Re’eh: Gates and fences

fenceWhen the other person left, I was the only one left.

To get rid of dust, I dust.

That car could really go, until it started to go.

You know how much I love language and words, and I’ve learned a new one: contranym. It means a word that is its own opposite.  Like oversight – are you watching over something, or letting something slip by?  When you screen something  are you showing it or hiding it?

There is the Hebrew root “a-s-f”, which means to gather or add. Out of context, it doesn’t seem like a contranym, but  I think it’s its own opposite in this week’s parasha, Re’eh.

Tishm’ru la’asot lo tosef alav v’lo tirga m’menu”  Observe the things I commanded with care, neither add to or take away from it.  (Deut 13:1)  So, how is the word tosef, from the root “a-s-f” (add to) both itself and its opposite?

There is a concept in Jewish thought called “making a fence around the Torah”; it comes from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a compendium of collected wisdom, thoughts about how the world works, advice on ethical and moral behavior, and more.  Chapter 1:1 states, “…And make a safety fence around the Torah.”  We take that to mean that, to avoid even getting near to violating a Torah law, build a fence around that action to keep an accident from happening.  For example, many Torah-observant Jews won’t pick up a pencil on Shabbat, just to lower the chance of writing on Shabbat.  The writing is prohibited, the pencil is the fence.  Or to avoid mixing meat and milk by accident (“you should not cook a lamb in its mother’s milk”, seen as the Torah basis for the law), have separate dishes and silverware in your kitchen.  The separate dishes are the fence.

There is a tendency in more strictly-traditional observance communities that stringent is better, the more fences is better, doing the bare minimum of a particular halacha (law) is somehow not as valued as exceeding that law. The danger here, however, is  more and more fences around something take you further and further away from the essence of the practice.  In the name of “observance”, you can’t even see the original law from that fenced-off distance.  The experience becomes too far-removed, literally.   I would suggest that requiring men and women-only buses, measuring women’s hemlines and inspecting the thickness of a woman’s stockings, or a frenzied, exhausting, panicky “preparation” for Shabbat are fences gone awry.

And here’s where the “adding to a commandment” actually takes away from it.  The tosef has become the tirga.  The adding has become the detracting.

Now for some people, strict observance is a pathway to a deeper spirituality.   I am a fan of meaningful ritual and observance, because I do think that ritual presents us with an opportunity.  Ritual is a vessel into which we can continually pour fresh water.  But the pressure to become more and more strict, more and more “kosher”, build more and more fences to be a “real, authentic  Jew” does the opposite, driving people away or worse yet, isolating people so much from others that learning, understanding, exploration, even experimentation, are locked up behind a fence.   Where is the room for choice?  Where is the room for deciding to do (or not do) something, if the fences have become jails?

Build meaning, not just fences.  And make sure to put in a gate.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Eikev: Lest we forget

eikev“When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt…the house of bondage…” (Deut 8:11-14)

Don’t forget what it was like before you made it good.

Moses is giving the people a retrospective of the last 40 years, before they head into the Land.  He keeps reminding them to obey, learn , follow, and heed the “Instructions”, the Torah, the commandments.  If they do, good things will happen.  And don’t for a minute, Moses says, think that things will go well for you because you deserve it.  God reminds them they are a stubborn, stiff-necked people who keep messing up.  So they should be grateful for God’s steadfastness, not their own.

Eikev warns the people not to get too self-righteous, too comfortable, because they might stop seeing what’s around them.   There has been a lot written lately about Israel, of course.  No matter what side of the issue , now filling our inboxes  for months now, almost all agree that Israel must be able to defend herself, that the tunnels are a significant and serious threat, and that Hamas is using its civilian population in the most dreadful way.

How we got to this place, however, is of great debate, and once again, the lines are drawn with a steel cord, not to be cut or bent.  In my humble opinion, however, if we go back to the same old policies, and the same old philosophies, the place Israel will once again find itself is to be found in this week’s Torah portion.

Lest your heart grow haughty.  Lest you forget that you were slaves in Egypt.  Lest you forget that occupation, keeping a people down, enslaved, is not the way for either people to live, and eventually, they will rise up and demand their freedom.  Hell, we did it. We were led out after God heard our cries, so says Torah.  Egypt had fine houses to live in and they had prospered and their cattle increased.  And now, with our own silver and gold increasing (the gap between rich and poor in Israel is for another time, but the country has thrived these many decades, to be sure) and the fine houses being built on other people’s olive groves, well, our hearts have grown haughty.  This is not an argument of a border here or there, ten kilometers further or closer.  This is the situation that many others have written about:  the occupation is tearing down Israel.  The occupation is draining it of resources, both human and financial, spiritual and moral.  Hard decisions are going to have to be made when this particular “situation” is over…for the moment.

If there’s one motif that is sung throughout Torah, it is that we must take care of the outcast, the vulnerable in our society, since we know what it’s like to be that vulnerable.  And with all motifs, there is a counter-motif.  The counter-motif is “yes, but….”Compassion is our watchword; certainly not to the extent that we endanger ourselves.  Eikev teaches us that we can be in moral and spiritual danger, and move away from God’s protection if we forget our own history.  It didn’t work out well for the ancient oppressors, nor the oppressed.  I’m not comparing Israel to Egypt…hold your keyboards.  But after the rockets stop and the rebuilding begins, we have got to think clearly about the next steps. We got to where we are by forgetting where we came from.   We will do well to steel ourselves from haughty hearts.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

V’etchanan: Enough already!

enough-550x250Thank you, Ibn Ezra.  Ibn Ezra was a 12th c Biblical commentator from Spain and England.  He was a linguist; he loved language.  Today, he’d be one of those guys who posts memes from Grammarly and finds typos in menus.  My kind of guy.

But before I continue with how Ibn Izra fits in here, let’s focus first on this week’s parasha, V’etchanan.  It’s the second parasha in the last book of the Bible, D’varim.  It’s a recap.  Moses is going over everything that happened to the people since Egypt, and as the joke goes, for a guy who said he was slow of speech back at the burning bush, he certainly figured out how to talk.  The whole book of D’varim/words (aka Deuteronomy) is of Moses talking.

Apparently, even God got tired of his talking.  Moses says, “I pleaded with Adonai at that time, saying, ‘O Adonai God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand….Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…;” (Deut 3:23-25)

This is a sore spot between Moses and God.  Moses struck that rock a couple of times back in Numbers, and God said, “That’s it…you’re not going into the Land with the rest of the Israelites”.  What an incredible disappointment for Moses, to have come all this way with the people and not get to enter the Land.

Here in D’varim, God says, “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again!” (Deut. 3:26)  The Hebrew here for “enough” is rav lach”.  Moses has asked too much.   But here’s where my friend Ibn Ezra, and his buddy Rashi (11th c Franch) come in.  We’ve seen this phrase before, back in the story of Korach, the guy in Numbers who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, “They (Korach and his followers) combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them ‘You have gone too far!’”  The Hebrew?  Rav l’chem (l’chem is the plural form, but it’s the same word.)  Korach says that Moses and Aaron have put themselves too high above the rest of the congregation, for, as Korach points out, isn’t the entire community holy?  Basically, it’s “what makes you so special?”

And what does our linguistic friend Ibn Ezra say here about this phrase?  It means “you have enough! You have taken the greater share!” or as Rashi says, “You have taken too much greatness for yourselves”

You got greedy, Moses.  And God is saying the same thing to Moses here – don’t bother Me again with this whining.  You have had enough.  Maybe back with Korach, God was willing to overlook Moses wanting more;  in fact, God made that earthquake happen and swallowed up the rebels.  But here, even God shuts him down.   What more does Moses want? Moses had a remarkable life, living so close with God that he remains the only one to whom God has shown the Divine face.   No one has been or ever will be as close to God as Moses was.  That’s saying something.  So, enough.  Don’t be greedy.

It’s hard to know when we’re asking too much.  What may seem perfectly reasonable to us, in the midst of wanting something so badly, seems to others, rav lach, too much.  It’s so hard to step back, though, and see it in ourselves.  Right now, there’s a trend on Facebook to post daily, listing things for which we are grateful.  It’s a good exercise. It’s good to see how much we really have, what we can really appreciate in our lives.  That daily list is a barrier against rav lach, whining and wanting more and more.

Except for peace.  The one thing we can ask more and more for is peace, shalom.  As we welcome a Shabbat with more peace (well, less killing) than last week, may we also be aware to when we have become rav lach, and experience the sweet exhale breath of knowing when we have enough.

Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Devarim: A break

Shalom, all

Jewish Gems will be taking a break this Shabbat.  Wishing you all, and the whole world around, a more peaceful Shabbat than the last one.


Thanks for your interest and support thus far.  See you next week.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mase’i: No more

sadnessI’m tired.  And I can’t stop looking at the news and Facebook.  As I write this, I have no idea how these words will read tomorrow or the day after or next week, whenever you might get around to reading them.

“… you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  ….

“… you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  ….

This isn’t from Hamas. This is from this week’s Torah portion, Masei. (Num 33:51-53)  God says this to Moses, and Moses is to tell the people.

I dismiss it.  I reject it.  I cringe when I read it.  Is there any more painful proof than this, that there were PEOPLE who were living there when we came into the land?  Maybe this was the way we began in the land, but no more.  We can’t. I can’t. I won’t.  It’s hard for me even to try to figure out why God would say this, that this sort of scorched-earth destruction was not only ok, but commanded.  This is the God to follow?  Someone tell me how this is ok.

I have a friend and teacher, a Modern Orthodox rabbi  who has said, referencing some of the more obscure commandments in the Torah,  “We don’t live by this book.  We live by the commentary to this book.”  Meaning, we post-Modern Jews don’t live by the literal text of the Torah, although some do, I suppose.   If we didn’t live by the commentary, we’d still be offering up animal sacrifice and stoning sinners.  Yet, we are guided by the Torah itself, the lessons hidden, to be found by turning it and turning it again.  The Torah is valuable only in how we make it relevant to our lives today, adding commentary every single day we struggle with it.  Elsewhere in this parasha, we read of Zelophechad’s daughters, who challenge the status quo by asking for land inheritance rights even though they’re women.  It would have been easier to write about those verses, not these. Anyway, the daughters get their rights.  Change can be found in the Torah, when some things just don’t reflect reality or no longer hold the values we’ve come to, well, value.

I try to turn off Facebook , yet I still read and read and read more.  I click, and click and post and click and then weep and sigh and click some more.  All because we’re engaged in a real fight with real people on both sides, dying and crying. How we got here is less important than the sickening knowledge I’ve come to understand (and not so recently, but I struggle, oh I how I struggle with it) that Israel has to do what it’s doing, it has to.  Those tunnels have to be destroyed.  Those people who want to kill my family have to be stopped.  Those rockets have to stop, from both sides, and frankly, from my weary and despairing state of mind right now, I can’t want one side to stop more than the other.  People are mourning on both sides; after all, it is war and that’s what happens in war.

So, what to do with this text?  Is this a lesson in the breach, telling us how not to behave?  Because, really, I can’t read that and not think that it’s just wrong, wiping out an entire people and their holy places is just wrong.  I won’t blame the kind of people who take these words literally, saying it’s all their fault we are where we are, there is a straight line between what they’ve done and said, and what’s happening now.  I do see the harm done by extremists in our own community.  I will keep speaking out against what I think is so very wrong in their beliefs and actions.  But now?   Where is the line being drawn now, from here on?  I can only stand up against the kind of intolerance in this text.  And wait for next week’s parasha, when I can pick up the book, look inside, and hope that by then, we’ve moved beyond this text in more ways than one.

Posted in Shabbat musings | 3 Comments

Matot: No thanks, Moses, you go on ahead, I’ll stay here.

bordersSo it turns out that Moses may have failed at bringing the entire Israelite nation into the Land.  And so began the Diaspora.

In this week’s parasha, Matot, God describes and proscribes what a holy war should look like.  The enemy is the Midianite tribe (yes, it’s interesting that Moses’ wife is a Midianite and he took lots of advice from his Midianite Priest father-in-law, but that piece of marriage counseling will have to wait) and God gets pretty specific in the instructions.  Gather people.  Arm them, including the “sacred utensils and trumpets for sounding the blast.”  Kill all, except for virgins, level the towns, take the booty, purify whatever you think has been contaminated, divide the booty, bring the gold and other good stuff to the Priests.  That’s uncomfortable to read, indeed.  But moving on….

Next, we read that the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who were big cattle breeders, noted that some of the best cattle country was in land east of the Jordan.  So they asked Moses if it would be ok if they stayed there, “It would be a favor to us”, they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:5)

Moses was not pleased.  His first response was that these two tribes were wimping out just as they were needed, “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Num 32:6)  So they worked out a deal.  The Gadites and Reubenites would settle and build east of the Jordan, but they would leave their wives and families behind and go fight with the rest of the people to conquer the Land.  If they did that, and didn’t just slink off away from the battle, they could have their chosen land instead of the Chosen Land.   However, if they did not “cross over as shock-troops, [they] shall receive holdings among [them]  in the land of Canaan.” (Num 32:30)  Interesting.  Required to have land in Canaan as a punishment?   For another conversation.

Several questions arise here, one of which is, “Did Moses fail in his mission because some people decided they didn’t want to come into the Land?  Is this the first model for Diaspora Jews, those of us who choose to live outside Israel?  We, who have chosen to build “sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” in other parts of the world, what are our responsibilities to those decided to head on in to where Moses showed them?

According to this part of the text, it is military support.  We get to live where we want, but we have to show up to when we’re needed.  I think this has largely been the relationship between Jews living inside Israel and those living outside Israel.   We give money, we hold rallies, we visit, we state our heart-felt support and love, and continue to live where we feel it’s best for our families and livelihood.  It must have hurt Moses terribly to think that, after all this time, there were people who just didn’t want to follow into the Land where he, himself, wasn’t able to go.  But that’s what happens when you free a people from slavery, give them a set of guidelines and rules with which to build a functioning society, and bring them to the edge of their new lives.  Some choose to take those guidelines to heart, but just in a different place.  We’ll stay here, thank you, you guys go on ahead, we’ll visit you for the holidays.

It is a complicated relationship, to be sure. I will not be moving to Israel; I never wanted to.  From the time I was in high school, and in a Zionist youth group that laid a lot of weight (and guilt!) about making Aliyah (emigrating to Israel), I realized that there was a community to educate in this country, people for whom moving to Israel wasn’t going to be their choice, but for whom developing a meaningful Jewish identity was crucial.  Right now, in fact, my relationship with Israel, the State, is more complicated than usual.  It’s breaking my heart.  The Gadites and Reubenites supported their people in war.    I must support them in searching for peace.

Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pinchas: Needing new leaders

passing the batonSuccession.  New leadership.  A challenge for every leader, but a necessity if the community is to move forward.   Like where we are now.  Here’s where we were then.

Moses is getting old.  He knows he’s not heading into the Promised Land with the people he had led for all those decades. He’s lost his sister and his brother, and by now, anyone else who was there at Sinai has long since perished.  That was how God wanted it – a brand new generation was to go into the new Land, one that hadn’t directly experienced the miracles of Egypt, the wandering or Sinai itself.

So.  Time to pick a new leader, and Moses knew it.  So, he did what he usually did when he saw a problem:  he took it to God.  “Let Adonai, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that Adonai’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”  (Num 27:15-17)

What does it mean to “go out before them and come in before them….”?  The commentators say it means a military leader, and know enough to bring them (not send them) into battle, and lead them back home safely again.

The text continues.  God chose Joshua, son of Nun, teling Moses to “lay your hand upon him.  Have him stand before Eleazar the priest, before the whole community, and commission him in their sight.  Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.”  (Num 26: 18-20)

Joshua may have been chosen by God, but he still had to come before the entire community.  He had to get “cleared” by the Priest Eleazar, too.  It was no longer enough for God to say so.  That’s how Moses became the leader, but that wasn’t going to work from then on.  Joshua was no Moses, and he knew it.  So did the people.  They needed a different kind of leadership from then on.

Still, he had to have a very public vetting, and he was now going to be working in conjunction with the Priest, unlike Moses, who pretty much worked alone.  He had to have the public support, or the transition would never work.

Our Jewish community in Israel is in desperate need of new leadership.  I know we’re still reeling from the horrific murders of Jewish and Arab teens over the last few weeks.  I know we’re still getting news reports that turn out to be rumors, and it’s hard to separate out the truth.  And yes, I know I’m not living where every day, rockets are pummeling where I live.  My children are not in the army, but my nephews were. Still, for too long, one narrative, one drumbeat has been playing.   Those claiming to have God’s ear, those holding up our painful past, those who need to hold on to their own real fears, and those leading from a place of fear of offending those telling the same past-stories, they’ve all been a part of how we got to where we are, murdering and burning children.  But no more, not in my name.

Earlier in this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we read of the High Priest Pinchas who rushes out to where no one else will go, to avert a disaster.  That’s what Priests do.  They protect the people.  What we need now are leaders, both religious and governmental, who are willing to go where no one else is going now, to avert a disaster.  It’s time to hear the voices of other people, not just the voices in the echo chamber.  The world-wide Jewish community has to be brave enough to ask for it, and support the Israeli voices that are trying to break through.  Today’s leaders seem willing to send young people into battle, but it’s unclear to me that they’re wise enough to bring them home safely again, not for lack of desire, but lack of vision.

Posted in Shabbat musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment