Tag Archives: LGBT

Parshat Shoftim (2013)

Parshat Shoftim
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9

How does the Torah define perversion? When the law becomes deviant.

_img-sefer-gavelHow often do you hear politicians and lobbyist groups talking about uprooting perversion in our country? It is a chorus that is ringing all over the world as people begin to feel social and economic turmoil. People are once again being singled out by the state, being blamed for destroying the moral and cultural fabric of a nation. For many of us Jews, to see state-sponsored persecution abound is something traumatic after the experiences of the Shoah – the holocaust of World War II. How can we respond to this?

It is true that the Torah does charge us with a call for holiness and purity, and also to do away with foreign ways and false religion. But it also charges us with justice and righteousness. So important is this charge that the discussion of holiness and Temple worship is temporarily suspended in this book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) to talk about setting up the courts of justice in a simple three verse clause (see Deut. 16:18-20).

At all the gates court is to be held by shoftim – judges, magistrates – who are to hand down mishpat tzedek – just rulings, or righteous judgment as some people poetically say.

As previously discussed (see Parshat Shoftim 2011), we are told to not twist (or bend) judgment (lo-tateh mishpat), nor show favoritism; nor are we to take a bribe, as that blinds the eyes of the wise. Then it continues with the words, “v’sulaf divrei tzedek / and you shall not pervert words of justice.” (see Deut. 16:19)

From this perspective we need to think differently about who we call perverts, and whom we call bent or twisted.

I call this to our attention because we all know the next words of the Torah, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof / Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (see Deut. 16:20) One might ask themselves why we are told to radaf – to pursue, to run after justice and righteousness. The reason is obviously because justice if often hard to grasp, and can often elude us. Yes, we are to chase down justice. However it means something more still. To radaf means to seek something with persistence; hauntingly, annoyingly, to trouble someone until justice is met. Most of us are annoying people already, if only we would use it for a righteous purpose!

How can we do that? By opposing policies and regimes which pervert words of justice (v’sulaf divrei tzedek). By actively opposing those who warp the legal system which meant to set policy for the betterment of all people, and instead turn the law into an element of oppression. Those which exchange words of righteousness for words of persecution.

Now I want to remind us that this is all talked about in the context of not showing favoritism nor taking bribes. We are instead instructed to continue to pursue justice in the face of this. Why must we pursue it? For what reason do we have to chase after it?

It’s because sometimes justice is not something easily attained. Sometimes there is all kinds of bribery, or as in our society this most often displayed as a flagrant use of corporate influence. We are not to give in to this ourselves, but keep bringing up “divrei” – not just mere words; this also quite literally means “cases” or “matters” or “legal opinions.” We continue to annoyingly raise these issues in the public square and in the courts until justice is met.

I want to point out that this text does not just speak to the judges, it speaks to us all by stating “you shall not bend judgment.” Or as most often stated, “you shall not pervert judgment.” It calls us all to look at ourselves and ask ourselves; have we become distorted, deviated and twisted in our own sense of justice? Are we negatively using our influence to harm others, or are we actively pursuing true justice?

Parshat Noach (2012)

Genesis 6:9-11:32

Are We Living In the Days of Noah, again?

No Angry PeachersOne of the worst times for me is elections season. We find ourselves in the midst of it yet again here in the United States, and coming up soon in Israel as well. More and more I find it hard to follow the news and social media because I find the politicking growing more unsavory. Seeing how uncivil people can be about “civil elections” is something I find quite distressing. What hurts more than the secular media sometimes is the how unbecoming religious spokesmen are acting, becoming more brazen by the day in their fiery messages. They reckon themselves like the prophets of old calling back the nation from the brink of apocalypse to a better and more wholesome way.

Now that’s not to say I haven’t heard some crazy stuff in my day. Even as a kid I heard the rabbis and preachers doing this. And when they had to justify why they would be so frazzled and anxious they would tell the public that this world is “going to hell in a hand-basket.” They would talk about how bad morality and ethics have fallen to the point that we were seeing the reemergence of sinfulness like in the days of Noah, contending they need to warn of the coming disaster. They would come to this conclusion by bringing down this text to us:

“Now the earth was full of corruption

before G-d

and the earth became full of robbery.

And G-d saw the earth

and behold

it had become corrupt

for all flesh had corrupted

it’s way upon the earth.

And G-d said to Noah:

‘The end of all flesh has come before Me.

For the earth has become full of robbery

because of them,

and behold,

I am destroying them from the earth.’”

| Vatishachet ha’aretz| lifnei ha’Elohim

| vatimale ha’aretz chamas.

| Vayar Elohim et-ha’aretz

| vehineh

| nishchatah

| ki-hishchit kol-basar

| et-darko al-ha’aretz.

| Vayomer Elohim le-Noach

| ketz kol-basar ba lefanai

| ki-male’ah ha’aretz chamas

| mipeneihem

| vehineni

| mashchitam et-ha’aretz.

Genesis 6:11-13

Now I have to admit that this kind of extremity, the merging of fire-and-brimstone with the deluge in order to catch people’s attention, is normally more of an American form of fanaticism and usually more common to the Christian culture of North America. However, in recent years with the rise of terrorism in the West and the threat of a potential nuclear threat looming in the Middle-East Jews in Israel have become more flagrant about using this tone.

In all honesty, in our Jewish tradition we have some strange occurrences of midrashic and widely known rabbinic interpretation which has been used to justify this type tone. More often that not the haredi voices I have listened to who are provocative in this manner have often blamed failing morals in the world for threatening our existence on the face of the earth. We are in a fight against barbarism. Why would G-d leave us exposed to such threats in the world, they rhetorically ask. Then they posit that it is because we are exposing ourselves to a threat on account of immorality in the world. They cite the text above that all flesh had become corrupt before G-d, and they emphasis the flesh in that statement. Of course at the height of that list of immoralities in our society they will cite homosexuality and the threat of gay marriage.

Now I’m not gonna talk about the issues of human sexuality, that’s not the topic at hand in this parsha anyway. But you wouldn’t know it by the devrei Torah these hysterical moralists give. In fact it has become more common in recent year for people to pull old and obscured midrashim out and batter people with them, with statements like, “Did you know the midrash says that in the days of Noah they were so depraved that men made ketubot (marriage contracts) with men; two men. It also says they even allowed men to marry their animals. If we allow these gays and their marriages it’s gonna happen all over again and bring destruction on us all.” I wish I was exaggerating, but I have literally heard this said many times.

Now this is not the first example of extreme legends held within the midrash, and it is not exactly without certain precedent even in our most accessible off rabbinic commentaries. Rashi’s commentary, a staple in almost all chumashim (Pentateuchs), his teaching on these verse also gives us a fantastical story. It suggests that when our parsha says “all flesh was corrupt on the earth” that even the cattle, animals and birds upon the earth began to mate with other species of animals.

Now, again, I’m not to gonna argue the issues of human sexuality; neither am I gonna go beyond merely pointing out that this is a bit over-the-top because in the modern world we know that animals also naturally have occurrences of divergent sexuality. You can’t fight science with fundamentalists, because they don’t really understand it, but try very hard to make their assumptions sound scientific. A perfect example is currently in Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, they have a new “scientific Muslim study” that shows that if they allow women to drive people will become homosexuals and addicted to pornography.

For some reason the only thing that Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalist seem to have in common is their insistence on being prophets of doom that people’s private sexuality will bring the end to civilization.

Now the above midrash noted by Rashi has unfortunately been pushed further by many modern thinkers and translators that are less than honest in their attempt to stand against perversion. Because that is what it comes down to, the above interpretation says that even the animals had become perverted in their sexuality, like humans had. With this in mind I found the following odd interpretation that over steps their presentation of Rashi’s commentary, the original is on the right and the interpolation is presented in English:

The end of all flesh: Wherever you find promiscuity (and idolatry), a pestilence comes upon the world and kills both good and bad alike. — [from Gen. Rabbah 26:5] Note that parenthetic words do not appear in Gen. Rabbah , Lev. Rabbah, or in early mss. and printed editions of Rashi. We have translated אַנְדְרוֹלוּמוּסְיָה as pestilence, following Aruch.”

קץ כל בשר: כל מקום שאתה מוצא זנות ועבודה זרה, אנדרלמוסיא באה לעולם והורגת טובים ורעים:

Rashi on Genesis 6:13, The Judaica Press (emphasis my own)

Now there is a few things I would like to point out about the hastiness and over-zealousness of the translators in interpreting this text according to a line of thinking they have already decided. They conclude that based on the previous verse, that the animals had become sexually deviant, the next interpretation is all about deviance as well but this time it is talking about its manifestation in human behavior. They begin to harp in that melody.

Now this is a high respected translation, presented on probably the top Orthodox Jewish website in the world, however it is tragically wrong in how it brings down this supposed translation. First off it is not true to the text itself, which is clearly evident by any Hebrew reader. The text clearly reads that where ever you find motzei z’not – places of whore-dome – it brings an’deralamusiah – chaos or bedlam. Interestingly it rolls back the Rashi text, for seemingly sensible reasons, but ignore the likeliness of the context that explains the evolution of this commentary text. It would rather us believe that in some point in the past sexual promiscuity was a greater stigma and was less rampant than it is today, which could not be further form the truth.

It should be obvious to us that promiscuity was an issue that was prevalent at all times even in the times of the scriptures, but there are some distinctions from what we see today. Most of the examples the Bible provides stand out clearly to us as a form of apostasy and idolatry. It was common for the nations to worship their gods through sexual acts with maidens and priestesses, that way uniting themselves in a physical and mystical union with their deities. This is what made the sins of harlotry so wrong, look at the story of Pincha’s zealotry where he flared up because the people who attached themselves to the G-d of the Moabites through sleeping with their daughters, it wasn’t just per-marital sex (Numbers 25:1-3; see my study on Parshat Pinchas 2011). We aren’t talking about general promiscuity, which is not necessarily considered a sin in the ancient culture the same way adultery was. The problem is that more often than not in the ancient world whore-dome was religiously institutionalized and thus given a certain sense of respectability in the culture. As the Jews became more acculturated with foreign ways this obscenity began to permeate until we find the later prophets chastise the people for doing pagan worship in the Temple itself, with even fathers and sons going to the same whore-maid, it says to profane His Name, and they would copulate on piles of clothes near the altars they erected. (Amos 2:7-8) Think about it, we have no concept of “fornication,” meaning the sin of per-marital sex in our tradition at all.

However, we do have a very common Hebrew word that stands out to show us that this above interpretation is incorrect, the word zonah. Now I hardly have to translate that word for the Hebrew speaker, we know what that word is, it’s the archaic way of saying whore; but it’s not so out-dated that you wont hear it every few minutes in a packed Israeli street of irritated people, slurring each other with “Ben zona / son of a prostitute.” The word promiscuity is incorrect, motzei z’not are places of prostitution. Likewise the word an’deralamusiah does not mean pestilence, it clearly means chaos, bedlam, causing a racket. This is not ambiguous wording at all. Such practices cause hell to break loose in places prostitution permeates, it does not suggest that it brings disease as is loosely suggested by this paraphrase of Rashi, even if that is true. People are pushing the text further than it intends to go.

Now I have never wanted to point out this issue in the text because any of us who know this type of stuff have probably heard it in part presented by homosexual rights leaders and their apologists. I don’t consider myself one of those people, I am not smart enough to tackle that issue definitively or without prejudice in the eyes of others. And I have not wanted to necessarily associate with leftists who push the text of scriptures too far too and see gay people all over the pages of the Bible, to feel like they are justified; I think that is silly. However, it is true that the argument that is made stating that private sexuality is not considered the driving vice that brings wrath from G-d in His Torah, it is people’s idolatry through their sexual perversions which is a concept that is supported by our rabbis. This dishonesty to faithful present our tradition by zealous moralists only leads to the conclusions for some that there is no form of intellectual honesty in our faith so that one should respect it, instead only scaring people with exaggerations.

I do not want to speak ill of our rabbis, and the scholars who invest in these sacred works of teaching and translating our classical works, however when they are incorrect it needs to be addressed. This is nothing more Jewish that struggling with the opinions! I respectfully suggest that such translators are just not able to contextualize the meaning of the text. A perfect example of their honorable attempt at honesty, even if it led to wrong conclusions, is shown in their attempt at trying to simplify the text and harmonize their interpretations they have taken, they also suggest that the meaning of idolatry (adodah zara) was not a driving characteristic meant. It doesn’t belong in the text they suggest. They instead seem to feel that this rectification of the text to specifically point out this truth is not really a genuine point.

The problem is that they don’t seem to be able to contextualize the age in which Rashi lived and what was happening in Europe at the time. Harlotry under the hidden auspices of the Catholic Church was prevalent in his age and obvious to him that this was just another element of them still allowing pagan practices in their religion of idolatry. Though celibacy was encouraged by the church as early as the later 3rd century in an attempt to curb this, it was not pushed until the end of the 11th century, and the clean-up process took much longer to accomplish yet. This was so notorious the Protestant Reformers of 16th century readily pointed out the whore-dome in the monasteries and illicit sexuality in the Catholic Church as an example of their moral error. Only over time as the image of their heresy cleaned up does it appear the rabbinic scholars feel they needed to make the point more explicit. In reality we should see that religious sex heresies were present from the days of Moses until the days of Rashi (11th century) in such evident ways it didn’t need to be further explained. In fact, they might have been worse than anything we can imagine today.

Now I must bring us back to the text and remind us that this is not all Rashi says on the subject. It is also important to once again point out this is not the message of the Torah here at all. What is the real issue at hand, what is it that is so vile and ungodly that it brings destruction upon all flesh, both wrong-doer and the innocent that they perish all together? Notice the next line of Rashi:

For the land was filled with

chamas [robbery]:

Their fate was only sealed because of theft.”

כי מלאה הארץ |

חמס: |

לא נחתם גזר דינם אלא על הגזל: |

Rashi (France, 11th century) on Genesis 6:13

In reality the reason that we shouldn’t have to do so much work to try to get the plain meaning of the text out of the statement is because it should be completely obvious. The issue of promiscuity and perversion was not the driving factor here that brought about the flood, it was chamas. Interesting word chamas, pronounced exactly like the Palestinian terror organization in Gaza (not exactly a cognate, but a coincidence based the fact all Semitic languages use a shared alphabet and three letter root structure system), which is very appropriate, because chamas means to violently rob a person; it has every connotation of mugging a person at gunpoint. In the literary sense it means to rob a person and oppress; when used as a noun it not only means robbery and theft, but poetically it means evil-doing. This was their sin that ill-fated the people in the age of Noah, this was the sin that made them so evil. Even aside from Rashi’s commentary the statement is explicit, it tells us in the actual scriptural text of our parsha both before and after the questionable verse, that the earth was filled with robbery. It was violent theft that sealed their fate.

Now, it is my duty to remind people that even if we were to argue that this interpretation of Rashi’s commentary is correct, Rashi is not the final and decisive voice in Torah interpretation. A good chumash is always filled with several forms of commentary, among them most often is the Ramban. And if we were to review the commentary of the Ramban we would see an explicit blow made to any attempt to use this text for moralizing by those caught up in their delusions of prophetic grandeur. The Ramban takes it back even further, and rejects the idea of perversion all together, and merely sees the corruptions spoken of at face value; corruption had caused such violence that ordinary life was disrupted.

Our tradition is usually very honest. We are a people who hold intellectual honesty very high. We do not have room for such politicking and moralizing in our midst, especially when it distracts from us really focusing on the true meaning of Torah. That does not mean that we need to hold back the message or that it is inappropriate for our scholars to add some glossing to the text so its more readable for the average user. To prove this point we can look to other Orthodox examples of translation of classical commentary as we review the position of the Ramban:

“In the plain (non- Midrashic) meaning of the term, all flesh simply means ‘all mankind,’ and it does not include the animals…“[Chamas] Injustice – this refers to robbery and fraud. [G-d] gave Noah the reason for the destruction of the earth as injustice, and did not mention the other sin of ‘corrupting way,’ because injustice is a known and public sin, whereas sexual immorality is a private sin. The Sages (Sanhedrin 108a), however, said that the reason only injustice is mentioned here is that it was specifically over [injustice] that their decree was sealed, and not over sexual immorality. The reason why this sin sealed their fate over all others is because it is a law that is intuitively understood, and [the people] had no need for a prophet to warn them about it, unlike sin of sexual immorality, which people could conceivably rationalize. Furthermore, [injustice] is an evil both toward G-d and toward men, while sexual immorality does not necessarily involve harming another person.”

ועל דרך הפשט כל בשרזה כל האדם….

חמס: הוא הגזל והעושק. ונתן לנח הטעם בחמס ולא הזכיר השחתת הדרך, כי החמס הוא החטא הידוע והמפורסם. ורבותינו אמרו (סנהדרין קח עא) שעליו נתחתם גזר דינם. והטעם מפני שהוא מצוה מושכלת אין להם בה צורך לנביא מזהיר, ועוד שהוא רע לשמים ולבריות.

Ramban (Spain, 13th century) on Genesis 6:12-13 (Artscroll/Mesorah Publications)

The Ramban is making the point in his commentary that the plain and obvious meaning of the text is that all flesh only refers to the humans, it does not mean the animals as that is midrash (legend). Sure the animals suffered in the flood, innocents suffering with the culpable human race, but the corruption spoken of was that of mankind alone. The Ramban contends in line with Rashi that only reason the earth was subject to the flood because of robbery and fraud. The people had become so corrupt that the whole world was filled with violent theft and injustice.

What’s also interesting about making the connection about people saying they are prophets like the day of Noah, in that they damn themselves. Because as our rabbis almost all across the board argue, Noah was not really much of a prophet if he can be called that at all. He didn’t warn people about anything, he just built his ark for his own safety and that of his family, and for that our tradition cries out against him. The Ramban says that it’s inconsequential because their sin was a public sin as described in the Talmud, they really didn’t need a prophet anyhow. Everyone could see what the problem of their corruption, fraud and violence had brought upon the world. He says that it’s just known inside a person when they are corrupt and fraudulent they are in the wrong, it doesn’t need to be told to anyone. It’s not just an evil toward G-d as sexual sin is, it’s an evil against mankind. G-d didn’t send them a prophet. Their sins were not as “simple” as the ones people kept behind closed doors, it was the open fraud and violence that permeated the face of the earth that destroyed life for all on it.

Do I think we are in the days of Noah? I don’t know, my friend. But what I do know is that if we are then we are in the same situation then, G-d has not sent us any prophets and our downfall is because of our corruption. G-d has not sent these wild-eyed preachers who moralize about promiscuity endlessly, while turning a blind eye to chamas – fraud, theft, violence and oppression. These are false prophets, hysterics that fantasize about a cloistered world achieved through warfare. They are present on every continent dreaming of rolling back humanity to some simpler, golden-age that never existed where halacha, or sharia, or canon law, and the like ruled. We cannot give room for this because it distracts from the obvious things that should convict us; injustice.

Parshat Vayeira (2011)

Parshat Vayeira
Genesis 18 – 22

Political Terminology Aside, Avraham Avinu Was the First Progressive

Abraham and Three AngelsAs we begin this weeks parsha it is important to look at the very reason we go through the Torah on a circuit; week by week, making our way through the designated section. The reason is because context is everything. Though the Torah is given to us as a great story, it was written in an ancient time where both writing medium and method were not easy to implement, so it does not concern itself so much with normal narrative. It was important first off to be concise. One of the ways of being concise is grouping things of relevance together, in order to give meaning to the narrative and the common concepts. It was not important for the authors to necessarily be historical, as much as it is to convey the ethic that is at the heart of the story.

When this parsha begins we are immediately thrown into an encounter between Abraham and G-d’s messengers, melachim. We figuratively understand these to mean angels but it is true that this word means nothing more than a messenger. In fact, the suggestion of a malach (angel) does not appear until chapter 19. Here it only refers to the visitors that Abraham encounters and anashim; men, nameless and anonymous men.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this point, but Abraham as the master of Semitic virtues of hospitality did not concern himself with the identity of these men, nor his own situation when he takes in these strangers. He felt obligated to care for the wandering stranger. In fact when these travelers come upon Abraham it is immediately after his circumcision, we are told in Talmud Bava Metzia 86b that this is just three days after Abraham’s circumcision while he is still in pain and caring for his wounds. In the Talmud the story is related that Abraham feels so driven by his ethic of caring for the traveling stranger that he sends his servant Eliezar to look for other nomads. When he comes back with no one to host Abraham decides to prop himself up at the entrance of his tent and look for visitors himself. Though deterred by the heat of the day and his physical limitations Abraham had no intention on slacking on his responsibility, so G-d sends the angels in the form of men to visit with him.

We have a picture of Abraham as the angels appear, wrapping his bandages around himself, barely able to move, prostrating himself on the floor and begging for their patience as he provides basic accommodations for them. Though they seemed ready to move on so as not bother Abraham in almost embarrassment of his humility, Abraham begs for them to stay with him. To the merit of our father Abraham he did more than just provide the bare necessities, instead he waits upon them bringing multiple courses both of a nourishing dairy meal and then even a feast of a fattened calf. This is the example that is set before us of how one is to care for a guest and a stranger. This is why this is presented to us. Though the announcement of Isaac’s birth is mentioned in this encounter it is not the primary topic that we have moving into this parsha, the promise of making Abraham a father of many nations is already a given.

This is clearly stated within our text. For as often as our scriptures go out of their way to not waste unnecessary words on redundant phrases, here twice in chapter 18 alone we see the certainty of the promise to Abraham. First during the meal it is stated by one of the messengers of G-d that “Shov ashuv aylecha kaeit chaya / Certainly I will return to you at this season / v’hinai ben l’Sarah ishtecha / and behold Sarah your wife will have a son” (v.10) and again in verse 18 it is mentioned among the messengers themselves “v’avraham hayu yehiyeh l’goy gadol v’atzum / Since Abraham will become a great nation, that is enormous/numerous…”. This visit might have been the setting in which the announcement of Isaac’s birth was presented but it was not the central reason for this encounter, it’s the symbol of the hospitality which take up about 10 verses, the discussion about Isaac’s birth takes up only about 5 verses. This encounter is about showing us the moral context of that age and culture, not interested in giving us a chronological story. Because notice that one year later when Isaac is born we do not see in the scriptures any mention given of the angel returning; it’s not an error on the part of the writer, it’s just not important in comparison to the central theme which is going to be the treatment of a sojourner in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Later in the story Lot is going to show he still maintains his cultural sensibilities in welcoming in strangers, which is going to result in the inhabitants of Sodom showing total ethical decay in seeking to harm these visiting strangers. Their disregard for the stranger in their midst is spelled out for us in their cry of “ha-echad ba la’gur vayishpot shafot / this one came as a sojourner, and now he must sentence us as a judge?” But it is precisely because Lot was a sojourner that he knew what the experience of being a stranger was. And being a nomad most of his life he offered hospitality to guests as the custom required and out of sympathy. This commandment to care for the stranger would be one of the most often repeated commandments given in the scriptures, being made even more personal for the people of Israel later on in the words, “You shall neither mistreat nor oppress the sojourner, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” – Exodus 22:21. You will also see this echoed in Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Deuteronomy 27:1, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Zechariah 7:9-10, and Malachi 3:5.

This is an ethic that is going to be firmly maintained throughout Jewish history and will be clearly summarized in prophetic judgment against Jerusalem by the prophet Ezekiel some 14 centuries later:

“Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister |

Sodom: pride, |

fullness of bread, |

and careless ease was in her |

and in her daughters; |

neither did she strengthen |

the hand of the poor and needy. |

They were haughty, |

and committed abomination before Me; |

therefore I removed them when I saw it.” |

הִנֵּהזֶה הָיָה, עֲו‍ֹן

סְדֹם אֲחוֹתֵךְ:

גָּאוֹן שִׂבְעַתלֶחֶם

וְשַׁלְוַת הַשְׁקֵט,

הָיָה לָהּ וְלִבְנוֹתֶיהָ,

וְיַדעָנִי וְאֶבְיוֹן, לֹא הֶחֱזִיקָה.


וַתַּעֲשֶׂינָה תוֹעֵבָה לְפָנָי;

וָאָסִיר אֶתְהֶן,

כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאִיתִי

Ezekiel 16:49-50

Now you might wonder why I seem to disparage the name of Lot. Quite frankly I don’t really see him as all that impressive of a person. I surely would not, in my own personal opinion, count him as someone who is a saint (the title which he holds in Catholic tradition for example). Lot is mentioned here not necessarily for his goodness, but almost as an example of one who is mediocre in his morality and still seems to benefit in spite of himself. In last weeks parsha we learned that Lot was the nephew of Abraham, and was one of the few people to leave the homeland with him (Gen. 12:4-5). At the time when Abraham left he was already 75 years old. Lot, his brothers son, became like a son to him. They would journey together and reach the land that was promised to Abraham. And at that time, despite the promise that Abraham had of becoming a great nation he still considered Lot as his only possible heir. For this reason Abraham granted him an inheritance and split the promised land, Abraham going to north and west of the present day Dead Sea toward Hevron and giving Lot the inhabited lands of the south and east. Lot wanted the city life, so Abraham took the plains.

However, we quickly learn that Sodom, where Lot had settled, was invaded and he was taken as a captive slave along with his possessions. (Gen. 14:11) This should not come to too much as a surprise because in chapter 13 verse 13 we are told that the inhabitants of Sodom were very malicious and sinful people, it appears that trouble had quickly come knocking at their door. Abraham then rescues Lot and liberates the land, subsequently Lot returns to Sodom and does not join again with Abraham. So disgusted with the ways of Lot Abraham must have been. He apparently didn’t think Lot was going to make it to be much of an heir so he began to consider the fact that Eliezar his slave could end up being his only heir, and then considered even naming any male born in his house as heir (chapter 15). But nonetheless Abraham loved Lot and it was well established by the example that he had set earlier that he was going to rescue this kinsmen of his at any risk to himself. This is why the Torah went out of the way to tell this story of Lot’s rescue earlier, to show the motivation of Abraham’s heart to save his beloved relative.

When the angels arise in verse 16 and start to head towards Sodom, Abraham is said to escort them along the way, all the while Rashi tells us he still believed they were just nomadic travelers. At this point the narrative changes:

“And Hashem said,

‘Shall I conceal from Abraham

that which I am doing?'”

| Va’Hashem amar

| hamechaseh ani me’Avraham

| asher ani oseh

Genesis 18:17

At this point we see a truly remarkable move, one that stands out as an astonishing moment in the history of interaction between G-d and man. G-d begins to consult with man, He begins to reveal His ways to Abraham. But something more dynamic is happening here than just that, we have seen G-d speaking to humans many other times leading up until now. The truly interesting part is that G-d is actually considering the reactions of Abraham to His plan, and even more exemplary Abraham is responding with true conviction of his position.

In verse 19 we have what appears as a verse of praise of Abraham’s directing his clan towards living a life of righteousness and doing justice, but it is also an indication that Abraham had his people always ready, on command, like a standing army to act in the aid of others. At the first indication of trouble in Sodom and Gomorrah Abraham would send help. Verses 18-19 are a very complicated way of saying that if G-d does not warn Abraham he is going to take his clan in a rescue and risk getting carried away in the destruction. Therefore he needs to be advised what is going take place.

This is what I find so amazing about this story, that Abraham was so reckless in his pursuit of doing righteousness and justice that G-d needed to plan around Abraham’s reactions. Abraham was living up to the call made on him by G-d in chapter 17:1,

“I am the Almighty,

walk before Me and be wholehearted.”

| Ani el shadai

| hit’halech lifnei vehayeh tamim

Genesis 17:1

Walk Before Me

Now, I’d hate to sound trite in bringing up the often considered distinction made between the righteousness of Abraham and that of Noah; but it is needfully important for us to consider it. All you faithful Torah students, humor me just for a while as we look at this once again.

In the face of the past cataclysmic form of judgment we saw enacted by G-d through the great flood, we see the description of Noah as “Et elohim hithalech noach / Noach walked with G-d.” Actually it says a bit more, it first says “Noach ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav / Noach was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation.” And this is where our frequently mentioned Midrash takes over. It’s not just a best loved point in our day, it was so in the Talmudic age as well because we see it mentioned in Sanhedrin 108a, Midrash Rabbah 30 and Midrash Tanchumah 5; which is likewise noted by Rashi, which is why most of us know this point. The point being that understanding the nature of Noah’s level of righteousness was held in the words “in his generation.” It’s noted that the best that can be said concerning Noah is that if he had lived among other righteous people he might have been a better person, but for his generation he wasn’t such a bad guy. But Rashi seems of the opinion that it is blatantly derogatory towards Noah, saying “but if he had been in Abraham’s generation, he would not have been considered of any importance.”

If we go back to the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 108a we are told that the School of Ishmael is of the opinion that G-d was sorry he made all flesh on account of their corruptness, and the judgment being carried out rightfully included Noah; but nevertheless Noah was shown favor by G-d that He should save him, in spite of himself. Noah is one of the sinners.

Midrash Rabbah 30:9 makes the most interesting of descriptions when it comes to Noah, trying to sum up opinions presented in the Talmud section mentioned above us tries to bring this home to us in the age or Torah living, saying: “Had he lived in the age of Moses, he might be compared to a tightly closed vial of perfume lying in a graveyard, which nevertheless gave forth a fragrant odor; how much more then if it were outside a graveyard!”

In fact in all the commentary of Noah there is only one Rabbi that comes to the defense of Noah, Rabbi Yose of Cesaria who claims that Noah as a righteous man surely reached out to the people in order that they repent and to save them from judgment. But in unison the Rabbis reply that they don’t see it, that is precisely what he did not attempt to do at all.

