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Some Answers for Shabbat Balak

Bilam is one of the few characters in the Torah for whom we do have an archeological proof of existence. In 1967 an archeological dig found an inscription on the wall of a structure in a city called De’ir Alla. The inscription has been dated to near 9th century BCE. The language of that inscription is a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, and no other inscription has been found in a language with those precise characteristics.

In our Torah, Bilam is portrayed in an interesting relation ship with God. He personally always uses the name for God that the Torah uses, YHV”H, but the text enforces that God, or E-lohim, is the one speaking to him. Which is an interesting point. In the De’ir Alla inscription, Bilam is a clear polytheist, talking to many different gods – but none of the names there is YHV”H. However, if you look into the whole story of Bilam, in verse 24:4 Bilam does use certain names of God of our tradition that do appear in the inscription of De’ir Alla, which are E-l and Sh-adai.

What is interesting from a historical perspective is that Bilam’s words were so powerful that they were deemed worthy of  being written on a wall, presumably by his followers – which also make us know that he was an actual seer, apparently famous. Unfortunately that inscription is not complete, and I personally would like to know more about the female donkey.

In that aspect, the story is very instructive. One of the main teachings, aside from the fact that Bilam ends up only saying what God tells him to say, is that animals suffer. This is not to be taken for granted, remember that Decartes saw animals as mere automathons with no conscience and therefore unable to feel pain. I know, sounds difficult to believe, but some thinkers compared the sounds that animals make when they are being beaten to the sounds a drum makes. Kid you not.

The story shows the donkey as seeing the angel, not once, but three times, while the Seer himself can’t see. Similarly, Bilam beats the donkey three times, the third one with the staff. The two other times, presumably, he used his hands.

If you paid attention, it was YHV”H that granted the power of speech to the donkey, and the angel is described as an angel of YHV”H. This is supposed to be a more precise, a more intimate name for God, and E-lohim a much more general name.

So going back to the question of Bilam and his relationship with the Divine, in the Torah Bilam sees himself as being intimate, but that intimacy is not corresponded. But YHV”H is so concerned with the donkey that the donkey receives the power to speak. And what I find quite aazing is that when Bilam answers, he seems completely unfazed by this donkey talking. Moreover, Bilam has his perspective so twisted that he accuses the animal of being the abuser, when in fact he is. Bilam says he would kill the donkey with the sword, when in fact it was the donkey who saved Bilam from the sword. And when the angel speaks, it speaks in defense of the donkey, and sets Bilam straight.

And here comes one of the lessons of the donkey: contrary to Descartes, the Torah never for a moment believes that animals are drums. And I would like to let you know that Decartes did a disservice to kindness to animals, because his views were used for at least a century to justify cruelty towards animals or at least indifference. But there are several instances of curbing animal abuse in the Torah: Unloading an overpacked animal (Exod 23:5); Giving animals rest (Exod 23:12); Giving the mother a week with its baby (Lev 22:27); Not slaughtering baby and mother in one day (Lev 22:28); Shooing the mother bird (Deut 22:6-7); No plowing different animals together (Deut 22:10); No muzzling while plowing (Deut 25:4).

The rabbis will add a few mitzvot of their own, based on their reading of the Torah: Shechitah – the requirement to slaughter animals by cutting the windpipe and carotid arteries in one motion, which causes the animal to die quickly; Ever min ha-chai – the prohibition to consume flesh taken off a living animal; Feeding – the requirement to feed one’s animals before eating (b. Berakhot 40a). The rabbis even coined a term for this, צער בעלי חיים “animal suffering,” the avoidance of which some texts declare to be a Torah principle. (Shabbat 28b, Baba Metziah 32b)

Maimonides, while not avoiding the issue of needing to use animals for both work and food, comments that the angel’s rebuke to Bilam is the source of not inflicting pain gratuitously, and so avoiding the character trait of cruelty. He forbids killing animals just for sport – and reinforces the idea that mitzvot are given to make our souls more refined, more sensitive to others’ suffering (Guide of the Perplexed, 3:17, 3:26 and 3:48).

A contemporary of Maimonides in Ashkenaz, a rabbi called Yehudah He-Chasid, wrote a work called Sefer Chasidim, which has all sorts of moral and ethical ideas. In a paragraph about small cruelties, he talks about the small cruelty of using spurrs on horses. And he says the following:

It is sinful to cause pain to animals. Therefore, don’t place too heavy a burden on an animal, don’t beat it ruthlessly, and don’t pull a cat’s ears to make it scream. According to the Sages, this thought is implied by the verse, “In that day—declares God—I will strike every horse with panic and its rider with madness” (Zechariah 12:4). They expound this to mean that in the future God will punish horsemen for goading their horses with their spurs.

One of the main lessons of Torah is the protection of the vulnerable, and that can be seen throughout the Jewish tradition as a reality. Animals, in that sense, are among the most vulnerable. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his book Horeb, writes the following:

“There are probably no creatures that require more the protective Divine word against the presumption of man than the animals, which like man have sensations and instincts, but whose body and powers are nevertheless subservient to man. In relation to them man so easily forgets that injured animal muscle twitches just like human muscle, that the maltreated nerves of an animal sicken like human nerves, that the animal being is just as sensitive to cuts, blows, and beatings as man.

Thus man becomes the torturer of the animal soul—which has been subjected to him only for the fulfillment of humane and wise purposes—sometimes out of self-interest, at other times in order to satisfy a whim, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, yes, even for the satisfaction of crude satanic desire.”

Let’s forgive him for his male-centered language, and let’s focus on the value he and all the other sages are setting forward – not only animals suffer, but they are to be protected. Even a very famous seer like Bilam needs to know that – and sometimes, just like Bilam, we believe we are so great, and we may end up forgetting that one of the fundamental values in Torah is not to be cruel, and to defend those that are powerless.


Shabbat Shalom.

Questions for parashat Balak


Numbers 22:2-4 to 22:36-38                 894-899

Haftarah                 Micah 5:6-6:8                    915


The basic story of our parsha is fairly simple: Balak, king of Moab, hires Bilam, a well-known seer, to curse the Israelites. Balak sees them as a threat to Moab. But instead of cursing, Bilam blesses them in a series of four poetic oracles, since he can only say the words that God puts into his mouth.


~ Look closely to which names of God appear connected to Bilam. What do you make of it?

~ Why is a talking donkey present in this story? What does that scene teach us? Does it teach Bilam anything?

