Reconciling Competing Principles

There’s an old joke about two people who come to have something adjudicated before a rabbi. One presents his side of the story and the rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The other presents his case, completely contradicting his fellow, and the rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The rabbi’s wife, in utter surprise, says “It’s impossible for both of them to be correct,” to which the rabbi replies, “You’re right.”

Related to this joke, we have the Baraita of Rabbi Yishmael which we read every morning at minyan.[1] The last of Rabbi Yishmael’s 13 principles is שתי כתובים המכחישים זה את זה, two verses which directly contradict one another. Unlike the joke, however, there is a resolution, as the principle continues עד שיבוא הכתוב השלישי ויכריע ביניהם, a third verse will come and adjudicate between them.  The third verse will generally put limitations on one or both of the other verses, saying that one or both of them only applies in a particular case or situation.

Enter Parshat Pinhas which at first glance appears to be a major victory for feminists. After the daughters of Zelophehad complain to Moses about their desire to inherit and he brings their case before G-d to adjudicate it, we read: “כן בנות צלפחד דוברות-The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers.”[2]

Next week in Parshat Masei we will read about the repercussions of that decision. Members of the tribe of Menasseh, of which Zelophehad was a member, said “G-d commanded my liege to assign the land to the Israelites as shares by lot, but G-d further commanded my liege to assign the share of our kinsman Zelophehad to his daughters. Now, if they marry persons from another Israelite tribe, their share will be cut off from our ancestral portion and be added to the portion of the tribe into which they marry; thus our allotted portion will be diminished.”[3] Beginning with the same words he used in rendering his original decision, Moses replies: “כן מטה בני-יוסף דוברים-The plea of the Josephite tribe is just. This is what G-d has commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: They may marry anyone they wish, only into a clan of their father’s tribe shall they marry.”[4]

Just like the joke about both parties being right, Moses is saying that both Zelophehad’s daughters and the members of the tribe of Menasseh are both right, even though they contradict one another. On the one hand, Moses recognizes the right of the daughters of Zelophehad to marry whomever they wish, while concurrently he obligates them to marry within their tribe. The Talmud notes this contradiction, and suggests that while in principle a daughter who inherits her father’s estate is free to marry whomever she pleases, in reality that rule did not apply to the daughters of Zelophehad and the women of their generation. After all, it only specified that the daughters could inherit, not that they could marry whomever they wanted.[5] This answer seems like a cop-out to me, as it puts a limitation on Zelophehad’s daughters’ inheritance that was not mentioned when Moses brought their case before G-d. Nevertheless, it is the rabbis’ attempt to reconcile how both Zelophehad’s daughters and the tribal elders of Menasseh can both be right: that the daughters can inherit while concurrently Menasseh will not lose any of its land.

What is the lesson that we can take from this? The Torah is full of conflicting and competing principles. On one hand it wants to ensure that women have the right to inherit; on the other it needs to make sure that one tribe’s land does not become reduced because of a daughter inheriting, as the land passed from father to son. The way in which this is reconciled is to require Zelophehad’s daughters to marry within their tribe.

It is difficult to relate to this in an age when we want to protect all of our children. We write wills stating that our estate will be divided equally between our children, regardless of whether they are sons or daughters-and if we don’t, there’s often trouble after we’re gone. We also try to operate our business affairs in an egalitarian way. At the same time, it is easier for us to do this now as that we are not concerned about the apportionment of the Land of Israel or in treating each tribe equally.

At times we read passages in the Bible that appear to be contradictory: in one source the daughters should inherit; in another the land will pass through their husbands. Whenever we find a contradiction we attempt to reconcile it through looking at what the rabbis have said. At times we might find a satisfactory answer, at others we might feel the answer is weak or that it does not work for us in this day and age. The important thing is that we act like the Talmudic rabbis, doing our homework and try to reconcile the contradictions rather than simplistically throwing our hands in the air and saying the Torah makes no sense. Let us take time this summer to study Torah and in the process may we reconcile some things in our learning that previously seemed contradictory or irreconcilable.

