Archive for Juliol de 2017

Each year we come to this time of confrontation, when our greatest prophets challenge us to get out of our solipsistic thinking and do something positive and helpful for life itself. Alas, it seems as if as the years go on, the pleas from Moses and Isaiah, the greatest prophets of the Jewish people and perhaps all humanity, fall on ears turning more and more deaf. Jews, like many others, are “seeking spirituality”. Certainly, it is necessary, crucial, for each of us to be touched deep in our spiritual core, for our souls to feel connected to the source of life and light we call God, and therefore to each other. But spirituality is ultimately a launching point for action and goodness.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses imploring people to in essence “love God” (the spiritual element of being) as part of a covenant to be a people of justice and right action (the human element of doing). In his opening message read always in conjunction with the opening of Deuteronomy, Isaiah shares his vision with the people: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against Me! . . . that you come to appear before Me – who asked that of you? Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” (Excerpted from Isaiah 1: 1-15). Read in their entirety, these verses clearly state the essential Jewish proposition taught since the time of Abraham, that to “walk with God” means to do that which is just and right.

Reading through the Torah, Jews are often surprised that it does not speak much of spirituality. Today, many people want to to pursue a spiritual life. It seems as if people are asking for a life of inner reflection without a sense of responsibility or obligation for the other. Judaism, like certain other spiritual practices, teaches that the earth and all on it is the living expression of God. To be truly spiritual therefore is to embrace fully the human realm and all its requirements. Absolutely we must be in touch with our inner self – but not exclusively so. Thus, Isaiah further teaches in the name of God, “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.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) To truly be a spiritual person, one must walk the walk, talk the talk: do the deeds that heal earth and humanity.

The rabbis established the scriptural readings in our calendar with great spiritual intention. These readings of Moses and Isaiah always precede Tisha B’Av, the time we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. According to tradition, not only the Jewish people, but also God’s Shekhina, or in dwelling presence, went into exile. The Temples were destroyed not because people were not spiritual enough, but because they thought that if only they were spiritual that would be enough. We stand on the verge of the destruction not just of the Temple but of an earth that will sustain human life. May our spiritual pursuits awaken us to our human obligations to act justly and do right, to protect our planet and to provide for those in need.


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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.

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 disposess 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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Every time I read this parasha, I can’t help but think of the hilarious Shrek movies, where the beloved talking donkey, voiced by none other than Eddie Murphy, displays a boundless ability of making his opinions and thoughts heard. Yes, it’s a movie franchise, an animated one at that, and yes, it is meant to be comical and poke fun at the vast array of fairy tales told through the ages.

However, unlike the Shrek movies, the Torah isn’t known for its comedic value, nor is it abound with talking animals. The only other talking animal in the Torah is the snake in Gan Eden in Bereishit. Yet, in this week’s parasha, we find the combination of both.

The King of Moab, Balak, asks the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel. So Balaam heads off to the Israelite camps, to carry out his assigned duty. Incensed at what was being planned, God places an angel armed with a sword, in the way of Balaam and his donkey, . Each time the donkey attempts to evade the danger of the armed angel, Balaam becomes more infuriated. Finally, the donkey drops to the floor and refuses to move. Then Balaam loses it, and starts to hit the donkey with a stick.

Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”. Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And Balaam answered, “No.” (Numbers 22:28-30)

Only at this point, is Balaam able to see the angel and he realises that he actually owes his life to the donkey. He expresses to the angel that if it is God’s will, he will turn back and not continue to the Israelite camp to carry out his assigned duty. The angel tells him to carry on with his journey, but he must only use the words that the angel will tell him. Balaam continue on his way, and instead of cursing the Children of Israel, he ends up blessing them.

The story could easily have taken place without the piece with the talking donkey. That being the case, what can we learn from this very unusual encounter?

Firstly, there is a direct connection between what happened there and Balaam’s mission. The donkey sees the angel of God blocking the way, which Balaam initially fails to see. Then the donkey speaks, and Balaam discovers the truth behind what had occurred. If we look back at Balaam’s mission, it involves seeing (he had to view the Children of Israel in their camps) and speaking (after he had seen/found them, he was to curse them).

Secondly, the donkey represents a humble beast of burden. Balaam rides atop the donkey reflecting the spoken order where the powerful are honoured and distinguished as they ride upon the backs of the lowly and the hapless. Through experiencing Balaam’s lack of control as he beats the donkey, eventually falling to the floor, the donkey seems to mock Balaam, and metaphorically, the assumed order.

By using the “over the top” encounter, where a donkey can see what the human cannot, and where that donkey not only speaks, but also challenges the hierarchy and order, the Torah teaches us that there is much to be learnt through humility and respect, and that power and perceived superiority are not always a formula for success. Let us take the time to acknowledge and respect that all parties (human or otherwise) play an important role in our journeys, and let’s be grateful for the role they play, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In the words of Shrek; “That’ll do Donkey. That’ll do”

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