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D'Var Torah — Pinchas

Temple Israel of Natick
July 12, 2014

Shabbat shalom.

One thing I've learned from life in Israel is that you always have to be ready to change plans and improvise.

After I'd prepared a rough draft on Pinchas, the bodies of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad were found, a handful of Israelis did some abhorrent things, Hamas increased its bombardment of Israeli towns, Israel finally responded, and I ripped up my draft.

Last week, Rabbi Liben noted the midrash that when Balaam observed the encampment of the Israelites, he noticed the openings of their tents did not face one another. From this he inferred the Israelites were a modest people.

This modesty apparently didn't last even through the entire parshah. "... and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab" along with a bunch of other actions not quite in keeping with the Ten Commandments. After hearing from God, Moses told the judges "Slay ye every one who has joined unto the Baal of Peor."

Along came Pinchas and with his spear slew Zimri and Cozbi, a Midianite woman with whom Zimri was publicly consorting.

It's worth thinking of this when people talk about the Koran - and Islam - being inherently violent.

In our Torah, God rewarded Pinchas for his relatively barbaric act, making with him a covenant of eternal priesthood.

I don't think the problem of violence is an inherent problem with Islam; I think it's just that Islam is a relatively young religion and we have the misfortune to be suffering through its violent adolescence. In Biblical times, we Jews only had relatively primitive weapons; today, Iran is developing nuclear weapons; we may need God's intervention to save the world.

In Pinchas, God ordered Moshe to do a census, partly for military purposes and partly to determine how to allocate Eretz Yisrael among the tribes. The total number of potential warriors was 601,730. As a retired mathematician, I couldn't resist doing some rough calculations, estimating what our Jewish population would be today if we had grown at the rate the world population is growing today. Very conservatively, in scientific notation, we'd now number 27 x 1018, or roughly 27 million trillion. It's fortunate we haven't grown at nearly that rate, but it would be nice if we'd grown just a little more than we have.

Today, the Jewish population of Israel is barely 6 million, roughly twice the total number who completed that Biblical trek from slavery to freedom. Marsha and I will be making our own annual trek in October, as olim chadashim, new Israeli citizens. After spending the last five winters in Netanya, the last three in our own apartment across from the Mediterranean, we're making aliyah, although we'll still be spending nearly half the year here in Natick.

For us, life in Israel is in many ways similar to our life in America. We belong to a Masorti synagogue, the Israeli equivalent of Conservative. The services are very similar to the services here, although the sermons are given in both Hebrew and English ... and a group of Russians go into the social hall to hear the previous week's sermon translated into Russian. As we do here, Marsha and I go to services on Shabbat. I go to most of the morning minyanim, which begin at a more civilized 8 am and are followed by coffee, tea and cookies. I often lead the minyan, generally when whoever was scheduled doesn't show up.

On Mondays, we take a ten minute walk to Kikar Ha'atzmaut, Independence Square, in the center of town, also across from the Mediterranean. We go to the chamber music concert at Shearim at noon.

Shearim is a Russian outreach program started by Ervin Birnbaum. Ervin was originally from Hungary, is a Holocaust survivor, was on the Exodus, was a leader in the Masorti movement and is Rabbi Emeritus at Bet Israel, our synagogue in Netanya. He's an incredible person. You can read his bio on the Bet Israel website, Marsha wrote it.

After visiting refuseniks in Russia and learning some Russian, Ervin started Shearim. The amazingly talented classical musicians he helped resettle now come back and perform, helping raise the funds needed to continue the program.

Ervin sends out a weekly newsletter, reminding people of upcoming concerts and of the monthly Shearim tiyulim - excursions - guided by his son Aiton. Ervin frequently comments on current issues. He did that when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were kidnapped, perfectly capturing the way almost everyone in Israel took the kidnapping personally, as if their own sons had been kidnapped. He did it again when it turned out the murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir were Jews. This is part of what he wrote:
My Dear Friends,

I think at this point all of us are ready to bury our heads in shame. What a despicable act on the part of a few Jewish extremists! How could they brand the name "Jew" with such a terrifying act? Do we have to lower ourselves to the lowest possible level of wild beasts, without a sense of humanness, without any conscience? It absolutely terrifies me that a so-called God-fearing Jew could blaspheme the Torah, the Jewish People, the State of Israel in such a horrendous manner.

I personally feel a great need we should do something together and not be silent bystanders for evil in our midst.
As ashamed as we all feel about the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, I think Rabbi Birnbaum's words exemplify the difference between Israel and its enemies. While we have our extremists, at least we're ashamed of them.

This is a sharp contrast to the way the kidnapping of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali was celebrated by Fatah on its Facebook page, with the three-finger "Gilad Shalit" salute and with candies being handed out to children.

Despite its warts, it's cut and dried - Israel is the good guy in this conflict.

Of my relatives in Israel, I'm closest to Arnie. Arnie is a year younger than me and grew up in Brooklyn. He made aliyah in 1976, lives in Beersheva and never goes to synagogue. We spend a lot of time with Arnie and his family when we're in Israel.

Here's the gist of what he emailed Tuesday, when we asked if everyone was safe:
The title of this Bessie Smith song may describe expectations - We're going to have a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight - but the substance is very, very different.

Almost all are expecting a major response by the IDF sometime soon, if not tonight, then by tomorrow night. While it has been relatively quiet in Beer Sheva until now that is not likely to continue. (Other parts of the Negev have not been so fortunate.)

We are not concerned for our own personal safety - we are all in places with shelters. The one exception is Ofir who has 30 minutes of "exposed time" while driving to and from work, but if things get really hot he probably won't be going to work.

Among the problems is that if there is a rationale to Hamas’ actions no one seems to understand it. Maybe they will have some "luck" and inflict some damage on Israel, Israelis, the economy. But everyone knows it will be 100x worse for Gaza. So why do they continue firing missiles?

So let's hope that the damage to all - except to Hamas - will be limited, and that it will be concentrated in a very short period of time.
I mentioned that in Israel you always have to be ready to improvise. Rabbi Birnbaum sent out another Shearim newsletter Thursday in which he wrote:
Our monthly tiyul yesterday was due to visit the Meteorological Institute before noon and Bet Hatfutzot in the afternoon. 25 minutes before departure the Director of the Meteorological Institute informed me that the Ministry of Defense just let him know of the prohibition to accept visiting groups today. Determined not to give in to our enemies' desire to paralyze our country, I turned to several places and finally found acceptance in the Museum of the Land of Israel in Tel Aviv, to be sure at an additional cost of 1,118 shekels. No matter what the cost, we shall not break and not allow ourselves to be paralyzed.
In Israel, everything's personal. Everyone has friends and relatives who have been killed in wars, injured by terrorists. Everyone has rushed into a bomb shelter. Nobody wants war and everyone wants peace, although they all argue about how, and nobody thinks there's any chance of peace in our lifetimes.

Especially in these times, we need to show our support for Israel.

One of the ways I support Israel is by writing letters to the media and trying to get others to do the same.

In Connecticut, I was president of PRIMER-Connecticut. PRIMER is an offshoot of CAMERA and basically does on a local level what CAMERA - the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting - does on a national level. I've just started a counterpart here, PRIMER-Massachusetts, because after living here for two years - I've seen The Boston Globe - I've become convinced we need this sort of group in Massachusetts.

I've led letter writing workshops in Connecticut. Later this month, on Sunday, July 27, at 8 in the evening, I'm leading a short, one-hour workshop right here at Temple Israel of Natick. It's sponsored by the Israel Action Committee and by PRIMER. It will use materials provided by CAMERA. They're terrific materials. Take it from me: I was on the committee that put them together.

You may think you can't write letters. Most people tell me that. I want to convince you that you're wrong. Give me a chance; come to the workshop.

Just in case you can't make it July 27, you can have another chance. Just come to Jerusalem on December 10; I'll be doing a letter writing workshop there, for CAMERA.

Whether you make the workshop or not, check out the PRIMER website, <>, and join the PRIMER-Massachusetts email list. When we learn biased, anti-Israel items are published in The Boston Globe, or in other papers - we need volunteers for that - we send out alerts with analyses. I often hear from subscribers who hadn't realized the extent of the anti-Israel bias, and the blatant factual errors, in items which they had read.

The latter parts of this week's parshah deal with the public sacrifices at the Temple. We also read in Pinchas about those sacrifices during each of the festivals and every Rosh Chodesh.

It's no sacrifice for Marsha and me to spend those festivals in Israel. We love it there; we hope to see many of you in our home in Netanya. We can also guarantee you an aliyah to the Torah if you come with us to Kehillat Bet Israel on Shabbat, or on Monday, or on Thursday.

עשה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל

May He who brings peace to His universe bring peace to us and to all Israel.

Shabbat shalom.

The Comedian: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Speaking to a reporter at the United Nations headquarters, Ban Ki-moon, apparently with a straight face, said: "I don't think there is discrimination against Israel at the United Nations."
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