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Archive for Juny de 2014

In this week’s parasha we read about the death of Moses’ sister Miriam. Immediately after the Torah reports her death, we read that the Israelites were without water. This juxtaposition of verses leads the Torah commentators to suggest that Miriam was the reason that the Israelites had water in the desert, and when she died, the water source died with her. This led to the creation of “Miriam’s Well”, a mythical well which accompanied the Israelites on their desert wanderings because of the merit of Miriam, the prophet. But what was it about Miriam that made her so special? And how was she a prophet? We have no record of her speeches. Unlike her brother Moses, we do not find her talking to the Israelites, sending them messages from God. So how was she a prophet, and what did she bring to the Israelite people?

 

The commentators suggest that Moses taught with words and Miriam brought her prophecy through deed. She was a woman of action, working behind the scenes to make the lives of the people better. At the shores of the sea, after the Israelites crossed to the other side, Moses sings a song of praise to God. But it is Miriam who takes a timbrel and encourages everyone to sing along with her — to dance and rejoice in the glory of God and the miracle at the sea. It is Miriam who allows the children of Israel to truly celebrate their freedom and rejoice. And Miriam provided water, sustenance for them when they needed it most. She walked amongst the people, guided and nurtured them, sustained their souls whilst Moses and Aaron tended to leadership, Miriam led too in her own quiet, determined way. She was brave, courageous and strong. She was kind, compassionate and good. And she was flawed, just like her brothers.

 

As we look back on her life this Shabbat of her yahrzeit, we remember her and the contribution that women have made to our community and our tradition, giving and helping, each in their own way. This Shabbat, take a moment to celebrate our Judaism like Miriam, freely and wholeheartedly, and rejoice in the beauty of our world; it’s what she would have loved. 

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When I was younger and a bit of a rebel myself, I admired Korach as the quintessential rebel on the side of the common person. It could be a matter of ageing – or it may be one of learning – that has allowed me to see this parashah through the eyes of our traditional commentators, who demonstrate that Korach is not the first of the great democrats, but rather demagogues. Korach challenges his cousin Moshe for the leadership of the people, getting the masses on side with the charge that “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 yourself above the Lord’s congregation?” Korach seeks the power of leadership over the people, pretending that he is “just one of them”. He does so in his clever use of language, pandering to the notion of each of us being equally special. Indeed, Korach is partly correct in his claim of the people’s innate holiness; at the same time, he is subverting the core teaching of the Torah of Moshe about our striving for holiness. How is this so?

One of the basic principles of Judaism, as iterated in one of our first blessings every morning, is that the soul with which we are born is pure. Our neshama, our soul, is our divine spark of God, the purest aspect of our being that connects us with all being and Ultimate Being. Every human being has that aspect of divinity, and in this sense, each of us is “a child of God.” However, the essence of Torah is that once the soul inhabits the body, it cannot but be buffeted by our desires, our knowledge of “good and bad”, and our free choice between right and wrong. Try as we might, none of us is perfect, and all of us make mistakes. The teachings of Moses are all about human fallibility, the need always to strive to do more right and good, with the commensurate requirement to acknowledge when we have gone astray and make appropriate amends for so doing. The spark of holiness with which we are born gives us the impetus throughout the days of our lives to strive for holiness, constant growth and improvement.

Korach implies that our holiness is not our potential but our actuality and in this is most deceitful. In reality, all of us need leaders, teachers, and exemplars in order to learn the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. Moses is that kind of teacher, a man who himself is a “servant of God”, indeed the most humble of servants, never seeking leadership for power but rather for instruction. In this week’s Torah, Moses reminds us that our daily task is to meditate upon our innate holiness so that we can strive to act with holiness in all our daily encounters. 

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This week’s parasha opens with the infamous story of the scouts (or spies), who bring back the report about the “land that devours its inhabitants”, leading to the faithless people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It closes with the command to wear tzitzit, a teaching so important in our tradition that it has since become known as the third paragraph of the Shema, one of the few passages of Torah placed directly into our Siddur, recited twice daily. While the opening and closing of the parashah are seemingly disconnected, our sages noted a linguistic connection between the two passages through the word used to spy out the land, “la-tur”. This is the same word used in the commandment of tzitzit, in which we are told to look at the tzitzit in order “not to scout after our own eyes.” Rather, the tzitzit remind us of the mitzvot which in turn keep us from wandering in the wilderness. How so?

 

The notion of “mitzvot”, or commandments, is one of the most confusing in all of Judaism. There are some Jews who believe that there are 613 mitzvot that were directly communicated by God to Moses in the wilderness, that must be specifically followed according to the halakha — the Jewish law developed over thousands of years but also authoritative as God’s word. Others, recognizing the human hand in the writing of Torah and tradition, have reduced the concept of mitzvot into an amorphous, general concept of “doing good deeds.” The power of a life of mitzvah exists somewhere in between.

 

Mitzvot indeed have been constructed by our ancestors, but they are far more than just good deeds. The system of mitzvot is a sophisticated approach to living with an understanding that all life is interconnected; that we, as conscious beings, are responsible for each other and all living things; that we, as spiritual beings, can strive for continued growth and deepening. Mitzvot are a series of obligations, learned through study of Torah, which inform Jews how to live a holy and spiritual life.

 

Human beings have sacred potential, but we also have fears and desires that can easily lead us astray, as in the story of the spies. The tzitzit we wear, like a knot tied around our fingers, serve as reminders not to follow after our “hearts and eyes” into behavior motivated by poor emotional bearing. Instead we are to remember, as it says in the final lines of the third paragraph and this week’s parasha: “So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God.” Parasha Shelach Lecha reminds us as Jews to live a sacred life of obligation. 

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This week’s parashah is famous for the incident of gossip between Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam. They are talking, presumably unfavorably, about Moses’ wife and Moses himself, suggesting that they are equal to Moses and yet he is the one who receives all the accolades. The episode ends with God punishing them for their actions. But in between the act and the punishment we find a curious line which says that Moses was humble, the most humble man in the world. This leads to the question: what on earth is that line doing in the midst of a lesson about the evils of gossip?! The commentators suggest that there must be a connection between the story of Miriam and Aaron and Moses’ humility, but what?

I have often thought that humility is a negative trait. We are taught to have high self esteem, not to denigrate ourselves and to be proud of our achievements. Yet humility seems to say the opposite: be polite, don’t praise yourself too much. But if that were the case, Moses’ humility would have no place in this story at all. A commentary by Rabbi Sacks suggests a different understanding. He says that humility is not about placing your own achievements on the bottom rung, but rather it is recognizing our place in the greater scheme of life. Moses does not respond to the attack on him by his brother and sister and that is surprising. Moses has never been one to shy away from conflict in the past, this is, afterall, the man who argues with God! Yet in this case he stays silent, why? The description of his humility tells us the answer, it is because he is able to see the big picture and recognize that in the grand scheme of the universe, the actions of his brother and sister are not so important. When you have been in touch with God and the divine, this matter seems tiny by comparison.

What an important lesson for us. To reach for humility and be able to put matters into perspective and react appropriately. To discover our smallness in the face of greatness, whilst still recognizing and acknowledging the goodness within ourselves. May we all strive to be like Moses, great and humble.

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