Parashah Ponderings

A Time for Love and Comfort

Parashat Vaetchanan 5783 / פָּרָשַׁת וָאֶתְחַנַּן
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Shabbat Nachamu

This Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu (“Sabbath of comfort/ing”), takes its name from this week’s haftarah, Isaiah 40:1-26, that speaks of God “comforting” the Jewish people. Comfort is what the people needed after the Temple had been destroyed, the people starved to death during the siege of Jerusalem, and tens of thousands of Jews taken captive and exiled to Babylon. The people had suffered unspeakable horrors as God punished them for their faithlessness. The message of comfort, thus, comes on the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies that have befallen our people. 

נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם׃ 

“Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God,” begins Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40:1). 

The prophet imagines the God of judgment, whose wrath brought misery upon the people, now showing the Divine aspect of mercy and compassion. In Isaiah’s theology, the God that punishes their Beloved now offers the Beloved consolation. Soon, God and Israel will reconcile; several decades later numerous exiles would return to their land with renewed faith and faithfulness to rebuild a dwelling place in Jerusalem for their Beloved.

Shabbat Nachamu is the first of seven Shabbatot on which we read haftarot of consolation from the Book of Isaiah. These seven Shabbatot lead into Rosh Hashana and are followed by one chosen especially for the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. In this way, Shabbat Nachamu ushers us into a period of time of moving beyond suffering for our sins to being comforted by the knowledge that God’s love and compassion is always with us. While we often associate Elul as the month devoted to reconciling with God and those whom we’ve hurt, the Torah reading cycle would have us begin reflecting now on the rewards that come with self-examination, repentance, reconciliation, and healing. 

Coincidentally or not, this Friday is also Tu B’Av, a day on which our thoughts go to love among human beings and that always falls within days of Shabbat Nachamu. In traditional communities, Tu B’Av is a day on which many matches are made and many weddings are held. How fitting that these two moments fall so close to one another! Love is a central theme of both.

As if on cue, then,  the Torah portion for Shabbat Nachamu is Va-etchanhan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), which offers us instruction on how to love others, whether the “others” be people or God:

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכׇל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכׇל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃ 

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Deut. 6:6-6).

In the context of the Torah, Moses is reminding Israel that if Israel will be faithful to God’s teachings, God will be with Israel as a loving partner. If they go astray, Israel will suffer under God’s mighty hand. But when read within the context of Shabbat Nachamu AND Tu B’Av, one hears an entirely different, if unintended message: When you love, love with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might. Love with commitment. Continuously make the choice to love people AND God.

This instruction to love with the fullness of one’s being brings me comfort and hope. What would our world look like if each of us kept love at the front of our minds at all times – like frontlets between our eyes, like a sign on our hand, like a sign on our entrance ways, when we rise up in the morning, when we walk out of the gates of our house, when we lie down to sleep at night, when we teach our children (Deut. 7:7-9)? It would be beautiful!

We too often forget to love one another because we feel anger, disappointment, fear, disinterest. Too often, our egos blind us to that which is worth loving in the other. We forget that the one we are angry at any given moment may very well be someone we love or could grow to love if we could otherwise see the fullness of their humanity. Not everyone is worthy or deserving of our love; for example, it is unrealistic, even absurd, to talk about love of someone who has abused us by stripping us of our humanity and attempted to gain power over us. With the exception of those cases, which are shockingly and lamentably commonplace, we might actually find comfort in letting ourselves (re-)discover in others a reason to love them. Love can lead to forgiveness and ultimately healing and reconciliation. On a global level, love might even lead humankind to civility and peace. May it be so.

I believe the qualities of people that draw us to love them are reflections of the Divine image in which our tradition says we are all created. Thus, when we love others with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our might, we love God, too. When we affirm our covenantal relationships to lovingly care for and respect our life-partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, neighbors, strangers on the street, (fill in the blank), we affirm our covenantal relationship with the Beloved Holy One, as well. It’s not always easy to find the image of the Divine in the ones who are close to us, let alone complete strangers or people who get under our skin, but when we try and succeed and then allow ourselves to love them, the world becomes a safer, more comforting place. The challenge over the next several weeks for all of us who suffer under the burdens of just living in this world is to love and feel loved, to comfort and to feel comforted.

Parashah Ponderings

Hold the line

Parashat Pinchas 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת פִּינְחָס
Torah Portion: Numbers 25:10-30:1

At what point does an act of passion cross the line from acceptable to unacceptable, laudatory to abhorrent? At what point does a zealot cross the line from hero to criminal? When someone crosses that line, how should we respond as a society? 

These questions come up too frequently because the answers, whether we like it or not, are relative. The answers depend on one’s worldview and value system. For those of us who live in a society that values the rule of law and the sanctity of life, any unprovoked action that would take a life is murder; we would condemn the action and see that the perpetrator is brought to justice. Sadly, not everyone lives in such a society, or if they do, they find reason to defy the law and commit any number of acts that the rest of us would identify as heinous. We often read about radical adherents to certain beliefs who routinely take lives in the name of a “higher cause,” whether or not their own lives are in danger. We call them terrorists. They call themselves martyrs or even patriots.

