Teshuva as a Love Story: the Torah portion of Nitzavim & Rosh Hashana

Walking in Haifa of my childhood, less than a mile from where I grew up, sometimes I meet myself coming and going. Yesterday she was sitting at a bus stop, chatting with friends in her school’s uniform, ponytail bouncing as she laughs with them… On the eve of Rosh Hashana 5780 – 2019, Israel’s population nearly tripled from those days when I actually walked the streets and sat on the benches here – or more likely, a low stonewall near my house. I am so glad to finally, be one of these 9 million living here, whoever and however they are counted, and perhaps at no other season is this so poignant than the season of teshuva.

Teshuva has many translations. Simply, it means “answer”, but during these days, it also means “repentance” or “return”. Some say, it comes from “lashevet”, to sit, to feel settled. Do I? What is the meaning of any of this?

In the Torah portion we most often read before Rosh Hashana, that of Nitzavim, we find the instructions for teshuva (Deuteronomy 20:2-10):

וְשַׁבְתָּ֞ עַד־יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֣ בְקֹל֔וֹ כְּכֹ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם אַתָּ֣ה וּבָנֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

and you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day,

וְשָׁ֨ב יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ֖ וְרִחֲמֶ֑ךָ וְשָׁ֗ב וְקִבֶּצְךָ֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר הֱפִֽיצְךָ֛ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ שָֽׁמָּה׃

then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.

אִם־יִהְיֶ֥ה נִֽדַּחֲךָ֖ בִּקְצֵ֣ה הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם מִשָּׁ֗ם יְקַבֶּצְךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וּמִשָּׁ֖ם יִקָּחֶֽךָ׃

Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you…..

וְאַתָּ֣ה תָשׁ֔וּב וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֖ בְּק֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה וְעָשִׂ֙יתָ֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֺתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם׃

You, however, will again heed the LORD and obey all His commandments that I enjoin upon you this day.

וְהוֹתִֽירְךָ֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ בְּכֹ֣ל ׀ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֗ךָ בִּפְרִ֨י בִטְנְךָ֜ וּבִפְרִ֧י בְהֶמְתְּךָ֛ וּבִפְרִ֥י אַדְמָתְךָ֖ לְטוֹבָ֑ה כִּ֣י ׀ יָשׁ֣וּב יְהוָ֗ה לָשׂ֤וּשׂ עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ לְט֔וֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֖שׂ עַל־אֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃

And the LORD your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the LORD will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers,

כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֗ע בְּקוֹל֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו הַכְּתוּבָ֕ה בְּסֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֖ה הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י תָשׁוּב֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

since you will be heeding the LORD your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the LORD your God with all your heart and soul.

The process here is described to have three stages: that of returning to the Land of Israel, because it’s connected to the the in-gathering of the People; the second is returning to the actions that connect and bind us to G-d (those we call “commandments”); and then, that of just “simply” returning to G-d.

The whole idea is bizarre: the fact that this has to do with “return” means I’ve been there once…. Have I? Alternatively, if we are made in G-d’s image, then isn’t G-d already within us? Where shall we go back to? What if we’ve never been “there”??

In Israel the term “chazara bitshuva” loosely translated as “returning on the return / finding an Answer”, has taken on a new face: that of becoming religious after growing up secular, a term which is fraught with emotions and challenges. I remember a friend who grew up with “nothing”, married a religious man and became “religious” herself. She told me how when people ask her if she’s a “chozeret bitshuva”, she says, “no, I have a love story”. This is what I think Rav Kook would say too: teshuva is not only about a place or an action; it’s not about a list of to do’s and ‘ I once didn’t light Shabbat candles and now I do’. Action is important because it conveys who we are, but it’s not everything. Therefore, teshuva rather, is about a soul reaching for and flowing towards – and with – its source; about a deep desire for Oneness and Flow; indeed, about reconnecting with the love story between us and G-d, and centering that in our life.

Shabbat Shalom & Shana Tova Umetuka.

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Turning the past into a future: The Torah portion of Ki Tavo

One month in Israel, not even close to scraping the surface of this old-new seashell. There are moments that I’m not sure what I was thinking, and there are moment that I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to be back, not for any particular reason, just because the air feels right, the beach is glorious, especially at sunset when the water is still warmish and the sun softer and you can walk forever, and the cottage-cheese tastes like my childhood.

These Torah portions speak of going and coming, Ki Tetze and Ki Tavo: if you go out – for war… when you come – into the Land… perhaps implying that going out is always a struggle, even in best case scenario, while coming in is a return home.

This week’s parasha opens with the word Vehaya: haya means – was; the vav before, is known as vav hahipuch: it causes verb after to change times, turning it from “it was” into “and it will come to be when”…. This happens elsewhere, for example, shamru means they kept, in the past. When this vav is added, it turns into veshamru, and (they) will keep (the Children of Israel the Shabbat for their generations…). What a concept! That we can play with time! It is possible for us, says the Hebrew grammar, to turn the past into a future.

By contrast, the word yehi means – will be (so will be your will – וכן יהי רצון); vayehi though means “and it came to pass” in the past. Therefore, the sages understood the latter to be a sign of doom – a promise for a brighter future that holds a danger, reversal of hope (see Genesis 41:1: Vayehi miketz… Pharaoh wakes up from a dream after two extra years of Joseph in jail, which starts Joseph’s ascend but ultimately lands the Children of Israel in slavery in Egypt). But here, the word vahaya is a sign of blessing ahead. The ability to turn the past into a future is a sign a joy. This is how the description of coming to the Land of Israel opens. We have an opportunity to reverse the past. This was true in Torah times, and it is even more true, noticeable and easy to grasp – nowadays.

So ok. If the goal is to come to the Land and that’s the future and blessings, then great, let’s make the most of it. Life is not easy, you know; if we can get anything out of this rocky ground, let’s enjoy it. But then, the very first thing one must do is bring the first fruit to the Temple. Ouch! Finally, there is a little fig on my tree, and now I have to give it away?? how could that make sense? If we think we are the absolute owners, then it doesn’t, but if we remember that we are caretaker and work with the Owner then maybe it’s possible.

The next strange thing is that the Torah insists on when we come to priest “today”, we should say, that we’ve come to the Land… but what if someone has been here for seven generations, or even one? This too has to do with a feeling of not taking for granted. Being here should not be a result of historical coincidence – I’m here, so I’m here – but, rather, accompanied by a sense of choice. There is a constant feelings of renewal, excitement, mission, place and role, things to do. I admit, this is not always obvious to me when I wait in line at the bank or some office, again. But then I open my shutters and take a deep breath as I gaze at the view.

Shabbat Shalom.

וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃

When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it,

וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית ׀ כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃

you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.

וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֗יו הִגַּ֤דְתִּי הַיּוֹם֙ לַה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּי־בָ֙אתִי֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע ה’ לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ לָ֥תֶת לָֽנוּ׃

You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the LORD your God that I have entered the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to assign us.”

וְלָקַ֧ח הַכֹּהֵ֛ן הַטֶּ֖נֶא מִיָּדֶ֑ךָ וְהִ֨נִּיח֔וֹ לִפְנֵ֕י מִזְבַּ֖ח ה’ אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.

וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃

You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.

וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃

The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.

וַנִּצְעַ֕ק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עָנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃

We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.

וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃

The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃

He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

וְעַתָּ֗ה הִנֵּ֤ה הֵבֵ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־רֵאשִׁית֙ פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תָּה לִּ֖י ה’ וְהִנַּחְתּ֗וֹ לִפְנֵי֙ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֔יתָ לִפְנֵ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃

Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” You shall leave it before the LORD your God and bow low before the LORD your God.

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכָל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ (ס)

And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household.

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While out walking… and the Torah portion of Shoftim

Evening walk on this Haifa street: red-roof, multi-family homes on left, woodsy forest of pines and oaks on the right, and a movement in the ticket. A person? Too wide. A cat or dog? Too big. But there is movement. And eyes. And a furry back. What can it be? A wild boar meandering along, casually looking for food, totally oblivious to the passersby, then heading back and disappearing among the trees. What to do when we run into strange and unusual things?? The Torah portion of Shoftim introduces us to one such case.

