Va’etchanan: I’ll bring you cherries

Honor your father and your mother…(Devarim 5:16)

I’ll bring you cherries and I’ll pit them, as
once you did for toddlers: yours at first,
then mine.

I won’t fluster you by quizzing
Which fruit is this? although
I want so much to know that you remember –

instead I’ll relish your delight,
your momentary wonder
as you taste their ruby sweetness.

I’ll rub you lightly on your back –
its fragile curve a shipwrecked hull
ridged beneath my fingers.

I’ll draw the shawl up closer
across your rounded shoulders
to shield you from the all-pervading cold.

I’ll tenderly receive your litany of misery
and I’ll gently blot your tears,
as once you dried my own

and I’ll revel in your smiles
as they flicker on your lips,
uncertain as the rays of sun in winter.

I will not interrupt as you sift
for missing words, and nor will I correct you
when the word you net is wrong.

I will match my pace to yours and I’ll waive
my usual hurry, as you inch your way
so wearily across your waning world.

I’ll bring you potted jasmine,
delicate white stars with heady fragrant scent
that may stir buried memories

of walking home on summer nights
beneath the moon you see now
only through the window frame.

I’ll play you gentle symphonies, as once
you played for me, that you might drowse
and dream of somewhere better

and when you wake
I’ll look into your shuttered eyes
and wait with you once more.

The commandment of honoring parents was paradoxically given to the generation who wandered 40 years in the desert, where God provided everyone’s needs. The parents did not need to supply food for their offspring, because God supplied manna. Tradition relays that God also took care of clothing (Midrash Rabba – Shir HaShirim 4:2). Nevertheless, this was the generation that stood at Mount Sinai and heard God say, “Honor your father and mother.” So the Meshech Chochma and the K’tav Sofer teach that we are mandated to honor parents simply because they gave us the gift of life, and not as some form of “repayment” for the years parents spend nurturing their offspring.
However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai teaches that this is the most difficult of all commandments to follow (Tanchuma Eikev, 2).

In an article entitled Honoring One’s Parents: How Far Should We Go?
Rabbi Mark Greenspan reflects on the challenge of the fifth of the Ten Commandments. (He bases his article on a chapter entitled “Between Parents and Children” by Rabbi Daniel Nevins (pp.673-692) in the book, The Observant Life*.)
Rabbi Greenspan asks, “What could be more basic to human decency than honoring one’s parents? [Rabbi] Daniel Nevins points out that the commandment to honor one’s parents is not only one of the fundamental teachings of Judaism but it is also on a par with the reverence for God. The fifth commandment of the Decalogue is a kind of bridge connecting the commandments that define our relationship with God with those instructions which define our relationships with our fellow human being. “Honor your father and your mother” connects heaven and earth.”
However, he adds, “And yet what could be more complex than the commandment to honor our parents and for parents to raise their children to be decent human beings? The Bible bears witness to the complexity of family ties. Genesis prefaces the Ten Commandments by bearing witness to the sometimes dysfunctional relations that connect us to our most ancient ancestors. Abraham nearly sacrifices one son and sends the other off to die in the wilderness. Isaac and Jacob each favored one child over the others leading to familial turmoil. Moses appears to have little or no relationship with his own sons other than naming them. It is no wonder the Bible has to remind us to honor our parents even when honor and reverence don’t appear to be emotionally honest.”
Rabbi Greenspan notes that this commandment of honoring parents was not composed for children. He says that from the discussions in the Talmud and the codes, it is apparent that the sages were addressing the relationship between adult children and their parents. Young children are likely to love their parents in a less judgmental way and they are initially very dependent on their parents. It is the adult children who are normally more challenged in their relationship with their parents and with whom, it seems, the sages are concerned. He cites Rabbi Nevins, “[Halakhah]…establishes norms of conduct to ensure that parents attend to the needs of their children, and that children reciprocate when they reach the proper age. Ideally parents and children should love one another, but halakhah knows better than to legislate love.”

