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This week’s parasha of Behar/Behukotai teaches some of the most revolutionary social and economic regulations known to humanity. The portion begins with the teaching of Sabbatical and Jubilee years, which require that debts be remitted and land redistributed. Consequently, the gap between rich and poor would never be too extreme and everyone among the people of Israel would have a connection to the land (other than the Levites who were provided for in different ways). As well, Behar teaches our obligations to those who fall into difficult financial circumstances. Judaism fully recognises the importance of the material world in which we live – it is not to be transcended, denied or avoided, but fully lived in.

The Torah’s teaching about poverty and the poor reveals a profound concern for humanity. In other law codes developed around the time of the giving of Torah, the poor had no rights. In fact, in Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s commentary on the Torah, he notes that in ancient Rome, “the creditor could imprison the debtor in his own private dungeon, chain him to a block, sell him into slavery, or even put him to death.” Debtor’s prisons existed in most of the world into the 19th century, and some Australians, among them Jews, can attribute their arrival in this country due to laws against debtors. In contrast to this, the Torah declared the poor must be protected and provided for through the requirements of tzedakah.

When we mistranslate tzedakah as charity, we misunderstand Judaism’s ethical and religious demands upon us toward the poor. Charity derives from the Latin word, “caritas”, or love. Judaism’s core value (as made clear in the Shema) is love; but in Judaism love is more than a feeling. Judaism places an enormous ethical demand upon us through the concept of “gemilut chasaadim” or deeds of lovingkindness. The emotion of love is admirable for certain acts and tzedakah given with love is of a higher level than that given begrudgingly, but tzedakah ultimately is an act not a feeling. It is derived from the concept tzedek, justice or righteousness. Tzedakah does not depend how we feel. Tzedakah places both a legal and a moral obligation upon us. Moreover, it decrees that the poor have rights – legitimate claims upon our funds.

The clear message of Torah is that the poor must be provided food, clothing and shelter. This is their right and our duty, our mitzvah. Everyone must give something – even the recipient of tzedakah. The great teacher of ethics, Rabbi Israel Salanter, said “Generally we think of our material needs and our neighbour’s spiritual needs; but we should provide for our neighbour’s material needs and our spiritual needs.” Some aspect of our providing material goods yields spiritual benefit.

Our gift of tzedakah responds to a human need, and Judaism does not imagine that a war on poverty can be won. Later in the Torah, in another passage delineating our obligations for tzedakah, we are told that even with all our giving “the poor shall never cease out of the land.”(Dt. 15:11).

The teaching of Behar (especially combined as it is with the curses and blessings recounted in Parasha Behukotai) recognises that in this real material world there will always be those who are blessed, those who have misfortune, those who rise, those who fall. Torah commands we provide for those whose means fail. At the heart of our obligation to give and to the disadvantaged’s right to receive is the essential truth – the profound God-given dignity of each human soul. “The one who gives to the poor makes a loan to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17)

Toward the end of this week’s parashah, we learn of an unnamed man who blasphemes God. The Israelites have set up camp, and he and his mother, want to join with the tribe of Dan. The mother, who has a familial connection with the tribe of Dan, is named as Shlomit bat Divri.

Shlomit is described as a babbling flirt, smiling and socializing with many people. She fraternizes with an Egyptian and gives birth to the unnamed son who is described as having a high regard for Moses, owing to his leadership and example.

When Moses orders everyone to set up camp according to their tribe, the young man and his mother attempt to pitch their tent among the Danites. Mother and son are angry and frustrated when the Danites object to their presence and take them to Moses. Moses listens to the arguments, and then agrees with the Danites. Seen from the unnamed man’s perspective, Moses has betrayed him, and has taken the side of those who refuse to recognize him as one of their own. Angered even further, the young man publicly rejects God, blaspheming and cursing God’s name and rejecting his mother’s heritage. His punishment for doing so was to be taken outside the camp and be stoned to death.

While the story focuses on the lesson not to curse God’s name or treat God in a shameful or lowly manner, there is perhaps a more comprehensive lesson. Some commentators blame the mother, Shlomit Bat Divri, for her son’s unacceptable behavior. If it weren’t for her promiscuity, such a rebellious child would not have entered the world and disgraced his people or God. Although parents and guardians are responsible for educating their children and ensuring that they treat others with respect, if that applied to Shlomit Bat Divri, it surely also applied to the Danites, who rejected this individual, based on his family’s background?

Confirmation and acceptance of an individual is the responsibility of the community. Isolating individuals and families based on unreasonable logic (or lack thereof) does not show the strength of a community, it shows weakness and desperation.

The Torah gives us the full name of the woman whose son committed this atrocity – Shlomit Bat Divri L’Matei Dan, Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. We are told that the Torah gives us her full name and association because the responsibility of proper education, upbringing and respect are the responsibility of the parent(s) AND the community.

There are so many stories of people feeling rejected by their community because they married a non-Jewish partner, or because they are gay, or because of their race, or for many other reasons. While we are an inclusive community, we are unfortunately not immune to this. We have a responsibility to set an example and welcome everyone into our community. The Torah teaches us that it is our obligation as a society to teach our children that to isolate or marginalize people because of their differences is unacceptable.

This week we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Every year these Torah readings fall around the period of memorials: Yom Hashoah, the remembrance of the Holocaust and Yom Hazikaron, the remembrance of those who have died protecting the land of Israel and in acts of terror. Our portion begins with the phrase, “after the deaths of Aaron’s sons,” and then it continues to describe the rituals of atonement and the rules for living in and creating a holy community. If the passages are describing, in the main, the rules for atonement and community, why mention the death of Aaron’s sons? We have had several Torah portions between the occurrence of the deaths and these rituals, so why link them with the mention of Aaron’s sons’ deaths?

After trauma and suffering, pain and loss, it is sometimes difficult to move forward, to continue with life. We can become paralysed with grief, laden with the burden of the memories and the tragedy of our loss. This portion highlights that with Aaron’s loss of his two sons. When they die, the Torah tells us Aaron was silent, he had no words, he could not put into language the depths of his sorrow, there was nothing he could say. He separates himself from community and spends time alone. But now the Torah tells him: “turn back to life, it is time. Now you must be enfolded back into the arms of your community, you no longer walk alone. The rituals and structure of communal life will bring shelter, comfort, strength, you cannot remain in that place of intense sorrow, now is the time to allow the community to be with you, to support and love you and to help you on your journey back to the world.”

After the Shoah, after the horrific losses of loved ones in acts of violence, war, terror, there are often no words, there is silence, shock, and pain. The weight of the loss can seem insurmountable. But then we, like Aaron, are called upon to slowly return to life, to allow community to be there with us and for us. There can be strength and comfort in community, in knowing others have walked a similar path, that they too have struggled and from the depths of that place, a hand will reach down to pull us back to our home. For Aaron in our parasha, as well as others who have suffered trauma or loss, there is a need to be together in community, to be surrounded by others who care, who are with us in our pain, in our struggle as well as our happiness and times of blessing.

At the end of the funeral service we say to the mourners: “now go forth to life.” We acknowledge that it is a life changed forever by our loss, our struggle, but healing and comfort can come from connection with others, the structure of rituals, communal life and being part of something greater than ourselves. I hope that we can all find the strength of community with us, the beauty of connection with others and we can be there for one another always.

This week, in the parasha Tazria-Metzora, we encounter a strange phenomenon, the rash, many times mistranslated as leprosy. There are many instances of it occurring in the text, from Miriam when she gossips about Moses’s wife, to mysterious occurrences on buildings or clothing. What we never get is a clear reason for why it occurs. The rabbis have tried to tease out rationales and almost universally use gossip as the culprit. There are a few issues with this explanation; number one being that there is no clear indication in the text that gossip is indeed the cause. Furthermore, it is important to remember that tzarat (the rash) is not a physical ailment and cannot be transmitted through the normal means of contagious diseases. It is a ritual affliction.

A very interesting possibility is raised in the midrash, a very early collection of rabbinic explanations of the Torah.

Rabbi Avin said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The verse says ‘And if her means do not suffice for a sheep [she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons] (Lev. 12:8), and what is written immediately after it? ‘When a person has on the skin of his body [a swelling, a rash or a discoloration] (Lev. 13:2). What does one have to do with the other? Said the Holy One of Blessing, ‘I tell you to bring a sacrifice for childbearing and you don’t do it; on your life, I will make it necessary for you to go before the Kohen, as it is written [about tza’arat diagnosis], ‘It shall be reported to Aharon the Kohen’ (Lev. 13:2)….(Vayikra Rabbah15:6).

The rabbis are putting forth an idea that we get afflicted with tzarat, not because of anything we did, but because of the things we did not do. We want to assume that we have control over our lives, but how many times has it happened that events prove to us otherwise? An illness or unexpected surprise? An accident? Any number of things that continue to illustrate conclusively that we are not always in control. Yet, the rabbis are not simply showing us that we are not the active agents in our lives. True, there are events that we cannot control, but there are also many elements we do control. The rabbis are forcing us to accept that our reactions to those events are absolutely within our control. The way we speak to, or act towards our neighbors is absolutely within our power. The manner in which we cope with sudden changes in our lives is under our direction.

This idea is probably best illustrated by the serenity prayer:

          God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

          The courage to change the things I can,

          And wisdom to know the difference.

I pray this week that we accept that there are things we have no control over, but that is not license to abdicate control over everything. Using the gifts we have been granted, let us continue to act in such a way that brings us closer to one another and to the almighty.

This Shabbat falls before Yom HaShoah, which begins Saturday night. At the end Survivors came out from hiding, from the forests where they had been fighting in the resistance and from the camps of horror from which they had been liberated. While finally free, they were not fully safe – thousands were murdered upon return to their homes. Liberation led them to discover the losses they had suffered, often the only ones left alive from hundreds of members of their families. To this day, we struggle how to process this tragedy, this affront to humanity – six million innocents brutally murdered solely because they were Jews. The heights the Jewish people reached in Germany in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century added to the shock of the Shoah.

With these contemporary thoughts, we read Parasha Shemini, telling of events that occurred just one year after the Exodus from Egypt. In that time after liberation from slavery, our people stood at Sinai, experienced the presence of God, heard words of Torah, and erected the Tabernacle exactly according to the instructions given to Moses. The book of Exodus ends on a glorious and harmonious note echoing the beauty and order of the story of creation with which the book of Genesis opens, similar to the heightened status of our people at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. Leviticus, the third book of the Torah opens with a discussion of the service of the priests in the Tabernacle, with our Parasha Shemini telling of the ordination of the priests and the dramatic dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This is the pinnacle of our people’s experience since the time our ancestors have been promised to be a great nation in the holy land. It is the moment where “the glory of God” will appear to them.

Just at the height of the ceremony, being conducted by Aaron’s four sons, two of them, Nadav and Abihu, die suddenly. The community is in shock. Some try to blame, some try to explain. In fact, for thousands of years there has been much rabbinic commentary analysing the event. Some blame Nadav and Avihu for doing something wrong, for being transgressors who have been punished with death. And others speak of them as being so holy that at this exquisite moment they leave their bodies behind, their souls ascending directly to God. Aaron remains silent.

Silence is sometimes the best and most authentic response. After the Shoah, as with the death of Nadav and Abihu, there were also many who jumped in to offer their explanations of the event. There were rabbis who said punishment occurred because of the sins of the people; there were others who said “God was dead”, and as time passed, others extolled the victims as holy martyrs. Perhaps more than an explanation of “why” horrible events happen it is important to remember the book by Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When tragedies occur, it is better not to explain with words, but to respond with deeds.

We think with gratitude of all who gave their lives and all who served to defeat tyranny. At this time when recall the horror of the Shoah and see to this day horrific deeds continually perpetrated by humanity, we should recall our obligations: to comfort those who are bereaved and to protect with justice those who are still persecuted. There is a time to speak with deeds, not words.

This Shabbat we are in chol hamoed Pesach and the Pesach story has a large focus on women. So many pivotal moments during our people’s liberation from slavery hinged on the actions of women: Israelite and non Israelite, courageously stepping forward, doing what was right, being beacons of justice in a dark and cruel world.

Our first encounter is with the midwives, Shifra and Puah. These women stood up to the Pharaoh, the highest authority in the land and refused to follow his decree to kill the male Hebrew babies. Their resistance, even when called before the Pharaoh, is a model of strength, courage and defiance.

Next came Yochevet, Moses’ mother. She made the impossible choice that so many women have faced through history, giving up her child to save his life. Placing him in a basket of reeds, hoping and praying that someone would take pity on him and give him a chance at a future which she could not provide. That future was ensured by his adoptive mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter. The Torah does not give her a name but the tradition calls her Batya, daughter of God. She knew that she was taking a Hebrew child into her heart and her home. She knew that by rescuing and raising him she was defying her father’s decree but she reached out anyway and did what was right. She saved a life, and much of the man that Moses became, the man who fought for justice for others, who was moved by the oppression of the taskmasters and who felt compassion for the slave people, was because of the influence of his mother, who she was, the values she taught him. And finally Miriam, Moses’ sister, beloved by her people, the nurturing presence, the one who celebrated freedom by leading her people in song and dance, filled with joy and gratitude. These women are each role models for us of the values of Torah, living a principled life no matter what the challenges, standing up for what you believe and creating a better world.

And also this Shabbat we commemorate Yom HaGevurah, the Shabbat before Yom Hashoah where we remember all those who were murdered during the darkest days of humanity. We think of those who like Yochevet, had to make impossible choices, those who suffered and all those who were killed at the hands of the most evil of regimes. We remember those like Shifra and Puah and Batya who defied the laws, who reached out and helped, saved, rescued, those who refused to comply, who risked so much to shelter others, to fight the forces of darkness and to create a different reality. We remember this Shabbat the millions who were murdered, whose lives were cut short: men, women, children, all still in our hearts, here with us as we remember.

Zichronam livrecha May their memories be for a blessing

This week’s Torah reading discusses the role of the priests with regards to sacrifices of animals and grains in the Sanctuary. The voice of the prophets is brought in to remind us that, even in ancient times, the emphasis needed to be on doing acts of kindness and compassion rather than dwelling on the external façade that sanctuary sacrifices could become.

Amos the Prophet said in the name of God, “Even though you bring Me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream.” Jeremiah the Prophet quoted God, saying: “I am God, who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; it is in these things I delight.”

The sacrifices were important however they needed to be done in the right spirit, with authenticity. They also needed to be done by people who were genuinely endeavoring to bring goodness into the world as well as performing rituals.

This is connected to the importance placed on intention behind actions and the importance of backing up good intentions with actions in the world.

The word for sacrifice in Hebrew, korban, is connected to the word for closeness, karov. The sacrifices of ancient times were designed to give people a way to experience closeness with the divine. Sacrifices were also an opportunity to give something up – an animal or part of a harvest – and in so doing, renounce ownership of something. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that this was an opportunity for each person to understand the ephemeral nature of ownership and that we are “no more than trustees or guardians” of the things we “own”.

After the Temple was destroyed, other forms of renunciation were substituted: giving charity, learning and prayer are all opportunities to become closer to the divine if done with a pure intention. But, closer to the divine does not just mean feeling holiness, it means bringing holiness and goodness into the world, each person in their own way. This week we are invited to consider what we sacrifices we make in our lives and whether we are willing to make more sacrifices for the sake of improving ourselves and the world.

With Pesach only a few days away, we think about the Festival of Freedom and the number of people who have limited freedom at this time.

May each of us be inspired to help others and ourselves gain new levels of freedom, knowing that true freedom comes with responsibilities and limitations.