Archive for Mai de 2017

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses. It is called the Book of ‘Numbers’ because it begins and ends with a census of the People of Israel. Why is counting the people so significant? Rashi, the 11th Century French commentator, points out that God’s repeated counting of the people is done out of love and caring for them.

To me, it is reminiscent of the many times in Torah that people are called by God and when they are ready to answer they say, hineini, ‘I am here’.

The Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master of the Nineteenth Century states that saying Hineini is a catch phrase indicating that one is present on all levels: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

It takes courage to really be present to who you are, where you are and what you believe in. It is a time to reflect on these issues and this week’s Torah portion invites us to consider what we stand for and how we can stand up for our principles and what we know to be true.

Rashi’s linking of being counted and being loved, is in a way saying that when we do say, hineini, I am here and I am standing up for what I believe in, then, I am ready to love and be loved. When we connect to our core principles and what we are passionate about, we are more open to giving and receiving compassion.

The concept of standing up to be counted is also an invitation to be aware of what is happening right now in our lives and in the world, rather than being stuck in the past or the future. Being present to the moment, as Ekhart Tolle, the highly acclaimed author suggests, is one of the keys to wellbeing and fits with the themes of our week’s Torah reading.

This week we also read the touching words of Hosea, the Prophet:

“And I (God) will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness and with justice and with loving-kindness and with mercy.”

When we stand up and are counted, when we say, hineini, “I am here”, we participate in being counted in the census and we are united with the Oneness of our own being, humanity and our connection with the divine.

With the Festival of Shavuot only a few days away, we also consider how we might celebrate in community, with learning, prayer and eating together. We have a fabulous program at CBTBI and hope you can join us.

This week may you be blessed to know that you are important and YOU COUNT.

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This week’s parasha of Behar/Behukotai teaches some of the most revolutionary social and economic regulations known to humanity. The portion begins with the teaching of Sabbatical and Jubilee years, which require that debts be remitted and land redistributed. Consequently, the gap between rich and poor would never be too extreme and everyone among the people of Israel would have a connection to the land (other than the Levites who were provided for in different ways). As well, Behar teaches our obligations to those who fall into difficult financial circumstances. Judaism fully recognises the importance of the material world in which we live – it is not to be transcended, denied or avoided, but fully lived in.

The Torah’s teaching about poverty and the poor reveals a profound concern for humanity. In other law codes developed around the time of the giving of Torah, the poor had no rights. In fact, in Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s commentary on the Torah, he notes that in ancient Rome, “the creditor could imprison the debtor in his own private dungeon, chain him to a block, sell him into slavery, or even put him to death.” Debtor’s prisons existed in most of the world into the 19th century, and some Australians, among them Jews, can attribute their arrival in this country due to laws against debtors. In contrast to this, the Torah declared the poor must be protected and provided for through the requirements of tzedakah.

When we mistranslate tzedakah as charity, we misunderstand Judaism’s ethical and religious demands upon us toward the poor. Charity derives from the Latin word, “caritas”, or love. Judaism’s core value (as made clear in the Shema) is love; but in Judaism love is more than a feeling. Judaism places an enormous ethical demand upon us through the concept of “gemilut chasaadim” or deeds of lovingkindness. The emotion of love is admirable for certain acts and tzedakah given with love is of a higher level than that given begrudgingly, but tzedakah ultimately is an act not a feeling. It is derived from the concept tzedek, justice or righteousness. Tzedakah does not depend how we feel. Tzedakah places both a legal and a moral obligation upon us. Moreover, it decrees that the poor have rights – legitimate claims upon our funds.

The clear message of Torah is that the poor must be provided food, clothing and shelter. This is their right and our duty, our mitzvah. Everyone must give something – even the recipient of tzedakah. The great teacher of ethics, Rabbi Israel Salanter, said “Generally we think of our material needs and our neighbour’s spiritual needs; but we should provide for our neighbour’s material needs and our spiritual needs.” Some aspect of our providing material goods yields spiritual benefit.

Our gift of tzedakah responds to a human need, and Judaism does not imagine that a war on poverty can be won. Later in the Torah, in another passage delineating our obligations for tzedakah, we are told that even with all our giving “the poor shall never cease out of the land.”(Dt. 15:11).

The teaching of Behar (especially combined as it is with the curses and blessings recounted in Parasha Behukotai) recognises that in this real material world there will always be those who are blessed, those who have misfortune, those who rise, those who fall. Torah commands we provide for those whose means fail. At the heart of our obligation to give and to the disadvantaged’s right to receive is the essential truth – the profound God-given dignity of each human soul. “The one who gives to the poor makes a loan to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17)

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Toward the end of this week’s parashah, we learn of an unnamed man who blasphemes God. The Israelites have set up camp, and he and his mother, want to join with the tribe of Dan. The mother, who has a familial connection with the tribe of Dan, is named as Shlomit bat Divri.

Shlomit is described as a babbling flirt, smiling and socializing with many people. She fraternizes with an Egyptian and gives birth to the unnamed son who is described as having a high regard for Moses, owing to his leadership and example.

When Moses orders everyone to set up camp according to their tribe, the young man and his mother attempt to pitch their tent among the Danites. Mother and son are angry and frustrated when the Danites object to their presence and take them to Moses. Moses listens to the arguments, and then agrees with the Danites. Seen from the unnamed man’s perspective, Moses has betrayed him, and has taken the side of those who refuse to recognize him as one of their own. Angered even further, the young man publicly rejects God, blaspheming and cursing God’s name and rejecting his mother’s heritage. His punishment for doing so was to be taken outside the camp and be stoned to death.

While the story focuses on the lesson not to curse God’s name or treat God in a shameful or lowly manner, there is perhaps a more comprehensive lesson. Some commentators blame the mother, Shlomit Bat Divri, for her son’s unacceptable behavior. If it weren’t for her promiscuity, such a rebellious child would not have entered the world and disgraced his people or God. Although parents and guardians are responsible for educating their children and ensuring that they treat others with respect, if that applied to Shlomit Bat Divri, it surely also applied to the Danites, who rejected this individual, based on his family’s background?

Confirmation and acceptance of an individual is the responsibility of the community. Isolating individuals and families based on unreasonable logic (or lack thereof) does not show the strength of a community, it shows weakness and desperation.

The Torah gives us the full name of the woman whose son committed this atrocity – Shlomit Bat Divri L’Matei Dan, Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. We are told that the Torah gives us her full name and association because the responsibility of proper education, upbringing and respect are the responsibility of the parent(s) AND the community.

There are so many stories of people feeling rejected by their community because they married a non-Jewish partner, or because they are gay, or because of their race, or for many other reasons. While we are an inclusive community, we are unfortunately not immune to this. We have a responsibility to set an example and welcome everyone into our community. The Torah teaches us that it is our obligation as a society to teach our children that to isolate or marginalize people because of their differences is unacceptable.

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This week we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Every year these Torah readings fall around the period of memorials: Yom Hashoah, the remembrance of the Holocaust and Yom Hazikaron, the remembrance of those who have died protecting the land of Israel and in acts of terror. Our portion begins with the phrase, “after the deaths of Aaron’s sons,” and then it continues to describe the rituals of atonement and the rules for living in and creating a holy community. If the passages are describing, in the main, the rules for atonement and community, why mention the death of Aaron’s sons? We have had several Torah portions between the occurrence of the deaths and these rituals, so why link them with the mention of Aaron’s sons’ deaths?

After trauma and suffering, pain and loss, it is sometimes difficult to move forward, to continue with life. We can become paralysed with grief, laden with the burden of the memories and the tragedy of our loss. This portion highlights that with Aaron’s loss of his two sons. When they die, the Torah tells us Aaron was silent, he had no words, he could not put into language the depths of his sorrow, there was nothing he could say. He separates himself from community and spends time alone. But now the Torah tells him: “turn back to life, it is time. Now you must be enfolded back into the arms of your community, you no longer walk alone. The rituals and structure of communal life will bring shelter, comfort, strength, you cannot remain in that place of intense sorrow, now is the time to allow the community to be with you, to support and love you and to help you on your journey back to the world.”

After the Shoah, after the horrific losses of loved ones in acts of violence, war, terror, there are often no words, there is silence, shock, and pain. The weight of the loss can seem insurmountable. But then we, like Aaron, are called upon to slowly return to life, to allow community to be there with us and for us. There can be strength and comfort in community, in knowing others have walked a similar path, that they too have struggled and from the depths of that place, a hand will reach down to pull us back to our home. For Aaron in our parasha, as well as others who have suffered trauma or loss, there is a need to be together in community, to be surrounded by others who care, who are with us in our pain, in our struggle as well as our happiness and times of blessing.

At the end of the funeral service we say to the mourners: “now go forth to life.” We acknowledge that it is a life changed forever by our loss, our struggle, but healing and comfort can come from connection with others, the structure of rituals, communal life and being part of something greater than ourselves. I hope that we can all find the strength of community with us, the beauty of connection with others and we can be there for one another always.

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