Shabbat Masei: Ethical Cleansing

The parashah for this week offers a challenge to our interpretive skills and to our honesty. As we confront the first verses read in this second year of the Triennial Cycle, we read clear words which are incredibly problematic for anyone who holds up both the ideals of progressive, liberal ethics and our people’s understanding of the teachings of Judaism.

50 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying: 

51 ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 

52 then ye shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places. 

53 And ye shall drive out the inhabitants of the land, and dwell therein; for unto you have I given the land to possess it. 

54 And ye shall inherit the land by lot according to your families–to the more ye shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer thou shalt give the less inheritance; wheresoever the lot falleth to any man, that shall be his; according to the tribes of your fathers shall ye inherit. 

55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then shall those that ye let remain of them be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land wherein ye dwell. 

56 And it shall come to pass, that as I thought to do unto them, so will I do unto you.

There’s a problem here. This sounds like ethnic cleansing. The command G-d gives Moshe here seems to support the settlement movement in Israel in the violence they are known to perpetrate against the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank. Further, the last verse feels like some kind of nightmare coming true in these very days.

This does sound like ethnic cleansing. It is exactly the kind of violence practiced against our own people when the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and others invaded our homes, destroyed our Temple and our villages, and carried off most of us into slavery. There are at least two possible responses:

Remember the recent New Yorker cartoon of one man telling another laboring over a parchment scroll, “don’t worry about your attributions. It’s not like anyone is going to take this stuff literally”? A liberal modern Jew starts by asserting that the Torah is not timeless; it is, rather, a record of the struggle of the Jews to understand G-d’s word over many generations. We continue to learn, and we continue to assert that our understanding, as it becomes more compassionate and more respectful of the earth and all upon it, is a fuller expression of the same Voice that our ancestors strained to hear. This is true of many issues that were once problematic: marriage equality, women’s equality, and more.

The Jewish interpretive approach insists upon an evolving revelation; Jews do not read Torah alone. We read with the insights of Rashi, of Maimonides, of Midrash and of modern scholars, to name just a few influences upon our learning. One of the insights of the early modern period in Jewish study is in this suggestion: the words of Torah, if they are true, may be true in a way that you just weren’t expecting. Try turning them around to face yourself rather than someone else. There is a long-held belief in Jewish tradition that anyone who occupies the land in an unethical way will be swept off of it, for the Land itself is meant to be holy.

We are in the middle of a three-week period of introspection and reflection as a people: what are our deeds? where will they lead us? Is it possible that we are more like the ancient Canaanites, with their false gods and unethical behavior, than like the People of Israel that are meant to exist in thoughtful Covenant with the G-d who took us out of Egypt?

Torah maintains its status as an endless source of guidance, of insight and of knowledge, even as we struggle to understand what it is saying to us. The Land is holy, according to Torah; in our evolving understanding of G-d’s word, especially in these seven verses, all depends upon our ability to come to know that all land is holy, and that false gods are those who cause violence, against the earth and against each other. What is needed is not ethnic cleansing, but ethical cleansing. May we hear the Voice that calls us to our higher selves before it is too late.

Shabbat Pinhas: Peace in the Midst of Violence?

This week’s parashah is startlingly appropriate to our current situation. We are all aghast at the violence that has broken out in Israel – although the fact that Israel remained relatively quiet as the region seethed struck many as a miracle that could not last – and our hearts are broken for the suffering and death, not only in Israel but in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and throughout.

When I work with those who consider converting to Judaism, I always remind them that Judaism includes a people and a land. For some of us, Israel is a distant and difficult reality which feels far from any sense of the Jewish ethical life we strive to live. But life is complicated, and to be a Jew is to be connected to Israel, for better and for worse.

How to approach this difficulty? This week two of my colleagues in Israel shed light for us by offering learning. Please join me in considering their words carefully.

