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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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Parashat Balak 5778- Shrek’s Donkey, Harry Potter, and the Power of Humor

Have you seen the Shrek movies? Did you enjoy watching the talking donkey, Shrek’s best friend?

Have you read or seen the Harry Potter series? Do you like the mysteries of the wizard world?

If you enjoyed the personality of the talking donkey and the world of the wizards, you may find this week’s parashah very interesting.

Why? Because in one of the chapters of Parashat Balak there is a wizard and a talking donkey. Hundreds of centuries before the Shrek movies and the Harry Potter series were produced, we have in our Torah both worlds in one story.

The Torah tells us that King Balak wanted to put a curse on the Israelites, and he hired the great wizard of that time, Balaam, to accomplish his goal. Balaam headed off on his donkey, but an angel of God, with his sword drawn, was blocking the path.

The donkey saw the angel of God stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand; so, the donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. Balaam beat the donkey to get it back onto the road. The angel of God stood in a path of the vineyard, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side. The donkey saw the angel of God, and she was pressed against the wall. She pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall, and he beat her again. The angel of God continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. The donkey saw the angel of God, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam’s anger flared, and he beat the donkey with a stick.

God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam said to the donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?”

Balaam said, “No!”

Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.

(B’midvar 22:22-31).

In this story we have three characters: the wizard, the talking donkey, and God’s angel. And the donkey, an animal, could see what the most powerful wizard in the world couldn’t see!

The talking donkey of Shrek 2 says, “You know, in some cultures, donkeys are revered as the smartest of animals, especially us talking ones” (“Donkey” in Shrek 2, DreamWorks, 2004). Is the donkey referring to the Torah? Maybe it is a coincidence, but we can affirm that the donkey of the Torah is very smart!

This is a very different story compared to other stories from the Torah. We may affirm that it is the only humorous story or comedic passage in the five books of Moses and that it is the precedent of the cartoons and other humor-ironic stories.

Try to imagine this story like a cartoon or a scene of a movie. Isn’t it in the same vein?

We can say that the Torah is a source of different kinds of narratives that were developed throughout history.

The humor and irony involved in this story leaves us a very deep and powerful message. I believe that when you hear a story with humor, you receive it in a more positive way than when you hear speeches full of warnings and reproaches. A story narrated with humor has a very powerful chance to be heard with joy and an open heart.

Without a doubt, the use of humor can be a very powerful tool for transmitting the wisdom and values of our tradition. Humor is part of our history.

Dr Eileen Warshaw (executive director of the Jewish Heritage Center in Tucson, Arizona), stated: “Humor is such a critical part of our heritage. If we haven’t laughed, we would have gone”.

We can learn from the way that this story was narrated in the Torah that we should communicate with our people with more humor, joy, and happiness than harsh, negative, and difficult words. Having a sense of humor and joyfulness is a great tool to communicate with children as well as with adults. In addition, humor keeps alive our spirit.

So, let’s have in mind the humor of the talking donkey from our Torah and Shrek movies!

Shabbat Shalom!

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Chukat 5778

This week we read parashat Korach. It is interesting to notice that in this parasha Miriam and Aaron die. In addition, Moses is sentenced to die before entering the Land of Israel. As the Chumash Etz Hayim points out, this is certainly an indication that a transition of generations is taking place.

The three siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam, had been the great leaders of the People Israel since the time of the exodus from Egypt. They represent the generation of the desert, the generation that was born in Egypt as slaves and left the country to start a new life as a free people. Now the younger generation must take the post and start a new chapter in the life of the people of Israel, in the land of Israel.

As we all know, generational transitions are never easy. Challenges of all kinds appear for the new generation. Will the young leaders be able to follow their parents’ path? Will they be able to honor their inheritance? Will they be able to make it without their teachers? How should they avoid their parent’s mistakes, if there were mistakes made? It is always hard for the new generation to replace the old one. And in the particular case of the Children of Israel in the desert, it was extremely hard to take the place of such strong leaders as Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Korach 5778

B”H Parashat Korach 5778 Rabbi Daniela “Salt as a symbol of eternity in Judaism” After Korach and his people rebelled against Moses and Aaron and were punished, God gave some instructions to the Priests and the tribe of Levi regarding the rituals in the Tabernacle.  This is one of them: “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the LORD I give to you, to your sons, and

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Shlach Lecha 5778

This week we read the well-known story of the twelve spies. Before starting the conquest of the land, the Israelites need to know what kind of country it is, and what kind of people live in it. So Moses sends twelve spies to scout the Land of Canaan, one for each tribe. After travelling the land for forty days, they return and split themselves in two groups. The smallest group, consisting of Caleb and Joshua (from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim respectively), give an encouraging report about the land and its inhabitants. The second group, consisting of the other ten spies, provides a very negative report about the inhabitants of Canaan. They describe them as giants and they affirm that the Children of Israel will not be able to defeat them in war. Upon hearing this discouraging report, the people cry out, publicly expressing that they wish they had died naturally in Egypt instead of having to die at the hands of these giants. Ultimately, God punishes this generation, condemning it to die in the desert and not allowing them to enter the Land of Canaan.

