Live interview with Jeff Berger, Rambam Sephardi Synagogue and KAICIID fellow.
Parshat Debarim opens the Book of Deuteronomy, written mostly in the 1st person, it contains 3 major speeches by Moshe expounded in the last days of his life. Debarim occurs at the plains of Trans-Jordan, an 11-day journey from Horeb, on the 1st day of the 12th month in the 40th year.
Moshe orated how ‘G-d spoke to you at Horeb to go forward through the Emorite land to inherit territory promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You were so numerous I wasn’t able to look after the entire population; a judiciary and law enforcement were appointed to relieve my burden and I instructed them how to judge the people fairly.’
‘From there you journeyed to the Great Midbar until Kadesh Barnea, from whence we were to go up and inherit Canaan. But you implored me to send spies to report on the land, and I agreed, sending 12 tribal representatives. They travelled to the Valley of Eshkol, bringing back samples of its fruits. Then you rebelled against G-d, lamenting in your tents. And, though I told you not to be afraid, that G-d would carry you as a father carries a child, you wouldn’t believe.
Angered, G-d heard your self-pity and swore that none of that generation would enter the land, other than Kaleb. Even I was prevented from entering; Joshua would bring you in my stead. Told to turn away into the desert, you regretted your sin, insisting too late to go up into battle. And, though G-d forbade it, you rebelled again and were decimated by the Emorites returning to wail before the Almighty who heeded not your cries. We remained in Kadesh for a time, then turned to the Midbar and stayed near Mt Seir for many years.
Eventually, you journeyed through the borders of Seir but didn’t confront its inhabitants, for their land belonged to Esav. You could purchase food and water from them for silver; G-d blessed you these 40 years in the desert where you lacked nothing. And you passed through their land on the road from Eilat to Etsion Gaver.
We turned to cross through the land of Moab but were told by G-d not to disturb them either, for it wasn’t their land we would inherit – theirs was the inheritance of Lot.’ (Moshe added the history of conquest and settlement in those lands.) ‘Then we were ready to cross the Zared Valley. From Kadesh to Zared took 38 years until the previous generation naturally died off, some struck by the hand of G-d for other reasons.
And, when all of the previous generation were no longer, G-d told me to cross the border of Moab to the town of Ar but not to discomfit them for their land too was part of Lot’s inheritance.’ (Again Moshe added the history of conquest and settlement in those lands identifying tribes not previously mentioned in the Torah.) ‘Instead we were to cross the Arnon Valley and take land from King Sihon which G-d would place in our hands. From then on the Almighty would put the fear of you upon all nations under the Heavens.’
‘And I sent messengers to King Sihon to make peace, asking him to let us pass through his land, paying for our food & drink as was done with the inhabitants of Seir & Moab. But Sihon refused, massing his troops to war with you. G-d hardened his heart so you could conquer his land. You destroyed his cities and killed its inhabitants, leaving no remnant. Only the cattle and spoils did you keep – all of this given into your hands by G-d.’
‘Then we turned to the Bashan. King Og and his troops came out to war with you. And G-d told me not to be afraid, for Og too would be given into our hands. So it was, without any remnant, you captured 60 of his well-fortified cities.’ (Once again Moshe added a conquest and settlement history for those lands, tracing Og’s lineage back to the Refa’im giants, himself requiring an iron bed 9 amot long x 4 amot wide.) ‘Those lands on the Trans-Jordan were given to the tribes of Reuben and Gad. The remainder of Gilead and Bashan was given to half the tribe of Menashe.
And I commanded you saying that G-d gave you this land on condition you go armed to help the tribes in their conquest of Canaan, while your wives, children and cattle could remain behind. To Joshua, I commanded saying you’ve seen what G-d has wrought upon these two kings, so will the Almighty do to all the kingdoms that lie ahead of you. Fear not, the Lord wars with you.’
Comment: Parshat Debarim – a remarkable Me’am Loez Midrash in Parshat Matot at the end of Bamidbar explained that the 42 journeys of Bnei Yisrael listed were as much relevant to their historical occurrence as to what we should expect of a future redemption. This week’s Parasha shows a continuing trend.
Moshe, standing before the leadership and people, needed to address their fears and to inspire their confidence for success in the upcoming battle to conquer Cana’an. The Book of Debarim is referred to by the commentators as Mishne Torah (a repetition or doubling of the Torah).
Comprised of 3 major speeches, in the first one Moshe aimed to invigorate Bnei Yisrael with examples of how the Almighty redeemed them from Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness, gave them victories over Kings Sihon & Og, and that despite the uncertain outcome awaiting them, G-d would also ensure their victory over the Canaanites.
This speech which somewhat oddly referenced in great detail the success of Esav and Lot’s descendant in securing ancestral lands in Seir, Amon & Moav, was meant also to give heart to Bnei Yisrael that G-d who provided countless miracles in their past could be trusted to fulfil the promises for their future. Just as Seir, Amon & Moav were given to Esav & Lot and protected against Bnei Yisrael’s incursion, so too should they trust the Almighty would fulfil the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to possess the land of Canaan as their perpetual inheritance.
Perhaps today as well, we should understand that being unable to fathom the horrible and violent acts occurring around us nor comprehend their intended outcome, through our faith in the Almighty, we remind ourselves to trust G-d will fulfil the promise of safety, security and well-being made so long ago to our Patriarchs & Matriarchs.
The last of the Jewish schools that are still in session will break this week for summer. Allowing for annual leave, we will be abbreviating the content in our Newsletter during the month of August. Thank you for your readership this year and looking forward to continuing in September.
CAUX SWITZERLAND – TOWARD AN INCLUSIVE PEACE
This week the Rabbi was invited to attend a conference in Caux, Switzerland on the topic of Inclusive Peace. More than 100 participants from around the world attended.
The history of the Caux Palace Hotel, includes the rescue of 1600 Jewish refugees during WWII. Known as the Kasztner train which left Budapest on 30 June 1944, it was a ransom deal negotiated directly with Adolph Eichmann. For this and more fascinating material on the role of Caux in the post-war reconciliation process, please click here.
We live in a time where it’s easy to surround one’s self with views that are consonant with our own. This is analogously referred to as ‘living in a bubble’. The technology driving social media platforms is designed to enhance this. So when we search for something online, we find further offers of a similar kind automatically popping-up on our screen.
This may be useful for comparative price shopping but it’s more problematic when sharing opinions. Instead, our views are reinforced and the degree of support we feel gets amplified. Again, this may be perceived as advantageous, but in fact it is one identifiable cause for increased polarisation in our world. Inclusive Peace requires venturing beyond our bubbles to make space for those we disagree with.
REMINDER: OUR UNIQUENESS
One remarkable thing about our Rambam Sephardi community is its diversity. Recently we invited speakers with views and opinions that differed from the norm. And, thankfully, due to a special grant, in the coming year we hope to do more of this.
The aim is to foster dialogue and debate – in a respectful, intelligent manner – for the benefit of all. Lea Misan refers to this as Deep Democracy – a process giving space to minority views that may differ from our own, strengthening our sense of unity and communal purpose.
We hope you will again take the opportunity to join us in the 2017/18 season.
Summary: Parsahot Matot-Masei are the 9th & 10th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 30-36. Matot begins with a section on Vows & Oaths, includes the seminal battle against the Midianites and the taxing of war spoils. It ends with a request from the tribes of Gad & Reuben to remain in trans-Jordan and their agreement to help conquer Canaan.
Masei lists the Children of Israel’s 42 journeys during their sojourn in the Midbar; laws to destroy local idolatry in Canaan; a definition of the territory’s borders and an appointment of 12 new princes. Masei continues with the command to set up cities for the Levites, 48 towns of refuge for the accidental murderer.
The Book of Bamidbar ends with a revision to the Law of Female Inheritance, requiring women property holders to marry within their father’s tribes.
Comment: In anticipation of Tisha B’Av which occurs on Monday 31 July and Tuesday 1 August, please enjoy this thought-provoking video from Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.
Introduction: This comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [To see the full Mechon Mamre text, please click here.]
Chapter 50: Psalm 50 is attributed to Asaph (the Gatherer) offering a prophetic rebuke of Israel and the nations of the world in the End of Days. It emphasizes that G-d expects more than external adherence to commandments; but the pure spirit which these laws and statutes are designed to implant and engender within.
Psalm 50 is divided into four parts; an introduction calling upon the Heavens and Earth to judge mankind (verses 1-6), two separate rebuffs against behaviour unbefitting the pious – one decrying abundant sacrifices and the other rebuking hypocrisy (verses 7-15 & 16-21). The conclusion, at first stark then somewhat uplifting, promises everlasting salvation to the Righteous (verses 22-23).
