Parashat Devarim — The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 13, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

Deuteronomy, also called Seifer D’varim, the Book of Words, combines a repetition of earlier sections of Exodus and Numbers with new material relating to laws for living in their permanent home. Parashat Devarim is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the fast day on which we read the Book of Lamentations, lamenting the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem and other tragic events in Jewish history. There is even a verse in today’s complete parashah, Deut 1:12, that is traditionally chanted to the plaintive melody for the Book of Lamentations. This verse begins with the Hebrew word Eikhah, variously translated as Alas! or How, as in How on earth! and continues with Moses saying “how can I bear unaided the trouble of you and the burden, and the bickering!”

Not only is Moses bemoaning the burden he’s carried, but we notice that Moses does all the speaking. The entire book is composed of 5 discourses of Moses’ words to the newer generation of Israelites.  Most striking is the change in voice.  We find mostly the first person:  “I said to you.  You replied to me: I sent messengers. I pleaded with God…etc.”  Gone is the passive voice of the narrator in previous books of the Torah.

Deuteronomy is Moses’s story to tell.  As other commentators have remarked, Moses’s voice and words in Deut. make it clear that he is the first of the great prophets. Quoting a rabbi we first met at Limmud two years ago, Rabbi David Kasher, “he has become a man of words because he now knows how to speak the language of Torah. He knows what to say, how to communicate ideas. By serving as the mouthpiece of God, and speaking out the words of the Torah so many times, Moses has learned what it means to speak with power and conviction. The Torah has been inside him, and it has changed him.”  And citing another person, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli of Ben-Gurion University, ““Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these “words” earlier, but he waited for the right moment.”

I’ve titled my drash “The Art of Giving and Receiving Rebukes” because the speech of the mature Moses offers a good model for how to give criticism/rebukes. No one likes to be criticized or be taken to task for shortcomings, but we also know that it’s important for ones growth and development to get constructive criticism from those we respect and who respect and care about us.  Like you, I obviously have been the recipient of criticism plenty of times over the years, but there are two instances I can recall so vividly from my past: one graduate school and one in my early career.  I think the reason I still remember the emotional context and even the words is because in both cases I hoped that the persons criticizing me respected and cared for me the way I did for them.

What can we learn from the mature Moses about offering criticism?  Why did he speak so harshly to the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land?  My first thought was he was tired and frustrated with their constant complaints, maybe even a bit angry that he wouldn’t be joining them. I also think that because he cared for them, he was worried about how they would be living their lives in the Promised Land, since he would no longer be around to guide them.

A footnote in Etz Chaim, which credits Midrash,  gives us a clue about another aspect of his speech.  The Midrash points out that the first verse in Deuteronomy says “These are the words— d’varim —that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan…”  The Midrash finds a  similarity between the sound of the Hebrew noun d’varim (words) and d’vorim (bees).  The Midrash comments that Moses’ criticisms and rebukes of the people are like the stings of a bee.  A bee’s sting hurts the person stung but it hurts the bee more, causing its death.  This midrash suggests that Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy because criticizing Israel has taken so much out of him.  It also suggests that “we should judge the validity of criticism not only by its factual accuracy but by how much it pains the critic to say it.  The harsh criticisms of Moses are spoken with love.” 

Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, offers additional points about giving criticism. He states: “Pointing out someone’s shortcomings should not be a chance for insults or a sense of superiority.  It should not become an opportunity to humiliate or gloat.  Instead, a rebuke, if properly intended and given, becomes an act of affirmation and love, an affirmation that the person is worth the effort in the first place, and a faith that he or she remains capable of improvement. Offered with love and a sense of humility, a rebuke is a gift and a challenge.” Notice his phrase “a rebuke, if properly intended and given,” again it is the intention that the critic has — it must be an intention to constructively help the person being rebuked because the critic cares about the person and believe that he/she is worthy and capable of improvement. 

From these commentators we learn four  important aspects of how to offer criticism/rebukes:  1.  Timing is everything….Moses waited until the time was right.  We should avoid offering criticism to someone in a time of weakness, anger or suffering, for example.  2.  In order to be taken seriously, the critic should respect and care about the person he/she is criticizing;  3. The rebuker’s intention should be to offer criticism in a humble, helpful way, never from a position of superiority or righteous judgment;  and 4. the person criticizing another should make it clear that he/she feels the person is worth the effort and capable of improvement. 

A certain person who will remain nameless and I have disagreed about offering criticism to someone that one doesn’t know that well or particularly care about.  My position has always been: if you aren’t involved in some positive way in that person’s life, why offer criticism? The chance of hurting, rather than helping, is too great.  As the Babylonian Talmud says: “Just as it is meritorious to offer reproof when it is known that it will be heeded, it is meritorious not to rebuke when it is known it will not be heeded”  Or as written in Proverbs 9:8:  “Reprove not a scorner lest he hate thee; reprove a wise man and he will-love thee.”

What about receiving rebukes?   Since our egos get involved, it may be harder to accept criticism then offer it. I don’t know about you but receiving criticism from those I admire or respect has always been more challenging for me to handle because I want the person to think well of me. However, if the criticism comes from someone I don’t think knows me that well or that I don’t respect, the words just roll off me. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.”  It seems that in Rabbi Eleazar’s time, he observed that people no longer accepted criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening openly to a description of how they had acted inappropriately and then working to modify their behavior to remove that flaw, the person receiving the rebuke would respond defensively by either ignoring or insulting the person who had highlighted the error. 

QUESTION for the group:  In your experience what makes receiving criticism difficult?

When I looked for Biblical examples and wisdom about receiving criticism, nearly everything I found was from Proverbs.  One of the great themes in Proverbs is that those who embrace rebuke are wise, while those who despise reproof find themselves to be fools.

Here are just a few selected examples from Proverbs:  Proverbs 10:7  He is on the path of life who heeds instruction, but he who ignores reproof goes astray; Proverbs 29:1 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice and from Ecclesiastes 7:5:  it is better for a person to receive a rebuke from those who are wise than to listen to the song of fools.

There are also many positive statements from Proverbs about accepting criticism. “Whoever heeds reproof is honored” (Proverbs 13:18) “He who listens to reproof gains intelligence” (Proverbs 15:32), To the one who embraces rebuke, God says, “I will pour out my spirit to you” (Proverbs 1:23).

In closing, I echo many others in stating  that Devarim — words — are powerful and as we learned from the mature Moses, words offered as criticism require the wisdom of a caring person who knows when and how to speak them.  And on the receiving end of criticism, a willingness to listen carefully, suspend knee-jerk reactions, and believe that the critic has your best interests at heart might go a long way to truly understanding and maybe even benefitting from the words spoken. 


Rabbi Bradley Artson.  “Rebukes and Responses.” My Jewish Learning

Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen. “Words of Admonition” My Jewish Learning

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Parashat Matot – Mas’ei Numbers 33:50 to 35:13

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered August 6, 2016 by Bonnie G. Lindauer

We have a double Torah portion today: Parashot Mattot and Mass’ei.  Etz Chaim footnotes explain that these final chapters inaugurate a new phase in the history of ancient Israel: the settlement period when they began to find permanent homes for themselves.  Since our triennial cycle reading is only from Masei, I’ll briefly summarize what we missed in Parashah Mattot. 

It begins with a series of regulations emphasizing the importance of oaths and vows, making special provision for oaths and vows that women make. Then a description of the battle against Midian follows with details about how to purify soldiers and captives before they can enter the camp. Next is a request by two of the tribes —Gad and Reuben — to settle outside of the designated borders of the Promised Land because they feel it’s better grazing land.  These two tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh are the only ones living outside of Canaan.

Just prior to today’s reading in Parashat Masei is a lengthy record of the places the Israelites have been over the 40 years of travel and detours. The section we read today picks up with God’s instructions to Moses about the conquest of Canaan and instructions pertaining to the division, settlement, and inheritance of land among the tribes. The boundaries of Israel are described and the 6 special cities of refuge for unintentional manslayers are discussed in some detail. Parashat Masei ends with God’s decision about  the inheritance of women, based on the situation of the daughers of Zelophehad — which is that in order to protect their inheritance they must marry within their tribe.

I am so impressed and amazed at the wisdom embodied in the laws of the six cities of refuge that I’ve decided to offer a drash about these cities and the importance of intention in our lives. These cities are yet another example of Israel’s responsibility to carry out social justice, rather than allow the basic instinct for personal revenge. I credit some of my comments that follow to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from the Sacks web Archives and Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger from My Jewish Learning.

First, let’s review the details surrounding these cities of refuge. God commanded Moses to assign from the lands apportioned to the 12 tribes, 48 towns for the Levites, including some surrounding pasture land. Among these 48 cities God commanded six for refuge: three cities to the east of the Jordan and three within the land of Israel itself. There, people who had committed homicide could flee and find protection until their case was heard by a court of law. If they were found guilty of murder they were sentenced to death. If found innocent because the death happened by accident or inadvertently, with neither intention nor malice – then they were to stay in the city of refuge “until the death of the High priest.”  I can imagine how difficult it must have been to prove the lack of intention or malice, but we do know that more than one witness was required to give testimony.  Within the walls, the manslayer was protected by law against any revenge or additional punishment. But if the person left the city of refuge, the deceased’s relative could kill him and not face punishment.  In this way, the Torah makes clear a distinction between deliberate murder and unintentional manslaughter.  As we know, contemporary American law makes a similar distinction, mandating a different degree of severity to correspond to the different levels of responsibility due to intention and circumstance.

Were these cities of asylum unique in ancient times?  We learn from footnotes in Etz Chaim that the notion of a place of asylum was not unique to the Torah. Other law codes of the ancient Near East had places of asylum and even allowed deliberate murderers access to them as well as allowed offering monetary payments for some types of killing. For example, ancient Greece, Sumer, and Phoenecia permitted a murderer to flee to a local shrine and gain protection at the altar of the local deity. Whether or not the death had been intended was irrelevant to the power of the shrine to protect the murderer. But the Israelites did not accept monetary payments for the loss of life and required  intentional murderers to pay with their lives. 

Also diverging from other ancient law codes, the Torah does not use the status of the victim to determine the severity of punishment. Murdering a free man, woman, child, slave, or foreigner all resulted in the same penalty. Since all human beings reflect God’s image, all people deserve equal protection and possess equal worth.

Other ancient Near Eastern peoples also did not seem to share the notion of how murder pollutes the land.  As we read in Numbers 35:13 “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and the land can have no expiation for blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it”  Etz Chaim’s footnote on p. 965 explains further that the land becomes polluted so that neither God nor Israel can abide there.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Even justified acts of bloodshed, as in the case of war, still communicate impurity. A Cohen who has shed blood does not bless the people. David is told that he may not build the Temple “because you shed much blood. Death defiles.”  To our modern minds, it’s seem barbaric and contradictory to connect the killing of the original murderer to the unpolluting  of the land.

The laws and procedures for being protected in these cities of refuge are extraordinary and demonstrate such wise compassion and a social justice system far in advance of other cultures.  As Rabbi Sacks wrote,
   “The Torah inserts one vital element between the killer and the victim’s family: the principle of justice. There must be no direct act of revenge. The killer must be protected until his case has been heard in a court of law. If found guilty, he must pay the price. If found innocent, he must be given refuge. This single act turns revenge into retribution. This makes all the difference…and is what was introduced into civilization by the law of the cities of refuge, allowing retribution to take the place of revenge, and justice the place of retaliation.”

He continues by explaining how the cities of refuge functioned as both a place of protection but also a form of punishment because exile was commonly used as a form of punishment.  However, Maimonides emphasizes their primary purpose as protection.  He comments  in The Guide for the Perplexed, “The reason the man goes into exile in a city of refuge is to allow the passions of the relative of the victim, the blood-redeemer, to cool. The exile stays there until the death of the High Priest, because his death creates a mood of national mourning, which dissolves the longing for revenge – for it is a natural phenomenon that we find consolation in our misfortune when the same misfortune or a greater one befalls another person. Amongst us no death causes more grief than that of the High Priest.”

