Shabbat Nakhamu: Finding Consolation

Even as it is necessary to make space in our lives to grieve, so it is necessary to make space to feel joy. Our parashat hashavua, called Va’Etkhanan after a word specific enough to help us find our place in the unmarked wilderness of letters which is a Torah scroll, sets up the tension.

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־ה’ בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃

I pleaded with ‘ה at that time (Devarim 3.23)

Moshe is disconsolate, begging HaShem to reconsider his upcoming date with death so that he can at least see the goal of 40 years of wandering; he has brought our people all the way to the edge of the Promise, all he wants to do is see it. This is truly a moment to grieve for all that Moshe will not be able to see, and be part of, in a future he did more than anyone else to help bring about. 

There is no answer for his suffering, nor for ours as a people and as individuals. Of course Moshe “deserves” to get there. But life is more mysterious than that. A level of emotional maturity which expects fairness to of life is childish. Growing up, we learn that joy and sadness are always mixed. There will always be grief.

But today, Erev Shabbat, is also Tu B’Av, a day which in our past was dedicated to joy:

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, which each young woman borrowed from another. Why were they borrowed? They did this so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards – Mishnah Taanit 4:8

Putting aside the astonishment you may be feeling at this moment over the complete metamorphosis of Yom Kippur once the Rabbis got their collective hands on it, it’s interesting to consider the absolute opposites we are offered by our cultural calendar within one week. 

The harvest time, the miracle of gathering what we’ve sowed and the attendant sensual joy, is perennial; every year of our lives, we are invited to celebrate the gift of life, its tastes and experiences.

Yet:

The grief of death, and the collective death we mourned on Tisha B’Av only six days ago, is also part of the life experiences that we reap. Our rabbinic tradition speaks clearly to this sense that we are caught between polar opposites:

שֶׁעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹצָר, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹלָד, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה חַי, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה מֵת, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן

for against your will were you formed, 

against your will were you born, 

against your will you live, 

against your will you will die, 

and against your will you will give an account and reckoning. – Pirke Avot 4.22

In other words, none of it is under our control, and we will never know why. Life is not fair; life is life. We are left to navigate as best we can between life and death, every day. On this Shabbat, may you open your heart to the joy that is the gift of your life, and may it fill you utterly, up to the brim, with peace.

Shabbat Hazon: Making Room to Mourn, Because the World is Broken

Those who mourn with Jerusalem will be privileged to celebrate with her – Ta’anit 30b

The Roman Arch of Titus clearly shows the soldiers returning from the sack of Jerusalem carrying the gold utensils of the Temple as spoils

This Shabbat is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. Because it falls on Shabbat, we will observe Tisha B’Av on Sunday 10 Av, rather than tomorrow which is the 9th of the month (and Tisha B’Av means nothing more than “the 9th of Av”), because Shabbat takes precedence over all other observances.

Tisha B’Av is a fast day very different in character from Yom Kippur, when we fast to act out our desire to rise above the human impulses that make us easy prey for our yetzer Hara’, our evil impulse. The fast of Tisha b’Av is a fast of grief, and for all that is lost.

Our mourning as a people is observed for all those who died because they are part of our people: from the destruction of our ancestral home in Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE and again by the Roman Empire in 70 CE, to those who lost their homes and their lives in the Crusades, the Expulsion from Spain, the Kishinev Pogrom and so horribly many more….

In all our powerless years we could only mourn. There are those who suggest that since the re-establishment of the Jewish homeland, we no longer need Tisha B’Av. But like all the rest of our holy days, it is still possible to see that it has a place in our hearts. First, in order to continue to commemorate and mourn all those lives lost to us, and second, to make room for our own mourning over the true reason for the day, and why it has never, alas, lost its relevance.

The enduring lesson of Tisha b’Av is that, despite our wonderful capacity for love and joy, we human beings too often bring about our own destruction. As a people, the Rabbis of the Talmud taught, we begin to destroy ourselves when we allow the feelings of others to be less important than our own. They call it sin’at hinam“baseless hatred.” 

Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, allows us to feel the sorrow of our collective human callousness toward each other and what it has wrought. Judaism sees the destruction of Jerusalem as a symbol of the prophet Jeremiah’s ancient warning, which still rings too true in all of the cities and towns where we dwell:

בִּכְנָפַ֙יִךְ֙ נִמְצְא֔וּ דַּ֛ם נַפְשׁ֥וֹת אֶבְיוֹנִ֖ים נְקִיִּ֑ים

on your garments is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor (Jeremiah 2.34)

שׁוֹטְט֞וּ בְּחוּצ֣וֹת יְרוּשָׁלַ֗͏ִם וּרְאוּ־נָ֤א וּדְעוּ֙ וּבַקְשׁ֣וּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶ֔יהָ אִם־תִּמְצְא֣וּ אִ֔ישׁ אִם־יֵ֛שׁ עֹשֶׂ֥ה מִשְׁפָּ֖ט מְבַקֵּ֣שׁ אֱמוּנָ֑ה

Roam the streets of Jerusalem, search its squares, look about and take note: You will not find a single person who acts justly, who seeks integrity (Jeremiah 5.1)

We’re only human, and when we’re overwhelmed with the enormity of the world’s suffering, in which we participate, we must find room and time to mourn. We Jews and those who travel with us undertake this mourning that we need in community ritual, and thus support each other through it. 

It’s a necessary balancing act. If we cannot see that there is cause to mourn, we will not be able to experience it, and thus to move through it, and, then, we hope, with eyes newly opened, to seek the blessing that we might wrest from it.

There’s an old saying that those who mourn with Jerusalem will be blessed to celebrate with her as well. Whether it is the earthly Jerusalem so in need of healing on both sides of the West Bank separation wall, or the mythical Jerusalem that stands for all our hearts yearn for, may we who have so many reasons to mourn live to see the time of celebration hashta b’agla uvizman kariv, speedily and in our days, amen.

Shabbat Matot-Masei: Rosh Hodesh Av

It’s not the actual act of violence; it’s the conditions that cause it.

Conditions that we either contribute to,

or have the power to interrupt,

with each small act of our own everyday lives. 

found unattributed on this website: YGB

Today is Rosh Hodesh Av 5782. On the Jewish spiritual calendar, today is the first day of the month of Av, and the first of Nine Days of mourning. Even as when the month of Adar begins we spend 15 days getting ready for Purim with the mitzvah of focusing upon what makes us joyful, this month we are given 9 days to meditate upon what makes us grieve.

The Jewish people focuses a good amount of our communal grief upon the question “how could this have happened?” It is significant to note that our spiritual tradition does not teach vengeance, but looks inward: how did we not see this coming? Did we ourselves have a part in allowing this to occur? Were we blind to something?

The Babylonian Talmud preserves an ancient explanation for the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem in the following famous account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. It reads, in part:

Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is how it was: 

There was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza.

אֲתָא אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ דַּהֲוָה יָתֵיב אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִכְּדֵי הָהוּא גַּבְרָא בְּעֵל דְּבָבֵאּ דְּהָהוּא גַּבְרָא הוּא מַאי בָּעֵית הָכָא קוּם פּוֹק אֲמַר לֵיהּ הוֹאִיל וַאֲתַאי שִׁבְקַן וְיָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי מָה דְּאָכֵילְנָא וְשָׁתֵינָא

The man who was hosting the feast came and found bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to bar Kamtza. you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out.

אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ יָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי פַּלְגָא דִּסְעוֹדְתָּיךְ אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא אֲמַר לֵיהּ יָהֵיבְנָא לָךְ דְּמֵי כּוּלַּהּ סְעוֹדְתָּיךְ אֲמַר לֵיהּ לָא נַקְטֵיהּ בִּידֵיהּ וְאוֹקְמֵיהּ וְאַפְּקֵיהּ

The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out.

אָמַר הוֹאִיל וַהֲווֹ יָתְבִי רַבָּנַן וְלָא מַחוֹ בֵּיהּ שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ קָא נִיחָא לְהוּ אֵיזִיל אֵיכוֹל בְּהוּ קוּרְצָא בֵּי מַלְכָּא אֲזַל אֲמַר לֵיהּ לְקֵיסָר מְרַדוּ בָּךְ יְהוּדָאֵי אֲמַר לֵיהּ מִי יֵימַר אֲמַר לֵיהּ שַׁדַּר לְהוּ קוּרְבָּנָא חָזֵית אִי מַקְרְבִין לֵיהּ

After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you.

There are several candidates for the sin that caused the destruction of Jerusalem: callousness, hypocrisy, hate. But Rabbi Yohanan blames excessive humility above all, because it leads to inaction. as it does in the continuation of the story when Rabbi Zeharya ben Avkolas cautions against doing anything to divert the violence, from suspicions to rebellion to massacre, because the message might be misunderstood.

Excessive humility is a favorite disguise of the Evil Impulse, we are taught: it will tell you that you can’t make a difference, there’s too much, you’re too small. Or it will tell you you’re too burned out. But we, each one of us, is a spark of the great Oneness, and our every small move does matter, like the butterfly’s wing of a small kindness.

Between Kamtza and bar Kamtza there is yet hope that someone might choose to act to interpose peace. Every day we can choose not to add to the climate of callousness with one small act. In these Nine Days we mourn together for those choices not taken. May we find consolation together in the days to come.

Shabbat Pinhas: Violence Begins At Home

Arch of Titus in Rome depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah and other sacred objects after the destruction of the Second Temple on 2 August 70 CE / 9 Av 3830

מִפְּנֵי מָה חָרַב? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיְתָה בּוֹ שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם

“why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was sin’at hinam, senseless hatred, among us” – BT Yoma 9.a

This week in the Torah our parashah is profoundly disturbing. Last week’s final lines described what our tradition has defined as an “extrajudicial execution” undertaken by a member of the priestly caste, Pinhas. He took it upon himself to kill an Israelite and a Midianite who were acting in a way that undermined the integrity of the Israelite community at its very heart – the mishkan, the holy Place.

If this religiously-inspired double murder wasn’t difficult enough, the beginning of our parashat hashavua records the approval of HaShem.

פִּֽינְחָ֨ס* בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם 

וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃

Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, 

so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. (BaMidbar 25.12)

Jewish discussion around what seems to us in our day to be a highly problematic text has led to justifications, apologetics, and a fair amount of alienation. Interestingly, though, the medieval commentators – Rashi and Ibn Ezra for two – have no problem at all with the passage. 

Each generation and its perspective. Rashi’s teacher suffered the loss of three sons murdered in the People’s Crusade, which killed 12,000 Jews. Ibn Ezra lived in Al Andalus amid the persecution of the Jews by the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties.

And we, what are we to make of Pinhas, we who have seen the damage that killers can do when they justify their behavior by their religion?

Earlier modern generations have turned their faces away. We, however, live in a time of escalating violence of word and deed. What are we to derive from this Torah narrative, we who do not choose to look away?

First, we must make room to mourn that this is our reality. We lock our doors; we fear for our children; we are impatient and angry and stressed with each other and ourselves.

Second, we must resolved not to become inured to it. We must never stop repeating to ourselves This too is Torah and I need to learn it.

It’s significant that parashat Pinhas occurs during the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish life in Israel, which we observe at the culmination of this period, on Tisha B’Av. Rabbis who lived through the destruction and the aftermath taught that the destruction of Jewish life in Israel came about not through the violence of the Romans but due to sin’at hinam, “senseless hatred” of one human being for another in our own community.

In other words, it’s not the actual act of violence; it’s the conditions that cause it. Conditions that we either contribute to, or interrupt, with each small act of our own everyday lives. 

More on this next week, with the famous story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. May your observance of this Shabbat be an oasis that brings you moments of shalom – peace and wholeness. And may you believe in your power, small though it be, to interrupt violence in all the small and compassionate ways we know by heart.

Shabbat Balak: We’re Alone Out Here

We are usually distracted enough by the talking ass in our parashat hashavua to fail to notice some of the other more sobering moments of the story of the mercenary prophet Balaam and King Balak of Moab. The very idea of a talking animal might lead us to miss the fact that she is the only reasonable voice in the narrative, and that hers is the voice of the usually unheard. In this way she is a harbinger of much more: her rider’s ears are closed to his true mission, and the king’s to the way fear makes him imagine danger.

