Category Archives: Torah

Parshat Mishpatim (5776)


 Exodus 21:1–24:18

Setting the Table and Letting People Taste the Torah

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“This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.” [Photo Credit: Lucy Kleinberg]

Have you ever been to a wonderful dinner and enjoyed the presentation? Have you ever been to a great restaurant and had wonderful meal, greeted by a chef who is enthusiastic to explain the fine points of his dishes? I think that is what most of find most appealing about fine dinning.

Now I have learned a little bit about fine dinning recently. Not that it’s necessarily my first time. However, I’m more than comfortable to admit that my everyday food fare is generally less than sophisticated. I eat a lot of simple foods and humble dishes, stuff that I can eat on the run. So being treated to a fine dinner prepared by an internationally acclaimed chef was a thrilling treat!

Chef Moshe Basson, of Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, prepared one of his acclaimed meals based on biblical ingredients and themes, last weekend for a large group of us from Beth Shalom of Whittier. Chef Basson is known worldwide for skillfully blending middle eastern flavors and holy land tastes in his dishes, taking peoples taste buds on a journey through the region and through history.

We stuffed ourselves on Israeli style salads, hummos, lentil soups, lamb stew, baked figs filled with savory meat, broiled eggplants drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce, all forms of delightful couscous dishes, and more. However, the star of the show seemed to be the maqluba – a traditional Palestinian-Jordanian style upside down casserole (similar to Tebit, often considered the Iraqi take on cholent).

And still I must admit, one of the things I loved most about the meal was how passionate he was about each dish, and the care he took in explaining the bold flavors and the subtle hints of each of them. He helped me learn about the depth of this food and of the unique touches, and so I was able to really appreciate what he was so finely placing before me.

Now normally I don’t start out with a story, especially one which risks distracting people with hunger. However, this is the thought which immediately comes to mind as I read and consider the first line of this weeks Torah portion.

Our text reads:

“And these are the ordinances

that you shall set before them.

וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים |

אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם: |

Exodus 21:1

V’ayleh hamispatim asher tasim lifneihem.” What does this text mean? That Moses is commanded to set these mishpatim – these ordinances, rules, judgments and these matters of justice – before them? Who is this “them” being spoken about here? They are the children of Israel, who are now receiving the Torah at Sinai.

This parsha is one of the parashiot in which G-d is mostly laying out a good-sized list of mitzvot which Moses is to communicate to the Israelites. And it is in this parsha that Moses is told to write these laws down and explain them to the people.

But why does this text here brings to mind for me my experience with the good chef and his fine meal? It’s because of a most interesting and very important commentary by Rashi for this text here.

The Rashi for this verse reads:

that you shall set before them: the Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them the chapter or the halacha [law, or rule] two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table, set [with food] and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone. — [From Mechilta, Eruvin 54b]

אשר תשים לפניהם: אמר לו הקבה למשה לא תעלה על דעתך לומר אשנה להם הפרק וההלכה באו גפעמים עד שתהא סדורה בפיהם כמשנתה, ואיני מטריח עצמי להבינם טעמי הדבר ופירושו, לכך נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם, כשלחן הערוך ומוכן לאכול לפני האדם:

Rashi. Exodus 21:1

In this midrash the rabbis want to try to fill us in on the details of a conversation they imagine between G-d and Moses. And G-d has some news for Mosheh Rabbeinu – for Moses our teacher.

G-d tells Moses in this story “lo ta’aleh al datecha.” Don’t even think about it Moses! Don’t even conceive of the thought that you going to get off easy when it comes to teaching this Torah to these people.

And here in this midrash the rabbis have G-d addressing Moses, our greatest teaching, challenging the very foundations of standard education. G-d tell Moses something which goes against the conventional method of instructing people.

Here we learn from this that Moses was taught from the beginning that he was not going to be able to just toss the Torah before these people and expect them to learn. Nor would Moses find himself only having to teach it to them maybe even two or three times. Repeating it to them just until they could memorize these laws and matters well enough to recall them. According to the rabbis G-d say no, that will not do!

And here we get more than just a jab at the rote method of learning! We actually get a negative characterization for those who use this method. You can take it as a description of either laziness or arrogance, but our rabbis here have divine charge against those who feel like they don’t have to give people reasons and explanations for the Torah’s laws.

This midrash calls our attention to be careful of the almost natural tendency of the teacher to retire to the idea that it’s just their job to make sure people get the basic material, without following through in helping people actually understand the deeper meanings of it.

I also read this text another way, I think many of you Hebrew speakers will see what I’m getting at. I think that there is a more full way of way of understanding the phrase: I shouldn’t have to trouble myself with figuring out how to get them to understand the reasons behind the laws and their specific meanings.

You know for all the warning our ancient rabbis gave us against this folly, it still happens in Jewish education today. Far too often in Torah learning and when being taught regarding the mitzvot, people have been told what they should remember to do religiously, though left without any understanding of why. And for this reason the Torah and its mitzvot remain yet incomprehensible to many people.

Now I know that far too often us Jewish educators spend too much time on pedagogy, discussing how we need to change Jewish learning to save Judaism today. However, this lesson touches me more as a personal and student level, than as a teacher.

When I was young I used to annoy both my teachers and my parents, because I always had to known why something was so. I was always asking questions, wanting to known the specifics of the how and why. And this really flew in the face of the culture of my family and home, being raised by a hard-nosed family who just couldn’t be bothered.

When I was a kid I was most often told in anger, “I shouldn’t have to repeat myself.” So the very thought of having someone repeat themselves was something always avoided. And I grew up in an environment where people firmly asserted, “I shouldn’t have to explain myself! Just do it.” Which left me frustrated and confused.

Interestingly, one of the other issues between me and my family was my picky eating. I always wanted to know what was for dinner and what was in it, because I just didn’t know a lot of foods. However, this was always met with the standard parental response of: “If you’re gonna eat, you’ll eat what I make and put on the table!” So the fact is I just didn’t eat many times.

Truth is I have learned from this negative experience. And with this generation of kids in my family I am always the one to answer their questions, wanting to help them grasp knowledge and also enjoy the experience of learning.

And these kiddies tastes are even pickier than mine, so I go out of my way to make things which are going to appeal to them. Though sometimes I certainly do have to go out of my way to show them why they are gonna enjoy this dish I made for them. Pointing out the flavors they will appreciate in order to spark their appetite. All this fuss simply because I want them to eat well, and also enjoy eating some of our cultural favorites instead of dreading them.

Why does all this also come to mind right about now as I reflect on this text? Why am I back talking about food again? It’s because of this analogy used here in the midrash to help us visualize exactly how to instruct people regarding these Torah ordinances.

Our rabbis here present us with a most famous phrase to bring the lesson of this midrash together in a very beautiful way: “L’kach ne’emar asher tasim lifneihem kashulcha he’aruch umukhan le’ekhol lifnei ha’adam / This is why it is said: That you shall set before them; like a set table, set and prepared [with food] to eat, placed right in front of someone.”

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Chef Moshe Basson, of “Eucalyptus” Restaurant in Jerusalem, with our hostess Rita Rubin. Serving roasted eggplant, drenched in tehina and pomegranate sauce.

When the rabbis present the concept of setting the Torah before the people, they would have us see ourselves setting it before people like we would a set table. They would have us imagine the Torah as a fine meal, filled with all kind of delights and delicacies. While it is our job to make it palatable to people, as well as accessible to them. Indeed we need to prepare it well, so that it is ready for one to devour it. And we are also told that we need to serve it up, by setting it right in front of them.

And this is the lesson of the rabbis. Don’t think that you are going to get off easy teaching this Torah to people, just tossing the basic ingredients their way a few times and leaving them without instructions. Expecting them to make it and eat on their own; and indifferent to if they don’t or cannot. Instead we need to humble ourselves in order to cater to the needs of those who are spiritually starving, so that they can begin to appreciate and learn how to partake of it for themselves.

This may sound like a lot of work and dedication. However, for those of us who are truly passionate about the Torah we aught to be nearly as intentional and creative about what we are presenting to people, as a chef is about setting the table for his fine food. Even explaining what makes this table fare such a wonderful treat for each to enjoy!

We need to present the Torah in a way which is palatable, indeed we need to make it appetizing for our people and children. And it must be something finely prepared for each person to immediately partake of, presented in a way which is easily digestible (no puns intended; but all puns appreciated).

Here our rabbis are making a very vivid illustration of how we are to present the Torah to people. Of how we have to get people to take the chance to taste and see that G-d’s Torah is good (Psalm 34:8). To readily eat from it and be nourished with holy inspiration.


Something to consider: In the year 1563 the Sephardic master Rabbi Yosef Karo (the Maran) codified the rules of Jewish law; calling the work the Shulchan Aruch – “the set-table.” It then inspired a work of glosses which were added to it, by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema), regarding the Ashkenazi customs for applying Jewish law; which became know as the mappa – “the table clothe.” This body of work has together become popularly known as the “code of Jewish law,” which religious Jews turn to for rulings of Jewish law.

These works tell us how to apply Jewish law for each matter, according to both customs, in a concise fashion. Listing each law, so that people don’t have to go hunting through the Talmud to know the halacha (law).

This form of codification has taken a huge role in defining Jewish law ever since. While this form of comprehensive listing of laws has certainly helped people quickly find answers, some rabbis suggest that too much emphasis upon these codes actually strangles halachic invitation and flexibility. [See: “On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. As well this fine tradition response: “Against the Shulchan Aruch: The Critique of the Maharshal” by Shlomo Brody]

I’m not so sure how I feel about this entirely, but am intrigued by this discussion. How do you feel about this?

Nonetheless, I do personally think that it can most correctly be asserted that merely giving religious people something like a little Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – a further abridged form of a standardized book of rules – and then expecting people to get something out of these mitzvot is not what our sages had in mind; that was not really their intention for how we are to be laying out these Torah ordinances before our people.

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Tu biShvat: The active, virile energies it addresses in nature and us


The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition

Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog (Israeli citron) trees breaking soil!

Just in time for Tu biShvat, we have sprouting etrog trees breaking soil! This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.

This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)

Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.

But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.

The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.

Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.

Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.

However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.

For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.

Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.

In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.

Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.

However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.

In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.

The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.

Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.

A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder

And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.

And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.

And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.

I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.

When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.

But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.

See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.

In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.

We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!

We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.

In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.

Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed. – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.

Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.

These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.

Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.

This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.

At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.

For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:

  • Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth?
  • Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?

The Seder and the Four Worlds

Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:

Assiyah: The world of Action

Yetzirah: The world of Formation

Beriah: The world of Creation

Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)

In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.

tree labeled four worlds kabbalahBut it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.

This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.

Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.

But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.

This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.

In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.

Reflection: Now I don’t really think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!

In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:

  • In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair in oneself.
  • And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.

However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.

Tu biShvat Seder Resources:


Parshat Bo (5775)


Exodus 10:1-13:16

How Plaguing Addictions Affect Those Other Than Ourselves

Today we are going to talk about addictions. We are not only going to consider the personal struggle with addiction, but we are going to explore how addictions affect the other people in our lives. How they can come to plague not just us alone, but also cause casualty to others.

destitute familyThis topic has been rolling around in my mind since last Shabbat, when I happened upon this verse as I was thumbing my way to the reading for that day. This verse so interested me that I wanted to ask our own Rabbi Osnat Margalith about it right then, but held back so we could tackle the lesson at hand. But just then she quickly affirmed a view that I just saw open up to me moments before. As she noted how Rabbi Abraham Twerski connects the Ten Plagues of Egypt to the stages of addiction. Though I haven’t yet read this book she is referring to, I hope to soon. I’m intrigued now. As I also see so many unique connections along this theme, and today we will explore just some of that.

Not only was Rabbi’s observation timely for where my mind was at the moment, but it’s also a very timely thought for what I have been observing in the lives of people I care about. For as I began to sit down to learn this lesson from this angle of addiction, I was contacted by someone close to me who has had a long road with addiction. Reaching out to me from rehab, where he has been working through his few steps in sobriety.

Hopefully, I have a bit to offer on this subject. As I am no stranger to addicts. And I am no stranger to addiction myself. So when I speak about this, it’s from the position of personal experience. Personal experience which lend to both my empathy and frankness when it comes to this struggle. To this battle of the wills.

As we begin to look at this story of Pharaoh and the Ten Plagues, I want us to keep in mind that this story is about a battle between two wills. The will of G-d and the will of Pharaoh. The narrative takes a focus upon the heart of Pharaoh all through out this part of the story regarding the Israelites exodus to freedom. This story of our fate is deeply intertwined with the narrative of this man’s battle of personal will.

Then again, this is also the case for his people – his Egyptians people and all his faithful servants – and that is something which also needs to be noted.

Now I know that during these weeks nearly everyone is talking about the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in their divrei Torah. What that philosophically means, as well as what the personal implications are for freewill and personal responsibility. And asking difficult questions. Was G-d controlling Pharaoh’s will here? Was He stacking the cards against Pharaoh? Wasn’t Pharaoh being set-up?

I don’t really want to go trudging down that path too far, because that is low road which many addicts prefer to take when resisting liberation through sober living: It’s not my fault, I wouldn’t be this way if G-d didn’t make me this way. I have a disease, so I’m not responsible for this. This is just the way I’m wired, how can you blame me? G-d has given me a hard life and hard heart, and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be this way! This situation I’m in, both G-d and life are setting me up!

Let me be frank and straight to the point with this. None of us should really want to relate ourselves to Pharaoh too much here. As he is an archetypal rasha (evil person) personality. And it is especially so in this respect, when we talk about Pharaoh and his lack of freewill. Did Pharaoh lose his free will because G-d hardened his heart? The Rambam (Maimonaides) in Hilchot Teshuvah says, yes! However, such a person is rare, and we don’t ever want to be that type of person.

The Rambam makes this point in his commentary there, that Pharaoh’s lack of free will and likewise his punishment to follow, this all came about because of his original act of enslavement and oppression. All of this came about because of a primary action, for which he did have free will. The hardening of his heart by G-d was just to grant Pharaoh the toughness of character to resist the repentance which would stop his downfall and much deserved judgment. Judgment for his actions done, not his persisting resistance. G-d was hardening up Pharaoh to cause him to descent into a place in which repentance just wasn’t really possible for him anymore, so that he had to be dealt with as an example.

I know this is deep. Lots of philosophy going on here, and I’m not a philosopher so I encourage you all to look at Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, Chapter Six. We could go on and on with this topic, and many people do with heady conversations. But let me try to keep it simple.

The Rambam seems to point to Pharaoh as an extreme example to wake us up. I think the Rambam and most rabbis would agree that there are very few people in the world like Pharaoh. Who are so evil that they lose their ability to repent of their ways entirely. But then again, just look at Pharaoh! Do you want to be Pharaoh? You could end up like Pharaoh. Be careful, you don’t want to be Pharaoh!

Most of us with a history of addiction know what I’m saying here, about what it’s like to start out with the control in our hands when we start with substances (or behaviors) and then in contrast seem to not have any will over it at all at some point. And where our direction towards disaster seems inevitable, we can’t stop it anymore.