When I watch the hearings of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, I am sickened by the callous abuse of power by our 45th president. It is clear by now that the individuals who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020 thought they were performing their patriotic duty as determined and commanded by the President of the United States. To some of them, loss of life was a necessary means to ensuring their leader would remain in office. Our legal system is sorting out who among those people are criminals and is meting out justice accordingly. At the same time, too many supporters of the 45th president cling to the idea that those same criminals are heroes who had the “guts” to do what they thought was right.

A case of even greater moral ambiguity presents itself in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, took it upon himself to kill a blazingly defiant Israelite man and a Midianite woman who, in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community, entered a nearby tent, presumably to engage in sexual activity. This action comes on the heels of God’s commands to Moses to have Israel’s military officers slay all those Israelite men who had been tempted by Moabite women to worship the Moabite deity, Baal-peor. In the case at hand, however, Pinchas slays not only the Israelite man but also the Midianite woman. The Torah spares no words: “(Pinchas) followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Isralite and the woman, through the belly” (Num. 25:8).

Despite the seemingly extrajudicial nature of Pinchas’s zealotry, God, in the conclusion to the story in this week’s reading, rewards Pinchas with a b’rit shalom, a pact of friendship. “It shall be for him and descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites” (Num. 25:13). As a result of Pinchas’s action, God lifted a plague from Israel that had by then claimed 24,000 lives.

When I read about Pinchas, I am appalled both by Pinchas’s disregard for human life and by God’s approval of Pinchas’s zealotry. I wasn’t so keen on the idea of Israel’s military officials slaying the lustful Israelite men, either, but what Pinchas did violated all norms of civility and decency as he acted in such a public and violent way. I am not alone in my feelings. According to Jacob Milgrom in the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary on the Book of Numbers (p. 215):

The rabbis were uncomfortable with Pinchas’s act. He set a dangerous precedent by taking the law into his own hands and slaying a man impulsively, in disregard of the law. Some argue that Moses and the other leaders would have excommunicated him were it not for the divine decree declaring that Pinchas had acted on God’s behalf. Regarding this, a recent commentator remarks: “Who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That is why the sages wished to excommunite Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.”

Clearly, the virtue of Pinchas’s action is open to debate. I wouldn’t say the same for the men and women who attacked the United States Capitol or for any other seditious actor or terrorist. Nonetheless, this week’s Torah portion should give all of us pause as we take stock of the events of January 6, 2020. The line between hero and criminal is thinner than we think. When despots appeal to the aggrieved and vulnerable with demagoguery, their fight soon morphs into a Holy War. Sometimes those holy warriors are rewarded, as was Pinchas. Sometimes they are punished, as is the case with those who attacked the Capitol on January 6th. The lesson for us is to constantly mind that line between virtue and villain lest the line disappear altogether and we lose all sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, there are forces out there waiting for just such a moment. We must hold the line.

Parashah Ponderings

What happens when we feel abandoned

Parashat Chukat 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1

A recent article in the New York Times about gun violence in America asks why 25 percent of gun violence is so highly concentrated in areas that contain only 1.5 percent of the population. “A small sliver of blocks – just 4 percent in Chicago, for example – can account for a majority of shootings in a city or a county,” the article states. Faced with the obvious correlation between gun violence and the abject poverty that plagues all those areas of high concentration, researchers are asking “why violence and poverty are linked. Is it something specific to poverty, such as insufficient housing or jobs? Is it the environment that poverty fosters, in which people are stressed and desperate — and more likely to act out?”

The research into why America’s poorest neighborhoods are also the least safe has led experts to a finding that may also help explain why, in this week’s Torah portion, Moses loses control of himself and commits the sin for which God prevents him and his brother from ever stepping foot in the Promised Land:

One theory… blames the breakdown of “collective efficacy.” That might sound academic, but the concept is straightforward: When society’s institutions have unraveled, people feel that they are on their own. They are then less likely to watch over one another or come together to address common interests.

By reducing social trust, concentrated poverty hurts communities’ ability to enforce norms against violent behavior. And when people are left unchecked and feel they have nothing to lose, they are more likely to take extreme measures, such as violence, to solve their problems.

In essence, in the absence of community structures that bring people together and foster a sense of mutual responsibility, people are more likely to feel detached from the people around them and, thus, will feel less restrained to harm them. When banks, grocery stores, retailers and others avoid doing business in certain areas of our cities, they promote an environment in which people feel abandoned. Of course, the violence in those communities is largely why those businesses stay away in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle. Clearly, social service agencies, the police, and faith communities have been unable to break that cycle, despite their best efforts.

What does this have to do with Moses striking a rock to bring forth water to a thirsty, angry mob? Moses was told by God to speak to the rock, but in his frustration with the Israelites, he calls them “rebels” and proceeds to hit the rock twice, never once speaking to the rock as God had commanded him to do. Where is the connection to gun violence?

Just possibly, at the time when tempers were short among the Israelites and their leaders, they were feeling abandoned. As a result, they acted out violently, without concern for the consequences. The consequence for Moses and Aaron – that they would die before reaching the Land of Israel – was enormous. It effectively put Moses and Aaron in the same predicament as all but two of the Hebrews – Joshua and Caleb – who had fled from Pharaoh in Egypt. They now were all doomed to wander for forty years in the wilderness with only the children who would be born in transit having the good fortune to settle in the land. The punishment for the community of Israel, you may recall, came about because ten of the twelve spies who scouted out Canaan came back to their community with the belief that not even God could help them defeat the “giants” who inhabited the land.

