Parshat Devarim

FRIDAY, July 28th

I write to you after what has been a difficult week in Israel, and here at home in Sacramento. This week, we learned that the imam of the Islamic Center of Davis, an institution that many in our community have supported when they were the victims of a hate crime, gave a sermon in which he engaged in violently anti-Semitic hate speech. In Israel, a new wave of Palestinian violence and terror attacks continue, showing no signs of abating.

As we enter Shabbat this week, I am praying that when we turn on the news after Shabbat is over, there will be no new reports of terrorist attacks, that no more lives will have been claimed by violence and hate.

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat before Tish`a B’Av, referred to as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision. It takes it’s name from the haftarah we read, the opening of the book of Yishayahu, which begins with the phrase, “Chazon Yishayahu”—Yishayahu’s vision. While the word vision might sound inspiring and positive to our ears, Yishayahu’s vision turns out to be quite harsh. What he sees is a society that ignores God and is plagued with violence, greed, and injustice. He foresees that God will not long allow such a society to stand, and that soon the cities will be laid waste and the fruit of the land consumed by strangers. However, the haftarah ends with a note of hope, promising that the destruction will not be complete, but that “Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her repentant ones through righteousness.” This is not just a matter of ending the haftarah on a happy note. Yishayahu is telling us that redemption will only come about through righteousness and justice—in short, when we build a society that deserves redemption, then we will be redeemed.

This coming Tuesday, on Tish`a B’Av, we have so much to mourn for, griefs both ancient and all too fresh. Even as we mourn, we can also contribute to the righteousness and justice that will be our redemption. The Rashba says that on fast days, one should take the money one saved by not eating and drinking, and donate that money to tzedakah.

In that spirit, KI is partnering with an organization called Fast for Feast to collect donations this Tish`a B’Av, and split them between Leket Israel (the largest anti-hunger organization in Israel) and the Sacramento Food Bank and Family Services. I encourage you to visit and join me in supporting this effort; it doesn’t have to be much: $10, $18, whatever you’d ordinarily spend on food and beverages for the fast day. In this way, together we can connect our fasting and prayers to the concrete, practical work of building a more just, righteous society here and in Israel.

May Zion be rebuilt and may peace come to Jerusalem speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Mattos-Mas`ei

FRIDAY, July 21st

Parshat Mattos-Mas`ei (the longest Parsha of the year), opens with a discussion of the laws of vows:  “If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he shall carry out all that has crossed his lips.” (Bemidbar 30:3)

The last four words of the verse ככול היצא מפיו יעשה, “he must carry out all that has crossed his lips,” suggest a good rule of thumb, not just in the realm of vows, but also for more casual speech. Even those of us who are careful not to utter vows ought to strive to fulfill our verbal commitments. The Orchot Tzaddikim suggest that even casual boasts are very much like vows, and that one must strive to fulfill them.

Without abandoning this pshat understanding of the verse, as pertaining to oaths and perhaps other verbal commitments, I believe there is another spiritual teaching to this as well. On a pshat level, “he must carry out all that has crossed his lips” is an instruction, but the same Hebrew word יעשה, which JPS translates as “he must carry out,” can be read as a simple statement:  “he shall carry out all that has crossed his lips.” The phrase then becomes not an instruction, but a prophetic warning. The words we say and the way we speak can influence our behavior. If a person uses coarse language, speaks ill of others, insults and attacks with words, in time the vulgarity and negativity reflected in that person’s speech will show themselves in their actions as well.

When we meet someone who dresses and acts like a religious person, but who speaks in a way that is disrespectful of other people or of God, we can be sure that person’s actions, in private, if not in public, are not going to be those of a pious person. And in ourselves, we ought to be careful with how we speak, even in jest, because speech that is scornful and disrespectful, both because speaking in such a way coarsens us, influencing our behavior and character and because the words themselves can have a negative impact just as if we had done some more concrete act. In this way, the phrase, “he shall carry out all that has crossed his lips” may not just be a warning that words can lead to action, but a reminder that words themselves are like actions. When I attack someone with words, it’s as if I have attacked them physically. Everything that comes out of my mouth is itself, a kind of action.

On the positive side, praising others, speaking words of Torah, these words, too, are like actions. These words too, can lead us to corresponding behavior.

May we all be careful with our speech, and let us speak in a manner that elevates, rather than degrades ourselves and those around us. Let us use words that express love, respect, humility and gratitude, and we may find ourselves becoming more loving, more respectful, more humble and more grateful people.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Pinechas

July 14th

This week, with the Fast of the 17th of Tammuz, we entered a period of semi-mourning in the Jewish calendar known as the Three Weeks, which will culminate with the Fast of Tish`a B’Av on July 31-August 1.

For the next three weeks, Ashkenazi Jews don’t hold weddings, haircuts and live music are avoided (many extend the prohibition to recorded music), and we even try to avoid saying the blessing “Shehecheyanu.” The mourning becomes more intense in the nine days leading up to Tish`a B’Av, when we don’t eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat) until finally on Tish`a B’Av itself we refrain from eating and drinking altogether, and even such basic pleasures as bathing and wearing leather shoes.

It used to strike me as strange and inconvenient that this period of mourning for Jerusalem and the Temple would fall in the middle of the summer, a time when life is so full of joy. The days are long, students and teachers have long vacations, fresh produce is delicious, abundant, and inexpensive, and many municipalities hold free outdoor concerts and other festivities. What a terrible time to be avoiding music, weddings and celebrations.

The truth is, it is precisely in our joy that we need these reminders that our world is incomplete. In January, when the days are short and dark and cold, and all I want to do is stay home with a cup of hot tea, mourning for the temple would almost be extraneous. It is in the summer months, when the beauty and pleasure of this world are so obvious, that I need to be reminded that we are still living in an unredeemed world, we are still living in exile, and there is much work that needs to be done.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of this world, going to concerts, but there is a danger that we will let the joy and beauty of it blind us to larger concerns, to the deep brokenness of our world. More fundamentally, there is a danger that in our enthusiasm for the pleasures of this world, at their peak in this season, we will forget that this world is not all there is, that beyond the life of the body there is a life of the spirit.

So, for three short weeks in the middle of the summer, we gradually reduce our joy, until on Tish`a B’Av, we remove ourselves for one day from all worldly pleasures. These weeks, which fall in the midst of the joyous summer, like the corner of a house left unpainted, or the wine glass broken at a wedding, remind us to “elevate Jerusalem above our highest joy.”

May we see Jerusalem rebuilt and at peace speedily and in our days.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Korach

June 23rd

After the rebellion of Korah, the people turn against Moshe and Aharon, blaming them for the deaths of Korach and his followers. God’s response is to tell Moshe and Aharon, “remove yourselves from this community, that I might annihilate them in an instant.”  (Bemidbar 17:10) Upon hearing this, Moshe and Aharon fall on their faces, which one might read as an expression of submission to God’s decree, except that the story continues “Then Moshe said to Aharon, ‘Take the fire pan, and put on it fire from the altar. Add incense and take it quickly to the community and make expiation for them. For wrath has gone forth from Hashem: the plague has begun!’ Aharon took it, as Moshe had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” (Ibid vs. 11-13)  In other words, Moshe and Aharon openly disobey God’s explicit order to them to separate themselves from the community, instead placing themselves in the midst of the community to prevent the plague.  Here was a community that had rebelled against God multiple times, and attacked Moshe and Aharon personally, but when God was ready to destroy them, Moshe and Aharon disobeyed Him, to prevent their destruction.  God was punishing this people for their sins, and had given Moshe and Aharon not only permission, but an order to stay out of it.  Instead they got involved, seeking to prevent harm to the sinful and rebellious people.

Sometimes when I see someone who is suffering or in crisis, my instinct is to try and imagine how they might have brought the trouble upon themselves. I think this is a common reaction to witnessing the suffering of others.  If we can figure out why this person deserves their suffering, then we feel justified not getting involved.   Moshe and Aharon are teaching us not to do that.  They were willing to put their lives on the line and even disobey God in order to save people who, moments earlier, were berating them and preparing to mutiny against them, people who had brought punishment upon themselves.  With every reason in the world to leave the people to their punishment, Moshe and Aharon got in the middle to protect them.

Let us be like Moshe and Aharon.  When we see a news story about someone who has been killed or attacked, let’s not ask, “What did they do to deserve that? What should they have done differently to avoid that fate?”  Instead, I invite us to ask, “What could we be doing to help? How can we make this situation better?”  As human beings, it is not our place to justify the suffering we see in the world, but to help relieve it.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein