Shabbat Va'et Hanan

Candles - July 27th @ 7:56pm
Havdalah - July 28th @ 8:51pm

One of the parts of the Torah that anti-Semites love to throw back in our faces is the command given by God to destroy the Canaanite people and their pagan religious idols and places of worship. Which is repeated this week. What kind of God commands us to destroy women and children?

The obvious answer is that we are talking about different times and a different world. After all, it was three and a half thousand years ago. Barely two hundred years ago the United States attacked and destroyed native Americans mercilessly. And we don't need to mention the Nazis, Mexican drug cartels or ISIS. In several countries, women and children today are still being killed because they profess a different religion. To criticize for something that is over three thousand years ago is plain stupid. The Torah was speaking then, not now.

But there is another way of looking at this. At no time did the Israelites actually succeed or even make a serious attempt to destroy the Canaanites unless they attacked first. As was the case with the Amalekites and the Emorites. And the Canaanites and their religion continued to thrive and survive in Judea and Israel for nearly a thousand years after the Torah commanded their destruction. Until the Assyrians under Tiglat Pileser wiped or drove them out.

So how did the Israelites understand the command of the Torah? I think they understood it both metaphorically and practically.

Metaphorically God is saying that the Canaanites presented an existential threat to the Israelites and the Torah because of their different culture, their immorality and corruption. And as long as they were there, that threat would remain. As indeed it did and many Israelite and Judean kings kept on falling back into Canaanite paganism, even turning the Temple into a place idolatry. Which ultimately led to the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms.

On the practical side, the Torah actually says that God would not get rid of the Canaanites right away because de-populating a vast area could be harmful both ecologically and defensively. So that the Torah itself recognizes the need for compromise. It recognizes that even if it presents us with ideals and commands, most of us are going to be unable to live up to them. It is not a perfect world.

The Canaanites were the symbol of every culture we come up against. Their values are not ours. And yet for good practical reasons, many of us continue to live amongst other cultures and nations. Even if living in our own country is the ideal, we may have to compromise and we always did since the Babylonian exile. And yet we see that when we do unless we hold firmly to our own values we will indeed be swallowed up. Millions of us will lose our Jewish identity as has happened in the past, many times.

The Torah was warning us of the dangers of being influenced and uses graphic language to stress how serious the challenge was…and remains.


Shabbat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon

Candles - Friday, July 20th @ 8:03pm
Havdalah - July 21st @ 8:57pm
Fast of Tisha B’Av - begins Saturday @ 8:22pm
ends Sunday @ 8:59pm

The Shabbat before the 9thof Av is always called Shabbat Hazon. “The Shabbat of the Vision.” Hazon is the first word of the prophet Isaiah’s book. The Haftarah is the first chapter of his great book of prophecies. Written in some of the most beautiful and moving Hebrew ever written. The core message is that the Jewish kingdom of Judea was going to be destroyed, together with Jerusalem and the Temple.

In his poetic visions, he imagines God describing the pain at being abandoned by the Jewish people. Not just that they stopped following Torah as some did. Others, it seems, did go through the rituals of Temple services and offered sacrifices. But their “hands were full of blood.” They were corrupt even when they were outwardly religious. As the text says, “They had become like the men of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

The values that God wanted were kindness and humanity. Being good people. Caring for the poor, the widows and the orphans. He wanted people to combine being religious with being good and charitable.

But Isaiah was also preaching against the incompetent and venal political leadership, that he said, would be the cause of the catastrophe. His complaint was both about moral and political decay. And we had ourselves to blame. The religious leadership and the political!

And yet we survived. Times change. Opportunities change. There are always chances to come back from the brink. However much Tisha B’Av is a record of our failures and tragedies, it is also a symbol of our capacity to rise again. That is true of us as a people and us as individuals. And the word Hazoncan be a vision of success as well as failure.

Something to ponder on Sunday.


Shabbat Matot & Massei

Candles - July 13th @ 8:07 pm
Havdalah - July 14th @ 9:01 pm

This double Sedra starts off with the final battle against Midian and the need to purify cooking and eating untensils that had been used for idolatry. And then deals with some specifics of how the Land of Israel would be divided up amongst the tribes.

The huge challenge Moses faced was the request of two and a half tribes to stay on the East bank of the Jordan. Areas that came to be known as Gilead. What we now call the Golan and Transjordania. The tribes of Reuben, Gad and part of Menashe had huge flocks and herds. The East Bank plains were perfect for them. Their livelihood depended on it. Yet Moses feared that the split would have negative consequences.

The problem was political and psychological. All the Israelites combined to conquer the lands Bashan and the Emorites. If two and a half tribes stayed there on the East Bank that would leave the rest to conquer the West Bank of the Jordan on their own. Moses was caught in a dilemma that is very modern. Do you allow for individual choice? For the interests of some, if this conflicts with the needs of the whole? The individual or society? And how important a part does one’s livelihood play in one’s decision making?

We need to try to reconcile all of these factors. And that was the decision that Moses took. He allowed the two and a half tribes to stay and live on the East bank but only on condition that they would help the other tribes conquer the West Bank too.

Even so, historically he was right to worry that living away from the main body of the people would in due course lead to assimilation, and the disappearance of those tribes.

Hodesh Tov.


Shabbat Pinhas

Candles - July 6th @ 8:10 pm
Havdalah - July 7th @ 9:05 pm

As Moses prepares to die, he asks God to appoint a successor. His words are “Someone who will go out before them, who will come in before them. Who will take them out and bring them in. So that the people will not be like a flock without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:16-17).

This 'taking out' and 'bringing in' is what a shepherd does with his flock and this is the characteristic of a good leader. To set examples, to show concern and involvement. Not to be detached, remote or insensitive to the needs of people. And sadly, today in politics or the rabbinate this becoming rarer.

Why didn't Moses ask God to appoint one of his own two sons? There are several examples in the Bible of fathers wanting their sons to succeed them even though they were inadequate and even corrupt. The sons of Eli and Samuel for example. But our tradition gives us mixed messages.

On the one hand, the Talmud (Nedarim 71a) says “Why do children of Talmidei Chachamim ( scholars, rabbis) rarely become Talmidei Chachamim? So that one shouldn’t assume that Torah can be passed in like an inheritance.” One has to earn it not inherit it. Yet the Kingship became hereditary and so did the priesthood. When they both failed the rabbis introduced the Sanhedrin which was a meritocracy, to begin with. Although over time it too ended up having dynasties that eventually wore themselves out.

Medieval Jewry tended to reinstate heredity in the rabbinate and gave priority to sons. And Hasidism reintroduced the idea of sons taking over even when they were clearly second rate. The Bible does indeed talk about how one generation influences the next and how generations decline. But like so many areas it gives us different options and models.

Here in the USA, we have a similar conflict. Presidential families try to pass on hereditary leadership. Disrupters try to break those chains. Sometimes they work well. Sometimes not. It was for that reason that Moses could not decide and asked God to intervene.