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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Parshat D'varim: When Actions Become Words

This week we read Parshat D'varim the first parashah (portion) in the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22). The Book of D'varim consists primarily of three addresses that Moses makes to the people of Israel before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. These addresses are part spiritual preparation, part ethical will and part reminder and warning.

During his first address, Moses reminds the Israelites of  40 years earlier at Kadesh-barnea, when he sent 12 spies to scout out the Promised Land. However, the version he tells here differs greatly from the original telling in Be'midbar/ Numbers (13:1-14:45). In the original telling God commands Moses to appoint one scout from each of the 12 tribes to reconnoiter the land and bring back a report. When they return, they all agree that the land is flowing with milk and honey. However, 10 out of the 12 spies report that the people there are like giants and that they will not be able to conquer them. Only Joshua and Caleb remind the people that God is with them, so they will indeed be able to conquer and inhabit the land. Because the people follow the negative report of the 10 spies, rather than Joshua and Caleb, God decrees that none except for Joshua and Caleb shall enter the land. They are doomed instead to wander for 40 years until they entire generation of adults has died.

The version found in this week's parashah takes place at the end of the 40 years of wandering, and so is addressed to the children of those who had followed the negative report of the spies. When Moses recounts the story to them he makes some significant changes. To begin with, he states that the idea of sending the scouts came from the people, and not from God. Furthermore, when the scouts return, it seems that they brought back a positive report on the land. However, the people did not heed the words of the spies; instead they refused to follow God's command to conquer the land. They then returned to sulk in their tents and complain about the conditions in the desert. However, the result was the same, as they were still forbidden to enter the land.

This Hebrew word D'varim means both words and things. This reminds us that words are so powerful that they can easily become things or actions. Words can take on a life of their own and wreak havoc, just as easily as they can bring comfort and peace. In the incident of the spies, or scouts, words of fear, uncertainty and lack of faith take on a life of their own and bring about the punishment of the people. In both tellings of the story, it is the people's words which beget action and bring about God's harsh response. However, in the telling from Be'midbar/Numbers the 10 scouts, who are leaders of the community, begin the chain of events by their negative words. In the re-telling in this week's parashah, it is the community whose words bring about their own downfall.

We can argue, as have commentators past and present, as to why Moses has changed the words of the narrative, thereby changing the "things" or actions that the words become. I would like to suggest that this was intentional on the part of Moses (or, the author of D'varim) and not due to advanced age, chance or scribal error. For we must remember that Moses is speaking to the children about those whose words/actions had brought about the 40 years of wandering that are now concluding. None of the listeners was an adult member of the community when the incident occurred, save for Joshua and Caleb, so no one is going to contradict Moses.

Yet why, in this retelling of the story, does the responsibility belong  to all the members of community  and not to their leaders?  Perhaps this is meant to serve as a reminder that each community member is responsible for his/her words and actions.  Just as their parents' words and actions brought about 40 years of wandering for the entire community, so too their words and actions can bring about reward or punishment.

As they prepare to enter the land of Promise, 40 years after their parents were poised to do the same, they must each pay attention to their thoughts, words and actions. They must also remember that God has brought them to this point and it is God that will bring them into the land and settle them there. However, they are also told that this process of settling will not be easy. Before they enter they land, they will first need to battle the troops of Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan. Only after these battles, guided by God and led by Joshua, will they be able to enter the land and conquer it without fear of its inhabitants.

At this moment, I would like to focus on one line that Moses speaks as he prepares the people for the battles that lie ahead, for I believe it holds a spiritual key to a hidden meaning to this parashah: "Yehoshua/Joshua, son of Nun, who stands before you, he will enter there [the land]; him (you are to) strengthen, for he will allot-it-as inheritance to [the people of] Israel" (Deut. 1:38, based on the Everett Fox translation).

This entire endeavor can be seen as a metaphor for what it takes to spiritually conquer that which stands in the way of reaching one's own Promised Land, or spiritual center.  The place where one is able to connect with the God within each of us. The people of Israel had to fight and struggle for 40 years to reach the border of the Promised Land, often ignoring, disobeying and struggling with God and Moses.  Similarly, each of us can only reach our own spiritual home after much struggle. In the process we get caught up in our words and actions, which are one and the same.  It is these word-actions that often impel us to change our route so that we take the long, difficult way towards our homem, rather than what may seem the simple, direct route. Sometimes we can bew led astray by the word-actions of others, as in the Be'midbar version of the story.  Sometimes we are led astray by our own word-actions, our own mind, our own ego, our own fears, as in the version in this week's parashah. Either way, we are led astray, we miss the more direct route and our wandering continues.

Yet eventually, after our circuitous and difficult journey, the Promised Land, our Spiritual Center, God, whatever you choose to call it and however we perceive it, seems within our reach. Our years of journeying, our prayers, our meditations, our words and our actions have all been worth it! Still, even then we must face other challenges, often from within us, from our egos, that want to stop us.

When this happens, who will lead us to defeat these forces that try to keep us from continuing on the joureny? If we rely on our ego, on our sense of pride and ability to 'do it alone,' we are doomed. Rather, it is rlying on the strength and ability that comes from the Divine within and letting go of our egos and our desire to be in control that ultimately enables us to prevail.

In the narrative, God helps the Israelites to prevail with the help of Yehoshua/Joshua, who is to be their new leader. The name Yehoshua means, "God will save." God, the source of salvation, ultimately will lead us to victory over the ego and help us to overcome the other stumbling blocks along our way. As the verse above states, Yehoshua, God's salvation, will stand before us as a guide and a beacon. Yet, we are the ones who must strengthen Yehoshua. It is as if, without humanity turning to God for salvation, God cannot have the strength to save. The relationship is entirely symbiotic. We need God, but God also needs us. Only through this symbiotic relationship can salvation ultimately be achieved. Only then can we receive our reach our spiritual "promised land," which is our rightful inheritance.

Yet, the inheritance is given to Yisrael/Israel, which means "one who has struggled with God." Of course, our people's history can be seen as one long struggle with God. The 40 years of wandering began with a struggle and continued as the people frequently complained about their lot and turned away from God. Yet, the land of Promise is the inheritance given to the entire nation of those who have struggled, and will continue to struggle, with God. In a way, the gift of the land – the spiritual home – is given as a reward for struggling with God. Yet, it is given by Yehoshua, who represents God's power of salvation and the symbiotic relationship between God and humanity.

The ultimate spiritual message of this is that the struggle with God is not wrong, but rather it is desirable, if not necessary. However, when we struggle with God from a place of ego and trying to defeat or even deny God, as did the generation of the spies, then the struggle brings pain and suffering. Yet, if the struggle is part of a symbiotic, inter-dependent relationship between us and God, then we ultimately can achieve salvation and arrive at our spiritual center, just as our forefather Jacob did when he struggled with the Divine being in order to become Israel - the God wrestler.

Therefore, salvation is not about receiving rewards in the "world to-come", but rather it is defined by the process through which it is achieved. For salvation is what occurs within each of us, and within our world, when we struggle in order to experience the Divine within us, others and the world.  This eventually leads to an understanding of the interconnectedness of all of God's created world. And it is this sense of connection and oneness that has the potential to create a world of peace, harmony and compassion.

The journey to this place is long and arduous. It is also eternal, for once we reach our goal we must begin the journey anew. It is a journey that we must take one step at a time, both alone and together with our community. Yet we must remember that ultimately it is the God,the source of Salvation, that gives us strength and that we must give back strength in return through our symbiotic, inter-dependent relationship. Only then can all of our struggles and battles bring us to our individual and communal Promised Lands and create the Promised World of which we all dream.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Commentary on Parshat Matot-Masei

Well, it's deja vu all over again!  Here is the commentary for this week that I accidentally posted last week!
I was looking through some past divrei torah (Torah commentaries) and discovered this one from four years ago.  Though the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories has changed much since then, I believe that the message of this d'var torah still holds true today. Let us pray that the time of peace will arrive and commentaries like this will no longer be necessary.

Shabbat Shalom,


Commentary on Matot-Masei 5766 (2006)

This week we conclude the reading of the book of Be'midbar/Numbers with the double parashah/portion of Matot-Masei (30:2-36:13). In Parshat Matot we read of the laws given to the Israelites concerning the making of vows, as well as a description of the war against the Midianites. It concludes with Moses resolving a request by the tribes of Gad and Reuben to live on the "other side of the Jordan river"which is permitted.

recounts the forty years of the journeys of the Israelites (masei b'nei yisrael) from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses then provides instructions for conquering the land, defining its borders and dividing it among the tribes.

How ironic that we read of the conquering and division of the land, as well as of a war against an enemy at a time when the State of Israel is engaged in a war to protect its borders and define not only those borders, but the meaning of its existence.

In preparing to write this
d'var torah I have made a conscious decision to stay away from politics as much as possible. I will say that I believe Israel must defend itself against those who wish for nothing more than its destruction, among which I include Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, I would like to create a more spiritual response
to what is obviously a difficult and painful situation. For regardless of what I say, more blood will be spilled,  of soldiers, civilians and terrorists. Both sides will continue to know death, destruction and hatred no matter what I write. However, what we must keep in mind as we watch the events unfold on the screen and in our hearts are the divine-human qualities of compassion, openness and acceptance.  For these are the only qualities that can ever lead us to a true peace, whether in our times or for future generations. As a way of demonstrating this I would like to relate to you something that I experienced this past Shabbat in Jerusalem.

Last Shabbat was the final day of my 12-day trip to Israel, one that was marked by many high points, as well as by the outbreak of war in Lebanon and the continued fighting in Gaza. That Shabbat I decided to walk through the streets of the Baka and German Colony neighborhoods of Jerusalem one last time, ending up at one of my favorite spots, Gan ha'Paamon, the Liberty Bell Garden. This beautiful garden, situated between the German Colony and the area around the King David hotel was
  built with money donated by North American Jews. It contains not only of gardens, but playgrounds, picnic areas and basketball courts.  Not to mention a replica of the Liberty Bell! As I walked through the garden last Shabbat I was reminded of why it is one of my favorite spots in Israel. For as I entered the garden I first saw a group of young Jewish men and women, some wearing more traditional (though not "ultra orthodox") Shabbat garb, others in shorts and sleeveless shirts, all sitting together sharing Shabbat lunch, laughing, singing, and eventually playing a game of touch football. They were clearly enjoying the peace of Shabbat.

Not far from them, there sat an Israeli Arab family from one of the nearby villages. They were preparing a feast for themselves while numerous children ran around the garden or road their bikes on one of its many paths. Not far from them  was another Arab family enjoying an afternoon of leisure.

As I watched these Arabs and Jews sharing the same space I took notice of joyous, raucous music that was being played through a nearby sound system. I soon found that these sounds emanated from a gathering of about 30 Ethiopian Jews beneath a grape arbor in the garden. They were eating, laughing and dancing together to the beat of their native music, many of them wearing traditional Ethiopian garb. As I watched them, I noticed an older Jewish couple, the man wearing a
kippah/yarmulke and the woman a traditional head scarf, walk by, stop and smile, before continuing on their Shabbat afternoon walk.

Not far from there, both Jews and Arabs were playing pick-up games of basketball, children played on the playground and other, such as myself, simply enjoyed taking in the beauty of the day, the park, and
what was happening within its confines.

As I sat there I could not help but wonder why all of Israel could not be like that park. Of course, I knew the answer to that question all too well, but that did not prevent me from asking. Why, I wondered, couldn't everyone stop focusing on their differences and instead focus on their similarities. And yet, I knew that this was the idealist within me speaking, for that was not what was happening in the park at all. For in reality, each of the groups was interacting only with its own members and not with members of the other groups. Of course, they recognized the existence of the other, and this was not a problem, but true interaction was not occurring (though in past visits to Jerusalem I have seen this occur). However, even peaceful co-existence without interaction is better than hostility and violence. Would that the parties in the current conflict could even reach that point!

But what is it that prevents this from happening? Certainly there must be an answer somewhere that is realistic and not fantasy? As I pondered this question I remembered that what was in the center of this
oasis of peace in the middle of a country and region filled with war:  a replica of the Liberty Bell! What a strange thing to find in Jerusalem! However, we must remember that written on the Liberty Bell is a verse from Vayikra/Leviticus "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof."

This verse precedes the verses concerning the release of Hebrew slaves every 50th year (see
Parshat Behar). However, in order to connect the essence of this verse to what I witnessed in Israel, as well as to the current situation, one needs to look at the word that is commonly translated as "liberty." The Hebrew word `d'ror' is more accurately translated as "release" and it is part of the greater theme of redemption found in that passage of the Torah. This redemption involved the return of the land to the tribes that possessed it at the time it was conquered by Joshua, as well as the release of Israelite slaves from their indentured servitude. In short, it was an effort to release in order to restore balance to the system (at least as defined by the Judeocentric text of the Torah).

This twin concepts of release/redemption involves the ability to let go. The parties involved must release the story line that something or someone "belongs" to them. Possession does not matter any more according to the Torah. What matters is the moment, which is one of release, freedom, and redemption. It is a moment when we let go of our attachments and simply let things be as they were "meant to be" (again I realize that this is being defined in a specific way by the Torah, but we can extend it to a more universal perspective without much effort). 

In a way this is the essence of Shabbat as well. I also believe that on some deep level, probably unknown to those present, it was the essence of what occurred in the Liberty Bell Garden. At least for those minutes or hours, those present were able to let go of their individual stories of hurt or hatred. They were able to release themselves from the tyrannies of their stories and simply enjoy God's creation. What happened after those hours in the park I cannot tell you, but what happened during that time was indeed a lesson for all of us.

Ultimately, this release from excessive attachment to history, to pain, to one's story and to the sense that "this is mine and I am right" can bring about peace and liberty.  It allows us to open our
hearts to the pain of others and feel compassion for all of creation, not only for ourselves. How long it will take to bring that vision to fruition I cannot say. Realistically, I doubt that it will happen during my lifetime, though I hope and pray that I am wrong.

Yet, for those few moments on a Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, the holy city of peace that has too often known hatred and violence, I witnessed what may perhaps have been a first step, no matter how
small, towards this ultimate goal. And if each step on the journey is in itself a destination, then that step, no matter how small it may seem, can have cosmic significance.

Am I dreaming? Perhaps. Is this a fantasy? It may well be. But without dreams and fantasies it is impossible for us to work towards creating new realities for us and for our world. 

Over 100 years ago Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism said "If you will it, it is no dream." His dream was of a homeland for the Jews.  But ours must be that all peoples will have a homeland and know peace, freedom and redemption.  

If we will it, it is no dream.  But we must also remember that if we do not dream it, it can never become a reality!

Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, July 2, 2010

Parshat Pinchas (aka: the correct one for this week)

So I was looking at my calendar thinking that it was July 9th, even though the month just started yesterday!  So, of course, it's Matot-Masei.  If I had just remembered that last we ended the reading with the story of Pinchas I would have remembered that it's Pinchas this week.  Oh well, it's been a hectic week.

So here is a poem that I wrote a couple years ago for Pinchas.  I don't have time to edit it before Shabbat, but I hope you enjoy it.  And save Matot-Masei's commentary for next week, as I won't be able to post then.

Shabbat Shalom,


Numbers/Bemidbar 25:10 – 30:1 It begins by mentioning an incident that occurred at the end of last week’s parashah where Pinchas, son of Eleazar the priest and grandson of Aaron slays the Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Cozbi after they enter a tent to have sexual relations. This takes place after the text tells us that the Midianites have led the Israelites into whoring, both in terms of women and also after other gods (especially the Midianite god Baal Peor). At the start of this week’s parashah we are told that upon killing Zimri and Cozbi the plague that was ravaging the camp ceased. Furthermore, God gives Pinchas a brit shalom/covenant of peace as a result of the slaying of Zimri and Cozbi.

Throughout the ages rabbis and scholars have both lauded and criticized Pinchas for being a zealot for his cause (the term used by the Torah). Some believe that he acted justly in the name of God. Others believe that he acted in an extreme manner. Certainly, the cessation of the plague and the giving of the brit shalom would imply God’s approval of Pinchas’ actions according to the author. But one has to wonder what other messages we might find in this idea of receiving a covenant of peace of using violence to stop idolatry and immoral behavior. There are many possibilities, but once again I wonder what we can learn if, as in our dreams, all of the characters in our communal narrative can be seen as part of us, what can we learn from this text about ourselves – whether it is we like it or not!

The Covenant of Peace
all is in us
     we are in everything
        Moses     teacher
      Aaron  priest
  Pinchas  zealot
          Zimri Cozbi 
    idolaters blasphemers 
  lust filled human beings
all are in us
      we are in them
there is no distinctionn
no difference
All is one

we all
learn  teach  attemp holiness
we all
     Lust after

We feel


  More important than
 The world

We bring
Plague destruction decimation desolation
Upon ourselves
Our souls
Those around us

Small minds
      Closed hearts
        Afflict us
    A plague
            Resistant to treatment
    Unable to accept the cure
Unable to let in the Light

Desire    Ego
  enclosed  nside us
    In a tent
      Lethal cocoon
        Filled with poison


It must can be pierced
    Allow in
   Peace Wholeness Shalom

We must
  Find strength
    Pierce the shell
     Run it though
       Save us

Such violence you say
        Necessary action I say
   Not violent
  Allowing us to open up

We must use our strength
Divine Human
    To pierce the shell
     Let in the Light
       Release what has been held captive
the plague within us
   Eating away at us
      Keeping us from Life

Doing this
    We let in
We open our hearts
     To God
  the same
all is in us
we are in everything

Sometimes we must do
What appears to be most difficult
Destroy what is often most familiar
                      Most harmful
                Causing the most pain
       Often unnoticed

Then we find
          Rainbow covenant
             Shining over us through us
                  within us
                Connecting us
             To the one
          The many
      One another

Once the plague is gone
We are open
we can rejoice
In our covenant with God
in Life


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