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Jul 25

D’var Torah: Mattot-Masei

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Adam.

A few years ago, I completed the chaplaincy requirement of rabbinical school, called CPE, which involved 500 hours of work as a hospital chaplain over the course of ten weeks. Understandably, this is a very intense endeavor. To sit, all day, with those who are suffering or dying, to comfort their loved ones, to try and answer their theological troubles – obviously this can be a lot to take in, day in and day out. And so, over the course of those ten weeks, I found myself developing a pattern: after a particularly difficult visit I would find a spot where I could be by myself for a little bit. For a few weeks, it was the chapel where the Muslim community held daily prayers. For a few weeks, it was a bridge between two floors where I could sit next to the windows. For a few weeks, it was a particular table in the corner of the cafeteria.

I found, through these places and moments, a refuge. And I think we all work to find that sometimes. In times of trouble and distress, we seek sanctuary in somewhere, someone, or something that we believe can offer us a respite from the ills that plague us. During CPE it was the nooks and crannies of a hospital that employs 65,000 people. During Mikayla’s pregnancy, when she was having complications and in the A&E nearly every week, we made to our own little ritual — after each hospital stay we would go down to Gray’s Papaya on 72nd and Broadway and get a quart of papaya juice. For us – that routine became a refuge.

During my first few years in rabbinical school, when I was under such extreme stress and working so hard to stay on top of the material – I found refuge in an even stranger place: a particular landing, in a particular stairwell – one that served only as an emergency exit so I could be assured of my solitude. I spend countless hours sitting on the dirty floor of that stairwell, next to a tiny window, reading, writing, and enjoying a temporary refrain from the anxiety of the school day.

We all have our refuges. In times of stress, in the midst of illness – there’s somewhere you go that you can always count on to provide a bit of solace. For many of us, religion can often be that refuge too. Not just the building, although we do call it a ‘sanctuary’ – but faith itself can provide a welcome change from the pressures of the secular world. We can find, in a life lived in consonance with the principles of religion, a certain solace that can mean, for many, a sort of salvation.

Yet, I think that there’s an element of this week’s sedra that can help us better understand how and when we find refuge, in religion and in the rest of our lives. We read this morning about the aré miklat – the cities of refuge. These six cities, part of the 48 allocated to the Levites in place of any ancestral claim to land, served a very specific purpose to our ancient ancestors.

If, God-forbid, you were to accidentally be responsible for someone’s death – what we today would refer to as manslaughter – you were still, according to the cultural values of the time, responsible for their blood. A relative of the victim would have not only the option, but actually the expectation, of restoring the balance of blood guilt by killing you. Thus there were often vicious cycles of blood guilt, vengeance after vengeance.

The Torah clearly has its reservations with this aspect of the culture around it, and so the protection is put in place that there will be six cities to which someone who has accidentally killed another can flee to. It’s rather like the ‘home base’ in a child’s game of tag – as long as the killer reached the city limits before the victim’s blood avenger found them, then they were safe and could not be harmed.

Once they reached the city, they would be brought to trial. If they were indeed found guilty of manslaughter, that is, if the victim’s death was ruled an accident – then the killer was permitted to stay in the city of refuge – protecting them from the relative keen on vengeance.

Yet, here’s the thing – that sanctuary was temporary. All of those who lived in the cities of refuge because they had killed accidentally were automatically absolved when the kohen gadol – the high priest in Jerusalem died. Then everything was returned to how it began – no more blood guilt, no more vengeance… but also no more sanctuary.

The truth is, those things in which we find refuge from the world around us are inherently temporary. If we cling to them, we make them into an enclave within which we aim to hide ourselves. There are times to hide – there are times in which the iniquities of life require us to step back and seek solace and sanctuary above all else. Yet, those times must have an expiration date.

The Talmud imagines that the high priest’s mother would knit clothes for the residents of the cities of refuge. We can just as easily imagine the mothers of those convicted of manslaughter bringing the high priest gifts of fruit and cake. They didn’t want him to think they were praying for him to die – they didn’t want the sanctuary to disappear. Even though the blood guilt was absolved with the high priest’s death and technically those convicted were “free,” it still ushered in a time of change, unrest, and uncertainty for those who had come to rely on the sanctuary and their loved ones. That, we might say, is the danger of sanctuary – we become so attached to the things that make up our own refuges that we lose track of what we’re hiding from and when those dangers have dissolved.

A synagogue building and the community that inhabits it, even faith itself, can be a wonderful refuge from the world outside these walls. For many of us, it has been one – but it too must not become stagnant. We must always find new ways to find sanctuary within this sanctuary. We change, our community changes, and the things that provide us calm and comfort must change too.

During this past year at JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), in the middle of all the stress of interviews, I began to get really overwhelmed. In a moment of brilliant inspiration, I remembered the staircase where years before I had found such comfort. I climbed up the steps, found the sunny landing and the little window, sat down in just the same way – resting my head here, folding my legs like this – and I waited… and waited… and nothing happened.

Whatever had made that a refuge for me years before no longer did. Papaya juice never will taste quite as thirst-quenching as when it came on the back of emergency room visits, and those spaces in hospital in which I worked might now go unoccupied or might be the refuges of others. So I, and you, and our ancient accidental killer – all have to go out and find somewhere new to seek sanctuary.

By all means – find your own city of refuge; it is an important thing to know that you have, but perhaps an even more important thing to know when it is time to move on from the walls of that sanctuary to find another, to change as our circumstances and ourselves change.

My prayer for us is that we all can find sanctuaries in our lives – things that give us respite during difficult times — but that we learn to see those things as transient. In doing so we can appreciate them better and we can grow, able to leave our sanctuaries absolved of our sufferings, free to move on into the world around us.

Jul 18

D’var Torah: Pinchas

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

From this week’s Torah portion, we can learn two different and enduring values of Jewish tradition and one ongoing reality of the Jewish people. Let me break it down for you into three points.

Point #1: The first value is embedded in Numbers 25:11 where God praises Pinchas for his passion in eliminating an Israelite who is cavorting sexually with a Midianite woman in public. He praises Pinchas for his passion “among them,” meaning among the people of Israel. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz interprets this phrase to mean that although Pinchas acted in a bold manner, he did not separate from the people of Israel. The concept endures, although as we shall see, his action is open to scrutiny.

This enduring concept is summarized in the words of Hillel much later in the first century C.E. Hillel says in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the congregation.” This can mean many different things. It means that if the entire congregation stands up during worship, you should, if you are able, also stand up. We have to maintain a sense of community on more serious matters too, which is never as easy and rarely happens, but it still essential to our survival.

Point #2: The second value is even more complicated, and here in a way, Pinchas, while he does not separate himself from the community, takes a step no one else had the courage to take. He executes both the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in one fell swoop. God praises him as we have just seen, but Rabbinic tradition questions his action by separating the act in the previous Sedra from the reward he receives which is in this Sedra. This separation suggests, they say, that vigilantism and zealotry may have a place and time, but cautions us never to rush toward extremism. It seems like good advice in today’s world whether for an individual or a country. A further reminder not to rush into extreme behavior is that God rewards Pinchas with a “covenant of peace.”

Taken a couple of steps further as Rabbi Harold Kushner does in the below-the-line commentary in Etz Hayim, our Conservative Chumash, the “Yod” in Pinchas’s name in verse 11 is written smaller in the Torah Scroll to tell us that even justifiable violence diminishes us. Finally, in verse 12 in the Torah Scroll, there is a break in the “Vav” in the word “Shalom,” reminding us again that while extreme actions may bring short term success, in the long term that success will be incomplete.

Point #3: This is about an ongoing reality in Jewish life everywhere. When Korach and his band are swallowed up to put an end to the rebellion, “the sons of Korach, however, did not die” (Numbers 26:11). The Rabbis explain that the original instigators of the rebellion were eliminated but that Korach-like people will continue to flourish. As Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen reminds us there will always be people “undermining peace, harmony and fellowship among mankind.” If the troublemakers will continue to be present from one generation to the next, then it is necessary make certain that constructive people who want to build harmony and peace in the world will also be present in generations to come.

I regret that there are too many on this earth who continue to sow discord, hatred and violence among us. I regret even more that some of the Korach-like people are among our own Jewish people, just as they were in this Biblical story. Recent events in Israel bear this out, but there are just as many of these destructive individuals and groups everywhere on the globe.

While I am not intending to connect each of my three points to the others, I would say that community solidarity despite our differences is illustrated in my first point.  As to my second point, that kind of solidarity on a communal, national and global level would lessen the chances of extreme actions with only temporary results. And finally recognizing that evil-doers will never disappear (unless a Messiah comes to us or we come to a Messianic Age) as in the third point, both the first and second points will continue to remain operative for the foreseeable future.

Jul 11

D’var Torah: Balak

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

I present to you the characters in the drama of this week’s Torah Portion- Balak:

-Balak Ben Tzippor, King of Moab, who fears the Israelites.

-Bilaam, Non-Israelite Gentile prophet Balak hires to curse the Israelites, but who listens to our God.

-The Ass who sets Bilaam on the right path.

-“Optics” is the lead character- not a person but a new word in the news- which is how something looks depending on your point of view, i.e. where you stand, how a situation appears to you and why.

As the story opens Balak wants Bilaam to curse the Israelites because they have grown numerous. Balak feels threatened. Bilaam will not do it; he listens to our God.

The prophet is taken to two different locations, each of which gives him only a partial view of the people of Israel. At both spots he can neither curse nor bless. Then the donkey sort of gives him a kick and through this talking donkey he knows he can only bless the people of Israel. He is then taken to the top of the mountain from which he can see the entire people of Israel, not just part of it. Here is where optics play a starring role. What Bilaam says is influenced by both his geographical and moral point of view.

Let me break it down for you:

-The partial people point of view (or as distinguished rabbi of blessed memory Herman Kieval calls it- the “valley view” which means lower morally not just geographically) is how we view others as individuals or even as a group when our optics are limited and partial, skewed and incomplete, which leads to stereotypes and generalizations. Examples might be include that all Jews have big noses or all Jews are rich or the Jews control the banks and the media. These kinds of words are often uttered by someone who may know one or two Jews and judges all of us by a few “bad apples” among us.

-The whole people point of view (or as Kieval would call it the “mountain view”) suggests seeing an entire group, a whole people, and being able to get the complete picture, seeing the forest and not just the trees. The result in this portion is that this prophet, not one of our people, is able to see us in totality and therefore bless us with the words of the “Ma Tovu”- “How good are thy tents Oh Jacob, thy dwelling places Oh Israel.” Interesting isn’t it that the first words in our prayer book are words of praise spoken by a non-Jew about the Jewish people. Is it subtly describing an ideal world which we should pray for first.

By taking a step back to see the whole forest and not just one or two of the trees, i.e. by educating ourselves thoroughly about others we can take the mountain view, the moral high ground. The recent joint meal to end a day of Ramadan which took place at SAMS is the perfect example of the kind of mutual learning which dispels ignorance and cultivates understanding and mutual respect. One of the results of that communal gathering was that the organization Salaam-Shalom, a group of Jewish and Muslim women, sent SAMS an Olive Tree, a symbol of peace which can only happen when people see each other in their entirety as individuals or groups- the mountain view.

So the star of the drama of this weeks Torah portion is Optics which is all about where we stand and what we know. It means being open-minded and not closed-minded. It means being non-judgmental and not judgmental. It means especially being educated and not ignorant. All of these help us reach the mountain view.  BTW, we Jews can be just as guilty of staying in the valley view in the way we talk about people of other faiths or even how we deal with our own fellow Jews (think about the recent issues with Israel over conversion and the Kotel).

To correct your sight (optics) in this scenario, you don’t need an optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist. You need only to open your eyes, open your minds and open your hearts.

Jul 04

D’var Torah: Hukkat

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl

In this week’s portion the situation gets nasty again. Miriam dies, and at the same time the people begin to complain again bitterly about the lack of water. They should be grieving for Miriam, but they are more concerned about themselves even though they ought to know by now that God will provide. Soon God does come to their aid by asking Moses to speak to a rock from which God tells Moses water will issue forth.

Moses, however, in front of all the people strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Nothing happens so he hits it again, and that does it for him and for Aaron who might have stopped him before the second hit. Moses loses his temper and his patience and calls the people “rebels.” As a result of this incident, Moses and Aaron will die without ever seeing the Promised Land.

Many commentators try to explain what seems to be an extreme and excessive punishment. Could not God have retired them both and made them “emeritus?” Rabbi Harold Kushner who penned the commentary below the line in the  Etz Hayim Chumash looks at it differently. He says that, “it is not so much a punishment but a statement that their time of leadership is over.” They were “worn out” and there was now a two generation gap between them and their followers. It still seems, as the American Constitution says, a “cruel and unusual punishment.” I am afraid that we cannot figure it out in the confines of this D’var Torah or perhaps at all.

Perhaps we can try to understand in a general way, what leads people to act against their best interests. What is our tradition’s way of understanding bad behavior? This is a complex question with no simple answer, though what I am about to say suggests otherwise. Consider this answer as rabbinic tradition’s way of getting to the core of an answer. When God created humanity we were morally neutral; we were born with both a good inclination and an evil inclination (Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa), each competing with the other for control of our actions. At the end of the day, it is in our hands to choose which inclination will prevail. This is not always easy.

The big question is: when we are tempted to give into the evil inclination, how does we fight it so that we make a choice to be morally good. It is never easy, and it is a lifelong struggle within us as we are faced constantly with temptations to go wrong. I offer but one example. How does a person trying to give up smoking resist the temptation to return to this life-threatening habit. The Talmud would say, “first study, then recite the Shema, then contemplate the day of your death (Sotah 52b). The Talmud is saying that we must turn to a source of guidance larger than ourselves which helps us stop and think about the consequences and give us the strength to make the good choice. Some people would turn to a mantra, also from the Torah, like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” repeated over and over until the temptation passes. For the Jewish people the Torah and all of Jewish tradition which derives from it gives us the strength for the good inclination to win.

Hassidim have an interesting approach. They wear a “gartel” which is a silk sash around the waist to separate the physical part of our bodies from the mental part above the sash, or one might say to separate the thinking choice from the tempting choice. Some Hassidim wear the gartel only on Shabbat when they pray, others wear it all the time.

The bottom line here is that Moses and Aaron were completely overwhelmed by their own anger in their weakened state of exhaustion and “burn out.” We can endlessly debate God’s role in their fate, but we can learn from this story how difficult it can be for the good inclination to win out. Perhaps remembering this story will help us do so. Find your own way and do all that is humanly possible to follow the “good inclination.”