Clearly, the cities of refuge served both purposes and I think locating them in the Levite towns was an ingenious solution, since the Levites served as assistants to the priests. Perhaps the fact that these cities had a special “religious” designation helped those exiled there to understand that they were not rejected by God for their actions. One could even imagine that these accidental criminals would form a kind of community and provide each other support. Connecting their freedom to the death of the High Priest was also wise, as Maimonides pointed out, because everyone would be focused on mourning his death. There’s a  touching story in the Mishnah that says that the high priest’s mother would traditionally supply clothing and food to those claiming asylum in the cities of refuge, so that these individuals would not wish for the death of her son.

Finally, I’d like to end my drash focusing on the importance of intention in our own lives.  What is extraordinary on the part of the Torah, as we learned from the cities of refuge, is the notion that inner intention determines the meaning of an action. Unique among ancient law codes, the Torah consistently maintains its emphasis on kavvanah (intention)  which manifests itself through ones concentration and focusing ones mind on the meaning of words uttered or acts performed. The areas where we traditionally are expected to demonstrate intention is in prayer, particularly the Shema and part of the Amidah, and in performing mitzvot.  I would suggest that just as important is the intention we show in our personal relationships — an intention to listen carefully and to reach out with empathy and compassion to the needs of others.  How many of us recall having said at one time or another: “Well, I didn’t mean to do that or I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings?

To help us increase positive intention in our daily lives, there’s a teaching in Mussar related to silence that I think is helpful. It states that one should try to practice considered speech — that is withholding speech long enough for a conscious decision about whether what we say could hurt or benefit another.  This practice develops intention because it encourages the speaker to focus on the meaning of his/her words as they may affect another.  Indeed, nearly everything we do in our daily lives would benefit from our being more aware and showing intention instead of mindless speech and unintentional behavior. 


Rabbi Sacks Archive. “Retribution and Revenge.”

Rabbi Neil J. Loevinger. “Cities or Sanctuaries.” My Jewish Learning.

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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

A traditional breakfast of biscuits and grits fueled our “home on wheels” (newly nicknamed Stella Blue by the kids) to reach our weekend destination.  My friend’s cabin in Calico Rock, AR, is deep in the woods and literally 10 miles down a narrow dirt road. With the creek in his backyard and fresh trout for dinner, rest, relaxation and re-jew-venation came easily.  The cabin was even on Reb Lane (really, what are the chances of finding a weekend address like that).  Traversing a warm and flat Kansas freeway now, we’re collectively acknowledging that “there’s no place like home.”  After Ft. Collins, CO, we”ll travel to find awe and inspiration in Arches NP.  Don’t worry, our KOA campground has confirmed having a pool to help cool us down from the high desert heat.

Sending a Shabbat shalom from the Sunflower State,
Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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Parsha Pinchas: Who Gets to Judge?

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Andrew Nusbaum.


This week we see the conclusion of the story of Pinchas. Before we get into the narrative, it’s interesting to note that there are only five parshiyot that are named after Biblical characters: Noah, Yitro, Korah, Balak, and finally, Pinchas. Why? What is special about these characters, three non-Jews and two Jews, three heroes and two quasi-villains? One connection could be that all of these characters manage to surprise us: Noah seems holy but gets drunk, Jethro goes from a pagan outsider to a loyal ally (and in-law), Korah is from “the right family” but goes astray, Balak tries to curse the Jewish people but ends up blessing them instead, and finally we have Pinchas. Pinchas, like Korah, is another relative of Moses, who also engages in some questionable behavior and goes against the status quo. The difference is that, unlike Korah, the tradition sees Pinchas as a hero—which, as we shall see, makes things a little tricky for us.

