Friday, August 26, 2005

Parashat Eikev - The Beginning of Wisdom


“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Oscar Wilde

“All things are in the hands of Heaven, save the Fear of Heaven.”

Gemara – Berachot

“And now, Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask from you, but to fear the L-rd your G-d… for your own good.”

Parashat Eikev –
Devarim, 10:12, 13

The word Eikev – meaning “because” or “since” – occurs at two points of immense significance in the Torah. Words live by their contexts. Words, no less than humans, are communal beings. No less than ourselves, they draw their meaning from the contexts in which they appear. And, similar to the development of human personalities, the meanings of words accrete as they obtain new layers of significance.

The word Eikev appears for the first time in Parashat Vayeira, at the scene of the Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac. Bereshit 22:15-18: (my own free translation) And an Angel of G-d called to Abraham, a second [problem of the original language: A second Time (the usual translation)? A second Angel? A second Abraham?] one, from the sky and said: by my self I have sworn, the word of G-d, that because that you did this thing, and did not withhold your son, your only one, that I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your seed like the stars of the sky and like the sand that is on the seashore, and your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemy, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves in your seed, Eikev because that you listened to my voice.”

We have already seen that, as his career draws to a close, Moshe is compared to Abraham. There are both parallels and contrasts that make it clear the Torah is completing the Abraham story with the denouement of the Moshe story. In this context, the literary interplay of this brief text in the Moshe narrative is critical and forceful. In Bamidbar 20:12, G-d informs Moshe and Aharon of their punishment after the incident of striking the rock (Parashat Chukat). The reason Aharon and Moshe must die in the Wilderness is introduced with the Hebrew word Ya’an – also meaning “since” or “because”, and the other “because” word that has its origin in the Akeidah narrative. “… by my Self I have sworn, the Word of G-d, that Ya’an because you did this thing…” And, in Parashat Chukat: “… ya’an because you did not believe in me…”

The sequence in the Akeidah is: Ya’an because you took an action; and Eikev because you listened to my Voice. This is the pinnacle of ‘Am Israel’s devotion to Torah. On the eve of Moshe’s ascent of Sinai – the eve of the Giving of Torah – we stand up and announce (Shemot 24:7) Na’aseh ve-nishma’! “We will do and we will listen!” Let us not put too fine a point on the flaw in the Rabbinical interpretation of this passage, which sees in our unison shout an overwhelming zeal for Torah, such that we were willing to accept upon ourselves all the Mitzvot, even though we do not hear them until afterwards. (This is, in fact, the formula required of the Convert.) In the section in question – Parashat Mishpatim – we are told that Moshe wrote all the words of G-d in a book, and read the book before all the people, whereupon we responded “We shall do and we shall listen!” Only thereafter does Moshe ascend Sinai for his forty-day encounter. And this passage comes well after the Ten Commandments section in Parashat Yitro. If, like Ramban, we read the text sequentially, then we have already heard. Indeed, given Moshe’s redaction and reading-aloud, we have heard twice. It may be argued that we are not, in fact, throwing ourselves with wanton faith and love into the arms of a mysterious Torah - an attitude which strikes me as distinctly non-Jewish! Rather, we have already been introduced to proper instruction. Like Hillel’s converts, we have been shown the truth of Torah and said Na’aseh! And, like Hillel’s converts, we are eager to learn more. Nishma’!

And so we come to the opening of this week’s Parasha. “And it will be, eikev you will listen to these ordinances, and you will keep them and you will do them...” Action and listening. Hear and perform.

Abraham, too, heard, and acted thereafter. And G-d rewards him, first for the act itself, and only second for the hearing. Moshe and Aharon heard, but failed to act. G-d punishes them for the failure to act, then G-d tells us that G-d will keep G-d’s side of the contract if we keep ours. If we listen.

(Agenda alert: I have written elsewhere of the great use I have made of the ArtScroll publications in my coming to, and deepening into, Yiddishkeit. Unlike some, for whom the world is made up of Heroes and Villains, I believe there are many people who do a great deal of good, yet who also suffer from flaws. I am open to the possibility that I may be one of them: I hope and pray BS”D that the good I do will in some measure balance the rest of this tangle of personality G-d has seen fit to bless and curse me with! To point out people’s flaws is not to vitiate the value of their good works. Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, Klal Israel would benefit enormously from a little self-honesty. From Letting The Sun Shine In. We can criticize faults without finding fault; we can reject problematic parts of a person’s makeup without rejecting the person. As Jews, I am bound for you, whether I admit it or not. It is my obligation to correct you with love. Vayikra 19:17 [quoting directly from the ArtScroll translation] “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him.” And so I wish to point out – gently, not harshly, and with respect for the impact ArtScroll and Mesorah Publications have had on the world – that the translation of the first Pasuk of this week’s Parasha is very misleading. The ArtScroll translation reads, “This shall be the reward when you hearken to these ordinances…” Readers of Hebrew will note that there is no word “reward” in the original text. Granted, given the original source of Eikev, one can argue that the word itself is pregnant with the notion of Reward. I agree, I accept, yet I demur: a pregnancy is not a child. To be continued on the other side of the parenthesis…)

To the extent any Reward is offered, it is stated as nothing more than G-d’s keeping to G-d’s own side of the Brit, the Promise that was made to our ancestor, and that continues to apply to us.

Which brings us to our point.

In and among all the description of the Land we are about to inhabit, a small but critical piece of this week’s Parasha is the notion of Yirat Shemayim – the Fear of Heaven. Nehama Leibovitz quotes Yosef Albo saying that the soul inhabits the body for the unique purpose of acquiring Yirat Shamayim, and that, once this has been acquired, the soul is then prepared for eternal life. And, as last week’s Parasha drew a distinction between the Letter of the Law and the inner, abiding principle, it also appears that the notion of Fearing G-d, or Fear of Heaven, is given, both as a specific Mitzvah, and as a general principle.

The Rabbinic literature addresses the notion of Yirat Shamayim from two perspectives: there is the one who genuinely fears that G-d will punish the person who does not obey the Law – or even the one who tries, yet who obeys imperfectly. The general view of Chazal is that this type of attitude is better than no Yirat Shamayim at all: that, if it takes the threat of punishment to bring people to observance of Mitzvot, it is still better than if they do no Mitzvot. The corollary to this attitude is the person who performs Mitzvot out of hope of Reward, for Reward and Punishment are two sides of a coin, one which is of highly common circulation, yet of questionable value.

The second type of Yirat Shamayim is the sense of spiritual awe that we experience when we become cognizant of G-d’s vastness – or, conversely, which can be ignited by our becoming aware of our own insignificance. Most perfectly, I would argue, it is the sense of awe we experience when we become aware of our own very great importance, and yet G-d’s importance overshadows us infinitely – and yet, G-d has given us Torah and Halacha, this infinite gift, whereby we can commune directly with G-d, find our way back. The sense of awe we experience when we realize that G-d has offered us the ability to become G-d's partners in the vast enterprise of Torah and human history.

Let us postulate two types of Yirat Shemayim – Fear of Heaven. They may be categorized as the Fear of the Invisible, and the Fear of the Visible. This week’s Parasha mentions the miracle of the Man – the Manna – twice in close proximity: 8:3,: “And G-d afflicted you and made you hungry and made you eat the Man which you did not know, and which your ancestors did not know, in order to make it known to you that: Not by bread alone does the person live, but upon all that comes out of the mouth of G-d – from this does the person live.” And eight verses later, 8:16: “Who made you eat Man in the Wilderness, in order to afflict you and in order to test you in order to improve you at your end.” And, indeed, the Rabbis accept the notion that the Man is actually a Test, and not merely a gift.

Rabbeinu Bahaye says that, through being placed in a position of complete dependence upon G-d day by day, we are intended to come to trust that G-d will meet our needs the moment they are manifest – or perhaps before. This is the message of the Man, that we learn to trust in G-d. And it is the test: we initially fail it, when two people go out to collect Man on Shabbat.

The Ramban says that the purpose of visible miracles is to open our eyes to the hidden miracles. For the hidden miracles are around us all the time. The Hidden Miracles, writes the Ramban, are the foundation of all Torah. The Ramban goes so far as to state that no one has a portion in the Torah until and unless that person regards everything that happens as a miracle. This, then, is Fear of the Visible: Yirat Shamayim arising from the awareness of the Miraculous – of G-d’s influence or presence in all the world. And let us remember, too, that the word Yira comes from the word meaning To See.

What does this mean for us in practical terms? For the Torah is a book to live by, not merely a collection of pithy spiritual aphorisms. Reshit chochmah yirat Ha-Shem, it says in Tehillim: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d…” This phrase is so ingrained in our belief that we teach it to our children before they can read. Before they can even speak intelligibly, our daughters and sons are mouthing this sentence.

What does it all mean?

As in last week’s Parasha, the command to Love G-d is repeated here. Significantly, the second paragraph of the Shema, which is found in our Parasha, opens: “And it will be, if you really listen…” – Im shamoa’ tishme’u. Again, the literary referent is reinforced: Eikev asher shama’ata… the word Eikev goes with Hearing, or Listening. (Let us also observe that one can hear without listening!)

Amid and among all the discussion in this week’s Parasha of the plenty to be found in the Land, amidst all the Promise of the blessed lives we will live once we enter the Land and take possession, there is a troubling undercurrent. Rashi quotes back-to-back passages from the Sifrei go to the heart of issues that have come to plague us throughout our history.

“… and you shall eat and you shall be satisfied…” says the passage at 11:15, part of the second paragraph of the Shema. The well-known text goes on to describe the ills that will befall if we turn away from G-d: G-d will starve us out, and will ultimately expel us from the Land. Then, verse 18: “And you will place these words of mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and you will tie them as a sign on your hands and they will be Totafot between your eyes.” First, the linguist in me needs to point out that the origin and precise meaning of the Hebrew word Totafot are not completely clear. We use this word to mean the Tefillin worn on the forehead. And of course, the Hebrew “ totafot bein eyneicha…” can mean either “between your eyes” or “among your eyes”… in other words: it is something Between Our Eyes, so that it can be Among Our Eyes: something we wear publicly, on the forehead, so that we can all see one another wearing it.

Rashi quotes a Sifrei on verse 17 relating the parable of a man whose son did not heed his warning, but ate and drank to excess in a public place, and ended up defiling the other guests and being flung into the road.

The very next verse, verse 18, Rashi quotes the Sifrei saying: you should continue to perform the Mitzvot of Tefilllin and Mezuzah, even in Exile, so that these Mitzvot should not seem strange to you when you return to the Land.


There is a danger, Chazal are telling us, that we might believe we can only be Jews when we physically reside in the Land. Can it be that certain Mitzvot that we perform routinely are actually only for practice? Can it be that there is no actual Mitzvah to hang a Mezuzah on my doorpost in my home in New Jersey? If I sell my house, my family will not be able to redeem it in the Yovel year. Thus, perhaps it is not truly mine, in the full Torah sense of possession. If so, then I am hanging a Mezuzah out of an emotional attachment to what is past, and to what may be to come. But it is not a Mitzvah.

If that is the case, then why should women not wear Tefillin? It’s only a Minhag!

The ArtScroll footnote hurries to point out that “Ramban clarified this concept. The commandments apply equally everywhere, but the holiness of the Land is so great that their performance is more significant there.” I am not sure I agree. Rashi and Ramban are frequently on opposite sides of an argument. If Ramban is commenting on Rashi, more often than not, it is to contradict. Rashi says: Pshat in the text is: you will grab more than you are entitled to, the Land will spit you out – still, you should keep performing the Mitzvot because sooner or later you will return to the Land. One area in which Rashi and Ramban seem to agree: all of Jewish existence is an eternity of Exile, and Redemption, though to be prayed for, to be awaited, may be farther off than ever we could believe.

How does this bring us to the issue of Yirat Shamaym? How does the Fear of Heaven fit in with the notions of grabbing more than our fair share of the Land?

The view of Eretz Israel as being our Reward for performance of Mitzvot is one of the most dangerous concepts to arise in Jewish history. It is also, of course, the indestructible seed that gave rise to the State of Israel. It is poetic justice of a level worthy of the Torah itself that the State of Israel was created by non-religious – or even anti-religious – Jews. It is an irony worthy of Shakespeare that the eternal homeland of a nomadic people from what is today Iraq and Turkey has been established as a West European fortress, to the exclusion of the local culture. It is oddly cacaphonic to read the Rabbinic commentaries on this week’s Parasha making statements like, Eretz Israel is unique among nations in that it is self-sufficient. Unlike Egypt, which is only partly watered by the Nile, Eretz Israel is fully watered and grows abundant crops. Yes, that is true. Eretz Israel is fully irrigated. Or rather: the parts of Eretz Israel that are duly sanctioned by the Euro-centric and Anti-religious government are fully irrigated. With waters diverted from Jordan, from Syria, and from Israel’s own internal Arab population.

Still, it is a dose of perfection that this Land of the Torah was colonized and a polity finally established in modern times by the irreligious. Finally, all Jews are thrown together. If we listen to the message Rashi brings from the Sifrei, we should know that we must approach our ownership of the Land with humility. To whom was the father speaking? Was the gluttonous son Chareidi? Or Shalom Achshav? Whoever it was, notice that the one who made a pig of himself ruined the meal for everyone at the table. Is it possible to say that the ones who sieze what is not theirs will be flung into the road, while the others will remain at the table? That those who take the notion of Possession of theLand to excess will, themselves, be dispossessed, while the rest of Klal Israel retains its place and ownership, in G-d's longing and hope that evenetually some of us will get it right?

Yes, there is a tradition that the Land will be reconquered in the Days of Mashiach. But there is also a text – our text, the second paragraph in the Shema, which is found in this week’s Parasha – that warns us that the penalty for bowing to foreign gods is to be expelled from the Land.

The refreshing aspect of dealing with the secular government is that they do not claim to have G-d on their side. The problem with trying to run a political state on the basis of a religious text is: whose interpretation? Thank G-d that Jews are so damned argumentative, otherwise Israel would have become Talibanized years ago! Truly, this abrasive diversity is our great strength. It ensures that Judaism and Torah will continue to thrive, and BS”D will keep the State of Israel alive while we wait for Mashiach to come and settle the Open Questions.

