CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 10
VOICES OF TORAH (Continued from page 4)
Psalm 106:30 provides an alternative portrayal of
Pinchas's role: Pinchas stood and prayed, and the
scourge was held back. Here prayer triumphs, not
violence. And while according to Numbers 25:4,
God instructs Moses to impale the ringleaders of the
insurrection, BT Sanhedrin 35a interprets this verse
to command courts of law. The common people, not
the chieftains or magistrates, sinned at Baal-peor.
Torah is not demanding the leaders' punishment, but
rather that they serve as judges to try the sinners, lest
extrajudicial vigilante violence supersede courts of
justice. And BT Shabbat 54b observes that whoever
can forbid fellow citizens from sinning but refrains
should be seized for the sins of those citizens.
The lesson of Pinchas is not violence masquerading as
righteousness, as the ps'hat might suggest, but rather
justice established through courts.
The story of the daughters of Zelophechad presents
Torah to us as something that can, and must, change
to address human needs. God doesn't think of
everything, and therefore Torah, as initially given,
fails to address all necessary concerns-in this case,
the inheritance of daughters who have no brothers.
The Books of Numbers (chaps. 27, 36) and Joshua
(chap. 17) offer us the story of the daughters in
three parts. In part two, this week's parashah, the
heads of the tribe of Manasseh protest to Moses that
if the daughters receive their father's portion and
subsequently marry outside the tribe, their land will
be forever lost to Manasseh. God's initial fix to this
problem is deemed unfair because it fails to retain
clan land in tribal holdings and the Jubilee will
not remedy the transference. God, through Moses,
modifies inheritance law yet again: to keep tribal
lands intact, daughters must marry within their tribe
in order to inherit. The daughters of Zelophechad
agree to the stricture. The Rabbis will laud their
wisdom and virtue (BT Bava Batra 119b).
In revealing the evolution of the laws of inheritance
in this manner, Torah itself tells us that not all cases
are covered and complete in the Written Torah. We
are not free to "do whatever we want." God has given
us Torah along with the freedom and capacity to
wrestle with the puzzles that life presents us in search
of a just solution. We struggle, as Jews have always
struggled, to stay on a path toward holiness, whose
guardrails are justice, to implement the sometimes
mysterious words of Torah.
D'varim, "Words," has always seemed an insubstantial
title for the final book of the Torah that recounts
Moses' departure from the world stage. In reality,
the book is filled with words, including the Sh'ma,
the Ten Commandments, and the soaring rhetoric
We can learn from D'varim that words are not
insubstantial and ought not be trivialized, because
they are the core of most human communication.
They truly matter. Today words are routinely abused
and twisted, their meaning maliciously traduced in
so much of public and political dialogue. Globally,
it wreaks incalculable damage on the credibility
of foundational social and political institutions
necessary to maintain a successful, free society and
Deuteronomy begins with a significant qualification
of the "Words": "These are the words spoken by
Moses to all Israel...." These are not just any words.
These are the words of Israel's exalted and humble
leader, uttered close to the time of his death. This
raises them to the highest level and conveys that they
are true and trustworthy.
As rabbis we know how easy it is for meanings to
be misunderstood and how careful we must be with
every word we utter. This is why we should not
acquiesce through a diplomatic silence but rather
be forthright in condemning those who indulge
in deceptive double-speak or worse. Like Moshe
Rabbeinu, we need to mean what we say, say what we
mean, and speak the truth at all times, because our
words really matter.
BT Taanit 29a establishes Tishah B'Av as the
calendrical date of multiple Jewish tragedies:
"The Mishnah further taught that the Temple was
destroyed for the second time also on the Ninth
of Av." Asking when we derive that the Second
Temple was destroyed on this date, Gemara brings a
baraita: "A meritorious matter is brought about on
an auspicious day, and a deleterious matter on an
inauspicious day, e.g., the Ninth of Av." Our Sages
established Tishah b'Av as just such an inauspicious
day, on which both Temples were destroyed and
numerous disasters that devastated Jewish life and
order took place over time.
Is it coincidence that so much suffering found itself
on this one day or is there something deeper?
Perhaps our Sages understood that national
mourning has a disquieting effect that exceeds its
temporal boundaries. The lachrymose nature of so
much of Jewish history could have plunged us into a
gai tzalmavet of permanent grief. Corralling public,
communal mourning for these major tragedies
into one day affords us an opportunity to mourn
collectively without grief becoming the standard
mode for how we experience our past.
We descend to our mourning, read Lamentations'
deeply disturbing and vivid descriptions of a fallen
Jerusalem. By early afternoon, the day's heaviness
lightens ever so slightly and we begin to ascend from
the depths, carried along in the weeks to come by
haftarah portions that promise healing of a broken
relationship and spiritual reconciliation.
There is something significant in the realization that
the Sh'ma, the best-known Jewish prayer, in not so
much a prayer as a statement. It appears first in this
week's parashah. Equally striking, whereas prayers are
normally human articulations directed to God, the
Sh'ma is addressed by God to human beings.
Most prayer books incompletely translate Sh'ma
as "Hear." In his commentary to Genesis 41:15,
Rashi explains: "Sh'ma is entendre," the French
verb that means both "hear" and "understand."
Unfortunately, all too often people listen without
truly understanding. As God puts it to Isaiah, Go tell
the people, "However much you may listen, you won't
understand" (Isaiah 6:9).
It is interesting that whereas Hellenism expressed
itself though visual representations such as theater,
art, sculpture, and architecture, it is the call to hear
that stands at the heart of Judaism. When Isaiah is
called upon to prophesy, he hears the voice of God
speaking to him (6:8). After the wind, earthquake,
and fire, Elijah perceives God in the still, small voice
(1 Kings 19:12).
While we may complain that God does not speak
to us, perhaps the real problem is that in our fastpaced world cluttered with noise, commotion, and
distractions, we seldom find the time to stop and
listen so that we can comprehend.
The order of the declarations at the end of N'ilah is
not coincidental. Only after we have proclaimed,
"Sh'ma Yisrael"-having really listened-are we in a
position to comprehendingly affirm, "Adonai hu haElohim-Adonai is God."
Parashat Eikev sounds a timeless warning: Beware lest
your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your
God-who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house
of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible
wilderness...who brought forth water for you from the
flinty rock; who fed you...with manna...-and you say
to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own
hand have won this wealth for me." Remember that it is
Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth,
in fulfillment of the covenant that God made on oath
(Continued on page 11)
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 1
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 2
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 3
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 4
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 5
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 6
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - Insert1
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - Insert2
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 7
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 8
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 9
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 10
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 11
CCAR Newsletter May/June 2020 - 12