Monthly Archives: August 2017

Aug 29

D’var Torah: Shofetim

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

A story is told [Chovot haLevavot, Sha’ar haYichud haMa’asei 5]: that once there was a mighty warrior who was returning from a great battle in which his army was victorious against the enemy – utterly crushing their forces. Everyone in the city went out to greet him and congratulate him on the victory, cheering and celebrating the defeat of the city’s foes. Yet there was one wise man who, when he came to congratulate the warrior said, ‘You have been victorious — but only in the small battle. The great battle is still undetermined.’ The warrior, angry at this man’s lack of enthusiasm, asked him, ‘If so, then what is the great battle.’ The wise man responded, ‘the great battle is the war within your soul, the campaign to conquer the yetzer haRa.”

In our Torah reading this morning we read a bit about a battle as well. In chapter 20, we find the following few verses:

י  כִּי-תִקְרַב אֶל-עִיר, לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ–וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ, לְשָׁלוֹם. 10 When you approach a city in order to wage war against it – you shall call out to it for peace.
יא  וְהָיָה אִם-שָׁלוֹם תַּעַנְךָ, וּפָתְחָה לָךְ:  וְהָיָה כָּל-הָעָם הַנִּמְצָא-בָהּ, יִהְיוּ לְךָ לָמַס–וַעֲבָדוּךָ. 11 And it shall be, if they answer you with peace, and open the city to you, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary for you, and they shall serve you.
יב  וְאִם-לֹא תַשְׁלִים עִמָּךְ, וְעָשְׂתָה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה–וְצַרְתָּ, עָלֶיהָ. 12 But if they do not make peace with you, but instead make war against you, then you shall besiege it.

Our Sages are amazed by this passage! They comment on these verses saying, “Look at how great the power of peace is! Even in war, in which no person finds themselves without a sword and a spear, The Holy Blessed One tells us that when we go to war, we begin only with peace.” [Devarim Rabba Perek 5]

But as beautiful as this endorsement of peace is, it is not the whole story. It’s rather a one-sided peace after all, conditional on complete servitude. Is that really the kind of peace we hope for, one in which we conquer the enemy, dominate its forces, take its people, animals, and resources as tribute? It’s hardly a realistic or compassionate view of what a workable peace looks like, and it’s perhaps the reason that this passage is so often interpreted differently. That is, that this remarkable endorsement of seeking peace first, of aiming to prevent total destruction, has implications beyond the physical realm. Many of our great sages have understood this passage not only in the context of warfare between armies, but also, and perhaps even more so, to refer allegorically to the battle within our souls.

That is, as Rabbi Chayyim ibn Attar, a 16th C. Moroccan sage tells us, in his commentary on the passage, this image of warfare is meant to explain not only how we confront our external enemies, but our internal ones as well. The great battle is the subtext. The great battle is, as we saw in our story, the battle against the yetzer haRa.

What exactly is the yetzer haRa? Literally, it’s the ‘impulse toward evil.’ The Talmud tells us that it, the angel of death, and the figure of Satan, are all one in the same thing [Talmud Bavli Shabbat 157a] – meaning that evil is entirely a psychological reality. Within us we find drives that guide us towards goodness, light, love, and meaning- yet we also find those that push us toward evil, darkness, hate, and apathy. Others define the yetzer haRa as the part of our souls that wants to take: take things from others, take pleasure from the world, take what may not be ours. Clearly no one would see these as mutually exclusive categories. The impulse to do good can cause us and others harm and the impulse toward evil can be beneficial, or even save our lives. These forces within us are not black and white, they are subtle shades, mixtures of light and darkness, pulled toward one side or the other but always in the middle.

However we may conceive it, surely no one can deny that they have faced darkness within themselves at some point or another. For those who are sincerely devoted to a religious life, facing one’s shadow, one’s yetzer haRa is essential.

 Rabbi Chayyim Vital, in his manual for how to receive enlightenment, called Sha’arei Kedushah, writes that, “good character traits are acquired in no other way than in the war against the evil impulse.” [Sha’ar 2, Perek 3]

That means that it is not optional for us to confront our own dark sides! Certainly, we can deny it, run from it, avoid it successfully for a very long time, but sooner or later we must come to terms with the fact that we have within us darknesses. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking those people have them, a habit we reinforce by the gleeful coverage of serial killers and mass murderers that plagues the news. We take a certain sick pleasure in seeing other people lose the war because it makes us think we’re already winning. More often than not though, we’re just not paying attention.

This is by no means a new part of our tradition. The oldest reservoir of ethical wisdom, Pirké Avot, asks quite plainly, “Who is a warrior?” – and Ben Zoma answers for us that it is, “one who conquers their evil impulse.” [4:1]

In the medieval period we see the same idea reflected in Chovot haLevavot, a hugely influential book dealing with morality and ethics. The author, R’ Bahya ibn Paquda writes:

“O mortal! You should know that the greatest enemy you have in this world is your own yetzer haRa. It is interwoven in the forces of your soul and intertwined in the organization of your spirit. It associates with you in the guidance of your physical and spiritual senses. It rules over the secrets of your soul and of what is hidden in your heart. It is your advisor in all of your movements whether visible or invisible that you wish to do. It lies in wait, watching your steps to lead you astray. You are asleep to it but it is awake to you. You look away from it  but it does not look away from you. It masks itself as your friend, and pretends to show love, it enters in your inner circle of close friends and advisors. From its gestures and signs it appears it is running to do your will but in fact it is shooting deadly arrows at you to kill and uproot you from the land of the living” [Sha’ar Yichud haMaasei 5]

Similarly, in our own time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has promoted doing away with the constant discourse in which we advocate the value of ‘peace of mind.’ Peace of mind, he argues, is a trap- an effort to quench the legitimate and necessary struggle that accompanies spirituality. The ‘strife of the spirit’ as he calls it, the battle against and for ourselves, is an essential part of the spiritual journey.

What does all this mean? What does it mean that we should go to war against ourselves? How do we conquer our darkness without repressing it? How we acknowledge our evil without becoming overwhelmed by it? How do we live in a constant state of war, pursuing always the impossible victory of the ‘great battle?’

That answer is provided precisely by our passage from Shofetim: Yes we do battle, but we seek peace first. Peace is the priority. In the battle within our souls, we must work first to make peace with the evil within us.

The truth is that we can never eliminate the yetzer haRa, for it is an essential part of being human. We could not be in the world without it. The rabbis tell us that without it the world would immediately come to an end, for no one would procreate, build a house, or have any drive to strive further to advance themselves and their society.

Thus, we cannot entirely vanquish evil or selfishness. We have only the two options that the Torah lays out in front of us: we can seek peace with our own darkness, and if that fails, we can lay siege to it.

Contemporary psychologist C.G. Jung, who wrote a great deal about what he called the Shadow, gave nearly identical advice. He said: “We must accept our own evil without love or hate, recognizing that it exists and must have its share in life. In doing so we deprive it of the power it has to overwhelm us.” (TRB 288)

Evil is not an objective reality per se, but rather a predominantly psychological one. It stems from our pursuit of pleasure above all else, from our desire to take for ourselves. Until we can make peace with it and use its capabilities for good, subjugated to our intellects and to our desire to give, it will take our mind hostage and require a lengthy and bloody siege to free ourselves from it.

The primary goal is to make peace with our evil – to assimilate the shadow into our persona. We must go out to war, armed and ready, yet we must always seek peace first.

I can’t tell you what the peace within your soul looks like for you. No one can. I can’t tell you what the evil is that you will face when you go out to that battlefield. Each of us has a different enemy with which we must attempt to make peace. Each of us must be warriors in the ‘great battle.’ the one that takes place within our souls- and the one that must conclude with us finding a way to conquer the evil impulse. Trying to destroy it entirely would be foolish, but we also must take care not to be destroyed by it. Our ancestors and our sages have waged the same battle. Some returned victorious and some fell on the field, but perhaps they can offer us some strategies and tactics. Yet, ultimately we walk alone onto the battlefield.

My prayer for you and for all of us is that we find ways to make peace with the evil within us, that we find ways to utilize its power for good, and with God’s help – that we return victorious.

Aug 21

D’var Torah – Re’eh

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

Right now, somewhere in the world, there is a university ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ course where the professor, thinking themselves quite clever is posing the following ethical dilemma: If you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler before he ever came to power? This question has become almost a stock component of philosophical speculation, and of course, it has its own interesting history. The ‘Kill Baby Hitler Conundrum’ actually was first articulated in a Science-Fiction short story published in 1941. Yes, 1941. Before anyone knew exactly the extent of the evil, Hitler’s wibbly-wobbly time-travel-induced death was already a matter for speculation.

The story, aptly, is called ‘I Killed Hitler,’ and it appeared in that year’s Weird Science. It was written by a man named Roger Sherman Hoar and it takes a somewhat unexpected turn. In the story, an American painter called up for the draft goes back in time to kill a young Hitler at the age of eleven. Time travel being what it is, things don’t work out quite as expected. By the end of the story, Hitler’s assassin has himself, through a series of twists and turns, assumed the dictator’s place. The story, it seems, is a cautionary tale against seeing the past as a realm through which we can rectify the flaws of the present.

Unfortunately, time travel as envisioned by much of science fiction is an impossibility. We do know that time can be bent, altered, and in certain conditions, can appear very different than we are used to. Yet one constant remains: we cannot, under any condition, change the past.

Our fascination with time travel may seem far from where we last left Moses, mid-speech. Yet, the words that begin this week’s parashah have a great deal in common with the Oedipal twist of 1941’s “I Killed Hitler.’ The first verse, Deuteronomy 11:26, reads: “Look! Today I am putting in front of you blessing and curse.” From today, we have before us a blessing and a curse. Now of course, as Moses goes on to explain, the promised blessing is secured through observing God’s laws, and the curse as a result of shunning them.

The biblical commentator, Ramban [Pérush al haTorah, Devarim 11:29], points out something interesting about this verse. He says that we should read it as: “For I am putting in front of you one path that leads to blessing and one path that leads to curse. And the reason it says, ‘in front of you’ is to clarify for you that the path you take is your choice.”

In this way, what Moses is telling us is that we stand at a fork in the road. We can go one way, towards God and Torah and the Jewish community, and find blessing in it. We can go another way, and find curses in it.

Now, it is really fair to say that everything in life is either a blessing or a curse? Is there no middle-ground? We make choices every day; Some are small and seemingly insignificant and some are incredibly important. Does each choice yield either blessing or curse with no mix in between? Every year when I come across this verse it seems like a very oversimplified duality. Blessing or curse. Holy or profane. But – perhaps there’s more to it.

One biblical commentator, known as Seforno, embraces this apparently extreme dualism. He writes [Devarim 11:26]: Re’eh – Behold – pay good attention, so that you will not behave like most others who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground. Rather, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse, two opposite extremes. The blessing is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the curse is another extreme, making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.

Seforno suggests that the extremes presented to us are a call to never indulge in mediocrity. We must not only be good, we must be extremely good. Perhaps this is a lot to ask; But, after all, doesn’t the Torah often ask quite a bit of us?

So, this verse which opens our parashah seems to have two lessons for us. The first, I think, is this: the choices before us are before us, meaning, in front of us. In Hebrew, the word for before/in front of is lifné, a contraction of el (to) and panim (face). Thus, to say that the choice between blessing and curse is before us, means that it is one which we will face. From this moment, to the next, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year, and perhaps to our next lifetime – we will be faced with choice after choice, drawing us toward either blessing or curse.

The second lesson we can learn from this is that to live a life of blessing requires commitment. We cannot be half-blessed or half-cursed. Although we live in a world in which we often aim to see nuance and subtlety, some things may actually be binaries. Perhaps we must choose one: blessing or curse. Seforno reminded us that we have to pay attention, we have to be careful, we have to look at the path in front of us in order to know which it is. That struggle, to discern which path will lead us toward blessing, although difficult, is far better than always trying to find a middle ground. It is harder and potentially more hazardous, but, as we are promised, may be far more rewarding as well.

The Midrash [Sifré 53:1:2 / Tanhuma Re’eh 3] makes what I think is a beautiful analogy to help us understand this choice with which we are faced. Imagine the following scene with me:  you are standing on a woodland path, walking forward. It is the rare British summer day where everything is peaceful and warm and sunny. As you walk, the path you are on reaches a fork. First, look to the left: there you see the path unencumbered, cleared of all debris. A bit beyond where you can see, it bends. Now look at the fork on the right: there you can see that the path has lots of thorn-bushes, some of which have overgrown the banks and intrude on the path. It looks like it would be much slower going, and potentially hazardous with all the debris blocking the way. Yet, it too curves away from you beyond your sight. You have to make a choice based on what you can see. What do you do?

