Matot -- Masa'ey 5755
This week's Torah portion contains the following passage from Numbers 33, beginning in verse one: "These are the stages by which the Israelites went out of the land of Egypt in military formation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord; and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month; on the day after the passover the Israelites went out boldly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. The Lord executed judgments even against their gods. So the Israelites set out from Rameses, and camped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. They set out from Etham, and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which faces Baal-zephon; and they camped before Migdol. They set out from Pi-hahiroth, passed through the sea into the wilderness, went a three days' journey in the wilderness of Etham, and camped at Marah. They set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. They set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. They set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. They set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. They set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. They set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. They set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. They set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. They set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. They set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. They set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. They set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. They set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. They set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. They set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. They set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. They set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. They set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. They set out from Terah and camped at Mithkah. They set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. They set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. They set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. They set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. They set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. They set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. They set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. They set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh)..." [1-36]
Notice how exact and painstakingly the entire itinerary of the forty year's travel in the desert is listed here -- and how the text makes sure to tell us that Moses wrote down "et motza'eyhem lmasa'eyhem al pi adona'y -- their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord;" There is a commentary in the Talmud concerning "dor Hamidbar" that suggests that the Israelites who went out of Egypt were still, very much, the slaves they were before they were delivered. Like slaves, they had no choices. God provided for their protection, with a column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night; they slept in sukkot which were God's providential roof over their heads; they were fed manna and meat for which they did not plan and which they had not hunted down with their cunning and skill.
This relates to the portion we read a few weeks ago about the spied that went to Canaan and came back with the report of the "risks" of the "giants" that lived in the land: maybe what the spies did can be understood to be a manipulation of the people to keep their position at the helm of the ship of state. If the people will enter Canaan and settle down, they would become self-supporting, self-directed -- and the spies would be out of a job...
The itinerary of the travels of the Israelites is a tale of sorrow and trouble. A people that is homeless and rejected by all who come close to it. What does it remind you of?
Maybe the Palestinian people? Here is a group of people who have a half-century record of being nomads, led in trouble and rejection by foe (that's us, Israel and world Jewry) and friend (that's the rest of the world, sympathizers and fellow Arabs) alike... To be sure, the Palestinians are not the Israelites of old, and their cause is not that of the freed slaves of Egypt -- but their fate IS similar. Who else can you think of in relation to the character of "dor Hamidbar דור המדבר ?" Well...
Maybe the citizens of Israel, a nation born at the end of two millennia of persecution and slavery into an age of enlightenment and modernity. A twenty first century state, modern and democratic. Full of ideals of the human rights, justice for all and freedom from persecution because of gender, creed, religious belief, land of origin or skin color. Now bring the spies in -- every one a prince... Rabbi princes and labor-leader princes and politician princes. Each promises to give the people manna from heaven, a column of fire by night and a sukkah to dwell in -- only just don't ask for an accounting; only just don't ask for security, only just don't ask for all your human and civil rights. Above all, don't look for "tzedek" -- whatever that silly notion is. What is the life of a few young men in military service compared with the concept of "peace with our neighbors?" The prime-minister of Israel goes to the place of a murderous terrorist attack and states categorically that "the quest for peace shall continue..." The foreign minister states that it does not matter to him if the government does not have popular support... "Our role is to lead the nation, not to follow the wishes of the majority... They have given us a mandate for a five years period, and at the next elections they will have a chance to voice their opinion of our policies..." Only, by then it may be much too late. The nation may be back in slavery in a new Egypt, or worse.
We know why Arafat is in no hurry to have elections in the territories under HIS control. He has not had time to kill off all his opponents and train all the eligible voters to vote for him... How do we explain the behavior of the Jewish leaders? How can the Jewish people continue to survive when the Rabbis issue edicts that Israeli soldiers don't have to obey certain orders... How will Judaism survive, world wide, when some Rabbis pick and choose who, anywhere in the world, is truly a Jew???
