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Friday, July 29, 2011

Parshat Masei: Dreaming of Liberty and Peace

It seems that during the summer months I end up either skipping a week or republishing a post from the past.  Such is the reality of life in the summertime.  

The following post is one that I first published in 2006 and then published again last year. Given the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, such as it is, I hand no qualms about publishing this peace yet a third time.  

I hope and pray that next year I will be forced to write a new post for this week's parashah, for peace will be a reality and there will no longer be a need to dream of it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Commentary on Matot-Masei 5766 (2006)

Last week and this week we conclude the reading of the book of Be'midbar/Numbers with the parashiot/portions of Matot & Masei (30:2-36:13). In non-leap years they are read together.  However, being a leap year, they are read separately.
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 15, 2011

Parshat Pinchas: Transition and Change

This week’s parashah/portion is Pinchas (Deuteronomy/Devarim 25:10 - 30:1).  In reading the parashah, a few things  caught my attention: 1) the parashah begins almost immediately with a census of all the males of the various tribes; 2) it then continues with the plea of the five daughters of Zelophehad to inherit their father’s holdings, even though inheritance at that time only went to sons, of which he had none; 3) the daughters of Zelophehad are all named, and in their plea make it clear that their father was not one of the faction led by Korach, who had rebelled against  God; 4) God declares to Moses that the claim of the daughters was valid and that they should indeed receive their father’s portion, as should other daughters in the future, if they have no brothers and 5) following this incident, God tells Moses to appoint Joshua as successor and to climb the mountains of Avarim to see the land that he will be unable to enter.

It is easy to write about the daughters of Zelophehad as an example of “proto-egaliatarianism” or of Judaism’s ability to adapt to the needs of the times.  However, there are other ways of looking at the story as well.  What struck me first was that the five daughters individual names are given: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah.  We can count on one hand the names of the other women mentioned in the Torah. Most of them are matriarchs or in positions of leadership, such as Miriam.  

The naming of these five women represents their importance as individuals, and simply as a unit.  They each have their own rightful place to take, even if the case they are making is based on their relationship with their father.  Furthermore, they make it clear to Moses that their father was not among those who joined Korach’s rebellion against God, but that he died for his own sin (though this sin is never named).  It is interesting that they did not refer to this as a revolt against Moses’s leadership, which is how I would describe it, but a revolt against God.  It is as if they are saying, “our father never challenged or lost his faith in God. He had his faults, but that was not one of them. So please remember that when adjudicating our case. And please judge him and us based on our own merits.”  

 The daughters make their plea not simply before Moses, but before Eleazar the priest, the tribal chieftains and the entire assembly.  They proclaimed before the whole community their father’s (and by extension their) loyalty to God.  Perhaps this is why Moses turns the case immediately over to God for a decision.  After all, setting the stage like this, Moses would not want to make the wrong decision.   And so God declares a new order for inheritance which includes daughters, but only when there are no sons.  God then commands Moses to appoint Joshua as leader following his death and to then climb the mountain to survey the land that they are to enter without him. A new beginning has begun.

This entire story is about change and transition, perhaps two of the only certainties in life.  The five daughters lost their father because of his sin, whatever that may have been. However, each is her own unique individual person.  They want to continue with their lives, but the vestige of the past is preventing them.  God realizes this and the rules are changed to meet the moment.  The fact that they approach Moses and God as individuals and as a unit, as I wrote above, reminds us that they are not to be defined solely by who their father was, what he did or because they belong to this family. They are individual souls who are still a part of the collective soul to which we all belong.  By arguing their case in front of priest, chieftains and the entire community we are also reminded that no matter how much we may view our selves as individuals or part of a clan, we are also part of something greater.  We are each part of the community, which is also part of the Oneness that is the divine in the world. Hence this takes place in front of the Tent of Meeting, where all are gathered and where God is believed to “dwell.”

That this episode also takes place following the census of the men, reminds us that belonging to the community, or being able to connect to God, is not based on biology or, I would add, on gender, sexual or other identity.  We are all included in the story.  It is only after this is acknowledged by none other than God, that Moses is allowed to continue the transition by appointing Joshua as successor and by viewing the Promised Land.

This entire narrative can be seen as a lesson in terms of what we need in order to take the next step in our own personal journeys through life. Each moment must be lived in the present, yet each moment is also connected to our past and a way to transition into the next moment.  We bring with us into the present our heritage and our inheritance, as well as the ability to move on towards our own Promised Land.  And yet we don’t know if we will ever reach the destination, yet continue on we must. We may see it, or think we do, but whether or not we will reach it - and what it will look like if we get there - is a mystery.

We each must take the steps as individuals, each with our own unique name, our own identity.  Yet we cannot deny that we are part of a family and that we are connected to all others around us. Ultimately, the associations are all about connecting ourselves to the Divine force in the universe.  It is this force (or however you choose to define God) to which we connect as individuals and as a community.  It is also that which will provide each of us with the ability, strength and courage to take the next step, to look into the unknown and to move beyond those things in our past that could keep us stuck.

So in some ways we are each one of the daughters of Zelophehad, regardless of whether or not we identify as female, male or other.  We are each simultaneously seeking a connection to and a release from our past and our ancestors.  We each are trying in each moment to take hold of the present and then take the next step into the future (which then, of course, becomes the present).  We do what we must to take these steps knowing that we are taking them not simply by ourselves, but with all of those to whom are connected: family, friends, community and the universe.  And that we are ultimately doing so as part of that force in the universe which connects us all, which I choose to call God.

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