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.

Parashah Ponderings

What Tazria has to teach us about love and compassion

Parashat Tazria 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת תַזְרִיעַ
Torah Portion: Leviticus 12:1-13:59 

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the skin affliction, tzaraat, a kind of scaling and discoloration of the skin like eczema or psoriasis that was considered contagious. Under certain circumstances, tzaarat would render the affected person ritually pure or impure. To determine the nature of the affliction, the person with the affliction would visit the kohen gadol or one of his sons, who would examine the person. If the person had tzaraat, the priest would have the person dwell outside the camp, outside the center of the community, and the person would call out “Impure! Impure!”

The rabbinic commentary around this portion paints a picture of a compassionate society. While the person was to dwell outside the camp, it was for the sake of spiritual healing, not to ostracize the person. “The role of the Kohen,” says the Etz Hayim humash, “was not simply to diagnose the ailment (and certainly not to treat it) but to reintegrate the person into the community as soon as possible. Religion sought to include, not to isolate, the afflicted person” (p. 652). 

Furthermore, at one point in referring to the priest’s examination of the person, there is a Hebrew phrase that is translated “when the priest sees it, i.e. the affected patch of skin.” However, our chumash notes that one commentator reads this phrase as “when the priest sees him” (p. 653). By this the commentator infers that the priest is to examine the whole person, not only the diseased limb. He is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is afflicted.”

So here we have two lessons for our community today. The tradition is telling us that as a community, we should seek to allow a person with a disease or special condition to become a full member of the community, not to relegate that person to the margins because of their illness or difference. Under some circumstances, it is necessary for a person to remain apart from the community, but that should never be seen as desirable in the long run nor should it become a permanent status.

Additionally, when we see someone with an illness or difference, we are to take note of that illness or difference but then look beyond it. We should not define any human being by their disabilities, differences or limitations. This was an important lesson that Eric Stumacher taught us during Jewish Disability Awareness Month when he spoke about adapting to life with a prosthetic limb. To Eric, the loss of the limb is incidental. To any of us who know Eric and have heard his music, we know the loss of his leg is incidental.

Later in the Torah portion, we read this (Lev. 13:45):

As for the person with tzaraat, his clothes shall be rent,
his head shall be left bare,
and he shall cover over his upper lip;
and he shall call out, “Impure! Impure!”

On the face of it, these measures to tear his clothes, shave his head, wear a face mask, and to actively call attention to his state of impurity, seems unjust. It strikes the casual reader as an act of shaming. The Jewish people have known such shaming when we’ve been forced to wear clothing and yellow stars that might as well have been targets on our backs.

Again, the commentary in the chumash asks us to look at this ritual in an entirely different way. “According to the Talmud, one does this not only to warn others of the contagion but also to elicit compassion and prayers on one’s behalf (BT MK5a). It is the responsibility of an afflicted person to recognize the illness and ask for help, and it is the responsibility of the community to offer support and prayer rather than shun or ignore the afflicted” (p. 657).

We see this principle operative in our community. We maintain a lengthy misheberach list so that we remember who in our midst and who in the lives of our neighbors are in need of healing. We do not shun nor ignore those who are ill or suffering. Even more, we ask that anyone who themselves is in need of help to let us know so that we can not only pray for them, but come to their aid in any number of ways. We cannot help someone if we don’t know they need help. We have a Caring Committee that is always ready to come to the aid of our fellow congregants. And we all are prepared to respond to a call to help with that effort.

The picture of compassion that we see in this week’s Torah portion stands in sharp relief to an incident that happened this past week during the broadcast of the Academy Awards. We witnessed a comedian deviating from his script to poke fun at a female celebrity who suffers from hair loss, and then we saw that celebrity’s even more famous husband mount the stage, saunter over to the comedian, and physically assault him before returning to his seat where he then verbally berated the comedian. Neither the comedian nor the husband were in the right. 

The joke in question was hardly the most insulting ever uttered by a comedian at the Oscar’s but it did come at the expense of a modern-day metzora – someone suffering from a condition like tzaraat. It was not his place to shame her, and it was quite apparent that she did, in fact, feel shamed at that moment.

The act of assaulting the comedian was even more repulsive than the joke, however. It represented a loss of self-control, a lack of judgment, and disregard for feelings not only of the comedian but for the man’s wife and everyone who witnessed the slap. The assaulter could have chosen to appropriately rebuke the comedian in private, away from the cameras and microphones and audience. 

Again, neither party was innocent in what happened at the Oscars. It should never have happened. We need only look at this week’s Torah portion to see what a community looks like when we think before we act, when we reach out to others with compassion rather than a slap. It is a community that respects the image of the Divine in each person and offers the love and care that each person needs. 

It may be beyond us to control what happens in Hollywood, but it is well within our grasp to create a community for ourselves that reflects the value of hesed – lovingkindness – that we read about in the Torah this week. May we heed this lesson and redouble our efforts to love one another as we ourselves would like to be loved.

Parashah Ponderings

Stoking the Fire of Divine-Human Connection

Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire – aish tamid – shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. Leviticus 6:5-6

In this week’s reading, we continue to learn how the priests were to offer animal and meal sacrifices upon the altar in the Tabernacle, Israel’s cumbersome but portable sanctuary in the wilderness. One detail worth noting is that the fire on the sacrificial altar was to remain lit perpetually, morning and night. Even as the Israelites wandered from one camp to the next, the fire burned, the altar being equipped with special poles to allow its transport by the priests. The priests would add wood to the fire each morning to ensure that there remained a perpetual fire, an aish tamid, to consume the numerous offerings the priests would place upon the altar each day.

This aish tamid of the altar is distinct from the more familiar ner tamid. In the Torah, the ner tamid refers to the flames of the ornate seven-branched menorah that stood in the Tabernacle. Unlike the fire of the sacrificial altar, the flames were allowed to burn out each night. It was the job of the priests to rekindle the flames regularly each morning, the term for regularly also being “tamid.”

The contrast between the ner tamid and the aish tamid holds for me considerable meaning. The ner tamid represents God’s eternal presence in the midst of Israel. The light of the menorah was understood as a metaphor even by the ancients, who did not fret when the light went out; they simply refilled the cups of the menorah with fresh olive oil the next day and set the oil afire once again. Of course, our biblical ancestors also had the Ark of the Covenant, which they considered to be God’s footstool. The people could rest assured that so long as they remained faithful to the covenant, God would always be there for them, and one of the ways they kept faith with God was through the sacrifices they offered.

What about the aish tamid? What is its meaning? If the ner tamid symbolized God’s presence for our ancestors, the aish tamid represented their significant, ongoing efforts to connect with that presence. Now, the work of cutting wood, clearing the ashes from the altar, and replenishing the wood on the altar was messy, difficult work, but necessary. Without a constantly stoked fire, there wouldn’t have been enough heat on the altar to consume the various offerings, especially those involving larger animals. Meanwhile, because our ancestors imagined that the aroma of the sacrifices was pleasing to God, they were fully committed to keeping the aish tamid perpetually lit. For them, a happy God meant a safe and secure Israel.

Today, we no longer have a Tabernacle or a Temple in which to offer sacrifices to keep God happy. Yet, it’s not the case that we are entirely without a sacrificial system or an aish tamid. When we pray, study and do acts of loving kindness, for example, we connect with God, who permeates all being. We “offer” ourselves to God in ways that involve self-sacrifice, (though it’s unlikely that our biblical ancestors would have considered our actions sacrifices). In addition, our rabbis teach us that our dinner tables, where we offer blessings and gather in fellowship with friends and family, are our altars.

The aish tamid? The aish tamid now resides as the passion within us with which we strive to draw near to the Divine. This inner “fire,” like the physical aish tamid of the Tabernacle, is something that we must work to keep active all the time, lest we become out of touch with the Godliness around us.

Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator, teaches that the priests would kindle the lights of the ner tamid with the fire from the aish tamid. The one could not exist without the other! The ongoing efforts of our ancestors to reach out to God by stoking the fire of the altar was necessary to make God’s presence real in their lives. In the absence of the “pleasing odor,” our ancestors could not be sure that God would always be there for them. As long as the smoke continued to rise to God’s nostrils, however, the people could feel confident that God was responding to their needs.

Rashi’s teaching suggests that when we offer ourselves to God through prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness, we, too, increase God’s light in the world. God becomes manifest through our expressions of gratitude, awe, and repentance, through our efforts to understand our people’s history and beliefs, through our actions to draw people together and heal the world. When we tend the aish tamid within our own souls, we move closer to God and God moves closer to us.

May we perpetually tend our inner aish tamid and know that the Holy One is constantly near.

Parashah Ponderings

When Connecting to God and Community, One Size Does Not Fit All

Parashat Vayikra / פרשת ויקרא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26

Most things in life are not “one-size-fits-all.” Things like rain ponchos and adjustable baseball caps, which claim to be OSFA, often leave the wearer feeling too small or too large. The lack of fit can sometimes be embarrassing. The truth is that that “all” really means “within a pre-determined range,” but human beings come in so many shapes and sizes that there are bound to be those who fall outside of this range. Clearly, one size does not fit all much of the time.

This reality holds not only for clothing, but education, finances, medicine, and even sacrificial offerings. As we learn in the Book of Leviticus (5:1-11), priests were instructed to accept certain types of sin offerings on a “sliding scale.” These offerings, termed “the ascending and descending offerings” by our sages, reflect our ancestors’ recognition that not all Israelites were of equal means. Some had the wealth to bring a sheep or goat to the Tabernacle, but others could afford to bring only two turtledoves or two pigeons, while still others had the ability to offer just a small measure of flour. The priests understood that a one-size-fits-all sacrificial system would have barred access to the Divine for all but the wealthiest classes.

Because the Torah institutes this progressive system of sin offering, all those who would commit minor sins were given the opportunity to repair their relationships with God. The Hebrew word for “offering” is “korban,” which implies nearness; one would bring an offering near to God by handing it over to the priests, who would, in turn, perform the necessary sacrificial rites. All people were capable of acting in ways that our biblical ancestors believed offended God. Fortunately, all people were also able to come near to God once again, effectively starting over with a clean spiritual bill of health. This would not have been possible had all sinners been required to bring the same, costly offering to the Tabernacle.

Later Jewish tradition also understands that the path to God is not the same for all God’s children. In giving tzedakah, for example, each of us is expected to give according to our ability. We may give more, if possible, but not less. In its commentary on this week’s Torah portion the Stone Edition Chumash teaches:

God took pity on a poor man and assigned a very inexpensive offering to him so that he could afford to obtain atonement. But if a rich man bring this offering, not only does it not atone for him, he is guilty of the sin of bringing an unsanctified object into the Temple Courtyard (Talmud Kereitot 28a). In giving charity, as in bringing offerings, one must give according to his means. A rich man has not fulfilled his obligation if he gives as little as a poor man (Chafetz Chaim).[1]

Interestingly, the Shulhan Arukh, one of the central codes of Jewish law, requires that we support the needy in the life to which they are accustomed. This may seem unfair to the most destitute among us, but it further demonstrates the extent to which Jewish tradition rejects a single standard of piety for all.

Another example: a current reality in American Jewish religious life is that not all who seek to be part of community are able to pay a fixed mandatory fee to become a member of a synagogue. Fortunately, most synagogues nowadays offer tiered or “fair share” dues and are prepared to work with anyone who desires to be close to God and community. We are also seeing synagogues experiment with a voluntary pledge structure, whereby individuals and families freely contribute what they are able to support their congregation of choice, no matter how little that may be.[2] It’s not yet clear if the voluntary pledge model can sustain congregations financially in the long run, but the experiment surely reflects the value of keeping community-based spirituality accessible to everyone.