Some of the former Gaza Settlers are now shaking their heads in disbelief, wondering that they embraced this plot of real estate with such religious fervor, neglecting and, indeed, debasing the rest of Israeli society and fundamental Jewish values in the precess. Some are wondering openly whether their own leaders – Rabbis and political leaders – have failed them, have sold them a bill of goods of religious extremism, bundled with the political expedient of needing pawns to sacrifice in the opening gambit. Some of the Former Settlers are wondering whether they, themselves, in effect bowed to foreign gods.

And what has it bought us? Arab parents exhort their children to resist. The children blow themselves up, killing Jews in the process. The IDF charges into the Gaza camps, guns and bulldozers ablaze. A dozen Arabs die, four houses are demolished. We call the Arabs “animals” and wonder how they can countenance allowing children to die for a worthless cause.

Urged on by rabbis who hate the secular government even more than they hate the Arabs, Jewish families move into the thick of 1.4 million hostile Arabs. The government denounces them in public, meanwhile diverting millions of dollars for construction and infrastructure. Despite warnings from the IDF and the clear knowledge that the Arabs consider their presence a provocation, parents send their young children on buses that cross from settlement to settlement. Arabs attack the buses whenever they can. Once in a while, they are successful. Jewish children are killed, are maimed. We call the Arabs “animals” and wonder how they can countenance allowing children to die for a worthless cause. Then the IDF charges into the Gaza camps, guns and bulldozers ablaze. A dozen Arabs die, four houses are demolished…

What does this have to do with Yirat Shamayim?

Yirat Shamayim is our sense of profound awe at the delicacy of every good and perfect and beautiful thing in G-d’s world. The abundance of commentary on this week’s Parasha – which is a Commentary of Abundance – is largely political grandstanding, intended to make Eretz Israel into something other than its reality. The amazing thing is: it worked! We believe that Jews have a special Beracha, a blessing, that we take abundance with us. That whatever we work hard at, we succeed at. And nothing has succeeded more than the State of Israel.

It has been written, by the historian Will Durant, that since human record-keeping began, there have been only twenty-nine years in all of recorded history during which there was not a war somewhere on Earth. I am only asking questions and do not claim to have an answer. But is there not some way we can interrupt the cycles of hate and destruction and rage? Let us now, just for a moment, rather than plunging the dagger again and again into the inert body of our enemy, stand in awe of just how delicate, just how fragile is our existence.

Let us reach out to one another first, as fellow Jews – Settler and Leftist and Shas and Neturei Karta and Likud and Modern Orthodox and Peace Now and Atheist… the world is full of enough hate, and enough of it is directed to us. Let us not add to that. Let us take one another by the hand and dwell on our common-ness. If we dwell on our samenesses, rather than our differences, perhaps BS”D G-d will show us the way to Peace.

The Midrash says that Peace is greater than all other Mitzvot, because of the line in Tehillim: “Bakesh shalom ve-rodfehu” – “Ask for Peace and pursue it.” It does not say “Pursue Tefillin,” “pursue Matzah”, “pursue Lulav.” I was perplexed by this Midrash, until I remembered that we are the inheritors of an oral tradition. I was perplexed because Shalom, Peace, is not the only Mitzvah we are commanded to pursue. The Torah tells us “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…” – “Justice, justice you shall pursue…” But of course, the compilers of the Midrash would be quicker to jump on that than I. By leaving out the mention of the Pursuit of Justice, they brilliantly make it that more present. Peace and Justice. They must never be separated. And above all other Mitzvot, we are commanded to pursue them both.

The message Rashi brings to us from the Sifrei is, that we must dwell in the moment. That we carry our Mitzvot with us, and they are our Land. That Exile from Torah is the harshest Exile of all. That rather than living the fantasy of what some distant future may hold, we must get down to the business of living in the world, whether in the Land of Israel or out of it. Whether Jews should even believe in Mashiach is a question I will not enter into – except insofar as to state that it is a question. To hold out Mashiach as a standard, as something to aspire to, is to encourage Jews to build a perfect world, all the while accepting the World’s imperfections. To hold out Mashiach as an end, other than which nothing has any importance, is to rob the world of the Jewish contribution, to rob Jews of their own lives, and to rob us all of Torah. To cast us into Exile.

The words Reishit chochmah… usually translated as “the beginning of Wisdom,” can also have another meaning. The Hebrew expression Besamim rosh , literally “Head spices”, means the choicest of the spice-handler’s goods. Similarly, the expression Reishit chochmah – the word Reishit, Beginning, comes from Rosh, meaning Head – can be read to mean the Rarest Part of Wisdom. The purest, rarest and most exquisite part of Wisdom. This is Yirat Shamayim as Awe Before the Invisible.

The awesomeness of our lives resides nowhere more profoundly than in the ineffable fragility of all we are, all we believe, all we have built.

Treat one another kindly. We are all we have.

Yours for a better world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Parashat Va'etchanan - In Defense of Tisha Be'Av


If any one thing can be said with certainty about the Torah, it is that none of us can truly state that we comprehend G-d’s meaning. As Jews, we recognize that we have an obligation to sanctify the world in G-d’s name, to make of this world a better world, a just world, a compassionate world. If Jews can agree on anything, at least as far as religious observance is concerned, we may be able to agree that our religious observance is based in the Halachah. For some – the Moderns, the Intellectuals – this may mean that it derives from Halachah. For others – the Ultras, the Ultra-Ultras – this may mean that we must keep every practice in form unchanged from Temple times.

Where do we begin? There is so much worthy of discussion in this week’s Parasha: the exposition of the eternal theme of Exile and Return, the restating of the Ten Commandments, the first paragraph of the Shema, the command to convey and teach Torah down through the generations. Where to begin? And where, indeed, to end?

Chapter 4, verse 2: in preparation for the restatement of Mattan Torah – the Giving of the Law, in the form of the Ten Commandments – Moshe enunciates a specific Halachah: a prohibition against adding to, or subtracting from the Torah.

There are those who claim that, by struggling to hold onto the Gaza settlements, Israel is committing the sin of “Lo tosifu” – adding to Torah. And of course, there are those who object that, by forcing the return of these captured territories to the Arabs from whom they were wrested – as legitimate trophies of conflict, many would add – that the secular State of Israel is committing the sin of “Lo tigre’u mimenu” – diminishing Torah.

The only thing I am willing to say for certain is that neither side in this argument knows The Truth, knows G-d’s Truth. And yet there are those who state publicly that they do. These people not only proceed at their own peril, they imperil the existence of Klal Israel and of the Torah. Do not misread my meaning: there are Zealots on both sides of this argument: there are those who defy any earthly government to Do Their Worst, clinging furiously to the certainty that G-d has commanded them – Them! – to march into Gaza and refuse to be dislodged. There are those who state that the notion of a G-d-centered polis is nonsense; that the Will Of The People must rule (“Vox populi, vox Dei” it reads: “The Voice of the People is the Voice of G-d.” One can hardly be more explicit.)

Each year at this season, the debate surfaces around the observance of Tisha Be’Av. The most frequently voiced position I hear against the observance of this fast is: now we have the State of Israel. Now things are different.

To which I can only comment: Lo tosifu: do not add to Torah.

In light of the truly “Biblical” timing of the Israeli government’s carrying-out of the Hitnakut – the Disengagement – the debate looms particularly massive this year.

