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Archive for July, 2009

Beyond Tisha B’Av – Upward and Onward #Torah #Va-etchanan

Posted by rabbiart on July 31, 2009

In Jewish tradition, there is no such thing as luck. No coincidences either. The expressionswe often think of as meaning “good luck” actually means nothing of the kind. The word “mazal” has to do with flow. We might even think cosmic flow, or better yet HaShem’s flow. So it can’t be luck or coincidence that we read Va-Etchanon right after celebrating/commemorating Tisha B’Av.Va-Etchanon begins in the middle of Devarim Chapter 3.  The chapter itself begins  with these two words – וַנֵּפֶן וַנַּעַל – We turned and went way up. In the verse itself the going up is to do battle with Bashan, but in our lives we have different challenges to face and battles to fight. Bashan is no longer a threat. Bashan, like so many of our historical enemies, no longer exists.  We are still here.

Our second verse has another powerful post Tisha B’av message that we can borrow from its original context. (And we don’t have to give it back!). וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, אַל-תִּירָא And YH-WH said, “Don’t be afraid”. Again, in the original context it is a directive to Moshe to not fear Og the Kin of Bashan. In our time we should listen to the message of “Fear Not”!

We’re about to read seven haftorot of consolation and encouragement as we prepare to begin – once again – a New Year.  We bring a lot of baggage with us. The historical legacy of the Jewish tradition, and our personal legacy of climbing our own spiritual ladder each year.  It can be too easy to be discouraged.

What else can we take from  this parshah to lighten our load?

We have been given great gifts (verse 18 and lets not worry – on Shabbes at least – about all the current conflicts over the land we are given.

We are taught how to encourage and strengthen each other, like Moshe giving what energy and strength he still had in his old age to the new leader Joshua.

We are given a system for living (verse 4:1 and let’s not worry – on Shabbes at least – about how Klal Yisrael might reunite ourselves into a unified community and understanding of what our system for living is.

We are reminded that the system we have been given can actually work, and we repeat this reminder every week when we take out our Book of Teaching and read from it.

וְאַתֶּם, הַדְּבֵקִים, בַּיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם, הַיּוֹם

Those of you (read us) who stuck with and stuck ourselves to HaShem are alive all of you (us) this day!

No more need be said…. except…
Shabbat Shalom

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Jewish Date in Your Browser #Torah #Luach

Posted by rabbiart on July 29, 2009

If you use Firefox and care about the Jewish calendar, there is a nice add-on to Firefox which will show the day and date, and probably the Parshah when it’s Shabbes, but that would mean I was looking at the computer on Shabbes, so I’m not sure about that one. You can find it at Breaking news… hover over the date and the add-on gives you a countdown to Shabbes and the name of the Parsha.  So far, I haven’t found what button to press to make Shabbes come faster…bummer. There are buttons to look at the complete Hebrew calendar and create Shabbat reminders.

And, there is even a gematria calculator but seems like all it does is add up the numerical value of whatever word or phrase you type into it.

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The vision of Isaiah – Hungry Mouths to Feed #Torah #Devarim

Posted by rabbiart on July 24, 2009

There was inquiry on a list about food kitchens in Israel and how they are doing.  This led somehow to the remarkable story of a modern-day escapee from Mitzrayim. His family lived on soup kitchen food off and on for three years in Paris before making their way to Israel. Google “Abraham Israel Hazon Yeshaya” to see for yourself or go visit and see the organizations that support this effort.

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The Vision of Isaiah – and Two Videos to Watch #Torah #Hazon

Posted by rabbiart on July 21, 2009

This Shabbat we begin the book of Devarim, and we have the third and final warning haftorah before we commemorate the ninth of Av.  From the words of the prophet, this is known as Shabbat Chazon – the Shabbat of Vision – that Isaiah saw for Yehudah and Yerushalayim.

חֲזוֹן, יְשַׁעְיָהוּ בֶן-אָמוֹץ, אֲשֶׁר חָזָה, עַל-יְהוּדָה וִירוּשָׁלִָם–בִּימֵי עֻזִּיָּהוּ יוֹתָם אָחָז יְחִזְקִיָּהוּ, מַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה

Isiaiah’s vision is not a pretty picture. The land is desolate; cities burned and flooded. The people offer a multitude of sacrifices, which are rejected as having no valid purpose and which provide no delight to HaShem. The people have forgotten how to do justice and relieve the oppressed. Hence the KBH needed to send a prophet with a powerful message; a message filled with both warning and hope.

After the warnings come an offer and a call for action;to sit and reason together, and earn a chance of forgiveness.

אִם-יִהְיוּ חֲטָאֵיכֶם כַּשָּׁנִים כַּשֶּׁלֶג יַלְבִּינוּ, אִם-יַאְדִּימוּ כַתּוֹלָע כַּצֶּמֶר יִהְיוּ

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow
though they be read like crimson, they shall be as [pure and white] wool

The Haftorah as we will chant it ends on a hopeful note; Zion redeemed by justice.

To this day in Israel there is a struggle over the vision of Zion. What is justice? Who shall be relieved from oppression?

Can everyone, in the words of the prophet, sit and reason together. Can all the peoples share a common vision?  Only if we are able to see the world as other see it, and not only as it appears in our eyes.

Try this vision experiment.  Watch these two videos, look at the comments  on youtube on each, and try to reconcile the various – and competing –  viewpoints.

Cellcom, an Israeli cellular provided, is running this television ad.

Here is how it looks from the other side of the boundary.

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Mattot-Masei – What’s Troubling Rashi – and US —-#Torah #Mattot

Posted by rabbiart on July 14, 2009

Torah students around the world appreciate the question “What’s troubling Rashi?”. In the double reading this Shabbes there are verses that might lead us to ask each other  “are we bothered?”.

כָּל-נֵדֶר וְכָל-שְׁבֻעַת אִסָּר, לְעַנֹּת נָפֶשׁ–אִישָׁהּ יְקִימֶנּוּ, וְאִישָׁהּ יְפֵרֶנּוּ.

Every vow, and every binding oath to afflict the soul, her husband may let it stand, or her husband may make it void.

Are we troubled by the husband and the father being able to annul a woman’s vows. While understanding that it comes from another time, are we troubled its presence in our sacred text? and can we resolve our issues with it while somehow being faithful to the text?

נְקֹם, נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֵת, הַמִּדְיָנִים; אַחַר, תֵּאָסֵף אֶל-עַמֶּיךָ.

Avenge the vengeance of Israel on the Midianites, afterwords you will be gathered to your people.

Are we bothered by the mass slaughter in the name of religious purity? of first the Midianite men, and then on the orders of Moshe, all the women and children?  Except for the female virgins of a certain age, of course. Or are we left once in the balance between avoiding anachronistic thinking yet still troubled on the other by its presence in our sacred text.

Are we troubled by HaShem’s commandment to drive out all the inhabitants, demolish all their high places and in general wreak havoc and destruction upon them?

וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ, מִפְּנֵיכֶם, וְאִבַּדְתֶּם, אֵת כָּל-מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָם; וְאֵת כָּל-צַלְמֵי מַסֵּכֹתָם תְּאַבֵּדוּ, וְאֵת כָּל-בָּמוֹתָם תַּשְׁמִידוּ

Drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places.

No exactly a prescription for tolerance and peaceful co-existence, is it?

Not surprisingly, considering it is Torah, these two seemingly separate concerns have a significant common thread.

Which we will explore on Yom Hamishi

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Recognizing Challenges – Designing Responses

Posted by rabbiart on July 10, 2009

Our Parshah begins with HaShem declaring.

פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם

Pinchas ben Elazar, ben Aharon the priest, diverted My jealous anger away from the Israelites when I was violently furious with them in my jealous anger, so that I didn’t consume Israel with my jealous anger.” Therefore I grant him my covenant of shalom.

Someone is very angry!

As our Parshah opens HaShem is just turning away from an outpouring of divine anger fueled by jealousy. HaShem is angry that Israelite men have been prostituting themselves with Midianite women, and jealous (can we say that?) about Israel becoming intimate with Ba’al Pe’or.

Yet in the space of two verses, Torah moves from divine anger to divine peace – shalom – in its full and complete (get it 🙂 ) meaning.

We might ask, how can HaShem be angry at the people and the Midianites more than at Pinchas?  They committed idolatry; Pinchas killed people!

Perhaps it is as simple as If were to rank the Aseret HaDibrot in order of importance, then a lesser violation (Pinchas)  was committed to stop the ongoing commission of a greater violation (Cozbi & Zimri and all the other idolatrous fornicators).

From anger to peace – now there’s a sorely needed model and motto for our times. Although we may not want to read this story too closely, if that is where we are trying to go. Because, in just four more verses we are commanded to – צָרוֹר – trouble and bother the Midianites because of their complicity in the doings. Zur, the slain woman’s father, is now referred to as a prince of Midian rather than as   merely a head of household.

HaShem has moved the Midianites alongside Amalek in the top ten list of Israel’s enemies. Midian – according to Rashi – deliberately prostituted their daughters in order to lead Israel into worshipping Ba’al Pe’or.  Not just their daughters but even the daughters of royalty.

Skipping over the rabbinic explanations of the discrepancy between Moab and Midian, we are left with two questions:

  1. How does HaShem move from being consumed with anger to handing out covenants of peace on the one hand, and issuing hostile orders on the other?
  2. How might we learn from HaShem’s model individually and in our wide variety of collections, to make the same moves?

Peace is not handed out to the Midianites, but specifically to Pinchas and to a lesser extent the remainder of Israel, because the plague is stopped.  Add to this the census that follows, and we can assert that HaShem is no longer angry with Israel, even if a full forgiveness hasn’t been granted. (That would wait for Yom Kippur). But certainly the anger is abated, as the incident is over.

Why is Midian not forgiven as well?  Remember that the trouble starts with Moab, and then the text mentions Midian. But only the Midianites are to be harassed. Why? Because for them, according to some interpretations, the incident is not over. They continue attempting to seduce Israel into idol worship.

Therefore they must be צָרוֹר – which can be translated as “troubled” or “harassed”. This is the word at the root of Mitzayim (מצר”ם). So Israel in some way does to Midian what was done to Israel in Mitzrayim.

In our story, Israel faced a spiritual threat. In other parshiot, the threat is physical. There are a variety of reasons and causes for challenges to Israel’s well-being and even our very existence.  Hmmm. Just like Israel  (both the state and all of klal yisrael) today.  It is impossible to know – or certainly to agree – on appropriate responses.

About the best we can do is look at HaShem’s grant to Pinchas.  What is given?  בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם Pinchas does not receive only a “covenant of peace.” He receives, in the words of the KBH, “my convenant of peace.”  There is an element of relationship between the KBH and Pinchas. The connection, as it were, between Pinchas and HaShem is made stronger.

Our challenge is to remember to  measure our intentions and actions against this test; will they bring us closer to the KBH. Then we may be fortunate through our deeds to reduce anger and increase peace in the world.

Shabbat  Shalom

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What Shall We Make of Pinchas?

Posted by rabbiart on July 10, 2009

Our Parshah begins with HaShem declaring.

פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם

Pinchas ben Elazar, ben Aharon the priest, diverted My jealous anger away from the Israelites when I was violently furious with them in my jealous anger, so that I didn’t consume Israel with my jealous anger.” Therefore I grant him my covenant of shalom.

Devotees of Law and Order (competing with ER for the all-time “TV series that is dead and won’t die” award), CSI and the like might be the quickest to ask about Pinchas’s state of mind at the time of the killing.  Did he think about right and wrong? Was he seized by an irresistible impulse (See Anatomy of a Murder).  Or did Pinchas save even more from dieing than the 24,000 reported killed.  Was he therefore acting for the greater good?

HaShem’s response appears to be a reward for his  zeal in skewering Zimri ben Salu and Cozbi ben Zur at the end of last Shabbat’s parshah.  He later leads an army against Midian which kills the kings of Midian and captures all the women, children, flocks and goods.  Oh… and burned the cities and encampments with fire.

Pinchas does not exactly come across as “a man of peace”, which is of course the “usual” definition of shalom.  Except perhaps in comparison to Moshe, who when he realizes that the women and children are still alive, commands that they all be killed, except for young women who have not known men (since this is the Bible, he of course means) in the Biblical sense.

According to Nehama Leibowitz, even the rabbis of the Yerushalmi agreed that Pinchas’s act was unsanctioned and in defiance of all the legal strictures and procedures stated in the Torah.

How should we interpret Pinchas’s behavior and the response that HaShem provides?  We should start with the recognition that our generation is not the first to be bothered by this story and to wrestle with it.

