How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

July 24, 2006

Commentary on the Torah portion and current events

I delivered this drash this past Shabbat, Saturday, July 22, at Ohr Shalom. I’m proud to say that the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, shares my sentiments, as evidenced by his speech to the Knesset [Hebrew, English] on July 17 (which I had not read until today [hat tip, AbeJ]).

There are some terribly difficult passages in our sacred texts that force us to struggle fiercely to find meaningful lessons for our lives.

In parashat Matot, the nascent Israelite people – still strongly identified by their tribal affiliation – are commanded to exact retribution on behalf of God upon the Midianite people. Leading the Israelite warriors was Pinchas, son of Elazar the Priest. So, a Middle-Eastern nation led by a religious cleric goes out to make war on another nation for real or perceived wrongs, claiming to act on behalf of God.

Sound familiar at all?

It gets better: after the Israelites kill all the military-age males of Midian in battle, they take the women and children captive (along with all the livestock and cattle). When they return with this booty, Moses berates the army and orders them to KILL all the prisoners except for the virgins (who themselves would become servants, slaves or wives to the Israelites).

Despite some commentators’ dancing around this issue, there is no gray area here: regardless of the justification for the war on the Midianites, what the Israelites did afterwards was heinous and inexcusable to our modern sensibilities. Living as we do in a world beset by Islamic fundamentalist terror and all manner of violence rationalized by religious extremism of all stripes, we must unequivocally reject and uproot such behavior from our midst.

At the same time, we must – just as passionately and fervently – stand up to attacks on our being and do everything in our power to ensure that our rejection of senseless attacks on civilians isn’t taken advantage of by our enemies. As we have witnessed over the last week and a half, the IDF WILL take the fight to those who threaten and harm us, regardless of where they hide. And we will not quit until the job is done.

As my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Gordis said this week in his dispatch from Israel, “We know why they attacked [this time and in previous wars].  And we know why they’re still attacking.  And we’re determined to hold on for the same reason that they’re so determined never to stop.  There’s one reason, and one reason only:
The Jewish People has nowhere else to go.”

Ecclesiastes famously opined, “(There is) a time for war and a time for peace.” Make no mistake, my friends: we ARE at war, and we will give no quarter. Yet we will continue to seek peace and pursue it with those who wish to share it with us.

For generations we have taken the lessons of our texts and sages and applied them to our daily lives, trying to make our existence more holy and bring healing to a troubled world. But we have learned other lessons from our history, as well: we will never again allow ourselves to be enslaved; we will not again be forced out of our homeland, exiled and made to wander in the wilderness. We will stand up and fight, and those of us who cannot fight should make our voices heard in support of those who can and do.

As this day of rest continues, please join me in praying for the health and safety of the soldiers of the IDF who are defending Eretz Israel, and the successful completion of their mission. And please join me tomorrow at the rally in support of Israel at the JCC.

Shabbat shalom.

July 12, 2006

Short and sweet.

Filed under: Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 17:14

I delivered the following mini-drash on July 8 at Ohr Shalom. I am indebted to my mom for pointing me to the Talmudic passage I reference.
Six hundred thirteen. Sound familiar? It should – that’s the number of mitzvot most rabbis tell us are in the Torah. And we should all believe our rabbi, right?

Yes, but as we also know, Jews never just agree about something. Even if the result is agreement, the road to get to consensus is long, arduous, and filled with, er, shall we say, friendly intellectual debate?

Thus we find that there are alternatives to the much-talked-about 613. One well-known example is Hillel’s response to the man who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one leg: “‘What is hateful to you, don’t do to others,'” Hillel said, “The rest is commentary, now go and study!”

This is essentially all the mitzvot distilled into one. But this isn’t the only time our wise sages played the numbers. In one of those friendly debates in the Talmud (Makkot 23b), Rabbi Simla’i points out that, at the end of today’s haftarah (Chapter 6, verse 8 ), the prophet Micah said, “God has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

So there you have it! The Jewish trinity! The final word on how many mitzvot there are, right?… well, not exactly, since the same rabbi makes arguments for several other counts as well… But my point is that there ARE always mitzvot – the Torah isn’t just a book of history or tall tales, blessings and curses, begats and animal sacrifices. It’s a powerful guide for our everyday lives and our relationships with each other and with God. Want to know more? Go and study!

Shabbat shalom!

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