Torah Comments for January 16, 2020
I just love imagery. I love to put myself into the picture and try to imagine just what something historical must have been like. What if I had been an invisible observer, especially if I could have brought my digital camera with me and been able to record the events I was watching as they unfolded. This week’s parasha is a perfect one for visual images. That’s why it’s one of my favorites. It even starts out right: “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh…” says God. And that’s what is about to happen. Plague week – let’s get to it.
Moses has just come from being snubbed by the Israelites that he has come to save. He is obviously discouraged and God pumps him up with His statement – just hang in there and things will work out fine, Moses. God tells Moses that He is the God of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but that they did not experience His true greatness. That’s over. Moses is to go back to the people and tell them that they are to be free and are to be delivered to the land of Canaan. Of course, the Israelites are slaves. They have been for years and are just not ready to accept the concept of freedom and the obligation to make their own decisions in life so they reject Moses. God doesn’t let Moses quit. Instead Moses gets the order to confront Pharaoh again and get the show on the road. This is stage one of the liberation process. You can just see the people rejecting Moses as he promises something that they cannot comprehend because of their bondage. So now we’re getting ready for the big show. Before it starts though, the Torah has to end the chapter. Typically, this happens by setting forth a genealogy and that happens now. We get a whole history from the sons of Jacob down to Moses and Aaron. This serves both as the transition from one part of the story to another and also as validation of the authority of the two brothers who are about to lead one of the most momentous occurrences in our people’s history.
God tells Moses that his relationship to Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler on earth, is about to literally become what the relationship was factually between Joseph and the Pharaoh who knew him. While that Pharaoh remained the titular ruler and held the theoretical power of life and death over Joseph, in fact Joseph had the real power, secular as it was. He exercised that power to save Egypt and his family from the famine. Now, Moses is going to not only demonstrate his superiority over Pharaoh, he is going to do so through the power of God. He is thus about to take things to a higher level than Joseph did. God tells Moses what is going to happen. He tells Moses that when he goes to Pharaoh, God is going to make sure that Pharaoh doesn’t give in to the demand to free the Israelites until God has demonstrated His power to all Egypt and punished the Egyptians for what they have done to the people over several centuries.
It’s helpful to remember these scenes from The Ten Commandments as they play themselves out. Moses and Aaron start out with that serpent trick. Just watch in your mind as Aaron tosses the staff onto the floor of the palace and it becomes a snake. Watch Pharaoh summon his magicians to do the same thing and then see their snakes swallowed up by Aaron’s staff. It’s the next day and Pharaoh is there at the Nile to bless the water. Again, God tells Moses what he and Aaron are to do. Moses goes to Pharaoh. You can just see the reactions of Pharaoh and his priests. First, they are shocked to see this troublemaker again. Then, they see for only the second time in their lives, someone defying their living god, the Pharaoh. Moses tells Pharaoh what is going to happen. Then he has Aaron strike the water with the staff and all the water turns to blood. The fish die immediately. Of course, Pharaoh’s magicians can duplicate this one too, so Pharaoh ignores Moses.
A week goes by. The Egyptians make do. God tells Moses that it’s time for the frogs. He warns Pharaoh that they’re coming if the Israelites are not freed, obviously to no avail. Moses tells Aaron to do use the rod again and the frogs overrun Egypt. This time, after only two plagues, Pharaoh calls Moses and tells him to get God to get rid of the frogs. At least by this point, Pharaoh concedes that there is another god out there besides his own. Pharaoh now promises that he will let the Israelites go to worship God, so Moses asks God to get rid of the frogs. He does and guess what? Pharaoh changes his mind. Well, why not? After all, Pharaoh is a god too and has his own gods to help him.
It’s time for Plague Three – vermin. This one comes with no warning. This time, the magicians cannot duplicate the plague. This doesn’t solve the freedom problem. God sends Moses off to Pharaoh again and tells him to warn Pharaoh that the next plague will be insects if the people are not freed. On come the insects, everywhere except where the Israelites are. Pharaoh seems to get this message. He calls Moses and Aaron and tells them they can take the people out in public to sacrifice to God. Moses insists that they be allowed to go three days’ journey into the wilderness to do it. Pharaoh agrees and Moses asks God to get rid of the insects. Voila! No more insects. Voila! Pharaoh changes his mind again.
Time for the next plague. Moses warns Pharaoh that this one is going to strike all the Egyptian livestock with pestilence but none of the Israelite livestock. The plague comes; the livestock die; the Pharaoh remains stubborn and the people are stuck. It’s time for another punishment plague. Pharaoh needs to be punished for not listening. This time, it takes two to deliver. Moses and Aaron both take soot from the kiln and throw it into the air. Dust flies throughout Egypt and the Egyptians and their beasts are struck with an infestation of boils. Even the magicians are stricken with boils. Pharaoh is still not ready to capitulate. So far, the plagues have not personally hit the Pharaoh and his family. That is about to change. Moses warns Pharaoh that hail is coming and tells him that they need to take shelter. Finally, a split occurs among the Egyptians. Some of them believe in God’s power and they take shelter. The others don’t. The hail comes and destroys the grasses and trees and everyone who is outside.
Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron again and tells them that he gives up. He promises to let them go. Again, as soon as the plague stops, Pharaoh changes his mind and insists that the Israelites cannot go. Stay tuned for next week’s thrilling conclusion and try to keep the images of what happened this week in your mind until then.
Now comes the Haftorah – Ezekiel. Just as in the story of the plagues, the Lord tells Ezekiel that He is going to gather the people together in our holy land. The Lord will punish the people who dispersed the House of Israel and our people will live in peace and security. We have a reprise of the instructions to Moses. The Lord says, “The Nile is mine, and I made it.” God will disperse the Egyptians for a period of forty years after which they will be restored to Egypt but in a backwater country.
There are great moral truths here – despotism and the imposition of slavery will be punished and the victims shall be restored to their rightful places. For us, stay safe. The vaccine is coming.
Torah Comments for January 9, 2021
Welcome to a new year and a new book of the Torah and a new fate for our ancestors. The story begins with the 70 people that joined Joseph in Egypt. Here are the two key sentences that give rise to all that is to come:
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
These two things, taken together, and one more, sealed the fate of the Israelites. We recall that Joseph predicted seven years of plenty which would be followed by seven years of distress. The 70 Israelites arrived in Egypt near the beginning of the seven years of distress. Their stated purpose was to ride out the problem, which they did. Then, instead of returning to Canaan, they remained. And why not? They had it all – good land, their flocks increased, they had the good graces of their brother, Joseph, and of the Pharaoh. What more could they want? But this third factor, their decision to remain in Egypt, combined with their increase in numbers and the opportunism of a new pharaoh. Their protected status suddenly disappeared and they became imperiled. The hitherto comfortable people found themselves reviled and slaves. This should sound familiar to us. It has happened time and time again throughout history. A few examples – the Babylonian Captivity, the Roman dispersion, pogroms in Europe, the Inquisition, the Holocaust. No matter how secure our people felt in each situation, safety and prosperity was fleeting and led to disaster. The same has been happening in the last few years in European countries – French Jews no longer feel safe, UK Jews are experiencing more and more instances of intolerance, don’t even think about Poland. And what of the United States? Again, we are experiencing increasing instances of anti-Semitism which in some cases has escalated into murder. Hopefully, the presence of the state of Israel is helping to preserve our places in American society.
Back to the story. Historians have opined that the enslavement of the Israelites took place around the reign of Ramses II. They didn’t just get this idea from Otto Preminger in The Ten Commandments. At the time of Ramses II, Egypt was experiencing major challenges from the Hyksos hordes. The Hyksos had infiltrated into Egypt. They may have introduced horses into their art of warfare and were certainly a ferocious group to deal with. At the same time, the large Israelite presence in the same general area that the Hyksos were near would have caused a great deal of concern to Egypt’s rulers. To protect the country from the possibility that the Israelites would provide invaders with a huge advantage, the pharaohs were able to protect against the danger by enslaving them. As a bonus, this gave the pharaohs a cheap labor force to construct fortresses to protect the country from potential invaders.
The pharaohs didn’t appreciate the benefits of an increasingly large labor force of Israelites, so they decided to kill it off by having the Hebrew midwives kill all Hebrew male babies. Of course, the midwives weren’t about to follow this order, so they staged the first recorded instance of civil disobedience. When that happened, the pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to take over the job. Apparently, they met with some success as witnessed by the seminal story that comes next.
MOSES!! The time has come for the focus of the entire Torah to change. From hereon out, one of the most frequently found words in the Torah is “MOSES!” As we try to find our place each week during the triennial cycle, we often look for that phrase, “And the Lord spoke to Moses.” Then we can compare it to the next few sentences and we are ready to read the next week’s parasha. So here we are. Moses is born; his other keeps the baby for three months and then sticks him into a basket, places it in the reeds in the Nile River and sets Moses’ big sister, Miriam, to watch what happens. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him and takes pity on him even though she knows he is an Israelite. Miriam appears. She has access to the Pharaoh’s daughter, something that is rather surprising, considering her royal status and that Miriam is a Hebrew but that’s the story. Pharaoh’s daughter places a lot of faith in Miriam, again a surprise, and lets Miriam and her mother scam the royal household into paying Moses’ own mother to raise him for her.
The Moses birth story is one that can be found throughout history. Oedipus is given to a shepherd to be killed but the shepherd hands him off to ultimately be raised by a king. Hercules is abandoned but found by Athena who gives him to another and he is ultimately raised by his mother. Romulus and Remus are to be drowned but are only abandoned, are raised by wolves and found Rome. Sargon of Mesopotamia gets the same story as Moses and becomes a king. The story of Cyrus of Persia also closely resembles this one. There are, of course, differences in each case but Moses, the only commoner of the bunch, goes on to found a religion and to lead his people to freedom.
Moses grows up and moves to the palace. He gets an education, good food and status, even though he is an Israelite. Moses, at least, knows that he is an Israelite. Others at the court, if not everyone know it as well. Moses now does three things that show character; the first two happen in Egypt – He sees the Egyptian beating a Hebrew and kills him. He tries to prevent two Israelites from fighting. Moses then leaves town in a hurry to avoid being killed by the pharaoh and goes off to Midian. The Torah version is less entertaining than the movie version where Moses is exiled and has to make his way through the desert to get there, but the result is the same. He shows up at a well, just like in the stories of the Patriarchs. Moses defends the daughters of the priest, Reuel, from the shepherds and waters their flock. Moses stays with them and marries one of the daughters, Zipporah. He has Gershom.
Pharaoh dies and his son takes over. Things don’t get any better so God finally decides that the time has come to take care of the problem. The Midian postal system is even worse than the U.S. Postal Service so God can’t send Moses a summons to appear before Him. Instead, he uses the burning bush. Moses sees it and knows there is something special happening. When God calls him, Moses answers with a rousing Hinini, “here I am,” and gets his first opportunity for a conversation. God tells Moses that he is going to Pharaoh to save the people. Moses, being a modest person, tells God that He’s got the wrong guy but of course God won’t take no for an answer. He promises to go with Moses. He gives him specific instructions on how to go about his task and tells Moses what will ultimately happen.
Moses must have had a connection to a forerunner of Missouri because he asks God to show him. God teaches Moses the rod into snake and back trick as a way to convince the Israelites to follow him. Then, he tells him to put his hand on his chest and withdraw it. Moses does so and finds his hand covered by scales. At God’s direction, he repeats the maneuver ad his hand is normal again. God tells him that trick will certainly convince the people. But, if that doesn’t work, God tells him to do the water into blood trick. Moses keeps objecting; God gets mad at him but agrees to let Aaron, the older brother that no one knows he has until now, go with him and do the talking for him.
We have two Haftorahs to choose from. Our Ashkenazi one is from Isaiah. He says that the descendants of Jacob will take root, grow and prosper. All they have to do is build altars to God. The great ram’s horn will blow and the people will return to Jerusalem. Isaiah says that the people are muddled by liquor, implying the need to sober up and listen if they are to prosper. Then they will heed the word of God and will be saved.
Jeremiah begins with a Moses-like encounter with God, where Jeremiah says “I am still a boy,” to try to get out of being a prophet. God puts His words into Jeremiah’s mouth to enable him to go to the people and persevere in his message. He sends Jeremiah off to spread the word and save the people.
The parallels between the Jeremiah story and the Moses story of the assignment to save the people is obvious. God sends both of these reluctant prophets off to save the people. Moses brings the Israelites out of Egypt. Jeremiah sees to it that they will return from Babylon to Jerusalem. The message is clear from all three sources – don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to speak out what is right. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for January 2, 2021
This Shabbat’s Torah portion marks the end of the Book of Genesis. As Genesis ends and Exodus begins, 2020 ends and 2021 begins. We can hope for a more positive experience in the year to come than in the one that has just ended.
The ending in Genesis begins with the death of Jacob. He was 130 when he entered Egypt and 147 when he died so he had 17 years of family life. Jacob insisted that he be buried in the cave of Machpelah with his parents and grandparents. After agreeing, Joseph took his sons to their grandfather where Jacob adopted them, this elevating their status to be equivalent to Joseph’s brothers. Their descendants would take Joseph’s place in receiving the inheritance of a portion of the Promised Land.
Just as what happened with Jacob and Esau, Jacob blessed the younger brother first, this time knowingly, and stated that Ephraim would be greater than Manasseh. As he delivers this blessing, he granted Joseph an extra share of his inheritance, one share for each of his two grandsons.
Jacob, now on his deathbed, called his sons to him. He spoke to them and predicted their futures. He castigated Reuben, the first-born, for sleeping with his concubine and Simeon and Levi for their actions in Shechem when they attacked the inhabitants over the rape of Dinah. He praised Judah as the future leader he would become. He predicts that Zebulun will reside by the sea ahead of Issachar, the elder, who would be a shepherd. Dan was born to a concubine, so he had status over the others not born to Jacob’s wives and his future seems to be predicted to be precarious. Gad, to be on the East side of the Jordan, would be a raider and to be raided by outsiders. Asher would become prosperous, Naphtali fruitful. Joseph, in the stead of his children, has special status among the tribes and has the greatest blessings of all. Finally, Benjamin is called a ravenous wolf. Jacob’s words have been characterized as his final blessing; they are certainly his final words, some for each male child and some are positive, some negative. The words are the predictions of the future for each of our twelve tribes. Jacob tells his sons to take his body back home and dies.
Joseph weeps at the death of his father. He takes precedence over his brothers in that regard as he foretold in his interpretation of his first dreams. He had Jacob embalmed in the Egyptian tradition. The whole of Jacob’s family, together with the officers of Pharaoh’s court and a military escort, return Jacob’s body to Machpelah where they bury him next to the other patriarchs. At this point, Joseph’s brothers decide they have to make sure that they are safe from retaliation from him, but Joseph promises them that he will take care of them.
Joseph lived to the age of 110 after which he was embalmed as his father had been. This is important for the scenes from The Ten Commandments when the Israelites carry his coffin with them during the Exodus. And that is the end of our first book. Hazak, Hazak, Venithazak.
The Haftorah parallels the stories of the deaths of Jacob and Joseph with the story of the death of King David. On his deathbed, David only brought his son, Solomon, to him and not the others. He instructed Solomon to follow the teachings of God as related by Moses and promises that if Solomon’s descendants also do so, they shall reign for all time. Then he goes and spoils it all by instructing him to take revenge on Joab and Shimei. David dies and is buried in his city which is located close to the Old City of Jerusalem.
In these readings, we experience endings, those of Jacob, Joseph and David, and beginnings, those of the Israelites in Egypt and Solomon in Jerusalem. We learn that righteousness will be rewarded, and less appropriate conduct will be punished. As we await the opportunity to receive our vaccines and embark on new beginnings, we need to continue to be careful and prepare for a better future. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for December 26, 2020
We witness both a high and a low point in the relationship of Jacob’s sons. Judah has a audience with the Pharaoh’s vizier. He begs for Benjamin’s freedom, telling the vizier that if they don’t bring Benjamin back home, their father, Jacob, will die. He offers himself as a substitute for his youngest brother. Joseph is impressed with the family loyalty that he has now witnessed among his brothers and he reveals his true identity to them. He tells them not to worry about revenge; he tells them that their action, selling him into slavery, was part of God’s plan to save lives.
Joseph tells his brothers that the famine is going to last another five years. He tells them to go back home, get the rest of the family and bring them to Egypt to dwell in Goshen. It appears that Goshen was in northeastern Egypt and was a fertile place. The story continues – Pharaoh is told that the visitors are Joseph’s brothers. He confirms Joseph’s invitation and directs that wagons be sent to help bring the rest of the family to Egypt to live.
Israel, after some convincing, realizes that Joseph is still alive. He sets out and comes to Beersheba on the way. He stops there, apparently reluctant to go on. That night he has a dream and God tells him to go on to Egypt. God tells him that He will go with him. Off they go and they reach Egypt. The story now pauses to list the names of the people who arrive with him. As tradition has it, there are 70 people who come. Joseph comes to meet Jacob and the rest of the family in Goshen. He instructs the family to tell Pharaoh when they meet him that they are shepherds. He warns them that this is the way to make sure they are able to settle in Goshen. The first little inkling of future problems arises when he tells them that Egyptians abhor shepherds.
Pharaoh is very hospitable and agrees to settle the family in Goshen. He even offers to let them take care of the royal livestock. It’s a good thing now because it means that those family members will be royal officers with good standing. However, is this a foreshadowing of the future when they will be required to take care of everything for a future Pharaoh? Pharaoh meets Jacob who is then 130.
The Torah tells us that the famine has extended across the entire world, but especially in Egypt and Canaan. Joseph first sells food until the people have no more money. Then he buys out all the livestock in the land. Next, he takes all the land of the people for food. Joseph moved the people of Egypt from one end of the country to the other in order to totally sever them from their former land. Finally, he made all the Egyptians into serfs, supplying seed for a tax of 20%. In the meantime, the family of Jacob increased greatly, another foreshadowing of future doom.
Ezekiel takes over. Ezekiel was active between 593 BCE and 573 BCE. He had several famous visions. In this selection, Ezekiel relates that the Lord instructed him to take two sticks – one for Judah and the Israelites related to him and one for Ephraim and the Israelites associated with him. Ezekiel joins the sticks together and proclaims that the Jewish people will return to the land of Israel where they will be a single nation and never again be divided in two. God will cleanse the people, they will live under one king and follow God’s rules and laws.
We travel from the homeland that God has promised to the Patriarchs to Egypt in the Torah. After 420 years, we travel back to the land and set up a country which later splits in two. Following that, both kingdoms are conquered, and the people are again scattered to the four winds. But Ezekiel brings a message of hope for a united and prosperous future. Today, our people are home again after 2000 years in a single, united country which welcomes Jews from all over the world. It seems that Ezekiel’s prophecy may now have come to pass.
Stay safe until we can meet again in person.
Torah Comments for December 12, 2020
Happy Chanukah. This is a special day in our liturgy and in our history and we observe it with two Torahs and a special Haftorah. Chanukah reminds us of the dual importance of history and spirituality and the fact that, in our religious tradition, they are joined together. The origin of the holiday is in faith toward God and our worship requirements. The revolt against the Syrian Greeks was triggered by an attempt to prohibit Jews from following our religion. Rooted in the promises God made to our Patriarchs in the stories just concluded, God protected the pious Jews who refused to give in. They demonstrated that they understood the need for people to take action to preserve their heritage and God, in turn, protected them in the revolt. Success was achieved through their efforts because of divine support. Then came the spiritual dilemma. Do we kindle the light in the Temple or wait seven days until we knew that there would be oil coming before the supply on hand ran out or wait eight days until it was actually in hand. The choice was to take action, light the light and trust that God would help. The choice proved to be the correct one, the lights burned for the eight days until new oil arrived and from then until now, we have celebrated the intersection of God, our worship traditions, and our own efforts with the traditional lighting of the Chanukah lights. As many have said recently, in this dark time the lights of the Chanukiah provide a symbol of hope that the ravages of the pandemic will soon end.
But now to the Torah for this date. The Patriarchs are, as I have indicated, basically done and it is time to set the prologue for the real development of Judaism. Joseph is at the center of this story and we continue it through to the end of Genesis. The story of Jacob is unique in that it does not refer to the presence of God at all. This is a secular story of the life of a young man and his family which could have been written by a modern novelist or biographer. While there is a sense of something special about Joseph, there are no sessions with God, no miracles. We see the family dynamic in the same way that we experience our own family dynamics.
Seventeen year-old Joseph is Jacob’s favorite and they both show it. Jacob gives Joseph the “technicolored dream coat” celebrated on Broadway and in the movies. The other brothers are naturally jealous and Joseph compounds the problem by telling them that in his dreams he learned that they would all ultimately be bowing to him and doing his bidding. Guess what? The others got even more upset and decided, just like jealous brothers throughout all history (beginning with Cain and later at least for a time including Esau), that they would get rid of this spoiled brat. Initially, the brothers were pasturing the sheep at Shechem where they had just killed all the men over Dinah’s defilement, but they moved on to Dothan.
Reuben, the oldest, the one who slept with Jacob’s concubine, decides to assert his authority as the eldest and saves Joseph’s life by convincing his brothers not to take that extreme measure. He then goes off for a bit. The brothers throw Joseph into a dry water reservoir and Judah later steps in to sell his brother to some Midianites in a passing caravan for twenty pieces of silver (Christian tradition one-ups this sale when Judas sells out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver but maybe that was inflation). This is another example of sibling rivalry which foreshadows a later conflict where Judah becomes the more powerful brother, supplanting Reuben. Watch for details when Benjamin’s safety is called into question. The remaining brothers invent a story that Joseph was killed by a wild animal, create proof by staining his dream coat with the blood of a kid and maintain that to their father. Off goes Joseph to Egypt, a victim of the slave trade of the day, where he is sold to Potiphar at Pharaoh’s court.
The Torah now interrupts the story and follows Judah. Judah leaves home, marries and has three sons. Judah’s sons grow up and he finds a wife, Tamar, for his first-born. That young man dies and Tamar marries the second son, Leverite marriage. The second son dies and Judah decides not to have her marry his last son. Tamar waits until Judah’s wife dies and his mourning period is over. She then tricks Judah into sleeping with her, pretending to be a harlot. Judah pays Tamar with his seal and staff and goes off. Tamar gives birth to twins, just like Rebecca had.
The second Torah portion relates to the gifts that the twelve tribes brought to Moses for the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. This is the second day, the day of the gifts of Issachar. The gifts, of course, are the same as those of each of the other tribes.
The Haftorah is from Zachariah. Zachariah’s prophecies began in 520 BCE. By then, the Babylonian exile had ended and the people had returned to Israel. Construction on the new Temple had begun and stalled but Darius ordered that it be started again.
