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Archive for Juny de 2013

Parashat Pinchas

Looking vs Seeing

 

In this week’s parasha we read the fascinating story of the Daughters of Zelophad. They are five women who were the only remaining descendants when their father died. According to the custom of the time, when a person died with no sons, their property would revert back to the tribe. The Daughters of Zelophad were not satisfied with this situation and they went to Moses and petitioned him, saying that it was not right that their family holding would be returned to the tribe when their father had five deserving daughters. Moses was not sure what to do, he appreciated their arguments and said he would take it to God for a ruling. God ruled in favour of the daughters of Zelophad and thanks to their courage and wisdom, the law was changed to allow women to inherit property when there were no surviving sons.

 

The conservative American Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson brings a beautiful commentary on this portion. He quotes Rashi’s words: “Their eyes (the daughters’) saw what Moses could not see.” What did they see that Moses did not? They saw the injustice of the law which would disposes the women and their family simply because there were no males to inherit the property. Moses and the elders failed to see the wrong which was being perpetrated until the daughters pointed it out to them. Only then were they able to make the situation right and care for the vulnerable in their society.

 

Sometimes we can be like the elders and Moses. We look with our eyes but we fail to see what is truly before us. We sanitize the world so that we look upon only the good and brush past the things which cause us pain or distress. But it is important to see not only with our eyes but also with our hearts and our heads. When we look at the world around us we must try to be conscious of those who need assistance, those who need our love, compassion and care. Sometimes those who are struggling hide their pain, they are embarrassed, ashamed, feel nobody will care, nobody wants to listen. But if we look with eyes that see into the depths of their souls, we can see their hurt and then work to heal their suffering, be a listening ear, a compassionate heart. We are tasked as Jews, with tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world, making right the wrongs in society. We can only do that if we first see the places where there is need and then act to change them.

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Parashat Balak

Relating to the Divine

 

Parashat Balak contains the famous story of Balak, the king of Moab, who, fearing the approach of the children of Israel hires the prophet Bilaam to curse them. Commanded by God not to do so, Bilaam nevertheless eventually sets off on his journey. His donkey perceives an angel blocking their path, but Bilaam does not and begins to beat the donkey. The donkey then tells Bilaam of the angel. This story is not about talking animals, but rather an allegory for the ability of any of us, even a great prophet, to be blinded to truth. Even when Bilaam attempts to curse the people, his words (for a prophet speaks God’s truth) come out as a blessing of God. One of the blessings was placed at the beginning of our Siddur by the rabbis, to be said upon entering the synagogue in the morning: “How fair are your tents , O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” A major thrust of this parashah, coming at the end of our 40-year wandering in the wilderness, is God’s deep intention to fulfill the promise of Israel, to be a mighty nation in its land.

 

The inevitability of fulfillment of promise is not a carte blanche for wanton action, as hinted at by the concluding story of the parashah, in which our ancestors are led astray into idolatry. The consequent punishment teaches that a deeper code of behavior, or ethic, underlies the promise of inheritance. While that ethic is broadly taught through the mitzvot and the system of interpretation and application known as halakhah, the prophet Micah, whose words we read as the haftarah this Shabbat proscribe a concise teaching. “O mortal, what is it that God asks of you? To act justly,

to relate with loving kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

 

Micah’s words beautifully encapsulate the essence of Judaism. The primary message of Torah is the pursuit of justice. Whether from Abraham, Moses or the later prophets, the foremost teaching is to provide equity among all, and to especially protect the poor, powerless and vulnerable. However, one should not apply justice harshly, but relate to all life (understood as God’s creation) with loving kindness.

 

Furthermore, one should remember one’s place within the universe, and “walk humbly with God”, that is, understand the divinity in the other and proceed with that sense of respect and humility. These simple maxims are far easier to write about than live daily, but their internalization is our challenge. Bilaam, a great prophet of God, could not perceive the truth his donkey did. However, that is no excuse for us not to respond to God’s call, as divinely expressed throughout the Torah and particularly by the prophet Micah.