The answer is given in this week's portion, 33:50, When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. You shall apportion the land by lot according to your clans; to a large one you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small one you shall give a small inheritance; the inheritance shall belong to the person on whom the lot falls; according to your ancestral tribes you shall inherit. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling." It is very clear -- Jews cannot be "like all the nations" -- they must be a unique people, Jews. Furthermore, 34:16 tells us how to achieve this: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: These are the names of the men who shall apportion the land to you for inheritance: the priest Eleazar and Joshua son of Nun. You shall take one leader of every tribe to apportion the land for inheritance. These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh." These are the men who did not lead the people astray in the spies episode -- men of principle, who did not worry about the next elections. Choose the right leaders, do the right thing. 35:2 continues the prescription, "Command the Israelites to give, from the inheritance that they possess, towns for the Levites to live in; you shall also give to the Levites pasture lands surrounding the towns. The towns shall be theirs to live in, and their pasture lands shall be for their cattle, for their livestock, and for all their animals." Verse 10 establishes the concept of justice: "When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there." Thus, keeping the unique character of the Jews, with leaders and laws that promotes equality and equanimity, Israel, the people, will maintain their unity and live free and safe wherever God's teachings are learned and honored.
Matot Masaey 5758
One of the central issues in Jewish tradition is that of the sanctity of life. This is clear from even a most cursory study of the Torah. The first story in the Torah is that of creation, which is told so as to place in the act of creation the special nature of mankind God created the world by his word but man was created with a special consideration: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." [Gen. 1:26] This special act of creation is followed by the first crime Cains killing of Abel. The sages call this killing accidental since there had never been a death before, Cain certainly could not premeditate the murder of his brother. Given the nature of the crime, the punishment is not automatically the death penalty, however, God says that "the voice of your brothers blood cries to me from the ground," [Gen. 4:10] and Cain, who was the first farmer, is told by God, "And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brothers blood from your hand; When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer shall you be in the earth." [Gen. 4:11,12] The great sages and Torah interpreters studied these texts in great depth, trying to bring discernment and intensity to the interpretation. Interestingly they connected it to a matter that is discussed at great length in this weeks segment of the Torah text, which is the double portion Matot - Masaey, encompassing Bemidbar 30:2 to 36:13.] This matter is the "cities of refuge," a new and revolutionary concept in the days of the giving of the Torah: if a person takes a life bishgaga by mistake, as the Torah puts it, he can flee to a designated place of refuge, where he is guaranteed a fair trial and sanctuary from the blood-avengers if he is found guiltless of premeditation in his crime.
The importance of this issue can be learned from the fact that it is mentioned four times in the Torah in Exodus 21, in our portion this week, in Deuteronomy 4 and again in Deuteronomy 19. The actual establishment of these cities of refuge is mentioned both in Joshua, chapters 20 and 21, and in first Chronicles 40.
The procedure by which one comes to live in the city of refuge is set, as is the definition of murder by premeditation as distinguished from accidental man slaughter. Furthermore, it is made clear that refuge in those cities is (1) not automatic one has to be found not guilty of premeditation and (2) it does not clear the person who is given refuge from guilt for the taking of a life. As in the case of Cain, the guilty party can no longer live in the previous place of residence, and should he or she leave the city of refuge, and should he or she be found by the blood avenger their life is free for the taking. This teaches us that the Torah did not take lightly by any means the act of accidental man slaughter. It merely suggested that this act is not the same as premeditated murder, for which the penalty is death.
What is it that requires the removal of the slayer from the place where he took a life? The Torah calls it 'polluting the earth.' We can explain it in this way: God created man in His image and taking a life is a crime against this image of God a desecration. As in the case of Cain, the earth "shall not henceforth yield to you her strength" because of the crime, and the offender is exiled. He may not return or his life is forfeited. The city of refuge, is not a place where one gets off the hook quite the contrary! The shelter was a place of no consequence and no productivity, and one wanted most to be out of it. Yet, these cities of refuge were under the purview of the Levites and the priests, and those who found sanctuary there had to wait for the death of the high priest to be granted amnesty.