מִזְמוֹר, לְאָסָף: אֵ-ל, אֱ-לֹהִים ה– דִּבֶּר וַיִּקְרָא-אָרֶץ; מִמִּזְרַח-שֶׁמֶשׁ, עַד-מְבֹאוֹ. A Psalm of Asaph. G-d Almighty, the LORD, has spoken, and called the earth, from the rising of the sun until it goes down. (Psalms 50:1)
יִקְרָא אֶל-הַשָּׁמַיִם מֵעָל; וְאֶל-הָאָרֶץ, לָדִין עַמּוֹ. G-d calls to the Heavens above, and to the Earth, that the people may be judged: (Psalms 50:4)
וַיַּגִּידוּ שָׁמַיִם צִדְקוֹ: כִּי-אֱ-לֹהִים, שֹׁפֵט הוּא סֶלָה. And the Heavens declare their righteousness; for God is judge. Selah. (Psalms 50:6)
This is a disquieting Psalm that suggests first, G-d will show the nations of the world how the covenant with Israel was upheld throughout the perilous centuries. It then focuses on the need to worship the Divine beyond facile ritual, by engaging in relationship and thanksgiving.
שִׁמְעָה עַמִּי, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה– יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָעִידָה בָּךְ: אֱ-לֹהִים אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אָנֹכִי. Hear, My people, and I will speak; Israel, and I will testify against you: God, your God, am I. (Psalms 50:7)
אִם-אֶרְעַב, לֹא-אֹמַר לָךְ: כִּי-לִי תֵבֵל, וּמְלֹאָהּ. If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you; for the world is Mine, and the fullness thereof. (Psalms 50:12)
זְבַח לֵא-לֹהִים תּוֹדָה; וְשַׁלֵּם לְעֶלְיוֹן נְדָרֶיךָ. Offer God the sacrifice of thanksgiving; and pay your vows to the Most High (Psalms 50:14)
Psalm 50 asserts that insincerity concealed within an abundance of sacrifices and false piety is abhorrent to G-d and distant from Divine worship.
וְלָרָשָׁע, אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, מַה-לְּךָ, לְסַפֵּר חֻקָּי; וַתִּשָּׂא בְרִיתִי עֲלֵי-פִיךָ. But to the wicked God says: ‘Why do you declare My statutes, yet take My covenant in vain? (Psalms 50:16)
פִּיךָ, שָׁלַחְתָּ בְרָעָה; וּלְשׁוֹנְךָ, תַּצְמִיד מִרְמָה. You let loose your mouth for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. (Psalms 50:19)
אֵלֶּה עָשִׂיתָ, וְהֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי– דִּמִּיתָ, הֱיוֹת-אֶהְיֶה כָמוֹךָ; אוֹכִיחֲךָ וְאֶעֶרְכָה לְעֵינֶיךָ. You’ve done these things, should I keep silent? You thought I was like you; but I will reprove you, and set the case before your eyes. (Psalms 50:21)
The end of Psalm 50 contains a Messianic message that those who choose a righteous path instead of living haphazardly will receive eternal reward.
זֹבֵחַ תּוֹדָה, יְכַבְּדָנְנִי: וְשָׂם דֶּרֶךְ–אַרְאֶנּוּ, בְּיֵשַׁע אֱלֹהִים. Whoever offers thanksgiving honours Me; and to those who order their path, I will show the salvation of God. (Psalms 50:23)
There is a debate when this Psalm might have been written. The metaphor of a Divine tribunal also appears in Isiah and Micah. Thus a prevailing view is that it came from the 8th century BCE. In Ashkenaz tradition it’s recited on the 4th day of Sukkot.
UK DECISION: There’s relief this week in the UK after the release of statements both from the Office of the Chief Rabbi and of the Spanish & Portuguese community with regard to the controversy that erupted more than 3 months ago. Unexpectedly ignited by a weekly talk given by head of the community, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the ensuing attacks went well beyond scholarly discourse and debate. In response, outcries came from Israel, America and the United Kingdom.
An affair that at points seemed more personal / political than professional, it risked rupturing the fragile seams of Orthodox Judaism. In the words of the Chief Rabbi’s statement, ‘Mindful that we are in the Three Weeks between Shiva Asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b’Av, we call on all concerned and who care for our community to now focus on promoting unity within our kehilla.’
GREEN SPEECH CAMPAIGN During the 21 days from 17th Tammuz to 9 Av, a time in the Jewish calendar which commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, a group of influential organisations has put forward Campaign Green Speech to help us improve our sense of unity as a people.
The many calamities that befell our people in part were attributed to the callous way Jews treated each other. Attached are the links to the 1st seven days of lessons. It takes only a few minutes to skim through each message. But, the hope is it will make enough of an impression that it can have a slow, gradual impact on how we communicate with each other.
Those interested can subscribe for the remaining days. But even if you have no interest in further messages, please take a moment to at least glance at one of the green highlighted portions in the links above. It could make a difference in your life.
Nothing could be more harmful and detrimental to the Jewish people than in-fighting and disrespecting each other. In recent days this has become all too clear. Equally, we’ve seen immense harm caused via social media as well. Please help us take steps in reversing this downward trend.
For more information on the Green Speech campaign, please click here.
Summary: Parshat Pinhas is 8th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 25:10-30:1. It announces G-d’s promised Covenant of Peace with Pinhas following his zealotry against Zimri, prince of the Tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, Princess of Midian.
After commanding Moshe to wage war with the Midianites, G-d called for the 3rd census of Bamidbar, a historical counting at the end of the 40-year’s wandering, in which each tribe was identified by family, and numbers per tribe were tallied (no total was given).
In addition to listing those who perished along the way (Nadab & Avihu, Korah, Datan & Aviram), this census would be used to divide-up the land inheritance after the nation entered Cana’an. The Levites were counted separately but in the same way.
The five daughters of Tselofhad of the tribe of Menashe approached Moshe to ask whether they as women could inherit their father’s portion of land as he had no sons. G-d enumerated through Moshe the laws of women’s inheritance in such cases.
Then the Almighty told Moshe to ascend Mt Avarim where he could view the land that would be given to Bnei Yisrael, but where he would be gathered to his ancestors just like his brother Aharon. For failing to sanctify G-d during the rebellion that occurred at Kadesh over the Waters of Strife, he was proscribed from entering Cana’an.
Moshe requested of G-d to appoint a new leader and was told to choose Joshua son of Nun, on whom he was to place his hands and transfer his aura of leadership. They were to appear before the people while Elazar the Kohen would further confirm the Divine Will behind Joshua’s appointment.
The remainder of Parshat Pinhas concerns the special seasonal sacrificial offerings including; the daily Tamid, Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, Pesah, Shavuoth, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the 7 days of Sukkot plus Shemini Atseret.
Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.
Comment: Parshat Pinhas is about zealotry, about women’s rights and about leadership. Pinhas who avenged G-d’s jealousy, was rewarded with an everlasting Covenant of Peace. The daughters of Zelophhad petitioned and won approval to receive their father’s inheritance. And Moshe was told to ascend Mt Avarim to prepare for his death appointing Joshua to carry on in his stead – all very profound issues.
But one added observation is that again, Bnei Yisrael stood on the brink of extinction and were somehow rescued. The plague that broke out due to the seduction of the Midianite women and the worship of Ba’al Peor in last week’s Parasha, claimed more lives than any of the desert plagues thus far. Compared to 14,700 during the time of Korah, the Baal Peor plague claimed 24,000.
The astute Torah reader will have noticed the parallel between the sin of Baal Peor and the Golden Calf. Rabbi David Fohrman points out, both involved sexual promiscuity, idolatry and feasting. And both came at a time when the people were at a spiritual high point – the Golden Calf immediately after the Decalogue, and Baal Peor after G-d’s blessings bestowed by Balaam on Bnei Yisrael.
Is it odd that each time the Children of Israel have experienced some form of revelation and redemption, it’s followed by a national sin? Is there a discernible pattern and can we break this repetitious, self-destructive cycle?
Finding ourselves in a place where we experience great spiritual enlightenment and emotional closeness, with G-d, with a spouse, with our children, with friends or in community requires openness and vulnerability. But soon after, when the novelty of that intimacy wears off, we’re challenged by what to do next. Do we revert back to our former circumstances or do we propel ourselves forward to a higher level of commitment?
A recent example was last Sunday’s Interfaith Walk and House of Worship visits that created a very warm feeling between people of different faiths who seldom mix with each other. That can be built upon or left to wither. But the experience seeing others as human as we, makes going back to a state of ignorance or mistrust no longer an option.
For most of us, respecting, sustaining and maintaining a sense of relationship intimacy isn’t easy. Largely because it requires extending our feelings of vulnerability which creates within us discomfort and a feeling of danger. So, emotionally there’s a point when each of us makes a decision whether to continue or to close-off our exposure. Often it’s the latter.
Especially during this period known as the 3 Weeks – a historical time associated with Divine wrath and the destruction of our two national Temples – it’s easy to emotionally run away or hide from the historic failures of our faith. We’re told that disunity and baseless hatred were the spiritual causes that weakened the Jewish people and led to our downfall.
By recognising the redemptive cycle described above – building on positive spiritual events and extending our sense of intimacy and vulnerability – perhaps we can right the mistake of our forebears. Reaching out to G-d and those around us with open hearts and a willingness to engage is a crucial first step.
THREE WEEKS – 11 Jul to 1 Aug: The period in the Jewish calendar from 17 Tammuz (Tuesday 11 July) until 9 Av (Tuesday 1 August).
This week began the 3 Week period associated with the destruction of the 2 national temples in Jerusalem – a time of minimising our sense of joy and excitement. For example, we refrain from purchasing new items which require making the blessing Shehehiyanu.
Ironically, the 3 Weeks always occur in summer when school is about to finish and families wish to go on holiday – a time more conducive for enjoyment and celebration than penitence and mourning.
An interesting initiative this year from the USA is called Green Speech supported by the familiar Orthodox outreach groups, trying to promote responsible speech. For at the heart of many of our social conflicts and difficulties, historic and contemporary, is the misuse of speech in how we relate with others.
For details on Laws & Customs of the 3 Weeks please click here.
Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]
Chapter 49: Psalm 49 is attributed to the Sons of Korah. Their previous psalms focused on Messianic Times, the True Worship of G-d, and Jerusalem. Psalm 49 is about the World to Come. It can be divided into 3 sections based on the appearance of the word Selah at the end of verse 14, and again verse 16. (The full text can be found here.)
The first section calls-out the foolishness of mankind to think we can trust in our wealth to save us from death. The second points out, to the contrary, the nether-world awaits us all, but G-d can redeem our souls. The third laments humanity’s shortsightedness in chasing after temporal pursuits, for in the end wealth can’t be taken to the grave, only good deeds.
שִׁמְעוּ-זֹאת, כָּל-הָעַמִּים; הַאֲזִינוּ, כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי חָלֶד. Hear this, all people; give ear, all inhabitants of the world. (Psalms 49:2)
גַּם-בְּנֵי אָדָם, גַּם-בְּנֵי-אִישׁ– יַחַד, עָשִׁיר וְאֶבְיוֹן. Both low and high, rich and poor together. (Psalms 49:3)
It can be argued that the message of this Psalm was intended for all nations of the world; those who came from noble backgrounds (Ish) and those more common (Adam).
הַבֹּטְחִים עַל-חֵילָם; וּבְרֹב עָשְׁרָם יִתְהַלָּלוּ. Those who trust in their wealth, and boast in the multitude of their riches? (Psalms 49:7)
אָח–לֹא פָדֹה יִפְדֶּה אִישׁ; לֹא-יִתֵּן לֵא-לֹהִים כָּפְרוֹ. No man can by any means redeem his brother, nor give G-d a ransom for him. (Psalms 49:8)
Even minor transgressions of good people cause them anguish at the end of their days when they give an account of their actions. All the more so, those who’ve been profligate. No one lives forever, our lives are in G-d’s hands and wealth can’t redeem a sullied soul. Even Adam, G-d’s creation, sinned on the day he was created.
כִּי יִרְאֶה, חֲכָמִים יָמוּתוּ– יַחַד כְּסִיל וָבַעַר יֹאבֵדוּ; וְעָזְבוּ לַאֲחֵרִים חֵילָם. For he sees wise men die, the fool and brute together perish, and leave their wealth to others. (Psalms 49:11)
וְאָדָם בִּיקָר, בַּל-יָלִין; נִמְשַׁל כַּבְּהֵמוֹת נִדְמוּ. But man abides not in honour; he’s like the beasts that perish. (Psalms 49:13)
Wicked people are like sheep heading mindlessly to their doom, abandoning the opportunity for spiritual growth. Instead of inheriting the After Life, they’re relegated to death & decay. They leave their luxuries behind. But the righteous improve themselves and merit the World to Come. Those who don’t comprehend are likened to beasts of the field.
אַךְ-אֱ-לֹהִים–יִפְדֶּה נַפְשִׁי, מִיַּד-שְׁאוֹל: כִּי יִקָּחֵנִי סֶלָה. But God will redeem my soul from the nether-world; and receive me. Selah (Psalms 49:16)
This psalm is familiar to readers because it is recited in a Shiva house. A key message intended by Psalm 49 is that life is too precious to squander pursuing useless pleasures.
To quote a non-Jewish scholar, ‘the sum of the whole matter is, that it can profit a person nothing to gain the whole world, to become possessed of all its wealth and all its power, if he loses his own soul, and is cast away, for want of that holy and heavenly wisdom, which distinguishes man from the brutes, in his life and at his death.’
Summary: Parshat Balak is 7th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 22:2-25:9. It describes the strategy of Balak, King of Moab, who feared Bnei Yisrael were about to overtake his kingdom enroute to the Land of Canaan, just as was done to Sihon and Og.
Balak, attempting to thwart their efforts, hired notorious Prophet Balaam with the promise of unbounded riches if he would curse Bnei Yisrael. But G-d warned Balaam not to go.
Balak persisted, sending higher ranked dignitaries to recruit Balaam. This time G-d granted conditional permission but while travelling to Moab, an angel interfered causing Balaam’s ass to veer from the road 3 times. Each occasion Balaam struck the animal before it cried out and spoke to him. Again, G-d warned Balaam to use care in what he would say.
Despite the fanfare of Balak’s welcome, on 3 separate occasions – at Bamot Ba’al, Sadeh Tsofim and atop Peor – frustratingly, Balaam’s words came out as blessings, not curses.
Infuriated, Balak dismissed Balaam who then delivered an unflattering prophesy about the bleak future of Moab and its surrounding neighbours. Shortly after, Bnei Yisrael began committing the grievous sins of harlotry with the daughters of Moab and of worshipping the god Baal Peor.
This internal leadership crisis climaxed when a prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly cavorted with a daughter of Midian in front of Moshe & Aharon. Their act was interrupted by the zealot Pinhas’s spear, which also put stop to a plague that had taken 24,000 lives.
Parshat Balak contains esoteric poetry about Bnei Yisrael and their close neighbours, describing the Jewish people and their destiny through the prophetic lens of an outsider. Included are the famous words, ‘How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel’ (Numbers 24:5), a phrase Jews recite daily during morning prayers.
Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.
Comment: Several parashot in the Torah are named after individuals – some righteous and some not. It’s noteworthy that the main figures in this week’s parasha, Balak & Balaam, were not Jewish. And though they aimed to harm Bnei Yisrael, their plan was – through the benevolence of the Almighty – mostly thwarted.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 5:22) Balaam is contrasted with the Patriarch Avraham. Avraham is said to have had a Good Eye, a Humble Spirit and a Meek Soul, Balaam to have had the opposite. Those following in their footsteps are considered ‘disciples’.
That the two men were compared to each other shows the prophetic stature of Balaam. The rabbis go further and say that he was as great a prophet to the nations of the world, as Moses was to the Jewish people.
Curiously, the Torah text doesn’t prove Balaam did anything egregious – after all, he blessed the Jewish people 3 times. So why was he identified as the epitome of wickedness in the Oral tradition?
One point which could be raised in justifying the Mishna’s view, is that by hiring himself out as a spiritual mercenary, Balaam betrayed his authenticity.
We expect a prophet who intimately encountered the Divine to be inclined to Goodness. But Balaam hired-out his services to bless or to curse; effectively showing that spirituality depended on circumstances, and that there were no absolutes.[Alternatively, Balaam may have reasoned that if Balak wished to squander money chasing after a curse, Balaam would be all too happy to relieve him of it. Supporting this view is that Balaam too eagerly stipulated the amount of wages ‘he wouldn’t accept’, implying a higher amount might have been acceptable.]
Authenticity is an essential of the human condition. To live authentically is to be true to our Divine nature. It requires a healthy body and mind; feeding ourselves wholesomely, pursuing uplifting ideas, and nourishing our souls. A well-known broadcaster-preacher in the UK pointed out that this can only be accomplished by eating well, finding stimulating material to read and by nourishing our soul through prayer and helping others.
At a time when material-relativism reigns supreme and the highest bidder wins, perhaps it can be useful to remind ourselves that spiritual values are not open for compromise and that authenticity has its absolutes. Less than that, one might be construed as belonging to the students of Balaam.