The People of Israel, a group of refugees making their way from terror toward the dream of safety, appear on the lands of the King of Moab, who immediately seeks to secure his border and repel the needy travelers. (This story may be the justification for the Israelite meaning given to the Moabite name, which literally connotes “misbegotten bastard.”) 

Then as now, it often seems that any stranger appearing on our doorstep brings with them not human need we might meet, but danger.

This week a damaged car appeared at the curb of the Commons; inside, a couple who had already lost their home and, now, their only place of safety. We had two options: to ignore them and call the police, or to go over, say hello, and see if we could help. I’m proud of us that we did the latter, and that our membership is deep and wide enough with expertise and compassion to find an elderly couple an emergency hotel room voucher and a sheltered place where they can stay together.

The Israelites were not welcomed when they showed up at King Balak’s doorstep. The way we tell the story, our innocence saved us, and when the prophet Balaam who was hired to curse us opened his mouth, blessing came out instead. The blessing was the divine voice cutting through the human fear; for us, it’s any small gesture that can overcome our apprehension and establish humanity between us and those who seem unlike us. And any of us might manifest that ability to turn a curse into a blessing on any given day, if we can find it within us to listen to the voice of reason, even when at first it seems to be coming from too unlikely a place to credit – like a talking donkey.

It’s possible, though, to see a more complicated story here. Balaam’s most famous words in this parashah are 

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,

Your dwellings, O Israel! (BaMidbar 24.5)

Which we like to repeat endlessly – indeed, they are the first words we are to recite in the liturgy when we enter a prayer space. But the Midianite prophet also proclaims

הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

There is a people that dwells apart,

Not reckoned among the nations (BaMidbar 23.9)

For two thousand years these words have proved to be a curse with power far beyond King Balak’s dreams. Whether wandering through other nation’s territory with no expectation of rights or safety, or re-establishing a state in our ancient home which fits neither in Europe nor Asia or Africa (see the U.N.’s international groupings), or the reality that even in the most enlightened and compassionate circles of society we are most often erased from social justice narratives, Jews are a people who are not reckoned among the nations. 

Who are these Jews? Certainly King Balak didn’t care to get to know us. He stopped at fear and imagined danger. We know better, but we can’t seem to get the message across. Small and large antisemitic words and acts surround us even in those who seem to be our comrades and friends. What’s a Jew to do?

Only what we have always done, and as the haftarah reminds us this Shabbat: 

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹ-יךָ        

O human being, you have been told what is good,

And what is required of you:

Do justice

love goodness,

And walk modestly with that which you worship.

(Micha 6.8)

Only one thing silences the hostile voices of those who will never allow us peace, and that is to stay focused on why we exist. Respond to hate by stoking the inner fire of your love for all that is holy in your life: Keep listening for the voice of the holy: focus on the kindness that is in your hands to do, and the justice that is in your power to demand. And let modesty walk with you, reminding you that it is not up to you to heal the world, just to keep your eye on what your ability allows. 

Shabbat Hukkat: Stop Making Sense

What are we to do when life is confusing, frightening, and distressing? For Jews and those who follow the Jewish spiritual path with us, there is only one answer: Torah. Immerse yourself in the ancient wellsprings that sustained our ancestors, you will find that they hold you up too.

This week in parashat Hukkat our ancestors search desperately for water, that which we must have to sustain our lives. The lack of life-giving water drives them to violence and despair – much as the lack of life-giving learning throttles our own need to understand our lives, and to thrive.

Torah is compared to water, and the word in Hebrew for well – באר be’er – also means to explain, or interpret, Torah. Like the living waters of a well connected to a subterranean spring, many layers of Torah exist beneath the surface. In the same way, the ancient words of prayer and meditation are ever-flowing springs of nurturance for us when we return to them seeking life.

On this Shabbat, after an exhausting week, I offer you the meta-message of Torah in hopes that it will help you find strength to continue to see hope, joy and meaning: love the other as you would be loved. Love is more powerful than any other force in the universe. As inexplicable as it is necessary, in the hand offered to another or the random act of kindness gifted a stranger, we must love.

