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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Notes on Torah Portion Bereshith

Recently we studied the Torah portion Bereshith, Genesis 1:1-6:8. This portion is about the origin of the Universe, in a spiritual interpretation. In 1:26, God says, “Let us make Man in Our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on Earth. And God created Man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”

“Let us make Man in OUR image” – plural. God is One, so why the plural?

“…in Our image…” What is the image of God? A reflection of God, if not God Him/Herself? Are we to be part of God in the world?

God assigns Man dominion over the creatures of the Earth; this does not imply that Man can do whatever he wants to the Earth. Man, being a reflection of the image of God, is to do God’s work on the Earth.

“…male and female he created them.” This is one of the stories of the beginning of male and female in this portion.

God has given Man every plant and fruit, and every animal therein. The plant and animal life of the earth is a gift of God, for all.

2:1-7-God rests of the seventh day. God forms Man from the dust of the Earth (material substance), and “blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and Man became a living being.” The “breath of life” must refer to the soul, in Hebrew Neshamah; without it, the body is dead material. the soul is a portion of God; God has placed a portion of himself inside each human being, to do His work on Earth. Humans are not at all separate from God.

2:18-God tries to find for Man a compatible companion. God brings out all the animals, and Man names each species; this signals further man’s supervision of the earth on behalf of God. God forms Woman from Man; Man and Woman are made of the same material, physical and spiritual. They are opposite each other, and still compatible and complementary-both are equally necessary. (This is also a different story of the origin of Male and Female in chapter one.)

“The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame.” What does “nakedness” mean here? This is what led to the idea of the naked human body as being “sinful” and “shameful.”

Chapter 4-After Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden, the give birth to Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a sheppard; each of them presents an offering to God, and God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. What was wrong with Cain’s offering?

God tell Cain (4:6-7) If you do right, there is uplift; but if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, but you can be its master.” God doesn’t wat a perfunctory offering or ritual; He wants us to live and act righteously in the world, and to control the negative inclinations we have.

4:8-Out in the field, Cain kills Abel-out of jealousy for God accepting his offering? Is Abel not willing to follow any sort of spiritual discipline?

4:9-God call out to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” It’s more like a challenge to Cain than a question. Cain says, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the challenge we face to this day-what are the responsibilities we have to each other’s welfare?

Chapter 6-“The divine beings” come to earth and take the daughters of Men as wives; they are called “Nephilim;” is there any literature about the “Nephilim?”

These are speculations and questions on my part, I have no answers.

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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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Torah Portion Vaet’hanan

This past Shabbat we studied the Torah portion Vaet’hana, Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11. Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell address to the Israelite people before they enter the Promised Land. Part of this portion is known as the Ten Commandments.

4:15-20; God, through Moses, tells the people to not make a sculpted image for a human or any other creature to worship; neither are they to worship the Sun, Moon, or stars.In 5:8-10, again, Moses emphasizes not making any sculpted image of any living being to worship, and to not worship the Sun, Moon, or stars.

The Haftorah is in Isaiah chapter 40. In this, Isaiah ties to explain the mercy, compassion, and greatness of God; Isaiah also speaks of the folly of idolatry-human beings trying to construct, with a sculpture or idea, any idea about God. An idol is a human construction of God, by a statue or a theory, is a way the constructor understands. Idolatry is based upon individual perception and social-cultural conditioning, based on whatever the society or individual values or fears.

God is beyond all comprehension and understanding. ; we humans see the world in a limited sense, from our minds, our experience, and from our society’s conditioning, while God is beyond all comprehension.

Parshat Shelah-Lecha

We have recently studied the Torah portion Shelah-Lecha, Numbers 13:1-15-41. God tells Moses to send a team of spies to scout out the Land that was promised to the Israelites; these are to be leading men from each of the twelve tribes, men of respect in their communities, hat the people look up to.  Moses gives them their orders to scout the land: “What kind of country is this? Are the inhabitants strong or weak?  Are the cities open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor?” Moses also asks for samples of the fruit of the land.

For forty days, the spies examine the land, picking up a huge cluster of grapes that they have to carry on a wooden beam. They return from their mission and tell Moses, “It is indeed an abundant land, but the cities are fortified,” and they speak of the various nationalities occupying the land. They continue, “We can’t attack these people, they’re stronger than we are,” and they claim to see the Nephilim, a race of beings mentioned in the sixth book of Genesis, “divine beings (who) cohabited with the daughters of men (Genesis 6:4).” The spies concluded, “(W)e looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

Two of the spies, Joshua of the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb of the tribe of Judah, insist that, if they maintain their faith in God, the Israelites definitely can take on and beat the inhabitants, and bring them to the abundant land; but the Israelites, listening to their leaders, the men they trust, fall into a panic, crying, “If only we died in Egypt! Let’s go back to Egypt!”