Bereshit 1:1. Rashi asks why the Torah, a Book of Laws, begins with the beginning of Creation – an unnecessary point of departure, and one which requires that an entire book be written down before we come to our theme. Rashi tells us that future generations will rail against us. “You are thieves!” they will say, angry that we have stolen the Land of Israel from its inhabitants. “No!” we will reply, pointing to the opening verse of the Torah. “G-d made the World, and G-d gives the Land to whom G-d pleases. It pleased G-d to take the Land away from them and give it to us!”

Thank G-d for the existence of the State of Israel. But let us recall that inheritance and safety and ownership of the Land – all these are tied, in Torah and in the rest of the Bible – to a Moral Imperative. We are held to a moral standard. The message implicit in Rashi’s famous statement is: G-d can change G-d’s mind.

We believe in G-d’s Promise to Abraham: this Land is ours for all time. But there are Conditions. The Promise becomes part of the Covenant, and a Covenant is a contract which requires Performance of both parties. Our side of the Brit is to Be Holy and the Make the World Holy. G-d’s side is to continue to deliver on the Promises – and over time, G-d adds to these Promises. There is the Promise to Abraham, of an eternal possession of the Land. But when Rashi explains the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame, we learn that Perpetual does not literally mean At Every Moment; rather, the concept of Perpetual means Repeatedly. Are we to possess the Land repeatedly, gaining it and losing it, until we break through at some far-off End Of Days to take final possession in fulfillment of the Promise to Abraham?

There is the Promise to David of the Eternal Kingship.

Some argue that G-d has Promised us a Mashiach. Some are holding out for two Messiahs: Ben Aharon and Ben David. I am not sure which is the one on the billboard.

And so, let us ask again: What of Tisha Be’Av? Are we to continue to observe it? Or is it time to cast aside outmoded observances and embrace the Political Reality as evidence of the Earthly working-out of the Divine Plan? Can we now consider that G-d’s Promise has been kept?

If so, what of our side of the Covenant? Tread carefully, I beg you!

The Rabbis tell us that the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash – both the first and second – came about as a result of Sinat Hinam – Baseless Hatred. Indeed, is there any other kind?

The destruction of the Beit HaMikdash by the Romans, which led to two thousand years of dispersion, was the culmination of generations of Jews warring against Jews. From the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, down to the expulsion of the Jews under the Romans, no people wrought more cruelty upon us than we managed to carry out on one another. This is not to minimize the horror of the Roman occupation, the near-destruction of the Jewish People. But it was we ourselves who opened the door to Rome, opened it by our own internal divisiveness.

Through the gift of technology, we can now watch, on our television screens, as the IDF and Israeli Police descend in vast numbers on the Gaza settlements. I can hardly recall an event on the world stage that has moved me as much as watching, reading about, or merely contemplating the events unfolding at this moment.

I am heartened to see IDF soldiers advancing slowly, unarmed, with neither helmets nor body armor. I am heartened to see combat troops locked in brotherly embrace with men wearing Pe’ot, and clad in Tallit and Tefillin. As heart-wrenching as the Hitnakut is, perhaps we are seeing the beginnings of Ahavat Hinam – of Freely-Given Love. My prayer is that his Love may continue. May we continue to love one another – fellow Jews. May Ahavat Yisrael become the foundation for a universal Ahavat Hinam.

Throughout the opening sections of Sefer Devarim, Moshe dwells, not on the Sin of the Golden Calf, but on the Sin of the Spies. In the Sin of the Calf, we did not believe what we did not see with our own eyes. When Moshe failed to return, we gave up hope. In the incident of the Spies, we refused to believe that which we did see with our own eyes: G-d had promised us this Land, G-d brought us to the borders of the Land, permitted us to walk the very roads and fields and mountains of the Land, to taste its fruits, to breathe its air. And we refused to go up.

G-d, as Rashi says, had been pleased to give the Land to us. And we did not take it. When we reject a gift, we reject also its Giver. When we refuse to accept a gift, saying it is False, we are also saying that the Giver is False.

In our Parasha – 4:25-28 – Moshe warns us that the price for our rejecting G-d will be Exile. Exile, accompanied by the dramatic reduction of our numbers. If we are to believe the evidence of our own eyes, we have certainly witnessed this in the course of history. When, in verse 30, Moshe reassures us that we shall return to G-d at the end of days, it is not a prediction of the Coming of Mashiach, but rather a reassurance that, when all our wanderings and our rage have finally worn us down, we shall recall that we have a Covenant with G-d. We shall then reach out and try to reconnect, to embrace that Covenant and beg G-d to take us back. And when that time does come, Moshe assures us, G-d will be waiting.

The Abarbanel, in a typically astonishing insight, tells us that the Exile from the Land is not the Punishment, nor is the decimation of our numbers, the living in poverty and misery and terror. The real Punishment, he says, is that we shall worship other gods. We shall know that G-d is Truth, yet we shall turn our backs on G-d and on Torah. Worshiping strange gods, says the Abarbanel, is not the cause of punishment: it is the punishment itself.

Let us not worship the false gods of our own rage, of our own close-mindedness. Lo tosifu ve-lo tigre’u. Let us neither add to, nor subtract from Torah. Let us, rather, admit that all our learning is emptiness and hollow, and let us strive to understand Torah. If we pray for anything at all, let us not pray for land, for wealth, for military victory. Let us pray for humility. Let us pray that, now that G-d has finally given us the Land, and we have accepted, we remain worthy of continuing to live in it. At peace with one another and, with G-d’s help, at peace with the world.

And Tisha Be’Av?

Let us always remember the high price of Pridefulness – for stony self-certainty is the very base of Baseless Hatred. In Parashat Zachor, we are exhorted to Remember, to make of our Remembering an active form of Forgetting. The dangers of Amalek lurk about us at all times. No less so, the dangers of Sinat Hinam. The whole tragedy of human history is reduced to the fable of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa. Jerusalem fell, the Temple was destroyed, three million Jews were massacred and two millennia of Exile were launched, all because one man didn’t want to invite another man to his birthday party.

Is it ever the Wrong Time to do Teshuvah?

Jews! Reach out and embrace one another! There is so much hatred in our world, we need not add to it by pretending to have an exclusive on G-d’s message. Even G-d tempers Stern Justice with Compassion and Mercy. Can we not offer one another a Kol she-hu of the same? A minimal amount?

I have been taught that the ultimate Good is to make the world a better place, one person at a time. In this lifetime, I am trying to make of myself that One Person. I urge you to do the same.

Yours for a better world.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Parashat Devarim - Down To Earth


There are those among us who crave symmetry, for whom the structure of life only makes sense when Life reveals itself to have an artistic structure. Human beings are, by our very nature, what has usefully been called "retroactive meaning-finders". There are those in the Jewish community who, influenced perhaps by the Zohar - or perhaps only by what they have been told is in the Zohar - read meaning into the very letters of Torah. The French intellectuals of the Twentieth Century did not invent Deconstructionism, they only resurrected an aspect of an ancient Jewish textual methodology. And, if the Torah is the ultimate text, then certainly G-d is the ultimate Author. What does this text tell us about its author? What are the conflicts and paradoxes underlying the words of G-d?

Il n'y a pas dehors texte wrote Jacques Derrida, the thinker most closely associated with Deconstructionism. And the Kabballah certainly agrees, at least in one aspect.

To bring this to our first question: Why does the Torah - the ultimate Book Of All Books - begin not with the first letter, Aleph, but with the second letter, Beit?

The answer, revealed in the self-referential structure of Torah itself, is: the Torah does begin with Aleph. And it begins here: Devarim 1:1: 'Eleh ha-devarim asher diber Moshe... "These [spelled Aleph, Lamed, Heh] are the words that Moshe spoke..."

The Rabbis call Sefer Devarim by the name "Mishne Torah" - the second Torah. As a restatement of the main themes of G-d's commands to the Jewish people, the Book of Devarim is, in a very real sense, the entire Torah. Remember that very first Rashi, at Bereshit 1:1. That the Torah is a book of laws, and as such it should begin with the Halacha of the New Moon - Shemot 12:2. Remember, too, Rashi tells us that Moshe read all of Sefer Bereshit to us on the eve of Mattan Torah, as prologue to the Law we were about to receive. It appears that the purpose of Sefer Bereshit is to introduce Torah's true message, which is directed to Klal Israel - an entity that only comes into existence through the process of the Exodus.

From Moshe's perspective - and from our own - this is the Torah. The Book of Deuteronomy is one man's retelling of Torah, and in retelling, Moshe interprets. Indeed, the whole of our history is an ongoing attempt to find new applications for this Text. The Midrashim surrounding Mattan Torah - the Giving of Torah at Sinai - make it clear that the words themselves are both a gift and a snare. The words of Torah are a gift: G-d gave humanity the blueprint for Creation, the Owner's Manual for life in the cosmos. And yet, once the concepts and images and thoughts moved from the Mind of G-d to the stones - and thence to the printed page - we all became prisoners of our own shades of meaning. "Two Jews," goes the saying, "three opinions." What do you expect? You have only to work your way through a Daf or two of Gemara to see that there is no such thing as Pshat - the "Simple Meaning" of a text.

Torah does, indeed, begin with Aleph. And Bereshit - what we call the beginning of Torah - begins with the letter Beit to show the relationship between Sefer Devarim and the first four books. This book, Moshe's book, is Our Torah. It is Torah brought down from the Heavens and placed in the hands of a man. Who thence passes it on to us. From our perspective, it is the first four books that are "add-ons". And let us also remember that, collectively, the five books are referred to as Torat Moshe - "Moshe's Torah".

The Dubner Maggid quotes a statement of the Vilna Gaon, the import of which appears to be that the first four books of Torah are G-d speaking directly, while the fifth book is Moshe speaking what he understands to be the words of G-d.

Everyone knew that Moshe had a serious speech impediment, which is why Aharon had to speak for him. Now that Aharon is dead, who does the speaking? The Maharal, echoing the Zohar, brings the image of Moshe "speaking" these words: the people heard words coming from Moshe's mouth, and they knew it could not be him.

The Or HaChaim seems to go so far as to state that "'eleh" - "these" words are distinct from all that came before: that "these" words were spoken by Moshe without being commanded by G-d.

Or perhaps Moshe received all the words of G-d's Torah - books one through four - and wrote them down, then just kept writing his own Gemara on the text, with G-d looking over his shoulder. "That's good," G-d seems to say. "Keep that in."

The phrase "Va-yidaber H' el Moshe lemor..." - "And G-d spoke to Moshe, saying..." does not occur in this book. There is a dual significance to this phenomenon. As we learned / will BS"D learn in our discussion of Parashat Bereshit, the act of Speech is one of the four fundamental Acts of Creation. "Va-yomer Elokim yehi Or - va-yehi Or." "And G-d said 'let there be light' - and there was light." G-d's first act of Creation is done through the verb 'AMR - Aleph, Mem, Resh. To speak, to say. And each time the phrase "Vayidaber H' el Moshe, lemor..." appears in the text, it is to introduce a new concept. The power of "Lemor" is the power to create, to make new, to introduce new concepts.

In contrast, the concepts in Sefer Devarim are Moshe's own. These are the words, not of G-d, but of a man who has seen G-d, who has spoken with G-d, learned Torah as G-d's Chavruta, and now turns to pass on to us what he has learned.

The literary markers in the text show us explicitly that this book is of an altogether different character from the preceding four. How do we begin to approach a work as vast as Sefer Devarim - a Parasha as rich as this? We shall touch on three Psukim, taking them - to make our point - in the reverse of the order in which they appear in the text. We hope from this to deconstruct somewhat the complexities of the relationship of G-d and Torah, of G-d and Torah and Moshe, of G-d and Torah and Moshe and Israel, and of G-d and Torah and Moshe and Klal Israel and each one of us.

Chapter 1, verse 5. "... Moshe began to explain this Torah, saying:" The word "Ho'il", here translated as "he began", contains multiple layers of meaning, including the sense of Willingness, Venturesomeness, Risk of failure. The word "Be'er" - "he explains" - comes from a root that can also mean To Engrave. Finally, the last word of the Pasuk is "Lemor" - the very Word with which G-d created the cosmos. Clearly, Humans have become the Creators. Consistent with the long-drawn process of the transfer of power and authority that we have followed through the text - starting in Sefer Shemot, but emerging powerfully in the final Parshiyot of Bamidbar - the final touch is the ultimate transfer of Torah from G-d to us. "Lo bashamayim hi" we shall read later in this same book: "It is not in the Heavens". Indeed. And what more powerful way to demonstrate this than to put all of Torah in Moshe's own stammering mouth, in his own human words, where he sits with us over the dog-eared pages of the well-worn book as Chavruta to Chavruta and tells over what he has learned.

The transfer, the giving-over of Torah - the engraving on our own souls, the explanation, requires a person who is willing to take the initiative to dive in. To be willing to begin, to take the risk of getting it wrong, and to revisit the text over and over again. Our entire history is one of attempting to tease the infititude of meanings from this text. As Rabbi Dan Shevitz (known to us as The RaDaSh - or, colloquially, The Radish) says: Not what the text does mean, but what it can mean.

Chapter 1, verse 3. "... Moshe spoke to Bnei Israel according to all that G-d had commanded him upon them." The word "Ki" is best translated "As" or "Like". The Pasuk says that Moshe spoke "Ke-kol" - as all. We would imagine that Moshe would speak "All," and not "as" or "like" all that G-d had commanded. The interjection of this tiny particle illuminates the entire Book of Deuteronomy: Moshe is doing his best to give a summary, a synopsis, a precis of G-d's commandments. Of what G-d commanded Moshe regarding Bnei Israel. The textual reference is, again, crystal clear: this is Moshe's version of the Torah. It is not for nothing that the Rabbis call this book "Mishei Torah" - the Second Torah.

Finally, Chapter 1, verse 1. "These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, in the Wilderness, in Arabah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav." The very fist phrase of this entire Book tells us an amazing Chiddush - a startling new principle: This book is written with the intent that it be read, not by the generation that enters the Land, but only by those who are, in fact, resident in the Land. Moshe speaks the words "... on the other side of the Jordan..." and again in verse 5: "On the other side of the Jordan..."