In a sermon delivered on Kol Nidrei 2008, entitled Aging and Caring for Elderly Parents,, Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman retells a Jewish folktale:
“A mother bird was carrying her three babies across a river. As she carried the first baby in her beak high above the river, she asked it, “When I am old, will you do the same for me?” “Of course, Mother,” replied the baby, “It will be my honor.” The mother bird dropped the baby into the river, saying simply, “You’re a liar.”
As she carried the second baby, the mother again asked, “When I am old, will you do the same for me?” The second baby bird replied as the first, and the mother bird dropped it, too, into the river.
When she carried the third baby across the river, the mother bird asked it, “When I am old, will you carry me across the river as I am carrying you now?” The baby bird answered dolefully, “Oh no, Mother, when you are old, I will have children of my own, and I shall have to carry them across the river. I won’t be able to carry you as well.” The mother bird replied, “You are my darling child, for you have told the truth.” She carried this baby to the other side of the river and gently put [it] down.” (Jewish Visions of Aging, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, p. 85; taken from Yiddish Folktales, ed. Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, p. 24).
Rabbi Zimmerman notes that this is a harsh story, underlining the challenges of caring for aging parents. She says leaving aside the obvious immorality of a mother bird killing her two babies because she rejects their replies to her question, the folktale touches on challenging issues. She observes “The first two babies perhaps misjudge their ability to care for their mother when she grows old, and they assume that their love for her will be enough to sustain them through the challenges of caring for an elderly parent. They are just babies, so how could they possibly imagine how complicated it will be to care for their parents, care for their own children, hold jobs, and tend to their many other needs? Or perhaps they did know how challenging it would be, but they were uncomfortable by the prospect that their mother will grow old, so they blindly reassure her – as well as themselves – that everything will be just fine. They are unable to accept that their beloved mother will become dependent, frail, and ill and that she will eventually die.
The third baby, the darling child who tells the truth and makes it to the other side, is certainly aware of the burden of aging parents. However, this baby takes no responsibility in the matter. It is true that we can never directly repay our parents for raising us. It may also be true that this bird cannot carry both its own children as well as its mother across the river. But this does not absolve it of the responsibility of caring for its mother when she grows old, for other solutions do exist.”
Rabbi Zimmerman points out that if this tale offers an ambivalent view of the responsibility of the younger generation to care for its parents, the Torah is very clear, as we read in Vayikra 19:32 “You shall rise before the gray headed and show deference to the elderly; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”
The Talmud, in Berachot 8b, describes three instructions that R’ Yehoshua ben Levi imparts to his sons, the last of which is, “Be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning, for we say that the second set of Tablets and the broken pieces of the first Tablets both rest in the Ark.” The Gemara in Bava Batra 14b cites a baraita which derives this from the verse in next week’s Parashat Eikev, “I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the Ark.” (Devarim 10:2) in which the phrase “you smashed” seems superfluous. The Rabbis learn from this that the broken pieces of the first Tablets were put in the Ark with the second set. The Rif** (R’ Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen) teaches that the writing on the first Tablets flew off when they were broken (Pesachim 87b) but were nonetheless accorded the honor of being laid alongside the second set in the Ark. A scholar who has forgotten his learning is analogous to those blank fragments and he too should be honored as previously.

*The Observant Life – The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews eds Martin S. Cohen and Michael Katz.
**Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen (1013 – 1103) also known as the Alfasi or by his Hebrew acronym Rif (Rabbi Isaac al-Fasi), was a Moroccan Talmudist and posek (Halachic decisor). He is best known for his work of halacha, the legal code Sefer Ha-halachot, considered the first fundamental work in halachic literature. He was born in the Algerian city Al Qal’a of Beni Hammad, but spent the majority of his career in Fes, and is therefore known as “Alfasi” (“of Fes” in Arabic).

Tisha B’Av: Still broken

In those heady days of ‘sixty-seven, when
the exiled city was redeemed
to nestle in our outstretched hands

we kissed its dusty timeworn stones
and whispered fervent prayers, as tears
of joy splashed down on rugged streets.

We fantasized that Tisha B’Av
might shift from fast to feast
and lamentations would be rendered obsolete.

But we did not heed the echoes
of conflicts from the past, sighing
through the light-splashed alleyways

nor see the legion fissures
that rend a broken world.
For if the Temple was destroyed

because of baseless hate
where is the unfounded love
to heal those ancient wounds?

In an article from the website of the American Jewish Committee entitled, Tisha B’Av: Shall We Continue Mourning for Zion?,, Rabbi Noam E. Marans notes that more-or-less from earliest times, the fast of Tisha b’Av which commemorates the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, has engendered debate as to whether it should be a permanent fixture in the Jewish calendar. He points out that several decades after the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the prophet Zechariah was asked whether Jews should continue to observe Tisha B’Av and other fast days that involve mourning its destruction. He cites the interchange: “In the fourth year of King Darius, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Kislev, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah when Bethel-sharezer and Regem-melech and his men sent to entreat the favor of the Lord and to address this inquiry to the priests of the House of the Lord and to the prophets: “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” ” (Zechariah 7: 1-3). Rabbi Marans observes that although it is not clear who is inquiring, the question itself certainly is clear: given the new circumstances – the return to Zion – should the mourning practices be continued?
The Soncino commentary notes that before responding, “the prophet expounds the doctrine that fasting as such is devoid of spiritual worth. God is indifferent to fasts; what He demands is the moral life which manifests itself in brotherly love and social justice. This was the teaching of the earlier prophets which the former generations had ignored and experienced misfortune in consequence.” (Zechariah 7:5-14). Finally Zechariah answers the question directly: “And the word of the Lord of hosts came to me, saying, Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity.” (Zechariah 8:18-19). Zechariah is telling the people that if they practise morality, fast days will become festivals and the sadness of the past will be forgotten. In the meantime, though, he is not rescinding them.
Rabbi Marans continues that in the event, the place of Tisha B’Av was consolidated as the “focal point for commemorating many tragic events in Jewish history. By 200 C.E. the Mishna included five events associated with the date of Tisha B’Av: the Divine decree prohibiting the adult population liberated from Egypt from entering the Land of Israel; the destruction of the First and Second Temples; the plowing over of Jerusalem after the First Temple destruction; and the squelching of the Bar Kokhba rebellion at Betar. Later generations noted that Tisha B’Av also coincided with the expulsion of the last Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World War I, among other tragedies.”
Nearly 2,500 years later with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the debate resurfaced as it seemed that the prophecies of Zechariah and others had come true. Religious Zionists in the nascent Jewish state described it as “reishit tzemichat geulateinu – the harbinger of our redemption.” As in Zechariah’s time, some felt that the return to Zion had removed the need to mourn it.
Rabbi Marans continues that while the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 sparked the debate about the observance of Tisha B’Av as a day of mourning, the Six-Day War in 1967 ignited it. In the years between 1948 and 1967, the holiest site, the Western Wall, the base of the Temple mount, had been off-limits to the Jewish people. This was where the first tragedies of Tisha B’Av had occurred, and in the hardest battle of that miraculous 1967 war, it was restored to the people. Jerusalem was reunited. He says, “In a stunning response to nearly two millennia of longing, thousands of Jews flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate. Not since the days of Zechariah had the question of Tisha B’Av’s relevance been so starkly raised.”
He notes that although there have been attempts to add a modern dimension to Tisha B’Av by connecting it to the Holocaust which preceded the establishment of the state, this concept did not really take hold, and the Holocaust is commemorated on a day of its own – Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Rabbi Marans believes that if Tisha B’Av does not resonate – even though its gloom may be alleviated as we cannot but rejoice in the flourishing of the state of Israel – it points to a misguided “naïve idealism untempered by the lessons of history” similar to that displayed by those early questioners of the prophet Zechariah.
He concludes that Tisha B’Av is as relevant today as it was in the past. While the course of Jewish history has been irrevocably altered, he notes, since the founding of the state of Israel, he adds that “the generation of Zechariah had also prematurely assumed their troubles had ceased. Jerusalem today is indeed crowded with boys and girls playing in its squares, but the days of our mourning have not yet come to an end.”

In an article entitled, “Recollection of a Tisha B’Av Shiur given by the Rav”, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein recalls visiting Israel in August 1967, in order to experience the aftermath of the miraculous Six Day War. He arrived with his wife in Tel Aviv on Erev Tisha B’Av, in time to eat the pre-fast meal and attend Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s synagogue for the Tisha B’Av night service. He remembers, “The mood in Israel was anything but Tisha B’Av-like. There was simply no feeling of mourning or sadness. On the contrary, there was a feeling of exhilaration, confidence, excitement and redemption. It was clear that Israelis were in no mood to observe or even to feel the sadness and mourning of Tisha B’Av. The service proceeded rather routinely, Rabbi Goren read Eikha and then the congregation began the first of the Lamentations. They got through about half of the stanzas and then they stopped, and everyone proceeded to leave shul. The mood of the country was one of liberation and redemption with people feeling that they had been saved from, God forbid, a second Holocaust and with the sensation that not only were we saved, but that the State of Israel had expanded its territory perhaps threefold and its holiest sites were back in our hands; all of this because of the hatred and mistakes of intractable foes. How could one feel depressed and mournful on that Tisha B’Av?” He reports, though, that he and his wife were disturbed, feeling that this reaction on the saddest day of the year was somehow inappropriate. However, some months later, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, delivered a memorable shiur, which, he says, addressed his dilemma. He says, “The Rav asked: How can one mourn for events that occurred 2,000 and 2,500 years ago? Tisha B’Av marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE. They are historic events, long gone from memory. How are we able to sit shiva on Tisha B’Av, night and morning, for events that occurred twenty centuries ago? If a close relative of ours had died and we didn’t learn about it until after thirty days, there would be no formal shiva. We would sit shiva symbolically for an hour and then get up and go about our business. How then, can we sit down on the ground for an event that happened two millennia ago?”
Rabbi Soloveitchik gave three answers to that question.
The first response notes that the Jewish approach to all of our history is to reframe it as a contemporary experience. Thus, on Seder night, we proclaim, “Bekhol dor, in every generation, each person must feel as if he himself has now emerged from Egypt.” The exodus is to be reframed as a contemporary experience. We are enjoined to feel as though we were enslaved and have now been redeemed, and we therefore drink the four cups of wine, we recline and we recite Hallel. On Shavuot, we stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, in a shul often decorated with greenery, as though we are standing at Mount Sinai. On Sukkot, we dwell in temporary booths as the Children of Israel did in the desert. So it is with Tisha B’Av. We sit down on the ground as if the Temple is burning now, Jerusalem has been razed, and the Jews dispersed or slaughtered.
The Rav concluded his first answer by citing from the Jerusalem Talmud that there is a parallel saying to Pesach’s  concept of “Bekhol dor” on Tisha B’Av: “Every generation in which the Temple has not been rebuilt is like the generation in which it was destroyed.” This is not mourning for something that happened millennia ago; it is mourning for what happened just now.”
The Rav’s second answer to the relevance today of an event that occurred so long ago derives from his analysis of the Rambam’s conclusion that Tisha B’Av was actually observed during the period of the Second Temple. Rabbi Lookstein says that “the Rav then asks the obvious question, “How could they mourn for the First Temple when the Second Temple stood in all its glory? How could the Kohanim bring the daily sacrifice and then sit down on the ground to recite kinot? Are not the two experiences mutually exclusive?” He continues that the Rav noted that it would have been absurd for the Kohanim and the Levi’im to effect all the daily rituals in the Second Temple on Tisha B’Av and then mourn for the First Temple. However, he surmised that if they observed it, it would have been in prayer, that the destruction would not recur. So Rabbi Lookstein says, “The people were terrified that history would repeat itself and that the destruction that came 600 years before would happen again. And, tragically, it did happen again.” So the day is spent to be spent not only in mourning but also in prayer that we be saved from such a tragedy recurring.

