Shabbat Shalom! – Devarim

This week’s Torah portion is the first one in the Book of Deuteronomy, Devarim. That is also the Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning “words” or “things.” In this particular case, it is best translated “words.” The first verse in the parashah is:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Aravah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. – Deuteronomy 1:1

The People of Israel are camped by the side of the Jordan River, very near the end of their journey. Moses, now aged and infirm, is speaking to this generation, the children of those who left Egypt. He will review their story with them, retelling it, adding and omitting a few things from the earlier version. By the end of the book of Deuteronomy, he will be dead and they will be ready to cross into the Land.

Here are some divrei Torah available online about this parashah:

Listening to the Holy Space Between by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Go Up Already! by Rabbi Don Levy

Religious Reform: Even Moses Did It by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

So Much from One Word by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

To 120: Growing Old, Staying Young by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

On Meaningful Repetition by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Moshe by Rabbi Ari Kahn




Shabbat Shalom! – Matot-Masei

In a “leap” year such as we are having, it isn’t often we get a combined portion, but we have one this week with the combined portions of Matot and Masei. And good news – finally, all our calendars are realigned; all Jews everywhere are on the same page (of Torah, if not everything else.)

Today (Friday) is also Rosh Chodesh Av. The month of Av is the saddest month of the Jewish year, containing as it does the observance of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. Follow the link to learn more about that important fast day.

Notice, too, that we are also in the Three Weeks of communal mourning before Tisha B’Av. The haftarot on these Shabbats are haftarot that abjure us to take notice of our behavior in this world. This week Jeremiah 2:4 – 28 and 3:4 rebukes us for faithless behavior.

Our online darshanim this week have lots to say:

Redeeming the Instructions to Displace and Destroy by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The Ascent of Women, the Ascent of All of Us by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Trump, the Trail of Tears, and Parshat Ma’asei by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Complexity of Human Rights by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Parashat Matot-Ma’asei by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Stops Along the Way by Rabbi Eve Posen

Are We There Yet? by Rabbi Steven Kushner



O Daughters, My Mothers!

Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.

Recently I received a question from  a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said,  “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11

Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.

It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.

Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.

But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:

The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”

Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.  Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance.  No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.

Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”

Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.

There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address.  In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.

I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.

Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:

The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)

Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.

Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.

Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.

I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.

At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

Shabbat Shalom! – Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas has a little of everything. It has the troubling story of Pinchas, who committed a double murder in defense of Torah in last week’s Torah portion. It has a census of the tribes, which can be interesting to compare with other censuses in Torah. It has commandments regarding many Jewish holidays, including Rosh Chodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot and the High Holy Days. It also has the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, which is a personal favorite of mine.

So let’s see what the darshanim online make of this cornucopia of possibilities!

Cry for the Moon by Rabbi David Kasher

Commissioning a New Leader on Inauguration Day by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

D’var Torah Parashat Pinchas by Rabbi Dr. Margaret Jacobi

New Moon, New Beginning! by Rabbi Jordan Parr

What We Can Learn from the Daughters of Zelophehad by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Religion is Designed to Protect Us from our Shadow Side by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Pinchas: A Remedy for Extremism? by Rabbi Ruth Adar



Shabbat Shalom! – Balak

Image: A donkey. Photo via, 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


Another Eulogy for Miriam

Image: Miriam, By Ephraim Moshe Lilien [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Reblogged from the blog of Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. 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