Matot – A Place of Refuge

July 11, 2018
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Matot – A Place of Refuge

This week’s Torah portion contains a theme that in the ancient world was peculiar to the religion of Israel – the compassion, care and grace of their patron God. A historically popular approach to theology is a bifurcation of the two Testimonies of Scripture.  According to this approach, the older testament is presented as a harsh, inflexible and graceless document, that’s sole purpose is to point to the futility of human effort to do good and ennobling acts.  But here in Matot, we see the true purpose of Torah – teaching and direction to move Israel and human kind from their natural inclinations toward violence and vengeance, and toward Hashem’s highest standards of peace and mercy.

The concept of `cities of refuge’ is unique to any in the ancient world, and contrary to human nature. The pronouncement `an eye for an eye’ should not be viewed as legislation, but rather as an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart. Here the Holy One ordains the Levim as peacemakers and grace givers. Their inheritances are places of refuge, safe places where those who have made mistakes are shielded from excessive retribution. With this provision, HaShem infers that vengeance is not an appropriate human agency. Read more »

Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

July 4, 2018
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Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

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There are always two unseen guests at every bris, neither has been specifically invited, yet the spirit of each is evoked. Of course Elijah is the first unseen guest as he often is at Jewish celebrations and commemorations. Elijah represents more than Israel’s glorious past, but in addition he embodies our most precious hopes. It is in his chair that the baby is held signifying the messianic promise that is being cut in this covenant. But also Elijah’s alter ego is present in Pinchas. The beginning of today’s parsha is read at every bris.

The LORD said to Moses, “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

What an odd invocation for a bris; odder still Pinchas is never mentioned again during the ceremony. So who is this Pinchas, and why evoke his name?

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Balak – Blessed and The Source of Blessing

June 26, 2018
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Balak – Blessed and The Source of Blessing

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Every year we read Parashat Balak and I am utterly amazed. What a remarkably different approach to a reoccurring. Many have understood Torah as love letters between Hashem and Israel. In fact the focus of Torah is upon the covenant between Israel and their God, and rarely does it concern itself with the internal affairs of other people. Yet this story stars a non-Jew who is described as a wise and powerful seer, and quite ironically he derives all of his power from the God of Israel.

This story begins with the best supporting actor, the Gentile King Balak, who hires a gentile Prophet Bilaam to curse Israel so he can defeat them in battle. Balak tempts, bribes, cajoles, demands and threatens that Bilaam curse Israel. Bilaam on the other hand understands the source of his power and explains that he can neither curse nor bless without first receiving divine permission. When he seeks Hashem though he is told, “Do not curse the people, ki varukh hu, for it is blessed.” So what is God saying about us? Are the Jewish people truly blessed and if so what does that even mean? Read more »

Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

June 19, 2018
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Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

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Parashat Chukat is among the most enigmatic in all of Torah. While it gives closure to the lives of Moses siblings, it opens three new mysteries in the fabric of Israel’s, story, a peculiar ordinance, an odd deliverance, and a strange brand of justice. Though I won’t discuss them in this order, the following mnemonic title, “Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and a Rock with a Perpetual Living Stream” should help with the process of remembering the odd thematic happenings in parsha Chukat. Read more »

Korach – You Say You Want a Revolution

June 12, 2018
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Korach – You Say You Want a Revolution

Do you ever have a really bad day, when it seems like everyone and everything is working against you? Moses sure did.  In fact it must have seemed to him like he had fourteen thousand and six hundred days like that and most of them are recorded in the book of Bamidbar.  This week’s parsha Korach, records a mutiny of sorts which becomes the arch-type for rebellion in Judaism, and could also have been the standard for a really bad day but for the intervention of Hashem.

For those of us who are Americans, we do not feel that uneasy about the concept of challenging of authority. In fact this is a country which was birthed out of an act of rebellion.  America is a culture where you can sprawl graffiti upon the wall that reads “Challenge Authority” and another person will cross it out, subsequently challenging your authority! So when we hear of elected officials evoking executive privilege we collectively get nervous. In general there has been a public distrust of governance in the last several years. In the parlance of the sixties, “Don’t trust the Man” Read more »

Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

June 4, 2018
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Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

 In the spring of 2002 I went to an art exhibit that was featuring a grouping of pictures painted by a good friend who was beginning the process of leaving the safety of a career as a commercial artist and pursuing an art form that was uniquely his own.  The collection was entitled quite simply, “Monsters”. I was not prepared for the transition in his work. My friend’s commercial work had always been clean, crisp and professional and uncluttered. His new art was dark, convoluted, layered and primitive, obscuring warm colors with dark shadows.

What my friend had done was to take his seven-year-old son’s crayon drawing of monsters and reinterpret them in a more adult, almost surrealist genre. The oil re-creations hung next to the crayon originals in this sophisticated Massachusetts gallery. Though there was no written explanation of the work, it communicated to me an honest, yet often ignored reality of life.  The fears, horrors, and insecurities of our childhoods do not disappear with time as we might imagine, but rather remain buried deep in our psyche only to reemerge in more sophisticated genres and expressions. Unless we deal with, slay., shrink or unmask the monsters and giants of our past, they make a subconscious home next to our “child within.” Read more »