Parashat Devarim 5782

August 5, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Dvarim, Uncategorized

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Do You Believe In Miracles?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Devarim
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses assembles the Israelites on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the Land promised to our ancestors. In a series of three speeches, Moses recounts the history of the past forty years, reviews old laws and imparts new ones, exhorts the people to follow the commandments and castigates them for their failure to do so in the past. He recalls the miracles of the plagues in Egypt and the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. He reminds the Israelites how God cared for them in the wilderness, “as a man carries his son, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 1:31).  God even personally guides the Jewish people on their journey, going before them “in fire by night and in cloud by day” (1:33), yet the people have no faith.

At the beginning of his third discourse, Moses again alludes to the history of the Exodus, this time stating, “Yet the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear until today” (Deuteronomy 29:3).

What does Moses mean?  Moses maintains that the Israelites never understood that their liberation and survival were miraculous events. Only forty years later, the “until this day” of the above passage, did the Jewish people understand the true nature of the Exodus and journey through the wilderness. “The ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “One may see great wonders but remain entirely insensitive.” (As quoted in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary p 1158).

The Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai, writes about this phenomenon in a poem entitled Nisim. (Translated here by Robert Alter. For the Hebrew and a translation by Rabbi Steven Sager z”l see here.)

From a distance everything looks like a miracle
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like that.
Even someone who crossed the Red Sea when it split
saw only the sweating back
of the man in front of him
and the swaying of his big thighs,
or at best, in a hasty glance to one side,
fish in a riot of colors inside the wall of water,
as in a marine observatory behind panels of glass.

Seen from the proper perspective, all of life can be recognized as a miracle. But when we are too close to it, when we are “in the moment”, we often miss it. When we are focused on the task at hand, we may never look up, or around that we might appreciate the miracle that is occurring. The poem continues:

The real miracles happen at the next table
of a restaurant in Albuquerque:
two women sat there, one with a diagonal
zipper, altogether lovely,
and the other said, “I kept it together
and didn’t cry.”

The narrator of our poem, however, sees the miraculous in the prosaic, the everyday. We wonder about the snatch of conversation he reports he hears from the next table in the restaurant. “I kept it together and didn’t cry”. Was this woman talking about confronting her superior around a work issue? Was she leaving her husband? Was the miracle that she “kept it together” where she expected she might fall apart? Or is the miracle the narrator perceives the fact that we can share our struggles with sympathetic friends, we can receive comfort and consolation from others following a difficult encounter or situation? We don’t think of that as “a miracle”, but perhaps it is. The poem concludes:

And after in the red corridors
of the foreign hotel I saw
boys and girls who held in their arms
tiny children born of them,
and they held
sweet little dolls.

The poet then moves from the snatch of conversation to the red corridor of the hotel in which he is staying. He sees “boys and girls” holding small children born to them, who themselves hold baby-dolls in their arms. To the older narrator, I think, the young adults he sees with their children are merely, “boys and girls” – children themselves. The “sweet little dolls” held by the children represent the future generation that one day will be born to them. This is the miracle of birth and death and renewal, and perhaps the miracle of the continuity of the Jewish people as well.

In our “Modim” prayer of the Amidah we declare that God’s “miracles are with us every day”. But like the Israelites, we may not be aware of them. Perhaps this is simply part of the human condition. Rabbi Elazar expounds on verse 72:18 in Psalms, “Blessed is Adonai Elohim, the God of Israel, who does wondrous things alone”. “What does it mean that God does wondrous things alone?” asks Rabbi Elazar. “It means that even the one for whom a miracle was performed does not recognize the miracle that was performed for him.” (Niddah 31a)

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

 

Parashat Mattot-Masei 5782

July 29, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Mattot-Masei
by Rabbi Doug Alpert

For some reason a good deal of my time both within and outside of Torah has lately focused on land and borders. This week’s double portion, Mattot-Masei provides us with the most extensive, but certainly not the only delineation of the borders for HaAretz-the land of Israel in our Written Torah.

This started for me back in Parashat Shelah-Lekha with the narrative regarding the twelve spies who scouted the land. Within my weekly clergy interfaith Torah study group the conversation shifted from the usual emphasis on the sin of the ten spies who sought to impose their pessimism on the people in contravention to the report of Caleb and Joshua, to a very different issue; why were the spies sent in the first place. What was the ultimate purpose and goal-i.e., why did we need to conquer the land, and what was this gift from G-d of the land that we just had to possess?

In Parashat Mattot we read of what at least begins as a rather contentious request from the tribes of Reuvein and Gad to settle outside of the land, east of the Jordan. (See Numbers ch. 32) Their request is motivated by an economic consideration to settle in good cattle grazing land. The request is ultimately granted upon their promise to, “arm ourselves rapidly and go before B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 32:17)  This has been described as shock troops, going into the land first and taking the greatest risk in conquering the land, land they will conquer for the other tribes and not for themselves.

