My Children, My Well

Parashat Chukat 5781 / פרשת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1

One of the greatest joys in my life is fatherhood. Not only because I take pleasure in being with my children. Not only because I delight in watching them grow into compassionate adults. Not only because I am proud of their achievements. But also because my children have helped me be present in the world. Because they’ve helped me be a more compassionate person. Because they’ve inspired me to achieve. Because they’ve taught me. They are for me a wellspring of Torah.

In the famous rabbinic collection of pithy aphorisms known as Pirkei Avot (6:6), we read that “Torah is acquired through 48 things.” Among these “things” through which we acquire Torah are joy, an understanding heart, and feeling loved, but also “a minimum of sleep,” “critical give and take with others,” “sharing in the bearing of a burden with another,” and humility. These and all the other things are integral to my life as a parent.

Not all of these things are easy and fun, of course. What parent hasn’t experienced strings of sleepless nights when their children are babies? What parent hasn’t engaged in lively exchanges, sometimes heated and angry, with their children. And what parent hasn’t needed a partner or a village to share the burden of parenting some of the time, if not always. Who hasn’t felt totally humbled by their children? All these things AND joy and love and an understanding heart are part and parcel of fatherhood for me.

Even the mundane and aggravating parts of fatherhood are worthwhile. There’s laundry and food preparation and schlepping and kvetching and all those other things that are part of living in the world with growing beings underfoot. But we find Torah in these parts of parenting, too, if we choose to see them that way. A friend once said to me, “We love what we put work into.” Nothing could be truer than loving our children.

As the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, they encountered boredom, hunger, thirst, rebelliousness, warfare, death, lack of faith and quite often the wrath of God. And yet we learn that it was through these experiences over 40 years that the Israelites acquired Torah for themselves. In the first year, Moses acquired Torah directly from God, but it took another 40 years for Israel to really ingest and absorb Torah for themselves. 

Once, shortly after Miriam died (Num. 20:1) , the wells that had sustained Israel throughout their journey only because of Miriam’s merit — the Sages teach us — dried up. These wells, according to the great hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, otherwise known as the Sefat Emet, symbolize the Oral Torah, that Torah which is acquired through the stream of life as we experience all of these 48 things of which Pirkei Avot speaks. And so, you can imagine, how parched our ancestors became in those days following Miriam’s death, how thirsty for Torah they were.

But then something wonderful happened. First, God brought forth water from a rock (20:11). And then God led Israel to a place called Be’er (21:16), which means “Well.” And the Torah says, God brought them to that place with a well, “which is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” You see, God didn’t abandon the Israelites. They still had water. They still drank in from the source of Torah. But they also had to work to dig the well and make the waters flow.

The Torah continues (21:17-18), “Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it—The well which the chieftains dug, Which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” In the midst of their difficult journey, in the midst of a series of unfortunate events, Israel sang! They sang to the well that fed their bodies and their souls.

Notice that they didn’t sing to God, and they didn’t sing because they experienced a miracle. They sang because they worked to dig that well in Be’er, and their work was good. With their own hands, they made the waters flow and that water would sustain their bodies. In the same vein, through their own encounters with whatever life put in front of them, they learned the Torah that sustained their souls.

So here we are on the Shabbat of Father’s Day weekend. As I pause to think about my journey of fatherhood, I give thanks to God for the many gifts and blessings that have graced my life. I, too, want to sing a song to the children I have co-parented with my own two hands and who have, in turn, taught me Torah, for Jacob and Katie are the well I have dug and their lives are the water that nourishes my soul. And I am grateful.

Psalms 128

(1) A song of ascents. Happy are all who fear the LORD, who follow His ways. (2) You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper. (3) Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons, like olive saplings around your table. (4) So shall the man who fears the LORD be blessed. (5) May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life, (6) and live to see your children’s children. May all be well with Israel!

Prayer as an act of transformation

Parashat Korach 5781 / פרשת קוֹרַח
Torah Portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32

Jewish worship is supposed to be transformational. People come to services on Shabbat, holy days and on weekdays for many reasons, but they are not always aware that Jewish prayer is an active experience that changes them, whether they want to change or not. If you leave a Friday night service the same as when you entered the synagogue that evening, you didn’t really pray.

At the heart of the Hebrew word for “prayer,” tefilah, is the root pallel, meaning something like “to execute judgment, clarify, and decide.” What is the object of our judgement, clarification or decision-making? We are. Our selves. In fact, the word for “to pray,” l’hitpallel, is reflexive, suggesting that prayer is an act of self-judgment, self-clarification, an act of deciding who we are and where we stand in relation to God, Israel, Torah and the rest of the world. One is inherently changed by virtue of achieving this heightened awareness.

No human being is entirely perfect, but prayer helps us change and improve. Prayer provides us with time and space to look both deep within ourselves and to look far beyond ourselves toward the realm of mystery, Divinity and infinitude to discern how we can become less imperfect. We enter the prayer space with whatever thoughts and feelings we bring — a hodgepodge of concern, gratitude, worry, contentment, despair, joy and sadness — and, if we’ve been intentional and present in our prayer, we leave having taken a step, even if imperceptible, toward putting everything in order.

As a reminder of why we come to pray, our synagogue’s aron kodesh (Holy Ark) is adorned with the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel hammered into sheets of copper. To understand how this beautiful object of ritual art comes to inform our worship, one need only look at Parashat Korach, our Torah reading this week. 

Parashat Korach tells the tragic tale of rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron by the Levite Korach and the Reubenites Dathan, Abiram and On. As Rabbi Charlie Scwhwartz of Hillel International writes in his commentary to Parashat Korach on MyJewishLearning.com, “Parashat Korach is a chaotic mess. Within the 95 verses of this Torah portion are multiple active rebellions accompanied by multiple acts of divine punishment, all intertwined in a confusing and complicated narrative…” In the midst of all the chaos, Moses directs Korach and his followers to appear before God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, each with an offering of incense in his fire pan. (As custodians of the Tabernacle, the men would each have possessed a fire pan used to gather up the charred remains of sacrifices burnt on the Tabernacle’s altar.) At the moment the rebels gather, God punishes them by consuming them in fire. 

What became of the fire pans, which had been consecrated for service in the Tabernacle? God speaks to Moses, telling him to instruct Eleazar the priest to “remove the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for the altar — for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred — and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel” (Num. 17:3). Then we read that Eleazar “took the copper fire pans” and did as God had bidden.

The Torah specifies that the pans should be “a warning to the people of Israel,” but they serve another purpose as well. Later in the Book of Numbers we find out that “the sons of Korach did not die” (Num. 26:11). In fact, Korach’s descendents go on to compose half a dozen Psalms, one (Psalm 47), which we read before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and another (Psalm 49) that is traditionally read in a house of mourning. Though Korach may have instigated a deadly rebellion against Moses, Aaron and, by extension, God, his descendants chose a different path. Perhaps they were not rebellious to begin with. No matter, the legacy of Korach’s lineage does not end with his fateful quarrel. Rather, it ends with acts of faith, piety, trust, and celebration of God’s greatness. And so, the copper fire pans that become part of the altar also remind us of the power of teshuvah (return, repentance), the ultimate proof of humanity’s power to transform itself into something better than it has been and is.

Many synagogues incorporate copper into their arks, Torah reading tables, and other ritual objects. By doing so, the copper does more than complement the synagogue’s decor. It stands as a reminder that we are all capable of becoming better than we are, of becoming less imperfect, if you will. We are all capable of adding holiness into the world, just like the descendents of the rebellious Korach. Even more, because we see the copper before us as we pray, it reminds us to use this time of prayer to look within and to look beyond and to begin our transformation in that moment. May we all realize whatever change we seek.

Sticks and Carrots in the Wilderness

Parashat Sh’lach 5781 / פרשת שְׁלַח־לְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 13:1-15:41

Sometimes in life we need a stick to keep us in line and moving forward. At other times, a carrot will do just fine, if not better. There are times when it is appropriate to remind people of the negative consequences of their behavior and occasionally to rebuke people for their misdeeds, but for people to change, they also need incentive and positive reinforcement.

We’ve just celebrated three b’nai mitzvah in our community. All three of the children who became b’nai mitzvah did honor to themselves, their families, the community, Torah and God. As with most b’nai mitzvah, these three made minor mistakes here and there — a slight mispronunciation of Hebrew, a wrong note when chanting Torah, leaving a mask on when it should have been taken off or taking a mask off when it should have been left on — but I doubt very much that most people in attendance noticed. If they did, I doubt they will remember those mistakes when they recall the celebrations a few years hence. All they will remember is how well the children did. And our children did well.

I’ve never heard of a child failing his or her bar or bat mitzvah. Why is that? On one level, you could say it’s impossible to fail because becoming a bar or bat mitzvah requires nothing more than coming of age, turning 13 for boys, 12 or 13 for girls. Even when tragedy strikes and a young person’s life is cut short before coming of age, we may remember those lives years later and hold a symbolic bar or bat mitzvah in their memory.

On a practical level, though, the children don’t fail because those of us who help prepare them have in our educational toolboxes both sticks and carrots. We correct their mistakes. We chide them when they don’t practice. But we also praise them when they show improvement. I suspect the greatest stick is the one most children want to avoid — utter humiliation as they stand before their friends and families. And the greatest carrot is the prospect of nailing their prayers and Torah readings and speeches and enjoying that feeling of success. If these were not “Covid times,” I would add that the bar or bat mitzvah party is the ultimate incentive for children to stick with their preparations until the end. Even in Covid times, though, many of the children look forward to a post-Covid party.

Just as b’nai mitzvah need sticks and carrots to shine on their big days, in getting through the pandemic that has plagued the world for the last year and a half, all of us have needed sticks and carrots. For some people, the fear of catching and transmitting Covid has hung over them as they’ve masked up, washed up, and shut up. For those same people, the prospect of preserving life and one day resuming life as usual has been a positive incentive. These same dynamics are at work as we talk about becoming vaccinated. There is a consequence that individuals and communities may pay if they’re not protected against Covid and its variants, but the idea of being safe from the virus and having all our children enjoying a normal school day is, for many, the most powerful motivator.

I mention sticks and carrots because in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Sh’lach, God presents Israel with sticks and carrots in order to secure their fidelity to the Covenant as they wander through the wilderness. We find in this Torah portion a pivotal moment in the post-exodus experience of our ancestors. This is where twelve scouts, representing twelve tribes, return from a reconnaissance mission in Canaan and report their findings to Moses, Aaron and the whole community of Israel. It is noteworthy that in this telling of the story — as opposed to the telling later in Deuteronomy — it is God who tells Moses to send the scouts to check out the land. Perhaps God here is conceding that the people need to see the land for themselves as their faith in God continues to develop amidst the hardship of their wanderings.

Rather than exude confidence that they could conquer the people who lived there — veritable giants who made the scouts feel like grasshoppers in their own eyes — rather than relish the thought of being a free people in this lush, fertile land that produces clusters of grapes so heavy that they require two men to carry them, ten of the twelve spies proclaim that the land “devours its settlers” and they argue that this is yet another example of God wrenching them from their relatively comfortable lives as slaves in Egypt only to suffer and die in unfamiliar territory. Ten of the spies hold up a stick of fear. For them, the only carrot is to be found in returning to Egypt.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, hold out a grand carrot, one of hope and optimism, and a smaller stick, a reminder that spurning God would bring certain disaster: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it… If the Lord is pleased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” (Num. 13:30,14:8-9). 

For instilling confidence and offering a vision of ultimate redemption, Joshua and Caleb are rewarded by God with the opportunity to accompany Israel into the land. The reading from the Book of Joshua that accompanies this Torah portion, in fact, recounts Joshua’s preparations for overtaking the region of Jericho once in the land.

Meanwhile, the other ten scouts die of a plague and the entire generation of Israelites who left Egypt are doomed to wander for 40 years in the wilderness, with only the children born after the exodus being able to enter the land for which they are headed. Watching the older generation die during those 40 years, in turn, becomes an effective stick that helps the younger generation strive to be faithful to God’s commandments.

But as we read about the spies, something odd happens in the Torah immediately after this story. We read: “Adonai spoke to Moses, saying… When you enter the land that I am giving you to settle in, (here’s how you shall) present a gift to Adonai from the herd or from the flock…” (Num. 15:1-3) And shortly thereafter, we read about the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit on the corners of our garments to remember the mitzvot (Num.15:32-41).

Why the sudden shift from the drama of the spies to the talk about sacrifices and fringes on our garments? Here I am struck by the commentary in the Jewish Publication Society’s Eytz Hayim Torah and Commentary (p. 850):

The sages find a connection between the story of the scouts and the commandments to bring offerings and to wear tzitzit. Ibn Ezra (a medieval Spanish commentator) imagines the Israelites cast into despair. God has written them off, and the dream of settlement in the Promised Land now seems impossible. To revive their spirits, God commands Moses to tell them “When you enter the land that I am giving you.” These words affirm that God still communicates with the people, that God has not written them off permanently. They affirm further that the promise of the Land is still in force, although it will be their children who will enter it and put these laws into practice.

In other words, the parashah ends not with the threat of annihilation, a massive stick, but with a message of promise, a grand carrot. God is with you, despite your mistakes. Your descendants will thrive in the land. This whole journey is not for nothing, and God didn’t bring you out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. 

This is the lesson we should carry with us as we face all of life’s challenges, whether it be becoming a bar or bat mitzvah or surviving a pandemic or anything else. Yes, there are real, if not always dire consequences for shirking our responsibilities. Yes, there is sometimes something to fear — humiliation, sickness, even death. But, the reward for maintaining discipline and for persevering even at the most difficult of times is great. In overcoming all the obstacles before us, we ultimately get to bask in the glory of our success and shine. (How can we be “a light unto the nations” if we don’t shine?)

We all have our own challenges. Each challenge comes with its own sticks and carrots. May we not cower in fear of the sticks, but instead, heed the call made famous in the fight for civil rights: “keep your eyes on the prize.” With faith, hope, optimism and great effort, we will reach that prize.

Shabbat Shalom!

Can’t we be more like elephants than riffraff? Beyond individualism to community, covenant and courage.

Parashat Beha’alotcha 5781
פרשת בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ
Torah Portion: Numbers 8:1-12:16 

Why can’t people be more like elephants?
Consider these facts about elephants from the World Wildlife Federation

THEIR TRUNKS HAVE MAD SKILLS
  • Elephants have around 150,000 muscle units in their trunk.
  • Their trunks are perhaps the most sensitive organ found in any mammal – Asian elephants have been seen to pick up a peanut, shell it, blow the shell out and eat the nut.
  • Elephants use their trunks to suck up water to drink – it can contain up to 8 litres of water.
  • They also use their trunks as a snorkel when swimming.
THEY’VE GOT THICK SKIN
  • An elephant’s skin is 2.5cm thick in most places.
  • The folds and wrinkles in their skin can retain up to 10 times more water than flat skin does, which helps to cool them down.
  • They keep their skin clean and protect themselves from sunburn by taking regular dust and mud baths.
CALVES CAN STAND WITHIN 20 MINUTES OF BIRTH
  • Amazingly, elephant calves are able to stand within 20 minutes of being born and can walk within 1 hour. 
  • After two days, they can keep up with the herd. This incredible survival technique means that herds of elephants can keep migrating to find food and water to thrive.
AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS
  • The elephant’s temporal lobe (the area of the brain associated with memory) is larger and denser than that of people – hence the saying ‘elephants never forget’.

Their noses do so much more than ours. They have thick skin. They don’t need to worry about their babies crawling on dirty floors. And they have awesome memories. I think it would be pretty neat to be an elephant.

ELEPHANTS CARE ABOUT THE WELL-BEING OTHER ELEPHANTS

I learned something else about elephants this week. A video of elephants in Israel’s Safari Ramat Gan, a zoo near Tel Aviv, shows how elephants put aside their own self-interest to care for their young in times of danger. The video was brought to my attention by Daniella Yitzchak, our congregation’s office manager, who wrote about it in her weekly email message

Daniella writes: “Filmed during a rocket attack in Israel last week, the video shows the moments when an air raid siren is sounding and an explosion is heard in the distance. During that time, five female elephants move towards little Pele (meaning wonder in Hebrew), a 14-month-old elephant calf, and form a protective circle around him, facing outwards in all directions to ward off any threats.

“Ramat Gan zookeeper Guy Kfir explained that the behavior during the siren is likely due to elephants having much better hearing than people, and their ability to detect seismic vibrations through their feet. He continued to explain that it’s very common for elephants to respond this way when facing danger… When recognizing a high risk situation, elephants gather their young and form a protective shield around them. This also happens when an elephant is giving birth. What a moving demonstration of love and commitment as well as courage!”

Those of us who are parents can certainly relate to the elephants’ instinct to protect their young. When our children are in danger, we take extraordinary measures to keep them safe. Or, at least, we should.

But unlike the elephants who form a protective shield around someone else’s baby, we aren’t always so good at caring for other people’s children. In fact, sometimes we are so focused on our own needs and desires that we turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, regardless of who those “others” might be.

The challenges of ego-centrism, self-interest and rugged individualism that pervade our society today are not unique to our day and age. Wandering through the wilderness toward the land that God was to give to them, the Israelites imperil their very lives when they start focusing on their individual needs at the expense of the greater good.

Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses’s leadership. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). Hungry for a share of Moses’s leadership, Miriam and Aaron initiate a rebellion against him. For her role in demeaning Moses, Miriam is stricken with a skin disease, for which she was shut out of the Israelite camp for seven days. Meanwhile, Moses, the epitome of humility, pleads to God to heal his sister.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron had gotten caught up in the popular revolt that we read about several verses earlier. There we find the people were complaining bitterly against God. They objected to the structure of the camp, which was designed to ensure the safety of all the people. They separated themselves from God. They, too, challenged Moses’s leadership. 

What’s more, we read: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Num. 11:4-6)

They’re objecting to the very sustenance that God had miraculously provided them! They grow nostalgic for their days as slaves when they had more variety in their diet.

For thinking only of themselves, God sends them more quail than they could possibly eat on their own and they stuff their faces. And while they still have quail between their teeth, God causes a fire to break out in their midst and strikes them with a severe plague (Num. 11:33). 

The Israelites had lost sight of the calf, if you will. Perhaps the calf was the Ark that moved with the Israelites in the center of their camp. Perhaps the calf was God, the one who had freed them from Egypt. Perhaps the calf was the Israelites themselves, the collective, the People who had recently united around Mt. Sinai and made a covenant with the Holy One, vowing to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation. All of a sudden, the higher cause for which God brought them together was being neglected.

We can sympathize with the people’s desire to want something new and interesting. We can relate to Miriam and Aaron’s envy of Moses’s exalted place among the people. Yet, Torah demands that we curb our appetites and appreciate what we have. We are to practice self-restraint and cultivate an attitude of gratitude every day.

Just imagine what the scene would have been like if the Israelites in our story this week were more like elephants. They would have accepted their responsibility for one another. They would have circled around God, Torah and Israel. They would have protected the proverbial calf.

In today’s world, we, too, need to do a better job of protecting the calf, of setting aside our individual wants, our personal liberties, which we mistake for God-given rights. What a world it would be if we thought about the common good, if we went to extraordinary lengths to protect the most vulnerable in our midst. 

May we strive to be more like elephants. Though we might not be endowed with the qualities that make elephants such magnificent creatures, we can, at least, choose a life of community, covenant and courage. Imagine what the world would like then. We have the power to bring that world about.

May God Bless You and Protect You: A New Look at Material Prosperity

Parashat Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

 The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons:

Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

May the Lord bless you and protect you!

May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!

May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace!

Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.

(Numbers 6:22-27)

One of the most familiar passages of Torah is found in this week’s parashah. In the days of the ancient Temple, the fifteen Hebrew words of the three-fold priestly blessing (Numbers 6: 24-26) were spoken daily by the kohanim (priests) as they blessed Israel in God’s name. These words are repeated in our own day in our daily, Shabbat, holy day and High Holy Day liturgies and at life cycle celebrations such as weddings and b’nai mitzvah. Many parents offer this blessing over their children each Shabbat. In addition, we often hear these words spoken by priests, rabbis and ministers at interfaith gatherings.

Focusing on the first of the three blessings – “May the Lord bless you and protect you” – we find a surprising lesson. Biblical commentators look at this verse and ask two questions: “May the Lord bless you with what? May the Lord protect you from what?” While some suggest God will bless us with happiness, long life, success in learning and other noble gifts, there is general consensus that the blessing here refers to material wealth and that God will protect our wealth from evil spirits and thieves.[1][2]

In reality, Judaism does value material success even while maintaining that such concerns ought to be secondary to spiritual success. In fact, elsewhere in the Torah we find that if we follow God’s ways we will be blessed with bountiful harvests, abundant flocks, success in business ventures, for example.[3] To be clear, though, all abundance is seen as a gift from God. Even our material wealth today should be considered a gift from God and not solely the result of our own labor or ingenuity.

In addition to valuing material wealth as a gift from God, the tradition also considers material wealth as central to allowing us to perform the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah (monetary contributions for the sake of justice) and to study Torah. We have a teaching in our ancient text known as Ethics of our Ancestors (aka Pirkei Avot) that says, “Im ein kemach, ein Torah. If there is no kemach, there is no Torah (Mishnah Avot 3:21). Kemach here means “flour” or “dough”, but it also indicates that which sustains us financially. Where there is no financial sustenance, then, individuals haven’t the time to study Torah nor can the community afford teachers or schools. When we are blessed with prosperity, we are also blessed with Torah. In other words, enjoy your riches from God AND also put them to Godly use.

The second half of our blessing asks for God’s protection which suggests that, in terms of material prosperity, if God blesses us with abundance, then God also safeguards that abundance. The French Medieval commentator Rashi teaches: When one gives his servant a gift, the one who bestows the gift cannot protect it from all other people. So if robbers come and take it from (the servant), what benefit has he [the servant] from this gift? As for the Holy One, blessed be (God), however, (God) is the One who [both] gives and protects (Midrash Tanchuma Naso 10).[4]

An alternative way to interpret May the Lord protect you” focuses not on the literal safeguarding of out possessions but on ensuring that we are not corrupted by them. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar also known as the Netziv, teaches: A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose. The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like. The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him… (Ha-Emek Davar on Bemidbar 6:23). [5] In other words, with great possessions comes the risk of haughtiness. How appropriate then to ask God’s protection from that temptation.

