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Archive for Mai de 2011

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Beha’alotcha, contains an interesting command: “Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: If any man will become contaminated through a human corpse or on a distant road, whether you or your generations, he shall make the Pesach-offering for the Lord, in the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, shall they make it; with matzah and bitter herbs shall they eat it. They shall not leave over from it until morning nor shall they break a bone of it; like all the decrees of the pesach-offering shall they make it.” (Numbers 9:10-12)

 

These verses provide the biblical reasoning behind the observance of a minor festival in Jewish tradition known as Pesach Sheni, literally, a “second Passover.” After two long seders, and eight days of eating unleavened bread, we might wonder why a person would want to observe Pesach if they had not done so at the appropriate moment in the calendar?

 

In the ancient Israelite community, Pesach was a holiday of extreme significance, a holiday where the Israelites celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt. And if we accept, as the opening of the book of Numbers tells us, that the Israelites are currently in their second year after leaving Egypt, then the observance of Pesach, and the awareness that the Israelites have regarding the miracles that they have witnessed, is far greater. The redemptive events of Pesach are fresh within their minds, and closer to their hearts. Anyone who happened to be travelling a great distance and was unable to offer his or her Pesach sacrifice, or, as the text suggests, a person who came in contact with a corpse and thus incurred a state of ritual impurity and was not permitted to offer the Pesach sacrifice, would likely feel as if they had missed out on the communal celebration of Pesach. Pesach Sheni had great significance in ancient times because it afforded people in the community an opportunity to participate in “another Passover,” so that they would not feel left out.

 

Nowadays, Pesach Sheni is somewhat of an afterthought. It is nestled in the calendar between Pesach and Shavuot, after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Memorial Day, and Israeli Independence Day. Liturgically, penitential prayers called Tachanun are not recited but there are no special readings or reflections and no seder is celebrated. Some people; however, do choose to eat a piece of matzah in acknowledgment of the day.

 

So if Pesach Sheni has become a “no-frills” observance in Jewish life, what might we still learn from it? Like our ancestors, there will always be people in our community, in our own families, and outside of our communities who are, for one reason or another, left out of communal and familial celebrations. Maybe we need to bring Pesach Sheni back into our consciousness. Our tradition reminds us that we need to respond to the needs of those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps Pesach Sheni, one small day in the calendar, can act as a reminder – teaching us that we must establish meaningful connections with one another and with new people too, that we need to share meals, building and nurturing our relationships. The ancient hope of Pesach Sheni becomes our contemporary mission — to ensure that the doors of our synagogue are opened wide enough so that everyone can participate together, and no one will feel left out.

 

 

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This week we begin reading from the fourth book of the Torah, known in Hebrew asBemidbar, and in English as Numbers. Both titles are fitting descriptions asBemidbar, which means “in the wilderness,” details the Israelites’ wilderness journeys and concludes with them standing on the banks of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Promised Land. Numbers is also an appropriate title because in many places, this week’s parashah included, the Torah records a census of the Israelites, counting each man, aged twenty and above, according to his ancestral tribe.

 

Following the details of the first census in Numbers 1, we read, “The Israelites shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignia of their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp.” [Numbers 2:1] Rather than having millions of Israelites crowd around the Tent of Meeting, it makes logical sense for the Israelites to encamp at a distance.

 

Eleventh century commentator Rashi offers a creative interpretation about this “distance.” He says that the approximate distance was no more than 2000 cubits (a little more than 900 metres) so that the Israelites would be permitted to walk to the Tent of Meeting on Shabbat in order to pray at the Tabernacle and hear the teachings of Moses and Aaron. [Rashi on Numbers 2:1]

 

While Rashi’s interpretation integrates rabbinic sensibility into the customs and lawsof Torah, his classification of the distance between encampment and Tabernacle is worthy of further consideration. 900 metres is not much of a distance at all—less than a fifteen-minute walk for most people. Although the Israelites were encamped at a distance from the Tabernacle (their shul, if you will), they were not at all distant from the Tabernacle.

 

This particular verse of the Torah highlights the contemporary circumstances in which we find ourselves. First, we live in an era of urban sprawl. If we are fortunate, we live in close proximity to places where we can easily walk. But for most of us, the distances we need to traverse to work or school (or shul for that matter) require cars or public transportation. Second, we live in an era of increasing distance from religion and religious institutions.

 

In a time where we seem to be moving further away from one another and further away from our religious identity, Parashat Bemidbar reminds us to consider the different circumstances of our ancestors. Our forebears lived in a time where the Tabernacle occupied a central place in the Israelite community, and was central to the Israelites’ lives. As we prepare for our festival of Shavuot next week, the festival when we celebrate the sacred gift of Torah, we might also ask ourselves: How might we close the distance between ourselves and our sacred religious heritage?

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En hebreu, el quart llibre del Pentateuc s’anomena “Bemidbar – En el desert.” Però en català el nom que rep és “Nombres” referint-se a un altre nom que el mateix llibre rep en el Talmud “khumaix hapekudim – Llibre dels comptes.” Quins comptes? El cens dels israelites que obre i tanca aquest llibre.

En el judaisme tenim aquesta obsessió de comptar-nos. Serà per allò de la necessitat de tenir un quorum de 10 persones per a considerar el servei com a públic i poder recitar unes pregàries determinades només en el cas que compten amb quorum, però la tradició té sentiments contradictoris respecte a aquest impuls de comptar-nos. Per què?

Per una banda, la tradició considera el manament de Déu a Moisès de censar els israelites com un signe d’amor envers el poble (vegeu el comentari de Raši a Levític 1,1). Al igual que un mercader compta els seus béns, o un nen compta les seves joguines preferides, així mateix Déu compta la gent.

De l’altra, la idea de comptar és vista amb recel i sospita, i només du a perills. Cap al final del regne de David, sembla que un cens no autoritzat va ser l’origen d’una pesta que va matar unes 70.000 persones des de Dan fins a Beer-Xeva (2 Samuel 24)

El comentarista clàssic de Girona, Naḥmànides, explic que aquests dos censos, el de Moisès i el de David, representen dos models diferents tant per la metodologia, com per les motivacions.

Moisès va rebre l’ordre de fer el cens amb un objectiu: preparar-se per a la batalla i distribuir la terra. David, en canvi, volia comptar els habitants només per a exaltar la seva pròpia glòria. Com diu el midraix:

Cada cop que els Israelites foren comptats sense cap objectiu, el seu nombre va minvar. Però quan varen ser comptat amb una intenció el seu nombre no va disminuir. Quan varen ser comptats amb un objectiu? En els dies de Moisès quan es preparaven per a la batalla i dividien la terra. Quan varen ser comptats sense cap objectiu? En el temps de David.

[Midraix Bemidbar Rabbah 2,17]

Pel que fa a la metodologia, Naḥmànides observa que, a diferència de David que va limitar-se a comptar el nombre dels seus subdits, l’ordre donada a Moisès no és la de comptar el poble sinó la de tifqedú ´otam, calcular el seu nombre a través de les contribucions que cadascú fa. Com explica el Rabí Jonathan Sacks: “El que ha estat manat no és comptar a les persones, sinó comptar les seves contribucions.”

Fins i tot les pràctiques actuals reflecteixen aquesta ambivalència pel que fa comptar persones. En hebreu el terme “Votar – lehazbia´” ve de la paraula “dit – ézba´” i deriva del costum de no comptar els sacerdots del temple sinó de comptar els dits aixecats. En Iddix existeix el costum de comptar les persones en negatiu “nit ein, nit zwei – no un, no dos, etc…” I fins i tot avui a les nostres comunitats compten si tenim el quorum necessari per a començar les pregàries recitant el verset del salm 28,9 que conté 10 paraules justes en hebreu “Salveu el vostre poble,beneïu la vostra heretat. Sigueu el seu pastor, preneu-los sempre als vostres braços. – Hoshiah Et Amekha, Ubarech Et Nachlotecha, Uriem Ve na’asem Ad Olam.

