Temple Beth Sholom Torah Commentaries

Prepared by Lay Members of the Congregation
http://www.tbsoc.org/torahcommentaries/index.html No one knows how much God said during the revelation at Mount Sinai. Some traditions hold that God uttered only the Ten Commandments; others that God recited the entire Torah. Regardless of which view is correct, the Jewish people have been expanding upon the original text for centuries, rediscovering that which was already revealed. But if the Torah is perfect, why should it need amplification, interpretation, or elaboration? One explanation is that some of the original, unifying connections of the Torah were broken, and interpretation through commentary or midrash restores those connections and helps us deduce hidden meanings. It is through this commentary that we anchor our present in the past. In fact, commentary has become the principal instrument of Jewish development. We members of the Temple Beth Sholom Torah Study class are delighted to have the opportunity to help restore the connections by adding our commentaries to those of generations past.

Temple Beth Sholom 2625 N. Tustin Ave. Santa Ana, CA 92705 Phone: 714-628-4600 • Fax: 714-628-4619 Email: information@tbsoc.com

A D’var Torah on Parashat B’reishit
By Martin Graffman, M.D.

Creation — What is “Good”?
(Gen. 1:1 – 6:8)

“B’reishit bara Elohim eit hashamayim v’eit ha-aretz….” “In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth….” I have always been fascinated with the first chapter of the Torah. It is not a unique cosmogony. Neighboring civilizations have enjoyed similar sorts of the Beginning. But ours is unique at least because of one word, “good.” God used the word “good” to describe the different components of his orderly creation, although with one exception. He creates the light, the earth and the sea, vegetation, the sun and the moon and the stars, animals and birds, even sea monsters, insects, man, and he labels all of them “good” with that same exception. But I am getting ahead of myself. What does the word “good” mean? What a dumb question! Everyone knows what good means. It means … I think it means … We end up with a look of exasperation and perhaps a little irritation. Nobody likes being shown that he is not as brilliant as he thought he is. Don’t despair; we are in great company. Philosophers and religious thinkers since the dawn of recorded history have pondered this question and therefore there are no universally acceptable answers. So what is “good”? Some say “good” is a divine attribute. It is what God says it is and it is therefore eternal, unchangeable and perfect. This is Plato’s good. The ultimate Good is out there; the good we identify on earth is a pale manifestation or poor copy of the Eternal good. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us what good is. The good is equivalent to holiness. But that is a general definition. The Torah goes on and gives us specific acts, which if performed, constitute the good. It turns out that the Torah’s good acts can be divided into ethical and ritual categories. An ethical act is one in which the individual benefits another individual or individuals. An example of an ethical act is treating the stranger well or refraining from lying and cheating. Ethical utilitarianism is skeptical of man’s ability to ever know the absolute truth and, therefore, the Divine definition of good; it identifies the greatest good as the maximum good that can be applied to the greatest number of people. That “good” is not “out there;” it is contingent on context or the historical, economic, political, intellectual and moral factors of a given people at a given time. This is moral relativism. What’s good for you may not be good for me; and what was good yesterday may not be good today.

A ritual act is one in which the element of holiness is acted out or dramatized. An example of a ritual act is the separation of the Shabbat from the other days of the week. Ritual acts seem to be for our own good (there’s that word again) rather than the good of someone else. Here is an interesting sidelight. Is the good (or the holy) “good” because God says it is or because God sees that it is good? The latter definition implies that God is capable of recognizing a criterion of goodness that He, because of His honesty (goodness?), must obey. It also implies that man, through study, may also be capable of recognizing the criterion of that goodness. Judaism rejects this concept on the ground that the establishment of a criterion of good that is separate from God creates a God who is not supremely the One. Here’s another definition of good. Good is anything that gives us pleasure. Candy gives us pleasure but can also give us painful cavities. Ouch! A Mercedes can give us pleasure, but it can break our bank account. Ouch again! So, there is a difference between pleasures and the “good”? Some pleasures may cause pain. Some pleasures are brief; others last longer. Some pleasures are immediate; others are delayed. Some pleasures do not always seem good, at least not in the long run. Some pleasures appear greater than others, in that some pleasures are experienced as joy, and others are just plain fun. Are some pleasures different, or are some pleasures greater than others; and, therefore, are some “good(s)” better than others? The waters muddy! Before getting to my definition of the “good," I should interject something about the ancient Greek concept of ethics. Ethics, in a nutshell, answers the question of “how should I behave?” or “what is the good way for me to act?” This was one of the most important questions asked by the Greeks. They believed that the good life is one in which the individual lives according to true general principles or Truth. Note that ethics, for the Greeks, did not mean only the good for others but included the good for the individual as well. Moreover, the truth was pursued not only rationally but also creatively, poetically, and passionately. One who lived the ethical life experienced the good life, the best life that one could experience. This leads me to my definition of the “good” as it appears in Chapter One in B’reishit. The dramatic hook that was hinted at in the beginning of this commentary is that God, according to the great intellectuals and poets who wrote the Torah, identified the celestial bodies, the animals, vegetation, and so forth as “good” but did not say that man is “good.” Even the Creation as a whole was “good.” Not man! What did God mean when He declared that the non-human elements of the Creation and the Creation itself were “good”? I think they were good because

He designed them as they were to be. He designed them perfectly. They were as they were to be. Each of his designed creatures was distinct and significant. Each had unique limitations and capacities. There were no duplicates. The sea will not become the land, and vice versa. The antelope is not in any way the equal of the eagle, and vice versa. Well, why didn’t God also declare man to be “good”? I think it is because God, at least in the eyes of the authors of the Torah, didn’t know who man is. And, if God does not know who man is, then He cannot determine his “goodness.” The Adam and Eve myth shows mankind attempting to transcend what it is. It is changing — trying to shed its limits and definitions, and growing. How can the authors and God say that man is “good” if he is always changing? So how might we, you and I, define man so that we are able to call him “good”? Man, who was created by the same God who created everything else, is a living entity, who has been endowed by his Creator with an advanced mental architecture that functionally requires him to think rationally, think alogically (poetically, creatively, prophetically or spiritually), emotionally feel and act. By virtue of his God-endowed mental gifts, man is compelled to learn the Laws (of God), which include the Laws of Survival and the Law of the pleasure-pain principle. These Laws require him to grow, survive, and experience happiness. Sometimes life is confusing, and he forgets to search for these Laws, even though they are for his own benefit. Sometimes the Laws are difficult to interpret and mutually antagonistic. Sometimes, because of his own antagonistic wishes and agendas, he ignorantly and willfully rejects the Laws that were designed to help him. Nevertheless, when he ignores or refutes or, in a hostile manner, simply disobeys the Laws, sooner or later he faces an increased probability of pain or destruction. And then, he learns from these errors, and tries even harder to learn and obey what God wants (God’s Laws). Man does not study and obey only the so-called Divine Laws. He studies and learns the so-called secular Laws as well. These are the Laws of Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Psychology, and Metaphysics, for example. He has learned that the Law of Gravity states he should not jump out of tall buildings, and so he usually doesn’t attempt that feat. The Laws of Chemistry describe the creation of antibiotics, and so he can now cure some infections. But aren’t all of these so-called secular laws in fact God’s Laws? When man obeys the Laws, he faces an increased probability of growth, survival and happiness, the purpose of God’s Law of Survival. So who is man and is he “good”? Man was designed to use God’s tools, including thinking creatively and recognizing his emotions so that he can grow, survive and feel pleasure. That’s the way God designed man; so man, like the rest of God’s Creation is also “good.”

Unity vs. Diversity — We Are All Tower Builders
A D’var Torah on Parashat Noach
By Mike Rubin “Eileh tol’dot Noach…..” “These are the generations of Noah….” In Parashat Noach, God destroys all flesh by a great flood except for Noah and his family and two of every species, all of which are saved in the ark that Noah builds per God’s instructions. The Torah describes the descendants of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and thereby identifies the nations throughout the earth through their lineage. Then the Torah shifts dramatically to the Tower of Babel story, when everyone on earth had a common language and migrated to a common location and decided to build a city and tower “with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we be scattered all over the world.” God sees what they are doing and determines to confound their speech and scatter them over the face of the whole earth, lest “nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” In the spirit of Jacob, we wrestle with the paradoxes in the Torah. Noach addresses the contrasting ideas of the unity of all that exists versus the diversity of God’s creation. The unity of all mankind is so fundamental to the Torah’s message that Noach repeats the same theme that was revealed in the story of Adam and Eve. We learned from B’reishit that not only did all mankind spring from the common progenitors of Adam and Eve, but that “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him”.1 In Noach, all human beings are wiped out by the Flood except those that spring from Noah and his wife. Moreover, so that we do not forget the significance, we are told in Noach that man shall not shed each other’s blood, “For in His image, did God make man.”2 The oneness of all mankind, and the innate holiness of the divine image within every human being, is seared within our conscience through this repetition of theme. The Torah tells us that we are all brothers and sisters. No one is superior by birth or more worthy in God’s sight. Why does this need to be repeated in Noach when it is already explicit in B’reishit? Perhaps one reason is because of the curious passage that immediately precedes the Noach parashah and which seems to be part of the Noah story, but which is not within the parashah’s historical limits. Noah is first introduced near the end of B’reishit at Genesis 5:28 and at Genesis 5:32. We seem to be into the Noah story when we are told that Noah begot
1 2

(Gen. 6:9 – 11:32)

Genesis 1:27 Genesis 9:6

Shem, Ham and Japheth when he had lived 500 years. Yet, between Genesis 5:32 and the beginning of Parashat Noach at Genesis 6:9 is an account that seems to have little to do with the Noah story. It is an account of divine beings taking the beautiful daughters of men as wives, “who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”3 Could it be that this intervention of other divine beings in the blood lines of mankind upset the divine unity/equality of all mankind, by creating a form of super heroes amongst ordinary human beings? Could it be that the creator’s divine image could no longer be said to be within each person because some were created in the image of other divine visitors? Is this the real reason for the Flood? We read in Noach that “The earth became corrupt before God”4, suggesting a contamination of the line that God had created. The Flood, then, was essential to begin again so that all mankind emanated from one divine source, shared a fundamental equality from birth, and shared the same spark of divinity manifested through their creation in God’s own image. As important as this notion is of unity, equality, and similarity, it is also undeniable that the Torah not only sanctions but hallows the diversity of mankind. It is a wonderful twist to find the theme of diversity within the very same parashah that underscores the unity of all mankind. Noach addresses diversity through the Table of diverse nations that spring from Noah (through Shem, Ham and Japheth) – “each with its language – their clans and their nations”.5 What does the Tower of Babel have to do with any of this? In one context, the placement of the Tower of Babel in the Torah immediately after the vignette on Noah and the Flood seems arbitrary, having little to do with the history of the specific individuals named in the Torah. It is almost like a legend plucked from another culture that got inserted into our Torah. In another context, however, the placement is brilliant, creating a juxtaposition that underscores both humanity's common identity and intrinsic equality, but also the utter necessity of diversity and the virtue of pluralism. The Tower of Babel story is often commented upon in our tradition as reflecting God's wrath against man for daring to compete with God ("to make a name for ourselves") and reflecting God's fear that man might be successful in this competition ("nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach"). Rashi treats the people in the story as deserving of God’s anger, asserting that the tower builders “spoke blasphemously against the Sole Being of the universe” and that “they came with one plan and said,
3 4 5

Genesis 6:4 Genesis 7:11 Genesis 10:5

‘He [G-d] has no right to select the heavens for Himself. Let us ascend to the sky and wage war against Him.’”6 It is notable, however, that the Torah does not indicate that God was angry with or desired to punish the tower builders. In fact, Rashi had to struggle with the question why God would kill the generation of the Flood, while merely dispersing the tower builders.7 Rashi’s explanation was that, though the tower builders attempted to wage war against God and blasphemed Him, they were spared because “the Flood generation were robbers and there was strife between them. They were, therefore, destroyed. But, these [the tower builders] conducted themselves with love and friendship ... You may learn [from this] that strife is detested and that peace is great.”8 Do we need, as Rashi does, to rely on God’s anger and wrath to justify the dispersion of the tower builders? Isn't it just as reasonable to view the story as evidencing a divine plan that requires diversity and pluralism for successful implementation? Evolution of man (and of the divine) requires diversity of action and approaches, learning from countless successes and failures. Did God confound the tower builders’ ability to speak a single language and spread them throughout the earth, because only by doing so could He stimulate the diversity of thought, of spirituality, of creativity that was essential to His evolutionary design? We are all tower builders. It is in our nature to strive to reach to God. We seek unity with God, for God is in our soul. As we strive for spirituality, we recognize unity with others, because they also were created in God’s image. God does not criticize or punish us for being tower builders. Yet, if God created man to be co-creators in the evolution of the divine, then God requires our diversity and uniqueness. How can God disperse us and stimulate our creativity when the natural tendency of the divine within us is to join with other souls as builders of a single magnificent tower? Did God recognize that He had to confound us, remain a mystery to man, by withdrawing from humanity, while still maintaining a hidden presence? Is the Torah an accounting of God’s gradual withdrawal, from the days of Moses who spoke with God face to face, to the prophets who perhaps had visions in dreams, to the destruction of the Temple, where God was said to have a physical presence? If so, doesn’t the Tower of Babel story reflect God's blessing rather than God's punishment for man's arrogance? God creates diversity by confounding the speech of the whole earth and by scattering humanity over the face of the whole earth.

6 7 8

http://www.tachash.org/metsudah/b02r.html, page 17. Id., page 19. Id., page 19.

God's hiding of the underlying oneness encourages men to compete, explore and, for the spiritual, to seek God in many ways. Arguably, the Tower of Babel story is biblical authority against orthodoxy in approach. The builders of the Tower of Babel were creating a tower of uniformity, with one common language, one people, in one location. Were they seeking to impose one single methodology of reaching God? It was God, Himself, that smashed the bureaucratic tower. Was this evidence that God preferred heterodoxy to the orthodoxy of the tower building bureaucrats? Does the Tower of Babel foreshadow Isaiah, who told us that God said: “What need Have I of all your sacrifices?”9, or Micah, who told us that God requires us “Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God”?10 While the charge to the Jewish people is to be a light to all nations and to follow the Torah, might it be that pluralism in conduct and even of worship, is not only a virtue, but a necessary imperative to achieve God's divine plan? As summarized by Rabbi Bradley Artson11, the Rabbis of the Tosefta view Parashat Noach as specifying seven commandments binding upon all people, and our tradition is that you don't have to be Jewish to be blessed so long as you observe these seven simple laws. As we grow in wisdom, we need to embrace the diversity and pluralism that God put in motion. As we grow in spirituality, we recognize the unity and holiness of all of God's creation.

Isaiah 1:10 Micah 6:8 11 (www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/noach_artson5759.htm)
9 10

A D’var Torah on Parashat Lech-L’cha
By Michele Walot

Abraham and Lot — Two Paths Diverge
(Gen. 12:1 – 17:27) “Vayomer Adonai el-Avram lech-l’cha mei’artsecha….” “Adonai said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land….’.”

“Now these are the chronicles of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nehor and Haran; and Haran begot Lot. Haran died in the lifetime of Terah his father, in his native land, in Ur Kasdim.”1 Lot was Abraham’s nephew, brother of Sarah, and son of Abraham’s brother Haran (who, says Rashi, died in Nimrod’s furnace in Ur Kasdim.) According to Midrash, this is the very furnace that Abraham survived after Terah turned him over to King Nimrod for destroying the idols in Terah’s shop. In Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi says that Terah saw Haran die after Haran was challenged to choose between Nimrod and Abraham and opted to go with the winner (who turned out to be Abraham). Because Haran did not choose out of faith in God, he perished in the furnace. If Terah hadn’t turned Abraham in to the king, his brother Haran would not have died. Abraham and brother Nahor married Haran’s daughters to carry on Haran’s memory; then Lot joined Abraham’s family as well.

In that spirit, Lot accompanied Abraham and Sarah to Egypt when the famine came along, as did the hordes of followers that Abraham had accumulated. Abraham was already very well respected for his kindness and his faith, and he was no pauper. When Pharaoh paid off Abraham for his “sister” Sarah, Abraham “acquired sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves and maidservants, female donkeys and camels.” Abraham accepted all of this bounty in order to not arouse Pharaoh’s suspicions that Sarah was really his wife. 2 With God on her side, Sarah managed to elude the Pharaoh’s romantic overtures, and — thanks to plagues and signs — she was returned unsullied to Abraham. Abraham and Sarah left Egypt with all of the bounty showered on them and were escorted to the border by Pharaoh’s troops. According to Midrash, Abraham returned to previous lodgings and acquaintances to show them respect and to repay any obligations incurred on his trip to Egypt. The story goes on to say that even though Lot and Abraham were both very wealthy, the open pastures proved insufficient for their needs, and Lot’s herdsmen started to trespass on private pastures without permission or regard for the owners’ rights. The herdsmen countered with the assertion that the land was to be Abraham’s, according to God’s promise and that Lot was the only
1 2

Genesis 11:27-28 From the commentaries of the great Sephardic scholar, Isaac Arbanel

heir apparent; ergo, Lot need not worry about the Canaanites and Perizzites here. However, Rashi comments that Abraham was not yet the legitimate owner. Abraham separated from Lot and asked him to select whichever region looked appealing. Abraham said that he would go off in the opposite direction. Without argument, Lot chose the lushest but most corrupt region of Sodom in the Jordan Valley in which to live, away from Abraham and God. It is implied that this choice was made out of greed and arrogance, Lot confident that he would be set for life! When Lot had departed, God spoke to Abraham again and once more promised him that he and his innumerable descendants would inherit all the land in sight. “For all the land that you see, to you I will give it, and to your offspring forever.”3 Abraham responded by building an altar in the plains of Mamre in Hebron. Rashi comments that God does not commune with Abraham until after he and Lot had parted company because wealth had corrupted Lot and caused him to reject Abraham’s spiritual values. Keli Yakar4 notes that God’s first promise (before Egypt) was “To your offspring I will give this land.” Was Lot meant to be excluded? Or is it because Abraham was willing to give some of this land away to Lot that God reveals that the land will be his as well? Rabbi Avraham Fischer5 postulates that this unusual progression of the land being destined for unborn descendants and then for Abraham indicates that Abraham needed to envision the Promised Land for the children he was promised before he could envision any entitlement for himself. When war between two coalitions of kings broke out, the king of Sodom was defeated, and Lot taken captive. Abraham armed 318 disciples and — against impossible odds — managed to rescue Lot, the rest of the people, and all of the looted possessions. Melchizedek, king of Salem and a priest, blessed God and Abraham, after which Abraham gave him a tenth of all the spoils. The king of Sodom brazenly asked for his subjects back, although he had no right to them, saying, “Give me the souls, and take the possessions.” Could he have had any regrets about the corrupt state of his domain? Abraham was entitled to everything but refused any personal gain. Abraham returned the people, including Lot, as the king requested, and the people resumed their corrupt ways. The Stone Edition Chumash6, states that the people of Sodom were cruel and selfish particularly to poor immigrants, who would likely encumber the
3 4

Genesis 12:7 Rabbi Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619

5 6

Commentary on Parashah Lech-L’cha; Torah Insights; 2003.

The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 65.

system. Well-to-do folks like Lot were welcomed, but the state made it illegal to help the poor, and strangers were targeted for sexual perversions to scare them off. Lot chose to remain in that environment even when he could have joined Abraham and Sarah after the war. This selfish disregard for a purer lifestyle was the antithesis of Abraham’s approach to life, where he was touted for his hospitality and kindness to strangers. In Parashat Vayeira, Sodom will be destroyed and laid waste forever, and Lot will escape with only his life. Questions: What does it take to impress Lot? Abraham has overcome impossible odds over and over and yet Lot is comfortable with his material possessions in a horribly corrupt city. Does that seem reasonable that he would not expect the Sodomites to turn on him? The name Lot means curses in Aramaic. Was it his curse that he couldn’t rise to God’s team with Abraham and Sarah? Why was Abraham able to leave his old life behind, turn his life over to God, and teach others by example? Do you think that Sodom and Gomorrah are just heavy-handed hyperbole to teach the importance of following a spiritual path?

A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeira
By Arnold Shugarman

Negotiations With God
(Gen. 18:1 – 22:24)

“Vayeira eilav Adonai b’eiloney mam’rei.” “Adonai appeared to him near the terebinths of Mamre.” The story of Abraham and Sarah continues. Three men (angels of God) approach Abraham’s tent. Abraham extends his hospitality to the strangers. One of the strangers tells Abraham that Sarah, already 90 years old, will have a son. Sarah overhears the conversation and laughs at this idea. The three men leave for Sodom. God tells Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed because of the wickedness of the inhabitants. Abraham pleads with God to save the people, but to no avail. Two of the angels come to Sodom and are greeted by Lot who offers his hospitality to them at significant risk to his life. The angels tell Lot and his family of the impending destruction of the cities and urge them to leave. The angels warn them not to look back when they flee Sodom. Lot’s wife disobeys the warning and is turned into a pillar of salt. Abraham and Sarah travel to Gerar. Abraham introduces Sarah as his sister, and King Abimelech has her brought to him. God intervenes; King Abimelech restores Sarah to Abraham and, in penance, provides Abraham with riches. Sarah becomes pregnant as God promised and gives birth to Isaac, who is circumcised on the eighth day following his birth. Later, Sarah demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s son, away so that Isaac would be the sole beneficiary of Abraham’s possessions. Abraham does this reluctantly. Ishmael nearly dies in the wilderness, but God intervenes to save him and promises that he will become the father of a great nation. Abraham and Abimelech have a disagreement over a water well. They settle their differences, and Abraham settles in the land later known as Philistia. God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham prepares to comply, but an angel stops him and provides a ram as the sacrifice in Isaac’s place. This parashah provides a number of opportunities for commentary and discussion. I have chosen to focus on the discourse between God and Abraham regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The men whom Abraham entertained in his tent leave on their journey and set off toward Sodom. God asks (rhetorically) if he should tell Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wickedness of the people who lived there. God decides to tell Abraham of his plan because (1) God had singled out Abraham to be the progenitor of a great nation and a man whom other nations would recognize for his greatness, and (2) God wanted Abraham to instruct his children to do what is right and just in God’s eyes. The back-and-forth discussion between Abraham and God is a wonderful bargaining session. Abraham’s opening statement is a challenge to God and God’s justice. He asks God if He would save the city for the sake of fifty innocent people. But Abraham must know that there are not fifty righteous individuals in Sodom and Gomorrah, for now he speaks like a supplicant, pleading to God to save the cities for fewer and fewer righteous people. Finally Abraham asks if God would save the cities for the sake of ten innocents (a minyan). God responds in the affirmative and then breaks off the discussion. Abraham now knows that even that threshold would not be met, and he accepts God’s judgment (“Abraham returned to his place”). The Torah offers many examples of people debating or pleading with God to save others, and some interesting examples of a failure to do so. While the context may be different, Cain states the antithesis of Abraham’s position when he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Noah is considered a righteous man, who happened to live in a world that was not unlike the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. When God told Noah that he was going to destroy the world because of its wickedness and gave instructions to Noah to save himself, his immediate family, and the animals of the earth, Noah did so, without question. Abraham, too, appears to be inconsistent, at least on the surface. While he pleads the case for people he doesn’t know in Sodom and Gomorrah, he doesn’t argue with God when he is told to send his own son Ishmael and Hagar into the desert, knowing full well that they might suffer in the desert without adequate food and water. And when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, he set out to do so totally without question. Moses is recorded as intervening numerous times to save the Israelites from an angry and wrathful God, even though Moses himself was often exasperated with the people. Abraham does not fail God’s decision to make him the man revered by many nations. When told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham simply could have pleaded for the safety of his nephew Lot and his family. Instead he implores God to save the cities for the sake of the

righteous who may inhabit them. Unlike Noah who appeared to be indifferent to the fate of his fellow man, Abraham was their defender. Moses pleaded for the Israelites but obediently carried out his part of God’s plan for the Egyptians in the Ten Plagues. And yet, when it came down to the most personal, heartrending decisions he had to make, Abraham was obedient to God’s will.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Chayei Sarah (Gen. 23:1 – 25:18)
By Ilene Schneider
“Vayih’yu chayei Sarah mei'ah shanah v'esrim shanah v’sheva shanim sh’nei chayei Sarah.” “Sarah’s lifetime — the years of Sarah’s life — was 127 years.”

Suffering and Blessing — A Balance

While the words “Chayei Sarah” mean “the life of Sarah,” Parashat Chayei Sarah discusses the stories of the deaths of both Sarah and Abraham. After the death of Sarah, Abraham makes preparations for her burial and his own demise. First, Abraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite to purchase the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for Sarah. Although Ephron is willing to give the property to Abraham free of charge, Abraham wants to make it his uncontested property. Then, Abraham sends Eliezer, his trusted servant, to Aram Naharayim, to find Isaac a bride from Abraham’s own people. Leading a caravan of supplies and riches, Eliezer arrives in Nachor. While resting by the well, he devises a test to ascertain the worthiness of a potential mate for Isaac. Rebecca meets all of the criteria by offering Eliezer water for him and his camels, and Eliezer gives her gifts from Abraham. Eliezer is invited into the home of Bethuel, Rebecca's father, and he relates the entire story of his mission and his encounter with Rebecca. Eliezer asks for Rebecca’s hand in marriage to Isaac. Bethuel and Laban, Rebecca's brother, agree to the marriage. Eliezer brings Rebecca to Canaan, where she marries Isaac. Abraham marries Keturah and has six more sons. When Abraham dies at the age of 175, his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, next to Sarah. God blesses Isaac. Ishmael, who has 12 sons, dies at the age of 137. Several topics are prominent in Chayei Sarah. A key element is the concept of suffering, as interposed with blessing. For example, Abraham is blessed as the leader of his people, with great wealth and power. However, he has left his father's house under duress, smuggled his wife and nearly lost her and his own life to two different lustful kings, participated in the animosity between his wife Sarah and her servant Hagar, expelled Hagar and his son Ishmael, suffered the feuds between his own servants and the servants of his nephew Lot, waged war with a victorious coalition of kings to save his nephew, argued with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, is ordered to kill his beloved son Isaac and, finally, lost his beloved wife. Suffering and blessing apply also to Sarah. Sarah is blessed with a child late in life, after the anguish of being childless and being ridiculed for it by her handmaiden Hagar, who she has given to Abraham for the purpose of

bearing a child. Sarah’s suffering over the near loss of Isaac is considered by many scholars to be the cause of her death, but there is no mention of her willingness or unwillingness to allow Abraham to sacrifice her son. Dr. Barry Leff of the Rabbi Midrash Archive shares the thoughts of the Piasatzner Rebbe, Kalman Kalanimous Shapira, also known as the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, on Chayei Sarah. The rebbe says that while some suffering is acceptable, too much of it will destroy us. The Piasatzner says that Sarah accepted this great suffering on herself, even at the cost of her life, for the benefit of Israel, to show God that it would be impossible for Israel to bear excessive suffering — that too much suffering saps one’s strength, spirit and wisdom. Based on the merit of Sarah’s sacrifice, the rebbe prays that God will take mercy on us and on all Israel, and save us quickly, spiritually and physically with revealed loving-kindness. His teaching is especially remarkable when put in the context that he witnessed the killing of his own son a week before he gave the D’var Torah, as if he were saying to God, you’re putting the binding of Isaac on us every day. Rambam says that the majority of the suffering we experience is simply a result of being human, according to Dr. Leff. Suffering is part of the way God created the world. When people get sick, they are not being punished. Dr. Leff adds that much of our suffering is self-induced by wanting things we cannot have and ignoring our essential selves. Rabbi Lee Diamond of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong links Sarah’s death with the Akeda, in the previous Torah portion, Parashat Vayeira. There Abraham is commanded to take his only son and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah to prove his loyalty to God. Whereas Chayei Sarah opens with a report of the death of Sarah — Abraham’s wife and Isaac’s mother — there is no mention of Sarah throughout the episode of the Akeda. Rabbi Diamond questions where Sarah was when the command to sacrifice Isaac was given and during the three-day journey that Abraham and Isaac took to Mt. Moriah. He wonders whether Sarah’s apparent silence means that she approved of what was about to happen. According to Rabbi Diamond, we can begin to answer the question of Sarah’s silence by noting the fact that all that we are told is that, after the ordeal of the “almost” sacrifice, Sarah’s life ends. According to Midrash, Sarah’s death is directly influenced by the ordeal that her son and her husband were experiencing. Her pain was so great that her soul expired. Rabbi Diamond proposes a Midrash in which Sarah argues with Abraham. She tells him that God is testing him and that he ought to argue with God, rather than responding with blind faith. She then pleads with God to spare Isaac, and God tells Abraham not to slay Isaac. However, Sarah’s soul expires from the shock. Her very being is devastated by the ordeal. The real

lesson of this imaginary conversation, according to Rabbi Diamond, is that there can never be an immoral commandment from God. God demands life — not the death of his creations. God demands that we struggle against evil and that we challenge those who speak in His name and call for destruction. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies discusses Abraham’s last major act, finding a wife for Isaac. The parashah says, "Abraham was old, well along in days, and Adonai had blessed Abraham ‘with everything’ (ba-kol)."1 Rabbi Artson wonders how Abraham can be subjected to such personal struggling, loss and suffering, and still feel blessed. According to Rabbi Artson, Rashi notes that the numerical value of the word ba-kol is the same as the numerical value of the word ben ("son"), reminding us of the immense blessing a child brings into one's life. Rabbi David Kimchi says that at the end of one's life, "the years when a person thinks about his departure from this earth, [Abraham] lacked nothing, and did not need anything in this life except to see his son well married." Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explains that the blessings that constitute human richness are: riches, possessions, honor, longevity and children. Abraham was blessed in all of these areas. Ramban says that the reference to ba-kol means that God has an attribute called kol (“all”), which is the foundation of everything. Instead of seeing Abraham's blessings only in the abundance in his life, in the good things he owned, we should see blessing in the fullness of his life, the sheer "all-ness" of it. Similarly, according to Rabbi Artson, only by embracing the totality of life's experiences can we truly live. By allowing ourselves to dwell in the suffering and in the ecstasy, to embrace the disappointment and hurt along with the delight, we can experience the fullness of being alive, the holiness of life being itself. Rabbi Artson adds that Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak, the Seer of Lublin, reminds us that God blessed Abraham with the qualities of "with all," as the Torah states, "...all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." 2 Blessed to be able to see blessings in "all," able to release his inner energy to embrace everything that life brought him, that is indeed the blessing that Abraham was able to reveal. To see blessing ba-kol, in everything, is the task of a lifetime, and the opportunity of every moment. Rabbi Uri Regev, Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, relates that, at the end of Parashat Chayei Sarah, we find the account of Abraham's death "at a good ripe age, old and contented."3 The Torah tells us that Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah." This coming together in a spirit of cooperation was a milestone
1 2 3

Genesis 24:1 Deuteronomy 6:3 Genesis 25:8

in the troubled relationship between the sons. According to tradition, Ishmael became identified as the ancestor of the Arab people, casting a dark shadow over the relationship between their offspring that exists even today. Let us hope that a way can be found for the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael to once again live in peace as they did when they came together to bury their father.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Toldot
By Alan I. Friedman

The Irrevokability of a Blessing
(Gen. 25:19 – 28:9) “V’eileh tol’dot Yitzhak ben-Avraham.” “These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham.”

As Parashat Toldot opens, Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, conceives, and two children struggle in her womb. In great distress, Rebekah calls upon God to explain her frightening symptoms and is told, “Two nations are in your womb; two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”1 When Rebekah gives birth, the first twin to emerge is red and hairy; his parents name him Esau. When Esau’s brother emerges, he is holding on to Esau’s heel, so Isaac and Rebekah name him Jacob.2 As the boys grow up, their differing personalities and interests emerge. Esau becomes a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, with few spiritual interests. Jacob, on the other hand, ventures out very little, preferring to stay in the tents, close to his mother, and study. Because Isaac has a taste for game (and perhaps because Esau is the firstborn), Isaac favors Esau over Jacob. Rebekah, continually aware of God’s pronouncement that the younger twin will have dominion over the older, favors Jacob. One day, Esau returns tired and famished from a day of hunting in the field and, in an amazing disregard for his rights of inheritance and privilege, trades his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. Years later, Isaac — weak of eye and fearing he does not have long to live — summons Esau and says, “Go out into the field and hunt game for me. Then prepare delicacies for me such as I love and bring them to me and I will eat, so that3 I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”4 When Rebekah overhears Isaac’s conversation with Esau, she schemes with Jacob to deceive Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob. While Esau is out hunting, Rebekah prepares one of Isaac’s favorite meals and disguises Jacob as Esau. Jacob brings the meal to his father and receives the blessing that was intended for Esau.

Genesis 25:23.

A play on words: bq[y (Yaakov) = Jacob; bq[ (akeiv) = heel. 3 “…so that I may be strong enough to bless you.” With his hunger satisfied, Isaac would not be distracted from conveying a spiritual blessing. 4 Tradition says that a blessing is more efficacious when the bestower is near death.


Scarcely has Jacob left his father’s presence when Esau returns from the hunt, prepares the game, and takes it to his father. When Isaac realizes what has happened, he trembles and tells Esau that Jacob, now blessed, must remain blessed. Esau is enraged, sobs bitterly, and exclaims, “First he took away my birthright,5 and now he has taken away my blessing. Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!”6 And Isaac does cobble together a blessing for Esau. Having now been tricked out of his birthright and his blessing, Esau vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah hears of the plot and arranges for Jacob to flee to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban. Before Jacob leaves, however, Isaac gives him one more blessing. Let’s now take a look at the dynamics of blessings and explore the views of some noted Torah commentators.

• One midrash asserts that Jacob was actually conceived first and,

therefore, as the spiritual firstborn, entitled to his father’s blessing. In the strictly legal sense, however, the privileges of the firstborn are determined by birth, not conception.7 he breaks into tears. “Bless me too, Father,” he pleads; and then again, “Do you have no blessing left for me?” And one more time, “Do you have but one blessing? Bless me too, Father.” Reaching deep inside himself, Isaac finds a second blessing he did not know was there. He blesses Esau, at which point we wonder what plea of Esau's prompted the surprising discovery of the second blessing. The rabbis imagine Esau arguing, “Surely an important man like you must have more than one blessing.” But arguments fail because, the truth is, Isaac believes sincerely that he has no blessing left. He discovers otherwise, not because Esau argues, cajoles or threatens, but because Esau cries.8

• On hearing of Jacob's perfidy, Esau does what we all would do:

Esau had the audacity to tell his father that Jacob had stolen his birthright when, in reality, Esau had so little regard for his birthright that he traded (or sold) it for a pittance. 6 In other words, “Give me the blessing you had intended to give to Jacob.” 7 Pachad Yitzchak (= The Terror of Isaac) by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner 8 Commentary by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, NY


• What force did Isaac's blessing have for Jacob, if he was thinking of

Esau? It seems on the face of it that Rebekah and her sons indeed thought that the power to convey blessing lay with Isaac, according to the rabbinic maxim, “the righteous decree and the Holy One, blessed be God, brings it to pass.” All he had to do was to lay his hands upon the recipient of the blessing, and that son would become blessed almost automatically, even if Isaac had meant to bless the other, and even if he had not intended the actual outcome. This explains Isaac's fearful trembling after discovering that he had been deceived: “Now he must remain blessed” – for I cannot take back the blessing.9

• One of the questions often asked about the story of Jacob and Esau is

why, once Isaac has given Jacob a blessing, he cannot give the same blessing to Esau. Esau asks, “Do you have but one blessing?” Isaac's first blessing, to Jacob, is that he will gain material wealth and rule over his brethren. The second blessing, to Esau, is a much weaker one: That even though he will be oppressed, at some point he will throw off that yoke. The rules of blessing, though, are clear. A blessing, whether given properly or improperly, cannot be undone, only mitigated.

In the book of Esther, the same theme of irrevokability is presented as the simple law of the land: “what is signed with the seal of the King cannot be overturned.”10 However, the situation has flip-flopped. It is Esau's descendant who holds the primary “blessing,” and Jacob's descendants who get second best. The King's first boon goes to Haman, in that he will have total control over the Jews and their wealth. The Jews, just like Esau, can only hope for the secondary blessing, that they will be able to fight back and overthrow that control.11

• Choosing the correct blessing is quite an art. We may not have an Esau
and a Jacob but we do have it in our power to confer twin blessings, one material and the other spiritual. Both blessings are perfectly in order but we bestow too readily the material blessings of life. In the main, spiritual blessings are neglected.12

• Isaac’s first blessing to Jacob is certainly a beautiful one. It speaks of

wealth and power. What it neglects to mention is a spiritual mission or message. When Esau stands before his father and understands that his brother Jacob has taken the blessing intended for him, it would seem that Isaac has “run out” of blessings.


Commentary by Dr. David Henshke, Dept. of Talmud, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel
Esther 8:8

11 12

Commentary by Rabbi Joshua Heller, Director of Distance Learning, Jewish Theological Seminary Commentary by Cantor Michael Plaskow, Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK

However, when Jacob is about to leave for Haran, Isaac summons Jacob and blesses him: “May God bless you, may you multiply and become a great nation. May God grant you the blessing of Abraham for you and your descendants to inherit the land which God had given to Abraham.” Evidently, Isaac did have another blessing to give. This “blessing of Abraham” and the Land of Israel was always intended for Jacob. Isaac had always intended to give the blessing of power to Esau and the blessing of spirit to Jacob. However, because of Rebekah's intervention, Jacob received both blessings. Isaac apparently felt that his spiritual son needed only spiritual blessings, while his physical son needed the physical blessing. Rebekah's understanding was quite different; she felt that the spiritual could not subsist without the physical. Divine 13 providence sided with Rebekah.

• Now the questions any detective would ask are: “Why are there three

blessings in the story?” “How do they differ?” “Which one of the three blessings is the real blessing?” To determine which blessing is the real one, stop and compare these other blessings now: God's blessing to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) and God's blessing to Isaac (Gen. 26:1-5). Note that central to both of these blessings is the promise of the Land of Israel and many offspring. So which one of the blessings given to Jacob and Esau is the real one? Which one promises land and seed? Only the third blessing is real! The answer to the mystery is that Isaac always intended to give Jacob the real blessing. He did not know which son stood before him when Jacob dressed up like Esau; Isaac was confused. Afterward, when Isaac called Jacob to him — when he was sure it was Jacob to whom he was speaking — he gave Jacob the real blessing.14

AIF 07-11-04 Toldot – Dvar Torah


Commentary by Rabbi Ari Kahn, Director of Foreign Student Programs, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel 14 Commentary by Rabbi David Katz, Temple Israel, Staten Island, New York

A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeitzei
By Alan I. Friedman

Jacob’s Covenant With God
(Gen. 28:10 – 32:3)

Vayeitzei Ya’akov mi-B’eir Shava vayelech Charanah. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. In last week’s parashah, Jacob stole his brother Esau’s birthright by tricking their father Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the first-born. This week, Jacob, fleeing from his furious brother, begins his long journey, both physically and spiritually, from his home and family. Shortly after Jacob leaves home, God appears to him in a dream. God speaks to Jacob and promises him protection, offspring, and the land on which he lay. Jacob then travels on to Haran, where he meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, the daughter of his mother's brother Laban. Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel. However Laban, a shady character, substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel on Rachel’s wedding night. When Jacob confronts Laban, Laban tells Jacob that, according to accepted practice, the older daughter must marry before the younger. Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel. Years pass and the sisters, as well as their servants, who are given to Jacob as concubines, bear Jacob twelve sons and a daughter. These sons will become the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. At the end of the parashah, Jacob and his family leave Laban, depart from Haran, and begin their journey back to Canaan. Let’s take a closer look at Jacob’s experience in the wilderness as he flees from Esau’s wrath. Bedding down on the first night, Jacob has a bizarre dream. God speaks to him from the dream and assures Jacob that he is not alone; God will be with him, will take care of him, will return him to his home, and will bless him and his descendants. Upon awakening, Jacob perceives that something important has happened, but he is not quite sure. And so Jacob responds cautiously with a vow: "If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father's house — the Eternal shall be my God." What’s going on here? Is Jacob putting conditions on God? After all, God has already vowed to care for Jacob, to grant him many descendants, and give him the Promised Land as a home. So by stating “If God does everything that He promised to me, then I will be faithful to God,” could Jacob possibly be doubting God?

A Midrash (B’reishit Rabbah 70:4) casts Jacob’s response in a very different light, as an exclamation of joy over God’s protection: “If God does all of these things for me, then I will be protected from temptation and sin, and will have no problem being faithful to God.” In other words, Jacob does not doubt that God will keep the covenant; Jacob doubts whether he himself will be able to uphold his commitment. And with God’s support, he reasons, it should not be difficult. Ramban (Moses Ben Nahmanides) reads the passage a little differently as well. He translates “if” as “when.” That is, when all these conditions are met, there can be no doubt that the Eternal is God. And therefore the passage is not conditional, but rather a vow that, upon his return to his home, the fulfillment of God's promise, Jacob will set up a monument for the worship of God. Our patriarchs and matriarchs stand as examples of how we can establish an individual relationship with God. But, as with any healthy relationship, a relationship with God must be built on trust. It can't be conditional. In relationships with God, it is we who are getting the better end of the deal. If God is willing to enter into a covenantal relationship with us and trust us, despite all of our shortcomings, how much more so should we put our trust in God?

AIF 07-14-04 Vayeitzei – Dvar Torah.doc

Jacob and Esau — Lessons Learned for Israeli-Palestinian Relations
A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayishlach
By Allen and Toby Cohen “Vayishlach Ya’akov mal’achim l‘fanav el-Eisav achiv….” “Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau….” Parashat Vayishlach is an extensive chapter with several disparate ideas and themes. The most famous portions of Vayishlach include the reunion, after many years, of Jacob and Esau. The dividing of the Jacob’s family and Jacob’s remaining behind while his entourage crossed the Jabbok, raise questions as to his courage. Jacob’s wrestling with an angel is a defining moment in the start of the nation of Israel. Dinah’s rape and the subsequent massacre of the people of Shechem is a tragic story, as is Jacob’s worried response to the massacre. Jacob travels to the Promised Land, destroys the idols in his midst and receives a blessing from God. Both Isaac’s death and Rachel dying in childbirth with Benjamin are in this parashah. The chapter concludes with the listing of the sons of Jacob, and then a long listing of the descendents of Esau who moves to Seir to be separate from Jacob. The parashah brings some hope to me that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can eventually be resolved. Genetic studies have shown that the Palestinians and Israelis have a close DNA match. If we can assume that we are brothers and sisters to them, then reconciliation can be possible. There will be fear on both sides, similar to Jacob’s fear of Esau’s army and Esau’s fear of another of Jacob’s tricks. The Palestinians fear the Israeli army, and the Israelis fear the suicide bombers. It may take a separation of years with, in modern terms, a fence, to set the conditions for a meeting of peace. The tenacious struggle of Jacob with the angel presages the internal struggle and questioning that the Israeli nation will have with little interaction to undergo before developing a new persona that can create a fair and just peace. Jacob’s wrestling symbolizes both the success and the pain that might result from reconciliation. In Jacob’s case, his hip was wrenched from its socket. In the case of Israel, the settlements may be wrenched from the land. It may be necessary for Israel to bring gifts, in our case, maybe money for resettlement of the descendants of the expelled families in Palestine to propitiate them. Similar to Esau moving to Edom so that he did not have to interact with his brother, Israel and Palestine probably will exist separately. In the description of Jacob trying to analyze the best way to reunite with his brother Esau, we see Jacob as having a conniving mind. Esau plans to meet Jacob with a 400-man army. Jacob is a nomadic shepherd, moving with wives and flocks but no army. This situation can be looked at in many ways. (Gen. 32:4 – 36:43)

Jacob, called Israel by God, is indeed like Israel, especially in the wars with its neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Israel cannot match its Arab enemies man for man so it must use cunning, plots, and Jacob-like assessments. But Jacob in the Torah portion is willing to divide his holdings and perhaps risk half in an encounter with Esau. The state of Israel does not want to risk any of its people. In Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, perhaps Jacob is struggling with his conscience. We, as individuals, have life-long struggles with our conscience and should always try to do the right, ethical thing. Sometimes the right choice is not as clear as we would like. We “wrestle” as Israel does to make a just peace. Nothing is entirely black and white, whether it is a government issue, a community issue, or even a private family issue. As Jews, we want to wrestle with our conscience to be the fairest and most effective. The problem is that often a person or a group will attempt to decide what is best for him or for the larger group. In Israel, the various parties and religious groups may be dogmatic and one-sided. The wrestling match, unlike Jacob’s, seems unending. The story of Dinah’s rape and the killing of all the people of Shechem by her brothers seem awful. First, it isn’t entirely clear that Dinah was raped, and perhaps she was more than willing to take as a husband the prince of Shechem. Her brothers demand that all the men of Shechem become circumcised as they (Dinah’ brothers) and their tribe are. Then, after the men of Shechem cooperate and comply, they (including Dinah’s lover) are murdered by Dinah’s brothers. This is treachery, a war crime. This treacherous behavior has been seen in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Whenever, Jews and Palestinians came close to peace, Palestinians were quick to murder, a person of peace and even a Jew felt compelled to assassinate Rabin when peace was nearly at hand.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeishev
By Sarah B. Schweitz

The “Joseph Saga” Begins
(Gen. 37:1 – 40:23)

“Vayeishev Yaakov b’erets m’gurei aviv b’erets K’naan.” “Jacob settled in the land where his father had resided, the land of Canaan.” The last part of the book of Genesis1 begins with the “line of Jacob”. Isaac is dead and Jacob is now the leading figure. Jacob, our Patriarch, fades into the background, but his life provides the framework for the Joseph Saga. The effective impact of Joseph’s biography is created by a device called by Aristotle “dramatic reversal.” It is considered important to good drama and is found in Greek writing. Fate thwarts the will of man by turning the effect of his actions to its own purposes rather than to his. Joseph is sold by his brothers so that they may be rid of the dreamer, yet the dreams come true. The slave becomes master, hatred turns to love, and the rejected one saves his brother’s lives. Man cannot change the overriding purposes of divine power. The prominence of Joseph should not let us forget the tragedy of Jacob. Jacob, who chased after the birthright and secured its blessings in a deceitful way, pays dearly for the privilege. His own children will deceive him, causing him anxiety and agony, and he will end his life in exile, living under the shadow of his famous son Joseph. Parashat Vayeishev begins the Joseph saga. The parashah contains three important themes: • Suspicion and hostility among children • Parental favoritism • Assuming responsibility for what we promise, refusing to demean and embarrass others What went wrong between Joseph and his brothers? So far we have seen in the Torah the results of hatred and jealously between Cain and Abel, and between Jacob and Esau. Now in Parashat Vayeishev we see the hostility between Joseph and his brothers. Problems of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry occur in every family and in every generation. The Torah emphasizes the importance of dealing directly and honestly with all the troubling aspects. We see something of ourselves and our families in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Why did the brothers feel such anger


Genesis 37:2

toward Joseph? What did he do to make them want to kill him? What role did Jacob play in this sad drama? Elie Wiesel writes on Joseph’s character in Messengers of God: “Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. His father gave him everything. He owned the most beautiful clothes because he liked to be regarded as graceful and elegant. He craved attention. He knew he was the favorite son and often boasted of it. He was given to whims and frequently was impertinent, arrogant, vain, and insensitive to other people’s feelings. He said whatever was on his mind.” We know the consequences: Joseph was hated, mistreated, and finally was sold by his brothers, who in truth were ready to kill him. Joseph was spoiled by his father who gave him everything he wanted, including a coat of many colors. Because of his father’s favoritism, Joseph believed he was superior to his brothers. Some commentators emphasize Joseph’s immaturity. He was seventeen years old, a self-centered young boy. He used special brushes and pencils to color around his eyes, and he curled his hair. 2 According to the Rabbis, Joseph made up stories about his brothers and then told them to his father. Rashi claims that Joseph took advantage of every opportunity to gossip about his brothers to his father. He slandered their intentions and their accomplishments. For this reason, his brothers mistrusted and hated him. Why did Jacob favor Joseph so much? Rabbi Judah believed that Jacob favored Joseph because father and son looked alike. Rabbi Nehemiah explains that Jacob spent more time with Joseph because he was more intelligent and receptive then his brothers. Because of this, Jacob taught him the fundamentals of our tradition more than he taught the other sons. Writer Elie Wiesel comments: “the brothers should have felt sorry for their orphan brother whose mother Rachel died tragically. She was the beloved wife of Jacob. He has to work seven additional years to marry her. The brothers made Joseph feel unwanted, an outsider. Jacob loved him because he was unhappy. The Midrash tells us that Joseph spoke to them but they did not respond. To them he was a stranger, an intruder to be driven away.” Elie Wiesel’s interpretation does not excuse Joseph’s bad behavior, but it explains it. The brothers hated him especially after he told them his dreams of how they would bow down to be ruled by him. So, what went wrong between Joseph and his brothers, and how did Jacob’s actions combine to spell tragedy? It is called parental favoritism, and Jacob must bear the guilt. The irony is this: After all that happened to Jacob

From Genesis Rabbah

caused by his mother’s favoritism toward him, and the rivalry that he experienced with his twin brother Esau, one wonders how he could let the same thing happen to Joseph. Familial patterns of deception continue from generation to generation not only in the Torah but in “real life” as well. When we read the story of Joseph, it is also our story. It is the story of a father’s favorite son being sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, imprisoned as a result of false charges, being freed, being exalted to a high position in the court of Egypt, and ultimately bringing his family to a place of honor. This story in many ways foreshadows the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. If Joseph had not gone to Egypt, his brothers would not have ended there, and we would not have become slaves. The story of Joseph shows us how the brothers evolve from men ready to kill Joseph into men ready to lead a new nation. It is the slavery that allows us to be redeemed by God, who then reveals the Torah to us at Sinai. We must first descend to the depths of despair before we can be exalted to the heights. This is a recurring theme within Jewish history, and it all begins with Joseph being cast into the pit and being sold into slavery. There are many lessons that we can learn from this parashah and the remainder of the Joseph saga, for it is not a microcosm of the Jewish journey to Egypt, but of the journey that we must all take if we are to become free human beings.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Mikeitz (Gen. 41:1 – 44:17)
By Norman J. Rosen, M.D. “Vay’hi mikeitz sh’natayim yamim uFaroh choleim.” “Two full years passed. Then Pharaoh had a dream.”
“Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. He remembered what he had dreamed about them." Understand this as, “Joseph recalled the dreams that he had dreamed about them — and all that the dreams represented.” This was the turning point in Joseph’s life. It was that peak moment, often during stress or challenge, when the world stops — when the past, present and future become one, when challenge is clear and a person stops to ponder and reflect. It is when goals and problems, stress and conflict, vision and experience call out to be reconciled. It is a time of solitude and freedom of choice, when one makes key decisions — to take needed action or retreat, to rise to the occasion or remain passive, to speak out or forever hold one’s peace.

Joseph Remembered the Dreams

Joseph was troubled. His life was a roller coaster. His father loved him and grieved his “death.” Joseph’s brothers hated him and had considered killing him. He was separated from his family. His family had problems, including manipulation and deception, stagnant leadership and the wounds of guilt and grief from his brothers’ dealings with him. Joseph had lost and regained his freedom several times, been bought and sold and had already spent a goodly part of his life as a slave and in prison. He was industrious and gifted, yet his personal results were mixed at best. He had a track record of provoking negative feelings in others: his father, his brothers, Potiphar, Potiphar’s wife, the baker, the cupbearer — all had troublesome relationships with Joseph. In “remembering the dreams,” Joseph confronted multiple problems, including his knack for making people angry. Joseph brought bad reports about his brothers, which could have been a responsible thing to do, lashon harah (idle gossip) or hamotzi shem rah (character assassination by telling falsehoods about a person), depending on the circumstances. The Rabbis speculate whether the reports were true, but we have no reason to believe Joseph told falsehoods. Joseph was loveable — he was his father’s favorite, for which his brothers hated him. He was open and accurate in relating his dreams to his family. He shared a dream with his brothers (their sheaves bowed to his), which made them hate him even more. He shared a second dream with his brothers and father (the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed to him), further irritating his brothers and incurring his father’s displeasure. Later, in refusing the seductive advances of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph showed moral character, loyalty to his employer, adherence to his commitments, and

self-control. This infuriated Potiphar’s wife, who told lies about Joseph and resulted in Potiphar’s imprisoning Joseph for years. In prison he correctly interpreted the chief baker’s dream, as a result of which the chief baker lived for three days with the knowledge and terror of his impending beheading and impalement. Joseph accurately interpreted the chief cupbearer’s dream, ultimately resulting in the chief cupbearer guiltily confessing his “offenses” to Pharaoh of failing to inform Pharaoh of Joseph’s correct interpretation. Peoples' responses to Joseph's responsibility, accuracy, loveable nature, good looks, honesty, openness, high moral stature, adherence to commitments, self-control and loyalty was to hate him, want to kill him, sell him into slavery, tell slanderous lies about him, imprison him, live in terror, feel guilty, and forget him!!! What was wrong with this picture? Joseph had much to learn about himself and about people. In remembering his dreams, Joseph not only remembered his specific youthful dreams about his father, mother, brothers and himself, but also considered key events leading up to these dreams. His life flashed before his eyes, as did his family’s history. Having grown up to with his family, Joseph would have known his family stories about his ancestors. He reflected on his own personal and his family’s strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, status quo and future challenges. He remembered and pondered over the lessons found in his family and personal experiences and pondered over their importance to the present. Abraham From family history Joseph remembered and learned: recognizing God (belief and monotheism); Abraham’s treatment of the three strangers (hospitality); Abraham negotiating with God about Sodom and Gomorrah’s fate (the interactive nature of man’s relationship with God, responsibility for others, and the ability of one man to make a difference). The binding of Isaac taught faith and the welfare of your own family. Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah taught fairness and win-win business relationships. Abraham representing Sarah as his sister taught flexibility to survive and thrive among hostile strangers. From extracting the birthright from Esau, Joseph learned aggressive contract management and manipulation juxtaposed on placing family leadership into competent hands. From Rebecca guiding Jacob in tricking Isaac and obtaining his blessing, then arranging for Jacob’s safety from Esau’s wrath, Joseph learned recognizing a woman of valor and women’s abilities, taking effective action, and teamwork. From Jacob purloining Isaac’s blessing, Joseph learned trickery juxtaposed on achieving goals. From working twice-seven years for Rachel, Joseph learned working hard to achieve one’s goals and delayed gratification, trickery in business, honoring social custom, and adhering to a contract. From Jacob negotiating with Laban, Joseph learned working through difficult business relationships. From Jacob wrestling with the stranger, Joseph learned struggling “with beings divine and human” and

prevailing to shape and define oneself. From the rape of Dinah by Shechem, subsequent killing of all males of Shechem’s family and city by Simeon and Levi, and plundering by Jacob’s other sons, Joseph learned improper sexual relations and family anger. From Reuben lying with Bilhah (Rachel’s maid and Jacob’s concubine), Joseph learned improper sexual relationships and family politics. From Jacob reconciling with Esau, Joseph learned healing troubled relationships and forgiveness. Joseph’s lessons from family history were Values and Character: Religious (belief, faith, monotheism, man’s struggle with self and God, and God and man’s interactive relationship); Personal and Social (hospitality, responsibility for others, honoring social customs, survival, flexibility, healing troubles, anger, relationships and forgiveness); and Business (fairness, winwin relationships, contracts, trickery, manipulation, hard work, and difficult business relationships). From his personal history Joseph remembered: Jacob favoring Joseph (jealousy, sibling rivalry and being set apart from the group); Joseph’s youthful preening (narcissism and ignoring the feelings of others). Joseph’s first dream (sheaves) taught hatred; Joseph’s second dream (sun, moon, stars) taught challenging the status-quo in a vacuum; Joseph’s first and second dreams taught vision without direction, missed leadership opportunities, and ignoring people’s feelings and reactions. The debate of what to do with Joseph (Simeon and Levi, by tradition, wanted to kill him, whereas Reuben and Judah spoke to spare him) taught small-group dynamics, divisiveness, and identifying positive leaders. Being sold to the Ishmaelites/Midianites then to Potiphar taught a person’s value and slavery. Joseph’s rise to manage Potiphar’s house taught competence, hard work and faithfulness as stepping stones to upward mobility. Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce taught keeping focus on one’s goals and values, facing temptation, self-control, and the challenges of virility and beauty. Potiphar’s wife’s wrath taught frustrating another’s goals, abuse of power, false testimony, gossip; managing “people problems,” and defending oneself. From the Chief Cupbearer’s dreams, Joseph learned achieving goals by working with others. From Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph learned competence, faithfulness and vision as stepping stones to upward mobility and freedom. From recognizing his brothers, Joseph learned understanding his family members as people with strengths and weaknesses in need of leadership and love. From “remembering what he had dreamt about them” Joseph learned understanding himself as a person with strengths and weaknesses in need of leadership and love. Joseph’s lessons from personal history were Leadership Development: Jealousy, being aware of the consequences of his actions, getting the message across without causing anger, the threatening nature of challenging

the status quo without a game plan, vision without enrollment and direction, small-group dynamics (leadership, decision making, consensus development and planning), and the value of competence, loyalty, dedication and hard work. Joseph learned avoiding seductive distractions, treading carefully when frustrating others’ goals (especially those in power), how to work with others and use relationships to mutual advantage, the importance of vision and working with people in understanding problems and solutions, understanding himself and others as people with strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement, and using this understanding to align business, family and personal goals. Finally Joseph understood himself to be an indispensable force in his family’s survival and well-being. In remembering the dreams, Joseph’s life flashed before his eyes. He realized that a competent person must be aware of the consequences of his actions. A good leader relates to people as humans, speaking to their sensitivities and needs. An outstanding leader is not only aware of people’s humaneness, but also inspires others and is an individual in whose presence others grow, become competent, and achieve their own dreams.

Repentance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation
A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayigash
By Alan I. Friedman “Vayigash eilav Yehudah vayomer bi adoni y’daber-na avdecha davar….” “Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant speak….’” Earlier, Joseph’s brothers, furious at young Joseph’s arrogance and haughtiness, sell Joseph into slavery and tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. In last week’s parashah, ten of Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt, seeking food to help their family cope with the famine in Canaan. Joseph, who has become vizier over Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh, recognizes them, but the brothers do not recognize Joseph. In this week’s parashah Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them for selling him into slavery. Although Egypt also rages with famine, Pharaoh invites Joseph's family to "live off the fat of the land." Jacob learns that Joseph is still alive and, with God's blessing, goes to Egypt. Pharaoh permits Joseph's family to settle in Goshen, and the Israelites thrive there. Let’s take a look at the process of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph set the stage for reconciliation through the charade of the stolen goblet, but it was up to Judah to “step up” (vayigash) and initiate the process. Exhausted by years of guilt, and fed up with his own failure of leadership two decades before, Judah had truly repented. Therefore he stepped forward and offered himself as a slave so that their youngest brother, Benjamin, could return to their doting father, Jacob. In that act of love, Judah showed that he would stop at nothing to end the cycle of hatred and recrimination. The power of that unequivocal gesture shattered Joseph's defenses. “I am Joseph, your brother. Is my father still well?” Joseph cried. But his brothers could not answer, so dumbfounded were they at the revelation.1 Judah's admission of the brothers’ mistreatment of Joseph, and his repentance for the crime, evoked Joseph's response of letting go of decades of pent-up injury, humiliation, frustration, and anger. “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me into this place. It was not you who sent me here. It was God,” Joseph tells his brothers forgivingly. “God
A commentary by Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno says that when Jacob’s brothers were too dumbfounded to speak, Joseph reassured them of his identity by quoting their discussion among themselves, in Hebrew, when they sold him to the slave merchants. – The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 255.

(Gen. 44:18 – 47:27)

has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.” And in tears, the brothers were reconciled with each other.2 The story teaches that repentance and forgiveness are essential to reconciliation. But the key to convincing the other side that reconciliation is possible is to give an unequivocal sign of turning one's back on the past.3 The reconciliation between the brothers opened the way for Jacob's family to resettle in Egypt, an event that would have dramatic consequences for the Israelites many years later. Joseph realized that his descent into Egypt was a prelude to the enslavement of the Jewish people there. He understood that his divinely ordained mission was to pave the way for the Israelites by giving them the tools they would need to survive years of bondage in a hostile and decadent environment. We, too, can be like Joseph. Whether at the pinnacle of greatness or in the depths of persecution, we must remain faithful to God, to Torah, and to the Jewish people.

AIF 07-15-04 Vayigash – Dvar Torah

When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he had cried tears of joy. Now, says a midrash by Rabbi Elie Munk, he wept in sadness and foreboding because he foresaw that the exile into which he was now summoning his family would not be their last. – Ibid. 3 Remorse (charatah) a feeling of regret, of failure to maintain one's moral standards, is a prerequisite to repentance (t’shuvah). There are two kinds of forgiveness. In the first, m’chilah, if the offender is sincerely repentant, the offended party can forgive the “debt” of the offender. M’chila is like a pardon granted to a criminal by the modern state; the crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The second kind of forgiveness, s’lichah, is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the distress or affliction of the other. – “Repentance and Forgiveness,” by Rabbi David R. Blumenthal, Professor of Judaic Studies, Emory University; Crosscurrents; spring, 1998.


Jacob’s Final Request — Some Mystical Insights
A D’var Torah on Parashat Va-y’chi (Gen. 47:28–50:26)
By Frank Holtzman “Vayechi Ya'akov b'erets Mitsrayim sh’va esrei shanah….” “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years….”
Then he instructed them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site.” – Gen. 49:29-30

Jacob´s final request was that his body should be taken back to the land of Canaan and buried in the cave in the field of Machpelah that his grandfather Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite. Why would he make such a request in view of the distance and difficulties that would be encountered to fulfill it? He certainly was aware that, as the father of Joseph, he would have been given a state burial with all the honors Egypt could bestow upon a person of elevated status. The Zohar explains that the Cave of Machpelah is much more than a family burial plot. The mystics believe that the cave also is the burial place of Adam and Eve. Furthermore, the cave will lead the righteous souls of the departed out of this world and into the heavenly Garden of Eden. There is a story in the Zohar about Abraham discovering this for himself when, in searching for a suitable burial site for Sarah, he could smell the fragrance of paradise wafting across the field of Machpelah. Being curious, he entered the cave, where he encountered the forms of Adam and Eve, and learned from them the truth about where he was. The heavenly fragrance even permeated his clothing. “Come and behold: When Abraham entered the cave for the first time, he saw a light. The dust was removed from before him revealing two graves. Adam rose from his grave in his rightful form, saw Abraham, and laughed. By that, Abraham knew that he was destined to be buried there.” 1 Ephron the Hittite, not being as spiritually advanced as Abraham, could detect nothing unusual about this property. The Zohar states that Ephron saw only darkness in the cave. And so, being willing to sell the property, it passed into the hands of those for whom it was ultimately intended. Turning to Jacob´s experience in the Cave, the Zohar states: “Come and behold: When Jacob entered the cave, all the perfumes of the Garden of Eden filled it. The cave was a light for a candle burned [there]. When the Patriarchs came to Jacob in Egypt to be with him, the candlelight was gone

[from the cave]. When Jacob came into the cave, the candle returned. The cave was then perfected in all its needs.” “Never has the cave received any other man: and never will it. The souls of the righteous pass [after their demise] before [the Fathers] inside the cave, so that they will awake and behold the seed they left in the world, and rejoice before the Holy One, blessed be he.” 2 The Zohar goes on to explain that when Jacob resided in Egypt, the land was blessed, water flowed, famine ceased. While Jacob was alive in this physical world, no nation, how ever well versed in magic, could rule over Israel. Now it is known that the Egyptians practiced the black arts and sorcery. Upon Jacob´s passing from this physical world, the Egyptians realized that judgment would eventually rain down upon them. This is an allusion to the catastrophe of the ten plagues, which devastated the land and almost destroyed Egypt for some hundred years later. The relevance of all this is that our connection to Jacob helps ensure that Light flows into our lives even during times of great Judgment and negativity.3 Even those who have no genuine merit of their own, will be permitted to receive a spiritual blessing in this world and be given a portion in the world to come.

The Zohar by Rav Shimon bar Yochai, with commentary by Rav Yehuda Ashlag, published by the Kabbalah Centre International Inc. Compiled and edited by Rabbi Michael Berg, © 2003, Vol. 4, p. 67. 2 Ibid., Vol. 7, pp. 457-458. 3 Ibid., Vol. 7, Pg. 436.


One Book to Get Us Into Egypt; Four to Get Us Out
A D’var Torah on Parashat Sh’mot (Ex. 1:1 – 6:1)
By Norman J. Harris, M.D. “Ve’ileh sh’mot b’nei Yisrael….” “And these are the names of Israel’s sons.…”

“…and who made you a leader over us?” The first of the next four books of the Torah, Sh’mot, introduces us to Moses. The Author has taken us from the creation of the entire universe, the rise and near destruction of man, the rise of language and society, and the descent into Egypt — all in one book, B’reishit. Now we begin reading a message so weighty by comparison that four books are needed to carry it. Now we meet the messenger. Fearing that the growing band of Israelites might prove to be a military liability, Pharaoh enslaves and oppresses the people. Their growth still uncontrolled, he issues orders to the midwives to kill at birth all newborn Israelite boys. Two midwives refuse the order, setting the stage for the birth of Moses — the man destined to become the greatest leader of Israel. Born to the tribe of Levi, the infant Moses survives his birth and is hidden for a few months. When she can no longer hide him, his mother leaves him in a basket floating on the Nile, watched by his older sister Miriam. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh, who adopts him and hires his mother as a wet-nurse. Moses emerges from this upbringing as a man living in two worlds: the world of the Israelite slaves in which he was born, and the world of Egyptian royalty, in which he was raised. As a young man, seeing a taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, Moses kills the Egyptian and flees to Midian. He is welcomed by a priest of the Midianite religion and is given the priest’s daughter Zipporah as a wife. The circumstances of Moses’ birth, his upbringing, his violent, impetuous action, and his marriage are very much at odds with the Way — the Torah which is to come. Why has the Author chosen such an unlikely person from among all the Israelites to be the courier of His precious message? We have spent much of our history exiled from our Promised Land. We have traveled far in space and time from our origins. It would be easy for us to dwell on this distance and say, "The Way was for them then and

there, and no longer speaks to us now and here." Yet, when we look at who it is who brought us the Law, we see someone very much like ourselves. The Author begins his His message with an address. We recognize this Moses from our own family and the community around us. The Story to follow is addressed to us. It is directly and immediately relevant to us who wrestle with it. We are all here now and were all there then. The Author is speaking. We must listen.

NJH 08-27-04 Sh’mot – DvarTorah

A D’var Torah on Parashat Va-eira (Ex. 6:2 – 9:35)
By Martin Graffman, M.D. “Va-eira el-Avraham el-Yitschak v’el-Ya’akov b’Eil Shadai ush’mi Adonai lo nodati lahem.” “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as Eil Shadai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai.” Today, I want to attempt something unusual. I want to look at the Pharaoh as a sympathetic figure. He has been a villain, a foil of God, and even God’s ironic victim. Why a villain? That’s obvious. He attempted a genocidal solution for the Israelite question. When the Israelites miraculously escaped the murder of their first born males, the Pharaoh punished the people with horrendous forced labor. Why was Pharaoh a foil of God? God voluntarily stiffened or hardened Pharaoh’s heart (the ancients believed the heart is the seat of intellect) after each of the plagues was hurled against Pharaoh and Egypt so that Pharaoh, Egypt, and the entire known world would realize that the former were no match for the superior God of the Israelites. Mercy was not to be the fate of the Pharaoh; he was to anticipate Job’s fate in which wave after wave of pain and degradation were to wash over him, in the end a hapless mortal. It is true that Job was “blameless” and that the Pharaoh may have been arrogant, but we’ll look at Pharaoh’s culpability later. Finally, why was Pharaoh an ironic victim? The Pharaoh attempted the destruction of Israel’s first-born sons, and the final plague, the plague that led to the capitulation of Pharaoh, caused the death of Egypt’s first born, including the first born of the Pharaoh himself. No mother or father, Egyptian or not, royal or not, can even consider the death of child without exquisite anguish. Yes, the slaughter of even the Pharaoh’s child makes us pity him. At first glance, the Pharaoh gets what he deserved. Or, does he? You can never know another person until you walk in that person’s shoes. You should therefore never criticize another person unless you walk in his or her shoes. When we walk in someone’s shoes, we accept their goals, responsibilities, desires, limitations and pain as our own. Who was pharaoh? He was king of Egypt, and it was his responsibility to safeguard his people and his land from external invaders and internal

Pharaoh — Villain or Victim?

insurrections. He may not have wanted this responsibility, but it was his. He may have felt overwhelmed by the responsibility, but it was his. He was told by his parents, the priests of Egypt and even the people of Egypt that he was a God, perhaps the most powerful of Gods. Yet, he knew that he was only a mortal who almost daily suffered the pains and limitations of other mortal men, so how then could he be a god? How then could he be so self-assured that he could protect his people? How then could he know who he was? In the end, he was even unable to save his son. In the end, he should be pitied — not vilified, not condemned, not hated, but pitied! It is so easy for us to hate the pharaoh. We have been carefully conditioned by our teachers through the millennia to hate him. But then, we have not dared to walk in his shoes. And yet, without awareness, have not all of us walked in those shoes? All of us have readily believed what others tell us about who we are, where we should go, how we should get there? All of us have believed or want to believe the xenophobic and grandiose stories about why we are superior to another person or another people. All of us have believed that our stories grant us special privilege, including the privilege of not walking in another person’s shoes. It is so easy and so safe to adopt this mindset. So if we are suddenly see that we have been given the responsibility to take care of threatened people and that we have only limited knowledge and power to protect them, do we not at times rely on coercive power to accomplish these horrendous tasks? Of course we do! We who are or have been parents behave or have behaved in this manner all the time. How many of us, when threatened with the possible pain and suffering of our children, have not resorted to what our children will label as arrogant and coercive behavior. They can’t go to the party because “I say so, and that’s the end of it!” “I’m through talking about it; just do it.” “You have to go to your room and don’t come out until you’re less arrogant.” “How dare you talk to me that way?” ‘You don’t understand what’s for your own good.” “I don’t want you hanging around that kid; he’s bad business.” “You’re damned right I won’t give you the car; you drive too fast, and sometimes you drink beer.” We act this way because we are scared to death something might happen to our children, and we have only limited and imperfect information (and power) to protect them. So, we draw a line in the sand and raise our voices a notch. God created man who could harden his own heart or stick to his own guns or stick out his own upper lip in the face of threat. God created the hardening process to help man survive. Otherwise we would not be blessed

(?) with this instinctual psychological defense mechanism. God did single out Pharaoh to harden his heart as in a morality play. God hardened pharaoh’s heart because he was a mortal man. Yet, we pharaohs are always taught a Divine lesson. Sooner or later, our children must defy us. They eventually follow another one of God’s Laws that we, as parents know but try to ignore. It is the Divine Law that requires all children to acquire their own experience and to perhaps acquire the knowledge that their loving but somewhat limited and apprehensive parents did not have the opportunity to learn. It is the Divine Law, sometimes known as the Law of individuation and maturation, that commands us parents to fight our children with tooth and nail, so that our children must and can succeed us, and in doing so, they prove they are strong and perhaps obtain a greater safety through their own efforts. It is the Divine Law that states that growth requires the destruction of that which is false or no longer effective. So who was pharaoh? Just some guy, like the rest of us, who learned the hard way that there is a higher power, God (or Evolution or Nature), who demands through His Laws that we grow up. Growing up requires that we face the painful conclusion that we never have enough answers and power to perfectly protect even those people whom we most love, that we listen to other voices through God and His Laws that might better help us and those who follow us, and that just as this awareness is humiliating or humility producing, there is eventually a joy in the process of knowing and discovering God’s Truths.

Moses, Miriam, and Aaron — Three Models of Leadership
A D’var Torah on Parashat B’shalach (Ex. 13:17 – 17:16)
By Alan I. Friedman “Vay’hi b’shalach Par’oh et-ha’am….” “Now when Pharaoh let the people go…” Parashat B’shalach is the Exodus story. It tells how — following the ten plagues, culminating in the death of the Egyptians’ first born — the Israelites, led by Moses, leave Egypt, taking with them the bones of Joseph, and encamp on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. We read how Pharaoh has a change of heart and sends his army to pursue the Israelites and bring them back to Egypt. But God miraculously parts the Sea, enabling the Israelites to cross safely to the other side. The pursuing Egyptians, however, drown as the waters close over them. In thanksgiving, Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sing a song of praise to God. The “Song at the Sea” (Shirat Ha-yam) vividly recounts Israel’s miraculous deliverance, by God, from the pursuing Egyptian army. It celebrates God’s compassionate intervention and offers assurance for God’s everlasting presence in Israel’s future. Exceptional leaders share certain qualities like a strong personal ethic and a compelling vision of the future. Frequently, great leaders emerge in response to a crisis as they attempt to achieve a bold new vision.1 Is leadership the consequence of an individual’s intrinsic attributes; do traits produce the leader? Even though writers are fond of compiling lists of virtues held in common by leaders, it is clear that leaders exhibit a wide range of qualities. Let’s look first at Moses. Moments earlier, the sea had closed over the Egyptians. Moses didn’t call a meeting for the following morning; he didn’t wait for the people to gather round; he didn’t even take the time to teach them the words of the song and rehearse them. “Rather, when the moment was ripe with exhilaration and passion, he began to sing, and the people responded … The timing was essential, and Moses used the power of the moment to carry the nation along.”2 Taking initiative is a basic principle in organizing the masses. Moses realized that acting quickly and decisively was the way to rally the people.

1 2

The Seven Faces of Leadership, by Robert J. Allio; Xlibris Corporation; 2003. Aviva Cayam, Social Worker; The Jerusalem Report; (January 31, 2000).

He knew that “people seek direction and respond to those willing to take charge.”3 So Moses began to sing, and the people fervently followed. Miriam waited until Moses was finished. Then she “took a drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam chanted for them....” 4 Miriam’s model of leadership valued delay. She “recognized the power of timing, holding back until the people were ready. Being a leader often demands restraint, not impulsivity. It means relating to followers in ways that build confidence and understanding.”5 Also, by using musical instruments to encourage broader participation, Miriam demonstrated the importance of building consensus. The women of Israel responded to Miriam’s sensitivity and compassion and followed her in song. It might seem that Miriam was merely repeating her brother’s words, but this is not so. A comparison of the two songs shows significant differences. Miriam chose to address the people in a language they could understand. She transformed Moses’ magnificent but lofty prophetic song into a chant easily learned by the women who heard it. 6 Miriam’s song is neither an imitation of Moses’ song, nor an inferior version of it. It is uniquely Miriam’s, and it attests to her personal initiative and great influence as a leader. Moses was an elitist leader, closer to God than to the people. In fact at one point, he refused to care for the people in a manner that he considered feminine: “Why have You … place[d] the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom’?”7 Though Moses did not regard his leadership role as requiring a close connection to the people — a doubtless source of friction — this is precisely where Miriam excelled. Miriam’s leadership was guided not by stressing her individuality but by forming a network of human relations.8 It was Miriam who enabled dialogue with the people. Through her unique brand of feminine leadership, Miriam was able to bridge the gap between the grumbling masses and their “distant” leader.

Ibid. Exodus 15:20-21. 5 Aviva Cayam; op. cit. 6 Commentary on Parashat B’shalach by Professor Tovah Cohen, Department of Literature of the Jewish People; Bar-Ilan University; Israel. 7 Numbers 11:11-12. 8 Professor Tovah Cohen; op. cit.
3 4

Miriam’s leadership style more closely resembled that of her brother Aaron than that of Moses. As High Priest, Aaron was deeply involved with the people, concerned for their peace and well-being. Miriam, too, worked on behalf of the masses. Perhaps it is for this very reason that she is called Aaron’s sister9 — that she exemplified her brother Aaron’s style of involved leadership. The leadership styles of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron can also be contrasted in terms of their perspectives or world views. In dealing with the day-to-day issues of putting God’s commandments into practice and molding the Israelites into a Godly nation, Moses decidedly operated in the present. On the other hand, Miriam’s focus was on the future. So confident was she of the ultimate liberation of the people from bondage that she even arranged for the women to take musical instruments with them in anticipation of a joyous celebration.10 Aaron was the diplomat who managed to direct the people’s energies constructively. His leadership was derived from the past in that, as the eldest son, he was most connected to the previous generation.11 A particular aspect of Moses’ leadership is worthy of mention. Moses plays many roles throughout the book of Exodus, but some of his most memorable moments occur when he places himself between God and the Israelites. Time and again, Moses intercedes on the people’s behalf — even when they’ve sinned, even when it means putting his own life on the line. 12 Steadfast, unwavering support for those in one’s charge is the mark of a truly great leader. Are leaders made or born? Evidence suggests that leadership emerges when individuals seize opportunities to develop themselves as leaders. They become leaders when they are given the chance to practice the craft of leadership in challenging situations.13 Over the last 80 years or so, researchers have been studying the relationships between birth order, personality, and leadership. One researcher, Frank Sulloway, concluded that birth order is profoundly important to the development of human personality and human history. He found that birth order is the single best predictor of personality traits and a less significant influence on leadership behaviors.14

Exodus 15:20. “Three-Way Biblical Leadership,” The Jampacked Bible Online. 11 Ibid. 12 Moses on Management, by Rabbi David Baron; Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.;1999; p. 207. 13 Robert J. Allio; op. cit. 14 Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Living, by Frank J. Sulloway; Pantheon Books; 1996.
9 10

Another researcher, Benjamin Dattner, examined how trait theories of leadership could be combined with Sulloway’s findings to explain birth-order differences in leadership styles. 15 Other researchers 16 found a correlation between birth order and certain personality traits related to leadership. First-borns tended to be high achievers, perfectionists, organized, rule keepers, and detail oriented. (Is this not a description of a High Priest?) Middle children tended to be flexible, diplomatic, and social; and female middle children — like Miriam — tended to be very relationship oriented. Last-borns were predominately risk takers, idea people, creative, and questioning of authority. (What a match to Moses!) Moses, Miriam and Aaron forged a successful three-way partnership. They constituted a powerful leadership team that dealt successfully with the trials and ordeals of a forty-year journey in the wilderness. “Miriam’s role as spiritual leader complemented the roles of Moses, the legislator, and Aaron, the peacemaker.” 17 Each covered for the other’s shortcomings 18 and, together, they succeeded in guiding the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

AIF 09-24-04 B’shalach – Dvar Torah

15 16 17 18

“Birth Order and Leadership,” by Benjamin Dattner, PhD., Principal, Dattner Consulting LLC; 2004. E.g., Lucille K. Forer and Walter Toman Maria Goldrich; Kolot: A World of Jewish Voices. The Jampacked Bible Online; op. cit.

The Priest of Midian and the Covenant at Sinai
A D’var Torah on Parashat Yitro
By Marc Goodman “Vayishma Yitro chohein Midyan chotein Moshe eit kol-asher asah Elohim….” “Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard everything that God had done….”
Parashat Yitro – a Synopsis

(Exodus 18:1 - 20:23)

Parashat Yitro begins with a visit to Moses by his father-in-law, Yitro, the priest of Midian. After hearing about what God has done for Moses and the Israelites, Yitro brings his daughter (Moses’ wife) Zipporah and her sons Gershom and Eliezer to the camp in the wilderness of Sinai where they are reunited with their husband and father. Yitro and Moses go into the tent after the reunion, and Moses tells Yitro about the wonders that God has performed. Yitro blesses “the Lord” and declares that he now knows that “the Lord” is greater than all other gods. The next day Yitro counsels Moses on how to establish a hierarchical chain of command to magistrate to the people. After implementing Yitro’s recommendations, Moses and Yitro bid each other farewell, and Yitro departs for his own land. Subsequent to its description of the encounter between Moses and Yitro, the parashah describes how God reveals His Covenant with the children of Israel to Moses and instructs him to prepare the people for receiving the Ten Commandments. Following God’s instructions, Moses tells the people to purify themselves and stay away from the mountain (Sinai). God then speaks what have come to be known as the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel. The parashah concludes when, after revealing the Ten Commandments, God instructs Moses how to build an altar and how to approach that altar when making sacrifices.
Parashat Yitro – a Question

The Rabbis organized the text of Torah into the groupings that we now know as the Parashiot. The story of Yitro’s visit to Moses at the Sinai encampment immediately follows Parashat B’shalach, in which the people cross the Sea of Reeds, sing songs of praise to the Lord, wander through the wilderness, receive manna from heaven, receive water from the rock at Horeb, and fight Amalek. Why did the Rabbis choose not to include the story of Yitro’s visit in Parashat B’shalach but rather to include it in the parashah that describes God’s revelation of the Covenant and the giving of the Ten Commandments? Is there a connection between Yitro’s encounter with Moses and God’s revelation of the Covenant and giving the Ten Commandments to Moses and the children of Israel?


Yitro – Some Background

Our introduction to Yitro occurs in the second half of Exodus 2. After slaying an Egyptian taskmaster at the age of 401, Moses flees from Pharaoh to Midian, where he sits by a well and (in a manner reminiscent of Isaac and Jacob) defends the daughters of the priest of Midian, who are trying to draw water for their father’s flock. They bring Moses back to their father, who is identified as Reuel. The father invites Moses to break bread, Moses consents, and the father gives Moses his daughter Zipporah as a wife. Zipporah bears a son to Moses, and they name the son Gershom meaning, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” The text then points out that “a long time after that,” the “king of Egypt” (not Pharaoh) died. Our second encounter with Yitro is indirect. It occurs in Exodus 3:1 when Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro (Yitro), the priest of Midian. Moses drives the sheep into the wilderness and comes to Horeb, the mountain of God. (Horeb and Mt. Sinai are the same place). Here Moses has the “burning bush” encounter, first with an angel and then with God. Our final encounter with Yitro prior to his appearance at the camp in the wilderness of Sinai occurs in Exodus 4:18 when Moses asks his father-inlaw, “Jether” for permission to return to Egypt, and “Jethro” says to Moses, “Go in peace.” At a night encampment on the journey, the Lord seeks to kill him (Moses or Gershom?), but Zipporah circumcises Gershom, touches his foreskin to his (Moses’ or Gershom’s?) legs, and says, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!”, thus staving off the Lord’s anger.
What about Yitro?

Is there something special about Yitro that would merit his inclusion in the parashah in which God reveals His Covenant and gives the Ten Commandments? In exploring this question, I would first like to offer some observations about Yitro based on his appearances in Torah and Midrash.
Yitro the Enigma

Yitro at the least is enigmatic. At the Sinai camp, Yitro is described as the priest of Midian, the father of Zipporah, and the grandfather of Gershom and Eliezer. The father of the daughters of the priest of Midian whom Moses defends at the well is identified as Reuel. The man identified as Reuel gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses to wife, and they have a son, Gershom. The text indicates that the king of Egypt dies a long time after the birth of Gershom, so that he might be as old as 39 when Zipporah circumcises him at the inn on the journey to Egypt. But Midrash suggests that the reason God tries to kill him (Moses or Gershom?) on the journey to Egypt is that

Moses is traditionally assumed to have been 40 years old when he slew the Egyptian taskmaster and fled to Midian, but neither Torah nor Tanach offer this information. The only source for Moses’ age at the time he slays the taskmaster and flees to Midian is Christian scripture (Acts 7:23), wherein Stephen preaches to the Council (Sanhedrin?).


Gershom was not circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, suggesting that he was eight days old at the time of the attack. Could the previously unmentioned Eliezer have been the son circumcised on the journey? Moses addresses his father-in-law as “Jether” when asking permission to return to Egypt, and receives permission from “Jethro.” Yitro and, for that matter, Zipporah and her children, are subjects of confusion and apparent contradictions. Modern commentators typically attribute this type of confusion and contradiction to the weaving together of multiple traditions into a single story. But if Yitro appears in multiple traditions, it suggests that he is a central character in biblical narrative.
Yitro and Covenantal Encounters

Yitro appears just prior to covenantal encounters between Moses and God at Mt. Sinai (Horeb). In the case of the burning bush, God makes a covenant with Moses immediately after the text informs us that Moses is shepherding Yitro’s flock in the wilderness. Here the covenant is a promise made by God to Moses at Mt. Horeb to deliver the children of Israel from the land of Egypt. Yitro’s subsequent meeting with Moses occurs while Moses is shepherding God’s flock in the wilderness and precedes the encounter in which God reveals His Covenant with the children of Israel to Moses at Mt. Sinai. Yitro plays a particularly important role in the revelation at Sinai by helping Moses free himself of the mundane day-to-day tasks of administering justice to the people. If burdened by this task, Moses might not have been able to achieve the spiritual clarity needed to encounter God and hear the Covenant and receive the Ten Commandments on behalf of the children of Israel.
Moses the Leader and Shepherd

Moses’ life was divided into 40-year thirds. He spent the first third as a prince of Egypt, a role in which he would have learned to lead. The second third he spent shepherding his father-in-law’s flock, a role in which (according to Midrash) he learned compassion for the humblest of God’s creatures. He spent the last third leading and shepherding God’s flock, a role that called for the leadership of a prince and the compassion of a shepherd. We can assume that Moses learned to shepherd sheep in Midian from Yitro [and/or his daughter(s)], but from whom did Moses learn to shepherd God’s flock? God gave laws to instruct the Israelites how to be a holy people, and He gave laws to instruct the priests how to perform holy rites. He commanded Moses to lead, but He did not give Moses instructions on how to conduct the day-to-day shepherding of the people. Is it possible that the person who instructed Moses concerning the shepherding of sheep also instructed him concerning the shepherding of people? Could the priest of Midian have been an agent of God whose mission was to instruct Moses how to be a shepherd, both of sheep and of -3-

people? Is Yitro included in the parashah about the Covenant and the Ten Commandments because he prepared Moses to shepherd the human flock from a human perspective, which freed him spiritually to receive the Covenant and the Ten Commandments?


Biblical Tort Law — Remedies for Bodily Injury
A D’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim (Ex. 21:1 – 24:18)
By Frances Fried “V’eileh ha-mishpatim asher taseem lif’neihem.” “And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them.” Parashat Mishpatim is a rather long, involved chapter dealing primarily with civil and tort laws pertaining to worship, serfdom, injuries, property, and moral behavior. The parashah also deals with the penalties for violating these laws. Mishpatim means rules or ordinances. The Hebrew root of Mishpatim is shafat, which means to judge, govern, or rule. Shafat can also mean to vindicate or punish. This parashah addresses how to deal with slaves, strangers, widows and orphans; punishment for killing and physically hurting others; personal liability for injuring animals; the need for treating people fairly; lending money; performing certain rituals; and treating our enemies. Parashat Mishpatim also enumerates the rules for observing Shabbat, the three pilgrimage festivals, and kashrut. God tells the people that if they serve God they will be blessed; the people respond, “All that God has spoken, we will do.”1 Also in this parashah, Moses ascends Mount Sinai and remains there for forty days and forty nights. The laws in Mishpatim don’t appear to be organized in any logical pattern. They include civil, criminal, ethical and cultic laws. They also include safekeeping of property, seduction, sorcery and bestiality. I have elected to concentrate on four well-known verses,2 which state, “When men fight … if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Taken literally, the Torah says that, if bodily injuries occur when men fight, the perpetrator is to be punished with a mutilation equivalent to the one that the victim suffered. Tradition teaches us that demanding an eye for an eye (or injury for injury) might not be equitable. Were there extenuating circumstances? Was the injury intentional act or was it accidental? How severe was the damage? How long was the injured party incapacitated? Did the injured party suffer monetary losses? Will the injured person be able to continue working at his chosen craft or profession? Nahum Sarna in his

1 2

Exodus 24:3 and 24:7. Exodus 21:22-25

JPS Torah Commentary 3 suggests that an exact equivalent in respect to bodily injury is inherently unattainable. Therefore the only available avenue of redress is monetary compensation. Biblical law accepts the principle that assault and battery are public crimes, not just private wrongs. However it instituted monetary compensation not retribution for bodily injury, and equal justice for all citizens (including slaves); and it outlawed vicarious punishment. The Torah itself does not answer how the amount of restitution is to be calculated. However, rabbinic tradition bases restitution for injury to a slave on the diminution in value of a slave who sustained a similar injury.4 Leviticus 24:18, says that one who kills a beast shall pay for it (meaning monetary compensation). In Judges 15:11, Samson butchered the Philistines, justifying his act because they had burnt his wife and father alive (“As they did to me so I did to them.”), even though the punishment he inflicted was not entirely the same as the crime committed. However, a law in Numbers 35:31 forbids accepting ransom for a murderer in lieu of punishing the murderer by death for his crime. The clear implication is that monetary compensation was the usual practice for nonfatal physical injuries. As I see it, today’s personal-injury laws and or practices need severe revamping. Current practice allows attorneys to obtain outrageous fees for so-called pain and suffering for their clients. Medical insurance and car insurance are skyrocketing due to the large awards given. In fact, the attorney is usually the one getting the benefit of the large awards. Malpractice should be based on just that. A master list of incompetent physicians and attorneys should be maintained. A method for determining just compensation should be set, and the payment should go to the insured party. It would require compromise by all parties, but it would also provide us with better medical care, and it would be more in keeping with the intentions of the laws set out in the Torah. I would like to suggest that we include a “table talk” during Friday-night dinners for our younger children and grandchildren on each D’var Torah. This could be used by our nursery school teachers after the lighting of the candles and the blessing over the wine. Example: Children, tomorrow when the Rabbi reads from the Torah, he/she will be talking about Mishpatim, the laws or rules. Every person has rules he or she must follow, and when they break these rules, there will be consequences. What does this mean? How many of you have ever bitten another person, friend, brother, sister? Raise your hand. How many of you
3 4

The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, by Nahum M. Sarna; Jewish Publication Society; 1991. Sforno on Torah; Translated and edited by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz; Artscroll; 1997.

have been bitten by a friend, brother, sister? Raise your hand. How did you feel when this happened? Did your hand, arm, foot bleed? Do you think you should bite him/her back? Why? That was not nice was it? Does your teacher, mommy, daddy have rules about biting? What can you do for the person you bit to make him, her fell better? Discuss possible consequences.

A D’var Torah on Parashat T’rumah1 (Ex. 25:1 – 27:19)
By Brendan Howard “Dabeir el-B’nei Yisrael v’yik’chu li t’rumah….” “Tell the Children of Israel to bring Me gifts….”

Can We Hear the Voice of God?

“Va-y’dabeir Adonai el-Moshe leimor….” In Exodus, God talks to people — a lot.

Tending a flock and wandering in the wilderness outside his father-in-law’s lands in Midian, Moses hears God call to him from a burning bush, with an angel appearing before him.2 God tells Moses he is to lead his people out of Egypt. Back in Midian, Moses begins a decades-long, two-way conversation with God.3 God even speaks to Moses’ brother, Aaron,4 who will become Moses’ mouthpiece, as Moses is unsure of his speaking ability because of a speech impediment. How wonderful, right? To hear the voice of God and carry on conversations with God, the Creator of the universe, the molder of man, animal and worlds — a blessing! In our liturgy, we thank God, we praise God, we sing to God, and we promise to follow God’s laws that He relayed through Moses and others. We talk to God, yes, but we don’t hear a voice in return, do we? The Israelites certainly got to see fantastic manifestations of God’s might, things that echo in our imagination thousands of years after they were spoken of and then written down: the plagues in Egypt, the walls of water at the Sea of Reeds held at their sides as the bedraggled ex-slaves walked the soggy bottom to the far shore. In the desert, there was a cloud by day and a fire by night that God used to lead the Israelites from place to place, and there was manna that God made to drop from the sky for them to eat in their travels, and water that He brought bubbling to the surface when they grew thirsty. Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the 70 elders of Israel even come to the foot of Mt. Sinai, “and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.”5

All English Torah selections are from the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh; Jewish Publication Society; 1999. 2 Exodus 3:2. 3 Exodus 4:19. 4 Exodus 4:27. 5 Exodus 24:10.

The Israelites see God’s might, and a few select people see parts of God, perhaps, but to talk to Him? Almost no one. When the Israelite people get a chance to hear God speak, when Moses is relating the first set of commandments in Exodus 20, the Israelites are terrified of the prospect: “‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’”6 Moses reassures them that God is only testing them by appearing in a massive cloud they can all see, and he says that God will not show a face or sound a voice to them. A special place for God’s voice among the Israelites is finally shared in Exodus 25 in Parashat T’rumah. God starts Moses’ 40-day seminar on the commandments and detailed instructions for building a sacred place for God among the Israelites, “a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”7 Among those instructions is a description of the place where Moses will hear God’s voice in the sanctuary: “You shall make a cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Mark two cherubim8 of gold — make them of hammered work — at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the Ark, after depositing inside the Ark the Pact that I will give you. There I will meet with you [Moses], and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact — all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”9 This place to hear God was just for Moses. When we speak of talking to God today, very seldom do we mean we hear a voice — and those who do hear God’s voice are usually called insane … or, sometimes, prophets who themselves become birthing mothers of new religions. We usually talk of seeing and hearing God in nature, in the
Exodus 20:16. Exodus 25:8. 8 These are not the chubby-cheeked baby angels of modern folklore. “In reality, the Israelite Cherubim were modeled on the hybrid gods of [the Israelites’] neighbors: the Egyptian sphinx, the winged manlion god of Phoenicia, the winged bulls of Assyria and Babylonia. … Centuries later, when the Jerusalem Temple replaced the Mishkan, the motif of the Cherubim was repeated on its inner and outer walls, on its doors, and on the huge brass bowl called the ‘Molten Sea.’ Today we can find faint traces of the ancient Cherubim in the rampant lions adorning many synagogue arks.” – The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel; Grosset Putnam, 1996; p. 131. 9 Exodus 25:17-22.
6 7

melded voices of a Shabbat service, in the divine inspiration of the writers of the Torah, or in the still, small voice inside us. When we speak of God’s commandments, we talk of the Torah’s demands, the tradition’s demands, the rabbis’ demands or the demands of our own conscience. But imagine being so close to God’s consciousness that you could hear God’s voice. It’s no walk in the park, of course. When Moses first hears God’s voice calling him to be a prophet, he balks: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” Imagine it. We seek guidance in our darkest hours or in the throes of momentous decisions. We look to our loved ones, our conscience, and sometimes we turn to God … but to hear what? Seeking God’s literal voice flies in the face of the development of rabbinic Judaism through the millennia, which has argued that God has said what God needs to say, and now it’s up to us to interpret, to wrestle with, to love and to obey God’s living law, the Torah. What does the Torah teach us in the Five Books of Moses about how people react when God speaks directly to them? They rebel anyway. They turn from the clearly spoken commandments of God, as Moses sought to do when God first called him, as the Israelites did again and again in the trek through the desert, lengthened from a couple of years to 40 years so that a generation of rebellious older Jews could all die away and leave a younger generation to enter the Promised Land. Maybe the slow burn of lifetimes of Jews studying Torah, observing mitzvot and seeking God’s guidance in prayer is a better recipe than the sudden, intense fire of God’s voice commanding us, in no uncertain terms, to leave our homes in a familiar land and wander into the desert. Those of us today, who have no Ark or Tabernacle, commune with God when we pray fervently and seek God’s presence, when we wrestle with the existence of God in a difficult world, when we do good according to our conscience, and when we feel moved to fulfill a mitzvah. We know that inner voice, that soul, that inclination to do good, the yetzer ha-tov. If we listen in the ways available to us today, maybe we become a link to God for the world and ourselves, just as Moses was a link to God for the Israelites. Maybe when we seek answers from God’s written commandments, from the rabbis’ teachings through the centuries, from the wise among us, and from our inner desire to do the right thing, then we walk in Moses’ footsteps into that traveling Tabernacle alone, we face the cover of the Ark, and from between those two cherubim, we have our own heart-to-heart chats with God.

Priestly Clothing — Do Clothes Make the Person?
A D’var Torah on Parashat T’tzaveh (Ex. 27:20 – 30:10)
By Ilene Schneider “V’atah t’tzaveh et-B’nei Yisrael v’yikchu eilekha shemen zayeet zakh kateet….” “Now you shall command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of pressed olives….”

Parashat T’tzaveh begins with God choosing Aaron and his four sons — Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar — to be the Kohanim (priests). One of their tasks is to keep the lamps of the menorah burning continuously in the sanctuary and to use pure olive oil to light the menorah. While officiating in the Sanctuary, the Kohanim are to wear special garments. Aaron, as Kohen Gadol (High Priest), is to be robed in especially distinctive hand-made vestments. The parashah describes — down to the last intertwined threads — the lavish garments of the Kohanim. Many symbolic acts confirm the selection of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim. Aaron is presented with a robe and anointed with oil. The other Kohanim are then invested. Many sacrifices are brought to the sanctuary, placed on the hands of the Kohanim, waved before the altar, and finally burned to symbolize the right of the Kohanim to offer sacrifices. These rites are repeated daily for seven days. Finally, the parashah describes the inner, golden altar used to burn the daily incense offering and the preparation for lighting it by the Kohen Gadol. Although Moses is in charge of setting up the administration and establishing the entire order of service while training his brother and nephews, his name is missing from this Torah portion.

What is the significance of the lavish garments worn by the Kohanim? Do clothes make the human being, or is the Torah trying to make a statement about separating the sacred from the secular? Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum comments that clothing is a symbol of man's higher nature. By distinguishing between man and animals, clothes give a man special dignity. The Kohanim were, therefore, required to dress in accordance with their exalted position, reflective of man's higher calling. According to Rabbi Mordechai Katz, among the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol was a coat symbolizing atonement for sins involving derogatory speech

about others. Its color (sky blue) was a reminder that our words rise to Heaven, and we should thus be careful about what we say. The neckline of the coat was tight, yet never ripped, reminding us to tighten our mouths when we are inclined to speak derogatory words about others. The coat also had gold bells that made noise and cloth bells that were silent, hanging from the bottom, indicating that there are times when we should speak and times when we should remain silent. Rabbi Katz says that the bells were to remind the Kohen Gadol of the need for humility in his actions, because they demonstrated a method of asking God’s permission before entering the sanctuary. Different generations of Jews have viewed the need for sacerdotal clothing differently. As servants of God, and thus exalted members of society, priests in the Torah wore distinguishing clothing. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., however, many garments associated with priestly functions passed into oblivion. For centuries thereafter, rabbinical dress was indistinguishable from that of any other Jewish worshiper. It was only in the 1800s that the Reform movement adopted the Protestant character of rabbinical dress. Perhaps the early reformers had the rabbi don the robe of Protestant clergy to make the rabbi look like other clergy of the era while at the same time separating the rabbi’s attire from that of the congregation. Today, the trend is to remove the robes to create a comfort zone between the rabbi and the congregation; the less formal nature of the attire aims at making a connection, rather than diminishing respect for the institution of the rabbinate. Similarly, today’s attire is less formal in general. One need not wear a suit to be a manager, a tuxedo to claim an Academy Award or a robe to be a member of the clergy. Whereas the followers of Moses might have needed to see all of the symbolic clothing, today’s sophisticated people of all kinds understand the difference between clothing and the competence or character of the person wearing it. Some scholars say that Moses was to have been chosen as the Kohen Gadol, as well as the leader of the Jewish nation. Because Moses accepted his leadership role reluctantly, God decided to make Aaron the Kohen Gadol, according to these scholars. Because Moses did not want to diminish Aaron's glory when Aaron became the Kohen Gadol, Moses’ name is omitted. Does this demonstrate the humility of a great leader who allows someone else to bask in the glow of his success or the punishment of someone who obeys God reluctantly? Rabbi Moshe Peretz Gilden comments that God chose Moses to lead the Jewish nation because God wanted a man with impaired speech to do the talking to Pharoah. In that way, according to Rabbi Gilden, Pharoah would

understand that God — not a gifted, persuasive orator such as Aaron — was responsible for the events taking place. Because Moses refused, God punished him by making Aaron the High Priest. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that Aaron was chosen to light the menorah in the tabernacle even before he was selected to serve as the Kohen Gadol, because his character was most suitable for this task. Because of his sterling character, not lineage, he was given the honor to serve in his capacities in the Holy Temple. The menorah symbolizes the "light" of knowledge, and Aaron was pure in character, which means that he was the one who could best fill the job of teaching the masses. According to Rabbi Label Lam, the fact that the Israelites are told to extract a single pure drop from each olive is an endorsement for the importance and the preeminence of Torah study, symbolized by the light of the Temple Menorah. Rabbi Lam adds that the first and the best olives are to be invested to support and promote this holy activity. The mind is the engine of each individual and the driving force of the nation. It needs the purest and most powerful form of fuel to create a lasting flame.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11 – 34:35)
By Alan I. Friedman “Ki tisa et-rosh b’nei-Yisrael lif’kudeyhem….” “When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers….’ ” Parashat Ki Tisa contains a familiar story: Moses has left the Israelites encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and has ascended to the top of the mountain. There God speaks with Moses at length about consecrating the priests, purifying the altar, building the Ark of the Covenant, taking a census, preparing incense and anointing oil, and keeping the Sabbath. Finally God gives Moses two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God — The Ten Commandments. Meanwhile the Israelites at the base of the mountain have become restless and anxious about their leader’s absence. “He said that he was going up there to talk with an invisible God,” they argue. “What we really need is a God that we can see, down here with us. And why has he been away so long, 40 days? What if he made God angry and God did away with him? What will happen to us now? We had better take matters into our own hands.” “Hurry down,” says God to Moses, “for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt!’” Moses hurries down the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the Covenant. As soon as he comes near the camp and sees the people dancing around the golden calf, he becomes enraged. He hurls the tablets to the ground and shatters them. Then Moses takes the calf, burns it, grinds it to powder, throws the powdered gold upon the water, and makes the people drink it. Some days later, after God has exacted additional punishments on the Israelites, Moses speaks again with God in the Tent of Meeting. God tells Moses to carve two new stone tablets and carry them up the mountain. Moses does so and spends another 40 days communing with God on the top of the mountain. God speaks, re-establishes the covenant with Israel, and Moses carves the words into stone. Finally Moses descends the mountain, bringing with him the two new tablets of the Covenant. All of this is a well-known story. What may not be as well known is that some very familiar passages in our prayer books come directly from this

The Thirteen Attributes of God

Torah portion. One of these, the Veshamru, is sung or recited at every Shabbat service. Another is the Shelosh Esrei Middot, the Thirteen Attributes of God, which are recited or sung on Yom Kippur and during the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. You know the words; they begin: “Adonai, Adonai, Eil Rachum Vechanun….” Before we focus on the Thirteen Attributes of God, we first need to return to the conversation that Moses had with God in the Tent of Meeting. Moses beseeches God: “…if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know your ways, that I may know you and continue in your favor … Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” And God replies, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live. See,” says God, “there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” Now, back on the top of the mountain, God descends in a cloud, shields Moses, and proclaims, “Adonai! Adonai! 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 fathers upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” This proclamation has become known as The Thirteen Attributes of God. The attributes are not theology. They are revelations, manifestations of God’s presence in the world. And even though they have been incorporated into our liturgy, they are not a prayer at all. Nothing is actually requested. What is the significance of reciting attributes of God? Surely a plea from the heart for forgiveness would be more effective! No, the Talmud1 tells us that these words, themselves, are efficacious. “Behold, I am making a covenant,” God says. “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite these words, and I will forgive them.”2

Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 17b Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehuda said that there is no magical power in reciting the Thirteen Attributes of God. The Talmud does not say "Let them say this order before me," but rather "Let them do this order before me." Forgiveness is effected not by the saying but by the doing. Only when a person makes his or her attributes similar to those of God will that person’s transgressions be forgiven. The Thirteen Attributes are not a prescription for forgiveness of sin, but a program for human behavior. (Y. Leibowitz, Discussion on the Festivals and Appointed Times of Israel, pp. 184-185)


Over the centuries, these attributes became a matter of intense discussion among Jewish scholars. From these words, our sages attempted to discover comprehensive principles that would give man an insight into God’s true being. Maimonides claimed that The Thirteen Attributes only showed that God was ultimately unknowable. The Thirteen Attributes, he said, interpret God’s actions, not God’s being. At best, we can only know what God is not. Is God a just God, who administers reward and punishment fairly according to what a person deserves? Or is God endlessly merciful, forgiving even the most heinous transgressors as long as they repent? Herein lies a delicious contradiction. Both must be true. God demands justice and proper behavior from us, yet also, mercifully, knows and accepts our limitations. Our rabbis teach that we must strive to imitate God’s moral qualities: compassion, graciousness, forbearance, kindness, loyalty, and forgiveness. In what ways do we already mirror some of God’s attributes in our lives? How, by our actions, do we demonstrate these qualities to our children? Let us realize that repentance and forgiveness are available to us not just on Yom Kippur but throughout the entire year. And let us strive to increase our awareness of the Godlike attributes we can and should portray in our lives. Kein y’hi ratzon — may this be God’s will.
AIF 08-30-04 Ki Tisa - DvarTorah.doc

A Community Effort to Build a Sanctuary
A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayak’heil (Ex. 35:1 – 38:20)
By Irv and Monica Engel “Vayak’heil Moshe et-kol-adat b’ney Yisrael….” “Moses assembled the entire Israelite community….” Moses gathers all of the people and instructs them to create a Sabbath of rest on the seventh day of the week. Compliance is not optional. Any work is punishable by death. Moses further tells them that God wants them to gather up all the best they have to offer: materials to build a tabernacle, the construction of which is described in fine detail. Although the instructions for building the tabernacle are delivered as a command, the people respond from their hearts and their willingness to do God's work. Both men and women bring their finest jewelry, fabrics, wood and skins — far more than needed for the work. The craftsmen of Israel are filled by the spirit of God to create inspired works of gold, silver, precious jewels and wood carvings. Their hearts are filled with a new wisdom, and the work progresses rapidly. Along with the tabernacle, a large and very ornate tent, the ark, is created of acacia wood and gold. All of the ornamentation is described in detail. The altar of offerings is then created, and the courtyard is also beautifully described. This passage describes how fulfilling God's commands imbues the people with a spirit and a willingness and a gladness to do the required work. God's will and our true will for ourselves are always one and the same. I saw this in action on a build for Habitat for Humanity with thirty other Jews working under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism. God has commanded all of us to "repair the world," but we did the work with a joy and a lifting of our spirits. We fulfilled our higher purpose even as we did God's will. The message in this passage is simple. Surrendering our individual will and deciding to commit to the will of God free us from the complications that we surround ourselves with. We then become open to the possibilities of using our God-given talents for a higher purpose, which lifts us and gives us the joy and peace that so many are looking for.

The Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle
A D’var Torah on Parashat P’kudei (Ex. 38:21 – 40:38)
By Alan I. Friedman “Eileh fekudei haMishkan Mishkan ha-eidut asher pukad al-pi Moshe….” “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle (the Tabernacle of the Pact), which were calculated by Moses’ order….” In some calendar years (but not in 2005), the parashiot of Vayak’heil and P’kudei are read together. Parashat Vayak’heil begins with the words, “Vayak’heil Moshe et-kol-adat b’nei-Yisrael….,” “Moses gathered the entire Israelite community….” And Parashat P’kudei opens with, “Eileh fekudei haMishkan Mishkan ha-eidut asher pukad al-pi Moshe….” “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle (the Tabernacle of the Pact), which were calculated by Moses’ order….” If, at first glance, Parashat Vayak’heil seems familiar, it is because it describes the people putting into effect the instructions that were previously given in Parashat Ki Tisa. Stirred by the prospect of God’s ongoing presence in their midst, the people had given of their wealth unstintingly. At Moses’ bidding, the people brought all of the required materials, and the craftsmen began to do the work. But, before work actually began, Moses reminded everyone, once again, to maintain the Sabbath, emphasizing especially the prohibition against kindling fire. Parashat P’kudei, the final parashah of the Book of Exodus, begins with Moses’ full accounting of all the materials contributed by the people for the construction of the Mishkan. First he inventoried all of the building materials and then all of the vestments of the Priests. Even though all of the materials, including the precious metals of immense value, had been under the direct supervision of Moses and Bezalel — two men of indisputable integrity — Moses recognized that leaders must be beyond reproach. They must not rely on estimates and approximations, but must keep accurate records of all goods and monies that pass through their hands.1 Moses knew that confidence in a leader entrusted with public funds requires transparency.2 Therefore, in taking the necessary steps to remain unblemished in the eyes of his constituents — like appointing Itamar, the son of Aaron the High Priest, to perform the audit — Moses set an example for future leaders of Israel.

1 The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 530. 2 Commentary by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 2003.

Once the work had been completed in accordance with God’s instructions, Moses inspected the Mishkan and blessed the people. Then the Mishkan was assembled for the first time, and the Divine Presence, manifest as a cloud, filled the sanctuary, serving as a guide for the people. At this point, there were two embodiments of holiness in the Israelite camp: the Tent of Meeting (Ohel Mo-eid) and the Tabernacle (Mishkan). We can think of them as representing a theology of encounter and a theology of presence. At times, such as a death, a wedding, or the birth of a child, God erupts into our lives with an intensity that lifts us to an emotional plane too high to be lived on constantly. At other times, such as during meaningful relationships, child rearing, and periods of good health, God is a constant in an equally real but less intense manner. Indeed in the Etz Hayim 3, the two holy places in the Israelite camp are likened to the two commentary types of God encounters we experience in our lives: the intense and the everpresent. Toward the end of P’kudei, there appears to be some confusion. At times the Ohel Mo-eid seems to be situated within the Mishkan, while at other times the two seem hardly distinguishable. In Exodus 40:29, to add to the confusion, the term “Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting” appears. What’s going on? Critical analysts of the Torah suggest that this is one of areas where many stories, written by many different authors over a span of several hundred years, were woven together. One school of writers was striving to create a literary record of our people’s earliest history. Another school — the ones who authored the stories of the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting — were probably priestly writers who were concerned with preserving and justifying the important role of priestly rituals in Israelite history. Furthermore, some Torah scholars believe that the detailed descriptions in Vayak’heil and P’kudei actually are about the accoutrements of the First Temple, which was built some 400 years after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. In any case, the final redactors of the Torah text that we have today skillfully blended different story traditions into a single narrative that everyone can share. One more question: Why were both the Ohel Mo-eid and the Mishkan needed? Nahum Sarna addresses this question in his JPS Torah Commentary.4 He says that the function of the Mishkan was to create a portable

Etz Hayim: Torah & Commentary, by David L. Lieber, Jules Harlow, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, The Rabbinical Assembly, Jewish Publication Society, 2003. 4 The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, By Nahum M. Sarna, Jewish Publication Society, January 1991.

Sinai, by means of which a continued avenue of communication with God could be maintained. As the Israelites moved further away from Sinai, they needed a visible, tangible symbol of God’s ever-abiding Presence in their midst. Our challenge is to recognize God’s constant presence in our lives without letting that presence become so mundane that we take it for granted. Chazak, chazak, v’nit’chazeik. strengthened. Be strong! Be strong! And may we be

AIF 09-03-04 P’kudei – Dvar Torah

Rabbis, Priests, and Prophets
A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayikra
By Marc Goodman “Vayikra el-Moshe yay’dabeir Adonai eilav mei’ohel mo’eid.” “Adonai called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.”
Parashat Vayikra – a Summary

(Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26)

Parashat Vayikra describes the laws of sacrifice. • Olah – the burnt offering. The parashah describes the procedure for selecting and slaughtering the animal and how the offering is to be burned on the altar. The Olah is to be completely consumed by fire at the altar. • Minchah – the meal offering. The parashah describes the procedure for selecting and preparing the fruit or grain for sacrifice. Unlike the Olah, only a small portion of the Minchah is to be burnt at the altar. The remainder is to be consumed by the priests. • Zevach Shelamim – sacrifice of well-being. Like Olah, Zevach Shelamim is an animal sacrifice, and the parashah describes the procedure for selecting and slaughtering the animal and how the offering is to be burned on the altar. The parashah does not say who gets to eat the Zevach Shelamim, but it commands a general prohibition against eating fat or blood. • Chatat – sin offering. Chatat is to be offered for the inadvertent commitment of a forbidden act. Like Olah and Zevach Shelamim, Chatat is an animal sacrifice,1 and the parashah describes the procedure for selecting and slaughtering the animal and how the fat is to be burned on the altar. If the guilty party is the [High] Priest or the community at large, the remainder of the animal is to be burned outside the camp. The parashah does not describe what to do with the remainder of the animal if the guilty party is other than the High Priest or the community at large. • Asham – guilt offering. Asham is to be offered for what can be characterized as property crimes committed by one individual against another. The person must first make restitution and then make a Chatat offering consisting of a ram.
Vayikra – a Question

The Hebrew name for each of the books of Torah corresponds to the name of the first parashah in that book. Accordingly, the Hebrew name of the book known in English as Leviticus is Vayikra. Vayikra is the shortest and most narrowly focused of the five books of Torah, dealing mostly with the ritual
1 The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; p. 774. Bernard Bamberger indicates that it can also be a meal offering.


observation of what is today known as Temple Judaism. Temple Judaism disappeared with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., thereby preventing the Jewish people from performing most of the prescriptions of Parashat Vayikra and the book of Vayikra. But did the destruction of the Temple also render Vayikra irrelevant to the Jewish People? We begin our search for an answer to this question with a look at the authorship and historical context of Vayikra.
Vayikra – Authorship and Historical Context

Most biblical scholars today believe in the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that Torah represents a collection of accounts from multiple sources woven together and embellished by the Redactor (known as the R source) around the time of the return from the Babylonian exile (ca. 520 B.C.E.). In the Appendix to Who Wrote the Bible?, Richard Elliot Friedman identifies P (the Priestly source) as the author of all of Leviticus except for 23:39-43 and 26:39-45.2 Friedman argues that the entire P source was written between 722 B.C.E. and 609 B.C.E.,3 during or after the time of King Hezekiah. Hezekiah ruled during the fall of the northern kingdom. It was a time of turmoil, and Hezekiah restored order to a chaotic world. He and his allies in the Aaronid priesthood smashed idols and centralized the priesthood (and the offering of sacrifices) at the Temple in Jerusalem.4 P wrote about more than just the priestly laws of Vayikra. P embedded the law codes of Vayikra in an unbroken narrative that starts with the very first words of Torah and continues through the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. The P narrative lends historical legitimacy to the Aaronid priesthood, whose practices it prescribes and documents.
Vayikra – Contemporaneous Writings

As is often the case during tumultuous times, the Hezekiah era was witness to great literary outputs including much of the book of Isaiah. It produced the books of Micah and Hosea, which are contemporaneous with P and which appear to contradict or at least conflict with P regarding the priesthood and Temple sacrifices. Micah – The book of Micah rejects the notion that Temple sacrifices will appease and please God. After asking if God will be appeased by sacrifices

Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); p. 252. Friedman, op. cit., p. 210. The Northern Kingdom fell in 722 B.C.E. King Josiah (Hezekiah’s great grandson) died in 609 B.C.E. 4 Rabbi Nosson Scherman, et. al., editors ; The Stone Edition Tanach. First Edition (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1996), II Chronicles 29:1 – 32:33.
2 3


and burnt offerings, Micah famously answers, “What does Hashem require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”5 Hosea – The book of Hosea compares Israel (actually Judah) to an unfaithful wife. Hosea describes a litany of Israel’s offences before God and goes so far as to claim that the priests actually encouraged sin so that they (the priests) might eat the sin offerings. “The sin-offerings of My people they [the priests] consume; and for their [the people’s] iniquity his [the priest’s] soul yearns.”6
Vayikra – More Questions

The Rabbis resolved the apparent contraction between Micah and P by saying that what Micah meant was that the Temple sacrifices were not enough. God also demanded ethical behavior. The Rabbis generally took Hosea’s complaint about the iniquity of the priests as a cry for reform. But did Micah really mean that sacrifice, while necessary, was not enough? Did Hosea really believe that the priesthood was merely in need of reform? Is it possible that these prophets actually questioned the basic value of the priesthood and Temple sacrifices? How did the Rabbis ultimately square the views of these prophets with the views of the priests?
“Old Religion” Vs. “New Religion”

The Prophets around the time of Hezekiah represent a very significant paradigm shift. All contemporaneous Ancient Near East “religions” revolved around long-standing sacrificial cults, and Temple Judaism was not much different in this respect. Micah and Hosea expounded early formulations of what has come to be called “ethical monotheism,” which claims that God demands ethical behavior, not cultic sacrifices. “Old Religion” seeks to pacify and/or curry favor from its gods with gifts that appeal to human biological needs. At least to the extent that “Old Religion” gods have human needs and desires, “Old Religion” gods are cast in the image of their human worshipers. The “New Religion” god transcends the biological needs of it human worshipers. The “New Religion” god demands that its human worshipers adopt its transcendent values of mercy and justice.
Rabbis, Priests, and Prophets

The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud didn’t view Torah in terms of J, P, D and E. They understood Torah as the word of God revealed to and recorded by Moses, and they viewed all of the mitzvot as commanded by God and therefore equally incumbent on the Jewish people. But the Rabbis also viewed the Prophetic writings as the divine revelation of God. So how did they reconcile the “Old Religion” of the priests (P) with the “New Religion” of

5 6

Scherman, op. cit., Micah 6:8. Scherman, op. cit., Hosea 4:8. Bracketed insertions are the author’s.


the Prophets (e.g., Micah and Hosea) with respect to the Temple sacrifices prescribed by Vayikra? The Rabbis declared that the Temple sacrifices applied only to the Temple in Jerusalem and that their actual performance was to be held in abeyance until its restoration.7 But this resolution left them with a major unresolved issue. The non-performance of the Vayikra Temple sacrifices leaves us with unfulfilled mitzvot. The Rabbis demonstrated their spiritual genius in resolving this apparent conflict. The Rabbis believed in a compassionate version of the ethical monotheism described by the Prophets, but they understood the transformative power of contact with God’s awe afforded by the Temple sacrifices described by the priestly author of Vayikra.8 The Rabbis replaced the Temple sacrifices with prayer. Through prayer the Jewish People could experience the awe of the God that demanded that they to do justice and love mercy. The Rabbis showed the Jewish People how to maintain the relevance of Vayikra.
Vayikra in the 21st Century

Today’s Jews continue to pray to God. Although individual reasons for prayer may differ, drawing closer to God is almost certainly primary among them, just as it was a primary reason for our ancestors to offer sacrifices to God. The interceding millennia have not changed the human need to connect with God, but they have changed the way we go about it. The means by which Jews will attempt to draw close to God thousands of years from now is not knowable, but it is almost certain that they will continue to do so.

They also argued that the restoration of the Temple would coincide with the coming of the Messiah, whose presence would obviate the need for Temple sacrifices. 8 The Hebrew term used for the priestly sacrifices prescribed in Vayikra is korban, which translates as to draw near or approach.


This is the Law of the Burnt Offering
A D’var Torah on Parashat Tzav (Lev. 6:1-8:36)
By Susan Glass “Tzav et-Aharon v’et-banav leimor zot torat ha-olah.” “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering.’” This week’s Parashah continues the litany of sacrificial offerings, revisiting much of what was discussed last week. There is a very detailed description of the sacrifices offered first in the Mishkan in the wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. There are sin offerings, guilt offerings, burnt offerings, and thanksgiving offerings; each one has its own regulations and procedures and provides the means to atone for wrong-doing or, in other circumstances, give thanks to God. However, the perspective is different. In Vayikra, Moses speaks to the Israelite people. In Tzav, Moses speaks to Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim or Priests. The information has much more detail and is geared more specifically to the responsibilities of priestly service. Such matters as taking the ashes from the altar out of the camp, proper attire, who may eat the priestly portion of the sacrificial offerings, and how and when it is to be eaten are all carefully and minutely described, a set of “Standard Operating Procedures” to be followed precisely. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to be extinguished.”1 The text appears simple: the fire on the altar is to be kept burning all the time. This means that not only should it never be actively extinguished, but it shouldn’t even ever be allowed to go out. Each morning, the priests should replenish the wood on the altar to keep the fire fuelled, and it should never be allowed to die out. What’s the big deal about the fire? Why not just rekindle it every morning if it were to burn itself out? Why such an emphasis on the altar fire being “perpetual”? Perhaps the fire represents something to do with God. The Sefat Emet sees the fire as representing love of God. He suggests that the soul of every Jew contains a hidden point that is aflame with love for God, a fire that cannot be put out. He expands on the prohibition against letting the fire go out, and views it as a promise as well. The human soul, he suggests, contains the need to burn within it a fiery longing to worship the

Leviticus 6:5-6

Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day. Everyone who worships God may be called a priest, and this arousal of love in Israel’s hearts is the Service of the Heart, that which takes the place of sacrificial offerings. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner also looks at the meaning of fire and finds it the core symbol of transformation, the process whereby matter becomes energy, right before our eyes. The possibility of being consumed is ever present, burning up equally the sacrifices, and, with them, the designs of men. The particular offerings referred to in Tzav, the olah and the shlamim, are not sin offerings, but the regular daily offerings which serve to petition God for well being and to thank God for good fortune. The consumption of the entire offering suggests that God has accepted the offering, and through that acceptance the offeror and God draw closer to one another. But, in a metaphor drawn from physics, Rabbi Kushner notes that fire represents transformation. Like the sacrificial offering, the possibility always exists that we too can be “consumed” by God, transformed through the process of offering ourselves into something that is accepted, and therefore closer, to God. As the story of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, in next week’s Parashah reminds us, there are risks in the way we approach holiness. However, the transition from sacrificial worship to prayer, now that there is no longer the Temple at which to sacrifice, does not remove the risk. The perpetual fire on the altar is still all consuming, and whether it represents God or love of God, it still reflects a powerful holiness, which requires our constant awareness. The purpose of worship today remains the goal of drawing closer to God. And worship is a two-way process. We always need to be conscious of what we bring to our worship, and the depth of spirit that supports our efforts to connect with God. It is the fire that we keep burning on the altar that assures that, when we are ready to bring our offer, it will be fully accepted by God. One more thing. We are told that each morning, the priests were to gather the ashes around the altar and take them to a clean place outside the Israelite camp. What is particularly puzzling is the instruction that before they remove the ashes, Aaron and his sons are to put on their best “Shabbat clothes” — to dress in their linen ceremonial vestments to clean up the altar. Why dress so well when the act of gathering the ashes would likely soil the priest’s garments? Often, we feel the need to put on a particular piece of clothing to lift our spirits, or to be dressed up for a particular occasion. It can put us into a more mindful state. Some say that if you’re dressed up on the outside, then you’re dressed up on the inside. By instructing the priests to put on their

finest clothing for the removal of the ashes from the altar, the Torah seems to emphasize the need for the priests to pay close attention to what might appear to be the most inconsequential details of the special work. We, too, need such reminders to keep us focused on the present. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel said, “God is in the details.”

A D’var Torah on Parashat Sh’mini
By Michele Walot

Don’t Cross That Line!
(Lev. 9:1 – 11:47)

“Vay’hi bayom ha-sh’mini kara Moshe l’Aharon ul’vanav ul’zik’nei Yisrael.” “On the eighth day, Moses summoned Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.”
“Now Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put fire in it and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not commanded them.”1

Parashat Sh’mini opens with Moses consecrating Aaron and his sons as priests (Kohanim) on the eighth day of the ordination ceremonies. Next, Aaron offers up animal sacrifices for himself and the people of Israel. Aaron then comes out of the Tent of Meeting and blesses the people, whereupon the Presence of the Adonai is felt by all, and divine fire appears and consumes the offering on the altar. In their zeal, and without consulting either Moses or Aaron, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, decide on their own to make an offering to God of incense and fire.2 They are immediately struck down by streams of fire through their nostrils and are cooked. Moses warns Aaron and his family not to show their grief, and Aaron remains silent through the horrific aftermath. What must Aaron have been thinking and feeling after this momentous tragedy? Here it was the happiest day of his life: He was the newly ordained High Priest, God had shown him forgiveness for the Golden Calf fiasco, and his sons were following in the family “business.” But then — ZAP! Two of his sons are internally incinerated (with body and clothes left intact), and he must keep a stiff upper lip! What is going on? Midrashim offer explanations of the circumstances — how Nadav and Abihu overstepped their authority — that merited such severe punishment.

● From Midrash Leviticus Rabba 20:8:
Bar Kappara in the name of Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: Aaron’s sons died on account of four things: 1) For drawing near to the holy place in the innermost sanctuary 2) For offering the incense without being commanded to offer it 3) For the strange fire from the kitchen
Leviticus 10:1. According to Rabbi Yishmael, although the fire was from the altar, it was alien because Nadav and Abihu were not authorized to offer it. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, holds that the fire was literally alien because it did not come from the altar.
2 1

4) For not having taken counsel from each other, implying that each acted on his own initiative

● From Midrash Leviticus Rabba 20:9:
Rabbi Mani of She’ab, Rabbi Joshua of Siknin, and Rabbi Johanan said: the sons of Aaron died for these four reasons: 1) Because they had drunk wine before entering the Tent of Meeting (see Leviticus 10:9) 2) Because they lacked the prescribed number of garments (see Exodus 28:43), especially the robe that jingled when the priest walked, as described for Aaron in Exodus 28:35 3) Because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet (see Exodus 30:20-21) 4) Because they had no children and were not even married (see Numbers 3:4), supposedly because of arrogance that no woman was good enough Imagine Aaron reeling from the catastrophic death of his sons who were considered very righteous men! What thoughts would have crossed Aaron’s mind as he pondered a God who had very little tolerance for any deviation in worship outside of strict boundaries? Does living inside an electrified fence come to mind? Literally, one false move and you are dead. The Hebrew People were used to living in a world with capricious deities, but there had been an overriding leap in sophistication with a monotheistic system after Abraham. Individuals were supposed to matter more now, weren’t they? How do we come to understand what is right and moral? Nadav and Abihu probably were wrapped up in religious fervor after God’s Presence had provided fire for the sacrifice Aaron had offered. It is unlikely that they deliberately tried to insult the deity who had performed so many astonishing miracles. The Israelites were still learning the specifics of worship technique with a brand new Mishkan. They were only recently out of slavery, where their abilities to make decisions were severely limited. And, after all, Nadav and Abihu had just been ordained that day. In that light, can we not explain away the behavior of Nadav and Abihu and pardon their infraction? We teach our children to follow the commandments and to strive to repair a broken world through learning and tzedakah. What societal forces reassure us that we are on a righteous path? Tragic stories abound in our world with diseases, famine, natural disasters, and massacres, as present in our world as in these Biblical stories. If anything, our modern world can bring more death and destruction from weapons of mass destruction and the degradation of the environment. What tells us when we are about to cross the line between sacred and profane, or will we blunder into being zapped without a clue?

The Asian tsunami of December 2004 left hundreds of thousands dead in eleven countries. The death and destruction continued as diseases took hold, resulting from the contaminated water, soil and air during the gradual rebuilding of these devastated areas. The psychological devastation to all ages can continue for decades or even lifetimes from this experience. How can we help turn this catastrophe into an opportunity to extend and increase the international cooperation that we see as a response? Does the sheer magnitude of this calamity just numb us into complacency? Aid from governments around the world poured in, as well as aid from individuals and organizations, but what happens in six months? What about the next famine or massacre? Should the response to an earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area differ from the response to a massacre in the Sudan? There is a famous quote3 about how the death of an individual is a tragedy but the death of millions is a statistic. Why should it matter who the dead are?

Joseph Stalin’s comment to Winston Churchill at Potsdam in 1945: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”


A D’var Torah on Parashat Tazria
By Brendan Howard

A Blessing With Blood
(Lev. 12:1 – 13:59)

“Ishah kee tazria v’yaldah zachar….” “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a son….” When the Torah introduces rules and rituals for childbirth in Parashat Tazria, it is concerned with the ritual impurity of the blood. It ignominiously groups childbirth with the impurities of gruesome skin diseases and unnatural growths on clothing and animal skins. Because of the issuance of blood — a sometimes ritually pure substance, as when splashed around the altar, but sometimes ritually impure, as in drinking the blood of animals or menstruation — a birthing woman is considered ritually impure. After a woman gives birth, she is unclean “as at the time of her menstrual infirmity” for seven days (if she gives birth to a boy) or 14 days (if she gives birth to a girl). This is a time when she would stay at the outskirts of camp, to which all those who were ritually unclean were consigned. After that period, she would then be in a state of “blood purification” for 33 days (for a boy) or 66 days (for a girl), during which she could resume relations with her husband, but must avoid touching “any consecrated thing” or entering “the sanctuary.” At the end of her period of “blood purification,” she brings an offering to the priest and is then ritually clean again. To many of us, it seems cruel to take the Israelite women of thousands of years ago, having just crossed the threshold from womanhood to motherhood, and separate them from the people, but the idea has its apologists. Rabbi Helaine Ettinger in her commentary for the portion quotes W. Gunther Plaut: “‘The law protects women from the importunities of their husbands at a time when they are not physically and emotionally ready for coitus.’”1 The period of time between the trauma of childbirth and the resumption of normal life in sex, social relations and religious obligations, then, respectfully recognizes a woman’s need for some time away. The commentary from Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno argues that women need the time to regain their focus on holy matters after partnering with God and man to create life: “Although she is physically ready and ritually clean [after the 40 or 80 days], mentally she is not yet geared to concentrate on the holy. Since the sacred demands kavanah, intent, she must wait until her thoughts


The Woman’s Torah Commentary by Rabbi Helaine Ettinger; Jewish Lights; 2003; p. 204.

are sufficiently predisposed to focus on the non-physical, namely, the spiritual and the holy.”2 A-ha! So perhaps it’s not a physical need for time away, but a recognition that her thoughts aren’t properly holy enough after the intense experience. The commentary in the Stone Chumash puts it this way: “The creation of human life is the most sublime phenomenon in the universe. By bringing it into being, man and woman become partners with God, Who gives a soul to their offspring. But this new life begins with tumah, spiritual impurity, to show people that the mere fact of life is not enough. Life must be a tool for the service of God; otherwise it is nothing.”3 Beautiful! A miracle of life! The closest to being God’s partners as man and woman can come, creating life as God did! But where is that in the text? The ambivalence of the Torah about childbirth is understandable. In a past age when modern medicine couldn’t turn babies in the womb, couldn’t keep women alive after Caesareans, and couldn’t infuse them with blood, women died. Blood, normally evidence of a wound that kills or hurts, is the stuff of a life-giving moment. Life and death fuse together in a moment where life could come, or mother and/or child could pass away. So, from the text, we get the fear of death and the treatment of blood and bleeding woman as ritually impure, but where is the blessing? Man and woman partner with God in the creation of life, and there the Torah doesn’t speak about a moment when everyone stops and gasps and praises God? Are those prayers hiding in the “wilderness,” as feminist rabbis argue, in the “Red Tent” at the outskirts of the camp? Did the women and impure ones there have warm, welcoming rituals to make new mothers feel the miracle of childbirth, to make the moment and experience holy? We won’t know, because as happens with so much ancient literature, the stories and words of the women are lost to time — but not always. Lifecycles brings 17th- and 18th-century Yiddish prayers from women’s books to light again.4 Called tkhines and collected in books, they can teach us how
Sforno on Torah; Translated and edited by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz; Artscroll; 1997; p. 539. The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 2003; p. 608. 4 Lifecycles (Volume 1): Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life; Edited by Rabbi Debra Orenstein; Jewish Lights Publishing; 2000.
2 3

women and men can address what is one of the most important moments of their lives. In that compilation of essays and prayers, Chava Weissler translated this from the Yiddish: “When she comes out of childbed, she says this: Lord of all the world, You hear all the prayers of those who call upon You wholeheartedly, and who fear You. Lord God, I thank You as a Lord that you have caused me to escape from the great, bitter pains of childbirth, and You give me milk to nourish the child, and strength to arise today from the bed to return to the service of Your holy Name … Lord of all the worlds, accept my speech and my prayer and my calling upon Your holy Name from the bottom of my heart as if they were the [Temple] altar and the offering. Protect me further from all evil, along with all Israel who trust in You. Continue to give me strength, and also to my husband, that we may be able to raise this child and the other [children] easily according to the desire of our hearts. And also give [us] your help that the child may serve Your Name at all times with truth and with love. God our Lord, may this come true in Your Name, Amen.” Amen.

A D’var Torah on Parashat M’tzora
By Brendan Howard


(Lev. 14:1 – 15:33)

“Zot tih’yeh torat ha-m’tzora b’yom tahorato….” “This shall be the law for a leper on the day of his purification….” Fear. Fear of illness. Fear of childbirth. Fear of breaking the law. Fear of crossing God. We can see them all in the Parashiot Sh’mini, Tazria, and M’tzora, which tumble together in order as Leviticus rolls on. “… Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them; thus they did at the instance of the Lord.”1 “… As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”2 “… You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle that is among them.”3 Fear of infections in a time of no great medicine. Fear of moldy growths in the walls of the home in a time of no science. Fear of bloody childbirth, women’s menstruation, and men’s discharges, awake and asleep. The Torah, of course, transmutes those fears, those uncertainties about life, into a fear of God. The world left many questions unanswered, and God was the answer. Rabbis tell us the leprous infection was caused by lashon ha-ra, “evil speech,” because Miriam was struck with a similar disease after talking badly about Moses. It was a disease brought on by wrongdoing.

1 2 3

From Parashat Sh’mini, Lev. 10:1-2. From Parashat Tazria, Lev. 13:45-46. From Parashat M’tzora, Lev. 15:31.

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno tells us the disease in a home “is to arouse the owner to examine his conduct and repent his sins.”4 Walls colored in frightening, unnatural brilliance? It’s a disease of the soul, not just the physical world. What of the rules of cleansing oneself after illness; after contact with contaminated food, clothing or people; after menstruation; after childbirth; after sexual intercourse; after nocturnal emissions? Why should the Israelites be careful to be ritually clean? To keep God from striking them dead, as Nadab and Abihu were killed in a blaze of fire at the altar of the Tabernacle? To keep from being punished? But do we fear God today? Many of us Jews in the so-called modern age don’t believe in an extra-earthly place of punishment in the afterlife. We don’t believe that good deeds are always rewarded and bad deeds punished in this world. And in an age of science, medicine and learning, most of us don’t believe that a woman’s menstruation or childbirth or a man’s emissions are something to be feared. Once we’ve let these fears go, do we still fear God? Must we? It is true that the Hebrew word for fear, yirah (yud-reish-heh), can also mean awe or reverence. We can all certainly be in awe of God’s immensity, the idea that God is beyond all things, the idea that where our answers about life and science and the universe end, there begins God. And we can be reverent toward God, honoring God’s commandments, seeking to grow closer to God through ritual and ethical mitzvot, and putting God before material desires and animal wants. But translators translate yirah in most places in the Tanakh as fear, not awe or reverence. In Proverbs is written: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”5 How then do we learn if we don’t fear God? When we don’t believe God controls our well-being and protects us from sickness and pain and death if we do God’s bidding, why should we fear God? We fear death in war and sexually transmitted disease and old age. We fear sadness, we fear loss. The Torah and the Holy Writings tell us to fear God: “You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you offspring of Jacob, honor Him! Be in dread of him, all you offspring of Israel!”6

4 5 6

Sforno on Torah; Translated and edited by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz; Artscroll; 1997; p. 554.

Proverbs 1:7. Psalms 22:24.

I want to fear God. Tell me why I should.
Questions for Discussion

1) What does it mean to fear God today? 2) Is fear of God today less an immediate fear (like the potential for contracting a contagious disease or a bad season for crops) and more a “sublime” fear, a sense of awe (like the sense of fear at confronting a massive mountain range or contemplating infinity or the size of the universe)? 3) We talk a lot about the “God-wrestling” that Jacob did as he contended with a divine being, almost as an equal, ultimately besting the divine being. But what about “God-fearing” — that sentiment the Israelites felt when, at the foot of that rumbling mountain in the wilderness, they begged Moses not to make them face the fiery cloud of God’s presence? Should we, too, be “God-fearing”? Or has the ancient fear of God been transformed into awe of God or reverence for God or respect for God, and do we lose something with those translations of the ancient yirah?

A D’var Torah on Parashat Acharei Mot (Lev. 16:1-18:30)
By Ellen Soler “Vay’dabeir Adonai el-Moshe acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon….” “Adonai spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons….” This Torah portion begins with a very striking event: the death of Aaron’s two sons. Yet, as one continues with Parashat Acharei Mot and the detailed description of what Aaron is told to do in preparing to enter the “Holy of Holies,” the critical importance of conforming to the prescribed ritual becomes very evident. Why is the ritual so important? Why does God require that the ritual be performed in such a specific manner? And, how do we personalize this process? One of the key words here is process. First, God warned Moses to tell Aaron that he was only to enter the Beit HaMikdash for specific purposes, not capriciously, making a clear reference to the death of Aaron’s sons. Then, God stipulated to Moses the preparations that Aaron needed to make in the process of purification and expiation. After taking a ritual bath, Aaron was to change into sacral vestments: garments made of pure linen void of any gold stitching so as not to have any connection, even remotely, with the golden calf. Then, Aaron was to offer a bull, to make expiation for himself and his household Next, Aaron was to bring two he-goats to the entrance of the tent of meeting to cast lots: the first goat would be killed and offered as a sin offering to God. In this way, Aaron was to atone for the tent of meeting and the altar. He also was to “lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins….”1 Carrying, thus, the sins of the Israelites, the goat would be taken into the wilderness (by a person selected in advance) and set free. In this manner, the Israelites’ sins would be removed and cast away. Following the ritual of the “Azazel-goat,” Aaron would enter the tent of meeting by himself. At this point, Aaron was to burn incense. And, through the cloud from the burning incense, Aaron was to proceed with the ritual. He was to sprinkle blood from the sacrificial animals on and before the mercy seat in order to make atonement for all of Israel. Then, Aaron would exit the tent of meeting, leaving his linen garments there, bathe, and change into another set of clothes.2

Rituals for the Day of Atonement

1 2

Leviticus 16:21. Leviticus 16:1-23.

It is quite interesting to see how God had commanded such ritual be followed so specifically. According to Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, the message of the Day of Atonement is a personal one that assists each individual in developing a more “harmonious relationship with God and with other people.” 3 However, Rabbi Plaut recognizes the great length to which the parashah goes to explain the rituals of purification and expiation (largely through animal sacrifices, the sprinkling of the sacrificial blood, and the sending of the goat to Azazel). There is even a theory that attempts to establish a possible link between the sacrificial ritual and a theorized ancient Babylonian ceremony called kuppuru. This ceremony consisted of the cleansing (most probably performed by a priest) of an ancient Babylonian temple.4 The end of Leviticus 16 offers a precise and personal statement of the true intent for our observing Yom Kippur: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before Adonai.”5 Here we finally have a reference to internalization of this process of atonement on an individualized, more personal level. It is stated that for Yom Kippur we are to practice self-denial. Today this is done through fasting. Rabbi Plaut also explains that after the destruction of the Temple, Yom Kippur continued to be actively observed. Individuals could experience atonement through teshuva (often defined as repentance), prayer, and charity. Teshuva, when it becomes this kind of personal process, is often considered more of a return to God.6 In this manner, atonement becomes more real to us as individuals. We spend the time on introspection and honestly try to follow ritual as laid out for us. We make amends to those we have hurt and take responsibility for our transgressions. We say our sins aloud and ask God for forgiveness. This process aids in restoring our relationships with the others around us as well as with God. It is this annual act of renewal that brings us back to God. In one of his Torah commentaries, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson also makes reference to this restorative process and to the linking of ritual and ethics: “Ritual requires ethics to root it in the human condition, to force it to express human needs … Ethics requires ritual to lend substance to lofty ideals, to remind, on a regular basis, of ethical commitments already made … Ritual without ethics becomes cruel. Ethics without ritual becomes hollow. The two need each other to teach restraint, balance, and
“The Message of the Day of Atonement,” a commentary in The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; p. 858. 4 “The Origins of Yom Kippur;” Plaut; op. cit., p. 859. 5 Leviticus 16:30. 6 “Atonement and Return;” Plaut; op. cit., p. 861.

compassion. By blending ritual and ethics, we shift the focus from our perspective to God's.”7 Rabbi Artson says that rituals practiced in relation to Yom Kippur assist us in relating to one another as a community (enter ethics) and relating to God (enter spirituality). We are reminded of God and our covenant with God, therefore, every time we follow the rituals. In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides discusses how everyone is responsible for turning inward and identifying any sins he or she may have committed. He also discusses levels of repentance and at what point one’s sins are forgiven. Maimonides addresses how we make amends to God as well as to other people. Part of this responsibility is confessing the sin verbally, seeking forgiveness, and vowing not to commit the sin again. Maimonides calls this process of atonement a “returning to God.”8 In review, Parashat Acharei Mot is not just a reflection of disassociated rituals; rather it is a spiritual and ethical process that can assist us in repairing and/or reconstructing our relationship with God. There are those who fail to find any personal meaning in the rituals associated with Yom Kippur. There are those who ask what all of this has to do with us as individuals. How does this all apply to our world and to us today? I believe that part of the answer is in how honest we are about ourselves: where we are now, where we want to be next year at this time, and how we plan to get there. It is even a very true part of human nature that if one were to follow the same process over and over, an internal transformation really would happen. It is something personal to each individual. It is in this transformation, this process of observance, that we can become more Jewish. It is in our ethical observance of this ritual that we not only can relate to our world more appropriately, but also can live up to our own responsibility to uphold our end of the covenant we made with God.

“Ritual and Ethics: A Holy Blend,” a commentary on Parashat K’doshim by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, University of Judaism. 8 Maimonides’ Sefer HaMada, “Laws of Repentance,” Chapter One.

A D’var Torah on Parashat K’doshim (Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27)
By Sarah B. Schweitz “K’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem.” “You shall be holy for I, Adonai, your God, am holy.” Greek translators named the third book of the Torah “Leuitikon,” and the Latin name “Leviticus” was adopted.1 Called Vayikra (“and He called”) in Hebrew, Leviticus is the core of the five Books of Moses and contains some of the most important passages of the Bible. Much of Leviticus is devoted to matters such as instructions for sacrifice and rules of ritual defilement and purification. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the laws of sacrifice no longer functioned;2 sacrifices were abandoned and later replaced by prayer. At the center of Leviticus is Parashat K’doshim. The first 19 verses of Parashat K’doshim are known as the Holiness Code (K’doshim), a tower of spirit and morality among religious writings of any generation. K’doshim is equal in importance to the Ten Commandments and worthy of being read aloud on Shabbat and Yom Kippur afternoon in order to teach us how to behave. The Hebrew root of K’doshim is Kadosh, which we translate as “holy,” but which embodies the idea of a spiritual separation between divine perfection and human imperfection.3 Some derivatives of Kadosh are4: Kodesh – “holiness” Kiddush – “sanctification,” applied to hallowing the Sabbath and Festivals over a cup of wine K’dushah – “holiness,” “sanctity,” or “sanctification,” as used for a series of liturgical responses Kadosh – “holy” K’doshim – “holy beings” Kiddushin – “betrothal” or formal engagement Mikdash – a place of worship Kodesh Kodashim – the innermost shrine of the Temple; the Holy of Holies

A Life of Holiness

“Introducing Leviticus,” a commentary by Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger; The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; p. 735. 2 Ibid., p. 733. 3 Ibid., pp. 889-91. 4 Ibid.

The parashah begins, “Adonai spoke to Moses saying, speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them, ‘You shall be Holy because I, Adonai your God, am Holy.’”5 What does it mean to be holy? Is this commandment possible and practical? Is it realistic for a human being to be holy in the same way that God is holy? Being holy means to be different, unique, and separate from the ways of others — distinct in a moral and ritualistic way. Does this moral and ritualistic distinction mean that Jews have to withdraw from society in order to be holy? Martin Buber, a great Jewish thinker and philosopher, said, “No! Being Holy–Kadosh means to achieve an ethical and spiritual excellence that can enrich and influence other people. The way to Holiness for an individual is to emulate God’s attributes, such as being kind, just, merciful and wise.”6 The Holiness Code contains one of the most quoted commandments: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I have been the recipient of this love when a righteous gentile by the name of George Kalogerometrou helped my family to survive during the Holocaust in Greece. In the opinion of Rabbi Tanhum, “If a person can protest the wrong-doing of another he is considered holy.” I am alive today because my father Abraham Barouh practiced the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” During the Second World War, my father saved the life of his Greek friend George Kalogerometrou, and this act of kindness was returned at a critical time when George risked his life and the lives of his family by hiding my family in his home when the Nazis were capturing all the Jews of our town in Greece. In the immortal words of Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I care only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?” The commentator Pinchas Peli wrote, “Loving is also forgiving. It is easy to love good people. The test is to love those who are not as good or lovable in our eyes. Love your fellow human being and accept his faults and shortcomings as you accept them in yourself.” The Psychologist Erich Fromm, in his book, The Art of Loving, stresses the importance of self-love. Dr. Fromm writes, “First the person has to accept his own uniqueness before he can love his neighbor.” Jewish tradition teaches us to love, respect, and understand ourselves first, and then transfer this love to others.

5 6

Leviticus 19:1. From a Torah Commentary on Leviticus by Rabbi Harvey Fields.

The Law of Holiness-Kadosh is addressed to the entire community of Israel. The objective is not to produce a few saints withdrawn from the world, but to create a Holy People who display love and kindness to all human beings. The notion of the Holy Land is present here also. Even though God rules the whole world, he is attached to and present in the Land of Canaan, which has now become the Land of Israel. The idea that sanctity should be attached to a geographic area may seem strange to some people. Many feel that a Jewish community should be different from other communities and a Jewish State different from other states.7 What is Holiness? Sidney Greenberg writes: “There is Holiness when we strive to be true to ourselves. There is Holiness when we bring friendship to lonely lives. There is Holiness when we reach out to help those in need. There is Holiness when we care for our world and make it a better place. There is Holiness when we praise the Lord who gave us the power to pray. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, all life can be filled with God’s glory!”8 The ethical injunctions of the Holiness Code are combined with ritual commandments. The modern Jew recognizes that worship and ceremony undertaken thoughtfully can elevate personal and family life. The tenets of the Holiness Code speak to everyone. They allow us to live peacefully and interdependently in organized society. They may help us achieve inner peace and well being and bring us closer to God. These are the components of a way of life called Kadosh–Holy.

7 8

Plaut, op. cit. Where Can Holiness Be Found?” Bechol Levavcha, by Rabbi Harvey Fields, p. 81.

Does a Law of Equivalency Result in Equal Justice?
A D’var Torah on Parashat Emor
By Terri Goodman “Emor el-haKohanim b’nai Aharon v’amarta aleihem….” “Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them….” Paradox and parallel, Parashat Emor is not what it seems. The end of Emor has the seemingly out-of-place story of the blasphemer, which follows detailed laws for the priests and instructions for observing holy days. In addition to the story’s apparent dislocation, the commandments for punishments following the story seem a bit out of place. This is the story of a boy who receives death for blaspheming God’s name. The punishments that follow address harms against people and property. With these laws, we find some of the most-misunderstood text in the Torah — one of three references to lex talionis,1 an eye for an eye. Today, “an eye for an eye” has a harsh connotation, used to justify extreme punishments. However, references to “an eye for an eye” found in current media alluding to violent retribution are nothing short of paradoxical taken in the context of Emor and Talmudic interpretations. The modern-day connotation is most ironic given that the concept of lex talionis was originally intended to guard against vengeful retribution and that God instructed Moses that the punishments were to apply to Israelite and stranger alike, specifically to provide for equal justice. In fact, the Talmud has interpreted the provisions for “parallel punishments” found in three places in the Torah,2 to prescribe nothing more than monetary damages, except in certain specific cases. In Emor, the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father begins a fight with an Israelite. The half-Israelite son speaks the Name in blasphemy. The villagers take him to Moses to await God’s judgment. God tells Moses to take the blasphemer to the community to be stoned to death. And so it is done. God says that anyone — stranger or citizen — who blasphemes God’s name shall be put to death.3 God then tells Moses to instruct the Israelites: “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
1 2 3

(Lev. 21:1 – 24:23)

The law of equal and direct retribution; literally, the law of retaliation. Exodus 21:23, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. Leviticus 24:10-16.

inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.”4 The placement of the story of the blasphemer at first appears most curious. The story of the fighting boy who says the Name in blasphemy appears at the end of lengthy instruction defining the holiness code for the Levitical priesthood and permissible acts of citizens in proximity to the priests. The beginning of Emor defines permissible conduct for the Levitical priests and disqualifying blemishes for the Kohanim. Emor next provides protocols for offerings and the cleanliness requirements to partake of the offerings. The text then defines each of the holy days and festivals, and provides instructions for observing them and the days of rest. Suddenly the blasphemer appears, the only anecdote in the parashah. Although the story of the blasphemer seems to simply appear, there is a prior reference to blasphemy. Between the directions for the Levitical priests and the instructions for holy-day observance, there is the commandment: “[Y]ou shall faithfully observe my commandment: I am the Lord.” Then follows, “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be you God, I the Lord.”5 The placement of this commandment gives some indication of the sole jurisdiction of the Levitical priests to engage in the activities associated with worship of God, according to Rabbi Elyse Goldstein in her writing on the portion. In this context, the story of the blasphemer falls into place. Rabbi Goldstein comments on the placement of the blasphemer but does not cite the commandment not to profane found between the two instructional sections. She hypothesizes that the story of the blasphemer demonstrates Levitical priest elitism. “This man, labeled ‘the blasphemer,’ pronounced God’s name. The priests had sole jurisdiction over such actions, and had forbidden anyone else to engage in any sacred activity associated with the worship of God in the absence of a presiding priest.”6 Thus, the blasphemer exemplifies the notion that no one is to infringe on the priest’s power or jurisdiction. The blasphemer received the ultimate penalty: death. God made clear that the penalty for blasphemy as well as the penalties for harms between people were to be imposed on citizen and stranger alike. The imposition of penalties on citizen and stranger is also paradoxical. In the context of the sin of blasphemy, imposition of the death penalty on stranger and Israelite alike would
4 5 6

Leviticus 24:17-22. Leviticus 22:31-33. The Women’s Torah Commentary by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein; Jewish Lights Publishing; 2003.

result in the stranger being prosecuted more often than the Israelite. This was likely for two reasons: First, the commandments surrounding the worship of God would be more readily understood and observed by Israelites, and specifically by those from the community who respected the authority of the Levitical priests, than by strangers. Second, the local Israelite community would adjudicate the future cases of blasphemy by strangers; thus, the Israelite community would adjudicate cases against strangers that did not share the same beliefs or the same heritage. The prohibitions against blasphemy derive from both the Ten Commandments and the seven Noachide laws extrapolated in the Talmud. The Ten Commandments applied only to Israelites, but the Noachide laws applied to citizen and stranger, alike. However, a stranger that did not share Israelite religious beliefs might not recognize the validity of the general application of the Noachide laws. In the case of the blasphemer, the stranger had mixed blood. The blasphemer’s mother was an Israelite, identified by name and tribe. In a time of patrilineal descent,7 the community viewed the blasphemer as an outsider because of his Egyptian father. It is far easier to judge a stranger more harshly than a fellow Israelite, even if that stranger is a resident alien living among you. Anyone who is different, with different beliefs, is subject to human prejudice and misunderstanding. Thus, a stranger would be more likely to violate the commandment prohibiting blasphemy and to be more harshly judged when there is a question of violation. Now for the twist. Following the story of the blasphemer, God provided commandments for how to punish those who harm other people and their property. The applications are parallel — an eye for an eye, a beast for a beast — for stranger and citizen. In this context, the application of the laws to stranger and citizen alike protects the strangers. Unlike in the case of blasphemy, all may equally understand the rules of communal conduct. Strangers and citizens understand that members of a community cannot take lives, steal beasts, or maim and dismember one another. Thus, in the context of the commandments regarding harms between people, equal punishment protects the citizen from the sort of bias and harsh judgments that often befall the stranger in a “court of justice” saturated with family and neighbors that might not otherwise come to a just decision. The law of equivalency applied to citizen and stranger alike was intended to provide a fair system of justice. Thus, we find a midrash that provides the second reason for the placement of the blasphemer: community holiness. “The long series of laws dealing with the Tabernacle and the offerings was preceded by Sidrah Mishpatim,

See Numbers 18:1.

which deals with relationships among people. So, too, after the passage of the show-bread, Leviticus deals mainly with such relationships. This emphasizes that the goal of the Torah is to establish a nation of human beings who seek perfection in their relationship with one another, no less than in their relationship with God.”8 The Midrash identifies the necessity of purity in our social relationships and points to the blasphemer as a symbol for the need for purity in our communities. The punishment laws provide a mechanism for order and ultimately for holiness. Would the literal application of the law of equivalency — an eye for an eye — actually result in equal justice, thereby contributing to the goal of holiness within a community? “The unlearned maintain that it is originally meant literally, but was later reinterpreted by the Sages to mean monetary compensation.”9 Jewish law recognized that it would be impossible to inflict the exact degree of physical damage in response to a harm.10 For instance, “one who strikes mortally an animal shall make restitution, a life for a life.”11 The Sages hypothesize, “a singer with a mangled finger would lose little of his value, but a pianist would lose a considerable part of his value if he lost the use of his hand.”12 The final question remains: If the Israelite community can mete out parallel justice — for an eye and a tooth and beast — to stranger and citizen alike, is this a sufficient legal system to effect the seventh Noachide law, which requires creation of a legal system sufficient to ensure obedience to the other six Noachide laws?13 In addition, if this legal system is sufficient to satisfy the seventh Noachide law, can the lex talionis system of punishments applied to stranger and citizen alike also form the basis for a broader justice system to promote community and ultimately a community of purity and holiness?

The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 2003; p. 692. 9 Ibid., p. 693. 10 Sforno on Torah; Translated and edited by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz; Artscroll; 1997; p. 613. 11 Leviticus, 24:18, emphasis added. 12 Sherman and Zlotowitz, op. cit., p. 693. 13 Laws that prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual sins, theft, and eating a limb torn from a living animal (Sanhedrin 56A).

Shabbat for a Holy People and a Holy Land
A D’var Torah on Parashat B’har
By Marc Goodman “Vay’dabeir Adonai el-Moshe b’har seenai leimor….” “Adonai spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying….”
Parashat B’har - a Summary

(Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2)

Parashat B’har prescribes what have come to be known as the “Law of the Sabbatical Year” and the “Law of the Jubilee Year.”

Law of the Sabbatical Year – The “Law of the Sabbatical Year” states that the land that Israel is to possess may not be sown in every seventh year. The people may, however, eat what the land produces on its own in the seventh year. The seventh year is called a Shabbat of complete rest for the land, a Shabbat of Adonai. Law of the Jubilee Year – The “Law of the Jubilee Year” states that after

seven times seven (49) years, the Israelites are to sound the shofar and declare a Jubilee Year — a year of redemption. The Jubilee Year is to follow the (seventh) Sabbatical Year, and the following are prescribed: 1. The land is to lie fallow. (Unsown in the Sabbatical Year preceding the Jubilee Year, the land would rest for two consecutive years). 2. All agricultural land that has been sold by it owner is to be returned to its owner or his family/tribe. 3. All Hebrew slaves are to be freed.

Parashat B’har concludes with an admonition against idol worship, and commands to keep God’s Shabbatot (Sabbaths) and to venerate God’s sanctuary.
Parashat B’har – a Question

As mentioned above, the concluding verses of Parashat B’har (Leviticus 26:12) are an admonition against idol worship; they command us to keep God’s Shabbatot and to venerate God’s sanctuary. Beginning with Leviticus 26:3, Parashat B’chukotai describes how God will bless Israel if it follows God’s laws and faithfully observes God’s commandments. There seems to be an inherent connection between the two concluding verses of Parashat B’har and the opening verses of Parashat B’chukotai. (Plaut organizes the verses of Torah thematically, and he includes Leviticus 26:1-2 with Parashat B’chukotai in his presentation of the “Blessings and Curses” theme.)1 Why


W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah, A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981).


then did the Rabbis assign Leviticus 26:1-2 to Parashat B’har and not to Parashat B’chukotai?
Shabbat and Redemption

The major themes in Parashat B’har are Shabbat and redemption. Just as God has ordained a Shabbat for the people and instructed them concerning its observance,2 God now ordains a Shabbat for the land, and God instructs its stewards (the people) concerning its observance. By including the verse about keeping God’s Shabbatot in Parashat B’har, the Rabbis kept Leviticus 26:2 with a parashah that is largely about Shabbat, and they emphasized that the people are responsible for the observance of both Shabbatot.3 Just as God’s people are to be renewed by their Shabbat, so God’s land is to be renewed by its Shabbat. But what about redemption? Does the Jubilee redemption have anything to do with Shabbat and renewal?
A Nation of Priests – a Light Unto the Nations

God will establish law on earth by bringing the People into the Land. The confluence of God’s people living in God’s land following God’s laws and faithfully observing God’s commandments will establish a “nation of priests.” God will establish God’s law on earth by establishing a “nation of priests” to serve as a “light unto the nations.” Just as God is specific about the laws and commandments for the “nation of priests,” God is also specific about the nation’s structure. The “nation of priests” will consist of a confederation of tribes, each of which has hereditary land holdings. But the land holdings will not be the property of the tribes. Rather the tribes will hold the land in stewardship for God. Given the necessity of tribal stewardship for the proper structure of God’s “nation of priests” and recognizing that, in the normal course of human events, title to land holdings will change hands, God must establish a way to periodically get back to the ordained order. This is in fact the purpose of the Jubilee Year. God will ensure the ongoing proper structure of the “nation of priests” by asserting God’s ownership of the land (redemption) and restoring it to its proper stewards (the tribes) every 50 years. Just as God owns the Land, God also owns the People (both collectively and individually). And just as God’s land is to be restored to its rightful owner in the Jubilee Year, so are God’s people are to be restored to their rightful owner in the Jubilee Year. A Hebrew slave would necessarily serve a master
2 3

Exodus 31:12-17 According to Plaut, the Sabbatical Year was observed even in rabbinic times. Plaut, op cit.; p. 941.


other than God. The redemption and restoration of Hebrew slaves to their rightful owner (God) will free them to follow God’s laws and faithfully fulfill God’s commandments, thus ensuring the ongoing proper operation of the “nation of priests.”
Shabbat and Renewal, Jubilee and Restoration

Shabbat is the means by which God’s People and God’s Land are renewed. Just as Shabbat renewal restores the vigor of the people and the land, Jubilee redemption restores the vigor of the “nation of priests,” reestablishing its proper order so that it can pursue its mission as a “light unto the nations.”


The Promised Land — A New Garden of Eden
A D’var Torah on Parashat B’chukotai (Lev. 26:3 – 27:34)
By Norman J. Harris, M.D. “Im-b’chukotai teileichu v’et-mitzvotai tishm’ru va-aseetem otam….” “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments….”
“I will be God to you, and you will be a people to Me.” We are now about to

learn what kind of life is meant for the Chosen People.

"But if you will not listen to Me, if your soul rejects My laws and if you do not carry out My commandments and break My covenant, then I will do the same to you. I will bring upon you illness that fills the spirit with grief. You will then sow your seed in vain. I will set My countenance against you and you will be beaten by your enemies. Those that hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even though no one pursues you. If you still will not heed Me, then I shall punish you further..."1 This just the beginning! Next comes an escalating litany of promised agonies. Each is more depressing than the one before. The list is so dismaying, so painful, it is the custom among some readers to reserve this passage for themselves in order to spare others the call to the bema to read it! Is this a way to address the Chosen? Should we regret having said, "We will obey and understand"? How much consolation is there in the assertion that in our misery, the Creator will be with us? Misery is misery. The Garden of Eden, where the Author began the story of man was a place of innocence. There was only one rule, one law: Don't eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam was given no explanation of why or what would happen if he transgressed. When, in his imperfection, he disobeyed, he was irrevocably cast down from innocence and plenty to a world of guile and scarcity. Having survived the desert, the people are about to enter the Promised Land. The Author now reveals that the Promised Land is, in fact, a new Garden of Eden. This time the Author recounts many explicit laws, and the consequences of not abiding by them. The Author wants us to understand that part of the promise of the land is the clarity of laws that will govern us. We are freed from uncertainty of what is expected of us and the rule of the jungle. The Law is for us and outside of us. The Law is clear, illuminating our Path.


Leviticus 26:14-18

When bad happens to us in this world, we are inclined to become confused. We are tempted to conclude that we are alone, we don't matter, and we are irrelevant to anything Higher. We might even deny there is a Higher realm. The Author here tells us that, just as in the Garden of Eden, our fate is always the result of our actions. We are in control, and what we do does matter. The Author invites us to accept all that happens to us as a reassuring fulfillment of the Promise. Ambiguity resolved.

A D’var Torah on Parashat B’midbar (Num. 1:1 – 4:20) By Alan I. Friedman
“Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe b’midbar Sinai b’ohel moeid.…” “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting….”
“S’u et-rosh kol-adat b’nei-Yisrael…. — Take a census1 of the entire Israelite community….” The Book of Numbers begins where the Book of Exodus left

Taking a Census in the Wilderness

off, the narrative having been interrupted by the Book of Leviticus. The story resumes with a census taken just a month after erection of the Tabernacle, only thirteen months since the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The book covers 39 years of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, but it focuses primarily on the beginning and end of that time period. During this time of harsh desert existence, Israel is transformed from a rag-tag band of ex-slaves and forged into a nation prepared to enter and conquer the Promised Land. In the first parashah of Numbers, Parashat B’midbar, God commands Moses to take a tribe-by-tribe census of all of the Israelite males over the age of twenty. The census is taken, but the Levites are counted separately, and their total is not included in that (603,550) of the rest of the nation.2 Only a month ago, just before the building of the Tabernacle, God had commanded Moses to take a census of the Israelites. Little has changed since then. Why was a census conducted so soon after the previous one? Recall that when Jacob and his clan went down to Egypt, they numbered only 70 souls. After a while, the Israelites were reduced to slavery, and Pharaoh tried to limit their numbers by killing their newborns. Now, having left Egypt after centuries of hardship, they are some 600,000 strong. The census is testimony to God’s power to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham — that his descendants would be too numerous to count — no matter what the circumstances.3 Rashi, too, pondered this question. Rashi says that it is because of God’s love for us that God counts us over and over. “Indeed, we too, count the things we love most. What we count tells us much about what we love.”4 Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, sees a more practical aspect to the census. The Israelites were preparing the military campaign to take the Promised Land, and men twenty years and older were eligible to go into battle. This census,
Literally, “Lift up the head….” Leviticus 1:46-49. 3 Commentary on Parashat B’midbar by The Reisha Rav, HaGoan Rav Aaron Levine. 4 Commentary on Parashat B’midbar by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy, Hebrew Union College.
1 2

then, was taken to determine the forces at Moses’ disposal and organize them for battle.5 Tif’k’du atem, you shall count them. Why was an indirect method of counting the Israelites used? Earlier text alludes to a standing prohibition against counting the Israelites, either as a small group or as a whole people.6 Originally the prohibition may have been related to a superstition that numbering a person also numbered (i.e., limited or defined) the person’s days.7 Although this parashah does not specify the method by which an indirect count is to be taken, Parashat Ki Tisa does: “When you take a census of the Israelites … every man shall give to Adonai an atonement for his soul … half a shekel as a portion to Adonai. Everyone who passes through the census, from twenty years of age and up, shall give the portion to Adonai.”8 Because the phrase “bif’kod otam, when counting them,” occurs twice in this passage, Or HaChaim9 concluded that the prohibition against a direct headcount applied not just to Moses’ census but for all time.10 It is notable that the Levites were not included in the general census. In fact, they appear wholly set apart. Not only does God tell Moses not to include them in the census of the tribes, but God does not designate a tribal chieftain for them as is done for the other tribes. And when they are counted in their own census, their numbers are far smaller than those of any one of the 12 tribes.11 Ibn Ezra12 suggests that the Levites were excluded from the general census because, as keepers of the Tabernacle, they were exempt from military service. Their function was not to defend the camp or participate in the conquest of the land, but to guard the camp from human defilement.13
“The Second Roll-Call of Israel,” a commentary on Parashat B’midbar by Nehama Leibovitz. It is even forbidden to count the people for the purpose of a mitzvah. However, the ban is on counting whole bodies; a show of hands or fingers is permitted. – Harvey M. Brown, Daf Hashavua, United Synagogue, London. 7 Fear traditionally inhibited Jews from counting, except with negative integers (e.g., “not one, not two…”). To be counted, says Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, is to be registered and, therefore, to be more visible and vulnerable. 8 Exodus 30:12-14. 9 Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh ben Atar, 1696-1743, known by the name of his most famous work, Ohr HaChaim. 10 The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 485. 11 Commentary on Parashat B’midbar by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary. 12 Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), revered as one of the most important biblical commentators, developed rationalistic interpretations and often used his commentaries to defend the rabbinic oral tradition. 13 Schorsch, op. cit.
5 6

During encampments, the Tabernacle was centrally located among the people, and the Levites surrounded it.14 It was also the Levites who dismantled and transported the Tabernacle during the nation’s travels.15 Thus the spiritual protection afforded by the Levites mirrored the physical protection provided by the army. In deference to their elevated status, the Levites merited their own census. Since this general census, unlike the previous one, listed “the names of every male, head by head,” a less practical but certainly nobler purpose of this census also comes to mind: restoring pride, dignity, and sense of self-worth to a band of ex-slaves. A slave’s eyes are usually downcast in the presence of his master. S’u et rosh. Let them hold their heads high as a free people, especially in the presence of God. God ordered this census, then, to show love and concern for the people and — by conferring honor and greatness on each one of them — to enhance their confidence and self-image. Not a single person was to be forgotten. A mass of oppressed slaves, who in Egypt had no individual worth whatever, were now to merit an individual count. Each person would have an opportunity to come before Moses and Aaron and be recognized as an individual of personal worth.16 Everyone from that generation would then be thought of by his name and thus by his own unique, personal qualities17. Census taking has a long history. In the United States, a census is taken every ten years. Taking a census in our Jewish communities helps us to quantify and characterize: who are the leaders, who are the active supporters, and who are the members in name only? Who counts among us? How many of us are not counted because we have only tenuous connections to our Jewish communities? Let us lift up our heads and be counted. Jewish continuity depends on each of us being an active, responsible member of our Jewish community.

AIF 12-15-04 B’midbar – DvarTorah.doc

Numbers 1:50 and 1:53. Numbers 1:51. 16 Commentary on Parashat B’midbar by Rabbi Leslie Bergson, Jewish Chaplain and Hillel Director, The Claremont Colleges. 17 Commentary on Parashat B’midbar by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, UAHC.
14 15

A D’var Torah on Parashat Naso (Num. 4:21 – 7:89) By Susan Glass
“Naso et-rosh bnei Gershon gam heim….” “Take a census of the Gershonites, as well….” As is so often the case, this week’s Parashah covers a multitude of matters. It opens with God instructing Moses to take a census of two families of the tribe of Levi, the Gershonites and the Merarites, to determine those who are both subject to and eligible for service in the Tent of Meeting. The next section deals with persons excluded from the camp on the basis of their unclean status. We then move on to the issue of a person who donates gifts or personal possessions to the sanctuary. This verse is immediately followed by the theme of a Jewish woman who is suspected of committing adultery. More of this troubling topic shortly. Parashat Naso then discusses the topic of the Nazarite, focusing on the vow to abstain from intoxicants and the vow not to permit a razor to pass over his head. Next, God instructs Moses to teach Aaron a special three-part blessing, known as the Birkat Kohanim, which Aaron and the priests are to use to bless the people of Israel (May Adonai bless you and keep you; May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you; May Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace). We conclude this Parashah with the consecration of the Tabernacle, celebrated for twelve days with gift-giving by all the tribes, enumerated in great detail. Let’s return to the long central section of Parashat Naso, dealing with Sotah (the suspected unfaithful wife)1. It is the only example in Judaism of “trial by ordeal” — a procedure for judging an individual’s innocence or guilt by subjecting her to a physical test. This seems very strange to us today, and notwithstanding Rabbi Plaut’s historical note 2 regarding the seemingly pervasive nature of this type of trial in other societies at the time, it still does not sit well with me. It is troublesome that the Torah can prescribe such a primitive procedure as a means of divining truth. “Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people, and tell them: Whenever a man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him — that is, another man had sexual intercourse with her, and it was hidden from her
Numbers 5:11-31. “Ordeals” and “The Ordeal in Jewish Law,” The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; pp. 1054-1055.
1 2

Jealousy (or Trial by Ordeal)

husband, and they were in secret, and she became impure, and there was no witness with her, and she was not raped — and a spirit of jealousy comes over him (the husband), and he becomes jealous of his wife.…”3 From the literal words of the text, it seems like the wife’s guilt is assumed and the possibility that the husband’s suspicion is misplaced is almost tossed aside as an afterthought. A bit more about the ritual: the husband brings his wife to the priest, along with an offering of barley flour, but no oil is to be poured on it and no frankincense laid on it, since it is a meal offering of jealousy, that is, an offering of remembrance to recall the (alleged) wrongdoing. During the ritual, the priest places the husband’s offering upon his wife’s hands (so that she, herself becomes the altar). Might we consider that the husband brings only a make-believe sacrifice, a simulation of a sin offering, although to him it is real enough; perhaps he’s dealing not with his wife’s sin but the memory of his own suspicion of that sin, addressing not his wife’s passions but his own? Then comes the water of bitterness that induces the spell. 4 The priest makes her swallow a potion made of water, dirt from the Tabernacle floor, and ink dissolved from the curse written by the priest. Once he has made her drink the water — if she has defiled herself by breaking faith with her husband, the spell-inducing water shall enter into her to bring on bitterness, so that her belly shall distend and her thigh shall sag; and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is pure, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed.5 The accused wife is to say “Amen, amen” following the instructions of the priest concerning the drinking of the bitter water, apparently sanctioning her own curse. But even if every husband who subjects his wife to the Sotah ritual has ironclad evidence of her guilt, why would the wife, who knows what she is guilty of (or innocent of), say “Amen, amen” to the priest’s curse? We see that the ritual requires her cooperation; she could, after all, confess to adultery, accept a divorce, and forgo the ritual. One answer rests in the last verse of this section: “The man will be clear of guilt and the woman will bear her sin.”6 What sin does the man become clean of? The Talmud quotes a Baraita7 that explains that when the man is clean from sin, the water tests his wife.8 If the husband himself has had any prohibited sexual relations,
Numbers 5:11-14. Numbers 5:18. 5 Numbers 5:27-28. 6 Numbers 5:31. 7 The Aramaic word, “Baraita,” means “external,” so called because these rabbinic teachings were not incorporated into the Mishna of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (i.e., they didn’t make the cut). Only those portions of the Baraita that made their way into the Talmud have been preserved. 8 Sotah 28a.
3 4

then the adulterous wife will not die. If the wife survives the ritual, she has publicly announced either that she is innocent of adultery and her husband has been jealous for no good reason, or that her husband has been misbehaving as well. The more the community suspects her of illicit behavior, the more they will come to suspect her husband of the same offense. For his hypocritical jealousy, the husband is punished measure for measure. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the reason a woman is put through a process as difficult as the Sotah ritual is to restore trust in the marriage. 9 Since the husband suspects his wife, there is no longer trust between them, and a marriage without trust cannot stand. To prove this assertion, Rabbi Hirsch points out that if the husband dies before the woman drinks the bitter waters, she no longer has to go through the process! That shows, according to Rabbi Hirsch, that the Sotah ordeal has less to do with determining her guilt or lack of guilt, and more to do with restoring the trust and peace between the husband and wife. So, if the wife died through the ordeal, the witness saw the gravity of breaking the bond between husband and wife. And if the wife survived the bitter waters, the witness likewise saw the seriousness with which the Torah treats an adulteress, even a suspected one. According to the Mishnah, the trial of the Sotah was abolished by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai10 nearly two thousand years ago. Yet, we still read about it, still think about, it and remain troubled by it.

9 As mentioned in the Torah Commentary on Parashat Naso by Jacob Solomon, Executive Vice President, Greater Miami Jewish Federation; “Between the Fish and the Soup;” Shema Yisrael Torah Network; 2002. 10 Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was the acknowledged rabbinic leader at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.

A D’var Torah on

Moses — Father of All the Prophets
By Terence Offenberger, Yisrael ben Mordechai

Parashat B’haalot’cha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

“B’haalot’cha et-ha-neirot el-mul pnei ha-m’norah ya’iru shiv’at ha-neirot.” “When you set up the seven lamps, let them light the area in front of the menorah.” Disaster strikes and many die. In this case the victims are the mixed multitude freed from Egyptian slavery, wandering in the wilderness, ungrateful to God at a time when God was a visible part of their daily lives. Moses knows about this tragedy before it happens because God remarkably speaks to him “mouth to mouth.”1 Such was the intensity of Moses’ closeness to God that, according to the Rambam, no other mortal has ever exceeded — or will ever exceed — the prophetic stature of Moses.2 Several times in this parashah God speaks to Moses. On one occasion, in Numbers 8:1-4, God tells Moses to speak to Aaron and instruct him how to make the menorah, but God does not speak to Aaron directly. In Numbers 9:1-3, God tells Moses exactly how to celebrate the Passover. When some Israelites have a question about a technicality, Moses replies, “stand by and let me hear what instructions Adonai gives about you.”3 Rashi comments, “Fortunate is the mortal who is so confident, for whenever he wished, he could speak with the Shechinah.”4 In the wilderness, the Israelites observe God’s constant presence in the form of a cloud over the Tabernacle during the day and the likeness of fire at night. When the cloud lifted, the Israelites would break camp until the cloud settled. “On a sign from Adonai they made camp, and on a sign from Adonai they broke camp; they observed Adonai’s mandate at Adonai’s bidding through Moses.”5 According to Rashi, “when the Israelites traveled, the cloud … did not move on until Moses declared, ‘Rise up, O Lord.’ The pillar of cloud … would, not depart until Moses declared, ‘Return, O Lord, to the myriads of Israel’s thousands.’”6 Scripture lists the names of participants in the first such journey to see this interaction between God and Moses.7 At three locations during the wanderings in this parashah, God is angered. Moses plays an important role in each episode in ways that further reveal the extent of Moses’ knowledge of God.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Tanakh; Jewish Publication Society; First Edition; 1985; Numbers 12:8. Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. Numbers 9:8. Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:22. Numbers 9:23. Melecheth Hamishkan ch. 13. Numbers 10:13-28.

At Taberah, the mixed multitude provoked God.8 “The people took to complaining bitterly before Adonai. Adonai heard and was incensed: a fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to Adonai, and the fire died down.”9 Here Moses directly intercedes to help sinners. Next at Kivrot Hata’avah, the Israelites cry out for meat instead of manna, and whine, “Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt,” where we had all of the delicacies we desired10 Distraught by having to deal with the chronic complainers, Moses tells God that the burden of caring for this entire people is too great for him. In his weakness, he pleads with God to kill him instead.11 Responding to Moses’ plea, God distributes a portion of Moses’ responsibilities among 70 elders of Israel.12 God then comes down13 and prophesizes to Moses and, through Moses’ spirit, to the seventy elders. God’s prophesy is that the people will have meat to eat for a whole month, “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.”14 In frustration, Moses questions if any amount, no matter how large, could satiate the rabble rousers.15 A wind then sweeps in far more quail than the multitude of 600,000 can possibly eat. While they gorge themselves, God strikes the gluttonous complainers with a severe plague.16 Feeling that he was an inadequate leader, Moses disassociated himself from the people. Moses begged for help or for death rather than continue to see himself as a wretched failure. In contrast, God was very angry with the people. Acting as a stern parent, God provided the meat in an exaggerated overabundance and then severely punished those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership. Further proving Moses’ superior prophetic powers, God used Moses’ spirit to enable the seventy elders to prophesize. The entire multitude then saw the prophesy come true with the miracle of sudden, massive amounts of meat and the rabble rousers’ subsequent punishment.

Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:1. Numbers 11:1-3. 10 Numbers 11:4-10. 11 Sifre Beha’alothecha 1:42:14. 12 “This is one of ten descents recorded in the Torah,” [Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:17]. 13 One of the ten times in the Torah that God is said to descend from on high. 14 Numbers 11:10-20. 15 Numbers 11:21. 16 Numbers 11:10-34.
8 9

Finally, at Hazerot, God hears Miriam and Aaron speak lashon harah17 about Moses. God calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam together and tells Aaron and Miriam that with Moses, “I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Adonai.”18 Incensed at their behavior, God strikes Miriam with tzara’at19. Aaron pleads with Moses for help since as one with tzara’at she defiles those around her and “a relative may not examine plague marks [symptoms of tzara’at], and there is no other kohen in the world [who is not related to Miriam].”20 Moses cries out, “O God, pray heal her!”21,22 God heals Miriam after she is shut out of the camp for seven days, and all of the people wait for her miraculous recovery. Here all three siblings, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, speak to God. Yet, God specifically teaches Aaron and Miriam that Moses is at a level that surpasses that of all other prophets. Parashah B’haalot’cha wonderfully illustrates the heights of Moses’ prophecy. God speaks to Moses more clearly than to any other prophet. Amazingly, the communication is bi-directional. Not only does God instruct Moses, but Moses is free to request clarification. Not only does God use Moses as a channel of communication to the Israelites, but God tempers God’s harsh decrees based on Moses’ pleas. Not only does God signal when to break camp, but God also waits to proceed until Moses replies. God speaks and Moses listens. Moses speaks and God listens. Moses’ spirit is so great that God uses it to prophesy to the seventy elders. Would they otherwise lack the capacity? To Aaron and Miriam, God enunciates Moses’ supreme prophetic powers. The Rambam calls Moses the father of all the prophets before and after him and says that Moses achieved a greater knowledge of the Almighty than anyone before or since.23

Gossip or evil talk about another. Numbers 12:8. 19 Snow-white scales; leprosy. 20 Tanchuma Tzav 13. 21 Numbers 12:11-13. 22 “[This is one of only] four places Moses asked the Lord to answer him if He would accede or not.” [Sifrei Beha’alothecha 1:42:13]. 23 Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.
17 18

A D’var Torah on Parashat Sh’lach-L’cha (Num. 13:1 – 15:41) By Sandy Schachter
“Sh’lach-lcha anashim v’yaturu et-eretz K’na’an….” “Send forth men so that they may scout the land of Canaan….” In Parashat Sh’lach-L’cha, God directs Moses to send twelve spies, one from each ancestral tribe, to scout the land of Canaan to determine the efficacy of the land, military, and natural resources. After 40 days they return and report to the whole community their findings. Ten of the spies report that the land is flowing with milk and honey but that the people are powerful and their cities are fortified.1 Moreover, “All the people that we saw there are men of great size ... We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.”2 They warn the people that the Israelites will lose the battle if they go forward. They discourage the people despite avowals by God and Moses that the Israelites would be successful in conquering the land. Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, disagree with the findings by the other ten spies and encourage the people to enter the land. Caleb and Joshua tell the people that, if they have faith in God, they will prevail.3 The people side with the ten men who give the negative report, and they beg Moses to let them return to Egypt. Because of their lack of faith, God tells Moses that the people will wander in the desert for 40 years and only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will survive and conquer the land.4 There is a Midrash that suggests that God was upset with the spies, not for their own self-perception but for projecting that self-perception onto others: “I shall forgive them this remark,” said God. But when they said: “And so we were in their sight,” God asked: “Did you know how I made you appear in their sight? Who can say that you did not appear in their sight as angels? What have you brought upon yourselves?”5 We set ourselves up for failure when we project our insecurities onto others.

Succeeding by Overcoming Fear of Change

1 2 3 4 5

Numbers 13:27-28. Numbers 13:32-33. Numbers 14:6-9. Numbers 14:28-35. Midrash Numbers Rabbah 16:11.

How often does fear of the unknown immobilize us? The ten scouts were fearful of what lay ahead and thought that being slaves in Egypt was a better alternative. They distorted their view of things, forgetting how oppressed they were in Egypt, and wanted to go back to what they knew. How many of us stay in unsatisfying relationships, jobs, and friendships because we fear change? Why do some people choose to remain stagnant in their lives? Why do some people see the glass as half empty while others see it as half full? It all comes down to how we view ourselves. If we see ourselves as “grasshoppers,” we will lack the energy and confidence necessary to move forward in our lives and to better our communities. Rabbi Barton Lee states that the most potent words in this parashah are voiced by Caleb: “Ki yachol nuchal lah — “For we shall overcome it.” Theodor Herzl interpreted these words to mean “If you will it, it is no dream.”6 The confidence that the early Zionists had in building up Israel into what it is today arose from thinking positively and believing in themselves and their cause. This parashah teaches us that if we believe in ourselves and have faith in God, we can live satisfying, complete lives that have purpose. By optimistically embracing change — through events that we choose as well as through those we have no control over — we are opening ourselves up to wonderful possibilities and opportunities that can be exciting, challenging, and fulfilling in our individual lives and in our communities.


Commentary on Parashat Sh’lach-L’cha by Rabbi Barton G. Lee, Hillel Jewish Student Center, Arizona State University, 2001.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Korach (Num. 16:1 – 17:15) By Alan I. Friedman
“Vayikach Korach … vayakumu lifnei Moshe….” “Korach took the initiative … to rise up against Moses….” Only five Torah portions — Noach, Yitro, Korach, Balak, and Pinchas — are named for individuals. (A sixth, Chayei Sarah, includes Sarah’s name but is actually about her death.) All of these parashiot have interesting messages, but only Parashat Korach provides us with a unique opportunity to examine the concept of challenging authority. In Parashat Korach, Dathan, Abiram and 250 leaders of the community join with Korach to confront Moses and Aaron and challenge their leadership and authority. “You have gone too far,” they accuse God’s chosen leaders, “for all the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?”1 When the matter is ultimately resolved, God has made clear the divine sanction of Moses and Aaron and the spiritual supremacy of the Kohanim: The earth has opened up and swallowed Dathan, Abiram, Korach, and all of their households;2 fire has consumed the 250 supporters of Korach;3 and 14,700 additional Israelites who either did not disassociate themselves from the rebellion or were unhappy with Korach’s punishment have died of a plague.4 What was wrong with Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron? Aren’t dissent and challenge part of the political process? Dissent, per se, is not troublesome. In fact Jewish tradition encourages dissent, but only when it serves a holy purpose, such as that between the schools of Hillel and Shamai. The dissent of Korach and his minions, however, is self-serving and, therefore, does not advance holiness. Korach’s rebellion was so dangerous, in fact, that it jeopardized the very existence of the entire Israelite community. Nehama Leibowitz, in her Studies in Bamidbar, writes that Korach and his followers “were simply a band of malcontents, each harboring his own personal grievances against authority, animated by individual pride and

Challenging Authority

1 2 3 4

Numbers Numbers Numbers Numbers

16:3. 16: 31-33. 16:35. 17:11-14.

ambition[. They] united to overthrow Moses and Aaron … hoping thereby to attain their individual desires.”5 If Korach is a model of a destructive voice, a rebel with an unholy cause, challenging authority for no reason other than his own personal gain, what can we learn from such a negative role model? One message of this parashah is that if we are to challenge authority, we must do so with a higher purpose, a noble motivation. Otherwise, we are merely sowing seeds of dissention and destruction. Challenges to authority have their place, but before deciding if they deserve our support, we must first assess the motive that animates them. Only then will we understand if the path they are leading us down is one that enhances holiness or destroys it. Korach’s rebellion is regarded as the most dangerous episode of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness. Why is it accorded such singular importance? First, because Korach was a man of the people, he was able to speak for the people and gain the popular support that Moses could not rally. And second, according to midrash, he was able to make effective use of rhetoric to ridicule Moses and Torah and thereby move the people away from their spiritual connections to God. Did the punishment fit the crimes? Did Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and their band of 250 deserve to die for their actions? And what about the thousands of Israelite “innocents”? Wasn’t death by plague too severe, too extreme? Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman (Ramban) says that the grave error that precipitated the rebellion was Korach’s outrageous assumption that Moses, on his own, appointed himself as leader of the people and then chose his brother Aaron as high priest.6 Despite Moses’ humility and despite the trust that God placed in Moses, Korach and his supporters accused Moses of establishing policies based on his own preferences. Blinded by their thirst for prestige, their desire to perform divine services not assigned to them, and their denial of Aaron’s right to be High Priest, Korach and his followers made the ridiculous claim that God’s heavenly fire would have descended for anyone chosen to do divine service. They asserted that it was only Moses’ “unauthorized selection” of Aaron as High Priest that had caused the heavenly fire of selection to consume Aaron’s sacrifice. This, says the Ramban, was the distorted attitude that prevailed among the insurgents.7
5 Studies in Bamidbar, By Nehama Leibowitz; Translated by Aryeh Newman; The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem; 1982. 6 The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 821. 7 Commentary on Parashat Korach by Rabbi Moshe Heigh; Regional Institute for Torah and Secular Studies (RITSS) High School for Girls; Cincinnati, Ohio.

The premeditated and extreme behavior of arrogance, selfishness, deceit, and betrayal demanded extreme retribution. The punishment of the rebels is a reminder that, in God’s eyes, humility and integrity carry far greater weight than the pursuit of selfish interests, power, and recognition. Now, if we accept that God’s punishment of the rebels was justified, what possible explanation could there by for God’s punishment of the “innocent” Israelites by plague? After all, the Torah makes it clear that the Israelites played no part in the confrontation. They didn’t support Korach; neither did they oppose him. They were merely standing by as witnesses. The Biblical commentator, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, known as Malbim, says that it was this very act of “merely standing by” that accounted for their severe punishment. Even though they saw their community threatened, they didn’t want to get involved. Theirs was the sin of fence straddling, the sin of indifference. And it was for not taking a stand against evil that God wanted to destroy them.8 It’s an enduring message: Evil flourishes when good people do nothing. Silence condones. If we stand by and allow evil to go unchallenged, we share responsibility with the perpetrators. To prevent our world from falling prey to evil propositions, we must stand firm against evil in both word and deed. Now, here’s a conundrum. We read in the Torah of the punishment accorded to Korach and his family: “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions … the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.”9 And yet, eleven of the 150 psalms are ascribed to the sons of Korach. How can this be? Were the sons of Korach destroyed, or weren’t they? The explanation comes from Parashat Pinchas: “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korach … and they became an example. The sons of Korach, however, did not die.”10 According to tradition, they were spared because they repented, and a special place was set aside for them in Sheol, where they were able to sit and sing praises to God. What a remarkable commentary on the power of repentance!

AIF 10-01-04 Korach – DvarTorah.doc

“The Sin of Indifference and Neutrality,” A Commentary on Parashat Korach by Rabbi Avi Weiss; Hebrew Institute of Riverdale; Bronx, New York; 2003. 9 Numbers 17:32-33. 10 Numbers 26:10-11.


Our Limited Ability to Comprehend God’s Mysteries
A D’var Torah on Parashat Chukat (Num. 19:1 – 22:1)
By Norman J. Harris, M.D. “Zot chukat hatorah asher-tzivah Adonai….” “This is the decree of the Torah that Adonai has commanded….” Parshat Chukat opens with a a command for which we can discern no logic or reason — the parah adumah.2 A perfect red heifer was to be slaughtered, reduced to ash, mixed with water, and used to purify those who became ritually impure by contact with the dead. Although the impure person is purified, the person who applies the water becomes impure.
“Ya’an lo-he’emantem bi…. — Because you did not trust Me….”


Next we hear about the complaints of the people who cause Moses and Aaron to plead with God. The two leaders are explicitly told by God to “speak” to the rock in front of the people and the rock will yield water. Moses takes the rod ... which God handed to him ... and strikes the rock. Then, we are told, Moses and Aaron are told by God they may not enter the Promised Land “...because you did not trust Me.” By apposing these sentences, the Author implies that the absence of a description at this point in the story of Moses “speaking” to the rock means that he did not speak. The Author offers this absence as a rationalization for God's bitter punishment of the two leaders. After being refused safe passage through Edom, the Israelites finally arrive at Mount Hor. God commands Aaron and Moses to pass the priestly vestments to Eliezar, Aaron's son. Aaron dies and is mourned for thirty days. Finally, when the people are afflicted by serpents as a punishment for complaining, Moses is instructed to make an image of a serpent and place it on a staff. By viewing this image, the people would be cured of their snake bite. Although, technically, only the first story is a chok, we are, in fact, presented with four illogical stories. Why should the purifier become impure by purifying the impure? Why is Moses, who had just prostrated himself before God looking for the ultimate answers, punished for being untrusting? Why is the priestly succession handed to Aaron's sons, not to Moses's? Why does God afflict His people with serpents and then command them to make a

1 2

‫ = חֹק‬law, rule, or statute. Red cow.

graven image to use to cure the bites? We are presented with an enigma. Why does the Author create such dissonances? Our Rabbis, classic and modern, have struggled to resolve the issues arising in this parashah within the context of our tradition: “Zos chukas haTorah {these are the decrees of the Torah}.” The entire Torah must be viewed as chukim. There are things that we think we understand and things that we know we don't. Our realization must be that in regard to Hashem’s perception and depth, any understanding of ours can only be viewed as abject ignorance.3 We can't base our observance on our understanding of the lifesituations that Hashem deals out to us.4 A “chok” teaches us that we don’t truly understand any of the mitzvos. Even those such as: don’t steal, don’t murder, that we think we understand, in fact we only have a minute and shallow understanding of what the Creator actually had in “mind.”5 The “Toras Chaim” — the instructions for life — that Hashem gave us in the guise of the Torah is the only source of what is intrinsically good and intrinsically evil.6 These assertions, however comforting they intend to be, belittle the value of God’s gift of free will, and make of our actions a kind of ethical “Russian roulette.” After all, what is the point of having free will if we are, in fact, incapable of discerning “The Way”? These explanations bring up yet another troubling question: How can we ever come to know what it is that God requires of us? We might reflect on some other reasons for these enigmatic stories and commands. Dissonance generates actions. In the 1950s, Leon Festinger7 theorized that when we are mentally conflicted, when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information, we experience dissonance — unease and tension. The more important the issue and the greater the discrepancy between experience and belief, the more intense will be the dissonance we feel. In extreme cases cognitive dissonance is like our cringing response to
Commentary on Parashat Chukat by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner; Project Genesis; 2000. Ciner (2000), op. cit. 5 Commentary on Parashat Chukat by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner; Project Genesis; 1998. 6 Ciner (1998), op. cit. 7 Leon Festinger (1919-1989), a social psychologist, is best known for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This Theory postulates that the psychological opposition of irreconcilable ideas (cognitions), held simultaneously by one individual, creates a motivating force that leads to the adjustment of one’s beliefs to fit one’s prior behavior — instead of changing one’s behavior to express one’s beliefs.
3 4

fingernails being scraped on a blackboard — we’ll do anything to get away from the awful sound. One prime method we all use to resolve dissonances generated in gaining (or earning) membership in a community is the mental exertion justifying an initiation as "worth it" because of the positive things we will gain from the benefits of membership. The more difficult the experiences of initiation demanded of us, the greater becomes our need for justification. The more effort we invest in the justification process, the more we develop commitment to the organization. The more difficult the desert experience was to understand, the more cohesive the people became who tried to understand and explain it. The answers to the troubling questions are clearly unimportant to the Author, who presented them without comment and never resolved them. The more dissonance we experience in being unable to resolve these paradoxes, the more effective they become in accomplishing the Author’s intent. Chukkim and the accompanying enigmas presented to us by the Author are tools to bind us closer to one another as we wrestle to understand the mysteries of our continuously unfolding relationship with God. These puzzling stories do, however, carry a magnificent, empowering message for us. Exactly because no one among us understands them, we all have the opportunity to try. No one can say they have special knowledge leading to their resolution or to certain truth. We are all equally invited to the work of understanding what is in the Mind of the Creator. We all stand equally humbled in the presence of the Awful Mystery.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Balak (Num. 22:2 – 25:9) By Alan I. Friedman
“Vayar Balak ben-Tzipor eit kol-asher-asah Yisrael la-Emori….” “When Balak, son of Tzipor, saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites….”
Then Adonai opened the she-donkey’s mouth, and it said to Bilaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” Bilaam said to the she-donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The she-donkey said to Bilaam, “Am I not your she-donkey that you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I been in the habit of doing such a thing to you?” And he answered, “No.”1

A Talking Donkey? Yeah, Right!

We have all grown up with talking animals. Except for two biblical examples, talking animals may have originated with Aesop’s Fables, a collection of 656 cautionary tales and morality lessons from the sixth century BCE. And through the centuries, folk tales from almost every culture have contained talking animals. Fast forward now to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries CE, and we find animals as the main characters in the fairy tales meant for young children: Three Little Pigs,2 Goldilocks and the Three Bears,3 and Little Red Riding Hood.4 We also find numerous examples of talking animals in the emerging genre of fantasy literature: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass (1871); Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1883); The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900); and Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories 5 of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and other creatures. Once cartoons and comic strips made their appearance in daily newspapers as social and political commentaries, 6 talking animals quickly followed — and led to a virtual population explosion. Among the talking-animal characters that found homes on the comics pages of America’s newspapers were Krazy Kat (1910), Felix the Cat (1923), Mickey Mouse (1930), Donald Duck (1937), and Pogo (1948). Success breeds success, and before long
Numbers 22:28-30. Variously attributed to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1812?), Hans Christian Andersen (no date quoted), and James Orchard Halliwell (1849). 3 The earliest recorded version was written by Eleanor Mure (1831), but the most influential version was published by Robert Southey (1837) in his collection of essays titled, The Doctor. 4 Ascribed to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1857), with a story line traced to Charles Perrault (1697). 5 1880-1907; other volumes of the tales were published posthumously. 6 Although “The Little Bears” was the first American comic strip in 1883, the first successful comic strip character was the “Yellow Kid,” which first appeared in the New York World on February 17, 1895.
1 2

some of these characters had joined Bugs Bunny (1940) and Bambi (1942) to become movie stars. More recently, “real” animals have appeared in fulllength feature films: Francis, a talking mule (1950), Babe, a talking pig (1995), and Stripes, a talking zebra (2005). A talking horse (Mister Ed) even had his own television series from 1961 to 1966. What does all of this history have to do with our Torah portion? Let’s take a look at the story line. Toward the end of their forty-year journey through the wilderness, the Israelites are encamped on the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River. They have recently conquered two kings: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Alarmed at the Israelite conquests, Balak, king of Moab, sends a party of Midianite and Moabite elders to induce Bilaam — well known as a seer and sorcerer — to “come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful.”7 But God appears to Bilaam in a dream and forbids him to go. When the elders return to Balak and tell him of Bilaam’s refusal, Balak sends a delegation of higher ranking emissaries with promises of rich rewards. This time, God grants permission for Bilaam to go, providing that he speaks only the words that God gives him. However, when Bilaam saddles his donkey and agrees to accompany the emissaries, God becomes incensed because God knows that Bilaam intends to flout God’s will. To demonstrate to Bilaam and his Moabite escort that he is powerless to act on his own, God dispatches an angel to block his way.8 Curiously, Bilaam’s donkey can see the angel, but Bilaam cannot.9 What happens next is the essence of television comedy — lacking only a laugh track: “When the she-donkey saw the angel of Adonai standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand, the she-donkey turned away from the road and went into the field; and Bilaam beat the she-donkey to turn it back onto the road. The angel of Adonai then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, a fence on this side and a fence on that side. The she-donkey, seeing the angel of Adonai, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Bilaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of Adonai moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve left or right. When the she-donkey now saw the angel of Adonai, she lay down under Bilaam; Bilaam was furious and beat the she-donkey with his stick.”10 At this point, God enables the
Numbers 22:6. The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 860. 9 According to Rashi, animals are allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from the human eye because people would live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them. (Scherman and Zlotowitz, op. cit., p. 861) 10 Numbers 22:23-27.
7 8

donkey to speak, Bilaam and his donkey have their famous conversation, and Bilaam is finally able to see the angel of Adonai. Talking animals are a common feature of folklore, but a talking animal in the Torah???11 Even more amazing than a donkey with the power of speech is Bilaam’s reaction. There’s no surprise, no astonishment, no sense of wonder. Bilaam doesn’t jump up and shout, “Hey, what’s going on here? My donkey is talking.” Apparently he thinks nothing of it, as if it were perfectly natural for donkeys to talk. In fact, he argues with the donkey as if a talking donkey is an everyday occurrence. Some say that reality and fantasy are the two extremes of cartoons, comic strips, and fairy tales, but aren’t reality and fantasy two sides of the same coin? Spin the coin fast enough, and the two worlds blend into one. Creating anthropomorphic animals, and allowing the animals to talk, enables storytellers to combine the basic character of the animals with human behavior. The animals can also interact with humans better if they talk.12 Children are drawn to stories about talking animals because they find the creatures funny and delightful. For adults to participate in the enjoyment at the child’s level requires a willful suspension of disbelief. But once authors, artists, and animators start gravitating toward reality with their talking animals, the door is opened for an older, more mature audience. The juxtaposition of fantasy and reality can be a compelling mix if done skillfully.13 Is Parashat Balak an example of such juxtaposition? Did the conversation between Bilaam and his donkey really happen, or is the story little more than a Torah-sanctioned fairy tale? Maimonides argues that whenever the term “angel” occurs in the Torah, the entire account is describing a vision, not an actual physical event. Therefore the incident of the talking donkey is allegorical, a record of a vision seen by Bilaam. Nachmanides disagrees. He maintains that the conversation really did take place,14 and he strongly criticizes Maimonides for not showing proper respect for the traditional explanation.15

11 Actually Bilaam’s donkey was the second example of a talking animal in the Torah. The first was the serpent with whom Eve had a conversation in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps we can rationalize Eve’s lack of surprise at encountering a talking snake. After all, she had just been created and hadn’t had time to learn that animals can’t talk. 12 “Talking Animal,” Wikipedia.org; 2004. 13 “Straight Talk About Talking Animals,” by Laura Backes; Fiction Factor – Writing for Kids; 2001. 14 Commentary on Parashat Hukkat-Balak by Rabbi Avi Weiss, Shabbat Forshpeis, 2000. 15 “Ramban’s Commentary to the Torah,” in Mikra’ot Gedolot; Judaism of the Talmud and Midrash by Eliezer Segal; Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary.

It is a powerful irony that a lowly donkey, an animal regarded as stubborn and stupid, could become an instrument of God. How could a “prophet” not understand that this talking-donkey episode was relevant to his mission? How could he not perceive God’s warning not to proceed with his mission?16 Not only were Bilaam’s ears stopped up, but his eyes were blinded by gold and silver. At the end of the day, the donkey was a truer prophet than Bilaam. A lesson that we learn from Bilaam’s interaction with his donkey is that at every moment of consciousness, if only we were willing to listen and comprehend, we are given signals that could alter our lives in dramatic fashion.

AIF 05-06-05 Balak – DvarTorah.doc

16 “Talking Donkeys and Metamorphosis,” a commentary on Parashat Balak by Rabbi Michael Lerner; Tikkun.org; undated.

A Priestly Coming of Age
A D’var Torah on Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)
By Marc Goodman “Pinchas … heisheev et-chamatee mei-al b’nei-Yisrael b’kan’o et-kin’atee b’tocham….” “Phinehas … turned My anger away from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me….”
Parashat Pinchas – a Summary

Parashat Pinchas is lengthy and wide-ranging. It begins with God telling Moses that Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, staved off a plague that killed 24,000 in the camp when he impaled an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. (The impalement event, described in Parashat Balak, occurred at Shittim where the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women and making sacrifices to their god, Baal-peor.) God promises [the descendents of] Pinchas the priesthood for all times as a reward for his zealousness. Parashat Pinchas informs us that the impaled Israelite was the son of a Simeonite chieftain and that the Midianite woman was the daughter of a Midianite tribal head. God instructs Moses to assail and defeat the Midianites because of the Baal-peor apostasy and the Midianite woman. The parashah then describes a census of those 20 years of age and older (in preparation for war against Midian). At the conclusion of the census it points out that, except for Joshua and Caleb, none of those counted at Sinai (40 years earlier) were also included in the current census, because God had declared that they should die in the wilderness. Following the census God instructs Moses to allow the transfer of hereditary holdings to women in case there is no son. God then tells Moses that he is to ascend the heights of Abarim to view the promised land, but that he will not enter the land because of his disobedience concerning the Waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God instructs Moses to transfer some of his authority to Joshua and to cause Joshua to appear before Eleazar the priest for ordination, and the parasha then describes the ordination. The parashah concludes with a detailed description of the sacrificial rituals for all festivals.
The Pinchas Episode

The parashah is named for Pinchas because of its connection to the Pinchas Episode, which consists of the following sequence of events: 1. While camped at Shittim, the people sin against God by whoring with the Moabite women and sacrificing to their god, Baal-peor. -1-

2. God sends a plague to punish the people. 3. God tells Moses to publicly impale all of the leaders to end the plague. 4. As Moses is telling the judges to slay all of the guilty, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman appear in full sight of the congregation of Israel at the Tent of Meeting. 5. Pinchas zealously impales the Israelite man and the Midianite woman. 6. The plague ends after the death of 24,000 in the camp. 7. God tells Moses that Pinchas staved off the plague by his zealous action and will be rewarded with a pact of friendship and the priesthood in perpetuity. The Pinchas Episode raises some questions. • • All but the last event are described in Parashat Balak. Why did the Rabbis begin a new parashah in the midst of the Pinchas Episode? God originally demanded the death penalty for all of the leaders, but was satisfied with the execution of a single Israelite and a single Midianite woman. Why did God temper His justice?

These questions may appear to be unrelated, but their answers suggest a strong connection between them.
God’s Reward to Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas begins with the statement that God will reward Pinchas with the priesthood forever because he saved the people from the plague by publicly displaying his zeal for God in front of the people. By beginning the parashah with this statement, the Rabbis de-emphasized the actual deed by not including it in the parashah along with the description of the reward. They instead emphasized that Pinchas was rewarded for saving the Israelites from God’s wrath by his zeal for God.1 By emphasizing the zeal of Pinchas as the justification for his descendents’ hereditary claim to the priesthood, the Rabbis also emphasized that God demands that the priests exercise zeal in the performance of their priestly duties.
Tempered Justice

God told Moses to publicly slay the leaders for the people’s sins against God. The leaders would have been the chiefs, who in tribal society would have borne responsibility for the behavior of those under them. Moses instructed the judges of Israel to kill those who bound themselves to Baal-peor. But weren’t the judges that Moses instructed to kill the sinners, the very leaders that God told Moses to kill?


It may be that the Rabbis were appalled by the actual deed and wanted to separate it from the very significant reward.


There appears to be a conflict between God and Moses concerning responsibility and consequences. God appears to say that the leaders should forfeit their lives to redeem Israel for its sins against God. Moses’ instructions to the judges (leaders) make it appear that their responsibility is not to forfeit their lives, but rather to identify and kill the guilty individuals. God says that the people as a whole are responsible for their sins and their leaders must bear the consequences. Moses says that the individuals who sinned are responsible, and they must individually bear the consequences. Of course we will never know what would have happened if the judges had carried out Moses’ instructions, because Pinchas resolved the conflict. God’s tempered judgment is actually a transfer of responsibility for sins of the people against God from the tribal leaders, not to individuals, but to the priests. The priests would perform the ritual mitzvot as zealous surrogates for Israel before God.2
Reward and Responsibility

Not only was the perpetual priesthood God’s reward to Pinchas for his zeal, it was God’s assignment to the priests the zealous responsibility for the people before God.


The High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur with a rope tied around his waist. The purpose of the rope was to allow his dead body to be retrieved if he didn’t perform his duties with the proper zeal.


Oaths and Vows — The Power of Words
A D’var Torah on Parashat Matot (Num. 30:2 – 32:42) By Alan I. Friedman
“Vay’dabeir Moshe el-rashei ha-matot liv’nei Yisrael….” “Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes….” The discussion of oaths and vows in Parashat Matot focuses almost exclusively on the rights of a father or husband to annul or uphold a woman’s vows. As Reform Jews in the 21st century, we find it difficult to understand male-dominated societal standards that placed strict limits on a woman’s exercise of free will and self-determination. We forget that only in the last 120-or-so years, and only in progressive countries of the Western world, have women begun to emerge from millennia of inferior social and legal status. Certainly in the biblical Near East, at the time when the concepts of Parashat Matot were being codified, men had rights that women did not, and male dominance of human affairs was pervasive. But we will not dwell on these aspects of Matot. Rather, we will examine the characteristics of oaths and vows, the distinctions between these two types of pledges, the rationale for speech adding potency to an oath or vow, and the mechanism for annulment. The two Hebrew words that we will focus on are neder (plural nedarim) and sh’vuah1 (plural sh’vuot). Although there is no English equivalent for neder; it is commonly translated as “vow,” meaning a pledge to do something; but “vow” doesn’t convey the full meaning. There are two types of nederim: the first type empowers a person to prohibit to himself or herself something that the Torah permits (for example, “I will not eat meat for the next 30 days”); the second type of neder obligates a person to perform an optional commandment (such as donating to a particular charity of visiting a sick friend daily). With the exception of a neder to perform a commandment, nedarim cannot be used to obligate oneself to perform an act. Parashat Matot concerns itself only with the first type of neder, a voluntarily adopted prohibition.2 The second Hebrew word that is key to this passage is sh’vuah, meaning an “oath.” By invoking a sh’vuah, a person may either prohibit himself from performing an act, or require himself to perform an act. “Conceptually there is a great difference between a neder and [a sh’vuah]. A neder changes the status of an object: for example, if I have made an apple
Do not confuse: h[bX (sh’vuah) = oath; [wbX (shavua) = week The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 900.
1 2

forbidden to myself, the apple has the status of a forbidden food to me, and therefore I may not enjoy the apple. In contrast, [a sh’vuah] places an obligation only on the person: for example, if I have sworn to eat an apple, there is a new obligation on me, but the halachic status of the apple itself is unchanged.”3 Whenever a person makes a neder or a sh’vuah, the Torah obligates that person to fulfill the pledge4. Jewish law further dictates that even if a person simply expresses a willingness to perform a mitzvah, he or she is similarly obligated to do so.5 What are the mechanics by which a vow takes effect? “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” advises Proverbs 18:21. Speech is the gateway between the thoughts of the mind and the physical actions of the body. Through speech one begins the trek of turning intentions into the reality of action. It is for this reason that making a neder is so effective in binding a person into doing the right thing.6 Why should a neder help a person perform a mitzvah that he or she is already obligated to perform? Why can’t a person simply decide to do the mitzvah and carry it out without expressing the intent verbally? Even pledging to perform a mitzvah to which one is already obligated strengthens one’s commitment by moving the intention toward reality. All that remains is the purely physical act.7 Why does a person become any more obligated by expressing a desire through the medium of speech than by thinking that same desire? A person who invokes a neder or a sh’vuah places upon himself, upon others, or upon objects a status equal to a commandment from the Torah. The neder or sh’vuah creates a binding situation that otherwise would not have existed.8 The expression of a “word” imposes an obligating force upon the person making the pledge; and as soon as the word is uttered, the promise is considered binding.9 “Giving one’s word,” then, is not so much a point of honor as it is a sacred and binding obligation.10 And, because a pledge is sacred, it must not be broken. Failure to comply with the pledge makes the
Ibid., p. 900. “If a man makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” – Num. 30:3 5 Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 203. 6 “Speech Impediments,” by Ranon Cortell; Torah from Dixie; undated. 7 Ibid. 8 “How to Vow Your Audience,” Perceptions on the Parasha, by Rabbi Pinchas Winston; Project Genesis; 2003. 9 “Holy Words,” by Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen; Associate Director of KOLEL – The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning; undated. 10 Commentary by Rabbi Gerson D. Cohen, Chancellor Emeritus and Professor of Jewish History, Jewish Theological Seminary of America; 1999.
3 4

person culpable for punishment, just as if he or she had violated an act or restriction that had been commanded by the Torah. Such is the power of speech.11 Nedarim and sh’vuot are serious because they are pledges to God. The Torah does not even consider that one would make a pledge to God and then default on it. In fact, there are no provisions for absolving a person of the consequences for defaulting on a pledge.12 Perhaps that is why we read in Ecclesiastes 5:4 that “it is better not to vow at all than to vow and not fulfill.” In the Holiness Code, which we recite every Shabbat morning, we read, “You shall not swear falsely by My Name, thereby desecrating the name of your God.”13 The Hebrew verb for “desecrate” is chillul. The adjectival form, chullin, is usually translated as “profane,” but actually has the sense of “ordinary.” Since the Torah uses chillul regarding the breaking of one’s vow, and since desecration has relevance only to the defilement of something that is sacred, we may conclude that one’s speech is sacred.14 We see, then, that breaking a pledge – that is, desecrating one’s word – is not just a personal failure; it is a chillul ha-Shem, a profanation of God’s holy Name.15 Recognizing that nedarim and sh’vuot were often made on impulse or in anger, and without due regard for the consequences,16 some rabbis performed elaborate legal gymnastics – called hattarat nedarim, – to identify legal loopholes and provide for the dissolution of vows.17 These legal processes in front of a Beit Din ultimately coalesced into the Kol Nidrei, which we chant on Erev Yom Kippur. Since any violation of a neder or sh’vuah can interfere with the atonement process, and since an individual who has violated a pledge may not realize that he has done so, Kol Nidrei provides an opportunity for absolution. “Kol Nidrei declares that in case an individual made a vow or an oath during the past year and somehow forgot and violated it inadvertently, he now realizes that he made a terrible mistake and strongly regrets his hasty pronouncement. In effect he tells the ‘court’ … that had he realized the gravity and severity of violating an oath, he never would have uttered it in the first place. He thus begs for forgiveness and understanding.”18
Rabbi Pinchas Winston; op. cit. Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, op. cit. 13 Parashat K’doshim, Lev. 19:12. 14 Commentary by Rabbi Yoseph Kalatsky, Dean of The Yad Avraham Institute. 15 “Sanctifying and Profaning the Name,” The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; p. 892. 16 “Speak Out!” by Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman; Department of Worship, Music, and Religious Living; Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism); July 10, 1999. 17 Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, op. cit. 18 “The Origin and Purpose of Kol Nidrei,” by Rabbi Doniel Neustadt, Congregation Young Israel, Cleveland, and Principal of Yavne Teachers College; 2000.
11 12

Other rabbinic authorities maintain that Kol Nidrei, instead of annulling existing nedarim and sh’vuot, declares as invalid (“null and void, without power and without standing”) all future nedarim and sh’vuot that might be uttered without sufficient forethought.19 What is the message of Parashat Matot for us today? We must be on guard against making promises, commitments, and pledges that we do not intend to keep or that we may not be able to keep. Words have power, and giving one’s word creates a sacred and binding obligation. Let us use our words for kiddush ha-Shem, sanctification of God’s holy Name.

AIF 07-09-04 Matot – DvarTorah.doc



Holy Warriors for a Holy Land
A D’var Torah on Parashat Mas’ei (Numbers 33:1 – 36:13)
By Marc Goodman “Eileh mas’ei v’nei-Yisrael asher yatz’u mei’eretz Mitzrayim….” “These are the journeys of the Israelites who went forth from the land of Egypt….”

Parashat Mas’ei – a Summary

Parashat Mas’ei chronicles the movements of the Israelites starting from Ramses and ending 40 years later in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. There God instructs them to destroy the cultic places and symbols and to completely dispossess the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. God further warns them that if they do not completely dispossess the Canaanites, those who remain will harass the Israelites, and that God will visit the same fate on the Israelites that God had planned for the Canaanites. God next describes the boundaries of the land they are about to “inherit” and appoints Eleazar the priest and Joshua son of Nun as the men who should apportion the land. God then appoints (by name) the chief of each tribe (other than Levi) to whom land should be apportioned. Having omitted the Levites from the list of tribes to which land should be apportioned, God instructs the Israelites to apportion towns and pasture land to the Levites from within their holdings. Included among the Levitical towns are to be six cities of refuge to which an unintentional killer may flee for protection (under the High Priest) from a blood avenger of the dead man’s family. In describing who is eligible for protection in a city of refuge, the parashah also describes who is not eligible and states in no uncertain terms that murderers must be put to death. The last chapter of Parashat Mas’ei clarifies inheritance laws for women, allowing them to own a landholding. It does, however, restrict women who have acquired landholdings by inheritance from marrying outside of their tribe, thereby ensuring that the tribes will retain their allotted portions.
Parashat Mas’ei – A Question

Parashat Mas’ei raises a question that begs for an answer: Why must the Israelites destroy the cultic places and symbols of the Canaanites and dispossess the people? I would like to explore this question within the framework of “holy people” and “holy land.”


A Holy Land

The land occupied by the Canaanites has been made “holy”1 by God’s promises to the Patriarchs. In Genesis 12, God instructs Abram to leave his father’s home and go to the “land I will show you.” There God promises to make him a great nation, one by whom all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.2 In striking the Covenant of Circumcision with Abraham, God promises the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.3 God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt during a famine, but rather to remain in the land which “I point out to you.” Similar to God’s promise to Abraham, God promises Isaac that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by his offspring.4 On his journey to Haran, Jacob dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder. God stands beside Jacob and informs him that God has given the land on which he (Jacob) lies to Jacob and his offspring. God also promises that all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by Jacob and his offspring, and that God will protect him and bring him back to this land.5
A Holy People

All of the promises of the land of Canaan made by God to the Patriarchs are accompanied by a promise that all of the nations and/or families of earth shall bless themselves by the Patriarchs and their offspring. The people will bless themselves because Israel is to be the vessel through which God will establish law on earth. Israel, the offspring of the Patriarchs, will serve as a “light unto the nations.” Once established in the Holy Land, Israel will accomplish its mission by becoming a “nation of priests,” following God’s laws and faithfully observing God’s commandments. Both the people and the land have been set aside (made holy) for God’s purposes.
The Canaanites

God has determined that it is time to expel the Canaanites from the Holy Land to make way for the descendents of the Patriarchs to establish themselves as a “nation of priests.” Expulsion is necessary because the Canaanites have defiled God’s Holy Land with their cultic palaces, symbols, and idolatry. God does not want the Canaanites to remain in the Holy Land where they might also contaminate God’s holy people.
Parashat Mas’ei – An Answer and Another Question

We asked why Israel must completely dispossess the Canaanites, and we offered an answer. The Holy Land must be cleansed before the holy people
The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh, which means “set aside.” God has chosen a land and a people to set aside. 2 Genesis 12:1-3. 3 Genesis 17:8. 4 Genesis 26:1-4. 5 Genesis 28:12-15.


can establish a “nation of priests.” Its cultic places, figured objects, and molten images must be destroyed, and its current occupants must be driven from the land to prevent possible contamination of the future “nation of priests.” But the Canaanites will not go quietly. Israel will only destroy their cultic places and symbols and dispossess them by military conquest. Why will the first act that the “nation of priests” must perform to establish itself in God’s Holy Land en route to becoming a “light unto the nations” require it to get blood on its hands? Why doesn’t God destroy the cultic places and symbols and dispossess the Canaanites? God sent plagues against the Egyptians and even against the Israelites. God separated the Sea of Reeds for the Israelites and then caused its waters to rush back together to drown the Egyptians. God opened the earth to swallow up Korach and his followers. God could certainly destroy the cultic places and symbols of the Canaanites and dispossess them from God’s Holy Land without requiring God’s “nation of priests” to engage in warfare.
A Light Unto the Nations

Having agreed to the Covenant at Sinai, Israel has become God’s partner in establishing God’s Law among the nations. God’s Law is for mankind, and just as God commands mankind to lead a good and righteous life, God also commands mankind to combat evil. The “nation of priests” will be a “light unto the nations” by showing mankind not only how to lead a good and righteous life but also how to combat evil.


A D’var Torah on Parashat D’varim
By Linda Cowley

Speak in Haste, Repent at Leisure
(Deut. 1:1 – 3:32) “Eileh had’varim asher diber Moshe el-kol-Yisrael….” “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel….”

Parashat D’varim is the record of Moses’ farewell speeches to the Israelites, given just prior to their entering Canaan, the land promised to them by God, after thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness. The previous generation (with the exception of Joshua and Caleb) had rejected God’s orders to enter Canaan, from fear of the reports of giants there, although some later went ahead, with disastrous results. Moses reviews the history of the people’s wandering, with a focus on their lack of fidelity and gratitude. Curiously, he blames God’s refusal to allow him to enter the Promised Land on the Israelites’ behavior, not his own earlier behavior at the Waters of Meribah, where, in apparent disregard for God’s instruction, he struck the rock twice and called the people “rebels.”1 Moses goes on to describe the battle with the troops of the Ammonite King, Sihon of Heshbon, who would not let the people pass through his land, followed by the battle with King Og of Bashan, who “took to the field” against the Israelites. An interesting note, and germane to our discussion, is that Moses warned the people not to harass or provoke war with the Moabites, who occupied a land previously inhabited by the “Emim,” “a people great and numerous as the Anakites” and who, like the Anakites, were counted as Rephaim. 2 Similarly, he warns them against harassing or fighting the Ammonites, who were also counted as Rephaim. The Rephaim were understood to be the ancient inhabitants of Canaan, a race of giants.3 The recurrent theme of “giants” actually has its beginning in Exodus 6:4, with the Nephilim, who were reported as being on the earth “then, and later too” (prior to and after the flood). The twelve spies sent by Moses to bring a report of the land also reported sighting the Nephilim. 4 The Anakites, children of their father, Anak (which is both a proper name and a generic term for “long-necked” or tall people), were also giants 5 Although God became angry at them for their lack of faith, and condemned them to wander without entering the Promised Land, there is significant biblical evidence that the Israelites’ fear of giants was well founded.
Numbers 20: 8-13. Deuteronomy 2:11. 3 Brown, Francis, ed. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000, p. 952. 4 Numbers 13:33. 5 Brown, op. cit., p. 778.
1 2

Why did the Israelites actually have to wander in the wilderness for thirtyeight years after receiving the report of giants from the twelve spies? Why was Moses really forbidden to enter the Promised Land with his people? The fear of giants so infected the community that they were afraid to go in and conquer the land promised to them by God. An entire generation had to pass away before the next generation was emotionally and psychologically ready to face the challenge before them. Fear itself does not necessarily paralyze a person; rather it is the perceived consequence (whether it might be real or not) that does so. Fear among the people was spread not by all the individuals actually seeing the giants, but by the words that were spread by the spies. As the leader of the people, Moses was expected to train and equip them emotionally and psychologically to enter the land; whatever real or perceived giants were present. It was impossible, however, to overcome the consequence of the paralyzing fear that was spread among the previous generation until that group of people was gone. The Hebrew rbd (d’var) can mean either “word” or “thing.” There is a Midrash that notes the similarity between “words/things” and “bees,” which states that Moses’ criticisms of the people were like bee stings, and as such hurt them.6 The Midrash adds that when the bee stings, it actually causes its own death. Moses’ criticisms, according to that Midrash, actually caused his own death prior to entering the land. However, it is more widely accepted that it was God who prohibited Moses from entering the land: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”7 God reiterates this consequence as Moses stands on Mount Nebo gazing at Canaan, “…for you both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.…”8 In essence, words are things, because, once they are extended, consequences follow accordingly. The spies’ “words” created “things” (giants) in the minds of the people, thus preventing an entire generation of Israelites from entering the Promised Land. Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, and added to his disobedience by “striking” the people with harsh “words” of criticism. He might instead have obeyed, upholding God’s sanctity by speaking to the rock (and to the people) the very words that would have set the appropriate example of faith in God. As a consequence of his disobedience, Moses also forfeited his right to enter the Land.
6 7 8

Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah 1:1. Numbers 20:12. Deuteronomy 32:51.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Va-et’chanan (Deut. 3:23 – 7:11)
By Bert W. Schweitz “Va-et’chanan1 el-Adonai ba’eit hahi leimor….” “I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying….”
I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying, “O Eternal God, you whose powerful deeds no God on heaven or on earth can equal, let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.” But Adonai was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. Adonai said to me, “Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across the Jordan. Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.”2

The Disappointment of Moses

Parashat Va-et’chanan is of particular significance to me since it was the focus of my two Bar Mitzvah ceremonies 3 — the first in 1948, and the second 52 years later. But it was only during the latter ceremony that I addressed the tremendous disappointment that Moses must have felt when God would not permit him to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Parashat Va-Et’channan begins with Moses and his followers camped at the Jordan River, near the end of their long and difficult journey through the wilderness. Only a short distance remains to be traveled for Moses to realize his dream of entering the Promised Land. It is a dream that will remain unfulfilled. God tells Moses to climb a nearby hill and to look out on the Promised Land because he will never be allowed to enter it. Will this great disappointment cause Moses to live out his remaining days as an angry and bitter man? Hopefully, he will find comfort and satisfaction with the knowledge that his hard work and sacrifices will enable future generations of Jewish people to live in the Promised Land.
According to Rashi, et’chanan is a term for prayerful imploring or pleading, as when one seeks an undeserved favor. Thus Moses, in his humility, made no claim on God’s mercy. 2 Deuteronomy 3:24-28. 3 My participation in my first Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the Oheb Zedeck Temple in Cleveland, Ohio, was limited to chanting the Haftarah and the accompanying prayers, and delivering a memorized oration thanking everyone for helping me to reach this auspicious occasion. The rabbi chanted the parashah. There were no English translations or explanations of the material. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony left me unfulfilled and disappointed, and marked the end of my Jewish and Hebrew education for more than 50 years. In 2000, after extensive preparation with Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Temple Beth Sholom, during which I gained additional knowledge and understanding of Jewish biblical history, I celebrated my second Bar Mitzvah by chanting my Torah and Haftarah portions and the accompanying prayers, and delivering a speech about Moses’ disappointment. I finally attained closure of my Bar Mitzvah ceremony on that long-ago Shabbat morning of 1948.

“If you will it, it is not a dream.” These words were spoken by Theodore Hertzl, the father of Zionism. Hertzl, born in 1860, became an accomplished author, playwright, and journalist. As a journalist and newspaper correspondent, he traveled extensively throughout Europe at a time when there was a great deal of anti-Jewish sentiment. After reporting the disastrous effects of anti-Semitism on the outcome of the Alfred Dreyfus trial in France, Hertzl began developing the concept of a Jewish State. The formation of a Jewish Homeland became his dream and eventually his obsession. His efforts greatly contributed to the formation of the State of Israel, which occurred more than forty years after his death. Some of us will not realize our dreams, but will find gratification in knowing that we have helped others. A dedicated teacher may never fulfill his ambition of obtaining a doctorate degree in education, but during his career, he may help hundreds of students gain the knowledge that assisted in their development into useful and productive citizens. The medical researcher may never discover cures for heart disease and cancer, but the data he collected will help others in his field to achieve these goals. The dreams of Moses and Theodore Hertzl evolved under extraordinary circumstances. Passages from Torah give us some insight as to why God did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. In the case of Theodore Hertzl, it is not unreasonable for the creation of a Jewish homeland to require more than one lifetime of work. Many of us will fulfill our dreams through hard work, careful planning, and the judicious use of time. We can help each other. When God spoke to Moses on the summit of Mount Pisgah, Moses was one hundred twenty years old.4 He could look back on the past, contemplate the present, and look forward to a time when future generations of Jewish people would be able to enter the Promised Land. Pirkei Avot5 tells us to run to perform even a minor mitzvah because one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah. My father in-law, a Sephardic Jew, taught me a related Greek proverb: “Kane to kalo kai riksto sto yalo.” Literally, this means, “Do a good deed, and throw it to the waves. The ocean waves will bring it back to you.” But we all know how the ocean currents and tides work; there can be a considerable delay between the “throwing in” and the “bringing back.” So broadly interpreted, the proverb means not to expect an immediate reward for doing a good deed.

4 5

Tradition says that Moses died on his 120th birthday. Pirkei Avot 4:2.

This was precisely Moses’ experience. He spent more than 40 years doing good deeds but was denied the personal reward of his fondest dream, entering the Promised Land. Instead the reward for Moses’ good deeds was experienced by the Israelites and future generations of Jews who received the reward that was denied to Moses. We talk about a Messianic Age. Perhaps the true beginning of the Messianic age will be determined by how charitably we treat one another. People function best in a positive environment of emotional support. Let us become confidence builders and confidence enhancers for each other. Every time we give each other encouragement and the hope for success, and every act of kindness, tolerance, and good will that we extend to each other, will be returned to us, will help all of us to realize our dreams, and will bring us all one step closer to our Promised Land. Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Eikev1 (Deut. 7:12 – 11:25)
By Sarah B. Schweitz “V’hayah eikev tish’m’un eit hamishpatim ha’eileh ush’martem va’asitem otam….” “As a reward, if you hearken to these laws and follow them carefully….” In the few short weeks before the Israelites cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, Moses delivers several orations to the people as they are encamped in the plains of Moab. Moses knows that he will not enter the Promised Land. As a loving father, he puts his thoughts in writing. There is an urgency, and anxiety in his speeches. What will happen to his beloved people, he wonders, once they enter the Promised Land that is “flowing with milk and honey?” He worries about how the people will respond to the “good life,” as they accumulate their wealth of gold and silver. What if they forget Adonai? After all, Moses remembers how quickly the Israelites forgot God’s teachings at Mount Horeb/Sinai when he left them for a mere forty days to accept the Ten Commandments. Now he must leave them in someone else’s care “forever.” Moses presents the people with four guidelines:
Guideline One: Remember the hardships of your past and how you were

Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone

tested for forty years in the desert to teach you that human beings do not live on bread alone but on what God commands.2
Guideline Two: God is bringing you into a good land where you will lack

nothing. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land that has been given you. (Therefore the creation of the Birkat Hamazon, or the grace after meals.)3
Guideline Three: When you are satisfied, have built fine houses, and have

increased your herds, gold, and silver, beware of your heart growing haughty, of forgetting God’s commandments, of saying: “My power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me!”4

Guideline Four: After you have defeated your enemies and you occupy the

land, do not say to yourselves: “God has enabled me to occupy this land because of my virtues.”5

bq[ (eikev) means both “heel” and “reward.” Rashi comments that the expression refers to the sort of laws that people may regard as unimportant, so they tend to step on them with their heels. But if the people are careful to observe even these neglected laws, God will reward them. Thus Rashi renders bq[ as “As a reward, if”. 2 Deuteronomy 8:2-3. 3 Deuteronomy 8:7-10. 4 Deuteronomy 8:12-18. 5 Deuteronomy 9:1-5.

When I was a young child of four, my parents and I were in hiding in the Greek countryside, trying to save ourselves from the Nazis. The Nazis had already captured fifty members of our family, but —by the grace of God and with the help and generosity of a righteous gentile — we escaped. We spent about a year in the Greek mountains, hiding from village to village. The Greek countryside was at its best around spring and summer. Food was scarce and we were hungry most of the time. My father used to recite this passage from Parashat Eikev, “Man does not live by bread alone but with whatever God can provide.” I was encouraged to eat whatever was available — some vegetables, some fruit. We had an abundance of chamomile flowers, so we consumed chamomile tea in enormous amounts. Fresh water was available, but not bread. The aromas that emanated from the good earth and the beauty of the surroundings are still with me. Wild flowers of every color, fruit trees gave their fruits, the aroma of chamomile flowers, sage, and oregano compensated for the lack of bread. The beauty of the surrounding countryside and the abundance of colors in the mountains under a canopy of blue sky are with me to this day. Every day my parents and I recited the Birkat Hamazon after our exotic consumption of food. I still remember their devotion to tradition that kept our faith during those difficult times. My parents were reassuring me that God would send us some bread. One day as I was sitting on a hill waiting for this miracle to happen, I noticed something moving in the horizon. This black dot was getting bigger and finally I could see a mule with some supplies and a Greek man dressed in black approaching our cabin. A miracle did happen. I was jumping with joy, my parents were crying and prayers of thanksgiving were recited. When the bread was baked it was the most delicious piece of bread I have ever tasted. We recited the Shehecheyanu, Hamotsi, and Birkat Hamazon. Truly, God had provided for us. It left a lasting, grateful memory. My parents were concerned that, in our isolation in hiding, deprived of human contact, food, and education I would be underdeveloped both physically and mentally. They started to teach me, without books, stories of Torah, and the Greek classics. I heard for the first time the Shakespearian plays, Balzac, and Tolstoy. Rabbi Morris Adler states, “human beings do not live on bread alone. Human beings are not only body but also mind. Intellectual development is the most significant aspect of human life. Human beings are also seekers of good, faith, and justice. Education brings us the acknowledgement that there is mystery in this world which our limited human understanding cannot comprehend.”6


As quoted in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, by Rabbi Harvey J. Fields; URJ Pres; 1997.

Rabbi Harvey Fields states “Most commentators see in Moses’ guidelines important lessons. They all agree that arrogance and pride lead to corruption and denial of God. The antidotes to arrogance are gratitude and recollection. An appreciation of history puts all human accomplishments into perspective. History roots us in gratitude for the gifts of God.”7 I can still hear my Father’s voice “Sarah, remember where you came from and how we survived during the Holocaust.” Yes, Papa, I remember, by the Grace of God.


Fields, op cit.

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
A D’var Torah on Parashat R’eih (Deut. 11:26 – 16:17)
By Norman J. Rosen, M.D. “R’eih anochi notein lif’neichem hayom b’racha uk’lalah.” “See, I place before you this day a blessing and a curse.” the Promised Land, communication with God will transition from Pillar-ofSmoke-By-Day / Pillar-of-Fire-By-Night / Thunder-and-Lightning-on-theMountain to Prophets1. The Hebrews are forewarned that false prophets will appear among the true, and the people are commanded to heed true prophets and to reject false prophets. How are the people to tell the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet? Any attempt to lead the people to other Gods or to violate the Torah is proof-positive that the prophet is false. Neither miracles, nor signs and wonders, nor even evidence of success or prosperity justify a prophecy away from God.2 A false prophet is a false prophet is a false prophet. Although the Hebrews received the Truth of Divine Revelation amidst fire, smoke, lightning, thunder, signs, wonders and miracles, henceforth Divine direction would be via human prophets. True prophets would be mixed among false prophets, and the Hebrews would have to use their heads to differentiate between the two — without reliance on active divine intervention, miracles, or worldly success. They are instructed that a “prophet” who leads to other gods is, by definition, a false prophet, but in the end people would have to decide whether to believe. Why does the Torah devote all of Deuteronomy 13 and half of Deuteronomy 18, one-and-a-half chapters, to this seemingly simple matter? Deuteronomy 18:16 states that the Hebrews requested an end to direct Divine communication. In Deuteronomy 18:17 God replies that the people have done well in this request. The word that God uses, heitivu, is a variation of tov, the word that God speaks in daily approval of the first six days of creation. God states that future Divine communication would be via prophets (human beings). In a Freedom of Information Act echoing Eve and Adam’s devouring the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the people take a leap of knowledge by stating, “You send the messenger. We will judge the message.” This time God agrees.
1 A prophet (Hebrew, navi) is a human agent invested by God with the responsibility of communicating Divine will and direction. 2 See “Re’eh 2, The Medium and the Message”, Studies in Devarim, by Nehama Leibowitz, Eliner Press; World Zionist Organization; 1993.

Will the real False Prophet please stand up? As the Hebrews prepare to enter

Parashat R’eih starts, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse….,” meaning that even Divine revelation was given in the context of each individual’s freedom of choice. Choice requires information and understanding, consistent with Jewish tradition as is reflected in the traditional prayer, “natan lasekhvee veena l’havkheen bein yom uvein lailah”, in which Jews give thanks to God for granting them the ability to think rationally. The people are told: You will soon change lifestyles. You will enter the land, conquer its inhabitants, not take on their gods or traditions, listen to true prophets, disregard false prophets, and make informed choices of your own free will. No one disagrees. The laws (mitzvot), which have come fast and furious, have been given to a wandering, tribal people emerging from slavery. The laws soon will have to be adapted to agricultural and urban lifestyles, and the interpretation and expansion of Halachah will be off and running. In Jewish tradition, religious ethical and moral teaching includes everyday as well as religious matters. The pronouncements of prophets will go far beyond the religious realm and encompass all issues of everyday life. Here is the meeting of Divine law, human understanding, and free will. Because everyday life has religious significance, accurately understanding the world — including ourselves — takes on religious significance. Even today, we are surrounded with endless offerings of information, some of which is correct, much of which is not. How does one decide what is true? 1. 2. 3. 4. How How How How do do do do you you you you define "truth"? determine if something is true? determine if something someone tells you is true? determine if someone is telling you the truth?

I polled our Torah Study talmidim on these questions and wish to thank and acknowledge those who replied. The answers were thoughtful, eloquent, and creative. Question 1 — “How do you define truth?” — is challenging. People opined that “truth” describes the way the world is, or alternatively, it describes people’s understanding or experience of the way the world is. Several axes were cited that describe truth: subjective vs. objective truth, relative vs. absolute, provable vs. improvable, testable vs. untestable, evidenced vs. faith-based, experienceable vs. non-experienceable, and consistent truth within a simple, clearly understood framework versus notnecessarily-consistent truth within a complex, not clearly understood framework.
“What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup.”3


Boris Pasternak.

Question 2: “How do you determine if something is true?” Noting that we must frequently evaluate information, that such evaluations must be practical and accurate, and that truth is a multifaceted gem, the Torah Study talmidim presented well-reasoned, flexible strategies for evaluating truth. These included: 1) consistency with known facts, 2) internal inconsistency, 3) reality testing, 4) variations on the scientific method, 5) research, 6) ethical and emotional “sniff” tests, 7) opinion of authorities, and 8) personal judgment. Respondents acknowledged that 9) something may be partially true, true in some situations but not in others, or true based on a specific perspective or context, 10) truth may require collaboration with others, 11) truth may require an interactive process, 12) some truth may be beyond human ability, and 13) some truth may be unprovable. Finally, recognition was given to 14) the importance of remaining open to new knowledge that is inconsistent with prior understanding.
“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”4 “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”5

Question 3: “How do you determine if something someone tells you is true?” This is part of Parashat R’eih’s challenging “Who is a true prophet? Who is a false prophet?” questions. Realizing that a large part of our knowledge comes from other people, the emphasis here is on the message — is it true or not? This is where Question 1’s philosophy and Question 2’s guidelines are put to work.
“Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.”6 “If the majority of people say something wrong is right, it is still wrong. Right?”

Question 4: “How do you determine if someone is telling you the truth?” This is the other part of Parashat R’eih’s question. The emphasis here is on the messenger — should this person be believed? Respondents gave considerable attention to evaluating messengers, including their reliability, track record, character, motives, and presentation.
“Who are you going to believe—me or your eyes?”7

Thus far, the message and the messenger have been the center of attention. There remains the recipient. Self knowledge and education are quite important in pursuing truth. Examples spring from cognitive-dissonance research. A person’s values and well-being, perception and understanding,

4 5 6 7

Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein. Billie Rose and Willie Raskin (song title, 1927). Groucho Marx.

and behavior and actions all interact and manipulate each other. To “know thyself” is a major commitment. We dance around another face of truth. The truth is what a person believes. Whether truth is subjective or objective, absolute or relative, provable or unprovable, testable or untestable, evidenced or faith-based, experienceable or non-experienceable, and consistent or inconsistent, if a person believes it, for that person it is the truth. Most people are well-intentioned, and most false prophets (sources of incorrect information) believe their (incorrect) messages. It is well to keep this in mind in the interest of Tikun Olam.
“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility ... The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.”8


Albert Einstein.

Humility — Limiting the Power of Kings
A D’var Torah on Parashat Shoftim (Deut. 16:18 – 21:9)
By Alan I. Friedman “Shoftim v’shotrim titen-l’cha b’chol-sh’areycha … lish’vateycha….” “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes in all of your cities….” Parashat Shoftim addresses the new social reality that would emerge when the Israelites entered and conquered the Promised Land following the death of Moses. God foretells that, when the people possess the land and settle in it, they will desire to set a king over themselves, like all the nations that are around them.1 Aware that eventually, after they had forged a nation, the people would need a central authority, God gives permission for appointment of such a ruler (“You shall be free to set a king over yourself”),2 with the proviso that the king be chosen (or, at least, endorsed) by God3 — thus rooting the monarchy in divine approval. In spite of God’s permission (or command), Israel functioned without a king for over 300 years — from Joshua until Saul — under the leadership of the Judges. When the people approached the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them, he was reluctant; ultimately he acquiesced. Samuel’s crowning of Saul as king of Israel in the eleventh century BCE initiated the monarchical system of government in Jewish history. Once on the throne, the king had broad powers. Deuteronomy, therefore, emphasized that a superior divine law applied to both king and people and that kingship of Israel was “an aspect of carrying out God’s covenantal plan. Hence, the king, though he was chosen by the people, was believed to occupy his place only ‘by grace of God.’”4 After stipulating that a person chosen as king must be “one of your own people” and not a foreigner, the Torah places restrictions or limitations on a king in three areas: he must not keep too many horses; he must not have

This phrase means that the Israelites will request a form of government similar to that of neighboring countries, not that they will request a king who acts like kings of neighboring countries. Israel, then, did not need to be different from other nations in the form of its political leadership, but rather in the manner in which its political leaders act. 2 Some translations convey permission (“You shall be free to….”); others state an imperative commandment (“You shall surely….”). It is not clear whether the Torah obligates or merely allows for the appointment of a king. 3 God’s choice, or God’s endorsement of the people’s choice, would be expressed through the voice of a prophet. 4 “The Monarchy,” The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; pp. 1460-61.


too many wives; and he must not amass too much silver and gold.5 It is unusual for the Torah to provide the reason for a commandment, but for two of these three commandments explicit rationale is given. A king should not have too many horses lest he become reliant on Egypt, where horses were raised. Specifically, “…he shall not … send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, ‘You must not go back that way again.’” Centuries later, Maimonides (Rambam) offered a stringent commentary on this parashah’s prohibition on returning to and settling in Egypt. He wrote,6 “It is permitted to dwell anywhere in the world, except for the Land of Egypt … it is forbidden to settle there.” For Nachmanides (Ramban), a contemporary of Maimonides, the more consequential issue in prohibiting a return to Egypt was behavioral. Nachmanides recognized that the unsavory practices of the Egyptians might hold some appeal for the Israelites and tempt them to imitate Egyptian customs. To prevent the people from being seduced to stray from God’s holy teachings by returning to Egypt, he said, the Torah legislates against it. The rationale for not having too many wives was to prevent the king’s heart from going astray. King Solomon had loved many foreign women, and, according to tradition, he had 1000 wives. (What better way to form an alliance with a neighboring country than by marrying the daughter of that country’s king?) The Torah does not prohibit polygamy. However, since the king was expected to curb his appetites and be an example of moderation and obedience to the Torah, he was allowed to have no more than 18 wives.7,8 In the end, one of Solomon’s wives practiced idolatry in the palace, and Solomon was held accountable.9 The Torah gives no reason for not permitting a king to amass too much gold and silver, probably because no explanation was needed. The temptations of excess wealth were as obvious then as they are now. King Solomon’s large treasury was a corrupting influence, and the onerous taxes that Solomon imposed caused the nation to be split after his death.10

These restrictions are taken to be a criticism of King Solomon, who kept 1400 horses (I Kings 10:26 ff) and had many foreign wives (I Kings 11). How can this be if the commandments of Parashat Shoftim were given before the Israelites entered the Promised Land in ~1405 BCE and Solomon did not reign until 970 to 931 BCE? One explanation is that the author had a prophetic vision. Critical consensus, however, dates Deuteronomy to the late seventh century BCE. If the consensus is correct, the words of Parashat Shoftim actually were written ~300 years after Solomon’s reign. 6 Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim, Chapter 5, Laws 7-12. 7 The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 1029. 8 Three times more than King David’s six wives, according to Rashi. 9 Commentary by Rabbi Avi Geller, Senior Lecturer, Aish HaTorah; undated. 10 Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz; op. cit.; p. 1029.


After addressing proscribed behaviors for a king, Parashat Shoftim turns to those compulsory behaviors intended to instill humility. When the king sits on his royal throne, “he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests.11 It shall be with him,12 and he shall read from it all the days of his life so that he will learn to revere Adonai, his God, to observe all the words of this Teaching13 and these decrees, and to follow them. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left….” Rashi had an expanded understanding of this commandment and took the word hnXm (mishneh), “which implies duplication, to mean that a king must in fact have two … scrolls: ‘One which comes and goes with him, and one which remains in his treasure house.’14… He must carry the [scroll] with him, literally on his sleeve, as a visible symbol in the public sphere, but also keep it safe in his most private place as a true guide to his private practice.”15 Maimonides amplified Rashi’s interpretation. He said that if a king inherited these scrolls from his father, “he must nevertheless write a new one for himself; but if his father did not leave him any, he must write two.”16 Humility is not easy for an “ordinary” person to attain. For those in elevated positions, it is even more difficult. Power corrupts, and the trappings of majesty can go to one’s head. For this reason the king is commanded not to become haughty and not to consider himself better than his brethren. With the Law at his side at home and away as a constant reminder of proper behavior, the king is to understand that he serves at the pleasure of God and that only Adonai is King of all. Even though we are not literally royalty, all Jews should consider themselves to be the offspring of kings. We need to hold ourselves to the highest standards of conduct and consider how the Torah’s commandments to the king apply to us in both our public and our private lives. Judaism is a precious gift. We must not only proudly display our gift in public but also protect and preserve it in our private treasure house, the Jewish home.17
AIF 08-16-04 Shoftim – DvarTorah.doc


Other translations: “… he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Teaching, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites” and “… he shall write for himself two copies of this Teaching in a scroll, from before the Kohanim, the Levites.” “From before” refers to an authoritative (or original) copy of the scroll kept before (that is, in the custody of) the priests. 12 Not just the scroll shall be with him, but the values contained therein, as well. 13 It is not clear whether “this Teaching” refers to the “Law of the King,” to the book of Deuteronomy, which contains the Law of the King, or to the entire Torah. Rashi took it to mean the entire Torah. 14 Tachash World, Online Chumash Text and Rashi Notes. 15 Commentary by Rabbi Joshua Heller, Director of Distance Learning and Educational Technology, Jewish Theological Seminary of America; 2000. 16 Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz; op. cit.; p. 1029. 17 Rabbi Joshua Heller; op. cit.

The Treatment of Women by Invading Armies
A D’var Torah on Parashat Ki Teitzei (Deut. 21:10 - 25:19)
By Alan I. Friedman “Ki-teitzei lamilhamah al-oyveiha….” “When you go out to do battle with your enemies….” This week’s Torah portion begins with the words Ki Teitzei, “When you go out.” The root for teitzei is yatzah — comprised of the Hebrew letters yud, tzadee, aleph — meaning “to leave.” With the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites experienced leaving. Now, after 40 years in the wilderness, they are preparing to enter the Promised Land. The instructions in Ki Teitzei help the Israelites prepare for their new life. They are given detailed laws on many topics, with the primary emphasis on moral values. They are challenged to choose how they will act as individuals every time they “go out.” Ki Teitzei has the distinction of containing more of the 613 commandments — 72, according to Maimonides — than any other Torah portion. These mitzvot touch on virtually every aspect of life and include such disparate topics as beasts of burden, treatment of prisoners of war, women’s rights, disobedient children, brides accused of adultery, prostitutes, foreigners, immigrants, divorcées, widows, and orphans. The mitzvot are intended to help us consciously focus our actions in such a way that we create a society in which people care about one another. They are meant to promote a lifestyle that fosters connection and engagement. Lo The tuhal l’hitaleim (Deut. 22:3), “You must not remain indifferent.” overriding message of Ki Teitzei, then, is that if we are to be holy, we must be positively engaged in the welfare of others. One aspect of the Torah’s commandment for us not to remain indifferent to the welfare of others concerns the treatment of women by invading armies. Warfare gives vent to humanity’s basest impulses: killing, rape, and looting. In prescribing how the Israelites should behave if they become engaged in war, Parashat Ki Teitzei attempts to ameliorate the reality of armed conflict. It says that if, in the course of battle, a man sees a woman among the spoils and wants her, he must shave her head and wait thirty days before making her his wife. Later, if he does not want her, he must let her go free; he cannot sell her.1


The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; pp. 1483.

Consider the background. The soldier has been away from home for a long time, and his passions are aroused in the heat of battle. Treatment of captives in the ancient world was horrible, particularly if the captives were women. Ki Teitzei recognizes, first and foremost, the need to protect the dignity of the women as human beings. Even though the women were not Israelites, they were made in the image of God and deserve respect. Ki Teitzei also offers female captives protection against the impulsiveness of soldiers. If a soldier wants to possess a woman, he must go through a cooling-off period. He must take away her beauty by shaving her head, letting her be unkempt, and putting her in mourning clothes. He must interact with her for a month in his house, during which time her dishevelment will make her unattractive.2 Only then, if he still wants her, may he take her as his wife. And if the soldier decides that he did not really want her in the first place — not that he found fault with her later — the woman cannot be made to suffer by being sold into slavery. Rashi comments that the reason the Torah permits a Jewish soldier to marry a captured gentile woman is to provide an acceptable outlet for the soldier’s yetzer ha-rah (inclination to do evil). Rashi says that, even if the law forbade Israelite men from marrying captive women, they would do it anyway. God knew that the temptation presented by a beautiful captive would be too great for a battle-weary soldier. Therefore, the Torah sets limits.3 Rather than subject the soldier to sin as a result of the stress and passions of battle, God provided a ritual for allowing the soldier to marry an otherwise-prohibited woman.4 The Torah speaks matter-of-factly about forcibly acquiring women as sexual captives. However, being taken as a wife was undoubtedly a far better fate than that awaiting other female captives. By requiring that an Israelite man follow a prescribed process, Ki Teitzei, then, actually provides women with legal protections. Problematic texts like these are often dismissed as being just a historical record of how women were treated in the past. If we reject those parts of the Torah that do not fit our current religious and ethical standards, we will miss the bigger picture. If we read only the parts of Torah that make us feel comfortable, we will appreciate only a small part of what Torah really is. As brutal as the text may be, the Torah is clearly attempting to preserve some human dignity for a captive. God is very much in the discussion.5
AIF 08-21-04 Ki Teitzei – DvarTorah.doc


The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 1047. 3 Commentary by Rabbi Shifra Penzias, Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon, Kinnelon, NJ; September, 1998. 4 Torah Commentary by Rabbi Yecheskel Abramsky (1886-1976), P'ninim MiShulchan Govoha; undated. 5 Rabbi Shifra Penzias; op. cit.

A D’var Torah on Parashat Ki Tavo
By Frances Fried

Blessings and Curses
(Deut. 26:1 – 29:8)

“V’hayah ki-tavo el-ha’aretz asher Adonai Eloheycha notein l’cha….” “When you have entered the land that Adonai your God is giving you….” In Parashat Ki Tavo, God made his third Covenant (b’rit) with the Jewish People:1 “You have affirmed this day that Adonai is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments, and that you will obey Him. And Adonai has affirmed this day that you are … His treasured people … and that He will set you … high above all the nations … and that you shall be … a holy people….” Moses and the Levitical priests then sealed the covenant by proclaiming, “Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of Adonai your God.”2 In the first Covenant — the one that God made with Abraham 3 — God guaranteed Abraham many children and various land boundaries, the Covenant of the Jewish Nation. In the second Covenant — the one at Mount Sinai4 — God revealed the laws to the Israelite people and granted an eternal agreement and a guarantee that can never be rescinded. In effect with these two Covenants, God has made Israel both a nation and a religion. The third covenant is set to take effect upon the peoples’ entry into the Promised Land: “When you have entered the land that Adonai your God is giving you….”5 A primary focus of Parashat Ki Tavo is the blessings and curses to be proclaimed by the Levitical priests once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land. The Parashah describes a ceremony that is to take place on the neighboring mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. The people are to erect a huge stone monument on Mount Ebal, inscribe on it the entire Torah 6 , 7 , and bring offerings. Then the tribes of Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin are to assemble on Mount Gerizim to hear the blessings, while the tribes of Dan, Napthali, Reuben, Gad, Asher and Zebulun are to assemble on Mount Ebal to hear the curses.8

The verses of Deuteronomy 26:16-19 verbalize mutual affirmations and acceptances — constituting a binding contract — between God and Israel. 2 Deuteronomy 27:9. 3 Genesis 15. 4 Exodus 25:1-11. 5 Deuteronomy 26:1. 6 Deuteronomy 27:2-8. 7 Deuteronomy 27:8 stipulates that the words are to be “well clarified” or “well explained.” Rashi interprets this requirement to mean that the words of the Torah were to be inscribed in all seventy primary languages of the time – an amazing achievement – so that they could be understood by all the peoples of the world. 8 Deuteronomy 27:11-13.


The Kohanim and the elders of the Levites are to stand in the valley between the two mountains and loudly proclaim the blessings and the curses — blessings for those who observe the commandments, and curses for those who do not. In response, the respective tribes would publicly acknowledge the consequences by shouting, “Amen.”9 Twelve curses were to be proclaimed for those on Mount Ebal, and it is assumed that an equal number of blessings were to be proclaimed for those on Mount Gerizim. 10 All of the curses were for transgressions performed secretly or in private by those who appear to be pious, respectable members of society. Both the blessings and the curses were aimed at guiding the hearers to live in accordance with God’s commandments.11 The ceremony, in effect, would be a public declaration that there can be no contradiction between public and private morality.12 I like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s view of the three Covenants. He says that “If we look at the three Covenants, it appears that the third is more universal and moralistic. The blessings and curses can apply to all human beings,”13 not just to the Israelites: “Cursed is the individual … who scorns his/her parents, trespasses on the boundary of his neighbor, deceives a blind person on the road, perverts the judgment of a stranger, orphan and widow, is involved in sexual immorality, strikes his/her neighbor secretly, takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.” 14 “There are 12 curses and blessings in all, which correspond to the twelve tribes. The first forbids making a graven image of worship … and the last insisting upon the necessity of upholding these universal laws.”15 Let us take Israel as an example. Here we have a country that has taken in displaced persons from all over the world, many of them intellectuals, scientists, physicians, speaking different languages, practicing their own rituals. They, too, deal with war and peace, what is right and good, the social inequities of the many different types of people living within their borders. They must face tremendous economic challenges, decreasing water supplies, nuclear proliferation.

Deuteronomy 27:15-26. While the 12 curses are explicit, the blessings are not. Scholars presume that the blessings were the reverse of the curses. 11 “Blessings and Curses,” The Torah – A Modern Commentary; Edited by W. Gunther Plaut; Union of American Hebrew Congregations; 1981; p. 1518. 12 The Chumash: The Stone Edition; Edited by Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz; Mesorah Publications, Ltd.; 1993; p. 1073. 13 Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; Ohr Torah Stone; 2003. 14 Ibid. 15 Ibid.


As a Reform Jew, I feel proud of our accomplishments as Jews throughout the world. By applying the third Covenant as a universal covenant for all people in the universe, trying to better the understanding of all people in the meaning of peace between nations, to live side by side, to live and let live, to share knowledge, to help the disadvantaged and downtrodden wherever they are, by pioneering in stem cell research, using the combined knowledge of the many knowledgeable scientists who have immigrated to Israel, we as a Jewish people using all of these skills for the good of mankind would truly make us a nation or people to be admired.

1. Why do the curses follow the blessings? 2. How are the blessings and curses revealed to each other? 3. Are the blessings and curses opposites, or could they be complementary and polar ends of the same continuum?

A D’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9 – 30:20)
By Michele Walot “Atem nitzavim hayom kul’chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.” “You are standing today, all of you, before Adonai, your God.”
“Perhaps there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from Adonai our God to go and worship the gods of those other nations; perhaps there is among you a root sprouting poison weed and wormwood.”1 Summary – In this week’s portion, Moses is about to die on his 120th

Individual Choice and Responsibility

birthday and, in his last few hours, he delivers his final oration to the entire assemblage of Israelites — mighty and humble — warning them to uphold God’s covenant or face terrible consequences. The counterpoint to these dire punishments is the great mercy God will bestow on a person who sincerely repents and returns (makes teshuvah) to the commandments. Moses assures the people that, even in his absence, the Torah is entirely accessible to the people: “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”2 In fact, he says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving Adonai your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Adonai your God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give to them.”3 Moses leaves the people this ethical will as a culmination of the lessons he has tried to impart before they enter the Promised Land without him.
Discussion – Parashat Nitzavim presents an enormously powerful message

about individual choice and responsibility. You don’t need to be a Moses to be accountable for your actions, nor do you need to be rich or privileged. The Torah is for all to study and understand, and each person will be held to its stringent standards of behavior. The Israelites spent forty years in the desert and witnessed God’s miracles and wrath when the people strayed. Not even Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu were protected from God’s retribution when they decided to improvise ritual. Moses specifically addresses those skeptics who think that they can worship other gods and fall under God’s radar, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart — to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike. Adonai will never forgive him; rather will Adonai’s anger and passion rage against that man,
1 2 3

Deuteronomy 29:17. Deuteronomy 30:14. Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and Adonai erases his name from under heaven.”4 Prof. Yehuda Feliks from Bar-Ilan University offers a fascinating insight5 into the poison weed (rosh) and wormwood (la’anah) references with respect to the “moist and dry” two verses later. The plant rosh is most likely Conium maculatum or poison hemlock, an annual or bi-annual tall flowering grass that grows wild in Israel and contains a poison called coniine, which acts as a powerful sedative. This was purportedly the poison given to Socrates. The other plant, la’anah, is of the genus Artemesia; the most common one in Israel is a low shrub with grey jagged leaves, a sharp aroma, and extremely bitter taste. A minuscule amount of the juice can turn wine very bitter. Such wine is called absinthe. In Roman times, the victor of chariot races was given absinthe to drink as a bitter but healthful drink. Prof. Feliks offers a naturalistic interpretation of the verses above about a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood: The person who strays from God’s commandments “may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’ to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike. The Lord will never forgive him.”6 Rosh is a common plant in Israel that grows in moist soil in areas with significant rainfall, and la’anah needs arid soil, like that in the Aravah region of Israel. A person can be like a single root of a cross between the two and can then flourish in any environment — whether moist or dry — just as the juicy stalks of the rosh can augment the dry desert la’anah. The message is that hardiest opportunist with bitterness in his heart towards the covenant will not survive even by conquering obvious hurdles. Though he thinks himself immune against threats to his survival, he is doomed because God will devastate the soil with sulfur and salt so that nothing can grow. Rabbi Eliezer, in Pirkei Avot 2:10, tells his students to repent the day before they die. The obvious conundrum is that death comes without warning so that you are well advised to repent now so that you do not miss your chance. This parashah begins with “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God” and repeats “this day” (or “today”) six times in the oration, emphasizing the importance of living in the present moment, an exhortation to live proactively. Every moment in our lives presents an opportunity to choose life.

4 5 6

Deuteronomy 29:18-19. In his commentary on Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech; 31 August 2002, Revised 3 July 2004. Ibid.

Here are a few quotes to live by:

• “Do all the good you can, / By all the means you can, / In all the ways

you can, / In all the places you can, / At all the times you can, / To all the people you can, / As long as ever you can.”7

• “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”8 • “You cannot do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon
it will be too late.”9

• “Talk doesn’t cook rice.”10 • “Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to
cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.”11

• “It is not permissible to delay the study of Torah until later in life when
there may be more free time. ‘More free time’ may never come.”12

John Wesley, English religious leader (1703-1791). Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, leader for independence of India, pioneer of nonviolent civil disobedience (1869-1948). 9 Ralph Waldo Emerson, American essayist, philosopher and lecturer (1803-1882). 10 Chinese proverb. 11 Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart; from the film "Star Trek: Generations." 12 Pirkei Avot 2:5.
7 8

A D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeilech (Deut. 31:1–30)
By Alan I. Friedman “Vayeilech Moshe vay’dabeir et-had’varim ha-eileh el-kol-Yisrael.” “Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all of Israel.” 1 Parashat Vayeilech is the shortest parashah in the Torah, consisting of only 30 verses. The narrative recounts a poignant transfer of authority from Moses — who is well aware of his imminent demise — to Joshua, his second in command. To the reader who has been following the Torah saga, the appointment of Joshua to lead the Israelites in Moses’ absence comes as no surprise, the detailed succession planning actually having begun 11 parashiot earlier in Parashat Pinchas.2 When Moses ascended Mount Avarim 3 to gaze across the Jordan at the Promised Land, two thoughts may have been on his mind. First, he was probably hoping that God would rescind the decree about prohibiting him from entering the Land.4 But this was not to be. God reiterated that Moses would die without crossing the Jordan: “You shall see it, and you shall be gathered to your people … because you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity….”5 Second, when Moses asked God to appoint a successor (“Let Adonai … appoint someone over the community … so that Adonai’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”6), he may have been expecting that his sons would succeed him. 7 After all, the priesthood was an inherited position. But God had a different plan: “Single out Joshua, son of Nun, an

Passing the Mantle of Leadership

The Septuagint [the third-century BCE translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek] renders this sentence as, “And Moses finished speaking all these words to all the children of Israel” — changing the word lkhu (went) to vkfu (finished). [Ref. The Septuagint Bible Online, http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/]. 2 Numbers 25:10 – 30:1. 3 Some claim that Mount Avarim is Mount Nebo. Others assert that Avarim and Nebo are separate locations in the Mountains of Moab. 4 Earlier (in Parashat Va-et’chanan, Deuteronomy 23:25), Moses had implored God to let him enter: “Let me now cross and see the good Land that is on the other side of the Jordan.” 5 Numbers 27:13-14. 6 Numbers 27:26-27. 7 An order of succession is an algorithm that determines who inherits an office upon the death, resignation, or removal of its current occupant. Under the male-dominated societal standards of the biblical Near East, succession was almost always determined by primogeniture (or, more properly, male primogeniture), the mechanism whereby male descendents of the leader take precedence over female descendents, and elder sons take precedence over younger sons.

inspired man, and lay your hand upon him.8 Have him stand before Elazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority9, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.”10 We might suppose that Moses would be angry or bitter about God’s decisions, but, in a remarkable show of altruism, Moses abandons thoughts of his personal needs and selflessly pleads only for the welfare of the community. It is here that Moses’ leadership role changes — from leading the people, to training and developing their new leader. A leader who leaves his post without identifying and training his replacement has not done his job well. According to tradition, “Moses placed Joshua at his side as one does a beloved son” 11 to accelerate Joshua’s leadership development. Rashi explains that Joshua taught alongside of Moses so that Joshua’s authority would be affirmed through his relationship with God and Moses.12 Transitions are rarely easy, and installment of a new leader can be quite unsettling. A paradigm for easing that transition is the timeless message of Parashat Vayeilech:13
Knowing when to call it quits – It’s an art to know when to retire. Recognizing

that he is the only leader the people have known and that they will find it difficult to envision any future without him, Moses disparages himself by emphasizing his advanced age and diminished abilities: 14 “I am now one hundred and twenty years old; I can no longer be active.” 15 With true humility, Moses acknowledges that it is time for change. He then reassures the people that his presence is not necessary to provide them with access to God’s continued help.16
Letting everyone know that the successor has the backing of “management” –

Nothing could be more damaging to the transition process than undermining the authority of one’s successor. Having minimized his own importance, Moses publicly proclaims that Joshua is the ideal person to succeed him.
Laying on of hands, a process of consecration, commissioning, or ordination called smichah, symbolizes a transfer of power. 9 Also “majesty” or “splendor.” Numbers 27:20 is the only occurrence of dwh in the Torah. 10 Numbers 27:18-20. 11 Commentary on Parashat Vayeilech by Rav Lipman Podolsky; Gates to Jewish Heritage. 12 “True Jewish Leadership,” a commentary on Parashat Haazinu by Moshe Kornfeld; Al Regel Achat, Columbia University Weekly Torah Publication; 2000. 13 “Passing the Torch,” a commentary on Parashat Vayeilech by Rabbi Philip N. Kranz, Temple Sinai, Atlanta, Georgia; 2000. 14 “A Time to Retire,” a commentary on Parashat Vayeilech by Rabbi Marc Saperstein, Professor of Jewish History, George Washington University; 2001. 15 Deuteronomy 31:2. 16 Saperstein, op cit.

Moses ratifies the legitimacy of Joshua by declaring that Joshua has the blessing of “top management”: “Joshua is the one who shall cross at your head, as Adonai has spoken.”17
Providing public support for one’s successor – The final test of a leader is that

he leaves behind in others the capability, conviction, and will to carry on.18 Moses — in the sight of all Israel — bestows his blessing upon Joshua, encouraging him and offering assurance that he is the best man for the job: “Be strong an of good courage, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that Adonai swore to their fathers to give to them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. Adonai will go before you. God will be with you; God will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!”19 With these words and through the smichah, Moses does not merely delegate authority to Joshua; he cloaks Joshua in the mantle of leadership and empowers him to carry on. Throughout the 11 parashiot separating Pinchas and Vayeilech, Moses trains Joshua by mentoring and coaching. Joshua shadows Moses, and Moses leads by example. However, Moses may not have recognized the need for a new type of leader.20 He speaks of the people continuing to need a shepherd, but this was now a different people, born in freedom and hardened by years of overcoming obstacles in the wilderness. It would take more than a shepherd to lead them to conquer the inhabitants in their Promised Land. It would take a military leader well schooled in the spiritual demands laid down by God. If Jewish leadership ultimately comes from God, then listening to God and teaching his precepts are requisites for good Jewish leadership — leadership that will ensure the continuity of God’s eternal covenant with the Jewish people.21 Benjamin Disraeli, England’s only Jewish Prime Minister, once said22 that change is inevitable in a progressive society. Moses embodied a special sensitivity to know when the time for change had come, the insight to bring about that change, and the grace to ensure a seamless transition.23

Deuteronomy 31:3. “Roosevelt Has Gone,” a commentary by Walter Lipman, 14 April 1945. 19 Leviticus 31:7-8. 20 “Who’s Next? The Change and Challenge of Leadership,” a commentary on Parashat Pinchas by Cantor Janice L. Roger, Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, Indianapolis, Indiana; 2002 21 Kornfeld, op. cit. 22 In his speech at Edinburgh, 29 October 1867. 23 Kranz, op. cit.
17 18

From Song to Song — The Story of Our People
A D’var Torah on Parashat Ha’azinu
By Alan I. Friedman “Ha’azinu hashmayim va’adabeirah; v’tishma ha’arets imrey-fi.” “Listen, heavens, and I will speak. Earth, hear the words of my mouth.” Parashat Ha’azinu, the penultimate parashah of Deuteronomy, brings us to the end of Moses’ life. We have witnessed Moses as an adopted son of a royal family, a fugitive, a visionary shepherd, a reluctant leader, a lawgiver, and a teacher. And over the course of the Torah’s five books, we have seen Moses evolve from a thick-of-tongue stutterer to a respected orator and poet laureate. Much like Shirat Ha-Yam, 1 sung by Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites to praise God for enabling them to escape the pursuing Egyptian chariots and safely cross the Sea of Reeds, Ha’azinu takes the form of a poem or a song. Why a poem? In contrast to prose, “the language of poetry penetrates the emotions. It forces us to feel and understand with deep, sometimes unbearable, intensity”2 and allows us to express or explore hidden nuances of the message. From song to song — the story of the Jewish people begins with a song of triumph as we close the chapter of our slavery and begin the chapter of our freedom as God’s chosen people. The story ends (in the Torah, at least) with the final chapter of Moses’ life and the opening chapter of our new life in the Promised Land. But Parashat Ha’azinu does not end on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. Through his poetic eulogy of Jewish history, Moses shares his vision of Jewish experiences for centuries to come. In fact, he expresses this prophetic vision in the past tense, as though he is looking backward from some future time. The message of Ha’azinu is cast in complex metaphors and beautiful imagery, delivered in a poetic stream of consciousness with great urgency in the last hours of Moses’ life.3 The people are about to begin an entirely new phase of their existence — in the absence of the only human leader they have ever known. Moses has only this final chance to guide his flock. How can he instill a sense of divine awe in them? How can he reinforce the
Exodus 15:1-19 Commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu by Alicia Ostricker; The Jerusalem Report; October 5, 1995. 3 Commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu by Chaim Lauer, Executive Vice-President of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York; Tora Aura; September, 2001.
1 2

(Deut. 32:1–52)

messages of God and Torah? For without this sense and understanding, the people cannot survive.4 Being a great teacher, Moses uses different strategies to impress the people with the importance of their covenantal obligations. He reviews their history, their Exodus experience, and the Revelation at Sinai. And he describes in excruciating detail what will befall them if they do not follow God’s commandments. Using vivid imagery in his song of warning and hope, Moses urges the Israelites to remember the past and learn from their mistakes.5 Why does Moses find it necessary to chastise the people as they stand ready to enter the Promised Land? Although Moses knows that the people are physically strong, he questions their spiritual well-being. He recognizes that not all Israel is comfortable with its status as a sacred and unique people. He observes those among them who already are tired of the burden of following God’s commandments, too willing to repudiate their mission to be a covenantal people, too ready to escape from freedom.6 Moses begins his song by calling on heaven and earth to witness not only the eternal validity of his words, but also the covenant-affirming choice that Israel must make. This is not the first time that heaven and earth have served as Moses’ witnesses. Why are such special witnesses needed, Rashi asks. By way of an answer, he has Moses saying to himself, “I am mortal; I am destined to die. If Israel claims that they did not accept the covenant, who will refute that claim?” Therefore, says Rashi, Moses appoints heaven and earth to be witnesses — witnesses that exist forever, witnesses that will be called upon to testify at some future time.7 The Ohr Hachaim8 elaborates: Though the origin of one’s soul is in heaven, the soul extends to one’s body here on earth. Moses’ words originated at the source of his soul, in heaven, yet could be heard on earth as they issued from his mouth. Thus Moses called on both heaven and earth to hear his words. Ha’azinu is both a recapitulation of Jewish history and a prophesy of events that will take place once the people have entered the Promised Land. Lacing his words with not-so-subtle reminders of the people’s past transgressions,
Ibid. “How Can Modern Jews Follow the Path Moses Prescribed?” by Julie Harris, Director of Hebrew and Judaica, Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School, Palo Alto, California; Torat Hayim; 1998. 6 Commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu by David Elcott, Ph.D., Director of U.S. Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee; September, 1999. 7 “Torah and Song, Heaven and Earth,” by Rav Amnon Bazak; Yeshivat Har Etzion Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash; 2004. 8 Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh ben Atar, 1696-1743, known by the name of his most famous work, Ohr HaChaim.
4 5

Moses focuses on the weaknesses of the people and the perfection of God. If the people sin and are ungrateful to God for the many favors that God bestows upon them, they will be punished; but if they remain loyal to God and Torah, they will receive the greatest blessings. 9 To experience God’s power and love, and God’s undying promise of divine deliverance, Israel must embrace Torah as life-giving and essential.10 Through Moses, God expresses frustration. God has explained the rules; God has executed the covenant; God has warned the people of the punishments for transgressions. And even though God knows that, following Moses’ death, the people will be corrupted, God recognizes that personal experience is a more potent teacher than rote explanation. 11 Through experience, the people will learn that they have strayed, and — with this song on their lips — they will repent. God will take them back and redeem them. When redemption comes, heaven and earth will not be the only witnesses. This song, itself, is to be a witness.12 The song will actively accompany Israel throughout its history. Even during the years of sin and exile, the song will remain engraved on the people’s subconscious. At the appropriate time, however, the song will burst forth and penetrate Israel’s collective consciousness. 13 The song waits, therefore, for the time when, in the people’s fullness of despair, it will be transformed from a prophesy into a witness. The essential message of Ha’azinu is this: “Jewish practice is life itself. Take it to heart, teach it to your children, and live your life accordingly. Jewish observance and faith are the keys to life’s rewards.” 14 And even though we stray, God will not abandon us. Even though we transgress, God will forgive. As long as we remember the song, God guarantees our survival and ultimate redemption.

AIF 09-13-04 Ha’azinu – DvarTorah.doc

Summary of Parashat Ha’Azinu, by the Editors of Torah From Dixie. “Border Crossings,” by Rabbi David Stern, Temple Emanu-El, Dallas Texas; Torat Hayim; 1997. 11 Commentary on Parashat Ha’azinu by Rav Ezra Bick; Yeshivat Har Etzion Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash; 1997. 12 “Adonai said to Moses … write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the people of Israel; place it in their mouths so that this song may be My witness....” (Deuteronomy 31:16-19). 13 Rav Amnon Bazak; op. cit. 14 “Calling for Justice,” by Deena Bloomstone, Director of Education, Temple Beth El, San Antonio, Texas; Torat Hayim; 1997.
9 10

A D’var Torah on Parashat V’zot Hab’rachah (Deut. 33:1 – 34:12)
By Martin Graffman, M.D. “V’zot hab’rachah asher beirach Moshe ish ha’elohim et-b’nei Yisrael lifnei moto.” “This is the blessing that Moses, man of God, bestowed on the Israelites before his death.” In this final Parashah of the Torah, we empathize with Moses who can obtain only a glimpse of the Promised Land prior to his death. For more than forty years, Moses has struggled to understand and accept his partnership with God. At God’s command, he has learned — sometimes with great doubt, and at other times with great difficulty — to shepherd a flock of people from the comfort of idolatrous slavery to a land of promise, a land of milk and honey where one might experience the anxiety of freedom. At the dawn of his success and on the eve of his life, Moses wants to lead his people across the Jordan, but God refuses to let him. Yet lovingly, God grants Moses a visual obituary. If we are not bewildered by God’s decision, then we are at least righteously indignant. What if every man successfully concluded his life knowing that he would remain the “best” both in life and after it? What if, at the time of his death, he knew that he was the strongest man alive, and no one would ever be stronger? Or, at the time of his death, he knew that he was the richest man in the universe, and there would never be anyone richer? Or, that he had been the wisest man that had ever lived, and there would never be anyone wiser? Would this be the best of all possibilities for man? What if every man concluded his life knowing that, although he struggled during his life, and although he was at times successful, every success would be surpassed? Or that, during his lifetime, he struggled to be the strongest man alive, that he was for a short time the strongest, but then others, stronger, surpassed him? Or that, during his lifetime, he struggled to be richest man alive, that he was the wealthiest of all men for a short time, but that others became richer? Or that, during his lifetime, he struggled to be the wisest man alive, that he was the wisest of all men for a short time, but that others became wiser? Would this be the best of all possibilities for man? What if every man, during his life, struggled because man must, and that — in spite of that struggle, or because of it — came to love the struggle? After the expulsion from Eden, God ordained struggle for man. The authors of our heritage interpreted the expulsion from Eden as a punishment, but man learned to see it as a gift, and therefore learned to love it. Man learned to love the struggle for strength and wealth and wisdom. During his life, man did at times briefly experience strength, wealth, and wisdom; however, he

The Death of Moses — An Epilogue

learned that his joy was born not of achieving strength, wealth, and wisdom, but in pursuing them. Therefore, after the joy of his victories had dissipated, he soon yearned to pursue them once again. Is this the best of all possibilities for man? What if that same man also learned that the greatest joy of all was to be found in teaching other men wisdom, and they, now as teachers, could infinitely experience and transmit this same powerful, rich, and joyful wisdom? Moses, our teacher, was to suffer and, through suffering, learn the fate of all men — the tragedy of life’s limitations yet the infinite joy of the teacher. He, the teacher, became the giant on whose shoulders we stand so that our shoulders, in turn, could support even others. Moses learned through God’s grace that the gift of wisdom is never the discovery but rather the act of discovering, and that the joy of the teacher lies not in what has been taught but rather in the teaching. Moreover, he, the teacher, is forever tied to the student, and there will be forever students who will want to know. Our rabbi has begun a new chapter of his life, in Israel. We, both Rabbi Donnell and the Torah Study talmidim, like Moses, may feel loss and bewilderment, and even perhaps righteous indignation. But our rabbi, the teacher, is forever tied to us, his students, and there will forever be students, perhaps students of Rabbi Donnell’s students, who will want to know.
“The beginning of wisdom is: get wisdom. Therefore use all your means to acquire understanding.”1 “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances … Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples….”2 “Happy is the man who finds wisdom and the man who gets understanding.”3 “To get wisdom is better than gold. preferable to silver.”4 And to get understanding is

“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser yet.”5

“And the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days.”6 I, my rabbi’s student, prefer to say, “Thank you.” Amen, v’Amen.
1 2 3 4 5 6

Proverbs 4:7. Deuteronomy 4:5-6. Proverbs 3:16. Proverbs 16:16. Proverbs 8:9. Deuteronomy 34:8.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful