Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
This week's parasha contains some of the biggest moments of Torah: a recap of the Ten Commandments, the Shema and the V'Ahavta are all here! Usually, rabbis can't stop writing about the various layers of wisdom woven throughout these passages, and I am no exception. However, this year, I found a teaching so powerful, so compelling, simultaneously surprising and obviously true, that I just had to share it. It is from one of my favorite rabbinic teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and is called "The Infinite Game." I hope you find it as meaningful as I.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
George Bernard Shaw once quipped: “For those who can’t do, teach.” Since the moment he first uttered these words (if not earlier), many westerners have judged teachers as those who failed to succeed at their chosen professions – as if teaching itself was not a noble and meaningful pursuit.
While the debate rages across our nation about how (or if) to open schools for all ages, Rabbi Noah Farkas reminds us not only to think of the students, but of the teachers. He writes:
“How many successful people can read? A teacher did that. How many wealthy people can calculate balance sheets? A teacher did that. How many well-adjusted individuals know how to modulate between one task and another, sticking to deadlines, and playing well with others? Teachers did all of that. You are who you are because someone somewhere taught you how to be. Teachers do all that.”
“While other cultures might valorize the king, the warrior, or the business tycoon, and while other religions might sanctify prayer and faith, ours is a culture that gives the greatest honor and respect to teachers.”
The very word “Torah” means “teaching” and, as Jews, our lives are bound by Torah. In the first four books of Torah, we learn from the many people described on its pages, but according to tradition God is the author, the master teacher. The book of Deuteronomy, however, which we begin this week, is a series of speeches delivered by Moses in the last months of his life. Moses knew his life was about to end, and on the pages which follow, we read those lessons he most desperately wanted us to learn. He sought to pass on Torah to the next generation so that they would survive, and in turn pass the tradition on to their children. We are part of that continuing chain of learning, with each generation adding its own insights and wisdom to the corpus of Jewish knowledge.
Starting now, each week’s Torah portion will contain a great number of Moses’ essential teachings. This week, it seems only fitting to highlight the very first one. Moses begins by recounting how our journey began from Mount Sinai into the Wilderness, sharing these words from God to Israel:
“Long enough you have stayed at this mountain. Turn and journey onward …” [Deut. 1:6-7]
We have been stuck in place, literally, for the past several months, struggling with the pandemic, economic woes, and racial injustice. We are worried and facing a difficult journey ahead. However, we can cross over, just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago. There is a better place, a Promised Land which awaits, and if we want to get there, we need first to learn how – and that means listening to our teachers – those who know more than we, taking their lessons to heart, synthesizing what we learn, and caring for their wellbeing as well as our own.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
The moment had arrived. Assembled near the Eastern bank of the Jordan river, their forty years of wandering almost complete, our ancestors began preparations to finally enter and settle the Promised Land. What a surprise it must have been for Moses when a delegation from Reuben and Gad, two of the strongest tribes, said that they no longer wanted to settle in the Promised Land, but instead wanted to stay in the fertile lands on the East bank, outside of Israel proper.
Moses refused at first, and rightly so. Such a move would be terribly demoralizing to the other tribes. However, the delegation offered to send all of their fighting men in the vanguard and promised to stay at the forefront of the fight until every enemy had been vanquished, even as their families would stay in fortified cities in their new land on the East bank. Moses agreed with these terms, and the people of Gad and Reuven settled their lands before the rest of Israel crossed over the Jordan.
Fast forward to the end of our parasha, and also by the way, the book of Numbers, for another dispute in Israel. In last week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, Moses granted the daughters of Zelophophad the right to inherit their father’s estate – which represented a dramatic break from patriarchal cultural and legal norms – because their father had no sons. This week the story continues when Moses’ decision is challenged by close male relatives of the daughters (their uncles), who said:
“The Lord charged my lord to give the land to the Israelites in estate by lot, and my lord was charged by the Lord to give the estate of our brother Zelophophad to his daughters. But should they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] Israelite tribes, their estate would be withdrawn from our father’s estate and added to the estate of the tribe to which they would belong …” [Num. 36:1-3]
In other words, each tribe was allotted a specific amount of land, and since land was power, any transfer of land from one tribe to another would also be a transfer of power. Moses heard them out, and then altered the permission to inherit: the daughters could still inherit so long as they chose husbands from among their tribe. However, if they chose husbands from other tribes then they could no longer inherit.
While to our modern eyes, we may see this as deeply problematic and misogynist decision, in reality the issue being discussed is not gender equality, but something altogether different. Indeed, the stories about the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and about the daughters of Zelophophad are about exactly the same thing: how to balance personal interests with the greater good.
