Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void …” [Gen. 1:1-2]
The creation story begins with two things: God and an unformed, chaotic universe. Eerily, this ancient story partially aligns with modern science. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (“entropy increases”), the unformed void (tohu va’vohu in Hebrew) is the natural state of the universe: order gives way to disorder. However, in Genesis, God brings order from disorder through the Creative process.
On a smaller level, Torah does the same for us. Torah begins with tohu va’vohu, but the very last word at the end of Deuteronomy is “Israel.” Our story of becoming begins with Genesis, where we too are ‘unformed’ and ends with the people Israel, as we stand on the banks of the Promised Land.
Each year, perhaps because we are still in the act of becoming, we rinse and repeat – we finish the Torah and start all over again.
Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman tells a story about the Rebbe Chaim Brisker. Apparently, it happened one morning at the crack of dawn on the day before Simchat Torah, our annual celebration of completing and re-starting the annual Torah cycle. One of the rebbe’s most diligent students had spent a sleepless night agitating over the coming holiday. Before even the sun rose, there he was in front of his rebbe’s house, pacing nervously back and forth on the cobblestone street. Clickety-clack, clickety clack went his shoes with each and every step. Eventually, the sound woke the Brisker Rebbe, who poked his head out of the window to find his student below. He put on his robe and went downstairs to see what had brought his student to his house so early in the morning. When he opened the door the student’s face lit up, and then fell into a deep frown. “Good morning,” said the rabbi. “Good morning Rebbe,” replied the student, “But I couldn’t sleep, not even a wink …” “Well what is it?” asked the rebbe, placing a compassionate hand on the student’s shoulder. “Rebbe … it’s the Torah!” To put it mildly, the rebbe was somewhat surprised! The student continued, “I’ve studied each year, every week, every parashah. I’ve read through the commentaries, listened to the rabbis, and tried to understand. But we are coming to the end of another Torah cycle, and I’m not sure I know much more than I did last year, or even the year before that … Rebbe, I’ve gone through the Torah ten times and more, I’ve gone through it over and over again, so why don’t I understand?” Rebbe Chaim smiled sweetly, explaining: “My student, it’s not how many times you’ve gone through the Torah, but how much of the Torah has gone through you.”
Every year we cycle back to this moment. We have celebrated the New Year on Rosh HaShanah and considered our mistakes on Yom Kippur, we have celebrated in our Sukkas, recognizing that we are still wandering towards the Land of Promise. And now, we are at the beginning, again. “Bereishit bara Elohim et HaShayim v’et Ha’aretz. V’ha’aretz haita tohu va’vohu – In the beginning, God created heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void …” [Gen. 1:1-2]
We may have become Israel, at least in part, but there is still too much tohu va’vohu in the land, and in our lives. The Promise is not yet fulfilled. So, we begin again, as we always do with the hope that not only will go through more Torah, but that more Torah will go through us, will lift us up, form us and help us bring order from the chaos.
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
In Ki Tetze, Torah speaks with more than one voice.
This week’s parasha, among other things, defines who (besides the Israelites) can be admitted to the congregation of Israel, and who may not. According to Rabbi Adam Greenwald, it contains the hardest commandment of all:
“You must not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in their land.” [Deut. 23:8]
Didn’t the Egyptians enslave us with bitter labor for centuries? Didn’t pharaoh commit the very first holocaust by ordering all male Jewish babies to be drowned in the Nile?
The Exodus from oppression and slavery in Egypt to freedom and the Promised Land is our primary definitive narrative. It takes four of the five books of Moses to properly tell this story. Our holiday cycle revolves around the retelling the pain of enslavement and the highs and lows of the journey. Our prayerbooks enshrine our redemption as specifically being from Egypt, through prayers like the Mi Kamocha. How could the Egyptians not be our nemesis?
Rabbi Greenwald writes:
“The Egyptians are among the Torah’s greatest villains; and yet, we are ordered not to hate our former tormentors. It is hard to imagine a commandment more challenging to keep that this one – for us, and how much the more so for the former slaves, and their children and grandchildren, who first heard Moses’ stern decree at the edge of the Promised Land.”
Yet, the commandment stands.