Here is the short:

If you chance upon a dead body in the field and you don’t know what happened and who killed the person, the elders and judges of the area, should measure from that body to the nearest city, so the elders of that city can atone for the dead with a certain “ritual”. The ritual includes taking a heifer and breaking its neck in the gushing river nearby, washing hands in the blood and water, and thus “doing right in the eyes of G-d”. It’s hard to read this and not just go, what???
Luckily, the great commentators and sages throughout the centuries have been likewise baffled by this and left us their thoughts. Abravanel (1437-1508) asked the same question, wondering how can the blood of a beheaded heifer atone for the iniquity and blood of the slain man? And furthermore: if ‘no one knew’ and ‘no one did it’, why is anyone required to do anything at all???
Let’s try and picture the scene:

I’m talking my evening walk, and instead of spotting the wild boar in Haifa, I, g-d forbid, chance upon a body in the middle of nowhere. What would / could / should I do? Probably first, scream; or maybe, be horrified and speechless; maybe look right and left for help, but we’re nowhere and there is no one… I can hear my mind going, ‘the guy is dead, there’s nothing to help him with, and you can get in trouble! Will I slowly back up and pretend I didn’t see it, and this didn’t happen?? If I try to get help, what if I get blamed? What if they don’t believe me?? And it’s so far from anywhere, and I have things to do!! Let someone else find him and deal with it!!
I know it’s tempting to think we would just “naturally” “know” to do the “right thing”, but most often, there is a reason why we were given laws. It’s that we davka don’t automatically do the “right thing”. It takes work.
So, suppose I collected my breath, made it to the nearby city, and told someone about the whole thing. And suppose they even believe me, they can still say, hey, thank you so much, but that’s really the next city’s jurisdiction…. But according to the Torah, they now have to assemble “my elders and my judges” – not just anyone but sages who have gained the community’s trust – who need to go out and measure. We don’t have google earth and can’t do this from home. We have to walk the distances to the nearby cities. What a strange procession we must be! Surely, we attract others’ attention. This now means, more people are involved from all the towns around. In pre e-days, this is our way of telling everyone of what happened: Hey listen, something serious; someone was killed nearby to us!!
People are starting to talk: Who is that someone? Do we recognize him? Do we know him? Is he from around here? Did he have enemies? Did anyone see him?? If yes, what’s going on among us?? If no, how come he was near our towns and we did not know? Did he need hospitality and we didn’t provide it? Food? Shelter? Someone to talk with?? No doubt, there is an investigation. We must uncover what happened, we must find the murder; we must because if not, we know what’s next.
We need a heifer. Do you have one?? Not anyone; we need a heifer “which has not been worked with and which hath not drawn in the yoke”. Do you have that one?? And if you do, if you do have that little, cute, young, heifer that “has not been worked with”, that you so need, because, after all, we live in a place where heifers are extremely valuable, are you sure you want to give it to us, to be beheaded for this ritual??
I think not. I think you- or me, if I had that heifer- would do everything possible to avoid this. This is perhaps expressed in the verse which the elders say at the end, “our hands have not shed this blood…”. Asks the Talmud, why do they need to even say this? Would we think that the elders have actually shed this man’s blood?? But rather, they publicly acknowledge that they have done all they can, not just for this one person, but that they were loving, kind, hospitable; they exemplified responsibility to their fellow town-people and travelers alike; and they taught others to do so as well. Can they say that? Have they (we) really done all they can?? Do we??
I’d like to think that the ordeal of “egla arufa” (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) happened very rarely if ever, because the conditions for it, are so numerous and complicated, but its lessons are what matters. The whole Torah portion is about creating order and justice in society from the gates and inward. And yet, there is not enough police force in the world to assure “nothing” will ever happen. The main thing goes back to us. Let’s not wait to worry about finding the “right” heifer and solving obscure murder cases. We should think about doing things well before, for the strangers among us and those dear and near; value and care for those around us so we avoid getting into a situation from which it’s hard to get out.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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To Hear and To See – Ekev-Re’e

The tension between hearing, listening and seeing, looking are emphasized in the Book of Deuteronomy, especially in this week and last week’s reading. First, “our manta”: Shma! שמע Listen! Then, this week  – Re’e! ראה. Listening is considered more internal; see – more external. We might think the Torah should be only about the “internal”, so spiritual, it would reject the material, outside world, and are proven wrong. Both are critical, like a driver of a car – he can’t do anything without the car, and the car can’t go anywhere without him.

The Or HaChayim (18th century – Morocco – Israel) suggests that in order to know how many blessings are in store for us in the Hereafter, we have to have a deep appreciation and success in this world: “If the person preaching the values of the Hereafter were not himself blessed with success in this life, his listeners would not believe him thinking that he consoles himself with something in the future because he had been unable to attain it in the here and now”… While we know that others might say, that the way to know the world to come is by avoiding this world, this is not the Jewish path. Whatever Hashem gave us that we can legally, by Torah law, enjoy, we can and we should.

Both – Shma & Re’e – שמע – ראה – are said in the singular form of the verb, which means they are spoke to everybody as one. Re’e is followed with a plural: “See, I set before you today the blessing and the curse..” (Deuteronomy 11:26). The word for “before you” is לפניכם lifneichem in the plural, before all of you, or – before each and every one of you, maybe to indicate that everyone has a different path where we can find blessing as well as curse.

*******

The next verse opens with the word את הברכה “et habracha” (Deuteronomy 11:27). This את “et” is a seemingly useless, untranslatable Hebrew construct. The word appears before a specific direct object. Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher, known as “Ba’al Haturim” (1269-, Germany – 1343, Spain) explains that because את “et” is made from א- ת alef & tav, the first and last letters of the alphabet, so will be the blessing, all inclusive. This parallels the description of the blessings in Leviticus 3:3-13, which begin with an Alef אם בחוקותי תלכו and end with a Tav – קוממיות.

On the other hand, the curse is introduced with the letters הא – וו – Vav & Heh – vehaklala (Deuteronomy 11:28). They parallel the curses in Leviticus (26:14-46) which (coincidentally 🙂 also begin with a וו – Vav and end with a הא – Heh. Vav & Heh are right next to each other, as if to let us know, Hashem would much rather shower us with goodness than subject us to bad; the “curse” is short and the goodness is so much greater, and goes on forever…

That this makes sense to now, well, ok, maybe sort of. But how did someone write this hundreds of years ago, in times of pogroms, exiles, and already more than 1000 years after the Temple was destroyed with no end in sight? How did anyone believe it hundreds of years later and miles away (as this is brought by Rabbi Hayim David Azulay (the Hida, Jerusalem, 1784-1804)? Maybe it’s not only about “choosing good” but more that, choosing to see good.

Shabbat Shalom & Chodesh Elul Tov from Haifa, Israel.

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For Tu Be’Av & Parashat Va’etchanan: A new Book, a famous verse and a holiday (or two)

The Hebrew name of each one of the five books of the Torah has to do with speech, but each one of the first four describes only partial speech. Then comes “Dvarim” – Deuteronomy – and opens by saying, “And these are The Things…” implying wholeness, closure. Moses, in the last month of his life, organizes the Torah for the People. If until now things might have showed up in an order only G-d can fully know and understand, here it is – some repeat, some “new”, some expanded – through a human’s farewell speech. Wait, human? Would that mean that this book is not “Divine”?? but if it’s not, how come it’s in the Torah? One way to understand this is to think of it as if Moshe started speaking and G-d said, that’s exactly what I was going to say!! Or maybe, vice-versa…

But, Moshe & Dvarim?? Moshe is the one who started out his mission saying – לא איש דברים אנכי – For I am not a man of dvarim, words (Exodus 4:10) and he ends his life with a whole book named Dvarim?! Initially when he could not speak, Hashem had Aaron, his older brother, speak for him, but now Aaron has already died. How did Moshe turn from someone who can’t speak to someone who, forty years later, can just say a whole book of Divine words? What happened over these years? The Sfat Emet (Yehuda Aryeh Leib Aletr, 1847-1905, Hasidic rabbi, named so after the title of his main work) says that this is proof that the Torah and particularly what our tradition calls being mit’asek baTorah (busy with the Torah) has healing powers, especially when it comes to the ability to use speech.

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Tish’a Be’Av in India: people sitting on the floor, praying, reading, learning history and the stories of the churban (destruction), singing moving, emotional songs in a language many don’t understand for a Temple, none of us has seen, which stood thousands of miles away and thousands of years ago. How is this even possible? Who knows how many important buildings have been destroyed, collapsed, burned, damaged, disappeared throughout the world, throughout these years, and yet. Here we are. And I can’t help wondering. It’s 2019 – 5779, and people all over the world, Jews and non-Jews and not-yet-Jews are praying for the rebuilding of the Temple in a far away land; wishing for the peace and well-being of Jerusalem, Israel and her people. If this did not sound so…. I would say, we live in amazing times.

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And then, there’s the transition from a day of tragedy, mourning and sadness to joy and gladness. This Friday is Tu Be’Av, often wrongly translated – or described – as Jewish Valentine Day, but here, Thursday, August 15, is India’s Independence Day. In preparations, the balcony is decorated with homemade flowers and streamers of orange, white and green. The women are dressed in fine, festive sarees, some in the flag’s colors but others in every pretty shade of blue, gold, purple, yellow and more. It seems like there is no end to colors and their careful combination here – houses in orange, yellow, purple, green, blue, maroon and on and on, giant wall paintings in the streets, the food, too, gets to be bright and orange, red, green, and of course, scarves must be carefully matched to tunic and pants. In honor of the day, the students prepare speeches and dances, as “should be” on such a day. Words (familiar words, I might add) of patriotism and love of this great country are expressed sincerely, and the flag is waved proudly. More and more dancing, and photo opportunities.

People (by that I mean, the women) take turns having their picture with me. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. Suddenly, one lady, begins to approach me in an official, slow marching walk. True, it is hard to make hasty steps in saree, but she is doing so deliberately, her hand tight to her forehead, saluting. She is a little older and heavy set which all stands in contrast to her movement, and from my other side, I can see the students unsure how to respond. As she comes near me, I notice her tears. In a chocked voice, she speaks about the bond between India and Israel in their joint history with the British, gaining independence within the same 12 months, and the current strong relationships between the two countries, sharing growth in agriculture, technology and more (though I am guessing she doesn’t know about the thousands of Israelis who make this country their place of pilgrimage, which deserves another conversation-). She then proceeds to bless the two countries with all good wishes. None of this is in English, and my ten and a half words in the local language don’t include any of those spoken. It seems that at times, the power of words comes through even without the words themselves being understood.

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Shma Yisra’el, says Moshe in this week’s reading. Such famous, repeated, sung, prayed and yet, almost impossible to understand words. In order to command someone to listen (or do anything for that matter), to the commander has to be on the outside of the commanded. When Moshe says, “hear oh Israel”, is he implying he is not included in that? That he is on the “outside”? And what about the repetition of Hashem’s name twice within six words? Would it not be sufficient to say – ‘Hear Israel, Hashem our G-d is One’??

Rashi says that this verse conveys a dynamic statement: Hashem, the one who is our G-d, who is known by us, is going to be the One g-d known by all’. If so, it denotes progression and indeed, much later (than Moshe), this idea repeats in the book of Ezekiel (38:23) when the prophet says in Hashem’s name: “I will be exalted and known to many nations”.

There is a midrash that the first time this verse was uttered is by Jacob’s children, on his death bed: Hear Israel, they said to their father, we’re all in this together. At that time therefore, it meant unity of the people. During Moshe’s times, the verse came to mean – Oneness of Torah and the People: me, says Moshe, who might seem to you on the “outside”, who speaks with Hashem, who prays and attends to the Mishkan, who brings down the Torah, and you, the People, are all inside that same Oneness, a message still relevant today, when we have not yet figured out how to have less division between Torah and People. But one day, says the prophet, the whole world will see the Oneness of Hashem. This might sound foreign, crazy and oppressive in so many places, but it’s all over the place here. This is an incredibly religious country. In every corner there is a shrine, “idol”, temple, wreath of flowers around a statue, painting of an ancient mythology scene (colorful, did I mention?), and if it’s not Hindu, it’s a mosque, church, ashram and on and on. One day, say our prayers, we will all know, we are part of the same Oneness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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the market place – cell phone and advanced technology (even in flower basket)

 

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Finally – Matot – Masei –

My Kulanu fellowship in this Eastern India emerging community”, has settled into sort of a routine: 7:00am – 8:00am – introduction to Gemara; 9:00am – Hebrew; 10:30am – Jewish history and Land of Israel. Lunch and short break before another hour and a half of singing and dancing Israeli and Jewish songs, and later on, an evening program: twice a week – for women only, and once a week – for “everybody”. Then there is Shabbat and its learning. In between I insist on at least one hour afternoon walk. I finally – proudly – know how to get myself out to several places nearby, but, getting back through the small, crowded alleys is a whole different story, so one of the students has to accompany me. They ask me about Israel and the US, and tell me a little about “here”. Most conversations and classes are in English; at times, there is a translator. Considering English is not my first or second language, and neither is it theirs, we all speak with “an accent”, and, I think, understand each other quite well. It is actually amazing how few words one needs, and how much we say with intonation, head and body movements, which in itself is a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, about the limitations and power of speech.

This week’s Torah portion, a double one for those outside of Israel, makes me very happy: Diaspora and Israel are finally catching up so when Moses addresses the whole community next week, and later, when the 9th of Av will be commemorated, we will all be together. Is that why it begins with speech?

A whole tractate was written to expound and explain the opening of the idea of Vows (in the opening of Parashat Matot, Numbers 30). Vows are a strange as we are encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the gifts of this world. Talmud already wondered about this: “Is what the Torah forbade on you insufficient that you decide to add more?” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 89:5.1). To be clear, we cannot change negative commandments through a vow (i.e. one cannot vow to not to keep kosher, steal or murder -) but one can add prohibitions that the Torah did not provide (i.e. not to eat chocolate for a period of time :-).

The power of speech comes up again and again especially in times of transition: leaving Gan Eden; Moses and the Exodus, which results in the Hagadda, a book of telling for a holiday called Pe-Sach (literally can be translated as “speaking mouth”), and now, just before the closing of the Book of Numbers and the entrance to the Land. Initially unclear, it is also a beautiful concept: it means that within the confines of one’s religion, one can add an “elective”, a kind of “personal commandments”; one can be “in the image of G-d”: to create one’s own spiritual path through the power of speech. To be in a (sort of) two-way street with G-d as the commended becomes a commander.

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Two tribes approach Moses and ask to stay on the “other”, eastern side of the Jordan. They explain that they “owned cattle in very great numbers” (Numbers 32:1) and behold, the place is a “region suitable for cattle”. At first, Moses is dismayed: how can they even make such a request, not to go into the Land after everything the People have been through? We’ve just survived 40 years of delay in the desert because a group of leaders (the “Spies”) hesitated exactly about this topic. And now, again?? Moses asks bewildered: “Are you brothers to go to war while you stay here…. And now, you – תרבות אנשים חטאים – a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers to add still further to Hashem’s wrath against Israel”?

But they calm him saying, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” – and what’s more – “We will hasten as a shock-troops in the van of Israelite until we have established them in their home…. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelite is in possession of his portion”…. And with that Moses agrees, but adds two adjustments: even though the tribes said they need pasture for the cattle (first) and homes for the kids (second), Moses tells them to “build towns for your children (first!) and sheepfolds for your flocks (after) and do what you have promised” (32:24). Once he reminds them of the correct priorities, he also adds half of Menashe’s tribe, and not by coincidence: Menashe is Joseph’s son, who describes himself as Ivri (Hebrew) even in dire situation in Egypt, and Menashe himself is the great, great grandfather of Tzlofchad’s daughters, who stand up for their right for property in the Land. With this kind of connection, Moses feels better about the arrangement and allows it.

Reuven and Gad, the two tribes whose first letters make the acronym ger, convert or friendly foreign tribe – form a link between Israel and the nations of the world. The Eastern side of the Jordan was empty which means there could be a physical disconnect between Israel and the world, which this avoided. There is much for us to teach as well as learn. After Shabbat services here, everyone walks around the room purposefully, making sure they wish each and every person a heartfelt Shabbat Shalom, and I wish there was a way to bring back to our synagogues. Every time there is a class of any sort, almost no matter where, students, young and old (young and younger) bring their notepad and pencils to take notes. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity, and I love that too. Per my reading of the Torah, we do not want to disconnect completely; we do not want to approach “the other” through fear and intimidation. There is no meaning to be a “light unto the nations” if neither us nor the nations can see that light.

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History class: I give each group of students a Jewish hero from another time and place so slowly we can begin to see a timeline of events and names. One group get David Ben Gurion and chances upon a picture of him standing on his head. “Can you all stand on your head”? I ask. No, no, madam”. One tries softly: “maybe with wall, maybe”… they shake their heads quietly, giggling shyly. I realize: The Land of Yoga’s children learn about Jewish language, history and faith while the Land of Torah children’s go to India to learn yoga and eastern philosophy…

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And then, the summary of the journey (Numbers 33), where not just arrival, but each stop has meaning… may it be so.

Shabbat Shalom.

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The Daughters of Tzlofchad – Parashat Pinchas

My Indian “mother”, half my age and twice as determined as me, stands over me with a spoonful of rice: “just a little more”, she says, almost begs, her eyes on me as I struggle with the never-ending heap of food on my plate, “you want I make other food”? I love Indian food and yet, I put my hands together in prayer motion to sign, please please, no more food. Every day, when we break for lunch, two young mothers show up with pots and pans, settle on the colorful rug, and, using their skillful fingers, roll rice and veggies as they methodically pile balls of food into their children’s mouths. It turns out, that Indian mothers are Jewish mothers too.

The women of the community I’m visiting in Eastern India are amazing and a true inspiration. They are busy all the time, cooking, frying, sorting, cleaning, washing, and yes, learning. When I am away from my room teaching, little angels change my sheets, add bananas and dates, fill the fridge with bottled water they get just for me, and hang an ironed tunic dress. They come in and out unnoticed, tiptoeing barefoot on the stone floor, their scarves floating gently behind them in the all too light breeze. They do their tasks with pride and humility, not grudgingly with a puffed breath under their chin, but with grace and delight. It’s their honor to walk in Abraham and Sarah’s footsteps. What can be better than to be busy with the work of Hashem. They feel lucky.

They constantly move, but then, yesterday evening, they stopped. I was asked to show how to make challa. Ingredients were assembled based on the list I gave earlier in the week and set on a clean table; a new microwave-convection oven appeared and was connected respectfully in the main-room. Then the ladies, young and younger, adults and students, all changed into lovely dresses, each unique in its design and colors. They stood behind me curiously, singing heartfelt songs we learned this week for peace and the well-being of the Jewish people world-wide (yes, in Hebrew), while I was kneading and praying not to fail them. They on the other hand, didn’t care what will come out of this unusual creation of yeast and white flour in a world of rice and chapati. “Failure” was not an option Anything would be success, they told me. If it “doesn’t work, we would have learned how not to do it next time”. While the dough rose, they kept singing; then the students played games learned in history class earlier in the day. There is no TV not because we’re in “backwards” India; there is plenty of technology- cellphones, screens for learning, electrical musical instruments and more. But there’s a choice: to spend time with each other, with books, with learning, with Hashem and his commandments.

The students I am so very honored to teach, are incredibly bright, committed, studious and learned. They want to know and exactly, what happened when Zimri brought the Midyanite woman before Moshe; why could Moshe not answer; is there something in common to all the cases Moses could not answer and if so, is Pinchas related to Pesach Sheni (he is!). These daughters of Tzolfchad are polite, smart, and insistent: they don’t give up on their questions. In a society where dress code (for men and women) is pretty strict and different, and buses are separated as is the ball area in the stadium, the women nevertheless know they want to learn, and learning they will.

It’s warmer than 90F and the weather channel says it feels like 107F; humidity is in the 80-90%. No one says a word about it. It’s hot so it’s hot. But India is waiting for rain, a feeling I know after living in California and growing up in Israel. The monsoon season is delayed, and the summer sown crops are wilting in some areas due to the dry spell. We add prayers all too familiar to rain. Wherever you are too, may it be a Shabbat Shalom.

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