Spring up, O love, sing to it!
the well which our ancestors dug
which the leaders of our people started
with Torah, with that which supports life

A gift for you: a poem interpreted – doused with the meaning-giving lifewaters of the  be’er – out of our familiar, beloved first paragraph of the Shema: another world is possible.


_________________

V’ahavta

Say these words when you lie down and when you rise up,
when you go out and when you return. In times of mourning
and in times of joy. Inscribe them on your doorposts,
embroider them on your garments, tattoo them on your shoulders,
teach them to your children, your neighbors, your enemies,
recite them in your sleep, here in the cruel shadow of empire:

Another world is possible.

Thus spoke the prophet Roque Dalton:
All together they have more death than we,
but all together, we have more life than they.

There is more bloody death in their hands
than we could ever wield, unless
we lay down our souls to become them,
and then we will lose everything. So instead,
imagine winning. This is your sacred task.

This is your power. Imagine
every detail of winning, the exact smell of the summer streets
in which no one has been shot, the muscles you have never
unclenched from worry, gone soft as newborn skin,
the sparkling taste of food when we know
that no one on earth is hungry, that the beggars are fed,
that the old man under the bridge and the woman
wrapping herself in thin sheets in the back seat of a car,
and the children who suck on stones,
nest under a flock of roofs that keep multiplying their shelter.
Lean with all your being towards that day
when the poor of the world shake down a rain of good fortune
out of the heavy clouds, and justice rolls down like waters.

Defend the world in which we win as if it were your child.
It is your child.
Defend it as if it were your lover.
It is your lover.

When you inhale and when you exhale
breathe the possibility of another world
into the 37.2 trillion cells of your body
until it shines with hope.
Then imagine more. 

Imagine rape is unimaginable. Imagine war is a scarcely credible rumor.
That the crimes of our age, the grotesque inhumanities of greed,
the sheer and astounding shamelessness of it, the vast fortunes
made by stealing lives, the horrible normalcy it came to have,
is unimaginable to our heirs, the generations of the free.

Don’t waver. Don’t let despair sink its sharp teeth
into the throat with which you sing. Escalate your dreams.
Make them burn so fiercely that you can follow them down
any dark alleyway of history and not lose your way.
Make them burn clear as a starry drinking gourd
over the grim fog of exhaustion, and keep walking.

Hold hands. Share water. Keep imagining.
So that we, and the children of our children’s children
may live.

© 2016 Aurora Levins Morales

Shabbat Korakh: All the People are Holy but that’s not the point

Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American?

In the 1970s I remember the Jewish community doing “values clarification” exercises in summer camp, shul learning, and adult education. The questions and discussions revolved around the concept of identity: are you a Jew who happens to live in the U.S. or are you an American who happens to be Jewish? The nuance seemed trivial at the time.

It doesn’t seem trivial now. Listening carefully to the individual Jews I encounter both within our intentional community and beyond, I hear a struggle not unlike Korakh’s in our parashat hashavua. 

It’s easy to explain away the uprising led by Korakh which defines (and names) this parashah as due to the same nameless “riffraff” that were used for that purpose in past weeks to place blame for bad behavior and its consequences. But Korakh and Moshe are first cousins; Moshe’s father is Amram and Korakh’s is Yitzhar, and they were brothers, sons of Levi.

Korakh is depicted by the Torah’s authors as the singular leader of a failed rebellion against Moshe’s leadership. Tracing the responsibility and the ensuing guilt, though, indicate a more subtle problem. Korakh speaks against Moshe’s leadership in these words:

וַיִּֽקָּהֲל֞וּ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְעַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶם֮ רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כׇל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם ה’ וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל ה’

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and HaShem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above HaShem’s congregation?” (BaMidbar 16.3)

If you consider yourself an American who happens to be a Jew, this is a compelling argument: all of us are equal, after all, aren’t we? All of us are equally precious individual reflections of the Holy, created in the Image, as we are told in our Creation story.

This approach to identity is problematic when it leads to an erasure of differences, and, paradoxically, it causes the breakdown of ego strength. We are not all equally “good” at everything, nor can we all fill the same roles in a community. Everyone knows what a “participation trophy” is worth. And if you are equally as good as everyone else at everything, how can you ever seek advice, or rely on expertise? In the end, you may even fall into the trap of believing that you have to save the world all by yourself.

So what about if, after careful consideration, you are able to see yourself as a Jew who happens to live in the U.S.? Jewish community is born in an Eastern context (no, not the East Coast, ha) with more in common with Islam and even Buddhism than Christianity. Jewish ethics insists that you are not the center of the universe, and that in being unique, you are uniquely gifted and challenged in a way no one else is. Your whole life’s mission is to study, consider, and act within a communal context to discover your true worth and purpose. The last thing that comes up is how to control the world; you’re just trying to learn how to control yourself for the good of the world.

What does a Jew do after a week like this one – or any of the recent weeks that have lessened any sense of safety we may have thought this supposed Goldeneh Medinah offered? 

Learn. Open your heart and mind to generations of perspectives that will comfort and challenge you. A different narrative about responsibility and guilt – not an absence of one, but a different one or two or ten – is there. Torah study and practice within an intentional community gives you roots that will sustain you through whatever may come.

On this July 4 weekend, consider what the American has in the way of ritual and meaning to support that identity. In contrast, perhaps, consider what Shabbat offers you. Perhaps you will join me in a chorus of ashreinu! Jews are lucky!

Shabbat Shelakh: The Point of No Return

Every once in a while, one reaches a point of no return. This week, we read in parashat Shelakh that it happened to the People of Israel. Some of the discontent and factionalizing was tolerable – they complained for meat instead of manna and got an influx of quail (spoiler alert: too much quail is not good for you). The gossip about Moses caused a travel delay and a temporary scary case of leprosy for Miriam, but she recovered, and nothing worse transpired.

But anyone who could read the larger signs of social disfunction would not have been surprised to read this week’s Torah reading: bad goes to worse, and some ruptures cannot be repaired quickly – or, maybe, at all.

On the edge of the Promised Land, on the cusp of a life settled, secure and perhaps even happy, our ancestors chose to vote against their own interests. They gave in to fear and, encouraged by groupthink, panicked. The former slaves were still unable to think in terms of freedom, and so they remained, in their souls, enslaved.

Today the highest court in the U.S. proved its corruption in its overturning of the Roe V Wade case. The implications for the fate of other laws decided similarly, and the entire concept of stare decisis – we cannot know at this moment but we might feel as the leaders Joshua and Caleb did, watching the Israelites take a great step backward from their own social peace and prosperity. What more self-damaging acts are these people capable of? And worse, how many more other people will they endanger in their own rush to self-destruction? 

Today is a point of no return for the Israelites. They are going backward; it will be another generation that finally is healthy enough psychologically to act for the good of the community. These poor Israelites have been too damaged to imagine happiness, and thus they have mandated misery.

This need not be a point of no return for reproductive rights. Roe V Wade should have been codified into law before now, and now is the time to demand it. Our people are not all enslaved to misery; we are a diverse group, for better and for worse, and the Jews know how to keep our eyes on the path, and look for the holy. Right now, when we feel most threatened, we dare not give in to false groupthink. The world is not ending. There is room for the doing of the most important mitzvot of all: that of defending each other’s right to personal bodily safety and autonomy. 

Not falling into despair at this moment requires a narrow focus upon practical mitzvot that you can do. Practical mitzvot at this moment require empathy. As it is said, rich women are always able to get an abortion; now is the time to reach out to the most vulnerable members of our society. As you are able, contact your representatives and pressure them to create law. As you are able, join in standing with Planned Parenthood, which will, I am afraid, now come under physical attack. As you are able, share words of love with those who are most afraid.

All the mob died in the wilderness, killed by their own refusal to sanctify life and hope. Joshua and Caleb survived the wilderness with their vision intact. Everyone under twenty years of age survived too. May we hold on to the childlike vision of belief in each other and in the future home of safety and peace we know is possible.

Courage, my comrades. Even as we continue to be forced to wander this wilderness, we must hold hands and wander it together, looking for the moments of holiness we can always, always create and cherish.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: Pride and Juneteenth and Father’s Day, oh my!

Because What Do I Know about Love

Except that we are at sea in it 

– and parched for its lack?

Let down your buckets, my dears. 

Haul up the sweet, swaying spill.

Tilt your face to the stream.

Be washed. 

Be drenched. 

Turn loose

the dripping dogs to shake themselves among you.

Flood the decks; fill the cisterns. 

Then drink, and find it fresh.

You have sailed all unknowing

into your home river.

(Author unknown)

The Israelites have left the building! and are making their way in the trackless wilderness, as the prophet Hosea calls it. Almost immediately they begin to complain, and, dangerously, the complaining becomes panic. It’s an immature, emotional response, and both of our “parents” – HaShem (who is new at this, in the imagination of the Torah’s narrative) and Moshe – are dismayed.

וַיִּשְׁמַ֨ע מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־הָעָ֗ם בֹּכֶה֙ לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֔יו אִ֖ישׁ לְפֶ֣תַח אׇהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֤ף ה֙’ מְאֹ֔ד וּבְעֵינֵ֥י מֹשֶׁ֖ה רָֽע׃

Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, at the entrance of each tent. ‘ה was very angry, and Moses was distressed.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־ה’ לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָ֙ לְעַבְדֶּ֔ךָ וְלָ֛מָּה לֹא־מָצָ֥תִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ לָשׂ֗וּם אֶת־מַשָּׂ֛א כׇּל־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה עָלָֽי׃

And Moses said to ‘ה, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me?

הֶאָנֹכִ֣י הָרִ֗יתִי אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אִם־אָנֹכִ֖י יְלִדְתִּ֑יהוּ כִּֽי־תֹאמַ֨ר אֵלַ֜י שָׂאֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקֶ֗ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשָּׂ֤א הָאֹמֵן֙ אֶת־הַיֹּנֵ֔ק עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָֽיו׃

Did I produce all this people, did I engender them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nursemaid carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their forbears? (BaMidbar 11.11-13)

It’s a time of fear, in which there’s a natural emotional inclination to withdraw: to go from the generous expansion of joy to careful, asset-hoarding contraction. Maybe there isn’t enough to go around.

The astonishing resilience of traditional Jewish teaching reminds us that another, higher response is possible. If your faith is strong, it’s okay if you are also feeling anxious, afraid, or overlooked, because if your faith is strong you believe in something beyond the evidence of the moment. 

That’s the moment when, according to the classic Jewish discipline of musar, one finds refuge in a love greater than human, more powerful than even that of a community – especially one that is temporarily in disarray. This is where the individual must see oneself as that, individual and able to resist the groupthink of the community, and consider another perspective.

There was a parent who had a child. The child was bathed, anointed, fed well, and a purse of money was hung around their neck. They were then placed at the entrance to a garden of all earthly delights. What could that child do but sin? – Eliyahu Dessler, Perspectives of Mercy 

This story is told to explain why the Israelites, given everything, voted against their own interests and built a Golden Calf. This religious vision of mercy which overcomes judgment and anger is beyond mere human capacity; it is the kind we call aspirational, that which we hope to be capable of one day, once we figure out how to balance the tidal tugs of emotion which cloud our judgement daily.

This Shabbat is a wonderful time to practice expansiveness and generosity of joy in the face of our justified fear and anxiety about the future. There is a love that exists beyond our capacity to love, but which we are invited to immerse ourselves in as the waters of a Mikveh. It does exist, and we can choose to be part of it. 

Anxious voices in the U.S. have sought to define the scheduling of Pride Shabbat on what has become the Federal holiday of Juneteenth as racism. What is this if not the fear that there is not enough love and attention to go around? But life comes at us fast, and not in order, and not coherently. And Rabbi Dessler reminds us that we are not left to our own devices: as part of a community of faith, we can remind each other that having the courage to be loving and open will result in more love in the world, more than we can possibly summon on our own.

Happy Pride Shabbat! May you learn something new about the nature of HaShem through being open to more and more of the gorgeous human diversity of humanity. Shir Tikvah has discovered that to seek all 70 faces of Torah is only possible using the lens of Queer Theory.

