The One

Parashat Vaetchanan 5781 / פרשת וָאֶתְחַנַּן
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Dear Reader,

We live in a world whose divisions among humankind are too numerous to count. Rather than allowing ourselves to celebrate our differences, too often we use our differences to justify everything from dismissive eyerolls to murder and outright warfare. In Judaism, we recognize that we live among many nations with many beliefs. While it is true that the Torah contains many stories of God sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of peoples whose belief systems God deems too tempting for the nascent nation of Israel to resist, the larger, enduring picture is one in which Israel and the nations of the world live harmoniously side-by-side and are united in their allegiance to the One God, each in their own ways.

I was touched by the insightful teaching of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lewis Warshaeuer this week. Rabbi Warshaeuer’s creative reading of this week’s Torah portion, Vaethanan, speaks to the commitment of our sages to create a world in which “God’s name shall be One.” I am honored to share Rabbi Warshaeuer’s teaching with you here. Enjoy!

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan


The One

Rabbi Lewis Warshauer
Parashat Vaethanan 5781
July 24, 2021 / 14 Av 5781

Jews like to think that Judaism is a refined monotheism, purged of the dross of the pagans. But parts of the Bible point to a more raw set of ideas about God and other gods:

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted (halak)to other peoples everywhere under heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19)

A very plausible reading of this passage is that the God of the Israelites has actually authorized other nations to serve—that is, to worship– the sun and moon and stars.

Not surprisingly, the rabbinic sages resisted this notion. The Talmud has an explanation attributed to Rav, the first-generation leader of Talmud scholars, that is based on a play on words:

The verse teaches that God caused the nations to slip [sheheḥelikan] by matters (that seemingly indicate that idol worship is effective) in order to expel the nations from the world (due to their decision to engage in idol worship.) (Avodah Zarah 55a)

But another Talmudic passage (Megillah 9a-b) takes a different view of this verse, based on the Greek translation of the Bible. The oldest translation of the Bible into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint, is attributed by modern scholarship to the Jewish community in Alexandria and is thought to date as far back as the 200’s BCE. The Talmud however, attributes the translation to a semi-miraculous event in which seventy Jewish scholars, summoned by King Ptolemy, and each working independently, came up with identical translations from the Hebrew into Greek.

Not only that, but the translators (still, according the Talmudic version) changed certain Biblical verses when rendering them into Greek in order to keep them from being misinterpreted. One of these was the verse from Deuteronomy, which was changed from “these (the sun and the moon and the stars)… God allotted to other nations” to “God allotted to shine on other nations”—thus removing the plainer sense of the Hebrew text that God allotted the heavenly bodies to other nations for worship purposes.

Given all of this, one might ask: What are Jews supposed to believe about these matters? I would reframe the question: How have Jews expressed themselves about such matters?

For the answer, one needs to turn not to this passage in the Book of Deuteronomy– which is read in synagogue once year, nor to the ancient Greek translation, which is not part of the Jewish liturgical tradition—but to the Siddur, the prayer book. The Siddur provides a guide to two questions raised by the passage in Deuteronomy: what is the role of the sun, moon and stars; and what is the role of the nations of the world.

The opening daily prayers that lead up to Shema Yisrael include blessings, praise, for God who has created and activated the sun and the other lights in the sky in order to enlighten the world. The words of the Siddur depict them as sentient beings:

They are all beloved, they are all clear, they are all mighty

They all do with reverence and awe the will of their Creator…

With song and hymn they utter praises…

The daily prayers have, in effect, converted a Biblical notion of the sun, moon and stars as objects of worship by the nations of the world into subjects worship God and witness God’s greatness.

Regarding the nations of the world, the Jews express themselves most memorably in the Aleinu prayer at the end of the daily prayers by quoting the prophet Zecharia:

God shall reign over the whole earth

God shall be one and his name one

This is a way of saying that Jews do not aspire that all of humanity become specifically Jewish, but that all humanity will eventually recognize that there is one unity and unifying force in the universe.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Lewis Warshauer

Rabbi Lewis S. Warshauer teaches adult education seminars in Judaism. He has served as adjunct rabbi at Congregation Habonim in New York City and was a teaching fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kollot/Voices of Learning program. Rabbi Warshauer served as assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1997 to 2000. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1997, and was a recipient of a Wexner Graduate Fellowship.As part of his rabbinical training, he studied at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. He also studied at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

Moses’s Concession: Too Little Too Late?

Devarim / פרשת דברים
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

I wrote the following devar Torah (word of Torah) in June 2015 while on a family road trip. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but every day is a family road trip of sorts. As individuals, communities, and nations, we are always on the move. Each day presents new challenges and new opportunities. We can’t always know when the next pandemic, flood or political crisis will appear. We also can’t always know when we’ll see the next rainbow, celebrate a birth, or land our dream job. In effect, we all write our words of Torah in the midst of life as we live it, on the road trip of life.

We are facing unprecedented challenges in our world today, challenges that make it difficult to plan and embark on a road trip that is fun and enjoyable. Floods, wildfires, deadly heat, Covid-19, warfare, social unrest are just some of the roadblocks that we face. Now, more than ever, human beings need to realize that we’re all on this trip together. Though the forces of nature and the will to power by narrow-minded, hard-hearted rulers and lawmakers may exacerbate our differences and cause further division, we the people must strive to stay connected across the great divide. We must not lose sight of the Divine spark in our rivals, lest they become our enemies. And we must not only muster restraint in confronting our enemies, but actively work to create a world that permits our enemies to become no more than rivals, if not friends.

This piece from 2015 speaks about the importance of compassionate leadership in times of travail. Moses seldom met those who contested his leadership or lost faith in God with compassion. Yes, he argued with God not to destroy the entire People, but he never empathized with those who disagreed with him. In this essay, I credit Moses for sowing the seeds of compassion as the Israelites are about to overtake Canaan, but I wonder how the journey might have been different had Moses shown such compassion all along. Perhaps the journey would have taken only a year or two. Perhaps the generation of adult males who left Egypt would have lived to enter the Land. Perhaps Moses himself would have been privileged to accompany the People into that Land. Perhaps we would have inherited a kinder, gentler Torah without so much killing and without endless portrayals of the basest aspects of human nature.

I’ve couched my comments in terms of leadership. In truth, we all have the capacity to lead and we must exercise that capacity daily. This is the meaning of being a “light unto the nations” and “a holy nation and kingdom of priests.” May we all exercise compassionate leadership every day of life’s road trip.

Blessings,
Rabbi Dan
7/16/2021


This week we begin reading the last of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy or Devarim, which comprises Moses’s final speech, a pep talk of sorts, to the People of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. He reminds Israel of their trials and tribulations during their 40-year sojourn from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River, highlights key commandments revealed by God along the way, and exhorts Israel to remain faithful to their covenant with God.

As Moses begins to address Israel’s fateful insistence on spying out Canaan and their subsequent lack of faith that they could succeed in conquering the land, Moses says:

We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God had commanded us. (Deuteronomy 1:19)

“The great and terrible wilderness?” What could Moses mean by this phrase and why would he include it here? I believe the answers to these questions present a lesson about leadership, in general, and Moses’s leadership, in particular.

According to Rashi, the French medieval commentator, the wilderness is termed terrible  because “in it were serpents as [thick as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows” (Sifrei). Surely, though, that is only part of the reason. Indeed, while the wilderness would have been home to countless venomous, frightful creatures, nowhere in Torah do we hear people complaining to Moses that there are too many snakes and scorpions. Rather, the people feared both a lack of food and water and the threat of attack. Regardless of what Rashi speculates or what the Israelites themselves murmured about, the reality was that the wilderness was a dangerous, inhospitable place for much of Israel’s journey. Moses, therefore, is exhibiting what a high school teacher of mine once called “a firm grasp of the obvious.”

What’s remarkable about Moses’s observation is that heretofore Moses hadn’t acknowledged the harsh conditions in which Israel found themselves. All those times when the people complained about the paucity of food, water, and safety, Moses responded out of anger and frustration: “How dare you challenge God’s plan after all God has done for you!” Moses never empathized with his followers. As a consequence of his lack of compassion throughout the trek, Moses created a gulf between him and his followers that the people filled will animosity and resentment.

Had Moses once conceded, “I know life is hard for us now. We are in a strange, foreboding place. Of course, you are miserable,” just maybe the malcontents in his midst would have seen Moses as one of them, as someone who shares their suffering, as someone who “gets” them. Had Moses exhibited an ounce of empathy, perhaps the masses wouldn’t have pushed him so hard to produce water that he would strike a rock not once, but twice, insult the people in his charge, and forfeit his chance to enter the Holy Land with them.

Is Moses’s acknowledgement of the people’s hardship this late in the game worthless? Is it too little too late? He certainly can’t go back in time and become a different leader. He can’t now create a culture of compassion and cooperation that hadn’t existed previously. Nonetheless, Moses’s recognition of the harshness of the wilderness at this point does serve an important function. As Israel readies itself to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land, Moses reminds them of all they’ve overcome to reach this moment. “You made it through the wilderness with God’s help and your own determination. Have confidence that you can now complete the journey into the Land to which God has led you.” Coming from a person who hadn’t previously connected to the people he had been leading, this message would now embolden Israel to fulfill the next stage of its mission.

Leaders can learn from both Moses’s mistakes and his successes. Leaders can more easily lead when they connect on a personal level with their charges. Leaders can avoid accusations of indifference and aloofness by empathizing with their charges as they face “great and terrible” circumstances. At the same time, leaders can effectively motivate their communities by holding before them a mirror, by reminding them all they are capable of.

This week we see something that Moses did well, and we should give him due credit. Imagine, though, how different our nation’s story might have been had Moses shown the people of Israel such compassion earlier on in their journey.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Aronson

Life is a sacred journey.

Parashat Matot-Masei 5781 / פרשת מַּטּוֹת־מַסְעֵי
Torah Portion: Numbers 30:2-36:13

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

This week has been one of those “cradle-to-grave” weeks that rabbi’s sometimes have, one of those weeks that take you on an emotional roller coaster and remind you, as the song title goes, “Life is a Highway.” (Tom Chochrane, 1991). At the beginning of the week, I had the privilege to officiate at a beautiful garden wedding. The next day, I witnessed the conversion of a newly adopted baby to Judaism, and this Shabbat our community will welcome her and hear the Hebrew name by which she will be known each time she is called to the Torah and at sacred rites of passage. Throughout the week, I also worked with two congregants in preparing for memorial services for their loved ones and on Wednesday I led an afternoon service for a man marking the 10th anniversary of his mother’s passing when she was 90 years old. Yes, life is a highway, and we’d best treasure every moment on this sacred journey from cradle to grave.

The Torah, in its most expansive sense, tells the story of the Jewish people from the very beginning of time to the end of days. The Five Books of Moses that constitute the Torah scrolls themselves conclude just before the Israelites enter the land that Adonai had promised to bequeath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their descendents, i.e. us. The books of the prophets, beginning with the book of Joshua, take us from the conquest of the land of Canaan to the establishment of the monarchy and the division of the territory into two kingdoms and ultimately to exile. The Oral Torah, the books of law and lore that were the brainchild of the rabbis in the early centuries of the first millenia teach us how to navigate the journey until the time when the Messiah will come and the Temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem. Throughout the journey, the Land of Israel has been the destination, but to focus on the destination is to miss the real point of the Torah, which is that life itself is a sacred journey — one with twists and turns, one leading to where, we do not know for sure, but one that brings us closer to God and forges us into the human being that God wanted each of us to become.

This point is driven home in the opening verses of the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Mattot-Mas’ei (Tribes-Journeys). Parashat Mas’ei begins: These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 33:1) What follows is a mostly dry list of 20 place names where the Israelites stopped on their 40-year march from Egypt toward Canaan. 

At the steppes of Moab, on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses records these place names knowing full well that he will not be among the Israelites who will enter the land that he just spent 40 years leading them to. Why would he do this? 

One reason is to remind the Israelites how faithful and resilient they are. God led them blindly on this trek. They had no idea what was around the corner or, for that matter, where they were going. The ones who lacked faith didn’t complete the journey. Those who did are invited to look back and to recall all they had endured. If they were focused only on the future, they would forget how great they are. They would forget how they had grown from a motley crew of slaves to a nation bound by a covenant with God. When we forget that life is really about the journey, we fail to internalize our own sense of greatness.

But another reason why Moses recorded the place names was to remind the people of all that God had done for them during their journey, miracles great and small. Even though God became incensed with them on more than one occasion, God never gave up on them. As the Israelites prepare for their greatest adventure — conquering and entering the land — they must recall how God has always been there for them and will be there for them now. 

Throughout the journey of our lives, we experience all kinds of things that show us what we are capable of and how much we are loved by God and those around us. At each step of the way, we grow stronger, we learn. We emerge from our darkest moments into the light, from our lowest moments to the heights. And, yes, we go from light to darkness and from exultation to despair, too. At the end of the day, it’s the highs and the lows, the mystery and the discovery, that make us who we are.

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery. 

When we come together at the end of someone’s life, we remember where they have been so we can celebrate who they eventually became. We celebrate their journey along life’s highway. If we were lucky, we were on that journey with them. 

And having traveled much of life’s highway ourselves, how can we not be excited about welcoming new life into the world? While we know the world can be a cruel place and the highway isn’t always well maintained, we also know that this new life has the potential to change the world, to repair the highway. We pray that this new life will fall gently from the high places when it will inevitably fall. We pray that this new life will rise to great heights and from there see what is possible. We pray that new life will experience awe, as did our ancestors on their journey through the wilderness, and we pray that life will present them with an unfolding bouquet of discovery. 

Extremism in the Defense of the Holy: Vice or Virtue?

Parashat Pinchas / פרשת פינחס

Torah Portion: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

(Adapted from an earlier post in July 2014.)

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, is disturbing on many levels as it touches on nerves frayed by recent events in Israel. Last week, we read that Pinchas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron, the high priest, ruthlessly kills Zimri, an Israelite of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman, when he sees them pass before Moses and enter a tent ostensibly to engage in sexual relations. A casual read of this incident reveals Pinchas acting on his own on behalf of God. If this is the case, how do we reconcile our love for Torah with our contemporary abhorrence for murder in the name of a higher cause? Is our tradition condoning vigilante justice?

First, some context: Just prior to that aforementioned event, Israelite men had en masse been “profaning themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that god” (Numbers 25:1-2). Incensed that Israel was straying after a foreign god, God instructed Moses to “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (25:4). It was just after Moses issued God’s command to Israel’s officials from the opening of the Tent of Meeting that Zimri, in the sight of all, brings Cozbi over to his companions en route to a marital tent.[1]

At the moment that Pinchas rushes after Zimri and Cozbi and runs them through with a spear that a plague, which had taken the lives of twenty-four thousand people, ceased. God instantly rewards Pinchas (25:10-13):

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'”

In other words, God establishes a unique pact with Pinchas and his descendents, a brit shalom, a covenant of peace or friendship, and guarantees the priesthood of Pinchas and his line for all time.

What? Pinchas murders two people in cold blood without having been instructed to do so by Moses and now he’s a hero? How could God possibly have made a brit shalom with someone who acted so violently? Why would God have also ensured the perpetuity of the priestly line from Pinchas? To my eyes, what Pinchas did was just plain wrong. What if others followed suit and resorted to vigilante justice because they felt it was the right thing to do? Could there be peace then? It seems to me that a harsh rebuke, at the very least, is in order.

While it is the case that most commentators have seen in Pinchas a model of fidelity to God and willingness to act when others wouldn’t and, thus, worthy of God’s praise[2], others have been more critical of Pinchas and have offered interpretations of the Torah that suggest that God’s intentions are more complicated than simply rewarding Pinchas for a job well done. For example, in the 3rd century C.E. Rav Abba, aka “Rav” in the Talmud, condemns Pinchas for failing to follow Moses’ instruction (Fields, p. 76):

He holds that Pinchas sees what Zimri and Cozbi are doing and says to Moses, “Did you not teach our people when you came down from Mount Sinai that any Israelite who has sex with a non-Israelite may be put to death by zealots?” Moses, says Rav, listens to Pinchas and responds, “Let God who gave the advice execute the advice.”

According to Rav, Pinchas may have acted within the law, but that he should have heeded Moses’ instruction and trusted that God would, indeed, execute judgment in God’s own way.[3]

That the tradition has not always viewed Pinchas favorably is further supported by the insights of Rabbi Jack Reimer, who shows that the brit shalom was more a necessity for Pinchas’ own protection than a divine reward for exemplary behavior. In his essay My Covenant of Peace, Rabbi Reimer writes[4]:

…Abravanel says that God had to promise Pinchas peace in the sense of protection because the relatives of the one whom he had killed would be out to get him. The inference of Abravanel’s comment is that violence only leads to counter‑violence, that when a man takes the law into his own hands he only starts a chain reaction of revenge that goes on without end.

The Talmud offers a different explanation of what “My covenant of peace” means. It says that Pinchas needed protection, not so much from the relatives of the person he had killed, but from Moses, and Aaron, and the Sanhedrin. They were the ones who wanted to punish him and disqualify him from the priesthood for he had taken the law into his own hands. If God had not intervened to protect him they would have punished him for murder, or at the least, taken away his priesthood for taking the law into his own hands. This is a bold midrash for it changes the whole character of the biblical story. For the midrash Pinchas is not a hero but a criminal for if every man were to take the law into his own hands society could not stand.

The third explanation of what “My covenant of peace” means comes from the Netsiv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. According to his commentary, God had to bless Pinchas with the covenant of peace so that he would be protected, not only from the relatives of the one he killed, and not only from the courts, but from himself. For when a man has killed, whatever the reason the act of killing inevitably has an effect upon his soul. There is the danger that he may used to it and become casual about it, and there is the danger that his conscience may drive him mad with guilt. This is why God had to promise him “My Covenant of peace.” God had to promise to help him recover from the damage to his own soul that the murder had done. What the Netsiv is suggesting is that violence not only harms the victim and society but also the soul of the one who does. It makes him less stable, less sensitive and less human.