“Shout for joy, Fair Zion! For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst – declares the Lord.”
Zachariah’s vision is of Joshua, the high priest appearing before the angel of the Lord in rags. The angel has the rags removed and has him clothed in priestly robes. Joshua is told that he will return to serve the Lord. The import of the vision is clear – Israel has been forgiven for its past sins and is being restored to greatness.
The Haftorah ends with the famous passage, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit – said the Lord of Hosts.”
We too have the opportunity to serve God and to spread the light of Chanukah and faith through our words and actions.
Torah Comments for December 5, 2020 Kislev 19, 5781
It’s time for a homecoming. This isn’t going to be like Homecoming weekend in high school or college. There won’t be any bands, there’s no football game and there certainly won’t be a dance. This time, it’s Jacob coming home and he’s pretty nervous. We all remember why he left home in the first place. He had just stolen Esau’s blessing and he was pretty certain that his brother wanted to kill him for it. That was fourteen years ago but Jacob has no idea whether he’s still in danger.
Jacob starts off by sending messengers to Esau telling him that he is on his way. His message also tells Esau that he has property now – maybe something to bargain for his safety with. He finds out that Esau is on his way to meet him with 400 men. That doesn’t sound particularly promising; in fact, it sounds downright dangerous. That’s what Jacob thinks, so he divides his camp in two, figuring that at least some people will survive an attack. He sends Esau a large number of livestock in separate herds. Each herd is out of sight of the others and the shepherds are instructed to tell Esau that Jacob is right behind them. The theory is that as Esau receives each gift, he will grow more favorable to Jacob. Jacob then sends his family and the rest of what he has to the other side of a nearby stream for safety.
Jacob spends the night alone, but not quite alone. He encounters a “man” who wrestles with him all night. Finally, as dawn approaches, the “man” acknowledges that he is an angel and blesses Jacob with the name Israel. Dawn comes and with it, Esau approaches. Israel headed toward his brother and bowed seven times on the way to him. In some traditions, we lower a coffin to the ground seven times on the way to the grave. Happily for Israel, Esau runs up to meet him and embraces him. What follows is a diplomatic exchange. The result is that Esau keeps the gifts his brother has given him and they part company as Jacob returns to Shechem.
Some years pass in peace and comfort until Dinah grows up. She goes to visit some of her friends in Shechem, is seen by the king’s son, also Shechem, and raped. He decides he really likes Dinah and wants to marry her. His father asks for a marriage and offers to intermarry between his tribe and Jacob’s to solidify peace in the land. Now in later times among young Jewish men and women, this was a standard way of finding a wife. One could have thought that this was where the tradition began. Such was not to be. Jacob’s sneaky children tell the king to circumcise all of his men and they will agree to the marriage. Of course, they had no such plan. Simeon and Levi went off to the town and killed all the men while they were recovering from their circumcisions. Jacob had remained silent throughout the whole drama. Now that it was over, he chided his two sons for having potentially brought the wrath of other tribes on him.
God now sends Jacob off to Bethel to build an altar and to reside. Jacob first purifies the family and off they go. There Jacob meets up with God who confirms his name as Israel and reaffirms his prior agreements with Abraham and Isaac. They went on. Rachel was pregnant with Benjamin and gave birth to him near Bethlehem. She died in childbirth and was buried there. Rachel’s tomb was a landmark and a frequent tourist stop for people traveling to Bethlehem for many years. [This week’s comments feature a photo of the tomb that I took some years ago when we were in Israel.]
Sex rears its ugly head. Rueben has sex with Jacob’s concubine. This is an interesting tidbit since she was old enough to be his mother. Nothing further is heard of this incident. Jacob dies at the ripe old age of 180 and Jacob and Esau come together to bury him at Machpelah, where his grave can be seen to this day with those of his father and grandfather and their wives.
We’ve heard all about Jacob and his thirteen children with two wives and a few of their servants. Now comes the story of Esau. Esau had several wives who were Canaanites and then another who was from the original family. The Torah gives the details of Esau’s children and the clans that they headed. Now that we know the who’s whos of the families of Jacob and Esau, we can prepare for the story of Jacob. Stay tuned.
The Haftorah is the entire book of Obadiah. Tradition has it that Obadiah became a prophet as a reward for having saved 100 prophets from persecution by Jezebel. He is said to have used all his wealth to help the poor prophets. His vision is from 853 BCE. He prophesies the utter defeat of Edom, the descendants of Esau, as punishment for its failure to come to the aid of the descendants of Jacob when the kingdom of Judah was destroyed. He predicts that a remnant of Jacob will survive and later prosper while there will be nothing left of Edom.
The stories of the patriarchs are finished. The foundation for our religion has been laid. Soon we will experience the seminal events of our religious history, the rise of Judaism. Until then and the availability of an effective vaccine.
Torah Comments for November 28
We’ve heard the details of the lives of our first two patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac, to the degree that the Torah relates them. There is enough of a flavor in those stories that we can get a feeling of what life must have been like at that time in history – kings, the rich, the poor, farming and hunting, wars and treaties. We can see something of subsistence living – note ho important wells were to the people’s lives. Wars were fought over them; people vied over who got to use them first. We also saw the importance of hospitality in this ancient society. Hospitality to strangers was especially important in a society which existed barely above the subsistence level. We also tasted a flavor of the relative status of men, women and slaves of the time.
Jacob has grown up, but we really know nothing about him other than the fact that he was willing to take Esau’s birthright and his blessing and, of course, we knew that Rebecca liked him more than his brother. Well, Jacob has left Beersheba, running away in case Esau wants to kill him. It’s time for him to grow up emotionally and to reach his potential. He is apparently travelling alone and lays down to sleep, using a stone for a pillow. Now, I like a hard pillow but that still seems like a stretch. He dreams – this could be the first real dream related in the Torah. The Lord speaks to him in the dream and tells him the same thing He told Abraham and Isaac – “your descendants will be as the dust of the earth.” Apparently, this sort of thing was common at that time. A person who wanted to know what a god had in store for him would spend the night at the god’s temple and hope for a revelation through a dream. Jacob’s situation was different because he didn’t go to some holy place to get a revelation. Instead, God picked the time and place to reveal Jacob’s future to him and to promise that he would be protected.
Jacob wakes and expresses amazement at his dream. His father and grandfather were accustomed to communing with God, but this was quite a surprise to Jacob. This all took place at Luz but Jacob renamed the place Bethel. Bethel later played a major role in the religious traditions of Judaism. It was a holy site according to Jacob. An altar was eventually erected there. It may have been the same place where Abraham erected an altar or at least in the same vicinity. In later times, Bethel was the town where the Ark was kept before Solomon completed the Temple. After the division of Israel into the two kingdoms, it became the religious center of the Northern Kingdom. Bethel had been a religious site of the Canaanites some 5,000 years ago, long prior to the time that the Israelites took over the land. It may be that the name Bethel is really the name of the Canaanite god who was considered to be the chief god, the Zeus of Canaan, so to speak. Although that is likely to be the case, the Torah takes pains to separate Bethel from its Canaanite past. It appears that Jacob just happens to stop there. The stone pillow which is later used as a marker seems to have been just a stone lying there. The name of the place is attributed to Jacob and not to Canaan.
Jacob pledges his allegiance to God and promises to support Him with a tithe.
We move on. Jacob is on the way to Haran to find his wife. He comes to a well, the top of which is protected by a stone cover and stops to talk with some men around it. They tell him that they come from Haran and that they know Laban. As a matter of fact, they say, here comes Rachel, his daughter with her sheep. Jacob falls in love as soon as he sees Rachel. As we see, love at first sight does work, and if you consider the rest of the story, that love lasted throughout their lives together. [I can say that love at first sight still works out. I fell in love when I first saw my wife on a train in Copenhagen and we have been married over 52 years.]
In a reversal of the earlier story of Abraham’s servant meeting Rebecca, Jacob rolls the stone off the top of the well and waters Rachel’s sheep for her. Jacob gives Rachel a kiss, not so strange when we consider that he knows she is his cousin, and then introduces himself. Today, here in the United States at a minimum that kiss would have led to a slap in the face or possibly a sexual harassment suit. This is especially true because Jacob was there all by himself and apparently without a shekel to his name. Then comes the bargain, such as it was. Without even trying to bargain, Jacob agrees to serve Laban for seven years if he can marry Rachel. So, Jacob waits seven long years, to him it was like a few days, and consummates the marriage. Then to his horror, he discovers that he has married and slept with Leah, not Rachel. Laban makes all kinds of feeble excuses, but the deed is done. Maybe, this impersonation is Jacob’s punishment for impersonating Esau to get Isaac’s blessing, but that’s for others to ponder. Laban makes a new bargain – I’ll let you marry Rachel in a week, but you have to work for me another seven years.
Now comes the next thorn. Jacob loves Rachel, not Leah, and God makes Rachel barren and gives Leah children, one after another, four sons. Rachel gives her maid to Jacob and there are two more sons. Now it’s Leah’s maid’s turn and she had two sons. These boys grow up somewhat at Reuben collects some mandrakes, apparently an aphrodisiac. One sees the enmity between the two wives as they haggle over the mandrakes. Ultimately though, they make a bargain. Leah has two more sons and then a daughter, Dinah. Finally, Rachel has a son. Jacob has eleven sons and one daughter. He has to have a lot of sheep to feed everyone.
Jacob decides it’s time to move on. He’s been at Laban’s for fourteen years, has a family and has accumulated nothing to speak of. Jacob asks that he be not paid for his time there but that he be entitled to the next year’s speckled and spotted young. Laban, unsuspecting the result, agrees. Jacob has a plan. He sets things up so the flocks will produce speckled and spotted young, so he ended up with a lot of young sheep. Jacob warns his wives that things are about to turn ugly. They can see the handwriting on the wall and agree to return to Canaan. Soon, we will see the result.
Hosea was the first of our twelve “minor” prophets. He was active from about 796 BCE to &68 BCE during the reign of King Amaziah of Judah. Amos was a contemporary of Hosea’s. Hosea recounts the story of Jacob’s time seeking a wife in Haran. He goes on to castigate Israel for worshipping Baal. He makes God sound like a rejected suitor –
“You have never known a true God but Me, You have never had a helper other than Me.
The prophecy goes on to tell Israel that it is undone for forsaking God. Trouble is on the way as “Samaria must bear her guilt.” Hosea exhorts the people to return to the Lord. If they do, He will take them back in love and all will be well. He concludes his prophecies with these words:
“He who is wise will consider these words, he who is prudent will take note of them.
For the paths of the Lord are smooth; the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.”
The stories of the patriarchs and the matriarchs are coming to a close soon. Even in the prose of the Torah, though, we can see that human nature is the same today as it was 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. Envy, jealousy, love and hate existed then just as they do today. Chivalry did not originate with the knights of the Round Table. It was present in the hospitality that people exhibited to others. Marital strife was the same then as it is now. It is comforting to know that our forbears were human just like us. They experienced trouble and travail in their lives and learned how to cope and persevere. We can learn from their example in our troubled times today.
Torah Comments for November 21, 2020
This is my first commentary here in Florida. I would much rather be giving this as a talk on Shabbat but safety is more important right now, so here goes.
Toledot is the story of Isaac, our second patriarch. Isaac is the only patriarch with one wife. He lives most of his life in the Beersheba and never leaves the Promised Land. His name comes directly from God. Isaac marries Rebecca at age 40. We begin the story twenty years after the marriage with the difficulty she has in giving birth to Jacob and Esau, or rather, Esau and Jacob since that was the order of their birth. Back in those days, God spoke to both men and women. He spoke to Rebecca and told her
“Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier that the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
Sure enough, Esau is born first, and Jacob follows him, hanging onto his heel. Hosea says that this shows how Jacob wanted everything from Esau even before they were born. Esau became the hunter and Jacob stayed home. Rebecca favors Jacob and facilitates his efforts to supplant his brother. The first written attempt to supplant Esau comes with Jacob cooking a lentil stew. Esau has been out hunting and is starving. He begs for some of the stew and Jacob, what a brother, sells it to him for his birthright. Jacob shows no regard for his brother. Apparently, we haven’t learned anything since Cain was asked if he was his brother’s keeper.
It’s famine time. God tells Isaac not to go off to Egypt for food, so he goes to Abimelech in Gerar. Presumably, this is a successor to the Abimelech that Abraham knew. God renews the covenant He made with Abraham 70 years before – “I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven … so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs…”
Isaac uses the same story Abraham tried twice with Sarah, she’s my sister, not my wife. Abimelech is not fooled and extends his protection to Isaac and Sarah, just like the previous Abimelech did for Abraham and Sarah. Isaac does too well in Gerar and this causes conflict so Isaac leaves and eventually settles in Beersheba. The city was named for a well that Isaac’s people successfully drilled.
Esau turns 40 and marries Judith, a Hittite. Isaac and Rebecca are unhappy with the marriage, possibly because Judith is a native of Beersheba instead of a member of the original Abrahamic family. We come to the third and final consequence of the rivalry between Esau and Jacob – the loss of the blessing from Isaac. He’s pretty old by the time of this incident – 100 – which accounts for his inability to distinguish between his sons. Isaac decides it’s time to give out his blessing, the last thing of value he has to offer. He tells Esau to go out and hunt some game and then bring it back and make him a meal. Rebecca conspires with Jacob to trick Isaac. She has him get two kids from the herd and prepares the meal. She dresses Jacob in his brother’s clothes and uses the hides from the kids to cover his hands and neck. At her direction (remind you of Eve?), Jacob impersonates Esau, gives him the meal and gets the blessing. Jacob goes off and Esau arrives with his meal. Well, by now Isaac isn’t hungry any more and it’s too late for the blessing.
Esau is pretty unhappy with things. This sort of thing has happened to him for his whole life. He decides to employ the Cain remedy and kill Jacob. Rebecca saves him by having Isaac send him off to Paddan-aram to live with his uncle. He also tells him to find a wife there. Esau finally gets wise and adds a wife from his Uncle Ishmael, his first cousin Mahalath.
The haftorah comes from Malachi, the last prophet and the shortest. Malachi apparently lived in Jerusalem around 445 BCE or as late as the 300s. Malachi may have been a pseudonym for Esther’s Uncle Mordechai, for Ezra the Scribe or may have been himself. His prophetic writings may have originated with him or may have been a reprise of earlier ones.
The book begins by attributing its source as the Lord speaking through Malachi. The Lord answers the skeptics who want to know how He has shown our people love. The Lord replies that He has accepted Jacob and rejected Esau. Malachi goes on to say, “A son should honor his father, and a slave his master.” This passage was used in the South by slaveowners before the Civil War to justify the institution of slavery. The Lord goes on, says Malachi, to demand that sacrifices be pure as required in the Torah. If not, the Lord will curse the priests. Happily for me, the Lord says that this is a requirement to carry on His special relationship with the House of Levi and the promise to that tribe of life and well-being.
That promise of life and well-being should extend to all of us. Stay safe until we are able to meet again.
Torah Comments for November 14, 2020
Today’s parasha starts out with sadness. Sarah dies at 127. Her son Isaac is 26. Abraham is in mourning and needs a place to bury Sarah. He negotiates with the local residents as what he calls himself, a sojourning settler,” or the equivalent of a resident alien. They arrange for him to purchase the cave of Machpelah for 400 silver shekels. This transaction is the first specific land transaction in the Torah. Scholars say that the price is exorbitant, but that evaluation does not consider the ultimate use of the cave. Eventually, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Leah and Rebecca follow Sarah into the cave. The significance of Machpelah cannot be overemphasized. This location is the earliest physical evidence of the origins of Judaism. It is impressive in both its construction and its symbolism. The cave itself contains the tombs of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs except for Rachel who died on the way to Bethlehem. The tombs are impressive, each in their own right, and one can approach a gate before them. Sadly, my personal photos of the tombs are not as good as those that can be obtained online. Each tomb has a structure inside the mosque built over the cave. On the level below is the actual tomb, covered with a large tapestry. The history of the tombs and their administration is also important to us. For many years, Muslims controlled access to the cave, prohibiting Jews from venturing below the seventh step down into the cave and limiting the times they could access it. Now, we are permitted to view the entire tomb area but only when Muslim prayers are not taking place. Israel has maintained a small Jewish community nearby in Hebron and a military garrison to protect them and pilgrims to the tombs.
Abraham is getting older and the time has come to implement God’s promise that his seed will be as the sands on the shore. He arranges with his most trusted servant to find a wife for Isaac. He instructs him to return to Abraham’s homeland and find someone who is willing to come with him to marry Isaac. The servant comes to Nahor and stops at a community well early in the evening. This is apparently girl-watching time in Nahor and, as we will later learn, lots of other places where people are looking for prospective brides. Rebecca, shows up and looks pretty good to the servant. He runs up to her and politely asks for a sip of water. She obliges him and tells him to drink his fill. She then offers to get water for his camels and does so. He gives her some pretty expensive bracelets and a nose ring (I guess that’s what they did in those days; it must have made a fashion statement) and asks who she is. She tells him and invites him to spend the night and he decides he has found the right woman for Isaac. Rebecca runs off to make arrangements for the night and her brother goes over to get the servant. As he passes Rebecca, he notices the jewelry she has on and invites the servant into their home. The servant explains what he is doing there and Laban tells him “take her and go.”
Isaac is out for an evening stroll as Rebecca arrives. They see each other and it’s love at first sight. Isaac marries Rebecca and they set up housekeeping in his mother’s tent. At this point in the story there is no mention of Abraham. Speculation is that when he sent his servant off to find a wife for Isaac he was on his deathbed and that he died while the servant was off getting Rebecca. This would seem reasonable although right after this story comes another chapter in which Abraham takes Keturah for a wife. She produces six children for him. Abraham sends them off just like he sent off Ishmael so Isaac will be the only son left in the home. Abraham dies at 175 so he outlives Sarah by almost 50 years. He is buried at Machpelah along with Sarah. The Torah has a number of stories that are out of historical sequence so this one could be as well.
The Torah goes on to list the twelve tribes that are descended from Ishmael who dies at the age of 137. It now goes on to discuss Isaac. He is 40 at the time of his marriage which would indicate that Sarah is indeed dead but Abraham should still be alive. Perhaps he is off enjoying his time with Keturah which would explain why he doesn’t interact with his son and his wife.
The haftorah tells the story of King David’s old age. His children are vying to succeed him. Intrigue ensues with Adonijah pushing hard. The prophet Nathan warns Bathsheba that she needs to protect herself and her son Solomon from Adonijah. They plot to get David on their side and succeed in getting him to solidify Solomon’s claim on the throne.
The stories of the Torah and the haftorah have obvious parallels. We have old Abraham looking to solidify his dynasty through Isaac by sending his other sons away and old David endorsing Solomon as the future king. The intrigues from before with Hagar and Ishmael and from Adonijah seem eerily like the intrigues of today as the current election works its way to its endpoint. In the meantime, all of us need to be careful and stay safe.
Torah Comments for November 7, 2020
It’s a hot day in Mamre and 100-year old Abraham is sitting by his tent when three men are suddenly standing there in front of him. I suppose Abraham could have been dreaming or napping. After all, he is 100 years old. But he sees these men. Now I don’t know about you but if I had been sitting out there on my front porch here in Glenview, Illinois and suddenly three men were standing in front of me, even though this might not have been during the pandemic, I might have been startled. But not Abraham. He immediately gets up, runs over to these strangers, bows to the ground and asks them to accept his hospitality. Abraham quickly gets them water, retreats to his tent and directs Sarah to make bread. He Gets a calf to cook for them and gives them curds (I didn’t know he was from Wisconsin) and milk. He stands like a waiter while they eat.
Now the strangers ask where Sarah, his wife, is. Without hesitation, he tells them and one of them promises that in one year she will have a son. Sarah, like a typical wife, is eavesdropping. She hears this promise and laughs to herself. The Lord, who is apparently there in the form of one of the strangers, asks why Sarah laughed, even though no one heard the laugh. The Lord also asserts that He can do anything, even cause a barren woman to have a child and finally says that He will return in a year for the birth.
Next, we come to the first true argument with God. The Lord debates with Himself about telling Abraham His plans. He finally decides that Abraham is righteous so why not let him in on the secret. He tells Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham confronts God – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” Abraham sets the bar at 50 innocents. When God agrees, Abraham lowers the bar to 45, then to 40. He pushes on to 30 and then 20. Finally, Abraham can see the limits of his argument and makes the final number 10, the number that to this day is a minyan.
While Abraham and God are arguing, the other two strangers go off to Sodom. They find Lot at the entrance to the city, just sitting there like Abraham had been at his tent. Just like Abraham, Lot extends an invitation to the strangers to come on over and spend the night at his place. As they finish dinner, a mob approaches the house and demands that Lot give them the two men for a gang rape. Lot refuses and offers the mob his two virgin daughters in their place. The mob turns on Lot and the two strangers protect him from them, blinding the mob. Then they warn Lot that he had better leave Sodom because the Lord is going to destroy it. None of lots married daughters or their husbands are willing to go but Lot takes his wife and the two virgin daughters. Everyone knows the story; the men tell Lot and the women to flee and not to look back. Lot talks them into allowing him to flee to the town of Zoar and, as soon as he gets there, brimstone and fire destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously, God couldn’t find ten righteous men there. Lot’s wife, Eve-like, looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. Interestingly, the natural action of springs in the area can coat a person’s skin almost like a pillar of salt. This story is reminiscent of Gramma’s Marathon which I ran many years ago. As I was running along, I saw a billboard in front of me featuring a very mean-looking pit bull. The billboard warned, “Don’t look back!” Like Lot and his daughters, I was careful to keep my eyes looking forward. I don’t know if the people who did look back were attacked or if they finished the marathon.
Now Lot and his daughters take refuge in a cave. The two sisters get Lot drunk and have sex with him, one on each of two nights. Both became pregnant and had sons. So, Lot’s hospitality comes full circle. He had offered his daughters to the mob to protect the strangers in his house. Instead, he becomes responsible for their loss of virginity.
The Torah follows Abraham on his journey to the Negev. Obviously, Abraham has learned nothing since his trip to Egypt. He pretends that Sarah is his sister, so, of course, off she goes to King Abimelech’s harem. The Lord comes to Abimelech in a dream and says that the king is “a dead man” for having taken Abraham’s wife. Abimelech decides that he would rather survive than die so he returns Sarah to Abraham, gives him the choice of land anywhere in the kingdom, money and livestock. The fear of God has definitely gotten to him.
It’s Isaac’s birthday! Now that Isaac is around, Sarah asserts herself and demands that Abraham get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. Here’s something that both Christians and Muslims have missed. God tells Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.” Just think what such a direction should mean for women’s rights around the world, and especially in the Abrahamic religions. Hagar leaves with Ishmael and starts off through the wilderness. Ishmael grows to be a man and becomes a hunter in Paran.