Happy Juneteenth! May you delight in discovering the inspiring offerings of  the members of our community who are Jews of Color, in Portland and around the world. You can start here:

Happy Father’s Day! To those who have been privileged to exist as a father, whatever shape that relationship has taken for you. Parenting is difficult! But as Moses and HaShem discovered, it is also a most rewarding experience, where there is the hope, always, of enough love.

BaMidbar: Wandering Around Lost

On this Shabbat morning we will share the beginning of a new book of the Torah: BaMidbar. The book is known in English as “Numbers,” a reference to the initial content. But the Hebrew name is more interesting: the root of the word is ד.ב.ר – d.v.r – and it is a pillar of the language. Davar means “thing” or “word”, underscoring the reality that for our ancestors, a word was a thing. HaShem’s word was embodied in messengers, angels that carried out a Word. 

When Shabbat ends tomorrow evening we will begin observing the Festival of Shavuot, upon which we commemorate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, symbolized by the Sinai moment  recorded in parashat Yitro when we experienced Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. Notice the d.b.r root there (b and v are both expressions of the letter ב ).

On this Shabbat the Torah relates our gearing up to move away from Sinai and into the wilderness – which is the meaning of the Hebrew name of the book. From this we can derive that the wilderness through which our ancestors wander is made up of both things (mountains, scorpions, heat, rocks, trees, oases, other people) and words (reassurance, whining, gossip, stories, lullabies, and of course Moshe relaying the Word of HaShem).

An interesting midrash told about our experience at Sinai describes how the Ten Words uttered out of the Eternal into time had such a huge physical impact upon those who were present that they were pushed backward; some say a few yards, others say many miles (BT Shabbat 88b). Such a moment of Existence is not easy – even positive stress is stress, as a therapist can confirm. Another midrash, more frightening, recounts that the Israelites died under the strain, and HaShem had to quickly revive them (Shemot Rabbah 29.3).

We ourselves are buffeted about just as badly by the words, and the things, we encounter in our own daily wandering. Manipulative lies erode our trust in communication; cruel words on social media cause despair and even suicide among the vulnerable. In our society, too many of us turn to loading up on things, not realizing that the root of both words and things is the same reality: too much stimulus, overwhelming input, and overload of the heart and mind. The mind is assaulted and the heart rebels. Anxiety can cause us to misunderstand and withdraw from each other.

Torah, of course, has an insight for that: one cannot survive alone. Our ancestors were organized in the best way to keep them all safe in the wandering that was their lot. In one verse we derive much wisdom:

אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃

The Israelites shall camp, each with their flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting. (BaMidbar 2.2)

  1. Stand under your flag  – know who you are and where you stand. This is an especially poignant teaching as we begin the celebration of Pride month – we all, Queer, Trans, Cis, Straight, and Questioning – need to be able to show our colors as we discern them, and to celebrate them.
  1. Camp with your ancestral house – to what family does your spirit belong? These times are not safe for us to wander as individuals. This is a challenge for those in identity transition. Sometimes we follow the group, but over time we learn that one must know one’s own heart to survive the hurricane of words and things that we must find our way through.
  1. Keep the Ohel in sight – the Ohel Mo’ed is the structure which we create in order to meet holiness when we need it. Make sure to keep it in sight, wherever you find rest for your feet: don’t lose sight of the core values that steady us and keep us grounded in these times. It’s in holding on to – and upholding – the values we say are important that we will find meaning despite the difficulties of our days.

Times are not easy for Jews, as for many other targeted communities. Now is the time to consider where you camp. Torah is only a gift for you if you have truly found yourself able to join in the words we chant every Shabbat:

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it,
and those who bolster it are fortunate.

דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכׇל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

Its ways are ways of pleasantness
and all of its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3.18,17)

May you find the pleasantness and the peace in your path, and keep the purpose always in sight. 


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More on the gift of Torah: TorahdotCom

More on how Pride Month coincides with all the Jewish values: Keshet – for LGBTQ Equality in Jewish Life

Happy Pride Month!