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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Devarim 5778- Tisha B’Av

Parashat Devarim is always read during the Shabbat prior to Tisha B’Av. Why is this? Because in this parasha Moses reminds us of the story of the ten spies, who caused a terrible crisis among the Children of Israel after delivering a misleading report about the land of Canaan. As a result of the events that happened after this, God decreed that the generation that had left Egypt would die in the desert. According to the sages, that decree was given on the night of Tish B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.

However, what is Tisha B’Av and what do we commemorate on this day? Tisha B’Av is a fast day, the only day in the Hebrew calendar (apart from Yom Kippur) in which we fast for a whole day. It is a day of mourning to commemorate many tragedies that happened to the Jewish people. Many of these tragedies occurred on the ninth of Av itself or very close to it. This year, Tisha B’Av falls this coming Saturday, July 22nd, but because of the Shabbat celebration, it is commemorated the following day, on Sunday.

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Parashat Matot – Masei 5778: “Do not separate yourself from the community” Pirkei Avot (2:5)

This week we read two parashot, Matot and Masei, the last parashot of the book of B’midvar. At the end of the first parashah, it is written that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and part of the tribe of Menashe preferred not to cross the Jordan because they wanted to stay in the lands of Jazer and Gilead. Why? Because these lands were good for cattle and they had great numbers of cattle.

It is written in the Torah: “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (B’midvar 32: 1-5)

In other words, they didn’t want to enter the promised land with all the people of Israel because they were concerned about their cattle, about their property or acquisition.

We can find here a tension between two values—being part of a people and being concerned about wealth. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe placed their possessions over their connection to the people of Israel.

Of course, wealth and possessions are relevant, and our tradition recognizes their importance in our lives. However, the problem is when the possessions become a goal rather than a means to a goal.

There is a Midrash that states: “Three gifts were created in the world, and these are wisdom, strength and wealth. One who merits any of them possesses all that is precious in this world. If one is privileged to possess wisdom, he has attained everything. If one is privileged to possess strength, he has attained everything. If one is privileged to possess wealth, he has attained everything. When does it apply? When they are gifts of Heaven and come through the force of the Torah.” (Midrash Rabbah B’midbar 22:7)

The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe possessed great numbers of cattle and their only concern was to make their herds grow and be wealthier, rather than committing themselves to the continuity and welfare of the people of Israel. All the tribes were about to enter the land of Israel and live there together as a people, with their values and communal mission, but these tribes preferred to be apart from the rest in order to take care of their possessions.

There is another Midrash that comments regarding these tribes’ attitude:

“You find that the children of Reuben and Gad were rich, possessing large number of cattle, but they loved their money and settled outside the land of Israel. Consequently, they were the first of all the tribes to go into exile .… What brought it on them? The fact that they separated themselves from their brethren because of their possessions.” (Midrash Rabbah B’midbar 22:8)

According to this Midrash, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of the tribe of Menashe were the first to go into exile because they decided to separate themselves. The possessions were more precious to them than was being part of their people.

It is written in Pirkei Avot (2:5): “Al tifrosh min hatzibur”: “Do not separate yourself from the community.”

There are many possessions that we may love to acquire and many goals we would like to achieve during our lives. Many people place their possessions, their successes, or other kinds of motivations above their tradition or community. When one separates oneself from the community, one may be very wealthy and successful, but one loses a main pillar of our tradition, the community, the heart of our identity, our joy and continuity.

Thanks to the existence of synagogues around the world, the Jewish people is alive and we live out traditions and the lessons of the Torah with happiness and pride. One of the keys of our existence is to belong, to be part of a congregation where you can find meaningful values that are part of our tradition—values like friendship, solidarity, union, happiness, support, love, compassion, spirituality, justice, and equality.

It is very difficult to maintain the Jewish tradition in an island, separating yourself from the congregation. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe tried to do that but they failed.

We learn from this lesson not to follow the attitude of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Menashe, who placed their possessions above their people, values and tradition.

Remember the statement of Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” and try to be committed to your congregation with all your heart, mind, and hands.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Pinchas 5778- Never Rush to Reward Extremism

Parashat Pinchas begins with God recognizing Pinchas’ actions by offering him a pact of peace or friendship. Pinchas was the grandson of Aaron.  The Torah says,

Phinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal (Numbers 25:11)

If you read this parasha without knowing what had happened right before, you will not be able to understand what Pinchas did and why he was rewarded. You could only understand that Pinchas acted with zeal and that he turned God’s anger away from the Children of Israel. However, what did happen?

The missing story is of course at the end of the previous parasha, Balak. There we are told that the Children of Israel (or at least some of them) were participating in an idolatry cult in honor of the Moabite god of Baal-peor. They had also participated in sexual immorality. God became angry with the Israelites and, as a consequence, a deadly plague attacked them. When the situation seemed to be going out of control, Pinchas took a spear and killed a Moabite woman and an Israelite man who were publicly and immorally profaning God’s name. Pinchas’ action seemed to put an end to the situation and the plague.

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