Abimelech’s army seizes a well that belonged to Abraham. He gives it back and the two make a peace pact at Beersheba.
Finally, we come to the extremely difficult story of the binding of Isaac. God is testing Abraham and calls to him. Abraham responds, Hinini, just like the cantor does at the High Holidays. Abraham is instructed to take Isaac up into the land of Moriah and sacrifice him to God. Without hesitation, unlike when Abraham argued with God over Sodom and Gomorrah, he makes plans and sets off with Isaac, two servants and wood for the fire. They get near the place of sacrifice. Abraham puts the wood on Isaac’s shoulders and the two set off for Isaac’s final resting place. Isaac wants to know what is going on with the sacrifice and Abraham tells his son, “God will see to the sheep for the offering.” Shortly after that, Isaac probably becomes suspicious. Abraham builds an altar, puts the wood on it, sticks Isaac on top of the wood and ties him up. Then he grabs a cleaver. Fortunately for Isaac, just as Abraham’s arm starts forward with the knife in it, the Lord’s messenger stops him and tells him to hold off, almost like the quarterback whose arm doesn’t quite get to go into a forward arc, causing a fumble. Abraham sees a ram caught in the bushes and substitutes it for Isaac. Everyone but for the ram is happy with the change in plans. God promises Abraham that the future of his descendants will be rosy – “as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea.”
The Haftorah jumps ahead to the story of Elisha the prophet and the widow of one of his disciples. She tells him that she is poor and is about to lose her children to slavery to pay off her husband’s debts. She tells Elisha the only thing she has is a jug of oil. Eisha instructs her to borrow containers from her neighbors and pour her oil into the containers. The oil doesn’t stop pouring until it fills all the containers – it’s similar to that old cartoon, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where Mickey Mouse messes up and causes a series of brooms to bring never-ending buckets of water to drown him out. In this case, the oil is put to good use, paying off the debts and saving the children.
Next comes the story of a woman whom Elisha would visit for meals whenever he was in the area. She set aside a room in her home for Elisha to rest in when he traveled past. Elisha wished to reward the woman and told her that she would give birth to a son. She did and one day during the harvest season, the boy suffered a seizure and died. The woman went to find Elisha and told him what happened. He sent his servant with his staff to place on the boy’s face and revive him. He then followed with the woman. When he arrived, he placed his body over the child and the child recovered.
There are parallels galore between the Torah and the Haftorah. The story of Elisha and the woman who provided him with hospitality parallels that of Abraham and his hospitality toward the three strangers and Lot’s hospitality toward the two strangers. In Abraham’s case, Sarah has a child. In Elisha’s, the woman has a child. Then there is the story of how the child of that hospitable woman dies and is revived which is similar to that of Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness. The story of the widow of Elisha’s disciple has a parallel in God’s promise to Abraham of future fortune. It has been a difficult several months, with campaigning, people having fits and complaining and insulting each other and even reaching a level of physical intimidation. Now that the elections of 2020 have ended, let’s hope that we can all begin to emulate Abraham and Lot and resume a hospitable attitude toward our fellow citizens.
Torah Comments for October 31, 2020
The first three big stories in the Torah were Creation, the Flood, the Recovery. Now we get into “recorded” or specific history beginning with the story of Abram, later Abraham. Abram is just a 75-year old guy married to Sarai, later Sarah, living near his parents. God tells him to go forth to “the land I will show you” and “I will bless you and make your name great.” Abram takes his family, including his nephew, Lot, and heads to Canaan where God tells him he has reached the place where his descendants will live. Abram enters Canaan near Shechem and travels through the country to the Negev. Scholars tracing his route claim that he passed through Jerusalem at the site of the Temple. Later, when we get to the binding of Isaac, many claim that this took place on the rock which is under the Dome of the Rock on the Kotel and that it was the location of the Holy of Holies when the Temple was built. This is the beginning of a string of continuities that tie our history together from the Patriarchs to the monarchy in Israel to today.
The Torah now tries out the story of the famine which led his grandson and great grandson to sojourn in Egypt. Famines were not unusual in Biblical times and Egypt was perennially shielded from them by the Nile River. Abram travels to Egypt with Sarai. She is beautiful and Abram is afraid that he will be killed so the Pharaoh can claim her for his harem. They concoct the scheme that she is his sister so, of course, Sarai goes off to the harem. Pharaoh is punished for his libido by plagues, summons Abram and kicks them out of the country. This sounds a lot like what is to come with the Ten Plagues but in much less detail.
Abram travels back to the future land of Israel and stops near Bethel in the center of the country. Since the land cannot support everyone, Abram tells Lot it’s time to separate. He gives Lot the choice of where he wants to go. Lot chooses the area near the Jordan River and goes there. Abram stays in Central Canaan. Lot’s choice brings him to the cities, places of sin and degradation – Sodom, sin city, just like Las Vegas. Abram, on the other hand, sees the land that is the future of our people. He moves to Hebron where he will eventually become a party to the earliest recorded deed for land still in existence – the cave where the Patriarchs will be buried.
Now it’s time for the first war described in the Torah. Lot becomes a victim – the first recorded prisoner of war. Abram hears about it and marshalls what for the time was a significant army – 318 people. He marches to a location north of Damascus and rescues Lot in a night attack. Abram, now a military hero, meets with the king of Sodom. The king blesses Abram and Abram gives the king the spoils of his campaign.
We come to the first conversation between God and Abram. God tells Abram He will protect him and he will be rewarded. Abram complains that he has no children. God tells Abram not to worry, he will have children who will father descendants who will claim the land. God now comes to Abram in a dream and foretells 400 years of slavery in Egypt followed by redemption. The Torah portion ends with a covenant between Abram and God that grants the land of Israel to the descendants of the first of the Patriarchs.
Sarai, the practical one, tells Abram to go ahead and have sex with Hagar, her maid, and, with Abram at the age of 85, they produce a son, Ishmael. Hagar, being only human, lord’s it over Sarai since she has a son and Sarai does not. Sarai punishes Hagar who runs away but an angel sends her back home. It’s bar mitzvah time for Ishmael and Abram is 99. God comes to Abram and changes his name to Abraham, renewing the promise that he will have many offspring and they will inhabit the land of Canaan. In order to signify this covenant, all the males are required to be circumcised on penalty of being cut off from the people. Abraham and all of the males of his household comply. God renames Sarai and she becomes Sarah. He promises Abraham that Sarah will have a son, Isaac. God tells Abraham that both sons will be the fathers of great nations but that the covenant will continue with Isaac.
Isaiah begins the Haftorah by asking the people why they are so distressed. He asks,
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord … gives strength to the weary, fresh vigor to the spent.”
He tells us to trust in the Lord and points out that it is the Lord who is all-powerful. “Fear not for I am with you,” Isaiah tells us the Lord has said. God will be with us and we will prevail.
The Torah and the Haftorah emphasize the relationship between God and man. God will prevail against our enemies. All we have to do is to give God His due and trust in him.
As we approach the election that will determine our futures, trust in the Lord and stay safe.
Torah Comments for October 24, 2020
It’s a cold, dreary, rainy day. What a perfect time for the story of Noah. Noah was considered to be a righteous man, one of the few of his time. The world, besides Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, “was corrupt before God and the earth was filled with outrage.” God’s creation had populated the earth and was lawless. God determined that it was basically time to start over. He instructed Noah to build an ark, 300 cubits (450 feet) long, 50 cubits (75 feet) wide and 30 cubits (45 feet) high. A year or so ago, we made a Holy Ark to scale and brought it to the temple for Shabbat. This ark is a little to large to repeat that effort, and besides, there’s no one there to see it. Go visit the Ark Encounter in Williamstown, Kentucky if you need to see one. That ark is a little larger than what I believe is correct – 510 feet long, 85 feet wide and 51 feet high, but people are taller and wider now than they were back on Heshvan 17, 2458 BCE when the rain started according to the source I found on the internet and the Torah, which refers to the seventeenth day of the second month.
God instructed Noah to gather his wife, his sons, their wives, two of everything that was to be kept alive and lots of food for the humans and the other living things. The Torah says “Two of each thing shall come to you to be kept alive.” That’s the reason there are no unicorns any more, at least according to the Irish Rovers who in their song have Noah lament that “them unicorns was hiding, playing silly games.” Had they showed some personal responsibility, we would still have unicorns outside of the world of Harry Potter. As is typical in the Torah, the numbers change in the next chapter. Now it is seven pairs of the animals that are fit for sacrifice and one pair of everybody else.
It rained for 40 days and 40 nights and the ark was carried away for 150 days during which the earth was covered with water and everything not on the ark perished. The ark did its job and eventually found a mooring place on what was called the mountains of Ararat. It is believed that this location is somewhere in Turkey and possibly on Mount Ararat. Seven days later, a dove brought Noah an olive leaf. God sent Noah, his family and the animals out again for a new start. God promises Noah that He will not again strike down all of humanity and the animal kingdom, although He later thinks about changing His mind a numb er of times such as in the desert when the people rebelled against Moses.
Here is the point in the Torah where God anoints Noah as the top of the food chain. God tells Noah not to eat flesh which still contains blood; hence, we drain meat of blood as part of the kashrut process. The rainbow appears as a sign for all time that there will not be another worldwide flood.
Ham makes the mistake of seeing Noah naked and drunk. Some say that he actually had sex with him; others that he failed to avert his eyes. Whichever sin he committed, it was enough to bring a curse on his son, Canaan, and his progeny. Noah was 600 at the time of the flood and died 350 years later at the age of 950. The Torah now skips ahead by listing the generations after Noah as many nations are formed from his three sons.
The Tower of Babel is built with its top in the heavens. The people who build it seek to make a name for themselves so they will not be scattered around the earth. The Lord decides that the people are getting too big for their britches so He brings down the tower, gives them separate languages and does what they were afraid of – scatters them around the earth. The Torah ends with the description of the family tree of Shem which, in ten generations, produces Abram, soon to become Abraham, the first of the Patriarchs.
Isaiah has the Haftorah for this week. He exhorts those who could not bear children to shout for joy “for the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused.” God admits that He has turned away but He now agrees to take us back in love. The passages are a metaphor for Israel which has been forsaken and has lived in poverty and shame. The future will be bright ahead and all will be well, says Isaiah.
The Haftorah and the Torah tie together perfectly. The two describe the parallel rises of humanity after Eden and Israel after Sinai. They take us through the fall of humanity at the time of Noah and Israel, both because of lawlessness and the failure to properly worship God and end with a bright future when all will be well. So, on this dreary, Covid-19 filled day, look to a bright future ahead. We will overcome this too.
Torah Comments for October 17, 2020
Well, here we are, starting over again. Technically, we started over on Simchat Torah with the story of creation but that was really for continuity. We symbolically ended the Torah and began again, showing that life is a continuum and for everything, although there is a beginning and an end, yet everything continues on forever.
Chapter 1 of Genesis detailed the first six days of creation and we read the first part of Chapter 2 which told us about the seventh day. Over the years, there has been great controversy about this version of creation. Fundamentalists have insisted that we have to read the story literally. In the movie, Inherit the Wind, the fundamentalist Matthew Brady says that each day was twenty-four hours long and each hour consisted of sixty minutes and that everything happened as stated in the Christian version of creation. Henry Drummond made Brady look foolish with this version and defended the longer view expressed by Darwin that evolution took place over millions of years. Interestingly, one of my former rabbis, a physics major, provided support for Brady a few years ago. He said that all time is relative and that, if one were positioned in a specific location actually watching creation take place, it would appear that the time which on earth lasted millions of years happened in the space of one day at the right location. So, both versions of creation are correct.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, or the Garden of Eden, the Torah backtracks and tells the story of Adam and Eve:
“then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.”
The story continues with the creation of the Garden of Eden. It is located where one river splits into four, two of which we know – the Tigris and the Euphrates. We know the story – eat everything you want except from the tree of knowledge. As Lionel told me today, knowledge is not important if you don’t know you don’t know. And that was true in the Garden of Eden. Neither Human nor Woman had knowledge but they didn’t know that and they were perfectly okay.
“And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.”
Things change quickly in Chapter 3. The serpent starts tempting the woman by saying, “Though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden.” The woman interrupts and says that’s not right; we can eat from all the trees except from the tree of knowledge. She misstates the prohibition to include touching the fruit as well as eating it. The serpent goes on to tempt her by telling her that she will become as a god and know about good and evil. The woman lusts after the fruit, eats it and gives some to the human who also eats it. They now have knowledge and now they know that knowledge is important. Thus begins the world of fashion. Adam and Eve need clothes and from then on, fashion becomes important. Should I wear the black dress or the green one? These shoes or those? Is my hemline all right?
Ah, but I digress. Back to the story – God gets after the human. He admits that he was afraid and that he has learned knowledge. God wants to know how that happened and the human immediately “outs” the woman – it’s all her fault, he says. God then turns to the woman and she blames the serpent. Talk about passing the buck and not taking personal responsibility. The human blames the woman. He also blames God for “the woman whom you gave by me.” The woman blames the serpent. God metes out His first punishment in the history of the world. First, He punishes the serpent with crawling and enmity between serpents and humans. Second, He punishes the woman with the pain of childbirth, then with longing for man and finally with subjugation to man. From that day on, women have had to contend with sexual discrimination which has persisted to this day. Finally, God punishes the human, he will be forced to labor in pain for his whole life to produce food and, having begun in the dust, will return to the dust. This leads to names. The human names the woman Eve.
God now feeds into the fashion world by giving the human and his woman skin coats. Again, fashion becomes significant. Consequences result. Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden so they can no longer live forever.
Chapter 4 begins with sex and the inevitable result – Cain and Abel. That leads to sibling rivalry, jealousy and the first murder. There are a lot of interesting beginnings here – farming is considered superior to hunting. Hunters are wanderers. The stage is set for the story of Jacob and Esau. Society’s norms are begun – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is the question. The answer appears to be something akin to “probably,” although this proposition is subject to debate to this date. We have the second expulsion – Cain from the presence of his parents.
Now we learn that there are other people besides Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve. Cain has a wife. Where did she come from? It doesn’t say. Seth is born to Adam and Eve and he has a wife. There are Enoch, Irad, Mehujael, Methusael, Lamech, Adah, Zillah, Jabal, Jubal Tubal-Cain, Naamah, Enosh and assorted others who are not named but need to be there for these people to be born as well as cities of people. Here again is the opportunity for Darwinism – humanity may have begun with one couple but it branched out into many others of which Adam and Eve appear to be in some contexts the first people but in others representative of all early humanity.
The Haftorah, I Samuel, recounts the story of David and Jonathan. The two are not actual brothers, but they are as close as brothers could possibly be. The story is about the attempt by Saul to get rid of David. Jonathan agrees to spy on his father and determine if Saul in fact wants to kill him. They concoct a plot. David hides in a field and Jonathan attends a banquet hosted by Saul. David has been invited but does not show up. Saul rages and says that he will have David killed so Jonathan can ultimately become king. Jonathan warns David and they agree to be allies. Jonathan demonstrates true humanity and loyalty. He is indeed his brother’s keeper, unlike Abel.
We could spend hours studying the implications of these passages. There is the question of creation, fashion and compassion, the relationship between man and animal, man and woman, the foundations of society, brotherhood, equality, and the list goes on. We need to remember humility and respect.
Torah Comments for October 10, 2020
We’ve got another busy weekend. We begin with the reading for Shemini Atseret – Deuteronomy 14:22. The people are required to tithe the yield from their fields and the first born of their animals each year and eat it in Jerusalem. However, if Jerusalem was too far away, people would be permitted to sell the tithe at home and bring the proceeds to Jerusalem. Once there, the people could use the proceeds of the tithe to purchase food to eat and drink there. So, when Jesus was throwing out the moneychangers in the Temple, he was interfering with the ability of the people to carry out this obligation.
Every third year, the tithe was set aside for the Levites, temporary residents and orphans. The Torah doesn’t specify what happened to them the other years.
At the beginning of each seventh year, all loans to Jews but not non-Jews were released. The Torah says, “there will be no pauper among you.” It then goes right on to say “you shall not harden your heart and clench your hand against your brother the pauper.” So, the Torah recognizes that even with a periodic remission of debts there will still be poor among the people and exhorts them to remember that there is a communal responsibility to the entire population.
We come to the famous excuse used by slave traders to induce some Africans to come to the New World voluntarily – if one’s brother or sister is sold into slavery, that slavery will end in the seventh year and the slave will go free with the means to provide for his or her own support. The ceremony for making slavery permanent is described and the obligation to provide the first-born of the flock for the Lord is also indicated.
Finally, the holiday of Passover is described along with Shavuot and Sukkot.
We come to Simchat Torah. It’s the beginning of the end. Moses blesses the people one last time. The blessing echoes the blessing of Jacob to his sons before his death. He poetically describes the Lord as coming from Sinai, shining with fire bolts from his hand. Moses goes on to describe an assembly of the tribes to proclaim God’s supremacy and reflects on each of the tribes of Israel. He concludes by predicting a bright future for Israel – “Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.”
The last chapter of the Torah begins. Moses goes up to Mount Nebo where he views the Promised Land. Parallels are significant. The burning bush where Moses began his journey to save the Jewish people was on a mountain; the Ten Commandments were handed down to Moses on a mountain; and now Moses dies on a mountain. In each case, God talks to Moses. It appears that God buries Moses although it is not clear that this is what happened. Moses is apparently taken down into a glen where the burial occurs and the location is hidden from everyone. This also raises the question of who chronicled the death and burial? Did Moses write it before he died, being told by God what to expect? Did Joshua find him and bury him? No one knows. In any case, since no one knows where the grave is, no one can make a pilgrimage to the site and Moses cannot become the subject of a cult.
The Torah concludes,
“But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, with all the signs and the portents which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and with all the strong hand and with all the great fear that Moses did before the eyes of all Israel.”
The Torah ends with a vision of the importance of the Law as given in the Torah and the significance of these interactions. But we are not through. Simchat Torah is designed to demonstrate the importance of the study of Torah as a continuing obligation. We have finished studying but now we have to begin again. And so we take up the Torah again, this time in Genesis. We ended at the end of the life of Moses and the beginning of the history of Israel. We begin at the beginning of all things.
“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.”
Each day follows and on each day there is a new evolution in the creation of the earth. On the sixth day, God created humans and gave us dominion over all of his Creations. Creation ends on the seventh day when God ceased His work and blessed the day.
This whole study session seems exhausting but we are not through yet. We have Haftorot to review. The first, for Shemini Atzeret, comes from I Kings. Solomon has dedicated the Temple. He blesses the Lord and the people. He sacrifices 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep as part of a two-week long celebration.
The Haftorah for Simchat Torah begins appropriately with the beginning of Joshua. The Lord speaks to Joshua and tells him that the time has come to cross the Jordan and take the land. “Be strong and resolute,” the Lord commands, and recite the Teaching day and night. Joshua gives the people three days’ time to prepare and redeems the commitment of the two and a half tribes – Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, to lead the way into battle.
This ends our study for the week. We have witnessed an ending and a beginning. For us, this week is also a new beginning. We can begin to see the future in which we will be able to again function in a normal way so long as we remain careful now. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur September 26-28, 2020
This is a really congested time for Torah readings. The normal Shabbat reading for September 26, Shabbat Shuvah, brings us to almost the end of our journey from creation to the entry into the “Promised Land.” Of course, the Israelites have already conquered territory to the East of the Jordan River which becomes part of Israel proper, but that is all the prelude to the post-Torah history of our people.
The parasha begins with Shirat Ha’azinu, the poem of Moses. Moses starts out invoking the attention of all:
“Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak, and let the earth hear my mouth’s utterances. Let my teaching drop like rain, my saying flow like dew, like showers on the green and like cloudbursts on the grass.”
Moses knows this is the end for him and this speech is the most important one he will have ever given. He emphasizes to the people that the Lord is perfect and that any problems humans have experienced are due to their own failings. He reminds the people that God allotted lands to all nations and approved subordinate gods for all the others but reserved Himself for Israel and has provided protection for His chosen people. He points out that Israel has spurned the Lord and there has been punishment for this backsliding. He goes on to tell the people that their enemies have no understanding of how they were able to prevail over Israel (through God’s help) and that the Lord will ultimately punish those enemies.
Moses takes his leave of the people. The Lord tells him to go up to Mount Nebo where he can see the land of Canaan. He is to die on the mountain for having disobeyed the Lord back at Meribah by striking the rock to obtain water instead of praying for God to order the water to gush forth.
In the morning or so on Monday comes the first Yom Kippur parasha. This one begins after the death of Aaron’s sons for having encroached on the sacred space. The Lord instructs Aaron that he cannot just come and go into the area where the Ark rests at any time. He can only come there when he is going to perform a sacrifice and he must purify himself and wear special clothing. The ritual of the scapegoat is then described. Lots determine which goat is to be spared and that goat is sent into the wilderness. That goat carries with it the sins of the people. This is a ritual which is not unique to Judaism. It had been followed in a number of other civilizations of the time. For us, of course, it is part of the central theme of Yom Kippur. We symbolically cast off our sins by asking forgiveness, first from those we have wronged and then from the Lord, after which we approach the end of the holiday with clean consciences to ask for another year of life. We repeat the ceremony every year at this time and it connects us to our ancestors in a very practical way. We are also reminded of the special sacrifices for Yom Kippur.
Afternoon arrives. Soon it will be dusk and it will be the end of our opportunity to atone for our sins. This is a perfect time to remind everyone of the uniqueness of our society and the rules by which we are to abide. The final Torah portion before dark is a reminder of the proscriptions against sexual perversions and promiscuity. The Torah goes into great detail about which practices are prohibited – adultery, incest, bestiality, sexual contact with close relatives. Homosexuality among men is bad, women are not mentioned in this prohibition. We are reminded that we must follow God’s rules or we will be cut off from our people.
We have three Haftorot to consider at this time. Depending on our heritage they are different. For me, the Haftorah for Shabbat Shuvah is found in Hosea who was active between 786 and 721 BCE and Joel. Joel prophesied at an unknown time between 500 and 800 BCE. It may have been during the last days of the kingdom of Judah, during the reign of Joash, during the reign of Uzziah, during the time of Hosea, Amos and Jonah, the time of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk or the time of Zechariah and Haggai. Parts of his writings are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. For others, Micah is substituted for Joel and for yet others we study all three.
Hosea calls on the people to return to the Lord. Instead of sacrifices, he implores them to use prayer. He tells us that if the people return, the Lord will heal them and take them back in love.
Joel gives a call to action:
“Blow a horn in Zion, solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly! Gather the people, bid the congregation purify themselves.”
Joel tells us that the Lord will heed our pleas, drive the northern conquerors away and restore fertility and abundance to Israel.
