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This week we will be reading from parashat Devarim, the first Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy. According to tradition, Deuteronomy was a series of sermons given by Moses to the Israelites as they were about to enter the land of Canaan without him. In this sense, Moses was attempting to remind Israel not only of their journeys over the past forty years, but also of their obligations to God and to each other following the conquest of the land.
Upon initial reading, one would be inclined to think that Moses’ words would be positive. However, Moses often expressed his frustration with the Israelites reminding them of the numerous times they opposed him and God, much to their own consternation. In particular, Moses told them the story of how they “flouted the command of the Eternal your God,” when it came to the story of the twelve scouts.
The journey from Egypt to Canaan was not an easy one. There was disagreement over what it meant to be a nation and a covenantal people. There was disagreement over what it meant to be free and to be holy. These disagreements often became contentious, and many suffered for it. Ultimately, it was only the next generation, as well as Joshua and Caleb, who would ultimately benefit from the promise of redemption. Even Moses, Aaron, and Miriam would not live to walk into the Promised Land.
There is a powerful lesson in this. All too often, we spend time arguing over issues as they pertain to us and us alone. What the Torah is reminding us is that every argument should not only be for the sake of heaven, but also for the sake of the next generation.
It is also an important reminder that the promise of redemption is not a personal promise, but a promise made to the people as a whole.
Therefore, if we wish to see our people, and all people redeemed, it will be through our children and our grandchildren. Whatever it takes to make their world better and safer is a charge upon us all. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to continue to make it happen, not for our sake, but for theirs.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Deuteronomy 1:26
Shabbat Shalom from Camp Eisner! In my bulletin article I misstated something by accident. This is my third summer on faculty, not my fourth. But regardless, there is something special about celebrating Shabbat at our URJ Camps. Not only does it bring back special memories from my time as a camper, but it is also so wonderful to see Shabbat celebrated with the next generation.
One of my fond memories was that we would gather together each Shabbat morning to discuss the weekly parasha.
This week we have the double portions of Matot-Masey, the final two Torah portions in the book of Numbers. Matot begins with the issue of vows and when they are appropriate and when they are inappropriate. Masey concludes the story of the daughters of Zelophechad we read about last week.
The fun part of being at camp is I get to help the campers contextualize them in order to present themes as part of the Shabbat evening and Shabbat morning worship services. With regards to vows, the first group of campers focused on the idea of sacred promises that we make not only to God, but also to each other. They were really interested in the idea that people should not break their promises and that some promises can be lifelong.
For the second group of campers, it was all about how the daughters of Zelophechad were able to fight for their right to hold onto their father’s inheritance, only to lose some of freedoms they achieved in this week’s Torah portion. The campers framed it as two-steps forward, one step-back. But even in this case, the direction always keeps moving ever forward, even with setbacks.
It is so wonderful to be able to see campers take the lessons of the Torah and interpret them and make them their own not only through writings and songs, but also through art, dance and creative play.
Torah does not have to be interpreted, explained, and understood in one particular way. There are lots of pathways to make it relevant, relatable, and interesting. And I, for one, look forward to seeing how the campers are going to do it this evening on Shabbat.
In the meantime, I wish each of you a wonderful Shabbat, and I look forward to seeing you next week, when I am back home in our beautiful, scenic sanctuary, overlooking the Hudson River.
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 lead 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.”
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…”
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.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week, we will be reading from Parashat Balak. Moses and the Israelites are on the move. Seeing that the Israelites defeated the Edomites, the Canaanites, the Emorites and the Amorites, the King of the Moabites, Balak summons Balaam to curse the Israelites so that they can win. Balaam goes to see the Israelites forces so he might curse them but an angel of God intervenes and tells Balaam he may go but he can only say what God instructs him to say.
When they come to see the Israelite encampment, Balaam blesses the Israelites. This enrages Balak and he takes Balaam to a different vantage point so that maybe a different view of the Israelites will convince him otherwise. Again, Balaam blesses them. Balak changes their position yet again thinking that another point of view will change Balaam’s mind. At the 3rd place, Balaam says, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. Like brooks are they turned, like gardens by the river, like cedars beside the waters the waters flow from God’s buckets. Israel wins against other nations because God brought you out of the land of Egypt to be God’s people. Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.” (Numbers 24:5)
Of all the fascinating parts of this Torah portion, the one that strikes me as the most interesting is that Balak keeps physically moving Balaam so that he may see the Hebrews differently and finally curse them. The results are exactly the opposite of what Balak was hoping for. Rashi explains that Balaam saw a glimpse into Israelite society, how they set up their community and how they cared for one another.