What we have is the image of a Noah that once the destruction was pronounced by ha-elohim, G-d using His name of judgment and authority, Noah is in step with it and never challenges it nor questions it. There is no intercession on behalf of the people, nor is there any evidence of an attempt to save anyone else. Not to get sidetracked, but that was one of the interesting things about Noah’s situation was that all he had to do was create the ark. Everything else would be taking care of by G-d Himself. In fact that was one of the stipulations of the covenant that G-d made with Noah in return for his obedience for building the ark, that He would cause the animals and his family to come into it and be saved. He didn’t need to do any saving, G-d was going to do the saving he just had to make the room (Gen. 6:18).

Our Midrash, brings us back to Abraham now in contrast to Noah saying:


Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Nechemiah, |

Rabbi Yose said: |

This may be compared to a king |

who had two sons, |

one grown up and the other a small child. |

To the child he said ‘walk with me,’ |

but to the adult, ‘Walk before me.’ |

Similarly, to Abraham, whose |

[moral] strength was great [He said] |

‘Walk before Me’; |

of Noah, whose strength was feeble |

[it says], ‘Noah walked with G-d.” |

את האלהים התהלך נח

ריהודה ורנחמיה

רי אמר

משל לשר שהיו

לו שני בנים

אגדול ואקטן

אמר לקטן הלך עמי

ואמר לגדול בא והלך לפני

כך אברהם

שהיה כחו יפה

התהלך לפני

והיה תמים אבל נח שהיה כחו רע

את האלהים התהלך נח

Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 30:10

Noah is presented as being a feeble, almost sickly child needing to be helped along. But Abraham in contrast is one that goes before G-d as an mature adult, leading the way of morality.

Our Rabbis come to this conclusion of Abraham, though without directly saying, because of his vigorous debate with G-d at this point concerning the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact even before we get to the debate it appears that the messengers needed to try to get the shake on Abraham because he’s not gonna like what he has to hear.

The messengers get up to go and one of them stops to speak with Abraham, revealing who they are and what the plan is. G-d spells it out for Abraham, not just the judgment, but also that but he is going to “descend and see, have they done everything implied by the outcry that is coming before Me? If not, I will know.”

As Abraham is being distracted in conversation, we read, “vayifanu misham ha-anashim / and the men turned from there / vayahlchu sidomah / and went toward Sodom.” We are told that messengers had to divert their path. Why? “v’Avraham odenu omed, lifney Hashem / because Abraham stood before Hashem.” Though G-d is revealing He is going to send His messengers to know for certain and witness the situation, Abraham is still not satisfied and tries to stand in front of them. The angel speaking with Abraham disappears, the others have left so now he takes up the issues with G-d directly referring to Him by His name of mercy and in a personal tone as “adonai.” (note: not YHVH, though that is who is being addressed he only calls Him “adonai,” showing He understand the nature of the coming Torah and relationship even though it isn’t fully revealed yet)

Abraham begins to plead on behalf the souls of the people within the five towns of Sodom, that G-d forgive the entire population on behalf of a small number of upstanding people. And so begins a process of persistent haggling between G-d and Abraham, beginning with him considering 50 righteous people. Notice there is no attempt for them go look for these people, they stay there as though they are considering the names of people. As Abraham is unable to come up with that count he decreases the number to 45, 30, 20, and 10; they can’t even come up with an average of two righteous people per city of Sodom! Here the haggling ends. The angels continue on their way; one angel to rescue Lot and his family, and the other to enact judgment on the towns.

Though Abraham’s appeal did not have the result of saving the towns as he desired, he is credited forever for putting up a fight before G-d Himself to act justly, using the words “Far be it from You to do this thing, to slay the righteous and the wicked, that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You, shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly (mishpat)?” Abraham is so bold to say that G-d is the ultimate Judge, and since the ultimate knowledge of the law is in Him, He should reconsider the case. He understood that part of being a judge is to adjudicate (mishpat) which is not just to sentence but to also acquit; G-d should find a way and he, Abraham, is going to try to help Him find the way.

With this in mind we reach the heart of the message I take away when reading this parsha at this time, here in the second clause of Midrash Rabbah 30:10. As is the case most often in rabbinic discourse the best is save for last, as Rabbi Nehemiah is quoted as comparing Noah to a man who is the friend of a king, the man is wandering in the darkness of an alley and stumbling in filth. So the king says to his friend to come and walk with him instead. Noah walk’s with G-d because he needs to find his way, to hold him up. G-d is his crutch.

In contrast, the Rabbi says of Abraham that the example is in the opposite manner. It is as though the king, who we clearly understand as being G-d, is the one that is stumbling in the darkness. He calls to His friend who has a candle to come out and help Him find His way, to go before Him and help Him and guide the correct path.

And this is the remarkable point of the story that G-d is calling Abraham, and us as extension by being children of Abraham, to walk before Him. Not just to be in step with the morality of G-d but to also exceed it, to go before it.

Now liberal scholars will point as this being a maturing point in the development of the scripture’s description of G-d. I’m not much of a liberal in that regard, but I will agree with the likes of those who would see this as not so much a development on the part of a personal G-d but a development of the state of godliness in man, that we reflect as being made in the image of G-d (betzelem Elohim). However I think, that here Abraham having a personal experience with G-d through mercy, likewise expected such justice to be shown to others.

Maybe the minority is right. Maybe Noah isn’t such a bad person, he lived in a terrible age and among terrible people. It was a dog eat dog world. Survival of the fittest was the rule of the land. As with the previous description he was perfume in a cemetery, a treasure in the most obscene smelling place imaginable.

The problem though, in my understanding, is that Noah was a bottle that was sealed tight. There is no issue of not being strong enough to overpower the funk of the smell of the rotting around it, but there is a big problem in that as a vial of perfume the last thing one should be is sealed tight with no ability to have an impact on it’s surroundings. It’s existence is sad, in that it doesn’t even live up to it’s true usefulness. Is that how we are going to be? So afraid of wasting and tainting ourselves, by mingling with the putrid around us, that we have no impact for the benefit of others? If so the midrash identifies the type of person that we are, the kind that uses religion as a crutch.

Or are we going to be as Abraham. A person who goes before G-d. A person who persistently pushes the bounds of justice and mercy. How I wish that there were more of us, willing to take this Torah so seriously and the promise of Abraham, that we are not embarrassed to be spazzed; running after G-d, standing in His way, pleading with Him and bartering with Him on how to show mercy to those that are under judgment and oppression.

Parshat Shelach – The Gay Pride Parsha (parody)

Parshat Shelach – The Gay Pride Parsha (parody)
What if Shmu was Rav for the day?

Every few days for weeks now I’ve been getting emails like this:

“Reb Shmu, gay pride season is once again upon us! How are we supposed to tackle this issue? Is this becoming for religious people? Is it permissible to be part of it? What do you think?”

Well my friends, you know I tend to think that everything relates back to the weeks parsha somehow, that’s part of my spooky schtick so work with me here. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the time Tel Aviv pride coincides with this weeks parsha, Parshat Shelach, so lets see if we can find some connection.

In this parsha we see that 12 spies were sent into the Promised Land to scout it out. One of the things that the spies did was take a sample of the fruit of the land in order to present it to the people as evidence.

The text tells us that this fruit was not ordinary:

“And they came even unto the

valley of Eshkol

and there they cut a branch

of a single cluster of grapes

and carried it on a pole between two

and they also took of the pomegranates

and of the figs.”

| “Va’yavo’u ad

| nachal Eshkol,

| vayichretu misham zimorah

| veshkol anavim echad,

| vayisa’ohu vamot bishnai’im;

| umin harimonim

| umin-hatainim”

Numbers 13:23

We are talking about some big fruits here! Rashi tells us that what it means by grapes being carried between two on poles is that poles were passed between men, resting on their shoulders. The cluster of grapes was hung between them, row after row, 8 men in total holding a single branch of grapes. One man took a pomegranate and another a fig, because they were so big they couldn’t carry more than one. The fruit was then paraded before the people. Ten people took fruit, two did not; the two that did not were Yehoshua (Joshua) and Kelev (Caleb). Rashi says:

“Yehoshua and Kelev did not take anything

considering all others took with a specific

plan to slander.

[Saying] just as the fruit is unusual

so are the people.”

יהושע וכלב לא נטלו כלום, |

לפי שכל עצמם להוציא |

דבה נתכוונו, |

כשם שפריה משונה כך |

עמה משונה. |

Rashi to Numbers 13:23

And thus the story goes down hill, all these wild rumors start to abound concerning giants that they couldn’t possibly beat, all because of some big fruit. But Yehoshuah and Kelev, they didn’t want to have any part of it. They just went along for the ride, already convinced that they were gonna take the land. These two didn’t engage in or give spotlight to theatrics that could be misunderstood.

What can I give you to take away from this lesson? I’m not exactly sure, but it’s a pretty good suggestion in my mind to take a look at yourself. Are you a big fruit? It’s not for me to judge, but you know who you are my friend! If so it’s a pretty good suggestion from me for you to stay out of marching in the parade itself. Now, if your just a regular sized fruit – a regular, everyday, run of the mill, ordinary queer – I see no prohibition as your outrageousness does not defame the land! But if you want to be machmir (stringent), I recommend if you’re on a float you abstain from hanging from go-go poles, which is most often the minhag (custom) in Tel Aviv.

On a serious note, many religious Jewish sites stateside have been talking about need and necessity of gay people to celebrate the gay pride festival. I don’t want to give respect to the argument that gay people are less than, nor discuss the nature of same gender love. The need to respect gay people and their relationships is self-evident to anyone who opens their heart. But I do have this to say, all of us who support the state of Israel should be proud that gay people are able to celebrate their individuality in any legal fashion they desire. In this respect Israel stands as a shining beacon, an example of tolerance in the world where so often gays are summarily executed by state and citizens alike. In the middle-east where people take to the street for reasons of hate and violence everyday, we should feel proud every time in Israel people take to the streets for any reason of self-expression and any form of a chesed (kindness, goodwill)! This last speech by PM Netenyahu to the United States congress he pointed out the moral enlightenment of Israel for our tolerance of gay people. We take credit for being a free society, we need to respect other people in accordance with that spirit of freedom and not criticize. We can’t have it both ways.

Happy Pride and Shabbat Shalom,

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