“And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: That I the Lord am your God and there is no other. And my people shall be shamed no more.”
Last comes Micah. Micah was a prophet from 737 to 696 BCE and continued through the reigns of three kings. He typically rebuked corruption in the cities. In this Haftorah he praises God’s mercy and calls upon God to remember the promises made “to our fathers in days gone by.”
On Yom Kippur morning, Isaiah demands that all obstacles in the way of the people to return to God be removed for God will not be angry with the people forever. God will heal the people who are good and cry out to Him but the wicked will not be protected. Isaiah reminds the people that they have suffered because they have not been pure. On days of fasting, they have continued to see to business and have oppressed their workers. He begs the people to repent and act with charity and compassion, sharing bread with the hungry and clothing the naked. Fast, act kindly to others and observe the Sabbath and then we can seek the favor of the Lord, he says.
Yom Kippur afternoon concludes with the recitation of the book of Jonah. For years, I enjoyed chanting Jonah when living in Appleton. We know the story well. Jonah is ordered by the Lord to go to Nineveh and proclaim judgment against it for the wickedness of its residents. Jonah, like Moses, is afraid to carry out the Lord’s command. Unlike Moses, he doesn’t have the courage to obey. Instead, he decides to elude the Lord and gets onto a ship heading to Tarshish. Obviously, this doesn’t work out well for anybody. God brings a storm and endangers the ship. The crew casts lots and determines that the storm is Jonah’s fault. Jonah confesses and asks the sailors to throw him overboard to save themselves. They first try to save him but ultimately toss him into the sea to save themselves.
A huge fish swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, Jonah gets the hint and promises to do what he is supposed to. He goes off to Nineveh as ordered and tells the inhabitants that they have 40 days’ time left. The Ninevens fasted and put on sackcloth. They prayed for forgiveness and the Lord agreed to let them off the hook. Now Jonah was upset. He turned on the Lord and asked how God could betray him like that. After all, he had risked his life for what, he asked? He wanted to die. So Jonah left Nineveh and went to a place nearby to die. God provided a plant which grew well, making Jonah happy. He then produced a worm which made the plant wither. Jonah said to the Lord that he wanted to die because of what happened to the plant. The Lord replied to him and pointed out that Jonah had cared for the plant which he had nothing to do with. Why then, asked the Lord, should He not have cared about Nineveh whom Jonah had made to see the light and repent?
There are connections among all of these Torah and Haftorah portions. The Lord’s greatness and compassion is one. The other is that people will sin and will be punished but that they will be redeemed if they but call upon the Lord with true repentance for those sins. We should all use this season to reflect on our shortcomings and our relationships to others. We need to recognize our need to repair our connections with those whom we know and interact with.
Torah Comments for Rosh Hashanah
I know, you were relishing the story of Moses’ final discourse. He was just finishing up. He had publicly introduced Joshua as his successor and was getting ready to go off and die. The people, now sufficiently cheered by God’s promises and chastened with his curses were itching to cross the Jordan. But now we have to take a little detour and go back to Genesis. Not the beginning; we’ll get there soon but now we have Chapter 21.
“And the Lord singled out Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age.”
Abraham is 100 at this point. He was only 99 when he impregnated Sarah – I guess we all still have to be careful since we’re so much younger than that. We get to the human nature part next, of course. Sarah is afraid of two things – first that people will laugh at her, mocking her for having a child at this age, and second that Hagar will get part of her son Isaac’s inheritance for her son Ishmael. Somewhat against his will, Abraham listens to and obeys Sarah when she insists that he banish Hagar and Ishmael. She is being protective of her own son but this sounds similar to Adam, eating the fruit of the tree at Eve’s insistence, although reluctantly.
God does promise that Ishmael will become a great nation, just like Isaac and he does, founding the Arab people.
Meanwhile, back at the well… Just before this story, Abimelech’s troops had tried to take over a well that Abraham’s people had been using. The two made a peace treaty and called the place Beersheba, the well of the oath.
The second day continues the story with Chapter 22 of Genesis. God calls out to Abraham and he replies, “Here I am,” “Hinini,” just as we hear at the beginning of Musaf. God tells Abraham,
“Take, pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall say to you.”
We’re all familiar with the story. Abraham is faced with a terrible choice. He considers Isaac to be his only true son. Ishmael is gone – out of sight, out of mind. He has to know that now that he is a lot older than 100, he’s not going to have a second miracle. If he sacrifices Isaac, that will be the end of his line. And yet, he doesn’t hesitate. He gets up, cuts the wood for the sacrifice himself and takes Isaac out for the sacrifice. Abraham gets everything set up and ties Isaac up. He gets ready to kill him and only then the Lord’s messenger calls out and puts a stop to it. The messenger supplies a ram which Abraham sees for the first time, caught in a thicket, and that is what is sacrificed. The messenger informs Abraham that the Lord will now reward him with descendants like “the sand on the shore of the sea.” The Torah portion concludes with the genealogical list of Abraham’s brother, leading to the birth of Rebekah.
Next are the Haftorot.
On the first day of Rosh Hashonah, we study Samuel. This is the story of Hannah, wife of Elkanah. Hannah was barren while her rival, the other wife, had children. Hannah was heartbroken and one day she went to the temple in Shiloh. She prayed silently to the Lord for a son. Eli, the priest, saw her there and, thinking that she was drunk, criticized her for her public drunkenness. When Hannah explained that she had been praying and not drinking, Eli told her, “then go in peace and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.” Sure enough, nine months later Hannah had a son. She named him Samuel and brought him to the temple in Shiloh to serve the Lord. The Haftorah concludes with Hannah’s prayer to the Lord.
The second Haftorah comes from Jeremiah. He predicts the coming return of the people to the land of Israel.
“He who scattered Israel will gather them, and will guard them as a shepherd his flock.”
The first day’s study teaches that no miracle is impossible. Birth at an advanced age, birth by a barren woman, can happen with God’s help. The second day demonstrates that God will reward piety with positive results. We need to begin the new year on a positive note and stay safe.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT NITZAVIM AND VAYELEKH, September 12, 2020
This week’s Torah portion begins with the concept of communal and individual responsibility. Moses requires every Israelite to participate in the entry of a new covenant with the Lord. The concept extends to all the people who are about to enter into the Promised Land and also everyone who is not there, that is, us. So, here our ancestors commit themselves and us and our descendants to the terms of the covenant. The covenant will contain mutual promises and there will be consequences for failing to live up to it.
Moses demonstrates his command of human nature when he says some people will think that they are immune to the consequences –
“I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart.”
No way, José, as they say.
“The Lord will single them out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune.”
Even those people who stray in secret are known to the Lord and will be subjected to punishment for their wrongful acts and thoughts. Just remember the song,
“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town.”
In our case, of course, we’d better watch out because God is watching us and God knows what’s happening. But Moses provides hope for us. He knows, he says, what’s coming. People are not perfect and they’re going to stray. The result is a foregone conclusion. They will be punished for it. The hope though shines through. When we repent and we return to the Lord with all our heart and soul,
“Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.”
Moses points out that our obligations are not all that hard to follow. Just
“love the Lord your God,  walk in His ways, and  keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules.”
Moses tells everyone, us included, “Choose life … and thereby you shall have life.”
It’s over. Moses tells the people that it’s over. He’s 120 and he’s through. He introduces Joshua as his successor, tells the people to follow him and tells Joshua that the Lord will be with him as they conquer the land. Moses then writes down the laws he has just given to the people and orders that the writing be read to the people every seventh year on Sukkot before the entire people. One last act, Moses writes down a poem for the people to hear. Stay tuned for it next week.
Following the theme of “it’s over,” we read the last of the seven Haftorot of consolation. This week, Isaiah begins with optimism:
“I greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being exults in my God.”
Isaiah foresees the renewed triumph of Israel and says that when the redemption occurs it will be forever. We see in both the Torah and the Haftorah, a recognition of the weakness of our human condition, the certainty that we will fail to do what is right from time to time and will suffer for it. But we also see that in the end, if we but come back to doing what is right and good for ourselves, our fellow humans and for the Lord, all will be well.
Keep the faith and stay safe.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT KI TAVO September 5, 2020
This week’s parasha begins with the first-fruits ceremony. “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you…” The people are required to give the first fruits to the priest in the holy city and to acknowledge that they are able to do this because the Lord has assigned the land to them. The formula the people recite on bringing the first fruits to the Lord is one of the few actual recitations required by the Torah. It emphasizes the role that God has played in our history and how God has given us the land. This isn’t just any offering though. The farmer who brings it to the priest is to eat of it along with the priest and the strangers. Each third year, the tithe, 1/10th of the produce of the fields, is not shared by the farmer who brings it. Instead, it goes to the poor. Again, there is a formula recitation that is made with the offering.
It’s now time to sum up. Everyone has been instructed in the law. The terms of the agreement between the people and the Lord are clear – “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.” On God’s part, the Lord affirms a special relationship with the people and promises them a place at the head of nations.
Next, the arrival ceremonies to take place are spelled out. First, on Mount Ebal, the people are to set up large stones coated with plaster and to inscribe the teaching on them. This is a unique requirement and it becomes a necessary first step in conquering the holy land. Next, an altar is to be constructed there made of uncut stone. Sacrifices are to be made there before the people set out. There is speculation that the altar was found to exist there in modern times.
The next ritual is that of the blessings and the curses. Half the tribes are to stand on Mount Gerizim and half on Mount Ebal. The tribes on Mount Gerizim were there for blessings and the others were for curses. One can envision the scene. The people file onto the two mountains. The priests walk into the middle space carrying the Ark with them. The Levites face the people on Mount Ebal and recite the twelve curses to which the people respond “Amen.” They then turn toward Mount Gerizim and recite blessings. Then the people are told in no uncertain terms what the consequences will be if they do not obey the Lord –
“Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom the Lord will let loose against you. He will put an iron yoke upon your neck until He has wiped you out.”
Just imagine being there and hearing the promises and threats, knowing what God has done for the people, being faced with the future right there before you and knowing you can have it all. All you have to do is follow the rules – or else. Who needs plagues and pestilence, who needs to be wiped out? All it takes is to keep to the covenant. Moses brings the people together one last time and reminds them that they have experienced great miracles at the hand of the Lord, including liberation from slavery, food to eat, water to drink, clothes to wear and military victory.
“Therefore, observe faithfully all the terms of this covenant, that you may succeed in all that you undertake.”
Some people may have been energized by the brevity of last week’s Haftorah. That’s great because this week, Isaiah takes a lot more time to provide an almost final dose of consolation following Tisha B’Av.
“Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; the Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!”
Isaiah tells us to look around. The people will be restored to Israel and “the riches of the nations shall flow to you.” Isaiah promises that peace and prosperity will again be known in the land. All these good things will come in due time.
So, what do we do today? Stay on the right mountain and listen to the blessings. We follow the rules. Wear a mask. Social distance.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT KI TEITZEI August 29, 2020
Moses is still talking. He could give a real spellbinder to the faithful like Elmer Gantry. Or, to the not so faithful, he could drone on and on like some of the speakers at our national political conventions. This parasha deals with some miscellaneous laws.
We begin with women’s rights. This is a topic that is significant in the time period that it was created. In many cases, women in the ancient world had no rights. In others, they had some rights but they were not codified in the law. This set of rights makes a major statement, even if it does not go as far as we would like to see it go in today’s context. The first rule is an especially substantial change in the way captives of war were to be treated. In the Greek and Roman world, women captives could be raped, beaten and murdered at will. Here, captives had to be made wives and if they ceased to be desired, they were to become free. A man with two wives was to treat them fairly and the first-born son, no matter whose child, was to inherit. No more treating Rachel better than Leah.
Punishment of the wayward son is next. The parents bring him before the community and charge him with defiance. The town judges him and stones him if he cannot be redeemed. An interesting provision of the law prohibits the people from leaving a criminal’s corpse exposed after dark.
There is an obligation to return lost property. If it is unknown whose property it is, one must take it home and publicize its finding to give the owner the opportunity to reclaim it. This is interesting because there is a whole section of the Talmud that discusses how one obtains ownership of lost property. It appears to be by possessing it. This may require significantly more advanced study to explain. There is a similar obligation to assist a fellow Jew in distress, the example being if an animal falls by the wayside, one must help restore it.
Here’s one I encountered in a divorce case. No one is permitted to wear the clothing of the opposite sex. I had a client whose former husband insisted on dressing their daughter in boys’ clothes. We couldn’t get the judge to follow the Torah there.
Birds’ eggs are fair game but not the mother. There has to be a parapet on the roof of every home so no one falls off.
There are prohibitions on mixing things – only one kind of seed in the field, do not plow with an ox and an ass together, don’t wear wool and linen together.
There is a reminder to wear tassels (fringes) on our garments. Women were exempted from this requirement and in the Middle Ages, it was modified by the rabbis to permit Jews to wear a symbolic tassel inside clothing so they could not be singled out for persecution because of their clothing.
Sex crimes are next. Women are supposed to be virgins when they marry or they can be stoned. Men are not permitted to falsely claim their wives were not virgins or they could be fined. Adultery was punished by death. Rape is determined by where a person had sex with an engaged woman – if it was in town, it was not rape because she could have cried for help. In the country, it would be rape because no one was there to hear her. If a man had sex with an unengaged woman, he had to marry her and could never divorce her.
Finally, no Ammonite or Moabite can be allowed to convert to Judaism.
This is the fifth Haftorah of consolation. It’s the shortest Haftorah of the year. My wife, Nancy, loved it and would chant it when she could. Isaiah writes of the barren woman who will now bear children and how, like He promised Noah that there would be no more huge floods, God would not forsake our people again. Isaiah’s reference to the barren woman is to Israel and the Jewish people. We can return to our homeland and will be content there.
The promulgation of every day rules in this parasha is the foundation of the civil and religious society that will be established in Israel. Again, we are told to follow these rules to protect our future. In the next few weeks Moses will continue to lay this foundation for a successful future society in Israel.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT SHOFETIM August 22
This week, Moses starts out with a subject near and dear to my heart – the appointment of judges and other officials. The keys –
“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes…Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
The worship rules take a change in direction as the people get ready to enter the Promised Land. No longer can there be a sacred post or pole near the altar and no longer can the people erect a stone pillar, something that had been permitted in the past. This is a further attempt to centralize the worship in the new location.
We next turn to purity. Sacrifices are to be pure animals and the people are to be pure. Anyone caught worshipping other than the Lord is to be put to death. But, and this is a big but, no one can be put to death without the testimony of two witnesses and the witnesses are to cast the first stones. This is a practical method of making witnesses realize the significance of their words.
Hard cases, those that local judges cannot understand, are to be brought to the city of the Lord and turned over to the priests or magistrates there for determination. Their rulings are to be followed to the letter. This is akin to a system of courts that has existed in many US states to this day. We in many cases have municipal or district courts for the easy disputes and circuit courts for the more complex ones. We also have specialized courts for the difficult cases – patent courts, admiralty courts, bankruptcy courts.
The king! No, not Elvis. Moses tells the people that they can decide to have a king in the Promised Land. There are conditions – the king must be chosen by God; the king has to be Jewish; the king cannot have lots of horses or lots of wives, nor may he have a lot of silver and gold. Of course, there are those that say if the king had lots of wives, he wouldn’t have to worry about having lots of silver and gold and if he didn’t have lots of wives, he might have more money. Remember, we are talking about different times here when men thought they ruled the world and women had little to say at least in public. The truth of course was different then just as it is now. The king was to be circumscribed by the law. He was to have a copy of the Torah with him at all times and he was to read it regularly so he would be governed by the word of God.
The priesthood was dealt with. The tribe of Levi, was to have no land but was to live off of the offerings to the Lord. They would be entitled to a portion of the sacrifices and the first fruits of the people. All Levites were considered equally qualified to serve the Lord.
Moses promises the people that he will be followed by other prophets.
Moses now creates the judicial system. First, he establishes three sanctuary cities inside Israel to which manslayers can go if they have accidentally killed someone. They are to be safe there from revenge. Provision is made for three more cities in the future. Sanctuary is to be provided only to the accidental killer though and not those who deliberately kill someone.
A lot of Moses’ rules have meaning today. He declares that boundary markers cannot be moved. False swearing is prohibited and the penalty for it is the penalty that would have been imposed on the person that the witness is testifying against. And here is one of the most famous quotations from the Torah which is supposed to relate to the criminal law –
“Nor must you show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”
Scholars indicate that the penalties can be imposed through payment of money rather than physical punishment. The statement in Numbers 35:31 indicates that money will not be permitted to substitute for capital punishment and the implication is that it is available in non-capital cases.
Moses has specific instructions relating to war. The priests are to exhort the troops before a battle and are to remind them that the Lord will be with them. After the priests speak come the rules on exemptions from battle – those with new homes they have never lived in, fields they have never harvested, those who are engaged and those who are afraid are to go home.
Before attacking the army is to offer terms to the enemy. The battle can be avoided if the enemy agrees to surrender and to become servants. If the battle takes place, all male adults are to be killed but the women and children and their possessions are for the army. These restrictions do not apply to the cities nearby because the residents have encouraged the Israelites to worship idols. Another interesting rule is that the army is not to cut down those trees that can yield fruit, even in a siege.
Finally comes the question of what to do when there is an unsolved murder. In that case, a process is created for determining responsibility.
With all these somber rules it’s time for some consolation. In comes Isaiah:
“I, I am he who comforts you!
What ails you that you fear
Man who must die,
Mortals who fare like grass?”
Isaiah tells us that the time has come to rejoice because we will never again drink from the Lord’s cup of wrath. Jerusalem will be restored and the people will be redeemed and will return to Israel.
The time has come to establish a new society but that society will be governed in justice by the rule of law and by people who follow the word of the Lord. When that occurs, everyone will live in peace and contentment. We can take comfort by the logic of the new society’s creation and a happy future. Stay Safe in the coming week.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT RE’EH August 15
Moses is still talking, but now he is getting to the meat of it. First, he tells the people that they have the choice between a blessing and a curse. To make the contrast as stark as can be, he instructs them to pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal. The two mountains face each other across the Jordan River where the people will go but Moses will not. He exhorts the people to observe all the laws that he has “set before you this day.”
The first law Moses gives is to destroy every site where the people of Canaan have worshiped their gods. The second law is to worship only at the place the Lord has chosen for worship. The third law is that non-worship animal sacrifices can take place anywhere. Moses presents these three laws as a means of centralizing the practice of Judaism. It makes a great deal of sense to do so, considering the problems Moses faced in the wilderness. There, the people rebelled time and again and it was only through the force of being the only leader that they had ever known that Moses was able to prevail. He and Aaron defeated idol worship (the Golden Calf), religious schism (the fire pan rebellion) and civil rebellion (almost too numerous to mention). For the future, by centralizing worship in the location chosen by the Lord, Moses was able to protect his successors, at least in the beginning, from the rebellious nature of our stiff-necked people.
Moses goes on to insist that the people do exactly what they are told, no more and no less. Prophets claiming to follow other gods are to be put to death. The people are told to resist taking the easy way out, either as proclaimed by that nasty prophet or by close relatives. The path of righteousness is not through practices that seem attractive, but through following the dictates of the Lord.
There’s an old saying, “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” At the time it was coined, there were only fifty million Frenchmen, so the idea was that if the entire country believed something, it had to be okay. Moses scotches that idea. He says that, even if an entire town comes up with improper practices, the people are not to follow them; instead, the town is to be destroyed and the people and all their possessions are to be destroyed with it.
Moses instructs the people not to cut themselves when mourning. They are also to eat only proper foods, such as oxen, sheep, goats and deer, but no camels, hares or swine. Fish must have fins and scales – put down that shrimp! No birds of prey and no swarming insects. He tells the people they cannot eat animals that have died a natural death and not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk – no cheeseburgers and no Philly steaks.
There are affirmative duties too. One-tenth of produce is to be dedicated to the Lord but to be consumed by the people in the holy city to be named. This is the tithe. Every three years, the tithe is to be given to the Levites and the poor. Every seven years, all debts are to be remitted. This was a common practice in the ancient Near East when a new ruler took command. He goes on to state that there will be no needy people among the Chosen Ones but then says, if there is someone who is needy, one must lend him what he needs to survive. Slaves are also bound by the seven-year rule. At the end of that time, they are to be freed along with the wherewithal to become independent. A process is established to permit a slave to become a permanent one but that happens at the end of the seventh year. The slavers who took Africans from their homes to the New World often promised that they would be indentured for seven years only and not permanent slaves but they skipped the ceremony marking permanent slavery and went right to it, selling their captives permanently when they arrived.
The perfect first-born were to be consecrated to the Lord. Moses describes the major harvest festivals – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot – and instructs the people to appear at the place the Lord chooses with a sacrifice for the Lord for each of the festivals.
This is the third Haftorah of consolation, again from Isaiah. He tells the people that the Lord will help them:
“And all your children shall be disciples of the Lord, and great shall be the happiness of your children… You shall be safe from oppression and shall have no fear.”
So, what’s the point of all this? The people who are about to enter the Promised Land never knew the degradation of slavery. The only structure they ever had in their lives was that of the nascent religion, led by Moses and Aaron. Aaron is gone; Moses is about to leave them. They need to know what to do in the future and how to do it and they also need to know what the consequences will be if they do what they should and, more significantly, if they don’t. Moses tells them what they need to do and he tells them what the consequences will be if they fail the test. Isaiah doesn’t have to dwell on the consequences of failing to follow God’s law; the people have already been exiled so they know. He does have to hold out the hope for the future that Moses had promised, and he does so. We too should have hope for a future in which this pandemic is defeated and we can resume our normal lives.
Torah Comments SHABBAT NAHAMU for August 8, 2020
We start out in the middle of Moses’ first discourse. He began this speech last week by reviewing our people’s history and God’s patience with them. In this way, Moses may have felt that he could instill some gratitude in the people and a willingness to listen, especially since he has reminded them how powerful God is and how precarious their position has been. Now Moses shifts the focus to himself. He tells the people that God is not going to let him go with them into the Promised Land. He almost sounds like the first stereotypical Jewish mother, as he tries to make the people feel guilty that he is being punished:
“But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account.”
Now Moses gets to the heart of what he wants the people to hear:
“And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.”
Moses warns the people to obey the laws to their full extent, not to add to them or subtract from them. He points out that the people promised that they would do this at Mt. Sinai and reminds them of the pitfalls of failing to follow through on that promise. Moses again reminds the people that he has made the sacrifice of not being able to go to the Promised Land so they can. He explains to them that idols do not do the things that they and their fathers have witnessed God doing and exhorts them to return to the Lord when they are in distress.
At the end of this speech, Moses establishes three cities of sanctuary on the west side of the Jordan River.
Now it’s time for the second discourse.
“Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully.”
