Archive for Juliol de 2015

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, contains some of the “greatest hits” of our tradition with its inclusion of the shema and the ten commandments. In this continuation of Moses’ address to the people, he reminds them of the essential principles of Judaism: our grounding in the Exodus from Egypt, adherence to the commandments and the centrality of God and God’s unity. Moses exhorts the people to follow the rules of God, the mitzvot, in order to create a just and compassionate society. But then comes a curious phrase where Moses says: “Remember to do what is right and good in the sight of God.”

Rabbi Artson challenges: if we are to merely follow the mitzvot and the halacha, why add a command to do what is right and good? Surely that is redundant. He then brings examples from the tradition to show that the phrase exists to help us interpret and live the rules of God. Often when we have the chance to implement laws there is more than one way of understanding and applying the rule. This overarching principle reminds us that, in its application, the halacha is to help guide us to do what is right and good. And sometimes this means that we need to depart from the strict letter of the law in order to bring in an element of compassion, goodness or heart.

Rashi says that the verse “implies compromise, going beyond the letter of the law”. The Ramban says “even in regard to those things where no specific command applies…it is impossible to record every detail of human behavior…God included a general injunction to do what is right and good in every matter, accepting where necessary even a compromise in a legal dispute.” (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

So flexibility when it comes to the application of the law is crucial to maintaining its relevance, but also in ensuring that we continue to apply the principles of Judaism with the effect upon people at the heart of all that we do. Rabbi Yochanan is recorded in the Talmud as saying that the Temple was destroyed because our ancestors acted only to the letter of the law and did not go beyond it. (Bedside Torah by Rabbi Artson, pg. 294)

Sometimes we can become so entangled in the minutiae of a situation that we don’t see the broader implications of our decisions. This week’s parashah reminds us to always have compassion, kindness and goodness at the heart of our application of Jewish principles so that we can bring the vision of our world as a place filled with love, generosity, peace and blessing, to fruition through our deeds and the work of our hands.

May we always act to do what is right and good so that we can be a blessing.


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This Shabbat we commemorate Tisha B’Av, the culmination of the period begun three weeks ago to recall the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the loss of our national sovereignty in the Land of Israel. While after the destruction of the First Temple we were fortunate to return to the land after 70 years, after the destruction of the Second Temple our exile lasted 1,900 years (and some say continues until the Third Temple is rebuilt). For 2,600 years we have looked at the destruction from a dual perspective. On one hand, we have seen it as a reminder of the errors of our ways, the need to take responsibility for our actions in community. On the other, we have seen it as a call for a return to our core values as a people. In this sense, the period of the three weeks mirrors the period of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that also have us look at ourselves self-critically with a goal to improving our individual way of being in the world.

The traditions of Tisha B’Av mirror those of Yom Kippur, except that since the former is not a holy day mentioned in the Torah, one is allowed to work — to drive, to use electronic devices, to use money and so forth. Its other restrictions are the same as on Yom Kippur: for 25 hours no eating, no drinking, no sexual relations, no bathing or anointing, and no wearing of leather shoes. We come to synagogue evening, morning and afternoon to hear the words of Scripture, particularly the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, particularly the latter’s haunting words in the book of Lamentations, or Eicha. Their teachings have been enshrined within the prayers of our tradition, written over the last thousands of years: “because of our sins we have been exiled from our land”. Indeed, this entire period, culminating on Tisha B’Av, is one of reflection on how we, as a people and a nation, have failed to live up to our values as Jews.

The prophets of old are quite clear as to what they understand those values to be. On the Shabbat of Devarim – Chazon, always the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, it is made clear. While ritual may be necessary to live one’s life as a fully engaged Jew, it is by no means sufficient. In fact, ritual without ethics has no meaning. One’s connection to God is expressed first and foremost in one’s connection to one’s fellow human beings. As Isaiah says in his “chazon”, or prophecy:

Wash yourselves clean;

put your evil doings away from My sight.

Cease to do evil; learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

defend the cause of the widow.”

(Isaiah 1:16–17).

Jeremiah concludes Lamentations as follows (a phrase now entered into our Torah service): “Hashivenu Adonai Eleikha – Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself, and let us come back; renew our days as of old”. We must remember that the way back to God is through God’s creatures.

Just as we teach on Yom Kippur that there is none on earth who does only good and never sins, this day of Tisha B’Av gives us the opportunity on a communal level – thinking of how we as Jews behave in Israel, the States, New Jersey and at CBTBI – to look at those actions for which we need to repent, and those ways we wish to improve.

