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Rabbi's Erev Shabbat Message

07/03/2020 12:54:15 PM


Shabbat  Pinhas
How Could Killing Ever Be Right?

The Three Weeks Have Begun

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,

Yesterday we entered the Three Weeks, a time of apprehension and anticipatory mourning culminating in the Jewish community’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av. 


It isn’t always easy to get into the spirit of Tisha B’Av. On the 9th day of the month of Av in the year 70 of the Common Era, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire. Our ancestors, those who survived the three rebellions we started against Rome (we were difficult to occupy), were exiled from our homeland - an exile that lasted two thousand years, until 1948. All this we are to remember and mourn, and from it to seek ethical lessons for our own lives. “All this during the best weather of the year?” as more than one Oregonian Jew has said to me.


This year, though, there are portents in the air, and in the parashah


In our parashah false prophets and arbitrary self-appointed guardians of justice rattle our sense of reliance on something larger than ourselves. In our own day, a malicious force undermines the U.S.’s democratic institutions; unqualified judges are installed, due process is corrupted, the rule of law is gutted of meaning. 


As with the murderous plague that has killed our ancestors by the tens of thousands as our parashah begins, among us a virus still poorly understood spreads mysteriously, kills young and old, and cuts us off from the very real support we humans find only in community. 


The parashat hashavua describes our ancestors, the People Israel, as continuing to wander, lost more in the wreckage of any clear sense of purpose than in actual untracked wilderness. 

Violence flares uncontrollably, and tragic loss of life seems to occur randomly.


Then as well as now, the vigilante Pinhas is abroad in the land, killing with impunity, defended and rewarded by those who purport to speak for the public good, for law and order. 


The commentary on Pinhas, whom we are told is rewarded by HaShem for his act killing two people without process or judgement, is frustrating and frightening. All the traditional commentators struggle with the Torah’s literal words, describing HaShem as praising Pinhas’ extrajudicial killing. Strangely, much more angst is expended upon the Red Heifer from last week, and the contradictory teachings around its special status. 


We are left wondering if we can trust the evidence of our senses, when killing is easier for our Torah to tolerate than a confusing cow - or when property destruction is considered more devastating than the destruction of human life. 


In these days of sadness, of confusion and fear for all that has been upended in our lives, it’s heartening to learn that in our sources, the Sages insist that this is not normal. 

It is not normal to praise killing. 

It is not normal to proclaim that killing brings peace. 

When someone says that it is, we must ask what we are actually hearing, and why.


This year, we realized during daily minyan yesterday, despite the gorgeous weather of summer,  it’s a little easier to access that place in all our hearts which is afraid, which dreads what may yet be, which mourns all that is lost. Tisha B’Av comes this year during a time when we are unsure what to feel, and certainly when to feel it. Let this ancient ritual invite you into the sadness in your heart, in a safe ritual environment, among supportive community. 


We are sad. We are afraid. Let’s be in this place, bein hametzarim, the narrow place of worry, together, as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred, precious, caring community.

May we find consolation in knowing our place amidst meaningful community.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ariel

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Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780