Vaet’hanan and the Lord’s Name

In the Torah portion Vaet’hanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), we read the Ten Commandments, one of them being, “You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD you God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.” (5:11, Jewish Publication Society edition)

This has been translated into “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD in vain,” which has often been a fancy phrase meaning, “No, swearing or cursing,” traditionally meaning “No talking dirty.” So what DOES that mean?

In earlier ages, swearing meant any outburst speaking of God or the Saints, such as for example, “By Saint Peter’s foot!” or “By God’s right hand!” like that. In later centuries, it grew to mean anything related to sex or sex organs; in Victorian times, the simple word “leg” was shocking.

I think that “not using the LORD’s name in vain” actually means “don’t use God’s name as a reason to oppress or rob vulnerable people.” Many times in history, powerful elites have used the Almighty as an excuse for their oppression of others: the theology of John Calvin, which said some people were destined for Heaven and some others for Hell, and their prosperity on Earth would decide where they would go; the pre-Civil War-South, where the southern churches developed an entire theology around White supremacy and the enslavement of African-Americans; Henry Ward Beecher, the great abolitionist preacher, who, during the reign of the corporate “robber barons” of the late 19th Century, preached that God had decided it would be so (;  the religious right movement, which used their idea of “Christianity” to oppress LGBTQ people just trying to live their lives, and women who want to control their own bodies; to the TV evangelists who beg money from their followers to add to their already millionaire lifestyles.

You want bad words? How about those racial insult words that good “Christian” people bandied about, adding to their contempt for those “inferior” people? Or terms of verbal abuse thrown at helpless people, which do as much damage to their psyches as a fist does to their bodies? Words DO have power, and people HAVE been damaged emotionally by such words-you know which ones I mean, because I don’t want to use them.

To me, calling the sexually-oriented “Bad words”-fuck shit ass cock, you know the rest-comes from the traditional sex-phobia that came out of the Victorian era, where descent people didn’t discuss something everyone was doing anyway. Words, and how they’re defined, are powerful; they can be used to tear people down, or raise them up; they’re not just noises out of your mouths, and that ain’t no bullshit.

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Vaet’hanan Part One

Recently we studied the Torah portion Vaet’hanan, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Moses urges the Israelites, before going into the Promised Land, to follow the Commandments of God faithfully, and to pass the Teachings on to future generations (4:5:14). Moses further instructs them to never make any sculpted image to worship as gods, be it a man, woman, or any other creature, or of the Sun, Moon, or planets (4:15-20).

Moses adds that, should the Israelites act wickedly and does worship human-made idols, God would scatter them from the Land and among the nations of the earth; but if they repent of their sins and errors, and turn back to God, God would welcome them back (4:25-31).

In chapter five, Moses proclaims the Laws of God, known as the Ten Commandments. Again, there is the injunction to never make any sculpted image, of any being on earth on in the Heavens, for worship (5:8-10).

In chapter six we read the Shema, the great declaration of our faith: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” (6:4). This is followed by the Ve’ahavta, the injunction to love God with your entire mind, body, and soul, and to abide by the Commandments all through the day,  and to inscribe the Laws of God on our doorposts and on our gates (6:4-9). All of us are to learn the Teachings, laity as well as clergy; the Teachings belong to all of us, and not to be monopolized by a priestly class. (All quotes from the Jewish Publication Society edition of the Torah.)

The Haftorah is Isaiah, 40:1-26. Isaiah tries to explain the greatness of God; Isaiah speaks of God’s greatness and glory, which cannot be measured and is therefore beyond limitation. Again, again, Isaiah attacks the idea of worshiping human-made images to worship-an idol. An idol is a human construction of God a human, therefore limited idea of what God is. People, based on their own human understanding, create idols, of ideas or of stone, to try to understand God, but God is beyond all comprehension.

The Israelites came out of Egypt, called in Hebrew Mitzra’im, the narrow place, the place of limited possibilities. Their gods were sculpted images for worship, static, not evolving, whereas YHVH has no physical form in space or time, and so is beyond limitation. An idol doesn’t need to be a deity; it could be like a hunt for money, fame, power, or some other perceived goal. Plus, an idol is a physical representation of a deity, conceived by human thought and construction, a sculptor’s idea of a deity, a human idea of God, which can be shaped by the cultural ideas of the nation or the interests of rulers.

Idol worship can also mean being in a low spiritual state, of possessing negative traits, and you don’t know of any alternative, you’re in a “narrow place” of limitations. A higher spiritual state of awareness removes such limiting ideas, and God is unlimited. The Shema, the great declaration of our faith, says the LORD is one, undivided, and so all thins and beings are a part of God.

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Torah Portion Emor

This past Shabbat, we studied the Torah portion Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23. This portion tells of the physical and moral standards of the Levites, the tribe dedicated to the priestly duties of the Israelite community, as in verses 21:1-4: “None shall defile himself for any [dead} person among his kin except for the relatives that are closest to him.: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she is not married, for her he may defile himself. But he shall not defile himself as a kinsman by marriage, and so profane himself.” (Coming in contact with blood relatives is identified as “profaning,” why?)
Further, in 21:5, “They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or gashes in their flesh.” In 21:7, “They shall not marry a woman degraded by harlotry, nor shall they marry one divorced from her husband.” In 21:9, “When the daughter of a priest degrades herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she degrades; she shall be put to the fire.” (This is the emphasis on the behavior of the women related to the priest-wife or daughter, not on the male children of the priests.) The ban on shaving their heads or beards must have been a mark of distinction, a badge signifying a member of this special class of men. And, in a patriarchal society, the behavior of the wives and daughters of the priests is reflective of the control men had over women.
Strict moral and physical standards are placed upon the Levites: “He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the LORD’s. He may marry only a woman who is a virgin. (21:12-13) “A widow a divorced woman, or a woman in “harlotry”, a priest could not marry.
Verses 21:17-32 says, “No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God,” such as the blind, the lame, one with a limb too short or too long, or broken limb, or a dwarf, or affected with scurvy, or blind or with crushed testes or a number of other physical defects. What is the basis of this? It could be that, as the priests are to offer to God the finest animals and produce of the land, ones with no defects and blemishes, the priests themselves are offerings to God.


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Parshat Ki-Tissa

This weekend we studied the Torah portion Ki-Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35. God instructs Moses on the making of the basin for the water that Aaron and his sons, the priests, to wash their hands and feet before entering the Mishkin, the traveling tabernacle. The portion also has the ingredients for making the oil for anointing the priests and the posts of the Mishkan, and the ingredients of the incense; could we try to make them using these recipes now?

The Israelites, panicking over Moses being away for so long,   Aaron urges the Israelites to donate their gold to the making of the Golden Calf; this was the same gold they attained from the Egyptians on their way out of Egypt, as a form of reparations for over four decades of slavery. In their panic, they forgot the God who brought forth the miracles of the plagues upon Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea.  Did they think this object they manufactured with their hands was their true God?

And-was Aaron afraid of being killed by the mob? Or was he buying time until Moses came back?

Throughout the Torah, the Israelites complain about their situation and yell, “Let’s go back to Egypt!” to the slavery that they experienced, the only reality they knew, having been slaves for such a long time. Were the Israelites, in making the Golden Calf, hoping to appease the Egyptians by doing this?

It’s happened in domestic violence situations; battered spouses run away from their batterer, then they go back to their abusive partners, hoping they have changed and would not do it again; but the violence starts up again. They needed Moses’ leadership to have faith in God and themselves in making themselves into the nation meant for God’s service.

Parshat Tetzaveh

This weekend we study the Torah portion Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20-30:10. God instructs Moses to appoint his brother Aaron and his sons as priests of the Mishkan, the traveling Temple; God also instructs Moses on the manufacture of the vestments of the priests. “…you shall instruct all who are skillful, who I have endowed with the gift of skill,” (Ex. 27.3) to make the priestly vestments. The kinds of things that God instructs to be placed on the vestments include the color of the yarns, the fabric they are made of, the gems that are set on the vestments, and how each portion of the vestments-breast-piece, headdress, sashes-were to be made, along with how the priests were to be anointed in the consecration ceremony.

To me, this is compatible to the construction of the Mishkan in last week’s Torah portion, Terumah; just as the details of the making of the Mishkan shows the presence of God in the community, so the making of the vestments of the priest, who embodies each individual Jew, shows the presence of God for each person in their daily lives.

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Parshat Terumah

This weekend we studied the Torah portion Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19. God outlines to Moses the plans for the construction of the Mishkan, the traveling tabernacle the Israelites carried while in the wilderness. God, the Ruler of the Universe, dictates the elements of the construction of the Mishkan-the cloth it’s made of, the setting of the jewelry, the fixing of the poles for setting up. This shows God intervening in the concrete affairs of humans.

This work requires the efforts of the entire community and its skills-stonemasons, carpenters, weavers, tailors, etc.; in fact, it symbolized and embodied the community, showing that each person, and each class in the community, has a role to play in the community’s development. 


I have been reading the current Torah portion, Shelah-Lacha, Numbers 13:1-15:41. this has always been my favorite, because it deals with such issues as self-esteem and self-respect, issues I’ve dealt with for a lifetime.

God orders Moses to “send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people.” There was to be one man from each of the Israelite tribes, men of respect in each tribes, to examine the state of the land-is it fertile, are the people there strong or weak, are the cities fortified?  Mosses sends these instructions to the twelve spies, two of them being Caleb, from the House of Judah and Hosea, from the House of Ephraim. (Moses changed the name of Hosea to Joshua, why?)

The spies receive their instructions, and go into the land for forty days. They scout the wilderness from Zin to Rehob, and in to the Negev and through Hebron, to the wadi Eshcol; they cut down a huge cluster of grapes, which they had to carry on a wooden beam. After the forty days, the spies return to the Israelite camp, and report, the does indeed flow with milk and honey, bu the people there are powerful, and the cities are fortified.”

Caleb insisted “We can take them on, we can beat them and take the land!” But only Joshua and Caleb were positive about the outcome, and the majority of the spies said, “we can’t attack these people they’re stronger than we are,” adding-this is the most important part-“we looked like grasshopper to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

The Israelites panicked, and rioted against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites scream, “If only we died in Egypt! Let’s go back to Egypt!” Here is their low self-image: the spies, leaders of the people, said their own people looked like grasshoppers, little crawling insects, to their., the leaders’ eyes, and they projected that low self-image as emanating from the people in the land. (That is projection: “I don’t like myself, and so neither does anyone else.”) The spies tell the people that they were grasshoppers compared o the people of the land, instead of trying to boost their self-image, which obviously was at bottom due to being enslaved in Egypt and forced into a slave mentality of feeling inferior.

God threatens to wipe the Israelite nation out due to their disobedience, but Moses tells God, “When the Egyptians, who whose midst you brought these people out, hear of this, they will say that God is powerless to bring these people into the land which he promised them.”  Moses pleads with God to forgive the people, but God says that none of the people of the generation of slavery would enter the land, except for Caleb and Joshua. the entire Israelite nation would remain out of the land for forty years, for each one of the days the scouts reconnoitered the land. How often do our fears and self-limitations keep us from attaining out own “promised land,” the fulfillment of the best we all could be?

The Haforah for the portion is Joshua, second chapter, where he orders a duo of spies to scout out the city of Jericho. the spies enter the house of the harlot Rahab, right on the wall of Jericho. Rahab hides the spies in her house, and the king’s soldiers ask her if she saw them; she tells the soldiers, “The men left, I don’t know where they are, go after them.” Rahab tells the spies, “I know the LORD has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. e heard of how the LORD has dried up the Sea of reeds for you when you left Egypt,  and what you did to the two Amorite kings.” Rahab, the harlot, knows that God is the only God of Heaven and Earth, and she helps the spies escape over the city walls. (A woman who we would look down on in this day was the hero of the story.)

Have you ever heard the line, “I didn’t know my own strength?”  Do we really know how strong and capable we are? Have we been brainwashed into thinking we are helpless and powerless in changing our predicament? Lord knows I’ve had those feeling lot of times, but I’m resisting them, and finding my strength. I urge you to do the same.

The High Holy Days

The High Holy Days-Rosh haShona and Yom Kippur-are almost upon us. this is the time when we are called to look at our lives, look at how we behaved in the past year, noted where we dome well as people, and where we need to improve.

this is the time to put our mistakes and errors of the past year behind us, and to forgive ourselves of them, and know we can be better people. To any person I may have offended, I ask your forgiveness; and to all who have offended me, I forgive them.

One practice I have is my Resolutions for Rosh HaShona, like the resolutions I write also for the New Year-and for my birthday and Pesach. Here they are:

I will continue conduct myself with self-live, self-esteem, and self respect. I will not be bound by errors of the past, but continue to improve as a person, to think positively about myself and my life, and challenge negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.

I will continue such spiritual practices as Torah study, yoga, affirmations, meditation, etc.

I will continue my art and business as a writer, seeking journals, attending writing events, practicing writing, etc. I will continue my activism for my various social and political causes.

I will continue to be loyal to Jewish relation, culture, history, Israel, etc.


We recently studied the Torah portion Shelah-Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15-41. this is the portion where Moses orders the spies, men respected in the community, “one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them,” (13:2) to scout out the territory of the Promised Land, to examine the people and produce therein, and give a full report on what they find. (13:17-20)

For forty days, the spies surveyed the terrain, taking with them a huge cluster of grapes they carry on a wooden beam (the logo for the municipality of Jerusalem) and report back to Moses. (13:21-24)

The spies report that the land is indeed fertile; but, say the spies, “the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large” (13:25-29). Except for two of them-Caleb and Joshua- the spies say, “we cannot attack these people, for they are stronger than we are,” and they add, “we looked like grasshoppers, to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.” (13-25-33) The Israelites, hearing this report, go into hysterics and cry, “We should have stayed in Egypt! Let’s go back to Egypt!” (14:1-4) But the two dissenting spies, Caleb and Joshua, insist, “the land we have traversed is an exceedingly good land. If the LORD is pleased with us, He will being us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (14:6-10)

God gets ready to wipe out the entire population for their lack of faith, but Moses pleads with GOD to pardon the iniquity of the Israelites. God does not eliminate the population, but for their lack of faith they are to stay, for forty more years, in the wilderness and are not allowed to enter the Land. (14:11-25)

This portion deals with issues I’ve dealt with forever-of self-esteem and self-confidence. The spies are leaders of the tribes, men of respect, and so the people paid attention to what they said in their report. The spies say that they people don’t have it in them to take on the tribes inhabiting the Land; the spies themselves say “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we looked like that to them,” projecting the low self-image the spies have of themselves. the spies, the leaders of the people, had no self-confidence in themselves or their people. The leaders of the tribes saw  themselves as little crawly insects to be stepped upon. If the “leaders” of the people were so lowly, how much more so the rank-and-file Israelites? To me, these “leaders,” except for Joshua and Caleb, were mis-leaders, destroying the self-esteem and self-worth of the people.

How often have we had some person we have been taught to respect-a parent or a teacher, any authority figure-tell us we’re too damn stupid to make a difference of to attain any goal we have for ourselves? For me, as for others, it was hundreds of times.

Contrast this to the Haftorah portion, the second chapter of Joshua, where Joshua orders spies to infiltrate the city of Jericho, to see how well protected they are. The sex worker Rahab tell the spies how terrified the people of the city are of the Israelites; word of the power of God has reached the people of Jericho.  thus the Israelites did not know their own strength or ability. (Plus, a sex worker, Rahab, someone society teaches us to look down upon, is the hero of this piece.)

We are constantly told of our failings, but do we really know our strengths, our powers? Let us constantly keep looking into ourselves for our power.

Parshat Vayera

The current Torah portion is Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24. Abraham sits in his tent in Mamre, and he sees the three men-angels coming, and he rushes over to greet them. He is anxious to provide hospitality to them, running to tell everyone to prepare food for the guests. One of the men tells Abraham that he and Sarah would soon have a son; Sarah laughs at that idea-becoming a mother at ninety! That happens sometimes, wishing for a good thing to happen to you, but you don’t believe it would come, and you laugh at it. Abraham confronts Sarah for laughing; Sarah denies laughing, lying-she feels guilty- and Abraham says “Yes you did laugh.” It’s like she knows she did something wrong-was it not having faith in God, like Abraham did? (18:1-15)

The three visitors go off to Sodom; God tells Abraham that he planned to destroy the wicked city of Sodom and Gomorrah; Abraham pleads with God to spare the two cities from destruction, is there are a certain number of righteous people in the city-first fifty, then forty-five, forty, then finally all the way down to ten righteous people. Abraham acts like, “Please LORD, be patient with me,” as he tries to bargain with God; God allows His/Her self to be   persuaded by Abraham, apparently not anxious to carry out the plan. (18:16-33)

The two angels-what happened to the third one?-arrived at Sodom, and Lot welcomes them into this house, with the same hospitality Abraham displayed to them. All of a sudden, the men of Sodom crowd in front of Lot’s house, wanting to “be intimate” with the two visitors; why were they so excited by them? What was it about them? Lot pleads with the men not to harm the visitors, and offers his own daughters for them to do what they want with them-his own children were expendable! The men of Sodom got closer, and the visitors grabbed Lot and drug him back inside the house. What was the real sin of the men of Sodom-hatred of outsiders, of “the other,” like in the discussion about undocumented immigrants today? (19:1-11)

The visitors, now known as angels, urge Lot to take his family and evacuate the city, since the LORD was going to destroy it. His sons-in-law didn’t take the warnings seriously, and the angels drag Lot, his wife, and his two daughters outside the city, warning them not to look back. Fire rains down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot’s wife does look back and turns into a pillar of salt; she looked back at the past, not the future, being frozen in the past, a form of being emotionally paralyzed. (19:12-26)

Chapter 21 deals with the birth of Isaac, which the angel-visitors promised to Sarah, even though she laughed at the idea. Sarah, seeing Hagar and Ishmael, demands that Abraham take the two of them out of the household; God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says, saying, “…it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. As for the son of the slave woman (Hagar), I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.” (21:12-13) Going into the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, Hagar and Ishmael run out of water; Hagar places Ishmael under a tree and breaks down crying, thinking “let me not look on as the child dies.” God hears Hagar crying, and tells her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy  where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a well of water. (21:14-21)

Sometimes, due to circumstances, we have no choice but to make some change in our lives, such as, like Hagar and Ishmael, leaving a  bad but familiar domestic situation and striking out on your own. There would be rinks along the way, such as Hagar running out of water, and then you fall into despair; God, however, reassures Hagar that a great future lies in store for Ishmael, who is the legendary father of the Arab peoples.

Chapter 22 is one of the most frightening parts of the Torah, the binding of Isaac, where Abraham, hears God telling him to sacrifice his son, who was to be his heir. Along the way, Isaac asks his father about the sacrificial animal, and Abraham replies, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” (22:1-8) Isaac must have thought, “what’s going on here, where’s the lamb to be sacrificed?” And what was Abraham thinking, getting ready to make a burnt offering of his own flesh and blood? History is full of people who are ready to have their own children killed, or other wise find expendable, for the sake of some belief-I see a parallel to Lot offering his daughters to the howling mobs in Sodom to be raped.