after your heart and eyes) is the same word that is used at the beginning of the parasha and translated as “scout out” (the land). The Torah wants us to learn how to use our eyes on a daily basis, knowing how we used our eyes in scouting out the land.

Analysis of the story of the scouts reveals that their major problem was not what the saw, but how they perceived it. Based on Moses’ different recollection about the incident of the scouts recorded in Deuteronomy, the tradition debates whether sending the scouts was an act of obedience to or rebellion against God. In either event, all the commentators agree that the major transgression of the scouts was not as much what they saw but how they perceived what they saw, spreading fear through the community of Israel.

At first, they report accurately about what they saw: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey….” As they continue, however, they reveal their fear-based perception: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” From this one verse in Torah comes so much teaching about how our eyes can mislead us. We often compare ourselves to others, whether in terms of our physical appearance, intellect or emotional capacity. Those comparisons can lead us to belittle ourselves; we then assume that others see us in that light as well. What we perceive “out there” influences our self-awareness, precisely the opposite of what the Torah hopes for us in a faith based system.

Hearing the scouts’ negative assessments, Caleb and Joshua exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” Their perception of the outside world is guided by an inner faith. Ideally we know that from positive self-awareness comes mastery of the world and of life, entry into “the Promised Land.”

Most of us, when reading these stories, tend to identify with the heroes, whether Moses, Aaron and Miriam, or in this story, Joshua and Caleb. We distance ourselves from the fears and foibles of the other scouts and also from the nameless masses who panicked when hearing their report. But are we consistently so heroic in our daily life? How often do we let our personal faith and self-mastery guide our perception of what we see? What do we choose to notice in that outer world that becomes our field of vision, those things that shape and influence us? In reality there are few Calebs and Joshuas. Because we so often fail in our personal scouting missions, the Torah encourages us to look at those fringes and recall the commandments of the Lord and observe them. Judaism, like other spiritual and religious traditions, teaches that discipline develops the ability to see the world from the inside out, not the other way around. Perception and vision are inextricably linked.

In this week’s parasha, a description of Moses offers us the chance to find a way to change the world and the way we live in it now. The story of the Israelite’s journey takes a pause and we focus in on Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings. They are talking maliciously about Moses’ wife and indeed Moses himself. They suggest that they are as good as Moses and yet he gets all the attention. Then God punishes them for their words. But in between the act and the punishment, we find a curious line which says that Moses was humble, the most humble man in the world. We must ask what on earth that line is doing in the middle of a lesson about the evils of gossip! They suggest there must be a connection between this story about Moses and his humility. But what?

I have often thought that humility is not a positive characteristic. Today we are taught to have high self esteem, not to denigrate ourselves and to be proud of our achievements. Yet humility seems to say the opposite; be polite, don’t praise yourself too much. But if that were the sense of the word the Torah is trying to impart, the line about Moses would have no place in the midst of that story. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Torah commentary suggests an alternative understanding of humility. Humility, he says, is not the act of putting your own achievements on the bottom rung, rather it is recognizing our place in the greater scheme of life. Moses does not respond to the attack on him and his character by his brother and sister, yet we would expect him to do so. He is a passionate advocate for his people with God, he stands up to injustice, the pharaoh of Egypt was no match for him, yet his own siblings silence him. His silence could be seen as a sign of weakness, he did not want to confront them, to challenge them, he backed away from the argument. It could be that he was too hurt and angry to respond. But the line about his humility tells us that neither are the reason. Rather, he could see the bigger picture. He could see that in the grand scheme of things, this was not so important, when you have been in touch with the Divine, as Moses had, this interaction was small by comparison, and not worthy of his time and energy.

And perhaps that is what humility is about. Stepping aside yourself, just a little, in order to reveal and see the greatness of the other. This does not mean that to be humble one needs to denigrate self, rather it is a way of seeing others in the best light they can be and understanding our place in the greater scheme of the universe; determining what is really important.

Parashat Naso is the lengthiest of Torah portions in our reading cycle, discussing the sotah (teaching the notion of mind over matter), the nazir (teaching the tension between the physical and spiritual) and chanukat habayit (a passage also read at the festival of Chanukah and teaching about gratitude). Naso also contains in 15 short words one of the Torah’s most beautiful and meaningful passages, which is known as the Priestly Blessing or “threefold benediction”. Much has been written about the exquisite structure of the Priestly Blessing and its development from verse to verse.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Etz Chayim notes, “The text of this passage has been found on silver amulets dating from the late 7th century BCE, the only known inscription with a biblical text that predates the Babylonian exile.” The proven antiquity of these verses highlights not just their historical importance in Jewish life, but also the eternal message at the heart of Judaism. While aspects of law and ritual change, Judaism’s purpose of connecting human and God in the physical, intellectual and spiritual realms remains core and constant.

At the same time, each generation receiving this blessing has discovered new meaning within it, passing that insight down to the next. One teacher has noted that each blessing has a double formula, the second part reinforcing the first as follows:

May God bless you – with physical abundance and prosperity; and protect you – from the dangers of robbery on the one hand and greed and selfishness on the other.

May God’s face shine upon you – with the endowment of enlightenment and intelligence; and be gracious with you – so that one’s intellect is not used with disdain and arrogance, but with generosity of purpose. May God’s countenance be lifted toward you – with the deepest connection to the spiritual realm; and bring you peace – so that one’s religious understanding is never used as a club or a sword against the other, but as a path for finding wholeness within, between and among.

We often hear the Priestly Blessing, many of us blessing our children each Shabbat with these words. Each time, we transmit the most ancient of our ancestral teachings. This Torah reminds us of our central task as Jews: to connect with God in our physical bounty, intellectual growth and spiritual practice, always cognizant of our duty to the other – where God also dwells – and our ultimate goal of creating peace specially in the aftermath of the killing in Orlando where so many lives have been shattered.

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