[1] Sifra 1

[2]Numbers 27:7-9

[3] Numbers 36:2-3

[4] Numbers 36:5-6

[5] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 120a


See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Before my time there was a movie called See No Evil, Hear No Evil about a blind man and a deaf man who become friends. They work together, having each other’s back as they navigated the difficult world. They challenged by a shooting in the store in which they worked for which they were considered suspects. Through a comedic turn of events they determined the criminals and brought them to justice.

That movie reminds me of a line I’d like to discuss in this morning’s Torah portion. In one of Balak’s blessings to Israel, he says לא הביט און ביעקב ולא ראה עמל בישראל ה אלקנו עמו ותרועת מלך בו, “One does not see evildoers in Jacob or transgression in Israel; Adonai his G-d, is with them, and he has the king’s acclaim.”[1] How can we take this seriously? We know that there are plenty of evildoers in Israel, from Bernie Madoff to Harvey Weinstein. What does it mean that G-d is with us? That doesn’t stop Jews from doing evil.

Rashi says this can’t possibly be what the text means. Rather it is not that one does not see evildoers but rather that G-d does not look at (הביט) evildoers. כשהן עוברין על דבריו, אינו מדקדק אחריכם להתבונן באוניות שלהם ועמלן שהן עוברין על דתו “When they transgress his commandments, he does not pursue them exactingly by reflecting on the wickedness of their wrongdoing of their violation of His doctrines.”[2]

Rashi is saying of course Jews err: we’re human like everyone else. There will be times when each of us engages in wrongdoing. What is important to recognize is that wrongdoing has occurred, to strive to change and then to let it go. G-d will not pursue us exactingly for our misdeeds. He will notice them but does not dwell on them. In other words, He gives us the opportunity to change our ways without overly punishing us for what we did.

When I brought up the title See No Evil, Hear No Evil, I was being facetious. I was not trying to say that G-d doesn’t see what we do wrong but rather that G-d has רחמים, readily forgiving us for our actions when we fall short. In so doing, G-d demonstrates that the most important thing is not to avoid wrongdoing, for no one can do that, but rather not to dwell on what we did wrong; rather to focus on what we can do to improve and change. For all his faults, Balaam saw that G-d acts with רחמים towards Israel, actively pursuing good on their behalf and giving them ample opportunity to succeed. The lesson is that when we do wrong, to engage in תשובה and move on, rather than to assume that G-d will never forgive us. Often we are the ones who look most harshly at ourselves and our actions, playing over and over again in our heads what we did wrong rather than working to change our faults and letting go of our mistakes. If G-d can see past the bad that we have done, all the more so must we be able to do so. May we work at not seeing evil in ourselves, that we are good and have infinite potential to do good in the world.

Today we are also celebrating the Friends, familiar faces but new members at the Jericho Jewish Center. Both Phil and Pearl Friend saw unspeakable evils in the world as the Nazis committed atrocities against our people. Phil liberated Pearl the day before the Nazis were planning to eliminate her and her mother and last month this young, vibrant woman celebrated her 90th birthday. Last year this “power couple” celebrated their 70th anniversary at the Jericho Jewish Center. With all the atrocities that they saw, Phil and Pearl could have stopped living yet they did the opposite: coming to America, starting the Key Foods supermarket in Astoria and raising a family. For the latter, we are especially grateful, as their daughter Barbara is the heart and soul (as well as the pulse) of the Jericho Jewish Center. Pearl and Phil-you understood that in spite of evil you would live each day to the fullest, and for that we are thrilled. Mazal Tov on becoming new members at the Jericho Jewish Center, and thank you for already giving back to your new congregational home through sponsoring today’s Kiddush.