Like all human beings, each Jew is unique; the abilities and needs of one Jew are the not the same as all other Jews. It is heartening, therefore, to see how Jewish communal life today so willingly accommodates the special circumstances of individuals and families, whether in including people with special needs, providing texts in translation for new immigrants, creating learning opportunities for people with different levels of knowledge or engagement, etc. True, we can scan the communal landscape and discover where more needs to be done in these and other areas in order to ensure access. Homebound elderly certainly deserve more connection with their communities than most currently enjoy, to name but one population whose needs do not fit well within our current communal structures.  Nonetheless, we should be grateful that the priests of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple oversaw a sacrificial system that was maximally inclusive to the extent possible in its day and which laid the foundation for our own efforts to draw seekers of all shapes and sizes near to God’s presence.

[1] Scherman, Rabbi Nosson, The Chumash. Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1997, p. 563.

[2] “The Pay What You Want Experiment at Synagogues”, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/the-pay-what-you-want-experiment-at-synagogues.html?_r=0, accessed 3/19/2015.

Parashah Ponderings

Building a home for God. Building a home for the Jewish People. Lacking Divine instructions for the latter, mistakes will happen, corrections made.

Parashat Terumah 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת תְּרוּמָה
Torah Portion: Exodus 25:1-27:19

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), delineates the plans for building the mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that was to serve as God’s dwelling place among the People of Israel. In building a home for God, God intends for all people who are willing and able to be involved. Moses assembles a talented crew of designers and builders to take care of the construction of the structure and its appurtenances and asks the people for freewill offerings of the materials required for this sacred project. As we will later learn, the plan, though complex, is fool-proof and is executed without flaw.

I see direct parallels between the construction of the mishkan and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. The former secures God’s permanent dwelling place among the People of Israel. Once it is built, the People will coalesce around God’s presence. Zionism, in its many iterations, has always sought to build a home among the nations for the Jewish People. Much like the mishkan, the Jewish homeland would serve to unite Jews the world over. Further, its presence would nourish the Jewish People, just as God’s presence in the mishkan would nourish our biblical forebears. The mishkan was God’s home. Today, the State of Israel is our homeland, if not our actual home.

Unlike the mishkan, however, there has never been a single, clear blueprint for how to build the Jewish homeland. People of good will had different ideas about the future homeland for centuries, from the Prophets, to Torah scholars, to the panoply of 19th and 20th century Zionist thinkers. Plans for the building up of Zion and the creation of the State of Israel have never been fool-proof, and the execution of Theodore Herzl’s vision for the Jewish homeland has been anything but flawless. Yet, the State of Israel is a reality. With all its trials, complications and blunders, with all its beauty, lofty ideals and incredible achievements, it is the homeland of the Jewish People.

The Zionist enterprise, the upbuilding of the Jewish homeland, is established, but it is not complete. Unlike the work of building the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the work of creating a state that reflects the best of the Jewish People is ongoing. We are ever seeking to balance the particularistic concerns of the Jewish People with the universalistic goals of tikkun olam, creating a just, sustainable and peaceful world. We are taught: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All Israel is responsible one for another. We are also taught to be Or la-goyim – A light unto the nations. In the life and governance of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, these teachings stand in constant tension. It should be the prayer of all Jews that this tension exists in a way that brings honor to the Jewish People and extends honor and dignity to all who live in Israel and in areas under it is control.

The damning and highly problematic 280-page report issued by Amnesty International – Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians: Cruel System of Domination and Crime Against Humanity – underscores the tremendous challenges the current State of Israel faces to create a just, sustainable and peaceful society for all whom it governs. There is intense debate whether Israel’s policies constitute apartheid — even among Israelis who have served in high office and have fought for the Jewish State. It is clear to me, therefore, that one can label Israel’s system of government and administration “apartheid” without delegitimizing Israel’s existence nor implicating all Jews in the creation and implementation of the State’s policies. (Please see the numerous responses to the AI report below. Several organizations believe AI’s report does delegitimize Israel’s very existence, and they find its calls for actions would lead to an elimination of the Jewish state.) As a Zionist, putting the accusation of apartheid aside and understanding that much in the report is debatable, misrepresented or just plain wrong, I read AI’s report and its conclusions as an urgent call for reform, reform that is critical for the continued unfolding of the Zionist dream.

