Archive for Juliol de 2014

During this period in the Jewish calendar, we read some of the most poignant and disturbing words in our canon. We read about the city of Jerusalem weeping as she is abandoned by her people, we read about God, lamenting the fate of our people, and we read words of rebuke, directed at us by the prophets and God, for our behavior. The assault upon us is unrelenting, until we reach Tisha B’Av, the time when we pour out our grief and our pain at the tragedies we have suffered as a people. We mourn and cry for those we have lost, for the holes left in our lives by their absence. We cry for ourselves, for our people and for the suffering of humanity. And then, after our time of lament, we find the words of comfort and hope, words which call us back to life, to return to the world and resume the work of repairing the brokenness.

This year, these words are even more poignant as we look around our world at the moment, it needs healing. It seems that everywhere we turn there is suffering and pain. There seems to be one assault after another on our faith and belief in humanity, in our hope that people are better than what we are seeing in the world. Murder, kidnapping, pain, suffering. Young girls taken because they dared to wish for a better future, a person blowing a plane out of the sky for no reason, war in Israel and Gaza. It seems like something significant is happening at the moment, that the world is being ripped apart. Conflict, war, tragedy, violence leaving in its wake a heaviness and a burden which we feel powerless to shift.

The world needs healing and so do we. We sit here worried for our friends, our family, our humanity. We are lost in a sea of despair and it is hard to remain above water. But we cannot stay in this place, we cannot remain adrift in the seas for drowning is not an option. We must learn from Tisha B’av to turn to the world with hope and try to build a better world for us all. We need to look for the good, to try and find the places of hope and light in the midst of the darkness; the people who are reaching out to one another in kindness and compassion, the ones who show their humanity even in the depths of darkness and tragedy, to find the stories of love and care and blessing. For the world is not only darkness, there are shafts of light pushing through the pain, and it is there we can find the hope for us and for humanity.

We can put our faith in humanity once more, we can lift our eyes to the mountains and find our help there in the inspiring stories of people who have brought goodness and blessing into the world. Gandhi said that we each need to become the change that we want to see in the world and that is our challenge now as we face a world of tragedy and pain, it is to find the courage to hope, to find the strength to believe in a different tomorrow; one which is filled with peace and serenity for all.

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Parashat Masei, recalling the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt toward the border of the Holy Land, calls upon all Jews to consider how we read and interpret words of Torah. After describing the marches toward the land over 40 years of wandering, and before detailing the extent of the land’s borders and how it will be apportioned amongst the tribes, the Torah speaks of the necessity of conquest. Unfortunately, as will be made clear even more so in the book of Deuteronomy that follows, the Promised Land we will inherit is inhabited by seven other nations whom we must dispossess.

In a passage known in the tradition by its first word, “VeHorashtem”, we are commanded: “you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places. And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it”. For thousands of years, sages have commented upon this teaching, and to what extent it applies in our time. In the 11th century, Rashi, understanding the context of the verse, states that “You shall dispossess the land of its inhabitants and then you shall dwell in it, that is you will be able to remain in it; but if you do not dispossess it then you will not be able to remain in it”. That is unless we expelled the inhabitants of the

land, they would lead us into idolatry and away from the Torah and we would suffer exile. Indeed, this is the story that is told in the rest of our Bible, and the explanation given for the destruction of the Temple that we recall at this time.

The 13th century sage, Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) suggests that the primary teaching of this passage is not about conquest of the land, but rather a positive mitzvah incumbent upon each individual of Israel to dwell in the land and inherit it. Most rabbis and sages endorsed this teaching of the mitzvah to live in the land of Israel, although there remains debate as to what political means should be taken to support that move.

With the return in the 20th century of Jews in great numbers to the land of Israel, contemporary rabbis discussed the significance of these ancient teachings of Torah and their interpretations by the sages of the Medieval period. A general consensus of these rabbis, relying on Torah and received tradition, is that there exists a command to conquer and settle the land. The next significant group suggests that it is incumbent upon all Jews to settle all the land, but only in peaceful methods. Only a minority suggests that the mitzvah of saving life (or pursuing peace) overrides the mitzvah of settling all the land.

Thus, one can see how commandments of Torah, as applied by contemporary halakhic authorities, have tremendous impact on not only the relationship of Jews to the land of Israel, but also that of Jews to the nations of the world. First, are we commanded to settle not just the land of Israel, but the entire land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan? Second, are we commanded to expel the inhabitants of the land, or at least prevent them from having any form of sovereignty over the land? Third, can the mitzvah of saving life override potentially disastrous consequences flowing from an affirmative response to the first two questions? While Israel is officially a secular democracy, rabbis who teach Torah and the communities they teach have enormous influence on governmental decisions.

Just as our ancient sages understood how to contextualize Torah teachings to ameliorate their consequences, so too should we. Remembering an overarching principle of Torah, “Chai Bahem” — we should live by these teachings. Now, more than ever, we need to work with the other peoples of the land who have settled there, to live with justice, security and peace for all.

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Parashat Mattot, always read in the three-week period between the 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av, commemorates the destruction of the Temple and our people’s exile from the land of Israel. Ironically, it also addresses issues connected to the settlement of the land, particularly the conquest of the Midianites as a precursor to the conquest of the seven nations of the land, and the settlement of the land on the other side of the Jordan by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh. The rabbis who established the cycle of Torah readings have set up a contrast between promise of land and reality of exile. In their teaching, exile resulted from the transgressions of the people. The opening passage of Mattot, concerning the making of vows, hints at some of those transgressions.


Moses speaks to the heads of the Israelite tribes, teaching them the laws of vows made by individuals, both men and women. The 18th century rabbi known as the Chatam Sofer notes that these instructions are first given to the heads of tribes because people in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. We live in a world in which we must think about how our leaders use their words, the import of them, and whether there might be a more accurate way of using language. For example, what is the difference between a “carbon tax” or a “price on carbon” or “Illegal

immigrants” and “unaccompanied minor?” Further afield, but still close to home, what is the difference between “occupied” and “disputed” territories? These few examples demonstrate the significance of words and especially the choice of words made by leaders and opinion shapers.


In general, how we use words is crucial. Commentators have noted that Judaism places enormous import on the use of spoken language, the Torah beginning conceptually with creation emanating from speech itself. (In the beginning God spoke and said, “Let there be light.”) The 19th century “Sefer Chafetz Chaim”, an entire book concerning the Jewish ethics and laws of speechby Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, deals entirely with how and when we should speak. Mattot states clearly that our word must be our bond: “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips”.


According to tradition, the First Temple was destroyed because of commission of the three cardinal sins — idolatry, murder and sexual immorality; the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred”. We now have our third opportunity to settle the land of Israel. We must make sure, all the more so during times of conflict, to speak not intemperately but judiciously; to speak in a balanced and non-emotive matter as best as possible. Just as “the world” was created through speech, so too our words create our world.


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At the end of last week’s parasha, God calls to Moses and tells him just how disappointed God is in the Children of Israel. God is jealous and angry for they have turned away and begun worshipping other gods, sleeping with Midianite women – possibly cultic prostitutes – and God has had enough. God demands that those who are responsible be impaled and then causes a plague to infect all those who were led astray. Just as Moses is explaining what is happening to the people, another tragedy occurs. The Torah tells us that Moses is speaking and all around him people are weeping and crying in torment over the loss of their loved ones in the plague and the punishment that God seems intent on inflicting on them. Their lament is ascending to the heavens but God remains impervious to the pleas. In the midst of this scene walks Zimri, an Israelite, who has on his arm, Cozbi, a Midianite priestess. He parades in front of the weeping masses and heads to his tent for an afternoon of pleasure with her, a flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. This is all too much for Pinchas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, and a priest, so he takes his spear and impales the two of them upon it, spearing them through the genitals as they lay together. At that moment the plague against the Israelites stops and 24,000 people have died.


This week’s parasha begins with the fate of Pinchas, the zealot who carried out an act of violence in God’s name. We read: “God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas…has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israeli in My zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” Numbers 24:10–13


This is not the response we would have imagined. It appears that God has given the stamp of approval for Pinchas’ actions: the plague stopped, he receives the priesthood and a covenant of peace for all time. That someone should receive a reward for taking the law into his own hands, for killing in his zeal in the name of God is troubling and greatly disturbing. But Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers a different explanation and interpretation. He suggests that God was behaving much like Pinchas. God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, immediate and disproportionate to the cause. However it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Zimri and imitated his God, that God saw the error of God’s ways.


Rabbi Waskow writes: “In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me; he 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 my covenant of peace. I said to him, if you stop, I’ll stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”


In this reading, the story takes on an entirely different message. It says: zealous killing in the name of God is never ok, not by humans, not by God. And that is why God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace. They made a deal; neither would destroy nor bring about death again for impure motives. It was only once Pinchas agreed to work for peace, goodness and life that he merited the priesthood. Leaders must be calm and rational, interpreting laws with kindness and justice, compassion and peace. Pinchas did not do that in last week’s portion, but he, like God, repented and together they looked to a different future with the potential for calm and peace. May that be our future too.


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Bilaam, the main character of this week’s Torah portion, is one of few non-Israelites the Tanakh considers a mediator of God’s will. His words carry the weight of divine speech; anyone Bilaam curses is cursed, and anyone he blesses is blessed. Balak, king of Moab, stands in awe of him and is ready to pay an enormous sum to have Bilaam do his bidding.

There seems to be a gap in Bilaam’s power, however. Towards the beginning of his journey from home towards the Israelite camp, Bilaam is riding on his donkey. The donkey is being pretty stubborn, it seems, and keeps veering off the road — first into a field, then crushing Bilaam’s foot against a wall and finally simply stopping and crouching down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilaam responds violently, hitting the donkey with larger and larger objects. Bilaam, a mystic powerful enough to destroy an entire people with his words, cannot convince his donkey to move. Bilaam even threatens to beat to death the donkey that has served as his means of transportation since the day he was born. When God opens Bilaam’s eyes to reveal the sword-waving angel blocking the road that his donkey could see the whole time, the sorcerer is positively humiliated.

Bilaam has an abusive relationship with his donkey. He refuses to listen to the nonverbal messages sent by his trustworthy animal, messages that are actually preserving his life. Instead Bilaam acts with disloyalty and abject cruelty. The reader becomes curious about how Bilaam treats other people, particularly those subordinate to him. Is it any wonder that the rabbis attach to Bilaam the sobriquet, “Bilaam the Evil”?

Contrast Bilaam to Moses. Exodus Rabbah, a medieval collection of stories about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, tells a tale of the young Moses working as a shepherd. One day, a lamb wanders from the flock. Moses follows the lamb’s tracks for some time and discovers the lamb inside a cave by a pool of water, drinking. Rather than punishing the lamb for straying, Moses allows the tired, thirsty lamb to drink its fill. He then lifts it on his shoulders carries it back to the flock. Our rabbis imagine Moses’ compassionate character inspiring God to appoint him leader – shepherd – of the Israelites.

Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power, we face a choice: to behave with violence or compassion, cruelty or patience. It is up to each of us to decide, in every situation, to choose the path of Moses over that of Bilaam.

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