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General, Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: On Moses, Zipporah and the Rights of Every Wife

No Comments 03 June 2014

In Parashat Beha’alotcha, Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman offers a different explanation for Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of their brother Moses’ marriage, and reminds us of the rights that every married woman has. 

Tissot_Miriam_Shut_Out_from_the_Camp

IMAGE: Miriam Shut out from the Camp circa 1896–1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot CC-Wikipedia

By: Rabbi  Yehonatan Chipman

The final section of this week’s parasha describes how Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses “because of the Kushite woman he had taken” (Num 12:1), Miriam’s subsequent punishment, and Moses intervention with God on her behalf.

At first glance, contemporary readers might think that their criticism had to do with the fact of his marrying this specific woman, and may even have had racist overtones (the term “Kushite” refers to the inhabitants of Ethiopia, who are dark-skinned). But Rashi reads this text otherwise: the criticism relates to his behavior towards his wife, specifically the fact that he had ceased having sexual relations with her (an intimate fact which Zipporah had told Miriam “woman to woman”). This is reflected in Rashi’s reading of the subsequent verses in the chapter, based on the midrash.

It seems to me that, even though Miriam and Aaron were guilty of lashon hara (slander), in speaking critically of Moses, it was not without justification: it seemed to them that Moses had arbitrarily deprived their sister-in-law of her conjugal rights. Even if Moses had the best of reasons for doing so, as we shall see below, Zipporah was also entitled to her rights as a wife. We thus find that Miriam and Aaron were acting out of concern for the woman, and her expectation that her own needs be fulfilled within marriage.  

250px-14440_The_mikve_in_besaluMoses’ abstinence was rooted in the fact that he was a prophet, who might be called upon to speak with God face-to-face at any given moment; hence it would be inappropriate for him to have had sexual relations, which would generate impurity and require immersion in the mikveh before speaking with God. Thus, Rashi comments on verse 3, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron suddenly” {פתאום) — that when God addressed them unexpectedly they cried out in a panic: “Water! Water!” This is also the reason for the verses, which might otherwise seem to be non sequitur, explaining the nature of Moses’ prophecy:

“[Ordinarily] if there shall be among you a prophet, the Lord shall speak to him in a vision or a dream; not so my servant Moses… I speak with him mouth-to-mouth [i.e., face to face]; appearing directly and not in riddles” (vv. 6-8).

We are accustomed to thinking of Judaism as holding a positive attitude towards sexuality, and frowning upon celibacy; indeed, this is a common theme of modern Jewish apologetics. Marriage and childbearing are seen as among the first mitzvot, not only in terms of their chronological position in the Humash (Torah), but also in terms of their importance per se. Hence the practice of Roman Catholicism, in which the clergy are required to be celibate, is seen as contrary to the Jewish way of thinking, if not to human nature generally.

But at least in this case — the admittedly exceptional case of Moshe Rabbenu, who was a prophet of the highest order, if not uniquely so—separation from woman is seen as a virtue, and his siblings’ criticism thereof as reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of why he behaved as he did.

MORE PARASHAT HASHAVUA

IMAGE: Old Mikve in Besalu, Spain CC-Wikipedia

 

Parasha / E-Letter

Our joy is not whole: On resistance in Exodus

1 Comment 24 December 2013

In parashat Vaera, Rabbi Moshe Yehudai untangles the complicated implications of the ten plagues, identifying them, however uncomfortably, as the collective punishment that they were. Though the Exodus is the most important story in the history of the Jewish people,  how can we reconcile it with the suffering it  caused? How can any struggle for liberation reconcile the suffering it causes?

The_Crossing_fo_The_Red_Sea

Image: Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634 cc: wikipedia

Our Joy is Not Whole: On Resistance in Exodus

by Rabbi Moshe Yehudai

The main subject of the first portions in Exodus is the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus thereof–hence, the book’s name. The story of the exodus is the story of the transformation of the children of Israel from a mass of oppressed and humiliated slaves without self-awareness to a united people with common religious, spiritual and cultural values, embodied by the Torah, which they are given at the beginning of their journey through the Sinai. They also have a common destination: to settle in the land of Canaan and there to build themselves an independent national home where they will live in the spirit of the Torah.

But as we know it was not a simple or smooth exodus. We all know the story of the duel between Moses and Pharaoh – a prolonged duel in which Pharaoh refused Moses’s basic demand that became a resounding battle cry: “Let my people go!” Pharaoh wanted the Israelites as slaves, and why should he give up such a cheap workforce without a fight? Then begins the series of the Ten Plagues, and only after the hardest plague of all, the death of the firstborn sons, does Pharaoh heed Moses’s pleas and the exodus begins.

The story of the plagues raises many questions. One is about the important principle of free will, which Pharaoh is denied when God hardens his heart so that he does not listen to Moses. Whether the plagues actually occurred is another question. Both questions deserve separate discussions but I would like to focus on a different aspect, the moral aspect, which to me is the most important and significant question, beyond the other philosophical questions.

The question is what ethical-educational lesson we learn from the story of the plagues. Like any other mythological story, whether it actually happened or not is irrelevant.

Ahad Ha’am, the great Zionist leader and illustrious publicist, writes in his essay “Moses”:

“We have one Moses, our Moses, whose image has been fixed in the hearts of our people through the generations and whose impact on our national life has not ceased from the days of antiquity to the present. And just like I have no doubt as to the reality of Moses, so is his essence clear to me and will not be changed by any archaeological finding.”

The same is true for the plagues, which we have been well aware of for dozens of generations, especially when we sit around the Seder table on Passover and read about the plagues and the acronyms they were given by Rabbi Yehuda.

In various degrees, the ten plagues were a sort of collective punishment given to the whole Egyptian people.

And the LORD said unto Moses:

“Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” (7:19)

Rashi and other commentators explain the words “in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” to mean that even the humidity in the wood and stones turned into blood, or in the idols.

Even if we take into account the fact that many Egyptians collaborated with the oppression of the Hebrews, we must still completely reject this punishment of preventing water from all the residents of Egypt for a week. There is no way we can view that as appropriate and just. The same is true to different degrees for the rest of the plagues.

Rabbi Yaacov Halevy Ben Moshe Moelin, Hamaharil (1360-1427), is considered the father of the customs of Ashkenaz. In his book “Customs of Maharil” he writes:

“It is the custom to discard a little bit from the cup with your finger when you come to ‘blood and fire and pillars of smoke,’ as well as when the ten plagues are mentioned collectively and separately, a total of sixteen times.”

The famous Torah commentator Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel, or Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), an economist, diplomat, philosopher and commentator, wrote in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, “Zevach Pesach”:

“The custom is to drip drops of wine out of the cup when counting the plagues to indicate that our joy is not whole because on our account an entire people was punished. Even though the enemy deserved that defeat, it does not cause us real joy.”

The non-Orthodox Haggadahs have adopted that custom, such as the American Reform Haggadah:

“Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe, as the wine within the cup of joy is lessened when we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.”

The same appears in other liberal Haggadahs, including the Israeli Haggadah.

The Hallel, recited fully on Sukoth, Shavuoth, Hannukkah and, in Zionist congregations, on Independence Day as well, is also recited on the seventh day of Passover, the day when according to tradition our ancestors crossed the Red Sea only partly, by skipping. And the reason is this:
“In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would ye utter song before me?” (Sanhedrin 39:2 and elsewhere).

Assuming it occurred, the enslavement in Egypt was a massive violation of human rights, and the fight against it was totally justified. But like in any struggle for liberation, whether of a class, nation, race, religion or anything else, we must always question the price of the struggle and its justification, for both sides.

And I will end with a passage from the British Liberal Haggadah:

“Oh God, teach us to rejoice in freedom, but not in its cost for us and for our enemies. Let there come a day when violence is no more and we shall be free to rejoice without sadness, to sing without tears.”

Amen, so be it.

 

General

Can we be identified without the other? – Dvar Torah to Parashat Chayei “Sarah”

2 Comments 06 November 2012

Hagar, Ishmael, Abraham/Abraão  By Light in Action  cc: flickr

Rabbi Ariela Gretz-Bartov wonders why did Sarah have to take out Hagar and Ishmael from the family circle. Following this, she also asks questions on identity, private and collective, as a part of establishing the Israeli society. Dvar Torah to parashat Chayei Sarah.

By: Rabbi Ariela Gretz Continue Reading

General

FROM THE REVELATION OF MOUNT SINAI TO THE STATUS OF WOMEN

1 Comment 22 May 2012

Ruth in the field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld  1828. cc: wikipedia

Resources from Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel focusing on women’s leadership, female poverty in Israel, and the recent social justice protests: Continue Reading

General

The concept of Holinesses: Dvar Torah to Parashot Acharei Mot – Kedoshim

3 Comments 22 April 2012

“Kidushin, holinesses, the name for the betrothal and marriage ceremony, derives from the word Kedushah” | cc: wikipedia > Outdoor huppa in Vienna

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman follows the interpretations of the concept of “holy.” Rabbi Engelman’s Dvar Torah for Acharei Mot – Kedoshim parashot is a fascinating search to find out why is the Torah speaking about forbidden relations. What is so frightening about sensuality and the body within the Torah Continue Reading

General

The birth of Miriam, the birth of a prophetess

5 Comments 30 January 2012

Reproduction of oil painting, “The Song of Miriam” | Paulo Malteis. cc: wikipedi

In Parashat ‘B’Shalach’ Rabbi Dalia Marx investigates the prophetess Miriam. On one hand Miriam appears in the Bible as a prophetess more times then other women’s names in the Bible. On the other hand we know very little about her.  Miriam’s singing, says Rabbi Marx, transforms Miriam into a prophetess. Continue Reading

Parasha / E-Letter

Sarah’s tent | Farmers from Tubas access thier olive trees | Bedouin oppose Israeli plans to relocate communities

40 Comments 15 November 2011

Peace Now activist Ofran: ‘We must not fear. We are here, and we are many’ Thousands attended annual memorial rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to mark the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995.

Parashat “Chayei Sarah”: The weekly report of Rabbis For Human Rights

This past week, we in the human rights community received a heavy blow: the law that passed in the Knesset that forbids civil society organizations from receiving foreign financing. But, another organizations said, we will continue to pursue justice and peace and seek to hasten the redemption of Israel. Continue Reading

General

Sarah’s tent

1 Comment 14 November 2011

cc: flickr | Tents camp, HaTikva park, South Tel Aviv, Israel, 6.11.2011.  Israel, Tel Aviv: A homeless man sleeps inside his shack Hatikva park in south Tel Aviv, November 6, 2011. As the winter arrives, around 100 homeless people, mostly single perents and children are still living in the camp in HaTikva park, with out any help offered to then by the authorities. Photo: activestills.

 Many people feel that the State of Israel of November 2011 is in a better place than the State of Israel of June 2011 because of the struggle for change that took place over the past six months, which engulfed the entire country. Rabbi Idit Lev thinks that there is truth in such a statement, but still on a rainy and cold day, she shivers at the thought of adults and children who do not have a home, who sleep on the street or at family’s or friends’ homes, people who do not have the security of those who do have a home. Continue Reading

General

The quarrel between Lot’s herdsman and Abraham’s herdsman – a mirror of the situation today

3 Comments 01 November 2011

Abram Journeying into the Land of Canaan (engraving by Gustave Doré from the 1865 La Sainte Bible)

Rabbi Michael Schwartz compares the quarrel between Lot’s herdsman and Abraham’s herdsman to the situation here today, to the quarrel between Palestinians and Jews on the land Continue Reading

General

How good are your tents O Jacob! How good are our tents?

No Comments 05 July 2011

Balaam and the angel, painting from Gustav Jaeger, 1836.
This week’s Parasha contains possibly one of the most famous passages in the torah – known to anyone who has been inside a shul as it lent itself to our liturgy – “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”. The famous blessing of the prophet Balaam, sent by the king Balak to curse the Israelites. Balaam, a true prophet asked G-d, on receiving orders from Balaam that he wished to hire him to curse the Israelites, asked G-d whether he should go, and was told that he may but that he should only say what G-d told him to say, and thus, instead of cursing the Israelites he ended up blessing them.

Understandably the Rabbinic tradition, not overly concerned with aesthetic matters took the original meaning of Balaam’s blessing from the realm of the aesthetic and made it into a statement of ethics. Naturally the rabbis understood Balaam to have given a blessing that related to the morally upright behaviour of the Israelite people, rather than simply their tent making skills.

In a famous midrash (brought by Rashi, on the verse), the rabbis explain that the meaning of Balaam’s blessing is that the Israelites displayed appropriate respect for each other by positioning their tents in such a way that preserved the dignity and privacy of each other. This is not the “pshat” explanation of the verse – rather it reflects that the Rabbis assumed the “goodness” which Balaam saw in our tents to be a measure of the ethical standards that were apparent from the way the Israelites went about building their homes, their lives and their communities.

The unrecognized village El-Arakib demolished, Aug 2010, Israel  cc: flicker by By Physicians for Human Rights - Israel

The unrecognized village El-Arakib demolished, Aug 2010, Israel cc: flicker by By Physicians for Human Rights - Israel

Each year, as we come to this Parasha, and we read the story of the prophet who could not go against G-d, I ask myself – what would Balaam say if he saw our dwelling places today? What ethical judgements might he make? If he were to see any tents at all, would they be those of the “unrecognised” Bedouin villages of the northern Negev? What would these tents say about the ethical behaviour of the children of Israel? If G-d did not let Balaam lie, what truth would he have to tell us with regard to these tents? Would they be called goodly?

As for camps – what does the sight of Palestinians living in refugee camps say about our ethical behaviour? How did we allow this to still be the case so many years on? (Of course this is a deliberate ploy by both Palestinian leadership and the leadership of other Arab nations – but do the prophets of the world not ask of us an even higher standard?) But it is far too easy to bemoan just our treatment of “the other” in our society – for whom our tent openings symbolise an unwelcoming home – but also within Jewish society in the land of Israel today – would our tents pass muster?

Zealous Violence

At the end of Parashat Balak, we are told the blood chilling story of zealous violence committed by Pinhas – on the background of a breakdown in societal cohesion symbolised by a deadly plague. The torah’s approach to Pinhas seems ambiguous – on the one hand, G-d seems to see his act of zealotry to have been carried out on his behalf. On the other hand, Pinhas’ reward also seems to be a form of rehabilitation – he is given the “Brit Shalom” – the covenant of peace. Does that imply that perhaps his destiny was to learn peaceful ways? According the rabbinic tradition (Yalkut Shimoni, 771), Pinhas did not die, but lived on in the form of Elijah the prophet – who also did not die, and was also “zealous for the Eternal”). Is it possible that the Brit Shalom is recognition that Pinhas did mean well, but he needed some time to learn what G-d wanted. G-d does not want our zealotry for his sake – but rather we should be servants to each other – we should be welcoming to each other – our tents should be tents of peace, in which everyone is welcome, like that of Avraham Avinu. In another midrash, (Avot D’Rabi Natan Mishna 7), we are told that Eliyahu (who is also Pinhas) was rebuked for “defending the rights of the father (G-d) but not the son (the people of Israel)” while Yona defended the son and not the father and Jeremiah defended both. It seems as if it is Jeremiah who is being held up as the role model. Another Midrash is even clearer – once again in Yalkut Shimoni (Kings 1, remez 217), G-d makes it clear that Eliyahu’s zealotry is not what is required from a prophet of Israel, and suggests that it is because of this zealotry that god fires him and asks him to appoint/anoint Elisha in his stead.

It is unclear if Pinhas ever learnt his lesson – but the inclusion of the beginning of his tale seems to contradict what we read earlier in the story of Balak, Balaam and our beautiful tents?

The Connection between Pinhas and Balaam

When seeking to understand the connection between Pinhas and Balaam’s blessing, we must realise that there is a contradiction. How is it possible that within a few short chapters of being blessed for our beautiful community, we are hearing of licentious behaviour, G-d-sent plagues and political violence? Were our tents really ever so beautiful? It simply cannot be that Balaam truly saw a just society living in the encampment – not only because of the evidence offered later in the parasha, but because logically, we know that such a society does not exist. Rather Balaam’s story comes to teach us that we should live as if a true prophet is always coming to search us out, is always looking at how we build our home. What do our entranceways and checkpoints look like? How welcoming are we? How do we treat each other? The foreign prophet could be named Balaam or Goldstone – but it is not for the prophet’s sake that we should be on our best behaviour – but our own. We should desire to look around and say, “How goodly are our tents.” We must remember that when we cease to act righteously to one another, zealotry and violence will surely follow – both among ourselves and towards those around us.

May we create our own Brit Shalom, and not need to be taught it by Hashem as a rehabilitative exercise.

May we merit finding ourselves in goodly tents and may we be a blessing to ourselves and to all nations.

Shabbat Shalom

 

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