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.”
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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.

 

Parashat Behukotai 5782

May 27, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Vayikra

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Behukotai
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Amongst our many struggles in interpreting Torah and apprehending G-d’s will is in how we view theodicy – how we reconcile the evil that permeates our world vis-à-vis our G-d of mercy and compassion. Arguably a close cousin in this struggle is how we view G-d who metes out blessing and curse, reward and punishment as a response to our conduct. Central to this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Behukotai is how G-d rewards us with blessing for fealty to the Mitzvot and imposes curse or punishment for violating G-d’s statutes and commandments.

While I characterize this struggle as ours, this may really be my own struggle. I shared this struggle with my interfaith clergy Torah study group. We have been meeting most weeks for about seven or so years now. We study Parashat Hashavua, sharing our differing perspectives and interpretations, always slipping in some time to discuss struggles within our congregation communities and our mostly shared view of how we confront the many injustices (racial injustice, economic injustice, gender discrimination, etc., etc.) facing our Kansas City community, our country and our world.

I have subsumed much of what these cherished clergy friends/colleagues/community leaders have taught me over the years, at least subconsciously incorporating their teaching into my own writing. However, this is the first time I have directly solicited their wisdom to jumpstart a D’var Torah.

Amongst the leading intellectual lights of the group is Rev. Dr. Wallace Hartsfield II. In addition to being one of the leading clergy voices in Kansas City – both within and beyond the African American community – he holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Emory University, serves in a chaired position on the faculty of Central Baptist Seminary and previously was an instructor at Morehouse College. When seeking some assistance and input he immediately rattled off several thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas along with Biblical citations.

Particularly, Rev. Dr. Hartsfield put forth two ideas that resonated for me: 1) whether this system that imposes curse/punishment for violating G-d’s “statutes and commandments,” can be characterized as a justice system of retribution by G-d, and 2) in that the enumerated curses focus largely on cursing the land, that there is a modern read on what land is cursed.

Addressing the second idea first, Ellen Davis in Opening Israel’s Scriptures discusses the significance of the land. “The land itself is an extended sanctuary.” (Davis at p. 80) However, if the mitzvot are not followed the land will not yield its produce. (Leviticus 26:20). Rashi in his commentary on Leviticus 18:28 references that, if we sin the land will vomit us out. (Metsudah Chumash/Rashi: Vayikra at p. 246).

As to a modern metaphor for the land, Rev. Dr. Hartsfield point to our communities and our neighborhoods. When our communities are afflicted by substandard and unaffordable housing, food deserts – i.e., there are little to no grocery stores or healthy food choice options – and communities in which predatory lenders abound, the land has indeed vomited us out.

Yet there seems to be on its face a disparity between who has done the sinning and who is being punished for that sin. There is a common perspective that human suffering, what is seemingly punishment, is not G-d driven but rather caused by human beings. That so long as suffering exists anywhere in the world we as human beings all bear responsibility to eradicate that suffering. So long as there are human beings who cause harm, that harm will be randomly and unjustly inflicted on those undeserving of punishment.

This is where I struggle and become angry at the unjust way in which human suffering is distributed in the world. This segues into the first topic, that the curses imposed by G-d for failure to observe the Mitzvot could be seen as retribution by G-d.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his seminal work The Prophets addresses Hosea’s perspective on G-d’s relationship with Israel – G-d’s pathos in conveying words of anger toward G-d’s people and imposing harsh punishment. Hosea finds the relationship of G-d and Israel to be analogous to his own marriage. According to Heschel, Hosea describes the relationship as not relegated to a legal responsibility, but also an inner attitude. The relationship is embodied in a reciprocal emotional, intimate experience. (Heschel at p. 73)

Hosea understood in the struggles and ultimately the reconciliation of his marriage the sorrow and pathos of G-d when they/we emotionally detach from G-d. According to Hosea, we need to move beyond action to acquire a concern for G-d that involves inwardness as well as action. (Ibid. at p. 74)

As a matter of reciprocity, it is not the curses – what G-d has done to us – that we should dwell on. Rather it is what G-d has felt for us. Just as G-d shows anger at our own lack of sensitivity and emotional detachment, G-d also knows of, and has sympathy for, our suffering. (Ibid. at p. 71)

Likewise, Heschel interprets the commandment to not oppress and to love the stranger as an obligation to have feeling for the heart of the stranger. (Ibid.) It is in becoming detached from that feeling wherein we produce a land that spews us out – our communities and our neighborhoods become afflicted by the injustices of poor and unaffordable housing, communities torn by violence and poverty, food deserts and predatory lending practices.

As Heschel quotes Hosea:

         For I desire love [hesed] and not sacrifice,
        Attachment to G-d rather than burnt offerings.
                                                                   Hosea 6:6
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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 Behar 5782

May 20, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Vayikra

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

This week in Parashat Behar we learn about the laws of Shemitta, the sabbatical year. For six years we work the land and then in the seventh year the land is granted a Shabbat, a rest. Just as we are entitled to a rest on the seventh day of our week, so too the land deserves a period of rest to reset. But what exactly is our relationship to the land and our responsibility for allowing it to rest?

In Genesis God blesses the first humans with the imperative to conquer (וְכִבְשֻׁהָ) the earth and to subdue (רְדוּ) its creatures (Gen. 1:28). Yet, we are also told that humanity is brought to the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it (Gen. 2:15). There is a dual directive to conquer and to protect, to become masters of the land but also to preserve it. In this week’s parasha we learn more about our relationship to the land. God tells the people that “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). Ultimately the land belongs to God and we are but strangers residing upon it – גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים. This combination of the term גר, which implies a stranger or foreigner living in a particular context, and תושב, which connotes the more settled person living in a place, appears several times throughout the parasha (Lev. 25:625:3525:4525:47), encouraging us to pay attention to what it can teach us.

This combination of words already appears back in the Book of Genesis when Abraham goes to the people of the land to purchase a burial site for Sarah – “I am a resident alien (גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial” (Gen. 23:4).

The Midrash unpacks the meaning of this phrase as it appears in Genesis:

“’A stranger and a resident’ – a stranger that lives there, a resident that is the master of this house. If you want, I am a stranger, if not, I am a master of this house, since the Holy One of Blessing said to me “this land I will give to your seed” (Genesis 15:18)” (Bereisheet Rabbah 58).

The Midrash highlights the dual dimensions of Abraham’s relationship to the land and its people – he is both a stranger, the one who does not have ownership or rights, and the master, the owner who has control. The Etz Yosef commentary elaborates: “stranger – that is to say, he sojourns there but does not have a possession in [the land]; resident – is the one who has a possession; and this is like two sides of a single subject.”

Our ancestor Abraham had a dual relationship to the land, as both master and guest. The usage of the expression גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב in the context of Abraham mirrors the relationship that emerges from our parasha: The land belongs to God (“the land is Mine”) and we are but strangers, but we also are free to work the land for six out of seven years. We have a directive to be the masters of the land and conquer it, but also to guard it and allow it the freedom to rest as we augment our dependency upon it (Lev. 25:20-21).

As I look at my local weather forecast for this weekend and see the jump from 50 degrees Fahrenheit earlier this week to nearly 100 degrees over the weekend, I can’t help but think that we are failing at our task to guard the earth and allow it to rest. While humanity has certainly excelled at conquering the land and subduing it, we have a long way to go when it comes recognizing that we are the strangers in a world that does not wholly belong to us. And hopefully we can recognize this and take action before it is too late.
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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 Emor 5782

May 13, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Vayikra

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
By Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine (’19)

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev. 19:2)

This is the thesis statement of what Bible scholars call “the Holiness Code” (Lev. 17-26). It is also, arguably, the thesis statement of the Book of Leviticus, and, one might further argue, of the entire Torah.

Of course the statement begs the question, what does it mean to be holy?

We may find a clue in a pair of verses from this week’s sedra.

An ox or a sheep or a goat, when it is born, shall remain seven days under its mother, and from the eighth day and forward it will be accepted as a near-offering, as a fire-offering to YHWH. And an ox or a sheep—it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day. (22:27-28)

These verses have commonly been understood as teaching valuable ethical lessons to b’nei Yisrael and are on a par with (at least) two other mitzvot in the Torah: the mitzvah of shilu’ah haken (the injunction in parashat Ki Tetzei to send off the mother bird before taking her eggs or her fledglings, Deut. 22:6-7) and the thrice-repeated You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother (Exod. 23:1934:26Deut. 14:21). There is something morally repugnant, this line of thinking goes, in tearing away a suckling from its mother to be taken to slaughter, even for so noble a purpose as sacrifice; and likewise, the idea of killing mother and child on the same day is morally beyond the pale. Numerous sources follow this thread. Maimonides, commenting on our verse, notes that “the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:48).

A much earlier text, from Bereishit Rabbah (76:6), also reads the text as being about compassion and connects it with the mother/egg/fledgling commandment from Devarim. The midrash builds on Ya’akov’s statement in Genesis 32:12, when he fears that his brother means to kill him and his family: “Pray save me from the… hand of Esav!… lest he come and strike me down, mothers and children alike!” In the midrash, Ya’akov cries out to God, appealing to God’s compassion:

…but You said “you are not to take away the mother along with the children” (Deut. 22:6). Another reading: “…lest he come and strike me down, mothers and children alike!” but You said “And an ox or a sheep—it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day.” (22:27-28)

Reading the quality of compassion into our two verses is appealing, beautiful, and meaningful, but it is by no means universal. Perhaps the first verse, about the suckling remaining “seven days under its mother” has nothing to do with the mother-child bond. Sefer Hahinukh 293:2 (an anonymous 13th c. work enumerating and explicating the 613 commandments), unpacks this mitzvah, making a connection between the manner in which a person performs a deed and the effect that performance has on him or her: to offer a less-than-perfect offering to God could have a detrimental effect on the offeror, and “the sacrifice cannot be considered perfect until the animal is eight days old, since previous to that it is not fit for anything, and no one will covet it or partake of it or do business with it, or give it as a gift” (translation from Nehama Leibowitz, Vayikra, 382). Seen in this light, the mitzvah comports with what precedes it in the parasha, namely, the requirement of perfection in both what is being offered (the sacrifice) and the one who is performing the sacrifice (the priests).

The Sefer Hahinukh source places the emphasis on the perfection of the animal and tangentially notes the effect on the one bringing the sacrifice. Ovadiah Sforno, in his comment on 22:27, digs in deeper on the relationship between the offeror and “perfection.” Sforno states that “[The blemished animal] (is invalid as a sacrifice to God) because “the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut 32:4). He desires the perfection and completeness of the offering and of the one who offers it; the offering must possess its natural completeness, and the one who offers it must possess divine completeness [sh’leimuto haElohi], to be like his creator as much as it is possible…” (translation from Artscroll Sforno ed., italics added by SL).

A passage from the Talmud, however, is less sanguine about any of these explanations. A discussion in Megillah 25a describes three instances where a sh’liah tzibbur, a prayer leader, is “silenced,” (i.e. chastised for ad-libbing). The sages quickly explain the first two instances, but the third, a case where the prayer leader ad-libs “Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest” (and in the following section, “You have shown mercy to animals through the verse ‘it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day’ – have mercy on us!”) is less clear to them: “What is the reason that they silence him?” Two explanations are given, the second of which is “because one transforms the attributes of the Holy Blessed One into expressions of mercy, and they are nothing but decrees.” In other words, reading mercy and compassion (or anything else, presumably) into these verses is presumptuous – we observe these commandments only because God has thus commanded us!

The Torah speaks to us on many planes. The old dictum from Bamidbar Rabbah (13:16), yesh shiv’im panim baTorah, suggests that there are a multiplicity of ways of understanding a text – that a single passage of Torah can yield many interpretations, but also that it can speak to different people on different levels. Our two verses from the parasha, thus, may teach us a valuable lesson about kedusha/holiness. They may be speaking to the ethical perfection of compassion and mercy; the physical perfection of the sacrifice; the mystical perfection of the “divine completeness” of the individual; or the ritual perfection of unquestioning observance. Any and all of these are expressions of God’s instruction to us, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” We all have access to holiness; it may just derive from different precincts – each according to her own path.
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Sam Levine is the rabbi and cantor of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. He received rabbinical ordination from AJR in 2019 and cantorial investiture from JTS in 2004.

 

Parashat Kedoshim 5782

May 6, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Vayikra

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A Stumbling Block Before the Blind
A D’var Torah for Parashat Kedoshim
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)

Parashat Kedoshim contains many laws that outline a path toward leading a holy life. Although some of these are mystifying (e.g. the laws of shatnez – a prohibition against wearing clothing made from a mixture of wool and linen), the preponderance of these laws deal with the way one treats our fellow human beings. “Love your fellow as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18] can be seen as a summary of all these laws. If we can picture ourselves in the place of our fellow and treat her as we would want to be treated, then we will be living as we are meant to live.

One law tells us, “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” [19:14].

Our tradition tends to interpret this law broadly and metaphorically, applying it to one who is not literally blind, but blind to a particular situation. The Sifra supplies some specifics:

“…If they ask you for advice, do not give them advice that is unfit for them. Do not say: ‘Leave early in the morning,’ so that robbers should assault them; ‘Leave in the afternoon’, so they fall victim to the heat. Do not say to him ‘sell your field and buy a donkey’ and you take advantage and take [his field] from him…” [Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:14]

Blindness to a specific situation is a weakness which we are commanded not to exploit. Other examples given to us by our tradition include: “one who strikes his adult son” [B.T. Moed Katan 17a] – on the grounds that this will make the son angry, and perhaps tempt him to strike back and cause him to violate the prohibition against mistreating one’s parents. Another case is offering a cup of wine to a nazarite (one who has taken an oath not to drink wine) [B.T. Pesahim 22b] – because that is putting temptation in front of someone who is trying to uphold his often difficult vow. In our time this would translate to offering alcohol to a recovering alcoholic, or chocolate to someone you know is on a diet.

But I’d like to bring us back to a more literal meaning of not putting a stumbling block before the blind. Those who are blind or otherwise disabled in our society have to deal with many stumbling blocks. We don’t place them purposely, but by building a society that dismisses the needs of people with disabilities, we most assuredly place them. Think of traffic lights which manage the flow of pedestrians across intersections. Some, but not enough cities have installed sound cues so that a blind person can know when it is safe to cross. Think about a disabled person in a wheelchair. So many of our curbs, our subway stations, our buildings, even our synagogue bimas are still not wheelchair accessible. Watch the short film “The Commute,” for a perspective that can open our eyes to stumbling blocks we don’t even realize are there.

In Israel, by the Jaffa port, is a place called Na Laga’at – “Please touch”.  It is a non-profit arts and cultural center that “represents a meeting place between deaf, blind, and deaf-blind individuals together with the general public.”  I dined at a restaurant at the center. This restaurant is completely devoid of light. All light sources (phones, etc.) must be checked in lockers before one enters. Eyes do not “adjust” to the dark, because there is nothing to adjust to.  All the waiters are blind. They know the location of all the tables and the passageways between the tables. They know the exact placement of the dishes on the tables. They know how to recognize each other’s location by the bells on their clothing. We, the guests, are lost. We are led to our tables by holding on to the shoulders of the waiters. We are seated with others we cannot see. We are taught how to tell whether there is water in our glass.  We are the blind ones. We must negotiate this world that the waitstaff navigates with ease. Some guests can’t stand it and leave, shaken and frightened.  But those of us who dine there come out with a better understanding of what it is like for someone to live in a world that was not designed to include them – a world that so often puts a stumbling block before them.

Parashat Kedoshim asks us to love our fellow as ourselves. To do so, we must imagine ourselves in their place. But that is not enough.  We must work to improve things so that our world can truly become accessible to all.
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Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings, including as an adjunct faculty member at AJR.

 

Parashat Aharei Mot 5782

April 29, 2022 | Filed in: Divrei Torah, Uncategorized, Vayikra

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Aharei Mot
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)

In an instantly-classic scene from Fiddler, Tevye the dairyman comes to an agreement to marry off his daughter Tzeitl to the butcher Lazar Wolf. The two men celebrate by singing the rousing anthem L’Hayim — “To Life!” The lyrics report that:

Life has a way of confusing us,
Blessing and bruising us.
Drink, l’chaim, to life!

This modern Jewish sacred text reflects an elemental hasidishe teaching — namely, that that even when the material conditions of existence are meager, we raise up the sparks of holiness that surround us. Even in the most difficult of circumstances, we can lift a glass of shnapps “to life.”

The toast l’hayim stretches much farther back than Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics, of course, no matter how much we revere them. Some scholars trace the custom all the way back to Talmudic times, as illustrated in this text from tractate Shabbat:

Rabbi Akiva … made a banquet for his son, and over each and every cup he brought he said: Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages! Wine and life to the mouth of the Sages and to the mouth of their students! (Bavli Shabbat 67b)

As the text illustrates, the celebration of life is not only appropriate in difficult times, but in joyous times as well.

The Jewish teaching regarding the preciousness of life appears in this week’s Torah portion, Aharei Mot. “Keep My laws and My judgements,” God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites, “that humanity shall do them and live by them” (Lev. 18:5).

Numerous commentators read the injunction not just to keep God’s teachings, but to “live by them,” as representing a principle that the performance of mitzvot should not cost us our lives. “Live by them,” we learn both in tractate Yoma and tractate Sanhedrin, means “not die by them” (Yoma 85bSanhedrin 74a). The violation of mitzvot is, in fact, commanded in the vast majority of cases in which human life is endangered, based on this Talmudic teaching. Thus, in a case where “a person is dangerously sick on the Sabbath and a remedy must be prepared,” 18th Century Turkish Rabbi Yitzchak Magriso teaches in the Sephardi commentary, Me’am Lo’ez, “the Torah does not want us to keep the sabbath and allow the patient to die.” Rather, he continues, “on the contrary — the commitment is to violate the Sabbath so the person will survive!”

That the mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, saving life, takes precedence over other mitzvot may seem obvious to those of us who know a little something about Jewish teaching. But a cursory look at the land where we live shows that it is far from obvious. Few public leaders of any party seem particularly troubled that Covid-19 deaths in the United States are approaching the one-million mark. Mass shootings, which once shocked the conscience, now barely mention a headline. Deaths of immigrants in detention sometimes don’t achieve even that — this, of course, in a country in which citizens regularly die of hunger and neglect. In such a land, it’s clear that we’ve lost our way, and that Leviticus has much to teach us.

But there is another facet to God’s insistence that we should “live by” the mitzvot, a teaching less about social justice and more about soul and spirit. Read with this spiritual lens, we see a text that teaches us to find vitality in the performance of mitzvot. This teaching is particularly salient, especially, at a time when some have become witheringly exacting in their adherence to ritual mitzvot.

Back in the early 19th century, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was already warning of the dangers of such exactitude. In an audacious reinterpretation of the Talmudic texts, the rebbe writes that the injunction to live through mitzvah and not to die by them concerns not physical life, but “those who are exacting and unnecessarily strict” in the performance of mitzvot. As a result of “their exactitude and depression, they have no vitality [hiyut] from any mitzvah.” But Rebbe Nachman’s audacity goes further — one who performs mitzvot in a spirit of such joyless and brittle compulsion “fails to meet their religious duties” (Likutei Moharan II 44:5). It is as if mitzvot performed in such a way are not mitzvot.

The solution to the bleak approach to Jewish observance rejected by Rebbe Nachman is beautifully articulated by one of his contemporaries, Chaim of Volozhin, in his master work, Nefesh HaHayim. Chaim looks at the Hebrew words in our parashahhai bahem, and translates them not as “live by them,” but rather as “live within them.” When performing a mitzvah with intention, Chaim teaches that a person is “surrounded and clothed, that moment, in holiness.” Rather than enervating drudgery, the Nefesh HaHayim invites us to see the performance of mitzvot as a moment in which we are “surrounded then with the holiness of the mitzvah” — and, moreover, “encompassed by the atmosphere of the Garden of Eden.”

The irony of our lives now is that, while most of us are much more materially comfortable than Tevye the dairyman, we do not necessarily feel that our existence is any more purposeful or consequential. The blessing of the teaching to live by our mitzvot is that it gives us meaning and purpose, no matter how we read the text. If we see it as a mandate to protect life, our nation sets before us a landscape rich with opportunity. We can find meaning in fighting for the expansion of affordable healthcare, greater investment in public health, legal protections for workers laboring under dangerous conditions. If we read the text as does the Nefesh HaHayim, we can reject the cynicism and despair of our times by enrobing ourselves in the holiness of Yiddishkeit. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping us from pursuing both paths.
Sheldon Harnick was right of course. Life does, indeed, have a way of confusing us. And yet, what a gift to be part of a people whose wisdom acknowledges that confusion, and confronts it, offering up pathways to purpose that enrich us and, ultimately, enliven us.
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Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.