This lesson of Torah justice should not be lost in our times. All too often we try to be so fair and unreservedly just that we actually twist justice to favor the criminal. We witness a crime, see the perpetrator commit the act and arrest the perpetrator as an "alleged" criminal. We put someone on trial and allow his defense to claim that circumstances negate the crime not guilty by reason of insanity, by reason of not knowing right from wrong, because of age, some being too young and others too old. At other times we allow the guilty to escape justice because of a technicality having to do with the fine line of the legality of search or arrest, collection of evidence or veracity of witnesses. We never recall "the voice of your brothers blood," the victim of the crime, the wronged party, which "cries to me from the ground," demands justice to be done. This is causing a "polluting" of the earth the lack of confidence of the public in the judicial system, from the policeman on the street to the judges on the bench. Is it not time, right now, to return to Gods teaching. Let us recognize that there are degrees of guilt, and that justice demands fair trials, and impartial hearings for all who happen to be drawn into the circle of acts that are against the accepted norms of our society. However, let us also insure that the law is not perverted by our desire to be fair, that those who break the law live to regret their wrongdoing, to atone for it and to realize that while circumstances may mitigate their guilt, there is a price to pay, whenever wrong is done. When people get away with murder there will be a proliferation of murder. The same is true of all other violence and antisocial behavior. When we pursue justice and do rightly, we shall all live in equity and safety. Amen
Matot Masaey 5759
This week we read a double portion in the Torah, which contains the last chapters in the book of Bamidbar, Numbers the fourth and concluding book of the Torah. "Now," you may say to me, "just you wait a minute! There are five books in the Torah, and you have just stated that this was the end of the fourth. So, how can you say concluding book?" I would remind you that the last book, Devarim, is called Deuteronomy, the "second telling." It is, in effect, a summary of the events presided upon by our great leader and teacher, the man of God, Moses Moshe Ben Amram. So what I say is quite so this weeks portion is the "end of the story" of the travels and teaching of the children of Israel in the desert.
The last chapter -- the last word of Moshe Rabeinu, inspired by God himself. . . One would think that it would contain a summary of what took place, or else it would contain a great truth, a paramount wisdom, the synthesis and distillation -- the very essence of all the insight and discernment God gave to Moshe. Yet, that is not the case. Instead, we find our brethren, the Children of Israel, raising an issue that, at least on the face of it, seems to be no more than a corollary to an issue that was raised and that had been settled by God Himself earlier in their travels.
It all began with some orphaned women approaching Moshe: "Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the Tent of Meeting, saying, "Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be taken away from among his family, because he had no sons? Give to us therefore a possession among the brothers of our father." And Moses brought their cause before the Lord." [Num. 27:1-5] The issue was not merely one of some unfortunate women who, having lost their male protector and head of the family, wanted to inherit the portion of their father! In the time of the exodus and the desert travels, women had no rights in the existing patriarchal society. Men ruled, particularly heads of households. Women were bought and sold in what was called marriage, or as servants or slaves, to be at the mercy of their owner. Thus we begin to understand that the issue is nothing less than the rights of women and their place in Israelite society! That is why Moshe does not respond of his own wisdom and understanding, but rather asks for Divine guidance. Whatever the answer was going be, he knew, there must never be any doubt about the source and authority of the legislation!
I will remind you that God did reply and favor the daughters of Zelophehad: "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "The daughters of Zelophehad speak right; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their fathers brothers; and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them. And you shall speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall cause his inheritance to pass to his daughter." [Num. 27:6-8] This instruction from God Himself set a standard among the Israelites that established for all times that women are fully equal members of the Israelite society, with rights of property, which by inference means all rights! They had to be given due consideration and protection in a time when most of mankind gave them less regard than was given to a strong mule or fine milk-producing cow! Because of this precedence, women obtained a ketubah, marriage contract, and were equal partners, if not indeed the authority, in the conduct of the Israelite household. Even though Israelite society was patriarchal is nature, women shared power in public as well as in the home as evidenced by the roles of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as well as Miriam and Deborah, Hanna, mother of Samuel, and even non-Israelite women such as Yael, the Kenite, and Ruth, the Moabite.
With the rights of women established, there was an unasked question remaining: were these rights merely a concession to the women, or did they carry with them a corollary obligation? This is a fundamental question, and actually may be seen as one that has never been truly addressed by Torah up to this point. Now, in todays portion we read, "And the chief fathers of the families of the sons of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of the sons of Joseph, came near, and spoke before Moses, and before the princes, the chief fathers of the people of Israel; And they said, The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for an inheritance by lot to the people of Israel; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. And if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then shall their inheritance be taken from the inheritance of our fathers, and shall be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall it be taken from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the people of Israel shall be, then shall their inheritance be given to the inheritance of the tribe where they are received; so shall their inheritance be taken away from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers." [Num 36 1:4] What we have here is not merely a question of members of one tribe as to land rights that may be lost for their kin. Indeed what we have here is a question of obligations that come with right! If the daughters of Zelophehad are "just women" who may choose to marry for love or comfort then they get more rights than men, since men have a tribal and familial obligation to carry on. If the daughters of Zelophehad are to inherit with the men, do they not have an obligation to carry on tribal and familial obligations as the men do?
Once again, Moshe gives an answer that has been rendered by God, as we read, "And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, The tribe of the sons of Joseph has said well. This is the thing which the Lord does command concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying, Let them marry whom they think best; only to the family of the tribe of their father shall they marry. So shall not the inheritance of the people of Israel move from tribe to tribe; for every one of the people of Israel shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter, who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel, shall be the wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the people of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers." [Num 36 5:8] This answer marries freedom with responsibility. It allows the daughters of Zelophehad to choose husbands but it restricts their freedom by their tribal inheritance rules which is to say, they must marry within the tribe so as not to compromise the territorial apportioning that was to remain for ever for the Children of Israel in their tribes by the gift of God.
From this ruling we learn that God has placed on us a benevolent and equanimous Torah that allows all to live protected by Gods love and law, and that those who choose to enter into a position of responsibility, leadership, and rights of ownership, must also be bound by the obligations of this responsibility, be they male or female. Womens rights are guaranteed - but freedom exacts a toll, and rights are only one side of the coin of duty. May we always rejoice in Gods teaching, and may we know how to live in His grace by learning His Torah and walking its path.
This weeks portion of the Torah text, which is the double portion Matot - Masaey, in the book of Bemidbar chapter 30:2 to 36:13 is the last segment in the book. The most important matter raised is, possibly, the matter of the cities of refuge, a new and revolutionary concept in the days of the giving of the Torah: if a person takes a life bishgaga by mistake, as the Torah puts it, he can escape to a designated place of refuge, where he is guaranteed a fair trial, and, if he is found guiltless of premeditation in his crime, sanctuary from the blood-avengers.
The importance of this issue in the teachings of Judaism can be gleaned from the fact that it is mentioned four times in the Torah in Exodus 21, in our portion this week, in Deuteronomy 4 and again in Deuteronomy 19. The actual establishment of these cities of refuge is mentioned both in Joshua, chapters 20 and 21, and in first Chronicles 40. I believe that this issue is related to the general sanctity in which Judaism holds all life, be it the animals of the field and forest, the beasts of burden and labor and the ones we raise to use as food. It was this attitude toward life that motivated Israels late Prime minister, Yitzkhak Rabin, to speak clearly and resolutely in the Rose Garden of the White House seven years ago, [let there be] no more war, no more killing.
This feeling that life is the most precious gift of God is not necessarily shared by Israels interlocutors. The recent collapse of the Camp David summit was a great step backwards for Palestinian aspirations, and they have no one to blame except their own attitude and their leadership that is not oriented to consider life precious. Ehud Barak returned home weakened politically for making concessions that were not recognized for their magnanimity but that will be remembered the next time a summit is convened. His coalition partners are deserting the ship of peace the more illusive it becomes, and conceivably the next summit will see a new leader at the helm of Israels ship of state. Yasser Arafat, master survivor of a lifetime of byzantine intrigues against his life and his cause, received a hero's welcome in Gaza. Yet the true losers of the failure at Camp David are the Palestinian people.
The unique and unprecedented thing that happened at Camp David was that for the first time since the last crossing of Israels red lines and negotiating with the chief terrorists that had been plotting Israels destruction, an Israeli leader was ready to discuss openly concessions that until now have been totally taboo. Arafat could have returned from Camp David with an Israeli - and US - recognition of a Palestinian state in 90% of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza including the Jordan valley, some Jewish settlements would have been dismantled, and for others which would not, a land exchange would have been worked out. Furthermore, Palestinian villages around Jerusalem, incorporated within Israeli sovereignty in l967, would have been annexed to the Palestinian state, and some Palestinian presence would have been acknowledged within the Arab quarters of Jerusalem itself . And, what is even more amazing to believe, an Israeli prime minister, for the first time, was ready seriously to consider the right of return of l948 Arab refugees (which the Arabs claim number four millions), though it had been suggested that the Arabs will choose to accept compensation in place of repatriation. Or not!
Arafat rejected these offers, and came back to a heros welcome empty-handed, and no military parades in Gaza or rhetorical flourishes can obliterate the fact that a legitimate and internationally recognized state has been in Arafat's reach - and he let the opportunity slip through his hands because of his basic unwillingness to consider serious compromises. Some claim that it is the Arab world and the Moslem world that forced his hand. They would not condone, would not allow him to yield. Such claims evoke echoes of l947 - when the Palestinians could have achieved a state of their own in a divided British Mandatory Palestine as envisaged in the UN partition decision - but chose to join the holy war of fellow Arab states to drive the Jews into the sea. In war they were defeated, and at the armistice negotiations they were shunned and forgotten, left to suffer the bitter fruit of being vanquished alone and ignored. There was the chance to redress the wrong of 48 in 1967, when Israel sued for peace again after the smashing victory of the Six Days War - only to be rejected and rebuffed by the Khartoum resolution of no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with it. Finally, as late as l977 - when they could have joined Sadat's courageous initiative, grab the offer of Palestinian autonomy, and later a state, wish would have been established decades ago. I am not sure who said it, but it has been stated that Arafat never misses the chance to miss a chance. He just could not concede the price of a Camp David compromise: a final Palestinian renunciation of any future claims against Israel.
The failure of the Camp David summit makes it very clear that the Palestinian leadership allows itself to hang on to utopian dreams in which they push the Jews into the sea and establish a secular Arab state of Palestine in the entire area of the former British mandate. This kind of dream condemns the negotiation discourse to futility and failure. Camp David was a great step backwards for the peace camp and for Palestinians aspirations. It was a tragedy for Israelis who love peace and pursue it, and a catastrophe to the chances of peace and reconciliation in the area.
This is a special Shabbat for a couple of reasons: First, it is Rosh Khodesh Av. The beginning of the eleventh month of the Jewish year. Rosh Khodesh is always special in our tradition - it is a "mini new year" as it were. A time to rejoyce and a time to take stock of our life and our circustances. This week we read a double portion in the Torah, which contains the last chapters in the book of Bamidbar, Numbers which is the fourth and concluding book of the narrative of the Torah. I am sure I dont have to explain that the last book, Devarim, which is called "Deuteronomy," meaning the "second telling," is, in effect, a summary of the events presided upon by our great leader and teacher, the man of God, Moses Moshe Ben Amram.
I must tell you that I love Rosh Khodesh - it is the occasion for singing the Hallel, a part of the service that I enjoy because of its content as well as because of the fact that we doing so infrequently. However, Rosh Khodesh Av is different, for it is the last fresh breath before the dark countdown to Tisha bAv, the infamous disaster day of Jewish history. But we wont touch this subject - well leave it for next week. Today we shall celebrate - khazak, khazak! Be strong, yes strong we say as we finish reading the weeks portion, as we complete the lesson of our beloved prophet, our teacher Moshe. Khazak venitkhazek - we shall become strong by the strength of our Torah, our heritage of the inspired word of God, of the teaching of love and justice, of kindness and Godliness, of mercy and compassion. We shall rejoice with words from the Psalms of David, "The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone. This is the LORD'S doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the LORD has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it." [Psalms 118:22-24]
The story of mankind began, in the Torah, with Adam and Eve - and almost ended with their offsprings, Cain and Hevel. You recall, I am sure, "And Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him." [Gen. 4:8] Many people call this "the first murder" - but how could it be? There had been no death ever before. Cain responded to Gods query "I know not." And, indeed , he did not know!
In this weeks Torah portion we read that in cases where death occurs without malice, the killer must not be put to death. The Israelites established cities of refuge, where a man could hide from those who wish to avenge a death. A person had to stand trial and it had to be proven that the death was totally "bishgaga"- by accident. When that occurred, and the accused was found to have had no malice for the victim - his punishment was that he could not leave the refuge for a very long time. He was exiled, cut off from his loved ones, living with his deed and its subsequent loneliness.
How different from some societies that view the cycle of violence and death as inevitable, who live by the sword and perish by the sword. "Hodu ladonay ki tov, ki leolam khasdo - O give thanks to the Lord; for he is good; because his loving kindness endures for ever. Let Israel now say, that his loving kindness endures for ever. Let the house of Aaron now say, that his loving kindness endures for ever. Let now those who fear the Lord say, that his loving kindness endures for ever." [Psalms 118:1-4]
Matot Masa'ey 5762
This week we read a double portion
in the Torah, which contains the last chapters in the book of Bamidbar, Numbers
the fourth book of the Torah. We are also celebrating the birthday of
The Torah text teaches us a number of lessons: that the itinerary of the travels of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land is a tale of sorrow and trouble. Here was a small people, persecuted and shunned by their neighbors near and far. They left Egypt to establish a new and radically different civilization, where the rights of every citizen is paramount and guaranteed. Such a civilization was eventually established by the founding fathers of the United States of America.
I am currently reading the recently published biography of John Adams. What a giant of a man was this son of Braintree, a rural suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. He was an intellectual, a believing man whose every thought and act were controlled by his reason and his faith. The same is true of his close friend who became a bitter competitor, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence, that no man need be subservient to a despot like king George III since "all men are created equal - they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" - is founded upon his faith. The belief in the "God of the Old Testament" is also what inspired so many righteous Christians to become abolitionists and to undo the subversion of that hallowed principle of freedom by the evil of slavery. That was true in 1776, in 1860 - and the same is true today.
Opponents of Israel and the Jews don't want to acknowledge that most congressmen support Israel because their values impel them to do so. Most Americans (who vote for the congressmen in question) have a strong preference for free societies over tyrannies and understand that the real underdog in the Middle East is the tiny state of Israel struggling to survive in a sea of medieval hate. Does anyone thing that Vice President Dick Cheney supports Israel because of the "pro-Israel lobby's" efforts? Was the former Wyoming congressman beholden to Wyoming's Jewish electorate? (I think there may actually be a dozen such voters...) Or does he support Israel because of his values? What about our Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld? To what lobby would anyone suggest that he is beholden - particularly since his is an appointed, not elected, position? And what about Condoleezza Rice? What influence does any lobby have with her? God bless America - and let us admit that the business of America is to keep itself safe - not act in any manner that is not best for its interests.
We live in a new world - the "post September 11" world. It is a different world from the way it has been for a long, long time. Not since the summer of 1814, when British forces defeated American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, marched over the Potomac river and set fire to the White House and the Capitol buildings in Washington DC, has a foreign power posed such a real and terrifying threat to the mainland United States. And it is a threat that Americans are taking quite seriously.
A recent Newsweek poll found that 57% of Americans expect there will be a terror attack over the July 4th holiday weekend. 4,000 New York City police officers were deployed along Manhattan's FDR drive to safeguard the annual fireworks display, while no-flight zones was enforced in the skies over some of the country's principal national monuments, such as the Statue of Liberty. America, it seems, is starting to sound a little like Israel.
The anti-Israel powers and the Arab/Islamic fundamentalists would have us believe that the reason this has happened to our nation is because of the pro-Israel stance of our government - but that is a totally wrong claim. American support for Israel emanates from the deepest of America's core values - " support for societies that reflect American values and opposition to those that threaten such societies. Of course, there are Jews and Christians and atheists and Democrats and Republicans who lobby Congress on Israel's behalf, and they have clout. But in the final analysis, it is a libel of America, its president and its Congress to assert that they have all sold their souls for a pot of gold, when in fact their pro-Israel policies and votes reflect America at its best.
The last lesson taught by Moshe in the book we complete reading this week deals with the daughters of Zelophekhad. Women had no rights in the existing patriarchal society of the time. Men ruled, particularly heads of households. Women were bought and sold in what was
called marriage,' or as servants or slaves, to be at the mercy of their owner.' So the issue was nothing less than the rights of women and their place in Israelite society! Moshe, by God's word, allowed them to inherit their dead father's portion. This instruction from God Himself set a standard among the Israelites that established for all times that women are fully equal members of the Israelite society, with rights of property, which by inference means all rights!
