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  • What just happened?? Over a thousand Jews were massacred and the Catholic Church was silent

    One would think that a massive act of terror involving murder, rape, mutilation and the abduction of civilians would constitute a clear case for moral condemnation by Catholics. One shouldn’t need to consult Catholic social teaching in order to ascertain that the beheading of babies, the torture of children, or the gang rape of women are heinous crimes. However, in those initial days, as the carnage of Hamas’ attacks upon Israeli communities on October 7, 2023 began to come to light, an uncomfortable silence descended upon my church, the Catholic Church in Australia, and it has been deafening ever since. What made the silence particularly disturbing was that that these attacks were directed at Jewish communities, with a brutality and sadism that mirrored that of the Nazis’ attacks on Jews during the Holocaust. They were carried out by a listed terrorist organisation whose founding charter is openly and violently antisemitic. October 7 had all the hallmarks of a 21st century pogrom, in the same vein of pogroms carried out against Jews many times before in history. Further, the distressing silence of too many Catholic leaders in Australia was magnified by the fact that Christianity has been a carrier of antisemitism over much of its history, a tragic fact that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) had the courage to face, setting the Church on a sincere path of repentance and reconciliation with the Jewish people which has been pursued for nearly 60 years. How is it, then, that a 21st century pogrom, unleashed upon Jewish communities in the quiet of a Jewish holy day and sparking waves of antisemitic outbursts around the world, could be met with overwhelming public silence by Catholic leaders in Australia? Has the Church learned nothing from the lessons of the Holocaust? To its credit, within two days after the October 7 bloodbath, Catholic Religious Australia, the representative body for leaders of 150 Catholic religious institutes in Australia, issued a brief statement condemning the attacks and calling for the release of the hostages. A national interfaith body, the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, which includes Catholics, also promptly publicly condemned Hamas’ atrocities. However, it took another two weeks for one lone Australian Bishop, in the Diocese of Parramatta, to come out with a public statement expressing concern for Israeli lives. Encouragingly, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne just released (11 November) offers clarity regarding an appropriate Catholic response in light of the sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents that we are witnessing in our own Australian streets and neighbourhoods. Still, the public silence of other Australian Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders is a disturbing. Of course, public statements are but one means of exercising leadership. Were there other ways by which bishops, clerics, religious and lay Catholic leaders shifted gear and responded to what happened on October 7 in those initial days and weeks? Did they speak up with important words in quiet, unpublicised ways? I know of some that did and I like to presume that many more did. Obviously, I can’t speak for what our leaders say and do in their private communications. But what I can offer is a perspective from the grassroots experience of what things look and sound like among the general Catholic population, at least in Sydney and with an ear to the rest of the country. With the exceptions mentioned, we did not hear our leaders speak up. In the days following October 7 there was no clear, audible, united voice to constitute any kind of robust collective Catholic ‘front’ in response to a gross manifestation of the evil of antisemitic terror and its global after-effects. Further, this silence has only been compounded by the recently released statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (10 November) addressing the current crisis in the Holy Land. Amidst motherhood statements calling for “peace”, the bishops’ collective voice offers not a word about the October 7 attacks, nor about the hostages held by Hamas or the flare-up in antisemitic incidents. This silence from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference is bewildering in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era. The Catholic silence is shocking in a post-Holocaust, post-Nostra Aetate era. Certainly, in these past weeks, there were those who promoted and embodied the ‘prayer and fasting’ called for by Pope Francis and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Such calls have their place. However, in terms of what happened on October 7, these generalised gestures for ‘world peace’ did not cut through as a clear act of compassion for and solidarity with the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Buried within comments deploring ‘the cycle of violence’, they exuded a wearied sense of ‘more of the same’ in the Holy Land. October 7 was different But October 7 wasn’t the same. Over decades, Israelis have suffered intifadas, war, small scale massacres, and day-to-day isolated terror incidents of knifing, shootings and car ramming by those who will their disappearance. But October 7 took this deplorable violence to another level. Such was the scale and sadistic brutality of what occurred, that it rivalled many of the antisemitic atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Within hours of what was meant to be a relaxed Jewish holy day, Jews everywhere were plunged back into their greatest collective trauma in living memory. October 7 should have been a ‘red alert’ call-to-action for Christians. Those traumatic Jewish memories just mentioned include the recall of Christian complicity in the Holocaust and the centuries-long history of anti-Jewish sentiment, including its violent consequences against Jews in Christian societies. One might have expected the events of 7 October to cut like a razor to the conscience of the Catholic Church. One might have expected to see inspirational scenes of Catholic bishops and religious and lay leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with rabbis and their congregations at synagogues, leading their Catholic people in laying wreaths outside Jewish properties, and issuing public letters of condolence and condemnation of the attacks by Hamas. Instead, in the aftermath of more Jews being murdered in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust, it appears that most Catholic leaders in Australia did not consider it to be their priority to speak out in solidarity with Jewish communities, nor publicly stand with Israel in its national mourning for its murdered citizens. Did they not view it as significant enough? Were they (clergy and laity) too busy with the Synod of Bishops being held in Rome? Just eight months earlier, on 22 March 2023, Australian Catholics Bishops had signed a statement called “Walking Together: Catholic with Jews in the Australian Context” in which they pledged their commitment to the teaching of Nostra Aetate which includes a clear condemnation of antisemitism. Yet by October, as reports of Hamas’ crimes came to light, it appeared to be ‘business as usual’ for most episcopal diaries. Did they not understand this moment as a critical test for their leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism? “Palestinians plead for peace” was the recurring messaging headlining one archdiocesan newspaper, with barely a mention of Hamas’ atrocities in its Sunday editions following the attacks. As the body count mounted in Israel, and then in Gaza, “all lives matter” quickly became the catch cry in Catholic circles (and who can argue with that?). It seemed that Catholics couldn’t pause, even for one Sunday, to say “Jewish lives matter.” Did they not understand this moment as a critical test of leadership in the face of the rising tide of global antisemitism? My heartfelt hope is that many private messages of condolence would have been delivered to Jewish friends, neighbours and communities by Catholics of all walks of life. And I am not suggesting that good people have been callously unconcerned. To be sure, many prayers would have been privately and publicly said for peace in the Holy Land. However, for all the work of interfaith relations over years and decades, the public face of the Catholic Church was largely missing in action at that precise moment when the Jewish community needed us most, and when ordinary Catholics needed a firm and unequivocal response to antisemitism modelled by their leaders. Over time, remedial efforts by Catholics to regroup and recover will likely be graciously received by Australian Jewish communities, given their admirable commitment to seeking societal cohesion. Again, the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne sets a much-needed example for other Catholic leaders to follow. However, much damage has been done and it difficult to see how things will ever be the same again. Where people in high positions of church leadership have faltered, it is all the more incumbent on grassroots leaders and everyday Catholics to lead from the strength of their baptismal commissioning. This includes parents and teachers, pastoral and business leaders, academics and community animators – whatever our sphere of influence, we must all put shoulder to the plough to rewrite the next chapters of the Australian Catholic response. After October 7, Catholic-Jewish relations surely cannot be ‘business as usual.’ Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance writer and Catholic faith formator, and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). (c) Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023 This article may be reproduced, in full, with appropriate acknowledgement.

  • Remembering Kristallnacht, in the wake of October 7

    What was Kristallnacht? Kristallnacht is the name given to the night of 9 November 1938, when a Nazi-sponsored violent rampage in Germany destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues, sacred books and human lives. In the words of one eyewitness: “Until 1938 my parents never thought of leaving Germany. ‘There's no way the Germans we live with will continue to do these things. It's only an episode.’ That was the atmosphere. It was also the atmosphere on Kristallnacht. They couldn't comprehend it. It came as a blow. I remember my mother standing pale and crying… I remember her phoning her gentile friends – she had more gentile friends than Jewish friends – No answer. No one answered her.”[1] For most of my life as a Catholic, the anniversary of Kristallnacht came and went unnoticed. It took its place in my consciousness as one of many human tragedies with no direct relevance to me personally. After all, I am not Jewish, I was born in a time and place remote from the events of that fateful night, and there has been plenty of human suffering in the world of the 20th and 21st centuries to occupy my mind and heart. Over time, however, the memory of Kristallnacht came to strike a deep chord, and specifically as a Christian. Of course, all human suffering should be the concern of the Christian. What the specific memory of 9 November 1938 has helped me to understand is that Kristallnacht is regarded by historians as being a critical step on the path to the implementation of Hitler’s ‘final solution’. In the absence of international outrage, it was a moment when there was still time for good people to speak up, yet too many allowed it to pass in silence. Further, I learned that one of the factors that allowed the Nazi's ideology to flourish was the influence of anti-Jewish tropes, deeply buried in the social and cultural fabric of European societies. Most days, their poisonous presence could be overlooked; but in a time of crisis they came rushing to the surface, turning neighbours into enemies overnight. Such prejudice had a long history, and had infiltrated Christianity, leading to terrible humiliations and brutalities inflicted upon Jewish communities in Christianised societies over many centuries. From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, it took the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) for this “teaching of contempt” towards Jews to be decisively and officially repudiated. Vatican II taught that the Church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other Churches took similar steps as they faced into the dark chapters of Christian history. In more recent years, many Christians have joined with Jewish communities around the world in their annual remembrance of the events of Kristallnacht, on 9 November. The victims are mourned, candles are lit, songs are sung, people stand in sombre silence. Jewish leaders are joined by civic leaders and representatives of other religious and ethnic groups. The words “Never again” are uttered as one voice. Shockingly, just a month ago, an event reminiscent of Kristallnacht occurred again. October 7th 2023, Israel On 7 October 2023, a pogrom took place in southern Israel, including the town of Sderot and the small agricultural communities bordering the Gaza strip. Hamas militants broke through the Israeli security barrier and rampaged throughout the day, pillaging and destroying homes while they murdered, tortured and raped unarmed civilians, and mutilated bodies. Over 200 people were abducted and taken to Gaza as hostages. Some 1400 Israelis - Jews and others among their communities - were murdered in these attacks, including whole families burnt to death in their homes and youth gunned down in the fields of a music festival. It is important to recount these two dates, as well as some of the details of these two periods of depravity, in order to call out the evil of antisemitism for what it is and to highlight the imperative for Catholics, and all people of faith and goodwill, to speak out against its violent goals and deathly consequences. We need to be very clear. Nothing justifies what occurred on 7 October. No political narrative or cause justifies premeditated murder, rape, mutilation and abduction. No appeal to the complexities of a geo-political dispute excuses the massacre which took place on 7 October. It was an act of terrorism on a massive scale and a crime against humanity, in the same barbaric vein as ISIS and conducted with the same antisemitic vehemence as Nazism. Nazi atrocities should have been denounced by the world then. Hamas’ atrocities must be denounced now. To allow excuses for such a massacre, would be to send a terrible message to the world over and to ignore the lessons learned from the Holocaust. It would sanction antisemitic sentiment and embolden extremists and their sympathisers elsewhere. It would be a betrayal of the Jewish people. Here in Australia, we have already seen a sharp increase in antisemitic discourse and incidents since the events of 7 October. Following the largest massacre of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, public antisemitic outbursts occurred on the streets of Sydney, with chants such as “Gas the Jews” - voices we thought belonged to the days of Nazi Germany. Before 7 October, many of us would have considered such a scenario unthinkable. Yet these outbursts do not come out of nowhere. They remind us that antisemitism has been on the rise, in Australia and globally, emanating from both the right and the left of the political divide, for some time. Of course, there is no suggestion here that our Australian society is anything like Nazi Germany. However, we are reminded that antisemitism has a way of reemerging even in peace-loving societies like our own, in new and insidious guises. The strength of our usually harmonious multicultural community should never be taken for granted. Vigilance against antisemitism must be an ongoing commitment. A call to action: What can we do? In view of our history, we Christians have a particular responsibility to speak, act and pray. We are not powerless. Each of us can do something within our sphere of influence. For example: We can condemn in the strongest terms the unspeakable actions of terror unleashed by Hamas on innocent civilians in Israeli communities in the quiet of a Jewish religious holy day on 7 October 2023. As one voice we can call for the safe and immediate return of the hostages, and make this our urgent prayer intention. Catholic social justice organisations can take antisemitism as seriously as other causes for justice. In view of the antisemitic violence unleashed against women on 7 October 2023, we urge Christians to speak up in support of their Jewish sisters. We can educate our children and others about antisemitism, including its history within Christianity. Education about antisemitism is critical in a world where the term is becoming less rather than better understood, where Holocaust-denial thrives on social media and where the memory of the Holocaust is dimming with time. We can also commemorate Kristallnacht each year. The legacy of William Cooper In closing, we can recall the story of William Cooper, a proud Yorta Yorta man and a committed Christian, who lived in Melbourne in the 1930s. When the news of Kristallnacht reached him, he responded by organising a peaceful march to the German Consulate to deliver a petition protesting the treatment of Jewish citizens in Germany. His petition, of course, was ignored. Yet, he did the right thing. And his action for justice has provided inspiration for generations to come. Cooper is among the “righteous gentiles” honoured by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. May his legacy, his commitment to a just and peaceful society, where Jews can live without fear of antisemitism, inspire us all and guide our words and actions. Unite in Prayer Now: View: A Call to Prayer October 7 Hostages With Julie McCrossin AM and Teresa Pirola Visit: Pray for the 247 Hostages Held by Hamas at [1] Historian and Holocaust survivor Zvi Bacharach; quoted at the webpage of Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Centre. Text: Teresa Pirola Photo: Wikimedia commons (c) Teresa Pirola | Light of Torah, 2023 This article may be freely shared for non-commercial use, with appropriate acknowledgement.

  • Memories of Israel, near Gaza

    Four years ago, I visited Sderot and other small communities in Israel which lie close to the northern border of the Gaza strip. The woman who showed us around had lived in a moshav (small agricultural community) of 900 people for over 20 years. Her children, the eldest turning 18, had slept in bomb shelters for the entirety of their young lives. Such was life, with the routine experience of sirens, Hamas rocket attacks launched from Gaza, as well as catapulted fire-bombs that would set fire to the fields of Israelis, destroying their crops. Bomb shelters were placed throughout these communities. Residents had 15 seconds to reach one when the siren sounded. These shelters were to be found in homes, bus stops, schools and children’s playgrounds, including one that was cleverly disguised as a giant smiling caterpillar (pictured). From time to time there were casualties, and the stress and psychological trauma, especially among children, was a constant to be carefully managed and treated. Still, life went on. Remarkably, despite these extraordinary daily pressures, our guide spoke without malice towards the Palestinian population of Gaza. She expressed resilience and the determination not to be driven from her home, but not a hint of hatred. In fact, she took us to the 'Path to Peace’ wall where residents had created a huge mosaic on a portion of the security barrier facing Gaza, decorating it with messages of peace. It was their way of communicating that, while they opposed the destructive agenda of Hamas who governed Gaza, they had no desire for enmity with the Palestinian people of Gaza and maintained their hope for peace. It is worth mentioning that Sderot and its surrounding communities are not situated in the “disputed territory” of the West Bank but are on land that has always been considered by the United Nations to be part of the modern state of Israel proper since its establishment in 1948. Our guide’s moshav was one of the small Israeli communities overrun by Hamas militants on 7 October 2023, where residents were brutally tortured, murdered, mutilated and abducted. We still have no news as to whether or not she and her family survived the massacre. Dr Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based writer, faith educator and author of Catholic-Jewish Relations: Twelve Key Themes for Teaching and Preaching (Paulist Press, 2023). This article may be freely reproduced with acknowledgement. © Teresa Pirola, 2023 | Photos (T. Pirola): Bomb shelter in children’s playground in Sderot; ‘Path to Peace’ wall at Moshav HaAsara, Israel, near the Gaza border. Lend a hand in the crisis: Donate to Hadassah Australia and Caritas Australia.

  • 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. [1] 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." [2] 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).” [3] 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. [4] 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.[1] 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. 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. 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. 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[1] 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.”[2] 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. 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 [1], i.e., with a friend... what do you discover there? Perhaps you considered, as did two great Jewish scholars, Rashi and Maimonides,[2] 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. [3] 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. 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.


    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. 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,[1] 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:[2] “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. 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.

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