~ How is Bilam treated by the narrator’s voice in the story? Is Bilam powerful? Is Bilam good?

Korach and the month of Tammuz

Korach ~

Korach and his followers rebel against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership and are killed; God instructs Aaron regarding laws of the priesthood.

In the aftermath of the two rebellions, God again talks about destroying the entire community – twice. This time, however, we do not see any of the back and forth between Moshe and God.

~ What is different in what Moshe and Aharon say to God that changes God’s mind on the first time? What happens in the second time?

~ What is the punishment? Is there forgiveness?

~ Is Korach’s, Datan and Aviram’s rebellions fundamentally different than the Golden Calf and the Episode of the Scouts in your opinion? Why or why not?

~ Why does this cycle of rebellions and mutterings end with the staff of Aharon having sprouts, flowers and fruit?


One of the interesting points of this piece of the Torah – Numbers 16 to 20 – is the presence of the expression “falling on his” or “their” face(s). This expression appears only twice before, and definitely connected to something positive, an encounter with God, with Avraham.

In Numbers, all the four times it appears: three times in our portion and one in the next – it has to do with Moshe and Aharon asking God not to destroy the community, or with Moshe expressing something like despair. Moshe falls on his face while talking to Korach for the first time, when Korch is accusing Moshe of raising himself and Aharon above the congregation.

Korach is seen by the tradition as a very capable and smart leader, with some prophetic abilities even. His rebellion, couched in language that makes us uncomfortable today, is in fact a manipulation of the emotions of the people as despairing of the next stage: the 40 years in the desert. Korach is also able to join forces with Datan and Aviram, whose lineage is not Levitical. Being from the Reubenite family, they too see an opportunity of seizing power: they are of Reuben, who was the first born way before when. In this sense, we can see this rebellion as fundamentally different: it is a personal rebellion against the structure put in place by God. The words used by Korach – all the community is holy – are a mask for Korach’s real intentions of taking over Moses’s place, while other Levites would become High Priests.

The question of forgiveness is interesting – individually, it appears that there is none. Datan, Aviram and all that is theirs disappears inside the earth; while the 250 other leaders are burned to a crisp, just like Nadav and Avihu. Of course, the reader knows that all those men should have known better. Offering incense is a dangerous proposition. The text makes clear that Moshe is warning those who offer incense that only one will survive – and all of them do it. The reader is left with the question of how could they have fallen for it?

If we see this as an attempt to seize power, by a loose connection of rebels, each person with their own agenda, not really caring about what happens to the rest of the coalition, all blinded by the possibility of becoming “it” – then we can understand that better. Arrogance and desire for power definitely blind people.

The name of God used to dispel the first anger of God is “אֵ֕ל אֱלֹהֵ֥י הָרוּחֹ֖ת לְכׇל־בָּשָׂ֑ר” usuall translated as “God Source of the breath of all flesh!” and the words really underscore how this is unlike the other two moments – the community is being misled by certain people among them, namely, Korach, Datan and Aviram. And Moses, over and over, seems to be saying the same thing in different ways: look, I have not appointed myself or Aharon, God did. In this, Moses is very consistent: he did not want to be a leader back in Exodus, and here, he is still saying I was put here by God. Moreover, in the part we did not read, Moses is affirming his honesty as a leader, saying that he did not take even a donkey from anyone. The image of the authoritarian leader seizing donkeys from people is repeated in many places in Tanach. And so Moses is defending himself against a specific political charge: the leader that has power and uses for his – or her – own personal interests.

Besides the earthquake swallowing Datan and Aviram and all that is theirs, and the fire consuming the 250 men, we have this third expression of miracle: the staffs. First, let’s pay attention that the word miracle here has nothing to do with goodness, but simply with an unexpected happening. There are three: the earthquake that closes back, the fire coming down, and the staff. And that staff itself has three miracles – it has sprouts, flowers and fruit. Those things are not supposed to go together in a living tree, let alone in a staff.

It is through this visual sign that God hopes the mutterings regarding leadership will cease. Aharon’s place as High Priest is secured – but not without rage, and then fear, spreading again around the people. As the leaders of the rebellion  die, and the people treathen to kill Moses and aharon, a plague begins, almost without warning, and it’s Aharon’s job to stop it, using precisely incense and fire. The text is as surprising as it is shocking: Aharon stands between the dead and the living. A shield against God’s anger, made of human, incense and fire. Another set of three.

The visual of the staff is a sign and a warning. There is hope – we know that the community will be taken to the land eventually, that we survive. But there is also the warning: the staff, which will not wilt, is to be put in the Ark as a reminder.

The Ark now has its four contents: the full set of tablets, the pieces of the first broken tablets, a pot with manna and the staff. The staff I imagine is suspended in life – it does not wilt, but does not grow either. This is the image of the people of Israel at this very moment: they will walk in the desert and not wilt. But the changes that are expected cannot be seen – the expelling of both slavery and rebellion from their hearts. At this stage, after all these things that have happened, we see that the 40 years in the desert are actually a moment of taking stock and renewing.

This parsha happens usually at this point in the Jewish year, which is the beginnign of the Jewish month of Tammuz. Tammuz marks the beginning of the summer, both here and in Israel. It is the month before the great breaking symbolized by the month of Av. On the 17th of Tammuz we are remembering the beginning of the seige of Jerusalem by the Romans – and so the month of Tammuz is the point where things can still turn differently. We can still make different choices. And I think this is primordial to understand this portion – there are several moments when it could have been different, where the actors to make different choices.

So I hope this is a month of taking stock so as to prepare ourselves for the many moments of renewal that our tradition offers for the next few months – and may our good deeds have sprouts, flowers and fruit, just like Aharon’s staff, and may they multiply and bring light to the world.


Vayikra ~ Why such a book?

Triennial – Leviticus          3:1-5    to 4:24-26       Etz Hayim p. 592

Haftarah           Y’sha’yahu 43:21-44:23                   Etz Hayim p. 607


Our reading deals with the burnt offering, the cereal offering, the well-being offering, the purification offering and its gradations and it ends with the reparation offering. The reparation offering text is different from the other offerings’ texts because it gives us examples: someone is able to testify but pretends not to, touches something tameh and realizes only later; swears to do something but does not complete it, misuses sacred things, lies about finding other people’s possessions, commits robbery or fraud or transgresses “any of the mitzvot”.