The rabbis teach that with this commandment, Moses emphasized the importance of not giving into our baser human tendencies. Torah teaches that we should not return hate for hate, for that path leads to an endless and brutal cycle. Instead, as Rashi teaches, we are to remember that while the Egyptians did oppress us, and even attempted genocide, that they also took us in when we were in need (see the Joseph and Jacob story, and also the Abraham story). It is worth noting that we are not commanded to love the Egyptians, but we are commanded to let go of our hate. Therefore, according to Torah, Egyptian children of the third generation or later from those who oppressed us can be admitted into the people of Israel.
Why then, does Torah also command that, under no circumstances may the descendants of the Ammonites or the Moabites ever be admitted, not even to the tenth generation? [Deut. 23:4-7] Unlike the Egyptians, they were our distant relatives. Their great sin was that they blocked our way from Egypt to the Promised Land, and their King, Balak, hired Bilaam the prophet to curse us.
To be honest, I cannot find a way to reconcile the commandments to hate the Moabites, but not to hate the Egyptians – at least not without stretching my logic to the breaking point. Yet, while the Torah itself contains these contradictory statements, the Book of Ruth offers another perspective: many generations after the settlement of the land, an Israelite family escapes famine and moves to Moab, where Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, marry into the family. Even more, after tragedy strikes and all of the men of the family die, Ruth determines to return back to Israel with her mother-in-law, knowing that she might not be welcome there. In Israel, she finds a new husband, and her great grandson would one day become David, King of Israel.
Does the story of Ruth negate the commandment from Deuteronomy? No, but it provides some wiggle room. In these two Biblical texts we encounter the tension between those who would exclude certain groups for the sake of the larger community, and those who believe that it is only through their inclusion that we become stronger and better as a community. The debate continues to this day. Religion has the greatest capacity of any human institution for creating communities of belonging, and also for creating deep barriers of separation between us.
Which approach do you choose?
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
The opening words of this week’s parasha call to us at this time of year:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha, Judges and overseers you shall set for yourself …” [Deut. 16:18]
In context, the commandment has to do with setting up a fair and just judicial system – a necessary step in building the kind of just community Torah envisions. However, because Hebrew is designed to function on multiple levels of meaning at the same time, there is always more than first meets the eye.
Let’s start with the timing of this portion. Shoftim is always read towards the beginning of the month of Elul – as we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days. This is the time when we are supposed to measure our deeds and right our wrongs so that the New Year will be better than the last. The rabbis use the imagery of a great heavenly book, in which all of our actions are recorded. Through our choices and action, we control what is inscribed, and at this time of year, we have the chance to “edit” the text through the process of teshuvah, of making amends and changing our behavior.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz focuses on the Hebrew word “lecha” to connect this verse to the beginning of Elul. She notes that the use of “lecha” here is disjointed because it means “you” in the singular rather than plural. How can I, as an individual private citizen, appoint judges and overseers? Perhaps the text means that each and every one of us is responsible for participating in the selection. This fits in as part of a larger pattern of pre-democratic reforms introduced by Torah. However, Rabbi Peretz turns our attention to the eighteenth-century Hasidic commentary Toldot Yaakov Yosef (who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov), eloquently paraphrasing his teaching:
“L’cha, he says, is intended to say: for you, for yourself. As if to say, you should appoint judges within yourself. Every person has the obligation to sit in judgement of him/herself and his/her own actions.”
We judge all of the time. For some of us, it is easier to judge others than ourselves; and some of us hold ourselves to a higher standard and only judge ourselves harshly. The Toldot Yaakov Yosef instructs us to judge ourselves first, and then to use the same yardstick when we judge others. It teaches us to find balance and seek the truth of self-honesty. It urges us to create a fair and just internal justice system.
This is the spiritual work of the month of Elul and the High Holy Days.
Yet there is one more clue from the Hebrew to help us during this holy time. The commandment is to set both judges and overseers for ourselves. The Hebrew word “shotrim” is the same word used in the book of Exodus to describe the overseers or foremen over the slave population. Biblical Scholar Robert Alter notes that it derives its meaning from the root meaning “to write down.” So “shotrim” could refer to the biblical equivalent of courtroom stenographers. However, I’d like to think that this is just another subtle reminder to us that as we each begin our journeys of teshuvah we must not only judge ourselves, but also act in ways that record our deeds in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, and Happy New Year.
Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
“Re’eh!” calls Moses at the beginning of our portion. “See! I am placing before you today blessing and curse.” [Deut. 11:26]. There is nothing odd or unusual about this verse, or about calling us to pay attention, especially when the stakes are high. It makes perfect sense, until a few verses later, when Moses warns us not to trust our own eyes:
“Do not behave as we do here, today, each person [acting] according to what is right in his eyes.” [Deut. 12:8]
On the one hand, we are supposed to use our eyes to discern between blessing and curse. On the other hand, we are explicitly warned against doing what is “right in our eyes.” How do we make sense of this contradiction?
We encounter the answer earlier in Deuteronomy, “And you shall do what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord …”[Deut. 6:18 – bold is mine]. To make sure we understand this idea in context, Moses repeats it our parasha:
“… when you heed the voice of the Lord your God to keep His commands with which I charge you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord your God.” [Deut. 13:19 – bold is mine]
In Re’eh, Moses presents us with a progression of unfolding spiritual truth. Torah generally emphasizes hearing over seeing when it comes to paying attention. That is why we have Shema Yisrael instead of Re’eh Yisrael. In the opening verse of Re’eh, we are told to use our eyes to “heed the command of the Lord” to get the blessing and avoid the curse. Then we are warned not to do what is “right in our eyes,” meaning putting our own agendas and personal desires before all else. Finally, we are urged to “heed the voice of the Lord” – to listen – so that we may do “what is right in the eyes of the Lord.” In other words, we must open our eyes, listen for God and then try to see not only through our own eyes, but through the eyes of God.
What does it mean to see through the eyes of God?
First, to see through the eyes of God is to look at the bigger picture. Astronauts, looking down on our planet, have reported how this difference of perspective has caused them to see how petty some of our personal, or even national, disagreements can be. When we see through the eyes of God, we see that there is a higher purpose to our lives and are inspired to reach towards the potential already present in Creation.
Second, to see through the eyes of God also means to seek out the good. In Deut. 6:18 a word is added to the clause: we are to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. Each day of Creation ends with God looking at the result and declaring it “good.” One of the personal soul-traits in the Mussar tradition is hakarat hatov (seeking out the good). If we want to really discover all of the good which surrounds us, it takes effort, and often requires that we look beyond ourselves. Rabbi David Greenstein writes:
“Psychologists and social thinkers have pointed out that our eyes will see what we want to see, what we care about. The Torah understood that we can choose to see with a different set of eyes. We can choose to look for and to discern goodness in this world. We can choose to look at the world through God’s eyes.”
Perhaps this is what Moses meant for us to discern. Perhaps the blessing and the curse lie before us every day – waiting for us to see. Perhaps God is still waiting for us to choose.
Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? It is this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization. What will this look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and with extraordinary audacity, taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else has failed. While every great civilization throughout history has eventually followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. When we remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then we will no longer be accountable – ethically or otherwise. Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah, we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard, and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people.
Make no mistake: Moses knew what he was teaching. Taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude, accountability to a higher standard of behavior, and the pursuit of justice, are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
“Shamor v’zachor” opines the poet in the beautiful L’cha Dodi prayer: “Observe and remember.” These words come from the Ten Commandments, or more specifically, the commandment to make every seventh day a shabbat, a day of rest and refreshment for both body and soul.
In the book of Exodus, during the Revelation at Sinai, God commanded us: “lizkor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Ex. 20:8] Yet, when Moses recounts the Ten Commandments in this week’s parasha, he s ays: “shamor et yom hashabbat l’kadsho” (Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy). [Deut. 5:12]
Why would God say “remember” and then forty years later Moses “observe?” Did Moses misremember? Possibly, but unlikely. Whenever anything is repeated in Torah, and there is a change in the text, that is a ‘red flag’ for us to pay close attention. When the Israelites first heard the commandments, the very idea of Shabbat was new and radical to them because the only way of life they had known previously was as Egyptian slaves. They had no experience or even knowledge of Shabbat, and needed to be reminded every week. Forty years later, presumably, Shabbat was no longer a new idea – so Moses urged the Israelites to keep it going.
So far, so good.
Then, in the 16th Century, kabbalist Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote the L’cha Dodi prayer. He changed the order to “observe and remember,” choosing to quote Moses first and then God. To be fair, he wanted to create a poetic acrostic of his name using the first letters each of the first eight verses. “Shamor” starts with the same letter shin as his name “Shlomo.” If he followed the order of the Torah, the acrostic would fail in the very first verse!
I think there is more.
It made sense for the ancient Israelites first to remember, and then to observe. For today’s Diaspora Jews it is different. The secular flow of time does not follow the Hebrew calendar. Saturday is not a day of rest (except in Israel). We are pulled in so many different directions, that it is easy, outside of an orthodox community, to just go with the flow. Far too many of us no longer mark Shabbat regularly, if at all. As a result, we have forgotten what once we knew.
Shabbat is a radical, revolutionary practice. It was radical when God first introduced it to Israel, and it still is today. Until the advent of Shabbat, the world claimed us seven days a week. Shabbat teaches us that while the world does have a claim on us for six days, on the seventh day we can be free. It reminds us that while we need to work, both for the world and for ourselves, even God needed a day of rest. Shabbat undermines the status quo that never lets up, it lifts us above the fray so that we can reconnect with what matters most: each other, ourselves and our Creator. It is not a day for sleeping, but for cultivating the spirit, deepening our wisdom, and strengthening our relationships.
Today, far too many of us have lost the experience of Shabbat, and this is a multigenerational loss. The command to “remember” is meaningless, because we have no memories now to draw on even as the concept of shabbat is not new. A reminder will not work, we are already too busy. We need to “do” Shabbat first, even if it is only for a taste, so that we can experience what Shabbat can truly be for us. Then we can understand and remember and truly celebrate this precious and holy gift.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
We live in a complicated world, where senseless hate and violence are becoming ‘normalized’ and fear of ‘others’ is reaching new heights. This weekend, in Torah and Jewish observance, our tradition compels us to confront hate and fear though our weekly Torah portion, a special Shabbat called Shabbat Hazon, and Tisha B’Av.
Shabbat Hazon (the Sabbath of Vision) is named for its haftarah, in which Isaiah envisions the coming destruction of the First Temple. In our Torah portion, Devarim, Moses recounts how 10 of the 12 spies sent to scout out the Promised land, returned with an evil report rooted in fear of the ‘other.’ According to Midrash, God responded to the weeping of the Israelites by saying: “You want to weep? I’ll give you a reason to weep today.” The rabbis teach that this happened on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the most grief-ridden day in the Jewish calendar. Tisha B’Av was the day of multiple calamities throughout our history, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. On Tisha B’Av we mourn our losses, and struggle to learn from them. For example, the rabbis teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam (unjustified hatred). Our hatred for each other caused such divisions that our community became an easy target for the Romans to conquer.
Today we seem as divided as ever by our fears and our hatreds, and the violence which can result. El Paso, Dayton, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Columbine and more. Some say that the cause is mental illness. However, the vast majority of people who suffer from mental illness do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing. Some say the cause is guns. However, the vast majority of legal gun owners do not commit mass murder, nor do they ever consider doing such a thing.
It is true that both mental illness and the easy availability of military-style rifles are a common thread for most of the people who have committed these heinous crimes – and we need to address them both. However, neither of these approaches, by themselves, will solve the problem. As Rabbi Michael Gold teaches, we must look at the underlying hatreds and fears that lead to this horribly repeated cycle of violence.
Hatred and fear go hand in hand. They drive the agendas of White supremacist groups who have a long list of enemies from immigrants to Jews. They eat away at those who feel victimized or bullied by the people around them (such as the Parkland shooter). Hatred and fear are the primary motivators behind both Islamist extremism and domestic terrorism. Yet it does not stop there. We live in a society rife with racism, homophobia and many other hatreds and fears of ‘other.’ Indeed, Rabbi Gold notes its existence “on college campuses among those who start out hating Israel and end up hating Jews.”
At least in theory (if our politics allowed it) we could shut down neo-Nazi groups, get better background checks on guns, reinstate the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and improve public mental health treatment. However, we all know that would require congress to somehow function across party lines.
What, then, can we do to stop all this hatred and fear? Begin with ourselves. We can fight the hatred and fear in our own hearts. How many of us fear or hate others within our own community? Be honest with yourself. What do you think of the ‘other?’ What do you think of people who have different colored skin, or speak other languages, or have different beliefs than you? What do you think of people who are either poorer or wealthier than you? What do you think of people who have a different sexuality than you, or who do not fit into either male or female genders? Here’s a really tough one, even if you think you are doing well so far. Regardless of whether you are a conservative or a liberal, what is your general feeling about the ‘other’ party? How strong is your disdain, distrust, fear, anger and/or hatred for them?
In Devarim, this week’s Torah reading, Moses begins a series of speeches all designed to help us to survive as one people in the Promised Land. During Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av, we can mourn not only the violent tragedies which our people suffered in history, but we can also mourn the violent tragedies of this past week in El Paso and Dayton. And we can use these days to examine our own hearts as we determine to fight hatred and fear wherever they dwell.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: the narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here with Israel encamped on the edge of the Jordan River.
It turns out that the book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah have concluded if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, did not deny the request but instead asked God, who granted permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to Moses’ ruling. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her inheritance.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefered the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land and asked to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses was concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if these tribes stayed behind and allowed them to settle on the east bank only if they fully committed to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They could leave their children and cattle behind, but the men would only be able to return once all the Promised Land was under Israelite control.
In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes precedence. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land.
If Torah really ended with the book of Numbers, then the final lesson would be clear: to inherit and thrive in the Land of Promise we must balance the wants of the individual with the needs and health of the collective.
“These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week, instead of offering my own commentary, I’d like to share a sermon by Rabbi Jack Riemer. I have never met Rabbi Riemer, who is a retired conservative rabbi in Florida, but have long admired his homiletical genius from afar. When I read this week’s sermon I was so taken that I just had to share it. I hope you enjoy his words as much as I did!
What Are You Looking For In A Shidduch? – by Rabbi Jack Riemer
There is a profession that was once very respected among Jews. And then, for some reason – I am not sure why – this profession virtually disappeared. And now, for some reason, and again I am not sure why – this profession has made a comeback in recent years.
Do any of you know what this profession that I have in mind is? It is the profession of the shadchan…the matchmaker.
You can hardly turn on the television nowadays without seeing an ad for this profession. There is one I see all the time in which a good-looking man in his fifties, dressed in a long sleeved white shirt, with no tie, is coming out of a fire station. And his fellow firemen ask him to come along and have a drink with them, and he says politely: no. And then he turns to the camera, and says, “My life is in order. My job is in order. There is just one aspect that I need to attend to.” And in the next scene, we see him meeting a lady who is about his age. They kiss each other politely on the cheek, and then we see him take her hand, and lead her into a restaurant. Have you seen that commercial?
Or there is another ad that I see all the time on television in which a woman says to the camera, “I have a good business, I have a good life…now all I need is a relationship with a man.” And in the next scene, we see her filling out a questionnaire. Have you seen that ad?
Or there is the one in which a nice, gentle, fatherly looking man is talking to a young lady on the street. He asks her how many dates have you had in the last six months? And she says, “Not very many”. And then he asks her, “Were any of them any good?” And she says, “No. They were awful!” And then he says, “Why don’t you sign up for our service? If you do, I promise you that you will find at least a couple of men that you will find that you have a lot in common with.
As you can see from these ads, the shadchan has come back in recent years…and there are now a lot of agencies who are involved in this new profession. Do you know how they work?
They have – or they claim to have – hundreds, maybe even thousands of names on their computers, together with their pictures, and a report of what they do for a living, what they are like, and what their interests are. And if you sign up, they will give you the password that enables you to look at these files.
Now at this point, you may be wondering: why is this weird rabbi that we have talking about matchmaking here in shule on Shabbat? And what on earth does this topic have to do with Parshat Pinchas, which is the sedra of the week?
The answer to these questions is that I happened to read an essay by somebody named Yonatan Bredni. I have no idea who Yonatan Bredni is, but he wrote something about his experiences as a single recently that caught my attention. And I want to share what he wrote with you today, because I think it raises a question that the singles in this room should think about. The question is: what are the characteristics that you should look for in choosing a mate?
Yonatan Bredni begins his essay by saying that every so often someone tries to fix him up. And when they do, they always begin by asking him the same question. They say to him: “Before we try to fix you up with someone, will you please tell us what you are looking for in a girl.”
It is a fair question. ¬He says that he has been asked that question so many times by now that he has his answer all ready. He says that whenever he is asked this question, he rattles off his list of the four main characteristics that he is looking for in a girl: He says that she should be nice, she should be someone with good character traits, she should be someone with a good sense of humor, and she should be someone who is good looking. He says that he has learned that you have to put ‘good looking’ fourth on your list, because if you put it first, they will think that you are shallow and superficial, and if they think that, then they won’t work very hard at finding you a mate.
So Mr. Bredni only lists these four requirements, and then he gives them his ‘not too’ list as a follow-up. Do you know what a ‘not too’ list is? She should be not too tall and not too short; she should be not too thin and not too fat; she should be not too religious and not too secular; she should not be too intellectual and not too un-intellectual, she should not be too aggressive and she should be not too passive, etc.
Then he says, I sit back, content that I have put all my requirements out there. But then the shadchan or the shadchante usually says: “That’s very good, but will you please tell me what else you are looking for in a date – beside these obvious things that everyone lists?”
There is a good reason, he says, why they always ask that question: What else? The reason is that everyone else that the matchmaker talks to has the very same list. They all ask for a girl who is nice, who has good character, who has a sense of humor, and who is nice looking. They have never, ever, heard a guy say that he is looking someone who is not nice, who has no good character traits, who does not have a sense of humor, and who is not good looking. Never. And so, if your list is exactly the same as every other guy’s list, that does not help the matchmaker very much in his or her efforts to find the right girl for you. Does it?
Yonatan Bredni says that when the matchmaker asked him: “What else?” they were assuming the standard stuff on his list. They were assuming that they were the same as the things that were on every other guy’s list. And they were insisting that he tell them what he really wanted in a match, and not just rattle off what everyone else says that they want in a match.
Yonatan Bredni says that he never quite knew how to answer this question: ‘What else?’. He really couldn’t come up with any more characteristics on his own, but then he read this week’s sedra, and it gave him an idea.
The sedra tells the story of the daughters of Tselofchad: Machlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. When the Israelites stood on the edge of the Promised Land, and Moses was about to divide the land among the tribes, these five young women came forward and made a request to him, in the presence of the High Priest, and in the presence of the heads of the tribes. They said, “Our father left no sons, only daughters. And so, we would like permission to inherit land in the Land of Israel, so that his share of the land is not lost.” Moses took their case to God, and God found in favor of their request.
So Yonatan Bredni says that when he first read this story, he was tempted to put on his list for characteristics of the girl he was looking for: “Someone who is open to the possibility of aliyah, and someone whose father has left her an apartment in Jerusalem.” But then, when he thought it over, he realized that these five young women had other qualities as well, and that these were qualities that were worth putting on his ‘what else?’ list.
First, they had manners. Look how politely they speak. They don’t picket. They don’t protest. They don’t threaten. They don’t yell. They simply make their case – firmly – but politely. And that is an important quality to look for in a mate, is it not? You don’t want someone who is pugnacious, and who will make every disagreement she has with you into a showdown, do you?
Second: they had Jewish commitments. The men panicked every time there was trouble, and said: “Come, let us turn around and go back to Egypt”. These women said the opposite: “We want to go into the land of Israel, and we want to have a share in the land.” In other words, we believe that we are going to get there, and we believe in the vision that this land is our land. Commitment to the Jewish way of life, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to be part of the Jewish vision – that is a good quality to have in a prospective bride, is it not?
Third, they were not competitive. Did you notice that in one part of the story they are mentioned in one order, and further on, in another part of the story, they are mentioned in a different order? From this, the Sages learn that they were partners and not rivals in making their case. And wouldn’t you want to have a wife who is not envious or competitive, but who is able to get along with her family and with yours?
And above all, they had courage. Can you imagine the bravery it must have taken for these five young women to stand up before Moses, and before the Kohen Gadol, and before the heads of the tribes and make their case? Courage is a good quality to look for in a bride, because the journey of life is filled with dangers, and it helps to have a brave woman at your side. Does it not?
So, if you are putting an ad on line, or in the Personals Section of the newspaper, in which you have to describe the kind of girl you are looking for, and if you have to pay by the word, and it is expensive to list too many characteristics that you are looking for, may I suggest that you could save some money, and you could describe precisely the kind of woman that you are looking for with just this simple ad. If you are looking for a date, this is what I suggest you should write:
‘Young, single, handsome Jewish man, who is nice, learned, and successful, who has a sense of humor, and who is modest, kind, and generous, is looking for a Daughter of Tselofchad type of girl. If interested, you can reach me at…”and then I would leave my phone number or my e-mail address.
But of course, I am not single. I am very happily married. And so, I would not think of putting in such an ad.
In fact, if I may say this without embarrassing her, my wife is a bat Tselofchad. She has all the qualities, and all the characteristics that these five daughters had. She has wisdom. If she had to make her case before a court, she would arrange her arguments carefully and persuasively, because she is very smart. She is much, much smarter than I am.
Second, she has Jewish commitments. She comes to shule almost every Shabbat, and she expresses her love and her loyalty to the Jewish way of life in many other ways, which I am sure you are aware of.
Third, she is not an envious person, not at all. Those of you who know her know that she is generous and helpful to others when they are in trouble, and that she is honestly pleased for others when they are happy.
And most of all, she has courage. Can I tell you how much courage she has? She recently took my favorite jacket, the one that I have worn ever since I was a teenager, the jacket that I am emotionally attached to, and just because it is completely worn out, and just because it no longer fits, and just because it is frayed and torn in several places….and do you know what she did with it? She threw it out! Without even asking me, she threw it out!
That’s courage! She threw the jacket that I love so much out, without even asking my permission, without even telling me that she was going to do it! She threw it out without even hesitating to think about whether doing that might endanger our marriage, without thinking about whether it would lead to my divorcing her or not. That’s courage!
And therefore, hurt as I am by the loss of my jacket, alav hashalom, wounded and grief stricken as I am by the loss of my jacket, zichrono livraha, I am impressed with her courage, and her concern for my appearance, and I feel that she is truly a disciple of the daughters of Tselofchad, and so I will not divorce her, but instead, I will consider myself fortunate to be married to her, and I will get over – eventually – what she did to my jacket, and I will love her just the same.
And I say to those of you who are here today who are single, that if the matchmaker asks you: ‘what kind of a woman are you looking for?’ tell her all your requirements as to looks and temperament and character if you wish, or else just say to her: “I want a girl who is like the daughters of Tselofchad”. And may God send you, as He did me, the answer to your dreams. And may my jacket rest in peace, wherever it is. Amen.
Numbers 22:2 – 25:
“Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael – How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel!” [Num. 24:5]
With these words the pagan prophet Balaam blessed the people of Israel, despite his commission from King Balak to send a destructive curse instead. How do we make sense of these words, coming from a man who was no friend of the Israelites, and later plotted their destruction through other means? Why does God force Balaam to bless Israel instead of inviting Moses or Aaron to do so? Why is Balaam’s blessing enshrined in our prayer books and chanted each morning as we gather to pray, to frame our experience of worship?
One possibility, developed by the medieval rabbinic commentators, speaks to the idea that our greatness comes because we are different from all other peoples, and we must be diligent to maintain our distinctiveness. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, offers a different interpretation – turning instead to the words of another anti-Semite (at least according to the poet W.H. Auden), G.K. Chesterton, who famously described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” and “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.” Rabbi Saks continues:
“That is, in fact, precisely what made Israel different – and America’s political culture, as historian Perry Miller and sociologist Robert Bellah pointed out, is deeply rooted in the idea of biblical Israel and the concept of covenant. Ancient Israel was indeed founded on a creed, and was, as a result, a nation with the soul of a religion.”
Most every other nation formed out of practical circumstances – functions of demographics, geography, economics and similar concerns. Israel, however, received the Torah (our effective constitution) in the wilderness of Sinai, forty years before establishing ourselves in the Promised Land. We are a covenant people, governed by ideals and values, faith and hope – and regardless of our demographic conditions have born witness to this, our way of life, for thousands of years.
Rabbi Saks notes that Balaam was right in describing Israelite exceptionalism and notes the irony of Chesterton’s similar description of American exceptionalism. I agree and would also suggest that this exceptionalism is but a step along the way. The goal is that all nations, regardless of how they originated, be governed by principles and ideals of freedom and justice like those which permeate both Torah and the American Constitution. Of course, for that to happen, we must all be diligent – just as the medieval rabbis warned – lest we lose what we have so generously been given.
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