Shabbat Hukat

Candles June 30th @ 8:11pm
Havdalah July 1st @ 9:08pm

In this week’s parsha we have the first of several poems the Children of Israel used to sing about their time in the desert. Some of them were clearly written down, along with other songs, in a book called “The Book of the Battles of God.” They do not make sense. The names they refer to (Chapter 21:14, etc.) sound like code. Of course, the Midrash and the commentators try to decipher the codes. But what became of the original book? Why was it lost? Unless it is another way of referring to the Torah.

Then there’s a reference here to the Moshlim. Who were they? A Mashal is a parable, metaphor or proverb. As in King Solomon’s Mishlei that we call Proverbs. But who were these people? Were they paid poets, like there were professional mourners or counselors? Is it a reference to Bilaam the Magician, who next week fills the Parsaha with his poems?

The fact is we have lost so much of the background, context, and oral traditions that the Israelites had. Yes, we have the Tanach, the Bible, but clearly there was so much more that we have lost. Understanding documents of thousands of years ago is like stumbling in the dark. We may be able to decipher, but can we know the intent? To think we can manage only with the written text of the Torah is like relying entirely on what words a person says without reading his expression or hearing his tone! This is why even if Christians and Kaarites have the same text as ours in their version of the Bible, we understand it completely differently.

This is why we have always relied on the Oral Law, the Torah She Be’al Peh, to give us background and context. Even if we have lost a lot, there is still so much that has been preserved.


Shabbat Korah

Friday, June 23rd Candles @ 8:11pm
Havdalah, June 24th @ 9:06 pm

Kiddush this week sponsored by Gilbert Cavaliero,
in memory of his brother Isaac ע״ה

Korach and his co-conspirators rebelled against Moses and Aharon, claiming that they were perverting religious authority and arrogating authority to themselves. “We know better” he and his co-conspirators said, “we are the rightful authority not you.” Indeed, they use words similar to those used by Moses himself several chapters earlier, when he said in response to Joshua “Don’t worry about my position. If only everyone was a prophet and the spirit of God was upon them.” And Miriam and Aharon both say “God has spoken to us too.” Korach says “All the people are holy and God rests upon them.” Who can argue with that?

Why then do we regard them as rebels who deserved punishment? In my opinion it is not whether their claim to holiness was right or not. But because they used negative, abusive language and arguments falsely, to support their claims. They were dishonest. Moses replies “Why are you complaining about me? I have not abused power or taken anything for myself.” He realized the holiness argument was just a cover for personal gain.

The Midrash says that Korach tried to claim religious authority, that he was more religious than Moses and understood Torah better. HaShem intervened on Moses’s behalf.

I think this is exactly what has gone on these past weeks with the furor over Rabbi Joseph Dweck. People claiming to be more religious have been accusing him of not being religious enough. They have besmirched him without justification just because he holds more open minded, inclusive views. And they are using religion as a cover for personal agendas and their own political gain. Just like Korach they will not succeed not matter what titles they have, because Hashem looks into a person’s heart and pays no attention to abusive words.


Shabbat Leh Leha

Candles June 16th @ 8:09pm
Havdalah June17th @ 9:05pm

After the Children of Israel panic at the prospect of invading Canaan, they are sent back into the wilderness for another forty years. Soon afterwards we read about a man (his identity is not revealed in the text though the Midrash names him as Zelopchad) who went out in public to gather wood on Shabbat in contravention of two principles the Torah had already given. One was that work is forbidden. And secondly one should stay within the “city limits” on Shabbat. Was it neglect or defiance?

The man is brought to Moses who, it seems, does not know what to do. He goes to consult God. This is one of several cases in the Torah where Moses turns to God for advice. This, after Sinai, where according to tradition he received the whole of the constitution. One Midrashic tradition is that although Moses knew the law, in principle. He was not sure which of the various punitive options applied here.

But the Midrash often gives alternatives. One version is that this man was really righteous. He knew there was some uncertainty about the punishments. The law was unclear. And so he sacrificed himself for the sake of becoming an example for future generations. This is problematic. Jewish Law in principle does not approve of self-sacrifice this way. And if Moses had to go back to consult, maybe there were other issues that needed further consultation or would later require interpretation and innovation.

The Midrash offers another explanation. This episode illustrates how low the people had sunk, not only in morale but religious observance. That they were happy to ignore Moses, his instructions and his law. This man was typical of the sad state of affairs. This was why the people needed more time to recover from the debacle over the spies. They needed to learn the disciplines and the limitations that at first sight seemed harsh and petty. Yet in the end, firmness helped produce a people with self-control, discipline and a moral mission.


Shabbat Behaalotecha

9th June Candles @ 8:06pm
10th June Havdalah @ 9:02pm

Mariam and Aharon complain to Moshe about his wife, because he had married an “Isha Cushit.” What is a Cushit? We all know that modern Hebrew a Cushi is someone from Africa, usually black. And in our still racial world, many people would consider this a negative word, implying inferiority. But the truth is that in the Bible the term cushi is used several times of Israel itself. The prophet Amos for example has God saying that the Israelites are like “children of Cushim” to God in a positive way. That is certainly not derogatory.

The major commentators were concerned about the meaning of the word and its context. What was the complaint? Was it that Moshe had married a black woman? Was it racial? Nowhere does the Torah indicate that some races are intrinsically superior or inferior. Inferiority is based entirely on a person’s behavior--if he or she is pagan and has no moral values. So if they are complaining because she was a non-Jewish Midianite, why didn’t they complain that she was Midianite? And why now, years after the marriage, with two nearly grown up children?

In the context of the Torah, Cushi here, means special. As the midrash says, Moshe was so busy looking after the people he had little time for his children and his wife. He was sleeping alone in his Tent to better concentrate on God and the needs of the people. Miriam’s complaint was that Moshe was setting a bad example abandoning his beautiful, lovely, special wife for the sake of the community.

God’s response was anger at Miriam. Moshe, after all, was doing God’s work, and that required exceptional concentration and dedication to God and the people. Miriam and Aharon were right to be concerned about others. But not if it undermined Moshe’s position. Sadly, we know that the result was that Moshe’s sons did not follow in his footsteps. Sometimes one has to make sacrifices for the greater good.