In a current article on Tisha B’Av by Amichai Lau-Lavie,, he quotes the reply he gave to the question of why he fasts: “The temple is only one layer of what it’s about. For me it’s more of an invitation to focus on what’s broken in the world…It’s not just about the history of the destruction of the temples and the loss of all those innocent lives. It’s about broken hearts and homes everywhere, fasting to focus on the parts of life we rarely want to: Our scars of violence and abuse and suffering and exiles, often in the name of God; and for every time I and others choose more hate and fear over trust and love. I fast because hunger humbles, reminding me of being in the body, and this is a great Jewish tool for mindfulness and deeper connection with what matters most…”
He adds, “And also, more recently for me – it’s become the first day of the sacred season of the Days of Awe – we fast on Tisha B’av and then again on Yom Kippur and in between we move on in and up and focus on what needs fixing in our lives and how to do it better.”

In his book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us that Tisha B’Av precedes Rosh Hashana by exactly seven weeks, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in essence beginning the process of Teshuvah, the process of returning to ourselves and to God. This, he says, “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 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…
He continues the theme by articulating some of the questions that Tisha B’Av asks us, about where we are in our lives, what we are walling out and whether we are capable of moving from a state of siege to a state of openness, to a state of truthfulness, especially with ourselves. He says, “The walls of our soul begin to crumble and the first glimmers of transformation – of Teshuvah – begin to seep in. We turn and stop looking beyond ourselves,. We stop defending ourselves. We stop blaming bad luck and circumstances and other people for our difficulties. We turn in and let the walls fall.
“Our suffering, the unresolved element in our lives, is also from God. It is the instrument by which we are carried back to God, not something to be defended against, rather to be embraced. And this embrace begins here on Tisha B’Av, seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, so that by the Ten Days of Teshuvah, we are ready for transformation. We can enter the present moment of our lives and consciously alter that moment. We can end our exile.
“We can step outside our walls and feel the full force of the great tidal pulls on our body and our soul; sun and moon, inhale and exhale, life and death, the walls building up and the walls crumbling down again.”

In a current commentary on his blog, entitled Existential threats and free-flowing hatred,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser places Tisha B’Av this year against the backdrop of the furious debate within the Jewish community concerning America’s proposed agreement with Iran, and the threat this might pose to the existence of Israel.
He notes that the tone of the rhetoric on both sides of the debate within the community has become increasingly irrational and hate-filled, with the word “traitor” emanating from both sides.
He says, “The ancient rabbis, too, considered the possibility that the Jewish people faced a threat that would destroy them and drive the remnant of survivors from their land. In fact, that is exactly what happened to them. The rabbis lived in a time when the armies of Rome conquered Jerusalem, burned down the Temple, and exiled the Jewish people from the city that was the center of their spiritual existence.
“Now that is a real “existential threat.” He notes that in “Megillat Eicha – The Book of Lamentations,” that is read on the night of Tisha B’Av, we read of the horrors perpetrated on the innocent in the destruction of the First Temple, while Josephus the historian describes similar barbarities at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction.
But, he adds, ” … unlike today’s commentators, the ancient rabbis did not locate the threat to their existence in the intentions and actions of their enemies. They saw it within themselves. They saw the cause of their suffering, not in their foreign adversaries, but in the way they treated each other.
“In the Talmud, the rabbis ask, “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” And they answer, “Because of three things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” They ask, “Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time the Jewish people were studying Torah, performing mitzvot, and giving charity?” And they answer, “Because of free-flowing hatred [of one Jew against another]. This teaches that free-flowing hatred is of the same gravity as the sins of idolatry, immorality and bloodshed combined” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b).”
Reb Jeff notes that certainly the state of Israel is surrounded by real enemies who wish her nothing but harm, but he says, “… while we allow the rhetoric of our debate to become more and more toxic – we are doing our enemies’ dirty work for them…
“In a few week’s time, the United States Congress will vote on the President’s proposed multinational agreement intended to slow or stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. I don’t know whether that is a good thing or not. I am not an expert on arms control. I do expect, though, that until that vote is taken, the Jewish community will suffer more pangs of accusations and anger – one Jew against another – that will damage our community and the very idea of k’lal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people…”
He adds, “My plea on this darkest day of the Jewish year is simple. Listen to our tradition. Understand what the rabbis meant when they said that the uncurbed enmity of one Jew against another is as bad as idolatry, immorality and bloodshed combined. They believed that our self-directed anger and hatred would ultimately lead us to worship our own opinions, to rape the foundations of civility, and to kill the love that unites us as a people…”

And finally, in an editorial of the Jewish Week from 2012, entitled The Ongoing Relevance Of Tisha b’Av,, the author notes that especially since the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, Tisha b’Av has seemed irrelevant to some. He [she?] adds, “…despite this city’s renaissance, even in the ecstasy after its unification, Tisha b’Av has retained its hold on our souls and imagination. The Shoah-like story of Lamentations and the commencement of the exile, with its unparalleled millennia of suffering, would be reason enough to fast and mourn. Even today, any reading of a Jewish newspaper would clearly show that we are still in exile, if not from our land than from our truest selves…
“Our Lamentations conclude with the prayer that our days be restored, as of old, and in many ways they have, but no one really thinks the restoration is complete. That is our job, beginning the morning after.”

Devarim: Fraternal foes

And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. (Devarim 2:4-5).

Long ago our paths diverged:
though children of one father,
embittered and estranged,
we are brothers but in name.

Still, that early kinship
carries seeds of hope
from which conciliation
can yet put forth its shoots.

The bond God’s hand has forged
pulls us face to face
and brothers who were foes
will foregather once again.

In his book Torah of Reconciliation, on Parashat Devarim, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites both the verses above, (Devarim 2:4-5) and also from Devarim 2:9: “And the Lord said to me: Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”  Rabbi Lewis notes that the Torah emphasizes the special relationship between God and the Jewish people which, he says, results in “a concept of chosenness, often understood as exclusive”. But, he adds that occasionally the Torah offers brief vistas of abiding covenantal relationships between God and other peoples. He suggests that although the details are sparse, there is evidence of parallel covenants, and “multiple and simultaneous varieties of chosenness”. He says the classic statement of this is found in Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). Rabbi Lewis comments that the exodus narrative is central in the Torah, and here Amos is saying that there are other exodus stories. He suggests that these might be found in other peoples’ histories. “Each dramatic episode is the work of God. God’s compassion reaches around the world.”
Rabbi Lewis continues with an interesting Midrash, based on verses later on in chapter 2: “Rise up! Set out across the wadi Arnon; see, I give into your power Sichon the Amorite, king of Cheshbon, and his land. Begin to possess it…Then I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sichon of Cheshbon with an offer of peace…” (Devarim 2: 24, 26)
The Midrash (Devarim Rabba 5:13) says, “Rabbi Joshua of Sichnin in the name of Rabbi Levi said: everything that Moses decreed, the Holy One blessed be He, affirmed for him. How so?…the Holy One blessed be He, said that he should fight with Sichon, as it is said, “contend with him in battle…” But he [Moses] did not do that. Rather, “then I [Moses] sent messengers.” The Holy One Blessed be He, said to him: “I said to you to fight with him [Sichon]. But you opened up with [an offer] of peace, as it is said, “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it” (Devarim 20:10).” (Midrash Rabba, Devarim 5:13)
Rabbi Joshua addresses the discrepancy between God’s command to do battle and Moses’s independent initiation of peace talks. Not only is God not angry but actually subsequently endorses and mandates policy according to Moses’s action. Rabbi Joshua intimates that God “learned” from Moses.
Rabbi Lewis notes that this rabbinic passage, compiled centuries following the Bible era, suggests that God “alters God’s stance in the light of human wisdom.” He adds, “More boldly, the rabbis can be understood as affirming their own ability to modify the tradition, even to understand God’s will differently based on their own sensibilities and re-reading of age-old passages. God often comes across as war-like in Torah. Subsequent sages find ways to ameliorate that divine way, to underscore the images of God preferring and pursuing peace, and to advocate pursuing pathways to peace.”

In a commentary on Parashat Devarim, Rabbi Avi Weinstein cites the Midrash in Devarim Rabba 22, “Your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, even though they are the descendants of Esau, they are still your kinsmen.” Other biblical verses echo this sentiment: “Your kinsmen who hate you…” (Isaiah 66:5);”…and the outrage that will be done to your brother Jacob…”(Ovadiah 1:10).  It seems to be saying that no matter the how much the relationship has deteriorated, the kinship remains. Rabbi Weinstein notes that the Midrash seems to be teaching us that “these bonds were tied by God and cannot be severed by human design and there is always potential for reconciliation.”
He adds, “In times of great strife, when kinsmen become brothers in name only, origins of relationships offer the potential for a way back, when they once shared something in common. The Midrash is teaching that these origins were given by God and cannot be removed by human design. No matter what outrage people perpetrate, they cannot abrogate the potential for reconciliation, because they were not the ones who created the relationship. It is this fact that humbles us and makes us see the world as a place that existed before us and will exist after us, and the darkest moments between peoples will give way to the memory of being kinsmen once upon a time.”
Rabbi Weinstein concludes, “This Parasha precedes Tisha Be’Av when we recall the destructions of the Jewish people, but we are reminded that someday these will be days of rejoicing. And brothers who have become adversaries will be brothers once again.”


Masei: Journeys

These are the journeys of the Children of Israel by which they left the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by the word of God. The following were their journeys and their starting points…
The Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham… and they encamped before Migdol… They set out…they encamped…They set out from the hills of Abarim and encamped in the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho; they encamped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim, in the steppes of Moab. (B’midbar 33:1-42)

Leaving Egypt, trembling,
chased by raging foes,
we plunge onto an undetermined path.

Though guided by the cloud by day
and by the fire at night,
our vision is obscured.

We gaze up at the looming rocks,
eyes narrowed in the sun
and find no answers there

and in the dark nocturnal skies
although we search for signs
the sparkling stars are silent.

The journeys through the desert
and the lulls at green oases
are interspersed with terror and with love

and only looking back, we know
that we were never lost:
each sight, each sound;

each encampment;
every winding route we wandered
brought us closer home.

Parashat Masei (meaning journeys) derives its name from the detailed itinerary of the Children of Israel during the forty years of their travel through the wilderness. The name of each of the 42 separate places in which they encamped is mentioned, sometimes also how long the people remained there before moving on.

In a commentary on parashot Matot-Masei,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld looks at how we live our lives: in the middle of one activity, we are often already waiting to finish it and our mind wanders to the next. She asks “Are we ever present in the activity of the moment, not thinking about where it’s leading us, what will happen next, but simply engrossed in the moment?” Dr Anisfeld suggests that this might be the message of the Torah’s detailed description of the encampments in the desert, the long list of way stations from Egypt to the land of Israel. She says, “Why list every single place name (42 in all)? Because the Torah values every step along the way; each point is precious, a tiny moment of redemption.” She adds that the Torah does not actually tell us about the destination, or the entry into the land. She says, “That is the goal they have been moving toward the whole time, but that is not the point; the point, it turns out, is all those little stops along the way; the point is the journey itself, the life that was led on the way to the land.” Dr Anisfeld notes that humans seem to be constantly on the move, trying to get places, do things, as the text repeats many times in this section, “vayisu – they travelled” and, she continues, this reflects how it should be, that we have work to do in the world. “But at the same time, we should not forget the value of the process itself, the fact that every single moment – every single place along the way — is a moment of redemption. The value of this moment does not come from the fact that it leads to a certain destination; we might very well not get to that destination; each place along the way has its own value.” That, she submits, is why the Torah does not just emphasize the word, “vayisu” repeatedly, but also adds “vayachanu – they encamped”. She concludes, “We are travelers, but we also need to learn to stop and be present at each place along the way; today, right now, is the moment of redemption.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that whatever happens to the Children of Israel as a single entity, is reflected also in the life of each individual, so he sees these 42 journeys and encampments as the spiritual journeys of life that each person encounters en route from birth to death. Indeed, in Chasidic thought, these are deemed to be the 42 journeys of the soul.
In a commentary from 2014,, Rabbi Adam Greenwald addresses this individual journey on which each person embarks. He quotes the writer, E.L. Doctorow who once commented, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you…”
Rabbi Greenwald sees this as an apt 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.”
He relates this to the wanderings of the Children of Israel, through 42 way-stations in the wilderness, en route to a land none of them had ever seen.
He cites Rabbi Noa Kushner, who notes that there is “a profound difference between being lost and zigzagging. To be lost 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 commentary on the parasha from 2011,, Rabbi Marc Wolf describes and quotes from the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He notes that the work is about a single epic journey. Rabbi Wolf says, “As much as he [Keruoac] may have wanted us to read On the Road as one journey, we cannot help but experience each and every sojourn…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 believes that Parashat Masei addresses that same tension. He notes that on the brink of the Promised Land, Moses looks back with the people and presents a sweeping overview of the odyssey which brought them to where they are. He points out that the dry listing of the place-names on the way leads him to believe that Moses understands that the people, having withstood the journey, are now totally focused on reaching their destination.
He says, “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 what do we make of the tension? What should the frame of mind of the children of Israel be as they stand at the edge of the Promised Land? They have changed so much in their journey — and not only demographically. We know that save a few souls, the generation that left Egypt did not enter Israel. But beyond that, 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?”

Rabbi Wolf says that the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovski, offers us one possible answer in his book Netivot Shalom. On this parasha, the Slonimer wonders what the meaning of this itinerary might be, not to the Children of Israel, but to us today. He too quotes the Baal Shem Tov, and suggests that not only do we relive this journey through our holiday celebrations each year, but more personally, individually, throughout the course of our lives.

Rabbi Wolf maintains that each person’s own journey might be a paradigm of the growth and progress attained by the Children of Israel as they traversed the wilderness. He suggests that the lengthy description hints that it is not only arriving that matters, but that each person might take many paths, stopping and starting, until finally arriving. He concludes, “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…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.”

Mattot: Safely home

Moses replied to the Gadites and the Reubenites, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (B’midbar 32:6)

After fleeing oppression,
endless migration and
searching for sanctuary:
the end is in sight.

The quest almost over
yet all is not finished
there remains one more river
you all have to cross.

You want a safe haven –
your brothers have none:
until all are settled
no-one is home.

In a commentary on Parashat Mattot entitled The Wandering People,, Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla invites us to close our eyes for a moment and imagine the one place in the world which conjures up feelings of safety and security. She suggests that most of us will visualize our home – whether that of our childhood or of our adult life, and adds, “Home represents true safety. Home is the beginning and ending of each day’s and each lifetime’s journey.”
The statistics on World Refugee Day (in June) 2015 reported that the number of forcibly displaced refugees worldwide is 59.5 million.
During the past year, conflict and persecution forced an average of 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries.
Developing countries host over 86% of the world’s refugees, compared to 70% ten years ago.
In 2014, the country hosting the largest number of refugees was Turkey, with 1.59 million refugees. By the end of 2014, Syria had become the world’s top source country of refugees, overtaking Afghanistan, which had held this position for more than three decades. Today, on average, almost one out of every four refugees is Syrian, with 95 per cent located in surrounding countries.
Last year, 51% of refugees were under 18 years old. This is the highest figure for child refugees in more than a decade.
Rabbi Kukla notes, “The story of displacement and the search for a safe haven lies deep within our communal and individual Jewish histories.” He adds, “Much of the Torah is focused around the search for home. This week’s Torah portion, Mattot, begins to bring to a close the book of Numbers, which is wholly concerned with the people’s journey out of slavery in Egypt and the pursuit of a home in the Promised Land.”
We read in Mattot how the people reach the land just over the Jordan River from the Promised Land. The tribes of Reuben and Gad who own much livestock, see that this location is suitable for their needs and want to stop and build their homes on this side of the Jordan. However, when they suggest this to Moses, he argues fiercely, believing that they are only addressing their own welfare. He says they are so close to home and are now deserting their brothers in their struggle to find a home for themselves. Once they hear Moses’ rebuke, these two tribes agree to help the rest of the people and ensure they are safely ensconced, before returning to their own allotments. Rabbi Kukla says, “The message of the Torah is clear. Everyone in the community must have a safe place to be before any of us consider ourselves at home.”
He adds, “In the contemporary world there are myriad people in need of a safe home… There are millions of people who, like the ancient Hebrews, are vulnerable and homeless.
“These numbers represent a global crisis and yet we seldom discuss it. Jews know about wanderings and have a particular ability to speak to the rights of displaced peoples. Three generations of my own family span seven countries and possess nine different native tongues…This story is a typical Jewish family narrative. The story of displacement lies deep within our communal and individual Jewish histories. Narratives of fleeing oppression and wandering in search of home lie at the heart of our most sacred texts, inform our most cherished relationships, and have shaped our individual identities as Jews.
“Jews have a powerful and intimate relationship to migration and the search for home. When we dare to tell our stories within the widest possible global context, we connect our sacred and familial memories of wandering to the ongoing global impact of violence and displacement. We have a unique voice that we can lift up to educate and advocate for the rights of displaced persons everywhere and for fair immigration laws…
“In the coming weeks, as we finish reading the Book of Numbers, may we lift our voices and call out for the right of each and every human being to have a home in the fullest sense of the word, a sanctuary where human dignity can safely unfold.”

Pinchas: Changing of the Watch

Moses spoke to the Lord saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (B’midbar 27:15-17.)

Standing at the summit,
an upright lonely figure gazes at the land,
its nearness unbearably alluring, where
countless hues of rolling hills
converge on pristine sky.

He seems to stare forever
at the quilt of light and dark,
then turns away and softly asks
that God will seek a shepherd
who will bear with all the people
and tend this sundry flock.

Rashi remarks, “This verse tells the praise of righteous men who at the hour of their departure from the world abandon all thoughts of their own wants and think only of the wants of the community.” He casts further light on Moses’ care for his people once he would no longer be there to lead them. Rashi cites a Midrash noting that when Moses addresses God, “Source of the breath of all flesh” the Hebrew word translated for breath here is actually in the plural, “ruchot” and this is understood to mean “souls”. The Rabbis derive from this that just as each person’s face is different, so is his disposition. Moses was asking that God, Who knows how different each person is from another, should appoint a leader who will bear with each person according to his disposition. This Midrash mentions the blessing enacted by the Rabbis to be recited when seeing a crowd of Jews that exceeds 600,000, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, wise in secrets.” This alludes to God’s understanding of the myriad variety within humanity. Moses, the Midrash implies, is pleading for a successor who can encompass as much of this diversity as humanly possible.
In a commentary on Parashat Pinchas from 2009, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson recalls that when he started his career as a pulpit rabbi, he would look over the crowd and see a group, but over the years he came to know his congregants as individuals. Having accompanied them through a whole spectrum of life experiences, the initial sea of faces metamorphosed into hundreds of individuals, each with a complex gamut of strengths and weaknesses.
Rabbi Shavit Artson comments, “Moses prepares to transfer leadership to a new generation. He is concerned on behalf of his people that the new leader should not seek to deny the individuality of each member of the community, imposing a bland homogeneity on all. Instead, Moses insists that the legitimate claims of the community must accommodate and celebrate individual expression and difference.”
In his book, Moses as Political Leader, Aaron Wildavsky devotes a chapter to addressing why Moses does not get to the Promised Land. In the section entitled “Renunciation” he says, “Only the greatest leader is able to inculcate principles so profound that other people can successfully implement them well into the future. God is trying to teach Moses that the greater accomplishment is to have done this without going into Canaan. Moses is now an old man. Physical death can not be of great importance to him. The hard thing for Moses is not death, but rather his absence at the culmination of all his plans…”
Wildavsky continues, “In his final phase of leadership, Moses includes provisions to help future leaders avoid the danger to which he almost succumbed. Having learned that no leader is indispensable, Moses relinquishes his own role, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the people will not be left “as sheep without a shepherd” (Num. 27:17).”
He concludes the section, “Moses eventually understands that the chief virtue in leaders is to make themselves unnecessary. To be a “nursing father” – knowing that the child may die, will probably rebel, and must be allowed to make history on its own – is the essence of Mosaic leadership. Teaching that leads to learning that creating new teachers is a circular process of renewal, not a linear model of leadership.”

