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- Sabbath of Return
In the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva - the Sabbath of Return. One thing I like to do during the Jewish High Holy Days is to read from the treasury of traditional Jewish wisdom compiled and edited by S.Y. Agnon for this festival period.  As I reflect on Shabbat Shuva, with the help of Agnon, I am touched by Judaism's sensitivity to both the just judgment and gentle mercy of our Creator-Redeemer God. These holy days, that will soon culminate in Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), are serious indeed, filled with the insistent call to repentance, eschewing lame excuses and half-hearted effort. At the same time, this call to "Return!" is filled with the mercy and compassion of the God who has no desire for crushing judgment or to force his people into a loveless submission. Rather, the God of love and gentleness speaks tenderly to his people, and is ready to walk with us all in our human woundedness and fears, hopes and dreams. Thus do the Jewish sages tell the story of a king's son who was unable to make the 100 days journey back to his father. The king replied to his son: "Go as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you."  We hear, too, in the voice of Rabbi Alexandri: If a person uses a broken vessel, it is considered a disgrace. But not the Holy One, blessed be he. All his vessels are broken. “The Lord is close to those that are of a broken heart” (Ps 34:19).”  Our return to God is often impeded by the shame and paralysis of our own sinfulness. Our inner critic admonishes us: You are not worthy of God’s forgiveness! Yet the Jewish sages remind us otherwise: God knows and understanding our wounds and blemishes better than we know ourselves, and still regards us as precious and loved, longing to be close again. How comforting to know that we don’t have to be 'perfect' or to 'have it all together' in order to turn, and to begin the return, to God. Further, teshuva (repentance) is not a 'quick fix', it is a journey into deeper relationship. Here again, the tradition speaks with nuanced insights: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” The meaning is, return until the Lord, that is, the Creator, becomes “your” that is, your own God.  Food for thought… as we grow in solidarity and interfaith awareness of Jewish communities moving through their High Holy Days, and as we ponder afresh our own religious tradition. Notes 1. Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887-1970) was a great Hebrew writer of the 20th century and a winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work referred to here is Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days (New York: Schocken Books, 1965, 1975). 2. Pesikta Rabbati, Shuvah Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 139. 3. Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Shuva. See Days of Awe, 140. Verse numbering may differ: see Ps 34:18. 4. Avodat Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 141. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to grow in appreciation of the Jewish tradition and to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... © Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023. This article can be reproduced for non-commercial use, with acknowledgment of website.
- Rosh Hashana - jewish new year
Shana Tova U'Metuka Festival greetings to Jewish friends for Rosh Hashanah, and a wish for all the goodness and sweetness of the new year. Rosh Hashana – Jewish New Year – has begun. If I may share one brief thought: it is simply to marvel at the deeply human, and religious, instinct for RENEWAL. With Rosh Hashana, the Jewish liturgical calendar sets aside special days as a time to ‘start life afresh’. That is, the festival ushers in a holy period of introspection and repentance; a time to acknowledge one’s shortcomings, to forgive and be forgiven, to make amends and to renew one’s life. As I understand it, the audacious message of Rosh Hashana is: Not only can human beings know of their need to repent, not only can they desire to be better people, but they can actually set about to make it happen. Far from being ‘wishful thinking’, Rosh Hashana, along with the Days of Awe that continue in its wake, is a call to take responsibility for one’s life. It is undertaken in the larger context of community life, and with full acknowledgement that God, Creator and Sovereign of the world, continues to renew creation and calls human beings to account for their decisions and actions. Despite the fragility and difficulties of our lives, we are expected to live the gift of each day as fully and as authentically as we possibly can. It is a bold calling! For there is no shortage of excuses by which human beings can ‘give in’ to the sufferings and injustices of life. How easy it is to blame others for the troubled state of the world around us! Rosh Hashana resists that path, and points out an alternative way. It calls forth that inner voice that says: not only should things be different, but they can be so… starting with me. Together, let’s start afresh and make this coming year truly good and filled with the sweetness of God’s justice and mercy. Other religious traditions have their particular and beautiful ways of expressing such a conviction and commitment. Tonight, as Rosh Hashana commences, we can be grateful for the Jewish tradition and its unique way of embodying the divine invitation to 'walk with' God and each other. A prayer Gracious God, we give thanks and pray for Jewish communities everywhere during their High Holy Days. Bless them with continuing vitality and strength in their covenantal life with You, and with good health, safety and happiness for their families and loved ones. Amen. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to better appreciate the Jewish tradition and to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... © Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023. This article can be reproduced for non-commercial use, with acknowledgment of website.
- God's Word is Near
In chapter 30 of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses continues to prepare the Israelites for the journey ahead, the journey to be made upon entering the promised land; the journey that will be made without him. Our focus today is four lovely verses, Deuteronomy 30:11-14. However, as we shall see, we will need to read the previous ten verses as well (30:1-10) to fully benefit from this discussion. Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. (Deut. 30:11-14). Read 30:11-14 and note your reactions. To what exactly is the text referring when it says ‘this commandment’? Which commandment? Is it the call to repentance in the foregoing verses? Or is it God’s teachings as a whole? This is a question which has intrigued Jewish commentators over the centuries. Read 30:1-14 and offer your view. If you and your Torah partner hold differing views, you are in good company; so do the sages! For instance, Nahmanides connects the commandment with teshuva (Hebrew: ‘repentance’). Conscious of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world, he hears these verses as saying, whatever the geographic or cultural challenges, repentance is never inaccessible; it is freely embraced by one’s resolve. But most commentators, including Rashi, take a different approach; and in the writings of the Talmud we find sages who assume that these verses apply to the whole complex of Jewish observance. Does the question matter? What is to be gained by such a debate? How do you enter this discussion? A further question arises in Jewish Torah discussions: What significance is added by verses 12-13? Wouldn’t the meaning of the text remain intact if they were omitted? Test this for yourself by reading verses 11 & 14 only. There are two interpretations that emerge on this question, says the Be’er Yizhak. We can hear the text as saying: If the Torah were in heaven it would be inaccessible. But since it’s not, we have no excuses to prevent us from reaching for it! Even if the Torah were as far away as heaven, it is of such value that we would still be duty-bound to yearn for it, and we would be crying out ‘Who will go up to get it?!’ But since it is close, how much more duty-bound are we to embrace it! And you? How do verses 12-13 speak to you? What subtle shades of meaning are illuminated by their presence in the text? From the midrash A people close to Torah is a people close to God, as this midrashic text succinctly puts it: “‘...the word is very near to you’ (Deut.30:14). God said to Israel: ‘My children, if the words of the Torah will be near to you, I too will call you ‘near ones.’ For so Scripture says, ‘The children of Israel, a people close to him. Halleluyah!’ (Ps.148.14).” Deut. Rabbah 8.7 1. Named in this issue are the great medieval Torah scholars: Nahmanides (13th century Spain) and Rashi (11th c. France). Be’er Yizhak is a 19th c. commentary on Rashi. See Leibowitz, 321-325. Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech (Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30), the (double) Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom. Now available: The Jewish and Christian Liturgical Calendar for 2023-2024 Download free, courtesy of Etz Hayim - Tree of Life Publishing
- Give Thanks, with a grateful heart
Come with us as we explore Deuteronomy 26:1-11, with the help of insights from the Jewish tradition. On the slopes of Moab in sight of the land of Canaan, Moses prepares his people for entry into the promised land. He gives them a ritual to be performed when they get there. After settling in the promised land, the Israelite is to engage in a ritual of thanksgiving. Taking some of the first-fruits of his agricultural produce he is to present it to the priest along with a verbal recitation that acknowledges the Lord who is the giver of all good things. This ancient symbolic action is packed with insights for our own lives today. “When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you ... you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land ... and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose” (Deut. 26:1-2). Read Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Carefully note all the repetitions and points of interest. Can you imagine the action taking place? Ponder the meaning of this ritual. Describe what you ‘see’ in all its colour; e.g.: The action starts in the private sphere (the Israelite’s fields) and proceeds to a designated holy place. The ritual is limited but it expresses so much. There is no way we can reciprocate God’s bounty, but we can perform a simple action symbolizing an awareness that the earth belongs to God. It involves farmer and priest. Events in the story of the Israelite people are recounted in some detail (vv.5-10). It concludes with a feast, enjoying “all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11). What can you add to these observations? The sages see this ritual as promoting humility before God, selflessness and service. It is a practice that prevents one from becoming soft and complacent. It is a reminder that wealth is a gift to be used generously for the common good and for the glory of God. This stance of gratitude to God and awareness of blessing are core to Judaism. Examine the phrasing of the declaration in 26:3. “I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” In subsequent generations the Israelite farmer would repeat this ritual declaration. Note that he did not say: “My ancestors came...” but “I have come...” In the Jewish tradition there is an intense relationship between past and present generations. Every Jew is to identify personally with his/her people, Israel’s history, and the great events by which God delivered Israel from slavery. What happened to ‘them’ (one’s ancestors long ago) happened to ‘me.’ Thus each Jew is obliged to remember with gratitude what God has done for him/her personally, and not to take for granted the blessings bestowed on their ancestors. A Catholic perspective With Christianity's roots in Judaism, I am aware that the approach of my Catholic Christian tradition to the sacraments involves a similar intensity of remembrance. In remembering past events, the celebration of a sacrament celebrates salvation touching us in the present. For Catholics, the Mass is their central prayer of remembrance and thanksgiving. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist it is not simply a recall of the deeds of Christ; we are present to the saving action of God in the life and person of Jesus; we are invited into an experience that is as transformative as it was for his disciples long ago. Reflection: Ponder and discuss your experience of remembrance and thanksgiving through religious ritual, in conversation with Deuteronomy 26:1-11. Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Feasting and Sobriety
At times, Deuteronomy can appear to the reader as a formidable list of rules (e.g., ch 11-16) as Moses impresses upon the Israelites their responsibilities before entering the promised land. They have a choice: listen to God’s teachings and be blessed, or turn from God and be cursed (11:26). Yet, amidst dire warnings, we also hear delightful obligations. Yet amidst the dire warnings, we also hear verses like these: “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God, happy in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you” (12:7). “And you shall feast there, in the presence of the Lord your God, and rejoice with your household” (14:26). “You shall hold a festival for the Lord your God…for the Lord your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy” (16:15). These are commands to gather the family for a joyous feast. How often do we think of loyalty to God in terms of feasting? Elsewhere, in the context of ritual prescriptions, the Israelites are commanded to “eat to your heart’s content” (12:21), to “spend the money on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire” (14:26), and to hold annual festivals (16:1-17) while God provides secure dwellings (12:10), enlargement of their territory (12:20), and countless blessings. We are reminded that covenantal relationship with God is not all hard work! Yes, God is unafraid to make demands of his people. But God also provides, has the people’s interests at heart, and some divine demands are actually delightful! “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God; the Lord your God chose you from among all other peoples on earth to be His treasured people” (14:2). God asks much of his people, but only because his people are treasured beyond belief, and because such demands bring forth a just world where the stranger, orphan and widow find safety (16:11). Deuteronomy invites us to dwell on God’s abundant blessings. Yes, the consequences of rejecting God are dire, but the blessings of cleaving to God are lifegiving beyond measure. We are tempted to disbelieve this, for life is difficult, sometimes brutal. Bad things happen to good people; evil can appear to prevail. Even religion can be experienced as a weapon of oppression, or reduced to loveless ‘duty.’ Yet another testimony prevails through generations of those who live by God’s word: God’s blessings are real. They can be celebrated with smiles and laughter, music and dancing, feasting and lovemaking, prayer and passion. Thus, Judaism speaks of ‘Simchat Torah’, ‘the joy of Torah,’ and Christianity speaks of the ‘gospel,’ ‘good news.’ Even so, in the midst of texts which call for feasting and celebration, our eye is drawn to a verse commanding the Israelites to eat the ‘bread of affliction’ or ‘bread of distress’ (16:3). What is the power of this verse, placed as it is amidst the description of Israel’s festivals? We also find the sages asking: why does the text here twice command that we rejoice during the festival of Sukkot (16:11,14) but omits this command with regard to the festival of Passover? An explanation offered in the midrashic collection Yalkut Shimoni: “On account of the fact that [during the exodus] the Egyptians died.” The midrash immediately cites the Book of Proverbs (24:17): “If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Think about it: Unless we remember the taste of slavery, can we truly feast on our freedom? In what ways do your family festivities retain an appropriate place for sober recollection of past and present struggles? Bibliography: Eskenazi & Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (San Francisco, 2003); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996). Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat R'eih (Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- At the Edge of the Promised Land
In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses delivers a series of speeches as he prepares the Israelites for entry into the Promised Land. In chapter 10, after a lengthy recollection of the people’s poor behaviour during their desert trek, Moses seems to turn a fresh page and look to the future, beginning with the words “So now, O Israel...” (10:12). “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees which I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13) In the reflections of the Jewish sages over many centuries, a subtlety in the wording of this text caught their attention. That Moses says “only” (to fear, reverence the Lord) posed a difficulty. Is Moses suggesting that God is asking for something minor? Yet holy awe or ‘fear of the Lord’ is a major matter indeed! Say some commentators, this passage sums up the essence of the whole Torah. Why would Moses appear to undervalue its weight? Creatively, prayerfully, with the help of modern day Torah commentaries, let’s enter the conversation with the Rabbis and delve into the interpretative insights of Jewish tradition. Perhaps you are thinking that for Moses, who is so advanced in faith and virtue, fear of the Lord comes naturally and therefore to him it does seem a simple matter. This is one rabbinic opinion. Yet other commentators wonder why Moses would assume it to be a simple matter for everyone else. Nahmanides offers the explanation that “only” infers that what God asks of human beings is ultimately for their own happiness and wellbeing. The difficulties of reverencing God are a small price compared to the benefits. Like a parent offering guidance to a reluctant child, we can hear Moses saying “I’m only saying this for your own good!” A different response comes from Joseph Albo, a Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. Albo’s insight is that this text refers to the way in which people grow into a life of holding God in awe. No one can reach the spiritual heights of being a truly God-fearing person easily or immediately. To even contemplate the ‘requirement’ of our quoted passage is daunting! But God shows us a way to succeed; God gives us a way to follow: small daily acts of love which, over time, allow our entire lives to become infused with holy awe and reverence. We might say that God doesn’t ask for sudden saintliness; God asks “only” that we commit ourselves to the unspectacular daily steps of living the values and teachings of our faith community. In Albo’s words: “The meaning of the passage is therefore this: Now, Israel, consider the wonderful kindness of God. What does he ask of you? .... God does not ask anything that is hard to acquire. He asks merely the performance of the commandments of the Torah, because the quality of fear [awe] through which one may obtain human perfection follows from the performance of the commandments of the Torah.” Discuss the interpretations of the sages in conversation with a study partner and sharing your own thoughts on this text. Attend to the context, what goes before and after vv.12-13. Reflect on your own experience of awe/reverence/fear of the Lord. How does repeated action (a daily commitment to religious ritual, deeds of love, acts of justice) shape, confirm and deepen the experience of faith? 1. Also known as Ramban. His full name: Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman (1194-1270). 2. See Leibowitz, 101-102. *Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996); Munk, The Call of the Torah: Devarim (New York, 1995). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Letter & Spirit of the Law
“Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord...” (Deut. 6:18). Over the centuries, this verse in Deuteronomy has attracted the attention of Jewish scholars immersed in Torah study. There is something puzzling about 6:18 which calls for deeper reflection and creative interpretation. It is noted that this verse follows numerous exhortations to ‘keep the commandments’ (e.g., see Deut. 4:1,5-9; 5:1,29; 6:1,2,17). Throughout the Torah, and especially in Deuteronomy, one finds constant insistence that every law and statute be faithfully observed by the people of God. Why, then, the addition of this instruction to ‘do what it right and good’? Surely if a person keeps all the commandments, that person will be living in a way which is ‘right and good’! Why, then, the addition of this instruction to ‘do what it right and good’? For the Jewish sages, the words of the Torah are never superfluous; there must be a further, subtle meaning to be discovered in this verse. Ponder it yourself, in havrutah , i.e., with a friend... what do you discover there? Perhaps you considered, as did two great Jewish scholars, Rashi and Maimonides, that obedience to rules alone is not enough to ensure a just and loving society. More is needed. It is possible to keep the letter of the law but to violate its spirit. Indeed, it is possible to actually negate the depths of God’s desires through foolish use of the letter of the law. As Rashi sees it: What is fair and good: this implies a compromise - forgoing what one is entitled to according to the law - going beyond what the law requires. The 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira (d.1942) enters the discussion this way: Whoever wishes to achieve a perfect observance of the Torah cannot rest content with adhering to its explicit rulings. One must penetrate deeper in order to arrive at the ultimate aim of these rulings. One must not only think of what is good and upright in his own eyes but that ‘which is upright and good in the eyes of the Lord’... ‘You shall do that which is right...’ This special injunction demonstrates that Judaism does not rest content with limiting active evil doing, but also aspires to eradicate potential evil from the soul of human beings.  That we should live by the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law is a familiar teaching for Christians. What is important here is to recognise it as a fundamental tenet of Judaism, a teaching inherited by Christianity. Sadly, in the history of the Church, Christians have often stereotyped Judaism as a ‘legalistic’ religion, supposedly in contrast to Christianity as a religion of ‘love’ and ‘of the spirit’. We can help dispel such misconceptions and stereotypes about Judaism by becoming acquainted with the interpretative processes at work in Jewish tradition and how the legal passages in Scripture are handled delicately and creatively by Jewish commentators. • 1. Havrutah refers to a time-honoured Jewish method of Torah study which requires the active back-and-forth discussion and debate between two or more study-partners. 2. Rashi: Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki, 11th c., France. Maimonides: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (also known as Rambam), 12th c., Spain, Egypt. 3. See Shapira quoted in Leibowitz, 63. Bibliography: Leibowitz, New Studies in Devarim (New York, 1996); Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 2001). Scripture: NRSV © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Va-et'chanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Moses PREPARES FOR HIS DEATH
In Numbers 27:12-23 God takes Moses up the mountain on the east side of the Jordan, overlooking the land into which his people will enter. There Moses is told of his approaching death, reminded of his exclusion from the Promised Land, and told to arrange for leadership succession through the person of Joshua. God: “Go up this mountain of the Abarim range, and see the land that I have given to the Israelites. When you have seen it, you shall be gathered to your people [i.e. you shall die]” (27:12). Moses: “Let the Lord appoint someone…so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (27:17). The God-Moses interaction on the mountain-top, with the Promised Land in sight, is filled with pathos. Read it carefully. What thoughts and emotions might Moses have at this moment? It appears that Moses is the epitome of selflessness, his only concern being that his people not be left leaderless. Are you convinced? Are you surprised that Moses holds no sense of personal grievance, despite being excluded from the Promised Land? The Jewish sages of old were not so convinced! As they insightfully and creatively navigated their way through Scripture, they told stories (midrash) about Moses’ human struggle at this critical point in the narrative. Moses, they said, remembered that long ago God had called him to a mission which he undertook only with great reluctance (see Exodus 3-4). And now, God prevents him from completing his mission! The midrash compares Moses to a young woman relentlessly pursued by a great king for her hand in marriage, only to be divorced by the king later. Moses is understandably indignant at such treatment! Yet he manages to accept the situation, asking only that God not treat his successor the same way. Other issues bothered Moses too, according to the midrash; like the fact that Joshua rather than his own sons, would succeed him. Here the sages note that the passage immediately follows the story of the five sisters who negotiate new legislation allowing them to inherit their father’s property (27:1-11). “If daughters inherit, it is surely right that my sons inherit my glory,” reasons Moses (Midrash Rabbah 21, 24). Instead, he faces the lesson that “Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit” (Prov. 27:18). Joshua is the one with the track record of faithful service and who displays the character of a faithful shepherd. The mantle of leadership passes to him. Jewish tradition, then, holds within it the view that Moses’ acceptance of God’s will was not automatic; he had to wrestle with his own personal issues. But that he did, and in Moses’ struggle the tradition sees more evidence of his integrity as a true servant of God and shepherd of Israel. When it comes to the appointment of Joshua, “[Moses] laid his hands on him and commissioned him” (27:23). He lays not one hand (as God had instructed in 27:18), but both hands. This, say the Jewish sages, indicates that Moses blessed Joshua with abundance and unreserved generosity of heart. Reflection: Reflect on a time when what God was asking of you seemed unfair, perhaps harsh and uncalled for, yet you managed to ‘work through’ your personal grievance to a place of inner peace and acceptance. How can we teach our children to face these difficult passages in life? • Bibliography: Eskenazi &Weiss, The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York, n.p.d.); Midrash Rabbah: Numbers Vol.2 (London/New York: Soncino, 1983). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 - 30:1), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Affliction, Healing, and a Bronze Serpent
We continue our Torah reflections, making our way through the Book of Numbers. Chapter 21 depicts yet another flashpoint in the God-Israel relationship. This time the people are so close to the promised land, yet they fall into the same old habits of grumbling about their situation. The struggle that ensues between them and the Lord, with Moses as mediator, involves a bronze serpent. Read the story in 21:4-9. Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. (21:6) And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” (21:8) What can we make of this curious story of affliction and healing in the wilderness? With the help of Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz, let’s ponder the narrative, noting its detail, the characters, the repetitions. Perhaps you noticed that although it is the same old complaint, this time the people lodge their complaint directly against God as well as Moses. Also, they contradict themselves: in one breath “there is no food,” and in the next they “detest this miserable food.” And later, for the first time in their wilderness journey, the people admit that their grumbling is a sin. Perhaps you noticed that in v.5 we read ‘God’ but in later verses we read ‘Lord.’ Also, no comment of Moses is recorded. We are told that he prays for the people, but not what he said. The repetition in vv.8-9 is interesting, with its subtle variations. Perhaps, too, you were attentive to how the figure of the serpent is involved in both the affliction and the cure. So much to ponder! How do these observations affect your interpretation of the text? Turning to Jewish tradition we take an interpretative lead from the 19th century German-Jewish rabbinical leader S.R. Hirsch: “The serpents were sent to show the people that danger beset their every step and it was only thanks to the miraculous and perpetual intervention of Divine Providence that they were able to proceed unharmed.” In other words, having been bitten, the victims were required to concentrate on the bronze image of the serpent. In doing so, they were led to realise how blessed they were to have travelled safely in the wilderness until now, and how dangerous was the path ahead, thus calling for a heightened appreciation of the protective hand of God in their lives. Hirsch continues: “Nothing is more calculated to make a person more satisfied with his lot than the knowledge of the chasm that ever yawns beneath him, and that it is only Divine mercy that bears him safely over, as if on eagles’ wings...” The healing power of the serpent, then, is the healing power of gratitude to God, and humility in the face of one’s need of divine assistance. However, the rabbis issue a note of caution. Gazing upon a serpent image... could this not imply or lead to idol worship? The famous Midrash in TB Rosh Hashanah 29a anticipates this concern: “Shall indeed a serpent [on a pole] kill or resurrect? But note, when the Israelites will direct their sight towards Heaven [upwards toward the serpent on the pole], and subdue their heart toward their Father in Heaven, they would be healed. If not: they will wither away.” The great challenge of faith, as held by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (late 19th c. scholar), and expressed in the Shema, is: where is my heart and belief system centered? Do my eyes mislead my heart, or direct it to God? This desert story depicts a movement of healing and life, following affliction and death. The physical geography, with its dangers and deprivations, mirrors the inner landscape of fragile humans as they negotiate their terrors and learn to trust God. Continue to reflects on and discuss this fascinating biblical passage. Notes: 1. Nehama Leibowitz – a great teacher of Torah in 20th century Israel. 2. See Leibowitz, 264. Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1 - 25:9), the (double) Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Fire in the Desert
Fiery tensions are unleashed in the Israelites' wilderness trek, as we continue our journey through the Book of Numbers. No sooner has the crisis of the spies been resolved when Moses is confronted by two further rebellions among the Israelites. Korah (a cousin to Moses and Aaron) objects to the priesthood of Aaron. Meanwhile, Dathan and Abiram criticize Moses’ civil authority. In what follows, we will focus our attention on Numbers 16:1-17:15. With the guidance of the Jewish sages, we have been learning not to rush our reading of Scripture, to listen carefully to the sacred text, to ponder its subtleties in content and expression. As we do, we start to appreciate the timeless human and spiritual issues raised. Read 16:1-17:15, attentive to the specific characters, their statements and actions. It may help to imagine this portion as a piece of theatre... how would you divide it into a series of acts? Distinguishable here are not only two rebellions, but various kinds of response. When Korah questions Aaron’s right to priesthood, Moses replies by setting him and his followers a priestly task by which God will judge their claim to priestly office. Yet, confronted by Dathan and Abiram’s refusal to cooperate (and their mocking remarks which undermine Moses’ integrity as well as the claim to the promised land), Moses does not appear to react. Instead he turns to Korah and repeats his original response. Likewise, God seems to distinguish among the rebels, applying different forms of punishment. How would you interpret these details? Note, too, the altruism of Moses as he begs God to forgive the Israelites (16:22), just as he does in previous episodes: the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:11-14), the Spies (Num.14:13-19), and Miriam’s affliction (Num. 12:13). Further subtleties arise in the apparent contradictions and repetitions found in the text: Commentators observe that despite the disappearance of Korah into the bowels of the earth (16:31-33), the name of Korah is in fact preserved in the greater tradition. Turn to the Psalms and you will find those attributed to the ‘sons of Korah’ (e.g., Ps. 88). What lesson can be gleaned here? One traditional opinion is that while Korah himself acts from dubious motives such as personal ambition, the point he raises in 16:3 (‘For all the community are holy’) has enduring validity. Indeed, the whole community is holy, and this truth must always inform the specific priestly calling of a chosen few. Further reflections arise from the observation that these rebellions follow so closely on the heels of the conflict with the spies (Numbers 13-14). There the people cried, ‘Let us head back for Egypt’ (14:4) and here we have the rebels referring to Egypt as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (14:13). We may ask, have the Israelites learnt anything from previous crises? Did the treatment of the spies just make community tensions worse? Continue to ponder the subtleties of content and expression in the text, allowing them to prayerfully fuel your powers of insight and imagination. Bibliography: Eskenazi &Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York, 2008); Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York: Lambda, n.p.d.); Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, 2006). Scripture: NJPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32), the Torah portion read in the diaspora for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- God's love for Israel
In the face of repeated rebellions by the Israelites, Moses is found pleading with the Lord to show mercy to the people. Such was the case after the Golden Calf, and such is the case after the calamity stirred up by the Spies in chapters 13-14 of the Book of Numbers. The Lord, bitterly disappointed in his people, threatens to “disinherit them” while Moses urges a divine rethink of this drastic plan. With the help of Jewish Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz,1 here we focus on the wording of Moses’ plea to the Lord in Numbers 14:1-25. But Moses said to the Lord... “If you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It was because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.” (Num. 14:13,15-16) Note the argument Moses advances as he intercedes for the Israelites in the face of divine wrath. Compare this to the strategy Moses employed after the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:11-13). What is similar? What is different? After the Golden Calf, Moses put to the Lord three good reasons to relent and preserve the Israelites: 1) Lord, they are, after all, your chosen people; 2) remember the patriarchs with whom you made a covenant; 3) don’t bring your divine Name into disrepute among the nations! After the Spies, however, Moses raises just one point: his fear that the divine Name will be brought into disrepute among the nations (the Hebrew term for this is hillul hashem). Why does Moses reduce his strategy to this one element? Has he has lost confidence in the Israelites as God’s chosen people? Does he think their lack of faith so disturbing that even an appeal to the patriarchs will fail to evoke God’s compassion? And is hillul hashem really the critical issue here? When we delve further into Jewish tradition we find Abravanel2 presenting the difficulty by asking why should God care about what the nations think? After all, God rules over every living creature. Surely the Holy One blessed be He has no fear of the nations. What does it profit Him whether he is honoured by the Egyptians or otherwise? In answer, Leibowitz reminds us of a Talmudic text: “Wherever you find His greatness, there you find His meekness.” Says Leibowitz, the Almighty indeed transcends the world, but God is deeply concerned with the welfare of every creature. And how does God reach out and make God’s oneness and majesty known to all? Through a chosen people. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.” (Ezekiel 36:22-23) This leads Nahmanides3 to observe: Were [God] to destroy Israel, the peoples of the world would forget God’s deeds and the whole intention of human creation would be completely defeated. It was only logical therefore that the Divine will that had willed the creation of the world should desire the continued existence of the people of Israel since they knew him more than all the nations. This was the argument Moses chose as he interceded, and which the Lord accepted saying, “I do forgive, just as you have asked” (14:20). Continue to ponder the text, Moses’ strategy, and the observations of these commentators regarding God’s relationship with Israel and the nations. Notes: 1. Nehama Leibowitz, 1905-1997. Highly influential Torah educator, Israel. 2. Isaac Arama, 1420-1494 Spanish Talmudic scholar. 3. Nahmanides (Ramban), 1194-1270. Spanish scholar. Bibliography: Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York: Lambda, n.p.d.). Scripture: NRSV. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Download PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Sh'lach L'Cha (Numbers 13:1 - 15:41), the Torah portion read in the diaspora for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.
- Rebellion in the Wilderness
As the Book of Numbers continues the story of the Israelites’ epic wilderness journey, episodes of rebellion and conflict emerge. With the help of traditional Jewish wisdom, let’s explore an aspect of the rebellion in chapter 11. With the sages we ask: what is the real significance of the people’s complaints over their craving for meat? We also consider the character of Moses in both his fragility and strength. We begin with the Israelites’ complaint: “Who will give us meat to eat?” (11:4) Observe how Moses relays this complaint to God: "Where should I (get) meat to give to this entire people, when they weep on me, saying: Give us meat so that we may eat!” (11:13) Does Moses communicate the complaint accurately? What contradiction do you notice? Actually, the people are not weeping to Moses. In fact, the cry of ‘who will give us meat?’ implies that there is no one who can help, that they consider themselves leaderless. Worse, nowhere in their outburst do we hear any attempt to place their trust in God; they look elsewhere for their sustenance. This, say the Jewish sages, is what angers God: their grumbling amounts to idolatry. (See, too, how the psalmist recalls this event in Ps. 78:18-19.) Instead of being grateful that God feeds them with manna, the people bitterly and undermine the evidence of God’s action in their lives. Further, this loss of confidence is systemic. Remember all that counting of clans in the opening chapter of Numbers? Well, now they are ‘weeping by their clans’ (v.10); not only the ‘riffraff’ on the camp’s outskirts but the entire ‘Children of Israel’ (v.4). The maternal imagery in Moses’ prayer is striking. As he cries out to God in grief (11:11-15), the images of conception, birth and suckling suggest the intimate depths of Moses’ relationship with Israel. He leads not an organisation but a people formed by blood ties and divine election, a relationship both familial and spiritual. Like a parent he hurts when his children hurt. Further, his words suggest that God, not Moses, is the real mother of Israel. God’s anger in this event is directed at the people rather than Moses. Why not Moses? After all, he too is having words with God. Hasn’t the grumbling spread though the Israelite ranks right to the top, affecting Moses himself (not to mention Miriam and Aaron as we read later in chapter 12)? Look closely at the text. Despite Moses’ suffering and remonstration, he maintains his relationship with God, calling himself ‘your servant’ (11:11). He doesn’t cry out ‘Poor me!’ to the air; he cries out to God, speaking directly and honestly about his pain. “I am not able, myself alone, to carry this entire people, for it is too heavy for me!” (Num. 11:14). The ‘ill-fortune’ which causes Moses to prefer death is not the lack of meat but grief over the people’s rebellion, and a sense of having failed them. And if it seems that Moses doubts God’s willingness to respond to the people’s plight, in fact verse 12 leaves no room for doubt that Moses knows exactly who is Israel’s real parent. If it was not Moses who ‘conceived’ and ‘gave birth’ to this people, then who did? The clear implication is that God did. Moses’ heartfelt plea to God reminds us that even the ‘greats’ of the Bible struggled and went through periods where they experienced their faith, mission and community/family as a burden. Yet they kept talking to God. No matter how tumultuous the relationship, they maintained it. How do we relate to God in difficult times? Continue to ponder this Torah text in view of your experience of community and leadership.• Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995); Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York, n.p.d.). Scripture: Fox. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of website. Click here for the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat B'haalot'cha (Numbers 8:1 - 12:16), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!