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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vaetchanan                              July 24, 2021 - 15 Av 5781

07/23/2021 09:06:13 AM


“Ideological and political intolerance, even with the best and most sincere intentions, produces results that are the direct opposite of those intended."
                                                                                         --Mikhail Gorbachev

This past Sunday, in a shocking display of the darkest of ironies, young members of Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community were bussed to the Kotel in the Old City, the Western Wall, not to pray, not to take in the beauty and majesty of the kotel in the main plaza, but to go directly to the out-of-the-way south side of the kotel, a place that for some years has had a tradition of providing limited access to egalitarian worshippers, a family space where men and  women, boys and girls from the Conservative, Masorti, Reform and other non-orthodox Jewish movements, so they could pray together in peace.  The youths targeted the egalitarian worshippers, throwing dirty diapers, spitting at them, and drowning out their prayers and harassing them with loud cursing and taunting.  The irony is that the incident took place on Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and prayer in Judaism in memory the destruction of the Temple, the once central focus of Jewish existence, which is now only a wall, the kotel.  According to Jewish tradition, it was a catastrophe which was brought about because of toxic sectarianism… Jewish hatred of other Jews. 

It has been a tumultuous week.  Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has allied itself with BDS, the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize and destroy Israel by economic means.  There’s a lot more to be said on this, and we WILL be diving into it over the course of Shabbat, but suffice it to say that the Jewish world, together with other people of conscience, will be preferring Haagen-Dazs from here on in.  

As a Jewish community, our attention is also on Nigeria, where Israeli middle east peace activist, Rudy Rochman together with journalist Edouard Benayim and film maker Andrew Liebman have been detained by the Nigerian secret police for more than two weeks now.  Rochman and his team were in Nigeria filming a documentary about Jewish communities in Africa when their gift of a sefer Torah to a local community was perceived as giving support to a Nigerian separatist movement.  For now, we are meant to wait with baited breath while the Israeli embassy works toward their safe release.  In the meantime, one thing we can and should do is take a moment to look up some of Rudy Rochman’s videos on YouTube and see the incredible grassroots work he has been doing in building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, while combatting anti-zionism and anti-semitism.  Beyond that, we will continue to simply pray for their speedy and safe release.  Links to Rochman’s videos can be found in the description of this video. 

Today however, we are focusing on what happened at the kotel, which, to be fair, often sees clashes between egalitarian and ultra-orthodox worshippers.  But when these clashes happen, it has always happened in the main kotel plaza area, where activist groups such as Women of the Wall come to pray on Rosh Chodesh.  Although accosting them is inexcusable, they do expect and prepare to be harassed so that at least the media will continue to pay attention to the cause.  But this attack happened at the south wall, an out-of-the-way place at the kotel intended for egalitarian worship so as not to cause offense.  I was there, personally, back in 2017 celebrating the bar mitzvahs of two of my cousins.  Attacking us here was meant to send a message that it is not good enough that non-orthodox Jews should be banned from praying in accordance with their values at the main kotel plaza, but anywhere and everywhere, and that anyone who does not abide by ultra-orthodox values should be stripped entirely of their Jewish identity and seen as enemies of Judaism.  Here is their message on Israeli news: 

The man (in the video) speaking words of hate, lies and ignorance is the former head of the office of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, an extremist who no longer represents the office of the Chief Rabbi, but is a voice within the ultra-orthodox community who often shows up on Israeli news to defend perceived offenses on the part of some schools of thought within ultra-orthodoxy.  For context, the video showss Rabbi Halbertal back in 2018 commenting on the pride parade in Jerusalem: 

What is also ironic is that this week’s parsha is V’etchanan, which amazingly, is a review session of all that the people of Israel have learned.  We even have a complete rehash of the 10 commandments, the same 10 given at Mount Sinai, way back in the book of Exodus.  “Observe them faithfully”, says Moses, “for that will be the proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples”.  So in the spirit of parshat V’etchanan, shall review with Rabbi Halbertal and his supporters a few important words of Torah that he must have forgotten.

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

Do not hate your brother in your heart.  Reprove him, but incur no guilt because of him.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen.  Love your fellow as you would yourself, I am the Lord.

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה

So said our great teacher Rabbi Akiva, “this is a fundamental principle of the Torah”

I have no further commentary on this.  Eileh Mishpatim, these are Mishpatim – simple, self-evident laws of decency, like do not place a stumbling block before a blind man, or to treat all people equally before the law regardless of wealth or status.

As I prepare this d’var Torah, only hours ago, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, chief rabbi of Har Bracha, a respected voice within the ultra-orthodox community, has spoken out, calling on the authorities in charge of the Western Wall Plaza to accommodate Reform and Conservative prayer groups at the south wall, saying “orthodox and haredi people who adhere to Jewish law and tradition need not be bothered by these groups which come to the Western Wall.  Rather, they should be happy that more of their Jewish brothers and sisters are connecting to the site of the Temple, and more of them want to pray to their Father in Heaven.”  In this statement we see that Rabbi Halbertal’s statement does not represent all orthodox Jews, or even all ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, and that co-existence and mutual tolerance is indeed possible. 

Still, again in the spirit of parshat V’etchanan, on this first Shabbat of consolation following Tisha B’Av, one final reminder to Rabbi Halbertal and his followers… a story they know very well because it is arguably the most well-known Talmudic story of them all, found in Masechet Gittin, 55b.

There was once a Jewish man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.  The man had prepared a feast and asked his servent to invite his friend Kamtza to the event.  Confused over the similar sounding names, the servant mistakingly invited Bar Kamtza.  Upon receiving the invitation Bar Kamtza took it as a gesture of forgiveness, dressed in his finest clothing and came to the feast.  But when the host noticed Bar Kamtza, he demanded that he leave.

Embarrassed, Bar Kamtza asked the host if he could be permitted to stay, and that he would pay for anything he ate or drank.  But the host refused his offer.

“Allow me, then, to stay and I will pay for half of the entire feast,” begged Bar Kamtza, trying to avoid abject embarrassment.  But the host refused the offer.

“Then I will pay for the full cost if you will only not embarrass me further”, pleaded Bar Kamtza. And the host had Bar Kamtza dragged from the feast and thrown into the street.

Bar Kamtza decided then and there to go to the Roman Emperor Nero and slander the host, along with all of the rabbis who did not come to his defense at the feast. 

In an audience before the Emperor, Bar Kamtza exclaimed, “The Jews are plotting a rebellion against his Imperial majesty!  As proof, send a sacrifice to the Temple, and you will see it will be rejected!” 

Together with a delegation of Roman soldiers, Emperor Nero sent a choice calf back with Bar Kamtza to be offered, but along the journey, Bar Kamtza secretly made a blemish on the animal, one that he knew would cause it to be rejected. 

As expected, upon reaching the Temple, the animal was rejected for sacrifice.  Word of the rejection reached the Emperor who became enraged, and so because of the hatred between brothers, Rome began its march on Jerusalem whereupon the House of God was burned, and the Tabernacle destroyed on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av. 

רחנניא בן עקשיא אומר רצה הקב"ה לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצות

The Mishna teaches us that God gave the Jewish people this amazing Torah, this incredibly complicated, difficult Torah filled with rules and obligations not to punish or oppress, but to challenge us, to hold us to a higher standard and dare us to be better than we are.  Rabbi Halbertal, that is real Judaism, and you’re welcome to come join us when you’ve decided to become religious enough. 

Shabbat Shalom

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782