Balak: It’s a great view from up here!

FJ comes down the hallway in his big smile and light, dancing gait, especially cheerful after a shower. “I feel like a new man”, he proclaims in his booming, friendly voice, as if he’s not wearing hospital pj’s, “and man, the view from up here, just doesn’t cease to amaze me!”
The view from Bellevue Hospital’s 19th floor is indeed fantastic, even if broken to little squares by the thick bars, and somewhat opaque by the double glass and grime. FJ invites me over to see it better: “You’re worried, chaplain? Don’t worry. Look at those kids on the walkway by the water, do you see? Probably on some field trip, and over there, that boat coming in on the East River, right there! This morning I saw the airplanes whizzing in and out! And there’s even a pool in the building next door. I wish I could get a job there, right there! I’d do anything, windows, laundry, sweeping the whole staircase of them 20 some floors, ‘sir, would you like me to take out your trash’? Anything, anything at all”.
We stand there quietly for a moment, hands on the bars, gazing outside, as he grows serious: “Seriously, I wish, I wish I could do this, but how? When I get out, they’ll send me away with $40 to the shelter. I’ll still have no job, no training, nothing to do where I have meaning. Day one, I’m fine, strong, hopeful; day 2, I’m carrying on, a bit slower, but still pushing through; I now have $27 but hanging in; Day 3, struggling with the $15 left, lost as to what to do next; day 4, some guy invites me to shoot or snort or smoke, and I think, who the f—k cares about me anyway, let’s have a little something, anything, just to take the throbbing pain away; day 5, you don’t know what day it is anymore; before too long you get in some trouble and you’re locked up again for some s—t. Oh my G-d, if only there was a way to break out of this cycle, to learn a trade! The subways, where our mammas and sisters and everyone in this city ride, are filthy. Give us a respectful job; we have energy, we can clean them up; we can garden, we can do something, anything, but instead, time goes by, prisons get hundreds of thousands of dollars for each and every one of us”.
According to Wikipedia, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. A couple of other alarming facts: With a high relapse rate, it has not proven as a “correctional” system, and the racial picture is even more horrifying with Blacks taking up more than 3 times their place in US population. I am not arguing their innocence or lack thereof, for some have it, and some don’t; I am just wondering: what are we doing? To each other? To ourselves? To G-d’s image and presence in this world?
The Torah portion of Balak is one of a kind: a magician, a speaking she-donkey, curses that turn into blessings… what’s going on? Here are just a couple of thoughts about it:
Balak, king of Moav, hires Bil’am to curse the Children of Israel on their journey to the Land (Numbers 22:5), and the question should be asked: if Bil’am is so powerful, why not hire him to bless the Moabites, instead of curse the Children of Israel? Turns out, that sometimes, we, humans, get so involved in our desire to destroy someone else, that we focus on that, instead – and sometimes at the expense of – our own well-being.
Another question is the famous “ma tovu”, the words that decorate many synagogues throughout the world and open our morning prayers: XXX why pick the words of a non-Jewish magician who set to destroy us, as those that adorn our shuls and start our day? The MaHaRaL teaches that there words are true, davka because they come from an “outsider”. We know from the Talmud that witnesses must be completely not related to the matter over which they testify, or it seems false because they are —- noge’a bedavar, related to the matter. In order for something to credible, it should come from an impartial source. So it is with ma tovu: had we praised our own tents, camp, overall fabulousness it might come from – and create – a feeling of haughtiness and pride, a ‘look at us, aren’t we wonderful’ (the same feeling that might have led to the transgression at the end of the section), but like this, we had no control over what blessing was said. Therefore, it became even more powerful, like an objective testimony.

Shabbat Shalom.



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Chukat: on struggle and love – בסוף יהיה טוב

A magnets in a store somewhere here says: “it’s going to be ok at the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end”. I am guessing its not based on a Rashi for this week’s Torah portion, but, then again, it could.
Just like that, between last week and this one (or between this one’s beginning of chapter 19 and the following chapter 20) Almost 40 years have gone by. The People are inching towards the Promised Land and the stories along the way are fascinating. Here is a seemingly insignificant piece (Numbers 21:13-15:
מִשָּׁם֮ נָסָעוּ֒ וַֽיַּחֲנ֗וּ מֵעֵ֤בֶר אַרְנוֹן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר הַיֹּצֵ֖א מִגְּב֣וּל הָֽאֱמֹרִ֑י כִּ֤י אַרְנוֹן֙ גְּב֣וּל מוֹאָ֔ב בֵּ֥ין מוֹאָ֖ב וּבֵ֥ין הָאֱמֹרִֽי׃
From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן׃
Therefore the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of “…Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis: the Arnon
וְאֶ֙שֶׁד֙ הַנְּחָלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָטָ֖ה לְשֶׁ֣בֶת עָ֑ר וְנִשְׁעַ֖ן לִגְב֥וּל מוֹאָֽב׃
with its tributary wadis, stretched along the settled country of Ar, hugging the territory of Moab…”
What is the Book of the Wars of the Lord? We don’t quite know, and where we don’t know, the midrash has a party. A few verses later it says, “then Israel sand that song” (21:17), which might remind us of a verse in Exodus (15:1): “then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song”. As the Exodus event was after the splitting of the Sea, here too maybe there is a reference to the sea? The word “Suphah” is a reminder of Suph, like Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds. Therefore, here too we speak of similar, great miracles. What happened? The midrash (below in the Hebrew) tells us that when the children of Israel came to wadi Arnon, they were going to walk through in the wadi, facing “ein-sof” (endless, enormous amount of) people. Above it, were mountains with protruding rocks on one side, and hollow caves on the other. In order to protect the Children of Israel, from enemies above and those hiding in the caves, G-d hinted at the mountains to come together and become a flat pathway, hiding the people, and making it impossible to be attacked.
Vahev & Supha, those mountains, became symbolic of forces that come together, for a greater good: vahev from the same root as ohev, loving, and supha – storm, but also, sopha – its end, to mean, in the end they became one. As it says in the Talmud:
אמר רבי חייא בר אבא: אפילו האב ובנו, הרב ותלמידו שעוסקין בתורה בשער אחד, נעשים אויבים זה את זה ואינם זזים משם עד שנעשים אוהבים זה את זה, שנאמר; “אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה”, אל תקרי בְּסוּפָה, אלא בְּסוֹפָהּ.
— מסכת קידושין דף ל’, עמ’ ב’
רש”י: מתוך שמקשים זה על זה, ואין זה מקבל דברי זה, נראין כאויבים, והכי דריש לה (כלומר הדרוש על הפסוק הוא): ‘ספר מלחמות’ – מלחמה שעל ידי ספר, ‘והב בסופה’ – אהבה יש בסופה”.
It is taught by Rabbi Chiya Bar Abba: even the father and the son, the teacher and his student, who are busy with Torah together, can become enemies, and won’t let go until they become beloved again, just like it says in our verse: “Vahev & Supha. Don’t read supha, but sopha, its end. And Rashi adds: they make things difficult for each other because of a Book – that is, learning, arguing and “warring” over what’s written in The Book, but those kind of wars, end up in love. And perhaps as our magnet says, if there is no love, if there is no good resolution, then they are not yet done.
This became halacha, written in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore De’a 244:10), the book coding Jewish law, behavior and customs (written in the 16th century): It is not allowed for a student to teach where his teacher is teaching (differently) is forbidden (because it can be embarrassing), but to argue over a decision or teaching which seems different and he has proof, of course, for that is the ways of the Torah, and the whole book of full of arguments… for it is not allowed to be flattery and the Torah is the Torah of truth…
May we find differences (implying identity), a healthy struggle and – love in our learning and in life.
Shabbat Shalom.


The midrash:

“אז ישיר ישראל את השירה הזאת” השירה הזאת נאמרה בסוף מ’ שנה והבאר נתנה להם מתחלת ארבעים ומה ראה ליכתב כאן הענין הזה נדרש למעלה הימנו על כן יאמר בספר מלחמות ה’ את והב שעשה להם הקב”ה אותות ונסים בנחלי ארנון כנסים שעשה להם בים סוף ומה הם נסים של נחלי ארנון אדם עומד על הר זה ומדבר עם חברו בהר הזה והוא רחוק ממנו ז’ מילין והדרך יורד לתוך הנחל ועולה ודרכן של ישראל לעבור בתוך הנחל נתכנסו כל האומות לשם אוכלוסין שאין להם סוף ישבו מקצתן בתוך הנחל והנחל מלמעלן עשוי מערות וכנגד המערות הר שכנגדו עשוי סלעים סלעים כגון שדים שנאמר ואשד הנחלים נכנסו האוכלסין לתוך המערות ואמרו כשירדו ישראל לתוך הנחל אלו עומדין לפניהם שבתוך הנחל ואלו למעלה מן המערות ונהרוג את כולם כיון שהגיעו ישראל לאותו מקום לא הצריכן לירד למטה מן הנחל אלא רמז להרים ונכנסו שדים של הר זה לתוך מערות ומתו כולם והקיפו ההרים ראשיהם זה לזה ונעשו דרך כבושה ולא נודע אי זה הר נסמך לחבירו ואותו נחל מפסיק בין תחומי ארץ ישראל לתחומי ארץ מואב שנאמר כי ארנון גבול מואב בין מואב ובין האמורי הר שבארץ מואב לא נזדעזע שבו המערות וההר מארץ ישראל נזדעזע שבו הסלעים כמין שדים ונסמך להר שכנגדו ומפני מה נזדעזע מפני שהוא מארץ ישראל משל לשפחה שראתה בן אדוניה בא אצלה קפצה וקדמה אותו וקבלתו נכנסו הסלעים לתוך המערות ורצצו כל אותן גבורין והבאר ירדה לתוך הנחל ומתגברת שם ואבדה כל האוכלסין כדרך שאבד אותן הים לכך הקיש את והב בסופה לנחלי ארנון ועברו ישראל על אותן ההרים ולא ידעו כל נסים הללו אמר הקב”ה הריני מודיע לבני כמה אוכלוסין אבדתי מפניהם ירדה הבאר לאותן המערות והוציאה גולגליות וזרועות ורגלים שאין להם חקר וישראל חזרו לבקש את הבאר וראו אותה שהיא יוצאה מלאה מתוך הנחל ומוציאה איברים איברים ומנין שהבאר הודיע בהן שנאמר ואשד הנחלים ומשם בארה וכי משם היתה והלא מתחלת מ’ שנה היתה עמהם אלא שירדה לפרסם את הנסים והיו ישראל עומדים על הנחלים ואומרים לה עלי באר ענו לה ואמרו שירה עליהם:

Shulchan Aruch:
דווקא להורות במקום רבו אסור, אבל להתווכח עם רבו באיזה פסק או הוראה, שלא נראה לו כמו שרבו אומר, ויש לו ראיות והוכחות, וודאי שרי (מותר), שהרי כל הש”ס מלא מזה שהתלמידים התווכחו עם רבותיהם. ואמרו חז”ל; אפילו הרב ותלמידו נעשו אויבים זה לזה בהלכה, ואת והב בסופה, שאחר כך נעשו אוהבים זה לזה וכן אב ובנו, וכך דרכה של תורה. ואמרו חז”ל “ומתלמידי יותר מכולם” ואסור להחניף בדברי תורה, והתורה נקראת אמת. ומכל מקום, אם רבו עומד על דעתו, אסור לו להורות עד שרבו יודה לדבריו.

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Korach: evaluating self-evaluation

On a week when we delve deep into dealing with dispute, a little message of peace can’t hurt:

* * * * * * *
This week’s reading presents us with The “role-model” for machloket – dispute or controversy, Korach. Why does he stand out and what do we want from the poor guy?
Well, “poor” would be a matter of definition: In modern Hebrew we use the term “ashir ke-Korach – wealthy as Korach (and no one else) to express immense financial affluence. The midrash tells us that Korach was so “loaded” that he had 300 oxen just to carry the keys to his treasury! And yet, in Pirkei Avot we learn that a wealthy person is “one who is happy with their portion” (4:1). Korach in that sense is indeed the poorest person in the world. Like Haman in the Purim story, he too lives under the motto of “and all that is not enough” (Esther 5:13). Should we feel sorry for him for maybe all he had was money without prestigious, we know that he was also a Levite and had a respectful job in the service of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)
But Korach is bitter, churning and turning, not because his lot is small but because he has his eyes on what his cousins, Moses and Aaron, have; not in exchange for what he has, but in addition; not for anyone’s well-being and benefits; just to have.
The Torah portion begins with “And took Korach…” (Numbers 16:1). I’m purposefully leaving the Hebrew order of words, to emphasize that the reading opens with taking. What did he take? The commentators try to explain and the more they try, the more we know that we have no idea and it does not matter. The Torah wants to alert us that he is a “taker”; a taker not for the sake of giving but for the sake of hording. As such he stops the “flow” of what’s around him. Ultimately, the earth will open up to swallow him, his family and their property in a grand gesture. His connection to earthly materialism, envy and chase after honor, take him down.
Some say that what Korach took is the word “emet”, truth, from the end of last week’s reading, at the end of the section about tzitzit. The tzitzit is a garment worn over the body, against the heart, not to be confused with the tzitz, which is what Aaron, the high priest, one of the positions Korach envied, wore to his head. Not to be confused, or was it? Korach mixes up “head” and “heart”. What should lead our decisions, especially as those impact others? Just last week, we read “do not follow your heart and eyes… (15:39)”…
Korach’s façade is “equality”, which means he is not only greedy but also dishonest: “everyone is holy”, he says to Moses and Aaron, “and why do you lift yourselves up above G-d’s community?” (16:3). ‘Lift yourselves up’?? Just a few chapters earlier (chap. 12), Moses was described as the humblest of all people on earth, the one who welcomes other prophets (11:29)! If Korach was a true seeker, Moses would have welcomed him too, but Korach is not interested. In the name of seemingly “beautiful ideals” (consider the atrocities conducted in the previous century in the name of forced equality), he calls for the “well needed” rebellion: enough with the rule of these two! Let’s have “equality”!
Wait what’s the problem? Isn’t that what the Torah teaches anyway?
While the Torah teaches that all people were created in G-d’s image, there are still distinctions. We do not live in a giant pot of cholent, where we all blend into an indistinguishable stew. Rather, each one of us has a unique role and calling; each is a unique piece in a complex puzzle. Korach wants to cancel all that in the name of “openness and sameness”, such noble ideas! If only everybody be “equal” and he would be in charge of that “new world order”…
Although Korach appears as someone who “only objects to Moses” and what’s the big deal, a deeper look reveals that he stands for someone who objects the order in which G-d set the world. This is also why Moses tells him, “let morning come and then G-d will make known…” (16:5). Morning is an indication of clarity (boker from levaker, to criticize, to see clearly, as opposed to erev, from levarev, to mix things up).
The mishmash he creates, is a reflection of who he is. He knows not who he is, what is his true self-worth and how he blends in with the community around him, for his own betterment and those around him. Moses, on the other hand, stands opposite to and apart from this confusion with a humble but clear and strong sense of self and his own mission.
There are questions as to when did this story happen. Did it really happen right here, after the spies, when G-d said, again, that Moses is “it”? Rav Uri Sherki suggests that this happened after Moses broke the Tablets and before he got the new set. This would be a semi-appropriate time to challenge his leadership, and to have him “fall on his face”, as described, and be distressed by the rebellions actions.
Korach, of course, was not alone. Along with him came other trouble makers and impractical idealists. The latter, group of 250 men, came with their incense pans to bring an uncalled-for offering. After a fire came down from heaven, leaving their pans behind, G-d instructs Elzazar, Aaron’s son, to use those pans to cover the altar. If the incident happened before Moses’ getting the second set of the Tablets, this would explain the need to still cover the altar.
It would also leave us with the beautiful idea that it is up to us to decide what to do with our holy vessels, be those our dishes, bodies or skills, all vessels to carry G-d’s light. There will always be a choice whether to bring a foreign fire or build the Place of G-d. We are our own best asset. The better we know ourselves, the better we can use our abilities in the best way.
Shabbat Shalom.


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Parashat Sh’lach-Lecha on the 18th Fl

When the eye-doctor subs for the ear-doctor, he opens his class with: the ear is a very different organ from the eye. Let me tell you about the eye… I think about this silly little story countless times, and again last Sunday. It’s the first time I’m on call at my new chaplaincy internship, when the phone rings: the psych patients on the 18th floor are bored and want a little spiritual something. Would I come up?
I am the eye-doctor, knowing only my stories. The people in the room are Christian, Chinese, Muslim and of no religion at all. I have no idea what they are expecting. I can’t do anything but tell them about the parasha. I share briefly the story of the spies (Numbers 13). I ask them what they think about checking up on G-d, if G-d promises you a Land of milk and honey, should you believe blindly, or still send someone to check once again what’s going on before schlepping 2 million people in.
Their vote is unanimous: definitely check again. But, I try to push-back, what if G-d told you to go? Ah, they wave me off with a smile, here we all hear G-d telling us things all the time. G-d doesn’t decide for you. You do. G-d gives you options, good and bad. You need to figure things out for yourself.
Now this story will never look the same.
Long ago and far away, people used to tie a knot in their handkerchief to make sure they didn’t forget something important. Today, while tying a “Kleenex” is pretty much impossible, there is a website called “KnottedHandkerchief” that sends reminder email before an event.
Why do we need reminders? Why do things slip our mind? And how these knots supposed to help?
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie knots on their garments as reminders of the obligation to observe all the commandments. A mitzvah for our clothing??
The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). Initially, they had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. They also had no free will, and thus no ability to see choices and make decisions, all essential components in a real relationship.
After the “fruit”, it was no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden, and thus, they “hid”. Their first set of clothing was made and given to them by G-d (Genesis 3:21). It was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance since the humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically expressed closeness, G-d’s kindness and empathy, yet also separation. Indeed, from before birth till after we pass, we’re clothed, shelled, divided – and yet, connected. Through our clothing we communicate who we are and check who is another, like soldiers who recognize a member of their unit, a member of another army (this can be a “dangerous” and not very PC metaphor, so just work with it for as long as it works and toss when no longer useful).
Hebrew plays with us a bit, because “begged”, a garment, shares its root with “bagad” and “bgida” which mean – betrayed and betrayal. It turns out that contrary to what we think, what we wear has little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather, where we would be fine in nothing at all, humans wear something! The Torah teaches that clothing are a way for us to communicate; they are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from G-d and each other. This is why we can use them to reconnect.
The commandment of tzitzit specifies: “…so you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray (Numbers 15:39)”, and by the way, “lead you astray” is a PG translation to the Torah’s blunt language literally saying “which you prostitute after them”.
Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we first attracted by what we see, and then ‘feel’? Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. The heart leads, the eye follow. According to what’s in our heart, so we see. This is easily tested when we look at something, or someone, at different times in our lives, and all of a sudden, “it changed”. Did “it”? How about the familiar phenomena that when we’re pregnant, so is everybody, and when we’re looking for college, so is everybody, etc. Is that objective “seeing”?
This very same Torah portion also opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the twelve tribes are sent to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them, seeped in trust in God, saw the Land’s potential! The ten others “saw” an impossible place to conquer or live in, full of “giants”, fortified cities and inedible fruit. Why the different view of the same exact place? Interestingly, the Torah tells us they were sent “latur et ha’aretz”, to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit where it says “velo taturu”, do not wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart! In this regard, the heart is just like any other muscle. We hopefully wouldn’t run a marathon “cold”; likewise, we should not send our heart out to decide our life for us without some prep. It too needs some training, some “reminders”.
And there is maybe a little comfort: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Just like what we wear is not only a divider, but also a tool to reconnect, so too, our exit door can be our point of re-entry, and where we erred is where we begin to correct – with each other and with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Light up the path…

There are 10 different topics and stories in this week’s reading, opening with Aaron lighting the Menorah. The Menorah was made of 7 branches, 9 flowers, 11 knobs and 22 cups (as described in Exodus 25:31-29). The Kabbalists say that the Menorah is like the whole Torah because it constantly sheds light. They tell us how its construction symbolizes it:
In the 1st verse of the Book of Genesis, there are 7 words, like the 7 branches;
In the 1st verse of the Book of Exodus, there are 11 words, like the 11 knobs;
In the 1st verse in the Book of Leviticus, there are 9 words, like the 9 flowers;
In the 1st verse of the Book of Deuteronomy, there are 22 words, like the 22 cups;
Finally, in the 1st verse of the Book of Numbers, there are 17 words, like the 17 tefachim of the Menorah’s height (a tefach is a Biblical measurement of about one fist wide).
Last, if we add all these (7+9+11+22), we’ll get 49, same as the numbers of days between Passover and Shavuot, or – the walk from slavery to freedom; to coming to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Inside both words, Torah and Menorah, hides the word “or”, light. This was the first thing G-d created which immediately was defined as “good”. The Menorah is not a “thing” made of many parts, but rather – many parts of an indivisible One.
What about the Menorah today? In the absence of the 17 tefachim tall Menorah, each one of us has to work on our own “little light”, and as the name of the Torah portion suggests, bring it up.
At the end of Numbers, chapter 10, there are two upside “nun’s” (the Hebrew letter), around two famous verses, dividing the Book of Numbers into 3 sections (until then, these 2 verses and what’s going to come after). We’re used to the Torah the way it is, but a second look reveals that the Torah should have ended right there, with the Children of Israel traveling “a three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them” (Numbers 10:33). What happened?
Paul Simon says, “the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”…But the People were not ready; and neither was Moshe. Before we know it, chapter 11 opens up with complaints, and soon (next week), we’ll have another (almost) 40 years added to our time in the desert.
As part of learning at Yeshivat Maharat, students have to complete at least one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, training us in chaplaincy. I was excited to have been accepted to the program at Bellevue Hospital, which, founded in 1736, is the oldest public hospital in the U.S.. Today, almost at the end of my first week, I am glad I chose to come here. This will be where I’ll spend much of my summer hours going forward, as well as some evenings and weekends shifts (Sundays, thanks to an interfaith cohort!). We’re learning techniques, potential challenges and possible situations. It promises to be quite intense.
At the end of this week’s reading, Moses offers the shortest prayer in the Torah, and he does so, for Miriam’s quick recovery, even though she might have spoken badly about his wife: —- “Please G-d, heal her, please”! (Numbers 12:13). I am reminded of it when our supervisor teaches us the art of silence. There is so much that can be done with so few words.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Blessed be the Sotah

I’m debating this piece, soon to be published for “my” yeshiva, much more than others. The “Sotah” is something not to be touched. And if touched, it must be in a certain manner: the man is wrong; the woman is right, and the Torah awful for suggesting this idea, all things I’m deeply struggling with. So, if you’d like to try a second look at this challenging section, please read on.

176 – is the number of the verses in this week’s portion, the longest in the Torah, same as the longest Psalm (chapter 119) and as the longest tractate in the Talmud (Bava Batra with 176 dapim, pages). Why so long? Some suggest that this reading, close to Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah, so detailed and flowing with information, is like being near a fountainhead, with fresh water gushing all around.

What do we say in these 176 verses?
The parasha opens with the orderly travel of the Children of Israel in the desert, parallel to the orderly creation, and ends on the day the mishkan is erected and dedicated, the tribes’ princes bring lavish sacrifices, and Moses hears “The Voice” speaking to him there (Numbers 7:89).

With such ‘wow’ “bookends”, we might wonder, what else is in this parasha? Surprisingly, we find here obscure topics as the removal from the camp of metzo’ra’im (Torah lepers), description of the zavim (people with “impure” bodily excretion) and other t’me’im (spiritually impure people), maybe because we need to explore and clarify critical distinctions of holiness which were not previously discussed.

It is here that we also find the Sotah, a married woman suspected by her husband of adultery. Because of his “wind of suspicion”, she is asked to undergo the “ordeal of bitter water”, (or “ordeal of jealousy”, Numbers, 5:11-31). The woman is brought to the priest at the Temple and given a “magic potion” that will reveal the truth: if she indeed had an affair, the water will have a horrific effect on her, similar to a forced miscarriage. And if not, nothing will happen. They can go back home, living “happily ever after”.

In an effort to begin unpacking this often unpopular teaching, let’s travel back to pre-Temple days, to the little stone home of Isha and Ish. For some time now, Ish has been wondering how Isha is spending her time when he’s away, and with whom. He might ask. She might tell. But he doesn’t believe her. We’ve all experienced this in one way or another. What’s fascinating is not that there is jealousy in the world, but that the Torah devotes prestigious attention to it.

The next time Ish or Isha are away from each other, he warns her, specifically about her interactions with that other guy. He also asks his friends to look out if she’s spending the kind of time that can lead to “something” with the man, just in case legal witnesses are needed.

So, for whatever reason, things don’t get better. The trust between them has eroded. At this point, there is no court in the world that can settle their dispute and feelings of distrust. What is needed is a miracle, and that’s what the Torah has. Throughout the Bible, miracles are there only to prophets and only for the benefit of the public. And here, a miracle is reserved for a halachik resolution, between a couple (in stark contrast to how the rabbis rejected resolving halachik challenges with miracles when it was Rabbi Eliezer’s idea in Bava Metzi’a 59:b)

The couple’s relationship reaches an impasse. Divorce is an option: if it’s his initiative, she will get her ktuba (marriage contract) money; true, if it’s her initiative, she won’t (which is a longer conversation for another time). She will also lose her ability to marry the other man, if there was a “something” between them (and by the way, if there really was “something” and the two of them were caught, they would both be “put to death”, Leviticus 21:18) . The unacceptable situation festers. And festers. I’m wondering about the between the lines, family and friends, community leaders, prophets, and rabbis… who else is around to intervene? to talk, with him or her? After what must be an unbearable time, they both agree (yes, they must both agree): heading to Jerusalem, to see if perhaps this can be repaired somehow, seems best. I imagine she would only want to go if she’s innocent; thus, this is about “repair” and clearing the bad air.

It’s interesting to compare the use of miracles to check individuals’ innocence in other cultures. Professor Yaakov Licht (Jerusalem 1985) conducted an extensive research and found other cultures who use miracles; who, for example, have their accused walk on hot iron (if the person is not guilty, the burn will heal), or swallow large amounts of bread and cheese (if the person chokes, he’s guilty). By contrast, the Sotah drinks water with a little mishkan dust and ink. Unlike the others, this is designed to ensure that any results will be through divine intervention. In addition, the walking, touching or swallowing of hot iron, for example, would scare an accused to admit just about anything, while the Sotah has to agree to go and the water itself is not naturally harmful.

One of the disturbing aspects of the ordeal is, of course, the “asymmetry”: She’s going through it, and what about the men involved?

Though from the get go women and me are not the same in the Torah (and in life?), in this case, the rabbis too, were bothered by this. Thus, regarding the husband, Rambam says (Hilchot Sotah 82:8 based on Numbers 5:31):
וכל הדברים האלו (שהמים בודקין את האישה) – בשלא חטא הבעל מעולם…
And all these things (that the water check the wife) – only work if the husband never sinned…
And regarding her paramour, the Mishna (Tractate Sotah 27:b) says:
מתני׳ כשם שהמים בודקין אותה כך המים בודקין אותו…
Just as the water checks her fidelity, so too, the water checks his, i.e., her alleged paramour’s, involvement in the sin…. (so that whatever happens to her, happens to him).

The Sotah ordeal was abolished with the destruction of the Temple, and some say due to the fact that there were too many adulterers (note that husbands were then advised “simply” not to be envious, as opposed to, for example, advising wives to “behave better”!?), but it did stay in the Torah, even though the procedure includes erasing God’s name, as if, even God can give up a little bit of “His kavod” (honor) in order to bring about peace, and so might we consider that when at an impasse.

Last but not least, shortly after the Sotah, in this parasha, we find the beautiful priestly blessing, “birkat hakohanim”, which many of us recite weekly when blessing our children. After God’s name was erased, the priests are asked to bestow God’s name anew on the people, to convey protection, light and peace, and do so – with love. At the end of the day, love is always an option.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sotah – Richard McBee Artist and Writer

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Time, Place & Self: The Unique Gift of Jerusalem

My first visit to Jerusalem, Sukkot 1967: My dad, already in relatively advanced stages of ALS, and my mom (at the “ancient” age of 40) reserve a “special” – a taxi for the day, just for the four of us. While still dark outside, we clamber into the car, gliding through the ever so quiet streets of sleepy Haifa, heading south then east, so by morning we can see the city “in whose heart there is a wall”. It’s the first time I see sefardi sukkot, with embroidered walls, colorful rugs and big, cushy pillows; Har Hatzofim (Mt. Scopus) with its university buildings punctured by bullets and shells’ holes; and the kotel, a giant wall rising up al the way to the sky, with plants and birds above. As the city gets ready for bedtime, we leave the pinkish, golden, dusty hills, turning dark, and sleep most of the way back amidst hushed adult conversations. The next day, “Jerusalem of Gold” seems almost like a dream.
For centuries, travelers dreamed and journeyed, from all over the world, with great excitement, to reach the magical, holy city; especially this weekend, as we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, we reminded again of the pilgrimage festivals ascending this city; a city which answers so many names and aside from magic, also sports traffic jams, construction, drivers honking, and people yelling like any other place… What is it about Jerusalem? Is it just another ‘coincidental site’ or is there something truly incredible, davka here?
Rabbi Uri Sharki offers an interesting approach. Accordingly, people encounter mainly three limiting things in life: the ability to be only in one place (here, wherever that is), at one time (now) and within only oneself. We try to overcome these limitations, possibly to connect with the eternal aspect of our soul and being, nevertheless, remain bound to them.
Our tradition likewise addresses this challenge and offers a few unique possibilities:
1. Time: there is one day a year, Yom Kippur, when one can “time-travel” back and forth. We can go back to the past, atone and correct what we’ve done through the process of teshuva for a better present and future.
2. There’s a place, the Land of Israel, which scripture calls ‘Eretz Hatzvi”  – the Land of the Deer (Daniel 11:41). That place is elastic, like a deer’s skin; it widens and shrinks and can include within it much more than is initially obvious. We’re told that “one never said, there is no place for me to sleep overnight in Jerusalem” (Pirkei Avot 5:5), meaning, everyone always had room, and this phenomenon is recorded in travelers’ journals of later days as well, as if the place “stretches” to accommodate more people as needed.
3. Self: on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would atone for all the transgressions of the People of Israel. We might be too used to it to think about it, but this is truly a strange idea. After all, we can’t ask someone to fall in love for us, or feel longing or joy or anything for us. And yet, the High Priest is instructed to atone for the whole people, namely, he holds others “on his heart” (Exodus 28:36); and when he does, something changes within us too!
All these “magical” things, transcending time, place and selfhood, happened only in Jerusalem.
Last week, tens and even hundreds of thousands came to celebrate “Yom Yerushalayim”, which “coincidentally” falls on the 28th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, and also on the 1st day of the last week of the Count of the Omer. The Kabalist, based on the verse in the Torah, taught that these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are made of 7 weeks, each week ushering a different “sefira”, a different Kabalistic level. Then, each day, qualifies itself with a specific energy during that week. It’s just so happens to be that Yom Yerushalayim is the first day in the 7th week, making it a day of Chesed (kindness) in Malchut (kingship). May we continue to see more of both, chesed and malchut, emanating, especially from this place.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Same’ach.

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