In this week’s Torah portion we find the second paragraph of what has come to be known as the shema. In the early days of the Reform movement that passage was removed from the siddur because the composers of the new prayerbook did not feel that it reflected a worldview with which they agreed. The second paragraph of the shema speaks about the rains. It asserts that if the Jewish people follow the commandments and remain faithful to God then rain will fall in its season, crops will flourish and the harvest will be abundant. But if the Jewish people turn away from God, choose to follow different paths and ignore the commandments, then the rains will not come at the appropriate times, the people will be afflicted with drought, flood, famine and disaster. The early Reform Jews determined that the world does not exist in that place of reward and punishment, there was no discernable link between our moral behavior as a people and the weather, so the paragraph was removed.

In the most recent Progressive siddur the paragraph has been returned as an optional reading for the Progressive communities. The sentiment of the prayer has not changed, the circumstances of the world have not changed, yet the prayer is now in the siddur. So what changed? The passage has come to have a new interpretation and meaning which is separate from the literal, giving it a new poignancy and depth of understanding.

Even though we know our moral behavior does not effect the weather, we have learned that our behavior does effect the environment in which we live, including the weather. Our actions are changing the weather, with the frightening report recently that July was the hottest month on record for the world’s weather. We are having an incredible impact upon the rains, the temperature and each have far reaching consequences upon our crops, our food supplies, the levels of the oceans and so much more. So although the weather patterns are not affected exactly as the Torah describes, our behavior is linked in a very direct way to the environment in which we live. Understood in this way, the second paragraph of shema becomes a poignant message about our responsibility to care for the environment and the world in which we live.

Interestingly, the rabbis of the tradition noted that the second paragraph of the Torah is in the plural. It is not individual reward and punishment but rather collective. If we as a people do not follow the laws, we as a people, will suffer. Even though some may adhere, if the majority do not, then these incidents will befall the community. It is the same with the environmental message today. What each one of us does has a profound impact on those around us. We do not exist as islands, our behavior directly affects everyone on this fragile planet on which we live.

So as we read the passage from the Torah, we recite the words of shema, may we use them as inspiration for carving a path to make change, to help create a world which is safe and sustainable for all.

This week’s parasha starts off with Moses describing how he had pleaded with God to allow him to enter the land of Israel. We are told that God refused Moses’ request, but allows him to see the land from a mountain overlooking the land.

It is interesting that this is the first parasha we read after Tisha B’av, it is the first Shabbat of consolation, guiding us from a national day of mourning, on what is known as the Sheva De-Nechamta (the seven haftarot of consolation), as we seek to be healed and gain strength on our journey towards Rosh HaShanah. The Shabbat itself has a special name, “Nachamu”, meaning consolation. It is so called because of the opening words of the haftarah for Shabbat Va’etchanan, and is in reference to the timing after Tisha B’Av.

It begins:

Nachamu, nachamu ami… (Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and say to her that she has served her term, that her sin is pardoned for she has received declare to her that her term of service is over)”.

It deals with the suffering of the people, and acknowledges the importance and centrality of Jerusalem in our suffering. It also deals with consolation for those who have suffered.

Consolation, or comforting, is a major step in one’s healing process. Not only is the actual support structure an extremely beneficial aspect of dealing with grief and/or loss, but the one providing the comfort or consolation also benefits from their efforts in this process. Together, these two aspects form a cohesive two-way model of effectiveness in this area. There are benefits to both parties in this format, and the “comforter” becomes a vital part of the healing process.

Now let’s go back and look at what happens to Moses at the beginning of the Torah reading. Moses finds himself in a position where he needs to be comforted. His requests to enter the land of Israel have been denied, and in allowing Moses to see the land that he cannot enter, God is offering him consolation. Moses’ punishment is followed by sympathy.

Similarly, we find that God is looking to console us, as the opening lines of the haftarah indicate. The Temple has been destroyed, and our people are living in exile. While the suffering is linked to the actions of the people (and is part of a punishment), the notion of consolation still plays an important part of the healing. Once again, it is God who is offering the consolation. The question is asked; “Why is the word comfort said twice in the opening verse of the haftarah”? The Midrash Eicha Rabbah answers that it is because Israel received a double portion of punishment, and therefore a double portion of comfort is due to her now. It is for that reason that God reassures Israel twice, saying; “I, I am the One who comforts you”.

Perhaps it is God’s way of showing that while we are punished when we do wrong, God will still be there to comfort us as we seek to recover and heal, and build up our strength. Consolation and comforting are there for us to help ourselves and others we seek to recover from the three weeks of mourning and Tisha B’Av, and to help us prepare for and build up to the upcoming High Holy Days in just over six weeks’ time.