Moses now repeats the Ten Commandments. This version is the one that is generally accepted as the correct one:
- “I the Lord am your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods beside Me.
- You shall make you no carved likeness, no image of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not bow to them and you shall not worship them, for I am the Lord your God, a jealous god, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, and with the third generation and with the fourth, for my foes, and doing kindness to the thousandth generation for My friends and those who keep My commands.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not acquit whosoever takes His name in vain.
- Keep the sabbath day to hallow it as the Lord your God has charged you. Six days you shall work and you shall do your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. You shall do no task, you and your son and your daughter and your male slave and your slavegirl and your ox and your donkey and all your beasts and your sojourner who is within your gates, so that your male slave and your slavegirl may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore did the Lord charge you to make the sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God charged you, so that your days may be long and so that He may do well with you on the soil that the Lord your God has given you.
- You shall not murder.
- And you shall not commit adultery.
- And you shall not steal.
- And you shall not bear vain witness against your fellow man.
- And you shall not covet your fellow man’s wife, and you shall not desire your fellow man’s house, his field, or his male servant or his slave girl, his ox or his donkey, or anything that your fellow man has.”
Moses then goes on to give us the Shema:
“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
He tells the people to pass down the laws to their children and to teach them that they are to obey them because
“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”
The Haftorah is the first one of consolation following Tisha B’Av. Isaiah tells us “Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God.” We are all to proclaim the might of God and God’s greatness.
Can you imagine the scene? The Israelites are there, gathered in a large valley next to the Jordan River. They have already been successful in conquering the lands to the west of the Jordan and are poised to begin the final push. Moses, the only leader they have ever known, rises before them. He charges them with the obligation to follow God’s laws as they inherit their future. He tells them that he will not be going with them. Their anchor will be the laws he gives them in his final three speeches to them. The common theme is clear – follow the rules and God will take care of you. As the people are inspired to comply so should we be.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT HAZON – DEVARIM July 25, 2020
It’s over! We’ve trudged through four books of the Torah, all the way from “let there be light” to the banks of the Jordan River. We heard about the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, Noah, pillars of salt, the matriarchs and the patriarchs and 40 years in the wilderness. Now we’re just about ready to enter the Promised Land. The only thing left is a few final lectures and reminders by Moses. It’s just like your parents telling you how to act on that first date.
The Torah portion begins with the statement that it is only eleven days’ journey from Mt. Sinai to the Jordan River. It is obvious that the journey took 38 years instead which begins the theme that there is a significant punishment for not trusting in God. Moses reminds the people of his burden in caring for them. He tells them of the decision to pick wise men to head each of the tribes to reduce his need to make all the decisions himself. He points out that justice, in his system of government, shows no favoritism and that he has always remained the final human arbiter.
Next Moses recounts the journey from Mt. Sinai, starting with the mission of the twelve spies. He tells the people that their refusal to follow him into the Promised Land resulted in the 38-year extension of the Exodus and significant military battles. Of course, only the youngest of the people had survived this penalty and were now ready to enter the Promised Land so they needed this reminder of what happens when one fails to follow the Commandments of the Lord. Moses goes on to blame the people for God’s refusal to allow him to enter the Promised Land.
Moses continues with his review of the wanderings through the wilderness with the encounter with the Edomites and the Moabites, both of which went well. He continues with the less happy encounter with King Sihon where the Israelites first flexed their military muscle with success. Moses continues with the story of King Og of Bashan who also made the mistake of underestimating the people. Moses reminds the people of the bargain he made with Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh to take land on the east side of the Jordan but to provide the shock troops for the battles to come. He concludes this portion of his speech and of this parasha by reminding the people that Joshua would lead them to victory in Israel.
Tisha B’Av is almost upon us and we now endure the third Haftorah of rebuke. This one is the beginning of Isaiah’s writings. He begins railing against the people –
“An ox knows its owner, an ass its master’s crib: Israel does not know, My people takes no thought.”
Isaiah points out that forsaking the Lord has produced consequences –
“Every head is ailing, and every heart is sick.”
Isaiah wants to know what is wrong with us that we can’t get it through our heads that we are suffering because we refuse to listen to God’s words. He tells the people that God will not listen to them anymore. Their sins are too great and they do not repent. If they would repent and sincerely turn a new leaf, God will relent but that has not happened and suffering will continue.
Both Moses and Isaiah remind us that no bad deed goes unpunished and good deeds will be rewarded. In this climate of discord and discrimination we have the opportunity to stand for what is right and good. If we do so, we will light the way to a better world, one in which every individual has an equal opportunity to succeed and no one is left behind because of the color of his or her skin, their ethnic background or their religion. We have a role to play by not staying silent when we see discrimination and by encouraging good deeds and safe conduct. Be careful out there this week.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT MATTOT SHABBAT MAS’E July 18, 2020
There’s an ad on CNN where the commentator says of Donald Trump, “just tell the truth.” Well, telling the truth is in part the subject of this Torah portion. It deals with oaths and vows and a double standard. Men who take an oath or make vows to God are required to carry them out. However, women get a break, at least if they are not on their own. If they still live at home and if their father finds out about the vow, he can annul it the day he finds out about it. If the woman is married, her husband can annul the oath the day he finds out about it. If the woman is living at home and is betrothed, either her father or her husband can annul the oath the day that he finds out about it. If the oath is not annulled, it is to be carried out. A widow or a divorcee living on her own is required to carry out her obligations and presumably so is a single woman living on her own. The principles espoused here are based on the circumstances of the times when there were not a lot of independent women – those who were independent were treated like the men were; others had the safety net of the person responsible to care for them.
The Torah deals with revenge. The Midianites had encouraged their women to use their sexual wiles to entice the Israelites into idol worship. God tells Moses to send 12,000 soldiers to attack the Midianites. Balaam, of the failed attempt to curse the Israelites, is among those killed, along with all the men. The soldiers bring back the women and children along with the herds of the Midianites. Moses insists that all the male children and all the women who had been sexually active were to be killed and the army was then purified after the fighting. Next came the division of the spoils of war. Everything was divided in half. The soldiers got half and were required to give 1/500th to the priest. The rest of the community got the other half and were required to give 1/50th to the Levites. The officers then made a gift of part of their war trophies to the Lord.
The time to settle in the Promised Land was at hand. The tribes of Gad and Reuben decided that they would like to stay on the side across from the Jordan River which had now been conquered. Moses becomes enraged. After all, the rest of what is now the land of Israel had yet to be conquered. There would be hard fighting ahead. There was no way that the members of these two tribes were going to stop short of the goals set by God. The tribal leaders had to interrupt Moses as he was about to curse them for their cowardice. That wasn’t the plan, they said. They would set up the land for their families and would then become the shock troops for the battles of Israel. Moses instructed Joshua and the other leaders of the Israelites to enforce the deal and approved it. He also gave a portion of the land to Manasseh but that tribe had to conquer its land from Og.
What follows seems out of place in the chronology of our history. The Torah goes back and describes the places that the Israelites traveled to during the 40 years in the wilderness. Between the starting point at Rameses and the final camp at the Jordan River there were 42 stops, some for a few days at a time, others for longer periods. Commentators say this is a logical time for a summary since everything is now in readiness for the entry into the Promised Land. There are only a few more things left to do. Moses has to reallocate the land being allocated to each tribe. After all, two and a half tribes won’t be getting land. In addition, several tribes have changed in size and their needs are now different from when the original division took place.
God instructs Moses to make sure that the people understand that they are to destroy all the worship sites and idols they find. God sets the boundaries for Israel and instructs them to assign 48 towns for the Levites. Six of those cities are designated as cities of refuge. Those people who unintentionally killed someone would be permitted to live safely in a city of refuge. A national tribunal would adjudicate their intent and intentional murderers would be put to death. It would take two witnesses to convict someone of intentional murder. A murderer could not be pardoned. The unintentional killers would be permitted to stay safely in a city of refuge until the death of the high priest, at which time they would be freed to resume their lives. If they attempted to leave the city before that time, they were subject to being caught and killed by the relatives of the deceased.
The final instruction of the book of Numbers is that the land of each tribe is to remain within the tribe. Women could inherit from their fathers, but only if there were no sons. Thus, women were to marry within their own tribe if they owned land in order to keep it in the “family,” so to speak.
The Haftorah is from Jeremiah. The Lord complains,
“What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they abandoned Me?”
After all, who was it that brought the people from slavery to freedom, who brought them through the wilderness, who brought them to the land of Israel? The punishment is clear – exile, loss of freedom, death. The Lord sounds like a parent – how can you treat me like this after all I’ve done for you? I raised you and taught you right from wrong but you ignored me and deliberately sinned. Then, of course, when the going got tough, you expected me to drop everything and save you. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The connection here, from the Torah to the Haftorah to today is to forgo the pleasures of sin and walk in God’s ways. In that way, we will be rewarded. Today, we can follow the proper path by wearing a mask, social distancing and being careful.
Torah Comments for PINCHAS July 11, 2020
It’s Pinchas! Last year I observed Pinchas at the World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia with Jewish Scouts from around the world. It was an experience to participate in a Shabbat observance with a group of French Scouts – the service was the same but the tunes and the enthusiasm were different.
Pinchas (Phinehas) is the hero Phinehas from last week who killed a Midianite princess and an important Israelite who were being somewhat less than sexually discreet in front of the community. God makes Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, and his heirs the future priesthood of Israel as a reward for his zeal. They are later known as the Zadokites. There are some scholars who believe that this story has its origin in a dispute over the priesthood during the reign of Solomon between Zadok, a descendant of Pinchas, and Abiathar, a descendant of Pinchas’ uncle. Zadok was the winner.
This story presents an interesting contrast. In the earlier incident, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was mistreating a Hebrew slave and was forced to flee for his life. Pinchas, however, receives a reward for having killed an Israelite chieftain and a Midianite princess. Both incidents were extrajudicial killings to redress wrongs. Moses, the great liberator, was punished. Pinchas, the religious zealot, was rewarded.
God orders Moses to go to war with the Midianites as punishment for their role in trying to seduce the Israelites. This order was the basis for a new military census. This one was for all Israelites over the age of 20 who were able to bear arms. The census in the second year of the wandering in the wilderness resulted in a total of 603,550. This census in year forty resulted in a slight decrease down to 601,730. However, there was a significant shift in the distribution of the people. The tribe of Simeon decreased by over 37,000 while Manasseh increased by 20,000 and Asher by almost 12,000, Benjamin by over 10,000 and Issachar by almost 10,000.
Jeremiah became a prophet in 626 BCE and continued until his death in Egypt in 570 BCE. His book begins with a discussion with the Lord reminiscent of the beginning of Moses’ mission. Jeremiah is about 24 at the time God calls on him to begin his mission. He says
“I don’t know how to speak for I am still a boy.”
God instructs Jeremiah to go where he is sent and speak what he is commanded. Jeremiah has a vision of a steaming pot tipped away from the North. God informs him that this vision is of an impending disaster for Israel that will come from the North. God commands Jeremiah to go to Jerusalem and to preach that the disaster will occur because of the wickedness of the people who have sacrificed to other gods. Sure enough, the Babylonians attack Israel and destroy the Temple in 598 BCE. The leaders are exiled to Babylon.
The connection between Pinchas and Jeremiah is that backsliding will be punished (a plague among the Israelites and invasion of Israel) but that adherence to God’s commandments will lead to salvation (Pinchas succeeds to the priesthood and the exiles in Babylon are returned to Israel.)
One thing to keep in mind in this year of the census is that the second census in year forty of the time in the wilderness became the basis for the division of the Promised Land. If you have not yet responded to the 2020 census, you need to do so since the results of the census will be used to divide the benefits that our states can receive from the federal government over the next ten years and will also be used to determine our representation in government.
Another point is to remember that we all have a duty to speak out when we observe wrongdoing in order to protect our futures.
Torah Comments for HUKKAT AND BALAK July 4, 2020
This week we talk about purity. The story of the Red Cow demonstrates how central purity was to our religion in Biblical times. The Red Cow was to be pure; it was slaughtered outside the camp in the presence of the High Priest. The entire cow was burned unlike normal sacrifices. The ashes were safeguarded for use during the year. The ritual of purification is also discussed as it relates to corpses which required people who came in contact with them and their surroundings to be purified.
The wanderings in the wilderness continue. Miriam dies and is buried. She only rates one sentence. Then the people get thirsty again at Kadesh and, surprise, surprise, they start complaining about having been brought forth out of Egypt. Better to have died there or in last week’s rebellion, they say. God instructs Moses and Aaron to take a rod, assemble the community before a rock and order it to produce water. Instead, Moses takes the rod and strikes the rock twice. The water comes but not the way God wanted it to. Moses and Aaron are punished for this by being told they cannot enter the Promised Land. The incident is memorialized in the psalms as the waters at Meribah.
Moses doesn’t quit his leadership. He sends messengers to Edom asking permission to pass through the kingdom but the Edomites refused passage. They travel to Mount Hor where Aaron is stripped of his holy garments and dies. Unlike Miriam, Aaron is mourned for thirty days.
The Israelites have a battle with the king of Arad and defeat Arad of Canaan.
Then guess what? The people get upset as they continue through the wilderness. Sound familiar? They complain about having had to leave Egypt and they hate the food. That one reminds me of being in the Army. The people get God good and mad and He sends poisonous serpents to attack the Israelites. Moses saves the people by creating a copper serpent for them to gaze on.
The people move from place to place until they come to the Amorites. They ask for passage through the country but Sihon, the king, refuses, attacks and is defeated. They traveled on to a spot opposite the Jordan River from Jericho.
Now comes the story of Balak of Moab. Balak becomes alarmed when he sees the Israelites defeating everyone around him and calls on Balaam the seer to curse the Israelites. Balaam balks at the idea of cursing the Israelites if God doesn’t want that to happen but is persuaded to come to Balak for a lot of money and because of a dream in which God tells him to go ahead. Balaam has an argument with his ass about traveling (he doesn’t see an angel blocking the road) – that reminds me of the story of Francis, the talking mule in the movies. Both the ass and the mule are smarter than their masters.
Balaam tries to curse the Israelites but ends up praising them instead. Balaam goes home, apparently unpaid, and Balak gives up on the cursing project.
Of course, the people are never satisfied. A number of them get into sexual trouble with Midianite women. God brings on a plague which kills 24,000 people and Aaron’s grandson Phinehas kills an Israelite and a Midianite woman with a spear, ending the plague. Tradition has it that Phinehas is eventually punished for this act because he took the law into his own hands instead of following normal procedures. This is a lesson for all of us as well in these troubled times.
Micah concludes the day’s study. He predicts that the Jewish people will be scattered among the nations but will become many and be like a lion among sheep. And when that happens, God will wreak havoc on the people for their sins of worshipping idols, but in the end the Lord will redeem them:
“And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God;”
The two stories are read together because Micah recites a poem in which he recalls the story of Balak and Balaam. But in both cases, the important feature is purity and cleansing those who have become impure, whether in body or spirit. In these difficult days, we must remain careful and clean.
This story is especially relevant on July 4, Independence Day. For us to remain strong and healthy as a country we need to return to the ideals of our Founding Fathers for a better union.
Torah Comments for KORACH June 27, 2020
Thomas Jefferson said “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” That may be, but what about four rebellions at once? Here we go. Fasten your seat belts because this is complicated and the full story is not there.
- Korah challenges Moses. Moses wins.
- Korah, along with Dathan, Abiram and Om, rise up against Moses. After all, they are all Levites. Why not them instead of Moses and Aaron? Moses and Aaron face them in front of their families and they are swallowed up by an earthquake.
- 250 chieftains rise up against Moses and Aaron. This one is pretty complete although there is ambiguity with respect to Korah. The challenge is that Moses and Aaron have gone too far and why do they get to lead instead of the chieftains? Moses takes this rebellion on but deflects it as a rebellion against Aaron as the priest. He arranges the test of the fire pans, getting the rebels to contend against Aaron and his fire pan. The result is that the usurpers are consumed by fire. Their fire pans are used to make plating for the altar as a warning to others not to challenge the status of the priests.
- Everybody against Moses and Aaron. God decides to get rid of everybody through a plague and Moses has to intercede to save them. 14,700 die in this rebellion.
Of course, Moses prevails. But what happens to Korah? Some versions say he is killed in the earthquake. Others say he was burned up. Others say he survived. The one thing we can be sure of is that Moses continues to be the leader of the people with God’s support.
Historically, these rebellions may have happened at different times and in different places. Speculation is that the story is really a compilation of different tales lumped together to teach the lesson of fealty to the winners.
The first rebellion would seem to have been very early on and placing it at the time of the Exodus makes sense. Both Korah and Moses had the same lineage. Why should one have been the leader and not the other? Of course, the ultimate answer is that God chose Moses as the leader while he was still in exile. He led the people through the process of ending slavery and becoming free. Why should somebody like Korah, a bystander be the one to benefit from this?
The second rebellion could logically have occurred early on in our history. Dathan and Abiram are from the tribe of Reuben, the oldest son. They are being supplanted by Joseph and then by Judah in the time of King David. This rebellion is likely to have occurred either while still in Sinai or shortly afterward.
The third rebellion ends up as a rebellion against the priesthood – the 250 against Aaron. Initially, the tribe of Levi is one of twelve and the leaders perform sacrifices. However, at some point, God appoints the Levites as the ones to serve in the Temple for the priests:
“I hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you [Aaron] in dedication to the Lord, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting.”
It is easy to posit a struggle between the old order of priests and the new one. This would likely have been a struggle at the time of the First Temple since the proper officiants would have had to be established then.
The fourth rebellion, well, that could have been any time or many times. We see it reflected in the cries of the people from day one of the Exodus all the way through to the end of the 40 years.
One thing that this parasha demonstrates is the remaining humility of Moses while he consolidates his power and that of the priesthood against all comers. He does not command the deaths of the rebels. He asks God to determine their punishment. When God goes all out, it is Moses who intercedes and protects the people.
Just as the parasha inaugurates the civil and religious leadership structure of the people at the beginning, the haftorah inaugurates the new civil structure of the monarchy. Samuel, the spiritual leader, gathers the people together at Gilgal and there the people declare Saul as their king. Samuel makes it clear to both Saul and the people that a mortal king is not absolute, the Lord is our true king. He tells us that so long as both the king and the people obey the Lord, all will be well.
The significance of our study this week is twofold. While we owe a duty of obedience to our civil authority, that authority is subject to the will of God. We owe a higher duty to what is right and just and everyone, especially our leaders must always strive to achieve this.
Torah Comments for SHELAH LEKHA June 20, 2020
This parasha is one of my favorites – the spies. The portion relates: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send you men, that they scout the Land of Canaan… every one of them a chieftain.”
There is a lot to be unpacked here. First of all, God is telling Moses to send the spies. It’s not God who sends the spies but Moses. Commentary is that God really didn’t need to have spies. He had already picked the land out and knew it was good. So the spies were really a human idea. The Israelites were nervous about going into the land, still with their slave mentality. They needed reassurances from their leaders. Moses is to send chieftains, men of great reputation, on the mission. The speculation is that these men were not the leaders of the twelve tribes, nobody would send the head men out on a mission that could be dangerous, but they were high ranking, nonetheless.
Moses, being a good strategic leader, tells his twelve spies where to go and gives them specific directions on what to check on. The keys are the quality of the land and the military situation. The spies are gone for 40 days – sound familiar? They report back and give a detailed report to the entire community. The land is fertile, flowing with milk and honey. They bring back grapes, two men carrying a large bunch of grapes suspended from poles between them – a modern symbol of wine. And then ten of them go on to say that the land is filled with large, fortified cities and is inhabited by giants, the Nephilim.
Those of us who are familiar with Greek and Roman mythology can readily recall the stories of some of these giant creatures – the Titans, the children of the gods or unions between the gods and humans. Those stories talk about the struggles that humans had against the giants and how they were imprisoned below the earth. We have the modern films about the gods and their offspring in the Thor movies. Of course, anyone who has read the second book that my daughter, Tanya, and I wrote, The Pirate Skeleton, knows that these giants were real. They were the race known as the Neandros and have always lived on the edge of homo sapiens societies. Today we all know of some of the survivors as yetis, the abominable snowmen.
Well, Caleb and Joshua didn’t buy into the giant story. They said there were no giants. Caleb said, “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it.” But of course, Caleb and Joshua were talking to the Israelites. You remember them – they got upset about food, water, meat, the desert. Time and again, they said, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt… Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt.” And this time was no exception. The result was God getting ready to bring a plague on the people and Moses interceding by reminding Him that “the Lord is slow to anger and abounding in kindness…” Then comes a line that we remember from our Yom Kippur martyrology – He does not wholly acquit, reckoning the crime of fathers with sons, with the third generation and the fourth.” This line comes back to haunt the rabbis during the Roman persecution.
So, God takes the side of Caleb and Joshua and decides that they can enter the land but that everyone else who was a slave of at least 20 years in age will die before the Israelites enter the promised land. God postpones the conquest of Canaan for forty years, one year for each day of the spy mission. The people, of course, are obstinate and now want to go into Canaan. Moses prohibits this. The parasha concludes with the instruction to wear garments with fringes so “you shall see it and be mindful of all the Lord’s commandments and you shall do them and you shall not stray after your heart and after your eyes.”
The haftorah is the corollary to the parasha. Joshua is ready to enter the promised land. He sends out two spies, not twelve, to reconnoiter Jericho. They spend the night in the home of Rahab who hides them and misdirects the king’s men. This time, the report is accurate and Joshua is able to begin the invasion. For her part in protecting the spies, Rahab and her family are saved from destruction.
The traditional lesson to be learned here is that a false report will lead to ultimate punishment. Failure to rely upon God’s promises has consequences. We need to strive to remain faithful and follow God’s commandments. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for BEHA’ALOT EKHA June 13, 2020
This week’s Torah portion begins with the consecration of the Levites to the service of God. They become the substitute for the first fruits of the children of Israel and enter into the service of the Lord at the direction of the priests. I have always taken my place as a Levite to heart. When I was growing up in Appleton, we practiced Duchaning and I was the one who washed the hands of the Cohen. I typically straighten out the building in preparation for our services in North Port. I have always been a member of the ritual committee in our synagogues and in Appleton always assisted with High Holiday services. I see from the parasha that I could have retired from this at 50 but I can pretend that I am just assisting my brother Levites by standing guard as permitted in our passage.
There is a discussion of the establishment of Passover. It did not begin until the second year of the journey. The Torah then goes on to describe the presence of the Lord above the Tabernacle and God’s leadership whenever the Israelites moved to a new location. Communication methods and signals were established – trumpets, not cell phones. The order of march was a military formation – there was danger for the people in the wilderness. Moses would say:
Advance, O Lord!
May Your enemies be scattered
And may Your foes flee before You!
Of course, the second year of the journey through the wilderness provided a great opportunity for the Israelites to complain – what else was new? They wanted meat to eat, manna wasn’t enough for them. Time for rebellion – and who should lead the rebellion? None other than Aaron and Miriam. They were jealous of Moses’ authority and wanted some for themselves. God, of course, came to the rescue, punishing Miriam, but not Aaron. Moses eventually got that straightened out.
Zechariah concludes this week’s study. “For lo, I come; and I will dwell in your midst.” Joshua (for the Jewish people) is judged by the Lord. “If you walk in My paths and keep My charge, you in turn will rule My house and guard my courts.” And he concludes, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit.”
We too need to remember that God is always with us and we need to walk in His ways, be kind and show understanding to others. Stay safe as our country slowly reopens.
Torah Comments NASO for June 6, 2020
More numbers. This week they relate to the nature of the society which was mobile. How would the Israelites move the Tabernacle? Service for the Tabernacle was limited to men between the ages of 30 and 50. 2750 were responsible to carry the sacred objects; 2630 to carry the coverings of the structure and 3200 had to carry the poles and other items.
Once a group was designated to assist the priests in transporting the Tabernacle when necessary, the next step was to deal with purity in the camp. Those who were impure had to leave the camp while impure. Those who remained had to contribute to a civil society. People who committed wrongs were expected to confess and make restitution, both to the person wronged and also to God. After all, breaking civil law was an affront to Judaism and to the Lord. Marital purity was an important facet of society and the test for faithfulness was described. Unfortunately, the test applied to women only, not men. It was considered a mitzvah for either a man or a woman to dedicate themselves to the service of the Lord for a limited period of time.
Sandwiched in between arrangements for society is the ancient priestly blessing:
The Lord bless you and protect you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.
In one form or another, this blessing has been given for thousands of years. It becomes a part of our daily worship and we conclude our services with it. We use it for special occasions and for regular ones – for strangers and for family.
The Torah portion of the week now returns to the narrative. The sacred objects are consecrated, and practical arrangements are made for their transportation. Twelve days elapse during which the leaders of the twelve tribes each present the same offering.
Tradition then goes on to relate that Moses would enter the Tabernacle to speak with God. God would speak to Moses from above the Ark, almost as a person in conversation.
The Haftorah relates the story of Samson’s origin. The Israelites are subjected to rule by the Philistines for a period of 40 years. An angel appears to the wife of Manoah of the tribe of Dan and tells her that she will bear a son who will be dedicated to the Lord. The angel appears a second time and instructs both Manoah and his wife on how to act and how to raise the boy.
The story of Samson is especially significant to our society today. Recently, I posted this commentary as part of my role as the chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting for the Boy Scouts:
For too long we have all lived in different Americas. There is one America for the rich and one for the poor; there is one for whites and one for non-whites; there is one for mainstream Christians and one for everyone else – Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and more; there is one for bigots and one for everyone else; there is one for us and there is one for them.
The time has come for all of us to recognize again that living in different Americas leads to lack of respect for others and ultimately to mistreatment and murder of those who are not like us.
The Torah teaches us that everyone deserves equal treatment under law, respect and dignity. Scouting teaches the same by telling us that a Scout is helpful, friendly, courteous, kind and brave. We need to show that this climate of fear and hatred cannot continue and focus on our obligation to act as a rock of support for those others who are not us. We can live the Scout Oath and the Scout Law proudly and unafraid of others. We can support the downtrodden and those who are others. We need to remind ourselves daily of the words of Emma Lazarus:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shores. Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp before the golden door.”
And we need to remember these words as we paraphrase Abraham Lincoln:
“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds” and create that shining city on a hill that our forefathers envisioned.
We all know what is right. We need to make sure that everyone else learns the same from our example.
The story of Samson, the one destined to save our people, is an inspiration for what is happening here today. We all need to be Samsons and stand up for what is right and just in our society. Stay safe.
Torah Comments RE’EH SHAVUOT for May 30, 2020
This week is Shavuot. The Torah portion starts out with directions for tithing. Tithing is set at 10% of the produce during the year. The interesting thing is that the tithe is to be consumed by the tither in the presence of the Lord. Tithers are permitted to sell their tithe and bring the money if it is inconvenient to bring the produce and the money is to be spent in the presence of the Lord. Every third year, the tithe is to be given to the Levites, strangers, fatherless and widows. Actually, this provision of the Torah was a limiting one, not a tax. Many tithers prior to this requirement tithed 20% so this made it easier for people to live. Further, by providing that the tithe was to be consumed by the tither and not given to the religious authority other than every third year, reduced the tithe to an effective 3 1/3%, much smaller than the tithe of today which does go to the church in the Christian community.
The Torah goes on to provide for remission of debts every seven years. This remission is only for Jews. This is carried further for the poor – “You must open your hand and lend him (the needy person) sufficient for whatever he needs.” We are reminded to have no regrets for what we do in giving charity. This lesson is important to each and every one of us. Many times, we have given money to an individual or a particular charity and then had second thoughts when we saw what they did with it. That is not the proper approach – once we give money, it’s gone, and we should not expect to retain strings on its use. Remission applied to Jewish slaves as well. After seven years, they were to be set free with enough property to allow them to start life off anew. A process was established for those slaves who wanted to remain in their master’s household. That process was ignored as slavers brought people from Africa and sold them into slavery here in America in the 1600s to the 1800s. They talked to them in Africa and promised them freedom after seven years but it never happened.
The first born of the herd was also consecrated to the Lord. However, this too was misleading. Although the firstling was the Lord’s, it was to be consumed at the Temple by the owner.
The Torah portion went on to describe the holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, our three harvest festivals.
The special section of the Torah goes on to describe the sacrifice at Shavuot.
The Haftorah comes from one of the lesser prophets – Habakkuk. God will come to us, great and terrible. God will drive out the peoples who have oppressed us and will deliver us. “My God is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s and lets me stride upon the heights.”
Shavuot is used to commemorate the giving of the law to us at Mt. Sinai. It is a time to focus on renewal and on our heritage as the People of the Book. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT MAHAR HODESH May 23, 2020
Numbers! Here we are in the midst of the 2020 Census in the U.S. and we start reading about the Biblical census. Ours is to find out how many people live here and where they are so we can properly allocate government resources and representation, including such vital issues as the number of U.S. Representatives per state and the make up of voting districts. The Biblical census was only for able-bodied males over 20. Among other things, it was designed to create an early form of the draft but was also later available for tithing and for land allocation. The end result was 603,550 able-bodied men over 20 plus the Levites. The Levites were not to be counted and were to be the last line of defense for the Tabernacle and the Ark with the Ten Commandments in it. This is interesting because today in Israel some of the Orthodox Jews take the position that they should be exempt from service in the IDF so they can study Torah all day. Biblically, there was no such exemption and, as a matter of fact, the Levites, the keepers of the holy site, were like the Roman Pretorian Guard, the final defense group.
One can see the military nature of the census by what came next – the Lord created the layout for the camp and for future travel with 186,400 men leading the way, a little over 151,000 guarding the flanks and 108,000 bringing up the rear.
The special status of the Levites was made clear. Ultimately, they were to have no tribal land in Israel. They were to take care of the holy precincts and to serve the priesthood in carrying out the needs of the religion. They were also the chosen ones of the Israelites. The Lord had recognized the significance of the first born at the time of the Tenth Plague, smiting all the first born of Egypt. Likewise, the Lord took the first born of all the Israelites, the first crops and so on, as His. This was in part to support the priesthood. As civil society was being formed, the Levites became a substitute for all the first born and the first born of the Levites were now dedicated to God. A Levite census of all first-born males over one month old was taken and there were 22,273. The redemption of the first born was established, a tradition which lasts to this day.
Future King David was living in the court of King Saul. His relationship was questionable, and he relied upon Saul’s son, Jonathan, to give him a proper heads up. The Haftorah tells the story. David was to skip a banquet and Jonathan was to gauge Saul’s reaction. They created a code where Jonathan would be able to convey to David whether he would be safe or not. Saul made it clear to Jonathan that he intended to get rid of David to protect the throne for Jonathan to succeed him. Jonathan warned David and saved his life.
This week’s parasha details the beginnings of civil society for a people that could expect to encounter hostile neighbors for some time to come. The military means to protect the people were determined – who could serve in the military, how the camp should be set up, who should protect the holy objects. This parasha serves as a basis for Israel’s society today. While civil life goes on, military needs must still be met to protect the people from hostile forces surrounding them. Stay safe yourself this week.
Torah Comments for Shabbat Behar and Behukkotav May 16, 2020
This week’s Torah portion deals with land. Biblical land ownership was based on a concept that is foreign to most of us today. The concept was, and still is in Israel today (at least in theory), that the land belongs to God, not to individuals. Right off the bat, this concept should present a whole different way of looking at things from what many people here in the United States see. Since the land ultimately belongs to the Lord, we are merely stewards of it. We have an obligation to protect the land and even enhance it since we are merely users of it. That concept is demonstrated by the requirement to let the land have a sabbath of rest every seventh year. This wasn’t exactly crop rotation, but it was the next best thing. In the meantime, the theory was that in the sixth year, there would be enough produced to last for three years, until the next crop came in.
There were a few competing factors here. Since just about everyone was a farmer of one kind or another, borrowing was common. People borrowed to pay for seed for the fields, to obtain a plow or an ox, to pay for farm workers or to tide themselves over until the harvest. When the crops failed and the money had to be repaid, at times there was no money to pay and some people found themselves becoming indentured to those who had financed them. Ultimately, the farm could be sold to pay for the debt. However, the old theory was that land could not be alienated from the tribe. In this newer code of land laws, the land had to revert to the original owner. After 49 years, the land would be returned to that owner. Now of course, we have land leases in our country as well. Typically, they are for 99 years and the property then reverts to the original owner. Just think how this affects the purchase price when the original owner or someone who bought from him wants to sell. If there are 49 years left before the next Jubilee the price will be what we would generally expect when selling land. But, if there are only two years left, the land wouldn’t bring a lot since in effect this would be a two-year sale. It’s almost like selling Chamitz, although that’s only for 8 days.
Family welfare was important in Biblical times. If one had to sell land, his kinsman was required to redeem it for him if possible. If one had sold his land and came into enough money to redeem it (winning the Israeli lottery?), he was to redeem sooner rather than later. The cost of redemption would take into account the number of years left until the Jubilee. What this amounted to was close to the equivalent of leasing land instead of buying and selling it. There were special rules for selling homes. In a walled city, if one sold a home and did not redeem it within a year, the sale was final. Unless, of course, one was a Levite in which case redemption was forever. Homes in villages were treated like farms; redemption was until the Jubilee.
There were rules for those people who had to sell their land and became indentured. They were not to be considered to be slaves. God specifically pointed out that He had freed our people from slavery in Egypt and they were not permitted to again become slaves. One could be redeemed from indentured status and the price of redemption was adjusted based on the time left until the Jubilee.
God makes promises to the people if they follow His laws. “I will grant your rains in their seasons… I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.”
“I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.”
The rest of Leviticus deals with consequences for not following the laws, tithing and other subjects.
Jeremiah is his normal scary self – “You will forfeit, by your own act, the inheritance I have given you; I will make you a slave to your enemies in a land you have never known.” He ends with the plea “Save me, and let me be saved; For You are my glory.”
So, what have we learned? We are mere stewards of all we have been given. We need to protect it and care for it so it will be there for all time and we need to trust in and follow the Laws that God has commanded of us. Be careful out there and stay safe as our country reopens.
Torah Comments for Shabbat EMOR May 9, 2020
Ahh. Emor and more rules for the priesthood and us. But first, let’s take a little detour. Thursday was Pesach Sheni, the rainout day for Passover proper. Biblically, this gave Jews who were traveling outside of their home areas the opportunity to observe the seder even if they couldn’t do so on the proper day. This year, many of us were able to make use of technology so everyone could be home for the seder so we were able to avoid the necessity of having to use our rain checks. Thanks, Zoom.
So, Leviticus is all about holiness and cleanliness. This makes sense since Biblical Jews lived in a much less clean environment that we have available to us today. The Tabernacle had to be pure and its utensils and the altar had to be pure so they could properly convey the sacrifices to God. The priests had to live a pure life as much as possible so they could make those sacrifices. This week, we learn that the priests had to avoid dead people to remain pure although they could become unclean for certain relatives and then undergo a cleansing process. They had to be pure in their actions and their relationships. The priests who officiated also had to be whole, no blind, injured or handicapped priests could offer sacrifices. The Torah did make sure that these priests were not forgotten; they were entitled to share in the sacrificial food but they had to perform other duties.
The Torah continued to provide a system for becoming clean again after being contaminated. The people were instructed that sacrifices had to be without blemish or defect – don’t offer imperfect food for God or for the priests who would eat the sacrifice.
The parasha ends with the famous penalty section – “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” This passage has been interpreted to mean not that you break someone’s leg, put out the eye of the offender or get the dentist to pull his tooth, but instead that if you find someone guilty of a maiming, that person becomes responsible to provide compensation – to make the other whole to the extent possible. This system has survived to the present and forms the basis for compensation in personal injury and other tort cases in our legal system.
Ezekiel now steps in and assures the priests that if they follow the rules and remain pure they will be approved by the Lord and will share in the first fruits and other offerings of the people.
As we approach the end of Leviticus, we can all appreciate the lengths to which the primitive society of Biblical times went to maintain the purity of its leaders, the priests, and thereby preserve its existence through purification rituals and prayer. Wash your hands and remain careful and safe.
Torah Comments for AHAREY MOT AND KDOSHIM May 2, 2020
Many people celebrate Christmas in July. Here we are, celebrating Yom Kippur in May. The exception is that we don’t have to fast this week. We’re right in the middle of Leviticus and we’ve been dealing with cleanliness and purity. Now that we’ve done that for the community, homes and utensils, it’s time to deal with cleanliness in our relationship with God. First of all, the parasha directs the priests to avoid the mistake that Aaron’s sons made when they came too close. Only the High Priest, Aaron, is to enter the Holy of Holies on permitted occasions. He is first to bring his sacrifice to atone for his sins and those of his household to the Sanctuary. Then he performs the ritual of the scapegoat which everyone is familiar with. He makes his sin offering and he then purges the Sanctuary from the sins of the people. Once everyone and everything are purified and freed from their sins, Aaron makes the burnt offering. From the beginning, the tradition has been that there will be an annual confession of sins, expiation and a chance to do better the next year. Catholicism has adapted this ritual in the confession process, although it is to happen much more frequently than the Jewish model.
God then formalizes the sacrificial process and limits it to the Sanctuary. This is a practical means of seeing to it that the priesthood will have exclusive control of the religion and will have a source of support.
Out of respect for the belief that blood is the source of life, we are now prohibited from drinking blood. That is the basis for the practice of draining the blood from the meat that we eat. It is also the foundation the horror we experience when we read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The next part of the parasha, which we don’t read this week, is the juicy sex part. God tells us who we can and cannot have sex with but we have to wait ‘til next year to find out. So, either read ahead or be careful!
Farther along, we get the statement, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” God then instructs us to revere our parents, keep Shabbat and stay away from idols. We are instructed to leave the produce on the edges of our fields for the poor and to leave any fallen fruit from our vineyards for them. We are told to be honorable in our lives and respect those who are not as well off as we are. As a mark of respect, we are to stand when the elderly enter a room. We are to treat strangers in the same fair way that we treat our loved ones and acquaintances. All these requirements are obligations because “I the Lord am your God who freed you from the land of Egypt.”
Finally, we must be circumspect and we have to suspend our belief in Harry Potter and Hogwart’s – “A man or a woman who has seen a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death.”
We transition to the conclusion of the book of Amos. Amos preached around 755 BCE and predicted that God would bring the House of Jacob down for its sins. But once that has been done, God will restore the people –
“They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; They shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil, Nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.”
In the overall context of the two readings for this Shabbat we learn that if we remain true to God’s instructions we will prosper and live good lives. The coronavirus will pass and we will return to our lives and have another opportunity to act fairly and respectfully with our fellow humans. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT TAZRIA – METSORA April 25, 2020
At first glance, one might think that the Torah portion for this Shabbat has no relevance to today. After all, most of us are either not about to give birth or father a child anymore. The start of the portion deals with the after-effects of child birth. But what we have here is the first maternity leave plan, unpaid though it may have been. A woman is protected from having to go to work probably as well as to the sanctuary for a week, two weeks if she has a girl. After that time, she gets 33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl. Then she has to make a sacrifice to become clean again. It’s interesting that the time period of uncleanliness for a mother is double if she has a girl. That could either mean that girls were considered to be more delicate or more precious than boys. Or, it could mean that the couple was being punished for having a girl instead of a boy.
There is a one-liner here which indicates that circumcision takes place on the eighth day after birth of a boy. By then the mother is presumably strong enough to watch and the baby is strong enough to endure.
Skin diseases come next. There were no doctors in the Israelite camp, so the priests were in charge of skin disease. Quarantine was the remedy of choice – examination leading to 7 days of isolation; then re-examination leading to 7 more days of isolation. At that point the health insurance ran out and people were either back to normal or permanently exiled from the camp. Isolation was also the remedy for clothing – 7 days like everything else. The whole thing sounds like today’s social distancing and isolation for coronavirus.
Leprosy was as contagious as coronavirus in those days so lepers were isolated. There were other categories of impurity for people, their clothing and their bedding and homes. The key points were isolation – the only method of social distancing at the time – and cleansing. We clean our homes, we remove mold. We clean our packages and our groceries at this time. The only thing we don’t do that they did then is make the sacrifices at the end of the cleansing period.
The other Torah portion deals with the sacrifices for Shabbat and for the New Moon. The Shabbat provision is familiar since it can be found within the Musof service. The sacrifices were not very onerous since they were for the entire community – Shabbat was 2 extra lambs and some flour (I know how precious this is – I can’t find bread flour anywhere) and the new month was 2 bulls, a ram, seven lambs, a goat and some more flour. That’s a total of 24 or 26 bulls, 12 or 13 rams and 96 or 104 lambs a year, not too bad for a few million people.
The Haftorah is the Rosh Hodesh one. One of the few good things about the temple being closed right now is that I don’t have to fight with our fellow congregants that have the same bar mitzvah Haftorah that I do. It comes from Isaiah and is both a promise and a threat. God will punish those who “take pleasure in their abominations, So will I choose to mock them, To bring on them the very thing they dread…” But God will reward the others: “You shall find comfort in Jerusalem. You shall see and your heart shall rejoice…” Everyone will learn the power of God and our brothers will be gathered together in Jerusalem.
The optimism of the Haftorah combines neatly with the rules of community safety in the Torah. We need to follow the concepts of the Torah and practice safe distancing and cleanliness in this hour of peril. Stay safe.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT SHEMINI April 18, 2020
The whole book of Leviticus has been leading up to today. This is the big day – the first sacrifice. We got the Ten Commandments. We got the Tabernacle. We made our way through the golden calf. We got our manna and our grouse and our water. We endured our rebellions. We had the priesthood set up and sewed the uniforms. We installed them and here we go. Aaron brings a calf (sin offering) and a ram (burnt offering) and the people bring a goat (sin offering), a calf and a lamb (burnt offering), an ox and a second ram (well-being) and a meal offering of grain and oil. The first step, as always, was the sacrifice and purification of the priests. Then came the sacrifice for the people. The people were blessed, and all was well.
Well, you know how this has to end. No good can just end with that original sacrifice. Somebody always has to be just a little bit better than everybody else and the priests were no exception. Up come Nadab and Abihu and set up their own extra sacrifice. Naturally, they die. Then what’s a father to do? Can he mourn them? No. Moses tells him to buck it up and that is that.
What follows are the rules for the priests’ conduct – no drinking on the job, what parts of the sacrifices they can eat and who they can share them with and when. And then it follows as the night follows the day, rules for the Israelites. And what rules do we come up with now that Passover has ended? Kashrut, of course. Now that everyone is ready to relax and get back to baking bread with yeast and all that other good stuff, the Lord reminds Moses and Aaron of what we can and cannot eat, how to prepare it and what we can put it in. So, read on and see what we’re supposed to do.
The Haftorah comes from II Samuel. King David goes to the house of Abinadab where the Ark had been kept along with 30,000 of his most loyal men and off they go. They reach Perez-uzzah and one of Abinadab’s sons, Uzzah, reaches out to steady the Ark on its cart when one of the oxen pulling it stumbles. Uzzah is struck down, just like Aaron’s sons had been when they decided to add to the sacrifices. Now, who knows what would have happened to the Ark if Uzzah hadn’t tried to protect it? Regardless, the Lord makes the point crystal clear – don’t change things around on your own.
The next point that the Haftorah makes is that you can’t really make a fool of yourself when celebrating our traditions. As David finally brings the Ark into the city, he dances and sings like a whirling dervish. His wife, Michal, Saul’s daughter, ridicules him for his actions and for her pains she is stricken with barrenness for the rest of her life. Finally, David decides that he is going to build a temple for the Ark. God tells Nathan, the prophet, to let him know that it’s not David’s decision on when and where to build a temple; that’s up to God and God isn’t ready.
The point of all of these stories is to emphasize the role of humility in our lives. From the very beginning of the parasha, God makes it clear that mere mortals don’t get to decide the rules by themselves, even the priests. God sets the rules and we follow. We cannot presume to know better. When we get to be too big for our britches, we will be brought down to earth. Nadab and Abihu find out that you don’t add rituals that are not approved. Aaron learns that even with his position as High Priest, he cannot give his family immunity from punishment. Later, he endures admonishment for not properly making use of the sacrifices. Uzzah is punished for presuming to carry his father’s hospitality too far by touching the Ark. Michal learns that haughtiness does not pay and even David is censured for being presumptuous in his attempt to add a new home for God. We can all learn from these examples of people who are much more important than we are in the lives of our communities to remain humble and to not presume that we know more than anyone about what others should be doing. Stay safe as we all protect each other from Covid-19 by our collective actions.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT HOL HAMO’ED April 11, 2020
This week is the special Shabbat, Hol Hamo’ed Pesach. Special readings for this Shabbat include a re-reading of a Torah portion of a few weeks ago. A frustrated Moses and a chastened Israelite people have just been confronted with God’s patience with them running out – again. Moses continues to deal with dissent and rebellion by the people and expresses his concerns about following an unknown quality in God. He has been talking with God in the Tabernacle but now he wants to see God. The Lord shows mercy and agrees to show Moses his goodness and his presence but no more. The Lord tells Moses that he cannot look upon God (penetrate the mystery of God’s ultimate being) and survive but he can observe the afterglow of God’s presence.
God then agrees to redo the Ten Commandments. He instructs Moses to take two new tablets of stone to the summit of Mt. Sinai and agrees to write the commandments on them. Now the 13 Attributes of God are revealed:
The Lord! The Lod! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.