To be honest, as a rabbi, when I bestow the priestly blessing upon a newborn child, upon a young person at the time of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, or upon a couple under the wedding canopy, I am not thinking about blessing them with material possessions. Rather, I hope that God will bless them with a life of joy and happiness, a life filled with good deeds, and a life of peace. At sacred moments in people’s lives, those are the wishes that come most naturally to me and, I suspect, to others who care for the people undergoing rites of passage.

Perhaps, though, we can all learn from the sages this week who teach us to appreciate the abundance in our lives and remind us of the risks that come along with that abundance. When we pray the words “May God bless you and protect you,” let us give thanks for our material wealth that enables us to learn and grow and that enables us to help the needy and support just causes. And may we pray not only for the security of our abundance but also for the strength and courage to resist becoming spiritually and morally blinded by it. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

[1] Rashi (11th century, France), Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) and Obadiah ben Jacob Seforno (16th century, Italy and Spain) are in agreement on this matter. Ibn Ezra adds “long life.”

[2] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a prominent 19th century Polish scholar, suggests God will bless each individual with his/her particular needs: “to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman- in his business, etc.” See http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html accessed 5/28/2014

[3] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Artscroll Chumash. (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1997), p. 762.

[4] See http://www.chabad.org/parshah/torahreading.asp?aid=39589&showrashi=true&p=4, accessed 5/28/14.

[5] http://schechtertorah.blogspot.com/2013/05/divrei-rav-josh-parshat-naso-qualities.html.

Different Perspectives. One People. One God.

Parashat Bamidbar 5781 / פרשת בְּמִדְבַּר
Torah Portion: Numbers 1:1-4:20

This has been a trying week in Israel, to say the least. Rockets flying from Gaza and, earlier today, from Syria are a direct threat to the civilians whom they are targeting not just in the border towns with Gaza but in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Today I checked in with members of our CAA community who have family in Israel. Thank God all their family members are safe, but with frequent explosions and sirens splitting the air around them, they are forced to stay close to safe rooms and bomb shelters and many are fearful and stressed. Meanwhile, Israel’s response has been swift and decisive. Though the IDF has been literally laser focused on military and operational targets in Gaza and it continues its practice of announcing strikes on large buildings, its airstrikes have tragically and yet unavoidably resulted in the loss of civilian lives.

Those of us familiar with Israel’s modern history should not be surprised by this turn of events. After all, we are all too familiar with the cycle by which Israel is attacked by rockets from Gaza, Israel responds by demolishing Hamas’s military infrastructure, and then we all wait several years while Iran resupplies Hamas, at which time a fresh round of fighting begins, just with even more lethal technology than before. What is different this time around, though, is that the cities and neighborhoods that have always represented the ideal of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel are now being rocked by clashes fueled by extremists on both sides. Earlier today an Arab rioter torched a theater in the northern coastal town of Acco, a theater run by Arabs and Jews who consider themselves one family.

Back here, my inbox has been flooded with messages from every imaginable Jewish organization promoting their point of view and appealing for my support. It has just been crazy! As I’ve tried to find learn about the situation, I’ve been overwhelmed by all these often-contradictory voices. Even with my rabbinical association listserv my Reconstructionist colleagues debate how to approach this week’s conflict. But you know what they say: two Jews, three opinions.

What are we to think about what is happening? How are we to feel? How do we balance hesed and gevurah – lovingkindness and mercy with justice and might? Are we allowed to criticize Israel for its decisions or feel empathy for any of the families in Gaza who’ve lost loved ones, whether they are combatants or not? Do we side with Jewish settlers or with the Palestinians in the village of Sheikh Jarrah in their dispute over who has the stronger legal claim to the properties in which many hundreds of Palestinians have been living for decades?

The answer to these questions is that we must allow there to be space for all views. The Jewish camp is expansive, after all, and encompasses many perspectives. We see this exemplified beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar

This week we begin reading a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar or Numbers. Bamidbar comes from the first verse of the book where we read, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” It is called Numbers because it opens with God telling Moses to take a census of all the men from all the tribes who are eligible for military service. In essence, we read of the military preparations of the Israelites as they embark on their then 38-year journey toward the very land making headlines this week.

What strikes me about Parashat Bemidbar is not so much the census as the placement of each of the tribes around the Ark of the Covenant. Each tribe inhabits a space to the north, south, east or west of the ark to protect it and themselves from would be aggressors. Implicit in the placement of each tribe is that each tribe would be responsible for either warding off aggressors who might attack its domain or back up the other tribes in their struggles. At the same time, all the tribes would also be oriented toward that which bound them together, the Torah.

In the Eytz Hayim chumash (p. 774) we read: “A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.” Even though Judah had its job to do, it remained focus on Israel’s covenant with God and with the community.

I know Israel can be a divisive topic and that we won’t all hear or respond to this week’s news the same way. We will have our differences. We will all bring our own perspective to the reality before us, just as each tribe would view the Ark from whichever vantage point it occupied on the march through the wilderness.

My hope is that wherever we stand, we will listen to all the voices around us and engage in civil debate but that we will follow the example of Judah and always orient ourselves toward one another, remembering our shared history, our shared values, and our One God.

May we all pray for the welfare of the State of Israel and those charged with defending it. May we pray for the safety of our loved ones and all innocents in the region. And may we live to see the day when all humanity will awaken to its common destiny, when all warfare and bloodshed will cease, when Peace will reign over all the earth and God’s name will truly be One.

