Ki Tetse – Making Sense of the “Texts of Terror”

August 21, 2018
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Ki Tetse – Making Sense of the “Texts of Terror”

If we are to be perfectly honest, much of the law codes reorganized and restated in the book of Devarim seem oddly archaic, highly impractical, and at times, even disturbingly unethical! This week’s parashah, Ki Teitse is chocked full of very specific ordinances and stipulations and therefore present many of these apparent difficulties.

The ethical value of scriptural narrative can often be difficult to apprehend. Explanations for God’s instruction surrounding the wars of Israel can often be as uncomfortable as the theodicies used to alleviate our discomfort with the omnipotent and omniscient sovereign’s apparent silence during the Holocaust. But none of the narratives are as tough a pill to swallow in contemporary society as those famously dubbed by feminist theologian Phyllis Trible as the “Texts of Terror.” These are the biblical narratives that describe the regular and dehumanizing rape, mutilation, and general bartering of women as commodities. Though polygamy is a common occurrence on the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, women never possess more than one husband.  The woman in scripture is completely dependent upon a man for her sustenance and survival. Of course the biblical narrative is a product of its time and accurately portrays the events within their historical setting. What is striking, however, is the apparent silence of the text concerning any condemnation of these practices, especially the taking of “war brides” at the outset of this week’s readings.  In fact, the program of God seems to be advanced through these events and normative practices. If we were to derive any precepts concerning the treatment and role of women solely from the narrative and explicit prescriptions of the law books, they might be as follows.

  • A man can have multiple wives and concubines so long as he can support them adequately.
  • Actually if a man’s wife is unable to have children it is laudable or at least acceptable for him to sleep with her personal attendant.
  • Should a woman’s husband die, it is incumbent upon a righteous relative to take the poor woman in as his own wife.
  • It is better for a woman to enter into what we might deem an incestualize marriage rather than for her family inheritance to pass to another tribe.
  • If a man takes a woman as a spoil of war, he should give her a place in his harem rather than merely discarding her, in this way domesticating and systematizing war rape.

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VaEtchanan – How Do You Spell Relief?

July 24, 2018
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VaEtchanan – How Do You Spell Relief?

Do you like to make choices? Whether you do or not, it seems as though for each of us there is a never-ending stream of options that place demands upon our time and threaten the normal and easy flow of our lives. With the blessings of the information age, come even more options, more choices and a still greater demand upon our lives.

Some options are necessary and demand our immediate attention. We get hungry and eating becomes a necessary option. We are worn out and sleeping is our best option.

Most options though, are postponable, and we respond in kind. It would be nice to wash the car, change the oil, and tune the engine on a regular basis. But if push comes to shove, the car will run a long way with mud on the hood, dirt in the crankcase, a miss in the engine, and even wear on the tires. It is obvious, though, that even postponable options demand their due. We can put our taxes off for a time, yet doing them on April 16th could be a bad choice.

Some options are undoubtedly bad, and yet we argue that we are propelled into them beyond our control. The alarm goes off earlier than we expect so we shut it off and go back to sleep. We might wake up late and let everyone know we are a tad grouchy. We might speed to work and once we arrive, make promises predicated upon only the most perfect of conditions in order to quiet the incessant demands of clients, customers, coworkers or employers. All along excusing our behavior as necessary. Read more »

Matot – A Place of Refuge

July 11, 2018
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Matot – A Place of Refuge

This week’s Torah portion contains a theme that in the ancient world was peculiar to the religion of Israel – the compassion, care and grace of their patron God. A historically popular approach to theology is a bifurcation of the two Testimonies of Scripture.  According to this approach, the older testament is presented as a harsh, inflexible and graceless document, that’s sole purpose is to point to the futility of human effort to do good and ennobling acts.  But here in Matot, we see the true purpose of Torah – teaching and direction to move Israel and human kind from their natural inclinations toward violence and vengeance, and toward Hashem’s highest standards of peace and mercy.

The concept of `cities of refuge’ is unique to any in the ancient world, and contrary to human nature. The pronouncement `an eye for an eye’ should not be viewed as legislation, but rather as an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart. Here the Holy One ordains the Levim as peacemakers and grace givers. Their inheritances are places of refuge, safe places where those who have made mistakes are shielded from excessive retribution. With this provision, HaShem infers that vengeance is not an appropriate human agency. Read more »

Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

July 4, 2018
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Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

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There are always two unseen guests at every bris, neither has been specifically invited, yet the spirit of each is evoked. Of course Elijah is the first unseen guest as he often is at Jewish celebrations and commemorations. Elijah represents more than Israel’s glorious past, but in addition he embodies our most precious hopes. It is in his chair that the baby is held signifying the messianic promise that is being cut in this covenant. But also Elijah’s alter ego is present in Pinchas. The beginning of today’s parsha is read at every bris.

The LORD said to Moses, “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

What an odd invocation for a bris; odder still Pinchas is never mentioned again during the ceremony. So who is this Pinchas, and why evoke his name?

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Balak – Blessed and The Source of Blessing

June 26, 2018
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Balak – Blessed and The Source of Blessing

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Every year we read Parashat Balak and I am utterly amazed. What a remarkably different approach to a reoccurring. Many have understood Torah as love letters between Hashem and Israel. In fact the focus of Torah is upon the covenant between Israel and their God, and rarely does it concern itself with the internal affairs of other people. Yet this story stars a non-Jew who is described as a wise and powerful seer, and quite ironically he derives all of his power from the God of Israel.

This story begins with the best supporting actor, the Gentile King Balak, who hires a gentile Prophet Bilaam to curse Israel so he can defeat them in battle. Balak tempts, bribes, cajoles, demands and threatens that Bilaam curse Israel. Bilaam on the other hand understands the source of his power and explains that he can neither curse nor bless without first receiving divine permission. When he seeks Hashem though he is told, “Do not curse the people, ki varukh hu, for it is blessed.” So what is God saying about us? Are the Jewish people truly blessed and if so what does that even mean? Read more »

Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

June 19, 2018
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Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

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Parashat Chukat is among the most enigmatic in all of Torah. While it gives closure to the lives of Moses siblings, it opens three new mysteries in the fabric of Israel’s, story, a peculiar ordinance, an odd deliverance, and a strange brand of justice. Though I won’t discuss them in this order, the following mnemonic title, “Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and a Rock with a Perpetual Living Stream” should help with the process of remembering the odd thematic happenings in parsha Chukat. Read more »