Sunday, January 31, 2016

Parshat Mishpatim, 1st Portion, Exodus 21:1-19, January 31, 2016

In Exodus, Chapter 21, we have a number of laws given by God.

The idea of a God actually dictating to a man seems preposterous. Maybe Moses was delusional, or maybe a lier. In any case, the laws have more force coming from the divine.

Many of the laws are what I’m seeing as vectors. They have a mixture of justice and mercy. For example, should you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall work for six years and be free in the seventh. The rabbis questioned about whether a Hebrew slave is a slave who was a Hebrew or a slave that belonged to a Hebrew. Sometimes, if one owed money, the court would sell the individual to pay off his debt. Rabbi Kerry Baker pointed out that we would treat our slaves well because we might be their slave some day. I wonder if this thought came into their heads.

The vector? The justice is that the slave could pay off his debt and make restitution to the injured party. The mercy is that he would be let free. The Israelites remember that they were once slaves. The vector’s direction is to eliminate slavery, the point being justice and the direction being mercy. But we are not there yet.

If the slave comes to you alone, he should go out alone. If he marries one of your maid servants, and has children... the maid servant and the children do not go with him in the seventh year. But if his love is so great that he doesn’t want to leave them, he can choose to become a slave forever. An awl will be put through his ear at the doorpost, and he shall serve his master forever (I assume he doesn’t become part of the estate if the master dies).

I like how nothing is absolute in Judaism. If you do something bad, there is something you can do to make it right. There are rules and exceptions. It makes ruling more complicated. I taught at various colleges and they all delt differently with exceptions. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, every situation was an exception. I don’t think there were rules. If there were, they were will-hidden. On the other hand, St. Louis Community College had will-defined rules without any means to break the rules. I was fortunate to experience the extremes of the continuum. One was about mercy, and the other about justice. Mixing the two is what Moses (via God) is appearing to do.

Another law said that a man who had unintentionally killed another man should be exiled should the event be witnessed. “But one who did not stalk [him], but God brought [it] about into his hand, I will make a place for you to which he shall flee.” A midrash interprets:

“To two people, one who killed unintentionally and one who killed intentionally, but there were no witnesses who would testify to the matter. This one [who killed intentionally] was not executed, and that one [who killed unintentionally] was not exiled [to the refuge cities]. So the Holy One, blessed is He, brings them [both] to one inn. The one who killed intentionally sits under a ladder, and the one who killed unintentionally is ascending the ladder, and he falls on the one who had killed intentionally and kills him, and witnesses testify about him and sentence him to exile. The result is that the one who killed unintentionally is exiled, and the one who killed intentionally was killed.“ -[From Mechilta, Makkoth 10b]

Perhaps this gives meaning to the term, “higher justice.” God intervenes. Supposedly he knows what transpired... that the intentional murderer was intentional (even though there weren’t witnesses) and the non-intentional murderer was non-intentional (even though there weren’t witnesses). “May God be my witness” means that God knows, and will judge (and execute). He sends them to the inn to have justice done.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Starting Over: Parshah Vitro (Jethro), Portion 7, Shabbat, 20 Shevat 5776 / January 30, 2016 / Exodus Chapter 20:15-23

One should not study the Torah alone. “Two are better off than one, in that they derive greater benefit from their efforts. For if they should fall, the one will raise up the other, as opposed to if one falls when there is no one to raise him.” —Ecclesiastes 4:10-11 The risk of making a mistake is too great. My friend, N, questioned whether there is a wrong reading if we allow ourselves to see what we wish in the text. That is why we should study together. It is harder to convince someone else of what you think you are seeing than to convince oneself.

I’ve made it a life long study to see if one can become a photographer without a teacher. There might be examples, but they are rare.

I read recently that naive or folk artists actually learned their craft/style from someone else. They didn’t work in a vacuum.

Having said that, I’ve been feeling bad about doing my Torah study alone. I started out with the Jewish calendar for studying the Torah. Every week we study a particular parshah. I understand the calendar was developed in the 13th century. But I ended up skipping a few... and then almost a year and a half... and now I’m a half of a year behind.

I’ve also grown in terms of my still meager understanding... and also have come upon some visual ways of representing the Torah after doing 150 drawings. So I’m going to start today on the portion of the parshah that I should be on (using as my guide except when it deviates from the reform calendar). 

I was also naive to think that I could do the Torah in a year. Some would maintain that you could learn technically what you needed to know about photography in a year. Being a photographer is far more complicated. Reading the Torah is far more complicated as well, because there is a wealth of commentary from the past, plus a changing world to apply the Torah too. 


Why should God say that we should not make graven images: “You shall not make [images of anything that is] with Me. Gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves.”

I don’t make images of God with silver or gold, but I certainly draw God all the time. From Michelangelo to William Blake to Marc Chagall we find images of God. 

Marc Chagall

So what’s the deal? We often strangle and misrepresent objects when we define them. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, we take experiences and make them into ideas. We tend to worship the representation rather than the more etherial experience. Where one is limiting, the other is limitless. Where one can be understood, the other can just be felt. No wonder the children of Israel think that they will die if they see God. Or perhaps God will die (as Nietzsche said) if they see God.


This poem by William Blake is about graven images in a sense. It is about defining love, which is compared to the gentle wind that moves silently and invisibly.

William Blake
Never pain to tell the love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind does move
Silently, invisibly.
I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she doth depart.
Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly;
Oh was no deny.

God is often represented to children with such clarity that they quickly realize it is a joke. Then they grow up, unable to appreciate the “gentle wind” ... something that can’t be articulated.

My three year-old grandson was trying to push his bike up a hill. I told him a line from a poem, “are there stones that hurt your feet” because he was having such trouble. He said, “but there aren’t any stones.” I said, “They are just a metaphor.” “Oh,” he said, “I see.”

And here's what I wrote/drew a couple of years ago:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Parshat Chukat, 5th Portion, (Numbers 20:22-21:9), 7/14/2016

The people complained again to Moses, so God sent venomous snakes to the people and many died.

The people apologize to Moses that they spoke against him and the Lord. They ask Moses to pray to the Lord to remove the snakes.

The Lord tells Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone has been bitten they should look at the snake on the pole and they will live.

Moses makes a copper snake, and whoever was bit and then gazed at the copper pole would live. quotes the Midrash that here we learn that when one asks for forgiveness the other should not be so cruel as to not forgive.

Here we see God’s mercy.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Parshat Chukat, 4rd Portion, (Numbers 20:14-21), 7/13/2016

Edom Refuses Passage
14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: 15 how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. 16 And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” 18 But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” 19 And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. 21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

So we tell our sad story and we say we’ll be good and we won’t stray, that we’ll just pass right through your land and we’ll pay for any water we use. And yet there is no mercy for the Israelites. Sometimes our path is easy, and sometimes it is difficult. Sometimes we beg and get what we want, and other times we do not. God helped the Israelites get out of Egypt (and one might ask why an all powerful God needed ten plagues to accomplish the escape). But life is hard and God is not making it easier.

We learn from this that we do meet obstacles. Mighty obstacles. Undeserved obstacles. What should be a short journey becomes a long journey? Sounds like I’m talking about life. What is the point of all this? Some people can’t take it and others thrive on challenges. Hopefully we learn from these difficult times. We grow up... or at least we try.

If we think of the Israelites as chosen people, we have to ask if their God is simply sadistic, making this journey so difficult. I think not. We are more our own people. We dug our own grave so to speak.

My friend N said that God punishes people for being human. Like killing Aaron’s sons because they were a little zealous, or not letting Moses into the promised land because he was a little zealous, or not letting the Israelites take the most direct path (because they are a little zealous).

Really, this is not God with puppet strings doing all this. If that were so, we’d quickly have to condemn him/her for creating such undeserved atrocities, from exemplary people having debilitating illnesses to millions of people being slaughtered by ruthless dictators.

Actually I’m starting to read the Torah to suggest that we aren’t “punished.” Rather life is full of trials and tribulations... we have breaks every once in a while, but it ain’t easy. Moses doesn’t get to the promised land because that is what happens in life. We don’t get there. Maybe our children get a little closer than we did. But in the end, we are Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up just to see it come down. All we can do is pluck the strawberry and enjoy it when we can.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Parshat Chukat, 3nd Portion, (Numbers 20:7-13), 7/12/2016

Sometimes we do what to us is a little thing, but to someone else, it is big.

God tells Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead, Moses hits the rock with his rod and it spewed water. The result was good, but does the end justify the means? Apparently not, when the means is to disobey God. Saul Alinsky said, “If the end does not justify the means, what does?" 

It seems like it is the feminine side of God to tell Moses to speak to the rock. Speaking is hard for Moses. And he wanted to show his power (his rod) to his congregation.

The punishment for such an act is that Moses is told that he won't get to go to the Holy Land. This is his lifelong ambition. This is the task given to him by God, and now taken away. 

It was the gentle God that told Moses to speak to the rock. It is the mother who speaks to the child. It is the father that uses the rod. Moses was not ready to go to the promised land, because the Jews needed mercy as well as justice. God asked him to display mercy and gentleness toward the rock. Instead, he hit it. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Parshat Chukat, 2nd Portion, (Numbers 19:18-20:6), 7/11/2016

We hear more in this portion about the procedure for the unclean to become clean. Some times it is an offering, sometimes waiting until evening, and sometimes both. In the Talmud there is quite a bit on the degrees of uncleanliness which deals with the effect of one unclean person or object touching or being in the room with another.

I’m forever curious about the reason for living with such laws. Does it improve our quality of life? Does it make the world a better place? Does it reduce suffering?

One positive aspect to the system is that it might encourage mindfulness. You might become very careful when you walking into a room lest their be a corpse there that would make you unclean.

Starting with Numbers, Chapter 20, we find that Miriam, the oldest sibling of Aaron and Moses, dies. She was a prophetess, and predicted as a child that her mother would give birth to the man who would free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.

Then the people quarreled with Moses telling him that they wish they had died because now they are dying for they have no water.

Moses and Aaron, not knowing what to do, fell on their faces. Then “the glory of the Lord appeared to them.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

Parshat Chukat, 1st Portion, (Numbers 19:1-17), 7/10/2016

The Lord tell Moses and Aaron to get a perfectly red cow with no blemishes. This cow has probably never existed, nor will it ever exist. If it has two black hairs, it will be disqualified... and if it ever had a yoke, it will be disqualified. Some say that such an animal was born in 1997 in Israel, and that it is rumored that this is a sign that a messiah will come after it is born. Though a few Jews believe that the messiah has come, I haven’t heard of one coming since 1989.

The rest of this portion is about how the red cow (heifer) is a key part of the burnt offerings to purify ourselves were we in the midst of a corpse, had a seminal emission, experienced a menstrual flow, or afflicted with tzara’ath (disfiguring of the skin). 

The Lord sets a high bar defining a procedure for cleanliness—a bar so high that it is practically impossible. 

I see two reasons why the Lord might do that. First, if there were a perfect red cow then that would be another idol like the golden calf that the Israelites made in the desert when Moses didn’t return on time from getting the commandments from the Lord. Second, making a process impossible suggests that it is not completing the task that is important, but rather doing our best to try. 

“He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be given much reward. And faithful is your Employer that He will reward you for your labor. And know that the reward of the righteous will be in the World to Come.” One of our rabbis in Austin used this below his signature on emails. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parshat Korach, 7th Portion, (Numbers 18:21-18:20), 7/9/2016

The inheritance for the Levis is that they get a tithe from the other Israelites for their service in the temple. From that, they give a proportion to Aaron, the priest/Cohen, who is in charge.

What is given is called Terumah, which means parsha. This is also the name of a particular part of the Torah (Exodus 25:1-27:19). It is also the name for the weekly parts of the Torah.

The Torah is the offering from God to Moses. The study of the Torah replaced the offerings after the destruction of the second temple. The priests were replaced by rabbis. The study and living of the Torah became the practice of Judaism.

Interesting how we give money to the temple, and the temple gives money to the rabbis. It is a parallel relationship where the Levis gave to the Cohens.

In the same way, we don't pay teachers directly, but rather pay money to the schools (or further removed, pay taxes in the case of public schools). I suppose there is some advantage here, because the teachers/priest have a certain freedom not being employees of the people. The degree of separation sounds healthy.

Different systems of taxation have different advantages and disadvantages. One could defend the idea that everyone give a fixed amount because the services that are delivered might be similar. Or one could defend the idea that the wealthy pay a larger percentage since they have so much money. Hence we have Bernie Sanders who wants to reduce the income gap or Donald Trump who doesn't see the income gap as a problem.

I understand that tithing is not to be confused with generosity. It is not a gift. Rather, it is an obligation. Giving is what is done beyond tithing. It is extra.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Parshat Korach, 6th Portion, (Numbers 17:25-18:20), 7/8/2016

The staff is placed in front of the tent to remind the rebellious ones of what happens when they lose faith.

What is faith? It allows us to walk down the street without the fear that the ground may crumble beneath us.

It allows us to completely and throughly trust another human being. This is completely irrational, yet without it, we cannot have a relationship. The opposite of faith is always being cautious that something bad will happen. When we don’t have faith, we believe that the sky will fall.

We read here about the responsibility and rewards of being a kehunah (Cohen). These priests should get offerings, but will not own or inherit land. This seems to be a good way to prevent the priests from straying from their job. They have to serve their people well to be fed. They will only acquire what is given to them day-by-day.

In a Buddhist temple, the ceremonial robes belong to the temple. The monks own a needle, a robe, and a begging bowl. That’s it. And they can’t store food. If they get too much for one meal, they have to share it.

This, as well, keeps the monks on their toes.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Parshat Korach, 5th Portion, (Numbers 17:16-24), 7/7/2016

We speak of the importance of the first 100 days of a president’s term in office. There is not time to linger when change is desired. Another revolution might ensue.

Staffs are obtained from the houses of each of the chieftains. Aaron’s name is on the staff for Levi house. It is also the kehunah (Cohen) house, but the Lord counts them as one.

God tells them to place the staffs at the Tent of Meeting. One of the staffs will blossom, and that will be the man God chooses. The Lord says he will calm down from the complaining when that happens.

Aaron’s staff blossomed fresh almonds, which are the fastest growing fruit. Again, there is no time to waste. Funny that people only believe miracles. And the miracles need to be magic. The Lord appears to many through miracles. I think either everything is a miracle, or that it is the ordinary where God shines brightest.

At the end of this portion, Moses takes each of these staffs and gave them back to the tribes. Did he give them back their manhood? Besides the phallus quality of a staff, it also makes the leaders taller than their followers.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Parshat Korach, 4th Portion, (Numbers 17:9-15), 7/6/2016

Yesterday the Lord “created a creation”... a opening in the Earth that buried all the Korah’s supporters.

Then the entire congregation complained to Moses and Aaron, complaining that they had “the killed the people of the Lord.”

I thought that was an interesting phrase. They were those without faith, so why were they “of the lord.” I suppose they were “the people” because they had been “chosen.”

In today’s portion, the Lord consumes those with a plague who complained that the complainers were devoured by the Earth. Aaron runs in the midst of the assembly with some incense and he atoned for them. Soon the plague stopped, but not before 2000+ were killed.

My reading of all this is thus: God doesn’t really cause harm on specific people. We cause harm on ourselves when we don’t have faith. When we want the world to be different than it is, disappointment and unhappiness set in. The plague is dissatisfaction.

The incense that Aaron ran with to stop the plague was his way of connecting to/appeal to God... but really, since I don’t believe in something that messes with nature, I think of the incense as Aaron’s way of showing that they will be taken care of by a merciful God, as opposed to the vengeful or just God who caused the plague to those who didn’t understand the importance of faith.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Parshat Korach, 3rd Portion, (Numbers 16:19-17:18), 7/5/2016

Numbers 16:21. “Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant.

22. They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?”

I’m not sure if only one man sinned. The others followed Korah in his revolt against Moses. What is the lesson here? That you should not complain? That you should trust someone who says that they talk to God? That you should not revolt against the status quo?

Perhaps this is about faith. The followers of Korah had no faith. They only looked at their material wealth and complained because they wanted more. I think it is appropriate that the earth swallowed them up... a burial. The earth could represent material possessions, while the sky represents the spiritual realm.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parshat Korach, 2nd Portion, (Numbers 16:14-19), 7/4/2016

In Exodus 3:8, God tells Moses, 8 “I have descended to rescue them from the hand[s] of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land, to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites.”

And now, out of Egypt, they continue to complain to Moses, “You have not even brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Even if you gouge out the eyes of those men, we will not go up.” (Numbers, Chapter 16:14)

Promises are tricky. We sometimes use promises to take a person to the next step in their journey. We don’t tell the whole story. We just tell enough to get a person to the next place in their journey. The entire story would be TMI (too much information).

But sometimes we pay for it, and the people remember what was said, and they revolt. They lack faith that they will find the land of plenty. Moses is distressed, which Rashi says is more grieved than angry. Though Moses tells the Lord that he has not harmed any of them, nor has he taken their donkeys, it seems that Moses knows that they are not happy.

It appears as well that Moses doesn’t know what lies ahead.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Parshat Korach, 1st Portion, (Numbers 16:1-13), 7/3/2016

“Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” (Numbers 16-13)

Between the efforts of Moses and God, the Israelites had received their freedom. Yet they are complaining because they remember the benefits of Egypt but not that they were slaves. It reminds me what a dean used to say to us, “Careful what you wish for.”

Having gratitude is more a state of mind than the result of being the recipient of milk and honey. Some people have all they wished for and complain. And others have nothing and are happy.

They didn’t complain when Moses led them out of Egypt. But when they didn’t immediately go to the promised land, they were bitter. They questioned his leadership because they didn’t get what they wanted.

Giving people what they need and what they want are very different. The people were immature and only believed in God and Moses as long as they were getting what they wanted. The lesson here it is when things aren’t peachy when faith is tested... When the wheel hits the road, so to speak.

Moses’ authority came from God. When they question Moses, they really are questioning God.

As the Israelites mature, they hopefully will believe in God and follow Moses even when faced with obstacles and hardships.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Parshat Shelach, 7th portion, (Numbers 15:27-41), 7/2/2016

This portion starts with those individuals who sin inadvertently (by worshipping idols) and soon moves to those individuals who act highhandedly (intentionally).

One could say that not following commandments could either be by the community or by the individual. And they could be either intentional (highhanded in this parshat) or inadvertent.

When wrong is done, we can define the action in one of the four quadrants: 

We use such excuses as “I dropped the ball” to indicate that it was inadvertent. Or “everyone is doing it.”

We only take responsibility when it is individual and highhanded. And that is rare, from out own vantage point.

Actually we are all responsible. We don’t have to go along with the crowd. The crowd gossips. Do we need to gossip? The crowd doesn’t give first to God. Do we need to follow their action?

But what about mistakes? They fall in a continuum from completely unavoidable to avoidable. A brain surgeon goes drinking the night before a surgery and isn’t at his best. That is unavoidable. It is hard to think of a mistake that was not avoidable. If it was an act of God, like my house was taken by a tornado, and therefore I lost your papers… well, assuming that the tornado wasn’t expected, and you didn’t live in tornado country… that was a hard one to avoid. You can only be so careful. Car manufactures try to make their cars safe, yet they know that to make it even safer will cost too much and people will not buy the car. So they say, “what we’ve done so far will save X lives, and if we do more will save X + Y lives. But we can’t afford to do more, so some people will have to die that we could have saved. Sorry.”

What is the community’s responsibility when an individual does wrong? Did they adequately instruct the individual? Did they meet the individual on equal ground? Did they pick the wrong individual for the job?

If we pick the wrong candidate for president, and they screw up… are they solely responsible?

If our neighbor kids goes postal, are we responsible?

Many claim that they’ve washed their hands.

One might say that in a community you cannot do that.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in The Prophets,  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Parshat Shelach, 6th portion, (Numbers 15:17-26), 7/1/2016

I haven’t done my Torah blog for over a year. I stopped because I didn’t know anything. I’ve been studying the Torah for a year now, and wouldn’t say I know much more… but I do feel up for trying.

In this Parshat, the Lord, speaking through Moses, tells what must be done should people err and not fulfill the commandment that must be met when getting to the promised land.

The commandment is that you should give your first loaf of bread as a gift to the Lord. We tend to give what is left over. We call that generosity. This isn’t generosity. It is being grateful. And because it is a commandment, it is not something that we have a choice about. An error would only occur if we had forgotten to do it… something we all do.

I don’t remember other places where failing to fulfill the commandments might be attributed to an error. Still, there are offerings that must be done should that breaking of a commandment occur. It is interesting that the possibility of not fulfilling the commandments could only be due to an error. Will the Israelites, upon reaching the promised land, be so grateful that they will only break commandments inadvertently?

In the end, after the offering, all will be forgiven. Do we have the God of mercy rather than the God of justice?

Do we only break commandments because of errors? According to Socrates, people only choose the good. If they don’t “do good” it is simply an error in judgement. They are not sinners. They are not bad. Is this the Torah’s teaching as well?