Envisioning the Jubilee in America

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5781 / פרשת בְּהַר־בְּחֻקֹּתַי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1-27:34

 

Parashat Behar, the first half of this week’s double Torah portion, contains a visionary statement about land ownership and social justice that continues to speak to us today:

You shall count off seven weeks of years… so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud… you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus 25:8-10)

Put plainly, every 50 years in biblical Israel the land would revert to its original owner, ensuring that no landowner could wield too much wealth or power over others and that no person would become permanently impoverished.[1] Rather than owning land outright, farmers purchased long-term leases, at the end of which, they handed the land back over to the families or individuals who had taken possession of the land at or shortly after entering into the Land of Israel after 40 years of wandering. They then let the land lie fallow for a year and sowed it only in the following year, having faith that God would provide for their needs during those years of waiting (Lev. 15:20-22).

There were two practical outcomes of the Jubilee (“yovel” in Hebrew). One was that families who had been evicted from their land due to foreclosure now had the opportunity to begin anew. They could return to their land, work it, and reestablish their credit. Another practical outcome was that “indentured Israelites, compelled to live on the estates of their creditors, would be free to return to their own homes” and regain their freedom.[2] In essence, the Jubilee amounted to a socio-economic reboot, a time to resort to the good old days when our ancestors appreciated that, after all is said and done, God is the true owner of the land and we are merely tenants.

One translation of these verses from the Torah is famously preserved upon the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell itself was ordered by the Pennsylvania assembly in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania’s original Constitution, which among other things assured its inhabitants of freedom of conscience. Later in its history the bell was aptly adopted by abolitionists as a symbol of the anti-slavery movement and ironically, after the Civil War, as a symbol of unity for the United States.[3]

Though the Hebrew word “d’ror” translated as “liberty” on the Liberty Bell, is better translated as “release,” the role of the Liberty Bell in history successfully captures the values inherent in the celebration of the Jubilee. Undoubtedly, the ancients would not have intended this form of release as a precedent for releasing foreign slaves, but rather only fellow Israelites. Still, the evolution of civilization has brought us to see all people as fully human and worthy of release from servitude.

The move from the “release” of debt mentioned in Torah to the freedom of slaves came very late in history, was met with much resistance, and may not even have been inevitable. Yet the progression from “release” to abolition makes moral and theological sense. All humans are created in God’s image, after all. Therefore, all humans are entitled to dignity and basic human rights. The line from the ancient Near East to 19th century America is not hard to draw.

But who would have thought that a symbol for the abolition of slavery could also be embraced by former slaveholders as a symbol of national unity? Not only were slave owners giving up what they perceived to be their rightful “property,” but they were also giving up their land. Were it not for the industrial revolution, the land would have been virtually worthless without a means to cultivate it and bring its yield to market. And, yet, as evidenced by Jefferson Davis’s visit to the bell in 1885, the ideas represented by the bell did, indeed, morph into a call for unity and reconciliation.[4]

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine under the British mandate, might have foreseen such a development. “Kook taught that the purpose of the jubilee was primarily spiritual, not economic. It came to restore the sense of unity that once prevailed in Israel…”[5] During his chief rabbinate Kook battled against Jewish opposition to Zionism as well as against forces of divisiveness within the Orthodox world. The Jubilee, for Rav Kook, represented a time when division would cease, a moment of reconciliation and brotherhood for all Jews.

If the Jubilee of the Torah could be a moment of reconciliation for Israel, than the Jubilee as represented by the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell might also serve as a reminder to all Americans after the Civil War that they were one nation. Just as biblical Israel saw their possession of the Land as Divinely ordained, so too did the founders of our nation consider the ground on which they stood to be a gift from God. For biblically knowledgeable survivors of the Civil War and their descendants, then, the Liberty Bell’s allusion to the Jubilee may have inspired them to cooperate and forgive and restore the “New Jerusalem” back to God.[6]

What does this lesson from the Torah and our own history books teach us? Just this: to the extent that the Jubilee presents a model for social justice in America, we have a lot of work to do to realize that vision. In the year 2021, we see an America divided politically, socially and economically. While we may all be free, we have yet to enjoy anything close to equality in the workplace or in the halls of decision-making. Moreover, we are as divided by ideology as ever. Equality and national unity remain elusive.

It is not realistic or, some would say, desirable in our country to enact the kind of reboot that the Torah dictates. After all, the “American dream” is as much about personal prosperity as it is about compassion. The truth is that these divergent ends will always stand in tension with one another. Americans don’t want to give up what they’ve earned, but neither will those in need be able to get by without the assistance of their neighbors.

Still, we need not accept a stalemate. The words of the Torah present us with an ideal for America. Circumstances may dictate against the full realization of that ideal in our day, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t strive to overcome social-economic disparity and religious and political divisions. As our sages taught us, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it altogether” (Pirkei Avot). At the very least, we can work to diminish the consequences of our divided society by ensuring that that the poor are cared for and given opportunities for economic advancement and by holding our lawmakers accountable for working together as civilly as possible for the common good. That would be a step forward.

In our liturgy we pray for a day when all suffering will be alleviated and all the world will live in peace. On that day, on the Jubilee of Jubilees, we will surely hear the loud blast of the shofar. Though that day may be further off than we can imagine, let us, nonetheless, dedicate our lives toward making it a possibility.

© Rabbi Daniel Aronson, 2021

 

[1] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 738.

[2] Ibid., p. 172.

[3]http://www.ushistory.org/libertybell/ accessed 5/8/11

[4] An interesting footnote to history is that Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, visited the bell in 1885 in Biloxi, Mississippi, during one of its seven trips around the country from 1885 to 1915. In his remarks paying homage to the bell, Davis called for national unity: “I think the time has come when reason should be substituted for passion and when men who have fought in support of their honest convictions, shall be able and willing to do justice to each other.” See http://www.independencehall-americanmemory.com/the-liberty-bell/liberty-bell-journey-to-new-orleans/

[5] Etz Hayim, p. 738.