If the two tribes simply settled on the East bank but did not help the other tribes conquer the land, they would have caused serious harm to the rest of Israel because of their own self-interests. Similarly, if the balance of power between the tribes became unstable because of the self-interest of Zelophophad’s daughters, that too could cause lasting damage to the cohesion of Israel.
It is no mistake that both of these stories are told before we enter the Land. They are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that as such, we need to balance the needs of the few with the needs of the many. Only then, will we truly bring the covenantal promise of Torah to life.
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week’s Torah portion has a lot of anger. That is, as Rabbi Pamela Wax teaches, five different expressions and types of anger are woven into the parasha, and in essence, serve as a unifying theme.
Here are just three:
The portion opens with a murder, or perhaps an execution – depending on your point of view. God is angry with the Israelites (not for the first time) because of growing idolatry in their midst. As a punishment, God sends a terrible plague that kills entire swaths of the population. In order to prevent more Israelite deaths, Pinchas (for whom the portion is named), kills an Israelite man and a Midianite idol worshipper for cohabitating with a single thrust of his spear. This act of violence successfully averts God’s divine wrath. Yet, as Rabbi Wax observes, is the use of violence the best way to remove anger? Pinchas’ actions effectively enabled God’s “acting out” instead of what Moses and Abraham had done in the past, which was to talk God down and plead for the well-being of Israel.
The second expression of anger involves the five daughters of Zelophophad who petitioned Moses to grant them the right of inheritance from their father, who had no sons to leave his estate to. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel this was unheard of. If there were no sons, the inheritance would go to the nearest male relative. The daughter’s anger at this injustice can be seen by in the Hebrew by how they demand the inheritance, rather than ask for it politely. In this case, their anger is rewarded, and their request granted.
The third exploration of anger brings us back to last week’s parashah, to when Moses lashed out in anger at the Israelites for demanding water from him while he was grieving for his sister Miriam. In his anger he put himself in place of God and acted as if he was miraculously causing the water to flow from the rock. His punishment was that after forty years of leading our difficult and cantankerous people through the Wilderness, Moses would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In this week’s portion, Moses humbly references that moment and accepts his punishment, by asking God to designate his successor. In other words, he has completed his process of teshuvah – of repentance and return to the right path.
Taken together, these three different episodes shed light on how anger can play out in our own lives, how it can be harnessed for good when necessary, and how to move through and past it to find a better place. Then and now.
In today’s world, anger brought us to a rather odd place this week, especially for those who are both Jewish and football fans. You know who you are!
I am referring to Eagles star wide receiver Desean Jackson, who posted some anti-Semitic remarks on Instagram, including a false claim that Hitler said that Black people were “the real Children of Israel” and that white Americans would be terrified to know that they have been “mistreating and discriminating and lynching” them. There was a quick and powerful backlash, after which he took down the post and apologized, only to then turn around and praise Louis Farrakhan, who is himself considered by many, including me, to be an anti-Semite.
Again, there was a strong backlash, and again Desean Jackson apologized and took down his post, and pleaded ignorance.
Before saying anything else, I want to acknowledge that as painful as his comments were and are, thank God that we live in a nation where most people simply will not tolerate such statements. He may be an NFL superstar, but his anti-Semitism was quickly and powerfully repudiated, and for that I am grateful. However, the same is not as true for those who declare that Black Lives don’t Matter.
For this reason, it is not enough to simply say we have to stop anti-Semitism. This story, still unfolding in real time, gives us an opportunity to go deeper. I believe Desean Jackson when he pleads ignorance. I believe that he does not understand the first thing about anti-Semitism and the realities and dangers Jews have faced throughout history and throughout the world. And, I believe he was trying (and failing) to express the same righteous anger as the daughters of Zelophophad – anger against injustice.
It is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that the Coronovirus has exposed the racial injustice which exists systemically in our nation against black and brown people. For the first time in a long time, more and more white people are becoming aware of how prevalent and devastating this injustice is. Many of us support the cause of fighting racial injustice, and we are seeking to become anti-racist allies for Black and Brown people.
That cause is just. However, Desean Jackson expressed his anger in way that looked more like Pinchas than the sisters Zelophophad. And while the NFL did not respond directly, some of his fellow players chose to be friends rather than enablers. Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner, who is also black, shared an emotional video in which he denounced anti-Semitism and referenced the Tree of Life massacre, and then went on to say: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now. I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift [the Jewish community] and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves. We can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves. That’s very important to me and should be important to everyone.”
This is a classy response, and I am grateful to Banner for speaking so powerfully. He epitomized the Jewish value of tochechah, of rebuke when our friends do something wrong – not out of anger, but out of love for them, so that they can learn and grow.
My favorite response, however, came from Julian Edelman, Superbowl MVP and Patriots wide receiver, who also happens to be Jewish. He posted a video in which he spoke deeply and profoundly in solidarity with black and brown people. And then he ended with the following blockbuster statement: “We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to act. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change. Desean, let’s do a deal, how about we go to D.C., and I take you to the Holocaust Museum, and you take me to the Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterward, we grab some burgers, and we have those uncomfortable conversations. This world a little more love, compassion, and empathy.”
Edelman moves from rebuke to teshuvah just as Moses did, and he recognizes that there is ignorance among Jews about black and brown racial injustice, just as Desean Jackson demonstrated and acted out of ignorance of anti-Semitism. I really hope they get together and tour the museums and have a heart to heart over burgers.
The goal for all of us is not to get into a contest to see who has suffered more, or even to try to compare our different pains, but to acknowledge that we all have something to learn, and that right now, black and brown people are suffering and that healing can only come through the uncomfortable process of teshuvah – of opening ourselves up to the realities which we prefer to ignore, of doing the serious soul searching that leads to lasting change, and then determining to act on what we have learned. In this way, anger becomes love, fear becomes understanding, weakness becomes strength.
 Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas – Kaas: An Anger Banquet,” in Block, Rabbi Barry H. ed. The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020, p. 253-57
 Zach Banner, Instagram post, July 8, 2020
 Julian Edelman, Instagram post, July 9, 2020
(for our new and departed Beth Ami board members)
Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Let’s talk about miracles.
When we think about miracles, we tend to think of God, but in Chukkat, it is Moses who performs the miracle.
Here is the story: Miriam (Moses’ sister) was a water diviner, and for close to forty years found water for the Israelites throughout their journey through the Wilderness. This week, the Torah records her death, and immediately the Israelites become thirsty and gather against Moses and Aaron to demand water. Moses turns to God, who directs Moses to speak to a rock in God’s name, in order for God to perform a miracle and cause water to flow out from the rock.
Moses, however, still grieving for his sister and deeply frustrated with the Israelite demands, does not follow the plan. Instead, he goes to the rock and then yells to the Israelites: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Moses then smacks the rock with his staff twice and enough water for all of Israel and their flocks came forth.
In the eyes of Israel, the miracle maker was Moses, not God. For that reason, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, lest Israel began to worship him instead of God. Yet, there is a larger story at play here. Rabbi Neil Schuman, quoting Professor Richard Elliot Friedman notes:
“This is an all-important step in a gradual shift in the balance of control of miraculous phenomena in the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac perform no miracles.” God brings about miracles in Egypt and by the Red Sea, but now Moses changes a miracle. “This shift will continue in the biblical books that follow the Torah, and it is one of the central developments of the Bible: Joshua will call for the sun to stand still in the skies. By calling for a miracle on his own, without direction from God, he goes even further than Moses. Later, Samson has powers implanted in him at birth, so that he is free to use them as he wishes all his life. Later still, Elijah and Elisha use miracles for a variety of personal purposes. It appears that, starting with Moses, God is entrusting humans with ever more responsibility and control of their destiny.”
For the entirety of my rabbinate, I have considered Torah to be (at least in part) a description of God our parent and our early childhood as Israel. Babies need their parents for everything. As toddlers, we are still completely reliant on our parents, except we begin to walk on our own. As children we slowly take on more responsibility for ourselves until eventually, we have the maturity and the strength to enter adulthood, still with our parent’s help. So, in a sense, I see the forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land as the collective bar/bat mitzvah of the Jewish people. We are not done growing, but we are taking more and more responsibility for ourselves.
It is not that miracles disappear completely with the end of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Schuman reminds us of Honi the Circle Maker who forced God to bring rain in the midst of a drought, and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa – a miracle worker from the first generation of rabbis following the destruction of the Temple. He also speaks of other miraculous deeds recorded in Talmud, such as Rabbi Zeira using prayer to restore a life he had accidentally taken. Then there are the Chassidic traditions, which record miracles performed by their rebbes and saints.
Rather, Chukkat is the turning point. It is the moment the arc of our story begins to shift from outward reliance towards communal and self-reliance. God is still with us, the love of our parent never leaves us, but we are invested with the knowledge that we have agency, that through our acts we can change even that which seems unchangeable. And, more often than not, it does not require a miracle – but rather initiative and good leadership.
To our departing lay leaders: thank you for the strength, courage, compassion and love you have demonstrated through your leadership to our congregation and the Jewish people. To our incoming and continuing board members: you’ve got this. You are all blessings, you are all a little miraculous, and we are blessed because of you.
 Schuman, Neil, “The Miracle Worker,” online Torah commentary, date unknown, quoting Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29017-29032). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras