Sunday, June 30, 2013


There is serendipity in the timing of this week’s Torah portion.  Pinchas is a portion ends the saga of the seduction of the Israelites by the Midianites, specifically the men.  Last week we read about the eponymous priest who killed a woman and her Israelite lover.  As the event lies down we are introduced to a man, Zelophehad, as part of a list of genealogy.  Then he promptly dies.   His daughters, Mahlah, Noa, Holga, Milcah, and Tirza find themselves without brothers.  According to the law they could not inherit their father’s property.  Women could not inherit.  These women were unmarried; however they were strong, smart and loved their family.  They didn’t want their fathers name lost.  They petitioned Moses and the High Priest Elizear to allow them to inherit.  They argued that their father was not one the rebels with Korach, he died a good man even if he died for “his own sin”.  He deserved to have his legacy continue.  Moses asked God and God tells Moses to allow them to inherit, changing the Torah law for a situation that was not anticipated.  Now we can discuss about how God might have known this and this was a growing pain the people needed to endure, but that is not the point.  While still in the wilderness changed the law for an important circumstance and made the law more just, and more in the concept of what the Torah is suppose to be. 
So this week when the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) I was reminded of this moment only to find it was in the Torah portion we read yesterday.  DOMA was an attempt to define marriage for federal purposes as between a man and a woman.  I remember when President Clinton signed it that I was angry.  It was written by far right Republicans to do two simple things.  1. To maintain state’s rights in marriage, thus allowing a state to not only allow a two people of the same-sex to marry legally but also to protect other states that didn’t want to recognize the other state’s status.  (this is still legally in effect).  2.  Prohibited the Federal government from recognizing marriage as other than one man and one woman.  This was to protect the Federal government from being forced to follow a single state’s change in definition.  (this is the part that was struck down).  The Supreme Court ruled that the second part of DOMA was problematic because people who were legally married could not be held in a different legal status by the federal government based on their gender.  Edie Windsor brought a law suit because she had to pay inheritance tax that she would be exempt from if her spouse, Thea Spyer, who died in 2009, had been a man.  It was another inheritance that the Federal Government was standing in the way of the wishes of a family.  Like the daughters of Zelophehad, Edie Windsor wanted to have her share in the not only the estate of her family member but wanted the symbolism of the meaning of the relationship.  The Torah had devalued daughters and DOMA had devalued same-sex couples.  In that justice was not served and the law had to meet with justice. 
The amending of the Torah law is surprising but understanding in that I believe throughout our history the Torah was a work in progress.  Certainly we spend a great deal of time explaining the meaning of the words of Torah.  Here is just a sample of commentary on the question of why Moses had to ask God to solve the question:
Bamidbar Rabba: God concealed this simple law, one that even a child could have figured out, because Moses  had acted arrogantly when setting up the legal system. He told the Israelites, any case that was too difficult for the lower courts should be referred directly to him. He did not allow for the fact that in such difficult cases, hehimself might be required to consult God.
Targum Jonathan:   Moses knew the correct decision. When he heard that none of the lower courts knew what to do with this interesting case, and that each one had referred it on to a higher           court, Moses thought, "I will do the same. I will refer the case on to a Higher Court." Thus, Moses taught the judges for all future generations not to hesitate in consulting a higher authority whenever in doubt.
Oznaim LeTorah:  Moses decided the case against the women when he first heard it. The women made a highly intelligent statement, proving that his decision was wrong, and trapping them into disinheritance no matter how it was argued. Moses was forced to admit they were right. He had acted presumptuously in ruling against the women's right to inherit property. He had to publicly apologize for his hastiness and seek God's opinion in the matter.
Sifrei:   Moses knew all along that daughters inherit their father's possessions if there is no male heir. He was not so sure in the case of Zelophehad, however, because he had been a firstborn. Moses figured that under the laws of the firstborn, Zelophehad should receive a double portion. Since the case involved land ownership in Israel, and they were not yet in possession of the land, Moses was unsure if the law really applied in this case.
Zohar:   Moses was unsure of  the case because he did not know if Zelophehad's sin had been pardoned in Heaven. He thought that God might not want to grant this man's daughters any portion of the Promised Land. God's reply indicated that Zelophehad's sin had, indeed, been pardoned.
Sefarim:  When the daughters of Zelophehad brought their case before Moses, they told him that their late father had not been among the company of Korach, those who had challenged his authority to lead. They informed Moses that their father had not been among his many enemies. Moses therefore felt a personal interest in their welfare. He disqualified himself from the case and made no ruling at all. He took the case directly to God for a decision.
Tosefta to Baba Batra 115: In referring to the daughters of Zelophehad, the Torah uses the word              lahem, in the masculine form, rather than lahen, in the feminine form (Numbers 27:7). When a woman assumes an inheritance, she is like a man for all legal purposes. Therefore God commanded that the women should be given an inheritance, as if they had been men, and the verse refers to them in masculine, rather than feminine gender.
Rashi:   God ruled that the daughters not only received their father's portion, but they were entitled to   another equal portion because he was the firstborn male in his family. God then went on to make clear the laws of inheritance which had been spoken at Mount Sinai.
Baba Batra: God told Moses to advise Zelophehad's daughters to marry men from their own tribe of Menashe. Eventually, they did find worthy husbands, married, and had children. Usually women of their age could not have children, but God was so proud of how intelligently they had argued their land case before the court of Moses, they were granted a special miracle to have children beyond their normal years.
This is from

You can see that it is a lot of ways to look at one simple question that this Torah portion brings up.  We can see that we are not a static culture and neither is our country.  Gay marriage, marriages blessed by many branches of religion, by a growing number of states, and in minds of the younger generations.  Gay marriage will be the norm in our lifetime and many will support the decision by the Supreme Court. 

Including the Orthodox Union, who pleasantly surprised me with this statement:

    “In response to the decisions announced today by the United States Supreme Court with reference to the federal Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, we reiterate the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes, which forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages. Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.  At the same time, we note that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.
     We are grateful that we live in a democratic society, in which all religions are free to express their opinions about social issues and to advocate vigorously for those opinions.  The reason we opt to express our viewpoint in a public forum is because we believe that our Divine system of law not only dictates our beliefs and behaviors, but also represents a system of universal morality, and therefore can stake a claim in the national discourse. That morality, expressed in what has broadly been labeled Judeo-Christian ethics, has long had a place in American law and jurisprudence.
      We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.

     The Orthodox Union is proud to assert its beliefs and principles in the public forum, and will continue to do so in a manner that is tolerant and respectful of all of our nation’s citizens, but which is also authentically based upon our sacred ancient texts and time-honored traditions.”

There is a change happening and there will be more discussions of gay marriage, but we can think of the daughters of Zelophehad.  Like Mahlah, Noa, Holga, Milcah, and Tirza, Edie Windsor challenged the status quo and won.  These women all sought justice and found it.  They all give us hope. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Balak, Baalam, the Atheist and the Ass

I was out of town this weekend and just got to finish this.  Food for thought.

Second week and I am already late to post.  Last Saturday we read Balak in synagogue.  Balak is a wonderful Torah portion where we get the prayer  “Mah Tovu” the blessing we say upon entering the synagogue.  “Mah Tovu” is not the words of a great Israelite but a hired diviner or prophet of Ba’al who was suppose to curse the People of Israel.  But God does not allow it and speaks these words through his mouth.  But part of the story that is most interesting is that when Baalam, the hired prophet, was asked by God not to go to give the curse.  On the way, an angel tries to stop him.  He doesn’t see it, but his donkey does.  God gives the donkey the gift of speech and he speaks to Baalam, who had been beating him.  Baalam is seen as dumber than his donkey and in the end when he attempts to curse the people a blessing comes forth.
This story is one that gets a lot of attention from those who want to discredit the Torah.  In debates with atheists I am often confronted with this as an example that the Bible is a fairytale.   We can discuss the difference between sacred literature and fairytales but I want to think about something a little more simplistically.  This argument from an atheist is a non-thinking and intellectually dishonest position.  It often sounds like an attempt to not engage anyone who uses Torah as a guideline in life but make fun of them.  But what does it say about the person who levels this charge? 
Let me be clear, atheism is a viable and can be an intellectually honest position.  Non-belief is as old as any belief structure in our society.  Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History shows how there has always been those who question the text and the God or Gods who are said to inspire them.  But many times modern atheists or more precisely anti-theists feel they are just going to make fun of people who connect with a religious tradition and use the most fantastical stories in the Bible to make their point.  “Only a fool would think that snakes and donkeys talk.”  But here is the thing most people who follow the traditions of Judaism and Christianity, who hold these texts sacred, do not believe the story of Balaam is a literal story.  In fact, one of the best ways to explain it is the words of one of my teachers, Rabbi Hanan Alexander who said, “The stories in the Bible are true, they just didn’t happen that way.”  The stories are not meant to be seen as a literal historical account, but a mythology that teaches the truth of our developing culture and they are still relevant today, not that we should look to donkeys to teach us how to live but that we can focus on the timeless ideas behind the stories.
Too often people reject religion in general and Judaism and Christianity in particular because of ignorance of what they mean to their adherence.  Many people who attack faith do it in the most juvenile ways because their understanding of the faith is juvenile.  They seek out the most outrageous people, who do believe in talking donkeys and snakes, build straw men, knock them down and claim victory.  It often makes them feel better about their position.  Again this is not to say that that is all atheists, but too often people who speak out in the infotainment world are not doing disbelief justice. 

The Bible is an enduring story for our people.  It has disturbing stories, funny stories, crazy stories and unbelievable stories.  But if we pick it apart and look for those things that we can’t believe we are missing the point.  The Torah is a human endeavor to understand God.  There are many timeless lessons and if the writers decided to use a donkey to teach one who is the ass for reacting the message because of the messenger?    

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Dad and the Red Heifer: Chukat

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat which is full of more narrative with the death of Aaron and Miriam, the movement closer to Canaan and we sense the closing of this part of our history on the horizon.  But being that it is Fathers’ Day weekend I want to focus on a smaller but significant part of the story.  This is the Torah portion where we learn about the ritual of the Red Heifer.  You see a person becomes tameh (ritually impure or unclean) by touching or being under the same roof with a dead person, was purified with the mei eifer parah adumah, the ashes of a pure red heifer mixed with spring water. What is fascinating about this ritual is the act of creating the mixture of ashes and water renders the person doing it tameh while the person it is used for becomes clean.  A red heifer is a rare animal and tradition teaches that from the time of Moses to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70CE there were only 9 red heifers that were used.  That said the birth of a Red Heifer is an important story, even today, in Israel, when a candidate calf is born there are those hoping for a new Temple being built will make it a worldwide news story like in 1997 when one was discovered.  But how do we link it to Fathers’ Day?
Well because one of our mitzvot is honoring our parents, and it is one that the Rabbis teach is the hardest to do.  Not because all parents are bad, but respecting our parents becomes harder as we forge our own identity in life. It is not easy to do exactly as our parents wish when we become our own people.  But there is a story that links a red heifer with a lesson taught to us from a non-Jew who knew how to practice this important yet difficult mitzvah.
Rabbi Eliezer was asked: How far does one have to respect parents? He said: Go and see what Dama Ben Nisina, a non-Jew in Ashkelon, did for his father.
Some Levites were sent to  buy from Dama a jewel of extraordinary worth and beauty to replace missing stones on the High Priest's breast plate. The jewels were locked in a safe box, the key under the head of Dama’s father as he slept.  Dama told the men to come back later, but thinking it was a trick the Levites kept raising their offer.  Dama refused even at twice the normal price for he would not wake his tired father to sell the jewel.  Frustrated the Levites left and returned later to buy the jewel and Dama sold it to them at the proper price and not at the inflated rate for he felt he should not benefit from respecting his father.   In the next season Dama’s flock was blessed with a perfect Red Heifer that would bring him wealth from the same Levites for its rarity commanded a great price.  In that moment the Levites understood better the mitzvah of honoring one’s parent. 

While I don’t believe in divine rewards and punishments for our actions I believe there is some value in exploring even the hardest of mitzvot and trying to make them work in your life.  This story shows us that simple things like not disturbing a sleeping father (or mother) can be seen as a great mitzvah as it sets a tone for greater opportunity to honor a parent.  (this section can be read aloud to children)  This can be true of all the mitzvot.  We shouldn’t live our lives Jewishly because we hope God will give us a red heifer or the modern equivalent.  We should seek out the ways our Torah teaches us to live that honor the world we live in because when we do we bring holiness into our lives and the lives of those around us.  Honoring our parents does not mean giving up who we are but it means acknowledging who they are, their wisdom, their identity and frankly the moments in time that they formed.  That does not mean we can’t challenge them nor they us.  I learned so much from my dad in the short time I had him and frankly as he was I likely would not have much in common with him today.  But as I approach tomorrow, I know that I can take the best from him even some 35 years after he left.  Honor Dad (and Mom) tomorrow in the way you can.  I know for some it will be hard.  The mitzvot in my opinion are not supposed to be rules we must avoid breaking but guides to help us build a better world.  It was never meant to be easy.  Each time we use them to form a new way to operate in the world we add to a new and better place, regardless how small the gesture may be.  Dama let his dad sleep instead of gain a huge profit.  Sometimes it takes baby steps for us, but remember that baby steps toward a better world means you are still moving in the right direction.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

What Does Torah Mean to Me?

I know, another blog.  Why would I do this?  Well I love teaching Torah and I don't get to do it as often as I would like.  But I am going to have a summer with a bunch of opportunities for sermons, teaching, and working at a camp for a Shabbat so I have been preparing this weekend.  I also was asked recently to talk about some very disturbing passages in the Torah about destroying the Midianites, so I thought why not share some of my thoughts in a special blog that answers questions, teach my view of the Torah and create a chance for my own learning if people join me here and we get into great conversations.

The Torah, to me, is ancient poetry, written by our ancestor in an attempt to seek God or the essence of God in the universe.  It also is a document of justice and how to create a just society and bring people into community.  If we try to take it literally then we miss the deeper meaning of the words and emotion that make the stories work for all times.  Finding how its lessons can speak to our lives is the fun of what we will do here.  Let me know if there is any specific thing you might want to explore.  I should have my first real post in the coming days.