We need to be very careful about how we, as Jews, might learn, and consider, and thoughtfully to react to this difficult challenge. We are Jews, we have a significant relationship as American Jews to the Land of Israel, and we have the right and the responsibility to own it and to act within it according to our ethical sense – but knowledgeably, and carefully, and compassionately toward all. That, after all, is who we want to be, and the challenge is to remain reliably ourselves even as we meet the challenges of our lives.

Light is seen only in contrast to darkness, and according to our creation story light comes from darkness (darkness precedes it). Perhaps peace can only come from violence. If this be true, let us learn what we have to learn from it, and bring peace.

The following messages are reposted in their entirety:

This war hurts all of us who are caught in the crossfire and our hearts go out to the innocent people on both sides who are suffering.  

The ability to balance passiveness and action is the theme of this week’s parashah. As an Israelite and a Midianite flagrantly sin in front of all of Israel, and law and order break down, one man–Pinhas–acts decisively, killing them both.

The complexity of the moral issues is not wasted on the rabbis. They refer to a biblical verse which implies the language of justice in the heavenly court:

Then Pinchas stood up and executed judgment, and so the plague was stayed. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. (Psalms 106:30)

According to the rabbis, the angels wish to condemn Pinchas, but he defends his violent response, on the basis that 24,000 people had already died; it was necessary for him to act boldly in order to prevent more deaths. While vindicating Pinchas’s zealoutry, God rewards him with a Covenant of Peace. (Sanhedrin 82b) He was right to take action in the moment, but ultimately, he must pursue peace.

We share the vision of the angels; a world which is filled with peace and tranquility. This is the messianic ideal that: “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Sometimes, it is necessary for nations to respond with force. Israel, like all sovereign nations, has the right to defend itself from targeted attacks on its civilians—a basic violation of human rights. Even in this violent moment, though, we need to keep asking and searching for a path to bring about a brit shalom—a covenant of peace.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester, Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel  (

Shalom Friends,

I hope that you are all well. Here in Israel it is one of those periods in which the news is happening so quickly that it seems impossible to keep up. We are now under rocket attack by Hamas terrorists from Gaza and pray that the IDF will win a decisive victory over them with minimal casualties on our side so that we can resume “normal life” (which of course doesn’t exactly exist here). During the shiva for our three murdered boys we were also shocked to the core to discover that the vicious murderers of the Arab boy from East Jerusalem were in fact Jewish. In certain ways this was more shattering than the murder of our own boys. When I discussed this horrific profanation of God’s Name with the Komarner Rebbe shlit”a he quoted Golda Meir that “we can forgive the Arabs for killing us but not for forcing us to kill”. In light of this I want to share three pertinent sources with brief translations.  I think they speak for themselves. May we be blessed to sanctify God’s Name in our daily lives and with true peace.

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Zvi Leshem

תנא דבי אליהו רבא פ’ כח

ולא נתנה התורה אלא על מנת לקדש שמו הגדול. מכאן אמרו ירחיק אדם את עצמו מן הגזל בין מן הישראל בין מן העכו”ם ולא עוד אלא משום שכל הגונב מן העכו”ם לסוף הוא גונב מן הישראל ואם הוא נשבע לעכו”ם לסוף הוא נשבע לישראל ואם הוא מכחש לעכו”ם לסוף הוא מכחש לישראל ואם הוא שופך דמים לעכו”ם לסוף הוא שופך דמים לישראל ולא נתנה התורה אלא לקדש שמו הגדול שנאמר (ישעיה סו) ושמתי בהם אות ושלחתי מהם פליטים מהו אומר בסוף הענין והגידו את כבודי בגוים.

Tania d’be Eliyahu Raba 28: The Torah was given to sanctify God’s Name…one who sheds the blood of a gentile will in the end shed the blood of Jews. The Torah was only give to sanctify God’s Name…so that My [God’s] Name will be honored among the Gentiles.

רמב”ם תשובה א:ד

במה דברים אמורים בשלא חילל את השם בשעה שעבר אבל המחלל את השם אע”פ שעשה תשובה והגיע יום הכפורים והוא עומד בתשובתו ובאו עליו יסורין אינו מתכפר לו כפרה גמורה עד שימות אלא תשובה יום הכפורים ויסורין שלשתן תולין ומיתה מכפרת שנאמר ונגלה באזני ה’ צבאות וגו’ אם יכופר העון הזה לכם עד תמותון:

Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 1:4: One who profanes God’s Name, even though he repented and Yom Kippur comes and he is still repentant and has suffered, he does not achieve full atonement until he dies.

משך חכמה משפטים ד”ה ויתכן

ויתכן משום דישראל שהרג בן נח איכא מלבד חטא הרציחה עוד עון דחילול השם ית’ וכמו שהפליגו בירושלמי אלו מציאות (ה”ה) ניחא ליה לשמוע בריך אלדדון דיהודאי מן כל אגר עלמא, כ”ש ברציחת גופו החלול השם, ובזה אמרו (יומא פו) אין יוהכ”פ ותשובה ויסורים כו’ רק מיתה ממרקת כו’ אם יכופר לכם העון עד תמותון, נמצא דיש עונש מיתה על חילול השם ואיך יכופר לו ע”י מיתה חטא הרציחה ועל כרחין דינו מסור לשמים ודו”ק.

Meshech Chochmah Mishpatim s.v. Vayitachen: When a Jew kills a gentile, there is, in addition to the sin of murder also the sin of profaning God’s Name…and for this there is a [Divine] death penalty.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and may we work for the peace of all the world because the peace of Jerusalem is not separate but central to it.

Shabbat Balak: Truth Also Comes From Darkness

This week’s parashat hashavua finds us in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar, “in the wilderness”, is its Hebrew name) in chapter 23. We are offered a curious perspective in this parashah. There are a few places in the Torah in which a non-Israelites teaches the Israelites, but this is the only place in which an enemy of Israel offers a truth about Israel both to Israel and to its detractors.

The truth-teller is Balaam, a prophet-for-hire (not all prophets are Israelites). The enemy is Balak, King of Moab. He imports Balaam to his kingdom and brings him to the front lines of his territory to curse Israel for him. Keep in mind that an curse in that day was believed to be like a well-placed land mine today, protecting your land from all incursion.

But Balaam, having prepared himself to receive the word of G-d and to exclaim it from a high hill overlooking the Israelite camp, opens his mouth and not a curse but a blessing comes out.

How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom ה has not execrated? (Numbers 23.8)

Balaam tells the truth to the powerful politician who has hired him; the King of Moab is exasperated but respects, in the final analysis, that Balaam, as a prophet, “can only say what G-d puts in [my] mouth”. (Num. 23.12)

He had everything to gain by lying, but Balaam was professionally obligated to speak the truth as he saw it. Balak is going to have to figure out another way to protect his kingdom from the enemy he perceives on his borders.

We have no indication that Balak thought twice about it, that perhaps Balaam’s words might lead to the insight that Israel was not necessarily an enemy. One the blood is up and running, it is very hard for a human being to hear that our perception of an enemy is wrong. Yet it might very well be wrong.

Our tradition warns us to always hold the other in the כף זכות – khaf zekhut, meaning to give everyone the benefit of the doubt (Pirke Avot 1.6). This literally means that we are to assume that there is merit, or at least understandable motive, in all those others we encounter, in person or through the hearsay of gossip or media. It is very difficult to do that when we already know who our enemies are.  But after all, so did Balak; he knew that we were his enemy. Even after Balaam told him three times in this parashah that Israel was a blessing to him, he kept looking for the curses.

On this Shabbat, don’t assume you know the enemies that threaten your life. Rather, look for the hidden blessings that might lurk even in the place where you expect only curses. As it is noted in the teachings of the Sages, it is only within darkness, after all, that we are able to see light. And in that light, held up by or upon someone you thought was an enemy, you might see something that will bless your life.