Aquesta sospita profundament arrelada vers el comptar-nos pot semblar-nos ingènua i supersticiosa, però la interpretació donada per la tradició ens suggereix un missatge important sobre el món en el que participem com persones i com a poble: allò que realment és important no és el nombre de persones, sinó fer que cadascú de nosaltres compten. 

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Among the tragic incidents that transpired as a result of the devastating earthquake that ravaged Japan in March, one particularly fascinating story emerged.  As the earthquake struck during a presentation in a local theatre, the manager came onto the loudspeaker instructing the audience to stay in their seats.  In Japan, it is considered offensive to disregard authority.  Nevertheless, one gentleman stood up and ran out of the theatre.  A few moments later, a beam fell from the ceiling and killed the woman sitting next to him.

First and foremost, may none of us ever endure such tragedy.  Nevertheless, I believe that if we found ourselves in similar circumstances, we would be more likely to follow the gentleman straight for the exit.  We Jews challenge authority, question, argue, and debate.  We don’t sit still, rather we push ahead in the queue, and we are relentless in our pursuit of what we believe to be right and just.  And such a perspective on life and the world around us makes our reading of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behukkotai, very difficult.

Parashat Behukkotai  reminds us, in painstaking detail (or perhaps “painful” detail), about our obligation as Jews to participate in the eternal covenant with God by observing the commandments of Torah.  The parashah then proceeds to detail the horrendous circumstances that will befall us if we stray from the path of Torah.  We will become beset by terror, fear, and fever.  We will experience no satisfaction when we eat, our enemies will pursue after us, our cities will become wastelands, our lands will fall into desolation, and we will be scattered among nations whose people will draw the sword against us, time and time again.  Given such fearful consequences, the obligation to observe the laws of Torah becomes clear – a salve, a sanctified alternative.

And yet our attention returns to the gentleman in the Japanese theatre.  If he had obeyed authority, he would have been crushed to death.  By challenging the norm, he survived.  Given these circumstances, it is only appropriate for us to wonder, “Are there times for subscribing to authority, for simply obeying tradition, and regarding tradition as good and beneficial?” The man in the theatre is an extreme example amidst harrowing and unfortunate circumstances.  On other occasions, we might benefit from being less argumentative, less pushy, less aggressive, and work to uncover the benefit in forming a strong community, a strong, shared sense of belief and practice.  Not all systems of authority need to be grounded in fear of consequences.  There can be a religious life, a spiritual identity that exists beyond the traditional “Because I told you so” mentality.

Our path begins with love.  What do we love about our sacred Jewish heritage?  What of our sacred heritage do we want to transmit to our children, and to our children’s children?  How will our actions and choices help us to strengthen our community, rather than causing further alienation?

Fortunately, we live in a time and a place where we won’t be put to the sword for disregarding tradition.  But we cannot completely dismiss the notion that turning away has lasting consequences, especially when we have the choice to turn toward our tradition.  There is always a choice.  But we are the ones who have to make it.  Not out of fear, but out of love.  Not out of deference to authority, but out of recognizing that we have so many opportunities, through the commandments of our tradition, to find a life of blessing, of worth, and of meaning.  Ecclesiastes said, “To everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven.”  Like the man in the theatre, there is a time for disregarding authority, but there are also bountiful times to turn toward one another, and continue the process of building a strong, vibrant, enduring community, participating in the everlasting covenant with God.

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Kol Israel arevim ze la ze – tots els israelites són responsables els uns dels altres” Aquesta és una màxima celebre, una de les més famoses de les fonts rabíniques que deriva d’un passatge bíblic d’aquesta setmana. Aquesta màxima prové del Talmud quan parla de la descripció bíblica dels israelites i el seu comportament pecador (Lev 26:37) “Ensopegaran l’un amb l’altre.”

Avui en dia aquesta declaració de la nostra responsabilitat envers l’altre és un dels “slogans” més citats, especialment en esdeveniments on es recapten fons per causes benefiques.

És curiós però que poca gent s’adona que en les fonts rabíniques la mateixa màxima apareix de dues maneres diferents. La diferencia rau només en una sola lletra, però una sola lletra pot fer canviar el significat de tota la frase.

En alguns passatges la expressió “la zé” és substituïda per “ba zé.” Només canvia una sola lletra però el canvi és significatiu perquè el verb arevim té dos significats diferents. El primer és “ser responsable per” i el segon és “barrejar-se.” Si el verb va seguit de la preposició “la” llavors significa que tots som mútuament responsables. Però si la preposició és “ba” llavors vol dir que tots estem barrejats.

Les dues afirmacions porten a conclusions ben diferents. En el primer cas, la frase ens parla d’un vincle de tipus legal segons la qual tothom podria ser considerat responsable pels errors dels altres. Però també ens suggereix quelcom de més profund: un lligam espiritual entre les persones. No és que simplement siguem responsables els uns dels altres sinó que en un nivell més profund compartim un mateix destí. Els nostres destins estan barrejats, són inseparables.

No importa com de diferents siguin aquestes dues lectures, ens ensenyen una mateixa veritat fonamental: A major grau de cohesió, més gran serà el nostre grau de responsabilitat mútua.

Els rabins ens ho expliquen en una paràbola que il·lustra aquest concepte de la responsabilitat comuna (Midraix Levític rabà):

Rabí Simó bar Iohai ensenya: Ho podem comparar a un grup de persones en una barca. Una de les persones agafa un berbiquí i comença a fer un forat just a sota d’on seu. Els altres li diuen: “Però què fas?!” Ell els respon: “Què us importa! No estic fent el forat en el vostre lloc. Només en el meu.” Els altres li repliquen: “Però faras que la barca s’enfonsi i ens ofegarem tots.”

Naturalment, la cohesió entre nosaltres no significa només que l’error d’un puguin dur-nos a tots a la ruïna. Al contrari, la tradició jueva considera considera la cohesió social com el secret per a la supervivència i la protecció dels membres més febles de la societat, com ens ho suggereix una altra paràbola del midraix (tanhuma, nitzavim):

Així és com funciona el món: una persona no pot partir en dos un conjunt de canyes, però si les afaga una per una, fins i tot un nen podria trencar-les. El mateix passa amb una societat: només són forts quan s’uneixen en un sol grup.

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This week we celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day and we joined together, rejoicing in the miracle that is Israel. But a few days before, on Sunday night, we commemorated Yom Hazikaron, the Memorial Day for all those who have died defending Israel and victims of terror and war. For all of those people there was no miracle, there was sacrifice, and a loss which will be forever present. In the incredibly moving ceremony, we were reminded that every one of those statistics and numbers was somebody’s child, many were somebody’s parent, grandparent, brother, sister, relative, friend. Nobody in Israel is untouched by this loss, everybody has a family member, a friend who is no longer sitting with them at the Shabbat table, no longer a part of this world, their blood spilled and their lives lost. How can we begin to fathom the shadow that loss casts upon everyone?  And still they send their children to the army, they have no choice. Still they continue to be strong, to believe, to hold on to the dream that is Israel, the hope expressed in her anthem that one day there will be peace, that we will be able to turn our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. But still we mourn the dead, we remember each one, who they were, their light, their sparkle, their essence and what they gave for their country.

One of the most moving stories that I remember around Yom Hazikaron was the story of Nachshon Wachsman.  Nachshon was kidnapped in 1994, he was held captive for a little over a week. The whole country prayed for him, tens of thousands gathered at the kotel to offer their prayers for his safe return, all over the world people remembered him at their Shabbat tables, they too prayed for him, but it was to no avail. The Israelis located his whereabouts and in a raid, designed to rescue him, he was killed along with another Israeli soldier, the commander of the mission. Both men left behind wives and families, all these years later, still feel their absence, the loss of this brave, young men and their heroic rescuer will never be gone, the tears still.

In our portion this week we read about the obligation to redeem our kinsman. (Leviticus 25:48) This has become the source of the obligation within Judaism to ransom captives. The Talmud spent large amounts of time on this commandment and said that we should do anything we possibly can to redeem a captive kinsman, and in the past communities have gone to great lengths to do so. But the Talmud also warns that we should not pay more for a captive than they are worth. There is discussion about why that is, some say because it places a financial burden on the community, others say it is because it will encourage others to kidnap Israelites, if they know that we will pay a significant ransom for their return. But what price can you put on a life? This law seems ancient and outmoded but in Israel it is a very real and they deal with it every day and especially at this time with the kidnap of Gilad Shalit. This young soldier was kidnapped when his tank came under fire on the 25th of June 2006. He has been held captive ever since. In that time he has been permitted to send three letters, one audio tape and one video to his  distraught family. For 5 long years he has been held prisoner, nobody knows his whereabouts, nobody knows his condition and his captors have refused to follow any of the international laws which deal with these situations. Many leaders and nations have attempted to broker deals for his release, Israel even offering, on more than one occasion, to release 1,000 prisoners from its jails to secure his release, but always, at the last minute, the goalposts are shifted and the bar raised to request what they know Israel cannot give. And in the meantime, Gilad spends another year alone in a hostile environment, away from his family and friends, his people. This Shabbat when we read the passage about releasing captives, let us all pray for Gilad, that he be freed and returned to those he loves, safe once more in the arms of his nation and his people.

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Parasha Emor, known for its laws covering the priesthood and its calendar of sacred time, concludes with a collection of laws that includes, “one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”  In this week in which Osama bin Laden has been killed, it is important to put his death in the context of Torah, as understood and applied by our rabbis for thousands of years.  What does received Jewish tradition have to say regarding the United States’ killing of him and the joyful response by many to his killing? According to Jewish tradition, the United States had an obligation to bring bin Laden to justice, even if that meant killing him.   One of the great errors of reading Torah is to mistranslate the Hebrew “lo tirzach” into English as “you shall not kill.”  In actuality, the Torah allows killing of animals for food and of humans in war, in self-defense, to prevent murder of a third party, and as capital punishment. “Lo tirzach,” one of the “Ten Commandments”, means “you shall not murder”.  Murder is understood as the intentional killing with malice of an innocent person.  

In his 1998 fatwa, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States and its civilian citizens wherever found.  Since then, he has confessed more than once to the murder of nearly 3,000 people in the United States on September 11, 2001.  According to Jewish law, one may fight war and may fight in self-defense; furthermore, one may even kill someone who has the intent and ability to kill an innocent person in order to save the life of the innocent.  Under all these aspects, the United States had the right to kill Bin Laden, even before addressing the issue of capital punishment.

While this week’s Torah mandates capital punishment, the rabbis then attempted to limit its application, declaring in a well known dictum that a “court which puts to death one person in 70 years is considered a murderous court.”  Perhaps it would have been ideal to arrest Bin Laden and try him in a court of law for the murders for which Bin Laden he confessed.  One pities the sheriff who would have had to serve the arrest warrant.  In reality, the only way to see justice was done for the thousands murdered (let us not forget we are dealing with a mass murderer) was an action of this sort.  

But how should we think of the reaction of many world leaders who “welcomed his death” and thousands who danced for joy in the streets of the United States?  I would like to put this in the context of rituals around our exodus from Egypt and our commemoration of Pesach.  The Torah tells that when the children of Israel came through the Sea of Reeds to freedom, the sea having closed in and drowned the pursuing Egyptians, they sang a song of praise to God.  We sing parts of this song in our prayer of redemption, every evening and every morning, to this day.  Yet, we also know that at the Pesach seder, developed by the rabbis over 1,000 years after our salvation, we take wine from our cups as we recite the ten plagues to symbolize that “our joy in our freedom is diminished because human beings, albeit our enemies, suffered and died in our achieving it.”   It is natural to rejoice in the moment of salvation, at the witnessing of justice delivered; however, with passage of time, we understand in a more perfect world we could achieve our goals without violence.  

In the meantime, the world is a better and safer place without Osama bin Laden; with further pursuit of justice and practice of compassion, it can be better and safer yet.  

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