D'Var Torah - Pinchas
Temple Israel of Natick
July 30, 2016
Today's parshah, Pinchas, serves as a reminder that, as important as our sacred texts are, we need to interpret them using our own knowledge, understanding and morality.
God explains to Moses how he rewarded Pinchas, the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron, for slaying Zimri, and his Midianite consort and thus halting a lethal plague.
Is the Torah really telling us that licentious behavior causes plagues? Is it really telling us we should slay people engaging in such behavior?
The parshah discusses a census of the people, including 601,730 males between the ages of twenty and sixty, used in conjunction with the allocation of the land of Israel among the tribes and families.
Is that figure reasonable?
That many adult males implies a total population of millions, all descended from the roughly 70 families that had gone down to Egypt with Jacob 400 years earlier.
David Ben-Gurion, that celebrated prime minister, noted scholar of the Bible and atheist, observed that in שמות, Exodus, the Hebrew text refers to שש מאות אלף. This is usually translated as 600,000, but The Old Man noted אלף can also mean "family" or "clan." Having 70 families grow to 600 families seems a lot more reasonable than growing to millions of Israelites.
The parshah also relates the story of the five daughters of Tzelafchad, who had no brothers when their father died. They beseeched Moses to allow them to inherit their father's land. God accepted their plea and the law was adapted, although it was still discriminatory against women.
Are we comfortable with this?
Parshat Pinchas brings to mind the importance of critical thinking, of questioning, of family, and of the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to us, the Jewish people.
I love that in Judaism we don't have a catechism, but we question and we disagree.
The first time I ever drove a car with a GPS was in Israel in 2006. Marsha and I were there for my cousin Hagit's wedding in Beersheva, staying at the Paradise Hotel. What a prime example of a hotel's name being as believable as Mahmoud Abbas.
The night before the wedding, we went to the Inbal Hotel, in the heart of Jerusalem, for the Bat Mitzvah of a friend's daughter.
It was about midnight by the time we left, very dark - it must have been around Rosh Chodesh - and since I always make wrong turns driving out of Jerusalem, even in daylight, I decided to depend on our rental car's trusty GPS ... until we found ourselves at a dead end, on a dirt road, in an unfamiliar area, in front of a large home with mosaic tiles and Arabic lettering, and I realized, just as we must interpret Torah using our own judgment, it was time to supplement the GPS with my own judgment.
We finally, successfully, got out of Jerusalem that dark night, started wintering in Israel four years later, and made aliyah four years after that.
The city in which we live, Netanya, is a sister city to Nice.
Nice. The site of that massacre barely two weeks ago. 84 people murdered because a fanatic did not use independent judgment to temper the extreme theology of the radical Islamist clerics he followed.
The street on which we live, Nitza, is named after Nice. Apparently, if you transliterate Nice into Hebrew, and then transliterate the Hebrew into English, you come up with Nitza. That's Israel.
Ironically, Netanya has benefited from the terrorism and anti-Semitism in France. French Jews have been making aliyah in increasing numbers and Netanya is their favorite destination. Our Vaad's AGM, Annual General Meeting, is now conducted in both English and French, and occasionally a little Hebrew.
One of those olim, who had come to Israel after being a victim in the attack of the Charlie Hebdo terrorists on the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris, was also the victim of the one stabbing attack in Netanya during the time we were there last year.
Our lives in Israel are very similar to our lives in the United States.
As in Natick, our Masorti synagogue is an important part of our lives, our substitute family. On Shabbat, we're usually at services, which are like services here except nobody kisses their tsitsit during the Shema and nobody wears a tie.
Home for lunch, we look out our window at what Marsha calls the "Shabbat parade," the large Orthodox families from Kiryat Sanz, Netanya's version of Mea Shearim, marching along the tayelet, boardwalk, still in their synagogue clothes. After lunch, we'll often join them or walk down to the beach. I find a Shabbat nap on the beach by the Mediterranean even more pleasant than one on our porch in Natick.
With our synagogue a six minute walk from our doorway and morning minyan starting not at 7 am but at a more civilized 8, I'm usually there on weekday mornings, too. We daven using Siddurim that previously got a lot of use in the chapel here, at Temple Israel of Natick.
We go to concerts and lectures. We shop in supermarkets, where I not infrequently need to make use of a Hebrew app on my phone. We shop at Netanya's wonderful shuk, around the corner from which, at a spot I walk by several times a week, the one terror attack in Netanya since we left took place. We visit with friends. We host friends from Natick and show them around Netanya.
We replace broken appliances, always an experience. We needed a plumber when I tried to replace a faucet but, because of the corrosion from the sea, couldn't get the old one off. That cost me an extra 150 shekels, about $40. Not quite what a plumber costs here. And the plumbers here don't usually wear yarmulkes when they're fixing toilets.
At kiddush, our post-minyan coffee klatch, at AACI or ESRA - Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel or English Speaking Residents Association - or with friends, the conversation often turns to politics. We try to decide whose politics are more insane, America's or Israel's.
And people kept asking us what was going on with the Jewish community in the United States. Why all the public sniping at Israel, the patronizing op-eds in The New York Times by clueless self-appointed leaders criticizing Israel no matter what Israel does, ignoring the basic fact, obvious to everyone but the oblivious fringe in Israel, that the Palestinian Arabs and their leadership aren't willing to make peace with Israel, no matter what Israel offers?
Israelis remember Mahmoud Abbas, the "most moderate" leader the Palestinians have ever had - what a joke! - walked away after being offered the equivalent of all the disputed territory, plus a redivision of Jerusalem, in 2008 and has, for all practical purposes, ever since refused to negotiate. Last week, he announced plans to sue Great Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration a century ago. My God! It's not even Purim.
What does Abu Mazen have to do before those critics, including, most incomprehensibly and discouragingly, Jewish critics, admit Israel can't force the Arabs to make peace, and has no alternative but to try to manage the conflict until Palestinian Arab society, and its leadership, undergoes a complete transformation?
I recently watched a few YouTube videos featuring Rabbi Avi Weiss being interviewed by Rabbi Mark Golub on JBS, the Jewish Broadcasting System. Rabbi Weiss said he viewed all of world Jewry, including Meir Kahane at one extreme and J Street at the other, not just as community, but as family.
In private, family members may argue bitterly with each other, but they usually know better than to argue publicly in the pages of The New York Times or the Boston Globe. Yes, I remember the Market Basket family feud between Arthur S. and Arthur T., but normal, loving families stand together in public, especially when they are under attack.
There is no shortage of vocal criticism of Israel, some justified but mostly unjustified, coming from anti-Semites, from anti-Zionists. Public criticism from Jews only adds fuel to the already flaming fire.
Especially now, we need to all act in the spirit of the banner in front of Temple Israel: "We Stand With Israel."
And not just because Israel needs our support. The world needs us to stand with Israel.
The words of our friend Charles Small, executive director of ISGAP, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, keep reverberating in my head: "It may start with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews."
Today, it may start with Israel, but it never ends with Israel, the frontline state in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism.
The world is today reaping the dubious rewards of not standing with Israel.
Today, it's not just Israel that's under attack. America is under attack. The Western World is under attack.
Is there a type of terrorist attack that wasn't used against Israel before being used against America, or France, or England, or Germany?
Hijackings Kidnappings Stabbings Firebombs Suicide bombings Trucks ramming into pedestrians Planes ramming into buildings Attacks on schools Attacks on synagogues Attacks on nightclubs, attacks on restaurants
They were all tried on Israel.
The world is silent when terrorists attack Israelis ... until Israel defends itself.
The United Nations adopted the infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution, welcomed Yasser Arafat to contaminate the formerly august General Assembly while wearing a gun holster.
It repeatedly rewarded the PLO, the organization which effectively invented and popularized modern terrorism.
And thus sowed the seeds of today's plague of worldwide terrorism.
It may start with Israel, but it never ends with Israel.
Hillel said "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
If we are not solidly for Israel, who else can we expect to be with Israel?
Hillel also said, "If I am only for myself, who am I?"
In standing with Israel, we are not only for ourselves, but we are protecting the civilized world.
The scourge of terrorism facing the civilized world started with the rewarding of terror attacks on Israel. To turn the tide against the terrorists, the civilized world must reverse that original sin.
In Pinchas, God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor, with the responsibility of leading our people into the Promised Land.
Is it not now our responsibility to, by standing with our people in the Promised Land, do our part to help lead the world out of today's darkness into the shining light of peace?
Am Yisrael chai.