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This week’s double parasha marks the end of the book of Numbers. In the second portion, there is a curious list of 42 places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert. There they are, poised to enter the Promised Land, about to conclude a journey which has taken 40 years, and Moses recounts a small travelogue. Interestingly, he does not say anything about any of the places, he simply recites the list of names. It was as though he only had limited space and had to get in as many memories as he could. So rather than give details about what happened, he just says: there was Sukkot then Etham and Migdol…

I imagine the Israelites listening to the stories of those places and remembering what happened there; laughing, smiling, cringing, crying. Through that list they are inspired to recall the people who walked beside them during their travels; many of whom no longer walk the earth. They recall the moments of pride, the times they were ashamed of their actions and so much more. It is interesting to see which places are left off and which included. There is, for example, no recalling of Mount Sinai, the place of revelation — perhaps the most momentous event of their entire travels. Instead, the smaller moments are recalled; those which might otherwise have been lost in the sands of time.

There is much discussion in the commentaries about what this list of place names is trying to teach us, because we do not have the memories of the Israelites to be triggered. We did not have the experiences – we only have the stories of them – and so the list might seem dry and somewhat irrelevant. But, just as with everything else in the Torah, the sages of our tradition have extracted great meaning from just a few verses. One of my favorite explanations is from the Apter Rebbe. He refers to another section in the Torah portion which commands the creation of six cities of refuge to which people can flee. The Rebbe notes that there are six cities of refuge and six words in the shema; 42 places in Moses’ travelogue and 42 words in the veahavta prayer. This teaches us, he says, that just as people found refuge in the six cities, we should find refuge in the shema:

Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad,

Listen Israel Adonai is your God Adonai is One.

When people cry out, we need to shema – to listen – to hear their cries, to hear their pain; and then veahavta – to reach out in love – in openness with compassion and justice. Shema Yisrael – listen Israel – our tradition calls to us. Listen to the pain, the hurt and the suffering; and work for justice with an open heart and with love. The Israelite journey was about finding a place where we could be one. It was about finding a home away from persecution and pain; a place where we could live true to our principles and our faith: the cities of refuge.

We fled the persecution and slavery of pharaoh; we journeyed to 42 places, healing, becoming one, learning to love and to be; and then we arrived at the Promised Land. So many are in that same place, on that journey — seeking hope and safety, a future for themselves and their families. Judaism, the Torah, and our parashah all call upon us to listen. To hear and to act, to create cities of refuge, places of healing, of welcome, and of love.

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At the end of last week’s parashab, 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. During this three week period, when we lament the destruction of the First and Second Temple, partly brought about by zealots past, may we work to make sure our future here, in Israel and around the world is guided not by zealotry but by working calmly and rationally for peace.

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Balak, the parasha that was a precursor to Mr. Ed, has a serious message delivered by a talking donkey — one of the three protagonists of the short story. Balak, the king of Moab, fears that the people of Israel are finally on their way to enter the promised land. He requests a regional prophet, Bilaam, to curse the people since “they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” While instructed by God not to go on the mission, Bilaam is lured by Balak’s flattery and financial enticement. The third protagonist is Bilaam’s talking donkey who perceives, better than the prophet himself, the presence and intent of God. The story unfolds in such a way that each time Bilaam attempts to curse the people of Israel, a blessing comes from his mouth instead.

For far too long we have cursed a group of people who should be blessed. Because of a passage in Torah that is purported to be the will of God, homosexuals – and by extension anyone who has a sexual orientation that is not that of the heterosexual majority – have been discriminated against, persecuted, assaulted, murdered and driven to suicide. This despite one core passage of Torah teaching that each human being is created in the image of God, and another that we are meant to live through practice of mitzvot.

Sadly, too many people hide their fears and prejudices behind words of Scripture, no matter what their faith. “Marriage has always been between one man and one woman” they say, even though it is clear that in both Judaism and Islam, a man can marry as many women as he can afford to support. (The rabbis only restricted this to monogamy one thousand years ago.) The definition of marriage has changed throughout the course of human development, including within religious traditions. Moreover, we live in a society with a secular, not religious, government, which should be looking after the welfare of all its citizens. It was this concept of putting the value of equality ahead of the law that led the US Supreme Court to its historic decision last week that sexual orientation shall no longer be a hurdle to marriage.

As Jews, we are moved by the words of the prophet Micah, whose teaching is read on this Shabbat. Micah teaches simply: “God has told you, human, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to act with lovingkindness and to walk humbly with God.”

To do justice requires providing all members of society with equal rights — a clear principle in Torah. To act with lovingkindness means to be kind and respectful to those who are different than you (as in love your neighbor like yourself). To walk humbly with God means to know that just because something is written, it is not necessarily so — one must always consider how one’s words and actions affect another divine being.

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