Ekev: Chosen

Yet it was to your fathers that the Lord was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples — as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10: 15-19).

Chosen to befriend the stranger,
as we were strangers once.

Chosen to uphold the poor,
the widow and her child.

Chosen, for the world is broken,
to lift up scattered sparks.

Chosen to remove the husk
that suffocates the heart.

Chosen not for who we are
but who we might become.

Chosen to receive Torah.


In Parashat Ekev, Moses reminds the people that God has chosen this particular nation for a specific purpose: to uproot idolatry and serve Him as a holy people, living by His commandments.
Immediately following Moses’s declaration that the Children of Israel have been chosen by God, he tellingly continues with an exhortation to “circumcise their hearts” which is understood to mean to remove the barrier that blocks them from absorbing God’s teachings. Moses continues, reminding them that God is an incorruptible judge who upholds a compassionate society and tends to the disenfranchised, and he concludes this chapter with the admonition that the people too should befriend the stranger, remembering that they once were strangers in Egypt.

The notion of Jewish chosenness is one that engenders discomfort in many modern readers.
In her book The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel addresses “the mixed blessing of chosenness.” She notes that the claim to specialness has singled the Jewish people out for resentment, censure and persecution. She says “Our broken world still needs God’s Torah as its repair manual. That’s why the traditional blessing for an aliyah [laTorah] still echoes this biblical verse proclaiming that God “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah.” ” She notes some modern attempts to address contemporary discomfort with the concept of chosenness. One of these retranslates this blessing: instead of “chose us from among all the peoples and gave us the Torah” the reformulated rendition says “chose us from among all the peoples by giving us the Torah” hence intimating that the Jewish people is special only in its possession of the Torah. Others, Dr Frankel notes, go further by replacing the phrase “Who chose us from among all peoples” with “Who has drawn us to Your service [by giving us the Torah].” She adds that some of the early Zionists totally repudiated the singular burden of chosenness and maintained that the antidote to anti-Semitism was for Jews to deny their chosenness and become a nation like all others in their own land.
However, Dr Frankel notes in conclusion, “But many of those who settled in Israel reappropriated for themselves the biblical prophets’ legacy of ethical vocation, a variation of chosenness. In our own ways, each one of us must choose how to serve as chosen advocates of God’s teachings.”

From earliest times, the concept of the chosenness of the Jewish people never contradicted the belief that God has a relationship with other peoples. Judaism understands that God has a relationship with all mankind. Both biblical and rabbinic texts support this view: Moses refers to the “God of the spirits of all flesh,” (B’midbar 27:16), and the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. The Mishnah tells us that “Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God’s greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) The Mishnah teaches further that anyone who saves (or destroys) one single human, not Jewish, life, has saved (or destroyed) an entire world. The Tosefta (a collection of post-Talmudic discourses) also teaches: “Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Sanhedrin 105a).

It is clear that this chosenness with which God endows the Jewish people is connected with ethical obligations. It is understood that Jews have obligations exclusive to them, while non-Jews receive from God other covenants with concomitant responsibilities.

Thus, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits (1921-1999), former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, propounds his (Modern Orthodox) understanding of chosenness: “Yes, I do believe that the chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its millennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people — and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual — is “chosen” or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be ‘peculiar unto Me’ as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose.”

Rabbi Norman Lamm, another leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism writes: “The chosenness of Israel relates exclusively to its spiritual vocation embodied in the Torah; the doctrine, indeed, was announced at Sinai. Whenever it is mentioned in our liturgy — such as the blessing immediately preceding the Shema….it is always related to Torah or Mitzvot (commandments)…”

The Conservative movement states the following: “Few beliefs have been subject to as much misunderstanding as the “Chosen People” doctrine. The Torah and the Prophets clearly stated that this does not imply any innate Jewish superiority. In the words of Amos (3:2) “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth — that is why I will call you to account for your iniquities“. The Torah tells us that we are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” with obligations and duties which flowed from our willingness to accept this status. Far from being a license for special privilege, it entailed additional responsibilities not only toward God but to our fellow human beings. As expressed in the blessing at the reading of the Torah, our people have always felt it to be a privilege to be selected for such a purpose. For the modern traditional Jew, the doctrine of the election and the covenant of Israel offers a purpose for Jewish existence which transcends its own self interests. It suggests that because of our special history and unique heritage we are in a position to demonstrate that a people that takes seriously the idea of being covenanted with God can not only thrive in the face of oppression, but can be a source of blessing to its children and its neighbors. It obligates us to build a just and compassionate society throughout the world and especially in the land of Israel where we may teach by example what it means to be a “covenant people, a light unto the nations”. (Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, JTSA, New York, 1988.)

In 1999, the Reform Movement stated: “We affirm that the Jewish people are bound to God by an eternal covenant, as reflected in our varied understandings of Creation, Revelation and Redemption […] We are Israel, a people aspiring to holiness, singled out through our ancient covenant and our unique history among the nations to be witnesses to God’s presence. We are linked by that covenant and that history to all Jews in every age and place. ” (Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the 1999 Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis.)

Finally, Reconstructionist Judaism rejects the concept of chosenness. Its founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) believed that the idea that God chose the Jewish people leads to racist beliefs among Jews, and thus must be expunged from Jewish theology.

Va’etchanan: Listen!

Listen O Israel! The Lord our God the Lord is one. (Devarim 6:4)

Elohim is the God
of infinite cycles:
of genesis, growth,
senescence, decay;
of life’s wondrous design
and all its mutations.

Adonai is the God
of endless redemption:
the drive towards progress
the impulse for change –
the call that cries out
to attend to the world.

Can we marry what is
with what could yet be;
can we hear these two voices
and meld them as one?


In the middle of Parashat Va’etchanan, we read the verse “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad – Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God. The Lord is one.” (Devarim 6:4). This verse opens the Shema, the prayer that is recited twice each day, both in the morning and at night. The first prayer taught to small children, it is also to be recited on the death-bed. The Talmud (Berachot 61a) tells us that Rabbi Akiva, who was martyred in the second century, died with the Shema on his lips as did a long succession of Jewish martyrs.
A Midrash traces the origin of this verse to the dying moments of Jacob’s life, when he was concerned that his descendants living in Egypt would assimilate. They reassured him, saying, “Listen O Israel! We accept the one God as our God.” (Devarim Rabbah 2:35).

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the word “Shema – Hear (or listen)” reminds us that not only should we be talking to God when we pray, but we should also be listening when He talks to us. In an increasingly noisy world, we are mandated to stop and listen to what the words of the prayer are trying to impart to us.

In a commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan from 2008, http://www.jtsa.edu/va-ethannans-personal-message-to-us, Professor Arnold Eisen submits that this parasha contains theological concepts so essential to the Torah’s aspirations for Israel that the rabbis incorporated them into the daily liturgy. However, Rabbi Eisen adds that he believes that in this parasha, each reader is being addressed individually. “It addresses us person by person, one-on-one, in the same way we enter into every serious relationship and tremble with each true love.” He notes that in the first phrase, the command to listen is in the singular – it could thus be translated “Listen O Israelite!…” He continues “How shall we — each of us — perform the acts of listening and hearing (both meanings for shema are explicit in the course of the parashah) to which the Torah calls us?”
He notes that the Torah does not address belief in God from a philosophical standpoint, rather it is occupied with a template for a social order in which there is justice and righteousness.

In another commentary on Parashat Va’etchanan, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/loving-god-by-acting-with-compassion/, Rabbi Gilah Langner addresses several interpretations of this verse noting the changes in meaning of these six words through history. She suggests that when the Israelites were surrounded by pagan civilizations, the emphasis might have been: there is only one Israelite God and He is Adonai. Once monotheistic religions became more widespread, the Shema took on a slightly altered meaning – that while Adonai is our God, eventually Adonai will come to be recognized and accepted as the one unrivaled God.
Rabbi Langner continues “Another strain of thought, which has had a resurgence of popularity in recent years, focuses on the different aspects of divinity implied by the terms Adonai (Lord) and Elohim (God). While Elohim relates to the timeless, cyclical manifestation of God in the natural universe, Adonai is the Jewish God of transformation, the God who makes a difference, who liberates from slavery and brings about healing and creativity.” Rabbi Langner cites Rabbi Harold M Schulweis in his book For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, “divinity includes both the reality principle of Elohim and the ideality principle of Adonai. Adonai is the source of healing; Elohim, the life of the universe.”
Rabbi Langner suggests that the Shema is teaching us that both aspects are merged in the Divine. “Adonai and Elohim are one and the same. What a radical notion that is, what a radical statement about the universe the Sh’ma becomes: yes to reality, and yes to transformation! Yes to nature (including human nature) and yes to healing. Yes to unchanging permanence and yes to constant becoming – ‘ehyeh asher ehyeh’, God’s self-proclaimed name: ‘I will be what I become.'”
Rabbi Langner expands this: “The Sh’ma can be seen as a fundamental principle for grounding social action and social transformation in a deep understanding of the limits of what is, as well as a boundless optimism for what can yet be achieved.” She cites a conversation about the concept of Adonai and Elohim with Rabbi Ira Eisenstein who said, “Adonai in a sense is fighting Elohim to let people live. You look at Elohim – you see disease, earthquakes, people dying. If you didn’t find a trace of Adonai, you’d be living in a godless world. But the Adonai side is the difficult side. [Rabbi] Mordecai Kaplan would say that you have to seek out those aspects of reality that make for salvation. There is a verse in [this week’s portion of] the Torah that says: ‘You will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and spirit’ (Deuteronomy 4:29).”
Rabbi Langner maintains that this first verse of the Shema summons us to foster this perception as a people. She cites Harold Fisch in his book Poetry With a Purpose, “The divine unity is realized only when there is a community of hearers to achieve that perception, to make that affirmation; it is a perception that has to be striven for, created in the act of reading, hearing, and understanding.””
So she wonders how we can bring this concept of divine unity into the world.
The answer follows in the next verse: “Ve’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha – you shall love the Lord your God…” We are enjoined to adhere to God’s commandments and keep them wholeheartedly, all the time – when we are at home or away, when we are resting and when we are active.

The Etz Hayim commentary notes that the commandment to love our neighbor is found in Vayikra 19:18; the commandment to love the stranger is found in Vayikra 19:34, while the commandment to love God comes later, in Devarim. This commentary continues “We learn to love God by practicing loving God’s creatures, our fellow human beings. “Love the Lord your God” commands not belief but behavior.”

Rabbi Langner concludes, “Only by acting in the world with compassion, and treating one another with justice and equality will the healing aspects of God become manifest and draw others to a deeper understanding and love of God. To “love God” we must act with loving intention towards all of Creation.”

And finally, in a commentary on Va’etchanan, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hear-amp-act/
Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman opens with the poem entitled Shema by Primo Levi:

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house,
when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Rabbi Richman ponders why Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, entitles his poem Shema “Hear!” and structures it on the framework of possibly the best-known prayer in the Jewish prayer book.
She suggests that Primo Levi is revisiting this ancient prayer through the prism of human suffering, and enjoining us to listen to this suffering. This, she contends, is what Levi would have us engrave on our hearts and be attentive to at all times. She says “His poem commands a single-minded focus not on the unity of God but on a sub-set of God’s creatures, people living in poverty and chaos.” So she asks how might we hear this suffering. She says in some ways, it is easier than ever before. Internet access affords instant exposure to countless tragedies particularly in the developing world. Crises of poverty, disease, violence and war are almost ubiquitous. But, Rabbi Richman says, “…listening is not enough. The verb shema carries additional meanings –it also denotes doing, obeying, performing, acting. Perhaps Levi titled his poem Shema precisely for its multiple meanings. He wanted to jolt his reader, through graphic and painful images, into action. Emmanuel Levinas, a famous contemporary Jewish philosopher, described the traditional Shema as an awakening: “‘Hear, Israel!'”
Rabbi Richman concludes “I read the poem’s upsetting closing curses as a contemporary warning: if we do not awaken, if we will not hear, if we do not use our blessings of privilege to improve the situation of those who suffer privation, we deny our own power to create change. There are serious consequences to this failure of action.
“There are many ways to respond to the voices of those who suffer: to educate ourselves on issues of global justice, to volunteer, to advocate, to share our resources. The Shema, according to Jewish law, is supposed to be said aloud. It makes sense: we are crying out to one other: “Listen, Israel! Act!” This week, will you hear it?”

Devarim: Words (Three Haikus)

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (Devarim 1:1)

Words (1)
Once my speech was lame –
words congealed behind stiff lips –
now my words sing forth.

Words (2)
Words unsaid resound
in deafening silence, as
duty is betrayed.

Words (3)
Trembling, here I stand,
filled with love and fear for you:
will you hear my words?


Words (1)
In a commentary on Parashat Devarim from 2009, Rabbi David Hoffman notes that the first four books of the Torah, Bereishit, Shemot, Vayikra and B’midbar, all relate the story as it occurs, and the characters are described experiencing the events in “real time.” However, in Devarim, we see a different approach: Moses recalls events through which his current listeners never lived, as, except for Joshua and Caleb, this is the new generation of the children of Israel. No-one here stood at Sinai. The covenant entered into there was with their ancestors who were redeemed slaves. The challenges facing the new generation differ hugely from those with which their ancestors had to contend. This new generation will have to enter the land and build a society vastly different from that of their wandering predecessors.
Rabbi Hoffman comments that Moses initially demurs from taking on the leadership of the people, telling God “…Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words [devarim], either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Shemot 4:10) And now, this final book opens with the words he speaks: “These are the words [devarim] that Moses addressed to all Israel…” (Devarim 1:1). As Rabbi Hoffman notes, “Indeed, the entire book constitutes one powerful and sustained verbal presentation.”
He suggests that Moses’s objectives now are still our religious challenges today. He asks “How do you render a story that happened to other people and make it your story, as meaningful to you as the day it occurred? How do you tell the story of our people’s relationship with God and move a new generation to willfully and passionately enter into this sacred Covenant? How do you make the argument to a generation of Jews that the Jewish community and Torah provide a rich and compelling framework to pursue ultimate questions of meaning?”
And he suggests that in Devarim, a new approach for the renewal of the covenant is forged. He notes that the Hebrew root l-m-d which in its different conjugations means to learn or teach, appears nowhere else in the Torah except for in this book, where it appears 17 times in twice as many chapters. So he says that he believes that learning and teaching form the essence of Devarim. We see this verb used in the context of God teaching the people; Moses teaching them, and, he says, perhaps most importantly, the people themselves teaching Torah: “Impress My words upon your heart . . . and teach them to your children — reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Devarim 11:18–19)
Rabbi Hoffman continues “Limud (learning) constitutes the process through which we Jews connect with our history and make these historical stories our personal narratives. Understood in these terms, learning is not simply a means to acquire information. Rather, for the Jew, learning is an active process that is primarily about making meaning. The book of Devarim makes very clear that if we – in our generation – are to develop a personal, rich, and nurturing relationship with God, we must learn and study God’s Torah that reveals God’s aspirations for the world. Study is the means by which we make meaning in our own lives and it is activity whereby the Jew responds thoughtfully to the challenges of our particular age.”
He adds that at the conclusion of the book of Devarim, Moses, who once asserted that he was not a man of words, bows out, singing words of poetry:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew . . .
Give glory to our God!

(Devarim 32:1–3)
Rabbi Hoffman concludes “I submit that Moshe’s strength and newfound confidence emerged from his deep belief that he had finally found the path for real religious awakening. The thunder and direct experience of God at Sinai did not work even for the generation of the desert.
The book of Devarim creates the possibility that if God’s Presence is to be made manifest in our world, it will be in the words (devarim) of those who pursue with love the Will of the living God.”

Words (2)
In a commentary from 2010, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5611, Rabbi Gail Labovitz says that as she looked through the parasha, preparing to write the commentary on it, one particular verse caught her eye. She notes that Moses does not recount the history of the people in their wanderings in an entirely chronological fashion. In the first chapter he relates the episode of the twelve spies, their negative report, and the people’s subsequent lack of faith which led to God’s anger and His decision to let that generation wander and die in the wilderness over 40 years (B’midbar 13, 14). Then Moses says the following “The Lord was incensed at me too because of you, saying you too shall not enter there.” (Devarim 1:37)
Rabbi Labovitz is troubled by two issues here. The first, more obvious problem is that Moses seems to be condensing two episodes: after the incident of the spies, the people were condemned to die in the wilderness but Moses was not punished. He was denied entry to the Land because of another incident in which he hit the rock rather than speaking to it as instructed at Merivah.
However, Rabbi Labovitz detects a deeper problem: it sounds like Moses is blaming the people for his punishment rather than shouldering the responsibility himself! And he makes similar statements subsequently. (Devarim 3:26, 4:21) She asks “What are we to make of this picture of Moses, of all people – the person considered to be the greatest leader in our history! – attempting to pass the buck?”
She says that among the commentaries addressing both these issues, she is drawn to that offered by the Ramban who says, “For the anger against Moses and against Aaron was because they struck the rock twice before the people and did not do as they were commanded, and the people reflected on the matter. And this is what it says [Devarim 32:51] “for you did not sanctify Me among the children of Israel” – that the punishment was only because the matter took place among the children of Israel, such that the Glory was not sanctified in their eyes.
So the Ramban is teaching that Moses is not saying that his punishment is their fault not his, rather that it was because of what he did in their presence that aggravated his misdeed. In effect, it was because he failed to set the appropriate example as a leader in the presence of his people, that led to such severe punishment. Rabbi Labovitz says “What a leader does or does not do, especially when it is done publicly and will influence others, can be of ultimate significance.”
Rabbi Labovitz continues with the story told in the Gemara (Gittin 55b,56a) concerning the events preceding the destruction of the Second Temple (the razing of both Temples and other catastrophes that devastated the Jewish people are commemorated on the upcoming fast of Tisha be’Av). The Gemara says “R. Yochanan said…The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won’t. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you…”
Rabbi Labovitz notes that Bar Kamza did not only hold the host responsible for his humiliation, but also the rabbis who sat silently and thus passively colluded with the host. She says “How leaders respond, especially before others, matters…while the people (such as the host of the party or Bar Qamtza) may act sinfully, leaders bear an extra level of responsibility for how they respond. And, moreover, failure begets new, increasingly difficult choices. What people see from their leaders, or fail to see, has cosmic consequences.”

Words (3)
In a commentary from 2009, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5610, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that we learn in Midrash Sifrei Devarim that whenever the text uses the root DiBeR the speech is of a rebuking nature, whereas the root AMaR indicates praise. [Further, in Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:6 an etymological link is suggested between devarim (words) and devorim (bees). Just as a bee stings before it dies, so did Moses offer a stinging rebuke of the people before his own death.]
So Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why Moses is speaking harshly to the people when they are on the cusp of entry to a new life. Why are his parting words a chastisement, a reminder of how far they have moved from the ideals enumerated in the Torah? And he asks, too, “And did the people resent Moses’ apparent harshness, as most of us would? Did people say, “He never gives us a break,” or note that even at the end, he was still haranguing them, unable to focus, even for a moment, on their virtues and better natures?” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes that the people seemingly were not resentful, as they mourned his death and he is still referred to as “Moses our teacher.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues “Can you imagine what it would be like if a Rabbi, at a dinner honoring 25 years of service with a particular synagogue, rather than dwelling on warm memories, started to list all of the congregants’ flaws over the past two-and-a-half decades? Can you imagine how resentful and bitter most of us would feel?”
He cites Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, who comments on the rebuke Moses delivers in this parasha “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others. For if one says to another, ‘Remove the mote from between your eyes,’ the reply invariably is, ‘Remove the beam from between your eyes.’ ” It seems that at that time, there was no-one worthy of being a role model to others.
Rabbi Shavit Artson continues with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s comment “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Rabbi Eleazar observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the object of rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error.”
Finally he notes that Rabbi Akiva, a contemporary of Rabbi Tarfon, adds his lament to those of his colleagues. “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who knows how to rebuke.” Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes “Pointing out someone’s shortcoming or error should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority. It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat. Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge. Without our friends, colleagues and families willing to point out our own errors of judgment or action, we all blind ourselves to our own faults and to those aspects of reality we don’t want to see. Each of us depends on the caring of others, their courage to articulate disappointment in our action, as the indispensable prerequisite to self-improvement and refinement.
“We cannot afford to wait for the perfect, loving hero to point out our flaws. Instead, we rely on those around us, family and friends, to act as our early warning system, pointing out moral failure and ethical obtuseness before it is too late to improve. But when they do, we must be able to really listen.”

************************

These three poems are based on the structure of an English language Haiku which is a very short poem following, to a greater or lesser extent, the form and style of the Japanese haiku. Traditional haiku consist of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5 respectively. Japanese Haiku are often written on one line, while English Haiku are frequently written in three lines.
Haiku has become a term sometimes loosely applied to any short, impressionistic poem, but there are certain characteristics that are commonly associated with the genre. The first English Haiku is considered to have been written in the early 20th century while Japanese Haiku date back to the 17th century.

Mas’ei: Way stations on the journey

These were the journeys of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord…(B’midbar 33: 1-2)

The journey encompasses forty-two places
to encamp and align once again with the sacred.

Forty two places
of wonders and dailiness;
terror and love;

affliction and healing;
ingratitude and grace;

obstinacy and generosity;
misdeeds and regret;

grumbling and contentment;
discord and peace;

sanctity and baseness;
rejoicing and tears;

intimacy and alienation;
duty and neglect;

anger and compassion;
sin and reprieve;

ardor and disappointment;
rupture and goodwill;

outbursts and silence;
regression and growth;

birth and death;
darkness and light;

descent and ascent.

Wandering fitfully, yet
at last coming home.


In Mas’ei, the final parasha of the book of B’midbar, Moses enumerates the forty-two journeys and encampments of the children of Israel, from the Exodus to their final encampment on the plains of Moab across the river from the land of Canaan.
The commentators, both ancient and modern, wonder about the meaning behind this list.

Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698 – 1760 Ukraine) teaches that this list is none other than a reflection of each individual’s journey through life, from birth until death.

In a commentary on the dual parashot Massot-Masei from 2009 http://limmud.org/publications/limmudononeleg/5769/matot-masei/, Dr Yossi Chajes describes the list as an “abridged travelogue of forty years of wanderings in the Sinai” and wonders what we today might find in these desert vistas. He notes that we read “And they removed from Mara [a place name, but meaning “bitter”], and came to Elim; and in Elim were twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm tress; and they pitched there.” (B’midbar 33:9) Dr Chajes says, “Just another transition, yes… but the juxtaposition of bitter and sweet waters has long captivated the imaginations of our holy teachers. If all the journeys adumbrated in our portion have been taken as symbolic stations of our present journeys through life, through Torah, here our masters have found a moment of special poignancy and, I might add, urgency.”
Dr Chajes brings a further teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that when one sees a Jew who is learned in Torah but who is nevertheless acting in an unworthy faashion, one can infer that this person has certainly drunk from the “bitter waters.” The Ba’al Shem Tov‘s grandson, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, expounds further that “our Torah has both sweet waters and bitter waters”, and notes that “from time immemorial, saints and sinners alike have managed to reach the highest highs of divine service as well as the lowest lows of human degradation” as evidenced by the proofs he brings from episodes in the Torah.

In a commentary from 2011, http://www.jtsa.edu/on-the-road, Rabbi Marc Wolf recalls the epic novel by Jack Kerouac entitled On the Road, chronicling the journeys of its characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, as they travel America. Rabbi Wolf notes “As the story goes, Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in April of 1951 in one three-week sitting on a continuous roll of paper. Much like the road described in his epic novel, the roll of Teletype spills out before you and gives a sense of the significance of the journey. For Kerouac, his novel and the story of its creation function as a commentary on the voyage itself.
“As much as he may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty individually. The truth that we know from scholars is that the original story took form in small notebooks that Kerouac carried with him over the course of a few years spent traveling North America, chronicling thousands of miles and countless stops along the way. That inconsistency points to a tension that comes from Jack Kerouac’s account of his journey. It leaves us with the question: what should we highlight, where we are at the end of the journey or the many stops along the way?”
Rabbi Wolf suggests that in its own way, Parashat Mase’ei negotiates that same tension. He says that when Moses stands at the edge of the Promised Land, he reviews the journey that he and the people have taken together “with the same sweeping overview that Sal Paradise narrates.” The description is formulaic: “The Israelites set out from this place and encamp at at that one…” through forty-four verses. There is little elaboration – just the bare bones. Rabbi Wolf says it seems to him that Moses understands that having overcome the challenges of the odyssey, the people already have their faces turned towards their ultimate destination. He adds that we could surmise, along with many commentators, that this generation of the people knows the stories of what occurred at each stop, so a re-telling here is superfluous. However, Rabbi Wolf says, “But I cannot help but contrast Moshe’s retelling with the countless times my parents would return from a vacation, invite all their friends, schlep the screen and projector out, and give slideshows of the many stops along their journeys. Each slide would be accompanied by a story or a description of a place or a person they met along the way.”
He continues “We are wired to strive for resolution, for denouement. But the anticipation of completing a trip can eclipse the road and experiences that got us there. As much as we may have our sights set on the destination, it is the journey that makes us who we are when we arrive. Every aspect of the road —the bumps and the turns, the detours and the stops along the way — make up the whole route. Viewed this way, the journey becomes more than the sum of its parts — not merely the means to arrive at a destination.”
So he asks what we should understand from the tension. What should the children of Israel be feeling as they stand at the edge of the land? He notes the massive changes that have occurred on the journey both demographically (very few members of the original people who left Egypt have survived) but more importantly, he says, “the spiritual, religious, and emotional shift that occurred on their wanderings through the wilderness itself begs attention. They have nearly reached the end of their mission and were about to begin another era of Jewish life, so how can Moshe simply recap the places they passed through along the way? How can he not go deeper and explain what the journey meant to their development?”
He cites the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, in his commentary on parashat Mas’ei, echoing the teaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, saying that Moses’s repetitive list had meaning less for its hearers then, and more for us, today.
Rabbi Wolf concludes, “Each of us makes journeys through our lives that mirror the growth and maturation that the children of Israel experienced during the trek from Egypt. But it is more than arriving in the Promised Land that matters. Parashat Maseei spills the ink it does in listing all the places in order to teach each of us the many paths we individually take to arrive at our destination.
“The Torah’s lesson is eternally relevant. Addressing the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan, Moshe knew that the journey had changed each of them differently. Who was he to tell them what each station along the way meant to them? As a people they wandered, but as individuals they were going to cross into the Land. Like Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, they had walked the same road, but the experiences affected them individually. Each year, as we read the parashiyot of their wanderings, we glean relevance for ourselves. The Torah knows we turn each page to get closer to the Land, but it is the journey that makes us the people who can enter.”

In another commentary on the parasha, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=12415, Rabbi Adam Greenwald brings another modern literary comparison, in which he cites the writer E.L. Doctorow who once said “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Rabbi Greenwald sees that as an apposite metaphor, not only for writing “but for love, and for life. We cannot imagine where life will take us, with what accompanying twists and turns and unexpected bumps. We can only continue forward, taking each curve and dip gently as it leads us to a future that is always just beyond the horizon line.”
He continues “Certainly it is this way when we embark on a marriage. Couples stand under their huppah not knowing what the life they begin together will actually entail. They cannot know who will get sick and who will live to see great-grandchildren. They cannot know who will fall out of love and who will experience a love that only intensifies over a lifetime. And so it is with having a child, and beginning a career, and moving to a new place, and so on. Our life’s journey takes us in directions we never expect, and poses challenges we will never know until we face them.”
So Rabbi Greenwald says we read of our ancestors’ sojourns, through the forty-two stops in the desert, on the way to an unseen, undreamed-of future. He too, sees us through the prism of the Ba’al Shem Tov‘s lens, as the wanderers in our own lives, stopping and starting on the way.
He cites Rabbi Noa Kushner, in a sermon she delivered in which she taught that there is “a profound difference between being lost and zigzagging.” “To be lost,” she says, “is to wander without purpose and without goal; but, to zigzag is to take a long and winding path with purpose and conviction. Our ancestors were not lost as they made their circuitous route through the wilderness – they were proceeding together with a firm belief in the possibility of a better world, even if the details of that dreamt of place were beyond their sight.”

In a further commentary http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5595, Rabbi Cheryl Peretz changes the focus slightly on the list of stations at which the people stopped en route to the land. She cites the Malbim Rabbi Meir Loeb ben Yechi’el Michael (1809-1879, Eastern Europe), who asks why the Torah enumerates all the different stops and further, why was it necessary to make so many stops? He suggests that during their enslavement in Egypt, the people they were surrounded by evidence of the degradation and hardships there. At each stop they made in the desert during the long journey, through many experiences both positive and negative, they gradually threw off some of the detrimental influences which might have endangered their ability to flourish in the Promised Land.
Rabbi Peretz also cites the Sefat Emet who notes that in the second verse of the parasha (B’midbar 33: 2) the order of the words is reversed from the beginning to the end of the verse “Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys forth as directed by the Lord; these are their journeys forth and their starting points…” The Sefat Emet says “Scripture is telling us that all this “going forward” depends upon “coming forth” from Egypt. Only after all those journeys is the Exodus from Egypt complete; with each “going forward” they got further from Egypt until they reached the Land of Israel.”*
Rabbi Peretz concludes “Only after going out of Egypt and leaving pieces of it behind in each subsequent stop can the Exodus ultimately be complete and the Israelites move forward into the land of Israel. Likewise, in our individual journeys, each of us has those places (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that we have been. And, like our ancestors in the desert, some of those places have left us with our own anger, fears, resentment, disappointment and challenges. But, also like our ancestors of so many years ago, unless and until we look to where we have been and face ourselves honestly and humbly, we cannot possibly let go that which blocks us from growing and experiencing our own journey’s promise.”

And finally, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch brings a different angle to the list of journeys and encampments, in a commentary from 1999, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-power-of-jewish-history/.
He recalls the Jewish historian Simon Dubnov (1860 – 1941), of whom he says,”No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov’s last words were, “Jews, write it down.” And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the many terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Dubnov devoted his life to addressing “the power of historical consciousness.” He says that Dubnov, an autodidact living in Odessa had, fifty years earlier, attempted to galvanise Russian Jews, to start to collect “rapidly vanishing documentary fragments of their thousand-year history.” Rabbi Schorsch continues that Dubnov said that “to their lasting shame and detriment, Russian Jews shared with the primitive, illiterate peoples of the world a pervasive indifference to their own history.” It was the death in 1891 in Germany of Heinrich Graetz (1817 – 1891) who was amongst the first historians to write a comprehensive history of the Jewish people from a Jewish perspective (his magnum opus History of the Jews was quickly translated into other languages and ignited worldwide interest in Jewish history) which had influenced Dubnov to “mobilize a national archival effort which one day would culminate in an expanded national history far fairer to the vital role of Eastern European Jewry than Graetz’s German bias and ignorance allowed.”
Dubnov inspired others to begin to archive untold treasures of Jewish history, including S. Ansky, who initiated the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition in 1912 into Ukraine which over two years gathered photos, folktales, music, writings and artefacts. Later Ansky infiltrated into Galicia at the outbreak of the First World War to “alleviate and record the untold suffering of the nearly one million Jews trapped between the Russian and Austrian armies.” Afterwards he turned his diaries into a harrowing four-volume record, written in Yiddish. Simon Dubnov’s student, Elias Tcherikover was inspired by him in 1919 to record eyewitness accounts of the ongoing pogroms that were decimating Ukrainian Jewry in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Finally, in Vilna in 1923, a group of Yiddishist intellectuals founded the Yiddish Scientific Institute (better known by its English acronym, YIVO), realising a vision devised by Dubnov and other Russian Jewish emigrés in Berlin after the war. Rabbi Schorsch says “Like Dubnov back in the 1890s, YIVO drafted an army of collectors [zamlers] to track down multiple primary sources for its archives without which no serious academic history could ever be done. It is the culture and persona of this remarkable embodiment of Dubnov’s craft that the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who did research there in 1938-39, depicted in her evocative memoir From That Place and Time [1989].”
Between the two world wars, Rabbi Schorsch relates that Dubnov lived in Berlin, where he completed his very accessible ten-volume comprehensive Jewish history which he entitled The World History of the Jewish People. Rabbi Schorsch says “The title meant to convey the global nature of the Jewish odyssey. What other nation had ever settled in the four corners of the world without losing its identity and unity? The key to Jewish survival, Dubnov would argue, was an uncanny ability to form self-governing communities in exile that perpetuated a distinctive religious culture. The task of the historian was to track that unfailing achievement of group discipline, political savvy and spiritual creativity. No way station was to slip into oblivion. Singlehandedly, Dubnov had transformed many Eastern European Jews into amateur historians.”
So Rabbi Schorsch continues “This record of historical recovery is brought to mind by way of comment on an historical archive embedded in the final parasha of the book of Numbers (33:1-49), which brings the trek through the wilderness to a close. Before Moses turns the reins of leadership over to Joshua, he swiftly recapitulates the itinerary taken since the exodus from Egypt by naming each one of 42 sites at which the nation encamped. The formulaic style is almost totally bare of narrative detail, yet each name is repeated twice as if to reinforce retention. On occasion, the descriptive nature of a particular name elicits a faint memory of what happened there. Still, all are precious, for all contributed to shaping the national character of Israel. The list is the product of a historical sensibility.”
Rabbi Schorsch notes that Rashi (as quoted by Nachmanides) emphasises that according to the text, God had not commanded Moses to compile this list. It was completely Moses’s idea, prompted by a “divine hint that the end was near.” God had told Moses a bit earlier: “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (B’midbar 31:2). So Rabbi Schorsch suggests “Having accomplished that military victory with but 12,000 troops, Moses awaited his death by assembling the outline of a memoir….like many humans, Moses faced his own demise, by exerting himself one more time to leave a well ordered account of the journey taken.”
Rashi suggests that the list comes to teach us that, looking back, God never relinquished His care for His people. They had been guided through hostile, barren territory, although, en route, they had rested in oases of serenity. (It is incorrect to imagine the people wandering constantly – in fact there were only 20 stations in 38 years, and they were settled in some places for years at a time.)
Rabbi Schorsch comments that for him, the list is “a harbinger of lists yet to come. As wilderness fades into exile, the number of stops keeps growing and the journey goes on without end or interruption till it encircles the globe. As master of the lists, the historian peers into the mystery of Jewish survival.” He concludes that he sees the lists as pieces of an intricate whole as Jewish history continues to unfold.

* Translated by Rabbi Arthur Green in his book The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger.

Mattot: Silence is assent

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation, while still in her father’s house by reason of her youth; and her father learns of her vow, or her self-imposed obligation, and her father remains silent, then all her vows shall stand, and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. But if her father restrains her on the day that he hears; not one of her vows, or of her self-imposed obligations shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father restrained her. (B’midbar 30: 4-6)

The guests around the table
are savoring the meal
raising crystal glasses
amid good-natured talk.
When a sudden lull is countered
with a denigrating joke
targeting a group of others:
women, elders, homeless, gays –
or those of different origin
(there is no dearth of candidates) –
I might sit there uncomfortably
and hold my laughter back
yet if I swallow my response
and do not say a word
then by my very reticence
I signify assent.


Most of the opening chapter of Parashat Mattot is devoted to the annulment of vows made by women. The verses cited above are frequently described as reflecting an age when women were subordinated to a father or a husband (see a previous post from 2014 https://parashapoems.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/mattot-a-womans-vow/) and thus as having less relevance in modern society. However, it is edifying to leave aside momentarily the seemingly antiquated aspects and examine the details.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2002, http://ziegler.aju.edu/default.aspx?id=5583, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that the Torah insists that the father or husband acts (either endorses or annuls) as soon as he hears of the oath. If he delays, he can do nothing. Rabbi Shavit Artson wonders why the man cannot make a decision to get involved later. He says, “Today’s Torah portion speaks, in the language of its own age, to this timeless question – when to get involved.” He notes that the Talmud [Yevamot 88a] teaches that “shetika ke’hoda’ah – silence is like assent.” Once the father (or husband) knows what the woman has sworn, he himself is a party to that oath. Unless he voices his disapproval immediately, thus nullifying her words, his silence makes him an accomplice in her vow.
Rabbi Shavit Artson says “Silence is assent. How often do we face acts of injustice or callousness with silence? A derogatory joke in our presence, an act of selfishness or cruelty, or simply reading of political oppression in our newspapers – all of these instances summon us to choose a side. We can either verbalize our opposition immediately, or – through our silence – we become allies of the act or words we abhor. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”
He continues, describing injustices in our own societies: the increase in homeless people; higher unemployment rates among minorities; lower rates of literacy among less affluent children leading to a poverty cycle; ongoing bias against women who are less well-paid then their male counterparts; prejudice and bigotry resulting in violence against gays. Rabbi Shavit Artson adds “This ought to be a time of profound embarrassment to religious people.” He contends that far from partnering God in maintaining the world justly and compassionately, we often turn our backs on the welfare of others. He says “How do we participate in these evils? By not opposing them in public, we allow our silence to speak instead of our words and our deeds.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betsalel the Maharal of Prague (born between 1512 and 1526 – 1609) “While a person may be individually pious, such good will pale in the face of the sin of not protesting against an emerging communal evil. Not only will such piety not avert the impending evil, but such a pious person will be accountable for having been able to prevent it and not doing so.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments “In the midst of the dark ages of his time, the Maharal understood that his obligation as a being in covenant with God was to represent God’s light and God’s passion, despite the powerful forces mustered in opposition.
“In the midst of the current dark age, we too need to remember our eternal calling – to sanctify God in the midst of the people. By feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, pursuing peace and identifying with the weak, we move from silence to eloquence. We provide God with hands and a voice. There is no neutrality. Silence is assent.”

