Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold



“Now, therefore, slay every male among the noncombatants, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally.” (Numbers 31:17)

We love to see the teachings of the Torah as reflecting the highest ethical insights of humanity. After all, we learn from the Torah to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love the stranger, to be honest in business practices, to honor our parents, etc. But sometimes the Torah turns unethical. Particularly in the long double portion Matot-Masei there are some extremely difficult sections. Many rabbis are glad this Torah portion falls in the middle of the summer when they are on vacation and do not need to speak about it.
This portion contains Israel’s war against the Midianites. To tell the backstory, the Midianite nation at the urging of the pagan prophet Balaam had drawn the people Israel into what can best be described as a giant orgy. The behavior of the Israelites at that moment was the opposite of every religious ideal God had given the people. As the result of the orgy a plague breaks out against the people. Only the violent action of Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, killing the ringleaders of the orgy, puts a stop to the plague.
Moses seeks a war of revenge against the Midianites, who he considers a danger to the spiritual nature of the people Israel. Israel defeats Midian buts the military officers spare the women. Moses becomes angry, calling for the women who had known men to be put to death. It is a violent episode that seems far from the peace-loving values of the rest of the Torah. How can we explain it?
Some would answer that the Torah is a human document, filled with violence, and containing little of spiritual value. In fact, here in Florida, in reaction to recent government school library book bans by the right, there is a move by some on the left to remove the Bible from school libraries. As a rabbi, I understand how the Torah contains episodes of extreme violence. But the key is not to avoid reading these episodes, but rather interpret them according to our best contemporary understanding of human values.
Let me try to reinterpret the difficult passage regarding the Midianite women. One of the classical methods of interpretation mentioned by the Rabbis is remez (literally “hint”), philosophical or allegorical interpretations. Using allegory, the Torah is no longer speaking of real women who must be put to death. Rather, the women represent a part of human nature that must be controlled. Allegory changes the story from history to psychology. It becomes a war against part of our human nature.
Humans are born with a powerful sexual drive, which Sigmund Freud identified as the id. These drives, when out of control, create chaos. The orgy with the Midianite women was the story of the id out of control, allowing passions to overrule reason. Moses understood that when such passions rule, the spirit of the nation will be destroyed. The war against the Midianites and the slaying of the women was simply a war against out-of-control human passions. It is a war that Israel had to fight if it were to become, as the Torah teaches, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Sexual passions must be brought under control. Or to quote Ben Zoma in the Talmud, “Who is strong? Whoever can control their passions” (Avot 4:1).
To read the story as an allegory removes much of the ethical discomfort raised by ethical issues. The war against the Midianites is something that each of us must fight within our own psyche. By conquering these out-of-control passions, we change our nature. Human sexuality becomes a way of serving God. In fact, later Jewish mystical thinkers will see human sexuality in theurgic terms (theurgy is way human behavior can affect spiritual forces in the universe.) According to kabbalah, the sexual drive used properly can literally bring together the male and female aspects of God.
Part of my love of Judaism is how it allows multiple interpretations of every Biblical verse. I hope this interpretation helps sees the greater spiritual purpose of the war against the Midianites.


“The assembly shall protect the killer from the blood-avenger, and the assembly shall restore him to the city of refuge to which he fled, and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil.”  (Numbers 35:25)

I admit that I am deeply ambivalent about capital punishment.  On one hand, it often seems to be applied unfairly, with the poor and people of color more likely to receive the death penalty.  And too often innocent people have been executed.  But on the other hand, there are crimes so evil and heinous that the death penalty seems the only way to achieve justice.  Israel has executed only one person in its entire history, Adolf Eichmann who oversaw the murder of six million Jews.  And I did not shed tears for Timothy McVeigh who was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

As I follow the ongoing penalty trial of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass murderer, I believe that the death penalty is justified.   But I am hardly an objective spectator.  The day of the Parkland massacre, I was called down to a nearby hospital as a volunteer chaplain to meet with families still waiting for news about their children.  Two of the families I counseled that day lost children in the shooting.  I wanted to attend all 17 funerals in person, but these were the only 2 I attended.  It is hard to have any sense of mercy towards the accused.

Jewish tradition is equally ambivalent about the use of the death penalty.  The Torah demands the death penalty for murder.  This week’s portion reads, “Anyone who strikes another with an iron object so that death results is a murderer, the murderer shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:16).  This law was promulgated in a community where blood feuds were the norm, where killing would lead to ongoing killing between families for generations.  (Think of the Hatfields and the McCoys.)  Here, only the murderer was put to death, not other family members.

Nonetheless, the Rabbis of the Talmud argued about this law (see Makkot 1:10).  “Any court that puts one person to death in seven years is considered a bloody court.  Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria says, one person in seventy years.  Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said, if we were on the courts nobody would be put to death.  But Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, you would cause murderers to multiply in the world.”

What if the death is accidental, involuntary manslaughter rather than murder?  What if someone killed someone else through negligence but not with premeditation.  In the days of family blood feuds, even involuntary homicide would lead to revenge killings.  Based on this, the Torah establishes Cities of Refuge where the killer could flee and be safe from revenge.  Family members seeking revenge were forbidden from entering these Cities of Refuge.  They were a place of safety.

How long did the person who killed someone accidently have to remain in the City of Refuge?  The Torah gives a strange answer.  He or she must remain until the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest of that generation died.  Only then could he or she safely leave the City of Refuge and return home.  The Midrash paints a picture of the mother of the High Priest knitting clothing for those in the City of Refuge, so they would think kindly of her and not pray for her son’s death.  The Torah seems to be saying that when there is an untimely death, even an accidental death, there must be atonement.  On some spiritual level the world is out of balance by the loss, and the only the death of a High Priest can bring the world back into balance.   A death must be atoned by another death.

The Torah sees human life as infinitely precious.  To take a life, whether deliberately or through negligence, sets the world out of balance.  Death of the murderer or the death of the High Priest serves as an atonement, putting the world back in balance.   Applying these ancient ideas to modern life is not easy.  We no longer have Cities of Refuge.  We do allow life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Perhaps that is the best punishment for those who have no respect for human life.  But sometimes that is not enough.  Perhaps there are times when capital punishment is the appropriate way to punish a murderer.


“Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.”  (Numbers 31:2)

I always feel a certain relief when I am on vacation when we read the long double portion Matot-Masei.  (I am going to Los Angeles.)  It means that I do not need to deal with some of the difficult moral issues raised in the portion.  Moses tells the people to take vengeance against the Midianites, who led what can be considered an orgy with the Israelites.  Israel goes to war, and then Moses condemns them for not killing the women involved in the orgy.  When the military campaign ended, “Moses said to them, you have spared every female.”  (Numbers 3:15)

This is the same Torah that teaches in Leviticus, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18).  This is the same Torah where God says, “Vengeance is mine” (Deuteronomy 32:35), in God’s hands, not human hands.  How are we to understand this call by the Torah to seek vengeance?  It is a struggle for anyone who learns from the Torah.

Let me share some thoughts.  Last week I spoke about game theory and a game called “hawks and doves.”  This week I want to return to game theory.  This game is called the ultimatum game.  There are two players who are in separate rooms and do not know each other.  One player is given $10 and told to give the other player part of it.  They can give away $5 and keep $5, dividing the money equally.  Or they can give away $2 and keep $8, perhaps unfair to the second player.  The second player can accept and both players keep the money.  Or the second player can reject and both players lose the money, receiving nothing.

One would think that even if the second player receives $2, they would keep the money.  $2 is better than nothing.  But when this is done with real college students, that is not how they behave.  Most students who receive $2 reject the offer, knowing that the distributer also gets nothing.  If we feel we have been treating unfairly, we want to get even.  Getting even is more valuable than money to many people.  Or as they say, revenge is sweet.  What we learn from game theory is that people have a natural tendency to seek vengeance whenever they believe they are being treated unfairly.

Getting even is part of human nature.  That is what game theory shows.  That explains the popularity of the old Charles Bronson movie Death Wish and its sequels, which I enjoyed when I was a kid.  A mild-mannered architect takes revenge on the killers of his wife.  And perhaps that explains Moses’ action regarding the Midianite.  We want revenge against those who wronged us.  And yet, this desire for revenge makes us uncomfortable.

This point was made explicitly by Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Academy in Israel.  Commenting on this week’s portion, he said that Moses’ call for revenge was deliberately meant to make us uncomfortable.   To quote him, “I think that one of the possible ways of reading Chapter 31 is actually for us to read it and feel uncomfortable so that we pause, reconsider the verse, and say `No, we don’t want our God to avenge, this is not part of our Judaism, this is not part of our tradition.’  Perhaps that is exactly the reason that it is in the Torah, not in order for us to accept and not in order for us to follow it, but in order for us to stop and say, `No, thank you.  This is not part of what I am.’”

I hope we can read this portion with a sense that we can overcome our human desire to get even, to take revenge.  Over the years, I have counseled numerous people who were extremely angry at other people, who were prepared to do whatever was necessary to take revenge.  Sometimes they were willing to pay lawyers a huge fortune to sue the other person, in order to avenge the wrongs done against them.  I always say to such people, “Who is being hurt by your anger and desire by revenge?  Are you hurting the other person?  Or are you only hurting yourself?”

Let us read the story of Moses and the revenge against the Midianites as a warning to ourselves, to move beyond that natural desire to get even.


“If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”  (Numbers 30:3)

As a movie lover, I think about those moments in film that touched me in a deeply emotional way.  One such moment was in the movie The Jazz Singer, when Jess Robin, formerly Yussel Rabinovitz, returned to his home synagogue to sing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur evening.  He had fled his Orthodox upbringing to become a jazz singer and shattered his father’s dreams that he would follow in his footsteps as a cantor.  His father disowned him when he discovered that Jess had moved in with his non-Jewish girlfriend.  But now, in a highly emotional moment, he came home on the holiest night of the Jewish year.

I am thinking of the 1980’s version of the movie starring Neil Diamond.  The 1927 version starring Al Jolson followed the same story.  But in 1927, something fascinating happened in American Jewish life.  Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, one of the seminal thinkers about American Judaism and the founder of Reconstructionism, decided he would not chant Kol Nidre in his synagogue.  To quote Kaplan, “If we were to make use of music instead of words as a means of prayer, we could not conceive of any music more appropriate for the Yom Kippur mood than the music of Kol Nidre … But as prayer is also to depend upon the use of words, no text could be more inappropriate and less in keeping with the spirit of Yom Kippur than the text of Kol Nidre.  It is a dry, legalistic formula couched in ancient Aramaic to be recited in matter-of-fact fashion in the presence of an improvised Beit Din of three men for the purpose of absolving one from ritualistic vows.”  Kaplan wanted to keep the music and throw out the words.

Kaplan’s synagogue went along and abolished the wording of Kol Nidre, using the melody to chant a selection from the book of Psalms.  If my memory serves me correctly, that change lasted one year.  The next year they brought back the traditional Kol Nidre.  The emotional resonance of the prayer is too strong.  It touches a Jew’s heart rather than his head.  As the Catholic thinker and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”

What is Kol Nidre all about?  It is a formula to annul vows we may have made to God in the past year and have not fulfilled, or even forgotten.  It cancels only vows made to God, not to other human beings.  The idea is to go into Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, with a clean slate.  But besides the Aramaic words and the formality of the moment, there is the powerful melody of Kol Nidre.  When the cantor begins to chant the ancient melody, the whole congregation enters a higher spiritual realm.  Part of the problem with Kaplan (and sometimes with me) is that our Judaism tends to be very rational and intellectual.  But Kol Nidre is emotional.

We learn from this week’s Torah reading that vows are serious commitments.  Words in Judaism have power.  God created the world with words.  A person must fulfill his or her vows.  The portion is not egalitarian; it gives the husband the right to annul his wife’s vows.  Modern egalitarianism did not exist in the days of the Torah.  As I mentioned in last week’s message, ethical ideas develop over time.  We should remember that a husband had control of his wife’s property until recent times.  But the basic idea is important; words have power.  And Kol Nidre allows us to go into the holiest day of the year released from forgotten or unfulfilled vows.

This year my synagogue and so many others will be different than any other.  We will be livestreaming our services with a handful of people attending in person.  (We need a minyan of ten.)  Kol Nidre will be chanted to an empty sanctuary, with people watching on their computers, tablets, or televisions.  Will it have the spiritual power of chanting Kol Nidre to a full house?  I certainly hope so.  In this age of Covid, we need spiritual moments more than ever.

“Every daughter, who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel, shall be the wife to one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the people of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers.” (Numbers 36:8)
Last week I shared one of my favorite midrashim taken from the Talmud (Hullin 60b). Originally the sun and the moon were equal in size and luminosity. The Torah at the beginning of Genesis says God made “the two great lights.” Then it speaks of “the great light” and “the small light.” Was the moon a great light or a small light? According to the midrash, the moon asked God, “How can two kings wear one crown?” God said, “You are right” and told the moon to shrink. The moon became angry and God felt guilty. Therefore, we bring a sin offering on every new moon “for God.” God sinned by shrinking the moon. But someday in the future, God will make the moon and the sun equal once again.
The Zohar, the great commentary of Jewish mysticism, takes off in a beautiful way on this ancient midrash. [Note – there is no way to discuss Jewish mysticism without discussing gender.] The sun and the moon are not just heavenly bodies; they represent tendencies in the universe and even aspects of God. The sun represents the masculine aspects of reality, and the male aspects of God. The moon represents the feminine aspects of reality, and the female aspects of God. In the beginning the masculine and the feminine were equal. Then by shrinking the moon, God shrunk the feminine aspects of reality. According to the Zohar, the moon rather than giving its own light, now merely reflects the light of the sun. The Rabbis of the Talmud would stifle the voice of women saying kol isha erva, “the voice of women is sexually suggestive” (Berakhot 24a). The Zohar teaches that the world is out of balance, with the role of the feminine being diminished compared to the role of the masculine. This has been the Jewish reality through much of history.
However, in the Torah we begin to see a very gradual movement toward a greater role for women. Last week we read of the five daughters of Zelophehad whose father dies leaving no sons. In those days only sons could inherit, not daughters. Moses approaches God and brings forth a new ruling. If there are no sons, then daughters can inherit. The daughters of Zelophehad are permitted to inherit their father’s property. It is a tiny step forward in the direction of equalizing the masculine and the feminine.
This week at the very end of the portion, the Torah takes a step backwards. If the daughters of Zelophehad inherit and marry out of their family tribe, then land will pass out of the tribe. Moses listens and rules that if a daughter inherits, she must marry within her father’s tribe. Women won the right to inherit and lost the ability to marry whomever they choose. The movement towards women’s rights takes a step forward and a step backwards. So it is with any movement. Equalizing the masculine and the feminine will happen only in slow steps, sometimes forward and sometimes backwards.
The Zohar speaks of a future day when the sun and the moon will be equal again. It quotes the book of Isaiah, “The light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days” (Isaiah 30:26). The masculine and the feminine aspects of reality will be equal once again. The era of the shrinking of the moon will have ended. Our role as human beings and as Jews is to help bring about that day, to put the masculine and feminine back into balance.
In the Jewish world we already see movements in that direction. Among liberal Jews, women are becoming rabbis and cantors and participating equally in religious worship. Women are studying Torah at a very high level. Even in the Orthodox world, some women are gaining the title Rabbah, a feminine equivalent of rabbi. We are no longer afraid to hear the voice of women. Movement in that direction is slow, with steps forward and steps backwards. But the movement towards women’s participation is inexorable.

“Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that has known man by lying with him. But all the young women, who have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:17 – 18)

Any religion with a long history such as Judaism must face a serious issue. How does the religion deal with sources that are blatantly unethical or unjust? This difficult question is particularly obvious in religions based on ancient scriptures. Often such scriptures contain lofty and beautiful passages. But sometimes there is a passage that seems to bring out the worst in religion. Several such passages are part of this week’s very long double portion.
The passage deals with a war of vengeance against the Midianites. It was the Midianite women who had seduced the Israelite men into what can only be called an orgy. As a result of these events, a plague broke out among the Israelites as punishment. Only Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, was able to stop the plague through a violent act against the ring leaders. As a result, Moses calls for a war of revenge against the Midianites. All men, and all women who have ever known a man, are to be killed. The women who had not known men are kept alive for the pleasure of the Israelite men. Then Moses gets angry with the Israelites for not totally following his orders by keeping the women alive.
This is a horrible passage. And it is passages like this in many religions that have encouraged evil behavior. No religion is immune, even Judaism. Think of Baruch Goldstein murdering 29 Moslem worshippers in 1994 in the name of the Torah. The Torah seems to direct the Israelites to behavior that is blatantly wrong. How are we to account for this?
The simple answer is that this passage is not God’s word but simply a human assertion. But if this is a human assertion, is the Ten Commandments also a human assertion? Where does God fit in? Does God want the Israelites to commit such crimes against the Midianites? One can say that there are no Midianites any longer, so it is all theoretical. But of course, such passages can become an excuse for horrible behavior against nations that do exist today.
The traditional answer is to reinterpret the passage. In the Torah, the Midianites went from being heroes to being villains over forty years. Moses father-in-law Jethro was a Midianite priest who taught Moses how to better serve the people. But now Jethro’s tribe becomes the epitome of evil. Perhaps the Midianites symbolize our own inner drives. We all have inner drives that start out as good but end up as evil over time. A business entrepreneur goes from being an innovator to being avaricious. A political leader becomes cruel with the acquisition of power. A pop star moves downhill into a life of alcohol and drugs. Fighting the Midianites is symbolic of fighting our own inner self. The whole story is a metaphor.
Of course, such interpretations raise their own questions. What is a legitimate interpretation and what is not a legitimate interpretation? Can we interpret in a way that totally changes the meaning of a passage? The answer is that the Rabbis have always done this. They made a passage about stoning a wayward son to death into a description of someone “who never was and never will be.” It is in the Torah to teach a lesson about a father and a mother learning to speak with one voice. It is not unusual to interpret a difficult passage out of existence.
But why reinterpret it to begin with, unless there is a part of us that knows that the passage is unethical. We humans have a deep-seated sense of right and wrong. And we know when something is wrong. Even if it is God’s word, it must meet our innate sense of ethics. After all, Abraham our father said to God, “Should the just of all the earth not do justly” (Genesis 18:25). Even God is held to certain ethical standards. And so, religions which claim to speak in the name of God must maintain those standards.
The question of religion and ethics was raised long ago by Plato in what is called “the Euthyphro Problem.” Is something good because God says it is good? Or does God say something good because it is good? According to Socrates, the answer is the latter. Good and evil exist beyond God, and God must be held to standards of good and evil.

“Behold, these caused the people of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.” (Numbers 31:16)
Greetings from Los Angeles. My wife and I are visiting my home town. A few days ago we were privileged to go to the Hollywood Bowl, the perfect venue for a show. We saw the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and then Tony Bennett. In his 90’s, the singer is still going strong. But the highlight of the evening is when he invited his friend Lady Gaga out to sing several duets.
Tony sang several classics from my father’s time. One of them is the old Frank Sinatra standard Our Love is Here to Stay. “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.” I love that song, maybe because it reminds me of my father.
Joyously for many of us, our love is here to stay. But sadly for the world, too often hate is also here to stay. There is a perfect example in this week’s portion. Two weeks ago we read the story of Balaam, the heathen prophet who tried to curse the Israelites. God turned his curses into blessings. Balak the King of Moab hired him to curse, and it is clear from his beautiful blessings that he never collected a paycheck. Balaam then disappears from the story. We do not know what happens to him. One would have hoped that when the curses failed, when the blessings came out instead, Balaam would change his mind about the Israelites. But in this week’s portion we learn that Balaam’s hatred was here to stay.
Following the story of Balaam, we learned about the Midianite women who seduced the Israelite men into an orgy. Only the action of Pinchas puts a stop to it, but not before a plague decimates the people. But who was behind this action by the Midianite women? This week we learn that it was Balaam, the same heathen prophet. When he could not destroy Israel through curses, he decides to destroy Israel through seduction. Moses begins a vicious war against Midian, and Balaam is killed in the war. His hatred has finally died.
Too often I see hate that never dies. Antisemitism was a plague in the world through much of history, reaching its horrendous climax with the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, the hatred died down for a while, particularly in the West. Hatred of Jews continued among Arabs and the Moslem world. Today it is coming back full force in the Western world. Often it is manifested with actions against Israel or Zionism. Speakers from Israel are heckled or shouted down by students. Professors from Israel are barred from academic conferences. But the anti-Judaism on many colleges is apparent. Jews are frightened to show their identity publicly. The hatred is here to stay.
Sadly, hatred is often shown not just by others but by Jews themselves. The Haredim or ultra-Orthodox have contempt for more liberal or progressive Jews. And liberal or progressive Jews have contempt for the Haredim. In nearly four decades as a rabbi, I do not remember our people being so divided. The political issues dividing Jews are real. But too often we do not see the humanity of the other.
Is it inevitable that hatred will last forever? The Talmud tells a wonderful story of Rabbi Meir, who was constantly harassed by a neighbor. Rabbi Meir used to pray that his neighbor would die. One day his wife Beruriah saw him praying and asked why. When Rabbi Meir told the truth, Beruriah told her husband what he was doing was wrong. Do not pray that he die. Pray that he change his ways. (Berakhot 10a) We pray not that our enemies die but that our enemies change their ways. There are stories of anti-Semites who became fans of the Jews, and even stories of Jew haters who converted to Judaism. There are stories of hatred that turned into love. It all begins when we see the humanity of the other.
Our love is here to stay. But our hatred need not be here to stay.

“These are the journeys of the people of Israel, which went forth out of the land of Egypt with their armies under the hand of Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 33:1)
Greetings from Maryland where I am spending a few days with my daughter, son-in-law, and baby grandson. It is a brief vacation, or perhaps to use a better term, a brief journey. For today I want to speak about journeys.
This week we finish the book of Numbers, known in Hebrew as Bemidbar – “In the wilderness.” This week the forty year journey through the wilderness finally comes to an end. In the diaspora we are reading the long double portion Matot-Masei. In Israel, where they have been a week ahead since Passover, they are only reading the portion Masei. Masei means journeys. Throughout the Jewish world the journeys are coming to an end.
The portion Masei actually begins with a step by step summary of the journeys of the Israelites for the past forty years. The Rabbis in the Midrash said it is like a king whose son is sick, and the king takes his son on a long journey to try to find a cure. When the son is finally better, the king describes to him everywhere they went on the journey and every stop they made. So God describes each step of the journey, from their encampment at Mt. Sinai after the exodus to their encampment on the Eastern banks of the Jordan River forty years later.
Perhaps the message is that when one travels, the important point is not arriving at the destination. The important point is the journey itself. Allow me to share a memory. Although I became bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue, when I was a teen my parents joined a Reform Temple. Each year they put together a creative service for the High Holidays, with a mix of traditional prayers, poetry, and readings. One reading they included every year resonates with me even to this day.
Rabbi Alvin Fine wrote a powerful poem that begins with the words, “Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey.” (You can find the entire poem on the internet.) Fine writes that the goal of life is “having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.” Perhaps I had Rabbi Fine’s poem in mind when I wrote my book The Ten Journeys of Life. The important part of life is not reaching the destination, but focusing on the journey itself. How do we make our journey a sacred pilgrimage?
One thinks of pilgrimages in many religious traditions. There was the three times a year pilgrimage in ancient Israel to the holy Temple in Jerusalem on three sacred festivals. In fact these three festivals are called regalim from the Hebrew word regal which means “foot.” One thinks of the Canterbury Tales with pilgrims making their way to the religious center of the Church of England in Canterbury. And of course there is the Hajj, the pilgrimage that every able bodied Moslem must make to Mecca once in a lifetime. What do these journeys have in common? It is not the arrival at the destination but the journey itself that has powerful religious meaning.
Life consists of a number of journeys. Some are very brief like my current trip to Maryland. Some are somewhat longer like a project or extended stay somewhere. Some are longer still like a job, a relationship, going to college or joining the military. And of course, the most important journey of all is life itself, our journey on this earth. To quote Rabbi Fine, how do we make each of these journeys into a sacred pilgrimage?
Every journey from a short vacation to a life-long relationship is going to have its ups and downs. The goal is to accept the down times as a chance to learn and grow. And the goal is to use the up times to show appreciation and give thanks. Finally, every journey should include a chance to search for moments of holiness. Holiness means rising about the ordinary and the mundane, to be part of something greater than our individual selves. Holiness is what creates the memories that make a good journey unforgettable. And holiness is what links our individual journeys to the journeys of others, of our community, of our people, of all humanity. These moments of holiness are how humanity, on its sacred journey, perfects this world as a kingdom of God.

“This is what the Lord has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: they may marry anyone they wish, provided they marry into a clan of their father’s tribe.” (Numbers 36:6)
It seems that every step forward is followed by a little step backwards. Every gain also brings about a little loss. Take the example of the five daughters of Zelophehad. In last week’s portion we read how these daughters bring a complaint to Moses. Their father had only daughters – no sons. In Biblical times only a son could inherit land. The daughters complain that their father’s land would be lost to the family. Moses comes up with a ruling that is the first little step in the long march towards women’s rights. If a man dies and leaves no sons, his daughters may inherit.
It is a small victory for women. But this week we get the push back. The leaders of Zelophehad’s tribe complain to Moses that if the daughters inherit land and then marry into a different tribe, land would be lost from their tribal holdings. Moses accepts their complaint and changes the ruling. Yes daughters may inherit if there are no sons. But the daughters are only permitted to marry within the tribe. We have a little step forward, a little step backwards. And so it is with the entire movement throughout Jewish history to broaden women’s rights.
Now let us move forward three thousand years from the time of Moses until our own day. The role of women has dramatically changed in the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Women are rabbis and cantors, count in the minyan and teach Talmud, read from the Torah and lead services. The change over little more than a generation has been dramatic. But like every other change, there has been push back.
Most non-Orthodox rabbis have witnessed a phenomenon that they are sometimes reluctant to talk about. As more and more women participate in the public rituals of Judaism, less and less men step forward. In the Orthodox community men have no choice; women are not allowed to participate. But in our community it is far easier to convince women to read Torah than men. It is easier for a woman to take on the challenge and learn a new synagogue skill than a man. Women have stepped forward while men have stepped backwards.
In my Rap with the Rabbi this past year, dealing with gender, I asked the question “why?” Why are men so reluctant to take on new synagogue skills? I believe it has to do with the nature of males. Males are competitive. They never want to be seen as less than adequate in any role. Perhaps that is the reason why men never ask for directions. They do not want to admit to someone else that they are lost. (I know the old joke – why does it take millions of sperm to fertilize one egg? Not one will ask for directions.)
The medieval mystics explained this idea very well. They saw the feminine in terms of a circle, the masculine in terms of a line. When people stand in a circle, everybody is equal, able to see everyone else. When people stand in a land, one is always ahead or behind someone else. Men do not want to appear inadequate in front of other men. That is the reason why I have seen male doctors who are world class surgeons and male lawyers who can argue a case in any court start shaking when called to the Torah for a son’s bar mitzvah. No man wants to appear inadequate in front of other men.
And this brings me to the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs convention, where I spent five days last week. There was much I loved about the convention. But I was most impressed with the ability of men to learn and try out new synagogue skills before a supportive community. In truth, I was asked before the convention if I wanted to read Torah or lead a service. I respectfully declined (although I did lead a learning session on Shabbat.) I said that this convention belongs to lay people, not rabbis, and that the men need a chance to learn these skills. I am proud of our men. And I hope to see men as well as women step forward and take public roles in our synagogue services.

“If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:3)
This week’s portion begins with a series of laws about vows. A good part of this section reflects views from another time, with a decidedly less egalitarian view about the role of women in communal life. So in this portion, a father has the right to annul the vow of his daughter. A husband has the right to annul the vow of his wife. But beyond those limitations, vows are serious commitments. A man, or a woman living on her own, must fulfill the terms of anything spoken with their mouths.
These laws have become a central part of Jewish life. One can annul a vow before a beit din of three rabbis, but such annulments are taken very seriously. I heard one case of a rabbi, fired by a congregation, who made a vow never to set foot in that congregational building again. Several years went by, and then the rabbi was invited by a bride and groom to perform a wedding in that very building. He had to gather a beit din of three rabbis and annul the vow before he would allow himself to go back in the building. The lesson seems to be that the words our mouths pronounce have consequences.
We see the importance of vows in one of the most important liturgical moments of the Jewish year. Yom Kippur evening, before the Yom Kippur prayers begin, we chant the kol nidre service. We take the Torahs out of the ark and three times the cantor chants the kol nidre formula. The melody of this moment resonates with any Jews who grew up observing the traditions of the High Holidays. (To see their power, rent the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer and watch him chant kol nidre near the end of the movie.) The words kol nidre mean “all vows.” All vows we may have made to God in the past year and forgotten are now considered null and void. We must go into the Day of Atonement with our souls cleared of all forgotten commitments. (Of course, vows made to other people must be fulfilled, or we must ask forgiveness before Yom Kippur.)
Why are vows so important? Because words are so important. God created the universe with words. Jews pray each morning a prayer that begins, Baruch she’Amar v’Haya HaOlam – “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came into being.” Words have a power. To quote my colleague Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in a wonderful book, “Words can hurt; words can heal.” Saying the right words at the right time can change the universe. That is why our tradition teaches over and over that we must be careful with our words.
It is words and the ability to speak that helps us rise above other animals and makes us humans. In 1967 sociologist Peter Berger wrote a book called The Sacred Canopy. He explained that for the animal world, survival happens through instincts. An animal can go out into the world after a very short period and manage through inborn instincts. Not so humans. We have few instincts. We survive in the world by acquiring a vast body of knowledge passed on to us by words. Berger called this body of knowledge nomos. Acquiring this knowledge, this nomos, takes many years. That is why it takes us humans years before they are ready to go into the adult world. Today, as knowledge has expanded, most of us do not acquire the nomos we need to function in the world until our mid-twenties, if not later.
The Torah recognized millennia ago that it is words which make us human. Words have a power and words must be chosen carefully. In the time of the Torah, people would often misuse words by proclaiming a poorly considered vow. Today we are less likely to proclaim a vow before God. But many of us misuse words through vulgarity and profanity, racism and misogyny. Words have lost their sense of holiness. Perhaps, as Yom Kippur moves closer, it is time once again appreciate that words have power.

“Because he must remain in his City of Refuge, until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the man slayer may return to the land of his possession.”
(Numbers 35:28)
It has been a horrible week in the news. First, Russian backed separatists in the Ukraine shot a Malaysian commercial flight out of the sky. Almost 300 people were killed. (I received this tragic news while sitting in an airplane, a sobering experience.) To make matters worse, the separatists blocked authorities from reaching the destroyed plane, uncovering the black boxes, or releasing the bodies of the dead. It took days for these basic humanitarian gestures to take place.
On the same day the tensions in Israel brought about by Hamas sending missiles from Gaza finally exploded. Israeli ground troops attacked Gaza. Casualties have been huge, particularly among Palestinians. But I believe Israel had no choice. Any country, facing daily missile attacks, would have reacted the same way. Charles Krauthammer wrote a wonderful column about the Gaza War. First he quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they are using their civilians to protect their missiles.”
Krauthammer raises the questions why Hamas has rejected a cease fire and continues to shoot missiles into Israel. There is no tactical advantage; most of the missiles are being shot out of the sky by Israel. He explains that “the whole point if to draw Israeli counterfire. This produces dead Palestinians for international television, which is why Hamas perversely urges its own people not to seek safety when Israel drops leaflets warning of an imminent attack.”
There have been so many casualties in the Ukraine, in Israel, and yes in Gaza. We can only look at these events with a deep sense of sadness. How can we possible react to so many human beings killed this week? Let me share an insight from this week’s portion.
The portion speaks of Cities of Refuge, set up throughout the territory that Israel is about to capture. If someone deliberate kills another, they are subject to the death penalty. There is no refuge. But if someone accidently kills another, they must flee to a City of Refuge. There they will be safe from a blood avenger, a family member of the victim who will seek revenge. The City of Refuge was a haven for anyone who through neglect, accidently killed another.
How long must someone remain in the City of Refuge before they can return home? The answer given by the Torah is that they must remain there until the current High Priest dies. It is as if the death of the High Priest serves as a kind of atonement for a life lost.
There seems to be a spiritual idea behind this law. God is the author of life and death. The book of Job teaches, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) When a life is lost before its time at the hands of a human being, it is as if the world is thrown out of balance. When there is a deliberate murder only the shedding of the blood of the murderer can restore the balance. (This raises the question of the death penalty, an issue which has a long fascinating history in Judaism. It is not a simple question.) What this portion teaches that even with accidental deaths, there is a spiritual imbalance. In ancient times only the death of a High Priest could atone for the deaths and restore this spiritual balance.
Reading the news this week, I feel that the world is out of balance. Too many have died, both deliberately and accidently. I see no way that the balance can be restored, at least until peace comes to the Ukraine and peace comes to the Middle East. And neither of these appears to be an immediate prospect. Meanwhile we pray for all the souls of those who lost their lives this week. May all the killing swiftly end.

“For he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the manslayer may return to his land holding.” (Numbers 35:28)
Once again my state of Florida has made national news. The whole world is following the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer on trial for the murder of a teenage boy Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in self-defense; that the boy threatened him. The fact that Martin was wearing a hoodie made him appear particularly threatening. Florida also has a controversial “stand-your-ground” law that allows someone perceiving himself in danger to fire in self-defense rather than flee. It turned out that Martin was unharmed. To add to the ugliness of this case, it has severe racial overtones. Martin was black, Zimmerman is white Hispanic.
I am not here to judge whether George Zimmerman was guilty or innocent. He deserves a fair trial and a verdict by a jury of his peers. I am interested in a deeper question. What are the consequences of someone whose life is taken, even if it occurred accidently or without forethought and malice? This is an important theme in this week’s double portion.
The Torah speaks about a person who murders another person. If the person kills deliberately with malice, the murderer is put to death. In this week’s portion a family member actually has the obligation to avenge the murder. Of course, this can lead to Hatfield-McCoy style feuds, so Jewish law set up judicial procedures to deal with murder. The punishment for premeditated murder was death, although the rabbis put so many restrictions that the death penalty was rarely carried out in practice.
The Torah also speaks of a person who kills another without malice, accidently or carelessly. It gives the example of an ax head that flies off an ax killing another. Today we may give the example of someone who kills another in a traffic accident. Certainly there was no intent to harm. God tells Moses to have the people set up Cities of Refuge to which a person who kills another accidently can flee. In the City of Refuge the person was safe from family members who might want to avenge the death. Only if the person who caused the death left the City of Refuge were they at risk.
Now comes the fascinating point. How long did the accidental murderer have to stay in the City of Refuge? The Torah teaches that he or she must remain there until the High Priest in that generation died. The death of the High Priest served as a kind of atonement for the accidental murder, wiping the slate clean and allowing the person who caused the death to return to his or her home. The Talmud has this image of people trapped in the City of Refuge praying for the death of the High Priest so they could return home. “The mother of the High Priest would provide the refugees with food and clothing so that they would not pray for her son to die.” (Makkot 11a)
Why this strange law regarding the death of the High Priest? I have heard an almost mystical interpretation. There is a spiritual dimension to life, and this spiritual reality includes the souls of every person alive. When a life is taken prematurely, even if it was an accident, this spiritual reality has been marred. The world has been knocked off balance. Damage has been done to the world, and that damage requires some kind of atonement to set it right. Life cannot simply go on as normal when a precious soul has been taken from the world before his or her time. As I have heard it said, when a person has been taken from his or her place in the world, the one who caused it must also lose his or her place. They must live in a City of Refuge. Only with the death of the High Priest is balance restored and the world can return to normal.
What does this have to do with the Zimmerman case? Even if Zimmerman is found not guilty, the death of a teenage boy has put the world out of balance. In this country which demands the right to carry guns, we must realize how easy it is to create such an imbalance. A person with a gun has the potential to mar the spiritual reality. Perhaps this Torah reading is a warning of how easily we can destroy another human being and the high level of care we must each take to protect every other human being.


“If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:3)
One of the pleasures of staying in a home with hundreds of cable channels is the wide choice of movies one can watch. While on vacation I skimmed through the movie choices and found a film that would not be on my normal cable channel. It was entitled Creation directed by Jon Amiel and starring the real life husband and wife, Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly. I was fascinated by the movie.
Based on a biography of Charles Darwin written by his great grandson, it tells the real story of Darwin, his wife Emma, and his struggle regarding his religious faith. Darwin’s faith is truly tested by the death of his beloved daughter Anna, who keeps reappearing in flashbacks. He debates whether to move ahead with the publication of his great work Origin of Species, in conflict with his deeply religious wife and his fear that the book will undermine religious faith. Only when Alfred Russell Wallace, a rival biologist, comes up with an equivalent theory of natural selection, does Darwin finally decide to publish the book.
Underlying the entire movie is the idea that one must make a choice in life – science or faith. For Emma Darwin the choice was clearly faith. Charles Darwin was deeply torn, but in the end chose science. Their marriage was tested by this choice, but their shared love allowed them to stay together. Ironically, in the end Charles Darwin received a Christian funeral and was buried in a cathedral.
I recommend the movie, but with a caveat. It is based on a rather simplistic notion that to accept evolution is to reject faith, and to accept faith is to reject evolution. Certainly if God made every species as an individual act of creation, this would contradict evolution. But if we accept that species evolved over billions of years through natural selection, one can still accept the idea of God’s providence. We merely need to say that evolution has a direction – what philosophers would call teleology. A religious believer would say that evolution is not a blind process but is leading towards something.
What is the goal of evolution? Could it be that evolution is moving towards a creature with the ability to speak? A mammal that speaks is a mammal that is able to develop culture. It is a mammal able to teach from the wisdom of the past. A mammal that speaks is a mammal able to make moral choices. Speech gives humans a power which other creatures lack. In a sense, to speak is to imitate God. For according to the Biblical vision, God created the world through the power of speech. With speech we humans become qualitatively different from all the other creatures great and small.
This week’s portion begins with a powerful warning about the power of speech. When a person makes a vow, he or she must fulfill that vow. The spoken word is not something idle which disappears into the air. Words have power. In fact, this idea has become a fundamental part of Jewish liturgy. On the holiest day of the Jewish year, before Yom Kippur services begin, we gather in synagogue for a ceremony called Kol Nidre. Any vows we said during the previous year that we were unable to fulfill must be annulled. (This applies only vows to God; we must seek forgiveness for unfulfilled vows to another human being.) Words spoken during the year have power. We do not want to approach God for forgiveness with unfulfilled words hanging over us.
From a religious point of view, evolution is a kind of a miracle. For billions of years, through natural selection, countless forms of life have developed upon the earth. These forms of life became more and more complex. Eventually a form of life evolved with the power of speech, and perhaps the power to direct its own evolution. In the evolution of humanity, one can see the power of God at work.

“These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 33:1)
When we visited my wife’s family in Boston, her cousin gave us some moving memories. He had found an old video tape from the mid-eighties of a family wedding, taken at a time when such videos were still new and primitive. He had transferred the video to dvd and watching them was extremely nostalgic.
The videos were a slice of life from over twenty five years ago. All four of our parents were around and spoke in the video. In fact, it is one of the last images of my father-in-law, who passed away a couple of years later. Our children were babies. And my wife and I – to quote my daughter who saw the dvd, “You are so young!” I guess we were young once.
The years have passed as inevitably they must. All four of our parents are now gone. Our children are young adults. And as for my wife and me, I like to think we are still young. But it was very sobering when I recently went to the movies, and was charged the senior rate automatically; the kid in the cashier’s office did not even ask for an i.d. The years just fly by in the wonderful journey that we call life.
I was thinking about those videos as I read the beginning of this week’s Torah portion. The portion is about journeys, a listing of the many places the Israelites visited during their forty year journey through the wilderness. After mentioning all the places the Israelites encamped, they end up in the hills of Moab overlooking the Promised Land. Moses carefully lays out the borders to their new homeland. He can see where the Israelites will live, but he is not allowed to enter the land. His journey would end on the border of Canaan.
The portion is a reminder of the preciousness of the journey each of us must take. There are people who are important parts of our lives. They travel with us only so far; then we must leave them behind. If we are lucky there are new people who join us as we continue the journey. Seeing our parents at that wedding reminded me of the wonderful times I had with them, and the fact that they are no longer with us on this journey. Seeing my children so young reminds me that, with God’s help, there are those who will continue the journey after us. And reading the portion reminds us of the fact that every moment of the journey is valuable.
We are in the middle of the summer period, the time when most of us take vacation. We journey to various places, often visiting family and friends in other cities. Sometimes we travel to foreign lands to learn about other cultures. Some of us go on cruises to relax and visit far off ports. Some of us go on exhausting tours. And some of us simply stay home, but try to take some off time to relax and recharge our batteries. The key point of all this is that the destination is less important than the journey.
So it is with life. The journey is more important than the destination. I meet so many people who are in such a hurry to get where they are going that they never stop to enjoy the moments. I see people whose relationship with family members is so conflicted that they fail to embrace precious time spent together. The years fly by, people they love are gone, children have grown and left home, and suddenly they wonder, why rush? Why did they not stop and embrace the moments?
The purpose of recounting all the places in this week’s Torah reading is to teach that each stop in the journey is precious. So it is with our own journeys through life. May we each take the time to embrace the moment. And may our lives become a chain of such precious moments, spent with the people we truly care about.


“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land of Canaan; this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan with its borders.” (Numbers 34:1-2)

With this long double portion we come to the end of the book of Numbers. The Israelites are encamped on the eastern border of the land of Canaan. Moses will be unable to enter the land, but shortly the Israelites will conquer it. Towards the end of the portion the Torah carefully lays out the borders of the land.
Reading this, we should be able to carefully trace out the borders promised to the people Israel. Unfortunately, borders have turned out to be an ever shifting and changing reality. King David expanded the borders, while various conquerors contracted the borders. The northern kingdom disappeared never to appear again. The southern kingdom disappeared, then reappeared, only to be conquered by the Greeks followed by the Romans. And eventually the Romans destroyed the second Commonwealth. For almost 2000 years of Jewish history there were no borders.
Modern Israel was founded in 1948, but even after sixty years of statehood there are still no agreed upon international borders. Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip (which she had conquered from Egypt in 1967) and allowed Gaza to be its own place. Hamas came into power and so began almost daily rocket attacks across the border. Four years ago Hamas commandos crossed the border into Israel proper and kidnapped a young soldier Gilad Shalit. He is still being held a prisoner in Gaza. In the end Israel may have to give up hundreds of terrorists prisoners to get one soldier back.
If Israel and the Palestinians ever come to a peace agreement, where will the borders be? Israel demands an undivided Jerusalem that includes both the western (Jewish) and eastern (Arab) parts of the city. The Palestinians demand east Jerusalem as the capital of a newfound state. Even in Jewish Jerusalem, there are whole ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods who do not recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Some would prefer to live under Palestinian sovereignty. How do you possibly draw borders in such a situation?
Even the United States with its well-established international borders has border difficulty. How do we guard the border with Mexico against those who would illegality cross into the United States? Arizona has passed extremely strict laws against illegal immigrants, laws that have been condemned by many liberals, including the president of the United States. Most of us want secure borders, but are happy to hire those who cross them illegally to clean our houses, mow our lawns, or wash the dishes in our restaurants. Borders create difficult problems.
As I write this, I am flying across the country from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles. I am sitting at a window seat looking out at the landscape below. From up here there are no borders. The airplane flies over each state but without a GPS, it is impossible to tell when we leave one and cross into the next. What is true for airplanes is so much more true for spacecraft. Astronauts have remarked how, when they look down on earth, they see no boundaries. All they see is a unity.
Borders and boundaries are artificial human inventions. We need them. Even in our private lives, we need to know where our property line ends and our neighbors’ property line begins. But how often do our artificial borders become a way of cutting us off from our neighbors. Borders become barriers. And how often to our international borders become a way of preventing us from knowing others. Borders are a source of separation. And as our rabbis taught long ago, whenever there is separation there is sadness.
I look forward to the day when Israel has secure, internationalized recognized borders. I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime, but I believe it will happen someday. But beyond that, I look forward to the day when those borders are not a barrier between peoples. Someday Israeli families will be able to drive from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, and Palestinian families will be able to drive from Jenin to Haifa, and they will visit one another, shop in each others’ stores, and see each other as human beings. Some day the borders will stop being barriers. As Theodore Herzl so aptly taught, “If you will it, it is no dream.”


“And they came near to him, and said, we will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones.” (Numbers 32:16)

Many years ago when I was young, I gave a d’var Torah on this double portion regarding the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh. These tribes asked for land east of the Jordan River rather than joining the other tribes to conquer the land. They agreed to join the other tribes to fight for the land, but then they would return to their home east of the river. Meanwhile, they would build “sheepfolds here for our cattle and cities for our little ones.”
I spoke about how for these tribes, their cattle (i.e. their possessions) came before their children. I warned about people who put possessions before children, money before family. I will stand by this old d’var Torah. But at the time I was naively unaware of the realities of raising children. Yesterday I met with my cousin in Los Angeles and his five year old son. He spoke about the expenses of parenthood; I could only answer “you’ve only just begun.” How many times have I quoted the old Yiddish proverb, “Little children, little problems; big children, big problems.”
Recently I came across a letter written by a young woman raised by a single mom and struggling to pay for college. Her dad had drifted in and out of her life for years. She asked her dad to help her pay for college and he refused; all his money was going for a fancy new car. He had promised to visit for her birthday and never showed up. She wrote how her father pulled her strings, how destructive he was to her self-esteem, and how she wished he would disappear from her life and leave her alone. The letter brought tears to my eyes. There are too many deadbeat dads, and sadly deadbeat moms, who destroy their children.
And yet on the other extreme, there are parents who cannot let go. I admit that I see some of this in myself. I spend five days in Santa Barbara, CA last week, helping my son settle into a new apartment and a new life, buying him supplies, giving him advice and support in his job hunt, etc. Finally, I realized that the best thing I can do for my son is leave Santa Barbara and let him do it on his own. We parents need to give our children space to grow up on their own. Letting go can be as difficult as holding on.
I wrote about the balance between not being there and being there too much in my newest book The Kabbalah of Love. It speaks about the triad of kabbalistic sefirot: netzach, hod, and yesod. I learned these insights from Rabbi Abner Weiss, an expert on kabbalah and psychology, and I found them extremely helpful in dealing with children. Allow me to quote my book.
“The third triad is in the olam haasiyah, the world of action. The masculine attribute of action is netzach, often translated “eternity.” Netzach is a turning outwards. It is the outpouring of actions to help the other, applied hesed. We want to do everything for our beloved. Again, the danger is that we will overwhelm them.
“The feminine side is hod, translated “glory.” Hod is a turning inwards. In modern slang hod means giving our beloved their space. Hod means letting them be. We must give our beloved room to be themselves. Or as many a wise teacher has taught, “Let them go. If the love is there, they will come back.” We cannot love someone by smothering them.
“The balance between netzach and hod is yesod, usually translated “foundation.” The foundation of real love rests in the balance between doing for our beloved and letting our beloved be. We must both be present for them and give them space. We must hold on and let go. Only then can love flourish.”


“And stay outside the camp seven days; whoever has killed any person, and whoever has touched any slain, purify both yourselves and your captives on the third day, and on the seventh day.”
(Numbers 31:19)
I write these words from a hotel room in Boston, visiting family, relaxing, and feeling far away from the troubles of the world. And yet I know that the world’s conflicts still go on without me. Israel in particular is on my mind. Israel had to make a painful choice last week. She released numerous prisoners for the bodies of two young soldiers captured by Hezbollah, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Among those released by Israel was Samir Kantar who was involved in a vicious 1979 terrorist attack on Israel.
Releasing live terrorists to receive back dead bodies created a huge controversy in Israel. Did the Israeli government put other citizens in danger? There is a fascinating Talmudic discussion on how much a community should pay to redeem living captives. If a community pays too much it would only encourage further kidnappings and ransom demands. Did Israel encourage further kidnappings and murders of her soldiers by agreeing to this exchange? Has the action of the Israeli government increased the danger of living in Israel, particularly for her soldiers?
Having raised these concerns, I understand Israel’s point of view. I heard a wonderful insight from a totally non-Jewish source. It was an interview with anthropologist and filmmaker Mayfair Yang, speaking about the revival of religion in modern China. (Speaking of Faith 7/17/08) She was speaking about relief efforts after a recent earthquake in China. The young soldiers sent by the government had great difficulty handling the bodies of earthquake victims. A Buddhist group was truly helpful by performing rituals for those who had died. Their efforts made it possible for the young soldiers to do their difficult work handling the bodies. Yang continues by saying part of the rediscovery of religion in China is the way religion, whether Christianity or Buddhism, helps deal with the reality of death. Bodies are not mere physical stuff to be discarded; to those with religious sensitivity, the human body contained the spark of God.
Like the other great world faiths, Judaism teaches a deep respect for the human body even after death. That is why we insist on the careful washing of the body and burial as quickly as possible, and why we forbid cremation and other destructive ways of disposing of human remains. And that is why Israel was willing to go to such extremes to bring back the bodies of these two soldiers. After all, how we deal with death becomes a reflection of how we deal with life.
It is a reality of the world we live in that war and sadness are part of the human experience. Part of what our tradition teaches is that even in the tragedy of war there is a need to recognize the humanity of those who fight. That is why Israel has never executed enemy soldiers captured in combat, nor terrorists arrested whether before or after their evil deeds. And that is why even the bodies of soldiers are treated with such dignity and respect.
Much of this week’s Torah portion is taken up with a rather ugly war of revenge against the Midianites who led the Israelites astray. It is not a pleasant portion to read and it is extremely harsh to modern ears. Yet even in this reading there are insights. The soldiers who go to war are not permitted to simply reenter the Israelite camp. First they must submit to a proper purification of themselves and their weapons. They have become impure by their involvement in a war, and must submit to seven days of repurification. War, even a necessary war of self defense, creates impurity.
Israel has known too many wars in her relatively brief existence. She has tried hard to be a decent nation living in a bad neighborhood. She has often gotten her hands dirty. By saying that even the bodies of slain soldiers contained a spark of holiness, Israel has shown a deep spiritual insight. It is a powerful lesson that all humanity needs to hear. May the memories of Goldwasser and Regev be for a blessing.



“You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.” (Numbers 3511)

There was a terrible story all over the news this past week. A man came into a church during worship services in Knoxville, Tennessee, opened fire killing two innocent worshippers and injuring seven others. When the man was arrested, it was discovered that he harbored a hatred of liberals and intensely disliked the churches liberal policies. The news reports on this horrendous incident played up the fact that even a sanctuary was no longer safe from the violence of our society.
Underlying these news reports is the idea that places of worship should be sanctuaries, safe havens in the violence of our society. The idea of a sanctuary goes back to this week’s Torah portion. In a culture dominated by blood killings and family revenge, certain cities were set up as sanctuaries. Someone who killed someone else without premeditation could flee to such a sanctuary and be safe. The killer could stay in the sanctuary without fear of reprisal until the death of the High Priest, which served as a kind of atonement for the original murder.
In the time of the Torah, were Houses of Worship actually sanctuaries? The answer seems to be no. The Torah teaches that a murderer may be arrested – God says, “you shall take him from My very altar to put to death.” (Exodus 21:14) Joab the nephew of King David and his chief general disobeyed David and ordered the killing of David’s son Absalom. As a result, King David ordered his son Solomon to put Joab to death. Joab fled his pursuers, went into the Holy Temple and held onto the horns of the altar. He thought he was in a sanctuary. Solomon ordered him put to death while holding onto the altar. A sanctuary was not a place of safety in Biblical times, and sadly it is not a place of safety today.
Nevertheless, there is a long history of a place of worship being a sanctuary, where one was free from the possibility of arrest. Medieval churches became places of sanctuary where people could avoid arrest. Runaway slaves often found sanctuary in a house of worship. And of course there was of course a large sanctuary movement in the United States in the last thirty years helping illegal immigrants find asylum and avoid deportation.
A house of worship ought to be a sanctuary at least in a spiritual sense. I remember once being stuck at Pittsburgh International Airport for hours with a long delayed flight. I wondered around the airport watching people come and go, eating in the food court and checking out the shops. Then I went to the chapel, a place set up for all faiths. I simply sat and meditated for a while. It was a joy finding a place of peace in the midst of all the airport hubbub.
What about our own synagogue sanctuary. Is it a place of asylum? Certainly a criminal who comes into our sanctuary to avoid arrest will not be happy. Jewish tradition teaches that “the law of the land is the law” and one cannot flout the law expecting sanctuary in a synagogue. Is our sanctuary is a safe place? We do everything in our power to enhance security, particularly during major holidays and other times when the sanctuary is full. But what place is completely safe in this day and age?
The important issue is whether our synagogue is a spiritual sanctuary? Is it a place where people feel safe to come and pray, to release their troubles, to feel God’s presence? Do people going through difficult times in their lives feel that the sanctuary is a place of safety and spiritual renewal for them? Sometimes people stop by the synagogue with the need to simply sit in the synagogue and meditate? I wish we lived in a country where we can keep our sanctuary doors open to the public 24 –7. But such security does not exist anymore, anywhere in the world.
We need sanctuaries in our lives. King David wrote in Psalm 27, which Jews recite each morning and each evening during the High Holiday period, “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after. That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. To behold the graciousness of the Lord, and to visit early in His Temple.” (Psalms 27:4) May our synagogue become such a place where people can dwell in the house of the Lord.



“Command the people of Israel, that they give to the Levites of the inheritance of their possession cities to live in; and you shall also give to the Levites an open ground around the cities.” (Numbers 35:2)

Dr. Mark Gendal, filling in for me this Shabbat as guest speaker, shared an insight about the portion which I never noticed before. He is a Levi and he knew that the tribe of Levi was not given a portion of land in ancient Israel. They were to be the religious functionaries, serving the other tribes. That is the reason why the Torah warns over and over to care for the Levi who may be impoverished because of his lack of land.
The Levis were not given land. But they were given homes, special Levitical cities set aside just for their tribe. The Levis were given forty eight cities with open land around them to raise their cattle. Even as they served the religious needs of the other Israelites, the Levis needed a place to live. The lesson is that no one should be homeless.
In our own day synagogues and churches often must take responsibility to make sure their clergy have a place to live. Many congregations own a parsonage where their clergy live, particular vital in neighborhoods where the cost of housing is out of reach for clergy. On a personal level, I feel extremely fortunate that throughout my career my wife and I have owned our own home. We have never had the need to live in a synagogue owned home.
One of the questions I face as a parent is where my children will someday live. Right now they rent apartments. But my hope is that they also will someday own their own homes. But as the cost of housing explodes, I wonder whether they will ever be able to afford their own housing? And will my wife and I be in a position to help them, as our parents once helped us? Every family has an obligation to ask the question, where and how will our children live? What are our obligations to our family regarding housing?
Unfortunately, over my years as I rabbi I have often tried to help people who were homeless. Sometimes I used my discretionary fund to pay for a few days in a hotel room. And occasionally I have been able to raise money for rent so someone can move into an apartment. But providing housing for those who are is far beyond the limited funds of any non-profit organization, or any agency besides the government. This raises the challenging question – what is the obligation of society to make sure that everybody has a place to live?
A few years ago I went out to a building project by Habitat for Humanity. The organization, often led by former president Jimmy Carter, builds housing for the poor. In spite of the organization’s Christian roots, they invited me as a rabbi to share a brief prayer and word of inspiration before they started building. (Fortunately they did not ask me to pick up a hammer or I am sure whatever I built would have fallen down.) I said a prayer including the Biblical verse, “Unless God builds a house the builders build in vain.” (Psalms 127:1)
Habitat for Humanity does not simply give its homes away. It builds for people who are in position to take some financial responsibility for the home, even if the cost is deeply discounted. No one will simply give people a place to live with no commitment in return. I recently tried to help a homeless man get into a shelter. But even homeless shelters have rules and expect commitments, particularly attempts to become financially self-sufficient.
So what should we do about the homeless? Does the government owe every person a place to live? Can the government demand that people become financially self-sufficient? What about people who are mentally ill, or have serious addiction problems? What is the obligation on taxpayers to pay for this housing? What about family? Do families owe every member a place to live? Or does a family have the right, some would say the obligation, to say, provide for yourself?
The questions are difficult. The tribe of Levi teaches us that nobody should ever lack a roof over their head. How to provide such a roof is a difficult question.



“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1-2)

It is a difficult week for those of us who love Israel. A year ago at this time I stood with a group from our synagogue visiting soldiers guarding the border with Lebanon. All was relatively peaceful. Now that border has become an extremely dangerous place.
We want to see Israel left alone in peace. But when terrorists cross her borders to kidnap her soldiers and lob rockets into civilian areas, killing innocent people going about their business, then Israel has no choice. Israel had to strike back. And the striking back has been furious. Much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, including Beirut International Airport runways, have been destroyed. Unfortunately, innocents have been killed on both sides. And once again, Israel stands at the brink of war.
I have listened to the ongoing condemnations of Israel for these actions. And yet, I wonder what the United States would do if someone was lobbing rockets into San Diego from across the Mexican border. We would never tolerate such incursions. Why should Israel tolerate it? Unfortunately, the world holds Israel to a different standard than most other nations. Only Israel has to justify her very existence.
Israel did what she needed to do. We can only pray that events settle down and Israel can go back to the uneasy peace it has known in recent days. I fear a true peace, with neighbors who recognize Israel’s borders and accept her existence, is still generations away. Long ago the prophet Jeremiah cried out “Peace, peace, but there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 8:11) We must recognize that Israel acted against the Iranian and Syrian supported terrorists of Hezbollah the way she needed to act.
As I watch the news unfold, I think about a conversation I had with a man from our synagogue. He had read this week’s Torah portion and was deeply surprised by the violence. Moses commands the Israelites to conduct a war of retribution against the Midianites. He commands his soldiers to slay not simply the men but the women who have known men. It is the women who had led the Israelites astray at Shittim, an orgy which was finally halted by Pinchas. The Torah continues with events that are distasteful to modern readers. The man asked me, “I thought Moses was a man of peace. How could he condone such violence?”
I will not try to justify Moses’ actions. They happened long ago, and it is difficult to judge ancient actions by modern standards. But I believe there is a lesson that the Torah is trying to teach us. The Torah was given to real people who live in a real world. There are people in this world who want to destroy us. And sometimes the only answer is to respond with strength. Or as our tradition teaches, “All who are kind to those who are cruel will end up being cruel to those who are kind.” (Kohelet Raba 7:16) There are times when sadly, it is necessary to react with strength.
Following the war against the Midianites, the Torah raises a fascinating point. Those who participated in the war were not allowed simply to reenter the camp. “You shall then stay outside the camp seven days, every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh day.” (Numbers 31:19) The war made the soldiers ritually impure. They had touched death, and now they must go through a seven day rite of purification before they could reenter the camp. War may be a necessary evil. But it mars our holiness. A person cannot fight the Midianites and then immediately reenter the holy places.
Can we compare the ancient Midianites to the modern Hezbollah? The Midianites was an ancient story. Hezbollah is a modern story. Unfortunately, little has changed. Sometimes harsh action must be taken. But such action mars our holiness. When these events are over, we must do our own purification, a spiritual reassessment. What can Israel do to prevent such fighting in the future? Meanwhile, we can only pray that killing stops, the kidnapped soldiers are released to their families, and peace finally come to this troubled region.



“Moses replied to the Gadites and the Reubenites, Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6)

Sometimes I do not remember conversations I had last week. Yet, I vividly recall an argument with a friend that took place at Camp Ramah more than twenty-five years ago. Obviously this argument touched a raw nerve at the time, and looking back, I still feel it is a sensitive area in my own soul.
The argument took place on the Sabbath when we read this week’s double portion. The portion speaks about two and a half tribes, Gad, Reuben, and half of Manasseh, who chose to make their homes on the east side of the Jordan River. While their brethren went into the Promised Land to conquer it, they chose to stay behind. The other tribes would fight the battles while they would live in safety across the river.
Moses replied that it would be unfair for some people to fight a war while others stayed behind. It would undermine the morale of those soldiers participating in the conquest if some tribes did not join them. Everyone should share the burden of fighting the battle equally. The two and a half tribes agreed, and joined their brothers in the war, only returning afterwards to settle to the east of the Jordan.
Returning to my argument, my friend said that the same principle is true today. We had known each other as students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Following a year of study together, I had returned to the United States to continue my rabbinic studies. He had stayed in Israel and joined the Israeli army. He had seen military action in defense of the Jewish state. And he argued that every Jew, and certainly anyone who wanted to be a rabbi, should make the same commitment to the defense of Israel.
My friend argued that someone who wants to be a leader of the Jewish people must make a commitment to defend the Jewish homeland. Every Rabbinical student ought to make a commitment to serve in the Israeli army, or at least do some long-term volunteer commitment for the Israeli military. Why should some have to fight while others stay behind to study?
I argued that as a rabbi I would be serving the community in a different way. But he was convinced that to serve requires that one put one’s life on the line. Only someone who actually serves in the military can speak with any authentic authority about the fate of the Jewish people. The argument ended in a stalemate.
The truth is that I have never served in the military, either in Israel or in the United States. I came of age at a time when the Vietnam War was waging, and like many who questioned the wisdom of that war, I found ways to avoid the draft. I admire those who did serve their country. I lost a cousin in Vietnam, and feel some relief that I came through that period unscathed.
Unless we have a universal draft, some will serve and the rest of us must simply admire them and show our appreciation. I feel great ambivalence as I think about our young people stationed in Iraq today. On one hand, I am thrilled that Sadaam Hussein has been overthrown. He was a cruel and dangerous man, a threat to Israel, the United States, and his own people. On the other hand, I do not believe that he had any real ties to Al Queda and the terrorists, and question whether we went into Iraq under false pretenses.
The one clear truth that came out of Michael Moore’s controversial Fahrenheit 9/11 is that the poor are the ones who sign up to serve in the military and put their lives on the line. The rich and well connected are able to avoid military service. At the same time, I feel great relief that my own children, who are of military age, are in college and not in harm’s way. I feel great admiration for those who do fight, and an overwhelming sadness for the hundreds of lives lost.
Sadly, we are fighting a great evil in the world. Some will take on the burden of fighting and some will not. Perhaps my friend was right. Fighting a war of survival ought to be everybody’s burden. As the Talmud teaches, if it is an obligatory war, “all must fight the battle, even the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her chamber.” (Sota 8:7) Meanwhile, I can only pray that our military personnel, whether in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan, quickly return home safely to their families.



“These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 33:1)

Stop by stop, the beginning of parshat masei lists the various encampments of the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness. Each resting place is carefully recounted. The midrash gives the reason why. Imagine a king who took his sick son on a journey to try to find a cure for an illness. Later when the son is cured and grown up, the king lovingly recalls each of the places on their journey.
Recalling the journey becomes a moment of shared love between the king and his son. So too, in our portion, the sharing of this journey becomes a moment of shared love between God and the people Israel. God recalls God’s love for us by recalling the places of our journey.
This midrash hit home when I think about my own marriage. Some of the most joyful times I have spent with my wife of almost twenty four years is when we reminisce over journeys we have taken in the past. We recall vacations, family trips, adventures, various activities with our children at various ages. It becomes part of our shared memories, a history of our time together. And it is particularly joyous when our children join us in reminiscing. Part of a marriage, a family, a parent-child relationship is a shared past, including places we have lived and places we have visited.
If shared memories are a vital part of love, then a sad part of the break up of love is the need to cut out those memories. I have actually gone to a home where an ex-wife was cut out of family pictures. Part of the sadness of the family breakdown we see today, the estrangement and the high divorce rates, is the loss of this shared past. All those shared memories become sad occasions, to be removed from family histories. Something wonderful has been lost. When we loss part of our family, we loss not only an important part of our present but an important part of our past. Shared memories are no longer joyous but sad.
As a rabbi, I witness too much family breakdown. There are times when divorce is necessary. There are some marriages that are so painful and destructive that there is no choice but for the partners to go their separate ways. And even more sad, there are times when family estrangement is necessary. There are some relationships between parents and children, between siblings, between other family members that are so destructive that someone must cut off contact to protect oneself. However, both divorce and estrangement are sad last resorts.
When we break up with a love one, we break up not only with our present but with our past. Suddenly all those family pictures, those family memories, lose their joy. Recalling family vacations or trips to Disney world is no longer something joyous. Bar/bat mitzvah and wedding pictures loss their appeal. It is easier to forget. People throw family pictures away. People tell me that they have lost something precious.
This week’s portion tells of the power of shared memories. Recalling history is part of the love between God and God’s people Israel. So too in our family life. The longer I stay married, the longer my wife and my shared past becomes. That shared past is something precious, something that I pray we will never lose. It is part of our love for one another.



“You shall provide yourselves with places to serve you as cities of refuge to which a manslayer who has killed a person unintentionally may flee.” (Numbers 35:11)

Every human being on earth has been created with an inherent human dignity, what the Bible calls “created in the image of God.” The worst crime one can do is to take the life of any human being. Murder mars the image of God. In ancient times, and in much of the world today, family members sought revenge by killing the killer. Sometimes this would spark blood feuds that would last for generations.
This week’s parshah attempts to overcome such blood feuds. When a person deliberately and intentionally murders another, the family may seek revenge. The death penalty was invoked for a deliberate murder. The death of the murderer serves as atonement for the death of the victim. Eventually this execution was carried out by the state rather than by the family of the victim. (As Torah law evolved, the death penalty remained on the books in theory while the Rabbis made it all but impossible to carry out such a sentence in practice.)
On the other hand, what if someone kills someone unwittingly, without malice, through negligence? Cities of Refuge were established so that the perpetrator could escape the vengeance of the victim’s family. There should be no blood feuds with such an accidental killing. However, even an unintended death mars God=s presence in the world and requires some kind of atonement. Accidental killing requires some kind of reparation. Therefore, the perpetrator must dwell in the City of Refuge until the death of the High Priest of that generation. His death serves as an atonement.
There are two types of murder. One is to deliberately kill an innocent person with forethought and malice. The other is to unintentionally kill another, whether through negligence or simply lack of care. Both are considered serious crimes that need atonement. Both mar God=s presence in the world. Yet they are not moral equivalents.
Today I hear a great deal of muddled thinking about terrorism and the reaction to terrorism. Al Qaeda operatives kill thousands of innocent people in the United States through deliberate acts of terror. The United States in a measured response attacks terrorist bases in Afghanistan, which sadly leads to the deaths of some innocent civilians. Therefore Al Qaeda and the United States government are moral equivalents. Israel endures the deliberate killing by Hamas suicide bombers of innocents on busses, in cafes and pizza parlors, at a Passover seder. The Israeli army enters West Bank towns to root out these terrorist operations, occasionally leading to the deaths of innocent civilians. Therefore, Hamas and the Israeli government are moral equivalents.
It is sad that innocent people are still dying throughout the world in wars. Humanity has still not heeded the cry of the prophet Isaiah “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) Until that messianic dream is fulfilled, nations still must go to war to protect their citizens. And sadly in such wars, sometimes innocents become casualties. This Torah portion teaches that such deaths are tragic and require atonement. But they are not the equivalent of deliberately killing innocents.
Terrorism, as former Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has so clearly expressed, is the deliberate targeting of innocent people for death and injury. There is no room in the civilized world to tolerate or compromise with such terrorism. No matter how worthy one’s political cause, terrorism cannot be a tactic.
This is far different from accident casualties which may occur during a military action. Certainly such casualties are tragic, and every effort should be made to prevent them from happening. But let us dare not call them terrorism. Only clear thinking on this issue will begin to solve the world=s greatest problem, those who would use terror to further their political aims.



“We will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land.” (Numbers 32:17)

For the last three weeks, (admittedly, while I was on vacation), I wrote about the evil inclination, the yetzer hara I wrote about our appetites out of control – anger unchecked, greed unlimited, the sexual drive unleashed. We need each of these appetites – anger, greed, and sex, as well as our appetite for pride, for food, for self-fulfillment. The evil inclination emerges when these appetites are out of control.
What about the good inclination, the yetzer hatov? Human beings are born with two inclinations, and it seems fair that I give the good inclination its due. What is the good inclination?
In this week’s portion we see the good inclination at work. The Israelite tribes were about to cross the Jordan River to begin the difficult task of conquering the land. Two and one half tribes, Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe decided that life was better on the eastern side of the Jordan; they asked to stay behind and raise their flocks without joining the others. Moses forbade them from staying behind; it would undermine the morale of the other tribes. Only if they join their fellow Israelites in crossing the Jordan and conquering the land will they be allowed to return and settle on the east bank of the Jordan.
The good inclination is when we set aside our appetite for immediate gratification because we have a vision of some greater good. In this case the greater good was the importance of all the tribes staying united and conquering the land together. Today there are countless examples of controlling our appetite for some greater good.
The good inclination may mean setting aside our anger and showing self control, working to change the circumstances that made us angry in the first place. The good inclination may mean setting aside our greed and giving a portion of our money to charity or some other worthy cause. The good inclination may mean directing our sexual drive towards our spouse and avoiding sexual temptation even if the hormones are raging. The good inclination always begins with a sense of some greater advantage to be reached by controlling our appetites.
Life is a struggle between the good and the evil inclination. Our appetites cry out, we want what we want and we want it now. Yet we carry with us a vision of some greater good. The good inclination may be as simple as avoiding the extra helping of dessert, getting up early to go to the health club, tackling a difficult book that will help us grow, taking a class in Hebrew reading or some other area of Jewish life, giving our spouse an extra compliment, our children an extra hug, our parents an extra call. The good inclination always means Ado the right thing,@, even if that is not what our appetite tells us to do.
The kabbala teaches that our soul has five levels. The lowest level is the nefesh, mere consciousness. The second level is ruach, the animal soul, our emotions and appetites. It is the source of the evil inclination. The third level, the level that rises above the animal in us, is the neshama. It is in this level of the soul that the yetzer hatov, the good inclination lies. (The two highest levels, chaya and yihada, are closest to God and will be discussed in a future message.) Like the two and one half tribes in our portion, we can set our appetites aside to achieve some greater good.



“Moses said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben, shall your brethren go to war and you shall sit here.”
(Numbers 32:6)

In this double portion, Moses faced a crisis. Two and one half tribes asked to remain on the east side of the Jordan River, and not join the other tribes in the conquest of the land. They asked to separate themselves from the community. Moses replied that it would demoralize the other tribes if not everyone participated. Only if they would join in the conquest of the land would the two and one half tribes be allowed to settle on the east bank.
This same scenario is played out in our own day. Certainly the most obvious example is in Israel, where whole sectors of the population are not obligated to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Ultra-Orthodox men who continue their religious studies are freed from national service, causing bitter resentment among more secular Israelis.
The separation from community is true not just in Israel, but in the United States and throughout Western culture. Unfortunately, our modern Western culture, for all its comforts, is one of the loneliest in human history. Most of us are more disconnected than every before. We leave the neighborhoods where we grew up to pursue careers around the country, or even around the world. We live in fenced and gated communities. Most of us have never been in the homes of our neighbors; we may not even know their names.
More often than any time in history, we Americans are not joiners. Many of us belong to no church or synagogue, no organization, no PTO, not even a bowling league (according to a recent book called Bowling Alone.) Many of us pay dues to the synagogue, but do not see ourselves as part of a synagogue community. We see the synagogue as a service station, a place to meet our particular needs for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for our child, a place to say the mourner’s kaddish for our parents, a place to pray on the High Holidays, a place to find a rabbi to meet our spiritual needs. Most have not developed a sense of community, of truly living our lives among others. That is why I feel such success when members of my congregation invite each other over for Sabbath and holiday meals.
Individualism is the hallmark of American culture, as Robert Bellah and his colleagues chronicled in their classic work Habits of the Heart. They write, “American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation.” This individualism has certainly been one of the great gifts our culture gave the world. It is manifested in the great cultural myths of our tradition, from the lonely pioneers who left family to conquer the west to the Horatio Alger stories of individuals who pulled themselves up and succeeded. Individualism teaches that we are not defined by tradition or community, nor must we conform to what others demand. We are free to form our own dreams and follow our own star.
However, individualism also leads to a profound, existential loneliness. Human beings need to be connected to other human beings. The Torah teaches that “It is not good for man to be alone.” The great sage Hillel once taught “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Today more than ever we need to hear those words.