These weeks, as a nation, as Jews, we are sad, mournful even. Though we had just concluded the Book of Bamidbar and chanted together “Chazak, chazak venitchazek!” (Strong, strong, let us be strengthened!), we don’t feel well at the moment. How could we? We are now in the three weeks between Shiva Asar be’Tammuz and Tisha Av, the most painful period of the Jewish year, the time when we remember countless tragedies that befell our nation.

It’s true that some of these tragedies are possibly only post-facto linked to this time of the year, but some are well documented as to their exact dates: the first crusade, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, France and England in the Middle Ages, the Destruction of the two Temples, as well as more modern events such as the Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center bombing in 1994 which killed 85 and injured 300, or the beginning of the Gaza disengagement in 2005 — they all seemed to have “conglomerated” during these few weeks, during the first couple of weeks of the month of Av.

To make matters even more serious, we just passed from the three-weeks into the nine-days, as yesterday, Friday, was Rosh Chodesh Menachem Av. We are now officially in a period of time when Jewish law prohibits many comforts, such as making purchases of new clothes, eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat), swimming and bathing for pleasure, home improvements, fun activities and many others.

As a nation, we are sad and frustrated. We ask G-d why. Why is our exile so long? Why is our Temple still unbuilt? Why isn’t G-d’s realm established on earth, as the old prophecies tell us? We wonder what we did to deserve all that, two thousand years without what we cherished most. We look back on our history and we can’t help but feeling overwhelmed at the long list of calamities that seems to have been part of our national destiny since time immemorial. We read in shul what Jewish tradition calls t’lata de’puranyiuta, the three Haftarahs of misfortune. And we think.

This week’s Haftarah is taken from the book of Jeremiah, who was dubbed by a work published in England in 1993 “the weeping prophet”. Yeremyiahu (Jeremiah) is almost synonymous with suffering, having witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the biggest calamity of the Jewish nation, and having subsequently authored the famous Eicha, the Book of Lamentations which is read on Tisha Be’Av.

It is indeed no surprise that Jeremiah invokes in his message images of frustration, sadness and pain. But if we look more closely into the Haftarah, the part that’s striking is not the action, but the subject. In this week’s Haftarah, it isn’t us, the Jewish people who are suffering. It is G-d Himself!

כה אמר ה’ מה מצאו אבותיכם בי אול — Thus said Hashem: “What iniquity did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me and went after nothingness, and have turned into nothingness? They did not say: Where is Hashem, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of plain and pit, in a land of waste and the shadow of death, in a land through which no man has passed and where no man has settled.? Yet I brought you to a fruitful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you came, you contaminated My land, and made My heritage into an abomination.” — Jeremiah 2:4-6

That is not anger. It is not wrath. It is not the desire to punish or exact revenge. It is pain, suffering, frustration, and a deep and consuming desire to understand. What happened? asks G-d. What went wrong? Where did I do wrong? How did it come to that?

The idea that G-d is not just upset with people, but also pained by the need to punish them is not new. In a famous vignette in the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan talks about the moment the Sea of Reeds split to allow the Jewish nation to pass through during the Exodus from Egypt. After the Jews crossed, the sea returned its waves upon the pursuing Egyptians. It was at this time that — according to tradition — the Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea, was sung by the children of Israel. And it was also then — Rabbi Yochanan points out — that the ministering angels wanted to join in the singing, to exalt G-d for the miracles He performed. The Talmud records G-d’s harsh reply to the angels: 

מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה — The work of My hands, [the Egyptians], are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing Me songs? — Talmud, Meggilah 10b

Whether we understand it fully or not, G-d seems to be in sync with our pain. When we suffer, He suffers. Unlike the gods of old, the pagan, Greek or Roman deities who rejoiced in the pain and misery of mortals, sometimes to the point of pure cruelty, G-d has empathy and love. Even when people deserve to be punished — as was the case of the Egyptians, who had enslaved G-d’s people for generations, and were bent on their utter destruction — G-d punishes with a crying heart. As the Talmud concludes in tractate Megillah: G-d does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked.

But there is more in this week’s Haftarah, because it’s not just G-d’s pain we experience here, but also, as I mentioned, His frustration and desire to understand. What went wrong? Why?

At first glance, these are human, not godly emotions. If we look in all the annals of religious history, deities don’t have these thoughts, they don’t experience these feelings. Deities judge, they rule, they desire and take, they make the rules and then enforce them. At best, they reward the righteous and punish the wicked. To encounter G-d in such a state of mind, so to speak, seemingly borders on blasphemy. Because G-d cannot show weakness, right? G-d cannot cry. Nothing affects Him. He cannot have a heavy heart, because everything is perfect in His high heavens.

Yet G-d doesn’t shy away from these feelings. Moreover, He also chooses to share them with us in the words of the prophet. He talks to us about His pain. He almost shows us His tears. If we read the Haftarah carefully, we discover that every verse is filled with this kind of discourse: frustration at the present state of things, a deep need to understand, and a desire to find a solution to the problems, to make them go away.

It isn’t a coincidence that throughout the Haftarah, G-d is not referred by the name Elokim, the name of judgement and rebuke, but rather by the name Hashem, a Name that symbolizes love and kindness. כה אמר ה’ — This is what Hashem said. I love you. I want us to be friends again. I am a parent to you, not a distant judge, not an executioner, not a dictator. I treated you kindly when you were innocent, a downtrodden nation in the grips of Egypt, and I will treat you kindly again, even after you scorned My love and went astray from My path.

And why is that so? Because I believe you can come back. Because only by feeling your pain when punishment hits, I can remain close by afterwards as well, waiting for you to recover, and taking you back into My loving arms.

The Haftarah we read this week is not merely a warning or a rebuke. This is what prophets usually deliver in their message to the people, but this Haftarah is different. By sharing his feelings with us, G-d sets the tone for the healing process to start. He is telling us that in order to make peace, we need to work together. We need to understand each other, to understand where each of us is coming from, to feel each other’s pain, and to make a commitment to continue the journey together.

When things look grim and frustration and pain become overwhelming, G-d’s simple answer is: open up. Do share your pain. Talk about it. Identify it and own it. Own your mistakes. Ask yourself: have I done something wrong? Could I have done better? Could things be different, better, from now on? These are questions every psychologist will encourage you to ask yourself when dealing with pain or frustration. These are questions couples’ therapy promotes as staples, must-haves, for mending relationships. But this time, the questions don’t come from a human mouth; they come from G-d who, in this week’s Haftarah, undergoes therapy with us.

As humans, we are conditioned to believe that the lines between heaven and earth are definitive and unyielding. They cannot be blurred, they cannot be erased. The stories of the Bible reinforce that idea. Take the story of the Tower of Babel, for example, when people try to “build a tower with its top in the heavens”. The result and moral of the story is clear: don’t try this at home. G-d comes down and scatters the builders upon the face of the earth, their languages mixed and confused. Never again will humans try to cross the boundaries towards heaven, G-d’s domain. As the Psalm puts it: השמים שמיים לה’ והארץ נתן לבני אדם — “heavens are for G-d, and earth was given to mankind”.

But this week’s Haftarah qualifies that idea. We can, after all, cross into G-d’s domain. We just need to be invited, and to cross with the proper intent. Unlike the builders of Babel, this week we cross not to challenge G-d, but to share in His pain, to help Him understand, and to work together towards a resolution of the conflict. In one of his books, talking about the conflict between Jews and Arabs, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put forth the following idea:

Peace is a duet, not a solo. It cannot be made by one side alone. If it could, it would have been made a long time ago.

The same is true for peace between G-d and mankind. Both sides need to work hard to achieve it. We pray to G-d and share our pain, desires and ideals. In turn, He gives us a glimpse into His mind, and teaches us that it is ok to be frustrated and sad. You just have to figure out what to do with those feelings.

In Sefer Devarim, at the beginning of parshat Haazinu, the Torah describes G-d as follows:

הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּֽעֳל֔וֹ כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט אֵ֤-ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא — The Rock!, perfect is His work, for all His paths are justice, a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He. — Deuteronomy 32:4

אין אול — Ein avel, “without iniquity”, G-d is called in that verse. But in this week’s Haftarah, the very same G-d, the One and Only, asks Himself מה מצאו אבותיכם בי אול (“ma matzu avoteichem bi avel”) — “What iniquity did your forefathers find in Me”? He knows very well the answer to the question — He is indeed perfect, after all — but He asks the question nevertheless: “What iniquity can be found in Me?” Maybe I need to do teshuvah? Maybe I need to show you through this how to start your own teshuvah?

In a majestic explanation on the verse in Devarim, Rashi explains that “ein avel” alludes to G-d’s ability to repay even the wicked for their good deeds. No good deed goes unpunished, says the proverb sarcastically. G-d has a better idea: “No good deed goes unrewarded!” Even when the world isn’t fair, G-d is. And it is this fairness, this pure desire to see good everywhere and reward it, that has G-d frustrated in this week’s Haftarah. It is this attribute of G-d that deeply needs to understand how all His miracles, all His acts of kindness toward the Jewish nation have been ignored, as people went astray from the path. It is this that creates all the frustration.

But in letting this frustration show in the words of the prophet, G-d also sets the tone for teshuvah. In sharing His frustration with the behavior of the Jews, G-d is prompting us to react: to cry, to pray, to change, to atone, to ask forgiveness. Something. In a nutshell, this Haftarah is the equivalent of G-d’s question to Adam in the Garden of Eden: איכה (“ayeka”) — “Where are you?” Don’t hide. Don’t run. I want to understand you. I want to forgive you. I want to help you change, help you become better.

It is not coincidental — I believe — that the name of the book we read on Tisha Be’Av, at the culmination of t’lata de puranyiuta, the three weeks and the nine days, is מגילת איכה. Commonly known as the Lamentations, the Hebrew name of the book, taken from its first verse, is a call for peace and the resolution of conflict. איכה doesn’t just mean “Oy, vey”, it also means “How?” How do we solve this? How do we go forth from here? How do we fix our relationship? Ayeka? Where are you? How can I help you come back?

It is this call, this conversation, this sense of sharing that transcends worlds and boundaries between them, that has maintained us as individuals and as a people throughout history. It is this willingness on G-d’s part to open His heart and pour out His soul to us, in the hope that we will reciprocate. It is this process and this dialogue that starts the healing, that contains — ממעמקים, in the midst of pain — the seeds of healing. השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם we say at the end of Eicha. “Bring us back, G-d, and we will return, renew our days like those of old.” May it be G-d’s will that all our sorrows be removed, that all our pains be alleviated, and may we find our path back into G-d’s embrace, in consolation and in perfect faith, bimheira beyameinu!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Matot-Masei  | Shabbat, August 3, 2019



Shabbat Shalom everyone.

One of the conversations I recall having with my father way back when was about people’s fascination, even obsession, with bad things. As a kid, I remember that whenever I did something good (an A in school or helping my mom in the kitchen), my parents would tell me “good job”, and that was that. That was my mitzvah note. Short and to the point.

But when I did something bad… oh my! There was at the very least a long speech from my mom or dad, at worst some privilege removed or a couple days of strained relations. Why did you do it? Don’t you ever think about the consequences? How many times have I told you to be more careful? Etc. I’m sure parents and even grandparents in the room can relate to that.

So, the question I had for my father back then was: Why are adults so focused on the bad things, while ignoring or glossing over the good so easily? (more…)

Parshat Vayechi 5779

This d’var Torah is in memory of Shimon ben Feivel v’Frumah HaCohen Z”L

Picture if you will, Joseph and his boys rush in to see his dying father. He seats his boys to be blessed by Yakov with Menashe, the older one, to his right, and Ephrayim, the younger one, at his left. Then Yakov crosses his arms.

Yosef impatiently yells out, “The older one is on the right”.

There’s an urgency and impatience to Joseph’s tone.

Yakov corrects his son, “I know, but the younger one will be greater than the older one”.

This seems to be a dominant thread throughout the book of Breishit; most of the family dynamics in this book include the younger child surpassing the older one, leading to disastrous results.

Throughout this entire exchange, the boys are silent.

Many commentaries extol the beauty of the book’s first siblings that we encounter without sibling-rivalry, having Menashe being so proud of his brother and his eventual accomplishments. When we bless our sons to be like Ephrayim and Menashe, we want children to get along just like these brothers.

Instead, I want to offer an added dimension to this exchange. They were silent because of the love, respect and patience they had for their blessed grandfather.

In the later years of my grandfather’s life, he suffered from dementia, and there were times that he was confused. He thought my brother-in-law was his late son; there were days he thought I was my late mother. Rather than losing patience and angrily correcting him, we let him do things his way. I remember a time before dementia. A grandfather who gave me anything I ‘needed’. A grandfather who brought me to Cirque du Soleil with him. A grandfather who gave me countless rides around the city and took me every morning to say kaddish when my mother, his daughter, passed away.  A grandfather who had endless love, respect and patience for me and his other grandchildren. That is why when he made mistakes, we did not jump to correct and embarrass him, but we took it in stride. That is why I felt the need to say kaddish for him this year and write this d’var torah to keep his memory alive, and where he remains today, always close to my heart.

GENDER EQUALITY (Pinchas 5778)

Shabbat Shalom! Earlier this week, when I prepared the words of Torah that I am about to share with you, I had no idea that I will need to preface them with a sad dedication. As you all know, on Shabbat, we are prohibited from delivering eulogies. But I would like to nevertheless dedicate this drasha and the learning we are about to embark on together to the memory of a very dear friend who left us just a few days ago, Mr. Bernat Moldovan z”l. May his memory continue to be an inspiration and a blessing to all those who knew him, and may his soul be forever bound in the Bond of Eternal Life!

* * *

A couple weeks ago, as Quebec was celebrating Fête Nationale, many miles away, in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, a historic event was taking place. A peculiar ban was finally lifted. For the very first time ever, women in Saudi Arabia were saved the obligation to hire a man to drive them wherever they needed to go, and were instead allowed to get behind the wheel of a car and drive themselves there.

”This is surreal. Am I really driving in my own country? I feel happy, relieved. I feel like I’m free”, said Mona Al-Fares, a doctor, who got in her car even before midnight on June 24, waiting for the decades-long ban to lift.

“It’s a remarkable historical moment and I wish the entire world would be here to witness it”, said another woman, Baheirah Khusheim, age 33, who drove her car that night on the very same route she had illegally taken alongside her late father 15 years prior, at that time disguised in her brother’s clothing to avoid being arrested.

Historic indeed. Women took selfies and celebrated publicly. The press was cheering. The civil rights groups were ecstatic. Voices of support and encouragement were heard everywhere. To be sure, there were also plenty of sceptics, as well as people who pointed out that the lifting of the driving ban was really just a drop in an ocean of inequality, discrimination and human rights violations that still exist in that part of the world, an ocean too vast to cross and too deep to swim in. And, surely, “the entire world” would likely not take Baheirah up on her offer to join her in Saudi Arabia in celebration.

In any case, one thing is clear: Saudi Arabia is but one place in the world where gender inequality still exists today – maybe one of the worst, but certainly not the only one. We are far from an ideal society, that’s for sure. Yes, we know, Canada’s cabinet is nowadays gender equal, “because it’s 2015” as our Prime-Minister pointed out a while back, but the process is still slow and difficult. And when we look at the scale of history, the picture is even grimmer.

It is true that in the past century or so women’s rights everywhere took a turn for the better. But that turn is pretty much just that: a purely modern phenomenon. For most of the world’s recorded history, a great disparity existed between men and women, and their respective rights in society. In fact, in the last hundred years, women’s rights have increased more than in the previous three thousand years combined. Women’s right to vote, to be elected, to own property, to work, to choose a spouse, to divorce, to relocate, to be free of domestic violence – and the list could go on – all these are relatively modern inventions. The United Kingdom started allowing women to vote in 1869. The United States in the 1880s. Canada in 1921. France in 1945. Many countries in South America and Africa as late as the 1960s or even the 1980s. And Saudi Arabia (again) only in… believe it or not… 2015!

For thousands of years, women’s rights were very basic, if any. Also, women had primarily a domestic role, being relegated to the home and the family, while men dealt with politics, war, economy, finances and pretty much everything else in society.

Now, it’s easy (and fairly tempting) to criticize history. It’s easy to look through modern lenses and to deplore past societies’ lack of… well, modern values. But that is exactly the key: modernity. Criticizing the past is often an exercise doomed to fail, because societies must be judged primarily by the standards of their own time, and not by standards that might potentially emerge in the future.

But there is one notable exception even by historical norms: Judaism.

Analysed through modern or Biblical lenses, Judaism is a very progressive religion, well beyond its time. The Torah and Talmud contain many examples to prove this. In societies where children had no rights, women had no rights, slaves had no rights, strangers had no rights etc. – the Torah and the Rabbis created rights for all people. The categories above were not only mentioned en passant, but explicitly listed. Do not oppress the stranger. Protect the widow and the orphan. Allow your slave to rest on Shabbat. Respect the property of others. Value family life. Take care of your spouse and children. Don’t take advantage of others. Don’t hit your fellow man. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Do not be cruel. Life is sacred. Human dignity is paramount. Every man or woman is created in the image of G-d, and because of that we are all worthy of respect and appreciation.

Our Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, contains a such example, which it takes one step further. Fairly hidden among tribe genealogies, Joshua’s appointment and laws regarding offerings, there is an episode which brings with it a plethora of concepts, values, guidelines and perspectives about equality and rights. Here are the verses:

The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family — son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph — came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said: “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of Korah’s group, which banded together against G-d, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among the family because he had no son? Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Moses brought their case before G-d. And G-d said to Moses: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak properly: 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. If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own tribe, and they shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with G-d’s command to Moses.” — Numbers 27:1-11

Let’s learn about this together!

At first glance, the women’s request is simple: give us our father’s inheritance. But that is not the only message here, as we are about to discover.

Let’s begin with a surprising idea. A modern commentator, Rabbi Gil Student, founder and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings, points out that this paragraph might actually be not even be about women’s rights. The daughters talk about their father and then use the phrase למה יגרע – literally “Why should he lose out?”, “Why should his name be omitted?” So the paragraph might not be so much about women’s rights, but rather about the rights of certain men with a particular family situation. Nevertheless — directly or indirectly — the daughters do get the inheritance, which is a novelty for the standards of the time.

The second idea comes from the particular phrase used by Zelophehad’s daughters, a phrase which actually appears in the Torah in one other episode. In Numbers chapter 9, Jews who were unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice through no fault of their own ask the same question of Moses: למה נגרע  (“Why should we lose out?”).  To which G-d replies by instituting Pesach Sheini, the Second Passover, a chance to make up for the lost opportunity. Perhaps here as well we are dealing with a request for a second chance, the chance to engage in exercising the rights and responsibilities of a landowner.

Tightly linked to this idea is the fact that we are not talking here about just any random piece of land. It is a piece of land in Israel. Many mitzvot are connected to the very status of owning land in Israel: terumah, maserot, leket, peah, bikkurim, some of the stringencies of orlah etc.

And Zelophehad’s daughters were deeply in love with the land of Israel. This much is clear if we read Rashi’s commentary, where he points out that the Torah gives us a full genealogy for these women: “daughters of Zelophehad, son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph”. Now, up until Manasseh, it may be a necessary genealogy, because after all the land of Israel was meant to be divided among the tribes, and Manasseh was indeed one of those tribes. But why mention Joseph here? Rashi explains: “to show that the daughters held the land precious”. Just as Joseph specifically asked to be exhumed from Egypt and brought to Israel, because he loved the land so much, so too the daughters of Zelophehad love the land of Israel, and don’t want to forgo their share in it. According to this interpretation, their request comes thus not from a place of greed or family pride or desire for monetary gain, but rather from a place of deep love and appreciation for G-d’s gift to the Jewish nation.

The episode also highlights some guidelines for petitioners in general. The Talmud in Bava Batra and the Midrash in Yalkut Shimoni and Bamidbar Rabbah point out that the daughters of Zelophehad were very practical in their request. For them, the issue was not a mere intellectual exercise: do we have a right, don’t we have a right? It was a very down-to-earth problem for which they needed a down-to-earth resolution. Unlike many groups today who constantly talk about equality or rights in the abstract, simply to “raise awareness”, the women of our parsha waited until the moment of practical decision and then spoke their piece. The Talmud concludes: “The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, for they presented their petition at the right time.” (Bava Batra 119b)

Lessons can be derived petition recipients as well. Many leaders today are offended when they receive requests for rights or complaints of inequality. They feel threatened. Their self-confidence takes a hit. They start to deflect. Do you mean to say that my leadership was lacking so far? Are you accusing me of something? The Torah’s answer to these passive-aggressive questions is simple: no, it does not imply that. It just implies that no person can be perfect. We are all subject to improvement. We can all do better. Life is not static. Values evolve. People want things to constantly improve. And when requests for improvement are raised, they should be analysed on their own merit and with an open mind, and not a priori dismissed out of fear, guilt or offense.

Another interesting idea is related to the dynamics of how the women’s request is granted in our parsha. Not by a human court, but by G-d Himself. Not as a temporary measure, but as a permanent rule. Through these verses, women’s rights to inherit their father become enshrined in Jewish law, with the same status as the commandment to love G-d or that to observe Shabbat. It’s not a concession that’s being made here, rather G-d is actually very clear on the matter: “The daughters of Zelophehad speak properly”. They are right. To which Rashi comes again in with a nice comment: “Fortunate is the person whose words are confirmed by the Holy One, Blessed is He.”

So – the Torah tells us – it is indeed proper to consider women’s rights when it comes to inheritance. But women’s rights should not be limited to that, as Rashi points out in yet another magnificent explanation:

“Why should the name of our father be omitted from among the family because he had no son?” ask the daughters. Rashi explains their words: “If we, the daughters, stand in place of a son, then give us our father’s inheritance. And if women are not considered offspring of the deceased when it comes to inheritance, then let our mother undergo yibbum to the brother-in-law, [as our father should be considered to have died childless].”

What is being clarified here is the very nature of equality. Equal means equal. If in religious matters, such as yibbum (the levirate marriage that was practiced in the case of a man who died without offspring), daughters are taken into account to relieve that obligation, then they also should be taken into account in civil matters too, for example in the case of inheritance. Civil law and religious law should be consistent, not divergent.

These are truly remarkable and revolutionary ideas, especially for their time.

  1. Men and women are equal.
  2. Equality is universal and G-d’s will. It should not be left at the whim of the leaders or the times.
  3. Equal rights come with equal responsibilities.
  4. Requests for rights should be made at the proper time and in the proper manner. They should stem from love and commitment, not greed or rebelliousness. And they should be treated fairly, on their own merit, when they are brought about.
  5. Religious values should be synced with civil values, complementing each other for the benefit of society and its members.

* * *

I am absolutely sure that – were we to continue – many other ideas would emerge from these verses. But to me, the most fascinating idea is that the Torah talks so openly about equality, rights, responsibilities and opportunities. As a religious text, we would perhaps expect the opposite: excessive rigidity, catering to the elites, staying stuck in the underpinnings of its time. But the Torah does not do any of that, and far from it. It is modern, alive and life-changing.

Now, I don’t know if the lifting of the driving ban in Saudi Arabia will create history in the long run. I don’t know if it will be an inspiration or a turning point in the lives of people living there, in the life of the civil rights groups, the women’s right movement or any other type of group or movement there or elsewhere. What I do know for sure is that, lehavdil, the text we are studying every day, every week and every year, the one which sits at the base of so many of our modern values and norms, the Torah, is indeed historic and inspirational.

We are here today, at this moment in humanity’s timeline, because of requests such as the one issued by the daughters of Zelophehad, and because of answers such as the one given by Moses and G-d. Innovation, societal values, rights and responsibilities are not created in a vacuum. They are echoes of what once was, of how change emerged, of how G-d wanted the world to be, and how the people called to the task understood and implemented His will.

Whether a precursor of modern-day feminism, or a universal humanistic call for equality, the appeal of the daughters of Zelophehad continues to inspire and to instruct. If only today’s leaders, organizations and nations would heed its lessons and take up its call!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sorin Rosen
July 7, 2018

THE BEST PLEA – Parshat Ki Tisa

Shabbat Shalom! Birshut Maran De’Atra, Rabbi Perton, I’d like to dedicate the following words of Torah to the memory of the Rabbi’s father, the late David Perton ז”ל. May his neshama have an alyiah!

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I’ve always been fascinated by man’s conversations with G-d. From the famous איך (“aieka”) — “where are you?” that G-d addressed to the first humans after they sinned in the Garden of Eden, to Cain’s fearful plea at life after he himself took the life of his brother. From Isaac’s silent tears at the Akeidah, to Jacob’s prayers in the middle of the night, as he was fleeing his brother who had sworn to kill him.

In all those conversations, I felt their fear, their trepidation, their emotion. You cannot read those verses, especially in Hebrew, and not feel something, a link between the hero of the narrative and yourself, the reader. I must confess that I wondered if I would ever find the same courage those characters showed, to approach G-d in such a direct and straightforward way. I can even say I felt envious for what they accomplished in those moments, in those conversations with G-d: salvation, answered prayers, closeness and connection.

But if I were to rank all such dialogues between humans and G-d in order of the sheer power they transpire, three candidates really stand out. (more…)

KNOW YOURSELF – Parshat Vaera

Twenty two years ago almost to date, in early February of 1996, a computer program called Deep Blue was making history in the game of chess. It was the first ever computer program to beat a reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a chess game. It was an amazing technological feat at the time, and it soon became evident that humans were no match for machines in analysing positions and calculating millions of possibilities and variants, to pick the winning outcome in a game of chess.

A month ago, in December of 2017, history was made again. This time, a computer program developed by a British company now subsidiary of Google, a self-learning algorithm called Alpha Zero played a 100 games match against the world’s top chess engine, Stockfish 8. At the end of the match, the score was as follows: Alpha Zero vs Stockfish: 72 games drawn, 28 wins for Alpha Zero, 0 wins for Stockfish. The result was nothing short of remarkable. The Guardian called it “a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence”, and various professors from top universities around the world characterized the program as ”an outstanding engineering accomplishment”.

But the result was much more than just an ”engineering accomplishment”. What makes this moment unique and particularly amazing is that Alpha Zero was actually never taught by humans to play chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and was allowed to play against itself for just four hours. And in those four hours it learned chess to such a level that not only it ridiculed  the best chess engine ever made, but also produced some games of phenomenal beauty and incredible complexity. In short, by playing alone, against itself, Alpha Zero learned more about the game of chess than we humans were ever able to teach a machine.

Which brings me — strangely enough — to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. Allow me first to set the scene and explain the idea, and then I promise to come back to this connection in the end. (more…)