With everything going on in our world today, what we all need to do is to see each other from a different vantage point. How can we understand other people’s struggles and pain if we only see it on a YouTube clip? How can one have an open discussion when many of us limit ourselves to 140 characters on Twitter or share an angry meme on Facebook? The only true way, like Balaam did, is to take the time to take a different look at the people we interact with and people we disagree with. Whatever happened to old adage “To understand a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes.”
I just got back from spending two weeks at Eisner Camp. During the first Limud (education) session, each bunk met with a member of the kitchen staff. We worked with the campers to come up with questions to get to know who was preparing the 3000 meals a day, 7 days a week. At first, the questions the campers asked went along the lines of “What’s you favorite thing to cook at camp?” We steered them towards questions that allowed them to get to know the kitchen staff as people. Amazing things happened. We discovered that the people slaving away in a hot kitchen all day were, computer programmers, mechanical engineers, medical students, entrepreneurs, and many were fluent in multiple languages (one cook from Africa is fluent in 7 languages!) Without getting to know them as human beings, we would simply assume them to be one thing and nothing else.
Balaam saw something special in the Hebrews after observing them and getting to know them. Should we not follow his example?
Director of Congregational Learning
This week we will be reading from parashat Chukat. It begins with the mitzvah regarding the red heifer (parah adumah), without blemish, needed to purify someone who comes into contact with a dead body. It is an enigmatic commandment to say the least. First off, the Torah does not even define what ‘without blemish’ means. According to the rabbis, if it even has two black hairs, it would be considered ‘blemished.’ And secondly, the priest who performs this ritual becomes ritually impure by performing the ritual that is supposed to be used to make people ritually pure.
As Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe wrote, “Commentators struggle mightily to make sense of this ritual. In Pesikta de Rav Kahana (4:7), Rabbi Yochanan goes so far as to say there is no explanation for this mitzvah. We are not meant to understand every one of God’s commandments. His disciple, Rabbi Isaac, adds that even the wise King Solomon could not make sense of this commandment.”
Among the corpus of rabbinic writings, they can find little rational for this particular commandment. To this end, they came up with essentially two categories of mitzvot:mishpatim (judgments) and chukkim (decrees). Mishpatim are those mitzvot that make sense like do not murder, do not steal. Chukkim are more challenging for they contain laws like those involving shatnez (prohibition of mixing wool and linen), kashrut, and the parah adumah, the red heifer.
When it came to the chukkim, the general rabbinic approach has been that we may never fully understand them, yet we should not desist from them. There is beauty in their mystery. The early reformers who eventually created the Reform Movement rejected this approach. They felt only the mitzvot that were logical and rational should continue to be observed.
There was tremendous insight to the approach by these early reformers, however, by rejecting the chukkim out of hand, they also denigrated our tradition as well. The main reason for this is because human beings are not logical and rational creatures. Also, I am not a fan of defining ourselves in the negative, namely “we don’t do that because that is what the Orthodox do.”
So perhaps there is a third approach that neither binds us to the observance of illogical mitzvot, nor one that simply ignores them, and that is the re-imagining of mitzvot. For example, Kashrut was never about sanitation, it was about holy eating. It was about acknowledging the gifts of the earth and the sacrifices of animals. It was a way of potentially elevating the very act of eating to a sacred endeavor. So instead of following the laws of kashrut in their entirety, we can find ways to make eating more sacred by being more conscious of the food we are eating, who we are eating with and how we are eating.
So too with the red heifer. Death is very much a part of life. Rather than compartmentalizing it and expecting ourselves or others to simply get over it in an expeditious manner, instead embrace it as being part of the sacred journey. Death can be transformational especially when ritualized in a healthy way.
Not every mitzvah has to be logical and rational in order to provide us with pathways for meaning. Re-imaging mitzvot and making them meaningful is at the heart of what it means to be a modern Reform Jew, and opportunities abound.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
This week, we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Parashat Korach tells us the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron.
Due to the vagaries of history over the past two thousand years, Jews have never really been regarded as a revolting people (pun intended). For the most part we have lived under both the generosity and subjugation of local rulers and governments. However, this is not to say that we do not have a history of actively engaging in revolts against rulers in our history.
For example, there was the Hasmonean revolt against the Selucid Greeks (167-160 B.C.E), whose victories we celebrate every Chanukah. There was the revolt against Rome starting in 66 C.E., whose tragic loss we commemorate at Masada and on Tisha B’Av. There was also the second failed revolt against Rome by Bar Kochba (132-136 C.E.) which we also commemorate on Tisha B’Av.
However, the first revolt in our recorded history was an internal one by one Levite against another. This week we will be reading from Parashat Korach. Korach son of Izhar, a descendant of Levi, joined with Dathan, Abiram, and On, along with two hundred and fifty other leaders, called out Moses and Aaron. They called into question Moses and Aaron’s legitimate right to lead the Israelites.
As is stated in the Plaut Torah Commentary, it was “the most serious rebellion that challenged God’s chosen leaders during the forty years of wanderings through the wilderness … Like other uprisings, it ends in failure. God comes to the aid of Moses and Aaron and destroys their opponents dramatically: some are literally swallowed by the earth, others are burned, and still others are struck by a plague.”
The facts are clear, but there are lingering questions. What the Torah does not tell us is whether or not there was any legitimacy to Korach’s argument. As interpreted by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, “Both Moses and Korah desired the people to be the people of YHVH, the holy people. But for Moses this was the goal. In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again . . . . For Korah the people, as being the people of YHVH, were already holy. They had been chosen by God and [God] dwell in their midst, so why should there by further need of ways and choice? The people was holy just as it was, and all those within it were holy just as they were” (Martin Buber, Moses: The Revelation and the Covenant [New York: Harper & Row, 1958], p. 189). The conflict between Moses and Korah was not one of personality or the centralization of spiritual authority: rather, it was the inability of Korah to imagine that he (and the community) still needed to spiritually grow for, “not being but becoming is [our] task . . . . ” and although the “realization of the divine on earth. . . has its beginning in the life of [the] individual, it is consummated only in the life of true community” (The Way of Response, p. 162).” Or to put it another way, Korach is arguing that there is no need for leadership since the people are now inherently holy, so they should be free to follow whomever they wish. In this case, Korach was arguing that he should be the new choice to lead the Israelites. Of course, God did not buy this argument, and so Korach sealed his fate.
As we have just celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, it is interesting to note that we are still wrestling with our understanding of the underlying concepts of freedom. Does freedom mean each and every person can do whatever they want? Or is there a greater sense of communal responsibility demanded upon us to help elevate not just ourselves but everyone? Or is freedom somewhere in between. Perhaps we need a new paradigm where freedom is viewed not just as a vehicle towards the individual goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But maybe this reading of Korach’s rebellion can also remind us that the heart of any rebellion should also lead us towards the communal goal of a greater pursuit of holiness as well.
And as a random aside, General George Washington was inspired by the military tactics of the Hasmoneans when he engaged in battle with British forces. So not only did Jews fight and financially support (e.g. Haym Salomon) the Revolutionary War, but we also helped to inspire its victory.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy (belated) 4th of July!
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff
 Plaut, Gunther, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, URJ Press, 2006, pg. 1001.
I have just returned from a wonderful four day cantorial conference in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the conference was social action. So many times over the course of the week people spoke about how helpless they felt in the face of so much horror happening in our country and in the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach L’cha, Moses sends spies to scout out the land before they would enter and conquer it. The spies are very impressed by the land and all that they see there. They return to the people and report that the people there were giants and that next to such giants, they would be perceived as nothing but grasshoppers, and thus they started to see themselves as such.
When facing an enormous challenge, it is easy to see ourselves small in the face of the enormity that lies ahead. And if we see only this, how can we move in any direction, let alone, one that would require the strength and power to overcome those perceived giants. So what was the fault of the spies? The spies imagined how they would be perceived and then put that vision onto themselves, giving it power. But this was all in their minds. Their smallness was in their own perception, but their fear made it real.