[6] Both the Puritans and the pioneers of the American frontier saw themselves as fulfilling the prophetic vision for a “New Jerusalem.” See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/explanation/puritans.html for the Puritan argument and

[6]http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/Quaderno/Quaderno5/Q5.C7.Taylor.pdf for the pioneer argument.

Wisdom from a teen on how to “love your fellow as your self.”

Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5781 / פרשת אַחֲרֵי מוֹת־קְדשִׁים
Torah Portion: Leviticus 16:1-20:27

Every now and then I find wisdom in unexpected places that I like to share with the community, and this is one of those times. This morning I received the weekly email from Hazon, “the largest faith-based environmental organization in the U.S., which is building a movement to strengthen Jewish life and contribute to a more environmentally sustainable world for all.” The centerpiece of this email is an inspiring d’var Torah by Anna Dubey. Her by-line says that “Anna is a high school senior at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City and is a founding member and Director of Public Relations of the Jewish Youth Climate Movement, a movement that empowers youth to fight for climate action.”

Anna draws a connection between the commandment in this week’s Torah portion to “Love your fellow as your self” (Leviticus 19:18) and one of the laws of Shmita, or the “sabbatical year,” which requires the forgiveness of debt. The Torah offers no direct guidance on how we should love others. Implicit is the idea that we love others by following those positive and negative commands in the Torah that our sages termed, ben adam l’havero” or between one person and another. In her commentary, Anna points out that forgiving debt is akin to letting go of all kinds of emotions that hold us back and that prevent others from moving forward, too. Forgiveness itself, Anna says, is “crucial for loving others and ourselves.”

I would just add that sometimes forgiveness itself is too difficult to muster. Sometimes people hurt us in ways that are not forgivable and sometimes they don’t deserve our forgiveness. (See https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2018/09/when-not-to-forgive.html.) But that doesn’t mean we have to be held hostage emotionally, psychologically and spiritually by the harm done to us. Sometimes, in fact, it is even possible to build loving relationships with those who’ve violated our trust.

As a rabbi and as a human being, I am all too familiar with the pain caused to children by neglect and abuse. What amazes me is how so many people are able to move beyond that pain. Sometimes people do forgive. Other times, they allow themselves to grieve what they lost as a result of the harm done them. Other times, they view the perpetrator with compassion, seeing in them an illness that was beyond their control. All of these are ways to let go of the grudges that can otherwise weigh on us forever. It is heartening to see that a teen understands this and is teaching us to do the same.

To read Anna’s devar Torah, click HERE.

Feathers, Wicked Speech and Covid

Parashat Tazria-Metzora / פרשת תזריע־מצרע
Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33

A popular folktale tells how a rabbi once cured a townsperson of his inclination toward slander and other forms of lashon hara, harmful speech.

The rabbi advises the man to take a feather pillow into the town square and beat it with a broom until the pillow’s casing rips open and the feathers fly to and fro. The man follows the rabbi’s advice and watches as thousands of feathers fly away through the square and beyond. The man then goes back to the rabbi to report that he had done as advised.

The rabbi then tells him there’s just one more thing he must do to be cured of lashon hara once and for all: the man now has to go back to the square and collect up all the feathers. When the man realizes this would be impossible and protests, the rabbi explains that speech is like the feather pillow: once a word has been spoken, its effects are beyond the speaker’s control, and try as he may, there is no recapturing that speech.

This week’s Torah portion teaches about the need for all of us to control our speech and avoid engaging in lashon hara.

Parashat Tazria-Metzora ostensibly deals with a snow-white scaly skin affliction and parallel afflictions that grow on fabrics and on the walls of homes. The mysterious affliction is called tzaraat, and the one who has it is known as a metzora. How do our sages go from skin disease to talking about “wicked speech”? They play with the word “metzora” and say that it is short for “motzi shem ra” – speaking ill of another. Lashon hara, the rabbis say, covers speech that is true but has the potential to bring about humiliation and destroy people’s lives. Motzi shem ra is speech that is not true – defamation – that can have the same affect. When Miriam, Moses’s sister, publicly attacks Moses’s character in the Book of Numbers, God strikes her with tzaraat. Using the same word play, the sages say her punishment of tzaraat fits her misdeed of motzi shem ra, speaking ill of Moses and humiliating him.

Just as we have cures for diseases today, our biblical ancestors had cures for diseases in their day. Thus, the Torah directs the afflicted person to appear before a priest for diagnosis. If the person tests “positive,” the “treatment” includes separation from the community until the skin clears up, followed by an offering of two birds, one of which is to be slaughtered, the other of which is to be taken in the priest’s hand along with hyssop, cedar wood and crimson stuff and dipped in the blood of the slaughtered one. The water is then sprinkled on the person and the person is rendered spiritual pure once again.

Why are birds involved in this cure? The rabbis teach us that birds chirp and chatter just as the offender “chirped” and “chattered.” In other words, the punishment fits the crime. The price to pay for lashon hara is minimally the cost of two birds, one killed, the other “humiliated” by the blood stains it must bear. In real life, lashon hara has the potential to embarrass and humiliate or, worse, to destroy lives, livelihoods, and families.

As I mentioned, the effects of tzaraat are not limited to individuals. Clothing and the walls of houses are also susceptible to tzaraat. What’s more, the method to rid fabric and homes of the disease is identical to the cure for humans. Here, too, the Torah prescribes the offering of two birds. The rabbis teach that the diseased clothing, which can be seen by the public, represents the communal impact of lashon hara. An ill word, whether true or not, spoken about one person may upset a whole community, dividing it into advocates and detractors of both the speaker and the one spoken about. Closer to home, so to speak, words spoken have the potential to tear families apart. It’s as if the disease of one person mutates and covers the walls of his home and, perhaps, the walls of the one he or she has harmed. Thus, the Torah’s discussion of tzaraat suggests that the cost of lashon hara is born not just by the one who speaks it but by the speaker’s family and community, as well.

It is notable that both the story of the man who learned a lesson about speech and the Torah’s treatment of tzaraat each involve feathers, one in the form of the down stuffing of a pillow, the other in the form of the birds who provide them. When we fail to control our speech, we cause feathers to fly, blood to flow, the fabric of our being to become stained. Too often we ignore this high cost of our speech, and we aren’t even aware of the harm that we cause. It’s not only with Covid that we must remain vigilant about what comes out of our mouths, but with speech, too. Once it’s out, we have no control over where it lands.

We would be wise to heed the words of Rabbi Ben Zoma who said, “Who is strong? The one who controls his/her impulses.” When it comes to speech, truer words could never be spoken.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Safe Places and Heartache: We Stand with Aaron as We Remember Israel’s Fallen

Parashat Shmini 5781 / פרשת שְּׁמִינִי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 9:1-11:47 

Imagine a place where you go to escape the stresses of life, a safe space where you feel protected from the ordinary and extraordinary things that pursue you, that run you down. Perhaps this is the place you call your “happy place,” a place you long to visit, a filling station where your soul takes a refreshing supply of warmth and contentment like God’s breath filling the lungs of the first human beings. If God is a meaningful idea to you, imagine a place where you feel enveloped by God’s loving, calming, protecting embrace.

For nearly two millenium following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that place of refuge for Jews and the Jewish People was, in fact, Jerusalem. Despite being forbidden during long stretches from entering Jerusalem, never mind living there, Jerusalem remained in our collective imagination our place of refuge. As the Jewish people suffered atrocity after atrocity, their safe space remained a dream. Only in the late 19th century did that dream begin to morph into reality. And though slowly, slowly, young men and women made their way to the land that would become the State of Israel, at that time there was no State. Many of those young men and women, in fact, risked their lives as they sought to create a new reality for the Jewish people connected to the land of Israel. But that land would not yet provide a place of refuge for the Jewish people. Would that a Jewish homeland have been a reality in 1939, when the Nazis were “merely” pushing Jews to emigrate.

From May through June 1939, Cuba, the United States and Canada denied entry to 907 Jewish passengers aboard the St. Louis, most of whom were trying to flee Nazi Germany. Some six months earlier, on a terrible night we now call Kristallnacht, Jewish stores, synagogues and homes were left in shambles, Jewish life itself was upended, and it had become clear that they had to get out of Germany. We know that all 907 Jewish passengers were sent back to Germany, and we know that 255 of them were among the Six Million who perished in the Shoah.

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations voted on Resolution 181, adopting a plan to partition British Palesine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. And on May 14, 1948, the 5th of Iyar 5708, in a museum in Tel Aviv, David Ben Gurion declared the Establishment of the State of Israel. At that moment, our 2000 year old dream of returning to Zion became a reality. And despite the war that erupted earlier that day on May 14th, and despite all the wars since, the terrorist attacks, the embargos, the attempts at delegitimizing the State, the State of Israel exists as that one place where all Jews can call home. That one place in the world that is a safe place for all Jews.

Now, over time you will come to know that I believe that grave errors, tragic errors, were made in bringing about the State of Israel’s existence and that I am highly critical of its current government. You will also come to know that I adamantly support not only the idea of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland but I support Jewish self-determination in a Jewish homeland in the form of the State of Israel. I wrestle mightily with Israel’s history and with the confounding tensions between Israel’s expressed desire to be a fully democratic state with equal protections for all citizens and equitable distribution of resources and the desire for Israel to always be a Jewish homeland. I wrestle mightily partly because Israel is our safe space.

It is no secret that in the birthing of the State of Israel, mistakes were made by the most powerful nations of the world at that time, by the most zealous of Israel’s founders, and by Israel’s neighbors and their powerbrokers. Yet, none of that brings solace to those mothers and fathers whose sons and daughters gave their lives in defense of the State of Israel. And none of that will bring back the loved ones of those murdered by those who would push Israel into the sea. I know some of those mothers and fathers. I know friends of people murdered by terrorists. 

I can’t begin to know the pain and sorrow that hangs thick in the air as Israel observes Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, this coming week. 

This week we read in the Torah about the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, whose lives were cut short as they were making a sacrifice to God in the Holy of Holies (Lev. 10:1-3). Like many of Israel’s fallen soldiers, these were two young men who were novices. Some say they entered the Holy of Holies unbidden by God. Some say they were intoxicated. To Aaron and to their brothers, they were now dead, and they died doing what they thought was right, even if they went about it the wrong way. And the Torah says, “Va-yidom Aharon. Aaron’s was silent.” In creating a society that would play host to the Divine and that would become an example of righteousness for the world, Aaron’s sons were taken from him. Perhaps, he thought, this is the price of creating a safe space for God and my people.

In Israel, on Thursday, at 11 am sirens will blare for two minutes. Traffic will stop. The nation will be silent. They will stand with Aaron in that silence. And then, hours later, they will celebrate their birth, their 73rd year of independence, just as Aaron and his sons resumed their duties with a full, though broken heart.

I want to conclude with the poem, The Silver Platter, written by Natan Alterman in December 1947. He wrote these words in response to this warning by Chaim Weizman, who would become Israel’s first president: The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.

The Silver Platter
By Natan Alterman

And the land grows still, the red eye of the sky  slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises, Torn at heart but breathing, To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise, standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy

When across from it will step out a youth and a lass and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear, dirty, Shoes heavy with grime, they ascend the path quietly

To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time. Still bone weary from days and from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue and unrested,

Yet the dew of their youth. Is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death 

Then a nation in tears and amazement

will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly, “We Are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows

And the rest will be told In the chronicles of Israel.