Moses pleads with God to tur His wrath away from the people, who lost faith in Him and in themselves. God agrees, but as punishment, the Israelites would remain in exile for another forty years, until the generation that experienced slavery-and the slave mentality it engendered-dies; the exceptions would be Caleb and Joshua, the two spies who have faith they could take the land.

The next day, the Israelites prepare for battle against the inhabitants of the land, and Moses warns them not to; “The Lord is not in your midst…the Lord would not be with you.” The Israelites engage in battle and the inhabitants defeat them.

The spies are leaders of their tribes, men the community trusts and listens to; they come back and tell the people, “We’re inferior to the people we’re up against, we’re little crawling insects compared to them.” THIS is what the leaders of the community tell them; but two of the leaders, Caleb and Joshua, say, “Yes, we CAN beat them and take the land!”  How many times have kids been told by adults they respect, parents, teachers, what have you, that you’re incapable of anything, you’re no good, you’re stupid, you’re useless? How many adults have told kids this stuff?

The Israelites go into a panic and scream to go back to Egypt, the land of their slavery and oppression; it’s no different from a battered spouse staying with their abuser, since they’re not confident in themselves in being out into the world away from their abuser. For their lack of faith in God and in themselves, the Israelites could not, would not enter the land of milk and honey that God promised their ancestors, the realm of prosperity and well-being. Ow often has our self-confidence prevented us from fulfilling our goals and dreams?

When the Israelites go into battle-after saying they could not take on the inhabitants and wanting to go back into Egypt-they are defeated; they went in, knowing they would be beaten, they only go through the motions; this has happened many times, when you know a project you’re compelled to do is going to fail.

The Haftorah portion is in Joshua, the second chapter; Joshua orders a team of spies to surveil the city of Jericho. The spies hide out in the home of the harlot Rahab, which is right on the city gates. Rahab tells the spies that the people of the city of terrified of the Israelites and for all that God has done for them-all the victories God has brought about for them. The spies tell Rahab to bring her whole family together into the house, and run a red cord on the window, as a sign of their safety-as long as she keeps their mission a secret.

A harlot, a woman supposedly looked down upon, is the hero of this story, protecting the Israelite spies and telling them of their power over their enemies. The cliché, “I didn’t know my own strength” comes to mind. Do we really know how powerful and strong we truly are?  How could we ever know? This portion deals with issues of self-image and self-esteem, which I have been working on all my life and that is why this is my favorite.



We are now on the Torah portion Behaalotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16.

8:5-22; God instructs Moses on the ritual for consecrating the Levites as the priestly tribe-the washing of the clothes, the laying on of hands by the Israelites, the sacrificing of the bulls. God selects the Levites, instead of taking the first born, for performing the rites at the Mishkan.

8:23-26; God tells Moses that the Levites would begin their service at the Mishkan at age 25, and retire at age 50 and serve as a sort of ‘honor guard” at the Mishkan. A new generation must be developed to take over after the older generation, but the older people must be on hand to advise the youngsters. (Youth and age each have their virtues; it’s not either-or.)

11:1-9; the Israelites complain to Moses about not having any meat to eat, but having nothing bot the manna; they talk about the vast array of food they had when they were slaves in Egypt. (this is one of the times they show a lack of faith in themselves, believing they can’t handle being a free people; also, the idea of nostalgia comes up, the glorifying the “good old days” whenever there are difficulties in the present. The liberation of Israel from bondage was a revolution, a serious social upheaval, and such events create a beautiful picture of the old regime, which does not match reality.)

11:10-25; Moses gets upset with all the complaining he hears from the people, crying “I can’t take care of all these people!” God tells Moses to assemble 70 of the Israelite elders, experienced leaders, so that God;s spirit would descend upon them and share Moses’ burden of leadership. (This shows that one individual, no mater how talented and gifted, cannot do everything in running a tribe or an organization; they need other talented people to help them with leading the tribe or other body.)

11:26-30; Two lay Israelite, Eldad and Medad, have the spirit of God in them, and they “spoke in ecstasy.” Joshua urges Moses to make them stop, but Moses says, “would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them.” God, spiritual development, and participation in any body, is the right and responsibility of all of the community, not just an elite.

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.