Cities of Refuge (Mattot-Masei 5775)


Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, Hawaii (credit: Ashira Konigsburg)

Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau, the City of Refuge, on Hawaii’s Big Island was functional into the early 19th century, when kapu, Hawaii’s system of ritual taboos, was overturned by King Kamehameha II. Until that time, many breaches of the kapu could result in death, including for an offence as ephemeral as allowing your shadow to fall over a chief’s house. However, by entering a pu`uhonua(a place of refuge), often by swimming across a bay, and performing a ritual facilitated by the priest there, the punishment could be annulled.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →


Parashat Emor 5775 (On Blasphemy and the Image of God)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

This week’s parashah ends with a sin:

וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל.

The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name [of God] and cursed. (Lev. 24:10-23)

Maybe we don’t need to overthink why a law code seen as given by God would determine that cursing God is not ok, but how severe a crime is this? Evidently, Moses was uncertain, as the culprit was detained while Moses checked in with God. Because, perhaps, the negative consequence of this act seems unclear. After all, what harm can possibly come to God through human words? Continue reading

On Bibi’s Statement and Israeli Democracy

What was it that prompted the Rabbinical Assembly to issue a strongly-worded condemnation of Bibi’s 11th hour statement calling on right-leaning Israelis to vote Likud to counteract the ballots of the Arab hoards? The RA is, as the New York Times describes it “traditionally a reliable defender of the Israeli government”, but this was deemed beyond the pale. At first glance, it seems that it was the race-baiting “dog whistle” that caused the outrage, the implication that Arab citizens of Israel voting is intrinsically problematic. Gershom Gorenberg points the finger at the military terms used, which raise the spectre of Arab voters as an invading force within the State.

As serious and problematic as this all is, I think there is something deeper about Netanyahu’s pitch that repulses believers in liberal democracy, perhaps especially Americans (and perhaps especially Conservative rabbis). Despite the Republican Jewish Coalition’s attack on the Rabbinical Assembly for making this statement, I really don’t believe that a top-tier Republican leader would ever (publicly) say, “Black voters are being bused to the polls by liberal activists—protect the Republican-controlled House and vote now!” But why is that? Continue reading

Parashat Noah 5775 (on languages and understanding people who are different)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Shabbat shalom,

or pacan sabaton, as they say in Esperanto (feel free to correct my pronunciation later).

וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים

The whole world had one language and one speech. (Gen. 11:1)

Thus opens the story of the migdal bavel, the Tower of Bavel. Though building project of the citizens of Bavel earns them God’s punishment, a unifying language for all the world does seem utopian. In pursuit of of peaceful coexistence between all peoples, L. L. Zamenhof, who grew up amongst the inter-ethnic strife of late 19th C Bialystok in Poland, created what came to be known as “Esperanto”, a universal language. Continue reading

Parashat Balak 5774 (on misleading others and the paths of peace)

Written for the JTS Torah Commentary

That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. And God was very angry when he went. (Num. 22:20–22)

Poor Balaam. He does what God tells him to do, and God gets angry with him. This strange response is explained by most traditional Jewish sources by resorting to a caricature of Balaam as a wicked person who hates the Israelites and loves the wealth and glory that Balak promised him in exchange for cursing them.

Read more at JTS Torah Online →

Parashat Vayigash 5774 (on developing a narrative for one’s life)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

How would you reintroduce yourself to someone who you had completely lost touch with, who hasn’t seen you in years, hasn’t heard about what you’ve been up to from your connections and hasn’t even been following your exploits on Facebook?

How would you frame your new life and the story of how you got from the person you were then to the one you are today? What are your values and priorities now? Would you confront the awkward fact of your lack of contact for all these years, and if so, how would you make sense of it? Continue reading

Parashat Hukat 5773 (on God’s presence in human affairs)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In the middle of our parasha, overshadowed by: the ritual of the red hefer, the deaths of Moses’ siblings, the sin of striking the rock, the plague of serpents, tales of diplomacy and war, the narrative pauses to include… a really short song, recounting what happened earlier in the parasha when the people needed water:

This song is interjected into a passage listing the stages of the journey.

 וּמִשָּׁם, בְּאֵרָה:  הִוא הַבְּאֵר, אֲשֶׁר אָמַר ה` לְמֹשֶׁה, אֱסֹף אֶת-הָעָם, וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם. אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת:  עֲלִי בְאֵר, עֱנוּ-לָהּ. בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים, כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם, בִּמְחֹקֵק, בְּמִשְׁעֲנֹתָם; וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה.

And from there to Be’er, which is the well where God said to Moses: gather the people and I will give them water. So Israel sang this song: Spring up, well, sing to it:  the well that princes dug; the nobles of the people started it, with the scepter, with their canes. And from Midbar to Mattanah. (Num 21:16-18)

…and so the list continues. Continue reading

Parashat Yitro 5773 (on revelation and arbitration)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

After hearing of the Israelites’ wondrous escape from Egypt, Jethro brings Tzipora and her sons to meet with Moses, his son-in-law. He must have been expecting that their future would be bright, in a family headed by the leader of the people to whom God has shown favor.

One day later, he is not so optimistic. Moses, it seems, spends all day every day with the people “standing on him”, awaiting his guidance. What time will he have have to spend with his spouse and raise his children? Continue reading

Parashat Vayeshev 5773 (on playing a role in someone else’s story)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

There are some things that are better kept inside one’s own head. For example, Joseph told his brothers and father of his dreams that they would one day be subservient to him. This did not go over well, all things considered. But then, it was not in the young Joseph’s nature to consider such things. If he were to have a lightbulb joke it would be (with apologies to Ivy League or Oxbridge students and graduates):

How many of Jacob’s sons does it take to change a lightbulb? Just Joseph: he holds the lightbulb still and the universe revolves around him.

It doesn’t help, I suppose, that he has a whole four weeks of Torah reading, all about him. Continue reading

First Day Rosh Hashana 5773 (on Hagar and Hannah, and making teshuva from where we are)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

If you have a strong sense of guilt, and if the caricature has any foundation in reality, many Jews do, there can be a peculiar dilemma during this time of year: either we experience guilt about our personal failings, or, we experience guilt at our failure to experience guilt about our personal failings!

However much the liturgical additions, rabbinic texts and blasts of the shofar may tell us that this is the time to make teshuva, real changes in ourselves, it rarely feels like the right time. Only at a very few moments in our lives do we realise that we are in just the right place to reflect, decide and enact the decision to change.

But what is “just the right place”? In a few minutes, we’ll read about some women in very different places in their lives, and see what we can learn from their stories. Continue reading