Category Archives for "Weekly Words Archive"

Jun 26

D’var Torah: Korach

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

In Shelach Lecha, last week’s Torah portion, Moses comes up against 10 out of the 12 scouts who have just returned from checking out the Promised Land. They bring a negative and discouraging report. We cannot win against against the giants in the land!

This week Moses’ leadership is challenged again, by Korach and his followers. They accuse him of being a demagogue, misusing his power and authority. It turns out that Korach and his followers are the true demagogues, hungering for power, not based on an alternative and possibly positive vision of leadership. They simply want Moses out, because they want to be in.

Rashi (1035-1104) explains that Korach, like all who crave power for its own sake, uses beguiling oratory, not truth, to seduce the people of Israel. The Hebrew text says “Mashach B’dvarim”- “He drew them to him with words.” He built himself up by tearing Moses down. How is it that the people of Israel who had witnessed Moses’ effective leadership and God’s power at the Red Sea and Sinai could succumb to Korach’s guile?

Nahmanides, like Rashi, another medieval commentator (1194-1270) says that at any other time the people would have stoned someone who questioned Moses’ authority. Korach’s attempted coup, however, came right after the frightening report of the spies. Our people, still struggling to rid themselves of their slave mentality, consequently fearful and vulnerable, were ripe for exploitation by Korach. He took advantage of their weakened state until God stepped in to rescue Moses by making Korach and his followers disappear.

Tal Becker, distinguished Israeli political thinker said that at conferences on Israel, each speaker typically describes the situation in Israel as worse than the speaker before him described it. Becker would say that we must acknowledge when things are bad and be realistic about it, but a wholly negative mindset weakens us, makes us vulnerable and plays directly into the hands of those who, like Korach, would harm us. Becker asserts that we must embrace and project a “sovereign state of mind”, which means a positive outlook of empowerment and self confidence when faced with the many Korachs of the world.

On a more personal level, the portion of Korach also reminds us that when we are in relationships of any kind, whether as spouses, parents, children, and particularly toward or as leaders, we should never exploit the vulnerabilities of others. Likewise we must be vigilant when others try to exploit our weaknesses. The good path in life is to define ourselves by what we stand for in positive terms, not by what might be lacking in others.

Jun 21

D’var Torah: Shelach Lecha

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

Before I deliver my D’var Torah today, I must ask us all to pause for a moment of reflection. The last several weeks have been very painful for all of us. Terrorism in the form of the events on Westminster Bridge, in Manchester, on London Bridge and in Borough Market, and the tragic fire in Grenfell Tower have left us all shaken to the core. We must find the time to pray for the families who have lost loved ones that they may with time find comfort. We must also pray for those who are still struggling to recover from both physical and psychological injuries. We must do whatever we can to help through charitable donations. The most recent and horrifying fire is not the same as the terrorist incidents which preceded it, but in both cases whatever can be done to prevent future occurrences whether by increased security in one case or greater attention to secure building codes in the other must be done, and we must encourage our government to do so. At the same time, we must feel and express gratitude to the first responders of fire and police, along with all those numerous people who stepped up as rescuers and opened their hearts and homes to those in need.

The Sedra of Shelach Lecha is a pivotal one in the history of the Jewish people in terms of their faith in themselves and their faith in God. Moses sent out twelve spies to reconnoiter the land of Israel before entering it. It is, of course, the sensible thing to do so the the people will know what to do and what is expected of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out well. Ten out of the twelve scouts return with a pessimistic report; the people are doomed to failure in conquering the land. Only Joshua and Caleb express optimism. The result is that the Jewish people are not permitted to enter the land until the negative and faithless generation which left Egypt has died out.

On one level, their negativism comes from a lack of faith in themselves. This is expressed in their perception that the land is occupied by giants, but even more in their perception of themselves as the size of grasshoppers. Far worse, is their lack of faith in God which is implied in the declaration in their report: “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we (Numbers 13:31). The last two words in Hebrew are critical because the word “mimenu” can mean two different things. It can mean “than we,” or it can mean “than He (God).”

Rashi, the great medieval commentator (1035-1104), citing the Midrash, says that “they meant it in reference to Him that is Above;” their true denial was of God’s power, not of their own. Therefore, God would be responsible for their familiar. They could blame it all on Him. That, it seems to me, is the best reason why they were not permitted to enter the Promised Land. Not only did they show a tremendous lack of faith, but also a reluctance to accept responsibility. God is not powerful enough, and our failure will be His fault.

On another level, they were turned back at the border, because of the manner in which the faithless delivered their report. And here to, as before, one word made a difference. Look at Numbers 13:27-28: “We came into the Land whither Thou sent us, and surely it flowers with milk and honey and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless, the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great, and moreover we saw the children of Anak there….” I bonded the word “nevertheless” because that one word took and otherwise objective report and slanted it toward the negative in a subtle and sneaky way. The listener would think he was hearing the truth offered with objectivity but would end up feeling pessimistic. This is the manipulative technique of the propagandist who shades the truth just enough to accomplish his goal to mislead others.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz, the renowned modern Biblical commentator, offer a wonderful illustration of this this technique from a 15th century commentator Isaac Arama. Again note the bolder words: “It can be compared to a man who says to his agent- Go to the warehouse and have a look at the tallit the merchant has in stock. Examine it carefully for the quality of the fabric, for size, appearance and price and let me know, as I wish to purchase it. If the agent returns and says that he had a look at it and the wool is pure, it is long and wide, greenish and reddish in color and the price a hundred gold pieces, he has carried out his mission correctly. But if he said- I had a look at it, the wool is pure, it is long and wide, but it is greenish and reddish in color, and it is very dearly priced at 100 gold pieces, then he has exceeded the bounds of his mission and become instead an advisor.”

How interesting! What a difference a word or two here and there can make! Such is a reminder that we have to be careful listeners and readers of all reports which are presented to us. As you can see from this Sedra, life or death decisions depended on the honesty of the spies. The ten could clearly could not be trusted because of the style not only the content of their reporting. It was clearly not truthful and certainly slanted. What was worse than their report was that they were lacking in faith both in God and in themselves. The people would have to wait to cross the border.



Jun 11

D’var Torah: Be-Ha’alotekha

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

The Torah portion of Be-Ha’alotekha is about spiritual leadership and its relationship with the community. Moses is “burned out” from handling our difficult people. He can no longer handle it all by himself so God gives him a “Board of Trustees”, elders who have some of Moses’s spiritual leadership. It is a trying time and Moses needs to share responsibility.

Moses has no problem sharing his spiritual quality of leadership with others. Meanwhile elsewhere in the camp two men named Eldad and Medad are engaged in acts of spiritual ecstasy and prophecy. Others object but not Moses who expresses this wish: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” To Moses God’s spirit and prophecy were available to all.

We can derive two important values of Judaism from these events. First, is the value of a caring community where every shares in the affirmation that we are all dependent on each other, or in a more familiar phrase, “All for one, and one for all.” Everyone is equally obliged to help everyone else. It is not the job of Moses alone, nor the 70 alone, nor Eldad and Medad alone.

Here I have to quote David Brooks from an op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 2. It is entitled, “The Axis of Selfishness.” “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with the clear eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. This sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.”

Moses would have railed against this outlook and said that we are not only a global caring community but that we are also an “egalitarian community.” This is the second value derived from the events in this week’s Sedra. We have equal responsibility but also equal ability to fulfill that responsibility. The idea of being egalitarian here precedes the issue of women’s full participation in Jewish life. It might be called a DIY concept of Judaism. We can all learn what is necessary to become Jewish leaders whether it is lead a service, read Torah or Haftarah, lead a Seder, even deliver a D’var Torah.

This is every rabbi’s dream, to empower his community to do all of these things and much more. The rabbi may be more learned after studying for many years, but he or she does not have an exclusive claim to that knowledge or leadership. The rabbi does not have to be the surrogate for the congregant. We all have a direct line to God. SAMS is a paradigm of empowerment where congregants are encouraged to take over and lead not only at meetings but also in worship and teaching.

The American Jewish community began to embrace this in the 60’s and 70’s with the publication of a book entitled “The Jewish Catalog” which taught everyone how to do everything Jews do from tying Tzitzit to making Challah for Shabbat to putting on Tefillin and so much more. That period also saw the beginning of the Havurah movement in America where groups of young Jews, created communal living settings where they did Judaism in all ways, without a rabbi. They knew what our tradition has stressed, the concept that we are all a “Mamlechet Kohanim v’Goi Kadosh,” a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.” The leaders like Moses of old played and the rabbis of today play an important role, but each and everyone of us in the community have the power and the responsibility- equally!

God and Moses partnered a long time ago to teach this concept to our people. Each generation must learn these values and live by them. Doing so guarantees Jewish survival.

Jun 04

D’var Torah: Nasso

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

There are two types of ‘message’ in this Sedra. The first is mixed, positive and negative. The second is purely positive. There is a connection between them.

One of the main themes in Nasso is the Nazirite Vow which an Israelite took for a limited period of time and withdrew from worldly pleasures like meat, wine, marriage, living in a comfortable dwelling and wearing good clothes. It was supposed to be a statement of greater religiosity, but at its conclusion a sin offering was required. There seems to be a contradiction here. If it is good thing to be a Nazirite why perform an act of repentance after completing it?

It suggests some ambivalence about its value. Abstinence can be good but not absolutely good. Look what happened to Samson who was born to be a Nazirite for life. While at the end of the day he was a hero for Israel, he could not resist Delilah’s seduction. Extreme withdrawal from life’s physical pleasures rendered him unable to control himself. Implicit in this story is Judaism’s view that the middle way is the best way. While there may be a time and place for complete abstinence like Yom Kippur, Judaism is a worldly religion which encourages indulging in life’s worldly pleasures but discouraging withdrawal from them or self-flagellation. It is all about balance.

Maimonides confirms this during the Middle Ages when he wrote in the Mishneh Torah that the Nazirite vow “is an evil path and it is forbidden to walk therein. We should only deny ourselves those things denied by the Torah and we should not impose on ourselves vows of abstinence from things which are permitted.”

The second message in the same Sedra connects in its first part to the first message about the Nazirite vow . The first part of the three-fold Priestly blessing asks God to bless us and protect us. Abarbanel says that this means that we should receive life’s material blessings and pleasures and at the same time as we possess them, they should not possess us. It is implicitly against the Nazirite vow and stresses balance in our enjoyment of life’s pleasures and our abstinence from them. The priestly benediction, however, has three parts. Part two asks for intellectual blessings and part three for Shalom.

Shalom here is not world peace, but inner peace. It asks God to bless us with peace of mind, perhaps one of life’s most elusive but sought after blessings. There are many ways to attain peace of mind. The two messages of this Sedra when taken together suggest that if there is balance in our lives, between the physical and the spiritual, between self-indulgence and self-discipline, with room for God and the needs of others in our lives, then Shalom is possible.

After all, the word Shalom also suggests wholeness. When we can attain wholeness within ourselves, we are on the road to Shalom, peace of mind.

May 29

D’var Torah: Bemidbar

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Moira Hart

This week’s Torah portion is called Bemidbar and is the first parsha from the Book of Numbers.  Numbers is not a translation of Bemidbar which actually means “in the wilderness”.  It recounts a time in the life of the Children of Israel when they are having to change from being slaves and all that entails to becoming citizens of their own land.  Much of the parshah is to do with the counting and sorting of people into their tribes. It’s all about transition.

Moses was instructed by God to count, by tribe, every male from the age of 20 to 60 – men of draftable age.

Moses counts 603,550 men.

However, this didn’t include the Levites, women or children!

It’s not really clear why a census was needed but it could be that God wanted the census to show his power in redeeming such a large number of people, a whole nation wondering in the wilderness.  To give you an idea of the scale of the number involved, 603,550 is somewhere between the 2016 estimate of the population of Macau in Asia at 597,000 and Montenegro in Europe at 626,000.  (166 and 167 out of 233 nations according to the United Nations.)

The reason for the census may simply have been more pragmatic – perhaps it was to have a list or clear idea of men eligible to fight and this would explain the omission of women and children.

It happens that some years later but also related in the Book of Numbers, God again instructs Moses to take a census of males over the age of 20.  This time it is towards the end of their time of wandering in the desert and the Children of Israel have been through many traumatic and difficult times including being affected by plague and much fighting.  So despite the passing of time the final tally is 601,730.

I have read that it could be viewed that this time God is trying to allay the fears of the children of Israel and refresh their spirit by adding a sense of newness and distinction to their mission. The purpose of this count serves not as a census or military count so much as a reestablishment of their old identity.  Something akin to a shepherd looking after his sheep – keeping them safe.

To return to the census in this parsha, why weren’t the Levites included?  Chapter 1, v 47 says “But the Levites, according to their father’s tribe were not numbered among them.”  I discovered that it relates back to the incident of the golden calf.  When Moses returned from Mount Sinai and found some of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf he asked that “Whoever is with God, come to me”.  The entire tribe of Levi gathered about him and they were charged, sadly perhaps, with murdering everyone guilty of worshipping the Golden Calf.  The Levites then became the tribe charged with carrying and looking after the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn from each tribe who were originally going to be assigned this important task.

The parsha goes on to describe how the camp would be set out going forward. The Levites were to set up camp to immediately surround the tabernacle with the other tribes camped around them in a specific order. And just how many Levites were there?  22,000 males over the age of one month old.  The fact that the children were included probably indicates the importance of the tribe of Levi.

So we can see that there are many different reasons and theories as to why God wanted to count the number of Israelites.   Nick Gendler’s interesting article in Reflections says that Rashi tells us that at important moments in history God counted his people.  And perhaps it is simply a question of taking stock – something we all do at times of emotion, happy or sad.

Nick also goes on to discuss the idea that he recalled that Jews should not be counted individually.  An idea derived from the first lines in this week’s haftarah, “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted”.  This rang a faint bell in my head and my consequent research led me to the following thoughts which are loosely based on an article from the Orthodox Union.

We will never know exactly why God chose that the Jews should never be counted with a census, but here are some thoughts.  The Talmud teaches that blessing is not found “in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted, only in something that is hidden from the eyes.”  I think this is a rather beautiful idea.

Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, a Spanish rabbi and scholar born in 1255, explains that we do not count separate individuals, since we do not want to single them out and bring judgment upon them. An individual may not have enough merit to pass that judgment. However, when counting as a community, even if judgment is brought upon us, there are sure to be enough good deeds in the community to ensure that they pass the judgment and are found worthy of God’s mercy.

So what do people do to overcome this problem of wanting to know how many, but not wanting to count individuals.  As ever, there are ways around this problem.  Many censuses were carried out by collecting a coin – perhaps a half shekel, King Saul asked soldiers to bring kid goats, you can count noses or thumbs but not body parts that would are really significant for life.  And just by the way, once you have counted/or not counted it is ok to use the final number as long as it is arrived at in a correct manner.

As a footnote, and perhaps a hint to another reason why we traditionally don’t count individuals, King David counted the Jews in a more conventional way and a great plague struck and many of them died.

Another, rather lovely tradition, is that of how one should check whether there are 10 people present for a minyan.  The most usual way to do this is to use the words in a Scriptural verse (usually Psalm 28:9). This is a very beautiful way, because each word in a sentence is unique and without it the sentence would lose its meaning.  Illustrating what a mitzvah it is to be part of a minyan.  The verse translates as:

Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.

הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם

Anyway, I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot about the links I might be looking for to make all this meaningful for this week.  However, when I stop to think about it I think the parsha is about working out a good model and a way of life and a plan for living that makes a community function effectively.  I think everyone this week has been pondering on what we need to do to make our local communities, national community and global community to function well. We need to do take a long hard look at the way our global community operates and to see if we can mend something that seems to be very badly fractured at the moment.  I don’t really feel I have the authority or the right to try and speak to you all or help you find some understanding of this week’s events so I have turned to Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg and would like to share some of his recent blog.

He writes.  Our hearts go out to all the families who have been devastated by the evil killings in the Manchester Arena.  The young have every right to hope for security, love, joy, excitement and music.  Our prayers are with the wounded, the bereaved and all who care for them. Our thoughts and appreciation are also with the emergency services, the police and all who strive to keep us safe.

Next week is Shavuot and we shall read the Ten Commandments on Wednesday. Our rabbis emphasise the close correlation between the first and the second five. ‘I am the Lord your God’ is thus parallel with ‘You shall not murder’. It is, or should be, as plain as daylight that we may not hurt or harm, let alone wilfully and wickedly take away, another person’s life. This is the foundation of all morality and all religion; there is no place for relativism – the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.

I [Rabbi Wittenberg] spent the last two days engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue in Berlin, at a huge gathering of the Protestant Church. The motto of this year’s conference is a verse from the story of Hagar, when she says to God ‘You see me’. The issue for us is not just whether God sees us, but whether we see one another: do we see in each other human beings, equally deserving of life? Do we see and respect each other across the differences of faith, history, nationality, gender, age? If we don’t, or won’t, those who pay the price will include, over and again, the most innocent among us.

The Manchester killer did not see others. The doctrine which filled, and killed, his heart and mind, prevented him from seeing them, – young people who merited incomparably better of life. He, and above all those who brain-washed and destroyed him, are eternally responsible for the pain following their terrible deaths.

We can’t bring the murdered back. Maybe the awareness of our solidarity will diminish by some tiny amount the loneliness of those whose lives have suddenly been flooded with inexplicable suffering.