Why were the people, but especially Moses and Aaron, feeling abandoned? Just prior to this incident, Moses and Aaron’s sister Miriam died. It was Miriam who had set the infant Moses afloat in the Nile, where he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. But the Nile was not the only body of water that we associate with Miriam. Later generations of rabbis would attribute all the wells whose waters sustained Israel to exist for the merit of Miriam. As long as Miriam was with them, there would be water and the people would feel safe. The people feared that without Miriam they would also be without water. They felt abandoned by the one person who could ensure that the water they needed for life itself would always be there for them. It was this fear of abandonment, on top of the grief of having lost their sister, that caused Moses to violently strike the rock to bring forth water, thus diminishing the sanctity of God before all of Israel.

The analogy between Moses hitting the rock and the scourge of gun violence in America is far from perfect. The poverty and political, social and economic abandonment experienced by our poorest urban neighborhoods is historical and systemic. That’s far different from losing a loved one upon whom you relied for sustenance. The emotional and psychological impact of the former kind of abandonment is radically different from the latter. But I don’t think they are all together unrelated. In both cases, there is a deep sense of loss and detachment that leads people to act in ways that are not healthy for them or for society.

The lesson here is that we need each other. People need other people to care for them and help them feel safe. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And they are our keepers. We must not become a society where it’s every person for him- or herself and people behave badly as a result. That’s what happens, though, when people sense that no one cares about them. 

I hope our congregation is a place where no one feels abandoned. I hope ours is a community where we all assume responsibility for everyone else’s welfare. To the extent that this hope is unrealized, we have some work to do. But I know how we take care of each other and how we take care of the hungry, unhoused, and poor in our neighborhoods.

I don’t know what role we can play in fixing the problems of poverty and abandonment in our big cities, problems that contribute to gun violence. But I do know that we can take steps in our own lives to ensure that people in our own congregation and in our community know that they are loved. We need to be grateful that we don’t feel abandoned. And we need to work to keep it that way so that our neighborhoods stay safe and so we have a fighting chance of seeing our most precious dreams come to be.

Parashah Ponderings

Dear Scouts: When you must cross a very, very narrow bridge, do not fear.

Parashat Sh’lach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת שְׁלַח־לְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41

Dear Scouts,

I was sad to read in this week’s Torah portion that your journey toward the land of Canaan has gotten off on the wrong foot. 

On order from Yud-Hey-Vav-Hei, the Big G-dash-D, Moses sent you on a reconnaissance mission to scout out the land that God promised the People of Israel. Moses instructed you to bring back vital information that he and you could use to plan your attack. Forty days later, you came back with answers. You accomplished your mission and could have gone home then and there to reunite with your wives and kids. Why, then, did you go on and on about how impossible it would be to overcome the so-called “giants” in the land, people so gigantic that you felt as small as grasshoppers in comparison? To make matters worse, when you returned to the camp at Kadesh, instead of debriefing privately with Moses and Aaron, you immediately delivered your report to them in front of the entire community of Israel! Now, the people’s trek – which you, yourselves, proved could be accomplished in only a few weeks – will take 40 years! Worse yet, none of you, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, will be able to step foot into that land and watch it blossom into the future homeland for the Jewish people. What were you thinking?

Actually, I know what you were thinking. You had already drawn the conclusion that you were incapable of meeting the challenge that God had set before you. Rather than taking the data you gathered and putting together a workable plan, you had given up before giving yourselves every opportunity to succeed. Rather than having faith in God and in yourselves, you threw in the towel. At least, Joshua and Caleb maintained their faith, and Moses was able to convince God to control God’s anger and not do you all in then and there! So, good luck on that 40-year journey!

Let me share with you some wisdom from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov himself, the founder of hasidic Judaism. Reb Nachman lived from 1772 to 1810 and died at the age of 38. Throughout his life he confronted huge obstacles but he never gave in, he never saw himself as unworthy, and he never lost faith. He had six daughters and two sons, but two of the daughters died in infancy and two of the sons died at about a year and a half. His wife died of tuberculosis and then, right after becoming engaged to another woman, he contracted tuberculosis and survived for three more years before dying from it. Just five months before his death, though, his house burned down, and he was housed and cared for by a group of compassionate secularists in another town. All the while, scholars estimate, he suffered from severe and manic depression. This was not the life that any of us would choose, but he got through it all with his faith.

This was the same man whose words inspired the popular song: “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar maod v’haikar lo l’fached klal. All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is to not fear at all.” But that song is a misquote of Reb Nachman’s actual words, which were: “Unde​rstand: that when a person must cross a very, very narrow bridge, the most important​​ and essential​ thing is that he not have any fear at all” (See https://www.zemirotdatabase.org/view_song.php?id=220, accessed 6/24/2022). Despite all the hardship that befell him, Reb Nahman didn’t see all of life as threatening. He understood, however, that there are times when obstacles present themselves and sometimes we are tempted to succumb to our fear and just give in and give up. It’s at those moments, he taught, when we must lean into what intimidates us and just do what it takes to cross those very, very narrow bridges.

Scouts, you’ve got a long 40 years ahead of you. I guarantee there are going to be unpleasant surprises along the way. Some of them may seem even more frightening than the “giants” you thought you saw in the land of Canaan. Rather than panic and cause the rest of the people to give up hope, be like Reb Nachman, or, for that matter, like Joshua and Caleb. See the possibilities that lie ahead of you. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it’ll be easy to cross those very, very narrow bridges. It won’t be easy. But don’t let your fear overcome your faith in yourself and your faith in G-dash-D. When you tackle obstacles with preparation, planning, and confidence, you will overcome them.

Now, with your permission, Scouts, I’d like to share this message with my friends in America on June 24, 2022. I’ll spare you the details, but a lot has changed this week and people are afraid. They are already predicting doom and gloom. But with faith that reason and good will will prevail and leaders from all over the political spectrum will rise to the occasion, I am confident that our country will not fall apart, that we will overcome the challenges that await us, and that we will avert the disasters we are so sure will overtake us. We are not grasshoppers, nor should we see ourselves like grasshoppers. We, too, will cross that very, very narrow bridge.

Hazak v’amatz – be strong and courageous,
Rabbi Dan

Parashah Ponderings

Sing like a cow!

Parashat Nasso 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת נָשׂא
Torah Portion: Numbers 4:21-7:89

I have a confession to make: I don’t perform every mitzvah and every ritual that I have it in my power to do. For example, I do not regularly recite the series of prayers after meals that we call Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing for Sustenance. It is certainly a good thing to give thanks for the food that sustains me, but I’ve yet to make it a habit. To begin to make Birkat Hamazon a regular part of my day, I need to stop seeing the ritual as a burden and, instead, see it as an opportunity to express my gratitude. 

Like many things that I don’t do, I need to stop moaning and whining and coming up with excuses and embrace the act with a song in my heart. I need to whistle while I work, like one of Snow White’s seven dwarves; raise up a song, like the clan of the Kohatites  that carried the sacred vessels of the Tabernacle on their shoulders rather than transport them on a cart (Num. 7:9); like a nursing cow.

Like the clan that carried the sacred vessels on their shoulder and like a nursing cow? Huh?

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, the great hassidic rebbe of Ger, near Warsaw, wrote a five-volume commentary on the Torah called Sefat Emet, the Language of Truth. The Sefat Emet notes that all the other Levitical clans, were charged with transporting all the nuts and bolts, beams and bolts of fabric for the Tabernacle were given oxen and carts to do their jobs, but not the Kohatites. The sacred vessels that they were in charge of, such as the menorah and the laver for washing, were too precious to risk loading onto a wagon and, perhaps, falling off. They had to load the vessels into sacks and carry them on their shoulders with long, heavy poles. Not a fun or painless task. We could imagine them moaning and whining and coming up with excuses to not do their job, but that’s not what they did.

The Sefat Emet says they “raised up a song,” quoting a midrash that, in turn, quoted a verse from Psalms (81:3): “raise up a song and offer a drum; a sweet harp and a lyre.”

Abbi Yehudah Leib Alter asks, “What has song to do with raising things up on one’s shoulder?”

He answers:  “This can only be understood by recalling a Samuel 6:12,” where we read that the Philistines had just captured the Ark of the Covenant and God was punishing them with severe illness and death. Realizing what was happening, they loaded the Ark of the Covenant onto a wagon and strapped it to two nursing cows who had never before worn a yoke. If the cows went straight on its way to the Israelites’ camp, they knew God was the source of their suffering. If the cows went some other way, the Philistines would know it was just by chance that they were suffering, and they would have kept the Ark. It so happens that the cows headed toward the Israelites’ camp.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib looks at this verse, I Samuel 6:12, and  interprets it to mean that the cows sang as they carried the Ark to Jerusalem.” He gets to this reading by using a Hebrew word play, changing the word “va-yiSHARnah” – “they went straight on their way” – to “vayiSHARu” – “they sang on their way.” He quotes the Zohar, the seminal book of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah: “Because they were carrying the Ark, they were given the awareness to sing. It was the Ark on their backs that enabled them to sing.”

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Green, who translated and interpreted the Sefat Emet, explains:

The religious life is not meant to be a weight burden, but one that helps us to feel the lightness and joy of knowing God’s presence. The Levite who carries the ark on his shoulder is also – or is therefore – the one who sings! What a great message, and a typically hasidic one: life in God’s service is a life of happiness and fulfillment. Like those privileged cows who merited carrying the Ark of the Lord on their backs, the service of God should so fill us with joy that we cannot keep from breaking into song.

Green, Arthur. The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998, p. 227.

In other words, when we see the performance of mitzvot and rituals – in the case of the Kohatites, carrying a heavy load of sacred vessels on their shoulders – not as a burden to whine about but rather as an opportunity to serve God and know God’s presence, we are filled with light, joy, and song.

I will take this lesson to heart and work on developing the habit of reciting Birkat Hamazon. I invite you to take the lesson to heart, too, and identify a mitzvah or ritual that you’d like to take on. I’m happy to help you learn the right tune.
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Parashah Ponderings

Making it through the wilderness

Bemidbar / פרשת במדבר
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

I posted this devar Torah a number of years ago, but today I read it with new eyes. If feels to me that our nation and, indeed, the whole world are traversing a vast wilderness. We seem to be confronting so many forces beyond our control (or not) and not doing a very good job of it. Ukraine, global warming, gun violence, white supremacy, homelessness, etc., etc. Of course, all these things are the fault of misguided human beings, but they have taken on a life of their own and so many of us feel we have little power to effect change. It’s like we’re wandering through a wilderness facing all kinds of hazards we have never encountered.

