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Yom Chamishi, 12 Tammuz 5774

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Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

Kol Simcha - קול שמחה

 

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Weekly Torah Talk on Balak 5774

on Wednesday, 02 July 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

A Comedy of Errors to Relieve a Tragic Week

This has been a tragic week for Jews during which we mourned the loss of three Israeli teens, Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, murdered by terrorists soon after they were kidnapped almost three weeks ago. Their bodies were discovered just last Sunday, and our hearts go out to their families. This has also been a week when violence flared in West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and when an Arab teen was apparently murdered in a reprisal killing. We pray that tempers cool, and that the killers are brought to justice. May this truly be the last time we have to mourn such an outrage.

In fact, we can use a break from this tragic situation. Fortunately, the Torah provides it.

Weekly Torah Talk on Beha'alotecha 5774

on Thursday, 05 June 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Add a Little Light

This week we read the Torah portion of Beha'alotecha in the Book of Numbers. It begins with a description of the menorah, the lamp that burned in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, our people's central worship places for God. That golden menorah was a way to keep track of the days of the week—a new light was lit each day from Sunday through Friday until, finally, all seven branches shone on the holiest of days, Shabbat.

Weekly Torah Talk on Naso 5774

on Wednesday, 28 May 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Three-Fold Blessing of Presence

This week we read the second Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Naso, which includes a variety of instructions ranging from priestly organization to the ordeal of jealousy to the voluntary but binding vows of the Nazirite. It is a kind of catch-all sort of parashah, but it is also a portion that is raised to the status of greatness by one particular passage.

Just before the princes of the people bring offerings to mark the beginning of formal worship in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, God instructs Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim, to bless the people with a famous formula. We know it as the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. This three-part sequence has become the most famous benediction of all:

Bamidbar 5774: Jewish Accounting for God

on Friday, 23 May 2014. Posted in Sermons

Shabbat Shalom. As you have heard very humorously in our drash tonight, in most ways Bamidbar is a stupendously dull portion, one of the least superficially interesting Torah portions of the entire year. After all, it's nothing more than a series of lists, a counting, a census of people. How many were in the tribe of Reuben, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 46,500. How many were in the tribe of Shimon, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 59,300. How many in the tribe of Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Ephraim, Menasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war, on and on, thousands upon thousands, all counted one at a time? Numbers and numbers and numbers, added together, a Torah portion only an accountant could love.

On closer examination, it looks—well, even less intriguing. More details about the arrangement of the camp. More minutiae relating to the census. Nothing with the vaguest whiff of interest or challenge or meaning.

In fact, when you come right down to it, it looks a whole lot like the regulations for the establishment of a census. Count each and every person carefully, total them up, move on to the next area or region. Each and every single individual is tallied. A good process for the statisticians, but what can it possibly mean to us? Does the annual reading of Bamidbar explain why there are so many Jewish CPA's?

Weekly Torah Talk on Bamidbar 5774

on Wednesday, 21 May 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Every Single Person Counts

This week we read the portion of Bamidbar, first in the book of Numbers, which is given its name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. Superficially it's just a listing of names and numbers and not a very interesting text for study or inspiration. But it also teaches us a primary lesson: every human being counts in God's eyes—and should similarly count in our eyes, as well.

There is an unusual phrase in the beginning of the portion. The survey is to be taken of the entire nation, and b'mispar sheimot, "by the numbering of names." In other words, even though by definition a census is an accounting, a totaling of sums, each individual is to be accounted for not by number but by name. Each person has a unique identity, a human face. Each is an image of God.

Bechukotai 5774: A New Tochecha -- Worldwide Anti-Semitism Today

on Friday, 16 May 2014. Posted in Sermons

This week's Torah portion of Bechukotai describes both wonderful promises given to our ancestors if they fulfilled God's mitzvot and kept the covenant, and a long litany of punishments if they failed to do so. The blessings guarantee that if we follow God's commandments we will be a blessing to the peoples of the world. The curse section is called the Tochecha, and this sequence of often viciously negative consequences for our ancestors, and by extension, for us, came to mind this week when I heard of a new study that had just been released about anti-Semitism, surely the world's longest-lived irrational hatred and the one with some of the worst consequences in all of human history.

This first worldwide study of the ancient disease of anti-Semitism was commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, and completed by First International Resources. It interviewed roughly 53,000 people in over 100 countries, which statistically represents some 88% of the world's population. In the story that came out on Wednesday of this week, the study found that about a quarter of the entire population of the world is pretty deeply infected with Anti-Semitism, a stunning number in view of the fact that the entire Jewish population of the world is roughly 14 million, or less than ½ of 1% of the world's total of 7.2 billion. That means that over a billion people in the world today have anti-Semitic attitudes.

 

The Only Way We Will Have Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

on Saturday, 10 May 2014.

A Yom Ha'Atzma'ut 66 Analysis

Last week was Israel's 66th Independence Day, Yom HaAtzma'ut, and for the occasion I was asked about the failure of the recent US-led peace talks, and also asked if I personally believed that ultimately there would ever be peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I must say, I was surprised that Secretary of State John Kerry got as far as he did in the current climate in the Middle East. But I cannot honestly say that the collapse of these talks should have surprised anyone. Peace in the Middle East has been an elusive goal for many, many years, and I never anticipated that this particular go round was likely to accomplish much.

In my opinion, in order for any sustainable peace deals to take place in the Middle East, particularly between Arabs and Jews, there are three conditions that need to exist.

First, both sides must have leaders who have a fair amount of confidence that they are in control of their own nation's political direction. No one can successfully negotiate a transformative peace treaty from a position of weakness, and any such agreement will not receive the popular support it must have to succeed. Israel is a true democracy, and if it were to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians that did not have the support of at least 50% of its voting public that treaty would fail. The Palestinians are theoretically democratic, too, and their own public will not support any treaty with Israel that is viewed as unequal or imposed on them, even by a strong leader.

Weekly Torah Talk on Behar 5774

on Wednesday, 07 May 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Renewing Our Resources

This week we read the portion of Behar, from the book of Leviticus, which establishes the rules for the sabbatical and jubilee years, the most important form of environmental legislation in the ancient world. Concern for the environment in Judaism has always been an important part of our tradition. The very first text on caring for the natural world goes back to Genesis, where we are commanded to be stewards of God's creation.

But the most important Jewish legislation in the Torah is found in Leviticus, in a section we read this week in Parashat Behar: you shall have a Sabbatical every seventh year, and the land shall rest. We are instructed to do no active planting or cultivation, to allow the fields to lie fallow, to give the earth a chance to rest. This is considered today to be good, practical agricultural policy. It allows time for nature to restore the nutrients that grains leach from the soil, it allows the fallen fruit in the orchards to nourish the loam, and it is a fundamental part of crop rotation in all areas practicing modern farming techniques.

Weekly Torah Talk on Emor 5774

on Wednesday, 30 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Habit of Holiness

Habits are often considered to be problems in our lives. Most of us work hard to change or even expunge the bad habits that plague us—eating too much, working too hard, procrastinating difficult things, wasting time on Facebook, playing games on our smartphones, watching reality TV shows...

But some habits are actually good things, and cultivating good habits is at least as important as resisting bad ones.

 

Weekly Torah Talk on Kedoshim 5774

on Wednesday, 23 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Building the Good Society out of Actions

This week we read the great Torah portion of Kedoshim, which includes the Holiness Code, a description of the ethical injunctions that lie at the heart of Jewish practice. The code includes mitzvot that require us to assist the poor, treat strangers, widows, and orphans with generosity and kindness, obligate sensitivity to those with physical and other impairments, and insists on fair business practices. It obligates us to live moral lives, tells us how to do so, and builds thematically to its most powerful message.

That message is ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha, love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is one of the most powerful of all moral instructions, and it lies at the heart of the religious spirit in life. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

It's important that this remarkable section comes in the precise center of the middle book of the Torah, Vayikra, Leviticus. Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, is in the middle of the middle of the Torah. It forms the heart of the heart of our most sacred text. And in the very middle of Kedoshim, at the heart of the heart of the heart, if you will, is the ethical injunction to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

 

Weekly Torah Talk on Pesach 5774

on Wednesday, 16 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

A Festival with Sex Appeal

This week we read a series of special Torah selections for the holiday of Passover, reflecting the texts of the Exodus from Egypt and of our liberation from the hands of Pharaoh and his minions, as well as the rituals of the Pesach celebration. The climactic Torah reading on Monday for the final day of Passover will be the magnificent Song of Moses, the Az Yashir Mosheh, the greatest extended poem in the Torah. The Torah reading this Shabbat is from Ki Tisa, and it includes the laws of the festivals and the Shlosh Esrai Midot, the declaration of the 13 attributes of God that are chanted in the Torah service on each festival.

But this Passover Sabbath we also read an unusual section that isn't from the Torah at all. It's in the last section of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketuvim, and it's called the Song of Songs, Shir haShirim.

Weekly Torah Talk on Acharei Mot/HaGadol 5774

on Wednesday, 09 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Holiness is our Principle Pursuit

As we prepare for Passover this coming Monday night, and perform the spring cleaning and the cooking rituals that make this such a labor-intensive holiday, we have a special final Sabbath, Shabbat HaGadol, literally "the Great Sabbath" before Pesach begins. All these preparations are dedicated to removing chametz, impurities, from our homes and our lives, and allowing us to experience the sacredness of the festival.

Similarly, this week we read the Torah portion of Acharei Mot near the mid-point of the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra. Leviticus is centered on the question of how we are to create holiness in our lives, and Acharei Mot addresses the issue in a variety of ways. It begins with words that are poignant without being revealing: "after the death of Aaron's two sons", referring to Nadav and Avihu, the two young priests who died in the Torah portion of Sh'mini for offering strange and inappropriate fire to the Lord. Aaron is enjoined to be cautious and scrupulous in all of his observances, lest he incur a similar punishment to that of his sons.

Weekly Torah Talk on Metzora 5774

on Tuesday, 01 April 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

The Moral Evil of Public Slander

This week's Torah portion of Metzora focuses on the question of leprosy, a dreaded disease in the ancient world but mostly an archaic and pretty disgusting section to us today. It's true that leprosy was an awful thing, and needed to be eliminated if at all possible, in particular by using the concept of quarantine to isolate it. But exploring what our ancestors believed to be an infectious disease at great length in a Sabbath service not always spiritually meaningful today.

The rabbis of our tradition recognized this problem long ago, and came up with an ingenious and meaningful reinterpretation: the word Metzora, which means leprosy, was itself an abbreviation for the term in Hebrew Motzi shem ra—which means slander or evil speech. Our moral goal in life should be to completely eliminate from our lives and habits motzi shem ra, the awful tendency we have to speak ill of others, a kind of interpersonal leprosy.

Weekly Torah Talk on Tazria/HaChodesh 5774

on Wednesday, 26 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

How We Respond to Dreaded Diseases

This week we read one of the least appetizing Torah portions of the whole year, Tazria from the Book of Leviticus. It contains instructions on the treatment of a truly horrible ancient illness, leprosy, that still exists in the world, although it isn't much in evidence in America these days, thank God.

Tazria delineates the ways in which we are to treat those individuals afflicted with a terrible, frightening disease that our ancestors regarded as contagious. The methods specified—sanitary conditions and quarantine—are still in use today, and are often considered to be state-of-the-art medical means of controlling infection. Nor is there any moral valence placed on those who are ill. People infected with the dread skin affliction are not considered to have brought it on themselves for any bad action or error. Rather, they are simply unfortunate, and are isolated for their own protection, and that of the general society's.

Weekly Torah Talk on Sh'mini 5774

on Wednesday, 19 March 2014. Posted in Torah Talks

Human Sacrifices Make Us Holy?

This week we read the Torah portion of Sh'mini, which includes the dramatic incident in which the High Priest Aaron's two sons, kohanim, priests of God serving in the holy Tabernacle, offer strange fire and are immediately consumed by fire themselves. Aaron is distraught, and his brother Moses comforts him in God's words, saying, "bikrovai ekadesh, v'al p'nai chol ha'am ekaveid—by those brought close to me I am sanctified, and before all the people I am honored." In other words, those who die before their time, as martyrs, are made holy to God, and their sacrifice brings honor to the Lord and to the people.

This is troubling and confusing. Judaism, from its beginning, rejected the entire concept of human sacrifice. In the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak in Genesis, God instructs Abraham to ritually offer up his beloved son Isaac—but then reverses course, and demonstrates to him, and to all of us, that we are never again to sacrifice a human being for religious purposes.

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