But we can resolve to see one another, as the God of all life, and the Torah of Life, require us to do. And we can aspire to find the courage and compassion to act accordingly.  In response, I encourage us all to mark this bitter and sad time through special generosity and kindness towards children and young people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Moira Hart

May 14

D’var Torah: Emor

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This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Beverly Cohen

Holier than Thou?

I love clubs.  I’ve always been a club junkie.  I’m particularly thrilled to join clubs that require special equipment.  Over the years I have treasured my ice skates, my curling stone, my softball glove, my exercise ball, my riding crop, my knitting needles, my squash raquet.

And uniforms, how I love uniforms! I was inordinately proud of my brownie uniform with all its badges.  When I started pottery classes, my potting smock gave me much more nachas than my pots.  Likewise, the tennis skirt I bought to launch my squash career.

Why?  Because I love to belong.  And I love to be seen to belong.  I love the sense of kinship, the common knowledge, common language, common identity.

And the sense of separateness – I love that the clubs I belong to are different, exclusive in some way.  That in belonging to these clubs I must in some way be different, special.

I’m proud to be Jewish.  I belong to a club whose members include Einstein, Freud, Marx, Pasternak, Harry Kroto, Henry Kissinger, Philip Roth – Barry Manilow ….  Am Yisroel Chai.

In the introduction to today’s Parashah, Emor, the Etz Hayim Chumash says: “The previous parashah [Kedoshim] describes the Israelites as being set apart from other nations, called on to attain holiness through their distinctive lifestyle.  Emor sets the Kohanim apart from other Israelites by means of symbolic obligations, restrictions and abstentions in their lives.  As the Israelites are to represent the God-oriented life to the nations of the world, the kohanim are to represent a maximal level of devotion to God for their fellow Israelites.  Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”  If this is true, why do we think, generally speaking, that it’s bad to be “Holier than thou”?

This week’s Parsha continues what is known as the ‘Holiness Code’, so-called because of “its repeated use of the word Kadosh (Holy)”.

The root meaning of ‘Kadosh is “something distinctive and set apart”, that is separate.  Last year, in one of his ‘Weekly Words’, Rabbi Rafi wrote that “we seek to imitate the divine to become holy.  In doing so, we seek to recreate the first moments of creation, where God began creation by separating:  light from dark, heavens from earth, water from sky and dry land from the sea”.

There are lots of separations enumerated in the Holiness Code: the pure from the defiled, unblemished from the blemished; the priests from the rest of the Israelites; festivals from ordinary days; praise from blasphemy; the Israelites from the other nations.

There are potential pitfalls in creating simple but unbridgeable dichotomies. I feel uneasy about this. If I’ve understood him correctly, Rabbi Joel Levy also feels uneasy.  In this week’s Masorti ‘Reflections’, he refers to the “Dark Side of the Quest for Sanctity”.  He is talking about the harsh punishment for blasphemy set out at the end of this parsha, but there are other problems that arise when I view my particular nation or tribe as Holier than yours.  Maybe there is a difference between creative acts of separation, which are holy; and the static state of separate-ness, which is not.

Jonathan Sacks wrote, in an article about Kedoshim, that “only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy.”  He goes on to say “That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew”.

I suspect few of us Jews in the modern world are conscious of this call to holiness as we go about our daily lives.  And even fewer feel the need to heed it.

But we are acutely aware of our separateness.  We nurture it.  We are the victims – and the survivors – of the Shoah.  And of countless precursor pogroms and attacks throughout our history.

I feel uncomfortable with the implication that the Jewish people have suffered more than other groups. Or that only the Jewish people have an obligation to be holy.  Does it imply that only Jews – as a whole community – can be holy?  Or that the Jewish people, the Jewish religion – in being separate, is superior to others?

To be “something distinctive and set apart”: this is simultaneously our great strength and our greatest vulnerability. The UK’s response to the threat of extremists has been to assert, and even to enshrine in law, the duty to promote ‘British values’ (e.g. civil partnerships, gay marriage, adoption of children by same-sex partners). Personally, I have no problem with these principles. But Ofsted has rated some Charedi schools inadequate, and last year one was threatened with closure because of its refusal to teach about same-sex relationships and about other faiths and cultures. One Charedi spokesman argued that this is an attack on their way of life. “There are lines we cannot cross”, he said.

I suspect that the brit mila could be next on the hit list. Jewish News reported that recently, at its annual conference, Norway’s ruling Progress Party voted to ban the religious circumscision of boys under the age of 16.  Again, from the perspective of current modern Western values, it’s hard to deny that there is a problem about injuring or disfiguring children when they are too young to give consent.

Next could come shechita, on the grounds that pre-stunning makes animal slaughter more humane. Whilst it was no doubt true that in biblical times shechita was the most compassionate way to dispatch animals, I don’t think we can be sure that’s the case today.

Nevertheless, despite my personal reservations, I feel deeply anxious about the State threatening customs that have bound our communities together; customs that we have shared and valued over so many generations.

As you all know, Rabbi Karl is a zealous advocate of “good questions”, so to end this drash I’ll pose some:

  • To what extent are we prepared to be “distinctive and set apart”?
  • Are such rituals as brit mila and schehita intrinsic and essential to our Jewish identity?
  • Are they worth practicing if they inflict pain (even if only momentary) on babies or animals? If they are proscribed by British law?
  • In the face of evolving British values, to what extent will we be permitted to maintain such practices? And if we’re not, how can we maintain a Jewish identity in the Diaspora today?

May 01

D’var Torah: Tazria-Metzora

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

Every year it is challenging to speak about these Sedras, either separately or together. Therefore, some context before I extrapolate from them. The Torah includes these portions about disease because the Torah is the story of the evolution of an entire civilization, which must include matters of disease and health. At the same time, however, one should not be critical of a generation for what was characteristic of it. We cannot measure their ways by 21st century standards. What can we learn from Tazria-Metzora is about the consequences of ignorance.

The rabbis who lived after the generation of the Torah nevertheless chose to attribute what they thought was leprosy as a result of moral failure, making Metzora an acronym for the Hebrew words for gossip (“Motzi Shem Ra”). The disease was probably actually a variety of ailments, all of which they thought to be contagious. Miriam, the sister of Moses (Numbers 12:10) is stricken when she speaks ill of Moses. The hand of Moses (Exodus 4:1 and 6) becomes diseased when he doubts God’s and his own ability to be believed by the people. By the way, the last hospital in America for people with Hansen’s disease in the USA was closed in the early 1980’s.

Long before we knew that the disease was not caused by moral failure, but our ignorance and the fear which it generated had already hurt many people in many generations. Here are the ways in which this kind of ignorance is so dangerous and damaging.

Making it all a result of moral failure is a “blame the victim” approach which can cause much pointless suffering and avoiding the real problems. For example, there have been in recent years those on the extreme right of the Jewish community who still say the Holocaust was, like the destruction of the Temple, caused by the failure of the Jewish people to obey God’s will.

Ignorance and fear lead to isolation. We know what it means to be locked in a Ghetto. At one time, leper colonies existed in Hawaii where lepers were forced to live away from the community. Further, even when we already knew how AIDS was a transmitted people shunned those with the disease. Remember what happened to Alan Turing because he was a homosexual. The wrong was only completely righted not that long ago.

Call it labeling or stereotyping, we Jews know about this only too well. I cannot mention some of the names we were called. Think about the ways we have been portrayed in anti-Semitic cartoons. I was painfully reminded that when I was growing up in America, “the land of the free and the brave,” African Americans were segregated in cruel ways as portrayed in two movies I have seen- “The Help” and very recently here in St. Albans “Hidden Figures.” The former is about the way African Americans were treated like the slaves of Egypt when they worked in American homes. The latter is about a number of women who were mathematical and engineering geniuses but were isolated and mistreated in the American space program during the 1960’s.

Only in 1991 with the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, did the US start making accommodations for the physical and mentally disabled a requirement, did we stop calling people “retarded.” Some would call this change and many other changes in the language we use to describe people with “special needs” politically correct, meaning phony. The old saying that goes “sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you” is wrong. More often, the new names we call these conditions are morally correct and long overdue.

The truth is that in so many ways we have not come very far in correcting all of these wrongs caused by fear and ignorance. Had we truly progressed there would not be the kind of pandemic called “bullying” nor would America have the kind of president we have who called Mexicans rapists and publicly mimicked a disabled journalist. Unfortunately the world is also increasingly populated by national leaders like Assad, Putin and Erdogan who are far worse.

These present realities remind us that we have not learned that much from the days of Tazria-Metzora and sadly the moral failure is ours!

Apr 23

D’var Torah: Sh’mini

By Editor | Blogs

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

I know you haven’t asked this question but I want to tell you why I became a rabbi. Yes, you may have heard me talk about the influence of USY through my graduation from High School and my many summers at Camp Ramah, the camping arm of Conservative Judaism. Notwithstanding having grown up in a non-observant Jewish home, in those places I found everything about Jewish observance quite attractive, which is in part the connection to this morning’s portion, Sh’mini in which are the fundamentals of the Dietary Laws.

The other part of that connection has to do with my father, of blessed memory. He did two things in his life which influenced my decision to become a rabbi. As you have read in a previous e-mail, my father saved two people from drowning in a river in the State of Vermont. He saved lives. I realized after I had already become a rabbi, that I was emulating him in trying to save souls. He was also an outstanding salesman of living room furniture. As a child, I travelled with him and watched his salesmanship at work. Here too, I realized later that when I decided as a teenager to become a rabbi that (subconsciously) I had found a “product” I believed in that I could spend my career selling. After all, although it was not that difficult, I convinced my mother to make our house kosher after my first summer at Camp Ramah.

So today my goal is to “sell” you the idea of keeping kosher. I am not here to guilt you into it, nor do you have to purchase the entire package. Any part of the Dietary Laws which I might convince you to adopt will in my mind be a successful sale. So, here goes my sales pitch of several reasons observing any part of the Dietary Laws will add meaning to your lives.

Be aware that the Torah in Leviticus 11:45 offers only one reason to keep kosher. We should be holy because the Lord our God is Holy. All the other reasons I offer today, build on that.

  1. I have spoken before of the idea of “normal mysticism” which is Judaism’s way of lifting us above the mundane to the spiritual. It doesn’t mean becoming ascetics living on a lonely mountain top. It is about in this case making eating more than a biological act. We choose what to eat. Animals don’t. We set limits on what we are allowed to eat. We are constantly reminded to think about it. In today’s word where “mindfulness” is so popular, we are mindful that even eating is a sacred act which elevates us above the animals and reminds us that we are the pinnacles of God’s creation.
  2. Compassion speaks to both our Dietary Laws and Vegetarianism. Although being a Vegetarian involves no killing at all and is high level of keeping kosher, the Dietary Laws remind us that eating meat, etc. is a compromise with us on God’s part. Knowing that we craved meat, fowl and fish, God with the help of the Rabbis required Shechitah, a compassionate form of slaughter, removing the blood from meat before we eat it, not eating animals of prey, and separating meat and milk, the former requiring killing, the latter not.
  3. The Dietary Laws teach discipline and self-control. Today everybody is on some kind of diet whether to lose weight, control cholesterol, avoid substances we are allergic to, etc. In observing a kosher diet, we are disciplining ourselves in a way that creates “sacred spaces” in our lives, again living on a level which transcends the mundane and purely physical.
  4. While at times some have thought the dietary laws were to separate us from our fellow human beings of other faiths, that is not why we observe them, nor is health a reason. Many religions have dietary restrictions, even one of our sister Abrahamic religions, Islam has Halal Meat. Observing the Dietary Laws is a way to creat ethnic distinctiveness and identity, a consciousness of who we are which brings me to the reason that attracted me most of all and continues to do so.
  5. We become part of a community of shared values of responsibility for God’s creatures, which is why I realized that my mother always told me to feed the dog before we ourselves ate. The Dietary Laws make us part of something bigger than ourselves in a world where too many people consider themselves bigger than and more important than anything or anyone else. It feels so good to be part of this larger community who believe in good values and live their lives according to them.

And that is what “closed the sale” for me as a teenager (excuse the commercial language) and led me to becoming a rabbi. I love what I “sell” and hope that even if I have not convinced you to buy into it all, at least I have “opened the door” (pardon the mixed metaphor).

Apr 16

D’var Torah: Shabbat hol hamoed Pesach

By Editor | Blogs

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

I have decided as of this Pesach that Passover is actually Rosh HaShana. I can substantiate the fact that it is a New Year by a citation from the Talmud, Mishnah Rosh HaShana 1:1. This passage says that there are actually four New Years. The first of Nissan is a New Year for Kings and for the Festivals (Pesach is the first of the three festivals). The first of Elul is a New Year for tithing animals (determining their age for sacrifice). The first of Tishri is the New Year for years, and the first of Shevat (Hillel says the 15th and he wins) is the New Year for trees.

Now that I have properly, if not questionably, put Passover on the same level as Rosh HaShana, I will call it Rosh HaShana #1 and  the first of Tishri Rosh HaShana #2. I am not suggesting one is more important than the other. I am, however, going to rename Pesach as the New Year for Cleanliness and Orderliness. Don’t worry. I am getting to my point which is that for the first time in a long time, I have come to see the value of all of the hard work which goes into getting a home reading for this holiday. Year after year I have asked myself why we have to shlep up all of the boxes of Passover items from the basement, empty cabinets and painstakingly clean them, Kasher silverware and other items, and deal with all of our counter tops. Oy Vey or in today’s language OMG! I will probably continue to kvetch but now I see a new reason for doing all of this.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always been a clean freak and compulsive about orderliness. After all, I was brought up by a mother who taught me that “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I only learned by googling that. She would also remind me that there is “a place for everything and everything in its place.” I learned by googling here as well that this may have been coined by Benjamin Franklin. Neither of these guiding principles, however, made me kvetch less about all the work to get the house ready for Pesach.

This year, I took the matter to another level and found an article about spring cleaning on Wikipedia. There I learned that on the Persian New Year, first day of Spring, they “shake the house,” obviously some form of cleaning out. I found out that in the Catholic Church the altar and related objects are cleaned just before Good Friday. The Greek Orthodox community celebrates a clean week often starting April 1. In general before there were vacuum cleaners and it was warm enough to open the windows people got all the dust out of their homes; it was Spring, of course. The last item was, somewhat to my surprise, “Bedikat Chametz.”

The point is that there is a global sense that this season is a time for washing, cleaning, dusting, decluttering, making the house look quite different than it had. The reason Pesach has a new positive meaning for me doesn’t lessen the work. The reason is for me the result. When everything is new and clean, fresh and shiny around us, it can lead to a feeling of renewal and restart within us. Just as nature renews itself around us at this season, we can feel that sense of inner renewal when we look around our newly cleaned and refreshed homes. Combined with the spiritual values associated with the Seder and the foods we eat at it, we can further that sense of inner renewal as we look around the table, a new appreciation for our blessings and for each other.

The bottom line is that beginning this year, I have a new lens through which I can look at Passover as one of two Rosh HaShanas. How fortunate I am then to have two opportunities for renewal and restart every single year!

Apr 10

D’var Torah: Tzav/HaGadol

By Editor | Blogs

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

In a small town named Whitwell, Tennessee, in the southern United States in 1988, a middle school principal named Linda Hooper had an idea. She wanted her students to learn about tolerance. To that end her students, mostly white and Christian, began a unit of study on the Holocaust. As they learned about the death of the 6,000,000 they struggled to grasp the enormity of that number. To help them she decided to have them collect 6,000,000 paper clips. She chose this seemingly insignificant item because Norwegians wore paperclips as a silent protest during WWII.

The project became a worldwide phenomenon. People sent in paperclips from all corners of the globe to the extent that in 2001 the students of Whitwell dedicated a Holocaust memorial, in the form of an actual German rail car filled with a portion of the 30,000,000 paperclips collected. In 2004 a documentary film about the project was released.

Sometime during this period, we had Linda Hooper as a guest speaker at our synagogue in Northbrook, Illinois. There was not an empty seat to be found. After her presentation, I had a moment or two to thank her privately. She came to my office and I expressed our gratitude in glowing terms to which she responded ever so modestly. “It was not about me,” she said. “It was all about the power of one.”

I have never forgotten those three simple words, especially as the global situation increasingly deteriorates into violence, famine and poverty. It is sometimes so overwhelming that as an individual I feel powerless and helpless; what I do won’t change a thing. When I am feeling this way, I think about Linda Hooper, one person in a small town in Tennessee, whose actions made a difference. Each of us can do something to repair the world. When we send a donation to feed people starving in Africa, when we write a letter to a government leader to protest an injustice,  or participate in a march to cure a disease, the power of one plus one plus….makes a difference.

One of the most significant illustrations of the power of one is related to Passover which begins next week. In the 1960’s a movement began to secure the release of our fellow Jews in the then Soviet Union where they were oppressed in ways not unlike our ancestors in Egypt. It took decades and the efforts of both numerous Jewish organizations along with a multitude of individuals who sent donations, marched, and even went secretly into the USSR to contact Soviet Jewish Refuseniks and bring them Jewish religious objects at risk to their own freedom. The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a success because of the power of one.

One of the buzz words of our age is “empowered.” It means an awareness that willingness and commitment to a cause will empower us to act on behalf of that cause. We can each empower ourselves and thereby realize the power of one.

Chag Kasher V’Sameach,

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