Shabbat Shalom! – Balak

Image: A donkey. Photo via pixabay.com, by Myriams-Fotos.

Parashat Balak is something of a curiosity. It is named after an enemy of the Hebrews, who tried to get the prophet Bilaam to put a powerful curse on our people. No other Torah portion is named after such a bad man.

The story is a very strange one, too. King Balak tries to hire Bilaam to put a curse on the Hebrews. Bilaam consults with God (?!) and refuses. Eventually Bilaam agrees because Balak offers him great riches. God puts an angel in his way, which Bilaam cannot see. Bilaam’s donkey can see it, though, and even though he beats the poor donkey, she will not move. Finally she speaks to Bilaam and explains what is happening and he sees the angel. He speaks with the angel, who warns him again.

After many more adventures Bilaam winds up blessing our people, not cursing them. He blesses them with the words we say when we enter a synagogue:

How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!  Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by the LORD, Like cedars beside the water;Their boughs drip with moisture, Their roots have abundant water. Their king shall rise above Agag, Their kingdom shall be exalted. God who freed them from Egypt is for them like the horns of the wild ox. They shall devour enemy nations, Crush their bones, And smash their arrows. They crouch, they lie down like a lion, Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them? Blessed are they who bless you, Accursed they who curse you! – Numbers 24:5-9

Balak is furious – all his money and Bilaam blesses Israel? To see how the story comes out, read the portion!

Let’s see what our darshanim have to say about this bizarre story:

J’accuse! My Shock in Watching the RNC by Rabbi John Rosove

Balak: A Better Way by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger

Is Our Ability to Speak a Blessing or a Curse? – by Barbara Heller

The Curse of Being a People Who Dwell Alone by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Relatively Speaking by Rabbi David Kasher

“These People Scare Me!” by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Before You Sing Ma Tovu Again by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

 

What is Tzom Tammuz?

Image: “The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70” by David Roberts. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

If you have a Jewish calendar – or if you use the excellent online calendar at hebcal.com – you may have noticed something called “Tzom Tammuz.”  That translates to “Fast of Tammuz” which isn’t terribly enlightening, so I thought you might like to have a bit more info.

Next month we will observe the somber day known as Tisha B’Av, [“Ninth of Av”] when we remember the destruction of the Second Temple along with other disasters in Jewish history. Tzom Tammuz is part of the preparation for that day. It is a dawn-to-dusk fast to recall the day the Romans breached the city wall of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. It falls exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av, and that three week period is a time of special mourning and attention. (Tammuz and Av are months in the Jewish year, both of which fall in the late summer.)

A “minor fast” like Tzom Tammuz is one that is kept only from sunrise to sunset. It applies only to eating and drinking, unlike the major fasts of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which we refrain not only from eating and drinking, but also from washing and anointing our bodies, wearing leather, and having sex. Major fasts last 25 hours, from sunset one day until three stars appear in the sky on the next.

The destruction of the Temple was one of the watershed moments in Jewish history, the end of one age and the beginning of another. Biblical Judaism effectively ended then, because the sacrificial cult and everything that went with it was no longer possible. Rabbinic Judaism – the dominant form of Judaism in the world today – had not yet been born. That would happen in the following months, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai moved his students to the academy at Yavneh.

While there are some who look forward to rebuilding the Temple someday, Reform Jews believe that the time for it is past. God moved us into a new period of history, one in which our sacrifices would be made of prayers and song, rather than of animal gore.

I personally do not fast on Tzom Tammuz, but I keep it as a quiet day of reflection and study. The Three Weeks from the fast until Tisha B’Av are a time to reflect on Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, a topic that is sadly pertinent today.

In 2016 Tzom Tammuz begins at dawn on Sunday, July 24.

 

 

Pause: A Meditation

Sometimes when the news is horrible, I have to step back and redirect my attention. I took this photo about a mile from my home. The East Bay part of the San Francisco Bay Area is blessed with beautiful parks. This is a view of Lake Chabot Park. You can’t see the lake, but it’s down there. 
In our part of California, nothing is green in July unless it has a water source. The hills are golden, the grass all burnt up by the sun, and down in the valleys, lakes and creeks keep animals and plants alive. Lake Chabot is a human-made lake. They dammed up the San Leandro Creek in the late 19th century, and it’s a reservoir for our drinking water. I imagine some folks at the time mourned the creek, but I have to admit I am just grateful for the water and the life that surrounds it.

Water. We are mostly water, as are most living creatures. The green growth is also water – water and cellulose. Water is our common denominator. The deer, and the various other critters in the park all get thirsty, just as the people do. We are more alike than we are different.

God is like the lake, the source of life and the source of that which we all have in common. It’s up to me to see the divine image in every person I encounter, no matter if we disagree, or if I am afraid of them. We see differences, but in reality, we are not so different.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. — Psalm 42

Another Eulogy for Miriam

Reblogged on CoffeeShopRabbi.com. Thank you, Rabbi Fuchs, for the insight that the Sages included so many midrashim on Miriam because they recognized that she was shortchanged in the text!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit…

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Shabbat Shalom! – Chukat

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (khoo-KAHT) contains several difficult passages of Torah: the ritual of the “red heifer,” a special purification rite, the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and a terrible mistake by Moses. These are also stories about the difficult relations between the Israelites and the desert peoples.

As one of the rabbis below points out, the shadow of death hangs over Parashat Chukat. Two important figures die; another learns something about his own death. The news has been very difficult this week: deaths by violence, terrorism, horrors. Torah does not avoid difficult topics, rather it can help us center ourselves to cope with difficult times.

Read these divrei Torah to learn more:

Use Your Words by Rabbi Eve Posen (VIDEO)

Chukat by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Leadership Lessons from Charleston, SCOTUS, and Chukat by Rabbi Marci Bellows

On Being Effective by Rabbi Peter J. Rubenstein

The Smith Speaks by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (poem)

That Which Heals, Hurts by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

The Fully Lived Life… by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

 

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.

 

Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (pixabay.com)

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16