Weekly Torah Commentary – Shemini April 21, 2017

Torah reading:  Leviticus 9-11

Haftorah reading: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, uncovering himself in the eyes of his servants’ maids, as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!” David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people, Israel. I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these maids you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.   2 Sam. 6:20-23

Daviddances

Remember that David was a simple shepherd boy – a teenager – when the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint him the next king of Israel. At the time, Saul was reigning over Israel and when David killed Goliath, he won the king’s favor.  However, that didn’t last long for Saul became exceedingly jealous of David and his abilities as the commander of his army. Eventually David becomes King and Jerusalem becomes his city, The City of David.

In I Samuel 18 there’s an interesting verse that bears on this week’s reading: “When Saul saw and knew that the LORD was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days.”  (vs. 28-29)  Saul gave his daughter in marriage to David but Saul’s jealousy and fear of David continue until we read in 1 Samuel 25:44 that Saul gives his daughter who was married to David to another man by the name of Palti.

After the death of Saul, David decides he wants his first wife, Michal, back and sends one of his men to escort her back to David’s palace (2 Samuel 3:14-22). Talk about dysfunctional relationships!

This complicated relationship between David and Michael continues to the point where in this week’s Haftorah, we get this description of David taking the ark into the city Jerusalem, his City, the city of David.

David was wearing an ephod or the priestly garments as he danced with all his might before the LORD – a dance of worship, of celebrating the goodness of God, of recognizing God’s power and glory.  David worshiped with everything in him.

When he got home afterwards, Mrs. Michal had her critical speech ready and memorized! In essence she says to her husband, the king, ‘You sure made a fool of yourself today!’

Why did Michal speak so harshly to David?

There may be several reasons but here at least are a few.

Remember that she loved David and had been his first wife.  When her father tore her from him and gave her to another man because of his own (Saul’s) jealousy, perhaps she felt abandoned that David did not come after her and rescue her from this new ‘husband’ right away.  Perhaps she struggled with resentment against both her father and her husband and if that resentment festered in her, bitterness would have developed and this was the moment it poured out of her onto David.

Alternatively, could there have been some tension between the ‘wife born into royalty’ and the lowly shepherd become king? Was that the reason behind accusing him of being ‘undignified’? In modern terminology would she be calling him a ‘peasant’, ‘a country bumpkin’?

David’s answer is to point out that what he was doing, he was doing for the LORD.

It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (vs. 21-22)

David makes it quite clear to his wife that his dancing is a perfectly acceptable form of celebrating the God He loves so ardently. Though he was King of Israel, David celebrated with abandon the One Who is King of the Universe and lets Michal know in no uncertain terms that nothing she says will keep him from passionate worship of the LORD.

Good for him!

The verse that follows is ominous and one can’t escape the connection.  Michael, daughter of Saul, had no child to the day of her death.  (Vs. 23) In biblical times, infertility was seen as one of the worst judgments of the LORD against a woman.

It was not wise to criticize the one doing the dancing!  It is never wise to criticize another person’s expressions of love and devotion to the LORD, even if it’s not ‘your style’ of worship.  The worship is not addressed to you!  It’s addressed to the Holy One of Israel.  Who are we to criticize how another person worships Him?

Notice 2 Samuel 6: 16 Then it happened as the ark of the LORD came into the city of David that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; she despised him in her heart. (emphasis added)

That word despised has synonyms such as hated, loathed and detested. There can little doubt that her ardent love for David had gone cold. But somehow, I don’t think her verbal attack was only about the dancing, do you?  Resentment had been simmering under the surface for a long time.

King David reckoned himself small in comparison to the God of Israel and cared little for the opinions of men. If the maids had noticed his zeal and passion for God, well then, he was fine with that.  ‘May it inspire them to passionate love for God!’ would have been his way of looking at the situation – radically different from Michael’s.

Is there more here for us to glean so many centuries later?
Are you convinced that what God thinks of you is what really matters in life?  Or like Michal, are you overly conscious of ‘what others might think’ if you stand strong in your faith and its expression?

Michal would have been an extremely brave or extremely cheesed off woman to confront the king in the way she did. But with her upbringing her own view she saw David because of his dancing as a ‘vulgar fellow’.

In society today we encounter opposition to our faith in God, to our celebration of Him.  The secular mind calls it foolishness.  Like Michal they have their ‘reasons’, but there is NO ‘reason’ for you or I to be moved or weakened in our faith by the opinions of other people.

Was David wrong to dance, to celebrate before the Lord? This was a King who had seen the power of God in his life. He knew what it was to sense the ‘joy of the Lord’ for it was this king who had written Psalm 16 which ends with these words: ‘In your presence is fulness of joy and at Your right hand, there are pleasures forevermore.’ vs. 11

In Tune with Torah this week = Is the presence of the LORD real in your life? Do you know that you know that He is with you? That He loves you with an unconditional love? That His attitude toward you is one of blessing?  Joy is much more than a feeling; it is an attitude of life fueled by an abiding awareness of God’s personal love for you!

May your joy in Him increase this Shabbat and throughout the rest of your life.

Shabbat Shalom

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayigash Dec. 18, 2015

Genesis 44:18-47:27

In this dramatic reading, Joseph and his brothers are finally united.  It is the first biblical record of forgiveness between family members and has much to say to us, not only about forgiveness but also about reconciliation.  They are not the same thing.

Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you. From one perspective, forgiveness is a form of voluntary ‘suffering’. Look at it this way.

If a friend hurts your reputation with gossip or unkind words, you have two choices: ‘pay’ them back with a cold shoulder, with unkind words about them to others, or refusing to reconcile with them.  Or you forgive, and you absorb the suffering yourself.  Someone always pays every debt.

Forgiveness is a promise first, to refrain from retribution or revenge and secondly, to deny yourself the luxury of brooding or obsessing over the wrong that was done.  Forgiveness does not excuse the misbehavior of the other person, but it does recognize that all humanity is flawed and therefore you choose to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We all need forgiveness at various times throughout our lives so give it freely and you will reap it back in abundance.

In revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph freely expressed his forgiveness.  In fact, he went so far as to free them from the burden of guilt by saying, “it was not you, but God, who sent me here…”

But, you may ask, if he was so ready to forgive them, why did he treat them harshly when they first went down to Egypt?  This is where we learn about reconciliation.  You can forgive someone for an offense without reconciling with them.  In fact, reconciliation often takes some time depending on the nature of the offense.  Because you forgive someone who betrayed you, for example, doesn’t mean you have to trust them immediately.  That’s what we see displayed in Joseph’s actions.

Had his brothers truly changed? Or were they still quarrelsome and cantankerous? Joseph put them through a series of tests designed to reveal their character, the ultimate one being the encounter with his brother, Judah, in Genesis 44:18-34.  Judah – the one who originally suggested selling Joseph – now humbly pleads for mercy regarding Benjamin and even offers himself to take Benjamin’s place.  That was the moment when Joseph knew that his brother’s repentance was real.  And so the very next verse, Gen. 45:1, says “Joseph could stand it no longer…”and putting everyone out of the room he cries out, “I am Joseph!”  Though he had forgiven them long ago, at this moment they are reconciled.  Joseph could trust them again.  Why? Because when faced with the opportunity to abandon (betray) Benjamin as they had betrayed him, they refused to do so and instead begged for mercy.

Joseph never lost his hope for a restored and healed relationship with his brothers and reunion with his father.  But Joseph was wise enough to know that while forgiveness can be given – even at a distance from the offender – reconciliation requires a rebuilding of trust.  The tests he put his brothers through paved the way for full reconciliation.

We have all been hurt and we have all hurt others. If we refuse to forgive, we damage our own souls.  (Even the Mayo Clinic has published articles on the negative effects to one’s physical and mental health of harboring resentment and bitterness.)  The Torah – indeed – all of Scripture exhorts to forgive one another.  But that’s the first step.  The next is reconciliation.  Depending on the offense, it can take a little time or a lot of time. There will always be a need for patience on the road to reconciliation. What matters is that like Joseph we never give up hope.

In Tune with Torah this week = Are you holding on to any resentment or bitterness? Do you harbor a coldness, an irritability toward someone? Are you refusing to ‘let go’ of past hurts? Do you justify your negative attitude and anger towards someone?  If any of these questions elicit a ‘yes’, don’t you think it’s time to move on? To mend broken relationships? To cleanse your own soul of the damaging effects of nursing old wounds? May God help us all to move closer to unity and peace within our families and communities.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary — Devarim July 24, 2015

Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:1 – 3:22

This week we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. This particular portion always coincides with the Shabbat before the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, not just once but twice.

The Sages have taught over the centuries that Israel lost the Temple due to the sin of baseless hatred. Divisions, arguments, jealousies and hostilities were allowed to grow and fester in the population so that the unity Moses urged Israel to preserve was destroyed. Among others, the venerable Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of modern Israel, used to teach that as the Temple was destroyed by senseless hatred, it would be rebuilt when Israel returned to the commandment ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Extravagant love in the place of senseless hatred would unite the nation again as the psalmist wrote, Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity…for there the Lord commands the blessing – life forever.

While this teaching sounds simple, it is in fact quite daunting, deserving of serious meditation.

The words “baseless hatred” imply rampant, wanton violence, yet the precise Hebrew phrase is”sin’at hinam”. Literally, ‘hinam’ actually means “free of charge” or “at no cost”. The Torah is not speaking about hatred for no reason at all, but rather a hatred out of proportion.

We generally dislike people for a reason. We justify our dislikes by citing reasons we consider appropriate. Perhaps we have been hurt, insulted, ignored or humiliated in public. Disliking them seems to be our only defense. The problem with that is that more times than we care to admit, our response is not proportional. We “overcharge” for these real or imagined offenses. Then we pay back with interest, and, as we all know, according to the Torah, ‘charging’ interest of a brother is forbidden.

If we are willing to be honest, we would recognize that at times the other person had no intention to hurt. It is our own insecurity and emotional fragility that reacted and judged others as malicious, even when no such malice was intended.

So here’s our dilemma: When accused of senseless hatred, many of us can with utter honesty state that we are innocent. However, if we ask the question a different way, does our conclusion stand that test?

If we have harbored resentments and tried in any way to ‘get even’, we are guilty. Whatever hatred we have for ‘them’ is not “free.” It is protected and nurtured by our un-forgiveness.

Our love for others is grounded in the knowledge that every person is created in the image of God. This other person is my brother, sister or perhaps, cousin too-many-times removed. I am obligated by Torah to love and care for him or her, to constantly consider how I can improve their life, to pray for them.

Therein lies the rub: We convince ourselves that the hostility is well-deserved, while the love we are commanded to express is unearned and is given to the undeserving.

How do we resolve this dilemma? The prophet Isaiah wrote that God’s ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts our thoughts. We are called to see the world and the people in it from God’s perspective rather than our own. We also need to remember that we were created in God’s image and likeness and He commanded us ‘Be holy as I am holy.’

We have all sinned and offended God and His Word. Yet He holds no grudge, nor does He withhold His care. High interest payback is not in His vocabulary! Neither should it be part of our relationship paradigm.

In Tune with Torah this week = taking an honest look at our relationships. Are we harboring any resentment, un-forgiveness or ill will towards anyone else? Are we very sure that they actually intended to hurt us or have we ‘assumed’ or ‘presumed’ we knew their intention? Could we be wrong in our assessment of what happened? Can we admit that we may have misunderstood the incident and rushed to an incorrect conclusion? Moses was called by God ‘the most humble man on the face of the earth.’ Could my relationships be improved with a bit more humility injected into them – on MY part?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Tetzaveh February 7, 2014

TETZAVEH – SHEMOT/EXODUS 27:20 – 30-10

This week’s parashah begins with God commanding Moses “And as for you, you shall instruct the Israelites to bring you pure olive oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling the Eternal Lamp (v. 20).” At first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual. Isn’t God simply giving Moses yet another instruction concerning the construction of the Mishkan?

What caught our attention is the phrase: ‘and as for you.’ It’s different from the other instructions and a little study reveals that there are two other times where God’s directions begin with this same phrase: ‘and as for you.’

1) “Bring forth your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites to serve me as priests (28:1)” and 2) “speak[ing] to all who are wise of heart … to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as priest (28:3).” Both of these are prefaced with ‘an as for you.’ Why?

All three instances are directly related to laws concerning the priesthood, something that was going to be Aaron’s prerogative and not that of Moses.

The Sages point out that when Moses was before the Burning Bush, he begged God to use someone else. God’s response is to tell Moses that, because of his unwillingness to take up the mission to which God is calling him, he will not be permitted to partake of the priesthood, except for the brief period of 7 days when the Mishkan is being dedicated. Afterwards, the priesthood belongs to Aaron and his descendants.

Though some would interpret this as a punishment of sorts, Moses’s reaction was to rejoice over the blessed call given to Aaron. Aaron likewise rejoices at God’s choice of Moses as the leader who will deliver Israel from the Pharaoh.

In the Torah we are told that Moses’ primary attributes were that of greatness and humility. In reality it is his humility that is at the heart of his greatness. Though Aaron is appointed High Priest, Moses’s humility allows him to rejoice, much as his humility caused him to reject God’s initial call for fear that Aaron, being the elder brother, would be hurt. This is the meaning underlying the seemingly innocuous “and as for you” that begins the command for Moses to prepare the oil, decorate the courtyard of the mishkan and instruct others to prepare Aaron’s garments.

Properly understood, this phrase “and as for you” is not a punishment at all. It instead is an acknowledgement by God of Moses’ humility and his consequent ability to rejoice in the blessing given to his brother.

Being able to rejoice over the blessings given to others is a wonderful character trait and is the mark of a spiritually mature person; that is to say, one who is not egotistical or self-absorbed, thinking all good things should be theirs. The lack of humility breeds jealousies and resentments and betrays a lack of acceptance for God’s call and direction in one’s own life.

The ability to embrace one’s own purpose and position in life, right along with that of others, is a wonderful trait and in addition to demonstrating maturity, also conveys a deep faith in God’s guiding hand as well as an attitude of thanksgiving for one’s own blessings.

In Tune with Torah this week = Whenever our ego rears its head and urges us to move away from friends and family, and even from God, we need to remember the humility and integrity of Moses who after his initial struggle, embraced his own calling and was then free to rejoice in the calling and blessings of others.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tetzei August 15, 2013

Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

The theme of relationships – how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged – is a pervading theme of this week’s Torah portion. In one particular verse, a very strict limitation is placed upon interpersonal relationships. The Torah explains the prohibition in a clear statement of rationale:

An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil’am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)

Amon and Moav were raised in a strange family unit: they were both the products of incest. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and seduced him in his stupor. (Gen. 19:30-38)

Lot, Avraham’s nephew, saw his world crumble around him. His first tragic mistake was taking leave of Avraham: He should have learned enough from his uncle to achieve a reconciliation between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham in his wisdom realized that there was only one solution for the conflict, and suggested a parting of the ways. (Gen. 13:7-9) Lot travels eastward to Sodom.

There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the tent of Avraham and choose a place like Sodom. Sodom
‘looked good’for he was motivated by aspirations of wealth and power. But it didn’t take long for Sodom to be destroyed, his home and possessions along with it. Even his wife was lost. He escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters. These daughters each present Lot with sons, Moav and Amon.

These sons enter the world with a stigma: Their father/grandfather has made countless bad decisions, and their mothers instigated incest with their own father. They are emotionally damaged men: hurt, angry, full of resentment. Yet the Torah teaches a remarkable lesson: These nations are forbidden to the Jewish people; descendents of Amon and Moav are not to be accepted as converts to Judaism. But why? Not because they are genetically inferior but “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.

The second half of the verse is understandable: They conspired to curse the Jews, reason enough for maintaining a healthy distance. But that’s not the main reason. Rather, it is their failure to greet us in the desert with food and drink that illustrates their lack of character.

Note: Lot grew up in Avraham’s tent. Despite Lot’s possible feelings of abandonment, despite Moav and Amon’s feelings of rejection, despite the dysfunctional family that produced Moav and Amon, they should have known better, and behaved as any relative of Avraham knew was the proper way to deal with others – certainly with relatives.

They are expected to behave as Avraham would have, to greet travelers with food and drink. In this instance, the Torah is unforgiving. We are not meant to summon up “understanding” or “empathy” for those who are products of a dysfunctional home, children born of twisted relationships, the products of incest who may have suffered ridicule, who could have blamed their parents for all their problems. The Torah underscores the power of a positive education and example to overcome negative feelings of resentment and anger. Despite their origins and upbringing, the descendents of Lot had the ability to choose kindness. They were endowed with free will.

The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings – children and adults -are often tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings, but the Torah does not allow us to place the blame with our upbringing, our parents or ancestors, or other situations beyond our control. Every human being has Free Will; this means that, along with any negative experiences, there are positive lessons to be learned from the challenges in our past.

The responsible individual must choose to reject the negative and distill positive lessons from any given experience. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken, as the case of Amon and Moav illustrates: Even many generations down the line, we have the right to expect moral behavior on the part of Lot’s descendents. Despite Lot’s many failings, despite the challenging background, God has expectations of those raised in the Tent of Avraham. Amon and Moav, as descendents of Lot, had so many positive lessons to learn. They were punished for choosing to focus on their own feelings and their own anger. For their choices, and not for their history, they are forever banned from the Congregation of God.

Each and every one of us, emotional scars and personal failures notwithstanding, is called upon by the laws of the Torah to make a similar choice. We are reminded, through the unlikely example of Amon and Moav, that we are all descendents of someone who grew up in the tents of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah. There is greatness within our collective memory, and therefore within our abilities and our selves. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading to fractured homes and decimated communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences, and raise ourselves as individuals and families to the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our determination to choose rightly despite any negative influences.