The sages have traditionally understood that the harmful report given by the ten spies was the cause of the popular crisis that ended with God’s famous punishment. Some commentators think the ten spies lied, while others argue that they didn’t necessary lie, but expressed themselves in a way that sought to provoke anger and anxiety in the people.

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Torah Thoughts: Parashat Behalotcha 5778

B”H Parashat Behalotcha 5778 Rabbi Daniela “Moses was able to transmit his knowledge, passion and experience to the seventy elders without losing his internal fire” One of the themes of this week’s parashah is Moses’ exhaustion at leading the people of Israel in the desert. The people complained and questioned the authority many times. Moses was tired and complained to God: “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and

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Weekly Torah Thoughts – Parashat Naso 5778

B”H Parashat Naso 5778 by Rabbi Daniela From the case of Sotah to Zelophehad’s five daughters: from oppression and humiliation to justice and equality In this week’s parashah, among other themes, appears the ordeal of the Sotah. It deals with the case of a woman who was suspected of betraying her husband. In that case, the husband had to take his wife to the Tabernacle in order that she undergo

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bemidbar 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Parashat Bemidbar 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   Learning from the Details This week we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. At the beginning, God orders Moses to carry out a census of the Children of Israel, Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every

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Parashat Behar – Bechukotai 5778

B”H Parashat Behar – Bechukotai 5778 Rabbi Daniela “And I walk among you, and will be your God and you will be my people” (Vayikra 26:12). This week we read the last two Torah portions from the book of Vayikra. Some call the second Parashah, parashat Bechukotai, “Tochecha Haktana”, “short warning,” in contrast to “Tochecha Hagdola”, “long warning” that appears in Parashat Ki Tavo, in the book of Devarim. A

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Emor 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Parashat Emor 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   Nine plus One is Much More than Ten At the end of Leviticus chapter 22, after a long list of ritual laws, the Torah concludes with three beautiful verses (31-33): You shall keep My commandments and perform them. I am the Lord. You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am

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Tora Thoughts: Parashot Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Parashot Acharei Mot – Kedoshim 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   The Weekly and the Holiday Torah Readings This week we read two parashot, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. The first of them starts with the description of the Yom Kippur ritual of cleansing and purification. The ritual, to be fulfilled at the Tabernacle in the desert, involved mainly Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the first High Priest. Nevertheless,

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Torah Thoughts: Yom Hashoah 5778

B”H Torah Thoughts: Yom Hashoah 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   This week we are commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, as we say in Hebrew, Yom Hashoah Vehagvura. We remember the six million of our brothers and sisters who were killed by the Nazis and their partners in crime, during the dark years of 1939-1945. We tend to use the terms “Holocaust” and “Shoah” indistinctly, to refer to the sum of

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Shabbat – Pesach 5778

B”H Shabbat – Pesach 5778 Rabbi Daniela “The Song at the Sea” and the power of communal singing” The Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover (Exodus 13:17-15:26), which we are going to read this Friday morning, consists of the description of the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews, and the song “Shirat Hayam,” “The Song at the

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Tora Thoughts: Pesach Eve 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Pesach Eve 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky   Why Do We Wish One Another a Kosher and Happy Holiday on Passover? We are almost ready for Passover! We have been cleaning, kashering, shopping, cooking.… Let the holiday begin! One thing we should definitely know is how to greet another person on this occasion. Let’s see! Of course, you can always say Happy Passover/Pesach, or the more usual Chag

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Torah Thoughts- Parashat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol 5778

B”H Parashat Tzav – Shabbat Hagadol 5778 Rabbi Daniela Why is this Shabbat called “Shabbat Hagadol” (“The Great Shabbat”)? This Shabbat, which precedes the festival of Pesach (Passover), is called “Shabbat Hagadol,” “The Great Shabbat.” Why does this Shabbat have this special name? There are many explanations. One of them is that the Haftarah (Malachi 3:4-24), the prophetic portion, we read this Shabbat speaks of the “great day” of God

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Tora Thoughts: Shabbat Hachodesh 5778

B”H Tora Thoughts: Shabbat Hachodesh 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky Matzah and Maror as “Main Dishes” This is a very particular Shabbat, when we read from three different Torah Scrolls (!). We begin the reading of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, and that’s the reading for the first scroll. As we are celebrating the beginning of the month of Nissan (Rosh Chodesh Nissan) we read the appropriate paragraph regarding

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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778: Women’s daily labors in the time of the Torah and in light of International Women’s Day

B”H Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778 Rabbi Daniela Women’s daily labors in the time of the Torah and in light of International Women’s Day In Parashat Vayakhel we may find a particular kind of description that is not commonly found in the Torah. We have, in this week’s parashah, details of women’s daily lives and activities. We usually read in the Torah details about the work of men in military service, in

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Tora Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tisa 5778- Giving and Receiving

B”H Tora Thoughts: Parashat Ki Tisa 5778 Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky Giving and Receiving Parashat Ki Tisa begins with God’s order to take a census of the Children of Israel in a very particular way. The Torah says, “When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will

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