Category Archives for "Weekly Words Archive"

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

By Editor | Blogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 18

D’var Torah: Pinchas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 11

D’var Torah: Balak

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

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

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

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

-The Ass who sets Bilaam on the right path.

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

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

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

Let me break it down for you:

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 04

D’var Torah: Hukkat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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