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Archive for June, 2010

Pinchas – What Were You Thinking

Posted by rabbiart on June 29, 2010

As we know, last week’s parshah culminates in violence. The Israelites settle for awhile in Shittim and the trouble starts; harlotry and idolatry. HaShem gets angry, 24,000 are killed. Pinchas murders – or executes – (you decide) a Midianite woman (we find out in our Parsha she was Cozbi the daughter of Zur) and an Israelite man because they are ‘hooking up’ (as the young folk say) right in front of the Ohel Mo’ed.

As our parshah opens, Pinhas is awarded with the brit shalom for his deed, interpreted by HaShem as turning away HaShem’s anger at Israel by exercising an act of kinah (zeal, jealousy) which “avenges the name of HaShem”.  Not only Pinhas but also his descendants  are rewarded with the brit kehunat olam – the eternal covenant of priesthood.

(You can channel Cary Grant saying “Judy, Judy, Judy” here. Everything sounds better with a proper British accent.)

Pinhas, Pinhas, Pinhas.  What were you thinking?!? What are we to think?  Are we supposed to emulate Pinhas and kill anyone who we think is offending HaShem?  Uh… doesn’t this run afoul of a certain commandment about not murdering?  Is this the example you (we) want to set for our children?  Kill the infidel?  That doesn’t seem to be working so well in our time.

What are we, the reader, supposed to do with this passage?  It’s all well and good to go to the remez (hint or implied meaning), the drosh (story or the meaning we search out), or the sod, but what are we supposed to do with the pshat (plain meaning or narrative of the text)?  Pretend it didn’t happen?  Justify it with ‘that was then, this was now’?

Two easy, but ultimately unsatisfying traditional explanations are (1) the covenant of shalom is really just a granting of protection from the familial revenge that otherwise would occur; and (2) it’s a Torah way of saying Pinhas was troubled and injured by the realization of what he had done, so HaShem healed him with the brit shalom?

Feel better?  Not me.  And not really happy with the mandate in verses 17-18 to show hostility on an ongoing basis (check the Rashi) toward the Midianites because they plotted against us.  Or the Talmud’s attempt to sanitize this stance by saying that HaShem did not order the complete destruction of the Midianites because then Ruth could not have lived and joined the tribe.

Pinhas, Pinhas, Pinhas.  Questions, Questions, Questions.

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Parshat Balak – More Certainty – Good or Bad

Posted by rabbiart on June 25, 2010

Reflecting further on the parshah before Shabbes arrives… There’s an awful lot of certainty going on. And I fight it impossible to avoid thinking about “the flotilla” that happened, and the next “flotilla” that is forming, who is blessed, who is cursed, who is certain he is right because of his faith, and who has faith to be less certain.

Balak knows – that the Israelites threaten him and he must respond.
Balak knows – that the Israelites must be cursed.
Balak knows – that Balaam has the power – whoever Balaam blesses will be blessed; whoever he curses will be cursed.
Balaam knows – that he can only do what HaShem allows; he cannot go beyond the boundaries set for him by HaShem.
The donkey knows – there’s an angel blocking the road.
Balaam knows – the donkey is stupid and must be beaten into submission.
Balak knows – if he commands Balaam then he (Balaam) will obey.
Pinhas knows – its his right and duty to kill the offending couple.

Who is right, who is wrong? As Buffalo Springfield put it many moons ago …
“There’s battle lines being drawn, Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”.

Balak is wrong, the Israelites are not a threat to him, for as they have traveled, they have asked only for passage on the public road.  In last week’s parshah we see the Israelites simply asking for safe passage on the public road, and promising not to stray from it, promising not to eat from the field or drink from the wells, but Sihon refuses to allow it, picks a fight, and is defeated.

Balaam is wrong, to think that he should go and curse the Israelites.

Pinhas is – to my sensibility – wrong to kill although right to be offended.

The words that resonate most to me come from the mouth of an ass “What have I done to you that you keep hitting me?”

Ancient times are like modern times, complex conflicts, complex peoples, and the biggest danger is from those who just KNOW they are RIGHT, it’s a pretty song, but not a pretty picture.

“What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side”

Pray for the day when faith is strong… so strong that certainty can be put aside, and we can all learn to be on the same side.

Shabbat Shalom

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Parshat Balak – The Certainty of Faith

Posted by rabbiart on June 24, 2010

This week’s parshah presents us with numerous wonders and the challenges that come with them. Seeing and speaking donkeys.  Sword bearing angels.  Foreign prophets who author Jewish liturgical texts.  Zealots who are rewarded for (what appears to be) cold blooded murder.  This parshah is truly a kol bo – there is something to challenge all but the most fervent and unquestioning believer.

We begin with Balak seeking out a prophet who can perform some magic that will save Moab from impending destruction by the hordes of Israelites coming his way. His delegation of elders goes to Balaam with magic charms – or an omen – to beg Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak knows, or fears, that the Israelites are too powerful for him.

Immediately Balaam declares that he must get an answer from HaShem before he can give his response to the delegation. HaShem gives his instruction ‘you cannot curse them because the people are blessed.’

This is wonder number one; Balaam, a non-Israelite, will only do what the G-d of the Israelites will allow. On the second request, his response is even stronger ” I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God.” Balaam gets permission to travel, but HaShem will be speaking through him.

We proceed to the donkey with a mind of her own (OK, that’s normal behavior) who can perceive a sword-bearing angel blocking the road while Balaam cannot. In addition to the ability of second sight, the donkey can speak! And understands relationships!!

Repeatedly Balaam declares he can only say what HaShem will allow. Of this he is certain.

After several poetic utterances by Balaam – including some famous lines that have entered the liturgy, Balaam goes home, Balak goes back, and the story proceeds to another episode of sexual debauchery and idol worship. (Shocking, I know). HaShem responds by commanding that the idol worshippers be hung in order to quiet HaShem’s anger. Rubbing salt in the wounds, as it were, Cozbi the daughter of Zur and an unidentified Israelite go and do the deed in, of all places, the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed. Pinhas sets himself up as judge, jury and executioner in the space of two verses – and is rewarded with the brit shalom.

So there you have it.  The two main characters of the parshah – Balaam and Pinhas – absolutely know what will be said and what must be done. No doubt. No hesitation. No ambiguity. No shades of gray.  Faith is all they need.

In the self-contained world of this parshah, faith can be the guide.

In our world we know all too well that one man’s faith is another man’s folly, or foolishness, or downright evil and reprehensible behavior.  And we might be the “another man”. How are we to know when to trust our faith, or when to question our certainty?

That is the question this parshah presents to me.

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Israel Bike Ride Program Events in SF Area – July 11 & 12

Posted by rabbiart on June 21, 2010

I’m very excited to say that my personal fund raising for the bike ride has crossed the $2,250.00 mark.  Even better, I’m hosting two evening events with a graduate and staff member of the Arava Institute – Ilana Meallem, on the above mentioned dates.  Its probably not prudent to put our home address visible, so email me (rabbiart @ if you’re interested in attending.  Here’s some info about Ilana, and some comments from her as well.

Resolving Environmental Issues in the Middle East &Building Bridges for Peace:  A Story of Personal Transformation

You’ll find Ilana Meallem wherever the peacemakers and ecologists roam, inspired by her experience at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (  She is one of the most remarkable “green” activists in the Middle East, inspiring, educating, promoting and drawing ecologically sound practices and integrated approached to peace. Following her graduate studies at the AIES/BGU Program, Ilana initiated the Bedouin Biogas and Women’s Health project and the EcoSpirit Middle East Initiative, which hosts retreats in Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt for regional activists providing more holistic leadership tools. Ilana is currently spearheading the vision to build an ecologically sustainable retreat center in the area of the Judean Desert/Dead Sea that is easily accessible to Palestinians and Israelis alike.

“For peace work to be effective the inner cannot be separated from the outer and the healing of one cannot be separated from the healing of all life. The Middle East has been described as an acupuncture point for the healing of the world. If we manage to overcome the raging conflict here, remembering how to live together in respect and tolerance both with each other and in balance with the Earth –  we can create the world we wish to see!”.”

Ilana on the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

“At the Arava Institute, it was the first time I heard the personal stories of Palestinians, Jordanians and Arabs living in Israel. I trusted these accounts–they were not from books or newspapers but were personal histories from real people who had become my friends. Their stories opened my eyes to understand better the complexities of the region, whilst the skills I received through the academic program allowed me to grasp the political and environmental aspects from a more balanced place. I am forever grateful for this eye opener and the way the AIES has catapulted me into action on a scale I never dreamed was possible!!”

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