Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vaetchanan - Compassionate Punishment

In the movie Con Air - about a group of prisoners being transported on an airplane – at one point John Cusack’s character quotes Theodore Dostoevsky and says “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.” In this way he acknowledges the fact that while prisoners need to be punished, there’s also a need for there to be compassion in the way that they’re punished and the way that their punishment is handled.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses pleading with God about his punishments. Several weeks ago in our Torah, we read about how Moses struck the Rocks of Meribah, and as a result God decreed “You will not bring this congregation to the Land because you didn’t sanctify God in the eyes of the people of Israel. Here we see that Moses has yet to make his peace with the punishment that God has chosen and he says “Let me I pray cross over and see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – that good hill country and the Lebanon.” But as he continues: “Adonai was wrathful with me on your account and wouldn’t listen to me.” And God said “Enough, never speak to me on this matter again.” 

But then, in responding to Moses’s plea, we see how God has compassion for Moses. God says “Go up to the Summit of Pisgah and gaze about to the West and North, South and East. Look at it well. You shall not go across the Jordan.” 

At first glance, this appears to be God reinforcing the punishment – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the land, but when we return to Moses’s words, Moses asks “I pray – let me cross over AND see the good land.” Crossing over appears to be off the table because God’s punishment is very clear – that Moses will not bring the congregation into the Land. But the opportunity to see the Good Land on the other side of the Jordan – THAT God can accept. And in this way when God says to Moses “You can go up to Pisgah and see the land.” God is at least able to respond to one of Moses’s requests.

In this way, we see God’s compassion for Moses and God’s compassion in the context of punishing Moses.  For God’s reasons, whether we agree with them or not, Moses deserves to be punished and will not enter the Promised Land. But God still finds a way to respond to Moses’s request so that there can be compassion – so that there can be an opportunity for Moses to at least see the Promised Land on the other side of the Jordan. God demonstrates for us that even when punishing someone, there is the opportunity and the possibility to be compassionate in the way that that punishment is being handled. Moses never fulfills the first part of his request, but God listens to him, and at least he gets to see the Good Land, the Promised Land.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Devarim - Carried by God

One of the phrases that our daughter Gabby likes to say is “Pick me up.” She can of course walk and often we’ll push her in the stroller, but she likes to be picked up and carried when we’re going from place to place. Right now as I’m recording this podcast, we’re at URJ’s Green Family Camp, in Bruceville, TX and with the heat outside, Gabby has said “Pick me up” more often than normal.

We as parents have a responsibility to carry our children until they are able to walk, but it’s also interesting to know that God appears to carry us as well. In this week’s Torah portion of Devarim, as Moses begins his farewell address to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan, we get a little bit of a recap of our peoples journey – how we left Mount Sinai, how Moses set up judges over all the people and then how we have the incident of the spies going out to the Land and bringing back their report.

When Moses retells this story, he says that it was him who said to the people “Have no dread or fear of them. None other than Adonai your God, who goes before you, will fight for you – just as God did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes – and in the wilderness where you saw how Adonai your God carried you, as a man carries his son – all the way that you traveled until you came to this place.” In these 2 images, we see the 2 sides of God. On the one hand, God is the warrior fighting for us – the one who brought us out of slavery in Egypt, who brought plagues and miracles so we could go free – but alongside this, we have the picture of God as a loving parent, carrying us just as a parent carries their child – all the way through the wilderness, for past 40 years.

As we read this Torah portion, we therefore gain an insight into the dual relationship we have with God. There is the God of Force and the God of Might, but there is also the God of Parental Love. \

As we approach our high holy day season, when we refer to God as Avinu Malkanu -  our Parent and our Ruler, we see in that prayer, the 2 sides of God. Often we focus too much on the powerful God, bringing miracles, plagues, and smiting down those who oppose God. It’s also important to remember the loving God, the parental God – the one who carried us for 40 years throughout our time in the wilderness and who in many ways, continues to carry us today. 

We have this dual relationship with God. Sometimes we want God to go before us and sometimes we simply need God to be there to pick us up, to carry us, and to love us.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Matot-Masei - Responsibility for others

In one of my favorite scenes in the original Star Wars movie, and I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it for anyone, Han Solo returns to save Luke Skywalker as they’re attacking the Death Star.  Earlier in the film, Han had left, taking the money he’d received and seemingly not caring or feeling any responsibility to help Luke or the rest of the rebels as they battled against the Evil Empire.  But we see that Han really is the hero we hoped he would be as he comes back recognizing that he is responsible for others and that there is more to life than just money. 

In this week’s Torah portion we see potentially a similar occurrence as the Reubenites and the Gaddites come to the land of Jazer and Gilead and realize that this would be a perfect region for them to raise their cattle. 

They then go to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the chieftains of the community and ask, “Can we stay on this side of the Jordan, in this land, and have this as our holding, as our inheritance.”  And, Moses' response is “are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” 

The response of the Reubenites and Gaddites is unequivocal, they respond and say “we will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children and then we will hasten as shock troops in the van of the Israelites until we’ve established them in their home.  While our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land.  We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion, but we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan.”

In this moment, those two tribes pledged themselves to be responsible for the other tribes as they cross over the Jordan and conquer the Promised Land.  What’s striking is that Moses says to them “are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?”   And, while originally, the tribal leaders were brothers when it was the sons of Jacob; Reuben, Shimon, Levy, Judah and so on.  Many many generations have passed since then.  And so, at best now, we’re talking about very distant cousins and yet, Moses still uses the term “brothers” and the response is “we are responsible for our brothers”. 

When we consider that we are all descended from Adam and Eve and then again from Noah, we might recognize that in many ways, we are brothers with all of humanity, and, as such, this episode serves as an indication that we are responsible for everyone.  Not just our immediate family, but even if they were brothers or sisters hundreds of thousands of years ago, as we are all descended from Adam and Eve and Noah, we are all brothers and sisters with all of humanity.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Pinchas - Female Intervention

Next time you’re on google, type in the words -  if women ruled the world - and see the results that come up.  There are 2 types of pages that you’ll find on your search engine.  One set of those pages deal with the subject from a humorous point of view, or, at least they try to.  Making light of the suggestion and trying to make fun of what the world would be like.  On the other side, there are a number of serious articles dealing with this as a real possibility.  In one BBC article, it begins with the sentence "Not so long ago the idea that women might rule the world seemed slightly ridiculous, like something out of science fiction.  But in an essay to mark International Women’s Day, political analyst and former White House press secretary, DeeDee Meyer, argues  it’s now a topic that can be seriously discussed."

A lot has changed in the place of women in our society over the last few years.  But we might see in this week’s Torah portion one of those first important female interventions.  In the last few weeks, our Torah has been dominated by men challenging Moses in negative ways.  We had Korach and his rebellion, we had Balak and Balaam trying to curse the Israelites and this week we see true religious fanaticism in the person of Pinchas in the aftermath of the murder he committed at the end of last week’s Torah portion.

Against this backdrop, suddenly we read about the daughters of Zelophehad, a family from the tribe of Manasseh, who came before Moses and Eleazar the High Priest, the chieftans and the whole assembly at the entrance of the tent meeting and they said “Our father died in the wilderness, he was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, which banded together against Adonai, but died for his own sin and he has left no sons.  Let not our father’s name be lost his clan just because he had no sons, give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.”  Moses takes the matter to God, who says that you should give them a holding amongst their father’s kinsmen.  Allowing female inheritance for the first time. 

Most of the time, we focus on this important breakthrough in women’s rights.  But it’s also worth noting the different way that the daughters of Zelophehad dealt with their issue as opposed to the men we’ve been reading about in the last few weeks of Torah.  These women came calmly in a measured way and brought their concern, their challenge to Moses.  They did it with words not with rebellion, and at the end of it when Moses took the  matter to God, God said that they were right.  And actually set up a law as a result of their intervention.


In this way, the daughters of Zelophehad are not just important for women’s rights, they’re also important as an example of how we might deal with challenging situations.  We shouldn’t be the revolutionaries of Korach, we should not be the zealots of Pinchas, instead, we need to be like the daughters of Zelophehad.  Their female intervention stands counter to all of those male examples and in many ways, elevates our story, our people and us today.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Balak - Listening to the Donkey

In the movie Shrek, we’re introduced to a talking donkey voiced by Eddie Murphy, as one of the fairy tale creatures existing in that place.  We might think that a talking donkey would be the stuff of fairy tales, but actually a talking donkey appeared in this week’s Torah portion.

This week as we read the Torah portion of Balak, we read how the king of Moab was so scared of the Israelites that he sent for the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites.  And while Balaam was initially reluctant knowing that God was not in favor of this plan, eventually he consented and followed Balak’s servants.  He was riding on his donkey when the donkey saw ahead of her an angel of Adonai standing in the way and, so first she swerved to the side and Balaam beat her.  Then when the angel re-positioned himself she swerved the other way squashing his foot against the wall, and he beat her again.  And then once more as the angel was in front of the donkey, she just stopped and so he beat her a third time.  

Finally God opened the mouth of the donkey and so the donkey said to Balaam “what have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  Balaam said to her “you’ve made a mockery of me, if I had a sword with me, I’d kill you”.  Then the donkey responded “look, I am the donkey that you’ve been riding all along until this day.  Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”  And he answered, “No”.  And then God uncovers Balaam’s  eyes so that he sees the angel standing in front of him.  In this way, Balaam’s donkey was trying to save him each of these times and yet, three times over, she was beaten as a result.  

