General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: This year, Numbers 31 is even harder to swallow

No Comments 26 July 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Matot while abroad Pinchas, which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Pinchas here.

After a painful year of mass murder and brutality across the world, how must we, as Jews, respond to violent, vicious Torah passages such as the ones in Parashat Matot? 

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Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: A Covenant of Peace

No Comments 20 July 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Pinchas while abroad Balak which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Balak here.

Does the Torah truly praise Pinchas when he takes God’s law into his own hands, murdering those deemed sinners?  In her commentary to Parashat Pinchas, Tamar Avraham explores how Jewish tradition approaches zealots who seek to do the work of God, allowing peace to the fall by the wayside.

By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728

By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728

By Tamar Avraham

Parashat Pinchas begins with God’s stand on what happens at the end of Parashat Balak: Pinchas’ deed — his deadly stabbing of an Israelite and his Midianite partner. God’s thoughts on the issue are as follows:

“Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy.” “12 Therefore say , Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.” Numbers 25:11-13.

Religious zealotry for one God who has no tolerance for other gods or the worshiping of other gods is a phenomenon which is increasing and spreading in contemporary times.   The zealots of the “Islamic state” vicously murder in cold blood anyone who in their eyes is an infidel; the practitioners of other religions are considered idol worshipers, along with Muslims who they believe swayed away from the “right path.” On a much smaller scale, but with just as strong a belief in the justness of their cause, Jewish zealots act against whomever, in their eyes, worships idols or is a “renegade” Jew. One can remember, for instance, the torching of the Tabgha Church and the murder of Shira Banki in the last gay pride. It is easy for these Jews to see themselves as behaving zealously to God the way Pinchas did.

Shira Banki, murdered last year by a Jewish extremist during the Jerusalem Pride parade

Shira Banki, murdered last year by a Jewish extremist during the Jerusalem Pride parade

Nonetheless, when you read the biblical text itself and review the normative commentary or interpretations,  it is clear that Pinchas’ zeal is questioned and often challenged.

On first appearance it seems God appreciates Pinchas: He made himself into the “enforcing arm” of the Lord, imposed an “appropriate” punishment on the person who strayed from the Torah, and also blocked God’s wrath, preventing a much larger punishment from being meted out to Israel. Knowing this,  when you deepen the scope of analysis and examine each word, two statements are surprising: First of all, Pinchas and his descendants are promised “A covenant of everlasting priesthood.”  Wasn’t this already promised to Aharon and his lineage — which includes Pinchas? Is another additional covenant necessary beyond Pinchas’ priesthood because his deed may have included something that denied his priesthood? And moreover: The covenant that God made with Pinchas is a “covenant of peace.” It is difficult to think of anything more opposed to religious zealotry than “peace.” If Pinchas needed a covenenat of peace, maybe it meant that there was a need for a “tikkun” to restrain such actions in the future?

Actually, Hazzekuni (13th century French rabbi) writes in his interpretation of the Torah that Pinchas is scared after the murder that he will lose the priesthood, as is written in Brachot 32,2:

“Rabbi Johanan said: A priest who has committed manslaughter should not lift up his hands [to say the Priestly Benediction], since it says [in this context], ‘Your hands are full of blood’ (Isaiah 1: 15)”.

Hazzekuni continues and says that “because the murder was in the name of God,” God promised Pinchas the continuation of his priesthood, but nonetheless the idea that a closeness to God, as was allowed to priests in the Holy Temple, still should not be accompanied by bloody hands. This thought also comes in to play in the prohibition on David to build the Temple (Divrei Hayamim A:32.8) and in the explanation of the prohibition to not wield a sword on the altar (Exodus 20, 21). Therefore we understand that the place of weapons is to be limited, not one that is supposed to last long (See Rashi’s parashanut).