I have my own understanding which I’m still considering, but let me quickly share it with you so we can move on to the text and main point of this lesson. Look at the word we have here at the top of our parsha for Pharaoh’s heart being “hardened.” It says, “hichbadti.” To be hichbid means to be heavy, to be a burden, to be a nuisance; in a literary sense, it also means to intensify, or to aggravate. To me it seems fairly clear that what we see here is that G-d is increasingly burdening Pharaoh, and being a nuisance to him. Intensifying the aggravation for Pharaoh to continuously assert himself as he does to this terrible end. Maybe our understanding might not have to be all that complicated after all.

So much for my gentle side-note, but now lets us move on to main point for this week’s lesson I want us to consider. And I want to focus our lesson on this point, because if we are going to talk about addiction we need to recognize that it affects people other than the addict alone. No, we are not alone in this battle with willpower. As we often drag other people into our suffering along with us. The people closest to us and who we should value the most.

At the top of our parsha for this week, we see that Moses is told to go to Pharaoh because G-d has hardened his heart and the heart of his servants. G-d says that He has done this to make a mockery of the Egyptians. And to display His greatness through the signs and wonders to come, for all generations to know He had done this for them. (Exodus 10:2) Moses approaches Pharaoh and gives him a provoking ultimatum once again.

But notice, before we get a response from Pharaoh this time the servants and advisors raise their cries of concern to him. And they don’t really seem quite as hardened as Pharaoh! No, they do seem to be sensible and responsive at this point. And this is where we find ourselves, as we come upon our key verse for this week. Our text reads as follows:

“Pharaoh’s servants said to him, ‘How long will this one be a stumbling block to us? Let the people go and they will worship their G-d. Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?’”

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם:

Exodus 10:7

Moses has just come before Pharaoh and announced the eighth plague of locusts, and by this point we can only imagine how battered the entire nation of Egypt was at this point. So even the servants, they seem to lose the composure and deference one would normally expect of them before their “divine ruler.” And they speak out in a most striking way.

Look at the text here. Their response is not a simple, “Oh, this guy.” No, they see Moses as a mokeish – he’s is a hindrance, and obstacle; or more precisely Moses is a snare. When they see Moses walking into the room, they see Pharaoh walking into a trap. They know Pharaoh is going to fall for his provocations again. So they have had enough with looking at this guy, Moses.They raise their cries and say to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go and let them worship their G-d already!

Then these servant make a shocking outcry to stress their point, “Don’t you know that Egypt is lost?”

I find this statement to be amazing, considering that it is coming from these people who we can only assume are servant advisors of Pharaoh here, getting sassy with the king. Saying, don’t you know that we have already lost this one? This seems to come with both sarcasm and frustration at this point, because surely that had been telling him for a while now that this was out of hand. He needed to stop this insanity already, and let all these people go.

However, I believe there is something deeper than merely a snarky statement made in frustration here. I think that if we consider these people – who they are, what their motivations are, and what they have also endured with Pharaoh all through this – their outcry comes with a lot of weight. An outcry made more in a tone of hysteria. This is a type of human suffering which I think is worth considering. As often times it really does happen like this in the real world.

Consider that these are the servants of Pharaoh. These are people who are quite honored to be able to appear before their Pharaoh. But for as much as they are honored to serve before him – while some of them even advise him and guard him – in their world view he is the one who is supposed to guard and guide them. He is the king of Egypt, he not just represents the people of the land, they also look to him as their source. They look to him to be their strength. He is supposed to be the smartest and strongest guy in the room. Their Pharaoh is supposed to be looking out for them, as their great protector.

But even above all that, they love Pharaoh just as much as they depend upon him for their wellbeing. They absolutely adore this king of theirs. As he is the living symbol of their civilization and religion, they cherish this Pharaoh whom they consider a living deity. So dedicated and adoring, his people are used to following behind him and keeping his every order even unto death.

So now once again, consider all of this suffering here. What Pharaoh is putting himself through, he is not in it alone. His people, they are also suffering through these plagues with him! They don’t want to at this point, and they really shouldn’t have to. Pharaoh’s people have already had enough of this misery, yet he still hasn’t.

They aren’t just being dramatic when they cry out to Pharaoh this way. They have some real suffering going on. Look at the second to the last word of our verse here, you will see it highlighted in red. The word avdah – the world translated as “lost.” We are not just merely talking about Egypt falling. What do we mean here by “lost?” Just for a second think of this word as a noun, to envision this as something for us. What are we talking about here then?

When we mention avedot, we usually mean human losses. Here we are talking about casualties. Generally when we are talking about avedot we are talking about perished people. Human lives which have been destroyed, or even snuffed out all together. And that is clearly evident here already, these people of his are beginning to literally perish along with Pharaoh amidst this battle of the wills in which he is engaging in.

Now I know that we don’t often consider this narrative from the position of the Egyptians. We take this story for it straightforward meaning as it tell us, to cause us to wonder at the glory of G-d’s salvation from generation to generation. (Exodus 10:2)

We don’t generally read this story with ourselves in this uncomfortable position of a stubborn Pharaoh. Even rarer, do we consider the suffering of Pharaoh’s people. But I believe that if we read this story this way we need to also consider the suffering of all the other Egyptian people, his servants and subjects who now are being lost along with their leader in this series of crisis and plagues. Reality is, we should do our best to not relate too much with the position of Pharaoh here and should be worried if we find that we really do.

Today I want those of us who deal with addictions – or addictive behaviors – to consider the suffering that our addictions might cause others in our lives. To the people closest to us. To the people who adore us the most, and for the loved ones who depend on us the most. For the people we care for, and the people who naturally care for us in our times of need. The people whose lives are intertwined with ours, and whose lives are naturally effected by the calamity we attract. Whose lives also begin to be continuously plagued by the consequences of our stubborn refusal to let go of our addictions.

I want us to consider our lives and the people in it who are also becoming casualties in our battle with addictions. As our hearts are often hardened to that sort of rough and twisted life, we need to consider the people who are dragged into this, those who hearts aren’t so hard. Who cannot withstand this type of calamity and loss anymore.

For a hard moment I want us to consider all those in our lives who also find themselves dealing with the disparity, poverty, violence, emotional distress and disease which our addictions often bring into their lives along with us. We aren’t alone in our addictions, a reality we can recognize no matter how cheaply we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.

So what can we do with this heavy lesson? How can we get out of this cycle of continuously asserting our hardness of heart in pursuit of addiction? I think it should start by softening up our heart to the people closest to us. And as the Rambam says, adjust our hearts so that our will should be to change.

My friends, we need to really listen and give weight to the words of our loved ones. Especially when they put their foot down and say something like they did to Pharaoh: “Hey, we are tired of this already! How long are we going to keep doing this, and having these menacing people in our lives tripping us up? Give it up already. Are you the only one that is so clueless to not have noticed that all is already lost? Make it stop!”

We have a choice to make today. Are we going to listen? Or are we going to harden are our hearts, yet again, until all really is lost?

Something to Consider: Have you ever found yourself at a point in addiction where you feel that you honestly feel that you have no free-will over it anymore? Or has your life ever gone out of spiral until you feel like you have no choice in the outcome anymore, where you feel that you simply cannot stop that cycle of tragedy?

Sometimes its hard to get beyond addiction with just the help of loved ones, because they are often as caught up into the momentum of the crisis as we are. And they often times don’t know how to help best. So it is also useful to get professional help from addiction counseling professionals, or support groups and sponsors. People who do have the resources to help you when willpower fails you.

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Parshat Shemot (5775)


Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When Immigrants and Migrants are Hated for their Success

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, and our story picks up where we left off at the end of Genesis, with the family of Yaakov going down to Egypt. Why are they going down there? Surely the most emotional impacting reasons is so that the family can be re-united with Yosef. However, as touching of a reason as this is, there was a much more harsh reality at play which brought them there. There is another reason we need to considered. Namely that initially they were forced to come to Egypt in order to survive a famine in their homeland of Canaan.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) The Yiddish School , Jewish Education by the Arbeiter Ring; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokian, Russian Christian pacifists; a local Japanese-American family.

The Immigrants which Built Up Boyle Heights: (clockwise) A Yiddish dayschool , Jewish education offered by the Arbeiter Ring/Workmen’s circle; Mexican-American Zoot Suiters; Russian Molokans, Russian Christian pacifists; and a local Japanese-American family.

In this week’s parsha we are quickly presented with the rise of that family, from a mere “seventy souls” of the descendants of Yaakov (Yisrael) who had come to take refuge with their brother Yosef in a foreign land, to becoming a distinct and successful people in their own merit. And how they came to be hated, not for their neediness in the end, but for their success as foreigners and their emerging greatness. This is a pattern which is all too real many times.

I don’t want to dig into the story of their journey down to Egypt, because of course we got that already in detail in the book of Genesis. Here in Exodus we are talking about the coming together and the rise of these children of Israel in a foreign land. How they rose to be a distinguished people in the land of Egypt. And the details surrounding this are few here, as in very few verses the story turns sour for the Israelites.

In the sixth verse we read that Yosef died, as well all the people of his generation. Everyone who knew Yosef personally were deceased. All those who knew of how he had saved all of Egypt from famine were now dead. Now, that was not what captivated the minds of the new generation and their new ruler when he came to power. That was not what came to mind as they considered the Israelites and their successful sojourn in Egypt.

As we see here, the main observation in this narrative – especially from the point of view of the Egyptians – is made plainly present to us right away:

“The children of Israel

were fruitful

and swarmed and increased

and became very strong,

and the land became filled with them.”

| Uveney Yisrael

| paru

| vayishretzu vayirbu

| vaya’atzmu bime’od me’od

| vatimale ha’aretz otam

Exodus 1:7

Now in this key verse from this weeks parsha, we see how the negative attitude and distrust arose. It was not just that there was a new generation, which did not have the same direct ties between the two cultures as in Yosef’s day. But more so the concern at hand was that the children of Israel had become very populous and exceedingly strong since then. And that the land had now become filled with Israelites.

These Israelites had become too successful, and there now were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And it also began to concern their new Pharaoh.

Before we look at the Pharaoh’s reaction to this populist outcry, let take a look at the psychology of the Egyptians rising prejudice in this narrative. I believe we have a word in the text which aptly delivers the very thoughts of this Egyptians host society. Here with the word, “vayishretzu,” meaning and they swarmed. This word, sharatz means “to swarm,” or “to infest.”

The Egyptians seem to be so alarmed by the rise of the Israelites that they easily dehumanized them in their minds. The Israelites are made out to be something as less than human, instead they are thought of as an infestation. Like bugs or vermin.

Even when our master Rashi interpret this text in order to deliver a meaning for us Jews reading on as later observers to this narrative, he cannot help but to also draw our attention as to how inhuman this word is. He instead takes it as a positive by applying midrash, suggesting in his commentary that the Israelites became numerous because they were each given six children with each birth. Something which is normally not so for us human mammals.

Rashi seems to take the understanding that we should read this word along the lines of the meaning “to be spawned,” as that’s how drastic their rise in numbers seemed. As though the Israelites were each given miraculous fertility, people having babies in a fashion comparable to the way other mammals might have litters.

From personal experience, as a minority descendant of immigrants, I’ve heard phrases used both these ways. However, not exactly as kindly as maybe our Rashi is suggesting, I’m afraid. The first way, I’ve heard in the voices of the anti-immigrant radicals; people who tend to call Latinos like myself roaches and vermin. And then there is the second way I’ve also heard it used, even by the most progressive professors of mine in college. When I heard them occasionally uncouthly remark on how supposedly immigrant Latinos are “so damn fertile” as a means to explain our rising demographics. As you see for me, either way, I never really felt like this was a compliment. Rarely is it used as one either.

I think too few people are sensitive enough to give attention to precisely how dehumanizing these type of words can be. And we often fail to consider how these dehumanizing attitudes and statement, when left unchecked as in this story, can result in inhumane acts to come.

Now once again, let us take notice of the situation. These Israelites had become too successful, and now there were too many of them. And this began to concern the Egyptian people. And likewise it also began to concern their Pharaoh. He had to act, but he also had to have his own pretext which justified his actions against these people.

He didn’t just see these people as an infestation, but also as part of a potential invasion:

“He [Pharaoh] said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous [or greater] and stronger than we are.

“Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and when a war befall us, and they join our enemies, and fight against us, and depart from the land.’

“So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens…”

וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל עַמּוֹ הִנֵּה עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ:

הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ:

וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלָיו שָׂרֵי מִסִּים לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם

Exodus 1:9-11

Here Pharaoh questions the loyalty of these resident-alien Israelites, and thus makes them out to be a threat to national security. They are a potential threat within his boarders, a threat which needs to be dwelt with.

Now I understand that many people might feel uncomfortable with this subject of the immigrants plight. In this part of the country in which I live, in a region which is heavily effected by the constant influx of migrants, this is a much painfully debated topic from both the right and the left. So talking about immigration is not exactly the best way for teachers like myself to satisfy their crowd. No matter how nuanced my presentation is. I’m likely to upset someone. Yet I feel that I must touch on this topic, because this lesson hits home for people like myself. Not just as a Latino, but even more so as a Jew! And as a Jew who caries on the heritage and ethics of my local community. And as a local who carries the burden of our local history in order to overcome it.

Let me explain before we go on to conclude our study of the Torah text, as I believe our local history will help draw this Torah lesson closer to us in a more vivid way.

Our Local History which Binds our Jewish Commitment to the Immigrant Community

If we want to talk about the hardships of the immigrants, our accounts really needs to mention the deplorable way that Asian immigrants have been treated in our society since the beginning, especially here in California. First there was the lynching of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871. Then in 1882 the “Chinese Exclusion Act” was ratified, which had tremendous consequences for the Chinese immigrants in this state. Chinese immigrants were stripped of their rights and dehumanized by society. And also barred from immigration; be they skill, unskilled, or employed in mining (the most major break-back job of the day). They were painted as too needy, as thus the Chinese were unwelcome and treated as a threat. Unlike any other people, they were mistreated and even surcharged in death as a foreign burden, when they were begrudgingly buried here outside the limits of Evergreen Cemetery here in Boyle Heights.

The suffering often crudely summed up as the plight of the Chinese rail-workers – those strong people who also helped unite this continent – how they were treated is considered a national shame. It’s something we need to all remember and consider. Even today, in an age when in contrast people often show contempt and sometimes even commit hate crimes against Chinese immigrants simply because of their present-day successes and educational prowess. (see “3 Los Angeles teens ordered to stand trial in death of USC exchange student.” “Killing of Chinese Student in LA a Wake-up Call”)

However, this was not the first occurrence of anti-immigrant prejudice to overtake California. Our first occurrence of legislation targeting resented immigrant minorities was actually enacted in 1855, just five years after the state was admitted into the Union. William W. Stow, Speaker of the State Assembly of California (and creator of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco), enacted unconstitutional Christian Sabbath laws. And in a slanderous manner accused Jews of depriving Christian business owners of customers and profits. Snow even accused Jews of being foreigners who did not contribute to the state!

This accusation that Jews were strangers getting successful at the expense of Christians was challenge by none other than Samuel K. Labatt, the American Sephardic Jew, and founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (today known and operating as Jewish Family Service). Samuel and his lawyer brother Henry J. Labatt saw to the writing and publication of effective denunciations of Snow, which were also republished here by the Los Angeles Star in April 7th, 1855. Making Samuel K. Labatt the first anti-defamation activist of Los Angeles.

Both for the Jews and the Chinese, attempts to legally marginalize them did often succeed. Surfacing over and over again in a constant back and forth of legal discrimination waged out in the courts, and sparked by whatever social anxiety of the time. Jews became very aware of our need to mobilize and denounce the persecution of immigrants each time it arose.

When the next flow of the poorer Eastern European Jews came and settled in the area of Boyle Height in the early 20th century, the connection between our local Jewish community and our other minority immigrants became forged together. And not just by being neighbors, but by identifying with each others suffering. This suffering would then intensify in the wake of World War II, as many immigrants would experience the second element of the discrimination we’ve been talking about. As many of our immigrant minorities were also wrongly accused of being disloyal.

This is a copy of the

This is a copy of the “The Siren,” published by Hollenbeck Middle School (Jr Rough Riders) students in 1941.

First in December 1941, when the United States was first thrown into World War II. The Jewish community was outspoken about their concern for their Japanese neighbors, even before their internment. Everyone from small to great.

As noted by a Jewish girl named Marilyn Greene, a student at Hollenbeck Junior High School at the time: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent who are as truly American as any of us. They have our especial (sic) sympathy in the hard days and difficult situation that may lie before them.” (“The Siren,” student newspaper dated December 1941; see image to the right)

Their apprehension was justified, as shortly after the Japanese-American families were interned in camps. And their property and entire wealth was generally liquidated. In the wake of this, our local Jewish publishers were alone in decrying this injustice in the mass media. Al Waxman’s “East Side Journal” and the “L.A. Reporter” were the only newspapers in the nation to editorialize and decry the Japanese interment at the time. A brave and bold position in decrying injustice, one Waxman would also hold in the wake of the Zoot Suit Riots as well.

Which brings us to a most notorious event in local history, the Zoot Suit Riots. Which was not any one event, but a series of riots which gripped Los Angeles in 1943. A shocking spectacle of violence inspired by populist rhetoric. Riots inflicted upon the community by local Marines against the ethnic Zoot Suiter youth, one which most often resulted in stripping them naked and beating them. Defrocking them of their glorious outfits for which they were notorious. All this happening during the height of wartime, and with the aid of the local authorities and stoked by the conservative media which controlled Los Angeles at the time.

Though this wave of violence was inflicted on all minorities of this style of street-culture in those days, the brunt of the abuse was mostly directed at Mexicans. Partially in reaction to the US government’s much debated “Bracero Program.” (named for the Spanish term bracero, meaning “manual laborer” [lit. “one who works using his arms”]) which allowed immigration for manual laborers in the US’s existential time of need. A program aimed at helping provide workers to fill jobs left vacant as the local men were off to war. (see “Fighting over the American Standard of Living, 1943-1945: Zoot Suit Riots, Wildcar Strikes, and the Supremacy of the Soldier.”)

Servicemen and civilians of the day attacked these youth citing a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen and civilians attacked these youth, citing excess in dress style and a supposed lack of support in uniform by Mexicans during WWII. In reality over 350,000 Mexican-Americans were serving in US uniform as the war raged on two fronts.

Servicemen of the day were regularly incensed by the appearance of the lack of support in uniform by these Mexicans during WWII, all the while accusing Mexicans of making out well financially in industrial jobs they were called up to fill as the war raged. Offended at the appearance of excess which Mexicans seemed to flaunt in the lean times of war, the Zoot Suit became their hated symbol of excess and opportunism. For this reason they were stripped and brutally beaten. All with the tactic approval of the police and sheriffs.

The Zoot Suit Riots were an orgy of violence directed against those perceived of as draft-dodging and disloyal, which spilled into all the minority communities of Los Angeles.

This series of brutal attacks were so severe it likewise traumatized the Jewish community of the area, as many regarded the unrest and targeting of Mexicans as reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted against themselves in Eastern Europe. Where Jews were also often accused of succeeding at the expense of their host countries. Where they were also often hated for their supposed lack of participation in the wars of their Czar and the nobles. Where they were also attacked for maintaining their own identity and standing apart.

For this reason the Jewish community felt a great affinity with the cause of Mexican-Americans and threw their strong political support behind this other immigrant rich community. The first vestiges of a working Latino civil rights movement would emerge from the aftermath of the riots. Even before most of my Latino ancestors had a concept of what civil rights activism looked like, progressive Jews supported our cause here. Understanding that Latinos of the area needed a voice and sense of self-determination in this shared community of ours.

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

Zoot Suit Riots: Mexicans Stripped and Beaten

The political unions made with progressive Jews at that time would also later help propel Edward R. Roybal to city council as the first Mexican-American council member of the City of Los Angeles in 1949, representing this very district. With the predominate Jewish community strongly endorsing Roybal, over and against a popular nationalist Jewish American candidate of the time. The election of Roybal kicked off a season of progressive advances in housing, education and healthcare access for the overlooked minority communities. Causes he carried with him to the US Congress.

I could go on and on, brining us to the present with examples the Jewish commitment to our minorities and immigrant communities. However, I present just a mere selection of our foundational history. As I want us to understand our basic roots here. And from where the bonds of our historical loyalties are derived. This is all to remind us, we have a historical and religious obligation as Jews to support and hold the cause of the immigrant minorities in this region, and specifically in this neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

This scenario which the Torah lays out to us here in this parsha, it is mirrored in real life. This resentment of an immigrant people who first came poor and then were hated for their successes in the end. People who were often called disloyal strangers. It is very accessible to us if we just think about the history around us.

In Conclusion: “So did they multiply and so did they gain strength.”

As we see from real life, persecution often fortifies people instead of breaking them. Making them more determined, and forcing them to further develop their strengths. And so it was for the migrant Israelites as well. As we read in the next verse:

“But as much as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Israelites], so did they multiply and so did they grow, and they were disgusted because of the children of Israel.”

וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Exodus 1:12

The Torah text tells us that despite all the cruelties and afflictions laid upon them by the Egyptians, the Israelites continued to increase both in number and in strength. These are points which are important for us to understand. But as the translations often greatly vary here, lets us take a look at this for ourselves. What is it exactly saying here?

What happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yirbah they were able to not just multiply, or increase. They were able to expand themselves.

What else happened for the children of Israel? They were able to yifrotz – they were able to grow, as most translations of the bible read. But I believe this translation is weak and insufficient. The word yifrotz means to break-out, to burst, to erupt, and to breach.

Our scriptures paint a picture of people who are blessed and whose lives are filled with success. They had arrived as a small and helpless people, and in a relatively short period of time they became great there. So great that they increased in population and in success, bursting out from their constraints in both these respects. Outgrowing their disadvantage in seemingly miraculous ways.

And what was the Egyptian reaction to this? We are told of the Egyptians, “vayakutzu mif’nei bnei yisrael / and they were disgusted in the faces of Israel.” What is this disgust? Is it merely just dehumanizing loathing? Or is it something more?

There is two more ways we can look at this text, depending on how we personally understand our master Rashi’s interpretation. We are presented with both of these ideas in the commentary for this line:

And they were disgusted: They were disgusted with their lives. (Others explain: And the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves, and it is easy to understand why.) Our Rabbis, however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelites] were like thorns (כקוצים) in their eyes. [from Sotah 11a]”

ויקצו: קצו בחייהם. ורבותינו דרשו כקוצים היו בעיניהם:

Rashi to Exodus 1:12

We have actually talked about this before. When dealing with turns of phrase similar to this. One reference found in a statement made by Isaac, and another found in the story of Moab and Balaam. In both those cases we saw that this phrase meant to be “disgusted” with life. To be “weary” of one’s own existence, but on account of others! (see Parshat Balak 2011)

So we can look at this two ways. The first being, that these Egyptians couldn’t feel contentment in life because of these Israelites whom they loathed. Their very existence and presence in their land caused them to be disgusted with life. As long as Israel remained and was prospering, they could not feel anything but disdain for life. These immigrants were ruining their lives!

And then there is the second way to look at this. That the Egyptians were disgusted with themselves. That the Egyptians grew disgusted with the results of their own way of life. They grew disgusted with their own inability to succeed and overcome their own challenged. And furthermore they grew disgusted with the way that they mistreated these Israelites. Everything about their conduct made them disgusted with themselves as they stood before these noble Israelites. They became disgusted of their own conduct when forced to stand, “mif’nei bnei Yisaael / in the face of Israel.” They could no longer stand looking at these people eye to eye.

For this reason the Egyptians felt that they had to be “shrewd” with these Israelites. Inflicting taxation, slavery, heavy labor, etc All of this we read as our parsha continues. But still we need to ask ourselves. Why would they go to this extreme, to all but annihilate this people? And how could they then further descent into the slaughter of the Israelite babies?

An understanding of this is drawn out of the text here by our sages here, as Rashi finally notes. It’s because these Israelites became like thorns in the eyes of the Egyptians. Meaning everywhere they looked all they could see was these Israelites, and it was more than an irritation to them. It was even a pain – like kotzim, thorns in their eyes – for the Egyptians to see this people increase and succeed. So they took matters into their own hands.

And this is a hardship which Israel has always faced. In conclusion, I would like us all to consider this deep observation made by Rabbi Robert Kaplan concerning this phenomenon of hatred toward Israel by their detractors, hatred for their success and growth:

“When people look honestly at the accomplishments of the Jewish people and all of the advancements to civilization they have provided over the millennia of human existence, it is an astounding record. The achievements made by the Children of Israel, in every historical time period be it peaceful but mostly turbulent, is unexplainable in terms of natural causality. This fact registers unconsciously in the minds of our enemies particularly when they boast of numerical superiority and cultural enlightenment. There are two ways to deal with these phenomena. The enemy can look inward and reexamine its culture, its way of living and philosophy of life. If they did, they would realize the great advantage such recognition would bring to their existence. They would be able to make the necessary changes to improve their lives. However, the easier path is to blame the other, successful society for making you look bad. When this course is chosen, the only way to relieve the disappointment at failure of your own inability to succeed is to turn the frustration outward onto the ones who make you look and feel bad by their success. If possible, destroying them from existence is the best solution. Then there will be no more reminders of your internal disgust at your own inability to succeed.”

Rabbi Robert G. Kaplan of

CURE: Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality

Something to Consider: Are you anxious or distressed by immigrants and foreigners? Do you hold resentment for certain cultures for their increasing prominence? Maybe instead of being intimidated and unwelcoming, it would be a benefit for us to learn from other peoples unique ways and see how to adapt their strengths to our society as well. To appreciate these people as a contributing benefit to our society, and not as a threat.

Related articles:


Parshat Vayeitzei (5775)


Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

The Trees As Markers in the Life of Yaakov

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

The threes et Beit El-Luz. Photo Credit: Voices Magazine.

As the season being to change, my attention takes to the trees. Now it is true that I live in urban Los Angeles, so the seasonal changes aren’t as dramatic. However, I do greatly enjoy the sights of the old and historic non-evergreen trees of the area, ones which the pioneering families planted and nurtured over a century or more ago. These tall and noble trees each have a story, if only you know someone old enough to tell you.

But we aren’t going to talk about the neighborhood history today, at least not the local history of this city. We will talk about the history of an ancient biblical city, and the possible connections there is to its name being inspired by trees mentioned elsewhere in this weeks Torah portion. This should be something interesting for all of us, tree-huggers or not.

Let us start with taking a look at our first piece of the text for today:

“And Yaakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

“And he called the name of that place Beit El, but the name of the city was Luz at first.”

וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶתהָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁרשָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַלרֹאשָׁהּ:

וַיִּקְרָא אֶתשֵׁםהַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, בֵּיתאֵל; וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁםהָעִיר, לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

Genesis 28:18-20

Yaakov has run away after tricking his way into receiving the blessing from his father, running away from the real risk of revenge from his brother Eisav. He has escaped into the wilderness. And after resting at this place and having his angelic vision of Jacob’s Ladder, he calls this place Beit El (which is anglicized as Beth El) – meaning the “House of G-d.” He is afraid as he exclaims the phrase from which this name will become derived, “’How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven.’” (Genesis 28:17) This is the reason why he commemorates this place and anoints it as a sacred space.

But notice, the Torah also gives us another mention here. It tells us what the former name of this place was. The name that it used to have, when it was first founded by the Canaanites. The place is thus also referred to as Luz.

But why is this name Luz mentioned here in this story of Yaakov’s journey? Why does the Torah even bother to make this point? We believe that every word has a purposeful thought behind it. Us students of Torah treat no words as superfluous, we look for a meaning.

If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Almond or hazelnut? If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut.

Thought to a fine rationalist this might sound hokey at first, but the truth is anyone who studies literature and communications recognizes that each word of a good work should be carefully considered. Looking for other instances of a word to deliver a meaning. As well as looking for any injection of one’s subtle mental connection they are making surrounding this line of thought. Especially if these similar words are close by in the text. And I think we might have yet another of those instances here in this week’s parsha.

The Torah tells us that the former name of the place was first Luz, but it doesn’t give us a definition or origins of this name. Or why this is of importance to a person like Yaakov. Nor why it is important to the overall narrative. So the question stands, why does the text give a name of a place but not bother to explain it? Is there something we can learn from this name if we explore it?

Often times the reason we don’t get definitions for names is obvious, many times we don’t ever see these names again so the text seems not to bother. But this is not one of those cases. This name Luz will be mentioned again in the scriptures as part of its proper name (Genesis 35:6, Genesis 48:3, Joshua 16:2, 18:13, etc; and a second site is later so named in Judges 1:26). Also because of its prominence in the scriptures, this name will also go on to be well-recognized in our oral legends. So what do know about this place and its name?

First, lets consider the more obvious meaning I see here. The word Luz (לוז) in ancient biblical Hebrew is understood to mean almond, or small nuts. Thus small nuts are poetically called lozim. But from where do we get this understanding?

I believe it is displayed for us readers two chapters ahead in our reading:

“And Yaakov took for himself rods

of fresh poplar

and of the almond,

and of the plane-tree;

and peeled white streaks in them,

making the white appear which

was in the rods.”

| Vayikach-lo Ya’akov makal

| livneh lach

| veluz

| ve’armon

| vayefatsel bahen petsalot levanot

| machsof halavan asher

| al-hamaklot

Genesis 30:37, (based on the JPS)

We know that these are all a type of white-wood trees. Their wood is described simple as that, lavan – meaning white; or blond wood, as we technically call it today. But that’s about it. But the exact species of each tree mentioned here in Hebrew, we aren’t exactly sure.