To my mind, what is most problematic about Amnesty International’s report is that it fails to provide any historical or political context and, thus, is ready to be weaponized by Israel’s enemies and anti-Semites everywhere. As meticulously researched as it purports to be, the report’s lack of balance and nuance is stunning. There is no mention of the critical role of an Arab political party in the coalition that governs Israel today. There is no mention of the ways in which the State of Israel has improved the quality of life for so many Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. There is no mention that minorities in Israel have full political rights and greater representation in Knesset than in the U.S. Congress. There is no mention of the failures of the Palestinian Authority. There is no mention of the role of Hamas in holding the people of Gaza hostage to their extremist, anti-Semitic worldview, nor of Egypt’s partnership with Israel in keeping Hamas in check so the people in Gaza might have a chance to prosper. If I overlooked AI’s treatment of any of these realities in its report, I would gladly admit my error. None of this would excuse Israel’s mistakes and abuses, but it would certainly reveal that Israel is not essentially an apartheid state, but one dedicated to justice and fair treatment for all who reside within and beyond its borders.

Notwithstanding any oversight on my part, it is hard to see Amnesty International as seeking the kind of reform that would benefit Palestinians while also honoring Israel’s legitimate right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people. Though the authors of the report seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid language that could be deemed overtly anti-Semitic, it is too easy to imagine how anti-Semitic enemies of Israel will use this report to marshal public opinion against Israel and the Jewish People. Similarly, though the authors do not come out and say Israel does not have the right to exist, it is too easy to imagine how anti-Zionists, including Jewish anti-Zionists, will use AI’s report to undermine Israel’s very existence. In these regards, AI’s report poses a grave danger to Jewish communities everywhere. Most assuredly, it will become a rallying cry for anti-Semites and anti-Zionists on college campuses who will use it to isolate and demean their Jewish populations, as has happened so many times before. I hope I am wrong.

In the face of Amnesty International report equating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with apartheid, it is important for Jews who care about Israel to remember how the Zionist dream is all about our collective homecoming. Whether one makes aliyah or remains in the Diaspora, we must not let criticism of Israel become fodder for those who would do Israel or the Jewish People harm. This is not to say we should dismiss the criticism altogether. While the instructions for the mishkan were a product of the Divine, a reflection of God’s orderly universe as interpreted by our biblical ancestors, the pursuit for a more perfect homeland for the Jewish People is a decidedly human endeavor, in whole or in part. As such, the ongoing creation of the State of Israel is bound to be flawed. Rather than ignore or reject AI’s report altogether, we should discern legitimate criticism and pray that Israel’s leaders and advisors will remain steadfast in shaping a Jewish State that will continue to represent the “dawn of our redemption” and a shining light for the nations of the world.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Read responses to the Amnesty International Report:

https://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20220201_btselem_welcomes_amnesty_internationals_report_calling_the_israeli_regime_what_it_is_apartheid

https://www.gov.il/en/departments/news/amnesty-uk-expected-to-publish-biased-antiemitic-report-31-jan-2022

https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-condemns-amnesty-internationals-latest-effort-to-demonize-israel

https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/.premium-u-s-jewish-groups-slam-amnesty-s-israeli-apartheid-report-1.10579147

https://peacenow.org/entry.php?id=39145#.Yf2lberMK38

https://www.bnaibrith.org/press-releases/bnai-brith-refutes-deeply-flawed-damaging-and-dangerous-anti-israel-report-released-by-amnesty-international-uk

Parashah Ponderings

Just do it. The understanding will come later.