One response is to find a way to “be OK” with Pinchas.  The midrash has it that the leaders of the generation reacted by moving to excommunicate Pinchas. HaShem’s grant of an everlasting priesthood to Pinchas and his descendents is a response to this. The KBH vouches for Pinchas, judging that his motivations were pure; that he was acting only to advance k’vod hashem, the glory and honor of HaShem.

Does this intepretation make us feel better? or worse?

Another response is to make the exchange about Pinchas’s spiritual state. Having murdered – justifiably or not – two people, he is agitated and in a state of emotional turmoil.  So the with the brit shalom HaShem is quieting Pinchas’s soul and his emotional state.  Indirectly, this may also make Pinchas more suitable to act as a priest, which requires very careful control of one’s actions in order to correctly follow the rites and rituals of the sacrificial service.

Rabbi Zvi Miller in Monday’s Salant Center eMussar mailing considers the Pinchas incident along with the transition of power between Moshe and Joshua.  Moshe tells Joshua hazak v’amatz in Parshat Va’Yelech. Moshe encourages Joshua in his new role, even though Joshua was his greatest student.  Pinchas, says Rabbi Miller, “encouraged himself” to be courageous and stand up to the immoral activity of Salu and Cozbi.  He calls what Pinchas did a “little bit of pulling himself together”, and finishes by saying “his heroism saved the entire Nation of Israel.”! (exclamation point by the author)

The Gemara (Bavli – Masechet Sotah 45A) makes a further effort of heaping praise on Pinchas. Referring to the war against Midian in BaMidbar 31. It states that Pinchas went to battle to exact judgement on the Midianites for having sold Joseph into slavery.

Pinchas’s grandfather is Putiel, a name elsewhere associated with Joseph. (Biblical characters often have multiple names.)  There are two possible plays-on-words with Putiel. One is derogatory and associates the name Putiel with Jethro, who “fattened his calves for idolatry”. The word for fatten is pitteepitpe -close enough for Midrashic wordplay.  Since Jethro fattened his calves, he can be called Putiel, hence the other tribes could criticize Pinchas for his actions, and call him a son of an idolater.  The alternate reaction is to associate Pinchas with Joseph, who mastered (petpei) his passioned.  Therefore Pinchas has not only a distinguished lineage, but was in full control of his emotions when he slew Zimri and Cozbi.

An argument over  the merits of Pinchas serves well as a proxy for discussions about Israel today.  As in Pinchas’s time, Israel is under threat in our day.  As at Shittim, there are both external and internal threats and causes for concern.

In some way we are supposed to be like Pinchas, and do something like turning away the wrath of HaShem. We are called by this Parshah to find our own way of acting with zeal on behalf of G-d and Israel.  Like Pinchas, we are given no direct instructions on what to do and how to do it.

May we act to protect and strengthen Israel in a way that brings us also HaShem’s covenant of shalom.

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Generosity in Hard Times

Posted by rabbiart on July 3, 2009

I’m currently in training and raising money for the Waves to Wine Multiple Sclerosis bike ride. The Bay Area event will take place one week before Rosh HaShanah.  What a way to prepare body and soul for the most holy of our seasons and – as the sages call it – the most festive day of the year – Yom Kippur; the Day of Atonement.  Or, as someone a long time ago expressed it, the Day of At-One-Ment.

Of course I have been soliciting family, friends, contacts, study partners (OK, everyone for whom I have an email address that isn’t a client) since mid-June.  In this hard times, people are digging deep, and to date – in the space of less than three weeks contributors have pitched in $1500.00.  As I wrote in a thank you note to one of the contributors, from whom I have borrowed this phrase (modifications my own and it will only make you chuckle if you heard what Gene originally said in our Mussar group) “I am surrounded by generous people!”

If you are reading this post and are moved to join the growing list of supporters, please head on over to and Wave that Flag (obligatory Grateful Dead reference), er, I mean, Abuse That Plastic – for a good cause. Or, as several have done, send me a note that “the check is in the mail”.  Oh… and don’t forget to actually put the check into the mail :-).

I’ve put this in the “Torah Commentary” category, borrowing from Hazon who borrowed it from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who said “The Torah is a commentary on the world, and the world is a commentary on the Torah.”

Now to find time today to go out and ride my donkey past angels waving flaming swords.

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