Conquests (on Va’etchanan)
This week’s Torah portion contains both the Shema and the Ten Commandments.
It also contains a recap of the story of the conquest of the trans Jordanian lands and what we would call in our tradition the question asked by the wise son.
At a time of considerable turmoil and unrest in Israel, when the hot weather leads to frayed tempers and a temptation to do silly or intemperate things, perhaps it is appropriate to consider the conquest of territory which was not designated to us. The lands over the Jordan were not initially designated for the Israelites who settled them. They were conquered as a result of the poor policy decisions of the two kings who ruled them, Sihon of the Emorites and Og of Bashan. They were delegated as an inheritance to the tribes of Reuven and Gad and the half-tribe of Menasheh, because they argued convincingly that they had lots of cattle and sheep and the land was suitable for their herds and flocks.
The conquest of those parts of the land, and later under Joshua of the Land of Canaan itself, was under particular rules. The land was to be conquered and its inhabitants put to the sword, the women and children enslaved, according to the Torah. The Canaanite ways of life were to be uprooted, their idols destroyed, their sacred groves dug up, their temples burnt and dismantled, and all their idolatrous worship erased. There is some record of the Canaanites even worshipping insects, until recently scorned by archaeologists who had never encountered such a cult, but today confirmed by the discovery of a small gold idol in the form of an insect.
The prescription for the conquest of the land of Canaan and the subjugation of the previous inhabitants, along with the land on the other side of the Jordan, is in distinction to the rules of warfare today. We have come a very long way since 1,500 BCE and we live in a time when civilian populations have to be respected and treated humanely. There must be a rule of law and recourse to a judicial system in an occupied military zone. Yet today there are still some who wish to view the Muslim and Christian Palestinians as if they are Canaanites as in ancient times. This may not be helped by some Palestinian claims to be Canaanite, but such claims are not borne out by genetic analysis. Our Jewish genes are almost the same as those of Palestinians who today live in Nablus and Hevron. When we look at them we are looking into a mirror, despite the differences in customs religion and language.
The recent arson attack on a Palestinian home which killed a toddler should serve to all Jews as a wake-up call to the reality of being a Jew in a position of power and control, in Israel and the West Bank. We are not commanded by the Torah to kill Palestinians, nor to enslave them or take their land. They are not the Canaanites, ripe for dispossession, but our cousins, entitled to protection and respect. We may have many disputes with them, which may take a long time to resolve, but we must deal honourably with them, be civilized, and above all not oppress them because we have the power to do so.
It does our hearts good to see Israeli leaders condemn the act of terror which led to the death of an innocent child. Now we must all ensure that when we see injustice done we call it by its true name, and insist that it be pursued and prosecuted with the same vigour as other similar crimes against Jews.
Tisha B'Av news
As we reported in the previous issue of the Berkshire Jewish News, in order to help ensure a minyan over Tisha B'Av, last week we offered the board of Goldsmid Road the opportunity to consolidate services at no cost, while Rabbi Zvi recovers from his leg injury.
No response has been received. RHC have today announced to their members that they will be running Tisha B'av services without the help of Rabbi Zvi.
As we recall how the Temple was destroyed on Tisha B’av (our Sages teach) due to groundless hatred between fellow Jews, we pray that we can work together to build a strong and united Jewish community in Berkshire.
Wishing you all an easy and meaningful fast on Sunday.
Mazal tov to Irving and Alisa Osborne on their 50th Wedding Anniversary. Thanks to everyone who made the service and kiddush at JCoB Central on Saturday 18 July so special.
Rebbetzin Shira’s next Friday Night Dinner will be held on Friday 31 July. Service at the Rabbi’s house 7:00pm followed by dinner. Please book your place directly with Rebbetzin Shira by contacting Shira or ringing or texting 07931 747 316.
Adults £15 Students/low income £7.50. Children free. Space is limited so book early.
The next JCoB Shabbat morning service will be on Saturday morning 8 August. If you wish to stay for lunch, please contact Shira. Donation £5. We can always accommodate a few last minute people but please book ahead of time if you can.
Judgments (on Matot-Masei)
This week we read about several issues – what to do about oaths and all about the peregrinations of the Children of Israel through the desert, amongst others.
However the last bit of the parasha picks up on something which is initiated in last week’s parasha. Indeed when read as two separate portions there is a whole portion in between the initiation of the matter and its resolution. I refer of course to the issue of the daughters of Zelophechad, who asked for an inheritance in the land of Israel so that their father’s death would not deprive them of the promised portion. Their father had no sons.
The matter is brought before God to decide what to do. The decision is that they are requesting what is only fair. It would be wrong to deprive their family of the benefit of the land. However the ruling also dictates that for the land to be inherited a daughter has to marry within the tribe.
In these liberated days this seems like a very limited kind of freedom. Are these daughters of Zelophechad actually getting their deserved portion or are they just piggy-backing off their father? Is the limitation on their marriageable circle fair? Surely it is very limiting. Yet we are looking at this through our modern eyes and ignoring the nature of this revolutionary idea – that women can have rights in property, that they are not the mere chattels of men is something which goes very deeply back to the origins of Torah.
When the Mishna at the start of Kiddushin states that a woman is ‘acquired’ in three ways and ‘acquires herself’ in two, this has nothing to do with ownership and more to do with the right to marry a particular person. The Rabbis indeed speak up and say, she is not a chattel. She is a person in her own right with property and rights in the law.
In mediaeval Europe, Jewish women were able to own property and manage businesses. The most famous of these women was Glukl of Hamburg, who was very successful in her business empire and wrote a memoir which can be read today. These Jewish women had no need of men to help them to success and were able to lead financially independent lives.
Of course today the matter of tribal land and inheritance is moot. It is many centuries – even millenia – since the land was apportioned, and then the original allotted owners exiled to far lands by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Inheritance does not extend to biblical land today. There are no records, oral or written, of which family owns which parcels. Ten of the tribes themselves are disappeared into exile, and we Jews have only the vestigial remnants of the Cohanim and Levi’im.
Women have equal rights in civil law, and it is this equality which sometimes encourages a jaundiced view when viewing Halacha through the modern eyes of a Jew born in the 21st century. We miss the liberating advance of the rabbis because our own heads are critical of what was, until only a hundred years ago, a very fair and progressive system. Indeed, modern advances have helped to address some of the inequalities which the system had built into it, by ensuring for example that in English law, men have to give their wives get before they receive a decree absolute, thus making it far less likely that they will make their wife an agunah.
The last part of the parasha reminds us that it is never wrong for us to seek solutions to problems of injustice. The daughters of Zelphechad had one problem, and the tribal elders another. Both groups came to God to ask how they should deal with their problem. In our days we also have problems which need a solution. Sometimes the solution is obvious. At others it is necessary to seek a solution from outside our own immediate circle. It is important to ensure that those who feel the need for justice are heard and their problems dealt with, and sometimes an external source will achieve that better than an internal judge. There is no shame in that.
This week’s portion describes the reward given to Pinchas for his murder of the sinning couple at the end of the last week’s portion.
We moderns have a problem with this and of course so did the Rabbis, essentially for the same reason. Pinchas commits a murder – an extra-judicial killing – and is then rewarded for it with an everlasting covenant of priesthood for his descendants. Surely he should have been punished for not taking the case to trial? The issue is one which we ourselves face in our day. How do we deal with terrorists when we have evidence that they are in terror networks, but to try them would not be possible?
The situation has different possible solutions. In Pinchas’ day, he does the forbidden to prevent the forbidden – he kills, and prevents the transgression thereby preventing God from killing many more Jews. He had no time to deal with the legality of the act. The Rabbis call this “eit la’asot la-hashem” - a time to do what is necessary for God.
The latter half of the portion details all the different offerings to made at different times of the year – daily, Sabbath, monthly and festivals as they occur.
I have often wondered why these are in Pinchas’ portion. What is the connection between his reward and these sacrifices?
Aside from the obvious fact that he was now promised that he would be the practitioner of these sacrifices, I believe that there is another lesson to be learned from his association with our system of sacrificial offerings. When a person says that they are religious, we often ask ourselves what that means. Does it mean that the person goes through the motions and is outwardly religious, showing the signs as a medal to display their worthiness? or is the person a really religious person with the ideals and ethos of the religion permeating their existence? The practice of religious virtue is not through the mechanics of prayer, offerings or motions, but through the way we treat others and look after them. It is about how we deal with our fellow-man in our daily lives, and how we ensure that our religion permeates our deeds outside the home and the synagogue, far more than inside.
This Shabbat Pinchas may you embody the spirit as well as the practice of those special Jewish virtues.
Half-sight (on Balak)
This week we meet a fascinating but deeply flawed individual in our parasha, Bilaam son of B’eor. He is described as a prophet, and has become so renowned in his prophesy that the King of Moab, Balak son of Zippor, sends to hire him for an enormous sum to curse the Children of Israel.
Bilaam is an archetype in Judaism of a false prophet. It is not that he sees falsely – his prophesies are clear and it is evident that he is a seer and able to receive prophesy from God. It is more that he, in common with the other religious leaders of his day, seems to think that God is a servant of his own will rather than the other way round. Bilaam seeks to influence God to curse the people, whilst at the same time acknowledging that he cannot achieve Balak’s aims unless God wills it so. He tries repeatedly to transgress God’s explicit instructions and in the process is made a complete fool of – but only in his own sight, to himself. He has an argument with a talking donkey! Yet he persists in his malignance, and seeks to destroy the Jewish people in other ways once he has seen that he cannot do it in the conventional manner.
Bilaam is typical of those people whom we all meet from time to time, who seek to use ideas, or people, as their own instruments. Here, Bilaam seeks to use his own prophesy as a tool for self-aggrandizement, only to fall flat on his face. He then seeks to manipulate God into becoming his tool, only to find himself thwarted over and over again. His last effort was to lead the Midianite women to sin with the Israelite men at Baal-Peor (a name that Rabbis associate with Bilaam’s father). That also fails, thwarted by the speedy reactions of Pinchas.
The problem with the instrumentalist approach to human beings, ideas and deities is that it eventually becomes the root of a person’s own downfall. If you use an idea for your own purposes you cannot be said to believe in it in any real sense. If you use your friends or family, or acquaintances in the same way then you cannot be said to be interested in them because of who they are or in order to build a relationship with them – they are merely part of your accumulation of assets. And if you use God for your own purposes then your religion is not a real religion but merely an extension of your own goal of self-aggrandizement.
So much for Bilaam being a prophet. He is depicted by our Rabbis as having only one eye, and being lame. You can see why they thought that his spiritual deficiency was expressed in such a manner.
Rabbi Zvi Solomons
The only Orthodox Rabbi in Berkshire