The midrash goes on tell us that these two paths are just like the blessing and the curse we read about. However, the critical information is the very part that is absent. It explains that our left-hand path, the one that begins totally clear actually turns that corner into very dangerous terrain. Beyond the bend the brambles and thorns that you cannot see are far worse than what’s visible on the right-hand path. Meanwhile, that right-hand path, which appears hazardous and difficult, curves around the bend to a beautiful and clear ramble through some lovely countryside.

Standing at the crossroads, at the fork, as we were, we cannot know where the path will go, we can only know what is in front of us. Yet, what the Torah is asking us is precisely that: to see beyond what appears and to choose the path of blessing. The path that leads towards blessing may be more difficult – it may involve commitments and restrictions and limitations that feel like thorns, but just around the bend it leads to somewhere beautiful. Meanwhile, the path which seems easy, which asks little of us, may lead us into danger and oblivion.

Our Sages tell us in the Talmud [Bavli Tamid 32a] that one who is wise is ‘one who can see the future.’ They don’t mean clairvoyancy of course! They mean that wisdom is about being able to see beyond what is just in front of us. Wisdom is being able to look at the forked paths with which we are faced and know that the one that begins in brambles may end in a serene and clear journey. The first word of our parashah tells us to re’eh; It is a command – “Look!” “See!” “Behold!” Look – you have before you a choice, between blessing and curse. Between the easy road and the hard road. The only choice we can make is to move forward, on one or the other. It is not just the only choice we can make, it is the only choice there is to make. We cannot go backwards. We cannot retreat into the forest from which we came or go back in time and remove a great evil from the world. We cannot, as the protagonist of ‘I Killed Hitler’ discovers, alter the path or the choices we have already made. All we can do is move forward, fork after fork, looking at what is before us and choosing: blessing or curse, blessing or curse, blessing or curse.

I want to leave you today with the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, whose book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared should be required reading in the period prior to the High Holy Days which we are now entering. He writes:

Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter … We learn a number of things from this. We learn that this business of choosing good over evil, life over death, is precisely a matter of life and death. Our lives quite literally depend on it.

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Eikev

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

A story is told:

Once there was a king who had a great flock of goats. He was very proud of this flock and the goats that made it up. One day, a stag appeared and joined the flock of goats. Of course, goats and stags are very different animals! The shepherds responsible for the flock were nervous to tell the king, worried that he would be upset to find his prize-winning flock corrupted by the presence of this very persistent stag. Yet, when the king was told he immediately felt affection for the stag and gave orders that the stag should have the best pasture available and that he should have a greater ration of water. The king ordered that none of the shepherds should ever beat the stag or even prod him with their staffs. The shepherds were baffled by the king’s reaction – and so they sent a messenger to the king to ask him why he was protecting the stag. The king then explained that the flock have no choice but to go along – but the stag chooses them. The king accounted it as a merit to the stag that he had left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and had come to stay in a fenced-in pasture on the palace lands.

The Midrash tells this parable as a way of explaining a verse which we read this morning, Deuteronomy 10:19 – “You must love the ger for you were gerim in the Land of Egypt.” In the Torah’s conception, a ger is any person who is foreign, an outsider. As Judaism develops and the rabbis begin to redefine terminology, a ger becomes the way that we refer to converts. The midrash, of the stag and the flock of goats, is attempting to explain why it is that we are told over and over that God has a particular affection for gerim, converts. Whereas someone born into a Jewish family never had to choose to join the Jewish people, a convert has given up the ‘broad, vast wilderness,’ among the whole rest of the world to join the Jewish people.

Yet, we could look at Eikev, at this extended speech by Moses as he prepares to leave his leadership role and wonder – why does Moses make such a point out of the need to ‘love the stranger’ in this section of all places? We can learn part of the answer by looking at the context of the statement. The verse just prior reads, “God enacts justice for orphans and widows and loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.” Then we should read the next verse as, “You too must love the stranger.” So, we do what our Christian neighbours call imitatio dei: we imitate God by loving the stranger, the foreigner, the convert.

But – can we really command love? Respect, sure. Not to mistreat someone, sure. But, love? Maimonides observes something fascinating regarding this question. He notes that the Torah commands us to respect and honor our parents, and it commands us to obey a prophet… but it never commands us to love any of them. We aren’t commanded to love our parents, or our siblings, or our spouse, or even our children. Who are we commanded to love? Only twice are we told we must love: we must love God and we must love the convert.

Maimonides doesn’t tell us why this is, but if we’re willing to delve a bit into the mystics we can find an answer that I think may help us. Every word in Hebrew can also be a number, because the numerical system uses the same characters as the letter; the system of deriving meaning from the numerical value of words is called Gematria. Thus, God’s name is 26, Torah is 611, and ‘life’ is 18. The numerical value of ahavah, ‘love’ is 13. 13 is also the numerical value of the word ehad, or ‘one.’ Thus, the mystics understand that the true meaning of love is unity. To be ‘in love’ is to be ‘one with.’

The truth is, we can never truly be one-with our parents, siblings, partners, or children. Those relationships can be incredibly strong and have amazing unity, but their strength comes from the unification of two people, two perspectives, two bodies, and two lives. Yet the love we have for God is due to our identification with God. We are one with God because God is found in us and we are in God’s image. So too, all Jews, whether born so or converting to Judaism, are one with one another for they share the same covenant, the same responsibilities, the same blessings, and the same faith.

Thus, we must love the convert not because they are a convert per sé, but because they are a Jew. They are a Jew who has chosen to share in that covenant and those responsibilities. We must love the convert because we are all one people. Ironically, our love for converts must come from a recognition that it doesn’t matter whether someone was born Jewish or chose it – we are all one in our faith and our community.

Moreover, the second half of the verse points out that part of what makes the Jewish community one with the converts that join it, and thus requires love between them is their experience. “You too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” One of the commentators on the Torah known as the Keli Yakar writes about this: “It says ‘you too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’ because anyone who hasn’t been a stranger in their lifetime cannot feel the stranger’s pain and cannot truly be concerned for the life of the stranger. But, someone who has themselves been a stranger knows the pain of the stranger and thus can apply the principle ‘do not do what is hateful to another.’”

Thus, it is not only our responsibilities and our choices that bind us together but it is our experience as well. Every Jew has known what it is like to be an outsider. For some of us we experienced that millennia ago as slaves in Egypt, for some of us it was last Thursday before we entered the mikveh. The point is this: the love asked of us, the caring shown by God, all of it is meant to diminish any perceived difference between the goats who have already been in the flock and the stag that joins it.

More than once I’ve heard someone say to me, “Oh, my partner converted so we’re a mixed-faith marriage.” No, you’re not. You’re two Jews, maybe who have had different paths, but now indistinguishable. I’ve heard sentences like, ‘Well he’s Jewish but she converted.’ Based on everything we’ve just learned – that sentence makes no sense. He may have been born Jewish, she may have chosen to become Jewish, but when we’re talking about their identities as Jews now, there is no “but” to that sentence: he’s Jewish and so is she.

This project of seeing all Jews simply as Jews doesn’t meant that we erase the various backgrounds and life-stories which have brought people to Judaism. There’s a blessing that in some versions of the traditional siddur one is meant to recite in the morning that thanks God for ‘not making me a gentile.’ Should someone who came to Judaism through conversion also say this? I don’t think so. It’s not true. God did make them a gentile and they chose to become Jewish. We cannot eliminate that difference. Just as the king is impressed with and interested in protecting the stag because it chose the pasture and the sheep, so too we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many Jews, many people in this room, have had full and fascinating lives outside of Judaism. We also cannot pretend that converts have no family simply because they have no Jewish family. To do so is to ignore and undermine the choice that was undertaken by them.

I look forward to welcoming new students for conversion here at SAMS. I know that we can be a community that models the values which our Torah teaches – which loves the convert the way that we are asked to love God — because we are, in some way, identical. I hope that we can always be a community which sees no difference between a Jew who can trace their lineage to King David and a Jew who can trace their Jewish life to three weeks ago. Whether we came out of Egypt in ancient times or the broader world in contemporary times, we have all stood together at Sinai and accepted upon ourselves the burdens and blessings of Jewish life.

Whether we are the goats or the stag, we are all in the pasture together. We must find a way to accept each of us as individuals, without diminishing one’s status as a Jew nor erasing one’s history as a gentile. We have to accept that it is perfectly possible, and perhaps even desirable, to have someone choose Judaism in the way that many of us never had to and that suspicion is not the reaction that should meet that choice; instead, it should be something more akin to wonder… a wonder that we have chosen each other, regardless of our backgrounds or our births and the hows and whys of our identities as Jews, to engage in the project of community and relationship building within a Jewish framework.

My prayer for us this week is that we all find time to reflect on love for a stranger– the stranger who is no longer a stranger but a part of our flock and should be considered as such always– with no reservation or hesitation.

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Vaetchanan

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam

In 1964, at Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey, two scientists were tasked with setting up and monitoring a new and highly-sensitive radio telescope. Basically a huge antenna, the telescope was originally designed to pick up radio waves which were being bounced off satellites just in the Earth’s atmosphere. When they turned the machine on and began to look closely at the data that was coming in – it didn’t quite make sense. They weren’t able to pick up anything other that a low, steady, rumbling noise which would sound to you and me like static. The noise was far louder than they expected, and as good empiricists would, they figured it was the equipment. The two men, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, climbed out onto the 6-metre wide disk of the telescope and found several families of pigeons nesting there. Assuming their avian neighbours were causing the mistaken results, they quickly relocated the pigeons and cleared out the nests.

Yet, as these stories tend to go, when they climbed back down and took another look at the data – that persistent static noise was still there. Penzias and Wilson didn’t realise it yet, but, they had just made one of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 20th century – a period which was amply animated by advances in science and technology. As they came to find out, studying the mysterious noise, vibrating at a consistent 7.35 centimetre wavelength – the noise they heard came not from pigeons, nor anything on Earth, nor anything in our solar system, nor even anything in our galaxy.

That quiet rumble in their headphones, it turns out, was nothing other than the radiation which had been emitted over 14 billion years ago when the universe was formed. A far cry from pigeon droppings, I’d say. What Penzias and Wilson discovered is what we now call the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and it has allowed us to see far beyond what we previously thought possible. The data from that little hum heard in New Jersey allows us to get a glimpse into what the early life of the universe looked like. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery and science since has been forever transformed.

I’m thinking of the CMBR and of Penzias and Wilson today because there is a piece of the way that the Rabbis understand parashat VaEtchannan that has always bothered me. If you look at Deuteronomy 4:32, you’ll see, what seems to me, to be a fairly straightforward statement:

“For ask now of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created humanity upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there has been anything as great as this thing is, or if any has been heard like it?”

Said in the context of Moses trying to convince the people of Israel why their story is so extraordinary, the verse itself doesn’t seem terrifically troubling. However, it’s used more than once in rabbinic literature as a proof-text for the exact opposite of what it plainly means. In the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10), a rabbi named Bar Kappara inserts the word ‘not’ into the verse, making it “ask not of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth.” He does this to teach that one may speculate from the day that time itself was created, but one should not speculate on what was before that. And one may investigate from one end of heaven to the other, but one should not investigate what was before this world.

Elsewhere, in the Talmud (BT Chagigah 11b) The Rabbis reasoned that the words “since the day that God created humanity upon the earth” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire concerning the time before creation. They reasoned that the words “the days past that were before you” taught that one may inquire only about the six days of creation. The Rabbis further reasoned that the words “from the one end of heaven to the other” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire about what is beyond the universe, what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after.

Clearly a theme emerges – there is an element of Jewish thought which seeks to use this verse to justify an anti-scientific approach. To limit experimental inquiry to only ‘certain’ domains is, stated or not, the aim of views like this. For some, this can seem like, in a broader fashion, an example of opposition to nature as a whole.

There certainly is a stream of thought in the Torah and in later Jewish tradition that fears nature. So obsessed with squashing any trace of Paganism, some part of the Jewish tradition went and over-corrected, downplaying the natural world, scientific inquiry and the value of experimental and philosophical understandings of our universe to the person of faith.

Perhaps the best-known expression of this sentiment is in Pirké Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah which deals with ethical concerns. There, (3:9) Rabbi Shimon is quoted as saying: “One who is walking along while studying [words of Torah] and interrupts their study and says ‘how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field’—the Torah considers them as though they are guilty of death.”

For me, I simply can’t stand this tendency in some Jewish texts to devalue the natural world. As someone who has always been fascinated by science- and moreover, who sees scientific inquiry and theological speculation as going hand-in-hand, I find myself extremely frustrated by what seems to be a narrow-minded and parochial approach to the world in which we live, love and worship.

One of the first influences on me was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who was one of the youngest physicists to be hired by the US government as well as one of the most brilliant mystics of the last hundred years. I take comfort in the fact that so many Jewish leaders have been people of science and medicine and that so many significant scientists have come from a Jewish background. Out of the 881 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize since 1901 when it began, 197 of them, or 22.4% have been Jewish. Meanwhile, worldwide Jews account for less than 0.2% of the world’s population. That incredible disparity, I don’t think, is due to some ethnic or genetic predisposition or intellectual gift. I think it comes from a culture and a religion which promotes inquiry, questioning, and learning.

If that’s so, we have to find another way to understand these rabbinic statements that the universe’s origin, or nature, or any reasonable subject of inquiry is undeserving of our attention. I once heard Rabbi Marc Angel explain the quote from Pirké Avot above in a way which I think can help us today to make sense of all this.

Where the Mishnah says that ‘one who is walking along, studying words of Torah, and interrupts their study to say ‘what a beautiful tree’ is guilty of death,’ Rabbi Angel suggests that we’ve emphasized the wrong meaning of the statement. What makes them liable, he says, is not that they comment on the beauty of nature – it is that they see that comment as an ‘interruption.’ Flipping the statement, R’ Angel reads it as a call to always see Torah and Nature as one in the same. The sin in the example is not the appreciation of the tree – it is believing, if only for a second, that the Torah that one is learning and the world they see around them are ever separate or separable.

If you were to look at the stars with a typical optical telescope, the space in between stars and galaxies appears absolutely empty. If, however, you calibrate a radio telescope antenna just right, you find that that so-called ‘empty’ space hides the still-blossoming explosion that accompanied the universe’s birth.


We must be willing to take the brave step of seeing our faith and our understanding of science and nature as one in the same. We cannot be afraid to conflate and relate science and religion. After all, once we finish the Torah portion which contains that contentious verse, we read the Haftarah from Isaiah who reminds us:

To whom then to liken God? Lift up your eyes and see: The One who created the stars, called them by name, by the greatness of God’s might and strong power each one appears. (Isa. 40:25-26)

 As people of faith, part of our process of faith must be to accept that God and nature, science and Torah, study and appreciation of beauty – are not separate things. In a week in which we recite the Shema in its original context – when we remind ourselves that ‘Adonai is our God, and Adonai is One,’ we would do well to remember that must mean God is to be found in both our faith and our follies. Whether the search for God comes from a deep sense of experience and theology, or we stumble upon an echo of creation scaring away some pigeons – the sound that we hear, carried from the farthest reaches of space and the oldest eras of time – is one in the same.

Aug 01

D’var Torah: Devarim/Tisha b’Av

By Editor | Blogs

This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam.

A story is told:

In Jerusalem in the first century, there was once a rich man who threw a lavish party. He asked his servant to invite one of his friends to the party, a friend named Kamtsa. The servant, in error, went and invited a different man named Bar-Kamtsa who happened to be a great enemy of this wealthy host. So, unbeknownst to the host, the wrong man got the invitation – and worse still, the invitee was Bar-Kamtsa, his great enemy.

The night of the party arrives – it’s opulent and over the top, of course, and among the guests who show up that evening is Bar-Kamtsa. So, the wealthy host found his sworn enemy Bar-Kamtsa sitting at the party, enjoying himself.  The host demanded: “What on earth are you doing here??  Get out!”  To which Bar-Kamtsa responded: “Well, seeing that I have come, let me stay, and I’ll pay for what I eat and drink”.

When the host replied “No!” Bar-Kamtsa, trying to avoid a scene then said: “Listen, I’ll pay for half of the party if you let me stay!”

“Absolutely not!”

“Listen, I’ll pay for the entire party – just don’t humiliate me by throwing me out!”

But the host was adamant, and had Bar-Kamtsa physically ejected from the party.

Meanwhile, during this entire altercation – just off to the side, was a famous rabbi, and one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, R’ Zekharyah. He witnessed this whole encounter, and whether paralyzed by indecision or unwilling to intervene, R’ Zekharyah stood by and let Bar-Kamtsa be terribly embarrassed in front of all the guests. Naturally, Bar-Kamtsa was incensed, and in particular, he felt betrayed by R’ Zekharyah, who had stood by and done nothing, even after preaching constantly about how important the Torah considered it not to publicly embarrass anyone.

Bar-Kamtsa said to himself: If this man is a leader of the nation, and he won’t even stand up for his values, than this is a corrupt nation that should be destroyed. Therefore, Bar-Kamtsa, who was very well-connected with Rome, went to the Emperor and convinced him that he should destroy Jerusalem and conquer the Jewish people.