Once it was clear that they saw themselves thus, G-d could not allow them to proceed. A whole generation needed to pass before the children of Israel would be permitted to attempt to conquer the land. The children of Israel needed to move beyond their slave mentality, to see themselves as free and worthy, before they could accomplish what they needed to.
Today, we do not have time for this. We must overcome any feeling of being helpless right now, because that too is only in our minds. Our Torah teaches us to care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. Over and over again, the Torah stresses these essential values. Even in this very week’s Torah portion, we read, “You and the stranger shall be alike before the Eternal.” (Num 15:15) This isn’t about politics. This crosses the boundaries of democrat and republican. This is about human rights, and is something that we can all get behind regardless of our feelings about immigration politics. These are the values that our Torah teaches, and this is the time that we must be giants.
I will leave you with the prayer that I wrote as part of the service that I led for the cantors this past Tuesday morning:
From cowardice, I will burst forth with courage
“Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal”
“The whole world is a very narrow bridge,
And the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
My voice will sing out my strength and my joy
And through melody – the inspiration for deliverance.
From laziness, I will sing now with energy.
“Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.”
“It is not up to you to complete the work,
But neither are you free to desist from it.”
No. I will sing.
Sing loud and strong,
And the energy of my song, of praise will move me,
Can move you
Can move us all to move mountains together.
There will be no arrogance in this song
“V’anochi afar va’efer.”
“For I am nothing but dust and ashes.”
And yet through breath and song, the dust stirs the air,
changes its essence
Brings forth ruach from nothingness.
G-d of truth, let the truth of this song ring out.
Breathe Your ruach into our souls,
Inspiring us to partner with you in tikkun olam
So that we may declare: “Kol Han’shamah T’haleil Yah!”
“Let every soul sing praise to You!”
Cantor Sally Neff
In this week’s Torah portion, Be’haalotecha, “Moses instructed the Israelites to offer the Passover sacrifice” (Num. 9:4). On the surface, this makes sense as Moses gave many mitzvot to the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. However, Moses also made the very same commandment in Exodus 12:25, making the instruction redundant. However, the rabbis do not believe in the idea of redundancy in the Torah. Instead, every repetition was always intended to teach us something new, which leads to multiple possible interpretations.
According to the Plaut Torah Commentary, the repetition was simply because when the laws were given, the Israelites were in Egypt. However, now they are in the wilderness with the Tabernacle, hence they need to relearn the rituals and customs for a new setting.
That being said, there is another interpretation as well. According to Rabbi Bradley Artson, “But the midrash Sifrei Bamidbar objects that, in this case, the information he conveys is redundant. Didn’t the Torah already relate in the Book of Leviticus that “Moses declared the festival seasons of the Lord to the people of Israel?” So why does he have to repeat himself now? Sifrei goes on by answering its own question. “This teaches that he heard the passage of the festival seasons at Sinai and stated it to Israel, and then went and repeated it to them when the time had actually arrived to keep the rules … He stated to the people the laws for Passover at Passover, the laws for Shavuot at Shavuot, and the laws for Sukkot at that season.”
Why does Moses repeat the same injunction twice? Because he knows just how forgetful people can be. Recognizing that even the most intelligent, learned, and scholarly people forget much of what they learn, Moses knew that the Jews would have to be reminded of the appropriate mitzvot (
commandments) just before the time of their observance.
Thus, the Torah is reminding us that acquired knowledge needs to constantly be refreshed. Just because we learn something once does not mean we know it for all time. This is in part why we read through the Torah every year. This is in part why we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at our Passover seders. And this is in part why we are members of a congregational family and community, and why we dedicate so much of our energy and resources to the education of our children.
Judaism is meant to be constantly engaged with and struggled with, because it can be and should be a constant wellspring of insight and knowledge. What was learned once, so many years ago, can certainly be learned again. And once learned, can then be the foundation for the next step towards greater knowledge and insight.
Being a Beit Knesset, a house of assembly means we are also a house of prayer and also a house of learning. Many opportunities for study abound.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff