What a week -- what a summer! I just returned from a week-long interfaith dialogue conference. I had not expected to attend this conference -- it was a last minute invitation. The conference was held at a resort community called Lakeside, Ohio. The conference started last Sunday and went until Friday lunch (to allow participants time to be back home for Shabbat. It was a very valuable conference and I learned a great deal. Many thanks to Rev. Amy Shaw and her fine committee for putting the dialogue together and collecting such great speakers.
I will write a separate report on the conference for those of you who might be interested -- just email me back and you'll get a copy.
The conference/dialogue has led my to review some of the issues/fears of several aspects of our lives. In the US, we live in a "Christian" world -- at the conference there was talk of a "secular" world (A few of the clergy complained that congregants would not attend activities because of conflicting soccer games and such...). Living in a non-Jewish world is a concern for most,if not all of us. And I am left, as always, with more questions than answers after this conference. Do we need "dialogue" with other Jews? How can we learn to live fully and openly as Jews? And how can we live in peace with others.
I think we do need to "dialogue" with other Jews because regardless of what one calls the different groups of us, there are differences. This is increasingly a topic of discussion, whether in quips about a Jewish mixed marriage or in how kosher is kosher or about whether the differences between Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism are fundamental or not.
I see Jewish renewal as a key actor in this function because we span the traditional divisions. Reb Zalman taught in our class at Elat Chayyim that it is essential that we be versed in the language and skills of our tradition -- he may have understated the importance. I saw great diversity even among the few Jewish representatives in attendance. (There was one Orthodox woman there; I was the only renewal and the majority were Reform or a combination of backgrounds.) I found myself asking people their backgrounds often as we would talk. I saw that sometimes there was a great lack of knowledge about other viewpoints among the Jews.
The conference committee did address concerns that the conference be open and affirming to all branches of Judaism during the evaluations. Issues like whether or not people would be able to pray together were discussed and whether or not there would be interfaith worship or if we would hold various types of worship (with care to not be offensive) and simply invite others to observe if they wished. A committee will be established to look into these areas more deeply for next year's conference.
A few people (one of the Jews) knew of Reb Zalman and Jewish renewal. One of the Catholic women had studied with him and I enjoyed her descriptions of their walks and discussions.
And we talked as a group about God and about symbology and about fears and about pain. What is idolatry and has the appearance of idolatry and what is really a misunderstanding. I have often wondered how many Jews and non-Jews look at a Torah service and think we bow to the Torah scrolls? The Imam was very careful to make a distinction between holy and respected or revered.
I am reminded of a picnic I attended recently that was for various folks and a couple at our picnic table (we were 4 Jews at a table of 8-9) announced that is was great that Christians could get together like this and enjoy each others company. I tend to study my food (or some such thing) intently when I hear something like this so that I can concentrate on where the discussion will go after such a comment. My Israeli neighbor quickly announced that we were Jewish. The ensuing discussion pointed desperately to the need to learn how to dialogue and to teach sensitivity to people on both sides. Words trigger so much emotion and become barriers to discussing concepts. Our discussion could easily have led someone to think that the "other" does not worship the same God. (The God of Israel as Dabru Emet, a Jewish dialogue statement, explained).
Other religious beliefs and traditions are always a challenge -- it was not surprising to me that the Parsha dealt with at least two cautions on dangerous and forbidden practices.
1. Parsha details: Deut 16:18-21:9 ( tri 19:14-21:9 ) [ Haftorah Isaiah 51:12-52:12 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Judges and officers at all gates, 2-3 witnesses needed to convict someone of idolatry, what's to be brought to judges, actions for kings, dues to Levi'im, cautions on learning Canaanite ways, prophets and how to know when they speak the truth, cities of refuge for homicide, not murder, false witnesses, rules for battling cities -- soldiers and the cities themselves and trees, untraceable murder.
Wow, Moshe -- that's a lot of stuff. As I read through it I can hear Moshe and the people talking and debating -- we have the summary. For example, in the part about not learning the ways of the other nations, Moshe warns that the other nations "listened to soothsayers, and to diviners; but as for you, YHVH your God has not given you these ways." Torah doesn't report it, except in the "answer" troph used in the next verse where Moshe says "The One will raise up a prophet like me among you", but I can here the people asking "So, Moshe, how are we supposed to know what the Holy One wants us to do?"
Can you hear the ongoing exchange? "Why" "Because that's what you asked for" "So how's the prophet going to know what to say?" "God will put the words in his or her mouth and force those words to be spoken" "What if he says something that God didn't make him say?" "If he does that or claims it is from another god, then he is leading you astray and deserves to be ignored (die of embarrassment)" And then there was silence, probably with exchanged glances.... so Moshe says "If you say in your heart, How will we know?, then test the message by seeing of the prophecy comes true."
The end of that pasuk (verse) is usually translated as "do not be afraid of him", meaning the prophet -- the Hebrew is "tagur", which might mean not to dwell on his words or be haunted by them.
After this last exchange, the subject changes again and the next set of discussions is about cities of refuge. The discussion about what constitutes accidental homicide versus murder is clearly based on the intention. The accidental homicide is one of being responsible, even in the case of a clear accident, such as an ax head flying off of a handle. The responsibility means that the person must flee to a city of refuge for safety -- much like being in prison. However, a person who has a history of hating someone and then "lies in wait to strike him" does not get the benefit of a safe place -- he is to be retrieved from there by the elders of his own city and delivered into the hand of the "blood redeemer" and will die. Torah doesn't specifically say how this is to happen. It is not necessarily the public event that stoning would have been. At one extreme, it could even be "life imprisonment" to provide slave labor to make up for what the slain person would have provided in the way of labor. That would surely qualify as a form of death.
Whatever happened to that person, it was to be considered just and we are not to pity him -- he caused his own fate.
The wrestling with these issues is to me one of the more significant aspects of the Parsha. Throughout this Parsha I can hear the ongoing discussion and debates -- what's fair, what's just, how much retribution is appropriate. These are discussions between Moshe and the people -- about who does what and who is responsible for what. These are not black and white arbitrary rules and nowhere here is it said that YHVH said to Moshe to say these things. Does that mean that these are only man's words? No -- these are the words of YHVH through Moshe and people like Moshe -- when we execute justice fairly and equitably and without bribes (monetary or otherwise), then the words will pass the test of truth.
And answers are to come from due diligence -- studying and investigating to seek out what is true. Do not condemn on the word of just one person -- require two or three eye witnesses with evidence. Don't use diviners who kill innocent animals and decide the fate of the guilty by whether or not some part of their entrails turn up or down. Israel, a spiritual nation, a holy nation, can do much better than that. And we err on the side of letting the guilty go free.
Our teachings have always been away from rumor and innuendo -- the false accuser is so vile that he is to suffer the fate proposed for the accused. And if that person should swear falsely, that is a capital offense for it violates one of the ten commandments. Wow -- that's pretty serious -- but what are we worth if our own word is not truth? How can a person even think of approaching the One without recognizing the power we have to destroy or injure others with our words.
3. Some Observations
Do not learn the ways of the other nations in the Land when you come into it. Do not be people who pass their sons and their daughters through fire. What an image. Hard for Americans to imagine -- or is it? I wish I could say that we don't burn our children today -- but I would be ignoring the suffering of many children. Is there really any difference if the fire is only figurative? How many children are "sacrificed" in our idolatry to monetary gods or in fights with others?
Other forbidden activities include listening to cloud-makers and magicians -- the things a child might do. The age-old struggle with superstition -- thinking that things happen either by chance or because a person utters a spell. The Hebrew for smoke and mirrors. The universe is very complex and still very simple, but sometimes we don't "get it". We think we can control that which is beyond our control and so we lose control of the one thing we can hope to control part of the time -- our own response to the world around and through us.
Smoke and mirrors hide us from ourselves and from the One. We choose every day, every minute, every second whether to acknowledge that control is the ultimate illusion or whether to distance ourselves from the One.
What happens when we do these things? There is a tremendous struggle within us. We fight with our Selves and then with others. Prophets arise. Sometimes they arise within us, from our own midst. Sometimes we choose to listen and sometimes not. And their words haunt us, whether we listen or not. Can we tell when this inner prophet speaks the words of God?
Why are these things the way of the other nations? Because they are things that take us away from the One. They alienate us from ourselves and from the Divine Presence. We are instructed to be "tamiym" with YHVH -- "wholeness, integrity, perfection, completion, innocence". It is interesting that this instruction is WITH and not before or in the eyes of YHVH. We were with YHVH at Sinai and we distanced ourselves out of fear of the close contact.
That actually gives us more free will -- for if we hear the Voice directly and then drift it would be much harder on us. As it is, we know when we drift.
4. Grounding Expansion
This parsha is about Grounding Expansion, the Khesed or Mercy that is in the Kingdom or in the Presence. This is about being kind to ourselves and with that to others. It is about how we live in and with our community and in and with our families and in and with ourselves. We are not perfect and if we look inside ourselves, this is obvious -- but all is not lost because there is Khesed, Mercy in the Presence.
And so we are judged in that Presence by our Self and by the One with instructions to remember how to live and how to act. And we hear about the Coheyn and the Levi'im at two key points in this Parsha. They represent for us the ritual that is also important for it reminds us of the One and our service to the One. The ritual is there when we judge ourselves and others or when we do battle with ourselves or others. The Coheyn says specifically "Hear, O Israel, you approach today's battle against your enemies; don't be disheartened because YHVH is with you to fight with you and to rescue you."
Ritual is not for God, it is for us -- to remind us that there is Khesed in the Presence. And She will also err on the side of letting us off the hook. Fortunately we are not allowed to indict ourselves -- it takes two to three witnesses against us. And we are always free to return to Him and to be judged in the moment. A comforting thought as we are half-way through Devarim and approaching the Days of Awe.
1. Words of YHVH: Can you quiet down enough inside and outside to hear the words? Quiet yourself from the noise and bustle of the outside world and then quiet the noise and bustle of your own Self. Can you hear the sound of your breathing? Can you hear the sound of your heart? Can you hear the sound of your Soul? Listen, really listen.
2. Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof (Justice, Chase Justice): This is the path to life -- do not block the way to the altar of your heart or set up false monuments or give anything less than the best of yourself to the One. Are you actions and thoughts bringing you closer to the One or are they distancing you. Tzedek and Tzadik are the same root -- justice and pious, righteous and upright. Fair and honest with ourselves and with others and with the Holy One.
3. Be "tamiym" with YHVH (Be Whole with YHVH): Shalom is peace, it is wholeness (as in refuah sh'leyma - complete healing) and it is to pay. Torah tells us we are "Avdey", servants of the One -- what does that mean? What is the service we are required to do? We are told to put away the evil from our Yisra'el selves and be tamiym. Tamiym can be simple, but it isn't -- it's work. How can you work to be more tamiym?
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
And you can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved