Shavuot: Let’s be mindful of the need to live in a just and humane society

D'var Torah from Barbara Green. long-time activist with Americans for Peace Now.

Shavuot is a joyous holiday representing the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The event itself is thought of as the moment when the ragtag group of Hebrews who had been wandering in the desert truly became a people -- the Jewish people.

A reading of the law, or the mitzvot as they are known in Hebrew, gives one the impression of a moral and ethical society. We are directed to remember the widow and orphan and stranger among us. One law is to serve both citizen and non-citizen alike. Wages must be paid before the sun goes down. And my favorite: If you see your enemy's ass lying in the road, you are to help it get up. Imagine: not only concern for an animal but for the enemy's animal.

And yet, selective reading of each of the major religions' holy books can be deceptive. Some of the laws are in conflict with others. Emphasizing some at the expense of others has created grave injustices.

And subverting the law by using it for crass political purposes, as the settler movement and its allies have done, tears at the basic precepts found in the Torah.

In Israel today, there is tension between those who believe strongly that man is made in the image of God (b'tselem Adonai) and those who privilege the land of Israel (the "Greater Israel" movement) above all else. Rabbi Michael Melchior has written: "I believe that those who censor the Torah of such concepts as the natural morality of man, as the belief that God has created every human being in His image, and as the basic human right to respect and dignity which stems from this belief, are desecrating the holy name of God." He continues: "Torah, Judaism, Zionism, and at times even God himself have been hijacked."

Those of us who have worked for decades for the establishment of Palestine next to Israel watch in horror now as that idea seems to be disappearing over the horizon. The Greater Israel folks are in the ascendancy with Benjamin Netanyahu as their leader and the U.S. as their enabler. But the struggle now is for more than the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, or for the relief of the Gazans who suffer a humanitarian crisis of indescribable proportions. It is increasingly about the soul of the Israeli people. Are we still the people of justice and compassion set forth in the law? Have we foregone the ability -- or even the desire -- to help uplift our enemy's ass if it is lying in the road?

As we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot with its festive air, let’s be mindful of the need to live in a just and humane society -- and to extend those concepts to the citizen and stranger alike. The Torah the Jews received at Sinai still holds precepts we can all embrace.  

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Tisha B'Av: Are we victims?

Barbara Green has been a volunteer for Americans for Peace Now for many years. She lives in Washington, DC.

Commemorating as it does the destruction of both the first and second temples in Jerusalem, Tisha b'Av is problematic for secular American Jews. The destruction of the central institution of pre-rabbinic Judaism, first by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and then by the Romans in 70 CE, both followed by exile from the land, were indeed terrible events in our history. Among observant Jews, Tisha B’Av has also been, and remains, a Jewish day of mourning, not only for these events, but also for a number of other historic tragedies which happened to fall during the late summer.

But it does make me wonder, what does the recitation of this litany do to our sense of self? Does it tell us we're victims and must always stay strong? We must behave toward our enemies the way they treated us? 

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Peace Parsha: If Not News, Then What?

Peace_Parsha_LogoRabbi Jonah Rank is the Maskil ("Teacher of tradition") at Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Rabbi Rank was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015.

When the humorist Dave Barry released his book Dave Barry’s Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book in 1987, he might not have foreseen that, just three decades later, the United States would have become such a major player in promoting fact-free political discourse. The low bar of entry that permits most Americans access to the internet and the only slightly higher bar that permits most Americans to create web content of any kind have helped bring us to where we are today. When reading articles shared on digital media, if the facts don’t sound like the facts we’ve previously heard, we might ask if this news is real or not: Was it perhaps created from a fake-news website? Is this article actually based on found facts? Is this publication the eloquence of a gullible writer mistaking The Onion for news? Is this piece of journalism simply a collection of conspiracy theories all rooted in a series of truth-contorting tweets?

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By APN Intern Naomi Tamura

Naomi_Tamura250x445Every Shabbat, Jews around the world ask God to “spread over us a sukkat shalom – a sukkah of Your peace.” We express our hope for the protection of our dignity and our rights, and to live in a just and peaceful world with our neighbors. As the Jewish festival of Sukkot begins just days after Yom Kippur, Jewish communities come together to celebrate, among other things, the freedom of the people of Israel – and to build their individual and communal sukkahs as physical representations of this peace and protection that we seek.  Unfortunately, there are other homes being built that only serve to prevent both peace and freedom.

Naomi_Tamura_Israel_SukkahThree years ago, I lived on Kibbutz Ein-Dor in the north of Israel as part of my gap year program. There, I and 37 others helped build a sukkah (pictured).  Although it was little more than a simple, open-roofed structure with only one permanent wall, we rejoiced in our sukkah’s vulnerability. Our collective efforts to hang pictures of our families, lace colorful streamers around the few tree branches that served as our roof, and stake PVC piping into the ground as the sukkah’s base all brought us closer together as a community. Yet, it was the way that we ate, sang, joked, and dreamed together that allowed us to understand the true meaning of community filled with members who are at peace with one another.

This Sunday evening, as we prepare to celebrate Sukkot in a new year, we should be reminded of the connections between the sukkah and peace. The openness of the sukkah not only reminds us to share our homes with others, but asks us to open our hearts and minds towards building inclusivity and tolerance. In doing so, the sukkah becomes a communal structure sustained only by the shared commitment and vigilance of all its guests.

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Rosh Hashana Thoughts





Barbara Green has been a volunteer for Americans for Peace Now for many years. She lives in Washington, DC.

This is an awkward time of the year for some secular Jews like me. We know it’s a time of renewal and perhaps even symbolic rebirth, but what does that mean if you don’t really think the supreme ruler is sitting in judgment and deciding your fate for the coming year? Well, it could mean a lot of things. For me it’s a time to take stock: to look back on the past year and own up to things done which shouldn’t have been, or not done which should have been, and everything in between. What could I do to put those things to right? And what do I hope to change in the coming year? A small aspiration of mine is the intention in the coming year to dial back my propensity for righteous indignation. Hardly a day passes when I’m not upset – if not downright angry – about events in the world but I’m learning that indignation no matter how righteous sometimes may be counter-productive.

Maimonides teaches the blowing of the shofar is intended to waken us from our mindless slumber, our symbolic sleep which allows us to turn away from blatant injustice. He admonishes us to “….look to our souls and better our ways and actions.” For me this means doubling down on my efforts to pursue an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state. We Jews weren’t meant to be occupiers. Forty-nine years of holding another people under occupation is more than enough. Israeli security professionals have weighed in on this issue and concluded that the occupation does not provide security. It is a national security liability. The occupation is hurting not only Palestinians but Israelis as well – not equally but significantly.

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The Jewish People’s Dual Narrative: Parshat Ki Tavo

Peace_Parsha_Logo185Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick is an editor, writer, teacher, and spiritual director. A graduate of Brown University, she received rabbinic ordination in 1995 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program. Her writing appears in numerous books and publications.


There is very little language of personal prayer recorded in the Torah, and even less prescribed liturgy for future Jews to recite. But one rare example of a liturgical text appears in this week’s Torah reading—a prayer that supports the pursuit of conflict resolution and peace-seeking.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ swan song, his last chance to convey everything he must to the Israelite nation before they enter the land of Israel without him. In Parshat Ki Tavo, he offers a formula that each Israelite should recite when bringing the “first fruits” offering on the holiday of Shavuot.  That recitation was discussed in the APN Peace Parsha last June, and I want to offer a further reading of its opening words, which speaks to all that we have to bear in mind as we work for a peaceful and secure future for the state of Israel.

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Pinchas: When the head is unworthy, the people are punished

Peace_Parsha_Logo185Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, LCSW serves as Rabbinic Director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City, working with individuals who are ill,  bereaved, or survivors of trauma, through Jewish spiritual counseling, support groups, workshops and printed materials.  He has been deeply involved in human rights advocacy, Jewish-Muslim relations, interfaith exchanges, and the nexus of spiritual resources and mental health for over thirty years.


This week’s  Torah portion is named for a man –Pinhas-  who represents both heroism and horror in our tradition. It is, to say the least, complicated in terms of role models for leadership. In contrast, Moshe,  recognized as the greatest of the Jewish people’s leaders, and who in this week’s portion is engaged in the search for his impending replacement,  ‘advises’ the Almighty regarding his successor and in so doing, offers a prescription for a good leader. 

And Moshe spoke to God, saying, Let the God of the spirits of all flesh set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of God be not as sheep that have no shepherd. (Numbers 27:15-17)

Moshe’s counsel as set out in these three verses and elucidated by a number of Torah commentaries, points to the leadership challenges the state of Israel faces at present, with a current leadership that has  failed to take the actions that would result in the much desired goal of security and peace for Israel, and for the Palestinians as well.

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Korach: Challenger of the Status Quo?

Peace_Parsha_LogoBarbara Green has been a volunteer for Americans for Peace Now for many years. She lives in Washington, DC.


Korach gathers 250 ‘princes of the assembly’ and confronts Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon you…seeing that each of us is holy.”   Moses, abject, tells his challengers to bring offerings to the sanctuary the next day so that God can determine who is holy.   God’s punishment is swift and violent.   He immediately kills Korach and his followers; the 14,700 souls who stood with them are swallowed by an earthquake.   Imagine a 13-year-old having to deconstruct this parsha for his/her bar or bat mitzvah!

            What are we modern readers to make of this tale and what relevance does it have for us today?  The answer is that it depends on the way one views Korach.   Was he a jealous competitor, miffed because Moses passed over him, a first-born son who lost the priestly leadership to Aaron, the younger son of his uncle?   Or was his a legitimate challenge to Moses’ perceived failures of leadership?    Was he rebelling against God who made the choice? Did Korach posit a more democratic form of leadership? If everyone is holy, each person can decide for himself how to act.  No supreme leader is needed.

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The lesson of Shavuot - Arami Oved Avi

Peace_Parsha_Logo185Written by Rabbi Jonah Geffen for APN.

Rabbi Jonah Geffen serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Zedek. A member of the New Shul's Rabbinic Havurah, Rabbi Geffen was the National Rabbinic Director for the J Street Education Fund and spent two years as a Marshal T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.


The Torah instructs the Israelites how to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Shavuot:

In the book of Deuteronomy (ch. 26) we read that upon entering and dwelling in the Land of Israel, the people are to take the “first of all the fruit of the ground” (v. 2), bring it to a designated place, and give it to G-d. As the priest takes the produce, the person who has brought it is to state as follows:

(26:5) And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘Arami oved avi, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous…. (10) And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me…

Arami oved avi. A seemingly simple phrase can actually be understood in two very distinct ways. Rashi, the 11th century sage sees a past of survival and near genocide. He focuses on the narrowly escaped destruction of the Jewish people. Rashi explains that when the pilgrim brings first fruits “He mentions the loving kindness of the Omnipresent saying, arami oved avi - an Aramean destroyed my father, which means: “Laban wished to exterminate the whole nation” when he pursued Jacob” (Rashi on Devarim 26:5). He emphasizes that this fate is one of which we remain at risk: this (near destruction) happened to us. Genocide is in our immediate past, because this happened to my father.

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A thoughtful essay, a disgusting video: Lag B'Omer

Lag BaOmer 2016


There aren’t many holidays that take note of an absence, of when something ceases, of an end. But there is such a holiday: Lag B'Omer - the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot. It is a little-known Jewish holiday that celebrates (among other things) the cessation of a divinely-sent plague that resulted from people not showing one another adequate respect.

Donate TodayWe could all use a day of true respite, a day that reminds us how desperately we need to end the plague of violence and hatred. Imagine one day without violence and counter-violence, without the fear of being stabbed or brutalized, a day without the occupation, a day without victims – on both sides. Given all the tumult in the world and our own rough-and-tumble elections, we yearn for THAT Lag B’Omer NOW.

The plague we suffer from is not divinely sent, but one of human choices and actions. It takes work and time to end it, but humans are clever, and when motivated, we are able to work true wonders. Political conflicts are not decreed by fate. They are ours to resolve.

It starts with one day.

Did you know?

Click on the image to watch the video



Lag B'Omer is celebrated with joy and huge bonfires throughout Israel. But every year, Hebron settlers use this holiday as an opportunity to steal Palestinian furniture to burn in their bonfires. This year, an activist caught settlers in Hebron doing just this and shared it with Peace Now.

Stand with us and with our Peace Now colleagues in Israel.

Help us stand up to the extremist settlers.

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