I wish we were doing a better job of navigating our collective human journey. As a nation and as a community of nations, we are not working together to face enormous challenges. Just the opposite. Political and social divisions grow deeper and deeper, preventing us from providing the care we all need and coming up with the creative solutions our times demand. Nor are we as individuals doing the inner work of examining our assumptions and habits and asking how we might do a better job of taking note of “the other” and coming to their aid.

Yet, this book of the Torah, Bemidbar, gives me hope. We know the Israelites eventually made it to Eretz Yisrael, though not unscathed. The whole generation that left Egypt had to perish during the 40 years of wandering before the new generations could enter the land and begin anew. But begin anew they did. 

Every now and then we’ll read of people from opposite sides of “the aisle” coming together to solve problems. Every now and then we’ll read about people who are engaged in great, selfless acts for the benefit of humankind. Sometimes we even meet these people in our own communities. If we would but lift up these sparks and say, “Amen!” we could make this difficult journey through the wilderness so much more joyous and enriching, despite the challenges beyond our control that will always be there.

With this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, we begin a new book of the Torah, also named Bemidbar. Bemidbar depicts Israel’s trials during the 40 years of wandering “in the wilderness” (bemidbar, in Hebrew) following their exodus from Egypt. The book also contains multiple censuses of the Israelites. Reflecting this latter focus on counting people, the English title for Bemidbar is Numbers. The relationship between these two themes — the wilderness and the censuses — is full of meaning.

The reading begins:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying…(Numbers 1:1)

The French medieval commentator Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085-1174) asks why the Torah here specifies where God spoke to Moses. He posits that the location of God’s speech adds clarity. After all, God had spoken to Moses and Israel elsewhere just a year earlier: “All of the divine utterances that were spoken during the first year, before the Tabernacle was set up, are labeled as having been spoken ‘on Mount Sinai.’ But once the Tabernacle was set up, on the 1st of Nisan of the second year, we find not ‘on Mount Sinai’ but ‘in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting.’”[1] In other words, now that Israel has the Tabernacle, God can speak to them as they wander through the wilderness. Beforehand God could only be present at Mount Sinai. God is now portable.

But why the emphasis on the midbar, wilderness, itself? Of the many explanations for this, I am drawn to two in particular. One sees the wilderness, both a challenging place for human survival and a spectacular show of nature, as the perfect crucible for Israel’s maturation. The Israeli historian Nachman Ran imagines that after Israel’s centuries-long period of enslavement in Egypt, they needed to gel as a nation and to grow spiritually. “To a people whose entire living generation had seen only the level lands of Egypt, the Israelite march into this region of mountain magnificence, with its sharp and splintered peaks and profound valleys, must have been a perpetual source of astonishment and awe. No nobler school could have been conceived for training a nation of slaves into a nation of freemen or weaning a people from the grossness of idolatry to a sense of grandeur and power of the God alike of Nature and Mind.” Indeed, “in the midbar they become free human beings responsible to God and to themselves for every choice they make.”[2]

Another interpretation likens the landscape of the midbar to “the psychological and spiritual realms of human existence.” The 20th century Israeli scholar and poet Pinhas Peli believes there is a “‘wilderness’ within each person, a ‘desert’ where selfish desires rule, where one looks out only for one’s needs. No person is ever satisfied in the desert. There is constant complaining about lack of food and water, the scorching hot days and bitter cold nights. Anger, frustration, disagreements, and hunger prevail… The Torah is given in the desert… ‘to conquer and curb the demonic wilderness within human beings.’… The lesson here is that, ‘if human beings do not conquer the desert, it may eventually conquer them. There is no peaceful coexistence between the two.’”[3]

These understandings of the midbar — the first as Israel’s training ground to serve as God’s “chosen people” and the second as a symbol of the treacherous landscape within each of us — leads me to the next verses in our reading:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)

What emerges from the census, we learn later, is the creation of an army, on one hand, and a workforce to tend to the Tabernacle, on the other hand. God, thus, provides Israel with a mechanism literally to put its camp in order so that it can survive the tough trek ahead. With no such order, the nation and its connection to God would be doomed.

On a symbolic level, the census represents the moral, spiritual and physical preparation necessary to be able to make something of God’s revelation. Without some kind of ordered society, without a higher purpose, and without personal accountability, Israel would not have been able to actualize the lessons of Torah. They would have been too divided, distracted, and self-interested to build the kind of caring world that God envisioned. What kind of “light unto the nations” would Israel have been if it was at war with itself, unable to know right from wrong?

What we learn from this week’s Torah portion is that in order to bring calm to a world in chaos, we must first take care of business at home and within. Judaism places a premium on shalom bayit, family harmony, partly because it recognizes that the family is fertile ground for sowing the values of Torah and Jewish peoplehood. But family isn’t the only fertile ground. Individual souls and communities, too, are places where values must be allowed to flourish. Without tilling the soil, without bringing order to it, nothing except weeds and wildflowers will grow. Under such circumstances, beauty is left to chance. We can’t leave the creation of a just, compassionate world to chance, however. Instead, let us strive to bring order to the wilderness.

[1] Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Numbers, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 3.

[2] From Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Volume 3 Numbers and Deuteronomy, (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), pp. 9-10.