Balak: The Way of the Donkey

Abraham rises early. Gathering his scattered thoughts
he fumbles with the straps and saddles up the donkey.
Setting on his way, he ponders the unthinkable.
Climbing up the mountain, the mist gives way to warmth
and rolling waves of faith suffuse his troubled heart.

Moses heeds God’s mandate recalling him to Egypt,
sending him to set the people free.
He takes his wife and children and mounts them on a donkey;
walking alongside with his eyes on the horizon,
he garners strength to face the work ahead.

Bil’am vaults aboard, riding forth assuredly,
shuttering his mind to the utterance of God –
but the jennet undermines him. Repeatedly he thrashes her
until she turns and speaks to him of truth:
the messenger of God is unveiled before his eyes.

Abigail mounts the donkey; pale complexion flushed,
her mind swings like a pendulum:
from churlish man to wrathful lord and back.
The breeze blows on her face as she meets the future king;
stepping down serenely, she offers words of peace.

The Shunamite woman rides the donkey wildly,
her lifeless son clutched tightly in her arms.
Her heart pulsates ferociously, her steed lopes calmly on.
Her panic is allayed as she contemplates the prophet
whom she prays will restore to her a living child.

When the son of David comes,
he will be righteous and soft-spoken,
humbly mounted on a lowly foal.
Slowly and steadily, listening intently,
he will navigate the path: the harbinger of peace.

In Hebrew, the name of something proclaims its essence. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 17:4) teaches that Adam was charged with divining the essence of every animal and naming it accordingly. The donkey is characterized by carrying heavy, physical burdens, and the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the word for a donkey,”chamor” derives from the word “chomer” meaning material or physical. Donkeys are mentioned numerous times in the Tanach, both in respect to laws pertaining to treatment of animals, particularly beasts of burden, as well as being a measure of wealth (there are many allusions of wealthy biblical characters owning many oxen, sheep, camels and donkeys). However, in addition, they also seem to appear in several places where some sort of spiritual transformation is occurring. The most startling example of this is, of course, in this week’s parasha. In the beginning of the parasha, the king of Moab, Balak, sends messengers to call for the prophet Bil’am to curse the Israelites. God warns the latter not to comply, and so Bil’am repeatedly declines, but later in the night, God appears to him in a dream and permits him to go, provided he only speaks God’s words.
Accordingly, the next morning, he saddles his she-ass (jennet) and sets off with the messengers, but the animal sees an angel barring the way and turns aside. Bil’am thrashes her, and each time she tries to bypass the angel, she cannot get by, and in trying, she squashes Bil’am’s foot against the wall. He continues to beat her, and then she suddenly speaks to him, demanding he consider whether she has been in the habit of disobeying him. He is forced to confess that she hasn’t. Then God uncovers his eyes and he sees the angel who was there all along. He then proceeds to perform God’s will.
We find the donkey too in the following places where something more than mere transportation seems to be going on:
Abraham saddles up his donkey as he sets forth to offer his son Isaac. He does not understand how this demand fits in with God’s promise to him, but he finds the faith to obey. (Bereishit 22:3)
Moses, having fled from Egypt after killing the taskmaster and realizing that the deed was known, seeks refuge in Midian. God appears to him in the burning bush and tells him of the role he is to play in delivering the people, and Moses argues that he is not a good choice. However, God insists and in Shemot 4:19, God tells Moses who is still in Midian, that the time has come. Moses overcomes his reticence, takes Tsipporah and their two sons, mounts them on a donkey, and sets off.
In Samuel I 25, we read of a churlish man named Nabal who angers the warlord David by refusing his friendly overtures. David vows revenge, and gathers his outlaws, but Nabal’s wise and beautiful wife Abigail, riding a donkey, sets out to avert the catastrophe, and defuses David’s anger with conciliatory words.
In Kings II 4, we read of the Shunamite woman, who periodically hosts the prophet Elisha in her home during his nomadic visits. Her long-awaited son suddenly dies of sunstroke and she saddles an ass and goes to find Elisha, who, indeed performs a miracle and the child is resuscitated.
Finally, in Zechariah, (9:9) we learn that the Messiah, when he comes, will ride on a donkey. The Soncino commentary notes, “The king of peace will come, not like a worldly conqueror, riding on a war-horse, (for horses and chariots will be no more, as stated in the next verse) but in humility, riding on an ass, the animal used for peaceful purposes.”

In a commentary on Parashat Balak from 2011, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan considers the role of the donkey in the Tanach. She submits that the image of travelling with the donkey hints at a spiritual process: “First comes a ritual preparation, “saddling up the donkey.” Next comes an extended listening, “riding the donkey.” These steps lead to an understanding of the message, reaching the destination and “dismounting.” These are the steps that Avraham used to find faith; Avigail used to find words of peace; and the Shunamite woman used to find healing.” Rabbi Duhan Kaplan adds that in Bil’am’s case, at first his ability to listen is blocked by his anger, but finally the ass opens his eyes and he performs God’s will. She concludes that “the prophet Zechariah teaches that we never outgrow our need for this method. He declares that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Yes, the gifted leader will have already cultivated stellar middot, stellar inner qualities. But the leader will not rest in personal qualities alone. The leader will be guided by God’s inner presence along the right path, speaking words of peace, and finding healing.”