Until God gave her the mouth to speak, she could not open her mouth to tell Balaam what lay ahead of him.  But as we read the story we may not encounter talking donkeys in our lives, but there will be occurrences where someone’s trying to tell us something without words.  Where someone for whatever reason cannot say what they need to say and we have to be adept at picking up the other signs.  Of being conscious of the signals that they give us in their behavior and in their actions.


The story of Balaam’s donkey is the story of an inability to share a warning or share words that needed to be spoken.  And in our own lives we might think of those people that we need to listen to.  Being aware, not just of what they say but of what they do, so that we can be there to help them and, in turn, so that they can be there to help us.  Balaam’s donkey reminds him that this is not the way she normally behaved and so he should have been more attuned to the change in her behavior.  We can learn this lesson for our interactions with our fellow people and also possibly with our donkeys.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Chukat - Time for a Change

When I began my college career, I was a student of history.  It had been my favorite subject at school so there was no question that it would be the subject for my college studies.  But very soon in that first year, I began to realize that history at college was not the same as history at school.  Despite this, it took me another full year until the end of the second year to work up the courage to say to my history teacher that I wanted to transfer to theology, where I eventually completed my studies and was much more engaged and happy. 

Change is difficult.  And, while we might realize that a change is necessary, it can still be hard to act upon that situation.  In this week’s Torah portion, as we emerge from the stories of the spies and the decree that that generation will not live to see the Promised Land, we get the story of the Waters of Meribah.  

The people complained to Moses and Aaron that there is no clean water and so Moses and Aaron go to God.  God speaks to Moses, saying, “you and your brother Aaron, take the rod and assemble the community and before their very eyes, order the rock to yield its water.  This way you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” 

When Moses gets to the rock together with Aaron with the assembled congregation, he is clearly angered by the people and says “Listen you rebels…” and then Moses raises his hand and strikes the rock twice with the rod and out comes the water.  While the people get the water that they need, God then says to Moses and Aaron, “because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  

We must remember that God was the one who instructed Moses to take the rod with him, placing that rod in Moses hand, and therefore was it not inevitable that Moses would use it in some way.  And, yet, it’s because of this action that God decrees that Moses and Aaron shall not enter into the Promised Land.

We might think that the punishment was a little bit extreme, but we might also wonder, if God realized that perhaps the time for a change had come and that this was some kind of test of Moses.  How would he react with a rod in his hand, the people before him and the task of speaking to the rock.  In that instant, rather than talking to the rock, the anger, the frustration got the better of him.  And, so he struck the rock twice, instead of talking to it.  

While, this, in and of itself, might not have seemed like such a sin, or a crime worthy of the punishment of not entering into the Promised Land, it may have been the sign that God was waiting for to know that the time for a change had come.  God might have suspected this as a result of the incident with the spies.  But now with this pretext, God allowed and set up the situation whereby change could happen.  And, to his credit, Moses just continues with the journey, sending messages to the King of Edom.  Perhaps he too knew that the time for a change had come. 

And, while it is never easy to change, sometimes it is necessary. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Korach - God's Protective Nature

Occasionally my wife has accused me of being over-protective when it comes to our daughter, Gabby.  This generally entails me following her around a little closer than I possibly need to when we’re at the playground and being ready to jump to her defense if it’s ever necessary and, often when it isn’t because I anticipate that it could be.  I am an over-protective parent but I take that as being part of my role in being her father.

And, in reading this week’s Torah portion, I think God is also over-protective when it comes to Moses and Aaron.  This week we read about Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership when he, together with Datan, Abiram and 250 Israelites assembled in front of our leaders.  And he challenged Moses saying, “you have gone too far, for all the community are holy, all of them.  And, Adonai’s in their midst, why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?”   

Korach’s challenge to Moses is striking because it is not a challenge against God, it is simply a challenge to Moses and Aaron as the leaders of the people.  And, Moses response is also telling in this way,  Moses does not call on God, when he falls on his face, instead he then speaks to Korach and his allies.  And in all of these exchanges, God is silent.  God is referenced by Moses, but we do not know what God is thinking.  

Only when Korach gathers the community against Moses and Aaron in front of the Tent of Meeting, does God finally appear, and then God is decisive in God’s statement and action.  God tells Moses and Aaron – stand back from this community so that I may annihilate them in an instant.  God is so protective of Moses and Aaron that God is prepared to destroy the entire Israelite community because of this challenge to their leadership.  And it is only because Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and pray to God that the community is spared. 


But God is still that protective parent.  God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to stand apart from Korach, Datan and Abiram; the ground then opened up and swallowed these people alive down to Sheol, an ultimate punishment from God.  We see in this instant that while God is upset when the people challenge God’s authority, God is even more upset when they challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority and right to lead.  In this moment we see how over-protective God can be and what it truly means to experience God’s love, care and protection.  

We know that an attack on ourselves can be painful, but an attack on those we love is even more challenging and often elicits an even stronger response, we see this from God too, and we can hope that we will be the recipients of God’s love and protection.