Shofetim: Sigh

scales of justiceThere are a number of reasons why I love this week’s parasha, Shofetim. Yes, it was my daughter’s parasha, so there’s that. It has a whole section on military ethics, (chapter 20) which I teach as part of a full Jewish studies curriculum  at the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Center. I love teaching that text.

But today, some verses are just screaming at me.

The parasha says, for example, if you really want a King to rule over you, make sure he’s

  • Not a foreigner
  • Doesn’t have too many horses
  • Doesn’t have too many wives
  • Hasn’t amassed too much silver and gold to excess
  • Doesn’t act haughtily.


The parasha goes on to say that “if a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before God, before the priests and magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrate shall make a thorough investigation. If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.” (Deut 19:16-19)

Again, I sigh. Testifiy. Court. False testimony. False witness. Thorough investigation by the authorities. Sweep out evil.

Ha! And you thought Torah wasn’t relevant! It doesn’t take much to apply Shofetim to relevant news of our lives and leaders today.

The  Torah portion pretty well speaks for itself. We haven’t been careful at all about who we’ve chosen to be our leader. And he has definitely created evil in our midst, which needs to be swept out…of office. Torah is telling us that we the people have a responsibility, not God, as to who our leaders are.

The midterm elections are less than 100 days away. Your responsibility is to vote. Your responsibility is to make sure your neighbors are registered and vote. No one… one….can legitimately sit this out. We don’t leave this to God; this is in our hands, on our heads, and on our feet, to act.

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Re’eh: Look for what you must do


Well, that’s encouraging, but 3 verses later we read, “If , however, there is a needy person among you…” (Deut 15:7), but hang on. Four verses later we read, “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deut 15:11)

So which is it? There won’t be any needy, there might be someone who’s needy, or there will always be someone who is needy?

There’s a clue in the text that follows each of these scenarios.

The first one – There shall be no needy among you, since Adonai your God  will bless you in the land …if only you need and take care to keep all this Instruction.” That is, it’s all theoretical. There won’t be any poor because God will bless you, if you keep  the instruction.

The next situation gets more concrete: “If there is a needy person, one of your kinsmen in the Land that God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” Lend him whatever he needs. But then the text goes on to speak about the Shmitah year, the 7th year when all debts are forgiven. The text says not to let the fact that the Shmitah year is coming make you hold back from helping out, that the worry about not getting paid back would influence your help.   Finally, the third situation brings it all back to reality and simplicity.

There will always be needy, “which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy”

We started in Eden. And theoretically, if we’d stayed there, there would never be any needy. But we left the Garden and went into the real world. And in the real world, there are going to be people who need help. But what to do about them? Where is the guidance?

The second situation gives us that, but with something extra. The text tells us why you’re supposed to help others, but that also it is too easy to fall into thinking about yourself as you reach out your hand. “What if he never pays me back?” “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought…”

Then there’s the third situation. There will all ways be people who need help, and for them, you don’t think about getting paid back, you don’t think about what year it is, you just open your hand to the poor. But it’s a commandment. It’s a commandment because it may not come easily, but it’s the way we are supposed to treat each other. We’re not in Eden, where all was perfection.  The world needs healing, people need help, and The Torah tells us the truth – that we have a job to do in this world, and here’s how you begin to make it better.



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Matot Masei: Changing relationships

diasporaThis week’s parasha is a double one: Matot-Masei. We’re at the end of Bamidbar, coming to the end of our journey towards the Land. It’s been a long haul – 40 years, in fact. In that time, and entire generation has died out and a new one has been born. The old generation had a direct experience with slavery and Sinai, and of course, Moses as a younger man. This new generation is removed from all three. Where does this population get their connection to this goal…the Land long promised.. of their parents’ generation? What will that relationship be?

Recently, the Forward’s Jane Eisner wrote an article about a  new way of looking at those of us Jews in the Diaspora; indeed, she advocates taking the word itself out of our vocabulary altogether. It’s an old way of looking at our relationship to Israel, and a new one needs to be defined. The American Jewish community is home, not going anywhere, and forms one half of the entire world Jewish population.

We find a model for this relationship in this week’s parasha. In Chapter 32 of Numbers we read, “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers…the land that Adonai has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country…’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: 32:1-5)  They were not looking at land inside Canaan; to the contrary, they were on the east side of the Jordan, and wanted to stay there. It wasn’t in the original inheritance, in fact, but it was a good place to settle down. Moses asked if it was fair that their brothers go into the land and fight to settle there, while they stayed behind, so the Reubenites and Gadites agreed to help the other tribes in that endeavor, and then return to their land on the east side of the Jordan.

As Eisner says, “I do not suggest that the two parties should divorce, or even amicably separate and go their own ways. After seven decades, Israel has become an essential element of modern Jewish life far beyond Tel Aviv, in Toronto and Tucson and Tashkent; those of us who live outside The Land benefit enormously from its political, social, intellectual, economic and cultural achievements, from its spiritual centering, from its very being there. We turn away from it at our peril, and our detriment.

But seven decades on, the language of Israel and Diaspora, of center and periphery, hub and spoke, homeland and exile, no longer describes the lived reality of the majority of the world’s Jews who continue to reside and thrive outside Israel’s contested borders.”

Half the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, and half here in the United States. We form two strong pillars of the community,  upon both of which the community depends. There is a lot to be said for living outside the Land. In fact, if you look at the major developments in Jewish thought, practice, commentary, etc you will find that they happened outside Israel, not inside. Think of Rashi, Maimonides, and Ibn Ezra. Think of the great centers of Jewish learning in Europe and Spain. Remember that it’s the Babylonian Talmud we follow in general, not the Jerusalem Talmud. Judaism flourished and grew and adapted and developed when we lived among others – that’s where the creativity was needed, so that we became (and still are) a living, vital community, instead of an ancient sect that died out.

It’s time we stopped thinking that we aren’t “good enough” just because we don’t live in Israel. It’s time Israelis learned more about what it takes to live a Jewish life by choice, and not by state. It’s time to stop thinking those of us outside Israel are “less than”. It’s not easy to re-define a relationship, especially one so long-held and heralded. But we must do that if that relationship between our two communities is to remain strong and mutually beneficial, and read to not only withstand challenges, but flourish and develop.



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Pinchas: Remembering my father

It’s tech week for the show I’m in, and for those that understand, you understand. But it’s also the week of my father’s yahrtzeit….30 years now since he died. I wanted to just re-run an older commentary on Pinchas, and there were a few to choose from; then I read this one.

The daughters of Tzelophechad and I have a lot in common.  Granted, my family name Salzman was easier to pronounce, though I bet we got it misspelled as often as Mahla, Noa, Chogla, Milcha and Tirza did.  Ok, maybe not.   But  what we really had in common was that we all had only sisters as siblings.  No brothers, none between us.


The story of the daughters of Tzelophechad is one often cited by Jewish feminist writers and thinkers.  Here were five sisters whose father died in the wilderness.  The community is getting ready to cross over into the Land, and Moses is busy divvying up the land itself, via sons and fathers.  The sisters walked right up to Moses, and in front of God and everyone (literally) cried foul.  “It’s not our fault”, they said, “that our Dad died and left no sons.   He was a good guy, not one of the rebellious Korach crowd, and we deserve a holding of land.”  Sure enough, God agreed with them.  So, in a stunning reversal of land-inheritance policy, “if a man dies without leaving as on, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Num 27:8)

Those sisters had chutzpah.  So do my sisters and I.  I like to think that, had it been the daughters of Richard instead of the daughters of Tzelophechad, we would have stood up to Moses and gotten the same result…or more!  I have great sisters; and we are a formidable group.  Just ask any of the many men who have tried (and the very few who stayed) to attach themselves to us.  You get all three of us, get used to it.  And you get Mom, too.  Richard surrounded himself with uppity women; I think he liked it.  Maybe not, but that first uppity woman he loved, my mom, didn’t give him much of a choice.  He may not have been comfortable with it, but he loved us – of that I am sure.

There were a lot of women in our family, many of them uppity.  My grandmothers both were working women outside the home; though not both single, they were both the breadwinners.  My maternal grandmother, born in Chicago, graduated college, as did my mother.  I had no idea girls weren’t “supposed” to say the Kiddush on Friday night.  As each of us learned it, we entered the rotation to say it for Friday night dinner.  It was a real shock to find out only boys were supposed to say it, but then there weren’t any boys around, so who knew?  In fact, there were a lot of things I didn’t know girls weren’t “supposed” to do in a Jewish setting, and the ones I was aware of, like reading Torah, really confused and bothered me.

I remember being in the last year of Hebrew school and my very traditional teachers separated out the boys and girls; boys got to go learn more and we girls had to learn about being a wife and mother.

What?  Huh?  I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Um, excuse me, but I’d rather go with them, and learn what they’re gonna learn.”  I didn’t, but ironically, those wife/mother skills didn’t get called upon for years after I picked up Jewish learning again on my own.  (Yes, there are thems that say I never did learn those skills too well….that would be my husband and kids….but I digress.)

This upcoming week is my dad’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his death 24 years ago.   This Shabbat I’ll be saying Kaddish (again, didn’t know women weren’t “supposed” to do that…who else would, a stranger?),  reading the story of my Torah-sisters, Mahla, Noa, Chogla, Milcha and Tirza, and thinking of my now-sisters, Jan and Batya.  Wow.  If all seven of us had been around together, there’s no telling …..well, never mind, we’re working on it now.   Richard – no, Dad – no, Abba couldn’t be prouder of us Salzman women  than if he was Tzelophechad.

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Balak: answering our inner angel

donkey (4 years) in front of a white background“They are too numerous for me. Perhaps I can defeat them and drive them off the land.” (Num 22:6)

This comes from the mouth of Balak, King of Moab, in this week’s parasha named for him. The two main characters in this story are Balak the King, and Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet whom Balak hires to come and curse the Israelites for him. Why? Read the first sentence.

This is almost word-for-word the same complaint Pharaoh had about the Israelites in Egypt, “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly  with them, so they may not increase, otherwise in the event of a war, they may join our enemies against us and rise from the ground.’” (Ex 6:9-10)

When Balaam was hired by the King to curse the Israelites, Balaam told him that he could only say what God told him to say, no guarantees. Three times Balaam tried to curse the Israelites, and three times it came out as a blessing. But Balaam had his blind spot, too…literally. Sitting on his donkey, Balaam tried to get the animal to move. It wouldn’t. Balaam beat the donkey three times, and still the donkey wouldn’t move. Instead, the donkey turned to Balaam and spoke, basically saying, “What have I ever done to you that you beat me? Have I ever failed you before?” What the donkey saw, and finally Balaam saw, was that an angel of God was blocking the road. The angel reiterated that Balaam can only say what God tells him to say. Ultimately, Balaam could only bless the people, which annoyed Balak greatly, but the King could do nothing about it.

These are not new concepts. Being afraid of newcomers, people who threaten the majority, people who are different, people who need to be driven off the land…..gee, where have we heard that lately? People who think they know best, who fear outsiders, harm them, put stumbling blocks in their way, intending to drive them away, are like Balaam; refusing to see what’s right in front of them, if only they open their eyes. It was arrogance that blinded Balaam into thinking only he knew what God wanted, and the truth came from an unexpected source. Balak may have operated from fear and bigotry, but Balaam too operated from a place where he couldn’t see what was right in front of his eyes.

Finally, Balaam’s eyes were clear and he could stand up to Balak. Would that those around the bigoted, paranoid leader trying to get others to curse the outsiders, would also gain clarity. We must be like Balaam, and refuse to curse those who are different, who are outsiders, and instead, answer to the inner angel that speaks the truth.


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Chukat: Hitting the rock

Where-there-is-anger-there-is-always-painLast week’s parasha was Korach, and the question I asked, along with so many, was “What did Korach do that was so wrong?”  He challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s, asked what made them so special, after all,  the whole community is holy, yet he ended up getting swallowed up into the earth, along with his followers.

This week, the parasha is Chukat, but we may well be asking the same question about Moses: what did he do that was so wrong?