Parashat Mishpatim 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת מִּשְׁפָּטִים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1-24:18

Last week we read about God’s spectacular revelation directly to the People of Israel of aseret hadibrot, popularly translated as “the Ten Commandments” but more accurately translated as “the ten utterances.” Immediately upon witnessing this revelation, the people implore Moses: “You speak to us… and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” After calming the people down, Moses obliges their request and serves as the intermediary between God and the people for the delivery of the remaining 603 mitzvot (commandment). (Jewish tradition counts 613 mitzvot total.) The reading ends with God beginning privately to dictate those mitzvot to Moses.

The private dictation to Moses of the remaining mitzvot really takes off in this week’s reading as God reveals another 53 mishpatim (rules or laws).  These laws cover a vast range of legal territory: civil law, damages, family purity, ritual practice, criminal law, and more. Because of the legislative focus of these chapters, they are known in English as “The Book of the Covenant,” (sefer ha-brit, in Hebrew). 

Near the end of this parasha (Torah portion), Moses reads “The Book of the Covenant” aloud to the People of Israel, who respond with these famous words: “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do (na-aseh v’nishma)” (Ex. 24:7). The phrase “na-aseh v’nishma” literally means “we will do and we will hear/understand/heed.” These words have been interpreted throughout the ages to mean Israel accepted God’s Torah unflinchingly, essentially saying: “We will first do whatever You command and only afterwards seek to discern Your intent or find meaning in your mitzvot.” 

There is a teaching in the Talmud that says that God lifted Mt. Sinai up and held it over the heads of the
Israelites to persuade them to accept the Torah. “Do this or else!” But there’s another, gentler, kinder midrash on the giving of the Torah in which the sages imagine God offering the Torah to all the nations of the world. Until God came to Israel, all the other nations had inquired “What is written in it?” When they learned that the Torah would require them to take on commandments that ran antithetical to their pagan beliefs, they rejected it. Finally, God came to Israel, who responded: “Na-aseh v’nishma.” To the rabbis, Israel was like “a lily among thorns” (Song of Songs 2:2). They accepted the Torah out of love of God, not out of fear.

Are we today supposed to just do things because we’re told to? The idea of acting before really knowing why seems anathema to our modern sensibilities. In an age of rational decision-making and limited resources, including our own time and energy, aren’t we inclined to justify our every move before taking action? One of the reasons that so few Jews are religiously observant is that they see no reason to observe mitzvot, especially those pertaining to ritual. Most Jewish ritual, after all, is meaningless to them and, therefore, not worth expending their resources on.

But here’s the thing. At least in my experience, I’ve found great meaning in rituals and mitzvot that I began to practice before really knowing why. Lighting candles on Shabbat is one example. As a kid, it was just something my mother did because, I thought, “That’s just what Jews do.” Now, as an adult with a maturing theology, with a need to step back from the week’s activities, and with children of my own, I see in the candles much more than a nod to Jewish Peoplehood. The candles symbolize a much-needed spiritual infusion at the end of the week. The lighting itself affords my family and me a moment of quiet and togetherness that we rarely experience on a workaday basis.

I could go on about other rituals and mitzvot that I first tried on because “That’s what Jews do” and which have become a meaningful part of my life: keeping kosher, wearing a kippah, feeding my pets before feeding myself, and on and one. But I’m sure you get the point.

I encourage you to take this test: 

Read about the 613 Biblical mitzvot at http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm and the additional 7 mitzvot discerned by the rabbis in the Talmud at http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/411,429/What-are-the-seven-rabbinic-mitzvahs.html. Pick just one that you are not currently doing and just start doing it. Commit to taking on this one new mitzvah for six months and discover for yourself how the meaning and purpose of the mitzvah emerges for you. This process may require you to look up the mitzvah www.myjewishlearning.com or other sites because sometimes the meaning emerges from discussion with others or from the suggestions of our sages. 

If after the six months you still haven’t found a good enough reason to continue with the mitzvah, return it for a full refund. As for “no questions asked,” forget it. Asking questions is another meaningful thing that Jews just do.

Parashah Ponderings

Crossing the Sea — We’ve all been there.

Parashat Beshalach 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת בְּשַׁלַּח
Torah Portion: Exodus 13:17-17:16

The quintessential image of redemption in Judaism is undoubtedly the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which we read about in this week’s Torah reading. The similarities between this final act of liberation from slavery and the experience of birth are remarkable: the nascent nation passes from a place of literal and metaphorical darkness through a narrow, moist canal to emerge into a wide-open space filled with light and possibility. In fact, the exodus from Egypt marks the beginning of the birth of our nation. Prior to that they existed arguably as little more than cells in the body of Egypt with no independent identity of their own. They cross the sea as infants and begin the long, painful process of growth, maturity and self-actualization. At Sinai they enter adolescence, receiving the Torah that will bind them not only to God but to one another. Wandering for 40 years, the People will learn how to be true to that covenant, maturing in adults. Once they enter the Land of Israel as “adults” they will take all that they know and invest their energies into building a future for generations to come. This whole process begins with the birth of the Nation of Israel at the Sea of Reeds.

Beyond representing birth, the crossing of the sea effectively symbolizes all those times in our lives when we’ve emerged from places of distress and despair, when we’ve overcome trying circumstances, when we’ve regained our sense of wholeness, our well-being. Indeed, this moment symbolizes all kinds of transitions that entail moving from a known, often comfortable place, to a place of mystery, where anything can happen.

Try this guided meditation on life’s transitions. Imagine yourself on the Egyptian side of the Sea of Reeds. What is your current Egypt or the place where you currently feel most comfortable? (Remember, there was a large group of Israelites who didn’t like being slaves but found comfort in the familiarity of that life.) Now, imagine yourself in the Sea of Reeds, in transition to something new and exciting. Is there a way in which you feel in transition at this time in your life? Finally, imagine yourself on the far end of the Sea, where the People of Israel sing and dance. Are you in such a place? Have you recently emerged triumphant from a transition, whether it was a painful transition or relatively easy?

The questions I have posed are ones that we will ask as we read Shirat HaYam this Shabbat on Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. That “song” is the poem that Moses and the people sang so joyously upon realizing they were now free, the song that contains the refrain of Mi Chamocha from our Shabbat and weekday services and which was popularized in Disney’s Prince of EgyptShirat HaYam has its own beautiful melody. I hope you’ll have a chance to hear it chanted and to “cross the sea” with our ancestors.

In case you’re not able to make it to a synagogue service this week, here are a couple of videos where you can learn more about Shirat Hayam and hear it chanted:

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

Parashah Ponderings

A Moment and A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashah Ponderings

Overcoming the inner Pharaoh that abandons New Year’s resolutions.

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Happy New Year 2023! As we celebrate Shabbat on this New Year’s Eve, many of us are contemplating resolutions for the new year. Actually going to the gym where you’re a member but having been there since your introductory tour. Cutting back on ice cream. Making more time for family. Tackling those big projects that you’ve been putting off for months or years.

When push comes to shove, some of us will not only begin to address our resolutions, but actually fulfill them. Others of us, maybe not. We might make an attempt, but there’s a good chance we’ll putter out before we even make it to the end of the on ramp. It should come as no surprise that in the long run the “others,” the ones who fail to realize what they had resolved to do, far outnumber the “some,” the ones who actually succeed. The success rate after a year, in fact, is only about 8%, according to a study by the University of Scranton. (See: http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/. Surprisingly, the success rate after the first two weeks is actually 71%.)

Why such a high rate of failure over time? Here is one explanation, among many:

Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate. (See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201012/why-new-years-resolutions-fail)

In other words, no matter how much we want to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, unless we’re ready to change the way we do things, it simply isn’t going to happen. Too often, we harden our hearts against the things that we know are in our best interest. In this respect, most of us are like Pharaoh, who probably wanted to be a good guy but his hardened heart wouldn’t let him.