Let’s step back and review the story thus far: the Hebrews have made camp in Shittim and have started committing both idol worship and harlotry with the local Moabites. We are told that this caused God’s anger to flare against the Hebrews in the form of a plague, killing 24,000. God told Moses that the only way to stop the plague would be to execute the wayward Hebrews. The text does not give us insight into Moses’ psychology at this moment, but we do see him start to gather the leaders to implement God’s command. Before he can begin, however, something surprising happens: a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri son of Salu, takes a Midianite princess, Cozbi, into his tent where they have a romantic liaison. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, outraged, grabs his spear and skewers the two, killing them. Surprisingly, the Torah offers no editorial commentary to this, simply noting, “the plague ceased from the children of Israel.” Imagine hearing this story for the first time, and sitting in anticipation to hear the conclusion. What do you suppose might happen next?

Whatever your guess, chances are you would be surprised by the end of the story. When our parsha opens to complete the cliff-hanger, rather than being punished, Pinchas is actually congratulated by name! God announces that Pinchas has turned His anger away by “zealously avenging me” and rewards him with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace, as well as the “eternal priesthood”.

Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. The man who just turned a couple into a human pincushion has now been granted a special covenant of peace? What’s going on here?

The dominant narrative in the tradition has argued, following the plain meaning of the text, that Pinchas is rewarded because he is “zealous” for God—note that Zimri and Cozbi’s liaison takes place immediately after God’s order to execute the wayward Hebrews. In Balak, we read that the whole congregation was in front of the Tabernacle, weeping—over the plague, or possibly over the order to kill their own people. Pinchas, the rabbis imagine, was so furious, so outraged, at Zimri’s flagrant show of chutzpah and insensitivity—to God and to the people—that he was overcome by zealotry and took the law into his own hands. Many of the rabbis hold Pinchas up as a positive role model, a man who defended God when no one else would. There is even an expression in the Talmud that hypocrisy is defined as “one who acts like Zimri and expects the reward of Pinchas.”

And yet… Not everyone seems so sure that Pinchas was truly in the right. The Jerusalem Talmud says Pinchas “acted against the will of the sages,” and would have been excommunicated from the people if not for God’s intervention. Several rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud emphasize that if anyone asks for permission to emulate Pinchas, “we do not instruct him to do so.” Additionally, they point out that if Zimri had stopped making love to Cozbi and was then killed by Pinchas, that Pinchas would have received the death penalty as a murderer. (Or, alternately, if Zimri had managed to kill Pinchas it would have been a case of justifiable self-defense.) The rabbis also imagine the community criticizing Pinchas for killing a tribal prince for fooling around with a Midianite when he himself was descended from Jethro—even as they defend him, they project discontent among his peers! Others interpret the narrative break between Parsha Balak and Parsha Pinchas as an indicator of a character flaw on Pinchas’ part—the text is not complete because somehow Pinchas is incomplete.

Some rabbis, puzzled by the story, turn to Zimri, to try to unpack his motivations. One midrash imagines that Zimri was not acting out of personal lust, but rather out of a desire to protect his tribe: seeing that Moses was putting men to death for mixed relationships, the men of Shimon asked Zimri to do something, which prompted him to take Cozbi and bring her to Moses, asking if she was permitted or forbidden—and noting, “if you say that she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry your Midnianite wife?” In this view, Zimri’s act could be seen as a form of political theater, meant to challenge Moses’ right to punish the Hebrews. Though the rabbis teach that Zipporah converted, the fact that this argument is even recorded as part of the tradition stands as a powerful critique, echoing Korah’s earlier statement about the whole people being holy. A mystical view popularized by the Ari (R. Isaac Luria) imagines Zimri and Cozbi as reincarnations of Shechem and Dina, with their union actually being intended by God as a way of achieving a spiritual purification—they were, literally, soulmates. This fascinating argument turns the whole narrative on its head, turning: Pinchas, not Zimri, into the one who went against God’s will!

Despite these alternate theories about Zimri, however, the main focus remains on Pinchas. The rabbis employ several strategies to try to justify his behavior. One is by listing various miracles that God provided for Pinchas, suggesting divine approval. Another is to cite God’s repeated identification of Pinchas as Aaron’s grandson, establishing his positive family and personality traits. Finally, the rabbis spend a great deal of time discussing the text’s use of the term “zealot.”

Rashi tells us that the word for zealot, kanai, comes from a root word meaning jealousy. He argues that someone who is zealous for God goes beyond their intellect to a level of pure instinct—responding with violence to any perceived desecration of God’s name or reputation. Claiming an oral tradition from Sinai, the Talmud lists three actions to which a zealot may respond by killing the perpetrator: stealing holy utensils for the Temple, cursing God through idolatry, or having sexual relations with an idolatrous woman. In all three cases, commentators note, the offending act is seen as standing between the Hebrews and God. Interestingly enough, however, the rabbis add that there is no obligation to be a zealot (classifying it as “a law that is not instructed”), and that one’s motives must be of the highest level in order to qualify as a zealot—the moment one ceases to be pure (or asks permission), one’s zealotry has become mere murder, and one is liable for the death penalty.

We actually have several groups in Jewish history who have called themselves zealots—not only the Zealots of Jerusalem who contributed to the city’s downfall at the hands of the Romans, but also Matityahu, the first leader of the Maccabees, who cried, “Whoever is zealous for the Lord, follow me!” The tradition seems unable to decide whether being a zealot is actually a good thing or not.

There is one last zealot who is at least a little more familiar: Elijah. After Elijah triumphs over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, he leads the Hebrews in slaughtering them. On the run from Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah flees to Mount Horeb. There, God asks him why he has come and he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:14). Not only does this section of Elijah’s story become chosen as the haftarah for this Parsha; the Talmud explicitly connects the two men through midrash, saying that Elijah was actually Pinchas, who, thanks to his Brit Shalom, managed to live to the ripe age of 600. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that while God rewards both men for their zealousness, he also “gently rebukes” them.

Remember, on the mountain, Elijah is shown a whirlwind, earthquake and fire by God, but sees that he is not present in any of these—he only encounters God in “a still, small voice,” a whisper. Rabbi Sacks comments that after this, God again asks Elijah why he has come to Horeb—and Elijah gives the same answer as before, citing his zealous acts. A midrash teaches that in response to this, God got exasperated at Elijah, telling him, “Israel cannot withstand your zealotry. You were zealous at Shittim [as Pinchas] and now you were zealous at Mount Carmel. You spilled blood there and you spilled blood here, in your zeal for God. That is a noble deed, but Israel cannot survive such zeal.” According to Rabbi Sacks, God was trying to show Elijah that “He is not to be found in violent confrontation, but in gentleness.” Elijah’s failure to understand this, we are told, leads directly to him being replaced by Elisha.

Similarly, Rabbi Sacks observes that by definition, Pinchas’ covenant of peace should preclude him from ever needing to act as a zealot again. To some commentators, the function of the Brit Shalom is to change his character, to steer him towards a gentler path. Even the very word, shalom, is noteworthy—if the word is written with a vav, it reads shalom (peace), without it, it reads shalem (whole). Fascinatingly, in the Hebrew text, the shalom that Pinchas receives is written with a broken vav—neither fully peace nor fully whole! The rabbis say that the vav is left broken precisely to show that though Pinchas’ act may have been justifiable, true shalom cannot come through violence. Pinchas’ deed may have been appropriate for his particular circumstance (or not) but it seems understood that it cannot become an example for the masses.

Much of what makes Parsha Pinchas so challenging is that no one’s motivations are clear, and perhaps this is a key to understanding one of its possible lessons: at times we all judge one another, deciding that someone has done something inappropriate, or incorrectly, or simply differently from us. That is only natural, and to a degree, necessary, in the context of a community or society. However, as our Parsha shows us, there must also be a balance, an awareness that we may not always have all the facts or all the answers—even when it comes to ourselves or our own motivations or instincts.

In our modern times, zealotry, fundamentalism, and violence all carry very negative connotations, and with good reason, so at the end of the day, what do we do with this Parsha which contains all three? Perhaps it is best if we see it as a challenge to our intellectual honesty: we have inherited a tradition of both thought and action, but there are times in life where there is no time to think and action is required. Whatever his faults, at the moment of truth, in the midst of plague, surrounded by thousands of elders who presumably knew the law just as well as him, Pinchas managed to act—despite the risks, perhaps even despite doubt. As potentially dangerous as zealotry is, as much as our modern sensibilities may recoil from it, the tradition seems to be saying (even as it tries to legislate it away) that we must, at our core, also have some respect for it. Think of Moses, back in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. What does he do? He kills the guard. We read of neither fanfare nor recrimination, but in truth, Moses’ act of violence is not so different from Pinchas’—and yet much less ink and angst have been spent analyzing this killing than the ones in our Parsha. So perhaps part of the lesson is that we must be very, very, careful with zealotry, but still acknowledge its potential to exist in some legitimate form, if only as a minor exception.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk makes a very valuable point in analyzing Pinchas’ story—he notes that this Parsha is also the one in which Moses asks God to help him name a successor. Given how much praise Pinchas’ zealotry receives, one might think that he would be appointed to succeed Moses rather than Joshua. However, this never happens. Why? The Kotzker’s answer is simple: a zealot cannot be a leader, because leadership requires patience, thought, and respect for the rule of law, all things that by definition, a zealot lacks. The tradition may not condemn zealotry as criminal, but it certainly seems to view it as precarious. In the fallible and imperfect world we inhabit, occasionally zealotry may be a necessary evil, but at our tradition’s core, it is not the path we are taught to follow.




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Shabbat Symposium: The Crypto-Jewish Experience

Save The Date: July 30 Symposium at B’nai Emunah. Presenter: Andrew Nusbaum

Jews were forced to hide their faith and practices at multiple times and places throughout history. Together we will explore the history, culture and strategies of Crypto-Jews in Spain and Portugal, Mexico and South America, and Iran.

Crypto-Jewish man in Mashadd, Iran

Crytpo-Jewish tombstone in Mexico

We will start around 1:00 pm following kiddush and go for about an hour, leaving time for any questions.

Do *you* have a topic you’d like to learn about or teach to others? Get in touch and let us know!

B’nai Emunah believes all members of the community have something to teach each other. One way of putting this into practice is through our Shabbat Symposium program, a rotating adult education opportunity happening every fourth Saturday following morning services. Each class is led by a knowledgeable community volunteer on a topic of their choice. From holidays to history to religious studies, Shabbat Symposium is a fun chance to learn something new from fellow CBE members. Join us for engaged learning and enthusiastic discussion!

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B’derech: On the road with R. Mark and the Mishpacha

Rabbi Mark is off enjoying his well-earned sabbatical this summer, but will be  using our BE blog to send us periodic dispatches from the road. Enjoy!

4,825 miles and going strong!  After a full day in DC and a visit to “The House,” our family relaxed for Shabbat in Baltimore (with a quick pre-Shabbat stop by the kids’ favorite tv show bakery).  We started this week by reconnecting with family and close friends in Philadelphia for a few days.  After some quality time, we then drove to Shenandoah National Park to camp and hike in the awe inspiring and beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Getting back on the road, we’re on the way now to Arkansas to visit a friend in his remote cabin in the Ozarks to refresh and relax for Shabbat.

Shabbat shalom from the road,
Rabbi Mark and the mishpacha

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Parsha Balak: Role Reversal

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Rabbi David Lavine.

Today’s Parsha, Balak, is a bit different than those around it. It is named after a bad guy rather than a good guy. It is literary in its style. It is full of allegory, and full of irony. Most of it takes place not from the perspective of the Jews, but from that of the other people we encounter. One of our most well-known prayers we begin the day with, Mah Tovu, comes out of the mouth of someone sent to curse us. It comes in the run-up to finally approaching the promised land, yet even in the home stretch it takes a breath. It is, in short, a great parsha to give a drash on. And to say nothing of my son’s observation that this is the parsha with characters with many names beginning with B – so says my son Benjamin with delight.

There are two parts to parsha Balak: the curse ordered by an evil ruler that becomes a blessing once delivered, and the shame of our people in forgetting ourselves and our G-d- given rules when among the Moabite people, leading to plague and then to cure.

Part one. A local ruler, Balak, heard that the Jews were approaching, and had laid waste to everyone who had opposed them. Frightened, he dispatched a famed sorcerer, Baalam, to go to the Jewish people to curse them. Riding his donkey on the way there, an angel appears to the donkey, blocking the way. When the donkey stops, Baalam strikes the donkey, leading the donkey,who is granted a voice, to object to being beaten given the donkey’s many years of faithful service to Baalam, leading Baalam to threaten to kill the donkey if he only had a sword. Only then did the angel appear also to Baalam, so that Baalam could understand why the donkey stopped, and could process how his mission to curse the Jewish people was doomed to fail. Even though Baalam told Balak that he would be restricted in his spell over the Jewish people to the words given to him to speak by G-d, Balak nevertheless sent him, three times, to curse the Jewish people. Instead, three times Baalam took on the role of a prophet and blessed the Jewish people, with a beautiful foretelling of how good – Mah Tovu – things will be when we are all assembled together, in peace,in the presence of the Messiah.

Did you catch the role reversals? Take Baalam and the donkey. Baalam was the famed sorcerer.The donkey was, well, a donkey – characteristically slow, plodding, stubborn and not usually the smartest. Yet it is the donkey who turns out to be thoughtful, even eloquent when given a voice,and right. Baalam, the famed sorcerer, the seer, could not even see the angel before his donkey did, and not only could not curse the Jewish people – he did the opposite and blessed them. He no tonly blessed them — he gave them a view of their wondrous future as people chosen by G-d.

For his part, Balak thought he was going to stop the Jews in their tracks. Instead, by opposing the Jews, he ultimately empowered us. Indeed, he did not know it at the time, but Balak’s family line was destined to produce the Moabite Ruth, among the most righteous people who supported her Jewish family and took on our faith, and then, generations later, to produce King David. The same family line of Balak, Ruth and David is supposed to ultimately lead to the Messiah. Like Baalam, Balak thus had the very opposite effect on the Jewish people from what he intended – rather than weakening or destroying us, he strengthened us.

Part two. Once the Jews moved into the Moabite lands, they made themselves too comfortable,forgot the commandments, and sinned. G-d punished the Jews for their reckless behavior bysending a plague, which was cured only when Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, took it upon himselfto kill one of the prior perpetrators and the local woman he had taken to his tent.

See any role reversal here? The Jews had averted destruction time and time again over the long journey from Egypt, and claimed victories under G-d’s guidance – only after all their struggles to then revert to bad behavior and to turn their collective back on G-d and Torah. We got through the hard part, only to fail when life became easier. It took a plague to set us right again, just as it took the plagues in Egypt against our captors to free us.

A word about the haftarah, from the prophet Micah, which offers another connection to my son Benjamin, who took Micah for his middle name. Micah is known as a minor prophet, likely a contemporary of fellow prophets Hosea and Amos, and likely a disciple of Isaiah based on the similarity of their both calling for destruction and exile if the Jews are not observant. But as Isaiah was a product of Jerusalem, and preached in the urban settings there, Micah came from outside of Jerusalem, and with his fellows worked the land. He was the prophet of farmers and shepherds,and of others of little means. He is best known for his teaching of doing justice, loving kindness and mercy, and walking humbly with G-d.Today’s haftarah picks up on the Balak tale. Micah encourages us to live among other nations but not to wholly lose ourselves in them – to mingle and share, yet to retain our independence, so that we can honor our responsibility to serve as emissaries toward a better world. Unfortunately, it takes the effects of a plague inflicted on those who forgot their way in Moab to remind the Jews of their proper role.

A wise donkey, a sorcerer whose spell backfires, an evil ruler who is to become our progenitor, a plague not against our enemies but against ourselves to set us straight – it is a rich parsha indeed.Rich with lessons as we approach the promised land – and still rich with lessons for us today as we remember how our enemies can empower us, how the lowliest creatures among us can be a wise voice and catalyst in that empowerment, and how, in challenging times as much as in easier ones,we are duty-bound to remember all that G-d has done for us, and to follow the Torah’s guidance in our daily lives.

Shabbat shalom.


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