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Dvars August 2 2019 and August 3 2019: Matot-Maasei

Mattot-Maasei

August 2

Three parts to the Parsha:

  • Annihilation of the Midianites: because seduced and got Israelites to do idolatry
  • Tribes of Gad, Reuben and half of Menasseh staying in Jordan
  • Distributing the land and the continuation of daughters of Tzelophad: must marry cousins in tribe

I want to focus on the section about the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and half of Menasseh staying in Jordan. The Israelites have just defeated the Midianites, therefore have taken all their land on the Jordan/ Israel border (what we know of it today), back then known as Jazer and Gilead. The tribes of Gad and Reuben fall in love with the land, both tribes being herding tribes. They find the land green and fertile. They go to Moses and say: we want to stay here. Moses responds saying: “Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?” 

What does this mean? What is Moses saying?

Moses then continues and says: “Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them? This what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land.”

Now what is Moses referencing? The 12 spies, 2 of which came back and knew they could cross and conquer the land of Israel, and 10 replying with fear and refusal to go further. We have a reversal of the numbers. In the scouts’ story: 10 scouts went against G-d’s order and said they didn’t wish to conquer the land due to fear. Two were happy to go, from the tribes of Judah and Ephraim. Now, in this story, we have 10 tribes that want to go into the land and 2, from the tribes of Gad and Reuben, that want to remain outside the land of Israel, even against G-d’s gift of the land of Israel. I haven’t quite explored that yet, but there must be some significance to the number reversal.

Moses continues to lecture Gad and Ephraim by recalling the punishment of the scouts. Now they are on the precipice of Israel, the tribes Gad and Ephraim respond just like those who caused the wandering, they want to stay.

Gad and Reuben try and reason with Moses. They say they will go into Israel with the rest of the tribes and fight until they have conquered all the land but then they will return to the other side of the river. How do you think Moses responds?

He responds by saying yes. Moses goes from being enraged that the tribes dare to go against the word of G-d again and then he quickly turns and says ok, once all the land is conquered and distributed, you may return. 

Why would he do this? 

  • Having people to look out, outside of the land for invaders
  • Tired of fighting
  • Conquer more land
  • Some say this story was written to explain why the Israelites spanned both Israel and the Trans-Jordan (not just the predestined Israel)
    • By the way archeological evidence supports the story in that a nonbiblical text, The Mesha (Moabite) Stone (from 9th century BCE) confirms Gadite occupation of Ataroth- a town assigned to the tribe of Gad in this very Torah portion.
  • The beginning of the diaspora and the need for it

I want to focus on the theory that this is the beginning of the diaspora. Many today still maintain the goal to bring all Jews back to the land of Israel. This is valid but also doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon. According to research, 44.5% of Jews live in Israel with 55.5% outside Israel, with 39.3% of the Jewish population living in the United States. I, personally, believe that global Jewry is a beautiful thing, full of rich diverse customs, history, and different ways of practicing the tradition and text that unites us.

Looking at this story through the lens of the start of the diaspora seems fitting for where we are this Shabbat in the Jewish calendar, the week before Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’av marks the destruction of both temples, both of which occurred on the same day, 586 BCE and 70 BC. Other traumas which fell on this day: the expulsion of Jews from England and Spain, the decree that the Israelites would wander for 40 years following the spy incident, the Bar Kochba Revolt was crushed, the outbreak of world war 1 and the mass deportation of Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. It is a deep day of mourning in which, collectively, we have experienced deep, deep loss and trauma. 

Rabbis argue that the destruction of the second temple was the beginning of the diaspora. But I think it goes back so much further. To this moment in Torah.

So what does the story of Gad and Reuben’s desire to stay in the Jordan have to do with Tisha B’av? It’s about diaspora and it’s about trauma. Gad and Reuben’s story shows us that following tragedy new life grows and if we are so blessed it flourishes, despite no longer living in the land. But Gad and Reuben push back and say, this land calls to us, we see our future in this land. And not only do we see our future in this land, we remain committed to supporting the Israelites conquering of Israel. Not until this is done will we return to what we feel is our home to insure a flourishing future. 

The Israelites conquer and settle the land and the men of Gad and Reuben return to the trans-Jordan where they watched over the land of Israel for centuries. Their life flourished outside Israel but it was never severed from Israel. Just as our lives, in the United States, have flourished, while we continue to contribute to and protect Israel from outside its borders. The story of Gad and Reuben and the mourning of Tisha B’Av, shows us that following deep trauma, we can regrow and grow into something bigger and more beautiful. And that diaspora doesn’t need to be a negative thing. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) wrote a piece on the beauty of the Jewish diaspora. “The conventional view of Jewish history is that of shifting centers of Jewish life, so that the Jews themselves have the self-image of a people on the move. These constant migrations were, on the one hand, disrupting, but, on the other, they offered the Jews as a group opportunities to renew life and to adapt to new conditions. May we continue to lift up our diaspora communities and while adding beauty and diversity to Judaism.


Dvar August 3

Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek

Here we are at the end of the book of Bamidbar (numbers).