In his commentary from 2005 on the same issue, http://www.neshamah.net/2005/05/silence-implies-consent.html, Rabbi Barry Leff notes that the Talmud has an entire tractate devoted to the laws of vows. He adds that the medieval Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (c.1475 – 1550) teaches “When a person has the ability to protest and remains silent, his silence is similar to verbal consent. When you do not say something to disagree, it is as if you agree with what was said or done.”
Rabbi Leff adds that when we are forbidden (in the Ten Commandments) to bear false witness against our neighbor, the rabbis understand this to include bearing false witness by not speaking up. He says, “For example, under Jewish law, you need two witnesses to be prosecuted for a crime. If there is one witness, and you stand next to that witness, making it look like you are a witness with him, when you are not, you have borne false witness – you have tried to make someone believe something that is not true with your silence, by just standing there. And you would be considered guilty of violating this commandment.”
In the episode at the end of Parashat Baha’alotcha (B’midbar 12: 1-16) we learn that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses because of “the Kushite woman” [a reference to his wife Tsiporah]. The text says “Vatedaber Miriam ve’Aharon which literally means “Miriam spoke, and Aaron” or possibly “Miriam spoke with Aaron”. The medieval Spanish commentator Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089 – c.1167) picking up on the feminine singular conjugation of the verb “to speak”, teaches that Miriam speaks while Aaron says nothing. Thus God, we learn, is incensed and reprimands them both. (Miriam is then stricken with leprosy, Aaron appeals to Moses who then prays for Miriam to be healed. After a seven day exclusion from the camp, she is readmitted and the people continue journeying.)

Finally in a commentary from 2011, http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/silence_is_consent_20110719, Rabbi Laura Geller describes an email sent to her, among other people on a list of email addressees.
“I recently received an e-mail with the subject line “The Arab Mentality.” It described a Palestinian woman who had been badly burned and successfully treated in Israel, only to be arrested later for attempting to infiltrate Israel’s borders as a suicide bomber…
“As I often do when I receive e-mails like this, I consulted with the Anti-Defamation League to see if the story was true, and indeed it was. The author of the article was a medical doctor in Israel. What the article didn’t mention is that he is also a member of Moledet, a right-wing Israeli political party with an agenda. The labeling of this posting “The Arab Mentality” is like an anti-Semite titling a posting about Bernie Madoff “The Jewish Mentality.”
“I get a lot of e-mails like this — e-mails describing situations, sometimes true and often not true, that malign Arabs and Muslims as a group. I’m never sure how to respond. The easiest thing to do is to simply delete them. But this was sent by a congregant, a thoughtful person, engaged and passionate about Israel, a person I admire. And if I just deleted the message, what was I saying by my silence? Other congregants were on the same list; they knew I had seen it, too.”
Rabbi Geller continues that what she learned from Parashat Mattot partly fueled her decision to respond. She too notes that the veto by the woman’s father or husband has to be on the same day that he hears. She cites the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law 67:11] which says “He can only cancel the vow within the day he heard it. That is, if he heard the vow at the beginning of the evening, he may cancel it all night and the entire following day. If he heard it close to the time that the stars appear, he can cancel it only until the stars appear. Beyond that time he cannot cancel it. …”
She too cites the Talmud’s injunction “silence is like assent.” She continues “Once you know what the promise is, if you don’t speak up, it is as though you are also responsible for it. Once you know what is going on, if you don’t speak up, you are also responsible. Someone forwards a derogatory e-mail that tarnishes all Arabs and I delete it? “Silence is consent.””
Rabbi Geller quotes the Talmud “Whoever has the ability to prevent his household from sin and does not, is accountable for the sins of his household; if he could do so with his fellow citizens and does not, he is accountable for his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is accountable for the whole world.” (Talmud Shabbat 54b).
Rabbi Geller concludes, “So maybe I can’t prevent the whole world from sin, or my community or even my family. But still I am accountable if I do nothing.
“So I responded: “I am not sure that sharing e-mails like this is necessarily helpful in the ongoing discussion of what is best for Israel. You may be interested to know that the author is not an apolitical medical doctor. He is a former member of Moledet and now in the National Union — a right-wing party in the Knesset. While the story appears to be true, he wants people to know the story in order to support a particular political position. This is a not a story about the ‘Arab mentality’ in general. It is rather the story of a particular Arab woman.
“This week’s Torah portion asks us to be careful about what we say, the vows and promises we make. And it also demands of us to be careful about what we don’t say, because “silence is consent.” ”

Pinchas: A broken peace

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'” (B’midbar 25:10-13)

You come, you say, on God’s behalf:
your eyes ablaze with ardor,
your hand raised up to kill;
with spear (or knife or gun or bomb)
to extirpate the infidel;
to mete out justice to the faithless
and purge all evil from the world.
You think you know this is God’s will. But

the mandate that you execute
is perilously flawed
and peace will never blossom
upon a broken stem.


Last week’s parasha ends as the Israelites are lured into debauchery and idolatry and God becomes incensed. He instructs Moses to kill (impale) the ringleaders. Then an Israelite tribesman takes a Midianite woman into the chamber near the Sanctuary to engage in sexual relations with her, and Pinchas, the priestly grandson of Aaron, follows them in and impales both on a spear. The Torah is very clear: Pinchas has averted a worse disaster and the plague that has already claimed twenty four thousand people, is checked. This week’s parasha opens as God tells Moses “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned My anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for My honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making My covenant of peace with him.” (B’midbar 25:11 – 12)
So it seems that God approves Pinchas’s action and bestows a covenant of peace for him and for his descendants for all time. However the scribing of the text hints that Pinchas’s peace is imperfect. The Hebrew letter vav is comprised of a long vertical stem and a very short horizontal line at the top. However, in the Sefer Torah (the scroll), in the specific word shalom referring to the (covenant of) peace with which God endows Pinchas in this episode, the vertical stem of the letter vav has a break in it, the sort of defect which would normally render a Sefer Torah invalid.
In a commentary on parashat Pinchas, http://www.jtsa.edu/doing-violence-for-god, Rabbi Arnold Eisen wonders what we are supposed to think about Pinchas and his action. He says there are many questions that this episode raises, of which three are particularly prominent for him:
“1. There seems something utterly primitive about the notion of an out-of-control God, grateful to Pinehas — as He was to Moses after the Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf — for finding a means to assuage His anger and stave off a national disaster that might have ended the Jewish story once and for all.
“2. Pinehas’s “passion” (or “zealotry”) is explicitly related to God’s in verse 10: “bekan’o et kin’ati.” The Torah seems to be saying that one can imitate God not only through acts of justice and mercy, creation and redemption, but in hot anger, violence, and slaughter. This is not the Judaism I have been taught, but there it is — or seems to be — in black and white.
“3. The entire passage reeks of violence. Moses has commanded killing. God destroys many thousands through plague. Immediately after the story about Pinehas, we are told that (v. 16) “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Assail the Midianites’ ” — the tribe to which Moses’s wife and father-in-law belong — ” ‘and defeat them, for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you [in the] affair of Peor.’ ” Pinehas is caught up in this violence. He is not an instigator or an outlier, but an exemplar.”
Rabbi Eisen continues, “Of all the problems the Torah places before a contemporary reader committed to walking in its path, following its guidance, and trying to ensure that “all its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” these incidents at the heart of the book of Numbers seem to be among the very hardest.” He notes that the Torah moves on very fast with other subjects, but he relates that he cannot turn away quite so quickly. “I am, I confess, both riveted and repelled by the image of his spear. My fealty to Torah requires me to face up to its challenges; my gratitude to Torah stems in part from what I learn from such challenges. That is the case here. I want to understand what I can learn from the very difficult passage, in which God apparently blesses Pinehas for resorting to vigilante justice.” As Rabbi Eisen acknowledges, he is far from the first Jew to question the text and cites the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS (which he thinks maybe exaggerates the case somewhat) in saying “most postbiblical commentators . . . tend to be uncomfortable with [his] zealous vigilantism” (918), but concedes that it is true that “the Talmud goes out of its way to show that Pinehas’s deed fulfilled rather than violated the law. If one “cohabits with a heathen, he is punished by zealots.” No trial is needed. Pinehas knew that law and complied. Taking the matter one step further, “R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so . . . What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinehas slain him, Pinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]. (Sanhedrin 81b-82a)
So Rabbi Eisen comments “The Rabbis knew that the law is not helped when people take it into their own hands. God would not, in their view, have rewarded lawless behavior. We have seen again in recent days what follows when vigilantes engage in revenge killings of innocents. Violence can quickly spiral out of control.” (Rabbi Eisen wrote this in 2014.)
Rabbi Eisen adds that Hasidic commentators bring a connection between our nature and God’s, and they suggest that Pinchas was able somehow to bridge between the Divine and the human, and was thus rewarded with a covenant of shelemut or wholeness. But, he continues, this idea somewhat idealizes Pinchas and his zealotry. “We would bridle, I think, if someone did the same for Crusaders or jihadists. But there is sadly something true to experience in the linkage of faith to fanaticism, and of loyalty to God to righteous anger at acts of perceived betrayal. The Torah frequently depicts God too as subject to such anger. God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously pointed out, is the very opposite of an “unmoved Mover,” Aristotle’s description of God. The biblical God cares immensely about us, practices mercy, and renders judgment. God’s nature, as it were, makes God unable to abide among Israelites who practice idolatry.” Rabbi Eisen notes, though, that being human, we get angry at times, yet our anger rarely brings about a good outcome. “Being passionate in the service of God carries with it the danger that one will find good reasons for indulging in fanaticism and even committing violence in God’s name. We know this all too well from recent headlines. And because humans are prone to violence, further violence is often required in order to stop violence, or stave off worse violence. As the Rabbis taught, the rigor of law is essential to the practice of mercy. Pinehas may well have prevented national disaster by taking the step he did. The Israelite mob, unchastened by the disaster of Korah’s rebellion, may have been on the verge of rampage. The threat to the people’s well-being, if so, was not divine plague but human anarchy.”

In another commentary on the parasha, also from 2014, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-importance-of-constructive-action, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz also addresses the enigma of why Pinchas’s vigilante-style act was rewarded with the divine covenant of peace. He cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“Pinhas asserted My Rights and made them respected among the people, and thereby saved the whole nation from destruction into which they would irrevocably have fallen had I been forced to assert My Rights Myself. If a challenge to God finds no champion among a circle of human beings and the consciousness of the Rights which God has on them has disappeared from this circle, then they have lost God, and thereby their own future existence. And this must be the case especially in the Jewish circle of human beings, Israel, whose whole human historical existence rests on the word “li,” “[they belong] to me,” with which God has called Israel “His possession” and thereby dedicated every member of it to be “His” in every phase of its existence, and for all eternity makes this Right of Possession valid. Israel is either “God’s” or it ceases to exist. One such single man, Pinhas, and one such single manly deed become the savior of the entire nation.” (Commentary on Numbers, 432)
Rabbi Berkowitz endorses Rabbi Hirsch for emphasizing the measure of Pinchas’s loyalty to and sympathy for God, which lend a little more clarity and understanding regarding his grave act. He also acknowledges the value of Rabbi Hirsch’s insistence that we need to be in a partnership with God. Rabbi Berkowitz says, “…it is not enough for humans to sense the divine emotion, but they must also act in constructive ways. There must be a true striving to become a divine people. Given these reflections, the modern reader succeeds in making some sense of Pinehas’s fundamentalism.” Yet he contends that the narrative remains problematic, “An act of unbridled religious fundamentalism not only carries the day, but seems to be rewarded.” But he continues, ” Then again, perhaps the unique reward serves as a remedy: a “covenant of peace” must temper Pinehas’s zealousness, and “an everlasting priesthood” devoted to the disciplined service of God must be the channel through which Pinehas and his descendants distill their energies. Parashat Pinehas forces us to pause and reflect on the role of religious passion and its destructive as well as constructive consequences.”

In a further commentary from 2012, http://www.jtsa.edu/religious-moderation-in-the-face-of-extremism, Rabbi Marc Wolf notes that commentators have wondered why difficult episode of Pinchas is split between the two successive parashot read last week and this. He suggests one possible reason: “…in splitting the story, we are afforded some distance from the violence, so that when we read God’s gracious response and blessing of Pinhas and his descendants, it does not sit in as stark a contrast with the bloody beginning of the narrative.”
Rabbi Wolf, too, is uncomfortable with the seeming endorsement in the text of Pinchas’s brutal act, and furthermore wonders how to understand the reward of the “brit shalom – the covenant of peace.”
He cites the assortment of suggestions put forward in the Etz Hayim commentary, ranging from God’s promise of protection from retaliation by the clan of the Israelite Pinchas killed, to the assertion in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah that through this brit shalom Pinchas was granted immortality.
However, Rabbi Wolf is most taken with the commentary of the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, who he says, “helps me to walk the line between my discomfort with the action in question and the reward that is granted”. He notes that the Slonimer focuses here on understanding the “shalom” component in the brit shalom. He relates that the Slonimer opens by comparing the aftermath of the current incident at Ba’al Peor, in which Pinchas saved the entire people (24,000 died in the plague) whereas after the Golden Calf episode 3,000 died. So this was an extremely serious transgression.
Rabbi Wolf says, “The Slonimer reads incredible significance into shalom — beginning by stating with biblical proof texts that peace is the mission of the world, and the point of the entire Torah. If we take a short step back with him, we find that shalom surfaces as a fundamental idea in Judaism. The ‘Amidah that we recite three times daily ends with shalom; the priestly blessing ends with shalom. The Slonimer goes so far as to say that all of creation, everything physical and spiritual, hinges on this concept of shalom that God gave as a gift to Pinhas. But for the Slonimer, shalom is much deeper than the existence of peace or the absence of conflict.”*
He continues that the Slonimer connects peace (SHaLoM) with wholeness (SHeLeiMut), and he “sees all of humanity in a struggle for wholeness. We can all be doing everything we should in life, fulfilling our personal mission, and doing good in the world, but there can still be an internal struggle with sh’leimut…what the Slonimer recognized was that an individual can be doing what is right and good in the eyes of God, but still not be achieving wholeness. Our outward actions can, and often do, tell a very different story from our internal dialogue. The personal physical, emotional, and intellectual struggles that we negotiate on a daily basis frequently stay buried deep within ourselves. To achieve wholeness, true sh’leimut, we must find a way to make peace with our internal drives.”
Rabbi Wolf turns back to the parasha, saying we can perhaps see God’s covenant of peace a little differently, and yet with our modern eyes, it is still hard to read of violence being approved in the name of religious belief. But, he says, after the “intermission” between the two parashot, we see the outcome. God has understood that a brit shalom is needed because because the violence, though mandated, has undermined the unity among the people. Rabbi Wolf suggests “It is not only in the eyes of God that Pinhas needs shalom. It is among the rest of the Children of Israel, and within himself. We do not hear how his action affected his later life and relationships; we can only hope that he did find some means to achieve sh’leimut.”
He concludes, “Rabbinic Judaism could not let the story of Pinhas stand as an example for religious fervor. In a wonderful piece of Talmud from Sanhedrin, when his fanaticism comes face to face with rabbinic courts, the Rabbis acknowledge the immorality, but declare, “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (82a).
“This kind of fanaticism and violence are overwhelmingly the dominant voices much of the world hears in the name of religion. However, we are inheritors of a tradition that understands that Judaism is a voice of moderation, and that religion guides us to be better humans, working to fulfill God’s will and to respect life. We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage done by extremism. We practice a Judaism that seeks sh’leimut in our relationship not only with God, but with each other and within ourselves.”

*The Slonimer authored a book called Netivot Shalom (Pathways of Peace).

Balak: Wherever you go

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! Like streams that flow…(B’midbar 24:5-6).

Wherever
My name is mentioned,
whenever you heed
who you truly are,
I will come to you
and bless you:
in the tents
of your migrations
as in your lasting home,
for hidden streams
flow with you
and if you seek their crystal waters
your light will mirror Mine.


In Parashat Balak, we read about the eponymous king of Moab, who becomes alarmed at the Israelite victories so he summons the well-known prophet Bil’am to curse the people of Israel, in the hope of impeding their successful progress. God does not approve but finally acquiesces. En route, Bil’am is blind to an angel blocking his path, while his she-ass sees the heavenly messenger. The angel tells him to go with Balak’s emissaries but to say only the words God puts in his mouth. Balak accompanies Bil’am to three vantage points where they look down on the Israelite encampment. To Balak’s dismay, each time, Bil’am pronounces blessings rather than curses.
The next episode describes how the Israelites succumb to the charms of the daughters of Moab, and are enticed to worship the idol Ba’al Peor. God is incensed and tells Moses to have all the ringleaders publicly impaled. Just then an Israelite man brings a Midianite woman over to his friends in full view of everyone else and then takes her indoors. Pinchas follows them in and impales them both, ending the plague that was raging among the people.

In a commentary on Parashat Balak from 2014, http://www.jtsa.edu/always-strive-to-be-israel Rabbi Mathew Berkowitz ponders the connection between the first part of the parasha in which Bil’am divines the beauty of the Israelite people and blesses them, and the last part in which the people follow their baser instincts and end up involved in an idolatrous cult which is anathema to all they have learned from their close encounters with God.
Rabbi Berkowitz cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888, Germany):
“The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only the nation itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and Torah. As Midrash Rabbah remarks, after the victorious battle against Sichon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable, enjoyable rest. The district was called ha-shittim (Micah 6:5). It was a wooded, shady region which offered very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert. Rabbinic commentary goes on to explain that wherever the term ha-am, the people, is used it is derogatory; whereas when the term Israel is used, it is praiseworthy. Thus, “the people became complainers” (Numbers 11:1), “the people spoke against God and Moses” (Numbers 21:5), “the people cried that night” (Numbers 14:1), and “how long will this people have no faith in me” (Numbers 14:11). And here too: “the people began to whore after the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1). They began to break away from the moral faithfulness which they observed up until this point.” (Commentary on Numbers, 426)
Rabbi Berkowitz comments that ultimately, it wasn’t the Moabite king, or the seer he employed to curse the Israelite people that brought about their downfall, it was the people themselves who discarded their connection with God and the Torah and its inherent values. Rabbi Berkowitz suggests also that the midrashic description of the people going astray only after they have settled down comfortably (in Shittim), might be teaching us “the importance of occupying ourselves with both profession and continued learning.” He concludes, “And finally, the midrashic distinction between ‘am and Israel is striking. For, in the moment we simply see ourselves as just another people, we open the door to illusion and abandon; we must always strive to be Israel, reflecting the best of God and Torah.”

In her commentary from 2011 http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2011/07/parashat-balak-view-from-above.html
Dr Rachel Anisfeld, too considers the juxtaposition of these two episodes in the parasha, wondering why there is not just a happy ending with Bil’am’s blessings. She notes the dissonance between the two stories. Bil’am’s blessings poetically describe Israel’s greatness: “a nation that dwells apart” whose “dwelling places are good”. The Rabbis interpret this as indicating a chaste lifestyle. However, the subsequent episode with Ba’al Pe’or reveals the opposite: the people are not “dwelling apart” but rather joining an immoral debauched cult. Dr Anisfeld notes, “The sense of contrast here is well captured by the name of the idol, Pe’or, a word related to the modern Hebrew word pa’ar, meaning “gap.” Ba’al Pe’or comes to teach us about a gap, the gap between ideal and reality.”
Dr Anisfeld suggests that the two episodes bring different perspectives of Israel. From Bil’am’s vantage point, she says, we have a prophecy, a vision from afar. She says he speaks from on high: “ki merosh tzurim er’enu – As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights.” (B’midbar 23:9) Dr Anisfeld says, “From this lofty view, one can see the people’s great potential and imagine their great future. The Ba’al Pe’or story, on the other hand, speaks of the nitty-gritty daily reality of the people, its earthly struggles with the basest of desires.”
She continues, “The Mount Sinai story tells of a similar dissonance between ideal and reality. A momentous lofty task is given to the people from on high at Mount Sinai, the destiny of achieving “holiness” through the path of the Torah. “I am your God; do not worship any aside from Me,” says God. Meanwhile, down below, at the bottom of the mountain, the people create a molten calf to worship, dancing and eating around their idol. The reality of the people’s concrete deeds forms a sharp contrast to God’s lofty expectations.”
Dr Anisfeld describes these two vistas, the first representing our “idealized potential and destiny, our inspiration, our goal” and the other “the reality of the struggle to put that potential into practice, to actualize the dream in the real world.” She notes that the Torah does not just present us with the dream, but gives us a blueprint to put it into practice. She concludes, “The Ba’al Pe’or story expresses for us the gap between Torah ideal and our lived reality–it highlights the difficulty of our task, the enormity of the bridge we need to construct between heaven and earth.

In a further commentary on Balak from 2011, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/balak-how-good-are-your-tents, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser focuses on the verse above, part of the blessing proclaimed by Bil’am, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” which he notes are the first words read by the congregation at every morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov; mishkenotecha Yisrael“. These words are the opening of a piyyut (liturgical poem) which continues with verses from the book of Psalms:
As for me, through Your great love, I will enter into Your House. I prostrate myself before Your holy Temple in reverence to You.
O Lord, how I love the refuge of Your House, the place where Your glory dwells.
As for me, I will bow in worship, I will bend the knee before the Lord my maker.
As for me, may my prayer come to You Lord, at a time of favor; God, in Your great love, answer me faithfully with Your redemption
.” (Psalms 5:7; 26:8; 95:6; 69:14)

Reb Jeff notes, “Together, these verses form a poem about being in sacred space. We begin the morning service by reminding ourselves what it means to stand on the sacred ground of God’s House in worship.” But he wonders why that should be necessary. He says that if we are in the synagogue, which is a holy place where a Jewish community comes together to pray, why do we need to proclaim that we are standing in sacred space? He asks, “Aren’t we there already?” And he answers that in the Jewish view, holiness is dependent on intention – kavanah. “Without the right kavanah, a synagogue is nothing more than a fancy building with a closet at one end to store some old scrolls. The building does not become a synagogue until we enter the space with the intention to be in a synagogue.”
So Reb Jeff suggests that in reciting the verses beginning with “Mah Tovu” we aim to sanctify the space in which we stand.” He concludes “This is the secret of Mah Tovu. With a turn of the heart, we place ourselves in sacred space. We discover that we can spend our entire lives living in holiness just by having the intention to be aware of God’s presence.”

And finally, the Sefat Emet teaches that holiness follows Israel wherever they go, as it says: “In every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you.” (Shemot 20:21). The Sefat Emet links “…your dwelling places, O Israel,” to the Temple in the Holy Land, but he says that “…your tents, O Jacob,” refers to wherever Jacob dwells in his wanderings outside the Land. He interprets the following verse, “Like streams that flow…” as the wellsprings of Torah that flow with the people wherever they go.

In his book “The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger” Rabbi Arthur Green adds some historical background to this teaching: “Offered in 1896, the very year when Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State was published, the Sefat Emet here as elsewhere in these teachings is seeking to confirm a hasidic point of view on the Holy Land and the Jews’ relationship to it. Ger was in fact less opposed to Zionism than were many other hasidic groups, and a number of its followers were to settle in the Land of Israel between the two world wars. But this sermon makes it clear that while Israel and the land are indeed spiritually bound together, holiness is found in the temporary “tents” of Jacob in Poland and elsewhere as well as in the permanent “dwelling places” of Israel in Jerusalem or on the Temple Mount.”

As noted, the verse cited above, “em>How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…” opens the morning service. As such, it has engendered numerous musical settings. Here is a link to such a piece composed by Abraham Saqui (1824 – 1893).