[1] Numbers 23:21

[2] Rashi on Numbers 23:21 ד”ה לא-הביט עון ביעקב

Rational Versus Irrational Laws

Before I became a rabbi I wanted to be a lawyer. I thought it would be so much fun to litigate, arguing a case before a judge. I had been on the debate team in high school and really wanted the opportunity to argue for a living. My freshman year of college at UW-Madison, I took a Hebrew course for the retrocredits on the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. The course touched my soul, as I recognized that the maskilim, though largely secular, knew their Bible cold, wrote in beautiful Hebrew and had a deep connection to the Land of Israel. In contrast, my Poli Sci 101 course was very dry. I changed paths from majoring in History and Poli Sci to History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The rest shall we say is history.

I have often admired lawyers for being like G-d in making order out of chaos (though as Don says, criminal defendants make chaos out of order). At the same time, I must admit that any lawyer who can make rational sense out of the “decree of the Torah” as follows is clearly a genius: “ויקחו אליה פרה אדמה תמימה…והוציא אתה אל מחץ למחנה ושחט אותה…והזה אל נכח פני אהל מעד מדמה שבע פעמים ושרף את הפרה לעיניו…ולקח הכהן עץ ארז ועזוב ושני תולעת והשליך אל תוך שרפת הפרה וכבס בגדיו הכהן ורחץ בשרו במים ואחר יבוא אל המחנה וטמא הכהן עד-הערב.” [1] Follow all that? A synopsis is “The Israelites shall bring you an unblemished red heifer which shall be killed outside the camp. The Kohen shall sprinkle its blood seven times and then burn the cow. The Kohen as well as the one who performed the burning shall wash their garments in water, bathe in water and be impure until evening.

What is the basis for such a law? The rabbis themselves were perplexed as to why this חק, or ritual law that cannot be easily understood, was part of Jewish tradition. They do not have a great rationale for the red heifer, especially now that we no longer have a Temple, yet they were not the first to struggle with the reason for its existence.[2]

In the Talmud[3] we read about Dama ben Netina, a Gentile during the Second Temple period who owned a very special stone. Rabbis visited him to purchase a special stone for the Hoshen (breastplate) for the Kohen Gadol (high priest). The problem was, the stone was in a locked box, the key was under Dama’s father’s pillow, and he happened to be sleeping. The rabbis offered up to 10,000 gold shekalim for the stone, which Dama refused so as not to wake his father. G-d took note of this and rewarded Dama with a red heifer, which he could sell to the rabbis.

While laws like the red heifer might seem to us to be strange or out of place, there are equally bizarre laws in our own State of New York. Among them are the following: “It is illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while each wearing a mask or any face covering which disguises your identity” (By the way, Purim need not be cancelled because we consider the synagogue a private domain,  רשות היחיד).[4] It is against the law to throw a ball at someone’s head for fun. Slippers are not to be worn after 10:00 PM. While riding in an elevator, one must talk to no one, and fold his hands while looking toward the door (that’s also why you can’t talk to people on the subway). A person may not walk around on Sundays with an ice cream cone in his/her pocket. My personal favorite is the following: a fine of $25 can be levelled against you for flirting.[5] Marty-on the High Holidays you are the Usher in charge of directing people on and off of the bimah: now we can also put you in charge of ensuring that there is no flirting.

The next time we find a law from our tradition to be bizarre, let us remember that plenty of laws that have been created by our own state (and every other state for that matter) are strange as well: the difference is that the law of the red heifer stems from G-d whereas the laws of New York State come from man. Just because we find something unusual does not mean we should cease and desist from learning about it. Perhaps we will find some new insight or special merit as to why it is “on the books.” That is why Ben Bag Bag says הפך בה והפך בה דכלה בה, “Keep turning it (the Torah) around, for everything is in it.”[6]

We close out our year of honoring those who work in professions with this Shabbat. Thank you to the lawyers who work so hard enforcing our laws and regulations, ensuring that we are safe and in good shape. Whether you work in real estate, alcohol, tax, immigration, criminal, corporate, litigation or another area, we appreciate all that you do and that you are so devoted to the Jericho Jewish Center. We hope you get some rest and relaxation this summer from the grinding work weeks that you put in and that all goes well for you. The next time you get stumped by some law, remember that you are also blessed with “the gift of gab” to defend it. As Marty taught me, you don’t have to take a position but when you do you better defend it. Mazal Tov on joining us for this celebratory day.

[1] From Numbers 19:2-7

[2] Bamidbar Rabbah Hukkat 19:3 (Solomon said: “I have understood all of these things, but the section about the red cow I researched, questioned and prodded, ‘I said: “I will get wise” but it is far from me).

[3] Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 31a

[4] New York Penal Law 240.35(4)

[5] For more, see

[6] Pirkei Avot 5:22

An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

Allow me to return to last week’s Torah portion, a perfect one for our Retirees Shabbat. The generation of Israelites who had been brought out of slavery are given an offer they couldn’t refuse: to wander aimlessly for forty years in the desert until they die off and a new generation will take over. Because the spies were in the desert for forty days, the people were punished a day for a year, bearing the burden of their iniquity for forty years.[1] Not exactly the cheeriest picture. Imagine if you knew you were going to wander from place to place for thirty-eight years, not finding rest or meaning in it until reaching your final resting place in the desert. I’m guessing you would think “What’s the point?” or bitterly “What did I do to deserve this?”

Why should the Israelites as a whole have been punished for the bad reports of the spies, the many punished for the deeds of the few? Aren’t we against collective punishment? Rashi emphatically states that we are not, asserting תשאו את עונותיכם, “you must bear your sins” (as a nation), continuing שתי עונות-של עגל ושל תלונה, “two sins: that of the calf and that of the complaint.”[2] Yet why does the entire nation of Israel have to bear these sins? The classical answer given is that the entire people were stilted by being slaves in Egypt so a new generation which had never known slavery had to emerge in order to conquer the Promised Land. Is this accurate however? Certainly there were Israelites who were glad to be free and moving towards their own land.

Kli Yakar asserts that the spies were only punished for forty days but that it was one day per year (Tisha B’Av), stretching out that punishment over forty years.[3]  On Tisha B’Av the Israelites dug their own graves and lay in them, with many not waking up the next day. After forty years they all woke up and realized that the punishment was over. Not the most appealing image.[4] Nowadays we punish ourselves on Tisha B’Av by fasting, wearing sackcloth and ashes, reading kinot (dirges) and lamentations.

The answer that I prefer, however, is from Tosafot Yom Tov,[5] who asserts that the forty years was actually an act of kindness. After all, G-d said to Moses אכנו בדבר ואורישנו, “I shall smite them with the plague and annihilate them.”[6] Moses pleaded with G-d, which caused G-d to have mercy and allow our ancestors to live for forty more years. Each individual twenty and up died at age sixty (now an age at the prime of one’s life-makes us feel grateful for our length of years J).

Today we honor our retirees, many of whom are working part-time or full-time as volunteers for the Jericho Jewish Center, attending minyan, planning programs and serving on our Board of Trustees. Research demonstrates that retirees who stay busy doing what they want to do tend to have greater longevity and greater health. As a matter of fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe viewed retirement as worse than death, stating “I don’t understand the word ‘retirement;’ it’s not in my vocabulary,” and “How can a person even think of retiring from life?”[7] That’s why so many of our retirees stay busy doing things that they enjoy, and the Jericho Jewish Center is one of the many beneficiaries.

Thank you to all our retirees who make JJC into the strong, enriched place that it is. We are so grateful that you joined us for this Shabbat and wish you a summer filled with only warmth, joy and spiritual fulfillment.

[1] Numbers 14:34

[2] Rashi on Numbers 14:33 ד”ה ארבעים שנה

[3] Kli Yakar on Numbers 14:34 ד”ה יום לשנה

[4] Eicha Rabba Peticta 33.

[5] Tosafot Yom Tov Sota, Chapter 1 Mishna 9

[6] Numbers 14:12

[7] Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), p. 129.

The Next Generation

Why do we do half the things we do? Whatever the answer is, it changes when we have a child. At that point it’s no longer about “me myself and I” but rather about raising the next generation. Today we are blessed with a triple baby naming and I’d to illustrate the blessing of new life by means of a story.

The doorbell rang when the obstetrician was not at home. His five-year-old daughter answered the doorbell. “Is your daddy in?” asked an excited stranger. “No, he’s gone,” the little girl replied. “When will he return?” ” I don’t know. He’s out on an eternity case.” Rabbi Sidney Greenberg writes: “The birth of a child is such a commonplace thing. It happens 200,000 times a day. And yet each child is an original, altogether unique and so enormously special. Each child is a miracle, a tiny bundle of infinite possibilities, mysterious and unpredictable.”[1]

Often we’re told that we are a product of nature vs nurture, that our genes and our upbringing combine to mold us into who we are. Yet which dominates? If nature, then one can exonerate him/herself from wrongdoing, simply saying “It’s my nature.” If nurture, one can blame their upbringing for who they have become and never truly experience growth.

Two anecdotes, one from this week’s parsha the other from next week’s, illustrate the debate between nature vs nurture. This week we learn about the מרגלים, the spies who gave bad reports, not believing that G-d could help them conquer the land of Canaan. As a result, an entire generation had to be wiped out, making way for a new generation who had never known slavery to emerge. Yet this new generation was very different from the previous one. Whereas the previous generation had been afraid to move forward, their children did so with ease, conquering the entire land of Canaan. If nature predominates, then they should have been genetically predisposed to the same fear as their parents. Yet with Joshua as their general, they proceeded forward with unabated vigor.

For those who think nurture is more of a central focus, we need to look no further than Korach in next week’s portion to see that it is not necessarily the case. Korach challenges Moses and Aaron’s authority as leaders of Israel. He went to them with three other leaders and 250 priests and basically said, “What am I, chopped liver?” stating רב לכם כי   כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה  “It is too much for you! The entire nation is holy and Hashem is in their midst. Why do you lift yourselves up over Hashem’s congregation?”[2] Moses could not believe his ears, proceeding to fall on his face. After all, we learned two weeks ago that he was the humblest of all people[3] and yet he was accused of taking too much for himself.

Korach’s punishment for his incitement was to be swallowed up alive, going into the underworld of Sheol.[4] However, Deuteronomy states ובני קרח לא מתו, the children of Korach did not die.[5] As a matter of fact, they became the משכילים, or enlightened ones, who wrote psalms, including the one we say every Monday.

How could it be that Korach had such great hubris, challenging G-d’s appointment of Moses and Aaron as the spiritual heads of Israel, while concurrently having children who were G-dfearing and who wrote psalms used in the Temple? If he was so self-serving, how did his children turn out to be mentschim? Clearly, nurture, or learning by example, is not the only way in which we are shaped. Rather there is a balance between our genetic predisposition and what we learn from others, most notably our parents.

Jennifer and Daniel, Lauren and Ben-as parents you are bound to make mistakes. As a result, you may lose your temper, have regrets, worries, frustrations and anger. Having a child however causes us to strive to modify our behavior, as we know that our children emulate us. You have brought beautiful little Lilah, Ellie and Ryan into the world, with so much potential and excitement, wanting only the best for them. Having children is such a wonderful privilege and causes us to try to do the best we can in raising them, making them as calm, confident and worry-free as possible.

My prayer for you, Jennifer and Daniel, Laruen and Ben, is that no matter what bumps in the road you face, you always strive to be present and mindful of your children, giving them the best of everything you have to offer. After all, it’s all about what we can do in raising the next generation in the fullest sense. Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! So that we can celebrate together, let us turn to Page 840 and read the sections designated for us.

[1] Rabbi Sidney Greenberg’s book Lessons for Living, page 89.

[2] Numbers 16:3

[3] Numbers 12:3

[4] Numbers 16:32-33

[5] Deuteronomy 26:11

Asking the Clergy: Why (or how) are the faithful called to help the poor?

Rabbi Ben Herman Jericho Jewish Center

The Torah contains numerous verses on our duties toward the poor. As the Torah teaches, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within your gates, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.” (Deuteronomy 15:7) How is this done? Through working at soup kitchens to ensure that people have food, through working at homeless shelters to ensure they have a place to sleep and (most importantly) working to eradicate poverty.

The ideal state is a few verses before this one: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) The reason given for this can be problematic: “For God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance as long as you observe and do all the commandments that I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:5) As there is no shortage of poor people in our midst, does that mean they (or we) are being punished for forsaking the commandments? Rather than examine from that perspective, I prefer the approach of what we can do, moment by moment and day by day, to create a world in which there will be no poor people. One must also note the myriad times in which the Torah asks us to help “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” imploring us to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We are implored to remember when we ourselves were vulnerable and exploited, most notably as slaves in Egypt (mentioned 36 times in the Torah) and thus must ensure that we protect those who are vulnerable and in need today.

The Rules We Live By

Goal of Shavuot Prayer

To hold in awe

Those words of law

Inscribed on stone

Which God had hewn

Then to cause truths

Those laws impart

To transpose to

The human heart.[1]


It’s not fair-why are there rules? Why can’t we live in a time of איש הישר בעיניו יעשה, every person does what is right in his own eyes?[2] After the giving of the Torah and the conquest of the Promised Land, our ancestors make this same mistake again and again. There were forty years of turmoil wandering in the desert because of the bad report given by the spies. Then there was calm with the conquest of the land. Yet throughout the Book of Judges G-d sends an adversary to rule over Israel (as a punishment for Israel engaging in idolatry), Israel cries out, G-d sends a judge to defeat the adversary and then the land was quiet for 40 years only to have the same cycle be carried out again and again and again.

People of my generation often shy away from rules, wanting to do whatever they feel like at any given moment. We are a generation of choice-as Peter Berger teaches, “we are all Jews by choice.”[3] However, is that necessarily a good thing? Sometimes having too many choices can be overwhelming; seeking freedom might actually be more enslaving. By having boundaries and a blueprint, even though it is limiting, it can keep one on the straight-and-narrow as opposed to being wound up in chaos.

Social scientists say that our basic personality formation is complete by age seven.[4] We might not know yet who we are but we know what we value and what’s important to us. Much of this is learned behavior primarily from our parents, then our siblings then our teachers and our friends. As we grow older, we often lash out against those areas of our personality that we see as weaknesses passed on from our parents. My teacher, Dr. Mona Fishbane, says, however, that as we mature we transition from viewing ourselves as victims to becoming the authors of our own lives. We recognize that our parents did the best they could in raising us; we give thanks for all the wonderful things given to us in our upbringing. As for those things we don’t like, we actively work to change them.

In life we often dwell on the negative and forget the positive. When we are in the middle of a tense situation with a loved one, we often see the trees rather than the forest. Yet at Yizkor we attempt to seek out the positive, how a loved one lived their life and the values that s/he taught us. We nostalgically remember the experiences we shared, the lessons learned and how we were shaped by them. The tension and frustration melts away as we turn to the wonderful memories. We start to recognize that some of the rules they set up for us were there for a reason: to protect us and give us guidance through the topsy-turvy road called life. We also remember the Torah they taught us, for the direct translation of Torah is instruction: the instruction needed to have a positive, meaningful and purpose-filled life.

As we now turn to say Yizkor, let us remember our loved ones, getting a picture of them in our minds eye, thanking them for giving us the gift of life, recognizing that when things were difficult they did the best they could to provide for us and to raise us to go out into the world as strong, independent beings. Whether they were imposing or “loosy-goosy,” libertarian or authoritarian, they strove to do their best for us in their own way. Let us remember them for good (זכור לטוב) and keep them in our heart especially today, at the end of Shavuot.

We turn to Page 16 for our Yizkor prayers to read “as We Remember Them.”

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Goal of Shavuot Prayer,” in A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), p. 159.

[2] Judges 17:6

[3] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory (New York: Integrated Media, 1967).

[4] Studies by Christopher Nave, UC-Riverside and Ganz Ferrance, PhD.