Against this argument by Rabbi Reimer, my friend Rabbi Gideon Estes shares a traditional view that Pinchas was not a vigilante, but rather a person of authority among the Israelites who was carrying out God’s earlier command conveyed by Moses to impale all the Israelites who had gone astray. Furthermore, Rabbi Estes explains that the “tent” into which Zimri and Cozbi entered was the Tent of Meeting, not a private abode, making their sin all the more heinous and deserving of Pinchas’ extreme response.[5] Rabbi Estes, thus, suggests that Pinchas’ action was understandable and even justifiable.

I believe as contemporary Jews we must hold both interpretations of this story to be True. On one hand, we have a story told in hyperbole about the responsibilities of Jews to perform mitzvot and to intercede when we see sins being committed. On the other hand, though, we have a story of zealotry gone tragically awry, a story in which one man’s action is roundly criticized. Pinchas’ act, like all acts of violence, merely begets further violence. It instills anger and pain in the families of the ones he kills and in the wider community and also compromises his own soul. Both stories are True.

It is my hope that as we read Parashat Pinchas this week we are able to see both sides of the story. Pinchas’ extremism in the defense of God’s word may be no vice from one perspective, but we mustn’t overlook the horror of his action, either. The lesson, I believe, is that as devotees to any ideal we must check ourselves and ensure that our actions truly serve the cause of peace. May this lesson sink into the hearts of all those engaged in violence around the world.

[1] Jacob Milgron, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 215.

[2] See Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Time: Volume 3, Numbers and Deuteronomy (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), 77-78. Fields points to Samuel, head of the academy in Nahardea, Moses Maimonides, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as staunch defendants of Pinchas and God’s response.

[3] Ibid., p. 77.

[4] http://www.americanrabbi.com/my-covenant-of-peace-by-jack-reimer/ Accessed by subscription, 7/10/2014.

[5] Conversation held on 7/9/2014.

How beautiful are your tents?

Parashat Balak 5781 / פרשת בָּלָק
Torah Portion: Numbers 22:2-25:9 

Emblazoned above the aron kodesh (holy ark) in our synagogue’s sanctuary are the Hebrew words Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisra’el. “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Yisrael” (Numbers 24:5.) 

These are the words of Balaam, a prophet hired by the king of the Moabites to curse the Israelites so that Israel would fall to them in battle. As Balaam had informed his employer repeatedly, though, he could only utter the words that God placed in his mouth, and God would only bestow blessings upon Israel. Thus, after several failed attempts to curse Israel, Balaam comes out with a five-verse ode to Israel beginning with the verse above and ending with “Blessed are they who bless you. Cursed are they who curse you” (Numbers 24:9).

We begin our morning service with the opening line of Balaam’s ode as a way of welcoming worshippers into our sacred space. Implicit in this welcome is the idea that it is the worshippers themselves who make our “tent” beautiful. In addition, it is the worshippers who transform this “tent” into a dwelling place for the Divine. A famous Chassidic teaching says that God dwells wherever we let God in. It follows, therefore, that our sanctuary becomes a container for the Divine Presence only when it is full of people who are seeking God. On its own, our synagogue is architecturally very appealing. It becomes “tov” or truly beautiful when it is full of people.

I believe our synagogue is truly beautiful but that it can become even more beautiful as we welcome and include more individuals and families who are seeking a spiritual home. We can become more welcoming and inclusive the more we create a space where people can be their full, authentic selves. We become more beautiful when we declare publicly and unambiguously that we offer a space where all persons feel safe and validated. Just as Balaam declared loudly and clearly that Israel is a Godly community, so too must we let it be known that we are a Godly community that values people for being their full, authentic selves.

What do I mean when I talk about valuing people for their full, authentic selves? To use the lingo of LGBT Pride Month, it means letting people be “out” in our midst and embracing them for who they are. 

Balaam was not allowed to be his authentic self. As a prophet, he was tuned into the voice of God. Ultimately, Balak, the Moabite king, sent him packing and without pay because he could not become something he was not, which was an enemy of Israel. Balaam tried three times to curse Israel. After all, he accepted a job and he wanted to get paid. In the end, he was told he doesn’t belong in Midian.

Balaam was not the only one in the story who couldn’t be his authentic self. His donkey, upon which he rode from his home of Petor on the Euphrates, also was oppressed for being himself. He, like Balaam, was tuned into the presence of the Divine. God sent an angel to make Balaam’s journey to Midian difficult, so the angel stood in front of the donkey and caused him to veer into a field. Balaam hit the donkey. Then the angel stood in front of the donkey and caused him to bump into a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Balaam hit the donkey. Then the angel appeared in front of the donkey in a narrow alley and all the donkey could do was lie down in front of the angel. Balaam hit the donkey. And then Balaam saw what the donkey had seen the whole time — an angel wielding a sword. He had been punishing the donkey because the donkey was responding to the Divine Presence, just as Balaam knew that he, too, would respond to the Divine Presence. And yet, Balaam showed no mercy on his poor donkey.

We are all created in God’s image, but God’s image manifests itself differently in each of us. Some of us are Balaam, some of us are the donkey, but we all respond to the voice of God within each of us in unique ways. It is incumbent upon us to embrace the Balaams and the donkeys, not to beat them, not to send them packing, to let them know we welcome them.

This is the last week of LGBT Pride Month, also known as Gay Pride Month, a month that challenges us and all faith communities to reflect on how truly beautiful we are — how welcoming, inclusive, Godly we are. Pride Month challenges us to reflect on how well we welcome and embrace LGBT persons. Parenthetically, it should also challenge us to consider how we welcome and embrace all persons who historically have felt marginalized by society — persons of color, persons with disabilities, persons experiencing poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Now, I do not know the sexual orientation or gender identity of every adult and child who is a member of my congregatoin, but I do know that many of us are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, children or dear friends of people who identify as LGBT. I would like to believe that all of our LGBT friends, family members and congregants do, in fact, feel safe, welcomed, included and fully embraced.