This is our Torah. It is Moshe's Torah, spoken by those who remained behind, and given over to those yet to be born. Spoken from the other side of the Jordan, and intended for those on this side. Spoken, simply, from The Other Side, and intended for the Here and Now. It is the Torah of Bnei Israel - the Torah of Humans, and not of G-d. We have seen how the less-than-perfect workings-out of G-d's plan have taken hold. Pinhas, despite his rashness - his very un-Aharon-like inability to control his wrath - becomes the bearer of the Kahuna. Yehoshua, despite his un-Moshe-like inability to immediately grasp what the People need, is deputized to become Leader in Moshe's stead. And now, the crowning touch, Moshe's own version of Torah becomes the basic text on which we shall build our nation. And it is the text, not for those who dwell in the Midbar, but for those who have crossed over.

The book of Devarim contains much that is Revisionist. The most blatant example is perhaps the retelling of the story of the Exodus - the text that we read in the Pesach Haggaddah comes from Devarim, where it is so different from the contemporaneous record in Sefer Shemot as to be almost unrecognizable. But this is our history. In order to build a nation, we need our own National Mythos. And myth, to be successful, nust be grounded in reality - in an interpretation of reality.

Moshe's parting gift to us is to give us the tools for creating our own private readings of Torah. Our own means for absorbing and internalizing and living by Torah - as individuals, as clustered groups within Klal Israel who gather around shared interpretations - as Sects or movements, as a Nation and as a People.

Ultimately, this entire book is our Torah. Not the "perfect" work handed down to us by G-d, but the human assessment - based on the process of Chochmah / Binah / Da'at [ChaBaD] - of Insight, Understanding, Internalization - whereby Torah becomes a living instrument, rather than a sterile historical document. Through the process of Halachah, we bring Torah constantly into our own lives. Moment by moment, we strive to understand and to apply all that G-d has given us, all that G-d expects of us. All the immensity of gifts and blessings that G-d constantly provides.

"Torat Ha-Shem temimah," we say: G-d's Torah is perfect. Yes. Which is why we live, not with G-d's Torah, but with what we continue to refer to as "Torat Moshe," the Torah of Moshe. G-d's ineffable Torah, whose infinite meanings are by definition beyond human reach. Torat Moshe - an admittedly incomplete working-out of G-d's message; the formulating of Halachah as the means for enabling us to live consistent with the fundamentals of G-d's message, to key ourselves into the blueprint of the cosmos.

What purpose do the first four books of Torah serve? Intellectually, they teach us how to approach text. Spiritually, they show us the requirement to seek out the miraculous in the world. Religiously, they state that there was an Eternal Presence before ever the world of Time, Space and Motion came into being, they explain to us that the purpose of Creation is to form a relationship between us and that Presence.

Finally, we need the first four books to make it clear that Moshe did not create Torah out of thin air: that Moshe's own Torah is suffused with the constant brightness of his encounter with the Eternal. This also teaches us a further vital lesson - an admonition against 'Avodah Zara - Idol Worship. That even Moshe, great as he was, could not create Torah out of thin air. Only G-d can create Yesh me-Ayin - Being from Nothingness. To say that we understand G-d's message is the height of Chutzpah, of hubris. Of 'Avodah Zara.

Here, on the eve of Tisha Be'Av - the time of year, incidentally, when Parashat Devarim is always read - we must ask ourselves: have we learned nothing at all from our own history? Jewish 'Avodah Zara did not die at Shilo, but is alive and thriving. "Alive and kicking," would perhaps be a better metaphor. Or maybe, "alive, and bearing arms." It is alive and seeking to slaughter people who maintain that the mere fact that their families have lived on a piece of real estate for over seven hundred years somehow entitles them to continue to occupy that piece of real estate. It is alive and kicking and placing placards on the West Side Highway that take the image of one of the truly great spiritual leaders in human history and make him into a Frum version of a Calvin Klein underwear advertisement. It is alive and thriving every time a Jew shuts up another Jew, every time a Jew uses the Torah as an excuse for social injustice, for morally reprehensible acts, whether those acts be depriving people of their homes, their lives, their livelihood, or refusing to permit their wives the freedom to divorce and proceed with their lives. Make no mistake: Judaism is in crisis. As Yeats wrote, at the hour of another nation's crisis: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." If we do not stand for reasonableness in the face of religious extremism - if we do not stand for Torah over Zealotry - then we have only ourselves to blame as the Rough Beat slouches towards Yerushalaim.

The Torah does, in fact, begin with Aleph. For Moshe's Torah is our point of departure. G-d's Torah comes second, because our only tool for comprehending it is our own human powers of comprehension. The Book of Devarim begins at the beginning, with Aleph. G-d's blueprint - Bereshit through Bamidbar - starts with Beit, shadowing, indicating, hinting, leading, correcting.

Imperfect as our own reading of Torah must remain, G-d has chosen to make do. It is time for the transfer to take place. Time for us, unprepared as we are, to enter the Land. Time for us, imperfect as we are, to make of the world a place perfected in the Image of G-d. Time for us, morally weak as we are, to rise to the destiny ofr becoming a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation. Ultimately, as we shall be told: "Lo bashamiyim hi" - the Torah is no longer in the Heavens.

It is, rather, incredibly close upon us. Within our own hands.

To do.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Remembering Rashi - 29 Tammuz


Chevra -

Today - 29 Tammuz / 5 August - marks the 900th anniversary of Rashi's passing: his Jahrzeit. Unlike other cultures, who mark the day of a person's birth, we commemorate the day of a person's passing. Birth is beyond our control. What counts is not the fact that we come into the world, a process over which we have no influence, but the state in which we leave the world.

There is a tale told of a man who rushed into a burning building and rescued a young boy, at great peril to his own life and safety. Once outside, the boy embraced the stranger and said, "Thank you for saving my life. How can I ever repay you?" The man looked into the lad's eyes and said, "Just make sure it was worth saving."

In Kohelet we read: "A Name is better than pleasant oil, and the day of death rather than the day of birth." The day and manner of our birth is like an olive: it springs from the bud in its own time. If not tended, it will ripen, then rot, dry and shrivel to nothing.

A pleasant oil is the result of intense care, careful tending, and a complex process. The olive must be properly shaded, tested daily to determine the precise moment to be harvested. It must be pressed and the oil extracted at just the right rate to cull only the finest first pressing. The oil must be mixed with spices in the right proportions, mixed neither too quickly nor too slowly, and stored at the right temperature and for the right period to ensure full development of the bouquet. The Gemara in Berashot tells of a particular spiced oil that was so highly prized it warranted a special Beracha.

What is the message? Why does the text compare fine oil to the day of a person's death?

Just as it takes extraordinary care - from cultivating the tree all the way through to the exact timing and temperature of the storage process - to ensure the oil reaches its optimal state of fragrance and pleasantness, so does the life each of us leads require constant tending: first, from our parents and teachers. Then, if we are fortunate and wise, we take on ourselves the responsibility to continue to perfect ourselves throughout our days.

Good is the day of a person's death. Good is the world Rashi left behind him 900 years ago on this day. Blessed is Rashi, who merited leaving the world on the eve of the Nine Days - immediately before the saddest period in our calendar.

David HaMelech died on Shabbat. And so, when Shabbat left the world, the sadness of saying farewell to Shabbat for the week was greatly augmented by the sadness of saying farewell to the King of Israel.

The Gemara relates that, when King David died, his son Shlomo was instructed to leave the body where it lay, that he could not move the corpse until Shabbat was over. The only way he could move it was to place a loaf of bread upon it, then, using the corpse of the King of Israel as a tray, carry the bread indoors. Clearly, we do not worship death, nor to we honor the earthly remains. Once we die, the greatness - or the pettiness - of the life we have lived becomes our memorial, our legacy and our shrine. King David's legacy was the greatness of the life he lived, both spiritually - as a man who struggled constantly and with great internal self-honesty, to perfect himself in the ways of Torah, as well as politically, as a man who strove to maintain the unity of Klal Israel. His son Shglomo, so relates the Gemara, says after his death: I see it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion.

Rashi died on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Av. And so the sadness of this period of mourning for our Nation is augmented by the sadness of losing one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual guides of Klal Israel. Yet, both the memory of King David and the memory of Rashi are a sweetness and a blessing for all our generations.

Light a Jahrzeit candle today. Light an extra candle for Shabbat tonight. Learn a little extra Torah this Shabbat and share in the blessing of Rashi's memory. Find a fascinating Rashi on the Parasha, or on Eicha - the Book of Lamentations, that we will read BS"D next week at Tisha Be'Av - and dwell on his insights.

Better than pleasant oil is the blessing of a Good Name. It is within our power - each and every one of us, BS"D - to ensure that, at the day of our passing ['ad me'ah ve'esrim] we leave this world a better place than when we entered. We have even been given a step-by-step How-To. A User's Manual. It is Torah, and Rashi is as good a guide as we will ever find.

Kids, please - please! - try this at home!

Shabbat Shalom.

Yours for a better world.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Parashat Mas'ei - Full Circle


This week's Parasha is effectively the end of the Torah. In literary terms, it is the end of the "omniscient narrator" version of the story of Klal Israel. Next week, with Parashat Devarim, we enter into a first-person retelling of the story from Moshe's POV. Before there was Modernist and Post-Modernist Meta-Literature, there was the Torah. The Torah as a literary work parallels and supports its internal Halachic processes: both the literary and the lawmaking functions are marked by an astounding economy of language and statement, and both narrative and Halachic passages are stated in ambiguous terms that are infinitely rich in interpretation and meaning.

As we bid farewell to the Omniscient Narrator ("ON") we are also transitioning, as we have seen over the last few Parshiyot, from a group led by fiat and designated leaders, to a society where individuals rise to the occasion, then take on responsibility, thereby becoming the new leadership. This was prominently exemplified by Pinhas - who has the zeal and passion, though not the self-control, to take on the Kahuna - and by Banot Tzelophechad, who change the course of human history by speaking up for what they believe is right. Their reward is to be singled out by name: twice in their own Parasha, then specifically at the very end of this week's Parasha. And so it is that the narrative ends with the names of five women who broke the mold and changed the world forever.

And where are we, now, at the end of the narrative?

In the profoundest sense, we are right back where we started. The literary parallel structure whereby Moshe mirrors Abraham has been pointed out. The ON's version of the story of 'Am Israel begins with Abram at Parashat Lech Lecha. At that point, Abram is about to pick up and leave Haran and enter the Land of Canaan. Remember that Haran was merely a resting place. It was Abram's father, Terach, who actually determined to set out from Ur Kasdim and take select members of his family along. On the way they paused at Haran, and ended up settling there. Rather too long, it turns out, for Terach dies there, and it is only with a further push from G-d that Abram continues on the path his father set out on many years before.

Similarly, we left Mizraim, headed for Canaan. It has taken us forty years, but now we are almost there. Like Abraham, we have been sidetracked. Like Abraham at Haran, we have put down roots in a place were we do not belong. Like Terach, those who set out on the first leg of the journey will not live to see its completion - rather, their children will complete it, and will gain much glory in the accomplishing. With few exceptions - Aharon, Miriam... Moshe - the exploits of our children will far outshine those of us who perish in the Midbar.

The recounting of the stages of our journeys through the Midbar makes an important point. Contrast it with the passage (33:54 notably) which describes the apportionment of the Land of Israel among the tribes. The message could not be more plain: in the Midbar, G-d has led us every step of the way (Rambam explicitly makes the point that our "Wanderings" were not mere stumblings-about, but that G-d led us with the Pillar of Smoke and the Pillar of Fire), our comings and goings were at the Divine word. Now, once we enter the Land, we are left to our own devices. G-d will not lead each tribe to its inheritance, but gives Moshe a general schematic for figuring it out. The message is coming through loud and clear: we are on our own.

This is not to say that G-d abandons us. But there is a handing-over of authority, a theme we have seen emerging since the beginning of Sefer Shemot. Just as Ya'akov is handed off from the Angels of Eretz Israel to the angels of Chutz La'Aretz - and then handed back again on his return - so too there appear to be aspects of G-d that traveled with us in the Midbar, but that will not accompany us into the Land.

We see from the Midrash that Miriam's Well dries up when she dies, that the Ananei HaKavod (Clouds of Glory) vanish with Aharon's passing. With the death of Moshe, a palpable link to G-d's authority, to G-d's presence will be severed. We will not have a single leader to dispense G-d's word to us. Not ever again. Lo kam be-Israel ke-Moshe 'od. There never arose again a Prophet in Israel like Moshe.

Now, coming as it does in the season of Tisha Be'Av, what links do we see in the Parasha to this time of year? And how does it tie back to the message of the Parasha: the end of the Torah. Again: when I use the phrase "the end of the Torah", it marks the ON leaving off, passing over the narrative to Moshe. Sefer Devarim - the Book of Deuteronomy - is also called "Mishnei Torah" the Second Torah. It is of a different character from the other four books. As we shall see, BS"D, the method of composition is different from the first four books. This is Moshe's story, his narrative, his voice. Like an operatic hero who has been stabbed in the heart, Moshe is given a thirty-minute aria before he is carted off the stage to thunderous applause.

Before we touch on the parallels to the Parasha, we should raise one concept. I warn you that we are about to enter a politically explosive area.

The Rambam makes a point of what he believes is our ultimate goal: a direct relationship with G-d. Discussing the Exodus, and the commandments regarding animal sacrifices to be brought in the Mishkan, the Rambam makes the observation that these rituals and practices are not for G-d, but for ourselves. We leave a country rich in tradition, in stylized and ritualistic behavior. A country where gods literally roam the earth - in the person of Pharaoh and his household - and in which religious symbolism is part of everyday life.

How are we, then, newly-liberated slaves, to establish a relationship with our newfound G-d?

Our path is obvious to us: a deity requires ritual, lore and infrastructure. To make sure we understood that we now have our own religion, G-d commanded upon us the construction of a sacred space (Mishkan), the performance of sacred rituals, using sacred objects, within that space, all to be ministered by a sacred family. Now that is something we can understand. Otherwise, it would be as though, Rambam says, G-d had commanded us to no longer wear Tefillin. "Not wear Tefillin?" you ask. "What kind of religion is that?!"

But our ultimate spiritual goal is not the wearing of Tefillin. It is the relationship with G-d. And while certain aspects of that relationship - like Torah study and Tzitzit - may be permanent aspects of our way of life, other parts of our practice are intended to fall away. It is a positive development that we no longer bring animal sacrifices; that we have replaced sacrifice with Tefilla - prayer. This, the Rambam would argue, constitutes Progress.

I put forth the suggestion that the contrasting of our wanderings, specifically guided by G-d, with the haphazard allocation of parcels of land, indicates that our true relationship with G-d is not tied to a piece of real estate. That it is when we are wandering that we can commune with G-d. This theme finds strong expression in Sefer Bereshit, where cities are explicitly tied to the evil that humans do - starting with Ur Kasdim - whereas the open spaces, the Midbar, is the place to which we must escape to find our soul.

There are two key links between the Parasha and the period of the Three Weeks, and both emanate from the Daughters of Tzelophechad who, in a very real sense, embody the new Klal Israel - the enthusiasm, the purity of intent, the volunteerism that will characterize the best of our nation as we go forward.

When, in Parashat Pinhas, G-d tells Moshe that he will not live to enter the Land (27:14 ff.) Moshe's response is to ask that G-d appoint a successor. The Midrash tells us that, just as G-d permitted Tzelophechad's Daughters to succeed him, so that his name could be carried on, Moshe was secretly hoping that his own sons would succeed him in the Leadership of Klal Israel. The unfortunate sequel to this secret prayer is that Moshe's grandsons do, in fact, become Priests - Priests of Ba'al serving the Idol Worship at Shilo.

Shilo is also the focus of the tragic story of the Tribe of Benjamin, which was all but exterminated by the other Tribes over the savage murder of the Pilegesh. In compassion, so that the Tribe not die out completely, the men of the other tribes brought their daughters to Shilo on Tu Be'Av and allowed the men of Benjamin to abduct them into marriage - a practice which still survives in certain central Asian cultures.

The Gemara in Ta'anit tells of two significant restrictions that were lifted on Tu Be'Av: the prohibition was lifted and the Tribe of Benjamin was brought back into the fold. Also on Tu Be'Av, the Daughters of Tzelophechad were permitted to marry men of their choosing, and not only men of their own tribe, as Moshe decrees at the end of this week's Parasha.

And Shilo is the place where animal sacrifice gives way to prayer. The story of Chana, the central image of the High Holy Days, is the story of the first person who substituted all-out fervent prayer for ritual, who substituted a broken-hearted crying out to G-d for the slitting of animals' throats, the dripping of blood on the altar. And what to we see is the ultimate fate of Shilo? The place itself becomes corrupted, becomes associated with Idol Worship. It is associated with Belial and with the birth of the enemy of the Men of Belial - the Prophet Shmuel.
Shilo - the birthplace both of Jewish prayer, and of Jewish Avodah Zara'.

Is it possible that we have mis-read Ya'akov's blessing? In Bereshit, 49:10, Ya'akov's blessing on Yehudah contains the phrase - 'Ad ki yavo shilo. This is generally interpreted as a prophesy foretelling the coming of Mashiach. "Until Shilo shall come..." But clearly Shilo represents a transitional stage, an inflection point. It is a historical place and time in which the future of Klal Israel truly was in doubt. It could have gone either way; and, for a significant moment, it did. It went the way of Idol Worship, only to be saved by the prayers of a broken-hearted woman who realized the emptiness and futility of ritual. An early student of the Rambam.

The word "Bo" - literally meaning "Come" - is also used at Bereshit 28:11. Ya'akov, fleeing from his brother, stops and spends the night - "Ki ba ha-shemesh" - "Because the sun had set."

Perhaps Ya'akov's blessing on Yehudah, the leader of the family, soon the be the leader of the nation, was not that some magical future moment would come. Perhaps Ya'akov's blessing is that Yehuda will weather all storms. That neither the authority of leadership, nor the guardianship of tradition and Torah wisdom shall depart from Yehudah, but he shall weather the storm, even until the going-down of Shilo. Then the ingathering of all nations shall be his.

It's just a thought, but it seems to me that is what true spiritual and moral leadership is all about.


And so Moshe's career comes to a close. And before he shuffles off this mortal coil, G-d gives him one final command. Chapter 35, starting at verse 15, constitutes the last Mitzvah, the final commandment given by G-d to Moshe. The coda of this Parasha, the instruction from Moshe to the Daughters of Tzelophechad, comes out of Moshe's own legal analysis, and from his consultation with G-d. But the final command given by G-d to Moshe is that of the Cities of Refuge.

Banot Tzelophechad step forward, the true inheritors of the spirit of Abraham Avinu. Like Abraham, they heard G-d's call. "Lech Lecha!" G-d calls: "Come for yourselves! Come to me!" And they step into the breach, taking on all the risks and all the consequences of their choice.

Pinhas takes up the role of Aharon and his sons. This man who is guided by a wrathful zeal - who can stand against him? Like the certain of the more strident fundamentalists in our own midst, we are uncomfortable in his presence, we wish he would go away. Yet, there is a sense in which we can not, in good faith, attack his fundamental position. G-d has done the best that could be done under the circumstances, by imposing upon Pinhas the Covenant of Peace. He is going to need it.

Moshe hands off to Yehoshua, who Moshe seems to think not fully up to the task.

And now, the final commandment closes the last literary loop. The Cities of Refuge are established for those who unwittingly kill someone. They are to flee there, and there they are to remain until the death of the Kohen Gadol, at which point they may re-enter society.

Moshe, too, started his career as an accidental murderer. His slaying of the Egyptian was an act of momentary passion, of Pinhas-like zeal. If, the next day, when Moshe sought to intervene between two Hebrews, they had listened to him, instead of "outing" him, the Redemption would have taken place on the spot. Instead, one of the men announced to the world that Moshe had killed a man.

And so he fled. Fled to Midian where he was to spend a lifetime, returning to Mizraim, his home, only after the death of "those who sought his life."

This, too, is embedded in our law. Not everyone who kills is on the level of Moshe Rabbeinu. But all who kill are entitled to a lifetime of contemplation of their act. Their remorse is a societal value, with perhaps a far greater societal effect in its compassion that the exaction of stern justice.

Moshe does his own penance. His early experience - when Gautama-like, he goes out of the Palace and sees how people actually live - turns him into a reluctant and highly effective leader. He does not act out of self interest - though there are those who speak of him as Casca and Cassius speak of Caesar - he does not lose sight of the goal. He argues with us for G-d's sake, and with G-d four our puny sakes.

And so the final Mitzvah is rendered in his honor. Moshe, who was a Stranger In A Strange Land, fled from one exile into another. We, who are not made of the same stuff, are given the mercy of being permitted to seek refuge among our own people. And just as we sit behind the walls of our City of Refuge and contemplate what we have done, our brethren on the outside must also contemplate what kind of society gives rise to murder, to the killing, literally of one family member by another.

The Gemara tells us that Rage is a form of Idol Worship.

The Rabbis tell us that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Hinam - Baseless Hatred. Is there really any other kind? Doesn't hatred stem from believing that we know what is right, and other people refuse to concede? Doesn't hatred arise when we create idols out of our own self-image, when we make our own peevishness and appetites and egos more important that peace and justice and compassion?

When is it time for the going-down of Shilo? For the creation of a Just Society? For us to become a Nation of Priests and a Holy People?

If not now, when?

Yours for a better world.