The people were complaining…again…about having no water. Miriam had just died and was buried at Kadesh, and we read immediately that the community was without water. Rabbis say that the water dried up after Miriam died; she was the one who knew where the water was. God tells Moses and Aaron to, “take the rod and assemble the community and before their very eyes, order the rock to yield its water.” (Num 20:8) Moses took the rod, gathered the people, and said, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drink.” (Num 20:9-11)

By the end of the parasha, Moses has been told by God that he will never see the Promised Land, that his whole reason for leading the people, was now ending before completing his task. The people would indeed get into the Land, but Moses would never see it, never step foot in it, never live there.

All because he hit the rock twice to get the people water? That seems awfully harsh, and again, we ask, “What did he do that was so wrong, to have earned such a painful decree?”

Some say Moses’ big crime was that he defied God in front of the people, that it was public display. Some say he and Aaron tried to take God’s place as the giver of miraculous water (“shall we get water for you…) Back in Exodus, when the people were thirsty, God told him to strike a rock, and it worked; maybe he didn’t see the difference in circumstances, and just worked off what he’d done before. Some say it was because he lost his temper. But let’s look at some context.

Miriam had just died. Miriam was Moses’ older sister; she’s the one who saved him from the Nile, got his mother to care for him in the palace, and had stood by him throughout the Exodus and wandering. Moses couldn’t have known that Aaron was about to die, too. Moses’ support system, his inner circle, was collapsing. And, remember that he was facing an entirely new generation of Israelites. The generation of the Exodus had died out, and only the old guard was left – Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Caleb and Joshua. What Moses thought his leadership role was seemed to be changing, too. It took one kind of leadership to get the people out, but it would take a different kind to be with them in the Land.

The people were complaining. Miriam was gone. Moses just snapped. He yelled at the people, he hit the rock, and suddenly it became clear to him. He was getting too old for this. It would soon be time to step aside, and that may have been part of his anger, too. God wasn’t just punishing Moses; perhaps God was showing him in clear relief, “Your time is coming to an end. They still need you now, but not forever.”

We can’t always see when our role is about to change. We may feel cheated that we can’t do what we’ve intended to do all along. But ultimately, fighting back with anger isn’t going to help, and it will rob us of clarity – clarity of the moment when we’re still needed, and clarity of when we’ll be ceding over to the next generation.



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Korach: This year I’m on your side

truth to powerI really don’t know what to do with this parasha this week. It’s Korach. Every year, I admit I struggle with this text; what is it that Korach did so wrong?  Korach (who was from the tribe of Levi, like Moses and Aaron), along with 250 followers from among the elite of the community, gathered against Moses and Aaron and said, “You are too much! (you have gone too far) All the community is holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?” (Num 16:1-3)

I usually see this as a “speaking truth to power” moment, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Many commentators say that Korach’s problem was that he did it publically, that he was after personal gain, not for the benefit of the community, that he was challenging authority that God had chosen – Moses was the leader. Some say that this was a succession issue; Korach could foresee a time when Moses wouldn’t be around, and who would be the leader then?

These are ringing false with me right now. I don’t care that Korach made his demands in public; public airing of protest is exactly what is needed now. I don’t care that Korach was in it for himself; someone has to step forward and call “Foul!”, and if it puts that brave person in a better, more beneficial position to do good in the community, all the more reason for support. I don’t care that Korach was trying to get himself in line for leadership; maybe the people needed to know that there were options.

Obviously, I’m taking the text and overlaying it to the world I live in right now, and that’s exactly what keeps the Torah relevant. This year, however, it’s harder to come out and trash Korach. I know what happens in the story: Moses challenges Korach and his followers to a fire-pan duel, to see whose fire pans God will choose. Of course, God chose Moses’ and Aaron’s firepans, and ultimately, Korach and his followers are swallowed up as the earth splits in two.

Maybe the real message right now is that civil disobedience is crucial to a healthy community, and if one chooses to go that route, one must be ready to pay the consequences. Earthquakes may seem a bit over-the-top (so to speak), but everyone who marches, protests, calls out officials is at risk for arrest, jail, fines, etc. That’s the price to be paid, and this year, I’m honoring the Korach-like rabble-rousers who pay it.

I hope next year, when Korach rolls around again, I’ll be able to get back to a more traditional take on the parasha. I sure hope so.

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