It’s one thing to believe, even to know, that all who are part of our community feel safe and fully embraced, but how is our community perceived by people who are not yet members who, for whatever reasons, aren’t so sure they will feel safe, welcomed, included and fully embraced by our community? What about those people who have been traumatized by “organized religion” either at home, in their places of worship, or in their communities? Do we do a good job of signaling to them that they belong in our community? In what ways do we express our warmth and inclusivity well before they dare cross our threshold? What could we be doing better in our signaling? These are not just rhetorical questions. They are real questions that all of us must be asking ourselves if we are to become the version of ourselves that we aspire to be. To be sure, they are questions we should ask ourselves when it comes to all kinds of people who could enrich our community through their presence and unique contributions.

On this, the final Shabbat of Pride Month, I want to invite us to consider these questions. As we read the words “How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” may we find the courage to ask how we can make this tent, this dwelling place for God’s presence, an even more welcoming space for LGBT people and, indeed, all who are searching for a spiritual home.

My Children, My Well

Parashat Chukat 5781 / פרשת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1

One of the greatest joys in my life is fatherhood. Not only because I take pleasure in being with my children. Not only because I delight in watching them grow into compassionate adults. Not only because I am proud of their achievements. But also because my children have helped me be present in the world. Because they’ve helped me be a more compassionate person. Because they’ve inspired me to achieve. Because they’ve taught me. They are for me a wellspring of Torah.

In the famous rabbinic collection of pithy aphorisms known as Pirkei Avot (6:6), we read that “Torah is acquired through 48 things.” Among these “things” through which we acquire Torah are joy, an understanding heart, and feeling loved, but also “a minimum of sleep,” “critical give and take with others,” “sharing in the bearing of a burden with another,” and humility. These and all the other things are integral to my life as a parent.

Not all of these things are easy and fun, of course. What parent hasn’t experienced strings of sleepless nights when their children are babies? What parent hasn’t engaged in lively exchanges, sometimes heated and angry, with their children. And what parent hasn’t needed a partner or a village to share the burden of parenting some of the time, if not always. Who hasn’t felt totally humbled by their children? All these things AND joy and love and an understanding heart are part and parcel of fatherhood for me.

Even the mundane and aggravating parts of fatherhood are worthwhile. There’s laundry and food preparation and schlepping and kvetching and all those other things that are part of living in the world with growing beings underfoot. But we find Torah in these parts of parenting, too, if we choose to see them that way. A friend once said to me, “We love what we put work into.” Nothing could be truer than loving our children.

As the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, they encountered boredom, hunger, thirst, rebelliousness, warfare, death, lack of faith and quite often the wrath of God. And yet we learn that it was through these experiences over 40 years that the Israelites acquired Torah for themselves. In the first year, Moses acquired Torah directly from God, but it took another 40 years for Israel to really ingest and absorb Torah for themselves. 

Once, shortly after Miriam died (Num. 20:1) , the wells that had sustained Israel throughout their journey only because of Miriam’s merit — the Sages teach us — dried up. These wells, according to the great hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, otherwise known as the Sefat Emet, symbolize the Oral Torah, that Torah which is acquired through the stream of life as we experience all of these 48 things of which Pirkei Avot speaks. And so, you can imagine, how parched our ancestors became in those days following Miriam’s death, how thirsty for Torah they were.

But then something wonderful happened. First, God brought forth water from a rock (20:11). And then God led Israel to a place called Be’er (21:16), which means “Well.” And the Torah says, God brought them to that place with a well, “which is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” You see, God didn’t abandon the Israelites. They still had water. They still drank in from the source of Torah. But they also had to work to dig the well and make the waters flow.

The Torah continues (21:17-18), “Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it—The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” In the midst of their difficult journey, in the midst of a series of unfortunate events, Israel sang! They sang to the well that fed their bodies and their souls.

Notice that they didn’t sing to God, and they didn’t sing because they experienced a miracle. They sang because they worked to dig that well in Be’er, and their work was good. With their own hands, they made the waters flow and that water would sustain their bodies. In the same vein, through their own encounters with whatever life put in front of them, they learned the Torah that sustained their souls.

So here we are on the Shabbat of Father’s Day weekend. As I pause to think about my journey of fatherhood, I give thanks to God for the many gifts and blessings that have graced my life. I, too, want to sing a song to the children I have co-parented with my own two hands and who have, in turn, taught me Torah, for Jacob and Katie are the well I have dug and their lives are the water that nourishes my soul. And I am grateful.

Psalms 128

(1) A song of ascents. Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways. (2) You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper. (3) Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. (4) So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed. (5) May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life, (6) and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!

Prayer as an act of transformation

Parashat Korach 5781 / פרשת קוֹרַח
Torah Portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Jewish worship is supposed to be transformational. People come to services on Shabbat, holy days and on weekdays for many reasons, but they are not always aware that Jewish prayer is an active experience that changes them, whether they want to change or not. If you leave a Friday night service the same as when you entered the synagogue that evening, you didn’t really pray.

At the heart of the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefilah, is the root pallel, meaning something like “to execute judgment, clarify, and decide.” What is the object of our judgement, clarification or decision-making? We are. Our selves. In fact, the word for “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive, suggesting that prayer is an act of self-judgment, self-clarification, an act of deciding who we are and where we stand in relation to God, Israel, Torah and the rest of the world. One is inherently changed by virtue of achieving this heightened awareness.

No human being is entirely perfect, but prayer helps us change and improve. Prayer provides us with time and space to look both deep within ourselves and to look far beyond ourselves toward the realm of mystery, Divinity and infinitude to discern how we can become less imperfect. We enter the prayer space with whatever thoughts and feelings we bring — a hodgepodge of concern, gratitude, worry, contentment, despair, joy and sadness — and, if we’ve been intentional and present in our prayer, we leave having taken a step, even if imperceptible, toward putting everything in order.

As a reminder of why we come to pray, our synagogue’s aron kodesh (Holy Ark) is adorned with the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel hammered into sheets of copper. To understand how this beautiful object of ritual art comes to inform our worship, one need only look at Parashat Korach, our Torah reading this week. 

Parashat Korach tells the tragic tale of rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron by the Levite Korach and the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. As Rabbi Charlie Scwhwartz of Hillel International writes in his commentary to Parashat Korach on MyJewishLearning.com, “Parashat Korach is a chaotic mess. Within the 95 verses of this Torah portion are multiple active rebellions accompanied by multiple acts of divine punishment, all intertwined in a confusing and complicated narrative…” In the midst of all the chaos, Moses directs Korach and his followers to appear before God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, each with an offering of incense in his fire pan. (As custodians of the Tabernacle, the men would each have possessed a fire pan used to gather up the charred remains of sacrifices burnt on the Tabernacle’s altar.) At the moment the rebels gather, God punishes them by consuming them in fire. 

What became of the fire pans, which had been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle? God speaks to Moses, telling him to instruct Eleazar the priest to “remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Num. 17:3). Then we read that Eleazar “took the copper fire pans” and did as God had bidden.

The Torah specifies that the pans should be “a warning to the people of Israel,” but they serve another purpose as well. Later in the Book of Numbers we find out that “the sons of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). In fact, Korach’s descendents go on to compose half a dozen Psalms, one (Psalm 47), which we read before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and another (Psalm 49) that is traditionally read in a house of mourning. Though Korach may have instigated a deadly rebellion against Moses, Aaron and, by extension, God, his descendants chose a different path. Perhaps they were not rebellious to begin with. No matter, the legacy of Korach’s lineage does not end with his fateful quarrel. Rather, it ends with acts of faith, piety, trust, and celebration of God’s greatness. And so, the copper fire pans that become part of the altar also remind us of the power of teshuvah (return, repentance), the ultimate proof of humanity’s power to transform itself into something better than it has been and is.

Many synagogues incorporate copper into their arks, Torah reading tables, and other ritual objects. By doing so, the copper does more than complement the synagogue’s decor. It stands as a reminder that we are all capable of becoming better than we are, of becoming less imperfect, if you will. We are all capable of adding holiness into the world, just like the descendents of the rebellious Korach. Even more, because we see the copper before us as we pray, it reminds us to use this time of prayer to look within and to look beyond and to begin our transformation in that moment. May we all realize whatever change we seek.

Sticks and Carrots in the Wilderness

Parashat Sh’lach 5781 / פרשת שְׁלַח־לְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41

Sometimes in life we need a stick to keep us in line and moving forward. At other times, a carrot will do just fine, if not better. There are times when it is appropriate to remind people of the negative consequences of their behavior and occasionally to rebuke people for their misdeeds, but for people to change, they also need incentive and positive reinforcement.

We’ve just celebrated three b’nai mitzvah in our community. All three of the children who became b’nai mitzvah did honor to themselves, their families, the community, Torah and God. As with most b’nai mitzvah, these three made minor mistakes here and there — a slight mispronunciation of Hebrew, a wrong note when chanting Torah, leaving a mask on when it should have been taken off or taking a mask off when it should have been left on — but I doubt very much that most people in attendance noticed. If they did, I doubt they will remember those mistakes when they recall the celebrations a few years hence. All they will remember is how well the children did. And our children did well.

I’ve never heard of a child failing his or her bar or bat mitzvah. Why is that? On one level, you could say it’s impossible to fail because becoming a bar or bat mitzvah requires nothing more than coming of age, turning 13 for boys, 12 or 13 for girls. Even when tragedy strikes and a young person’s life is cut short before coming of age, we may remember those lives years later and hold a symbolic bar or bat mitzvah in their memory.

On a practical level, though, the children don’t fail because those of us who help prepare them have in our educational toolboxes both sticks and carrots. We correct their mistakes. We chide them when they don’t practice. But we also praise them when they show improvement. I suspect the greatest stick is the one most children want to avoid — utter humiliation as they stand before their friends and families. And the greatest carrot is the prospect of nailing their prayers and Torah readings and speeches and enjoying that feeling of success. If these were not “Covid times,” I would add that the bar or bat mitzvah party is the ultimate incentive for children to stick with their preparations until the end. Even in Covid times, though, many of the children look forward to a post-Covid party.

Just as b’nai mitzvah need sticks and carrots to shine on their big days, in getting through the pandemic that has plagued the world for the last year and a half, all of us have needed sticks and carrots. For some people, the fear of catching and transmitting Covid has hung over them as they’ve masked up, washed up, and shut up. For those same people, the prospect of preserving life and one day resuming life as usual has been a positive incentive. These same dynamics are at work as we talk about becoming vaccinated. There is a consequence that individuals and communities may pay if they’re not protected against Covid and its variants, but the idea of being safe from the virus and having all our children enjoying a normal school day is, for many, the most powerful motivator.

I mention sticks and carrots because in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Sh’lach, God presents Israel with sticks and carrots in order to secure their fidelity to the Covenant as they wander through the wilderness. We find in this Torah portion a pivotal moment in the post-exodus experience of our ancestors. This is where twelve scouts, representing twelve tribes, return from a reconnaissance mission in Canaan and report their findings to Moses, Aaron and the whole community of Israel. It is noteworthy that in this telling of the story — as opposed to the telling later in Deuteronomy — it is God who tells Moses to send the scouts to check out the land. Perhaps God here is conceding that the people need to see the land for themselves as their faith in God continues to develop amidst the hardship of their wanderings.

Rather than exude confidence that they could conquer the people who lived there — veritable giants who made the scouts feel like grasshoppers in their own eyes — rather than relish the thought of being a free people in this lush, fertile land that produces clusters of grapes so heavy that they require two men to carry them, ten of the twelve spies proclaim that the land “devours its settlers” and they argue that this is yet another example of God wrenching them from their relatively comfortable lives as slaves in Egypt only to suffer and die in unfamiliar territory. Ten of the spies hold up a stick of fear. For them, the only carrot is to be found in returning to Egypt.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, hold out a grand carrot, one of hope and optimism, and a smaller stick, a reminder that spurning God would bring certain disaster: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it… If the Lord is pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” (Num. 13:30,14:8-9). 

For instilling confidence and offering a vision of ultimate redemption, Joshua and Caleb are rewarded by God with the opportunity to accompany Israel into the land. The reading from the Book of Joshua that accompanies this Torah portion, in fact, recounts Joshua’s preparations for overtaking the region of Jericho once in the land.

Meanwhile, the other ten scouts die of a plague and the entire generation of Israelites who left Egypt are doomed to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, with only the children born after the exodus being able to enter the land for which they are headed. Watching the older generation die during those 40 years, in turn, becomes an effective stick that helps the younger generation strive to be faithful to God’s commandments.

But as we read about the spies, something odd happens in the Torah immediately after this story. We read: “Adonai spoke to Moses, saying… When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in, (here’s how you shall) present a gift to Adonai from the herd or from the flock…” (Num. 15:1-3) And shortly thereafter, we read about the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit on the corners of our garments to remember the mitzvot (Num.15:32-41).

Why the sudden shift from the drama of the spies to the talk about sacrifices and fringes on our garments? Here I am struck by the commentary in the Jewish Publication Society’s Eytz Hayim Torah and Commentary (p. 850):

The sages find a connection between the story of the scouts and the commandments to bring offerings and to wear tzitzit. Ibn Ezra (a medieval Spanish commentator) imagines the Israelites cast into despair. God has written them off, and the dream of settlement in the Promised Land now seems impossible. To revive their spirits, God commands Moses to tell them “When you enter the land that I am giving you.” These words affirm that God still communicates with the people, that God has not written them off permanently. They affirm further that the promise of the Land is still in force, although it will be their children who will enter it and put these laws into practice.

In other words, the parashah ends not with the threat of annihilation, a massive stick, but with a message of promise, a grand carrot. God is with you, despite your mistakes. Your descendants will thrive in the land. This whole journey is not for nothing, and God didn’t bring you out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. 

This is the lesson we should carry with us as we face all of life’s challenges, whether it be becoming a bar or bat mitzvah or surviving a pandemic or anything else. Yes, there are real, if not always dire consequences for shirking our responsibilities. Yes, there is sometimes something to fear — humiliation, sickness, even death. But, the reward for maintaining discipline and for persevering even at the most difficult of times is great. In overcoming all the obstacles before us, we ultimately get to bask in the glory of our success and shine. (How can we be “a light unto the nations” if we don’t shine?)

We all have our own challenges. Each challenge comes with its own sticks and carrots. May we not cower in fear of the sticks, but instead, heed the call made famous in the fight for civil rights: “keep your eyes on the prize.” With faith, hope, optimism and great effort, we will reach that prize.

Shabbat Shalom!

Can’t we be more like elephants than riffraff? Beyond individualism to community, covenant and courage.

Parashat Beha’alotcha 5781
פרשת בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 

Why can’t people be more like elephants?
Consider these facts about elephants from the World Wildlife Federation

THEIR TRUNKS HAVE MAD SKILLS
  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk.
  • Their trunks are perhaps the most sensitive organ found in any mammal – Asian elephants have been seen to pick up a peanut, shell it, blow the shell out and eat the nut.
  • Elephants use their trunks to suck up water to drink – it can contain up to 8 litres of water.
  • They also use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming.
THEY’VE GOT THICK SKIN
  • An elephant’s skin is 2.5cm thick in most places.
  • The folds and wrinkles in their skin can retain up to 10 times more water than flat skin does, which helps to cool them down.
  • They keep their skin clean and protect themselves from sunburn by taking regular dust and mud baths.
CALVES CAN STAND WITHIN 20 MINUTES OF BIRTH
  • Amazingly, elephant calves are able to stand within 20 minutes of being born and can walk within 1 hour. 
  • After two days, they can keep up with the herd. This incredible survival technique means that herds of elephants can keep migrating to find food and water to thrive.
AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS
  • The elephant’s temporal lobe (the area of the brain associated with memory) is larger and denser than that of people – hence the saying ‘elephants never forget’.

Their noses do so much more than ours. They have thick skin. They don’t need to worry about their babies crawling on dirty floors. And they have awesome memories. I think it would be pretty neat to be an elephant.

ELEPHANTS CARE ABOUT THE WELL-BEING OTHER ELEPHANTS

I learned something else about elephants this week. A video of elephants in Israel’s Safari Ramat Gan, a zoo near Tel Aviv, shows how elephants put aside their own self-interest to care for their young in times of danger. The video was brought to my attention by Daniella Yitzchak, our congregation’s office manager, who wrote about it in her weekly email message

Daniella writes: “Filmed during a rocket attack in Israel last week, the video shows the moments when an air raid siren is sounding and an explosion is heard in the distance. During that time, five female elephants move towards little Pele (meaning wonder in Hebrew), a 14-month-old elephant calf, and form a protective circle around him, facing outwards in all directions to ward off any threats.

“Ramat Gan zookeeper Guy Kfir explained that the behavior during the siren is likely due to elephants having much better hearing than people, and their ability to detect seismic vibrations through their feet. He continued to explain that it’s very common for elephants to respond this way when facing danger… When recognizing a high risk situation, elephants gather their young and form a protective shield around them. This also happens when an elephant is giving birth. What a moving demonstration of love and commitment as well as courage!”

Those of us who are parents can certainly relate to the elephants’ instinct to protect their young. When our children are in danger, we take extraordinary measures to keep them safe. Or, at least, we should.

But unlike the elephants who form a protective shield around someone else’s baby, we aren’t always so good at caring for other people’s children. In fact, sometimes we are so focused on our own needs and desires that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, regardless of who those “others” might be.

The challenges of ego-centrism, self-interest and rugged individualism that pervade our society today are not unique to our day and age. Wandering through the wilderness toward the land that God was to give to them, the Israelites imperil their very lives when they start focusing on their individual needs at the expense of the greater good.

Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’s leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). Hungry for a share of Moses’s leadership, Miriam and Aaron initiate a rebellion against him. For her role in demeaning Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, for which she was shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days. Meanwhile, Moses, the epitome of humility, pleads to God to heal his sister.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had gotten caught up in the popular revolt that we read about several verses earlier. There we find the people were complaining bitterly against God. They objected to the structure of the camp, which was designed to ensure the safety of all the people. They separated themselves from God. They, too, challenged Moses’s leadership. 

What’s more, we read: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num. 11:4-6)

They’re objecting to the very sustenance that God had miraculously provided them! They grow nostalgic for their days as slaves when they had more variety in their diet.

For thinking only of themselves, God sends them more quail than they could possibly eat on their own and they stuff their faces. And while they still have quail between their teeth, God causes a fire to break out in their midst and strikes them with a severe plague (Num. 11:33). 

The Israelites had lost sight of the calf, if you will. Perhaps the calf was the Ark that moved with the Israelites in the center of their camp. Perhaps the calf was God, the one who had freed them from Egypt. Perhaps the calf was the Israelites themselves, the collective, the People who had recently united around Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with the Holy One, vowing to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. All of a sudden, the higher cause for which God brought them together was being neglected.

We can sympathize with the people’s desire to want something new and interesting. We can relate to Miriam and Aaron’s envy of Moses’s exalted place among the people. Yet, Torah demands that we curb our appetites and appreciate what we have. We are to practice self-restraint and cultivate an attitude of gratitude every day.

Just imagine what the scene would have been like if the Israelites in our story this week were more like elephants. They would have accepted their responsibility for one another. They would have circled around God, Torah and Israel. They would have protected the proverbial calf.

In today’s world, we, too, need to do a better job of protecting the calf, of setting aside our individual wants, our personal liberties, which we mistake for God-given rights. What a world it would be if we thought about the common good, if we went to extraordinary lengths to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. 

May we strive to be more like elephants. Though we might not be endowed with the qualities that make elephants such magnificent creatures, we can, at least, choose a life of community, covenant and courage. Imagine what the world would like then. We have the power to bring that world about.

May God Bless You and Protect You: A New Look at Material Prosperity

Parashat Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

 The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons:

Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

May the Lord bless you and protect you!

May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

(Numbers 6:22-27)

One of the most familiar passages of Torah is found in this week’s parashah. In the days of the ancient Temple, the fifteen Hebrew words of the three-fold priestly blessing (Numbers 6: 24-26) were spoken daily by the kohanim (priests) as they blessed Israel in God’s name. These words are repeated in our own day in our daily, Shabbat, holy day and High Holy Day liturgies and at life cycle celebrations such as weddings and b’nai mitzvah. Many parents offer this blessing over their children each Shabbat. In addition, we often hear these words spoken by priests, rabbis and ministers at interfaith gatherings.

Focusing on the first of the three blessings – “May the Lord bless you and protect you” – we find a surprising lesson. Biblical commentators look at this verse and ask two questions: “May the Lord bless you with what? May the Lord protect you from what?” While some suggest God will bless us with happiness, long life, success in learning and other noble gifts, there is general consensus that the blessing here refers to material wealth and that God will protect our wealth from evil spirits and thieves.[1][2]

In reality, Judaism does value material success even while maintaining that such concerns ought to be secondary to spiritual success. In fact, elsewhere in the Torah we find that if we follow God’s ways we will be blessed with bountiful harvests, abundant flocks, success in business ventures, for example.[3] To be clear, though, all abundance is seen as a gift from God. Even our material wealth today should be considered a gift from God and not solely the result of our own labor or ingenuity.

In addition to valuing material wealth as a gift from God, the tradition also considers material wealth as central to allowing us to perform the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah (monetary contributions for the sake of justice) and to study Torah. We have a teaching in our ancient text known as Ethics of our Ancestors (aka Pirkei Avot) that says, “Im ein kemach, ein Torah. If there is no kemach, there is no Torah (Mishnah Avot 3:21). Kemach here means “flour” or “dough”, but it also indicates that which sustains us financially. Where there is no financial sustenance, then, individuals haven’t the time to study Torah nor can the community afford teachers or schools. When we are blessed with prosperity, we are also blessed with Torah. In other words, enjoy your riches from God AND also put them to Godly use.

The second half of our blessing asks for God’s protection which suggests that, in terms of material prosperity, if God blesses us with abundance, then God also safeguards that abundance. The French Medieval commentator Rashi teaches: When one gives his servant a gift, the one who bestows the gift cannot protect it from all other people. So if robbers come and take it from (the servant), what benefit has he [the servant] from this gift? As for the Holy One, blessed be (God), however, (God) is the One who [both] gives and protects (Midrash Tanchuma Naso 10).[4]

An alternative way to interpret May the Lord protect you” focuses not on the literal safeguarding of out possessions but on ensuring that we are not corrupted by them. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar also known as the Netziv, teaches: A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose. The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like. The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him… (Ha-Emek Davar on Bemidbar 6:23). [5] In other words, with great possessions comes the risk of haughtiness. How appropriate then to ask God’s protection from that temptation.

To be honest, as a rabbi, when I bestow the priestly blessing upon a newborn child, upon a young person at the time of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, or upon a couple under the wedding canopy, I am not thinking about blessing them with material possessions. Rather, I hope that God will bless them with a life of joy and happiness, a life filled with good deeds, and a life of peace. At sacred moments in people’s lives, those are the wishes that come most naturally to me and, I suspect, to others who care for the people undergoing rites of passage.

Perhaps, though, we can all learn from the sages this week who teach us to appreciate the abundance in our lives and remind us of the risks that come along with that abundance. When we pray the words “May God bless you and protect you,” let us give thanks for our material wealth that enables us to learn and grow and that enables us to help the needy and support just causes. And may we pray not only for the security of our abundance but also for the strength and courage to resist becoming spiritually and morally blinded by it. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

[1] Rashi (11th century, France), Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) and Obadiah ben Jacob Seforno (16th century, Italy and Spain) are in agreement on this matter. Ibn Ezra adds “long life.”

[2] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar, suggests God will bless each individual with his/her particular needs: “to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman- in his business, etc.” See http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html accessed 5/28/2014

[3] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Artscroll Chumash. (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1997), p. 762.

[4] See http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?aid=39589&showrashi=true&p=4, accessed 5/28/14.

[5] http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html.