[3] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

Parashah Ponderings

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus, 1883

Parashat Behar 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּהַר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1-26:2 

If any of us ever wondered if there’s truth to the adage “None of us are free until all of us are free,” now we know. An 18-year old white supremacist opened fire at a grocery store in Buffalo, NY, last Saturday, killing 10 and wounding 3. Of the 13 victims, 11 were Black. The man drove 200 miles from his home to reach his target. He arrived heavily armed and wearing tactical gear, including a helmet outfitted with a camera to livestream his barbaric attack. This hate crime has rocked the community in which it took place, but its reverberations are felt everywhere, including in America’s Jewish community. Not only do our hearts go out to the families of the victims and their community, but more than that, we Jews share in their grief. We are no less free to ignore the hate that revealed itself in Buffalo than the people there who are suffering the most.

In “What you need to know about the antisemitic ideology behind the Buffalo shooting,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency writes:

An online manifesto attributed to (the perpetrator) explains that the attack was spurred by the theory that a tide of immigrants is crowding out white populations in western countries. The manifesto also says that Jews are the real problem but that “they can be dealt with in time….” 

“Are you an anti-semite? YES!!” the manifesto reads in one place. Later, the author answers the question, “Why attack immigrants when the Jews are the issue?” The answer reads, in part: “They can be dealt with in time.”

How can we read the words of this proud anti-Semite, who just shot eleven Black people, and not recall Martin Niemoller’s lament, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist….” We know how it ends. Niemoller could distance himself from Hitler’s hate for only so long before he, too, was incarcerated in a concentration camp. He discovered just how intertwined his own fate was with the Jews and others whom Hitler sought to exterminate. In our own day, white supremacists and believers in the bogus “replacement theory” will target anyone they deem as “other” and they’ll do it “in time.”

There is no “us” or “them” when it comes to hate. The biggest mistake we can make is to only join forces with other minority communities in response to tragedies like the one in Buffalo or the one in Pittsburgh or the one in Christchurch, New Zealand or the one in…. We must always strive to be in relation with other minority communities, with other faith communities, and with all who are committed to working toward a more just and peaceful world. We won’t always agree with people’s politics or worldviews, but unless people of good will are prepared to work with those with whom they have serious differences, we’ll never create the just, peaceful world that all people of good agree we want to live in.

While the adage with which I opened my remarks has been attributed to Maya Angelou, among others, it was the great Jewish poet Emma Lazarus who wrote in 1883, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” At the time, Lazarus was addressing the assimilated, comfortable Jews of America who were turning their backs on Jews who were being beaten, raped, and murdered in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Let us close our eyes, though, and imagine Emma Lazarus standing before us today addressing the current scourge of hate plaguing our nation. Let us hear her talking about the interconnectedness of all peoples when she says, “We ignore and repudiate our unhappy brethren as having no part or share in their misfortunes — until the cup of anguish is held also to our own lips.”

This week, we read in the Torah about God’s call for a jubilee (yovel, in Hebrew) – a reboot of the social order and a release from indebtedness and servitude. The yovel reminded our ancestors that the lives of all Israelites were intertwined, that all of Israel was responsible for one another. The same must be said of all humankind: all lives are intertwined, we are all responsible for one another. In this spirit, I ask each of us to explore ways in which we can build relationships with people who are different from ourselves – whether that’s joining them in their social justice efforts or inviting them to support our work for social justice. There’s more than one right way to increase love in the world. Find one that works for you.

May we live to see the day when hatred ceases, guns go quiet, and all of us are truly free.

Parashah Ponderings

Finding strength and comfort in the unseen, unheard

Parashat Emor 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת אֱמוֹר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Every Shabbat during our services we recite a prayer asking God to bestow healing and comfort upon individuals who are sick, chronically ill, or recovering from a medical procedure. When we recite this prayer, known as MiSheberach (The One Who Blesses), we also call out names of friends, family members, co-workers, and even complete strangers who are in need of healing. 

The communal list I read during MiSheberach each Shabbat is nearly two pages long; it takes a couple of minutes to read the whole list. Once I am done reading the list, people in the sanctuary or on Zoom will then call out or write in the chat box additional names of people in need of healing. The whole ritual – between offering the prayer and saying the names – takes about five minutes. 

Though those five minutes can sometimes feel like an eternity, they are often the most intentional five minutes of our service. When we pray for the well-being of those we care about, after all, our prayers become more than words on a page, more than rote recitation; our prayers for healing represent our most intensely felt, intensely offered efforts to reach out to the Divine Healer.

What is most curious about the MiSheberach blessing, though, is not its length or its intensity or even the wide range of theological beliefs present in the room that make it meaningful to each of us. What is most curious is that a) most of the people for whom we are praying are not physically present with us, and b) we often hear the names of people we don’t know, many of whom are not members of congregational family. So why bother?

I’d like to offer you one response to this question, though there are many. The prayers we offer for healing are akin to the ner tamid, the “eternal light” that hovers over the bimah, the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary, shedding a dim light over the aron kodesh, the holy ark containing our Torah scrolls – even when nobody is around to see it. The ner tamid represents God’s never ending presence in the world. Our prayers for healing represent our never ending hope that all who are ill will find perfect healing, refuah shelayma. Our concern, our hope, is as real as the light of the ner tamid. Just as we find comfort in knowing that God is always present to us even when we aren’t in the sanctuary to see the light of the ner tamid, so too, do those in need of healing find comfort in our prayers even when they are not present to hear them.

Unlike in our ner tamid, the lights of the original ner tamid, i.e. the menorah that stood outside the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temples, the light would die out each day as the olive oil used to fuel the flames would be consumed. Our biblical forebears did not have the benefit of electricity to keep the flame lit at all hours. In essence, it took regular effort to make God’s presence known by lighting the ner tamid in the same way that it takes regular effort to keep the light of hope alive for those in need of healing.

The comparison between the ner tamid and our prayers for healing goes even deeper, though. Notice what we read in this weeks parashah, Parashat Emor

Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact to burn from evening to morning 

Lev. 24:3

Think about it. The light of the ancient ner tamid would glow before the Holy of Holies precisely when there would be the fewest people to see it, from evening to morning! The light would be at its brightest when the kohanim and levi’im were going home from work at night; by the time they returned to work in the morning, the flames would be alive but not as bright, perhaps nearly extinguished. Yet the glow of the ner tamid was still real even when no one was around to see it.

The Torah recognizes that we need to know that God is present when we feel most alone, when we feel most disconnected from what my teacher Rabbi David Teutsch refers to as “the radiant center” of community. After all, it’s easy to feel connected to God and community when one is surrounded by people who are doing holy work, whether that is offering sacrifices in the Temple, serving food in the Community Kitchen, or praying together on Shabbat. Away from those sources of light and love, though, life can feel lonely. It’s at those times when our prayers matter most.

As long as people are suffering, we will say their names and pray for them, no matter how long it takes. You might not hear our prayers. Inevitably, many of those assembled in the sanctuary reciting the prayers won’t know who you are. But think of the words of our prayers like the ner tamid that glows brightest when no one is around. The presence of the Divine is still very real even when it is not seen. Our prayers, too, are still very real even when not heard. 

May you find as much comfort and strength in the words of our mouths as in the light of the eternal flame.

Parashah Ponderings

How do we begin to understand what it means to be “holy”?

Parashat Kedoshim 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת קְדשִׁים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 19:1-20:27

“You shall be kedoshim – holy – for I, Adonai, you God, am kadosh – holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Sounds simple, right? Not! What does the word “holy” – kodesh or its plural form, kedoshim – mean? If we can figure that out, then how do we apply that idea to God? How do we apply that idea to human beings? Are we to be holy in the same way that God is holy? Is our holiness different from but complementary to God’s holiness? These are big and important questions that I can’t begin to answer in the space of just a few paragraphs. In fact, finding the answers involves a lifelong quest. Where do we even start to understand what it means to be “holy”?

Perhaps the best way to start understanding holiness is by looking for examples of things we might identify as holy. This seems to be the approach of the Torah. In this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, after God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy, the Torah then offers a lengthy list of shalls and shall-nots that instruct Israel how to live a holy life. The list includes social legislation, ritual commands, and more. Items on the list can be categorized as “justice” or “love,” such as leaving the corners of our fields for the poor, in the case of justice, and “love thy neighbor as they self” and “you shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” in the case of love. In other words, the Torah suggests that holiness entails a combination of justice and love, a combination of actions that help create order amidst chaos and an internal drive to recognize yourself – perhaps even the image of God – in others.

I read two things this week that exemplify what the Torah is talking about. The first is this quote by Rav Avraham Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel:

The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom. (Arpilei Tohar, 1914)

Rav Kook took a lot of heat from the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox communities in Jerusalem for his open-heartedness. He did not shun the likes of Herzl, who operated from purely political and secular perspectives. And though he clung to a traditional notion of Jewish chosenness, he spoke about the inherent worth of all human beings:  “For only in a soul rich with the love of creatures and the love of man, can love of the nation soar to the height of its nobility and its spiritual and practical greatness.” Rav Kook’s version of holiness was one of humility. He was not naive. He had firm beliefs. But he practiced and taught a Judaism that always made room for “the other.” That is one example of holiness.

Another example of holiness is exhibited by a group that was featured this week in our local press, the Global Autism Project. Founded about 20 years ago, the Global Autism Project is led by a woman named Molly Ola Pinney, who has dedicated her life to supporting families with children who have autism. Pinney and a team of volunteers are embarking on a trip this weekend to Eastern Europe specifically to ensure that children who have autism who have fled Ukraine have the needs met in their new homes. Partnering with other organizations, for example, her team will be distributing vouchers for 30 days of housing so that refugee families with children with autism have a space to re-group and find order in their lives. Though the war is happening in Ukraine, the chaos it has engendered is not confined to Ukraine’s borders, and there is no guarantee that the war won’t soon expand beyond those borders. Needless to say, Pinney and her team are exhibiting extreme courage and selflessness in pursuit of justice for people with autism. They are doing holy work.

We cannot all be like Rav Kook or Molly Pinney. But we can look at Kook and Pinney and get an idea of what it means to “be holy:” working for justice; working from a place of love; giving up something of ourselves so that others may flourish. Kook and Pinney understand that we all have “corners of our fields” – portions of time, money, property, egos – that rightly belong to those who need them, despite our impulse to claim them exclusively as our own.

Certainly, there is more to holiness than what Kook and Pinney show us, but they show us quite a lot. As we seek to understand what it means to be holy and then search for holiness in our own lives, these two give us a good place to start.

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

Parashah Ponderings

Why “Next Year in Jerusalem”?

I wrote this essay around the time of the Arab spring in the early 2010’s. It continues to be one of my favorites. The essay mentions the Arab spring as a prime example of what happens when liberation from oppression is not followed by the creation of a social order governed by lawfulness and caring. This year, however, is different. While the chaos of the Arab spring is hardly a thing of the past, this year challenges us to imagine the return to that mythic “Jerusalem” as a return to democratic values and the creation of a more peaceful world.

The daily headlines remind us that all we’ve been blessed with to now is not Dayenu. As long as the Will to Power stands in the way of treating all persons as holy beings created in the image of the Divine, as long as personal desire masquerades as liberty and is held as more sacred than the common good, as long as tyrants seek to dominate, all our blessings will never be enough. Only when we’ve created a more perfect world and all God’s creatures find their way to “Jerusalem” will we be able to say “Dayenu” and mean it. That’s why we must recite the words “Next Year in Jerusalem” with all our heart.

According to the traditional haggadah, the book that guides us through the Passover seder, we are to end our telling of the exodus from Egypt and our celebration of freedom with the words “Next year in Jerusalem” or, in Hebrew, “Leshana haba’a bi’Yerushalayim!” Earlier in the seder, however, we sing “Dayenu – It Would Have Been Enough for Us,” an expression of our gratitude to God for all God did for us, from liberating us from Egypt through giving us the Temple in Jerusalem. Curious it is, then, that after all is said and done we articulate the desire to be in Jerusalem next year. Apparently, all the wonders that we experienced earlier in our history really would not have been enough for us. We want one more thing: to be in Jerusalem. Maybe.

What do the words “next year in Jerusalem” mean, anyway? More importantly, what do these words mean to each of us? Why are they the words that ring in our ears as we leave the seder table?

These words reflect the Jewish people’s longing to return to Zion that dates back to the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. To be sure, the destruction of both Temples, the second occurring in 70 CE, was experienced by our ancestors as a divine punishment and continues to feel as such today, especially among traditional Jews. This longing for a return to Jerusalem/Zion is captured magnificently in Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (127:5). Since 586 BCE, Jews have sought to find favor in God’s eyes and to merit a return to Jerusalem, if not also the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

Such spiritual yearning, however, is barely to be found in the original piyut, liturgical poem, from whence comes the sentiment that concludes the seder. The prayer that we find in the final section of the haggadah called Nirtzah, or Acceptance, first appears in the 11th century as part of the liturgy for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Passover. There, the poem by French halakhic (Jewish legal) scholar Rabbi Joseph Tov Alem ben Samuel Bonfils reads as a lengthy summary of the laws of Passover. Clearly, the author intended to instruct worshipers on the proper observance of the holiday the following week. It was hardly an ode to Jerusalem!

Within the context of the haggadah, though, Rabbi Joseph Tov Alem’s poem takes on a different meaning. In the 13th century, a short excerpt from the poem was added to the haggadah, given the final verse “next year in Jerusalem,” (a phrase from a 12th century work by Spanish philosopher and poet Rabbi Yehudah Halev), and titled “Hasal Siddur Pesach – The Order of the Pesach (Offering) Is Now Concluded.” In this new form, Yoseph Tov Alem’s halakhic treatise becomes a prayer for Israel to merit observing Passover as God “intended it to be observed,” i.e. in the rebuilt Temple as a sacrificial rite. To those who added “next year…” to the haggadah, the seder we observe is a lamentable substitute for the pesach offering, a mere place holder until the messianic age comes and we can celebrate the Pesach festival in a way that will be truly nirtzah, acceptable, to God.

Like many pieces of our tradition, “Next year in Jerusalem” has taken on new meanings as Judaism and the Jewish people have evolved over the millennia. For example, few progressive Jews I know would want to return to sacrificing live animals upon the Temple altar, nor would they want to hand over their religious practices to an elite, patriarchal priesthood. Rather, for some, “next year…” may be a prayer for peace based on their belief in the actual or metaphoric coming of the messiah, when all humanity will live in harmony and the Jewish people will be gathered together once again in Jerusalem. For others, “next year…” may express the Zionist hope that the Jewish homeland of Israel will be strong and that all Jews will soon make aliyah (immigrate and become citizens of Israel). Still, for others, “next year in Jerusalem” may simply articulate their desire to literally celebrate Passover next year in the city of Jerusalem. Regardless of how we interpret the verse, its beauty lies in the possibility that at any given seder no two people will interpret it the same way!

Back to Dayenu. It doesn’t disturb me at all that the last words from our mouths during the Passover seder – “Next year in Jerusalem” – should undercut a perennially favorite Passover song. For me, the exodus from Egypt would not have been enough. If the Arab spring has taught us anything, it is that freedom from tyranny without legislation that values all people as holy, without caring community, and without a place to call one’s own in the world is short-lived, indeed. Such freedom breeds chaos, ruthlessness, and despair. Whatever “next year…” means to you or me, we can certainly agree that it involves hope – hope that our dreams will one day be fulfilled. Until all people can dream and hope, can we really sing Dayenu and mean it?

Wishing you a Zisn Pesach, a Sweet Passover,

Rabbi Dan Aronson

This article first appeared in 2014 in Kol Shofar, the monthly newsletter of Temple Beth Sholom, Salem, OR.