God then promises to drive out the enemies of the Israelites and demands that the religious practices of the peoples they encounter must be eradicated. We are reminded to observe Passover and the Sabbath and are also instructed – You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
The second reading for this Shabbat recounts the special sacrifices for Passover.
Ezekiel recounts the vision of the dry bones. He comes upon a valley of bones. When asked by God if the bones can live again, he responds that only God can know. As Ezekiel prophesies over the bones, they come together, and they come to life. God tells Ezekiel that the bones represent the House of Israel. On the Day of Judgment, the Lord will bring all of us and our ancestors to the land of Israel and we shall live again.
The special readings for this day include the Song of Songs:
Ah, you are fair, my darling,
Ah, you are fair,
With your dove-like eyes!
And you, my beloved, are handsome,
Our stories come together for Passover. The common theme, the power of God and the need to recognize and celebrate it come through. God’s presence begins the story. God insists upon continuity through the renewal of the Ten Commandments and the renewal of the covenant with the people. God’s power. A reminder of the appropriate sacrifices for Passover is one of how to show respect for God and God’s power. The Haftorah demonstrates God’s ability to do anything and again God’s love for our people in the promise of redemption. God’s love is juxtaposed with people’s mutual love in the Song of Songs but it all comes together with a promise of hope for the future. If we live by the Ten Commandments and the covenant that is renewed with Moses, if we respect and honor God, God will remember us and the future we can hope to achieve is contained in the Song of Songs. Remain safe and careful in the coming weeks as we fulfill the promises of Passover.
Torah Comments for SHABBAT TSAV SHABBAT HAGADOL
April 4, 2020
Animal sacrifices, these sound barbaric today, don’t they? The weekly parasha discusses sacrifices and how they are performed. First comes the altar. It always burns, day and night.
The discussion of specific sacrifices starts with the most important public sacrifices. The olah, the burnt offering, was the first and last offering each day. Before offering it in the morning the ashes from yesterday were removed. Once the olah had been offered, the meal offering was prepared. A small portion was thrown onto the fire and the rest was eaten by the priests. The exception to this rule was the offering for when a priest was ordained. That offering was entirely burned on the altar. It had to come from the priest himself.
Sin offerings were private offerings by those who had inadvertently violated a rule. They were also eaten by the priests. The guilt offering was treated in the same fashion as the sin offering. At least in this portion of the Torah, there is no explanation of the different eligibility for being a sin offering as opposed to a guilt offering. The process was exactly the same except that the description of the guilt offering makes it clear that the priest was allowed to keep the animal hide and sell it if he wished. All of these sacrifices were considered holy and sacred.
There were other sacrifices which were not considered as significant as the first ones. There was the gift of greeting or sacrifice of well-being. The theory was that the sacrifice was given to the Lord who then granted the priests the right to eat it and in some cases profit from it. But this was the method used to support the priesthood in Biblical times.
It was important that since the sacrifices were being offered to the Lord, they had to be pure. They had to be alive at the time of the sacrifice and the priest would examine them to make sure they were acceptable. Israelites were also prohibited from eating the fat or the blood from a sacrifice.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol. It signifies the coming of the day of Judgment. Malachi tells us that the Lord is sending us his messenger who will purify my family at least as descendants of Levi. At that time the offerings at the Temple will become pleasing to the Lord again. However, the Lord will dispose of those who have no fear of him – those who commit adultery or perform sorcery, swear falsely and cheat laborers and those who interfere with the widow, orphan and the stranger. The Lord is making a list of those who were good and those who were not and will act appropriately toward them. Elijah will come to us to alert us to the time of judgment and the Lord will then reconcile parents and children with each other.
The Torah begins with the proposition that we need to carry out the proper sacrifices to please God and to support the priesthood. We have evolved to the point where we believe that we can please God with prayer and good deeds rather than sacrifice and we support our religious leaders in more modern and flexible means than giving them food and animal hides. The point, however, is that we need to respect God and the structural components of Judaism as well as acting properly. In this manner, we will ultimately reap the benefits of God’s “chosen people” as we recognize that we and God both benefit from our good works as do those we help. Remember to stay safe – it gets harder each day to “social distance,” but we need to remain strong and positive.
Saturday, March 28, 2020, Nisan , 5780
Torah comments for Shabbat YAYIKRA
Vayikra, Leviticus. The priestly guidebook. We start out with the basics of sacrifices. Today we deal with the burnt offering or olah, the grain offering, minhah, and the gift of greeting, zevah shelamim. Most sacrifices followed the same basics – the sacrifice was presented at the entrance of the Tabernacle, the donor laid his hands on the sacrifice to designate it for the Lord and blood from it was dashed on the altar. The olah was an animal or bird. This sacrifice was totally consumed on the altar. The minhah was generally offered in the evening. It consisted of grains such as wheat and first fruits. Only part of it was burned; the rest was for the priests to eat. These offerings were unleavened – Passover is coming! The third sacrifice, zevah shelamim, was generally an animal sacrifice. Parts of the animal, after being cooked on the altar, were distributed to the invited guests to eat. Parts were eaten by the priests. Fat would go to God; meat to the priests and guests. These were all regular sacrifices and they were on-going for the purpose of honoring God. The next set of sacrifices were the expiatory sacrifices. They were meant to atone for unwitting offenses, inadvertent violations of the rules or failure to carry out legal obligations. There were no sacrifices that would expiate a deliberate sin.
The Haftorah, from Isaiah, emphasizes that God formed our people for the purpose of declaring His praise. God complains through Isaiah that the people have not honored God through the appropriate sacrifices, even though they were not a great burden. Instead, the people have burdened God with their sins. God speaks of the sins of our earliest ancestor. It almost sounds like Catholicism’s concept of the Original Sin. But God says His punishments of the people are over and there is a bright future ahead. God has remained steadfast in His predictions of the future and reminds us that He is the only God.
God castigates the makers of idols – “They have no wit or judgment: Their eyes are besmeared and they see not; Their minds, and they cannot think. They do not give thought.” He concludes: “I wipe away your sins like a cloud, Your transgressions like mist – Come back to Me, for I redeem you.”
There is an obvious connection between the Torah and the Haftorah. The practice of sacrifice in order to please a god was the recognized method of relating to the unknown in the ancient world. Isaiah points out that the sacrifices were not a huge burden and failing to carry them out had resulted in dire consequences for the Israelites. But the Jewish sacrifices were pretty practical. Most of them were of portions of animals that were not healthy to consume anyhow. The bulk of the sacrifices were used to feed the priests who needed a source of support since they were unable to engage in normal agricultural activities in the community.
But what of today and tomorrow? Do we have to bring the sacrifices back to properly please God? Animal sacrifice is no longer condoned in our religious life. It has been condemned for over 1500 years in the Abrahamic religions. There is still animal sacrifice in today’s world, however. It is common on certain holidays in Nepal and other areas by Hindus. We know that the strictest Orthodox tradition is that we should remove the El Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple. They have prepared the instruments for the restoration of sacrifices when that happens. But our tradition, for the last 2000 years, is that prayer and good deeds have replaced sacrifice. We have evolved. As Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said at the time of the destruction of the Temple, “There is another equally meritorious way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.” As Isaiah says, the burden of pleasing God is not to be an onerous one. We can continue to perform deeds of lovingkindness and please God at the same time. In this time of personal challenge, it is a deed of lovingkindness to check on your family and friends and keep in touch, even if you have no ability to do more. Remember to stay safe and keep your loved ones safe.
Saturday, March 21, 2020, Adar 25, 5780
Torah comments for Shabbat Va Yakhel, Pekudey and Hahodesh
The story of the Exodus is chock full of highlights – the story begins with the phrase “A new king rose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. We encounter the enslavement of our people, the burning bush, the Ten Plagues, the departure of the people, the parting of the Reed Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments (twice), the Golden Calf, rebellion and complaints. Now we come to another highlight – Moses convenes the people, reminds them of the law of Shabbat and orders the construction of the Tabernacle. The people came as their hearts moved them and donated the materials to build the building. The skilled artisans came forth to perform the work. Bazalel and Oholiab took charge and brought the project to fruition. Bezalel made the Ark. He did a better job of it than my friend Harvey and I did a few weeks ago but he was skilled and had better materials to work with. They built the Tabernacle, the Ark, the altars and other sacred objects and made the priestly clothing. They brought everything to Moses for his approval and Moses blessed them.
Two weeks before the first anniversary of the Exodus and nine months after the arrival at Sinai, the Tabernacle is erected and the sacred objects are placed into the proper positions. Moses put the Tabernacle together on New Year’s Day, placed the Ten Commandments into the Ark and got everything ready. The presence of the Lord covered the Tabernacle in a cloud. It remained there until it was time to break camp and then led the way on the journeys of the Israelites to the Promised Land. And thus ends the Book of Exodus.
We turn back in Exodus for a moment because this is Shabbat Hahodesh and read again the instructions for the first seder together with the requirement to observe Passover thereafter.
Ezekiel provides the haftorah for this day. God orders that the Temple be purified on the first day of the new year – the anniversary of the erection of the Tabernacle. Two weeks later Passover begins. Instructions for worship at the Temple are given including one that when the common people come to worship, whoever enters by the South gate leaves by the North gate and whoever enters by the North gate leaves by the South gate. This becomes the tradition that many synagogues have of parading the Torah one way when it is removed from the Ark during the service and then going the other way when it is returned to the Ark.
Finally, Ezekiel repeats God’s instruction – “The prince shall not take property away from any of the people and rob them of their holdings … My people may not be dispossessed of their holdings.”
The common theme of this week is purification – the Tabernacle and all the holy objects were purified before they were put to use. The Temple was purified each year. The time of the purification was now and this is the prelude to Passover when we purify our own homes. Take care of yourselves while we are on hiatus. I look forward to seeing all of you just as soon as we can safely reopen the Temple.
Seventh Day – April 6, 2018
God leads the newly free Israelites from Egypt – by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night as a pillar of fire. Pharaoh regrets letting the Israelites go, and sends an elite chariot force after them. On God’s instruction, Moses divides the sea, and the Israelites pass through safely. When the Egyptians follow, the sea closes over them. In gratitude for the redemption, Moses composes the Song of the Sea.
Eighth Day – April 7, 2018
In reviewing the observances of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Moses begins by placing Pesach in “the month of Aviv” (Spring). The Israelites will be required to offer a Paschal sacrifice, to eat unleavened bread (matzah), and to remember the Exodus from Egypt all the days of their lives. Fifty days later, they will observe Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks. In the Fall, Sukkot will be celebrated. All three festivals were occasions for Jews to come with offerings to God’s Sanctuary.
March 24, 2018
The priests are commanded to keep the fire on the altar burning properly. God commands Moses to prepare Aaron, the Tabernacle, and Aaron’s sons for the priesthood. This includes washing Aaron and his sons, dressing them in ritual garments, and anointing Aaron and the Tabernacle with oil. During this ordination ceremony, a sin offering and a burnt offering are brought, and a ram of ordination is slaughtered. Some of the blood is put on the right ear, thumb, and big toe of Aaron and his sons. Then Moses dashes the blood against each side of the altar. Specified parts of the ram, along with one cake of unleavened bread, one cake of oil bread, and one wafer are placed in the palms of Aaron and his sons and then burned with the burnt offering. Moses takes anointing oil and some blood from the altar and sprinkles it upon Aaron and his sons. He then directs Aaron and his sons to boil the flesh of the ram and eat it with the unleavened bread at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. This procedure is repeated for seven days.
The Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach is called “Shabbat Hagadol” (The Great Shabbat). The Haftarah is taken from the prophet Malachi and represents a word of caution to the Jewish people living in the 5th century B.C.E. Like their ancestors, they have lacked faith in God, even spoken against the Holy One. But God promises the people that if they will give up some of what they have (a tithe), God will “open for [them] the windows of heaven and pour down for [them] blessing beyond [their] capacity.” It is an auspicious time of the year for such an assurance, because it is so imperative for Jews to extend generous help to others at Pesach time (Maot Chitim). The Haftarah concludes with the assurance that Elijah the prophet will come to herald the time of Messianic redemption. Our expectations of such a time are thereby raised when we invite Elijah to our Seder tables. The Haftarah, with it’s reference to Elijah, is thus chosen to be read on the Shabbat immediately before Pesach.
March 10, 2018
Moses reminds the Israelites to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. The seventh day is a holy day on which no fires are to be lit. Moses reviews God’s building instructions for the Tabernacle. He asks the people to bring gifts to use in its construction. The Israelites respond to Moses’ call. The skilled artisans make the cloth covering and the goat’s hair tent over the Tabernacle, as well as the curtain, and the screen for the entrance to the Tabernacle. The gold covered Ark of acacia wood and the cherubim on the Ark cover are constructed as are the table for the bread of display and the seven-branched menorah, the altars and the copper washbowl and stand. The appearance and construction of the vestments for officiating in the sanctuary are presented in great detail. Everything is brought before Moses for inspection. All work had been performed and completed as God had commanded. Moses blesses the Israelites. The tabernacle is finally set up on the first of Nisan in the second year of Israel’s freedom. When the Tabernacle has been erected, God’s presence fills it.
This is Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat on which we recall the use of a Red Heifer to purify those who had become ritually impure through contact with the dead. The special Maftir Torah portion focuses on becoming ritually fit to offer sacrifices – an important theme before the Festival of Passover. The Haftarah picks up on the idea of cleansing, and provides a lesson on becoming morally pure in order to fulfill the teachings of God. God tells the prophet Ezekiel that when the Children of Israel will sanctify God’s name, they will be allowed to inhabit the Land of Israel. God will give them a new heart and a new spirit, and they will be blessed with good crops and protected for the sake of God’s name. With their common theme of moral purification, the Haftarah and Maftir portions connect well with the lengthy and difficult process of preparing ourselves and our homes for the upcoming festival of Pesach.
This Torah reading concludes the Book of Exodus. Exodus, which began with the despair of the enslaved Israelites, now concludes on a note of hope and confidence as divine spirit hovers over and guides the Israelites in their journey home.
March 3, 2018
This week’s Torah
God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites. God tells Moses to make articles for the Priests to use when entering the Tent of Meeting. Moses is told to remind the Israelites to keep the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant. God gives Moses two tablets on which are inscribed the laws, but the Israelites have grown impatient in the time that Moses was up on Mount Sinai. They demand that Aaron fashion for them a god. Under great duress, he relents and makes a Golden Calf. God tells Moses that the Israelites have turned away from the laws. God will destroy them and make Moses’ descendants a great nation. Moses pleads with God to spare the people. As the Israelites worship the calf, Moses descends the mountain. Angered, he smashes the tablets and destroys the calf. God tells Moses to carve two new tablets of stone for God to inscribe again with the words of the law.
This week’s Haftorah
Ahab, the King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel had introduced the worship of Baal – a foreign god – to the Jewish people. Because of this sin, the land of Israel is experiencing a severe drought. God tells the prophet Elijah to speak with Ahab. Ahab accuses Elijah of being a troublemaker but Elijah responds that it is the king who has brought misfortune to the people and the land. Elijah confronts the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, and is thereby able to demonstrate to the Jewish people that the God of Israel is the only true God. The incidents described in the Torah portion and in the Haftarah join two moments of betrayal in Israelite history. In the Torah portion, we learn of the building of the golden calf; in the Haftarah, once again the Israelites turn their back on God, this time to worship the pagan
February 24, 2018
Shabbat Zachor This Week’s Torah Reading Exodus 28:31-29:18
Shabbat Zachor / שבת זכור Moses is told to instruct the Israelites to bring olive oil to light the lamps of the Tabernacle. The lamps are to burn from evening until morning, and are to be the responsibility of Aaron and his sons. Moses is told to ordain Aaron and his sons as Kohanim (priests). The Kohanim are to be adorned in special clothes: linen breeches, tunics, sashes, and turbans. The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is to wear a special robe of pure blue decorated at the hem with pomegranates and golden bells. Over this robe, an apron-like layer (the Ephod), woven of gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, is to be worn. Connected to the Ephod is “the breastplate of judgment” (choshen) – a square-shaped container decorated on the front with four rows of precious stones. The Kohen Gadol is also to wear a gold plate engraved “Holy to the Lord” to be tied with a blue cord to the front of his turban. The Kohanim are to be ordained in a special ceremony, which involved first washing, dressing, and anointing them with oil, and secondly, the offering of various sacrifices. These ceremonies are to be repeated for seven days. The Maftir reading for Shabbat Zachor, tells us to remember (zachor) the attack by the Amalakites upon the Israelites. The Amalakites attacked the Israelites ruthlessly from behind, killing the stragglers: the old, the infirm, the very young and the women.
This Week’s Special Haftarah Reading Samuel 15:2-34 In the Haftarah, Saul, recently crowned King of Israel, spared the life of the Amalekite king after defeating the Amalakites in a battle. The prophet Samuel had relayed God’s command that Saul destroy all of the Amalakites (even their animals) for the cruelties perpetrated against the Israelites. When Saul spares the life of the king and, instead takes him prisoner, Samuel chastises him for not adhering to God’s word, which is to eradicate the Amalakites entirely. This week’s Haftarah connects to the calendar rather than the weekly Torah portion. According to tradition, Haman, who plotted to kill the Jews of Persia in the Megillah of Esther, is considered to be a descendant of the Amalekite kings spared by Saul. This is why we read these portions just before Purim.
February 16, 2018 summary courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois
The Torah portion:
God instructs Moses to accept gifts from the Israelites to be used to construct a sanctuary for God. Acceptable gifts include precious metals and stones, tanned skins, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and linen, and special oils and spices. God shows Moses the design for the Tabernacle and its contents: an Ark of acacia wood, overlaid both inside and out with gold. The Ark is to be fitted with gold rings and gold-covered poles to make it portable. The tablets of the law are to be kept inside. Two gold cherubim are to be placed facing each other over the cover of the Ark. The Ark is to be housed in the innermost chamber of the Tabernacle, called the Holy of Holies. God describes the construction of the Tabernacle to Moses in great detail. The entire structure is to be portable, with a wooden framework and walls of richly colored fabric. Next to the Holy of Holies is to be a room called the Holy place, with a table overlaid in gold with the bread of display (shewbread) set on it and the sevenbranched Menorah also made of gold. In the Tabernacle court, an altar is to be constructed with copper-covered horns at each corner. The courtyard itself is to be 100 cubits long by 50 cubits wide, surrounded by walls of acacia wood covered in gold and overlaid with fabric and animal hides. During the forty years of wandering in the desert, the tabernacle was the site at which God spoke to Moses.
King David’s strong desire was to build a Temple for God. Although he would not live to see his dream realized, his son Solomon made the task a high priority during his reign. This week’s Haftarah contains many of the details related to building the Temple. About 180,000 workers were needed to complete the task and the building may have taken more than twenty years. The Temple proper was a rectangular hall 60 by 20 by 30 cubits. This week’s Torah portion describes the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The narrative is paralleled in the Haftarah, which describes the building of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
February 10, 2018 summary courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois
This Week’s Torah Portion
The name of this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, translates to social ordinances. This is the first Torah Portion after the Ten Commandments, and it deals with how we are to live together. Our tradition is telling us that we need rules to live together and we have to respect the dignity of every one. We follow up last week’s big ten with the small print: 53 more commandments. Among the list is the famous line about punishment being “eye for an eye” or what is known in fancy language as lex talionis – the law of retaliation. As Mahatma Gandhi (and Fiddler on the Roof) taught, this law would make the whole world blind. The Rabbis of the Talmud agree – they come up with ten different reasons why “eye for an eye” is just a metaphor. They believe it means that punishment should be just, but not physical nor savage. We all know that lessons are best learned in a way fitting for the situation.
This Week’s Haftorah
The special Maftir and Haftarah of Shabbat Shekalim discuss the monetary donations of the Children of Israel. Every adult Israelite was to offer a half-shekel as a sign of atonement. The half-shekels served as a census and were used to maintain the sacrificial worship in the Tabernacle. The Haftarah recalls a later period in Jewish history when monies were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and used solely for repairing the Temple. The chest was set up by the Jewish King Yehoash, who began to rule the Kingdom of Judah at the age of seven. This week’s Haftarah connects to the calendar rather than the weekly Torah portion. Shabbat Shekalim is the first of 4 special Shabbatot leading up to the celebration of Pesach. This reading is set one month before the beginning of the month of Nissan, in which Pesach falls. The reciting of Parashat Shekalim was instituted in remembrance of the Temple and the sacrifices after the destruction of the Second Temple.
February 3, 2018 summary courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois
In the third month after the Exodus, the people enter the wilderness of Sinai and encamp by Mount Sinai. God tells the people through Moses that if they will obey God’s teachings, they will be for God a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The people respond as one, saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” After the Israelites wait a period of three days for purification, God appears to them in a cloud of smoke and fire on the mountain and proclaims the Ten Commandments. The Children of Israel tremble at the sound of the thunder and the spectacle of the lightning as God speaks to them. They ask Moses to act as God’s spokesman out of fear that they will die if they hear God speak directly to them. From that point until Moses’ death, God speaks to the people through Moses. God tells Moses to remind the Israelites that they themselves had heard God speak. Therefore, they are to hold fast in their resolve to worship no idols. Instead of praying to graven images, the Israelites are to offer sacrifices to God on altars built of earth.
Isaiah reports witnessing the angels who surround God’s throne and call out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” (This line appears in the Kedushah section of the Amidah.) Isaiah understands that God is the Supreme Being and has power over all. When God, through revelation, asks Isaiah to carry the message to the Jewish people, Isaiah, like Moses, declares himself to be unworthy. But God is able to convince Isaiah to speak to the people, and it is Isaiah who tells Ahaz, the king of Judah, that God does not want him to fear the rulers of Aram and Ephraim.
January 20, 2018 summary courtesy of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois
This Week’s Parashah – Bo
Pharaoh’s courtiers plead with him to obey God in order to stop the plagues and save Egypt. When Pharaoh ignores their advice, locusts, the 8th plague, come to destroy those parts of Egypt left unharmed by hail (7th plague). The plague ends when Pharaoh pleads with Moses and Aaron, but God, again, hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The plague of darkness falls without warning – only the Israelites have light where they live. God tells Moses that the next plague, the slaying of the firstborn, will be the last. Moses and Aaron instruct the Israelites in the laws of Passover. On the 10th day of the first month, they are to slaughter a lamb, smear its blood on their doorposts, and eat its roasted flesh hurriedly in remembrance of the 10th plague and their hasty Exodus from Egypt. For seven days, they are to eat only unleavened bread. The Israelites apply lamb’s blood to their doorposts as instructed. In the middle of the night, all the firstborn Egyptian males are struck down. Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and bids them to depart with the Israelites. Because of their haste in leaving Egypt, the people take their dough with them before it rises. Exodus 13:8 says that “you shall tell your son the story of the exodus from Egypt.” The rabbis derived from this verse that parents are obligated to relate the story to their children on the eve of Passover. The story, found in the Haggadah, is told during the course of the Seder by Jewish families worldwide. It is important to tell the story of the Exodus in a way that is understandable and accessible to the next generation. A variety of creative and engaging Haggadot have been published recently that help families fulfill this important obligation.
This Week’s Haftarah
Jeremiah had warned the people of Judea against alliances with Egypt. His warnings prove to be necessary when Egypt surrenders to Babylon, paving the way for the conquest of the Southern Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the Judeans. Jeremiah, who was jailed for his preaching, tells the Jewish people not to be afraid because God is with them, even in exile, and will one day return them to their homeland. The Haftarah this week, presents a counterpoint to the Israelites’ plight in Egypt. Jeremiah’s prophecy of Egypt’s destruction references the 8th plague. The numerous armies that will come upon Egypt “are more numerous than locusts and cannot be counted.”
Torah talk for May 27, 2017 Welcome to Numbers! Finally we’re done with the manual for the priests and now we get to some practical things. The first thing that happens is the census. Only males got counted and only after they reached 20. There were 603,550. The Levites were not counted so we don’t know how many of them there were. Their job was to take care of and protect the Tabernacle. But if you figure that the men over 20 were matched by women over 20 and by people under that age, there had to be almost 2 million people there. So why is it that they only counted males over 20? The reason is not that they had budget issues; the census was designed to determine how many people were available to serve in the army. This was a critical question at the time. It was the beginning of the second year after the exodus. By now of course, God had determined that the people would be remaining in the Sinai for another 39 years before coming to the Promised Land. It was necessary to have a means to defend the Hebrews from the hostile nations that inhabited the edges of the wilderness and from raiders in the wilderness. While the sight of a few million people might seem to be intimidating itself, that would not prevent raiders from attacking stragglers and outlying areas. So, once the census was taken, it became possible to create a defensive perimeter around the Tabernacle and the entire encampment. The Levites were in the middle, not because they needed protection but because they were the last line of defense. The other tribes were ranged around the Levites to protect the rest of the people. Today’s Haftorah is from Hosea. He lived during the time of the two kingdoms and encountered licentiousness among the people of the Northern Kingdom (not that there wasn’t any in Judah but that’s not where he lived. He predicted that the Israelites would number like the sands of the sea and would eventually become one nation again which God would receive again. He demanded that the people reform and reunite, largely to deaf ears. The two themes from today are unity and purity. We are told that strength may be found in numbers but those numbers must be matched by living a proper life. Only by coming together and living appropriately will we be able to find peace and serenity. Shabbat Shalom.
Torah remarks for May 13, 2017 Today’s Torah portion details the requirements that the priests have to remain pure. They must remain holy; they must remain pure and unblemished. In order to officiate they must follow all of the purification rituals. The Haftorah has similar demands. Why is this? Why do the priests have to be so perfect? And why do we find these rules in the Torah itself? Why aren’t they in some other book or a separate priestly manual? As with everything in the Torah, we need to put these rules into a historical context. Remember, we’ve just founded a new religion. It has some of the trappings that existed before in Egypt and in other ancient cultures – there is a priestly class, there are sacrifices, there are rules to follow. But the rules, the way sacrifices are performed and the obligations of the people toward the priests and the priests to the people have really turned what the former slaves were used to on its head. There is a requirement that all the people must be pure; they must worship one God; they must set themselves apart from all other ancient societies. So how can they do this? What is the glue that holds everything together? Before the monarchy is established the answer is the priests. They are the arbiters of what is right and wrong. They intercede for the people with God. They lead everyone in setting a standard for personal conduct. There is of course our covenant with God – we follow the rules and our people will be given a land flowing with milk and honey; the multitudes will be like grains of sand. But there is a second covenant; the covenant with the priests. We are to follow their guidance and they will see to it that we get what God promises us. If we are to follow them though, we need to be certain that they are leading us properly. That is the secret of the passages we have today. If the people are assured that their religious leaders are pure and promote true justice, they will follow their instruction and we will prosper. The priests need to be pure and the people will sustain them. This will lead to us all being sustained. This week, Nancy and I visited the Kennedy Space Center. The overarching themes of the center are the vastness of space and the desire to find and understand the unknown. Our religion is the same. We need to find and understand the unknown and to become comfortable with our place in creation. Study of the cosmos and study of the Torah will help us along his road. Shabbat Shalom.
Torah talk for May 6, 2017 Today there is another double portion for our Torah reading. This is pretty common at this time of year. Today’s first Torah portion is Acharey mot – after the death – and it details what happens after the deaths of Aaron’s two sons for not following the rules. The focus is on what must be done to purify the High Priest, the sanctuary and the people. The famous story of the scape goat is told, as is the instruction to observe Yom Kippur for all time. Significantly, the people cannot have their sins forgiven until after the purification of the site of worship. Ultimately, this becomes the basis for the story of Chanukah. After the portion that we read today there is a passage which is also read in the afternoon service at the conclusion of Yom Kippur – “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws.” What follows are the rules of sexual conduct. In the next portion, Kedoshim, we find the requirement to be holy because God is holy, rules to honor your parents, to keep the Sabbath and be fair to the poor and your fellows. One of the rules I have followed carefully over the years in my dealings with workmen is “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” I have always made it a point to see that the people who worked for me were paid on time and in full. This rule is placed with others governing fairness and prohibiting fraud. It conveys the necessary rules of an agrarian society where people routinely performed daily labor and needed to be paid, literally for their daily bread, but the principle is the same – no one in a position of power should use that power to cause hardship for those who cannot match their status. Kedoshim carries our obligations to the poor further: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corner of your field, and you shall not gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick the undeveloped twigs of your vineyard; and you shall not gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the proselyte – I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10) While we’re gleaning in the fields here, there are two principals we can glean from this passage – the first is that we have an affirmative duty to help the poor. The second is that we have to respect them by allowing them to gather the gleanings themselves rather than forcing them to come and ask for charity. Amos is a minor prophet who lived and prophesized in the Northern kingdom of Israel. In today’s Haftorah, he condemns those who are not following the rules that God has decreed. He predicts that God will destroy the northern kingdom due to the sinful conduct in the kingdom but then says that God will restore the people – “Nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them.” Amos’ teachings can be found in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. King quotes, “we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” alluding to Amos’ message of social justice. Using the same quote, Bernie Sanders referenced Amos’ in his campaign speech, rhetorically implying he stands for social justice. The overall theme today is purity. We must show respect to the center of our religious life, in the Torah – the Tabernacle, in the Prophets – the Temple and for all time, the place of worship. We need to make sure that the synagogue or the temple is treated with great care because it represents the ideals that we strive for. Then we must live lives that aspire to reach these same ideals. Shabbat Shalom.
Torah Comments for April 29, 2017 Today’s Torah portion has two parts to it – the first deals with women after childbirth and pronounces that the mother will be unclean. If she has a boy, she is unclean for seven days and then requires purification for 33 days. For girls, the time is doubled. During that time she cannot touch a consecrated object or enter the sanctuary. Then she is to produce a sin offering and a burnt offering to obtain purification. Biblically, her state of “uncleanness” was a recognition of a period of danger for both herself and the baby. She would be isolated so neither of them would become ill and die at a susceptible time. The second part of the Torah portion deals with diseases of the skin and emphasizes the role of the priest in determining the extent of a disease and its cure. Isolation is the first step in preparing for a cure. The Haftorah relates the story of four lepers who are isolated from the rest of the people. There is a siege and the Israelites are starving. The encircling army of Arameans is preparing to conquer them. The lepers, who are about to starve to death, decide that they might as well go to the Aramean camp and either receive food or be put to death. They arrive and discover that the Arameans have fled. They eat their fill and take the spoils of the first few Arameans before their consciences take hold and force them to go to the city and notify everyone that they are saved. The common theme here is isolation. But it is not just isolation. One must support the person who is isolated. The birth mother may not be burdened by duties and may be separated from others but someone needs to provide her with food and assistance. The person who is isolated while awaiting a diagnosis of her skin lesion must still be cared for. Even the lepers who cannot be cured are deserving of our compassion and support. They had little hesitation in bringing the good news of the Aramean rout to the city even though they had been isolated from the community. Clearly, they still felt an obligation to the city. Compassion must have been shown to them and they repaid it. Today’s lesson is to remember that, there but for the grace of God go I and to respect and support those who are not able to care for themselves. Shabbat shalom.
Torah Comments for April 11, 2017 Today’s main Torah portion recites the preparations for the 10th plague. Moses instructs the people to hold a Passover meal, inviting others to it if they cannot provide their own lamb for the dinner. He also instructs them to place the lamb’s blood on their doorposts to notify the Lord of their presence. Then he instructs them that they are to perform the Passover seder every year and to explain to their children that the ritual is in honor of the Lord who passed over our homes and smote the Egyptians. From this passage the seder as we know it originated. The second Torah portion details the special sacrifices made in the Temple for Passover. The Haftorah connects to Passover as well. We learn that no circumcisions had taken place in the wilderness during the 40 years of wandering. As Joshua prepares to lead the people over the Jordan River into the land flowing with milk and honey, he causes all of the males to be circumcised and God tells him that the disgrace of Egyptian slavery has now been completed erased. As the Israelites prepared for the conquest of the land of Israel they offer a Passover sacrifice. This also marks the end of the manna. From then on, the people would be fed by the crops they grew and the animals they raised. The study we make today is one of contrasts. We draw together for the Passover seder, remembering our past and preparing for the future. At the same time, we look ahead to a future in which we will equals as part of a larger world. We are told “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” From this we learn to have pride in our heritage and compassion for all others. Yom Tov Shalom.
TORAH TALK FOR MARCH 25, 2017 There are a number of interesting points to consider in today’s Torah reading. Moses directs the construction of the Tabernacle. He asks the people to contribute to it of their own free will. He establishes the first gift registry in history, asking for precious metals, yarns, animal skins and other items. There is an interesting contrast between this request and the demand at the time of the census. Everyone is required to contribute the same basic amount to support the governing structure of the Israelites but no one is required to support the construction of the center of worship. We can spend lots of time some other time debating the significance of this distinction but I have something else to talk about today. Today’s Torah portion marks both a concession of sorts to paganism and a rejection of it. This is the story of the construction of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle is a portable temple that will accompany the Israelites throughout their travels in the wilderness. It becomes the focus of the religion. All religious practices take place at the Tabernacle. God’s presence is said to be centered there. To that extent, the construction of the Tabernacle is a throwback to the pagan practices that the people had become familiar with as slaves in Egypt. A temple was the focus of the Egyptian religious life. The people who had recently left Egypt were still slaves in their mindsets and needed something familiar to ground them as they moved on to confront the unknown. But there was a significant change from the old practice – a step in the process of elevation to a new religion. There were no statues of our God in the Tabernacle. The focus inside was instead on a small box – the Ark. The Ark contained the words of the fundamental principles of our religion. But the Ark was hidden from public view. The purpose of this novel focus in our evolving religion was to wean the people away from the old practices and to give them the opportunity to learn to worship our unknowable omnipresent and omnipowerful God. As time went on, the Tabernacle was replaced by a permanent Temple and later the synagogue but the principle has been the same. We all need to have one foot on the ground while our minds and our souls are free to soar to religious heights. Shabbat shalom.
Dvar Torah for March 18, 2017 In today’s portion, God authorizes a census. Everyone over 20 is to be counted and to pay half a shekel for the privilege of being found eligible for military service. The balance of what we read deals with the fabrication of a copper sink for the priests to wash in before officiating, the making of incense, instructions on the construction of the Tabernacle and the priestly garments and the requirement to observe the Sabbath. The special reading details the ritual of the red heifer. The Haftorah is Eziekiel’s prediction of the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile. He explains that the cause of the exile was the failure of the people to follow the religious laws. He says that God will deliver the people from their uncleanness and restore them to Israel for His own sake, not that of the people but He promises to multiply the people like sheep. There is a connection among all three of these passages. The payment of the half shekel is for the purpose of redeeming the people from their sins. The laver is constructed and placed near the altar for the purpose of purifying the priests before they conduct the sacrifices there. The ritual of the red heifer was conducted to produce ashes for the purpose of purifying those Israelites who became unclean for one reason or another. Ezekiel declares that all of the Israelites who are in exile are unclean but that God will purify them when they return to Israel. So what is all this business about purification in our religion? Purification of the priests and priestesses was important to the pagan religions of the time but only the priests and priestesses. The significant difference for us was that everyone was to live a pure life. God is well aware of the foibles of human life and recognizes that people cannot maintain purity no matter how hard they try. Therefore, He sets up a process to purify everyone – the red heifer. After the red heifer is burned on the altar, its ashes are kept in a location where they can be mixed with purifying water. The water is symbolically sprinkled on people and objects that become unclean to make them pure. This whole concept, a new one in history at the time, sets the Jewish people apart from everyone else. It is continued with the repeated exhortations to ignore the temptations of Baal, idolaters, witches, soothsayers and others. We will be different and we will set an example to the rest of the world. Today, we no longer perform sacrifices and no one is ritually purified by sprinkling water on them in our religion although the Catholics have developed a version of this ritual beginning with baptism and continuing with fonts of holy water in their churches. We do follow ritual cleansing with the mikvah which is our closest throwback to the Biblical rituals but mostly today we purify ourselves with prayer and good deeds. Being Jewish carries with it the obligation to strive for goodness and purity. We need to remember this obligation in our daily lives and carry it out to the best of our ability. Shabbat Shalom.
Torah talk for March 11, 2017 This is Shabbat Zahor, the second of the 4 special Shabbats before Pesach. Today’s portion deals in detail with how to prepare the oil for the Menorah at the Tabernacle. It is to be clear oil from beaten olives. The menorah is to burn from evening to morning for all time. Aaron is appointed as the first High Priest and his descendants are to follow in his footsteps. The portion concludes with instructions on how to make priestly garments and talks about the Urim and Thummim which seem to have been used by the high priest in making oracles. No one really knows how they were used. They apparently went out of use before anyone such as Josephus recorded activities that occurred in the Temple. There is a second, very short Torah portion: Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! The Haftorah today tells the story of Samuel and Saul. Saul is the king. He is commanded to destroy the Amalekites. He wins the war, kills all the Amalekites except for the king and saves all the livestock, contrary to what God has ordered. Samuel the prophet tells Saul the king that he is out of a job for disobeying and kills the king of the Amalekites himself. A tradition which is relevant tomorrow is that because Saul didn’t kill the king of the Amalekites our people would be subjected to a scourge in every generation. Haman is the one in Shushan which leads to Purim. Here’s an interesting question. If we are supposed to blot out the memory of Amalek, why do we recite this passage every year? Why do we tell the story of the Amalekites in the Torah? I think the Haftorah answers the question. The blotting is to take place after we come to the promised land. Saul fails to follow instructions and the Amalekites are not blotted out at that time or any time in the future. We still have the duty to blot out the Amalekites we face in every generation. Tomorrow we help do it to Haman. The Hasmoneans did it to the Greeks of the time. Our parents helped do it to Hitler. In this and future generations we will have the same obligation and the Torah exhorts us to carry it out. We need to blot out the small Amalekites of today, the bullies, the racists and all those who do not respect human dignity by standing up to them when they attempt to persecute others. Shabbat shalom.
Torah Talk for February 18, 2017 Today’s Torah portion has two of the most significant events upon which our current civilization is based. One originates with God and the other with an outsider. The first event in the most likely chronology although it is the second in the Torah is God’s. God calls Moses up to Mount Sinai and recites what we usually call the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew is closer to the Ten Words and we now call it the Decalogue. As a matter of fact, some authorities have found as many as 13 Commandments there. The second event is the human event. Jethro arrives in the cam of the Israelites. He comes with Moses’ wife and children and spends some time with his son-in-law. Moses is like any guy who wants to make a good impression on his wife’s father. He first tells him about all the things that happened to him and the people – the meetings with the Pharaoh, the plagues, the liberation. He made it a point to tell Jethro how all of these things were instigated by the Lord but you can just bet that he didn’t omit his role. The next day Moses makes a point of showing off his power and his brilliance. He sits as the magistrate and pronounces judgments as the people come to him. He doesn’t quite get the reaction he expects though: Jethro says – The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. Once Jethro takes Moses down a peg or two, he tells him the right way to do it. Seek out capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. These are the people who will decide the day to day affairs of the people and Moses will decide the major issues. What is the significance of the way that these events are presented in the Torah? The chronology is the first consideration. The human element comes first in the story; then comes the God part. The reason for this is the same one for the normal setup in synagogues today and also what happens next. We go up to God. In many synagogues, the bimah is raised so we can go up as we approach the Torah. The Decalogue is given on Mount Sinai. Moses goes up to receive it. The structure of law and order goes up. The human part, the judicial structure comes first with Jethro and we then go up to the law itself which is promulgated by God. Ours is the only ancient society in which the law originates with God as opposed to the ruler. This was not the case with the code of Hamurrabi, Akkadia or Sumeria. There the gods installed the ruler who made the laws. In our case, though, as we see this week and next, God is the source of the law. This philosophy forms the basis for our own country’s existence – We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. As we look at our history as a people, we the people through Moses created a judicial system to interpret the law. As we look at our history as Americans, we the people created a judicial system for the same reason. Just as Jethro instructed Moses, today our leaders need to search out capable people who fear God, trustworthy people who spurn ill-gotten gain to operate our courts and our government to maintain our freedoms.
Torah Talk for February 11, 2017 In today’s Torah portion we heard the story of the sea. God instructed Moses to stretch his arm out, an East wind blew and the sea parted. The Israelites marched across. The image of this crossing is astounding. Just think of 600,000 men plus women, children, livestock and hangers on, all crossing together. You get a sense of the magnitude of this by recalling the scene from The Ten Commandments, but it shows only a small sliver of what must have happened. Then Moses apparently also crosses over. God tells him to raise his arm again as the Egyptian chariots begin their own crossing, God sees to it that the wheels of the chariots become mired and causes panic among the Egyptian force and causes the waters to return, destroying the Egyptians. The story is related first in prose and then in a poem. Today’s haftorah provides a parallel story – the battle of Deborah against Sisera’s army. Sisera also brings chariots, 900 compared to Pharaoh’s 600, and drives them into the Wadi Kishon. God again causes panic, this time among Sisera’s army. The Israeli general, Barak, leads 10,000 soldiers in a charge down from Mount Tabor and defeats the invaders. Again, the story is told first in prose, then in poetry. There is a significant difference in these two stories. In both cases, victory is attributed to God’s efforts. However, in the first story, God does it all. He, or she, provides cover for the Israelites with a pillar of cloud and fire. God then splits the sea and permits the people to cross it. When the Egyptians follow, it is God who destroys the army. In Deborah’s situation, God helps but the Israeli army defeats Sisera. Why the difference? In the first case, at the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites still have a slave mentality. They have rebelled against Moses several times already and will again. The Israelites could still go back and resume their former status – “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” By the time of the Judges things had changed. The people of Israel had become a nation. They were free and they thought like free people. Although Deborah had some difficulty in recruiting an army, she was able to raise it and the army acquitted itself well. The army charged Sisera and won the battle. Although they still needed the support of the Lord, they were able to effect change themselves. In the next few weeks we will follow the progress of the Israelites in the wilderness. This slave mindset will play itself out time and time again until the old generation dies out and a free generation takes its place. All of us were born free and have lived our lives as free people. We have an obligation, like the people of Israel in Deborah’s time, to act to carry out what is right at all times. Shabbat Shalom.
WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND February 4, 2017 Today’s Torah reading relates the story of the last three plagues – locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born. Remember that Joseph made his mark in Egypt by saving the Egyptians from famine. Today, the locusts devour all the remaining crops in the land, putting the Egyptians in the position they would have been in but for Joseph. Darkness came upon Egypt without warning – no one could move except the Israelites. The masters, accustomed to freedom of movement became the slaves, unable to act on their own, while the slaves had total freedom of motion. Finally, there came the slaying of the first born of the Egyptians. This is reminiscent of the order from Pharaoh to kill the Israelite baby boys. Similarly, in today’s Haftorah, Jeremiah relates that Babylon will come to Egypt and will conquer the Pharaoh and all of his supporters. The clear moral of the two stories is that tyrants who ride roughshod over the powerless will one day get their just deserts. What goes around, comes around. In the last few years our political system has been poisoned by people more interested in retaining their jobs at all costs. They have jeremandered voting districts to minimize the chances that there will be competitive elections. They have done what they could to suppress voting by potential opponents, establishing onerous conditions on people who cannot meet them. They have flooded the media with huge amounts of money funding scandalous ads against their opponents. They have at every turn sought to sabotage their opponents’ attempts at governing and have characterized their opponents as criminals and un-American. Now that they have obtained power, these same individuals have sought to lead the government using people who had exactly the same faults as those they previously condemned. Things in America have begun to resemble the 9th plague – darkness has started to envelop us. But as I said at the outset, what goes around comes around. God has provided the examples in today’s parasha and in Jeremiah’s words. People in power need to remember that they are subject to the same consequences in the future and consider fairness and justice in their actions.
D’var Torah for January 28, 2017 There is an interesting dichotomy in today’s Torah portion. The portion begins with God giving Moses two instructions that God knows full well are going to lead to failure. The first is to tell the Israelites that God is going to free them from bondage. The second is to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. Moses knew he would fail at these tasks but he carried them out anyhow. He did protest the second task but he did it. What is the significance of this in the Torah and what is its significance for today? In the context of the Torah, God has an objective for the first directive. He wants the people to hear that their salvation is at hand. Even though things are getting worse God wants them to begin to assimilate the concept of freedom. God knows it will take a great deal more effort to convince a slave population that it should set out into the unknown and is preparing the Israelites for this little by little. For the second directive, God is setting up both Pharaoh and the Egyptian people for what is to come. He is going to make sure that Pharaoh’s human nature will force him to assert himself and even the escalating plagues will not change his natural rejection of anyone who tries to tell him what to do. God is also laying the groundwork for all of Egypt to understand that there are severe consequences for disobeying His will. In today’s context, what can we learn from this? It is important for us to understand that there are some things that we have to pursue even if we know we will fail. That quest that Don Quixote went on was bound to fail but he had to set an example that there are times when it is not only appropriate but necessary to strive with that last ounce of courage to reach the unreachable star. We may see unfairness and discrimination that exist around us, bullying and poor treatment of others. Each of us is only one individual but we need to assert ourselves, even in the light of certain failure, to do and to encourage what is just and right in our society, no matter what the result. Only by remaining true to our principles will we insure that the future will be better for everyone.
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