Devarim: Turning

“You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and set off on your journey…” (Devarim 1:7)

The year has all but reached its peak;
summer’s fullness starts to ebb:
we see the downturn and decline
and then we start to turn.

The walls come down and suddenly
we grasp how far we’ve moved,
away from God and from ourselves
and then we start to turn.

We turn towards the darkness
acknowledging the truth,
we look into the emptiness
and then we start to turn.

The cycle comes around once more,
and standing on the edge
we hesitate and stumble
and then we start to turn.


In his book entitled This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew* describes the cycle of Jewish rituals observed every year between mid-summer and mid-Autumn, each one “constituting a passage on this ancient journey of transformation.” He starts with Tisha b’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem; through Elul, the month of introspection when the shofar’s wake-up call is heard; Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Remembrance, when the shofar is blown one hundred times; the Ten Days of Repentance which are fraught with meaning and dread; Yom Kippur when we rehearse our own death and the gates clang shut; and finally Sukkot – a joyous coda to the journey when we build and inhabit a very transient house. “On this journey,” says Rabbi Lew, “our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment…This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness – from deadness to renewal. It is on the course of this journey that we confront our shadow and come to embrace it…
It is this concatenation of ritual – this dance that begins on Tisha B’Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house… – [which] stands for the journey the soul is always on.”
Rabbi Lew notes that Tisha B’Av is primarily associated with the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the earthly locus where Israel felt its connection to the Divine Presence in a palpable way. So this day is largely about the loss of this connection and the calamity that comes in the wake of this loss, although many other catastrophes occurred around this time. He adds that Tisha B’Av always coincides with the beginning of the reading of the book of Devarim. Devarim is mostly a re-telling of the events and laws that were set out earlier in the Torah. The first story to be re-told is of the calamitous refusal of the Children of Israel to go up and take the Promised Land following the spies’ report. The people become estranged from God and are condemned to wander for 40 years in the desert before the opportunity to inherit the land recurs. Now they stand again on the brink of that opportunity as Moses re-tells them that story. Rabbi Lew says, “Now they are being given a second chance. Forty years before, they stood on exactly the same spot…and now it is time to see whether they have learned anything, if they can move past this experience and get on with their lives. Or if they failed to learn, will this same calamity continue to replicate itself until they do?…”
So Rabbi Lew teaches that Tisha B’Av and the three weeks preceding it can be regarded as a cursed time, or as a reminder that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we learn what we need to learn from them. Tisha B’Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, beginning the process that culminates on Yom Kippur. So Tisha B’Av, says Rabbi Lew, “is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest in our own lives – in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others. Teshuvah – returning, repentance – is the essential gesture of the High Holiday season.” He quotes the Rambam who teaches that Teshuvah is only complete when we find ourselves in exactly the same position we were in when we went wrong – when the state of estrangement and alienation began – and we choose to behave differently, to act in a way that is conducive to repentance and reconciliation.
Rabbi Lew points out that sometimes a Parasha will convey its essential meaning by repeating a particular word-root a significant number of times, often seven. In this Parasha, always read in the week of Tisha B’Av, the word that is repeated seven times is the root of “lifnot – to turn.” One of the unmistakable suggestions of its usage here, says Rabbi Lew, is that the people have reached a significant turning point. Once again they stand on the threshold and they have to decide how to proceed. He says the calendar of the sacred year presents us with a succession of turning points, and the number seven, the number associated with creation and light, is always connected with them. Seven weeks before Pesach, we turn towards the process of purification which will culminate on Pesach itself by reading Parashat Shekalim. Pesach itself is a turning point of liberation. Seven weeks later we celebrate Shavuot – and Revelation. And here, seven weeks before Rosh HaShanah, we observe Tisha B’Av, the beginning of Teshuvah, the turning back from estrangement. Rabbi Lew notes that Tisha B’Av always falls in the height of summer, and six days later on 15th Av, summer reaches its zenith and starts to decline. He links this with the ongoing cycle of decline followed by renewal. He says, “The time between Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, this great seven-week time of turning, is the time between the destruction of Jerusalem, – the crumbling of the walls of the Great Temple – and our own moral and spiritual reconstruction. The year has been building itself up and now it begins to let go – the natural cycle of the cosmos, the rise and fall, the impermanence and the continuity, all express themselves in this turning. The walls come down and suddenly we can see, suddenly we recognize the nature of our estrangement from God, and this recognition is the beginning of our reconciliation.”

Rabbi Alan Lew died in 2009 aged 65. He was a poet and the author of several books. Before joining the Conservative rabbinate he spent 10 years studying Zen Buddhism, and later pioneered the use of meditation to enhance Jewish spirituality. He was the founder of Makor Or, the first Jewish Meditation Center associated with a synagogue. He was also a social justice activist who protested executions at San Quentin penitentiary and argued for the homeless and poor at City Hall.

Masei: The high priest’s mother

For he (the man-slayer) must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the man-slayer may return to his land holding. (Bamidbar 35:28).

She sits in a corner:
her fingers fly busily
over the yarn
which she knits into cloth.

She piles up the garments
one on another
to give to the exiles
in the cities of refuge.

They only go free
when the High Priest expires
but she has no wish
to bury her child.

So she sends food and clothing:
she hopes they’ll deal kindly
and not pray to hasten
the death of her son.


The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that just as the high priest brings atonement for all Israel through the rituals of Yom Kippur, his death brings atonement for the inadvertent man-slayer. Both Abrabanel and Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed, point out the connection between the fugitive’s stay in the city of refuge with the high priest’s death. This, they say, lies in human nature. They say that when someone is hit by a tragedy, he is comforted when he sees it happens to others – that he alone has not been singled out. So when the high priest dies, and the relatives of the slain person see that death comes even to the greatest of mortals, they are less likely to take revenge on the inadvertent killer. Other commentators teach that the high priest was beloved by all the community – he was considered to be almost like a member of the family, so mourning for him would eclipse the mourning for their earlier loss and the wish for revenge which they previously held would dissipate.

The Rabbis of the Mishnah (Makkot 11a) picture the high priest’s mother knitting articles of clothing and sending food for those incarcerated in the cities of refuge so that they will think kindly of her and not pray for her son’s speedy death to release them from exile. The Peninim Yekarot asks why the high priest’s mother supplies the needs of the refugees so that they won’t pray for her son’s death. Why do the high priests themselves not supply the exiles? He surmises that were the high priests to support the refugees with all their needs, there was a risk that any person who found himself in dire straits and unable to support himself, might arrive at one of the cities of refuge, professing to have committed manslaughter, and the high priest would have to support him with food and clothes. When the priest would die, the source of support would dry up and he could return home. However, if the mother of the high priest would supply his needs, he would be afraid that she might die, there would be no-one to support him, but he could not return home as long as the high priest still lived. His subterfuge would therefore back-fire.

Mattot: A woman’s vow

If a woman makes a vow to the Lord or assumes an obligation… while still in her father’s household… and her father learns of her vow… if he restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand… If she should marry while the vow… is in force, and her husband learns of it… and her husband restrains her, on the day he finds out, he thereby annuls her vow which was in force or the commitment to which she bound herself… (Bamidbar 30:4-6,7-9.)

If the man in her life hears her utter a vow,
he can turn in a trice and render it void.

What if her oath bears her deepest-held hopes –
will she promise in secret, or not vow at all?

If she has a vision which the world might reject,
will she give up her dream, or dare seek her Self?


These laws reflect an age when women were subordinated to a father or husband. Already by the time of the Talmud, the Rabbis restricted the application of these laws. Nonetheless, the image here of the woman being subservient seems inescapable. If we examine how woman fare in society nowadays, we can see that gender equality is still far from being complete. The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries according to their gender gaps, and the scores reflect the inequality between women and men. The report assesses countries on how well they are dividing their resources and opportunities among their male and female populations, regardless of the overall levels of these resources and opportunities. The report examines four critical areas of inequality between men and women in 130 economies around the globe (encompassing over 93% of the world’s population). The criteria are: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment; and health and survival. The three highest ranking countries have closed over 84% of their gender gaps, while the lowest ranking country has closed only a little over 50% of its gender gap. (Iceland scores highest out of 135, UK is 18th, US 22nd, Israel 56th, Iran 127th, Saudi Arabia 131st, Yemen 135th.) (From the Global Gender Gap Report 2012, published by the World Economic Forum.)
In an article entitled The Vows of Women, Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson points out that we see in this parasha, that although the woman possesses the ability to make a vow, she may have to abandon her oaths and vows if the male authority figure in her life hears them. Given that fact, Rabbi Koch Ellenson asks what are the woman’s options? She says, “She could take her chances with vowing and being heard. Or, to avoid her vow being annulled, she might either choose not to take on the responsibility involved in making an oath or a vow, or she might opt to make her vow but without anyone hearing her; in both of these options, she would be forced to follow, and be complicit in maintaining, the culture’s attitude toward her desire for personal expression. She herself thus participates in her own silencing, because only by vowing without being heard, will she fulfill the mandate that her vow establishes. She acts by pretending that she has not acted. She can transgress the restrictions only by forcing herself to take part in them at the same time. She must betray herself to be true to herself.”
Rabbi Koch Ellenson cites a 2002 report of the American Psychological Association which indicates that of the 17 million Americans who suffer from depression yearly, “women are twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode.” The report also notes that current research shows that women typically “place their needs secondary to those of others.” Rabbi Koch Ellenson points out, “one cannot simplistically attribute depression to a single cause, but it is difficult not to wonder to what extent the thwarting of one’s longings and hopes, either by implicit social pressures or explicit ones, plays a role.” She says the community should be moving towards supporting, rather than stifling women who long to fulfill their ambitions and dreams, so that their vows to themselves – and others – can become a reality. She adds, “women no longer need to be complicit in the denial and abandonment of self that pervades our culture… they no longer need to voice their desires in an undertone, hoping that no one will hear.”

Shiva Asar BeTammuz: “A holiday unto the Lord tomorrow!”

Moses hurled the tablets:
they crashed on rocky ground,
splintered into fragments –
a shroud of stillness fell.

The battering ram punched through
and smashed the city wall:
an avalanche of boulders
breached the fearful silence.

Broken tablets, broken walls,
broken vessels scattered –
once the shards are gathered
mourning turns to joy.


The Golden Calf was made on the 16th Tammuz, and Aaron declared, “A holiday unto the Lord tomorrow!” (Shemot 32:5). The Sefat Emet teaches in the name of R Isaac Luria, that the 17th Tammuz will indeed be a festival one day. The Sefat Emet identifies the broken tablets and the breached walls with the broken vessels of Lurianic Kabbalah. All of these breaks have to be mended by Tikkun Olam. Then, he says, the words of Zechariah will come true, “The fast of the fourth month…will be a time of gladness and joy.” (Zech 8:19).

This year there is very poignant sense of “brokenness” in the shadow of the current situation in Israel. The shards have not yet been gathered…

Pinchas: Zelophehad’s daughters

The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.(Bamidbar 27:1-2).

They cross the camp
dry-mouthed, hearts pounding:
all eyes are fixed
on the lonely quintet
walking with resolute steps.

They are pious and wise
and they call us to action:
to move from the place
of injustice and bias
and pave the untrodden way.


The five daughters leave the domain of women in order to challenge an injustice: their father has died with no son to inherit his land and his name will thus be lost. Without being called by anyone, they approach the door of the Tent of Meeting. This is the place where only the high-ranking men congregate – the place of holiness and authority where women simply do not belong. According to the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 119b), Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, pious and astute interpreters. They say to the leaders, “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (B’midbar 27:1-4).
In an article entitled, Dispossession of Women’s Land: the audacity of the request of Zelophehad’s daughters, Rachel Farbiarz says, “While the daughters of Zelophehad seem emboldened by their grievance, it only silences their leaders. The sisters’ cause appears righteous, but its remedy is simply unthinkable in a society that numbers only its men. Into this mute vacuum comes the Divine ruling: “Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers and you shall pass on their father’s estate to them.” And then God reshapes the law in its entirety, commanding Moses: “And to the Israelites you shall speak, saying: ‘Should a man die without having a son, you shall pass on his estate to his daughter.’ ” (B’midbar 27:6-8).”

The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. That it took God Himself to resolve the sisters’ complaint shows how unparalleled and courageous their demand was. This dispossession is a reality for millions of women around the globe today and the preference for men over women in matters of property and landed inheritance is deeply rooted in law and practice.

In the developing world, men overwhelmingly control access to the arable land, with estimates of female ownership at an abysmal 2% in Africa. While women are legally prohibited from holding title in countries such as Malawi, female ownership and control elsewhere is more broadly barred through custom, culture, and family.
The prevailing laws and practices that bar women from secure access to land inevitably result in hunger and poverty in vulnerable communities and populations.
(From Dispossession of Women’s Land by Rachel Farbiarz.)

Balak: The people that dwells alone

He comes with evil in his eye
squinting from the side –
a minion of darkness.
Yet he cannot damn
whom God has not condemned:
this people that dwells alone
in goodly tents, like cedars
by the water, rooted
in the land.


Bil’am is hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites. The Beit Ramah comments, “As Balak knows that “whomever you bless will be blessed” [as he says to Bil’am in B’midbar 22:6], why did he hire Bil’am to curse Israel? Would it not have been better to hire him to bless Moab that it would succeed in battle? From here it can be seen that the intention of the haters of Israel is not the good of their own people, but rather to do evil to Israel; and all their rage against Israel does not derive from love of their own people but hatred of Israel…”
In the first of three oracles, Bil’am declares that he cannot damn those who are not cursed by God (B’midbar 23:8). He recognises that he has before him a people who are set apart, “…a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations,” (B’midbar 23:9). Yet at Balak’s behest he tries twice more.
In his third oracle, Bil’am refers to himself as “the man whose eye is true.” (B’midbar 24:3). However, Rabbi Mordechai of Naschiz cites from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105): Rabbi Yochanan taught that Bil’am was blind in one eye. R’ Mordechai says, “What is meant is that a person needs two eyes: one to see the greatness of the Creator; and the other to see his own unworthiness. Bil’am saw only the greatness of God as he said [of himself], “who obtains knowledge from the Most High” (B’midbar 24:16) but he did not see his own unworthiness…” Thus, he continues, Bil’am and his disciples are described as possessing a wicked eye and a haughty spirit. R’ Mordechai is pointing to their willful and evil misconception of their work in the world.
Each time Bil’am attempts to curse the Israelites, he utters a blessing. Balak, unhappy with the results of the first attempt, tells Bil’am that now he will bring him to a different place “efes katsayhu tir’eh vechulo lo tir’eh – you will only see a portion of them, you will not see all of them.” (B’midbar 23:13). The Kotsker Rebbe teaches “”katsayhu” – in an individual Jew, you may find a deficiency, but “kulo” in the community of Israel, “lo tir’eh” – you will not find a defect or a lack.” The Etz Hayim commentary says that the Kotsker is showing how ordinary people combine to create extraordinary communities, sites of holiness and charity.
The Netivot Shalom says that the nation as a whole, as a unified entity, cannot be cursed. When Bil’am finally sees the entire nation on his third attempt, not a mere fraction of them from the side, – “He saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe,” (B’midbar 24:2) he becomes convinced at last that they cannot be cursed by him.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 60a) teaches that one of the blessings Bil’am utters, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob…” is a tribute to the way the tents were set up, each family mutually respecting the other. The reference to the roots of the trees is considered to be a reference to posterity (literally the “seed” of the tree).

This poem arose in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of the three young boys, Eyal Yifrach z”l, Gil-Ad Shaer z”l and Naftali Fraenkel z”l, whose funerals were held this week.
During the eighteen days between the kidnapping and the terrible discovery of the boys’ fate, the whole nation came together as the holy community described by the Kotsker Rebbe. The boys’ families are true examples of “the goodly tents” which brought forth such beautiful and devoted sons, like trees nourished by the “waters” of Torah, and as one of the bereaved fathers promised his son as he eulogized him, “…these are tears of strength and love…We will not give up…We are a strong nation.”

May the memories of Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali be for a blessing and may God grant their families the strength to go forward.

Balak: Bil’am’s blessing

Can we hear God speak,
affirming His presence
with eyes unveiled?

Can we reclaim the blessing
that our dwelling places
will once again be fair?

Can we hasten the day
when the star shoots forth from Jacob
and the scattered sparks are gathered?


Bil’am, whose eyes were opened by God, looked down on the Israelite encampment and saw the sanctity and mutual respect within the community.
Tradition teaches that the star emanating from Jacob refers to the Messiah. Nachmanides envisaged the ingathering of the exile, but the gathering of the sparks could also be the Lurianic vision of tikkun olam.