As we begin what probably is the most difficult book for moderns, Vayikra, I would like to ask you about your thoughts regarding the book. What bothers you? What feels alien? How do you deal with it? Ismar Schorch says that this is his favorite book. Can you guess why?

Our triennial focuses on the well-being offering and the purification offering. Look closely to those two offerings. What is the most basic difference between the two?


The first thing I want us to have in mind, the framing of our discussions about Vayikra, is what Jacob Milgrom wrote in his commentary to Leviticus published in 2008. “Behind the seemingly arcane rituals lies a system of meaning that we can draw into our own, modern lives.” He knows what he is talking about, given that he published an enormous quantity of papers and books arguing exactly that – that there is a much deeper meaning in this system.

Ismar Schorch, likewise, says that this is his favorite book because he likes “literature that doesn’t yield up its meaning at a glance, that doesn’t resemble the contours of my mind but rather expands and alters them. Profound ideas can be articulated in different ways. Leviticus chooses to do so through the prosaic and concrete language of law and ritual, without benefit of much explanation. We need to slow down to fathom this teeming canvas, and when we do, we discover views and values that still address the conundrums of our own lives with refreshing power.”

The first thing I want us to see is that there is a difference between the sacrifices, a basic one. First, the book opens with the optional offerings. That is the basic difference between the well-being offering, shelamim, and the hatat offering, translated as “sin offering” but that Milgrom calls “purification” offering.

The Hebrew term for the offering is hattat, which tends to be translated as “sin offering” (see Leviticus 4:3, 14, 24, 29). Understanding the Hebrew word in this sense suggests that we are speaking of a sacrifice to atone for a violation of God’s will, even if done without intent. And the term hattat is certainly related to the Hebrew word for sin, het, which runs through the Yom Kippur service.

But Jacob Milgrom firmly rejects this interpretation. He translates the term hattat as “purification offering,” a verbal form which has precisely the opposite force of “to sin,” namely, “to cleanse from sin.” The theology of Leviticus is changed by that attention to the construction of the word – because this term, “purification” forces us to focus on the people, on the community – and not, as we are trained to do, on God’s honor or perceived slight.

Milgrom wants us to understand that what is being cleansed with the offerings is not the person – but the sacred space itself. The actions of a person affect the community as a whole, and the presence of God specifically. Remember that the promise is “veshachanti betocham” – I, says God, will dwell among them, the people. Not betocho, in it, NOT in the sanctuary’s walls, not in the construction itself. The building is a mere symbol for the presence of God within the community.

The hatat is called a purification offering by Milgrom and not a sin offering because its goal is not to cleanse the inadvertent sinner, but the damaging consequences of the act. The sacred space is damaged by the acts of humans because those actions weaken the connections with God’s presence.

The transgressor does not go through a ritual of purification because the remorse, the feeling of guilt when he or she discovers, is enough for that. What needs to be purified is the space of the Tabernacle – and that is why the blood is sprinkled on the space seven times “before the Lord in front of the curtain of the Shrine” and “on the horns of the altar of aromatic incense, which is in the Tent of Meeting, before the Lord (Leviticus 4:6-7).

Notice that none of those are effective for willful acts of bad faith.

Our actions are what make or break the sacred space. Individually, our own guilt is enough. Remorse – presumably accompanied by personal reparations if needed and stopping the behavior – is enough for the individual’s process. But collectively there is a mark, a stain that remains, much like air pollution – and the purification offering, according to Milgrom, addresses that.

The ultimate source of impurity for Leviticus (and the Torah) is human behavior. We, our actions, have the capacity to pollute the sacred space – and not external forces. Later in the book of Leviticus that pollution by our actions extends itself to the very land. And here is an interesting parallel: the land vomits out the inhabitants that are acting basely, and God’s presence also leaves the Mishkan.

Now if we step back, and admit that the community is affected by our behavior, we also have to admit that the text of Leviticus has another thing right, something we learn from the environmentalists: our individual actions affect the earth as a whole. Even inadvertent actions can render our planet uninhabitable. And maybe we have not, as a whole human race, tried to destroy the planet – but our actions are there. As individuals, it is enough that we feel remorse and change course, as humans we have an enormous challenge ahead.

Now speaking for a moment into more current events – I want to address a little what happened this week, with the massage parlors. The act in itself is despicable, the ability of someone just to buy a gun and go around shooting people is an enabling law that only in America. But this – an attack that has the contours of hatred towards people of Asian heritage – has given rise to voices within the Jewish community regarding how we treat someone who is not necessarily White.

Rebecca Kuss is a writer who lives in New Jersey. Her mother is Korean, her father Jewish. She was brought up in our American Jewish community since birth. Her mother converted 4 years before she was born. And because she looked biracial, she can tell you stories of how is it really like to live among us. How her mom tried to pick her up from JCC preschool, only to have the teacher refuse to let her take me home, as no one had called ahead to tell her “the maid” would be coming to get me. How at 11, she earned a full scholarship to the Jewish day school – because she read Hebrew like a pro – and how her mom, bursting with pride, spent the weekend making kimchi for lunch for Rebecca’s first day — only to be called into the principal’s office and shamed when other students accused Rebecca of eating “baby embryos” in the cafeteria. How at her bat mitzvah her mom — who had worked three jobs for months to afford the dress and the luncheon — was denied a seat on the bimah. [You can read her entire piece by clicking here, and I urge you to do so ]

Each and every one of those actions was done by one individual. Standing alone, they may seem small. But the effect they had on Rebecca is undeniable. And I want to say that the effect on the community – the perpetuation of a subtle bigotry, a quiet prejudice – is corrosive and destructive. Wouldn’t we be glad to have a ceremony to cleanse us, as a community, of such acts? To have something saying – we know that this individual did this unthinking, not out of badness of heart, just inadvertently, but we are sorry and we want our community safer, better, more inclusive?

I myself would tell you – I wish we had something like that, a clear, obvious way of saying – this was done inadvertently, but we are committed not to see this done again.

So may this week we remember that our actions make or break our sacred spaces – our Jewish communities and our planet, and may we take steps to admit our wrongs and make them better, even if collectively, as the American Jewish community, we don’t have a way of cleansing us from those inadvertent sins.

Shabbat shalom

Vayikra ~ Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa’s gift

Vayikra centers on sacrifices. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is קורבן KORBAN, and the root is the same root of קרוב KAROV, to be close. Besides sacrifices, there were gifts that people would give to the Temple. This is a story about such a gift.


What we know from Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa is that he was alive when the Temple was still standing, and he saw its destruction by the Romans. We also know that he was the poorest of all the rabbis, and that he was a stone cutter by profession. He wasn’t so poor that he couldn’t feed his family, but he himself only ate carobs from one week to the other, with the exception of Shabbat, so as to provide for them. He was supposed to be such a great Tzadik that much more important rabbis would ask him to pray in their behalf, because his prayers were answered immediately. He lived in a town called Arav.

Once Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was getting ready for going to the Temple in one of the pilgrimage festivals. He saw people carrying all their gifts, and kept wondering what could he give to the Temple, he, that was so poor. And he saw a large boulder. Being a stone cutter, he thought he could cut and polish the boulder so it could be placed in front of the Temple, and those who were tired could used the boulder to sit and admire the Temple. So he set to work.

Once the boulder was cleaned, cut, and polished, he began looking for a way to carry it to Jerusalem. Of course he couldn’t by himself, so he looked about for men to hire. He found at first 5 strong men, and offered them everything he was able to save for the holiday – 5 golden coins. But that crew wanted 100 golden coins to do the work of carrying the boulder. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa did not have even 50 coins, so that was a no go.

Suddenly another set of 5 men appeared. These were dressed in rags and looked as famished as Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, and the leader of the group said: we overheard you talking to those men. We are not so proud or strong as they are, we will carry the boulder for you up to Jerusalem. We want your five coins. Rabbi Chanina was surprised, but thankful. He took the coins from his bag, the leader accepted and then the leader motioned for him to come help move the boulder. And as soon as he touched the boulder, a blinding light appeared, and when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa opened his eyes again, he was in Jerusalem, a few feet away from the main throughfare that went to the Temple. The boulder was there, but the five men weren’t. He looked about and searched them, but couldn’t find them. The coins were back in his bag.

Chanina ben Dosa was overjoyed. He made his way back to the town of Arav, and had a feast with his family, being able to afford all the good things for the holiday. Up to this day everyone agrees – those 5 men were angels, sent by God, who loves the sacrifices of both rich and poor equally.

You can find many more stories about Chanina ben Dosa clicking here.

Ki Tissa ~ The Golden Calf, Women and Leadership

Our triennial picks up at the moment of the Golden Calf Incident.

~ Who exactly is involved in the collection of the gold? How long does the process of making the calf itself take? What other things are built?

~ What is Aaron’s role? Can you defend what he does? What does he say to Moshe?

~ How do you see God and Moshe’s dialogue? What does God say to Moshe, and how do you understand it?


The first question – Pirkei deRabi Eliezer is the one who begins explaining to us that the women did not participate in the Golden Calf. How do we know that?

Aaron asks on verse 2 “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.’ But on verse 3 we read “And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.” (Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer 45). The midrash imagines what happens next: The women heard (this request), but they were unwilling to give their earrings to their husbands; and they said to them: Y’all desire to make a graven image and a molten image without any power in it to deliver!

And then the midrash has a very powerful, women body positive assertion: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the women their reward … What reward did He give them in this world? That they should observe the New Moons more stringently than the men, and… they are destined to be renewed like the New Moon.”

Meaning, that as a reward for this the midrash explains a custom that has lost its potency in non-orthodox circles: women are supposed to take an extra day off every month, which is the Rosh Chodesh. That’s why we had a resurgence of Rosh Chodesh groups as a feminine space. The same idea that women were not participants is found in Midrash Tanchuma.

And as we continue reading, Aaron builds an altar. The gold is made into a calf, and the people begin exclaiming “this is the god that took you out of Egypt”. And then Aaron and proclaims something odd “tomorrow is a festival of YHV”H. What do both of those mean? Does Aaron know what’s about to transpire? It is not very clear – as his own role is a strange one, and we see that for even having a role we gets to use the frontlet with “kadosh lAd0nai”, about which we talked last Shabbat. And what possess the people to say such words? Have they forgotten the miracles they saw? Have they forgot the giving of Torah completely?

Another midrash, which is Midrash Tanchuma, on Ki Tisa 19 tries to piece together that and the self-effacing answer of Aaron to Moshe: “Out came this calf”!

The midrash tells this story that among the erev rav, the mixed multitude, were two of Pharaoh’s magicians who enchant the gold. They take also some other things – leftover brick from Egypt and the tablet where Moshe had written the enchantments to take the bones of Yosef from inside the Nile. They mix all this with the gold of the ear rings, and then the calf comes out, actually moving. That is the explanation for Aaron’s “out came this calf”! And then if you imagine being in the same place and thinking the same – a walking calf made of gold is a pretty interesting miracle. So wrongfully they think it is the same thing as the other 10 miracles they saw.

When the Talmud is looking at the leadership of Aharon, the rabbis ask the same question of Moshe: what happened? What did they do that you brought this great sin upon this people?! And the rabbis point out that there is something unexplained – Aaron saw “this” says the text on verse 5. What did he see? The mob had murdered Hur, another of Moshe’s helpers. The Talmud sees a hint in the words “vayiven mizbeach” which we translate as “and he built an altar”. They can be reread as “vayaven mi-zavuah” – meaning, he understood from the slaughter. Who was slaughtered by the mob? Hur, who had protested what the people were trying to do. And so he thinks to himself: better they do this than kill another person, because there is no complete repentance for murder. But the Talmud is not really satisfied with that solution, and closes with a warning: Whoever praises Aaron for this compromise is provoking God (Sanhedrin 7a).

The Talmud comes hard on Aaron because he has been put in a position of leadership and can’t do what is right, and can’t be the true leader that the people require. The people is already anxious – note the first verse: Moshe is taking too long, and they can’t wait. They can’t understand that Moshe is not the one who took them out of Egypt, but God was. And the moment they said “the man Moses, who took us out of Egypt” – Aaron, as a leader, should have been more clear regarding that faulty thought but instead asks for the earrings, trying to buy time so Moshe would come and fix the mess. This midrash also brings the real fear of the people to fore: that Moshe has actually died. That’s why, according to the same Tanchuma, they say “the man Moshe.”

The question of how leadership is supposed to act is such a rabbinic worry that Devarim Rabbah, compiled around year 900, brings a lot of those questions. In a particular acerbic one towards rabbis themselves and the rabbinic hierarchy itself (DR 2:19) the text goes on to say that those at the top have a responsibility towards those at the bottom, and that if the top begins acting wrongfully, the effect trickles down – everyone of them is wrong, clearly, but who is eventually responsible for it all, asks the text? The top person who gave the first bad example. The text goes on to say that integrity is fundamental for leadership, one cannot be a leader telling people not to steal, and stealing himself; not to lend on interest and he himself does that.

Recently we learned how certain people in certain positions were fundamental to prevent our democracy from being completely destroyed – and were it not for the integrity of those people, we would be living in a very different reality. And from what I understand those people were not flaming Republicans or Democrats – they were people who simply had integrity in their jobs.

And that is one of the great aspects of Moshe – he is consistent and has integrity. He is not perfect, of course, and we will talk about this in a different Shabbat. But he is consistent in his love for the Jewish people – when God says “this is your people” he answers back: they are your people too. When God says: I’ll finish them off and begin with you again – he says, no thank you. The last midrash I want you to know of today, and you will be able to read it when I post the sources on the blog, is Shemot Rabbah 43:7. In that particular piece of text, the rabbis imagine what kind of words Moshe used to change God’s mind, besides the “what will the Egyptians think of You” facet.

Integrity ^^^                                

And the rabbis see Moshe telling God – come on, a little more understanding for this people! Master of the universe, where did You bring them? Was it not out of Egypt, where they worship calves? This can be compared with a sage that sets a ship for his son. Where is the shop? In the middle of the red district. What does it sell? Perfumes and make up items. The street plied its trade, the perfume business plied its trade, and the lad, like any young man, plied his natural inclination. When the father came and caught him with prostitutes, he began to shout, “I’ll kill you!” But the sage’s friend was there, and he spoke up. “You yourself ruined your son, and now you are yelling at him! You ignored all other occupations and taught him to be a perfumer; you ignored all other streets and deliberately opened a shop for him in the red light district!” Likewise, Moses said: Master of the Universe, You ignored the entire world and deliberately enslaved Your children in Egypt, where the inhabitants worship calves; and so Your children learned from the Egyptians, and now have even made a calf for themselves. Therefore Moses said, “That You have brought forth from the land of Egypt” – bear in mind from what kind of place You brought them forth.

So in the rabbinic mind, Aaron is not a good leader, and deserves the forever reminder on his forehead. And Moshe, for all his anger and foibles, is the one who stands up against God, and teaches God a thing or two about being human.

May this week be a week of integrity in leadership. May we see it, recognize it, and call it out when it is not happening, in whatever side of the isle we happen to find ourselves in.

Shabbat Shalom.

Eat, my coat, eat

Tetzaveh focuses on the clothes worn by the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. This is a great story – what is the connection to the Torah portion? What values is the story trying to teach?


In Turkey, there once was a man who sold coals. His name was Marko. He had a large family, and walked around town selling coals. He was able to sell coals, and with that he eked a living for himself and his family. At the end of every day of work, he would sit on a stone, look at the moon and say:

Dear moon, dear moon, Marko is happy today too.

And he would get up, go home, and feed his family. He had five children, and always arrived in a good mood, making jokes and bringing happiness to his home. It was because he was always with a smile and a good cheer, and always knew how to make conversation flow, that Marko was invited to the weddings and celebrations of the rich people. But he always arrived in his old, tattered coat, and was always smelling of coals. And so he was always sat on the last chair at the very end of the table, and was always served the least appetizing of the burekas and the kubes, the last of the hummus and the hardest meat, the most shriveled of the stuffed grape leaves. But he was happy to come home and be one less mouth to feed, and be able to give a little more to his family.

One day, a rich man to whom Marko sold coals said to him: “Marko, I went to our holy city, Jerusalem, to empty my father’s house. I found this very beautiful coat, and I wanted to give it to you, my dear, because you have sold me coals all my life.” Marko took one look at the coat and knew it was simply not for him. It was beautifully ornamented, made with silk and gold threads, and red dashes and it was amazing and almost unused, if a little old. It had enormous pockets. But the rich man would not take no for an answer. And so Marko eventually took the coat home.

When he got home, his youngest child asked: “Abba, what’s in the bag?” Marko said: “A coat. But it is not for me.” And they all saw it, and all agreed, that coat was for a rich person.

A few weeks later, Marko got invited to another wedding. And as he was about to leave, his youngest child said: “Abba! Go with the beautiful coat this time!! It is better than what you are wearing!” And Marko agreed. He took the coat out of the wardrobe and put it on, pretending he was a prince. He took the broom and pretended to ride it, while showering the “audience” with kisses and weaving. All had a great laugh, and Marko left to the wedding banquet.

As he arrived there, the waiters saw the beautiful coat he was wearing, and put him at the best spot for the best food. All those sitting near him were talking to him about how high taxes were this year, and how it rained too much for the grapevines and too little for the cucumbers. Marko pretended he was interested, but as the food was coming through, he realized it was the best burekas, and kubes, and stuffed grape leaves and salads. And so as he was talking to people, he would stop and fill the pockets, saying: “Eat, my coat, eat!” And all the guests looked at him in amazement.

When he had the pockets of the coat full to the brim with food, Marko thanked the guest, gave a blessing to the bride and groom, and went home. As he did so, he stopped, sat on a rock and said to the moon:

Dear moon, dear moon, Marko is happy today and the coat is happy too.

When he arrived home, his family ate all the delicacies he brought, and that night, they truly had a feast.

Adapted from “Tochal, Me’il, Tochal” by Ronit Chacham and Shirli Vaisman

Tetzaveh ~ the symbols we wear

Exodus 28:31-35 to 29:18                   Etz Chayim 508

Haftarah Y’hezkel 43:10-27                            520

Tetzaveh continues the instructions given regarding the Tabernacle, with a special focus on the clothes worn by the High Priest.

Both the structure of the Mishkan and the clothing of the kohanim, and particularly the Kohen Gadol are highly symbolic, and one of the ways of finding meaning in these readings, particularly if you are not in the fashion business, is to understand the symbols.

So as I read, please give your attention to the clothes of the High Priest. What do you think they symbolize? I am particularly interested in the first verses of our reading.


Our reading deals with certain aspects of Aharon’s clothing: a blue robe with bells, a frontlet, a tunic, a head covering and breeches. The piece our reading skips, because of the triennial cycle, is the breastplate.


[A general discussion about clothing and attitudes emerged, with a question regarding “dressing code” for shul. The was a consensus built in the need of it being a internal action much more than a top-to-bottom process. Many shared their upbringing coming to shul wearing special clothing. COVID was mentioned as a time when we don’t pay attention s much to what we wear, and wearing the same house attire everyday contributes to the feeling of isolation]

[Naomi Kamins brought us back to the main topic – the weight is symbolic of the weight of leadership]

And here were my written remarks, which I wove some into our discussion:

First I want us to know that the triennial makes us lose an important refrain, one that appears several times when the Torah is talking about the clothes of Aharon and his sons: lekavod uletifaret – for glory and honor.  And the simplest way to understand those is, of course, the saying “the clothes make the person”. We feel differently when we wear certain clothes, and we express our relationship to our surroundings differently. In part this is the game of Purim – we are allowed to wear something completely different and change our relationship with our surroundings as we read that particular story.

Aharon and his sons are expected to take a certain role – the ones who raise the consciousness of the people, despite their own defects. Notice that all these descriptions are coming before what we know is the worse moment of the people, the golden calf incident. So Aharon will wear those clothes with everyone knowing of his own part in the golden calf, and maybe even worse, with him knowing what he did. In a general sense we have this particular set of clothing helping Aharon and his children through what we know today as imposter syndrome, the idea that you are not really good enough for whatever you do, that you don’t trust your own expertise. Aharon, having succumbed to the wishes of the people and facilitating, at least, idolatry, is definitely second-guessing himself at all times. So the refrain “lekavod uletifaret”, to glory and honor – are a validation of yes, you are good enough. Your teshuvah has been accepted – to the point that you and your sons are the priests. That is the most basic understanding.

And now let’s dive deeper.

The blue robe is not any blue – it is tchelet, a specific blue that some nowadays use in the tzitzit. It is symbolic of the sky and the sea, according to the Talmud [Menachot 89a]. Both the sky and the sea are expansion of horizons, a reminder of transcendence, of expanded consciousness of mochin de-gadlut, in the Jewish tradition. Mochin de-gadlut, expanded consciousness, reminds us – and Aharon, of course – that life, to be meaningful, is lived above the constant, small talk of our brains. That talk can be divided into “I like this” “I dislike this”; “this is pleasant/unpleasant.” Mochin degadlut, expanded consciousness, raises above that to try to find meaning. And this is a lesson not only for the kohanim, but also for us. When did you last look to your tallit and desired expanded consciousness? When did you last pray and have a moment of greatness, or at least of greater understanding about your own fights?

Now the Hebrew is interesting here: the blue robe has an opening, a peh, a mouth. Even though it is translated as “opening” the expression is “pi rosho” – the mouth of its head. The text is talking about the robe, but you can read – the Chafetz Chayim (Yisrael Meir Kagan, Belarus, 1838-1933) certainly does – as an indication of your mouth, specifically. And he goes onto marrying the two ideas – transcendence and your mouth. Your words, he says, raise up all the time. So imagine the words you use, when you are happy, angry, sad. When you meet someone. All those words are energies that float up to the Throne of Glory, and there they get separated to confront you later. And so the Chafetz Chayim reads all these descriptions of the robe as warning against the misuse of your own power to speak. For the Chafetz Chayim the moment you abandon the thoughts about how you talk to people you will eventually abandon all mitzvot.

Now, even though Aharon and his sons will be seen as conduits for the relationship between God and the Jews in the desert and while the temple is standing, we all know fights happen. Conflict is inside every single human relationship. How you deal with that conflict is fundamental. The Chafetz Chayim will point out that there is this specific expression on the second verse of our reading, verse 32. The mouth is supposed not to tear, and supposed to be like a coat mail – both of which indicate war. And he says – when you do not feed into the conflict with your own words, that is already a coat mail. That is your defense. So it’s not only about being careful with which words you use, but being careful with how you express yourself, and how you behave in conflict.

Now, what to make of the hem, that has a pomegranate and a bell, all around? There are moments of speech and moments of silence. A bell always makes a sound, the pomegranate never does. Knowing when to be silent and when to speak is fundamental. Speech – because it is energy, because it can build up or tear apart – is partnered with silence, with refraining from speaking. And we could add – with listening. Silence is the first step to be able to listen, and then to hear. And we all want to be heard, particularly by our leaders.

Aharon, in the Jewish tradition, will be connected to the community in ways that Moshe never could be. He runs after peace, making peace between people. When Aharon dies the whole community is upset, the text says “the entire house of Israel wept” – more even than when Moshe dies, when we read “the children of Israel wept”. In part it is because unlike Moshe, Aharon actually listens to people – and tries to work with them. Which is why the next piece of clothing is important.

The frontlet says “Kadosh LYHVH” – Holy to Ad-nai. This is a symbol, a constant reminder to Aharon of his failure in leadership – which is coming in our reading, next week: the Golden Calf. He lets the people build it, does not really take responsibility, and is unable to set limits to the group. If Moshe is all about the rules, decision, limits – Aharon is the soft side of leadership. But it does not end well in that particular instance. So that is the reminder of an eternal struggle of human beings: your core values versus the forces around us and within us. Aharon needs this constant reminder – he is for God. All his work with the community is for a higher value, the molding of this ragtag band of slaves into a more or less cohesive group centered in Jewish values and in God. The headdress, which is like a cook’s hat according to some opinions, or like a kippah, according to others, reminds the wearer of that.

I heard an interesting story – Rabbi Artson, the dean of my rabbinical school, was once a pulpit rabbi. And a teenager came to talk to him. You see, the teenager had began wearing a kippah all the time. But the teen also had a problem, which is, he was a very hot headed driver. He would curse for the drop of a hat, and would cut people off and so on. So his question to rabbi Artson was that, since he felt that he was giving the Jewish people a bad name because of his driving habits, could he just take off the kippah while he was driving? And rabbi Artson said: well, if you yourself know that your behavior while driving is horrifying, maybe the weight of the Jewish people will make you a better driver. No, you may not take your kippah off.

In Aharon’s case the frontlet is there to remind him of his own mistakes, and at the same time to help him as the purifier of the intentions of the people – to take away any sin arising from the sacred donations. That means that as one gives to the Temple – an animal for sacrifice, or the other donations, like first fruits and challah – the intentions and thoughts might need some help. Looking at Aharon with the “holy to Hashem” headband might help also us, simple people, direct our intentions.

And this is, in part, what clothing does. It is supposed to be a reminder of values, something that will help you not buckle under the pressures. There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 44a) about a student  of rabbi Hiyya who goes to a prostitute, paying an enormous amount up front, but as he is getting naked his tzitzit slap him on the face, and he decides not to go through with it. The story has a happy ending: she stops being a prostitute, converts and marries him. And it is thought that his attributing a larger consciousness to the fact that he had tzitzit on is what makes for the good end of the story. The moment you wear something specifically with an intent, if you are awake and remind yourself of those values, you will be better equipped to make different choices, more aligned with your best version of yourself.

And finally, the last piece of clothing, the tunic. In Hebrew, it is called kutonet. And there is another story about kutonet – which is the kutonet passim of Yosef. And one Chasidic master, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841) in his book Agra deKalah, connects kutonet that to the sale of Yosef. And to the jealousy that almost destroyed the Jewish people at its very inception. Wearing kutanot, tunics, would help the kohanim to transcend the common jealousies of being siblings and family.

On the word shesh – translated as fine linen – the Alshich (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, 16th century, Tzfat) has his own point. It is not just a reminder of how to guard oneself against jealousy, but also a reminder that Proverbs say that six things are seen as terrible by God – shesh in Hebrew means six. And those six things are pretty basic:  lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, minds that hatch evil plots, feet who run do to evil, false witnessing, and creating ill-will among siblings.

The Alshich then sees the kutonet shesh, the linen tunic, as a reminder of these six basic things that the kohanim are supposed to be reminded of at all times. The idea being that our leaders are supposed to be held at a higher standard – but also are supposed to have constant reminders of that higher standard.

And so it is with us – it is not just about the kohanim. When did you last make a clear choice about the values you espouse when you use something?

Once I went to a store where kids clothes were being sold – it was a food store – in Danbury. An entire attire for boys – pants, tshirt and shirt – was being sold for 5 dollars. Even though we were strapped for money and my young boys might have benefitted of a new set of clothes, I didn’t buy them. In part because I realized that that price had to come with someone else paying for it: was it slavery? Smuggling? Whatever it was, I decided I did not want to be involved with it. If other people bought it, what could I do? But I was not going to have that in my house.

And I want to let people with that question: when was the last time ou paid attention to what you were supporting when you bought clothes?

May the week that begins bring us to a point of being more deliberate in our expression of our values through our wardrobe choices.


Shabbat Zachor ~ In(war)d and out(war)d

Shabbat Zachor ~ maftir: Deuteronomy (Ki Tetzei) Maftir 25:17-19

Haftarah I Sh’muel 15:2-34


Today is a special Shabbat, which is Shabbat Zachor. Shabbat Zachor is when we read two specific readings connected to Purim. They are the maftir and the haftarah.

I want to begin by asking you to pay particular attention to the maftir, which is on page 1135 of the Etz Chayim. As I read, I’d invite you to entertain a few questions:

~ To whom is this text speaking?

~ What are we supposed to do?

~ What has Amalek done, and when?

~ Why do we read it just before Purim?



One of the things I want to make sure we understand, and you can see it for yourselves, is what happens before the first encounter of Amalek and the Jewish people. Check page 420 in your Etz Chayim, or Exodus 17:3 to 7 (click here). There what we have is a revolt against Moshe, one of fierce that Moshe believes he’ll be killed at any moment. And just after that, after the text says “the Israelites said: “Is God present among us or not?” – Amalek begins the attack. Hold on to that thought.

Notice that no reason given is given for the attack whatsoever, and notice that the same idea is expressed in our maftir: Amalek attacked those who were most vulnerable. That very same idea will show up when King David encounters Amalek, before he is actually king, in I Samuel 30:1-4 (click here). The Amalekites, just for the fun of it, burn the entire town of Ziklag, where David and his men have settled, and take the women and children captives. The text is pretty clear that Amalek has a certain pattern – it lies in wait for the stronger ones to be distanced or away, and then attacks those who can’t defend themselves, destroying everything in the process.

As some said, we read the maftir because we connect it with Haman, who is called Agagite, and the link between Amalek, Agag and Haman will be explicit when we read the haftarah. There, the king is Agag – and he is the ancestor of Haman.

Now one of the many questions is what moves someone like Haman – and we know that there are Haman’s spiritual descendants, the ones who would have us destroyed – what moves Haman to want to destroy Mordechai’s entire people?

The Talmud takes that question in a by-the-way fashion, as it usually does, when it is discussing whether there are insignificant verses in the Torah – spoiler alert, there aren’t. One of the verses brought up in that discussion is in Genesis 36, among a very long list of the descendants of Esav and other groups. There we read a verse that says “and Lotan’s sister was Timna”. Why would it be there? What can one possibly learn with a verse that mentions a non-Jewish woman in a list of non-Jewish tribal connections not even really connected to the Jews? The answer is brough in a midrash that links another verse about Timna: she is the concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esav. The midrash says – well, Timna, the daughter of non-Jewish kings, wanted to convert and live with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they did not accept her as a convert. She eventually does as best as she can, and becomes a concubine to Esav’s son Eliphaz. And who does she give birth to? Amalek, which will become that nation. And so the midrash concludes: and why are we suffering under the hand of Amalek? Because they should have accepted Timna, and did not. The sting of that rejection is what creates Amalek (Sanhedrin 99b click here to read it all).

Does that make ok for Haman to want to destroy us? Of course not. But here the rabbis begin with the midrash a process that will have an important impact on how we read the verses of our maftir: an internalization of Amalek. Amalek stops being a people we have to actually destroy and becomes a force, something that exists in the world – and within us. And to clear out Amalek, we need to first clear out our internal Amalek. The rabbis of the Talmud are worried about dismissing potential converts, and are incredibly worried about the oppressing of converts, to the point that it will affirm that not oppressing converts appears 36 times in the Torah (Baba Metzia 59b click here).

As this process of internalization continues through our people’s textual history, it does not stop at the question of accepting and treating well those who chose to come under the wings of the Shechinah. It takes on a more general human aspect. The Kedushat Levi (Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, 18th century Poland) has a very potent explanation of the verse. Amalek is the force within every human being. Since every human is a small world, and since we see that Amalek exists in the world, it follows that it also exists inside us, inside each human being. The Kedushat Levi points out that just before the attack, in Exodus 17, the Jewish people are weak. And we saw this – they bicker and rise against Moshe. That is how we can reread the verses we just did, the middle verse of our own maftir, verse 18:

אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃

he cooled you off in your pathway, and cut down all the weak ones in your rear, when you were tired and hungry – and then the verse says “and did not fear Elohim”. The verse is not really clear to whom that “did not fear God” belongs. And so, the Kedushat Levi says, the strength of our people, which is Torah and prayer “since the voice is the voice of Jacob” – needs to be there. Because when we let that go, he says, when we don’t feed our awe for God and the world, then Amalek attacks. You can read the explanation of the Kedushat Levi on Sefaria, click here.

The legacy of Amalek, the destructive force, the force that due to greed and anger destroys things sometimes simply for the pleasure of destruction – that is a fight for all times. That is what we have to constantly try to erase, and never forget – because as long as human hearts exist, the temptation of seeing others as mere means to an end will always be there.

So may we have a Purim of giving gifts to the poor, giving gifts of food to each other, reading the Megillah and feasting – but always remembering that all these festivities are to remind us that our internal work continues.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Yitro

One of the few parshiot in which the triennial and the annual readings are the same. The reason is that the 10 commandments or aseret hadibrot, figure in them – we would not imagine having a year in which you don’t read about the revelation at Sinai.


Well, and there is the joke about Joe Cohen. His alarm went off and he said the famous words “just five more minutes”. When he woke up he was 30 minutes late for an important meeting. He puts on a suit and runs out the door. He gets stuck in traffic and as he arrives at the company’s parking lot he is still 25 minutes late. He looks for a parking space and finds none. Zilch. Having driven around the lot and checked out each potential space, he stops his car in desperation and looks up towards the heavens. He is not a religious man in the least but he cries out:

“Dear God, if you please just give me a parking spot I promise I will go to synagogue every week, will only eat kosher food, and I’ll follow every single one of the 10 commandments, just PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE give me a vacant spot so that I won’t lose my job!”

Miraculously, a parking spot opens up right by the front of the building. He then looks back up to the heavens and says, “never mind I just found one!”

I love this joke, and a British rabbi, Rabbi Claude Vecht-Wolf, is the one that told that to me.


Look at the asaret hadibrot, popularly known as the ten commandments.

~ Why do you think the Jewish tradition does not call these 10 commandments, which would be aseret hamitzvot, but aseret hadibrot, or aseret hadevarim, the ten sayings?

~ Which one is the hardest, in your opinion?

~ How would you categorize or divide the aseret hadibrot? Be creative, there are at least three different ways.


So the first thing that I wanted us to notice is that by calling the 10 commandments Aseret Hadibrot our tradition tries to connect them with the story of creation which, if you count, has ten “and God said”. Ten sayings and ten sayings – so there is this message that the entire creation is upheld by those actions or refraining from these specific actions.


This is the easiest way of dividing the Asret Hadevarim – positive and negative.

Another way is “God’s name is mentioned” and “God’s name is not mentioned”.

Another way is “bein Adam Lamakom” – between you and God; and “bein adam lechavero” between you and your fellow human beings.


A way I want us to get familiarized with is how the sage Avraham Ibn Ezra, who was alive in the 11th century in Spain, divides the mitzvot in three groups:

Of the heart, of the tongue and of doing. And then he subdivides these in positive and negative.


Now some are pretty easy, such as murdering and stealing – or at least we imagine so. The most challenging is coveting. Why is it the most challenging? Because we usually do not think that emotions can be regulated. And how does Ibn Ezra understand this specific, thorny commandment?


In the first section regarding the heart, his positive ones include “love God”, the veahavtah et Adnai elohecha” as well as to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. The negative ones cover such commandments as ‘don’t hate your brother in your heart’ or ‘don’t bear a grudge’.


In the second category regarding words of the tongue, he includes the commandment to say the Shema twice a day and Grace After Meal (‘Benching’) and an example of negative is the not bearing a false witness or cursing using God’s name.


The third category are actions.


So going back to the Aseret Hadibrot, he points out that the first two are of the heart, because if you’d think that not bowing down to idols was an “action”, you’d be wrong – it is an expression of the heart, he says, since it is about loving God. The third commandment is about the tongue, as even if you love God you could use God’s name in vain. Shabbat is about actions, as is honoring parents. Those would be in the first tablet. On the second tablet, he says, what you have is the another set of actions – murder, adultery, stealing followed by not swearing falsely in court, which is obviously a question of how you use your tongue. Which leaves, of course, coveting for the heart. And it looks like a neat sandwich, for sure, but is not exactly helpful.


And of course Ibn Ezra has a response. He says yes, it is a heart business, but not like what you’d think. He brings a parable to explain, and in the parable there is a peasant that sees the daughter of the king. Even though she is beautiful, and the peasant knows that, the peasant will not covet her since it is as possible for him to sleep with her as it is for him to suddenly sprout wings in his back. So for him – and for many other rabbis – coveting is not simply feeling the desire, but trying to actively get what you desire. That is illustrated with two fairly famous stories.


The first one is of none other than King David, who sees Batsheva bathing on the roof, has an affair with her while her husband Uriah is fighting the war with the Philistines, and when she reveals to David that she’s pregnant, David proceeds to kill Uriah. The second story comes from another king, Achab. Achab wants a vineyard that belongs to Navot, and Navot or Naboth, does not want to give it to him. So he does what all great kings do, and pouts, and whines and refuses to eat. Jezebel, his wife, does what all great queens do, and tells him to kill Navot and just stop whining already.


And that, for the rabbis, is the most important thing – it is not about wanting the woman or the vineyard, it is not about fantasizing. It is about using your smarts or your power to get what you fantasize about, even though they are not supposed to be yours in the first place. Ibn Ezra wants you to know an important maxim of the Jewish tradition, which is – certain things are given to you as part of your existence. What possessions will you have, how long your life is and how many children you have are all decided beforehand. So coveting something or someone is really about being ungrateful, and not seeing the blessings you already have in your life.


By seeing “do not covet” as a heart commandment, and by defining coveting as actively trying to get what you cannot have, Ibn Ezra is really trying to tell that coveting means making the plans. The heart is not necessarily the seat of emotions alone, but of all thought. In that sense, controlling coveting really means controlling the thoughts of planning – and not the emotion of desire. It is about controlling the tendencies of being ungrateful – and that even modern psychology says is possible.


So may this week be a week of seeing that our grass is greener than the neighbor’s simply because it is our grass. And may we find the grace of being thankful for the many blessings in our lives, for our internal and external beauties and for our many gifts.


Shabbat Shalom