Sep 11

D’var Torah: Ki Tavo

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The D’var Torah this Shabbat was given by Rabbi Adam.

Just about two years ago now, I arrived in Oceanside, New York on Long Island in order to start a rabbinical school internship. We moved into the community over the summer, got settled in (much like we’ve done this summer), and things really got started a few weeks before the High Holy Days. I remember that one of the first shabbatot in which I was really active in the community was Ki Tavo. That morning we read (as we have done this morning) the extensive list of curses and threats that Moses makes against the people. We read it in an undertone, quickly; afraid of what we are suggesting about ourselves and our ancestors. That morning (like this one), I sat and listened to the litany of death and destruction suggested and raised the same umbrage: how can the Torah assert that these horrible things happen as a result of our sin? How can we believe in a God who would punish our misdeeds with genocide and plague?

What made that query even more acute in Oceanside was that this was a community which only a few years prior had survived Hurricane Sandy. Many members of the community had lost homes, cars, and invaluable possessions. Some people, years later, were still living in temporary accommodation. It was a town traumatized; the slightest suggestion of a thunderstorm on the evening news would prompt a wild rush for bottled water and non-perishable food. The synagogue itself had served as a shelter for weeks after the storm, being relatively undamaged mostly due to good luck and a slight difference in altitude.

Today, two years later, as we read the same curses, a new group of super-storms is terrorising the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Harvey has humbled Houston, now Irma and José and Katie continue to wage war, bringing death and destruction to millions of people. In the midst of all this, we find the same nonsense being spouted from religious nuts and political pundits. Evangelical television preacher, Pat Robertson, has repeatedly affirmed that these disasters are punishment for sin: Katrina was a result of America’s embrace of homosexuality (so he termed it), and then Sandy, he oddly argued, was God telling us that He didn’t want a Mormon to be President (Mitt Romney was then running against President Obama.)

‘How absurd!’ we might say; ‘How offensive, to attribute disaster to human misdeeds!’ Yet, at the end of the today, can we really say that we’ve done any better? The curses we’ve read this morning- are they really any less horrible than the foolish statements of Robertson and others?

Unfortunately, I don’t think they are. To me, the curses we read in Ki Tavo- the death and destruction that God promises (via Moses) to bring upon the people should they choose not to follow the law- carry the same unfortunate implication of Robertson’s claims: either way it is bad theology. A vision of God in which our suffering is due to our sins is not one I can accept. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean is not punishment for idolatry, nor is a cancer diagnosis retribution for transgression. If that’s so, where does it leave us vis-a-vis Deuteronomy, which seems to frame for us a dark vision of Divine wrath?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his notable book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, recycles an old theological game that can help us understand more. R’ Kushner tells us that there are three things which God can be: omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). Yet, the paradox which we find ourselves in is this: a functional theology requires that we pick two out of those three. We simply cannot have a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; Evidence abounds in the world around us as to this impossibility. We suffer, death reigns supreme, and humans continue to choose senseless slaughter of one another over cooperation and collaboration. Thus, there are two configurations of this ⅔ paradigm that are worth our consideration:

Option 1: God is omnipotent and omniscient, but not omnibenevolent. This seems to be Deuteronomy’s take. God doesn’t always do good, in fact, as the curses remind us, sometimes God causes evil and suffering. It has a precipitating cause (our sin), but the result remains that God inflicts natural evil upon us, knowingly and in complete control of nature.

Option 2: God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, but not omnipotent. This may seem like a contradiction to the entire framework of religious life (God is in control), but it is one which our Sages continually tinker with, in response to and rejection of Deuteronomy’s curses. Could it be that God does want only good for us, and knows everything that’s going on, but simply isn’t always able to actually stop evil and chaos from reigning here and there? Perhaps we can also understand a sort of limited-omnipotence; That God is able to stop evil, but to do so would be an impossibility (for instance, God’s intervention would overwhelm the systems of reality and undermine the intention).

Option 3 is really not even worth considering (God is in complete control and wants only good but simply doesn’t know what’s going on.) That leaves with two choices for our paradigm: Deuteronomy’s curses, or the Sages’ vision of God. Their sense of God as not in complete control is borne out by a number of biblical verses (God has to tame the chaos in Genesis but some of it remains behind, God can’t actually change Pharaoh’s mind in Exodus, etc. etc.), but also by several traditions of Rabbinic Judaism, one old and found in the Midrash and the other medieval and emerging from the mystics.

In the Talmud [Bavli Megillah 29a], the rabbis include the idea that the Shekhinah (God’s feminised presence on Earth), was exiled with the people when the Temple was destroyed. That is, a part of God Itself suffered alongside the refugees who left Jerusalem. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, this God is one of pathos. Not able to actually stop the destruction, instead God joins the people in their suffering. This idea, called galuta deShekhinah (Shekhinah’s Exile) in Aramaic gets expanded considerably by the mystics who follow those early Sages, more and more telling a story of a God who needs our help, who lives with a broken world. Perhaps what expresses it best is the revised creation story told by R’ Yitzhak Luria in his formulation of Kabbalah. It goes a bit like this:

Once upon a time, before anything existed, there was only Infinite Light encompassing all reality. When that Light decided to create a world within which it could shine, it had to first constrict itself, removing the Light from a circular space, empty and dark. In that empty space, the Light fashioned vessels of light, containers in which the new world would be formed. However, when the vessels were completed and the Light began to re-fill the previously empty space that had been shaped, the containers proved insufficient. They shattered, breaking the entire creative enterprise and scattering fragments of Light, like pulverised glass, all throughout reality. Then, creation started anew, this time with better formed vessels, more separation between the Light and its world. That creation is the one described in Genesis; A second creation into a void which now is full of a million little pieces of Divine Light.

The picture here of God is clearly not of a being in complete control! Creation emerges from a mistake, from a cosmic cataclysm which gives reality substance and gives life its sufferings. Those broken fragments, the Kabbalists argue, are all around us: in the air we breathe and the face of our neighbour. We can help the not-quite-omnipotent God with whom we have made a covenant by tracking down the shattered bits of Light and sanctifying them once again, restoring them to their proper place. This process is done through the mitsvot, the commandments, and relies, entirely, on our voluntary cooperation with a God who knows what’s going on, wants only good, but can’t quite do it by themselves.

Deuteronomy has one vision of God, but the Sages who built the Judaism we observe today, and especially the mystics had a different one, one more like this: where God is good but not omnipotent; where God needs us to help repair the world; where the Divine presence goes into exile along with the Jewish people as the Temple burns; where creation begins in a cosmic disaster. That is the God I believe in and the one whom we should turn to in times of disaster, not to plead for the punishment to end, but to find a comforting partner, sharing our burdens and our sufferings and offering us an out-stretched hand with which we can join and begin to work to fix the world we find ourselves in.

The choice is ours, for we have inherited a religion with more than one theology. Do we want to believe in Deuteronomy’s vision of a punishing God, bringing hurricanes and disease upon unfaithful followers? Or, do we want to believe in the Kabbalist’s vision of a God who needs our help, our partner in restoring Creation, who suffers as we suffer and shares our pains and our exiles? Each has its benefits and each its drawbacks, but this Shabbat, the choice is yours.

Sep 04

D’var Torah: Ki Teitzei

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The D’var Torah this Shabbat was given by Rabbi Adam.

To this day, there is only one book I’ve ever read which has made me weep: Night by Elie Wiesel. I can still remember sitting on the kitchen counter trying to get through what is by no means a long novel before class the next day, and finding myself crying uncontrollably. I think that was probably 9th grade; Although I had learned plenty about the Holocaust before then, it meant something different in the words of Wiesel’s personal reflection and recollection.

I remember that it was one story in particular that Wiesel tells that really moved me- about the time he came the closest to losing any sense of faith. One day, the Nazi guards had executed a young boy for supposedly organizing a rebellion. Wiesel and his fellow inmates were marched along the gallows so they would see this boy hanging. Because he was young and emaciated, he didn’t weigh enough for the noose to actually break his neck; Instead, he died painfully over the course of several hours. One man, who was behind Wiesel in the line walking past, kept crying out in desperation, ‘Where is God now? Where is God now?!’ Another man went to answer, but only turned, pointed at the boy hanging on the gallows, and said, ‘God is up there, hanging by his neck.’

This story from Night and the emotions that accompany it returned to me this week in looking at our parashah. Ki Tetze deals with a whole variety of civil and criminal laws, most of which have only material and human concerns. Yet there is one which I think actually may be the most theologically rich statement in the entire Torah.

 

כב  וְכִי-יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ, חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט-מָוֶת–וְהוּמָת:  וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ, עַל-עֵץ. 22 And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree;
כג  לֹא-תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל-הָעֵץ, כִּי-קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא–כִּי-קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים, תָּלוּי; וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא, אֶת-אַדְמָתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה.

 

23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you must bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse unto God. Do not defile your land which the LORD your God has given you for an inheritance.

 

Believe it or not, this verse is the only place in the Torah where we are told to bury our dead. But this short bit has a lot more to say beyond purely practical concerns, for there is a tremendous theological insight buried within it. There’s two commandments here actually: 1) that you must hang someone who has been convicted of a capital case, 2) that you must not leave them hanging overnight, but instead take them down and bury them. So the question is: what is the reason for these two commandments? In particular, our question this morning is this: why are we told that we must not let a body hang overnight? What does it mean to say that the hanged person is a curse upon God?

Our tradition offers no less than 9 answers (as numbered in [MeAm Loez]):

Option 1

For the hanged man is a [result of a] curse to God. Literally, if you curse God, then you will be punished as such and hanged.

Option 2

For the hanged man is a curse to God, because of the person hanging there others walk by and they curse the rabbinic court which executed him. We say that a court which executes one person every seventy years is considered bloodthirsty.

Option 3

For the hanged man is a curse to God, because hanging is the most miserable way to die, so curses against God, anger with God, and blasphemy against God all hover around the corpse – thus why we are told to hurry up and bury him.

Option 4

For the hanged man is a curse to God. The punishment is the curse which curses God. There’s no way to add to the misery brought about through execution and hanging. The curse is that God has already decreed that they should hang upon a tree.

Option 5

For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because other people are going to see him and ask around saying, ‘What did he do?’ and they’ll come to curse the man who is hanged and potentially, God-forbid, say God’s name in vain.

Option 6

For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because the intellectual soul in a human is called ‘Image of God.’ If you hang a dead body overnight without burial, it’s a tremendous embarrassment and shame to the intellectual soul of the person, which is actually the eternal essence.

Option 7

For the hanged man is a curse to God. There are some who say that it is because others will walk by and ask, ‘Who is that hanging?’ and someone will answer, ‘Oh it’s so-and-so’s son.’

Option 8

For the hanged man is a curse to God. The actual reason is: Do not defile your land – because when someone is hanged their body rots and putrefies and through this the land and the air are corrupted.

Well everyone, it’s been a set-up – because I’ve saved the best for last. Option 9 makes this verse one of the most profound theological statements in the Torah. Option 9 is:

For the hanged man is a curse to God. That is, the hanged man is a degradation of God, Godself. For humans are made in God’s image and we are God’s children. This can be explained via a parable: Once upon a time there were two twin brothers born into a noble family. One of them advanced through the ranks of society and eventually became the King. The other brother fell in with a group of thieves and spent his life as a criminal. The criminal brother was eventually arrested, sentenced to death, and executed by the court. They hung him, but every person who walked past the gallows gasped and pointed, saying ‘Look, the King has been hung!’

Here in Option 9 the hanged man is of course, the thief and God is, of course, the king. The implication then is that we have to be careful to take someone down from the gallows because each human being is so close to being in the ‘divine image’ that they might literally be confused for one another.

Now, this isn’t to say that God looks like a person. In fact, quite the opposite – the message, as spelled out, is that the human soul is ‘twinned’ to divinity. In fact, there are many who argue that the human soul is chelek elohim mamash, a literal ‘piece’ of God. Thus, this vessel which has contained something divine has to be treated itself as divine, and runs the risk, as odd as it may seem, of being confused with the divine.

This, I think, is one of the most potent theological statements we can make. To say that a human corpse when hung curses God because it imperils the divine image within is profound. Human life is holy, human beings are holy, because they are a vessel for a literal piece of God.

There’s an aspect of the halakhah that might help us with this point: if you use any sort of bag to put your tefillin in, you can’t ever go and use that bag for anything else. The bag itself is irrelevant, but once it has become a container for something holy it too becomes imbued with that selfsame holiness.

So too, humanity is holy for each individual contains a piece of the Divine. If we can actually internalize this and accept it, it would radically change how we think and act in the world. Elie Wiesel’s faith was saved by acknowledging that God too was hanging – that in the murder of that young boy a piece of God died as well. Yet, our way of living out the idea of humanity being in the Divine image doesn’t have to be quite so extreme.

Take it to the micro-level of day-to-day life. Next time the person who is going 10 miles under the speed limit and making you late to get home makes you angry, remember that they are just as much a container of divinity as you are. Next time you see someone you love, consider that perhaps part of that love is about recognizing the divine spark within that person. Next time you think yourself better or more advanced than another because of physical appearance or fine dress, recall that what matters is also what makes us the same – the soul which carries within it a piece of God.

Wiesel stood in the depths of despair and saw God in the face of a young boy hanging from the gallows. We can do the same every moment of every day – in the face of the supermarket cashier, the estranged friend, the distant lover. If we really take to heart the interpretation of our verse, that a hanged man is a curse to God because of the fact that we may very well confuse the container of the divine soul with the divine itself – then we must find a way to see God in the face of any other, The Other, and in the face of each other.

Aug 29

D’var Torah: Shofetim

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

A story is told [Chovot haLevavot, Sha’ar haYichud haMa’asei 5]: that once there was a mighty warrior who was returning from a great battle in which his army was victorious against the enemy – utterly crushing their forces. Everyone in the city went out to greet him and congratulate him on the victory, cheering and celebrating the defeat of the city’s foes. Yet there was one wise man who, when he came to congratulate the warrior said, ‘You have been victorious — but only in the small battle. The great battle is still undetermined.’ The warrior, angry at this man’s lack of enthusiasm, asked him, ‘If so, then what is the great battle.’ The wise man responded, ‘the great battle is the war within your soul, the campaign to conquer the yetzer haRa.”

In our Torah reading this morning we read a bit about a battle as well. In chapter 20, we find the following few verses:

י  כִּי-תִקְרַב אֶל-עִיר, לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ–וְקָרָאתָ אֵלֶיהָ, לְשָׁלוֹם. 10 When you approach a city in order to wage war against it – you shall call out to it for peace.
יא  וְהָיָה אִם-שָׁלוֹם תַּעַנְךָ, וּפָתְחָה לָךְ:  וְהָיָה כָּל-הָעָם הַנִּמְצָא-בָהּ, יִהְיוּ לְךָ לָמַס–וַעֲבָדוּךָ. 11 And it shall be, if they answer you with peace, and open the city to you, then it shall be, that all the people that are found therein shall become tributary for you, and they shall serve you.
יב  וְאִם-לֹא תַשְׁלִים עִמָּךְ, וְעָשְׂתָה עִמְּךָ מִלְחָמָה–וְצַרְתָּ, עָלֶיהָ. 12 But if they do not make peace with you, but instead make war against you, then you shall besiege it.

Our Sages are amazed by this passage! They comment on these verses saying, “Look at how great the power of peace is! Even in war, in which no person finds themselves without a sword and a spear, The Holy Blessed One tells us that when we go to war, we begin only with peace.” [Devarim Rabba Perek 5]

But as beautiful as this endorsement of peace is, it is not the whole story. It’s rather a one-sided peace after all, conditional on complete servitude. Is that really the kind of peace we hope for, one in which we conquer the enemy, dominate its forces, take its people, animals, and resources as tribute? It’s hardly a realistic or compassionate view of what a workable peace looks like, and it’s perhaps the reason that this passage is so often interpreted differently. That is, that this remarkable endorsement of seeking peace first, of aiming to prevent total destruction, has implications beyond the physical realm. Many of our great sages have understood this passage not only in the context of warfare between armies, but also, and perhaps even more so, to refer allegorically to the battle within our souls.

That is, as Rabbi Chayyim ibn Attar, a 16th C. Moroccan sage tells us, in his commentary on the passage, this image of warfare is meant to explain not only how we confront our external enemies, but our internal ones as well. The great battle is the subtext. The great battle is, as we saw in our story, the battle against the yetzer haRa.

What exactly is the yetzer haRa? Literally, it’s the ‘impulse toward evil.’ The Talmud tells us that it, the angel of death, and the figure of Satan, are all one in the same thing [Talmud Bavli Shabbat 157a] – meaning that evil is entirely a psychological reality. Within us we find drives that guide us towards goodness, light, love, and meaning- yet we also find those that push us toward evil, darkness, hate, and apathy. Others define the yetzer haRa as the part of our souls that wants to take: take things from others, take pleasure from the world, take what may not be ours. Clearly no one would see these as mutually exclusive categories. The impulse to do good can cause us and others harm and the impulse toward evil can be beneficial, or even save our lives. These forces within us are not black and white, they are subtle shades, mixtures of light and darkness, pulled toward one side or the other but always in the middle.

However we may conceive it, surely no one can deny that they have faced darkness within themselves at some point or another. For those who are sincerely devoted to a religious life, facing one’s shadow, one’s yetzer haRa is essential.

 Rabbi Chayyim Vital, in his manual for how to receive enlightenment, called Sha’arei Kedushah, writes that, “good character traits are acquired in no other way than in the war against the evil impulse.” [Sha’ar 2, Perek 3]

That means that it is not optional for us to confront our own dark sides! Certainly, we can deny it, run from it, avoid it successfully for a very long time, but sooner or later we must come to terms with the fact that we have within us darknesses. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking those people have them, a habit we reinforce by the gleeful coverage of serial killers and mass murderers that plagues the news. We take a certain sick pleasure in seeing other people lose the war because it makes us think we’re already winning. More often than not though, we’re just not paying attention.

This is by no means a new part of our tradition. The oldest reservoir of ethical wisdom, Pirké Avot, asks quite plainly, “Who is a warrior?” – and Ben Zoma answers for us that it is, “one who conquers their evil impulse.” [4:1]

In the medieval period we see the same idea reflected in Chovot haLevavot, a hugely influential book dealing with morality and ethics. The author, R’ Bahya ibn Paquda writes:

“O mortal! You should know that the greatest enemy you have in this world is your own yetzer haRa. It is interwoven in the forces of your soul and intertwined in the organization of your spirit. It associates with you in the guidance of your physical and spiritual senses. It rules over the secrets of your soul and of what is hidden in your heart. It is your advisor in all of your movements whether visible or invisible that you wish to do. It lies in wait, watching your steps to lead you astray. You are asleep to it but it is awake to you. You look away from it  but it does not look away from you. It masks itself as your friend, and pretends to show love, it enters in your inner circle of close friends and advisors. From its gestures and signs it appears it is running to do your will but in fact it is shooting deadly arrows at you to kill and uproot you from the land of the living” [Sha’ar Yichud haMaasei 5]

Similarly, in our own time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has promoted doing away with the constant discourse in which we advocate the value of ‘peace of mind.’ Peace of mind, he argues, is a trap- an effort to quench the legitimate and necessary struggle that accompanies spirituality. The ‘strife of the spirit’ as he calls it, the battle against and for ourselves, is an essential part of the spiritual journey.

What does all this mean? What does it mean that we should go to war against ourselves? How do we conquer our darkness without repressing it? How we acknowledge our evil without becoming overwhelmed by it? How do we live in a constant state of war, pursuing always the impossible victory of the ‘great battle?’

That answer is provided precisely by our passage from Shofetim: Yes we do battle, but we seek peace first. Peace is the priority. In the battle within our souls, we must work first to make peace with the evil within us.

The truth is that we can never eliminate the yetzer haRa, for it is an essential part of being human. We could not be in the world without it. The rabbis tell us that without it the world would immediately come to an end, for no one would procreate, build a house, or have any drive to strive further to advance themselves and their society.

Thus, we cannot entirely vanquish evil or selfishness. We have only the two options that the Torah lays out in front of us: we can seek peace with our own darkness, and if that fails, we can lay siege to it.

Contemporary psychologist C.G. Jung, who wrote a great deal about what he called the Shadow, gave nearly identical advice. He said: “We must accept our own evil without love or hate, recognizing that it exists and must have its share in life. In doing so we deprive it of the power it has to overwhelm us.” (TRB 288)

Evil is not an objective reality per se, but rather a predominantly psychological one. It stems from our pursuit of pleasure above all else, from our desire to take for ourselves. Until we can make peace with it and use its capabilities for good, subjugated to our intellects and to our desire to give, it will take our mind hostage and require a lengthy and bloody siege to free ourselves from it.

The primary goal is to make peace with our evil – to assimilate the shadow into our persona. We must go out to war, armed and ready, yet we must always seek peace first.

I can’t tell you what the peace within your soul looks like for you. No one can. I can’t tell you what the evil is that you will face when you go out to that battlefield. Each of us has a different enemy with which we must attempt to make peace. Each of us must be warriors in the ‘great battle.’ the one that takes place within our souls- and the one that must conclude with us finding a way to conquer the evil impulse. Trying to destroy it entirely would be foolish, but we also must take care not to be destroyed by it. Our ancestors and our sages have waged the same battle. Some returned victorious and some fell on the field, but perhaps they can offer us some strategies and tactics. Yet, ultimately we walk alone onto the battlefield.

My prayer for you and for all of us is that we find ways to make peace with the evil within us, that we find ways to utilize its power for good, and with God’s help – that we return victorious.

Aug 21

D’var Torah – Re’eh

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

Right now, somewhere in the world, there is a university ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ course where the professor, thinking themselves quite clever is posing the following ethical dilemma: If you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler before he ever came to power? This question has become almost a stock component of philosophical speculation, and of course, it has its own interesting history. The ‘Kill Baby Hitler Conundrum’ actually was first articulated in a Science-Fiction short story published in 1941. Yes, 1941. Before anyone knew exactly the extent of the evil, Hitler’s wibbly-wobbly time-travel-induced death was already a matter for speculation.

The story, aptly, is called ‘I Killed Hitler,’ and it appeared in that year’s Weird Science. It was written by a man named Roger Sherman Hoar and it takes a somewhat unexpected turn. In the story, an American painter called up for the draft goes back in time to kill a young Hitler at the age of eleven. Time travel being what it is, things don’t work out quite as expected. By the end of the story, Hitler’s assassin has himself, through a series of twists and turns, assumed the dictator’s place. The story, it seems, is a cautionary tale against seeing the past as a realm through which we can rectify the flaws of the present.

Unfortunately, time travel as envisioned by much of science fiction is an impossibility. We do know that time can be bent, altered, and in certain conditions, can appear very different than we are used to. Yet one constant remains: we cannot, under any condition, change the past.

Our fascination with time travel may seem far from where we last left Moses, mid-speech. Yet, the words that begin this week’s parashah have a great deal in common with the Oedipal twist of 1941’s “I Killed Hitler.’ The first verse, Deuteronomy 11:26, reads: “Look! Today I am putting in front of you blessing and curse.” From today, we have before us a blessing and a curse. Now of course, as Moses goes on to explain, the promised blessing is secured through observing God’s laws, and the curse as a result of shunning them.

The biblical commentator, Ramban [Pérush al haTorah, Devarim 11:29], points out something interesting about this verse. He says that we should read it as: “For I am putting in front of you one path that leads to blessing and one path that leads to curse. And the reason it says, ‘in front of you’ is to clarify for you that the path you take is your choice.”

In this way, what Moses is telling us is that we stand at a fork in the road. We can go one way, towards God and Torah and the Jewish community, and find blessing in it. We can go another way, and find curses in it.

Now, it is really fair to say that everything in life is either a blessing or a curse? Is there no middle-ground? We make choices every day; Some are small and seemingly insignificant and some are incredibly important. Does each choice yield either blessing or curse with no mix in between? Every year when I come across this verse it seems like a very oversimplified duality. Blessing or curse. Holy or profane. But – perhaps there’s more to it.

One biblical commentator, known as Seforno, embraces this apparently extreme dualism. He writes [Devarim 11:26]: Re’eh – Behold – pay good attention, so that you will not behave like most others who relate to everything half-heartedly, always trying to find middle ground. Rather, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse, two opposite extremes. The blessing is an extreme in that it provides you with more than you need, whereas the curse is another extreme, making sure that you have less than your basic needs. You have the choice of both before you; all you have to do is make a choice.

Seforno suggests that the extremes presented to us are a call to never indulge in mediocrity. We must not only be good, we must be extremely good. Perhaps this is a lot to ask; But, after all, doesn’t the Torah often ask quite a bit of us?

So, this verse which opens our parashah seems to have two lessons for us. The first, I think, is this: the choices before us are before us, meaning, in front of us. In Hebrew, the word for before/in front of is lifné, a contraction of el (to) and panim (face). Thus, to say that the choice between blessing and curse is before us, means that it is one which we will face. From this moment, to the next, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year, and perhaps to our next lifetime – we will be faced with choice after choice, drawing us toward either blessing or curse.

The second lesson we can learn from this is that to live a life of blessing requires commitment. We cannot be half-blessed or half-cursed. Although we live in a world in which we often aim to see nuance and subtlety, some things may actually be binaries. Perhaps we must choose one: blessing or curse. Seforno reminded us that we have to pay attention, we have to be careful, we have to look at the path in front of us in order to know which it is. That struggle, to discern which path will lead us toward blessing, although difficult, is far better than always trying to find a middle ground. It is harder and potentially more hazardous, but, as we are promised, may be far more rewarding as well.

The Midrash [Sifré 53:1:2 / Tanhuma Re’eh 3] makes what I think is a beautiful analogy to help us understand this choice with which we are faced. Imagine the following scene with me:  you are standing on a woodland path, walking forward. It is the rare British summer day where everything is peaceful and warm and sunny. As you walk, the path you are on reaches a fork. First, look to the left: there you see the path unencumbered, cleared of all debris. A bit beyond where you can see, it bends. Now look at the fork on the right: there you can see that the path has lots of thorn-bushes, some of which have overgrown the banks and intrude on the path. It looks like it would be much slower going, and potentially hazardous with all the debris blocking the way. Yet, it too curves away from you beyond your sight. You have to make a choice based on what you can see. What do you do?

The midrash goes on tell us that these two paths are just like the blessing and the curse we read about. However, the critical information is the very part that is absent. It explains that our left-hand path, the one that begins totally clear actually turns that corner into very dangerous terrain. Beyond the bend the brambles and thorns that you cannot see are far worse than what’s visible on the right-hand path. Meanwhile, that right-hand path, which appears hazardous and difficult, curves around the bend to a beautiful and clear ramble through some lovely countryside.

Standing at the crossroads, at the fork, as we were, we cannot know where the path will go, we can only know what is in front of us. Yet, what the Torah is asking us is precisely that: to see beyond what appears and to choose the path of blessing. The path that leads towards blessing may be more difficult – it may involve commitments and restrictions and limitations that feel like thorns, but just around the bend it leads to somewhere beautiful. Meanwhile, the path which seems easy, which asks little of us, may lead us into danger and oblivion.

Our Sages tell us in the Talmud [Bavli Tamid 32a] that one who is wise is ‘one who can see the future.’ They don’t mean clairvoyancy of course! They mean that wisdom is about being able to see beyond what is just in front of us. Wisdom is being able to look at the forked paths with which we are faced and know that the one that begins in brambles may end in a serene and clear journey. The first word of our parashah tells us to re’eh; It is a command – “Look!” “See!” “Behold!” Look – you have before you a choice, between blessing and curse. Between the easy road and the hard road. The only choice we can make is to move forward, on one or the other. It is not just the only choice we can make, it is the only choice there is to make. We cannot go backwards. We cannot retreat into the forest from which we came or go back in time and remove a great evil from the world. We cannot, as the protagonist of ‘I Killed Hitler’ discovers, alter the path or the choices we have already made. All we can do is move forward, fork after fork, looking at what is before us and choosing: blessing or curse, blessing or curse, blessing or curse.

I want to leave you today with the words of Rabbi Alan Lew, whose book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared should be required reading in the period prior to the High Holy Days which we are now entering. He writes:

Look. Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our seeing our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter … We learn a number of things from this. We learn that this business of choosing good over evil, life over death, is precisely a matter of life and death. Our lives quite literally depend on it.

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Eikev

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

A story is told:

Once there was a king who had a great flock of goats. He was very proud of this flock and the goats that made it up. One day, a stag appeared and joined the flock of goats. Of course, goats and stags are very different animals! The shepherds responsible for the flock were nervous to tell the king, worried that he would be upset to find his prize-winning flock corrupted by the presence of this very persistent stag. Yet, when the king was told he immediately felt affection for the stag and gave orders that the stag should have the best pasture available and that he should have a greater ration of water. The king ordered that none of the shepherds should ever beat the stag or even prod him with their staffs. The shepherds were baffled by the king’s reaction – and so they sent a messenger to the king to ask him why he was protecting the stag. The king then explained that the flock have no choice but to go along – but the stag chooses them. The king accounted it as a merit to the stag that he had left behind the whole of the broad, vast wilderness, the abode of all the beasts, and had come to stay in a fenced-in pasture on the palace lands.

The Midrash tells this parable as a way of explaining a verse which we read this morning, Deuteronomy 10:19 – “You must love the ger for you were gerim in the Land of Egypt.” In the Torah’s conception, a ger is any person who is foreign, an outsider. As Judaism develops and the rabbis begin to redefine terminology, a ger becomes the way that we refer to converts. The midrash, of the stag and the flock of goats, is attempting to explain why it is that we are told over and over that God has a particular affection for gerim, converts. Whereas someone born into a Jewish family never had to choose to join the Jewish people, a convert has given up the ‘broad, vast wilderness,’ among the whole rest of the world to join the Jewish people.

Yet, we could look at Eikev, at this extended speech by Moses as he prepares to leave his leadership role and wonder – why does Moses make such a point out of the need to ‘love the stranger’ in this section of all places? We can learn part of the answer by looking at the context of the statement. The verse just prior reads, “God enacts justice for orphans and widows and loves the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.” Then we should read the next verse as, “You too must love the stranger.” So, we do what our Christian neighbours call imitatio dei: we imitate God by loving the stranger, the foreigner, the convert.

But – can we really command love? Respect, sure. Not to mistreat someone, sure. But, love? Maimonides observes something fascinating regarding this question. He notes that the Torah commands us to respect and honor our parents, and it commands us to obey a prophet… but it never commands us to love any of them. We aren’t commanded to love our parents, or our siblings, or our spouse, or even our children. Who are we commanded to love? Only twice are we told we must love: we must love God and we must love the convert.

Maimonides doesn’t tell us why this is, but if we’re willing to delve a bit into the mystics we can find an answer that I think may help us. Every word in Hebrew can also be a number, because the numerical system uses the same characters as the letter; the system of deriving meaning from the numerical value of words is called Gematria. Thus, God’s name is 26, Torah is 611, and ‘life’ is 18. The numerical value of ahavah, ‘love’ is 13. 13 is also the numerical value of the word ehad, or ‘one.’ Thus, the mystics understand that the true meaning of love is unity. To be ‘in love’ is to be ‘one with.’

The truth is, we can never truly be one-with our parents, siblings, partners, or children. Those relationships can be incredibly strong and have amazing unity, but their strength comes from the unification of two people, two perspectives, two bodies, and two lives. Yet the love we have for God is due to our identification with God. We are one with God because God is found in us and we are in God’s image. So too, all Jews, whether born so or converting to Judaism, are one with one another for they share the same covenant, the same responsibilities, the same blessings, and the same faith.

Thus, we must love the convert not because they are a convert per sé, but because they are a Jew. They are a Jew who has chosen to share in that covenant and those responsibilities. We must love the convert because we are all one people. Ironically, our love for converts must come from a recognition that it doesn’t matter whether someone was born Jewish or chose it – we are all one in our faith and our community.

Moreover, the second half of the verse points out that part of what makes the Jewish community one with the converts that join it, and thus requires love between them is their experience. “You too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” One of the commentators on the Torah known as the Keli Yakar writes about this: “It says ‘you too shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt,’ because anyone who hasn’t been a stranger in their lifetime cannot feel the stranger’s pain and cannot truly be concerned for the life of the stranger. But, someone who has themselves been a stranger knows the pain of the stranger and thus can apply the principle ‘do not do what is hateful to another.’”

Thus, it is not only our responsibilities and our choices that bind us together but it is our experience as well. Every Jew has known what it is like to be an outsider. For some of us we experienced that millennia ago as slaves in Egypt, for some of us it was last Thursday before we entered the mikveh. The point is this: the love asked of us, the caring shown by God, all of it is meant to diminish any perceived difference between the goats who have already been in the flock and the stag that joins it.

More than once I’ve heard someone say to me, “Oh, my partner converted so we’re a mixed-faith marriage.” No, you’re not. You’re two Jews, maybe who have had different paths, but now indistinguishable. I’ve heard sentences like, ‘Well he’s Jewish but she converted.’ Based on everything we’ve just learned – that sentence makes no sense. He may have been born Jewish, she may have chosen to become Jewish, but when we’re talking about their identities as Jews now, there is no “but” to that sentence: he’s Jewish and so is she.

This project of seeing all Jews simply as Jews doesn’t meant that we erase the various backgrounds and life-stories which have brought people to Judaism. There’s a blessing that in some versions of the traditional siddur one is meant to recite in the morning that thanks God for ‘not making me a gentile.’ Should someone who came to Judaism through conversion also say this? I don’t think so. It’s not true. God did make them a gentile and they chose to become Jewish. We cannot eliminate that difference. Just as the king is impressed with and interested in protecting the stag because it chose the pasture and the sheep, so too we shouldn’t ignore the fact that many Jews, many people in this room, have had full and fascinating lives outside of Judaism. We also cannot pretend that converts have no family simply because they have no Jewish family. To do so is to ignore and undermine the choice that was undertaken by them.

I look forward to welcoming new students for conversion here at SAMS. I know that we can be a community that models the values which our Torah teaches – which loves the convert the way that we are asked to love God — because we are, in some way, identical. I hope that we can always be a community which sees no difference between a Jew who can trace their lineage to King David and a Jew who can trace their Jewish life to three weeks ago. Whether we came out of Egypt in ancient times or the broader world in contemporary times, we have all stood together at Sinai and accepted upon ourselves the burdens and blessings of Jewish life.

Whether we are the goats or the stag, we are all in the pasture together. We must find a way to accept each of us as individuals, without diminishing one’s status as a Jew nor erasing one’s history as a gentile. We have to accept that it is perfectly possible, and perhaps even desirable, to have someone choose Judaism in the way that many of us never had to and that suspicion is not the reaction that should meet that choice; instead, it should be something more akin to wonder… a wonder that we have chosen each other, regardless of our backgrounds or our births and the hows and whys of our identities as Jews, to engage in the project of community and relationship building within a Jewish framework.

My prayer for us this week is that we all find time to reflect on love for a stranger– the stranger who is no longer a stranger but a part of our flock and should be considered as such always– with no reservation or hesitation.

Aug 16

D’var Torah – Vaetchanan

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

In 1964, at Bell Labs in suburban New Jersey, two scientists were tasked with setting up and monitoring a new and highly-sensitive radio telescope. Basically a huge antenna, the telescope was originally designed to pick up radio waves which were being bounced off satellites just in the Earth’s atmosphere. When they turned the machine on and began to look closely at the data that was coming in – it didn’t quite make sense. They weren’t able to pick up anything other that a low, steady, rumbling noise which would sound to you and me like static. The noise was far louder than they expected, and as good empiricists would, they figured it was the equipment. The two men, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, climbed out onto the 6-metre wide disk of the telescope and found several families of pigeons nesting there. Assuming their avian neighbours were causing the mistaken results, they quickly relocated the pigeons and cleared out the nests.

Yet, as these stories tend to go, when they climbed back down and took another look at the data – that persistent static noise was still there. Penzias and Wilson didn’t realise it yet, but, they had just made one of the most significant scientific discoveries in the 20th century – a period which was amply animated by advances in science and technology. As they came to find out, studying the mysterious noise, vibrating at a consistent 7.35 centimetre wavelength – the noise they heard came not from pigeons, nor anything on Earth, nor anything in our solar system, nor even anything in our galaxy.

That quiet rumble in their headphones, it turns out, was nothing other than the radiation which had been emitted over 14 billion years ago when the universe was formed. A far cry from pigeon droppings, I’d say. What Penzias and Wilson discovered is what we now call the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) and it has allowed us to see far beyond what we previously thought possible. The data from that little hum heard in New Jersey allows us to get a glimpse into what the early life of the universe looked like. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize for their accidental discovery and science since has been forever transformed.

I’m thinking of the CMBR and of Penzias and Wilson today because there is a piece of the way that the Rabbis understand parashat VaEtchannan that has always bothered me. If you look at Deuteronomy 4:32, you’ll see, what seems to me, to be a fairly straightforward statement:

“For ask now of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created humanity upon the earth, and from the one end of heaven unto the other, whether there has been anything as great as this thing is, or if any has been heard like it?”

Said in the context of Moses trying to convince the people of Israel why their story is so extraordinary, the verse itself doesn’t seem terrifically troubling. However, it’s used more than once in rabbinic literature as a proof-text for the exact opposite of what it plainly means. In the Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 1:10), a rabbi named Bar Kappara inserts the word ‘not’ into the verse, making it “ask not of the days past, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth.” He does this to teach that one may speculate from the day that time itself was created, but one should not speculate on what was before that. And one may investigate from one end of heaven to the other, but one should not investigate what was before this world.

Elsewhere, in the Talmud (BT Chagigah 11b) The Rabbis reasoned that the words “since the day that God created humanity upon the earth” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire concerning the time before creation. They reasoned that the words “the days past that were before you” taught that one may inquire only about the six days of creation. The Rabbis further reasoned that the words “from the one end of heaven to the other” in Deuteronomy 4:32 taught that one must not inquire about what is beyond the universe, what is above and what is below, what is before and what is after.

Clearly a theme emerges – there is an element of Jewish thought which seeks to use this verse to justify an anti-scientific approach. To limit experimental inquiry to only ‘certain’ domains is, stated or not, the aim of views like this. For some, this can seem like, in a broader fashion, an example of opposition to nature as a whole.

There certainly is a stream of thought in the Torah and in later Jewish tradition that fears nature. So obsessed with squashing any trace of Paganism, some part of the Jewish tradition went and over-corrected, downplaying the natural world, scientific inquiry and the value of experimental and philosophical understandings of our universe to the person of faith.

Perhaps the best-known expression of this sentiment is in Pirké Avot, the tractate of the Mishnah which deals with ethical concerns. There, (3:9) Rabbi Shimon is quoted as saying: “One who is walking along while studying [words of Torah] and interrupts their study and says ‘how beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field’—the Torah considers them as though they are guilty of death.”

For me, I simply can’t stand this tendency in some Jewish texts to devalue the natural world. As someone who has always been fascinated by science- and moreover, who sees scientific inquiry and theological speculation as going hand-in-hand, I find myself extremely frustrated by what seems to be a narrow-minded and parochial approach to the world in which we live, love and worship.

One of the first influences on me was Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who was one of the youngest physicists to be hired by the US government as well as one of the most brilliant mystics of the last hundred years. I take comfort in the fact that so many Jewish leaders have been people of science and medicine and that so many significant scientists have come from a Jewish background. Out of the 881 individuals who have received a Nobel Prize since 1901 when it began, 197 of them, or 22.4% have been Jewish. Meanwhile, worldwide Jews account for less than 0.2% of the world’s population. That incredible disparity, I don’t think, is due to some ethnic or genetic predisposition or intellectual gift. I think it comes from a culture and a religion which promotes inquiry, questioning, and learning.

If that’s so, we have to find another way to understand these rabbinic statements that the universe’s origin, or nature, or any reasonable subject of inquiry is undeserving of our attention. I once heard Rabbi Marc Angel explain the quote from Pirké Avot above in a way which I think can help us today to make sense of all this.

Where the Mishnah says that ‘one who is walking along, studying words of Torah, and interrupts their study to say ‘what a beautiful tree’ is guilty of death,’ Rabbi Angel suggests that we’ve emphasized the wrong meaning of the statement. What makes them liable, he says, is not that they comment on the beauty of nature – it is that they see that comment as an ‘interruption.’ Flipping the statement, R’ Angel reads it as a call to always see Torah and Nature as one in the same. The sin in the example is not the appreciation of the tree – it is believing, if only for a second, that the Torah that one is learning and the world they see around them are ever separate or separable.

If you were to look at the stars with a typical optical telescope, the space in between stars and galaxies appears absolutely empty. If, however, you calibrate a radio telescope antenna just right, you find that that so-called ‘empty’ space hides the still-blossoming explosion that accompanied the universe’s birth.

 

We must be willing to take the brave step of seeing our faith and our understanding of science and nature as one in the same. We cannot be afraid to conflate and relate science and religion. After all, once we finish the Torah portion which contains that contentious verse, we read the Haftarah from Isaiah who reminds us:

To whom then to liken God? Lift up your eyes and see: The One who created the stars, called them by name, by the greatness of God’s might and strong power each one appears. (Isa. 40:25-26)

 As people of faith, part of our process of faith must be to accept that God and nature, science and Torah, study and appreciation of beauty – are not separate things. In a week in which we recite the Shema in its original context – when we remind ourselves that ‘Adonai is our God, and Adonai is One,’ we would do well to remember that must mean God is to be found in both our faith and our follies. Whether the search for God comes from a deep sense of experience and theology, or we stumble upon an echo of creation scaring away some pigeons – the sound that we hear, carried from the farthest reaches of space and the oldest eras of time – is one in the same.

Aug 01

D’var Torah: Devarim/Tisha b’Av

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

A story is told:

In Jerusalem in the first century, there was once a rich man who threw a lavish party. He asked his servant to invite one of his friends to the party, a friend named Kamtsa. The servant, in error, went and invited a different man named Bar-Kamtsa who happened to be a great enemy of this wealthy host. So, unbeknownst to the host, the wrong man got the invitation – and worse still, the invitee was Bar-Kamtsa, his great enemy.

The night of the party arrives – it’s opulent and over the top, of course, and among the guests who show up that evening is Bar-Kamtsa. So, the wealthy host found his sworn enemy Bar-Kamtsa sitting at the party, enjoying himself.  The host demanded: “What on earth are you doing here??  Get out!”  To which Bar-Kamtsa responded: “Well, seeing that I have come, let me stay, and I’ll pay for what I eat and drink”.

When the host replied “No!” Bar-Kamtsa, trying to avoid a scene then said: “Listen, I’ll pay for half of the party if you let me stay!”

“Absolutely not!”

“Listen, I’ll pay for the entire party – just don’t humiliate me by throwing me out!”

But the host was adamant, and had Bar-Kamtsa physically ejected from the party.

Meanwhile, during this entire altercation – just off to the side, was a famous rabbi, and one of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, R’ Zekharyah. He witnessed this whole encounter, and whether paralyzed by indecision or unwilling to intervene, R’ Zekharyah stood by and let Bar-Kamtsa be terribly embarrassed in front of all the guests. Naturally, Bar-Kamtsa was incensed, and in particular, he felt betrayed by R’ Zekharyah, who had stood by and done nothing, even after preaching constantly about how important the Torah considered it not to publicly embarrass anyone.

Bar-Kamtsa said to himself: If this man is a leader of the nation, and he won’t even stand up for his values, than this is a corrupt nation that should be destroyed. Therefore, Bar-Kamtsa, who was very well-connected with Rome, went to the Emperor and convinced him that he should destroy Jerusalem and conquer the Jewish people.

It is through this story that the rabbis do two things: 1) they try and explain how it came to be that Rome was interested in conquering Judea, and 2) they offer some blame for who is responsible for the destruction that ensues. Obviously the history is not so simple – the Romans were interested in Judea for strategic reasons above all else and had been waging a slow campaign to try and bring the Jews under Roman influence. Simultaneously, the Jews were in the midst of a civil war. The Romans exploited these tensions to divide the Jews further, playing groups against one another until the chaos erupted into all-out warfare in the year 66. Four years later, on Tisha b’Av (August 30, 70 CE), the Romans succeeded in destroying the Temple in Jerusalem – marking the end of a thousand years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel and the beginning of two thousand years of exile.

An historical event that significant obviously can’t be attributed to the actions of one rude host at a first-century Jerusalem house party! So, assuming the rabbis were uninterested, as usual, in being historians – why do they tell us this tale, and, perhaps more critically, who indeed are they blaming?

On one hand, they’re obviously blaming Bar-Kamtsa and the insensitive party host who drove him to turn on his people. Yet, this story appears in the Talmud – a text written for rabbis by rabbis. I think perhaps it’s just as likely that the person they really seek to blame here is R’ Zekharyah. It’s he who is guilty of not stepping in to resolve the conflict and the hatred he saw in front of him. Rather than fulfill the role of a mediator, he steps aside, preferring not to get involved in the messy business between this man and his sworn enemy.

For the rabbis, I think that it is R’ Zekharyah’s actions which they seek to warn against. Something similar is taught in the Zohar, which attributes the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 to the hatred and shame with which Joseph’s brothers treated him over a thousand years before. The rabbis explain that it is sinat chinam, ‘baseless hatred,’ which led to the Temple’s destruction. Both our anonymous party host and Joseph’s murderous brothers are certainly guilty of baseless hatred. Yet the character of R’ Zecharyah remains – for baseless hatred is one thing, but indifference to that hatred’s effects is another.

Perhaps we can never stop infighting in the Jewish community. The civil wars that ravaged the first century community are not so different from those ravaging our twenty-first century community. Just these past months British Jewry witnessed R’ Joseph Dweck of the Spanish and Portuguese Community being attacked for the content of one of his lectures. Disagreeing on ideas and principles is one thing, but the escalation of disagreement into division is another. The so-called ‘Dweck Affair’ quickly devolved into name-calling, character assassination, and attempts at public shame. R’ Dweck, you see, gave a lecture months ago about inclusivity of the LGBT community in Orthodoxy and most of the British Orthodox world viewed his statements as heretical. We in the Masorti movement saw something similar in the ‘Jacobs Affair’ a half-century ago – none of this is new. Unfortunately, as every Tisha b’Av rolls around, we can find new and recent examples of sinat chinam, baseless hatred.

What perhaps we can change, what we should aim to change, is the response to that ever-constant factor which factionalizes and fractures our people. We can choose whether to be the bystander, as R’ Zekharyah was, or to intervene – not to respond with more hatred, but to mediate and calm tensions. Perhaps we should reconsider the Bar-Kamtsa story and these modern day affairs in light of who the real villain is: our own indifference. If we let others hate and shame and embarrass each other – we are doing worse than them. Particularly those of us, like R’ Zacharyah, who have some sort of power in a community. There is an extra responsibility heaped upon the person of privilege to step up and to stop the cycles of violence that create new Bar-Kamtsas every day. Outside of the British Sefardi community, few Orthodox folks stood alongside R’ Dweck or paused to ask for more civilised discourse instead of character defamation, thoughtful consideration rather than condemnation. And this certainly holds true for other worldwide issues of intolerance and standing idly by in the face of senseless hatred: recent declarations made by the US president to persecute and expel transgender members of the United States military, news articles filtering in from around the world that continue to shut the door on asylum-seekers, and the other hundreds of ways we see divisiveness embodied in modern society.

This Tisha b’Av, as we gather Monday night to read Lamentations and remember that day, 1,947 years ago when the Temple was destroyed – I hope that we’ll see our sufferings and the sufferings of our fellows as a call to action. We must do more than pay lip service to the destructive potential of ‘baseless hatred.’ We certainly must do more than eagerly point out all the other people who are guilty of it; we must examine it and root it out within ourselves and our communities. We must transcend it and have the courage to step forward from the edge of the room in that party we’re all sitting and stop the Bar-Kamtsas of tomorrow from being shamed and embarrassed. Maybe then we can be worthy enough to bring some peace to each other, and to the world.

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.

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