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Judaism (from the Greek Ioudaïsmos, derived from the Hebrew יהודה, Yehudah, "Judah") is the religion of the Jewish people, based on the principles and ethics embodied in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), as further explored and explained in the Talmud. Judaism is among the oldest religious traditions still practiced today and is considered one of the world's first monotheistic faiths. At the core of Judaism is the belief in a single, omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, who created the universe and continues to govern it. In 2007, the world Jewish population was estimated to be 13.2 million people—41 percent in Israel and the other 59 percent in the diaspora. The traditional criterion for membership in Judaism or the Jewish people has been being born to a Jewish mother or taking the path of conversion.

Jewish tradition maintains that the history of Judaism begins with the Covenant between God and Abraham (c. 1800 BCE), the patriarch and progenitor of the Jewish people. According to the traditional Jewish belief, God also created another covenant with the Israelites (the ancestors of the Jewish people), and revealed his laws and commandments (Mitzvot) to them on Mount Sinai in the form of the Written Torah. Traditional Judaism also maintains that an Oral Torah was revealed at the same time and, after being passed down verbally for generations, was later transcribed in the Talmud. Laws, traditions, and learned Rabbis who interpret these texts and their numerous commentaries comprise the modern authority on Jewish tradition. While each Jew's level of observance varies greatly, the traditional practice of Judaism revolves around the study and observance of God's Mitzvot.

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אהל הרבי מליובאוויטש מבפנים.JPG

Kvitel refers to a practice developed by Hasidic Judaism in which a Hasid writes a note with a petitionary prayer and gives it to a Rebbe (Hasidic leader) in order to receive the latter's blessing. This prayer may be a general request for health, livelihood, or success, or a specific request such as recovery from illness, the ability to bear children, a wedding match, etc. The writing, giving and reading of a kvitel is treated very seriously by Hasid and Rebbe alike, and is executed according to specific protocols. Because of their inherent sanctity, kvitelach may not be thrown away after use; they are either burned or buried.

The practice of giving kvitelach continues today in all the Hasidic courts. Kvitelach are also placed on the graves of Rebbes and tzadikim (plural of "tzadik," or Jewish holy man) with the hope that the soul of the deceased will intercede for the petitioner in Heaven.

It is a centuries-old custom for Jews to place kvitelach containing personal prayers to God between the stones of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This practice has been also adopted by Christian pilgrims and foreign dignitaries as well. More than a million prayer notes are placed in the Western Wall each year. (Read more...)

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Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem

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Joel Brand

Joel Brand (1906 – 1964) was a sailor and odd-job man, originally from Transylvania but raised in Germany, who became known for his efforts during the Holocaust to save the Hungarian-Jewish community from deportation to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He is remembered in particular for his negotiations with the German Schutzstaffel (SS) officer, Adolf Eichmann, to exchange one million Jews for trucks and other goods, a deal the Nazis proposed and called "Blut gegen Waren" ("blood for goods").

Brand was a member in the 1940s of the Hungarian Aid and Rescue Committee, an organization of Zionists who helped Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe escape to the relative safety of Hungary, before the German invasion of that country on 19 March 1944. Shortly after the invasion, Brand was summoned to a meeting with Eichmann, who asked Brand to help broker a deal between the SS and the United States or Britain, in which the Nazis would release up to one million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks for the Eastern front, and large quantities of soap, tea and coffee.

In the end, nothing came of the proposal. Historians believe the Germans intended it to serve as a cover for high-ranking Nazi officers, including Heinrich Himmler, to negotiate a peace deal with the Western Allies that would exclude the Soviet Union, and perhaps Adolf Hitler himself. Whatever its purpose, the proposal was thwarted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and a suspicious British government. (Read more...)

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Weekly Torah Portion

Balak (בלק)
Numbers 22:2–25:9
The Weekly Torah portion in synagogues on Shabbat, Saturday, 17 Tamuz, 5775; July 4, 2015
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5.)
Balaam and the Angel (painting by Gustav Jaeger)
Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, grew alarmed at the Israelites’ military victories among the Amorites. He consulted with the elders of Midian and sent elders of Moab and Midian to the land by the Euphrates to invite the prophet Balaam to come and curse the Israelites for him. Balaam told them: “Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me.” God came to Balaam and said: “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” In the morning, Balaam asked Balak’s dignitaries to leave, as God would not let him go with them, and they left and reported Balaam’s answer to Balak. Then Balak sent more numerous and distinguished dignitaries, who offered Balaam rich rewards in return for damning the Israelites. But Balaam replied: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God.” But Balaam invited the dignitaries to stay overnight to let Balaam find out what else God might say to him, and that night God told Balaam: “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.”
Balaam and the Ass (painting by Rembrandt)
In the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and departed with the dignitaries, but God was incensed at his going and placed an angel in Balaam’s way. When the donkey saw the angel standing in the way holding his drawn sword, the donkey swerved from the road into the fields, and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. The angel then stationed himself in a lane with a fence on either side. Seeing the angel, the donkey pressed herself and Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he beat her again. The angel then stationed himself on a narrow spot that allowed no room to swerve right or left, and the donkey lay down under Balaam, and Balaam became furious and beat the ass with his stick. Then God allowed the donkey to speak, and she complained to Balaam. And then God allowed Balaam to see the angel, and Balaam bowed down to the ground. The angel questioned Balaam for beating his donkey, noting that she had saved Balaam’s life. Balaam admitted his error and offered to turn back if the angel still disapproved. But the angel told Balaam: “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.” So Balaam went on.

Balak went out to meet Balaam on the Arnon border, and asked him why he didn’t come earlier. But Balaam told Balak that he could utter only the words that God put into his mouth. They went together to Kiriath-huzoth, where Balak sacrificed oxen and sheep, and they ate. In the morning, Balak took Balaam up to Bamoth-Baal, overlooking the Israelites. Balaam had Balak build seven altars, and they offered up a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Balaam asked Balak to wait while Balaam went off alone to see if God would grant him a manifestation. God appeared to Balaam and told him what to say.

Balaam returned and said: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, how doom when the Lord has not doomed? . . . Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, may my fate be like theirs!” Balak complained that he had brought Balaam to damn the Israelites, but instead Balaam blessed them. Balaam replied that he could only repeat what God put in his mouth.

Then Balak took Balaam to the summit of Pisgah, once offered a bull and a ram on each of seven altars, and once again Balaam asked Balak to wait while Balaam went off alone to seek a manifestation, and once again God told him what to say. Balaam returned and told Balak: “My message was to bless: When He blesses, I cannot reverse it. No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel. The Lord their God is with them.” Then Balak told Balaam at least not to bless them, but Balaam replied that he had to do whatever God directed.

Then Balak took Balaam to the peak of Peor, and once offered a bull and a ram on each of seven altars. Balaam, seeing that it pleased God to bless Israel, immediately turned to the Israelites and blessed them: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! . . . They shall devour enemy nations, crush their bones, and smash their arrows. . . . Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” Enraged, Balak complained and dismissed Balaam. Balaam replied once again that he could not do contrary to God’s command, and blessed Israelites once again, saying: “A scepter comes forth from Israel; it smashes the brow of Moab.” Then Balaam set out back home, and Balak went his way.

While the Israelites stayed at Shittim, the people went whoring with the Moabite women and worshiped their god Baal-peor, enraging God. God told Moses to impale the ringleaders, and Moses directed Israel’s officials to slay those who had attached themselves to Baal-peor. When one of the Israelites publicly brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, Phinehas son of Eleazar took a spear, followed the Israelite into the chamber, and stabbed the Israelite and the woman through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked, having killed 24,000.

Masoretic text and 1917 JPS translation
Hear the parshah chanted
Commentary from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (Conservative)
Commentary from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative)
Commentary by the Conservative Yeshiva
Commentary by the Union for Reform Judaism (Reform)
Commentaries from Project Genesis (Orthodox)
Commentaries from Chabad.org (Orthodox)
Commentaries from Aish HaTorah (Orthodox)
Commentaries from the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (Reconstructionist)
Commentaries from My Jewish Learning (trans-denominational)


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