The best logical hints we have are drawn from the last mentioned of the three types of tree, the armon (ערמן) tree; often translated as chestnut, even though chestnut trees do not grow in the middle-east. It is better understood by some as meaning some type of almond. This can probably better be logically inferred by the fact that this name is paired with the luz tree, a species of tree which is obviously associated with the Arabic word loz, meaning almond. The words for “almond” here seems to actually apply to some of various small nuts from local light wood trees.

plane tree

From the Pictorial BIble of John Kitto (b. 1804 to d. 1854).

The complications of understanding the exact species of these trees is because of our lack of precise understanding of what the armon and livneh tree mentioned here are. It becomes more complex as we try to draw more ideas from among ancient texts and old translations. Notice how later on we likewise see the armon translated as a nut-tree in many bibles (see Ezekiel 31:9; also see image to the right for an understanding of the western interpretations of this, which the JPS follows). But then alternatively later on in the prophets, the livneh tree is going to be translated as “poplar,” along side a different clan of trees like the oaks and the elms. (Hosea 4:13) So maybe we are talking about a different species all together.

But again, I have to stress that we aren’t exactly sure the species of each tree. If we follow the advice of our rabbinic commentators, even the fairly obvious words like armon gets complicated and becomes hazelnut as described by Rashi, using the medieval French term coudre (coudrier). And Radak also comes to such a conclusion, translating the word luz into old Spanish as avelanier, which today we simply call avellana; Spanish for hazelnut. The fact is, we aren’t exactly sure. But we have a pretty good idea concerning the possible types and the nature of the trees we are discussing. In the majority of cases, we can agree these are talking about light wooded nut trees. This area formerly know as Luz, it might have been named for the presence of such sightly trees.

A few times in the bible we see this name Luz mentioned in relation to the thickness of the wilderness. Like later in Joshua where Luz is mentioned. It is a spot that people pass on their way though and so is it noteworthy. (see Joshua 16:2, 18:13) This also follows the pattern of the bible to mention places according to physical markers, like these fortuitously shady trees; as later on at Shechem. (see Genesis 35:4; interesting if one compares it against Hosea 4:13) It makes the spot easier to identify by site, which apparently existed from the most ancient days and still persisted to that day.

And yet another the other reason yet to mention this site is because the name Luz might have meant something, and this could have been something worth hinting at. There could have been some legends or folklore regarding the site, which would lend its meaning into the story. Now keep in mind, like many famous sites in the middle-east, there is more than on place called Luz; the name was fortuitous enough for people to want to associate it with yet another site.

There seems to be this old legend regarding the location known as Luz, that if you get there you were finally safe and clear of all harm. This place seems to be associated with a feeling of good fortune on the part of travelers, soldiers and merchants; a place which emotes a sense that you have somehow cheated mortality amidst the fierce wilderness. Or in Yaakov’s case, the Cannaan valley below.

This thought seems carried over when we see the second site of Luz mentioned, as noted in Judges 1:26. This Luz was a city founded by a man whom the Israelites showed mercy on and let escape as they invaded Canaan. This was his reward for showing them their way in their time of need. In the Oral Torah we read a well-known and fascinating reflection on the folklore surrounding a city name Luz. The Talmud reads:

And the man went into the land of the Hittites, and built a city, and called the name thereof Luz: which is the name thereof unto this day [ibid, verse 26]. It has been taught: That is the Luz in which they dye the Blue/Tekhelet [Soncino: For the fringes (Num. XV, 38). The purpose of this statement and what follows is to illustrate the words ‘which is the name thereof unto this day’, showing that the city survived destruction and still exists.]; that is the Luz against which Sennacherib marched without disturbing it, against which Nebuchadnezzar marched without destroying it, and even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life they go outside the wall and then die.”

Talmud Bavli, Sotah 46b

Now this second site Luz, we don’t know anything about it other than it is also on in the side of the hills of the wilderness with the trees. We don’t know if it is some distance from, or just adjacent to the old Luz. Still, it is the name that we should consider more.

And there is still another story yet about Luz from the Talmud which we should also keep in mind:

There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes [Kings 4:3], of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [in Heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here.’ [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits* and sent them to the district of Luz. ** When, however, they reached the [mere gate of the] district of Luz they died.

On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them.’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.’”

Soncino Notes:

*Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23).

**To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b).

Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 53a (Soncino)

Luz in our folklore is a place where one can almost cheat death, while at the same time being located in what is regionally considered a perilous locale. It’s name comes with a lot of lengends associated with it.

What can we glean from the name of this place and the layered folklore which comes into play with this legend of Luz, and how might it affect the mood of the story here in the life of Yaakov?

Luz seems to emote this mystical idea of being protected from harm by reaching and dwelling there. But danger for those outside of it. So much that this myth arose about those who dwell in the actual city not ever dying, as the Angel of Death as no power within the walls of Luz. People would could just continue to keep on living and living, without risk of death or mortality. But as we see, this often creates a painful sense of stagnation. One which the legend tells us ends with the old men eventually getting tired of their life, and finally leave it all behind and venture outside of the walls of the city to lay down and die there.

In a parsh study by blogger Mitch Morgenstern, he sources an wonderful drash upon the first of our Talmudic interpretations from Sotah to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of the Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles:

יט. וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בֵּית אֵל וְאוּלָם לוּז שֵׁם הָעִיר לָרִאשֹׁנָה:

19. And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city

Question – What is the significance that Luz was the original name?

Answer: Luz is mentioned in Sotah 46b as a place where people lived forever and when the old men became tired of life, they go outside the wall and then die.

Luz represents stagnation, lack of growth. Yaakov brought the concept of growth, that we must all grow in our service to God, in spirituality, and in life. This is behind the name change. Yaakov taught the world the we must became a בֵּית אֵל – a house of God, always growing in our connection to God, our learning, and our helping others and in spirituality.

Mitch Morgenstern, from “Exploring Kotzk,”

attributed to Rabbi Abner Weiss, Rabbi of

Village Shul in Westwood, Los Angeles

When the rabbi talks about helping others, he means like the kindly Canaanite in the stories of the Judges. Showing people the way out of their danger, like the Canaanite did for the Israelites. We must show this type of service, and even more by escorting others and providing for them in their perilous journey – which is actually the main thrust of that talmudic text in context, I see the truth of this.

I also see the connection he is making to Yaakov making a mental and emotional transition at this place. Leaving behind just the tedious of his mere existence, because Yaakov is still alive but he’s not really living here. He’s alone and possession-less. He lays his head on a nearby stone because he has nothing else to use. He may be alive, but he is a wreck and he can’t go on any further. So here he lays.

My own understanding of this interpretation also follows these lines of the folklore. It could also be that Yaakov falling to a heap and resting here, at Luz, was a terrible sign about both his physical and emotional state as he fled to the east. This Luz was a perilous place out in the open, among the rocks and trees. He was not within the safety of a city yet! That he laid down there is not just to say to that he was physically endangered here, but he was also on a heart level ready to die. He didn’t know how to or nor see a way of going on, so all of himself just collapsed and laid there.

Here he lays among the rocks and trees of the wilderness. So why doesn’t he notice, nor the text explicitly mention, the trees we ranted on so much about? Because he arrive there at Luz right after the sun sets, as the text tells us. (see Genesis 28:11) To look for shade is not needed! In the story here, he merely takes immediate notice of a rock to use there as a pillow and thus make no upfront mental note of the area’s trees. He merely takes notice the of the rocks he lays his head upon. He lays his head at this place and has a dream, one which changes him. It inspires Yaakov so much, that he changes the name of this place and anoints this rock with oil before he moves forward. This spot becomes know as Beit El, the house of G-d, but still often referred to as Luz within the same breath.

But why mention these trees as part of the terrain and make hinting notes of them? First off, in order to give physical markers regarding the geography of this area for native Judeans. With the expectation of people being able to identify these sites, all in order to lend historic credibility to the narrative. And to connect with the native legends of the region.

And because the references regarding the tress of these wilderness places spoken of here in Judea are going to persist throughout the next couple parashiot; as the trees are going to become markers of major transition points in the life of Yaakov – and not so much the rocks. The trees of the wilderness are going take prominence in this story of Yaakov; just as much as the altars of Abraham and the well of Isaac did.

These tree-laden places are going to be emotional and spiritual markers for the life of Yaakov.

In next week’s Torah reading we are going to hear of Yaakov making his way back from Charan. He will be coming back after many years of exile and servitude abroad. (see Genesis chapter 35)

And he is going to have two pivotal moments where infamous trees are mentioned. First is the great elm of Shechem. This is where Yaakov’s wives give up their foreign gods and any of their associate jewelry, and they are buried there at the base of the elm of Shechem. This is a pivotal moment, in which his household removes all forms of idolatry from themselves and sanctify themselves to serve Hashem alone, before going back up to Beth El to worship G-d there. (see Genesis 35:4)

The other marking point to notice is going to be after they finally arrive safely and do their duties at Beth El, marked by the death of Devorah the governess and nursemaid of Rebekkah. She is mournfully buried near the great oak, which is still existent and called Allon-Bachut in their day. Yaakov again has to step-up his role as leader and elder to his clan even more so now. (see Genesis 35:8)

But more importantly, Yaakov will also arrive at Beit El-Luz free of any revenge attacks by his brother Eisvav or his father-in-law Laban. He will have escaped mortality again, in many ways. He will be making his way back from the journey he is barely setting out on here in this weeks parsha, as he leaves Luz here as a merely a broken and destitute man. But next time he will be something far from that! He will then be a complete person with a clan of his own, and role as patriarch secured.

I believe for this reason the Torah will go out of its way to remind us that this Beth El is the same place as that old Luz, which he passed through in such a sorry and sad shape in our narrative this week; alone and destitute. To contrast how much things will have changed, for and regarding Yaakov Avinu:

“So Yaakov came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan – the same is Beit-el – he and all the people that were with him.”

וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב לוּזָה, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַןהִוא, בֵּיתאֵל: הוּא, וְכָלהָעָם אֲשֶׁרעִמּוֹ.

Genesis 35:6

Mitzvah Suggestion: Do you have a momentous occasion or life cycle you wish to commemorate? Why not plant a tree! Then like Yaakov you can have some tangible markers in your landscape, which bear witness to your momentous and pivotal moments in life. Make it a fruit or a nut-tree, so you can also say a Shehecheyanu when it fruits – offering us even more opportunity to bless the arrival of more good seasons.


Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (5775)


The Security of Dwelling on Your Own, Under Your Own Vine And Tree

We have now entered into a new Jewish year, and we today find ourselves in the middle of the holiday of Sukkot. The year is over but we still have some more Torah to read.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from Thompson and West's history of Los Angeles County (1880). This one one of the first residences  east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

The Hollenbeck home, La Villa de Paredon Blanco, from ‘Thompson and West’s history of Los Angeles County (1880).’ This is one of the first residences east of the river here in the paredon, the bluffs.

However, normally this parsha does not get the same attention that we give the other parashiot. This Torah portion is regularly reserved as a final reading, meant to be paired with the start of the Torah cycle as we start over again at the beginning with Genesis. We don’t want this Torah learning to end, so we save this last reading for when we start over again with the celebration of Simchat Torah.

But consider for a moment how this reading is not honored or regarded among the weekly readings. It is often overlooked as utilitarian, something that just gets us from one point to another. To critical scholars, this final Torah portion is just a chance for the scriptures to wrap-up loose ends. It’s not treated as all that special. It’s the one most often overlooked, and purposely so. So every year I make sure to give special attention to this parsha, and dedicate it to those who feel ignored or left out. This one is for you. This is also further dedicated to my community, which often feels so ignored.

Today we will focus on the 6th reading, which is the second to the last reading. This reading is so short, it only contains three verse. We will focus on the middle verse, which is the second to the last spoken line attributed to Moses in the Torah. This is among the last words Moses gives us before he dies and the people move forward towards their destiny without him:

“And Israel dwelt in safely,

the fountain of Jacob alone,

in a land of grain and wine;

also, his heavens will drip dew.”

| Vayishkon Yisrael betach

| bedad ein Yaakov

| el-eretz dagan vetirosh

| af-shamav ya’arfu-tal

Deuteronomy 33:28

This statement is one of the closing lines after Moses gathers the people together and blesses them just before he dies. Just as Jacob – also named Israel – blessed his children on his deathbed, so too Moses blesses these children of Israel before he passes away. This connection is hinted at in his words, as well as through our rabbinic commentators who also relate this back to the similar blessings of Jacob.

However, here we have a break neck statement presented in this single line of the Torah. The first parts seems to be talking about something extending to them from the past, that Jacob dwelt safely and alone. Hinting that so too will they also be so blessed.

But then there is a statement about being blessed with life-sustaining dew from the heavens, that clearly appears to be talking about the future. That G-d will continue to bless them with the moisture of the dew they so badly need in their dry environment, to help sustain their crops.

I don’t want to get too much into this topic of tal just yet – of dew; but we are just coming out of the summer season where we pray for tal (dew). Now starting after the harvest days of Sukkot, we instead being praying in expectation of the coming of earth renewing ruach (wind) and geshem (rain).

We all know what the scriptures tell us regarding these things. We read it along with the Shema at morning and night, and with our prayers everyday. We are told that if we do what the Torah asks of us we will have all these things in their proper seasons, and be blessed with the resulting sustenance by our G-d. (see the Second Paragraph of the Shema; Deut. 11:13-21) I’ll touch on that again in closing, so keep this close in mind.

But for a moment I would like us to back up here and look at this first part of the verse: “Vayishkon Yisrael betach badad / And Israel shall dwell in safety and alone.” We really need to ask ourselves some questions. What type of blessing is this? And what are the implications?

There is one word that stands out to me, one that catches my attention because this whole verse can mean something different based on how we perceive this word badad – which simply means “alone.”

But this word not only means alone, the same root word in everyday speech means to be “insulated.” Do we seem to be talking here about being insulated and separate from others? We can see an example of the word used this way elsewhere in the Torah, when the wicked Balam says of Israel collectively:

“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: look here, it is a people that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.”

כִּימֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶןעָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב.

Numbers 23:9

These are the words of Balam, the wicked prophet of sorts. Who didn’t have anything against Israel, but didn’t necessarily have anything for them either. Nonetheless in his many statements he shows how astonished and impressed he is with these people. Several times he mentions how lovely they dwell. (Numbers 24:5) Here in this statement he notices that this people dwell well on their own and alone among the nations, as they are destined to so dwell alone.

He makes the observation many people have made about the children of Israel, that they are not like everyone else and they are people prone to keeping to themselves. They live off on their own. People make this observation both positively, and sometimes negatively as well. But I would dare say, that while the Jewish faith empowers people to build a distinct sense of community, it does not encourage people to be isolated and devoid of pluralism. It demands we welcome and even love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

So why does the Torah use this word here? Isn’t it a negative thing for a people to be “alone”? Is it really healthy for a nation of people to be alone and insulated from other peoples? Is that what the Torah is asking of us here? Is that what we are to be in pursuit of? Is happiness found only when people are just left alone?

In our verse we read that according to this promise of Moses we are to dwell, “betach, badad / in safety, and alone.” Betach means securely, peacefully and tranquilly. That we should dwell securely and alone. But there is one question that I can’t help but ask myself continuously as I consider this text, is peace and security only found when a people dwell alone? Is that what these scriptures are trying to tell us?

There are some who might actually read it this way. Certainly there are some people who do think this way, and who in light of their feelings cannot seem to help but read a verse this way. Projecting their isolationist sentiments in to their understanding of this text. That in order for their own people to have safety, be it physical safety or the security of resources, this people must dwell separate and alone. That the best way to be at peace and in tranquility is to be alone, without the bothers of clashing interaction and the threats of competition. Being at peace, by virtue of the absence of all others.

Now most of us notice that a lot has changed since the time of Yaakov, there are a lot more people in the world today. And the regions in which we live are now heavily populated. Most of us dwell in urban centers, filled with a diversity of people. We cannot be like Yaakov, all off to ourselves. We have to dwell with others. But in the desire of some people to have this sense of security of being “alone,” some people unfortunately do negatively voice how they prefer their vicinity to be made of people all like themselves; thus they are alone, and left alone by others.

Living Examples from the Community of Boyle Heights

Let me us give some real-life examples of this tendency in action, and at the same time address the needs of my community for a moment if you will. Because this topic hits home for me.

This is a theme which comes up often as I do community work in the local barrio of Boyle Heights, my most beloved neighborhood. People often talk with me about how our insulated, predominately Latino community, does today and has historically at times had, ethnic and economic related tensions. But going back further into our history, in the earlier half of the 20th century this was a place of tolerance and diversity for our residents, a blending of cultures found almost nowhere else. A tight historical bond of cooperation and camaraderie between diverse ethnic groups was modeled here in the classic era of this community.

So why now all the focusing on negativity of the past by the disgruntled locals? It’s just that today, more than ever, people feel threatened; both in the housing and job market as other races and classes slowly consider migrating towards our Latino working-class area we live in, with the fear of them displacing our own people. Economics is fueling a sense of isolationism. A bitter fight against gentrification, and also against any sort of progress or upgrades which would possibly make the neighborhood “too fancy” for us Latinos to sustain a future in. People threatened by new potential home owners and skilled labor, which many of our immigrant people are not. As our people badly need the home they rent and the livelihood of their unskilled mom-and-pop storefront job they have, plain and simple.

But being alone has its consequences, being isolated – today 98% Latino in demographics – has its downsides as well and comes with many negative elements. And with this in mind, a local man was pining upon the past of Boyle Heights as a mixed community. He outright asked in a public forum, when are we as a community going to be ready to return to that type of diversity and brotherhood? To make this place somewhere we can challenge the barriers once again.

I kid you not, it was a local preacher’s wife who was the first to chime in, “¡Chale! There’s too many of us here already.” That people need to leave our community alone. Followed with an us vs. them, nationalist argument. And a dismissal to the tune of, “I have nothing against them, it’s just economics.”

So as you see, even when people claim they have faith in G-d they can still have a lot of problems having faith in humanity. There are many people, who no matter what their persuasion, can still cling on to hardened ideas of tribalism. And we still have a lot of cultural religionists around here, who just don’t have faith in those of other cultures. I find that unacceptable, and totally against the scriptures.

So how do we help address these problems for people who feel like they lack a sense of security? For people who out of fear want us to be alone, and desire to build a bulwark around our community? I believe that the scriptures do give us some examples if we are willing to listen and learn.

The Security of Being at Home, Under Your Own Tree

Now as we turn back over to our scripture which we are studying today, I asked us to once again draw our attention to these words: “betach badad / in safety, and alone.” Remember how betach is also understood to mean securely, peacefully and in tranquility.

And again I ask the question, is peace and security only found when we dwell alone? Now I ask us an ever more direct question in this vein. Is security only found when we are amongst our own? Is our safety only secured by sheer numbers? When we are surrounded among our own kind in order to avoid the risk of all others? Our rabbis would say, no. That that is a sign of insecurity! That is a very sure sign of a community in danger.

If we look at our ever-present commentary by Rashi, he defines being secure and alone a much different way:

Safely and alone: Every single individual [will dwell safely] – each man under his own vine and his own fig tree. [And their security will be so sound, that] they will have no need to live together in one group, because of the enemy.”

בטח בדד: כל יחיד ויחיד איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאנתו מפוזרין ואין צריכים להתאסף ולישב יחד מפני האויב:

Rashi, Deuteronomy 33:28

Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree!

Then he also draws us a picture of what insecurity looks like, it’s when a people are forced to live together huddled in a group. “Yachad miphnei ha-oyeiv / together as one because of an enemy.” When people must be amassed and concentrated together for security, because of the risk of rivals or opponents.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed most of all popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. Notice how in their version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the other minorities and whites who abused them. Still in the absence of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

Bario White Fence History as told by the gang members themselves: White Fence is consider the mother of all Chicano gangs. The one most often modelled and portrayed in movies, videos and books. Indeed almost all of popular cholo values and style originates from this very local gang. The author contends,”I am not attempting to glamorize the hood or gangbanging but present an accurate picture of real and true barrio history.” Notice how in thier version of history, gangs were formed to protect themselves from the risk of other larger ethnic groups and the whites who abused them. To protect their small and isolated barrio (neighborhood). Yet still, these many years later even in the absence of any of these competing groups today, the violent impetus to keep others out still remains.

I can tell you for a fact that our rabbi here is correct, as I witness this type of reality in my own community. Indeed that is one of my biggest challenges, trying to stir our local people out of a collective nightmare in which our barrios were huddle masses of scared minorities and whose only reprieve from outside harassment was through the prevalence of racial gang violence which threatened outsiders away. It’s disheartening that even today, some people still tactically accept this as the cost worth paying to avoid cultural and demographic dilution. But the persistence of this for the past century has offered no security, quite the contrary.

Again, Rashi describes security as a person being at home under his own vine and fig tree! When a person is not stuck with the wagons circled. It’s under the shade and sustenance of a fruitful vine and fig tree. But if you consider it, there is one precondition to us having the benefit of such things. You need to have land! You need to have a place to plant your vine and fig tree, in order to persist and see them grow to fruition. One needs their own homestead, to put down roots. Where each man dwells in the safety and shade of his own home and livelihood, though a direct connection with his own land. Reaping the direct benefits of land ownership, which grants one self-dependence and the means for self-determination. With the security of living on one’s own, that’s how we should read this passage here.

All people need this sense of security. Especially here in this community where it is lacking, we need to turn our struggling renters into home owners. Helping find adequate housing for people in this crowded neighborhood, where often times even more than one family may struggle to live in a single unit already.

We need to help the anxious make a home for themselves, so as not to be blown around the neighborhood by the winds of the markets or tossed around at the whims of absentee landlords. Educating people on their rights and options.

We need to educate and empower people to put their money to use in gaining them equity as home owners, which also grants them security and resources in time of need. Helping people buy homes in this neighborhood of theirs. Instead painfully watching money slip through their fingers season after season, and year after year in the cost of rent. And of course more importantly, so a person can feel that they have their own place in the world and all the sweetness that comes with.

We also need to do more to help create new housing opportunities for low-income and struggling families. With new development which offers more safe housing options for all the various working-class people of this diverse city. Building new opportunities together, and restoring old alliances. Working together to fight displacement, homelessness and overcrowding!

What we really need around here is dedicated people who are less interested in descending into revolution, and more dedicated to bringing this community to fruition. People who are willing to bring this community together in peace, to reap the benefits of investing in our own community. Investing with both our resources and our efforts.

Closing the season of dew, entering the seasons of rains

I asked you to keep a thought in mind a while back there. So I want us to just touch on this in closing, this topic of tal. The future promise that is given to Israel by Moses, that we will have heaven-sent tal – G-d will send us His life-giving dew.

As I said we are just coming out of the summer season were we are asking for tal (dew) in our prayers, when it is much-needed to help sustain our produce with essential water and moisture through the summer heat. And now we will transition for the season and begin to ask for ruach and geshem, wind and rain; for the wind that will scatter seeds and pollen, and the rain that will water it. And likewise we are expected to sow, in line with the times and seasons. So that months from now in the spring we will see the results of this natural cycle of renewal of the land, when the spring harvest comes.

Blessing comes in the right season. But it comes through a mixture of action on our part, and living with a sense of promise and hope that we are aided by the blessings of our G-d. A mixture of effort, and faith.

We need to encourage people with the promise that our G-d will also help sustain us in our undertakings. As with the life-giving dew through which we and nature find ourselves sustained by our G-d. He will preserve us with His blessings, with His “tal” sustaining us in mercy. He will help us make this investment blossom and bear fruit when the season is right. But its time for us to get ready to sow!

I choose to encourage people with a message of hope, instead of resorting to fear and hysteria. I choose to embolden people to make this land their own and make it blossom for their families. I choose to stand apart from the people sounding like prophets of doom around the barrio. Hysterics talking of the coming changes with anxiety and disseminating a sense doom for our district.

I instead choose to raise the prophetic voice of the Jewish tradition, as found in the bible. I draw upon the words of the prophet Zechariah, one of the most dramatic of all the prophets. Yes, he was among them that foretold of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and exile of his people during the First Temple Period. But he also spoke in surety of the promise of their salvation, and with certainty of the restoration of his people. Zachariah gave hope, because that is what a prophetic voice is for! As the scriptures read:

“For the sowing is for peace. The vine shall give forth its fruit, and the earth shall give forth its produce, and the heavens shall give forth their dew – and I will cause the remnant of this people to inherit all these things.”

כִּי זֶרַע הַשָּׁלוֹם הַגֶּפֶן תִּתֵּן פִּרְיָהּ וְהָאָרֶץ תִּתֵּן אֶת יְבוּלָהּ וְהַשָּׁמַיִם יִתְּנוּ טַלָּם וְהִנְחַלְתִּי אֶת שְׁאֵרִית הָעָם הַזֶּה אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה:

Zechariah 8:12

I ask people to sow into this community, both the Latino and Jewish people who love this neighborhood. Help us sow in peace, so we can cause the remnant of this people to inherit and fruitfully develop this land.

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Parshat Beha’alotecha (5774)


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Is Jewish Honor Based on Birth or Merit?

One of the most difficult things for people to grasp is the way that inherited and earned roles play-out in the Jewish life. Is one form of recognition preferable over the other? Or is there a seeming dance going on between the two and their respective roles? That is what we are going to try to explore this week.

Outgoing chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

Outgoing chief rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (left), walking with incoming Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (right) and Prince Charles (behind them in center). (photo credit: Yakir Zur)

This week’s parsha begins with Aharon, the Kohein Gadol – the High Priest – lighting the Menorah. I don’t want to side-track us too much, as most of us will quickly remember that this section’s Rashi commentary brings up why this is mentioned here in this part of the reading mostly about ordaining the Levites for their roles. Our rabbis tell us this is in order to highlight that this role was given to Aharon and his sons as a sign of honor.

The midrash says that Aharon was previously distressed when he saw the princes of each of the tribes present their inauguration offerings on their own.  Without the presence or help of the Levites. (Numbers chapter 11) The Levites, they were excluded from this count and thus felt distressed. In light of this feeling of being overlooked, the kindling of the Menorah – a truly great rite – it was given to Aharon, who was now the tribal head of the Levites.

After this, in the early part of the first aliyah, we have the instructions for purifying and sanctifying the Levites. At the end of this reading we see that the Levites are brought before all the entire congregation of Israel and ordained for services with physical smicha – the laying on of hands, and conferring authority. (Numbers 8:10)

Aharon, as their leader, he was to be given instructions to “lift up” the Levites and offer them as a “wave offering” on behalf of the children of Israel. (Numbers 8:11) What do we mean by this? What did he do?

It’s not like he could serve them all up on a silver platter, lifting them towards the sky. No, instead it means symbolically. He lifted them up, as one would a flag, he made a symbolic rise to the occasion through a gesture of pride and honor. And instead of offering in the normal sense – by simply waving forward animals donated to be used in the service of the Temple sacrifices – Aharon, the Levite elder, he offered his sons in perpetuity to physically perform this service.

This is the meaning of the phrase, “Veheinif Aharon et haleviim tenufah lifnei Hashem / Then Aaron shall lift up the Levites as a waving before Hashem…” (Numbers 8:11) That Aharon was to elevate his sons for service by pushing them forward, driving them (tenufah) to take their role in service to Israel and G-d.

Now let’s back up a second and remember why the Levites are not accounted for as part of the Twelve Tribes during the inauguration offerings. Normally the Levites were not called-up or recognized, being regularly snubbed in the tribal roles and inheritances. This as a consequence of collective error on the part of the Levites several times in the past, going all the way back to their tribal role in the slaughter of Shechem and the sale of Yosef haTzadik. They were disinherited in a way, so that they were never counted as a normative tribe again. As a consequence the half-tribes (such as Efraim and Menasheh) slipping into the vacancy when it was time to take count and set-up camp.

So why are they honored now? How is it that the come to take this role as spiritual leaders among the tribes of Israel? Sure Moses and Aharon are both Levites, and this does distinguish the clan. But given their disinherited role, how is it that the Levites are able to take this place of honor now as the Mishkan service takes shape?

The answer comes by exploring the second aliyah. Let us look at this span of text which address this for us:

“Following this, the Levites shall come to serve in the Tent of Meeting. You shall cleanse them and lift them as a waving.

“For they are wholly given over to Me from among the children of Israel; instead of those that open the womb all the firstborn of Israel I have taken them for Myself.

“For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.

“And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָבֹאוּ הַלְוִיִּם לַעֲבֹד אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְטִהַרְתָּ אֹתָם וְהֵנַפְתָּ אֹתָם תְּנוּפָה:

כִּי נְתֻנִים נְתֻנִים הֵמָּה לִי מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת פִּטְרַת כָּל רֶחֶם בְּכוֹר כֹּל מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָקַחְתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי:

וָאֶקַּח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

Numbers 8:15-18

Our text reminds us of two facts. First off, in the general sense every firstborn male belongs to G-d. Be it human, a kosher animals, or even an ass (donkey). As it is written, “Sanctify to Me every firstborn of the children of Israel, everything that opens the womb of man and of animal.” (see Exodus 13:2)

And even more so, after G-d inflicting wrath upon the firstborn of Egypt, while sparing the Israelite firstborn sons, these sons are even more so considered sanctified to G-d. They were spared and then set apart for His service. And this is the way that it should ideally have been, with the princes of each tribes offering up for their people. The firstborn of each tribe offering sacrifices on behalf of the people of Israel.

So the firstborn are: 1) naturally sacred, and 2) supernaturally set-apart. There are two reasons why the firstborn of all Israel should be set-apart as priests.

So why is it that we don’t see that happen here? Why are the Levites elevated to this role and pushed forward for this service instead? The answer is found in our Rashi commentary:

For all the firstborn… are Mine: The firstborn are Mine by right, for I protected them among the Egyptian firstborn, and I took them for Myself-until they erred through the golden calf; so now ‘I have taken the Levites’ (v.18)”

כי לי כל בכור: שלי היו הבכורות בקו הדין, שהגנתי עליהם בין בכורי מצרים ולקחתי אותם לי עד שטעו בעגל, ועכשיו ואקח את הלוים:

Rashi for Numbers 8:17

Our midrash teaches us that during the incident of the sin of the golden calf all of the tribes were involved in worshiping it, except for the tribe of Levi. (Yoma 66b) For this reason the firstborn of each tribe were set aside, and the honor of priesthood was thus given to the Levites in perpetuity.

So lets consider this. This issue of priesthood and honor.

To being with, priesthood is a topic that most of us are out of touch with. We just don’t generally see this role filled in our daily lives. Sure in the traditional word we have them acknowledged in the giving out of aliyot – when reading the Torah. And in rare ritual cases such as the pidyon haben – the redemption of the firstborn male, born of natural birth to a Jewish mother.  (see Exodus 13:13–16, Numbers 3:45-47) All this hearkens back to that age. But for the most part, rites overseen by kohanim are rather rare today. Except on high holidays, when the Priestly Blessing is given, most of us barely recognize the kohanim in our midst.

And in progressive synagogues the roles of priesthood is often overlooked all together, having theologically moved beyond affirming Temple ritual and inherited roles. With even the Priestly Blessing today being given by rabbi or cantor.

But the awkwardness and tension between the birth and earned roles is something that many people still struggle with in light of our Jewish tradition. It is not just modern readers and progressives that have struggled with this issue. Indeed the wrestling between inherited and earned roles goes all the way back go the beginning for the nation of Israel.

Yet there is one fact that we cannot ignore. That our religion and culture emerged for a world were the right of inheritance and status was given to the firstborn. More precisely the firstborn male. In the ancient world this was the only seemingly clear and objective way to settle the issue of inheritance and status. In such a system there is seemingly few points by which to argue. Everyone remembers which is their firstborn child, so this is the one who is blessed and to whom possessions of the father’s estate are to be left to.

This cannot be ignored or understated. And just in case this point is missed, the right of firstborn is explicitly reaffirmed by the Torah. (Deuteronomy 21:17)

Inherited roles which are assigned by birth and held in perpetuity are further stressed elsewhere, not just here and now in the Torah when discussing the Levites. It is also stressed with it comes to the role of the Kohanim, distinct from that of the general Levites. It is also later shown to be the case for nobility, with kingship being passed on by right and order of birth. And of course, Jewish identity is also assigned at birth. Being passed by maternal line according to halacha. Inherited status and recognition is something that is undeniably present in our tradition.

But as I’ve previously stated, the challenging of birth status has always been part of the Hebrew-Israelite experience since the beginning. Our patriarch and namesake being Yisrael – also known by his birth-name, Yaakov. Yaakov, the same one who overcame Eisav the firstborn, for the right to be the heir and spiritual chieftain. And this is not a lone example. Such tension is similarly mirrored in Avraham Avinu’s recognition of Yitzhak over Yishmael, who was technically the first-born son. We also see this later on when the tribes are established, when Yitzhak gives inheritance to Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. There we see the tension between Yosef and Yitzhak palpably present in this incident, as the patriarch insists that the younger once again rises above the older. (see Parshat Vayechi 2012)

Our founders and leaders have challenged the natural order and risen above it, time after time again. And this is the legacy they leave to us, an inherited drive to be people who would will to smash the glass ceiling. To rise above obstacles to a place of leadership and honor, as opposed to those who gingerly ease into that seat. People who acquire their rightful place through merit and zeal, not just through mere nepotism.

When we read here in this parsha of the ordination and assignment of the Levites as priests by the congregation we can get caught-up in a narrow view of this text, and maybe even see this narrative as reaffirming the appearance of nepotism and favoritism. Until we remind ourselves the reason they are called up for this role, because of their tribal merit in avoiding the golden calf. In this light, their appointment is not to be seen as an example which reaffirms a perception of the mighty establishing their heredity. It is a story of people who come from a lowly and unlikely place to the height of honor through merit.

And in the not so far off future in this very book of Bamidbar (Numbers), we are going to see the roles shaken up once again. As Pinchas, who was not ordinarily not eligible to be High Priest, has this honor as Kohen Gadol given to him and his descendants in perpetuity. An honor given to him on account of his act of zealotry. (see Parshat Pinchas 2011) We will again see the earned role trump the inherited role.

Something to consider

To this day much of Judaism still struggles with the issues of balancing out honor and respect based on lineage, and that of showing proper recognition to those who are honorable in their own right. For which is more worthy of recognizing? Which should we lunge to honor first? The noble through heredity or the honorable in their own merit?

Even for traditional Judaism, which still recognizes the roles of the priestly lineages, there is still a seeming awkwardness. One that is seen through a philosophical and practical dance to help us maneuver the contortions we feel stretching us in this matter.


While commenting on this topic of heredity vs. merit
relating to kohanim in Parshat Tzav, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin – a Torah commentator well-known for his discussion series highlighted by the Orthodox Union – he states the following upon consideration of the way the Levites and even Pinchas shake up the roles of heredity. He observes how the shake-up is not just far-off in the past, it’s still seen present in our halachic lives:

“Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)”

As we know, even when the roles of priestly caste are recognized, in the real world we still most often give precedent to the meritorious over the blue-blooded.

In closing, today I would like to leave you with the continuing and closing words of Rabbi Goldin for consideration. He offers us some words which are wholly appropriate for us as we come out of Shavuot – celebrating the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai:

“Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

“Full descendants of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept G-d’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to G-d’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

“The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.”

Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra’

Parshat Tzav – by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin

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Parshat Nasso (5774)


Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Treachery and its Remedy: Setting things right in word and deed

_img-sefer-gavelAs we come into this week’s parsha we are walking in the middle of something. Previously, in the final verses of Parshat Bamidbar, we began to hear about the tasks and charge of the Kohanim (priests). But now in this week’s parsha we read about the assignment of the other Levitic clans, the sub-tribes of Gershon and Merari; the families who carried and assembled the tabernacle. Here in this week’s parsha is where the real nuts and bolts come together in this story about the establishment of the Mishkan – the desert tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple in Jerusalem. Everything and everyone is put in place.

Now it is very easy for readers, especially after all the detail on priestly duty and purity in our previous book of Levitivus, to just breeze over much of the early text in this section. Especially the modern reader, who is not as interested in the temple cult as much as they are the more philosophical themes that come with later mitzvot.

Quite often we lunge for the exciting parts. Even myself, in previous years I have found my mind focusing on the real attention getters like the curious ritual of the sotah – the strange custom imposed upon the suspected adulteress, a woman who has acted treacherously against her husband (כי תשטה אשתו, ומעלה בו מעל). She has been unfaithful to him. (see “Parshat Nasso 2011: The Ritual of the Sotah, the Offering of Jealousies”)

But this week I would like us to step back just a little bit in this text. As we are going to focus on this topic of unfaithfulness, most often described simply as treachery in English. But this time we will come in at ground level on this topic. Because the suggestion of adultery is not the only form of treachery one can commit. Treachery can be committed by and against any type of fellow, man and woman; and by extensions it can also be committed against G-d.

Treachery is actually a very good word to use for the Hebrew word ma’al – which means to embezzle, to misappropriate. This is understood to happen as a result of people breaching a relationship of trust, and thus acting treacherously – meaning faithlessly and dishonestly.

There is another type of treachery and breach of trust that is just as appalling and distasteful as adultery. And it is revealed for us here in the third reading of our parsha.

Even before we begin to hear about the issues of unfaithfulness in marriage, we are first forced to recognize and deal with faithlessness and a breach in trust in the generals sense, between one person and their fellow. This can be broadly applied, and is explicit in mentioning that this applies to both men and women. Our text reads:

Tell the children of Israel:

Any man or woman

who commits any sins against man

to act treacherously against Hashem

and that person is guilty,

then they shall confess the sin

they committed,

and make restitution for

the full amount of their guilt,

adding a fifth to it,

and give it to

the one against whom they were guilty.”

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| ish o-ishah

| ki ya’asu mikol-chatot ha’adam

| lim’ol ma’al b’Hashem

| ve’ashmah hanefesh hahi

| Vehitvadu et-chatatam

| asher asu

| veheshiv et-ashamo

| berosho

| vachamishito yosef alav

| venatan

| la’asher asham lo

Numbers 5:6-7

If we read this text just straight forward we see a very important principle relating to justice presented here. How to remedy a breech of trust. When one acts treacherously, when one is dishonest, when one engages in stealing from people. This is how we remedy any type of violation of trust. Any sin against man (כי יעשו מכל חטאת האדם), any sin of embezzlement or dishonest practice. A sin against our fellow-man.

One is required to confess their sin and pay back the full amount of restitution to that person, plus a 20% penalty for harming the person. All this is paid directly to the injured party. If they cannot be found, then it should be given to their next of kin. If a family member cannot be located then it is given to the kohain – to a priest.

But notice the way it is further phrased, “to act treacherously against Hashem.” (למעל מעל ביי)

Now there are a few ways we can read that. First, the most obvious and the most striking is the face-value statement. That when we commit any type of sin against any man or woman, we are acting treacherously with our G-d. We are acting faithless, we are being a cheater. Likewise we are creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration of the Name of G-d. We are trashing G-d’s good name.

When ever a person among the people of Israel commits a sin against his fellow-man, he is not just harming that man. He is also offending G-d. He is being like the sotah – he is being faithless and untrustworthy like an adulteress in our relationship with G-d. That is the level of breach of trust there is going on here.

Now our rabbinic tradition, it likes to suggest a more specific type of crime here. Tradition is that the Torah does not repeat itself, there are no superfluous verses in the Torah. Yet we already see other verses in the Torah related to stealing in Viyikra  (Leviticus).

With this in mind our sages further identify this related to take a false oath, in order to steal their fellow’s property. Thus literally creating a chilul Hashem – a desecration, but taking a false oath. Which is the meaning of commandment, “Do not use name of Hashem in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) Attaching the name of G-d to a lie and injustice. Causing the Name of G-d to be used inappropriately. Negating the good name of G-d.

So why here, and why again? As this is also suggested to us elsewhere in Torah. However our sages focus in on a specific act this time around. The Rashi, in line with many of the rabbis, identifies this crime as being gezel ha-ger – the sin of stealing from a convert, or an immigrant.

But before we talk about that the ger – the convert, I want us to notice one other point. Let us look at the commentary. Rashi says:

To act treacherously against G-d: [Scripture] repeats the section [dealing with] a thief who swears falsely, which is stated in parshath Vayikra; “… and acts treacherously against G-d by falsely denying to his fellow…” (Lev. 5:21). It is repeated here because two new matters are introduced. The first is that it is written: “they shall confess,” which teaches us that he [the thief] is not required to pay a fifth and [bring] a guilt [offering] when incriminated by two witnesses, until he admits to the deed himself, and the second [matter] is that what is stolen from a proselyte must be given to the kohanim. – [Sifrei Naso 1:13]

למעל מעל בה‘: הרי חזר וכתב כאן פרשת גוזל ונשבע על שקר, היא האמורה בפרשת ויקרא (ה, כא) ומעלה מעל בהוכחש בעמיתו וגו‘, ונשנית כאן בשביל שני דברים שנתחדשו בה האחד, שכתב והתודו, לימד שאינו חייב חומש ואשם על פי עדים עד שיודה בדבר. והשני על גזל הגר שהוא נתון לכהנים:

Rashi to Number 5:6

Notice what it says here. That the person who has embezzled, who has stolen is not required to pay for their crime until they confess. And that is what makes this type of justice different from what we know today. And vastly different from what we see in secular legal remedy. When taking on civil cases, for instance. In such instances people are required to pay the amount back – to put the person back into their right standing, as before they were deprived of their property. And often there is a punitive damage added. So a person settles all of their issues by paying up. But there it is no requirement for them to confess their wrongs. Often people still deny their guilt, even as they pay damages.

Our sages suggest that the process is incomplete if a person does not confess their sins. And I believe that is the most difficult point of this lesson. That when we wrong someone, we are required to confess the wrong we have done to them. Torah morality does not allow us to just silently throw money and make the problem go away. No, we are required to confess what we have done in order to put it behind us and set things right. To validate the reality of the wrongs we have done against people.

However, I have a personal observation. I believe that the need to confess is not just for the sake of the person wronged, and to do right by G-d. But it is also for the sake of the sinner. It is essential that a person recognize for themselves the wrong they have done, in order to make a correction in themselves. In order to lay it out all so that they never repeat this again. To stop hiding their sin in the background, by shedding light on it. Shattering that dark area in our lives. Liberating one from shame and guilt, and all the burden of denial.

As I stated, our rabbis take this discussion one step further. And Rashi, at the end of this commentary, in short makes the point that like others who have no next of kin the amount of recompense and damages against a convert is paid to the kohain instead. He focuses on the ger – the convert, the immigrant. Stealing from them while lying under oath. This is the specific sin that requires this seeming repeat in the principles of fair dealings. Of course, the prohibition against harming a ger is something often mentioned in our tradition, but to our rabbis it is more specifically connected to oath taking here.

Our tradition, is very strong on demanding that we do right by the stranger in our midst. That we do not harm the ger – the convert or the immigrant. And it challenges us more than just on a social-civil level. It challenges us to do right by them, so as not to harm the holy message of the Torah true life. To not desecrate the Torah and Judaism itself through our deeds.

Why is it so important that our rabbis constantly warn against doing wrong by the convert? I believe one of the most clear and concise ways of summing this up is done by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin – the well-known Torah scholar and inspirational writer:

“A person who comes to Torah on his own volition does so because of the beautiful and elevated ideas he hears regarding Torah principles. He made his decision on the assumption that those who follow the Torah will act toward him in accordance with all the Torah laws pertaining to interpersonal relations. If someone cheats him financially or in some other way wrongs him, he [the Ger Tzeddek; the Righteous Convert] will not only suffer a monetary loss. Rather, he might also feel disillusioned with his decision to accept a Torah way of life.

The Ger Tzeddek has usually given up very much because of his ideals and will experience much pain from his disappointment that the people he is in contact with do not meet the Torah standards he expected of them. The importance of not harming a convert can be seen from the fact that Torah warns us about this in a number of places. From the negative we can learn the positive. The merit of acting with love and kindness toward a convert is great.”

Growth Through Torah”, page 312

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

I don’t think I really need to add anything to that, as these wise words encapsulates how this all pans out in my mind as well upon consideration. This lesson especially hangs heavy on my heart, with personal sting of not so infrequently seeing strangers and converts wronged.

And furthermore, I feel the rabbi is right. This text and understanding can be redeemed by helping us realize just how important and meritorious it is to show kindness a stranger – to a convert or an immigrant.

In closing I would like to also leave us with one more observation by another very wise scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. He gives us another reason as to seeming juxtaposition of this section with other commandments on the page. He instead relates it back to the conversation we had last week, about the tribal flags. And how some struggle with that in light of nationalism and the hostility towards outsiders. (see “Parshat Bamidbar 5774: Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?”) The rabbi writes:

“But why must the laws of gezel ha-ger [stealing from a convert/immigrant] appear in Parashat Naso? The underlying idea, the motto which appears again and again throughout the first two parashiot of the book of Bemidbar [Numbers] is “le-mishpechotam le- beit avotam” – “according to their families and by the house of their fathers.” The beginning of the book of Bemidbar is filled with the idea of family and tribal roots. However, there is a psychological danger stemming from feelings of tribal rootedness and connection; it can lead to disregard and even hostility towards all outsiders, towards all those not belonging to the clan.

“While Judaism sees the family and the nation as central to Jewish identity and consciousness, it is well aware of the danger to which these loyalties can lead when taken to an extreme. It is for this reason that we are commanded with regard to gezel ha-ger in the middle of Parashat Naso. It is precisely the ger, the foreigner, lacking the sense of familial, tribal and national roots, who is most vulnerable to the atmosphere pervading the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar. Therefore, the Torah commands us here to deal with the ger exactly as we would with our fellow Israelites.”

Sicha of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a

I hope we all take this to heart as we read this parsha, and make a commitment to do right by the strangers in our midst.

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Parshat Bamidbar (5774)


Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Nationalism: How do you feel about flag waving?

 A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

A Mexican-American student (left) is bullied by Chicano nationalist students for carrying the American flag while showing support of immigrant’s rights. When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

What do flags mean to you? Are flags uniting symbols, or are they emblems of division? It is obvious to us all that most often, to the people who hoist them, flags embody a symbol of nationalism. How do you feel about that? Because, as for myself, I’m not so sure sometimes.

Even when not used in the context of the actual nation-state, people often utilize state flags for other nationalistic reasons, such as ethnic and cultural nationalism. Can you think of some examples where these symbols are used well, and examples of when they are used poorly?

It is not that I am against people showing pride in their homeland and culture, but I do not believe in using these symbols as weapons. Furthermore, I do not believe in utilizing them in a way which does not call attention to a diverse fabric in that flag. As I completely stand against ethnic nationalism.

This is a topic that comes to mind in relation to current events, and upon reading our parsha for this week. First, let’s take a look at the text here:

‘The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.”

אִישׁ עַל דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִנֶּגֶד סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ:

Ish al-diglo ve’otot leveit avotam yachanu benei Yisra’el mineged saviv le’ohel-mo’ed yachanu.

Deuteronomy 2:2

I don’t want to overwhelm us with commentery this week, but I want us to just quickly discuss the interesting points made by Rashi, the master commentary. But it’s essential we first connect to the discussion of the ages.

Rashi in his commentary makes sure we know what we are talking about, these otot – these signs, these symbols – he understands them to clearly mean flags. Notice how Rashi also describes these flags, pointing at their construction, he referred to them in Hebrew as mapa – meaning a tablecloth. This is what these “standards” were. Colored banners of cloth with symbols embroidered into them, hoisted on polls.

Rashi describes the background of the flags, saying that the color and hue of each was inspired after the color of their corresponding stone in the Breastplate of the High Priest. Thus each flag had distinctive colors, according to their distinct tribal identity. As each of these twelve stones were different, so too were each of the flags.

12 Shevatim Flags, MosaicThen Rashi gives us further details as to the appearance of the flags, and why they are called otot here – why they are to be understood as signs, and what the symbols mean. Rashi explains that each of the flags had a symbol placed on them. What type of symbol? Rashi says it was a symbol given to each tribe by Yaakov Avinu (באות שמסר להם יעקב), before his death in Egypt at the end of Genesis. (see Genesis chapters 49-50)

I was recently reminded of this lesson after a friend asked me to review some pictures of the historic Breed Street Shul, in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. Some have noticed that around the interior of the main sanctuary there are 12 symbols circling the entire sanctuary. Upon first glance, one cannot help but notice that most appear to be zodiac symbols, yet some figures do not seem to exactly fit this theme. This is not a unique depiction in this shul, it is actually quite common in classical synagogues as well.

Midrash based on this week’s Torah reading sheds some light on this subject. Our traditional folklore credits Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – as being among the first to assign symbolism to the zodiac. He, and Yakkov his grandson, are said to have correlated the symbols of the classical zodiac with the descriptions of these 12 tribal patriarchs given at their time of blessing. This is something that is reaffirmed as a long-held belief even in the classical age, as accounted by 2nd century Hellenistic writer Vettius Valens.

However, these signs are not all so obviously connected to the heavenly constellations they correspond to today. Instead the midrash explains them slightly different at times. For example, Zevulen is symbolized by a ship, Naftali an olive tree, Binyamin a wolf, etc. Each of these were to symbols useful to describe something about the nature of those tribes and what they were good at. As with Zevulen whose tribe is understood to have become great sea merchants, thus the ship.

And then at the center there was the flag of the Levites, whose ensign was a depiction of the multicolored breastplate which represented the 12 tribes of Israel. Their multifaceted emblem understood to be a symbolic representation of all the many colors of the Israelites.

Even today, in synagogues like the Breed Street, you will see depictions of the Twelve Tribes in the form of these traditional symbols which are only loosely related to the Zodiac. Instead what they really are present for, is to symbolize the balance and harmony of the tribes of Israel, each dwelling peaceably with their own clan as described here in this week’s parsha. (see diagram at the bottom)

boyle_2994

Inside the historic Breed Street Shul, Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California. The symbols of the Twelve Tribes still remain. In fact, the round Star of David stained glass pieces are just place holders for 12 original pieces depicting the 12 Tribes of Israel. They are being kept in storage for safekeeping during the restoration. Please see more images and a correspondence chart below.

As described in Rashi’s commentary for this verse, Yehudah leads in the east, along with Issachar and Zevulen. The tribes are further laid out in orders of three. Three tribes in the east, three south, three west, three north. With the Levites then leaning towards the middle. This symbolizes each dwelling harmoniously in their camp, each tribe at peace with each other. The flags they originated from are a thing of the past, but their symbols remain enshrined in Jewish art and architecture.

Before we move on from addressing the actual text here, I would like us to take notice of one other important point that cannot be missed. We need to understand why these groups and tribes did not fall into isolation.

The answer is found in explaining why the tribes were matched with each other, three tribes placed at each side of the Israelite encampments. The tribes were purposely made to dwell with other tribes as part of a local community and unit. Sometimes the matches were clearly ideal, like Issachar and Zevulen – who according to Jewish tradition were historical partners in enterprise and learning (see “The Torah-Business Partnership” at Chabad.org). So at times we can see the tribes paired together according to their natural alliances.

Sure these groupings were often based on fraternal feelings, in the most literal sense. Example, the tribes born to mother Leah are all placed in the east and the south. Those tribes alloted inheritance through Yosef – including Ephraim and Menasheh – were encamped together, thus all the descendants of Rachel were placed in the west. As we can see, the tribes most often – but not always – were grouped to camp with those they were most related to.

But like all nations and communities, the people of Israel were not just a grouping of like people and families. No, they were a composite of naturally distinct people who were expected to come together as a unified people.

This is a good thought to have in mind as we consider the often sung words of the psalms, “Hineh mah tov umah naim, shevet achim gam yachad / Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

Though the individual tribes of Israel had their own distinct characteristics and autonomous camps, they were still united as one people. They dwelt not just as brothers among themselves in completely isolated communities, but also as extended brothers in unity as one complete nation – one united people. They are thus named Am Yisrael – the nation, or literally, the people of Israel.

So now that we got all the smart stuff out of the way, what does this all mean? And how do we actually feel about this?

Let’s really think about this here, and vent some of the natural criticism that us Jews have for this text.

We see the tribes abiding by their flags. Camped and grouped according to paternal line – but also by maternal lineage in division, each person and family among their own clan. Sure we agree that they dwelt harmoniously, thus enabling them to not just encamp in their formations but also move forward in their desert migration as a cohesive unit. But nonetheless, for most of us modern people, today most have a problem with a description of people dwelling in such communities, that by todays standards are quite restrictive. We have a problem with the appearance of segregation.

And even more so, many people have a problem with the suggestion of the scriptures and midrashic tradition praising vexillophilia – which is just a long word for the love of collecting and studying flags. Yet our texts seemingly does. Indeed our texts call the tribes to fashion them, after their own identity. And then to dwell by them, encamped by tribe underneath them. This does not sit well with many, be they progressive or orthodox.

Actually it’s interesting that I bring up the Breed Street Shul, mostly because I recently had an argument with a lifelong friend of mine after he started bemoaning the presence of the American and Israeli flags in that complex, which is today being used as a cultural center. It should be noted that the Breed Street Shul was the first location in Los Angeles to hoist the flag of the newly recognized State of Israel, upon the UN recognition of the Jewish state. The connection to the Zionist cause historically runs deep in this community. I felt the symbols to be wholly appropriate and historically accurate, in face of objections.

I heard what he was saying though. The arguments he made were familiar ones which are quite common among many young Jewish people today. His arguments were slightly modified versions of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, mixed with his own theoretical sense of universalism – as opposed to restrictive nationalism.

Of course, our conversation came to an impasse when I could not condone the disparaging of the democratic tradition of America and the State of Israel. And more specifically when I would not trash the flag, nor be bullied into decrying the local custom of showing such symbols in public meeting halls and houses of worship.

But I’ll tell you the truth, the conversation set off a different journey of self-exploration on how I feel about flags and nationalism. Being challenged on this topic by someone I know very well, he appealed to my natural character to be opposed to nationalism. As I have always been a most aggressive opponents to ethnic nationalism and racism. Often finding myself verbally and physically opposing racial discrimination wrapped in a flag. He had a point that has been pricking in my side ever since.

Especially in the past few weeks. My own conflict on how I feel about nationalistic symbolism and their appropriateness was displayed in my feelings over recent communal celebrations in the area, such as Cinco de Mayo and the Israel Day Festival. On one had, I feel cynical regarding the celebrating Cinco de Mayo here in the USA. [It could be possible that my ill sentiments of Cinco de Mayo festivals are most derived from my childhood experiences, from before the city shut them down because of the violence at places like Lincoln Park, events which were often marred by the venting of racist nationalism of the worst nature.] Yet at the same time I do tend to feel somewhat welcoming to the recognition of Israeli Independence Day when it comes around. You would think as a Mexican-American I would feel the other way around. Or at least be consistent, and be completely opposed to the recognition of either celebration in diaspora.

I’ll admit, the inconstancy is something that has perplexed even myself. Even as I waved my little Israeli flag at the festival. I really thought about what it meant to me, and how it might also appear to outsiders who cannot internalize my love and support for the Jewish state. How can I seem to essentially promote Jewish nationalism? Does this not appear to compromise my core values which oppose exclusivity, racism and xenophobia?

I let my mind and heart wrestle with this, in hopes of coming to peace with this. Hopefully before the Fourth of July rolled around and I found myself struggling with this topic yet again. Before I unfurl the American flag and again begin to struggle with similar nationalistic sentiments and conflicts.

There is no way to avoid a certain truth about employing such symbolisms. When people begin to wave flags, most often they are making clear nationalistic statements. And nationalism seems to almost naturally have a tendency to result in chauvinism, which further leads to racism and xenophobia.

Nationalism, while it’s aims seem honorable in seeking to establishing people-hood and the building up of sound nation-states, it can also be a used as a very dangerous force. Nationalism can become a divisive and restrictive force. Often setting up barriers between regions and peoples. This is because nationalism is concerned with my people and my country – mine and not yours. Nationalism most often displays itself through regional struggles for resources, and even in senseless expansionism. And in senseless exclusion and persecution of others, simply for not being part of your tribe or people. Because your needs don’t really matter as much as mine, I can’t help you if I can’t help myself. That is how nationalism translates in the minds of many.

So how do I intellectually justify my own feelings of nationalism? How do I justify my own pride in and love for my country? Why not decry these structures all together?

I justify my support of the state in the same manner everyone else before me has, simply because that is the way things are. For now, this is the only way things can be. And like most citizens, I identify with the values and virtues of my country. I also accept the fact that at times nations must rise up to give life to their unique virtues. Nations and people seem naturally intended to rise to prominence to actualize a dream, and once accomplished they fade into the background. Disappearing into the larger fabric of history. That is how most of us understand the nature of nationalism.

Simply put, I support and identify with the western democratic tradition of American and the State of Israel because their vision and dream is still in the making. They are both young counties, who have yet to accomplish their goals before retiring themselves to the history books.

But even this intellectual justification does not completely set my mind at ease. Because I cannot deny the reality that nationalism can be a harmful force in any country or people.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

On the walls of the public housing near the entrance of the parking lot, facing Lorena near the corner of Olympic Blvd. Estrada Courts.

And this is probably where I’m going to upset everyone, but I must be honest. My own life experience, especially in light of the history of my community, makes me leery of nationalism.

Its well-known that I’ve traditionally been known to be an aggressive opponent of white nationalists – a.k.a. “skinheads,” but more precisely “white power” Nazi punks. Living my life in the punk rock scene it has been something that I have always had pushed in my face, naturally I’ve resisted and fought against such forces in the scene. In light of this it seems logical why I would so strongly oppose such things as ethnic nationalism. Because it’s an obvious offense to minorities such as myself.

But my opposition towards nationalism actually comes from somewhere closer to home. It is formed from my observations of nationalism gone awry in my own community – in the Latino community of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles; with “brown power” neo-nationalism. This is how I can say any type of nationalism can go wrong, even among disadvantaged minorities. My distaste for nationalism comes from seeing its divisive employment in my own minority community – among Latinos.

This topic comes to mind again, as recently racial and nationalistic tensions are once again begun to surface within this predominately Latino community (demographically, the area is 98.9% Latino). Most recently in the firebombing of four pubic housing units occupied by African-American families. (for details, also see: “Ramona Gardens Firebombing has some black residents fleeing the area,” LA Times)

I’m also finding it hard to ignore the obvious racism and chauvinism that is also being shown even more increasingly in the way people discuss the topic of gentrification and urban-renewal, along with the “white people” and minorities this is expected to attract to our communities. In the face of a perceived threat, some Latino people are once again trying to rebuild 1970s style nationalist protest movements to show dominance in this area.

ChakaArtist

Here we are talking about tribal and national symbols. Let us reflected on the growing tensions in Boyle Heights, and really consider how intentionally divisive and racially charged ways art, murals and nationalist symbols have been utilized in the eastside. How they are purposely employed to intimidate others out other races and nationalties out of our vicinity. We really need to reflect on how and why we need to move beyond this racial extremism, exclusivity and cultural hegemony. Notice it didn’t take long for this most infamous of the local graffiti inspired artists to validate my claims and understanding of this rhetoric for all of us.

As people of other races move in to the area one can’t help notice the rush to cover everything with a Mexican flag, armed revolutionaries or the Virgin of Guadalupe increases. Joining outdated slogans like, “Viva la raza” (meaning, long live our race) and the like which still theme this area. This all sits really badly with me, and I’m not at all quiet about it.

I challenge people on this. How can we attempt at being an open community in Boyle Heights when we cover our public housing in those areas exclusively in nationalistic and racially charged Chicano art? And by constantly covering everything with a Mexican flag? It’s not that I’m opposed to our ethnic art and cultural symbols being expressed in public. But I ask my people to consider if we are not being foolish in hollowing throwbacks from the most radical points of the civil rights movement. Could it be that nationalistic excesses in this art is sending a message that all other races and nationalities are not welcome here? Would it not be better for us as we grow as a community to mature into more inclusive tones? Is it not time that our nationalistic sentiments finally retire themselves, as the greater society moves beyond the ethnic divisions?

I must begin to speak up, not just for my own community. But also out of concern and communal solidarity with the African-American communities who are being violently targeted and squeezed out of their historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles by nationalist Latino gangs. (see “Racial Hate Feeds a Gang War’s Senseless Killing” and “Attack on family in Compton latest incident in wave of anti-black violence”) On behalf of the concerned members of the Latino community, I challenge the embedding of nationalism into our communities, because it’s unwise and divisive.

This is especially relevant for our community here in Boyle Heights, just as much as it is in most other inner-city communities. In fact, the way our racial and ethnic problems is being played out on the eastside is being modeled elsewhere, as the gang lifestyle and themes export themselves from our neighborhoods to build syndicate gang franchises in the inner-cities across the country. Its essential we tackle this issue here, and now. (see “Ramona Gardens Overcomes Past,” for some background on local racist sentiments and those who are working to overcome it.)

I think it is also important for us Latinos to employ new symbols of pride, which are sensitive. As us Latino quickly become the majority by sheer demographic growth in this country many among us are talking about what the future of the country will look like in generations to come. But we need to do some really good thinking. We need to decide if we are going to embrace people-hood with the other tribes of this country, or if we are going pursue cultural chauvinism and dominion.

This is what is running through my mind as I read these words in the Torah portion for this week, “The children of Israel shall encamp with each person near the banner which has his paternal family’s insignia.” (Deut. 2:3)

When we read about this topic of each tribe camping under their flags and tribal symbols in the Torah, I don’t see it as just majestic and lovely. On paper it looks nice. But I can also see where in the practical world, this can all go very wrong. When the use of flags and symbols is used to divide and distinguish, and not just as a mere symbol of pride. But can we tell the difference? I think that’s the problem, that sometimes people cannot.

Yes, I have a problem with the way some people in my community brandish the Mexican flag. Furthermore, I don’t just passively accept people reviving talk of a Mexican-American claim to the southwest and the expectation of social entitlement. This is the view which is most often paired with Mexican neo-nationalism. Along with a message for outsiders to stay out because this is ours, we should not have to share resources. This is the message being sent by many who aggressively embed the Mexican flag in our area. For me, this is wholly inappropriate, I just cannot do it. I cannot promote this type chauvinism in my community. From this, I feel I must have to abstain.

So how do I find it possible to raise other kinds of flags? Is this not hypocritical of me?

One of the reasons I can hold the American flag high is because I am an American. It is right for me to show my love for my own country, and in my own land. I see no problem with nationalism when properly expressed within the context of that nation. And because I stand proud in my identity as an American, which is not defined by any one color. We are all immigrant people, a nation of mixed heritage. A patchwork of cultures is sewn into the fabric of this nation. This flag does not just represent a sole nation built through the pooling of people of the same culture regionally, but of the gathering of people of many different traditions and origins to become a more perfect union. It is a country build upon the coming together of many people who value liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

Likewise I can also proudly hold high the flag of the State of Israel. Because that flag is a symbol of the national aspirations of the Jewish people, who are not one color or specific race either. It is the flag of a state which is a refuge and home to Jews of many origins and ethnic backgrounds. It is the historic homeland and the modern refuge for many Jews, established through democratic and political realities. I can support and defend the fineness of that vision. I can show solidarity with this civilization grounded both in faith and culture; all of which is above color, race and national origins. A country which also promises full civil rights to all the various non-Jewish minorities – the people of the historic Arab, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, Druze communities – who also take shelter in her.

In their own merit, I feel both the flags of the United State of American and the State of Israel are two symbols, which when used in their proper spirit and place, can be used as symbols of inclusivity and diversity. I sincerely believe that these symbols still speak of national hopes which are above race and ethnicity. If only people would aspire to fulfill those values embodied therein.

Discussion: When do you feel that use of national flags and symbolisms become excessive and unsavory? Have you ever felt “anti-flag?”

Pictures of art from the Breed Street Shul, with correspondence chart:

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The_Breed_Street_Shul_in_Boyle_Heights,_Los_Angeles

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breed-street-shul-in-boyle-heights

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The following chart is an original creation, for a study I made on Jewish mysticism relating to the tribes and months. This at displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah. It also lays out the exact order for the different signs displayed on the walls of the shul:

This chart is an original creation, designed for a study I once did many years ago on Jewish mysticism – relating to the traditional meditations (kavannot) upon the tribes and months. This displays the corresponding meditative thoughts and sequences, taught by Lurianic Kabbalah (mysticism as explained by the Ari z”l). It conveniently lays out the exact order for the different symbols displayed on the walls of the shul, and the meditative elements which relate to them.

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Parshat Kedoshim (5774)


Leviticus 19 – 20

Because “I Meant Well” Doesn’t Cut It

As we come into this week’s parsha we cannot avoid the fact that this week’s theme is holiness, Kedoshim means to be holy, to be sacred. Our parsha is named after the key word that leads this parsha, and the leading word in the phrase: “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani Hashem eloheichem / You shall be holy, for I, Hashem, am holy.” (Levitcus 19:2)

We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often trusting us to blindly to lead them. If we misadvise someone, its just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall

“We aught to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we mis-advise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall”

The Torah begins to detail what it means to be holy. Respecting your parents, and observing Shabbat. (v. 3) Not making worthless idols, but instead showing respect for the sacred service of Hashem. (v. 4) This all keeps in mind with lofty sacredness we normally associate with religion and tradition. (v. 5-8)

But then our Torah immediately begins to challenge us with addition demands which are not so heavenly, but instead focused on the way we treat other people. The Torah suggest that part of holiness is displayed by how care for our fellow man. At this time we are also commanded to leave behind some of the remaining crops after the harvest, and to leave the corners of the field so that they can be collected by the poor, and the stranger – the ger the resident alien (or the convert). (v. 10-11)

And then the Torah makes even more demands, ones of an ethical nature. That we do not steal, that we do not falsely deny people their property or deny our true intentions. That we not lie to our fellow. (v. 11) Lest we believe these demands are merely good civil suggestions, we see that our Torah presses the issue of honesty as being a matter of spiritual significance.

We cannot be dishonest with our fellow and expect that it to not eventually have mirroring consequences for how we respect the creator of man – Hashem our G-d. We are told that we should not be false because it can inevitably lead to one falsely swearing or testifying by G-d’s Name, and thereby, “chilul Hashem eloheichem / profane the Name of your G-d.” (v. 12)

This part of the Torah is elementary for every Jew. We understand that we are to deal fairly and honestly in all our dealing because our actions can lead to the desecration of G-d’s Name. It’s more than just taking a false oath and testifying dishonestly after swearing by G-d. We also understand that as Jews, as religious Jews, our actions have consequences. Acting poorly reflects badly upon our faith and diminishes people’s respect for our G-d. We drag G-d’s Name down into the muck with us when we act unethically.

Simply put, the command to be holy is so important because the world cannot comprehend our G-d as holy if the people who claim to represent Him act appallingly. This call of holiness is not just a demand for us to rise to holiness, but also a stern warning not to diminish the holiness of our righteous G-d through our actions.

So what are we next warned again? We are further commanded not oppress our fellow. To not rob them. And to not withhold the wages of the workers. (v. 13) The Torah talks about paying a laborer in the manner of a day laborer, at the end of the day and not stiffing them or holding out.

For just a moment I would like us to consider the plight of the many immigrants to this country who are most often oppressed, robed of all they have on their road to freedom, and then upon arrival most often exploited in employment because of their illegal status. Day laborers in this country are openly exploited in some of the most appalling ways.

The strangers in our midst – the ger, the immigrant and the convert – this is most often their reality. Being unfamiliar with our ways and at the mercy of the suggestions of others they are taken advantage of by not just the locals, but most often by other immigrants who insincerely swear they are merely looking out for this person’s best interests. But even if its obvious that is not true, the stranger isn’t in a position to defend themselves and therefore just learn to deal with it. As people siphen these laborers dough and resources. I see things like this near everyday in the barrio, with inappropriate demands and unfair pay. As I see it, the Torah’s commands are no less relevant to us today.

Before we move on, I would hope that we all make a commitment to deal fairly with all workers, both with our own citizens and the strangers in our midst. Even day laborers are entitled to a fair and timely wage according to our Torah!

However, today we are going to focus on the final verse of our first aliyah, verse 14. This next commandment related to holiness is the least understood of these statements. It reads:

“Do not not curse a deaf person.

Do not place a stumbling block

before a blind person.

You shall fear your G-d – I am Hashem.

| Lo-tekalel cheresh

| velifnei iver lo

| titen michshol

| veyareta me’Eloheicha ani Hashem

Leviticus 19:14

The placement of these commands should make sense to us. We have talked about the poor, the stranger, the laborer, and now it deals with the disabled. Specifically the deaf and the blind. That one should not curse them, nor be tricksters with them. One might ask themselves who would be cruel to a person and take advantage of them based on their condition? You would be surprised the callousness some people have. It should be severely obvious to us, we are commanded do not to mistreat the disabled.

Because it is also unthinkable to our rabbis that people should be so overtly cruel, the rabbis have tried to focus more deeply upon this message to make us realize that this commandment can also apply to each of us in more subtle ways.

Our sages are of the opinion that it is unthinkable for us to curse any living person, let alone a deaf person. That when the Torah makes this command it is merely to double reinforce this for their benefit! So our rabbis pretty much walk away from this saying not to curse anyone, but especially not the deaf. Because they can’t hear you, it’s cruel and unfair.

I agree with the sages on this. Our rabbis tend to see all of this verse in a more symbolic manner. They further draw ethical lessons from these verses for the benefit of all people. This has also been my understanding as I read these verses.

For example, the first phrase of our statement “do not curse a deaf person” also has figuratively meant to me to not get angry with people when they cannot hear what you are saying. When they just don’t have the ears to hear, they just aren’t capable of listening or giving heed to better advice.

Rashi’s advice also seems to follow a similar line of logic as we continue with the commentary for this verse, regarding the blind. The Rashi for the blind reads:

You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person: Before a person who is ‘blind’ regarding a matter, you shall not give advice that is improper for him. [For instance,] do not say to someone, ‘Sell your field and buy a donkey [with the proceeds],’ while [in truth] you plan to cheat him [by advising him to sell his field for a very low price for your own purpose,] since you yourself will take the field from him [for this low price].”

ולפני עור לא תתן מכשל: לפני הסומא בדבר לא תתן עצה שאינה הוגנת לו, אל תאמר מכור שדך וקח לך חמור, ואתה עוקף עליו ונוטלה הימנו:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

Rashi likens a person who is knowledgeable and clueless in a matter to one who is blind, for a person is indeed “blind” in that matter. When one can’t see for themselves what is true and what isn’t. They can’t see the path or dangers ahead, so they are dependent upon us to help them navigate that path. Since our trusted advice leads the way, it’s no less cruel to trip people up with advice than it is to physically stick out your leg and cause them to stumble. Sometimes our bad advice, that can be a stumbling block to others.

Rashi even outright tells that based on this command we are forbidden from giving advice that is improper for a person. We are commanded to keep in mind the best interest of the person, and not our own interests. Rashi tells us we are forbidden from giving advice which benefits us, instead of the person we are advising. That we benefit, as they stumble.

Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition seems to suggest to us that we should not be loose with handing out advice for which we have a financial interest in. Rashi makes this example, its like giving bad real estate advice to the needy, when your intention is to make a steal by acquiring their property below market value. Our rabbis thereby would suggest it is inappropriate for us to go around giving advice for which we have personal and special interests in, for which we ourselves profit.

Why not? Simply because it’s nearly impossible to be objective in one of those situations. That should be obvious.

Personally, I don’t necessarily like giving out personal advice to people. I always wait until asked, and I am always pensive about my responses. Making sure to keep in mind the situation and needs of the person I’m talking to. And always trying to leave my own interest out of it. But more often than not, I’m usually simply listening to people and helping them figure how to pick and approach the best of the choices present in their lives.

Honestly, I prefer to give my personal advice to people privately. As the internet is rife with people who loosely hand out advice on things. People who give you hokey advice, then want to “click here” to buy into it.

Personally I strive not to be one of them. I hope to share the personal knowledge I have, so that people can make better choices for themselves. But I believe the Torah herein tells us to be careful regarding our intentions when we suggest things to others.

Now the Internet personalities out there most certainly get upset when you pose it that way. Because it is very easy for one to snap back, “But you don’t know my intentions!” Precisely one cannot truly judge another person’s intentions, that’s another reason yet why we should restrain ourselves:

And you shall fear your G-d: [Why is this mentioned here?] Because this matter [of misadvising someone] is not discernible by people, whether this person had good or evil intentions, and he can avoid [being recriminated by his victim afterwards] by saying, ‘I meant well!’ Therefore, concerning this, it says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d,” Who knows your thoughts!’ Likewise, concerning anything known to the one who does it, but to which no one else is privy, Scripture says, ‘and you shall fear your G-d.’” – [Torath Kohanim 19:34]

ויראת מאלהיך: לפי שהדבר הזה אינו מסור לבריות לידע אם דעתו של זה לטובה או לרעה, ויכול להשמט ולומר לטובה נתכוונתי, לפיכך נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך המכיר מחשבותיך. וכן כל דבר המסור ללבו של אדם העושהו ואין שאר הבריות מכירות בו, נאמר בו ויראת מאלהיך:

Rashi, Levitcus 19:14

One of the reasons we need to keep from doing anything that looks inappropriate in our dealings with others is because they have no way at all of knowing our intentions. For in such a case, when things go sour, what is else can one say? Other than, “I meant well!” and, “I had the best intentions!” But the truth is that is insufficient of a statement. In fact Rashi and our rabbis would suggest that is merely a knee-jerk way of avoiding recrimination.

Rashi instead speaks to a person who uses such an excuse through this last clause, saying that you should fear G-d. Because He really does know whats going on inside your head, and in your heart. Therefore fear G-d – or more appropriate, show respect for G-d – and know that He is privy to your private thoughts. One should consider if their intentions are really so pure, or if they are instead colored by personal bias or financial interest. And be aware that even when we don’t consciously recognize it, G-d does know and will judge us accordingly. G-d seeing all the factors, even the ones we choose to leave out and ignore.

When we do things that are inappropriate and non-transparent we not only jeopardize our own sacredness, but we also profane the Name of G-d. When we engage in things that may appear inappropriate we show a shocking lack of respect for G-d, not just for man.

Lesson of the Week: We ought to really consider the advice that we give people, realizing that people are often blindly trusting us to lead them. If we misadvise someone, it’s just like setting up a stumbling block which causes them to fall.

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