It is through this story that the rabbis do two things: 1) they try and explain how it came to be that Rome was interested in conquering Judea, and 2) they offer some blame for who is responsible for the destruction that ensues. Obviously the history is not so simple – the Romans were interested in Judea for strategic reasons above all else and had been waging a slow campaign to try and bring the Jews under Roman influence. Simultaneously, the Jews were in the midst of a civil war. The Romans exploited these tensions to divide the Jews further, playing groups against one another until the chaos erupted into all-out warfare in the year 66. Four years later, on Tisha b’Av (August 30, 70 CE), the Romans succeeded in destroying the Temple in Jerusalem – marking the end of a thousand years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the beginning of two thousand years of exile.

An historical event that significant obviously can’t be attributed to the actions of one rude host at a first-century Jerusalem house party! So, assuming the rabbis were uninterested, as usual, in being historians – why do they tell us this tale, and, perhaps more critically, who indeed are they blaming?

On one hand, they’re obviously blaming Bar-Kamtsa and the insensitive party host who drove him to turn on his people. Yet, this story appears in the Talmud – a text written for rabbis by rabbis. I think perhaps it’s just as likely that the person they really seek to blame here is R’ Zekharyah. It’s he who is guilty of not stepping in to resolve the conflict and the hatred he saw in front of him. Rather than fulfill the role of a mediator, he steps aside, preferring not to get involved in the messy business between this man and his sworn enemy.

For the rabbis, I think that it is R’ Zekharyah’s actions which they seek to warn against. Something similar is taught in the Zohar, which attributes the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 to the hatred and shame with which Joseph’s brothers treated him over a thousand years before. The rabbis explain that it is sinat chinam, ‘baseless hatred,’ which led to the Temple’s destruction. Both our anonymous party host and Joseph’s murderous brothers are certainly guilty of baseless hatred. Yet the character of R’ Zecharyah remains – for baseless hatred is one thing, but indifference to that hatred’s effects is another.

Perhaps we can never stop infighting in the Jewish community. The civil wars that ravaged the first century community are not so different from those ravaging our twenty-first century community. Just these past months British Jewry witnessed R’ Joseph Dweck of the Spanish and Portuguese Community being attacked for the content of one of his lectures. Disagreeing on ideas and principles is one thing, but the escalation of disagreement into division is another. The so-called ‘Dweck Affair’ quickly devolved into name-calling, character assassination, and attempts at public shame. R’ Dweck, you see, gave a lecture months ago about inclusivity of the LGBT community in Orthodoxy and most of the British Orthodox world viewed his statements as heretical. We in the Masorti movement saw something similar in the ‘Jacobs Affair’ a half-century ago – none of this is new. Unfortunately, as every Tisha b’Av rolls around, we can find new and recent examples of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

What perhaps we can change, what we should aim to change, is the response to that ever-constant factor which factionalizes and fractures our people. We can choose whether to be the bystander, as R’ Zekharyah was, or to intervene – not to respond with more hatred, but to mediate and calm tensions. Perhaps we should reconsider the Bar-Kamtsa story and these modern day affairs in light of who the real villain is: our own indifference. If we let others hate and shame and embarrass each other – we are doing worse than them. Particularly those of us, like R’ Zacharyah, who have some sort of power in a community. There is an extra responsibility heaped upon the person of privilege to step up and to stop the cycles of violence that create new Bar-Kamtsas every day. Outside of the British Sefardi community, few Orthodox folks stood alongside R’ Dweck or paused to ask for more civilised discourse instead of character defamation, thoughtful consideration rather than condemnation. And this certainly holds true for other worldwide issues of intolerance and standing idly by in the face of senseless hatred: recent declarations made by the US president to persecute and expel transgender members of the United States military, news articles filtering in from around the world that continue to shut the door on asylum-seekers, and the other hundreds of ways we see divisiveness embodied in modern society.

This Tisha b’Av, as we gather Monday night to read Lamentations and remember that day, 1,947 years ago when the Temple was destroyed – I hope that we’ll see our sufferings and the sufferings of our fellows as a call to action. We must do more than pay lip service to the destructive potential of ‘baseless hatred.’ We certainly must do more than eagerly point out all the other people who are guilty of it; we must examine it and root it out within ourselves and our communities. We must transcend it and have the courage to step forward from the edge of the room in that party we’re all sitting and stop the Bar-Kamtsas of tomorrow from being shamed and embarrassed. Maybe then we can be worthy enough to bring some peace to each other, and to the world.