Rights were given to women - and before closing the book, Moshe is asked what if the women marry outside the tribe and take the property of the tribe to another tribe. This answer, which comes from God - marries freedom with responsibility. It allows the daughters of Zelophekhad to choose husbands but it restricts their freedom by their tribal inheritance rules' which is to say, they must marry within the tribe so as not to compromise the territorial apportioning that was to remain for ever' for the Children of Israel in their tribes by the gift of God.
Our American nation is going through a time of tribulation that is made more difficult because of the lack of definition. We don't have an "enemy nation" to focus our attention on, to plan to overcome. We are a giant fighting an attack by a swarm of gnats. We must not lose heart, and we must not lose our focus. God bless our land, our form of government, and our leaders who do their best for our nation. Thank God that we are, indeed, united in our struggle with the people of Israel in the land of Israel - and may we continue the valiant battle till evil shall be no more, and all will live with the knowledge that was so clear to Thomas Jefferson - all men are created equal - they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. We shall not surrender those rights, and we shall work for the day when all humanity is privy to these rights. Happy Independence Day!
Matot Masa'ey 5763
This Shabbat sees the ending and
a beginning. We read the double portion, Matot-Masa'ey, which brings to an end
the fourth book of the "Khumash" - the five books of Moses. In the
afternoon on Shabbat, congregations begin reading the fifth book, Dvarim - the
"last will and testament" of our great teacher and liberator, Moshe.
Thus, in effect, we are finishing this shabbat the reading of the story of Israel's
great journey from humble birth as the "seed of Abraham" to the twelve
tribes with Levites and Cohanim entering the Land of their Inheritance, which
will forever after be known as the Land of Israel.
And yet... And yet the land has been renamed, and for two thousand years was desolate and barren, bereft of its name-sake. In all those ages, only the dead kept their connection to the land: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept silent vigil at the cave of Makhpelah, together with their faithful wives, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. Rakhel, Jacob beloved, kept her vigil on the road to Ephrata, at the entrance to Bethlehem.
The remainder of Abraham's seed traveled the length and breadth of the world, blessing the families of mankind with their presence, teaching by example the faithful promise of the Lord God of Creation. The ways of our Master are mysterious, indeed, and we have been tried, time and again, we have suffered privation and persecution, only to emerge triumphant after two thousand years, strong in body and rock-hard in our faith.
Solomon's wisdom transmitted this lesson: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days." [Ecclesiastes 11:1] I have often thought about this passage, and I laughed at the words of a comic who said, "Cast your bread upon the waters,' and you know what you get? Soggy bread, that's what!" Yet this past week I saw the hand of God in action in events that reenforced Solomon's lesson.
You may recall that last Yom Kippur my dear wife, Leah, lost her father, who died after a long illness. We had to leave the next morning to go and bury him in New Jersey, leaving my sister Hemda and her son at our home, in need of transportation to Miami for their return flight to Israel. I was under great strain, not knowing how to reconcile the need of going to New Jersey with the need to take Hemda to Miami. I was relieved and comforted when my friend Isaac Hershkovich stepped forward and volunteered to get my sister, her son and her luggage, and her dog, too - to the airport. His action was a magnanimous act of loving kindness, one of many he performed.
This past week, tragically, Isaac's life came to an unexpected early end. In grief and shock his beloved wife turned to me for advise, and following my suggestion returned his earthly remains for burial in his native soil in Eretz Yisrael. She traveled there in the same plane that carried her beloved's body. She arrived, with only a couple of close friends and relatives, as Ruth did after the death of her man: a stranger amongst a people of a foreign tongue. There was misunderstanding piled upon tragedy, pain compounded by confusion. In her suffering, she reached out across the ocean with a plea for her.
In the early hours of the Israeli morning of erev shabbat, late into our own night, I made call after call, calming disturbed minds, putting balm on bruised wounds, and making possible the peaceful resolution of seemingly conflicting interests, to make possible bringing Isaac to a place of rest for his remains and peace for his soul. I did all I could - but I could not be there in person, to finish the task, to be a physical presence to support Cynthia in her hour of need.
At six o'clock in the morning of the eve of Shabbat, I called Hemda and asked her to coordinate, by phone, the resolution of remaining issues. I must tell you that the whole "history" of Isaac's help was not in my mind at all at that point. I just needed help, and I counted on someone I knew would lend a hand.
My sister, God bless her, called Cynthia and soothed her in her time of desperation. She agreed to drop everything and travel a distance to be with the grieving widow, to insure that she is understood in her communication and understands what is being said to her. She spent the better part of the morning and afternoon making peace and brining comfort. She invited Cynthia and her family to break bread for Shabbat together with her and her son.
This evening, as Shabbat descended upon the Land of Promise, God must have looked down from His domain, please to note that the wisdom of His servant Solomon has been shown to be ever so true. "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days." May we always follow God's teachings, fulfill His mitzvot, and be worthy of His favor. Amen
Matot Masa'ey 5764
This week we read in the Torah a
double portion, called Matot Masa'ey, which contains the last chapters in the
book of Bamidbar, Numbers – the fourth book, concluding the historic events
of the life of Moshe. Next we shall read the fifth book of the Torah, Moshe’s
last will and testament, leading to the passage that reads, “So Moses
the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word
of the Lord.” [Deu. 34:5]
Moshe, the great leader of the people Israel, their liberator and teacher, the man who inspired by God presented the Torah to Israel and through them to humanity - did he not deserve to “retire” in Israel’s promised land? Do we understand God’s judgement that this great servant of His does not deserve - for whatever reason - to enter the land to which he strove to bring the Israelites for so very long?
We learn a lesson from the great King, Solomon, who told us in his brilliant commentary, Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” [Eccl. 3:1-4] Not one of us, from the evil to the righteous, from the very old to the most young, can avoid God’s measure of our days. Birth of a fatal medical procedure. Our days are as surely measured as the chemistry in a pharmacological prescription. When someone leaves our midst we have every right to mourn, to rebel against the fragility of our existence - but we cannot change what has taken place.
A year has passed since we lost our good friend, Yitskhak Hershkovich. Last year, when we read this week’s portion, I spoke of him. Allow me to repeat, since Cynthia was not here to hear it:
“This past week, tragically, Isaac's life came to an unexpected early end. In grief and shock his beloved wife turned to me for advise, and following my suggestion returned his earthly remains for burial in his native soil in Eretz Yisrael. She traveled there in the same plane that carried her beloved's body. She arrived, with only a couple of close friends and relatives, as Ruth did after the death of her man: a stranger amongst a people of a foreign tongue. There was misunderstanding piled upon tragedy, pain compounded by confusion. In her suffering, she reached out to me across the ocean with a plea for help.
In the early hours of the Israeli morning of erev shabbat, late into our own night, I made call after call, calming disturbed minds, putting balm on bruised wounds, and making possible the peaceful resolution of seemingly conflicting interests, to make possible bringing Yitskhak to a place of rest for his remains and peace for his soul. I did all I could - but I could not be there in person, to finish the task, to be a physical presence to support Cynthia in her hour of need.
At six o'clock in the morning of the eve of Shabbat, I called my sister Hemda and asked her to coordinate, by phone, the resolution of remaining issues. I must tell you that the whole "history" of Isaac's help to get Hemda to the airport at the time of Leah’s father’s death was not in my mind at all at that point. I just needed help, and I counted on someone I knew would lend a hand.
My sister, God bless her, called Cynthia and soothed her in her time of desperation. She agreed to drop everything and travel a distance to be with the grieving widow, to insure that she is understood in her communications – and understands what is being said to her. She spent the better part of the morning and afternoon making peace and brining comfort. She invited Cynthia and her family to break bread for Shabbat together with her and her son.”
There are people who ask “why?” They want answers where there are none – why did things happen this way and not a different way, why was life so short, or at best not long enough. What was so desperate and wrong to make this turn of event come about. There are no answers. The dead keep their secrets as only they can. Life, like the water of a mighty river, flows on, leaving the past behind - not forgotten, never forgotten, but left behind. The visage of what has passed becomes blurred the further we get away from it – it is still there, it will always be there. We, however, have moved on, to experience new days, new nights, new tragedies and new celebration. Moshe is dead, long live Joshua. Yet Moshe is well remembered, for his Torah. Yitskhak was lost to us, but his many acts of lovingkindness remain behind, as a Torah to those who knew him. They speak to us with the traditional Israeli words that say “follow me.” Do not despair, Do good, love well, and rejoice with the fruit of your labors.
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