Midrash Bamidbar Raba opens up Parashat Pinchas to the meaning of a covenant of peace:

“Great is the peace granted to Pinchas because the world acts only within peace and the Torah is all peace, as it was written ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peaceful”(Mashli 3, 17)

The Sh’ma prayer is finished with peace covering the people of Israel, prayer is finished with peace, and in the priest’s prayer you end with peace. Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalfta says there is no tool that holds a blessing such as peace, as it was stated “God gave courage to his people and blessed his people with peace” (Psalms 29:11, Parasha 21’1). Peace is presented here as a key value, as the meaning of the Torah and the basis for the existence of the world. Any evidence to the importance of peace by the Midrash sounds like a command to Pinchas to learn what priesthood  and God’s work is really about: Not to take the law into your own hands and kill in the name of the Lord, but rather to be tolerant even towards those you believe stray from the Torah, leaving the jealousy to God.

Tamar Avraham is a long-time supporter of RHR who works as a tour guide specializing in holy places in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She was an active participant in RHR’s recent Torah-learning with Dr. Shaiya Rothberg

Read previous weekly Torah commentaries

General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: From Anti-Semitism to Qualities without Ethnic Boundaries

1 Comment 11 July 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Balak while abroad Hukkat which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Hukkat here.

Despite his status as a prophet, Balaam is a loathed figure in the traditional Jewish worldview. In Rabbi Goldfarb’s  commentary to Parashat Balak, he explores the qualities of Balaam that are considered despicable. It is these qualities  all of humankind must strive to reject— so that none of us follow in the path of Balaam.

By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb

The Prophet Balaam and the Angel, John Linnell. Public domain

The Prophet Balaam and the Angel, John Linnell. Public domain

Balak, the King of Moab, “saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” at the end of last week’s parasha. In typical anti-Semitic fashion Balak ignored what the Amorites had done to Israel – attack them while seeking safe passage – that had led to Israel’s defending itself (Num 21:21-25). The worried Balak engages a “seer,” Balaam, to “curse” the children of Israel so that he (Balak) could defeat them and drive them out of the land.

By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728

“Moab leads Israel into sin” By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others

Balaam is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Bible. Of unclear origin (his name could interpreted “without a people”), Balaam has access to God. In fact the Midrash said that he had prophetic power like that of Moses. Hired to curse, Balaam tells Balak he can only declare words which the Lord puts in his mouth, and indeed delivers four parables, each more rhapsodic than the one before, singing Israel’s praises. A Jew’s first words upon entering the synagogue, “Ma tovu ohelecha, Yakov; mishkenotecha Yisrael/How lovely are your tents (sanctuaries), O Jacob; your dwellings (study houses), O Israel,” are a quote from Balaam (Num 24:5). Yet the rabbis took a very negative view of Balaam. Balaam is blamed for inciting the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men at Baal-Peor, the incident with which our parashah ends (Num 25:1-9), leading to crisis and tragedy in the camp. Thus, through treachery and the exploitation of human weakness, Balaam manages ultimately to curse the Jewish people, which he had been unable to do directly. The basis for this rabbinic interpretation is the mention of Balaam amongst the important people slain with the Midianites (Num 31:8, 16), suggesting that after failing to produce for Balak, Balaam had joined the Midianites in their hostility to the children of Israel.

In Pirkei Avot (5:21) Balaam is portrayed as the antithesis of Avraham Avinu – Abraham’s disciples who have “a good eye” (a generous view towards others), humility and moderate appetites (for the pleasures of the world). Balaam’s disciples, on the other hand, have “an evil eye” (they are jealous), a haughty nature and excessive appetites. The commentators find proofs in the Torah’s text for each of these traits – for good in Abraham’s case, negatively in regard to Balaam. The consequences are extreme – Abraham’s disciples will be doubly rewarded, both in this world and in the world to come, while Balaam’s disciples are doomed to destruction and the lowest pit in “Gehenom” (“hell”).

It is interesting to note that Balaam, who began as cursing/blessing Israel as a racial/religious group, becomes the archetype of evil on the human level. Abraham, the “father of many peoples,” is portrayed here as having the three key qualities a person should hope for – a healthy, non-jealous attitude towards others; humility; and control over physical passions. Balaam, the loner, is deficient on all three; people like him “drive themselves from the world” (cf. Avot 2:16, 4:28). These good qualities are not exclusive to Jews nor are they deficiencies found only amongst non-Jews. They are human traits; both Jews and non-Jews can be disciples of Abraham or Balaam. The choice is ours.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: Mei Meriva-The Importance of Water In A Desert

No Comments 06 July 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Hukkat while abroad Korach which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Korach here.

Rabbinic sources call water a blessing, the United Nations recognises it as a human right, and Isaac seeks to distribute it equally among peoples. In his commentary to Parashat Hukkat, Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann shows us what Israel today must learn about the importance of fairly managing our most precious natural resource.  

By Nicolas Poussin - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain

By Nicolas Poussin -Moses striking water from the rock. Public Domain

By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann

Parashat Hukkat which opens with the strange commandment of the red heifer that is used to purify those contaminated by contact with death, goes on to tell the story of “Mei Meriva” (The waters of contention) where Moses strikes a rock twice angrily and provides the thirsty people with water. He is punished for his angry disobedience and is fated not to enter the land (Numbers, 20 1-6). But that is not the end of his troubles with the rebellious people. Their angry criticism of him and Aharon at having brought them  “to die in the desert” and their wish “to return to Egypt” is repeated a number of times in the narrative. It is one of the main narrative themes of this book of the Torah. The long trek through the desert is wearing them down and they are losing patience.

The word ”water” figures prominently in the weekly Torah reading appearing some eleven times in the opening description of purification associated with the red heifer, and then nine more times in the subsequent narrative as the people continue to complain time after time of the lack of drinking water in the desert. Twenty times mentioned in one parasha seems to be telling us something.

This has been a hot summer here in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. There have been water shortages and water supply to villages in the “West Bank” or “Judea and Samaria” (according to your narrative) has been rationed yet again as it has been in past years. The water deprivation of the Palestinian population is a consequence of 49 years of structural discrimination.  It is, one might say, a man-made desert. This alone would explain Palestinian non acceptance of, and rebellion against, Israeli rule, just as wandering in a waterless desert following Moshe and Aharon for forty years would explain the people’s rebelliousness and bitterness in this week’s Torah narrative. Moshe’s lack of sympathy for the people’s thirst led to his punishment just as our lack of sympathy for the basic human needs of Palestinians leads us to isolation in the world community, and increased rage from those millions whose lives we effect.

Here is an Israeli description of one case of such discrimination on which we too have reported in the past.

And for a more comprehensive description of this ongoing injustice see this link.

My personal experience in the field over the years has been one of witnessing discrimination and inequitable distribution of water resources, highlighted by repeated acts of destruction of water infrastructure in Area C, the prevention of local water development for Palestinian villages, and their increasing dependence on water purchased from Israeli sources.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that water and sanitation should be a human right. Water as a human right is as much about the quality, making sure that the water is clean and you do not get sick from drinking it, as it is about access.

In the earlier Torah story of “The Bitter Waters” (“Hamayim Hamerorim“) there was water but it was not drinkable. Moses solved that problem miraculously. In Gaza today there is an extreme water crisis and in many villages in Israel and the Palestinian territories which not connected to the Israeli water system there is water which is not drinkable, as it has been polluted due to inadequate sewage (sometimes from Israeli industry, particularly from Jewish settlements, but also from Palestinian industry).