My own struggle with and desire to better understand the concept of possessed land and borders is centered both in the ongoing and elusive struggle for peace vis-à-vis Israelis and Palestinians, and here at home regarding the conflicting approaches of various states toward abortion and reproductive rights. Seemingly very different issues, yet I think they both rely on how we see the idea of borders as being a means of protection and/or one of exclusion.

As to Israel and my deep yearning for a real peace I presently grapple with a two-state solution-the present policy decision of J Street, versus a single bi-national state centered around equality for all its citizens-an approach articulated by Peter Beinert in an essay in Jewish Currents.  (A side note, I understand that this reflects a left of center position; a natural position for me as it relates to both politics in Israel and here in the States. I merely express the view here to reflect my approach to the idea of borders, and not to begin or engage in a broader debate on Israel’s future. Dare I state the cliché… some of my best friends and family for that matter are deeply committed to AIPAC. They are people I love and respect, never doubting their love for Israel or the Jewish people, as I ask they not doubt mine either.)

I think the two approaches boil down to a whether we lean into our proclivity to establish borders; whether those borders delineate G-d given land and/or, we need to have those borders for our survival. Also, is survival on its own a sufficient purpose to establish exclusive rights to the land or is the land a vehicle for a greater purpose.

If we hold to the idea that HaAretz – the land – is G-d given to us, the Jewish people we are still left with the challenge of determining the exact borders of that land. “[F]rom patriarchal to Roman times-we may distinguish five different conceptions of what constituted the land…” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut, at p. 1129) To the extent the description of the borders for the land in this week’s Parashah are an idealized projection there is a further observation in the Plaut essay that this description should not be used as a Torahitically approved mandate for establishing the borders, nor as a basis by Arabs for fearing Israeli expansionism. (Ibid.). It is rather a reflection of a Syrian-Palestine province of Egypt as specified in a treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites.

None of this diminishes our historical and spiritual connection to the land of Israel. Notwithstanding the argument that the land, within whatever understanding of its borders one asserts is an inheritance from G-d we are not free to deny, most discussions of borders center around issues of security and survival. Dig a little deeper and we get into issues of the survival of “a” or “the” Jewish state. The issues are much more about demography than spirituality.

Nehama Leibowitz addresses our obligation vis-à-vis the land that is more spiritually centered. “This is not just a matter of history but involves for Israel a moral obligation, the responsibility to observe a particular way of life in that land.” (Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers, Nehama Leibowitz at p.401) “You must not defile the land in which you live, wherein I reside, for I, [G-d] dwell among B’nei Yisrael.” (Numbers 35:34) In a sense how we live in the land and even how we as Jews live outside the land – how we live our Jewish values – presents as somewhat of a litmus test for whether or not G-d allows us to continue to live in the land. Does our present focus on establishing borders serve the purpose for which we as Jews possess the land?

In regard to abortion and reproductive rights I am on the board of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, a four-state regional board including: Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the western half of Missouri. In Missouri where I live it is virtually impossible for a woman to obtain an abortion. Likewise, Arkansas and Oklahoma have recently passed similar legislation tantamount to completely outlawing abortion services. Amongst my own concerns are whether I can counsel congregants seeking advice on abortion-i.e., whether my state of Missouri will allow me to follow Jewish law in prioritizing the health of the mother over the fetus in utero.

Kansas presently has within its borders (emphasis added) abortion established as a Constitutional right. A vote is coming up in Kansas on August 2 to take away that right and give carte blanche to the state legislature to further regulate (regulations already exist) or outlaw abortion in the state.

I live in Missouri but can walk one block to get my morning coffee in Kansas. It is somewhat mind-boggling that a single block can render a completely opposite outcome for women. Yet, where we stand right now there are state borders which exclude reproductive rights, and state borders seen as last lines of defense in protecting those rights.

My struggle with borders continues in this arena. Do state or international borders serve to protect or exclude and are there moral considerations that should not be bound by arbitrary borders? Do borders place us closer to fulfilling our religious mission, or do those borders serve as an obstacle to fulfilling that mission?
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Rabbi Doug Alpert (AJR ’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.
 

Parashat Pinhas 5782

July 22, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Pinhas
by Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

 

In Parashat Pinhas, the formal ceremony of leadership succession takes place. Upon being reminded (as if he needed to be reminded) that he would not enter the land, Moses calls upon God to appoint a new leader. By appealing to God as the “Elohei HaRuhot” – the God of all spirits – the rabbis explain that Moses wants to make sure that God understands that the new leader must be able to tolerate the different opinions and personalities of the people. (See Rashi to Numbers 27:16)

God informs Moses that Joshua will succeed him and that he should make a public display of this by standing before the people and placing his hand(s) on Joshua. (Sounds like our semikha, and it is indeed the source.) Through this ceremony, some of the glory of Moses enters Joshua and succession is complete.

And then, in the very next verse, the Parasha continues to teach about the various communal offerings beginning with the daily Tamid and proceeding to what we call the Musaf offerings for Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and all of the holy days of the calendar.

Two questions immediately arise: First, what are these laws doing here? Surely it would make more sense to teach them in Leviticus? And second, now that they are here in Numbers, why are they juxtaposed to this particular story of Moses, Joshua and the succession of leadership?

Rashi begins: “What has been stated above? Moses said, “May the God of all spirits appoint…” and the Holy Blessed One said to Moses, “Rather than you commanding Me about My children, command My children about Me. This is like a parable found in the Sifrei 142.”

Here is the parable: The daughter of the king was departing from this world. As her life was coming to an end, she called her husband to command him as to how he should care for their young children. The husband responded and said, “I know you are commanding me with regard to the children, but it is more important that you command the children to honor me and love me after you are gone.”

What an amazing Midrash! God is worried that after the death of Moses, the people might abandon Him. It is as if the father tries to feed the children and they refuse saying, “This isn’t how mommy fed us.” Or they refuse to wear the clothes the father puts out because it was not the manner by which their mother had dressed them. God is afraid of what it will be like without Moses and He pleads with Moses to do something to make the people love and honor Him. Whoa! I think that is so powerful and so beautiful.

But it is still not entirely clear how it answers the questions which Rashi is addressing. It seems that we must conclude that what Rashi is teaching is that the offerings are the response to God’s fear. The midrash thus explains both why these offerings are not in Leviticus and why they immediately follow the succession story. When God asked Moses to do something to strengthen the love relationship between God and the people, the Musaf offerings were established.

But how exactly does that work?

We may answer that question with a beautiful teaching of Rav Eliyahu Dessler in his work, Mikhtav MeiEliyahu (this is translated into English under the title (Strive for Truth.) Rav Dessler writes:

We see that love and giving always come together. Is the giving the consequence of the love, or perhaps the reverse is true: is the love the result of the giving.We usually think that it is love that causes giving because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the one he loves. But there is another side to the argument. Giving might bring about love. A person falls in love with what he nurtures and begins to recognize in that person a part of himself…This is what the rabbis say in Masekhet Derekh Eretz Zuta: If you want to keep love for a friend, make sure you seek his welfare. (Strive for Truth, p.126)

In short, Rav Dessler teaches that love is born in giving, not the other way around. The more one gives, the more one loves. With this teaching, we can explain the midrash. God worried that without Moses, the relationship with the people would deteriorate and called on Moses to take action that will increase the level of love and honor that the people would have for God. In response, new opportunities for daily, weekly and yearly communal giving were established. More giving, more loving. And this is not news. After all, we know that offerings were called “korbanot” from the word “karov”, to come near. As Rav Dessler would say, the more you give the closer you come to another person.

Sometimes Musaf is given short shrift. It speaks with and about a language of love that we no longer use. It certainly adds time to the prayer service (especially when the smells of kiddush are wafting into the room.) It helps me to think that my Musaf is a response to God’s great fear. The fear that I will fall out of love. I cannot think of anything that makes me want to love God more. And when I say Musaf – any Musaf – that is my kavanah. I am here, God. And I am trying to love you even more.

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.
 

Parashat Balak 5782

July 14, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Balak
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

“Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” (מְבָרְכֶיךָ בָרוּךְ וְאֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר; Num. 24:9) – these are the words that conclude one of Bilaam’s blessings to Israel. This poetic proclamation harks back to God’s blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and curse the one who curses you…” (וַאֲבָרְכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר). Blessing begets blessing and curse begets curse. But what does this mean? Is it simply a statement of reciprocity and retaliation? What you do to me I shall do to you? Or perhaps there is more to this statement than meets the eye.

After making this proclamation, Bilaam responds to Balak’s anger with another poetic statement, “Word of Bilaam son of Be’or, word of the man whose eye is true, word of one who hears God’s speech, who obtains knowledge from the Most High, and beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled…” (Num. 24:15-16). Bilaam goes on to speak about his vision of the future; but what I find intriguing is the fact that despite Bilaam’s earlier assertions that he is unable to deviate from what God intends (e.g., Num. 22:38), nevertheless here Bilaam claims the words as his own. As we might expect, he is able to speak the words because he “hears God’s speech,” but why does he emphasize his visions and his eyes being unveiled (employing the very unusual word שָׁתוּם)? Perhaps the story means to draw our attention to sight and vision. Indeed, this is a running theme throughout the parasha.

Towards the very beginning of the parasha, Balak sends a message to Bilaam that “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view” (כִסָּה אֶת־ עֵין הָאָרֶץ; Num. 22:5) – perhaps literally it covers the “eye” of the earth (BDB, entry עין 4a; pg 744). The phrase is repeated just a few verses later in Num. 22:11. The other main instance in which covering the “eye” of the earth appears in the Torah is with regard to the plague of locust in Egypt (Exod. 10:5 and 10:15). The allusion seems intentional – Balak sees the hordes of Israelites as locust, covering the land and devouring its produce.

As we progress further into the parasha, we encounter a more famous instance of seeing, the episode of the talking donkey. The donkey sees what Bilaam cannot, the angel of God. Eventually God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes and he is able to see the angel as well (Num. 22:31), leading him to change his attitude towards the poor animal he had been beating.

A third key instance of seeing appears as Balak continually attempts to get Bilaam to curse the Israelites. After Bilaam blesses them, Balak moves him to another position where he will have a different view of the people: “Then Balak said to him, “Come with me to another place from which you can see them—you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them—and damn them for me from there” (Num. 23:13). Balak appears to believe that by limiting Bilaam’s view, allowing him to only see a portion of the Israelites (אֶפֶס קָצֵהוּ תִרְאֶה), this will enable Bilaam to finally curse the people. But this attempt fails and when Balak asks Bilaam what God told him, Bilaam responds, “No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel” (Num. 23:21) employing two different terms for seeing (הִבִּיט and רָאָה).

So what do we learn from all of these references to seeing and how does this connect with our initial question about blessings and curses? I would suggest that a core message of this parasha is that we perpetuate what we see, be it blessing or curse. Balak sees the people as locust, a curse for him and his land, and thus strives to curse them in return. At first Bilaam cannot see how the donkey acts in his best interest and, seeing the donkey as mocking him (הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; Num. 22:29), he lashes out. Once his eyes are opened and he understands, he is able to see his own fault. Finally, when Bilaam blesses the people, Balak is aware of the fact that changing how we see something or someone impacts how we respond and he hopes to change blessing to curse by changing Bilaam’s perspective. But ultimately Balak fails because Bilaam’s eyes are open and he sees the truth, even when only glimpsing the people.

Balak sees a curse and responds in kind. Bilaam sees a curse until his eyes are opened, at which point he sees blessings even when only glimpsing part of the reality. The actions of these figures teach us that we perpetuate what we see.

“Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you!” This is more than a statement of reciprocity. In our parasha this allusion to Abraham’s blessing informs us that by seeing blessing we respond in kind and by so doing we ourselves become blessed – but if we only see curses, then we can only respond with curses and in so doing bring curses back upon ourselves.

So what can this mean for us today? What we see impacts how we respond, which in turn impacts how others will respond to us. I urge us to strive for the blessing that God bestows upon Abraham – “you shall be a blessing” (וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה; Gen. 12:2). By being a blessing, we can work towards that ultimate goal of sharing that blessing with the world – “And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Gen. 12:3). But it begins, as our parasha teaches us, with being able to see the blessings around us. May we be blessed to see the blessings, even when we feel surrounded by curses, so that we can magnify those blessings for ourselves, those around us, and ultimately the world.
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Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation.

 

Parashat Hukkat 5782

July 8, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Hukkat
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

The most frustrating thing about cleaning is that things don’t stay clean and you’re going to have to do it all over again. The second most frustrating thing about cleaning is that it’s hard to do without winding up filthy yourself. This is exactly the paradox of the ritual of the red heifer. As we read at the beginning of parashat Hukkat, the only way to cleanse the ritual impurity attached to caring for or touching the dead is to bring impurity to a wide circle of others. In order to produce the “waters of lustration,” which are used to ritually purify those who have been in contact with the dead, a perfectly unblemished red heifer, who has never had the experience of being yoked, must be slaughtered and burned to ashes. Those ashes must be collected and saved to be mixed into fresh water for this purification process. Each step along the way creates echoes of the ritual impurity at the center, the impurity of death, and most of those involved in the process must undergo their own purification.

These ritual cleansing instructions may feel random, not clearly connected to anything that comes before or after. But they are an interesting preface to the next chapter. Without explanation, Miriam dies and is buried. We don’t hear anything about the mourning rituals around Miriam’s death. Instead, we immediately hear complaining from the Israelites – they again have no water. Midrash has traditionally connected Miriam to the presence of water for the Israelites. As one of the three sustainers of the Israelites in the wilderness, her singular presence ensured that a well of water would accompany their journey (Ta’anit 9a). Because the well existed only for her merit, her death ended the Israelites’ access to water.

As we just read in Numbers 19, water is an essential part of the practice of ritual purification after death. Without Miriam, the people were not only thirsty, they were incapable of becoming pure. It is hard to relate to the concept of ritual impurity as modern Jews who do not have Temple practice to worry over. Ritual impurity is not connected to physical dirtiness or spiritual insufficiency. Ritual purity is about availability for ritual service. Indeed, when we experience the death of a loved one, we often feel unavailable for taking on tasks which require physical, mental, or spiritual energy. We may also feel emotional distance from spiritual life, numbness or pain that makes it impossible for us to be fully available to spiritual life. This unavailability is written directly into Jewish customs around mourning. We do not attend synagogue; synagogue comes to us. We do not feed ourselves; others feed us. We are less available to do the work of daily living until we have been sufficiently cared for by others.

When Miriam dies, there is no metaphorical “water” of caregiving to soothe an increasingly spiritually unavailable group of Israelites. The effect is immediate: the distress the Israelites have weathered through months of struggle has suddenly become too much. When care from our communities is available to us, whether that is in the form of purifying waters of lustration or meals brought to a shiva house, we can withstand almost everything. When that care is removed, we crumble at the slightest difficulties.

Miriam’s death points to the danger of relegating the task of “care” to one person. Miriam bore sole responsibility for the well accompanying the Israelites on their journey. The ethic of communal care embodied by the ritual of the red heifer – a line of possibly unnamed but essential persons ready to care for the single person afflicted by spiritual impurity – is the antidote to finding ourselves in the position of overwhelm which continuously plagued our ancestors in the wilderness.
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Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.

 

 

Parashat Korah 5782

June 30, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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When the Law is Unjust, We Break the Law
A D’var Torah for Parashat Korah
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Last week, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, withdrawing the already paltry federal protections on abortion rights. Many states already had trigger laws in place and abortion access became unavailable to thousands of people overnight. Congress had 50 years to codify federal legislation to allow reproductive freedom throughout the country. A leak of the current Supreme Court decision broke out about six weeks ago, allowing time for the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, dominated by people who claim to support reproductive freedom and choice, to react before the decision was formally handed down. And yet, no preparations were made for this moment. Very few elected officials did anything to protect us, but so many were ready to wail and moan with us and ask for our votes and money as soon as the SCOTUS decision was official. Women and the LGBTQIA community have been completely failed by our governments.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Korah, a man stands up to a head of state. Korah rallies two hundred and fifty others and confronts Moses: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3). Although overall the takeaway on this parasha tends to be that Korah was a power-hungry usurper seeking to take Moses’s God-given leadership role for himself, Rashi and Ibn Ezra agree that “You have gone too far” means “you have taken more than you are due,” and neither seem to elaborate further on why Korah was mistaken in that belief about Moses. I have always seen this parasha as one about the demands for greater democracy and the dangers of a singular charismatic leader or generally of appointed rather than elected leadership.

Several years ago, on an episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound, (now Rabbi) Lex Rofeberg suggested a parallel explanation of the passing down of Torah, similar to the opening line of Mishnah Avot and the feminist retelling of it by Rabbi Jill Hammer. Maybe “Moses received the Torah [as we have traditionally been taught to understand it] and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.” Maybe “Miriam received Torah [as the feminist movement has reclaimed it for us] from God at Sinai and she transmitted it to her daughter. Her daughter transmitted it to the judges, Devorah and Yael, and Yael transmitted it to the daughter of Jephthah, and from them it passed to Naomi and to Ruth, and all the prophets who followed, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, learned it from them and transmitted it to the women of the great gathering.” And maybe, Korah received Torah of radical inclusivity and people-driven democracy, and transmitted it to the destroyed and lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. They transmitted it to the Sons of Korah who wrote the Psalms of exile, beckoning us to stay rooted in our faith even when others strip us of our religious autonomy. The Sons of Korah transmitted it to Elisha ben Abuyah, and from him it went to Baruch Spinoza, then to Emma Goldman. Throughout history, the Torah of Korah was passed on down through the people considered in their time to be heretics and sinners, but whose voices were still so thoroughly Jewish in their challenges to the institutions that rule us that they refused to be silenced and washed away in history.

We are now the inheritors of all those iterations of Torah. We must not only accept the Torah of Moses, but also the Torah of Miriam, demanding that women and womb-bearers be given their voice as well. And also, the Torah of Korah, demanding democracy for all and the cessation of unjust leadership. The time has again come for us to challenge the institutions that rule us. Even if it means some of us may get swallowed up by the earth, morality demands that those who have the means and the privilege stand up against over-reaching leadership and speak truth to power. This may mean speaking directly to members of congress and pushing them to support meaningful legislation that protects our bodies and our religious values or to change the unchecked nature of the power of the courts. This may mean giving money to abortion access organizations. This may mean counseling and driving someone to their abortion appointment out of state. This may mean protesting and shutting down business as usual for the people who have made this dystopia a reality. Whatever it means for you, may you go into it bravely. There will likely be consequences for those who disrupt the status quo. But there will be far graver consequences if this ruling is allowed to stand.

May we find our chutzpah and our voice to speak truth to power as did our ancestor Korah. May over-reaching leaders be challenged publicly and unjust laws thrown onto the ground. And this time, may those who represent the people be allowed to stand as the Earth opens up and instead swallows those who only care for power.
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Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.

 

Parashat Shelah 5782

June 24, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A Fish We Shouldn’t Let Get Away
A D’var Torah for Parashat Shelah
By Rabbi Katy Allen (’05)

You should have seen the fish that got away!

Remember Paul Bunyan? The giant lumberjack blew through a hollow tree to call his men to dinner, and the blast blew down trees for miles. When he spoke, the limbs fell from the trees.

Such is the stuff of tall tales, for we humans are wont to exaggerate, whether to build ourselves up or to entertain. And we also exaggerate in the other direction:

“I’m going to fail that exam, I’ll never be able to finish school, my life will be a failure!”

“If I tell the truth, they’ll never speak to me again!”

And from our parasha, the report of the spies: “The country we traversed and scouted devours its settlers! All the people we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them….Our wives and children will be carried off!” (Num. 13:32-3314:3)

Catastrophizing, always expecting the worst will happen, is a psychological term for a cognitive distortion that prompts us to jump to the worst possible conclusion or to describe pain or other negative emotions or situations in an exaggerated way. But not all dire predictions of the future are exaggerations:

“Your diagnosis is terminal, with a general expectancy of a year to live.”

“If you insist on not exercising, your chances of getting heart disease, diabetes, or cancer are much higher.” (CDC)

As the impacts of climate change continue “…human life, safety, and livelihoods will be placed at risk from sea level rise, severe storms, and hurricanes…flooding will become a dominant risk…large wildfires will increasingly endanger lives [and] livelihoods…”  IPCC facts

In the story in the parasha, two scouts, Joshua and Caleb saw only blessings: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land…a land that flows with milk and honey…” (Num. 14:7-8)

We are often faced in life with two choices – to distinguish between real and perceived dangers and how to respond to actual threats.

Caleb and Joshua saw no threat, but perceived all the blessings. What made the difference in how they reacted? The sages provide us with answers:

“Moses changed the name of Hosea son of Nun to Joshua.” (Num. 13:16) By giving him this name יהושע (Yehoshua) which is a compound of י-ה and הושע “G!d may save”, he in effect prayed for him: “May G!d save you from the evil counsel of the spies.” (Rashi quoting Sotah 34b).

“And they went up into the south, and he came to Hebron.” (Num. 13:22). Why is the phrase “and he came” in the singular form? The verse should have said: And they came. Rava says: This teaches that Caleb separated himself from the counsel of the other spies and went and prostrated himself on the graves of the forefathers. He said to them: “My forefathers, pray for mercy for me so that I will be saved from the counsel of the spies.” (Sotah 34b)

Prayer and blessing. Connecting to G!d. These are what gave Joshua and Caleb the power and ability to both see the good and to understand that the threat was not real. Thus, unlike the other scouts, they were neither overwhelmed nor afraid.

That test we are convinced we will fail? The chances are slim. And even if we do, it rarely means the end of our chances for success in life. In fact, sometimes failure opens unexpected doors toward a pathway that is more closely aligned with our deepest self.

Telling the truth to those we love? Yes, we may face hard conversations, but those conversations have the potential to bring us closer together. Telling the truth means being true to ourselves, and even if that does actually lead to a breakdown in a relationship, it also has the potential to lead us to greater connection with ourselves and others.

In the face of a terminal diagnosis, we still have the choice to continue to live fully each day, thus opening us to the possibility of experiencing unexpected blessings in our remaining days.

Recognizing the dangers inherent in a sedentary lifestyle, we can make the choice to find ways to fit activity into our lives and increase our physical and emotional wellbeing.

In response to climate change, we can acknowledge the opening for moving toward greater justice: “Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices…to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy…The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations…Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.” (Climate Justice Alliance)

Even when we feel like we don’t have a choice, we actually do have a choice about something.

We always have the choice to see the future in a positive manner, even when facing what may be great danger, either global or personal. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the costs in terms of personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.” (Eyes Remade for Wonder, p. 66)

Prayer and blessing. Connecting to G!d. Being present in the moment and to yourself. This is what can give each of us the power and ability to think positively. To find the good in life. To be realistic about what is and what can be. To know that we are not alone. To have a vision for a stronger relationship with the sacred and a just and sustainable world, and to follow that vision.

May we all be like Caleb and Joshua, and may we not let this fish get away.
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Rabbi Katy Allen (AJR ’05) is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma’yan Tikvah. She blogs, and invites others to share their wisdom as well, at www.mayantikvah.blogspot.com.

 

Parashat Beha’alotekha 5782

June 17, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Beha’alotekha
By Rabbi Enid Lader (’10)

On the day that the Mishkan [portable Tabernacle/Temple] was set up, the cloud covered the Mishkan, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Mishkan in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night… At a command of the Eternal, the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Eternal, they made camp… (Numbers 9:15-1618)

In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotekha, Netivot Shalom (Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, 1911-2000, better known as Netivot Shalom or The Slominer, after his book and the Hasidic sect he led) invites us to understand the building of the Mishkan on a personal level. When the Eternal said, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them,” (Ex. 25:8) this hints at the concept that through the building of the Mishkan, the Eternal will dwell inside each and every one of the Jewish people. Netivot Shalom goes on to teach: “The Mishkan was not a one-time building project, but it is something that every Jewish person must build within themselves each and every day, a special place in one’s life where they make space for the influence of God’s Presence.” [Netivot Shalom on Chumash, Ben Madsen, translator, p. 243.] In the verses from our Torah portion, the building of the Mishkan is written in the anonymous third person; and Netivot Shalom sees that anonymous third person as each of us. Each of us has our own personal daily mission to build an internal Mishkan.

Netivot Shalom continues as he comments about the cloud cover, and sees it as the cloud that can descend upon us when we try to work on ourselves and change our reality. By day it is a cloud, and by night the resistance to change can burn like a fire. When the cloud, or the fire, would lift from the Mishkan, the Jewish people would soldier on in their travels. Netivot Shalom sees the cloud and the fire as tests along our path to our best selves. He writes that when the darkness lifts, we continue onwards and upwards in our spiritual journey. [Netivot Shalom, p. 244]

Lisa Miller, PhD, in her book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life (Random House, 2021) shares decades of neuroscientific research that show two modes of awareness that are available to us at all times: achieving awareness and awakened awareness. Achieving awareness is the “perception that our purpose is to organize and control our lives. It is highly necessary and a very helpful form of perception… But, overused, achieving awareness overrides and changes the structure of our brains, carving pathways of depression, anxiety, stress, and craving… leaving us narrowly focused, unguided by the bigger picture, obsessed with the same track or idea, never satisfied, and often lonely and isolated.” (The Awakened Brain, p. 164-5)

It is like we are overshadowed by a cloud, or a consuming fire.

When we engage our awakened awareness, we make use of different parts of our brain; we see more, integrating information from multiple sources of perception… We are able to perceive more choices and opportunities available to us, feel more connected with others… and feel more in tune with our life’s purpose and meaning. (Ibid., p. 164-5)

Our awakened brain thus enables us to continue onward and upward in our spiritual journey.

I would propose that the internal Mishkan that each of us builds has the potential to be a guide for us in becoming our best selves. That Mishkan is an internal sanctuary for the Divine Presence that dwells in each of us. As we make our way on our life’s journey, there will be times that are cloud-covered, or even burning with the fire of doubt and despair. These times are indeed challenging to navigate; times when we have to stop and reassess.

When we allow ourselves to awaken to the gifts and blessings that surround us, connecting us to others and to the transcendent Presence beyond us, the cloud and the fires lift – and onwards and upwards we go.
_______________________________
Rabbi Enid C. Lader received ordination from AJR in 2010, is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the current president of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.

 

Parashat Naso 5782

June 10, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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What’s Your “Work Work”?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Naso
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

The original sacred ritual space of the Jewish people, the Mishkan, was portable. Whenever the Israelites moved from place to place in the wilderness, the Mishkan would be disassembled and transported to its next location. The Levites were the ones in charge of its porterage, and the different families of the Levites each had different holy objects to carry whenever the Mishkan would travel with the people from place to place.

This is the context for one of the more unusual verses in the Torah, a verse in the beginning of the book of Numbers (Parashat Naso), that describes the Levites’ roles. After specifying that the Levites were to work from age 30 to age 50, the Torah (Numbers 4:47) divides the labors of the Levites into two categories, referred to by the Hebrew expressions avodat avodah and avodat massa.

The second of these expressions, avodat massa, is easier to understand. Avodah means “work” or “service,” and massa means “carrying,” so avodat massa could be translated as “carrying work,” or “porterage work,” referring to the Levites’ roles as the transporters of the sacred items of the Mishkan.

The first expression, though, is more challenging. Avodat avodah is an unusual and redundant phrase. If avodah means “work” or “service,” then avodat avodah could be translated as “the work of service,” or simply “work work.” Some commentators say that this phrase refers to the actual service and ceremonies that would take place in the Mishkan, performed by the Kohanim (who, after all, were a subset of the tribe of Levi); others say that these words refer to labors performed by the Levites to assist the Kohanim with those ceremonies. Still others say that avodat avodah refers to the actual labor of setting up and dismantling the Mishkan before it is to be transported, or to the songs sung by the Levites.

However we are to understand the phrase avodat avodah, “work work,” it is contrasted with avodat massa, the “carrying work” that was necessary in order to bring the components of the Mishkan from place to place. Avodat massa refers to what is necessary to bring the Mishkan to its new location; avodat avodah refers to what actually happens in the Mishkan now that it has arrived to its new place.

Both of these kinds of work are essential. Without the avodat massa, without the transporting of the Mishkan’s components to its next location, the actual work of the Mishkan could never actually take place. And if you had only the avodat massa without the actual avodat avodah, the “work work” that constituted the core purpose of the Mishkan, then what would be the point? You would be carrying all these items to a new place but never using them for their sacred purpose.

The Mishkan lives on today only in our hearts. But each of us, and the Jewish people as a whole, continues to engage in these two kinds of work avodat avodah and avodat massa. We each have our own avodat avodah, our own “work work,” the roles that we feel we have been put here on earth to accomplish, which we might describe as our core mission. And we also each have our own avodat massa, our “carrying work,” referring to all the supportive tasks we have to do to make it possible for us to accomplish our “work work.”

Organizations, too, are sensitive to the need to identify the organization’s avodat avodah, its core mission, and the organization’s avodat massa, the “carrying work” that sustains and strengthens the organization to make sure it is capable of carrying out its core mission. Both of these types of labor are essential. For example, my synagogue relies on numerous volunteers engaged in leading prayer, reading Torah, teaching, performing acts of hesed (lovingkindness) on behalf of the community, and volunteering and advocating for the causes we identify as promoted by the Torah, all of which could be considered examples of how my synagogue sees itself as fulfilling the avodat avodah of the Jewish people. A synagogue could not endure without these volunteers. And a synagogue also could not endure without those who figure out how to pay the bills, how to raise funds, how to clean the carpets, and what kind of insurance coverage we should have, among other vital tasks. These tasks are part of the avodat massa, the “carrying work” of the organization that helps to enable the synagogue to endure so that ever more avodat avodah can be accomplished. (And there are various volunteer roles that may fall into both of these categories.)

We make an error when we dismiss the importance of avodat massa, without which an organization, and the Jewish people, cannot survive. But we make a bigger error when we start to think that the avodat massa actually IS the avodat avodah. Helping an organization to survive is not necessarily the same thing as helping it to achieve its mission. When we are confused about this, we may find ourselves investing tremendous energy in organizations that are not focused on sacred goals.

Decades ago, the journalist Zeev Chafets quipped that the American Jewish community was so focused on survival and so uninterested in mission that the anthem of the American Jewish community appeared to be the old camp song, “We’re here because we’re here, because we’re here because we’re here.” That’s the tragic consequence of confusing avodat avodah and avodat massa. They’re both essential, but only when we remember their distinctions can we, our institutions, and the Jewish people as a whole stay focused on doing our “work work.”
________________
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.

 

 

Parashat Bemidbar 5782

June 3, 2022 | Filed in: Bamidbar, Divrei Torah

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The Torah is for Everyone
A D’var Torah for Parashat Bemidbar
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

Before the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt in the Peace Treaty of 1978, it was possible to take a bus directly from Tel Aviv to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheik. I boarded that bus alone on my Spring Break of 1973 when I spent a year in Israel. I intended to camp out on the beach and snorkel on the reefs of the Red Sea off Sharm El Sheik. There were only a few of us on that bus, including a Bedouin man. We traveled for hours through seemingly interminable and vast expanses of wilderness. When we think of “wilderness” in North America, we imagine tracts of virgin forests with wild rivers flowing through them untouched by human hands. We think of nature “untamed” by humankind. The “wilderness of Sinai”, however, is anything but green. Through the window of my bus, I saw immense rugged landscapes of reds and browns, with hills, mountains, canyons and plains passing by. Suddenly, the Bedouin man traveling with us pulled the cord above the window of the bus, requesting a stop. I looked out the window for a bus stop sign or a bus shelter. The bus pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and the Bedouin got off — IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! There was nobody to pick him up, not in a jeep, not on a camel. He descended from the bus and simply took off on foot to heaven knows where.

That is where our Torah portion for the week picks up this Shabbat – BeMidbar – in the wilderness. Elsewhere, the Torah describes the wilderness of Sinai as

…..A land of deserts and pits,
A land of drought and darkness,
A land no man had traversed,
Where no human being had dwelt…

Why would G-d choose such an inhospitable, barren and forbidding place to give the Jewish people the Torah? We declare in our Torah service – Ki Mitzion Teitzei Torah – The Torah “goes out” to the world from Jerusalem. Yet, G-d decided to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the wilderness. Would it not have been better to wait until they reached the Holy Land to bestow the Holy Torah upon the Holy People?

Our Rabbis teach that the Torah was given in the wilderness because just as nobody owns the wilderness, so no people have exclusive right to the Torah. We can own the Torah, but we are not its owners. It is free and is open to all. One does not have to be Jewish to learn from or be inspired by the Torah.

This is a lesson to take to heart when it comes to our non-Jewish friends and family who are part of the larger Jewish community. We often think of their participation in our rituals and celebrations as primarily supporting roles in our Jewish spiritual lives or our sense of belonging to the community. Less often, perhaps, do we consider their participation as having a personal meaning for them. One non-Jewish woman commented that when she recited the shema with her Jewish family, she was reminded of the Jews throughout history who could not recite this prayer in safety and security. She also noted that the shema was something she could say about G-d that felt true and authentic to her. Jewish practice and study can be nourishing and sustaining, can provide a sense of belonging and believing, not just to Jews but to gentiles as well. At our synagogue we often host students and guests during services from different colleges and different religious backgrounds. In the process of learning more about Jewish prayer and ritual, they also learn a little Torah. Some go on to study with us on a weekly basis. Some come a few times; others, for years to study Torah with us.

If any person comes to study Torah out of a search for truth, or to deepen his or her relationship to G-d, then they should be encouraged to explore the wisdom that Judaism has to offer. The Torah, as it states in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a “Morashah Kehillat Ya-akov” – “A precious inheritance of the Jewish People”. It is an inheritance worth sharing with the rest of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.