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Parashat Chukat

This Shabbat’s Torah portion contains a theme which runs through the entire book of Numbers: the complaints of the Israelites. This week, their complaints are about the lack of water in the camp. Midrash tells us that the water dried up at this point in the wanderings because Moses’ sister Miriam died. Until now, say the rabbis of our tradition, sweet water had been flowing for the Israelites to drink in the harsh desert because a well followed Miriam wherever she went. Water was a large part of Miriam’s life. It was she who placed Moses in the Nile, she led our people in dance and song after our miraculous deliverance from slavery.

 

Whenever we find Miriam together with water we find her celebrating nature and the connection between God and the wonders of the natural world. She dances, sings and lives in harmony with the environment. And for this reason, amongst her other merits, Miriam’s well follows the Israelites in the desert, sustaining and nurturing them. But when she dies and is buried, the water ceases to flow and the well becomes as empty and dry as the harsh, cruel desert. It is then the Israelites begin complaining about the lack of water. Moses takes their complaint to God who says that Moses should go to a certain rock, speak to it, and it will produce water. Moses goes to the rock, the people are nagging and taunting him and instead of talking with the rock, he hits it twice with his rod. The water pours forth, the Israelites drink but Moses is denied entry into the Promised Land.

 

Throughout the ages, students and teachers of Torah have been perplexed by this passage and the seemingly harsh punishment given to Moses. For what appears to be a relatively minor indiscretion, he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work. Most of the traditional interpretations suggest that Moses was punished for losing his temper.

 

But Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger offers a radical and different interpretation. He says instead of looking at Moses’ anger, we should look at the different relationships Moses and Miriam had with nature and the natural world. Until the moment when Moses was asked to speak to the rock, he had been manipulating nature for his own purposes, while Miriam praised and delighted in it. Moses tapped the energy of the world and made it change and work for him; he changes water into blood, a stick to a snake, light to dark and he splits the sea.

 

All this was done by God with Moses acting as agent, but still, his interaction with the natural world was all about changing it, whereas Miriam was about being with it. That was a delicate balance which worked, until Miriam died. Then it was Moses’ duty to take on the dual approach; to both use nature and be with it. That is why God wanted him to talk to the rock and not beat it. He was to stop beating nature into submission and instead learn to work in harmony with it as Miriam had done. God recognized that unless Moses was able to do that, recognize the beauty, spirituality and sanctity of the natural world, he could not lead the people in the Promised Land. Despite Moses’ fabulous qualities, without the spiritual nature that Miriam possessed, without that connection to the world, Moses could not succeed. When Moses hit the rock instead of speaking with it he demonstrated that he did not learn the lesson from Miriam. He was still trying to manipulate nature with force and it was such a grave sin that he was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land.

 

Today we often behave as Moses did, divorcing nature from spirit and emotion so that we can exploit and manipulate it to serve our own purposes. We have the power, more than ever before, to shape the world for our own ends and we are learning the lesson God tried to teach us through Moses; we cannot only master the natural world, we need to learn to be in harmony with it and connected to it. To be like Miriam; recognize the wonders of nature and praise the God who made them, then work to achieve sustainable development. 

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Parashat Chukat

This Shabbat’s Torah portion contains a theme which runs through the entire book of Numbers: the complaints of the Israelites. This week, their complaints are about the lack of water in the camp. Midrash tells us that the water dried up at this point in the wanderings because Moses’ sister Miriam died. Until now, say the rabbis of our tradition, sweet water had been flowing for the Israelites to drink in the harsh desert because a well followed Miriam wherever she went. Water was a large part of Miriam’s life. It was she who placed Moses in the Nile, she led our people in dance and song after our miraculous deliverance from slavery.

 

Whenever we find Miriam together with water we find her celebrating nature and the connection between God and the wonders of the natural world. She dances, sings and lives in harmony with the environment. And for this reason, amongst her other merits, Miriam’s well follows the Israelites in the desert, sustaining and nurturing them. But when she dies and is buried, the water ceases to flow and the well becomes as empty and dry as the harsh, cruel desert. It is then the Israelites begin complaining about the lack of water. Moses takes their complaint to God who says that Moses should go to a certain rock, speak to it, and it will produce water. Moses goes to the rock, the people are nagging and taunting him and instead of talking with the rock, he hits it twice with his rod. The water pours forth, the Israelites drink but Moses is denied entry into the Promised Land.

 

Throughout the ages, students and teachers of Torah have been perplexed by this passage and the seemingly harsh punishment given to Moses. For what appears to be a relatively minor indiscretion, he is denied the fulfillment of his life’s work. Most of the traditional interpretations suggest that Moses was punished for losing his temper.

 

But Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger offers a radical and different interpretation. He says instead of looking at Moses’ anger, we should look at the different relationships Moses and Miriam had with nature and the natural world. Until the moment when Moses was asked to speak to the rock, he had been manipulating nature for his own purposes, while Miriam praised and delighted in it. Moses tapped the energy of the world and made it change and work for him; he changes water into blood, a stick to a snake, light to dark and he splits the sea.

 

All this was done by God with Moses acting as agent, but still, his interaction with the natural world was all about changing it, whereas Miriam was about being with it. That was a delicate balance which worked, until Miriam died. Then it was Moses’ duty to take on the dual approach; to both use nature and be with it. That is why God wanted him to talk to the rock and not beat it. He was to stop beating nature into submission and instead learn to work in harmony with it as Miriam had done. God recognized that unless Moses was able to do that, recognize the beauty, spirituality and sanctity of the natural world, he could not lead the people in the Promised Land. Despite Moses’ fabulous qualities, without the spiritual nature that Miriam possessed, without that connection to the world, Moses could not succeed. When Moses hit the rock instead of speaking with it he demonstrated that he did not learn the lesson from Miriam. He was still trying to manipulate nature with force and it was such a grave sin that he was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land.

 

Today we often behave as Moses did, divorcing nature from spirit and emotion so that we can exploit and manipulate it to serve our own purposes. We have the power, more than ever before, to shape the world for our own ends and we are learning the lesson God tried to teach us through Moses; we cannot only master the natural world, we need to learn to be in harmony with it and connected to it. To be like Miriam; recognize the wonders of nature and praise the God who made them, then work to achieve sustainable development. 

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Parashat Korach

Holiness: It’s not a given, it’s an aspiration

 

This week we learn of the conflict between Moses and his fellow Levites, the latter group led by the infamous rebel Korach, which reflects their different understanding of our relationship with God. Korach basis his understanding of the relationship on 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 understood differently our relationship with God. They accepted the notion that from creation each person has equal dignity before God. However, they also understood individual “divinity” as the beginning of our relationship, not the end. Coming out of Egypt, God instructs the people through Moses, “You shall (emphasis added) be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” This verse exists within the broader teachings of Torah. Every human soul may be divine, but we only live a holy life through learning Torah and embracing its mitzvot (obligations of doing right and avoiding wrong). Just before we read about the rebellion of Korach, we read the words in Torah that are so important to our values system they have been placed in our liturgy as final paragraph of the Shema. These words hearken back to the beginning of the revelation at Sinai, instructing: “Then you will remember and observe all My mitzvot and be holy before your God.” Our potential holiness derives from our actions, even if our equal dignity derives from our creation. Korach’s rebellion is considered so damaging because in his conflation of ideas from the Torah he actually undermines essential principles of Judaism. Holiness is an attribute that must be achieved by daily practice of right action. Korach intentionally confuses with misuse of language (itself a violation of Torah and thus a negation of holiness), sounding as if he is defending Torah principles in reality he overturns. This fomenting of rebellion through manipulation of others remains a plague upon humanity to this day.

 

We must be vigilant in our language and clear in our concepts, open to learning from teachers who exemplify intelligence, integrity, and the application of Torah in daily life. This Shabbat may we learn from Moses, not led astray by Korach. 

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On being a commanded Jew

 

The conclusion of this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha, consists of the verses of Torah (Numbers 15:37-41) that have become known in our liturgy as the third paragraph of the Shema. There we are taught that we should look at the tzitzit, or the fringes on our garments, in order to remember the mitzvot, or commandments of God, and do them. It is clear that we Jews are an ancient people and that the mitzvot as learned from the Torah provide the structure for our way of life. Less clear is what exactly are the mitzvot and how they operate as time unfolds.

 

For over a thousand years Jews have spoken of the “613 mitzvot”, but nowhere in the Torah or the Mishnah does it mention how many mitzvot there are. Rather, one passage in the Talmud, in the name of the third century sage Rabbi Simlai, teaches that “613 mitzvot were communicated to Moses, 365 negative (you shall not) corresponding to the number of days in the solar year and 248 positive (you shall) corresponding to the number of bones in the body.” (TB Makkot 24a). In this Talmudic passage Rabbi Simlai’s position is then countered by seven other opinions. One, quoting the prophet Micah 6:8, asserts there are just three principles – “to pursue justice, act with loving-kindness and walk humbly with God.” Another, referring to Amos 5:4 asserts there is just one – “to seek God that you might live.” In a sense, the Talmudic passage is playing with mnemonic devices to query what it means to be a Jew in service to God, for nowhere in the Talmud is there a list of the 613 mitzvot. The opinions of the various voices in this passage suggest the pursuit of justice and living with faith are central to the Jew, Rabbi Simlai being understood to say that every day each of us should serve God with every bone of our body.

 

It took hundreds of years from Talmudic times before the rabbis of the Middle Ages began writing “Books of Mitzvot” in which they enumerated the 613 mitzvot, that of Maimonides now being the most well known and widely authoritative count. However, other medieval sages wrote other collections, and while there is general agreement about the categories of mitzvot and their content, there is lack of agreement as to what exactly are the 613.

 

Further, nearly half of the 613 according to those counts cannot be done because of the destruction of the Temple. So the litmus test of “613 mitzvot” may not be as important as accepting in general the principle that a Jew is to live a life of obligation as opposed to entitlement.

 

Meanwhile, Shelach Lecha suggests in the opening story of the scouts sent to spy out the Promised Land that even when we agree on what we see, we will necessarily disagree on how to interpret those observations. While all twelve agree that the land flows with milk and honey, ten of the twelve report that “we must have looked like grasshoppers to the inhabitants.” Caleb and Joshua disagree. This story highlights that “facts” are always subject to interpretation, and examples of subjectivity and interpretation abound in law, science, art and life.

 

Interpretation of Torah is no different, and that is why its study is so rich and rewarding. The Torah calls for capital punishment, an eye for an eye, and the execution of the rebellious child. Our earliest sages recognized that sometimes the literal words of Torah could end up not being in the service of God and needing to be re-framed: a court that issued a death penalty twice in seventy years was a murderous court, it was “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye”, and there was no such thing as a rebellious son in the first place. Other laws could be expansively applied – such as the avoidance of cruelty to animals leading to a prohibition against factory farming of them. In rabbinic tradition, Torah and mitzvot must be part of a system “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17).

 

Judaism, in all its varieties, teaches that the mitzvot provide the basis for a Jew’s living a life toward God. Consistent themes over the thousands of years are that we should pursue justice, act with compassion, and be humble before the awesome mystery of God – the incomparable One existing beyond all time and space. Shelach Lecha teaches that all interpretation is subjective, suggesting that we should consider “looking at the tzitzit and remembering the mitzvot of God” in a more inclusive and less judgmental light.

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