RTR Logo_Left_New
Yom Shabbat, 9 Av 5778

This week we will be reading from the double portion of parashat Matot-Masei, the two concluding portions to the Book of Numbers. Matot starts with a series of laws regarding vows. Vows, or nedarim in Hebrew, were something taken quite seriously by our ancestors. So much so, that there is a whole tractate in the Talmud that are dedicated to the promises that we make both to God and to each other. As a matter of fact, Kol Nidre, perhaps the most recognized melody and custom in Jewish tradition due to its taking place at the start of Yom Kippur, is really a legal treatise on vows.

Our tradition is very leery of oaths. It does not countenance the issuance of casual promises. Instead, when one makes a vow to another, or to God, it is viewed as a sacred and holy agreement.

However, our portion begins with the phrase “zeh ha’davar,” which means literally, “this is the thing.”

According to the medieval commentator, Rashi, this curious phrasing gives permission to revoke one’s vows. So why then, if a vow is a sacred and holy agreement, can one go back on their word?

According to rabbinic understanding, if one made a vow they would feel compelled to fulfill it, even if it was made rashly or it was inappropriate. This story is best illustrated in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11. In it, Jephthah made a promise to God that he would sacrifice the next thing he encountered if God led him to victory. Of course, the next thing he encountered was not a thing at all, but his daughter.

This is all a round-about way of saying that our tradition places a lot of emphasis on our words and the intent behind those words. We should always strive to be careful in what we say and how we say it -- be it the spoken word, the written word, in email, or in text. Yes, a poorly phrased or rushed vow can be revoked, but not from the memory of those who hear it. So instead of speaking rashly or harshly, we are reminded to be thoughtful and deliberate to the best of our ability.

Matot-Masei ends with the vision of the Israelites about to enter into the land of Canaan to establish a new nation. The vision of this nation was built, in part, on the vision of compassionate communication. A vision that we pray will one day come to fruition. In the meantime, we can do our best to emulate this vision in our words, no matter how we choose to express them.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we find one of the greatest challenges facing religion: zealotry. When people tend to speak against “organized religion,” two of their main arguments concern the enforcement of religious values on those of other faiths or traditions and the acts of religious zealots.

With Pinchas, we find the first instance of a religious zealot in our tradition. In last week’s parasha, the prophet Balaam was unable to curse the Israelites as he had been hired to do by Balak. So instead, he devised a different strategy. As is mentioned a little later in the book of Numbers, Balaam convinced the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men and thus led them down the path towards idolatry (Num. 31:16).

When this occurred, God’s wrath resulted in a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites. It was during this time that Pinchas observed Zimri, a leader from the tribe of Shimon, flaunting himself with a Midianite woman, Cozbi, in front of all of the Israelites and Moses. Pinchas took it upon himself to impale Zimri and Cozbi on a spike, after which the plague was lifted and Pinchas was rewarded with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace.

In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “There can be no doubt that Pinchas was a religious hero. He stepped into the breach at a time when the nation was facing religious and moral crisis and palpable Divine anger. He acted while everyone else, at best, watched. He risked their lives by so doing. There can be little doubt that the mob might have turned against him and attacked him… he acted for the sake of God and the religious welfare of the nation. And God himself is called “zealous” many times in the Torah.”[1]

Yet, we do not elevate Pinchas in our subsequent tradition to the status of Moses or Abraham or Sarah or Deborah. Nor was Pinchas appointed the next leader of the Israelites; this honor was given to Joshua.

In this week’s haftarah portion, we read the story of Elijah, who in an act of zealotry, confronted and killed the priests of Baal. Fearing for his life from Queen Jezebel and King Ahab, Elijah fled to the wilderness. There God confronted Elijah for his deeds and demonstrated how God was not in the wind or an earthquake or a fire, but, instead, “in a still, small voice” (First Kings 19:13).

Our tradition has always had an ambivalence towards religious zealotry. It believes in the rule of law and justice, not vengeance and bloodshed. According to this understanding, anyone who acts violently in the name of God, has gravely misunderstood the nature of what it means to be Jewish.

Or as Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Nothing in the religious life is more risk-laden than zeal, and nothing more compelling than the truth God taught Elijah, that God is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice…”[2]

On this Shabbat, may we and the whole world be reminded that when people use their understanding of religion to cause the suffering of others, they are failing to understand the true lessons of Pinchas and Elijah. Zealotry is a means unto itself and a perversion of what God truly wants from us: to instead walk in ways of holiness, pursue justice, and bring peace whenever and wherever possible.

[1] http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5772-pinchas-the-zealot/
[2] Ibid.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff ‌

This week we will be reading from Parashat Chukat. There is a lot that happens in this portion. Given recent events, one particular event in our text is particularly striking, no pun intended. After the incident with the rock at Kadesh, Moses reached out to the king of Edom. The message he relayed included the following, “You know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors … allow us, then, to cross your country” (Numbers 20:15-17).

Moses was pleading with the king of Edom, given all of the hardships the Israelites had been through, to show kindness, mercy and compassion to the Israelites along their journey to Canaan and a better life.

But the king responded, “lo ta’avor, you shall not pass” (Num. 20:18). Edom refused to let Israel pass through their territory, and Aaron, Moses’ brother, died along this extended journey.

Reading this story, it is hard not to make a parallel connection to what is currently transpiring along our southern border. Recently a group of 40 rabbis traveled to the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Among them was Rabbi David Stern, Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and the president of the CCAR.

Upon reflection of what they saw and heard, Rabbi Stern wrote, “In this week’s parshah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional lo ta’avor to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.

We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resources indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values, and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.”[1]

I know many of you are also equally upset by what has transpired and what is transpiring along our southern borders. There is plenty of room for debate about effective immigration policies, but what is clear is that we can, and should, do better. All people, all families, are precious. The Rockland community and especially the Rockland Jewish community are part of a larger effort to make sure that all immigrant and refugee families are kept together. And as opportunities arise to effect positive change, we will keep you informed. In the meantime, on this Shabbat we stand arm in arm with our religious leaders and friends across religious spectrums and political aisles to work to ensure all children, including the 2300 already separated from their families, are soon and speedily reunited with their loved ones.

[1] http://ravblog.ccarnet.org/2018/06/witness-to-cruelty-bringing-compassion-to-mcallen/

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week we will be reading from parashat Balak. It is a fascinating tale that scholars are still struggling with to this day. As the Plaut Commentary states, “The tale of Balaam is one of those intriguing passages of the Torah that appear simple and straightforward on the surface yet are complex when studied in detail. In brief a pagan soothsayer is engaged by King Balak of Moab to curse the Israelites in order to impede their further progress.

Balaam agrees, but God thwarts the design and instead causes him to bless Israel” (New Plaut Torah Commentary pg. 1047). Balaam attempts to curse the Israelites four separate times and is unsuccessful in all four attempts. Each time the curses end up being blessings. The most well-known comes to us from Numbers 24:5: “MahTovuOhalechaYa’akov, how beautiful are your tents O Jacob.” This passage is part of our opening liturgy recited every morning when entering into the synagogue.

In the ancient world, there was a very strong belief in the power of curses. This tradition followed us through the middle ages with concepts like the ‘evil-eye.’ Even to this day, we speak of curses on occasion as if someone seems to have a black cloud following them.

But what our Torah portion is doing is something really profound. It is taking the notion of curses and flipping it on its head. It is reminding us that curses can become blessings. What happens to us is less important than how we respond.

Judaism rejects the notion of moving passively through life and letting events just wash over us. Instead it takes a much more activist view. If we wish to make a change in ourselves or in the world, we can and should be the agents of change.

As my colleague Rabbi Tom Alpert recently posted on social media,“The story is told that one day the disciples of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav brought him news of renewed persecutions of the Jews. He listened in silence. As one story became worse than another, he finally whispered,'I know. I know what you want of me. You want me to shout in pain, weep in despair. I know. But I will not.' And then he began to shout, 'In the name of heaven, Jews, do not despair!'"

On Shabbat Balak, we are thusly empowered to recite the words of Balaam and live them, so that our beautiful tents may become sacred spaces to celebrate the Divine Presence and that they can be a reminder that the power to change curses into blessings is in our hands.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, Korach and his band stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron saying, “You’ve gone too far. Why do you raise yourself up above us?” When Moses hears, he falls on his face. He puts it to G-d to decide. This ends badly for Korach and his followers. History views Korach as a jealous demagogue, and we are meant to learn from his mistake continually. His fire pans are incorporated into the alter as a reminder to be humble.

Korach presents us with a challenge. He is arrogant and tries to take power from Moses. On the other hand, some of what he says rings true. “All the community are holy,” he says. Well, isn’t that true? Doesn’t the Torah tell us in Parshat K’doshim, “You shall be holy, for I, G-d, am holy”? If you look closely, though, you will see that there is an important difference between Korach’s words and those in K’doshim. The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes that Korach doesn’t understand that holiness is a process. Holiness isn’t something that we are, it is something that we strive to become. If we are already holy, as Korach believed, we have no more work to do, no more purpose in our lives. Holy means set apart for a sacred purpose – the act of setting ourselves apart, of seeking sacred purpose to our days, is a process, not a state of being.

Korach missed something else. In the wilderness, Korach had a role, a job to play. Moses did too. Korach’s jealousy blinded him to the importance of his own work, of what he had to offer. Strange to think that arrogance and jealousy would actually mean that he wasn’t valuing himself enough, but by refusing to see the significance of what he was already invited to do, he doomed himself to always be less than his potential.

On this Shabbat, let us think about how we can engage in the process of holiness, becoming more true to our own best potential, so that in the end, we will leave this world better than how we found it.

Shabbat Shalom!
Cantor Sally Neff