Bamidbar- we begin with the census,13 months after the Exodus from Egypt, our book begins with a counting of all the Israelites who reached the wilderness of the Sinai. Bamidbar proceeds to document the journey of the Israelites as they travel to the promised land. We learn why our ancestors traveled the desert for 40 years. Spies were sent to the land of Israel to determine the strength and challenge of those inhabiting the land. 10 spies returned saying, do not send us into the land because it will surely be our death. 2 spies return and say the land is beautiful, we must go and not be afraid. Because of their lack of trust in G-d, the Israelites are punished to wander in the desert for 40 years. Throughout this saga, traced through Bamidbar, we hear story after story about woes of the Israelites and the constant kvetching that they want to return to Egypt even if it means slavery. We deeply learn of Moses’ leadership throughout the book. His successes as a leader, his challenges, and his missteps. The generation of the Jewish slaves dies and the birth of the Israelites happen within this book. The sefer deals with leadership, new generations, G-d’s punishments, lack of trust and faith, temptation, human urges, death of our leaders. The book of Exodus led us to our freedom, the book of Bamidbar leads us to our identity. And amongst all these challenges: 40 years wandering in the desert, the rebellion of Korach, the death of Miriam, Moses being forbidden from entering the land of Israel, the pain and hardship of leaving a home and being homeless for 40 years, learning and establishing new societal laws and norms, all of these challenges we find moments of hazak, hazak, v’nithazek. Strength, strength, let us bring out our strength. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the necessity of restrengthening ourselves amidst challenge, so that we keep moving, growing, becoming.

As the Israelites stand ready to enter the land of Israel, we read our traditional marking of the ending of sefer with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek. 

Where and when do you think this tradition emerged?

Rabbi Gail Navlen states that we find tradition of the recitation of this phrase after concluding a book of Torah was in the 12th and 13th centuries in France, Spain, and Germany. Rabbi Jeffrey Tigay, in Etz Haim, shares that the custom was first seen clearly in 19th century Germany. In both recountings, it is Ashkenazi custom which exclaims the phrase while the Sefardim have the custom of saying hazak u-vrarukh (be strong and blessed) after each person has an aliyah. It derives from 10:12 verse in 2 Samuel which Joab cries before battle: hazak v’nithazek.

So what are we really saying when we say hazak hazak v’nithazek.

As we see from the book we just concluded, we must continuously remind ourselves of our strength and push it to the forefront. Challenges abound but the phrase of strength, strength, let us bring forth our strength, serves to be a verbal equivalent to taking a deep breath and saying, I can do this. We see this time and time again in Bamidbar and we will continue to see it in our next sefer Devarim. 

Please, take a moment and think of a recent moment where things felt challenging, overwhelming, unclear. Did you do or say something similar to hazak, hazak, v’nithazek? Would it have been helpful? I’m committing myself to taking on this practice. And do believe it will help bring forward my strength. Helping me to feel more grounded and secure. I will end with a beautiful teaching by Rabbi Avi Weiss about the importance of receiving strength from our communities and I hope it inspires us.

“As the final words are recited, the assembled call out hazak, hazak, ve-nithazek, be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened. Indeed, we say these words when completing each of the Five Books of Moses.

Most interpret these words to speak first to the individual, and then to the collective whole. Hazak is a singular term. When uttered twice it creates a sense of community. Hence, ve-nithazek – together we will gain greater strength and prevail.

If we examine the end of Genesis and Exodus, the first two places where we actually utter this phrase, a deeper understanding emerges. Genesis concludes with Joseph’s death. Exodus comes to a conclusion with the cloud of glory resting upon the newly finished Tabernacle.

A common thread can be seen. Both books conclude with endeavors left unfinished — left to be concluded by the next generation. Note that the three other places where hazak is recited fall into the same pattern. Leviticus and Numbers end with laws of tithing and inheritance. Those laws are given, although they can only fully become a reality after possessing land in Israel, which occurs later. And, of course, Deuteronomy concludes with the death of Moshe. The irony of his life is that the greatest leader of our people never realized his greatest dream, to enter the land of Israel – a mission only to be achieved by those he left behind.

An important lesson emerges. Often, in life, we think that there is nothing we cannot accomplish. The culmination of each book teaches us—no. No one leaves the world fulfilling all of their dreams, all of their hopes and expectations. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, it is not for any of us to complete the task (Avot 2:21).

The story is told of an elderly man who plants a carob tree. “Foolish man,” a passerby proclaimed, “why do you waste your time? Surely, you will not live long enough to see the tree produce.” The old man sighed and responded, “My father planted trees for me and I, in turn, must plant trees for my children.”

Notwithstanding that no one can fully complete the task, Rabbi Tarfon adds that we are not free from doing our share, from embarking on our goals with our utmost energy and strength. This in fact, may be the deeper meaning of the refrain: first we proclaim hazak hazak—be strong, be strong, let us each make sure to do our share, knowing all along that we will not complete every goal.

But then, we call out together, ve-nithazek, may we be strengthened in the recognition that together, our task be concluded, even if it takes generations to make it a reality.

May we continue to send and give strength to each other. Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek.