Archive for Juliol de 2012

La paraixà d’aquesta setmana Devarim (Deuteronomi 1,1- 3,6) torna a recordar el passatge dels exploradors, però aquesta versió és diferent de la que trobem en el llibre de Nombres. De fet, a Nombres, sembla que l’ordre d’enviar exploradors vingui de Déu, mentre que a Deuteronomi, sembla que tot hagi estat iniciativa de la gent. Davant d’aquestes dues versions contradictòries sempre podem pensar que en realitat va tractar-se d’una iniciativa de Moisès i el poble i aprovada per Déu.

Ja sabem que l’èxit té molts pares. Quan una cosa va bé, tothom reclama per a sí mateix el crèdit. Fins a cert punt és veritat que l’èxit pertany a tots els que hi han participat perquè l’èxit és sovint el resultat d’una sinergia en la que cadascú ha jugat un paper determinant.

Però quan es tracta de fracàs, tot el món en fuig i tothom s’espolsa la responsabilitat. També en aquest cas hi ha una part de raó com ens recorda una dita talmúdica que diu que un bullit amb molts de cuiners mai no pot sortir bo.

Per tant, no hi ha res de vergonyós en intentar esborrar una equivocació. Aquesta és la gran lliçó d’aquesta setmana. Quan el text narra aquest episodi des del punt de vista de Déu, ho presenta com si hagués estat un manament i per tant n’assumeix la responsabilitat. Mentre que quan és Moisès que ho narra, omet totalment la figura de Déu i en reconeix la seva responsabilitat.

En conclusió, és normal voler tot el crèdit quan una cosa ha tingut èxit. Encoratja a tornar a fer un esforç i millorar. Per contra, no hi ha cap vergonya en reconèixer la part de responsabilitat que podem tenir quan les coses van malament, com fan Déu i Moisès, ja que això evita la paràlisis que ens pugui crear la por al fracàs. De fet només hauríem de tenir vergonya d’una sola en aquesta vida: de no haver fet res malament… perquè simplement no hem fet res. 


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This weekend we commemorate Tisha B’Av, recalling the greatest tragedy of our people, the destruction of the Second Temple leading to our nearly 2,000 year exile from our land and the powerlessness that enabled the Shoah to occur. While this is a specific memory and ritual for our people, unfortunately, even with the birth of the State of Israel and our new sovereignty in our land, we still must face antisemitism and violent attacks on our innocent civilians around the world. This weekend we commemorate as well the murder of eleven Israelis at the Olympics 40 years ago, and encourage all around the world, Jew and Gentile, to understand that as Isaiah reminds us in this weekend’s haftarah, “Learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice, aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan and defend the cause of the widow.” We also must remember as the philosopher Santayana said, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” The following words adapted from a statement from the World Union of Progressive Judaism explain the position of our synagogue community on this issue.

As the sporting world prepares to focus on the 2012 Olympics in London, governments and heads of state from many countries have appealed to the International Olympic Committee to observe a moment of silence in memory of the 11 Israelis – three weightlifters, two wrestlers, one fencer, three coaches and two officials — murdered by terrorists at the Munich Games 40 years ago. Jewish organizations representing millions of Jews in 45 countries in 7 regions around the globe joined in those appeals. At the last minute, and with little publicity, IOC officials made a small gesture towards recognition of this stain on Olympic history. While the tribute itself, held in the Olympic Village, touched on the disparity between the Olympic vision of peace and solidarity and the vicious attack on the Israeli team, simply because they were Israelis, the message was lost to the wider Olympic community, and indeed, the world.

A moment of silence at the opening ceremony makes no political statement; it simply asks the world, and not just the few in the Olympic Village ceremony, to pause and remember the lost lives and the sorrow of a tragic event in Olympic history, remembered by hundreds of millions of people around the world. To allow this milestone anniversary to pass almost without notice is an insult both to the families of the slain and the very spirit of the Olympics. This Shabbat at our services at Temple Beth Shalom we will read the names and honor the memories of the following 11 athletes during worship and other public events while the games are on:

David Berger, weightlifting

Ze’ev Friedman, weightlifting

Yossef Gutfreund, wrestling (referee)

Eliezer Halfin, wrestling

Yossef Romano, weightlifting

Amitzur Shapira, athletics (coach)

Kehat Shorr, shooting (coach)

Mark Slavin, wrestling

Andrei Spitzer, fencing (coach)

Yaakov Springer, weightlifting (referee)

Moshe Weinberg, wrestling (coach)

We also recall with gratitude the sacrifice of German Police Officer Anton Fliegerbauer who lost his life fighting the terrorists. May their memories remain with us for a blessing. 

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Responding to Trauma

This Shabbat is the second Shabbat of the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. In 70 CE, on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and three weeks later on the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av) destroyed the Temple. Given the repercussions of such a wound, and the subsequent scattering of the Jewish people from their homeland throughout the world, this three-week period has come to be known in Hebrew as a time “bein ha-m’tzarim” (between the straits). It is a time in our calendar in which celebration is absent. We use this time to commemorate and mourn various tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, and we acknowledge that as the years go by, we continue to remain distant from our goals of peace and unity.

This week especially, has been dark and deeply tragic for Jews throughout the world. Terrorists attacked an Israeli tour group traveling to a Black Sea resort on the coast of Bulgaria leaving (at the time of the writing of this bulletin) eight people dead and dozens wounded. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other people quickly identified Iran as the source of the attack, though responsibility had yet to be claimed. A full investigation is expected to follow, with retaliation likely.

The choice of dates for such a planned attack is equally tragic. On July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber destroyed the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina(AMIA) in Buenos Aires killing eighty-seven people and injuring more than one hundred. The attack came two years after the bombing of the Argentinean Israeli embassy. Though dedicated investigations ensued after both of these bombings, now twenty years later, not a single person has been convicted or brought to justice for their actions.

As we continue to see such a gross disregard for the inestimable value of human life and a gross perversion of justice in our world, what form should our response to such heinous attacks take? There will be many Jews who will open the Torah for guidance, and seeing that this week’s parashah highlights an Israelite attack on Midian, suggest that we follow a literal interpretation of our sacred teachings. Moses is commanded to “wreak the Lord’s vengeance on Midian.” The Israelites slay every man, including the kings of Midian, and then take the women and children captive, leaving alive, in the end, every woman who has not been involved in a relationship with a man.

As a proponent of interfaith dialogue and a supporter of relations with members of communities different to our own, this portion of the Torah leaves me scratching my head.

How can we still acknowledge that Torah’s ways “…are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace?” How does a tradition that teaches us to have the utmost respect for human life, seem to deviate from that path, and argue, that regarding Midianites, killing is necessary? Does blood simply call out for blood? Some perspectives within Jewish tradition do suggest that killing, bloodshed and warfare are, only in the most awful of circumstances, necessary evils. Contemporary scholar, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, writes:

Terrible as war may be, the alternative often is worse. Had Gandhi convinced the English to lay down their arms, Nazism would have conquered Europe, if not the world, democracy would have come to an end, and not a single Jew might be alive today. Similarly, if Israel had not been willing to fight wars of self-defence, it would long ago have been destroyed, and its citizens killed. Thus war, while always unfortunate, is not always evil; sometimes, fighting a war is the most moral thing to do (Jewish Wisdom, pp. 427-28).

Jewish tradition continues to recognize that war is dirty. War is ugly. Perhaps in acknowledgment of the harrowing actions committed by the Israelites, all of those soldiers involved in the war against Midian are instructed to remain outside of the camp for an entire week, to purify themselves and to process and reflect on what has transpired. These soldiers need to reintegrate themselves into the normal ways of the world. Torah provides this requirement indicating that a person who kills another person, no matter the case, brings impurity upon himself and upon his community.

Only time will tell what form our response to the Bulgarian attack will take. As these times continue to be bleak for our people and we find ourselves walking in truly dark places, we must mourn together, as a people united. Even as sadness and ugliness fills our world, threatening to tear it apart, we continue to remain a people of hope. May all of our actions, and our responses to tragic, senseless, baseless attacks be based in sincerity, justice, and righteousness. And in this dark period in our calendar, and in our existence as a people, may we ultimately move from darkness to light, from prospects of doom, to thoughts of compassion and consolation.

PS: When writing this piece, the first news about the killing in Aurora, CO are coming out. Our heart goes to the families of the victims.

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God and Pinchas

At the end of last week’s parasha we read about Pinchas, who spears to death Zimri, an Israelite, whilst he is enjoying a time of pleasure with Cozbi, a Midianite priestess, in flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. Pinchas kills them both with one stab, and as he does so, the plague which had befallen the community, abruptly ends. This week, we pick up the story and find out what God has to say about Pinchas’ actions. God says: “Pinchas…has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying amongst them his zeal for me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israel in my zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants…a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for God thus making expiation for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25:10-13)

So it seems that not only is Pinchas not chastised for killing in the name of God, taking the law into his own hands and behaving like a zealot, he is rewarded for it with an eternal covenant and the priesthood! I have always found this passage to be incredibly disturbing. I don’t want to believe in the kind of God who brings a plague and ends it because a zealot, filled with righteous indignation, murders two people in cold blood. The rabbis of our tradition were also concerned about this reading and God’s seeming approval and so they narrowed the acceptability of his act by so great a margin that the circumstances under which this act would be acceptable again are virtually impossible to meet.

A number of years ago however, I read an alternate understanding of this passage which sits much more easily with me. It was written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow who suggests that God was behaving very much like Pinchas. He says God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous, and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, it was immediate and disproportionate but it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Cozbi and Zimri and imitated God, that God saw the error of God’s ways. In that moment, God was jolted back to reality and like a parent, saw Godself reflected in the eyes of Pinchas, saw God’s own jealous anger and as if saw for the first time what God was doing. It was then that God stopped the plague and made a pact of peace with Pinchas; we will both stop what we are doing and agree never again to cause such destruction with our jealousy and anger. Rabbi Waskow suggests this reading of the passage above: “In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Pinchas imitated me and turned his hand to zealous killing. His zealous act opened my eyes. I saw him as a mirror of Myself. He shocked Me into shame at what I was doing. That is why I stopped the plague, that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of peace, I said to him: you stop and I will stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”

In this reading the story takes on an entirely different message and meaning. It says, zealous killing in God’s name is never ok, not by humans, not by God. Rage, zeal and jealousy can never be a justification for killing. Pinchas and God make a deal and it is only when he agrees to work for peace, goodness and life that he is merited the gift of the priesthood. Leaders must be calm, rational, love people and interpret laws with kindness and dispense justice with compassion and peace. And it is only when Pinchas agrees to the pact, he is worthy of inheriting the priesthood. In the past weeks we have seen leaders in the Jewish community speaking with hatred and anger, zealous in their belief that there is only one way, denigrating Jews who do not agree with their position. In a few weeks we commemorate Tisha B’Av, where we remember, amongst other tragedies, the destruction of the Temple because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred amongst Jews. I pray that we can learn the lessons from this parasha, to pursue a covenant of peace with each other and our neighbors, and to choose leaders who will speak with kindness, compassion and peace. 

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The image of the ass as one of the stupidest of all animals is used as a wonderful foil in this week’s parasha, Balak. Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid of the people of Israel, finally on their march toward the Land of Israel, nearly 40 years since they have left Egypt. While Israel was prepared to pass toward their goal peacefully, certain of the neighboring tribes did not allow this, leading to wars of conquest. Balak hopes to stymie the advance of the Israelites by placing a curse on them. He calls upon a famous prophet, Balaam, saying, “I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” We learn from Torah that one does not need to be an Israelite or Jew to be a prophet, or speaker of God’s word.


Balaam, a member of another people, knows that as a prophet of God, he can only speak the word of God. He also knows that he can only do what God allows him to do. God looks with disfavor on Balaam’s decision to go to Balak, but Balaam nevertheless proceeds. The story continues, “Balaam was riding on his she ass when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand.” Balaam does not see the angel of the Lord. Three times Balaam beats the ass to get her to move forward. Three times the ass refuses to move past the angel of the Lord, and finally the ass is given miraculously the power of speech, and addresses Balaam eloquently. The ass, not Balaam, has seen the angel of God; the ass needs to explain God’s presence to God’s prophet.


For thousands of years, this story has been understood as an allegory, a fable, perhaps a comic moment in Torah. An ass can perceive God better than a prophet. Satire is used to teach a lesson. There are many lessons for the reader to discover. One important one for our age – in many ways an age of human arrogance and hubris where we have altered the world for our own convenience with as yet unknown consequences – is to remember that essentially we are part of the animal kingdom and should not look at animals as lesser than us. Right treatment of animals is so central to Judaism that it is not just one of our “613 mitzvot” but also one of the seven obligations we believe incumbent upon all humanity. An extension of that lesson is that we should not be seduced by our intelligence or achievement. The blindness of Balaam teaches us that we can always learn from the other, even an ass.

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