May this Shabbat of Nachamu comfort us following the darkness that we experienced leading up to Tisha B’Av, and may we be guided and inspired by the light that is the hope leading to Rosh HaShanah.

Eichah, how can it be? How can it be that in the face of overwhelming knowledge of the consequences of our action, we continue to plunder our planet?

How can it be that we continue to consume animals in the way we do, knowing that our consumption supports cruel factory farming that further despoils the environment?

How can it be that self-centeredness and greed so permeates our lives that one per cent of the people on earth have 90% of its wealth, with some individuals wealthier than countries?

How can it be that we can close our eyes to the suffering of refugees fleeing from war and famine? Eichah, how can it be?

This Shabbat followed by the commemoration of Tisha B’Av, we will hear the plaintive cry of “Eichah” from three different prophets. First, Moshe, in the opening of his book of Deuteronomy; second, Isaiah, whose prophecy is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, and finally Jeremiah, whose book Eichah we read at the evening and morning services of Tisha B’Av.

Our tradition has established that these three cries of Eichah are all read at the culmination of these three weeks of darkness between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz commemorates the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by the Babylonians in 576 BCE and then the Romans in the year 70CE. The destruction of the First and Second Temples were horrific, devastating events as consequential for the Jews of those times as the Shoah for us. For millennia we have been reflecting on what befell us in those dark times; as well, the message of our prophets has been that we must take responsibility for those acts of devastation, for we were not merely victims but responsible citizens of the world making choices that had disastrous consequences. Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah all charge us to make an honest assessment of where we went wrong as a people.

These three weeks, culminating in the commemoration of Tisha B’Av in that sense are a parallel to the time leading up to Yom Kippur. Just in the month of Elul and over the Yamim Noraim we are called to do a fearless individual moral reckoning, so too in this time are we meant to undertake an honest communal moral reckoning.

Eichah though is not just a plaintive cry, but also a call to action. Judaism’s way is not to wallow in the darkness, but to examine it to see where cracks of light can come through. The point of moral accounting is to have resolve to make changes – this season of the three weeks we are called to make changes to community and society to be more responsive to the problems of “how can it be?”, and more responsible for making it no longer so. The word “Eichah” in Hebrew can also be vowelled “Ayekha” – the first question from God to human: Where are you?

With our double Torah portion this week we conclude the book of Bamidbar, the book of Numbers which details the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the desert. It recounts the tales of their challenges and their triumphs, their struggles and their joys. It is a snapshot of life on the road. Amy Scheinerman says that most of this book is the story of Moses’ struggle to keep this Israelites together, to create a community out of a disparate bunch of former slaves. Alan Cook notes that while this portion is called matot, tribes, referring to the 12 tribes into which the Israelites were divided, there is no portion called B’nai Israel, the children of Israel, no portion which identifies the unity of the people. The individual nature of the tribes is celebrated, they stand apart from the other tribes, often only coming together to fight a common enemy and in this portion, we read about the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Menasseh who ask not to settle in the Promised Land but instead to be allowed to remain outside in land which is more suitable for their cattle. As much as Moses has tried, it has been an uphill battle to bring the groups together, to create community, to show the value of joining together rather than walking the journey alone.

It is a lesson we still need to learn today. Robert Bellah wrote in “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” :

American cultural traditions define personality, achievement and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious but terrifying isolation.”

(As found in Amy Sheinerman, Voices of Torah)

Bellah’s book was penned in 2007, how much more is that true of our lives today. We celebrate individuality, we strive to stand out, to be unique and to be noticed. In a shocking study where children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up a large number responded “famous.” What does that say about the world we are creating and what we value? Have we lost our way? Lost our sense of community?

Like the Israelites in the desert, we too need to understand the significance and importance of community. At the beginning of the second portion of this week’s Torah, Masei, it says “eleh masei b’nei Yisrael” “these are the marches of the Children of Israel.” At the end of the marches, they have become the Children of Israel. No longer the tribes, they are now one, united, a community working together, leaning on one another, supporting, nurturing and caring for each other. Through the desert wanderings they have learned that community is important, that being on a shared journey is significant and can bring richness to life which did not exist before.

In the portion we are commanded to set aside six cities of refuge. The rabbis note that six is the number of words in the shema, the prayer which speaks of the unity of God, and the oneness of creation and humanity. This suggests that when we connect with the unity that is God, we can draw from that well of strength to join together as one community. It is the embracing of the oneness of the Divine and the oneness of humanity which will provide an antidote to the loneliness and isolation of our world and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

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.


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