This week the accounting firm Ernest & Young sponsored an evening to discuss Diversity & Inclusion. Among issues covered were; gender equality, disability access, lifestyle choice and faith in the workplace. Listening to a senior partner explain the importance of employees bringing their full identity to work, reminded me how much has improved in two generations.
My late father often related that when he’d graduated university after having served in the US Navy during WWII, despite having an engineering degree with high honours, on his first job interview the employer told him if he wasn’t willing to work on Saturdays, there would be no place for him in their firm. My own experience, as an orthodox Jew in a UK-based Japanese corporation when asking to leave early on winter Fridays and use annual leave for Jewish holidays, was to be told euphemistically that ‘some religious observance could hinder advancement in the firm’.
How refreshing to see resources now being expended to teach religious literacy and to offer diversity training in the corporate sector. Granted much of this has now become part of employment law. But as they mentioned several times during the EY presentation, there’s a difference between compliance (being tolerant of difference) and of actively embracing diversity. The latter, they believe, enhances creativity, productivity and employee loyalty.
MAZAL TOB: MEIR GOTLIEB’S BAR MITSVAH
Please join us on Shabbat to celebrate Meir Gotlieb’s bar mitsvah. Meir had his tefilllin ceremony earlier this week. He grew-up in this community and has for the past 5 years attended Shabbat services with his father from the start. Meir is well-known for reading part of the Zemirot, leading the boys in singing Yimlokh, and being one of our best football players against the BES older boys. We wish Meir and his family Mazal Tob.
Introduction: This brief comment is in memory of my late mother (Brainah Leah bat Moshe Aharon) and for all those who read Tehillim for the sake of others. [Note: Quoted verses are taken from the Mechon Mamre website.]
Chapter 48: Psalm 48 is attributed to the sons of Korah and is a celebration of Mt Zion and Jerusalem. The Psalm divides into two sections. The first describes G-d’s presence on the mountain and in Jerusalem (Verses 1-9). And the second encourages nations to experience the majesty of G-d’s holy city and to feel the Divine Presence (Verses 10-15). [A copy of the full text can be found here.]
The Hebrew word Zion means monument. The great importance of Jerusalem is in its role as home for G-d’s Temple, where offerings could be brought and atonement affected. Great wonders and miracles occurred in the place where the Divine Presence was to be found, and the reputation of Jerusalem was known throughout the lands.
גָּדוֹל ה וּמְהֻלָּל מְאֹד– בְּעִיר אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, הַר-קָדְשׁוֹ. Great is the LORD, highly to be praised; in God’s city, the holy mountain. (Psalms 48:2)
כִּי-הִנֵּה הַמְּלָכִים, נוֹעֲדוּ; עָבְרוּ יַחְדָּו. For, lo, kings assembled themselves, they came onward together. (Psalms 48:5)
כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְנוּ, כֵּן רָאִינוּ–בְּעִיר-ה צְבָאוֹת, בְּעִיר אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ: אֱ-לֹהִים יְכוֹנְנֶהָ עַד-עוֹלָם סֶלָה. As we’ve heard, so we’ve seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God— establish it for ever. Selah (Psalms 48:9)
From Abrahamic times, G-d’s sanctity was brought to rest on this sacred mountain where our forefathers expressed their utmost devotion. The metaphor of ‘knowing Jerusalem’ means also to share that experience widely throughout the known world. Venerating Jerusalem enabled the Jewish people to achieve a sense of immortality.
כְּשִׁמְךָ אֱ-לֹהִים– כֵּן תְּהִלָּתְךָ, עַל-קַצְוֵי-אֶרֶץ; צֶדֶק, מָלְאָה יְמִינֶךָ. As is Your name, O God, so is Your praise unto the ends of the earth; Your right hand is full of righteousness. (Psalms 48:11)
יִשְׂמַח, הַר צִיּוֹן–תָּגֵלְנָה, בְּנוֹת יְהוּדָה: לְמַעַן, מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ. Let mount Zion be glad, let the daughters of Judah rejoice, because of Your judgments. (Psalms 48:12)
כִּי זֶה, אֱ-לֹהִים אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ–עוֹלָם וָעֶד; הוּא יְנַהֲגֵנוּ עַל-מוּת. For such is God; our God, for ever and ever; guiding us eternally! (Psalms 48:15)
Some consider that this Psalm refers only to the past while others see it allegorically as related to Messianic times. Psalm 48 is traditionally read at the end of Shaharit as the daily psalm for Monday mornings.