Water_supply_in_West_Bank_and_Gaza_February_2014_5water_photoblog

Photo: Village of a-Duqaiqah, South Hebron Hills, not hooked up to water grid; By Nasser Nawaj’ah, B’Tselem

Unfortunately, Israel has actively prevented the improvement of this situation in Area C because of political and ideological concerns, often under the claim to be engaged in issues of security. We have the technological know-how and material resources to solve these problems at least in those areas under our direct and indirect control, if not in those where Hamas rules. We have a common interest to deal with this, if we can find a way to cooperate with the Palestinians and transcend exclusivist nationalist narratives for the sake of life. “You shall choose Life” the Torah tells us.

Rabbinic sources tell us repeatedly of the great value of water – rain is a blessing, drought a punishment. It is expressed ritually by religious Jews all over the world in their daily repetition of the Sh’ma prayer, instituted by the sages in ancient times, reminding them of their dependence on Divine Benevolence.

For instance:

Rav Yehudah, one of the Talmudic scholars, expressed the importance of rain when he said: “A day of rain is as great as the day the Torah was given.” Rabbah exceeded him by saying: “More than the day the Torah was given,” while Rav Hunah said: “The day of rain is greater than the day of the rising of the Dead, because the rising up of the dead is for the righteous, while the rainy day is for the righteous and the sinners” (Bavli Taanit 7:7).

We can learn from the behavior of our ancestor Isaac in Genesis who acted for peace in avoiding conflict over water. He was able to share water resources in the land with the Philistines.

Making running drinkable water available in an equitable way to all who live here between the river and the sea might look like the equivalent of the miracle described in this week’s Mei Merivah story but doing so is the right, moral thing to do, and I believe, in our long-term interest. We are, after all, a land of miracles!

Shabbat shalom!

YehielRabbi Yehiel Grenimann is a the director of organisational development at Rabbis for Human Rights.

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General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism

No Comments 28 June 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Korach, while abroad Shelach which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Shelach here.

 

The Torah teaches us that the Jewish people are “holy.” But what does it mean to be holy? In his commentary to Parashat Korach, Dr. Shaiya Rothberg shows the error of Korach,  who tries to leverage his “holiness” for personal gain. What must modern Israel learn from the mistakes of Korach and his followers?

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Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: To explore or not to explore—That is the question

No Comments 21 June 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Shelach, while abroad BeHaLotcha which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on BeHaLotcha here.

(And also: “How we will not become querulous and grumble in our tents!”)

In her commentary to Parashat Shelach, Yael Vurgan offers a powerful defense of why human rights activists must not “grumble in our tents” even when we feel full of despair in our current situations. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Justice and mercy for all

No Comments 14 June 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read BeHaLotcha, while abroad, Naso, which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Naso here.

How has Judaism approached the treatment of the non-Jew throughout history? What have our rabbis ruled, what do the texts themselves say, and what historical events have influenced these attitudes? In his commentary to Parashat BeHaLotcha, Rabbi Reuven Hammer answers these questions and provides us with a stark reminder of the need for a just and humanistic Judaism in our modern world. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: Yet we continue to strive

No Comments 07 June 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Naso, while abroad, BeMidbar, which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on BeMidbar here.

In her commentary to Parashat Naso, Rabbi Miri Gold reminds us of our sacred burden towards human rights and social justice. The struggle may be arduous, but our responsibility to carry onwards has always been clear. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: Quarrel with Mother, Quarrel!

No Comments 31 May 2016

PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read BeMidbar, while abroad, Bechukotai, which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Bechukotai here.

In his commentary on the haftarah to Parashat BeMidbar, Rabbi David Frankel calls on us to undertake one of our greatest challenges as Jews and as Zionists: to vehemently protest the actions of our state without giving up on our love for it. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly Parasha: What does God really want from us?

No Comments 25 May 2016

PLEASE NOTE: From now until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Bechukotai, while abroad, Behar, which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Behar here.

 

In his commentary to Parashat Bechukotai, Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg encourages us to study deeply  the Jewish sources, and listen closely to the issues at hand in the present moment in modern day Israel — what do we hear the deepest depths of God’s will telling us? Continue Reading

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