Pharaoh, the one “who knew not Joseph” and enslaved the Israelites, figures prominently in the current series of weekly Torah readings. Pharaoh not only refuses to let Israel go upon Moses’ insistence, but he actually makes their lives increasingly miserable and, consequently, makes his own life and the life of ordinary Egyptians miserable as well. It takes ten plagues from God before Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. During four of these plagues he promises Moses that he will let the people go but reneges each time those plagues are lifted. Each time he becomes stubborn, his “heart hardens.”

He isn’t ready to change his habits. Even if throughout the first nine plagues Pharaoh wants to let the people go in order to avoid future calamities, he just can’t shake the hardness from his heart. He can’t become the conciliatory leader he needs to be in the moment. Even mounting pressure from his own courtiers, who have come to fear the God of the Hebrews, is insufficient to convince Pharaoh that change is necessary, that Egypt’s very survival depends on his letting the Hebrews go. That maybe his own survival also depends on it.

That the Pharaoh of Exodus is wicked and evil is without question. But who’s to say that, during some of those later plagues when he says he will let the people go, he doesn’t actually intend to make good on the promise? Isn’t it possible that at least during the plague of darkness Pharaoh is sincere in his desire to let Israel go, but just as he begins to fulfill his resolution, he runs after them because he simply isn’t ready to change?

Pharaoh is an effective metaphor for our own intransigence.  Despite knowing how good it will be for us to change our habits, we still don’t take the steps necessary to effect that change and bring about that good. With Pharaoh, all the evidence says that letting Israel go from Egypt will lead to a termination of the terror befalling Egypt and an overall improvement of conditions for all concerned. Despite the evidence, though, Pharaoh won’t or can’t have a change of heart. In our lives, we can know for sure that eating healthier, getting more exercise, being kinder, or just getting stuff done that we want to get done will significantly improve our lives, perhaps even extend our lives. Yet, when faced with a choice, we opt for the status quo. We won’t or can’t change our habits, even though our situation may worsen.

There is no magic pill for producing the change we desire. For Pharaoh, change comes only after seeing the death of his first born, and even then change comes reluctantly. To be sure, as I mentioned earlier, Pharaoh actively seeks to undo the change he had begun.

To be fair to Pharaoh and to ourselves, we should remember how reluctant Moses was to take on the role of liberator. When commanded by God, Moses protested. Moses, too, was not ready to change and become the person God wanted him to be.

Unlike Pharaoh, though, Moses did change. He did pursue the resolutions he had set for himself upon receiving his marching orders from God. Moses succeeded in transforming himself into a leader, liberator, and law maker.

What did Moses do that Pharaoh didn’t do? Moses opened himself to encouragement and feedback. God didn’t acquiesce when Moses pushed back against the call to free his people but rather kept helping Moses see how he could overcome the obstacles that Moses believed would prevent him from being the person God wanted him to be. Moses listened when God spoke. In addition, God provided Moses with a network and means to maximize Moses’s probabilities for success: Aaron, Miriam, Jethro and Joshua all came to Moses’s aid at crucial times to help him lead Israel through difficult times. Moses accepted the help from people he loved and trusted. Pharaoh, meanwhile, neither listened to his trusted advisors nor accepted their help.

What if we surround ourselves with people who will encourage us? What if we open ourselves to those who love us and are willing to support us in making the changes we seek? That support network, that cheering squad, might not exist at this moment, but if we are serious about changing, we can create that network, that cheering squad, simply by asking others for help and encouragement. More often than not, the people who care about us will accompany us on our journeys toward change. They will help free us from our own hardened hearts.

As we continue reading about our redemption from bondage in Egypt this January 1st, let us be mindful of the ways we’d like to feel freer in our own lives and resolve to loosen the shackles of habits that keep us from experiencing optimal health or realizing our full potential. Resolving to change is a necessary first step. Just as important, though, let us remember that we needn’t take that journey toward change alone. Moses didn’t. Like Pharaoh, Moses once experienced a hardened heart, but ultimately Moses let God and the people around him soften his heart. We all have a little bit of Pharaoh inside us, but we can overcome our inner Pharaoh if we choose, like Moses did, to have faith and to place our trust in the people who care about us most.