Pinchas: The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters

In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad petition to inherit their father’s portion. The story  of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Numbers 27:1-11) encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do in order to affirm their rights with dignity.

We might expect that women, heirs to Egyptian slavery and then put under law that frequently favours men, might react by keeping silent, by accepting as natural the rule decreed for them to follow. We might expect women in those days to stay close to their tents, remain out of sight, and not go far from their families.

However, this is not all that the five sisters do. First, they “go out” from their living place, from their social space, from the destiny imposed on them. The text states: “The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” Secondly they speak with determination: “Our father died in the wilderness. …  Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

How does Moses react? Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by clearly supporting the sisters’ demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances. Thus, the sisters’ claim leads to the law of inheritance’s being changed forever.

The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them.  It encourages us to think differently–and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Silvina Chemen, WRJ Torah Comment)

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

 

Shavuot: No shofar, seder, Chanukah candles or sukkah, but Torah – only Torah

Chaverim,

This coming Sunday we will observe Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving the Torah. Unique among our holidays, it has no specific mitzvah associated with it. With no shofar, seder, Chanukah candles or sukkah, there is little to grab the attention of all but the most serious of Jews.

It’s precisely because Shavuot celebrates the gift of Torah that there are no specific mitzvot related to the holiday (outside of special sacrifices during Temple times, and perhaps eating cheesecake 😉 ). It is the Torah as a whole that we celebrate. Highlighting the overarching nature of the holiday is the fact there’s no specific date for it. We need specific times to focus on repentance, to celebrate our freedom and to recall our journey through the desert, but Torah itself is to be celebrated and observed every day.

Instead of a specific date, Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Pesach, serving as the culmination of the Exodus and teaching us that freedom needs a framework so that any member of the society can enjoy it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

 

Bechukotai: Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do

Chaverim,

Many Reform siddur editors have been bothered by the biblical language of retribution as they appear in our Torah portion Bechukotai and in various parts of Deuteronomy. The same holds true for many congregants. On the Shabbatot when these portions are scheduled to be read, often the baal korei (Torah reader) will chant them quickly at a whisper so the congregation can avoid prolonged contact with them. Rabbi Bernard J. Bamberger (z“l), wrote, „The public reading of these threatening passages caused great uneasiness to former generations. … people avoided the privilege of being called up [to say a blessing] on the Sabbaths when the curses were ready from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.“

Rabbis have long struggled to understand the concept of reward and punishment in our sacred texts. In discussing the Sh’ma (see page 67 in our Siddur Mishkan Tefilah), Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff writes, „… we cannot fathom God’s justice: whether we are talking about individuals or communities, it is simply not true that the righteous always prosper and the wicked suffer …“ But he provides useful guidance to motivate our performance of the mitzvot, „I also believe that ‚The reward of performing a commandment is [the propensity and opportunity to perform another] commandment, and the result of doing a wicked thing is [the propensity and opportunity to do another] wicked thing (M. Avot 4:2). That is, we should do the right thing because it is the right thing and not out of hope for reward . . .

Offering a silver lining, this section of our parashah ends on a comforting note, „Yet, even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them . . . I will remember in their favour the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt…“ (Leviticus 26:44-45). Despite the harshness of the earlier text, this ending holds out hope for redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: Audrey Merwin )

 

 

Behar: Thinking long-term

Chaverim,

After several chapters about purity and the sacrificial system, our Torah portion “Behar”,  feels it necessary to refer back once again to the time of the revelation of the Torah.  This chapter appears as if it is an afterthought, something that Moses had neglected to mention until now.

I am saying this due to the sheer fact that we have read the last few weeks more or less nothing else than how to do sacrifices or to maintain holiness.  In Leviticus Chapter 25 we are still in the early days of what is to become a forty-year odyssey through the wilderness. The Israelites are still a disorganised rabble, they have no land, no crops, no harvests – they have no need for any Sabbatical years, or a Jubilee year, as well.

However,  right there, we are switched abruptly back to the top of Sinai, receiving instructions that seems to be out of context: ”When you come into the land which I will give you….”

Suddenly we are thinking long-term, strategically, we are thinking in terms of land and vineyards and fields and orchards, we are thinking in half-centuries and what to do to correct any imbalances in land-ownership that may develop. We receive a wonderful vision of a society based on checks and balances and respect for the mortality of man and the shortness of human ownership and the eternity of a Covenant and a God. So – why is it necessary to state suddenly that these laws were given on Mount Sinai? – It is as though the Torah text, having got distracted into allowing itself to muse upon the problems of skin diseases and issued decrees concerning the moral duties incumbent upon all to care for and ‘love’ the blind, the crippled, the deaf, the poor, the stranger –
suddenly has to pull itself together and return to the mode of ”As I was saying……”.

Having dealt with some inconvenient and rather messy incidents in the present, the Torah can now look again to the future – the presumed future, the presumed imminent future. Sounds for me as a General Election just passed and now everyone can concentrate to build together on a joined future. Don’t you think so?

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild)

(c) goodfreephotos

 

Emor: Time for new bridges

Chaverim,
The point of being Jewish is to have a relationship with God. Yet, a relationship implies a certain give and take, and there is precious little in the Torah that talks about what we have that God could possibly need. What can we give to God?

In our parashah (Lev 22:32) we read: „You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people-I Adonai who sanctify you.“ Translation issues become important here. The text says v’nikdashti, „and I will be made holy“ amidst the Children of Israel. In other words, „You will make Me holy just as I, Adonai, have made you holy.“ Here, for a moment, there is a relationship. We do something for God in response to what God has done for us.

However, having a relationship with God is a feathery thing. One never really knows what God is thinking and how we can truly bear witness to God’s will in the world. Yet, through prayer we are reminded of all that is Holy in our world and in ourselves, and through this we form a bridge of connection. We become partners with God in the perfection of this world. It is then that we can truly make God holy. By repairing the brokenness in ourselves, by repairing the brokenness of our world, we repair the brokenness that has resided within God since the first moment of creation and in this way we can indeed make the Holy One, whole once again.

Chaverim, the past few weeks were marked by the general election and the campaigns of the different parties here in South Africa. Nature of the matter is that lines were drawn and camps were formed. As much as this is part of any democratic elections, I also saw that new rifts were created in our society, that people felt hurt by the one or the other statement and that unnecessary fears were instilled in some of us. Therefore, we all should come together now and start bringing the people back together; every time after an election is the time to find real solutions, compromises and shared visions. Now is the time to repair the brokenness in our society — independent from any party programme and election—let’s bring back some holiness to our world.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source R’ JR Rapport)