D’Varim

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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