D’Varim

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.

Stay safe.

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.

  1. Korah challenges Moses. Moses wins.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Stay safe.

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,

Beautiful indeed!

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 Torah
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 Haftorah
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

Torah Portion:
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.

Haftorah Portion:
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.

The Haftorah

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.

Today’s Haftarah

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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